Having recently returned from a vacation in Panama, I cannot help but make a number of observations about the Jewish community there which can serve as a barometer of Jewish life in other cities such as ours. A community of 15,000 Jews in Panama City sustains five day schools and yeshivot, six Orthodox synagogues and a Reform congregation, 35 kosher restaurants, two mikvot and a kosher supermarket larger than Loblaws with no shortage of kosher food.
While this may sound like a Shangri-La type of community, the reality of armed guards demanding IDs at the entrance of major synagogues in the city is a bit jarring. Nevertheless, the warmth of the Jewish population there, notwithstanding the warmth of the temperature, is noteworthy.
One telling experience I had occurred at Seudah Shlishit in the Ashkenazic congregation of Beth-El. I made the acquaintance of the head of one of the schools who told me that there were a thousand students in his school alone, and that each Jewish child in Panama City receives a Jewish education from ADK through Grade 12.
Obviously, what is a given in Panama City is not in Ottawa. Therefore, I was heartened to meet with some 25 parents recently, who want to see the revitalization and rebirth of a community high school in Ottawa. Hopefully, this parent-driven initiative will bear fruit, and this educational void in our community can be filled. This initiative must reach parents and students across the denominational spectrum, and rabbinic leadership in Ottawa should be supportive.
It is imperative at the same time to read the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Jewish High School Education Task Force Report that came out some time after the closing of Yitzhak Rabin High School.
The conclusions and recommendations therein are informative, enlightening and important in determining the pathway for the creation and preservation of a new Jewish community high school in Ottawa. The laudatory visions of Federation planning for the upcoming years encompass in a very large way, Jewish education. A Jewish high school should be part of that picture, as its presence will benefit the Jewish community, in terms of continuity, future leadership, and the ongoing development of the Jewish community of Ottawa.
One may look at Panama City’s Jewish community as a model one to emulate. At the same time, our challenges in Ottawa are different and formidable. We are concerned about anti-Semitism, assimilation, funding for schools and other Jewish institutions in our society, the viability of synagogues and schools, among a host of challenges. But to paraphrase the Rambam in his commentary at the end of the parsha of Bo, we cannot expect miracles to happen in each generation. However, we must teach our children and their children about these miracles of Jewish existence.
The same applies in Jewish communal living. We cannot expect miracles to happen to ensure Jewish continuity. We must work hard and collaboratively to ensure the viability of our community now and in the future. I applaud the initiatives of these families to rebuild a community high school, and equally we appreciate and evaluate the work of all from Federation to schools to synagogues, to Jewish communal institutions and the dedication of individuals to preserve our future.