In a recent visit with community leader Norman Zagerman, he made the suggestion that I check out the minutes of the meetings of the Va’ad Ha’ir executive committee of the 1930s. As Norman is tremendously wise, I did just that on a recent Sunday and I am pleased to share a few observations, thanks to the Ottawa Jewish Archives where all this information is readily available.
The lens with which I view these minutes is a comparison with how the Va’ad’s successor organization, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, is run almost a century later. In reading the minutes, I was struck by both the stark differences and the similarities (and also by how much easier it is to read a computer printout than typed notes).
When I first started work at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, I had heard many references to the “Va’ad fathers” – a not-so-subtle name given to the men who ran our community. It is clear from reading the minutes that these men did indeed have absolute authority. They were involved in everything from the curriculum of the Jewish school, to the wording of Kashruth labels, to “sanctioning” any individual collecting money on behalf of any Jewish organization or cause in Ottawa. While the times have certainly changed with respect to authority, what has not changed one iota is intent. The leaders of the Va’ad, just like the leaders of today’s Federation, were deeply committed, above all else, to the well-being of Jewish Ottawa. Both generations of leaders selflessly gave/give of their time to make decisions, with the best available information for the greater good.
Over this almost 90-year period, from the ’30s to today, a consistent agenda item has been the paramount importance of Jewish education. It was a staple on the 1930 agendas and remains so today, and with good reason. The main differences are just the names of the educational institutions and their current independence, since now they manage their own day-to-day affairs.
I was also struck by the paucity of discussion regarding European Jewry. While there were relief efforts, arrangements were made to bring Jewish refugee children to Ottawa, and funds were raised for the relief of European Jewry, the scope of the genocide was never mentioned, nor was advocacy with the Canadian government to change its horrendous immigration laws, in which “none were too many.” The leadership understood that European Jews were suffering and in a precarious position, but the horrific reality of what was transpiring was not yet known. Nonetheless, there was an ingrained desire to help. For example, only a couple of cursory sentences were necessary in approving a relief campaign. There was no need for a debate or a discussion, only an absolute imperative to help European Jews, even without all the facts. That natural impulse to help remains a hallmark of Federation today.
In reading the minutes, I was fascinated by the clear centrality of synagogues to the Va’ad. For example, the Va’ad finance committee was composed of the four shul presidents. Interestingly, the city had a community rabbi, with his salary paid for by the various synagogues on an agreed-upon fair share formula. Remarkably, when one synagogue reported that they could not pay the full amount, other congregations agreed to pay more.
And it is on this note that I wish to conclude – the spirit of Jewish unity. What I mean by Jewish unity is the belief that we all have a responsibility to make Jewish life in Ottawa vibrant and it is only by working together that this happens. This is a collective effort and we are stronger when we support one another.