Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi, visited Ottawa and was the featured speaker, May 3, at a celebration of Israel entitled “Israel at 70: A proud past, a bright future,” held at Congregation Machzikei Hadas. Rabbi Lau was on a tour organized by Mizrachi Canada that also included stops in Montreal and Toronto.
Approximately 350 community members participated in the evening, chaired by Sharon Appotive and Bram Bregman, headlined by a conversation between Chief Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, rabbi emeritus of Machzikei Hadas. The entire program traced the indelible historic link that celebrates Israel’s living history that runs right through our nation’s capital. From the moment Cantor Moshe Krauss, the first chief cantor of the Israel Defense Forces and Cantor Pinchus Levinson, a former Israel Defense Forces member and cantor emeritus at Congregation Machzikei Hadas, sang the Canadian and Israeli national anthems, the historic connection came alive.
Crystalizing the links were remarks by Sara Vered, an esteemed member of Ottawa’s Jewish community, who was a member of the Haganah in Israel’s War of Independence. Vered spoke eloquently about her service and emphasized the importance of remembering that the State of Israel was not formed in 1948, but had been in formation for many years before that, including the period between 1881 and 1948 when the Jewish population grew exponentially from 15,000 to 600,000.
The cycle of history Vered described was exemplified when two young students, Tehilla Botwinik of Torah Day School of Ottawa and Yardayna Miller of the Ottawa Jewish Community School, read a prayer for the State of Israel in flawless Hebrew. Vered fought to create the Jewish state and now shares her stories with young people to ensure they understand the history of our people. These young students demonstrated that the lessons of the past are resonating and that the future is in very capable hands.
The importance of Jewish unity and the valuable contributions of Jews from all denominations of Judaism were emphasized by Israeli Ambassador to Canada Nimrod Barkan who described how for 70 years Israel has strived to be a light unto the world, which also entails being a light unto ourselves. This includes working to avoid internal strife and building a homeland where all Jews feel welcomed. The ambassador’s remarks took a different approach to the theme of living links by emphasizing the connections and responsibilities we have one to another.
The chief rabbi’s remarks centred on the theme of “know from where you came.” In making this point, he told an incredible story of a member of the czarist secret police, who while not acknowledging his own Jewish religion (his Jewish roots could be traced back generations), was insistent that his eight-day-old son have a bris. The policeman’s logic being that his son should always bear the mark of his ancestry and know from where he came.
In the conversation with Rabbi Bulka, Chief Rabbi Lau conveyed in a broad sense the vast and diffuse nature of his role and how much time he spends connecting with individuals and trying to make a difference in their lives. For example, Tuesdays are the sacrosanct time he spends sitting in the Supreme High Court and adjudicating on individual cases to, as he put it, “bring peace to individual people.” Similar to other rabbis around the world, he conducts pastoral visits to incarcerated Jewish inmates and tries to meet with as many congregants – the people of Israel, as possible. He described how it is not atypical for him to deliver nine speeches on any given day. Tellingly, the chief rabbi did not describe the time he spends with world leaders, but rather the uniqueness of his position and the responsibility it bears to help individual Israelis. While there is no typical day in the life of the chief rabbi, he said, each day is a helping day.
In his indomitably gentle and humorous way, Rabbi Bulka made sure to ask some of the tough questions on the minds of many Diaspora Jews – including about conversion, the Kotel and migrant workers from Africa.
While the chief rabbi’s answers may not have pleased everyone, his answers centred on the theme of respect for rules. For example, he does not see the Kotel as a religious question, but one of respect for the custom of a place and an issue of basic politeness, akin to how when he enters a mosque, he removes his shoes.
The MC for the event was Rabbi Idan Scher, spiritual leader of Congregation Machzikei Hadas. Rabbi Scher’s thoughtful remarks focused on the need to both speak and listen. It is a privilege, he said, to hear from Chief Rabbi Lau and it is the responsibility of audience members to both listen and to ask questions – and it is the chief rabbi’s responsibility to hear the diversity of views and opinions being expressed.