A few weeks ago, a fight broke out between two well-known columnists here in Ottawa.
The subject wasn’t politics or policy. It was about the city of Ottawa itself.
In one corner: the Ottawa Citizen’s Andrew Cohen. He slammed the architecture, the traffic and the city’s conservative approach to its own development; its lack of a presence that other G7 capitals have.
In the other corner, Macleans’ Paul Wells, who tore apart Cohen’s argument for its repetitious nature, but also for overlooking all the positive changes afoot in a town that started out nearly 150 years ago as nothing but a lumber mill.
When I left Ottawa to go to university, I left with a view of the city that was much like Cohen’s. It was one of the reasons I left – I wanted experiences and education this political mining town could not provide.
But, now, raising a family here, I’m working to see Ottawa not as I did as a teenager, but what it can be for me as an adult and a parent.
Ottawa, Wells rightly notes, is nothing like G7 capitals because Canada is nothing like other G7 countries.
It’s similar, in its way, to a common refrain about Ottawa’s Jewish community: that it is not like any other community.
An often cited example is the decision to keep the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (JCC) closed on Saturdays – the only JCC in Canada not open on Shabbat.
About a year ago, when we were looking for weekend programs for our then 18-month-old daughter, a number of our Jewish friends told us they were signing their kids up for a Saturday morning music class.
I hesitated. I grew up going to shul most Saturday mornings and it seemed strange to enrol my child in a completely secular activity, even if it was with other Jewish kids.
But it wasn’t like we were going to shul instead.
There are many efforts underway now by area congregations to attract young families like my own.
They are up against a point of view about synagogues that’s akin to Cohen’s perspective on Ottawa’s culture as being a relic of another time.
I hear it often – twice in recent weeks I’ve invited young families to be part of the outreach process for Agudath Israel/Beth Shalom and was told they weren’t interested because they aren’t religious and, to them, that’s what shul is for.
Ask those same families, though, if they’d do a Saturday morning program at the JCC – a music or art class, maybe dance or swimming – and they’d say yes. Not just because of the classes, but also because of the idea of spending Shabbat with other Jewish families is attractive.
I’m among them.
While some part of me wants to have my faith play a bigger role in my life, I struggle to find meaning in services, a task now made more daunting by having a squirming toddler by my side.
Sure, there’s babysitting, but she’s in care five days a week. And that still doesn’t solve my own issue with how I relate to the service.
While I’m comfortable with her taking classes on a Saturday morning that I’m not a part of, if we are going to synagogue, I want it to be something we experience and learn from together.
I’m not asking, nor expecting, the shul to trade the Adon Olam for the Isty Bitsy Spider.
But I believe there is room for the shul to be a place for Jewish families to gather on Saturday mornings for a mix of the two.
To do so will require a shift in thinking and finding a way to see the shul as more than just a space to practise our religion; much like how Wells sees Ottawa as much more than a sleepy government town.
If we can find a way to do that, I think we can make the shuls, and our community, stronger.