In the aftermath of six tornadoes which hit the National Capital Region on Friday, September 21, destroying homes and cutting power to tens of thousands of people, Ottawa’s Jewish community came together to help out those in need and allow them to celebrate Sukkot.
Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, said Federation and the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) worked together to open the facility on the Sunday after the tornadoes – the building’s power was restored the night before – to SJCC members and non-members alike.
“We provided services in terms of showers, giving people coffee, and offering a place to charge their phones and benefit from each other’s company,” Freedman said. “In terms of doing the right thing, it was really a no-brainer.”
Freedman said there were several Jewish families in the Craig Henry/Arlington Woods area who were severely impacted by the tornadoes, but she said there’s a “silver lining in everything,” in this case seeing how kind people are during difficult times.
“The number of people who opened up their homes to others and who reached out to offer assistance, as well as the food organizations providing meals to people – watching that was very heartwarming.”
Ten Yad of Ottawa, a grassroots, volunteer-run organization dedicated to undertaking acts of chesed (kindness), stepped up to provide assistance. Founder Esti Fogel said Ten Yad reached out to the community via email and social media to offer “meal support for Shabbat, the last days of Sukkot and Simchat Torah” to any family whose homes had “structural issues, water damage or a lack of electricity” due to the tornados.
“Many people have been impacted both emotionally and physically by the tornadoes, so the suffering is on many different levels,” Fogel said. “We got a response and are providing catered meals to those who need them.”
Fogel also said she found Ottawa’s Jewish community’s response to the tornadoes to be heartwarming, with “people stepping up to do whatever they could to help.”
The Ottawa Kosher Food Bank, which provides food to around 75 families, was forced to throw out all of its frozen food when power went out to its freezers. Michelle Hutchison, manager of the Kosher Food Bank, said these items included “chicken, ground beef, soups, cakes, tofu, and bread products from Rideau Bakery.”
Hutchison said the Kosher Food Bank received donations from Rideau Bakery to replace all their bread products, which they are “super thankful and grateful for,” but they remain in need of “easy to prepare stuff” such as canned foods, cereal, meat and jams. She said that additional families have come forward asking for assistance since the tornadoes.
The Ottawa Kosher Food Bank has contacts in the food industry, and as a result Hutchison said they are able to purchase foods at lower than normal retail value. Anyone wishing to make a donation can do so online at www.okfb.ca.
Several synagogues in Ottawa lost power, but were still able to provide assistance to community members in need.
Rabbi Idan Scher of Congregation Machzikei Hadas said power at the synagogue came back the day after the tornadoes so they were able to “quickly mobilize” to host families who wanted to observe the holidays but had nowhere to go.
“We opened our homes to these people, served an extra 250 meals, and we allowed families from all over the city to use our walk-in freezer to store their perishables, saving tens of thousands of dollars of kosher meat that would have otherwise perished,” Rabbi Scher said.
Rabbi Sher said these acts were a “testament to the power of this community” and left him very impressed and in awe of “what people are willing to do to help other people.”
Rabbi Menachem Blum of Ottawa Torah Centre Chabad said when the power went out the congregation “made do with what we had,” and held Shabbat services in the dark.
“It was very special to see community members come together, with those whose power was restored earlier offering a space for people to charge their phones and take hot showers,” Rabbi Blum said.
Kehillat Beth Israel regained its power on Monday and opened the synagogue up to people in need of “a place to stay, to eat, to charge your phone, or a refrigerator or freezer to hold your foods,” Rabbi Eytan Kenter said in a Facebook post. “Being a community means supporting our friends and neighbours at times like these.”
Rabbi Rob Morais of Temple Israel said that when the congregation lost power, they held Friday Kabalat Shabbat service by candlelight.
“We had a lovely, beautiful service that was more meditative and reflective. Then in the middle of it we went outside to watch a rainbow together, and we talked about being thankful for our safety and wellbeing,” he said.
Rabbi Morais said he found it “interesting” that on Sukkot last year there was a wind storm as well. He said he believes the fact that both of these weather events happened around Sukkot “highlight how thankful we should be for the shelters and protection we enjoy.”
Neighbourhoods around Congregation Beit Tikvah in Craig Henry were among the areas hit hard by a tornado. The City of Ottawa collaborated with the congregation in holding an information meeting on the Sunday after the tornadoes for people affected. Rabbi Howard Finkelstein said the congregation came together to provide meals to people who didn’t have food.
“We fed over 200 people in our congregation over the first two days of Sukkot,” he said.
As well, Rabbi Finkelstein said congregants took others into their homes to live until their damaged homes are rebuilt.
As for how Beit Tikvah itself fared throughout the tornadoes, Rabbi Finkelstein said, “our services continued without any interruptions and our synagogue was not damaged. The power went out and it came back Tuesday afternoon, so we held services in the dark using natural sunlight through narrow windows until then.”
“We try to make life as normal as possible through acts of kindness – across the board – in Ottawa’s Jewish community and non-Jewish community,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “Everybody is helping one another and there are amazing scenes to behold of strangers helping strangers.”
Chris Frizell, residential supervisor at Tamir, said they started getting calls on Friday night letting them know the power had gone out at the various residences.
“We didn’t know how long the power would be out, so I was checking in on programs to see if everyone was OK,” Frizell said. “Some have people with higher needs, so they needed battery power on their feeding machines.”
On Sunday, Frizell and his team continued checking in on the residences and hooked up generators for those with high-need individuals. He said by Monday morning power was restored at all Tamir locations.
Ted Cohen, CEO of the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge, said power was out for about 24 hours at the Lodge, but backup generators powered all central services.
“Everyone pitched in to ensure the needs of residents were looked after,” Cohen said. “We are grateful for everyone working as a team and pitching in to make the residents comfortable.”