An inspiring volunteer: You get back what you put in

Ellie Greenberg is a dedicated philanthropist and long-time volunteer in Ottawa, especially in the Jewish community. Danielle Altonaga, of JET, sat down for a candid talk with her about Jewish life, giving back, and some of her favourite memories. The interview will leave you inspired, and excited to honour Ellie at Jewish Unity Live (details below).  


What are your earliest memories of Ottawa’s Jewish community?

Every Sunday, the JCC had “Sunday Funday”. There were programs for small children, teens and all the youth in-between. Our parents always took us on Sunday afternoons…the place would be swarming with Jewish kids doing fun activities like drama, gym, and trampoline. It was such an active and joyful time.  

Tell me about your involvement in philanthropy.

I remember my very first volunteer experience. I was a “candy striper” (hospital volunteer) at age 16. (They called us candy stripers because our uniforms were pink and white striped pinafores). I would walk around with a book cart or a little sundry cart; I would help people find their way at registration to different departments and assist where needed. All of this volunteering came from watching my parents. My father was the financial man of Talmud Torah for as long as I could remember, among many other volunteer positions. My mother was a lifetime member of Hadassah and active in her synagogue. I was raised with volunteering as a value, so it just came naturally to me. I followed in my parents’ footsteps.

How did you become involved with JET?

My friend invited me to an event called Yarchei Kallah. I wasn’t sure what the event entailed, but figured I would give it a try. I was intrigued by the classes and the Jewish learning.   

I ended up schmoozing for a while with Lauren Shaps, one of the founders of JET. To my surprise, she asked me “would you like to volunteer some time for JET?” It was only a few months later that I was invited to join their board.

A week or two later, another friend called me and invited me to Rabbi Shaps’ Wednesday night class. That was at least eight years ago, and I have been attending ever since!

I also attended Jewish Unity Live, JET’s annual special event, and began attending all kinds of classes with JET as well.  

After two years on the board, I was asked to be chair. Two years turned into five years (and counting!) As long as everybody’s happy, I’m happy to continue.

Why is being involved with JET meaningful for you?

First of all, I have gained much more than I’ve given. I have made friends, and I have learned so much about myself, and about Judaism. A lot of us learn as kids and teenagers, but when you study as an adult, you learn so much more.  

I just love the learning; I love the people; I love the challenge. I look for classes wherever I can; learning has created a thirst for me to learn more and to experience more. I am loving the learning, and I’m loving who I am becoming.  

The people are warm and totally non-judgmental – that was really important for me.  

I try to let everyone know that. It doesn’t matter where you are in your Judaism - it’s non-judgmental and whatever you put in is what you'll get out.

I feel good about all the volunteer work I've ever done. Some of these volunteer positions included: Big Sisters/Big Brothers, Children’s Aid Society, various school committees, lifetime member in Hadassah (including many positions in the chapter and council level), seven years on the Jewish Historical Society, Jewish Family Services mitzvah committee, and the CHEO auxiliary board. For every volunteer position I’ve committed to, I have gotten more out of it than what I’ve given, and I feel really good about myself when I do it. I have liked being involved in both the Jewish and secular communities in Ottawa. You get back what you put into life. 

JET has been my longest volunteer position, and I have loved every minute of it. I have met so many fabulous people!

How do you feel about being honoured at the upcoming JUL?

Honestly, it took a month for me to say yes. My husband encouraged me to do this, as it is out of my comfort zone. I’m not a person who usually wants that kind of public recognition. I’m very honoured, of course. I think that compliments and appreciation are really important. 

What do you think Ottawa’s Jewish community most needs today?

We need compassion for each other; we need understanding. Everyone should be able to play on the playground together, so to speak. We tend to come together in times of crisis, but at other times, we settle into our different groups. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter who you are and what you practice. Everybody’s in their own place in their journey.  No matter how different we may be, we need to have respect and love for one another. We all should feel Jewish. When we come together, we feel the unity, and that is what we should be striving for, always.

JET invites the community to celebrate Ellie’s special contributions to Jewish life, at this year’s Jewish Unity Live on May 18, 6 pm at Machzikei Hadas. The program will feature the acclaimed Ken Spiro, speaking on “Jerusalem: Then, Now, and Forever”, a musical tribute for Yom Yerushalayim with Evan Green, and an elegant dinner, followed by a dessert reception. (There is also an option to join after dinner for the program and dessert reception). Visit for tickets or call 613-695-4800.