Federation plays historic role in defending Jews worldwide

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. To commemorate this remarkable milestone, the Federation is embarking on a series of year-long initiatives about our shared journey. Among the initiatives are monthly articles from past leadership and those that delve into our history. This month we are focusing on how Federation supports Jews in need anywhere in the world.

Chapter 1: Fighting for freedom for Soviet Jews

The Ottawa Committee for Soviet Jewry was a human rights activist group and a standing committee of Federation that organized primarily around the issue of the Soviet Union’s refusal to grant exit visas to many Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate in the 1970s and 1980s. The committee also protested and spoke out against the unjust imprisonment of those trying to emigrate, and antisemitic policies enacted by the Soviet government.

Jews who were refused exit visas from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s were dubbed “Refuseniks” and were often dismissed from their jobs, recalled to military service, or arrested on dubious charges. Those who publicly protested these actions within the Soviet Union were also often persecuted. 

In Canada, a committee for Soviet Jewry was first formed in Toronto, and many other cities including Ottawa soon followed suit. Protests took place in Ottawa outside the Parliament buildings, organized by the Toronto Committee for Soviet Jewry, and in other cities across Canada. Partially because of these protests, the sentences of the prisoners were reduced.

The Ottawa Committee for Soviet Jewry was formed in the early 1970s and was chaired by Zachariah Kay. The committee organized several protests, many of which were theatrical and creative in nature, intended to draw media attention and thus embarrass the Soviet Union. Rabbi Reuven Bulka z”l was a prominent figure at many of these early protests.

In October of 1971, Rabbi Gunther Plaut led a march of 60 rabbis, wearing tallit and carrying prayer books, to the gates of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa to protest while the Soviet Premier was visiting Canada. A number of other protests were held at the embassy, and at Soviet cultural events and performances. In December of 1971, a two-hour vigil was held in front of the Soviet embassy by 42 Ottawa Jews in protest of the 42 Soviet Jews held in prison after the Leningrad trials. Another protest was organized by the Ottawa Committee for Soviet Jewry and led by Rabbi Donald Gerber and Rabbi Saul Aranov in March of 1977 to protest the Soviet Union’s policy reversal regarding the importation of matzah for Pesach. As part of the protest, they placed boxes of matzah at the gates of the Soviet Embassy.

In July of 1974, the Ottawa Women’s Committee for Soviet Jewry, also called the 35’s, was formed. The chairman of the Women’s Committee for much of its existence was Ruth Berger. In September of 1974, they organized their first protest, which occurred on Rosh Hashanah outside the Soviet Embassy. In February of 1975, both committees worked with the Toronto Women’s Committee for Soviet Jewry to organize a protest against the imprisonment of Dr. Mikhail Stern, a Jewish endocrinologist who was allegedly accepting bribes from his patients. 

Toward the end of the 1980s, many of the restrictions barring exit visas for Soviet Jews were lifted, and many were allowed to emigrate. Despite this, the Ottawa Committee for Soviet Jewry and the Women’s Committee remained active throughout the 1980s, organizing rallies outside the Soviet Embassy during times of increased antisemitism in the Soviet Union. Both committees ceased to function in 1989, but their impact is still felt today. Ottawa has a strong, active, and vibrant Russian-speaking community and the work of these committee has made this possible. 

Chapter 2: Ottawa stands with Israel during the second Intifada – from the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin print archives

“The community is urged to attend an Israeli solidarity rally to be held on Parliament Hill Sunday, April 21, 2002 at 11:00 am. Local synagogues, schools and institutions are arranging for buses, and people from other parts of Canada are expected to attend. As of press time, speakers and dignitaries attending the rally have not been announced. However, a well-known Israeli politician is expected to address the crowd. The rally will focus on what we can do to support Israel and prayers for peace.

Gerald Levitz, president, Jewish Community Council of Ottawa says, ‘From time to time, we as Jews are required to publicly display our total commitment to the existence of the state of Israel. These times arise when Israel is in danger, as it surely is today. You enhance being Jewish by being at this rally.’

Sol Shinder, chair Emergency Task Force on Israel Solidarity, believes, ‘if Jews aren’t going to stand up for their fellow Jews, who will? How can we expect others to support Israel if we don’t?’ Regardless of your political leanings, Shinder says, ‘it is time to express solidarity with Israel even if you don’t agree with all its policies.’

Paul Bregman, who recently returned from a two-week visit to Israel, plans to be at the rally. ‘The message I repeatedly heard from our Israeli brethren was to pray for Israel and show our politicians, the media and the world that Jews throughout the world are united as one, that we support the right of Israel as a democratic nation to be free of terrorism and to take such actions as necessary to protect its citizens from those who seek to destroy it, and to co-exist in a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians.’

The morning of the rally, a delegation led by UJA Director Marty Davis and Rabbi Reuven Bulka will be returning from an Israel solidarity mission to assess the needs of the Israelis and what we as a community can do to continue helping Israel.”

Reports following the rally put numbers at more than 12,000. The relief fund established by Federation raised over $1 Million in just two weeks.

“When Cantor Daniel Benlolo began leading the crowd in song 45 minutes before the rally, you could feel the energy and spirit of the people as they joined in. It was as Gerry Levitz, president of the Jewish Community Council of Ottawa/Vaad Ha’Ir, who told the overflowing crowd; ‘Today is a good day for the Jews. Today is a great day to be Jewish.’”

Once again, the Jewish community of Ottawa showed their passionate love for Israel and Jews everywhere.

Chapter 3: Ottawa stands with Israel and for the release of the hostages

Oct. 7, 2023, marks a tragic day for Jews worldwide. Hamas brutally attacked innocent people in the south of Israel, kidnapped 250 people, and viciously raped and mutilated women.

The Jewish Federation of Ottawa, with Andrea Freedman as CEO and Karen Palayew as Chair, immediately organized an event at the Soloway JCC where more than 1400 community members came together to support each other in our grief. Also in attendance were political leader from all levels of government.

In December of 2023, with Sarah Beutel now serving as interim CEO and a committed group of volunteers, Ottawa spearheaded “Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People.” Federations across Canada were invited and more 100 buses arrived in Ottawa on the snowy morning of Dec. 3. More than 12,000 people stood on Parliament Hill in the snow and declared, “Am Ysrael Chai!”

Attendees all spoke about the beauty and miracle of falling snow where each flake that fell and clung to people’s hats and scarves were discernible Stars of David. Hundreds of people took pictures and shared the beautiful six-pointed snowflakes on social media.  It was as though the heavens were supporting the community as well.

Conclusion: We are stronger together

After 90 years of organized Jewish communal life, Federation is at the centre of influence and is the organization most equipped to deal with emergencies.

Thanks to our powerful network across North America, global reach, and vetting process that allows us to get dollars where they are needed most, after Oct. 7, Jewish Federations were there, ready to respond. Our system launched in full force, assessing needs, connecting with organizations on the ground, and coordinating in real time with foundations and the Israeli government. We raised an incredible amount of funding and began making a significant impact.

Jewish Ottawa can be proud of our response. From the generous donations to the Emergency Appeal for the People of Israel to our volunteer advocacy efforts to combat antisemitism, our community is strong and understands the value of standing up for what’s right in support of Jewish causes, then, now, and in the future.

--Photos by Peter Waiser