Stronger Together: A 90-year journey of celebrating Jewish life in Ottawa

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. To celebrate this milestone, the Federation is undertaking several year-long initiatives. Among these will be monthly articles about our history; columns from past Board chairs and leaders sharing their unique perspectives, as well as a new “Did You Know?” feature that will share interesting anecdotes from the last nine decades of our community work. 

Of particular note, is that the Ottawa Jewish Archives is hosting an exhibit at the Bytown Museum timed with Jewish Heritage Month in May and everyone is invited for birthday cake and more at this year’s Annual General Meeting, in June. (Stay tuned for more details and see more here.)

To launch the year, we begin with a short history of the Federation.

Steeped in resilience, community spirit, and shared purpose, Federation’s predecessor, the Vaad Ha’Ir, which is Hebrew for community council, was launched in 1934. This was a time of rising antisemitism and of financial adversity caused by the Great Depression. 

The four congregations that existed at that time were Agudath Achim, Adath Jeshurun, Congregation Mackzikei Hadas, and B’nai Jacob, representing Ottawa’s Jewish community of about 2,800 people. They knew they would be “stronger together,” a tagline that has since been adopted by many Federations across North America.

The congregations pooled their funds to hire Rabbi A. H. Freedman as Ottawa's first Community Rabbi. This collaborative effort laid the foundation for the Associated Synagogues of Ottawa and, subsequently, the formation of the Vaad Ha’Ir, which was dedicated to overseeing the spiritual, educational, and communal needs of the Jewish community.

Led by visionaries like Caspar Caplan, Archibald Jacob Freiman, and Thomas Sachs, the Vaad Ha’Ir navigated challenges and fostered a sense of unity and purpose among Ottawa's Jewish community. Over the years, the organization expanded its scope, addressing diverse facets of communal life, from kashrut and education to spiritual enhancement and youth initiatives.

(Photo at right: Meeting of the Vaad Ha'Ir in Ottawa, 1954. L-R: Front Row; Abraham Shaffer, Theodore Metrick, Abraham Lithwick. Middle Row; Herman Roodman, Isidore Stone, Rabbi Simon L. Eckstein, Samuel Caplan, Samuel Lepofsky, Reverend Joseph Rabin, Hyman Gould, Leon Petigorsky, Samuel Katz, Martin K. Levinson. Back Row; Roy Saipe, Lazraus Greenberg, Yale Greenberg, Irving Rivers, Harold Pearl, Bernard Alexandor, Murray Baslaw.)


The Talmud Torah building on George Street became a symbol of communal gathering, and its relocation to 453 Rideau Street in 1949 marked the beginning of Hillel Academy Day School (now the Ottawa Jewish Community School) —a testament to the community's commitment to education and continuity. The leadership of individuals like Hy Hochberg, who served the community for 40 years, further exemplified the dedication and resilience that defined the Federation.

In 1973, during Norman Zagerman's presidency, the organization underwent a transformative shift, allowing for community participation in the election of officers. This commitment to inclusivity and representation strengthened the Federation's democratic foundation.

(Photo at right: Abe Palmer, Tom Sachs, David Loeb, Norman Zagerman, Alex Betcherman, Hy Gould at a ceremony marking the annual meeting of the Ottawa Vaad Ha'Ir, 1975)

In 1998, the Vaad moved from Chapel Street to the new Soloway JCC Jewish Community Campus location.

Then in 2005, embracing a broader vision and aligning with community councils across North America, the organization officially became the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. This evolution reflected not only a change in name but also a commitment to adapt and grow to better serve the community's evolving needs. Since that date, Federation’s Annual Campaign has raised and impressive $107 million for the Jewish community.

Among the many pivotal moments that have defined the Federation's commitment to community growth, resilience, and cultural enrichment is the introduction that same year of the PJ Library program in North America. This marked a significant stride towards promoting Jewish literature and education among our community’s young children aged 0-5. 

By 2014, the Federation had celebrated the distribution of an impressive 4,440 free Jewish books in Ottawa through this program, representing a decade of fostering literary engagement within the community. Today, Federation’s PJ Library Ottawa delivers around 800 Jewish-themed books monthly to Ottawa children.

Later that decade, in 2018, Jewish Ottawa witnessed a new era of philanthropy with the launch of the Challenge Fund. This groundbreaking initiative not only significantly boosted the Annual Campaign but also paved the way for the development of the Jewish Superhighway, setting the stage for continued growth and community support.

When COVID hit and the world faced a global pandemic, Federation proved its resilience. In the challenging first years of 2020-2021, the Federation, with the support of the Jewish Ottawa’s amazing donors, saw the Annual Campaign, coupled with the Emergency Campaign for Community Resilience, collectively raise an impressive $7.2 million. This financial milestone reflects the community's solidarity in times of need and underscores the Federation's role as a pillar of support for Jewish Ottawa.

Coinciding also with the unforeseen start of the COVID pandemic, in 2020, the Federation joined the Life & Legacy initiative, which despite the challenging timing, has resulted in underscoring the community’s commitment to long-term sustainability. As of this writing, the Federation has garnered 59 letters of intent, 76% of which have been formalized totaling $3.25M. To date, $200,000 has been realized, exemplifying a shared vision for the future and the enduring impact of philanthropy in the Ottawa Jewish community.

From its modest beginnings, the Federation has flourished into a dynamic organization with a diverse array of services and programs, supporting more than 20 different Ottawa Jewish organizations and agencies, with an Annual Campaign of nearly $5M, all of which is a testament to the dedication of its leaders and the resilience of Ottawa's Jewish community.

As we celebrate the Jewish Federation of Ottawa's 90-year legacy built on collaboration, and a shared commitment to enhancing the fabric of Jewish life in our community, we can all look back with pride.

Together, our community of 15,000 Jews is strong and vibrant, and we can anticipate a future filled with continued unity, service, and the enduring strength of our shared values and heritage.

See a timeline of the history of the Federation.

- With files from Laurie Dougherty, a former archivist for the Ottawa Jewish Archives.