Woodstock and its relevancy to our community

Woodstock and its relevancy to our community

Jewish Federation of Ottawa President and CEO Andrea Freedman reflects on lessons we can learn from the legendary rock festival.

I recently watched a documentary on Woodstock, produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary, last month, of the legendary 1969 music festival. While the largest crowd estimates were 500,000 attendees, like all seminal events, I suspect that two million people now proudly claim to have been there! And many more have a story they tell about personal connections to the festival; some of these stories might even be true.

Max Yasgur, a successful Jewish dairy farmer who, by most accounts, was a staunch Republican and supporter of the Vietnam War, rented his farm, to the chagrin of his friends and neighbours, so that Woodstock could take place after the festival was not welcomed by other towns in the Catskills.

I suppose an occupational hazard of mine is to view most things through the prism of the work I am privileged to do. When I go to a museum, I spend time looking at the donor wall. I watch a documentary on Woodstock, and begin to ponder its relevancy for Ottawa’s Jewish community. In this case, I believe there are three fundamental lessons.

What we can learn from Max Yasgur

It is important to dialogue with the “other” and respect their rights. Yasgur was not a fan of the counterculture. He did not like how hippies dressed or wore their hair, but he respected freedom of expression. He rented his land for money and ended up providing the “kids” with free food and water, for the simple reason that they were hungry.

What I take away from this for Jewish Ottawa is two-fold. Firstly, despite our differences, we should prioritize finding common ground and focus our efforts in these areas. Secondly, we have a responsibility to help others and provide for those who are in need.

What we can learn from Woodstock’s four Jewish Organizers

Dream big and don’t let anything stand in your way. There are always problems and there will always be naysayers who claim it cannot be done. Before the festival, Woodstock’s organizers almost didn’t have a venue. When the festival got underway, problems included hundreds of thousands more people than they prepared for, not enough food, too much rain, too many drugs, and the complete inability for cars to get in and out of the festival grounds – to name but a few. But if your vision is strong and clearly articulated, the impossible becomes possible.

In terms of Jewish Ottawa, the past year has been all about building the Jewish Superhighway. It is a metaphor for meaningful Jewish experiences, where Jewish life is vibrant and no one is left behind. The idea of the Jewish Superhighway has inspired giving at unprecedented levels and through strategic funding – for example, Jewish Jumpstart and Microgrants – it has created tremendous positivity and momentum in our community. I believe the Jewish Superhighway is resonating and people are helping to build it, with more and more people beginning or expanding their Jewish journeys.

What we can learn from the Woodstock attendees

If something is important enough to you, then you are willing to endure and be inconvenienced for it. To be honest, no showers, sleeping on the ground, and having to walk miles and miles to get to the festival site does not sound like fun to me. But being part of something greater than yourself seemed worth the sacrifices to a generation of young people who wanted desperately to believe they could change the world.

Jewish life is not always easy. There are 613 separate mitzvot (commandments) – and 365 of them are don’ts. There are expenses. There are disagreements on how we observe, and we have disparate political points of view.

But when we work collectively to build Jewish life. When we engage newcomers to the community. When we take care of the vulnerable. When a child learns the aleph-bet. When an isolated senior receives compassionate care. When we support the Jewish State of Israel. We truly are changing the world … one person at a time.

I am truly excited to continue building the Jewish Superhighway with all of you in 5780!