A View from the Bleachers: Celebrating that which unites us
By Rabbi Steven Garten
On Sunday evening, September 29, a significant percentage of the Ottawa Jewish community celebrated/observed Rosh Hashanah. Many gathered around family tables for a festive meal. Some observed the “first day of the seventh month” by worshipping in synagogues, temples, auditoriums and even in people’s homes. The next day, many of the same individuals returned to worshipping or continued with more private observances. The entire pattern will be repeated 10 days later on Kol Nidre eve and the day of Yom Kippur. Regardless of one’s personal choices, there is something special and unique about the two days when our Jewish community gathers together to celebrate that which unites us, rather than focusing on that which divides us.
I felt that unique sense Jewish unity on September 10 when I attended the Jewish Federation of Ottawa Annual Campaign Kickoff. Regardless of our personal feelings about Federation and the work it does, the gathering was transformative. Six hundred members of the community laughing together, mostly at our own foibles and nuances of tribal behaviour. We don’t often laugh together. In fact, we more often than not separate into denominational and ideological camps for our group gatherings. There is nothing inherently wrong with having alternative views/opinions on prayer, the Deity, Jewish tradition, Israel, interfaith coalitions, aboriginal reconciliation. However differences which serve to keep us apart are not a reflection of our potential strength as a community.
I felt the unique power of community on September 8. That Sunday afternoon I travelled to the wilds of Barrhaven to sample the products of the Ottawa Kosher BBQ Cook-off. This unique event was the brainchild of my colleague Rabbi Menachem Blum of the Ottawa Torah Centre. As I walked amongst the crowd, I was struck by mixture of kippot, black hats, Israelis now living in Ottawa, synagogue-goers, committed atheists, and most noticeably, young and old together. The food was nice, not Texas or southern barbecue, but nice. What was more than nice was the celebratory crowd. Hats off (black hat off) to Rabbi Blum and the volunteers who drew us all to the wilds of Barrhaven.
The sense of community pride was also on display during the Capital Pride weekend in Ottawa. Members of our community walked in the Pride Parade on August 25 identified as Jews. Unlike at some U.S. Pride Parades, the Star of David was prominently displayed, not forbidden. On Erev Shabbat there were dinners and programming in two synagogues. These outreach programs that bring together members of the LGBTQ community, their parents, and their supporters represent special opportunities for Ottawa’s Jewish community to display its commonality, not just its differences.
There are many other projects that will be supported by Federation’s Jewish Experience Microgrants that have the intentional purpose of bringing the community together. Stock the Freezer, a series of group cooking events, in which community members come together to cook and freeze healthy meals for Ottawa Kosher Food Bank clients, modelled on Soup Sisters of Calgary and other Canadian cities, has the potential of enticing whole families to have fun while manifesting Jewish values.
One more example of unique cross denominational programming is Jbotics, an opportunity for students in Grades 5-8 with an interest in sciences to learn about the intersection of Judaism, Israeli innovation, and hands-on building and computer programming. Though the program – supported by a Federation Jewish Experience Microgrant – is hosted by Temple Israel Religious School, it is open to all members of the community in those grades.
The High Holy Days are a time when members of our community observe and celebrate our Hebrew calendar in diverse ways. It is lovely to see so many members of the “people of Israel” gathering in prayer and observance. But these religious days do not resonate as they have in the past.
Growing up in the Bronx, living along the Grand Concourse, there were 200 minyanim, synagogues, and one large temple filled with primarily male worshippers on the High Holy Days. It was glorious to walk the 40 blocks between 201st Street and 161st Street nodding “Shana Tova” to one and all. But the Grand Concourse has changed. We no longer live in ‘gilded ghettos.’ The High Holy Days has lost its clarion call for many younger members of our community.
If we are to look forward and not backward, then we will need to innovate opportunities for communal celebrations and observances that supplement the traditional approaches.