From the Pulpit: History of Jewish Ottawa – a rabbi’s perspective

By Rabbi Howard Finkelstein, Beit Tikvah

In 2009, A Common Thread, a book describing the Jewish community of Ottawa from its inception to modern times was published by the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society. It was a wonderful book, filled with impressive historical and anecdotal accounts of life in Ottawa through the years.

Missing, however, was any mention of the existence of Yitzhak Rabin High School, which operated for 20 years from 1995 until 2015, or of Torah Day School, formerly known as Torah Academy, an Orthodox institution operating for over 20 years.

Understandably, not everything can be included in a history book, but gaps in the recording of the existence of educational institutions which have shaped and influenced the Jewish community must be addressed as the discerning student of history has to remark on the underlying and sometimes invisible contributions made by people and by institutions in the community.

Specifically, talking about institutions, one can ask as to what salutary or negative effects were felt by people who were touched by their presence? How many students, for example, attending the community’s day schools, past and present, elementary and high school, are leading strong Jewish lives, and can attribute their spiritual growth to the foundation they received in these schools?

How many people were influenced, positively or negatively, by their association with synagogues in our community? How many can point to rabbinic leadership that does not garner headlines, but is highly influential in one’s life? While A Common Thread can admirably speak about the development of synagogues and the role of rabbis in the community’s history, by definition, it cannot assess the historical significance that these institutions and leaders had and continue to have on those affected by them.

In truth, it is impossible to write a true and complete history of a community, for every individual has his or her personal story to tell. As a rabbi and educator in Ottawa since 1991, I can attest to the mini-histories of the Jews of Ottawa with whom I have had contact. Each story is different, and each story is instructive, in terms of how we relate to the community at large, and to each other.

Consequently, we have the incomplete history of the Jewish community of Ottawa consisting of myriad individuals who can feasibly write his or her own versions of that account, with common threads of agreement, and discordant impressions simultaneously. It will be interesting and exciting to see how the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s new Jewish Superhighway project will relate to the individuals and families of our community. The underlying statement that ‘no Jew will be left behind’ on this new pathway bodes well for community cohesion and individual identification with other Jews in Ottawa. The Superhighway can be our common thread in bringing the Jews of Ottawa together.

When the call came for the Hebrews in the desert to come together to contribute to the building of the sanctuary, the Hebrews came from all walks of life to donate their time, energy and resources to its successful completion. As a result, God promised to dwell among the people of Israel. In a similar vein, each Jew of our community should not only contribute material goods to the betterment of Ottawa’s Jewish institutions, they should contribute their wisdom and their experience to build a model of a community for future generations. We may not need a new history book to recount these experiences, but we do need people to step up and figuratively write their own accounts by continuing to build our community.