From the Pulpit: Kehillat Beth Israel invests in community

By Rabbi Eytan Kenter, Kehillat Beth Israel

The last half-year has been unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. It has changed every one of our lives in significant ways, and the synagogue has been no exception. For five months, worship services happened virtually rather than in person. Community was found on Zoom and community celebrations transitioned to personal observances.

Looking ahead, it is no different. Last year, Kehillat Beth Israel (KBI) had close to 1,400 people within our walls over the High Holy Days. This year, public health recommends no more than 50 at one time. How do we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah? And how do we gather in a Sukkah in a safe and healthy way?

KBI realized early on in the process that these extraordinary times called for an extraordinary response. Upon reflection regarding the new initiatives undertaken this summer and our plans for the fall, one theme has clearly risen to the top. We have decided that the best way to navigate our new reality is to invest, and invest meaningfully, in community. Among the endeavours of which we are most proud entering into this unprecedented new synagogue year, all involve efforts we have made to assure communal success, not just our shul’s alone. Here are some of the projects of which we are most proud.

The creation of the Tishrei Pass that allows not only our own members, but also anyone who is a member in good standing of any synagogue to access our High Holy Day live-stream. Among the populations that we hope will take advantage of this resource are:

  • smaller communities that cannot otherwise provide live-stream access to services;
  • members of synagogues that are not halakhically comfortable with Zoom;
  • those who are uncomfortable attending services in person;
  • those who need to be home with their children and wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in a service.  

It would be easy to say that our live-stream is a unique offering only available to our members, but it is important this year, of all years, to make sure that everyone has access to a service. We are so pleased to be extending our offerings more broadly and giving every member of our community the chance to pray. If you are a member in good standing of a shul that is not KBI and want to access the Tishrei Pass, you can visit this link on our website.

Months ago, we realized that blowing the shofar indoors was not going to be prudent this High Holy Day season. We reached out to all of the synagogues in town about setting up community shofar blowings around Ottawa. No matter where someone lives, we wanted to assure that there was a local shofar blowing available to them. In collaboration with Adath Shalom, Beit Tikvah, JET, Or Haneshamah, and Temple Israel, we are currently offering at least 10 different locations around Ottawa run by these different synagogues and organizations. From Gloucester to Barrhaven and Old Ottawa South to Westboro Beach, hundreds will have the chance to gather and fulfil the mitzvah of hearing the blasts of the shofar. Visit this link to see all of the times and locations for the shofar blowings on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

As so many will need to observe Sukkot from home and may not be able to create or avail themselves of a sukkah, we decided to focus on the mitzvah of lulav and etrog. This amazing mitzvah, which focuses on all of our senses and uses all of our body, can be done by anyone at any time. The challenge, however, was making the mitzvah relatable and also affordable as a lulav and etrog set can cost more than $60. That is why, in partnership with the Ottawa Jewish Community School, and with the assistance of a Jewish Federation of Ottawa Microgrant, we are offering one lulav and etrog set to every family who wants one for whatever the family is able to pay. This year, everyone will be provided the opportunity to have a lulav of their own, will be provided the opportunities to gather together in observance of the mitzvah, so that this ritual is as accessible as possible. To purchase a lulav as part of our Lulavs 4 Everyone program, please visit this link.

This summer, KBI committed to a deeper partnership with Ottawa Talmud Torah Afternoon School (OTT). While maintaining its identity as a community school, OTT will come under the educational auspices of KBI and its clergy. As both institutions believe strongly in the values of community and pluralism, it was a natural partnership. As part of this new relationship, we will be providing curricular guidance and clergy support in new and creative ways to make the program even richer. By investing in this outstanding community school, KBI can help them enhance their program.

Finally, we have just confirmed that we will be able to broadcast two of our High Holy Day services on Rogers TV (Cable Channel 22). While traditionally High Holy Days have been reserved for those with tickets, this year, of all years, it is important that our services be available to all. Additionally, we know that accessing a livestream over a computer can be challenging for people. We wanted to make the viewing experience as easy and accessible as possible, which is why we reached out to Rogers to get the service on people’s televisions. You will be able to find our Rosh Hashanah Day 1 services from 9:30 am-12 pm and Yom Kippur morning services from 9:30 am-12:30 pm on Rogers TV. That way we can welcome all who wish into our sanctuary.

In a world that is constantly changing, the one value that we can never lose is that of community. KBI has always been committed to that ideal, but in the face if COVID-19, we have taken it to the next level. As a result, both KBI and the community at large will be enriched and the Jewish world will benefit in countless ways. We hope that everyone who reads this will avail themselves of at least one of these communal resources that have been created for the new year because if there is one thing worth committing to in the new year, it’s our community.