Shaped by community - Reflections on 90 years of the Jewish Federation

By Ron Prehogan

Let me start by wishing the Jewish Federation of Ottawa a happy 90th birthday!  It is no small feat to have been in business that many years and most successfully so.  We are a strong and united community and should all feel very proud of our accomplishments over the years.  

I have been asked to write this column as a past chair of the Federation from 2005 to 2007.  In so doing, I will focus on why I decided to get involved and what I think was my greatest success.  

I decided to get involved with the Jewish community because I thought I might be able to make a difference.   My formative years as a teenager growing up in Montreal coincided both with the Six Day War in Israel and the Vietnam War which spawned the American “peace and love” movement.    When I graduated from high school, the yearbook theme song that I chose contained the lyrics “come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now”.   That being the core of my belief system, it only seemed natural years later that I would “put my money where my mouth was” and try to help my community in any way that I could.  

I remember one Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem on a community mission being profoundly impacted by Avraham Infeld, the then President of Hillel – The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.   He told our group that interactions between Jewish agencies needed to focus less on what divided us and more on our common mission which was the significant continuation of the Jewish people.   

I took Mr. Infeld’s remarks very much to heart as they inspired me to organize a two-day symposium of about 100 Ottawa Jewish community members in February 2007 focused on what we needed to do as a community to keep us going strong for decades to come.  The speakers were some of the most prominent Jewish world thought leaders including Avraham Infeld and they helped shape our discussions and decisions.  The symposium served to focus us as a community and resulted directly in the purchase of the Hillel House in Sandy Hill and the creation of a Jewish studies program at the University of Ottawa.   

As important to me as the community benefiting from my work was the benefit I received from the work I did for the community.  As a kid growing up in Montreal, I had about as secular an upbringing as could be.  The only things Jewish in my life were my Bar Mitzvah, being dragged to synagogue every year for the High Holidays, and Passover Seders with family friends.  That was it.

The summer after graduating from high school, I decided to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on an overseas trip with some friends.  We narrowed down our choices to an ashram in India and a kibbutz in Israel.  It was such a tough decision that the only way we could decide was by flipping a coin.  As fate would have it, the coin flip resulted in us going to work on a kibbutz in Israel.  Little did I know that that experience would forever shape the direction of my life.  I returned home that summer as a deeply proud Jew for some reason I could not even begin to understand.

Subsequently marrying Avalee, moving to Ottawa, involving myself in the Jewish community, and having mentors like Rabbi Reuven Bulka, of blessed memory, and Sol Shinder were the keys to my lifelong Jewish discovery.   I learned that to be a part of the Jewish people is to be an heir to one of the greatest traditions of faith, morality, community, and individual living the world has ever known. 

We are now living in the most challenging times for the Jewish people any of us has ever experienced.  Things may well get worse before they get better.   The worldwide Jewish community appears to have been asleep at the switch while others were plotting against us, but we are waking up now and will come together as we always have.   Am Israel Chai!