OTTAWA — A weekend of festivities marked the end of an era as Congregation Beth Shalom concluded its 60-year history as Ottawa’s “downtown shul.”
The culmination of the March 27-29 weekend – which included a sold-out (with large waiting list) Shabbat dinner; a celebratory Shabbat service and kiddush that honoured all past presidents of the congregation; and a Saturday night open mike musical event that lasted into the wee hours – was a unique 10-kilometre Torah relay walk.
“We wanted to involve as many of our congregants as possible,” said congregation vice-president Jane Shore, as she explained the plan for moving the sacred Torah scrolls from the old location to the congregation’s temporary new location at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) in the city’s west end.
Sixty years ago, when the synagogue was built, the hub of the Jewish community was downtown, but over the years, Jews moved to the suburbs and the congregation dwindled. It currently has about 300 families.
In 2011, the congregation voted to sell its 81,000-square-foot property, which will be redeveloped with condominiums and retail space.
The congregation has a one-year lease with the SJCC, where it will hold Shabbat and holiday services. Weekday services will take place next door at Hillel Lodge seniors residence. There have been ongoing discussions about amalgamation with conservative Agudath Israel Congregation, but as of now, no decisions have been made about where Congregation Beth Shalom will find itself at the end of its Soloway lease.
For the Torah relay, it was decided that volunteers would carry the scrolls the entire way, passing them from hand to hand as they went.
“Each segment was eight minutes and we [did] it in groups. Some groups [were] families, some were friends,” Shore said. “The route went past City Hall, through Centretown where many Jews lived at one time. Many people chose the section according to where they had lived.”
After a brief send-off at the old Chapel Street location and good wishes from Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak and several local politicians, the relay began.
One of the first group of carriers was Dan Kimmel.
“My family joined the synagogue in 1960 and we have been members ever since. I was president from 1980 to ’83,” he said.
The walk’s logistics were co-ordinated by board members Lorne Goldstein and Suzi Sauve, and it was a daunting task. People had to be at the right place at the right time in order to keep the relay going and keep the group together. A few people – including Liberal MP Mauril Belanger, who represents Ottawa-Vanier – walked the entire 10 kilometres.
At exactly 1 p.m., the target arrival time, the group arrived at the SJCC singing Hava Nagila and were met by enthusiastic supporters who accompanied them inside. As the Torahs were placed inside the ark, there was singing and dancing, followed by a quick Minchah service led by Beth Shalom spiritual leader Cantor Daniel Benlolo.
Many in the audience were visibly emotional as they and their families had grown up in the synagogue, marking all their important family milestones there.