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The woman who saved Ottawa’s Jewish history

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Shirley Berman

It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of the Ottawa Jewish community has been preserved almost single-handedly by one woman, a volunteer with the foresight and passion to collect and compile the history for future generations. With the recent death of Shirley Berman, the community has lost one of its most ardent and dedicated historians.

Born in Toronto in 1930, the youngest of eight children, Berman moved to Ottawa with her husband, Shier, who was offered a job at the National Research Council. Their family grew to include three children. A “born organizer,” Berman was known as the family matriarch and connector, bringing together siblings, cousins and friends who were always welcome in her family’s home.

Although busy with her young family, Berman always found time to get involved in her community. In her mid-40s, she saw the need to collect and organize the history of her adopted Jewish community and brought the idea to the late Hy Hochberg, then-president of the Ottawa Vaad Ha’ir, who challenged her to do it herself. Berman proceed to volunteer with the National Library of Canada, working on the Jacob Lowey collection. Berman studied and took courses, in order to prepare herself for the task.

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Berman’s long-time friend, Sheila Baslaw, spoke at her funeral about the beginning of Berman’s efforts to build the archives: insisting there was a need for acid-free boxes and humidity control for the precious papers, interviewing community elders about their memories, soliciting donations of historically important documents and photos.

“When Shirley heard that the Murray Street synagogue was to be torn down, she was determined to save the murals. She rescued the murals, found sponsors and restoration specialists and then she found a home for them by convincing the people who were planning the new JCC on Broadview that they should be put in the lobby. Today, if you look around the lobby, you will see them,” said Baslaw.

“It is because of Shirley’s tenacious determination to collect and preserve our Jewish history in Ottawa that we have 80 years of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin now available online and a permanent position for our Ottawa Jewish archivist.”

According to Teri Levine, president of the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society, Berman was “an unsung hero for years. Without her, there would be no archives.… She took on a job and she carried it through right to the end. She was indomitable.”

Several months ago, her enormous contribution to the community was recognized with the creation by the Society of the Shirley Berman Lecture Series (to be renamed the Shirley Berman Memorial Lecture Series).

Berman is survived by her husband, Shier, her three children, Reva, Elliot and David, and several grandchildren.

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