By: Laurie Dougherty, Archivist, Ottawa Jewish Archives (2009)

During the early 1930s, synagogues in Ottawa were having a difficult time retaining the services of rabbis due to financial challenges facing the congregations during the Great Depression. There were four congregations in Ottawa at this time: Agudath Achim (Rideau Street), Adath Jeshurun (King Edward Avenue), Mackzikei Hadas (Murray Street) and the newly constructed B’nai Jacob (James Street).

As a result of these difficulties, a committee known as the Associated Synagogues of Ottawa formed to hire a community rabbi to act as the spiritual leader for the entire Jewish community. The Jewish community was exclusively Orthodox in the 1930s and numbered approximately 2,800 people.

Early in 1933, after several months of negotiations, each of the four congregations agreed to pay a proportionate amount of the rabbi’s salary of $2500.00 per year. Rabbi A. H. Freedman accepted the offer and became Ottawa’s first Community Rabbi, working for the Associated Synagogues of Ottawa. Proportionate payment continued to be the standard working formula for the next 20 years for employing five different, “community” or “city” rabbis.

With the successful engagement of Rabbi Freedman, the next logical step for the community was the formation of a community council, or Vaad Ha’Ir.

The Vaad Ha’Ir was formed with proportional representation from each of the synagogues along with members of various Jewish groups. The idea to form a community council, was brought forward by Caspar Caplan at a community meeting held in August 1933. Caplan was acting chair of the Vaad HaKashrut and president of the Adath Jeshurun congregation. The Vaad Ha’Ir was organized to administer Jewish activity in the city, principally kashrut, Jewish education and spiritual guidance.

Archibald Jacob Freiman, a prominent businessman, president of Adath Jeshurun and leader of the community, served as president from 1934 until his death in 1944. Thomas Sachs, who was vice-president during this formative period, took over as president and served for four years. By 1948, planning for the amalgamated synagogue of Beth Shalom and the Jewish Community Centre on Chapel Street had begun. Before Beth Shalom and the JCC existed, the office of Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman was located in the Talmud Torah building on George Street. The story of the establishment of the Talmud Torah in Ottawa parallels the formation of the Ottawa Vaad Ha’Ir.

Until the early 1920s, each of the three synagogues in existence at that time (Adath Jeshurun, Agudath Achim and Mackzikei Hadas) ran its own “cheder” or afternoon school. A group of community-minded individuals got together to purchase the George Street Public School. Here, the Talmud Torah operated an afternoon school. The Talmud Torah building became the community centre where many groups and organizations met, including Aleph Zadik Aleph, Young Judea Orchestra, B’nai Brith, etc.  In 1949, the Talmud Torah moved to 453 Rideau Street where 13 children were enrolled in the Ottawa Hebrew Day School. This was the beginning of Hillel Day school, which became Hillel Academy in 1960.

This tradition of working together for the betterment of the community was possible because the Jewish community in Ottawa was fairly small and cohesive and also had strong leadership in the Vaad over the years.  Other cities, such as Montreal and Toronto, were not able to establish and maintain such a strong and effective Vaad Ha’Ir.

One of the most influential and consistent voices of the Vaad Ha’Ir was Hy Hochberg. He was hired as executive secretary and director of Camp B’nai Brith in 1946. Eventually, Hochberg became the executive vice-president of the Vaad, having served the community for 40 years. Hy Hochberg was responsible for the establishment of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation and was awarded the Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award posthumously in 1985.

In 1973, during Norman Zagerman’s presidency, the constitution of the Vaad was changed to allow the community to participate in the election of officers. Prior to that, representation was by appointment.

The name of the Vaad Ha’Ir was changed to the Jewish Federation of Ottawa in 2005, along with its administrative structure, to better align itself with other community councils in North America. The Federation has grown from a staff of five in the early 1950s to around 35 employees in 2009. There have been 33 presidents over the 75 years of the Federation. Originally, there were seven committees of the Vaad (the Vaad HaKashrut, Talmud Torah, Cemetery, Spiritual Enhancement, Youth, Authorization and Audit, and Federated Charities).