The pandemic has made it harder for people to get together, but Ottawa’s Jewish community has put in extra efforts to stay connected. Women’s groups, especially, say they are drawing more, not fewer, participants into their activities.

“It sends a strong message when we can support each other in times of need,” said Sarah Caspi, the executive director of Jewish Family Services.

About 15,000 Jews live in Ottawa, the fourth largest Jewish community in Canada, according to the Jewish Federation of North America and the bonds are strong. Jewish women, in particular, tend to socialize with and support each other.

Jewish Education Through Torah (JET Ottawa) has provided many events for them through the pandemic. Its most recent event, “A Capital Exchange: From Ottawa to Jerusalem,” connected 110 Jewish women from the two cities online to share experiences about Jewish life in Ottawa and watch cultural performances.

“There’s a lot geared directly towards women,” said Pessie Gewirtzman, director of Glebe Shul, a branch of JET and a hub for young Jewish professionals in Ottawa.

Providing programs

Within JET, the Jewish Women’s Network provides programs such as challah bakes, cook-offs, book clubs, movie nights and spa days. It opted for various outdoor physically distanced events during the summer, but those have gone online during the cooler weather.

“I’m very passionate about women-only events because Judaism specifically is very much influenced by the women,” said Gewirtzman. “If the men are having classes to learn Torah, the women should have that as well. The women should know just as much and have the same opportunities.”

Gewirtzman said her community aims to make every woman feel validated and included. She said JET has reached more people than ever during the pandemic through social media and website; even people outside of Ottawa have joined.

“We definitely have gotten more people. We’ve been expanding our reach and what we do,” said Gewirtzman. “We’re constantly thinking of ways we can improve and do more, and whenever we think of something new to do, we do it. We’re constantly brainstorming and looking for feedback.”

Sarah Caspi, the executive director of Jewish Family Services, explains how Ottawa’s Jewish community can help more women during the pandemic. This photograph taken Dec. 17, 2019 at a JET Hanukkah event before the pandemic. [Photo © Pessie Gewirtzman]

Tatiana Pranova has been involved in the Jewish women’s community in Ottawa since she came to Canada in 1998. She has volunteered in Jewish Family Services, ran musical programs, kids’ programs, Jewish Federation events, and was on the JET board.

“The Jewish Women’s Network is very social; it doesn’t have to be religious at all. You just have to be a woman,” said Pranova. “It brings women together from different age groups.”

Gift and food deliveries have been popular in this community during the pandemic. Volunteers have continued dinner events by delivering dinners to homes of Jewish families in the community, then all logging on to Zoom together to share the meal. “Right now, we can’t bring people together, but we can still connect,” said Pranova.

Sharing knowledge, passions and creativity

“Jewish women need their own time, they need to do something for themselves, and unless you offer it to them, they never find time,” said Pranova. “This community is an exchange; women share their knowledge, passions and creativity.”

Jewish Family Services offers a women’s support program called Shalom Bayit with counsellors for Jewish women experiencing abuse. A $2,000 grant from the Women’s Collective Philanthropy Program of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation will help establish a safe virtual space for vulnerable female clients.

Caspi said there is much work to be done for helping women in areas where the pandemic has affected them the most, such as child care, schooling and parenting.

“We have to take care of each other,” said Caspi. “We can go forward with a better, more cohesive community that cares and I think we’ve demonstrated that in a lot of ways.”