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Or Haneshamah: a Community's History

Or Haneshamah is a classic example of a Reconstructionist congregation that began as a grassroots havurah. A fellowship of Jews in Ottawa sought in 1987 to create a space for the observance of Judaism according to Reconstructionist principles. The Ottawa Reconstructionist Havurah gathered for prayer and discussion in members’ homes, consulted with other Jewish communities, and sought guidance from leaders in the movement.

Within a few years of its inception, OrH had applied for and received affiliation with the organization that later became the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. The havurah was resolutely member-led, and the frequency of Shabbat services and festival gatherings quickly grew over the years, often energized by the singing and music of the OrH band. The community celebrated its first bar mitzvah in 1994, and has since helped member families observe many weddings, baby namings, conversions, funerals and other life-cycle events. In 1995, OrH acquired a Torah scroll and its first copies of the newly released Reconstructionist prayerbook, which continues to be its primary textual resource for religious observance.

Although members took great pride in leading services and running the havurah, OrH brought in rabbis and rabbinical students to help lead high holiday services and occasional shabbatons. The community grew, and it became time to broaden and diversify the resources used to sustain OrH. In 2003-04, the group hired its first paid administrator, modernized its communications, and engaged the first of many senior rabbinical students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to come to Ottawa monthly to lead Shabbat services, teach the b’nei mitzvah group, and provide adult education.

In the spirit of Reconstructionist philosophy, OrH takes an interactive and participatory approach to ritual, and is committed to egalitarianism and inclusion in all its practices.

The community took on its current Hebrew name, Or Haneshamah, which means “light of the spirit,” in 2009. As members celebrated the group’s 25th anniversary in 2012, they also made a decision that would set OrH on a new path: the congregation would, for the first time, hire a permanent spiritual leader.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton arrived in August 2013 and, in her short time in Ottawa, has already helped the community to evolve and grow — and to imagine what it might become. 

On Sunday, October 23, 2016, Or Haneshamah welcomed another important member of our community- our new Sefer Torah! You can read about that very special occasion in more detail here

Reconstructionist Judaism: a Short History

Reconstructionism, one of four mainstream branches of Judaism, grew as an offshoot of the Conservative movement in the 1930s from the ideas of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College opened in 1968 and Reconstructionist Judaism has grown to include more than 100 congregations and havurot/communities in North America today.

Rabbi Kaplan described Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Just as generations of rabbis built a canon of Jewish law through Mishnaic and Talmudic interpretations of the Torah, Reconstructionism encourages today’s Jews to continue to respond to the changing realities of contemporary life — while still respecting and practising Judaism’s long-held traditions.

Reconstructionists aim to build Jewish communities that are spiritually and intellectually vibrant, and committed to Jewish learning, ethics and social justice. They use prayer and ritual to explore spiritual realms and to deepen their personal understanding of God. The historic attachment to the land of Israel is a key part of Reconstructionist identity, and the movement counts on its members to play an active role in passing on to future generations Judaism’s shared culture and values.

In 2018, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement became known as Reconstructing Judaism. It is the umbrella organization that encompasses the rabbinical seminary, serves Reconstructionist congregations, and fosters a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism in the wider world.

Also in 2018, three of our community members, along with our Rabbi, attended the Philadelphia 2018 Reconstructing Judaism Convention. You can read about their experiences and check out some photos here!

Sat, 22 June 2024