At the end of 1997, the Hevrah Kadisha of Ottawa moved from its downtown
site to a more suburban location., a not unusual occurrence. However,
by moving, the burial society has vacated the oldest existing synagogue
building in Ottawa, and now the fate of this building is uncertain.
While some Jews have lived in Ottawa almost from its declaration as the Capital of Canada (1857), in a substantial sense the Jewish community in this city began in the 1880s when groups of Jews began arriving in Ottawa as part of the wave of immigration to Canada from Czarist Russia. By 1889 twenty families settled in the area known as Lower Town, enough to form a minyan, and in 1892 the first congregation was formally formed and adopted the name of Adath Jeshurun. After meeting for about a decade in various temporary locations, a piece of land was purchased on King Edward Avenue and John William Hurrell Watts (1850-1917) a noted Ottawa architect, was commissioned to design the new structure in 1904. John W.H. Watts' design for the building is based on the Eastern European synagogue model, while the interior wood carvings reflect the Arts and Crafts Movement which was a major influence on Watts' architectural training in England.
Within twenty years, two other congregations were formed and synagogues constructed for their use, Agudath Achim (1912) and Machzikey Hadas (1926), all three in close proximity to each other.
As immigrants became more affluent, they moved away from the central neighbourhoods and dispersed throughout other residential areas. The urban synagogues were deserted and unfortunately demolished with the exception of Adath Jeshurun, which was sold to the Hervra Kadisha (1953) and up to last December served as the Funeral Chapel.
Because it was felt that the Chapel could no longer accommodate the community's needs, early in 1997 a former Pentecostal Church in Alta Vista was purchased and refurbished for the burial society's use.
The now abandoned building has been offered to the Jewish community for one dollar provided a suitable use could be fund for it. Unfortunately, this far, all suggestions forthcoming have been rejected mainly due to lack of parking. This had been viewed as a major problem by the Hevrah Kadisha as well.
It is unfortunate that such a gem might be lost due to parking problems. Although graphic and written records regarding the early days of the Jewish Community in Ottawa are kept at the National Archives of Canada and the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society, effort should be made by the members of the Jewish Community to preserve what little physical evidence remains of the Community's history through the preservation of this distinguished building.
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