By Abbey Westbury
(AJNews) – One of BC’s small-but-thriving Jewish communities has just raised its profile another notch. The Okanagan Valley, home to snowy mountains, glacial lakes, lush vineyards and orchards, world-class tourism experiences, and roughly 2,000 Jews now has a new rabbi.
The Okanagan Jewish Community’s Beth Israel Synagogue recently welcomed Rabbi Tom Samuels to be the organization’s first full-time spiritual leader. Established in 1980 by a dedicated group of locals, the OJC has flourished in recent years. Although they have always happily relied upon semi-retired, student, and visiting rabbis, the membership felt that the time was ripe to bring a permanent leadership presence to their bimah.
As a non-denominational rabbi with experience across the spectrum of Jewish movements, Ontario native Rabbi Samuels is an excellent fit for this pluralistic congregation. Most recently, he served several roles in the Chicago area – as Rabbi at the McHenry County Jewish Congregation, and as the rabbi-in-residence at Chicago’s K-12 Interfaith School.
Rabbi Samuels joins the Chabad’s Rabbi Shmueli Hecht as a leader of the small-but-mighty Jewish presence in the region.
“I’m excited to help this incredibly eclectic, diverse, and spiritual community go deeper into their Jewish voices,” Samuels effuses.
From the pulpit and in person, the rabbi’s warm and engaging personality shines. He prefers to connect with people where they’re most comfortable, and is ready to share his comprehensive spiritual insights at the shul, the corner coffeeshop, or on a lakeside hiking trail. He’s a champion of the deeply personal aspects of Jewishness, which appeals to the OJC’s multi-faceted congregation. Rabbi Samuels incorporates a natural magnetism, a rich musicality, and a thoughtful approach to tradition into his teaching, making him well-positioned to grow the OJC’s presence within the larger Okanagan community.
The OJC’s Rabbi Search Committee spent the better part of 3 years selecting the perfect candidate. Committee chair Adam Tizel reflects, “It’s exciting to finally have our very own full time Rabbi who lives in Kelowna. Even with the challenges that come with Pandemic times, he really inspires and helps keep us cohesive. We look forward to seeing more people join our increased offering of events.”
Like so many small, eclectic Jewish communities, the OJC long made do with hosting irregular and disparate religious, cultural, and social activities organized by enthusiastic community members. However, they lacked a central, unifying leader. It’s clear that they have finally found their missing piece in Rabbi Samuels.
Mazel tov to the Okanagan Jewish Community and the vibrant heritage they’re building in their beautiful corner of Canada!