By Daniel Moser
(AJNews) – Going as far back as his days with Northwest Canada Region of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, Matt Ponak has had a passion for the spiritual aspects of Judaism, and now he is bringing that passion to Victoria, British Columbia. Having impressed the Congregation as an interim Rabbi during Rabbi Harry Brechner’s sabbatical, Congregation Emanu-El announced in mid-May that Ponak would be joining them on a full-time basis as Education Director and Assistant Rabbi. Officially his position will begin in June following his graduation and ordination from Hebrew College in Massachusetts.
Matt grew up in Calgary where he attended Jewish day-school at Calgary Jewish Academy, and was a member of Beth Tzedec and Temple B’nai Tikvah congregations. Through high school he was an active member of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization and attended Camp BB Riback as a staff member. Matt’s ties to Vancouver Island are also strong, “I grew up in Calgary and spent many summers on the Island growing up. My mother is from Port Alberni and I have many relatives in the area.”
Although his spiritual education led him to American schools, and life, Matt explains that he is looking forward to planting roots back in Canada, and making Victoria his new home. “I’m so excited about this because I get to return to Canada and to live in an incredible city with a community of warm, embracing, open-minded, and dedicated people.”
Before rabbinical school, Ponak earned a masters in Contemplative Religions at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution in Boulder, Colorado. He earned an undergraduate multidisciplinary degree with a minor in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary, and also has a certificate in Spiritual Entrepreneurship through the Glean Network in association with Columbia University.
During Rabbinical School, Ponak interned with the Asiyah Jewish Community in Somerville, Mass., the Common Street Spiritual Center in Natick, Mass., Temple Emanuel in Andover, Mass., and the One River Foundation with renowned author Rabbi Rami Shapiro. He also served as a curator of the Spiritual Paths Institute, working on an interspiritual website for people of all backgrounds who want to explore their inner lives more deeply. He is one of the founders of Or Chadash, the men’s group at Hebrew College.
Ponak’s capstone project, “Torah for the New Age,” focused on translating and commenting on Jewish mystical texts relevant to contemporary spiritual seekers of all backgrounds. With supervision from Hebrew College Rector Rabbi Arthur Green, Ponak translated and commented on 42 mystical texts and used digital design layouts to make them look like Talmud pages. “It was an absolute pleasure working with Rabbi Green,” said Ponak. “He is one of the leading voices for Jewish mystical theology, commentary and translations in our era.”
Matt is also a very talented banjo player. He specializes in leading niggunim, or wordless melodies from the Jewish mystical tradition. During his first year of rabbinical school, he released a banjo niggun album entitled “Bridges of Song.” He is also a practitioner of Qi Gong and Focusing, using movement and body-centered contemplation to guide people through inner constrictions and into the emerging stages of their journey.
“I am a teacher, musician, and lover of life. I help spiritual seekers follow the call of their soul. I am passionate about bringing forth ancient Jewish wisdom to meet the needs of today,” says Ponak.
Hebrew College is a college of Jewish studies in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Founded in 1921, Hebrew College is committed to Jewish scholarship in a pluralistic, trans-denominational academic environment.
Congregation Emanu-El is an egalitarian Conservative Jewish congregation in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. In 2013 Congregation Emanu-El celebrated its 150th anniversary as Canada’s oldest synagogue in continuous use. It has been designated a national historic site.
Matt Ponak was ordained on June 7, 2020 from Hebrew College in Newton, Mass, where he also received a Masters degree in Jewish Studies.
Mazal tov to Rabbi Matt Ponak, Melina, and their family, and mazal tov to Congregation Emanu-El on a fantastic hire, and great addition to their community.