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My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Steve Wolfe, Chatan Torah, 5778 / 2017

01/12/2017 10:28:31 AM


I stand here today, before my synagogue community, still in awe and feeling incredibly humbled at the honour that you have bestowed on me.   I have to admit I have sat where you are now while others from our community shared their personal journeys with us and wondered “What would I say if that were me up there”.  But still, my first thought when Ryan called me was “is he sure he meant to call me?”  Ryan, All I can say is, it’s a good thing you didn’t check with some of my former Hebrew School teachers before picking up the phone!!

As I pondered what I would share today, I reflected on all the influences I have had in my life – the people and the events that have shaped my sense of spirituality.  In the end my story is about relationships and belonging - the sense of family and community I took comfort from, growing up and ultimately sought out when it was time to consider how I wanted to raise my family.

I have always been proud of being Jewish and have never felt threatened because of my faith nor have I experienced the kind of anti-Semitism firsthand that exists in other parts of the world.  My Father used to tell us stories of a different time.  His parents endured living through the violence of Eastern Europe, escaping from the Ukraine and arriving in North America with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Even my Father, growing up, had to run through neighbourhoods on his way home from school to avoid being beaten up, just because he was Jewish.

I grew up in Ottawa in what I would classify as a “typically” conservative household. We kept kosher in the house, had Shabbat dinner every Friday night and went to shul on Saturday mornings.  My curiousity about our religion started with our rich history and the fantastic stories about our forefathers and the Exodus from Egypt.  My childhood synagogue, Agudath Israel, where I also went to Hebrew School, always felt like home to me.  Later while attending University or after first moving to Toronto whenever I attended services at another shul I always had the same thought – “it’s okay but it’s not Agudath Israel.” 

My parents always encouraged us to spend our time exclusively with our Jewish friends but that didn’t feel right to me.  Attending public school, I was exposed to other people’s faiths and traditions but never minded being in the minority.  Being Jewish meant we were different - I liked that- it reinforced my sense of self but at the same time I didn’t feel the need to avoid being exposed to the broader community we were part of.  One example I have of this was the first time I ever ate “treif”. It was Grade 7 and I went home with a friend for lunch.  When we looked in the fridge I saw a package of bacon.  I told my friend I had never tried bacon and he told me I didn’t know what I was missing.  So I said, “what the heck”.  We proceeded to eat the entire 1lb package and luckily when I went back outside I wasn’t struck by lightning.  It was only much later in life that I found out that my Mother would often head out with her friends to enjoy a nice BLT, after sending us back to school! 

One of the best experiences my parents provided me with growing up was sending me to Camp Ramah.  After many summers at Ottawa’s Camp Bnai Brith, the way we did “Jewish” at Ramah was so different.  Elliot Michaelson once told me that studies have indicated the 2 most impactful experiences a parent can provide their children to help build strong bonds with our heritage is sending them to Jewish camp and visiting Israel.  By sending me to Camp Ramah my parents acheived both.  At Ramah I had far more meaningful Jewish experiences than at Bnai Brith but the highlight was the summer I spent in Israel.  In 1977 along with 300 other kids from across Canada and the US I spent 6 amazing weeks touring the country from North to South.   We were immersed in the culture and integrated with Israeli contemporaries providing us a perspective that went far beyond the Israel most tourists experience!

Commitment to the family was important to my parents and they both backed that belief up through their actions.  My Mother was the Matriarch of our extended families and my Father demonstrated his sense of duty by taking care of his older siblings as they grew ill later in life. Family holiday dinners were always a highlight, especially at Passover.  The whole seder process remains one of my favourite traditions.  Anne and I have built our own Passover memories over the years both with my family as well as through Anne’s cousin and our member Susan Ewing and her partner Karen Davis.  Based partially on Susan’s close ties with Anne’s parents growing up, we started a tradition a number of years ago of joining Susan and Karen’s seder table for the 2nd night. Susan, Karen, Katie, Helen and the entire Davis family have always welcomed us with open arms and now our kids would not hear of spending the 2nd night anywhere else!

When I left home for University, it felt like a whole new world had opened up.  I was still proud of my heritage but no longer focused as much on the rituals I had practiced as a kid.  I did, however, find myself engaged in more philosophical debates about religion, especially the magical/mystical side of things.   Whether it was about God speaking to Abraham or Moses parting the red sea, I could no longer defend many of the literal aspects of the Torah and started to form a new sense of why I felt connected to my roots.

When I first started dating Anne I didn’t think much about our religious differences but as things got more serious I felt compelled to share my feelings about my heritage with her.  Even though I didn’t expect Anne to adopt all the rituals I had practiced as a child it was still important for me to pass on our traditions and the respect I had for our culture to my children.  Anne respected that and was prepared to learn more about Judaism and support raising our kids in a Jewish environment on condition that it wouldn’t require her to give up the traditions and values she had grown up with.  At the time I didn’t fully understand what that meant but came to realize that despite not being based on religion, the McLean’s still had their own traditions that were as significant to Anne as mine were to me.  Over the years we learned about each others’ traditions and began to develop our own, taking the best of what we had both grown up with.

We were converted by Rabbi Schiem at Beth David but neither of us felt comfortable there. It was only after Noah was born and approaching school age that thoughts about reconnecting with the Jewish community surfaced.   We didn’t think that a traditional, conservative community would work for us so we checked out a few reform shuls.  In the end we chose Darchei Noam for 2 primary reasons - family and community. I wanted to be somewhere where I would be with my family when I came to shul and, by the time Anne and I started looking, my brother David and sister-in-law Lisa were already members here.  I didn’t fully understand the Reconstructionist approach when we joined but I did like Kaplan’s ideas of removing the mystical aspects of our faith from our rituals.  The other factor that was important to me was belonging to a shul that had an integrated Sunday school program.  I didn’t plan on bringing our kids to Shabbat services on a regular basis but wanted them to feel at home when we did come, just as I had growing up.  I was hoping there would be a sense of familiarity with services being in the same physical space as their Hebrew School.

And so, our synagogue affiliation began like many others, I imagine, based around the desire to provide a Jewish education for our children.  I still remember the first Sunday I brought Noah to Hove.  Sharna Cohen and Amy Block stood at the front of the triple rooms explaining how they were going to provide our kids with a very different Hebrew School experience than the one we remembered.  And I have already hinted about my Hebrew School experience. Things felt foreign that first year but we were committed to staying the course; although it was a bit of a shock when we were told we had to pay membership dues when Noah was entering Grade 2.  Anne and I decided, since we paid our dues, that we might as well check out HHD services.  We attended the family service with David and Lisa and immediately fell in love with Rabbi Sarah Lev. She spoke to the children, not at them, and helped to bring some of the awe and wonderment of the holidays to life for all of us.

By the time Noah was in Grade 3 I had gotten to know a few people and of course was approached for the first time about getting involved. I still wasn’t committed beyond providing Noah an education and selfishly preferred to continue with my Sunday morning work out ritual. I did like the vibe at Hebrew School and continued to enjoy HHD services – it was so great the way all the parents contributed and all the kids were given honours.  It was nice, I guess you would say it felt Hamisha. I also discovered that I enjoyed Shabbat services when I did come and was quite taken with our new Rabbi.  But it was still just a nice place to visit, once in a while.

All that changed one day when I got a tap on the shoulder standing in line at a Starbucks.  It wasn’t just any Starbucks and it wasn’t just any one doing the tapping.  It was the morning after our first night sleeping at Sick Kids when Noah was diagnosed with leukemia.  And the person doing the tapping was none other than Lisa Charendorf; who calmly said, “You belong to Darchei Noam don’t you?”  Well, I won’t go through the details of what followed but that chance meeting changed my connection with our community forever.  

I ultimately joined the Board as the HS parent representative and the following year, Lisa asked me if I would be willing to join the Executive.  I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into but was told we were only expected to attend 2 meetings per month.  In the end that might have been slightly understated but the experiences I was part of and the people I worked with made it all worthwhile.   I had the opportunity to manage our first full-time Youth Director, provide leadership to all our parent led youth committees and helped tackle some incredibly complex human and organizational issues.  Overall it was the people I worked with that made it so satisfying.  As I got to know some of them, I discovered we had many things in common and we started to spend time together outside “shul hours”.    I found some new golf buddies; we started being invited to dinner parties; and I connected with some fellow wine and scotch lovers.  While Sarah was going through the Bnei Mitzvah program a group of us formed our own informal Mishpocha group. Those and many other friendships we have formed over the past 10 years have become some of mine and Anne’s most cherished.

I could have spent my entire time talking about how much the DN community has meant to me since getting involved.  The commitment that so many special people make on a regular basis from our incredible Hazanot, to the community work that is done in support of Out of the Cold, and so many other Social Justice and Advocacy causes is truly amazing.  Rabbi Tina and all the volunteers who help raise awareness around Interfaith and Diversity make such a significant impact in the broader community.  On a personal level, I am blown away every year by the generosity this community demonstrates in response to my fund-raising efforts for Camp Oochigeas.  It all makes me so proud to be a member here.

In conclusion, preparing for today has helped remind me that my feelings of spirituality and my sense of Jewishness have always revolved around 3 major tenets: family, friends and community.  That is what my parents passed on to me and what I have tried to pass on to my children.  I’ve come to realize over the years that one’s rituals and beliefs are not as significant as how they bring people, who have common interests, together.  I am so pleased to see how Noah and Sarah have started to develop their own community connections through their life experiences.  For Noah, one positive outcome of his illness as a child has been the life long association it has led to with Camp Oochigeas.  Camp Ooch has taught Noah so many important qualities and given him a network of friends who share a very special bond.  Similarly, Sarah has recently found a community that she is incredibly passionate about.  As I look out and see two of her beautiful Lions Foundation Service Dogs – Penne and Pilaf - sitting with her today, I am so proud of the commitment she is making to help these wonderful animals prepare to be future aids for people in need.

Noah, Sarah: I know growing up you guys would often wonder why I was rushing through dinner to get out the door for meetings during the week and why I was giving up my precious Sunday mornings. I hope now that you have found communities of your own, with people you care deeply about, that you can understand what it was that drove me.  The time and effort we each put into causes we believe in are a small sacrifice relative to the satisfaction we get in return when you are surrounded by a community of people you want to be with.  Without ever really looking for it and certainly not expecting it Darchei Noam became that community for me.

Todah Rabbah, Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784