Rabbi Reuven Bulka’s legacy honoured for Remembrance Day 2021

Rabbi Reuven Bulka at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa (Twitter)
Rabbi Reuven Bulka presided over many Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies from Ottawa. He died in June, of cancer. (Twitter)

If you have watched the National Remembrance Day ceremony broadcasts from Ottawa for the last good many years, or attended in person, you will have seen the late Rabbi Reuven Bulka delivering the official benediction. Bulka was honourary chaplain of Canada’s Royal Canadian Legion, and he worked tirelessly during his lifetime to support Canadian veterans and first responders.

When Bulka died of cancer in June, members of Ottawa’s Jewish community wondered whether his role would be offered to another Jewish clergy in the Nov. 11 ceremony.

On Tuesday, it was confirmed that the Legion had invited Rabbi Idan Scher, who leads Bulka’s former synagogue, Congregation Machzikei Hadas, to give the benediction on Thursday.

“It’s an incredible honour, standing where Rabbi Bulka did for so many years,” Scher told The CJN.

Scher had been Bulka’s “Plus 1,” as he calls it, for several years now at the annual Remembrance Day ceremony from the National War Memorial, so he is no stranger to the precise protocols that will be required of him for the 30- minute event. The benediction is a short reflection and personal message for the country that comes towards the end, after the laying of the wreaths.

Idan Scher
Rabbi Idan Scher

Canadian Jews volunteered in WWII

On Wednesday, Scher was still composing what he would say in the five minute allotment of time he was given. He plans to draw on what he saw his mentor Rabbi Bulka do, as well as on the direct war experiences of Scher’s own family.

Len Potechin, Scher’s 95-year-old grandfather, is a retired Ottawa real estate developer who served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. Potechin was scheduled to be present at Thursday’s ceremony. Len enlisted after his older brother, the late Norman Potechin, was wounded in Italy while serving with the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

“[Norman] actually returned on one of Canada’s hospital ships because he was wounded and he carried the shrapnel, they couldn’t get it out of him,” Scher said, explaining that his uncle died in 2013, at age 90. “So he carried the shrapnel that wounded him for the rest of his life.”

Over 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith were called up or volunteered to serve in the Canadian forces during the Second World War: nearly 450 did not return.

Two Jewish Canadian WWll veterans
The late Norm Potechin, (left) and his younger brother Len Potechin, now 95, (right) in an undated wartime photo from the Second World War. (Courtesy Rabbi Idan Scher)

Nomination of Scher was Bulka’s wish: CIJA

While Scher could not confirm whether he will become a permanent fixture at the ceremony for years to come, officials at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs seem to think that is what will happen.

“As the one who worked with Rabbi Bulka in preparation of his annual remarks and benediction, it is impossible not to think back to the many rousing messages he shared with millions of Canadians each year on Remembrance Day with a sense of loss,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, the president and CEO, in a prepared statement to The CJN.

I am, however, comforted in the knowledge that his successor and protégé, Rabbi Idan Scher—who had been attending the annual event with Rabbi Bulka for seven years, will continue the rich tradition, seeking to emulate his mentor in inspiring Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast while paying homage to our Canadian Forces—past and present.”

As for whether Scher will continue Bulka’s tradition of not wearing a coat when officiating at the outdoor ceremony, no matter how brutally cold it got, the younger rabbi said he would listen to his wife’s advice and dress properly for the weather. 

Veterans Affairs commendation awarded

Scher and members of his congregation joined the Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay on Wednesday at a special online award ceremony for the late Rabbi Bulka. The government awarded a posthumous Veterans Affairs Commendation to Bulka for his strong support for veterans.

“He made a difference in more lives than you can count,” said MacAulay, while Bulka’s son Shmuel listened in via Zoom.

“He was a leader in the community here in Ottawa, and he was the kind of a person that this award was all about.”

Veterans Affairs Canada has awarded only two other posthumous commendations before Bulka’s. The award citation pointed to Bulka’s habit of visiting veterans living in long-term-care facilities, and even delivering a cake every Christmas to the office staff at the Legion headquarters.

“Rabbi Bulka truly exemplified kindness and the reason for this award.”

Full video of the ceremony:

With Remembrance Day coming just five months after Bulka’s death, his family remains grateful Bulka did attend the ceremony last year. They remain touched, said Shmuel Bulka, for the outpouring of stories of how their late father touched so many people during his long tenure as a rabbi in Ottawa.

As Bulka’s son Shmuel accepted the minister’s award, he closed his remarks with an excerpt from his father’ last Remembrance Day speech, delivered a year ago today:

Let us continue to make Canada worthy of our veterans’ ongoing dedication and sacrifice, a country defined by respect, harmony, inclusion, responsibility and kindness to all. God bless our veterans. God bless our troops. God bless all those who stand on guard all Champions of peace, safety, security and tranquility. God bless Canada.

Reuven Bulka (z”l)