By Benjamin Shinewald
Shortly before we landed in Halifax, Rabbi Reuven Bulka opened his wallet and I saw, inside it, a photograph of an older man. “Was your father also a rabbi?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “My father was a rabbi. I’m also a rabbi.”
It was quintessential Bulka: Humble, warm and meaningful, with a hint of wordplay thrown in.
I barely knew him then. Fresh into a new job at Canadian Jewish Congress, Rabbi Bulka, who co-chaired CJC, had just hired me. Now he, his wife and I traveled to Nova Scotia to participate in the Atlantic Jewish Council’s 2008 convention. When we left a couple of days later, I felt like I had known him my entire life.
That’s probably why, when my mother subsequently became very ill, I turned to Rabbi Bulka for a shoulder to cry on. It was a natural thing to do, not only because he has a PhD in logotherapy, but also because he is an astonishingly compassionate and kind human being.
Now Rabbi Bulka is very ill, and we are all turning to him once again. We almost seem to need him to comfort us through his illness. But this it is our moment to live up to his example and to offer comfort and gratitude to him.
So many of us have Rabbi Bulka stories but they all follow the same arc: how Rabbi Bulka was there for us in good times and bad; how Rabbi Bulka said precisely the right thing to bring a smile to our faces; how Rabbi Bulka made us feel hopeful, energized and strong just when we needed it most.
So here’s another one: a few years after our Halifax trip, I found myself in a job search that was far longer and harder than I ever imagined. After many months, I finally thought I saw light at the end of the tunnel, with three jobs suddenly coming my way at once. And then, in a horrible blow, all three fell through, and I was devastated. Naturally, I called Rabbi Bulka.
“I’m not sure I can take anymore of these near misses,” I lamented. “They’re not near misses, they’re near hits!” he replied. And in an instant, I saw things differently. Even if they fell through, going further down the hiring process meant I was getting closer to concluding my search successfully. With just a few words and his trademark enthusiasm, the Rav completely changed my perspective.
He was right, of course. A short time later, I found a terrific job. Even today, whenever anyone I know is looking for work, I tell them my Rabbi Bulka story. The beat goes on.
The sheer breadth of Rabbi Bulka’s contribution is breathtaking. Beyond his pulpit at Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas and his leadership of CJC, he hosted TV shows, writes newspaper columns, authored dozens of books and founded and edits academic journals. He gives the annual Remembrance Day benediction at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, donated blood 369 times and champions interfaith dialogue. He founded Kind Canada and Ottawa Kindness Week, chaired the Trillium Gift of Life organ donation network and led a capital campaign for a hospice. And that’s just a partial list. No CV could do the man justice.
I thought of this dizzying array of selfless leadership when I recently put a Hanukkah-themed stamp on an envelope. I barely noticed it, but on the back of the package, a message from Canada Post reads “Special thanks to Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, C.M.,” before going on to add three prominent Jewish organizations. It’s as if the Rav is a Jewish organization unto himself.
Now, in this trying moment, Rabbi Bulka continues to live his irrepressible positivity.
Talking to CBC radio last week, he reflected on his career and his life and concluded, “you don’t take anything for granted. The blessings of life are blessings that we should be grateful for.”
Rabbi Reuven Bulka is a blessing for us all. For his enormous contributions to our country, our community and ourselves, we are infinitely grateful.
Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto and serves on a variety of communal boards.