When you live in a different city and country from your family of birth, if you are lucky, you find friends who become like family. Rabbi Manes Kogan, his wife Silvia, and their children Daniela, Ilan and Abby were those people. For ten years we shared Rosh Hashanah meals and Pesah seders, no reason Shabbat dinners, and long summer Shabbat afternoons.
The Kogans were there for us during medical scares, miscarriages and when Aaron lost both of his parents. They visited the hospital to meet Ariella Bella within days of her birth. Both Abby and Ilan were some of Ariella’s earliest babysitters.
Like Avraham Avinu in this week’s parashah, Rabbi Manes Kogan excels in the mitzvah of hachnasat orhim, of welcoming guests. I am thrilled that we can extend the mitzvah to him for a few days here in Toronto.
Thank you Manes for being here with us on this special day.
And here we are.
Had you asked me when I moved to Los Angeles for rabbinical school if I ever thought I would move back to Toronto, as a Beth Tzedec rabbi, the answer would be no. I firmly believed that Toronto would never change. But a couple of years back, Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah invited me as a guest rabbi for Shabbat and my thoughts began to move in a different direction.
We used to say that Toronto was a generation or two behind the United States. After living in the U.S. for 23 years, I don’t quite think that is true anymore. As we read in the Talmud, “it is preferable to be flexible like a reed, rather than rigid like a cedar.”
People do change. Communities do change.
And somehow, the right time, the right place and the right circumstance all gelled together. Thank you to Teddy and Dena and the entire search committee for believing in this shidduh.
When I visited in February, it felt natural to be here. I feel at home in this shul.
This is a place where I kibbitz with the hard working maintenance and facilities staff.
It is a place with a determined office and support staff.
The dedication of the administrative team is like nothing I have ever seen in my life.
In his special way, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl is never far away, and he is always accessible to answer questions. And Rabbi Friedberg and I have created a special bond too. I have a lot to learn from these two giants.
As for the other members of the Spiritual Leadership Team, I hit the jackpot. For ten years, I basically worked alone in my previous congregation. We did have a part time Hazzan, but otherwise I was it.
I prefer this team model. I am surrounded by first-rate colleagues who have Torah to teach, tefillah to lead and love to share.
Some years ago I was in Jerusalem for a Rabbinical Assembly convention. We took a tiyul to Tel Aviv to visit the Google offices. On our way back, the bus broke down. It was summer. It was hot. Guess who else happened to be on that bus? One of my colleagues – this Rabbi Steve Wernick that I did not yet know so well.
We both used some sekhel and decided that instead of sweltering on the bus, we would try to cool down and we made ourselves slightly more comfortable under the bus, in the space where luggage is usually stowed.
Rabbi Wernick and I have many friends and colleagues in common.
They may not have thought that Robyn and Steve would be an obvious pairing. After all, he likes to eat fleshig, while I prefer a plant-based diet. He is into that Star Wars stuff and I am not. Biking is his exercise of choice, mine is walking. But the reality is our strengths complement each other and at our core we both care deeply about the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
I knew from that experience under the bus, somewhere between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that the potential for us to work together was worth exploring.
To Rabbi Steve Wernick. So this is what it is like to have a true partner. L’chaim!
When I am not at Beth Tzedec or a shul-related experience, I can be found at Yorkdale.
And if I am not there, chances are I am with a member of my extended family, because for the first time in over two decades, that is a daily possibility.
If you ask my daughter Ariella which city she prefers, New York or Toronto, she always answers Toronto. And then she follows up, because I get to see my Bubby and Zayda all the time and Hallie and Avery, who are my brother’s children and her first cousins who she will now grow up with. She is thriving and learning so much at RHA and she loves her posse that she plays with here every Shabbat.
That my parents have a standing invitation to Shabbat dinner at our home is a blessing. That I am able to up the ante on kibud horim, the mitzvah of honoring parents because I live here is not something I ever thought would happen. Baruch Hashem.
To my family that came tonight, I am not going anywhere again. This is the last phone number you will have to program into your phone. To my husband Aaron Bodzin, thank you for picking up and moving again, this time to a new country, and dealing with all of this paperwork, so I can pursue my dreams and impact another Jewish community.
Being a rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation is not something I take lightly. I strive to lead with authenticity, love, awe and Torah principles. For years now, I’ve internalized Ron Wolfson’s approach of Relational Judaism and I try to meet people where they are and help them grow and thrive.
This past Shabbat, someone in shul said to me that they were sad they could not make it tonight, but they felt that I have already installed myself into the fabric of Beth Tzedec. I thank that person.
I joined the team a little over three months ago, but I feel like I have been here for 30 years, and part of the larger Beth Tzedec family forever. At the same time, I still have a lot to learn about minhag hamakom, the local custom. It will take at least a full year to do that.
I want to share one experience that is indicative of this community. Back in August, on my first Shabbat, our senior rabbi went to Camp Ramah for the weekend. I probably could have handled Shabbat services alone. I had been doing it week in and week out for ten years. But one member of this community reached out to me to say he was going to come to shul on Friday night to be there for me for moral support and support.
Experiences like that happen every day at Beth Tzedec. This is a community of kindness.
This week’s parashah includes many famous narratives, including the powerful story of the binding of Isaac. One word that is repeated in this text is the word hineni. Here I am. When God calls out to Abraham, Abraham says “Hineni.” When Isaac called to his father, his father replied “Hineni.” When the angel called to Abraham, halting the horrible procedure, Abraham said “Hineni.” Hineni means more than I am here. It means I am ready to do and serve.
To President Debbie Rothstein, the Executive, the Board and every single member of this blessed community, hineni. I am here to serve.
My family is temporarily living on the ninth floor of a building north of Eglinton. There are walls of windows in the unit. Nearly every morning that I have been back in Toronto, I witness God’s magnificent art as the sun rises in the sky.
When I wake up and look out of those windows ...it is then that I say “Modeh Ani.” Thank you God for enabling me to wake up each morning. But more than that, thank you God for the opportunity for me to share Torah and hesed with the Beth Tzedec community.
Thank you God for enabling us to reach this day.