Joshua Samuels appreciates each and every congregant that comes through the door at Congregation Beth Israel. Coming from his last rabbinical post in Los Angeles, where, as in most big cities, Jews have choices for worship and community, the Bellingham Reform synagogue’s new rabbi knows his adopted city is not as awash in opportunity.
Replacing Rabbi Cindy Enger who officiated there for the last seven years, Samuels, his wife, Nicole, and their two young children arrived in June to grow the Reform Jewish community there.
Beth Israel is one of three Jewish organizations in Bellingham and all hands are welcome on the bimah.
“It’s wonderful because the Jewish community is so small that everybody can pitch in,” Samuels told JTNews from his office in Bellingham, some 90 miles north of Seattle. “In Los Angeles you can really be anonymous, but this is their community, not the rabbi’s. This is not a top-down model. This is a Jewish community that is really lay-led by congregants.”
Beth Israel members bring can bring their musical skills and more to Samuels’s worship services, and he’s more than happy to add them into the program.
Although Samuels oversees Beth Israel’s nearly 220 member families, he also embraces the idea of collaborating with other Jews outside of its sanctuary walls.
He’s already reached out to the Hillel group on the Western Washington University campus and the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Community and Student Center also located there.
“I’ve met the rabbi and his wife at Chabad, had dinner with them, and they are a lovely family,” Samuels said. “I’m really happy he’s there so I’m not alone. With Hillel, I’ve been in touch with people there and I look forward to doing things with them.”
Samuels left a six-year career in the financial sector that he said didn’t fulfill his professional or personal goals, and in 2010 the San Francisco native earned his master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in L.A.
“I’d go in to my office, sit at a big trading desk, and make calls to portfolio managers trying to spin stories so they would purchase large blocks of stocks,” Samuels recalled. “I just didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. I didn’t feel like I was helping anybody on a personal level. All my relationships were with hedge fund managers and analysts over the phone.”
At the same time, according to the trader-turned-clergy member, he also recognized the impulse to follow what he loved — Torah, Israel, and Jewish values.
“I loved learning about my Jewish tradition,” said Samuels, “so, I thought, ‘If this is something I love doing, perhaps I should think about it as a career.’”
Samuels bring his passion for the work, which includes a particular devotion to the pastoral end-of-life needs of his congregation members and their families.
“For me, that kind of pastoral work is the most important work I can do as a rabbi,” Samuels said. “Fifteen, 20 years down the road, people aren’t going to remember any of my High Holiday sermons or my classes, but what people will remember is when I was with them at the bedside of their parent when they were taking their last breath. That’s what people remember and that’s what connects congregants to their clergy.”
Another long-term goal for Samuels is to institute regular congregational trips to Israel. However, this task presents him with some additional challenges, he said.
Besides raising money for the cost of such a trip, Samuels believes it is equally important to get a younger generation excited about visiting the Jewish State by teaching classes about its culture and history.
“This has always been a dream of mine and cost is definitely an issue,” Samuels said, “but I feel that a lot of people these days are pretty apathetic about Israel. They don’t have the same kind of feeling about Israel as the older generation that lived through the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.”
Samuels also arrived at the Bellingham temple in time to be a part of the new synagogue building currently under construction. He hopes that it will be ready next year in time for the High Holidays.
He sees it more like a Jewish “center” for Bellingham, where the entire community can come together and form even stronger bonds of friendship.
“We’re a really open and friendly Jewish community and people are welcome anytime,” said Samuels. “I welcome anybody.”