Rabbi Reuven Bulka, 'giant' in Ottawa's Jewish community, dies at 77

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Prominent Ottawa religious leader Rabbi Reuven Bulka, seen here in 2020, died on Sunday morning. Bulka had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer, which he announced to his congregation in early January.  (CBC - image credit)
Prominent Ottawa religious leader Rabbi Reuven Bulka, seen here in 2020, died on Sunday morning. Bulka had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer, which he announced to his congregation in early January. (CBC - image credit)

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a prominent leader and in many ways the public face of Ottawa's Jewish community, has died.

The Congregation Machzikei Hadas, where Bulka was rabbi emeritus and a spiritual leader since 1967, announced his death Sunday morning.

"It is with profound sadness that we inform you that Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka ... passed away early this morning, Sunday, June 27, 2021," Rabbi Idan Scher told the congregation by email.

Bulka had been diagnosed with advanced, inoperable pancreatic and liver cancer, which was announced in early January.

He was 77.

'Remarkable and righteous person'

That same month, CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning interviewed the rabbi about his more than 50 years serving the community.

"For me, the most important thing is that people should ask the question as early as possible in life as they can: 'What can I do to make this world a better place?'" Bulka told host Robyn Bresnahan during that interview.

"So that when you leave this world, looking back, you say 'it's a little bit better off because I was here.'"

On Sunday afternoon, mourners took part in a funeral service that was live streamed from New York, where Bulka first became a rabbi at the age of 16, taking over his father's congregation before later coming to Ottawa.

His son, Shmuel, told those viewing the service that both the Jewish and Canadian communities had lost "a giant" who was dedicated to finding common ground with people — even those he disagreed with.

"Most people today, unfortunately, when they see people who are different — all they do is go toward the differences. Some people make a career out of exploiting differences," he said.

"My father was the exact opposite. He would always look for commonalities, [for something] he would have in common with somebody, even if he was different. It didn't mean he would compromise his principles. But he was always looking for commonalities."

Amanda Pfeffer/CBC
Amanda Pfeffer/CBC

'A moral compass'

In an interview Sunday afternoon before the service, Scher said Bulka "became a moral compass to everybody that met him."

Scher said he remembered being the new young rabbi in Ottawa, filled with big ideas of how to bring the synagogue into the 21st century, and the advice Bulka gave him.

"[He said that] what's going to still be of paramount importance is making sure that you're at people's bedside when they're in the hospital, making sure that you're calling the members of our congregation and outside of our congregation when you hear about joyous events,'" Scher recalled.

Because of that advice, Scher said his own time as a rabbi has been "far more significant and meaningful."

Andrea Freedman, president of Jewish Federation of Ottawa, called Bulka a "remarkable and righteous person" in a letter to members.

"He had this amazing ability to just think through how something could be phrased that would help other people feel better," she told CBC News in an interview Sunday afternoon.

In her letter, Freedman said it would be easy to focus solely on his accomplishments: receiving the key to the city, being a fundraiser extraordinaire, founding the charity Kind Canada, fostering a national media presence, writing many books and being awarded the Order of Canada.

But she said what truly made the man remarkable was the impact he had on those around him and the kindness he showed others.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that he made thousands of people feel like they were the most important person in the world," Freedman wrote.

"Our dear rabbi's death is so particularly hard because, for the first time for many of us, he is not here to help us through the pain," she continued.

Past controversy

In the early 2000s, Bulka faced controversy and angered some in the LGBTQ community because of his association with a U.S.-based organization that supported conversion therapy.

According to an Ottawa Citizen article, the rabbi said he was involved with the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, but also said he was a "very inactive" member of the organization, attending two conventions over the course of a decade.

Due to his association, Bulka faced a small protest while receiving an honorary doctorate of laws degree from Carleton University in 2006.

In the early 1990s, Bulka also published the book One Man, One Woman, One Lifetime, which detailed his view that homosexuality was "abnormal" from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint.

"If I wrote it now it would be nuanced differently, because everything that is written is a reflection of the time," he told the Citizen in 2006, prior to receiving his doctorate.

"But my main purpose was to argue that no matter what stance you take, everyone — gay or lesbian or whatever — is accepted within the community. I urge anyone to read the whole book before they come to any conclusions."

A private burial for his family will be held in Israel.

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