For a man who has devoted his life to promoting kindness, a diagnosis of advanced-stage cancer in his pancreas and liver might seem the unkindest cut of all.
But Rabbi Reuven Bulka, often dubbed “Canada’s rabbi,” says he has no complaints.
“In terms of having complaints to God or complaints that life isn’t giving me a fair shake, that doesn’t enter my mind,” the 76-year-old beloved spiritual leader in Ottawa’s Jewish community said in a telephone interview from New York City, where he has gone to be with his five children.
“I really feel blessed in the life that I’ve lived.”
Over almost 50 years as rabbi and now rabbi emeritus at Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas, Bulka has spent countless hours at the bedside of dying people and consoling grieving family members.
It’s an experience he feels has prepared him to face his own mortality.
“When you see it happening all around you, you know that nothing is forever.”
Indeed, Bulka thinks it’s beneficial to embrace that reality early on in life because it shifts your focus from the pursuit of pleasure to thinking seriously about the meaning of life and how to make the most of whatever time you have.
“It doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy life but we shouldn’t be obsessed with the pleasures without being totally also focused on the meaning and doing things which are important that actually enhance the human condition, that actually improve people’s lives and have a lasting impact,” he says.
“However long we’re destined to live, when we say goodbye, that’s an indelible part of one’s resume. Nobody really cares whether you’ve golfed 1,000 rounds or 1,500 rounds … It’s how you impact others that really defines who you are.”
Bulka has spent nearly his entire life trying to improve the human condition, starting at 16 when he took over rabbinical duties at his father’s New York synagogue after his father suffered a serious heart attack.
He has championed causes like organ and blood donation, co-founded Kindness Week in Ottawa and spearheaded many events aimed at promoting tolerance and understanding among people of different faiths. He has imparted his wisdom in dozens of books, a weekly newspaper column and a weekly radio phone-in show.
Ottawa has given him the key to the city and named Rabbi Bulka Kindness Park in his honour. He’s also been awarded the Order of Canada.
“He’s really been a healer when there’s been religious rifts in the city and he’s respected by all faiths and people of no faith at all,” says Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
“He’s just been a stalwart of our community for so, so long and we can do nothing now but pray for a miracle.”
On Monday, Congregation Machzikei Hadas will host a virtual “worldwide prayer rally” for Rabbi Bulka.
“In Ottawa, we like to claim him as our own but certainly he’s everybody’s rabbi,” says Rabbi Idan Scher, one of Bulka’s successors at the synagogue. “The moniker Canada’s rabbi … couldn’t be more true.”
Indeed, Scher adds: “The people that he’s touched live all over the world.”
Within a day of setting up a website last week (aprayerforrabbibulka.ca), Scher says about 2,000 people had registered to take part in the online rally. Former prime minister Stephen Harper and former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty are among the dignitaries scheduled to speak at the event.
Bulka is probably best known to Canadians outside the capital from the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial — a role he modestly suggests was given to him some 30 years ago because the government wanted to engage a local rabbi “on the cheap” rather than bring one in from Montreal.
Watson marvels that Bulka delivers his Remembrance Day sermons without referring to notes, never repeating the same message twice and always managing to capture a countrywide audience with “his words, his wisdom, his humour.”
Former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, says Bulka has also been a national leader in “breaking down hatred and building greater religious understanding and embracing multiracialism and multi-faith work.”
He was among the first, Rae recalls, to reach out to Muslim groups when they faced a backlash following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey, pastor at Ottawa’s Parkdale United Church, recalls working with Bulka to organize a multi-faith blood donor drive in response to a spate of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic graffiti spray-painted on houses of worship in Ottawa in 2016.
“We were trying to make a statement that we basically support each other as human beings at the very level of blood,” he says.
Bulka practices what he preaches, says Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and former ambassador for religious freedom during the Harper government.
“He is certainly a kind man, he really lives by that. But he lives it in a way that’s not sort of superficial kindness, it’s not sort of a Walmart-greeter kindness. It comes from a very deep place.”
Christians and Jews alike believe that human beings “bear the image and likeness of God,” adds Bennett, a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. “And it’s very easy for me to recognize that image and likeness in Rabbi Bulka.”
Bulka, like any human, says he thinks about things he should have or could have done.
“I would say a person who lives a life without regrets is probably living in La-La land,” he says.
Still, he’s grateful for everyone’s “showing of appreciation and all their good wishes.”
“We’ll do our best. With God’s help, hopefully we’ll be able to live a little bit longer.”