It was four days before Rosh Hashanah and I was about to find out more about a member of our community whose life path always intrigued me. Joel Yan’s love and passion for Jewish ritual, his love of music, his and wife Toby’s commitment as community volunteers, is a story worth telling.
Mostly from a distance, I’ve known Joel since 1990. Our daughters were in the same class at Hillel Academy and today our daughters’ friendship thrives in Israel with their Israeli husbands and families.
I recently heard from one of my daughters that Joel and Toby go to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to lead services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and it piqued my curiosity. That brought me to their home as Rosh Hashanah approached. I went to interview Joel just as he was finishing packing for the long trek north the next morning.
Joel grew up in the Sault and I have always been intrigued by how Jews grow up as minuscule minorities in small towns where, today, so little Jewish life is left. Somehow, Congregation Beth Jacob in the Sault still stands. While there are not regular Shabbat services, there have always been High Holy Day services. Since 2015, Joel has led those services with Toby taking on a larger D’var Torah role every year.
Even with Jews coming from places like Elliot Lake, Bruce Mines, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, there are only about 35 people who attend High Holy Day services at Beth Jacob, but the fact that services exist brings tears to the person whose earliest Jewish memories are in that hometown shul. Joel reflectively says that when he is leading services in Beth Jacob, he thinks how proud his mother Betty would be.
Joel really gets choked up when he remembers being inspired as a 10-year-old by lay leaders and by the teacher who served as Beth Jacob’s spiritual leader. His teacher, Marcel Hellinger, had been an opera singer in Prague until the Nazis smashed his teeth in to end his singing career. Hellinger survived the war, came to Canada, and was hired in the Sault to teach all things Jewish to children like Joel.
Joel talks about how, as a young boy, he loved the sounds and the feel of davening. He says it put him on a lifetime path of Jewish learning.
He says his passion for music is also rooted in the Sault, where he and his four siblings were encouraged by his father Max’s love for music. There were piano lessons at a young age and a guitar which has not left his shoulder since he was 16.
After university, a job at Statistics Canada in 1975 brought Joel and Toby to Ottawa. All went well until he had a mid-life crisis. His depression in 1992 led him to the Employee Assistance Program. He did a series of psychological tests which concluded his best career path would be as a “priest,” social worker or teacher. As he puts it, a “would be rabbi was born.”
He was 42 with three young children. Leaving his government job to study to become a rabbi was something Toby quickly told him was not a viable option. However, becoming more involved in Adath Shalom – Ottawa’s lay-led Conservative congregation – certainly was. He continues to co-chair the ritual committee, he teaches davening and Torah reading, and he and others lead services.
When retirement from Statistics Canada came in 2009, the window opened for much more. Today Joel and his musician friends bring much joy to the residents at Hillel Lodge. He and Toby team up to bring Jewish music to the Early Beginnings Daycare, and Joel recently began working with the developmentally challenged as head of Tamir’s Judaic outreach programs. His dream is to integrate as many Judaic programs as possible.
In his spare time, Joel leads the Ottawa Simcha Band, which, by the way, got its name at my eldest daughter Simonne’s wedding in 2012. He is also a member of the Chevra Kadisha burial society.
And to think, Joel Yan’s Jewish journey began a long time ago in his never-to-be-forgotten Sault St. Marie.