Rabbi Eytan Kenter spoke with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin on July 8, just prior to celebrating his first Shabbat as the first spiritual leader of Kehillat Beth Israel.
When someone would ask the young Eytan Kenter, the son of a rabbi, what he wanted to be when he was older, he’d reply “six feet tall,” or “not a rabbi” (like his father).
Well, he grew to up to be an inch shy of six feet and a rabbi. Rabbi Kenter has assumed the position of senior rabbi at Kehillat Beth Israel – the new Conservative congregation created by the amalgamation of Beth Shalom and Agudath Israel – after seven years as associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, Georgia.
While Rabbi Kenter was always passionate about Judaism, he was highly interested in politics and his career might have been spent in Washington working on Capitol Hill. However, he realized he was more passionate about Judaism and decided on rabbinical school.
“I like the interpersonal connections, the opportunity to really get to know people and work with them and grow with them, and I realized the only place I could truly do that was from the pulpit,” Rabbi Kenter said.
His seven years working as an associate rabbi in Atlanta gave Rabbi Kenter the opportunity to learn about the kind of rabbi he wanted to be, he said, which shaped his vision about the importance of community togetherness, Jewish engagement and social justice.
Despite growing up in New York, “the Jewish capital of North America,” and spending seven years in the large and fast-growing Jewish community of Atlanta, Rabbi Kenter said that Ottawa’s size was actually a significant factor in his decision to move here.
“I think the size is just right … Sometimes in very large Jewish communities, it becomes overly onerous to get things done, and to differentiate one’s self in the community,” he said.
Rabbi Kenter moved to Ottawa with his wife, Staci, who was a medical social worker in Atlanta in a children’s hospital for kids with blood disorders and leukemia lymphoma, and their two-year-old son, Boaz, who is already excited about playing hockey.
He said he formed an instant connection with the membership of what would become Kehillat Beth Israel, and with Ottawa’s Jewish community, while being vetted for the senior rabbi position.
“This community spoke to me because it had all of the things that we were looking for with our family. It has a strong Jewish community with a Jewish day school and good resources, and the culture of being nice and welcoming too,” he said.
“I also like the idea of being able to build a new shul and, with Kehillat Beth Israel being a really new synagogue, I have the chance to build something brand new within an already existing infrastructure – and that really spoke to me.”
Rabbi Kenter said he has a clear vision for Kehillat Beth Israel, but his first policy will be a year of no new policies to give himself and the congregation’s membership time to “explore together and figure out who we are.”
Over the course of the year, Rabbi Kenter plans to hold small parlour meetings with congregants to get a better grasp of the synagogue and to determine what’s working well and what needs to be improved.
“Synagogues are in the relationship business,” he said. “So it’s not about how many programs we run, but how many of our members are engaged in meaningful ways. So one of the things that I’d really like to see at Kehillat Beth Israel is that sense of engagement – making sure all of our members are engaged in a way that’s meaningful to them.”
Rabbi Kenter is also very passionate about social justice initiatives and hopes to find issues his congregants are passionate about.
Since arriving in Ottawa earlier this month, Rabbi Kenter has already reached out to several other congregational rabbis and hopes that Kehillat Beth Israel will work together with other congregations on future projects.
“I’m a firm believer that we’re always stronger when we work together than when we try to work apart. There’s more that unites us than divides us, and, all too often, we allow those things that divide us to stand in the way of success,” he said. “So the better the rabbis can do at talking to each other and working together, the better it will permeate into the larger community as well.”