After seven years at Congregation B’nai Torah, Rabbi Eytan Kenter is preparing his family for the move from the Deep South to the Great White North.
It is a big change from Atlanta to Ottawa, but it is the right community for his step up to be the senior rabbi of a congregation.
“You know, depending on how the election turns out, we’re getting ahead of the real estate boom,” he joked.
Ottawa is Canada’s capital but has a small-town feel, Rabbi Kenter said. There are fewer than 15,000 Jews in the city but enough to warrant “one of everything” in terms of Jewish resources (including a day school for his toddler son, Boaz). His congregation has around 800 family units.
The synagogue is new, the result of a merger between two smaller ones, which is a prime factor in Rabbi Kenter’s choosing it over other options.
“Most jobs that you come into are either a rabbi leaving because he had issues with the synagogue or a beloved, longtime rabbi leaving that you’re going to have to follow,” he said. “This is interesting because it’s a brand-new synagogue. It comes with the opportunity to kind of build something from scratch. Nothing’s in stone; you get to decide who you want to be in a way, which is exciting to me.”
Because B’nai Torah was his first job after rabbinical school, Rabbi Kenter has spent the past seven years discovering who he wants to be as a rabbi.
“Being a pulpit rabbi is not a job; it’s a lifestyle choice,” he said. “It’s something you’re always doing, whether it’s business hours or not. I always say that I thought I was going to Target, but I was really going to discuss bar mitzvah dates.”
B’nai Torah’s senior rabbi, Joshua Heller, said he has been fortunate to have Rabbi Kenter as his first associate rabbi because he is a rabbinic rarity: a generalist with something to share in many areas. “Rabbi Kenter was an incredible part of our community. He was a skilled teacher — his students for what was supposed to be a six-session class demanded that it continue every year. He loved working with people of all ages. He was unbelievably devoted to his work; even when Staci was facing life-threatening illness, he continued to give us so much of himself.”
Executive Director Natalie Sarnat credited Rabbi Kenter with helping B’nai Torah focus on social action and the inclusion of people with special needs and with creating the synagogue’s mitzvah festival and its CBT Includes Me initiative. “He has raised the bar for the adult education we provide to our community,” she said. “But most of all Rabbi Kenter has encouraged us all to have compassion in all aspects of our synagogue life.”
He interviewed at several congregations but decided on Ottawa after visiting. He and wife Staci Zemlak-Kenter in the process of getting everything in order — an international move means new credit cards, phone numbers and imported cars — and will have to move in a few stages to the house they are renting.
Ottawa is driving distance from Rabbi Kenter’s family in New York, so they will get to spend a few days together in the city on the way north. He even has coveted tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He said with a smile, “I bought them in September.”
Atlanta has prepared him for Ottawa, he said, because both communities are known for being warm and welcoming.
Rabbi Kenter joked about Canada’s stereotypical reputation for being nice and said he felt it was actually true when he visited. “When I landed in Canada for my interview, someone had their piece of hand luggage one row back, and the person in front said, ‘Excuse me, I think this is your bag. Can I hand it to you? Can I help you with it?’ They do care about each other.”
He said he experienced a similar reaction from the Atlanta Jewish community when he first came here. With his family in New York, the community feel of Atlanta was welcome and one of the reasons he thought it was the right choice at the time.
“Congregation B’nai Torah really cares about its members and cares about the community at large,” he said, noting the importance of focusing on individual congregants.
Rabbi Kenter said he has learned many things at B’nai Torah that he wants to bring to his new job, but mainly he hopes to carry with him the value of community.
“One of the things that I learned being in Atlanta is that Southern hospitality is a real thing,” he said. “People are friendly. People are nice. People want to get to know you. People want to welcome you into their homes and into their lives. And that value is something I want to carry with me to any community I enter into.”