Solid Tools for Spiritual Seekers


(Published in the Times Colonist, “Spiritually Speaking” column, Canada Day, July 1, 2017)

I have five “spiritual guides” who I invoke on a regular basis. They keep me grounded, honest and hopefully, a bit balanced.  These guides reflect aspects of my personal theology and are deeply influenced by Jewish wisdom and teachings.  I want to share them with you because I sense that they are universal and are solid tools for spiritual seekers.

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Purim—the inspiring story of a woman’s courage in the face of hatred


The Jewish holiday of Purim is quickly approaching. It begins on the evening of March 11 and continues through the next day, Sunday the 12th.

The holiday of Purim has its roots in the Biblical Book of Esther. The story is a fairytale full of palace intrigue, romance, greed, lust for power, and outrageous fate. The story of Purim makes no mention of Divine Source. In fact the name of the super courageous heroine, Esther, holds the meaning of “hidden.” Purim is celebrated as Jewish Carnival; it ushers in the end of winter when life is hidden, and it reminds us through outrageous twists of fate that life holds much more than the what we can see. Purim reminds us to be open to wonder and that wonder is connected to hope. Purim’s biggest lesson is that through hope people can effect real good in our world.

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From Rabbi Harry’s piece in the Times Colonist this week.

“Renewal and Reconciliation” by Rabbi Harry Brechner

Click here to read Rabbi Harry’s article, “Renewal and
Reconciliation” appeared in the Times-Colonist newspaper on Saturday, Sept.

An advertisement about High Holiday Services was also printed on Sept. 17 but unfortunately appeared on a different page.  The advertisement will be reprinted in the Times-Colonist Saturday, Sept. 24 edition.

President’s tribute to Rabbi Harry & RaeAnn

Here is the tribute given by Aharon Ittah, President of Congregation Emanu-El, to Rabbi Harry, RaeAnn and family on the fifteenth anniversary of his service to the congregation: 

the Kehilah:

Fifteen years ago—immediately upon Rabbi Harry and his family’s arrival to take on his
first congregation and begin his High Holiday activities (which is when Rabbis
get to be “in the spotlight” so they can demonstrate their skill)—a young girl
suddenly died of natural causes. Rabbi Harry whisked off to help her family
make all the arrangements and deal with their tremendous shock—without a
backward glance, without worrying about his place as a new leader. I
admired his simple devotion to what mattered in that moment, in that time—for
me, this is the essence of Rabbi Harry’s teaching by modelling the very best behaviours.

Fifteen years
later… this shul has changed in many
ways, but some things have remained unchanged, including the Rabbi’s way of
teaching us through modelling. Another example of such teachings was the
stunning surprise at the 150th anniversary celebration of our synagogue, with dignitaries
from around the world, and our entire community watching, when Rabbi Harry presented
a shofar to Chief Andy Thomas, extending a sincere apology and asking for
forgiveness for wrongs done; an open and creative expression of Rabbi Harry’s
leadership and caring for all… in words and in action.

In 2016, the
shul is in a position that is new to
us. We are navigating, to some extent, through unfamiliar waters. For example,
the Hebrew School has never had so many students and teachers. Our kehilah is larger than it has ever been,
and it is growing; not just each year, but each month. Our suite of adult and youth programs
along with our depth of community outreach and in-reach has never been so broad—yet
producing so much impact. The Rabbi will say to you that our shul has changed through the effort of
many… And he’s right… It has. But it starts with one. Our
visionary leader has led us through challenging times, to a place where our shul flourishes in a phase where many
synagogues and churches do not. He does this through humble, servient
leadership, taking risks, being bold, teaching through sharing his own current
learnings, and especially through offering meaning to members of our community. 

I used the
word impact a moment ago. I also
referred to the term action in the
context of how Rabbi Harry expresses his leadership. I would imagine that each
and every one of you has a story, an experience where Rabbi Harry and perhaps
Rae-Ann guided you, led you, provided counsel, the result of which caused you
to take action with impact. Such action could be internal reflection, the
impact of which is renewed hope. Or the action could be to face your fears, the
impact of which is personal growth. I can share, with naked honesty, that it
wasn’t very long ago when I spent some months in a state of struggle. During
this time, each and every day, the Rabbi and Rae-Ann raised me to a place of
comfort and hope through telephone calls, text messages, and visits. Just
knowing that I had not just my family, but what felt like my community behind
me, allowed me to cope, learn and advance. As I mentioned before, I have no
doubt that there are others in this sanctuary that have a shared experience to
reflect on and be grateful for.

looking back we now look forward; forward to the next 15 years. As most of you
may know, the Rabbi and Rebetzen have committed to a further 15 years with our shul. Just recently the board and the
Rabbi came together to create a contract. With the help of a committee, I was
the primary liaison between the Rabbi and board, and the draftsperson of the
contract. When I say “draftsperson,” it was my job to write the legal mumbo
jumbo. For those of us that have employment contracts, there are some common
features… such as holiday time, remuneration, expectations etc. There is also
often a summary under the heading Duties. Imagine my anxiety when tasked with
drafting Rabbi Harry’s “Duties” to their full extent. It is almost laughable. I
met with Rabbi Harry to discuss the “Duties” aspect of the contract and (to my
great relief) he told me that he’d put something together. Well… He delivered.
Big time. Rabbi Harry emailed his list of “Duties” to me. They instantaneously
blew my mind. As a lawyer, I’ve looked at and drafted a lot of employment
contracts—I thought I had seen it all. What I saw was incredible.

Under Duties, the Rabbi had nine subheadings, following which he poetically described each
one. I’m going to share four with you. These four descriptions, in my view,
reflect duties that not only our Rabbi performs, but also the Rebetzen,
Rae-Ann. Read carefully and you’ll see. 

flowing love, kindness: mercy

compassion; caring for congregants and friends of the congregation in times of
need.  Pastoral counselling, visiting the
sick, being a friend and a place of comfort, understanding and strength to
others.  Helping congregants find ways of
demonstrating love and care to others.  

containment, judgment

that the congregation operates in ways that are righteous and in harmony with
Jewish Torah values.  Empowering
congregants to implement positive change in their lives.  Model restorative justice and values of
Tikkun Olam.  Containing and managing
crises, protecting and empowering the weak and disenfranchised.


crafting, implementing synagogue experiences that are beautiful and
meaningful.  Ensuring that guests feel
welcomed and cared for.  Ensuring that
all aspects of synagogue life reflect the warmth and values of Congregation
Emanu-El as informed by our tradition.
Ensuring that experiences of all senses reflect authentic, genuine
Jewish life—even in forms that are progressive and alternative.  

Netzaḥ —victory and

congregants and all Jews and non-Jews who enter the sphere of congregational
life.  Helping congregants find a niche
and place to bestow their personal unique gifts to the congregation.  Absorbing negativity and transforming it to
grow.  Helping to smooth areas of
congregational life and relationships that are rough or barbed.  Generating an attraction to congregational
life and Jewish values and lore.  Holding
and transforming the difficult and uncomfortable aspects of communal life.

are four of the “Duties” described by the Rabbi. If you would like to see the
full extent of what he wrote, they are featured in last week’s newsletter and in the congregation’s online blog.

Rae-Ann, Adar and Daveed, your congregants and the community at large are
incredibly grateful for your invaluable, immeasurable commitment to our shul and to Judaism, ACTION and IMPACT
here in Victoria and beyond. Thank you for the past 15 years. Thank you for the
gift of the next 15.

Short drash for R. Harry & RaeAnn

Shabbat in Honour of Rabbi
Harry, RaeAnn

Last Saturday,
June 18, 2016, Rabbi Louis Sutker made a special blessing for Rabbi Harry and
RaeAnn, and our Gabbai, Aaron Severs offered these words in their honour:

Thank you for the
privilege of saying a few words this morning. When I think of you both the
qualities that come to mind are authenticity, kavanah and gmilut ḥasadim.  

It does not
matter what the event is. Whether we are singing and dancing with the Torah
scrolls on Simchat Torah, or you are marching with us in the Pride Parade, or
we’re studying at the all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot these are traits you
portray. These are the way you lead us & how you both act as powerful
examples (dugmaot) of how to live meaningful Jewish lives.

One issue close
to my heart is the Avodah Social Action Committee. Both my bashert Sue and I
are active members of this group. Earlier this week, Penny Tennenhouse reminded
me that it was back in 2003 that you Rabbi Harry put out the call to do some
social justice work in our broader Victoria community. It’s not enough to
simply talk the talk. We need to walk the walk. Since then, Avodah has been an
active player – one may say even a leader – on the social justice scene in
downtown Victoria. You challenge us to be cutting edge, to widen our tent, and
to encounter and open our hearts to “the other.” The other may be kids on the
street who need a warm meal and place to sleep, clients at Our Place who are
thrilled by the latke lunches for Hanukkah, or low income families that need
help with rental supplements. 

I can go on. Suffice
to say, that through your ruaḥ (spirit and positive energy) and caring, you
both support us in being the “little shul that can” and to achieve
extraordinary things. May you sprinkle that same positive energy and caring on
one another as you celebrate your upcoming wedding anniversary (yes, there’s a
mole in the sanctuary). To conclude, we are blessed as a kehillah to have you
and the boys as our rabbinic family, and for me personally to call you my Rav.

Yishar koaḥ to you
both! May we all go from strength to strength.