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By BERNIE BELLAN
It’s been almost a year since Rabbi Kliel Rose returned to his hometown of Winnipeg to become the rabbi of Congregation Etz Chayim. (August 7, 2018 is the exact date he took over the position.) I thought that now that he’s had a chance to establish himself here, I would ask him whether he’s like to engage in a fairly lengthy interview.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rose family (l-r): Rabbi Kliel, Toviel (18), Kolya (15), Dia (11), Rabbanit Dorit, Anaya (5) & Aziza (13)

I told him I wanted to ask him questions about where he’d been since he first left Winnipeg; what he finds different about Winnipeg from the city in which he grew up; and how he has settled into his role as rabbi of Winnipeg’s second largest Jewish congregation.

Rabbi Rose came to our office in the Adas Yeshurn-Herzlia Synagogue on a beautiful summer afternoon - on July 2nd. Originally, I had told him, I wanted to conduct the interview as a video interview, but we both decided that having a camera going might prove too much of a distraction, so we settled instead into a casual conversation with the voice recorder in my iPhone on – a conversation that I had thought might take only 20 minutes, but that actually went on for almost an hour.
Rabbi Kliel, as he likes to be called, is a warm and easygoing conversationalist who brings an interesting perspective to his position. After having lived away from Winnipeg for 26 years (He left when he was 21, he told me, in 1992.), while he feels familiar with so many aspects of life in Winnipeg, when he discusses the changes that he has observed here his experience of having lived in many different cities has, in many ways, given him a new appreciation of how much Winnipeg has to offer, he observed.
During the course of our conversation I learned that Rabbi Kliel was actually born in Israel (in 1971). His parents, Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose, he told me, were a “mixed marriage – my mother’s from the Bronx and my father’s from Brooklyn.” Even now, by the way - ;Rabbi Kliel mentioned later during the interview, although his parents live in St. Louis, (where his brother, Carni, who is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Amoona, lives), “if you ask them where they’re from, they’ll say Winnipeg.”
They “first arrived here in 1967,” Rabbi Kliel said. “My dad had graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary and he was offered a position by Rabbi Zalman Schachter”, teaching at the University of Manitoba. “Three years later he was given a fellowship by the university for one year. My parents went to Israel. They were thinking of making aliyah and they extended their time there to two years. I was born there.”

There are actually five Rose children, by the way: Avi, who’s the oldest, moved to Toronto and trained as a psychologist, but “ gave that up and moved to Israel, where he’s now an educator with Young Judea,” Rabbi Kliel said; Carni, who, as already noted, is a rabbi in St. Louis; Or, who’s also a rabbi and is associate dean and director of Informal Education at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts; and the youngest of the Rose siblings, Adira, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is Director of Development for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.

Rabbi Kliel observed that “while I’ve been back to visit on multiple occasions, I didn’t think I’d ever return – to live here and to serve as a rabbi, so it’s been a real blessing.”
When I asked him whether there was any one thing that struck him as most different about Winnipeg since he was a kid, he said, “Sure, when I left, it was before the opening of the Jewish Community Centre. As a child, I grew up in the north end, going to the YMHA on Hargrave. That was a very significant part of my life and to see the migration of the Jewish community from the north end to the south end is very different from what I remember – although that was happening while I was growing up.
“I think also what I’ve noticed is there are fewer synagogues than what I remember. On the positive side, I think the infusion of the Argentine Jewish community here has been fabulous. I find that they have a hand in everything that’s related to the Jewish community and their passion and spirit for Jewish life is really contagious.
I remarked that I found it interesting that Rabbi Kliel picked up on the role that Argentineans have been playing in the Jewish community. I had rather anticipated that he’d say something about how much he’d noticed how many Israelis had moved here.
He mentioned the fact though, that many former Argentineans are now actively involved at Etz Chayim, including the congregation’s program director, Claudia Griner, and that their contribution has been immensely important.

I asked Rabbi Kliel about his having grown up on Matheson Avenue (between Salter and Powers, he told me), just a stone’s throw from the old Talmud Torah. I was surprised to learn that he didn’t actually graduate from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. He went to Grant Park for Grades 10 and 11, he told me.
“I was not necessarily a conventional student,” he remarked. “I’m grateful for the time I spent at Joseph Wolinsky,” but Rabbi Kleil said he wanted to try something different – which has been a recurrent pattern through his life.
I wondered whether he had gone to camp here.
“I went to camp,” Rabbi Kliel answered, but “my parents were quite strict about which camps we could go to. They had to be ‘shomer Shabbat’, ‘shomer kashrut’, to a particular standard that they held, so as a young child I ended up going to Chabad camp (Camp Gan Yisroel). In fact I was a ‘general in the army of Hashem’. I’m very proud of that.”
“It (Camp Gan Yisroel) used to be in Gimli,” I noted. “Is that where you went to camp?”
“I did,” he answered. “I went to overnight camp there and when I graduated from that camp I actually went to a camp in Ennismore, Ontario” (Camp Moshava).
He mentioned that he had just run into a fellow camper from that camp by the name of Danny Spodek – about whom we’ve written in past issues. Danny is a dentist who lives in Israel most of the year, but who has a summer home in Gimli, to which he returns each year. I told Rabbi Kliel that I met Danny at an ice rink in Bat Yam, Israel, where Danny organizes a hockey league.)

When he was 21, Rabbi Kliel explained, he moved to Philadelphia for a few years, then to Israel for a few more years where “he studied in an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, returned…wasn’t quite ready to be a rabbi, so my dad suggested I work for a Conservative synagogue to see what it was like. I spent two years as a youth director” (in Great Neck, Long Island) in the same synagogue, interestingly enough, where his father had also served as youth director 30 years prior.
While at that Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, Rabbi Kliel explained, his mentor was “one of the most outstanding Conservative rabbis, Rabbi Mordecai Waxman,” who encouraged the young Kliel to enroll in the Jewish Theological Seminary” in New York, which he did at the age of 27.
(Later in the interview, when I asked Rabbi Kliel about his marriage to Dorit Kosmin, he mentioned that they were married a week before he began rabbinical school. Dorit was originally from England, he said, although she moved to New Jersey when she was 10 1/2. Rabbanit Dorit holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Yeshiva University, and is now on staff at Jewish Child and Family Service, where most recently she has begun working in the addictions program at JCFS, Rabbi Kliel said.)

In 2004, Kliel Rose was ordained as Rabbi Kliel Rose. He obtained a “fellowship at B’nai Joshua on the Upper West Side” of New York City, a synagogue which had a “membership of almost 2,000 units”.
“My first year I would be sitting at the feet of the two senior rabbis,” he explained. Within that same year, Rabbi Kliel was offered the opportunity to go to Miami once a month and work with a congregation that had seen its membership drastically decline – from over 1200 units to just 200 units.

Eventually that once a month position became full time and Rabbi Kliel, along with his family, moved to Miami in 2005, where he became the full-time rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in South Beach. After three years in Florida, Rabbi Kliel moved to Nashville, where he was a rabbi for five years, followed by another five years in Edmonton.

“Then I was approached about this job at Etz Chayim”, he said. “There was something really exciting about being able to come back to the place where I grew up. It felt like the right calling.” At that point I wondered though, since Winnipeg has seen its share of rabbis come and go over the years, whether Rabbi Kliel could be honest in answering the question: “Does Winnipeg have a tough reputation for attracting rabbis?”

“I’ve met my share of rabbis who’ve interviewed here and have said ‘Yah, that’s the place where you have to plug in your car’, but I think because people know I’m from Winnipeg, they don’t necessarily say too many derogatory things about Winnipeg.” Still, Rabbi Kliel observed that “I’ve lived in a lot of different places, my wife and I have five kids…this is a really good place to raise a family.”

Our conversation turned to basketball. I told Rabbi Kliel that I remembered having read articles in this paper about Carni, Kliel, and Or all having played prominent roles on Joseph Wolinsky’s basketball team, so I asked about that time. “Or was the star basketball player, wasn’t he?” I suggested.
“Or was the star basketball player,” Rabbi Kliel agreed.
So I asked Rabbi Kliel: “How good were you?”
Rabbi Kliel responded with a smile: “How do you think Or got so good?” (Or went on to star for Yeshiva University’s basketball team, Rabbi Kliel noted.)

Speaking of athletics, I mentioned to Rabbi Kliel that we were going to be running an article about football star Julian Edelman in this issue (on page 11).
I said that I was quite shocked to learn that Edelman is not, in fact, Jewish. (His great-grandfather was.) I noted though, that Edelman now identifies as Jewish. I wondered whether Rabbi Kliel had any observations to make about individuals choosing to identify as Jewish when they’re not really Jewish?

“In some ways it’s intriguing,” Rabbi Kliel observed. “As a rabbi, my primary concern is about the Jewish people, but I also have a universal and global perspective. I care about all humanity, but I think that if it sparks something within that person and then, as a celebrity, that does something to ignite further exploration for other Jews, then that’s a really positive thing.
“If you’re asking me whether I think he (Edleman) is legally Jewish – that’s a whole other question. But, can he claim that identity? Sure, in North America you can claim anything. Is there harm in that? Not necessarily. As a Conservative rabbi, I have my boundaries, but I think it elevates the whole idea of what it means to be Jewish in North America.”

Continuing in the vein of discussing celebrities raising awareness of Jewish identity – even if they, themselves may not be Jewish, Rabbi Kliel mentioned that a few years ago his brother, Rabbi Or Rose, penned an article defending Madonna’s foray into Kabbalah, writing “how we should see this as a positive because ultimately, she’s raising awareness about this esoteric Jewish tradition that for the longest time was not discussed within Jewish circles.”

I said: “You mentioned boundaries. Your oldest brother (Avi) is gay. Conservative Judaism now has gay rabbis –right? The boundaries sure have moved, haven’t they?”
Rabbi Kliel explained that, in 2006 the United Conservative Synagogue movement decided that rabbis would be allowed to officiate at same-sex weddings and that gay students would be accepted into the Jewish Theological Seminary. He added though, that “Conservative rabbis have a choice” (whether they wish to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony).

I asked whether Etz Chayim has had any same-sex marriage ceremonies performed there?
“Etz Chayim,” Rabbi Kliel responded, “interestingly enough, made the decision long before I arrived that they would permit their clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages. I’m not sure why it was the case, but Rabbi Lander did not want to” officiate at same-sex marriages, “although Cantor Tracy (Kasner-Greaves) was in favour of that…Part of the challenge is that not enough people know our position.”
“So”, I said, “You can state your position” for the record.
“Absolutely,” Rabbi Kliel said. “Our position is we’ll officiate at weddings where two folks are Jewish.”

“What about intermarriage?” I asked. “What’s Etz Chayim’s position?”
“Because Etz Chayim is still rooted in the Conservative movement,” Rabbi Kliel answered, “they rely upon the rabbi to be the arbiter of Jewish law. In my role right now, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, a branch of the United Conservative Movement, I am not able to officiate interfaith marriages. Having said that, we are well aware that this is the reality facing the Jewish community, and if we just put up walls, and aren’t recognizing that people aren’t living in the same configuration that they once were living in 30 years ago, we’ve come to the realization that we’ve got to embrace folks where one partner is not Jewish.

“The question is: ‘How do you bring those people in?’ We’ve been doing some of that at Etz Chayim, but I’ve innovated that we’ll ask the Jewish partner to take an aliyah before their wedding and we invite their non-Jewish partner to stand with them, and I bless them and acknowledge that what they’re entering into is a sacred relationship…I hope that they understand that they’re welcome to be a part of this congregation. Of course there are ritual boundaries that we set up.” (He mentioned, for instance, someone who’s not Jewish not being called up to the Torah.) “The bottom line is: We’re still wrestling with this in the Conservative movement.”

I wondered though, since Congregation Etz Chayim had stopped belonging to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism several years ago (as did Congregation Shaarey Zedek), why Rabbi Kliel felt obligated to adhere to rules laid down by USCJ?

“I still retain my membership in the Rabbinical Assembly,” Rabbi Kliel explained. (When he was hired by Congregation Etz Chayim, he noted, the synagogue actually had to sign a document saying that he would never be put in a position where he would have to violate any of the Rabbinical Assembly’s rules.)
That being said, however, Rabbi Kliel suggested that “we just don’t make decisions willy nilly based on whatever is convenient. We really wrestle with Halachah - with Jewish law, and the lingo we often use is that the ‘nomos’ - the law (in Greek), and the narrative of societal advancement come into play. Sometimes they synchronize nicely together and sometimes there’s more that needs to be worked out - to be massaged.”

As our interview was coming to a close, I thought it important to ask about the actual number of members at Etz Chayim. I said, “I don’t know how many members you have, but all synagogues in Winnipeg are wrestling with the problem of declining memberships. Are there some specific things you can cite that you’ve tried doing since you’ve become Rabbi at Etz Chayim to attract - or retain members?”

Rabbi Kliel responded: “I don’t want to say anything misleading. If I had the formula to not only grow, but to retain members, I think I’d be getting a lot of reporters asking to interview me. I think, in North America, there’s a trend across the board, where attendance is down.

“I’m meeting young people all the time who are very proud of being Jewish, but they don’t equate synagogue attendance with being proud Jews. I’m still part of that generation that seems to equate your Jewish identity with synagogue affiliation. Yes, we’re seeing those numbers come down. That’s the reality we’re all dealing with. So, do I know exactly what to do? I don’t have all the answers, but we’re making attempts. This is my first year.

The first thing that I’m trying to do with as many members as possible is building that relationship…It’s part of the model to work on those relationships one on one. So, what are we doing? It’s part of the bigger picture, but Tracy and I are spending an enormous amount of time with each of the bar and bat mitzvah families…We’re trying to reorient families to the fact that synagogue affiliation isn’t just episodic. It’s got to be lifelong journey - so we hope you’ll stay for the long run.”

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