Young, ’dynamic’ Utah rabbi is bringing together Kol Ami’s Jewish congregants

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. The 31-year-old rabbi has led the congregation with sermons that draw on the past and push into the future.

It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and Congregation Kol Ami’s millennial rabbi is ready with a never-before-tried unifying tradition and a challenging sermon sure to spark fire. Or maybe heat.

Mixing convention and innovation is what 31-year-old Rabbi Sam Spector does best.

He is observant of Jewish rituals but open to those who aren’t. He forgoes technology on holy days but has officiated at same-sex weddings and interfaith weddings. He observes the Jewish Shabbat but has friends in every faith. He is at home in the world of ancient texts and modern phone texts.

Spector draws on the past to push into the future — and he’s not afraid to push others, too.

As it says in Proverbs, the rabbi quotes, “without vision, the people will perish.”

Change is “hard,” says Nicole Fenwick, co-chairwoman of the search committee that selected Spector, “and he’s not scared of it.”

Last year on this day, Spector chose to talk about the controversial #MeToo movement. This time around it will be political combatants Donald Trump and Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic Muslim House member from Minnesota.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cantor Wendy Bat-Sarah and Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Living out a biblical promise

Spector did not always plan to be a rabbi. He pictured himself a professional baseball player, he says with a laugh.

He grew up in a tightknit community in Seattle, where his family had a strong Jewish identity — he attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah — but was not terribly observant.

When Sam was 14, though, an event rocked his eighth grade world. His parents divorced.

The young, hurting teen found solace at the synagogue, which shared a parking lot with his junior high. He sought advice and comfort from the rabbi, going there every day. He also started to pray — fervently.

Eventually, Spector realized, he says, that “my desired situation — that my parents get back together — was not going to be my reality.”

He became increasingly drawn into the community, Jewish scripture and the study of religion.

For college, he decamped to University of California, San Diego, where he earned an undergraduate degree in Judaic studies with a minor in behavioral psychology. He went on to get a master’s in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

After his ordination as a rabbi, he served as associate rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana, Calif., where he became recognized for his creation of young professional programming. He became adept at connecting with different populations, young and old, hospital patients and welfare recipients, techies and teachers, senior citizens and toddlers.

But it was those difficult teen years, he says, that set him on his path.

The word “Israel” means “people who wrestle with God,” he says, which is what he did.

“No one who has never been angry with God should ever be a rabbi.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Samuel L. Spector addresses members of Utah's Jewish and interfaith communities during a vigil, song and prayer service Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, after 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018.

Fiddling on Utah’s roof

Like Tevye from the popular Jewish musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Spector knows firsthand that balancing tradition with progression can be risky business. It’s easy to fall in one direction or another.

He had a Conservative upbringing but was ordained as a Reform rabbi.

“That blended background was perfect for us,” says Jim Isaacson, co-chairman of the rabbi search committee and co-president of Kol Ami. “It was a good combination for serving the variety of our membership.”

Salt Lake City’s Jewish community dates back to approximately 1854, according to Kol Ami’s website. The present congregation is the result of a successful 1972 merger of two Salt Lake City synagogues: Congregation B'nai Israel (Reform, founded in 1891) and Congregation Montefiore (Conservative, founded in 1899).

Kol Ami, which roughly translates as “all together,” has Friday night services for Reform Jews and Saturday ones for Conservatives.

This year, for the first time, Spector initiated a joint celebration of Rosh Hashana for both sets of congregants and plans to do the same for Yom Kippur.

“He’s so dynamic,” says Isaacson, who has been in Utah for 27 years. “He’s excellent at outreach, particularly to the young. But his pastoral care with the more mature set — well, he’s got chops there, too.”

Everybody is able “to relate to him,” says Akiva Toren, also from Seattle. “He has created a large tent that includes interfaith couples, people from different walks of life and different denominations.”

Having two Jewish denominations under one roof “is not unheard of, but it is uncommon,” Toren says. “But so many say, ‘We are Jewish and love Jews, just not this sort of Jew or that sort of Jew.’”

Spector, who conducted Toren’s wedding with his husband, is “post-denominational.”

“We have to make everyone feel welcome,” the rabbi says. “We have to be creative.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Finding the right place

There are, Spector explains, two kinds of rabbis.

There are those who oversee a large congregation, with maybe 900 families, several assistants and endless resources. These rabbis meet often with prominent figures and speak out on social issues. They are players on the larger community stage, religiously and politically. But they cannot possibly know all the members of their synagogue.

Then there are rabbis who minister in a small congregation, who know each member and family in their flock. They serve their own people, but, being in a minority, have no impact on the larger world.

Utah, says Spector, allows him to be both.

In Los Angeles, the talk is all about the entertainment industry. In New York, it’s about the financial sector, he says. In the Beehive State, home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s religion.

With Kol Ami’s size, Spector feels he can serve all members of the congregation, can sense their needs and hear their pleas.

But he also has met with the governor, been quoted and featured in local media, and spoken out about issues that matter to him.

In his short time, Spector has made friends in every part of the Salt Lake Valley and across the spectrum of faiths.

On Sunday afternoon, which was Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish new year, the power went out at Kol Ami and was told it wouldn’t return until after 11 p.m.

So Spector got on the phone and called four ministers in the area and a local Latter-day Saint stake president. Within a short while, he had offers from several to hold the holy day service in their buildings. He chose the Canyon Rim LDS Stake and soon 300 to 400 Jews filed through the doors and took their seats on the pews of their neighbors, celebrating their sacred rituals.

Just what the congregation needed, says Fenwick.

“He loves connecting to the outer community,” she says. “It’s hard to do in a big city where there’s a rabbi on every block. Being a solo rabbi is a great fit for him. He wants to do it all.”

He’s both a good listener, Fenwick says, and a good talker. “He’s a comfortable person who can have a conversation about anything.”

Kol Ami’s past two rabbis were women, Rabbi Tracee Rosen and Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman.

“My kids grew up with women rabbis,” Fenwick says. After Spector was selected, they asked, “Now we are going to have a man?”

No worries, she says. Spector’s sermon on #MeToo was “mind-blowing.” He gets it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Koa Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Setting down roots

Spector loves hiking, skiing, baseball (especially the struggling Seattle Mariners, he says ruefully) and world travel — he has been to dozens of countries in his first three decades.

Recently, the rabbi and his fiancee, Jill, bought a house in Millcreek, once owned by the infamous Orrin Porter Rockwell, a 19th-century Mormon gunslinger.

The couple will marry next month at the synagogue, among myriad friends in a place he plans to make his home for years to come.

Being a rabbi is “not a job, it’s a passion for him,” says Isaacson, “and we’re all benefiting from that.”

And this year’s Yom Kippur message?

It is based on the story of David and Bathsheba’s adultery in which David is called out by the prophet Nathan “for doing something abhorrent,” Spector says. “Yet we are living in a society of bystanders.”

The rabbi will use that text to press his listeners to speak up.

When leaders like President Donald Trump or Rep. Ilhan Omar “make statements that should be universally condemned by Jewish people — including comments on Jews who do not share their politics [and accusing them of] being disloyal — people make excuses for the person of their political party,” the rabbi says, “and do not hold them accountable or to the same standards that they expect of the opposing party.”

This year, he says, “we must cease to be bystanders.”

That, Spector’s friends say, has never been one of the rabbi’s problems.