SALT LAKE CITY — To get his dream job, Rabbi Samuel L. Spector had to go through a somewhat grueling interview process.
To become the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, Utah's largest Jewish synagogue with more than 350 families, Rabbi Spector had to first pass a phone interview with the search committee, followed by a second interview via Skype.
Surviving applicants then flew into town for the third phase, a "four-day interview," which involved working 14-hour days, speaking, teachings classes and other interactive activities designed to put their talents and skills on display.
The committee started out with 33 applicants and concluded that Rabbi Spector, a 30-year-old from Seattle by way of Los Angeles, was the right person to replace Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, who left to become the new rabbi at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey.
Rabbi Spector, who assumed his new responsibilities July 1, felt he had a combination of factors working to set him apart: his good-natured sense of humor, leadership experience, his rapport with young people, his balance between reform and conservative movements and most importantly, a desire to be part of a religious community family.
"I made it very clear that this is my dream job," Rabbi Spector said. "Utah is a gem in every way. It's very special to be part of this place and I couldn't be happier."
Along with his deep feelings for the Jewish faith, what you need to know about Rabbi Spector up front is that he's a huge Seattle Mariners fan — "My other religion is baseball," he said. He also enjoys hiking, skiing and traveling.
Some may look at his age and question his experience or capacity to help others. But he's got an answer for that, along with ideas for new programs and building interfaith friendship in the community.
Danny Burman, the executive director of Congregation Kol Ami, has been a member of the congregation for 20 years and twice served as its president. Burman was also part of the search committee. He has already observed Rabbi Spector helping people to feel important, handling sensitive situations and bringing unity to the congregation. His positive first impression was on target, Burman said.
"I am more impressed with him every day," Burman said. "It's not just words, we're really lucky to have this guy. He's a keeper."
Spector was only 14 or 15 years old when he knew he wanted to be a rabbi.
It was during those "awkward" teenage years of life, he said, that his parents divorced.
"I took that very hard because family is important to me," Rabbi Spector said. "So to have that fracture in the family was difficult."
During that painful time, Spector's rabbi became a trusted friend and helped him become involved in leadership roles in the Seattle church community where he grew up. His school also happened to share a parking lot with his synagogue, which was convenient when he needed a moment for solitude and prayer.
"I prayed a lot. I hoped my parents would get back together but that didn't happen," Rabbi Spector said. "To become a rabbi I had to have my own moments of anger and struggles with God. But that's really what got me engaged in studying and prayer."
At a time when some teens might experiment with drugs and alcohol and get into trouble, Spector sought a spiritual career path. The only other job he considered was playing second base for the Mariners, but that wasn't realistic, he said.
"I guess religion was my drug," he said with a smile. "I got to see that the more I got involved. If I were going to become a rabbi, I could teach and study what I love. I could have a voice for advocacy work. The best part of my job, aside from making the world a better place, is getting to be part of people's stories and the best moments of their lives, as well as the worst moments, when they're most in need of support."
At that time, Rabbi Spector was also inspired by the faithful devotion of his grandparents, Louis and Ruth Spector, both immigrants who were active in their Jewish community long before he was born. Rabbi Spector's middle name, Louis, comes from his grandfather. They both died before he was born, he said.
"Everything I do, I do in their memory," Rabbi Spector said. "I'd say they were my biggest influences."
Rabbi Spector graduated from the University of California-San Diego with a degree in Judaic studies. He also earned a master's degree in Hebrew letters and Rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Most rabbis have a few years in between college and rabbinical school. Rabbi Spector enrolled without a break and was the youngest in his class. By the time he was ordained, he was possibly the youngest rabbi on the West Coast, he said.
"I think I had some maturing to do," Rabbi Spector said. "I think my first couple of years of rabbinical school people didn't realize how seriously I take this work. I think a couple of people were wondering, why is this guy here? But in my third or fourth year, I started to shine and people saw that I do take this seriously. And at the risk of sounding not-so-humble, I’m good at what I do."
Rabbi Spector remained in the Los Angeles area where served as the associate rabbi of Temple Judea. He also served in other leadership capacities and received a fair amount of recognition for his work.
Even so, the time came when he was ready for a change.
Although he had a good experience there, Los Angeles had hundreds of rabbis and several dozen synagogues. Even with 700,000 Jews in the area, membership was declining, Rabbi Spector said.
While Utah only has 5,000 Jews and the majority of people belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Rabbi Spector was drawn to the religious-minded community.
"I never really considered myself much of a Los Angeles person," he said. "In Utah we're experiencing growth in membership ... but we're small enough that we really know each other and can have a sense of community. Salt Lake City is a city on the rise."
Young but ready
Four years ago, when interviewing for the assistant rabbi position in Los Angeles at age 26, Rabbi Spector was asked how can you give pastoral care or give premarital counseling when you've never been married?
The future rabbi responded that he's also never been divorced, had a terminal illness or lost a parent.
"There's so many experiences that my congregants will go through that I haven't experienced myself," Rabbi Spector said. "Even if you have experienced them, each person's divorce or marriage experience is unique. I think a big misconception of what I do is give people advice on different things, but what I try to do instead is facilitate a conversation and find the uniqueness in their story. ... People have connected with it."
Rabbi Spector gets asked all the time, "How old are you? Are you the bar mitzvah or the rabbi?" He's used to it.
"It seems silly to have senior in anything with my name, given my age," he said. "But once they get to know you they forget about that and feel comfortable."
Rabbi Spector puts people at ease with his sense of humor and friendly nature. Whether old or young, "they are warming right up to him," Burman said.
In the Jewish faith there's a custom called the unveiling where family members erect and unveil a monument to memorialize a deceased loved one. Rabbi Spector recently spoke at the unveiling of a girl who committed suicide and made the best of a hard situation, Burman said.
"He just has this dynamic personality and sensitivity to people in different situations," Burman said.
As for marriage, Rabbi Spector does have a girlfriend. She came with him to Utah after he agreed to let her get a Brittany spaniel puppy they named "Nezek," which in Hebrew means "destructive one."
When asked if a proposal is pending, Rabbi Spector smiled and asked, "Did she put you up to that?"
"I’ll put it this way, since I’m on the record. One of the really special things about being a rabbi is getting to see to see beautiful moments in families — bar mitzvahs, baby namings, weddings — difficult moments too," he said. "You get see a lot of things about how much a family enriches your life and the important role of family in the Jewish community. So having a family is something that is definitely a goal for me some day."
Rabbi Spector said being the rabbi of Utah's largest congregation is like being the chief rabbi in Rome. While the chief rabbi in Rome gets to meet the Pope and College of Cardinals frequently, Rabbi Spector looks forward to becoming friends and forming partnerships with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's already had a meeting with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"That's a very unique experience to this city that nowhere else in the world, other than maybe the rabbi in Rome, can compare too," Rabbi Spector said. "The church has been incredibly kind to me upon my arrival here."
Because he loves international travel, Rabbi Spector admitted he's a little jealous of the church's missionary program, which allows young men and women to experience foreign cultures and learn languages.
"I think that's so cool. I got to do a year of rabbinical school in Israel. That was my thing," Rabbi Spector said. "I wish there was something where our kids, once they finish high school, went off for a year or something and helped a Jewish community somewhere in the world. We'd have to take a page out of the LDS book for that."
The Most Rev. Oscar Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, was recently invited to give a sermon at Congregation Kol Ami. Rabbi Spector hopes to reach out to other faith leaders in the community and talk about ways they can work together, he said.
There are plans to interact in the future with BYU's Religious Studies Center.5 comments on this story
Rabbi Spector would also like to create Jewish travel-based programs for families to go to places like Israel and other countries to learn about Judaism.
Spector says he will be officially installed and welcomed as Congregation Kol Ami's new rabbi on Dec. 1.
September high holidays
Congregation Kol Ami will be hosting a number of activities as part of September's High Holidays, including Selichot on Sept. 1; Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 9; and Yom Kippur on Sept. 18. For more information, visit www.conkolami.org.