New rabbi brings energy to Salt Lake Jewish congregation

Silhouettes of dozens of college students preparing for Shabbat services filled the area as the sun set over the Congregation Kol Ami gardens in late August.

Despite the event’s proximity to the beginning of the school year, this was the largest amount of students Hillel for Utah Executive Director Dana Tumpowsky said she recalls seeing at any Friday night service.

Congregation Kol Ami is a Jewish synagogue in Salt Lake City that opened in 1973. In 2018, the congregation welcomed a new rabbi — Rabbi Samuel Spector. According to members of Congregation Kol Ami, Spector brought a new energy to the community.

“Rabbi Spector has brought a lot of energy to the congregation and that’s something that is reflected in the number of people who are showing up for their services,” Tumpowsky said. “We have a number of Jewish students who are new to Salt Lake City, and I would say that there are five or six who are involved in religious school at Congregation Kol Ami, which is a number I haven’t seen in the past.”

Prior to coming to Congregation Kol Ami, Spector graduated from the University of California in 2010 with cum laude honors and a B.A. in Judaic studies.

Spector also received a minor in behavioral psychology before going on to receive his master’s degree in Hebrew letters and rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015.

Rabbinic ordination, also known as semikha, gives rabbis the authority to answer Jewish law questions and become religious community leaders, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The expression “semikha” comes from the Hebrew word “l’smoch,” which means “to lean on.”

After completing school, Spector served as the associate rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana, California, where he gained accreditation for creating networking opportunities for young professionals. 

“I became a rabbi because, during difficult times, my Jewish community was always there to support me, and I was given opportunities to not only be myself, but to lead,” Spector said. “I realized at age 15 that as a rabbi, I could teach and study what I am most passionate about. I could advocate for issues that mattered to me, and I could be part of people’s stories during the happiest and most difficult moments.”

Spector said he came to Utah for many reasons, but one thing that stood out to him was the importance of religion in Utah.

“Being able to work alongside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a really exciting prospect for me. Aside from the rabbis in Rome, nobody else is a rabbi in the epicenter for a major world religion and gets the opportunity to meet with the leadership,” Spector said.

Traditionally, reform synagogues have a person called a cantor who chants worship services in the synagogue. Wendy Bat-Sarah is the cantor at Congregation Kol Ami.

According to Bat-Sarah, Spector often talks about difficult subjects and then follows through with events that take care of the people who are affected by the things he discusses.

“It’s really fun to have a partner who is just dynamic and willing to take risks. A lot of older rabbis in large established synagogues in bigger cities try to please everybody, and Jewish people have political opinions from the far-left to the far-right, so they’ll end up saying nothing by trying to please everybody,” Bat-Sarah said. “Rabbi Spector, on the other hand, will bring up an important Jewish value and will discuss how he thinks we should be talking about it.”

According to Tumpowsky and Bat-Sarah, Spector’s openness and willingness to take risks has attracted many new members to the congregation.

“A lot of people that have been joining the congregation lately have been families with younger children, but there was one woman in her 80s who has been in Salt Lake City for decades and joined solely because she saw that willingness to speak out,” Bat-Sarah said.

Since Spector’s arrival, Congregation Kol Ami has attracted more members, many of which are younger, according to Bat-Sarah.

“There is something dynamic and vital that is happening at Congregation Kol Ami, and it is because of the energy that Rabbi Spector has brought to the congregation,” Tumpowsky said.

Since coming to Utah in August, Spector has met with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has made a trip to Provo to speak alongside barrister Raffia Arshad at BYU.

Spector was installed as the official rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami on Dec. 1.

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