TORONTO — Isaac Osiel, the incoming president of Petah Tikva Anshe Castilla Congregation, kicked off his presidency with a surprise party that left the shul’s rabbi in tears and a congregation feeling united.
Rabbi Yoseph Oziel (no relation) not only celebrated his 40th birthday last month but also marked his 15th anniversary as leader of the 300-member shul.
Osiel said he worked under the rabbi’s nose for three months to organize a surprise party for him with 200 of the rabbi’s closest friends and congregants.
“The challenge for the surprise party was getting the rabbi to the building. Seeing all the cars, the people, right away he would know something was up,” Osiel said.
On March 25, Rabbi Oziel was told to come to the synagogue for a “meet-the-board night,” since a new board had just been elected.
“He was totally taken aback. He had no idea.”
Speaking to The CJN about a week after the surprise party, the rabbi still had trouble expressing just how surprised, shocked and emotional the event had left him.
“I was moved to tears several times… It was just surreal and it was very emotional. It took me a few minutes to compose myself. I remember vaguely everyone coming from all directions to say something to me,” he said.
“I caught a glimpse of my mother, and it took me a few moments to register that – and my brother, who came in with her from Montreal. My mother-in-law also came in from Montreal.
“It was disturbing how well my wife kept this secret from me,” Rabbi Oziel added with a laugh.
Osiel said during the planning stages, he asked the congregants to e-mail pictures of themselves with the rabbi for a slide show, and he also organized a video tribute that featured well-wishes from his friends all over the world.
The night ended with Danny Soberano, the outgoing president who sponsored the dinner, presenting Rabbi Oziel with the ultimate birthday gift.
Soberano and four other Petah Tikva members chipped in to buy the rabbi a brand-new Kia Sportage.
“Generous is not the word,” said the rabbi who felt he couldn’t properly convey his gratitude.
Osiel said that while the surprise party, which was a members-only event, was meant to honour the well-loved rabbi, it was also an opportunity to reinforce a feeling of community.
“It really felt like one family coming together to celebrate,” he said.
“What made this extremely special was the fact that these were 200 people or so who wanted to be there. It wasn’t a synagogue function – it was an opportunity to come out – and every person who was there wanted to be there,” the rabbi added.
“Looking around the room, I saw so many people and each person means something different to me, something unique to me. I don’t have superficial, generic relationships with the people in our community. Because of our history, 15 years already, I’ve had opportunities to share personal moments and to make very personal and individual relationships.”
Looking past the high of the surprise party, both Osiel and the rabbi couldn’t contain their optimism about the future of the Sephardi Jewish community in Toronto.
Osiel, a 35-year-old father of five daughters, is one of the youngest presidents in Petah Tikva’s nearly 40-year history.
“I’m the first Canadian-born president, signifying a change of the generation,” he said.
Ten years ago, a number of Jewish organizations commissioned surveys and studies that tried to predict how the next generation of Jews would connect to the community their parents had built.
Many leaders of the organized Jewish world worried that young Jews – who voiced their desire for initiatives that offered something new and different – would be largely disengaged and unaffiliated.
Osiel, who paid his dues as the shul’s vice-president for the past five years, said he is an example of a young Jew who is working to shape his community into what he wants it to be.
“People say I may be young to be doing this, but it’s been a progression for me and this was the next natural step for me to take,” he said.
“I’ve been volunteering there since I was bar mitzvah. I was the director of the camp at one point… at 15 I was running a baseball league, and then we started a hockey league, and that’s been 19 years.”
Rabbi Oziel said his new president “is one of the most dynamic young leaders in our community,” and he’s excited to be working with him.
“We have already sat for hours talking and exchanging ideas,” the rabbi said.
“I really want to make this place an environment that people want to be a part of, something that attracts young people, something that attracts members to come more often and engage them in different programming,” Osiel said, adding that he’d like to develop a Shabbat program for children.
“I recognize that our membership is big, and we have many members who pay $1,100 and come twice a year… I don’t understand members at any synagogue who pay thousands of dollars and come twice a year. I feel like I have to give them value.”
Osiel isn’t the only young Jewish professional working to influence the next generation of Sephardi Jews.
Adding some more young blood to the shul’s board is Jack Benarroch, 30, who is taking over as Petah Tikva’s vice-president, and Ariel Oziel (Isaac’s cousin), 30, who will serve as the shul’s treasurer.
Rabbi Oziel said that having a new generation of Jews occupy the board is “a dream come true.
“This is what we’ve been dreaming about when we had our Shabbatons and our youth minyans… We always looked forward to the day when these young people would take over and we’re living the dream now.”