Affable and unflappable, bright and breezy, the only thing difficult to digest about Rabbi Shmuel Ozhekh is his name. Meet Ohr Somayach’s newly appointed rabbinical leader.
As a community rabbi you are subject to a degree of scrutiny unknown even to a SA cricket selector or US presidential candidate. How would you, Rabbi Shmuel Ozhekh, describe yourself?
A little like the Australian Eucalyptus tree, which has a propensity to heal wounds, refresh a tired mind, and if consumed in large quantities, may be mildly inebriating.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Sydney, to a family who dressed me up in bowties. I became interested in Judaism from the age of seven. I grew up going to Habonim camps, and eventually headed off to Israel on Bnei Akiva’s MTA yeshiva programme. After working in outreach in Sydney, I was offered a scholarship to study in Israel and become a rabbi.
Six years in yeshiva is a long time. I should know — I spent six months at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem before high-tailing it back to the ‘real world’, the mystery meats, sub-Sheraton living conditions and unwelcomingly ascetic lifestyle now only a distant memory.
What made you keep going?
I befriended the slug-like creatures that lived in the shower, and reminded myself that eating ‘pupiks’ (chicken gizzards) every Thursday was a healthy dose of protein and a delicacy in Nigeria.
Introduce us to your family.
My six-year-old daughter Dina is a born leader, often commanding a garrison of older kids and guiding them in the art of playing ‘mums and dads’; my 3-year-old son Reuven is the epitome of sweet, he likes to be put to sleep with his hands being tickled; and my darling wife, Sara, is a true Eishes Chayel, who continues to awe me with her deep intuition and understanding.
It’s not easy packing everything up and moving to another country. Take us through your family’s decision to take up the job in CT.
We were on holiday in Johannesburg last December, when, after a speaking arrangement at Ohr Somayach, we were offered the position. After much deliberation we decided that it was time to leave the lawlessness and chaos of Australia for a safer, predictable, more economically stable country.
Jews in CT have a reputation for being not so much anti-religious, but apathetic towards Judaism. What, in your view, is the best approach to address apathy?
People are apathetic when they feel they can’t meaningfully relate to Judaism. It’s about discovering the endless points of accessibility — the different facets of Torah, types of learning, Jewish experiences — and a source of inspiration that will help one unearth a deep connection to Judaism.
These days, ‘realness’ seems to be among the most sought-after characteristics in rabbinic leadership. How do you stay real?
By recognising that perfection is a godly trait which humanity can only strive towards. When a person radiates emotional honesty and warmth rather than putting up a façade, people feel an automatic kinship and authentic connection to that person.
Authenticity clearly runs through your veins, given that your family chose to stand by their ancestral name, Ozhekh (despite it being virtually unpronounceable without seeing the need to change it to something more recognisable like ‘Jackson’ or ‘Kojak’. Where does your family hail from, and what is the origin of your extraordinary name?
My mother’s family hails from Belarus, and my father’s somewhere in Poland. Ozhekh is a more complicated and exotic form of the original “Orzech”, which means “nut” in Polish. Make of that what you will. I think the family chose to complicate the spelling and pronunciation in By Simon Apfel Rabbi Shmuel and Rebbetzin Sara order to dissuade telemarketing companies from calling.
Another important requirement of the modern-day rabbi is that he needs to have a superpower. Something more marketable than mere deep scholarship, profound insight, oratory brilliance and the ability to listen to, understand and guide others — like being a pro surfer or an ex member of Led Zeppelin. What’s your superpower?
I am an Iyenga yoga master. Seriously.
What are some of your personal interests away from being a rabbi?
I love exploring antique stores, collecting tobacco pipes, dancing vigorously when no one is watching and eating Thai food. Seriously.
Simon Apfel is Senior Copy Writer at Mama Creative. He also writes for the Daily Maverick, the Jerusalem Post, Hamodia, The Satirist (US), Aish.com and the Canadian Jewish Review, and is editor of Perspective magazine .