Rabbi Philip Gibbs is the new spiritual leader of Congregation Har El. (photo from Rabbi Philip Gibbs)
Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who took up the pulpit at Congregation Har El / North Shore Jewish Community Centre in July, had an unusually straight path to Judaism in many ways, at least for someone living outside the Orthodox world.
“Judaism was always part of my life,” Gibbs told the Independent.
Growing up in Marietta, Ga., he attended a Reform synagogue, went to Hebrew school and lived in a home life structured by Judaism. He found Judaism both comforting and intellectually engaging. He loved the thorny moral questions of Jewish tradition and studying Torah stories for guidance about how to live in the world. By the time he finished high school, he was on the regional board of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement (NFTY).
Being a leader in NFTY helped Gibbs see what it meant to bring others to and through the experience of Judaism – and the seed of a rabbinic calling was planted.
Gibbs went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and graduated in 2012 with a double major in Hebrew and the humanities. He also attended summer programs for intensive Talmud study and, as he settled into “that place of serious learning about Judaism,” he felt at home. He was enamoured by how the Jewish community supported each other in times of crisis and celebration, giving a wider sense of meaning to even happy moments.
Gibbs attended the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), attracted “by its academic emphasis and its acknowledgment of the evolution of Judaism.” It also fit his personal level of observance.
He focused on Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) at the seminary and became the secretary of the committee on Jewish law and standards. He became passionate in his interest in halachah, both theoretically and as a “road to values.” He enjoyed taking ritual practice and explaining “the goal and meaning of it from a place of depth.”
Gibbs graduated with a master of arts in Talmud and received his rabbinic ordination earlier this year.
As a rabbinical student, he was engaged with global social justice and human rights issues, and became a member of Rabbis Without Borders. In his second year, after touring Hebron with T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, he was featured in an article in the Forward about younger rabbis willing to grapple fully with the moral complexity of life in Israel.
Gibbs connected to Congregation Har El, which has been without a permanent spiritual leader for just over a year, through the JTS matching process for new rabbis. He had been to Vancouver before and looked forward to flying out for the interview.
“B.C.’s wilderness and outdoors activities are a big draw for me,” said Gibbs, who led the Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute camp Ramah in the Rockies and is looking forward to the hiking and skiing opportunities available in the Vancouver area. “I grew up doing a lot of hiking in the southeast and led backpacking trips with Conservative movement summer camps. When I got here, I was also thrilled to find a community of very nice and caring people, a place that wanted depth in what they were doing.”
Gibbs said his main priority right now is getting to know the community before he begins putting together any new ideas. He is also getting to know Vancouver.
“It’s great,” he said. “One of the first things I did was get a bike – it’s a city very easy to get around in. My first view was before the forest fire smoke came in, and it was absolutely beautiful.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.