Rabbi Susan Tendler, her husband Ross Sadoff and their daughters Sofia and Daniella moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Richmond, where Tendler is the new spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Congregation. (photo from Rabbi Susan Tendler)
Moving to a new city and starting a demanding and highly visible new job would be a challenge in the best of times. For Rabbi Susan Tendler, the recently arrived spiritual leader at Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Congregation, and her family of four, it was a little more complicated.
Not only has the COVID pandemic added complexity to every detail, the family was moving from the United States. This meant that, once they made it to British Columbia after a long, though enjoyable, drive across the continent, during which they took in some national parks and historical sites, they had to go into two weeks of quarantine in their new home.
The lemons of COVID were turned to lemonade by the reaction of the Beth Tikvah community. Tendler calls their reception “extraordinarily unbelievable.”
They arrived at the house, which had been equipped with bedding, toiletries, kitchenware and small appliances, a stocked pantry and refrigerator, and almost everything the new arrivals could want.
“People would from a distance greet us and somebody brought us dinner every single night that week. And people checked on us and would just drop off some milk or whatever we needed for the next week,” she said. While her husband, Ross Sadoff, returned to the States to collect their other vehicle, the rabbi and her daughters, 10-year-old Hannah Sofia and Daniella, who is 8, settled into quarantine.
“My girls and I sat in kind of a tent in our driveway,” she said, while congregants brought socially distanced greetings. “They drove by, honked at us and welcomed us. They had signs and balloons to make us feel welcome. The community, honestly, has gone above and beyond and really demonstrates what a caring community could be and just really made us feel welcome.”
The family moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Tendler had been rabbi for eight years at the Conservative B’nai Zion Congregation. She also served on the faculty of Camp Ramah Darom, in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
She grew up in Virginia and previously held positions in congregations there and in North Carolina. Her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia is in religious studies with concentrations on Islam and Judaism. At the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, she received her rabbinical ordination and her master’s of education in informal Jewish education. She also completed a two-year rabbinic track at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She describes herself as “an ardent Zionist.”
Coming to Canada generally and Beth Tikvah specifically seems bashert. Tendler and Sadoff met at a wedding at the Richmond shul. In fact, that was one of three coincidental meetings that happened before Tendler decided maybe she should consider them an omen.
“I started thinking, wow, maybe I should pay attention to this,” she said. “Why do I keep running into him?”
She had first met Sadoff in New York, when she was en route to Israel and he was rooming with a friend of hers. On a different trip to Israel, for a cousin’s bar mitzvah, the pair met again. The Beth Tikvah meetup was third time lucky.
Relocating to Canada was not in the cards until recently, but it was something like a long-held dream.
“My husband used to say to me years ago, hey, do you think we can move to Canada?” Tendler recalled. “I’d say, Ross, I’m a female rabbi. The chance of that, at this point in time, is very slight. A decade ago, there were many fewer female rabbis in Canada.”
In fact, Tendler is the first female pulpit rabbi in a Conservative shul in British Columbia.
A few factors account for the family’s attraction to Metro Vancouver. For one thing, they wanted a Jewish day school, which Chattanooga has not had for a number of years.
“We are very excited about RJDS [Richmond Jewish Day School] because we think it will offer the flexibility that our kids will greatly benefit from,” she said.
The family loved Chattanooga, but even at one of the most diverse public schools in town, not being Christian was sometimes an issue.
“In some ways, we felt like we were undermining our family values,” said Tendler in the context of raising their kids. “We just wanted them to fully embrace and love who we were raising them to be and the values we were raising them to honour and realizing that, in some ways, we were undermining them constantly.”
A lockdown that took place after false alarms of a threat at the kids’ school made Tendler and her husband ponder school security and the prevalence of gun violence in their country.
“We say things are going to be different but nothing changes,” she said. “I went to Washington, D.C., after the shooting in [Parkland] Florida and we say things are going to change but nothing changes. At some point, you have to do something different. The lobbies are too strong and we can’t even talk in the States about gun safety. It’s all like, you’re taking away my rights. Well, what about public safety?”
Possibly above all, the family just thought that British Columbia would feel like home.
“I think that, in many ways, my family moved here for holistic health reasons,” she said. “We just wanted a place that felt healthier and was more aligned with our values.”
Even comparatively small things like an efficient recycling program make Tendler feel kinship with her new hometown. “It’s a small thing but, in general, I just feel that our values and what we want to teach our children are more in line with Canada, at least with British Columbia and Vancouver, with open-mindedness and, I would say, respect for other people.”
While the transition to their new hometown was complicated, they made the best of it. During the transcontinental road trip, they stopped at sites like the St. Louis Arch, the Badlands, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.
“We took some little hikes and saw bison and prairie dogs,” said Tendler. “It was fun.”