‘The Olympic rabbi’ on standby for disaster

Although no one needed his services, Shmuel Birnham says he had to be here – just in case – and ultimately found "a moment of inter-spiritual success."

March 1, 2010 03:28
3 minute read.
Shmuel Birnham, a Conservative rabbi stationed at

shmuel birnham 311. (photo credit: Hillary Leila Krieger)


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VANCOUVER – Every Shabbat during the Winter Olympic Games, which concluded on Sunday, Rabbi Shmuel Birnham organized a Saturday morning prayer service led by a local member of the clergy at the multi-faith center in the Olympic Village, the athletes’ home during their stay.

Outside of the service leaders, no one showed up. Nor did athletes seek counseling or spiritual guidance from him during the several weeks of training and competition.

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And that was just fine with him.

“No one needed us, and that’s all right,” said Birnham, a 55-year-old New York-born rabbi who now heads a Conservative synagogue in town. “We had to be here. We had to set up in case they want it. If you’re setting up for a disaster relief program, you’re happy if disaster doesn’t happen.”

He explained that in a situation like this one, “people will appear at times of major trauma and major disappointment.”

Birnham prepared for his role as “the Olympic rabbi” – facilitating the Jewish piece of the inter-faith chaplaincy in Vancouver – by reading up on the subject and talking to sports psychologists to provide guidance and solace for those who had suffered defeat since, as he pointed out, “most everyone is not going home with medals.”

But it was just as well that his offices weren’t needed – and that tough questions of how to cope with a sense of failure after years of effort weren’t asked.


“There aren’t too many real answers,” he said. “It would be more about listing and trying to understand what the person is experiencing, and then trying to [help] them.”

There have, though, been some tragedies that have occurred during these Olympics, most notably the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on a practice run hours before the opening ceremonies.

In that cast, an Orthodox priest brought along by the Russian team dealt with most of the religious needs that arose.

The multi-faith center in Athlete’s Village turned its counseling room into a make-shift memorial space for Kumaritashvili complete with candles, flowers and a book for written reflections.

The other rooms in the center included space for larger group services and smaller chambers for separate men’s and women’s Muslim prayer. When the center realized there wasn’t demand to warrant two such spaces, one was turned into a text study room.

It wasn’t only the minority religions, Buddhist and Hindu ones among them, that didn’t inspire comers, however. Last weekend, a mass was held, but no athletes attended that either, and Birnham noted that there were many more Catholics competing than Jews.

He said officials estimate that no more than one percent of athletes at any Olympics are Jewish, particularly at the winter games; this year, there was a three-member Israeli team and a bunch of other Jewish participants from around the globe.

Birnham said that in any case, Jewish athletes don’t tend to be the most faith-oriented group, since holy days, keeping kosher and Shabbat observance are all difficult to fit into their training and travel routines.

According to Birnham, that’s in keeping with the larger trend.

“Usually athletes are not the most serious religiously,” he said. “In general it’s not their focus – they have found another focus.”

He added: “I don’t want to say sports is their religion, but it’s something that completely consumes their mind, body and soul.”

But for all that, there was at least one occasion when the multi-faith center filled with spiritual activity. Last Wednesday, as Canada’s men’s hockey team began a crucial medal qualifying match, Birnham walked by some of the Christian chaplains he shares space with there.

“Start praying!” they told him.

Later, when Birnham found out the Canadian team had handily beaten its opponent, he quipped, “Our prayers are working. This is a moment of inter-spiritual success.”

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