Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a beloved religious leader known for his kindness to others, died of cancer Sunday morning, the Ottawa Citizen reports. He was 77.
Bulka was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer of the pancreas and liver in early 2020. Instrumental in the creation of Kindness Week in Canada, Bulka was based out of Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas for more than 50 years. He advocated for organ donation and sought to build bridges between people of different backgrounds with multi faith events. The Canadian Press notes that his annual presence at Ottawa Remembrance Day ceremonies earned him the nickname “Canada’s rabbi.”
Bulka’s diagnosis in January led to an outpouring of support from people of all faiths. Healthing.ca covered the virtual prayer rally organized in his honour. Read more about Bulka and his thoughts on prayer and healing below:
When Rabbi Reuven Bulka helped organize the National Prayer for Canada in the Wake of COVID-19 last March, he couldn’t have predicted that in less than a year, he would be part of a another national prayer campaign. Except this time, the heartfelt messages asking for health and recovery would be about him.
In early January, Bulka told his Ottawa congregation that he had been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the pancreas and liver. The news rocked not only the Jewish community, but people of all faiths, as social media flooded with notes of wishes of recovery, sadness and “refuah shlema,” the Jewish prayer for healing, with a virtual prayer rally held in his honour.
The Rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, also known as “Canada’s Rabbi,” had spent his life helping improve the lives of others. In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Canada for his extensive work with many charities, including the United Way, Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation Courage Campaign, the Trillium Gift of Life Network and Kind Canada, which he founded. In 2019, Ottawa renamed the park adjacent to the synagogue where Bulka served as spiritual leader for almost 50 years, calling it Rabbi Bluka Kindness Park in his honour.
One of his passions over the decades had been to comfort people in times of illness, grief and loss, experiences that he said makes facing his own mortality — which he called “a shock” — a little easier.
“I’m over 76 years old,” he told CTV News. “I’m grateful for the life that I’ve had. So, it didn’t come with a sense of missing out on life entirely. It was a shock to hear but it’s something that, unfortunately in my life as a rabbi, I’ve seen often.”
An outspoken leader and advocate for kindness and inclusivity, Bulka engaged in a number of difficult discussions around Judaism and faith as they relate to health and wellbeing. From organ donation to healing through prayer, he was often asked to weigh in on religion and belief and how they relate to curing the ill, ending disease and prolonging life.
In 2014, when asked by the Ottawa Citizen whether he would choose prayer or medical treatment for a life-threatening illness, Bulka called it a “slam-dunk question.”
“Prayer is important, but failure to take the proper medical steps and just pray makes no sense,” he said, calling it an “arrogant challenge to God.” Relying on prayer in lieu of medical intervention is testing faith according to Bulka. But that’s not to say that prayer should be disregarded. In fact, prayer can very much support the act of regaining health and healing.
And certainly, we have all heard stories about people who have dodged death after enlisting the power of prayer — those for whom there was no hope, yet after sending their request for life and healing through prayer chains, online faith groups or touching the hands of dedicated healers, they experienced complete, inexplicable recovery.
Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of science backing these so-called miracles. Plus, as Bulka reminded us in a 2004 article in Reader’s Digest, “Are people who promote prayer as healing implying that people whose prayers aren’t answered are not sufficiently faithful?” It’s similar to the analogy of people with cancer being in battle that implies those who die are “losers.”
Despite the lack of proof that prayer heals — as one study pointed out, “God would be unlikely to cooperate in scientific studies” — there’s also nothing to say that looking to the heavens hurts, either. We know prayer can do other really great things, like create a sense of connection, lessen feelings of isolation and fear, and reduce anger and aggression. One report suggests that prayer is a type of meditation, affording the doer similar benefits of a lower heart rate, stronger immune system and decreased anxiety.
“We pray because we hope that it will help, but we must realize full-well that it may not,” Bulka told the Healing Through Unity newsletter more than a decade ago, adding that if prayer is genuine and authentic, it can bring inner peace, which gives us the strength to face adversity.
It’s a message that remained as strong as ever as he prepared to face perhaps his biggest adversary.
“I am feeling well,” he told Evan Solomon in an interview with iHeartRadio, describing how his cancer diagnosis. “I know the reality. You can’t escape the reality.”
Typically not diagnosed until late stages, pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive cancer that kills approximately 92 per cent of patients within five years. Of the 225,800 new cancer diagnosis expected in Canada in 2020, 6,000 Canadians were expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 5,300 were expected to die. These projections make pancreatic cancer the third leading cause of cancer death in Canada.
And if it feels like the world has lost a lot of its “greats” to pancreatic cancer, well, we have. Just last September, Ruth Bader Ginsburg a Supreme Court Justice and a feminist icon died of metastatic cancer of the pancreas. Two months later, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek passed away after batting the fast-moving cancer for more than a year and a half. And while a lengthy survival after diagnosis is rare — only about 18 per cent of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer patients live one year — both “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin and Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze lived more than a year after learning they had the cancer.
While the many who loved Bulka prayed for his recovery, Canada’s beloved rabbi who made it his life’s work to inspire kindness across the faiths told Solomon that he planned to “approach every day as a precious gift of life,” and be “grateful for the things I have, rather than lamenting the things I don’t.”
He did admit to feeling fear, however.
“The fear is legitimate. It’s a fear of the unknown,” he said to Solomon, referring to one of the best known biblical passages, Psalm 23. “‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for the Lord is with me.’ It’s a nice Psalmic expression… but when you are facing this unknown, [not fearing] is a hard thing to do especially given that the end result is something we all want to avoid.”
The unknown is scary, but Bulka said that fear is something we must sometimes live with, “just like we live with anxiety, hopes and aspirations.” The key is using that turning that fear “into a positive from a negative.”
“[Death] going to happen. It’s inevitable,” he said. “The best thing we can do is make our lives meaningful to the best of our abilities, and leave [the rest] to higher powers.”
If you or someone you care about is living with cancer, connecting with a support network can help to not only learn ways to better manage their health, but also share experiences with others. Some resources include the Wellspring, Cancer Connect at the Canadian Cancer Society, and Pancreatic Cancer Canada.
Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing.ca.