Rabbi Elina Bykova

A rabbi caters to a diverse flock

A gay couple joins in breaking the glass at the conclusion of their wedding. A lesbian couple signs the ketubah before a dual Jewish/Catholic ceremony with a rabbi and priest officiating. Parents who can’t afford synagogue membership see their daughter called to the torah for her bat mitzvah in the family’s living room. A boy is bar mitzvahed at his zaidy’s palliative care residence. A grieving family mourns a loved one after the departed one’s cremation.

Jewish worshippers are changing, becoming more diverse. Meeting those needs is the vocation of rabbi-at-large, Elina Bykova.

Rabbi Bykova cautions that she is no rebel, that officiating at occasions like these is not unusual for a rabbi of the Reform denomination of Judaism. Rabbi Bykova credits the Reform denomination with giving her the room to maneuver.

“There’s no pressure., If you want to do cremations, that’s fine; if not, that’s fine too. It’s the same with interfaith ceremonies. Personal conviction lets you decide if officiating is unacceptable.”

Mixed marriages and cremations

As the rabbi’s website says each wedding she performs is “unique.” The bride and groom are invited to choose the “content of the ceremony, including readings, vows, and every word spoken during the wedding ceremony.”

If either party wants clergy from another faith to co-officiate, even hold the nuptials on a Saturday, Rabbi Bykova will be there prayer book, tallit and all. The Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism consider cremation verboten. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” says Genesis. That’s dust not ashes. So rabbis from those two denomination won’t officiate at a cremation. But, typically, Reform leaves the choice to the rabbi and Rabbi Bykova sees the paramount need to comfort the mourners no matter what the departed has chosen.

“What people want is the same service we offer at the traditional Jewish burial and the comfort of the traditional service and prayers.”

Drawing the line

The rabbi is decidedly conservative when it comes to medically assisted death. Bykova can’t see herself providing comfort to the person requesting death by administered medication. “Technically, this is assisted suicide. This is not a natural death,” she reasons. And even though the person has suffered tremendously, they may still have doubts in their mind and say so when they feel the drug that is supposed to end their misery taking effect. And what would the rabbi do then?

“I can’t imagine what to do in this situation.”

She says that this is a task for a chaplain. “But even if I had the training, I would still say ‘Go to a rabbi who is a chaplain.’ ”

Red roots

The rabbi was born in Kiev in 1963. Communism was in bloom and Rabbi Bykova’s family parents were second-generation communists and card-carrying party members. So there was no one at home to teach young Elina to light the sabbath candles or ask the Four Questions. At school, her teachers raged against the evils of religion. Elina was not convinced.  “I was interested in Judaism. I guess I was the weird member of the family,” she recalls. She tried to find out as much as she could about Judaism. In order to teach what was wrong with religion, her teachers had to explain what it was all about.

“That’s where I got my start.”

Then came perestroika and glasnost. Bykova travelled to Moscow where she attended seminars conducted by rabbis from England. It was there Rabbi Bykova saw her first Shabbos candle lighting. Not so inspiring was her first teacher, an Orthodox rabbi. “I found his approach interesting but limited,” she recalls.

On her return to Kiev, she and some of her fellow Jews started their own congregation. She wanted to study and teach Judaism there. But the failed Soviet coup attempt made her realize her days in Ukraine were numbered. So with the help of financial support from Leo Beck College, she made her way to London in 1992.

The funded alternative

 Bykova was able to pass the rigorous admission tests to Leo Beck College. She wanted to teach Judaism. But the only funding available was for the rabbinical course. “So I had to become a rabbi,” she says with a laugh. After graduating, the newly ordained rabbi was faced with another choice: return to Ukraine or emigrate to Canada. She chose the latter.

“I wanted to leave Ukraine and I had a chance to come to Canada. I knew nothing about Canada, or Quebec or Montreal and I had no idea if I would find a job here.”

After coming to Canada in 1999, she was able to secure a pulpit at the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Shalom in the city of Westmount on the isle of Montreal. Bykova served there as junior rabbi until 2009 when the congregation could no longer afford two rabbis. Since then, she’s been freelancing. It has been enriching. “Many times, I have heard from women and men who tell me that they want me for a wedding or a funeral because I am a woman and they feel more comfortable if I officiate or that their late mother or wife would have appreciated having me and not a man.

“As well, I believe that I am the inspiration for bat mitzvah girls and I show the bar mitzvah boys what women can do.”

Be a rabbi and see the world

Rabbi Bykova may be based in Montreal, but she’s free to officiate wherever there’s a need.

“It could be anywhere. I have gone to Toronto, Nova Scotia. I once did a Jewish wedding in Mexico.”

For more information, call 514-761-0776, contact@weddinginmontreal.comor visit www.weddinginmontreal.com