Following the retirement of Rabbi Maralee Gordon, McHenry County Jewish Congregation celebrated the installation of Rabbi Tom Samuels in September. Ordained through the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, the appointment is Samuels’ first congregation.

A native of Toronto, Canada, Samuels, who previously worked in the field of landscape architecture, moved to Chicago to implement his Safe Routes to School initiative. The nationwide program focused on reclaiming the streets – for students and senior citizens – to be livable, workable, healthy, sustainable environments for walking to school or the market.

“For 20 years, this was my baby,” said Samuels.

The program was built on the idea that being physically active strengthens mental health and ultimately allows the soul to surface. His mission was to make the routes that pedestrians and bicyclists must share with cars safer. Reducing vulnerability, can allow riders and walkers to get in contact with their soul, learning who they really are, he said. 

“[Safe Routes to School] is all community-organized. Its goal is to empower people to trust themselves,” said Samuels. “They don’t have to be passive consumers. They can be active participants.”

The focus of Safe Routes to School was to take sprawling residential areas with no sense of community and bring it back to the people. He said that there are a lot of similarities between the world of professional urban development and religion. There is a natural overlap with the Jewish experience, which finds active participation at its core.

In his former position, Samuels had always been a teacher of sorts, so his decision to become a rabbi was a natural transition.

“My background was questioning the status quo,” he said. “All rabbis resist institutional authority, including Jesus. It’s at the core of Judaism … I’m not the status quo. Neither is MCJC.”

Samuels holds an undergraduate degree in accounting and two masters degrees, one in landscape architecture and a second in Jewish studies. He was installed as the rabbi for the McHenry County Jewish Congregation in a special ceremony Sept. 10 at the synagogue at 8617 Ridgefield Road, Crystal Lake.

Rev. Samuels is not affiliated with any specific Jewish movement, and neither is MCJC. The congregation is multi-generational, multi-faith and multi-racial.

“It’s a beautiful, wonderful community. It really represents the face of the American Judaism,” said Samuels, who has two sons and resides in Chicago.

He described the services as having a lot of music and guitars and singing, and members are supported with a variety of adult-educational opportunities.

“I want to convey that we have Jewish in our name, but MCJC has always been multi-faith and multicultural. Our doors are always open to young and old. 

The Jewish way is always evolving, embracing all ideas,” said Samuels.

MCJC holds Shabbat services at 7 p.m. each Friday and 9:30 a.m. each Saturday. For information, visit mcjconline.org or call 815-455-1810.

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