Rabbi Shmuel Birnham '76 was appointed official rabbi of the 2010 Olympics.
Shmuel Birnham '76 was recently named official Jewish clergyman of the 2010 Winter Olympics. And as he counts down the days until the opening ceremony, he says he looks forward to offering spiritual support to the finest young athletes in the world.
“I’ve had some good conversations in the multifaith planning-committee meetings, and at the Olympic villages, with clergy from other faiths," he says, speaking by phone from Vancouver, host city of the 2010 Winter Games. "And any time religious persons from different faiths work well together—respectfully, collaboratively, creatively—you have something good going on. Significant things can, and do, happen.”
That’s a fitting stance for a man who is poised to work with athletes and clergy from all over the world. But, in fact, it's a philosophy he’s voiced often in his two-decade rabbinical career—a career that took root during his days as a Dickinson student.
A Gradual Awakening
A Long Island native, Birnham was raised in a family that did not attend synagogue, and identified himself as a Jewish atheist when he was a teen. But an epiphany during his first year at Dickinson inspired him to change his spiritual tune.
Birnham was hiking with four classmates in Yellowstone National Park when he had a powerful religious experience. Later, he experienced similar feelings of spiritual connection while competing on Dickinson’s NCAA men’s cross-country and men’s-track teams. “I wasn’t a top runner, but I had some truly transcendent moments while running,” he recalled. “I had a true sense of something beyond me.”
On leaving Dickinson and entering the workforce, sociology degree in tow, Birnham vowed to plumb that spiritual sense. Three years, and a brief business career later, he traveled to Israel, where he studied and lived in a kibbutz. After earning a master’s degree and ordination from New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he went to his first congregation, in Asheville, NC.
Today, Birnham serves a congregation in West Vancouver, a city well-known for its strong and vibrant Jewish population. And, he actively works to promote understanding between faiths. As a result, he was a speaker and participant at a retreat during the Dalai Lama’s 2004 visit to Canada. And, his public work attracted the attention of the Olympics’ multi-faith committee. A new opportunity transpired.
As head of a team of Olympic rabbis, Birnham looks forward to helping young athletes deal with family crises that may arise, and with the unique stresses and pressures of high-stakes competition on the international stage. And he believes his experiences as a Dickinson student-athlete will inform this work.
While he stresses that his time competing at the NCAA level cannot compare to the Olympic experience, it certainly does help him inhabit the athletes’ mindsets. And, as a second-place-ribbon-earning athlete whose final running season was shut down prematurely due to illness, Birnham can also well understand the devastation of athletic opportunities lost.
“Not many of these athletes will get the gold medal. Most people are going to lose, even though they’re the top athletes in the world,” Birnham observes. “We're there to help them through it … it’s a rare honor and a rare responsibility."