During the Tibetan leader’s 2004 visit to Vancouver, Hong Chian, a local Buddhist doctor, invited Birnham to be one of the Jewish representatives at the service. When the Olympics rolled around, Chian, who serves on the multifaith committee for the Olympics, called on Birnham again — this time to head up the team of Jewish clergy providing spiritual support services to visiting athletes.
It has made Birnham the semi-official rabbinic leader of the 2010 Winter Games.
As head of a team of rabbis serving the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Birnham is helping to arrange services at both Olympic Villages — the Whistler mountain resort and in Vancouver itself — and provide counseling to athletes who, having trained for much of their lives for a brief shot at Olympic glory, may find themselves facing crises for which spiritual guidance would be helpful.
Rabbis and cantors will be on call for the duration of the Olympics for that purpose.
"I ran track at Dickinson College," said Birnham, who heads the Conservative Congregation Har El in West Vancouver. "Even at that measly low level, I have a sense of what goes on. I cannot imagine the pressure of a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Birnham is among a number of members of the city’s 30,000-strong Jewish community gearing up to support the thousands of athletes and Jewish tourists expected to descend on Vancouver, the most Jewishly active city ever to host the Winter Olympics. The Olympics start Feb. 12.
Synagogues are organizing Shabbat dinners for visitors. Several events will introduce the community to the three participating Israeli athletes.
A local Jewish woman who competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics will be among the last torch bearers carrying the Olympic flame on its way to B.C. Stadium for the opening ceremonies.
Karen James, who chairs women’s philanthropy for the local Jewish federation, will carry the flame about 1,000 feet on the afternoon of Feb. 12, beginning near Rodney’s Oyster House on Hamilton Street in downtown Vancouver.
"It’s very thrilling," said James, who swam the 200 individual medley in Munich and placed "17th or 18th." She can’t remember exactly.
At the 1972 Games, James was returning to the Olympic Village after hours when, rather than walk around to the main gate, she and her friends took a shortcut over a fence. Some dark figures nearby decided to climb with them.
The next morning, James said, she awoke to the sound of helicopters and remembers watching Israeli athletes and coaches taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists being led out to a bus. Eleven Israelis died later in a failed rescue attempt at a nearby airport.
On Feb. 14, James will light a candle in their memory at a ceremony in Vancouver.
"The Olympics — in general ever since then — I have mixed feelings," James said. "I always sort of sit with that ambiguity."
To keep the Vancouver Games secure, officials plan to deploy a force of about 15,000, according to USA Today, at a cost of nearly $1 billion.
As part of the Jewish community’s observance of the Olympics, the Vancouver Holocaust Centre will run an exhibit for the duration of the Winter Games highlighting Canada’s dilemma over whether to participate in the so-called Nazi Olympics — the 1936 Games in Berlin. It was in Berlin that many features of the modern Olympics were introduced, including the idea of a torch relay, according to the center’s executive director, Frieda Miller.
"We were very careful not to make a direct link between those Games and the contemporary Games," Miller told JTA. "It’s not a polemic. We do not pass judgment. We present the dilemmas and the situation as is and let people make their own analogies."
The history of Jewish Vancouver dates to 1872, with the arrival of the city’s first Jewish settler, Louis Gold. Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer, was a German-born Jew who generally is considered the city’s founding father. The first synagogue was built in 1916. Today there are 12, in addition to six day schools, three Chabad centers and a community kollel, or subsidized religious study program for adults.
The local federation has prepared a dossier with details of the city’s Jewish history to help guide visitors to the Jewish opportunities available in Vancouver.
Like the athletes themselves, Vancouver’s Jews are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase their city and community to the world.
"I am looking forward to whatever is going to happen," Birnham said. "I am looking forward to this very rare moment, and this very rare honor, and this very rare responsibility."