Former Bais Abraham rabbi, Nishmah leader adjust to challenges, opportunities at D.C. synagogue

Rabbi Hyim Shafner and Sara Winkelman attended a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15, 2020 on the South Lawn at the White House. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Rabbi Hyim Shafner and his wife, Sara Winkelman, are used to seeing an entire city come out to celebrate a big event.

In St. Louis, it would happen whenever the Cardinals won the World Series. In their new home, Washington, D.C., it happened when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the November presidential election.

“What sports is to St. Louis, politics is to D.C.,” said Shafner, who spent 20 years here as the campus rabbi at the Hillel at Washington University and the leader of Bais Abraham Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue, before moving to the capital in 2017.

In the days after the election, as vote counting continued, it looked like the race would be officially called for Biden on Saturday, Nov. 7. But Winkelman, who served for seven years as director of Nishmah, a local Jewish women’s organization, said she was worried that they wouldn’t know what happened because it would be Shabbat.

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“We walked outside our door, and horns were blaring and people were dancing in the street, and it all became very clear, very quickly, that Biden had won the election because we are living in a town that is 97% Democratic, so it felt like a weight was lifted off the shoulders of people in D.C.,” she said.

On a personal level, the past few years had been challenging for the couple as Shafner became the leader of a congregation, Kesher Israel, that had been shaken by a scandal involving its longtime rabbi.

“In many ways, my work in St. Louis was so wonderful, but it was easier than here,” he said.

In spite of that strain and the fact that they miss the “friendliness and calm and warmth of St. Louis,” Shafner said, the two are glad they made the move.

“There is certainly an excitement about being here, near the seat of power,” he said.

About three years before Shafner and Winkelman moved, Kesher Israel fired Rabbi Barry Freundel, who led the congregation for 25 years, after he was caught filming women undressing and entering a mikvah, the ritual bath. He eventually pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism and was sentenced to 6½ years in prison and a $13,000 fine.

The congregation then hired an interim rabbi who, like Shafner, was a psychotherapist.

“This is not about healing. We have healed,” said Leon Wieseltier, a Kesher Israel leader and former literary editor at the New Republic, in a 2017 interview with the Light. “This is about finding a rabbi who can be both a heart and a mind.”

Then, just months after Shafner arrived at Kesher Israel, news organizations reported that Wieseltier had sexually harassed and made inappropriate advances towards colleagues, which he later admitted to and apologized for.

As Wieseltier was a prominent member of the congregation, that stirred old, painful feelings among congregants about Freundel’s betrayal of women.

And then in April, Freundel was released from prison earlier than scheduled because of the threat of COVID-19, which created “a whole new set of shockwaves and worries,” Shafner said.

While time has passed since Freundel’s arrest, “there is still a lot of resonance of it, whether that is wariness of people, of rabbis, wariness of how we appear in the community,” Shafner said. “The synagogue needed direction, vision and healing, but luckily, I … have a lot of training as a rabbi and as a thinker and as a therapist, so I have the right set of skills for this.”

Shafner and Winkelman also have been granted new opportunities.

In September, they were invited to attend the signing ceremony on the White House lawn of the Abraham Accords, an agreement between the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations between the latter two countries.

“It felt historic, and there were people there from shul that we knew, and you feel like you are at a moment in history,” Shafner said.

The location of the synagogue also means that it has a sizable number of members who work in politics and government. Membership tends to change with a new administration. But Shafner does not talk politics from the pulpit. In fact, his contract prohibits him from doing so.

Even at Bais Abraham, “It was never in my nature to talk about politics,” Shafner said.

He and Winkelman have maintained strong ties with their former home.

After Winkelman moved, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington received a grant to open a local chapter of Student to Student, a program founded in St. Louis in which Jewish students visit schools with little to no Jewish population and talk about Judaism and their connection to the religion. Its longtime director, Fawn Chapel, suggested to the director of the Washington JCRC that the organization hire Winkelman to run it, which the director did.

“I feel like I started with this nice little program to teach people about Judaism, as an anti-bias, anti-bigotry [initiative], and then we landed at this time in our world, where a proactive thing we can do concerning anti-Semitism and all the hate in the world is this amazing opportunity,” Winkelman said. “I feel like Student to Student has filled this really important niche.”

The couple have imported something else from St. Louis: kosher vegetarian food from Gokul Indian Restaurant in University City.

Even with shipping costs, a big box of food was “cheaper to have delivered from St. Louis than the suburbs here,” Shafner said and laughed.

“It was delicious,” Winkelman said.

For Shafner, it’s not just Indian food and Student to Student that he would like to bring from St. Louis to D.C. and Kesher Israel.

“After being here for three years, you eventually start to gain trust and change the culture,” he said. “My goal is to make it a little more like St. Louis, a little more like Bais Abraham, a big synagogue that has lots of folks and is in a big city, but make it very warm and welcoming.”