Making a move, Bais Abe rabbi looks toward future at D.C. synagogue

Rabbi Hyim Shafner says goodbye to community members during a gathering Sunday at Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.Photo: Bill Motchan

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

If Rabbi Hyim Shafner encounters Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, at Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., he already has a line planned: “Hmmm… are you related to the Teaneck Trumps?” 

Shafner is preparing to become head rabbi at Kesher Israel after he leaves Bais Abraham Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in University City, later this summer. (Teaneck, N.J. is more familiar to people on the East Coast.)

Jokes aside, it’s entirely possible that Shafner might sometime kibbitz with the Jewish power couple on Shabbat. (They are not members of Kesher Israel but reportedly considered joining when they moved to the D.C.) Kesher Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue in the city. High-profile congregants have included former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Meanwhile, Bais Abraham is one among a number of Orthodox synagogues in St. Louis and distinguished by its progressive brand of observant Judaism.  

For Shafner, however, the location and different makeup of his new congregation are only part of what will likely make the move a significant change. He also is joining a larger synagogue recovering from a scandal in which its prominent rabbi was arrested after being caught filming women undressing and entering a mikvah, a ritual bath.

Shafner, a licensed therapist, is now tasked with helping the congregation look forward from the peeping and hopefully increase its membership.

Life is unpredictable

In 2002, Shafner, then director of Hillel at Washington University, taught a class at a Bais Abraham member’s home on a section of the Talmud on the destruction of Jerusalem. It was on the first of Av, a “very sad day” on the Hebrew calendar, he said.

His car was in the shop, so an attendee, Steven Zatman, a geology professor, offered him a ride home. They pulled out from a side street onto the western end of Delmar Boulevard by the stone lions and were hit by a van. Zatman, 30, was killed and Shafner suffered a collapsed lung and a torn diaphragm. He didn’t wake up for five days. 

The professor, Shafner said, was a “real star at Wash U.” Shortly before he died, he had said to a Bais Abraham congregant, “I have a way to predict earthquakes.”

About a year later, Rabbi Abraham Magence, who had spent three decades at Bais Abe, died. Shafner, then a congregant, was on the search committee and interviewed young rabbis.

He told the candidates that the synagogue is “so great and has so much potential.” He realized he believed in it enough that he should be the one to take the job, so he left Wash U. in 2004.

Since then, Shafner has helped the synagogue develop a “national reputation for being faithful to Jewish tradition while at the same time being warm and welcoming to Jews of all nature of practice or affiliation and that’s a unique combination. He has been the leader of that endeavor,” said Larry Friedman, who was president of Bais Abraham when it hired Shafner. 

A few years after the accident, Dana Zatman, Steven’s widow, attended a gathering in Shafner’s sukkah and met the rabbi’s brother, Jonathan Shafner. The two have now been married for nine years and live in Washington. That’s part of what made the move attractive.

“Life is unpredictable and strange,” Shafner said.

Recovery and renewal 

Rabbi Barry Freundel not only led Kesher Israel but also a conversion committee for the Rabbinic Council of America, comprised of Orthodox clergy. In guiding women through the conversion process, he encouraged them to take long showers and “practice dunks” in the water, according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report

Freundel is now serving a six-year sentence after pleading guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism in 2015.

“It’s like the person you put on a pedestal urinated on you,” one longtime congregant, who asked not to be named, told JTA. “I don’t think the effects are done. These effects go through the generations.”

Kesher Israel president Elanit Jakabovics said, “In the beginning it was a roller coaster ride; things have mostly settled down.”

The synagogue hired an interim rabbi, Avidan Milevsky, who like Shafner, is also a psychotherapist, and has spent Shabbat in Washington intermittently.

Milevsky “has done a tremendous job of bringing the community together and bringing the warmth that was missing back to the community,” Jakabovics said. 

Shafner said he has had “a lot of people” at Bais Abraham convert to Judaism.

“It’s really inspiring because sometimes if you grow up as a Jew, you take it a little bit for granted, but” converts “really take it on and value it.”

Shafner acts as a sponsor for people seeking to convert but he does so through the Chicago Rabbinical Council, an Orthodox group with a beit din, a rabbinic court dedicated to handling conversions, divorces and other matters. As head of the conversion committee, Freundel had significant latitude and not only videotaped women, but also forced potential converts to do clerical work and donate to the beit din.

“I think it’s important that the rabbi of the synagogue, perhaps, not do the actual conversion of a candidate from his synagogue,” said Shafner. “(That way) the rabbi doesn’t feel pressured because someone wants to give a donation …It keeps it all on the up and up.”

Even before the scandal, some Kesher Israel congregants had “a hard time connecting” with Freundel, who had been at the Georgetown synagogue for 25 years, said Jakabovics. After firing Freundel in November 2014, the synagogue conducted a survey to find out what congregants wanted in the next rabbi. It found they were “looking for someone who was down to earth, who you could relate to and wouldn’t have any problems building relationships with people in the community,” added Jakabovics.  She said the synagogue has actually gained members since before revelations of Freundel’s actions. In 2013, there were 225 member units; today there are about 239.

Shafner will not be joining a congregation that is still in shock, said Leon Wieseltier, a member of the search committee. He also is a former literary editor at the New Republic and the author of “Kaddish,” which won the National Jewish Book Award. 

“This is not about healing; we have healed,” said Wieseltier, who has been a member for 20 years. “This is about finding a rabbi who can be both a heart and a mind.”

Over a Shabbat at Kesher, Shafner’s “learning was obvious” and he was “uncommonly warm and solicitous. He just seemed to be enthusiastic about human relations,” said Wieseltier. 

Moving forward and building community

In addition to Wieseltier and Lieberman, the synagogue has hosted a litany of other Jewish politicians, writers and government officials. 

“There are people who earn their living in the vineyards of government and politics, but that is not most of what you hear. It’s a very lively congregation. There are a great many smart people in it and a great many funny people in it. I don’t think there is anything especially Washingtonian about it except that there are many transient young people,” said Wieseltier. 

Shafner said one of the first things he heard from Kesher Israel members was “you can never talk about politics from the pulpit because everyone wants to leave that aside for Shabbat.”

He also doesn’t plan to talk about the scandal.

“It’s about moving forward and building community,” said Shafner, who also spent a year working in Bombay, India before coming to St. Louis. He plans to implement some of the same innovative programming he did at Bais Abraham. For example, in 2013, after Shabbat services, the synagogue hosted a panel discussion aimed at building inclusion around LGBT Orthodox Jews. On Shavuot, Bais Abe hosts members of Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations for a night of Torah learning. Shafner also has reached out to secular Israelis who moved to St. Louis and had no connection to any synagogue. The congregation started a Hebrew school aimed at children in these families.

Shafner said he felt like it was the right opportunity to take the “vision of community that I have tried to build at Bais Abraham and do it at a bigger synagogue in a larger city.”

In Washington, “I’ll have to figure out what are the markets there. What are the needs there? Are there secular Israelis who have a need for Jewish education? It’s Washington, so maybe it’s something else there. Maybe all the senators need to learn a little more Torah,” said Shafner. 

He also recognizes that he needs to regain the local Orthodox Jewish community’s trust. When he visited the synagogue, he said people told him they weren’t sure they wanted to be led by a rabbi, as opposed to a lay leader.

New challenges and opportunities

Shafner’s wife, Sara Winkelman, has spent seven years as director of Nishmah, a local Jewish women’s organization. She and Shafner have three children who will spend the next year in high school, Israel and college in the United States.

“We have loved being here but I think as our kids got older, it felt like maybe God wants us to do more in the world, maybe we need to take to take on a new challenge,” said Winkelman, who may work to build a Nishmah chapter in Washington and turn it into a national organization. “We don’t have family here; we’ll be a lot closer to family” on the East Coast, “but we have been here for 20 years and our friends have become our family, so it’s hard.”

“I feel like the shul needs my husband; his combination of being a therapist and a rabbi makes him the perfect person to help heal them,” Winkelman said. “I think they are an amazing congregation even given all they have been through.”

Bais Abraham, which held a farewell for the Shafners on Sunday, has formed a search committee and is looking for both an interim rabbi and a permanent rabbi. 

The synagogue hopes to have someone in place by the High Holidays in 2018, Friedman said.

“I have mixed feelings; [Shafner] has been a great leader of our synagogue and the Jewish community, But on the other hand, it’s a great opportunity for him, and I wish him well,” said Friedman, an attorney.

For his part, Shafner is confident in the staff and lay leadership at Bais Abraham. 

“If it’s all about the rabbi and the rabbi leaves, that’s a problem,” he said. “So a successful community is one where you have really inspired the community to be strong, where the rabbi can leave and the community retains its vision.”