This summer and fall, a host of new rabbis and cantors have or will ascend to the pulpits of congregations all across Connecticut. Ledger staff writer Cindy Mindell spoke with each of these Connecticut newcomers to learn more about where they came from… and where they hope to take their congregations. This week we introduce five of these spiritual leaders, with more to come next week.
Rabbi Levi and Chanie Schectman
Chabad at Wesleyan University, Middletown
Rabbi Levi and Chanie Schectman are the first full-time Chabad staff-members to serve Wesleyan University. Their arrival marks the opening of the eighth Chabad center in Greater Hartford.
“Considering that a high percentage of the student body at Wesleyan is Jewish, it is most appropriate that we redouble our efforts on this campus,” says Rabbi Joseph Gopin, regional director of Chabad of Greater Hartford. “Our goal is to educate future leaders about our storied history and beautiful traditions.”
The Schectmans, both natives of Brooklyn, N.Y., have extensive backgrounds in Jewish educational and communal activities. Rabbi Schectman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y, and grew up in Milwaukee, Wis. After attending local Jewish day schools, he studied at several yeshivas in the U.S. and Israel, earning his rabbinical ordination in 2006. He has worked in numerous Chabad outreach programs, including cultural trips to Russia and Poland, and has been active in developing educational programming for Jewish college students. Chanie Schectman is an educator.
Chabad has offered classes, holiday celebrations, and workshops on campus for several decades, beginning in the ‘70s when Rabbi Joseph and Miriam Gopin established the first Connecticut Chabad location, in Hartford. In recent years, Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky, director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Glastonbury, has represented Chabad at Wesleyan.
“This is an elite and diverse school with students of all backgrounds, and is an open-minded community with a healthy appetite for searching and for knowledge,” Wolvovsky says. “In my own limited involvement on campus, I have seen a thirst for understanding and for community. But while we are proud of our continuing activities at Wesleyan, it is very clear that we cannot truly serve the campus community with our current staff, and we need a full-time Chabad presence. Considering their backgrounds and passion for Judaism, we are confident that the Schectmans will be successful in engaging the community.”
Rabbi Levi and Chanie have already conducted several events at Wesleyan, including classes, a mobile sukkah, and a model matza bakery
Wolvovsky says that, while Chabad is among the largest and increasingly popular Jewish campus institutions throughout the world, the organization prides itself for being locally run and responsive to the specific needs of each community. Chabad maintains a presence at nearly 300 U.S. universities nationwide.
“Wesleyan is a famously diverse and inclusive community,” says Rabbi Schectman. “We look forward to contributing to the diversity and vibrancy of the school.”
Emulating other Chabad locations, the Schectmans intend to work with existing campus organizations and identify areas where Chabad can add its unique perspective and flavor. “We view ourselves as complementing the current structure of campus life,” Shechtman says.
Rabbi John Franken
Temple Sinai, Stamford
Rabbi John Franken comes to Temple Sinai after serving as spiritual leader at Temple Israel in St. Louis and Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Mass.
A Connecticut native, Rabbi Franken grew up in the New Haven area, where his first ancestors arrived from Bavaria in 1850 and helped establish the state’s first synagogue, Mishkan Israel. His great-great-great uncle, Samuel Zunder, was among the first Jewish spiritual leaders to serve the community.
It was in that same congregation where Franken grew up. “Owing to that experience and to my family, Judaism assumed a central place in my life from an early age, shaping the person I am today,” he says. “I was taught to love Judaism and the Jewish people, two loves which led me to my becoming a rabbi whose mission is to teach, guide and nurture Jews.”
But the rabbinate wasn’t what Rabbi Franken always aspired to. First, he would earn a BA summa cum laude in political science from Tufts University and a JD with honors in law from University of Maryland. After practicing law in Washington, D.C., both for a law firm and for the U.S. government, “I decided that being a rabbi would be a lot more meaningful and a lot more fun,” he says.
Ordained in 2003 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Franken divided his studies equally between Jerusalem and New York. In Jerusalem, he was a fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Melton Center for Jewish Education. He also worked with Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, teaching children Hebrew and mathematics, and worked to strengthen democracy and religious pluralism there.
In addition to rabbinic ordination, Rabbi Franken earned a masters degree in Hebrew literature from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
In his previous posts, Rabbi Franken was especially active in worship transformation, outreach, social justice, youth and adult education, Israel engagement, and caring-community projects. While living in St. Louis, he served as chair of the Adult Institute of Jewish Studies, vice president and treasurer of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, and adjunct professor of Jewish law at the St. Louis University School of Law.
An avid traveler, Rabbi Franken has visited some 50 countries and served Jewish communities in Britain, Ireland, Israel, and Luxembourg. He enjoys the outdoors, all forms of Jewish learning, history, film, theater and tennis.
“I believe deeply in the power of the synagogue to touch lives and to transform Jewish life for the better,” he says. “Meaningful worship is essential to creating an ethos in which everyone feels emotionally, spiritually and intellectually swept up in the sacred life and destiny of the Jewish people.”
Cantor Mark Perman
Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom, Simsbury
Cantor Mark Perman succeeds Cantor Emeritus Susan Levine, who retired this year after 32 years with the congregation.
Perman was born in Brooklyn and raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Manhattan. He graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in 1982, and from New York University in 1986. As a child, he performed on Broadway in “Shenendoah,” toured with TheatreWorks USA, and appeared in TV commercials.
Perman began attending B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side in 1990, after his father died. “I was searching, saying Kaddish for my father, and looking for my connection Jewishly there,” he says. “I was inspired by the social action and the supportive community, and by how much people of all ages were into their Judaism. I had never felt that kind of energy in my own Jewish life.”
He became involved in many aspects of the synagogue, from bikur cholim to directing a youth choir. While Perman had studied cantorial music earlier, it was his involvement at B’nai Jeshurun that moved him to enter the cantorate. “I finally felt spiritually Jewish,” he says. “Hazzanut bridged the gap between my theater and broadcasting background and this higher calling that I’d found.”
Perman went on to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, where he was invested as a cantor in 1997 from The School of Sacred Music. He served as a Jewish chaplain for the MetroWest area of Essex County, N.J. and as chaplain at Hillel at Montclair State University. He comes to FVJC from Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga., where he served as cantor for the last six years.
He has toured New Jersey and greater Atlanta with his one-man show, “Bima to Broadway,” which combines various styles from the worlds of synagogue and theater.
Earlier this year, Perman played the role of Otto Frank in a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Sandy Springs, Ga. Among his other favorite roles are Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Emile de Becque in “South Pacific.” He served as consultant on the bar-mitzvah scene in the movie, “The First Wives Club,” in which he also appeared.
Perman has dabbled in radio over the years, hosting Jewish-themed talk-shows in Atlanta and New Jersey. While a congregant at B’nai Jeshurun, he worked with several conservative personalities, including Rush Limbaugh. “I was like a ping-pong ball,” he says. “I’d work all week with Rush, then spend Shabbat with the extremely liberal Rabbi Marshall Meyer. I learned how different people can inspire you, no matter how opposed their world-views might be.”
“I hope to continue to encourage our members to connect to their Judaism through music, education, and social action,” Perman says. “Sharing my spirituality with people is an important part of my cantorate, and I am excited to take an active and vital role in this warm and welcoming congregation and also within the Greater Hartford Jewish community.”
Rabbi Michelle Dardashti
Director of Community Engagement, Temple Beth El, Stamford
Rabbi Michelle Dardashti will fill a newly created position at Temple Beth El, working to strengthen the community through a grassroots model of engagement. She will be working with all age groups, but has been brought on to re-envision and create programming for teens, young professionals, and young families in particular
A Los Angeles native, Dardashti was raised predominantly in Baltimore, and her parents moved to Westchester, N.Y. during her last year of high school. She attended Binghamton University, SUNY, creating her own major of “Religion and Law” through the university’s Innovative Projects Board. She minored in theatre and international studies and graduated in 2002.
“I was raised in a home where Judaism was alive and vibrant and interacted with the world,” she says. “With an Iranian father who became a professional Hazzan, and a secular Zionist mother who was raised in Queens, went to the High School of Performing Arts and sang us medleys of folks songs from around the world, where “Hineh Ma Tov” and “Im Tirtzu” were melded with the likes of “Avanti Papelo” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”— my Judaism was global, multidenominational, and infused with lessons about social justice. As I grew, I increasingly came to realize how very unique the brand of Judaism with which I’d grown truly was and how, for so many Jews, Judaism was a sterile and dry vestige of the past with seemingly no relevance to their lives. Ultimately, I decided to become a rabbi in order to share my passion, vision, and experience of Judaism with others – in hopes that it would enrich their lives with the sort of meaning, joy and wisdom with which it has enriched my own.”
That, Dardashti says, is the “short answer” to her decision to enter the rabbinate.
Before pursuing her rabbinical training, Dardashti lived in Uruguay, where she taught at a Jewish day school, facilitated Hillel Montevideo programs, and wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She also lived in Israel, first on a Dorot Fellowship and later working for the Nesiya Institute.
While at JTS, Rabbi Dardashti held several positions in New York, including director of family programming at Congregation Shaare Zedek, educator for Interfaith Community, chaplain at Bellevue Hospital, and rabbi and hazzanit for JTS’s High Holy Day services. She was also trained in congregation-based community organizing through Jewish Funds for Justice and traveled to El Salvador as part of an American Jewish World Service rabbinical student delegation.
Dardashti was ordained and received a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She comes to TBE after two years as the Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. She now lives in Stamford with her husband, Australian native Nathan Sher, and daughter, Eden.
“People want and deserve for their synagogue affiliation to enrich their sense of community and nourish them spiritually,” she says.
I’m committed to listening to individuals within all constituencies- single, married, with, without, or post-children at home – meeting them where they are, and making it worth their while to join me and the rest of the TBE leadership in building an inspired and compelling community.”
More to come
Next week, the Ledger will welcome these new rabbis and cantors to Connecticut’s Jewish communities:
Rabbi Fred Hyman, Westville Synagogue, New Haven; Rabbi David Seiger, Temple Sholom, Greenwich; Rabbi Dena Shaffer, Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford; Rabbi Daniel Victor, Congregation Rodeph Sholom , Bridgeport; Cantor Kenneth Cohen, Hebrew Wizards Family Congregation, Greenwich