This week, the Ledger continues its introduction of several spiritual leaders who have joined – or plan to join – Connecticut congregations this summer and fall. (See Part 1 of this 2 part series)
Rabbi Daniel Victor
Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Bridgeport
Daniel Victor always knew that he wanted to be involved in community service. A native of Newton, Mass., Victor attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston through eighth grade.
“I grew up with a very rich Jewish home experience,” he says. “Judaism was exciting and our routine and created my sense of community.”
Victor ‘s father, Michael Victor, is a long-time member of the world acclaimed Zamir Chorale of Boston. His mother, Prof. Serene Victor, is a major figure in Jewish education, having served as consultant for Synagogue Education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, lecturer and faculty member of Brandeis University, mentor, and a resource for Jewish educators throughout the world. She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
“I had many discussions with my parents about what would happen when I left that community,” he says. “When I got to Brandeis, I was inspired by the rabbis I met who energized and stimulated people. I saw that as my own opportunity to create community. I learned that socializing wasn’t just about watching a ballgame, but thinking about what makes our role in the world significant, and what gives me the power to make an impact in the world. Going to rabbinical school meant that I was learning a system I believe in – how to live a Jewish and humane life, how to teach it, and how to articulate it for myself.”
Victor received his rabbinic ordination and a Masters in Jewish education in May 2009 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. At JTS, he received several awards and fellowships, among them the Alexander Shapiro Memorial Fellowship, given by the National Camp Ramah Commission; the Crown Family Fellowship; The Harold Bernstein Fellowship; and the Nirenburg Education Merit scholarship.
Victor served as student rabbi and rabbinic intern at Northwestern University, The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, Hebrew Congregation of Wichita, Kans., and Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, Md. “I was mentored by Rabbi David Small at The Emanuel and am excited to be back in his state,” Victor says. “He’s been a major influence.”
After ordination, Victor served as rabbi-in-residence at East Midwood Hebrew Day School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he developed a rabbinics curriculum for middle-school students and helped start a project to cultivate Jewish values during informal school times. He also worked as educational consultant at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. For the past year, he has served as assistant rabbi at Temple Adath in Syracuse, N.Y.
“As a rabbi, I like to talk about practical stuff,” Victor says. “How to respond as a community to practical and political issues, and to have the conversation about God and philosophy and how to live a sacred life. Without those conversations, life can be a little parve. I want to be wowed. As Jews, we should always be striving to gain more understanding and to grow in the traditions we practice. We should never be satisfied with who we are.”
Victor finds the “wow” in restorative outlets like sports – “I’ll talk sports with anyone because it’s like a religion,” he says – as well as nature and music. And, of course, in community. “So many people are defined by their work these days, and it’s so sad,” he says. “That’s certainly part of our existence, but what else is in that pie? How can a Jewish community – a synagogue or a JCC or the Jewish Home – feed who you are as a whole person? I look forward to engaging with the entire community. It’s not just about the institutions, but about what Judaism is in Eastern Fairfield County.”
Rabbi David Saiger
Assistant Rabbi, Temple Sholom, Greenwich
This is the first fulltime rabbinical position for “Rav David,” who was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in May. But he is already a veteran of Jewish education and communal work.
“I grew up in a family who was not only very committed Jewishly, but also creative in the ways they expressed that dedication,” Saiger says. “As a result, my Jewishness has always been the strongest part of my identity.” His mother worked for the Shoah Foundation and his father is a long-time lay leader of the renowned Temple Beth Am Library Minyan in Los Angeles.
Saiger attended Jewish day-schools exclusively, before majoring in philosophy at Emory University. The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Saiger worked throughout his high-school and college years in Jewish settings. “Whether teaching, tutoring, running programs for Jewish summer camps during college, or being a counselor at Ramah, passing on the beauty of our Jewish traditions was the most important thing to me,” he says.
Saiger spent two years studying in Jerusalem, as a junior at Hebrew University, and before entering the Jewish Theological Seminary, at Pardes Institute. Over the course of his studies at JTS, Rav David worked at HillelNYU, at a number of synagogues, and at Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where he met his future wife, fellow counselor Elizabeth Jefferson. He was ordained in May at JTS, where he also completed an MA in Jewish literature.
Jefferson, a Houston native, is a student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The couple was married earlier this month and relocated to Greenwich. The two are avid outdoors enthusiasts, enjoying the area opportunities for biking, tennis, and kayaking.
At Temple Sholom, Saiger plans to expand on his experience teaching and learning with all age groups. “It’s a place where I can also stretch myself, both in my interactions with members of the community I’ll be serving, and by being mentored by Rabbi Mitch [Hurvitz],” he says. “I hope to bring a lot of the vibrant Conservative Judaism my wife and I were both raised in, not only to everything we do as a family, but to the synagogue and Jewish community at large.”
Rabbi Dena Shaffer
Assistant Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel , West Hartford
Dena Shaffer knew she wanted to be a rabbi while she was still a child.
Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Shaffer and her sister represented the fourth generation of a Jewishly involved family that is still active at the Reform Temple B’rith Kodesh.
“For us, our synagogue was like our home,” she says. “Having been there since we were small, my sister and I knew every nook and cranny, and were very involved in the local Jewish youth group, and in regional National Federation of Temple Youth. Both my parents and my grandparents have always connected to their Judaism by being generous with their money and their time. They have taught me, through their example, the importance of Jewish community and what it means to give back to the community and sustain it for future generations.”
Shaffer credits Camp Eisner, the Reform movement’s Jewish summer camp, with further forging her Jewish identity. “I literally ‘grew up’ during those summers, and I discovered how interested I was in my faith and traditions,” she says. “I got to see rabbis in their element; working with young people and changing lives. I witnessed first-hand their passion for Judaism and I benefited from their knowledge. I also got to see them as real people for the first time. Who knew that rabbis could wear shorts and say things like ‘cool’ and ‘awesome!’?
Shaffer declared her professional intentions to her parents one day after services. An avid martial artist since age three, Shaffer’s commitment was cemented during a conversation with her Tae Kwon Do instructor when she was 13. “His teacher had once told him, ‘’When someone whispers the truth into your left ear, and someone else asks of it from your right, you have an obligation to share that truth,’” she recalls. “This really hit me and I began to think of all the people who had shared the truth with me and influenced me through their knowledge and wisdom. So many of them were rabbis. It really began to click with me that I might have the opportunity to impact someone else the way my rabbis had for me.”
Shaffer went on to Brandeis University, where she earned a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic studies and a BA in East Asian history.
She was ordained in 2010 from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. While at HUC, Shaffer served as a student rabbi in Texarkana, Tex., and at the Culver Academies boarding school in Culver, Ind., and as a rabbinic intern at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio. After ordination, Shaffer served at Cornell University Hillel in Ithaca, N.Y. as the Reform Rabbinic Fellow.
Shaffer hopes to bring her passion for Jewish life to her new position at Beth Israel. “I want to help people realize that Judaism can be a holistic experience, that it can influence and lend meaning to all aspects of our lives,” she says. “It can provide an overarching lens through which we live meaningful lives and make an impact on our world. I view Judaism as a rubber band; for it to work, to ensure its vitality and relevance, we have to stretch it. And yet we know that even the broadest of rubber bands will snap and break if we stretch it too far; there is a preserving power and sense of comfort that comes from our ancient traditions. This balance, which I am constantly seeking in my own Jewish life, is something I hope to help both individuals and our congregation find. I am blessed to be working with a great team and a wonderful senior rabbi who teaches by example and by the paradigm of ‘menschlichkeit.’ I have so much to learn from the strong foundation that is Congregation Beth Israel, hopefully we’ll grow together!”
Rabbi Fred Hyman
The Westville Synagogue (Beth HaMedrosh HaGadol – B’nai Israel), New Haven
Rabbi Fred Hyman has many threads weaving through his life. One is the Boston Red Sox. The Boston native is a third-generation fan, raising a fourth. He attended Maimonides School in Brookline, which served as a springboard to his decision to enter the rabbinate.
“I was drawn to the challenge and passion of teaching Torah to people and making lives meaningful in the context of synagogue and community,” he says. “Maimonides School gave me a solid foundation, and I was inspired by many of the rabbis there, as well as friends and the Jewish community.”
Here’s where the Red Sox enter the picture in a meaningful way. Hyman first visited Israel when he was 12, on a pre-bar mitzvah trip with his aunt and older brother. In Jerusalem, they visited the Kotel on a Friday night, where they saw groups of yeshiva boys dancing in celebration of Shabbat.
“I was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and one of the boys looked over and said something like, ‘I like your hat’ or ‘Go, Red Sox,’” he recalls. “Six years later, when I was 18, I spent a year studying at Yeshivat HaKotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. One Friday night, I was dancing at the Kotel with my fellow yeshiva students and there was a little kid in a Red Sox baseball cap and I said, ‘Go, Red Sox!’ He looked at me with amazement in his eyes, and I imagined him in six years, attending the yeshiva.”
Hyman graduated from Brandeis University and received smicha from RIETS/Yeshiva University.
Before coming to the Westville Synagogue, Hyman served as associate rabbi of Park East Synagogue in New York and rabbi of Congregation Kodimoh in Springfield, Mass. He is a doctoral candidate in education and psychology at the American International College in Springfield, Mass.
Through his rabbinical work, Hyman has developed a deep interest in psychology and education, which has led him to study the disciplines in a PhD program at American International College in Springfield, Mass.
He has been active in the Hebrew High School of New England, the West Hartford day school that serves greater Hartford, the New Haven area, and Springfield. It was through his involvement there that he learned of the position at the Westville Synagogue.
In his work and study, Hyman has a particular interest in the field of Positive Psychology, to which he was introduced by one of his professors.
“It really struck me with a ‘Eureka!’ moment that Judaism and religion in general have known these truths for a long time,” he says. “Positive Psychology restores the approach that the field of psychology had lost, when it focused on, described, and treated only disorders and disease. The chief architect of the movement, Dr. Martin Seligman, charted a course in the opposite direction: psychology has to be involved with the positive qualities of life and in enhancing life – focusing on the meaning, happiness, wellbeing, resiliency, optimism, and hope that can help humanity in a positive sense, and not just treat the disorder.”
This, Hyman says, is the stuff of Judaism and religion in general: resilience, hope, and optimism as a “scientific buttress” for a life of belief and faith. “Positive Psychology doesn’t ‘prove’ faith or the existence of God,” he says. “But it shows how religion has developed in a way that really does promote psychological health. Religious and spiritual values and meaning play an important psychological role in wellbeing. In my work, I try to blend my psychology study and my rabbinic training.”
And, he says, he is proud to have convinced his three daughters, all New York-born, to carry the Red Sox banner.