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Shalom, Chaverim! Introducing Connecticut’s New Spiritual Leaders

ct cover 12-2-11By Cindy Mindell

Every summer, several Connecticut synagogues welcome new rabbis and cantors to the bimah. This year, eight new rabbis and two new cantors join our Jewish community. The Ledger introduces them here.



L25RabbisBRabbi Rona Shapiro

Congregation B’nai Jacob, Woodbridge

Rabbi Rona Shapiro comes to Woodbridge from Cleveland, where she served for four years as the rabbi of Congregation Bethaynu and for two years as a rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation. Prior to that position, she served as senior associate of Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project in New York from 2000 to 2007 and executive director of Berkeley Hillel from 1990 to 2000.

A New York native, Shapiro received her BA, Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, from Harvard. She spent two years studying in Israel at the Pardes Institute and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990, among the first women graduates. She has written and published numerous articles, is founding editor of ritualwell.org, and a graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

“I was always a child in search of spiritual meaning,” Shapiro says of her decision to become a rabbi. “During two years spent in Israel during and after college, I was able to connect that search to the context of community and came to realize the importance of having a community of shared meaning and purpose. I decided that I wanted to be part of building such communities.”

Shapiro says that she is inspired by the “impressive legacy” of Congregation B’nai Jacob and excited by the idea of serving a university community. “I am impressed with the dedication and commitment of B’nai Jacob members and I believe that building on our strong foundation, we will be able to create something meaningful and inspiring,” she says.

Shapiro hopes to bring her diversity of experience in the Jewish community, as well as her passion for Torah, learning, and spirituality. “I am excited to return to my New England roots and be part of a small but vibrant community,” she says. “It is clear to me, in our short time here, that people’s commitment to their synagogue and each other runs deep. I look forward to being part of this family.”

Shapiro is married to David Franklin and they are parents of two daughters. She has a passion for hiking, biking, and camping. And, she says, “I know the whole outfield of the ‘69 Mets and lyrics to most Broadway musicals.”



Rabbi David LipperRabbi David Lipper (interim rabbi)

Temple B’nai Chaim, Georgetown

Hailing from Houston, Rabbi David Lipper has served congregations, as both permanent and interim rabbi, in Milwaukee, Akron, Ohio, and McAllen, San Antonio, and Houston, Tex.

Lipper graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in political science. He then attended Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and Cincinnati, where he received a Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters in 1987 and rabbinic ordination in 1988.

“My journey to the rabbinate was the culmination of a lifetime of engagement in Jewish life,” Lipper says. “As a child, through high school, and then at college, I was consistently engaged in Jewish activity. At the end of college, when faced with what to do next, my two choices were law school and rabbinical school and the rabbinate won out: I always felt that the world could do with one less lawyer and one more rabbi.”

After serving for eight years at Temple Israel in Akron, Lipper left in 2009 and took a sabbatical year back in Texas. There, he received certification as a non-profit executive from Rice University and began working pro bono with nonprofits in the Houston area on development issues and organizational redesign. That work led him to a two-year stint with the small, fledgling Temple Chai in San Antonio that sought organizational help and rabbinic guidance. He was then invited to serve as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock.

Lipper pursued additional training through the Interim Ministry Network. The role of an interim rabbi is unique, he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to serve a congregation at an emotionally vulnerable time, to help them focus their energies and learn more about who they are as a congregation and what they’re looking for in their next rabbi,” he says. “I have judged my success by the success of the congregation to find their next rabbi. That’s an important piece of why I’m there, but I’m also there to make sure that Jewish life continues, that kids have their b’nai mitzvah, that religious school continues, and that Shabbat activities continue.”

Rabbi Lipper and his wife Dora have three children.



Cantor Rafael BokovCantor Rafael Bokow

Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford

Chazzan Rafael Bokow comes to Stamford after serving as High Holiday cantor at Congregation Ohav Shalom, in Merrick, N.Y. and Young Israel of Sunny Isles Beach in Florida. For six years prior, he was cantor at the Netherlee, Clarkston & Queen’s Park Hebrew Congregation in Glasgow, Scotland. In addition, he has performed at weddings and concerts in South Africa, Israel, Scotland, Spain, and the U.S. An accomplished and prolific composer, Bokow plays piano, guitar, and clarinet.

Bokow grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his father is a rabbi. As a young boy, he was a soloist in his father’s synagogue choir. He is operatically trained and studied cantorial and liturgical music in informal settings. Since arriving in the U.S., he has been doing freelance cantorial work throughout the Tri-State area.

Bokow is pursuing a nursing career. He and his 7-year-old daughter live in Stamford.



Rabbi David ReinerRabbi David Reiner

Temple Shearith Israel, Ridgefield

Rabbi David Reiner grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of Rabbi Emeritus Fred Reiner of Temple Sinai, and Sherry Levy-Reiner, former development director at the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Reiner has always been dedicated to serving the Jewish community, but it wasn’t until he picked up a detective novel in college that he even considered a career as a Jewish professional leader.

“I was pre-med but had decided that medical school wasn’t for me, so I was considering law school, studying Supreme Court cases,” he recalls. “I picked up Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman, which tells the story of a rabbi in a small town who solves murders, and he is portrayed as a judge, responsible for interpreting the law and applying it to people’s lives. I realized that the logic I enjoyed reading about in Supreme Court cases, I could put into a Jewish context.”

Reiner graduated cum laude from the University of Rochester in N.Y., earning highest honors from the Department of Religion and Classics, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where he also received a master of arts in Hebrew Letters.

“In addition to what initially inspired me to enter the rabbinate, my commitment evolved during rabbinical school, as I saw the impact a rabbi can have,” Reiner says. “To share in moments of greatest joy and darkest sadness is an incredible blessing and opportunity.”

Reiner comes to Ridgefield from the Greater Rochester area, where he served part-time as rabbi of University of Rochester Hillel and of Temple Beth-El in Geneva. At TSI, “I was excited to find a fulltime opportunity,” he says. “This is a congregation hungry for Judaism and Jewish community and really excited about the possibilities of being transformed into a more vibrant congregation. That was something I had been working on in Geneva and I am excited to continue on a larger scale in Ridgefield.”

While an undergraduate, Reiner discovered a passion for archeology, and spent two summers on a dig in Arezzo, Italy that revealed trade connections with ancient Palestine dating to 700 B.C.E.

Reiner is married to Ashley Susan Heller.



Rabbi Rick ShapiroRabbi Rick Shapiro (interim senior rabbi)

Temple Israel, Westport

Rabbi Rick Shapiro comes to Westport from Temple Beth El in Pensacola, Fla., where he was interim rabbi. He has also served congregations in Denver; Stockton, Santa Barbara, and Palm Desert, Calif.; Great Neck, Long Island; and Cincinnati.

Shapiro grew up in southern California in what he describes as “an extremely assimilated, uninvolved Jewish home” and never considered a Jewish life, let alone a Jewish profession, until his undergraduate years at UCLA.

Drafted after sophomore year to serve in Germany during the Viet Nam War, Shapiro was inspired by the Jewish military chaplains he met. “It began to occur to me that a combination of my growing interest in Judaism and a profession in which I could work with people might lead me to the rabbinate,” he says.

After completing military service in 1974, Shapiro earned a B.A. in Jewish studies at UCLA and entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1976, where he received his M.A. in Hebrew Letters in 1979, rabbinic ordination in 1981, and Doctor of Divinity (Honorus Causa) in 2006. He went on to gain extensive training and experience as a synagogue transition specialist/intentional interim rabbi, one of only a handful of rabbis trained in this field.

Shapiro came to the specialization after leaving a congregational pulpit to work as the Orange County regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a position that didn’t pan out. “During that period, I realized that I really had and still have a calling to be a pulpit rabbi,” he recalls. “But I also began to do a lot of reading about the concepts and theories of interim ministry. I had known many interim Christian clergy and had been an unintentional interim rabbi during my career – someone who goes in to succeed an out-going rabbi and ends up crashing and burning. I decided that the Reform movement desperately needed to cultivate the interim-rabbi position.”

Shapiro was an active advocate for interim rabbinics in the national Reform movement, just when the issue was being considered by Union for Reform Judaism leadership. Temple Israel is the fifth congregation that Shapiro will serve as interim rabbi. “I love doing this kind of work, which brings together traditional rabbinics and organizational and transition management,” he says.

Rabbi Shapiro and his wife, Lynn, are the parents of two grown sons.



Rabbi P.J. SchwartzAssistant Rabbi P.J. Schwartz

Temple Israel, Westport

Assistant Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is newly ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also earned a Masters in Hebrew Letters and a Masters of Educational Administration with a specialization in Jewish education.  He has served congregations in Marion, Ind., Ishpeming, Mich., and Marion, Ohio. He comes to Westport from Cincinnati, where he served as rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple and rabbinic chaplain for Jewish Family Service.

A native of Greenville, S.C., Schwartz knew that he wanted to be a rabbi since high school. Active in the Temple of Israel in Greenville, he was especially inspired during Confirmation class. “The synagogue was the only place in which I felt I truly belonged,” says Schwartz, who went on to become involved at Jewish Student Union/Hillel at the College of Charleston, and at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, where he was a teacher and religious-studies intern.

“I always kept going back to Judaism as a place I felt I belonged,” he says, “and one of my main goals at Temple Israel is to help create a welcoming place for others.”

As a recent rabbinical school graduate, Schwartz has been looking at trends in the Reform movement and its affiliated congregations, which will inform his work at Temple Israel. “There has always been this struggle with engaging congregants,” he says. “More than ever, URJ [Union of Reform Judaism] is trying to redefine what that looks like. There is an emphasis on youth engagement; the premise is that we’re all worried about what happens after bar/bat mitzvah and whether our kids will stick around. But we forget that there are seven-plus years prior to that time when they’re in this Jewish setting, and it’s an opportunity that we need to reexamine and make more effective use of.”

Schwartz chose Temple Israel because of the team approach among clergy, administration, and board. “I was always looking to be part of a community in which I could be part of a collaborative environment and grow into my rabbinate,” he says. “Among all my interviews, the feeling of ‘this is the place’ was stronger, which is a testament about what this congregation is about and what it’s becoming.”

Rabbi Schwartz is married to Michelle Schwartz.



Rabbi Rachel SafmanRabbi Rachel Safman

Temple Beth El, New London

Rachel Safman is a second-career rabbi who began her professional journey as a medical sociologist.

Safman earned a BS in biology at Harvard and thought that she would go on to a career in medicine or medical research. “But there wasn’t enough emphasis on people,” she says. Instead, she earned a PhD from the sociology department at Cornell, exploring health issues with an emphasis on the impact of illness on those affected and their families.

Raised in Gaithersburg, Md., Safman had been Involved in the Jewish community since high school, when she coached b’nai mitzvah students and led services, and was later active in Hillel as a Harvard undergraduate. Safman was an exchange student in northern Thailand during college, and returned there to conduct graduate research, just as the AIDS epidemic was emerging. She became an advisor to the Thai government and various NGOs on how to help families and communal organizations provide care for AIDS sufferers.

After completing a post-doc at Cornell, Safman landed a tenure-track teaching position at National University of Singapore. There, she became involved with the country’s two Jewish congregations – the historic Baghdadi Orthodox Maghain Aboth Synagogue and a fledgling mixed-progressive Jewish chavurah-type community.

“That involvement became the tail that wagged the dog,” she says of her experience, which quickly evolved from avocation to near-profession. It was during the visit of an American rabbi, brought in to lead High-Holiday and Pesach services, that Safman had an epiphany: “We were observing the visible signposts of Jewish life, but we weren’t addressing the ongoing needs of our Jewish community and, in fact, we couldn’t even see them,” she says. “I realized that the ability to delve into the more profound needs and foundational building of the community required somebody with professional training, an understanding of our tradition, the ways the community works and builds and grows, and the way a given Jewish community fits into the larger Jewish world.”

On a year’s leave from her teaching position, Safman realized that she wanted to be that person. In May, she received ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies-American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where she served as rabbinic intern at Mishkon Tephilo Synagogue.

At Congregation Beth El, “we’re working hard to show that there are reasons to come to the synagogue beyond the High Holidays,” she says: “to be part of what’s going on here, to build Jewish community, to see that your family has a home and that your children grow up with a Jewish vocabulary and with Judaism as a part of their own identity.”

Rabbi Safman and husband Daniel Robinson have a two-year-old son.



Cantor Michelle TeplitzCantor Michelle Teplitz 

Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Bridgeport

Woodbridge native Michelle Teplitz grew up at Congregation B’nai Jacob, where she graced the bimah not only to celebrate her bat mitzvah and wedding, but also as parttime cantor in 2011.

Teplitz knew at an early age that she wanted to be a cantor. An original member of the B’nai Jacob High Holiday Quartet and Choir, she began davening Shabbat services when she was just 14 and helped lead High Holiday services at the synagogue. She starred in several BJ Players productions, most notably as the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and in Children of Eden.

She earned a BA in music education from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and a Masters in Jewish music and cantorial studies from Gratz College in Philadelphia. For more than a decade, she has been an elementary music teacher in public and Jewish day schools, most recently at the Springdale and Stillmeadow Elementary Schools in Stamford. She has performed as a cantor in Conservative synagogues throughout the Northeast, often with leading fellow cantors from the movement.

Cantor Teplitz and husband Ari (former USY advisor at B’nai Jacob) live in Norwalk with their daughter.



Greg WallRabbi Greg Wall

Beit Chaverim Synagogue, Westport

Framingham, Mass. native Greg Wall began his professional career as a jazz saxophonist in New York City in the mid-‘80s, after graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. And it was music that led him on “a long strange journey” to the rabbinate, he says. Playing at Chasidic weddings, he was fascinated by the variety of Jews he met on the Orthodox New York scene.

“I didn’t grow up Orthodox, and it was new being around people with a strong commitment to Jewish identity and practice,” he says. “I wanted to find out more about it so I started studying.”

After Wall got married, he and his wife decided to send their children to Jewish day schools. “The type of background I have is that Judaism is for kids,” he says. “This is a big problem we have in America, because the parents aren’t engaging in Jewish education but are sending their kids to day schools, and nobody is very fulfilled. I was determined not to make that mistake with my children and so I started studying and really loved it.”

The next thing Wall knew, he was on the road to the rabbinate, receiving ordinations from the Chief Rabbi of Haifa in 2006, the Beit Din of Jerusalem in 2007, and Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim in Jerusalem in 2009.

There are parallels between music and Jewish learning, Wall says. “One of the things that attracted me to music was the vastness – it’s like an ocean and you can never get a handle on all of it,” he says. When I discovered Torah, I realized that it was much bigger. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.”

After ordination, Wall served as rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in Manhattan’s East Village, where he also founded the Center for Jewish Life and Literacy, a “laboratory” for the model of bringing arts and Judaism together.

It is an approach that he is importing to Westport. “There are a lot of roads leading to a satisfying Jewish life and you have to be creative; it’s not one-size fits all,” he says. “The Jewish institutions do a lot of great things but a lot of people don’t find a place in those settings. Perhaps this approach will speak to those who haven’t found a home in the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Wall and his wife, Rona, have three children.



Rabbi Chagie RubinRabbi Chagie Rubin

Congregation Agudas Achim, West Hartford

A native of East New York, Brooklyn, Chagie Rubin studied at the St. Louis Rabbinical College and at Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal, where he was ordained in 1979. A longtime Jewish educator before and after entering the rabbinate – “My first love is Jewish education,” he says – Rubin has taught all ages and served as Jewish day school principal and yeshiva staff in several U.S. communities – Cincinnati, Denver, Bridgeport, Fairfield, and New Haven – as well as in South Africa. He is currently teaching at Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, and Merkaz Community High School for Judaic Studies in Bridgeport. He is also involved in the Vaad HaKashrus of Fairfield County and the New Haven Eruv Committee.

Rubin comes to Congregation Agudas Achim from Young Israel of New Haven, where he served as rabbi for four years until the financial struggles of the aging congregation forced the leadership to cut the position. While there, Rubin increased adult education opportunities and guided four people through the conversion process.

At the 125-year-old Congregation Agudas Achim, Rubin will work to increase membership, draw young families, and re-establish a Hebrew school and adult education programming.

A self-avowed superhero fan and Trekkie, Rubin is known for his popular lectures on the connection between Judaism and superheroes, a subject he has taught at Merkaz, the now-defunct Makom teen-education program at Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, and other venues. He is also a “wild” fan of the Yankees and Chicago Cubs. Rabbi Rubin and wife Deena have 11 children and five grandchildren.

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