By Cindy Mindell
NEWTOWN – After 13 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Israel, the only synagogue in Newtown, Rabbi Shaul Praver is leaving the pulpit. The congregation held a special Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday, May 29 to honor Praver’s tenure.
“Essentially, Adath Israel, like so many other synagogues, has been dealing with financial issues for quite some time,” says Karen Klein of the Adath Israel board. “As a result, we had to make some difficult decisions, including the realization that our membership, as it is today, could not sustain a full-time rabbi’s salary. With that in mind, we offered Rabbi Praver a part-time post but it did not serve his needs, so he declined.”
Klein says that the Adath Israel board voted to approve a severance for Praver, who will stay on through June to finish preparing his last bar mitzvah student.
Praver joined Adath Israel in 2002 and saw the congregation through the 2007 relocation from its original building, erected by a group of Jewish farmers in the early 1900s, to the new synagogue on Huntingtown Road.
A trained cantor and a recording artist whose weekly Rabbi Rock cable-access TV Jewish cultural program ran for a decade, Praver incorporated guitar and conga drum into synagogue services as a way to encourage wider participation. In 2009, when the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act 08-138, “An Act Concerning High School Credit for Private World Language Courses and for Other Subject Areas,” Praver created an interactive virtual classroom that allowed students from around the state to study Hebrew, some for public-school credit.
As an active member of the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association, Praver has worked to raise awareness of antisemitism among community leaders and is serving this year as Judaic scholar-in-residence at Newtown Congregational Church. He literally took the international stage in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, when he sang the Jewish funeral dirge, El Maleh Rachamim, during the Newtown interfaith prayer vigil.
In response to the shootings, Praver founded the Global Coalition for Peace and Civility (GCPC), a national 501(c)(3) (application pending) non-profit organization based in Newtown whose mission is to combat violence by strengthening civil dialogue. He continues to offer pastoral counseling to victims’ families.
Praver says that he was moved to create GCPC as an alternative to the black-and-white and often aggressive debates over firearms that arose after the Sandy Hook tragedy. The focus on dialog is “a very Jewish way of communicating,” he says: the principles practiced by the House of Hillel, a school of Jewish law and thought established by Hillel the Elder in Jerusalem during the 1st century B.C.E. “It has to do with respecting other people and showing them that you understand their points of view, and only then do you offer your own opinion.” Praver has been using the technique as a participant on national panels discussing firearms and other contentious issues.
One of two Jewish chaplains serving the Connecticut Department of Correction, Praver is chaplain-rabbi of the eastern aisle, from Brooklyn to Bridgeport, including the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. He will continue in the post.
While the Adath Israel search committee hopes to hire a new part-time rabbi by the High Holidays, services will be led by lay leaders and visiting rabbis. After the amicable parting of ways, “I will still be Newtown’s rabbi,” says Praver, who intends to remain in Fairfield, where he lives with his wife and their three children. n
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CAP: Rabbi Shaul Praver