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Stratford rabbi heads to Westchester County

By Cindy Mindell

After 13 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai in Milford (formerly in West Haven), Rabbi Dana Bogatz has accepted a full-time position at First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill, N.Y. The first woman rabbi to serve the congregation in its 119-year-old history, she will succeed Rabbi Lee Paskind, who is retiring after seven years on the bimah. (Coincidentally, Paskind’s daughter, Ita, will begin her tenure this summer as the new rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Norwalk.)

A Meriden native, Bogatz was ordained in 1998 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She served as rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Stratford (now merged with Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull) and as assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield before joining Congregation Sinai in West Haven in 2002. The congregation relocated to a new building in Milford in 2007. Trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, Bogatz served as a chaplain at Bridgeport Hospital, Jewish Family Services in Bridgeport, Tower One/Tower East in New Haven and, since 2013, at Brownstein Jewish Family Service in Southbury.

Bogatz is founder of the Connecticut’s first – and only – “Death Café,” a discussion group where people can talk openly about death with the aim of making the most of their finite lives. The Southbury-based Death Cafe will continue on a modified scale, and Bogatz was asked by First Hebrew Congregation leadership to establish a group in Peekskill.

As a rabbi, Bogatz strives to create a welcoming environment of lifelong learning for all ages and levels.

“If you were 80 years old and going to synagogue for 70 years and you didn’t know what the word Amidah is, you could ask and find out and not be intimidated – you would be honored for wanting to learn more,” she says. “A Sinai congregant told me that she’s been an active member for 65 years and no one ever suggested that she learn Hebrew. So I did, and she learned Hebrew and has read from the Torah and done a lot with it. She said, ‘For the first time after 65 years, I feel like I was a part of this community.’”

Bogatz is also passionate about being a source of support during hardship. “If I had any calling, I felt that it was being with people in crisis,” she says: “showing up at homes, nursing homes, and hospitals when things were going wrong or when families were in distress.”

This kind of personal pastoral care is what Bogatz also offers the elderly members of Congregation Sinai. “This is one of the last communities where you have a group of people who gave their lives to the synagogue,” she says. “It wasn’t the synagogue after the vacation home and after the sports – it was synagogue first. I feel like these folks, perhaps more than anybody else I’ve met, really deserve to be loved and cared for in their dotage.”

To be sure, Bogatz will be missed. Describing the rabbi as “compassionate, funny, a straight shooter, and kind,” Debby Horowitz, director of Brownstein Jewish Family Service Director says Bogatz “has touched so many lives here, and has created wonderful, imaginative programs for us.”

Bogatz had hoped to remain at Congregation Sinai, where financial strains reduced her position from full-time to part-time. She will decamp for Peekskill with her husband, Irv Grabstein, on August 8, after officiating two Congregation Sinai b’nai mitzvah ceremonies on August 1 and 8.

The First Hebrew Congregation rabbi search committee praises Bogatz’s openness and accessibility. “Many Jews in the lower Hudson Valley are looking for a sense of community,” says Chuck Newman, who headed the committee. “First Hebrew has a wonderful and strong core membership. Once unaffiliated Jews in our area meet Rabbi Dana, I believe they will want to connect with her and with our vibrant Jewish community.”

CAP: Rabbi Dana Bogatz, an accomplished equestrian, with Ranger.

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