WEST HARTFORD — Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford is preparing to bid farewell to two of its clergy members.
Cantor Pamela Siskin will retire on June 30 after 18 years of service to the Reform congregation. And, Associate Rabbi Dena Shaffer, who has been with Beth Israel for five years, will also depart this summer for her new role as executive director of the Jewish Center for Teen Engagement in Baltimore, Maryland.
“Cantor Siskin is an authentic ba’alat tefilah (master of prayer),” said the congregation’s senior rabbi, Michael Pincus. “Within the synagogue, music is not an end in itself but a means of religious experience. Its function is to help us to live through a moment of confrontation with the presence of God; to expose ourselves to God in praise, in self-scrutiny and in hope. This is our cantor.”
Since her arrival in 1998, Siskin has introduced new religious, musical and pastoral programs at Beth Israel. She is credited with providing meaningful and uplifting musical offerings at Shabbat services and High Holy Days. Under her tutelage, the synagogue’s annual Purim Spiel has been transformed into a much anticipated highlight of the year; and she has produced a broad range of musical events, ranging from cabaret to opera to spiritual theater, featuring the congregation’s adult choir, youth chorus and instrumentalists.
In addition to her cantorial duties, SiskIn directed the congregation’s religious school from 2003 – 2013, during which time she restructured the program and inspired students to find deep connections to Judaism. She also nurtured the synagogue’s Mitzvah Corps, a team of volunteers who assist those in need, and created SAGE, a well-loved arts and education program for the congregation’s seniors.
“What I admire most about our cantor, is the love and care she extends to so many of our congregants,” Pincus reflected. “She treats each person like they are part of her immediate family. If someone is in need, she jumps in and tries to solve the problem, invites the person into her home and becomes his or her strongest advocate. With our youth and with our seniors she sees each person as an individual and celebrates his or her accomplishments or personalizes his or her worries. All of this she carries in her heart and brings onto the bimah when she opens her heart in prayer.”
Since Rabbi Shaffer’s arrival in 2011, she has been a catalyst for bringing new generations into the fold. She was instrumental in organizing and leading Torah on Tap study sessions with lively discussions at popular gathering spots for young people in their 20s and 30s.
A student of the martial arts since age three, Shaffer teaches JewDo at Beth Israel, a holistic educational experience for children that combines Jewish learning with the practical skills of the martial arts. Shaffer is also credited with redesigning the b’nai mitzvah and youth programs, and introducing the “Super Seder” — multiple, concurrent seders in a variety of styles. In addition, Shaffer developed and led the synagogue’s Summer Service Trip program through which teens travel to communities in need, offering their help. Following the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti, for example, Summer Service participants travelled to that country to build homes for those who lost theirs. This summer, she will lead teens from both the Beth Israel and the Baltimore communities on a house-building mission for those in need in Mexico.
“As a gifted storyteller and a thoughtful listener with an honest and aspiring neshama (soul), Rabbi Shaffer has elevated our community and so many individuals with her spirit and passion,” said the congregation’s president, Gail Mangs. “While it is easy to look at the many programs she has implemented, I believe her greatest legacy will be in her engagement of our community from its youngest to our oldest members and she will be deeply missed.”
Beth Israel has appointed Andi Fliegel as its next associate rabbi and Cantor Lauren Phillips as its next cantor. The two will begin their new roles in July.
The congregation will honor Rabbi Shaffer at a luncheon on Sunday, May 15, at 11:30 a.m.; and Cantor Siskin at a gala on Saturday, June 18 at 6:00 p.m. For more information on these events contact the shul at email@example.com or (860) 233-8215.
CAP: Rabbi Shaffer (l) and Cantor Siskin