WOODBRIDGE – Just three years after arriving at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Rabbi Rona Shapiro has been named among “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” the fourth annual list compiled by The Forward. She shares the honor with 31 fellow rabbis culled from hundreds of nominations from around the country.
Shapiro arrived in Woodbridge in 2013 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 as executive director of Berkeley Hillel from 1990 to 2000.
A New York native, Shapiro received her BA, Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard. She spent two years studying in Israel at the Pardes Institute and, in 1990, became one of the first women ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. A graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, she is founding editor of ritualwell.org.
“I was always a child in search of spiritual meaning,” Shapiro told the Ledger in 2013. “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.”
In her short tenure at B’nai Jacob, Shapiro has already made a big enough impact. Member Jeanette Kuvin Orin noticed The Forward’s call for nominations and alerted fellow congregants.
“I read The Forward regularly and knew about the rabbi list they do each year,” she says. “Rabbi Shapiro has brought so much to B’nai Jacob, most especially her love of learning and extraordinary ability to teach Torah, literature, and Jewish ethics. Her classes are lively and engaging. Her sermons are sometimes provocative, always inspirational.”
Longtime member Dr. Barry Zaret quickly submitted his own endorsement, followed by 10 others, according to Dan Freeman, managing editor of The Forward.
Zaret served on the search committee that selected Shapiro in 2013.
“I was impressed with Rabbi Shapiro during the search process and remain totally pleased with our decision and luck to be able to bring her to Woodbridge,” Zaret says. “She instantly had impact and has revitalized our congregation in many ways – intellectually, in terms of the joy of learning, and in terms of the general ambiance in our congregation and its warmth. Getting this recognition is totally in order and well earned.”
In addition to Shapiro’s superb skills as a pastoral rabbi and “extraordinary sermons,” Zaret notes several new initiatives that have led to a notable increase in synagogue participation. “She’s created a wonderful feeling for learning: we have a ‘Bread & Torah’ session every Shabbat before the morning service starts, which brings 40 to 50 people to our library,” he says. “She created ‘Shabbat Schmooze’ before Kabbalat Shabbat services, where congregants mingle over wine and cheese and then attend services, and that’s led to many more people at Friday night services.” During Shapiro’s tenure, B’nai Jacob has implemented online streaming of services for people who can’t get to the synagogue.
Steve Fleischman has served as congregational president of B’nai Jacob since 2013. “I have had the privilege of working closely with Rabbi Shapiro since she started at B’nai Jacob,” he says. “Her love of Judaism is infectious and she has an amazing ability to engage people wherever they are in their spiritual journey. She has brought a tremendous level of teaching to our community and, for me and my family, has helped make our connection to Judaism so much stronger. I can think of no better recognition than that of a top inspiring rabbi.”
Shapiro credits the congregation for motivating her work.
“I am very proud and excited to be on this august list with so many wonderful colleagues,” she says. “I am grateful to my congregants who nominated me and wrote such beautiful words and to all of Congregation B’nai Jacob for trusting me to lead them, allowing me to have my own voice, and inspiring me with their dedication. I do what I do because I am inspired by them every day.”