The first time Rabbi Hyim Shafner realized Jews were a family was when he was 9. It was at summer camp in the Catskills. There were few Orthodox Jews in Shafner’s hometown of New London, Conn., but the camp was full of them.
The Orthodox campers “just thought it was great, because they had never heard of Jews living outside of Brooklyn,” says Shafner, who led his first Shabbat service at Kesher Israel on Aug. 18. “I thought all Jews were just one family, and I think that was really formative for me and it’s really where my vision of the Jewish people comes from.”
Shafner is the Georgetown Orthodox congregation’s first full-time rabbi since Barry Freundel was arrested in 2014 for recording women undressing before immersing in a ritual bath. Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism and was sentenced to six years in prison. The rapid fall of their rabbi shook the congregation.
Shafner says that building a strong Jewish community is his goal.
“If you think about it, Judaism’s not really a religion because lots of Jews aren’t religious. It’s really not a nationality; we haven’t had a country until very recently. It’s not a race because a Jew from Africa and a Jew from Eastern Europe are completely different in the things they eat and their language. So what is it?”
He says the keys to his job are “loving the Jewish people, being nonjudgmental and being embracing.” At his previous synagogue, Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Mo., Shafner worked to build an observant Jewish community while “removing barriers to entry.”
“It was a synagogue where anyone could enter, no matter your background,” he says. “Intermarried people, gay families, people who knew very little. Everyone was there together.”
Shafner said he hopes to create a similar atmosphere at Kesher.
“I think a synagogue has to create a culture of welcoming.”