Kesher Israel hires first full-time rabbi since Freundel arrest

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, has hired its first full-time rabbi since longtime Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested 2 1/2 years ago for secretly videotaping women in the synagogue’s ritual bath.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who has led Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis since 2004, will begin working at Kesher Israel full time this summer. The congregation’s part-time interim rabbi, Avidan Milevsky, moved to Israel with his family last August, but has visited the synagogue and worked with it remotely since then.

“This is the next step for what we need to do to move on, to turn the page,” said Elanit Jakabovics, the congregation’s president. She described Shafner as a “warm and caring individual” and said that these are important qualities for the congregation.

She added that although Freundel’s actions have “left a mark,” the congregation is “recovering well.” She praised Milevsky and his wife, Ilana, for helping the community move through a difficult time.

“Rabbi Shafner is not replacing Rabbi Freundel,” she said. “He’s replacing Rabbi Milevsky.”

Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism in 2015 and is serving a 6 1/2 year sentence for filming members of Kesher Israel, candidates for conversion to Judaism and students at Towson University, where he taught classes.

Milevsky said the 240-member-unit congregation’s sense of community has helped it through a difficult period. “The remarkable connections inherent in Kesher were able to surface and a tremendous energy sprung forward,” he said.

Shafner, 48, has a degree in social work and a certificate in advanced psychotherapy. He said that although the community has done “a lot of healing and coalescing together,” there is “still healing and growth to do.” He added, “being a pastor is a huge part of who I am as a rabbi.”

After receiving rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, Shafner moved to India with his wife, Sara Winkelman, and worked there as a rabbi for a year. He then served as rabbi of the Hillel of Washington University in St. Louis before joining Bais Abraham. He and Winkelman have two children in high school and another in college.

Shafner called his move to Kesher Israel “an opportunity to have an influence on a bigger Jewish community, and a fairly influential one because of where it is located.” Kesher Israel has a number of prominent members including the Atlantic’s Leon Wieseltier, former ambassador Alfred Moses, president of the Hudson Institute Kenneth Weinstein and former ambassador Norm Eisen.

“Kesher Israel has congregants who work in government and who are doing a lot on a national stage,” Shafner said. “My job is to inspire their Jewish life.”

Jakabovics said that since the congregation hadn’t hired a new rabbi in more than 25 years, it had to begin its search two years ago by researching how to go about a search. After a community survey, a search committee released a job description and began receiving applications last fall.

The committee then conducted Skype interviews, and narrowed down the field to four rabbis, who visited Kesher Israel. The committee then selected Shafner and another rabbi, who each spent a weekend at the synagogue. The other candidate dropped out, citing reasons related to his family, and the Kesher Israel board offered Shafner the job.

Jakabovics said that Shafner is “known as a bridge builder” and she hopes that he will be able to extend the reach of the synagogue into local universities. She added that there is “only so much” lay leaders have been able to do to collaborate with local Jewish organizations and she hopes Shafner will make the synagogue a “full player” with organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Shafner, who through his congregation in St. Louis taught a class in a bar called “Torah on tap,” said that one of his priorities at Kesher will be to break down barriers of entry into the community for Jews of all backgrounds. He gave the example of how at Bais Abraham he created Hebrew and Jewish studies classes for the children of secular Israelis in the area.

Milevsky, who said he did not involve himself in the search in order to make sure the congregation was acting independently, will work as a professor next year at Ariel University.

He said that at Kesher,  its prominent members involved in Washington politics put their differences aside and come together as Jews.

“You can have people who during the week are engaged in occupations where they are battling each other on political fronts, but come to the synagogue on Saturday morning as friends, sit together and enjoy each other’s company,” he said.

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