With the installation of a new rabbi, the Georgetown congregation Kesher Israel appears to have begun a new chapter.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, 49, began working at the Orthodox synagogue last year. Speaking to 200 congregants, family members and other area rabbis in a Dupont Circle ballroom at his official
installation Sunday, Shafner said he didn’t mind the yearlong wait for the formalities.
“It’s good to be installed not right away,” he said. “It was a chance to get to know the shul.”
Left unspoken at the event was Kesher Israel’s former rabbi, Barry Freundel, who was arrested in 2015 for videotaping naked women at the institution’s ritual bath while he was in charge of the National Capital Mikvah in Washington. He was sentenced to prison and is scheduled for release in 2020.
Shafner, gregarious and approachable, is a different kind of rabbi altogether, members said.
“Rabbi Shafner has brought back my faith in the rabbinate,” said Elanit Jakabovics, who has been the congregation’s president during what she called “a few tumultuous years of soul-searching.” She said “the hand of God” was clear to her, as she looked back over the last four years.
Speaker Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, raised the question of what makes a rabbi, playfully suggesting that formal occasions such as installations, or even ordination, do not confer authority on a rabbi.
“We’re here to celebrate the installation of a new rabbi,” he said. “But is a rabbi installed? Is Rabbi Shafner an appliance?”
To be a rabbi and to transform the world, Berman said, a rabbi speaks with wisdom, exudes humility and acts with love. “A rabbi is someone who answers not only the question, but the person.”
Shafner said that, in the same way, Kesher Israel’s mission is to respond to every person who walks through its doors.
“It’s easy to welcome those who fit in. But the measure of a community is how it welcomes those who don’t fit in,” he said.
Shafner said his vision is to build cohesion between younger and older members. And he said it is time to expand Kesher Israel’s century-old facilities.
“Our building, as quaint and as classical as it is, does not facilitate cohesive interaction,” he said.
He pledged to “find the money and find the space” to expand the congregation’s activities and to hire staff to support the lay leaders’ work.
The congregation’s work, he said, “really is the work of redemption.”