Two-and-a-half years after the leader of a prominent Orthodox synagogue grievously violated his congregants’ trust by surreptitiously recording dozens of women undressing for a ritual bath, Kesher Israel is putting its trust in a rabbi again.
After an extensive search, the Georgetown synagogue has hired Rabbi Hyim Shafner, its first full-time rabbi since the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel in a 2014 scandal that made international headlines.
“He seems to be a very sensitive, warm and caring individual,” Kesher president Elanit Jakabovics said of Shafner. “We knew that was going to be something that was an important quality. We were going to be looking for warmth.”
Shafner, who will start his new job at Kesher this summer, comes from Bais Abraham, a smaller Orthodox synagogue of about 120 families near St. Louis. He has worked there for 13 years, and previously spent eight years leading the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis.
He also maintains a psychotherapy practice outside of his role as a rabbi, and earned a master’s degree in social work. That background in therapy was appealing to Kesher.
Freundel, who led Kesher since the late 1980s, was charged with voyeurism and eventually pleaded guilty to placing a camera in a Jewish ritual bath, known as a mikvah, to record images of at least 52 women.
Before his arrest, Freundel — now serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence — was known as an intellectual leader in the nationwide Modern Orthodox movement. He was the writer of dozens of books and articles, but congregants often perceived him as cold.
After he was charged, the synagogue spent months convening focus groups and surveying members about what they wanted in a rabbi. While this synagogue is full of political operatives, and think tank employees still valued thought-provoking sermons and classes, the search committee realized it should focus on finding someone adept at building nurturing personal relationships, Jakabovics said.
Their interim part-time rabbi, Avidan Milevsky, also a psychotherapist, helped them reach that conclusion. “It’s just a really important trait for a rabbi, to have the pastoral skills,” she said. “A lot of it is about the relationships and not necessarily what they teach from the pulpit or in a class, but how they interact with people.”
Two years after Freundel’s arrest, Kesher advertised the opening for a new rabbi this fall, and from an initial field of 30 candidates, invited four for day-long visits. The search committee invited two of those rabbis back to try out over the course of a Sabbath, where the candidates taught classes, spoke in services and schmoozed with congregants.
The other one of the two final candidates withdrew, leaving Shafner, whom the synagogue’s board enthusiastically voted to hire, Jakabovics said.
Shafner and his wife, who also has been working in the St. Louis Jewish community, have three children in high school and college.
He said he has long been interested in Orthodox Judaism that engages with the wider world rather than walling itself off, as some strictly observant Jewish communities do — and Washington seemed the perfect place to lead a synagogue that participates in broader national conversations.
“I think it gives me the opportunity to have a certain positive influence on the Jewish people that you don’t always have in St. Louis,” he said of his new job at Kesher. “One advantage of the capital is that people in a synagogue are involved in things going on in the world. They’re working in the world. And hopefully they’re bringing their Jewish values and Jewish inspiration.”
That’s not to say that he plans to focus on politics. Shafner said he has hardly ever talked about politics from the pulpit. “I don’t think it’s why people come to shul. I think they come because they want to be spiritually inspired,” he said. “I imagine that everybody out there probably wants to do good. They just have different ways of understanding how to do that. And I’m not a political expert. I just have no idea. I actually don’t know a ton about politics.”
That means he’s not too concerned about one of the buzziest topics of conversation lately in Washington’s Orthodox community, the arrival of Ivanka Trump, the first Jewish member of an American first family. “To me, every Jew is a Jew. It doesn’t matter what you do 9-to-5,” he said about Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom are Modern Orthodox Jews.