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Friday, August 31, 2007

God, with Training Wheels

Posted By on Fri, Aug 31, 2007 at 2:15 PM

Rabbi Hyim Shafner has been blowing his shofar for weeks now. The High Holidays are coming, and it's time for Jews to return to God.

Didn't hear the alarm?


Well, the rabbi figured as much, so he did the next logical thing. He sent an e-mail to a lapsed Catholic at the RFT. Fortunately, he used the word "crazy," which always gets my attention.

I met the rabbi last week and immediately determined, based on the length of his beard, that he is not crazy. But still, very interesting.

Shafner is the rabbi at Bais Abraham, the last synagogue in the Loop. It's an orthodox congregation with many elderly members at its core, plus a new group of young people. Mixed-faith couples and Jews who aren't technically Jewish are welcome, too.

"It's rare to find an orthodox synagogue where you don't have to be orthodox to be inspired and grow," says Shafner, who was the rabbi at Washington University's Hillel student center before he filled the vacancy left by Rabbi Abraham Magence, who died in 2003. (RFT named Magence Best Rabbi in 2000.)

Shafner is throwing the doors open even wider for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which starts at sundown on Wednesday, September 12, and Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown, Friday, September 21.

Shafner knows that the holidays are daunting for less-observant Jews. Yom Kippur means fasting for 24 hours and praying –- in Hebrew -- from 8 a.m. till sundown. Saith the rabbi: "It just freaks people out."

That's why Bais Abe is offering "learner's services." The Rosh Hashanah explanatory service will be Thursday, September 13 at 11 a.m., following the first sounds of the shofar.

Religion with training wheels continues on Yom Kippur with a service in English from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 22. (The rabbis would like people to pre-register; visit

Turns out Judaism has its own version of the "Christmas-and-Easter" Catholic, but Shafner doesn't want anyone to jump into the High Holidays unprepared.

"Everybody thinks you can pop into Yom Kippur and have this intense relationship with God," Shafner says. "It’s like a one-night stand."

That's why he holds his annual Labor Day meditation and hike, 10 a.m. in Babler State Park.

Rabbi hiking? You might say now that's crazy. But Shafner has yet to fit a Jewish stereotype.

"I love nature. There is a great tradition of that in Judaism," he says, explaining that Rabbi Nachman of Brestov, who lived at the turn of the 18th century, encouraged his many followers to go to the forest and talk one-on-one with God.

"Because we’re so city-oriented, we've lost that," Shafner says.

Shafner, 39, was raised in New London, Connecticut, where the orthodox Jewish community was very small. "I never realized Jews all lived together [à la New York]," Shafner says. "The idea of being insular, separate never occurred to me." His mother was an artist, and he says his parents taught him, "You have to be able to find holiness in the whole world."

Shafner acknowledges that orthodoxy means following a lot of rules. (The number of dos and don'ts in the Hebrew Bible is 613, to be precise.) "How do you have a religion that is so encompassing, yet be open to the world so you can affect it in a positive way?" the rabbi asks.

-Kathleen McLaughlin

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