New rabbi at Beth El plans to focus on b’nei mitzvot, meeting congregants wherever they are.
Maybe that ukulele or that Hawaiian guitar will come in handy for Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe as he seeks to become “enmeshed” in his new synagogue community.
“I’m the proud product of many failed high school and college garage bands,” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, 38, the new senior spiritual leader at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, a Reform congregation in Chappaqua that serves 500 families and congregants.
Then again, Rabbi Jaffe’s proficiency with the ukulele isn’t surprising given that he was born and raised in Honolulu, where his parents “traded terms as temple presidents,” at his Reform congregation. He came east for college, where he was a philosophy major at Duke, in Durham, N.C., and spent part of his junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Jaffe, who takes over from Rabbi Joshua Davidson (who now leads Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El), didn’t find his way to the rabbinate immediately.
His first post-college job was in retail management for the Gap in San Francisco, which left Jaffe wanting something more. He craved community, specifically the Jewish community, and soon became involved teaching teenagers at a local synagogue.
“I got the bug,” he said. “I liked my night and weekend job better than my day job.” Jaffe became an education director in Fremont, Calif., where he also had the opportunity to occasionally “play rabbi.” Even though he took both the GREs and GMATs, undecided between rabbinic school and business school, rabbinical school ultimately won out.
Even if shirt folding isn’t in Rabbi Jaffe’s otherwise distinctively impressive skill set (after 10 minutes on the selling floor, he was soon moved elsewhere at the Gap), there are some lessons he acquired there that he doesn’t hesitate to apply in his current role. “I enjoyed the Gap,” the rabbi said. “I took back organizational and management skills, like budgeting, and Microsoft, Excel and Power Point.”
Rabbi Jaffe brings all those skills to his current position in Chappaqua.
Given his professional start in Jewish congregational life as an educator, Jaffe sees his role as rabbi very much as part of that continuum, where he’ll “take time to explain things. It’s not just about going through the siddur, as teaching is going through everything.”
The opening at Temple Beth El was enticing on several levels to Rabbi Jaffe and his wife, an Israeli, who have two young daughters. “This synagogue has a great history and stature,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for real creativity.”
In his most recent role as a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Jaffe had been in charge of educational programming since 2010. While he enjoyed his responsibilities, he craved a chance to participate more actively in “the bread and butter of rabbi-ing — working directly with congregants, going through life-cycle events, Shabbat and worship, studying — things that don’t involve computer screens,” said Rabbi Jaffe. Plus, he added, “every so often, you want to mix things up and challenge yourself.”
Rabbi Jaffe also sees his mission as engaging with the congregation’s youth.
“You have to invest in youth,” he said. “It’s not just making a teen program. You have to know the kids.” He’s proud that at his San Francisco temple, 75 percent of the b’nei mitzvot continued with their education.
“I plan to devote a lot of time to the b’nei mitzvot, so they know I have their back,” he said, when they are at the bima, and beyond.
Another main goal for the year is to help congregants feel the synagogue is a “comfortable, welcoming place where there are genuine connections, and people feel it’s their home away from home,” he added.
Rabbi Jaffe sees a “large part of my job as meeting congregants,” whether that’s at the local Starbucks or at the synagogue’s sukkah.
“I want to be part of a real community,” he said. “The whole point of being a rabbi is to be enmeshed in the community.”
Rabbi Jaffe also recognizes that “it can be tough to come [to synagogue] to attend programming,” so he is eager to offer a havurah approach to learning. The rabbi will happily go to congregants’ homes once a month, to meet with a group of 10-15 for study on an area of their interest, whether they’re empty nesters or stay-at-home mothers.
“I’ll do what I can to lower barriers to entry,” he said.
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