As Rabbi Rona Shapiro prepares for another chapter in her career, she reflected on the inspiration she has received and the lives she has touched in her clergy roles at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and previously at Congregation Bethaynu, both in Pepper Pike.
“I have enjoyed my role as preacher, and I feel I have been able to hone my craft as a sermon writer and deliver sermons that are meaningful and inspiring,” she told the CJN. “I am proud of the fact that I send people home with something to chew on.
“I have also enjoyed my work as pastor, visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved. This is some of the most meaningful and satisfying work a rabbi does, and I treasure the families whom I have gotten to know through hard times and who have taught me so much about life.”
She also recalled the many programs she created at B’nai Jeshurun and Bethaynu that hundreds of congregants enjoy.
Shapiro announced last week that she would resign from her position at B’nai Jeshurun at the end of her contract, effective June 30, 2013.
Five years ago, Shapiro became the first female rabbi to head a Conservative synagogue in Cleveland, when she was named spiritual leader of Bethaynu. Together with Cantor Ilana Wolpert, she was part of the only female-female clergy team in town. Shapiro became a member of the clergy at B’nai Jeshurun when the two congregations joined together in April 2011.
More than 120 member families came over from Bethaynu to B’nai Jeshurun in 2011, according to Shapiro. Of those, well more than 90 percent are still here.
Regarding the move, Shapiro said, “It was good for our congregation and B’nai Jeshurun and the Jewish community. I have no regrets.”
B’nai Jeshurun president David Shifrin on Nov. 14 announced Shapiro’s pending resignation, noting that the board appreciated the “generous notice she provided.”
“I came to Cleveland to run my own congregation,” Shapiro said. “It’s time for me to get back onto my career track.
“Although I am excited about new opportunities, my family and I are very sad to be leaving a community that has been home to us for these last five years,” Shapiro said. “We have so many relationships that we cherish, we have loved raising our children with all of you, and we are grateful for the opportunities you have provided us all to grow personally and professionally. You will always be in our hearts.”
Prior to coming to Cleveland, Shapiro served as senior associate of Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project in New York and executive director of Berkeley Hillel. A published author, she has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990. She is the founding editor of ritualwell.org, a website for Jewish ritual, which secured her a nomination for the Webby award for website excellence.
One reason she announced her upcoming resignation now, Shapiro said, is that several synagogue programs will need to transition to other leadership. During her years at B’nai Jeshurun, she spearheaded a new array of alternative programming on Shabbat morning, several family education initiatives and the annual Inspire Weekend.
“I feel particularly proud of some of the programming I’ve been able to bring over to B’nai Jeshurun from Bethaynu, as well as new programs,” Shapiro said.
“At Bethaynu, we had Torah study every Shabbat morning before the service,” she said. She started the Torah study program at B’nai Jeshurun as an alternative hour to the Shabbat morning service, after which many of the participants join the regular service. Several teachers alternate as study leaders. “It’s every Saturday morning from 9 to 10. We have 35 people and it’s growing.”
Shapiro also started the Open Tent service, as a more intimate setting for Shabbat morning, the first Saturday of the month. “It’s a lay-led, participatory song-filled, soulful service from 10 to 12,” she said.
For family education, she said, “I’m most proud of the family b’nai mitzvah seminar. This is a way to bring families together to grow Jewishly.” In the program, sixth-graders and their families have four full Sunday morning sessions to bring them together prior to bar and bat mitzvah. “The sessions are about Torah, prayer and mitzvot (good deeds).”
“A few years ago in memory of my father-in-law, Sidney Franklin, who died in 2008, I created the Inspire Weekend,” Shapiro said. The annual event features a nationally known speaker, entertainment, classes for teens, and kids’ programming. “We’ll have about 200 on a Friday night and 300 Saturday morning. We touch a lot of people that weekend.”
“Hesed,” or social action, has been another focus, she said. “At Bethaynu, one of the things we did well was to really expand our social action program.” About 100 families gave their time to helping at a shelter, working on Christmas day, or assisting in other programs. Shapiro said she helped expand Hesed at B’nai Jeshurun as well.
Shapiro and her husband David Franklin live in Shaker Heights with their daughters, Noa, 15, a sophomore at Shaker Heights High School, and Hallel, 12, a seventh-grader at The Agnon School in Beachwood.