The Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation (RIJC) has hired a new Rabbi, Joel Shaiman, to lead their Jewish community, replacing long-time Rabbi Leana Moritt who left for a new position. The congregation, founded in 1976, holds services in their sanctuary, the small studio located in the Cultural Center at 548 Main Street.
Shaiman's official start date was August 1, which the tall rabbi with the easy smile calls “a tough time to do this,” because not only are a lot of people away in the summer, but according to the Jewish calendar, August is a time for focusing inward. Not so for long – as of Sunday, September 9, services for the Jewish High Holidays commence, including a children’s service on Monday, September 10, in the theatre.
Shaiman’s near-term goal for the congregation is to “make our community as welcoming as possible.” To do so, he believes, “You have to meet people where they are. Have lunches, have coffees, reach people one at a time.
What that looks like varies, depending on demographic. He considers those that are near or in retirement the “core of RIJC.” “I want to get to know them, and develop close relationships with them.” His goal is to create more Torah study and educational programming for the congregation’s elders. Shaiman, who has taught similarly focused adult-education classes and seminars at the 92nd Street Y, says “I like teaching. I hope to do more.”
The largest and growing group on the Island are the families. Shaiman is in the process of meeting with families to see what their needs are and what goals they have for their kids’ Jewish education. He notes that, “Jews are like everyone else, we are marrying later, having kids later, not joining communities,” and he wants to find ways to “show the relevance of our traditions to what they’re dealing with on a daily basis.”
President of the congregation, Nina Lublin, hopes that people will meet the new rabbi, and after doing so, will renew or expand their commitment to RIJC.
President of RIJC, Nina Lublin, poses with Rabbi Joel Shaiman
In a time where, according to Shaiman, Judaism and religion as a whole in the United States is moving towards more of a retail focus, the rabbi sees himself as a facilitator of sorts for all things Jewish. He says, “Living in New York, we are blessed with riches, Jewish stuff and non-Jewish stuff. There are a lot of programs three subway stops away. We live in a world where people want choices. So I will be a connector, to provide whatever it is a particular family is looking for.”
He has done a lot of work with people in the process of converting to Judaism. In the last four years, he estimates that he’s probably taught between 90 and 100 people, most of whom ultimately converted.
Rabbi Shaiman is a second-career rabbi. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theology Seminary of America in 2013, where he also earned a Master’s in Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. He says he left his 25-year career in the finance world “because I was no longer growing and learning.” The most frequent response he received when telling people about his career change was, “huh, that makes sense.”
After spending many years working with clients helping them manage, mitigate, and understand their investment risks, by about 2005, Shaiman realized most of his clients weren’t paying attention. “I had a little identity crisis. I realized I wanted more to life. I tell people [rabbinical school] is the liberal arts degree that I never had. (He also has a BS in Systems Science and Engineering, and an MBA in Finance from the University of Pennsylvania).”
Shaiman is from northeastern Pennsylvania. He came to New York after first living in Silver Spring, Maryland, after college. For a time he lived on 61st street and First Avenue; “from my apartment you could wave to people on the Tram,” he says, but his interview for this job was the first time he’d visited the Island since the 1980’s. He is finding Roosevelt Island to be a “diverse and dynamic place.” “It amazes me how many people get on and off the subway,” he said; “I am hopeful we will be able to do outreach to get more people involved.” Contact and visit RIJC here.