Temple Beth-El of Ithaca announced that Rabbi Rachel Safman will be its new spiritual leader. This is not Safman’s first time in Ithaca: she was a graduate student at Cornell University and received her Ph.D. in development sociology in 2002. She also worshipped at the synagogue during that time.
After receiving her degree, Safman conducted field research in Thailand and Myanmar, wrote a dissertation on the impact of the AIDS epidemic on rural Thai communities, was tapped as an expert on avian influenza (bird flu) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and served on the faculty of the National University of Singapore, where her focus was on the response of families and communities to health crises.
During her years in Singapore, Safman served as the president of the city-state’s progressive Jewish community, the United Hebrew Congregation; was a participant in the ritual life of Singapore’s Baghdadi Orthodox community; and founded and led Gesher, a Jewish community forum that hosted guest speakers, including Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong. Seeking to devote her energies to the Jewish community full-time, in 2008 she decided to study at the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (American Jewish University) in Los Angeles.
Following ordination, Safman served as the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in New London, CT, for seven years, during which she pioneered the use of streaming technologies to reach out to congregants unable of participate in worship and learning in person; expanded social and educational programming to reflect the diversity of the Jewish cultural experience; and introduced ritual and liturgical innovations that broadened the community’s appeal to younger families. Safman was also co-convener of the Greater New London Clergy Association and, in this capacity, helped launch the resettlement of six Middle Eastern refugee families in the eastern part of Connecticut.
Safman said she is a firm believer that Judaism can be both relevant and empowering in the modern world if it is rooted in continuing study of its tradition’s texts, tenants and rites. Through her teaching, she seeks to equip community members to take ownership of their Jewish inheritance. She also noted that she is passionate about community-building. She says she will seek to grow TBE not just in numbers, but also in the extent to which the community’s supportive embrace is felt by all individuals who gravitate to its (temporarily virtual) gates to learn, celebrate and pray. Her goal is to make Beth-El (literally, “house of God”) a home for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds: women and men, old and young, single and partnered, gay and straight, able-bodied and physically/emotionally/cognitively challenged, Jewish by birth or by choice, and those who are not (or not yet) Jewish.
Joining Safman in Ithaca are her Israeli husband, Daniel Robinson, a travel writer who covers Western Europe, Israel and Southeast Asia for Lonely Planet and other publishers; their children Yair (9), Sasson (4) and Talya (7 months); and her mother, Edie Safman.