Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is in his second year heading the congregation, where the membership has doubled. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Yerachmiel Shapiro really tried hard to break away from the Jewish faith at one point in his life. After growing up in a Chicago-area Jewish community and attending Jewish schools, he’d had enough.
“It was very insular,” he said. “I had some friends that weren’t Jewish. It made me think, ‘Why live just in the Jewish world?’ And I wanted to have fun.”
So he separated from the hardened rules of Judaism, enrolled in public high school, made new friends, started playing football. He was doing “normal” teenage things and was having the good time he aimed for.
But it soon wore thin.
“In junior year, I started feeling a real emptiness, like everyone was having the same conversations over and over,” Shapiro said. “I had this feeling that the world is so much more deep and wonderful and important than the conversations I was having.”
From that point Shapiro jumped back into religion, so much so that he earned himself the nickname ‘rabbi’ at school.
Shapiro, 28, is in his second year as rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom on Maple Avenue in Red Bank, and in that time has seen the congregation double from 25 families to 50. He’s not sure what that can be attributed to. The most likely explanation he offers is the fact that he’s the first full-time rabbi at Beth Shalom in 30 years.
But it could be his propensity to have a rockin’ good time, by mixing fresh ideas with tradition, that’s put more tuchases in the seats.
He’s had belly dancers at the synagogue to liven up the tradition that celebrates when the Jews left Egypt. He tuned a celebration of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur into a shofar-blowing contest that ended with the crowd stomping its feet and clapping to Queen’s anthemic “We Will Rock You.”
And on Saturday, the second day of Hanukkah, he’s hosting the congregation’s second annual latke festival, which includes a latke eating contest and a dreidel spinning tournament as well as the customary candle lighting to celebrate the holiday.
“The time for people going to synagogues is past. Now it’s time for synagogues to go to the people,” Shapiro said. “If I do something that hasn’t been done before then I know people will come.”
His ideas for future events include an annual barbecue celebrating Red Bank’s emergency responders and film screenings at the synagogue that address serious issues concerning orthodox Jews.
He isn’t all fun and games. Though Shapiro, who studied in New York City, Boston and Israel, has the type of zest you may not expect from a rabbi or religious leader, he cherishes his religion’s history and takes his faith and his job serious. When Iran President and admitted Holocaust denier Mahmoud Amadinejad visited the United Nations in New York City, Shapiro was there, among more than 100 rabbis, protesting his arrival, and intentionally got arrested for it. He visits with congregants and members of the Jewish community daily, either at Beth Shalom, their homes or at the hospital.
For Shapiro, the responsibility of overseeing the congregation is a heavy one, one that’s added to the “constant struggle” of religion. And he now knows that’s what his life is all about.
“Struggle is a good thing. I don’t mean to be miserable, I mean to be a thinking person,” he said. “It’s about struggling and actually engaging life every day.”
If you’re interested in attending the latke festival on Saturday, contact Shapiro by Thursday at 732-741-1657 or by email. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, with a portion of the proceeds going to a local food bank. Donated items will also be accepted.