Have faith: Student of tradition

Rabbinic intern Daniel Schaefer serves weekends at the Hebrew Center; weekdays he’s wrapped up in his studies.

Daniel Schaefer —Rachel Liu

Rabbi Caryn Broitman has been away on sabbatical since January, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center (MVHC) has relied on rabbinic intern Daniel Schaefer for some of the duties in her absence. Since September, he’s traveled weekends to the Vineyard from Boston to serve the congregation, at first once a month and now twice a month since Rabbi Broitman left. She is scheduled to return in late May.

Daniel leads services on Fridays and Saturdays, and teaches adult education classes on Sundays, while also tutoring a half-dozen youngsters. Then he goes back to the Hebrew College in Newton and his own studies the rest of the week.

Daniel told me it requires six years of study before he can be ordained a rabbi, and he’s in year five. Throughout the six years, the students serve as interns in various capacities at synagogues with large and small congregations. He admitted that an internship on Martha’s Vineyard was a pretty nice option.

“My friends are very generous,” he laughed; “a lot of them have offered to come with me for the weekend.”

Daniel, 37, said that he considered becoming a rabbi from an early age. “The rabbis I knew, I looked up to,” he said. “It was always something I was interested in.”

He grew up in Connecticut, and explained that after he graduated from college, he worked at a wilderness school for at-risk youth, and took a stab at ghostwriting.

“I was out of school for eight years before I started to reflect on what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” Daniel said. “I love Judaism and Jewish life, and I knew I’d never get bored. There’s more Jewish literature than I could ever study in a lifetime. And ultimately, I like people; I like working with people and building community.”

He said the congregation at the MVHC has welcomed him warmly. “One of the things I like about the synagogue here is that it is a real community center, and really a home for all Jews,” Daniel said. “And I love being in a space that is welcoming and embraces diversity.”

The congregation have shared their stories with him, Daniel said, and he’s enjoyed learning how to teach Torah in a way that “speaks to their lives.”

“It’s not always easy to read a text more than a thousand years old and see how it’s relevant today,” he said. “What are the texts that really speak to people, and make it come alive for folks?”

I asked Daniel what a rabbi’s ordination entails, and he said there will be two ceremonies — graduation, where he’ll receive his master’s degree in Jewish studies, and a Semikhah ceremony, where he’ll receive the spiritual mantel bestowed by his teachers. “It’s incredibly moving and joyous,” he said. “A teacher literally wraps you in a tallit, a prayer shawl.” Afterward, he said, there’s a celebration; “we dance, we sing, we eat.”

Another reason studying to be a rabbi appealed to Daniel is the variety of skills necessary to run a healthy congregation. “You have to be able to do lots of things well: teaching, singing, pastoral care, the expectation that you can run a nonprofit, manage a budget, understand zoning laws, be competent at a lot of things,” he explained. “We’re in an era of specializing, but that feels so limiting to me. I want to be able to stretch and grow.”

His hope for his own future congregation includes building a multigenerational community of faith.

“After rabbinical school, my dream is to build a multigenerational community that celebrates together,” Daniel said, “people in their 90s and little kids — I love the way the space feels alive; building a community where elders can pass on their wisdom and life experience, and where young people can come with their creativity.”

After he leaves his internship at the MVHC, Daniel will have the summer off before he begins another internship in September, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Hillel, where he’ll work with college students who are exploring Jewish life on their own.

Before our visit ended, Daniel said that what he thinks turns people off to Judaism and other religions is that “it’s so dry, and it’s telling you what to do.” He said some consider Judaism overly legalistic, when in reality it is incredibly imaginative.

“There’s a text from Talmud that describes the moment the Israelites cross the Red Sea, and every person is able to have a direct vision of God, even babies,” Daniel said. “The mothers’ wombs turned transparent and the babies could see God too. That’s incredibly imaginative and amazing.”

On Sunday, April 23, at 4 pm, the Hebrew Center will host a Yom HaShoah service in remembrance of the Holocaust. Donald Snyder will speak on “Poland’s Complicity in the Persecution of the Jews During the Holocaust.”


Young people from two Island churches, Revival Church of the Nations and Faith Community Church, competed in the Bible Quiz District Finals in Sanford, Maine, on March 25. The quiz is a sponsored Assembly of God ministry open to churches across the country. The participants memorized portions of the New Testament on their own, met for weekly practice sessions, and dedicated one Saturday a month to travel to New Hampshire for competition.

Their hard work paid off, and the Faith Community Church team, made up of Sophie Cutrer, Luke Nivala, and Karinne Nivala, came home with a first-place win in their league, which included Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. They’ll go on to compete May 5 and 6 in the regionals in New Jersey. The youngsters representing the Revival Church of the Nations, Nicholas de Paula, David Butkowsky, and Brian Torres, came home with a fifth-place win. Congratulations to everyone!