Rabbi Dena Shaffer might tell you she was the poster child for the Reform movement. The 33-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., grew up in the movement, attending Jewish summer camp and participating in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) through her synagogue.
Becoming a rabbi was in the cards for Shaffer from a young age.
“It solidified in my mind when I was a young teenager, right after my bat mitzvah,” she said. “I was having a conversation with someone completely unrelated to the Jewish world, my martial arts instructor, and he was asking me to teach a class. I really didn’t want to teach the class, and he gave me this cheesy one-liner about how we are obligated to pass on to others what has been shared with us — it really struck me.”
Shaffer graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in East Asian history and Near Eastern and Judaic studies; she also minored in Hebrew.
She found her rabbinical niche in the teen community while a student at Hebrew Union College. One of her student pulpits was at a military high school in Indiana. “I had these 30 Jewish kids out of 800 students who were really looking for a way to connect to their heritage in an environment on the opposite side of the spectrum,” she said.
Following her ordination in 2010, Shaffer participated in a yearlong fellowship with the Cornell University chapter of Hillel that aimed to do one-on-one engagement and to build up reform Jewish life from scratch. She then served on the pulpit for five years at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Conn.
As executive director since August for the Center of Teen Engagement at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, Shaffer is looking to engage post-b’nai mitzvah teens and help them find the next meaningful step in their Jewish lives.
What has working in the CTE entailed?
Rounding out the team has been the real focus for the past couple months. We have an incredible group of people who are passionate, caring, love this demographic and want to really see this population connect to Judaism in the way that’s right for them.
The model for a long time was, “What could we adults do to teens to help them be more Jewish?” And now we realize that our job isn’t to get them to be more Jewish, but to help them understand Judaism as a lens through which to understand their lives. They are dealing with very existential questions. This is the time in a person’s life when they are trying to find out, “Who am I, how do I make an impact on the world, what am I passionate about?” We are here to show that there is a uniquely Jewish and extremely interesting way to do that.
How are you making that happen? What lies ahead?
We want to be a clearinghouse for teens to find their Jewish way. There is great programming in this community, and we want to be seen as the collaborator. We realize that the more heads, the better the results. [People] just need a force to bring them together.
Under this concept of partnership and collaboration — leading up to and beyond MLK Day — we have teamed up with an organization called Believe in Music that runs an after-school program in downtown Baltimore. It’s bringing a handful of its students, we are bringing a handful of our students, and we’re going to use music as a platform for our teens to share their stories and to create dialogue around the issues of race, privilege and other social issues that weigh heavily on their minds.
We are also doing a festival, iEngage, that targets the post-bar and bat mitzvah crowd — parents and kids who are wondering what is next Jewishly. I think a real struggle for families in this community is that they have had this wonderful experience in the formal Jewish sphere, but they are looking for the next step that challenges their teens appropriately. We are going to do this big festival at the Owings Mills JCC. It will be an opportunity to learn about the 80-plus teen programs in the Baltimore Jewish community and at the same time have mini-TED talks on a range of topics [presented by] some cool social innovators who are doing fascinating work to better our community and Jewish educators who will talk about the importance of post-bar and bat mitzvah engagement.