The best way to get to know the new rabbi at Temple Sinai might be to don a pair of running shoes and hit the road. After all, it worked for her husband.
Rabbi Sam Shabman, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York in May and started at Sinai at the beginning of July, married her rabbinic classmate, Andrew (Natan) Trief, at the end of September in what proved to be a match made in the seminary and sealed in marathons from New York to Jerusalem.
“Natan was just getting into running, and we kind of got into it together,” Rabbi Shabman said.
The two rabbis-to-be met at a mixer for their class in 2011, became friends during their first year of studies in Jerusalem, developed a romance back in New York in 2012 and got engaged just before the finish line of the Paris Marathon last year.
Rabbi Shabman said she grew up in a marathon culture in Westchester, N.Y. Her father ran the New York City Marathon every year, and “I always used to say that my favorite holiday was Marathon Sunday, which was the first Sunday in November.”
Now the 27-year-old and her husband, a veteran of Wall Street and of the Israel Defense Forces, are running south just in time to experience their first Atlanta summer.
“I just love to explore the world and be outside and hike and try new kinds of food and walk with friends,” she said. “I just like to squeeze every drop out of life that I can and try all new experiences. And there’s very little I’ll say no to.”
While Rabbi Shabman joins the clergy at Sinai, replacing Rabbi Elana Perry, who moved to Cincinnati, Rabbi Trief is getting ready to take the pulpit at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge, La. He’ll be on site at the synagogue 10 days a month, plus special events and holidays, and in Atlanta the rest of the time.
“One of the exciting things about the placement process is that we just met the most incredible people everywhere we went, and it really gave us a renewed sense of purpose and a sense of, like, the world needs rabbis, and Baton Rouge really needed a rabbi, and he’s going to fill that need,” Rabbi Shabman said.
Meanwhile, Sinai felt like the right fit for her, not least because of its running group.
“It seems like a place where people are really authentic and really care about one another, and a lot of interesting and exciting things are going on there that I hadn’t really seen anywhere else, and a place where I could really be myself,” Rabbi Shabman said in an interview after her hiring in April. “The clergy team seemed wonderful, and all the lay leaders seemed wonderful, so why not, right?”
She was attracted by the congregation’s Imagine Sinai initiative, which she said shows a commitment to the future of synagogue life and to innovation, and she loved the variety of groups and programming and the opportunity to developing programs for people in their 20s and 30s.
“But really it was about the people that I met and the feeling I got when I was there,” she said. “I didn’t really feel that in other places.”
She found that her vision for a strong Jewish future aligned with Sinai’s.
“It’s really important, I think, for congregants to feel known and loved. It’s not about feeling known, and it’s not about feeling loved. It’s about both. And I think that Sinai really works to do that, and I didn’t find that at a lot of temples I went to,” Rabbi Shabman said. “At the end of day, it’s really about people, and their vision is very relational, and I think that fits with who I am and what I dream about.”
She has dreamed about being a rabbi most of her life. She mentioned a photo of her holding a stuffed Torah around age 4. “It’s something that’s just always been very ingrained in my heart. … It was always a goal of mine, so it’s really powerful that this vision that was kind of this distant, far-off dream is actually becoming reality.”
She said she draws inspiration from the positive Jewish experience she had as a child at the Westchester Temple and the strong Jewish upbringing she had with her small-business owner father and nonprofit attorney mother. “I knew that it wasn’t the same for all my friends and all my peers, so I wanted to pay it forward and help other people find their place in Judaism, find their Jewish voice and have positive experiences in the Jewish world.”
Except for her time earning a bachelor’s in international affairs at George Washington University, she has lived her entire life in the New York metro area or Israel, so Atlanta might be a different Jewish world. But “I don’t feel like I’m moving to Idaho,” Rabbi Shabman said. “I think that Atlanta is definitely a place where Judaism is prevalent and strong and thriving, which is really exciting.”
She brings a commitment to the pursuit of justice instilled by her mother — “We were really taught from a young age that we were put on this earth to make the world a better place” — but while she considers it a duty to bring more compassion to the world, she shies away from being categorized as a “social justice rabbi.”
“We are excited about the energy and spark of joy that she’s bringing to the congregation,” Sinai Senior Rabbi Ron Segal said, citing her passion for Israel through her time as an AIPAC rabbinic fellow the past two years and her involvement with other pro-Israel initiatives.
“I feel really lucky and really blessed,” Rabbi Shabman said. “We’re going to develop a great team. I think the future is bright at Sinai, and I’m just so excited to build on what’s already been established.”
Zach Itzkovitz contributed to this report.