Rabbi Shira Joseph’s retiring after 19 years of serving Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham

Rabbi Shira Joseph

May 9, 2022 by Glenda Garland

After 19 years of service to Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Rabbi Shira Joseph is retiring this spring. She has been the congregation’s third rabbi since its inception in 1959, and its first woman rabbi. “Hiring a woman said a lot about the community, and what it was looking for,” said Cantor Steven Weiss, Rabbi Joseph’s co-religious leader at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom. Under her leadership, the temple’s membership has grown from 213 to 285 families, pulling from over 22 communities on the South Shore. That’s an additional third of the previous membership.

“She’s the reason the temple is successful now,” Cantor Weiss said. Pastor Gary T. Ludwig, of the First Baptist Church in Hingham, agreed. Before Rabbi Joseph came to Hingham, he said, the congregation was smaller. But because of her, and specifically her outreach to the community, “Its presence has expanded.”

“Ever since Shira was installed as rabbi, she immediately got involved in the community,” Pastor Ludwig said. She joined the Hingham Hull Religious Leaders Association, became its president in 2009 for a year, and continues regular participation in weekly discussions among eight to nine local clergy. “The collegial support we’ve received from each other has really helped us to understand the Jewish perspective.”

That understanding, Pastor Ludwig said, also informs his teachings to his own congregation. He mentioned that when reading the Gospel of John this Easter, he included language that contextualized the Jewish leaders’ response to Jesus, and separated out all Jews from that responsibility. He did that, he said, because he now understands that, “Anti-Semitism has an impact. It creates a very real fear.” Glastonbury Abbey also added language to this same effect on their Good Friday service.

Because they understood this fear better, Pastor Ludwig said, the entire religious community rallied around Congregation Sha’aray Shalom after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, and during other local instances of anti-Semitism. The other religious leaders, Cantor Weiss said, “had developed a different level of response because Shira has worked hard to make people understand why we feel like a vulnerable community.”

“Jews are a canary in the coal mine,” Rabbi Joseph said. “If people come after Jews, they’re coming for everyone next. Education is the vehicle by which you bring change, and make the world a better place.”

To that end, in addition to her outreach directly to religious leaders, Rabbi Joseph has started numerous other initiatives for broader community outreach. She and Cantor Weiss have sponsored or hosted interfaith events, such as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day program, and the interfaith Thanksgiving service, usually held at Old Ship Church. They have invited the community into seders, the ordered meals Jews eat to celebrate Passover. “The focus is interfaith,” Pastor Ludwig said, “and this year it was also tailored to show solidarity with Ukraine.”

The tailoring of different congregations’ needs that Rabbi Joseph does has deeply impressed Father Tom Mulvey, of Emmanuel Church, Braintree. He said, “Rabbi Shira has a great gift and an even greater heart for building community in every pastoral setting she is involved in. A true teacher by training and natural inclination, she is ever mindful that everyone be included, everyone be honored, and everyone be nourished.” He mentioned specifically an interfaith trip to Israel 10 years ago with members of his congregation, and those of Second Parish in Hingham, and Sha’aray Shalom. Through meetings and dinners with travelers beforehand, Father Mulvey said, “she learned what people were looking for, what they needed spiritually, and she got it for them.” He gave the example of one of his parishioners whose mother was dying, and wished to go to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a space that held great significance to her mother. “She visited that shrine and called her mother on her deathbed from there,” Father Mulvey said. “It was a transformative moment across an ocean.”

Beyond these big interfaith events and services, Rabbi Joseph reached out to the community every week. She has literally opened the temple’s doors to hundreds of students from secular and religious schools, both from Hingham and adjoining towns. They attend services, tour the sanctuary, and learn what rabbis and cantors do. A highlight of the tour is meeting the 250-year-old Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and which the temple repaired. To Jews, a Torah is a living member of the community. Rabbi Joseph has said to student visitors, “I feel safer because your teachers have brought you here so you can ask questions, and touch this Torah. Because you’ve done this, I know you would keep it safe.”

Rabbi Joseph has also worked closely with school departments throughout the South Shore to make them aware of dates and celebrations significant to their Jewish students. She and her husband Saul have started a fund for social studies teachers at Hingham High to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and to obtain other resources that help them teach courses such as the Holocaust and Human Behavior seminar, which has become so popular with students that Hingham High now offers four sections of it. The seed money for the fund Rabbi Joseph and her husband provided then made others from the community contribute to the fund, too, according to Andy Hoey, Hingham’s Director of Social Studies. Hoey said Hingham Public Schools will tap into this fund next school year to bring a professional development course supporting diversity and inclusion that will be open to all faculty. “It’s wonderful to know there’s a community resource that would help with inclusion,” Hoey said.

Rabbi Joseph and Cantor Weiss opened a Jewish Community Center preschool in the temple that’s open to anyone in the community. The preschool, said Cantor Weiss, has had a big impact. “The kids learn Jewish values that are universal, like social justice, caring for others, and empathy. It has really changed the ways non-Jewish kids look at Jewish kids.”

“Religion of whatever kind shows the worth of individuals,” Rabbi Joseph said. “But if you’re an island unto yourself, you don’t shift anything. Education is the way out.”

Rabbi Joseph’s emphasis on education flows seamlessly from her first career as a reading and special education teacher, which she started before women were encouraged to enter rabbinical schools. At one point she was asked if she’d be willing to be a temple school principal, but felt that she would have more impact if she could educate a whole community. She added, too, that “If you’re a special ed teacher, you can do anything, like being a rabbi.” She entered rabbinical school, started her service in Newtown, Pennsylvannia as an associate rabbi, was ordained in 1995, and came to Hingham in 2003. “I would have been a different rabbi if I hadn’t come to it as a second career,” she said.

She feels her growth and whatever influence she may have in the community, however, “is directly connected to the growth of the synagogue and the fact that it supports my efforts for outreach. If there were no synagogue here, there’d be no resource to draw on. That’s the bigger story.”

The synagogue does support her, and the numerous initiatives she’s started within it above and beyond the usual duties of ministry. Cantor Weiss listed a number of them, including organizing rides for congregants to get to doctors’ visits, dropping off soup, having congregants make blankets for those who are ill, starting a sisterhood organization within the temple, and welcoming interfaith couples and LGBTQ+ congregants. “These are not things every rabbi does,” Weiss said. “Her focus on taking care of every individual taught the whole community how to think, and it’s taught me, too. She’s been an incredible colleague, friend, and mentor.”

Congregation Sha’aray Shalom welcomes the community to celebrate Rabbi Joseph’s retirement with it between Friday, May 13th to Sunday, May 15th. More information can be found at shaaray.org/events or by calling 781-749-8103. Sha’aray Shalom is at 1112 Main Street in Hingham.

Congregation Sha’aray Shalom is a Reform Jewish community on the South Shore of Boston that provides Beit T’Fillah (worship), Beit Midrash (study), and Beit Knesset (assembly), for the celebration and preservation of our Jewish heritage and our founders’ vision.

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