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Adam and Jonah: BJ’s New Rabbinic Fellows

By Joanne Palmer | Issue Date: September 2011

Our two incoming rabbinical fellows, Adam Roffman and Jonah Geffen, are both second-year students at JTS, and both want to be pulpit rabbis. Their backgrounds and paths led them to the same place, but in very different ways, and each took a major detour along the way.

Adam Roffman. Photo: Denise WaxmanAdam, 31, grew up in Baltimore as an active member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, attended a Solomon Schechter day school, and spent Shabbat at junior congregation, ultimately leading it when he aged out as a participant. In high school he became a theater kid, and “it was the focus for my life for 10 years.” At Amherst College he moved to directing and then came to New York, where he went to school at the Circle in the Square. “I had some success at first. But I was a passionate optimistic wide-eyed kid. I thought I’d go into theater and find colleagues who agreed with me about theater as community building. But I found out that theater in New York is the opposite. The bottom line is that it’s all about entertainment.”

Disillusioned, he went to work for a hedge fund while doing theater at night. There he noticed a colleague who went out between 2:00 and 2:30 every day and realized that he was going to mincha. “He was living a secular life but at the same time taking his religious obligations seriously. I started to feel jealous of him.

“On a whim, I went to the three-week program at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem,” Adam continued. (The yeshiva is an egalitarian school that does not ordain rabbis but instead works on the principle of Torah lishmah—the study of Torah for its own sake.) “I fell in love with the conversation I had been waiting my whole life for—about the interaction between Judaism and modern life.” He went on to a yearlong course at the yeshiva and then entered JTS. “What I was looking for in the theater exists in the thing I was born into. Judaism is about community.”

Jonah GeffenJonah, 34, grew up immersed in the Jewish world. His parents, Peter Geffen and Susie Kessler, are longtime BJ members and helped found the Heschel School, from which he graduated. He has also spent a great deal of time in Israel. “I managed to get myself there at least once a year for my whole life,” he said.

Jonah’s decision to go to rabbinical school was gradual. “When I was studying for my master’s in conflict analysis and resolution, my main mentor at George Mason was Rabbi Mark Gopin. I focused my studies on religion and interpersonal and group conflict, and as I studied I realized that although I was an involved Jew I wasn’t observant or very knowledgeable. I realized that I wouldn’t really ever be able to truly understand religion and work with religious people living in conflict zones if I didn’t engage that part of my tradition.” He became more observant and came to understand “what I had been looking for in my life, and to consider ways that I could dedicate myself to Jewish learning.”

“The reality of liberal Jewish communities is that if you want to engage in Torah learning past high school and you don’t want to go to Israel you have to go to rabbinical school.” So he did.

There was one other factor in Jonah’s decision, a genetic predisposition. His grandfather was a rabbi, as were his great grandfather and his great great grandfather; his brother, Daniel, is also a rabbinical student, at HUC.

Jonah’s wife, Julia Mannes, is a yoga instructor and doula, and they have a 20-month-old daughter, Bina. He is thrilled to be back at BJ. “My models for what rabbis should be are our rabbis and Marshall,” he said. “There is an important place for the voice of rabbis in society. I hope to bring out the part of the Torah that speaks of conflict and peacemaking. I think it’s a neglected part of the Torah and an important piece of our tradition.”

Joanne Palmer is the editor of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. As always, this is in loving memory of Shira Palmer Sherman, z”l.