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RABBI ON THE ROAD

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by Jeanne Muchnick

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Call her multi-tasker extraordinaire: Rabbi Shoshana Hantman is many things to many people. For those families who are part of her havura — the small group of Westchester Jewish families who formed a Reconstructionist synagogue without walls — she’s their traveling rabbi who comes to their homes to hold services once a month (you might find her unloading her pulpit and books from her station wagon). She’s also the education director of her Halutsim Hebrew School in Larchmont, where she now has more than 60 students in grades 1-7. And during the week, she stands in front of a high school English class at Yorktown High School (last year she was at John Jay in Cross River), where her l0th graders call her Ms. Hantman. “I basically work three jobs, but it is my dream assignment,” she says. “I’ve managed to put together various aspects of what I love: it’s 90 percent education — both secular and religious — and then I have my l0 percent intellectual stimulation from the adults I deal with.” It’s not an easy balancing act, yet she does it with self-assurance and a gentle air — not to mention a lot of miles on her car. The main reason for the high-wire juggling act is so she can be with her kids, Mollie, 8, and Isaac, 5, whom she worked hard to have. “I had fertility issues for about five years,” she says. “I didn’t have kids so I can leave them with babysitters constantly. I want to be with them.” Sometimes that means taking — OK, schlepping — them with her from her Somers home to attend to her Hebrew school; other times, it means playing tag with her husband, a district attorney in Jeannine Pirro’s office. Because she works occasional nights and weekends, it has worked out without too much wear and tear on her family life. But, she notes, “I’ve cut down on my night and weekend hours dramatically since leaving my larger pulpit job.” Hantman was a pulpit rabbi at a northern Westchester synagogue for years but found the demands on her time too taxing — especially with young children. “In many ways it sounded like the perfect job,” she says, “but I ended up working too many crazy hours — evenings, weekends, and holidays— all times when my family was home. “I was the cantor. I was the rabbi. I was the Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutor as well as the education director,” she continues. “I did almost everything and could never get away from it. “What ended up happening was that I got very little family time,” she recalls. “We would rarely be together as the four of us. Instead, it was always three of us in different combinations — either me and the two kids, or my husband and the two kids. We looked like a ‘shared custody’ family.” Which is what drove her to leave her position in the fall of 200l. Shortly afterwards, she was approached by a small group of Pelham and Larchmont families about starting their own congregation, or “havura”. Nearly all of them are parents of Halutsim students. “This is a trend among America’s Jews,” explains Rabbi Shoshana, as she’s called. “People are rejecting the traditional synagogue structures and seeking a more personal environment with people more like themselves.” She calls her group of families “seekers”, a community of learners who are largely beginners to Jewish tradition. The group rents out space at The Oaks in New Rochelle for their High Holy Day services (and welcomes newcomers); other times they meet in individual homes throughout Westchester. Halutsim classes are run out of the VFW Post in Larchmont. The school operates separately from her congregation, though the congregation occasionally pulls new members from the school base. Rabbi Shoshana refers to Halutsim as her “baby”, as she started it in 1992 from the ground up. “I began by teaching a few kids in various homes; it spread by word of mouth,” she says. Within five years, her roster went from five students to 50. “Every time the phone rang, it was another parent who wanted to sign up,” she says. This year, for the first time, she is employing two teachers. Initially she taught alone, and then with one another teacher. In addition, she decided to return to secular education to teach English and history to high school students. “I loved high school,” she says. “I had a great experience. Which is why I’m thrilled to be back in that environment.” All of which still leaves her time to help her own children with their homework. Now that they are school-age (and Hebrew-school ready), it’s a bit easier. Last year Mollie attended the mixed first/second grade class, and Isaac came along for the ride. “I love that my job is flexible enough to include my children and that the parents don’t mind — in fact they enjoy — seeing my own kids participate,” she says. As one of the parents whose children attended Halutsim, I can personally attest that Rabbi Shoshana is the quintessential modern-day rabbi, with an earthy style and laid-back personality. I have fond memories, in fact, of the first time we met, as I helped carry her pulpit out of her car. She doesn’t raise her voice, or rush you through a story — even when her class is about to begin. She goes with the flow, and listens attentively to the voices of her congregates and her students. Which is partly why she’s so in demand, and why her school is growing. “Halutsim means pioneer in Hebrew,” she explains. “I have to admit, I thought we were pretty avant-garde when we started. We’re braving new roads, and I’m amazed by all the people who want to come on board.”

For information on the havura, call Tanya Mohn at (914) 834-8121; for the Halutsim Hebrew School, call Rabbi Shoshana at (914) 962-6064.


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