A new rabbi follows old traditions for Passover in New London

Rabbi Rachel M. Safman of Congregation Beth El in New London and her husband, Daniel Robinson, pour boiling water onto the stove and counters at their New London home Sunday as a cleansing technique in preparation for Passover.
Rabbi Rachel M. Safman of Congregation Beth El in New London and her husband, Daniel Robinson, pour boiling water onto the stove and counters at their New London home Sunday as a cleansing technique in preparation for Passover. Tim Martin/The Day

New London - In the kitchen of their home Sunday afternoon, Daniel Robinson asked his wife, Rabbi Rachel Safman, whether they should throw out a bottle of vinegar he came across.

Some people don't eat vinegar during Passover, he commented.

"But it's pesadic," she said, pointing to a "P" label on the bottle. That meant the vinegar was kosher for Passover. Editor's note: "Pesadic" is a Yiddish adjective meaning of or for Passover. The term can be used to mean kosher for Passover and is derived from Pesach, Hebrew for Passover.

Safman has spent the past week preparing for her first Passover as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in New London. She took over the position - her first as a rabbi - July 1.

She is the first woman to serve as a rabbi in southeastern Connecticut, according to Jerome Fischer, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this article.

Safman said she started her rabbinical studies in 2008 at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles following a career in academia.

She completed her doctorate in Development Sociology at Cornell University in 2000 and taught at the National University of Singapore. Then she "found God," as Fischer put it.

"I decided that my real passion was in making a difference in leadership … specifically in the Jewish community," said Safman, who is originally from Gaithersberg, Maryland.

Safman graduated from her rabbinical studies in May. In June, she moved with her husband, their three-year-old son Yair, and her mother Edith Safman to New London.

She follows Rabbi Carl Astor, who retired at the end of June after 32 years in the position, as head of the Conservative Jewish temple.

Safman said Astor has been "an amazing colleague and mentor" and described him as a resource as she takes her first steps in her new role.

As she was speaking, Robinson mentioned that it might be a good time to pour boiling water on the stove and counter.

Applying heat to cooking surfaces is one of the last steps of cleaning for Passover, Safman earlier explained.

Passover, the festival that commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt, entails an intricate process of preparation to remove chametz, Hebrew for leavened products and grains forbidden during Passover. Observers of Passover can rid themselves of chametz literally or symbolically. The practice stems from the story in the Torah about the Jews having no time to allow the bread they were baking to rise before leaving Egypt.

Symbolic removal might entail putting the item out of sight, or "selling" it to a non-Jewish friend who acts as the guardian of the items for the duration of the week long holiday, which this year begins today.

Aside from doing the Passover cleaning of her own home this weekend, Safman prepared the synagogue kitchen for the holiday alongside Astor Sunday morning. At the temple, Astor went over steel surfaces in the kitchen with a blow torch.

Safman visited congregants in nursing homes Friday to distribute bags filled with Passover ingredients such as grape juice and matzah.

The rabbi said her approach to Passover is the same as Astor's. She said she differs from her predecessor in other ways.

"We speak in different voices," she said, explaining that she draws heavily from her experiences as a wife and mother.

Fischer described Safman's approach as "gentle." He said her character impressed the search committee of congregants that ultimately chose her as the new rabbi.

"She's a very caring person," he said.

He said that while Safman is still working to grow roots in the local Jewish community, he anticipates she will branch out to other area groups, as Astor did.

She said that the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund invited her to speak at the dinner for scholarship winners in October, which she said made her feel welcomed in the city.

t.townsend@theday.com

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