Stephanie Ben Simon has joined Ohef Sholom Temple as director of Education and Engagement (DEE). As DEE, Ben Simon will develop and oversee a dynamic program of education and engagement for the entire congregation, creating educational opportunities in alignment with the temple’s values at every stage of the life cycle. In partnership with OST’s clergy and lay leadership, she says she is developing membership and programming plans with the goals of attracting prospective members, integrating new members into the Ohef Sholom community, as well as engaging existing members.
“Warm and welcoming are the two adjectives I use to describe my first months here at Ohef Sholom Temple, and that is how I intend to continue my work with this community,” says Ben Simon. “In choosing a title to reflect my role as director of Education and Engagement we chose a word in Hebrew that stems from the Jewish middah (value) of sayver panim yafot which translated to having a pleasant expression. We see this value in Pirkei Avot 1:15 when Shammai instructs us to receive every person with a sayver panim yafot—a smile. Smiles reduce stress and enhance immune response. Smiling is both contagious and good for us.”
When Ben Simon was a junior in high school, she wanted to study abroad and had her sights set on Spain. It wasn’t until her rabbi suggested Israel instead, and hinted that it was probably something her mother could get behind, that Ben Simon considered it as an option. It was that experience, through what is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism’s Heller High, that cemented her connection with Judaism. In Israel, she formed her own relationship with her faith “having been blessed,” as she says, with the right people to help guide her journey. That is what set her on a path to inspire others to experience Judaism the way she does.
“I saw that Judaism is cool and exciting and can enhance my life. A whole new world opened up to me,” Ben Simon says.
In Israel, Ben Simon experienced Jewish engagement and education while studying at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and at an archaeological dig at Tel Bethsaida. In the U.S., her experiences have included studying at the University of Hartford in Connecticut where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies, a summer internship in Washington, DC at Hadassah through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), working at synagogues in Des Moines, Iowa and Atlanta, Georgia, then back to New Jersey.
While working in Jewish education, Ben Simon obtained her MA in Jewish Education from The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Education and was recently awarded her Reform Jewish Educator Certificate from the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.
During her travels throughout Israel and the U.S., she says she deeply valued and experienced the power of how an organized Jewish community can enrich one’s life. She believes that Judaism is magical and can enhance life, infusing each day with Jewish values—middot and mitzvot.
“Being Jewish does not exist in only going to Sunday school once a week,” she says. “Being Jewish is the way in which some people organize their kitchen and some people arrange their weekends for Shabbat and some people make business decisions based on the ethics Judaism provides for their lives. Everyone can connect with their Jewish values on an everyday basis, but teaching them how to is what a DEE is supposed to do.”
Recently married to Shay Ben Simon, a native Israeli, the couple is excited to begin married life together in Norfolk.
“What I love about OST is that we have 175 years of history,” Ben Simon says. “I can’t wait to learn more about our past.”
Joash Schulman, education committee chair, says, “When I first met Stephanie, I was certain that her warmth of character and her depth of experience were exactly what we were looking for. Now that she’s arrived, it’s exciting to see her interact with our congregants, religious school faculty, and our temple staff. We have an exciting plan that’s being placed in motion and we’re lucky to have Stephanie at the helm!”