Some people know from a young age what they want to do professionally. For Rabbi Ian Shaffer, deciding upon the rabbinate was a process. However, anyone who has sat in a class with him can surely attest that he made the right choice.
After three years of working in Israel, Rabbi Shaffer and his wife had a decision to make. Should they return to England or stay in Israel? “I realized what I wanted. Kollel was right for me. While I wasn’t interested in a pulpit, I liked teaching and dealing with younger people.” The kollel Rabbi Shaffer attended was Meretz Kollel-Mevasseret Zion.
While at the kollel, Rabbi Shaffer was fortunate to find a number of quality teachers and mentors, including Nechama Leibowitz. Rabbi Shaffer raves about Leibowitz. “She didn’t take no for an answer, and she forced you to come to conclusion. She was a great pedagogue, and every lesson was like learning how to teach.”
Ultimately, the Shaffers left Israel when the rabbi found there was no livelihood for him there. Back in the UK, Rabbi Shaffer served as an assistant principal of Judaic Studies at a high school in London. The school was groundbreaking, as it was the first school in England to teach the same curriculum to girls as it did to boys. Rabbi Shaffer was proud to be part of the institution and believed wholeheartedly in the philosophy. When he was questioned about teaching at the school, Rabbi Shaffer responded, “If after 120 years, the first thing I am called out for is teaching gemorah to girls, well, that should be my biggest problem.”
The Shaffers moved to America after one of their daughters married an American. With their machetunim in Fair Lawn, the decision of where to live in America was an easy one. Since then, Rabbi Shaffer has had a chance to follow through on one of his passions—teaching Navi and Tanach. These were not a common area of focus in post-yeshiva studies; the tradition was to study on your own. Ultimately, the message was that it’s not as important as Talmud. However, for Rabbi Shaffer, Navi/Tanach was what he connected to most, particularly the five Megillot. He says of learning Tanach, “When you learn Tanach, you learn what it means to be a human being.” Regarding the Navi, Rabbi Shaffer says, “I’m a lucky guy to get paid to teach about King David and King Shlomo. These are the people who make us who we are. We need to probe and understand them.”
After moving to the US, Rabbi Shaffer started teaching Navi/Tanach at Stern College. He was pleased to continue teaching at a girls’ school. “I really believe passionately that girls should be taught to a high standard.” And the students are pleased to have him. “I think they find me intriguing, enthusiastic.” Rabbi Shaffer strives to make the individuals in Neviim real people for his students and not mere characters in a book. Along those lines, a question Rabbi Shaffer likes to ask his students is, “Would you date this guy?”
When asked if he was a feminist, he said, “I’m a supporter within boundaries. There must be a halachic basis. It’s not about politics or making a statement.”
Rabbi Shaffer also teaches a weekly adult class in Tanach at Young Israel in Fair Lawn. The class has been meeting regularly since 2008. (Want to catch up on past classes? Check out YUTorah.org.) Rabbi Shaffer describes the class as condensed and focused, covering a topic and a chapter a week. The goal for the class is to have a memorable start, end and conclusion.
While teaching is very meaningful to Rabbi Shaffer, a major part of his day is dedicated to his role as a mashgiach and supervisor for Kosher food services at Barnard College. Rabbi Shaffer says the job fell into his lap while he served for a year as a Hillel Rabbi at Columbia. Rabbi Shaffer described the program as very serious. He is there early in the morning, orders the food, reviews the menu and inspects the kitchen. It’s a brand new kitchen with a chef and three to four assistants cooking from scratch. They serve 500–600 meals per day and are even open on Pesach.
Sometimes, finding the right position takes time. Bergen County is certainly a beneficiary of Rabbi Shaffer’s long route to his “right place.”
By Larry Bernstein