Founder: Rabbi Joel E. Soffin
Rabbi Joel Soffin has been a life-long social activist, addressing the needs of the poor and the vulnerable in many places around the world. His study of economics drew him to the poor and his rabbinic career of more than thirty years enabled him to begin to address their needs. He has been recognized for this work with several awards and most especially, through the renewed lives of others. In retirement from the congregation, he continues his work through Jewish Helping Hands.
Rabbi Soffin initially studied to become an economist. He studied the economy of El Salvador and developed a deep sensitivity for the poor of the world. He has a PhD pending at Yale University.
In 1971, he began his studies for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He was the student rabbi/youth director at Temple Emanuel in Westfield, New Jersey where he was inspired by the deep sense of justice and social action demonstrated by the teen-agers. He was ordained in 1976 and then served as the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Hartford, Connecticut.
Three years later, Rabbi Soffin became the Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ. While there, he developed a long series of social action projects. He visited with thirty-five Soviet Jewish refuseniks and created the International Committee to Rescue the Mendeleev Family. He organized community-wide efforts to resettle a Vietnamese boat family as well as six Soviet Jewish families, and to house and feed the homeless.
The range of his concerns broadened as he undertook projects in several different countries. Through the Chicken Project he brought sustenance and income to campesino families in Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, and he brought a team to restore homes that had been destroyed in a series of earthquakes and hurricanes. During the depression in Argentina, the Jewish community of the city of Mendoza was suffering terribly. Rabbi Soffin raised enough money to enable the community to meet all of the needs they had identified, and soon they were back on their feet.
Rabbi Soffin and members of Temple Shalom traveled to Zvenigorodka, Ukraine, twice to help the community rebuild the synagogue that was returned to them and to provide a Torah scroll, an Aron Kodesh (Ark) and a Ner Tamid (Eternal Light). They provided funds to double the pensions of the poor elderly, to transport students to the regional Religious School, and to support a para-rabbinic leader for the community. The synagogue insisted on naming itself “Temple Shalom.” It now has double services for the High Holidays.
After traveling to Ethiopia, Rabbi Soffin adopted an orphanage of HIV+ children and created Shalom Ethiopia – the Million Quarter Project to provide over a million meals to Ethiopian Jewish children still in Ethiopia. He served as the national president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry for two years. He also created the Adult Mitzvah Corps of the Reform Movement and led weeks of Jewish Religious Living in New Orleans and several other American cities, including home building and restoration projects. Seeing a need for teen building projects, he developed Bonim Banim – Building Youth, which has conducted weeklong summer programs in Maine and Massachusetts.
Upon his retirement from Temple Shalom, generous donors enabled him to create Jewish Helping Hands to continue his important social action work. He often serves as Scholar-in-Residence, Sabbatical rabbi and teacher of Torah and Talmud. In addition to his work with Jewish Helping Hands, he serves as chairman of the board of MindLeaps, an organization working in post-conflict and developing countries to permanently decrease the amount of street children through a unique three-phase model of dance classes, vocational training, and education, that helps out-of-school youth undergo behavioral transformation, catch up on basic cognitive development and learn work-ready skills.
Rabbi Soffin attributes his passion for social action and all of Jewish life to his mother, Sarah Soffin, aleha hashalom, may she rest in peace. He has been married to Sandy for more than forty years and is the proud father of Jeremy and Aaron.