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Friday, June 23, 2017 8:19 pm

From pizza to shuksuka and hamantaschen; neighborhood kid becomes New Orleans rabbi

Rabbi Todd Silverman

By MARILYN SHAPIRO

My husband Larry and I missed the Pizza Boy’s bris.

Diane Silverman, who would be the future Pizza Boy’s mom, and I met in 1977. The two of us, along with several other new members, sat together at an event sponsored by the Clifton Park Hadassah. Within a year, all the women around the table were expecting. Our son Adam was born in April; the Silverman’s daughter Erica came one month later. By the time the eight children were walking, the Hadassah Baby Boom mothers had formed a weekly play group; one of us babysat while the other moms got a break.

A Hadassah Moms Production
“Three years apart” must have been the Hadassah mantra, because six of us delivered our second child in 1981. Diane and Mark’s son arrived on March 11. Eight days later, while Todd Harris Silverman was ongoing his rite of passage into Judaism, I was having a planned caesarian-section. Obviously, Larry and I couldn’t be at their simcha. Therefore, Diane and Mark announced the birth of our daughter Julie Rose—to our large group of mutual friends.

Julie and Todd grew up together. They were in the same play group (Hadassah Baby Boom Two), and the same nursery school class. When I went back to work, Diane watched Julie before school. It was Diane who put Julie, along with Todd, on the bus the first day of school as I was teaching my first class.

Julie and Todd were close—maybe too close! At the end of first grade, their teacher recommended the two friends be in separate classes as “Julie was leading Todd around by the nose.”

Todd was a frequent guest at our house, and he loved his pizza. Larry nicknamed him “Pizza Boy,” a moniker that stuck with him for a longtime.

By this time, both of our families had joined Congregation Beth Shalom, and we parents shared responsibilities for the children’s religious school car-pools. We even were each other’s helping family at the kids’ bar/bat mitzvahs.

A Jewish Neshamah
Early in his religious education, Todd felt the strength and pull of his Jewish roots. Growing up in kosher home, Todd lived in a family that participated in Judaism through holidays, simchas, and congregation membership. Additionally, he felt surrounded by fellow Jews. “You might be hard-pressed to find another kid in upstate New York who felt like the majority of his family’s friends were Jewish,” Todd said. He realized, he reports, that being “a part and parcel of the Jewish community” was important to him.

After his bar mitzvah, Todd joined Temple Gates of Heaven’s North American Federation of Temple Youth’s (NFTY) chapter in Schenectady. He attended summer camp for three of his four high school years at Kutz Camp, the Reform Movement’s youth leadership academy. In 1997, he participated in a five-week NFTY-sponsored trip to Israel. He came back bronze-skinned, 25 pounds lighter and his eyes and heart opened to Israel.

Life Questions
His religious faith was tested in college. As a theater major at State University of New York at Oswego, he found few opportunities for participation in Judaism. Furthermore, the death of three people close to him—an accident, an illness, and a suicide—made him seriously question in what direction his life would go.

In his last year of college, help came from his NFTY connections. Todd reconnected with a fellow Kutz camper, who invited Todd to be on staff at a summer camp in Malibu, Calif. So, after completing a bachelor’s degree in theater, he headed to the West Coast. After the summer camp experience, he found a job as an elementary school teacher at Brawerman Elementary School in West Los Angeles. His experience at the Jewish day school helped confirm his lifelong belief that he needed to serve the Jewish people. Todd explained that his vision was a “romanticized version of spiritual leader, pastoral guide, educator, and keeper of the stories and traditions.”

In 2011, Todd enrolled in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. As part of his seminary training, he lived for 11 months in Israel, learning the language, the customs, and the politics of the Middle East. He returned to Los Angeles, where he spent another five years immersed in history, liturgy, counseling education, pedagogical instruction — everything a series of internships and student pulpits could provide.  

In The Kitchen
The newly minted Rabbi Todd Silverman learned of a rabbinical position opening in New Orleans, La.  His initial reaction: “There are Jews in New Orleans?”  During the interviewing process, however, Todd learned that the Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest Jewish congregations outside the original 13 colonies, had a large membership. He felt an instant connection to both the shul and the city.

In July of 2015, he accepted the position there as assistant rabbi and rabbinic director of lifelong learning. Along with life-cycle events and liturgical duties, he oversees the congregation’s religious school, Hebrew program and youth group activities.

He continues to teach classes, including courses in Pirkei Avot and rabbinic literature (Midrash, Mishna and Talmud). One of his favorite duties is teaching each semester a four-part cooking class entitled, “In the Kitchen With Rabbi Silverman.” Session topics have included recipes for challah, Jewish soups, Chanukah latkes and sufganiyot  (an Israel-style donut); and a Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in a cumin-infused sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions. “I love shuksuka almost as much as I love pizza,” Todd informed me.

“I preach and I teach and I learn, and I walk to work when it’s not 100 degrees with 110% humidity. And I love every second of it.”

March 11 is Rabbi Todd Harris Silverman’s 36th birthday. That evening, this year, he will celebrate the holiday of Purim. He will help lead a service, join his fellow congregants as they twirl their groggers, and eat the traditional hamantashen. Our former Pizza Boy has grown up to become the Pizza Rabbi.

Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla.

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