Rabbi connects with community at coffee shops

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
From left, Westport resident Jim Sugarman, Rabbi Ita Paskind, and Norwalk resident Nellie Cole at a recent Pop Up Rabbi coffee at Express NEAT in Darien.

From left, Westport resident Jim Sugarman, Rabbi Ita Paskind, and Norwalk resident Nellie Cole at a recent Pop Up Rabbi coffee at Express NEAT in Darien.

Sandra Diamond Fox / Hearst Connecticut Media

A little bit of schmoozing, a little bit of gabbing, and a whole lot of sharing.

That’s usually how it goes at the Pop Up Rabbis on Wednesday mornings from 10 to 11 a.m., with Rabbi Ita Paskind.

Paskind, who is a rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, created the free, one-hour coffees last January. With the exception of the summers, she has been holding them weekly in coffee shops throughout Fairfield County.

Paskind’s goal with the Pop Up Rabbis is to make herself more accessible to congregants and others in the community.

To date, there’ve been Pop Up Rabbis in Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, and Wilton. Last Wednesday, the Pop Up Rabbi was at Espresso NEAT, a coffee shop at 20 Grove Street in Darien.

Pop ups are announced on the Congregation Beth El’s website, at congbethel.org/. Membership in that congregation, or any other one, is not required to attend.

“Every month, I move to a different location,” said Paskind, who has been a rabbi for five years at the 85-year-old congregation. Once a month, she tries to hold an evening Pop Up Rabbi to accommodate more people’s schedules.

Between four and eight people typically turn up to each one.

All topics

At each pop up, Paskind has no agenda: Any topic, with the exception of politics, is up for grabs.

There are serious topics, lighthearted topics — and everything in between, she said.

“It’s a mishmash of what the people bring with what’s topical,” she said.

“Sometimes, I do ask a question and bring up a topic for people to talk about. But usually, I like to see if the conversation grows organically,” she said, adding she’s never had the same “constellation” of people come to a coffee twice.

Wednesday’s coffee was a smaller than a normal one — with just Westport resident Jim Sugarman and Norwalk resident Nellie Cole. While the two hadn’t met each other before, by the end of the hour, they were chatting like old friends.

While everyone — including Paskind and The Darien Times reporter — sipped hot chocolate or coffee and some munched on pastries, they all shared their lives and their observations of life, with one another.

Culture, religion, and Jewish holidays were some of the topics discussed.


Paskind brought up Hanukkah, and asked what everyone’s plans were, as well as their traditions.

“We usually get together with kids and grandkids, at my kid’s house,” Sugarman said. “My son-in-law makes latkes [a potato pancake] from scratch. He makes them with sweet potatoes or regular potatoes.”

Sugarman continued, “We light candles, we sing songs, we eat plenty of food. We open gifts. It’s a good family-type holiday and we have a good time with each other.”

Jelly doughnuts, a popular dessert during Hanukkah, was brought up.

Cole said her mother has a doughnut-making machine.

“She makes homemade ice cream as well,” Cole said. “My mom loves experimenting in the kitchen.”

No topic is off-limits, according to Paskind — with one exception: Politics.

“We don’t talk politics,” she said.

Hanukkah merchandise was brought up.

“My friend has matzo patterned oven gloves,” said Cole, “and a matzo chef’s hat.”

Cole bought her cat a Hanukkah-themed gift — a wand toy with a fish that says “Gefilte fish” on it.

“She absolutely loves it,” Cole said.

Paskind said so many people in American culture are very into buying Christmassy items “that Jews have become interested in buying our holiday-themed items.”

“When I was a kid, I never would have thought about buying anything like that, but it’s cute and fun,” she added.

They shared memories of past Hanukkahs.

Cole said one of her family’s Hanukkah traditions was a book of traditional Jewish songs her father would buy her.

Paskind said Congregation Beth El has a program that sends care packages to the synagogue’s college students.

“There are about 30 college students among all the families,” Paskind said. “I keep a very tight spreadsheet of all the students — their grade, their major, their college.”

Every few months before the holidays, a group of parents meet up and put together a care package for each of them. Items include a small stress ball for final exams.

Making connections

Paskind said she would like to continue the pop ups indefinitely, because she feels there are many benefits to them.

“The whole trend among clergy, broadly speaking, is to get outside of the institution where coming in the door is in itself a high barrier,” Paskind said.

She continued, “People like hanging out in coffee shops,” Paskind added. “It’s a popular thing in society at the moment.”

Aside from Norwalk, Paskind has congregants who live in Westport, Wilton, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, and Redding, “so in going outside the walls of the synagogue, I also make sure that I was going as close to where my congregants live, to make it convenient for them.”

Pop Up Rabbis are “very much a community building and relationship building opportunity,” she added.

Cole said the coffees provide a “really nice, neutral safe space to get to know various congregants. It made it a lot easier reaching out to rabbi knowing there was this.”

“It adds a personal aspect to it,” Cole added.

One unexpected but “wonderful” result of the pop ups, according to Paskind, is the deepening connections between congregants and friends of the congregation.

“I didn’t go into it last year with that goal in mind, but it has become just as important — maybe even more important — that they connect to each other,” she said.

Sugarman said when he was growing up, he looked at clergy like they were on a pedestal.

“Getting the rabbis and clergy off the bema and out into the community gives you a much better feel for that person,” he said.

He has been a member of Synagogue Beth El for 39 years. “But some of the congregants that I’ve seen at the coffees, I’ve never talked to, so this gives me a great opportunity to get to know them.”

“You get to see the person as they really are,” he added.

The “warm camaraderie” at the coffees “opens up people’s hearts,” Paskind said.