For over three decades, Rabbi James Ponet has presided over hundreds of Friday night Shabbat dinners at Yale. But starting in January, the longtime Jewish chaplain will take a year-long sabbatical and retire from his position.
In an Aug. 16 email to the Slifka Center community, Ponet cited the message he emphasized at many a Shabbat dinner — to stop and rest — as the main reason for his decision.
“Most importantly, I respond to one of my own teachings … namely, STOP!” Ponet said in the email. “Shabbat is the art of stopping before you are stopped. … In stopping we create the possibility of new beginnings, the space for new initiatives.”
Ponet’s departure is part of a year of restructuring at the Slifka Center aimed at improving its efficiency and finances. Historically, Ponet’s role at Slifka encompassed significant managerial duties in addition to his responsibilities as rabbi, said David Slifka ’01, president of the Slifka Center’s board of trustees. But Slifka added that Ponet’s position was shifted to emphasize his rabbinical duties and job as spiritual leader during the center’s recent transition.
In May, Rabbi Leah Cohen was appointed as the new executive director, and with Ponet’s departure, Cohen will also serve as senior Jewish chaplain. Slifka said he could not recall any Slifka Center directors who have held both positions in the past.
In his email, Ponet looked back on the growth of Jewish resources on campus since he came to New Haven in 1981 and “Yale Hillel was located in an office in the basement of Bingham Hall.” Today, the Joseph Slifka Center at 80 Wall St. is a three-story building with over a dozen staff members dedicated to its day-to-day functions.
“When Jews at Yale had barely any place to call their own, at an institution with a history of admission quotas, it would have been easy to scorn a rabbinical post at Yale as futile,” Slifka said in the email. “But Rabbi Ponet saw the future: a partnership between one of the world’s elite intellectual centers, and a people dedicated to learning and the expansion of knowledge.”