'Open Orthodox' Yeshiva Moves Toward Acceptance

With $3 million grant, Chovevei Torah marks decade of ordaining inclusive rabbis, as RCA rejection may be weakening.

05/25/11
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After studying in Israel for two years after college, Aaron Potek decided that, in spite of his undergraduate engineering studies, he wanted to be a rabbi.

Having attended public high school and the University of Michigan as an observant Jew, he was accustomed to making connections with Jews of all denominations as well as with non-Jews. That led him to Yeshiva Chovevei Torah.

“I am not interested in being a rabbi just for Orthodox Jews; I’m interested in being a rabbi for all Jews, and that is one of Chovevei’s mottos,” said Potek, 24, of St. Louis Park, Min., who is completing his first year at the yeshiva’s Riverdale campus. “It represented everything I believed in.”

Dan Millner, 25, of Glencoe Ill., grew up Conservative and planned on the rabbinate since childhood. But differing with the movement over the authority of rabbinic law, he didn’t believe its Jewish Theological Seminary would be a good fit. “At the same time, I understood that I was not with what you might call the more yeshivish crowd,” he said.

A YCT alumnus who supervised Millner in a summer internship suggested that Chovevei Torah (lovers of Torah) would be a better fit, and Millner is now completing his second year there.

The yeshiva born of rebellion against conformity and of an embrace of Jewish pluralism, spearheaded by its controversial founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, has now graduated 65 rabbis in its 10 years. Opening in 1999 as an undergraduate program at Columbia University, it has evolved since 2001 into its own institution, moving from the Upper West Side last year to Rabbi Weiss’ Riverdale enclave in the Bronx.

This fall’s incoming class of 16 candidates is the largest ever, up from seven last year. The four-year program — less for some students with comparable accredited yeshiva experience — is tuition-free and has attracted candidates from as close as Riverdale and as far as Europe, Israel and Sweden.

And its non-dogmatic approach and emphasis on pastoral training and innovation have won the upstart yeshiva a $3 million grant from the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the largest funders of Jewish education in North America.

But money alone won’t solve what may be the yeshiva’s biggest hurdles. The first is the wariness of some Orthodox synagogues to hire a YCT graduate as senior rabbi because of the schools philosphy. The second is the inability of its graduates to gain membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union’s body of clergy and the largest group of Modern Orthodox spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Weiss’ movement, which he calls “Open Orthodox” as distinct from Modern Orthodox, emphasizes feminism as well as interaction and cooperation with other denominations. Those stances have widened a gulf with the RCA’s members, who see the issue as a complex philosophical divide and not just a personal issue with Rabbi Weiss.

Chovevei Torah withdrew its application for inclusion in the RCA early on when it became apparent that it wouldn’t be approved, and the National Council of Young Israel later set up a screening committee for its branch congregations widely seen as intended to keep out the yeshiva’s graduates, who are ordained by Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Dov Linzer (YCT’s dean) and Rabbi Yaakov Love, who is chair of the department of halacha.

But this week the incoming president of the RCA, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavas Torah in Engelwood, N.J., in a carefully worded statement, said that while the council’s stance on Chovevei as an institution wasn’t likely to change anytime soon, the leadership was in the process of examining its guidelines for individual membership.

“The possibility has been discussed for a while that opportunities for membership may be found based on performance and other criteria, which might affect those who have semicha [rabbinic ordination] from an unrecognized institution, or private semichot,” said the rabbi, who took office last week.

“These possibilities are in the drawing stage and would have to be reviewed by the RCA executives and if presented would have to be approved.”

That crack in the wall, if it is one, could be a sign that a yeshiva that was once seen by many as an experiment has now become an established institution.

“We’re getting ready for our second decade,” said Rabbi Linzer. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and close observer of the Orthodox community, counts himself among the early skeptics.

“I never imagined they would get as far as they have,” said Bayme. “When it was first announced my reaction was that the only reality is [Yeshiva University] in the Modern Orthodox world — that’s the only hope for determining the future of the Modern Orthodox. In that sense, my reaction was ‘good luck, but this is not a viable enterprise.’ ”

Bayme, who has lectured at Chovevei, said that while much of Modern Orthodoxy has shifted rightward as a result of yeshiva high school graduates spending one or two years of study in Israel, “Chovevei continues precisely because the need is so great for an alternative vision.”

Chovevei’s philosophy is closely linked to that of Edah, the liberal Modern Orthodox think tank founded by Rabbi Saul Berman, a close friend and ally of Rabbi Weiss. And when Edah shut down in 2006, Chovevei took over its journal, now called Meorot: A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.

Rabbi Linzer said he has long sensed that members within the RCA favored recognition of Chovevei and has been hopeful things would change; he noted the wide range of institutions, from day schools to congregations, which have already hired graduates.

They include Harvard University’s chaplaincy (Rabbi Benjamin Greenberg), SAR High School (Rabbi Davidi Jonas); Washington University’s Hillel (Rabbi Andrew Kastner) Beth Tefiloh Congregation of Baltimore (Rabbi Chai Posner) Rutgers University’s Jewish Learning Initiative (Rabbi Akiva Weiss, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ nephew) and Manhattan’s Kehillat Jeshurun (Rabbi Alexander Kaye).

“Our guys have been totally proving themselves in the field,” said Rabbi Linzer. “Whatever people think, whatever fears they may have that we are going to start having women rabbis, they should go out and look at what our rabbis are doing and the answer is clear.”

Rabbi Weiss also downplays the acceptance issue. “It’s a narrow, parochial issue,” he said. “Many of our students are indeed on the OU [Orthodox Union] payroll [at member congregations]. I can’t say that’s one of our challenges because it’s not a reason why guys wouldn’t choose this program.”

The Jim Joseph grant money will be used to beef up Chovevei’s fundraising efforts and chart a course for new leadership. (The sum of $2.5 million from the fund is contingent on the same amount being raised by the yeshiva, which says it has already raised nearly half that amount since the grant was announced last month, including $25,000 from alumni and an anonymous $1 million gift.)

“One of their goals is to invest in our long-term success and infrastructure, not just the day-to-day budget,” said Rabbi Linzer. Part of that is an understanding that the institution will grow beyond its founder.

“Rabbi Weiss has been talking openly that he understands the importance of an institution’s ability to transcend and survive its founder,” said the dean. “He has been talking for a while about a person to succeed him to allow the yeshiva to move on the next generation.”

It may prove difficult to separate the founder from the yeshiva, especially when Rabbi Weiss’ shul, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, is literally joined at the hip with the yeshiva, operating in connected buildings and sharing office space.

Widely known for his affable style — he often greets male acquaintances with hugs and kisses — Rabbi Weiss is also known for passionate activism in the 1970s and ‘80s on behalf of Soviet Jews and against anti-Semitism, terrorism and the convent at Auschwitz.

He toned much of that down as he reached middle age, concentrating instead on training a new generation of activists, first with Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, and later with Chovevei and a new body for liberal Orthodox rabbis, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded with Rabbi Marc Angel, a former RCA president.

But Rabbi Weiss has stirred up major controversy by pushing Orthodox feminism to the limits with the escalation of a Torah scholar, Sara Hurwitz, to the newly minted title of rabba, a female halachic authority that is comparable to a rabbi. Most Orthodox rabbis reject spiritual leadership for women, and last spring the RCA reportedly threatened to expel Rabbi Weiss over the rabba title. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: Hurwitz got to keep her title, but Rabbi Weiss promised not to give the title to any other women.

Rabba Hurwitz is not affiliated with Chovevei Torah, which does not accept women, and instead is the dean of Manhattan’s Yeshiva Maharat, also founded by Rabbi Weiss, but with a much smaller body of female students who are training to be Orthodox spiritual leaders.

But because Rabbi Weiss is part and parcel of both institutions it may be hard for outsiders to separate them, and some may fear collateral damage.

“What’s happened here is that everyone is going to look at [the rabba issue] as a YCT issue, which it is not,” said Millner, who supports the idea of a rabba, but adds, “Because we are dealing with all the political things with people not recognizing our semicha, this is one more thing that could and has set us back from mainstream acceptance in the Orthodox community.”

Aaron Potek said he is not concerned about hitting brick walls when he completes his studies and searches for a job.

“Any institution that won’t accept me, I don’t want to work for,” he said during a lunch on a recent weekday afternoon with fellow students and a visitor at the yeshiva.

But Mishael Zion, 30, a Jerusalem native who plans to return to Israel after his ordination, said he is worried. He was drawn to Chovevei because of its reputation for a pastoral instruction he couldn’t find at home.

“When I decided I wanted to be a rabbi, I wanted to try to build community shuls and community Judaism, which is lacking in Israel,” he said. “There are a lot of places to study halacha there, and in the end they call you a rabbi, but none teach you the skills you need to be a rabbi.”

Zion believes the RCA issue will be solved within the next 10 years, but he is prepared to take exams in Israel to get into the strict rabbinical system there, if necessary. “I sort of waver between two answers,” he said. “Some days I feel, like Aaron Potek said, if the shul won’t accept me because of institutional politics, then maybe I don’t want to be there anyway. Other days I feel like [the RCA’s failure to accept YCT] is a chillul Hashem [disgrace of God’s name]. … It also feels like personal enmities are preventing shuls from getting the rabbis that can really serve them.”

The students say Chovevei’s commitment to tikkun olam speaks for itself. Patek and Millner and another student, Andrew Scheer, recently traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to help a Chovevei alumnus, Rabbi Eytan Yammer, with disaster relief efforts following the recent deadly tornadoes there. Rabbi Yammer heads the Knesset Israel Congregation in Birmingham.

Millner, who hopes to be a military chaplain when he’s ordained, welcomed the hands-on experience with pastoral counseling. But he also said it was an opportunity to be an emissary.

“After 15 hours in the car, we got out with our kipot and tzitzit,” he recalled. “For many people it was their first encounter with a Jew. These are opportunities to show that Orthodox Jews aren’t these people constantly caught up in scandal, aren’t these people erasing women out of photos or throwing rocks at women at the Kotel. This is why I’m here. It gives me the opportunity to do Kiddushei Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) to correct a lot of damage while acknowledging we have a lot to work on internally.”

Rabbi Weiss said he founded the school as a reaction to his view that Modern Orthodoxy was moving to the right and the Conservative movement was moving to the left, but says, “We are a proactive school. This is unapologetically an Open Orthodox rabbinic seminary ...”

As proof of Chovevei’s growing appeal, he points out that applications are rising despite the fact that it has no feeder, such as a high school or affiliated summer camp, “and yet the cream of the crop is coming to us.”

Last Update:

12/31/2011 - 16:20

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it's twofaced to be on the one hand so very much "open" but when it comes to the question of the ordination of women - then all swim back. what a sourdough.

A Rabbi / talmid chacham without people skills will have a difficult time inspiring others.

YCT apparently does emphasize pastoral skills, and such are sorely needed in contemporary society. That alone does not mean there is no Yirat Shamayim at YCT.

We need halachic experts. We also need those with good pastoral skills. If each can be embodied in the same person, kol hakavod.

I think that there is a place for YCT. No one group ought to have a monopoly on Judaism. Separate and apart from that, I think that we can all agree that Rabbis and Jewish communal servants are severely underpaid. Jewish leaders need to be compensated for the work they do and do well. When our leaders are compensated fairly, they serve us with more energy. We need leaders who are able to devote time to us and not be preoccupied with where their family's next meal is coming from or how to pay a medical bill. Even in good economies, this has been a problem. If Rabbis and Jewish communal servants of all stripes could only come together to collectively bargain their due, both they and the communities they serve would be equally blessed. Ideological differences are something we are supposed to cope with as best as we can until, G-d willing, the Temple will be rebuilt speedily in our days. Until then- can't we all just get along and focus on surviving as a Jewish people? To be redeemed, we first need to exist. Let's not, G-d forbid, kill each other.

Ben, I think you should be ashamed of your comment. Who are you to comment on who else does and doesn't have yirat shamayim? It is one thing to disagree with the ideology of an institution--fine, let's discuss ideas. But it's another to slander whole-sale a community of Jews who are committed to yiddeshkeit (albeit, with a different hashkacha than your own). I personally am not a rabbinical student and have no ties to any smicha program (though I have friends tied to both YU and Chovevei) and I can say that being an expert in talmud and halacha does not necessarily guarantee that one will know how to lead a Jewish community. Of course, it is important that they learn, and learn well, but just b/c they are less experienced than, say, the YU graduates, in reading a daf of gemara does not mean they can't inspire, lead, and educate fellow Jews. Ben, please think carefully about the kind of message you want to post in a public forum about your fellow Jews before doing so.

Ben Packer is right - these "rabbis" that YCT is churning out seem to be more focused on political activism and "tikkun olam" (which, by the way is more or less the unofficial motto of reform judaism) than they are on halachah and mitzvot. There is doesn't have to be anything wrong with them wanting to be leaders in the Jewish community, I'm not saying that they aren't doing good things, but the idea that they would call themselves "Orthodox Rabbis" is laughable at best.

False. Being an expert in Halacha and well-versed in Gemara ARE imperative to being a good rabbi and a rabbi who is also the leader of a Jewish community. The Rabbinate is not about being a pastor; it is not like being the priest of a church. We don't base our religion on the charisma of a leader. We base it on both learning Torah and keeping the Mitzvot which were given to us by Hashem and expounded upon by Torah scholars and leaders (mesora). The fact that chovevei stresses soft pastoral skills and not Torah is proof of their lack of yiras shamayim. One who fears Hashem also believes that the Torah is the source for the tools and skills needed to succeed in every aspect of life; chovevei believes that while Conservative Judaism doesn't value the supremacy of Hashem and His Torah enough, Orthodoxy values it too much and must be corrected. There was no slander here, but rather an astute observation

Does it really matter.? There are very few orthodox rabbinical positons available in which a rabbi can make a living. NEEDING THREE JOBS TO FEED A FAMILY IS RIDICULOUS. The shtiebels are destroying the orthodox rabbinate. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

The place is a fake! The article doesn't mention anything about scholarship and that's because there is none! I know quite a few folks who have gone there, and let's just say Talmud and Halacha are not "their thing". And there is certainly no place for yiras shamayim. Furthermore, there is no recognition of religious authority (just like conservative!) and therefore you have them making spectacles of themselves all over the country (mostly in DC!)!

I believe you meant St. Louis Park, MN. Check a map.

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