When Rabbi Asher Lopatin takes over the helm of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah next summer, he may try to pull off something of a football move at the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school: Look left while going right.
In the 12 years since Rabbi Avi Weiss founded the school as a more liberal, pulpit-focused alternative to Yeshiva University’s scholarship-focused ordination program, Chovevei has produced more than 80 rabbis serving in a variety of capacities across North America. Their influence, Weiss argues, goes far beyond the Orthodox community: Chovevei’s rabbis are trained to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews while remaining firmly rooted in Orthodox practice. Weiss calls it “open Orthodoxy.”
“We think we have found a formula to train rabbis who are unapologetically Orthodox but also unapologetically open and nonjudgmental and inclusive on every level,” Weiss told JTA.
But within the Orthodox world, Chovevei – which is also known by the acronym YCT – is still struggling for widespread acceptance.
The school is not accredited by the main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America. Not a single one of its 81 ordained rabbis serves in a synagogue affiliated with Young Israel, one of the nation’s largest Orthodox synagogue franchises, which has thwarted synagogue affiliates from hiring Chovevei rabbis. Weiss claims a warm relationship with the Orthodox Union, but an OU official was careful to note in an interview with JTA that the organization has no formal relationship with Weiss’ school.
Lopatin, who for the past 18 years has been the pulpit rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel synagogue, says he wants to maintain the school’s outreach-oriented approach, but one of his first priorities will be gaining broader acceptance within the Orthodox camp.
“I want to make sure Chovevei Torah is an integral part of the Orthodox world,” Lopatin told JTA. “I do think there’s a perception that Chovevei is left, for liberal Orthodoxy,” he said. “I want to start with getting the word out that we’re open to right and left.”
A large swath of the Orthodox community is either ambivalent about Weiss’ yeshiva or outright hostile to it. A 2007 article in Yated Ne’eman, a haredi Orthodox paper, that was reprinted on the Yeshiva World News website and headlined “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: Is it Orthodox?”, called the rabbinical school a “threat to halachic Judaism” – rhetoric usually reserved for the non-Orthodox world.
Much of the antagonism toward Chovevei has to do with Weiss. The president of Chovevei since its founding in 2000, Weiss set off a firestorm in Orthodox circles two years ago by ordaining a woman rabbi, Sara Hurwitz, upon whom he conferred the title “rabba” (a female version of “rabbi”). Long before then, Weiss had been known for pushing the Orthodox envelope on women’s issues.
Although Hurwitz technically was ordained outside of Chovevei, which admits only male students, the rabbinical school remains inextricably connected with Weiss’ decision. Chovevei’s relocation several years ago to the same building that houses Weiss’ pulpit synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Hurwitz works as an assistant clergywoman, only reinforced that notion.
“YCT presents itself as being an institution on the cutting edge of the liberal end of the Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA and pulpit rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J. “If YCT were to admit women, that would be a red line.”