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Chovevei’s transition moment away from Weiss – who will hand over the presidency to Lopatin next summer but stay on as a teacher at the school – provides an opportunity to change the institution’s reputation in the Orthodox world, Chovevei’s backers say.
Lopatin can “expand the influence Rabbi Weiss had maybe without the political controversy,” said Steven Lieberman, chairman of Chovevei’s board and an attorney in Washington with the firm Rothwell, Figg.
“There are people on the rightward side of Orthodox Judaism who, whenever the name Rabbi Avi Weiss comes up, they don’t think about the enormous scholarship he’s done, the community building, the Soviet Jewry activism. Their immediate reaction is: This is the man who gave Sara Hurwitz the title of rabba,” Lieberman said. “For that reason, I think there are some people who don’t look any further at YCT. Having Rav Asher Lopatin, maybe those individuals will now be able to join us in building the bridges that we’ve been trying for years to build.”
Comparatively speaking, Chovevei is not a large school. It ordained just eight rabbis this year, compared with 37 at the main Modern Orthodox seminary, YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary ordained 26 rabbis this year, and the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained 35.
But while a YU spokesman estimated that 80 percent of RIETS’ recent graduates work in the rabbinic field, Chovevei says its figure is 95 percent. That includes not just pulpit rabbis but school administrators, campus rabbis, hospital chaplains and even camp rabbis. This year’s incoming class at Chovevei numbers 13. Weiss’ original impetus for creating the school was to produce more rabbis committed to filling synagogue pulpits, but over time, he says, he came to realize that other clergy positions were just as legitimate. More than 30 of Chovevei’s graduates work in Orthodox synagogues.
Chovevei administrators – including Weiss and Rabbi Dov Linzer, the school’s dean and rosh yeshiva – cite Chovevei’s emphasis on pastoral matters as one of its main distinguishing factors.
“Chovevei has a unique approach to rabbinic education in that we’re not only training scholars in Torah, but there’s also a great emphasis on practical rabbinics,” Weiss said. “Certainly, rabbis have to be knowledgeable, but if you ask me what the rabbinate is about, I tell the chevre the rabbinate is about simply being there for people,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “guys.”
That means everything from courses in pastoral psychology to courses on Jewish leadership.
Without abandoning that approach, Lopatin says he wants to ground the students more firmly in Orthodoxy by exposing them to the “full Orthodox spectrum.”
“When it comes to things like Gemarah and halachah and hashkafah and Tanach,” Lopatin said, using the Hebrew terms for Talmud, Jewish law, philosophy and Bible, “those are things that need to be taught fully, classically Orthodox. Those are the main meat and potatoes of smicha” – rabbinic ordination.
Unlike at some other Orthodox institutions, however, Lopatin said he is open to non-Orthodox and even non-Jewish instructors giving the rabbinical students pastoral training, such as how to give sermons, or how to manage a nonprofit organization. He also wants Chovevei to be “open from the sense that any question can be discussed and people can think openly and independently.” The pluralism comes in on the question of who the rabbis-to-be focus on reaching: all Jews, regardless of denomination.
“As much as I am a parochial Orthodox rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue, I’m very pluralistic in the sense that I want the Torah message and the Jewish message to get out beyond the walls of the Orthodox synagogue and beyond those who call themselves Orthodox,” Lopatin said.
All those involved in Lopatin’s hire – a process that has taken six to eight months – credited a $3 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation for paving the way; the grant was predicated in part on Chovevei’s implementing a transition plan within five years. The grant, which consists of a $500,000 grant and an additional $2.5 million in matching funds, is now in its second year.
Weiss says he’s had his eye for a long time on Lopatin – a former Rhodes Scholar, Truman Scholar and Wexner Fellow who was ordained both by RIETS and by the late Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik of Chicago’s Brisk yeshiva.
“The test of an institution is when inevitably there has to be a succession plan,” Weiss said. “With Asher coming in, thank God we’ve done magnificently well.”