Upstart Rabbinical School Set To Fight for Pulpit Jobs

By Nacha Cattan

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.
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An upstart rabbinical school housed in the basement of a Manhattan synagogue is poised to fill more Orthodox pulpits a year than the Modern Orthodox flagship Yeshiva University.

This is the projection put forth by the fledgling Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the brainchild of the charismatic Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Bronx.

The college has just ordained its first rabbi, Jeffrey Fox, originally from New Rochelle, N.Y. He will begin his tenure in September at Kesher—The Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood in New Jersey. Fox won out over two candidates ordained at Y.U. to lead the small congregation, which is at the center of a dispute over the erection of an eruv, a ritual boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to carry on the Sabbath.

The new yeshiva has also placed a dozen rabbinic interns at prestigious Orthodox synagogues around the country, including Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., which is led by Rabbi Barry Freundel and attended by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman.

The placement is the first demonstration that the neophyte yeshiva, with its pledge to propagate “open” Orthodoxy, is more than just hype, Weiss said.

“I’m kvelling,” said Weiss, the founder and dean of the school and rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a verdant section of the Bronx. “There’s a cry and a need, and we’re trying to do our share.”

According to the school’s figures, pulpit rabbis from Chovevei Torah could soon outnumber those ordained by Y.U.’s rabbinical school. In the past four years, Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary has ordained 147 rabbis, but only 24 of them have gained full-time posts leading congregations. Weiss’s yeshiva, with its intensive pastoral training, plans to secure pastorates for most of its growing student body, now numbering 31. If the rabbinic internships are any indication, Weiss may achieve his goal of minting around 8 pulpit rabbis a year — starting with the first official graduating class of 2004.

But Y.U.’s administrators questioned the basis of the comparison and pointed to the nonpulpit leadership positions filled by Y.U. graduates. “There could be more than the 24 [Y.U. rabbis] involved in the pulpit rabbinates in part-time shabbes pulpits,” said Rabbi David Israel, director of Y.U.’s Max Stern division of communal services. “We’re serving a much broader communal agenda. We intend to create chaplains and outreach educators, and teachers in schools and administrators, people who will work at [the Orthodox Union].”

Founded in 1999, Chovevei Torah seeks to fill what it describes as a gap in rabbinical leadership in the Modern Orthodox community. Its mission is to ordain rabbis who are not only proficient in Orthodox rabbinic law, but are also experts in pastoral counseling and primed for a communal leadership that is “open” to interfaith and interdenominational dialogue. The school hopes to transform Modern Orthodoxy by producing community leaders who head campus Hillels and day schools.

Counting nine of its students as transfers from Y.U.’s rabbinical school — including Fox — Chovevei Torah has not always had the most civil relationship with its uptown competitor. One prominent Manhattan rabbi who had considered taking on a rabbinic intern from Chovevei last year reversed his decision after Y.U. leaders grew angry. The women’s division of Y.U., Stern College, reported in its student newspaper last year that another Chovevei student claimed he was fired from his position as “shabbat rabbi” at Stern because of his affiliation with the rival yeshiva. The schools’ ideological differences have also spilled onto the pages of the Jewish press.

But relations may be on the mend with the accession of Richard Joel to Y.U.’s presidency. Joel, the former popular leader of Hillel, whom Avi Weiss counts as his “dear friend,” is said to have promised a more conciliatory attitude toward Chovevei Torah. Perhaps one indication of improved relations, the Manhattan rabbi who turned down a Chovevei intern told the Forward that he’d be willing to hire one in the future.

“Richard Joel has already indicated his approach is going to be not in the slightest confrontational,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, a religious adviser to students at RIETS. “We’ll do what we do, and if we do it well, we’ll continue to serve people and the [rabbinical] program will grow.”

Blau was caught in the midst of the rivalry last year when he chaired a session during a conference on mental illness in the Orthodox community that was sponsored by Chovevei Torah.

While leaders in the Modern Orthodox community viewed the placements as noteworthy, some sought to put it in perspective: The Chovevei Torah placements, said Steven Bayme “signal a desire for a more open atmosphere in the Modern Orthodox community… But recent developments at Yeshiva University are far more significant for the future history of Modern Orthodoxy.” Bayme, the national director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of contemporary Jewish life, pointed to Joel’s presidency as a major force of change.

Chovevei Torah ordained a second rabbi this year, Yaakov Simon, who will teach at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia with the goal of becoming an administrator there. In addition to Freundel’s Kesher congregation, another well-regarded synagogue to hire an intern is Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, headed by Rabbi Asher Lopatin — a Rhodes, Wexner and Truman scholar. He told the Forward the internship was a way to “hook our synagogue into the Chovevei Torah world.”

Interns were also placed in Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Florida.

The rabbinical school, whose head of academics is Rabbi Dov Linzer, is located in the basement of Congregation Ramat Orah on the Upper West Side. Out of two classrooms and one study hall, students receive rigorous training in Talmud, mental health care, community leadership and Bible studies. Weiss is not new to the task of shaping rabbinical leaders. Thirteen of his interns and assistant rabbis at HIR have gone on to lead congregations, Weiss said.

Fox was among this crop. Evan Sohn, the president of Kesher, said Fox was chosen to lead the synagogue not only because of his extensive torah knowledge, but also for his innovative approaches to interdenominational dialogue. Fox said he was interviewed on the subject of the factious and ongoing eruv case that pitted the Orthodox, who constructed the ritual barrier, against their non-Orthodox neighbors. He has already begun planning programs to mend fences with the non-Orthodox community.

“He’s already expressed interest in reaching out to the community at large to bridge those gaps that might have existed” because of the Tenafly eruv case, Sohn told the Forward.

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