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For First Time in a Century, Outsider Tapped to Lead Looksteins’ NY Synagogue

(JTA) – For the first time in about a century, a rabbi from outside the Lookstein family will lead New York’s storied Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

The Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side voted last week to hire as its new senior rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who for two decades has led the Montreal congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 83, who has been at the helm of Kehilath Jeshurun since the death of his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, in 1979, will become rabbi emeritus.

The 1,100-member shul is one of the nation’s most prominent synagogues thanks to its longtime association with the Lookstein family, its connection with Ramaz — the modern Orthodox Jewish day school started by Joseph Lookstein in 1937 has its elementary school housed at the synagogue — and the wealth and prominence of many of its congregants. Among the members are businessman and philanthropist George Rohr; the Kushners, a well-known New York real estate family; and Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism under Lookstein’s tutelage before she married Jared Kushner and whose father, Donald Trump, is now running for president.

KJ has been led in whole or part by the Looksteins’ family since 1905, when the current rabbi’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies – known as the Ramaz and one of the nation’s leading rabbis during his lifetime – became a rabbi at the synagogue. Haskel Lookstein’s only son, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, made clear some time ago that he had no interest in taking over his father’s pulpit and now heads Westchester Day School, a modern Orthodox elementary school in suburban New York.

The transition at KJ, which was established in the 1870s, is the second major change at the helm of a Lookstein-led institution this year. Earlier this year, Ramaz announced that Rabbi Eric Grossman will become its new head of school this fall.

When KJ announced a while back that it was looking for a successor to Lookstein, Steinmetz was not among those who applied for the job. But KJ sought out Steinmetz, whose Orthodox congregation is similar to KJ in that a sizable number of its members are not strictly observant and do not regularly attend synagogue. Steinmetz will take over at KJ on Jan. 1.

In an interview with JTA, Lookstein said Steinmetz embodies the values with which he has guided KJ: that being a mensch comes before Torah observance (the Jewish maxim known in Hebrew as “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah”), commitment to a modern Orthodox religious view, openness to all people, and love for all Jews, the State of Israel and America.

“As I reach a certain age where you start worrying about continuity, the idea was to find somebody who not only is gifted rabbinically as a preacher and as a teacher and as a pastor, but someone who is absolutely on the same wavelength as KJ and Ramaz and the tradition that our family has stood for for 109 years,” Lookstein told JTA. “Rabbi Steinmetz is that person.”

Steinmetz, 51, a native of Monsey, New York, has led his 600-family Ashkenazic Orthodox shul in the Cote Saint Luc area of Montreal since 1996. Before that he was the rabbi at Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon, New York, and chairman of the Talmud department at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls. Steinmetz holds rabbinic ordination from Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva College and a master’s in education from Adelphi University.

“My shul’s a lovely shul, but there’s only one KJ,” Steinmetz told JTA. “There’s really no other shul in the world like it, and it’s impossible to pass up.”

When Steinmetz becomes senior rabbi, Associate Rabbi Elie Weinstock will become KJ’s “rabbi”; rabbinic assistant Rabbi Roy Feldman will retain his role. As rabbi emeritus, Lookstein said he’ll still be around but will be departing center stage.

The synagogue’s board president, Joel Katz, sent congregants a letter about the changes after the members voted on July 29 to approve Steinmetz’s hire.

“This amazing Rabbinic team will continue to make KJ a premier modern orthodox synagogue on the world stage and give our membership and our community access to spiritual inspiration, meaningful sermons, sophisticated classes, energized programming, informative workshops and services for members of all backgrounds,” Katz said.

Since a four-alarm fire in July 2011 nearly destroyed the 110-year-old synagogue building, the congregation has been holding religious services elsewhere. With reconstruction of the sanctuary nearly complete, the congregation will be moving services back into the synagogue starting on Sept. 11, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Katz announced in his letter.

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