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At Retreat, Y.U. Rabbis Talk God

In 2005, Yeshiva University established a Center for the Jewish Future, a think tank and outreach organization seen by some as a more flexible counterweight to the university’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

This year, the center launched a new program that offers a glimpse into how the new unit is attempting to establish itself as a complement to rabbinical study as traditionally defined at Y.U. In January, the center sponsored a two-day retreat devoted to the subject of spirituality, a topic often overlooked in the Riets curriculum.

Spirituality, said Rabbi Marc Penner, director of professional education at Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future, “is an issue that’s missing not only from the Y.U. curriculum but from the entire day school curriculum. The goal here is to begin to put it on the table. It’s the spice that makes everything more meaningful.”

Penner, who in addition to his position at Y.U. is a pulpit rabbi at the Young Israel of Holliswood, in Queens, described a sort of spiritual malaise in Modern Orthodoxy today. “Everyone feels that in our synagogues, there’s a lack of spirituality. There’s less singing. There’s a lot of rote behavior,” he said.

What, exactly, is Y.U. talking about when it speaks of spirituality?

“What we’re addressing is how we are supposed to envision God when we are speaking to him. That’s something we just don’t talk about. We talk about the laws of prayer, but we don’t really talk about how prayer works,” Penner said. “These are the kinds of things that beginners ask, but those who’ve been to yeshiva all their life don’t necessarily ask these questions. And that’s too bad, because they’re important questions.”

The retreat, which was held at a hotel in Tenafly, N.J., was co-sponsored by the Jerusalem-based educational organization Isralight, a group founded with an eye toward reaching out to unaffiliated Jews that now has become involved in training people in outreach.

In this light, Penner said, the retreat served a dual purpose: “It’s one thing to be able to know this yourself. It’s another to be able to teach it.”

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