Rabbi Avi Weiss is no stranger to controversy, having been an activist for a number of causes over the years, including Soviet Jewry (long before it was embraced by the Jewish establishment), leniency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and advancing women in the Orthodox rabbinic clergy.

But having retired as senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and now spending part of the winter in Deerfield Beach, Fla., he found himself at the center of a recent controversy for no obvious reason.

Scheduled to speak at a Feb. 2 event at the Young Israel of Deerfield Beach sponsored by Amit, a Zionist women’s organization that provides religious education for youngsters in Israel, Rabbi Weiss learned that he had been banned from speaking on the premises.

The edict came from Rabbi Yisroel Edelman of the Young Israel, who is said to have barred Rabbi Weiss from speaking in the building, telling congregants that the policy is consistent with that of other Orthodox congregations. No specific reason was given, according to several members of the synagogue.

Rabbi Edelman, scion of a Chabad rabbinic family, has not responded to requests for an interview.

The leadership of Amit was embarrassed by the rabbi’s decision, which came about after the event had been publicized locally, including in the Young Israel bulletin.

Stan Steinreich, a spokesman for Amit, told The Jewish Week that the organization “does not condone the decision” by the local rabbi “to refuse to allow one of our speakers into his synagogue.” He added that Amit “welcomes diverse opinions, and this decision was not consistent with the views of our organization.”

The local branch scrambled to find an alternative venue and is scheduled to hold the program, as scheduled, but now at the Boca Raton Synagogue, also a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Problem solved?

Not quite. At least one member of the Deerfield Beach congregation has resigned and says others intend to as well. Rabbi Jeremiah Wohlberg, who led Congregation Ohav Sholom, an Orthodox congregation in Merrick, L.I., for 47 years until his retirement, sent a letter of resignation criticizing Rabbi Edelman for treating Rabbi Weiss, “one of the leading voices for Jewish social justice and pride,” with disrespect and public embarrassment. He pointed out in his letter that Rabbi Weiss is regularly invited to speak in Orthodox congregations.

“I feel this is a matter that goes to the core of Jewish values,” Rabbi Wohlberg told The Jewish Week. He said he acted on his own and has received no reply from Rabbi Edelman. 

Rabbi Weiss said the incident “carries a piece of humiliation, but it’s really not about me, it’s about something much bigger. It’s about a culture in part of the Orthodox community that is not interested in civil discourse. It’s very sad. And I’m not the only one this has happened to.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat in Israel, was banned from speaking at the Young Israel of New Rochelle last year.

Rabbi Weiss’s immediate problem is that he and his wife, who are renting an apartment for the winter in Deerfield Beach, have no other Modern Orthodox synagogue within walking distance for Shabbat.