All across America are rabbis craving lifetime contracts but “lifetimes” have a life of their own, and what a man contracts for isn’t neccessarily what his mazel has in mind.
Rabbi Zevulon Charlop was given a lifetime contract by the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway in 1966, when he was 36. It was a time when hundreds of congregants filled the pews, talked in the halls, packed classrooms, leaned against cars under Bronx streetlights, dinner-danced in ballrooms, had retreats in the Catskills’ Pine View and Atlantic City casinos, fielded traveling sports teams, raised big money for Yeshiva University and UJA-Federation, while doing all those “gala” things that good shuls do. The old shul bulletins will tell you, “A wonderful time was had by all.”
Now 78, Rabbi Charlop, who hasn’t been paid by the shul in years, opens the morning doors hoping for a minyan, makes sermons on Shabbat for a crowd of 12 and is in his fifth year of negotiating with the insurance company over $575,000 in claimed damages from a frozen pipe that burst on a winter’s dawn in the women’s balcony. The water trickled down the steps of the women’s section, lifting up the carpeting; trickled down the walls to the men’s section, curling up the wallpaper; trickled down the stairs to the ballroom, bubbling up pieces of the wooden floor. Everywhere there are piles and rubble. A Soviet Jewry placard rests near a piano that once played for the Sisterhood’s Strawberry Festival. The room for the weekly kiddush now spends Shabbat in shadows. A once terrific shul now resembles nothing so much as the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Rabbi Charlop had another lifetime job, the better to pay the rent, 37 years as dean of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). He gave that up at the end of June, and the school will formally honor him next week at a gala at the Grand Hyatt. Friends at the school advised him to move from Mosholu Parkway years ago.
Rabbi Charlop says, “Richard Joel [the president of Yeshiva University] says to me, ‘How can you stay alone there?’ I don’t know, my wife passed away nine years ago, I never recovered from that, really. With her, maybe I would have moved. But I built this shul. This Aron Kodesh, it’s dedicated to my son,” Yaakov Moshe, his 3-year-old who died long ago from a brain tumor. “On Shabbos it’s like I sit next to him.”
Perhaps another university would have suggested that the old dean take his retirement and leave, but “I need him. He’s my consigliere,” says Joel. “I want him closer to me.”
Joel promoted Rabbi Charlop from dean to the president’s special adviser, giving Rabbi Charlop a new office near Joel’s.
When Rabbi Charlop was appointed dean of RIETS in 1971 it was a little awkward, the rabbi remembers, with some of his shul’s board members openly wondering if, after getting a lifetime contract, Rabbi Charlop would still be as committed to the Young Israel as he once was. All who questioned him, and all who didn’t, have long ago left this neighborhood, or long ago left this world.
Rabbi Charlop stays, caring for his Young Israel like Dr. Seuss’ Horton protecting his fragile egg from rain, wind, snow and cynics. He has a contract.
Rabbi Charlop took over what was to become the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway in 1954, right after his YU ordination. The shul was a few blocks from Montifiore Hospital, and dozens of doctors lived in the neighborhood and joined the shul. The shul was a few blocks from P.S. 80, then one of the best public schools in the city. Gary Marshall, creator of “Happy Days,” was from the neighborhood. Carl Reiner, even after working with Sid Caesar, still lived in the neighborhood, with Rob Reiner. Ralph Lauren was part of the Young Israel; a large memorial plaque dedicated to Lauren’s parents still hangs in the main sanctuary.
In 1963, “we were the first shul in the Bronx to be completely air-conditioned,” boasts Rabbi Charlop. “People might have thought we were ‘too Orthodox.’ I wanted people to see the shul, to see Yiddishkeit, in a positive light.” In those days, “for an Orthodox shul, where women walked up to a balcony, to be air-conditioned, was a big deal.”
He designed a stained glass window depicting a Torah scroll surrounded by such 1950s icons of modernity as the Sputnik, an automobile with fins and the branch television antennas atop Bronx rooftops.
It was a politically liberal shul. In old shul bulletins, yellowed with the years, he explained the connection between “sit-ins” and the word “yeshiva.” During the riots at Columbia University, a “Youth Shabbos” featured not only young people leading services but also a sermon by the college students explaining the campus uprising.
Rabbi Charlop would explain that his ideal YU would be “a yeshiva like Volozhin,” the legendary prewar European center, and a university like Columbia, but he’d also joke that RIETS had no better recruiter than Ho Chi Minh, when rabbinical study came with a deferment from the draft.
When forced bussing of blacks into predominantly white public schools was a political tempest in the early 1970s, Rabbi Charlop stood up in community meetings and explained that bussing was the proper thing to do.
Soon after, parents in Mosholu Parkway were putting their children onto busses bound for black neighborhoods, and black parents were sending their children to P.S. 80. The public schools of Mosholu Parkway were soon equally as bad as those in Hunts Point. There was no yeshiva in the neighborhood. The shuls windows were broken, a time or two. Graffiti was spray painted on the shul’s brick walls, so high up the wall that the rabbi could only wonder how the vandals got there.
“On Rosh HaShanah, 1977,” recalls Rabbi Charlop, “we sold 875 seats,” in a main and overflow service. “In 1978, we lost 40 seats. By 1985, we didn’t need a second service. The next year it was less. The next year, it was less than that. We still have many members,” paying $54 dues, “but few in the neighborhood.”
He is one of two white people living in his building. He has people over for Shabbat lunch who would otherwise eat alone.
And yet Rabbi Charlop’s influence is felt in almost every Orthodox neighborhood in America in which the local shul rabbi trained at RIETS.
“When I first came to Yeshiva as a student” in the 1940s, he recalls, “almost all of the roshei yeshiva [the leading teachers in RIETS] were European-trained,” and not all of them had a college education. Today, said Rabbi Charlop, over 90 percent of REITS faculty trained at YU. “There were 154 students in RIETS when I took over; there are 340 now.”
A reporter feels obliged to seek out the rabbi’s rivals and critics. But Rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the rival Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as a left-wing rebuke to RIETS, refused to criticize, recalling Rabbi Charlop’s kind hospital visits to him in a time of vulnerability. Rabbis who theologically differed with him saw Rabbi Charlop’s soulfulness, much as Rabbi Charlop walks through his battered sanctuary and sees only the sweet ghosts of congregants and exactly where they sat.
In the twilight of a lifetime, he’s busy, as all consigliere are. And what shul rabbi doesn’t start thinking of his High Holiday sermons when the calendar turns to September?
He promised the shul a lifetime. The man has a contract.