The members of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale learned last week what the leaders of the prominent Modern Orthodox congregation had heard about a year ago — that Rabbi Avi Weiss, the only senior spiritual leader in the synagogue’s four-decade history, will be “stepping back” from his position next year.
In remarks delivered during Shemini Atzeret services, and in a virtually identical message emailed to the congregation after the end of Sukkot a few days later, Rabbi Weiss announced that he will “be shifting roles in the shul to one of rabbi in residence” as of July 2015. He proposed that the congregants approve Associate Rabbi Steven Exler, who has served on the HIR staff since 2008, as the next senior rabbi.
Rabbi Weiss is 70; Rabbi Exler, 33.
“I’m not stepping back from the senior rabbinic position because of my health,” said Rabbi Weiss, who has suffered heart attacks and undergone open-heart surgery. “My health is very good. In fact, I am feeling better these days than I have felt in many years.
“I’m stepping back … because Toby [his wife] and I would like to spend more time with our children and grandchildren, and more time in Israel. I’m stepping back … because it’s time. The spiritual workload of the senior rabbi of the Bayit [Hebrew for home, the synagogue’s alternative name] … requires stronger and younger rabbinic leadership.”
Despite several newspaper and website headlines, Rabbi Weiss emphasized that he is not retiring. “That’s a word I do not like, I’d like to retire the word retire. Toby and I intend to remain in Riverdale, where I will continue serving at the Bayit.” He will, he said, continue his schedule of “teaching, speaking, counseling and writing.” But at a slower pace.
He will, in other words, be a pulpit rabbi at HIR, not the pulpit rabbi.
The rabbi’s announcement is the latest step he has taken in to slow down in recent years. A noted political activist who was ranked the 10th most prominent rabbi in this country by Newsweek last year (a documentary about Rabbi Weiss, “Righteous Rebel,” will premiere at HIR on Saturday, Nov. 8), Rabbi Weiss has turned over the day-to-day administration of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the "open" Modern Orthodox rabbinical training seminary he founded in 1999 to rabbis Asher Lopatin (president) and Dov Lerea (dean). And Rabbi Weiss has cut back on his exhausting activist activities, though he participated in protests Monday night against the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
Rabbi Weiss was not available to comment to The Jewish Week on his “transition.”
In his prepared remarks, he called Rabbi Exler “already one of the truly great modern and open Orthodox rabbis in America today. Truth be told, I only feel comfortable stepping back because of Rav Steven. In recent years, he has, in fact, filled many of the senior rabbi duties.”
The congregation “is in good hands” with Rabbi Exler’s nearly certain approval by the congregation to become senior rabbi, and with Rabbi Weiss’ continued “presence,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University, longtime HIR congregant and current board member. Gurock called Rabbi Exler “a very special talent, in terms of intellect, in terms of sensitivity. He is certainly qualified.”
Rabbi Exler received a “spontaneous standing ovation” in the crowded sanctuary on Shemini Atzeret when Rabbi Weiss proposed that the associate rabbi become senior rabbi, Gurock said. This was in addition to singing and dancing in the aisles in Rabbi Weiss’ honor.
Rabbi Weiss’ announcement about his own title change “wasn’t a surprise,” Gurock said. “We were made aware it was in the offing” in 2013.
Rabbi Exler, a Baltimore native who was ordained by Chovevei Torah in 2009, was groomed during his tenure at the congregation to succeed Rabbi Weiss, taking on an increasing amount of rabbinic duties at the 500-member-unit synagogue, particularly during lengthy periods Rabbi Weiss had spent away from the shul during recent winters and during this summer’s war in Gaza between the Israeli Army and Hamas terrorists. Rabbi Weiss was in Israel, where a grandson is in the IDF.
Rabbi Exler said he would take on the full administrative and decision-making responsibilities that have been in Rabbi Weiss’ hands. He cited Cantor Elli Kranzler as a “valuable” member of the rabbinic team.
“I feel excited. I feel challenged,” Rabbi Exler told The Jewish Week, adding that his responsibilities will increase in the coming months.
Rabbi Exler called himself a philosophical and spiritual heir of Rabbi Weiss, and said he had no plans for immediate changes in “the flagship of Modern and Open Orthodoxy.” He said he shares the commitment of his “mentor” to a brand of Open Orthodoxy that has attracted many members of the Orthodox and wider Jewish community, but drawn heavy criticism in haredi and many mainstream Orthodox circles.
“Open Orthodoxy,” a term coined by Rabbi Weiss, denotes a part of the Modern Orthodox movement that has a more progressive attitude toward such issues as women’s role in Judaism, the acceptance of homosexuals and relations with the non-Jewish world. Chovevei Torah is the first seminary designed to produce Open Orthodoxy rabbis.
An article this week in theyeshivaworld.com, a rightwing website, called Rabbi Weiss “the man who re-invented his brand of Judaism as a social movement, and while doing so has trampled upon both the sanctity and boundaries of Halacha [Jewish law]. Weiss established an institution that ordains Rabbis who have written and expressed theological positions that lie in stark contrast to traditional Judaism.” In the yeshiva-oriented world, the mention of a spiritual leader’s name without the preceding title of Rabbi is a sign of extreme disapproval.
“Rav Steven [Exler] — and our Bayit — are blessed to have an unparalleled rabbinic team,” Rabbi Weiss said last week. “I encourage the Bayit to hold on tight to Rav Ari [Ari Hart, assistant rabbi] to work as part of Rav Steven’s team. And Rabba Sara [Sara Hurwitz, who serves at HIR with the title of “rabba”], my hero … her contribution to the Bayit has been historic. A woman’s voice in the spiritual leadership of out Bayit as a full member of our rabbinic team is crucial to our future success.”