After a dozen years on the rabbinical staff of a major Manhattan synagogue, Rabbi Harlan Wechsler had no doubt what his first activity would be when he founded his own, smaller, congregation 23 years ago.
Teach a Talmud class.
He chose Sukkah, a tractate about the laws and mechanics of the harvest festival.
“I wanted the members of the congregation to be able to build their own sukkah,” said Rabbi Wechsler, who will retire July 1 as spiritual leader of Congregation Or Zarua, a small — by his own design — Conservative congregation on the Upper East Side. The synagogue will honor him Monday, June 4 at a dinner at Pier 60.
Rabbi Wechsler’s retirement comes as the leader of another East Side congregation — Rabbi David Posner of Temple Emanu-El — is also retiring.
At 69, “I’m in good health,” Rabbi Wechsler said.
After retiring (the synagogue has not yet named a successor), Rabbi Wechsler will live half the year in Jerusalem, half the year here, continue davening at Or Zarua, and work on three books.
“I want to leave a written legacy,” Rabbi Wechsler said this week in his study, which is lined with books that range from traditional Torah commentaries to studies of psychology and current social issues. “As a congregational rabbi” — with extensive lecturing and counseling duties, outside chaplaincy and a weekly national program on Sirius/XM Satellite radio — “you don’t have time to do that.”
A native of Malverne, L.I., who was inspired to enter the rabbinate by Rabbi Samuel Chiel of the Malverne Jewish Center (“He was a pious human being”), Rabbi Wechsler often has found himself on the right wing of Conservative Judaism, opposing such issues as the ordaining of openly homosexual candidates for the rabbinate, even while bringing fully egalitarian practices to Or Zarua. Ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he calls himself “a post-denominational type … an Upper East Side ‘establishment rabbi’” — who created a small congregation in his own image, committed to study and observance of Jewish law.
After 12 years at the prominent Park Avenue Synagogue, serving as assistant and associate and senior spiritual leader, he left, with the support of several people who had studied in his classes, to form Or Zarua, which met at first in rented space at the 92nd Street Y. The congregation moved a decade ago into its present building on East 82nd Street, and soon after, its design was featured in the 2004 book “Synagogue Architecture in America.” The book describes the internal arrangement of the sanctuary, with two steeply sloped groups of seats facing each other across the central bima, as “both striking and innovative.”
In founding Or Zarua, Rabbi Wechsler preferred a congregation that was small both in physical size (25 feet across) and in membership (the original bylaws capped the number of families at 300; with adjustment, it’s grown to 325). He established, he said, “a shul I would go to.”
During retirement, the rabbi, who taught Jewish ethics and Jewish thought at JTS for more than 30 years, will continue to teach his Talmud class when he’s back in New York.
The pews of Or Zarua offer Orthodox ArtScroll prayer books and Torah translation, in addition to the standard Conservative publications, and some Reform ones too. In his speaking, Rabbi Wechsler stresses standard, often centuries-old, commentaries. If it weren’t for the mixed seating in the pews, he said, “You might think you were in an Orthodox congregation.”
He called Or Zarua “a Conservative shtiebl,” using the Yiddish name for small minyanim that are becoming increasingly popular in Orthodox circles.
“I’m not a guy who likes to be labeled” in denominational terms, the rabbi said. “I’m essentially a teacher.”
“He teaches all the time,” said author and Jewish Week columnist Francine Klagsbrun, with her husband Samuel, a founding member of Or Zarua. “He teaches during the [Shabbat morning] Torah reading. His sermons are also teaching.
“Everything is participatory” at Or Zarua, with congregants leading services and chanting the Torah, Klagsbrun said. “It gets people much closer to tradition. They’re not just observers.”
One of Rabbi Wechsler’s proposed books will be about “modern Jewish theology” as reflected in his experiences at Or Zarua; he’ll also do a Hebrew commentary on an 18th-century kabbalistic introduction to the responsibilities of a chevra kadisha that prepares buries for burial and an adaptation of his doctoral dissertation on aging.
Rabbi Wechsler opened Or Zarua to full participation of women, he said, “to draw women nearer” to Jewish tradition. Women were members of his first Talmud class.
After the congregation moved into its own building, he saw a sign of success. A sukkah went up that year. “The very people who started with me” at the original Talmud class, he said, “built the first sukkah on the roof.”