After studying in Israel for two years after college, Aaron Potek decided that, in spite of his undergraduate engineering studies, he wanted to be a rabbi.
Having attended public high school and the University of Michigan as an observant Jew, he was accustomed to making connections with Jews of all denominations as well as with non-Jews. That led him to Yeshiva Chovevei Torah.
“I am not interested in being a rabbi just for Orthodox Jews; I’m interested in being a rabbi for all Jews, and that is one of Chovevei’s mottos,” said Potek, 24, of St. Louis Park, Min., who is completing his first year at the yeshiva’s Riverdale campus. “It represented everything I believed in.”
Dan Millner, 25, of Glencoe Ill., grew up Conservative and planned on the rabbinate since childhood. But differing with the movement over the authority of rabbinic law, he didn’t believe its Jewish Theological Seminary would be a good fit. “At the same time, I understood that I was not with what you might call the more yeshivish crowd,” he said.
A YCT alumnus who supervised Millner in a summer internship suggested that Chovevei Torah (lovers of Torah) would be a better fit, and Millner is now completing his second year there.
The yeshiva born of rebellion against conformity and of an embrace of Jewish pluralism, spearheaded by its controversial founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, has now graduated 65 rabbis in its 10 years. Opening in 1999 as an undergraduate program at Columbia University, it has evolved since 2001 into its own institution, moving from the Upper West Side last year to Rabbi Weiss’ Riverdale enclave in the Bronx.
This fall’s incoming class of 16 candidates is the largest ever, up from seven last year. The four-year program — less for some students with comparable accredited yeshiva experience — is tuition-free and has attracted candidates from as close as Riverdale and as far as Europe, Israel and Sweden.
And its non-dogmatic approach and emphasis on pastoral training and innovation have won the upstart yeshiva a $3 million grant from the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the largest funders of Jewish education in North America.
But money alone won’t solve what may be the yeshiva’s biggest hurdles. The first is the wariness of some Orthodox synagogues to hire a YCT graduate as senior rabbi because of the schools philosphy. The second is the inability of its graduates to gain membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union’s body of clergy and the largest group of Modern Orthodox spiritual leaders.
Rabbi Weiss’ movement, which he calls “Open Orthodox” as distinct from Modern Orthodox, emphasizes feminism as well as interaction and cooperation with other denominations. Those stances have widened a gulf with the RCA’s members, who see the issue as a complex philosophical divide and not just a personal issue with Rabbi Weiss.
Chovevei Torah withdrew its application for inclusion in the RCA early on when it became apparent that it wouldn’t be approved, and the National Council of Young Israel later set up a screening committee for its branch congregations widely seen as intended to keep out the yeshiva’s graduates, who are ordained by Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Dov Linzer (YCT’s dean) and Rabbi Yaakov Love, who is chair of the department of halacha.
But this week the incoming president of the RCA, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavas Torah in Engelwood, N.J., in a carefully worded statement, said that while the council’s stance on Chovevei as an institution wasn’t likely to change anytime soon, the leadership was in the process of examining its guidelines for individual membership.
“The possibility has been discussed for a while that opportunities for membership may be found based on performance and other criteria, which might affect those who have semicha [rabbinic ordination] from an unrecognized institution, or private semichot,” said the rabbi, who took office last week.
“These possibilities are in the drawing stage and would have to be reviewed by the RCA executives and if presented would have to be approved.”
That crack in the wall, if it is one, could be a sign that a yeshiva that was once seen by many as an experiment has now become an established institution.
“We’re getting ready for our second decade,” said Rabbi Linzer. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and close observer of the Orthodox community, counts himself among the early skeptics.
“I never imagined they would get as far as they have,” said Bayme. “When it was first announced my reaction was that the only reality is [Yeshiva University] in the Modern Orthodox world — that’s the only hope for determining the future of the Modern Orthodox. In that sense, my reaction was ‘good luck, but this is not a viable enterprise.’ ”
Bayme, who has lectured at Chovevei, said that while much of Modern Orthodoxy has shifted rightward as a result of yeshiva high school graduates spending one or two years of study in Israel, “Chovevei continues precisely because the need is so great for an alternative vision.”
Chovevei’s philosophy is closely linked to that of Edah, the liberal Modern Orthodox think tank founded by Rabbi Saul Berman, a close friend and ally of Rabbi Weiss. And when Edah shut down in 2006, Chovevei took over its journal, now called Meorot: A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.
Rabbi Linzer said he has long sensed that members within the RCA favored recognition of Chovevei and has been hopeful things would change; he noted the wide range of institutions, from day schools to congregations, which have already hired graduates.
They include Harvard University’s chaplaincy (Rabbi Benjamin Greenberg), SAR High School (Rabbi Davidi Jonas); Washington University’s Hillel (Rabbi Andrew Kastner) Beth Tefiloh Congregation of Baltimore (Rabbi Chai Posner) Rutgers University’s Jewish Learning Initiative (Rabbi Akiva Weiss, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ nephew) and Manhattan’s Kehillat Jeshurun (Rabbi Alexander Kaye).
“Our guys have been totally proving themselves in the field,” said Rabbi Linzer. “Whatever people think, whatever fears they may have that we are going to start having women rabbis, they should go out and look at what our rabbis are doing and the answer is clear.”
Rabbi Weiss also downplays the acceptance issue. “It’s a narrow, parochial issue,” he said. “Many of our students are indeed on the OU [Orthodox Union] payroll [at member congregations]. I can’t say that’s one of our challenges because it’s not a reason why guys wouldn’t choose this program.”
The Jim Joseph grant money will be used to beef up Chovevei’s fundraising efforts and chart a course for new leadership. (The sum of $2.5 million from the fund is contingent on the same amount being raised by the yeshiva, which says it has already raised nearly half that amount since the grant was announced last month, including $25,000 from alumni and an anonymous $1 million gift.)
“One of their goals is to invest in our long-term success and infrastructure, not just the day-to-day budget,” said Rabbi Linzer. Part of that is an understanding that the institution will grow beyond its founder.
“Rabbi Weiss has been talking openly that he understands the importance of an institution’s ability to transcend and survive its founder,” said the dean. “He has been talking for a while about a person to succeed him to allow the yeshiva to move on the next generation.”
It may prove difficult to separate the founder from the yeshiva, especially when Rabbi Weiss’ shul, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, is literally joined at the hip with the yeshiva, operating in connected buildings and sharing office space.
Widely known for his affable style — he often greets male acquaintances with hugs and kisses — Rabbi Weiss is also known for passionate activism in the 1970s and ‘80s on behalf of Soviet Jews and against anti-Semitism, terrorism and the convent at Auschwitz.
He toned much of that down as he reached middle age, concentrating instead on training a new generation of activists, first with Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, and later with Chovevei and a new body for liberal Orthodox rabbis, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded with Rabbi Marc Angel, a former RCA president.
But Rabbi Weiss has stirred up major controversy by pushing Orthodox feminism to the limits with the escalation of a Torah scholar, Sara Hurwitz, to the newly minted title of rabba, a female halachic authority that is comparable to a rabbi. Most Orthodox rabbis reject spiritual leadership for women, and last spring the RCA reportedly threatened to expel Rabbi Weiss over the rabba title. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: Hurwitz got to keep her title, but Rabbi Weiss promised not to give the title to any other women.
Rabba Hurwitz is not affiliated with Chovevei Torah, which does not accept women, and instead is the dean of Manhattan’s Yeshiva Maharat, also founded by Rabbi Weiss, but with a much smaller body of female students who are training to be Orthodox spiritual leaders.
But because Rabbi Weiss is part and parcel of both institutions it may be hard for outsiders to separate them, and some may fear collateral damage.
“What’s happened here is that everyone is going to look at [the rabba issue] as a YCT issue, which it is not,” said Millner, who supports the idea of a rabba, but adds, “Because we are dealing with all the political things with people not recognizing our semicha, this is one more thing that could and has set us back from mainstream acceptance in the Orthodox community.”
Aaron Potek said he is not concerned about hitting brick walls when he completes his studies and searches for a job.
“Any institution that won’t accept me, I don’t want to work for,” he said during a lunch on a recent weekday afternoon with fellow students and a visitor at the yeshiva.
But Mishael Zion, 30, a Jerusalem native who plans to return to Israel after his ordination, said he is worried. He was drawn to Chovevei because of its reputation for a pastoral instruction he couldn’t find at home.
“When I decided I wanted to be a rabbi, I wanted to try to build community shuls and community Judaism, which is lacking in Israel,” he said. “There are a lot of places to study halacha there, and in the end they call you a rabbi, but none teach you the skills you need to be a rabbi.”
Zion believes the RCA issue will be solved within the next 10 years, but he is prepared to take exams in Israel to get into the strict rabbinical system there, if necessary. “I sort of waver between two answers,” he said. “Some days I feel, like Aaron Potek said, if the shul won’t accept me because of institutional politics, then maybe I don’t want to be there anyway. Other days I feel like [the RCA’s failure to accept YCT] is a chillul Hashem [disgrace of God’s name]. … It also feels like personal enmities are preventing shuls from getting the rabbis that can really serve them.”
The students say Chovevei’s commitment to tikkun olam speaks for itself. Patek and Millner and another student, Andrew Scheer, recently traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to help a Chovevei alumnus, Rabbi Eytan Yammer, with disaster relief efforts following the recent deadly tornadoes there. Rabbi Yammer heads the Knesset Israel Congregation in Birmingham.
Millner, who hopes to be a military chaplain when he’s ordained, welcomed the hands-on experience with pastoral counseling. But he also said it was an opportunity to be an emissary.
“After 15 hours in the car, we got out with our kipot and tzitzit,” he recalled. “For many people it was their first encounter with a Jew. These are opportunities to show that Orthodox Jews aren’t these people constantly caught up in scandal, aren’t these people erasing women out of photos or throwing rocks at women at the Kotel. This is why I’m here. It gives me the opportunity to do Kiddushei Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) to correct a lot of damage while acknowledging we have a lot to work on internally.”
Rabbi Weiss said he founded the school as a reaction to his view that Modern Orthodoxy was moving to the right and the Conservative movement was moving to the left, but says, “We are a proactive school. This is unapologetically an Open Orthodox rabbinic seminary …”
As proof of Chovevei’s growing appeal, he points out that applications are rising despite the fact that it has no feeder, such as a high school or affiliated summer camp, “and yet the cream of the crop is coming to us.”