Rabbi Avi Weiss would like to transform American Orthodoxy into a more open and tolerant movement. And that’s just for starters.
The founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School told the 300 supporters gathered at the yeshiva’s first annual dinner Sunday night that his goal is to produce eight to 10 rabbis a year so that over the next decade, “we can transform the fabric of the Jewish community” into one where Orthodoxy is “nonjudgmental, persuasive but never coercive,” and can speak to the 90 percent of American Jews who view Orthodoxy as largely irrelevant to their lives.
With the dinner celebrating the institution’s upcoming graduation of its charter class of nine rabbis, the school appears on track to meet those goals. And 15 students are scheduled to begin the four-year ordination program this fall.
Much of the evening, with guests including the professional heads of the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, was devoted to honoring the students, faculty and donors who made the yeshiva a reality, and to elaborating on its motto, “where open Orthodoxy begins.” Rabbi Weiss’ son, Dov, director of operations at YCT, and Rabbi Dov Linzer, rosh yeshiva, described the school’s efforts to train rabbis who will be inclusive in their approach to other Jews, specifically including women, and respectful in dialogue with those from other denominations.
Rabbi Weiss also spoke of the yeshiva as striving “to be open, deeply learned and caring.”
Neither he nor the other administrators made mention of Chovevei Torah’s implicit challenge to Yeshiva University, long the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, which is perceived to have moved far enough to the right in recent years to have led to the creation of Chovevei Torah as an alternative.
But Howard Jonas, the chairman of the board and chief funder of the school, was characteristically blunt in his remarks. He said he recalled the “last great days” of Yeshiva University some years ago when it “still cared about the world” and before it turned “gutless and spineless.”
Jonas, chairman of the highly successful IDT Corp., went on to say his friend Richard Joel, who became president of YU last year, told him that it was pressure on YU to become more open-minded, coming from the success of Chovevei Torah, that led Yeshiva to choose him as its head.
Now that Chovevei Torah is about to send out its first rabbinical graduates into the community, “the battle has been won,” Jonas said.
Interviewed following his speech, and after being told that some Chovevei Torah officials and supporters had asked that his remarks be considered off the record, Jonas replied: “Print what you want,” and went on to detail his falling-out with YU some years ago.
Joel, who was not present at the dinner, told The Jewish Week the next day that Jonas is “a caring philanthropist who does an enormous amount of good, and I know that any opinions he offered don’t reflect the views of the leadership of Chovevei Torah.” Joel added that Jonas believes in “the ideals YU espouses and creates, and I wouldn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
YU officials say about 40 students complete its rabbinical school each year, with about 80 percent of them going on to pursue careers in religious life, from pulpits to educators.
“We all need to find and attract more” young men interested in the rabbinate, Joel noted.