In a move certain to be seen as an effort to compete with the Rabbinical Council of America — the largest group of Orthodox rabbis — two vocal critics this week launched a clerical group called the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
But Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel of New York, insist that the new fellowship, which attracted about 75 rabbis from North America, Israel and Columbia to a two-day conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., was created not to compete with the RCA but more broadly to counter what they see as a rightward shift in the Orthodox community and the centralization of the rabbinate.
They say they intend to maintain membership in the RCA — Rabbi Angel is a past president of the group. But they believe the new fellowship is filling a vacuum, as indicated by the large turnout, for rabbis who feel “claustrophobic” in their roles, according to Rabbi Angel.
“Rabbis need a place to grow, they can’t operate out of fear,” he said, predicting that the new group will soon grow to at least 150 members. (He pointed out that an additional 15 rabbis registered for the conference but were unable to attend and another 25 who could not make it to Florida said they want to be part of the fellowship.)
Attendees said the conference included young and older rabbis and reflected a wide range of viewpoints within Orthodox Judaism.
“We have created an open space where rabbis don’t have to look over their shoulders and feel intimidated” by rabbinic authorities who would marginalize them, said Rabbi Weiss. “We want to empower them to think for themselves.”
He noted that when as a young rabbi, he would ask a halachic question of his rebbe, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the revered dean of Modern Orthodoxy, the response would be: “What do you think, Avraham?”
Rabbis Weiss and Angel and others believe that such autonomy has disappeared and that religious authority has increasingly become the purview of rosh yeshivas and poskim (decisors), with congregational rabbis feeling intimidated to express their own views and frustrated by the experience.
Most recently, the point of contention has been over an agreement reached by the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel over conversions performed by American rabbis. The Chief Rabbinate used to automatically accept conversions performed by RCA members, but the new agreement would only allow for conversions approved by a dozen or so religious courts in the U.S.
The RCA says this will circumvent the problem of individual rabbis whose halachic standards are lacking; Rabbis Weiss and Angel and other critics said the move weakens the standing of individual rabbis.
The new group plans to take positions on a wide range of issues, including conversion, Rabbi Weiss said, hoping to influence the Jewish community in the U.S., Israel and around the world. Other areas of concern include the plight of agunot (women unable to obtain a religious divorce), end-of-life medical issues and the environment.
Asher Lopatin, rabbi of Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago who attended the conference in Florida this week, said he will continue to attend RCA conventions, which he described as an opportunity to hear religious authorities speak out on issues they see as most important. But he said the RCA has not been a place for open sharing among members about the doubts and conflicts they deal with in their work, and that those authorities who play a major role at RCA gatherings “probably would not be comfortable” with the kinds of issues he and others would like to see raised by the fellowship.
“I want to talk about how we relate to non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, how we deal with women’s issues, non-Orthodox converts, the history of halacha and other broad issues,” he said.
Rabbi Lopatin said the only group he knows of that deals with these topics openly is the Yarchei Kallah Program led by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. The program, part of the Legacy Heritage Fund Rabbinic Enrichment Initiative, brings together about 30 young Orthodox rabbis (under 40) twice a year to discuss issues of importance to them in their careers and personal lives, from balancing professional and family responsibilities to delivering more effective sermons.
“Our goals are not political,” Rabbi Schacter said. “We want to deal with [rabbis’] challenges and frustrations, to make them feel appreciated and inspired. We give them, in effect, a group hug.”
Rabbi Lopatin, who has participated in the program, praised Rabbi Schacter’s work, but said he hoped the new fellowship would deal with these types of issues not only twice a year — “and then we put them back in the closet” — but on an ongoing basis.
Some leaders in the Orthodox community see the creation of the new fellowship as a political move by Rabbi Angel, and particularly Rabbi Weiss, noting that that the RCA has refused membership to graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Weiss in 1997.
“Avi and Marc have come to feel increasingly disenfranchised,” one rabbi said, “and the conversion issue put them over the top. Now Avi will have a place for his Chovevei graduates, as he should,” adding that it was “disgraceful” that the RCA has not accepted Chovevei rabbis, of whom there are now about 40 serving in pulpits and Hillel posts around the country.
Several rabbis familiar with the situation said that Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and one of the three rabbis chosen by the RCA and Israeli Chief Rabbinate to make key decisions on the conversion issue, threatened to resign from the RCA if any Chovevei Torah rabbis were admitted to the group.
Rabbi Schachter was unavailable for comment.
A number of rabbis contacted by The Jewish Week were not aware of the formation of the new fellowship. Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, president of the RCA, said in an e-mail response:
“The RCA reserves comment at this time, as it would be inappropriate to comment on a new group based upon speculation, until and unless we are fully informed with first-hand information. The RCA, as always, enjoys and encourages open discussion of divergent points of view amongst all of its members.”
Other members noted that while the RCA is caught between “the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University and the desire to be an open tent,” in the words of one rabbi, it was unfair to portray the RCA as stifling discussion. He noted that Rabbi Weiss was invited to speak at the annual RCA convention two years ago and that topics like homosexuality have been discussed openly.
Rabbi Weiss said that it is important for Chovevei rabbis to have a rabbinic organization they can belong to, and that the fellowship can be that place. But he added that the new group has broader goals and will only allow about 25 percent of its membership to be graduates of Chovevei.
Seventeen of the rabbis at the conference this week were ordained by Chovevei.
Rabbi Weiss asserted that change in the community can come either from the top down or bottom up, but that it is the latter that has the greatest impact. He noted that community rabbis are the keys to effecting change, far more so than rabbinic scholars.
Rabbi Ross Singer of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore said that what was unique about the fellowship and the conference, which he attended this week, was that it was “unapologetically open and modern, willing to explore the role of universal ethics in halacha and Judaism, and all with a passion and love of Torah. That just doesn’t exist out there,” he said.