Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, honored by The Jewish Week as a community builder, has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun since 1958 and principal of the Ramaz School since 1966. His office in the Upper East Side synagogue is lined with memorabilia that speaks of the history of New York Jewry as well as his passions: photographs of his wife, Audrey, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein; his teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; Natan Sharansky borrowing his tallis and tefillin in Moscow; and a poster-sized photo of the rabbi wearing a Mets jacket and hat, after “an incredible-season.”
Since 1979, Rabbi Lookstein has been teaching at Yeshiva University where he is Joseph H. Lookstein Professor of Homiletics; he also serves as a vice president of the Beth Din of America and is a past president of the New York Board of Rabbis. He is the author of “Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust 1938-1944” and the subject of the biography “Rav Chesed.” Next year, Rabbi Lookstein plans to step down from his distinguished pulpit.
Q: In the 50-odd years of your rabbinate, so much has changed in the world, in this city, in the Jewish community. What’s most surprising to you?
What KJ looks like in the 21st century and what it looked like when I got out of yeshiva in 1958 — there’s no comparison: in the numbers, in observance, in passionate support for the Jewish people — this doesn’t mean the whole picture of American Jewry, but in the Modern Orthodox world we are doing well.
What I find gratifying, with all the talk about Modern Orthodoxy being a dying breed, there’s no room in Modern Orthodox schools for all the kids who want to come; Modern Orthodox synagogues are by and large packed, at least in the New York metropolitan area, where I have lived all my life. You should know that I’m the most provincial person you have ever met. I’ve lived my whole life in an area bordered by 84th and 96th Streets, from Lexington to Madison.
Do you see the community as united?
I’m very upset by the growing divisiveness in the Modern Orthodox leadership. I decry the inability of our left and right in Modern Orthodoxy to understand and see how much we have accomplished together. To quote Rav Kook, “What unites us is far greater than what divides us.” We need to work together and be tolerant of differences in approaches — on women’s issues, open Orthodoxy. We could split apart over relatively nothing, not halachic issues, but more sociological issues.
Do you see the divisions between denominations as widening?
I’m probably prejudiced, because I learned from my father. My whole rabbinate has been greatly influenced by my love of all Jews, and my acceptance of practical pluralism — not theoretical pluralism. I don’t believe that the other movements are “right” but I do believe that Jews are going to observe Judaism and conduct themselves in a serious way, in ways that are very different from mine. But again, “What unites us is greater than what divides us. “
I’m sad that there is so much assimilation today, and that the non-Orthodox movements are losing so many adherents to assimilation — not that Modern Orthodoxy isn’t losing its share too.
But I don’t feel denominational differences as much as many other people do: Some of my most wonderful experiences have been in my activity in the New York Board of Rabbis, and the rabbinic cabinet of UJA. These were formative experiences for me, in which I met rabbis of non-Orthodox movements who are genuinely in search of what they feel is the best for the Jewish people.
Are there lessons of leadership you can share?
I believe in the IDF principle of leaders saying, “acharei,” after me, not “go forward.” I try to live that way. Whenever we have a tzedekah campaign in this community, whether to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, or the flood victims in Houston, or the victims of terrorism in Israel, or UJA, I’m not afraid of announcing my wife’s and my pledge first, to demonstrate our commitment first and lead by example. I try to do that in the broader sense of ahavat Yisrael, showing love and respect for all people. I try carefully to walk the walk, as much as I can.
When you look back at your many achievements, what are you most proud of?
The Soviet Jewry movement changed my whole life. My first mission, with Audrey, was in 1972. We then went again in 1975 when I met Natan Sharansky, then again in 1987 and 1989. After the first trip, I seriously became an activist, in helping the Jewish people. For 20 years, this was the most important thing I was doing.
I remember when Sharansky first came to America, he came to our shul, and sat in the chair that had been waiting for him — for years, when he was in prison, we had a poster with his photo on a chair next to the Ark. It was front and center, as if to say that somebody was missing, the very thing that wasn’t done during the Holocaust.
In the years since, we’ve been the same way. We respond very quickly to any kind of Jewish and humanitarian cause.
What continues to inspire you?
My children and grandchildren, and, thank God, three great-grandchildren. That is the most inspirational thing in my life.
KJ and Ramaz also inspire me very much. I’m headed for emeritus status, for which I’m happy, because we found a fabulous successor in Rabbi Steinmetz at KJ and Rabbi Grossman as head of school at Ramaz. I consider myself to be really blessed that the two institutions to which my father devoted his life, and I have devoted my life, are being led by people with whom I identify fully. I hope they will continue on the same path, though there will obviously be differences. How am I going to do semi-retirement? I don’t know, but there comes a time when you have to let go.
Last thing: What are the keys to your success?
I love kids and I love people. My father called himself “eved l’avdei hashem,” a servant to the servants of the Lord. Like my father, I consider myself a servant and not a master. That’s the most important thing I have been able to do in my life, and it’s why I never felt that I am working for anybody, I am working for everybody and it’s a 24/7 responsibility, which I have loved.