Meet the new president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
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Meet the new president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Rabbi Asher Lopatin looks forward to 'creating connections, building relationships'

Taking a break from unpacking moving boxes, Rabbi Asher Lopatin spoke with the Jewish Standard earlier this week from Riverdale, N.Y., where he is taking on the presidency of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School from founding president Rabbi Avi Weiss.

A prominent Chicago pulpit rabbi for the last 18 years – Mayor Rahm Emanuel was among his congregants – Lopatin built a reputation as a liberal modern Orthodox rabbi involved in both intrafaith and interfaith dialogue. Named one of America’s top rabbis by Newsweek magazine five times, Lopatin was a Wexner Fellow, a Truman Scholar, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik at Yeshivas Brisk of Chicago and from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Weiss founded YCT in 1999 as an alternative to RIETS, to train rabbis “who are open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic, and eager to transform Orthodoxy into a movement that meaningfully and respectfully interacts with all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, or background,” according to the school’s website.

Many of the rabbis ordained at YCT have ties to northern New Jersey. YCT-ordained local rabbis include Jeffrey Fox, who was rabbi of Kehilat Kesher: The Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood, and Jason Herman, a former rabbinic intern at Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. Menashe East, Aryeh Leifert, Yonah Berman, and Eytan Yammer, all YCT graduates, are from Teaneck; Alexander Kaye and Seth Winberg were rabbinic interns at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Paramus; Charles Friedman is the director of pastoral care at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, and Michael Stein, another graduate, is from Englewood.

Koby Geller and Avram Mlotek, both from Teaneck, are now studying at YCT.

The rabbinical school is based in the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the longtime spiritual leader. Last year, Weiss, 69, announced his intention to step down from YCT’s presidency.

Lopatin and his wife, Rachel, and their four young children have joined both HIR and the Young Israel of North Riverdale-Yonkers. Yeshiva University President Richard Joel is a member of the latter congregation, and the Lopatins moved in across the street from the Joels – who welcomed them warmly, Lopatin said.

The incoming president, who turns 49 next week, will be installed at an October 6 event that will feature a roundtable discussion on “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation” with Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson of the Wexner Foundation; Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi David Ellenson, outgoing president of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Arthur Green of Hebrew College, a pluralistic institution near Boston.

Jewish Standard: Why did you accept the position at YCT?

Rabbi Asher Lopatin: I loved being a pulpit rabbi in a wonderful, growing community … but I felt that training the next generation of rabbis to go out and have an impact on Jews of all types was such an important opportunity, and I could not pass up the chance to have an impact on the future of Orthodox Judaism. By the way, the two positions are not that dissimilar; both involve creating connections and building relationships.

JS: You’ve been described as the paradigm of a modern Orthodox Jew. What does that mean to you?

AL: If “modern Orthodox” means openness to the entire Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish world, and to the entire world itself, then I am very proudly a modern Orthodox Jew. There is so much good out there to learn from on the right and the left, and it’s so beneficial to make those connections and engage with the variety of flavors we have in this world. I feel very compelled to do that…. Though I can only daven [pray] in an Orthodox synagogue, because I follow Orthodox halachah, which requires the separation of men and women for public prayer, I really want to visit all the synagogues in Riverdale. There’s a small Reform shul I see on my way to HIR, and I want to go in and wish them a good Shabbos.

JS: You have a B.A. in international relations and Islamic studies from Boston University, and a master of philosophy from Oxford in medieval Arabic thought. Last year, you went on an interfaith Middle East peace tour with rabbis and Christian and Muslim clergy. Will interfaith relations be an official part of your work at YCT?

AL: It’s bound to spill over a bit, but whether it will become part of official policy I’m not sure. I would be slow to impose my passions on the curriculum overseen by Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer. Some students are going to be here for an amazing learning experience and others, in addition to the learning, will want a more social justice experience or interfaith dialogue experience.

JS: What do you see as the mission of the yeshivah, and has this changed since its founding?

AL: Everything we’re doing is building on the ideas of the founders. I love the term “open Orthodoxy.” Rav Avi [Weiss] talked about it as not only open to new ideas but open to the world in the sense of not being closed off. I see our mission as growing in Orthodox Judaism in the service of God’s world. Our graduates go on American Jewish World Service missions. We even have graduates serving as rabbis in Finland and in Kenya. Another is running an amazing chaplaincy program in Haifa, training Jewish and Muslim chaplains to serve all hospital patients in that multicultural city. But a synagogue in Brooklyn may be underserved, too. I want to make sure our students are excited to go out to the broader world that needs menschlich [kind, humane] rabbis to make a difference.

JS: Where does YCT stand on women’s issues?

AL: The yeshivah only ordains men and there are no plans to change that. However, I am supportive of Yeshivat Maharat [the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders, founded by Weiss] and I am supportive of women’s leadership in synagogues. I really think the vast majority of the Orthodox world feels the same way. In Chabad houses, the rabbi’s wife is co-director. Centrist Orthodoxy supports women having halachic leadership, and women throughout Orthodox history have taken important leadership roles. I support making it more official. Just as we have to have men connecting with different people to bring them closer to Torah, we need women to do that as well.

JS: Does YCT have a presence in Israel?

AL: A passionate love for Israel is critical to an Orthodox rabbi, and we need our musmachim [ordained rabbis] to have that passion. We have six musmachim who have made aliyah. Israel is at the core of our yeshivah, and over the next few years I want to make sure our reaching out includes looking for partners in Israel. Some of our students spend time studying at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa, Yeshivat Har Etzion, and Yeshivat Hakotel, and we’re really interested in looking into that even more officially.

JS: What are some of your future goals?

AL: I have lots of dreams. I want to meet with leaders from the full spectrum of Orthodoxy, including Satmar…. I would love to go with YU students to visit a more charedi [ultra-Orthodox] yeshivah and bond in that way, and for our students to spend time at Hebrew College, and to learn with other New York rabbinical students. I know people feel it’s a little bit “pie in the sky,” but if we could all learn in one room while retaining our own identities and curricula, having a cross-fertilization would be amazing. I am not exactly sure how we will do it, but that remains a serious goal of mine.

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