When Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Suffern was asked to perform a funeral, he was upset.
Not at being asked to officiate — although he’s new to the community, he’d already put his name in the regular rotation at local Jewish funeral homes — but at the situation.
“I was told that this would be an easy one,” Rabbi Weinbach said. “It would be just me and the funeral director.” The woman about to be buried had no relatives other than cousins who were abroad and could not return home in time.
But that wasn’t easy. It was lonely; not a fitting way to mark the end of anyone’s 83 years of life.
He talked to his wife and four adult children about it, “and my daughter, Ora, said that this is so sad, but maybe if you put it up on social media, maybe some of my Facebook friends will see it.” He did, and then, Rabbi Weinbach said, “It went viral.”
(“Not that I’m sure exactly what quantifies going viral,” he added. “But a lot of people heard about it.”)
So about 30 people came to the funeral of Francine Stein, about whom they know only the dates of her birth and death, gender, and religion — and that she taught piano at Juilliard. Rabbi Weinbach intends to find out more about Ms. Stein, but for now, he knows that she was buried with respect and dignity. He also knows that he brought up his daughter, like his three sons, with an understanding of Jewish values that by now is instinctive for all of them.
Jewish values, Jewish spirituality, Jewish passion, Jewish inclusivity, Jewish searching — all have been important to Rabbi Weinbach, 54, as he has made his sometimes surprising way from his Orthodox childhood in Woodmere, one of Long Island’s Five Towns, through a career that frequently balanced pulpit work with education, back and forth, until the balance would shift once again, to the self-styled “traditional” shul on Montebello Road. Now, Rabbi Weinbach, an “Orthodox expat,” oversees a congregation that chooses to remain unaffiliated with any movement rather than conform to any movement’s expectations for it.
Rabbi Weinbach’s father, Rabbi David Weinbach, was the principal of MTA — or, more formally, the Yeshiva University High School for Boys — in upper Manhattan, so Elchanan went to school there. “It was quite a commute,” he understated. More than that, there was the essential oddness of having his father be principal, but “I ended up being the principal for three of my kids, and it worked out fine,” he said.
His parents also were part of a partnership that owned sleepaway camps, so the family would spend every summer there; his mother, Lee, moved from behind the scenes “over time, to being the face of the camp,” her son remembered.
All in all, it was a public childhood.
After high school, Rabbi Weinbach enrolled at Yeshiva University, “which was obvious continuity — but my academic career did not flourish,” he said. “I wanted Ultimate Frisbee.” So he transferred to Brooklyn College.
It was in that thoroughly secular environment that Rabbi Weinbach had a spiritual awakening. “The Judaism I had been brought up with didn’t speak to me at all,” he said. It was too dry, too formal, too staid. Once he realized that Judaism didn’t have to be like that, though, he had to search for what he wanted. He transferred to Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway. Now, Sh’or Yoshuv is big, he said, but then “it was an intimate place, and I really sensed that when the people there prayed, they were really reaching out to God.
“I found my passion for Judaism there.”
Soon, finding even Sh’or Yoshuv not quite intense enough, Rabbi Weinbach went to study in Israel. “I was sitting in the beit midrash at Sh’or Yoshuv, and I got very angry,” he said. “I had been through the entire yeshiva system, and no one had ever shown me anything that had passion. So I decided that I would learn and then bring it to the Jewish community.”
He chose a fairly conventional path, spending his two years in Israel at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, and then going back to YU, where he was ordained; he also earned a master’s degree in education from YU’s Azrieli School. During that time, he continued to work in summer camps, and with youth retreat programs.
In 1988, he and Yocheved Blond (who sometimes is known by her English name, Evabeth), an elementary school teacher, married, and “my idealistic wife and I set off to bring passion wherever we went,” he said.
First that was White Plains, where Rabbi Weinbach was assistant rabbi at the Hebrew Institute, but “I wanted my own shop,” so they moved to Newport News, Virginia, where he headed Congregation Adath Jeshurun. “We had a lot of successes, made a lot of friends, and were able to reach out to the community in a way that made people really feel accepted,” he said. Among those successes was a Chanukah party; “the first five couples through the door there were intermarried,” he said. Applying the balance that has marked his approach throughout his career, “without compromise, we were able to make people feel accepted.”
How did he do that? “We just don’t judge,” he said. “I’m just happy you’re here.
“There are lines that the halacha presents, and I hope that anyone I’m dealing with understands that I can’t cross them, but that never stops people from getting along.”
Needing schools for their children as they grew older, the Weinbachs moved to Miami, where Rabbi Weinbach taught in the Hillel Academy. But he missed leading a community from the bimah, so when he was offered the opportunity to start a new shul while retaining his job at the school, he took it. As rabbi of the Highland Lakes Shul for two years, he started a thriving community, but “it was a recipe for total burnout,” he said.
“There were Lubavitchers, charedim, ba’ale teshuvah all living in the same area, and they wanted to start a synagogue,” he said. “By the time I left, we also had the leaders of the local Reform synagogue and gay people all attending regularly. We called it the Rainbow Shul.
“But I burned out. So I moved into education full time.” He became the assistant principal of the Hebrew Academy of Miami, and then, three years later, moved to Deal, at the Jersey Shore, first as assistant principal and then as principal of the Hillel High School. Most of the community there is Syrian, and “it opened a window for me into the Syrian community in specific and the Sephardi community in general,” he said. “It was great.”
His next move, back into the pulpit, was to become assistant rabbi at Adath Israel in Hillside, N.J., one of the shuls created and overseen by the Elizabeth-based Teitz family. A few years later, he also became the principal in the boys’ upper school at the Jewish Educational Center, another Teitz-run institution. “It was a dream come true,” he said. “I was always going back and forth between the rabbinate and education. Here I could do both.”
Still, he was restless, and in 2008 he took the opportunity to become the head of Shalhevet, a modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. “But it was pretty brutal, because it had been a K-12 school, but after the stock market crash we had to shut down everything but the high school.” It was a tough experience.
Two of his children were college students by then, and living in New York, and Yocheved and Elchanan Weinbach wanted to be closer to home, so they moved to Philadelphia, where he headed the Kohelet Yeshiva, another Orthodox day school. There, Rabbi Weinbach did such unorthodox things as taking students to “a poetry slam in inner-city Philadelphia.
“It was great,” he said. “We really broadened the school.”
But Rabbi Weinbach’s self-definition was shifting, and he was growing increasingly uncomfortable hiding it. So, in June, he and Yocheved moved to Suffern. “It was my coming out as an Othodox ex-pat,” he said. “I still have my loyalties, I still gain a lot of sustenance and spiritual depth from the things I always gained sustenance and spiritual depth from, but the way Orthodoxy is defined today — well, I’m out of it. I cannot find a place in the Orthodox community the way it functions today.”
It’s partly a matter of his beliefs, he said, which have shifted from what he sees as absolutely black and white to include a bit more gray. It’s partly a matter of increasingly stringent practice, which he sees as unnecessary and inappropriately exclusionary.
There are three changes he would like to see in the Orthodox world.
“I would like more respect paid to other Jews,” he said. “It’s not only Orthodox Jews who are serious, passionate, and making serious sacrifices for Judaism. I would like to see respect for the passions and the seriousness of the non-Orthodox.
“I would like everyone to remember that everything that can be measured is probably less important than the other stuff.
“And I would like for them to stop hurting the lives of children by giving them so little room to be individuals.” No one needs pop culture, he added, but “Western high culture? You’re hurting people by shutting them off from it.” That’s not a problem in the modern Orthodox community, he added, but it is when you move farther right.
Shaarey Israel is his first non-Orthodox community. It was formed by the merger of the Monsey Jewish Center and Shaarey Tfiloh; seven years ago the renamed congregation opened its new building, a large, beautiful place with a sanctuary through which light streams and whose stained-glass windows reflect bright colors onto pale surfaces.
The shul’s practice is basically mid-century Conservadox; seating is mixed but the services are firmly non-egalitarian, with women allowed on the bimah only when the ark is closed and the sifrei Torah inside.
“It’s going great,” Rabbi Weinbach said. “All of the congregation’s essential structures are intact. We have twice-daily minyans, great adult education, and a great staff. All the pieces are in place, and we will turn its proud history into a relevant future.
“The people are so dedicated to the shul that they have stuck with it, and they really care. I love speaking, I love teaching, and I have an enthusiastic audience,” he said.
The synagogue has a Hebrew school, and Rabbi Weinbach is able to draw on his experience as an educator to help it grow. “They’re letting me be innovative, and we’re bringing iPads to the school,” he said.
The location is challenging, in that the non-charedi population seems to be in retreat, but he thinks growth is possible. There are Jews who drop out of charedi life but do not want to leave it all behind. “If we start to attract those dropouts…” he mused.
So now, openly acknowledging his split with Orthodoxy but still profoundly influenced by it, hoping to bring other Jews closer to the passionate spirituality that is sometimes under the surface of Jewish life but always there, Rabbi Weinbach has high hopes for Shaarey Israel, for the Rockland Jewish community, and for himself as a leader, educator, and open-minded friend.