Last week, as the Rabbinical Council of America met, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, whose relationship with that body had been contentious for some time, publicly dropped his membership in it.
Soon thereafter, Rabbi Asher Lopatin followed suit.
Both rabbis live in Riverdale, the verdant, surprisingly suburban Bronx neighborhood that faces New Jersey just north of the George Washington Bridge. Rabbi Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and Rabbi Lopatin, who moved east from a pulpit in Chicago two years ago, now heads the school, which draws many rabbinical students from Bergen County.
Both said that they dropped their membership in the Orthodox group because it refused to admit Chovevei-ordained rabbis, and that they could no longer belong to a group that excluded their students. Beyond that, Rabbi Lopatin added in his resignation statement, “The RCA was once a groundbreaking organization devoted to bringing in contemporary Orthodox rabbis whom other, older organizations, specifically Agudas Harabanim, rejected because RCA rabbis were too modern and open to the world. It now appears to be an organization devoted primarily to patrolling its borders.”
In a telephone interview, Rabbi Lopatin explained his reasoning.
When YCT first opened, its administration’s goal was to have its graduates accepted by the RCA; in fact, Rabbi Lopatin said, no one at the new school thought such acceptance to be a hard-to-reach ideal. But politics intervened — YCT is seen as more liberal than Yeshiva University, which graduates many of the RCA’s members. It increasingly became clear that YCT’s graduates would not be accepted by the RCA, and so the new school decided not to apply and thus risk rejection.
About a decade or so ago, when it became clear that the situation was not about to change, and that YCT’s rabbis needed the support an organization could give them, Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel, who “was not involved with Chovevei but still thought that we needed another organization that would speak for our values,” formed the International Rabbinical Fellowship, Rabbi Lopatin said. (Rabbi Angel, a former RCA president, is the rabbi emeritus of Manhattan’s oldest congregation, Congregation Shearith Israel.)
Since the IRF was founded in 2007, Rabbis Weiss and Lopatin have belonged to both that organization and the RCA.
“I have been a member of the RCA for about 20 years, and in some ways it speaks to my values, but it doesn’t do enough,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “It does not speak for all my values.”
The IRF has about 200 members; YCT has 95 alumni, and not all of them — particularly the educators, who do not need a membership organization in the same way that pulpit rabbis do — belong to the IRF. About 10 to 20 percent belong to both the RCA and the IRF. “More than half of our members are not Chovevei musmakim,” rabbis who have been ordained there, Rabbi Lopatin said. “Some are YU graduates, and many are from Israel.”
And some IRF members are women, he added. “For many years, we had the feeling that if we accept women, no one will accept it as an Orthodox institution, but finally we voted on it. We realized that we had to do the right thing.”
Rosh Kehilla Dina Neiman of Kehillat Orech Eliezer on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is an IRF member, he said, and so are some maharats. “I’m not sure if there is a rabbanit, but there will be rabbaniot, and new women rabbis from Israel will be accepted if they apply.
“A rabbanit has to be a community leader, knowledgeable, and a frum person, regardless of whether her husband is a rabbi,” he added. And yes, this is a big thing. “It is huge,” Rabbi Lopatin said.
“It’s very exciting — and it’s also very natural. It’s true to our modern Orthodox values, our menschlichkeit. We value being inclusive and supportive.”
He had felt ambivalent about leaving the RCA, he said, but “but when I came to this position two years ago, I felt uncomfortable being part of an organization that did not allow my talmidim,” my students, “to be part of it. Our musmakim encouraged me to stay and be a voice there. So it wasn’t really until this year, with a lot of the scandals that have come out” — the story of Rabbi Barry Freundel, discussed in more detail on page 8, continues to cast large shadows — “and on the other hand, there were constant calls for condemning women rabbis.
“I just felt that things had changed.”
When it comes to conversion, Rabbi Lopatin feels that it is necessary that they be done in a “warm and sensitive and welcoming way.” The RCA’s report addresses that concern. He worries about another issue as well, though.
“Are they willing to convert adopted children, when the parents are not going to send the children to day school? When the parents are not halachically observant? When the parents are of the same sex? If they are an intermarried couple, are they willing to go the extra mile to convert the non-Jewish spouse, even if the family is not committed to a fully halachic life?
“That is the deeper challenge for Orthodoxy, and I do not believe they are dealing with it.
“I would convert people in those situations, and I would follow the rules of many important rabbis of our time who are really pushing for that.
“If parents adopted a kid, if the parents are not fully shomer Shabbes but wanted to send the child to day school, how would they get the child admitted to a school? Sometimes schools will do conversions on their own, quietly.
“Things like that all have to be done outside the system. I don’t believe that the GPS system helps in those cases, and that’s where we really need the help.”
It comes down, in some senses, to menschlichkeit, Rabbi Lopatin said. “Do mass conversions of kids. Use the leniencies of children converting. I realize that there are some opinions that say that you can only convert a child if a parent is going to raise them religious, but others say that it is a blessing to be Jewish.”
He acknowledged the issue of having conversions acknowledged by the state of Israel, but he is troubled by the logic. “The rabbanaut is such a corrupt organization, such a chillul haShem” — a desecration of God’s name — “that the goal needs to be finding a way around it, not trying to placate it,” he said. “Placating it is going in exactly the wrong direction. The rabbanaut is a political tool, a patronage system, a disaster — and the more we try to placate them, the worse things get.
“We all have to use our influence to change that system. It is a corrupt monopoly, and people know that. It doesn’t seem to bother the RCA — they are willing to go along with it — but it is alienating a large number of Israelis and Americans.”
Rabbi Lopatin has some lingering warmth for the RCA. “There are a lot of good people in the organization, and they do good work, and I respect their leaders,” he said. “I want to be positive and hopeful, and I do hope that the RCA can get back to its roots and be the organization that it used to be.”