Learning about other Jews

Learning about other Jews

Montebello Center takes a field trip to Yeshivat Maharat

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, teaches a class in Jewish law. (JTA/Uriel Hellman)
Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, teaches a class in Jewish law. (JTA/Uriel Hellman)

It’s often easy to develop stereotypes about other people. Certainly we Jews have been the victims of stereotyping often enough to know how bad it can be.

Not only is it purely and understandably human — if not proper or good — to distrust people from groups to which we do not belong, it is also often purely and understandably human — if not proper or good — to distrust people from other corners of our own group.

If you are a liberal Jew, say, in Rockland County, you might distrust the chasidim who have come to so publicly define the Jewish world where you live.

Rabbi Richard Hammerman, the Conservative rabbi at the Montebello Jewish Center in Suffern, knows that relations between the members of his shul and the chasidic and charedi Jews just down the road in Monsey, are tense. He wanted to be sure that the Montebello community understands — not only intellectually, as most of them already did, but emotionally as well — that “there are many shades of Orthodox, and in fact there are many modern Orthodox Jews with whom we can identify in a very positive way,” he said. “They are doing outstanding work, which we should be proud of.”

Rabbi Hammerman thought of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the modern Orthodox rabbi who recently stepped down after many years as the leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx. The two rabbis have been friends since “I lived in Riverdale when I was in rabbinical school,” Rabbi Hammerman, 70, said. They lived in the same apartment building. Rabbi Weiss was just recreating HIR, which used to have another name and another home but had moved up to the Bronx. “I attended services — I went there for mincha — in the boiler room.” After that, they stayed in touch.

So it was logical for Rabbi Hammerman to think of bringing a delegation from Montebello not only to HIR, but also to Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s seminary that Rabbi Weiss founded and is housed at HIR. For one thing, not only does he know Rabbi Weiss, he also knows its executive director, Amanda Friedman Shechter. Ms. Shechter grew up in Toms River and became bat mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Israel, the shul Rabbi Hammerman headed until his retirement. Later, Rabbi Hammerman performed her wedding. (His pulpit at Montebello is temporary; Rabbi Hammerman is filling in this year. Retirement beckons.)

Also, Rabbi Hammerman added, there was another personal connection. Bruce Levine, the head of Montebello’s adult education committee, had been a member of Avi Weiss’s shul, when they all were young and Mr. Levine was Orthodox.

“But beyond all those personal connections, the idea of an Orthodox institution ordaining women was intriguing to me, and I wanted to learn more about it.

“Not only is Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women, it is also very much involved in preparing women to be pulpit rabbis and Jewish educators with sensitivity to women’s needs, the needs of the LGBT community, to people with special needs, and they do outreach to the non-Jewish community. It is very much a forward-thinking institution, which seems to be successful in training the kinds of rabbis who are right for 2017.

“We as Conservative Jews can learn with them, just as they can learn from us.”

Rabbi Richard Hammerman (Courtesy Rabbi Hammerman)
Rabbi Richard Hammerman (Courtesy Rabbi Hammerman)

There still are differences between even very modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews, he added. “The rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, said they see the Shulchan Aruch as being central to any religious decision they make,” he said. “That is unlike the approach of Conservative Judaism, which sees Jewish law more as evolving. He said they give halacha a veto, not a vote. I pointed out Mordechai Kaplan’s expression.” Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan was the founder of Reconstructionism; he often is quoted as having said that halacha had “a vote, not a veto” in his decisions.

So last month, six members of the Montebello Jewish Center piled into a car and drove to Riverdale. They met with the women of Yeshivat Maharat; in a separate school in the same building, they saw the men of Rabbi Weiss’s other academic brainchild, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. “We were told that they have some programs together, and eventually probably they will have more, but they are moving very slowly in that direction,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “Rabbi Fox quoted Yitz Greenberg” — that’s Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the prominent Orthodox rabbi who started Clal, among many other accomplishments. “Yitz said that every rabbi should be 10 years ahead of his congregation — but if you’re 25 years ahead, then you have to look for another job. In other words, you can’t move too quickly.”

The Montebello group had the chance to listen to one of Maharat’s teachers. “She is just brilliant,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “We were very taken with the level of teaching, as well as the fact that already these graduates — and there are only a handful so far — have had an impact on Jewish communities on the east and west coasts. Every graduate has gotten a job without any problems.

“They acknowledge how hard it is for the Orthodox community to accept women, but they feel that slowly they are making progress.”

Harriet Spevack of Tuxedo Park, a Montebello member, was on the trip.

“Yeshivat Maharat is a very interesting institution, and I was very impressed with the level of education and learning, and the ability of the women there,” she said. “Their dedication was remarkable.

“I’m a Conservative Jew,” she added. “I am used to being egalitarian. I think that they are trying to change things within Orthodoxy, and I have to give them a lot of credit. I know that Rabbi Weiss has gotten a lot of flak from other Orthodox institutions, but he really is a pioneer. He has been at the forefront of change,” she said, recalling his prominent, courageous, and ultimately successful fight to liberate Soviet Jews.”

The trip didn’t entirely meet its goal for her, Ms. Spevack said, because “I am very familiar with modern Orthodoxy.” Many of her friends are Orthodox, and she has spent a summer in Israel, when she and her husband visited a few liberal Orthodox shuls.

She, like Rabbi Hammerman, was taken with something that Rabbi Weiss showed the group. HIR was renovated a few years ago, before Rabbi Weiss retired. The group went to the main sanctuary, and “Rabbi Weiss challenged us to guess which side was which.” Which one was the women’s and which was the men’s. It was an impossible task, because the two sides are identical, with exactly the same number of seats, the same footprint in the room, and the same access to the bimah.

There is a ramp leading up to the bimah, so that it is accessible to people in wheelchairs. When Rabbi Weiss told the designer that he wanted such a ramp, “he was told that he would lose 18 seats by doing that. ‘And then Rabbi Weiss said no, we’d lose 36.’” That’s because there is a ramp on both sides, providing access to both women and men. “That impressed me a lot,” Ms. Spevack said.

Women cannot read from the Torah at HIR, and they cannot lead services, so the access right now is partially theoretical. “When they built it, though, I think they had in mind that eventually women will lein,” read from the Torah, Rabbi Hammerman said.

“The trip was very interesting,” Ms. Spevack said. “It is interesting to see how people cope with their need to change. I’m happy that I went.”

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