‘Profiles in Faith’

‘Profiles in Faith’

Soli Yisrael Foger of Englewood fell in love with his wife, Tani, in 1973.

Just about everything good in his life since then – and there are many good things – can be traced back to that lightning strike.

Most recently, it has resulted in a series of YouTube videos that capture a conversation between him and a list of prominent Orthodox rabbis, plus the occasional rebbitzen or other nonclerical luminary.

It is a series that he plans to continue.

How did it happen? The idea grew organically.

Soli Yisrael Foger has created ‘Profiles in Faith.’

Mr. Foger was born to a Ukrainian refugee family in Romania in 1953; 10 years later, the family finally was allowed to immigrate to Israel. He was a typical Israeli – ambitious, tough, argumentative, expansive, intellectually curious, but uninterested in old-world religion.

Back in the 1970s, an architecture student, still profoundly secular, all Mr. Foger knew was how surprising it was “that I allowed myself to be in love with a girl who was observant, when all the other Israelis I knew would have spit three times and run away, like she was a black cat who crossed their path.”

But Tani had something. Some magic.

Tani – then Tani Schneider, now Dr. Tani Foger, a psychologist who works with high school students – grew up on the Lower East Side and went to Ramaz. Although she did not come from an observant background, she already realized that Jewish life appealed to her.

Both Tani and Soli worked as tour guides for the American Zionist Youth Foundation; that’s where they met.

Despite Tani’s apparently weak-minded reliance on religion – or at least that’s how he saw it at the time – Soli was entranced by her, and her insistence on belief and practice began to win him over. Once, on a trip home, “I saw a picture of my zayde” – his grandfather – “holding a sefer Torah,” he said. It took hold of his imagination. He started paying attention to stories about his grandfather, who had been his shul’s gabbai, “and all of a sudden it dawned on me that this picture was enough to create a positive receptive model for me,” he said.

That was it. He was won over.

Still, he thought about how there no longer were the bubbes and zaydes – the grandparents – who could transmit the tradition’s essential sweetness. His openness to it came from the picture of his grandfather, he reasoned, so it must be grandparents who have that special, intangible, shareable essence. “The religion was a living thing,” he said. “It was a Jewish home, mostly maintained by the zayde and the bubbe because the parents often were busy. That was true even in secular circles – how many people would say they could never marry a non-Jew because their grandparents would turn over in their graves?

“The influence of that generation was so strong. It was the sustainer of Jewish identity.”

Those grandparents aren’t around so much anymore, though, he lamented. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I could do something to extract that element? Where would I get it from? And I thought of our elders – the rabbis. The ones who are not only the smart ones, but the ones who also have that sweetness about them, the accepting ones, the loving ones, the ones who love.”

He knew that there is great beauty in the tradition. He has seen it radiate from the faces of great teachers and leaders. “I knew that beauty would be contagious,” he said.

Mr. Foger thought back to his own experiences, newly in New York, the father, then, of two sons (now he has four). “We were very close to Eli Chaim Carlebach, and we belonged to his shul,” he said. (Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s twin brother; the two were co-leaders of the Upper West Side’s Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach, better known as the Carlebach Shul.) “I remember when he would take our sons and put them on his lap,” he said. “I thought – what a picture! That is what sustains us.

“I thought – what can I do about this?

“That was my motivation.”

How to start? “I thought, naively, that I would have to go to the most religious ones,” he said. “I spoke to a friend of mine, who took me to the Catskills, to the Torah Mesorah convention. If you can imagine a convention of about not only 300 black hats, but black top hats.

“Usually you have one great rabbi, and then the rest like us. Now imagine the great top rabbis, and all the rest are the very smart rabbis.”

It took a few years, but eventually Mr. Foger was able to interview Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. That was the first of a list of 13 interviews so far. All have been either in the United States or in Israel; most are in person, although some are by Skype.

Mr. Foger feels so deeply about this project, which he calls “Profiles of Faith,” that he has financed it entirely by himself. Each hour-long video is filmed by a professional videographer, using more than one camera, and is extensively edited.

Everyone whom Mr. Foger has asked to interview is Orthodox in some way or another; he feels that he will lose credibility if he were to include people who do not share that label. His list, though, ranges from Rabbi Feldman and Rabbi Haim Drukman, head of Bnei Akiva in Israel, through Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and Rabbi Chaim Brovender of Midreshet Lindenbaum, up to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg of Clal and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Aleph Institute and the Renewal movement. He also has interviewed two women – Rebbitzin Tziporah Heller, who teaches at Neve Yerushalayim College, and the author and teacher Sarah Yocheved Rigler. That is quite a range.

“I just wanted to find people with a sweet disposition who are Orthodox,” at least by background or training, he said.

Locally, he also has interviewed Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.

“I don’t ask provocative or confrontational questions,” Mr. Foger said. “That doesn’t interest me.

“I don’t want to resolve any halachic issue. I don’t want to argue the merits of this or that. All I want to know is how they discovered their own path.

“What makes them love being Jewish? What would they say to someone they needed to convince to maintain their Jewishness? Why is it worth holding onto?

“And then some related questions – how do you deal with pain? How do you see God? And then, at the end, with the men, I ask them to sing a zemirah that means something to them. So far, all except for two older rabbis have agreed to sing.”

Everyone he has spoken to has said something astonishing, Mr. Foger said.

“Rabbi Goldin is always very honest and self-searching. He said, ‘You know, God is reasonable.’ I had never heard anyone say that before.

“When I spoke to Rabbi David Aaron this summer, he pointed out that we often don’t know the difference between the God we had when we were young and the God we have when we are old. He said that there is a God for grown-ups. The God for children is the one we were constantly bargaining with; if you are stuck at that point, and never grow and never change, you didn’t have a good teacher.

“And Rabbi Brovender is really funny.

“Each rabbi has his own special angle,” Mr. Foger summed up. “You can’t just sum them up. Each one of them is a crack that can open up the whole. It can change your life.”

To watch the video, google “YouTube” and “Soli Foger.”

read more: