Conservative Jewry’s Orthodox Rabbi


So much for a quiet retirement.
About the time last month that Rabbi David Lincoln, senior spiritual leader for 21 years at Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, stepped down from the pulpit, he appeared on a Jewish cable television show. Part of an interdenominational panel of Jewish leaders, he offered his comments on the series of scandals that have struck the Orthodox community in recent years.

“I said I was surprised there was no sense of outrage” in Orthodox Jewry after headlines about financial frauds and sexual molestation blackened the community’s reputation, Rabbi Lincoln says.

His comments passed without notice on the TV show, he says. Innocuous, he thought.
Not so innocuous, thought some members of New York’s Orthodox community.

A Jewish publication reported his remarks a few weeks ago, and the calls and e-mail messages came in. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” they told him.
Rabbi Lincoln says he has no second thoughts about what he said.
Orthodox by ordination and Conservative by affiliation, he says he spoke as a onetime member of the Orthodox world. “I have the greatest respect for Orthodox Judaism,” he says in the small office where he works as emeritus rabbi, where his Orthodox ordination certificates are displayed. “I know them so well.

“I can’t claim to be Orthodox,” he says, adding, “I am observant.” Prayer three times a day. Tztitzit under his shirt. Walking to synagogue on Shabbat.
Rabbi Lincoln grew up in London. There he survived the German bombing of World War II and saw the Allied fleet that crossed the English Channel on D-Day. In Gibraltar, he accompanied an uncle who brought food to the Exodus refugees who were forced to return from the shore of Palestine to Europe.

“I witnessed history,” Rabbi Lincoln says. “I haven’t done anything.”
He received a “certificate of practice” as rabbi from England’s chief rabbi, Orthodox semicha in England and Israel, and also studied law in London. “My father said ‘Go to law school,’” he says. “So I went to law school.”

After two years serving an Orthodox congregation in southern England, he looked west, to the United States. He contacted the United Synagogue of America, precursor to the present United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He assumed the American organization was Orthodox, like the United Synagogue in his home country.
Impressed by his credentials, United Synagogue officials offered Rabbi Lincoln some pulpit positions, and Rabbi Lincoln quickly learned about Conservative Judaism. Theologically, “I felt very much at home,” he says.

After 18 years in Kansas City and Chicago, he came in 1987 to Park Avenue, “one of the premier synagogues of the Conservative movement.”
“It’s amazing that they took a yeshiva bochur here,” he says.

He succeeded Rabbi Judah Nadich, the congregation’s spiritual leader for 30 years. Today, Rabbi Lincoln occupies the office where Rabbi Nadich worked as emeritus rabbi.
At 70, in good health, “thank God,” Rabbi Lincoln says he was “ready” — after establishing a successful daily minyan, expanding the synagogue’s educational programs, fostering a growth in its membership and strengthening the Jewish community’s ties with various ethnic and religious groups — to step down.
“Rabbi Lincoln has been an energetic force. His sermons inspired a lot of people,” says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “His shul is thriving. I can’t say enough for the way he stood up for the things that were important to him.”

Today, Rabbi Lincoln is plotting his next project, maybe a book, maybe some teaching assignments, maybe some travel with his wife of 43 years, Susan.
Today, with the approach of the High Holy Days, for the first time in decades he doesn’t have to start drafting Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur sermons.

“I’m enjoying retirement,” he says. “I don’t really miss” the day-to-day rabbinic duties.
Come yom tov, the rabbi, who since retirement has attended a weekday and Shabbat morning minyan at an Orthodox synagogue in his neighborhood to give his successor, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, some time to establish his own presence, will be back in the pews of Park Avenue Synagogue as “just another congregant.”

At his adopted Orthodox congregation, the members supported his now-controversial comments on the cable TV show, he says. The Orthodox worshipers, unlike the people who called and sent e-mail messages, were not offended by his criticism of Orthodox scandals. “Some people said,” Rabbi Lincoln says, “you didn’t say enough.”