RCA Facing Leadership Challenge


In what appears to be a sign of the increasing ideological stress within Modern Orthodoxy, the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox Union is facing a serious split over the direction of its future leadership, The Jewish Week has learned.

In a highly unusual development — some are calling it an insurrection — the proposed slate of officers set to continue in their lay posts to lead the 1,000-member Rabbinical Council of America for another year is being challenged by a group reportedly opposed to the choice of executive vice president, the only paid position and one that calls for directing the day-to-day operations of the organization.

A leader of the challengers, however, insists the executive choice is not a cause of the rebellion.

The post, most recently held by Rabbi Basil Herring, who stepped down last summer, is a non-elected position appointed by the board.

The critics are said to feel that Rabbi Mark Dratch, who was named after a long selection process to succeed Rabbi Herring, is too liberal for the job, though they have not publicly articulated their specific reasons for that conclusion.

Rabbi Dratch, who lives on Long Island, has worked at congregations in New York, Toronto, Connecticut and Florida. He now teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and founded an organization, JSafe, which advocates for Jewish victims of sexual abuse.

He has formerly served as a vice president of the RCA and headed a task force to formulate rules about investigating allegations of improprieties against members of the RCA.

The Jewish Week has learned that the proposed slate challenging the incumbents is headed by Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., as candidate for first vice president.

The nominees for regional vice presidents are Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, a rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut department; Rabbi Jonathan Gross of Beth Israel in Omaha, Neb.; and Rabbi Eliezer Langer of Tiferet Israel of Austin, Texas.

The other alternative candidates are Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills (treasurer), Rabbi Eli Krimsky of the Young Israel of Stamford, Conn., (recording secretary) and Rabbi Dov Fisher of the Young Israel of Orange County, Calif., (financial secretary).

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun of Teaneck, N.J, who is on the far right of the Modern Orthodox spectrum, is on the alternative slate for executive committee.

The only position not being challenged is that of president, held by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood, N.J., who was elected last year.

Rabbi Goldin’s current top officers are Rabbi Leonard Matanky (first vice president) recording secretary Rabbi Gedalya Berger, (financial secretary) Rabbi Reuven Tradburks and Treasurer Rabbi Daniel Cohen.

Contacted during a visit to Israel on Tuesday week, Rabbi Freundel declined to comment on specifics of the differences between the two slates.

“We have a different position on many issues, which are internal issues, not a single issue,” said the rabbi. But he stressed that the potential hiring of Rabbi Dratch is “not one of the issues on the platform.”

But some, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid creating a further rift in the organization, said there is increasing pressure from right-leaning members over issues such as the possible inclusion of rabbis ordained by Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), an institution that was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale and that describes its philosophy as “open Orthodoxy.”

Currently, rabbis ordained by YCT are not permitted membership in the RCA unless they also have been ordained by a more traditional rabbinical school.

“People have concerns, issues and fears regarding the direction the organization is shifting to,” said one RCA leader who asked not to be identified.

“There are objections to Rabbi Dratch on the basis of concerns that he might be too liberal,” said another member. “They are making assumptions about him.”

The RCA has been grappling with the diverse views of its membership for years, confronting such issues as organ donation, the role of women in synagogue leadership and conversion, particularly regarding the strict standards of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

“There is tremendous tension in the community, both from the left and from the right,” said Rabbi Goldin in his speech to the RCA convention on assuming the presidency last year, as reported by The Forward. “The issue of trying to hold the community together becomes extremely important. I would find it unfortunate if we were to split into splinters.”

The tension within the RCA comes at a time when a new study of the New York Jewish community by UJA-Federation of New York shows a strengthening of Orthodox life and a falling away from Judaism by close to 40 percent of the community, suggesting that the Modern Orthodox could play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the community.

One RCA member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would have preferred if the membership were presented with a choice of candidates for executive vice president.

Rabbi Goldin noted that the idea of presenting candidates to the general membership — the way a synagogue search committee might present candidates for a rabbi to board members — was considered by the RCA executive committee and rejected.

“We assume the search committee looks carefully and comes up with a recommendation, and they did.” He added, “It is not the executive vice president’s job to make decisions. The decisions are made by the rabbis who run the organization.”

When he entered office in 2011, Rabbi Goldin expressed willingness to explore the issue of including rabbis in the RCA who were ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss at YCT, an issue that is still being discussed and has generated strong views on both sides. The institution does not enroll women, but Rabbi Weiss has recognized a woman, Sara Hurwitz, as a rabba, with similar duties to a rabbi, which created controversy within the RCA.

YCT has since withdrawn its application to have its rabbis accepted by the RCA.

In a brief phone interview on Monday Rabbi Dratch declined to comment about the controversy.

Rabbi Goldin, in an interview, framed the controversy as not unusual given the organization’s diverse membership. “We pride ourselves in representing many different points of view,” he said. “None of this, to me, is unexpected.”

But he acknowledged that the current situation was unprecedented.

In past years the election has taken place at the RCA’s annual convention, with voting rights extended only to those in attendance. This year voting is being allowed by mail and e-mail.

He said the process of appointing the executive vice president is now being delayed until after the board election, which means that a new slate could rescind the job offer extended to Rabbi Dratch.

On the other hand, rejection of the new slate could give Rabbi Dratch a strong mandate in the post.

Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee said while he was not privy to internal RCA politics, “The larger issue is that Modern Orthodoxy needs to play a very critical bridging role between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish community. In that sense, the people it appoints to leadership positions, would, I hope, fulfill that role.”

He said Rabbi Dratch “has been a positive force in his work in Jewish education and at his pulpits. He is very much a person who is open and willing to work with others. His [appointment] would be a very positive step.”