NEW YORK (JTA) — When Rabbi Asher Lopatin is formally installed as the new president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah on Sunday, the program will showcase what makes the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school unique in the Orthodox world.
The event’s centerpiece will be a roundtable discussion with leaders of three non-Orthodox rabbinical schools: Rabbi David Ellenson, Arnold Eisen and Rabbi Arthur Green. Such diversity is unheard of at other Orthodox rabbinic institutions.
But just as notable for who is on the panel is who is not. Lopatin will be the lone Orthodox figure — a sign of the difficulties the 13-year-old New York seminary has had in achieving mainstream Orthodox acceptance.
Lopatin said he invited Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, but Joel told him will be out of town that day. The haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued a statement condemning the roundtable, saying it “does violence” to the principle that a yeshiva should shun rabbis of non-Orthodox movements that have led Jews “down the path toward Jewish oblivion.”
For his part, Lopatin doesn’t appear too concerned with censure.
“We can’t be afraid of criticism; we have to do the right thing,” Lopatin told JTA. “Everyone’s going to criticize us anyway for everything.”
The question of how Chovevei treats non-Orthodox Jews is far more important to Lopatin than how Chovevei is treated by the Orthodox. Though Lopatin wants Chovevei connected to the Orthodox world, including haredi Jews, he says it cannot come at the cost of compromise to the yeshiva’s ideology of “open Orthodoxy.”
“What does open Orthodoxy mean?” Lopatin said. “It’s first of all feeling confident enough that you’re open to entertaining questions and challenges, you’re not afraid of them.”
Chovevei (also known by the acronym YCT), which is located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, was founded in 2000 by Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss as a liberal alternative to Y.U.’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS. The original idea was to produce more rabbis committed to filling synagogue pulpits.
But over time, with most Chovevei graduates going into non-pulpit work, the school evolved into a training ground for Orthodox rabbis interested in ministering to non-Orthodox Jews. Chovevei graduates work as hospital chaplains, Jewish educators and college campus rabbis, as well as in summer camps and Jewish organizations. About 40 percent of the school’s 87 alumni work in synagogues, many of them oriented to welcoming non-Orthodox Jews.
Weiss says the range of their work captures the essence of what open Orthodoxy is all about: reaching out to non-Orthodox Jews while remaining firmly rooted in Orthodox practice.
Chovevei’s curriculum is reflective of that approach. Rabbinical training is not limited to religious studies; nearly a quarter of the program is devoted to pastoral training and professional development.
Even within the Jewish study component, Lopatin believes students shouldn’t just get grounding in the classic Orthodox ordination topics of kosher and ritual purity laws but also in philosophy, social justice, Israel studies and gender issues. At Chovevei, a student may study both the Talmud and Amos Oz.
Lopatin is himself a product of a diverse background. He holds two rabbinical ordinations: from the late Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik of the Brisk yeshiva in Chicago and from RIETS. Before he attended Y.U., he spent five years at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He also was a Truman scholar and has been listed on Newsweek’s list of America’s 50 top rabbis.
The longtime leader of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, Lopatin was chosen as the successor to Weiss at Chovevei more than a year ago. He started his new job on July 1; the installation ceremony on Sunday is more of a celebration than a formal inauguration.
The scheduled roundtable, “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation,” reflects Chovevei’s philosophy. Ellenson is president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Eisen is the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary; Green is a former dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and now the rector of Hebrew College near Boston. Also on the panel is Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, a Reform rabbi and president of the Wexner Foundation.
“We’re bringing the leaders of the Jewish world together,” Lopatin said. “I think it’s a beautiful moment.”
In an interview last year with JTA, Chovevei board chairman Steven Lieberman said he viewed the institution’s transition from its foundational phase to Lopatin as an opportunity to build bridges to segments of the Orthodox world that have been closed to Weiss.
Weiss antagonized traditionalist Orthodox adherents (and cheered many liberal ones) when he took the unprecedented step several years ago of granting a woman, Sara Hurwitz, the title of rabba — a female version of rabbi. Weiss also launched a women’s seminary in Manhattan, Yeshivat Maharat, to ordain more Orthodox female clergy.
With Weiss at the Chovevei helm, however, the National Council of Young Israel has effectively blocked its franchise synagogues from hiring the seminary’s graduates as rabbis. Chovevei graduates also are not accredited by the main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America.
“It is still a challenge connecting Chovevei with the rest of the Orthodox world; I’m not going to deny that,” Lopatin said. “ But I think we’re moving in the right direction. I guess we have to build trust.”