The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi
Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy
In Chicago, Lopatin is credited with reviving the Orthodox community in Lakeview. “He knew he’d need an eruv and a mikveh and a school, and he built those things,” said Robert Matanky, a lawyer who helped Lopatin secure an eruv in the 1990s, shortly after Lopatin was named rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel. Lopatin and his wife, Rachel Tessler, were instrumental in founding the Chicago Jewish Day School, a community school that opened in 2003, and they have been aggressive about expanding kosher options in their area, from arranging a Shabbat ice-cream exchange with a local sweet shop to helping open a nonprofit kosher barbecue restaurant in Lakeview.
He has also been aggressive about reaching across denominational lines. On a sabbatical, Lopatin conducted what he described as a “Great Shuls” tour that included stops at B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, where David Wolpe is rabbi. In Chicago, Lopatin routinely participated in round tables with haredi rabbis, and he founded the day school in cooperation with Reform and Conservative congregations. Last winter, he signed on to a letter for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union alongside Shoshanah Conover, a Reform rabbi, and Michael Siegel, a Conservative rabbi—both of whom sit on the rabbinic advisory committee of the day school—supporting same-sex marriage legislation. “Asher called me from Israel to help me with the language so he could sign it,” Conover told me. “It was incredibly brave. He believes in the issues, and he’s willing to walk the walk.”
When Weiss started considering a succession plan, four years ago, Lopatin was one of the first people he considered. He knew Lopatin through a rabbis’ discussion group that had preceded the founding of the yeshiva and had traveled with Lopatin to Turkey, where he admired the younger man’s fluency with a world that had nothing to do with the rabbinate. But it was his son, Dov, a member of Lopatin’s synagogue in Chicago, who convinced him that Lopatin was the right person to carry on his legacy. “Asher is Dov’s rabbi, and it’s not simple to be Dov’s rabbi,” Weiss told me. Dov Weiss and Lopatin overlapped for a year at Yeshiva University and were also both Wexner fellows, but their friendship blossomed after the younger Weiss moved to Chicago to pursue an academic career outside the rabbinate. “I really advocated for him,” Dov Weiss told me. “He reminds me of my dad in so many ways—the way his home is always open, the human dimension, the way he can inspire people. Whenever you speak to either of them you feel like you’re the only person in the world who exists, that they’ll do anything for you.”
Initially, Lopatin wasn’t interested in the job. He was planning to move to Israel, where he had ambitions to help start a new community in the Negev, called Carmit, with 200 other American Jewish families. “We really wanted to make aliyah to Israel,” Lopatin told me. “It was very precious.” But after his younger daughter Cara was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, the plan was shelved so that they could focus on her medical care. By then, having already prepared his synagogue board for his departure, the idea of joining Weiss’ community in Riverdale seemed like a good substitute for the adventure in the Negev. “As far as changing the course of Orthodoxy and Judaism in America,” Lopatin told me, “you’ve got to be in New York.”
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah occupies the upper floors of a sand-colored building along the Henry Hudson Parkway, just across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek from Manhattan’s northernmost reaches. The ground floor of the building belongs to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, known as the Bayit, which Weiss founded in 1971. Its 850 members include Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and his wife, Ruth Schwartz. Every Saturday, they come to pray in a soaring space with a blue ceiling and an ark shaped like a Torah scroll. The bimah juts into the center of the space, in the classical style, putting Weiss, Hurwitz, and other clergy in the middle of the congregation. The chairs surrounding the bimah aren’t fixed, and sometimes, Weiss told me, he makes his male and female congregants switch sides of the mechitza, just for the sake of it. The proximity of the school and the shul is intentional: Weiss told me he thinks of Chovevei as an educational institution along the lines of a teaching hospital, rather than a clinical research institution.
In June, Weiss will move his office downstairs, ceding the upstairs space to Lopatin. “We began as a reaction,” Weiss told me when I visited in March. “Unfortunately there’s been a move in Orthodoxy to the centralization of rabbinic power, and that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous in Israel in the chief rabbinate, it’s come here in America to the Modern Orthodox world, and the vision of Chovevei is to move away from that centralization.” The 800-pound gorilla he was referring to was Yeshiva University, a few stops south on the 1 train in Washington Heights, but it encompassed the authorities of the Rabbinical Council of America, the central union of American Orthodox rabbis, which does not accept the graduates of Chovevei for membership. Weiss, sitting in his shul, grew reflective. “Were I not a political activist who chose to operate outside of the establishment, I don’t think Chovevei would have been created,” he told me. “You begin from the outside. Judaism started from the outside—Abraham was a lonely figure.” He paused. “You begin from the outside, because that’s the way things start,” he went on. “But if you remain on the fringe then you won’t make it.”
Chovevei is now finishing its 13th year—its bar mitzvah year. It has graduated 86 rabbis, the vast majority of whom work as rabbis in a constellation of institutions: synagogues, Hillels, schools. Many wind up in places where they are the only Orthodox person in town: The rabbi of the only Orthodox synagogue in Alabama, in Birmingham, is a graduate; so is the chief rabbi of Finland. “Most of my congregants aren’t observant, but they’re fifth generation members of the shul,” Uri Topolsky, the rabbi of Beth Israel in Metairie, outside New Orleans, told me. Part of Lopatin’s appeal as the head of a seminary that is, at least in the Orthodox world, uniquely focused on pastoral training is that he has already succeeded at the job he is preparing his students to do: being a solo act and successfully selling Orthodoxy to people who aren’t totally sure they want all parts of it. “The first time we actually met was at a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, and I asked him something like, ‘What do you need to be a good rabbi?’ ” Hurwitz told me. “And he said, ‘You have to be able to give good drash, to inspire people on a Saturday morning.’ ” But it’s also about building a community that feels fresh and welcoming, which Lopatin has managed to do in Chicago. “I just don’t know if there’s going to be room for banal rabbis,” he told me, sitting in an empty office in Chovevei’s administrative suite. “Rabbis, to be successful, need to be scrappy, out of the box thinkers,” he went on. “They’re not just tending communities, they’re taking Torah values and putting them into practice, laying the foundation for a more inclusive Judaism that is going to touch people.”
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