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The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy

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Rabbi Asher Lopatin, center, at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Tenth Annual Tribute Dinner on March 10, 2013, at the Harmonie Club in New York City. (Three Star Photography)
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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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Nice profile. Thank you.

DSarna says:

This was a terrific article. Fair, balanced, and well-written. The best of Table. Thank you.

cipher says:

“Maimonides always said that if somebody bends a
page all the way to the right then he’s got to bend it all the way to
the left to get it to go straight,” said Harry Maryles, who, like
Lopatin, was ordained by Aaron Soloveichik. “It’s the opposite direction
here, but the question is, what can he do to maintain the character of
YCT and bring them back in the fold? I don’t know if he’s going to be
able to do that and satisfy his lay leadership, but if anyone can, it’s
Asher.”

So typical of Harry Maryles to regard YCT as being outside of “the fold” in the first place.

Lisa Liel says:

It’s true, though. It’s funny that Harry takes guff from chareidim as well as from the Post Orthodox.

I am somewhat confused.

Is the expectation that Rabbi Lopatin will carry on the legacy of Rabbi Weiss or is the expectation he will bring YCT back into the mainstream of thoughtful Orthodoxy.

What with be his practical response to the “rabba” issue.

The article above seems ambigious that

Rabbi Lopatin is known to be very progressive, but deferential to the RCA, CRC (Chicago Rabbinic Council), and other mainstream/right orthodox institutions.

I imagine the hope is that while being consistent with the vision of YCT, he can gain legitimacy for it in mainstream orthodoxy.

He is also a very knowledgable and charismatic leader with wonderful experience.

reginald thomson says:

There is no doubt that they have gone out of their way to show that they are beyond the pale of mainstream orthodoxy.

CrossWinds says:

Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize was the pinnacle of the worlds hypocrisy………

…….1 John 5:19………

We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one.

cipher says:

“Mainstream Orthodoxy” is the product of half a century of Haredi influence and intimidation. YCT is much closer to what Modern Orthodoxy was fifty years ago.

Wow, his ideological soulmates are everyone from himself leftward. Anyone else is, of course, not “progressive” enough, the worst sin of the modern mind. I suppose YU should be proud to be off his list.

is it possible to dance at two weddings simultaneously?.
I wish him well.
Personally, I hope he will stir clear of any more “rabba” controversies, it pushed Rabbi Weiss over the orthodox cliff, mesorah has flexibility but it cannot be changed by one man, greater consensus is needed.
Further Rabbi Weiss is not a Rav Moshe Feinstein, a Rav Solovetchik or a Rav Schecther.
Women must be given their opportunity to educate the generations in Torah, we live in an exciting age, but we are not conservative or reform and also not conservadox;progressive is a great thing but the Halachic process always stands paramount.
My question is, is the YCT going to be seen as orthodox under Rabbi Lopatin’s stewardship

I remember MO of 35 years ago.
people eating fish in treif restaurants, deciding for themselves what is kosher etc
much lower standard of Torah learning
Tzniut very weak among women
Men with no Tzitit, or Kipa outside shul/home
Low mikveh usage
Today, BH there has been a revolution for the better.
I do agree however,that charedization has effect our camp, which is not a good thing.

avi ortho says:

“Low mikveh usage” How could you possibly know?
“deciding for themselves what is kosher etc” where does it say an observant Jew is not entitled to use his/her own brain?

As for Avi Shafran, can he make a statement that is not a smear? Lopatin is as frum as he is.

Rebecca Klempner says:

Frankly, the influence of chareidim is one of the reasons there has been a revolution in each of the categories you list.
Even for those of us who don’t identify as chareidi, we shouldn’t blast them unilaterally.

cipher says:

Today, BH there has been a revolution for the better.

That is a matter of opinion. I could not disagree more.

cipher says:

Their influence has been disastrous for Modern Orthodoxy. Their world, despite its irresponsibly growing numbers, is collapsing – and when they go, they’ll be taking the large part of Orthodoxy with them.

TomSolomon says:

Let’s see, Lopatin advocates for gender equality, gay “marriage” and religious pluralism. And what distinguishes him from the Conservative movement?

i knew people who looked at labels and decided for themselves if it was kosher,no reference to any lists etc.
I t has nothing to do with using ones own brain. etc

Mikvehs report the number of users etc, new mikvehs have been built on the basis of increase in usage over the last 3-4 decades.

all brances in the Torah world are more observant today.
There is fanaticism in each branch, examples,by the Chareidim and the settlers on the WB.

no sector is collapsing, that is a exaggeration, some are leaving from MO, Charedim, Chabad etc ,not the end of the world, that has happened throughout the generation.
The truth is more people are learning Torah than ever before.

all sector are growing, so is the extremes in each sector, that needs addressing

I am frum, but I see excesses in all sections, Satmar is right of Genghis Khan, the settlers have become xenophobic, a section in Chabad are messianic maniacs, the Aguda look over their shoulder to the Litvishe extremists and their “Gedolim”.
But we must said Torah learning is increasing and the observance of mitzvos is ever increasing

cipher says:

Like most frum people, you confuse quantity with quality.

YCT may be the “not YU” non-Charedi seminary, but calling it “influential” is stretching the term beyond recognition

I went to his synagogue often in Chicago. He’s a good man. Never saw Emanuel. Not even once

altershmalter says:

Wish that Rav Moshe were still with us…his measured analyses and practical interpretations of halacha were so ahead of their time…seems like we have regressed by trying to standardize, pigeon-hole and criticize instead of seeking common ground solutions.

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The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy