Conversation with…Rabbi Avi Weiss

Renowned Modern Orthodox leader in West Hartford Mar. 17

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss

WEST HARTFORD – Avraham (Avi) Weiss is an American Modern Orthodox ordained rabbi who heads the 800-family Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, New York. He is an author, teacher, lecturer, and activist. He founded the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, where he is dean, and Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women, both in Riverdale, N.Y. In June 2009, he ordained the first Orthodox woman, “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz, who serves as dean of the women’s yeshiva. He is also founder of the Modern Orthodox International Rabbinic Fellowship.
Weiss was named among the 50 most influential U.S. rabbis by Newsweek magazine over the last five consecutive years. He is the author of Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Jewish Lights, 2008). His book on prayer, Holistic Prayer: A New Guide to Jewish Spirituality, will be published this year by Toby Press.
Weiss writes regularly for leading Anglo-Jewish newspapers, including the New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal, Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and South West Heritage Press. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Law Journal, International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Tradition Magazine, Midstream Magazine, the Journal of Reform Judaism, Sh’ma, among others.
As an activist, Weiss has been vocal on many issues, including emigration and absorption of Soviet Jews, clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, opposing terrorism, supporting Israel, preserving Holocaust memorials, and exposing antisemitism. In 1992, he founded Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a grassroots coalition which engages in pro-Jewish activism.
Weiss will speak at the 125th-anniversary celebration of Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford on Sunday, Mar. 17. In addition to offering a preview of his presentation, he walked the Ledger through his current areas of interest and engagement.

Q: How has Yeshivat Maharat evolved since its founding in 2009?
A: It is a time of great joy for us. Our first graduating class is finishing this June, and already two of the three women have been placed in very important positions.
This year, we have seven incoming students. Whenever I’m at the yeshiva and have the pleasure to teach, I am so uplifted and overwhelmed by the commitment of Orthodox women to serve Am Yisrael.
There’s been pushback from some in the Orthodox community, but at a time when we need good spiritual leadership, we should be able to recruit from 100 percent of our population, not just 50 percent. I’m humbled at what these women have achieved. The Jewish community owes them an endless debt of gratitude.

Q: Given what you have accomplished in the U.S. in terms of the role and inclusion of Orthodox women, what is your take on what Women of the Wall are trying to achieve in Jerusalem, and how they are going about their quest for change?
A: I am known for being an activist for various Jewish causes. There’s no doubt about it that, in theory, the women have the right to assemble at the Kotel and that women’s prayer groups are perfectly halachic. Dr. Menachem Elon, Israeli legal scholar and Supreme Court justice, ruled on the halachic right of women to assemble and pray.
But they must also be sensitive to the fact that not every right you have should you exercise.
I believe that women have a right to wear prayer shawls at the Wall; after all, there are priests in their collars and nuns in their habits and people of different faiths in various ritual garments at the Wall, so if a Jewish woman wants to wear a tallit there, it is perfectly appropriate.
In the strongest terms, I vehemently protest against the arrest of women who do so. We need to find a better way, as this is counterproductive, and it’s critical that someone step in and mediate between the two sides. I’m very pleased that Natan Sharansky has been asked by the Prime Minister to find a solution. I think he understands these issues and is a human-rights advocate, and I’m looking for a good result.
What Women of the Wall are doing is in an activistic mold and the way of activism is like an orchestra: there are times when you need drummers, sometimes you need pianists, sometimes flutists, and these women are real drummers.
The creative challenge Am Yisrael faces today is “achdut Yisrael,” the unity of the Jewish people – and certainly at the Kotel, which is supposed to be the place of Jewish unity.
There’s a Haredi community at the Kotel 24/7 who feels differently. This is a time of such divisiveness of Am Yisrael, and I hope the leadership of both sides grant time to Natan Sharansky to sit down and work out a peaceful solution.
I was gratified to hear that the women held a Megillah-reading at the Kotel for Purim, which is very halachic, and that that no arrests were made.

Q: You recently led a protest at the Argentinian Consulate General in New York, regarding the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish communal building in Buenos Aires. What was your group challenging?
A: I am national president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, which I founded as an outgrowth of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. In 1994, I visited and became close to the Argentinian families who had suffered these tragic losses, and our relationships have developed over the last 19 years. While I was in Buenos Aires in 1994, I accused then-president Carlos Menem of covering up the crime; we now know that the Argentinian government has covered up for the perpetrators since the beginning, and Carlos Menem was later told that he would stand trial for obstruction of justice.
Now the Argentinian government is plowing ahead with plans for its parliament to ratify an agreement that its foreign minister signed with Iran to establish a “truth commission” to investigate the worst attack on a Diaspora Jewish community since the Holocaust. The protest was meant to send a message about this investigation, something that continues to this day. For Argentina to make a deal with Iran – everyone knows that the Argentinians themselves implicated Iran in 2005 and accused the current Iranian defense minister – so to make a pact with the devil is like the U.S. aligning with Al Qaeda to investigate the 9/11 attacks. This is a shameful blot on the Argentinian government.
Amcha is out there in protests when necessary. In 1989, when the Vatican wanted to build a convent at Auschwitz, our position was that the Vatican was Christianizing the death camps. We went to Auschwitz that year to protest the convent, and I sued the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Poland, Jozef Glemp, who suggested that I and my fellow protestors had tried to destroy the convent and murder the nuns living there. [The convent was eventually relocated.]
We’ve been out there on issues like that, challenging the Louis Farrakhans and David Dukes who propagate antisemitism in this country, and training rabbis and women to become spiritual leaders. With the challenge of antisemitism and physical challenges in Israel, we need the best to go into spiritual leadership.

Q: What will you address at Congregation Agudas Achim on Mar. 17?
A: I will speak about my nephew, Rabbi Ari Weiss, with great objectivity, as the beautiful gift he is, and about my brother, Mordechai [headmaster of the Bess and Paul Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield], who means the world to me and is a true model of what religious commitment is all about. The work he has done in Jewish education in New Jersey and Connecticut is so extraordinary.
I will talk about them both as models for what Jewish young men and women can aspire to do. We need to create a new culture in our community that conveys that the highest honor is to serve the Jewish community. We have to inspire more people to go into Jewish education and the rabbinate.
I will speak about the synagogue and what makes a synagogue really work. For me, a synagogue has to be holistic, and not just a place of prayer. There are prayer communities and learning communities; synagogues need to be places with a mission and core values, so that everything you do is turned outward to help the larger Jewish community and help Am Yisrael and all humankind. Within that framework, when you’re a holistic synagogue, you resonate with a spiritual message that is what we as a community should be yearning for.
We are facing so many physical challenges here – antisemitism, delegitimization of Israel – but the key really is the spiritual challenges we face.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and preparing for this talk, and I want to say something of meaning and speak to the communal leadership.

Q: What is your take on the current friction in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox Haredi and Modern Orthodox communities?
A: I believe very strongly, and am unapologetic when it comes to the key challenge facing Am Yisrael, in bringing together lay and spiritual leaders of all Jewish denominations. While we don’t agree on everything and while I may disagree with my colleagues from other denominations; we can and do learn from each other. For me the most critical value: across the board, is that, as an Orthodox rabbi, I have no monopoly on a love of Torah, a love of the people of Israel, a love of the land of Israel, and I have much to learn from my Conservative and Reform colleagues, and the reverse is true as well.
Just as I believe in this inter-relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jewish denominations, there also has to be communication between all Orthodox denominations. I’ve been very criticized by the Haredi world and it’s not pleasant.
My commitment to ahavat Yisrael and all of our people is unconditional and, notwithstanding the pushback from the Haredi world, we have a great responsibility to attract those both on the left and right.
For more information on Congregation Agudas Achim’s 125th anniversary celebration: / (860) 233-6241

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