An Open Letter to Rabbi Avi Weiss

In order to make progress around issues that touch on people’s beliefs and values, it is often necessary to touch on very sensitive issues, challenging people’s understanding of what is true and right.

Dear Rabbi Weiss,

While I was relieved to learn that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has revoked its claims against you, I have been deeply saddened by the entire episode. But I have not been surprised. In their book Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky define leadership as an act that involves “disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” In order to make progress around issues that touch on people’s beliefs and values, it is often necessary to touch on very sensitive issues, challenging people’s understanding of what is true and right. You have managed to challenge the orthodox Jewish community to look at itself very honestly, to articulate the often hazy distinctions between tradition and Jewish law, for the sake of the ultimate health and survival of that community. You have given voice to critical issues and constituencies in the orthodox community that otherwise would have been ignored or suppressed, and in the process you have sometimes disappointed people, even made them angry, threatened, or scared. This is a tell-tale sign that you have been exerting leadership, tirelessly, year after year, decade after decade, issue after issue, in our community. I think it is exceptional.

You have been at the intersection of the modern, liberal world, and the traditional, Halachic world, sometimes disappointing one side, sometimes disappointing the other, all for the sake of ensuring that our tradition maintains its integrity and vibrancy. Too often, our community swings wildly in one or the other direction. I believe that this is ultimately harmful. But your example has shown us how utterly difficult it is to truly navigate both spheres. I would like to thank you for exemplifying this type of leadership, and for modeling it. You are a symbol to the Jewish community as a whole, no matter what side we lean towards, or how we grumble or act out against you, why living a Jewish life that simultaneously allows us to be open to ourselves, to our moral compasses, to our questioning minds, and to the world in which we live, and to our Torah, our Halachic code, our history, is so valuable, and critical for our very survival.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my father’s shoulders, marching out of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) after Shabbat morning davening, trekking to the Russian mission, chanting “Free Sharansky Now!” Who knew that other kids went to shuls with Kiddush? We were nourished by our passion and commitment to get Sharansky out of a frigid jail cell beyond the iron curtain. My early childhood imagination was full of Russia. When it snowed, and I walked the few blocks to shul on Friday night with my father, my boots sinking through the snow, I thought of Sharansky in his snowy prison, and wondered if he had boots to wear. It turns out that I was being educated in empathy, and in social activism, trained from a tender age to believe that I had a responsibility, and an ability, to influence far-away worlds, to help resolve intractable conflicts. I would watch you in the early years of your leadership at the HIR, in the early years of my life, viscerally learning how “kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh,” all of Israel is profoundly interconnected, my eyes wide with disbelief when Sharansky himself showed up at our shul, free, and making the links between all those years at the Russian mission, and the man standing before me.

And this was simply way you taught, by example, a small group of Jews in Riverdale, NY, to be open to the world outside, internally driven by Torah values and practices. I remember your standing on the Bimah, your hand gently on the shoulder of whomever the Shliah Tzibur, the communal representative, leading the community in prayer, happened to be. You would stand there quietly, your presence slowly making itself felt throughout the kahal, throughout the shul. Finally it would quiet down. You would then nod, and the tefillah would continue. So you built a shul culture of participation, one in which there is very little, if no, talking, in which everyone is either singing along, or following silently, but the whole community is fully engaged. It was quite shocking to me, upon growing up and leaving home, visiting other shuls, around the United States, around the world, to find how rare and special this is. The avirah, the atmosphere, inside of the shul is a metaphor for the community you have built. Each individual feels a sense of responsibility and ability to add to the whole. Each individual shares a common sense of purpose, and is willing to put aside personal tendencies, even deeply held values, to advance that whole. The beauty and purity of the song during tefillah at HIR is an audial manifestation of this commitment.

I remember you standing at the door each Shabbat after services, shaking everyone’s hand as they walked out of the sanctuary, giving each person your full attention, even for a moment. That was the advice you gave me when I got married, when I was overwhelmed at the thought of seeing so many friends and family in one intense time and place. You advised that when engaged in conversation with one person to stay fully engaged. To pretend in that moment that nobody else is in the room. And to do so with each person, with each conversation. I cherish that advice to this day, and strive, though it is difficult, to follow it. You model looking both internally, the value of the small, of the intimate, in addition to looking externally, the importance of the big, the global.

I believe that this is partly why you have been at the forefront of the “women’s issue” in the halachic community. You have listened to girl after girl, woman after woman, heard our struggle. You have opened your heart, genuinely, to the challenge that women face, blessed and burdened with the religious, cultural, and biological responsibilities of raising children and running a home, combined with the need or desire to earn money and have a career, and the passion to be knowledgeable about and involved deeply in our Jewish life. The question of the boundaries of women’s responsibilities and power threaten the very structure of halachic Judaism, which is built upon a clear delineation between the mitzvot in which men are obligated, and those in which, most importantly, women are not obligated. This structure protects the centrality and sanctity of the family, and places the woman at the center of the home, and the man at the center of Jewish public life. You have dared to look closely at these structures and find openings, spaces, in which women can gently enter the halachic, Jewish public sphere, in which men can gently find their places in the home, so that the core values behind the halachot are preserved, and the core humanity and sanctity of both men and women celebrated. You have made “women’s issues” a communal issue, one which is the responsibility of all members of the community.

You, Rabbi Weiss, have had the courage to be fierce and creative with Torah for the sake of preserving Torah. You have been my role model, inspiring me to dedicate my professional life to striving to help our community grow, to meet its people’s changing needs, to help those who care about it to learn to adapt so that they can preserve what they love in Judaism, and help it thrive. I was blessed to grow up in a home in which my parents modeled living an engaged Jewish life, and taught me to find the joy and beauty in Jewish living. And I was doubly-blessed to grow up in your bayit, in the communal home you have created that taught me that I am responsible, and able, to shape Jewish life, to protect it, to preserve it, to let it change, to help it grow and flourish. Thank you. May you continue to be blessed and protected, may your powerful light shine and bring joy to our community, and may your work help us lift our truest faces to each other, and bring us, and even the world, towards greater wholeness and peace.

Maya Bernstein is Strategic Design Officer of UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Week.

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Comments

  1. Linda says

    Maya, what a beautiful article! Among his many leadership roles, Avi Weiss remains a symbol for those of us whose lives, like yours, were entwined with the plight of Soviet Jewry from a young age. The timing is especially poignant, as we mourn the loss of Tanya Edelstein, Hebrew teacher and courageous, undaunted leader who gained her husband Yuli’s freedom and continued to do “chayil” throughout her life in Israel.

  2. says

    Maya – an absolutely stunning piece. Thank you for sharing your grounded and thoughtful perspective with all of us. It’s given me a lot of food for thought.

  3. Stephen B says

    As an American Reform Jew, I was very moved by your beautiful tribute to a amazing visionary leader.

  4. says

    In the late 1990’s I had hit a brick wall in my attempt to finish a manuscript that would come out in 2000 as my first book, “Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue”. I had already done profiles of my own congregation, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD); B’nai Jeshurun (Manhattan); and Beth El (Sudbury, MA). I spent time working with three different Orthodox communities that would complete my study of how American synagogues could better serve a generation of spiritual seekers. Unfortunately, none of those communities trusted me, an outsider, enough to give me the kind of access I needed to write a good, ethnographic study of their respective communities.

    A friend of mine suggested that I check out Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). I was initially resistant. Though as someone who spent 25 years as a Soviet Jewry activist I admired Rabbi Weiss’s work on that front, other parts of his public activism did not coincide with my political worldview. Nonetheless, I overcame my reticence and contacted Rabbi Weiss to tell him about the book I was writing and my interest in studying his community. Suffice it to say, our time together turned out to be meaningful and profound. We found that we had much in common in the way we understood the rabbinate and the way one had to go about building intentional spiritual communities. Maya Bernstein’s beautiful recollections of her youth at HIR parallel much of what I wrote in my essay on the congregation in “Finding a Spiritual Home”.

    I was raised in an Orthodox yeshiva, ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi and most of the work I do now is trans-denominational. I am proud to count Rav Avi Weiss as one of my rebbes.

  5. Ellie Klein says

    Thank you, Maya. I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York, just a short distance from Riverdale. But it has only been in my adulthood that I have had the opportunity to learn about and understand the work of Rabbi Weiss and his students. As assistant director of Brandeis University’s BIMA and Genesis Jewish studies programs, I had special opportunities to work with students from YCT and Yeshivat Maharat. I have never met Rabbi Weiss, but his students are a testament to his character, commitment, and grace.

  6. debbie jonas says

    Dear Maya,
    What a beautiful and thoughtful letter. I remember you as that little girl on your father’s shoulders, and I am amazed at the accomplished writer you have become.
    Debbie Jonas