Largest IRF Conference turns out to honor Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

A growing rabbinical organization recently held its largest conference to date in large part to honor a major figure in American Jewish life. Taking place May 22-24 at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, the eighth conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship was attended by upwards of 100 people.  While the conference was a professional conference with sessions devoted to colleagues being able to discuss matter pertaining to the field, the focus of the conference was on particular issues from the thought of Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (or, more simply, Rav Yitz, as he was commonly referred to throughout the conference).

With the theme of the conference being “Exploring the Teaching and Work of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Its Meaning for Us Today”, the first of these sessions on Rav Yitz consisted of separate talks that were introduced by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Feigelson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rav Yitz' work. The other talks included Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn speaking on interfaith dialogue, Rabba Yaffa Epstein speaking on women, and Rabbi David Jaffe speaking about mussar.

A separate talk on “Orthodoxy and American Public Life: Critical Reflections on R' Yitz' Legacy” was delivered by guest speaker, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who remarked at the outset of his talk that “speaking about R Yitz' legacy in front of R' Yitz is challenging.” In his talk, Dr. Kurtzer focused on Rabbi Greenberg's thought on the interplay of politics, power, Israel, and the Holocaust. Should rabbis speak about political issues without taking a partisan side? Is it possible? Are rabbis simply pundits? Why not have rabbis just speak about what they know – just Judaism and not Israel? He pointed out the huge challenge in how to speak moral truths without getting locked into a particular political position.

However, Dr. Kurtzer noted that people come to shul and need to hear about the issues they care about.  Dr. Kurtzer also pointed out that a critical feature of Modern Orthodoxy has been much more affirmatively Zionist than other denominations, especially in that it was quicker to align with Zionism than the other movements. Dr. Kurtzer also noted that the challenge of speaking with ambivalence towards certain political issues, since “ambivalence sounds like weakness to American Jews.”

These talks culminated in a phenomenal talk given by Rav Yitz, himself. While Rav Yitz stated that he was uncomfortable with being honored, he eventually gave in, identifying his main justification for accepting because it would give the IRF conference an attendance boost, since he believes IRF is critical to American Jewry. “I hope the most important outcome is not to come and hear me, but that you got to meet each other and come together,” Rav Yitz said.  In his talk, Rav Yitz spoke about key orienting events in Jewish history, such as the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the destruction of the Temples, the Holocaust, and the founding of the State of Israel. In his talk, he also pointed out that “we need a stronger Modern Orthodoxy.”

Presenting Rav Yitz with an award, B'nai David-Judea's Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who is also the past president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), noted the profound impact of Rav Yitz' thought and thanked him for his involvement with the organization, especially being involved in enriching the internal conversations amongst the IRF members through his thoughtful contributions on the IRF listserv.

Reflecting on how well the conference went, Rabbi Jason Herman, the executive director of the IRF, said “I think it was the most successful conference we have had.”  “It was truly inspiring to honor Rav Yitz for his rabbinic leadership and mentorship,” said Rabbi Zachary Truboff, an officer in the IRF. “Rav Yitz has committed years to articulating a Jewish perspective on principled pluralism and it was amazing to see how that lives and breathes in the IRF.”

The talks by and about Rav Yitz were recorded and will be going online at Targum Shlishi’s The conference was sponsored by an anonymous donor and by Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation. LA-area participants were Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnei David Judea, Rabbi Raif Melhado of Kahal Joseph, and Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B'nai David-Judea from LA, as well as the present author from of SoCal Jewish Student Services and SoCal Jewish Young Adult Enrichment in Long Beach.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan, a member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, is the Alevy Campus Rabbi for SoCal Jewish Student Services and Jewish Life Engineer for SoCal Jewish Young Adult Enrichment.  He resides in Long Beach with his wife and four children. He is on Twitter at @RabbiDrew.

Avi Weiss on living the ‘dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open’

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man who coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” — referring to a more inclusive and liberal version of Orthodox Judaism — is no stranger to controversy. 

He left his post at Yeshiva University in 1999 and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox yeshiva in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, N.Y. And when the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the country, didn’t budge from its refusal to accept rabbis ordained solely by his school, Weiss allowed his membership to lapse. 

Ten years after opening Chovevei, Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a female Orthodox seminary that trains women as Jewish spiritual leaders. When he gave Sara Hurwitz the title “rabba” in 2010, the right wing of the Orthodox world sharply criticized Weiss. He has since stopped using the title, but the school’s graduates continue to take up clergy positions at Orthodox synagogues across the country. In May, B’nai David-Judea Congregation announced the appointment of Morateinu (“our teacher”) Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a Maharat graduate, to the synagogue’s clergy. 

Weiss, 71, also has been an outspoken pro-Israel activist, even getting arrested in 2011 when he protested a Palestinian statehood bid outside the United Nations building. Like many Jews of his generation, his activism began with the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s; Weiss recently published a memoir of his work during that era, “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.”

Although he no longer runs either Chovevei or the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the synagogue he led from 1973 until this past July, don’t ask Weiss if he’s in retirement. “I don’t think of myself as retired,” he said. “I’d like to retire the word ‘retire.’ ” 

Weiss, who lives in New York, met with the Journal during a recent visit to Los Angeles and spoke about the evolution of Orthodox Judaism as well as where he thinks things are headed. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Jewish Journal: You said you’re living a dream come true. What is it?

Rabbi Avi Weiss: The dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open, that’s inclusive, that on the one hand is Orthodox, but [also] open and nonjudgmental and pluralistic. In 1990, if somebody asked me what would the scene look like 25 years later, I couldn’t have imagined the growth that we’ve had.

JJ: What does “open” mean as it pertains to Orthodox Judaism? Yeshiva University (Y.U.) is Modern Orthodox — isn’t it pretty open?

AW: The term “Modern Orthodox” has not been used by Y.U. for a long time. Y.U., since 1978, has been using the term “Centrist Orthodox.” … Modern Orthodoxy was created in the ’50s and the ’60s to make a statement that you could be Orthodox and yet modern — you could embrace secular studies. … I think there are different strains within Orthodoxy. There’s Chasidic Orthodoxy, there’s Agudah Orthodoxy, there’s this and that Orthodoxy, and I think, for me, what an Orthodoxy that’s open is about now, the primary issue is inclusiveness. That’s what it’s about — who is in and who is not in. 

And for me, Open Orthodoxy … is Orthodoxy [that] is uncompromising in its Orthodox commitment. I believe in what’s called Torah min hashamayim. I believe the Torah was written by God. I believe in the process of development of the way halachah evolves based on prior binding law and how change comes about. When we gave the Torah to women to carry throughout the women’s section, I wrote … a very carefully thought-through halachic piece on the right of women to carry the Torah, to read the megillah, to engage in prayer services. 

So I can’t talk about “open” without talking about doing it within the ambit of Orthodoxy. It’s often the case that when you say “Orthodox,” the last thing you think is “open,” and when you say “open,” the last thing you think about is “Orthodox.” Normally, Orthodoxy is associated with “closed.” To me, that’s the challenge. Can I be uncompromising in my halachic commitment and yet open and inclusive of women in spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding … what the Torah says about homosexuality — inclusive of the gay community, [too]. 

JJ: Some leaders in the right wing of the Orthodox movement would say that you’re deviating from tradition too much to be called Orthodox. What would you say to them?

AW: Look, the leadership within the RCA is made up of some of my dear friends. I was a member of the RCA, until recently, for 47 years. I can only tell you that the RCA never once visited Chovevei Torah, and it’s irresponsible on their part. They lose out. They’re losing out on some of the finest rabbis who are now serving in the Orthodox Jewish community in America. … It’s more political than anything else. The RCA’s got a voice and I’m glad there are other voices, like the voice of the IRF [International Rabbinical Fellowship, co-founded by Weiss] and Chovevei Torah.

JJ: How do you respond to the argument that having women play a larger spiritual role in shul is a deviation from tradition and therefore not Orthodox?

AW: There are many women who are serving in spiritual leadership positions who have come out of Maharat, and the school is growing and there are more leaders who are going to come out. And it’s not just Yeshivat Maharat. … The truth of the matter is, in the RCA itself and in the Charedi world, there are many women … who serve as spiritual leaders and it’s a matter of, what do you call it? … There is no barrier that would prevent a woman from studying what a man studies for semichah [ordination], and unapologetically we grant semichah; we ordain women. What they’re called? That’s a matter that communities have to decide.

JJ: Could this be construed as watering down halachic standards?

AW: Quite the contrary. I think it’s sanctifying halachic standards. Halachah is not a noun; it’s a verb. Halachah comes from the word halach, which means it’s supposed to take us somewhere and it’s supposed to take us to living a life of kedushah [holiness], living a life of tzedakah and mishpat, righteousness and justice. … And without compromising halachah, I think one can and must live halachah within that larger context.

I think it’s going to be left up to historians to look back and see and decide what happened. … We’re right in the midst of something that’s evolving. Something is clearly happening. … When Rabbi Mark Dratch of the RCA appears at a memorial service held in memory of the young woman who was murdered at that gay pride parade [in Jerusalem], that’s an enormous step forward. It’s something the RCA never did. … There’s no doubt that we’re having [a] larger impact. …

The reason there’s such a pushback is because the ideas really resonate. … Around the country, I find that Jews are looking for a Judaism that’s anchored, that has tradition, that has history as long as it’s not frozen, as long as it’s not stagnant. And the flip side of that is people want something open, as long as it has parameters. They’re looking for that balance, and that, for me, is what we’re about.

JJ: What do you predict is the future of Orthodox Judaism and denominational Judaism in the United States?

AW: I think that Yeshiva University Orthodoxy — let me call it that for a moment — over the years has been moving precipitously to the right. … That’s why Chovevei was created. At the same time, I do think that the Conservative movement has moved left and I think Reform is moving right, certainly in the area of ritual. And I’m one of those who does believe that Conservative and Reform [are] coming closer and closer, and in the breach I think lies what I call “Open Orthodoxy.” 

It’s not easy to create a new rabbinic institution. It’s not easy to create a Chovevei, a Maharat — especially when one considers the politics of our community. And what we’ve done in 15 years, you could only have had the success that, thank God we have had, if the ideas resonate. It struck a chord.

Moving and Shaking: Ziering family honored, IRF elects new president, JFS honors former president

Marilyn Ziering and Placido Domingo meet at Temple Beth Am’s gala honoring the Zierings. Photo by Steve Cohn Photography

Temple Beth Am honored the Ziering family for its generosity to the Los Angeles Jewish community, Israel, the arts and numerous philanthropic organizations around the world on May 29 with a concert gala that featured performances by Placido Domingo, Melissa Manchester and Cantor Magda Fishman.

“Giving back was not a choice; it was a necessity,” Marilyn Ziering said, accepting her award on stage with her four children — Michael, Roseanne, Ira and Amy — at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. 

The event — titled “Nobody Does It Better” — drew rabbis, cantors and community leaders. Beth Am’s Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld made the presentation to the honorees.

Among many highlights, Spanish tenor Domingo performed “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss Me a Lot”). Following Domingo’s first performance, Kligfeld quipped, “The real question is: ‘Can he do Kol Nidre?’” 

Marilyn’s late husband, Sigi Ziering, was a German-born Holocaust survivor and founder of the international medical supplies company Diagnostic Products Corp. He was a past president of Beth Am and served in lay leadership roles with American Jewish University (known as University of Judaism at the time) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky

The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), a Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, recently elected congregation B’nai David-Judea’s Rav Yosef Kanefsky as its president.

The group of Orthodox rabbis who come together for serious study of Torah and halachah, named Kanefsky, former secretary of IRF, president during the rabbinic organization’s annual conference. The event was held in New York on May 20-21.

Kanefsky, whose congregation is located in Pico-Robertson, said he welcomed the opportunity to lead an Orthodox organization that has “an alternative voice, one that is far more embracing of other kinds of Jews, far more sensitive to our relationships with non-Jews, far more open to our acceptance of the strides women are making within the Orthodox community.”

His appointment was effective immediately following the conference. 

From left: JFS Los Angeles Board President Terry Friedman, honoree David O. Levine, philanthropist Anita Hirsh and JFS Los Angeles CEO Paul Castro. Photo by Jonah LIght

Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles honored its former president, David O. Levine, at the organization’s 20th annual awards dinner on June 3. 

Levine received the JFS Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award for his dedication and commitment to JFS Los Angeles. A member of the board since 2004, he previously chaired the JFS facilities and public policy committees and served as president of the board of directors from 2010 to 2012.

In addition to Levine’s extensive involvement with civic, religious and philanthropic causes, the JFS honoree has served as chief of staff to real estate developer Jerry Epstein since 1987. 

Held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the event was organized by co-chairs Shana Passman and Tami Kupetz Stapf, and it featured musical entertainment by Hershey Felder (“George Gershwin Alone”).

For nearly 160 years, JFS has provided social services to individuals and families of all ages, ethnicities and religions, regardless of their ability to pay. JFS programs include the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program; the Café Europa social club for Holocaust survivors and the Aleinu Family Resource Center, which assists with substance abuse, domestic violence and more.

From left: Outgoing NCJW/LA President Amy Straus and incoming NCJW/LA President Shelli Dodell. Photo courtesy of NCJW/LA.

The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) installed Shelli Dodell as its incoming president during its annual meeting, board installation and volunteer awards event on June 2. The organization also named its 2013-2014 board of directors.

A grass-roots group of volunteers and advocates, NCJW works for social justice on behalf of women, children and families. It owns and operates Council Thrift Shops, which are a key funding source for NCJW/LA programs and services throughout the city.

A NCJW/LA lay leader, Dodell has previously served on NCJW/LA’s board of directors and as vice president of its Women Helping Women program, which offers counseling services, support groups, an annual clothing giveaway and more.

Sunday’s event took place at the NCJW/LA Council House on Fairfax Avenue.

From left: Debbie Boteach, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Dr. Mehmet Oz, David Sterling. Award Recipeint Oz poses with Boteach, his wife Debbie and gala host Sterling before the event. Photo by Andrew Walker/Getty Images.

Jewish community leaders, philanthropists, cultural figures and others turned out for the The Inaugural Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala this month.

The June 4 event at the Marriot Marquis in New York City featured Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as the evening’s keynote speaker.

Honorees included Eli Wiesel, who received the Champion of Jewish Spirit award; Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who were named the Champions of Jewish Identity and Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was recognized as a Champion of Human Life. Technology investor Kevin Bermeister and David Sterling, chairman of Sterling and Sterling, co-hosted.

Called “the most famous rabbi in America” by The Washington Post, Boteach recently published his newest bestseller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Meanwhile, Holocaust survivor Wiesel is the author of more than 50 books, including “Night;” American casino magnate Adelson has made more than $100 million in contributions to Birthright Israel and Oz is a famous surgeon, author and television personality.

Proceeds benefited American Friends of Rambam Medical Center (AFORAM) and This World: The Values Network. Based in New York, AFORAM aims to support and support The Rambam Health Care Campus, one of the premiere medical institutions in Israel. Build around the teachings of Boteach, The Values Network uses mass media to bring Jewish values into the mainstream culture.

From left: Sheldon Adelson, Miriam Adelson. Gala honorees the Adelsons pose on the red carpet before the event. Photo by Andrew Walker/Getty Images.

Rabbi Joshua Fass delivers the keynote address at Yeshiva University's 82nd commencement exercises. Photo courtesy of Yeshiva University.

Yeshiva University (YU) awarded an honorary degree to alumnus Rabbi Joshua Fass last month.

“Heroically and astonishingly, YU transmits a unique and noble approach, a derekh ha-chayim [way of life], a mesorah [tradition] that resonates this extraordinary synergy,” Fass said on May 30, delivering the keynote address during YU’s 82nd commencement exercises. Hundreds of students from YU graduate schools were presented their degrees, before YU President Richard Joel conferred an honorary degree upon Fass.

The ceremony took place at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Committed to helping Diaspora Jews move to Israel, Fass is co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. Since its founding in 2002, the organization has helped more than 36,000 Western immigrants actualize their dream of settling in the Jewish State.

Based in New York and serving more 6,400 students, YU undergraduate schools offer a dual curriculum comprising Jewish studies, liberal arts and science courses.

Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more, as well as local events that featured leaders from the Jewish and Israeli communities. Got a tip? E-mail it to