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Rabbis of LA | Pini Dunner: The Orthodox Optimist

Dunner projects that classic, conservative, immersive Judaism of the kishkes. He is thoroughly traditional, and in a sense, unself-critical, steeped in the credos of Jewish history, learning and observance to the point of enchantment.
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October 27, 2021
Rabbi Pini Dunner

To engage Pini Dunner on the subject of his Judaism is to time travel backwards and forwards into Jewish history.  

It usually starts with his illustrious rabbinic lineage: Both his father and grandfather were prominent European rabbis, though his father, an international businessman, led Jewish advocacy organizations rather than a congregation. But then the story stretches wider — to the mother born in 1941 in the Netherlands — and becomes wilder — detailing how Dunner’s maternal grandfather, a cheesemaker, used his contacts in the chemical industry to obtain bomb materials for the Dutch resistance in exchange for ration cards. It occurred to this wise grandfather that the only way to protect Dutch Jews in hiding was to lessen the material burden on their often ambivalent non-Jewish hosts. By the end of the war, Dunner told me, his grandfather had saved some 750 Jews.  

“I always had this sense about the burden of history,” Dunner, the English-born Orthodox rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, said. “I think one of the feeble aspects of youth is that we are quick to discard those things that were meaningful to previous generations, but I always had this sense that Jewish history amounted to a charge in life.”

Dunner projects that classic, conservative, immersive Judaism of the kishkes. He is thoroughly traditional, and in a sense, unself-critical, steeped in the credos of Jewish history, learning and observance to the point of enchantment. He deploys his commitment to Judaism in a multitude of ways: pulpit rabbi, scholar, author, YouTube teacher, Israel advocate. “I have a very wide portfolio of activities that I’m engaged in as a communicator and educator,” he told me. “There is nothing I will not do in my attempt to give meaning to Jewish identity and help perpetuate and strengthen Judaism and Jews around the world.”

“Jewish history tells us that Jewish life is not going to die. It may morph from one thing to another, priorities may change, but Judaism doesn’t change.”

In his articulate, accented English, Dunner, 51, regaled me with stories from the past. He recounted with pride how his grandparents went to the mikvah under cover of night during Nazi occupation. He described his paternal grandfather’s imprisonment in East Prussia and escape to London. He knew, in great detail, how all his many relatives in the Diaspora flourished and then didn’t, how some migrated to Europe, some to America, and how all yearned to return to the land of Israel.

Some might think this preoccupation with history would inspire cynicism or concern about the Jewish future. But instead, Dunner tells a story about an old friend who used to go around to London synagogues fundraising for Jewish non-profits with a lecture entitled, “The Jewish World: Reasons to be Cheerful.”  

“There hasn’t been an era since the beginning of modern Jewish history when there weren’t doomsayers telling us all that Jewish life was over,” Dunner said with the self satisfaction of hindsight. “And I’m not talking about people getting killed — the Holocaust came as a shock to everybody. I’m talking about people saying the displacement of Jews to the United States would kill the Jewish world; that Zionism would be the death knell because cultural nationalism is not Jewish; that the loss of Yiddish as a central language would be the end of Jewish life; that uprooting all the Jews from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East would be ruinous. Everything has been about destroying Jewish life and yet here we are, at least 250 years since Moses Mendelssohn, and Jewish life is still thriving. Now, go figure.”

I ask Dunner to elucidate one “reason to be cheerful” about the Jewish future. So he tells me a story — about Christians.

Several years ago, Dunner helped organize a trip to Israel for Evangelical Christian leaders as part of his work with the Israel Christian Nexus. On his list of recommended sites, Dunner included an unusual suggestion for Christians: Mir Yeshiva in Mea Shearim, one of the largest yeshivas in the world in one of the most militantly religious neighborhoods in the world. Bishop Robert Stearns, head of the Nexus, immediately said yes, that’s where the group should go. So Dunner found himself in the unenviable position of having to convince Mir’s Rosh Yeshiva that he should allow a group of Christian pastors into the sacrosanct Jewish House of Study.

“There was a very long pause when I called him,” Dunner recalled. “Then he said, ‘I cannot officially endorse that, but if you come after 10 p.m., [the yeshiva] is half empty and if you go there at that time it won’t cause a stir. But I never spoke to you…’”

Among the Charedim in Israel, Christians are still viewed with great suspicion due to a long history of Christian anti-Semitism, blood libels and blame, Inquisitions, forced conversions and the like. But on that night, 30 pastors poured into the Jerusalem Beit Midrash where 100 or so boys were still studying and according to Dunner, it was a lovefest. They opened a page of Talmud together and engaged in conversation. On the way out, a prominent pastor with a congregation in the tens of thousands told Dunner he had “met Jesus” in that yeshiva. Two students had asked the pastor all kinds of pointed questions, forcing him to defend his beliefs. 

According to Dunner, this pastor said he had never had to defend his views before. Gospel is gospel. But it occurred to him that Jesus defends his ideas in the gospels, arguing with his interlocutors in much the same way those two yeshiva boys had argued with the pastor. “He realized, ‘Jesus must have studied at Mir Yeshiva!’” Dunner said. 

“That was one of the most remarkable occurrences of my life,” he continued. “That is the power of the integration of different religious groups. Once you meet each other, you get a sense that what we share is more important than what we disagree about.

“So who am I to be a predictor of doom and gloom vis á vis the Jewish world? I subscribe to history. And Jewish history tells us that Jewish life is not going to die. It may morph from one thing to another, priorities may change, but Judaism doesn’t change.”


Fast Takes with Pini Dunner

Danielle Berrin: What’s currently on your night table?

Pini Dunner: A book about Ahad Ha’am

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

PD: “Fauda.”

DB: Your day off looks like…

PD: The same as my day on.

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

PD: Pray at the Kotel

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

PD: I’m a youngest child. 

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

PD: V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself. 

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

PD: Apathy.

DB: Guilty pleasure?

PD: Schmaltz herring.

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

PD: Cholent.

DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…

PD: Studying in yeshiva.

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