In January 2008, Jewish Action invited seven prominent veteran rabbis, with a combined 350 years of leadership in the Orthodox community, to reflect on the unpredictable growth and remarkable evolution of American Jewry. The participants were Rabbis Rafael Grossman, Joseph Grunblatt, David Hollander, Dr. Gilbert Klaperman, Ralph Pelcovitz, Fabian Schonfeld and Max Schreier. The discussion, which was moderated by Orthodox Union President Stephen J. Savitsky and took place at the Orthodox Union (OU) headquarters in Manhattan, spanned a variety of topics including the frightening pace of intermarriage, outreach to the already frum and the non-frum, the role of the North American rabbi and the decline of the cathedral synagogue.
Subsequently, at its 110th National Dinner in April, the OU honored each of these distinguished leaders with the Lifetime Rabbinic Achievement Award for his contribution to Jewish life.
The following are excerpts from the wide-ranging discussion. We hope you will be inspired by the timeless wisdom in the pages ahead. To order a DVD of the entire discussion, e-mail email@example.com. Comments and responses to this discussion are welcome on Jewish Action’s web site, www.ou.org/jewish_action.
Steve Savitsky: What have been the most significant changes in American Orthodox life you’ve witnessed since you entered the rabbinate? What have been the most significant changes in the rabbi’s functions?
Rabbi Dr. Gilbert Klaperman: In 1950, I came to Lawrence [New York] and found a very interesting congregation—patrician, aristocratic people. They were very fine Jews, but they knew very little about the religious requirements of Judaism. They helped build the synagogue. Together, we built the first yeshivah in Nassau County. We [helped] build the first eruv in the county. We had a great community. But we did not have talmidei chachamim. We have them today in our congregation—I think that’s a significant change.
Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz: When we came into our positions, a half-century ago, we found—those of us who were in truly Torah-observant shuls—that the older generation was more frum than the younger generation. Today, the younger generation is more frum than the older generation.
Rabbi David Hollander: Among other significant changes is the upsurge of Torah learning for men and women of all ages. Overall, there’s a wonderful change in favor of yahadus haTorah. And for that change, the OU is entitled to tremendous recognition and credit.
Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt: There have been various changes in American Jewish life, for better or for worse. In some communities, the stability of the family has been seriously challenged. We find many more dysfunctional families in the Orthodox community, and more divorces than in the past. On the other hand, we frequently encounter a gap between the older and the younger generations. Many people who are members of this Orthodox organization [the OU] have children who will probably not daven in an OU shul, but rather in a shtiebel. [Many of them will] sit and learn. So certainly, there have been some very radical changes.
Rabbi Rafael Grossman: I spent most of my years in rabbanus away from New York. There was a time when every community in the United States with at least two- to three-thousand Jews had an Orthodox shul. Those shuls have tragically and painfully disappeared. This is the negative aspect of the last fifty years. . . . [In] town after town, city after city, where there were pulpits for Orthodox rabbanim, Orthodoxy no longer exists. But, on the other hand, more than half of the shuls that were affiliated with the OU fifty years ago, outside of New York, were without mechitzahs, and with other deviations that were seriously problematic. [Today, this is no longer the case.] What brought about this tremendously positive change, and the dawning of a potentially great future for communities in the remote parts of America, or at least remote from New York? Firstly, of course, chinuch [education]. Secondly, NCSY. The achievements of NCSY are nothing less than remarkable.
Rabbi Max Schreier: [The rabbis of fifty years ago] were respected because they were gedolei Torah, but they didn’t have a community to work with. I remember when I arrived in Rochester, New York, the story was Reform A, Conservative B, and Orthodoxy a poor third. But the commitment of Orthodox rabbis in general was very great, and these rabbis functioned as they did within limitations of communal influence. The congregants were not very well educated, by and large, with the exception of those who came from religious communities.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld: Basically, the changes came about with siyata d’Shamaya [help from Above]. It’s the natural way of Torah to inspire people, to cause them to rethink what life is all about. It was the drive towards Jewish education—the yeshivah movement, the day school movement—that brought about a very significant change. People call it “the shift to the Right.” I don’t know of a Right, or Left or Center. This is a question of labeling, which is wrong. I’ve always been opposed to the use of [the term] “Centrist Orthodoxy.” . . . It’s Torah Judaism.
A rabbi’s job has also changed tremendously; [he is no longer] somebody who [just] answers occasional questions about Ya’aleh Veyavo, Retzeih and Al Hanissim. Today, the rabbi has to be a qualified psychiatrist, psychologist and, above all, social worker—which is really what Moshe Rabbeinu was. Yisro’s criticism of Moshe Rabbeinu was “You’re too much of everything.” Our role has changed tremendously. We are involved in people’s lives, in their parnassah [livelihood]. I don’t think that rabbanim ever had this kind of a challenge. The idea of the rav [spending all of his time] sitting and learning has changed. Rabbi Eliezer Silver said that once, when he was rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the [shul] president walked in, and found him learning. “Rav Silver, what’s doing?” he asked. “I’m learning,” he answered. “You’re learning?! You’re a rabbi already—you don’t have to learn anymore. If you don’t know how to learn, why did you become a rabbi?” asked the president. [While the rabbi’s need to learn] hasn’t stopped, the rabbi is [now required] to get involved in every aspect of Jewish life.
Mr. Savitsky: One of the greatest problems facing Jewry is intermarriage. What do you think can be done to stem the tide of assimilation?
Rabbi Grunblatt: Frankly, I don’t think there’s too much that we can do. [Years ago,] there were many Jews who were not observant, but you had a sense they were Yidden. But this [ethnic identification] is practically gone, and without true Torah commitment there’s very little sensitivity about [maintaining a Jewish identity]. The liberal branches have attempted, of course [to deal with assimilation]. They’re constantly writing in the media about accepting intermarried couples, and working with them. But essentially, I think it is a losing battle and [there is] very little that we can do for people who have reached the point where being Jewish doesn’t matter anymore.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: [The Jewish people] always [suffered from] intermarriage. But within the Jewish community, there was never legitimacy granted to this phenomenon—which is what has happened in our country, slowly but surely, over the years. When we began in the rabbinate, we, not only the Orthodox, but also the Reform, the Conservative and the secular agreed that intermarriage was beyond the pale. Over the last half century, there has been an encroachment upon the invisible barrier between us and the non-Jewish world. Intermarriage has slowly been granted legitimacy, and it isn’t that far a distance from legitimacy to acceptance. And there’s also a connection, an opening from acceptance to approval. And therefore, what we have to do—this is something that the OU and all Jewish organizations have to work on—is to reinstitute total disapproval, and the refusal to accept or to legitimize any kind of intermarriage. Once you give intermarriage legitimacy, there is no argument left for us to be able to convince our young people to reject it.
Rabbi Klaperman: There’s another aspect of this issue that we’re not touching on. And that is, How do we talk to our children about the problem of intermarriage? In other words, to simply say that we will not grant legitimacy is not sufficient. We have to instill in our children a love for Judaism. We have to create a sense of emotional relationship [to Judaism], of pride and joy. We have to talk to them not only about Jewish tradition, but about great Jews who brought credit to us. We have to talk to them about an Albert Einstein, a Jew who brought great glory to our people. We have to say that there were great Jewish justices in the Supreme Court; there are great Jews in Congress.
Mr. Savitsky: We have to have a shift from “guilt to pride.” Guilt doesn’t sell, guilt doesn’t work. You have to have pride.
Rabbi Schonfeld: The only thing we can do is what the OU’s doing, the RCA’s doing, the yeshivahs are doing—and that is, get people to not only study Torah, but to also practice Torah. You’re not going to stop intermarriage simply by saying to people, “Don’t do this. It’s wrong. It’s bad for us.” Those arguments have no value. We need to infuse [Jews] with a spirit of loyalty to Torah, not just within the synagogue alone—in every part of Jewish communal life.
Rabbi Grossman: The vast majority [of American Jews] have no Jewish identity. And how do we deal with it? First deal with the issue! Sure, if we can get everyone to put on tefillin, do mitzvos and keep and learn Torah that would be wonderful! But that is not doable. Ve’al tomar davar she’i efshar lishmoa. What is doable is to emphasize the most important aspect of our being, and that is Peoplehood. We are disappearing. The vast majority of American Jews have yet to set eyes on Israel. The vast majority have no Jewish connection whatsoever. And that’s not just outside of New York, but in New York as well. What transcends all of our concerns—transcends everything—is the fact that we need to identify as a people. And part of [peoplehood] is the one avenue that the Ribbono Shel Olam gave us: It is called Israel.
Rabbi Schreier: I met a young man, who happens to be a former congregant of mine, who’s engaged in outreach in a particular community. And he said to me that with tens of thousands of youngsters going to Israel [after high school] each year, the key is to have a presence on college campuses to make sure that when they come back [to the States] and pursue their advanced degrees, they have the ability to do so in a constructive atmosphere. One of the greatest of the OU’s activities is its campus program [the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, or JLIC].* Because more than 90 percent of American Jewish youngsters attend colleges and universities, the presence of these [frum] couples on campus has made a huge difference. Only last night I heard about a campus that has a tremendous Jewish presence—the University of Florida—but there is no Jewish community within 100 miles. I would urge the OU to redouble its efforts in this area.
Rabbi Klaperman: Taking Rabbi Schreier’s comments a little further, there is no place on the Jewish scene where Jewish boys can meet Jewish girls. I met my late wife in Shomer Hadati. We used to get together every Friday night. The fact is that I met my wife in an organization that sponsored the opportunity for Jewish boys to meet Jewish girls. And we don’t have that anymore.
Mr. Savitsky: We’re very proud of the fact that through NCSY, where we have close to 1,000 advisors, young men and women of college age and beyond, we make hundreds of shidduchim. We think NCSY provides a wonderful place for young men and young women to meet, in an acceptable social setting, while they’re doing great work for Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: There is a certain kind of a romance, a love affair, that we have today with kiruv rechokim [outreach to the non-religious]. There’s nothing that gives greater sipuk ruchani [spiritual thrill] than to be mekarev [to engage in outreach]. But let us not overlook kiruv kerovim [outreach to the already religious]. Where we may be failing is in making sure that when our own children go off to college, they get the strengthening they need.
Mr. Savitsky: The program we have on college campuses was never meant for unaffiliated kids. Our college campus program was meant for our kids. We don’t use the term “kiruv kerovim” but “mechazek kerovim.” In other words, the people who are karov also need chizuk. NCSY is the largest Jewish teenage kiruv organization in the United States. We reach 30,000 of the 338,000 Jewish teens in North America, so we’re reaching only 11 percent.
Rabbi Grossman: You can talk about internal Orthodox concerns and issues, but they are totally irrelevant to Jewish survival. There’s a fire burning out there.
Eighty percent of American Jews do not live within the vicinity of New York. West of the Hudson is where the Jews have moved. . . . New York is an entity unto itself. Orthodoxy is profoundly iconoclastic. And, beyond [New York], you have a whole different world out there. You hardly have Orthodoxy. So what are we going to do? In my lifetime, six million Jews perished. And, in my lifetime, the most remarkable gift of Hashem occurred in the emergence of the State of Israel. And [Israel] does evoke a sense of pride among many Jews who would never set foot into an Orthodox shul.
Our problem today is getting Jews to remain Jews by any definition! Because without a people, there is no kiruv. Without a people, there is no chinuch and there is no Torah.
Mr. Savitsky: As someone who visits small Jewish communities in North America almost every other Shabbos, I know that you’re absolutely correct. Judaism is not just New York; it’s throughout North America and throughout the world.
As I travel around and visit many shuls, I meet rabbis who are young and have been in the rabbinate for ten years or so, and they tell me they’re burnt out. Baruch Hashem, all of you served your congregations for many, many decades. What would you tell these rabbis to help them maintain their energy and enthusiasm?
Rabbi Schreier: The area of a rabbi’s activity has broadened. For example, whether it is on college campuses, or on the subject of challenged youth, there’s so much [a rabbi has to do]. I would tell these young rabbis to channel their great abilities. Certainly the later generations of [American] rabbis were recipients of a better education than earlier generations. The flipside is that many rabbis experience difficulties [when] the laity in their congregation is not always receptive to the activity that a rabbi wishes to introduce. In this regard, the OU has a great contribution to make. . . . in sensitizing laity to the opportunities that there are for service.
Rabbi Schonfeld: I think a rabbi who feels burnt out shouldn’t have been a rabbi in the first place. You have to go into this profession, if you can call it a profession, with a spirit of dedication to Torah, to chinuch, to Klal Yisrael. If you do, you don’t get burnt out. I’ve seen rabbis who are burnt out. They get tired of meetings and with fighting with the congregation, with the shul president. But you have to feel the aish da’as, the fire of Torah, within you—independent of age, independent of circumstances. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be a rabbi.
Rabbi Klaperman: We have to examine why a rabbi’s burnt out. Is it because he’s working too hard? Or because the challenge is too much for him? Or because he was never meant to be a rabbi? I had a non-Jewish friend [who was] a minister. He used to speak about his colleagues and say, “He was defrocked. He was unsuited.” There are young men who went into the rabbinate out of commitment, out of desire, but they’re not meant to be rabbis. They get burnt out very quickly, because the rabbinate is a challenging profession. It’s hard work. It’s demanding work. It’s intellectually challenging. The rabbis I see here [around this table] don’t look burnt out to me. Why? Because they were suited to be rabbis.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: We all get burnt out. . . . Otherwise, we would [all] still be in the active rabbinate.
If a rabbi is really fulfilling his job, in a community and in a shul, he can be a mechadesh [innovator]. [Being] mechadesh does not always [pertain to] chiddushei Torah. You can be a mechadesh in the sense that you channel your energies in areas that are needed at that particular time. When I first entered the rabbinate I channeled my energies in an altogether different channel than I would if I were starting over again today. To a great extent, the ba’alei batim today are more learned, and there perhaps is a greater desire for Torah than there was when we first started. By the same token, there are [new and different] challenges today—the necessity of kiruv, the question of intermarriage. . . . We cannot apply the old, stale formulas that we used decades ago [to] today. There has to be chiddush. And if there is chiddush, you cannot become burnt out.
Rabbi Grunblatt: I once offered a new peshat [interpretation] on an important pasuk in the Torah: the first theophany of Moshe Rabbeinu and the burning bush. The verse states, “He [Moshe] saw.” But what did he see? “Vehinai hasneh boeir ba’aish, vehasneh einenu ukal.” The Seforno says the [verse] refers to the Egyptians, and most learn [that] it refers to the Jewish people. I said that it refers to Moshe Rabbeinu, who was told he will be leading the Jews. Although he had gehakte tsores,“vehasneh einenu ukal,” don’t ever get burnt out. That was the message for Moshe Rabbeinu.
I don’t want to judge other rabbis. Keshem shepartzufayhem shonos zu mezu, kach deiosayhem shonos zu mezu—everybody’s different, and takes things differently. The important thing is care. If you care, you don’t get burnt out. I’ve been in the rabbinate a long time, and every day, there [is] something that occurs, an experience [that comes up] that I haven’t had before. People have certain ambitions in the rabbinate, and [when] the ambitions are unfulfilled, it’s more likely that one will get burnt out.
Mr. Savitsky: Some of the rabbis who tell me they get burnt out say it’s because they do care. They tell me, “Well, other rabbis may not care as much, and so therefore they can keep going. I take every situation so personally. I care so much that I’m just burnt out.”
Rabbi Hollander: You have to fight fire with fire! If a rabbi is burnt out, that means that his conscience is bothering him. It’s not [a] physical [sensation]. It’s something that he feels that he’s not doing right. For example . . . [a rabbi] might want to say something, and he hesitates to say it because of the possible material consequences, or because [he’s afraid of] making somebody in his congregation angry. These are the things that bother the rabbi’s conscience. That’s what creates the burnout.
Burnout is not possible if you know that you are working for your Father. Who is your Father? Avinu shebaShamayim! If you’re working for Him, how can you have burnout?
Mr. Savitsky: Many people today are claiming that the community rabbi is being replaced by the rosh yeshivah, since more and more she’eilos, questions, are being asked to the rosh yeshivah, and not the rabbi. What do you see as the role of the community rabbi in the years ahead?
Rabbi Grunblatt: I’ve never been concerned with this kind of kavod [respect]. I feel my strength is in teaching, and I’ve taught in Touro College for many years. I once compared a rabbi to a decathlon athlete. The rabbi is likely to have to have ten [different] skills, and no decathlon world champion has ever been championed in one of the different sports. And you have to accept that. Of course the roshei yeshivah can learn better; they sit and learn, day and night. But, baruch Hashem, I know enough that I can deal with [the roshei yeshivah], and if they know better, I concede.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: We have to define very clearly—and this definition, by the way, has to come from the laity more than from the rabbinical powers—what is the role of a rav and what is the role of a rosh yeshivah? And we should point out that historically, we did have an answer to that question. I once asked an elderly Jew who had grown up in Mir [which boasted the Mir Yeshivah]: “When there is a chassunah [wedding], who’s going to be the mesader kiddushin [officiator of the ceremony], the rosh yeshivah of Mir or the rav of Mir?” And he said to me, “Aza narishe frage, I never heard such a foolish question. What does a rosh yeshivah have to do with siddur kiddushin?” Today, ask any young man, “Who’s going to be the mesader kiddushin, the rav of the shul or the rosh yeshivah?” he’ll also say, “Aza narishe kashe, what are you asking? Of course the rosh yeshivah! Not the rav.” Until we clarify the role of the rav and the role of the rosh yeshivah, we’re not going to solve this problem.
Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was ruach hachaim of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Do you know what he once did in the month of Nissan? He called all the senior students together and said, “Who’s going to be in town Shabbos HaGadol?” A few of us raised our hands. He said, “You and you, go to this shul to listen to the rav’s Shabbos HaGadol derashah. You go to the other shul. You must attend the Shabbos HaGadol derashah of the rav, and you have to be there in the congregation.” Which rosh yeshivah today would ever say that? We have to re-institute the mutual derech eretz [respect] between the rav and the rosh yeshivah.
One last story: I was at a wedding with the Ponevezher Rav [Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman], and one of my colleagues was supposed to be the mesader kiddushin and I was supposed to read the kesubah. I said to my colleague, “Let’s be mechabed [honor] the Ponevezher Rav, let’s ask him to be the mesader kiddushin.” So, we go over to him, and the Ponevezher Rav said, “Me? What do I have to do with siddur kiddushin? I’m a rosh yeshivah. I’m not a rav.” So I said, “Give him the reading of the kesubah.” “Read the kesubah? I don’t know how to read the kesubah!” the Ponevezher Rav said. “I can give a shiur in Masechta Kesubos, but I don’t know how to read a kesubah! You know how to read a kesubah better than I do!”
Rabbi Hollander: It is also a fact that many rabbis—Orthodox rabbis—are not learning enough. And [to be a rabbi] you have to be a talmid chacham. That’s an absolute, minimum requirement so that there will be no great gap between the rabbi and the rosh yeshivah. It shouldn’t be that the rosh yeshivah is the talmid chacham, and the rabbi’s [just] a good preacher. The rabbi himself must be mekayem “Vehagisa bo yomam valaylah” [Joshua 1:8] and become a talmid chacham, and recognized as such.
Mr. Savitsky: Friends of mine who are rabbis tell me that their best years for learning were in the beit midrash. Once they became rabbis, they got too busy with communal obligations.
Rabbi Hollander: All the great rabbanim, like Rav Yitzchok Elchanan, the Kovno Rav, and so on, all had time to [both] learn and to be rabbanim.
Rabbi Klaperman: By being successful, we’re creating a problem. We have kids studying for a year in Israel and when they come home, they won’t eat in their parents’ home. They will go to the rosh yeshivah. It’s a kind of defeat that comes with success. I have members of my congregation whose children will not daven in my shul because it isn’t religious enough. They will go to the rosh yeshivah; they will not come to me. I’m not offended by it. I have a sense of who I am. I have respect for the roshei yeshivah. I hope they have respect for me. I’m not a talmid chacham. The rosh yeshivah’s a talmid chacham. When I was young, I davened in a shtiebel. We had a magnificent rav. “Er iz gezesn un hot gelernt a gantsn tog.” All day long, he used to sit and learn. He never knew the outside world. He never knew me. He never knew anybody else. He was a successful rav. But he was not a successful rabbi.
If you would ask me, What would I tell a young rabbi he has to do? I would say, “You have to sit and learn, because you have to at least recognize the language. You have to know what we’re talking about. That’s number one. Number two: You have to preach Torah. Number three: You have to be prepared to serve the congregation in every way that’s required. Number four: You have to be an ambassador to the rest of the world. If you live in a small community, you have to be involved in the community chest; you have to be involved in Jewish and Christian relations. You have to stand out as a leader. If someone asks a question that you can’t solve, you’ll channel it to the rosh yeshivah. I’ve had she’eilos that I wouldn’t dare respond to.
Rabbi Schreier: Questions of halachah should be addressed to the community rabbi. They have nothing to do with the rosh yeshivah, as great as he may be. We are the community rabbis—and the community should turn to us for everything. So while [relying on the roshei yeshivah] may be a growing [phenomenon], it’s not going to change what ultimately occurs in the community.
Rabbi Grossman: I sent many, many young people away to yeshivahs, baruch Hashem. Then they would come back, and get engaged. “Would you mind, rebbe,” they would ask me, “if my rosh yeshivah is mesader kiddushin?” And, I tell you, truthfully, I never mind. Except ba’alei batim mind. Because the rosh yeshivah comes, the rosh yeshivah goes. But the statured image of their rav is very important.
But today you have a different kind of rabbi. These are people who . . . the majority of them . . . are not pasuk puma b’girsa, they don’t stop learning. They far surpass, in most instances, the rabbis I had known in America fifty years ago, in learning, in commitment to frumkeit and in yiras Shamayim. We’ve seen a whole new breed, and much credit goes to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary [RIETS], which has produced rabbis who will go out of town, and function superbly as rabbanim. Their kavod is very important.
My father was a rav in Lakewood. And the rosh yeshivah [there], Rav Aharon Kotler, was considered, correctly so, as the gadol hador. And there were chassunahs, especially when the Kletzke bochrim, who were saved [from the Holocaust], came [to the United States]. Many of them lived in our house, so they felt a close attachment to my father. They would want my father to come to their chassunahs. But they would want the rosh yeshivah to be mesader kiddushin. Velama lo, why not? Rav Aharon refused. He insisted that if my father was there, he should be mesader kiddushin. And this was true [as well] for the other rav in Lakewood [at the time], who was much younger. That’s why Rav Aharon was the gadol hador, among other reasons.
Rabbi Schonfeld: Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik told us thirty years ago that the tekufah of the rav is [over and that a new] tekufah of the rosh yeshivah was beginning. We didn’t quite understand what he was trying to say [at the time], but we can see it today.
The function of a rosh yeshivah is to teach Torah, to be a model to the community, more than the rabbi is. Oftentimes, a rosh yeshivah is brought in from Israel to be a mesader kiddushin, at an expense to the [parents]. By the following year, the rosh yeshivah forgets the talmid’s name! There are great roshei yeshivah who remain part of the talmid’s life, and those are outstanding people. But the rabbi who lives day and night with the family should not be excluded when it comes to times of joy. It’s not a question of kavod. It’s a question of the function of the rabbi as a servant of the community—an eved Hashem and an eved of Klal Yisrael. Very often, [they are] pushed aside.
The function of a rosh yeshivah is not to get involved in paskening [rendering a rabbinic decision] the she’eilah, unless you ask him. That’s the function of the rabbanim, who know Yoreh Deah. Not that the roshei yeshivah don’t know [it], but their function is to set the mode of life to the talmid. The rabbi’s function is to be involved in the life of the congregation. The daily life; the day-to-day problems. We have to find a modus vivendi of not overlapping each other.
Mr. Savitsky: We see the major cathedral synagogue of yesteryear vanishing and being replaced by the shtiebel. We see that even in larger congregations, there are spinoffs where people daven in homes for Minchah and Maariv. What are your thoughts about the “shtiebelization” of America? Is it good? Is it terrible? Is it pareve?
Rabbi Schonfeld: We have to make a distinction between a Chassidishe shtiebel and a shtiebel that is a breakaway from a shul. Chassidishe shtieblach serve a very important purpose. Gerrer Chassidim, as my family is, or Vishnitz or Satmar or Lubavitch, want to daven with their own people, and take directions from a central authority, the rebbe. It’s really a kehillah. What the rebbe says is spread to all [of this Chassidic group’s] shtiebels throughout the world. This kind of shtiebel is important to Jewish life. [The other kind of shtiebel is created] when people don’t like the chazzan or the rabbi. Those shtiebels are harmful. They are destructive of the sense of the Jewish kehillah.
Mr. Savitsky: Are you saying that there’s never justification for a breakaway shul? Don’t breakaway shuls help a community grow?
Rabbi Schonfeld: There are good reasons for starting a new shul, such as [if] the shul in which one davens is not halachically acceptable. But to just come into the community and say, “You and I think alike . . . let’s make our own minyan” [is not a legitimate reason]. Before you know it, that minyan will have breakaways from itself. The strength of Klal Yisrael is not the minyan, it’s the kehillah, which is concerned about everything that goes on in the community.
Rabbi Hollander: Shtiebels have, unfortunately, replaced the biggest congregations. But the synagogues were not innocent. They did not provide the [people with] proper spiritual nourishment. Certain people decided that [that synagogue was] not for them, and they davened elsewhere, or in the same building in a different room. The beis haknesses and the beis hamidrash each has its own place in the Shulchan Aruch. . . .There are, in fact, halachic differences between the two. In some ways, the beis haknesses has superiority—it doesn’t need a mezuzah, while the beis midrash does. The synagogue itself, by not adhering sufficiently to the requirements of the Shulchan Aruch [with regard to the laws pertaining to] kedushas beis haknesses, has brought about the situation where today, American Orthodox Jews want what they think is the “real thing,” and not [a substitute].
At the same time, I want you to know that the Chasam Sofer objected to the creation of a new congregation in Pressberg even though it was 100 percent Orthodox. He said it was not needed—there was an existing congregation.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: We should ask, Is there a role for the cathedral synagogue in the present Jewish society, as there might have been thirty or forty years ago? The answer is, We always serve the needs of the populace.
Synagogue Jews always associated the synagogue with the big shul in town. And they were the only ones who could afford to have a rav . . . and to offer different kinds of activities. [The synagogues] were the address for every Jewish need, be it here or in Eretz Yisrael.
This generation no longer really needs the cathedral synagogue. If your customers no longer need your product, they’re going to go elsewhere. That’s why, when [new synagogues are built], physically, they … [are] smaller.
Then, of course, there is always the ego involved. There are people who need to be the rosh [head] and not the zanav [tail]. You can’t have that many heads, you can’t have that many zanavim. But, in the final analysis, people who need to feel important get lost in the bigger shuls.
[Since] the trend is going to be smaller rather than bigger shuls, the question is, Will there . . . be a rav in the community or not? Many of these smaller shuls have rabbanim, but . . . in order to make parnassah, [they] end up teaching part time in an educational institution. As a result, they are not able to fully serve as the rav of a shul or of a community. I suggest that these smaller shuls, which serve a purpose and fulfill the needs of the congregants, should not necessarily all have a rav. There should be a re-institution of the rav of a kehillah.
Rabbi Grossman: Someone has buried the Shulchan Aruch, buried the Rambam. What is the halachah about a shul? Do you have to have a shul? Do you have to have what people refer to, as a misnomer, the cathedral? That’s a Christian term. And why does the halachah require a big shul? And why do we ignore it? “Berov am hadras melech!” It is part of the whole hadrachah. “Shtiebelization” began a long time ago. Its purpose and mission was not really for greater frumkeit. How we wish it were, but in most cases [the shtiebel was created for] the social aspect. My group, my chevrah, my friends go to this shtiebel, et cetera. And then a whole new dialogue was created: “What time did you get out?” “What time was davening over with?” This is not the vernacular of bnei Torah, of people who have a sense of significance. But, the question is, What do we Orthodox Jews look like in the eyes of the vast majority [of Jews] who are not Orthodox? If we look like the shtiebel, then “I [the non-Orthodox Jew] don’t belong, because this is a close-knit social entity.” Do [the non-Orthodox] see this magnificent shul as being Orthodoxy? Then Orthodoxy must be important and authentic. Does it have the positive elements of the shtiebel? A sense of warmth. A sense of davening that is real; song and joy. And what about the sermon? Is it pompous? The shul can be a magnificent asset, and do you know what? “Mesoras avoseinu beyadeinu.” My father davened in a shul—don’t call it a cathedral, it offends me. My zeide did. My great-great grandfather did, too. Doros [generations] did. And I don’t want to change. I want to do what the Jews of the past have done.
Rabbi Schreier: There is a place for the [large, cathedral-style] shul, because of all the communal needs. One has to fight strongly, creatively, in order to make the [cathedral] shul more acceptable. Rabbi Grossman’s differentiation between New York and the rest of the country is valid; this particular problem does [not exists as much] in the rest of the country as it does in my particular community. We have a duty to find a way to preserve the “Big shul,” to make it more relevant to the current climate.
Mr. Savitsky: What are the qualities of a good lay leader? As a rav of a shul, what do you look for in lay leadership? Have there been any ba’alei batim who’ve crossed your path, who made a mark on you and on your shul?
Rabbi Schonfeld: [A good lay leader must have] the desire to serve Klal Yisrael, not to serve himself. Not to see his name as president of a shul. He must understand that he has a position of great responsibility. It doesn’t make a difference whether he’s president of the OU, or president of the RCA or president of Agudath Israel. He has to be able to give up some of his personal life. He has to travel when he may not want to. He has to leave the family [at] home, just like the rabbi [does]. And a good president is one who works hand in hand with the rabbi, as a good rabbi works hand in hand with the president. “Vayeilchu sheneihem yachdav” [Genesis 22:8]. The most important thing is to avoid any kind of conflict between the rabbi and the synagogue administration.
Rabbi Klaperman: Herbert Tenzer was my mentor and my very dear friend. He taught me something very interesting: How does one become a leader? Everybody wants to do the right thing, but 90 percent of those who want to do the right thing wait for somebody else to do it. He was a man who never waited for somebody else to do anything. One of his dearest friends was Sister Rose Thering, a remarkable nun who, together with him, founded the American-Israel Friendship League. She, through her connections, and he through his, were able to create a situation where Jews and Gentiles worked together for the State of Israel. He became chairman of the Board of Directors of Yeshiva University. He was behind the first fundraising opportunity we undertook in the Five Towns [in New York] for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine [of Yeshiva University]. He was a great doer, and ended up in Washington, DC, as a congressman.
One year, Congress was in session during Rosh Hashanah, and Herbert called me and asked, “What do I do now?” I said, “Look you have to be there. That’s your job.” He said, “Yes, but my job is to daven on Rosh Hashanah.” So he arranged for the use of a room in the Capitol to be used for Rosh Hashanah services. We sent him machzorim, a ba’al tefillah and a ba’al tekiah. That was a remarkable accomplishment. He was a man who gave his life for Yiddishkeit, for charity, for service and for true kiruv. And he did it without the desire for either credit or respect.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: I had the pleasure of having many, many outstanding ba’alei batim in my shul. I remember when I became a rav, my father, who had been a rav for many years, gave me two berachos. One was that I should never have a president who thinks he’s a talmid chacham. The second was that I should never have a president with a good memory.
Over the years, I was very fortunate to have people in our shul who were leaders of the American Jewish community, on different levels. That was not thanks to my inspiration. I tried to keep them in line, so that eventually they would rise to the level that they were entitled to in the first place, as water always finds its level. And they become part of the total Jewish community—that’s really what a shul is all about.
Mr. Savitsky: It’s the nurturing ground.
Rabbi Pelcovitz: Teach and nurture. And this is something, that with all of our understanding of why people are attracted to smaller shuls, will never be duplicated by [them]. We still have a need for synagogues that are from the old form and the old style. And we have to try to convince our yeshivaleit that this is what gives strength, health and hope to a community.
Rabbi Grossman: The question people always asked is, “How is it that Memphis, of all places, has the largest Orthodox congregation in the United States?” And there are various answers you can give. In the South, less than 1 percent of Jews affiliate with Orthodoxy. And in Memphis, baruch Hashem, it’s substantially over 30 percent.
Two people are really responsible for it—a lot of us like to take credit, including myself, but it’s not so. But Sam Margolin, alav hashalom, was in shul every day. There was never a shiur I gave that he did not attend. And he was a titan in business. He founded what was the largest independent mortgage company in America—closed Shabbos, closed on yom tov. He was an extremely intelligent, wonderful, highly cultured and very articulate person—and a great spokesman for Torah and Jewish education. The other individual was Philip Belz, alav hashalom. Philip Belz was considered by many to be the wealthiest Jew, if not the wealthiest person, in Mid America. He was a Jew who loved to do mitzvos. He inspired his son, Jack, to do the same. And he put his money where his mouth was. He built our previous shul [Baron Hirsch Congregation]—which was “zeh Keili v’anveihu.” It was the largest shul on Earth—and Orthodox. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. While all of the other Orthodox shuls in the South, the large ones, went to the non-Orthodox or disappeared, Baron Hirsch continued to grow. We had these extraordinary . . . prototypes [who showed] that you can be respected in business, venerated in the community and a Jew in the fullest sense of the word. Many turned to Yiddishkeit [because of these role models].
Mr. Savitsky: Thank you all for participating in this historic discussion. Hopefully, thousands will be inspired by your words and by the great leadership all of you have shown. We, the Jewish community, are indebted to all of you for all you’ve done to help preserve, defend and grow Jewish life.
Special thanks to Menacham Ejdelman, program associate at YIVO, for his assistance in preparing this article.
*The OU, in partnership with Hillel and with assistance from Torah Mitzion, administers JLIC, a program that helps Orthodox students navigate the college environment and balance their Jewish commitments with their desire to engage the secular world.