Two rabbis launch new Orthodox seminary in NYC

NEW YORK — In what observers see as a challenge to Yeshiva University's hegemony over the modern Orthodox rabbinate, Rabbis Avi Weiss and Saul Berman are launching a new modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan.

Weiss and Berman, former spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, are pledging "respectful interaction" with all Jewish movements while "expanding the role of women in religious life and leadership."

Weiss said the new tuition-free Yeshiva Chovevei Torah expects to recruit a 10-man class that will begin a four-year program next September, culminating in what he hopes will be ordination under the auspices of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

However, Weiss said the actual ordination process has not been finalized.

Berman and Weiss said they met with Yeshiva University's president, Rabbi Norman Lamm. He "wishes us well," said Weiss, who added that Lamm is his "rebbe." Both Weiss and Berman are on the faculty at the university's Stern College for Women.

When asked to discuss the meeting, a spokesperson for Lamm issued a "no comment."

Rabbi Zevulon Charlop, dean of the university's rabbinic school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminar, also refused to comment.

Although the more fervently religious wing of Orthodoxy has dozens of rabbinical schools, the modern Orthodox movement has had only one, at Yeshiva University, and "we suffer from the consequences of that," said Berman.

He explained that when Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was teaching at Yeshiva, "there was little thought that anything could compete with that." But Soloveitchik died in 1994, with a curtailed presence for years before his death.

The core values of the new yeshiva include "promotion of ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel], the relationship to all Jews and of respectful interaction of all Jewish movements," and "recognizing our responsibility to improve the world in which we live."

Three years ago, Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., and Berman, director of Edah, a modern Orthodox advocacy group, attracted 40 Yeshiva rabbinical students who received a stipend to study with the two in a modern Orthodox mentoring program that meets in Weiss' synagogue.

Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at City University of New York, said that for Weiss and Berman to be "relegated to teach in the women's college at Yeshiva is evidence of an unwillingness on the part of the university and RIETS [its theological seminary] to empower them in the rabbinic game. Theirs is an effort, I suppose, to beat the system, to jump directly to their constituency.

"This is clearly posing an alternative to Yeshiva University, which once represented Orthodoxy's most modernist left-wing ordaining institution," Heilman continued. "But Yeshiva University has been pulled to the right."

The rabbinic faculty at RIETS, for example, is opposed to women's prayer groups and some see little value in a higher secular education.

The new yeshiva "is an assertion of a more open modern Orthodoxy," Heilman said. "This is not just an academic question, it's a cultural and political one."

Berman pointed out that long before the new yeshiva was proposed, modern Orthodox synagogues have begun looking away from Yeshiva University when searching for rabbinic talent.

At Yeshiva Chovevei Torah — based at Congregation Ramath Orah on New York's Upper West Side — 50 students, mostly Columbia University undergraduates, have been studying in a non-rabbinic program part-time since September under the direction of Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer, and Rabbi Dov Weiss, Avi Weiss' son.

Linzer, who will be rosh yeshiva, or dean, for the rabbinical school, said the rabbinical students, "in addition to gaining mastery of such traditional fields as kashrut, Shabbat and family law, will study other areas, such as business and interpersonal ethics, and women in Jewish law."