It is not uncommon for yeshivah heads to come here in search of potential students. But Rabbi Dov Linzer, who will be speaking at several United Synagogues over the weekend on his first trip to the UK, is different. His yeshivah, Chovevei Torah, is based in New York, not in Israel. And it is not just modern Orthodox, but “open modern Orthodox”, modelled on the ideals of its founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale in the Bronx.
It is an ethos that has already enticed some Brits over the Atlantic, rather than the Mediterranean to Israel. The first British graduate of its four-year rabbinic ordination programme, Rabbi Alex Kaye, now has a job at the prestigious Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
Two more Brits have since enrolled: Samuel Klein, ex-director of the interfaith Coexistence Trust, and Daniel Silverstein, former resident of the Moishe House London and founder of a Muslim-Jewish hip hop band. A third, Dr Ben Elton, author of a book on the Chief Rabbinate, is also enjoying a year of study there. And Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, formerly of Ilford Synagogue, visits for a week every year to give classes.
Rabbi Weiss himself will be in the UK on Sunday, speaking at a conference in Oxford on modern Orthodoxy run by one of his American alumni, Rabbi Daniel Braune Friedman, who is the campus chaplain.
Chovevei Torah was opened in 1999 – its rabbinical school two years later – as alternative to the seminary at Yeshiva University. If YU is widely viewed as on the right of the modern Orthodox spectrum, Chovevei Torah is viewed as on the left. It has taken flak from parts of the Charedi world and its graduates are still not eligible for membership of the mainstream Rabbinical Council of America, which is allied to YU.
But having produced 72 rabbis in a decade, now ensconced in congregations, day schools and college campuses, it has begun to make its mark on American Jewish life – and beyond. For Rabbi Linzer, the hallmark of open Orthodoxy is its inclusive outlook: a sense of responsibility to the wider world rather than looking on non-Jewish society as “the other”; a desire to work with non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in the interests of Klal Israel (the Jewish people); and a sympathy for the growing spiritual aspirations of contemporary Orthodox women rather than dismissing this as secular feminism.
“I have sometimes said, do we think it is our responsibility as Orthodox Jews to build walls or to build bridges,” Rabbi Linzer said. “I think in past generations – from the beginning 200 years ago when Reform started – the sense was to build walls. Now I think it’s our responsibility to build bridges.”
Chovevei Torah does not itself admit women, but another institution founded by Rabbi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat, does train female scholars in Jewish law. And although Chovevei’s rabbinic tutors may be men, its department of pastoral counselling is chaired by a woman, Dr Michelle Friedman.
That department tells you something else about the yeshivah’s purpose: to actively prepare rabbis for communal service. Rabbi Weiss felt that rabbis were often entering the pulpit without sufficient vocational training, Rabbi Linzer explained.
“In the Orthodox world, the yeshivot that produce rabbis are an outgrowth of the Lithuanian yeshivot where the entire emphasis is on pure learning, not so much on professional training,” he said. “They also were not as conversant with contemporary issues, they also did not have enough of an open inclusive view of things and they were not speaking the same language… as their community.”
Rabbinic students at Chovevei Torah receive their tuition fees and a stipend in return for a commitment to work in a community for four years after graduation. They are also imbued with confidence in the principles of modern Orthodoxy rather than the defensive attitude that tacitly acknowledges the Charedi model as superior.
Modern Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Linzer, involves being “religiously passionate but believes that does not mean being sequestered and having to separate yourself from society.”
But he does believe that modern Orthodoxy needs to present a more compelling ideology. The often-evoked motto of Torah umadda, Torah and secular knowledge, is insufficient, he argues, noting a “profound” observation he came across in a book review by Lord Sacks, that Torah umadda had talked a lot about what traditional Jews can take from the outside world, but not about what they can give to it.
Modern Orthodoxy should be based on an understanding, Rabbi Linzer said, that “we are part of the larger world community – which means we can not only benefit from it but we have a religious responsibility to the larger Jewish community, to the larger world community. That translates into actions about social justice and other ways in which we can better the world.”
It should also transmit the conviction “that Torah and Judaism have within it the wisdom to speak towards the most pressing issues of the day”. From Torah learning should flow values that people can bring to the workplace and their professional dealings with others.
“If there is profound belief that learning Torah speaks to the issues that we engage as modern people, not only as narrowly defined Jewish concerns,” Rabbi Linzer said, “that can invigorate our whole approach to talmud [learning] Torah.”