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An un-Orthodox approach
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An un-Orthodox approach

Beth El to host social activist and rabbi, Shmuly Yanklowitz

Shmuly Yanklowitz, a progressive Orthodox rabbi and social activist.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, a progressive Orthodox rabbi and social activist.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz says he is “rooted” in his commitment to halacha, Jewish law, even though he is a staunch advocate for an open form of Orthodox Judaism, one infused with social activism. He supports embracing feminism and women’s leadership, engaging in intradenominational and interfaith partnerships, and welcoming potential converts to Judaism and others with differing opinions.  

But the greater Orthodox world is not in sync with his vision. Rather, it’s “moving more and more to the right and becoming more and more closed to exploring new ideas,” he said. “I feel that that is a tragedy, and that we need to become more inclusive and adaptive in the 21st century.”

Yanklowitz will discuss social justice, leading with spiritual courage, and more during a Shabbaton, open to the community, at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor on Feb. 9 and 10. 

A well-known activist in the Jewish world, Yanklowitz said he is concerned about Orthodoxy’s fear of the influence of new ideologies on the Judaism they value and that they respond by trying to “freeze it in time.” Contrary to the denomination’s direction, he believes that such an approach is actually dangerous to the preservation of Judaism. 

“For Torah to be relevant ethically, it has to be able to adapt to new medical ethics, business ethics, and societal trends, and we need to be learning from and becoming partners with other types of Jews and people from other faiths and traditions,” he said.

Yanklowitz grew up in a diverse family, his mother a committed Christian and his father a committed Jew. In his path to Orthodoxy he never lost that sensitivity to diverse perspectives within Judaism and the world at large, and when he was younger he explored social needs through trips to poor communities in Africa and Asia, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service. 

“I define myself as pluralistic,” he said. “I find truth in a lot of different perspectives within the Jewish world and beyond.” 

His commitment to inclusion and social justice motivated him to establish and lead several progressive organizations: He is president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic learning center in Phoenix, Ariz.; president and CEO of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; founder of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, supporting Jewish animal welfare and veganism; and founder of Yatom, which functions as a resource for families looking to foster and adopt.  

The rabbi lived in Princeton and prepared for his bar mitzvah at The Jewish Center, where he developed a relationship with Rabbi Emeritus Dov Peretz Elkins (Yanklowitz’s family moved before his ceremony). 

He attended the University of Texas-Austin, where his religious affiliation shifted. When he arrived, he said, he led the Reform minyan, “and by the time I left, I was head of the Orthodox minyan.” 

After he graduated he studied at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Israel and then, after a few years working in management consulting, began learning at the Religious Zionist Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat under the renowned Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. 

Eventually he received his rabbinic ordination from the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. 

Yanklowitz’s passion for social action was born from his experiences in developing regions like Africa and southeast Asia. 

“I became so much more aware of the dynamics of poverty and wealth, race, gender, sexuality, and religious dynamics,” he said, “and I realized how much power and privilege I had and that I had a deep responsibility to use that wisely.”

In contrast to most Orthodox rabbis, Yanklowitz strongly supports gay marriage, noting that even though the Torah prohibits a specific sexual act — “a man should not have intercourse with a man,” he said — “there is no prohibition on being gay or on embracing a lifelong partnership.” 

In fact, he said, “the Torah very much values family and believes that no one should be alone — it is very important that all people can have life partners.” 

He is also an advocate “for Orthodox women rabbis and for greater women’s leadership and participation in Orthodox synagogue ritual life.” He supports partnership minyans which, although they still have a mechitza (a separation between men and women), allow women to lead parts of the service, like reading from the Torah, and others where halacha does not require the presence of a quorum of 10 men. 

“As someone who has daughters, I feel more strongly about that on a personal level,” he said.

One issue that Yanklowitz is particularly troubled by is children who have been abused and neglected, and he and his wife Shoshana, a nurse practitioner, have fostered three children. He said it’s been rewarding “being able to provide a loving space for a young child and coming to love them.” But it comes with its challenges: Having raised and treated them like your own children, he said, “you’re not sure they are going to a safe place when returned to their own families.”

That experience showed Yanklowitz that “there are hundreds of thousands of kids in America who need homes,” and knowing that “the Torah is always talking about a response to vulnerable children,” he established Yatom, which gives a stipend to families so they can start the process of fostering children and trains parents with online classes.

Yanklowitz, Shoshana, their children Amiella, Lev, and Maya, and their foster child live in Scottsdale, Ariz. Danna Livstone, chair of Beth El’s adult education committee, heard about Yanklowitz through the listserv of the Wexner community, which had supported her doctorate in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yanklowitz’s youth and energy will be of interest to a wide audience, she told NJJN. 

“What I’m hoping is that, first of all, we attract more than the usual suspects.”

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