When Rabbi Avi Weiss arrived at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph on Saturday night, Dec. 11, about 100 people, congregants and members of the wider MetroWest community, had gathered to hear him speak.
But what he wanted to do first was sing.
Weiss — the head rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and New York-based activist — taught the audience a wordless niggun, clapping, smiling, and encouraging audience members to join in.
The center’s religious leader, Rabbi Menashe East, a YCT graduate, introduced Weiss as an “inspiring, dynamic spiritual leader who is changing lives and investing wisely in the soul of the Jewish people.” Addressing the “state of the state” of the Jewish people, Weiss began by asserting the physical threat to the State of Israel, as well as an “existential” threat to the Jewish people that is, he said, perhaps even more profound.
He also shared stories of his longtime social activism and efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, many alongside the late Sister Rose Thering — the nun who championed Holocaust studies and Catholic-Jewish relations from her base at Seton Hall University in South Orange. Weiss emphasized the continuing necessity and urgency of pursuing shared goals and unity within the Jewish community and beyond.
He said that this pursuit is carried on at YCT, a yeshiva devoted to what Weiss calls “open Orthodoxy.” Often described as a reaction to a right-leaning trend within Orthodoxy, the yeshiva’s approach underscores that Jewish learning should be combined with secular studies, encourages increased support for the modern State of Israel, endorses more expansive roles for women, and promotes pluralism.
The theme of Jewish unity and dialogue resonated with the audience.
Attendee Janet Cohen of Randolph was “inspired” by Weiss’s priority of “unity among all branches of Judaism” and his stress on the “need for dialogue to find a framework acceptable to all.”
Mount Freedom Jewish Center president Jamie Ramsfelder of Morristown said that all those who attended “were touched by Rabbi Weiss’s message of hope for inclusion and unity. We are so proud to have his former student, Rabbi Menashe East, as our spiritual leader and friend.”
East, who has been at MFJC for a year and a half, appeared delighted with the evening’s program and turnout.
“I was taken by Rabbi Weiss’s vision for Orthodox Jewry and his leadership,” said East. “In fact, that’s what inspired me to become a rabbi. I am delighted that friends from all over the area came out to hear Rav Avi’s message.”
Congregant and past president Steven Schwartz of Randolph said that while “we often think of activists as firebrands, Weiss is the sweetest of men and purest of souls.”
During a question-and-answer session, Weiss welcomed the opportunity to comment on his clash with the Orthodox establishment when he conferred the title of “Rabba” on a woman, Sara Hurwitz, who trained as a spiritual and halachic leader under his auspices.
Weiss praised Hurwitz, saying that she was empathic, learned, and solidly grounded. He said that “history” would be on his side of the issue of women’s role in Orthodoxy.
Admitting that he was happily “naive” when he began the work that would ultimately result in the founding of YCT 11 years ago, Weiss said that the yeshiva, its graduates, and their work in the larger Jewish community were a source of immense personal joy and satisfaction.
With a smile, Weiss asked the gathering to conclude the evening not with a moral or a message or one of his own stories, but with a song — a request the audience fulfilled as they stood, arms clasping one another, and sang the niggun they had learned earlier in the evening.