Posts Tagged 'YCT'

Glimpsing the House of Tomorrow

From the start of Elul through Shemini Atzeret, we recite Psalm 27. There we read, “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent God’s Temple” ( Psalm 27:4). On a simple level, when meditating on this we are beseeching God to allow us to return and stay in the Temple. Do any of us pretend to understand what it was like to be in the Temple? What are we really asking for? 

Maybe we are seeking the feeling of home.  

My name is Avi Orlow. Over 20 years ago, I was honored to start as a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) while its beit midrash, or study hall, was still nascent. There, I felt that sense of home described in Psalm 27. I came to YCT with a deep love for the Jewish people, and thanks to my education there, I left it years later with a profound appreciation for what Judaism has to offer humanity. I look back fondly at how after every class we would discuss how we might transmit the experience of YCT’s spiritual environment to the outside world. 

Many of us yearn to create a sense of home in multiple areas of our lives. For me, I have attempted to replicate that feeling of comfort in both my professional and personal spheres. It is not surprising, then, that my professional growth has run parallel to that of my family. The same spring I was ordained by YCT in 2004, I became a new father. I was fortunate enough to have our son’s bris, and then his pidyon haben, at YCT. Soon after these events and my graduation, our growing family packed up our books, the BabyBjörn, and our life in New York as we prepared to take on the bigger world.

Along the way, my career has taken me all over the country. First, I spent four years as a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis where we opened our home to students. While I loved working on campus, I moved on when given the chance to impact how thousands of young people every summer understand Jewish camp to be their home away from home. I have spent the last 13 years at Foundation for Jewish Camp where I have traveled the country learning from and with Jewish camps all over North America about how to spread joyous Judaism. During that time, my wife and I have been blessed with three more amazing children.

While I have helped build the home that is my family, I have never forgotten the home I knew at YCT. My connection to YCT has waxed and waned over time, but I have always stayed curious as to the successes and challenges of my fellow alumni in our efforts to bring the goodness of the YCT beit midrash to the world. Many of us started at YCT with little more than a vision for what Open Orthodoxy could mean. In some moments, I haven’t always been sure how much impact our small school has had on the world.

Recent events, however, have made me realize that the home we all built together at YCT is being realized in unforeseen ways across generations.

A few weeks ago, I was picking up some of my children at the Camp Stone bus stop in White Plains, New York, where I live. I was expecting to see the usual neighborhood YCT suspects: Rabbis Jack Nahmod (‘05), Seth Braunstein (‘06), and YCT faculty member Chaim Marder. Our children are all friends from the neighborhood and we send them to the same camp. 

a school bus stopping on a road with its doors open while a line of small children with backpacks walk in a line to get onto the bus

I was surprised, however, when I spotted Rabbi Seth Winberg (‘11), the executive director of Brandeis Hillel, at the stop. It was his daughter Hadas’s first summer at camp so she had flown there. She had assumed, however, that she would know people on the way home, so she came back on the White Plains bus. Rabbi Seth had come in from Boston to pick her up. As we chatted and caught up, the buses rolled up the street. Rabbi Seth found Hadas, and I found my daughter Emunah. I asked Emunah if she knew Hadas. She responded, “Of course I do, Abba! We just sat next to each other on the nine-hour ride home from camp.” What are the odds, I thought to myself!

When we got home, Emunah did not want to talk with us. We were not surprised. She just wanted to talk with her camp friends. She talked with her friend Amollia for over an hour. Later that night, she was having trouble falling asleep. It turns out that when you work in camping as I do, your kids do not get homesick at camp. Rather, they get campsick at home. To calm her down, I asked her to go through a list of her friends. I stopped her when she told me about Amolia Antine from Maryland. Her father, Rabbi Nissin Antine (‘06), from Potomac, was ordained two years after me at YCT. Truly, what a very small world! It was astonishing to me that, without any direction or interference from me, my child had just naturally gravitated toward the children of other YCT rabbis.

When Kalil Gibran’s Prophet is asked about children, he responds:

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Emunah discovered these people on her own. She is her own person, and she is finding friends who share her interests and her values. It is amazing to see the emergence of the next generation of YCT as our children build their own community. 

This time of year, when I get to L’David 27, I reflect on how the world is sometimes a very big and a very scary space. I cannot say that I want to hide from it in the Temple, but there is a part of me that yearns for the comfort and holiness of the beit midrash I knew as a rabbinical student. I know that the YCT rabbis are each doing what we can to share this experience of home from the beit midrash with the larger world. And while I might not be able to gaze upon the beauty of our children’s “house of tomorrow,” I find that even a glimpse is heartwarming, affirming, and worthy of meditation. 

-Reposted from YCT Blog

Seeing the Smoke

When the fumata bianca, white smoke, goes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel it announces that the convening of the College of Cardinals has made their selection. The people looking on in the Vatican cheer at the election of a new Pope. Seeing that I am not Catholic I could only imagine my elation at that moment, before this past Sunday.

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of going to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the new head of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,my Alma mater. Rav Asher is going to be a wonderful replacement for Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of YCT. It was a wonderful event that brought out an amazing group of people. While there was some sadness that there was no one there from Yeshiva University or other factions to the right, there was an amazing showing from leadership on the left. This was emblemized by the roundtable discussion featuring Rabbi David Ellenson, Dr. Arnold Eisen , Rabbi Arthur Green, and  Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson before the formal installation. It was uplifting seeing so many luminaries from all over the Jewish world join a very young Orthodox Seminary in welcoming in their new leader. It was a singular moment in celebrating the unity of the Jewish people.

At some moment in there I got scared thinking that we had indeed sent out the fumata bianca, but maybe there was no out there cheering us on. Maybe everyone who cares about the unity of the Jewish people were already there in that room.  Still wading through the aftermath of the Pew Study, I could not help but fear for our sustainability. While I loved so many people in that room, I could not help but fear that we might be alone in our joy? What does the future look like?

I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn about the beginning of Avraham’s journey. We read,

God said to Avram,  “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

And with these words Monotheism is off and running. It seems that so much happened in this short directive. What awakened in Avram the awareness of God? What ever it was it seems significant in that it changed the course of history?

In the Midrash Rabbi Isaac compares Avram’s thinking to that of a man who was traveling (Genesis Rabbah 39:1). While going from place to place he sees a building in flames. The man wonders whether it was possible that the building could lack a person to look after it. At that moment, the owner of the building appeared and said that he owned the building. This is similarly to Avram questioning whether it is conceivable that the world could exist without a Guide to look after it. At that moment, God told Avram that God is the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. This is what the Torah records in the words ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”

This metaphor is deep. Avram could have spent his life looking back over his shoulder to Haran. Instead he is out there engaging the world around him. Recognizing the world that he is coming into he seeks an explanation of order. God responds to that  openness, empathy, and curiosity by telling him to move into the future- ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”. And on another level it is interesting to realize that we all want to be discovered and recognized, even God.

Like Avram, YCT could spend its days looking over its right and left shoulders and waiting to be recognized. Instead I think we need to be out there doing the holy work of engaging the world around us. The values of openness, empathy, and curiosity have become the hallmark of YCT. Rav Asher is a master of lovingly disagreeing with the other parts of our family. We need to stay uncompromising in keeping the vision of the unity of the Jewish people as our guiding light. And we need to be out there helping other people follow Avram’s example.

Rabbi Linzer of Peki’in

In the Talmud Bavli Hagigah 3a we learn a wonderful story of Rabbi Yehoshua at Peki’in. Once he was visited by his students Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Eleazar Hisma. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “What hidush (innovative teaching) was there at the Beit Midrash (house of study) today?” As devoted students they replied, “We are your disciples and we only drink your water.” The Rabbi said to his students, “Even so, it is impossible for there to be a session in the Beit Midrash without some hidush”.  Rabbi Yehoshua was a master Jewish educator. He was more interested in his students’ education than his pride. He not only invited them to teach him, Rabbi Yehoshua also modeled for his students the love of Torah. He was incredulous that there could be learning of Torah which was not current, relevant, and evolving.

While I might have learned this Gemara many years ago, I only truly came to understood it when learning with Rabbi Linzer. While he was clearly our Rabbi he was never shy with sharing the Beit Midrash. He was mission-driven to ensure that his students were getting the best education. He was always looking to bring the right teachers for each of his students. And he was right there with us taking part in learning from them. The only thing stronger than his crushing intellect is his unparalleled humility. It is apparent to anyone who meets Rabbi Linzer that he models an unquenchable curiosity in Torah.

While others might have pushed for conformity, especially in the early days of the yeshiva, Rabbi Linzer encouraged each of us to find our own voices. There was always an expectation that we learn from the world with an open mind, learn from people with an open heart, and always live as a Mentsch. In retrospect it is amazing to me how he entertained my out-of-the-box musings. But in doing so, Rabbi Linzer empowered me to take ownership over our tradition. With my family, my community, the larger Jewish community, and the larger world I strive to emulate Rabbi Linzer in giving others a similar sense of ownership.

When leaving the yeshiva I confessed to Rabbi Linzer that I was worried about becoming a Rabbi in that I would not be able to give his kind of shiur. He laughed, demanding that I teach my own Torah. It was as if he was forcing me to ask Leo Rosten’s question. “If I shall be like him, who shall be like me?” Open Orthodoxy endeavors to empower people to find their own voice in our tradition. It is an honor to drink of Rabbi Linzer’s water. The hidush of Open Orthodoxy flourishes in Rabbi Linzer’s Beit Midrash, because he makes room for each one of us, his students.

On Open Leadership

Recently I was reading the second book by Charlene Li. Her first book Groundswell made- well – a groundswell in helping many people understand the use of social technologies. Her second book is called “ Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead“. Openness requires more — not less — rigor and effort than being in control. Li includes suggestions that will help an organization determine an “open strategy”, weigh the benefits against the risk, and have a clear understanding of the implications of being open.

While there are many who mocked it, in reading this book I realized how prescient Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was in coining “Open Orthodoxy“. While this sub-brand of Orthodoxy has nothing to do with technology, it does aim to speak to the culture of the 21st century.  Our culture today is manifest in the emergent technologies of social media. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah strives to walk Li’s line of being open, transparent, and authentic. Obviously we have stumbled along the way, but all great organizations need to risk failure if they are truly striving for excellence.

Being Open Orthodox does not mean being more lax in observance of Halakha, it means being more rigorous in opening that process to more people. If we hope to live in a world in which Judaism speaks to Jews we will need to re-imagine Rabbinic control of information and wisdom. We need to explore new ways of thinking about how we can empower more Jews to make choices that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish. This will not happen by controlling the message, but by developing a nuanced openness strategy.  I am proud to be a graduate of YCT and an Open Orthodox Rabbi.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 234 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: