Veterans: Rabbi, scholar, author and educator

Spotlighting Judaism’s intellectual, heroic leaders – and seeing our history come alive.

July 17, 2019 19:13
Veterans: Rabbi, scholar, author and educator

RABBI YONATAN KOLATCH. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch is a multi-faceted man, driven by his love of Torah, the Jewish people and Israel. This is reflected in his life journey, which has taken a number of colorful twists and turns from the expected path of an Orthodox rabbi’s son from Long Island.
Kolatch’s father, Ephraim (z”l), was a pulpit rabbi at Temple Beth-El for 30 years. Kolatch and his three sisters were raised in a Zionist home and his parents and siblings all made aliyah: his oldest sister, Debbie, right before the Six Day War; his other sister, Judy, right before the Yom Kippur War; his parents right before the First Lebanon War; and his youngest sister Nina, whose son was born in Jerusalem a few months before the Gulf War.
“Given the connection between our family’s aliyah and the country’s military history, everyone was concerned when my family and I wanted to make aliyah,” Kolatch laughs.
Kolatch was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, which played a significant role in his life. After high school, he went to Israel to study at B’nei Akiva’s Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh program for two years.
“This was right after the Six-Day War,” says Kolatch. “It was a euphoric time and there was a very special feeling, as if anything were possible.”
During his last year in Israel, Kolatch decided to study for a few months at the new yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, quite a dangerous place in 1969. When he arrived, he was the only student there and the Yeshiva was in caravans in a military compound. “This gave me the chance to study one-on-one with some of the most amazing (religious-Zionist) rabbis, like Rabbi Shlomo Aviner,” says Kolatch.
Following his time in Israel, Kolatch returned to the US to begin his psychology major at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York. He had the honor of studying under Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who he describes as “a brilliant intellectual, an excellent teacher and an ethical and moral role model.”
With past college credits under his belt, Kolatch graduated YU in two years and went on to receive rabbinic ordination four years later, from the legendary Torah scholar, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, with whom he studied.
“I feel that the influence of these two great rabbis was a continuation of the values I received from my parents,” says Kolatch.
In 1973, Kolatch and a friend were sent to Russia on a mission to meet with young Jewish refuseniks and bring back stories of their plight. He was 23 and willing to take risks. But he wasn’t ready for being arrested by the KGB and put under house arrest for some 36 hours.
“They interrogated us separately and threatened to send us to Siberia,” he recalls. “In the end, they took our film and threw us out of the country.”

FOLLOWING HIS rabbinic ordination, Kolatch returned to Israel for a year as a dorm counselor in a post-high school yeshiva for boys and to study at Yeshivat Alon Shvut. The next year he returned to New York and worked with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at the new Lincoln Square Yeshiva for newly religious young adults. “The West Side Orthodox scene was flourishing and it was a really interesting time,” he says.
From there, Kolatch went on to study at YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, following in the footsteps of his mother, Mollie. He was then off to Australia through the YU’s Counterpoint program to teach in Melbourne. Upon his return, he was recruited by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to be the assistant director of a new YU Yeshiva in Los Angeles for college-aged men interested in learning about Torah and Judaism, headed by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman.
“I loved my work reaching out to young men from different backgrounds and outlooks and inspiring them to connect with Jewish learning,” says Kolatch.
However, Kolatch returned to New York to immerse himself in the dating scene and get married. He met his wife Brenda, a talented biology major and pharmaceutical researcher, and they married in 1983. But not before Kolatch volunteered for the Israeli army during the First Lebanon War in 1982.
“I was 30 years old and sent to the Golan Heights with other volunteers with a unit of 18-year-olds,” he laughs. “They taught us how to shoot and woke us up for drills in the middle of night. After two months of this, I was exhausted.”
He and Brenda moved to Queens where they lived for the next 10 years. Kolatch worked as an individual and family therapist for the Jewish Community Services of Long Island and as a rabbi at a Yeshiva High School.
IN 1993, he and Brenda decided to make aliyah. They arrived in November with their three young children and an infant. “It was a tough landing,” says Kolatch.
The Kolatch’s youngest daughter was born in Jerusalem, and the family of seven settled in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. For eight years, he worked as a mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counselor) at the David Shapell College for Jewish Studies. He loved the high level of teaching and working with the English-speaking students. Brenda went on to build a career in the pharmaceutical industry, working for Teva for many years.
While at Shapells, Kolatch saw a thirst among his students to learn about traditional Jewish Bible commentary and the broad range of commentators throughout history. There was no such book available in English, so Kolatch decided to write one. Thus, his ongoing work, Masters of the Word, was born.
After years of research and writing, Kolatch published his first volume in 2006 and his second volume in 2007. The pioneering books “analyze the unique method and style of each commentator against the backdrop of his time and place, through the weekly Torah portion.”
“These books combine my love of the commentators, of Torah and of Jewish history, which is fascinating. The first two volumes were like giving birth, but it is so exciting to see them finally out there for everyone to read.”
Professor Amos Frisch of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Bible Studies wrote in his review of the first volume, “Masters of the Word is a book that takes the reader deep into the world of the classic Bible commentators. Progressing from chapter to chapter, you move forward not just historically from commentator to commentator, but textually from parashah to parashah throughout the Chumash.”
Rabbi Berel Wein writes in his review, “There is no doubt that anyone perusing this work will gain a great deal of Torah knowledge and inspiration as well as necessary basic knowledge of the Jewish past and its great leaders and scholars.”
Kolatch has completed the third volume, to be published in the coming months.
In addition to his writing, Kolatch teaches a weekly portion of the week class, in English, at the OU (Orthodox Union) Center. For 12 years, he has enthralled and inspired his students, men and women, in a weekly three-hour walk through Jewish commentary and history. From Chazal, the Zohar, Rashi, Ramban, Rambam and Chachmei Ashkenaz to Kli Yakar, the Maharal, Rabbi Hirsch, Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Kolatch chooses one sentence in the text and proceeds to explain the many and varied interpretations of the commentators.
“I have three goals in my class,” explains Kolatch. “To show the depth of the Torah and how many different ways there are to view one statement; to show the commentators as heroes – these are the intellectual and heroic leaders of the Jewish people; and to learn Jewish history and see it come alive through the commentators.”

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