(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A Circle in the Square: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue
By Edward Abramson
207 pages; $23.95
Nearly a quarter-century ago I attended the WUJS Institute, a half-year ulpan/Jewish studies program that just this autumn has been relocated from its original site in the Negev town of Arad to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
That period was a major influence in my decision to make aliya, a move linked to integrating Judaism into my life to a degree not before contemplated.
A key figure in that latter process was the WUJS resident rabbi and head of its Jewish studies program, Edward Abramson, an American oleh whom I found to be both a brilliant educator and dynamic spiritual inspiration. Although Abramson was a product of mainstream American Orthodoxy, a graduate of the Yeshiva University rabbinical program, in both classroom and synagogue he was able to effectively relate to and inspire the largely non-observant young adults who were attending WUJS - including me, who until that point had never personally encountered a vibrant Orthodox Judaism so open to both people and ideas outside of its own boundaries, while still remaining firmly committed to maintaining the traditional bounds of Halacha.
In discussions with Eddie, he was always quick to credit as his role model for this type of approach the mentor he referred to as his "rebbe" - Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Most Jerusalem Post readers today know Riskin primarily as a leading figure of Israel's Anglo-Orthodox community, founding father of the Gush Etzion community of Efrat, head of the several Jewish educational institutes he has developed here and, of course, author of this paper's weekly Torah portion column.
Prior to his making aliya, though, Riskin was the precocious boy-wonder of American-Jewish modern Orthodoxy. Abramson has now penned A Circle in the Square: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue, a biographical study of how Riskin developed his revolutionary style of Orthodox-Jewish outreach at New York City's Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) during the 1960s and '70s, and the huge impact it eventually had on the American-Jewish community as a whole (including myself indirectly, though I never stepped foot inside the place).
"Steven" Riskin came from outside the Orthodox fold, born and raised in a non-observant Brooklyn household, but deeply influenced by more traditional relatives and some of the Judaism teachers he encountered in adolescence. A Torah prodigy at YU and a favorite of the renowned scholar Yosef Soloveitchik, he initially envisioned for himself a future spent more as an academic than a congregational rabbi.
Fate intervened though when a new shul on New York's Upper West Side sent out word it was looking for a rabbi. In a fascinating chapter, Abramson details how LSS was initially created as part of an ambitious urban-renewal real estate scheme (only in New York!). In 1964, the developers of a new condominium complex called Lincoln Towers, built as part of a larger municipal effort to gentrify what had become a moribund slum area, decided it would be advantageous to provide a location for a small, fledgling local congregation in the hope of attracting more upscale Jewish tenants.
Riskin was offered the rabbi's position, a job that came with the plum bonus of a NYC apartment. There was a big problem though: LSS was then a Conservative congregation, crucially lacking a mehitza, the synagogue separation of the genders mandated by Halacha. After consulting with Soloveitchik, Riskin decided to take the job on a conditional trial basis, not moving into the community or even praying together with the congregation in the synagogue until he had convinced LSS to institute a mehitza - which a year later, it did.
In short time LSS was drawing standing-room-only crowds, many sophisticated young urban Jews who rarely attended synagogue regularly. They were attracted by Riskin's dynamic personality both in and away from the pulpit, combined with a number of approaches innovative for the modern Orthodoxy of the day.
Instead of straightforward Shabbat Parshat Hashavua readings, "between each of the sections... [Riskin] would present a question on the Torah reading that was ask or implied by the traditional commentaries, and would extrapolate from the answer a meaningful idea," thus transforming "what essentially would have been a prolonged period of Hebrew reading, incomprehensible to virtually everybody in the congregation, into a meaningful, intellectual and spiritual experience."
Having been inspired by the uplifting prayer melodies created by the
legendary "singing rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, Riskin also sought out a cantor [Sherwood Goffin] "who was able to blend spirituality with music like Carlebach, and who could do musically what he was doing verbally - to create conditions within the synagogue for spirituality."
Riskin used Friday night and Saturday afternoon meals at his home as an outreach tool for Jews who had never had a genuine Shabbat experience; started a hugely popular adult-education Jewish studies program, including a course on the then rarely discussed subject of the traditional Jewish view toward love and sexuality (and had his wife Vicky teach such classes geared specifically for female participants); pushed women's participation in prayer and Torah study to the boundaries of Halacha (though never over); involved his congregation in the still-fledgling Soviet Jewry movement; and many other activities that, while today a normative feature of modern Orthodox congregations, were then fresh and exciting.
LSS became a local phenomenon, and Riskin was hailed in the press as the "Stevie Wonder" of New York Jewry. While the synagogue's success was a major factor in the transformation of the Upper West Side into the beating heart of the city's observant Jewish community, it's impact as a template for other shuls went out far beyond Manhattan. As Abramson writes: "Orthodox synagogues in the mid-1960s... were failing miserably at revealing the inherent spirituality of Judaism and the compelling force of Jewish law to young, non-Observant Jewish professionals. Therefore, the survival of modern Orthodoxy on any serious scale was in jeopardy.
"Without the Lincoln Square 'happening,' the future of modern Orthodoxy in America might have been severely threatened. This is true not just because of the numerous young (and some older) professionals at Lincoln Square who became religiously observant. It is true because Lincoln Square Synagogue was responsible for an unprecedented breakthrough in modern Orthodox thinking. For the first time, outreach to the uncommitted become part and parcel of an Orthodox synagogue's planning, thinking and programming."
That's a heavy claim to make, and for the most part Abramson backs it up; his book is written with deeper research and far more scholarly rigor than the usual rabbinical hagiography.
Yet in his effort to make his case - or just out of sheer unabashed admiration for Riskin - Abramson doesn't give due credit to similar significant efforts in Jewish spiritual outreach that were concurrent with the rise of LSS, even when he mentions them - such as Chabad and the havura movement.
Nor, perhaps out of respect to his mentor, does he pay sufficient attention to some aspects of LSS that deserve more critical examination. Abramson notes approvingly how Riskin's shul became especially known as a popular meeting ground for young Jewish singles - adding that he met his own wife there. But conspicuous by it s absence in these pages is Lincoln Square Synagogue's well-known, not-quite-flattering nickname: the "wink-and-stare" synagogue, a specific reference to seating arrangements for men and women that were segregated but egalitarian, "with a rather inconspicuous partition dividing them," that apparently provided opportunity for congregants to check out prospects of a somewhat less spiritual nature.
Abramson ends his book with Riskin's decision to make aliya in 1983, a move that shocked not only his own congregation, but the entire American modern Orthodox community. It's a shame this account ends there, for in many ways the most interesting parts of Riskin's story - including his conflicts with the hide-bound Israeli rabbinical establishment, the impressive growth of Efrat and his religious educational institutions, and the controversial political activities that include his arrest while leading an anti-Oslo demonstration - don't make it into this book. Given both Riskin's successes and failures in Israel thus far, I'd say a sequel is called for.