After a lengthy courtship, Moshe (Martin) Ritholtz and the Land of Israel finally tied the knot when he and his wife, Anne, immigrated from New York in February.
Ritholtz, a retired judge and ordained rabbi, describes his decades-long connection with Israel as “dating.” Now he is like a happy newlywed, living in Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood not far from his sister.
The view from his apartment is spectacular, but he is not content to gaze on the city from afar. Each weekday he joins a 4 a.m. carpool to the Western Wall for early morning prayers. He describes how a hush descends on the crowd with the rising of the sun.
“That silence is the unity of klal Yisrael [the people of Israel]. That’s my Israel experience.”
He has seen himself in shades of blue and white for as long as he can remember.
The son of a lawyer/rabbi/cantor/dayschool principal in central New Jersey, Ritholtz commuted to yeshiva in Brooklyn from the age of 11. During his high school years at the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy of Yeshiva University, he often traveled to Madison Square Garden to collect money in a Jewish National Fund blue-and-white box. He donated his summer earnings, from delivering camp trunks, to an organization that introduced new Israeli immigrants to religious communities.
His first trip to Israel in 1963 was a post-high school year of study at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, where his illustrious classmates included Gush Emunim movement cofounder Hanan Porat.
Back in New York, Ritholtz became active in Columbia University’s chapter of the Yavneh religious college students association, eventually becoming national president.
“We set up a kosher eating club in Princeton [University] that’s still there, even though Yavneh is no longer around,” says Ritholtz, relating that Yavneh had to prove to the township that the dining and study hall was not a house of prayer, which would have violated zoning laws.
During the summers he studied at “black hat” yeshivot to prepare for his next step: two years at Ponevezh, from 1968 to 1970. It wasn’t often that Ponevezh had a Columbia alumnus among its students. He came out with rabbinical credentials and then studied another few months in New York to get ordination from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein as well.
Then he went back to Jerusalem to begin law school at the Hebrew University.
“There were five ‘Anglo-Saxons’ out of 150 students, and we were allowed an extra half hour on our exams,” he relates.
“My conversational Hebrew, even now, needs polishing, but my reading is great.”
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, Ritholtz and several friends volunteered to sing for the troops and even recorded two albums.
After graduating in 1974, he apprenticed in the Justice Ministry’s Patent Office and later with Tel Aviv law firm S. Horowitz. He passed the Israeli bar in February 1975 and the New York bar shortly afterward.
In 1977, Ritholtz married Anne Rabinowitz from South Africa in a ceremony in the Quarter Café in Jerusalem’s Old City, with a reception afterward at the Holyland Hotel – long before the property was turned into luxury housing through a shady deal that would help put his former law school classmate Ehud Olmert in prison.
He and Anne were committed to aliya, but the time was not yet right. They settled in Queens, New York. She began a 32-year career as a preschool teacher and he became a law clerk to a judge in 1978 and was youth director at Kew Gardens Synagogue.
Among his young congregants was Lenny Solomon, who honed his songwriting skills at synagogue gatherings before founding Shlock Rock in 1986.
The band became such a hit in the Jewish world that Ritholtz was nicknamed “the Shlock Rock rebbe.”
During his years in New York’s civil court system, Ritholtz worked with Jewish, Irish, Italian and African-American judges, always proudly wearing a kippa. This was unusual in those days for courtroom lawyers, he says.
“My mother had told me to wear an Ivy League cap instead of a yarmulke but I did the opposite, and I had no problem throughout my entire career,” says Ritholtz. He was elected as a civil court judge in 1995, and in 2001 was elected to 14-year-term on the state supreme court. He ran for reelection and served one more year, after which he and Anne decided they were ready for the big move.
“I could have stayed another six years till age 76, but I figured, why delay something that was part of our engagement vows and engraved in our hearts? It was not easy leaving the bench after working in the system for 38 years, but we were committed to making aliya.”
Another complication he overcame on this path to Israel was his chronic back problem.
“I was told to have spinal surgery by top surgeons, and I decided not to because it would delay our aliya,” says Ritholtz. “Now I walk every day over hill and dale in Jerusalem, 10,000 to 20,000 steps per day. In the Sha’arei Hessed community, on every other block there is a beautiful bench on which to sit and rest. I love it here.”
Ritholtz works as special counsel for Shiboleth LLP, founded by fellow Hebrew University law-school graduate Amnon Shiboleth. Its Israeli affiliate, Shibolet & Co., is based in Tel Aviv.
Ritholtz will argue a motion in front of the New York Supreme Court for Shiboleth in August, and in the fall he will add another item to his Israeli CV: teaching a course in US constitutional law, in English, at Bar-Ilan University’s law school.
The Ritholtzes have three grown children in the New York area: a married son and daughter and a single son, and eight grandchildren. They also have a married son living in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood and another in Givat Ze’ev, with a total of five Israeli grandchildren. Ritholtz studies Talmud every day with his son from Ramat Eshkol.
He says that his first true “aliya moment” occurred on the second day of Passover, when for the first time in his married life he realized there would be no second Seder. This was the moment he felt Israeli, even though his identity card had not yet arrived.
“The fact that we are here means the ‘marriage’ has happened. I’m no longer dating Israel; I am married to it,” Ritholtz says with obvious joy..