Israeli settlement founder Rabbi Riskin talks 40 years of Efrat

The ‘Magazine’ sat down with founding father Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin and wife Vicky to discuss the celebrated realization of their vision, and their concerns.

 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin laid the cornerstone for Efrat in 1980, occupancy began in 1983. (photo credit: Sippur Mekomi Archives)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin laid the cornerstone for Efrat in 1980, occupancy began in 1983.
(photo credit: Sippur Mekomi Archives)

From the early days of their courtship, the desire to make aliyah and create a life in Israel burned passionately within Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, now 83, and his beloved wife, Vicky.

As they sat on the bench alongside New York’s Queens Boulevard, their hearts brimming with dreams, the topic of aliyah danced between them, each word painting a vivid picture of their shared destiny. “Preparing for aliyah was woven into the very fabric of our relationship,” Vicky revealed, her voice filled with a mix of nostalgia and excitement. With unwavering conviction, Rabbi Riskin added, “Living in Israel was never a mere possibility; it was an undeniable truth that permeated every corner of our thoughts. The ‘how’ and ‘when’ remained mysteries, but the certainty of our eventual journey held no doubt – none whatsoever.”

Amid the celebratory ambiance of the dinner honoring Riskin and his wife as esteemed founders of Efrat, the Magazine seized the opportunity for an intimate interview. It was a momentous occasion, marking precisely 40 years since the inception of the metropolis they helped establish. Time seemed to have barely touched Riskin, his appearance still resembling that of the vibrant figure from decades past, his jet-black hair a striking contrast against his tailored suit. However, the toll of recent years had left its mark, as his speech, once quick and resolute, now carried a hint of hesitancy. Graciously by his side, Vicky provided unwavering support, her presence serving as a steadfast anchor, gently guiding him through the reminiscences and weaving together the intricate tapestry of stories and facts.

Their aliyah had become even more realistic when young Riskin met Moshe “Moshko” Moskowitz, founder of the Gush Etzion settlements. “I met Moshko and he was the enabler, because until then I had no idea how this would actually happen.”

As opposed to the other settlements in Gush Etzion, Efrat is not only the largest, but also the most homogeneous. It has a high percentage of olim from English-speaking countries, mainly the US, but also many Sabras. What is specifically unique to Efrat is that there was never a selection committee that determined who was fit to live there and therefore; not all residents are, or have been, religious.

 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (at home with portrait of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (at home with portrait of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor emeritus and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone (OTS), was born in Brooklyn. He graduated with top honors from Yeshiva University, majoring in Greek, Latin and English literature. He pursued further studies, earning rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, obtained a master’s degree in Jewish history and a PhD from New York University.

As the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, Riskin created a vibrant center for Modern Orthodoxy, attracting intellectuals and professionals. He became a role model for social action, championing civil rights and advocating for Soviet Jewry. Notably, he pioneered the first women’s Advanced Talmud Study program and conducted the first synagogue service for women by women in the early 1970s, establishing himself as a leading spokesperson for Modern Orthodoxy.

Reflecting on the pivotal moment when they revealed their decision to make aliyah and embark on a new chapter in Israel, Riskin and his wife recounted a journey of gradual revelation.

With a mix of understanding and confusion among their community and students in New York, the couple engaged in countless conversations about their aspirations. Vicky chuckled, reminiscing about the whimsical Purim celebration when they playfully dressed as an El Al pilot and flight attendant, a light-hearted hint at their impending adventure. Then came the sabbatical, a transformative period that propelled them forward, leaving behind the familiar and embracing the unknown with unwavering determination. From that point on, there was no looking back.

In 1983, Riskin made aliyah and became the founding rabbi of Efrat, a thriving town with nearly 15,000 residents in Gush Etzion. There, he established the Yeshiva High School of Neve Shmuel, which marked the beginning of the Ohr Torah Stone network. This network has since expanded to include 27 educational institutions, women’s empowerment programs, leadership development initiatives, outreach projects and social action endeavors.

Asked if his intention from the founding of Efrat that it be a mixed community of secular and observant residents, Riskin responded that he is uncomfortable with “labeling” people. “We accept everybody,” he immediately said. “I would have been very disappointed that non-observant Jews not come to Efrat and, thank God, in most cases, when a non-observant family comes into the community, they become observant.”

Asked if this was part of his original idea, to connect between religious and secular Jews, Riskin said “we wanted to be a community where everybody is welcome,and feels welcome, especially within the synagogue life.”

Riskin disclosed that when he and his family first arrived in Efrat 40 years ago, there were a small number of families living there, most of whom weren’t religious. “Originally the majority of the people were not really observant. I don’t think they were involved in shul life.”

Vicky shared that at a certain point, there was an initiative to close off Efrat on Shabbat and create a gate in order for cars not to be able to enter the municipality on the Sabbath. Riskin was against it right away and the gate was removed. She laughs by saying, “I’m probably one of the only people that still sees the remains of the base of this gate on the sidewalk where it existed.” Riskin explained that he was always “very much, very much against it for many, many reasons, one of them being acceptance of everybody.” He continued by saying that an additional reason was so that the non-observant children of these religious inhabitants would be able to come for a Shabbat meal. “If there is a religious family and they have children who are not shomer Shabbos, the only way they would visit and sit at this Shabbat table would be if the gate is open for them. I certainly would urge the children to come home for Shabbat, to deal with these issues while sitting at the Shabbat table with their parents. If they wouldn’t be able to come, that would be terrible.”

When asked if decisions like these, such as not allowing the gate to be closed on Shabbat, caused backlash from the community, Riskin’s body language said it all: He was the community’s highest halachic figure and he wouldn’t be startled by any criticism.

“Generally, they didn’t question my decisions, but for instance, some individuals left the shul 40 years ago when we first put in the mehitza [partition between men and women].”

As mentioned, Riskin doesn’t like the labeling of Jews and categorizing them. “What does a ‘religious person’ even mean?” he asked. “There are some people who are extremely careful about mitzvot bein adam le’havero [interpersonal commandments] or about being kind to the old people. That’s as important as separate seating,” Riskin said, as if losing patience, not being able to understand why everyone doesn’t look at the world this way.

“I would like every Jew to feel comfortable in Efrat,” the rabbi added.

During the interview, this reporter asked the rabbi and his wife a number of times if they had any misgivings about leaving Manhattan, one of the most prestigious cities in the world, with a vibrant Jewish community, to go live on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere. Both of them wouldn’t hear of it and made it seem as if this dramatic change in quality of life and becoming “immigrants” wasn’t difficult, on the contrary. They both repeated how they were thrilled to become Israeli citizens and immediately went into their roles as rabbi and rebbetzin; the fact that they only got a phone about four months later wasn’t something they would have asked for, but that seemed to have been one of the only challenges they were willing to speak about, as well as some of the challenges their older children had upon making their aliyah.

During the years, many families from Lincoln Square Synagogue, as well as many of Riskin’s students from his days as a popular speaker in New York, followed in his footsteps and made aliyah, many of them to Efrat.

“Anybody who moved into Efrat understood the dangers,” he said, stating that even though the first and then second intifadas were dangerous and deadly at times, “they wanted to be here, and they did extremely, beautifully well. When I would speak publicly around the world, I sort of tried to sell Efrat, especially in South Africa, Australia and, of course, in America. So I constantly talked about the importance of aliyah and living in Israel. And, of course, the example of living in Efrat.”

Do you feel there’s been enough education toward aliyah in North America in the past few decades?

“Absolutely not. There is not enough education toward aliyah.

“I think it’s very important for people to understand that for Jews, living in Israel is critical. We have a great gift from God; we have to utilize it.

“Tragically most people don’t truly understand that if you are not strongly observant in an open society, the chances of continuing Judaism are very, very small,” Riskin said dramatically. Asked if this is the situation only in the Diaspora, or in Israel as well, the rabbi answered, “wherever you happen to live.”

He mentioned that he was once recognized by a media outlet as the “Chabad rabbi in a tailored suit,” because of his work to try and get more Jews closer to Judaism, but distinguished him for always being dressed in the best way possible. “We have invested strongly in outreach, and from that perspective, I’m very indebted to the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom

I consider one of my rabbis. Outreach is a tremendously important job not enough people understand; without Shabbat and yom tov [holidays]; without the rituals, remaining Jewish from generation to generation is a lost cause.”

Asked what his biggest accomplishment was in Efrat, Riskin immediately responded that “my greatest accomplishment in Efrat, is Efrat,” he said with a wide smile. “The individual whom I met decades ago; the one who told me ‘why aren’t you in Israel? You have so many students, why don’t you start a community?’

That was Moshko.

“And all of a sudden, because I desperately wanted to live in Israel and I wasn’t quite sure how I would get here, he lit a candle within me and I founded an organization called Reishit Geula, which attracted 190 individuals who made deposits of $1,500. Eventually, all of them made their way to Israel, with around 60 settling in Efrat. The interest in joining us extended beyond the boundaries of the synagogue itself, as word spread throughout the community.

“Initially, however, they didn’t join me right away. At the outset, many believed they were simply indulging me. Despite announcing my departure from the synagogue and my intention to move to Israel, they framed it as a one-year leave of absence, convinced that I would return with my plans thwarted. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Moving to Israel turned out to be the best decision of my life, second only to marrying my wife,” he said with a big smile.

Riskin emphasized the centrality of Israel in Judaism.

“The Torah says very clearly that in the Diaspora, there is no future for the Jews, so Israel is critically important.”

Responding to the original question about his accomplishments, Riskin said, “When I first came, people thought I was out of my mind. I was in Lincoln Center, a very fancy neighborhood and I was at Yeshiva University, teaching and writing. Why would I want to leave the Goldene Medina, where most of the Jews were living, in the US. But I understood then, as I do today, that there is no real future for us outside of Israel.”

In the near future or in the more distant future?

“Not even more distant.”

Is there anything that you haven’t achieved as rabbi of Efrat that disappoints you?

“I feel God has given me everything. I feel very blessed.”

A strong advocate for religious and cultural tolerance, he has actively fostered positive relationships with the leaders of the Palestinian villages neighboring Efrat. “Wadi an Nis was the village closest to us, and from the beginning we established very good relationships with religious leaders.” He speaks of a relationship that has been taking place for four decades as if it was easy and natural. “I would invite them to my house and have a dialogue. The relationships were always very good. They still come and visit.”

Was there a time that was more difficult to maintain this dialogue?

“No, because I always felt that there should be relationships, which are critically important, that we should try to understand each other and do everything that we can do to foster good relationships. The friendships are very real and it can continue for decades.”

Riskin related the topic to the recent violence Jewish activists in Judea and Samaria carried out against Palestinians, after the deadly terrorist attack outside of Eli. “I was very concerned recently,” he said cautiously. “We, in the settler community, dare not hurt any person in any way, because they have a right to [live] where they are living and we have a right to live where we are living. It’s crucial that we respect each other. Those who don’t understand are making grave mistakes, because the Jews and the Palestinians are destined to live on this land and we better do it in friendship.”

Riskin wouldn’t get into details, but disclosed that at times, this relationship has saved the lives of Jews.

As an example of friendship, Riskin said that his wife is very active in Machsan (Warehouse), an initiative to assist families without means to receive clothing. “We help the Arab Palestinian communities just like we help the Jewish communities. They are welcome to come and receive items but we also give them clothes when we have extra, for free, of course. You have to work at it.”

As a religious-Zionist rabbi, Riskin doesn’t love the fact a political party uses this title, speaking of the extreme right-wing Religious Zionist Party. While historically regarded as a politically moderate settlement, the Knesset elections of November 2022 witnessed an interesting shift in voting patterns. Surprisingly, nearly half of Efrat residents cast their votes in favor of RZP. “I’m not so happy with it,” he said, adding that “I’m a little disappointed, but I don’t want to get into it.”

Riskin has shattered barriers for Jewish women, empowering them to engage in high-level Jewish learning, spiritual leadership, halachic discourse, meaningful service in the IDF and advocacy for agunot (a Jewish woman who is separated from her husband but who is unable to obtain a legal Jewish divorce from him) in rabbinical courts.

He expanded women’s participation in public religious practices and co-founded Midreshet Lindenbaum, a renowned seminary for Orthodox women. Under his guidance, women were ordained as poskim (halachic decisors) and granted the authority to serve as advocates for agunot in the religious courts, leading to significant advancements in women’s roles and rights. 

Riskin backed the appointment of Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis, an alumna of the Midreshet Lindenbaum program, as the spiritual leader of the Shirat HaTamar synagogue in Efrat. This historic appointment marked the first time a woman assumed the role of sole leader in an Orthodox congregation in Israel.

Riskin said during the interview that even though a number of communities under his guidance allow women to lead the prayer services, in the presence of men, something that is considered to be unacceptable by most Orthodox rabbis, this isn’t groundbreaking, rather a stepping stone toward a world where women will be a lot more integrated in Jewish prayer.

“I had a long conversation with Rabbi Soloveitchik about teaching women Torah and he believed that we want to teach women Torah as much as they can take and at the highest of levels,” Riskin recalled. “He insisted that I visit the Maimonides high school in Brookline, [Massachusetts], where the women and men have the same curriculum, and they both should study Judaism on the highest of levels.”

He shared that he has a granddaughter who wanted to get an aliyah (make a blessing on a Torah scroll during a prayer service) for her bat mitzvah, something that isn’t usually acceptable in Orthodoxy. He allowed her to do so, but with one condition: that she take upon herself to hear the weekly Torah portion in synagogue every week, as the men do. According to Jewish law, women are exempt from all time-bound positive commandments, though there are many exceptions. He explained that the issue is mainly sociological and less halachic, but also said that since it is complex, he didn’t want to dive into the issue.

Riskin mentioned his wife Vicky many times throughout the interview, but asked to specifically speak of her as such: “My wife has not only been my partner, in many respects, my senior partner in every aspect, she gives many hours a week to the community.”