Perpendicular aliya

A rabbi, lawyer and educator continues his campaign to counter the 'Don't ask' mentality.

(photo credit: REBECCA KOLWALSKY)
‘We wanted to come to Israel while we were still perpendicular to the ground, not parallel to it,” quips Rabbi Avraham Moshe Kowalsky, who moved to Jerusalem in 2013 from Baltimore with his wife Sharon. At first glance, Kowalsky looks and sounds the part of the typical American haredi immigrant, with the requisite gray beard, black-rimmed glasses, black skullcap and Ashkenazic pronunciation. But after a few minutes of further observation, one senses that there is more than meets both the eye and the ear. There is something slightly subversive in the mind of this independent thinker.
Avraham Kowalsky was born 71 years ago, and as a child in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he and his siblings were the only Orthodox Jewish children in the Cape Cod town where their father, Shalom Kowalsky, served as the rabbi. In the fall of 1959, Kowalsky set off for Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He remained there for 11 years, graduating high school and eventually receiving rabbinic ordination. During that time, he attended law school at the University of Maryland, from which he graduated in 1970.
Sitting with Rabbi Kowalsky in his Jerusalem apartment, one gets the feeling that the wheels are constantly turning. He has a feisty, impish nature, and an independence of spirit that he traces to his beloved teacher and dean at Ner Israel, the late Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. The turning point in his approach to Jewish studies, he says, came after he had received ordination, when he began studying with Weinberg.
“I learned a new approach to the study of Torah, Tanach, Rambam and Rashi. Rabbi Weinberg was meticulous and forensic in his approach to the text.”
During his law-school years, Kowalsky and a few of his friends founded a new congregation in Baltimore, Shomrei Emunah. There were other synagogues in Baltimore and there was opposition, but Kowalsky felt that there was a need for a new congregation. The fledgling synagogue began with 10 families and Kowalsky served as rabbi. After finishing law school, he left the position, but remained as a prominent member of the congregation for many years. Today, the once-tiny congregation boasts more than 500 families.
Kowalsky then began a successful legal career that lasted more than 40 years, practicing both general and commercial law. In his first position, he worked at an eight-member firm, where he was the only Jewish member on staff. Kowalsky recalls the interview at his first position. The lawyers told him that being Catholic, they respected religion and fully understood his need to take off from work for the Jewish holidays. Kowalsky was hired, and eventually became a partner in the firm. Years later, one of the senior partners said to him jokingly, “We had no idea you had so many holidays. We knew about Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but we didn’t know anything about all the other ones, especially these seven- and eight-day holidays.”
When it came to his daughter’s education, Kowalsky again forged an independent path, despite opposition from some members of the community. His daughter was a student at the local Bais Yaakov high school in Baltimore, and he was unhappy with the school’s educational philosophy.
“The girls weren’t getting a broad approach to Torah. They were getting a narrow approach, and were not permitted to ask certain questions.”
Once again, Kowalsky decided to take action and founded Shaleves High School for Girls, which promoted and encouraged questions and curiosity as tools to further learning and implant Jewish values. He ran the school for four years, while still maintaining his legal practice, from 2001 to 2005, raising $250,000 per year to keep it running. After four years, he had to give it up and the school closed. “But,” he proudly says, “we left no debts.”
In 2006, Kowalsky and his wife purchased their apartment in central Jerusalem and moved to Israel in 2013.
“My desire to make aliya goes way back,” he says. His parents made aliya in 1982 and two of his younger siblings have lived in Israel for many years.
“Our father imbued in us a love of Eretz Yisrael.”
KOWALSKY HAPPILY spends his days praying, studying, teaching and writing. And, he hastens to add, he makes sure to spend time with his wife, joining her on shopping expeditions, and describing the two of them as “two old shleppers with a cart.”
Most afternoons, he works on his forthcoming book about Judaism, titled Intriguing Questions No One Asks.
Kowalsky assures his interviewer that the reason no one asks the questions is not because they are not worth asking, but because people are afraid to ask them.
“My criticism of the Orthodox world,” he declares, “is reflected in the book’s title – fear of questions. People are afraid of the questions, as if the Torah can’t defend itself.”
While Kowalsky doesn’t regret leaving Baltimore for Jerusalem, there are some things that he misses.
“The cost of aliya is leaving children and grandchildren behind,” he says. Both of his children live in the US and his five grandchildren are there as well. Each day, he recites a personal prayer in the amida in which he prays for their future arrival in Israel. As Kowalsky recites the prayer, the feelings and emotions behind the words are obvious.
He says that in Israel he feels much more spiritual. He prays daily in Beit Zvi, a 130-year-old synagogue on Agrippas Street, and while he enjoys the mixture of Americans, Israelis, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, he misses the sophistication and camaraderie of his Baltimore synagogue.
He has an open mind, and echoing a famous talmudic dictum, says that he learns the most from his students. In addition to his regular studies, Kowalsky studies Jewish law and Jewish philosophy daily via Skype with a newly observant friend who lives in Nahariya.
Though he has retired from the law, Kowalsky does not shy away from verbal sparring. He particularly enjoys inviting students from Jerusalem’s haredi Mir Yeshiva to his home to argue about Zionism and discuss the necessity of having an open mind and asking questions.
“Some of them are afraid to come here,” he laughs. “I ask them questions to point out issues that they cannot grapple with. I’m trying to enlighten them. I am a big advocate for Zionism – look at the miracle of this country,” he exclaims.
Avraham Kowalsky continues to think, question, cajole and teach – keeping in mind the motto of his late mentor, Rabbi Weinberg, to “pursue the truth.”