Orthodox rabbis to discuss role of women, US/Israel relations at local conference

Hundreds of Orthodox rabbis will gather at Young Israel of Scarsdale synagogue on Sunday for a three-day conference that will tackle some high-profile issues.

The occasion will be the national conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents rabbis who come from the world of what’s known as “modern Orthodox” Judaism. The RCA is sort of the rabbinical wing of the Orthodox Union.

tjndc5-5jkqaekps2a10xpg7gda_layoutIt is certain to be a bittersweet gathering in many ways, since Young Israel’s late leader, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, was a former president of the RCA. Rubenstein, a prominent figure in the modern Orthodox community, and his wife, Deborah, died in a house fire in 2008.

According to the Jewish Week, the rabbis are expected to adopt some sort of statement on the role of women in modern Orthodox congregations.

Orthodox Judaism does not currently ordain female rabbis, although some would like to see this tradition change. It’s not going to.

But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling on the RCA to “enable women in positions of communal religious leadership.” There could be some change in this area, but many traditionalists would prefer for things to stay as they are — with synagogue life run by men.

“I believe there is a reservoir of goodwill among our members, and people will be pleasantly impressed with the outcome,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., who is expected to be re-elected first vice president, tells the JW.

A recent RCA statement about the role of women included this:


The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah of the Jewish people.


MHsmallIn addition, at a time when many Jews are concerned about President Obama’s tougher than usual stance with Israel on housing/settlement issues, the conference’s featured speaker will be Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He will speak about “Israel and America: The Defining Challenges, and the Role of the Orthodox Rabbinate.”

Another recent RCA statement included this:


But none of that can explain the disproportionate, extraordinary, and unwarranted response by some spokesmen of the Obama administration in excoriating, condemning, and publicly lashing out at the duly elected representatives of the sovereign State of Israel.

There is no justification, neither on moral nor on diplomatic grounds, for escalating this policy disagreement into what some in the administration have called (to quote just one such phrase) “an affront to America.”

Almost a year since the fire

Next week — Sunday, April 12 — will be the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein and his wife, Deborah.

They died in a nightime house fire that left their community of Young Israel of Scarsdale in shock and terrible grief.

Several months later, as the High Holidays approached, I wrote about how the congregation was coping.

Now, Judith Lederman, a member of the congregation and a public relations pro, has been writing on her blog about the upcoming anniversary.

She started with remembering the day:


Some moments hang in the air with the vivid memory of the odor of dank smoke for a lifetime, maybe more.  My motto is, “Crumbling is not an option!” But that day I crumbled.  Fell to my knees at the gates of the synagogue in agony.  My Rabbi, my mentor, my confidant, my father-figure, my friend.  His wife – the woman who complimented me, supported me.

Lightening struck their house, they were gone – forever.

Saturday – THAT holy Saturday – the Saturday before Passover, the holiday of renewal and liberation – it is supposed to be a day of rest, of anticipation, of excitement.  Mourning is forbidden on Saturday.  Sniffles, sobs, and choking sounds filled the sanctuary as we all tried to maintain a semblance of peace, the kind that is never supposed to be blighted by the horrific tear in the fabric of a community.

A synagogue mourns and moves on

It was one week before the pope’s arrival in the U.S. and I was resting up a bit.

But I got a call from the office that a local rabbi had been killed in a house fire. Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein of Young Israel of Scarsdale.

It took a couple of minutes to sink it. I had interviewed Rubenstein many times about all sorts of things. He was a very prominent man.

rabbi_small.jpgEven in a roomful of sharp, charismatic rabbis, Rubenstein had stood out. He was passionate about Judaism — and about living life as an Orthodox Jew — but he was able to reach out to Jews from very different perspectives. He was an impressive man.

He died, along with his wife, Deborah, in a house fire started by a lightning strike.

The months went by. Last week, with the High Holy Days approaching, I visited Young Israel to talk to Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern — who had assisted Rubenstein for eight years — about how the congregation has mourned, coped and moved forward.

My article ran on LoHud/The Journal News a couple of days ago.

Morgenstern has been chosen by the congregation to succeed Rubenstein. It’s not official yet, but soon will be. He, too, is an impressive fellow.

And he’s only 30 years old. That’s 30…years…old.

Morgenstern came to Young Israel before was even ordained and has grown up there as a rabbi. He absorbed Rubenstein’s lessons — spoken and by example — for more than a quarter of his life.

You have to believe that Rubenstein’s leadership will somehow remain alive through Morgenstern.

How does one explain?

Rabbi Jacob S. Rubenstein.

He was born in Germany, but his family was “displaced” to Memphis.

rabbi_small.jpgHe dedicated himself to education — Jewish education and secular education. I once heard him say that when he got accepted to Harvard for grad school, he called his immigrant parents excitedly and they said “What’s Harvard?”

He was deeply committed, with every fiber of his being, as they say, to traditional Judaism. And he would gladly tell you why, if you asked.

He built Young Israel of Scarsdale into a large and vibrant community, the kind of congregation, I would imagine, that most congregations would like to be.

He worked tirelessly to greet and get to know his fellow Jews, no matter their level of religious observance. He would not gloss over differences, but would focus on what all Jews have in common.

small-sh041308funeral011.jpgHe was tremendously smart, kind and committed to all he held dear.

On the Shabbat before Passover, his home is apparently struck by lightning. It catches on fire. No one notices. The rabbi and his beloved wife, Deborah, cannot escape.

What does one make of this?

I wish that I could ask Rabbi Jacob S. Rubenstein. He would have an answer.

Several years ago, speaking about Yizkor, a memorial service said on Yom Kippur, the rabbi said:

Yizkor is more than a prayer. It is reliving the beauty and pain…the disappointments and the joys…the laughter and the tears. It is reliving the excruciating moments of grieving and the exhilaration with another who is no longer with us.

It is remember the gravesite and opening the well of tears. The shiva…the pain…the kaddish…the loneliness.

Yizkor is a conversation.

Can we hear them say, “There is a piece of me I left behind in you?”

And we say, “There is a piece of me that you took with you and I shall never be the same.”