Changes in open Orthodoxy


This is a season of change for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in 1999. Chovevei’s president of five years, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, has moved on, having announced his unexpected resignation in 2017. Lopatin is now in Detroit, working as the director of the Detroit National Center for Civil Discourse and as the new rabbi of the Modern Orthodox Kehillat Etz Chayim.

The smart money is that Lopatin will be succeeded by Rabbi Dov Linzer, the long-time rosh hayeshiva of Chovevei. Linzer was present at the yeshiva’s founding with Weiss, and became dean in 2007. With Rabbi Jon Kelsen now serving as interim dean, Linzer will be freed up to step into the important fundraising and public relations roles of president.

With Linzer at the helm, Chovevei would retain its institutional memory and a steady hand. But it remains to be seen whether Linzer is up to the organizational challenges, and to see what would remain of the radical DNA Weiss infused into the institution. Always a disrupter and boundary pusher, Weiss and the institutions he founded have ruffled more than just the feathers of much of the Modern Orthodox world. And to the haredi Orthodox world, Weiss and company are simply beyond the pale, and are viewed with the same dismissive attitude that they display regarding Reform and Conservative Jews.

For this reason and others, the larger Jewish community views Weiss’ Orthodoxy, often called open Orthodoxy, with both interest and a degree of amusement. Will Linzer, with his deep Torah scholarship, steer the institution into safe waters, or will he follow the founding path of Weiss, and continue to roil the Orthodox world with creative and edgy innovations?

Among the leadership options Yeshivat Chovevei Torah could have considered — particularly given its history — would have been to appoint a woman as president. That would have been a step forward in open Orthodoxy’s promotion of women as scholars and spiritual leaders. Yeshivat Maharat, also founded by Weiss, has been graduating female rabbis under one name or another for several years. And one of those graduates, Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter, assistant spiritual leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md., recently announced that she will be leaving the Washington area to establish her own congregation in Philadelphia — marking only the second time a female Orthodox rabbi has founded her own synagogue.

Such a role for an Orthodox woman would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And for the liberal wing of the
Modern Orthodox community, it’s a welcome development and a sign that women, with increasing frequency, will be taking roles as spiritual, halachic and institutional leaders.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Rabbi Avi Weiss have been agents of change in the Modern Orthodox world. And now, with the expected leadership transition to Linzer, the institutional agent of change will itself go through a significant adjustment and change.

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