Rabbi Nissan Antine, 44, leads Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac. He’s an Orthodox rabbi guiding an Orthodox synagogue. But Antine still likes to quote one of his former teachers, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of the Open Orthodoxy movement, which calls for more flexibility and interpretation with regard to halachah.
“I’m an Orthodox rabbi,” Antine said. “But I’m not just a rabbi for Orthodox Jews.”
How do you make the connection between your Orthodox community and Jews from less traditional backgrounds who nonetheless come to you seeking religion?
One of the beautiful qualities of Orthodox Judaism is that our communities are built on being within walking distance of a synagogue. Families with strollers and children. People know each other. They know where they live. It creates strong communal bonds, which people are seeking out.
The problems of isolation were present before COVID and were getting worse. COVID moved them along. The answer to that is community. People coming to services. People celebrating a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah. And people who are going through difficult things. Like if someone comes on Friday night during a shivah. It’s the kind of connection that can’t happen on Zoom.
What were the reasons for that increase?
A lot of people in the beginning of COVID were trying to run away from urban environments. But once a bunch of families started moving in, the word got out. They are looking for exactly this. A community that has the full services of a synagogue and lots of young families.
In the early days of COVID we were doing almost nothing. Just outside Shabbat services. Even during winter. And all of these people showed up. Even people who hadn’t been here before. People were members for a year before setting foot inside the building. A lot of them grew up Orthodox. But lots of them were Conservative and from different denominations.
What is your approach to a new member who may not want to follow all of the Orthodox traditions?
I have people who are not observant but they want to learn Talmud. So we connect over that. We’re here for you. If people want to have more connection, we want to be there for them. But there are also people who grew up with full commitment and now they don’t want to live like that. But they still want to connect. I want to be there for that family also. We try to be there as much as we can within our understanding of Jewish law.
How did you develop this worldview?
My origin story is that my parents were not observant. And then in 1973 my father was listening to the radio and he heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson] speak. He said all Jewish men should put on tefillin to support the [Israeli] troops during the Yom Kippur War. My father went and did it for the first time since his bar mitzvah, and my parents became observant.
I grew up in a very religious environment. I went to the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. And I went to a yeshivah in Israel called Kol Torah. And in my 20s, I decided to leave that system and embrace more of a modern Orthodox approach to life. I had a lot of faith questions. How it worked, the nature of God, Torah. I came home from Israel and I went to the library and to the philosophy section. I took out books. Kant and Descartes and Plato. I didn’t have enough of a secular education to understand the texts. That’s why I went to college. I majored in philosophy and religion.
That opened me up to different ways of thinking about things. It made me understand that different people come at it from different angles. And that kind of informed my whole rabbinate. ■