Twenty years ago, as a pisher, 20-something Hillel professional in the US, I saw the living legend of Hillel directors approaching where I stood at Hillel’s International Center. I took a deep breath, reminded myself to look chill and said, “Mendel,* I’m Robby… good to see you… How are things?” He looked deep into my eyes and nailed me — “How are things? Things are horrifically awful, LOOK AROUND YOU! But, as for me, I am fine thanks, Robby.”
Reflecting on the past few weeks, I am actually better than fine. For the first time in a long time, I can say I am “gan eden.” But…wait for it… As I look around me, things are pretty much horrifically awful.
So what provoked this almost unprecedented “gan eden” feeling for me. I recently took on the role of CEO of Yashrut, working with Rav Daniel Landes, our founder and rosh yeshiva. Last week, we added 11 new rabbis to the world of Jewish leadership and Torah education. We added light to Am Yisrael. And yes, we ordained a gay Orthodox rabbi — Rabbi Daniel Atwood, a wise-beyond-his-years, passionate, dedicated young Torah scholar, who will be a big part of taking Am Yisrael to a new and better place. More on that below.
But what is so horrifically awful about that which is around us today? Well, if we remove local, regional and worldwide politics from the discussion, the amount of hatred that seems to be filling every crevice of the earth these days and the current disengagement from individual and communal contribution to a better society, maybe things are not so bad after all.
In her commentary on Sefer Bamidbar/The Book of Numbers, Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz z”l called on several commentators of old to summarize the sefer. She cited the Ramban (Nachmanides, 14th c. Spain/Israel) who tells us that the book is concerned with temporary precepts commanded for the Jewish people’s stay in the wilderness/desert. The Abarbanel (15th c. Portugal, Spain, Italy), sees the point of the book as a display of Moshe’s leadership of the people of Israel during a time of journeying and temporary encampments.
Ramban also brings to the table that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that accompanied the Jews through their journeys was like a mobile Mt. Sinai — the most holy of places brought down to the land. In the Kuzari, 12th century philosopher and poet, Yehuda HaLevi, presents a human body metaphor of the Mishkan as the heart and the encampment as the rest of the body.
So where do living in temporary encampments, Moshe’s leadership and the holiness of the Mishkan, intersect with ordination of an out-of-the-closet Orthodox rabbi? Rabbi Atwood is one of 11 ordainees from last week who join another 32 rabbis who received the same semikhah from Rav Landes in previous years. This diverse group of serious, talented scholars shares in common leadership abilities, a commitment to living a serious and inspired Jewish life and the desire to bring the most core holiness possible to Am Yisrael and the world around us.
Going back a few months, I recall sitting with Rav Landes as we discussed who was a special enough leader that s/he could address the musmachim/ot at the Semikhah Tekes. We thought about who was about Yashrut — Integrity, we thought about who could inspire leadership for others. We said, we need a game-changer (Hebrew : גיים צ’יינג’ר). That superstar jumped out at us in a walk through the shuk — a sighting of Rav Aharon Leibowitz — Leader, Scholar, Activist, Do-Gooder and we knew we had found our speaker and the inaugural Yashrut Game-Changer Award recipient. (See more on this here.)
So how is Yashrut going to contribute to changing the game — to bringing holiness to our encampments? How is Yashrut going to give a little sip of the Mishkan to those in the most arid of deserts, the most distant of wildernesses? The first answer shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are going to praise and push the Torah, we are going to tackle texts that allow us to feel holiness, we are going to make the new ante, a commitment to Yashrut — to straightness, to integrity.
We are going to provide classrooms with educators who are nothing short of awesome. We will supply the builders of the best Torah learning institutions around the world with open doors to those who crave being a Jewish people steeped in Yashrut. We are going to lead shuls, minyans, beit midrash programs, camp programs, Jewish spirituality and meditation centers. We are going to be CEOs of Jewish schools and Jewish Federations.
We are going to teach students of all ages and backgrounds — from those who think of dreidels when you reference Jewishness to those who are the top volunteer leaders of the most impressive jewish organizations in the world. We are going to bring our successful beit midrash experiences into academia and become impactful professors on university campuses.
One could say that this is a tall order, but guess what? Every position/organization referenced above reflects current positions held by musmachim/ot of Rav Landes — more than 40 of them total (with more in the pipeline). These rabbis are already in these positions of leadership to inspire and to change the game.
At a time when so much of day-to-day existence can feel like we are living in Fight Club or, to be a bit more current, we are setting ourselves up for a spiritual post concussion syndrome down the road that could batter our souls into oblivion, we have to change the game — to save lives and to save souls.
So join us in making moves toward gan eden and committing to getting rid of the drek around us. Where we are today is not about Gay — it is about straight — about straightness, about integrity — an integrity that needs to be renewed within our people. We were stuck in the desert for 40 years because we had not bought into yashrut — we may very well be there again — let’s get out of there — let’s change the game.
*Name changed to protect identity of professional and make her/him sound Jewier.