08/07/2008, Riverdale Review
"It’s a glimpse of the future,” says Rav Steven of the construction site visible from the window of his tidy office in the Johnson Avenue private house that is now the administrative hub for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Soon to rise on the construction site is a new space for H.I.R., and Steven Exler, the congregation’s new associate rabbi, plans to zone that space as a home for spiritual growth. He’ll start the growth process by learning about his congregants. “My primary goal over the coming weeks and months is to build relationships with people,” said Exler.
The wiry, intense Brandeis biology major had considered a career in biomedical research. But after several years in a Jewish studies environment, he found that his yearning to be back in the bio lab was not strong enough to draw him toward the science professions. Instead he chose full-time service to the Jewish community, a direction he has chosen “in small ways” throughout childhood and college. “Jewish community service is the right thing for me,” he said.
The right thing when it came to rabbinical schools was Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (Lovers of Torah), founded in 1999 by H.I.R.’s Rabbi Avi Weiss as a place to nurture a new kind of religious leadership. “The curriculum focuses not only on the breadth and depth of Torah knowledge but also on a practical working understanding of the process of ‘halacha’—Jewish law—and its application in community and synagogue life,” Exler explained. Religious growth, according to the school’s literature, “comes not through dogmatism but through questioning and struggle.”
Accordingly, a school ideology is that “any conversation can and should be had, that the things we’re not talking about need to be talked about, whatever they are. Whatever it is that we’re afraid to share with our friends, whatever we’re afraid to talk about for fear of being judged—if we’re thinking about them, others are thinking about them,” said Exler. “If you’re troubled by something, it should be talked about.”
Before he addresses the congregation to promote growth or other values, Exler plans to establish a rapport with individuals, at the Shabbat table and in other informal venues, to learn “what their relationship with the shul is like, what their relationship with the community is like, what their own personal Jewish journeys have been like, what keeps them up at night, what their values are.” He feels he will be better “heard at the pulpit” once congregants have a sense that he truly cares about them as individuals and that he will devote himself to their concerns. “My passion is serving the community,” said Exler, “and that’s something I want to be really clear about.”
He will then encourage honest discussion of topics such as mental illness, physical disability, fertility, or whatever issues he learns that people are finding it difficult or painful to deal with. Such “healthy conversations” should ultimately lead to spiritual growth in the form of heightened sensitivity and support for those in the community who need it.
Looking toward those outside the community, spiritual growth can take the form of political advocacy. “We should be pushing through whatever venues of legislation and power we have as a community and as citizens for the ways that we see Torah values expressed in our country and in our laws,” said Exler. Toward that end he became involved in Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), an advocacy organization that arose within the Modern Orthodox community.
“I see Uri L’Tzedek as a place that helps educate people around issues of social justice and creates conversation around them and raises awareness about them.” At monthly study sessions in Washington Heights, participants explore Jewish texts and learn about thinkers who have tackled social justice issues. Recently they became active on behalf of workers at Agriprocessors, the beleaguered Kosher meat production facility in Postville, Iowa. “Uri L’Tzedek has touched on issues from immigration to domestic workers—something that I care a lot about—to ethical production and consumption, to refugees,” said Exler. “To me that’s another thing that growth means: getting educated around issues of social justice and feeling empowered to find ways to act about them.”
Under the guidance of Rabbi Weiss, Exler shares some rabbinic duties with Sara Hurwitz, H.I.R’s “madricha ruchanit” (spiritual mentor). Hurwitz’s role has expanded to include more responsibilities in the educational, pastoral and life-cycle needs of the community. Particularly with personnel changes over the past several years, Hurwitz has provided continuity and concrete day-to-day advice. “I rely on her really, really heavily. She’s a real partner in the work that we do,” said Exler.
With this leadership team, H.I.R. will remain an institution where, as Exler describes it, “people from every background and walk of life who are drawn to a vibrant community of Jewish life can walk through these doors and feel that there is a place for them to connect and a way for them to connect."