Dynamic rabbi's aim is to make Judaism relevant

Doreen Wachmann meets a go-ahead American rabbi whose Zionist fervour brought him to the UK for the triumphant Big Tent for Israel event

FOR American Jewry, which has a much shorter history than its British counterpart, 100 years is quite a landmark.

For an Orthodox organisation founded at a time when new immigrants to the USA were assimilating en masse and attaching themselves to the Reform movement, this is even more of an achievement.

It is no surprise therefore that following its recent centenary celebrations, Young Israel and the executive president of its national council, Rabbi Dr Pesach Lerner, are in triumphalist mood.

In 1911, when Young Israel was founded, existing Orthodox synagogues were failing to attract the young generation, most of whom had - for economic reasons - to work on Shabbat and were turned off by the Yiddish spoken in the existing shtiebels and their ineligibility for synagogal honours such as aliyot.

The founders of Young Israel began with the-then revolutionary concept of holding Friday night lectures in English, which succeeded in attracting thousands of participants.

Soon afterwards, a group of older teenagers formed a youth minyan which made Shabbat services more attractive by introducing more melodious tunes into their services and giving aliyot and opportunities to lead the services to all, irrespective of their age.

The two groups merged to form Young Israel, which today boasts a network of 150 synagogues in North America and 50 in Israel.

YI prides itself both in its ability to welcome all Jews, irrespective of the colour or shape of their headgear, as well as the high level of Jewish observance and integration into American life of most of its members.

The movement is also fervently Zionist and takes an activist role both in campaigning for the Jewish state with the American authorities as well as for equal work opportunities for Shabbat-observant Jews. It also took a leading role in the fight for Soviet Jewry.

Executive vice-president Rabbi Lerner grew up within Young Israel.

He said: "My family was an integral part of Young Israel of Cleveland. My parents met within the Young Israel community.

"My father was a multi-term president of Young Israel of Cleveland, as well as national council regional vice-president.

"I saw concern for the community in action in my home. My father was often at meetings related to the shul or Jewish day school. My mother would get calls on Friday afternoons to host college kids for Shabbat."

When, 20 years ago, after holding top executive positions in a host of American religious educational institutions, Rabbi Lerner was offered the YI top job, he jumped at it.

He says: "I grew up in Young Israel. The opportunity presented itself. I'm one for the challenge. My education has always been from home and from the school of responsibility to the community."

So with its inclusivist and integrationist ethos, how does Young Israel compare with Britain's United Synagogue and its associated synagogues?, I asked him.

Rabbi Lerner, who recently flew to Manchester to attend Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag's Big Tent for Israel despite the fact that its ban on rabbinic speakers meant he could not address a session, did not seem to know much about the United Synagogue except to state that he understood that many US members were not Torah-observant.

The contrast was, he said, "the bulk of our membership is shomrei Shabbat - their kids go to a Jewish day school and their kashrut is not an issue". Yet, on the other hand, he continued: "We pride ourselves that anyone can walk in the door and get a shalom aleichem.

"We welcome everybody in. You can walk in with a shtreimel, black hat, no hat, any colour yarmulke, and we welcome you."

And unlike its more reserved British synagogal counterpart, YI is aggressive in its campaigning for what it believes in government circles.

When I spoke to him, Rabbi Lerner had that week been on the phone with a Republican presidential candidate and a Republican Jewish outreach director at the White House, lobbying on behalf of Israel. Rabbi Lerner said: "We are mission-driven."

Acknowledging that religious Jews currently favour the Republican Party, he added: "Republicans can make a difference."

Young Israel's fervent Zionist tradition began when Jewish GIs returning from fighting in World War Two donated their weapons to the emerging state.

Since then, it has donated 200 Sifrei Torah to the IDF, campaigned against the Gaza evacuation and vehemently on behalf of Jonathan Pollard imprisoned in the US for spying for Israel.

And it was this Zionist fervour, which took Rabbi Lerner to Manchester last month. So what did the rabbi think of the conference at which he was not able to speak?

"This was not a problem," he said. "I was on the list to speak, but nobody was finally invited till they came to the agreement on the Big Tent.

"I accepted the guidelines and still came. My ego was not that big."

And Rabbi Lerner was overflowing in his praise for conference organiser Rabbi Guttentag.

He said: "One individual can make a difference. Rabbi Guttentag, one guy, look what he accomplished. He woke up the community. He made people who didn't want to think, think and he's not stopping.

"The conference was phenomenal for putting the issue of delegitimisation on the table. It awakened people to realise they have a responsibility they can't shirk."

But a definite right-winger when it comes to Israeli politics, Rabbi Lerner felt that "there were people there who didn't belong, those who claimed they were lovers of Israel but put in the critical 'but',"

"You don't have critical lovers of Britain or America - only of Israel. I love Israel, but I'll fight against everything she stands for. That's a contradiction in terms."

So what is Rabbi Lerner's vision for Young Israel's next century of existence?

He said: "We have to make Judaism relevant. The challenges for the Jewish community are immense.

"There are a lot of problems, a lot of challenges, the Internet, marriage problems, kids at risk and health issues.

"For the next generation to be active on Judaism or Zionism, we have to grow our shuls internally and externally. We have to use the collective clout of 20,000 families towards a greater responsibility in activism.

"My goal is the Jewish people and the land of Israel."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph