A Cir­cle in the Square: Rab­bi Shlo­mo Riskin Rein­vents the Synagogue

Edward Abram­son
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012
Both Rab­bi Shlo­mo Riskin and Rab­bi Haskel Look­stein are not only indi­vid­u­als who have dis­tin­guished them­selves in their cho­sen pro­fes­sion, but each in his own way has been an ide­al­is­tic vision­ary who as a result of their devo­tion and inno­va­tions, has left last­ing impres­sions on their respec­tive Man­hat­tan com­mu­ni­ties, Mod­ern Ortho­doxy in gen­er­al, and those for whom these men serve as mod­el spir­i­tu­al lead­ers and reli­gious edu­ca­tors. Since I myself have spent a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of my own life and career as a stu­dent, con­gre­gant, and teacher in insti­tu­tions asso­ci­at­ed with each of these men, the expe­ri­ence of read­ing these recent books by Med­off and Abram­son has been par­tic­u­lar­ly evoca­tive and a cat­a­lyst for self-reflec­tion. Each of us think that we are striv­ing to devel­op our own voice” regard­ing our pro­fes­sion­al activ­i­ties; often we assume that our styles and approach­es to our work are orig­i­nal and idio­syn­crat­ic, when in fact we are emu­lat­ing and even chan­nel­ing to some extent those who have served as our offi­cial and unof­fi­cial men­tors. Con­se­quent­ly, in terms of myself I under­stand as a result of these books the extent to which a suc­cess­ful rabbi’s ideas and approach­es can pro­found­ly affect not only the spe­cif­ic con­gre­gants and stu­dents with whom he inter­acts dai­ly, but also all of those who are taught and led by the rabbi’s stu­dents who them­selves decide to make the Rab­binate and Jew­ish edu­ca­tion their own pro­fes­sion­al endeav­ors. 

In cer­tain respects, Med­off and Abram­som make clear that the con­texts in which Rab­bis Look­stein and Riskin have devel­oped their Rab­binates are unique. R. Look­stein took an Ortho­dox con­gre­ga­tion and day school with a long his­to­ry on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and revi­tal­ized and invig­o­rat­ed these insti­tu­tions to the point where younger fam­i­lies became deeply engaged with Judaism and the syn­a­gogue and school expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant expan­sion of facil­i­ties, staff, and ser­vices. R. Riskin, on the oth­er hand, prac­ti­cal­ly sin­gle-hand­ed­ly cre­at­ed not only a con­gre­ga­tion but an entire vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty on the West Side, in an area where no Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue pre­vi­ous­ly exist­ed. Yet, both rab­bis, each in his own way, share many pri­or­i­ties and com­mit­ments. Each has inno­vat­ed out­reach to uncom­mit­ted Jews, some­thing that had not been char­ac­ter­is­tic of Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues, and each devot­ed great time and ener­gy to the point of risk­ing life and limb to advance the cause of Sovi­et Jew­ry, mod­el­ing con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish activism, ide­al­ism and con­cern for the oppressed and per­se­cut­ed. Each real­ized that Jew­ish edu­ca­tion was an impor­tant key to devel­op­ing Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity and com­mit­ment, devot­ing great time and effort to found­ing and devel­op­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, as well as stead­fast­ly advanc­ing the inter­ests of the State of Israel in their respec­tive syn­a­gogues and schools.

The two books both com­ple­ment and con­trast with one anoth­er, demon­strat­ing how lead­ers of spir­it and vision can live unique and pas­sion­ate lives of mer­it and achievement.

Addi­tion­al Books Fea­tured in Review

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions