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.