A CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue

A CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue
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    A CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue


    by Edward Abramson


    Hardcover, 207 pages
    ISBN 13: 978-965-524-014-6
    publication: 2008


    A Circle in the Square tells the story of a project that by all the rules of logic should have failed, but instead succeeded wildly. In the 1960s, a time of deep religious and existential crisis, when the question of God's existence was being debated among people of all faiths, a young man fresh out of graduate school began teaching an ancient religion to its own members -- Jews who had little or no connection to Judaism.

    In 1964, when twenty-three-year-old Rabbi Steven Riskin became the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue on New York's Upper West Side, he had no set plan. Nevertheless, he revolutionized Orthodox Judaism by making it attractive and relevant to American Jews.

    Within these pages, readers will learn about Rabbi Riskin's unprecedented approach to adult Jewish education and his steadfast commitment to reaching out to each and every Jew within and beyond the four walls of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Rabbi Riskin also emphasized the importance of bringing heaven down to earth, and inviting God into the synagogue as a regular guest. A Circle in the Square is a spellbinding account of one man's profound influence on Orthodox Judaism -- an influence that is felt to this day.


    About the author:

    Rabbi Edward Abramson received a B.A. in English literature, an M.A. in Jewish history, and semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Yeshiva University. He and his mother, Anne, were early members of Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he met his future wife, Miriam.

    Rabbi Abramson served a congregation in Saratoga Springs, NY from 1973 to 1976, and was the principal of two Jewish day schools in the New York City area. He and his family made aliya to Israel in 1983, where he served as educational director of the World Union of Jewish Students in Arad. Later, he served in the same capacity at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Rabbi Abramson, who has also pursued business interests in Israel, served as an advisor on North American affairs for the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel.

    Through speaking, teaching, and writing, he has reached out to many audiences uninitiated in Torah study, and sees himself as an appreciative beneficiary of the Jewish outreach movement of the 1960s.

    Rabbi Abramson and his wife, Miriam, live in Jerusalem. They are the parents of three grown children and the grandparents of four.


    "What Rabbi Riskin was able to do was... to make the synagogue a haven and a heaven for people. The haven was a place that protected them, that allowed them to rethink the way they embraced society, and a place that gave them the energy to embrace society in a very creative way.... You felt a certain warm embrace because you had all these different individuals finding some form of cocoon in the institution. The heaven part was teaching them that religion was more than just the prayer experience. It was an intellectual rendezvous with God."
    -Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dean, Center for the Jewish Future, Yeshiva University


    "Rabbi Riskin was dealing with complex topics... and he was able to [transmit them] in language that was deep, articulate, and yet could touch the common folk.... He was on fire."
    -Rabbi Avi Weiss, Senior Rabbi, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and President, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah


    Praise for A Circle in the Square:

    Nearly a quarter-century ago I attended the WUJS Institute, a half-year ulpan/Jewish studies program that just this autumn has been relocated from its original site in the Negev town of Arad to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

    That period was a major influence in my decision to make aliya, a move linked to integrating Judaism into my life to a degree not before contemplated.

    A key figure in that latter process was the WUJS resident rabbi and head of its Jewish studies program, Edward Abramson, an American oleh whom I found to be both a brilliant educator and dynamic spiritual inspiration. Although Abramson was a product of mainstream American Orthodoxy, a graduate of the Yeshiva University rabbinical program, in both classroom and synagogue he was able to effectively relate to and inspire the largely non-observant young adults who were attending WUJS - including me, who until that point had never personally encountered a vibrant Orthodox Judaism so open to both people and ideas outside of its own boundaries, while still remaining firmly committed to maintaining the traditional bounds of Halacha.

    In discussions with Eddie, he was always quick to credit as his role model for this type of approach the mentor he referred to as his "rebbe" - Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

    Most Jerusalem Post readers today know Riskin primarily as a leading figure of Israel's Anglo-Orthodox community, founding father of the Gush Etzion community of Efrat, head of the several Jewish educational institutes he has developed here and, of course, author of this paper's weekly Torah portion column.

    Prior to his making aliya, though, Riskin was the precocious boy-wonder of American-Jewish modern Orthodoxy. Abramson has now penned A Circle in the Square: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reinvents the Synagogue, a biographical study of how Riskin developed his revolutionary style of Orthodox-Jewish outreach at New York City's Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) during the 1960s and '70s, and the huge impact it eventually had on the American-Jewish community as a whole (including myself indirectly, though I never stepped foot inside the place).

    "Steven" Riskin came from outside the Orthodox fold, born and raised in a non-observant Brooklyn household, but deeply influenced by more traditional relatives and some of the Judaism teachers he encountered in adolescence. A Torah prodigy at YU and a favorite of the renowned scholar Yosef Soloveitchik, he initially envisioned for himself a future spent more as an academic than a congregational rabbi.

    Fate intervened though when a new shul on New York's Upper West Side sent out word it was looking for a rabbi. In a fascinating chapter, Abramson details how LSS was initially created as part of an ambitious urban-renewal real estate scheme (only in New York!). In 1964, the developers of a new condominium complex called Lincoln Towers, built as part of a larger municipal effort to gentrify what had become a moribund slum area, decided it would be advantageous to provide a location for a small, fledgling local congregation in the hope of attracting more upscale Jewish tenants.

    Riskin was offered the rabbi's position, a job that came with the plum bonus of a NYC apartment. There was a big problem though: LSS was then a Conservative congregation, crucially lacking a mehitza, the synagogue separation of the genders mandated by Halacha. After consulting with Soloveitchik, Riskin decided to take the job on a conditional trial basis, not moving into the community or even praying together with the congregation in the synagogue until he had convinced LSS to institute a mehitza - which a year later, it did.

    In short time LSS was drawing standing-room-only crowds, many sophisticated young urban Jews who rarely attended synagogue regularly. They were attracted by Riskin's dynamic personality both in and away from the pulpit, combined with a number of approaches innovative for the modern Orthodoxy of the day.

    Instead of straightforward Shabbat Parshat Hashavua readings, "between each of the sections... [Riskin] would present a question on the Torah reading that was ask or implied by the traditional commentaries, and would extrapolate from the answer a meaningful idea," thus transforming "what essentially would have been a prolonged period of Hebrew reading, incomprehensible to virtually everybody in the congregation, into a meaningful, intellectual and spiritual experience."

    Having been inspired by the uplifting prayer melodies created by the legendary "singing rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, Riskin also sought out a cantor [Sherwood Goffin] "who was able to blend spirituality with music like Carlebach, and who could do musically what he was doing verbally - to create conditions within the synagogue for spirituality."

    Riskin used Friday night and Saturday afternoon meals at his home as an outreach tool for Jews who had never had a genuine Shabbat experience; started a hugely popular adult-education Jewish studies program, including a course on the then rarely discussed subject of the traditional Jewish view toward love and sexuality (and had his wife Vicky teach such classes geared specifically for female participants); pushed women's participation in prayer and Torah study to the boundaries of Halacha (though never over); involved his congregation in the still-fledgling Soviet Jewry movement; and many other activities that, while today a normative feature of modern Orthodox congregations, were then fresh and exciting.

    LSS became a local phenomenon, and Riskin was hailed in the press as the "Stevie Wonder" of New York Jewry. While the synagogue's success was a major factor in the transformation of the Upper West Side into the beating heart of the city's observant Jewish community, it's impact as a template for other shuls went out far beyond Manhattan. As Abramson writes: "Orthodox synagogues in the mid-1960s... were failing miserably at revealing the inherent spirituality of Judaism and the compelling force of Jewish law to young, non-Observant Jewish professionals. Therefore, the survival of modern Orthodoxy on any serious scale was in jeopardy.

    "Without the Lincoln Square 'happening,' the future of modern Orthodoxy in America might have been severely threatened. This is true not just because of the numerous young (and some older) professionals at Lincoln Square who became religiously observant. It is true because Lincoln Square Synagogue was responsible for an unprecedented breakthrough in modern Orthodox thinking. For the first time, outreach to the uncommitted become part and parcel of an Orthodox synagogue's planning, thinking and programming."

    That's a heavy claim to make, and for the most part Abramson backs it up; his book is written with deeper research and far more scholarly rigor than the usual rabbinical hagiography.

    Yet in his effort to make his case - or just out of sheer unabashed admiration for Riskin - Abramson doesn't give due credit to similar significant efforts in Jewish spiritual outreach that were concurrent with the rise of LSS, even when he mentions them - such as Chabad and the havura movement.

    Nor, perhaps out of respect to his mentor, does he pay sufficient attention to some aspects of LSS that deserve more critical examination. Abramson notes approvingly how Riskin's shul became especially known as a popular meeting ground for young Jewish singles - adding that he met his own wife there. But conspicuous by it s absence in these pages is Lincoln Square Synagogue's well-known, not-quite-flattering nickname: the "wink-and-stare" synagogue, a specific reference to seating arrangements for men and women that were segregated but egalitarian, "with a rather inconspicuous partition dividing them," that apparently provided opportunity for congregants to check out prospects of a somewhat less spiritual nature.

    Abramson ends his book with Riskin's decision to make aliya in 1983, a move that shocked not only his own congregation, but the entire American modern Orthodox community. It's a shame this account ends there, for in many ways the most interesting parts of Riskin's story - including his conflicts with the hide-bound Israeli rabbinical establishment, the impressive growth of Efrat and his religious educational institutions, and the controversial political activities that include his arrest while leading an anti-Oslo demonstration - don't make it into this book. Given both Riskin's successes and failures in Israel thus far, I'd say a sequel is called for.
    -Calev Ben-David
    Jerusalem Post


    RABBIS' RABBIS

    Profiles of two leading rabbinic advocates for Modern Orthodoxy

    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.
    -Rabbi Jack Bieler
    Jewish Book World


    The author describes how Riskin, at the young age of 23, became rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Manhattan and through his innovative teaching techniques and charismatic personality, influenced his congregation to become Orthodox. Abramson traces Rabbi Riskin's life from his childhood in Brooklyn to his aliya and his becoming rabbi of Efrat, Israel. This book is recommended for all libraries. Readers who were touched by Rabbi Riskin will enjoy reliving the memories; others will learn about a brilliant contemporary Orthodox rabbi.
    -Ilka Gordon, AJL Review