“From Vision to Reality”
A Manhattan rabbi’s journey to the rocky hilltop that became Efrat
by Anav Silverman – 20/6/14
At the height of OTS’s 30th anniversary celebrations, journalist Anav Silverman interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for the Jerusalem Post.
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When Rabbi Shlomo Riskin left New York with his family to immigrate in 1983, the internationally renowned educator and Lincoln Square Synagogue rabbi had no idea what would happen during his next 30 years in Israel.
Riskin had left behind a thriving career as a spiritual leader and founder of a major Orthodox institution, Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, with its Jewish education and social action outreach programs as well as its 4,000 members. During his tenure in America, Riskin established four underground houses of study in Moscow, Leningrad, Riga and Vilna on a clandestine visit to the Soviet Union in 1970.
“I came to Israel with no guarantees, only a vision,” Riskin told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
“But all that I had done during the 19 years as rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue had thoroughly prepared me for the next chapter in Eretz Yisrael.”
Indeed, it has been 30 years since Riskin founded Ohr Torah Stone, a comprehensive network of educational institutions, women’s empowerment programs, intensive leadership training and Jewish outreach initiatives across Israel that took root when he settled in Efrat.
Over 3,000 students from junior high school through post-graduate programs are enrolled in OTS programs, and 250 OTS-trained rabbis and educators serve Jewish communities across the globe.
“I knew Israel would give me the opportunity to express the vision of Judaism that I believe in and I knew I could make it happen here,” he said.
In particular, Riskin emphasizes the women’s education programs that he has spearheaded in Israel, including the first women’s hesder program combining two full years of IDF service with intense Torah study, enabling women to partake in high-level Talmud study, as well as equipping select female students with the knowledge base they need to serve as advocates in the areas of divorce and conversion. Several graduates serve OTS’s legal aid center and hotline, where agunot (women “chained” to their marriage) receive free legal representation and support.
“I believe with all my heart that Judaism is an open, living and all-encompassing religion; it has a message for everyone. And it has room for us all,” says Riskin.
“The desire of women – at least half our population – to grow spiritually and connect with God must also be legitimized and accounted for.”
Much of Riskin’s belief system and unique approach to Judaism can be attributed to three people; his rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who ordained him at Yeshiva University, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his Brooklyn grandmother.
Haya Bayla, his maternal grandmother, was an instrumental influence on the young Riskin, then known as Steven.
“She was my first rebbe and teacher,” Riskin says with a smile.
Born into a nonobservant family on May 28, 1940, he was sent to the only Jewish day school in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood.
“My father was never bar mitzva’ed and my grandfather was a Communist who believed that religion was opium for the masses,” he says. “But my maternal grandmother was a deeply religious woman.”
Spending every Friday evening with his grandmother from 10 years of age until he was 20, he would pray and study the weekly Torah portion, Yiddish commentary and Tractate Brachot with his grandmother.
Haya Bayla immigrated to America from Poland in 1922, leaving behind her family including her Ger Hassid father, who had studied Mishna and Gemara with his daughter.
“My grandmother’s father had given her a set of Talmud to take with her to America. He told her that by studying the Talmud in the New World, as she did with him in the Old World, she would never forget him.”
“When I graduated from college, my grandmother gave me a gift set of the Talmud,” Riskin recalls. “A great part of my work in Israel has been influenced by her.”
The same year, 1960, that he graduated from Yeshiva University, where he majored in Greek, Latin and English literature, he visited Israel for the first time. He went on to study at the Ponevezh Yeshiva and then to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the moment that stands out the most was meeting his wife, Vicky, who was on a program in Israel that summer.
“We fell in love, got engaged and promised From vision A Manhattan rabbi’s journey to the rocky hilltop that became Efrat. each other that we would someday return to live in Israel.”
Once in America, he went on to receive his rabbinic ordination, while earning a master’s degree in Jewish history and a PhD from New York University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature. He married Vicky in 1963.
The Riskin family’s move to Efrat was a gradual process following that summer’s promise to return.
“Our first Shabbat in Gush Etzion was in 1975 in a kibbutz called Rosh Tzurim.
We were ready for the move, but I couldn’t find a permanent job teaching Torah in Israel,” explains Riskin.
Following the Shabbat in Rosh Tzurim, he was invited to be a scholar- in-residence. For the next eight summers until they made aliya with their four children, the Riskin family would visit the religious kibbutz where he taught Torah classes in Hebrew.
It was during one of these classes that destiny set in. A man by the name of Moshe Moshkowitz – who had happened to pioneer the establishment of several communities across Israel and had the vision for another one at the time – walked into Riskin’s class.
“He turned to me after class and asked, ‘What are you doing in America? We need you in Israel!’” remembers Riskin. “The next day Moshe took me in his car to show me a barren Judean hilltop that was to be Efrat.”
Moshkowitz asked Riskin to be his partner in the process of building the city.
“There was something about Moshkowitz’s passion, political know-how and connections that made me think that a city on this hill could be a reality,” says Riskin. “To have a hand in establishing an Israeli city – that was a rare opportunity. Until then, I felt that I had missed the Zionist boat, but now I was being given the chance to jump on the train.
“It wasn’t even guaranteed that I would be rabbi of Efrat, because I would have to be elected,” says Riskin.
In the meantime, Riskin sought the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe about Efrat.
“I always consulted with the Rebbe before big projects,” explains Riskin.
“The Rebbe told me that Efrat would last as long as there were educational institutions that had emissaries who are modern on the outside and Chabad on the inside. From that, the notion was born that I could build a rabbinate with educators who would reach out across the world with a commitment to Jewish law and tikun olam – perfecting the world through the pursuit of equality in Jewish life and embracing all human beings with warmth and respect.”
Today Ohr Torah Stone has rabbis and educators serving in Jewish communities from New Zealand to Guatemala, Poland to Curacao and Bulgaria to the United States. Diaspora teens with special needs ranging from Down’s syndrome to autism are given the opportunity to spend time in Israel through a special OTS one-year program. The network facilitates Jewish programming for thousands of secular Israelis, sharing the beauty and relevance of Jewish culture and heritage in contemporary Israeli society.
“The way of Judaism is not to rail against cold and darkness, but rather to illuminate and spread warmth. You can light the way in Manhattan and you can light the way in Efrat,” says Riskin, whose four children and 17 grandchildren all live in Efrat today.