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November 03, 1989 - Image 45

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-11-03

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

are always welcomed at
what congregants call the
Bayit, or house. The free
service Rabbi Weiss con-
•.
ducts on Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur attracted
more than 1000 people last
year.
When Rabbi Weiss first
came to the synagogue in
1973, it had a membership of
60 families. Today there are

550. Synagogue officials say
about 3000 more pass
through the doors of the
Bayit each year — many of
them people on the fringes of
Jewish life. Rabbi Weiss
•••
clearly has shaped a congre-
►N
gation that reflects his val-
ues.

"The shul is built on three
cornerstones: • Torah educa-
r-
tion, outreach and activism
on behalf of world Jewry,"
OP
says David Mann, the con-
gregation's president and
xecutive director of New
York City's Board of Jewish
Education. Mann says the
r
congregation is highly- sup-
portive of Rabbi Weiss' ac-
tivities. "We feel a great
deal of affection for him as a
•-•
person and respect for him
as a learned rabbi who has
taken some bold stands on
difficult issues.
•.
"He is one of those rare
individuals who combines a
charismatic personality with
tremendous sensitivity to
individual needs and a deep
01.
intellectual capacity. This
comes through one on one, in

small groups, on the pulpit
and at rallies."
Rabbi Weiss was born in
Brooklyn, one of five chil-
v- dren of an Orthodox rabbi
who himself had been born
into a Bobover Chasidic--
family and then turned to re-
ligious Zionism. At yeshivas
as a youth, his main love
was basketball. In college,
he majored in math at
Yeshiva University because,
he now admits, it came easi-
-.
ly to him — and it left him
more time to concentrate on
Jewish studies. He was or-
dained as a rabbi by Yeshiva

University and worked at
several pulpits around the
country before settling in
Riverdale.
1•
To many, Rabbi Weiss is
an anomaly. He is
humanistic, liberal and open

when it comes to women in
Ole Judaism, Reform and Con-
servative Jews, the disad-
vantaged and needy. But he

is on the far right when it
comes to Mideast politics

and the future of the West
Bank. His heroes are Martin
Luther King and Rabbi

-.

knowledge of Judaism on
every level is really what my
life is all about. I'm a teach-
er, a rebbe. There's a differ-
ence, you know. A teacher
imparts knowledge. A rebbe
imparts himself. The goal of
this kind of education is to
change one's life." Rabbi
Weiss teaches every chance
he gets: in his congregation,
at Stern College where he
has been assistant professor
of Jewish studies for 20
years and through his prolif-
ic writings and public ac-
tions. -
With his varied involve-
ments, Rabbi Weiss is com-
plex, hard to peg. "You can't
put him in a liberal or con-
servative box," says Blu
Greenberg, an Orthodox
feminist writer and thinker
and a long-time Riverdale
neighbor. "He takes some
positions you'd think would
conflict with' others. He
doesn't react automatically.
He thinks about and has a
genuine reaction to every
issue."
Greenberg strongly dis
agrees with Rabbi Weiss on
some issues, particularly
those concerning the
Mideast conflict. But those
disagreements — no matter
how passionate — don't di-
minish her respect and ad-
miration for him. "He's a
genuine person," she says.
'He's a very feeling person
and is very connected to
people. He was the first, and
probably only, rabbi in
Riverdale to reach out to the
disabled. He's willing to
take in all the so-called
losers in society who get no
welcome. And he doesn't
just hold their hands, he
helps them grow Jewishly. I
think that's remarkable,'
As for his activism,
Greenberg says, "He does
things many people in the
community feel are rash or
improper. He disturbs
things. It might not be my
way, but who can say that's
not what gets the attention
and the action."
Rabbi Weiss denies that
he and his small band of fel-
low activists in the Coalition
of Concern, an organization
he helped found to react to
world Jewish issues, are
rash. While most Jewish
communal leaders would say
he should have left negotia-
tions about the convent to
the negotiators, Rabbi
Weiss says he did not act
impetuously. He says dis-
cussions with Jewish com-
munal leaders convinced
him the issue was dying.
"They were refurbishing the

.

Rabbi Weiss:pulpit rabbi and longtime activist.

Rabbi Weiss feels that activism
strengthens the hand of
quiet diplomacy. "I view
activism as a process of
orchestration," he says. "The
drummer makes the flutist
sound better."

Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.
"King is my teacher when it
comes to activism and non-
violent civil disobedience; to
going to places of injustice
and raising the voice of mor-
al conscience; to not being
afraid to create tension so
issues can be dealt with."
He admires The Ray, as
Rabbi Soloveitchik is
known, for his Talmudic
scholarship and modern out-
look.
On women's issues, Rabbi
Weiss considers Nechama
Leibowitz, a Biblical scholar
in Jerusalem, to be his
"rebbe." His father, Moshe,
was a role model of someone
who "had the strength to
stand against the grain."

The most pressing issue in
Jewish life, says Rabbi
Weiss, is assimilation. "If
they're not coming to syna-
gogue," he says, "we have to
go to them." He uses the
word "love" repeatedly and
calls his free high holiday
services a "happening." He
says he is inspired by people
new to Judaism.
While he is considered an
authority on outreach, he
says he doesn't like the
term. "It's too. unilateral.
Someone's first Shabbat is
my first Shabbat. It's con-
tagious."
The second most impor-
tant issue on Rabbi Weiss'
agenda is Jewish learning.
"Making sure Jews have a

convent, six more nuns had
moved in and they were
building a 24-foot cross."
It seemed to Rabbi Weiss
that ,the Catholic-Jewish
agreement to move the con-
vent was being ignored and
the Jewish community was
not taking action. He decid-
ed he would. When he in-
formed the State Depart-
ment of his group's plans,
officials told him they would
not be hurt. Rabbi Weiss
says that when the group
arrived at the convent, he
rang the bell and asked for a
meeting and only when that
was ignored did he climb the
fence and and hold a peace-
ful protest prayer meeting
on the convent's porch.
Some in the community
claim that by trespassing at
the Auschwitz convent and
by creating an international
- incident, Rabbi Weiss seri-
ously harmed Jewish-
Catholic relations. Rabbi
Wolfe Kelman, who has been
involved in Jewish-Catholic
,relations for years, says, "I
think what he did — going
over a wall into the convent,
invading the privacy of a
cloister — showed insen-
sitivity to Catholic feelings.
He should have been more
sensitive to what invading a
nun's cloister means to a
Catholic. It's considered a
sacrilege. The fact that
they're insensitive to our
feelings isn't an excuse. In-
stead of dramatizing the
issue of the convent, it
dramatized the issue of Avi
Weiss."
Rabbi Kelman says Rabbi
Weiss is "sincere and well
motivated" but adds, "a lot
of harm can be caused by
sincere people."
Rabbi Weiss feels that ac-
tivism strengthens the hand
of quiet diplomacy. "I view
activism as a process of or-
chestration," he says. "The
drummer makes the flutist
sound better."
- Glenn Richter, director of
the Student Struggle for
Soviet Jewry and a frequent
participant with Rabbi
Weiss in protests, can rattle
off a list of exotic cities
where he and the rabbi have
been arrested, including
Geneva, Bitburg, Vienna,
Rome and Istanbul. "We try
to draw a dramatic scene
and call attention to our
cause," he explained, "but
always peacefully."
Richter admits that he
sometimes asks himself,
"why am I doing this?" but
feels a sense of satisfaction
at dramatizing a specific
event or cause. He credits
Rabbi Weiss with having

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

45

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