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Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss
Rabbi Weiss, 2007
Synagogue Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
Yeshiva Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
Yeshivat Maharat
Personal details
Birth name Avraham Weiss
Hebrew: אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס
Born June 24th, 1944
Nationality United States of America
Denomination Open Orthodox
Occupation Rabbi, author
Alma mater RIETS

Avraham Haim Yosef (Avi) haCohen Weiss (Hebrew: אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס‎; born June 24th,1944) is an American Modern Orthodox ordained rabbi, author, teacher, lecturer, and activist who heads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, New York, from which he will be retiring in 2015.[1] He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary he refers to as "Open Orthodox", a term he coined to describe a form of Modern Orthodoxy, founder of Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women,[2] co-founder of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, an Open Orthodox rabbinical association founded as a liberal alternative to the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America,[3] and founder of the grassroots organization Coalition for Jewish Concerns – Amcha.

In 2013, Newsweek ranked him the 10th most prominent rabbi in the United States,[4] climbing from number 11 in 2012 and number 12 in 2011,[5] after being ranked number 18 in 2010.[6]


  • Hebrew Institute of Riverdale 1
  • Open Orthodoxy 2
    • Yeshivat Chovevei Torah 2.1
    • Ordination of Women 2.2
      • Sara Hurwitz 2.2.1
  • Activism 3
    • Soviet Jewry 3.1
    • In America 3.2
    • In Europe 3.3
  • Organizations 4
  • Works 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was founded in 1971 in a boiler room of the Whitehall Building off the Henry Hudson Parkway by former members of the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx who had moved to Riverdale. Weiss, who had finished his training at Yeshiva University a few years earlier, became the synagogue's rabbi in 1973.[7] The congregation has grown to 850 families, and has served as a platform for Weiss's rabbinical advocacy.[2] In October of 2014, Weiss announced that he would step down from his pulpit effective mid-2015.[8]

Open Orthodoxy

Weiss coined the term "Open Orthodoxy" in 1997 to describe a form of Modern Orthodoxy that emphasizes halakha, the collective body of Jewish law, intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension, a broad concern for all Jews, and a more expansive role for women.[9] He views halakha as being more flexible and open to innovation than his more traditional counterparts in Orthodox Judaism. He states that all Orthodox Judaism, including Open Orthodoxy, fundamentally differs from Conservative Judaism in three areas. First, unlike Conservative Judaism,

  • Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai in its current form. Second,
  • Orthodoxy believes that "legal authority is cumulative, and that a contemporary posek [decider] can only issue judgments based on a full history of Jewish legal precedent", whereas Conservative Jews believe "precedent provides illustrations of possible positions rather than binding law. Conservatism, therefore, remains free to select whichever position within the prior history appeals to it". Third,
  • Orthodoxy is characterized by ritually-observant members who "meticulously keep Shabbat (the Sabbath), Kashrut (the Dietary Laws), Taharat ha-Mishpaha (the Laws of Family Purity), and pray three times a day", whereas Conservative Judaism "is generally not composed of ritually observant Jews. Thus, only in our community if a 'permissive custom' is accepted, can it be meaningful."[10]

Many more traditional rabbis have opposed this approach. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a trustee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on the Board of the Beth Din of America,[11] argues that Weiss' approach closely resembles early 20th century American Conservative Judaism and in his opinion would more aptly be called "Neo-Conservative" rather than "Orthodox" Judaism. Concluding an opinion piece in he states that "clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed ... Neo-Conservatism. 'Open Orthodoxy' is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality. The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives." [12] Chicago Rabbi Moshe Averick, a columnist for the Jewish magazine The Algemeiner Journal and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, agrees with Pruzansky that Weiss has created a new Jewish movement in America, comparing him with Isaac Mayer Wise (founder of Reform Judaism) and Solomon Schechter (founder of Conservative Judaism in the United States). He compares Weiss's ordination of three women as Maharat on June 16, 2013, with the so-called Treif Banquet of 1883, which marked the split between Reform and Traditional Judaism in America. Says Averick: "Weiss' movement, a form of Judaism that enthusiastically embraces the ideologies of feminism and liberal-progressive-modernism while coating it with a strong Orthodox flavor, could accurately be labeled as Ortho-Feminist Progressive Judaism," but "the term coined by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky ... Neo-Conservative Judaism ... has managed to fit neatly into the slot to the left of Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism."[13] In October 2013, dozens of rabbis who defined themselves as "members in good standing or [who] identify with the Rabbinical Council of America", signed a letter arguing that Open Orthodoxy has "plunged ahead, again and again, across the border that divides Orthodoxy from neo-Conservatism"[14]

In contrast, Dr. Steven Bayme, National Director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, sees Open Orthodoxy as the most authentic form of Modern Orthodoxy. In reference to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as incoming president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Dr. Bayme said: "The event demonstrated the power of an Orthodoxy that is truly modern, in the sense of synthesizing modern scholarship and culture with Judaic tradition and learning, and an 'Open Orthodoxy', open to all Jews and open to hearing other viewpoints."[15]

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

In 1999 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), an Open Orthodox rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx after resigning from Yeshiva University, where he had taught at Stern College for Women for decades.[16] The school's graduates work as rabbis in synagogues, college Hillels and schools,[17] but the Rabbinical Council of America does not permit membership to the school's graduates unless they have also been ordained by a traditional Orthodox rabbinical school.[18] In June 2013, Weiss handed over the presidency of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to Chicago rabbi Asher Lopatin.[17]

Ordination of Women

In May 2009, Weiss announced the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, a new school to train women as maharat, an acronym for the Hebrew מנהיגה הלכתית רוחנית תורנית (halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leader), a title he created for a female version of a rabbi.[19] The school's mission, according to its website, is "to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities" in a four-year full-time course.[20] Sara Hurwitz was appointed dean of Yeshivat Maharat.[21] On June 16, 2013 the first class of female maharats graduated from Yeshivat Maharat.[22]

Sara Hurwitz

In June 2009 Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz as rabbi, giving her the title of "Maharat".[9] She was the first formally ordained Orthodox woman.[23]

In February 2010 Weiss announced that Hurwitz would henceforth be known by the title of "Rabba". The move sparked widespread criticism in the Orthodox world.[24] The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages issued a public statement suggesting that Weiss should no longer be considered Orthodox declaring that "these developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox."[25] Rumors circulated in the Jewish press that RCA considered expelling Weiss. Under pressure from the RCA, Weiss pledged not to ordain anybody else "rabba", although Hurwitz retains the title.[26] Shortly afterwards, the RCA passed a resolution praising the increased Torah education of women in the Orthodox world encouraging "halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities" for them, but stating: "We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title."[27]


Weiss has been vocal on many issues, including emigration and absorption of Soviet Jews, clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, opposing terrorism, supporting Israel, preserving Holocaust memorials, and exposing anti-semitism. In 1992 he founded Amcha – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a grassroots coalition engaging in pro-Jewish activism.[28]

Soviet Jewry

Weiss was an early leader of the Soviet era. The group used demonstrations, lobbying, and education to pressure the Soviet authorities into allowing Jews to leave the country.[29][30] In 2015, he published his memoir detailing his efforts to liberate Soviet Jews, Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. The book focuses on how grassroots activism and acts of civil disobedience led to important policy changes for the Soviet Jews.[31]

In America

Weiss was an official emissary of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.[28]

Weiss has served as personal rabbi to Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied for Israel sentenced to life in prison in 1987.[28] In 1992 Weiss was one of the signators to a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the release of Pollard.[32] In 1989 Weiss conducted a "freedom Seder" in front of the prison where Pollard was incarcerated.[33]

At a speech at New York City Hall in 2001 Weiss criticized President [34]

In April 2002 Weiss organized a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[35] and a boycott of several large newspapers perceived as having an anti-Israeli bias.[36]

In 2006 Weiss organized a protest in front of Syria's UN mission to denounce a Hezbollah offensive in the Middle East.[37]

In September 2011, Weiss was arrested in front of the U.N. building in New York while protesting the Palestinian statehood bid.[5]

In Europe

Weiss has travelled worldwide as an activist in various causes.[38] In 1989 Weiss and others protested at a Carmelite convent that had been established at Auschwitz. The group—dressed in concentration camp clothing—scaled the walls of the convent, blew a shofar, and screamed anti-Nazi slogans. Workers evicted them from the site.[39] In 1993 Pope John Paul II ordered the closure of the convent, which had been located in a converted building that had stored Zyklon B gas used to kill prisoners at the camp during World War II.[40]

He protested President Ronald Reagan's visit to an SS cemetery in 1985.[28] He was arrested in 1990 while protesting Kurt Waldheim's visit to the Salzburg Festival,[41] and again in 1994, when he protested in Oslo, Norway, when PLO chief Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize.[42]

Along with Rosa Sacharin of Glasgow, Scotland, Weiss sued the American Jewish Committee in New York state court in 2003 to stop the construction of a path through the Belzec extermination camp in Poland. They were concerned that mass graves at the site would be disturbed by the work.[43]



  • Weiss, Avi (2000). Haggadah for the Yom HaShoah Seder. Hackensack, NJ: Jonas Pub.  
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Principles of Spiritual Activism. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.  
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.  
  • Weiss, Avi (2006). "Avigayil: Savior of David". In Helfgot, Nathaniel. The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion to the Book of Samuel. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press.  
  • Weiss, Avi (2014). Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality. Jerusalem: Maggid Books.  
  • Weiss, Avi (2015). Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. Jerusalem: The Toby Press.  

Articles in Sh'ma
A Journal of Jewish Responsibility:
  • Creating an Open Orthodox Rabbinate, with Dov Linzer, Vol. 33/no.597-598 2003.
  • A Congregation of Holy Souls: Reflections on 9/11 One Year Later Vol.33/no.593 2002.
  • NiSh'ma:Apikorus, with Rebecca T. Alpert, Shmuley Boteach, Lisa S. Lehmann Vol.31/no.574 2000.
  • Endthoughts: Stolen Money and Stolen Souls, Vol.27/no.535 1997.
  • The Insurmountable Divisiveness of Patrilineality, Vol.25/no.469 1994.
  • With Jonathan Pollard, Vol.23/no.453 1993.


  1. ^ Rabbi Avi Weiss, Progressive Voice in Orthodoxy, Steps Down From Pulpit
  2. ^ a b Pogrebin, Abigail (July 11, 2010). "The Rabbi and the Rabba".  
  3. ^ Nathan-Kazis, Josh (April 12, 2013). "Top Modern Orthodox Rabbi Michael Broyde Admits Fake Name Scheme". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  4. ^ "America's Top 50 Rabbis for 2013". The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "America's Top 50 Rabbis for 2012". The Daily Beast. 
  6. ^ Lynton, Michael; Ginsberg, Gary (June 28, 2010). "The 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America". Retrieved April 14, 2011. 
  7. ^  
  8. ^ Rabbi Avi Weiss to step down as rabbi of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
  9. ^ a b Rosenblatt, Gary (June 26, 2009). "Between A Rav And A Hard Place". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  10. ^ Weiss, Avi (Fall 1997). "Open orthodoxy! A modern Orthodox rabbi's creed". Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life & Thought.  
  11. ^ Maltz, Judy (November 16, 2012). "U.S. rabbi faces dissent for slamming Obama". Haaretz. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  12. ^ Steven, Pruzansky (July 17, 2013). "Open Orthodoxy: The Rise of the Neo-Cons". Retrieved July 30, 2013. 
  13. ^ "American Jewry at the Crossroads: Isaac Mayer Wise, Solomon Schechter, and now...Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz". The Algemeiner. July 18, 2013. Retrieved August 2, 2013. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "'"Asher Lopatin Set as Modern Orthodox 'Bridge. The Jewish Daily Forward ( October 9, 2013. Retrieved June 10, 2014. 
  16. ^ Mark, Jonathan (December 24, 1999). "Modern Orthodox Rabbinical School Planned". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  17. ^ a b Hoffman,, Allison (April 29, 2013). "The New 'Morethodox' Rabbi". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved August 6, 2013. 
  18. ^ Dickter, Adam (June 12, 2012). "RCA Facing Leadership Challenge". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  19. ^ Harris, Ben (May 18, 2009). "New program to train Orthodox women as non-rabbis". Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Yeshivat Maharat". 
  21. ^ "An Evening with Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz". Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  22. ^ Cohen, Anne (June 20, 2013). "Orthodox Schism Over Role of Women Widens After Graduation of Maharats". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  23. ^ StevenM (March 10, 2010). Rabba" Sara Hurwitz Rocks the Orthodox""". Heeb. Retrieved March 21, 2013. 
  24. ^ Mark, Jonathan (March 9, 2010). "Agudah: Avi Weiss Shul Not Orthodox". The Jewish Week. Retrieved January 1, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Rabbi condemned for ordaining woman".  
  26. ^ Eden, Ami (March 5, 2010). "Avi Weiss: No more rabbas". JTA. Retrieved April 6, 2013. 
  27. ^ Breger, Sarah (November–December 2010). "Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = a New Denomination?".  
  28. ^ a b c d "Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. Rabbi Avi Weiss, President". Archived from the original on February 17, 2006. Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  29. ^ "Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry". Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  30. ^ "Soviet Jewry, 40 Years Later". April 30, 2004. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  31. ^ "Social Justice With Roots: What The Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist Can Teach Us About Today". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 5, 2015. 
  32. ^ "American Rabbis Ask Bush to Give Pollard Clemency". The Jerusalem Post. October 25, 1992. Archived from the original on June 14, 2006. Retrieved June 10, 2006. 
  33. ^ Besser, James D (June 28, 2002). "The Jonathan Pollard Case: A Reflection Of Our Fears". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  34. ^ "It's Self-Defense, Rabbi Tells Bush". Daily News (New York). June 2, 2001. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  35. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (April 8, 2002). "Demonstrators Roar Support for Israel". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  36. ^ Fost, Dan (May 2, 2002). "Jewish Groups Battle Media Over Perceived Bias". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on May 24, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  37. ^ Egbert, Bill (July 17, 2006). "Dozens Protest At Un Mission". Daily News (New York). Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  38. ^ Weiss, Avi. "Principles of Spiritual Activist". Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  39. ^ "Auschwitz Convent". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011. 
  40. ^ Perlez, Jane (April 15, 1993). "Pope Oders Nuns Out of Auschwitz". The New York Times. Retrieved April 16, 2011. 
  41. ^ "Austria: The Trojan Guest". Time. August 6, 1990. Retrieved April 17, 2011. 
  42. ^ "Peace Prize Triumvirate Denounced".  
  43. ^ Berkofsky, Joe (July 25, 2003). "Avi Weiss rekindles battle to block camp memorial". The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. Retrieved June 10, 2006. 

External links

  • Mindell, Cindy. Conversation with Rabbi Avi Weiss Jewish Ledger (Connecticut edition), March 6, 2013
  • BBC, Modern Orthodoxy: BBC summary of Modern Orthodox Judaism
  • Rabbis on Their Way Home to Zion, Israel National News, July 1, 2007
  • A tribute video to Rabbi Avi and Toby Weiss for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's 2014 Annual Dinner
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