Sunday, September 28, 2014
He grew up among the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Jews in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in a childhood with rules so strict that playing Frisbee at summer camp was considered a radical move.
Today he serves as the spiritual leader of a small, relatively young, progressive Orthodox synagogue where women are allowed to open the holy ark, carry Torah scrolls around the women’s section and lead the congregation in some contemporary prayers. In the context of Orthodoxy, these, too, are radical moves.
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s gradual, sometimes painful but ultimately successful journey from one end of the Orthodox spectrum to another is a rare example in which a former Hasid is eagerly sharing with non-Hasidic Jews the deep knowledge he gained in the yeshiva world. Katz’s transition could provide a model for disillusioned ultra-Orthodox Jews who long to engage with the modern world without losing their religious identity altogether.
“Rabbi Katz is one of those rare individuals who comes from a world of Torah study and diligent learning, was recognized as a brilliant mind from a young age, yet chose to marry that incredible skill set with a progressive [worldview] within halachic Judaism,” said Jonathan Reich, 34, an attorney and president of The Prospect Heights Shul, which hired Katz after a six-month search.
Katz, 46, is a talmudic scholar raised in the Satmar yeshivas of Williamsburg, and ordained by Satmar Rabbi Yechezkel Roth. That’s a far cry from where he lives now Jewishly: He is the head of Talmud studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a left-leaning Orthodox rabbinical seminary in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and a leading voice in the delicate process of carving out halachic decisions for progressive Orthodox synagogues like The Prospect Heights Shul, home to about 50 couples and young families.
As Katz takes the helm of the synagogue, he will remain on staff at Chovevei and will continue to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, Sharon Flatto, who is a professor of Jewish studies at Brooklyn College, and their two young sons, Avi and Gavriel. His work as a pulpit rabbi at the Prospect Heights Shul will, in the meantime, remain part time.
Katz says he is excited about his first job as a pulpit rabbi. Sipping a hot decaf in a sleek Midtown Manhattan coffee house recently, he said that his greatest joy will be sitting with his congregants and learning Talmud. “My plan this year is to delve into the laws of shmita,” Katz explained. Shmita, the sabbatical year in the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel, includes laws pertaining to remitted debts and how fruits can be deemed ownerless and therefore picked by anyone.
Comments: Post a Comment