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Englewood rabbi takes helm of Orthodox rabbinic group

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin returns to RCA leadership as bridge-builder

If three years ago you had told Rabbi Shmuel Goldin that he would be elected president of the Rabbinical Council of America this week, he would have said you were crazy.

Goldin, who heads Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, had been an officer in the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization years ago.

But he was effectively removed from the leadership track in the 1990s, when he led an organization — Shvil Hazahav — that pushed back against Orthodox opposition to the Oslo Accords and the government of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. Goldin argued that American Jews should not oppose the policies of the Israeli government, a policy he maintains.

So when the RCA nominating committee approached him to become vice president two years ago, Goldin was shocked. But the organization said it wanted him for his outside perspective and his ability to serve as a bridge-builder.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin addresses the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America at his Englewood synagogue on Sunday. courtesy RCA

Building bridges is a central part of the vision Goldin spelled out in an interview with The Jewish Standard.

“Within our own rabbinic community, our task is enhancement. Within the Orthodox community at large our task is education about our perspective and what we believe modern Orthodoxy can be. The third principle is engagement, to engage the Jewish community beyond the Orthodox community. We have a lot to say, a lot to share beyond the Orthodox community,” he said.

“I’m deeply frightened that one day God will turn to the affiliated Jewish community and say, ‘You’ve built some wonderful buildings, but what have you done for the great percentage of Jews who are unaffiliated?’”

Goldin said he and his board will spend the next few weeks setting priorities. At this stage, he has no specific plans for new initiatives.

But he knows he wants to reach out.

That includes reaching out to the non-Orthodox movements.

“There are certain things we can do with the other denominations,” he said. “We have to see where we can work together. Where we disagree, we have to do so without acrimony, without demonizing each other. I want to sit down with the leaders of the non-Orthodox community, as I have done in the past on a personal level.”

And it includes reaching out to the more liberal quarters of the modern Orthodox community. The RCA has refused to accept as members graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” institution founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. This led to the formation of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which includes Chovevei graduates as well as RCA members. Last year, an amendment to RCA bylaws that would have punished members who joined the fellowship was proposed but rejected.

“I’m in active discussion with the leaders of IRF, as well as with leaders on the right. We’ll see where that leads. There is no question that there are fault lines,” he said.

Goldin said the question of Chovevei graduates is an area of frequent discussion in the RCA.

“One of the possibilities would be to create a membership track based not only on the smicha, the ordination, that the candidates get, but on their track record in the field,” he said.

The RCA has recently received the imprimatur of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has apparently decided that only Orthodox conversions that take place through the RCA’s centralized GPS system — the acronym stands for Gerus (conversion) Procedures and Standards — will be approved. In the three-year-old GPS process, the RCA set up 10 regional conversion courts (including one in Bergen County), replacing a system where conversions were handled on an ad hoc basis by individual rabbis. The Israeli rabbinate has in the past few months rejected immigration applications from 20 converts who did not go through the process, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox advocate for converts in Israel. At least some of those converts were converted by IPF members working in conjunction with RCA members.

Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi, has filed suit in Israel against the rabbinate for not recognizing those conversions.

With the rabbinate on one side endorsing only the RCA’s converts and procedures, and Farber arguing that the rabbinate has no legal right to do so, Goldin thinks Farber is right.

“The current situation that exists vis-a-vis aliyah and the acceptance of candidates for aliyah, that all candidates from Conservative and Reform movement are accepted as Jewish, but within the Orthodox community only some are accepted — that’s not acceptable,” Goldin said. “We have to work out a better system. What has happened is the Jewish Agency, which was always the organization that determined that particular status, handed that over to the [Chief] Rabbinate. The Rabbinate was looking for a central address and the RCA was the natural central address. That’s how the problem developed. I agree with Seth that we have to develop a solution to that. He is doing a wonderful job as far as I’m concerned, enhancing the ability of converts to access a difficult system in Israel, and I think we should support his work. I will consider him an ally during my tenure.”

Within the Orthodox community, he wants to increase cooperation with Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union, “strategic partners” of the RCA which are much larger.

“There’s a lot of duplication of efforts. If we come out with classes for rabbis, classes for the communities, that are sponsored by numerous organizations, we’ll be much better served. Those conversations have begun,” he said.

 
 
 
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