By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Vital in its approach and vibrant in its tradition, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) is the Western Hemisphere’s leading center for Torah learning and training for the rabbinate. For over a century, RIETS has provided unsurpassed educational experience in the classic mold of the great yeshivos. Embodying the historic concept of Torah lishmah and a responsiveness to community need, RIETS is a deep fount of Jewish knowledge and a preeminent source of rabbinic leadership for the next generation and beyond.
Every four years, RIETS celebrates the accomplishment of some 200 talmidim who have received semikha and have joined Yeshiva’s worldwide network of rabbanim. The chag ha’semikha acknowledges their years of diligent Torah study and expresses the yeshiva’s profound pride in their commitment to the future of Klal Yisrael.
This year’s chag ha’semikha, which was held on Sunday, March 23, was an especially festive event as Yeshiva University celebrated the ordination of its largest class of musmakhim ever at the chag ha’semikha convocation.
A record number of graduates for a four-year period, 224 receiving Yoreh Yoreh semikha and six for the higher-level Yadin Yadin, joined the more than 3,000 young men who have graduated from RIETS and gone on to become distinguished Orthodox rabbis, scholars, educators, and communal leaders the world over. Ninety-one of the musmachim are from New York.
“The yeshiva gives context to the university, and our rabbinic graduates which we celebrate at this chag ha’semikha truly represent the best in us,” said President Richard M. Joel. “Their perspective and their professions are central and vital to the future of our community. In many ways we define ourselves through them and look to them for help in the unfolding of the Jewish future.”
RIETS also honored philanthropist Jay Schottenstein with the Eitz Chaim Award, and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz (’46YC, ’49R), Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council Beit Din, with the HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt’l, Aluf Torah Award. Special recognition was also given to those who received semikha 50 years ago, members of the RIETS classes of 1960–63.
“Our semikha students experience a training program at RIETS like no other,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean of RIETS, who oversaw his first chag ha’semikha. “Aside from the erudition and scholarship—which remain the emphasis of our program—we are producing qualified and sensitive individuals who have received the requisite professional skills to lead our community into the future.”
Rabbi Penner told the 5TJT, “The level of training is far beyond what rabbis of previous generations were able to get. Most semikha programs cover the laws of kashrut. RIETS has a very broad program of halakhic topics, including aveilut, niddah, geirut, eruvin, and myriad contemporary halakhic topics. YU offers a very extensive program of rabbinic training with five different tracks: education (master’s degree), community rabbinate (15 courses), outreach (14 courses), chaplaincy, and nonprofit, which includes pastoral psychology, public speaking and homiletics, practical rabbinics, and best practices for running Jewish institutions.”
Included in the semikha coursework completed by students, added Rabbi Penner, is “a heavy grounding in Gemara which covers a wide area of halakha, including Shabbos, kashrus, niddah, as well as specialized questions, covering such topics as fertility, brain death, electricity, and medical ethics, confronting rabbis in contemporary society.”
What distinguishes a musmakh of RIETS, says Rabbi Penner, is “a combination of strong background in Torah learning and halakha with an openness and sophistication that allows him to impact the larger world. Our students are grounded in Torah and tradition and ready to lead. They are open and prepared to assume the leadership of the Jewish community.”
“RIETS has given me a relationship with many great rabbanim, including my rebbe, Rav Boruch Simon, shlita,” said Rabbi Michael Finkelstein, who received his semikha three years ago and just missed the last chag. Rabbi Finkelstein grew up in Woodmere, attended HAFTR, and spent a year at Yeshivat Hakotel (now Netiv Aryeh). Upon returning home, he majored in accounting at Yeshiva University, worked at Grant Thornton for two years, then returned and finished semikha. Rabbi Finkelstein has been a rebbe at DRS since 2006.
“RIETS has given me the skills and background to better understand halakha in many different areas,” he explains. “The program is unique because they really do focus on all the areas of law that a rav has to know nowadays.”
A beloved rebbe and exemplary role model, Rabbi Finkelstein enjoys an excellent rapport with his students. “I think the greatest challenge for a rebbe teaching Torah to a kid nowadays is to make sure you are able to connect to kids who are living in a very different generation than I grew up in,” he says. “There are so many different ways young people can spend their time nowadays, I think it is becoming more difficult for them to learn Torah. The challenge is to make it fun and appealing for the kids to learn Torah. Semikha does not necessarily magically make you a good rebbe or posek. It is just the beginning. One constantly has to keep reviewing and learning.”
“I was inspired to become a rabbi because of my love for learning Torah and giving over its valuable messages to others in ways I hope will impact their lives,” says Rabbi Nathan Dweck, rabbi of the father–son minyan at Sephardic Synagogue in Brooklyn. Rabbi Dweck, who resides in Brooklyn with his wife Sophia and their two daughters, is also executive director of Tebah Educational Services, a religious publishing organization. “I willingly chose to become a rabbi and teacher in my community, the Syrian-Sephardic community of Brooklyn. I wanted to give back to my community, and I also felt that I could make the biggest impact in the community I myself grew up in. The RIETS program is uniquely designed to prepare the rabbis of today for their positions throughout the Jewish world. As part of the pulpit track at RIETS program, I was not only learning Talmud and halakha but also taking classes on Jewish community, pastoral psychology, and public speaking. Additionally, the fourth-year internship program prepares its students for their respective tracks.”
He feels one of the greatest challenges Orthodox rabbis face today is being able to effectively inculcate in others the importance of leading one’s life by Jewish values and traditions, which are often viewed as ancient and outdated in the modern world surrounding us.
Rabbi Dweck told the 5TJT that the YU semikha program prepared him in a very practical way for his position in his community. “The shiurim I attended in Gemara and halakha with Rabbi Eliyahu Benhaim, as well as the classes I took at RIETS in Jewish community pastoral psychology and public speaking, among others, prepared me appropriately and immensely for my position as a rabbi. RIETS addressed many questions a rabbi in training could ask: How do I properly respond to a congregant in crisis? How do I deliver an effective sermon or derashah? How do I answer a sensitive halakhic question from a congregant? With their combination of rigorous Torah study and rabbinic classes, RIETS has given me the proper tools that I need and will always need to be an effective rabbi in the Jewish community. I could not thank Yeshiva University and RIETS enough for their investment in me.”
“Baruch Hashem, you are open . . . to learn, to grow, to listen, to devote your lives to Klal Yisrael,” said Rabbi Penner at the conclusion of his powerful address to the musmakhim. “And yet, as open as you must be, you must never leave our precious mesorah out in the open. When something is precious and yet so fragile, you must protect it and care for it with every fiber of your being. You must assure that your batim—your batei knessios, your batei sefer—resound with the kolos and spirit of your teachers. . . . You are grounded in Torah and tradition. And you are ready to lead. It is a daunting task that lies before you. But it is a thrilling time to step onto the stage of Jewish leadership. There has never been a group better prepared to meet this challenge. Chazak ve’ematz. Mazal tov.” v