Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) celebrates Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz’s return to the University as director of the semicha [rabbinic ordination] program at RIETS.
Rabbi Lebowitz spoke with YU News about coming back to a place he calls home.
What will be your new role at RIETS?
The role, as I understand it, will have two basic components.
First and foremost, I will be teaching Torah to our future rabbis while developing a relationship with each one. As a rebbe, I will have the special zechus [merit] to learn many of the most critical areas of halacha [Jewish law] with the future rabbonim [rabbis], hopefully providing practical guidance in how these halachos [Jewish laws] tend to come up in real life, as we study the underlying principles and master the relevant texts. I will try to develop a relationship with each talmid [student], hoping to be an advisor who has been where they are, and can provide the perspective of some experience in both shul and school life. There is no element of klei kodesh [holy work] that is more rewarding than connecting with talmidim [students] and developing a mutually inspiring relationship.
Second, with the wonderful team of great rabbonim, I will participate in the interview process on the way into semicha, the recruitment process, and will do my best to take notice of students’ struggles and successes and to give encouragement when needed.
Having said all that, the role is bound to develop and change based on the needs of the yeshiva and based on which areas I can be helpful in.
What are you most excited about in your new role at YU/RIETS?
There are two things that give me goose bumps when I think about them.
First, the proximity to gedolei torah [the Torah sages] – tzadikim [righteous men] and talmidei chachamim [Torah scholars] who continue to guide the tzibur [congregation]. I read recently that most often when greatness is achieved, it happens after joining a great team. When one is surrounded by people who work that much harder, who excel in avodas Hashem [service to God], it inspires us to raise our own standards and enhance our behavior.
Second, the talmidim of YU/RIETS. I remember when a rabbinic leader first came to YU several years ago, he would marvel at how thirsty the talmidim are for growth. It energized him to see such interest and excitement. It is such a privilege to interact with future Torah leaders of the highest caliber.
How does it feel to be returning to YU/RIETS?
It’s very exciting! YU is home. It’s where I learned from my great rebbeim [rabbis], developed a sense of wanting to help the Jewish people and met the people who still inspire me and my family every day. I think back to the chevra [friends] that I sat in the beis medrash [study hall] and in shiur [lecture] with every day, and see several current roshei yeshiva [leading teachers], leading rabbonim and mechanchim [teachers] throughout the United States and Israel, and so many working people who are genuine talmidei chachamim and leaders of their communities. There is a certain energy in YU that, when harnessed properly, helps to develop people who become the backbone of Jewish communities.
Why is it so important to invest today in the rabbis of tomorrow?
It’s actually pretty simple. To get the most “bang for your buck,” it makes sense to invest time and energy in the influencers of society. If we want an educated and genuinely inspired community, it is critically important to develop the kind of leaders that can help teach, guide and inspire people in a meaningful way. When I visit other communities, in the United States and in Israel, I see my friends from my days at RIETS making a major impact.
Thousands of young men and women in yeshivot and seminaries in Israel are being influenced by my RIETS classmates. Hundreds of communities, shuls and schools are being lead today by my RIETS classmates. It follows that if we want to determine the direction of the community in two decades from now, we should look at the current students in RIETS.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Yeshiva?
Every day in Rav Schachter’s shiur was a tremendous beracha [blessing]. We appreciated then that we were sitting at the feet of one of the gedolei torah of our generation, and that appreciation has only been enhanced over the years since leaving yeshiva. There was one particular day that really sticks out in my mind. When we were learning Maseches Sukkah [a section of the Gemara], Rav Schachter read a comment of Rashi about how the angels would come and listen to the Torah of Rav Yonasan ben Uziel. Rav Schachter, with tears in his eyes, said to us that “you boys don’t know what it’s like to feel as if angels are attending shiur with you each day, but that is exactly how we felt in Rav [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik’s shiur.” At that moment, we all realized that we were charged with the responsibility of being the next links in the chain of this glorious mesorah [tradition].
I also vividly recall some of the sichos mussar [teachings] in the beis medrash. Generally, I don’t have a great memory (my wife knows that a grocery list of more than two items must be written down for me), but there are certain sichos mussar that made such an impact on my life that I can repeat them almost verbatim. It afforded us the opportunity to hear from the entire array of roshei yeshiva and Torah personalities in yeshiva, and each one had his own way of communicating the timeless messages of the Torah.
Above all else, though, were the great friendships that were developed. The late night schmoozing after night seder, the meals we ate together, dancing together on Purim, celebrating each other’s engagements and weddings. Our lives transitioned into adulthood during our time at YU, and it was such a beautiful atmosphere for that to happen in.
Which qualities do you think will be most important for the rabbis of the future?
The most important quality for the future rabbis is really nothing new. The Gemara in Sanhedrin, when discussing the purpose of heter hora’ah (what we refer to as semicha) says that its primary purpose is to ensure that the rabbi is an effective communicator. The successful rabbis of the future will be the ones who figure out what channel the people are receiving on and access that channel to teach our timeless Torah. This is self-evident. It is even more important to realize that communication is a two-way street and that a rabbi has to be a good listener. He has to listen to people—their feelings, their struggles and their successes and often their advice and Torah thoughts. He must also continue to learn at a high level. Na’aseh v’Nishma [We will do and we will listen]—even after we enter the active rabbinate, we must have a growth mindset and seek more learning opportunities.
What is the best advice you would give to students considering a rabbinic career?
If you are considering a rabbinic career, go for it! We need qualified people. Remember that despite the challenges, it is a privilege to serve the Jewish people and inspire them in their service of Hashem.
I would also remind you to always keep learning. Even if your position is one where you teach the same material every year, or you are teaching alef beis [the Hebrew alphabet], make sure you are growing as a talmid chacham. I look back to some of my own classmates in RIETS. Some of the stars remain stars today and are currently roshei yeshiva in YU, but others who were not particularly strong in learning have become outstanding talmidei chachamim by simply continuing to learn.
How have you grown from your years as a Rebbe in Lander College?
My time at Lander College was (and continues to be through this June) truly wonderful. Rav [Yonason] Sacks is a Torah giant and a role model. The rebbeim are close friends, and the talmidim are fantastic bnei torah [inheritors of Torah], who are experiencing tremendous spiritual growth. My time there gave me the opportunity to not only teach on a high level but to understand the specific challenges that talmidim face in the college years, whether in choosing a profession, shidduchim [marriage] or many other critical life decisions. I hope that the relationships I made there will be with me for the rest of my life. I will always have nothing but the warmest feelings of gratitude for the opportunity to have taught at Beis Medrash L’Talmud [Lander College].
I should point out, though, that while I was privileged to serve as a rebbe at Lander College for three years, I was also privileged to serve as a rebbe at the Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, New York, for eighteen years. There is no way to quantify or adequately describe the value of that experience. I worked for the greatest high school principal in America and during that time I saw in Rabbi [Yisroel] Kaminetsky and my fellow rebbeim the impact that can be made on people when you have great ahavas yisrael [love for people], genuine humility and absolute commitment to Hashem.