Ready to Lead

Yeshiva University Celebrates Largest Class of Rabbis at Chag HaSemikhah Convocation

On March 23, no early spring chill could deny the warmth and excitement on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus as hundreds of voices lifted in joyful song and cheering soared high above Amsterdam Avenue. The street flooded with celebration as more than 230 new musmakhim [ordained rabbis] linked arms and hands and danced together in front of Zysman Hall, pausing only to receive hugs or words of congratulations from their esteemed Roshei Yeshiva, mentors, family and friends.

Representing the largest cohort in history, the musmakhim were celebrating their ordination from YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at its Chag HaSemikhah. In a day filled with festive song and dance and brimming with pride, the graduates of the 2011-2014 classes joined more than 3,000 rabbinic alumni who have gone on to become distinguished Orthodox rabbis, scholars, educators and leaders around the world.

“At a very crucial time in Jewish history, you are uniquely trained and qualified to reach out to Jews of all backgrounds with an authentic Torah message,” Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS and Undergraduate Torah Studies at YU, told the musmakhim. “In you, we see the bright future of our community.”

The Chag HaSemikhah ceremony took place in the Nathan Lamport Auditorium at Zysman Hall, with video hookups in the Harry Fischel Beit Midrash and YU’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem and an online webcast. More than 3,000 people attended the event on campus and an additional 5,000 viewed it online. The  musmakhim currently living in Israel will hold a ceremony at the Gruss Institute on May 14.

“From the lumdus [scholarship] to the pastoral training to the internships and leadership workshops, we receive a top-of-the-line education at RIETS,” said Rabbi Yosef Bronstein, an instructor of Jewish philosophy at YU’s Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies, a doctoral candidate in Talmudic Studies at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and a fellow in RIETS’ Bella and Harry Wexner Kollel Elyon, speaking on behalf of his fellow musmakhim at the Chag HaSemikhah. “The song and crashing crescendos of intense Torah study pervade the atmosphere of the beit midrash and encourage us to struggle day and night through page after page, sugya [Talmudic passage] after sugya, to exert all our energies in the study of Torah. Our study of Torah, in addition to its independent significance, heightens our responsibility and capacity to spiritually influence the community. And so we musmakhim will wear the badge of RIETS with pride.”

The record class of musmakhim, hailing from five continents and more than 50 North American cities, represent an internationally diverse group. The class also includes the largest number of rabbinic alumni to receive yadin yadin, a higher level of ordination bestowed years after semicha is first attained which qualifies recipients to serve as judges on Jewish courts, and the largest group of Sephardic students in RIETS history, as well.

“It’s amazing to see so many old friends here today and to be a part of something so much larger than yourself,” said Rabbi Eitan Ben-David, Teaneck, who teaches at SAR Academy and is a pulpit rabbi at the West Side Sephardic Synagogue. “This is such an amazingly talented group of musmakhim.”

“I moved from London to pursue semicha here because this was the leading home for people who are connected to the mesorah [tradition] with Modern Orthodox philosophical aspirations,” said Rabbi Gideon Black, a JLIC rabbi at NYU, whose wife and in-laws celebrated with him at the Chag.

As they go on to build careers in religious fields ranging from the pulpit to Jewish education and outreach work, the new musmakhim will benefit from the unique education they received at RIETS. In addition to intense religious study with renowned Torah scholars, the seminary offers an enhanced Rabbinic Professional Education Program designed to meet the communal and spiritual needs of today’s Jewish communities. Students receive extensive training in topics critical for public leadership positions, such as pastoral psychology, public speaking and community building, all taught by renowned experts and rabbis. They’re also exposed to contemporary halachik [Jewish legal] issues in bioethics, technology and business to prepare them for real-world dilemmas they may face.

“It’s so important to me that RIETS is progressive in educating rabbis on these kinds of issues,” said Rabbi Dr. Yonah Bardos, a resident OB/GYN at The Mount Sinai Hospital and one of many musmakhim who will use their semicha in professional careers such as medicine or law. “That’s something you can’t find at another semicha program, and there are so many things that come up as a physician that were critical for me to learn about. Ultimately, I hope this will help me be a resource to my medical and rabbinic colleagues.”

At the convocation, RIETS 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.

“You as Jewish leaders have the ability to show the world how to balance living in the Torah and secular realms,” Schottenstein told the musmakhim.

Remembering his own time at RIETS in the 40s, Rav Schwartz said: “I had magisterial teachers of nuanced Torah teaching here. I heard the Rav himself say, in this very auditorium at my Chag HaSemikhah, ‘You have the greatest Roshei Yeshiva in the world.’ Being here over Shabbos and seeing what goes on here, I must say the same thing today.”

The Chag also celebrated alumni who received semicha 50 years ago—alumni of the RIETS classes of 1960-63—which included noted scholars and rabbinic leaders such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue and founding chief rabbi of Efrat; Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet, professor of rabbinic literature at YU’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior mashgiach ruchani at RIETS.

“As I look out now onto this group assembled here, my heart brims with hope,” said YU President Richard M. Joel. “Hope that you will take on nuance, and not run from it; hope that you will respect and revere the halachic system into which you enter, while responding to the needs of your congregants with warmth and understanding; hope that you will inspire us all to build lives of meaning and of purpose, engaging with the wide world around us while informed by our sacred Torah; and finally, hope that you will bring about a true state of shleimut [integrity] for us all and for all of klal Yisrael [Jewish People].”

“It’s an incredible source of pride,” said Rabbi Gary Ambrose of the Lower East Side, who recalled teaching at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women, as he watched his son Mordechai march to the stage. “The only people smiling more than us are the grandparents in Heaven. Our son gained an honest approach to learning and love of Torah here.”

With tears in her eyes, his wife, Riva, added, “It’s a continuation of the YU tradition in our family.”

Following the ordination ceremony, RIETS held a Gala Evening of Celebration honoring Rabbi Schwartz and Schottenstein at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The event featured a lecture by Rabbi Schwartz, remarks by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at YU, and an armchair conversation between Schottenstein and President Joel. The dinner raised $1.1 million for RIETS.