Open Orthodoxy Makes Inroads Into Hasidic Williamsburg

The recently revitalized GreenPoint Shul on the Northside of Williamsburg is now headed by Open Orthodox clergy and is attracting New York City residents from many Jewish stripes, including Hasidic neighbors from South Williamsburg (also known geographically as Hasidic Williamsburg and The Williamsburg Triangle).

Under the pastorship of its recently named Rabbi, Maurice Appelbaum, the synagogue has undergone a virtual resurrection from the dead. After seeing its membership decline for decades through the late 2oth century (as was true with all prewar New York City synagogues except for the haredi ones) and being left for dead, it has recently turned around and become a hub of vigorous socio-religious events. Eminent speakers are regularly invited to lecture, communal meals are hosted every Friday evening following the liturgy, a recent sun-eclipse watching event was held, and it has even adopted the lag baomer bonfire custom from contemporary Hasidim.

The development is notable because post-World-War-II Hungarian Hasidism, under R. Joel Teitelbaum guidance, has been hitherto unusually reclusive, eschewing not just mainstream American society but also every modern form of Judaism, including Modern Orthodoxy.

Open Orthodoxy, at the far left of the Orthodox spectrum may seem at first blush a particularly ill-suited catnip to hard-right punctiliously observant Hasidim. Open Orthodoxy is distinguished from its “Modern” counterpart, from which it emerged in the late 90’s, by a deliberate effort to implement reform on matters of gender and sexual orientation. It shook up the Orthodox world when in 2004 it named the first “maharat” female Orthodox rabbi, and it is the only Orthodox movement that openly embraces LGBT individuals. Other than its attempt to bring Orthodoxy up to date with the prevailing feminist-egalitarian and gender-expansive winds of the time, it is largely loyal to halokho.

But Open Orthodoxy features a unique combination of community and spirituality that no other division within Orthodoxy, barring Hasidism, has been able to offer. The Modern Orthodox, for instance, lack in warmth, exuberance and mystic symbolism that is so comforting to religious adherents in the 21st century. And with an abandonment of Yiddish and the embrace of College it lacks the cachet of traditional authenticity. The Lithuanians can claim greater adherence to tradition but similarly are seen as cold and uninspiring.

Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah selects its rabbinic-track students based on very strict criteria. It demands that candidates demonstrate an excellent secular academic record, thus proving able to attract prospective parishioners who are intellectually sophisticated and seek a cerebral experience. It also demands that rabbinic candidates show an ability and interest to self-motivate and lead. Unlike other Rabbis, who are handed a pulpit on a silver platter, Open Orthodox Rabbis, such as Greenpoint Shul’s R. Appelbaum, must craft the congregation they wish to lead on their own. When taking over the reins of a synagogue as moribund as Greenpoint Shul was at the time, no salary can be expected for several years to come; there are simply no members to speak of, let alone, members of means and donors.

Greenpoint shul’s (and other OO shuls) closest competitor is the Chabad of North Brooklyn, located in the Northside of Williamsburg. It too accepts all Jews as they are, seeks to amplify their Jewish connection incrementally and at their own pace. It too highlights community, dance, song and spirituality as central to what it offers a disenchanted New York Jew lost in a vast and turbulent sea of materialism, searching for meaning and purpose in life. It too is nominally Orthodox and adheres to halokho. It too compels the Rabbi or sholiah (emissary) to be a pioneer: carve out his own turf and build his congregation from naught.

There is, perhaps, no better epitome of the Open Orthodoxy ideal (as is now gaining ground among Williamsburg Hasidim) than a dominant figure in the movement who hails from a Hasidic background: R. Ysoscher Katz, Chair of the Talmud dep. of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and director of its Center for Halakhic Studies.

Born in Williamsburg, Katz distinguished himself as a remarkably assertive and brilliant student. Always thinking originally and expansively he chose to pursue the “Brisker” method of study back in the 80’s when it was still considered risque among the more classical Hasidim of Borough Park, and was practically unheard of in Williamsburg. After marrying into a Borough Park family he attended the B.P. Kolel of R. Yehezkeel Roth, then a Satmar dayyan, and received his rabbinic ordination there.

It is not clear what exactly triggered him, but he apparently became disillusioned with the Hasidic lifestyle. Perhaps he considered it too closed-minded in dogma; perhaps it required too rigid an interpretation of halokho; perhaps it was the perceived sexism and minimal role for women in public and religious affairs. Katz son’s waywardness, having gone off the derekh in 2008, may have also played a role in his religious transformation. He eventually gravitated to the emergent Chovevei Torah movement, divorced his Hasidic wife, trimmed his beard and donned a necktie, relocated to be closer to the movement’s epicenter in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and became a star in the nascent community there.

Katz’s level of erudition and Talmudic fluency is nigh nonexistent outside the Haredi sector. Coupled with confidence, assertiveness, eloquence in the English language, and Jewish philosophical-ideological conversancy, Katz has become a darling of the OO movement and a thorn in the eye of Modern Orthodoxy, the latter of which is envious of Open Orthodoxy’s accomplishments even as MO withers.

A recent online exchange between R. Katz and the Lithuanian R. Avrohom Edelstein over the circumstances of a federal fraud indictment of some dozen Lakewood residents turned acerbic when Edelstein accused Katz of dishonesty and having an ulterior motive in his presentation and analysis of the case. After Edelstein doubled down on the vitriol in his second rejoinder to Katz, Katz chose to disengage.

Critics note that underlying the disputation by R. Edelstein is a prejudiced, deep-seated envy and disdain toward a competitor in the field of kiruv. Edelstein has distinguished himself as a preeminent figure in the kiruv movement, writing and speaking on the topic to large crowds of disciples. R. Katz, a newcomer to the field and many years his junior, represents not just the Hasidic movement –a classical enemy of dispassionate Lithuanianism– but also a Jewish outreach movement that employs a radically different approach to bringing people back to their heritage at a time when traditional “scientific” approaches advocated by Edelstein are no longer working.

Along with the assortment of Jewish characters who gravitate to the Greenpoint Shul, including Israeli expatriates, some of the shul’s southern Satmar neighbors see nothing wrong in indulging it too. It is Orthodox, check. It is Hasidic-inspired, check. It adores Torah learning, check. It is hip and cool, in the contemporary Williamsburg spirit, check.

Yeah, it’s avant garde and unconventional to be sure. But for the young millennial generation of Williamsburg Hasidim, if they can accept Lipa Schmeltzer’s antics, surely R Maurice Appelbaum and his mentor R. Ysoscher Katz couldn’t possibly be that much worse.

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4 Responses to Open Orthodoxy Makes Inroads Into Hasidic Williamsburg

  1. Rabbi Mendel Teitelbaum says:

    One mistake you write: “Born and raised in Borough Park”

    Rabbi Yesoscher Katz was born and raised in Williamsburg. He married into Boro Park.

    Thanks for a very beautiful article!

  2. A former friend of YK says:

    Come, come, now.
    Yssochr (or whatever he calls himself) can probably learn a blatt gemoro well – unlike the other ameratzishe OO “rabbis”, but his reason for dumping his Charedi family and lifestyle is that of most OTD types – a baal taavah who needs an open path to permit all the usual taavos olam hazeh..

    • Rebitsen Sashe Hager says:

      I knew Ysoscher Katz while he was still a satmar guy.

      He was the most respected Talmid of Satmar.

      For sure if somebody leaves your world you will badmouth him.

      Facts is: He is a very public person today you can not just say he is OTD while he is a rabbi daily. You only show your bitterness by spreading empty gossip not real facts.

      Eat your heart out Chusid Shoiteleh!

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