On March 23 Yeshiva University in New York City will ordain its largest-ever rabbinic class, conferring on 205 graduates — nine of them with ties to Maryland — from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary the title of rabbi.
According to the university’s communications department, between 75 and 80 percent of its rabbinical program graduates pursue careers in the Jewish nonprofit, educational and outreach spheres, while only about 20 to 25 percent take pulpit positions. The new crop of Maryland rabbis — who, because of the quadrennial nature of the ordainment ceremony, actually completed the rabbinical program between 2011 and 2014 — do not depart from the statistics.
Yaakov Hoffman, 26, originally from Bethesda, finished his studies in June 2013 and took an assistant rabbi position in August at Washington Heights Congregation in Manhattan; in a few weeks, he will be installed as the head rabbi there.
Hoffman’s undergraduate degree is in Jewish Studies and Semitic Languages, and he was considering further study in order to teach when he enrolled in the rabbinical program.
“I had an internship last year where I could try out what being a pulpit rabbi was like, so it made me want to do it more,” Hoffman, who is currently studying to become a rabbinical judge, said of his internship at Ahavas Achim congregation in Highland Park, N.J.
Fellow graduate Dovid Zirkind of Pikesville is also on the pulpit path.
Zirkind, 28, is currently assistant rabbi at the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He said growing up in a yeshiva-based culture, as so many of the YU students do, it’s a natural progression to continue with rabbinical studies. Zirkind said that though many stay on for the love of studying Torah, they don’t necessarily see it as professionally significant.
“But you’ll often hear a story of someone who got his [rabbinic ordination] because he loved learning Torah, [and] one semester, someone asks him if he can teach a Talmud class. Then, before you know it, the rabbi takes a sabbatical and he steps in, and all of a sudden he’s the rabbi of the shul,” explained Zirkind. “They never thought it could be their career.”
Zirkind also emphasized that education and access to rabbinical wisdom doesn’t stop at graduation.
“We joke that we have our rabbis on speed dial,” he remarked. “The ones who taught our Talmud classes at YU are the ones we’re calling the night before a funeral, so the education continues in that sense.”
Another graduate embracing congregational work is Herschel Hartz, 28, of Rockville. Hartz currently lives in Washington Heights and for the past year has been working on a startup outreach center, Inwood Jews, located in a burgeoning Jewish neighborhood in upper Manhattan above 155th Street. He wasn’t raised Orthodox but became observant in his adult years and is now affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch. He claimed his is not the typical YU graduate’s path.
“[Inwood Jews] is what I consider to be congregational work,” said Hartz. “The classical YU grad goes off to a shul that’s already built. I’m planning to build a synagogue from the bottom up. That’s what I’m planning on doing with the next few years of my life, God willing, with fundraising.
“We’ve had a lot of success,” he continued. “It’s a little bit out of the box.”
Hartz said his approach is different because he shies away from a “denominational or affiliate box.” He didn’t have a specific path in mind when he began his rabbinical studies four years ago, but he learned how to operate a Jewish institution and how to deal with people and relationships while immersed in the program.
“I was looking for an excuse to continue to learn Jewishly,” explained Hartz, “but now that I’ve finished it, I feel more that I’m a Jewish person who’s on a mission of some sort to serve the Jewish community.”
Mayer Kovacs, like a majority of his fellow graduates, is infusing the knowledge he obtained from his rabbinic studies into the secular professional interests he holds.
Kovacs, 29, lives in Baltimore and went to the University of Maryland School of Law. He spent time studying in Israel and also spent a year in the Israeli army. He attended YU as an undergrad and just recently completed the rabbinical program.
He explained that at YU, the traditional study of Talmud, which includes challenging rabbis’ interpretations, greatly influenced his experience studying law; both require analytical thought, he discovered.
“You can’t just accept things the way they are; it’s a constant challenge,” he said. “[It] helped develop my analytical and critical thinking. When you see something, you don’t say OK, this is what’s written in the text, this is what’s written in the law. You have to [ask], is this really consistent? What about other supreme court cases, other statutes?”
Yonah Bardos, 29, has long been interested in medicine and now sees the opportunity for a career at the intersection of his rabbinical training, bioethics and medical studies. Bardos grew up in Pikesville and attended Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the Talmudic Academy. He attended YU medical school while pursuing the rabbinate, and completed his master’s degree in bioethics. Bardos is a resident at Sinai Hospital in New York and lectures on fertility and Jewish law.
He said his field is growing because as technology advances, there are more questions in the Orthodox community of what is possible and what is allowed according to Jewish law.
“I’m fascinated by how a 3,000-year-old code of law can be applied to modern-day technology,” said Bardos.
Bardos said the opportunity to access law, medical and rabbinical schools all on one campus was a unique element of his education at YU.
“The motto at YU is Torah Umadda —secular studies enmeshed with rabbinical studies — and what I did really was that,” he observed. “Torah and science are not separate; you use them hand in hand.”
Zev Eleff, 28, grew up in Baltimore and is a doctoral candidate in American Jewish History at Brandeis University in Boston; he’s published many scholarly articles focused on the Orthodox community and teaches part time at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. Eleff said he is committed to holding a leadership position in his community, but at the same time he is keeping his options open regarding congregational work.
Mendel Breitstein of Montgomery Village, meanwhile, lives in Jerusalem and is a cartoonist at Snap Magazine, a children’s publication of The Jerusalem Post, and a lecturer at Open University, teaching English literacy to haredi men; Yitzchak Brand of Baltimore teaches algebra, trigonometry and physics at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys; and Ari Poliakoff of Pikesville is finishing his master’s degree in social work at Touro College in New York. He is also working at YU’s high school as a guidance counselor and plans to integrate his rabbinical studies and social work skills to address social issues within the Jewish community.