The Commentator
Volume 62 Issue 4

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RIETS Refuses to Place Musmach in Orthodox

BY HILLEL LEVIN

Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, a YU musmach and the spiritual leader of the Conservative egalitarian Congregation Beth-El in Edison, New Jersey, has been very critical of modern Orthodox institutions as of late. Rosenberg came through the ranks of the James Striar School and received semicha from RIETS in 1974, at which time, he says, he accepted a position in a “non-mechitza, Conservative” synagogue recommended to him by YU/RIETS. Rabbi Rosenberg asserts that the RIETS placement service has since refused to refer him, against its own policy as well as his own wishes, to an Orthodox synagogue. Because he was unable to secure a position in an Orthodox shul, Rosenberg maintains that he was forced to accept several rabbinical positions in Conservative egalitarian synagogues. Rabbi Rosenberg also explains that these factors led to his joining the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) of the Conservative Movement.

Until the late 1980’s, Rosenberg sat on the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) Holocaust Commission, under whose auspices he co-edited the popular Theological and Halachic Reflections on the Holocaust. However, after accepting his current position, Rosenberg was asked to leave the RCA, whose policy it is not to accept members who serve in egalitarian synagogues.

Local Jewish newspapers have picked up on Rosenberg’s story, making it a hot topic in the Jewish world. A June, 1997 article in The Jewish Voice characterized the situation as follows: “The only institution that seems to want nothing to do with him [Rosenberg] is his alma mater and its affiliates in the Modern Orthodox community.”

Such depictions of Rosenberg’s situation have caused many members of the Jewish community to criticize YU for its actions. In a letter to The Jewish Voice, a YU alumnus condemned YU/RIETS and the RCA for, what he terms, “the shameful treatment meted out to Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg.”

This particular alumnus, identified only as Catriel, points to the fact that neither YU nor the RCA would deny - or even respond to - Rosenberg’s allegations as proof of their guilt. As Catriel puts it, “they [YU and Rabbi Steven Dworken of the RCA, identified by Rabbi Rosenberg as the man behind many of his problems] ‘courageously’ take refuge behind a bureaucratic ‘no comment,’ no doubt hoping that will end the matter...”

Catriel is correct in his statement that YU/RIETS and Rabbi Dworken will not comment on Rabbi Rosenberg’s case. However, Rabbi Hirt explained this “no comment” policy in an interview with The Commentator by saying, “it is inappropriate from a Halachic standpoint [and] from the point of view of professional ethics to discuss the personal or professional life of any individual with whom we have, or are in contact.” He went on to say that such a discussion would be in violation of the ethics of confidentiality, and that it would undermine any credibility that RIETS has amongst those it deals with.

When asked whether RIETS has a right to defend itself against attacks such as this, Rabbi Hirt responded that “[YU doesn’t] need any defense. We’re open. We have a track record.” Rabbi Dworken also indicated that he would not speak to The Commentator about individuals with whom he has had dealings because it would be inappropriate.

Anonymous sources familiar with the situation have suggested that YU/RIETS may also be acting cautiously because they are concerned with the possibility that Rabbi Rosenberg will sue. Rabbi Hirt denies this as motive for refusing to comment on specifics of the case; Rabbi Rosenberg would only say that he has not yet decided whether he is considering legal action. When pressed on the matter, Rosenberg replied, “I am not saying anything. I am not saying anything.”

Though it is true that YU/RIETS and the RCA will not comment on Rosenberg’s case, both are very open about related policy issues. Furthermore, while it is impossible to disprove any of Rosenberg’s allegations, certain questions about those allegations must be addressed.

Rabbi Rosenberg points to the fact that YU/RIETS will not accept contributions and support that he offers as one manifestation of his being “ignored” by the institution. On this matter, Rabbi Hirt is very clear: “Every Jew, regardless of where he is on the spectrum is welcome to support the Torah of this institution ... any Jew; it has nothing to do with ideological labels or affiliations.”

While discussing his situation with The Commentator, Rabbi Rosenberg frankly stated that it is his belief that “a vendetta, largely of Steven Dworken” is behind his current situation. Rosenberg points to the fact that, prior to working for the RCA, Rabbi Dworken was the Director of Rabbinic Services at YU (and in charge of placement); in other words, Rabbi Dworken has been involved with the two organizations that Rabbi Rosenberg feels have wronged him.

The painting of Rabbi Dworken as the mastermind behind Rosenberg’s “destruction as an Orthodox Rabbi” is a bit curious, though, since Rabbi Dworken did not work in YU until 1988 - fourteen years after Rabbi Rosenberg was sent to his first pulpit. In fact, between 1974 and 1988, Rosenberg had been placed by YU in two other non-mechitza congregations. Moreover,Rabbi Dworken did not take a position in the administration of the RCA until 1994 - two years after Rabbi Rosenberg was officially asked to resign. The question of how this entire history could be a “vendetta” of Dworken’s, who was not involved from the beginning, remains unanswered. Rosenberg still maintains that “Dworken hates my guts,” even though he admits that he has “never had words with the man.”

Rabbi Rosenberg’s fundamental claim, that RIETS would not forward his resume to “mechitza” shuls, does deserve investigation. According to Rosenberg, this was in violation of RIETS’ own 1982 revision of Rabbinic placement policy, which states that any musmach of Yeshiva University would be referred, upon request, to any available positions.

The Commentator obtained a copy of the policy, which states that, “except in extraordinary cases, the [Rabbinic Placement] committee will honor all requests for referral.” This document, found in a 1982 edition of Chavrusa was drawn up by Rabbi Hirt himself. When Rabbi Hirt spoke with The Commentator, he expanded on the ambiguous “extraordinary cases” clause, and stated that one who “identified himself Rabbinically” with other Jewish movements (including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) “would not [be] consider[ed] ... as a candidate that would be appropriate for referral to Orthodox congregations.”

This in itself is unclear, because though it was not official policy, RIETS did send some musmachim to Conservative-affiliated synagogues. Rabbi Hirt insists that this was only in cases in which proper Halachic authorities were consulted. In fact, Rabbi Hirt prefers to refer to these synagogues as “Orthodox with deviation,” even though some (including Rabbi Rosenberg’s) were openly affiliated with the Conservative United Synagogue organization.

When asked why he is making this an issue if he is happy with his current position, Rabbi Rosenberg answered, “this fight isn’t on my behalf.” He explained that it is his goal to ensure that no future musmachim of RIETS will ever let the placement service send them to Conservative synagogues.

According to Rabbi Dworken, though, when he worked in the placement office of RIETS (1988-1993), it was his policy to tell job-seekers that taking positions in Conservative synagogues might “impact” and “jeopardize” their futures in Orthodox synagogues. Moreover, when asked whether such a situation could even arise in modern-day America, spokespeople for RIETS indicated that YU placement services will no longer refer/place recent musmachim in Conservative synagogues. Thus, at the very least, Rabbi Rosenberg need not worry about this issue - RIETS graduates are no longer sent to Conservative synagogues, anyway.

Through all of this, Rabbi Rosenberg professes a deep love for Yeshiva University and many of the values it advocates. He says that he considers the institution to be his family and his home; he hopes his children will attend Yeshiva College. He adds that he is “not here to hurt YU. This is just not the YU I want to exist.”