In the middle of the Shabbos night meal last week, I asked my host, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore's Beth Jacob Shaarei Zion shul whether his contract made provision for a sabbatical year. He answered simply, "I'm doing what I most want to do." I realized that my question was tantamount to asking a talmid chacham whether he would like an all expenses paid vacation, where he did not have to learn at all.
Over the course of the next few days in the shul, I gained a clear sense of how a passionate, young rabbi, filled with Torah, can lift an entire congregation. Before 8:30 a.m., every weekday, Rabbi Hauer has already taught an amud yomi shiur to one group of baalebatim and a daf yomi shiur to another (the latter meets daily). I attended another chabura (study group) learning the Maharal's Tiferes Yisrael at a high level. (Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman, whose elucidations of the Maharal's texts have revolutionized the study of the Maharal over the last fifteen years, has twice visited the shul for siyumim of other works of the Maharal.) Rabbi Hauer also gives a weekly chabura in Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner's Pachad Yitzchak, and other shiurim in Chumash and halacha. He leads separate middos vaadim -- one for men and one for women -- based on Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe's classic mussar work Alei Shor.
When Rabbi Hauer first took over the congregation, it could have been described fairly as a backwater on the Baltimore Orthodox scene. Today, I have the sense of shul filled with Jews eager to be inspired by Torah and thrilled to have a rabbi who has the Torah knowledge to slake their thirst and whose vision for a shul encompasses Jews at all different levels of learning and a wide variety of backgrounds.
A deadpan sense of humor also doesn't hurt in attracting new members and winning the staunch support of existing ones. On one Purim video, Rabbi Hauer is seen fielding shidduchim questions about an imaginary congregant's daughter. He has all the information immediately available for such crucial questions as the results of the young woman's Apgar test and what brand of paper towels her family uses to dry their hands after washing on Shabbos. Only when he is asked, "Are the parents nice people?" is he stumped. "No one's ever asked that question before," he responds. "I'll have to get back to you."
Rabbi Hauer is an example of a phenomenon I have observed in a number of shuls over the past decade. My friend Rabbi Zev Cohen has succeeded in uniting Adas Yeshurun in Chicago around the theme, "Torah is the ikar." Again, the combination of caring deeply about each congregant and vast Torah knowledge is the key: Rabbi Cohen was a founding member of the Chicago Community Kollel, Mashgiach in Skokie Yeshiva, and gave Dial-a-Daf daf yomi shiurim for years. He has transformed what was once a staid modern Orthodox shul into a greatly expanded makom Torah, which today houses a half-day Choshen Mishpat Kollel, an afternoon beis medrash program for local young men attending Chicago-area colleges, and a wide array of shiurim.
Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic's Ahavas Yisrael shul attracted attention a few months ago, when he provided a forum for childhood abuse victims to talk about their experiences and the impact on their lives. But before that he had taken over, under the guidance of the Passaic Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Meir Stern, a nearly defunct Conservative synagogue, and turned it into a thriving beis medrash that has attracted many of Passaic's ba'alei teshuva. Rabbi Eisenman mails his congregants a daily "Short Vort," weaving together his encyclopedic knowledge of stories of gedolim, sharp eye for the hidden meaning in everyday interactions, and Torah knowledge. They provide a model for how a shul rabbi can maintain ongoing contact with nearly every congregant.
I first met Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff of Queens when he came on a one-man chizuk trip to residents of the North under siege in the Second Lebanon War. We met again a year later, at the shivah house of one of the young men murdered in the Mercaz HaRav massacre. (He flew to Eretz Yisrael for one day to visit all the shivah homes.) As his Shabbos guest in Queens, it took us nearly an hour and a half to wend our way home from shul on leil Shabbos, as he stopped along the way to visit various congregants too old or feeble to make it to shul. By the time I arose at 5:00 a.m. on Shabbos morning, Rabbi Sokoloff's Shabbos table was already piled high with about twenty seforim for his morning learning seder. He constitutes a model of rabbinic caring for every single congregant.
On my various travels, I've also had the privilege of spending Shabbos in La Jolla, California, and the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, in which there was barely another shomer Shabbos Jew within walking distance when Rabbis Jeffrey Wohlgelernter and Binyomin Friedman, respectively, put down stakes. Hosting dozens for every Shabbos meal and being available to teach Torah to any Jew who showed the slightest interest proved the key to building beautiful, thriving shuls in these communities.
THE AMERICAN MODEL OF A SHUL as a center of communal religious life is still largely unknown in Israel. In most shuls in which the congregants are present or former avreichim, the congregants feel little need for a rabbi on the American model, as opposed to a moreh hora'a (though there are more exceptions to this rule all the time.) And even among non-avreichim, most of the daily and Shabbos minyanim are exclusively places for davening.
Recently Rabbi Yitzchak Elefant, the American-born, Chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Dimona, a southern development town, with over sixty minyanim, broached the idea of twinning Israeli shuls with American congregations to raise a minimal stipend of $700 per month for avreichim in communities like Dimona to assume the role of rav for local shuls, and thereby transform houses of prayer into houses of Torah study as well.
From what I have seen of the power of caring rabbis, passionate about teaching Torah, to build and uplift entire communities, it strikes me as an excellent idea.