Rabbi Menashe East, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is the new religious leader of the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph.
Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
August 27, 2009
Two rabbis who have taken uncommon paths to the rabbinate have recently joined the local community. Last week, NJJN profiled Rabbi David Greenstein, the new religious leader at Shomrei Emunah in Montclair.
This week, an introduction to Rabbi Menashe East, a guitarist and graduate of the “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, who leads the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph.
Rabbi Menashe East felt right at home when he found Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph. For much of its 80-year history, the congregation, though chartered as Orthodox, did not have a mehitza, a barrier separating men and women during prayer.
East sees that piece of the congregation’s history as evidence of an appealing independent streak.
“It’s strange for an Orthodox synagogue not to have a mehitza,” he said. “This is a place where people are independent-minded, and I feel we’re kindred spirits.”
East grew up with a long tradition of fervently Orthodox rabbis in Lakewood, but set his own maverick course in studying for the rabbinate at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the seminary for “open” Orthodoxy founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in 1999.
The yeshiva aims to counter what Weiss saw as an increasingly rightward and insular trend in Orthodox life, even at Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship seminary at Yeshiva University, where one of East’s grandfathers studied.
East, 30, thinks Judaism, and a strict commitment to Halacha, or Jewish law, ought to help people live in the contemporary world, not cut them off from it.
“I understand the essence of Jewish tradition to be a living, breathing experience, not one that really closes us off from our potential, from life,” he said in an interview Aug. 12 in his new office.
His vision for Mount Freedom Jewish Center is based on the traditional pillars of Jewish life: prayer, study, and acts of kindness. And yet his particular vision of these is, well, a little unorthodox.
For starters, he knows prayer can be challenging, and calls the siddur a “terrible crutch” that has made services “really staid.” He wants to help people find a way back to “spontaneous and powerful religious expression.” He said he plans to ask the tough questions: “How do you make tefila [prayer] meaningful? What are the parameters? How do we nurture and encourage prayerful moments beyond the four walls of the synagogue and beyond Shabbat?”
East said he is committed to traditional service projects like staffing soup kitchens and visiting the sick. But he offers another idea, borrowed from a colleague in Boston: setting up a free medical clinic at the synagogue several times each month.
“We have a lot of medical professionals here who could offer free service in the shul to anyone, Jew or non-Jew,” he said. “That’s a powerful model of what a Jewish community can do and what Jewish community is about.”
He said he hopes to provide learning opportunities for local Jews across the denominational spectrum. He wants particularly to bring youth back in to the congregation; to that end, the synagogue will offer free religious school and free bar mitzva lessons. And East plans to create a drop-in teen lounge.
Although he has been at the synagogue only since Aug. 10, his bookshelves were already filled and the office had a lived-in feeling, though the walls were still bare. “I need to have my stuff together in order to have my head together. Otherwise I feel out of it,” he acknowledged.
Part of having his stuff together is having his guitar at hand. “It gives me spiritual uplift,” he said. He is drawn to the music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Shlomo Carlebach, and Leonard Cohen. “You can find inspiration and soulfulness through all these voices. That’s why I like their music and I think it can become part of a dialogue here in this shul — a broadening kind of vision.”
Uplift and stimulation
East, who grew up in Teaneck, attended the Torah Academy of Bergen County, studied at a yeshiva in Israel, and earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and completed master’s level coursework in Jewish thought at Yeshiva University. After ordination, he took a pulpit in San Diego, where he’s been for the last four years. He returned to New Jersey after another stint in Israel this summer as a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Modern Orthodox think tank.
He and his wife, Donna Amdur East, have two children, two-and-a-half-year-old Ayala and eight-month-old Erez.
East replaces Rabbi Pinchas Klein, who took the helm of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Philadelphia in 2008. Ron Brandt, who headed the search committee at MFJC, said the congregation screened over 100 rabbis — including some in Israel.
“We wanted a rabbi who could offer spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation,” said Brandt. “We wanted a dynamic rabbi who would conduct outreach, who is oriented toward children and growing our synagogue. We think we have found this combination of traits and personality we were looking for in Rabbi East.”
Brandt said the community embrace’s Chovevei Torah’s vision.
“It’s very open-minded and inclusive, like our synagogue,” he said. “Many people in our community drive to shul — that is the nature of life in suburban New Jersey — but we try to maintain our rituals and customs as best we can. Rabbi East understands and is not dogmatic in his approach.”
Congregation president Dr. Larry Weinstein of Mendham, said, “We are proud and excited to have an extremely sensitive, knowledgeable, bright, energetic, and talented rabbi in our warm, open Orthodox shul.”
East said he welcomes the challenge of sustaining a traditional Jewish congregation in Randolph, a suburb without the extensive Orthodox “infrastructure” of Teaneck, for instance. Established Jewish communities sometimes take their spiritual lives for granted, he said, and at worst fail to challenge the kind of attitudes that can produce, say, the recent riots in Jerusalem’s Me’a She’arim neighborhood or the alleged misbehavior among rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn.
“There’s a lot of work the Jewish community has to do to improve itself,” East said. “I’m not sure that’s happening in communities that have [all the infrastructure] — they think someone else will take care of it, of getting us back on track.”
A weekend in honor of East drew over 130 people to a Shabbat dinner and 200 to a kiddush following Saturday services. At a men’s club breakfast Sunday morning in his honor, participants welcomed the rabbi with a humor-filled program.
On Sunday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. the entire community is invited to an open house to welcome the new rabbi.