When first enlisted to be president of the Rabbinical Council of America, I agreed to serve primarily because I have hakaras hatov for an organization from which I have benefited over the past three decades as a pulpit rabbi. I originally imagined that my two-year tenure would be no different from that of my chaverim who preceded me.
Everything did start off quite normally; the officers of the RCA met at my shul in Thornhill, Ontario, in the fall of 2019 to discuss our robust agenda for the next couple of years: Make sure our financial house was in order, work on an updated edition of the RCA Madrikh (rabbi’s life-cycle and prayer guide), create a policy statement on how and when to welcome members of the LGBT community to our shuls, develop continuing education for rabbis, expand public exposure for our members, create venues for networking, improve the RCA website and app, and other items.
Pretty standard stuff that you’d expect any fraternal order to implement.
The first highlight of my presidency was in February 2020, the one fringe benefit of being president, a trip to Israel for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations’ annual convention. My wife and I enjoyed meeting Israeli dignitaries, being debriefed about what was happening at the Lebanese border, and having some time off in the Holy Land from my own busy shul. Little did we know that this would be our last stint of normalcy, the calm before the storm.
We returned to Toronto at the very end of February after having stopped off on the way in England where I was a scholar in residence. While in London, we were already hearing reports about this new virus that was making its way to Europe from somewhere in China, but we weren’t overly concerned. It could never affect us all the way in North America! We were planning a wedding for our son, living in Los Angeles, for the end of March. He was marrying a Canadian young lady; this was a big plus for us, since it meant a simple drive to Montreal from Toronto instead of a plane flight.
Two weeks later, the whole world came crashing down.
I sat with my shul’s board on March 14, the motzai Shabbos after Purim, and we decided to be the first major shul in Toronto to close its doors. I quickly realized that not only did I have the extraordinary and heartbreaking task of locking the doors of my own synagogue, but that this was happening to thousands of congregations and their rabbis throughout the world. Serving the largest fraternity of Orthodox rabbis in North America meant that I had to come up to speed not only for my congregants, but also for my other “congregation,” the thousand rabbis who are members of the RCA.
This was no simple task, and major credit is due to the officers and executive committee of the RCA for their hard work, moral support, and sage advice during this most turbulent time in all our lives. Together with our executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, our leadership fielded hundreds of queries from rabbanim throughout North America and beyond. We addressed halachic issues about things like new protocols for sanitizing community mikva’ot, how to conduct services over Zoom, and how to deal with congregants who were having mental crises and whether a rav could answer his phone over Shabbos and Yom Tov for such emergencies. We did all this under the guidance of the eminent posek Rav Herschel Schachter and other roshei yeshiva and poskim of YU and RIETS. They were and continue to be, in quite a literal sense, a lifeline not only to our rabbanim but to all of their respective constituents.
In the meantime, our son’s wedding date was drawing closer and things were getting bleaker. There was talk about closing the border between the U.S. and Canada, and so our son hastily flew in his kallah from Montreal to Los Angeles.
We were still hoping against all odds to be able to make a wedding, but we finally resigned ourselves to this new reality and canceled the Montreal venue. And then, realizing that things were only going to get worse, our son informed us that he was going to marry his bride in an intimate chuppah on a bluff in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I worked on booking a ticket to LA to officiate at his wedding. My wife and children begged me not to go, that it was too dangerous during that incipient month of the pandemic, and I finally relented. We watched our son and his bride get married via a Zoom link that kept breaking up every few minutes. Our joy over seeing our son finally married more than drowned out the sadness of not being able to be at his wedding. We were hearing reports of people throughout the Orthodox community who were dying or were on ventilators from Covid, so we counted our blessings. Plus, we had to move on to address the issues of the day.
As Pesach 5780 approached, we helped to promulgate our poskim’s guidelines of what the Seder and Yom Tov would look like during Covid. After Pesach, we looked forward to a bright summer of reopening and healing. We hoped that by Rosh Hashanah 5781, Covid would be a distant memory and life would go back to normal. Alas, that was not to be. Fortunately, Rav Schachter guided our rabbanim through the halachos of what portions of the services could be truncated over the Yomim Noraim and Sukkos.
Our RCA “live” convention in the New York area was suspended for the first time in its history. For the past two conventions we instead held an exclusively “virtual” convention for our members. We’ve learned a lot throughout this challenging time. But the work continues. Contrary to popular perception, rabbis’ jobs only intensified during Covid, and in speaking with many of our members, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in my “Covid fatigue.”
I’m relieved that as of June 17, I have been able to pass the gavel to my dear friend and successor, Rabbi Binyamin Blau of Beachwood, Ohio. He is an extremely capable leader, and we will need his leadership in this new, post-pandemic world.
The state of the RCA is strong, perhaps stronger than it’s been in decades. We had the zechus of helping thousands of people, and in the process were able to reaffirm to ourselves and the Jewish world why our rabbinic fraternity is so vital. It’s not just about conventions, continuing education, and pension plans. Over the past two years, the RCA has been there for its members and their communities in myriad ways that have religiously sustained us all during this period of crisis and chaos.
I feel blessed to have been able to serve during this tumultuous time. Looking back on my original agenda items from that meeting back in 2019, I realize that because of the pandemic upheaval, I wasn’t able to accomplish all I had set out to do. All said, while it might have been a lot easier to have had an uneventful stint of service, I feel blessed that the RCA was able to make a real difference in people’s lives. As we now pick up the pieces and return to normalcy, the RCA’s agenda is as robust as ever, and will undoubtedly be a part of every Jewish community’s reconstruction process. May we continue to grow from strength to strength.