At my first shul as a rav, I was told, “Soon enough, you’ll figure out that you have to compromise on principles or you’ll never get anywhere.”
Wherever I went, I was told, “Sooner or later, Dov, you’ll learn that you can’t feed a family on principles. Everyone sells out, sooner or later.”
Throughout my life, I have heard many Jewish laity snipe about their shul rav: “He has no guts. No rabbis do. Cowards – the whole lot of them.” And yet, that’s the very rabbi these complainers want: a man who’s fearless but does and says only what he’s told – on penalty of being fired.
And so we see rabbis who stand up and preach with fire on Shabbat: “If Yasser Arafat were to walk into this room right now, I would look him right in the eye and tell him exactly what I’m telling you about our rights to the land of Israel.” The thing is, Yasser Arafat never needed to stop by that shul to say a yahrzeit kaddish.
It has been an exciting rollercoaster of a life for me. Very challenging, not always quite as planned. But I have the extraordinary feeling that comes from knowing that I have never sold out.
I had in-laws who did everything they could to convince me in my 20s to go to law school and become a lawyer for the rest of my life. But my dream was to become a rav. So after four undergraduate years at Columbia University, I attended YU’s rabbinic school – not law school. I became a rav and followed my destiny. And a decade later, when the time called for it, I went to UCLA Law School and became an attorney – and a law professor.
I was told that if I would just condemn and separate from Rabbi Meir Kahane at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, I could open fabulous doors for myself in the American centrist Orthodox rabbinate and could go on to great things. But I stood firm.
As a result, when I was granted semicha, the people in YU’s rabbinic placement office wouldn’t offer me a suitable pulpit opportunity. Instead, they gave me a choice of Cape Town, South Africa at the height of the Steve Biko apartheid riots; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Wichita, Kansas. They said, “We don’t want you in the New York area.”
So I did the forbidden. I went wildcat and applied for my own pulpit independently rather than proceed through the YU placement office. In retaliation, they blacklisted me for five years. But I managed to remain in the New York Tri-State area, and that allowed me to become national director of the Likud in the United States.
That has been my life. I lost many opportunities because I wouldn’t back down on core principles. At a shul in California, I learned that a member of the shul’s Board of Directors was harassing and propositioning women, including my office secretary. I insisted that he be removed from the board and from all lay leadership positions.
They warned me that he’s very popular, and he and his friends would destroy me if I didn’t let it go. But I persisted until he was off the board and out of leadership. He then gathered supporters who pressed me to leave the shul.
The people he gathered included people who had other issues with me. The community of 100,000 Jews had no mikveh, so I built one – raised the first $100,000 all on my own – and thus unfortunately made enemies of laity who wanted a building-enhancement campaign instead of a mikveh.
Others fought me because the city only had a Community Day School where boys didn’t have to wear yarmulkes and where Chumash and Rashi – to say nothing of Gemara and Tosafot – weren’t taught. So I pushed for a yeshiva day school under Orthodox auspices.
I was warned that would be the death blow to my rabbinic career. So I started my own shul down the block. It’s now in its 13th year.
I am reasonable. I compromise – all the time. That’s why my second wife – the love of my life whom G-d took from me with glioblastoma last year after 20 years of a marriage made in Heaven – and I got along so well. I compromise all the time. She liked that. But never – ever – on principle. She admired that.
There is a price to pay. Some of my rabbinic colleagues are scared of me; they maintain their distance. Some speak horribly behind my back. “Do you know he has never held on to a big shul?” “Do you know he once was divorced?” “Do you know that he has no friends, that he can’t get along with anyone?” That hurts. Of course it does. It’s good that I have friends who warn me.
When I applied to attend YU’s rabbinic school in 1976, I initially was rejected because of my activity in the Jewish Defense League. I had to meet personally with the new president of YU, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, to ask him to overturn the decision of a very-highly placed rabbi at YU who insisted I be kept out because I wouldn’t turn on Rav Kahane.
It was Rav Lamm’s very first tough decision to make as president of YU – and he admitted me. I have remained his deepest admirer to this day. Even when he came under attack decades later by opportunists on the left and the cancel culture crowd, I stood by him. When I was told that now was the time to turn on him for my own gain, I stood by him. Ironic, no?
When I applied for membership in the Rabbinical Council of America in the early 1980s, the same people who initially kept me out of YU now worked to keep me out of the RCA. They succeeded for 20 years. And then, one day in 2005, I received a call from the placement office of Yeshiva University – the one that had blacklisted me a quarter century earlier because I wouldn’t be the rabbi of Christchurch – and the placement director begged me on the phone for half an hour to apply for a certain pulpit. I complied. And he then got me into the RCA as a member.
Soon I was elected by RCA members to sit for three terms on the RCA Executive Committee, but only after I ran as a wildcat. The official Nominating Committee wouldn’t nominate me. To avoid my becoming West Coast Vice President, they even redefined the term “West Coast” to include Europe. Parlez vous francais?
Why am I writing this? To brag? To say, “Hey, everyone, look at me”! Nope. If that were my purpose, there is plenty more I would add – and stuff I would leave out. Rather, I’m writing this for young rabbis since I now have 40 rabbinic years in my rear-view mirror. I am writing this likewise for non-rabbis in every walk of life.
Know this: There comes a time when you look back on your life and ask yourself: “Has my life been well lived or have I wasted so much of what I could have done and been because I feared what others would think of me, what others would say?”
If you compromise reasonably but stand firmly on your principles and values, and if you treat people right and try to accept and love all people unless they truly stab you in the back and prove themselves despicable – you will be able to look in the mirror and know that you have honored your destiny. You will have touched more lives for the good than you ever will know.
And the thing that your haters will hate most about you is that they never managed to transcend mediocrity while you somehow, despite one setback after another, never stopped advancing forward without selling out.