May 30, 2024
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An Exclusive Interview With Ramaz’s Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: Changing Roles, Yet Keeping the Community Constant

Change is in the air for the intertwined Jewish institutions of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) and the Ramaz School, storied establishments based in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

In July, KJ voted to have Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, currently the leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, take the position of senior rabbi, while current KJ leader Rabbi Haskel Lookstein will be taking the title of Rabbi Emeritus this coming January. In addition, the Ramaz Upper School will be under new leadership in September as Rabbi Eric Grossman steps into the position of head of school. Rabbi Grossman was formerly the head of school at the Frankel Jewish Academy, a school in West Bloomfield, Michigan. And to top it all off, KJ’s new building is opening this autumn after having been rebuilt after a fire that burned the original down in 2011.

The Jewish Link spoke with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein about his new position within KJ and Ramaz, those taking on the leadership, and the present and future of the community.

JLNJ: What are you going to be doing in this new position [as the Rabbi Emeritus]? How is it different from what you’ve done before? Is it more about watching over things?

RL: Well, I’m moving into that position as of January 1st, when Rabbi Steinmetz comes. I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing as Rabbi Emeritus; the one thing I am certain about is that I will get off “center stage” in KJ… [Rabbi Steinmetz] will probably do most of the preaching and teaching… And he will be running the shul and the congregation. I’m not going anywhere, and I will be very happy to help him in any way in which he feels I can be helpful… This is uncharted territory for me, but I am very determined to give Rabbi Steinmetz the best possible opportunity for success in succeeding me. I am also very happy that our associate rabbi, Rabbi Eli Weinstock, will be elevated to the position of Rabbi and will be working with Rabbi Steinmetz.

JLNJ: Why is this transitioning happening now? Is there a reason for the timing or did it just seem like the right time?

RL: As a rabbi gets into his early 80s, I think it’s important for there to be a thoughtful process for succession. We are all in God’s hands, and I would not want the congregation to be in the position where suddenly it would have to start looking for a successor. I was the one who initiated the process; not because I wanted to retire or because I don’t like being the rabbi anymore, but because I wanted to make the congregation secure. And thankfully, we found somebody who is, in my opinion, an ideal successor. He is on the same page with me and with KJ and Ramaz; he is fervently Modern Orthodox, open to all kinds of people and ideas, while at the same time absolutely grounded in Halacha and Jewish tradition. He is also a very beloved rabbi in Montreal, where he is the go-to Modern Orthodox rabbi.

JLNJ: With Rabbi Steinmetz taking the head and with you taking on a different role, and just in general with the new KJ building—where do you see the KJ community going in the near and unforeseeable future?

RL: Wherever Rabbi Steinmetz and Rabbi Weinstock take it. I don’t see any fundamental change at all; I would just hope that [Rabbi Steinmetz] gives the inspiring, energetic, and thoughtful leadership that I fully expect him to give. The greatest part of all of this: I think KJ will continue on the path that my father of blessed memory, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, originally blazed for it in 1936 and which I have tried to follow in my 57 years here.

JLNJ: Are you changing around your role in Ramaz as well?

RL: I’m not quite sure what my role in Ramaz will be, but I’m very excited about the leadership that Rabbi Eric Grossman is going to give to Ramaz. I am so impressed with his scholarship, educational vision, and most of all, his extraordinary people skills. He loves children, and therefore he loves their parents and their teachers. I think the school has felt that since he arrived a couple of months ago, and it will only continue to thrive under his leadership. [Rabbi Grossman begins his tenure officially in September but has visited the school a couple of times to meet the faculty and students.] He is also on the same wavelength that Ramaz has been on since its founding seventy-seven years ago. And so I think the two leaders of KJ and Ramaz will provide not just inspirational leadership but also continuity to both institutions.

JLNJ: Are there any memories you have from your tenure at KJ and Ramaz that you’d like to share? Any special memories, things that stand out to you?

RL: I think that both KJ and Ramaz have remained steady in representing Modern, Centrist Orthodox Judaism… Another thing of which I am really proud is the communal role that both institutions have played in Zionism and the support of Israel, in twenty years of the Soviet Jewry [“refusenik”] movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and in any cause that is important to the Jewish people. We haven’t sat back and just watched Jewish history unfold; we have played an important role in contemporary Jewish life—where there has been a call for Jews to act, we have stepped forward.

By Oren Oppenheim

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