No one could have predicted, least of all Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz himself, that he would be compelled to lead a 20-plus-rabbi-strong rabbinic council and kashrut agency during a worldwide pandemic, or that his group would have as much impact as it has had. While the Ramaz gemara teacher and rav of Teaneck’s Congregation Shaarei Tefillah spent two years as president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, he focused initially on leading the RCBC through a reorganization of its kashrut arm, focusing on creating a meaningful partnership with other local certifying agencies. However, eight months ago, just following Purim, as the threat of COVID-19 began to touch tri-state area Jewish communities, the decision of the RCBC to close all communal shuls before the government or any other entity moved to make recommendations, would later be heralded across the country as prescient, wise and life-saving.
“The things we now take for granted were based on Rabbi Schiowitz’s quick and bold decisions, all enacted while respectful of the many opinions in the room. As an attendee of the meeting, I can personally say how inspiring it was to be in the room where such swift action was taken under Rabbi Schiowitz’s leadership,” said Golan Elias, president of Shaare Tefillah. “Obtaining consensus and a unified voice is something unique and impressive, that subsequently, many other communities have tried to replicate. Much of this has been due to the tone and leadership presented by Rabbi Schiowitz,” he said.
I had the pleasure to sit down (virtually) with Rabbi Schiowitz, to discuss his term and his thoughts on the future.
Tell me about some of the initial thoughts or expectations you had as incoming president of the RCBC? How did your expectations compare to the realities of the last nine months?
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect when I took on this job. Prior to my presidency, I did not think that I had time to attend all of the meetings, let alone take on a leadership role. Like everything in life, you make time for things once they become a priority. Certainly, the past eight months were far more intense and challenging than expected, and also very rewarding.
The shutting down of shuls and community events, before all other government, legal or community directives, was one of the most difficult, controversial and complex decisions ever taken by the RCBC. How do you think it went?
I feel grateful that we gained access to such a strong group of medical professionals who made the compelling case. Prior to our meeting, no one expected the results that we saw. The rabbis exceeded expectations by extending the “shut down” beyond shuls, to smachot, funerals, shiva and restaurants. Some of those were difficult and heart-wrenching, but necessary. In retrospect, I am inspired by the universal recognition that this had to be a unified decision and every rabbi who was in the minority agreed, on their own, to participate in a unified position. This really made a difference.
Other than, or despite, COVID-related issues, what has comprised the rest of your RCBC work? What’s next for you?
Mostly kashrus but many communal issues come to the RCBC. The collaboration and communication among the rabbis truly enable a level of unity that is unique and practically advantageous. COVID aside, the experience taught me how much work there is to be done to improve our community and I am therefore staying on the board of the RCBC in order to maintain my involvement and to accomplish goals that were not yet accomplished.
Is the job of RCBC president more concerned with shailot and protocol, or more inspirational or “rabbinic”? What skills were most called upon for you? How do you think the role helped showcase your strengths and the strengths of your RCBC colleagues?
The job calls for a great balancing act of competing characteristics and approaches. It is necessary to be confident but also humble, assertive and deferential. We have to know how and when to use our voice but also when not to. We try to lead a community that is unified and uniform, but also diverse and respectful of differences. I discovered the need for skills that I never thought about before. It was like exercising for the first time, straining muscles that one never knew of. I hope that it made me stronger.
By Elizabeth Kratz