Sunday, November 7, was a beautiful and heartwarming day in the illustrious history of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, as Rabbi Elliot Schrier was formally installed as the mara d’atra of this pioneering institution from which sprang the vibrant Teaneck and Bergenfield Orthodox Jewish community.
CBY President Dr. Steven Becker welcomed the attendees and thanked the many people who contributed to the synagogue’s rabbinic search, selection and integration processes. Among those he singled out for special mention was Saul Kaszovitz (Rabbinic Search Committee) for finding the “mara d’atra of our dreams.” He also thanked Clive Lipshitz (Rabbinic Integration Team) and Amy Gibber, Nechama Saks and Esti Kaminetzky (Installation Event Team). Becker urged that we emulate the “dreamers” among our biblical forefathers and optimistically look to the synagogue’s future.
Rabbi Emeritus Steven Pruzansky, who flew in for the event, presented what he believes are the most critical attributes of a successful rav: “Menschlichkeit, ahavat Hatorah, and ahavat Yisrael.” A pulpit rabbi is “in the people business,” he explained. His advice to his successor: “Cherish the members. Become part of people’s lives, and they will become part of yours.”
Associate Rabbi Ari Zahtz then introduced keynote speaker Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Zahtz noted how much Rabbi Berman’s presence has added to Bnai Yeshurun and the entire community and how much he appreciated his own discussions and relationship with him.
Rabbi Berman began with several humorous recollections of his own rabbinic investiture at Manhattan’s Jewish Center in 1990. He was only 30 years old at the time and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, zt”l, his predecessor who was leaving the pulpit to become president of Yeshiva University, quipped, “Don’t worry about his age; he will grow out of it.” Rabbi Berman’s story was most befitting the current occasion as Rabbi Schrier is only 31 years old.
Rabbi Berman explained what he felt the three characteristics of a great rabbi are: Firstly, he must transcend age (like Avraham and Sarah) by delivering high-level shiurim, while still being able to talk with a child, demonstrating the wisdom of the old and the energy of the young. Secondly, he needs to love his congregants. He quoted Rabbi Lamm, who once explained (about his congregants), “I don’t need to like them, but I need to love them.” Finally, Rabbi Berman said, a rabbi must provide a vision and direction and create a mission for his congregation.
“There are “good rabbis, great rabbis, and exceptional rabbis,” noted Rabbi Berman, saying that Rabbi Schrier’s unique skills and personality place him in the “exceptional” class. He called him “a talmid chacham of the first order … humble, kind and caring, with relentless energy.” Finally, Rabbi Berman addressed the members in attendance, explaining that there are “good, great, and exceptional” congregations and communities. Bnai Yeshurun, an exceptional kehillah, must now “rise and seize the opportunity.”
Assistant Rabbi Yosef Weinberger then introduced Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of RIETS, calling him “one of the great darshanim of our time.”
Rabbi Penner tackled the unusual terms that Yaakov used to describe the dream in which he saw a ladder extending from the earth to heaven. In Genesis 28:17 Yaakov characterizes the place as a Beit Elokim and Sha’ar Hashamayim, a house of God and a gate to heaven. Building on the observations of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, Rabbi Penner explained the seeming contradiction between a “house” and a “gate.” A house encloses things that are here and now, whereas a gate is an entry to places and experiences in the future that we have not yet observed or experienced.
The Beit HaMikdash and our shuls must be both. Our shul is a house—a place where we keep our sifrei Torah, and we come together to pray and study in the present. But our shul must also be a gateway to our future, where we develop aspirations and encounter new ideas to enhance our spirituality.
Rabbi Schrier then addressed the congregation. He expressed his appreciation for all the efforts to welcome and integrate him and his family into Bnai Yeshurun. He explained that he wanted the focus to be on “this wonderful congregation” and not on himself. He described the earliest days of the congregation, the vision of the founding families and the shul’s remarkable growth to become an “important institution for the Jewish world at large.”
“What is Bnai Yeshurun?” he asked. “What do these words signify?”
“The answer is not simple and even our classic exegesis could not agree. The Ibn Ezra traced the word Yeshurun to Yashar, straight—an honorific and laudatory term describing a code of behavior. Rabbeinu Bachya, on the other hand, saw the origin of Yeshurun in the word Shur, meaning to gaze, to seek and to look longingly from a distance. There is, obviously, tension between these interpretations, the first giving a sense of ethical completion and wholesomeness, while the latter implies something lacking, a feeling of imperfection.”
Rabbi Schrier continued: “Bnai Yeshurun must be more than words emblazoned on its walls and it must encompass both understandings of the word Yeshurun. It must be a celebration of all that has been done, a celebration of the present. But it must also connote anticipation, a longing to achieve new heights. How appropriate that at the celebratory sheva brachot of a newly married couple, we recite ‘she’ei birkat Yeshurun,’ relishing the present but also optimistically looking forward to a bright future.”
Rabbi Schrier went on to identify five “directions” for Bnai Yeshurun: 1) Look up, with a focus on improving the “quality” of our tefillah. The quantity of daily and weekly minyanim is cause for celebration, but there is much opportunity to improve the quality of our tefillah experience. 2) Look down and set CBY’s sight on chesed, on those who are in need and on maintaining a warm and welcoming kehillah. 3) Look to the East, the Land of Israel. Support our youth in an environment of growing hostility on the college campus and even by some in Congress. 4) Continue to pursue Talmud Torah. Bnai Yeshurun has made great strides in the quality of its many shiurim, but the focus also must be on quantity, and there is a long way to go until everyone in our shul is involved in regular Talmud Torah. 5) Our final look should be to a “spiritually redeemed world.” We must not become complacent. Rather, we should be striving for personal and communal growth and redemption.
“We are an old and storied kehillah,” Rabbi Schrier concluded. “Celebrate and be thankful. At the same time, we must tap into the pioneering spirit of our shul’s founders. We need to resist lethargy of the spirit.... There are many miles on the road before us.”
Following the formal portion of the installation, the entire congregation adjourned to the social hall for a collation. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schrier continued to meet and greet the men and women of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. There was gratitude and optimism in the air and appreciation for all they have accomplished—and excitement for all that is yet to come.
The day was capped with an evening shiur in Bnai Yeshurun’s beit midrash by Rabbi Schrier’s rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig, rosh yeshiva at RIETS and rosh kollel of the Beren Kollel Elyon.