“My father was always involved in shul, but he felt rabbis schnorr off the community, and he didn’t want me involved in that,” Lopatin told me. “I think he wanted me to go into Jewish communal life, professionally, but his big thing was that the State Department could influence things more, so when I went on the Rhodes I was studying to be an expert on the Middle East.…[later] My mother had just passed away, and I decided, I’m just going to be a rabbi,” Lopatin said. “I’m very interested in Islamic fundamentalism, but it wasn’t where my passion was.”
Allison Hoffman writes in Tablet Magazine:
…[Rabbi Asher] Lopatin originally set out to be a diplomat. As an undergraduate at Boston University, he studied international relations and earned a Master’s degree in medieval Arabic thought at Oxford. “My father was always involved in shul, but he felt rabbis schnorr off the community, and he didn’t want me involved in that,” Lopatin told me. “I think he wanted me to go into Jewish communal life, professionally, but his big thing was that the State Department could influence things more, so when I went on the Rhodes I was studying to be an expert on the Middle East.” Lopatin started a Ph.D. but also devoted a significant percentage of his time at Oxford to the Jewish Society, of which he was president, and also taught bar mitzvah students on the side. Finally, a friend told him to follow his heart into the rabbinate. “My mother had just passed away, and I decided, I’m just going to be a rabbi,” Lopatin said. “I’m very interested in Islamic fundamentalism, but it wasn’t where my passion was.”
As a boy living in the Bay Area, where his father was a research chemist, Lopatin attended the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, then led by Rabbi Saul Berman, a leading Modern Orthodox scholar who now teaches at Yeshiva University. When Lopatin was 8, his parents decided to make aliyah and moved the family to French Hill, in Jerusalem. “We weren’t even shomer shabbes until we went to Israel, but we were Orthodox,” Lopatin told me. “We were very modern, but we never went to the Conservative shul.” The Lopatins stayed through the Yom Kippur War—which Lopatin remembers as a thrilling event—but after four years decided to return to the United States, moving to Boston. Lopatin enrolled at the Maimonides School in Brookline, which he found to be overly rigid after his experience in Israel. He successfully protested school administrators’ decision to cut the brief kissing scene from The Diary of Anne Frank but gave up on plans to promote a student boycott while trying to put together a student council after he was threatened with expulsion. “I did nothing exciting at the end of the day,” he acknowledged, a little sheepishly.…
Initially, Lopatin wasn’t interested in the job [of rosh yeshiva president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah]. He was planning to move to Israel, where he had ambitions to help start a new community in the Negev, called Carmit, with 200 other American Jewish families. “We really wanted to make aliyah to Israel,” Lopatin told me. “It was very precious.” But after his younger daughter Cara was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, the plan was shelved so that they could focus on her medical care. By then, having already prepared his synagogue board for his departure, the idea of joining [Rabbi Avi] Weiss’ community in Riverdale seemed like a good substitute for the adventure in the Negev. “As far as changing the course of Orthodoxy and Judaism in America,” Lopatin told me, “you’ve got to be in New York.”
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah occupies the upper floors of a sand-colored building along the Henry Hudson Parkway, just across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek from Manhattan’s northernmost reaches. The ground floor of the building belongs to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, known as the Bayit, which Weiss founded in 1971. Its 850 members include Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and his wife, Ruth Schwartz. Every Saturday, they come to pray in a soaring space with a blue ceiling and an ark shaped like a Torah scroll. The bimah juts into the center of the space, in the classical style, putting Weiss, Hurwitz, and other clergy in the middle of the congregation. The chairs surrounding the bimah aren’t fixed, and sometimes, Weiss told me, he makes his male and female congregants switch sides of the mechitza, just for the sake of it. The proximity of the school and the shul is intentional: Weiss told me he thinks of Chovevei as an educational institution along the lines of a teaching hospital, rather than a clinical research institution.…
Read it all here.