Only a bit more than a year ago, our family embarked on a transition of a lifetime. I switched careers from a pulpit rabbi—18 years at Anshe Sholom, a Modern Orthodox shul in Chicago with nearly 400 members—to running a yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva with nearly 50 students. Yet, truth be told, the job transition was easy for me: Anshe Sholom was a creative synagogue that sought to connect with Jews everywhere and be welcoming to all types; Yeshivat Chovevei Torah carries that same message: training Orthodox rabbis to become rabbis to the entire Jewish community. The most daring change was moving a mid-western family—Rachel, my wife grew up in Detroit and had spent only a few years on the East Coast—to the Big Apple. I am blessed that my wife and kids are real troopers willing to make this transition, and we are all blessed that the transition was to the incredible community of Riverdale, which has been a bastion of warmth, friendliness, and diversity.
What makes Jewish life rewarding? Certainly the ability to live as a committed Jew, to celebrate and commemorate our tradition in comfort. It goes without saying that Riverdale—both Central and North Riverdale, where we live—provides that in spades. But what makes Jewish life truly rich, especially from a Modern Orthodox perspective, is the ability to mix with diverse types of Jews—and non-Jews—in harmony and togetherness. Walking to shul on Shabbat in one direction, we pass Sha’arei Shalom, a small Reform shul, where if the timing is right my family or just I can walk in and greet the rabbi before services, or sit in at the end of services, and then head a few more minutes to the Young Israel of North Riverdale and Yonkers. If we walk in the other direction, to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), then we pass the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale and we greet those who are going to daven there. And if I am early enough on my own walk, I can walk with the rabbi or his wife or their kids.
Along the way, on any given Shabbat, up and down the Henry Hudson Parkway, people greet each other: Not just friends, but strangers who are doing Shabbat their way—with black hats or sheitlech or small knitted kippot or just anybody that I think is headed somewhere for Shabbat. Everyone is part of a community, and recognizes the other as creating that wonderful Shabbat atmosphere.
In fact, there is a beautiful continuum of organizations in Riverdale: HIR and RJC and Young Israel do events together; HIR will stage rallies with Reform, African American and Christian groups; Manhattan College in Riverdale (Catholic) has a Holocaust center headed by a Muslim professor; Shachar Orthodox Partnership minyan meets at the large Reform Temple of Riverdale, and Rosh Kehilla Dina Najman’s group meets at the Ethical Culture School. Young Israel of North Riverdale will have an Israel study program with the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale; and on Simchat Torah all the shuls dance together on some years, and on other years people from everywhere gather with the cantors of HIR and RJC to rejoice. And after that some people will head for Telz Yeshiva for more Simchat Torah dancing.
Of course, we can always do more: I dream of our Modern Orthodox Yeshiva spending a day at the Telz Yeshiva just a mile away; or of being able to daven at every single minyan in the neighborhood on a Shabbat, including the Tolner shul of Rav Twersky on Moshulu Parkyway or all the services in people’s homes, some of which serve Scotch at the end of davening. (OK, I have indulged in these services from time to time.)
But what is wonderful about Riverdale is that these dreams are actually alive; in some ways Riverdale feels more like a family than a community where I can say good morning to a stranger and, even though they might be surprised, they will answer back with a warm smile.
I took my family from a neighborhood in Chicago, Lakeview, where as the rabbi and the rabbi’s family, we all felt a closeness to everyone around us. We are blessed to have come to a new neighborhood which is part of a much bigger city, a much bigger Jewish population, but which has the warmth and welcoming character that we need. I’m no longer a community rabbi, and our kids are no longer the “rabbi’s kids.” Now we need the community to take us in and make us feel at home. Riverdale is just such a place, and we feel it from Riverdale Avenue to Johnson Avenue, from Netherland and Kapok to 259th and Fieldston. This is community with an open heart, an open mind, and all the warmth and enthusiasm for diversity that makes us feel like we have found a new home for us and a family for our passions as Jews.
By Rabbi Asher Lopatin