Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006
Rabbi Yossi Pollak with his wife, Brooke, left, and mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, right.
Young Rabbi takes over old Synagogue
By Marvin Greisman
Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the pioneering founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Upper Manhattan, Rabbi Yossi Pollak, the newly installed rabbi of Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan, suggested that unlike other Orthodox shuls in the community, his mandate is to be an Orthodox rabbi who reaches out to all Jews on the Lower East Side.
The new rabbi of the synagogue, at 180 Stanton St. better known as the Stanton Street Shul was installed at a gala luncheon held last month at the Angel Orensanz Foundation building, a few blocks away from his shul. The 31-year-old who will now lead the 93-year-old Orthodox congregation known for attracting young Jews in the community, stated, “If my synagogue only has Orthodox Jews praying in it, that means I am not succeeding.” Rabbi Pollak noted that his mentor, Rabbi Weiss who is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale often states that “he is an Orthodox rabbi, but he is a rabbi for all Jews.” The newly installed rabbi strongly agrees with his mentor’s philosophy.
Rabbi Pollak stressed, “I want the Stanton Street Shul to be a synagogue in which people are looking to explore Judaism even though they don’t yet feel like being observant or consider themselves Orthodox.”
The young rabbi received ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in 2005 and served as assistant rabbi this past year at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
Pollak stated that he looks forward to meeting the challenge of serving the Lower East Side Jewish community.
“The Lower East Side is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the United States,” he noted. “So many American Jews can trace their roots to this neighborhood. However, it is not enough for this community to rest on its laurels.”
Asked how he perceives his new position of rabbinical leadership in the community, Pollak stated, “My vision for the Stanton Street Shul is that this historic synagogue can become a place where all Jews can come and feel comfortable, feel welcome, and to help the shul to continue to its second century as a vibrant institution.” He insists he wants the shul “to be a place filled with music, prayer and Torah study and all the wonderful people it has already.”
The young rabbinical leader continued, “We appeal to Jews on the Lower East Side, the East Village, Stuyvesant Town and any other part of Manhattan to come to check out our shul. We are a small shul. We are not the largest or the most impressive shul you ever see. But we are in a shul where everybody will be welcome and will be spiritually fulfilled.”
While recognizing the importance of other Orthodox synagogues in the community and the significant contributions they play, nevertheless, Pollak suggested that the Stanton Street Shul “is very different” in terms of openness.
Yet, he does not seek to isolate himself from the other Orthodox rabbinical leaders in the community. Rabbi Zvi David Romm of the historic Bialystoker Synagogue attended the rabbi’s installation. Rabbi Chaim Packer of the East Side Torah Center sent greetings of congratulations to the new rabbi.
Pollak, in turn, praised Romm, who became Bialystoker’s rabbi in 2002, for his “incredible work in reaching out in recent years to non-Orthodox Jews.”
The newest rabbi in the community said he is planning to reach out to other local synagogues to work on different programs that impact Jews in the area. The rabbi maintained that Stanton Street Shul “will be a shul where the Torah is taught with love to all those who come to learn. A place where men and women can feel that they are an essential part of the community, in prayer, in Torah study and in chessed [righteousness].”
Soon after he took over as rabbi at the shul, he started “Pollak in the Park,” a class on Jewish ethics that was held at the new park in the Seward Park Co-op. This study program attracted many young, unaffiliated Jews in the community.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, an activist leader widely known for his involvement on issues impacting world Jewry and advocacy for a greater role for Orthodox women, installed Rabbi Pollak at Stanton Street Shul. Asked about the attributes of his former rabbinical student, Weiss asserted, “Yossi has many strengths. He is a talmid chochom [scholar]. He is a model human being. But beyond Yossi’s brilliance, I think his greatest strength is that he cares. And he cares for Am Yisroel [the Jewish people] and he is going to do outstanding work here.”
Pollak, Weiss said, is “very gifted in learning, in teaching and Halakha [Jewish law].” The nationally known rabbi called his former student “a dreamer, like Yosef in the Bible. Yossi is a master of dreams, and I think he is going to make the Stanton Street Synagogue and take its tradition and history to another level.”
Both Weiss and Pollak preach the doctrine of open Orthodoxy, with Weiss arguing that the future is “what open Orthodoxy is all about.”
Pollak is also a gifted musician who plays guitar and mandolin. He is married to Brooke, a recent New York University School of Law graduate, who will begin her career as an associate at the law firm of Kramer, Levin, Naftalis and Frankel this coming fall.
Pollak previously studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel, where he studied with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, former rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side. Formerly of East Brunswick, N.J., Pollak attended Rutgers University, where he majored in political science and was active at Rutgers Hillel.