Washington Jewish Week / April 18, 2011
By Larry Luxner
After more than two decades of urging his congregants at Silver Spring’s Woodside Synagogue-Ahavas Torah to make aliyah, internationally recognized lecturer and Torah scholar Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz finally followed his own advice last year and moved to Jerusalem.
His replacement: Moshe Walter, a young Orthodox rabbi from upstate New York who’s leaving his longtime home in Jerusalem to replace Breitowitz at Woodside’s pulpit effective Aug. 1.
Speaking by phone from his home in the religious suburb of Ramat Eshkol, Walter told WJW he’s excited about the new challenge — but has mixed feelings about his impending departure.
“We’re leaving a place I’m encouraging people to move to,” he said. “Every Jew believes Israel is where we’re supposed to be. But every individual has his calling, and personally, this is an opportunity for me to do something I clearly can’t do here.”
Walter, 33, said he’s been looking for a number of rabbinical positions over the last year, mainly in Los Angeles and New York.
“We weren’t willing to move back to the States for just anything, but this position spoke to me,” he said, noting Woodside’s warm, family atmosphere. The shul, with around 130 members, was established in 1963 by government employees and their families tired of walking to Orthodox shuls in the District every Shabbos. It grew over the years and hired Breitowitz as its rabbi in 1988.
Breitowitz, a prominent authority on the relationship between bioethics and halacha, or Jewish law, helped raise Woodside’s profile during his long tenure there. A Harvard-educated attorney and associate professor of law at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, he lectured frequently in the D.C. area on a wide range of contemporary Jewish topics.
“Rabbi Breitowitz was a true Torah giant, and him leaving our community left a tremendous void,” said Asher Weinberg, a member of Woodside’s incoming board of directors. “We were looking for a rabbi who had the potential to carry on that spirit, someone who had Torah values.”
The congregation’s president, Chanoch Kanovsky, said 30 people applied for the job, which is technically a part-time position.
“This is the first time in almost 25 years that we’ve brought in a new rabbi,” he said. “A whole new group of people will have to relate to a new rabbi coming in.” (Breitowitz has been named lifetime rabbi emeritus of the shul, an honorary title that carries no salary or official responsibilities.)
The search for a successor ran from June through December. Each of the four finalists had tried out for the position by serving as rabbi at Woodside for a Shabbos. Walter was approved by a super-majority vote of the membership after four ballots.
Tensions were sometimes high during the voting, according to Kanovsky. “Congregants had their favorites,” he explained,” and when their favorites were eliminated, there was some grumbling, which is common.” But after the search was over, everybody threw their support behind Walter.
Kanovsky said the young rabbi and his wife, Devora, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology, and a master’s in social work, “captured the hearts and minds of lots of people in the community.”
Walter was chosen, said Kanovsky, because of his background and depth of scholarship.
“He’s personable and intelligent. He may not be an expert in medical ethics or the law, but he has a way about him,” Kanovsky said, noting that his professionalism, enthusiasm and open-mindedness “resonated with people of lots of different backgrounds and went over very well.”
Even though he lives in Israel, Walter has served as summer rabbi at a large Orthodox congregation in West Orange, N.J. in 2005 and was a scholar-in-resident at Young Israel of Merrick in New York in the summers of 2005 and 2006.
He’s also had a number of articles published in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, ranging from “Can Porcelain Be Kashered?” to “Coffee, Pizza and Hard Cheese: Eating Meat After Dairy.”
Walter, the father of four children ranging in age from 2 to 8, said he’s heard “fantastic” things about the Woodside shul.
“My predecessor is an outstanding human being. I’ve met with him on a number of occasions here in Jerusalem,” he said. “For a rabbi walking into a congregation that had a rabbi of such stature, not only does it say something about the rabbi, but also the community. In a way, it reminds me of New Rochelle, the community I grew up in.
While the congregation counts few Israelis among its members, said Walter, “there is definitely a strong connection to Israel. A lot of members’ children live here, and many have moved to Israel.”
Weinberg said he’s excited about the shul’s incoming rabbi. “Walter is young and energetic, and has a love and reverence for traditional Orthodox Judaism. He’s not going to be pushing a liberal, progressive, modern Orthodox agenda. His agenda is traditional Torah.”
Another member of the shul, Sara Silver, spoke highly of Walter.
“He’s a wonderful, very warm guy, and his wife is also a very warm person. I think he can provide good leadership for our shul,” Silver told WJW. “My son lives in Israel, so I told him to introduce himself to Rabbi Walter. They invited him for Friday night dinner. Afterward, he called and said, ‘Mom, I feel like I’ve known him all my life.’”