Innovative young rabbis bring bright ideas to Detroit.
David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor
Detroit Jewish News, February 26, 2010
Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker became friends at Harvard and eventually dreamed up whole new concepts to change the world.
No, they didn’t create Microsoft.
But Kaunfer, an aspiring journalist, and Tucker, a science history major, decided instead to dedicate their intellect, energy and lives to re-invigorating Jewish religious life.
The pair became rabbis, helped develop many independent minyanim (prayer groups) around the world and then started their own non-denominational learning institution — the first year-round yeshivah in the country, they boast, that welcomes women as well as men. Yeshivat Hadar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has attracted equal numbers of students of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds.
On Friday and Saturday, March 5-6, the rabbis will bring a taste of their inspiring methods to West Bloomfield. Rabbi Steven Rubenstein invited the pair to Congregation Beth Ahm to lead what he has pegged a “Beit Midrash Experience” — a reference to the intense one-on-one learning style practiced in yeshivot.
“These rabbis are the creme de la creme of new things that are happening in the world of Jewish learning,” said Nancy Kaplan, ritual assistant at Beth Ahm. “They are creative thinkers and have their pulse on the vibrancy of the innovative Jewish community.”
Knowledge of Hebrew is not required for the event. Rubenstein has invited the community, regardless of age or affiliation, and has provided food at discounted rates for students and professional Jewish educators. Shabbat hospitality can be arranged.
The two rabbis will speak Friday night and Saturday morning and will help lead the respective services — singing the latest liturgical melodies along with newly discovered pre-Holocaust melodies from Europe that they use at their own Kehilat Hadar minyan in New York.
On Saturday afternoon, they will lead two learning sessions. The first exercise will explore how one can better connect to prayer by researching the prayers’ Biblical origins. The other lesson will demonstrate how to examine and implement Halachah (Jewish law) — in this case, probing the legality and propriety of whether to play musical instruments at Shabbat services.
A musical Melavah Malkah with the rabbis and featuring Professor Howard Lupovitch on guitar will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Kosher meals will be served 7 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday at a total cost of $36; ages 4-12 is $15; students and Jewish educators is $18; (prorated for those not attending both meals). Light refreshements will be served at Seudah Shlishit and the Melavah Malkah.
On Sunday morning, the Jewish Forum, a Southfield-based independent group that sponsors educational events, will hold a panel discussion at Beth Ahm which will include Rabbis Kaunfer and Tucker (see adjacent story).
Education Is Key
How are the two guest rabbis hoping to enhance Jewish consciousness?
“We’re interested in promoting an American Jewish community that has an educated laity,” said Kaunfer.
To this end, Kaunfer and Tucker nurture independent minyanim around the world through their Hadar institute and its Web site, www.mechonhadar.org. Kaunfer’s book Empowering Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010) also details their methods.
Many of their ideas can be used by synagogues as well as small minyanim — and the rabbis don’t discount the value of larger institutions.
“What synagogues do very well is appeal to a wide range of people, ages and backgrounds,” said Kaunfer. “We view this as a big strength.
“What we’ve seen in cities where we’ve done this program is that it’s an opportunity for young people to connect to the synagogue. And when we did this in Seattle, the rabbi coupled it with a renewed focus on adult learning.
“My hope is that people in the shul won’t look at this an isolated weekend that was a fun experience, but would be motivated to look for other opportunities for engaged Jewish education.
Rabbi Tucker’s mother is Hadassah Lieberman, now the wife of independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. His father is Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a longtime teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“I realized in my years after college that what I had a real passion for in life — what I could make a difference in — is helping to contribute to the Jewish future,” Ethan Tucker said.
“What’s exciting about the weekend is that it offers the kind of engaged mode of learning with an opportunity for cross-generational interaction.”
The “Beit Midrash Experience” at Congregation Beth Ahm is sponsored by the Menasche and Sara Haar Fund. It begins at 6 p.m. Friday, March 5, followed by dinner and resumes 8:45 a.m. Saturday, March 6, with lunch at noon, and the Beit Midrash beginning at 1 p.m. The cost for meals is $36; children 4-12, $15; students and Jewish educators, $18; (prorated if not attending both meals). For inquiries or to RSVP by March 4, contact Nancy Kaplan, (248) 737-1931 or