Atlanta Yields A New Crop of Rabbis

by Dvora Lakein - Atlanta, Georgia

June 18, 2009

( There was no tossing of mortarboards at this graduation. Instead, eight young men, fedoras firmly on their heads, accepted their new calling with pride.

Since 2005, the Atlanta Smicha Program has ordained 32 rabbis (including this year’s crop of eight students) in a unique combination of rigorous personal study and community instruction. In addition to standard Jewish law and ethics, the students also completed a course of “practical rabbinics,” including public speaking, fundraising, and counseling. During the year, they were given opportunities to practice their planned profession through daily study sessions with community members and internships at the 10 Chabad centers throughout the state of Georgia.

“As our community grew and matured, I felt it was critical to bring serious learning to town,” explains Rabbi Yossi New, the program’s founder and director of Chabad of Georgia. “The students study during the day [typical of similar programs] and learn with others in the evenings [atypical]. “One individual just told me that our students ‘elevate the entire community.’”         

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Chabad’s international educational and social services divisions, and delighted grandfather of one of the graduates, spoke at Wednesday’s event. “There are two types of laws,” he explained to the new graduates. “Laws created from life are man-made and subject to change; they can be altered based on time and space. Laws that create life (such as the laws of Shabbat which give life to a person) are Divine. It is your mission,” he charged the group, “to educate people in these laws of our Torah.”

A lively audience of 275 men and women watched proudly as the young men received their ordination. Before each graduate approached the podium, he was introduced by a grateful study-partner who explained how the student impacted his life. One gentleman told the crowd that before his weekly sessions, he did not understand why he was Jewish or have the benefit of any Jewish education. Now, he said, he realized the spiritual dimension in his life. Another speaker thanked a graduate for his bond with her son, a Friendship Circle member.

Hours after the ceremony, Rabbi Dov Barber is trying his new moniker on for size. (“I just became a rabbi, so I have to talk extra-long now,” he explains in an interview.) The Melbourne native believes that studying with others, “was a very good learning curve. It made me work harder to impress upon them the beauty of Torah. As king David says, ‘I learned the most from my students.’”

The Hebrew Alphabet, Talmud, Chassidic philosophy, and the weekly Torah portion, were some of the subjects Rabbi Yale New studied together with local men. New is no stranger to the community: he is the director’s son and he grew up in Atlanta until his bar mitzvah. “I came back eight years later (after studying in yeshiva) and I was able to form relationships with people on a much deeper level,” he says. “Our connection is through Torah and mitzvoth.”A highlight of his year was Project Talmud, a dynamic study hall for community members created by the students. “The people loved it,” New says, “and it challenged us to see the Torah’s impact on the mundane world. We study all day, so we don’t always recognize how Torah impacts daily life, as these businessmen do. Studying with them forced us to understand the depths of Torah, and its relevance.” 

Rabbi Krinsky pointed out that even though university commencement addresses are now focused on the economic downturn and staggering unemployment rates, this new set of rabbinic graduates has nothing to worry about.

“These students learned not how to make a living, but how to make a life,” he said. “Economy will come in time.” Furthermore, “there is no such thing as unemployment. Assimilation is rampant, outreach endless. Your goal is to reach every Jew and to educate them.”

With grand and varied plans, the students are wasting no time in doing just that.   

This summer, Barber is taking his rabbinic ordination and hitting the road. He plans to travel to music festivals, baseball games, and small towns throughout the country in an outfitted van. Barber and his colleague have set a goal of helping 1,000 men put on Tefillin and handing out Shabbat candle-lighting sets to 1,000 women. Their efforts are in memory of slain Mumbai shluchim, Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. 

Lucky people can track their distinctive van (with a license plate that reads “Road Sage”) at various stops throughout the United States. Others can follow their progress via GPS and a regularly updated blog.

Whatever journey these young men choose to take, they set out with great training and an adoring community behind them.

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