By: Chaim Book  | 

RIETS Celebrates Ordination of 150 Rabbis at First Chag HaSemikhah Since COVID Began

150 former semikha students celebrated their formal rabbinic ordination this past Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s (RIETS) triennial Chag HaSemikhah convocation. This year’s program was postponed from its original date of March 2020 due to the onset of COVID-19.

Over 1,000 friends, family members and teachers gathered in the Nathan Lamport Auditorium at Zysman Hall to celebrate with the graduates of the 2018-20 classes. Speeches and presentations were delivered by various distinguished rabbis and dignitaries, including a special award ceremony and address from Rabbi Joel Schreiber, chairman emeritus of the RIETS Board of Trustees and the event’s guest of honor. 

Although masking and other protocols were in place, the event marks the largest in-person event on campus since the pandemic began. Live streaming video was held for audiences on the lawn in front of Rubin Hall on Wilf Campus and on an online webcast with close to 3,000 viewers. 

“RIETS is the special jewel in the crown of Yeshiva University,” Rabbi Schreiber said at the event, “it is the bedrock upon which rests so much of our institution, its dedication to Torah permeates the balance of the university. It is an oasis in a world that in so many areas has lost its mooring and sense of values.” 

In the weeks leading up to the event, RIETS established the celebratory tone with communal Shabbatons in the Five Towns and Teaneck. Additionally,  RIETS Director of Semikha Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz and RIETS Dean Rabbi Menachem Penner led special sichot mussar presentations — which were held in the Glueck Beit Midrash on successive Wednesday nights — regarding the value of a career in the rabbinate.  

The day began with the inauguration of a new Sefer Torah donated by Rabbi Schreiber and his family. 

Rabbi Ronald Schwartzberg, director of Jewish career development and placement in RIETS, began the ceremony serving as herald, ushering in the rabbinic faculty, administration and honorees. 

Following introductory remarks from Rabbi Penner and Lance Hirt, chairman of the RIETS Board of Trustees, Rabbi Joel M. Schreiber was presented with the Etz Chaim Award, the highest honor given to lay leadership in the yeshiva. Schreiber was described as a man “who may love RIETS more than anyone in the world.” 

After short interludes of featured musmakhim (ordained rabbis), President Rabbi Ari Berman delivered the keynote lecture. He underscored the values of the rabbinic leaders of the yeshiva during the past two years.  He stressed the uncertainties of the time, the rise of antisemitism, health concerns and lack of proper political discourse. Discussing a personal conversation with President Isaac Herzog in Israel, Rabbi Berman emphasized the Jewish People’s need for YU rabbis.

Rabbi Jacob Bernstein represented the freshly minted rabbis with a speech, and Rabbi Penner concluded by urging the musmakhim to push boundaries and open new opportunities to spread the message and values of YU across the Jewish spectrum. 

The convocation was drawn to a close with “Dancing on Amsterdam,”' as undergraduates, friends and family members assembled to dance and celebrate with the new musmakhim

Former students who celebrated the ordination felt grateful for their time at RIETS.  “I was happy to invest in my growth and my learning before I started working. I feel like a different person and fortunate to be a part of this” said Rabbi Ilan Brownstein (RIETS ‘20). “I work in advertising and I feel proud to be in an institution which is Machsiv a path not in learning, that it is recognized as a valid option. Getting semikha here, I don’t feel like an outsider.” 

“Covid changed the dynamics of shul life,” said Rabbi Alex Hecht (RIETS ‘18), who is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Scranton, PA. “RIETS provided the personal and professional tools I needed to go serve the community.”

Photo Caption: Rabbi Lebowitz speaks at Chag HaSemikhah program.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University