Avi Weiss

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Avi Weiss
Rabbi Weiss Speaking.JPG
Weiss in 2007
Avraham Weiss
אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס

(1944-06-24) June 24, 1944 (age 78)
DenominationOpen Orthodox
Alma mater
OccupationRabbi, author
SynagogueHebrew Institute of Riverdale
SemichaRIETS (1968)

Avraham Haim Yosef (Avi) haCohen Weiss (Hebrew: אברהם חיים יוסף הכהן ווייס; born June 24, 1944) is an American Open Orthodox ordained rabbi, author, teacher, lecturer, and activist who led the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, New York until 2015. He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men and Yeshivat Maharat for women, rabbinical seminaries that are tied to Open Orthodoxy, a breakaway movement that Weiss originated, which is to the left of Modern Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism. He is co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rabbinical association that is a liberal alternative to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, and founder of the grassroots organization Coalition for Jewish Concerns – Amcha.

Semikhah (rabbinical ordination) of women by Weiss' movement has been a source of friction within Orthodox Judaism.

Early life and career[edit]

Avi Weiss received his semikhah (rabbinical ordination) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1968.

In 2013, Newsweek ranked Weiss the 10th most prominent rabbi in the United States,[1] climbing from number 11 in 2012 and number 12 in 2011,[2] after being ranked number 18 in 2010.[3]

On June 29, 2015 Weiss resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) in protest over their decision to not accept graduates of his rabbinical seminary into the organization.[4][5][6][7][8]

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale[edit]

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) was founded in 1971 in a boiler room of the Whitehall Building off the Henry Hudson Parkway by former members of the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx who had moved to Riverdale. Weiss, who had finished his training at Yeshiva University a few years earlier, became the synagogue's rabbi in 1973.[9] The congregation has grown to 850 families, and has served as a platform for Weiss's rabbinical advocacy.[10] Weiss stepped down from the pulpit in July 2015,[11] and Steven Exler became HIR's senior rabbi. Weiss continues to remain on the synagogue's staff.[12]

On one Friday night, the synagogue introduced "the first woman to lead this service in an established Orthodox synagogue in front of a mixed congregation."[13]

Open Orthodoxy[edit]

In 1997, Weiss started a new religious movement which he called Open Orthodoxy,[14] which is to the left of Modern Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism. Weiss noted that the latter "is generally not composed of ritually observant Jews."[15]

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah[edit]

In 1999 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), a rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx after resigning from Yeshiva University, where he had taught at Stern College for Women for decades.[16][17] The school's graduates work as rabbis in synagogues, college Hillels and schools,[18] but the RCA does not permit membership to the school's graduates unless they have also been ordained by a traditional Orthodox rabbinical school.[19] In June 2013, Weiss handed over the presidency of YCT to Chicago rabbi Asher Lopatin.[18]

Ordination of Women[edit]

In May 2009, Weiss announced the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, a new school to train women,[10] bestowing upon them the title Maharat, which he himself created.[20][21] Sara Hurwitz was appointed dean of Yeshivat Maharat.[22][23]

International Rabbinic Fellowship[edit]

Along with Marc D. Angel, Weiss co-founded the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Founded as an alternative to the Orthodox RCA,[24] the organization was designed to accept YCT graduates.


Rabbis associated with the Orthodox Union, RCA and Modern Orthodox Judaism have opposed Weiss' Open Orthodoxy. Some have criticized his ordination of women rabbis as being incongruous with Orthodox Judaism, the stream of Judaism from which Weiss received his own semikhah.[25] Agudath Israel of America, while denouncing moves to ordain women, went a step further. On November 3, 2015 the Moetzes of Agudath Israel of America declared Open Orthodoxy, YCT, Yeshivat Maharat and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.[26][27][28] Still, Weiss has his defenders.

Weiss has encountered difficulties from the Israeli Rabbinate in regards to the acceptability of his conversions to Judaism.[29]


Weiss has been vocal on many issues, including emigration and absorption of Soviet Jews, clemency for Jonathan Pollard, supporting Israel, preserving Holocaust memorials, and exposing anti-semitism. In 1992 he founded Amcha – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a grassroots coalition engaging in pro-Jewish activism.[30]

Soviet Jewry[edit]

Weiss was an early leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, founded in 1964. It was one of the first American organizations working to free Russian Jews, who were not allowed to emigrate during the Soviet era. The group used demonstrations, lobbying, and education[31] to pressure the Soviet authorities into allowing Jews to leave the country.[32][33] During the 1970s and 1980s Weiss was best known for his slogan "1 2 3 4; Open up the Iron Door".[34][35][36] In 2015, Weiss published his memoir detailing his efforts to liberate Soviet Jews, Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. The book focuses on how grassroots activism and acts of civil disobedience led to important policy changes for the Soviet Jews.[37]

Holocaust remembrance[edit]

A response to his "Holocaust Symbols or Objects of Worship" article in the March/April 2002 issue of Martyrdom and Resistance was printed in the September/October issue. The 2-section article acknowledged that "the most trustworthy guardian of the memory .. is to be found in Judaism itself, in its liturgy and its religious calendar." The closing challenged Weiss to accept her idea of wearing a "yellow six-sided star ... for a few moments every year."[38]

In the United States[edit]

Weiss was an official emissary of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.[30]

Weiss has served as personal rabbi to Jonathan Pollard,[39] an American who spied for Israel sentenced to life in prison in 1987.[30] In 1992 Weiss was one of the signators to a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the release of Pollard.[40] In 1989 Weiss conducted a "freedom Seder" in front of the prison where Pollard was incarcerated.[41]

At a speech at New York City Hall in 2001 Weiss criticized President George W. Bush for not making a clearer distinction between Arab acts of terrorism and Israeli acts of self-defense. "The trap that he's falling into is that he's drawn a moral equivalency between cold-blooded murder and acts of self-defense," Weiss said. [42]

In April 2002 Weiss organized a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[43] and a boycott of several large newspapers perceived as having an anti-Israeli bias.[44]

In 2006 Weiss organized a protest in front of Syria's UN mission to denounce a Hezbollah offensive in the Middle East.[45]

In September 2011, Weiss was arrested in front of the U.N. building in New York while protesting the Palestinian statehood bid.[2]

In a July 15, 2015, Haaretz opinion piece, Weiss applauded the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, which he saw as a part of maintaining the separation of church and state and protecting his right to refuse to perform gay weddings. He stated that he would not participate in same-sex weddings, because doing so would run contrary to his religious commitments, but that he had met countless gay individuals and couples, some of whom were members of his synagogue, who lived loving, exemplary lives. "If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation."[46]

In Europe[edit]

Weiss has travelled worldwide as an activist in various causes.[47] In 1989 Weiss and others protested at a Carmelite convent that had been established at Auschwitz. The group—dressed in concentration camp clothing—scaled the walls of the convent, blew a shofar, and screamed anti-Nazi slogans. Workers evicted them from the site.[48] In 1993 Pope John Paul II ordered the closure of the convent, which had been located in a converted building that had stored Zyklon B gas used to kill prisoners at the camp during World War II.[49]

He protested President Ronald Reagan's visit to an SS cemetery in 1985.[30] He was arrested in 1990 while protesting Kurt Waldheim's visit to the Salzburg Festival,[50] and again in 1994, when he protested in Oslo, Norway, when PLO chief Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize.[51]

Along with Rosa Sacharin of Glasgow, Scotland, Weiss sued the American Jewish Committee in New York state court in 2003 to stop the construction of a path through the Belzec extermination camp in Poland. They were concerned that mass graves at the site would be disturbed by the work.[52]


  • Weiss, Avi (2000). Haggadah for the Yom HaShoah Seder. Hackensack, NJ: Jonas Pub. ISBN 0-615-11519-5.
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Principles of Spiritual Activism. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House. ISBN 0-88125-737-0.
  • Weiss, Avi (2001). Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House. ISBN 0-88125-719-2.
  • Weiss, Avi (2006). "Avigayil: Savior of David". In Helfgot, Nathaniel (ed.). The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion to the Book of Samuel. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press. ISBN 0-9769862-4-8.
  • Weiss, Avi (2014). Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality. Jerusalem: Maggid Books. ISBN 978-1-592-64334-9.
  • Weiss, Avi (2015). Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist. Jerusalem: The Toby Press. ISBN 978-1-592-64385-1.
Articles in Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility


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  2. ^ a b "America's Top 50 Rabbis for 2012". The Daily Beast.
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  5. ^ JTA. "Rabbi Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America in protest - Jewish World News". Retrieved 2015-06-30.
  6. ^ "Newly minted female Orthodox rabbis to be called 'rabba' - Jewish World News".
  7. ^ "In protest, Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America". Retrieved 2015-06-30.
  8. ^ "Avi Weiss Quits Rabbinic Group in Flap Over School - Breaking News". Retrieved 2015-06-30.
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  10. ^ a b Pogrebin, Abigail (July 11, 2010). "The Rabbi and the Rabba". New York. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
  11. ^ Forward Staff (16 October 2014). "Rabbi Avi Weiss, Progressive Voice in Orthodoxy, Steps Down From Pulpit". The Forward.
  12. ^ Rabbi Avi Weiss to step down as rabbi of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
  13. ^ Sarah Breger (March 8, 2013). "Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = a New Denomination?". Moment (magazine).
  14. ^ Alexander Goldberg (August 13, 2009). "Modern Orthodoxy". open orthodoxy .. This movement has its own rabbinic school in New York, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
  15. ^ Weiss, Avi (Fall 1997). "Open orthodoxy! A modern Orthodox rabbi's creed". Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life & Thought. American Jewish Congress.
  16. ^ Mark, Jonathan (December 24, 1999). "Modern Orthodox Rabbinical School Planned". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  17. ^ "Rabbi Avi Weiss". The Jewish Press. Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
  18. ^ a b Hoffman, Allison (April 29, 2013). "The New 'Morethodox' Rabbi". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  19. ^ Dickter, Adam (June 12, 2012). "RCA Facing Leadership Challenge". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  20. ^ Harris, Ben (May 18, 2009). "New program to train Orthodox women as non-rabbis". blogs.jta.org. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
  21. ^ "Yeshivat Maharat".
  22. ^ "An Evening with Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz". hillel.harvard.edu. Archived from the original on August 17, 2011. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
  23. ^ Cohen, Anne (June 20, 2013). "Orthodox Schism Over Role of Women Widens After Graduation of Maharats". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  24. ^ Nathan-Kazis, Josh (April 12, 2013). "Top Modern Orthodox Rabbi Michael Broyde Admits Fake Name Scheme". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  25. ^ "Rabbi Avi Weiss Announces His Retirement". Yeshivaworld. October 19, 2015. ordination of women Rabbis ... semikha to women ... spiritual leadership .. full member of our rabbinic team
  26. ^ "Moetzes: 'Open Orthodoxy' Not a Form of Torah Judaism". Hamodia.
  27. ^ "Breach in US Orthodox Judaism grows as haredi body rejects 'Open Orthodoxy' institutions". The Jerusalem Post - JPost.com.
  28. ^ Josh Nathan-Kazis (3 November 2015). "Avi Weiss Defends 'Open Orthodoxy' as Agudah Rabbis Declare War". The Forward.
  29. ^ Avi Weiss (January 29, 2014). "Rein in Israel's Rabbinate". The New York Times.
  30. ^ a b c d "Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. Rabbi Avi Weiss, President". amchacjc.org. Archived from the original on February 17, 2006. Retrieved April 15, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  31. ^ "No Soviet Movement On Jewish Emigration". The New York Times. January 25, 1986.
  32. ^ "Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry". jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  33. ^ "Soviet Jewry, 40 Years Later". ncsj.org. April 30, 2004. Archived from the original on July 27, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  34. ^ "200,000 at rally for Soviet Jewry". The New York Times. May 4, 1987.
  35. ^ "Protesters for Soviet Jewry Urge Direct Flights to Israel". The New York Times. April 2, 1990.
  36. ^ "2 say Soviet plans to let Jews leave in larger numbers". The New York Times. March 31, 1987.
  37. ^ "Social Justice With Roots: What The Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist Can Teach Us About Today". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 5, 2015.
  38. ^ Gerda Bikales. "Memory of Our Memories: Who Will Remember Them?". Martyrdom and Resistance. p. 4.
  39. ^ Rabbi Avi Weiss (January 4, 1994). "Walking the Path with Jonathan Pollard". Palm Beach Jewish Journal.
  40. ^ "American Rabbis Ask Bush to Give Pollard Clemency". The Jerusalem Post. October 25, 1992. Archived from the original on June 14, 2006. Retrieved June 10, 2006.
  41. ^ Besser, James D (June 28, 2002). "The Jonathan Pollard Case: A Reflection Of Our Fears". The Jewish Week. Archived from the original on May 27, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  42. ^ "It's Self-Defense, Rabbi Tells Bush". Daily News. New York. June 2, 2001. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  43. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (April 8, 2002). "Demonstrators Roar Support for Israel". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  44. ^ Fost, Dan (May 2, 2002). "Jewish Groups Battle Media Over Perceived Bias". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on May 24, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  45. ^ Egbert, Bill (July 17, 2006). "Dozens Protest At Un Mission". Daily News. New York. Retrieved April 17, 2011.[permanent dead link]
  46. ^ Weiss, Avi (July 15, 2015). "Why I, as an Orthodox Rabbi, Support Legalizing Same-sex Marriage". Haaretz. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  47. ^ Weiss, Avi. "Principles of Spiritual Activist". amchacjc.org. Archived from the original on May 2, 2007. Retrieved April 17, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  48. ^ "Auschwitz Convent". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  49. ^ Perlez, Jane (April 15, 1993). "Pope Orders Nuns Out of Auschwitz". The New York Times. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  50. ^ "Austria: The Trojan Guest". Time. August 6, 1990. Archived from the original on December 15, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  51. ^ "Peace Prize Triumvirate Denounced". Times Union. Albany. Associated Press. December 10, 1994. p. A2. Archived from the original on July 23, 2011. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  52. ^ Berkofsky, Joe (July 25, 2003). "Avi Weiss rekindles battle to block camp memorial". The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. Retrieved June 10, 2006.

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