Jerusalem Post Article - December 2017

The following article about Rav Shai and Kehilat Nitzanim appeared in the Jerusalem Post at the end of 2017. Still relevant, it describes the Rav’s vision for the kehilah and his approach to tackling community challenges.


Long-term emissary merges best of US and Israeli traditions.


Rav Shai in the sanctuary
Rabbi Shai Finkelstein endeavors to keep Jewish law focused on people and context at the Nitzanim shul in the Baka neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


Sitting down with Rabbi Shai Finkelstein is like downshifting from a high-speed chase on a freeway to a relaxing drive on a lazy Sunday with nowhere in particular to go and all the time in the world (remember those?). His demeanor is relaxed and warm, and everything he says is measured and considered. He takes time to hear and acknowledge what the other person is saying before responding , and instead of taking stances, he speaks of process. In place of definitives, he discusses context. While many believe that things are right or wrong, Finkelstein says this is rarely so, with so much depending on people, place, and time. This seems to be at the core of his success as the beloved community rabbi of the Nitzanim shul in the capital’s Baka neighborhood and is an approach from which we can all learn.


Born in Haifa to an Israeli mother, a child of survivors, and a father born in Romania, Finkelstein served in the IDF and was ordained as a rabbi in 2000 by the Chief Rabbinate. His excellent English is from the years he and his family spent in Memphis, Tennessee, as emissaries – two years that turned into 16, during which Finkelstein also earned an MBA.


Acknowledging that it may be strange to hear of a rabbi with an MBA, he says, “A rabbi in America does everything. You need to manage staff, be a fund-raiser, a psychologist, an adviser, a director, a program manager and more. It is definitely different being a rabbi in America versus a rabbi in Israel. In Israel, your Judaism isn’t defined by your shul. It’s simply where you pray. In the US, even if people aren’t religious, they want to belong, to be affiliated. In the US, the shul is your community.” 


While in Memphis, Finkelstein worked with people from all backgrounds and levels of observance, but also with the larger Memphis community. He was the first Orthodox rabbi to serve on the board of the United Way of the South, where people from all backgrounds allocate millions of dollars to meet various community needs. Finkelstein says this is part of what it means to walk in the ways of God, to perform acts of tzedaka (“charity” or “righteousness” ). He feels this is one of the main missions of a rabbi.


In 2016, the family returned to Israel and Finkelstein became the rabbi of Nitzanim. He brought with him a vision of merging the American model of a shul as a community and the Israeli model.


“I see a shul as a place to daven [pray] and learn Torah, but also to give people a sense of belonging. Here we have people from different backgrounds, different knowledge

levels, various languages and traditions. How do you make one place for all? If there is an overall sense of belonging, even if some don’t understand everything everyone says, they still feel like they belong and find their place. We try to create events where everyone can come and take part; activities that do not depend on language or knowledge level. For example, for Hanukka we bought gifts and wrapped them together for the Bat Melech battered women’s shelter. We also have meals together, as well as singles events and empty-nester events.”

How does a leader make decisions for such a diverse group?


“The most important thing is to create a sense of belonging. We do that by making space for everyone and making sure that every decision made for the community will be done in a process where everyone is heard. A community must empower all of its members. At the same time, we must remember that we are a community, and sometimes one will have to give a little and next time another will have to give, but the process of talking to each other is vital. These conversations are done within the halachic framework and with communal consideration. A rabbi needs to be rooted in Halacha; he needs to know Halacha, including the ‘fifth volume of the Shulhan Aruch’ – also known as common sense.


“Also, there is a need to see the larger picture, beyond the specifics you are dealing with at the moment. A slippery slope exists on both sides, not just one – something you do can cause damage just as something you refrain from doing can cause damage. Anyone who understands Halacha knows that it has a wide framework and within that framework answers for the specific community can be found. We may need to compromise, and the answer we come to for one congregation won’t be the same for another – but the important thing is the process and to listen to everyone’s concerns.”


This approach is one that Finkelstein takes with every issue that is raised, from women’s ordination to LGBTQ. He sees no issue as insurmountable, as long as the process of coming to a conclusion is done correctly, both in terms of following the Halacha and listening to the community. He feels that Halacha is wide enough to deal with most of the things we face.


REGARDING US Jewry and the strained relationship it currently has with Israel, Finkelstein says, “I had the privilege to be a rabbi there for 16 years and to be a part

of a community. I learned tremendously. I think Israelis lack an appreciation of what it means to build a Jewish community outside of Israel. It takes so much effort and we should not be quick to judge them. Israel is the single largest community of Jews in the world. This gives us both power and responsibility. We should understand the challenges they face such as a new job, new culture, new language, etc. and we should try to extend a hand and encourage them to come.”


Asked how – and whether – Anglos can be more involved in Israeli society, he responds, “It depends. It depends on their needs. Some might want to be a bit more

involved in society and others not. When I lived in the US, I never ‘got’ baseball or peanut butter and apple pie, or whatever it is,” he laughs. “There are certain things that you’ll never really grasp if you didn’t grow up here, and that’s fine! There will be more integration with the next generation. With school and the army. Language is a barrier, an obstacle, but you can try.”


In his speeches, Finkelstein speaks in Hebrew with English phrases and sentences sprinkled in, so that the English speakers do not feel left out.


When asked about the challenges of LGBT in the Orthodox world, Finkelstein says, “The first thing we need to remember is that we are dealing with people. It is not

just an issue. It is a person. The Torah and sages have already expressed their views. Now, we have a person in front of me. A person who lives his or her life as he or

she sees fit and we need to respect them. If the question were to come up of a man who is gay getting an aliya, we would deal with it within our kehilla [community] using Halacha and with a thorough process. It is something we would need to work through and come to a decision on.”


Regarding the “singles crisis,” Finkelstein acknowledges that, “On the one hand it is something difficult, but on the other hand it offers an opportunity. At Nitzanim, we take it

as an opportunity to do our part in helping the singles. We give shiurim [study sessions] for singles and have Friday night singles dinners where 200 people come. In fact, a couple met here and I had the privilege to officiate the wedding. It was a Mumbai- Manchester match.


Offering natural settings, whether meals for shmoozing or a class for intellectual stimulation, provides opportunities for people to meet and to get to know one another. I know of six other couples who are dating as a result of our events.”


When asked about agunot (women denied divorce by recalcitrant husbands), Finkelstein takes a moment to reflect on the painful nature of the subject. A few months ago, Nitzanim hosted a “post-nuptial” signing event.


While acknowledging that halachic pre- and post-nups will not totally solve the problem of women chained in marriage, he says it was an event he was happy to host at the request of Dr. Rachel Levmore and the International Young Israel Movement, as it raises awareness and can prevent potential get refusal.


“We need to raise and train talmidei hachamim, Torah scholars, from the religious Zionist community to become dayanim, religious judges, so we have more dayanim in the courts who see the person before them when presiding over a case. The issue of agunot is definitely in the public consciousness more now than before and this is good. Public awareness is important.”


On women clergy: “It’s here. Women are learning. Women are scholars. Yoetzet Halacha [female halachic adviser] is a wonderful development. If a woman has intimate questions, isn’t it better for her to ask a trained woman? If a woman is going to be more comfortable with her observance and instead of erring to the side of stringency or leniency, she can get a learned, proper answer, isn’t that a good thing? It’s a wonderful thing.


“Women are going to be involved in Judaism. How involved? That’s up to the community. As to women’s ordination, it’s a developing area. On one hand, why would you tell a woman not to be a doctor? If she wants to have ordination, why shouldn’t she? Whether she should be practicing as a rabbi and leader of community, that’s another question. I don’t know my answer. I think that there are communities

for which it is great and others that it is not. It has split some communities and it has strengthened others. So much depends on every situation and community. There is no one answer for all. We have to ask,‘What are the needs of the community?’


“At the same time, we need to respect both sides, and that includes those that are not comfortable with it, just as we need to respect those who want it. The idea of women’s involvement should be an empowering thing, instead it became a divisive issue. At the end of the day, it’s a communal question, not only a halachic question.”


So, what does a rabbi do when people cannot agree on an issue? What happens when you come up against something that causes discord? Where is the line?


“Halacha is the line,” he insists. “Halacha can be inclusive, it contains loopholes and sometimes we should use them, and sometimes we should not.”


Saying “no” is part of his job. However, he always makes sure to meet with members and explain the process, as well as the reason behind his decision. “Engaging with the person and hearing them, listening and explaining to them is important even when the answer is no. It shouldn’t only be ‘the rabbi said no.’ It should be, ‘The rabbi heard, listened, considered, and decided no’. They must be and feel part of the process.”


Finkelstein feels that the model of a community rabbi will grow here as the immigrant population grows. “People who like this model will ask for it. People like to belong, they want to be part of something.


“Of course, much of it depends on what the community can afford. Can a rabbi be a full-time leader? If they cannot provide a full-time salary, he will not be able to

contribute as much. The shul will not be able to provide for the community’s needs without the necessary funds.”


When asked what are the major changes he sees in Israel having been away for 16 years, Finkelstein notes that “in all walks of life you see changes. There is a tremendous growth in Torah learning, more social involvement, as well as more women who get involved in leadership roles.” He also commented on the growing gap between the people who have and the people who don’t have, which poses a challenge to our society.


“When I look around it’s a miracle to see what we have. Just look at Jerusalem, King David and King Saul never dreamed of having even a fraction of what we have. All


that we go through in the state, it’s like labor pains. “We’re getting there. It will not be smooth, but I believe that going through the process, through the conflicts, will enable us to get to where we need to be. The process will leave us in a better place than where we started. In everything, the process is a necessary part of growth.”