Avi Weiss, The Rabble-Rouser Rabbi, Takes Stock After An Activist Career

BRONX, N.Y. (RNS) As other Jewish leaders worked diplomatic channels and wrote letters to the editor protesting the establishment of a convent at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Rabbi Avi Weiss donned the striped uniform its inmates had worn during the Holocaust.

In 1989, with six others who felt the convent insulted the memory of Auschwitz’s overwhelmingly Jewish victims, Weiss scaled the gates of the building that once housed the Zyklon B poison gas used to kill the Jews, and began to pray.

The first consequence of his protest: a severe beating from Polish workers.

It’s just one Avi Weiss story being told as news spreads in the Jewish community that after 42 years, he will step down this year as senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue that, like Weiss, is not often bound by notions of convention.

Affectionately known as “The Bayit,” or “home” in Hebrew, the synagogue was Weiss’ base during a career spent agitating — colorfully, controversially and often at great personal risk — wherever he saw the rights of Jews trampled.

“Avi is fearless,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish civil rights group. “He is someone who has never waited for the establishment, for someone to tell him it was OK to do something.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, Weiss harnessed his passion for protest to help lead the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a group that was instrumental in the ultimately successful effort to free the 3 million Jews persecuted and trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

avi weiss
Rabbi Weiss in 1982, on his fourth day of a hunger strike on behalf of the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, comforting Sharansky’s wife, Avital.

Weiss, now 70, has more recently focused his activism closer to home, shocking and angering much of the Orthodox community (about one in 10 American Jews) by ordaining a woman. While the larger Reform and Conservative movements encourage women rabbis, Orthodox authorities strictly forbid it.

Weiss not only ordained Sara Hurwitz in 2009, he founded a school so that more women could follow in her footsteps. And though he has made peace with religious authorities over the controversy, he makes clear that Hurwitz made history.

“I call her #42,” Weiss said. “That was Jackie Robinson’s number. She is a heroic figure. She carries herself with such self-effacement, such dignity.”

As a young rabbi himself, Weiss carried himself quite differently.

Quick to call reporters to protest Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize, or President Ronald Reagan’s wreath-laying…

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