Search results for Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Hadar is excited to announce that Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, President and CEO of Hadar, will write our 5783 weekly Dvar Torah! Subscribe now to receive weekly emails beginning with Parashat Bereishit.
These essays will explore the roots of Jewish prayer in the weekly parashah, drawing out connections between and offering new insights into the relationship between these sets of texts.
R. Elie explains, “We might think of prayer and Torah as completely separate in the sense that prayer is when we talk to God and the Torah is God talking to us. But in reality, almost every line or phrase of our prayers is drawn from the Bible. When we pray, we aren’t using regular human language, but rather a God-infused language of Torah.”
Through close textual and literary analysis, this Dvar Torah collection will offer rich, new insights into the world of prayer and spirituality, as seen through the lens of the weekly.
About Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is President and CEO of the Hadar Institute. Elie has previously worked as a journalist, banker, and corporate fraud investigator. A graduate of Harvard College, he completed his doctorate in liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was also ordained. A Wexner Graduate Fellow and Dorot Fellow, Elie is a co-founder of the independent minyan Kehilat Hadar and has been named multiple times to Newsweek’s list of the top 50 rabbis in America. He was selected as an inaugural AVI CHAI Fellow, and is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights, 2010). He also received semikha from his long-time teacher, Rav Daniel Landes. Elie serves on the board of Natan and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and on the advisory board of Upstart.
The Jewish Week, Thursday, May 22, 2008
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 34
Independent minyan leader pushing for new worship style
After graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer searched New York City for somewhere to pray. "We were looking for a place that would basically express our ideal davening community," says Kaunfer of the impetus for starting Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Study (mechonhadar.org). The organization, includes an independent minyan that has spawned a network of independent minyanim across the country, as well as the first egalitarian yeshiva for lay people in America, is going on its second summer this year.
Ordained at JTS and a graduate of Harvard University, Kaunfer's vision for an ideal prayer community included a participatory, spirited, non-denominational service, a place that would include men and women equally while drawing on traditional liturgy —"something that would move your kishkes." Kehilat Hadar has become a model for other independent minyanim, and Kaunfer hopes Yeshivat Hadar will grow to be a full-time program for people who "desire to be empowered by Judaism and live in an intensive Jewish community."
In the next few years, Kaunfer hopes to see the expansion of independent minyanim and yeshivot across the country and to turn his summer yeshiva into a full-time program for lay leaders. This he will do with money from the Avi Chai Fellowship, of which he was a recipient this month. Kaunfer says of the yeshiva, "Institutionally it certainly has been a dream that reflects the values and community that I would like to be a part of. It's the yeshiva I wish I had gone to."
A post-denominational Jewish world: "People are less concerned with denominational labels and more concerned with finding an appropriate intensive community to become empowered Jews." Coolest gig: Kaunfer worked as a corporate fraud investigator, cold calling the likes of Enron employees to discuss their wrongdoings. He also investigated corruption in the New York City public schools, which on one occasion required him to wear a wire.
Joey Weisenberg, 26
Reviving ancient nigunim in Sabbath services
For years, young Jewish musicians in search of an aural history have turned to klezmer. Weisenberg, a mandolin player, is no exception. He plays in several klezmer revival groups today (good ones too: Michael Winograd Klezmer Ensemble; The Amazing Frosen String Quartet). But, Miller says, the klezmer revivalists "kind of gave it all to us. We didn't have to work so hard."
So he looked for a deeper musical tradition, and found it in centuries'-old rabbinic hymns. Now, as music director for Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, he incorporates these hymns into Sabbath services centered on group participation. He calls his service "Joey Weisenberg's Spontaneous Jewish Choir," and has been expanding the practice by visits to synagogues throughout New York City. He also leads courses at the Jewish Theologocial Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania. "I want Jews to be comfortable dancing. I want them to be comfortable singing," he says.
Just don't call him Sholomo Carlebach, the storied American rabbi who also revived communal songs. "He came along and developed melodies that were so beautiful that people forgot the old ones," Weisenberg says of Carlebach.
Weisenberg's own service "takes melodies that are far older." Chiefly, he uses nigunim, wordless melodies chanted in repetition. They date as least as far back as the early-1700s, with many tunes attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism; "songs that transcend syllables and sound," is how the rabbi described them. To be sure, Weisenberg's service isn't just old melodies. He includes plenty of prayer service classics — Adon Olam, Eliyahu Hanavi — but puts them to forgotten tunes. "Sometimes, people need the words to hang on to," Weisenberg says.
Musical inspiration: Ferus Mustafov, a Macedonian clarinetist
Favorite childhood memory growing up in Milwaukee: Watching car demolitions at the Miller Compressing pound with his grandfather
by Gary Rosenblatt
April 7, 2010, The Jewish Week
Elie Kaunfer’s new book, “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights Publishing) is being described as a manifesto for independent minyanim, which have been flourishing and attracting increased attention in recent years. But while a good deal of the book serves as a practical guide for busy lay people interested in creating meaningful prayer groups of their own, the bigger message is intended for anyone “invested in making the Jewish community a more vibrant place,” Kaunfer says.
“It’s for people engaged in the Jewish conversation — from federation leaders to clergy to people looking for a vision to engage them in Jewish life.”
At the outset of the book Kaunfer describes his own journey as the son of a Conservative rabbi to the college Hillel, where he found prayer primarily “a community experience” rather than a spiritual one, to a year in Israel where the more soulful services excluded women and left him “sulking in righteous indignation at their lack of egalitarianism,” to six years of job-focused life in New York that took him further from the Jewish community.
It was in 2000, when he went back to the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, a co-ed yeshiva where he had spent time before, that he re-engaged in Talmud study and felt ready to “search out a meaningful relationship to God through prayer.”
But on his return to New York he was frustrated by the difficulty in finding both spiritual prayer and a serious concern about “the wider world,” including egalitarianism, in the same synagogue. He decided to try starting a new minyan, and was joined by his friends Ethan Tucker and Mara Benjamin. Within weeks they launched Kehilat Hadar, now an Upper West Side institution and the flagship of the independent minyanim network.
Kaunfer became a rabbi (ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary) and is co-founder and executive director of Hadar, an institute that helps Jews build community and which recently launched the first egalitarian yeshiva program in the U.S. He now lives in Washington Heights, but still visits Kehilat Hadar when in the neighborhood.
His book details what works and what doesn’t in starting a lay-led minyan, from attracting and training dedicated volunteers and creating “a culture of cooperation” to speeding up the prayer service and literally bringing people into the circle — on Simchat Torah, that means directly inviting bystanders into the dancing circle. Kaunfer says it works every time.
The far tougher assignment, and core theme of the book, is that Jews should experience text directly, learn Hebrew, become familiar with the prayers and generally take ownership of their Jewish learning curve.
Is that too intimidating for an adult with little background?
“It does require serious engagement,” Kaunfer says, and acknowledges that some will say it’s too difficult for them. “But it’s the real responsibility of the Jewish community to make sure that’s not the case. We haven’t really given people the opportunity to be empowered.”
He feels that the communal focus has been on educating youngsters while largely neglecting adults, and that there needs to be a lot more supply to meet the demand for engagement among young college graduates and other adults.
As for the independent minyanim representing a threat to existing synagogues, Kaunfer says many of the young attendees at the minyanim would otherwise be staying home on Shabbat.
This year’s national conference of the independent minyanim will be held in New York on April 25 and for the first time will include a session open to “synagogues and synagogue leaders interested in vibrant synagogue and prayer communities,” Kaunfer says.
“I hope it will be a time of sharing with and learning from each other.”
For all the challenges of Jewish life, Kaunfer asserts: “I’m an optimist. That’s why I’m in this business. We have a great opportunity to capitalize on the demand for Jewish content and have a tremendously exciting future.”
I spent four days last week in Israel. It was the shortest trip to Israel I have ever taken, and the first time I have come and gone without staying for Shabbat. It was also perhaps the most important trip I have taken here, for one simple reason: I was able to be with people I care about in a time of crisis. I needed them to know that I cared enough to come now, in this time of war, to sit and hear their stories and share their pain.
I sat with people who work for Hadar. Hadar has 12 employees in Israel, and I was able to get together with all of them, except one: Yair Asch-Resnick, who is serving in the army. The stories I heard were both typical and unique. One colleague has 3 children and a husband in the army now. One has a child who can’t sleep at night unless her parents are in her bed. One has so many friends and relatives in the army – and had been to so many funerals – it was hard to keep track. All of them asked me how it is in New York, do I feel antisemitism? All of them were so grateful for a visit.
I sat with members of my family. One cousin brought her phone to the dinner table, unable to stop checking the news, even as we ate. Checking, and checking again. Except when she took a break to hug and kiss her 13-year-old son, who let her. My aunt is a social worker in the school system; she suggested we all go around and say how we were feeling. She started: Anxious, upset, angry, sad. There were many fewer smiles than normal.
I sat with people from Sderot, the town in the south where 35,000 people used to live; about 5,000 live there now. Together with a group from SAR, the high school my eldest daughter attends, I heard about two teachers in a hotel near the Dead Sea, now housing many of families from Sderot. They teach children, in a windowless hotel ballroom, from 9:30am-12:30pm, because that is all the children can handle. It is not a regular curriculum; it is processing the trauma, plus playing games. Many parents wait right outside the room, worrying about their children, unable to let them be alone. (Pictured below: makeshift classrooms in one of the Dead Sea Hotels)
We heard the Sderot municipal security coordinator tell us his story. He only had one man on duty on October 7, and he felt completely helpless, telling his worker to seek shelter, because there was nothing else he could do. He showed us painful and terrifying footage from his security cameras, pausing every few seconds to explain the scene. Two trucks of Hamas terrorists rounding the traffic circle; a car with a family of four going the other direction; the parents stop the car, jump out and grab their kids. The mother goes with one child in one direction, the father and his 4-year old daughter run the other way; they run into the terrorists. He is shot, she wanders off. The father is picked up by an off-duty police officer; they go to the police station (next video), but the terrorists have taken over the police station. They are both shot and killed there. “I have shown this video more than 100 times, and I can’t get through it,” says the security coordinator. “Go home and tell the world what happened here. That is why I keep playing the videos.”
I sat with students at Hadar. They tell me that studying in our Yeshiva is the highlight of their week. Some drive in from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to be with others and study Torah. “It is the anchor of my week – it is something I can rely on,” one student told me over coffee. (Pictured below: two students at Hadar in Jerusalem)
Later, I went to Tel Aviv and sat with alumni from our programs, near the tables dedicated to the hostages on Kaplan Street. A man sits in front of a huge poster of pictures of the hostages in a makeshift tent, reciting Psalms.
I have one major take-away from this trip: Be in touch with people you know in Israel. They are suffering, and they are anxious that we have forgotten about them. I was privileged to be here in person, but even a simple WhatsApp, or email, or phone call, goes a long way. I myself forgot this over the past few weeks. I had been in touch in the very beginning, but not in an ongoing way. This trip showed me that is not enough. We have entered a long period of darkness, and our friends, relatives and people need to know we still care about them. So let’s keep reminding ourselves that it helps and it matters to be in touch, to show we care.