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My Father Wanted Me To Be Secretary Of State

Asher LopatinFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

Have you ever gotten a little depressed at seeing someone else’s incredible accomplishments and saying to yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?". "Why didn’t I pursue a different career that would have enabled be to be a big shot and change the world?”. As a Rhodes Scholar on my way to a Doctorate in Islamic Fundamentalism, I dreamed big of bringing peace to the Middle East. But instead, I chose another path, to become a rabbi and go into a totally different – and smaller – world. In this 12 minute piece I open up about my struggle to figure out what path I should pursue in life – and evaluating the path I have chosen. I hope that if you watch it, it will make you think about what you are doing in life, and either give you comfort that you have chosen the right career or path, or get you off your kiester and motivates you to pursue the right course in life that will give you fulfilment and joy.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, an Orthodox rabbinical school that teaches an inclusive, open and welcoming Torah.

For 18 years he served as the spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago.  He received his ordination from Rav Ahron Soloveichik and Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, and from Yeshiva University in New York as a Wexner Graduate Fellow.  Rabbi Lopatin holds an M. Phil. in Medieval Arabic Thought from Oxford University where he also did doctoral work on Islamic Fundamentalist attitudes toward Jews. He won both Rhodes and Truman Scholarships.  He is the author of numerous scholarly and popular articles in several books and journals and has been the co-chair of the Muslim-Jewish Community Building Initiative of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

Rabbi Lopatin is married to Rachel Tessler Lopatin, a Wexner Graduate Fellow herself, and together they have four children.

My father wanted me to be Secretary of State. So I majored in Arabic and International Relations at Boston University, went on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where I studied Medieval Arabic thought and Islamic Fundamentalist thought, and along the way I won a Truman Fellowship to go into public service. And I became a rabbi.

But then as a rabbi I started hosting Iftars in the synagogue and the sukkah where Muslims could come and meet my congregants. And I worked with Muslims and Jews to build a community that would fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And as much as some congregants of mine and my presidents tried to convince me not to speak about my crack-pot ideas about Israelis and Palestinians living together, I couldn’t resist and usually – off of the pulpit – but I did speak about my dreams for the Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim people.

So how come I didn’t work harder to become Secretary of State? Why didn’t I go work for a Washington think tank? Why didn’t I join the State Department? My father A”H was a Modern Orthodox Jew and he believed that Jews should be involved in the world, and make a difference and have an impact on the world, and bring the traditions and views of Judaism to the world. And I remember asking him several times, “Dad, why can’t I be a rabbi? Why can’t I connect with Jews, just like I’ve done at Hillel at Boston University or the Jewish Society at Oxford”. My dad would say, “that’s small minded, that’s parochial – you’re not thinking big enough, you’re not going to achieve enough.”

But as interested as I was in making peace in the Middle East, and as interested as I was in studying Islamic fundamentalism, and Sayyid Qutb, who’s the granddaddy of the fundamentalists and the mentor of Al-Qaida and Hamas, as interested as I was in studying all of that, I felt I needed to devote my life to the Jewish people and the Jewish community. So I went back to Yeshivah, while theoretically still working on my doctorate – but my passion was to be a rabbi. I felt fulfillment, ultimately, from the inside, from being inside the Jewish people, and the Jewish community. And yes, by making a difference in individual lives and the lives of a community, of a people that’s just one third of one percent of the entire world.

And if that’s my story, dayeinu. But it’s not. And I don’t think it should be. Because it isn’t enough to retreat to the Yeshiva, to retreat to the comfort of the Jewish community, to look out at the world from the protection of our four thousand year old Hebrew family. As a student leader at Boston University, I had to be friends with my Muslim friends from Arabic class – and when they planned a great dinner party and said, “we’re getting you kosher food,” I went, and God-willing it was kosher food. And then when my roommate and I hosted people for Shabbat dinner in our apartment, we would invite people from Hillel all the time, but it wasn’t enough until I invited my Muslim friend, my Arabic “chavruta” – learning partner – for dinner, who happened to be the son of a fundamentalist preacher in Cairo.

And then at the Jewish society, in Oxford, again as a student, I loved it and I loved hanging out with the Jews all the time, but it wasn’t enough. We had to have a Shabbat Peace Friday Night Dinner, where we invited Muslims, Christians and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians to come together to eat Middle Eastern food – kosher – but inspired by the Lebanese restaurant across the street from the Jewish Centre, and to hear poetry by Israelis and Palestinians about the oranges of Jaffa and the yearning for the Holy Land.

And being a rabbi of a shul in Chicago would not have been sufficient, unless we could host an Iftar for Muslims from around Chicago to come to our shul – first in the dozens and then in the hundreds – to break their Rammadan fast in our synagogue and to talk about Sukkot and Rammadan, and then in other years, Elul and Rammadan, and then still other years, the month of Av and Rammadan.

For me, Judaism and the Jewish community I am part of, need not only be in dialogue, but needs to be in community, with the “other” – with the world around it. And perhaps my propensity for focusing on Islam is because, Islam and Muslims, are seen even more than Christians as being the other to the Jews, as being dangerous and the enemy. And it’s true that we Jews have suffered throughout history in the hands of many Muslims and many Christians. And it’s true that the State of Israel continues to fight a war of survival against mainly Muslim enemies.

And yet, in Chicago when I would walk in West Rogers Park, a beautiful neighborhood in Chicago, that included Muslims and Jews living together, I felt something special seeing the small stores, seeing people from different religions, committed to maintaining their tradition in spite of the American melting pot. Going into the Iqra bookstore on Devon Avenue, the Muslim bookstore, felt like going to Rosenblum’s World of Judaica. You go in, you see children’s books about Abraham and Noah, and then you see the books on the Qur’an – in Arabic but translated into English – and then books on Islamic culture and Islamic tradition.

There is something so powerful about stepping out of your community that you love and connecting with another community that struggles with similar challenges and that celebrates also its tradition. And there is something so powerful when we can come together in celebration of what we believe in, different things but in celebration. When we can be not just voyeurs of each other, but we can invite the other to eat with us, and the other can invite us to eat with them.

It’s not easy to make this happen as an Orthodox, a religiously observant Jew. I have very dear friends, Christian friends, who wanted me to be the godfather of their daughter, but being the godfather means that I am sponsoring her for her baptism. And as an Orthodox Jew I hold that I can’t even go inside of a church! And the blessings that I would say need to be Jewish blessings, because that’s who I am. And yet I wanted to be part of their joy and their celebration. So we did what I did when they got married in their parent’s church. I stood outside in the courtyard, and I peaked through the anti-room at the baptism. I don’t know if I could be considered the “mashgiach” – the religious supervisor – of this baptism, but I do know that I acted with love and eagerness to do what I could, to be a Jew, but to also be part of their celebration. And twenty years later, twenty years later, I am still close with my goddaughter and her family, and I still feel that the experience made me a better Jew.

My fears about the first Iftar – what would my right wing congregant, who sees Meir Kahane as his great hero, what would he say about Muslims coming into the sukkah, and into the synagogue, to talk about their tradition? Reality: he loved it, and he sat down and he ate at a mixed Muslim-Jewish table, they had a great time talking and eating.

And what about Birkat HaMazon after the Iftar dinner – the Benching – which talks about God’s gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. What would my new Muslim friends say when they opened up the bencher?
They were cool too, no problem! But I benched with extra kavanah, because I thought in a different way about God’s gift of the State of Israel and the land of Israel to the Jewish people, while understanding that somehow and someday, we would all work out a way of the different Abrahamic connections to the Holy Land.

And what about davening and Salat, what about the prayer? Well, dozens of people who never come to synagogue, especially on a weekday, were davening Mincha, the afternoon service before sunset; and then immediately after sunset, dozens of people went to observe the Muslims praying their Salat. Two religions, separate but together in certain ways, and inspiring one other. Salat making mincha more meaningful, Iftar making benching more meaningful.

One year, at the peak of my Iftar craze, not only did our synagogue welcome Muslims to join us in an Iftar, but the Muslim community invited me to the Chicago Muslim Iftar at the Continental hotel – with a kosher meal – and they invited the entire synagogue to a kosher Iftar at the Islamic College of America.

This fervor doesn’t always last and it doesn’t always have a tangible result. But I can feel it fulfilling my Jewish calling; making me a better Jew and a better human being. And I can feel the world changing a little bit. It’s not being Secretary of State, but it is living the dream of being inside the Jewish community while making sure that I am connecting with the outside as well.

And now I’m the President of a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, training the rabbis of the future. Baby steps. The local Catholic college, where the yeshivah is in Riverdale, has a Holocaust center and it is run by a Muslim professor. And together, our yeshivah is working with our students and Muslim and Christian students on a Holocaust Fellowship, to help these students teach about the Holocaust better. It’s just a small start to what I see as my mission to serve the Jewish people while connecting us to the outside.

So I’m not the Secretary of State, flying all over the world, bringing people together, hopefully making a little bit of peace in the world. But I hope my father would be happy when I meet with Monsignor Grasselli at the Upper West Side kosher Coffee Bean to talk about how his Catholic Neochatecumenal mission and myself and other rabbis can work together to plan a Christian-Jewish retreat and conference at a kosher Christian center in the north of Israel.

I’m being Secretary of State in my own, Jewish, rabbinic way. We’re not meeting at the White House, but we are meeting at God’s House, which is everywhere where committed, passionate people find the space to come together to celebrate each other for our differences and our similarities.

And maybe I didn’t fulfill my Dad’s dream of being appointed Secretary of State, but in my own small way, I feel I’m an emissary of the Jewish people to those outside. And it’s something that none of us needs an appointment for. We just have to open up our homes, our synagogues and our lives to the people of the great world all around us.

Thank you.

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