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Conversation with… Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Rabbi Elie KaunferBy Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts will hold their annual meeting, Monday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth El. The guest speaker for the evening will be Rabbi Elie Kaunfer.

Rabbi Kaunfer is co-founder, rosh yeshiva and executive director of Mechon Hadar and on the Talmud faculty at Yeshivat Hadar. A graduate of Harvard College, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also completed an MA and is pursuing a doctorate in liturgy. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Kaunfer is a co-founder of Kehilat Hadar and in 2009 Newsweek named him one 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 spoke to the Jewish Ledger in advance of his talk at the Federation annual meeting.


Q: Before you founded Mechon Hadar, you were a corporate securities fraud investigator for a law firm and also were an investigator of school corruption in New York City. What was that kind of work like and what made you want to leave that field?

A: Working in investigations was a very fulfilling career. I was uncovering wrong-doing and trying to make the world a better place. But even so, I felt something was missing in my life. I always had a strong religious yearning, and I wanted to give fuller expression to that feeling. When I started to take those feelings seriously, I was motivated to start Hadar. For a while I tried to manage doing both, but after about a year I realized that my true passion was building Jewish community.


Q: What was your level of religious observance at that time? Were you at all involved in Jewish life? Explain.

A: I have always maintained a high level of religious observance, but before Hadar, a lot of that was done without community. For years I would go to shul, but not really get involved. I would hang out on the margins of kiddush and then head home. I think back on that time a lot: you never know who is at kiddush, and what kind of potential they have.


Q:  How did you begin your journey to becoming a rabbi?

A: I have always been observant – my dad is a rabbi and my mom is a Jewish educator. I grew up in a warm and engaged Jewish home. So much of what I am doing now I attribute to the values that my parents fostered in our home. For many years I didn’t want to become a rabbi, because I felt that one could be an engaged, learned and active Jew while building career in the wider world.

I still believe that is true, and so much of the education work that I am involved in creating envisions a world like that for the vast majority of Jews who are not in the professional Jewish world. But I also realized that for myself, if I was going to have a role as an educator, I needed to train as a rabbi. So after seven years working in the corporate and government sectors, I left to go to rabbinical school.


Q:  You are the founder of Mechon Hadar. What is Mechon Hadar and what does it offer to people in the Jewish commuity?

A: Mechon Hadar is an educational institution that works to empower a generation of Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service. We do that in a number of ways: We hold immersive learning sessions (day-long, week-long, summer-long and year-long). In fact, we have had some from the Springfield community come to learn with us for a week in the summer. We also have a tremendous amount of online classes available at www.mechonhadar.org. We also work with rabbis, Jewish educators, Hillel professionals and foundation professionals to offer high quality Jewish content.


Q: What will you be talking about at the Federation annual meeting on Sept. 30? What can those attending expect to learn from you?

A: I plan to talk about the importance of “Why Be Jewish”? For so long, our communal conversation has focused on survival and continuity for its own sake. Now I am of course in favor of survival and continuity, but the question is: what are we surviving for? What are we trying to continue? For me, it is all about a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful in the modern world.


Rabbi Elie Kaunfer will speak at the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts on Monday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth El, 979 Dickinson St. For more information, call the Federation office at (413) 737-4313.

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