By Stacey Dresner
When Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe became the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow last Sept. 1 after serving the Harvard and MIT communities for several years, B’nai Torah President Bob Kushner called Rabbi Yaffe “a good fit” for the Orthodox synagogue.
“He’s stepped up to the plate,” Kushner said. “Our particular shul and our area really requires a lot. We are responsible for the Vaad HaKashruth and we have an eruv that has to be accounted for on a weekly basis. And of course there’s learning and just general rabbinical duties, so there’s an enormous amount of work here, and he seems to have just fit the bill.”
That may be an understatement.
Besides leading several synagogues over the years, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe is an acclaimed scholar, a globally sought-after lecturer, and a founder of both the Rohr Learning Institute and the Institute of American and Talmudic Law based in New York.
Since arriving at B’nai Torah, he has started a popular adult education program.
“I take all of the courses he teaches and I see him one-on-one once a week,” said Joe Singer of Longmeadow.
Singer also takes Rabbi Yaffe’s Tuesday night parsha class and his Rambam class on Thursday night.
“He is a brilliant man…I don’t remember a rabbi with his kind of drive, with his depth of knowledge from the Orthodox side of the ledger. He is quite unique from all of the rabbis we have had before.”
Singer, a retired engineer, says he enjoys asking questions and sometimes challenging the rabbi.
“But one thing I have found is, he never fails to find an answer. In other words, I can’t stump him.”
Indeed, Rabbi Yaffe is a learned scholar.
The director of the Institute for Judaic Knowledge, Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars in person and online, throughout North America, as well as in Africa, Australia, Latin America, and Europe.
He has also authored a broad range of articles on several online forums, including Chabad.org.
As one of the founders of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, Rabbi Yaffe was the lead author of its renowned “Living with Integrity” course.
And he was a founder of and now serves as dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law, based in New York. That organization began by providing continuing legal education (CLE) programs for attorneys all across North America, and now provides its materials to CLE programs in several states.
“In many states lawyers who need continuing education are allowed to do a certain percent of it through comparative analysis, so we decided to introduce people in the Jewish legal community to the incredible richness and depth and, frankly, the important lessons that the Judaic law system offers to the world today,” he explained.
It was through the law institute that he once sat on a panel with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“That was a high point,” Rabbi Yaffe recalled. “He was a very interesting fellow. The panel was on privacy law and there were a lot of very strong opinions there, and he was not the kind of person that gets offended when you disagreed with him. He was just a very warm, friendly, kind person… He had long connections with the Jewish community. I remember him saying that when he goes to a Jewish event he always knows he will be well fed.”
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe’s father was born in Sheffield, England, and if not for him, Yaffe might not be involved in the Lubavitcher movement.
“That’s for sure,” Rabbi Yaffe said. “He grew up in a typical Anglo-Jewish family, which means, you know, I would say like any family in the north end of Springfield or Hartford in the ‘30s and ‘40s – you know, kept kosher, went to shul from time to time.”
While a young man in the UK, his father got involved with Bnei Akiva, an Orthodox Zionist youth group in England. He ended up going to a Lubavitch yeshiva and came to New York to go to the main Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn. That is where he met the rabbi’s mother.
They were married and Shlomo was born in Brooklyn. They soon moved to Portland, Maine where Shlomo’s father taught at a Jewish day school. He helped found the Levey Day School, which is still operating today.
Rabbi Yaffe grew up with six sisters and one brother – Rabbi Yossi Yaffe, who leads Chabad of the Shoreline in Guilford, Conn.
When Shlomo was 14, the family moved to West Hollywood, Calif.
“I had been in yeshiva in New York for a while staying with relatives, so the big city wasn’t a complete culture shock,” he recalled. “But nevertheless, Brooklyn was basically, at the time, either Chasidic or African American. Beverly Hills was another culture.”
It was around 1981 and the punk music scene was big in Los Angeles. The Yaffes lived near a club featuring punk rock performances, leading to one rather comical situation.
“As I remember, it was Sukkot and you have all of these people heading up to this evening performance with the spiky colored hair. We saw an opportunity,” he said. “We asked all of these people heading up our little street if they were Jewish. So there was this tall fellow with this very spiky hair who answered in the affirmative. We brought him into the sukkah to say the blessings over the lulav and etrog, and have something to eat and say the blessings in the sukkah.”
Rabbi Yaffe said that they covered their sukkah with the abundant greenery available in West Hollywood – palm fronds.
“They are everywhere” he recalled. “But palm fronds tend to catch on things – they are sticky. And this man stood up – he was very tall with spikes – and he got entangled in the sechach and became distressed. My sister climbed on top of the sukkah and pulled the palm fronds out and freed his spikes without any damage.”
Yaffe soon left La La Land to study at yeshivot in cities like Boston and Miami.
“They tend to send you to various places because part of studying for the rabbinate in Chabad, in the Lubavitch yeshiva system, is you go and give back. So we worked with youth and of course the elderly in South Florida.”
He spent a year studying in London before coming back to New York where he was ordained and got married to his wife, Chani.
Was being a Chabad rabbi always his plan?
“Not always,” he said. “So many thoughts go through a person’s head…as I once was saying to a friend …there’s a lot of Jewish doctors and a lot of Jewish lawyers and a lot of Jewish physicists, and they all do wonderful work. But Jewish rabbis who are willing to go out in whatever capacity and for whichever organization and devote themselves to the Jewish community – that is what we have least of.”
He was a fellow of the post-ordination program at the Leeds Kollel in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England from 1990-1992 and served as a substitute pulpit rabbi at Hull Hebrew Congregation in Hull, England. He still has relatives in the UK that he remains close with.
Rabbi Yaffe and his family lived in West Hartford, Conn. from the fall of 1992 until 2009.
“My kids basically grew up there,” he said. “I still have a lot of friends who I stay in close contact with. That was our home for almost two decades.”
He began his time in West Hartford teaching adult education classes for Chabad of Greater Hartford, then ran the Hartford Kashrut Commission. He later became the rabbi at Young Israel of Hartford, taught at Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE), then became full-time rabbi at Agudas Achim, the oldest Orthodox shul in West Hartford.
He might still be in West Hartford…but you don’t turn down a job at Harvard.
“There was funding for Chabad at Harvard. So I took the chance of going there because I thought it would be a very valuable experience in the sense that we would make a difference. And we did. We developed a lot of new material while I was there that we find useful here in Springfield and worldwide,” he said.
He still meets every Wednesday night in Newton with a group of men, mostly Russian emigres. They call it the Piano Shop Group because they always meet in the piano shop of one of the members – “all really serious Russian Jewish intelligentsia. We explore various philosophical ideas, Jewish law, literature…that’s the kind of people you meet there.
“But in truth here, at this relatively small synagogue – B’nai Torah – there’s a very high intellectual level,” he said. “There may not be the same quantity but the quality of the people who come to my classes here and so on are no less on the level of the people that I’ve met in the Boston, Newton, Cambridge communities.”
He learned about the open pulpit at B’nai Torah through word of mouth and he was encouraged to interview at the Longmeadow shul.
“It was eight weeks from first contact until we actually moved here. So it was divine providence in a very profound way,” he said. “I saw that this synagogue needed someone and I thought I was a good fit. This is a very diverse community. I mean it is the only standard Orthodox synagogue in town. It’s a very intelligent community and a very nice group of people who are very devoted to the synagogue. And since I have served every different kind of Orthodox shul on the spectrum, I figured I could help them.”
Bob Kushner said Rabbi Yaffe’s reputation preceded him.
“We had very good recommendations and based on that and some of our own members and their children having interacted with the rabbi at HHNE, we warmly welcomed him to be with us in our community,” Kushner said. “We have already felt a terrific impact on the shul and the community. Events have blossomed, like our newly formed adult learning sessions, afternoon and evening. And any time that services are conducted there are learning sessions as well so we are all getting a lot smarter than we were before.”
Besides the adult education program devised by Rabbi Yaffe, B’nai Torah also offers a Jewish enrichment program for kids who aren’t in Jewish day schools run by Chani Yaffe – an educator for 30-odd years who taught at every synagogue Hebrew school in greater Hartford during their time living in West Hartford.
Rabbi Yaffe admits they have some work to do.
“The Greater Springfield area is dealing with the same demographic issues as West Hartford,” he said. “But I suspect as time goes on and development happens – because this area is so well educated and so underutilized in real estate; the prices are so low and so on – I think there will be a lot of growth over time in the lower Pioneer Valley. We have to make it through the next few years, which G-d willing, we will.”