Six Chicago-area rabbis make national list of top rabbis

Six Chicago-area rabbis have named among the nation’s best and most inspiring. The Jewish Daily Forward recognized five Chicago rabbis on its list of “America’s 36 Most Inspiring Rabbis” and The Daily Beast, online hub of Newsweek, ranked Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshei Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview No. 22 on its list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2013.”

The Forward also honored Lopatin along with Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Sam Fraint of Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, Rabbi Allan Kensky of Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette, and Rabbi Donny Schwartz, Skokie-based interim regional director of Midwest NCSY and director of Midwest JSU.

rabbi asher lopatin

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Lopatin said he was honored and humbled to be mentioned, but can’t help but think of the many rabbis not included, a sentiment shared by all the rabbis on the list.

“There is a sense that whenever you honor some people, you feel it’s unfortunate that many worthy people are not on either list,” he said. “I’ve been honored more than I deserve, so I’m grateful.” 

At the same time, Lopatin said he feels there’s value in both lists because they let people know what rabbis of all communities are doing and the impact they are having. He does, however, make the distinction between being an inspiring rabbi and a powerful one.

“I think leadership and having an impact is very important, but it’s so good these lists came out at almost the same time because they’re sort of correctives for each other,” Lopatin said. “We might not be the biggest machers (movers and shakers) in Chicago, but we are doing our fair share of connecting to people and inspiring people and that’s really most important.”

Rabbi Michael Balinsky

Rabbi Michael Balinsky

The Forward list includes quotes from other rabbis and individuals who were inspired by the honored rabbis. One of Balinsky’s former Hillel students at Northwestern University, for example, wrote about how Balinsky inspired him to become a rabbi.

“As a Hillel director, over the years you get letters years later from people who remember something you said or encounter you had—in many cases which you’ve totally forgotten about—that really touched their lives,” Balinsky said. “So that reminds you that every encounter is important.”

Coincidentally, current Northwestern Hillel campus rabbi Danya Ruttenberg made The Daily Beast’s list of “2013: Rabbis to Watch,” which described her as “liberal Judaism’s resident sexpert.”

“I'm extremely honored and flattered to have my work thought of as noteworthy, and continue to strive to be of service to others and to God in my writing and teaching,” she said.  “Of course, I'm keenly aware of my many, many, many colleagues out there who do absolutely critical, transformational work and who are not recognized for it in the same public way.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Ruttenberg recently announced she will be leaving her job at Northwestern Hillel this year. Lopatin will also be leaving Chicago after 18 years to serve as president of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx, N.Y.

Lopatin said his main goal in his new position of training young rabbis will be to surround them with rabbis and teachers who inspire them. Schwartz, who works with students through NCSY and JSU, expressed a similar notion.

“My rabbis taught me that you cannot be giving if you are not growing,” Schwartz said. “In order to be inspiring you have to be inspired.”

Rabbi Donny Schwartz

Rabbi Donny Schwartz

Lopatin and Balinsky both said that while every rabbi has a different style or talent, one of the primary requirements of being a great or inspiring rabbi is having a love for the people.

“You have to really love the people so that when you have those small encounters, you’re really there,” Balinsky said. “It’s easy to get caught up in people’s pettiness and this and that, but you have to look at them in a favorable way.”

Rabbi Allan Kensky

Rabbi Allan Kensky

There is also the balance between serving your community and making a difference in the greater world. Kensky, who will retire this year after 42 years in the rabbinate, said he has always been committed foremost to the community he is serving, but feels all rabbis are called to make a difference in the world.

“Each rabbi should figure out what the correct balance is in their rabbinate,” Kensky said, “and as rabbis we should ever be mindful of the fact that—as one of my teachers taught—we are ordained to be rabbis ‘in Israel’ and not just of one community.”  

Lopatin said that having concern for the world as well as your fellow Jew is critical, and that being an inspiring rabbi goes beyond mere hope and into true optimism.

“Buried deep, deep down there needs to be an optimism for the Jewish people and humanity and the potential of Jews and the Jewish people,” Lopatin said. “You gotta have that. The rest—you work hard.”


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