There was plenty of pomp and circumstance as the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates installed its new mara d’asra, Rabbi Dov Lerner, in a celebration that was festive and thought-provoking, headlined by his mentor, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. “He is a rabbi who is authentic, honest, and transparent. His primary focus is the well-being of our community,” said Asher Abramovitz, who emceed the ceremony and co-chaired the rabbinic transition committee.
The speakers greeting Rabbi Lerner noted his British accent and the highly choreographed ceremonies of his birthplace. “You definitely speak our language. But most importantly, you understand us,” said Sam Herskowitz, the president of the congregation. “You always wear cufflinks, even on a hot Fourth of July, moving boxes into your new home.”
Every shul has its own way of installing its rabbi. For many, it is a once-in-a-generation event that is worthy of memorable speeches. Like the Queen’s knighthood ceremony, there’s an object for the honoree to wear. “Here are your Young Israel of Jamaica Estates cufflinks, with today’s date, the eighth of Elul.” Herskowitz then clasped Rabbi Lerner’s hand and raised it before the packed shul.
Rabbi Lerner succeeds Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, who has been the rav of this shul for nearly 30 years, inspiring its members during a period of tremendous growth, in terms of membership, programming, and the building’s physical expansion. He and his wife Karen recently moved to Lakewood, chosen for its numerous learning opportunities and its location. “We have a nephew in Lakewood, our son lives in Brooklyn, and our daughter in Baltimore. We are also starting a new chesed project in Lakewood,” said Rabbi Hochberg.
The Young Israel of Jamaica Estates is known throughout the Jewish world for its many learning programs, shiurim, Israel advocacy, and support for other communities. “We take our kids seriously in this neighborhood, we play game tables and laser tag in this basement,” said youth department director Zach Herskowitz in his remarks to Rabbi Lerner. “So prepare yourself for all that stuff. Bring Torah and meaning. Welcome to our family.”
Councilman Rory Lancman, whose district covers the shul, and Assemblyman David Weprin, who is a longtime member of the shul, each shared official proclamations welcoming Rabbi Lerner. “The Young Israel of Jamaica Estates is an important institution in the Jewish community of Queens and the Jewish community of New York City,” said Lancman.
Rabbi Lerner received his s’michah at RIETS, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, where his leadership potential was recognized by Rabbi Menachem Penner, the school’s dean. “Rabbi Lerner is a very thoughtful, sensitive, caring rabbi and a phenomenal speaker – one of the best to come through Yeshiva University.” While there, he served as a Tikvah Fund fellow, and in the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, which is directed by Rabbi Soloveichik. He also met his wife Miriam while learning at YU; she has her master’s degree in Jewish education from the same institution.
The couple lived in Chicago for the past five years, where Rabbi Lerner served as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation K.I.N.S. in West Rogers Park and as the Orthodox Student Advisor at UChicago Hillel. “This time last year, we had no idea where we would be,” said Rabbi Lerner. “We now get to raise our children in a place of warmth and joy.”
In his remarks, Rabbi Lerner spoke about the words, “Know before whom you are standing,” which appear in the sanctuaries of many synagogues. “With quotes, the word ‘mi’ is not only to whom we reach upward and outward, but also inward. These words hold together our spiritual anatomy.”
In his remarks to the shul, Rabbi Soloveichik spoke of the essay he received eight years ago from his then-student that connected the teachings of the N’tziv to the writings of Thomas Paine. It was his first assignment for that class. “He responded with a dazzling display of Torah literature, heart and soul. I went back to my email from 2011 to reread this essay, and it’s last week’s parshah – to install a king.”
“The king is a leader who is held accountable not only by our checks and balances but also by G-d. His own words exemplified the striking rabbinic student I would have in my seminar. What I learned from his essay is not the exception, but the rule. The job of a Jewish leader is to open his heart to all of his flock.”
The speeches were followed by a sumptuous brunch reception, where the music played and congregants danced with their new rabbi. With Rosh HaShanah approaching, he will be joining his new neighbors in writing cards to Jewish members of America’s Armed Services. The work of community building continues in Jamaica Estates.
By Sergey Kadinsky