F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But Fitzgerald clearly never met Rabbi Yonoson Hirtz and his wife Rochelle Hirtz. For 18 years, the two of them were Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the Utopia Jewish Center until its recent closing. As both are in chinuch, Rabbi Hirtz as rebbe at HAFTR High School, as well as lead Jewish history teacher, and Rebbetzin Hirtz as principal of Shulamith High School for Girls in Brooklyn, they thought that retirement from the synagogue pulpit would fit their life plan. That now includes much time with their five grown children and an increasing number of grandchildren. But fate had different plans. They joined the Torah Center of Hillcrest, got involved in giving shiurim and then one day got the shocking news that the Torah Center’s beloved Rabbi Shmuel Lemann would be leaving his position to pursue chinuch full time.
The Torah Center’s history before Rabbi Lemann had its rabbinic leadership first by Rabbi Tzvi Flaum, then Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz steeped in excellence. To maintain that reputation, President Howard Kohn and the shul’s board convinced Rabbi and Mrs. Hirtz to return to the shul rabbinate. On their recommendation, the membership voted unanimously to offer Rabbi Hirtz to become its mara d’asra following the Yamim Nora’im.
Rabbi Hirtz first became attracted to the rabbinate solely due to the influence of his rebbe muvhak, the legendary world-renowned Rabbi Berel Wein. Rabbi Wein was actually his chavrusa and charted the path of mixing Jewish history into most discussions of halachah to properly understand the social, political, and military histories of the times, and their influence on the never-ending timeliness of halachah. Rabbi Hirtz’s many years in the rabbinate have allowed him to develop his own opinions in p’sak. When something really new in uncharted Jewish law comes up, he sometimes reaches out to Rabbi Wein for his opinion, and to Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, his other halachic mentor.
Rabbi Hirtz’s house is laden with s’farim as befits a whole yeshivah g’dolah. When asked what single English language work he considers the most valued, he responded in a flash, “the ArtScroll Shas.” He refers to it as the most magnificent product of scholarship of the modern age. Rebbetzin Hirtz’s book pick is different and shorter; it is the biography of Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov movement. It was the Rebbetzin’s teachers who were the product of this movement who inspired her to enter the field of the chinuch of girls.
Rebbetzin Hirtz has attained the reputation of a master mechaneches. She is an accomplished kallah teacher and member of the Queens Vaad’s Chevra Kadishah. She says that many challenges today need to be dealt with by principals and teachers. The most important these days are the electronic devices and social media that compete with time, education, and social/religious growth. Both Rabbi Hirtz and Mrs. Hirtz agree on the hope for the secret of success of their new and unexpected engagement. They want the Torah Center’s members and local friends to know that they aim to be approachable, committed to giving Torah-based modern advice, and ultimately to become friends.
By Edward Burns, MD