TORONTO — Rabbi Chaim Strauchler’s enthusiasm for Jewish learning is apparent when he mentions the Gemarah and Talmud class he teaches every morning at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, where he took over as spiritual leader at the beginning of the month.
“It’s early in the morning… at 6:15, but it’s a good class,” he said
in an interview. “It’s not me, it’s the Gemarah – it’s an inspiring
section [currently being studied],” he added quickly.
He wants people to know that, even if they can’t get up that early, “there’s something really great about the opportunity to study Torah,” he clarified.
Clear communication is a priority for the 31-year-old rabbi, who in his first sermon implored congregants to let him know about any mistakes he might make so that he could take appropriate action.
He sees his job at Shaarei Shomayim as being, “primarily, to care for the people in the synagogue, to be there for them in their time of need, and to shepherd them through the ups and downs of life, but also to inspire them, and to be a catalyst for personal growth and for family growth as well,” he told The CJN.
For his first year, he said, he is making it a priority to get to know the needs of the congregants and begin to form a relationship with them.
In a broader context, he sees the synagogue as being welcoming and non-judgmental to all. He also sees it as “a centre for addressing larger communal issues” as they arise. He said Shaarei Shomayim is an institution that cares for Jews in Toronto, Israel and elsewhere, as well as for the non-Jewish community.
In his initial sermon, Rabbi Strauchler told congregants they had “much Torah” to learn together, a flag to raise for modern Orthodoxy, a mission to be a light unto the nations, and “wounds to heal within this community.”
Rabbi Strauchler, who served Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, Conn., for the past three years, succeeds Rabbi Asher Vale – who served as interim rabbi for the past year following the departure of Rabbi Moshe Shulman – at the modern Orthodox synagogue, which has 840 member units.
The rabbi – whose last name is pronounced “Shtrow (rhymes with how) “-chler” (“ch” as in “Chaim) – said he’s not afraid of the term “modern Orthodox.
“I think [the term is] useful in the sense that it reflects the basic problem of every Jew – whether they’re Orthodox, not Orthodox, whatever colour or stripe – that modernity is something that is ever present in our lives, and it brings many advantages. It also brings many challenges. In the modern age, you can choose. You can choose to be Jewish, you can choose not to be Jewish. That did not exist before the modern era.”
However, Rabbi Strauchler added, he believes that the terms “modern Orthodox” and “Orthodox” are “labels that were imposed upon us by others, and that fundamentally we’re Jews. And it’s important to be able to see past the labels, towards the right and towards the left, to be able to look at a person and to see the person for what they are, as opposed to the external dress they may have on at that moment.”
Rabbi Strauchler, who grew up as one of four children in a modern Orthodox family in West Orange, N.J., has already demonstrated his ability to balance modernity and tradition.
An alumnus of Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Oxford University, he was a premed science student – following in his parents’ footsteps – before switching to English literature. In 2001, he became the first YU graduate to receive Oxford’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.The rabbi has two master’s degrees; one in religion from Oxford, and one in Bible from Yeshiva University.
He credits the legacy of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Gershon Romanoff with inspiring him to become a rabbi. Rabbi Romanoff studied at Yeshiva University under Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik in the 1930s, and died when Rabbi Strauchler was a year old.
Rabbi Strauchler also said that studying with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein at Har Etzion was a key formative influence. “His lessons, his example, the sense of responsibility that he demonstrates to the Jews of the world and the world as a whole… came very much alive for me.”
Rabbi Strauchler, who is married with three young children, spent three years at the yeshiva; he studied with Rabbi Lichtenstein for two of them.
Commenting on his own eclectic educational background, Rabbi Strauchler said, “You learn from every experience and from every person.”