MONTREAL — Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ) since 1996, is leaving Montreal to assume the pulpit of a prominent New York synagogue.
He has been appointed senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as of Jan. 1, ending what has been almost a family dynasty.
He succeeds the well-known Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 83, who since 1979, has led the 1,100-member congregation founded in 1872. His father, the late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, had been at its helm for 56 years.
“I am honoured to be succeeding one of the great leaders of the North American rabbinate, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein,” Rabbi Steinmetz wrote to congregants. “This appointment is both a great privilege and a great responsibility, and offers me the possibility of beginning a meaningful new chapter in my career.”
The loss of Rabbi Steinmetz, 51, a native of Monsey, N.Y., is a blow to “the Baily Shul,” a Côte St. Luc modern Orthodox congregation that counts among its 600 member families many who are actively engaged in Montreal Jewish life, a high proportion of them in the professions and academia.
“He is one in a million, one of the nicest and most compassionate individuals you will ever meet,” said Côte St. Luc councillor and member Mike Cohen, who reacted to the news with “a heavy heart.”
“It was unthinkable that he would ever leave. Like many others, I joined TBDJ specifically because of Rabbi Steinmetz.”
Rabbi Steinmetz is highly regarded as well in the broader Jewish community and beyond. He has been a thoughtful and articulate voice on its concerns, and a progressive one on a number of issues, notably the problem of men who refuse to give their ex-wives a get, or Jewish divorce decree.
He was outspoken in his opposition to the former Parti Québécois government’s proposed charter of secular values, which would have banned religious attire in the public service.
He early on adopted social media, and has maintained an online blog “The Happiness Warrior” for years. He has also participated in inter-religious dialogue through another blog, “FaithBlender,” with a Catholic priest and a Muslim imam.
In addition to being a regular contributor to The CJN, he has had articles published in several other Jewish and general newspapers.
“Deciding to leave was difficult, not just on a personal level, but on a professional level, because our synagogue is so strong and dynamic,” said Rabbi Steinmetz, who with his wife, Lisa, raised their four children here.
“For us, it was time to take on the challenge of a new shlichut, a new mission… We have gained so much personally and professionally from these years. We are the people we are today because of this wonderful community.”
It will be a tectonic shift at KJ after a century of stewardship connected to the Lookstein family, who also founded and led Ramaz, an elite modern Orthodox day school.
Among the congregation’s wealthy members, JTA reports, are businessman and philanthropist George Roher; the Kushners, a well-known real estate family; and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. She converted to Judaism before she married Jared Kushner.
In 1905, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies – known as the Ramaz – became rabbi of the synagogue.
According to JTA, Rabbi Steinmetz did not apply for the position; KJ approached him.
In an email, Rabbi Steinmetz told The CJN he and his family will miss the many friendships they made “throughout the Jewish community, from haredi to Reform, from unaffiliated to deeply involved. It is simply overwhelming to say goodbye to everyone.”
In an interview with JTA, Rabbi Lookstein, who will become rabbi emeritus, said Rabbi Steinmetz fits into the congregation because of his commitment to a modern Orthodox religious view, and his love for all Jews, for the State of Israel and America, as well as his openness to all people.
The congregation was looking for somebody “who not only is gifted rabbinically as a preacher and teacher and as a pastor, but someone who is absolutely on the same wavelength as KJ and Ramaz and the tradition our family has stood for for 109 years. Rabbi Steinmetz is that person.”
Ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Steinmetz holds master’s degrees in Jewish philosophy and education.
Before coming to Montreal, he was rabbi at Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and chair of the Talmud department at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls.
Reflecting on what he achieved at TBDJ, Rabbi Steinmetz emailed that he is proud that many new young families have joined in recent years. As in all mainstream Ashkenazi synagogues in Montreal, renewing the membership is a challenge.
“Our synagogue has become a welcoming, warm community. Every week there is an announcement made reminding everyone to greet new all new faces and make them feel at home, and this has become part of the character of our synagogue community.”
TBDJ president Judah Aspler said a search committee to find a replacement is being formed. The congregation does not have an assistant rabbi, although its education director, Eddie Shostak is ordained.
“With regards to the future of TBDJ, it is bright,” Aspler said. “We are in a great position to maintain our growth, and will do our best not to miss a beat in terms of programming, services and the strengthening of our institution and community.”