“It’s not all about growth. It is about staying centered on core identity, when facing lots of options.”
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz, Rabbi, Netivot Shalom Congregation
Rabbi Kaplowitz is the Rabbi of Netivot Shalom Congregation. He took time out of his day as a pulpit Rabbi and a fulltime analyst in healthcare mortgage underwriting.
Q: How have you set up others for success?
A: That is what our shul is based upon. For the first 10 years no one was employed by the congregation in the role of Rabbi. Our concept of leadership is based on lots of models that encourage members to lead in various ways. I invite people to teach and give Divre Torah. Sometimes that involves holding the hand of people who are not yet sure of themselves in such a role, reassuring, and stepping back to let their voices be heard from the bima and in classes. I help to foster an environment that encourages congregants to express themselves. I share examples, conduct Dvar Torah workshops, use a template, share resources, and suggest sources to congregants. I work with them, lend an ear, give feedback and coach. This increases the number of people participating and grows the ranks of people teaching and presenting.
Q: How did you come to this leadership role?
A: Growing up, everyone who knew me knew that Rabbi was in my future. I was probably the last to embrace that, perhaps out of fear of what it would mean for me in family dynamics. I was drawn to Jewish Learning and Communal life, that is who I was and it also reflected the values of my home. While each step on the journey involved weighty decisions, the pathway was pretty conventional: I graduated high school, spent a year at Yeshiva in Israel then went to Brandeis University for my undergraduate degree where I was very involved in the campus Orthodox community in Hillel. I worked for a year at the Hillel International headquarters and then went to Rabbinical School. Upon receiving smicha, I served six years as a Rabbi at the Orthodox Union Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Brandeis University.
Our family moved to Baltimore when my wife, Toby, accepted a teaching position at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, where she still teaches. I accepted an interim Rabbinic position at Beth T’filoh Congregation, hoping it would become a permanent position, but that was not how things worked out. Because Baltimore is a very good fit for our family, I pivoted and began a career path that I had never considered. I entered the MBA program at the University of Maryland, graduating in 2016. While pursuing an MBA, an opportunity opened up for me to serve as Rabbi of Netivot Shalom Congregation in Pikesville. For me, the opportunity has been a tremendous blessing, and I hope for the congregation as well.
Q: Along that pathway, who were some people who gave you encouragement?
A: When I was in business school and not working as a Rabbi, I thought I would combine my Rabbinic skills with what I learned in business school, and I accepted a position underwriting mortgages for nursing homes. My teachers from Yeshivat Chovevai Torah encouraged me. I taught some classes on Jewish sources and received reinforcement from students and fellow teachers regarding my core beliefs and understanding. This gave me satisfaction and awareness that I am a representative and humble servant of those sources and traditions. It is not about me, personally. I do not seek the limelight. I am more of a quiet leader, true to what I believe and to the great body of Jewish learning and tradition.
Q: How has your sense of yourself as a leader changed in recent years?
A: Certainly, the period in business school and as a Rabbi requires striking the balance between two worlds… my position at Netivot Shalom is part time and my work underwriting nursing home mortgages is full time. So, working time and a half requires learning how to balance the two positions with my home life. I have had to learn how to scale back my life as a part time leader/teacher and to reframe my roles as we adapted to the realities of the pandemic. It was quite a challenge. My disposition is to lead from behind or while walking side by side in a collaborative leadership style. That is certainly how we at Netivot Shalom have approached this adaptive challenge of a virtual community during Covid. However, the dynamics of operating in a virtual space, forced me to take a more central role in shaping how we operate and how we will emerge, post pandemic. We need to refocus on our vision of active lay leadership participation as we step back from Zoom toward a healthier leadership dynamic.
Q: Where are you now in the change process?
A: We were the most cautious among Orthodox congregations in the region regarding masking, indoor, virtual, and outdoor davening. We are now trying to focus on communal self-reflection regarding our mission statement and where we want to land. Our congregation’s core is smaller now, as several leading members moved out of the region. The leadership dynamic is different, but the base is strong. Business school taught me how to wear many hats: learning and teaching Torah, Jewish community building, being part of people’s lives, part of programming, catering, working with children, thinking big picture to connect the dots, applying lessons learned about how organizations work, and finding and engaging the right people.
Q: How do you characterize Modern Orthodoxy?
A: As a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, I am interested in looking at the genius of the Rabbinic Sages who engaged in radical change while claiming that they were keeping to the core vision of Torah. Modern Orthodox thinking takes absolute truths and halachic Orthodox Judaism and applies them in radically different times and settings. It is very exciting to me as a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to think about what the Rabbis in Mishnaic times did to address the radical changes they faced: foreign occupation, loss of sovereignty, destruction of the Temple, dispersion. They identified and focused on core truths. They identified where flexibility was possible. They had the courage and recognition that we make mistakes and they created a forgiving system.
Q: How do you interlace the wisdom of business school with your Rabbinic education?
A: Persevere and don’t miss opportunities. But don’t be so enamored of opportunities that you lose some of who we are and get into trouble. It is important to slow things down in order to weigh and balance tradition and change. It’s not all about growth. It is about staying centered on core identity, when facing lots of options. Our shul might grow fast if we emulate the example of the organization with the most members and the biggest budget, but we may lose our core Truth in such a pursuit. We need to listen and help others to learn to listen to their fellow members. Reflect on what came before. Make room for others.
Most Orthodox Rabbis are the Mora D’Atra of their congregation, the one who decides on all hallachic (Jewish law) issues. At Netivot Shalom, that is not my role. We have a Hallacha Committee which, when faced with an issue, hears my outline of hallachicly possible options, and the committee then votes on which option we will follow. In such matters my vote is as one member of the committee. Businesses and congregations both need someone to keep the ship on course. We achieve that by listening to multiple perspectives.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: For me, the model I relate to is not a cult of personality. I am wary of focusing on an individual. That said, my teachers, notably, Rabbis Avi Weiss and Dov Linzer are important sources of wisdom and strength as are civil rights leaders, members of our shul, Baale Tshuvah who pray 3 times a day and commit to learning and teaching. Our shul membership skews a bit older. I am inspired by our younger members who invite their friends to join us in community.
Q: What would you say to your younger self?
A: Don’t be single minded about one path. Until applying to the MBA program, I only saw myself as a Rabbi. You can be a Rabbi with other things worked in as well. Lessons 1,2, and 3. Appreciate when it is time to step back and when to step forward as a leader. Be OK with unintended outcomes. Every successful start-up had at least two failures. Don’t take crazy risks but remember that today’s failure could be the launchpad for the next big success.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I veg out on mindless tv, I enjoy sports, family time, chasing softballs, reading, and I delight in Shabbat.
Q: Any thing you would like to add?
A: Yes, a Talmud story about Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin, and his rival Rabbi Eliezer.
R. Eliezer had Rabban Gamliel removed from his position as head of the Sanhedrin, making the case that he was out of touch with the people. Rabban Gamliel had put guards at the entryway to the House of Study, blocking access to those students who Gamliel thought unworthy of studying. The Sanhedrin then removed the guards. Hundreds of students, previously blocked by Gamliel’s guards, came into the Study Hall and began to learn. Gamliel is a tragic figure in this story. When Gamliel sees so many more students studying in the House of Study, he has remorse and acknowledges that he was wrong.
As a teacher, I want to provide access to learning and to be a guard of the truth. In this way I hope to draw from the good lessons of both R. Eliezer and R. Gamliel.