Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz had no intention of moving to the Valley when he was first contacted by Rabbi Darren Kleinberg to take the reins of Valley Beit Midrash. Kleinberg, founding director of the pluralistic adult Jewish learning program, was leaving to take a new job in California and apparently was quite persuasive because Yanklowitz accepted the directorship.
“He kept telling me about the organization and persuading me that it was a good move,” he says. “I looked more closely at it and I realized that this was a very unique model that I hadn’t seen anywhere else.” He sounds eager to launch VBM’s new program year, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Temple Chai with the Second Annual Seymour Sacks z”l Memorial Lecture (see box below).
Like Kleinberg, he is a graduate of the progressive Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Yanklowitz also received smichot (ordinations) from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.
Calling himself “observant in the most traditional sense,” Yanklowitz says that he wasn’t raised in a religious home back in Chicago. “I was always really a seeker and to some extent a challenger of the systems, and so I was always searching.” Although he became increasingly involved in Judaism through high school and college, becoming a rabbi didn’t enter his mind until after he had established himself as a corporate consultant, helping companies assemble benefits packages for their employees.
“I started out working in the corporate world after college, and had a little bit of an early existential crisis,” he says, “and realized that I needed to find my calling.”
After studying in Israel for a few years, “[I] realized that I wanted to commit my life to supporting the Jewish community, to helping people find themselves in the world, to trying to improve society, and I found Judaism to be the most powerful vehicle for doing that. And so, I see myself as an educator, an activist and a pastor. An educator in that I love the world of ideas, an activist in that I really believe that one of the main rules of religion is to be a force for change, and a pastor in that I view my role as supporting the vulnerable through difficult times.”
Since coming to that realization, he’s earned master’s degrees from Harvard and Yeshiva University, as well as a doctorate from Columbia University. All while at various times earning his smichot and working as a rabbinic intern at several congregations, director of the Hillel at UCLA, and an Army and hospital chaplain and a pulpit rabbi. That’s not to mention being one of the subjects of “The Calling” (a PBS series about people studying to be clergy) and founding Uri L’Tzedek, which he calls the first and only Orthodox social justice group, and Shamayim V’Aretz Institute (with co-founders Mayim Bialik and Matisyahu), promoting veganism and animal welfare.
He and his wife, Shoshana, are vegans and are raising their 8-month-old daughter, Amiella, that way.
“My wife and I became vegans on our wedding day, one of our many commitments that happened that day, and it’s a deep Jewish commitment, actually, this sense that all life is sacred.”
At VBM, he hopes to fulfill another Jewish commitment: to stimulate argument across denominational and ideological lines. “One of the primary purposes of the Jewish people is to enhance the discourse and collective understanding through engagement and learning and argument,” he says. “I think we need to cross those boundaries and actually listen to each other and engage with each other for the benefit of all of us.”
Who: Valley Beit Midrash
What: “The Future of American Judaism: Challenges & Opportunities in the 21st Century,” featuring Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9
Where: Temple Chai, 4645 E. Marilyn Road, Phoenix
Register: Joan Neer, 602-971-1234 or email@example.com.