“The Celebrate Israel Parade is very important,” shared Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, grand marshal of the 2017 march. “It’s the one opportunity—especially for our children—to stand up and say, in the most public way, ‘We are Jews, we are proud and we love the state and the people of Israel.’ There is no other opportunity to do that. This is ‘Solidarity Sunday’ for the state and people of Israel.”
New York Jewish Life asked the rabbi how he was chosen to marshal the 2017 procession. “I didn’t apply—I’ve been marching since the beginning, after the Six-Day War.”
How he planned to dress for the June 4 march was still a question, he said.
“Some say, ‘Wear your three-piece shabbos suit, with the striped trousers.’ The real question is whether I wear a Mets hat or a Ramaz hat!” Underneath either, he assured us, “will be my red, white and blue kippah.”
Lookstein, now 85, was for decades “young Rabbi Lookstein” of Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue in Manhattan. After graduating from the Rabbinical Seminary at Yeshiva University and receiving ordination, he became assistant to his father, the late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein.
“There were very few positions available in 1958,” the rabbi told us. He had considered a pulpit in Detroit. “I was 26, unmarried and afraid there were no Jewish girls in Detroit.” With a smile, the Rabbi noted that his son, Joshua, head of the Westchester Hebrew Day School, had completed that circle, marrying Georgina (“Georgie”), “the absolutely greatest” Jewish girl…from Detroit.”
The rabbi had also considered leading a new Sephardic congregation in Cedarhurst. “There were no Sephardim in the town. Driving on Shabbat would have been necessary. First, I wasn’t Sephardi, and second, I was uncomfortable, knowing I would be in a congregation where everybody had to drive on Shabbat.”
At Kehilath Jeshurun, the young assistant rabbi was at home. Almost 60 years later, now Rabbi Emeritus Lookstein told NYJL, “It worked out, thank G-d!”
He described his father, considered by many to be “the absolute king of Modern Orthodoxy”: “My father was very involved with form and dignity. I’m more flexible—a bit loosey goosey. He gave me the opportunity to try things that he might have thought were bordering on the outrageous. My father was the best mentor anyone could have in a rabbi. I wish I had him for five minutes to listen to a sermon and correct it.”
In 1979, following his father’s death Haskel Lookstein became senior rabbi of the congregation.
His has been an illustrious career. He has been a leader in the Struggle for Soviet Jewry; active in the United Jewish Appeal (UJA); and involved with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) and the New York Board of Rabbis. He served as principal of Ramaz, the school founded by his father in 1937.
“I was passionate about the civil rights movement,” said Lookstein, noting that his uncle, lawyer Bernard Fishman, had been very involved in the movement and a tremendous influence on him. “My uncle told me, ‘Make the most of your passions—it could change your life.’”
“My life changed after 1972 when I became an activist, involved with every aspect of the Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Ramaz, our school, also became very involved. I have a philosophy,” the rabbi told NYJL. “Never let school interfere with education!”
The Struggle for Soviet Jewry became Lookstein’s passion. In 1970, Malcolm Hoenlein, “the most outstanding Jewish public servant,” was head of the New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry. He told Lookstein, “We need young rabbis.”
In 1972, Lookstein traveled to the Soviet Union, a trip planned with the help of the Israeli consul for Cultural Affairs—“a euphemism,” noted Lookstein, “for consul on Soviet Jewish matters.” Meetings took place in synagogues and the homes of dissidents. Assuming he would be followed and his conversations monitored, the rabbi studied Yiddish to communicate safely. “I understood, but I had to learn to speak it.”
In total, Lookstein made four trips to the Soviet Union. He visited in 1987 specifically to meet noted protester and dissident Natan Sharansky; and to encourage another celebrated “refusenik”—a person in the former Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate—Vladimir Slepak, not to give up.
“Elie Wiesel told me to convey hope,” Lookstein reported. Slepak got his visa later that same year.
By 1989, with the advent of glasnost—a general loosening of government control—the Soviet Union, “a prison where one had to watch every word, became, relatively, a Garden of Eden—probably much more free then than now,” commented Lookstein with a bit of sadness.
The 1987 meeting with Sharansky resulted in a lifelong friendship. “We became very close. Natan told my wife and me that ‘I loved the two of you immediately; you’re the only other couple I know where the wife is taller than the husband!’”
“I consider Natan Sharansky to be possibly the most principled person I know,” Lookstein said. “He lived his belief fully—not only principled in the Gulag, where he would not bow to the KGB. Even as he left Russia, he ignored the instruction to ‘walk straight’ and instead zigzagged across the bridge to freedom.”
“Sharansky,” said the rabbi, “is even more heroic as a free man. He resigned from the Israeli government twice over principle. To be a hero when powerless is great; to be a hero putting principle over power is to be a true hero.”
New York Jewish Life asked the rabbi whom he sees in his mirror. “Fundamentally, I am a rabbi in a synagogue, devoted to the members of my congregation. My father would say, ‘A rabbi is a servant of the servants of the Lord.’ It’s not a job; it’s what I do. I always have a card with a list of projects: to visit the sick, to visit the school. That’s my life and what I want to do most.”
Asked what keeps him amused and involved, he quickly responded, “Ramaz. That keeps me amused. I love education. I love teaching.” The rabbi is an active teacher at Ramaz, teaching sophomores about Jewish sexual ethics. “I guess I’m the sex-ed teacher in Ramaz,” he said with a bit of a chuckle. “It’s very important that they understand the Jewish approach.”
What else do senior rabbinical people do? If it’s Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, he may be found on stage at Carnegie Hall as part of a barbershop quartet—or on the mound, throwing the first pitch at a Mets game.
“I’m a big fan!” he almost shouted. In May 2006 and again in May 2017, the rabbi threw the first pitch of a game. “At 85, I threw a perfect strike!! At 85, you need an arc. At 85, you throw it high!! Nothing in my life was so unnerving as those two pitches.”
Retracting a bit, the baseball-fan rabbi conceded that, perhaps, landing in Soviet Moscow with soldiers then surrounding the plane may have been a a bit more stressful. “It was at dusk, and my wife, Audrey, asked me, ‘What did we get into this time?’ There’s nothing like seeing a police state in action.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is one of the most highly respected rabbinical leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. He is a scholar; an educator of generations and of other Orthodox rabbis. His wisdom is revered in virtually every religious and secular situation—with the exception of the Rabbinical Court of Petach Tikva, which in June of 2016 voided a conversion he had supervised.
The Petach Tikva decision was met with public outcry. At a rally in Jerusalem, Natan Sharansky led the call for support of Lookstein. Lookstein characterized this as one of the ironies of life, remembering when he had led rallies in support of Sharansky. “It’s a power struggle—very much so,” he said.
Rabbi Seth Farber, a specialist in resolving religious law issues, advised Lookstein to “go public,” and leaked the story to The New York Times. The story went viral, “and that was very good,” according to Lookstein.
NYJL asked Lookstein to voice his thoughts about women clergy in the Modern Orthodox world. His response, while reflecting current Modern Orthodox mainstream opinion, appears to leave room for development.
“At the present time, the Modern Orthodox community—most, at least—are not ready to have an official rabbinic title for women. What will be in 10 years I don’t know. I don’t think we should be making a big issue of this.”
He noted that there have been women scholars, women teachers and women who have delivered sermons. “It’s something that’s going to come. I don’t think we should be excluding congregations that have women ‘clergy.’”
While Lookstein is “still not comfortable with a woman at the helm of most congregations,” he feels that “it should not be the defining principle of who is Orthodox and who is not. The point is whether the community is ready or not. Some are; some are not.”
Acceptance—or not—of women in the rabbinate has been a multigenerational discussion in the Lookstein family. Rabbi Haskel offered a story about Rabbi Joseph, his father, who, when initially asked about accepting Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained by the Reform movement, as a member of the New York Board of Rabbis, stated he would no longer participate were she to be accepted. Upon further analysis of her ability to fulfill the duties of a rabbi in the Reform movement, Rabbi Joseph relented. He remained a member of the board—in concert with with his new colleague, Rabbi Priesand.
“I’m very bullish on Modern Orthodoxy,” said Haskel Lookstein “There are many, many more involved Jews in 2017 than in 1937. Synagogues, yeshivot have experienced tremendous commitment. Will Modern Orthodoxy be as I think it should be in 20 years? I’m not a prophet, but I am very hopeful and fully expect there will be a vibrant, centrist, committed community.”
Lookstein has been a rabbi of outreach among congregants and colleagues. “When I was involved with the New York Board of Rabbis, I had many friends in different movements. I still feel close to rabbis of different denominations, and value opportunities to associate and learn.”
New York Jewish Life asked Rabbi Lookstein what the fulfillment of his dream for the future would be.
“We are very blessed,” he began. “We have four children, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. My dream is that they would live committed Jewish lives, observant and loving all Jews: Ahavat Yisrael—the love of Israel—one of the overarching needs of our community is to love all Jews, especially those with whom you disagree!”
Closing our conversation, Lookstein confided, “None of whatever has been in this community would have been possible except for the fact that Audrey Katz agreed to marry me 58 years ago. June 21 is our anniversary. It was easily the most important decision in my life.”
Katz, a member of the first graduating class of Stern College, was a teacher at the Ramaz School and holds a master’s from Teachers College at Columbia University. She is a wife, mother, rebbetzin and adjunct professor of English as a Second Language.
“She has helped me to live life for 58 years and has been totally devoted to serving this community. Ours has absolutely been a partnership.”