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New Answers, Old Questions

Binyamin Rose, Vienna, Austria

Vienna’s new chief rabbi, Rav Arie Folger, challenged by anti-Orthodox forces and gender-equality petitioners, encourages his challengers to embrace responsibilities rather than harping on rights

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


"The Torah says rebuke your friend. Done correctly, it shows you're interested in that person and in his development," Rabbi Eisenberg says.

Judenplatz, once the heart of Jewish Vienna, plays to the beat of a different drummer today. The Holocaust Memorial still dominates the center of the square, bearing the names of places where Nazis murdered and deported Austrian Jews. The Jewish museum at the back of the square contains relics from almost 1,000 years of Austrian Jewry, including a subterranean excavation of a medieval synagogue, with craggy white rocks the only remaining markers as to where the aron kodesh and bimah once stood. 

Yet on this muggy early summer’s day, kippah-clad Jews are enjoying the bright sunshine, sipping soft drinks from bottles at Judenplatz’s outdoor café. In strolls a cadre of costumed Austrian entertainers who reserved a backroom for a rehearsal. 

Never one to miss an opportunity to forge neighborly relations, Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg, who just stepped down after 33 years as Vienna’s chief rabbi, introduces himself to the entertainers and remains long enough to give a brief interview before accepting my invitation to join an interview with his successor, Rabbi Arie Folger. 

The mixture of old and new, sober and playful, makes an ideal setting for this impromptu encounter between the incoming chief rabbi and the outgoing one, whose father, Rabbi Akiba Eisenberg z”l, preceded his son in the position from 1948 to 1983. 

The camaraderie and mutual respect between Rabbi Folger and Rabbi Eisenberg is readily apparent. “My predecessor is a beloved man who has been very warm to his flock,” Rabbi Folger says. “This is an established community but the people have opened their hearts to me already.”

Rabbi Eisenberg has advice for Rabbi Folger. "Be both a friend and a rabbi"

Asked to share words of advice for his replacement, Rabbi Eisenberg paraphrased Pirkei Avos. “Be both a friend and a rabbi,” adding that the two are not mutually exclusive, even when the rabbi must rebuke his flock. 

“The Torah says rebuke your friend. Done correctly, it shows you’re interested in that person and in his development,” Rabbi Eisenberg says.

Halachos Aren’t Hurdles

Taking up the reins of a postwar rabbinic dynasty is both a challenge and an opportunity that Rabbi Folger relishes. Recently reelected to a second one-year term as financial secretary of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Rabbi Folger also serves as an ambassador between the RCA and the Conference of European Rabbis, where he is a member of the standing committee. 

Rabbi Folger regularly visits US Orthodox congregations as a scholar in residence. Tapping into his diverse Torah and university education, he maintains an online presence in English and German, writing extensively on the new approaches he advocates to more effectively counter the growing Open Orthodox movement, often drawing on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. 

“I am a very faint projection of some of the ideas I found in his writings,” Rabbi Folger says humbly. “But his commitment was very clear. Halachah is normative and not a set of hurdles to overcome.” 

Admitting that some Jews have simply chosen Open Orthodoxy as their path, he contends many others are drawn to it because of cultural influences, and then are dissatisfied with answers they receive to their questions. 

“Many of their questions are fair and need to be dealt with,” Rabbi Folger says. “It’s in that spirit that we have to respond and say, ‘What do I say as a Torah Jew when confronted with that kind of challenge?’ ”

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