Weiss, Avi

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WEISS, AVI (1944– ), Orthodox Jewish activist. Avraham "Avi" Weiss was born in New York City and received his rabbinical ordination at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (Yeshiva University) in 1968. He quickly established a reputation as an activist on behalf of Jewish communities everywhere and served for 10 years as Chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (sssj).

Through the 1980s, Weiss extended his passionate but non-violent activism to a wide range of Jewish causes. In 1985, he traveled to Bergen-Belsen to protest President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg military cemetery. In 1989, Weiss led demonstrations at the site of a Carmelite convent that had been established at Auschwitz, which, he asserted, threatened to "Christianize the memory of the Holocaust," and which had already desecrated the burial site of over a million murdered Jews. In 1991, he rose to the defense of the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights after anti-Jewish riots broke out there, accusing the mayor of New York and the city's police department of turning a blind eye and allowing the rioters to vent. He went on to found the grassroots organization amcha/Coalition for Jewish Concerns, of which he continues to serve as national president.

On issues pertaining to the State of Israel, Weiss was a vocal opponent of any recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or of its leader, Yasir Arafat. He led numerous public demonstrations against the plo and Arafat in front of the plo's offices in Manhattan, and was an outspoken critic of the 1993 Oslo Accords. In 1994, he was arrested in Oslo while protesting the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Arafat.

In addition, Weiss emerged as a Modern Orthodox visionary due to his position as congregational rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Under Weiss' leadership, hir quickly grew into a formidable synagogue. Weiss taught and practiced a unique inclusive philosophy, throwing open the doors of his Orthodox synagogue to the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox alike, as well as to the physically and mentally challenged. He launched innovative programs to include women in Orthodox practice, establishing a Women's Prayer and Torah Reading Service in 1974, and, in 1999, naming a madrikhah ruḥanit (religious mentor) at hir, the first woman to serve an Orthodox congregation in a quasi-rabbinic role. At the same time, Weiss mentored numerous assistant rabbis and rabbinic interns at hir, many of whom went on to assume major pulpits of their own.

In 2000 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (yct), the Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary. The mission of yct is to produce rabbis who are classically trained and dedicated to strict halakhic observance, and who are open and inclusive in their construction of Orthodox communities, sensitive to the religious aspirations of women, and welcoming of Jews of all backgrounds.

Weiss is the author of two books, Principles of Spiritual Activism (2002), and Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups (1990).

[Yosef Kanefsky (2nd ed.)]