Interviewing a Rabbi

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Interviewing rabbis is not easy; we all know how busy they are so when Rabbi Josh Yuter agreed to take part in this new series and replied to my questions, I felt honored. I hope that you will all enjoy this interview as much as I did. Thank you Rabbi for your participation.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Josh Yuter and I have been the Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York’s historic Lower East Side since 2008. I’ve also worked professionally as a computer programmer primarily with web application development.

I’ve been blogging since 2003, now at www.JoshYuter.com, and I created and currently manage www.JewishGuitarChords.com archive. I have diverse interests, many of which I incorporate into a Jewish context, and I make horrible and often esoteric puns.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

The community of The Stanton St. Shul is one of the most diverse I have ever encountered, which is quite remarkable due to its relatively small size and being an Orthodox congregation.

Our membership ranges from recent college graduates to seniors who have spent most of their lives in the Lower East Side. We have members who have grown up observant and attended yeshivot and others with virtually no background and who might not be observant in their private lives. On a typical Shabbat you can find someone in a suit and tie sitting next to someone in jeans and a t-shirt, and no one is particularly bothered.

The motto of the synagogue is “all are welcome; all will feel welcome” and the true uniqueness of the community is its ability to live up to this standard.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family? When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father has been a pulpit Rabbi for most of my life, though I would not categorize him as a “typical” Orthodox affiliated rabbi. For the purposes of this interview I would best describe his approach as “academic” in that religious texts must be understood critically and their interpretations must fit within the rules the grammar and philology. Perhaps more controversial is the formalistic approach to Jewish law which often challenges the accepted status quo and encourages others to do the same.

Being raised in this environment, my initial interests in going to rabbinical school was not professional, but practical. Most of the subjects learned in rabbinical school such as kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc. are laws which are relevant to any observant Jew. My intent was to learn the primary sources with the guidance of experts and the accountability of examinations such that at the end of my program I’d feel confident that I’d either know the halakha or I’d be able to find the answer with relative ease.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school? Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

For rabbinical school I studied at Yeshiva University, primarily because there were no other options at that time for a “modern orthodox” rabbinical school. YU’s main competition today is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but YCT only came into existence in my second year of rabbinical school and there was absolutely no reason to switch. Not only was YCT still in the process of figuring out its full curriculum, but in terms of complete rabbinic training, YU provided a better overall program for future rabbis.

The most significant and underutilized advantage of Yeshiva University is that it is in my opinion the most pluralistic institution of Orthodox Judaism in the world, defining “pluralistic” as the number of different ideologies and approaches to Judaism under one roof. I had the pleasure of studying Talmud in different styles – including “academic Talmud” in YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Judaic Studies and learning halakha from different perspectives. Even if I did not agree with an approach or a conclusion, being exposed to contradictory ideas is crucial for religious development. On a personal level I could be proven wrong in which case I’d correct a mistake or at the very least I’d have a better understanding as to why I would reject one idea over another. Furthermore, such exposure is crucial for anyone to be an effective Orthodox Rabbi since at some point, any Rabbi will have to confront people whose opinions and perspectives differ from his own, and the more one understands how another side operates, the better a rabbi can respond.

What do you like best about your job? / What do you like least about it?

Like any job, being a pulpit rabbi can alternate between the frustrating and the gratifying depending on the day. The most gratifying aspects about being a pulpit rabbi for me are times when I can engage with members Jewishly either through teaching classes or simply by being a part of their lives. Obviously this is much more pleasant in better times. I cannot imagine anyone enjoying grief counseling or officiating a funeral, even though to be the religious representative in such a time is less a responsibility than it is an honor.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

In terms of The Rabbinate in general, people often assume that my synagogue operates like theirs. Meaning, many people assume that the mutual relationship between a congregation and its rabbi are uniform when in truth every community is unique and what might be “normal” for some could be harmful elsewhere.

In my own shul I’ve worked hard to “lift the veil” so to speak about being a Rabbi, or at least how I operate. Part of this is that I think transparency is beneficial and hopefully will preempt misconceptions in the future.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

In 2000-2001 I participated in a fellowship program run by Clal which brought together rabbinical students from other denominations, though my exposure since then has been limited to individual colleagues. This is not so much an ideological decision but a practical one. Above all else, my primary focus is, and I think must be, the development of my own synagogue. Even with my Orthodox colleagues on the Lower East Side, we are all preoccupied with our synagogues that we do not have the time to dialogue regularly. However, I have found my local colleagues to be phenomenal professional resources, and I try to provide whatever assistance I can be to anyone regardless of their denomination.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

The internet has been instrumental for my synagogue. Given our limited resources, the internet has been the most efficient cost effective method to engage our membership. Between our email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, we can readily communicate with our membership and our website allows us to reach out to others. The reality is that people, especially those under 35, use the internet as their primary source of information and we have had numerous people who have found our shul simply by searching Google. Getting people in the door is the hardest part, especially if people don’t know you exist.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

In terms of the future of the shul, my goal is to continue our sustained growth. As tempting as it can be to simply fill seats, without a sense of community people can leave just as easily. The biggest challenge I see myself facing is being able to reevaluate where we are in the present and to adjust accordingly. We’ve made extraordinary strides in the past two years to the point where it would not be a stretch to say we are a different shul entirely. While it’s a challenge to see the synagogue anew, all things considered, it’s a wonderful problem to have.

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Rye Soda Bread

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A recipe from Super Natural Every Day

2 1/3 cups / 9.75 oz / 275 g rye flour
1 3/4 cups / 8 oz / 225 g unbleached all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
2 cups / 475 ml buttermilk
a bit of extra buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 400F / 205C. Place a rack in the center of the oven.

Sift the flours, baking soda, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the flour, pour in the buttermilk, and stir until the dough just comes together. If you need to add an extra splash of buttermilk because the dough is too dry, you can. Knead lightly for about a minute, just long enough to pull it together into a loose ball but no longer.

Place the dough on a lightly floured baking sheet and mark it with a deep cross across the top, cutting two-thirds of the way through the loaf with a serrated knife. Brush with buttermilk and sprinkle with 1 tbsp of flour.

Bake for 50 minutes, or until the bread is golden crusted on top and bottom (you may want to move the oven rack up for the last 20 minutes if you need more color on the top of the loaf). Cool on a wire rack.

Makes a single loaf.

What I Look Like

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… on the Ipad.

If the tablet is the digital tool of the future then WordPress is already quite ahead as far as blogging is concerned. Its Ipad layout makes one’s blog look crisp and elegant. I have taken two (poor quality) shots of my blog as it appears on the Ipad to illustrate how this theme works.

The top photo features the latest picture on my blog but it is possible to set a default picture instead, which I probably will. The little dark ribbon on the right reads “swipe me”. When you do, the next page shows the latest five posts. All you need to do is touch the screen to access the article. If you wish to read the rest of the blog, you just tap the link at the bottom of the page.

More on this topic:
WordPress enables new iPad-optimized layout for its 18 million blogs
Wow Your iPad Readers

Minimalist Dressing

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… for your avocado.

I love avocados but try not to eat them with mayonnaise or a dressing that contains oil. Here is a simple, healthy and tasty way to eat avocados.

Halve the avocado and remove the stone. Drizzle with lemon or lime juice. Add some light soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!

The amount of juice and/or sauce depends on your own taste. I usually pour 1 tsp on the avocado and add more as I eat if necessary.

Pre-Lag B’Omer Weekly Review

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On My Blog

Dairy Recipes:
Zucchini Crumble
Tutti-Frutti Crumble My Way
My Shaved Fennel Salad

Super Natural Every Day- First Glimpse

Working and/or Eating?

Elsewhere in the JBlogosphere

Jewish Carnivals:
KCC During the Omer is hosted by Leora
– Barbara Krasner hosts Jewish Book Carnival | May 2011

Mrs. S. shares a wonderful-looking recipe: Freshly Baked Friday: Carrot Bread Edition

Walk, not Talk: Thoughts on Parashat Behukotai by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Does Judaism Require “Submission” within Marriage?, a post by Mother in Israel

My Shaved Fennel Salad

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Inspired by Heidi Swanson’s own recipe

1 small zucchini, sliced into paper thin coins
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and shaved paper-thin
loosely chopped fresh dill
1/6 cup/80ml fresh lemon juice
1/6 cup/80ml extra virgin olive oil
fine grain sea salt
2 or 3 generous handfuls arugula
honey, if needed
a handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup/2 oz/ 60g pine nuts, toasted (I did not have any kind of nuts but wish I had some)
1/4 cup/50g fresh goat cheese, the original recipe calls for feta but I didn’t have any either

Combine the zucchini, fennel and dill in a bowl and toss with the lemon juice, olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside and marinate for 20 minutes, or up to an hour.

When you are ready to serve the salad, put the arugula on a plate. Scoop some of the zucchini and fennel onto the arugula, and pour some of the lemon juice dressing on top of that. Toss gently but thoroughly. Taste and adjust with more of the dressing, olive oil, lemon juice, or salt if needed. If the lemons were particularly tart, you may need to counter the pucker-factor by adding a tiny drizzle of honey into the salad at this point. Let your taste buds guide you.

Serve topped with (pine)nuts, cheese and cherry tomatoes

Working and/or Eating?

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For the second year, I have been sent by the school authorities to another school to give oral exams. This entails getting up early, driving 90 minutes to get there and listening to seven candidates in a row before the lunch break and then listening to another batch of seven before driving back home.

This morning, while the four examiners were sipping the cup of coffee we had been offered on arrival, the headmaster came to greet us and announced that a secretary would come to sell us lunch tickets. I politely declined, adding that I had brought my own food and would join the others in the staff dining-room.

At that point the head replied that people were not allowed to bring into the school food that had not been prepared on their premises. It echoed something I had heard in my own school but had not investigated since I can always eat at home this year. It was a bit too early for me to think of something clever and polite to answer so I kept silent.

However when the time came to have lunch I chose to ignore the remark and brought my mixed rice and chickpeas salad into the dining-room. By then I had pondered the question and had an answer ready in case someone asked me to eat outside. It was a little cold and windy so there was no way I was moving out.

I am not undisciplined on principle but some situations can really irritate me. I know that the French secular system has no place for religious “idiosyncrasies” but the incident made me realize that it not possible to be a vegetarian either, not to mention that I wonder what they expect people who have food allergies or intolerance to do. It was in fact the case for another of the examiners who also brings her own food.

My morning stupor prevented me from asking the reason behind this peculiar rule although I suspect it has to do with the zero-risk syndrome. It seems unlikely that a rotten egg eaten by myself in the staff dining-room might infect the students but I cannot imagine why schools would take such drastic measures.

Tutti-Frutti Crumble My Way

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On her blog, Heidi Swanson a six recipe sampler of her new book Super Natural Every Day. The sampler includes Tutti-Frutti Crumble. I wanted to try this recipe for last night’s Shabbat meal but lacked three ingredients: rolled oats, dried currants and Beaujolais wine. Yet, since I had all the other red fruits, I thought it would be a shame not to try it all the same.

I decided to do away with the dried currants altogether and use ground almonds instead of rolled oats and peach liquor instead of Beaujolais wine. I had an unopened bottle of this light liquor in the pantry and thought that it would go well with the other summer flavors in the crumble. I also omitted the poppy seeds included in the original recipe even though I had some. It turned out to be a lovely crumble and one that could be a nice dessert in a Shavuot menu.

So here is my own version of Tutti-Frutti Crumble:

Tutti-Fruti Crumble

adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Everyday

Ingredients:
3/4 cup / 3 oz / 85 g spelt flour
1/2 cup / 1.5 oz / 45 g ground almonds
1/2 cup / 2.5 oz / 70 g natural cane sugar
1/3 cup / 2.5 oz / 70 g salted butter, melted

1 tablespoon all-natural potato starch
1/3 cup / 1.5 oz / 45 g natural cane sugar or muscovado sugar
11/2 cups / 6 oz / 170 g raspberries
11/2 cups / 6 oz / 170 g strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/4 cup / 60 ml peach liquor

Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C with a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter an 8-inch / 20cm square baking dish.

To make the crumble, mix together the flour, ground almonds and sugar in a bowl. Use a fork to stir in the melted butter. Divide the mixture into three portions and use your hands to form three patties. Place the patties in the bowl and freeze for at least 10 minutes, or until you are ready to bake.

Make the filling by whisking together the potato starch and sugar in a large bowl. Add the raspberries, strawberries and cherries and toss until evenly coated. Wait 3 minutes, add the liquor, and toss again.

Transfer the filling to the prepared baking dish. Remove the topping from the freezer and crumble it over the filling, making sure you have both big and small pieces.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the topping is deeply golden and the fruit juices are vigorously bubbling. Let cool a little before serving, 20 to 30 minutes.

Heidi Swanson’s original recipe

Super Natural Every Day- First Glimpse

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I am not a vegetarian but I cut down on meat when I became kosher. This was mainly for practical reasons as the nearest kosher butcher shop is more than an hour’s drive away. At the same time I became more health conscious than I already was. Now we never eat meat more than twice a week.

Therefore I am always on the lookout for lovely vegetarian recipes I can add to my daily or Shabbat dishes and I like my vegetarian dishes to be as enticing and appetizing asmy fish or meat dishes.

If you eat kosher, vegetarian dishes are quite useful: you will use lots of unprocessed foods that won’t need a hechshser.

I regularly read a few vegetarian websites but did not own a vegetarian cookbook. So when I learnt that Heidi Swanson, who blogs at 101cookbooks and whose recipes I always enjoy, had published a new book which had raving reviews on Amazon I thought I’d order it.

Super Natural Every Day arrived this morning and after a long day of meetings on the forthcoming exams I was glad to find it when I got back home.

The book starts with a long introduction on natural foods, her pantry and kitchen and some cooking tips.

The book is then divided into several sections:
– Breakfast
– Lunch
– Snacks
– Dinner
– Drinks
– Treats
– Accompaniments

I have only paged through the book quickly but have already spotted some recipes I’d like to try: spinach strata, lemon-zested bulgur wheat, frittata, summer squash soup, mostly not potato salad, shaved fennel salad, rye soda bread, raita with walnuts, little quinoa patties, cucumber cooler for instance.

The book uses cups as well as grams which will suit both the American and European readers.

Some recipes by Heidi Swanson I have tried:
Pierce Street Vegetarian Chili
Zucchini Ricotta Cheesecake
Lively Up Yourself Lentil Soup
Cashew Curry

Zucchini Crumble

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Since my next interview series seems to be a little delayed, I am starting a mini series of Shavuot recipes. It is customary to eat dairy food on Shavuot therefore I have opted for dairy recipes.

One explanation for the consumption of dairy foods on this holiday is that the Israelites had not yet received the Torah, with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals). As the food they had prepared beforehand was not in accordance with these laws, they opted to eat simple dairy meals to honor the holiday.

Zucchini Crumble for 6

Ingredients:
1 kg zucchini, thinly grated
200 g fresh goat cheese, cubed
fresh mint or a mixture of herbs and parsley
2 tbsp semolina
salt & pepper to taste

150 g flour
75 g butter
2 tbsp olive oil

Press the grated zucchini in a colander so as to squeeze out the liquid. Mix in a glass bowl with the cheese, the semolina and the herbs. Season to taste.

Rub the butter into the flour. Keep rubbing until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Spoon the zucchini mixture into the bottom of a well-oiled baking dish, then sprinkle the crumble mixture on top. Drizzle with oil. Bake at 375°F for at least 25 minutes or until the crust is slightly brown.