Thursday, January 18, 2007

Montreal Beit din installs new chief rabbi

Staff Reporter

Rabbi Yonasan Binyamin Weiss, the new chief rabbi of the beit din of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal (Vaad Ha’ir), pledged to serve as a unifying force for the city’s Orthodox communities while rigorously overseeing the traditional issues under the Vaad’s purview, including kashrut, conversions and family law.

However, Rabbi Weiss, who is only 58, said in an interview that he also intends to affix his own personal stamp to the position. He said he will be open and accessible to individual members of the public, and as a recognized halachic authority in the field of medical ethics, is organizing a new group under the Vaad, the Rabbinical Medical Ethics Committee of Montreal.

“I am not a lone wolf,” he said. “I see myself as not only serving the public, but individuals, with dignity and compassion. I try to encourage people to work together.”

The Vaad’s medical ethics committee, Rabbi Weiss said, will consist of rabbis representing the “spectrum” of Orthodoxy and provide confidential religious advice and guidance on issues ranging from fertility and end-of-life questions, to organ transplantation, contraception and medical negligence.

The committee, he said, is being formed as the result of inquiries made by the Jewish General Hospital indicating the need for such a structure. The Vaad has already hosted a series of shiurim (study sessions) on medical issues for physicians.

The Royal Victoria Hospital, he said, will also consult with the new committee and he expects other medical care institutions will follow suit.

“Sometimes it can be something as simple as a female patient not being comfortable sharing a hospital room with a man,” Rabbi Weiss said.

Representatives on the committee will come from the Vaad’s beit din, the Rabbinical College of Canada and the Outremont chassidic and Sephardi communities, Rabbi Weiss said.

Rabbi Weiss was installed Jan. 9 at a special session of the Vaad attended by its entire leadership and representatives of other Orthodox communities. He became chief rabbi only a little over a month following the Nov. 30 death of his predecessor, Rabbi Avraham David Niznik, who was 85 and had served for nine years.

Born in the United States Rabbi Weiss lived in Bnei Brak, Israel, for 35 years, but is fluent in English. He arrived in Montreal from Bnei Brak about a year ago to serve as a deputy head – or sgan av – of the beit din, and to be groomed as Rabbi Niznik’s eventual successor. A statement issued at the time by the Vaad’s executive director, Rabbi Saul Emanuel, said it took “a search of many years” to find a suitable candidate.

At a welcoming event held upon his arrival, Rabbi Weiss expressed the hope that Rabbi Niznik, then 84, would continue to serve as chief rabbi for many years.

In Bnei Brak, Rabbi Weiss oversaw shchitah (ritual slaughter) and was the rabbinic authority at an infertility institute in Ranana. He is also the author of thousands of halachic responsa on medical questions issued on CD-ROM, called Nehorai and described by the rabbi as sort of a “halachic Medline.”

Rabbi Weiss is a member of the Klausenberg chassidic dynasty whose rabbis date back to early 18th-century Transylvania. In the Holocaust, the Klausenberg rebbe lost his wife and 11 children, and only 15 per cent of the dynasty members survived, with most now living in Netanya and Borough Park, N.Y.

Rabbi Weiss is here with his wife, Freda, and two children. He also has children in Israel, Switzerland and England.

Rabbi Weiss, who said he is also taking French lessons, considers his appointment in Montreal a matter of “divine destiny” and is grateful to a community that “received me with open hearts.” He expressed special affection for Rabbi Harry Kaufman, the senior dayan (religious judge) on the Vaad’s beit din, for his support.

He said in addition to the medical ethics issues, kashrut will be an abiding priority in the effort to ensure the “integrity” of the kashrut process and to demonstrate to the entire community “in the right way” how an “authentic Jewish lifestyle” is of true value.

At Rabbi Weiss’ installation, two other dayanim were appointed to the beit din: Rabbi Yoel Chanan Wenger and Rabbi Berl Bell of the Lubavitch community.

Rabbi Weiss said since his arrival, he has come to appreciate not only the vital Orthodox community, but also Montreal itself for its part North American, part European character. “I must tell you I like it very much,” he said.

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