It’s noon on Mon., Sept. 17, and Yehoshua Pinkus, a 33-year-old rabbi with the Seattle Kollel, is sitting around a table at the organization’s building in Seward Park teaching a section of the High Holiday Amidah to two older women. The discussion, at the moment, is on how well human beings can understand God’s plan, even when they have a strong faith that such a plan exists.
“When we are inside a situation, we can’t see it,” says Pinkus, explaining how tragedy or personal anguish can challenge a person’s faith, and that sometimes time is needed before a person can better understand — if understand at all — why certain things happen.
The class is the last of a series on the High Holiday liturgy, but probably not the last for the two students. One of the women has been taking classes from the Kollel for three years and the other is quick to ask what classes Pinkus will be teaching following the High Holidays, when the Kollel’s programming will pick up after a summer lull.
Sixteen years after its creation, the Seattle Kollel, an organization dedicated to providing Jewish learning across the Pacific Northwest, is a thriving pillar of Seattle’s Jewish community. It has a sizeable staff of teaching rabbis and in 2005 moved into a newly renovated building in the center of the Seward Park neighborhood. Its outreach extends as far as Oregon and Victoria, B.C.
The Kollel’s success, however, is also a lens into the challenges facing the diverse observant community in Seward Park, a delicate balance of various religious traditions, halachic approaches and political persuasions. Some say the organization is slowly changing the Orthodox community by teaching a more stringent interpretation of Jewish law, or halachah, and supporting new institutions that reflect its theological worldview — an observation that is at once disputed, hailed as a warning, or trumpeted in praise, depending upon whom you ask.
The chatter around the Kollel has also raised a number of questions, such as: how can Seward Park’s Orthodox community accommodate more than a decade of growth? What is the best way to respond to changes in the observant community’s religious balance? What role can and should new Jewish community institutions play?
Some of the questions about the Kollel’s influence date back to its founding in 1991. Rabbi Jack Maimon is credited with bringing the idea for the Kollel to Seattle and providing its vision. Unlike traditional Kollels, comprised of a group of men who devote themselves to a few additional years of post-rabbinical study, the idea was to create a “community Kollel” that would engage in outreach and Jewish education.
Some community members in Seward Park questioned whether the Kollel would be able to survive without drawing away funding from other existing organizations. Also of concern was whether, by opening the Kollel, the community would invite “ultra-Orthodox” rabbis who would create an unwelcome shift in the religious balance of the observant community, according to reports in the Jewish Transcript at the time.
To this day, these same accusations have occasionally hounded the Kollel, inflamed by small-town politics and rivalries.
In April, a document written and distributed by attorney David Balint, a longtime vocal critic of the Kollel, forcefully accused the organization of undermining Jewish day schools and local rabbinic authorities, introducing ever-greater religious strictures, and betraying its mission to support existing Jewish institutions. The 17-page “Community Impact Statement/Kollel” became a topic of community discussion, and even some sympathetic to its concerns questioned its aggressive, legalistic tone. Others did not share Balint’s point of view.
“It runs the risk of being non-productive,” said Al Maimon, a founding board member of the Seattle Kollel and former board president, explaining that he thought the language was of the kind used to accuse someone of a crime. The Kollel’s leadership has not responded to Balint.
At the time of its founding, the Kollel’s organizers were able to dampen fears by committing to finding funding outside of Seattle for the first two or three years, according to Maimon. They also planned to coordinate their fundraising in Seattle with other Jewish organizations.
But those fears occasionally resurfaced. In 1995, the Kollel was in crisis. The payroll was down to less than two full-time positions and the organization had accumulated $80,000 worth of debt. According to a summary of a community meeting convened to discuss the struggling Kollel in Aug. 1995, the question arose again about how the Kollel should interact with the community in order to avoid posing a “threat to the centrist philosophy.”
“In my opinion they had not done anything to give substance to those concerns,” said Maimon, recalling the meeting, “but they had also not done anything to allay those concerns. People were thinking the jury is still out.”
Since then, the Kollel has benefited from an explosion in a demand for Jewish education as well as the significant growth of the Seward Park observant community, attributed largely to Washington’s tech industry. The Kollel has received several grants, attracted individual donations, and its survival is no longer a question. But some also say the organization has evolved beyond its original vision.
“Clearly the Kollel has done some things that have made it more than simply a teaching institution,” said Chuck Broches, an active participant in Seward Park’s Jewish community and a Seattle Hebrew Academy board member. “Like a lot of organizations, it has an agenda, it has a building, it has a set of followers who are very loyal to it.”
Rabbi Avrohom David, the charismatic head of Seattle Kollel who took the organization from near-bankruptcy to its current stature, says the organization’s mission is the same today as it has always been: Jewish education and outreach. But, he said, there is a “fear that by increasing education the community will change.”
Members of Kollel leadership have also become wrapped up in recent community disputes. Most recently, it was the opening of two new schools, the Torah Day School of Seattle and Sha’arei Binah Girls High School, both viewed as more religiously traditional than existing educational options, which created tensions in the observant community and was the impetus behind Balint’s report.
That report finds ammunition in the role of some of the Kollel rabbis and leadership in the opening of those schools, which he argues would make it difficult for the existing Orthodox-based day schools, Seattle Hebrew Academy and Northwest Yeshiva High School, to survive financially and presented a challenge to the community’s religious practices.
The Kollel’s board president, Steven Fast, was a major force behind the opening of Torah Day School and David informally helped raise money for Sha’arei Binah from connections outside the city. After operating for a year, Sha’arei Binah has since closed its doors.
“It’s the divisiveness that is created by the way that these things are being done,” Balint told JTNews. “I don’t think the Kollel rabbis have any business creating new institutions without widespread support from the community being solicited and obtained first.”
Both David and Fast said the Kollel as an organization played no role in the opening of those schools, but that its rabbis and leadership are individually active in the community outside the Kollel and have an array of friends across the spectrum whom they may choose to help.
“With hindsight it might have been wise for me to resign from the Kollel and work on Torah Day School. That might have been a wiser thing to do,” said Fast. “But I think it’s not so unusual for people in one role to be doing other things….People have lots of roles and sometimes those roles overlap.”
Rabbi David attributed any tensions, which most say are much lower today than a few years ago, to population growth in the Seward Park observant community.
“That is creating change. If there are more people there is more diversity, and more diversity creates tension,” he said, adding: “The real change religiously is that there is more of everybody.”
David also said that the Kollel “bends over backwards” to avoid creating tensions, for instance by delaying the construction of its new building several years after it became feasible.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this article said that problems arise because of how individuals, institutions and the community as a whole process change.
“The difficulties we’ve experienced along these lines are here just as much because people are resisting change and not figuring out how to bring about the changes in a constructive and positive way to make room around the table,” said Maimon.
“There is always the potential for an organization to cause harm in addition to the good that it does,” said Balint. “My problem with the Kollel is that they have cut out from how they operate the possibility of widespread community input. Like any other organization, they would be much more efficient and reach more people and create much more good if they sought widespread community input so that they knew that what they were doing would not upset anybody or harm existing institutions.”