Binyamin Lehrfield took over as The Riverdale Minyan’s new rabbi just in time for the High Holy Days this year. And he’s glad to hit the ground running — especially with all that leading Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services entails.
Rosh Hashana is “all about setting our vision and our dreams for our future and priorities and values as we start this new year,” Lehrfield said. “I can’t think of a better way to start our next stage of life here in Riverdale, in our new home, than to start at the same time as we’re kicking off a new year. As we think about those same ideals and ideas.”
Lehrfield took over as The Minyan’s second paid rabbi early last month, following the June 2019 departure of Rabbi Dan Margulies. Lehrfield moved to Riverdale with his wife Orit Kabasso and three children.
The Minyan was founded in 2015, according to shul president Sandy Kahn, as a lay-led congregation — meaning there was no paid rabbi. They originally met for weekly Shabbat services in a member’s Riverdale apartment.
“So everyone who worked at The Riverdale Minyan was volunteering their time, energy, skills, brains, whatever,” Kahn said. “And it has a wonderful feeling that everyone matters in our congregation. And everyone can help. And everyone can implement change. And everybody has a voice.”
The congregation started with about 50 members, Kahn said, including families and individuals. It has since expanded to roughly 130.
The fact that the congregation is still young and developing is part of what attracted Lehrfield to his new role in the first place. It’s “the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what I think is pretty exciting. I think that we’re doing something pretty neat.”
Additionally, Lehrfield was drawn in by how warm and engaged The Minyan community appeared to be.
“There’s just this tremendous energy in the congregation,” he said. “As well as just incredible lay leaders who really take so much ownership and leadership in the congregation.”
That warmth helped the rabbi get through the first major challenge of his tenure — contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 as soon as he arrived. He also found support from several other rabbis in the area, who he had professional relationships with before taking the job.
“Thank G-d I was vaccinated,” Lehrfield said. “And so I did not have any serious symptoms or anything like that. But just the warmth and the support from the congregation, from the local rabbis — that just meant a lot. That’s kind of how I knew that we’d made the right decision” to come here.
The congregation was lucky to find and hire a rabbi with Lehrfield’s experience, Kahn said, since he’ll only be part-time.
“He brings a huge wealth of knowledge and deep experience in running congregations and leading them,” Kahn said. “And he has incredible energy and great ideas. It’s actually not a simple matter for a congregation to find a part-time rabbi. And given the depth of his experience, to find someone with his knowledge base is actually incredible.”
Growing up in Chicago, Lehrfield is a fourth-generation rabbi. However, Lehrfield’s family never pressured him to join the spiritual legacy. His grandfather and father’s abilities to mentor and teach their congregants inspired him. So, naturally, he wanted to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s always just been part of the way I was brought up, to give back to the community and be a part of the community,” Lehrfield said. “I grew up in my grandfather’s synagogue, grew up with my father, and just being active in our own congregation. So that’s always been a part of who I am, and something that I brought with me to different congregations. And I hope to share it my own kids.”
Lehrfield already had deep ties to New York. He studied economics and psychology at Yeshiva University, also receiving his rabbinical training and ordination there. Additionally, he earned his master’s in business administration from CUNY’s Baruch College.
Lehrfield then became the campus Orthodox rabbi at New York University, working as an assistant rabbi at Park East Synagogue in the Lenox Hill section of Manhattan. After that, he went upstate to lead Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany as its senior rabbi for a few years.
Lehrfield spent the last five years as the senior rabbi of Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis, Tennessee.
One big difference that Lehrfield noticed between the Jewish communities in Memphis and New York is how important religious life was in that part of the south.
“So even though there’s only (8,000) to 10,000 Jews in the entire community, it’s incredibly engaged relative to New York, where there are millions and millions and millions of Jews,” Lehrfield said, citing the 1.5 million Jews who live in the metropolitan area.
Lehrfield sees a lot of that Memphis congregation at The Riverdale Minyan. And, moving back to New York allows the rabbi to be closer to family. His wife’s relatives are from the area.
“I think all of us during this pandemic have reprioritized our values a little bit,” Lehrfield said. “And so being a part of a community like this, and being closer to family, just was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Lehrfield’s wife Orit is also getting involved with the local Jewish community by joining the faculty of SAR High School.
One of the most important aspects of being a rabbi, Lehrfield said, is building meaningful relationships with members of his congregation. While this is challenging, he’s already made significant headway by calling and introducing himself to almost every member of the synagogue.
“It just takes time,” the rabbi said. “And so, I’m in it for the long haul. And I really want to build those relationships because I think that’s the hardest part with coming to a new congregation. So much of what makes the rabbinic life meaningful and so much about what makes a congregation special is those relationships.”