Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz Leaves Satmar Lifestyle Becomes Rabbi in Progressive Synagogue

By Rukhl Schaechter

He grew up among the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Jews in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in a childhood with rules so strict that playing Frisbee at summer camp was considered a radical move.

Today he serves as the spiritual leader of a small, relatively young, progressive Orthodox synagogue where women are allowed to open the holy ark, carry Torah scrolls around the women’s section and lead the congregation in some contemporary prayers. In the context of Orthodoxy, these, too, are radical moves.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s gradual, sometimes painful but ultimately successful journey from one end of the Orthodox spectrum to another is a rare example in which a former Hasid is eagerly sharing with non-Hasidic Jews the deep knowledge he gained in the yeshiva world. Katz’s transition could provide a model for disillusioned ultra-Orthodox Jews who long to engage with the modern world without losing their religious identity altogether.
“Rabbi Katz is one of those rare individuals who comes from a world of Torah study and diligent learning, was recognized as a brilliant mind from a young age, yet chose to marry that incredible skill set with a progressive [worldview] within halachic Judaism,” said Jonathan Reich, 34, an attorney and president of The Prospect Heights Shul, which hired Katz after a six-month search.

Katz, 46, is a talmudic scholar raised in the Satmar yeshivas of Williamsburg, and ordained by Satmar Rabbi Yechezkel Roth. That’s a far cry from where he lives now Jewishly: 

He is the head of Talmud studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a left-leaning Orthodox rabbinical seminary in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and a leading voice in the delicate process of carving out halachic decisions for progressive Orthodox synagogues like The Prospect Heights Shul, home to about 50 couples and young families.

As Katz takes the helm of the synagogue, he will remain on staff at Chovevei and will continue to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, Sharon Flatto, who is a professor of Jewish studies at Brooklyn College, and their two young sons, Avi and Gavriel. His work as a pulpit rabbi at the Prospect Heights Shul will, in the meantime, remain part time.

Katz says he is excited about his first job as a pulpit rabbi. Sipping a hot decaf in a sleek Midtown Manhattan coffee house recently, he said that his greatest joy will be sitting with his congregants and learning Talmud. “My plan this year is to delve into the laws of shmita,” Katz explained. Shmita, the sabbatical year in the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel, includes laws pertaining to remitted debts and how fruits can be deemed ownerless and therefore picked by anyone

“I’d like to explore not just how each of these laws plays itself out theologically, but also its ramifications for social justice. V’akhlu evyoni amkho, there should be enough for the poor to eat, too,” he explained.

The progressive values of The Prospect Heights Shul, including the emphasis on helping the poor and on giving women a greater role in the service, are close to his heart, and quite a distance from his formative years in Williamsburg. As a child of a Satmar father and mother who hailed from a different Hasidic sect, called Pupa, young Ysoscher spent every winter and summer in Satmar schools and camps, except two summers when he was sent to a Puppa camp.
“That was considered modern because they let us play Frisbee,” he said, chuckling.

Katz loved learning, and he excelled in his studies. But the more he learned, the more he began to see religious Satmar texts as simplistic and lacking nuance. 

In the early 1980s, other Satmar yeshiva students were becoming similarly disillusioned and had begun reading more mystical texts from the Lubavitch movement. “Lubavitch was considered by us to be the most sophisticated, creative and courageous of all Hasidic groups,” Katz said.

He began studying the Tanya, the Chabad approach to mysticism, hoping he could keep that a secret from his yeshiva rabbis. But he couldn’t.
“They found books missing from the yeshiva library,” Katz explained. “I had a reputation for being a bibliophile, so they thought I might have stolen it. They broke into my dorm room, looked all over. Didn’t find what they were looking for, but instead found the Tanya under my bed.”
Horrified, the rabbis immediately expelled Katz from the yeshiva. His parents, though supportive and loving, were crushed. They sent him to Jerusalem to study at the Brisk Yeshiva — an odd choice, since that institution was affiliated with the historical Misnaged movement, which for centuries had opposed the Hasidim. 

After a year at Brisk, Katz came home, was married off and returned to Jerusalem with his new wife to continue his studies. In comparison with his theological disappointment with Satmar, Katz found himself much happier at Brisk, as he took on the yeshiva’s stringent approach to life. “I became very diligent in following the law: no compromises, basically more fanatic,” he said.

The couple eventually returned to the United States and had three children. Katz learned daily in a kollel, a yeshiva for married men, and began leading a daily Talmud class in Brooklyn’s Boro Park for men who work all day. The class grew very popular, attracting 80 to 100 participants from all Hasidic groups and occupations, ranging from financial brokers to gefilte fish purveyors.
At the same time, though, Katz’s marriage began to fall apart. “She was happy, but I wasn’t because it was obvious that we were mismatched,” he explained. “I began to realize that the Satmar system was at fault, because it didn’t value compatibility as a factor in a relationship. Everything we’re supposed to do, including marriage, is in the service of the bashefer [Creator]. The rabbis refused to accept that we are all just human beings.”

Their troubled marriage opened the floodgates for Katz; soon he began to doubt all the other assumptions of the community. “Once I discovered that little crack in the edifice, it all began to crumble,” he said.
It was a painful time. “I was frightened, because leaving the community was a terrifying thought,” he said, especially the possibility that he might lose his three children. “I began feeling suicidal.”

Katz also started noticing the way the Hasidic community viewed its women. “I felt uncomfortable that among us seven siblings, my brothers and I had optimal access to the holy texts, while my sisters and mother, who are all incredibly smart, had no access,” he said.

By age 29, Katz was ready to take his first steps out of the community. Telling no one but his wife, he registered at a teacher education program and then got a stint teaching at an Orthodox high school for girls in New Jersey. Katz was thrilled about the opportunity, but was careful to make sure none of the participants in his Talmud class found out about it. “They would be horrified to know I was teaching women,” he said.

Finally, Katz told his wife that he wanted a divorce. She was devastated. Although she was a Satmar woman, she called on the Skulener Rebbe, a popular figure even among Jews who are not Skulener Hasidim. The rebbe asked her if she had been shaving her head, and she said no. “Then why are you surprised?” he asked.
“When she told me this, I was furious,” Katz said. “First of all, if he knew me at all, he would understand that shaving her head would make things worse, not better, and secondly, how incredibly insensitive it was to make her feel that it was her fault the marriage wasn’t working! Wasn’t she in enough pain already?”

It was then that Katz finally made the break from his community, stepping out into the “wilderness” to find his path as a modern observant Jew.
“Of course, my parents were very upset and we all suffered a lot,” he said. Yet, they never cut off relations with him. “Today they all live in Boro Park. They’re more ‘enlightened’ now.”
Whenever he and his new family visit them these days, they treat them warmly and respectfully. “Of course, when we’re there for Shabbos, I always put on my Satmar wardrobe,” he said. And despite the fact that he is no longer part of the Hasidic world, he is still asked to teach at one of the local Satmar synagogues every time he visits.

Although his first wife has remained Satmar, his three older children are not.

Katz hopes that his transition from Hasid to Modern Orthodox Jew will inspire others contemplating the same path. He and Levi Brackman, a formerly Chabad rabbi in Colorado, founded a website for those who are “Orthodox and stuck” (, where they offer help to those wishing to leave devoutly observant Jewish communities.
“Honestly, the ghetto walls have collapsed,” Katz said earnestly. “Another prohibition here, another ex-comunication there, the rabbis are trying everything but they know that nothing can stop it. That’s why I want to do whatever I can to help those people who are seeking a different path.”

A version of this story appeared in the Yiddish Forward


Anonymous said...

Oh please!

Someone can leave Satmar without taking the radical path of this loser with Avi Weiss's apikorsim.

Katz is obviously unstable but uses his brilliance to make a phony case why nothing in the Charedi world is good enough for him. While he might be on a very advanced level, his larger new found world comes nowhere close in scholarship to the Charedi world and if you deny it you are being dishonest. The lamdonim are in Brisk, certainly not in YCT.

I think he is also cruel if he didn't try to work things out with his wife instead of just walking out on her.


Dusiznies said...

to 2;19
I agree

Anonymous said...

Any tattoos?

Ricardo Montalban said...

5:14 pm, he's like "Tattoo" from Fantasy Island except he missed da plane.

Seems to me that Katz is an egomaniac which is the only thing he shares in common with Avi Weiss.

Weiss was at the bottom of the barrel intellectually at YU so the whole "Open" so called "Orthodoxy" was just a way to put himself on a pedestal.

Katz, while brilliant, was still not the smartest guy in Brisk where he had a lot of competition, so he goes to YCT where he is the smartest & most learned which gives him stardom over there.

Now Katz is pushing the farcical myth that YCT is the epitome of erudite scholarship which is what that moron David Hartman did decades ago after sinking through Chaim Berlin, then YU, before opening a Conservative yeshiva. Hartman did a tour of secular temples in the 1980s pushing agitprop that his Conservative yeshiva will produce talmidei chachamim who will "wipe the floor with Lakewood". Of course it never materialized so Hartman just hid out for the next 20 years. When he did another American tour of temples recently he made no mention of his empty boasts, figuring that no one would remember that far back.

If Hartman sounds familiar, it's because he was the one who famously grabbed a heckling Rabbi Dovid Cohen & physically threw him out of a shiur given by Rav Soloveitchik in YU.

Anonymous said...

Rabbotai, there we go again, another blog entry, overflowing with more whole lies, than a rotten piece of fruit has flies, blah blah blah.......Satmar...... blah blah blah .......Satmar...... blah blah blah.......Satmar......., you don't have to be a licensed professional therapist, to be able to diagnose his "problem", it's "ocd Satmar", and he's got a really serious case of it at that, he's obsessed, he's compulsive, & he's DEPRESSED, understandably, for his agenda is just not playing out the way he wants it, even here in his own blog, there are people that stop him in his tracks, sticking pins in his fragile theories, thereby letting the air out of his feeble attempts at blogging, how utterly childish, how blatantly obvious, how stupid can you become trying in vain to shove your maskilish deos kosvos down others throats, my dear fellow, you must still be under forty years of age or so, still under the illusion that you can fool people into believing things that you yourself don't really believe to be true, rest assured it ain't so, ever heard the saying, you can fool many for some time, & you can fool some people many times, but you can't fool many people many times, brother! It's time to "fess" up, throw in the towel, and start really living an "honest" true torah life, it's aseres yemei tshuva, dirshu hashem behimatzo kerueihu t bihyoso karov, eilu aseres yamim shebein rash Hashanah leyom hakipurim, games over, go get a life, LOSER.

Anonymous said...

Why is this story surprising?,after all what lifestyle did he leave behind?,it is definitely not judaism,Satmar has absolutely very little to do with yidishkeit,they are nothing but jew hating,Israel hating, ignorant Romanian gypsy savages,in yiddish they are described as "MENTCHEN FRESSERS",the only good news about these gangsters is,that slowly but surely they are devouring each other,and let's hope that all three factions have HATZLOCHO in their fight with each other,and manage to completely destroy themselves and rid the jewish world of this malignant disease.

A former satmarer who has seen the light

Anonymous said...


is that you?

Anonymous said...

Bhai there are very few like you, & for every every one like you Satmar adds five that come to Satmar, seeing the light of toras emes there, mind you, you'll eventually come back yourself, happens that way, once a Satmar always a Satmar, by the way you haven't seen the light, on the contrary, you just left the light of torah & were blinded by the neon lights of the red light districts, either 42nd street lights, or something similar, lehiraot!!!!

aisheschaver said...

Finally, Orthopraxy has found a poster child to justify their Halachic phlegmatism and spiritual ennui; a Satmar renegade who shed the trappings of piety to embrace the laissez-faire.

A perfect Shidduch indeed.

CpaHoffman said...

some guy with a limited exposure to the real world with no substantive college education is not going to create or enhance a trend which wants to push orthodoxy off of its right-centered dime.

the revolution will not be broadcast

Anonymous said...

I bet the story with the Skulener Rebbe is missing some context to propel himself and smear the Rebbe.

Anonymous said...

Skulener Rebbe doesn't allow burial in their cemetery if the wife doesn't shave the head and doesn't see men for kwittlich if their wives don't shave their heads, so there is no context missing.

Anonymous said...

I can name you a half dozen men who met with the Skulener despite that their wives do not shave their heads. He didn't even bring it up.

Anonymous said...

He brings it up when he can. Everybody knows that this is his big thing..

Anonymous said...

Hartman, besides that he was a super arrogant bulvan, probably hated R' Dovid Cohen from when they were in Chaim Berlin together.

What's interesting is that many years after that altercation in YU, Professor Marc Shapiro found proof that R' Dovid Cohen had good reason to be under a mistaken impression from something Rav Soloveitchik said. Shapiro is no Charedi apologist either. He is actually an old friend of Katz's second left wing modern orthodox wife.

Klil Tiferes said...

Why did the Skulener's son Meyer Portugal resign from his shteller in Boro Park last year?

Anonymous said...

The Skulener says to shave if you are from heimishe yichus & thus it's your minhag. He doesn't go for all the fake Boro Park "yeshivishe" pretending they are something they aren't.

Litvaks, Yekkes, Oyberlanders don't have to shave. The heimishe shave because of chatzitza but the Chasam Sofer did not want to force women who it was not their minhag to take upon themselves something so difficult to impose.

Dusiznies said...

I went to the Skulener Rebbe for a Kvittel, and he in fact asked me if my wife shaves her head? I said " no" he said why not? I said "because she doesn't want to" ... he asked why?
So I told him that my wife read the Midrash where Oin ben Peles's wife had her hair she want to be "noheig" like the Jewish women did in the midbar. The Rebbe read the kvittel and wished me "hatzlacha"

Anonymous said...

A sotah proves that women never shaved their heads, or else the kohayn couldn't loosen her hair.

Koirach said...

So who did your wife save you from?

Saving Nemo said...

The Skulener had an interesting story in the heim which may be where that nut in New Skver got the idea from. The Rebbe was told that a fish blurted out "Shma Yisroel" so he poskened to bury the fish in the Yiddishe bais oylam. Even today the kever is visible in a feld in Vien where the headstone states "poi nikvar der fish"

Dusiznies said...

To 11:08

Dusiznies said...

To 11:11
I heard that the Fish's headstone was destroyed by the anti-Semites who don't believe that the fish said anything!