Adapted by Yonaton Behar from an article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed shlita.
Rabbi Riskin was born into a not very observant nor well-to-do family. As a result of a conscious, personal choice, and with the guidance of his grandmother, he began to forge a path towards Torah and mitzvot at a young age. Because he was intellectually gifted and excelled in his studies, he was accepted by the most prestigious university in the world, Harvard, and offered a full scholarship. Attending that esteemed institution would have guaranteed his professional and financial future, as all doors are open to graduates of Harvard.
This was an unbelievable opportunity. Few would have been able to resist this temptation. Yet, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin gave up the scholarship and went to study at Yeshiva University. There too, the faculty recognized his immense talents and offered him a full scholarship. From that point on, he began dedicating his life to Torah.
As a young, talented, charismatic rabbi, and a gifted orator with the ability to spiritually inspire his listeners and draw them closer to Torah and mitzvot, Rabbi Riskin was very well established and respected in the United States. As founding rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue and dean of the Manhattan Day School, he was venerated by scores of successful and professional people who also found his Torah teachings meaningful, and many were privileged to draw closer to Jewish tradition thanks to him.
The Torah of truth was in his words, and he helped many people all over the USA return to their roots. A brilliant future awaited him as one of the leaders of the Jewish community in America. Yet in his early forties, out of a pure belief in God and Torah, he gave up his position in America and chose to come to Israel and grace it with his presence. With this decision he also sacrificed one of the basic tools of his trade, the English language, in which he so exceled in America. He learned to speak Hebrew fluently as well, but people say that in English he is one of the best orators extant.
Thanks to his vision, talents, and leadership, he was privileged to bring many members of his congregation to Israel and to take part in establishing a flourishing city in Gush Etzion, Efrat (aka Efrata), as founding rabbi, a city which has a strong spiritual life centering around Torah study and mitzvah observance. A good portion of its residents are financially successful, and contribute to the development of Israel’s economy, science, and society in general.
Rabbi Riskin’s aliya influenced hundreds and thousands to follow in his footsteps, emigrants who moved to Efrat and all over the Land of Israel, and by doing so strengthened their connection to Torah and mitzvot.
In due course, he was privileged to establish schools and educational institutions in Gush Etzion and in Jerusalem for both boys and girls under the Ohr Torah Stone network. He has done all of this with amazing energy – he personally visits all the institutions, teaches, tells stories, and generates enthusiasm in the hearts of the students for a life of Torah and mitzvot.
However, when he chose to make Aliya, nothing was promised to him. Like our father Jacob, ‘he crossed the Jordan with only his stick in hand’.
And the question is: who among the young, prominent, successful, and influential rabbis in America today, will be privileged to be the next “Rabbi Riskin”?
View of the city of Efrat
Yonaton Behar made aliyah to Israel in 1984. Married with 6 children and 8 grandchildren, he lives in Har Bracha.