The Straus-Amiel & Beren-Amiel Institute was founded in 1998 to provide an appropriate response to the growing need of communities looking for Orthodox spiritual leadership. The institute is committed to ensuring the survival and flourishing of Jewish communities through the strengthening Jewish identity and experience. It seeks to meet communities’ needs in training the religious leadership who will lead their communities, maintaining and enhancing Jewish life that is firmly rooted in the world of halacha while seeking to meet the needs and goals of the community and the individual with professionalism and sensitivity.
The institute trains its students – husband and wife teams – to meet the needs of the community, keeping in mind the social and religious diversity that exists in each community, taking into account different age groups, all while adhering to communal standards of halacha and hashkafa. The classroom is viewed as the “Beit Midrash for Diaspora Issues” where in-depth discussions take place and tools to be applied in the field are provided. Following the two-year training program, each family is placed in a position and community that best matches the knowledge and skills of the couple with the needs of the community.
However, the contact with the institute does not end with the signing of the contract, but continues throughout their time in the community. The institute is an address for any question or dilemma – whether in the field of halacha, education, ethics, Jewish thought and even logistics. The guidance is given to the emissaries by phone, e-mail & WhatsApp, staff visits to the community and other means available. The pinnacle of the ongoing contact are the regional conventions.
Beyond the opportunity to meet with friends and Straus-Amiel staff and rekindle the connection, the main part of these conferences is the continuation of the “Beit Midrash of Diaspora Issues”. That is, seeing how the topics – halachic, social, professional & cultural – which were raised in the classroom come to life in the field. This leads to the need for further study, introspection and discussion. Many times the families are isolated in their positions, both geographically and professionally, and these conferences allow them to meet with friends and colleagues who are often feeling the same isolation and undergoing similar challenges. As such they, together with the Straus-Amiel staff, are best placed to help understand the situation and provide the tools to are their colleagues and friends with the support of the Straus-Amiel staff.
At the heart of the institute’s philosophy lies the belief that rabbis and educators must be learned, well organized, dynamic professionals, capable of building bridges between Jews of all levels of observance and showing respect and sensitivity to all. This does not end when leaving the classroom, and these conferences allow for further personal and professional development.
The achievements of holding European conferences for rabbis, rebbetzens and educators can be divided into three main parameters:
1. The rabbinic/educator families
2. The communities
3. The Straus-Amiel & Beren-Amiel Institute
The benefits to the families are tremendous. These conferences are an opportunity to recharge physical, emotional, spiritual and professional. The conferences include study sessions of halachic issues that feature prominently in the region such as conversion and inter-religious cooperation; they feature discussions of communal issues such as BDS and antisemitism; they provide professional developments sessions on issues such as time management and pastoral care. Beyond the official study sessions, spending time with friends and colleagues from across the region always raise a smile and much laughter can be heard alongside the serious learning.
The communities benefit as a direct result of the newly learned materials which their rabbinic and educational leadership have garnered. The rabbis and teachers return to the communities with new ideas, better resources and greater desire to implement what they’ve learned. Sharing success stories and programming ideas that have worked successfully with colleagues means that these can be replicated in every community. This further benefits the community in terms of time saved always thinking of new ideas. Instead, by learning from best practices elsewhere while making the necessary adjustments appropriate to the uniqueness of each community, the rabbis/educators are able to use their time in implementing these ideas and serving the community in the myriad other ways needed.
The Straus-Amiel & Beren-Amiel Institute also benefits from these conferences. By hearing directly the successes and challenges of the emissary families, they are better placed to provide counselling and ideas. Furthermore, by having their finger on the pulse of communal life, it allows the staff to provide the best education possible to the students who are undergoing their studies in Israel prior to taking up communal positions throughout the world.
The Straus-Amiel conferences held in the past have been continental. That is, the emissaries from across the continent (Europe, South America and North America) gathered to one location for a 3-4 day conference covering issues that affect the broadest spectrum. Such gatherings can be more productive in term of specific subjects and issues covered if they happened on a smaller scale. For example, a 2-3 conference for emissary couples in the UK and another short gathering for couples in Poland & Germany.
Alternatively, conferences can also be arranged based on subject matter. For example, a two-day conference on pastoral aspects of helping individuals and families during crises, or a two-day workshop on public speaking and dealing with the media.
The Straus-Amiel staff can also potentially assist non-Straus-Amiel affiliated communities wishing to arrange similar conferences, providing speakers on a variety of Jewish communal and halachic issues, either from among the staff or from among the emissaries serving in communities.
Founding Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Programs, Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum’s vast experience makes him an excellent role model and source of inspiration to both our students and our alumni in the field.
His position as the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and community rabbi in Turin, Italy, is complemented by his extensive professional work in Israel. In addition to training educational and spiritual leadership, he serves as a Judge on the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Conversion Courts and writes prolifically on the challenges facing Jewish communities and communal leaders. As a result, Rabbi Birnbaum is considered an authority on matters of the Diaspora and he is consulted regularly by Israeli officials and Diaspora leaders alike for advice and information regarding conflicts, halachic questions and challenges that arise across the globe.
Rabbi Birnbaum continues to serve as the Director of the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Institute which trains rabbis and educators in Israel, helps them find positions in leadership roles in Jewish communities throughout the world. This includes formulating the educational mission, finding leading lecturers in a variety of fields, teaching a number of courses and overseeing both the educational and logistical components of the institution. An integral part of the role is the ongoing connection with graduates in the field, the highlight of which are the conferences and conventions. Straus-Amiel & Beren-Amiel staff, led by Rabbi Birnbaum, have the opportunity to meet with students, learn with them, discuss dilemmas that arise in the communities and together try and create a framework for dealing with these dilemmas in the best possible way.
Rabbi Birnbaum’s personal mission can be summed up in one phrase: “Wherever I go, I’m going towards the Jewish people.” It is this desire to see the Jewish people flourish and have a strong and proud Jewish identity that are the core of everything Rabbi Birnbaum does.