Portland Rabbi Pursues Dream of Moving Young Family to Israel, Despite Violence

Jul 16, 2014

Portland Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, who plans to move his young family to Israel.
Credit Patty Wight

Sometime next month, Portland Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld plans to move to Israel. The region has seen a surge in violence since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in June and the subsequent killing of a Palestinian teenager.

Rabbi Herzfeld says living in Israel has been a lifelong goal, and now is the right time for his young family to move. Members of Herfeld's congregation say it will be a major loss for their community.

Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is moving his family in the opposite direction many would choose: toward airstrikes and instability. But the renewed violence doesn't shake Herzfeld. He says there are always threats to Israel.

"We have to overcome fear to pursue what is one of the greatest goals in life, and living in Israel is one of the goals we've always had, and it's a dream," Herzfeld says.

Herzfeld is rabbi of the oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Maine - Shaarey Tphiloh. In his seven years in Maine, he's been recognized in local and national media as an influential and inspiring rabbi for his progressive approach that respects tradition and embraces the future. Herzfeld says one of his proudest achievements is supporting marriage equality.

Rabbi Herzfeld at Shaarey Tphiloh synagog in Portland.
Credit Patty Wight

"As an Orthodox rabbi, it was very difficult for me to make that step, and it didn't make everybody in the congregation happy," he says. "But I thought it was important for us to realize, as Orthodox Jews, that even if we don't want to have gay marriages taking place in the synagogue we should realize America has important separations of church and state, and our rights as Jews are respected, and we should respect the rights of other groups who want to have their marriages recognized by America."

Born in Staten Island, New York, Herzfeld visited Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh during his last year of rabbinical school. He started making monthly trips, and pretty soon the congregation asked him if we would be their rabbi.

Herzfeld says he's fond of Maine, but Israel has called to him ever since he was a young boy. "It's very meaningful to live in a country that you know needs your help," he says, "and where you can make a difference."

While Herzfeld hopes to help establish harmony between Israelis and Palestinians, he also wants to forge stronger connections within Israel. He says the country struggles with economic and gender inequality, and he can use the teachings of Judaism to help.

"All those values that we cherish here and which are part of the torah need to be explained and taught in a way that people realize and recognize that that's the truth of the Torah, and that's a struggle that needs to be fought inside Israel - within the Jewish people in Israel."

"He can make an impact in a closet - I mean, he can make an impact wherever he goes," says Avis Smith, executive director of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh. She says she can't imagine finding anyone who can live up to Rabbi Herzfeld's reputation.

"He has one of the best hearts of anyone I have known," she says. "He's truly a mench. He's kind and generous, and has a great sense of justice."

Smith says Israel will only benefit from Herzfeld living there, but says she's worried about his family's welfare. He and his wife have four children under the age of six. Herzfeld says if they don't move now when they're young, they may never go. He wants his kids to see places in the Bible and feel a spiritual presence that's not possible in Maine.

"Israel has a lot more to it than just violence and threats and danger," he says.

Whether Herzfeld will continue his work as a rabbi depends on whether he can find a position. He may do social work or become a teacher. The title doesn't really matter, he says. It's the actions, big or small, that can accomplish a lot.