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Connecting on the Deepest Levels: An Interview with Rabbi Pini Dunner

Although Rabbi Dunner is a noted public speaker with a fascinating history, the Los Angeles Jewish Community is still getting to know him. 

Q: Your grandfather was the last Chief Rabbi of East Prussia, then the head rabbi of London's charedi community until he passed away in 2007. Your father, Rabbi Aba Dunner, was a leading activist within European Jewry.  You took a different path. 

A: Yes and no. Like them I was always interested in being a public servant, particularly as a religious leader, but I chose a different area of focus to theirs. I decided that my particular talents best suited outreach work and communicating Judaism to teens and young Jewish singles. 

Q: You're a bit of a Renaissance man. You spent two years hosting the U.K’s only Jewish radio station, performed with and produced records for Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach, z”l [see photo], and founded the Saatchi Synagogue in London, where you successfully led efforts to bring unaffiliated Jewish singles and couples back to Yiddishkeit. What is it that ties all these experiences together?

A: I love using music as a means to inspire people to higher levels of relating to God. I also believe that effective, articulate communication is a key to unlocking even the most resistant hearts. It’s nothing new. The Chasidic movement has used music and contemporary communication for these purposes for more than 250 years! So I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, just to recalibrate it for a modern audience.

Q: What kind of reception have you had since you’ve come to Los Angeles?

A: Even before leaving London I was invited by Rabbi Muskin to speak at YICC, which I did shortly after getting here in September. More recently I was asked to deliver the Shabbat Hagadol Drasha at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where I have spoken a number of times, and I also recently addressed the Yavneh Community in Hancock Park - in fact, I trekked there from my home in Pico on Shabbat morning! I particularly enjoy going to the Happy Minyan, and was lucky enough to be invited to perform at the yartzeit event in memory of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach last October - and my appearance is posted on YouTube! I love the fact that visiting all these shuls has brought me into contact with so many members of the "YULA community" as well as new potential parents, and more importantly, students!

Q: You’re also a leading expert on antiquarian Jewish books and manuscripts, but what I find interesting is that you specialize in material relating to controversy and conflict within the Jewish community. Why?

A: Controversy and conflict are the byproducts of passion and deeply held beliefs. Often no side is right or wrong in a dispute, and it is true that sometimes the interlocutors cross the boundaries of decency and consideration. But you can feel the passion, the energy, the vitality, in the views expressed – the disputants are never neutral or indifferent. It is a fact that the greatest threat to the future of Judaism and Jewish life is apathy, which, if you analyze it, is really an absence of the kind of strong feelings expressed by those who fight for a cause. I rarely see the kind of passion that could guarantee our survival among those I communicate with, and sadly it is not a luxury, it is a necessity. I see that passion in the items that form my personal collection, and I love it – it invigorates me. Hopefully I can pass the passion on to my students – although not the drive to engage in petty disputes, of course!!

Q: Really, you could have gone anywhere. Why bring your family of six “across the pond” to work at a high school? And why YULA in particular?

A: I can’t really explain it. One thing led to another and here we are! But I am so glad we came. The YULA community is wonderful, and I especially enjoy meeting with the boys and discussing things with them. YULA is such a great school. The teachers are so dedicated, the administration is so helpful, and the student body is wonderful. I wish I could have attended a school like YULA when I was a teenager. No stone is left unturned to ensure the best results for every student, both in Judaic Studies and General studies. The wellbeing of each student is also a focus, as is the connection they have with their Jewish heritage. 

Q: Describe the YULA boys you have met. How does a mashgiach ruchani add to their lives now and in the future? How are you uniquely suited to help them?

A: There is a real spectrum of boys at YULA – Sefardi, Ashkenazi; boys from the city, boys from the Valley ; all from different elementary schools. As their minds develop, and as they get older, things that they accepted without question about their Orthodox Jewishness suddenly begin to trouble them. They want to know how to connect with God, and why it’s necessary, they want to understand the correlation between science and Torah, they want to discuss moral issues, theological issues, personal issues – everything and anything you can imagine. I have a full schedule of meetings with boys Monday through Friday. I wish I had more time! 

During our meetings I share with them the wisdom of classical texts such as Maimonides or Ramchal [R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto], or we look at contemporary articles and essays, or news items, and dissect them. The boys all seem determined to get to the bottom of any subject they are interested in, and my rabbinic knowledge, combined with the knowledge gained through my graduate degree in Jewish History, in addition to over 20 years of experience dealing with these kinds of questions, enables me to furnish them with authentic and useful approaches to the wide range of issues that we discuss. And we don’t only meet at school – every Friday night there is an oneg at my home with 20 boys or more joining my shabbos table after the end of the meal for singing, divrei-Torah and discussions. Any boy from any grade is welcome, and we already have a many regulars, plus new ones who join us each week. 

Q: How can YULA parents, staff, or the community assist in this? 

A: Parents are welcome to contact me at the school if they would like their son to meet me. Staff has been extremely helpful – encouraging boys to meet with me, and allowing me to see them during class time if necessary. It has been an exciting start and I am confident that the positive impact will be felt more and more throughout the school as my tenure unfolds. Judaism is such a wonderful, rich, warm religion, full of wisdom and steeped in meaningful traditions. The key is to pass it on to each successive generation effectively. That is the essence of my role and that is what I am here to do.
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