New rabbi implements a new work model at Torat Yisrael


Long before he became the new rabbi at Temple Torat Yisrael, in East Greenwich, Ari Saks was a Philadelphia teenager who just wanted to write about sports. His only struggle would have been which team to cover, since he loved them all.

“If I had to choose,” remembers Saks, now 41, “it would have been the Eagles or the Flyers at that time.”

But in 2000, Saks had a transformative experience: He spent a gap year in Israel, working on Kibbutz Sa’ad, in the Negev desert, and unwittingly walked right into the Second Intifada. Then, as now, rockets were fired at Israeli civilians.

The kibbutz’s leaders cautioned Saks and his peers against straying too far.

“We had restrictions on where we could go because of suicide bombers,” says Saks. “It was a very powerful year.”

The seriousness of this threat transformed Saks in several ways: He connected strongly with Israel, and by his junior year of college, he hoped to make aliyah.

Saks briefly considered becoming a news reporter, but a few seasons of unflattering portrayals of journalists on “The West Wing” cured him of that desire.

In 2006, Saks earned a B.A. in Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.

Then Saks heard a divine call to serve as a rabbi in the U.S.

“It was such a moment of clarity,” he recalled.

The rabbinate wasn’t a revolutionary path for Saks. His family is full of rabbis, including his father, grandfather and an uncle. As a youth, he had loved going to shul and reading Torah.

After college, Saks spent a year working as a paralegal, but he was soon off to the Jewish Theological Seminary. He finished a master’s degree in Jewish Education in 2012, and was ordained.

Saks has been a pulpit rabbi in several temples in New York state for the better part of a decade. He has a keen interest in interfaith dialogue and marriages, and also served as curriculum consultant for the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia in 2010, and as Jewish Educator for the Interfaith Community of New York from 2011 to 2012. He’s currently developing a podcast, called “Interfaithing,” with Anna DeWeese, a mental-health worker based in Pasadena, California, who is a friend.

Saks accepted the rabbi position at Torat Yisrael late this summer, replacing departing Rabbi David Barnett, but with one qualifier: He wouldn’t be moving to Rhode Island. Instead, he plans to spend time at Torat Yisrael once or twice per month, hold Shabbat services and celebrate holidays. This hybrid set-up will allow him to continue living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Rachel, and their two children.

“I hope that this [arrangement] will be a model for others,” says Saks. “I think it’s about meeting the needs of a community, and meeting my needs as a rabbi at this stage in my life.”

“Nostalgia and history can be important to a community’s identity,” he continued. “But it can also hinder what the future might look like.”

Saks speaks fondly of his new congregants at Torat Yisrael, as well as of Shabbat meals made from fish freshly caught in Narragansett Bay.

In sum, he says, “I would say it’s been a beautiful experience.”

ROBERT ISENBERG ( is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.

Torat Yisrael, Ari Saks