The pitter-patter of tiny feet thundering upon a polished wood floor — socks and little legs moving as fast as the laws of physics can carry them — sound in the sparsely-furnished room. Little trains chug soundlessly on the left cuff of the one-year-old’s jeans as he giggles across the room, running from his father chasing behind him at half the speed.
Avner Engel, the Jewish Awareness Movement’s newest rabbi, scoops Neriah up in his arms and expertly twirls him around before setting him down carefully on his feet. The toddler grins to himself and laughs.
Sitting down at the large wooden kitchen table, Rabbi Avner serves a piping-hot stack of freshly flipped pancakes — peach pancakes, to be precise. Rabbi Avner is a breath of fresh air amid traditionally conceived orthodox Jewish gender roles. He enjoys cooking just as much as his wife Ainat does, and together, they meticulously prepare Shabbat dinners (with a healthy dose of experimentation).
To Rabbi Avner, however, his passion for cooking does not strike him as a surprise. In fact, his father (also a rabbi) was the primary chef in the Engel household during Rabbi Avner’s childhood.
“To be a rabbi, you have to be more kindness-oriented in general, and if you’re doing Judaism correctly, there is a strong awareness of the home and helping around. Judaism is much less focused on women’s role at home and men at jobs than modern society is,” Rabbi Avner adds while breaking up Neriah’s pancake into bite-sized bits. “You even see Abraham prepare food for his guests. Also, it’s creative, which I like, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with rabbinics.”
Rabbi Avner was born in South Africa, but later lived with his family in Australia, Israel, Maryland, and Chicago. After high school, he spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel, and shortly after 9-11, Rabbi Avner joined the US army. After serving in Kuwait and Iraq, he earned his bachelor’s degree at a New York state school, studying marketing and entrepreneurship before earning his ordination at Aish Hatorah in the Old City of Jerusalem. Rabbi Avner finally returned to the modern orthodox lifestyle he grew up with after grappling with his Jewish identity from the ages of 14 to 23.
“I was searching in philosophy for a while, then to Buddhism for a drop, then hallucinogens — anywhere there might be something worthwhile,” Rabbi Avner recalls, skewering a forkful of pancakes and chewing them thoughtfully.
After being momentarily distracted by Neriah rubbing breakfast all over his curly brown locks, Rabbi Avner continues.
He remembers that for many of his comrades in the army, their notion of life’s purpose was “to have a steady job, retire, drink beers, get women, and go hunting.”
After a pause, Rabbi Avner reflects, “I had the awareness that there must be more to life than that. I didn’t necessarily buy into Judaism, but I did buy into that awareness.”
When asked what turned him off from Judaism, Rabbi Avner responded that Judaism looked really restrictive to him, especially based on his recollections.
“I was looking for a convenient truth, not one that would impact my lifestyle,” Rabbi Avner admits.
Then one day, when he was 23, Rabbi Avner began listening to Rabbi Akiva Tatz online, and was shocked to discover philosophy and depth in Judaism — a source he had previously written off. Rabbi Avner returned to his traditional orthodox upbringing, this time fully embracing it.
Once he had attended Aish Hatorah for some time, his future father-in-law came up to him, saying that he was looking for students to learn with during the lunch break. After studying with him once a day for six months, he asked Rabbi Avner if he was interested in meeting his daughter.
“I was super nervous,” Rabbi Avner recalled, smiling. “I remember getting dressed in front of the mirror and thinking, ‘no way, you don’t know enough Hebrew to talk for two hours about important stuff.’ We just went to a coffee shop, and, well, on the first date you don’t really talk about important stuff. It worked out.”
Rabbi Avner and Ainat (born and raised in Jerusalem and educated at Michlelet Hadasah with degrees in biology and chemistry, aside from being a trained make-up artist) were married weeks later. Although they currently take up residence at the JAM center (moving to the United States because they believed in JAM and the opportunity for personal growth afforded by the job change), the Engels plan on returning to Israel sometime in the future.
“In Israel, there’s almost a feeling of home,” Avner reminisced. He breaks the flow of conversation for a moment in order to ask Neriah, “Do you want water, dude?” The answer is a giggle and headshake. He resumes, “I wasn’t all Zionistic until I came here. It’s weird because people look at Israel as a war zone, but I feel more comfortable and safe. There’s more of a family feel. Granted, a family-style restaurant might be dirtier, but it’s home. There’s a common sense of purpose when walking down the street.”
Despite his eventual return to Israel, during his time at JAM, Rabbi Avner hopes to introduce new and innovative programs, including an Iron Chef-style kosher cooking competition, as well as a shabbaton in the woods.
When asked about his personal philosophy, Rabbi Avner responded, “Every moment is a choice between being a product of your environment, DNA — being a robot if you will — and connecting and revealing the infiniteness in the world. That doesn’t mean praying all day, it means spending time with family, cooking, tying your shoe… Judaism cares just as much about going to the bathroom as getting married. Those activities all equally reveal the infinite in the world, which is kind of radical.”
Rabbi Avner is available to learn and study with interested students. E-mail him at [email protected] or call and text him at (323) 822-8737.