At the age of thirty-four, Elie Kaunfer has already been ordained by The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary, started a thriving yeshiva, and begun his studies at The Graduate School.
Working towards a doctorate in Hebrew Literature, concentrating in Liturgy, Elie’s commitment to enhancing his own personal understanding of Torah and Judaic studies is matched only by his desire to share what he learns with his yeshiva students. “Finding a continuity between a prayer service today and one that took place in the fifth century relates to our heritage and my personal interest in investigation and transmitting my findings by educating others,” he says.
Currently, Elie’s yeshiva is a summer program, and he is proud of its expansion and potential: “Last summer we had eighteen students and this summer we doubled to thirty-six. We are looking to expand it to a year-round schedule.”
While at The Rabbinical School, Elie earned a master’s degree in Liturgy, a subject he incorporates into his teachings. “What I am particularly interested in is the performance of liturgy: what did an ancient prayer service sound like? How did the regular people who showed up for that service experience the service?”
Learning about liturgy led to research that provided answers as well as unanswered questions. One such project investigated how prostrating became part of Jewish services. “There are written records, debates about how to perform various prayers. Even in the Mishnah there’s the question of how to perform the Shema'. Similarly, with other Jewish prayers, the question of how you hold your body, how you modulate your voice, is up for debate,” Elie explains.
Given Elie’s diverse range of interests and pursuits, one of the major reasons he chose to continue studying at JTS was the flexibility The Graduate School offers: “The DHL program is designed to be part-time and works well with the full-time work I do at the yeshiva,” he says.
At The Graduate School, Elie has also relished the opportunity to study under renowned professors like Menahem Schmeltzer, whose Introduction to Piyyut class Elie calls “a fantastic overview of religious poetry from one of the living masters.”
Though Elie has had much success, he knows his education will form the basis for even greater achievements. Says Elie, “JTS is a great opportunity and I know I will always have a unique set of skills to help our history and learning come alive.”