A Short Autobiography of Chief Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz
Many have asked for my full story, which would be quite difficult given the many interesting details of my existence and the time constraints of my current occupation, but I will do my best to satisfy the basic curiosity of my congregants.
I was born on a cold Sunday morning in Queens, New York in January of 1969. I’m the firstborn child of Elliot and Nira Spitz. My father was born in then-Czechoslovakia, of Hungarian descent from Holocaust survivors. I still remember my grandmother’s tattooed number – her heirloom from Auschwitz. My mother was born in Israel the year of its independence. Her father was of Ashkenaz descent, in Israel for many generations, descendent of the mighty Rivlin clan, themselves descendants of the students of the Gaon of Vilna who had immigrated as a group to Israel over 200 years ago. Her mother was of Sefaradi descent (their marriage was considered a bit of scandal in those days) from a wide mix of nations, but a part, that according to family tradition, never ever left the land of Israel and were part of the few remaining families that had stayed in the land since the destruction of the Temple and the exile of all the Jews 2,000 years ago. Due to medical necessity on one hand, and economic constraints on the other, both of these families ended up in Queens, New York. That is where my parents met, married and gave birth to me and my siblings.
From a mostly uneventful life in Queens, our family started a long-term relationship with South America. At age seven we moved to Caracas, Venezuela. That is where I learned Spanish and was introduced to a new continent. That is where my father started his lifelong career as an international commodities trader and that is where my mother developed and would later perfect her talent and skills as a master artist, painting highly realistic sceneries and portraits with oil on canvas, but equally talented in other media.
We were there for four years. It was enough for me to command the language and make friends with whom I am in contact with until this day. We returned to the US for a year, only to move the following year to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There I picked up Portuguese, facilitated by my familiarity with Spanish. We had the unique fortune of living on a mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and had a daily commute to our Jewish school just a few blocks away from the beaches of famed Copacabana. I would say my love affair with the beach started there, but the truth is that it started years earlier on the coast of Venezuela in a hard to reach, hidden alcove called Todasana, but that is a story for another day.
Growing up, my family was not rigorously religious, though we were always respectful of tradition in our own way. However, my parents made the “mistake” of consistently providing me with a Jewish education. At a relatively young age I came to the conclusion that my Hebrew teachers knew what they were talking about and I choose to follow a path that adhered more to those traditions.
At age thirteen I informed my parents that I wished to study Torah in Israel. After some discussion and to my surprise, they agreed. However, after a short stint in a high school in Jerusalem it was decided that Yeshiva University High School in New York would be a better choice for me. Those were the years 1983-86. After high school and together with a classroom of friends I studied in Israel at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, in the days of Rav Chaim Goldvicht, z”l. That was 86-88. They were important years for me where I finally internalized the value of learning Torah, but realized that I hadn’t learned nearly enough.
After that stint in Israel, I returned to New York to continue my college education. I turned down a partial scholarship to trendy New York University and instead enrolled in Yeshiva University, on the other end of Manhattan Island to pursue a curriculum of Talmud, Bible, Jewish History as well as classic liberal arts and engineering preparatory classes. I received my Bachelor of Arts from YU in 1990 and went straight to Columbia University to earn my Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1992.
Throughout most of my university studies I worked on the side with Jewish youth. My most frequent employer was the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) a division of the Orthodox Union (OU). I learned all the tricks of the trade and was considered fairly effective. To cap off that part of my career, I served as the Youth Director for one of the largest shuls in the area, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. It was a big job, with big responsibility, working for a man who worked the equivalent of three full-time jobs. It was a tremendous learning experience, providing me with many of the lessons that I use to this day and which in many ways prepared me for my current role.
However, in my final year of graduate school, I had the extremely good fortune to get a job in my planned career, in engineering. I worked as a part-time associate nuclear engineer for Ebasco (later acquired by Raytheon) under the management of my Columbia professor and friend, Dr. Stephen Ostrow. That in turn led to a full-time offer after graduation and where I worked for a number of years on some of the biggest and coolest engineering projects one could imagine.
Before starting full-time work, I married the love of my life, Tamara. We took an extended (three month) honeymoon to Israel, and returned to Queens and later on moved to Stamford, Connecticut for two years, to ease Tamara’s commute to her Chiropractic school in Bridgeport, CT, where she earned her Doctorate of Chiropractic.
After Raytheon, I joined my uncle’s auto parts wholesale distribution company as an operations manager. There I worked with a completely different socioeconomic group. Where in Raytheon I was probably the least educated person in the department, in the auto parts business a high school degree was considered higher education. My favorite example of the moral caliber of some of the employees is that one of our drivers had shot (but not killed) one of our customers – the customer most likely deserved it – but nonetheless a very different environment from the three-piece suit Raytheon executives.
In 1997, with two children in tow, Tamara and I made Aliyah, something we each wanted to do from before we had met. In Israel I worked for a number of startup technology companies as sales and marketing engineer/manager and eventually even reached the height of CEO of such a startup. The combination of language, engineering and management skills worked well with such roles, though often involved frequent travel abroad. This kept me away from our growing family that now included: Eitan, Akiva, Elchanan, Netanel, Yehoshua, Yehuda and Tiferet. At some point I had decided that I no longer wished to report directly or permanently to anyone else and chose the role of a freelance consultant. This led me to various interesting jobs and assignments, including one to Uruguay where I, together with my team, performed a technical and economic feasibility study on the construction of a 200MW (USD 300 million) Wind Farm for Aratiri Mines. I came to Uruguay for a few days to perform the site assessment and I remembered thinking to myself, “what a nice place” – who would have imagined that I would return to live here.
Throughout my professional work, I always learned Torah. That was the reason we moved to the village of Alon Shvut, home of Yeshivat Har Etzion where I’ve learned more or less continually from our arrival in 1997 until our departure this year. I remember once a discussion I had with the founder and head of the Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, where I bemoaned the fact that I had so little time to learn during the day. He sat me down and stated very clearly to me that the few minutes I learned a day may be more valuable, more important and have a greater impact than the hours people who did not have the pressure of work dedicated to the same task. He would have taken a special joy in my current position.
In my first year in Alon Shvut I actually had opportunity to give a lecture series in Spanish to a group of South American students attending the Yeshiva. Years later I turned my focus to other students from the southern hemisphere, but from English-speaking countries, and my lectures were more on Talmud, and one year the philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik.
Seeking to increase the level and depth of my Torah studies, I came across the program of Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim. They offered a semicha (rabbinic ordination) tract. Though I had no intention or plans to use such ordination, I liked the challenge, the focus and the goal-setting the program promised. I enrolled in 2007 and quietly, without discussing with friends or family continued the program until I passed the final exam and received the ordination from them in a moving ceremony in front of the Kotel, the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2010. The only change in my life this entailed were raised eyebrows from my friends and family and my adding the title “Rabbi” to the weekly Torah emails I had been sending out for a couple of years already.
Continuing my career pursuits, I found myself drawn more to energy-related projects and decided to train and get tested to become a Certified Energy Manager by the Association of Energy Engineers. I received the certification just last year, many months before any rabbinic career was even a thought on anyone’s mind.
Then just a number of months ago, out of the blue, I was approached with a career-changing, life-altering proposition, to become the Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. I have detailed that story and the unfolding saga in my “Adventures of a Chief Rabbi” blog, which currently seems to be more popular than my extensive biblical fiction writings.
In any case, that is a short summary of how I’ve reached this point. For more details, keep following my stories – I keep dropping crumbs of biography that may lead one through the path of getting to know me better.