Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter

 
font size: +
 

A new way to become a rabbi?

Former local cantor Steven Blane opens controversial one-year online seminary

 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 
image
Rabbi Steven Blane leads Friday night services online.

According to Rabbi Steven Blane, about half of all American Jews are unaffiliated, in interfaith marriages, or live far away from centers of Jewish life. Many of them, he says, still long for some connection with the Jewish community.

His new online seminary, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, or JSLI, provides those Jews with rabbis, and it does so unconventionally.

Blane calls himself a Universalist rabbi. On his website, www.jsli.net, he defines Universalist beliefs as including the idea that although God chose the Jewish people to be a light to the nations, God has relationships with other peoples as well. In fact, God loves all faiths, he writes, and “all paths to the divine are equally holy. G-d [sic] does not choose a favorite child.” Elsewhere on his website, he mandates a belief in intermarriage and a willingness to perform such ceremonies as a prerequisite for enrollment in JSLI.

The institute, which he founded about three years ago, meets online. The only time students get together is at their ordination. Classes are by videoconference; they last for two hours once a week. There are two semesters a year, and a rabbinical student must take both semesters for s’michah, or ordination. Graduations are held twice a year; “God willing, next week we have 15 rabbis who are coming to New York to be ordained,” Blane said. The ceremony will be on Saturday at the Subud Chelsea Center; the celebration will last all weekend.

The class “starts with a little davening,” Blane said. “Then we all bring something to the table, something that relates to halachah or a festival or a holiday. I’ve developed a curriculum that touches on what I believe is all the important topics that a liberal rabbi needs to understand and come to terms with in order to meet the needs of their communities.” Each student is required to give a d’var Torah every week, and over the course of the year they must lead a lunch-and-learn session, using some of the knowledge they gained over the course of their extra-rabbinic lives. At that point, the students are ready to be ordained, with their s’michah certifying that they “have demonstrated familiarity with our codes and texts and are empowered to serve as rabbi and teacher,” the institute’s website, jsli.net, says.

According to the website, the program is far less expensive than a more standard seminary would be. There is a $200 registration fee, and then the program is either $7,500 or $8,000, depending on semester.

Blane also leads Friday night services online, at http://www.simshalom.com.

Blane’s route to his own seminary was as unconventional as its program.

He lives in Manhattan now, but his roots are deep in New Jersey. He grew up in Jersey City, going first to elementary school and junior high at the Yeshiva of Hudson County (which, following the Jews, moved to Bergen County and became the Yeshiva of North Jersey), and then to the Lubavitch-affiliated Rogosin Yeshiva High School there.

For a few years, he put his Jewishness behind him, concentrating instead on another love, music; getting a degree in music from what was then Jersey City State College, marrying, and working in theater and as a producer of audiobooks. “But when we had our first baby, when I was 30, I felt like I wanted to come back,” Blane said. “So I started studying with a cantor in Queens, Noah Schall.

“Every week, I would go learn nusach” — the musical and liturgical motifs of prayer — “with him, and then we’d have a philosophical discussion. He was a lightning rod for me as I tried to come to terms with who I was.”

At first, Blane tried to find his place in the Jewish world as it was. “I grew up Conservadox,” he said. “We kept kosher; I went to an Orthodox synagogue and had an Orthodox bar mitzvah. When I started studying with Cantor Schall, I realized that the only place for me to sing was at a high level, because I had a gift.

“I began to go to Conservative synagogues regularly to hear the few great cantors who were left. I’d hear them, and I would learn, and I would ask if I could lead a couple of services. Wherever they would let me daven, I would daven. Then I tested into the Cantors Assembly.” (The CA is the professional association of Conservative cantors.)

During this time, Blane and his family lived in Haworth. He continued to work on audiobooks, mainly for Scholastic, until the market and the technology behind it changed and the work dried up. “So about 10 or 12 years ago, I decided to go full-time as clergy,” he said.

For seven years, Blane was the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. The congregation was in turmoil, and the politics were nasty. “I watched that whole process, and it consumed me,” he said. “I didn’t really understand what was going on — I didn’t really get it — but it was a great education. It was just about six doctorates and four masters degrees worth of education in change, about the Conservative movement, about Conservative philosophy, and practical rabbinics.”

Eventually, the shul merged with Temple Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

After leaving CBI, for the next three years Blane functioned as both rabbi and cantor at the New Milford Jewish Center.

It was just about that time that the then-Cantor Blane was ordained a rabbi by the Rabbinical Seminary International. The head was “this cool chasidic rabbi,” Blane said; his name was Joseph Gelberman. “He already was in his 80s,” Blane said. “It was a lot of self-study; you’d meet with him. After two years, he ordained me.” Blane liked the ordination model, but he felt it to be isolating. Fellow students “didn’t meet each other until ordination,” he said.

Blane chose that unorthodox route to ordination because he felt it was the only one open to him in real life. He remembers approaching Hebrew Union College, where Reform rabbis are ordained, “and they said that it would be great — but it would take five years. I said, ‘wait, I’m already leading services,’ but there was no path for anyone who already had some background.

“It was the same thing at the Academy for Jewish Religion,” a Riverdale, N.Y.-based nondenominational seminary. “They all require at least one year in Israel, and then at least four more years of study. It was going to be a lot of money and a lot of years.

“That would have been great, but I already had a house and kids and a business. And that’s when I discovered that there are a lot of people like me, who cannot go to a mainstream seminary. And they’re not necessarily trying to minister to mainstream communities. Some already are in communities, and they are functioning as I was. And there are others who would like to become rabbis, either because they already have small groups or because they feel called to it.”

As Blane makes clear, his seminary is not for everyone, and its rabbis are not likely to be accepted by much of the organized Jewish world, either. The Jewish Standard asked some local rabbis who head rabbinic associations or seminaries for their reactions to the program, but this is the end of summer, a rabbi’s last chance for vacation before preparing for the high holy days demand his or her full attention, most of them are out of town.

Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck is president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. He was unwilling to say anything about JSLI. “I don’t know enough to comment,” he said.

Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah: The Wayne Conservative Congregation, past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, reached by email at a USY encampment, was more forthcoming. “I have no first-hand knowledge of Steven Blain or his JSLI, so I can only tell you that after six years in rabbinical school I would not consider someone who had learned for only a year to be a legitimate rabbi,” he wrote. “Nor would they qualify for membership in the NJBR. We clearly list which rabbinical school alumni qualify, but JSLI did not make our list.”

 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 

Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

Where greatness lies

A memorial to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

On July 3, 5 Tammuz, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died. He was 89.

He inspired tens of thousands of people directly — and indirectly he inspired millions more, people who have yet to discover that the spiritual approaches they hold dear were invented and graciously shared by him.

Reb Zalman was prodigiously influential over many decades, but he was not proportionately famous. He was not always given credit for his vast learning or for his astonishing array of contributions. And he was okay with that.

The first time I saw Reb Zalman, he was on the bimah of an auditorium that held 2,000 people. His face beamed love at the congregation. I had been leading another High Holiday service, and I was able to join his congregation for the last few minutes of Rosh Hashanah morning.

 

Paying it forward

Remembering Gabby Reuveni’s generous spirit

Just a glance at the web page created in memory of Gabby Reuveni of Paramus gives some indication of the number of people she touched and — through the ongoing efforts of her family — she continues to touch.

Killed two years ago in Pennsylvania by a driver who swerved onto the shoulder of the road, where she was running, Gabby, who was 20, was “an extremely aware and kind person,” her mother, Jacqueline Reuveni, said. “We’re continuing her legacy.”

The family has undertaken both public and private “acts of kindness,” she said, from endowing scholarships to meeting local families’ medical bills.

According to her father, Michael Reuveni, Gabby — then a student at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the school’s track team — was a victim of vehicular homicide.

 

RECENTLYADDED

An American tale

Closter’s mayor talks about her journey from Nuremberg to New Jersey

Anyone trying to predict the course of newborn Sofie Dittmann’s life in 1928 would have imagined a solid, possibly even stolid upper-middle-class life, most likely in her birth city — Nuremberg, Germany.

It would have seemed an odd leap to imagine Sophie Dittman Heymann as she is today — the Republican mayor of Closter, coming to the end of her term as she completes eight years in office.

Her story, as Ms. Heymann tells it, involves hats, salamis, of course ambition, and a surprising but logical take on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It began with Sofie, as her name then was spelled, and her younger sister, Ilse, growing up in a comfortable German-Jewish home. Her father, Fritz Dittmann, a leather dealer, was a World War I veteran, and he had earned an Iron Cross fighting for Germany in that war. Her mother, Gerda, was the daughter of a banker. The family’s life in Germany ended abruptly in 1933, however, when one of her father’s employees — who “was a Nazi, but also very loyal to my father,” Ms. Heymann said — warned him that the Nazis would be coming for him the next day.

The family escaped that night — by taxi.

 

Got day school?

Federation launches marketing effort for nine area Jewish schools

“We can accomplish more together by pooling our resources for a common goal,” explained Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

“Through this project, we hope to raise awareness across the broader community about the benefits of a stellar dual curricular Jewish education,” he said.

“We’re trying to educate different audiences within our community about the value of a Jewish education and the importance of investing in these schools,” Ms. Scherzer said. “These are the schools that produce leaders.”

In addition to the advertising campaign, planned marketing efforts include a short video, a website, and parlor meetings to take the case for day schools directly to community leaders.

 

As easy as chewing gum

Sweet Bites launches program to prevent tooth decay

Convincing children to chew gum is easy. Distributing gum that prevents tooth decay to children in urban slums is a bit trickier.

Still, given the success they enjoyed during their pilot year in India, the creators of Sweet Bites stand a good chance of making widespread gum distribution a reality.

According to 22-year-olds Josh Tycko of Demarest and Eric Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who joined with several friends at the University of Pennsylvania this year to found the group, tooth decay has been a terrible burden on the lives of millions of slum dwellers.

Sweet Bites wants to popularize the use of 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum to reverse the trend. The students point out that clinical trials in both the United States and India have proved the gum’s efficacy in re-mineralizing enamel and reducing tooth decay.

 
 
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30