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A new way to become a rabbi?

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

 
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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.”

 
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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.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

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.

 

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Ari Teman’s laughing matters

Teaneck native’s Rocket Shelter Comedy entertains Israelis under fire

What’s the toughest part of working for the Hamas Propaganda Unit? You need equipment to stage films and you can’t go to B&H Photo.

Teaneck-bred standup comic Ari Teman brought a suitcase of jokes like this one when he flew to Israel late last week to headline a series of comedy shows in regular venues as well as bomb shelters and army bases.

With fellow American standup Danny Cohen and Texan-Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt, Mr. Teman’s Rocket Shelter Comedy (http://RocketShelterComedy.com) shows took place from this week in cities including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva, and Modi’in. All proceeds are to be donated to the Friends of the IDF Lone Soldier Fund.

When asked how he got the idea for the comedy mission, Mr. Teman — a graduate of the Torah Academy of Bergen County — explained that it resulted from a memo from his attorneys at the Israeli law firm GKH.

 

‘A way to thwart their funding’

On May 18, 2003, Steve Averbach boarded a Jerusalem commuter bus and noticed an Arab man aboard dressed like a haredi Jew. When Mr. Averbach, an Israeli immigrant from West Long Branch, approached, the man detonated his explosives, killing seven people and wounding 20, including Mr. Averbach.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing. Mr. Averbach, left paralyzed from the neck down, was hailed as a hero for scaring the bomber into prematurely detonating his suicide vest and reducing the death toll.

Eleven years later, the Averbach family is taking part in a massive lawsuit against Jordan-based Arab Bank, alleging that the bank facilitated fundraising for Hamas and other terror groups, as well as payments to dead terrorists’ families, and thus bears responsibility for Hamas terrorism. The case is set for an August 11 trial in federal court in Brooklyn.

 

Gary Osen, the man giving victims an opportunity

For attorney Gary Osen of Hackensack’s Osen LLC, the case against Arab Bank is the continuation of a career built on fighting for people who have been cast into the role of victims.

“It’s not who they want to be or how they want to be remembered,” he said. “This case provides them an opportunity to do something, to be proactive, and perhaps change the world just a little bit for the better and maybe salvage something from the circumstances that have been thrust on them.”

Inspired by his father, attorney Max Osen, Mr. Osen began his career in Holocaust restitution. Max Osen came to the United States at age 11, fleeing from Nazi Germany. He returned in 1945 as a U.S. soldier, and after the war he received his law degree and began taking on restitution cases.

 
 
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