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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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French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

Take the Shab-bus

‘Horizontal Shabbat elevator’ picks up congregants in North Bergen and Cliffside Park

You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.

Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.

But that synagogue is five miles away.

Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.

What are you to do?

 

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Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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