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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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What did he know? When did he know it?

State Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg discusses GWB scandal interim report

On Monday, the New Jersey state legislative committee investigating Bridgegate submitted an interim report.

Anyone expecting a final answer to the question of what did he know and when did he know it — or to be more specific, how much did Governor Chris Christie know about the closure of the three local lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, creating potentially lethal havoc in Fort Lee, and when did he learn that his aides had been responsible for it — would be disappointed.

Still, there are nuggets there about the scandal, lying ready for gleaning.

This is very much an interim report, Loretta Weinberg stressed. Ms. Weinberg, a Democrat, is the state Senate’s majority leader. She lives in Teaneck, and Fort Lee is in her district.

 

Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza

Mahwah shul develops programming for pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah kids

So now there’s a how-to-write-a-blessing class. “The parents are really appreciative,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

“I used to meet with b’nai mitzvah kids and their families twice,” he added. “Now we meet seven times in the course of a year. The last one is right before the bar mitzvah. Now I’m thinking the last one should be after the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot of time on my part, but it’s time well spent in developing a relationship with the kids and with the families.”

While these efforts are designed to connect children and their families to the congregation before the bar or bat mitzvah, the synagogue also has changed its post-b’nai mitzvah connections to the children.

 

Reworded interdating rules sow confusion, controversy

United Synagogue Youth convention may have eased standard … or not

What’s in a name — or a word?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Take the word “refrain,” for example.

At its annual international convention in Atlanta this week, some 750 members of United Synagogue Youth voted to change some of the wording in the organization’s standards for international and regional leaders.

Most of the changes are clear, easily understood, and warmly welcomed. For example, the group added provisions relating to bullying and lashon hara — gossiping. Leaders should have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the standards say.

 

RECENTLYADDED

High tech, human passion, Israeli lifesaving

Minutes matter. When it comes to saving lives, even seconds matter.

When they face a medical emergency, people call 911, and an ambulance is dispatched immediately. That system indisputably saves lives. But the EMT technicians inside those ambulances must negotiate snarled traffic, dangerous intersections, careless pedestrians, callous drivers, and other road hazards. Valuable minutes are lost.

What to do?

In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop has a solution — and it comes straight from Israel.

The city is joining forces with United Hatzalah and the Jersey City Medical Center — Barnabas Health to form Community Based Emergency Care. That is a bland name for a clever new program aimed at bridging the gap between the time that an emergency is called in and when the cavalry — the EMTs and their ambulance full of equipment — can show up. It will use a combination of human passion and goodwill and technology to meet that goal.

 

Don’t bogart that joint — at least not on Shabbat

Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah’s study session looks at medical ethics, medicinal cannabis, and other issues

Just because 22 states have legalized medical marijuana, does that make it completely kosher in the eyes of Jewish law?

This timely topic will be one of the issues explored during “Torah, Text, and Tradition: An Evening of Learning and Sharing,” set to take place from 7 to 9:45 p.m. on January 31 at Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, 19-10 Morlot Avenue.

Nine members of the Orthodox congregation are offering lectures grouped into three time slots. There are three choices in each slot, providing a smorgasbord of options free of charge to men, women, and teenagers from the greater community.

The idea for the evening came from Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, a retired Jewish educator and communal leader who joined Shomrei Torah in 1971. He will present “Medical Marijuana in Halakha,” a subject he has been writing and speaking about for the last two years as part of his greater interest in Jewish bioethics.

 

An American rabbi in Paris

NYU’s Rabbi Yehuda Sarna talks about France to local shuls

Two weeks ago, when four Jews were killed in a terrorist attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna decided to go to Paris to visit and comfort the community

Rabbi Sarna leads the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University — the school’s equivalent of a Hillel chapter.

As a native of Montreal, he speaks French. And as a disciple and former intern of Rabbi Avi Weiss, his reaction to a crisis is: “When you feel a personal connection and likely nobody else will be there, just go.”

So two weeks ago, shortly before Shabbat, he posted plans to go to Paris on his Facebook page. Within half an hour, he had found a group of people interested in going with him.

 
 
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