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Baum forges forward

RCBC head works to keep it kosher on the plate and between Jews

 
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Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck assumed the presidency of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County a little more than 18 months ago. During that time, he has built on efforts of his predecessors, especially in working with the more liberally observant rabbis of the community.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Observers who are familiar with the organization, which provides kashrut supervision to more than 60 area restaurants, say that Baum’s understated professionalism and willingness to listen has allowed him to further the relatively recent moves toward rapprochement between the Orthodox RCBC and the New Jersey Board of Rabbis, which includes 35 members from the area’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal streams.

The two rabbinic boards, in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, are in closer conversation now than they ever have been. They have found issues of mutual interest, including Jewish education in general and the high cost of day schools in particular. Some joint programming and a better line of communication has grown out of this effort.

Rabbi Benjamin Shull has been at the NJBR’s helm since August, and the two have some shared aims. “We see this as a major goal to work more closely together,” Baum said of Shull. “He’s been a phenomenal partner.”

The one time lack of communication between the groups was not born of conflict or animosity but simply the result of the groups operating within their own silos, Baum said. With the assistance of the federation and its executive director, Jason Shames, however, important steps have been taken to ensure better communication.

The result has been a program, sponsored by both groups, that brought former Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to Bergen County. A rally in support of Israel at the Frisch School, an Orthodox high school in Paramus, was another success. And now the two groups are looking to possibly partner for another joint effort this spring.

Israel and education are natural subjects over which the two groups can form alliances, Baum said. Tikkun olam projects, as well, are something he believes the two groups could develop that would help engage the community. They also could discuss plans to help strengthen Jewish campus life and foster Israel advocacy among college students.

“The connection or bond has been developed, and we are both in touch as presidents of these organizations to strengthen that bond,” Shull said. “I think there are a lot of walls separating the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox world, and there is a lot of work to be done. But I think we are beginning to move in the right direction at this point.”

Both rabbis credit Shames with helping further the conversation by bringing key players from their respective organizations together over constructive issues.

Having the two groups in discussion can only lead to a communal benefit for Jews in Bergen County, Shames said.

“The big thing for me is they are sitting around the room as partners,” he said.

Baum, who has been the rabbi of the 430-family Keter Torah for a decade, didn’t start out thinking that the rabbinate would be his profession. He attended Yeshiva University, receiving his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a law degree from the university’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He was heading for a career in law and worked as a clerk for the Surrogate’s Court of New York City.

He ultimately changed course, however, pursuing a career as a rabbi. Recognizing that his love of Talmud and his interest in the American legal system overlap strongly, he felt that “I’d be more valuable in the Jewish community than in the legal profession.”

He served for nine years at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Fairfield, Conn., before coming to Keter Torah, a contemporary building of polished wood and stone, with nary a dedication plaque in sight.

In addition to his efforts to help further the conversation between the two rabbinic boards, Baum is proud in general of the RCBC’s supervisory role for the county’s kosher establishments — efforts begun by predecessors. He cites initiatives to streamline the kashrut certification process in which every restaurant has a profile and “understands what exactly happens form A to Z…; it’s a blueprint of what happens,” he said, and it is now computerized, as well.

Baum cites with pride the effort to create better standards for the RCBC itself. That initiative was begun by his predecessor, Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs. By bringing in an outside agency — in this case the Chicago Rabbinical Council — the RCBC was able to “show how seriously we take [our role],” Baum said. The CRC made several recommendations that the RCBC adopted.

“He has made the administration of kashrut more professional, and that the standards are appropriate, and that things should be done in a fair and equitable way,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah. Goldin, an RCBC member, also is president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

“He has a no-nonsense style and the facility to cut to the core of an issue,” Goldin said of his colleague. “He’s very balanced, and he doesn’t come to the issue with preconceived agendas.”

 
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‘It’s valuable to hear both sides’

Ridgewood man discusses Israeli, Palestinian narratives

Jonathan Emont — a 2008 graduate of Ridgewood High School who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center — always has felt a deep attachment to the state of Israel.

Still, the 23-year-old said, he never expected that country to be at the center of his professional life.

Things changed, however, when the recent Swarthmore College graduate went to Israel on a tour the America-Israel Friendship League offered to young journalists.

“I did journalism in college,” he said, explaining that although he majored in history, he also was the editor of Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette.

 

Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.

 

Yet more Pew

Local rabbis talk more about implications of look at American Jews

The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, released last October, really is the gift that keeps on giving.

As much as the Jewish community deplores the study’s findings, it seems to exert a magnetic pull over us, as if it were the moon and we the obedient tides. We can’t seem to stop talking about it. (Of course, part of that appeal is the license it gives us to talk, once again, about ourselves. We fascinate ourselves endlessly.)

That is why we found ourselves at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last Wednesday night, with the next in the seemingly endless series of snow-and-ice storms just a few hours away, discussing the Pew study yet again.

 

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Doing well, doing good

Israeli band full of New Jersey locals hopes to tour U.S.

If a crowd-funding appeal is successful, the Israeli band G-Nome Project is coming to the United States.

This is not the scientific kind of genome project having to do with decoding DNA, but a musical project launched by four young expatriates — two of them from Teaneck.

It’s also a kind of chesed project. The band’s proposed 10-city “Giving Tour” aims to combine nightly gigs with days of good deeds such as visiting nursing homes and working in a soup kitchen.

This unusual twist was inspired by drummer Chemy Soibelman’s volunteering with Israeli children suffering from cancer.

 

Less is more

Moriah to institute new tuition affordability program

Good news for the middle class — and for Jewish day school affordability.

The Moriah School in Englewood, which runs from prekindergarten through eighth grade, has announced a new tuition affordability program, which will cut tuition for parents making as much as $360,000 a year.

Full tuition at the school ranges from $12,000 for kindergarten to $15,425 for middle school. (The prekindergarten program is not eligible for the tuition breaks.)

“We’ve been talking, as a board and as a community, about tuition affordability and the tuition crisis for years,” said Evan Sohn, the school’s president. “We decided this was the year we were going to address that issue.”

 

Scrolling through Jewish art

Local exhibit looks at text and images in old and new ways

The English letters that Harriet Fincke of Ridgewood learned when she was young are straightforward symbols that combine to form words, just as they are for everyone else.

But Hebrew letters — ah, they are something else again. “They always seemed kind of solid,” she said. “They seemed more like things,” objects in their own right, opaque. “It’s both the meaning and the look, and the relationship between them,” she said.

Those letters were a foundation part of her childhood — she went all the way through school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I’d always had a kind of richly ambivalent relationship with my religious upbringing, and with the text,” she said.

 
 
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