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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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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.

 

Tips for fighting campus anti-Israel activity

Local groups combine to give advice for college students and parents

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you know that anti-Israel sentiment and activity on college campuses is growing. Many of these hate-based initiatives pass the “3D” anti-Semitism litmus test developed by Nathan Sharansky and adopted by the U.S. State Department. They are the new face of anti-Semitism our teens must be prepared to counter as they head off to college.

For example, mock eviction notices were slipped under some colleges’ dorm room doors by pro-Palestinian groups who say that forced evictions are part of Israel’s “apartheid policies” ... to “cleanse the region of its Arab population.” Lie-filled Israeli Apartheid Week campaigns have become annual campus events. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is trying to gain a foothold on campus as well, led by student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine as well as by pro-Palestinian community groups and even some high profile anti-Zionist Jews like Max Blumenthal.

 

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.

 

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Helping kids play outside again

There’s an image from his trip to Israel last week that Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, cannot get out of his head.

Shames was with a delegation of 125 administrative and fundraising executives from the Jewish Federations of North America. They traveled together to Greece and Israel to assess overseas needs.

“Obviously there has been a lot of change in itinerary due to what’s been going on,” Mr. Shames said on Sunday, referring to Operation Protective Edge and the constant salvos from Gaza.

“Since we landed in Israel on Thursday, when things started escalating, we spent time devising what an emergency campaign should look like, and we decided to take a small group to show support in Sderot and Beersheva.”

 

Rabbi Ira Kronenberg retires

Rabbi Ira Kronenberg of Passaic clearly has staying power.

He also has a strong sense of responsibility and a deep concern for the people he serves.

Director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/The Gallen Institute in Clifton for some 39 years, the rabbi also enjoyed a long association — from 1972 to 2008 — with the United States Army. In both arenas, he played many roles and touched the lives of countless people.

At Daughters of Miriam, Rabbi Kronenberg conducted religious services, paid pastoral visits, supervised the kitchens, mentored social work students during their internships, and served as staff coordinator for the ethics committee and the residents’ council.

 

Shoes, glorious shoes

Local couple finds success weaving footware

Today, the shoes that Itamar Carmi of Teaneck designs with his wife, Rachel, are found in 1,200 stores around the world.

But his adventures in the shoe trade started with a bad loan in New York City.

Mr. Carmi had grown up in Tel Aviv. After the army, he studied at university for a year before deciding it wasn’t for him. So he came to New York to seek his fortune. The year was 1985.

He wasn’t penniless. He had enough money to lend a not insignificant amount to a friend who owned a shoe store on Fifth Avenue.

Rather than being repaid, he was brought on as a partner and an employee.

 
 
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