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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.

 

Where greatness lies

A memorial to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

On July 3, 5 Tammuz, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died. He was 89.

He inspired tens of thousands of people directly — and indirectly he inspired millions more, people who have yet to discover that the spiritual approaches they hold dear were invented and graciously shared by him.

Reb Zalman was prodigiously influential over many decades, but he was not proportionately famous. He was not always given credit for his vast learning or for his astonishing array of contributions. And he was okay with that.

The first time I saw Reb Zalman, he was on the bimah of an auditorium that held 2,000 people. His face beamed love at the congregation. I had been leading another High Holiday service, and I was able to join his congregation for the last few minutes of Rosh Hashanah morning.

 

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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An American tale

Closter’s mayor talks about her journey from Nuremberg to New Jersey

Anyone trying to predict the course of newborn Sofie Dittmann’s life in 1928 would have imagined a solid, possibly even stolid upper-middle-class life, most likely in her birth city — Nuremberg, Germany.

It would have seemed an odd leap to imagine Sophie Dittman Heymann as she is today — the Republican mayor of Closter, coming to the end of her term as she completes eight years in office.

Her story, as Ms. Heymann tells it, involves hats, salamis, of course ambition, and a surprising but logical take on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It began with Sofie, as her name then was spelled, and her younger sister, Ilse, growing up in a comfortable German-Jewish home. Her father, Fritz Dittmann, a leather dealer, was a World War I veteran, and he had earned an Iron Cross fighting for Germany in that war. Her mother, Gerda, was the daughter of a banker. The family’s life in Germany ended abruptly in 1933, however, when one of her father’s employees — who “was a Nazi, but also very loyal to my father,” Ms. Heymann said — warned him that the Nazis would be coming for him the next day.

The family escaped that night — by taxi.

 

Got day school?

Federation launches marketing effort for nine area Jewish schools

“We can accomplish more together by pooling our resources for a common goal,” explained Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

“Through this project, we hope to raise awareness across the broader community about the benefits of a stellar dual curricular Jewish education,” he said.

“We’re trying to educate different audiences within our community about the value of a Jewish education and the importance of investing in these schools,” Ms. Scherzer said. “These are the schools that produce leaders.”

In addition to the advertising campaign, planned marketing efforts include a short video, a website, and parlor meetings to take the case for day schools directly to community leaders.

 

As easy as chewing gum

Sweet Bites launches program to prevent tooth decay

Convincing children to chew gum is easy. Distributing gum that prevents tooth decay to children in urban slums is a bit trickier.

Still, given the success they enjoyed during their pilot year in India, the creators of Sweet Bites stand a good chance of making widespread gum distribution a reality.

According to 22-year-olds Josh Tycko of Demarest and Eric Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who joined with several friends at the University of Pennsylvania this year to found the group, tooth decay has been a terrible burden on the lives of millions of slum dwellers.

Sweet Bites wants to popularize the use of 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum to reverse the trend. The students point out that clinical trials in both the United States and India have proved the gum’s efficacy in re-mineralizing enamel and reducing tooth decay.

 
 
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