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BREAKING NEWS

Fear, hope mingle in firebomb’s wake

Communal leaders, local officials meet over escalating incidents

 
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With the Jewish population of Bergen County on heightened alert, some 200 religious and community leaders gathered last night to discuss the recent string of anti-Semitic incidents in the county with law enforcement and government officials and communal leaders. The meeting was held at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) under the joint auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the Synagogue Leadership Initiative (SLI).

Tension has mounted as the incidents have escalated. They began shortly before Chanukah, when vandals defaced a Maywood synagogue with Nazi symbols. Ten days later. a Hackensack synagogue was similarly vandalized.

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Over 200 people attended the Jan. 12 meeting at the JFNNJ offices to discuss the escalating attacks on area synagogues.
Then the incidents moved up to a more dangerous level with the attempted arson at a Paramus synagogue in the early hours of Jan. 4. This was followed exactly one week later by a full-blown firebomb attack at Congregation Beth El in Rutherford one week later.

The attack nearly had tragic consequences because the congregation building also houses the home of Rabbi Nosson Schuman and his family. One firebomb was thrown through a window and ignited his bed. Schuman was able to put out flames and then he, his wife, five children, and his father escaped the building, avoiding serious physical injury. The attack, however,  left a residue of fear mingled with hope.

“I knew there were people who hated me,” the rabbi said at a press conference following the JCRC/SLI meeting, but he cited the outpouring of interfaith support. “What I see is the beauty of the American people,” he said.

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Law enforcement officials were part of the audience at the JFNNJ offices Jan. 12.
Becase of the use of a firebomb directed at a religious institution, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have joined local law enforcement in investigating the incidents.

The rabbi was joined at the press conference by local government officials, who spoke of their determination to solve the crimes and protect the Jewish communities of Bergen County. They reportedly made similar statements at the main meeting, which was closed to the media.

County Executive Kathleen Donovan said the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor is working on leads, but “that’s all that we can say” at this time.

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Political leaders and government officials held a press briefing following the JFNNJ meeting.
As an immediate step, police officials have promised stepped up patrols around synagogues, but budgets restraints do not allow officers to be stationed around the clock, said Rep. Steve Rothman.

“It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, you’re entitled to freedom and there is no earthly reason why this kind of hatred at this point in time should be allowed to exist,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a victim,” Lautenberg said. “We have to stand together as Americans.”

The incidents were “out of character” for Bergen County, said Rothman. “We will catch these individuals and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

The press conference was an exercise in bipartisanship, as the podium was shared by Democrats Rothman (9th Dist.) and Bill Pascrell (8th Dist.), who are expected to face off in a Democratic primary in June because of a recently announced redistricting plan, and Republican Scott Garrett (5th Dist.).

Pascrell called the evening’s meeting “momentous,” but said “talk is not going to solve this.” He cited the need for security items, such as surveillance cameras and entry card devices, but at the same time he noted the millions of dollars in federal aid cuts now beiung sought in Washington.

“The attack on the rabbi was an attack on me,” he said. “We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of our neighbors,” he said.

Garrett, whose share of Bergen County will increase next year to include a significant portion of such Jewish enclaves as Teaneck and Fair Lawn, called it “profoundly important” that people get together. Citing the community’s unity after the incidents, he said the JCRC/SLI meeting was not a symptom of what is wrong with the community, “but what is right.”

The speakers called the firebomb attack a life-and-death escalation of the incidents.

Donovan, the county executive, said security measures are on two levels. Items such as surveillance cameras, key card entry systems, and lighting are critical, but she stressed the basics, such as locking the door and being aware of the people around you.

She repeated the “see something, say something” reminder that has become a post-9/11 mantra. Police welcome any bits of information, she said, no matter how trivial they may seem.

In assessing the meeting, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the JCRC chairman, said that attendees took away ideas for heightened security at their institutions, and law enforcement officials had a better understanding of the depth of concern in the Jewish community.

The earlier incidents occurred at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood in the early hours of Dec. 11; a similar attack on Temple Beth El in Hackensack early on Dec. 21; and a small fire set at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus on Jan. 3.

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Standing together with Israel

Local groups join for evening of unity as they discuss ways to protect Israel

Lee Lasher of Englewood has a deep interest in ensuring that different parts of the local Jewish community come to trust, respect, and even like each other.

To that end, Mr. Lasher, an alumnus of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership program, and fellow alums — and now friends — Ian Zimmerman of Glen Rock and Ari Hirt of Teaneck, formed a group called Unite4Unity, which until now has explored the bridges that actually do span the community.

Now, the three friends have decided to multitask. Another cause dear to all of them is Israel. What could be better, they thought, than to bring the community together around the Jewish state? And given their own orientation toward action, what would be best would be to give people information they can use to present Israel positively, to combat such threats as BDS with knowledge, insight, and passion.

 

Considering German Jews

Spätzle, weiner schnitzel, stuffed cabbage, and German chocolate cake are on the menu for Shabbat dinner on May 1 at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. It’s all part of the shul’s weekend exploration of German Jewish heritage.

German Jews are known not only for their signature cuisine, however. They tend to have a reputation as “yekkes” — obsessively punctual, punctilious, and a touch pompous.

The shul’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull admits he bought into that stereotype — he is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews — until he discovered through genealogical research that he, too, has German-Jewish ancestors. So do about a third of his regular congregants.

 

Balancing attraction and halachic law

Local Orthodox rabbis meet with therapists and LGBT Jews

On Sunday, some leading Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, met with mental-health professionals and members of the Orthodox gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community for a conference on “sexual orientation and gender identity in the Orthodox and chasidic world,” as a press release put it.

The conference, about 150-strong, held at the Kraft House on Columbia University’s campus, was organized by the modern Orthodox, Upper West Side Lincoln Square Synagogue; the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology; and JQY, a nonprofit that provides support to young LGBT Orthodox and chasidic Jews.

 
 
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