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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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‘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.’”

 

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

RECENTLYADDED

Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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