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Sensitizing rabbis

Yeshiva University offers online marriage counseling course

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A unique online course on marriage counseling for Yeshiva University-educated Orthodox rabbis has attracted 40 participants from across North America, Australia, and Israel. They include Benjamin Kelsen of Bergenfield’s Beis Medrash Zichron Shlomo Elimelech, Andrew Markowitz of Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, and Chaim Poupko of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah.

The course, offered by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and its affiliate, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Theological Seminary, aims to develop communal rabbis’ skills and techniques in assisting couples through every stage of relationship, from dating and marriage to crisis, divorce, or death.

The first of its kind, the yearlong series explores the rabbi’s role in various situations and considers how he can collaborate effectively with couples, their families, and mental health professionals in formulating and implementing a counseling plan.

“A lot of young couples are moving into Fair Lawn, and I wanted to gain the tools to become the best spiritual leader I can for my shul,” said Markowitz, 30, who also teaches at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus.

His congregation is paying half the fee for the course, even though counseling is not a formal part of Markowitz’s job description.

“This course teaches me to be more sensitive to the needs of my congregants, so that when someone asks a question, I can better understand the dynamics of the marriage and become closer to my congregants and more effective as a rabbi,” he said. “Together with my wife, I try to keep an open-door policy.”

When Markowitz was a rabbinical student at RIETS Manhattan campus, he took courses in pastoral psychology. He elected to further his knowledge at Israel’s Puah Institute, which deals with infertility issues in Jewish law, while he was at the university’s Jerusalem campus for two additional years. Last year, CJF teamed up with the Puah Institute for a yearlong online course on the issues surrounding infertility.

The current course, Markowitz said, is providing him with more in-depth information and new material as well. That includes a recent presentation by social worker Lisa Twerski, an expert on spousal abuse in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, director of RIETS CJF Continuing Rabbinic Education and Support, said that many communal rabbis are interested in enhancing their rabbinic education, but lack the time and money to come to conferences. “This course provides a cost- and time-effective way for rabbis to update their skills in a way that will allow them to serve their constituents better,” he said.

“We have been supporting our rabbis in numerous ways for years, and there is consistent interest in nuanced instruction from trained professionals,” Mostofsky added. “With the launch of our program in October, rabbis have an open platform to discuss and learn about every aspect of the Jewish marital relationship in real-time from the top experts in the field.”

Before the first webinar, each participant received a thorough selection of reference materials, related articles, and assignments on the course topics. Altogether, the group will meet virtually for 17 lectures and discussions; it also will meet twice in person for more intensive all-day seminars in New York.

Between classes, participants interact with one another via the course’s dedicated online forum and schedule offline conversations with the instructors, who are leading mental health professionals and authorities in Jewish marital law.

“This course represents a true paradigm shift, both in the ways the topics will be presented and taught as well as the way in which the rabbis will be accessing the information,” CJF’s senior scholar, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck, said. “In addition, by delving into important, but often ignored, topics — such as abuse, blended families, adoption, illness and death, homosexuality — participants will be well prepared to formulate new approaches to answer their congregants’ most challenging questions and help find real solutions for painful and distressing problems.”

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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.



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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