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‘We can make a difference in our children’s lives’

 
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At this time of the year, one phrase should echo in our minds — a phrase born of sorrow yet filled with the promise of hope and redemption.

We have just entered the mournful period of three weeks, connecting the fast days of Shiva Assar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’Av. Rooted in the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exiles, this period is marked for sorrow across the ages. The raabbis inform us, however, that the origin of our sorrow at this time has much earlier roots. Tisha B’Av, they maintain, was born on the day of the sin of the spies, when the generation of the Exodus lost its opportunity to enter the land of Israel.

The devastating report of the spies, recorded in Parshat Shlach, is filled with pessimism concerning the inability of the people to conquer the land. Most devastating of all, however, is the final statement of the report. Commenting on their interface with the people of the land, the spies proclaim:

“We were in our own eyes as insects; and so were we in theirs.”

A Freudian slip, centuries before Freud….

“We were in our own eyes as insects,” the spies say. We lost sight of our own value, ability, and worth. Only then, did we become devalued in the eyes of others.

Here then, the origin of true failure according to the Torah; the failure to recognize our own worth and ability.

Over this past year, a process has taken root in our own community that can provide us with a glimpse of our own power and value. Responding to the crisis of day-school affordability, a group consisting of representatives of each of the northern New Jersey day schools, rabbis, and community leaders has coalesced to form JEFG, Jewish Education For Generations. In a short time, the accomplishments of JEFG have captured the attention of communities across America, providing a vision of what a united community can accomplish.

Consider some of our successes:

• Representatives of all local day schools, across denominational lines, are sitting at the table with rabbinic and lay leaders as well as leaders of other community institutions to address the issues and implement innovative approaches.

• We have identified and are acting upon opportunities across our network for enhanced revenue generation and educational efficiencies that resulted from a unique benchmarking analysis done in partnership with Yeshiva University.

• Decisions concerning shared procurement of services, scholarship procedures, cost-cutting, and more have already been made. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has been instrumental in a number of these areas.

• NNJKIDS, a revolutionary grassroots effort to share the burden of our $8 million scholarship budget across the entire community, has been launched to great success. This effort is built upon the fundamental belief that the education of all children is a communal and not only a parental responsibility. The Avi Chai Foundation has generously supported this groundbreaking effort.

Already more than 1,000 families are participating at an annualized contribution rate of over $700,000. Commitments for continuing monthly contributions serve as the backbone of this program. Monies raised are being distributed quarterly to the day schools and have played a significant role in holding down tuition increases for the coming year.

• During May alone, designated as NNJKIDS month, over $250,000 was raised through new donations and a matching grant. More than 40 synagogues and 60 businesses participated in this effort, and learn-a-thons were conducted in conjunction with the day schools over the Shavuot holiday.

• Plans are being laid, in conjunction with UJA-NNJ, for the establishment of a mega-fund to attract major contributions for Jewish education in the community.

Such successes are the tip of the iceberg and provide only a glimpse of what we can accomplish together. We must recognize that we are uniquely poised to make a major difference concerning one of the most vexing challenges to confront the Jewish community today: the challenge of ensuring the continuing viability of day school education for our children.

Meeting this challenge will take sustained effort, creativity, and, above all, unity. We can achieve our goal only through total community participation. How sad it would be were we not to recognize our own power and potential. Please log onto NNJKIDS.org and join in the journey. We can and will make a real difference in our children’s lives as we ensure their quality education for years to come. We can and will set a proud standard for other communities to follow.

Rabbis Shmuel Goldin, David-Seth Kirshner, and Larry Rothwachs
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and rabbinic adviser for Jewish Education for Generations; Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner is religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter; and Rabbi Larry Rothwachs is religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck and president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.
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Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

 

 

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Speaking about the unspeakable

 

A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

 

 

Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.

 

 
 
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