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How to serve Hudson County Jews

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Although Joshua Einstein raises some valid points, his recent opinion piece does not accurately portray the history or current state of the United Jewish Appeal presence in Hoboken.

For many years, Hoboken has been a part of JFNA’s Network of Independent Communities, the umbrella group for Jewish communities not served by local federations. As a part of the Network, we have run an all-volunteer annual campaign and allocation process for several decades. In addition, we have sponsored many successful events, brought in engaging and informative speakers, and sent participants to regional and national conferences, including the Jewish Federation of North America’s Tribefest conference for national young leadership.

Contrary to Mr. Einstein’s contention, Hoboken has been attracting post-college Jewish young adults for at least the past 20 years. In fact, before the existence of Moishe House and other Jewish young adult groups, we had a very active and thriving UJA young leadership division.

During these years, Hoboken and the rest of the Hudson County community have partnered successfully with our neighboring federations in various ways, including those listed by Mr. Einstein. These initiatives have been undertaken with the input and participation of many local professional and lay leaders, and in my opinion they have been to the benefit of both the Hudson County Jewish community and the federation communities to which many of our young leaders eventually move.

Throughout all of these efforts, we have been supported by Ed Finkel and his predecessors at the Network. We owe them a big thank you for shepherding a small community through a period of enormous growth. If we are now ready for a more established federation presence — and I believe we are — it is in no small part due to their efforts and guidance.

As we move forward in determining the best way to bring such a presence to Hudson County, we need to learn from the lessons of our recent past and we need to involve a broad cross–section of professional and lay leaders locally and from our neighboring federations. In the meantime, I invite Mr. Einstein and the rest of the young Jewish adults in Hudson County to support our local UJA campaign and to join us as we continue to strengthen our vibrant and growing community.



How to serve Hudson County Jews

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In his op-ed, Josh Einstein makes a strong case for an increased Jewish federation presence in lower Hudson County (“Hudson County needs a federation,” April 11). However, one would get the erroneous impression from his piece that lower Hudson County is not part of the federation system whatsoever.

The communities of Bayonne, Hoboken, and Jersey City are part of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Network of Independent Communities. This is the arrangement that JFNA has with more than 300 small Jewish communities that are not part of North America’s 153 Jewish federations with professional leadership. As fully independent communities, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne each conduct their own fully independent volunteer-run UJA campaign and conduct a fully independent allocations process.

Our community has greatly benefited from the dedication of Ed Finkel, Network’s northeast regional director, who provides professional support to Bayonne, Hoboken, and Jersey City, together with all other Network communities from Maine to Maryland, plus South Florida and Puerto Rico. Especially when our community in Hoboken was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, we greatly appreciated Ed’s devotion to our community’s needs and his assistance at marshaling regional and national support in our hour of crisis. As Josh Einstein noted in his piece, we also have benefited from the generosity of our neighboring federations, who have shared some federation services with us even though we are outside of their catchment area.

Many of us in lower Hudson County long have noted that our communities are quite anomalous in the Network of Independent Communities. Most other Network communities nationwide are small and isolated Jewish communities with minimal Jewish infrastructure. Other than Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne, no other Network communities are at the center of a major metropolitan area with a large Jewish population. Few if any have a quickly growing Jewish population, including many young adults and young families, as Hoboken and Jersey City do. For all the reasons that Josh Einstein cites in his piece, reaching out to the Jews of lower Hudson County should be not only a local priority, but a regional priority. The Jewish residents and institutions of lower Hudson County ought to receive a level of Jewish communal services that are typical of the investment that Jewish federations make in areas with quickly growing Jewish populations. I think we would be most likely to achieve that level of Jewish communal services by becoming part of one of our neighboring federations, though I believe our local leaders would consider any option to bring this level of Jewish communal services realistically to lower Hudson County in the short and long term. We look forward to continuing our discussions with our neighboring Jewish federations, with the JFNA Network, and with the JFNA central leadership to ensure that the lower Hudson County Jewish population is most effectively connected to Jewish communal life.



Understanding chained women’s plight

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I was pleased to see your admirable concern for the plight of agunot — women unable to remarry according to Jewish law due to a recalcitrant spouse — in your April 10 editorial, “Seeking the Promise of Passover’s Freedom for Agunot.” Your conclusion, however, that Orthodox Jewish leaders are apathetic and timid regarding these women’s struggle stems from a lack of familiarity and communication with Orthodox rabbinic judges, called dayanim.

As one who has served for more than 20 years as a rabbinic judge administering gittin — Jewish divorces — I, together with my colleagues, have diligently endeavored to resolve situations of igun for both women and men. From visits to maximum security prisons, spending entire days in civil court, to devoting long hours seeking the cooperation of recalcitrant spouses, no stone is left unturned in our efforts to secure a get for those caught in a predicament of igun.

My colleagues and I have championed the Rabbinical Council of America’s prenuptial agreement, introduced in 1992, that has made long–term igun relatively rare in Bergen County’s Orthodox Jewish community and many other Orthodox Jewish communities.

Most important, we make every effort to insure that all divorcing Jewish couples, regardless of affiliation and/or level of observance, feel comfortable with the Orthodox get procedure.

The fact that Orthodox Jewish leaders are unable to resolve every situation of igun does not stem from either apathy or timidity but rather is due to our understanding of the halacha — Jewish law. An English language explanation of the acceptable and unacceptable solutions (such as hafka’at kidddushin, or annulments) to igun problems according to the Orthodox standards appears in the first volume of my work, “Gray Matter.”

While the editors may not agree with mainstream Orthodox interpretation of halacha, I hope you take the time to study these writings to enable you to understand the Orthodox approach.

I again applaud your concern for agunot and I welcome further dialogue and discussion to help avoid future misunderstanding of Orthodox Jewish law and the efforts of Orthodox rabbinic judges.



Doing it ourselves

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In September of 1972, an armed group of guerrilla fighters calling themselves Black September stormed the dormitory of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. After killing two of the eleven athletes in particularly gruesome ways, they demanded the release of more than 250 prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

The world was glued to its television sets while the standoff continued. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, mobilized an elite commando team to go to Germany and rescue their brothers. The German government and the International Olympic Committee denied the Israelis any jurisdiction to free the hostages. The IOC wanted these games to be peaceful. Bloodshed would tarnish the games — the first in Germany since before World War II — and the IOC and German government were committed to peaceful means to end the standoff.



A resurgence of anti-Semitism in a different world

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This year, Passover was met with two terrible reminders that the dangers posed by anti-Semitism continue to haunt us.

First, a white supremacist in Kansas went on a shooting rampage at a Jewish community center and an assisted living facility, killing three people. Then, worshippers leaving synagogue services in Donetsk, Ukraine, were accosted by masked men who handed out pamphlets ordering all Jews to report to a state registry or prepare to be denationalized.

These two shocking outbreaks put a pale over the celebration of Passover. It was reminiscent of Passovers of old, when the Jews would fear Easter-time anti-Jewish violence. And yet there are differences, new aspects to these current events that mark our times as distinct and more blessed than those that came before.

The violence in Kansas was recognized by everyone, from the president of the United States down to the local authorities, as no “mere” triple murder. The seriousness of the hate crime charges that the alleged shooter will face are a symbol of the zero tolerance that our society has for anti-Semitic violence. I know this on a smaller scale. As the local rabbi, I have been called from time to time by local authorities regarding an anti-Semitic incident. Usually graffiti, usually teenage perpetrators acting out their own complex issues of identity. What has connected each unrelated incident was not only the “traditions” of anti-Semitism but also the priority with which the crime was handled by the authority of that jurisdiction. Responsible government and society no longer tolerate what all too often was accepted in the past.


Keeping the faith

Let all who are hungry … starve?

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Right now, we are in the midst of a seven-week journey that began on Pesach and will end on Shavuot.

There are 38 days left on our trek from Egypt to Sinai, where we will receive our instructions as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

In the words of Isaiah, the task we received at Sinai was to “unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free…; to share [our] bread with the hungry…, [and] when you see the naked, to clothe him….”

How sad it is that too many of us prefer not to fully comprehend the meaning of those words.



Yom HaShoah

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This Monday is Yom HaShoah.

It is a day when we think about the genocide carried out, with stunning efficiency and naked evil, against our people. (Note that we cannot say that Yom HaShoah is “the day” because when we do so, that implies that we think about it only once a year, and that is not true.)

As is true every year, there are many commemorations in northern New Jersey, as we detailed in last week’s Jewish Standard — there are more details about one of them, featuring Edwin Black, held in Wayne, and sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, on page 15 this week. Each of them is bound to be profound and heart-stirring.

(To find our list, just google “Jewish Standard” and “Yom HaShoah.”)

Across the Hudson River, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the tradition of reading the names of Holocaust victims continues. A consortium of the rabbis and representatives of most of the local shuls, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, come together to read the names throughout the long dark night. This year, the reading begins on Sunday at 10 p.m. at Congregation Ansche Chesed, goes until 8 a.m. there, and then, half an hour later, moves to the JCC of Manhattan, where it continues until Kaddish is recited at 7 on Monday evening.

Every year, now, the calculus of Yom HaShoah changes. The survivors age, and so do their children. New generations grow into awareness.

As we mourn the victims of the Holocaust — we cannot truly be said to remember them, because they died before the overwhelming majority of us had a chance to meet them — we also see and glory in the huge number and variety of their descendants.

Every single Holocaust survivor, every Holocaust refugee, has an important and entirely unique story. We should listen to every story, and be sure that it is not lost.

We also should look around, realize that it is springtime, realize that we all are still here, and that no matter what demographic challenges face us we can surmount them.

As unlikely as it seems, we’re still here.



More Jewish groups should offer paid parental leave

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When it comes to mandated paid maternity or paternity leave, this nation has some catching up to do.

The United States is the only industrialized country not to mandate paid maternity leave. In the private sector, only 11 percent of employees have access to maternity leave.

A recent JTA report shows that although Jewish organizations also have to catch up in providing paid maternity leave, they are showing favorable growth. At the urging of the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals, Jewish nonprofits are working to provide the paid leave.

AWP organized itself in 2010 with the goal of enlisting 100 Jewish organizations “as a catalyst for making healthy work-life policy the norm in our community,” according to its website. “Our ultimate goal is to make these same standards throughout the non-profit sector and American society,” it continues.

One of its “framing principles” reads: “By adopting healthy work-life policies, the Jewish community will enact its stated priorities around family, education, community and spirituality.”

More than 80 groups have been enlisted on AWP’s Better Work/Better Life list. To be listed, a Jewish nonprofit must offer at least four weeks of paid maternity leave or have flexible scheduling policies to make it easier for parents to care for their newborn children.

Twenty groups on the list, including the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Joint Distribution Committee, offer 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and six weeks of paid parental leave for fathers, partners, and adoptive parents.”

But even though those groups have signed on, there still are no individual Jewish day schools enrolled. One school, Manhattan’s Rodeph Shalom School, affiliated with the Reform movement, is referred to as being in the “pipeline.”

And RAVSAK, a network of 130 nondenominational Jewish day schools, is enrolled.

So what we have is a start.

The Jewish communal world, which does so much good work for others, has to provide its own workers what they need to support the very ideals for which they are employed.

It all starts will families.

Let’s let the new parents of these families have the paid time they need.

– PJ

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Criticizing charedim — what about our kids?

Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.

More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.

The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.



Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.



Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”




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