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Hudson County: A federation no-man’s-land?

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Moishe House in Hoboken holds meetings like this one to plan programming for Jewish young adults in the area. Courtesy of Moishe House

Jewish life in Hudson County, home to thousands of Jewish young adults, has been on an upward swing in recent years, with new Jewish organizations opening up and working together with the area’s synagogues.

One major Jewish institution has not come to southern Hudson County, however: A Jewish federation, a local chapter of the Jewish Federations of North America, to raise money for and coordinate social services.

Joshua Einstein, a Teaneck native who now lives in Moishe House Hoboken, decried the lack of federation presence in a letter to The Jewish Standard last week.

Moishe House is a national organization that subsidizes housing for groups of young adults in exchange for their holding programs for local young Jewish adults. Einstein and his two roommates regularly have some 30 to 50 people in their apartment for Shabbat meals, study sessions, and social programs.

Unlike other Moishe Houses, they’re doing it without funding from a local federation.

“I find it very frustrating that we’re engaged in not just building a Moishe House community, but im yiritz HaShem [with God’s will] building institutions of a larger Jewish community in Hudson County,” he said.

Hoboken and Jersey City are transitory communities, he said, filled with thousands of young Jews who will eventually move to the suburbs. That population, he said, is woefully underserved and that will hurt the Jewish community down the road.

“For those five to 10 years there’s nothing for them to plug into while they’re in their apartments,” Einstein said. “The community’s not making an investment.”

In 2007 Adam Weiss formed HudsonJewish, a central forum for efforts to revive the county’s Jewish presence. The group organizes and promotes community events on its Website, which acts as the Jewish directory for the county.

“Apart from HudsonJewish there’s no organized voice of the community,” Weiss said. “So the conversation would probably need to start between one of the federations and HudsonJewish” if a merger were to take place.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken has been in the city for 12 years. He praised HudsonJewish, but said it does not fill the gap of a fully functional federation.

“I can only imagine the ideal, which is that a federation exists to assess Jewish communal needs and then raise funds to address those needs,” he said. “It’d be very helpful if there were a Jewish communal entity that played that role in Hudson County.”

He pointed to aging communities in Jersey City and Bayonne and the Jewish responsibility to provide for the elderly. His synagogue also runs a host of singles programs and has worked with Moishe House.

“We are trying valiantly,” he said, “to provide all the services that a Jewish community should have and to engage young adults in Jewish life — even without a federation.”

Southern Hudson County is not totally devoid of a federation presence.

Bayonne, south of Hoboken in Hudson County, does have its own Jewish federation, but it is focused solely on that city. The Hoboken/Jersey City region is part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Network of Independent Communities, which only provides for volunteers to raise money for overseas projects. Jewish Family Service of UJC of MetroWest extended its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area in 2003 ahead of what some thought would be an annexation of the area.

Federation leaders reportedly decided not to annex southern Hudson County because it is not contiguous with the federation’s catchment area. Calls to the MetroWest federation were not returned by press time.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes all of Bergen County, part of Passaic County, and northern Hudson County in its catchment area, offers some of its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area.

“We do have a relationship with those parts of Hudson County in an ongoing way,” said Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s marketing director. “Either they have come to us for help and we have provided it or we have included them in our programs that are available to people and institutions in the UJA-NNJ area.”

According to Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative has included southern Hudson synagogues in its programming; scholarships to Jewish camps, 16 percent of the total, have been provided to six campers from that area; and students from the area participated in a UJA-NNJ-sponsored Birthright trip this past spring.

“We’re delighted to work with them,” Allenson said. “There’s never been to my knowledge a time we’ve said no to them.”

North Hudson County — North Bergen, Secaucus, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York — affiliated with the federation’s precursor in 1988.

Moishe House, Allenson said, has not approached UJA-NNJ for any assistance.

“They’re welcome to come to us at any time for the resources that we have that we are able to provide them,” she said.

Annexing the region into UJA-NNJ, however, has not come up in discussions with area leaders, she said.

“We commend the efforts of HudsonJewish to provide Jewish community services for the residents of that geographic area,” said Howard Charish, UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president. “We also are very pleased about the progress they’ve made toward those goals. We have been, along the way, responsive to their efforts when they’ve called us.”

“We feel that it is the responsibility of an organized federation to help a neighboring independent community,” Charish added.

Weiss offered three scenarios for the region: A continuation of the status quo, the creation of a new federation, or the annexation of the area into an existing federation. All of the options have pros and cons, he said.

“There’s a strong desire to have the conversation and ask what can you do for us, what can we do for you, and what’s the best solution,” Weiss said. “It could be the best solution is to do nothing and continue the way things are.”

“There’s no reason you need to start from scratch,” Einstein said, “but that’s what we’re forced to do because nobody’s showing us the blueprint for the wheel.”

 
 

Local teens volunteer at Israeli camps

Encouraging self-esteem for credit

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Adam Weiss, left, and co-counselor Meirah Freiden of Memphis, second from right, with campers Bat-Chen, Sharon, and Kenan in Dimona. courtesy yeshiva university

Elianna Wolf of Passaic hopes to be a psychologist. Her experience running a day camp for underprivileged kids in the Israeli development town of Arad this summer has provided a sharper focus for her dream.

“I have a newfound knowledge of what it’s like for teens going through hard self-esteem issues, specifically in these poor communities where they’re embarrassed about their families and backgrounds,” said Wolf, a rising junior at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. “A lot of my students said negative things about themselves. In the future, I really want to work on that self-esteem issue with teens.”

Wolf was one of 15 New Jersey residents taking part in the month-long Counterpoint Israel service-learning initiative sponsored by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future. Now in its sixth year, the program attracted 34 high-achieving students from North America, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. They earned graduate-level credit for operating subsidized day camps in Dimona, Arad, and Jerusalem.

They gave English classes in the mornings and workshops in arts, fashion, music, dance, and sports in the afternoons, all geared toward improving the campers’ English skills while promoting a positive self-image and traditional Jewish values.

Wolf recalled that one 13-year-old camper, often picked on by her peers, was in tears before the camp talent show, afraid the other kids would make fun of her stilt-walking performance. “She kept saying she was stupid and nobody would like her. It was heartbreaking,” said Wolf. “We finally convinced her to get on stage and she was really incredible. Everybody loved her performance.”

Senior Adam Weiss, a Miami resident raised in Englewood, worked with mostly Moroccan seventh- to ninth-graders in Dimona. “They have tough backgrounds and we want them to know people care about them,” said Weiss, who wants to be a lawyer.

“For me, it was a new experience,” he said. “Communicating with the kids from this poor neighborhood, some who could not afford the 350-shekel camp fee, opened my eyes to a new world. But the bottom line is that we have this common bond — being Jewish — despite our cultural and economic differences, and that became clear to me throughout the summer.”

The Dimona and Arad camps ran simultaneously from July 12 to Aug. 1. Six of the counselors — among them Teaneck residents Alon Meltzer and Atara Staiman and Daniel Altaras of Clifton — remained to staff a sleepover camp at the Yeshiva University campus in Jerusalem for teens from Yemin Orde Youth Village, joined by five more who flew in for this program. These five were almost all from North Jersey: Hana Zaydens of Paramus, Ayelet Kahane of Teaneck, and Shiffy (née Staiman, Atara’s sister) and Noam Friedman, who grew up in Teaneck.

“The students of Yemin Orde have been through a lot over the last several months,” said Shuki Taylor, director of the university’s Department of Experiential Jewish Education. The youth village was badly damaged in the December forest fire in the Carmel Mountains. “Yeshiva University wanted to do something to buoy their spirits and help them move beyond this period of loss,” he said. “The CJF worked in close partnership with the leadership of Yemin Orde to create a unique summer program to provide the teens with a safe, fun, and educational experience that will ease them back into the important business of being kids.”

Staiman said the group was composed of three teens of Russian descent and 32 of Ethiopian heritage. “That’s typical of the village,” she said, and accordingly the counselors received orientation in Ethiopian culture.

As in Dimona and Arad, this program had the overall goal of improving the campers’ English in order to better prepare them for high school matriculation exams. “We went to the Old City, to Masada, Ein Gedi (where we slept in Bedouin tents), the Supreme Court, and the Jerusalem Zoo,” said Staiman. “The idea was to expand their horizons while helping them learn English.”

Toward the middle of the session, which ran until mid-August, a teen named Atanow said to Staiman, “I know English because of you.” It was a poignant statement for her. “This is a boy who until then asked me to speak in Hebrew, and I kept saying I would talk slower but in English. They really have gotten better in two weeks. They’re very motivated and respectful.”

The other area students on Counterpoint Israel this summer were Moshe Azizollahoff and Noam Tokayer of Teaneck and Sivan Shachnovitz of Fair Lawn.

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Counselor Elianna Wolf, right, with campers in Arad.
 
 
 
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