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entries tagged with: Barj


‘Hineini,’ film on coming out in a Jewish high school sparks discussion

Seated, from left, are panelists Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Avi Smolen, Rabbi David Fine, and Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick. Standing, from left, are BARJ students Miriam Edelstein, Melinda Graber, and Sarah Mironov. The students reported on the BARJ trip to Washington with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Lloyd de Vries

About 50 people attended a screening of “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” and panel discussion last week at the YJCC in Washington Township.

The film follows Shulamit Izen’s quest to gain acceptance at her Boston-area school, not only for herself as a lesbian, but also for other LGBT students there.

This was the second of three screenings and discussions planned by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. The first was held in November at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly and the third will be held at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, in Wayne, next month.

Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township moderated the panel, whose members were Rabbis Debra Orenstein of Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson and David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, both Conservative. Also on the panel was Avi Smolen, who married his partner, Justin Rosen, in October in a civil ceremony in Connecticut and a Jewish ceremony in Syosset, N.Y.

In the audience were students of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism, which normally meets at Temple Beth Or on Wednesday nights. The screening was the BARJ session for the week.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, chair of the JCRC and religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, told The Jewish Standard that “one of the things that JCRC wants is to keep the issues of civility and acceptance in front of our Northern New Jersey community.”

After the screening, Orenstein said, “It shouldn’t be such an enormous challenge to see the humanity and divinity in another person.

“If you can’t feel at home in your spiritual home, something is very, very wrong. We have to understand the full range of diversity,” she said.

Smolen said there are differences between a community that comes together of free will — such as in a civic organization — and a school where students are thrown together. It’s harder to walk away from the latter than from a voluntary group that isn’t accepting of you.

The announcement in The Standard of Smolen’s gay marriage touched off a storm of controversy.

“That to me was my standing up for my identity,” Smolen said. “That community then had to have a discussion about” whether to accept homosexuals.

Smolen, who is a development and communications associate in the New York City office of Keren Or, a center in Jerusalem for blind and multi-disabled children and young adults, said he did not submit the wedding announcement to be hurtful, but to celebrate a lifecycle event.

To “come out,” “you have to feel comfortable with who you are,” Smolen said, in response to a question from Borovitz.

Smolen, who is Conservative, said he has Orthodox friends who had a much tougher time dealing with their homosexuality, because there are no Orthodox role models and no one in that community to talk to about the issue.

An audience member said that Izen had the courage to declare her sexual identity because her parents accepted her as she was. Many young Jewish gays and lesbians don’t have that support, and struggle, the woman added.

“The challenge is to imagine oneself as the other,” said Fine. He said what Shulamit Izen experienced at her high school was similar to his experience as an observant Jew attending a public high school.

Just as Izen thought she was alone until one day she spotted a rainbow keychain on a teacher’s desk, indicating that the teacher might be gay, Fine one day watched as a teacher monitoring study hall put on a beret, opened a large book and read from it, then closed it and removed the beret. When Fine got a look at the book, he discovered it was a section of Talmud.

Fine added that he had engaged in a vigorous debate in his seminary about accepting homosexuals in the Jewish community. He told of a woman friend who cried when she read a paper he had written on the subject and revealed that she was a lesbian. That showed him, he said, that “these are real people,” not just abstractions.

Fine later served on a Conservative movement committee that drafted rules on gays and lesbians serving as rabbis. He wrote a dissenting paper that argued for greater inclusiveness than the committee had recommended.

Izen entered her high school as a freshman in the fall of 2000. An audience member who teaches at both the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and BARJ said that students at both schools are more tolerant than those at Izen’s school.

Zlotnick pointed out that Izen’s school in suburban Boston has been transformed not by the headmaster, not by the teachers, but by a student.

The evening closed with a report by three BARJ students who took a trip to Washington with the Religious Action Center of the Union of Reform Judaism. Miriam Edelstein and Sarah Mironov of River Dell High School and Melinda Graber of Tenafly High School delivered a speech they had made to members of the U.S. Senate in support of anti-bullying legislation protecting LGBT students.


After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.

“The issues were economic,” he said.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources — as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies — as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.

“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.

In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”

Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.

Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.

Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.

Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.

Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.

Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.

He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”

At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”

Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.

“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.

Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.

“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.

The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.

Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.

“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”

The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.

“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.

The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.

“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.

“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”

All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.

“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.


Rabbis’ forum: Patrilineal dispute no bar to civility

Rabbi Ziona Zelazo (left) moderated the discussion on diversity with Rabbi David Bockman, Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, Rabbi Kenneth Emert, and Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. Larry Yudelson

Even the most contentious problems of defining Jewish status can be dealt with without rancor, a panel of rabbis from across the streams agreed.

“We can’t minimize differences,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, which is Orthodox, “but we can maximize connections.”

Zierler was speaking at a panel last Thursday night entitled “I Respectfully Disagree: Fostering Tolerance & Acceptance in Our Diverse Jewish Community.” The panel, at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, was also sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. The third and final in a series of panels on civility and diversity, it drew about 25 people.

Perhaps the most contentious issue dividing the Judaic streams is the question of “Who is a Jew” — or, perhaps more bluntly, “Are you Jewish?”

It is a question that cuts to the soul of the individuals concerned, as well as to the heart of the disagreements concerning the primacy of traditional Jewish law between Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism on one side, and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on the other.

And it is a question brought to the fore by patrilineal descent: the policy of Reform Judaism, dating back to 1983, of accepting as Jews the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. (All streams accept the children of Jewish mothers as Jewish.)

On the whole, the rabbis said, they were able to resolve the issues raised by conflicting standards through mutual respect and sensitivity to the people affected.

Rabbi David Bockman: “You don’t tell a kid — or an adult — that ‘you’re not Jewish.’”

Rabbi David Bockman of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes said that from his perspective, as a Conservative rabbi, children of patrilineal descent are not Jewish.

“And if a person is not Jewish, he can’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony,” he said. “I would have to insist on conversion.”

Nonetheless, he said, “I very much believe you don’t tell a kid — or an adult — that ‘you’re not Jewish.’ Even if they’re not a Jew.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘your child is going from being a non-Jew to being a Jew.’ I would want to validate their Jewishness while at the same time saying that in order to be acceptable to everybody in the Jewish world, we have to go through this ceremony. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not punitive.”

Similarly, even though his congregation accepts patrilineal descent, Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff advises parents where the mother is not Jewish to consider having their child formally convert. Temple Beth Rishon is an unaffiliated liberal congregation. Emert is a member of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinical associations.

“Probably a year before the bar or bat mitzvah,” he said, “I would speak to the parents and explain to them that at Beth Rishon we accept patrilineal descent, but this is only [recognized] in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations.

“I speak to the parents about this, only the parents. Never to the children. It’s very important.

“I follow the dictums of the congregation, but I certainly can make the family aware of what conditions the child may face later on.”

Emert told of a girl from his congregation, whose mother wasn’t Jewish, who came back from college saying that “half the guys at Hillel won’t date me. I want to go to the mikveh,” and converted.

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt is head of school at Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland. As a Conservative institution, the school does not recognize patrilineal descent. But it will accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers on two conditions, she said. The parents must intend to raise the children as Jews. And they must plan to have them converted.

Bernhardt told of discovering before a bar mitzvah that a child she thought was Jewish in fact was not: He had been adopted but never converted.

“The key is that I had a relationship with the parents where I could sit down with them. I brought in the rabbi of their synagogue to begin a discussion of what to do.

“Through a series of discussions and educating the parents, we were able to reach the agreement that the child would have a hatafat dam brit [a symbolic circumcision], go to the mikveh, and have a bar mitzvah,” she said.

“A lot of this has to do with the kind of relationship a rabbi or a teacher or principal has with the child, so when these tough issues come up, they can be addressed in a manner that will meet the halachic obligations,” she added.

The local dispute over patrilineality does not always end happily, however, according to Emert. He said that was one of the issues that prevented the Bergen Academy for Reform Judaism from merging with the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

“How do you deal with the many students where the father is Jewish and the mother is not? How do you merge those students together? That creates a real problem for some of the rabbis in the community,” he said.

Zierler said that even though he, an Orthodox rabbi, does not accept patrilineal descent, conflicts over it have no place in a school that serves the entire community.

“A school is an empowerment zone, not a playground for poor rabbinic behavior, when the casualty will be the education of children,” he said.

“The issue is touchy, but if you have children that are growing up in the framework of Jewish homes, you have to create frameworks for them,” he said.

“Why should we get sidetracked on the issue of patrilineal descent? It doesn’t belong in the classroom, it belongs in the synagogue. It’s for the rabbi’s study. If joint schooling does lead to marriage, problems of Jewish status can be rectified — in most cases — quietly and sensitively.”

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