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Bringing down the house: Beth Aaron expanion ‘long overdue’

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Photos from http://www.bethaaron.org

With several mighty blows of a backhoe, the house next to Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck was razed last week, launching the long awaited expansion project of the synagogue at 950 Queen Anne Road.

The $2.4 million project calls for a larger lobby, a new multi-purpose room, a new teen minyan space, and additional youth department rooms.

The multi-purpose room will provide more functional space for lectures, community events and social programming, such as the Shabbat morning kiddush, said Larry Kahn, co-chair of the expansion committee. The new youth department rooms, located on the lower level, will accommodate the increasing number of children attending groups on Shabbat and holidays.

The construction will also add 65 seats to the main sanctuary, restoring 35 seats that were lost roughly nine years ago when the synagogue bought permanent pews and adding 30 seats on top of that, Kahn said.

Construction — scheduled to begin in the next few weeks by the Ridgewood-based firm Visbeen Construction — is expected to conclude late next spring.

The house, which Beth Aaron had owned, had been rented by Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, who has moved to the north side of Teaneck.

With a roster of some 300 member-families, the expansion of Beth Aaron’s building —which hasn’t been updated since 1986 — is long overdue, congregants say.

Pews at Shabbat services are often packed, and several minyanim need to be held simultaneously to accommodate everyone. The Shabbat morning kiddush draws overflow crowds and members have lamented for years about the cramped party room where it’s difficult to host a sizeable brit breakfast or bar/bat mitzvah luncheon.

Parents have also grumbled about the challenge of running youth groups for children on Shabbat and holiday mornings when the classroom space is inadequate for all the grades.

Indeed, said Rabbi Lawrence Rothwachs, it is not easy to serve the needs of everyone in the congregation in the current building. “This project will enhance our shul in numerous ways and allow us to serve all our members from the very young to old…. We’re extremely excited about the expansion. We are hopeful that this will be the beginning of another wonderful chapter in the history of our beit knesset.”

Synagogue President Larry Shafier said the new facility will allow us to “better serve our members and guests by providing for concurrent and additional prayer opportunities, classes, children, teen and youth programming, and an enhanced and more meaningful experience for everyone.”

Plans for the expansion were first introduced to the Orthodox synagogue in 1999. The project lay dormant for a number of years and was reactivated in 2006 after Rothwachs arrived at the shul.

Some congregants initially voted against the expansion, citing concerns about its high cost in a turbulent economy. But now, many of its critics have become staunch supporters of the project.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the amount and number of donations, especially in an uncertain economy, and we’re now running ahead of projections,” said Allen Friedman, co-chair of the expansion committee. “All of this indicates to us the importance the kehilla [the community] attaches to the project.”

The donations cover close to half of the project cost. But the synagogue still continues to collect more on its website. http://www.bethaaron.org., Friedman said.

“If we want a kehilla that will continue to be warm and to flourish, we need a building that let’s that happen.”

When the plan was initially proposed to the townshp, some neighbors expressed concern that an expanded building would bring more noise and parking woes to the neighborhood. But after they were invited to spend an evening at the synagogue to review the plans, they were won over, said Kahn. The township’s board of adjustment voted unanimously in favor of the project in 2009.

Beth Aaron was established in 1972 by Rabbi Meir Gottesman in a home on West Englewood Avenue at a time when many young people felt disenfranchised with their parents’ establishment synagogues, recalls longtime member and founder Mollie Fisch. Gottesman aimed to create a congregation that would attract young people who were rebelling against their parents and joining cults or running off to the Far East, she said. A Merrison Avenue family offered its basement in 1972 as a place for the congregation to meet and, years later, Dr. Stuart Littwin offered his home on Queen Anne Road, which eventually became the site for the existing synagogue building.

Although the expansion comes with hefty bills for members, Kahn says it has been met mostly with eager anticipation. “Many people are enthusiastic about the shul beginning a new chapter in its existence,” he said. “They’re looking forward to more opportunity for social interaction as well as spiritual growth in a setting that is conducive for that.”

 
 

When is a twin (city) not a twin (city)?

When Wikipedia says it is

A 2007 editorial mistake by an unnamed Canadian has been roiling Teaneck township council meetings.

Earlier this year, Teaneck resident Rich Siegel discovered an article on Wikipedia that asserted that Teaneck was a twin city with Beit Yatir, a Jewish village just over the 1967 border in the west bank. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is one of the most popular sites on the internet.

Siegel, who describes himself as a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, set out to find the origins of this relationship.

“First I wrote the mayor and he ignored me,” Siegel told the Jewish Standard. Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin did not return requests for comment.

“Then I sent certified letters to the mayor and all the members of the town council. It was at some expense, but I wanted to show them I was serious about getting an answer,” Siegel said.

Siegel did hear from Elie Katz, a council member who is a former mayor, who said he had never heard of the twinning. Neither had Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor and former council member whose tenure on the council dated back to 1996.

Siegel spoke at a council meeting in January, demanding that township officials publicly renounce the connection. In February, following a letter he wrote on the topic that appeared in the Suburbanite, five other residents stood up at the council meeting to protest the reported twinning.

“We were able to determine that no one had brought this before the town council. They just decided to set the thing up unilaterally,” said Siegel.

Who “they” were was not clear to him.

However, an investigation of the editing history of the Wikipedia article about Beit Yatir shows that the reference to a twinning with Teaneck was inserted by a Canadian editor who goes by the name “Shuki.” Shuki had added a line that Beit Yatir was twinned with Teaneck in 2007, shortly after creating the article, which he based on one in the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia.

The Hebrew article, however, made no mention of a twinning relationship with Teaneck.

Shuki did not return a request for comment left on his Wikipedia user page. According to that page, he has created 149 Wikipedia articles and is responsible for more than 10,000 editorial changes to the site in his five years of Wikipedia involvement. Most of his articles concern Israeli places and personalities. He has been heavily involved in the disputes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors that make articles on topics as apparently neutral as hummus deeply contentious. In December, he was banned from editing Wikipedia for six months, for allegedly using a false account to vote on the deletion of controversial articles concerning Israelis and Palestinians.

So why did Shuki claim a connection between Beit Yatir and Teaneck?

Most probably because there actually is a link between the two communities: Beit Yatir has long been twinned with Teaneck’s Beth Aaron congregation.

The synagogue has supported Beit Yatir’s summer camp and playgrounds, according to congregation president Larry Shafier. Synagogue members visiting in Israel have gone to Beit Yatir and posted snapshots on the congregation’s website. Beit Yatir residents have written articles for the Beth Aaron newsletter.

As for the Beit Yatir article on Wikipedia: This week it was corrected to read that the twinning was with the congregation.

Could Teaneck decide to officially twin with an Israeli town?

“It would be something to be viewed on a case-by-case basis,” said Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen. “We certainly don’t have a policy for twinning with other municipalities.”

Siegel said he personally would oppose an effort to twin Teaneck with an Israeli city. “I’m an anti-Zionist. I would be personally against a twin town relationship within the Green Line as well.”

Nonetheless, he said, “if it went through proper channels, by a vote of the people of Teaneck or the town council, that would be none of my business. My concern is people acting unilaterally.”

At present, 18 New Jersey municipalities are twinned with foreign partners — if Wikipedia can be believed. And in the case of its listing of New Jersey municipal twinnings, it can’t be. According to the listing, the city of Camden has twinned with Gaza City.

But there are no citations, no references to the twinning discovered online, and, perhaps most compellingly, said David Snyder, the local Jewish official whose job it would be to monitor official ties between Camden and pro-Palestinian groups, that it’s news to him.

“I have never heard of this and cannot imagine it,” said Synder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. “I’ve been in the community for 20 years and that has never come up.”

Other synagogue twinning projects

Beth Aaron’s twinning with Beit Yatir is only one of a number of direct connections between Bergen County and Israel.

At least two other Orthodox congregations have twinned with communities in the west bank.

Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck has twinned with Otniel, a village of 120 families about seven miles northwest of Beit Yatir. The American congregation has bought security equipment for Otniel, and sends shalach manot to each resident on Purim.

The Young Israel of Fort Lee partners with Dolev. “In the early years, we supported them financially and helped them found a day care and kindergarten,” says Rabbi Neil Winkler.

Three additional congregations, two Reform and one Conservative, have twinned with Israeli congregations:

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes is twinned with Cong. Yozma in Modiin. “In 2006, we brought a Torah to them. Since then, we visit Yozma every other year with our congregational trips,” says Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has a long-standing relationship with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa, which includes sponsoring scholarships at the Reform community’s school.

The Jewish Community Center of Paramus is an overseas member of Kehilat Yaar Ramot, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem. “We try to support their fund-raising efforts when we can,” says Rabbi Arthur Weiner.

 
 

Good news, bad news

Jewish groups granted lion’s share of area’s federal security funds

The Department of Homeland Security last week announced the allocation of $19 million for 2011 to non-profit institutions deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The allocations were made as part of its Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).

With $14.9 million, or about 80 percent of the NSGP allocations, going to Jewish institutions, Jewish groups across the country received security dollars disproportionate to their numbers in the general population.

That is not necessarily the “good” news, however. The DHS makes its allocations based strictly on risk-assessment, according to Robert Goldberg, senior director, legislative affairs, for The Jewish Federations of North America, which helps Jewish organizations apply for the grants. “Really since the establishment of this program, Jewish entities have been the primary recipients of program awards based on risk assessment,” Goldberg told The Jewish Standard.

Goldberg said the NSGP program was formed as a result of efforts by the Jewish Federations of North America, specifically its Washington office, “to connect the dots on the threats to the Jewish community for decision-makers in Congress and within the Administration.”

He added, “The Orthodox Union from the start of the program has been a close and active advocate with us.”

According to the web site of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which helps to administer the NSGP, “[Fiscal year] 2011 NSGP funds were allocated based on risk analysis, effectiveness, and integration with broader state and local preparedness efforts. Each nonprofit organization was able to apply…for up to a $75,000 grant award.”

Locally, Jewish institutions received $550,000 — the lion’s share of the $700,000 in NSGP grants allocated to all Northern New Jersey non-profits. Eight area Jewish institutions qualified for the grants, said Alan Sweifach, planning and allocations director at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, who helped institutions apply for the funds.

The NSGP, which has existed since 2007, earmarks funds exclusively for physical improvements, such as security barriers, shatterproof glass windows, security cameras, upgrades to keys and locks, and other security measures, Sweifach said.

Since 2007, the DHS has awarded 36 grants through the NSGP program to 25 institutions in Northern New Jersey. “The fact we’ve received over $2.6 million since 2007 is a terrific result,” said Sweifach. “On a sad note, it shows our institutions have demonstrated they are at risk, and that’s been recognized.”

Local Jewish institutions that received NSGP funding this year are all schools and synagogues: in Teaneck, Cong. Beth Aaron, Cong. B’nai Yeshurun, and Cong. Rinat Yisrael; Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland; Temple Emanu-El in Closter; Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; Chabad Lubavitch on the Hudson in Fort Lee; and The Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple (Congregation B’nai Jeshurun) in Franklin Lakes.

The risk is real and the allocations demonstrate that, said Sweifach.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate Jewish organizations are at high risk, they’ve received threats, and some have had attacks,” he said.

Recent hate crimes and attempted attacks in the greater New York-New Jersey area include the 2009 attempt by four men to bomb the Riverdale Temple (a Reform synagogue) and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center (an Orthodox synagogue), and a May 2011 plot by two New York men to attack synagogues and churches. One of the men allegedly planned to dress as a chasid in order to more easily infiltrate and bomb a synagogue.

The FBI reported in 2009 that anti-Jewish crimes represented more than 70 percent of all anti-religious hate crimes, marking the 12th consecutive year that anti-Jewish bias crimes topped the list, according to Hate Crime Statistics, the FBI’s annual report, for that year.

Sweifach has helped local organizations obtain security assessments and prepare applications for the NSGP grants. Grantees, he said, have three years to spend the money, which they must lay out themselves and for which they will be reimbursed later. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness monitors the organizations granted funding to insure that the intended improvements actually are implemented, he said.

While three of the eight institutions that received grants this year had received grants previously, DHS typically prioritizes institutions that have not yet received grants.

“They try to spread the wealth,” Sweifach said.

New Jersey, specifically the Newark-Jersey City region, which includes sections of Northern New Jersey, received the fifth highest allocation of NSGP funds this year, suggesting DHS assessed it as one of the nation’s highest risk areas, according to Goldberg.

While the DHS does not publicly share its risk-assessment process in awarding the grants, recent news reports indicate “lone wolf” terrorists — or disgruntled individuals acting independently — top the list of threats.

“Many high profile ‘lone wolf’ cases have targeted the Jewish community,” Sweifach said.

Institutions that are not specifically Jewish receiving NSGP grants in this area were mostly hospitals and included Holy Name Medical Center, according to Goldberg.

 
 

Beth Aaron celebrates a much-needed expansion

Jeanette FriedmanLocal
Published: 16 September 2011
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The newly expanded Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck is no longer “stuck in a box,” says Larry Kahn, co-chairman of the expansion committee. Courtesy Beth Aaron

Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron is set to unveil its newly expanded facilities with a weekend-long dedication program (chanukat habayit) running through Sunday.

The Orthodox synagogue was founded in 1972 by Rabbi Meir Gottesman in a modest house on Merrison Street, and had 25 members, 10 of whom were under the age of 21. It moved twice, until settling into its current location on a corner lot at 950 Queen Anne Road. The expansion and renovations included a new study hall, a dedicated library, an expanded kitchen, new office space, renovated bathrooms, a Shabbat elevator, four new classrooms, and a mother-baby room.

The Merrison Street dedication kiddush reportedly was served on an ironing board; the kiddush this Shabbat will be served on sturdy tables in a new 150-person social hall. Beth Aaron today has more than 350 member-families.

Kicking off the celebration will be Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, who will be the guest speaker at 12:30 p.m. in the main sanctuary. That will be followed by a gala lunch and dessert reception. The afternoon service will begin at 6:20 p.m. and will be followed by the traditional “third meal” of Shabbat, a Se’udat Sh’lishit, that will include the study of the concluding section of a tractate from the Mishnah.

The celebration continues on Sunday morning at the front plaza at 9 a.m., with presentations, brunch, music, and appropriate dancing to follow.

“Our community feels extraordinarily blessed to have reached this wonderful milestone in our history,” Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, who has been the congregation’s spiritual leader for the last 10 years, told The Jewish Standard. “We are incredibly excited about the opportunities that our new building will afford us today and in the future.”

Larry Kahn, co-chairman of the expansion committee with Allen Friedman, said that five new families joined in the last month alone. “We were stuck in a box. Now, with a full-service facility, we can provide services and programs to families of all ages in ways we weren’t able to do before.”

 
 
 
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