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Local youths score as Bible scholars

Two Bergen County teens took top honors in the national and international rounds of the prestigious Hidon HaTanach (Bible Contest).

Isaac Shulman, a Torah Academy of Bergen County junior from Englewood, placed second in the high school division last Sunday in Manhattan.

Joshua Meier, a home-schooled Teaneck 14-year-old, came in sixth in the international round on Israeli Independence Day, April 20, in Jerusalem (see sidebar).

In addition, Ben Sultan from The Frisch School placed fifth in the high school division and Elisha Penn of Yavneh Academy placed seventh in the junior high division. Both schools are in Paramus.

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Isaac Shulman

Isaac qualifies for a free trip to Israel for next year’s International Bible Contest. Initiated by David Ben-Gurion and overseen by the World Zionist Organization, the annual event is open to young scholars from across the world who place first or second in national rounds on each levels. Finalists this year included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son.

TABC Principal Rabbi Yosef Adler called Isaac “a real ‘ben Torah’ and mensch who excels in Judaic and general studies.” Isaac play tennis and soccer, competes on TABC’s Torah Bowl team, and reads the Torah at Cong. Ahavath Torah’s early Shabbat services.

The son of Elliot and Victoria Shulman, Isaac said he had attended an after-school Hidon preparation class with Rabbi Neil Winkler when he was at The Moriah School of Englewood, but never passed the qualifying test. This time, he added, “I studied.”

Based on a syllabus that included Genesis, Samuel I, and parts of Hezekiah and Psalms, contestants had to identify common themes and details, such as matching biblical grandsons with their grandfathers. Isaac sometimes studied with friends Sruli Farkas and Yakir Forman. Yakir won fourth place in the international round in 2007 when he was a Moriah eighth-grader.

Sunday marked the 20th consecutive year that Moriah has sent finalists to the nationals. Its students compose a large percentage of past winners.

Principal Elliot Prager said that Winkler “has transformed an after-school club into an annual focus of pride and excitement for all of our students. Above and beyond his superb command of Tanach, and the knowledge and text analysis skills which he imparts to his students, it is his ‘ahavat Torah’ — the passion for Torah learning — which Rabbi Winkler embodies and which has produced several generations of Hidon finalists and winners at Moriah.”

Winkler has taught Judaic studies at Moriah for 32 years and has offered his weekly prep class for a quarter-century. Many of his Hidon protégés went on to become prominent rabbis and teachers.

He does not stress winning, Winkler said, but encourages his students to “enjoy and absorb the forest of [biblical] knowledge. In the end, you will know the material so well you will know every tree in that forest.”

Six students qualified for the nationals by answering multiple-choice questions such as: Which of the Egyptian plagues was described in Psalms as having entered “the royal chambers”? What practice was said to have become “a law and statute in Israel”? Why did David accuse Abner and his men of deserving of death? How high did the waters of the flood reach? Which gifts did Abraham not receive upon leaving the house of the Pharaoh?

Promising Israeli students get half-days off from school to study for the nationals, while foreign students lack that luxury. “You can tell which kids have a fire burning within them and push themselves to study on their own time,” said Winkler, who is rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee. “When kids pick up some passion for it, then my job is finished.”

 
 

Water power

Mikvahs abound in area

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The Teaneck Mikvah, on Windsor Road, serves 35 to 40 women every day. Photos courtesy Teaneck Mikvah Association

Shevi Yudin always hands out kosher Dunkin’ Donuts to local yeshiva high school girls after leading them on tours of the Fair Lawn mikvah. “Get the joke?” asked the Cong. Shomrei Torah rebbetzin with a hearty laugh. “Dunk-in’ Donuts? I want their first encounter with a mikvah to be a sweet experience.”

Immersing — “dunking” — in a ritual bath is a biblically mandated cornerstone of Jewish family life. (See sidebar.) Women are required to make their first visit just before marriage and continue through their childbearing years — which is why Yudin aims to present mikvah in a memorably positive light.

In Teaneck and Englewood, volunteer committees are working to raise funds for expanded facilities to serve a growing Jewish population. Rabbinic tradition teaches that building a mikvah takes precedence over building a shul, and mandates that the entire community is obligated to contribute toward its construction and upkeep.

Though none of those interviewed for this article specified dollar amounts, a modern mikvah costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and incurs considerable ongoing maintenance expenses. A typical mikvah structure includes a reception area; preparation rooms with shower/bath fixtures; one or more ritual baths holding a heated mixture of rainwater and treated tap water; and a “finishing” area where women dry their hair. Prep rooms are wired with buttons that users press to signal the attendant that they are ready to immerse themselves. Most mikvah buildings also include a separate pool for immersing new cooking utensils, in keeping with Jewish law.

The first stage of Teaneck’s new mikvah opened in March. Serving 35 to 40 women daily from Teaneck, Bergenfield, and New Milford, it has 10 preparation rooms and two ritual baths.

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The mikvah in Tenafly on Piermont Road uses water from a spring. Jerry Szubin

Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Association, explained that the old building will soon be demolished to make way for stage two of the project. This will add another 10 prep rooms and two ritual baths, including accommodations for people with physical disabilities and a specially appointed bridal prep room.

The project is a long time in coming; initial variances were granted for the new structure by the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2003. The board approved the final plans in 2006, after the Mikvah Association bought the house next door for maximum expansion. In the meantime, the old facility was operating with only six preparation rooms, leading to long wait times.

“Everything about the facility has been upgraded,” Greenspan said. “There is real excitement and gratitude from the community.” The association is still seeking donations, which may be made at http://www.teaneckmikvah.com.

The Englewood Mikva Association has been soliciting donations for the past few years to complete its new, larger facility. It recently hosted a dessert reception at Cong. Ahavath Torah featuring a keynote address by noted author/psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski.

Medinah Popper, president of the association, moved to town 30 years ago. At that time, Englewood and other Bergen County women were using the just-opened Teaneck mikvah. In the late 1980s, Cong. Shomrei Emunah included a small mikvah in its new building on Huguenot Avenue, intended for use on Friday nights and other times Orthodox women could not drive to Teaneck.

“But as soon as it was finished, there was a request to use it every day,” Popper said. Since 1989, this facility has been administered by the Mikva Association, an independent group. Last year, an average of 11 women used it daily. Though greater Englewood has five Orthodox synagogues and about 1,000 Orthodox and traditionally observant Jewish families, many women opt to use the larger Tenafly mikvah at Lubavitch on the Palisades.

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Shevi Yudin carries Dunkin’ Donuts for yeshiva high school girls touring the Fair Lawn mikvah. She stands at the mikvah’s memorial wall. Jerry Szubin

“As our population has been increasing exponentially, we’ve outgrown the size of the current mikvah,” Popper acknowledged. When Ahavath Torah finalized its plans for a new building about five years ago, unallocated space was offered to the association to build a new mikvah.

“The shul project was enhanced by having the [planned] mikvah inside of it, and we were happy to have a larger central location. But although we both benefit from it, we are financially independent of the shul,” said Popper, who expressed gratitude for the cooperation and support of all area synagogues and rabbis.

Because the infrastructure was installed simultaneously with the synagogue’s by the same architect, designers, and contractors, the shul laid out the money while the Mikva Association began fund-raising to reimburse all expenses. Two years ago, it became apparent that the costs would be higher than expected, necessitating a delay and a renewed round of solicitations. Once sufficient funds are secured, Popper expects the area could be completed within four months. At that time, it will become the community’s main mikvah.

Popper said the Mikva Association aimed for an aesthetically pleasing design “so a woman should feel pampered. At the same time, we have been cognizant that money should not be spent lavishly, so it will be attractive without being overly luxurious.” The design calls for two ritual baths and seven preparation rooms, including one especially for brides. Access will be available for the disabled.

“You really want to be very appealing to young people,” said Popper. “We get a lot of young women from non-Orthodox backgrounds who would like to use the mikvah, and of course we’ve always accommodated them.”

Shevi Yudin — like many other area rebbetzins — holds classes for prospective brides to learn the laws and customs surrounding the mikvah. Her students often include women who took her tour when they were in high school.

When she and her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, came to lead the nascent Cong. Shomrei Torah 40 years ago, building a mikvah was a priority. It was not until 1990, however, that the small mikvah was completed; it was refurbished five years ago. About 75 to 100 women use it each month, according to Doris Brandstatter of the Fair Lawn Mikvah Committee.

Though the Fair Lawn mikvah has paid attendants on weeknights, Yudin accompanies women on Friday and holiday nights, as well as at off hours. She also accompanies female converts and older married women, often Russian immigrants, who have never used the mikvah before. Some are looking for a spiritual way to address marital or fertility issues.

But it is the bridal visits that mean the most to Yudin, whose own first immersion was less than pleasant. “I pride myself that kallahs [brides] here have a very special experience. I walk them down the steps of the mikvah, singing as if it’s the beginning of their wedding. If their mothers come with them, we all dance together afterward. I give every kallah [bride] a beautiful handbook, and I try to write a personal note inside with my phone number. I try to connect in a very personal way, and they know they can call me for advice any time.”

Her involvement in local domestic violence prevention has sensitized her to the fact that not every new marriage is happy. “I make a habit of checking with my kallahs six months later to find out how things are going,” Yudin said. “Every once in a while I uncover problems that way.”

Yudin related that a close friend died of cancer a week before her niece’s wedding. Before her passing, she had asked Yudin to accompany the young bride to the mikvah and also sent a beautiful robe to be designated for brides at the Fair Lawn mikvah.

On another occasion, Yudin got into the ritual bath with a bride who was terrified of water. Her fiancé, who had been afraid his future wife would be unable to complete the immersion, called Yudin afterward and suggested they all meet for coffee to celebrate.

“It’s never a routine kind of thing,” said Yudin, “because you’re involved with people.”

 
 

Different strokes: Englewood rebbetzin swims for charity

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From left are Swim4Sadna participants Cheryl Mandel, Barbara Goldin, Vivienne Glaser (coordinator), and Sharon Katz. Aside from Goldin, an Englewood resident, the other women live in the Gush Etzion region where Sadnat Shiluv is located.

Eighty-five women in red-and-yellow bathing caps waded into Lake Kinneret early on June 16 to “Swim4Sadna,” raising funds for an innovative private special-needs school south of Jerusalem. All but three of the swimmers were Israeli. One of the out-of-towners was Barbara Goldin, rebbetzin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“As you’re swimming, you see in front of you all these yellow and red ‘balls’ bopping up and down. It felt like a dream,” said Goldin.

In Israel this summer to visit friends and family, Goldin learned of Swim4Sadna when a fellow passenger in her sister-in-law’s car mentioned it. “As I am an avid swimmer, I was excited,” she said, “and when I heard it was for a tzedaka, I was hooked.”

She had never heard of Sadnat Shiluv (“Integrated Workshop”), a program in the Gush Etzion village of Rosh Tzurim that incorporates special-needs kindergartners through young adults into the greater community. The center provides therapeutic animal care and horseback riding, assisted living, and employment (see box).

“I was quite nervous because I didn’t know anyone else doing the swim, but I thought if I can raise awareness of this tzedaka, and help somehow, that would feel so great,” said Goldin, who e-mailed shul members asking them to sponsor her. A speech therapist at the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center in Clifton, she has a particular affinity for the cause and quickly befriended Vivienne Glaser, the Sadnat Shiluv mother who organized the swimathon.

Glaser’s 19-year-old son lives in the first of several planned group residences and is about to begin a two-year vocational program. “My aim had been to find 50 friends to swim and have them get 50 sponsors each to help us build more desperately needed apartments,” said Glaser, a British native. “We’re trying to make this into an international learning center offering holistic solutions for a range of challenges.”

In the end, 85 swimmers participated, including Glaser, her daughters, and her 75-year-old mother. Each pledged to raise a minimum of 2,000 shekels (about $525) and pay her own expenses. (Tax-exempt credit-card donations are still being accepted through IsraelGives.org; enter “Sadnat Shiluv” in the search field on the home page.)

Goldin signed up for the shorter 1.5-kilometer (9/10 of a mile) option. “I was too intimidated to do the 3.5 [kilometer] and now I’m sorry,” she said the next day. “It was about an hour’s swim, and I wasn’t even that tired. It’s exhilarating to see the mountains as you’re going along doing the breast stroke. Next year, if I can do it again, I’ll do the 3.5. Maybe I can convince one or two of my friends to do it, too.”

Glaser does intend to make Swim4Sadna an annual event, and even hopes to offer a tourist extension package to attract more foreigners.

She got the idea from a long-running national charity swimathon at the Kinneret on the first Saturday of every September. As a Sabbath-observer, she was never able to participate. “I had seen the advertisements since I was 14, and at age 50 I decided to do something I had always wanted to do and make it benefit the Sadna,” she said.

Not only did she schedule it for a weekday, but also made it exclusively for women — and not just to accommodate Orthodox participants. “In Israel, 30 percent of sports activities are now women only, and that has nothing to do with being religious,” she said. “The combination of being women only and the excitement around something so unique made it such a positive experience.”

Since the swimmers had to hit the lake at 6 a.m., they stayed in the area the night before. Goldin, who has grandchildren in America and in Israel, was one of a handful of adults who opted to sleep on the beach rather than in a hotel. “At Camp Morasha, I loved overnights and the great outdoors, so being on the beach sounded cool. We had to be on the bus at 5 — it was like getting up early to raid another bunk.”

Her enthusiasm didn’t wane throughout the experience. “There is such an electricity doing something you love with so many other women. All of them were passionate swimmers and all of them wanted to help others.”

 
 

Jacob Benaroya Sephardic Center to open Sunday

Ashkenazim and Sephardim separate and together at Cong. Ahavath Torah

Twenty-eight years ago, there were only a few Sephardic families in Englewood. Albert Allen, a member of Cong. Ahavath Torah who had emigrated from Egypt, was concerned that the community’s children would grow up losing sight of unique Sephardic traditions.

Along with several other members of the synagogue, Allen organized a Sephardic minyan of about 10 families that met on the High Holy Days and, eventually, for other services.

Over the years, as the Sephardic community grew, the minyan did, too. Today it includes 75 families out of the 700 in the synagogue.

On Sunday, Ahavath Torah will dedicate an addition for its Sephardic branch, with a large and small sanctuary, a social hall, and a library. The celebration will start with a service at 8:30 a.m., followed by speakers and brunch.

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New sanctuary at Cong. Ahavath Torah

The new wing, called the Jacob Benaroya Sephardic Center, will be dedicated by Raphael Benaroya, a congregant who is the former CEO of Avenue stores, a plus-size women’s clothing company. The new wing is named after his father, who emigrated from Bulgaria.

“Jacob Benaroya was an excellent man and Raphael is the best,” said Allen, who is president of the Sephardic minyan at the synagogue and former treasurer of Ahavath Torah.

On Wednesday Raphael Benaroya called The Jewish Standard from Israel, where he was attending a security briefing with members of Israel’s government.

His visit to Israel has brought home the need for unity, he said, adding that this is something Englewood’s Jewish community understands.

“Jewish people ... absolutely must focus on unity,” he said. “What is happening in Englewood is nothing short of a visionary community — one Sephardi and three Ashkenazi shuls under one roof. Each one could have gone its own way. The distinction — Sephardi, Ashkenazi — we put aside in the face of the need for togetherness given the challenges we face as Jews.”

He also praised Denise Setton, a congregant and manager of the building project.

Five years ago, members of the Sephardic minyan came together to decide whether to form an independent synagogue or remain part of Ahavath Torah. Overwhelmingly, they decided to stay, according to Shlomo Tsadok, a founding member of the minyan.

“We stayed with them because we feel we are part of the community and there is no animosity between the groups,” he told the Standard. “Within the Sephardic minyan we have the same tolerance too: We allow people to pray in their own style. We try to make everybody feel at home.”

Tsadok explained that Sephardic prayers use melodies distinct from Ashkenazic ones.

Within the minyan, families hail from many countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Morocco, Afghanistan, Persia, Yemen, Syria, Bulgaria, and Egypt.

The congregation is hoping the new wing will attract even more young families, according to Solomon Bitton, a member of the minyan and Raphael Benaroya’s son-in-law.

“We are looking for this new space to be a blaring advertisement of the great things going on in our community,” he said “We’ve had massive growth, and we are looking to bring more families in. We’ve got lots of room.”

 
 

Shul within a shul

Sephardic Center dedicated at Ahavath Torah

The chants of morning services led by Cantor Ya’akov Cohen filled the new Sephardic sanctuary at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood on Sunday as congregants slowly filled the synagogue and the women’s balcony. They were coming to celebrate the dedication of the Benaroya Sephardic Center, a project that took root in a neighbor’s basement 27 years ago and came to full fruition last weekend.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who presides over one community with four separate congregations under the Ahavath Torah roof, noted in his homily that the completion of the Sephardic Center and sanctuary also completes the vision of a diverse, yet unified, Jewish community.

Linda Benaroya, who greeted many of the women by name as they entered the ezrat nashim, the women’s section, said that “perhaps the best way to describe what we have here, multiple synagogues under one roof, is to call it a synaplex. We really appreciate our community’s uniqueness as a melting pot.” There had been some thought of building a separate Sephardic shul in another location, she said, but “Ahavath Torah had been our home, almost from the beginning, and we didn’t want to leave. This is a special place with beautiful, positive energy.”

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Raphael Benaroya dedicated the Sephardic Center in memory of his father, Jacob. jeanette friedman

The Sephardic Center is named for her father-in-law, Jacob Benaroya, a Holocaust survivor from Bulgaria. His son, Raphael, a businessman, was a driving force behind the center, along with Albert Allen, who started the congregation in his house in Englewood with just 10 families. Now it has more than 75 member-families.

Raphael Benaroya told the gathering, which included Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle and Police Chief Arthur O’Keefe, “My father would have liked this beautiful place. He would have told me, ‘It’s not about yofi, it’s about offi,’ not about beauty, but about character. We would have liked middot,” positive character traits, “and mutual respect to be the defining characteristics.”

He said that he envisioned that the center would turn into a place of learning, with a library and classes open to all — a “Torah fortress built on a strong foundation,” a place where young families and young men and women would come. “We will make them feel welcome,” he said. “We would wish for them to be productive and engaged.”

Before the speeches began, mezuzot were placed on the doorposts and Torahs in traditional Sephardi silver cases were carried into the sanctuary and placed in the ark. The women in the balcony ululated as the men sang and danced in a circle in front of the ark.

Rabbis who spoke — Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah; Zev Reichmann of East Hill Synagogue and director of the Mechina Program at Yeshiva University; Chaim Pupko, associate rabbi of Ahavath Torah; and Mordechai Gershon, assistant rabbi assigned to the Sephardic Center — and delivered d’vrei torah, blessings and good wishes for the future, linked the synagogue to ancient Jewish tradition, to the mishkan in the desert, to the land of Israel, and to the unity of the Jewish people.

Joseph Chetrit, a major benefactor representing his siblings and their families, dedicated the Chetrit Sanctuary in the names of his parents, Alice and Simon Chetrit. “Emunah, faith, is what carries this special Jewish community in Englewood,” he said. “It has been proven that when you do something le sheym Shamayim, for the sake of God, that you will have a success.”

Denise Setton, whose family joined the Sephardic congregation 24 years ago, was the project manager and said it took nine months to see it through. Her husband is from Egypt, and when she was raising her children, she wanted them to be part of a growing Sephardic community. She echoed what founder Albert Allen has said many times and said again on Sunday: “We wanted our children to learn our special heritage and not forget our own traditions, yet still be part of the larger Jewish community.”

During ceremonies, emceed by Norris Nissim, chairman of the executive committee, Benaroya singled Setton out for special praise, and presented her, from a distance, with a plaque of Jerusalem stone in appreciation of her efforts. Also receiving special recognition were Ken Eckstein, past president of Ahavath Torah, and Fred Horowitz, a member of the center’s executive committee.

In his concluding remarks, Goldin said, “There is one thing we haven’t yet heard…. Why was it so important for this shul to be part of our shul? Because we are Am Echad — one people. The Ashkenazic people would not be complete without the Sephardim, and vice versa. We are a microcosm of all that should be, and we should project this model to others. But this is just the beginning. We will still need patience and we will have to continue the work. When there are tensions, as there will be in any relationship, let us always remember we are Am Echad.”

Shlomo Tsadok, a gabbai and member of the executive committee, told The Jewish Standard, “At the dedication, I could see the future, one that inspires us to love Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel.”

 
 
 
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