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Give more charity dollars to local causes: RCBC

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is urging community members to refocus their charitable giving on local causes.

The RCBC sent a letter to local Orthodox rabbis last month citing passages in the Shulchan Aruch that charity begins at home and that “the primary responsibility of tzedakah is to support the needs of our closest neighbors first.” The directive, said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, RCBC president and religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, is in response to the growing needs within the community.

“We want to make sure that we are prioritizing properly in terms of communal allocation of charity funds,” he said. “People need to be reminded that charity begins at home. That is a halachic idea and a secular concept.”

A year ago, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York, addressed the community about the importance of local giving and suggested that about 75 percent of contributions go to area charities and institutions. The RCBC letter emphasized that figure as a guideline for communal giving.

“We need to guarantee the future of our own community and the future of our schools,” Rothwachs said. “We’re not looking to shortchange anyone; we’re just trying to be responsive to the reality we’re facing.”

The letter, which RCBC rabbis have been sharing with their congregations, is meant to reinforce that concept, Rothwachs said. It is not, he emphasized, a declaration in support of any specific charities over others.

“People know what the local needs are,” he said. “If they have any questions about which local needs take priority, they should consult with their local rabbi for guidance.”

With a Jewish population of more than 100,000 and more than 180 Jewish organizations, according to Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Bergen County residents have been known for their Israel activism and giving to the Jewish state. Rothwachs said the RCBC would like to see that continue, but “there are times in life when people have to make choices and when there is a limited amount of resources to go around, people deserve the guidance on how to prioritize.”

“We hope that Israel will not lose,” he continued. “Our community’s been generous to [the state] in the past and we hope that generosity will continue. But we can’t ignore the realities we’re facing here.”

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the gateway to many area charities such as Jewish Family Service and Bonim Builders, recognized two years ago that the economic crisis had hit locally, and charitable priorities had to be readjusted, said executive vice president Howard Charish. The organization shifted its allocations last year to 63 percent local distribution and 37 percent overseas. In its fiscal year 2011 budget, which was just finalized, the federation lowered the local allocations to 62 percent.

“Unquestionably there is a need at this time for more resources locally,” he said. “The UJA feels its mandate is to help Jews everywhere.”

Charish said UJA-NNJ is a partner with RCBC in the spirit of the letter of reaching out to vulnerable local Jews.

“We have not turned a corner by any means here in the community,” he said.

He pointed, however, to increased requests for aid from agencies helping Jews in the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Israel.

“There is a tremendous need overseas,” he said. “It hasn’t relented. It’s almost a perfect storm with the crisis here at home as well as significant needs in Israel and around the world.”

Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, religious leader of Cong. Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and treasurer of the RCBC, has forwarded the letter to members of his congregation and has often spoken on the subject.

“Since the needs of the community are pressing,” he said, “it’s important to reinforce our values that the community comes first.”

The communal directive has no definitive end date and depends on local economics, according to Schiowitz.

“If things are fine, then we can focus charity elsewhere,” he said.

 
 

Kosher restaurants put ethical standards on the menu

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Kosher diners are starting to think about what goes on behind the counters where they eat, according to the Orthodox ethics organization Uri L’Tzedek. Three Bergen County restaurants have thus far signed up for the organization’s year-old ethical kashrut seal and a fourth will be announced later this month.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, then a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., founded Uri L’Tzedek in 2007. The organization unveiled the Tav HaYosher — the ethical seal — last year to reward businesses that recognize what its Website refers to as “The right to fair pay. The right to fair time. The right to a safe work environment.”

So far, 39 restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have signed up.

“It’s the next wave of 21st-century Jewish activism,” Yanklowitz said. “The simple act of a consumer choosing where to buy a sandwich is a matter of Jewish ethics. The act is so easy and the effect is so meaningful.”

Locally, Teaneck’s Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s Café and the frozen yogurt retailer 16 Handles at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus have signed up for the certification. A third Teaneck restaurant is expected to be announced next week, Yanklowitz said, adding he could not disclose any further details of its identity.

In addition to the businesses that have received its certification, Yanklowitz said Uri L’Tzedek has received commitments from synagogues, federations, schools, and other organizations and individuals to patronize only restaurants that have the seal. The recognition also sends a message to the non-Jewish community that watched the Agriprocessors scandal unfold in the media, he said.

“Many consumers have become disillusioned by the ethics of the kosher community,” Yanklowitz said. “By upholding the name yashrut, ethics, it expands the kosher clientele.”

When a restaurant signs up, a Tav Yosher compliance officer — one of some 60 volunteers — reviews the business’s payroll and other records and speaks privately with the employees. These inspectors are trained to review business ledgers and fluent in other languages to better communicate with non-English-speaking workers. The inspectors then return every two to three months to check the books and interview employees. The certification is free to businesses.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which oversees the kosher supervision of most of the area’s kosher restaurants, would allow restaurants to make their own decisions regarding the seal, said its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. Rothwachs declined further comment until he could learn more about the certification.

Calls to the manager of the 16 Handles Paramus branch, which received the Tav HaYosher last week, were not returned. The 16 Handles in Manhattan also carries the certification.

Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, told this newspaper that the community was outraged by ethical violations uncovered in recent years and wanted reassurance about local establishments.

“We’ve always felt we want our restaurants to be on a level where everyone feels comfortable,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to have an additional agency supervising an aspect we feel is important.”

Neither of his Teaneck restaurants nor his Manhattan Noah’s Ark restaurant, which also carries the certification, had to make any changes before Uri L’Tzedek awarded the Tav Yosher, he said. After the certificate appeared in his stores’ windows, however, customers began thanking the management, he added.

“They want to see people here locally are following the rules,” he said.

The Jewish community as a whole reacted very responsibly following the Agri fallout and has overcome the challenges it presented, he said.

“As long as we can move forward and do something constructive with the information that we have, we become better people,” Sokolow said. “It’s an evolution.”

 
 
 
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