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Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

For Richard Jacobs, new Reform head, big tent movement is the idea

For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members, and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

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Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y., has been tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Union for Reform Judaism

In an interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism — including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy, and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said. “What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is “large and unwieldy,” the URJ underperforms when it comes to fund-raising, and it “is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.”

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization “peremptory and ineffectively executed.”

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summer for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the incoming head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change.”

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised,” Jacobs told JTA, “for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes told The Jewish Standard, “Rabbi Rick Jacobs is both visionary and humble. His life’s service addresses the critical issues facing our people: the vitality of our congregations, and our obligation to respond to the needy. He will lift us to new heights.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

 
 

Barnert garden a project for all hands — and all ages

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Sharon Ramsey of Mahwah supervises while her children David, 4, and Hannah, 20 months, turn the soil and prepare a bed for planting. Karen Galinko

Four years ago, Barnert Temple’s preschool teachers realized that gardening could provide amazing educational opportunities. They had read about “Nature Deficit Disorder” — the idea that children spend too much time on computers and not enough unstructured time outdoors.

It was in this environment, as well as wanting children to connect with foods they eat, that the seed to create a temple garden germinated.

This spring those ideas are coming to fruition. Earlier this month, 30 congregants aged 1 1/2 to 70 met to help design and build raised cedar beds, take part in seed and plant selection, and study Jewish texts relating to the garden’s mission. The following Monday the fence was installed, and according to Seth Haubenstock, who co-chairs the Garden Committee with Eileen Roman, “We hope to plant by May.”

The garden has become an educational opportunity not only for the young but for the entire Barnert community.

“Every segment of the community will be involved in simple, unintimidating but inspirational experiences,” Haubenstock said. “It is a way to dip your feet into temple involvement. In every stage of the garden’s development there will be Jewish and environmental educational opportunities led by Rabbi Elyse Frishman and Sara Losch, director of Lifelong Learning.”

The garden will also be a tool to enhance other temple initiatives on such concerns as Africa, Israel, and the global water crisis.

One project raises money to help Rwandan women catch rainwater from a church roof. A similar system will be set up in the temple garden to help members appreciate the challenges the Rwandan women face.

For years the Barnert community has served dinners to the St. Paul Men’s Shelter in Paterson. A new goal is to have students use vegetables and herbs picked from the garden to prepare meals for the homeless men.

Preschool and religious school classes will have special garden days built into the curriculum. “There will be ample opportunities for students to work in the garden and lessons on how Jewish texts teach to care for the earth ... especially during Jewish harvest festivals,” Losch said.

An outdoor classroom (made up of stools cut from the trunk of a dead ash tree) is already being used for Preschool Circle Time, and an experimental section will be planted without any modern support such as soil-testing, fertilizers, and water sprinklers.

The learning opportunities go on and on, Losch said.

Every stage of the garden’s development is announced in weekly temple e-blasts, updates on a Facebook page, and frequent blogs. “The ideas are flowing from all sides,” she said. “People are writing in to us on Facebook, coming to meetings, and showing up with incredible energy and generous offers of time.”

And, according to Haubenstock, the local community has also gotten involved. The fence was built by Jan Fence. Garden State Irrigation provided the irrigation. Scenic Landscaping, whose owner is congregant Mitch Knapp, provided the soil, mulch, machinery, and gravel.

There is even talk of the installation of a greenhouse by spring 2012.

So what started as the idea of a few teachers has grown into a temple-wide initiative.

“Everyone is not only welcome but enthusiastically encouraged to get their hands dirty,” Losch said.

For more information, call Losch at (201 847-1027 or e-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or call Haubenstock at (201) 532-6666 or e-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

In economic slump, congregations aid unemployed

Synagogues and their rabbis have been taking on extra roles as congregants have lost jobs in the Great Recession.

They have offered employment-networking programs and informal job banks.

They have offered dues-reductions for people struggling.

And they have been counseling members stressed by economic problems.

Congregational support programs for members who lost their jobs have been both formal and informal.

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes helped establish an employment-networking program with fellow Reform synagogues Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Ramapo and Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, said the congregation’s Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

At the peak of the crisis, “We had a networking group and also a group focusing on job search skills,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

With their change in economic circumstances, “People who never thought they would be in the position of asking for a reduction of dues or tuitions from a Jewish institution — who saw themselves as the benefactors — were now in that position,” said Scheinberg.

“We’ve had a greater number of people who need financial assistance,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter. “Anywhere from someone saying, I can’t afford the whole nut, can you take 10 percent off, to people saying, I can only pay 10 percent.”

Kirshner said that his congregation has successfully encouraged congregants to join as “patron members,” paying extra dues to help make up for those who can’t pay.

“We hope that people who are able to make a difference for those who can’t will make that difference,” he said.

At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, in Ridgewood, Rabbi David Fine said that “even though we’ve had a number of families who have not been able to pay their dues because of their employment situation, the membership as a whole has increased its giving.”

Fine said that synagogues can “take a leading role in reaching out and giving community to people in need of it, as the community of the work place becomes more transient. That’s very important in trying economic times.”

Barnert Temple created a community support fund “to offer dues relief, in essence,” asking families who were able to support to help the families who were thinking of leaving the synagogue for financial reasons.

“We raised enough money to carry forth for three years,” said Frishman. “It was very helpful for people.”

The first year of the economic crisis had a direct impact on Frishman: The synagogue’s staff was asked to take a salary cut.

The following year, the pay cuts were restored, but on the whole, the synagogue’s budget “is growing tighter.”

At Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, Rabbi Gerald Friedman has reached into his discretionary fund for synagogue programs that no longer fit into the budget.

Financially, “we’re down. We’re carrying a number of additional families on either partial or more complete scholarships. People can’t shoulder the burdens they used to be able to shoulder,” he said.

With the real estate market still frozen, new families aren’t moving in to the community, he said.

“I’ve heard from some of my grandparenty types that young people can’t move to Bergen County; it’s too expensive still,” he said. “That affects people, when you don’t get feeder families.”

Kirshner said that some congregants have pulled their children out from Jewish day schools.

“Not many. Some. It’s painful. In some cases, they pull their kids out because tuition goes up six percent and they got a 10 percent pay decrease. That 16 percent is tough to make up when you have three or four kids. We do what we can to help them.”

Friedman said that in addition to the financial crisis, members of his congregation lost money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. All of this added up to what he sees as “a sense of uncertainty, a lack of confidence.”

“Real estate was so sure in America. When the stuff is so shifted around, what do you count on? What’s the rock?” asked Friedman.

Is it religion?

Friedman paused before answering.

“I don’t see a more varied chromatic, more in-depth absorption in Judaism. People who are on that path are doing it. I don’t see a greater proportion of my congregants reciting tehillim, psalms, or suddenly discovering the depth of Shlomo Carlebach’s songs. I don’t know what fills or solaces these terrible doubts. I try to speak the language of the spirit, that life is not only bank accounts and this and that, but if they don’t have this sense of it’s going to be OK, it’s very hard.”

Scheinberg said that he has counseled congregants going through “various kinds of personal financial crises, whether job loss or people who are underemployed or people who are now overworked because they’re expected to do what was previously the work of more than one employee.

“Sometimes I’m able to help them to have the courage to think creatively about new ways to approach their situation. Sometimes it’s helping them to face their fear.

“Often it’s helping them to realize that our lives are so much more than our work, even though we sometimes lose sight of that.

“Hopefully people can remember all the parts of their lives that go beyond career. There’s family and personal relationships, the role that one plays in one’s community, the role that an individual plays vis-à-vis the Jewish people and God. There’s our intellectual lives, our cultural lives, our spiritual lives.”

 
 
 
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