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Communal leaders rally to ward off murderous dictator

Boteach to sue the Libyan government for damage to property

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The Libyan mission on Palisades Avenue in Englewood has remained untouched for years, until renovations began several weeks ago.
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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, front, and Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes survey the remains of the trees felled by the Libyan mission next door. All photos by Josh Lipowsky

Whether or not Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi comes to Englewood next month — and as of Wednesday, the U.S. government reportedly has asked Libya to make alternate arrangements — Rabbi Shmuley Boteach plans to file a lawsuit against the Libyan government.

According to Boteach, whose home is next door to the Libyan mission in Englewood, construction efforts at the once-derelict site on Palisades Avenue have redoubled in the past few days, leading to speculation that Kaddafi indeed intends to stay there when he addresses the United Nations in September.

“I saw as many as 40 vehicles there this morning, working feverishly,” he told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday.

Boteach held a press conference that day to show reporters the site of his former fence — removed by the mission’s construction company without his knowledge and consent — as well as several downed trees, left lying in the yard.

“I have no choice but to file a suit,” said the rabbi, a columnist for this newspaper and the author of books about relationships. He said that the Libyan mission’s construction manager, with whom he had established a kind of rapport, “abruptly changed his attitude after the media frenzy resulting from Libya’s public welcome of mass-murdering terrorist” Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in Libya. The manager has now made it clear that he no longer has the ability to settle the property dispute, said Boteach. Nor has the Libyan embassy responded to the rabbi’s calls.

“I want to enact justice” from the Libyan government, said Boteach, “to divert funds from blowing up planes to planting trees. It’s a more positive use of the funds.”

He acknowledged, however, that “it’s a David and Goliath situation…. The Libyan government has an open spigot of funding.”

Libya is “spending millions on this house but won’t give $1 to the city of Englewood for basic services,” he said.

Last week, the Standard reported Boteach’s offer to host Kaddafi at his home, should the Libyan leader demonstrate that he no longer supports terrorism. But, said Boteach, Kaddafi’s embrace of al-Megrahi persuaded him that nothing had changed.

The rabbi said he was on the verge of filing a lawsuit through his attorney, David Wecht of the firm Kim & Bae of Fort Lee.

The view from Englewood

Together with Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, Boteach will hold a rally on Sunday in an effort to prevent Kaddafi’s visit.

“A lot of people are adamantly opposed to an international funder of terrorism coming to Englewood,” he said. “If he’s granted a visa, I hope they will pitch his tent on a barge in the East River where he and his security can be better monitored.”

Boteach pointed out that, should he come to Englewood, Kaddafi “will bring a small army of security personnel.” He noted that Al-Megrahi was a member of the Libyan intelligence service. “We’ll have many of them using state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to protect Kaddafi, which will severely compromise the very privacy of my home,” he said, adding that whether Kaddafi ultimately comes or not, the property next door is owned by the Libyan government and “now that I’ve come out so publicly and forcefully against [Kaddafi], they can’t have warm feelings toward me.”

Boteach further noted that while Englewood “is the kind of city that can be very tough on its residents, it’s amazing how they have fast-tracked all the building requests by the Libyans.”

He said local synagogues often have immense difficulty getting permission “to set up a tent for a bar mitzvah. The East Hill Synagogue has been fighting the city planning officials constantly just to move their building plans forward. And their residents pay huge taxes. But here, with the Libyan Embassy that for 25 years has not paid even $1 of tax, everything was expedited, fast-tracked. Why was [the construction] allowed? I’d like to see all of the records of applications made by the Libyans and [know] why it was all expedited.”

While Boteach maintains that the felled trees were on his property — a fact acknowledged up to now by the construction crew at the Libyan mission — a city official is suggesting that the trees may have been on Libyan property.

Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-37) told the Standard that he spoke to members of the Englewood town administration about the issue and “[Englewood Construction Official] Peter Abballe told me there’s a question as to whose property the trees are on. It has to be straightened out, mediated.” Abballe could not be reached for comment.

According to Englewood City Engineer Kenneth Alpert, the Libyan mission’s contractors were “not in compliance” with town regulations when they cut down the trees.

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Dozens of crates holding papers have been delivered to the Libyan mission in recent weeks. The mission tore down a section of Boteach’s chain-link fence and replaced it with this cast iron fence.

“The tree ordinance requires that they take out a permit,” he said. “They need a replanting schedule.” Alpert said the mission did not obtain a permit and that the town has asked it to apply for one.

“We hope to have it this week,” he said, adding that a “stop work” order has been issued pending receipt of the documents. The town, however, cannot “physically enforce” the order but can only levy fines “that get more and more extreme.”

“They’ve assured us that they will be complying with the ordinance, but they haven’t yet,” he said. He noted also that the mission is responsible for removing debris resulting from cutting down the trees.

Crystal Brown, co-chair of Englewood’s Environmental Commission, said town regulations forbid cutting down trees on someone else’s property.

Even cutting down trees on one’s own property is hedged with certain restrictions. Only a certain number of trees of a certain diameter and age may be cut without a permit, she said, noting, however, that “the regulations are vague as they now stand.”

Exceptions occur when a tree is either very old or is “uncommon in its size and its age to this area.” In that case, a permit would be required and the homeowner would need a corroborating statement by a certified arborist.

In the case of a neighbor’s tree, an individual would need to do several things to bring about its removal. First, he would have to inform the owner of the tree that he was hiring an arborist to evaluate the tree’s condition. Second, if the expert agreed that the tree posed a danger, the aggrieved neighbor would need to provide the report to the tree owner, “putting him on notice.”

“It’s always easiest to cut it down” and plead ignorance, said Brown, pointing out that the fine for such behavior is not high. “We’re trying to put teeth into the ordinance so that people don’t take the easy way out.”

Brown also noted that, in the case of private companies, there is an obligation after cutting down trees to “cut them up, ground them up, or whatever needs to be done.”

She said that the most effective way to redress the situation would be to “institute a Q alert and make an online complaint” to the Department of Public Works. “Someone must then dispose of [the claim] in a timely manner,” she said. “They can’t deny they got the Q alert,” said Brown, citing its public nature.

But for Boteach, the main concern has been that the trees were cut down for security purposes. “I would like the City of Englewood to inform me of what surveillance and monitoring equipment the Libyans are installing to protect Kaddafi. This is a residential community and the thought of Libyan intelligence officials having the power to intrude upon our privacy is extremely worrying.”

‘Blood on his hands’

Rep. Steven Rothman, a former mayor of Englewood, recalls that in December 1982, immediately prior to being sworn in, “we got word that several Libyan individuals had purchased a rundown mansion on the hill in Englewood. We were further told that Muammar Kaddafi planned to take up temporary residence and bring his entourage with him.”

Rothman said he called the State Department asking for help, specifically to learn if the town could take advantage of the newly enacted foreign missions act, setting conditions on the use of U.S property by foreign nationals.

“After months of negotiations, the State Department issued a letter to the Libyan government announcing restrictions at the mansion to [accommodate] only the Libyan ambassador to the U.N., his wife and children, for residential recreational purposes only.”

“There was to be no diplomatic mission there and no other people of Libyan nationality to be present,” said Rothman, adding that “if the Libyan government sought a waiver of those restrictions, it had to get prior approval from the State Department.”

Rothman said that as soon as he heard the rumor about Kaddafi’s impending visit, he called the State Department and the White House.

“I’ve spoken with them many times over the weekend and today,” he said on Tuesday, noting that he “talked to people at the highest levels at both the White House and the State Department and both the president and the secretary of state are aware of the situation.”

“I also said I hoped the White House and State Department would be as successful in upholding the restriction as the Reagan White House and State Department were in enacting it,” he said.

“I volunteered that I acknowledged that the U.S. as the host nation of the U.N. has an obligation to provide a location for foreign visitors to the U.N. to take residence in. It was my strong belief that the only appropriate place for such residence was New York City.”

Rothman noted that federal and state funds are available “to provide the resources and personnel to assure the safety of foreign visitors to the U.N. and, most important, to provide for the safety of the local residents.

“Any single family residential neighborhood in the suburbs would be inappropriate,” he said. “I thought it also important to take cognizance of the fact that in my opinion — and in the opinion of many of my constituents — this foreign individual who might be seeking to reside in Englewood was a murderous dictator with American blood on his hands who had only a few days ago sponsored an elaborate celebration for the mass-murdering Lockerbie bomber’s return to Libya.”

Rothman’s office issued a statement later on Tuesday indicating that while the Libyan government has not made a decision about where Kaddafi will stay, “the U.S. government has strongly urged the Libyan government that if Kaddafi does come to the United States for the opening of the General Assembly, he should not stay in Englewood.”

According to Rothman, “If he were to do so, it could create a situation that may be dangerous to the citizens of Englewood and it would reflect very poorly on the nation of Libya. We are hopeful that, within the next few days, the Libyan government will make it clear that Mr. Kaddafi will not be coming to Englewood.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg has written to Clinton as well, asking that “travel restrictions be placed on any visa issued to Colonel Kaddafi limiting him to travel only in the United Nations Headquarters District” defined as the land in New York City located between 42nd and 48th Streets and First Avenue and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.

Citing Libya’s warm reception for al-Megrahi, Lautenberg said that “allowing Colonel Kaddafi to travel freely in the U.S. would be an affront to the families of the Pan Am 103 victims….. I am deeply disappointed that the Libyan government chose to ignore appeals by President Obama to resist a celebration of Mr. Megrahi’s return to the country.”

Lautenberg added that he is “particularly concerned by news reports indicating that Colonel Kaddafi plans to stay in New Jersey, where the families of many Pan Am 103 victims reside.”

Englewood Mayor Wildes told the Standard that while the dates of Kaddafi’s visit — should it occur — have not yet been confirmed, it is assumed that he would remain in the area from a few days to two weeks.

“Overtime itself for police personnel could be in excess of $20,000 per day,” said Wildes. “It is my prayer that we stand strong and unite as a community in solidarity with the memory of the 38 souls who once lived in our state and who perished on Pan Am Flight 103.”

Assemblyman Johnson said he not only has a problem with Englewood hosting the leader of a state that supports terrorism against the United States and its allies, but that a visit from Kaddafi would “tax the police department and create a spike in police overtime” because of heightened security needs — not only for the visiting dignitaries but for neighbors and protesters as well. Ultimately, he said, “the taxpayers will be paying” for the visit, should it take place.

He added that he has “full confidence” that the chief of police will be able to deal with these concerns. While he has not yet seen the proposed security plan, he suggested that it might involve cooperation with other police departments, whether from other towns or from the county, state, or even the federal government.

Boteach invites the community to join him in a protest at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the corner of South Woodland and East Palisade avenues in Englewood.

Rebecca Boroson and Josh Lipowsky contributed to this report.

 
 

Englewood prepares for arrival of Libyan ambassador

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Libya owns this East Palisade Avenue mansion in Englewood, which may soon house that country’s United Nations ambassador.

The City of Englewood is again preparing for a Libyan presence as Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, is reportedly making plans to move, at least temporarily, to a mansion it has owned since the 1980s.

The mansion remained empty until renovations began this summer ahead of a possible visit from Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi during the U.N.’s opening session.

A 1983 agreement between the United States and Libya limits use of the Englewood property to the Libyan ambassador and his family, and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) said the Libyan and American governments acknowledged that agreement when Kaddafi decided not to stay in New Jersey. The amount of time the ambassador may spend at the property is unclear under the agreement, according to Rothman, who was mayor of Englewood at the time.

“The George W. Bush administration re-established diplomatic relations with the Libyan government and removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Rothman said. “And up until this moment the Englewood police chief has advised me he sees no problem in allowing the ambassador and his wife and children to occupy the residence. And so, I hope everyone will be appropriately good neighbors.”

The police chief, Arthur O’ Keefe, said his department has been in touch with the State Department and is equipped to handle the situation.

“We are taking an active part in securing the safety of the ambassador and his family,” he said.

Security has been an issue for the property’s neighbors. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives next door, held a protest at his home in August when rumors surfaced of Kaddafi’s visit. In addition, The Moriah School is located near the mansion.

“There should be no impact on [the neighbors],” O’Keefe said. “When we’re providing security for the ambassador and his family, we’re aware of the neighbors and the factors involved in the area.”

The department has increased its presence in the area, he said, but is in discussions with the State Department about its covering additional security costs, but that, as well as whether security may be reassigned to a federal agency, remains in preliminary stages, O’Keefe said.

“My intention is there is no cost or tax burden to the people of Englewood,” he added.

In a statement sent to The Jewish Standard last week, Boteach, a columnist for this paper, expressed outrage at reports that the Libyan ambassador planned to take up residence next door.

“That Kaddafi, an international sponsor of terror, will have his personal representative living next door to me with all the very serious security implications for me and my family, as well as all other residents of Englewood, is shocking and troubling in the extreme,” Boteach said in the statement. “I am dumbfounded that the State Department and our city is allowing this and if we the residents of Englewood, N.J., along with our esteemed Mayor Michael Wildes, are forced to once again come out publicly and oppose this outrage, we pledge do so by every legal means necessary.”

Boteach was on a humanitarian mission in Africa, but spoke briefly with the Standard Tuesday morning.

“These are not the kind of people who should be in a residential community,” he said of the Libyan security detail that would be required for the ambassador.

Boteach filed a lawsuit against Libya in August in protest of what he said was damage to his property caused by the renovations next door. Eric Herschmann, Boteach’s lawyer, said Tuesday that the case has moved to federal court but the Libyan government has not yet answered the complaint. As a result, he plans to file for a default judgment “in the near future.”

Wildes echoed Boteach’s anger.

“It’s upsetting that a financier of terrorism would have his ambassador sleep in the city limits and offensive that they wouldn’t pay a nickel in taxes for the last 20 years and insulting to the those who lost their loved ones,” Wildes told the Standard.

In addition to his role as mayor, Wildes works as an immigration attorney in New York City. In that capacity he has had dealings with the State Department before and he believes the department should block the ambassador from the city. Englewood, he said, could become “ground zero” for anti-Libyan activity, which would place a burden on the city’s law enforcement. City officials opened a criminal mischief investigation in October after a small fire at the mansion on Sept. 23.

“It’s unpatriotic for the State Department to put the interest of foreign nationals before our own,” Wildes added.

 
 

‘The Libyan flag is flying in Englewood’

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Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, recently moved into this Palisade Avenue mansion in Englewood. Josh Lipowsky

Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, has moved, at least temporarily, to an Englewood mansion owned by the Arab country.

The move drew criticism from the city’s mayor, as well as from the Libyan’s neighbor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

“The Libyan flag is flying in Englewood and I am not happy about this, nor is the rabbi who lives next door,” Mayor Michael Wildes told The Jewish Standard.

Shalgham’s New York residence is undergoing renovations. Boteach, a columnist for this paper, led a protest this summer when Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi was reportedly planning to stay at the house during the opening session of the United Nations. He filed a suit against Libya for damage allegedly caused by the renovations.

The Libyan mission in New York did not respond to the Standard’s requests for comments.

“The placement of the Libyan mission as the next door neighbor of a rabbi as well as a Jewish day school [The Moriah School] is unconscionable and must be vociferously opposed by our elected leaders,” Boteach told the Standard. “I am gravely disappointed that the city of Englewood is allowing the Libyan mission to refuse payment of a single tax dollar over 25 years, even as it enjoys all the resources of our city, including heightened security and protection that is being funded by law abiding New Jersey residents.”

Libya has owned the property since 1982, and Boteach was aware of this when he moved next door in 1999. When he moved in, Boteach said, the mansion was in disrepair and empty.

“It was a derelict property,” he said. “It was completely overgrown. It was a communal eyesore. It sprung to life only when Kaddafi had no place to stay in New York. That’s when they invested so much money into it.”

Boteach argued that the residence’s zoning is at the heart of the dispute. The rabbi said city officials told him that they could not stop the ambassador from moving in because the house is zoned as a single-family residence. On the other hand, he continued, the Libyan mission has not paid any property taxes because of diplomatic immunity.

“The two are, of course, contradictory,” Boteach said. “Is the house zoned as a mission? If it’s zoned as a mission, then how could a family live there? And if it’s zoned as a single-family residence, then why aren’t they paying taxes?”

In a July 2 notice in the Federal Register, Jacob J. Lew, deputy secretary of state for management and resources in the Department of State, wrote, “I hereby designate exemption from real property taxes on property owned by foreign governments and used to house staff of permanent missions to the United Nations or the Organization of American States or of consular posts as a benefit for purposes of the Foreign Missions Act.”

The notice went on to cite a 1986 regulation that exempted property owned by diplomatic missions and used to house staffs of those missions from general property taxes.

A 1983 agreement between the United States and Libya limits use of the Englewood property to the Libyan ambassador and his family. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) said the Libyan and American governments acknowledged that agreement when Kaddafi decided not to stay in New Jersey. The amount of time the ambassador may spend at the property is unclear under the agreement, according to Rothman, who was mayor of Englewood at the time it was drafted, but he is permitted to stay there.

“The George W. Bush administration re-established diplomatic relations with the Libyan government and removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Rothman previously told the Standard when news first broke of the ambassador’s impending stay. “And up until this moment the Englewood police chief has advised me he sees no problem in allowing the ambassador and his wife and children to occupy the residence. And so, I hope everyone will be appropriately good neighbors.”

Wildes has taken issue with the State Department’s reaction to the situation. He believes that despite the security arrangements made, the ambassador’s presence could be dangerous for the city.

“The most disappointing experience out of this whole saga is learning that our State Department is primarily interested in safeguarding their relationship with this rogue state rather than protecting U.S. taxpayers,” he said. “And I expect that Englewood will be facing challenges in the years to come as the true colors of Libya reveal themselves again. History repeats itself and we will be ground zero for everything from criminal mischief to anyone who has a beef with these financiers of terrorism.”

Englewood’s police department increased its patrols around the mansion before the ambassador moved in. Deputy Police Chief Lawrence Suffren said Tuesday that the department has since resumed its normal patrol schedule of the area. There is no concern about anti-Libyan activity in the area, he added.

“At this time there is no reason [for additional patrols],” he said. “Everything moved well with the ambassador moving in, so there is no reason for us to continue our presence at the current time.”

The police reached an agreement with the Libyan mission that it would not have any firearms on the property, addressing one of Boteach’s major concerns. The rabbi, however, found the agreement hard to believe.

“I wonder how the city can even enforce that,” he said. “The city has no leverage over the Libyans. It is for our elected leaders to oppose the existence of a diplomatic mission in a residential community.”

NEW UPDATE:

On Friday, the Libyan mission to the United Nations responded by fax to a request for comment from The Jewish Standard on the reason behind and the length of the ambassador’s stay in Englewood.

His Excellency, the Permanent representative of Libya, is moving to live in a property owned by Libya. It is indeed absurd to ask anyone: Why are you moving to live in your own house? Using this preposterous logic, we can ask you: Why do you live in your own house and for how long?

Best regards

The Permanent Mission Of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

 
 

Why Kaddafi never made it to Englewood and the Libyan ambassador’s 27-year presence there

 

Why our congressman is wrong about the Libyan mission in Englewood

 

Changing Englewood’s house of terror into a home of Jewish values

 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

A shul with ‘tahm’

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Saul Turteltaub and his grandson Max.

Saul Turteltaub, who is perhaps best-known for producing such popular television shows as “Sanford and Son” and “Kate and Allie,” is also the author of a warm, affecting, funny, and as-yet-unpublished memoir of Cong. Ahavath Torah. Called “The Old Shul,” it is a treasure house of nostalgia and wry and poignant insights about his family and community.

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The Old Shul as it looked in the early part of the 20th century.

The “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s manuscript is not the mansion on Broad Street that has been demolished to make way for the new Ahavath Torah, but a building on Englewood Avenue between Armory Street and Bennett Road.

And according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the congregation’s current religious leader, there was a still-older shul, built during the summer of 1895 at 33 Humphrey St. in Englewood. “Before that they davened in a home on Liberty Road,” Goldin said in a telephone interview on Monday. “The Humphrey Street lot was bought as a result of a campaign that collected $200.” After 15 years, the congregation moved to the Englewood Avenue site, the “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s memoir.

“My father, Ben Turteltaub, was president of that synagogue,” Turteltaub recalled last week in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, “and I was bar mitzvahed there.” (See related story.)

The memoir, which he shared with The Jewish Standard, reconstructs — or reimagines — the board’s discussion about leaving the old shul and building “a modern synagogue”:

“What’s a ‘modern synagogue,’ asks member Moish Horowitz, “except all of a sudden it’s called a ‘synagogue’ and not a ‘shul’? It has more commandments? … A modern synagogue we have in this town. It’s where the goyim go on Tenafly Road.”

Turteltaub explains, “He was referring to Temple Emanu-El, the house of worship for Conservative Jews. To Moish and many of the old-timers, a person was either an Orthodox Jew or a goy. And someone who considered himself a Conservative Jew was worse than a gentile. He was not merely the enemy, he was a traitor. The Reformed? Mishugenas altogether.”

The old-timers lost, and the mansion, on the estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn, became “the New Shul.”

“It’s very hard to give up your old shul,” Turteltaub writes. “It is a vault of memories of the strongest and deepest kind.”

It had a gymnasium, he recalls — “not because the elders were such sports fans, because they weren’t, and not even so much because they thought the children should have a nice place to play…. Basically, they built it because the Catholic Church had one and they wanted to keep up.”

The New Shul did not have a gymnasium, but, writes Turteltaub, “was the most modern and beautiful house of worship in the entire county” — except that “it didn’t have tahm, a Yiddish word meaning ‘the taste.’ Not ‘taste,’ but ‘the taste.’ For instance, when you are looking for the beef and barley soup that reminds you of your mother’s beef and barley soup, you are not just looking for it to have taste, you are looking for the taste.”

The New Shul, he writes, “tasted like a shul. It had a Torah, a prayerbook, separate sections for men and women, but for those of us who grew up in the Old Shul, it was missing the taste, and that taste for the most part was the flavor of poverty.”

Turteltaub’s mother, Anna, died of a stroke two years and three months before his bar mitzvah, and he noticed, before he was called to the Torah, that his father’s eyes were filled with tears — “I believe it was because he was thinking how terribly wrong it was that poor Anna Turteltaub had died before this day.”

“Benny’s Famous Delicatessen in Hackensack supplied the food and soda, and the wine and schnapps came from Grusky’s in Englewood,” he recalls. “Pop knew nothing about whiskey. To him liqueur was how the gentiles pronounced liquor. So when he learned he could get a dozen mixed bottles of liqueur dirt cheap in 1945, when liquor was hard to get, he took them all. The schnapps at my bar mitzvah included apricot brandy, peach brandy, and a bottle of plum brandy called slivovitz, from Yugoslavia.”

Years later, long after his sons Adam and Jon were bar mitzvahed, he still had the bottle of slivovitz on his shelf, with perhaps a drop in it.

The rabbi at Turteltaub’s bar mitzvah was named Pincus. He was succeeded by Rabbi Bernstein (their first names are lost to history). Bernstein, writes Turteltaub, “didn’t have a chance. He was single. Why he was hired no one knows, but for an Orthodox rabbi with a pulpit to be single is out of the question…. The problem with a rabbi being single is he would be called on in the normal exercise of his duties to be alone in a room with a female member of the congregation.”

This, Turteltaub observes, “makes for an intolerable situation for everyone other than some unhappy married or single women.”

Bernstein soon left to attend medical school, and Turteltaub stresses that “there was never any suspicion of hanky panky” during his tenure.

Then came Rabbi Moshe Gold, who died in his early 40s of a heart attack. He “apparently did kill himself from screaming all the time,” Turteltaub writes. “[H]e thought people should pray during a prayer service. He didn’t agree with three-quarters of the congregation who looked forward to the … services as a great opportunity to kibitz with each other….”

Gold was followed by Rabbi Nussenbaum and then by Rabbi Benjamin Walfish — who officiated at the wedding of Saul and Shirley Turteltaub — and then by Rabbi Isaac Swift.

Swift, Turteltaub notes, “remained in the pulpit of the Old Shul and the New Shul from Rosh HaShanah 1960 until just before Rosh HaShanah 1987, when he retired.”

Turteltaub was “immediately impressed by his appearance. He was well over 6 feet tall, thin, approximately 45 years old and bearded. His prayer shawl was not only wrapped around his shoulders but it was draped from his head, giving him the appearance from the back of a very tall candle.”

But more impressive still was his dramatic — and effective — demand that chattering congregants be quiet. (Ben Turteltaub, his son recalls, summed up their response: “Hooha.”)

“Of all the memories I have of the Old Shul,” Turteltaub writes, “I think the warmest and happiest were those following the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. It seemed everyone in the shul was filled with love for everyone else. And why not? We had all just spent a full day asking forgiveness for the sins of pettiness, haughtiness, evil thoughts, and evil words…. [W]e kissed each other, shook hands warmly, and wished everyone a happy and good year. The first kiss, of course, was between my father and me, and it was a good and warm one. Then we headed to the back of the shul and down the stairs into the street, where it had become dark….”

 
 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

Rabbi reflects on synagogue’s growth

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah for some 26 years, attributes the synagogue’s growth and longevity to “good fortune, proximity to New York, a lovely area, and a sense of openness” toward people striving to lead Orthodox lives.

“A good deal of our character was set by the way it started,” said Goldin.

The rabbi, together with his wife, Barbara, will be honored on March 5 and 6 for their years of service to the congregation.

Describing the synagogue’s founders as “a group of people committed to Orthodox Judaism,” Goldin noted that they also were open to recognizing that they themselves were not always themselves ‘there.’”

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Barbara and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin Courtesy Rabbi Goldin

“The issue is to keep the community together and find ways to give people the ability to grow … maintaining a balance with a sense of tradition and continuity,” he said. “In each generation, Jewish law is given to us in trust, to use it and shape it and to engage ourselves and our generation.” But, he said, “we must then pass it down to another generation and it must bear a similarity to what we received. It’s a balance between continuity and adaptation — a fascinating amalgam of divine law and human logic.”

Goldin noted that, unlike in many other communities, “there’s been a vision and recognition by the lay leadership [of Ahavath Torah] that what we’re trying to build is one large congregation … rather than a bunch of splinters.”

That is not to say that members don’t have options, he stressed, “but people moving in can see that there is a center to this community. Young people gravitate to that center [and] we make them welcome.”

The Englewood shul, with more than 700 membership units, includes individuals of all ages, he said, with “a great number of young people and lots of children.” Figuring out how to accommodate and program for all these groups is a challenge.

Even in 1983, he said, when he came from Potomac, Md., to lead the Bergen County synagogue, “it was considered a major Orthodox congregation in the New York area.” With roughly 350 family units, the synagogue was then led by noted Rabbi Isaac Swift.

“I considered it to be a terrific opportunity,” Goldin said. He didn’t expect to get the job, being at least 10 years younger than all the other candidates, but the interview was a “great experience.” He met in the living room of longtime member George Feintuch with some “very distinguished looking people.”

Thinking he would probably not be hired, “I was very relaxed,” he said. “But then they started taking me seriously and I got nervous.”

On reflection, said Goldin, “it probably served me well that I was so different from the other candidates.”

Viewing the rabbinate as a “daily adventure,” the rabbi said that each day has presented different challenges. His goals, however, have remained consistent over the years.

“My first goal was to be a rabbi to the community, to serve their needs pastorally, to be there and play a role in their lives in whatever way they needed me,” he said.

He also strived “to keep the community together and grow it [believing that] it is better to be together under one roof with all our differences and points of views than splinter into small congregations.” Fortunately, he noted, the success of that strategy was enabled by the foresight of the lay leadership, giving the congregation a big enough building to accomplish that goal.

While the synagogue hosts numerous minyans, for special occasions — shul dinners, Yom HaShoah commemorations, and the like — congregants “unite for a cause,” said the rabbi. Since he is unable to attend each minyan on a regular basis, he shares this responsibility with the associate rabbi, Chaim Poupko; the rabbinic intern, Aaron Kraft; and the Ahavath Torah scholars, Rabbi Tzvi and Tova Sinensky. The synagogue also employs a yoetzet halakhah, who is available to answer the personal questions of women congregants.

“We just hired an administrator,” said Goldin, musing that “it’s a miracle we did so well without one” up to this point. He attributes this success to volunteerism within the community.

While Goldin feels he has been fairly successful in increasing the learning and Torah commitment of members, “we have a long way to go,” he said. He noted that his sermons and classes are directed toward critical issues “like the internal needs of the community, how can we pull together.”

In addition to adult education programs and scholars-in-residence, Goldin said, he has encouraged the development of groups within the community that study on their own, such as the Isaac Perry Beit Midrash Program.

Goldin said he also feels strongly about his members’ connection to Israel and has led more than 15 missions there. His was the first American congregation to visit Israel during the Iraqi Scud attacks, and in 2002 he spearheaded two rallies in Israel, bringing hundreds of people there to express their solidarity.

Goldin said he wants his members “to be open to the community at large. I’m proud that we have a good relationship with [UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey],” he said. “I work hard at that.”

He said he often cites the teaching about the patriarch Abraham, who described himself at the end of his life as a ger v’toshav, both a stranger and a citizen of the world. “This creates a unique dialectic,” said Goldin, recalling that during the height of the war in Kosovo, he traveled with 12 members of the congregation to work with Muslim Albanian refugee children, together with Israeli volunteers.

“This marks the kind of things we should do more of,” he said, adding that as the congregation settles into its new building, it should “look at ways in which we should play a world role.”

Another of his goals, he said, “is to keep the community abreast of and thinking about critical issues of the day.” He cited, for example, his involvement with NNJKIDS and Jewish Education for Future Generations, which is working to make day-school tuition more affordable for Jewish parents.

While it is important to have vibrant programming, said Goldin, the mark of a successful synagogue is “to try to be there each day and each week. The key to our community is being there every day.” The synagogue boasts four morning minyans as well as daily Minhah/Ma’ariv services.

Goldin, who has five children and four grandchildren, credits his wife, a speech pathologist, with “playing a tremendous role behind the scenes” and giving him some of his best ideas. “She’s not your typical rebbetzin,” he said.

He noted, for example, that it was her idea for him to meet every Friday night with third- to fifth-graders to study the Torah portion of the week.

“That way I get to know the kids pre-bar mitzvah,” he said.

Calling himself a “centrist” on the issue of women’s participation, Goldin said he believes strongly in advanced Torah education for women and “creating places of leadership for them within the Orthodox community that are unique and specific.” However, he added, “we should not attempt to break down role traditions.”

Goldin, who said he was “gratified” that he could concentrate on writing during his sabbatical in Israel three years ago, has published two books, “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit” and “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shemot.” His third book, on Vayikra, will be out soon. (He will speak about and sign his books at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades at 8 p.m. on March 3.) He is also pleased that he has been able to get more involved in the Rabbinical Council of America.

“It’s good for the community as well,” he said, noting that he is now able to tell congregants about things happening outside the community that he might not otherwise have been aware of.

“I can’t believe the years have passed the way they have,” he said. His relationship with the synagogue has been “a wonderful shidduch. I’m grateful to God that we found each other in a fashion that seems to work.”

Goldin pointed to the teaching about Mordecai that he was liked by most of his brothers, not all.

“You do the best you can,” he said. “You do what you think is right and bring others along with you. The new building will enable us to do what we do even better — it’s an absolutely positive move.”

 
 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

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The main sanctuary. Photos by Jerry Szubin

Unity is the underlying theme for the formal dedication of Cong. Ahavath Torah’s two-story, 60,000-square-foot synagogue complex, planned for the first weekend in March and culminating in the shul’s annual dinner honoring Rabbi Shmuel and Barbara Goldin.

Yeshiva University President Richard Joel is scheduled to join the Englewood congregation that Shabbat as scholar in residence during services as well as at a Friday night Oneg Shabbat and Saturday afternoon seudah shlishit. A festive Shabbat morning service is to be led by Cantor Chaim Muhlbauer, with Joel delivering remarks to the community.

“President Joel has been instrumental in all our efforts in the last year,” said Drew Parker, Ahavath Torah’s co-president. “He was supportive of our fund-raising efforts and of our community’s unique approach to unity through welcoming many different minyanim and cultures under one roof.”

Parker was referring to Ahavath Torah’s embrace of diverse Orthodox prayer groupings to accommodate Sephardim and Ashkenazim, youth and adults, even early-risers and later-risers. This was one reason the new complex was designed with elements including four sanctuaries in the main building, a two-story wing for a 250-seat sanctuary, beit midrash, and social hall for the 75 families of the congregation’s Sephardic community; a ballroom; multipurpose rooms for Shabbat children’s groups, adult education, and small events; and two kitchens in order to handle more than one affair at the same time.

Goldin stressed that there is much “cross-pollination” among the various worshippers, who mingle in the shul’s great hallway after services. The new synagogue is large enough to include additional minyanim, too. “We’re entertaining the possibility of a family minyan, where young children might be more welcome,” said Goldin.

The “unity” theme is apt, as well, for an event capping the sometimes contentious five-year process that preceded the completion of the multimillion-dollar edifice.

Last summer, congregants learned that while the “hard cost” of construction was first estimated at $15.5 million, the actual price tag was $22 million, excluding “soft costs” for architect fees and rental of the climate-controlled tent that housed the congregation since the 2006 demolition of the old, sprawling mansion on the former Broad Avenue estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn in which the congregation had been based since 1960.

The project’s higher expense was partly due to the later inclusion of a mikvah with a private entrance. Expected to be completed in the next few months, as is the Sephardic center, the mikvah will house seven dressing rooms, two mikvah pools, and a separate pool for immersing cooking and eating utensils. Englewood has never before had sufficient ritual bath facilities for its Jewish population; the independent Englewood Mikva Association runs a small mikvah on the grounds of Cong. Shomrei Emunah on Huguenot Street.

Though the Ahavath Torah membership ultimately approved a 75 percent rise in dues and assumption of a permanent mortgage (the amount of which synagogue officers declined to specify), the lay and rabbinic leadership pledged to address any lingering resentments. Before the new building’s opening last Labor Day, Goldin commented to The Jewish Standard, “We have a lot of work to do, as we always have in a community like ours with disparate points of view.”

This week, Goldin reported that “there’s been a tremendous amount of positive energy generated upon moving into the new building. Our various minyanim are working out very nicely, and the general feel is that we’re home, that we’re in.”

Parker said he views the dedication festivities as an appropriate time to acknowledge the Goldins’ contributions to the immediate and greater community. The rabbi, an instructor of Bible and philosophy at Yeshiva University’s college for men, is also active in the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, SINAI Special Needs Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America; Israel Bonds; the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Bergen County.

Former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, an Ahavath Torah member, and the city council have all been invited to participate, along with rabbinic colleagues of Goldin. The dinner highlight is to be a video presentation featuring tributes to the rabbinic couple from participants in the shul’s various minyanim, as well as interviews with their children.

 
 

Obama and the deafening silence of American Jewry

 
 
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