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Jews are on both sides of gay marriage debate

As a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey heads for a full Senate vote, Jews could be found among the bill’s supporters and detractors, arguing the merits of both positions according to Jewish law.

Leading up to Monday night’s vote when the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a chief supporter of the bill, found herself in heated discussions with Orthodox protesters in Trenton about the need for Torah to be reinterpreted as society evolves.

At the heart of the argument, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, is separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

No rabbi, priest, or religious institution would be forced to perform a gay marriage under the bill, she emphasized. “I just don’t want other people telling me what’s appropriate in my own synagogue or to my rabbi,” she said. “He has that right.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Cong. Avodat Shalom in River Edge praised the bill because of the choice it presents.

“One of the reason I can support this bill is it doesn’t require any clergymember to perform any ceremony they’re uncomfortable with,” said Borovitz, who is also Reform. “My freedom to officiate or not officiate at any ceremony remains intact.”

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg is a sponsor of a bill legalizing gay marriage.

Jews have thrived in America because the First Amendment affords freedom of religion and freedom from religion, Borovitz continued. “It’s imperative that this state not become involved in those religious decisions,” he said.

Guarantees that they would not be bound to perform gay marriages were no consolation for rabbinical opponents of the bill. Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, which is Orthodox, told the Standard that the Bible is not talking just to Jews when it says that “Man shall cling to his wife.” The gay marriage bill is “threatening the very core of society,” he said.

“Wherever you go, marriage has been a sacred institution,” he said, “and to go now and tamper with it is something that is very threatening to the moral fiber of society.”

Sarah and Leah are an Orthodox lesbian couple living in Bergen County who support the idea of legal equality but not gay marriage itself. The couple did not want their real names used.

“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of halacha,” Sarah said. “You have to have a different halachic process to get married.”

She pointed out that Jews can legally marry non-Jews, which is also forbidden under halacha. Judaism, she added, has a definition of marriage separate from the state’s.

“We’ve never felt the need to change our halachic definition based on a legal definition,” she said. If New Jersey passes the gay marriage bill, “that’s not going to force the situation halachically whatsoever.”

A civil marriage would afford the couple equal rights and protect future children they may adopt, Sarah argued.
“Our decision to have a civil marriage wouldn’t cause me to think we’re married in the eyes of God or a Jewish marriage,” she said. “I see it as legal protection.”

Separation of church and state, is what concerns Leah the most. “When the boundary between church and state starts to get fuzzy it’s really dangerous for Jews,” she said. “I don’t hear a lot of convincing arguments about why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed that aren’t really based in religious beliefs.”

A legal marriage, Leah continued, would be mostly about ensuring the couple’s right to keep their family together. In that respect, pursuing marriage equality is part of tikkun olam, the Jewish mission to repair the world, she said.

“This will have no bearing on Orthodox synagogues,” she said. “The people it affects most are children. Children of couples who don’t have equal rights grow up feeling their family isn’t equal under the law.”

Yudin dismissed arguments that the state definition of marriage is separate from the Jewish definition. He will not perform any marriage ceremony without a state-issued marriage license.

“The law of the land is law,” he said. “Jewish law does not speak about a marriage law in the state of New Jersey. But we comply and live in accordance with the laws of the land and therefore do require that Jewish marriages have a civil license, as well.”

Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office. Gov.-elect Chris Christie is opposed to gay marriage, which has led lawmakers who support it to try to rush the bill through. Yudin pointed to Christie’s election as proof that New Jerseyans don’t want gay marriage.

The Assembly has not yet taken action on the bill, which could stall its passage even if the Senate approves it. If the Senate does not pass the bill, however, proponents are prepared to keep working, Weinberg said.

 
 

Gay marriage ban a slippery slope

Josh LipowskyEditorial
Published: 15 January 2010
 
 

Rabbis respond to gay marriage defeat

Despite the challenges ahead, advocates of gay marriage within the Jewish community were undeterred after the Senate failed to pass its marriage equality bill last week.

The Senate voted 20-14 last Thursday against the bill, which proponents were trying to push through before Gov. Jon Corzine, who had promised to sign it, leaves office next week. Governor-elect Chris Christie has stated his opposition to gay marriage.

“Our side is going back to court to win marriage equality,” said Steven Goldstein, a Teaneck resident who heads Garden State Equality, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, during a press conference after the vote. “We are not waiting out the term of any new administration to bring equality to same-sex couples in our state.”

Goldstein pointed to a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that directed the legislature to create legislation for gay marriage or another structure that provides the equal protection of marriage.

Garden State Equality has partnered with Lambda Legal, an organization involved in gay rights litigation across the country, to bring a lawsuit against the state to enforce the 2006 decision. A suit would be forthcoming in a matter of weeks, Goldstein told The Jewish Standard earlier this week.

Goldstein, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, said that the issue has support from 19 religious denominations, include three branches of Judaism.

“I’m personally gratified,” he said. “It means so much to me as a leader who is both gay and Jewish.”

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements support gay marriage, while the Conservative movement passed opposing views two years ago, both of which are valid opinions for the movement’s rabbis. The Orthodox movement remains against the issue.

“It is true that the Orthodox Jewish community by and large opposes marriage equality,” he said. “I respect that point of view. But the vast majority of Jewish residents across New Jersey back marriage equality.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of the Orthodox Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn told the Standard that the bill’s defeat is “a positive phenomenon not just for the Jewish people but the entire state of New Jersey.”

“It’s a victory for morality and morality is good for the state,” he said, declining further comment.

Rabbi Randall Mark of the Conservative Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne is not opposed to gay marriage, but he’s not an activist for it, either.

“As a liberal rabbi, I think that it is reasonable for people who adopt a gay or lesbian lifestyle to be able to marry,” he said, “but I also recognize we live in a complex society and change happens slowly and often painfully.”

In 2006, New Jersey passed a law recognizing civil unions. Garden State Equality has said civil unions do not provide the same legal benefits or protections as marriage and that by the end of July 2007, 211 of the 1,358 couples who had entered civil unions since the law’s enactment had reported that their employers would not recognize the unions, denying them spousal insurance benefits.

“Many of the couples I’ve worked with have realized after the fact that civil union isn’t marriage,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brickman of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, which is Reform. “That name for their relationship carries a lot of weight. Not having that title available for their use is clearly a disadvantage.”

Brickman is intimately familiar with the rights Garden State Equality is fighting for. In 2006, Brickman’s domestic partner died, leaving him in a legal entanglement.

“We lived together for 22 years in a committed relationship, and when he passed away in 2006, I had to go through the process of not only grieving his death but also dealing with financial implications of not being able to claim him as a spouse,” he said.

“Federal and state government looked at our relationship as nonexistent,” he added, “despite the fact that we lived with as much integrity as heterosexual couples do.”

As Garden State Equality prepares to take gay marriage to the court system, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the prime sponsor behind the marriage equality bill, said she was optimistic. “We’ve helped build enough of a record of people on all sides of this issue saying civil unions do not work,” she said.

Despite Christie’s promises to seek a federal ban on gay marriage, Weinberg was positive the courts would impose a favorable decision. “Once the court makes a decision, it will automatically become law,” she said.

Brickman and Goldstein both stressed that they respect their colleagues who oppose same-sex marriage, and they both noted that no member of the clergy would be forced to perform a ceremony he or she is uncomfortable with. “That was a scare tactic used by the opponents to this law,” Brickman said.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Brickman said. “Jews have always been at the forefront of fights when there’s a matter of fairness on the line. In any situation where a society is treating people unfairly, we need to be at the forefront of correcting that.”

 
 

Moving forward

_JStandardEditorial
Published: 15 October 2010
 
 

What do we do when we disagree?

Wedding announcement controversy leads to communal soul-searching

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The viral controversy surrounding The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement last month — and then deciding, one week later, not to do it again — caught publisher James Janoff off guard.

“I expected that there would be people who agreed and people who didn’t,” he said, “but I was unprepared for the volume, and passion, of the responses.”

“Maybe I was naïve,” said Janoff, who noted that while the paper has weathered many storms throughout its 80-year history, he has never seen one of this intensity.

But exactly what transpired, and what it means for the community, depends on who you ask.

Avi Smolen, who grew up in Ridgewood and whose same-sex wedding announcement appeared on Sept. 24, said he, too, was surprised by the barrage of media coverage the issue has received.

“We (Smolen and his partner, Justin Rosen) submitted our announcement to share the simcha with the community and we were happy it was published,” he said. “The follow-up decision not to publish (other announcements) was frustrating, and somehow the greater media picked up on the story and it has been everywhere in the news. We didn’t expect this.”

Smolen, communications and development associate at Keren Or Inc., Greater New York, said he didn’t really think much about submitting the announcement “because it was so accepted in our community; we didn’t think it was a big deal.”

He noted that recent communal meetings to discuss the ongoing controversy are of value, but said that members of the gay community should be invited.

It’s important, he said, “so that they can be part of the conversation and so it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There needs to be frank and open discussions so people can share their concerns and feelings.” In addition, he said, meetings should be “less about rhetoric and more about problem-solving.”

Smolen suggested that the strength of the uproar was at least partially a matter of timing.

“The previous two weeks, there were a number of suicides by young gay people that got attention, and that was a counterpoint to the announcement about celebrating our union. People really connected those two incidents and thought it was important to speak out.”

He said he can respect the position of those who do not support same-sex wedding announcements, but noted that he “does not agree with tactics to prevent them from being seen. In a way it’s comical,” he said. “The desire to marginalize [the issue] has made it larger than ever.”

“In a sense, I’m glad that this has occurred and I hope people will continue to talk about this,” he said. Being “pushed out of their comfort zone” may prompt diverse groups to deal with the issues and find a solution.

“I hope they will recognize that people with different beliefs and practices exist, and find a way to grow and unite.”

Looking back at what has occurred over the past several weeks, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and first vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said, “The problem emerged when the Standard underestimated the importance and sensitivity of this issue to the Orthodox community.”

Goldin telephoned the Standard following publication of the wedding announcement to “alert [the newspaper] to those sensitivities.” Janoff recalled that the rabbi said he had been in touch with Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Following several calls, the Standard printed a statement saying it would not publish such announcements in the future. Rebecca Boroson, the Standard’s editor, characterized the conversations with Goldin — in which the editors, publisher, and associate publisher took part — as “intense.” “He repeatedly told us that the paper had caused pain in the Orthodox community,” she added, “and that we had ‘crossed a red line.’”

The backlash resulting from the Standard’s about-face goes beyond the current controversy, said Goldin.

“The Orthodox community is involved in an ongoing struggle to determine how to live with the tension between two fundamental principles that have to guide our approach to the gay community,” Goldin said.

On one hand, the movement seeks to “respect all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation,” recognizing in particular “the personal struggles of those who belong to the gay community and want to continue identifying as committed Jews.”

On the other hand, the Orthodox movement must maintain “its allegiance to Torah law, which strongly prohibits same-sex unions.”

Goldin spoke of “the overwhelming animosity and resentment displayed toward the Orthodox community and rabbinate of Bergen County in particular” in the aftermath of the announcement.

“Gross misrepresentations have been accepted as fact,” he said. “The fact is that the RCBC had no official response” to the incident. “To say that the group threatened organized activity is an outright lie.”

He suggested as well that the issue of homosexuality “has become the civil rights issue of the era.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has issues and red lines,” he said. “I sometimes feel that because the Orthodox position is not the automatically popular position in the society in which we find ourselves — it’s easier to argue for inclusiveness than for certain limits — in a knee-jerk fashion the Orthodox are judged in a negative way without giving credence to our right to hold our positions.”

Susie Charendoff, who belongs to an Orthodox congregation in Englewood and has been a participant in recent discussions, said the most troubling aspect of the recent events was that in declaring that it would cease running same-sex announcements — citing offense to the Orthodox community — the Standard “only recognized the pain of one community on an issue that is sensitive across the board.”

“I think the Orthodox community is more complex than [the way] it is often characterized,” she said, highlighting the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” circulated this summer and signed by more than 100 Orthodox leaders.

Written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot — who has just become rabbi of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom and is chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — the piece was widely hailed as a progressive document within the movement.

“It was really a thoughtful piece on the part of the Orthodox community,” said Charendoff. “It attempted to be as welcoming as possible to same-sex couples despite the fact that [same-sex marriage] is antithetical to the Orthodox position. It reached out as far as it could within that framework.”

Charendoff said the “content and tone of that document is a voice that needs to be heard in the current discussion. While it doesn’t solve the issue, it changes the tenor of what’s going on. I’m disturbed by the assumption that the Orthodox don’t recognize the complexity of this issue.”

Describing the communal flap as “a controversy that is testing the boundaries of pluralism and inclusiveness within the Bergen County Jewish community,” Rabbi Adina Lewittes, religious leader of Sha’ar Communities, said the country is seeing a “ruthless physical, political, and social backlash” against the gay and lesbian community.

Lewittes — who describes her organization as “a suburban network of small, inclusive, and accessible Jewish communities connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance” — said that, given media reports about gay youths who committed suicide or were physically attacked, the paper “should have had the foresight and courage to respond to the resistance of the Orthodox in a way that sends the message that there is a home for everyone in the Jewish community.”

Still, she added, “the fundamental issue here is a matter of journalistic process and integrity…. Many people do not see this as a complicated issue or something needing conflict resolution.”

Front and center, she said, “is the flip-flopping” by the Standard “and the privileging of one group over another. This is a clear breach of journalistic responsibility, particularly given the self-stated goals of [the paper].”

The best-case scenario, she said, would be for the Standard “to acknowledge that it failed to adhere to its mission and steer itself back on course.”

Noting the mission of her own organization, “to enter Judaism through multiple gateways,” Lewittes said community dialogue will be useful only to the extent that it “acknowledges the many lenses through which different Jewish communities look at both Judaism and the broader world in which they live and what the different relationships between the two look like.”

She decried “tying your own legitimacy and integrity to what someone else might believe or think. We don’t need to achieve consensus,” she said. “Sure, it would be great,” but all parties to a discussion would inevitably want their positions to be adopted.

“To achieve consensus on matters of halachah or politics is not the goal here,” she said. “If anything, we have such a rich heritage because of the diversity” that has characterized the community. “What’s needed is an environment of respect for multiple understandings” of Judaism.

Lewittes added that those who call for pluralism also need to be wary of denying the presence of any particular community.

“We need to be inclusive of all voices,” she said, even those with whom we disagree.

Lewittes said that with respect to community process and lasting lessons, we should heed the words of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a seminal figure in modern Orthodoxy. “Rav Soloveitchik’s insight on how kedushah/holiness is found not in the neat and tidy resolutions to conflict but in the very paradox of the often conflicting and contradictory elements of our makeup, is most relevant,” she noted. “Our ability to hold together the different and disparate pieces of who we are as a community in a singular, pluralistic embrace is what will transform us into a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and is what we might model to other communities facing similar struggles.”

Rabbi David J. Fine believes strongly in the power of dialogue.

The religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood — the Smolens’ synagogue and the shul in which the gay couple celebrated one of their two aufrufs — said it would be an “easy out” to conclude that we are not one Jewish community but rather several disparate groups.

“Dialogue is one of the essences of how we do Judaism,” he said. “We learn from rabbinic tradition to honor and respect views we don’t agree with, to have a respectful discourse. We can only be one by listening to each other.”

Acknowledging that “tensions are coming to the boiling point,” Fine said the wedding announcement controversy has simply highlighted fissures in the community, particularly the fault line between the Conservative and modern Orthodox movements.

“We’re much more similar than we pretend to be,” said Fine, adding that both movements “look over their shoulder” when making halachic decisions.

“We’re the only two groups who believe that we have a place in the modern world but [adhere] to a normative halachic tradition,” he said. “It’s so hard to acknowledge sharing that space with the other,” he added. “It’s threatening because we’re so similar.”

Fine said the current flap is about much more than the wedding announcement.

“It’s about our own identities and who we are,” he said. “We’re not just arguing a specific issue but our specific identity.”

The rabbi said that not only is talking to one another “the only way to understand each other, but I determine how I articulate where I’m coming from by talking to someone who doesn’t agree with me.”

This is something every rabbi deals with, he said, noting, “We don’t want to preach to the choir.”

Fine said he doesn’t know why rabbis get so excited about the issue of gay marriage.

“Gay and lesbian Jews are just like everyone else,” he said. “Their private lives are different, but I don’t know why it animates people so much. Part of it may be generational.” He added that the position is likely to change as same-sex couples become more accepted in the wider society.

“The real issue is Jewish identity and questions of authenticity and different forms of Judaism, between liberal and traditional Judaism,” he said, pointing out that this division was apparent in the diaspora uproar over the Rotem bill — which proposed giving the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield has discussed the announcement controversy with people from many different communities “and their responses involve total incredulousness — the inability to grasp how in 2010 a small segment of the Jewish community can exert so much influence over a paper about something that so many people consider a normative thing in Jewish life — the inclusion of the LGBT community.”

Greenfield, religious leader of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, pointed out that Monday was National Coming Out Day, created to raise awareness, end discrimination against the LGBT community, and encourage LGBT people to be proud of who they are.

“It’s much wider than a newspaper issue,” she said. “It’s about how Jews and all of the institutions that represent us make decisions about who’s in and who’s out.”

“[Being LGBT] is a non-issue from my community’s perspective,” she said, calling opposition to same-sex wedding announcements “a retrograde perspective on contemporary life. Most of the Jews I work with already live in a context where they have one foot in tradition and one foot in contemporary life.”

“Being a Jew today is about drawing from both [contexts],” she said. “LGBT inclusion is not a problem of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ influences, but about integrating religious life with contemporary times.”

Greenfield said the issue of gay equality is not a “hot-button” topic from the perspective of most Jews. She noted also a distinction between Torah laws concerning issues such as kashrut and adultery and those pertaining to “human beings created in the image of God.”

“The distinction is that this issue is about human beings and their inherent nature. At the heart of the matter, it’s not about a behavior, or a sin, or a choice. That’s why it is not as black and white” as issues such as advertising events that take place on Shabbat.

The rabbi said that if there were firm commitments on both sides to have regular meetings “in which to learn about and from each other,” in the long term the different groups would come to better understand one another.

“No one has a strong hold on what constitutes legitimate Jewish identity,” she said. “Jewish identity is continually evolving. [It] has always changed and adapted within the various civilizations where Jews have lived. It’s not a matter of religious purity versus secular deviance.”

Greenfield said people gain respect through human contact rather than through antipathy expressed in the media.

“It’s impossible to overvalue the importance of human interaction,” she said. “We want to welcome Orthodox leaders into the circle.”

The rabbi suggested a possible “trade.”

Ideally, she said, “I would have all non-Orthodox Jewish leaders commit to condemning Orthodox-bashing in exchange for the Orthodox understanding that they are not the sole arbiters of authentic Judaism.”

Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Shomrei Torah in Wayne and head of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, to which no Orthodox rabbis belong, said the community rift is not a secret, nor is it unique to northern New Jersey.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last decade is that rabbinical groups rarely sit together anymore. There are times and places where the two communities easily coexist, but sometimes they bump up against each other.”

Mark did note that during his first year as president of the NJBR, he has had several conversations with the RCBC’s Rothwachs.

“The two of us were cognizant of the fact that our rabbinic communities are diverse, and we felt it important at least to have the ability to communicate,” he said. “My hope has always been to find places of agreement and ultimately work together.”

The NJBR president said that homosexuality in religious life is one of the most difficult social issues of the day for American religious communities.

“Religious groups have a long history of intolerance” on this issue, he said.

He suggested that strong feelings have resulted from the fact that the matter “deals with people and not just issues and because in issues concerning human sexuality, people will often react on an emotional level.”

He noted as well that the issue transcends the newspaper because “The Jewish Standard strives to be a community newspaper … and we are a very diverse community.”

“Any constituent group has the right to respond” to something with which he or she disagrees, he added, suggesting that appropriate responses include letter-writing and/or requesting meetings with the leadership of the paper.

“I’m pleased that they’re willing to sit down and listen,” he said of the Standard staff, which recently participated in a meeting of rabbis and communal leaders. The gathering, held last Thursday at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, was hosted by the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and was devoted specifically to the controversy.

“The newspaper, as an independent entity, has the editorial freedom to decide what it will or will not include,” said Mark. “Ultimately, people will decide if they’re happy or unhappy.”

Other Voices

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, wants to use the current conflict as a teachable moment.

“I want to convene a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Forum to continue the discussion about how we, as a diverse Jewish community, can learn to live together and work better together,” said Borovitz following last week’s meeting in Closter.

The rabbi said he believes firmly in the principle of a free press and expects the Standard to decide how it will respond “to all the simchas in our community,” with the hope that the paper will be “sensitive, responsive, and supportive of the diversity that exists in our northern New Jersey Jewish community.”

He noted other instances where the paper had provided equal access to conflicting views.

“When I disagreed with [Standard columnist Rabbi Shmuley] Boteach on the settlement issue, the Standard graciously gave me op-ed space to respond,” he said. “I believe the paper should be a forum for the free and open exchange of ideas, concerns, and information for our broad community.”

Borovitz said he hopes the forum will be a place where opinions “are put on the table,” even if they are not necessarily resolved. “We can agree to be civil in disagreements,” he said.

Charles Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Home Family, affirmed the “right and responsibility of a newspaper to publish news.”

“If you make a decision to put in no simchas,” that’s one thing, he said. “But to decide to put them in for only a certain segment of the community is wrong, regardless of which segment it is.”

Berkowitz said “some of the bright people in the community should sit down and begin to talk about issues we need to deal with, and not put our heads in the sand. No one should impose their will on others.”

He noted, however, that sometimes firm decisions must be made. For example, his organization — which embraces the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living; the Jewish Home Assisted Living, Kaplen Family Senior Residence; the Jewish Home Foundation of North Jersey Inc.; and the Jewish Home & Rehabilitation Center — does not allow people to bring in food from other than accepted vendors to maintain the level of kashrut.

“Some would prefer not to have that,” he said. “But it’s important for people of all religious beliefs to feel welcome here.”

Berkowitz said the fact that he is a social worker is a big help.

“We deal with the issues head on and face to face,” he said. “You don’t sit down in front of cameras but do it quietly and talk to each other.”

Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, said that since the Standard sees itself as the “paper of record for the Jewish community,” the current controversy should be dealt with by the whole community.

“When we face complicated issues, open exchange and dialogue is very helpful,” he said. “Not all parties will agree with all positions, but [when] active listening is happening and points of view are shared, then mutual respect is possible.”

Charish said that the next step, as he understands it, is that “before any further decisions are made,” there will be a series of discussions involving the JCRC, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, rabbis, and other interested parties.

“To me, that is a critical step,” he said.

As executive director of the Kaplen JCC, Avi Lewinson is “surprised and not surprised” that the announcement controversy became so heated.

“It wouldn’t have reached that level if there hadn’t been a retraction so soon after,” he said. While he believes that the Standard’s intentions were good, “they acted too quickly and people felt the paper was taking sides. That fueled the fire.”

Lewinson said that while the JCC has faced differences of opinions — for example, over whether to remain open on Shabbat — the facility, which is closed on Saturday, has never experienced “a firestorm of this size.”

The JCC director pointed out that times do change, and cited the racial discrimination rampant in the 1960s.

“I’m appreciative of the gains we’ve made,” he said, adding that, “personally, I think we should sit down with representatives of different viewpoints and start with the premise that everyone is coming with deeply held beliefs based on principle.” Still, he said, “The goal can’t be that, in the end, you’re in or out 100 percent.”

Lewinson said the community needs to strive for shalom bayit (literally, peace in the home), finding a compromise that will allow both sides to feel that their views have been acknlowledged.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” he said, “but maybe one possibility is not to use the word ‘marriage’ in a same-sex announcement but rather to use the term ‘commitment ceremony.’ The question is, ‘What can we do to find a way so we each feel we’re being heard and our principles and values are being considered?’”

Regarding the controversy, Lewinson said there have been “misquotes on both sides.” Still, he said, he is an eternal optimist and is convinced that the issue will be resolved.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” said Lewinson, who has called the JCRC offering the JCC as a resource for community forums. He noted that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the New York City-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote a book called “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right.” “We’re all part of the Jewish people,” Lewinson said, “and it is important for us to be able to sit and listen to each other with respect.”

For his part, Janoff knows that he has a lot of listening to do. In a statement published on Oct. 8, he wrote that the paper now understands “that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.”

As a result, he said, he is now engaged in meeting with local rabbis and community leaders, understanding that the exchange of views is necessary before the paper issues its final decision.

Wrote Janoff: “We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”

 
 

The Jewish view of homosexuality

 

‘The answers lie in our love for our daughter’

 

What’s a Jewish paper all about?

 

New Jersey’s rocky road to marriage equality

 

We name the newsmakers of 2010

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A torrential storm brought down trees and power lines across Bergen County in March and claimed the lives of Ovadia Mussaffi and Lawrence Krause.

Sixteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: naming the newsmakers of the year just passed (or, in this case, just passing).

This has been a challenging year, punctuated by an earthquake and storms as well as the continuing harsh winds of the recession. But we have also seen the community rising to meet those challenges in creative as well as tried-and-true ways.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival. Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we’ve enlarged our scope beyond the Jewish community. We award the top spot on the list to the “heroes of Haiti,” local doctors, Jewish or not, who gave their time and expertise in the devastation following the January earthquake there.

We name and celebrate those doctors whose efforts we’ve chronicled: Alan Gwertzman, Timothy Finley, Howard Zucker, Joshua Hyman, and Thomas Bojko. (Many of these are connected to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.)

We also cite the many unnamed medical personnel from this area who have worked to heal the still-wounded nation and its people. (And we note that Israel has maintained a virtually constant medical presence in Haiti and that Teaneck attorney Sam Davis, the founding director of Burn Advocates Network, expanded its reach, starting a physical and occupational therapy clinic there as well as arranging for medical equipment and recruiting doctors to man the clinic.)

Libya is again cracking our newsmakers list. The African country burst onto the list in 2009 when its leader, Muammar Kaddafi, was reportedly planning to stay at a Libya-owned mansion in Englewood during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. After protests led by the mansion’s neighbor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Kaddafi announced he would stay in New York. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, soon moved in.

In 2010, Libya made the list again, first because of its election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and second because of the controversy surrounding Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole conspirator convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 278 people, including 38 from New Jersey. He was released from prison last year on humanitarian grounds because doctors estimated he had only months to live after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He has outlived those expectations, angering advocates of the Lockerbie victims who alleged that Great Britain freed al-Megrahi because of pressure from BP for an oil deal.

Recently released cables from WikiLeaks appeared to confirm suspicions that Libya had threatened Great Britain economically if Scotland did not release al-Megrahi.

New Jersey’s U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, have repeatedly called for investigations into the circumstances of al-Megrahi’s release. With the WikiLeaks revelation, the issue is more than likely to continue into 2011.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), who sits on three appropriations subcommittees, has been a staunch ally of Israel in the House of Representatives. A former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Rothman has always been vocal about his support for the Jewish state, which has translated into numerous votes for military appropriations for Israel.

After the Mavi Marmara affair in June, Rothman came out firmly in support of Israel’s actions, telling the Standard that, “There is some regret over the loss of life, notwithstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Rothman also got into a proverbial spitting match earlier this year with Boteach, who alleged that the congressman did not do enough to keep the Libyan U.N. ambassador out of the mansion next to Boteach’s home. Rothman maintained that the original agreement from the 1980s, when Libya bought the mansion and Rothman was mayor of Englewood, decreed that the U.N. ambassador could use the home, although details were murky. This policy, Rothman said, had been agreed to by the State Department and there was therefore nothing he or the United States could do — particularly since Libya and the United States have since normalized relations — to prevent the ambassador from using the house.

Boteach also accused Rothman of being an apologist for President Obama’s policies, which many have regarded as being not in Israel’s favor. Rothman has on several occasions praised Obama for being what he called the most supportive president of military cooperation with Israel in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee appropriated $217.7 million — the highest amount on record, according to Washington sources — in funding for joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, and according to Rothman, the Defense Subcommittee has allocated more than $750 million in federal funds for the Arrow and David’s Sling anti-missile systems since 2007.

Recently, Rothman voted for the inclusion of more than $200 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program in a congressional spending bill. The funds were later removed by the Senate (see story, page 8).

Rothman was also a signatory to a letter to Obama calling for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. In November’s elections, Rothman won his eighth term in the House.

The weather made news this year. In March, a storm we called “an ill wind” left thousands of people without power and toppled trees. Two Teaneck men, Ovadia Mussaffi, 54, and Lawrence Krause, 49, were killed by a falling tree as they walked home from Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic congregation, after Shabbat. (The shul, by the way, which meets in a private home, broke ground for a building in November.) Both men were described as friendly, sweet, and generous. Their friends and family — indeed, the whole community — were devastated by the loss.

The Standard asked a number of local rabbis to share their thoughts about the tragedy. For their answers, go to www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/12658.

Of local Jewish institutions, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly was hardest hit by the storm and had to close, but it was up and running in a few days. People thronged it, said its executive director, Avi Lewinson, because they had “cabin fever and wanted to be able to do something.”

And, of course, we’ve all been affected by this weekend’s blizzard. All the schools, day and public, were closed on Monday, as were many, if not most, offices. As of Tuesday, we were still digging out from under mountains of snow.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in January that toughened fines for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The bill, signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in one of his final acts in office, was spurred by the crusade for pedestrian safety, and against drivers who talk on their cell phones, of Andrea DeVries of Paramus, whose son, Daniel, was killed in a pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008 by a driver who, witnesses said, was talking on his cell phone.

During a legislative breakfast at DeVries’ synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she met Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-37), who invited her to testify before the Assembly.

“It made that bill [to toughen fines] come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said of the testimony after Corzine signed the bill into law. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian. This law, she told the Standard, is just “a baby step.”

At the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane in Teaneck stands a tree that, at more than 80 feet, is the fourth largest red oak in the state, according to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. That tree, which is also estimated to be more than 200 years old, was at the center of a summer fight between the Union for Traditional Judaism and preservationists.

The tree sits on the corner of the property belonging to the UTJ, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. In July, UTJ leaders decided to remove the tree, citing safety concerns that were corroborated by an arborist the union had hired. Protests erupted around town as environmentalists, as well as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), sought to preserve the tree; two other arborists hired by Teaneck reported that the tree could, in fact, be preserved.

The matter soon ended up before the Teaneck Township Council, where protesters vainly demanded that the township block the tree’s removal by buying the property. Protesters alleged that UTJ wanted to tear down the tree only to increase the value of the land, while UTJ’s leaders and bankruptcy attorney argued that safety of passersby was the paramount concern.

In August, 333 Realty, a real estate development agency, won a bankruptcy auction for the property for $1.4 million. The company soon rescinded its original offer, in light of publicity surrounding the tree, and negotiated a lower price with UTJ. Before the bankruptcy court could approve the new price, however, the property legally had to go back to auction.

The Puffin Foundation also stepped into the picture with an offer of a $200,000 grant to help the new property owners preserve the tree. But 333 Realty would not exceed its new offer of $1.2 million and Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox congregation that meets in the UTJ building, won the October auction.

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institution of Traditional Judaism, have since moved to a new location on American Legion Drive in Teaneck, while Netivot Shalom plans to expand its programming in the building and preserve the tree.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a frequent Jewish Standard newsmaker, made this year’s list by bringing a group of imams and other U.S. Muslim leaders to concentration camp sites.

An Englewood resident who is director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding, Bemporad called the Aug. 7 to 11 trip to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany “a breakthrough in many respects, because … we took imams like [Yasir] Qadhi, for example,” who 10 years ago called the Holocaust a hoax. (Bemporad led the trip, which was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, with Prof. Marshall Breger of the Catholic University of America.)

“The main point,” he said, “is that … they are using this experience in their services and talking to their people — that’s talking about tens of thousands of people.” He added, “They want Jews to speak in mosques about this reality so they can unite with us to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has very specific ideas about how the Jewish community should treat people who are homosexual. In July, he released his “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which called for compassion and respect. The statement has received more than 140 signatures from Orthodox rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals from around North America, including several from North Jersey.

“For years we have spoken with other friends in the rabbinate and in Jewish education about the growing recognition that they have had students who later came out as homosexuals,” Helfgot told the Standard in July. “We also have had friends, here and there, who came out and know parents who struggle with this with their children.”

“We kicked around the reality of this and the question of what the community, synagogue, and schools should be doing to affirm what we believe in terms of Jewish law [while also asking] ‘Is there a place for these people to be within our community? Is it simply either/or?’”

According to the statement’s preamble, “Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

“The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.

“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”

Helfgot is now religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

To read the full statement, visit www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/14319.

Since the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the issue of bullying has grabbed headlines. After hearing testimony from bullying victims, the New Jersey Legislature recently passed the so-called Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which will tighten penalties for bullies in public schools, require better reporting of bullying in public schools, and, its sponsors hoped, deal a massive blow to the entire bullying phenomenon in the school system.

State. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) spearheaded the legislation in the Senate, while Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) championed it in the Assembly. Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, helped arrange some of the testimony that ultimately convinced legislators to pass the bill.

Neuer was also a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.

While the bill was moving forward before Clementi’s death, the incident reinforced for some legislators why such legislation was needed.

Parents of day-school students continue to gripe about the high bills they must pay for their children to get private Jewish and secular education. These bills can reach higher than $50,000 per student, not including extra fees, building funds, and books. In 2009, a group of local rabbis, educators, and parents created Jewish Education for Generations to tackle the so-called tuition crisis. Its first project, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, aka the kehilla fund, has in its second year distributed hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars to eight area day schools, Orthodox and Conservative, based on student populations from within the catchment area of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the community.

In 2009 the kehillah fund distributed almost $200,000 to the schools and in 2010, fund-raisers collected and distributed $525,000. JEFG leaders declared May to be NNJKIDS Month and pushed collections in Jewish businesses throughout the area, and organizers are planning to hold another NNJKIDS Month in May or June.

NNJKIDS has formed partnerships with the Avi Chai Foundation, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, UJA-NNJ, and northern New Jersey Orthodox and Conservative synagogues.

“NNJKIDS was never meant just to raise money,” said Gershon Distenfeld, NNJKIDS’ treasurer. “It’s about a way to get the schools together to pursue a range of initiatives, and that work continues.”

The distributions remain small, but North Jersey’s day schools reported that tuition rates for the 2010-11 school year were mitigated by at least $200 per student because of the donations.

For information about the fund, visit www.nnjkids.org.

So many young people in this community did noteworthy things this year — including winning prestigious contests and organizing drives for this or that cause — that it is impossible to list them all. (As Garrison Keillor says of the mythical Lake Wobegon, “All the children are above average.”) But the deeds of two, in particular, fit criterion No. 5: “They may have prompted a course of action”: In October, 21-year-old Ari Sapin donated bone marrow to a 29-year-old man with leukemia, a selfless act that may inspire others to sign up for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (http://www.giftoflife.org).

Another Ari, Ari Hagler of Bergenfield, used his Dec. 10 bar mitzvah to launch Shabbat Gilad as a way to call attention to the continuing plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Close to 150 shuls, schools, youth groups, and Jewish centers participated from all over the United States as well as from Israel, Canada, and Australia. For the list of participants, go to www.shabbatgilad.com. Let’s hope that Shalit will be freed in 2011 and there’ll be no need to name another Shabbat for him.

The Jewish Standard itself made news in 2010, sparked by a same-sex marriage announcement. After conversations with some members of the community who strongly opposed the move, the paper issued an apology and pledged not to publish such announcements again.

But then a media deluge began — people from near and far wrote and called in support of or against such announcements, and the paper has been revisiting its policy. We have published thoughtful op-ed pieces on same-sex marriage from across the Jewish spectrum and have met with leading representatives of communal organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which is Orthodox; the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is composed of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis; and with Jewish Queer Youth, a gay Orthodox group.

This has indeed been a “teachable moment,” and people across the area have been listening and talking to one another as never before about what it really means to be a diverse Jewish community. We have been listening as well, and will continue searching for a way to serve all segments of our community until we get it right.

 
 
 
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