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Temple Beth El of North Bergen charts new course with new rabbi

87-year-old Conservative synagogue goes egalitarian

After years of moving closer to Orthodoxy, Temple Beth El of North Bergen is charting an egalitarian direction in a move to stay afloat and recently hired Rabbi Ilan Glazer to lead the 87-year-old shul.

Beth El, which started in North Bergen in 1923, is not a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the international umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, but identifies as Conservative. Glazer led High Holiday services at the synagogue in 2006, 2007, and 2009, and on Aug. 1 he became the congregation’s full-time religious leader. Glazer is a senior rabbinical student with Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, started by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former disciple of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“There’s a nice, warm energy here at Temple Beth El,” Glazer told The Jewish Standard. “The demographics were not kind to this area, and it was clear that the community needed some new energy, new outreach, and programming.”

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Rabbi Ilan Glazer is the new religious leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen. The 87-year-old synagogue recently became egalitarian. Courtesy Ilan Glazer

Last week, the synagogue held the first of what are to become monthly Shabbat dinners. Also in the works are weekly Torah study, movie nights, meditation, and field trips.

“We’re starting new programming to get people invested in the temple,” Glazer said. “We’re starting to do all the things most shuls do, but this one hasn’t done in some time.”

Glazer, 31, now lives in an apartment in the shul, which the acting president, Craig Bassett, said makes the rabbi’s role similar to that of a Chabad rabbi who turns his home into the synagogue and invests himself in growing the community. Bassett said he hopes Glazer will reach out not only to unaffiliated Jews, but also to the wider Hudson County community, to increase the synagogue’s visibility.

“It would be easy to plan events that appeal to existing members, but they have to appeal to younger people and children,” he said. “We want these younger people in our area with children to come and feel comfortable bringing their children, and for the children to have something to do and get something out of it. If we can make it a full family event, it’ll be enjoyable by all and that will help us be successful.”

An Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, Moshe Fetman, had been coming to Beth El weekly for Shabbat for 16 years. The synagogue remained Conservative and never put in a mechitza, but services leaned more and more toward Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the membership that had at one point numbered more than 200 families, had dwindled to about 40.

“We’re still going to be a Conservative synagogue, but just upgrade ourselves so that we are a better reflection of our community and can better appeal to the needs and preferences of this new Jewish population in Hudson County,” Bassett said. “I thought that would be our only path forward.”

The change in direction was spurred by what Bassett said was a recognition that the synagogue’s “days were numbered.”

The board had investigated merger possibilities, but nothing materialized. It then looked to the biggest synagogue in Hudson County, the Conservative egalitarian United Synagogue of Hoboken, and decided Beth El had to change to attract new people.

In June, the synagogue became egalitarian, Fetman resigned, and Glazer arrived in August.

“What we realized we needed to do was take a different approach and stop leaning Orthodox and turning off people who may be interested in finding a synagogue, but then finding our synagogue didn’t speak to them,” Bassett said. “What we needed to do was move ourselves back to the mainstream of the Conservative movement and update our identity and create programming that would appeal to and interest these unaffiliated Jews.”

Friday night’s Shabbat dinner drew about almost 30 people, including some new faces. A handful of members have left because they were uncomfortable with egalitarianism, Glazer said, but the majority appear pleased with the new direction.

“It’s been lovely to see the number of women coming up to the Torah for the first time in their lives,” he said. “There’s a new spirit of energy and vibrancy here at the synagogue, which we haven’t had here in some time.”

See www.templebethelofnorthbergen.org for more information.

 
 

Turning Purim on its head with social action instead of drunkenness

Sue Fishkoff
Published: 18 March 2011

Purim is about costumes, out-rageous Purim spiels, and drinking until you can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and villain of the Purim story.

Or is it?

A number of American synagogues and Jewish organizations are eschewing, or at least downplaying, the drunken revelry to focus more on the socially conscious aspects of the holiday, which begins on Saturday night.

“I’ve always hated the drunken side of Purim,” said rabbinical student Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Conservative Temple Beth El of North Bergen, which will hold an alcohol-free Jewish comedy festival this year on Purim afternoon. “It seems counter to what we try to teach our children about the Jewish tradition.”

The most widespread alternatives involve “mishloach manot,” the mitzvah of giving food baskets to friends, and “matanot l’evyonim,” the mitzvah of giving to the needy.

In New York, the Israeli Consulate is teaming up with City Meals on Wheels and the Netanya Foundation to deliver meals to the homebound elderly, complete with “Happy Purim” cards decorated by children in Netanya, Israel.

Ahavat Olam, a progressive synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, is joining with local Muslims to prepare a meal for 300 to 500 hungry and homeless people as part of its ongoing Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry Project.

In Philadelphia, the Reconstructionist Dorshei Derekh Minyan at the Conservative Germantown Jewish Center raises money for collective mishloach manot baskets that are assembled at the synagogue building. Minyan attendees each get one basket of goodies instead of one for each purchased, so the bulk of the funds, about $1,200 a year, goes to local nonprofits. Other synagogues use the same method to raise funds for themselves or other causes.

The Jewish Renewal Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colo., is among the many synagogues nationwide that ask worshippers to use boxes of dried beans, cereal, or pasta as noisemakers instead of plastic “groggers” during the reading of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther. Afterward, the food is donated to food pantries.

UJA-Federation of New York used Purim this year to focus attention on the nutritional needs of the city’s low-income residents. In tandem with AmeriCorps, the federation partnered with more than 50 synagogues, day schools, and other Jewish institutions in the New York area to put together healthy, nutritious food packages for local needy families. As of early this week, the groups had prepared more than 1,500 packages.

Alex Roth-Kahn, the federation’s Caring Commission planning manager, says the project was inspired by the mandate that each Purim food basket contain at least two different food items from two different food groups.

“Embedded in that is the idea that a festive meal is balanced and well-apportioned, which is not an everyday occurrence for low-income families,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to talk to kids about healthy eating, and to show them that a shalach manot basket is more than wine, cookies, and jelly beans.”

Some congregations go beyond collecting food.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has an online social action guide to Purim that takes the holiday’s theme of turning things upside down and depicts Purim as a time to overturn social inequalities through tzedakah projects.

In keeping with that idea, Reform Temple Beth El in Huntington, N.Y. held a Purim baby-clothing drive this year, asking congregants to bring new or gently used clothing and accessories, including strollers and car seats, for a “Purim baby boutique” held Sunday at the temple.

IKAR, an independent minyan in Los Angeles, is one of several congregations across the United States that puts on a Purim Justice Carnival. The minyan decorates the room and runs games focused on the work of local service and advocacy groups, such as “bowling to end hunger and homelessness,” where people win “tzedakah coins” that are put toward an anti-hunger agency.

“The deepest message of Purim is that life is capricious and everything can turn on its head in an instant,” said IKAR’s rabbi, Sharon Brous. “The only response to the uncertainty of life is to give love and do justice.”

But is anyone having any fun?

That’s a problem, admits congregant Tikkun Leil Shabbat member Leah Staub. That’s why this year the congregation is adding a dance party with a DJ.

“People wanted a lighter atmosphere,” she said.

Some synagogues have abolished alcohol.

In Phoenix, Ariz., Rabbi Darren Kleinberg used to run “dry Purims” at KiDMA, his Modern Orthodox congregation. He told congregants to take a nap instead of drinking, relying on rabbinical authorities who say the mitzvah of achieving the state of unconsciousness of not differentiating between Haman and Mordechai can be fulfilled by sleeping instead of getting drunk.

Most congregations don’t want to give up the party entirely.

This year, Reform Temple Micah in Washington is buying boxes of macaroni and cheese for worshippers to shake instead of plastic groggers. As elsewhere, the food will be donated afterward. But Assistant Rabbi Esther Lederman saidthey’ll also have the drinking and the costume party.

“So many of our holidays are so serious,” Lederman said. “I don’t think Purim should turn into public drunkenness. But we want people to be able to let go in a way that’s safe. This is our one time to be ridiculous, to let down our guard, and there’s something to be said for that.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Hudson County’s Jewish community enjoys a growth spurt

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Cong. Mt. Sinai in Jersey City serves both “a start-up community and an older community,” its rabbi says.

If you live in Hudson County and are looking for a Jewish connection, HudsonJewish wants to hear from you. That’s the short name for Hudson Jewish Community, an umbrella group promoting Jewish life in the county.

Jewish life, which in the earlier decades of the last century flourished in Hudson, is seeing an infusion of new blood in the Hoboken and Jersey City area, said Adam Weiss, HudsonJewish chairman. At the same time, once-thriving Jewish communities on the edges of he county are in decline.

“Hudson County is undergoing a very significant change,” Weiss said, speaking of demographic shifts, and the area’s Jewish population reflects that.

As recently as the 1960s there were as many as 40,000 Jews in Hudson County, and at one time there were 50 synagogues. Now there are perhaps a dozen, Weiss said. Things changed. Younger people went away to college and never returned. Older people moved away or died, and the Jewish population dwindled. Weiss said it numbers about 12,000 now, citing the American Jewish Year Book.

But then things changed again. Younger people, some with young children, settled in the Hoboken-Jersey City area, to be near New York but at a more affordable price, Weiss said. Older people, “empty-nesters” whose children have grown and left their suburban homes, moved to the area, also to enjoy urban life and proximity to Manhattan.

To address the needs and preferences of the resurgent community, HudsonJewish has sent a survey to the some 1,700 people on its e-mail list. The questions involve secular activities — book clubs, discussion groups, outings to sites of Jewish interest, volunteer work, for example.

“We’re trying to give Jews a place to connect,” said Raylie Dunkel, HudsonJewish program director. Many are looking for a Jewish experience, maybe religious, maybe secular, she said. “People want to identify as Jews” and are looking for ways to do so.

The survey results will be presented and discussed Sunday at a bagels and lox brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Stevens Cooperative School, 100 River Road in the Newport section of Jersey City. (For information go to hudsonjewish.org.)

“We’re an idea whose time has come,” said Rabbi Shlomo Marks of Cong. Mt. Sinai in Jersey City Heights, which overlooks Hoboken. “This area has a lot to offer,” he said, noting, as did others, the proximity to New York.

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, who is retiring this year, said that his congregation is a very different place now than when it was when he came to it 22 years ago. Most of the congregants were older, there was no religious school, nor were there bar and bat mitzvahs.

The Jewish rebirth began in Hoboken, Brickman said, and spread to Jersey City. Riding that crest, Brickman said, “We’re an active and involved congregaion” of 115 families, man of them younger but a substantial number of empty-nesters.

They offer “outreach” to interfaith couples and welcome gays and lesbians, Brickman said. After his retirement, Brickman said, he’ll be rabbi emeritus at this “wonderful congregation.”

The synagogues have a rich history. Beth-El, which is Reform, was founded in 1864, and its current site was built in 1926. United Synagogue of Hoboken, which is Conservative, was founded in 1905 and its building built in 1915 to serve its then immigrant community.

United Synagogue counts a membership of 315 families, on all life steps — singles, couples with young children, and older people, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg..

Discussing the area’s ebb and flow of Jewish life, Scheinberg said the synagogue membership peaked in the 1920s, bottomed out in the 1970s, then began to grow, along with the larger community, in the 1980s and 1990s. Membership tripled in the last 15 years.

“The future is bright, we are delighted with a steady stream of new people,” Scheinberg said. He noted that the number of people moving away is matched with newcomers, and people are staying longer than they used to.

At Mt. Sinai in Jersey City Heights, Rabbi Marks said, “We are a mechitza” shul, and the area has an eruv, but he cited an openness to other traditions. “Our vision for the shul is an open-minded modern Orthodox community. We don’t judge. We are different. You have to come and sample us,” he said.

Marks, who came to Jersey City five years ago from the Washington, D.C., area, spoke of its history. “We are both a start-up community and an older community,” he said. “When the synagogue was built there were hundreds of Jewish families around here.”

Now, “we are managing,” he said, noting the neighborhood is a pleasing blend of working-class families and professional people living in condos. “It’s nice, it’s different, it’s changing,” he said.

There is a strong international flavor. Marks said a recent seder included speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew, in addition to English.

The membership is not huge, with perhaps 60 to 70, or maybe 100 turning out on Rosh HaShanah, with about 30 on Shabbat, Marks said.

Joshua Bernstein, a resident of Jersey City Heights and a congregant at Mt. Sinai, said Jewish life is a necessity for him and his wife, Rachel. He is in the office furniture business and proximity to North Jersey is important, while his wife works in New York, so Jersey City is ideal.

“We are so happy with the community,” said Bernstein, who describes himself as traditional. “It couldn’t have worked out better. Our shul is a hidden gem.”

For the Orthodox, Cong. Sons of Israel has regular services, sometimes drawing newcomers, said Rabbi Nota Kuperman. The congregation is 100 years old, and the current building is 50 years old, the rabbi said.

The intergenerational character of the area was stressed by Cantor Marsha Dubrow, religious leader of Cong. B’nai Jacob in Jersey City. She said the 150 member-families included older members who are “aging in place” and younger singles and families.

The Jersey City area is s “community in transition, with significant gentrification.” She described the congregation as contemporary, egalitarian, and Conservative. There is an emphasis on programs in music and the arts, Dubrow said.

Dunkel, the HudsonJewish program director, is one of the empty-nesters. She and her husband, David, wanted an urban lifestyle and moved from Freehold to the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City, which she described as an “old historic district that has gentrified nicely.”

She doesn’t belong to a synagogue, but finds her Jewish connection nonetheless. Among HudsonJewish activities, she cited discussion sessions on “anything Jewish, from food to holidays,” as well as film screenings, wine tastings, and programs on interfaith marriage.

She cited a Tu B’Shevat seder and charoset tasting. A chavurah meets every six weeks, she said, mostly social but with some religious content. Upcoming is a Lag B’Omer celebration.

HudsonJewish helps fund a Holocaust studies program at Hoboken High School, which includes a trip to Holocaust sites in Europe. The students involved are mostly not Jewish, she said.

Moishe House, a program that seems tailor-made for a community like Hoboken, provides a “home” based focal point for those aged 22 to 30 who are past college but do not yet have families of their own, said Jeremy Moskowitz. He is the eastern regional director for the worldwide program.

“Our generation is waiting longer to get married,” said Moskowitz, and Moishe House provides a “vibrant home-based experience.” Moishe House works by training hosts and helping with their expenses. The hosts then use their own homes for the program.

Moishe House Hoboken has a core of some 50 participants, and a total of some 300, including Facebook and e-mail connections, said Josh Einstein, one of the three hosts for the Hoboken group. The others are Shira Huberman and David Rosen.

Participants come from surrounding towns and even suburbia, Einstein said, and run a range of religious observance. Among activities are Shabbat dinners twice a month, with typically 25 people taking part. They alternate cooking and ordering out, Einstein said.

Moishe House works with other Jewish organizations to “grow the boundaries of the community,” Einstein said.

The issue of education was raised. Bernstein, the Mt. Sinai congregant, sees that as a challenge for the community.

Right now, much of the population consists of couples without children or young families with toddlers. What happens when the children reach first grade? “We’re going to have to address this for the long-term community,” he said.

Marks, the Mt. Sinai rabbi, said preschools can be started in storefronts, for example. Car-pooling is an option, he said, and noted that Jersey City is less than a half-hour from yeshivas in Passaic and Teaneck, for example.

Over in Hoboken, Rabbi Scheinberg noted the United Synagogue preschool program, where Judaism is an important part of the curriculum. Parents send their kids, and then realize how much they themselves want Judaism to be part of their lives, he said.

While the main population growth appears to be in Jersey City and Hoboken, other Hudson County municipalities have Jewish populations. Bayonne at the southern end of the county is one. Ohav Tzedek is 75 years old, said Joel Shulman, president of the Orthodox congregation.

The shul’s heyday was the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, Shulman said. Over the years the number of older congregants has dwindled, but some younger people have joined.

“These things go in cycles,” Shulman said. “We are always looking for new members.” Bayonne is also home to Temple Beth Am, Reform, and Temple Emanu-El, Conservative. (See related story.)

Weiss, the HudsonJewish chairman, explained that Bayonne does not have the same transit links and proximity to New York and so has not drawn many new residents, but that could change, he said.

In the northern part of the county, a more discouraging picture emerges.

Cong. Shaare Zedek in West New York was founded in 1912, and through the following decades was a thriving Orthodox congregation with up to 500 member-families, said Dan Kaminsky, vice president of the congregation. His great-grandfather, Hanoch Richman, was the founder, he said.

The congregation served as a Jewish community center, with its basketball court a popular attraction. “This was the place to be,” he said.

Then, in the1970s, Jews started to move away and the Jewish population steeply declined, Kaminsky said. He was proud to note that the shul has a minyan every Saturday and that High Holiday services still draw about 20 worshippers.

Kaminsky said he, his brother Alan, and his father, Bernard, regularly attend services at Shaare Zekek “so we can keep our great-grandfather’s dream alive.”

“We can’t let the synagogue die,” he said.

Kaminsky said they hope for a turnaround, believing there are many Jewish families in the nearby Galaxy Towers condominiums in Guttenberg, and perhaps demographics will shift again and more Jewish families will move into the area.

In North Bergen, Temple Abraham would draw “hundreds” of congregants for Shabbat services beginning at its creation in the 1940s, said Presidium Jeffrey Bernstein. Then, over the years, members just moved away, many to more spacious Bergen County to the north. Now there are just a handful of regular congregants, he said,

A more positive picture emerges at the Conservative Temple Beth El, also in North Bergen, where Rabbi Ilan Glazer said the membership is growing. He said there is a core membership of some 60 families, and there is an outreach effort to connect with Jewish residents of the new housing in the area.

“We’ve turned the corner,” Glazer said, and programs and holiday events have succeeded in bringing participants to the synagogue.

Weiss said the Jewish population in North Hudson — Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York — is likely growing, but many of the newcomers are not affiliated with Jewish institutions, and it’s hard to know how many there are.

Growth is evident in different ways. Speaking of Jewish sustenance, Scheinberg in Hoboken noted another kind — for the first time in a long time, there are two kosher restaurants serving the Hoboken-Jersey City area.

“It’s great to be here,” he said. “With each passing month it’s becoming easier to live a vibrant Jewish life.”

 
 
 
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