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Giving back by helping out

Pro bono program takes off in Bergen County

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Lisa Fedder, left, Alice Blass, Joy Kurland, and Leah Kaufman
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table class="caption">image David Siegel, left, and David Giller
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Lori Sackler, left, Alan Sotnick, and Stan Goldberg

“People are really struggling,” said Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson. There are “80-year-olds looking for jobs as receptionists. It’s awful.”

That’s why, when UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened its economic crisis meeting in October 2008, organization leaders realized that not only must an economic action plan help increasingly strapped community agencies, but that help must filter down directly to individuals.

That’s why, when UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened its economic crisis meeting in October 2008, organization leaders realized that not only must an economic action plan help increasingly strapped community agencies, but that help must filter down directly to individuals.

“We knew that agencies, schools, and synagogues were seriously affected by the economic downturn,” said Alice Blass, volunteer coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Council. But there was also a clear need for emergency financial assistance and pro bono services.

The call for a pro bono network obviously struck a chord.

“Professionals stepped forward,” said Blass, reeling off a list of volunteer service-providers. Some were recruited through the federation’s Commerce & Professionals arm and Physicians & Dentists division; others came forward on their own.

“We spoke with JFS about the specific types of pro bono assistance they could use,” said Blass, noting that landlord-tenant relations, credit management, bankruptcy, and medical issues were most frequently mentioned.

Some 70 professionals — including accountants, dentists, financial experts, lawyers, funeral directors, and mohels — now participate in the pro bono project, said Blass. There is even a hairdresser, to help people preparing for employment interviews. It is up to JFS to screen the clients who may need pro bono assistance, said Blass, adding that “it’s their call; whatever the needs are.”

Jewish Community Relations Council Director Joy Kurland pointed out that when key federation and JCRC leadership discussed the economic downturn, it was realized that “the need was greater than what agencies could provide in terms of human resources.”

Requests for volunteers drew a wide response and the list “kept growing,” she said.

“I haven’t seen this kind of program — the way we’ve done it in northern New Jersey — anywhere else,” she said. “The JCRC was the point of entry in dealing with the economic crisis, and the pro bono network was created with the campaign divisions that handled the professionals. In other places, JFS agencies handle it themselves.”

“Perhaps because the economic crisis was a local emergency, unlike Haiti or Katrina or the tsunami, we had to approach it differently,” said Alan Scharfstein, UJA NNJ president. “We learned that it’s only when the community acts together as a whole, with federation as the convener and the key agencies as partners, that we can come up with solutions on how to deal with it. The idea of the pro bono network resonated widely and immediately throughout the community and was implemented quickly.”

“The decision was made to fully support the pro bono network and commit staff hours to the running of it,” said UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president Howard Charish. “What’s more, our Commerce & Professionals Division was a natural partner….Its members stepped up to volunteer their services.”

According to Kurland, “We also wanted to take care of the caregivers. We’re concerned about their health as well.” As a result, the pro bono network includes a professional masseuse who offers her services to clinical social workers at JFS.

Leah Kaufman, director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, said her agency has been referring people to pro bono professionals “mostly for legal and financial issues.” According to Kaufman, clients especially need assistance with bankruptcy issues and credit card debt.

“Some need assistance trying to figure out their budgets,” she said. “There are major lifestyle changes that clients are having difficulty adjusting to. They’re in a position they never thought they’d have to be in.”

Some clients, she said, were from middle- and upper-middle-class families, previously earning six-figure incomes.

“Now they find themselves on the verge of losing their homes.”

The agency used more than a dozen pro bono professionals in the past year, she said, whether referring clients directly or calling the professionals on their clients’ behalf.

As for her own clinical staff, “We took advantage of a hand masseuse who came here several months ago. It was a treat for the staff. We had to twist ourselves into a pretzel to find the time.”

Kaufman said she thinks the pro bono program is “a wonderful resource for us and I would like to see it continue.”

So would Fedder. “It’s been a fabulous boost to families in need,” she said, noting that her agency has referred clients for dental and medical problems as well as for financial concerns.

“We also have somebody offering haircuts,” she said, adding that the service was provided to an elderly woman who can no longer take care of herself.

Fedder pointed out that the two JFS agencies screen clients before referring them “so we don’t take advantage of the kindness of strangers. It’s a huge mitzvah these people are doing.”

The volunteers

The professionals in the pro bono network are a mixed lot, but all who were interviewed told The Jewish Standard that they are driven by a feeling of communal responsibility and a desire to “give back.”

David Siegel, who reached out to JFS and offered his services, helps clients with bankruptcy issues and debt settlement.

The Teaneck resident said that “a lot of people out there have problems and they don’t know how, or that they can, address them. They feel stigmatized by the idea of bankruptcy. But you can get your life back on track.”

A business insurance specialist based in New York, Siegel has already spoken with about a dozen people referred by JFS, either “offering some advice on what they can do on their own or referring them to a bankruptcy attorney.”

“The greatest need is for loan modifications,” he said. “It’s becoming very difficult; banks are making it very difficult to get modifications approved.”

He noted that people can go to HUD.gov to get the name of an organization, paid by the government, that does this work for free.

“You don’t need to pay an attorney for that; there’s stuff they can do on their own,” he said. “I guide people toward that.”

Siegel said he has put together a brochure that he has distributed through TeaneckShuls, among other outlets. Describing it as “a short booklet that will give you the basics on topics relating to settling various forms of debt, without the need for an attorney,” it covers issues such as second mortgages, credit cards, loan modifications (of first mortgages), student loans, and bankruptcy.

“I have been frustrated at the lack of media coverage on this issue,” said Siegel, pointing out that the Orthodox Union has held several “webinars” on the subject, which people can access in the archives section of the group’s Website, ou.org.

Siegel said that “the gamut of people we’re seeing is pretty wide. We’re seeing those we didn’t expect to. The banks are causing this to continue and to drag out,” he said, since people who could otherwise make deals and modify their loans may now need to file for bankruptcy.

Pointing out the “sad toll” that economic problems can cause, Siegel said that “one client filed for bankruptcy, and his wife filed for divorce. I’ve had to be a bit of a marriage counselor.”

On the other hand, he believes people are becoming more reasonable.

“They’re becoming more realistic with expenses and doing what they can to live within their means. They’re trying to learn from difficult situations.”

David Giller has been reaching out to various charities in Bergen County “to work with them and help them out.”

The Bergenfield resident, an attorney based in Hackensack, said he has spoken with about 30 pro bono clients over the past year, many referred by Project Ezra.

A typical presenting problem “is a person married and in dire financial straits,” with credit card debt, auto loans, personal loans, possibly taken out for business purposes, and a mortgage.

“They’re struggling to find out how to make things work,” he said. “They might just have been getting by for a while and then their industry wasn’t doing well or their spouse got laid off or developed a medical condition.”

“It snowballed,” he said. “I’ve seen many variations of that story. A couple of years ago they were getting by. They’re not people who just went crazy with credit cards.”

Giller said he has seen this story unfold for people of all professions and in all industries.

He has also seen the marital stress that results from these problems.

“I try to help guide them through the cumbersome, time-consuming legal process,” he said, adding that when he’s done, he has sometimes “eliminated several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

“What better way to reach out to people hurting the most, and [do it] within my own community?” he asked, noting that he has also approached various organizations offering to speak on budgeting and money management.

“It’s a way of giving tzedakah without being able to write a big check,” he said.

Tenafly resident Lori Sackler, first vice president/senior investment management consultant at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, stressed that while she has been speaking with individuals referred by JFS, “I’m not giving tax or legal advice.”

Sackler said the issues she encounters are typically the result of people losing their jobs or having significantly reduced income because business is off. They may also be overleveraged, affected by changing interest rates and no longer able to afford their mortgages.

“Typically, we talk about their budgets,” she said, noting that “there’s not a lot I can do, but I can counsel them about looking for part-time work, changing jobs, or consolidating their debt.”

Sackler may also suggest that they speak with their banks to make sure that they’re taking advantage of all options available under the government’s debt-relief program.

So far, she said, she has not been surprised by anything she has seen.

“It’s a reminder that this is happening all around us, not just on the news,” she said. “It’s good for people to talk to professionals, and I hope that more people will do pro bono work. It allows people a forum to speak openly about their economic problems.”

Reverse mortgage consultant Alan Sotnick was prompted to offer pro bono services by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. “I’ve been doing it for less than a year and have spoken with three people so far,” said Sotnick. “I thought it was time to give back.”

He said that generally, the people he speaks to have incomplete information, or even misinformation, about their situation, often gleaned from well-meaning friends.

“They talk to friends and relatives who are trying to give good advice but aren’t so knowledgeable,” he said.

The Hillsdale resident said he has seen people from all different professions who are in financial trouble “through no fault of their own.”

“Unfortunately, the problem also affects people of all ages,” he added, noting that he has done volunteer work with the elderly, driving a seniors van in his community after he sold his company four years ago.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is also reaching out to those in need, offering free “Coping with Unemployment” seminars led by Fort Lee resident Stan Goldberg, past president of Fortune Personnel Consultants.

Goldberg, who answers questions about writing résumés and preparing for the interview process, said he thought “giving to the community” would be an appropriate way to deal with the recent loss of his wife.

According to Goldberg, his seminars, which will be offered until March 18, recognize not only that many are unemployed but that others “anticipate being laid off.”

Goldberg said he is interested in creating other forums where people who are out of work “and don’t know what to do with themselves” can meet to talk and network. “It’s nice being able to talk,” he said. “You stay motivated.”

The economic crisis was not a surprise, said Goldberg, a longtime expert in the employment industry. Still, he said, while “we’d been through [similar] situations before this, they were not as bad.” Nor does he think there will be much improvement in the short term.

“People have to be realistic and see if their skills are transferable, or they have to further and enhance their education in areas where there may be job opportunities in the future, doing research on [which] sectors will get better.” Still, he said, “No one has a crystal ball; it becomes a guessing game.”

Goldberg said his seminars are customized to address participants’ individual problems. For example, he said, he may suggest that if someone has gone on five or six unsuccessful interviews, “he may have to start looking to see what has to change. Maybe he’s not dressing correctly, or he’s antagonistic or bitter. A lot of it is chemistry. Employers are looking for someone to join a team.”

In the meantime, JFS-Bergen’s Fedder believes that the pro bono program should continue when the recession ends, since “the needs of the community won’t decrease in the short term.”

“There are kids in their early 20s with no real experience who can’t get their first job; and those 50-plus who won’t get a new job at the same level or with benefits. The recession may end ‘by the book’ but not in the lives of the people we are serving.”

 
 

Presbyterian report threatens coalition

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs did not mince words. In a letter dated March 15 and addressed to its board and member agencies, the group wrote: “The Jewish community finds itself at a crossroad in our relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

At issue is a report from the church’s Middle East Study Committee. Entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page document — which will be presented at the group’s 219th General Assembly in July — is “an egregious diatribe against Israel,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of North Jersey and head of the regional Community Relations Council.

Kurland and Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday to relay their concerns.

This is not the first time the Protestant denomination — with some 10,000 congregations and 2 million to 3 million members — has put forward positions critical of Israel.

But, said Gall, “this is the worst ever,” because rather than just voicing specific concerns or proposals advocating boycotts or divestment, “it’s much more insidious; it’s about delegitimizing Israel as a state.”

In the past, she said, groups such as AJCommittee and JCPA mobilized their local offices to talk to Presbyterian delegates before they went to their biennial conventions, letting them know how their Jewish neighbors felt about anti-Israel proposals. And, in the past, such efforts were generally successful.

This time, however, may be different.

“Regretfully, there is a possibility it will pass,” said Gall, pointing out that while there are certainly a small number of delegates who will be committed to its passage, most — “who will also be considering tons of other stuff” — may simply not understand the implications of the issue and simply let it go through.

In addition, she pointed out, this year’s agenda also contains a report on gay rights, something likely to garner much more attention.

“We as Jews forget that it’s not the most important thing to the average church member,” she said.

Nevertheless, said Kurland, should the measure pass, “We’re going to have to step back and reassess” relations with the Presbyterian Church. Citing coalitions in which Jews and Presbyterians work together on issues such as Darfur and immigration reform, she said that, conceivably, such efforts might not be able to continue.

“The proposal can’t be fixed,” said Gall. “In our estimation, it can’t be tweaked. All the blame for everything is on Israel,” she added, noting that the document refers continually to “occupation, occupation, occupation, and land taken away from the Palestinians.”

“It’s a rewriting of the story,” said Kurland. “The whole piece is a horrific attack against Israel, making use of pieces of text taken completely out of context.”

These include scriptural passages, she said. The March JCPA letter gives examples of “a problematic theology” in the report that negates Jewish claims to the land while simultaneously “holding the modern State of Israel to biblical standards of justice,” standards that are not applied to other countries.

Kurland also pointed out that despite the Presbyterians’ protestations, no mainstream American Jewish organizations were consulted during the preparation of the report. The committee indicated that it had spoken with Jewish Voices for Peace, described by JCPA as an anti-Israel group; B’Tselem, an Israeli group; and J Street.

J Street, however, said later that it was never consulted by the Presbyterian group and that it finds the report “troubling and unfair,” according to JCPA.

Additionally, the report holds “Israeli discrimination” responsible for the declining Christian population in the country, and, said Gall, “One of the authors of the historical analysis sections claims that United States aid to Israel violates domestic and international law.”

While Jews are clearly troubled by the report, they are not alone, said the AJCommittee director.

“It’s not all Presbyterians,” she said. “We’re not talking about demonizing the whole church. Some are very upset and are working to change it.”

To help in this effort, local community relations councils and regional AJCommittee offices are reaching out to their Presbyterian coalition partners, stressing the importance of countering the report, which, if accepted, would result in anti-Israel measures.

Kurland said there are 30 convention delegates from New Jersey.

“We have to try to speak with them and with other Presbyterian ministers who are our friends,” she said. “There are relationships that have been built over the years on the local level, where they don’t march in lockstep with the national body.” People on the local level “have to hear from their Jewish clergy counterparts that these relationships really mean something.”

“We also have to explain to our partners that maybe they haven’t quite understood how important Israel is to us, that it’s part of our identity as American Jews,” said Gall.

“We have a perfect right to try to educate our friends and neighbors” on the importance of Israel, she said. “We think we’ve done so much and we all get along, but we don’t talk about the things that are really important to us. Our neighbors don’t seem to understand that being Jewish is not just about going to synagogue on Saturday; it’s not just a religion.” While Jews may be reluctant to initiate such discussions, “other people need to know,” she said.

Should the report pass, said the two Jewish leaders, the Jewish community will “have to take a deep breath and step back,” though exactly how the repercussions will be felt will differ from town to town. They also agreed that Israel’s recent actions regarding the Gaza aid flotilla will “put a cloud on what we’re trying to do.”

“I’m sure it will have to be addressed,” said Gall. “Maybe we’ll wait a week to make calls.”

Nevertheless, said Kurland, pointing out that task-force meetings have already been held on the subject, action must be taken.

“What’s really troublesome is not only that this issue was visited a few years ago and we thought that things were addressed and rectified, but that this initiative is so egregiously anti-Israel that it can break up a coalition with the Presbyterians.” Coalition partners “must understand what’s at stake here; that we cannot be at the table with people who are working against the welfare and security of the State of Israel.”

 
 

N.J. coalition calls for continuing divestment from Iran

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Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, Sen. Robert Gordon, and Assemblywoman Linda Stender with members of No Nukes for Iran Teen Advocacy Initiative at a June 10 press conference in Trenton praising the state’s divestment efforts from Iran and calling for further action. Photo courtesy of UJA-NNJ

Legislators, Jewish communal leaders, and anti-Iran activists held a press conference in Trenton last week to laud state efforts to divest from Iran and encourage businesses to do the same.

The June 10 press conference at the State House, organized by the N.J. Stop Iran Now Coalition, coincided with the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations in Iran following the disputed elections there. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-21) presided over the event. The press conference’s goal, he told this paper afterward, was to keep the Iranian issue in the public eye.

“When you talk about an issue as significant as Iranian nuclear weapons and Iranian government policy, I’m not sure you can measure a response,” Bramnick said. “What is important in American media is that you keep it on the front burner as much as possible.”

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, said the press conference was as much a call to action as it was a reminder of New Jersey’s achievements.

“We call upon all the counties and municipalities in New Jersey to withhold their support for investment in companies that are doing business with entities and subsidiaries of the Iranian government,” said Kurland, who also heads the regional CRC, made up of UJA-NNJ, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “New Jersey clearly set an example when the state divested from its pension funds.”

Former Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation in 2007 ordering New Jersey to divest its pension funds from companies that deal with Iran. The Garden State has since divested almost $500 million from 11 companies, including Gazprom OAO, Lukoil OAO, and Mitsui & Co., according to the N.J. Department of the Treasury. In all, the department has identified 34 companies tied to Iran or doing business within Iran’s natural gas or petroleum sectors that are ineligible for investment by New Jersey’s pension and annuity funds.

Divestment has overwhelming support in the legislature, Bramnick said. Iran’s irrational leadership is cause for worldwide concern, he added.

“It’s one thing when you have pure terrorists that don’t have a nation-state behind them,” he said. “But leaders of a nation-state have military at their fingertips. That’s a frightening situation.”

The N.J. Stop Iran Now Coalition, created in 2007, includes the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, JCRC of UJA-NNJ, the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in New Jersey, the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, and No Nukes for Iran Teen Advocacy Initiative.

No Nukes for Iran is organizing a rally on Monday outside of Honeywell in Morristown to protest the company’s British subsidiary, UOP, which, Kurland said, is doing business with Iran. The coalition’s next move remains unclear, but organizers are firm in their message.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can to have the state move forward from where it is now,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association. “As the coalition is in formation so is what it will look like in terms of moving forward. Everybody’s got some ideas and thoughts and we have to sit down and talk about them.”

 
 

Israeli Consul Gil Lainer makes his country’s case at JCRC meeting

Optimism, underlined by caution, was the message Monday night as Gil Lainer, consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York, spoke of the prospects for peace in the Mideast and the challenges facing the Israelis and Palestinians in the quest for an accord.

Lainer, a career diplomat who has held postings in Africa and the United States, addressed a rapt meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at the federation’s Paramus headquarters.

Going beyond headlines and sound bites, Lainer told of behind-the-scenes work done by Israelis to help developing countries. He cited the rapid response of medical teams to the recent earthquake devastation in Haiti, where Israel established a field hospital even before U.S. aid arrived.

He noted that Israel sent a 747 loaded with supplies even before it was known that the plane could land in Haiti.

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Gil Lainer, Israel’s consul for public diplomacy in New York, sees signs of hope on Mideast peace. Charles Zusman

Lainer quoted from Monday’s speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres at the U.N. Millenium Development Goals Summit, where Peres noted the progress Israel has made in development, particularly in food production.

Five decades ago an Israeli farmer produced food for 15 people, but today produces enough for 120, Peres said. Peres’s message was that education and diligence lead to growth and peace, and this can work for countries around the world.

“We have so much to offer the world in so many areas,” Lainer said. Israel has been helping those in developing countries, notably Africa, for more than 50 years, he noted. Its experts have been training others, both as visitors to Israel and in their own countries, in fields such as medicine, education, agriculture, and fishery.

“We have been dealing with tikkun olam as a country for decades,” he said. But, he said, while not out to score points, Israel does not get the credit for its good works.

“We don’t ask anything in return,” he said. “We do what we do because it’s our role to give to the world, as Jews, as Israelis.”

Turning to the Palestinian issue, he cited statistics showing 9 percent GDP growth for the first half of 2010 in the west bank, where trade is blossoming and infrastructure projects are steaming ahead. While budget problems remain in the west bank, the Arab countries have not done their fair share to help out, he said.

The “numbers are amazing,” Lainer said, noting the statistics come from international, not Israeli, sources. He said they show increasing trade with Israel for the last four years, growth in tourism, and less unemployment.

“On the ground you can see the improvement, but we don’t get the international recognition I think we should get for that,” he said.

While Gaza is more problematic, being under the control of Hamas, the region still has had a 16 percent GDP growth for the period.

Concerning Gaza, he said the policy remains one of containment, but there is a much freer flow of goods into the area than before. While in the past there was a list of only what could go through, now the much shorter list just says what can’t, notably weapons.

Even cars are now legally imported, where before they were smuggled in, he said. This is hurting Hamas, which used to profit from the illegal trade, Lainer said.

On the peace talks, “there are serious people on both sides,” but serious compromises must be made. “The process has started again, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

He pointed to reports that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had dined at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu’s house. “When you read more about what they ate than what they talked about, that’s a good sign,” he said.

He acknowledged that easing travel has brought more terror attacks, but also said that the security barrier is working and better training and enforcement by Palestinian police are having their effect.

Key, he said, is the realization by the Palestinians that peace is the only viable way forward. Palestinian Authority President Abbas is a hard-liner, but he is making a genuine effort toward peace, Lainer said.

On the negative side, the fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, is still unknown, and rocket attacks from Gaza have not stopped. “I haven’t seen any international condemnation of this,” he said.

Iran remains a threat, not only to Israel, but to the region and the world, he said. “We should not take our eyes off the ball,” he said. “A nuclear Iran is a threat to everyone.”

Israel would like to see stronger sanctions against Iran and condemnation from the world community, he said. Iran is keeping the pressure on Israel through its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, he said. “It’s a challenge to break that link,” he said.

In response to a question, Lainer critcized Russia’s decision to sell cruise missiles to Syria, particularly since Russia has been playing a role in the Mideast peace process. “This is a serious development we’re very unhappy about,” he said.

Concerning Shalit, Lainer said his fate remains a painful issue for Israel. He hoped further negotiations and progress on peace in general would lead to a resolution.

Asked about the U.S. sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Lainer said Arab fears in the Mideast were focused on Iran, not Israel.

Lainer concluded his talk, which stretched for more than an hour, with a plea for help on the public relations front.

“We rely on you to get the word out” on the positive role Israel plays in the world, he said.

That message was seconded by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, JCRC chairman. “Our job is to get the message out,” he said. “Fighting for the hearts and minds of the public is our responsibility.”

 
 

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.”

 
 
 
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