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Community unites as ‘church’ pickets

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Members of Westboro Baptist Church protested outside The Jewish Standard’s office in Teaneck on Wednesday. JOSH LIPOWSKY

A handful of members of the Westboro Baptist Church descended upon northern New Jersey Tuesday and Wednesday picketing Jewish organizations and some schools and other public buildings.

The openly anti-Jewish and anti-gay organization began its New Jersey tour on Tuesday with visits to the former office of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, the JCC of Metrowest in West Orange, and the United Synagogue of Hoboken. On Wednesday the group protested at Rutgers University Hillel, the Kosherfest showcase at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus, and The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. The group had also scheduled stops at Elizabeth High School, New Brunswick High School, and Dickinson High School in Jersey City.

Fred Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955. The organization is primarily made up of his children and grandchildren. It regularly stages protests around the country, appearing at military funerals and public events to promote its anti-homosexual agenda. Since April, the WBC has made Jewish organizations one of its main focuses.

Law enforcement groups as well as the Anti-Defamation League encouraged the targeted organizations not to counter-protest and to simply ignore WBC.

“It’s quite clear from Westboro Baptist Church — they don’t argue on this point — they simply seek publicity,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s ADL. “Counter-protests generate more media interest and give the church more opportunities to have their activities broadcast to the larger public.”

United Synagogue of Hoboken agreed with the advice and decided not to respond, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Approximately 30 counter-protesters gathered across the street from the WBC picketers Tuesday evening, though the synagogue played no role in organizing them.

“We felt the proper response for our community — which was a decision many organizations have made — was not to counter-demonstrate,” he said. “It was a case where the head overruled the heart.”

Scheinberg praised local police for keeping the WBC and counter-protesters orderly. At no point did anyone inside the synagogue feel threatened, he said, nor were synagogue functions disrupted.

“I’m grateful to live in a country where there’s free speech,” Scheinberg said. “I’m happy to let the judicial system sort out where the line is between protected speech and incitement to violence.”

At Rutgers, students organized a massive counter-demonstration Wednesday morning that drew between 1,000 and 1,200 people, according to police estimates — far overshadowing the half-dozen WBC protesters. Initially, Hillel was going to take a hands-off approach, but after the protest received coverage in the student newspaper last week, students began organizing through Facebook. Hillel decided to take the lead and turn the rally into a show of unity at Rutgers, said Andrew Getraer, the organization’s executive director.

“The campus environment is very different from a local synagogue or JCC in that there are tens of thousands of people here who can do what they feel is necessary,” he said. “Once students spontaneously began to organize, the option of ignoring [WBC] and denying them publicity was no longer an option.”

The rally was more a display of unity among the school’s different religious and ethnic groups than a direct counter to WBC, said 19-year-old Sam Weiner, the son of Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus.

“It was amazing to see that many students from all different cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions come together in a Rutgers Hillel coalition to unite against the hatred that this group is espousing,” he said.

“We made this rally about Rutgers University,” he added. “This event was not about giving Westboro Baptist Church attention. This was about drawing attention to the fact that RU can stand united against hate.”

After about 20 minutes, WBC moved on to its next target, in Paramus. Instead of congregating across the street from UJA-NNJ’s building as originally planned, the organization moved to Century Road, closer to Yeshivat Noam.

WBC failed to disrupt daily business at the federation or the schools, and Joy Kurland, head of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council credited the policy of non-engagement and the support from local police.

“Their support and assistance in lending whatever they could to alleviate our fears … were clearly evident from the beginning of the process,” she said. “They were phenomenal as far as … keeping everything under control.”

Four protestors appeared early Wednesday afternoon on Teaneck Road, near the Standard’s office. A small group of reporters showed up as well, to interview WBC members. The Standard chose not to speak with any member of the WBC and issued a statement on how it balanced its duty to report the news with recommendations not to give the group publicity.

“It’s news when a Jewish institution is picketed,” the statement noted, “and this is a newspaper. We debated how to handle the situation and decided to give them the least coverage possible. Although they demonstrated near our building, we followed the ADL’s advice and did not engage with them. It was not easy to withhold our natural repugnance toward these people but we felt it was important not to give them a larger stage. We also wish the wider media would not give them a platform for their hate.”

Neuer praised the wider community — Jewish and non-Jewish — for uniting in the face of WBC. Paramus Mayor James Tedesco visited the JCC of Paramus during the protest Wednesday, and UJA-NNJ received a letter of support from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

“The hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church were met by a message of respect and tolerance and by opportunities to educate our community about this group,” Neuer said.

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More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner
 
 

Listen and learn

Young Jews speak their minds at Jewish Standard rap session

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From left, Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, Maayan Weiss, and Nis Frome discuss their views on being Jewish. Photos by Joff Jones

What would you change about the Jewish world? Is it important to marry someone Jewish? What issues face young American Jews today? Seven college students, including myself, discussed these questions at The Jewish Standard’s first annual Teen Rap Session, held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on Aug. 10.

While the students represented a wide range of opinions, they all said they care deeply about the issues and feel connected to the Jewish community. Still — as one participant suggested — the opinions held by college-age Jews often are unsolicited, or ignored, as the community engages in long-term planning.

The Standard hopes to correct that oversight by convening these students on a regular basis.

This year’s panel participants, ranging from 18 to 20 years old and hailing from both Bergen and Passaic counties, included Michael Cohen (Wayne); Ruben Waldman (Teaneck); and Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, and Nina Follman (Glen Rock). Also from Glen Rock, I led the discussion with my fellow Standard intern Nis Frome of Teaneck.

Jewish identity

Students were asked whether it is important to marry someone Jewish.

“This is something that I’ve been battling with for a long time,” said Prawer, “and I think I’m leaning towards marrying Jewish. I don’t think it’s because I care if my spouse believes in God; I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable raising my kids anything but Jewish.”

He explained that his personal connection to Jewish culture is something he would want his children to experience as well.

For Waldman, “It’s very important to marry someone Jewish, just because I think it’s important to preserve my heritage, my culture, and my traditions as a Jew. For that reason,” he said, “I would only be comfortable raising my kids Jewish if I knew that I had a Jewish spouse to raise them with.”

“I don’t think you have to marry someone Jewish, necessarily,” Shir Michael countered. “I think its more about the person wanting to understand the culture, learn the culture, and if they’re willing to do that, then I think its acceptable to marry someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said.

Cohen agreed, adding that it was “more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. To me, being Jewish is about celebrating the holidays, coming together as a family … and in order to preserve that, I think it’s easier to ‘keep it in the faith.’”

All agreed that Jewish culture is something they want to preserve in their future family lives, and that more often than not, it’s easier to form an instant bond with other Jews than with people of other groups.

The Israel connection

Of the seven forum participants, six have traveled to Israel on more than one occasion. They discussed family trips, Birthright Israel opportunities, and what it means to feel a connection to Israel.

Cohen, who was born in Israel and lived there until he was 11, said that Israel would always be a “second home” to him. And Waldman, who has visited Israel many times, said, “Anytime I have the opportunity, I just jump on that plane and go.”

“I didn’t really understand this whole ‘homeland’ talk,” Prawer admitted, but when he got the chance go on a Birthright trip, he made his own discovery, he said. He noted that “in a country just about the size of New Jersey,” he and many others from his group saw people they knew just walking down the street.

“That could never happen with any other religion, in any other country — it will only happen to Jews, in Israel,” he said, “and that was just something so special and fascinating to me that I really felt a connection when I went.”

Follman said that she had not yet been to Israel, but she has heard so many positive stories about her friends’ experiences there that she hopes to go on Birthright soon.

Following the news

All the participants shared an interest in Israeli politics and a desire to keep up with news of the region.

Cohen suggested that what is best for Israel is also what is best for Jews living in America.

He acknowledged that although Israel should be a top priority, America does have other concerns it has to deal with.

“Many Americans need to realize that Israel is America’s only ally in the Middle East, and that we can’t lose that connection,” he said. “Jews are a big part of American politics and American life, so I think America really needs to build upon that relationship.”

Michael said that she “always believed the connection between America and Israel hasn’t been strong enough” and that the reason Jewish American teens in particular may not be as involved is because “no one is teaching them how to connect with Israel.” In order to bridge this divide, she suggested that teens, and even children, should be more exposed to everyday life in Israel.

Aside from its relationship to America, Israel often features in the media spotlight. “Every once in a while I’ll check on haaretz.com or The Jerusalem Post just to get a more informed notion,” Waldman said. “I think there’s a definite problem with at least American and European media in showing both sides of the story, with issues pertaining to Israel.”

“Surprisingly,” he added, “I’ve read more than a few articles from Israeli news sources that don’t paint Israel in a flattering way.”

In response to those who claim that American Jews “blindly support” Israel, he said that Israel “isn’t infallible” and that it, too, can make mistakes. Still, he added, it’s important to support it in all the good that it accomplishes, “and it does a lot of good.”

Many people try to gain a fuller understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the news, but “people have to be careful where they get their news from,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, the media is not pure facts.”

“A lot of people are really pro-Israel,” Prawer said, speaking of his family and members of the Jewish community at his school. But, he added, there are also a lot of people who are firmly anti-Israel at his school.

“I wish I had a better picture of the whole story,” he added. Before he left on his Birthright trip, a goal of his was to learn as much as he could about the regional conflict. However, describing himself as very “sheltered,” he said he regretted that he wasn’t able to do so.

Responding to anti-Semitism

One issue that strongly resonated with the students was anti-Semitism, a topic they introduced themselves during the discussion.

“Hearing words that weren’t around me when I was younger,” Michael said of her first year on campus, was something that was “very difficult to adjust to.”

Cohen recalled Israeli Apartheid Week — a politically charged event held at Boston University last year. He said it made him feel uncomfortable, mostly because it was partially funded by the university itself, and, by extension, his own undergraduate fees.

At the same time, said another participant, a college campus is unique in that it can, in an educational way, present numerous viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

“It’s healthy to have the debate,” Prawer said. “I think it’s really important to have a lot of different views [on campus]…. I would feel uncomfortable,” he added, “if it was all pro-Israel.”

Sense of community

The participants spoke about their involvement in the Jewish community, both as children and young adults.

One of the biggest differences Cohen noticed when he moved to the United States was the way he and his family expressed their Judaism.

“In Israel, Judaism is all around you,” he said. He didn’t go to synagogue services, for example, because he didn’t feel the need.

“But when I moved here,” he explained, “I realized that I had to seek out Judaism.”

“I think it really depends on where you are in the country,” Prawer added, “and what type of institution you’re in…. Once I got to college there was a lot more outreach.”

As the two participants who are only just entering college, Follman and Waldman explained how the Jewish community played a role in their college decision-making process.

Waldman was impressed with the outreach on his campus when he visited the University of Pennsylvania.

“I would definitely love to be a part of that,” he said. “I think Hillel and organizations like it are a great way for Jews on campus to be in touch, and I definitely see myself taking a role in that.”

Follman was also impressed by the Jewish community at her future campus, but explained that her involvement won’t change just because there is an active Hillel.

“It was definitely part of my decision to choose Boston University, because it had such a strong Jewish presence,” she added. “It’s just really great to be with all other people that ‘get’ you.”

Being Jewish

What do they love most about being Jewish?

“The food!” Prawer exclaimed, as the others agreed enthusiastically.

“The culture, coming together with the family for Rosh HaShanah, having a big dinner, and celebrating each other,” Cohen added, “It’s a lot about the family.”

“You can find a Jew anywhere, pretty much, and just be able to talk to them, and be able to connect to them immediately…. That’s really my favorite part,” Waldman said.

Being able to stand out as a minority is one of Follman’s favorite aspects about being Jewish.

“We’re not only a minority,” Prawer reminded everyone. “We’re a minority that has had a disproportionate amount of success in the world.”

“We’re a minority with a large presence,” Cohen added.

On the flip side, Michael pointed out that sometimes it’s difficult for her to deal with people who do not understand Judaism.

“Some other people don’t understand the culture, and they judge it very quickly,” she said.

Cohen also acknowledged “preconceived notions about Jews and the Jewish religion,” but said that if anything, these judgments and perceptions were just something he’d like to educate others about, showing them “what the Jewish religion is all about.”

On changing the Jewish world

“One thing I’d like to see is a little more dialogue,” Waldman said. “I think the Jewish community is suffering from some real fragmentation…. There are a lot of issues in the news, inter-Jewish issues about all kinds of things, and just to get everybody to sit down and talk would be beneficial to everybody.”

Cohen agreed, adding that he thinks that in order to move forward, “We need to learn how to be one.”

“I wish there was a general understanding that you can ‘be Jewish’ without ‘being Jewish,’” Prawer said. He stressed the importance of embracing Jewish traditions in one’s own way. “There’s such a rich culture that I think everyone can benefit from, and appreciate, and you don’t necessarily need to follow all of the rules or believe everything the religion says you should believe in.”

Following the discussion, members agreed — in Michael’s words — that “everyone has something different to say, and sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but in the end, just to have the conversation is important.”

“I think I gained a reassurance from this,” said Cohen. While “others have the same views as me, and some others don’t … we are still connected, and share very similar beliefs.”

A full video presentation of the forum, in 6 parts, can be found on our website.

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 1

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 2

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 3

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 4

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 5

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 6

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Shir Michael, top left, Nis Frome, and Ruben Waldman. Ben Prawer, bottom left, Maayan Weiss, Michael Cohen, and Nina Follman.
 
 

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.”

 
 

Fascinating forum on the same-sex elephant in the room

Last night’s rabbinic forum at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, on Judaism and sexuality, was fascinating. Rabbis David-Seth Kirschner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter (Conservative), Yosef Adler of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck (Orthodox), and Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly (Reform) were the panelists and Reuven Kimelman, the JCC’s scholar in residence, the moderator.

It was an erudite and thoughtful conversation — centering largely on the fallout from the Standard’s publication of a same-sex marriage announcement, as I expected — but what was most important was that they were there, together, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, earnestly and respectfully discussing what another rabbi has called “the great civil rights movement of our time,” the struggle for equality of the LGBT community.

Orthodox members of that community, who have a particularly hard fight for acceptance within their movement, were present, speaking out and demanding to be heard, and I approached Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and asked her to set up a meeting for them — their group’s name is Jewish Queer Youth — with Orthodox rabbis. (UJA-NNJ and the JCC co-sponsored the forum.)

The Standard has taken a lot of heat for that announcement and its aftershocks, but in a way we have done a mitzvah. We have got the community talking — and listening — to each other.

And we are listening as well.

Shabbat shalom to all.

RKB

 

 

 

 
 

Jewish Standard sweeps the field

Newspaper racks up journalism awards

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From left, Warren Boroson, Rebecca Boroson, Josh Lipowsky, and Miryam Wahrman display their NJSPJ awards. photo by Israel Wahrman Winners Lois Goldrich, inset left, and Bram Boroson, inset right, were not at Sunday’s ceremony.

The Jewish Standard received seven awards, including four for first place, at the annual awards luncheon Sunday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark of the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.

In the weekly newspaper division, a team of three — Rebecca Boroson, Lois Goldrich, and Josh Lipowsky — placed first in state for regional news for a mulitpart cover story “Sacred Space?” about the planned mosque near Ground Zero. (Boroson is the newspaper’s editor. Goldrich and Lipowsky, both former associate editors, continue to free-lance for the paper.)

The judges wrote, “This section explores one of the most sensitive topics of public discussion and news coverage of recent years through the thoughts and opinion of various people, including rabbis and other prominent Jews, Muslim leaders, and politicians. It lets those featured speak for themselves on the subject of whether a planned Muslim building should be erected near the 9/11 site, and the result is much food for thought on both sides of the issue. A real service to the readers.”

Lipowsky won second place in that category for “DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted.” He also won first place for a feature, “Hello, old friend: Death march survivors reunite after 65 years.” The judges comment was that the article “flowed seamlessly between the experiences of the men during the Holocaust, and today.”

Miryam Wahrman, the newspaper’s science correspondent, placed first in the health, science, and technology category for “Got ____? Aphasia: At a loss for words.” The judges called it an “interesting and informative article on a health problem that most of the general public never even heard of. Wahrman does a good job of explaining what it is, how it affect individuals, and the treatment available at a local center.”

Another first was won by Bram Boroson, in both the daily and weekly categories, for his review, “A Novelist’s Search for (Divine) Life in the Universe,” of a book by Herman Wouk called “The Language God Talks.” The judges called it a “thoughtful and insightful review that gives the reader a number of ideas to ponder.” Boroson, an assistant physics professor at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga., is performing research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. He is the son of Rebecca Boroson and her husband, Warren, a contributing editor at the Standard.

Warren Boroson took second place in the enterprise/series/investigative category for his three-part series on ant-Semitism, “The disease that won’t go away.”

A columnist as well for NewJerseyNewsroom.com, Boroson took two other second-place awards, one in the online essay category for “What it’s really like to be retired” and one in the online public service category for “Frank financial advice for young people.”

Rebecca Boroson placed second for her editorial “Boorish blogging and a merited medal.”

Sara Lee Kessler of Englewood and her NJN Public Television team took a first place award in the Best Media Affiliated Website category for NJN’s “Decoding Autism” website. The judges called it “an attractive and easy-to-navigate site addressing a serious topic. The combination of information (including Fast Facts list) videos, and resources helps demystify the subject of autism for the average person.”

The “Decoding Autism” documentary, which is now airing on PBS television stations across the nation, debuted on NJN on Sept. 27, 2010. The Standard’s Abigail Klein Leichman previewed it in this newspaper on Sept. 24.

The Standard’s publisher, James Janoff, said he was delighted at the paper’s strong showing. “It demonstrates,” he said, “the Standard’s commitment to editorial excellence and to covering the community.”

 
 
 
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