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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.”

 
 

JCRC reaches out to evangelicals

Evangelical Christians have a record of showing support for Israel, but many Jews question their motives.

To promote better communication and understanding, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has arranged a series of meetings between some of its members and representatives of an area evangelical church.

The relationship between JCRC and the evangelical community, however, is nothing new. The Rev. Bill Fritzky from In My Father’s House in Wayne has led several groups from Christians United For Israel on JCRC-sponsored buses to pro-Israel rallies in New York in recent years.

“They’ve been very supportive of us with all kinds of Israel matters,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Regional CRC, which is an agency of UJA-NNJ, UJC of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

About a year ago, members of the JCRC created a PowerPoint presentation, Hope For Peace, to create a better understanding of Israel for non-Jewish audiences. They took it to In My Father’s House, and that led to what Kurland called a “desire on the part of the evangelical clergy to foster greater relationships with the Jewish community.”

The result was a four-month study group of JCRC members and evangelicals, which began in January.

“A lot of people approach the evangelical community with skepticism,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Temple Emeth in Teaneck and vice chair of the JCRC’s intergroup relations committee. “You can’t tell if your skepticism is founded or not until you engage in dialogue. That’s the reason I found this so rewarding.”

Sirbu leads the eight-member delegation from the JCRC, while the Rev. John Diomede of the House of Bread in Park Ridge leads the eight-member evangelical delegation.

“We’re approaching this as an opportunity to really learn from one another,” Sirbu said. “We know we have a really strong common bond in our love for Israel. We haven’t explored the details, and we’re bound to find some differences in why we love Israel.”

The House of Bread, also known as Beth-Lehem, is not a messianic Jewish congregation, Diomede said, but its congregants do believe their heritage comes from the Tanach and Israel. As a result, Diomede said, the church is “Jewish friendly” and “Israel friendly.”

“The JCRC invited us because they wanted to know why we were Israel friendly,” he said. “These sessions became a dialogue that helped them understand why.”

The sessions, Sirbu emphasized, are about building trust and understanding, which is why they are not open to the public. How participants will funnel what they have learned about each other to the wider community has not yet been discussed, but Sirbu appeared open to continuing cooperation beyond the four sessions.

The first session focused on a part of the Bible Jews and evangelicals share: the Ten Commandments. After discussing how each side viewed them, the groups debated whether they should be displayed publicly. Sirbu argued they should not be, while Diomede took the pro side.

“The point was not for either one to win but to hear the differences in how we perceive the Ten Commandments, and, second of all, how we perceive the First Amendment,” Sirbu said. “If we’re going to learn from each other as people in such a diverse country, it’s important for us to not only study each other’s interpretations of the Ten Commandments but of the First Amendment as well.”

Sirbu learned from his counterpart that for Christians, the Ten Commandments represent a symbol of “a certain societal order” and the role God plays in society.

“They’re not necessarily in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments as rules, but they’re interested in displaying the Ten Commandments as symbols of what a civilized society stands for,” the rabbi said.

Conversely, he said, when most Jews see the Ten Commandments displayed publicly, in a classroom or courthouse for example, they see it as an intrusion of religion into what ought to be a secular space.

The second session, earlier this month, focused on misunderstood concepts within Judaism and Christianity. Sirbu discussed the idea of Jews as the chosen people, while Diomede focused on Jesus.

“He argued that the figure we have come to understand as Jesus has been distorted over the centuries,” Sirbu said.

“Part of the problem with Christianity is that historically it has become something different than what it started out to be,” Diomede said. “Our goal is to reach back to our roots and look at the messianic writing and see that cohesiveness with Tanach.”

The next session, in April, will focus on chapter 56 of Isaiah, which includes the verse, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” According to Sirbu, the group interprets this verse as a mandate for interfaith work. The last session, in May, will focus on why each side loves Israel.

“We felt it had to be discussed but we had to build up to it — we had to understand each other in these other ways first,” Sirbu said.

The study groups have given Sirbu and other JCRC members a new understanding of their evangelical allies, the rabbi said. On the flip side, said Diomede, the evangelicals are happy to clear up misconceptions the Jewish community may have about them.

“What these sessions are bringing out is we’re able to represent ourselves to the Jewish people as a friend and a supporter, as opposed to a different religion,” he said.

 
 

Brotherhood-Sisterhood brunch marks 24 years of breaking bread in Bergen

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The Interfaith Youth Choir performs at the event under the direction of Gale S. Bindelglass, left, Cantor Ilan Mamber of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Jane Koch.

This is Bergen County — we talk to each other here.

That sentiment might well have been the theme Sunday at the Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County’s annual brunch. It was the group’s 24th such event, at which representatives of the religious and secular sectors of society gathered to celebrate the county’s diversity and unity.

“The world is one family,” said Jyoti Gandhi of the Hindu community, which was the host for this year’s brunch. “We are here to find commonality in diversity,” she said.

“Sit with someone you don’t know, come out of your comfort zone,” Gandhi told the gathering of some 420 guest as they filled the banquet room and looked for seats.

The group is composed of eight faith groups — Baha’i, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Sikh —and representatives of each were on the dais, sharing their prayers. Each year a different community hosts the brunch, giving insight into its beliefs and practices, and this year the Hindus filled that role.

Gandhi served as mistress of ceremonies, introducing the guest speaker, Rita Sherma, a professor at Binghamton University and a theologian. She spoke about the Hindu tradition — what makes it unique and what it shares with other faiths. “It sanctifies and bestows meaning to our lives,” she said.

Sherma dispelled what she said is a misconception that Hindus believe in multiple gods. “We don’t have gods,” she said. “We believe in the one God who is personal and beyond personal. That God has many powers and energies for us to harmonize with.”

“Our many traditions are different windows in which to see God, but our vision is clouded,” she said. “If we step out of our boundaries, we see a panoramic view of God, of truth, of reality.”

She spoke of the Hindu concept of “dharma,” explaining that it refers to what “sustains you and allows you to unfold into your true self.”

“If you follow the dharmic way, you are on track with God’s purpose,” she said. “It is the unity that pervades the cosmos and creation.”

Sherma shuns the term “Hinduism” as too limiting. She spoke of the Hindu path as “a way of life” with an extensive tradition involving medicine, drama, aesthetics, dance, nutrition, economics, ethics, “and so much more.”

“The thread is that everything is connected, interrelated,” she said.

Gandhi said that while the brunch is a focal point for the interfaith group, there are activities year-round. As an example she cited a model seder last Passover.

Performances were woven into the program, beginning with a prayer-in-song by Sunia Kapur Aurora and singing by the Interfaith Youth Choir. When the choir sang “America the Beautiful,” it was impossible not to feel the warmth of the gathering.

Young women from the Hindu community staged a dance program, and Gandhi explained that the dancing is a form of worship, rather than entertainment.

She praised the Interfaith committee’s youth group. “We think we are teaching them, but they are our gurus,” she said.

Habib Hosseiny of the Baha’i community continued the tribute to the youth group, noting how they themselves came up with ideas such as attending one another’s services and holding interfaith classes. “Our hope, our future is on their shoulders,” he said.

Commenting after the event, Father Donald Sheehan of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Ridgefield said that Sherma clarified the idea that Hindus believe in one God. He said her talk was a demonstration of “how much holds us together.”

“We are looking for a denominator that is common, not the lowest common denominator,” he said.

“This is a very diverse community,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “We don’t often see that diversity, but we can today,” said Sirbu, vice chairman of the Intergroup Relations Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersy.

Sirbu noted that the Hindu tradition shares the value of reaching such a point of enlightenment that we would never cause a “sentient being to suffer.” “That is a basic value of the Torah and prophetic tradition,” he said.

The attendees included the secular as well as the religious. Emerson Police Chief Michael Saudino was there in his role as president of the Bergen County Police Chief’s Association, and his mission was to glean a better understanding of the county’s diversity.

“The more we can learn about each other, the better we can work together,” Saudino said.

The brunch served as a window on the religious makeup of the county. Wendy Martinez, the director of the county’s Office of Multicultural Community affairs, said that, “little by little,” Bergen is learning about and honoring the various religious and ethnic groups that make up its population.

“As we talk, we learn that we are all human beings and that is the most important bond,” she said.

County Executive Dennis McNerney read a proclamation setting May 1 as “Interfaith Bortherhood-Sisterhood of Bergen County Day.”

“Diversity diminishes no one,” he said.

Prayers were offered by the representatives of the eight faiths.

“Let our eyes be open to the divine image of one another,” said Sirbu, quoting from the morning prayer.

“Where there is hatred, let us bring love…. Where there is darkness, let us bring light,” said Imam Saeed Quareshi of the Dar Ul Islah mosque in Teaneck.

The event was “a wonderful collaboration of the interfaith community and an appreciation of working together,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a key organizer of the event. “Bergen County is a tapestry of groups that form a beautiful quilt,” she said.

“Whether we like it or not, our community is becoming more and more diverse,” said Gandhi, so it’s important to learn about one another’s faith.

The youth choir, under the direction of Gale Bindelglass with Cantor Ilan Mamber and Jane Koch of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, closed the event, singing, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”

 
 

JCRC to host legislative gathering

State and national officials will gather in Paramus next week to hear the concerns of the local Jewish community at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual legislative gathering.

Sponsored by the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the legislative gathering is an opportunity for New Jersey officials to talk directly to Jewish communal leaders and vice versa, said JCRC director Joy Kurland.

“It’s keeping the dialogue and communication open,” she said. “It’s part of our government affairs and public policy work, enhancing relationships with government officials.”

This year’s meeting, to be held at UJA-NNJ’s Paramus headquarters Tuesday evening, will address the New Jersey fiscal year 2011 budget, Iran divestment efforts in the state, U.S.-Israel relations, economic recovery, and health-care reform.

“We want to hear about the effects of the state budget and what impact it might have on our communities,” Kurland said. “It’s things like that, that are helpful to our Jewish community leadership to be able to become educated and knowledgeable.”

New Jersey began divesting its pension funds from Iran in 2008 and Kurland would like to hear the legislators address where that process stands. With regard to health-care reform, Kurland would like an update on how President Obama’s health-care legislation is being implemented in New Jersey and what effects it will have on UJA’s constituents. As for the budget, Gov. Christie’s fiscal proposals for 2011 included cuts to several school programs and other initiatives that could affect the work of the federation or its subsidiary agencies.

The meeting, which is closed to the public, will include members of JCRC boards and committees, the federation’s executive boards, and rabbinical leaders. Expected to attend from the state arena are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (D-39), Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-35), Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D-39), and Bergen County Freeholder Elizabeth Calabrese. U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s director of outreach, Matthew Barnes, is also expected.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Gov. Christie do not plan to attend, while JCRC is still reaching out to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), a former JCRC chair, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8).

Weinberg has attended the gathering every year since its inception.

“It’s educating. It’s enlightening,” she said. “We’re able to tell UJA [what we’re doing] and they’re in turn able to tell us [what they’re focusing on].”

Schaer has also attended the meetings since the beginning.

“Legislative gatherings — and specifically the UJA gathering — provide a formalized and necessary framework for communication so that in this case, legislators representing their various districts can work closely to understand the priorities and concerns of the Jewish community,” he said. “As the coordinating body for many Jewish institutions, the UJA is a vital institution in terms of reflecting those concerns to the legislators.”

The Jewish Council for Special Needs held a meeting with legislators on May 4 and JCSN chair Sharyn Gallatin credited last year’s legislative gathering for creating connections with area officials.

Gallatin presented her cause at last year’s legislative gathering and caught Weinberg’s attention. They arranged a follow-up meeting, which resulted in Weinberg’s participation in a legislative meeting earlier this month addressing the need for a Department of Disabilities in Bergen County.

“This was a result of this meeting last year where Sharyn was able to see what we did, make the contacts, and see JCRC as the facilitator of going to a deeper level,” Kurland said. “It was really highly successful.”

Kurland is head of the regional Community Relations Council, an agency of UJA-NNJ, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in Essex and Morris counties, and Central Federation in Union and Warren Counties. While CRCs across the country hold legislative gatherings, the federations in the regional group don’t have similar meetings of the magnitude of UJA-NNJ’s.

“We would like to replicate it,” Kurland said.

 
 

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.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: The communal response

The general feeling among North Jersey Israelis following Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza last week is one of disappointment, said Tenafly resident Udy Kashkash — disappointment in the world’s reaction and disappointment in how Israel has been treated in the media.

Despite world condemnation, though, 49 percent of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla were to blame for the resulting deaths, according to a Rasmussen Reports national survey released on Monday. Just 19 percent of those polled thought Israelis were to blame, while 32 percent were not sure.

Within the local Israeli community, though, there is a feeling that Israel is being unfairly castigated, said Kashkash, a member of the Israeli Club at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Israel’s taking all the precautions [during the flotilla raid] and even putting soldiers at risk — and after all that, who do they criticize? Israel,” he said.

Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, agreed that there is a sense of shock in the local Israeli and Jewish communities in reaction to the world’s response. Unlike last year’s Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza and 2006’s Second Lebanon War, no physical threat spurred Israel’s actions but rather a perceived threat. This, Levy said, has become a focus of his outreach.

“It wasn’t like suicide bombers or katyushas coming over to Israel from Gaza. It was going to be something that could threaten Israelis, and Israel does have a legitimate right protected by international law to put a maritime blockade around Gaza.”

The federation has been taking out ads in local media and sending e-blasts with talking points.

“What we hope to do as Israel activists is really get the message out in the community about the real facts on the ground,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

She recommended people write op-eds and letters to their local newspapers, as well as monitor local media for inaccuracies.

The Jewish community is largely playing defense now, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

“What’s troubling and frustrating for many defenders of Israel is that the flotilla incident will be viewed without much-needed context and critical pieces of information,” he said. “The tragedy of the deaths overshadows the facts of the circumstances that led to them. Critics of Israel will omit the part about Hamas and the effort to blame Israel in all of this.”

The ADL has not seen any spikes in anti-Semitic incidents around the state, Neuer said, but the organization does expect some backlash.

“We have noticed a rise in the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere,” he said. “The incident fueled many of Israel’s fiercest critics and provided them with the ammunition they needed to demonize Israel.”

Neuer cautioned every Jewish organization to review its security protocols in light of recent events. The organization has not received any threats as of yet, he said, but security reviews are always a good idea.

“It’s critical for the leadership of Jewish institutions to always be vigilant and especially so when the political temperature rises in the Middle East,” he said.

Many local rabbis addressed the flotilla incident during their sermons this past Shabbat, connecting the perspective of the world to that of the spies in the Torah reading who reported that Israel was full of giants and the Israelites should turn around.

“All 12 of the scouts came back with factual information about the land, but what made the reports pejorative was that everyone’s report was colored by their own perspective and expectation,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “When you have Joshua and Caleb going out with faith in themselves and faith in God, they see the challenges as obstacles to be overcome but within their capability.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, is heartened by the Rasmussen Reports poll, but said the American Jewish community needs to continue its efforts to promote Israel’s side of the affair.

“The rush to condemn Israel seems to have become more contagious from Israel’s usual slate of adversaries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” said the Ridgewood resident. “It’s reached those nations that in recent times had better relations with Israel. That’s worrisome.”

Cole urged support of Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.

“Weaponry has been brought into Gaza through the tunnels and other surreptitious means,” he said. “Weakening the blockade means ever-deadlier missiles and more powerful weapons could be delivered.”

Israel’s allies have been active on Facebook and in organizing rallies around New York City. One rally, sponsored by Amcha and several other pro-Israel groups, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon outside the Israeli consulate in New York. Kashkash appreciates such efforts but still wants to see more from the American political arena.

“We need our largest ally to be fully behind us,” Kashkash said. “What we hear coming from the White House is not something very strong and very stable.”

“As more information becomes common knowledge, the world will see that Israel acted correctly,” said Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood Cliffs-based Israel lobby NORPAC, “and this group that created unnecessary violence on the flotilla and unnecessary deaths instigated the incident and Israel will be fully vindicated.”

 
 

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.”

 
 

Local leaders laud network

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, said, “What excites me about [the Israel Action Network] is that, on a national level, multiple organizations are coming together to create programming that can be implemented on the local level.”

The federation is getting behind the project. According to Joy Kurland, director of the JCRC, UJA-NNJ’s board has “committed funding [of $20,063] for the first year” of the three-year initiative. “We are supporting it and, hopefully, funding will be secured for years two and three.”

Kurland, who is also director of the Regional CRC, said the network “will help the community address the delegitimization of Israel that is rampant across the country.”

Borovitz said that his “hope is that in our battle against [the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement] this new initiative will produce materials and strategies that can and must be implemented on a local level. I’m also hopeful that, in our northern New Jersey community, it will help us work together across our religious and political divides.”

The network, he continued, “has the support of all [religious] movements, the federations, Hillel — it’s very broad-based” and would end duplication of efforts. He said he is “hopeful that everyone will work together so that we will use the limited financial and human resources to support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within secure and recognized borders.” The network would “give us a platform by which we can reach out and explain Israel’s positions to the non-Jewish faith communities.”

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Anti-Semitism expert Charles Small addresses a gathering at UJA-NNJ Monday night. His topic was “Israel Under Siege.” Miriam Allenson

Both Kurland and Borovitz noted that much of the BDS activity has been on college campuses, “certainly on the Rutgers campus,” Borovitz said, where many local young people go to school. “It’s inspiring Jewish faculty to stand together to help in this effort,” he added.

Faculty members of local colleges were among the attendees at a program at UJA-NNJ’s Paramus headquarters Monday night. Held in conjunction with Stand With Us and the Regional CRC, the topic, addressed by Charles Small of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, was “Israel Under Siege: Anti-Semitism in a Time of Apathy.”

Kurland said that “the JCRC is convening a Jewish faculty network… They will bring this issue to their campuses” — which will include Bergen Community, Ramapo, and Saint Peter’s colleges and Fairleigh Dickinson, Montclair State, and William Paterson universities — “and work with the students to develop a proactive approach.”

 
 

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

 

 

 

 
 

Rabbis explore Jewish views of sexuality at Kaplen JCC forum

Rabbi Yosef Adler, who is Orthodox, said he might rejoice if his own child established a loving same-sex relationship, but that the Jewish community at large would not rejoice.

Adler, religious leader of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, spoke during a forum on sex roles at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week. He was answering a challenge from a young gay Orthodox man as to whether Adler would be as pleased as his own rabbi father would be with this son were he in that kind of relationship.

Three rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — spoke during the forum, and while there was disagreement among them about homosexual unions, their tone was civil. And Adler pointed out all of them agreed that bullying in general was to be condemned.

Still, Adler said, homosexual unions are contrary to Jewish law, and he opposes the publication of announcements of engagements between homosexuals, as The Jewish Standard had done in September. He contended that the publication of the announcement was a celebration of the union and suggested that if such announcements were paid advertisements they might be more acceptable to the Orthodox community.

Disagreeing with Adler about homosexual unions was Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who had officiated at two same-sex Jewish marriage ceremonies — which did not have legal standing — in the late ‘90s, at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. A Reform rabbi, he asked who has the right to decide that male and female are the only valid categories. As for the biblical injunction against homosexuality, Millstein said that the Bible has diverse views and people “cherry-pick” whatever ones they agree with. The ideal with any relationship, he went on, is that it be fully committed and honest, with trust and exclusivity. He added that homosexuals should feel that they have a place in the Jewish community. Temple Sinai and the Reform movement, he said, are dedicated to this notion.

David-Seth Kirshner, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said that whatever people do in private should remain private. Adler agreed, and went further: “If someone desecrates the Sabbath, that doesn’t mean that he has no right to be active in the Jewish community.”

Kirshner said that he had enjoyed the hour’s talk he had with Adler at an earlier date and was pleased to see in how many areas they agreed. He suggested that North Jersey rabbis from the different streams of Judaism communicate with one another more often and that there should be one board of rabbis from all the streams. At present, Orthodox rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis belong to the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey introduced the session, co-sponsored by UJA-NNJ and the Kaplen JCC. The moderator was Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University. Two more rabbinic forums are scheduled, one at the YM-YWHA in Wayne and the other at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township.

 
 
 
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