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Rabbi Isaac Sassoon to appear at JCC book launch

Author will compare scriptural, talmudic positions on the status of Jewish women

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 29 April 2011

While the Torah’s position on women is by no means clear-cut, the notion of patriarchal condescension did not really take hold until years later, says Rabbi Dr. Isaac S. D. Sassoon, noted scholar and author of “The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition” (Cambridge University Press, January 2011).

Sassoon — who will tackle the subject at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on May 5 — told The Jewish Standard in a telephone interview that the role of women changed significantly after the Jews were exiled and the idea of ritual purity took center stage.

Before that time, “it was there, but it was never dominant,” he said of the idea that women were associated with impurity. But by the time of the Talmud, it “loomed large.”

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Rabbi Isaac Sassoon will speak about his new book at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

He pointed to a talmudic story exploring what would happen if thieves entered a house. The concern of the rabbis was that it might have caused ritual impurity, and they go on to discuss what has been rendered “unclean” by the presence of the thieves. The rabbis hold that if the thief is accompanied by a gentile or a woman, “everything is defiled. Here we see the condescension,” said Sassoon. “The presence of the woman is in itself problematic.”

The author referred also to the humiliating treatment accorded a sotah (woman suspected of adultery) in the Temple, after she had completed her purifying ritual. He decried the “yelling and screaming” of onlookers, which, he said, “doesn’t get oxygen from scripture but rather contravenes” the teaching that all clean persons may enter the sanctuary. He connects the “near paranoia” about a woman’s presence to “an excessive anxiety about defilement.”

“It hasn’t gone away completely,” he said, citing the example of two-tiered synagogues using the upper floor for women. “History is replete with examples of religious practices that on closer scrutiny turnout to be neither scriptural nor talmudic but by dint of long usage became part of the status quo.”

In the case of the women’s gallery, Sassoon wondered how apologists could defend a practice that would allow a young man to watch his elderly mother struggle up a long staircase.

“In the past, apologists pretended this was halachically mandated,” he said. “But today even the strictest concede that the physical partition halacha demands be only of the prescribed height.”

Sassoon spoke favorably of the theory put forth by philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt that “societies are based on what is most expedient and what works for most members of society.” But once there is a “tipping point, once something is no longer useful, then people become disgruntled and start asking questions. But as long as it works for everyone, more or less,” a societal system persists.

So too with the status of women.

“In the old days, women were preoccupied with the primary duty of giving birth and rearing children,” said Sassoon. “They understood that for survival to take place, they needed the protection of men, since there were so many risks involved. [The system] suited them. They wouldn’t have wanted it different.”

Still, he added, Jewish society was “not anti-women qua women.” He pointed out that the Bible speaks of widows as having important positions, and the queen mother in Israel had “an enormously important role.”

Sassoon’s book — which sets out the position of the Bible, the Talmud, and related literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the issue of patriarchal condescension — “may transform the way that women are viewed in the Torah … [revealing] credible support for monogamy in ancient Israel and a belief that the biblical commandments applied to men and women alike,” according to a statement from program organizers.

“I had to be very careful to deal only with scholarship and text and show that we have both kinds” of opinions in our tradition, “some anti-women and some, on the contrary, almost egalitarian,” said the author.

In Deuteronomy, for example, “it says to gather men, women, and children to come and listen and keep all the commandments. It’s an egalitarian text,” he said. If this has been overlooked, it is “because the Talmud explained that away.

“The time came when society needed to change,” he said, citing Arendt’s theory. There was a need to give “a certain prestige to men, who were afraid of losing their last bastion” of power a generation after surrendering their military prowess. “They were fighters in ancient days,” he said. “Now the rabbis and the Romans didn’t allow the Jews to arm.”

In today’s world, some men may still feel threatened, he said. While women continue to have babies and rear children, thanks to modern medicine women can afford to engage in other societal pursuits as well without detriment to their offspring.

Sassoon said it was important to realize “how variegated the tradition is. We still ask the wrong questions. We ask, ‘What does Judaism have to say about a, b, or c,’ but on most things there’s a great variety and different voices. That is the central point.

“God gave revelations as they were needed by different generations,” he said. “Each revelation is unique and special and addressed to the needs of that period and society. It’s unassailable, there for anyone to see. God didn’t speak once and say, ‘Goodbye, I’m retiring.’” Today, he said, we have to “rethink carefully, in a serious way, and decide which [revelation] applies to our world.”

The author is a founding faculty member of the Institute of Traditional Judaism and received his doctorate from the University of Lisbon.

The May 5 program, co-sponsored by JCC’s Jewish Women’s Connection in collaboration with Cambridge University Press, will be chaired by Rabbi Ruth Gais and include remarks by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Rabbanith Esther Hidary, Chaplain Leslie Kirzner, Prof. Herman Prins Salomon, and Rabbi Chaim Solomon.

For additional information, call (201) 408 -1426.

 
 

Area to mark Yom HaShoah

Saturday night begins the 27th day of Nissan, the Hebrew date chosen by the Israeli Knesset as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust memorial day. For more than 20 years, one of the most vivid commemorations has been the March of the Living, in which thousands of young Jews walk the three kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the gas chambers at Birkenau.

This year, for the first time, the memorial ceremony held at Birkenau following the march will be broadcast by Jewish Life Television, and the broadcast will be the centerpiece of the annual commemorations of the UJA Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Frisch School in Paramus.

The broadcast will feature an addresses from Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Holocaust survivor Irving Roth, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Manhasset, N.Y., who founded the Adopt a Survivor program. There will also be music from singer Dovid (Dudu) Fisher and the chief cantor of Tel Aviv, who will chant the El Maleh memorial prayer.

The Paramus event is one of dozens of community Yom HaShoah commemorations around the country that will be tuning in to the March of the Living broadcast.

In addition to the broadcast, the Paramus ceremony will feature a procession of 68 children holding candles, marking the 68th year since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and a commemoration for the Jews of Europe held in Paterson in 1943. That commemoration became an annual event and was the precursor of the UJA Federation commemoration, making this the oldest continuous Holocaust program in the United States, according to Wally Greene, spokesman for the UJA Federation Holocaust Memorial Committee.

On Sunday evening, a recording of Hoenlein’s remarks will be played at another community Yom HaShoah event, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, at 7 p.m.

The keynote speaker at the JCC event will be Eva Lux Braun, who survived Auschwitz and lives in Queens. She will share her first-hand experience about what it was like for her and her loved ones to suffer in Auschwitz, how they coped with things that should never occur in everyday life, and the “small miracles connected to faith, hope, and survival.”

There will be a candlelighting ceremony by survivors and their families.

The Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance Award will be presented to the winner of a contest in which high school students were asked to write a poem that conveys lessons learned from studying the Holocaust.

The Yeshivat Noam Choir, students of the JCC Thurnauer School of Music, and Abraham Barzelay will provide music.

Also on Sunday night, at 8 p.m., five Englewood synagogues will hold a community Yom HaShoah event at Cong. Ahavath Torah, featuring a video presentation, “Triumph of the Spirit,” the story of Esther Jungreis and her family during and after the Holocaust.

“The message of the film is that even though the intent was to eradicate the Jewish people, we survived and came through,” said Richard Friend, chairman of the committee that organizes the event.

“It’s a very moving film,” he said.

In Teaneck, the annual Holocaust remembrance will take place 7:30 p.m Monday night at Teaneck High School featuring Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. Heller is the author of “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs,” which was made into the documentary film “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story.”

There will be a musical performance by Zalmen Mlotek.

 
 

Rubin Run enters 30th year

Event set for Mother’s Day

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The family that runs together stays together.

Or so say participants in the Rubin Run, a family tradition that stretches back to 1982, when Leonard Rubin introduced the yearly event — at that time a 10k and a 5k run — at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Since then, the run has evolved to include a full morning of activities including stretching, breakfast, and a children’s carnival in addition to the two running competitions, which remain the focus of the day.

There is also the option of “spinning” — or stationary bike riding — outdoors (weather permitting).

The event, which takes place on May 8, draws hundreds of families, according to event co-chair Saul Scherl.

“Every mother gets a rose and every kid under 9 gets a medal,” said Scherl. “It’s a family day.”

This year, the event is expected to draw 1,000 participants, and organizers say their goal is to raise $75,000. All funds raised will go to programming at the JCC, including programs for special-needs children.

“The Rubin Run is one of our community’s favorite events,” said JCC Executive Director Avi A. Lewinson. “Almost everyone today is trying to achieve healthier lifestyles, and bringing our community together on Mother’s Day to connect as a family was a real stroke of inspiration. I think we have ignited a new tradition of family bonding through fun and fitness.”

Lewinson added that this year, in celebration of the run’s 30th anniversary, he plans to participate for the first time.

Family togetherness, Jewish community, and fitness were important to Leonard Rubin, the founder of the event and president of the Kaplen JCC from 1964 until 1968, according to his son, Daniel.

“My father was interested in sports and fitness,” Daniel Rubin, a JCC past president, told the Standard. “The JCC was a very important institution to him and he felt that the race was one way of bringing [its] benefits to the whole community. The course hasn’t changed from the beginning. It goes through Tenafly, Englewood, and Englewood Cliffs — three core communities the JCC serves.”

The family participated in the race most years, and, said Rubin, “my father participated in very many of these till he passed away four years ago. Six years ago he went from running to walking, but he was out there at every one of them.”

Rubin added, “We will all do it again this year — four generations of us. My mother will walk and her great-grandchildren will run till they can’t run — and then walk.”

Nor are the Rubins the only family for whom the event has become a Mother’s Day tradition.

Sharon Danzger of Tenafly says she and her husband Neil and their four children — ages 8, 10, 12, and 14 — have run together for the past six years, and that participating as a family is the “highlight” of her Mother’s Day. It is not just for hard-core athletes, Danzger says.

“I’m not such a great runner that I need to finish with a great time,” Danzger told the Standard. “It’s just a good feeling to complete it.”

The first year her family did the 5k — the equivalent of 3.2 miles — her daughter was only 3.

“Once a kid can walk it’s not a big deal,” said Danzger. “My daughter finished it skipping and singing alphabet songs. Too many people are intimidated by it, but they make it so family-friendly.” She added, “You feel no guilt about having a nice Mother’s Day brunch after you do the 5k.”

Volunteers are stationed along the route of both races to provide water and moral support. Those who do not wish to run or walk in the races can participate in other activities, including craft-making. Babysitting is available.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the run, cash prizes will be awarded to the top three male and female winners: $750, $500, and $250 for the 10k; $500, $250, and $100 for the 5k.

Suzette Josif of Tenafly, who will participate in the run, decided to start a raffle for special-needs programs at the JCC in conjunction with the Rubin Run. She and her children, Melanie, 10, Eli, 8, and Sydney, 4, have been selling tickets in the lobby of the Kaplen JCC. So far they have raised $1,200. The winner, to be announced at the event, will get a bicycle.

Participating in the Rubin Run’s day of activities is especially beneficial for Melanie, who is autistic, said Josif.

“Children and young adults [with special needs] are at risk because in many cases they don’t go out to playgrounds and have typical recess like other kids do,” Josif said. “They tend to have more sedentary lifestyles. I want a more active lifestyle for my daughter, and she enjoys it. She is a physical kid.”

Josif, whose family recently moved from Manhattan to Tenafly, says that since the event is a fundraiser for programs Melanie and other kids with special needs benefit from, it builds social conscience.

“We have been doing these kinds of events since each of the kids was born, and we want to keep that tradition in our family,” she said. “We want them to know it’s important to help.”

Spots are still available for participants to register in the Rubin Run at http://www.active.com. The cost is $20 before May 2, $25 after. To register for spinning, e-mail Irene at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (201) 408-1472.

 
 

Area marks Yom HaShoah

Kaplen JCC: ‘The Holocaust made me who I am’

“When I think back — and I do — there are no words to convey the horror,” Eva Lux Braun told hundreds gathered at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades to mark Yom HaShoah Sunday night.

Braun, a native of Hungary who survived Auschwitz, was the evening’s keynote speaker.

The evening also featured a recorded address from Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; a ceremony in which six candles were lit by survivors and their families; musical performances by the JCC Thurnauer School of Music, the Yeshivat Noam Choir, and harmonicist Abraham Barzelay; and the awarding of the Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance Award for the best poems by high school students.

Braun said she grew up in a comfortable middle-class Jewish family who were isolated from society and then ordered from their home after Hitler invaded.

“All the months of hardship prior to the deportation, we reassured each other that at least we were together,” she said.

But at the gates of Auschwitz, they were separated by Joseph Mengele.

Braun and her sister Vera were sent in one direction; her mother and her youngest sister were sent in the other. Braun was not yet 17.

“My mother’s last words to me and my sister were ‘stay together.’

“Later I asked a kapo [a prisoner who supervised other prisoners] where were my mother and sister taken. He pointed to the chimneys where the acrid black smoke burned.

“The force that continued to give me strength to survive was the importance of fulfilling my mother’s last words, to never be separated from my sister, and the hope that we would be reunited with my father, who was taken to a different part of the camp.”

Throughout their stay in Auschwitz, and in the forced marches after the camp was evacuated as the Russians approached in December of 1944, Braun and her sister stayed together. After liberation they returned to their home. But they never found their father.

“I counted 64 members of my extended family among the martyrs and heroes,” she said. “Each and every absence influenced my life. We survivors honor them by speaking of their tragic fate.

“The Holocaust made me who I am. It shaped my life. The tattoo on my arm has faded as the skin on my arm has wrinkled, but it is still strikingly visible. As long as we survivors can remember our experiences, listen to us.”

Braun’s story was recently adapted into a picture book for children aged 5 to 8. “The Promise” tells how Braun remained with her sister and of their imprisonment in Auschwitz, but omits the killing of her parents and other details that might be inappropriate for children. It can be read online or purchased at http://bit.ly/jsbraun.

 
 

Emphasizing the J in JCC

With Taub challenge met, the ‘important work’ begins

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There was good reason for celebration in the board room of the Kaplen Jewish Community Center on the Palisades on Tuesday night. Two weeks before, the JCC had received a check for $1.5 million from the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation — marking the successful conclusion to six years of fundraising and construction that renovated the JCC’s 40-year-old building and brought in $32 million in donations from the community.

The board members had reason to drink champagne. They had succeeded in an audacious fundraising campaign — one whose scope had sparked heated discussions over the years. And they had reached into their own pockets to grow the institution they loved, that many of them had grown up in, giving to the original capital and endowment campaign and then, this past year, to what was called the Taub Community Challenge. That, in fact, had been a condition of Henry Taub, when he agreed, on his hospital bed shortly before his death last March, to donate $1.5 million: The JCC had to come up with $3 million from other donors, and within a year. “Henry wanted the community to step up and take ownership,” recalls Pearl Seiden, president of the JCC.

And those donors had to include all of the members of the JCC board.

In the end, more than 700 contributors stepped forward.

Tuesday’s meeting, however, was not just about congratulation and looking backward. The members that night began what they expect to be a series of discussions on how to make the JCC as relevant for the next generation as it has been for them.

“We always said that we are going to renovate and revitalize, not only our building but all of our programs,” says Seiden. “We’re in the process of doing that. We are looking at everything we do and saying, should we continue doing it, should we not, how can we do it better, how can we make it more relevant.”

When it opened in 1950, the heart of the JCC was “its athletic program,” recalls George Hantgan, the JCC’s founding executive director.

It stood in contrast to the nearby “shul with a pool” Jewish centers — in Teaneck and Fair Lawn. Now, Seiden sees the JCC’s mission as it moves forward as “infusing Judaism throughout the center. I want people to see it in every department. I want them to smell it when they walk in the building. I want them to hear Jewish music. I want them to learn about Jewish cooking. I want them to see Jewish artwork. I really want to stimulate all their senses in a very Jewish way, to create a real Jewish ambiance.

“You may be walking in the center to the gym to exercise, but along the way you’re picking up this Jewishness.”

How this would work is still being worked out. “We’re in the process of talking about it. The executive committee has been talking about it. The Judaic department has been talking about it.”

Ultimately, says the JCC executive director, Avi Lewinson, “We’re really looking at how Jewish values will become a part of every department.” He cites as an example the JCC’s Teen Adventures program of summer day trips for teens. “Now tzedakah programs are part of the schedule. Every week they volunteer in the community.”

A heightened focus on Jewishness at the JCC will mark a sharp contrast to the direction being taken by one of the region’s two other Jewish community centers. Last year, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne came under the operational control of a regional chain of YMCAs and was rebranded the Wayne Y. This came in response to declining membership, and with the stated goal of appealing to a wider, non-Jewish audience.

Meanwhile, the YJCC of Bergen County, in Washington Township, is undergoing a self-evaluation as it considers new directions, including program cutbacks (although it has ruled out the sort of non-Jewish collaboration taking place in Wayne)

Up on the Palisades, Seiden says that a process of information gathering coupled with self-evaluation has been under way for a couple of years.

“We started having casual conversations. I would meet with different groups of people in the community, members and non-members. I would go with Robert Fried, director of the membership department, to talk to people, to find out why they join the JCC, what they like about it, why they retain their membership, why they don’t,” she says.

“The real purpose is to come back with ideas. We’ve had many ideas we’ve put into place to be more accommodating to our members, to serve them in a better way, to give them the programs that they want.”

Such discussions have already had an impact on an important measurement of the JCC’s health: membership figures.

“Last year, we finished the year with over 3,500 membership units,” says Avi Lewinson, the executive director. “That’s a thousand more than before we started our capital campaign.”

“We’ve made it easier to join. We’ve removed some barriers to entry,” such as the building fund.

Lewinson also attributes the increase to the JCC’s renovations, “the fact we’ve renovated the health and fitness facilities.”

Health and wellness continue to be a strong focus of the JCC. In fact, just as the JCC wants every department to be infused with Judaism, it is looking to make wellness a principle throughout all of its programs — not just the fitness center.

“In terms of obesity being an issue in today’s world, a healthy lifestyle is becoming more important. We’ve dedicated substantial staff time in looking at how we can build a focus on a healthy lifecycle through all age groups. It starts in early childhood, teaching children to respect their body, to the teen fitness center, to programs for seniors. Promoting wellness, healthy lifestyles, is a priority,” he says.

Lewinson says that he is also looking to increase the JCC’s work with “families in distress, populations at risk.”

“We’re trying to do more programming for adults and children with special needs. We’re really looking at all the populations — like single parent families — to welcome them, to serve them, to make them part of our larger Jewish community,” he says.

The JCC has also increased the availability of scholarships, to make membership available to those who would not otherwise afford it.

“Some of the people who are now our largest donors,” says Lewinson, “are people who couldn’t afford JCC membership when they were growing up. One shared with me that membership at the time was five dollars a year and his father couldn’t afford it. They provided a scholarship and that made a difference. He’s given a lot more to help us than the the three dollars he needed to make up membership.”

The JCC, however, is not only hoping to expand the populations that it serves; it is looking to expand its impact on the community through developing collaborations and relationships with other Jewish organizations.

Currently, it provides music education programming to the Moriah School in Englewood, and it is discussing a relationship with the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. “We’re looking to build those collaborations,” says Lewinson.

This comes as collaboration between Jewish organizations has become a priority for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The federation is planning to shift from providing block grants to the JCC and similar agencies to funding specific programming proposals — and agency collaboration will be a plus as proposals are evaluated.

In short, with the construction no longer disrupting the JCC’s daily activities and with the six years of the capital and endowment campaigns coming to a conclusion, the JCC does not want to settle down into mission complacency.

“We are reorganizing staff,” says Lewinson. “We have created new positions. We’ve looked at the staff that we have and how best to use them to do some of the things we want to do. We’ve brought on some new staff with new expertise. We’re looking at how we can be on the cutting edge of serving the community and better serve our members with the programs we’ve always had.”

Lewinson recalls his conversation with Taub, in which the philanthropist explained why he wanted to donate the money in a time-limited challenge grant, only payable if $3 million was raised within a year.

“I want this to be finished so you can go on with the more important work of running the center,” Taub told him.

“This” is finished. Now the work begins.

From generation to generation

For Pearl Seiden, its president, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is clearly a multigenerational endeavor.

“As a child,” she says. “I attended the Englewood JCC and my parents were considered among the founders of it. I watched them go through the process of building this JCC,” the Tenafly campus where the JCC relocated in 1982, after being founded in Englewood in 1950. “They were envisioning it, talking about it, looking at the blueprints.”

When she moved back to town after leaving for college, a mother of young children, she joined the JCC “right away. I got involved in the early childhood program, where my four children attended nursery school. That’s where I made my friends. It’s a very typical JCC journey story.”

Now, her children are grown (and too far from Tenafly to be members), and it is her granddaughter who attends summer camp at the JCC and often accompanies her there during the year.

“It is not unusual that I might have my granddaughter with me and see my mother in the hall coming from the gym,” says Seiden. “My mother does a lot of rehab in our fitness facility.”

Yet despite being a link in a four-generation chain of JCC involvement, Seiden believes the JCC must constantly be changing. Anything less is a threat to that generational link.

 
 
 
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