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Ethan Tucker: Torah belongs to Jews, not denominations

Solomon Schechter studies Torah with Mechon Hadar

The seventh-graders sat around the tables in the bet midrash — study hall and synagogue — of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. They were studying from hand-outs of rabbinic texts.

At each table was a guest, a fellow at New York City’s Mechon Hadar. Together, the students discussed the texts in front of them in light of questions posed by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder and rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar. (See related story.)

“It made me feel that I was on a high level,” said Yael Marans, “because I was studying with someone who chooses to go to a yeshiva and I just go to seventh grade.”

That was a mission accomplished for Rabbi Fred Elias of Schechter, who teaches Judaic studies to the eighth grade and who helped organize the visit.

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Schechter seventh-graders Eric and Noah Martz study with Ross Weissman of Mechon Hadar. Courtesy SSDS-BC

“We want to demonstrate to our students that studying Torah can be a part of their everyday life even long after they leave Schechter,” he said.

The visit from the Hadar fellows, which took place in November, is part of an ongoing partnership between the two schools which will continue with a visit by Schechter students to Mechon Hadar in March.

Most recently, Tucker came to New Milford on Feb. 16. In addition to teaching the school’s seventh- and eighth-graders, he led a workshop for Judaic studies faculty and presented a public class to a full house of 65 adults that evening.

Mechon Hadar follows the model of a traditional yeshiva bet midrash study hall, rather than that of a university classroom. Students mainly study texts in pairs, or chevruta. Only a small part of the school day is spent in a lecture.

Schechter has recently similarly transformed its seventh- and eighth-grade Talmud curriculum “from a frontal model,” lecturing, “to the bet midrash approach,” said Elias.

The partnership with Mechon Hadar makes sense, said Elias, “because we’re both using an inquiry-based approach to Jewish learning.” In that approach, he said, “we present texts that encourage … the students to ask questions instead of just factual memorization or regurgitating answers on exams.”

“Even though Mechon Hadar is not labeled Conservative,” as is Schechter, “it represents many ideals of the Conservative movement: its learning, its ideas of egalitarianism, tefillah — traditional prayer — and social action. We find ourselves quite similar in many respects,” he said.

 
 

Ethan Tucker: Torah belongs to Jews, not denominations

Mechon Hadar founder seeks to integrate halacha and ethics

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Ethan Tucker has created an institution, Mechon Hadar, that combines the free-form Torah study of the Orthodox yeshiva with the co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism. Mechon Hadar identifies with neither denomination although its faculty, students, and lay leaders overlap with both.

Tucker stumbled into his career as non-denominational institution-builder in 2001, when he invited friends to informal Shabbat services in his apartment. This was not the first minyan to bring together young participants from the Orthodox and Conservative worlds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with a combination of traditional davening and egalitarian participation, but for whatever cultural and demographic reasons, Tucker’s initiative tapped a tremendous demand. Sixty people showed up. Three weeks later, there were 100 participants and an urgent need to find a larger space. What took shape as Kehilat Hadar — from the Hebrew word meaning splendor and honor — became the vanguard of a wave of independent minyans across the country. These communities are the subject of a recent book, “Empowered Communities,” by Conservative-ordained Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Tucker’s partner in founding the minyan.

The success of the minyan marked Tucker and Kaunfer as leaders. They received major grants from the Avi Chai and Harold Grinspoon foundations that enabled them to launch Mechon Hadar in 2006, initially as an intensive summer program. Mechon Hadar is now in its second year of offering full-time learning for the nine-month academic year. It has 22 fellows, mostly recent college graduates, who receive stipends to support their Torah study, and 50 slots for this summer’s program.

“We want people to think about spending significant time studying Torah,” said Tucker. “The vision is to create a community of adult learners. We are not a rabbinical school nor will we start one.”

Hadar students are “a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity,” Tucker said. “No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students.”

Tucker himself eschews denominational labels. He graduated from Harvard, studied in Israel for three years at the liberal Orthodox yeshiva in Maale Gilboa, and was ordained by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. He received a doctorate in Talmud from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where his father, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, had served as rabbinical school dean and still teaches.

Tucker acknowledges the good and important work that denominational organizations do for the Jewish people, but says that “denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people.”

In a 90-page online article — http://bit.ly/egalitarian — regarding women leading services, counting in the minyan, and reading from the Torah, Tucker examines classical sources and contemporary halachic discussions from both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before concluding that Jewish law recognizes the possibility and perhaps even the necessity of a gender-egalitarian minyan in the context of a gender-egalitarian society.

For Tucker, a central challenge for Judaism today is to integrate the ethical and ritual realms into a single religious conversation.

“Can ethical behavior ever conflict with halacha?” asked the title of the class he gave for the community at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County last Wednesday evening.

He presented a text from Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, an early 20th-century Hungarian Orthodox rabbi, concerning cannibalism. Is it better to eat human flesh — which the Torah does not prohibit — than the flesh of an animal explicitly prohibited by the Torah?

Tucker asked participants to study the text with a chevruta, study partner, and someone read it aloud as he mined it for meaning.

Glasner argued that it is worse to eat human flesh because the Torah assumes a baseline of acceptable human behavior.

“Anything reviled by human society in general, even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah, is forbidden to us even more than explicit biblical prohibitions,” wrote Glasner.

Tucker summarized: “The Torah … when practiced properly will cause all the people around to look at you and say, ‘What an amazing way to live your life.’”

The Torah, he said, “demands a conversation that is completely and totally integrated, where I am not having one conversation about what the Torah and Shulchan Aruch demand of me, and another conversation about what my ethical qualms say about the issue, and there will be some kind of death match between the two. Understand that it’s one conversation, with the title, ‘What does God want?’”

For Tucker, “We don’t have the luxury of bifurcation. This is critical to what the religious world needs in the 21st century. We have to think, holistically and in an integrated way and with a passion, that the Torah speaks to us.”

It is this aspect of religiously and ethically wrestling with classical Jewish texts that animates the learning at Hadar, said Tucker.

University Jewish studies courses “completely lack the religious component,” he said. Also, in most religious settings, “certain intellectual pathways are closed off as being not worthy or beyond the pale.”

“There is a a deep thirst for the kind of learning we’re doing here, with an insistence on learning sources in depth, in the original language, with the same vigor and seriousness as would be applied to any serious intellectual endeavor — a willingness to have all questions on the table, where the process of learning is that one can ask any question and imagine any possible answer. We have that, in a very conscious and deliberate religious context. We’re not just academically exploring questions; we’re trying to understand in our learning what God wants from us in this world, how are we supposed to act, how do we make decisions,” he said.

For more on Ethan Tucker, including his favorite books of halacha and how Mechon Hadar differs from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, see Larry Yudelson’s blog at Jstandard.com.

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker discusses ethics and Torah at a Solomon Schechter community bet midrash. Courtesy SSDS-BC
 
 

Synagogues unite for Shabbat

Shabbat Across America celebrated March 4 locally and globally

It’s a weekly event that comes once a year. Shabbat Across America, now in its 15th year, puts Sabbath services and meals on the calendar for more than 600 synagogues of all denominations across the country and beyond.

The March 4 event is being celebrated in at least 10 area synagogues in a variety of ways, including a “Tot Shabbat” for children 5 and under (and their parents) at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, a potluck dinner at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, and a catered dinner for 175 at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Shabbat Across America is project of the National Jewish Outreach Project, founded by Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald in 1987.

“The first time we had 5,000 people participating in 50 locations. It’s grown by leaps and bounds. This year we expect 40,000 people to participate, in more than 40 states,” he said.

The program has spread to Canada, and this year to Liverpool, Germany, and even Cuba, where Drew University professor and Hillel adviser Jonathan Golden is taking 15 students to visit the Jewish community and celebrate Shabbat.

“Shabbat Across America underscores the importance of creating sacred time,” said Buchwald.

“We didn’t actually create Shabbat,” said Buchwald. “The Almighty created Shabbat. We’ve been proud to help market it for the Almighty.”

The Glen Rock Jewish Center will offer a special service starting at 6 p.m. for “people looking to learn a little about what goes on at a Shabbat evening service, with English, Hebrew, and transliteration,” said Rabbi Neil Tow. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a traditional Sabbath dinner, with more than 100 people expected to attend. Each table will hold materials for a discussion of teachings about Shabbat over the centuries. Full services will begin at 8 p.m., followed by an oneg and dessert.

“My hope is that this shorter service will give everyone a taste of what it’s like to be together in prayer on Shabbat, and hopefully people will choose to come back and be with us,” said Tow.

At Temple Sinai, Shabbat Across America coincides with the synagogue’s monthly Tot Shabbat program, which regularly features a Shabbat meal, a short service that includes songs and a story, and a craft project.

To mark Shabbat Across America, “We asked our families to invite a guest,” said Risa Tannenbaum, director of the synagogue’s early childhood center. The children will be making “Shabbat bags” to take home the texts of blessings for the candles, challah, and kiddush, as well as two candles and grape juice, “so they can celebrate Shabbat in their own home the following Shabbat.”

At the JCCP, Shabbat Across America “is more of an inreach event than an outreach event,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner. Most participants will be congregants, some regular Shabbat attendees, some not.

Weiner expects 175 people to attend the synagogue for the program, which begins with candlelighting at 5:30 p.m followed by services and then a catered dinner. The services “will have more of an emphasis on teaching as well as a big emphasis on participation” compared to the center’s standard Friday night services.

“Shabbat Across America is a very important program, one of the few outreach initiatives out there that really cuts across denominational lines,” said Weiner. “Every synagogue does it their own way, which is wonderful, but encouraging synagogues to do programming on such and such a date is tremendous,” he said.

Other participating synagogues in the area include Temple Emanu-El in Bayonne; Clifton Jewish Center; Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson; Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn; Temple Emanuel in Franklin Lakes; Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia; Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood; New Milford Jewish Center; Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood; Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge; and the Jewish Learning Experience in Teaneck. For an up-to-date list, go to www.njop.org.

 
 

Interfaith blood drive in Ridgewood

Temple Israel to host Christian, Muslim congregations

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At last April’s blood drive are, from left, Jerry Birenz; Mahmoud Hamza of the Muslim Society of Ridgewood; Rabbi David J. Fine, spiritual leader of Temple Israel; the Rev. John G. Hartnett of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Ridgewood; and Jerry Pagotaisidro, R.N., blood drive supervisor for Community Blood Services. courtesy community blood services

Bringing other religions on board has brought logistical challenges and opportunities to the semi-annual blood drive of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood, which takes place on Sunday.

The congregation has been running a blood drive since 1993, according to congregant Jerry Birenz, its founder.

But it is only in the past few years that first St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church and more recently the Muslim Society of Ridgewood have joined in.

“It works out pretty well, because people at Temple Israel tend to give in the morning, while bringing to or dropping off from Hebrew school,” said Birenz. “Church gets out around noon, so they come afterwards.”

Reaching out to Ridgewood’s young and growing Muslim community, which Temple Israel did a couple of years ago, brought special needs.

“Some of the Muslim women wanted their blood to be only taken by a woman,” said Birenz. “Some felt more comfortable behind a curtain for modesty reasons, since they are lying down. We made those accommodations because we wanted to encourage them to come, to encourage interaction among our communities.”

Temple Israel is one of about 20 synagogues in the New Jersey and New York region served by Community Blood Services, which provides blood to 30 hospitals in the region. With an expected 50 to 60 donors between the three congregations, “that’s a very nice blood drive,” said Karen Ferriday, director of community affairs for Community Blood Services.

Nationally, only 5 percent of people donate blood; in New Jersey, said Ferriday, the number is less: 3 percent. The need, though, is important, she said.

“We normally need 250 donors a day,” she said. “For quite a while we have been falling short. The bad weather made things a little bit worse. The shelf life of blood is only 35 days, so we constantly need to replenish the supply,” she said.

“If anyone is interested in running blood drives, they should call (201) 444-3900. We are happy to help,” said Ferriday.

Birenz said the synagogue’s drive targets existing blood donors, rather than first-timers.

“Some people have weird feelings about giving blood. Some are afraid of needles. Some afraid of disease, even though the needles aren’t reused,” he said.

“Someone who has given in the past realizes that it’s not painful, it’s not a hassle, and understands the good that it does,” he said.

 
 

Pope Benedict’s good book

 

11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah

Local rabbi signs letter to interior ministry

This time it’s an Orthodox problem.

The latest round in the never-ending battle over “who is a Jew” pits diaspora Orthodox rabbis, including one from Teaneck, against the Israeli Interior Ministry and the office of the chief rabbi.

At immediate issue is the immigration status of 11 North American Jews who underwent Orthodox conversion and whose petition to make aliyah has been denied in recent weeks by Interior Ministry immigration authorities.

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Rabbi Seth Farber Larry Yudelson

“It’s just not right that people who live in our communities, who are observant Jews, who have come to share their fate with the Jewish people and the State of Israel by making aliyah, are being denied the right to become citizens under the Law of Return, as other Jews can do,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

Helfgot was one of more than 100 rabbis who signed a letter to the interior ministry expressing concern that “conversions performed under some of our auspices and those of our colleagues are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility.” The letter protests a new policy by which Orthodox converts are no longer automatically approved for immigration. Instead, the ministry has begun consulting with the chief rabbinate, which has announced a policy of accepting only conversions performed by certain rabbinical courts.

Had these converts been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they would have been eligible to immigrate under a 1988 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that non-Orthodox converts are to be considered Jewish for the purpose of aliyah.

The letter was organized by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

“One of the sad things for me is that one of the 11 converts converted more than 25 years ago and has been living an Orthodox life, and for the first time this person got a slap in the face. He’s basically being told he’s not Jewish as far as the State of Israel is concerned,” Farber told The Jewish Standard last week.

Farber, a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi, formed Itim in 2002 to ease the access to Jewish lifecycle services — such as weddings and funerals — that are under the purview of the Israeli government rabbinate.

Since then, Farber has found himself advocating for people whose Jewishness has been called into question by that body.

“We challenge the rabbinate when we see them either not following the policy as they define it, or see the policy they define as going against normative democratic behavor,” he said.

“I once thought that working quietly with the rabbinate wold solve every problem, that we could be the nice guy,” he added. “I’ve learned that the rabbinate is put into political positions and we’ve become a political counter-pressure against forces from the right,” Farber said.

A lawsuit filed by Itim has been shaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Itim had demanded that the rabbinate and local marriage registrars register as Jewish people converted by the Israeli army rabbinate. Without such registration, the converts will be unable to legally marry Jews in the State of Israel. The army rabbinate has converted more than 4,000 people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The army rabbinate is considered by many to be more lenient than the national rabbinical authorities, who demand that converts observe a strict Orthodox lifestyle. This makes it a useful avenue for aliyah advocates, including many religious Zionists, who want large-scale conversion to help integrate the many non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but that leniency has led the national rabbinate to refuse to register the converts as Jewish.

This has resulted in political battles between the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents immigrants from the FSU, and the haredi Shas party, with the former offering legislation that would require the rabbinate to register military converts.

For the 11 Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah, the question is less a struggle over who is a valid convert and more a question of who decides who is a kosher Orthodox rabbi: the Israeli chief rabbi or the local community?

This has been a gray area in Israeli law for several years, but the practice until the beginning of this year had been that the interior ministry deferred to the local community.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which serves as the official bridge between Israel and the diaspora, particularly when it comes to aliyah, is getting involved in the matter at Farber’s behest, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is raising the matter with interior ministry officials.

“Let the Jewish Agency emissaries decide who is eligible for aliyah, just as they decide concerning people who are born Jewish,” said Farber. “Halacha says we don’t treat the convert different than anyone who is born Jewish.”

Ultimately, said Farber, this all speaks to a broader issue.

“Certain forces in Israel are trying to export their version of Orthodoxy over the whole world. There are two opposite approaches, one that sees Israel as relevant to the entire Jewish people, and another ideological position that klal Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood — is only for the type of Orthodoxy that the chief rabbinate identifies with,” said Farber.

To reach Larry Yudelson, write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Rabbis given training in responding to child abuse

Bergen County’s two rabbinical organizations gathered last Thursday night for a joint training session about identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect.

More than 20 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum heard a presentation by Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, at the agency’s Teaneck office. Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) was represented by Esther East, director of Jewish Family Service of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic.

The joint training session reflected a desire for cooperation by both Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is made up of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis, and Rabbi Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Both bodies were well represented at the session.

“We were specifically looking for something we could do positively together,” said Mark, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, when Rabbi Amy Bolton of JFS suggested the joint training session.

“I think it’s a great precedent,” said Bolton, who is herself a member of NJBR. “Problems like child abuse and domestic violence and illness — the sort of issues JFS deals with — are cross-denominational problems.”

“Bringing the RCBC and NJBR together, sharing our thoughts and insights, was a very positive and worthwhile experience,” said Rothwachs, religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. “I look forward to participating in such events in the future. The energy at the meeting was positive and will hopefully open the door for future programming as well.”

Fedder presented a definition of child abuse and neglect: Any failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that “results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.”

Legally, rabbis — and everyone else — are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to Division of Youth and Family Services of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families. The state hotline is 1-877-NJ ABUSE (652-2873).

“Statistically, you will find it in your community,” said Fedder. “It is all around us.”

Much of the conversation revolved around what Fedder called “the gray areas” of abuse that may or may not rise to the level of “serious.”

“Is emotional abuse a mandatory reporting situation?” asked one rabbi. “There are some parents who, unfortunately, scream too much.”

Fedder’s response: “I don’t think screaming alone is reportable. But screaming can be a part of a much broader pattern of emotional abuse, which although reportable, is much harder to substantiate.

“In general, situations tend to escalate to a peak,” she said. “The ideal is to intervene before it goes up the mountain, before it reaches the point where it is clearly child abuse and neglect. That’s when the community response is really important, when JFS or a rabbi or a school can make a difference.”

Fedder stressed that Jewish Family Services, as well as DYFS, have resources to help struggling families. “If you call DYFS in a borderline case, where the child’s not really at risk but it’s not a good situation, then DYFS will try to put supports in place, such as classes in parenting skills,” she said.

“You have an opportunity, when you see problems early on, to get involved,” she told the rabbis.

This week’s training session marked a milestone in formal cooperation between Bergen’s two rabbinical bodies, but the two sets of rabbis have individually promoted awareness of domestic violence and sexual abuse under the auspices of Project S.A.R.A.H.

Both rabbinic bodies are promoting Project S.A.R.A.H.’s fifth annual breakfast on March 27, at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. The event will recognize eight physicians who have partnered with Project S.A.R.A.H., and will feature Dr. Susan Schulman, a contributing author in a new book, “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community.”

 
 

After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.

“The issues were economic,” he said.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources — as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies — as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.

“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.

In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”

Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.

Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.

Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.

Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.

Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.

Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.

He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”

At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”

Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.

“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.

Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.

“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.

The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.

Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.

“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”

The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.

“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.

The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.

“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.

“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”

All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.

“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.

 
 

Community relations councils to go their separate ways

Effort at regionalization to end June 30 as UJA-NNJ cites unique priorities and programs

It was a budget-cutting move that didn’t work out.

Two years ago, three Jewish federations — UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — announced that they were combining their community relations councils under one umbrella. It was seen as an effort to respond to a funding crisis, particularly at the MetroWest federation, which covers several counties in this state and which reduced 13 positions, including that of the executive director of its community relations council.

Now, the federations have announced that the organizations will go their own ways as of June 30.

Joy Kurland, who served as director of the combined regional JCRC, will return to her previous position heading the UJA-NNJ JCRC. She has been dividing her time between the UJA-NNJ offices in Paramus and the MetroWest offices in Whippany.

Factors in the break-up, which follows a joint evaluation of the regional JCRC, include “demographic realities, differing communal priorities, and significant organizational changes,” according to a press release jointly issued by the three federations.

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Daniel Kirsch

“A lot of the programmatic things we did on a regional basis were very successful, but it wasn’t clear that the effort to do them on a regional basis gained enough to offset the time of the staff spent trying to coordinate across a geographically diverse region,” said Daniel Kirsch, who chairs the regional JCRC.

Organizationally, the MetroWest federation is in merger talks with the central New Jersey federation. UJA-NNJ is in its own transition, as it completes a strategic planning process and searches for a new chief executive.

Kirsch said that future projects, like some of the successes of the regional group, such as joint lobbying days in Washington and Trenton, could be coordinated at the state level by the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations. Planning on Israel advocacy and training on interfaith relations were also successful at the regional level, he said.

Some of this joint work can be coordinated through the new Israel Action Network that is operating through the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, he said.

While the JCRCs coordinated under the regional umbrella, the federations maintained their local JCRC committees and staff.

Kurland said that while the partners shared an agenda on “Israel and international affairs and government affairs,” UJA-NNJ has additional priorities and programs that aren’t shared by the other federations.

“Here in northern New Jersey we have a major tikkun olam effort. We have a standing committee on tikkun olam and it has major initatives: Mitzvah Day and Bergen Reads. Those major JCRC efforts are not replicated under the CRC of MetroWest,” she said.

“We have focused a lot of effort on building coalitions on intergroup relations. We have a 25-year-old interfaith coalition with eight different faith groups. We have an evangelical-Jewish dialogue, Black-Jewish dialogue, a Latino-Jewish dialogue. Due to staffing restraints, they weren’t able to do that in MetroWest,” she added.

And a third priority — intra-Jewish dialogue and civility — was also not shared, she said, though it was “very much at the forefront” of the local JCRC’s activities.

Besides Kurland, the UJA-NNJ JCRC has a full-time administrative assistant, a part-time associate director who oversees the Bergen Reads literacy program, and a part-time project coordinator in charge of Mitzvah Day and volunteerism.

Kirsch said that the merger effort wasn’t a mistake.

“Sometimes things don’t work out, but it doesn’t mean that they’re a failure,” he said.

 
 
 
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