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Local rabbis sign on to new centrist pro-Israel group

Rabbis for Israel offers option between AIPAC and J Street

A new pro-Israel organization that aims to give rabbis a middle ground between AIPAC and J Street has the attention of several local rabbis.

Rabbis for Israel, launched last month by Rabbi Michael Boyden of Hod Hasharon, Israel, bills itself as a centrist group dedicated to a two-state solution with peace and security for Israel. More than 230 rabbis, including six from Northern New Jersey, have signed on to the group’s mission statement.

“I was amazed that so many leading rabbis from all streams and from all over the world, including North America, Israel, and Europe, should have chosen to identify with Rabbis for Israel in such a short space of time,” Boyden said in a statement. “The response shows the degree to which many Jewish leaders are thirsty for an advocacy group that represents the middle ground in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

Rabbi Jonathan Woll, of the Progressive Havura of Northern New Jersey in Glen Rock, met Boyden during a visit by the Israeli rabbi to Woll’s now-defunct Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn. When Woll heard of Boyden’s group, he quickly signed on because of its centrist position.

Woll had been an early supporter of J Street, which hailed itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, but he became disappointed with it.

“When we came to the flotilla incident,” and J Street’s swift condemnation of Israel, “my disappointment … really gave way to some kind of uncertainty in their position,” he said. “I do respect [J Street founder] Mr. [Jeremy] Ben-Ami. I think he’s a highly intelligent individual. His positions are not for the most part untenable.”

Who’s signed on?

Rabbi Bruce Block, Tenafly
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Temple
Avodat Shalom, River Edge
Rabbi Ken Emert, Temple Beth
Rishon, Wyckoff
Rabbi Debra Hachen, Temple
Beth El of Northern Valley,
Closter
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner,
Temple Emanu-El, Closter
Rabbi Jonathan Woll, Progressive
Havura of Northern New Jersey,
Glen Rock

.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge echoed Woll’s disappointment with J Street, which, he said, wrongly equates equality with equity, assigning equal blame to Israel and the Palestinians.

“They’re looking at it to a certain degree through a colored lens that doesn’t let them see the reality of where the Middle East peace process has gone over the 33 years since [the late Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat came to Jerusalem,” he said.

Borovitz, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, didn’t shy away from criticizing AIPAC either.

“AIPAC has taken an unrealistic view of the Middle East peace process that is far too hardline for me on issues of the territories and settlements and defending what I think are indefensible actions,” he said. “Both of these very vocal pro-Israel lobbies — and I believe J Street is pro-Israel as well — have found themselves caught up in both American and Israeli partisan politics and are failing to represent a moderate centrist voice that is critically supportive of Israel.”

Disagreeing with specific Israeli policies or actions does not negate overall support of the Jewish state, said Temple Emanu-El of Closter’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who recently returned from three and half weeks in Israel.

He pointed to the recent flap over Arizona’s immigration law. Just because he disagrees with the law does not mean that he will not visit Arizona or stop loving America, he said. Similarly, American Jews need to be able to equally express criticism of Israel without abandoning support of the Jewish state.

“We can be a liberal and love and support Israel and we can be a conservative and love and support Israel,” he said. “It should be something that is part of the core of every Jewish person — even those secular and non-Jewish people who can appreciate what Israel brings to the world.”

For the complete statement, go to www.rabbisforisrael.org

 
 

Mosque near Ground Zero?

‘This could have been us’

Cordoba House supporters cite religious freedom as crux of debate

Some local groups strongly support the mosque.

While their reasons range from First Amendment freedoms to trust that rank-and-file Muslims are well-intentioned, they speak with passion about the right of their fellow citizens to build houses of worship.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, whose Teaneck synagogue has partnered with the town’s mosque, Dar-Ul-Islah, to create an ongoing Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, wrote to his congregants, “I have long believed that Muslims occupy a similar place in American society today that Jews occupied about a century ago.”

“It is a community largely of immigrants who have come to America seeking a better life,” Sirbu continued. “It is a community struggling to determine which traditions to keep and which to shed in an effort to acculturate to American norms. And it is a community which is misunderstood by a large number of Americans who fear its influence.”

image
Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, and Rabbi Kenneth Brickman

The religious leader of Temple Emeth pointed out that “it wasn’t long ago that synagogues were blocked by non-Jewish residents who didn’t want them in their backyards. The Jewish Center of Teaneck had to acquire its property near Cedar Lane through a third party, well aware that if their identity as the true purchaser were known, the sale would have been canceled.”

The rabbi told The Jewish Standard that he introduced the topic of the mosque at a Torah study discussion on Shabbat morning and that his congregants overwhelmingly supported the project.

“There was the sense that this could have been us,” he said, “and that these are the types of Muslims that we ought to be working with, building bridges.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who suggested that “we are only a few decades away from when Jews were kept out of Tenafly, when our neighbors tried to block the building of synagogues.” (For excerpts from his pre-Shabbat message about the mosque, go to ‘Good people can disagree’.)

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, leader of Temple Beth El in Jersey City, signed a letter in support of the mosque written by the interfaith Hudson County Brotherhood-Sisterhood Association and published in the Jersey Journal. Urging respect for minorities and for religious freedom, the letter took issue with a “very anti-Moslem” opinion piece and cartoon that had previously appeared in the paper.

Brickman said the issue of the mosque has clearly divided the Jewish community.

“Some of my best friends don’t agree,” he told the Standard, noting that ultimately he concluded the issue is one of religious freedom “and it should go forward or it could happen to us.”

While he was away for much of the summer, he said, “my colleagues who were around said it was a hot topic of conversation at social occasions and services.”

Brickman said that by weighing in on the issue, “the Anti-Defamation League inspired other Jewish organizations to take a more public stance. (See related story.)

“I get the feeling that some responses were because of the ADL statement,” he said. “They didn’t want it to stand as the only public statement.”

Sirbu said that while some argue against the building of Cordoba House, citing the loss of life on 9/11, to hear most of the arguments “is to be exposed to a series of rants motivated, it seems to me, not by grief but by animosity, fear, and politics.”

Questioning the comparison between the treatment of Muslims here and treatment of adherents of other religions in Arab countries, Sirbu wrote to his congregants, “One opponent of the plan said that the Cordoba House should not be built at the proposed location so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on churches and synagogues is outrageous, but do we really want to adopt Saudi standards for New York City?”

Nor does he accept the argument that the mosque should not be built near Ground Zero because it is “holy ground,” citing vocal protests recently held against mosques in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Sheboygan, Wis.; and Temecula, Calif.

Wrote Sirbu, “In Temecula, one protester held up a placard that said, ‘Mosques are monuments to terrorism.’ To me, this is so telling. If we allow the Cordoba House to be displaced from its intended location, we implicitly endorse the idea that every Muslim seeks to undermine our country — an argument made against our people countless times throughout history.”

Sirbu, who attended community-wide Iftar celebrations sponsored by three local mosques at the Glenpointe Marriott hotel in Teaneck Saturday night, said the topic of the Manhattan mosque was raised by several guest speakers, including Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Rep. Steven Rothman. Iftar is the celebratory meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan at the end of each day of the month-long fast. Sirbu pointed out that the root of the word is the same as that for “haftarah,” meaning conclusion.

The rabbi said there were hundreds of participants from the three mosques, some 12 representatives from his congregation, and dignitaries including not only the Teaneck mayor and Rothman but Sen. Robert Menendez, Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, and various Teaneck officials.

“The tenor of Rothman’s remarks was very positive,” he said. In addition, the congressman “made an offer. He said that since young people need to understand all [our] rights and liberties, those present should encourage them to apply for an internship in his office.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, noted that there have been no meetings over the summer of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee, nor any formal interactions between the JCRC and the local Muslim community. However, he said, “We will be open to discussing this issue with all of our interfaith partners when we reconvene our meetings after the High Holy Days.”

He added that his personal reaction to the building is that “it will more parallel a JCC than a synagogue.” He is preparing his second-day Rosh HaShanah sermon “on the topic of our entitlements and responsibilities as Americans and as Jews living in a multicultural, religiously diverse society.”

 
 

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.”

image
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.”

 
 
 
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