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entries tagged with: Rabbi Adina Lewittes

 

Sha’ar links communities

People enter Jewish life through different pathways, says Rabbi Adina Lewittes, founder, executive director, and religious leader of Sha’ar Communities.

Sha’ar, which “has evolved organically over the last six to seven years,” offers people a chance to connect while choosing that pathway into Jewish life best suited to them, she told The Jewish Standard.

With “diverse opportunities for engagement in Jewish tradition” — including worship services, study sessions, a travel component, and a b’nai mitzvah program — Sha’ar is as much a concept as it is a collection of independent, yet interrelated, groups.

For example, she said, “We have a worship community, but 90 percent of those in our Tuesday study program won’t be found in the sanctuary on Saturday morning.”

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Rabbi Adina Lewittes

“We’re connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance,” said Lewittes, noting that members of each group “belong to the larger institution but participate in one or more piece, finding their own way to affirm the connections they want to make.”

The rabbi noted that Sha’ar is unaffiliated with any one movement, “attracting both those who have experienced belonging to other synagogues and others for whom this is their first formal affiliation.”

In addition, she said, “We want to provide access for those who have been standing too long at the margins of the community — the intermarried, for example, and members of the LGBT community.”

The group is always on the lookout for new cohorts, said Lewittes, adding that “we continue to find new communities to try to build.” The rabbi said she has a particular interest in building teen communities and is “trying to build a gateway revolving around tikkun olam for those for whom it is the heart and soul of their Jewish connection.”

“It’s a boutique or à la carte kind of Jewish community-building,” said Lewittes, who realized after years of working in the larger Jewish community that there was “a need to create multiple pathways for people to create Jewish lives — not just multiple doorways but multiple forms of communities that acknowledge and affirm the diversity of engagement.”

Lewittes said she has seen similar models succeed in places like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, where “boutique kinds of Jewish organizations appeal to specific kinds of involvement” such as environmental activism or adolescent spirituality. Up until now, she said, they have been “ultra-urban. I haven’t seen it in suburbia. We’re one of the first to bring this model to Jewish communities in suburbia. It’s much more challenging.”

According to Lewittes, recent Jewish population studies demonstrate that people are seeking alternatives to large institutions while also looking for more involvement in the content of their Jewish lives. In addition, she said, they want more flexible forms of membership, including more financial flexibility.

“Sha’ar essentially offers fee for service,” said Lewittes. Those who attend Shabbat services, which meet twice a month in people’s homes, are asked for an annual contribution to sustain the group, while those who engage in study pay tuition toward their classes. Similarly, participants in Sha’ar’s travel programs pay for their trips, while the b’nai mitzvah program has its own fee structure.

Sha’ar offers two beit midrash classes, serving about 25 people. Worship services generally draw between 12 and 25 people, while the group’s b’nai mitzvah program is now in its “fourth iteration,” with previous sessions attracting up to 17 youngsters each year. Travel programs generally have included 10 participants, but for this year’s trip, to Argentina, Sha’ar is hoping to draw 20 travelers.

Members of the various cohorts have come from Fort Lee, Demarest, Teaneck, Closter, and Tenafly, as well as other towns in Bergen County, although the trips have included people from New York City.

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and having worked for years in traditional Jewish venues, Lewittes said she became increasingly convinced that a model of Jewish engagement could be created that is responsive to changing patterns in Jewish affiliation.

“Modeled in this way, we often find that people who belong elsewhere participate in some of our communities as well. They attend classes, or send their children to our b’nai mitzvah program. For others, this is their home: It’s accessible, open-minded, and open-hearted in a way that is new to them.”

“We take very seriously the idea of spiritual growth, wrestling with tradition, and we invite a lot of discussion in each of these settings,” she said, noting the importance and challenge of “maintaining Jewish relevance in a changing world.”

She cited as an example Sha’ar’s b’nai mitzvah program, The Mosaic of the Mitzvot, “which has nothing to do with the big day but everything to do with rest of your life as a responsible Jew in the world and in the community.”

The program, she said “seeks to explore with the kids the various dimensions of living purposefully and responsibly as a Jew,” focusing not just on learning the commandments between “us and God and between us and our fellow human beings,” but also exploring in more depth our relationships to the community, to the environment, and to those who are different.

“We provide kids with hands-on interactive experiential learning about those dimensions,” she said, adding that the next six-session series will begin on Dec. 20.

Among other activities, students will receive a guided tour of the Jewish Museum’s Jewish identity and culture exhibit, meet with a sofer/scribe to learn about the mitzvah of tefillin and the role of sacred stories, spend time mentoring special-needs children, and visit an organic, free-range dairy farm.

“We’ll also be teaching about living in a multicultural world,” said Lewittes, adding that the final segment of the program “will underscore the centrality of Israel.”

“We encourage parents to be involved and come to sessions with us,” said the rabbi, explaining that the program focuses on “the unfolding of the child’s sense of his or her place in the world” while finding ways in which parents and children can learn together.

This year’s Sha’ar trip will be to Argentina, “seeing it through Jewish eyes.” The tour, March 9 to 18, “is built on an itinerary including daily learning in combination with meeting people on the ground who are involved in the Jewish community,” said Lewittes. “They’re very excited that we’re coming.” Sha’ar’s previous two trips were to Israel.

“This trip is an attempt to see how culture and arts in South America have influenced the experience and practice of Judaism,” she said, noting that Argentina has one of the largest diaspora Jewish communities. An information session for the trip will take place on Sunday, Dec. 6. The meeting, said Lewittes, “will set the tone and create context.”

For further information about Sha’ar programs, call Andy Arenson, program director, at (917) 412-2639 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Women seek equality at Kotel

Pluralism is a very foreign concept in Israel,” said Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman. “There isn’t a word for it in Hebrew.”

Hoffman is fighting to bring pluralism into Israeli language and society. Earlier this month, Jerusalem police questioned Hoffman about her group, which regularly shows up to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Late last year, one of its members was arrested for donning a tallit at the Kotel, considered an offense by the Orthodox rabbis who oversee the holy site.

“Separate but equal doesn’t work,” Hoffman said during a teleconference last week organized by Meretz USA. “And at the Wall it’s not separate but equal, it’s separate but unequal.”

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Anat Hoffman

Jerusalem is the battleground in this fight for what WOW calls women’s equality, but here in America — where egalitarianism and the ordination of women is more acceptable — the issue has struck a chord as well.

“The battle they face is hard for us to imagine here, where we have comfortable Jewish lives that enable people a degree of religious expression that isn’t possible right now in Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Jarah Greenfield of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County in Maywood. “The fight they’re taking up is in my mind for Jews everywhere.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes has been involved with WOW for some 15 years, and this latest confrontation illustrates a growing recognition in Israeli society that a problem exists, she said.

“There is a perversion to the ‘religious’ claiming this part of the Wall at the Temple Mount as a synagogue — and as an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “Women of the Wall has done a great deal to promote this issue publicly.”

In 2005, WOW lost a 17-year Supreme Court battle that would have granted women legal protection to don tallitot and read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall. The group continues to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, but in order to hold services with Torah readings and tallitot, the organization must go to a nearby archaeological site called Robinson’s Arch. The disadvantages of the site include an entrance fee, Hoffman said. Entry to the Western Wall is free.

“We are not enjoying all the different services that people enjoy at a holy place,” she said.

WOW isn’t looking to do away with gender separation at the Kotel. According to Hoffman, the organization seeks equal rights for women to pray — with all of the accoutrements — within the women’s section. The organization is halachic, she emphasized, and wants to expand women’s rights within the boundaries of Jewish law, not to abrogate that law.

Supporters agree that there is room for co-existence.

“Any reasonable or thoughtful voice calling for creation of an Israeli society in which religious pluralism can flourish is a voice that would recognize a need to afford Orthodoxy the same privileges,” said Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar in Demarest.

At the center of the debate is the Orthodox grip on Israel’s religious institutions and regulations. It’s an issue that goes back to the very foundation of the state, Lewittes said.

“As the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist and even secular Jewish movements are gaining more and more ground in terms of communities being developed in Israel,” Lewittes said, “maybe what we’re seeing is the pushback.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier and himself a secular Jew, placed Orthodox institutions in charge of the country’s religious institutions as a way to encourage Orthodox support for the fledgling state, said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor, New York Times religion columnist, and author of the 2000 book “Jew vs. Jew.”

“They needed Orthodox allies,” he said of Israel’s founding fathers. Many Orthodox circles were against the creation of the state at the time and this was a way to draw them in, he added. Now, the religious parties have become a powerful political force within Israel.

“They bring a lot of bloc votes to the elections,” Freedman said. “It makes it difficult for a center-right government to stand up to them. They bring more votes and more political clout than the Reform and Conservative movements and Jewish feminists do.”

Women’s prayer at the Wall is not a religious issue but a political one, Frishman said, acknowledging the clout of the religious parties. Because of this, the solution for WOW is going to come one step at a time. She pointed to Yotzma, Barnert’s sister congregation in Modi’in, which was the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the country to win partial government building funds.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is change people’s attitudes,” she said. “This issue will actually draw more Jews to Judaism because it opens doors.”

 
 

What do we do when we disagree?

Wedding announcement controversy leads to communal soul-searching

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The viral controversy surrounding The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement last month — and then deciding, one week later, not to do it again — caught publisher James Janoff off guard.

“I expected that there would be people who agreed and people who didn’t,” he said, “but I was unprepared for the volume, and passion, of the responses.”

“Maybe I was naïve,” said Janoff, who noted that while the paper has weathered many storms throughout its 80-year history, he has never seen one of this intensity.

But exactly what transpired, and what it means for the community, depends on who you ask.

Avi Smolen, who grew up in Ridgewood and whose same-sex wedding announcement appeared on Sept. 24, said he, too, was surprised by the barrage of media coverage the issue has received.

“We (Smolen and his partner, Justin Rosen) submitted our announcement to share the simcha with the community and we were happy it was published,” he said. “The follow-up decision not to publish (other announcements) was frustrating, and somehow the greater media picked up on the story and it has been everywhere in the news. We didn’t expect this.”

Smolen, communications and development associate at Keren Or Inc., Greater New York, said he didn’t really think much about submitting the announcement “because it was so accepted in our community; we didn’t think it was a big deal.”

He noted that recent communal meetings to discuss the ongoing controversy are of value, but said that members of the gay community should be invited.

It’s important, he said, “so that they can be part of the conversation and so it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There needs to be frank and open discussions so people can share their concerns and feelings.” In addition, he said, meetings should be “less about rhetoric and more about problem-solving.”

Smolen suggested that the strength of the uproar was at least partially a matter of timing.

“The previous two weeks, there were a number of suicides by young gay people that got attention, and that was a counterpoint to the announcement about celebrating our union. People really connected those two incidents and thought it was important to speak out.”

He said he can respect the position of those who do not support same-sex wedding announcements, but noted that he “does not agree with tactics to prevent them from being seen. In a way it’s comical,” he said. “The desire to marginalize [the issue] has made it larger than ever.”

“In a sense, I’m glad that this has occurred and I hope people will continue to talk about this,” he said. Being “pushed out of their comfort zone” may prompt diverse groups to deal with the issues and find a solution.

“I hope they will recognize that people with different beliefs and practices exist, and find a way to grow and unite.”

Looking back at what has occurred over the past several weeks, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and first vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said, “The problem emerged when the Standard underestimated the importance and sensitivity of this issue to the Orthodox community.”

Goldin telephoned the Standard following publication of the wedding announcement to “alert [the newspaper] to those sensitivities.” Janoff recalled that the rabbi said he had been in touch with Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Following several calls, the Standard printed a statement saying it would not publish such announcements in the future. Rebecca Boroson, the Standard’s editor, characterized the conversations with Goldin — in which the editors, publisher, and associate publisher took part — as “intense.” “He repeatedly told us that the paper had caused pain in the Orthodox community,” she added, “and that we had ‘crossed a red line.’”

The backlash resulting from the Standard’s about-face goes beyond the current controversy, said Goldin.

“The Orthodox community is involved in an ongoing struggle to determine how to live with the tension between two fundamental principles that have to guide our approach to the gay community,” Goldin said.

On one hand, the movement seeks to “respect all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation,” recognizing in particular “the personal struggles of those who belong to the gay community and want to continue identifying as committed Jews.”

On the other hand, the Orthodox movement must maintain “its allegiance to Torah law, which strongly prohibits same-sex unions.”

Goldin spoke of “the overwhelming animosity and resentment displayed toward the Orthodox community and rabbinate of Bergen County in particular” in the aftermath of the announcement.

“Gross misrepresentations have been accepted as fact,” he said. “The fact is that the RCBC had no official response” to the incident. “To say that the group threatened organized activity is an outright lie.”

He suggested as well that the issue of homosexuality “has become the civil rights issue of the era.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has issues and red lines,” he said. “I sometimes feel that because the Orthodox position is not the automatically popular position in the society in which we find ourselves — it’s easier to argue for inclusiveness than for certain limits — in a knee-jerk fashion the Orthodox are judged in a negative way without giving credence to our right to hold our positions.”

Susie Charendoff, who belongs to an Orthodox congregation in Englewood and has been a participant in recent discussions, said the most troubling aspect of the recent events was that in declaring that it would cease running same-sex announcements — citing offense to the Orthodox community — the Standard “only recognized the pain of one community on an issue that is sensitive across the board.”

“I think the Orthodox community is more complex than [the way] it is often characterized,” she said, highlighting the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” circulated this summer and signed by more than 100 Orthodox leaders.

Written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot — who has just become rabbi of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom and is chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — the piece was widely hailed as a progressive document within the movement.

“It was really a thoughtful piece on the part of the Orthodox community,” said Charendoff. “It attempted to be as welcoming as possible to same-sex couples despite the fact that [same-sex marriage] is antithetical to the Orthodox position. It reached out as far as it could within that framework.”

Charendoff said the “content and tone of that document is a voice that needs to be heard in the current discussion. While it doesn’t solve the issue, it changes the tenor of what’s going on. I’m disturbed by the assumption that the Orthodox don’t recognize the complexity of this issue.”

Describing the communal flap as “a controversy that is testing the boundaries of pluralism and inclusiveness within the Bergen County Jewish community,” Rabbi Adina Lewittes, religious leader of Sha’ar Communities, said the country is seeing a “ruthless physical, political, and social backlash” against the gay and lesbian community.

Lewittes — who describes her organization as “a suburban network of small, inclusive, and accessible Jewish communities connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance” — said that, given media reports about gay youths who committed suicide or were physically attacked, the paper “should have had the foresight and courage to respond to the resistance of the Orthodox in a way that sends the message that there is a home for everyone in the Jewish community.”

Still, she added, “the fundamental issue here is a matter of journalistic process and integrity…. Many people do not see this as a complicated issue or something needing conflict resolution.”

Front and center, she said, “is the flip-flopping” by the Standard “and the privileging of one group over another. This is a clear breach of journalistic responsibility, particularly given the self-stated goals of [the paper].”

The best-case scenario, she said, would be for the Standard “to acknowledge that it failed to adhere to its mission and steer itself back on course.”

Noting the mission of her own organization, “to enter Judaism through multiple gateways,” Lewittes said community dialogue will be useful only to the extent that it “acknowledges the many lenses through which different Jewish communities look at both Judaism and the broader world in which they live and what the different relationships between the two look like.”

She decried “tying your own legitimacy and integrity to what someone else might believe or think. We don’t need to achieve consensus,” she said. “Sure, it would be great,” but all parties to a discussion would inevitably want their positions to be adopted.

“To achieve consensus on matters of halachah or politics is not the goal here,” she said. “If anything, we have such a rich heritage because of the diversity” that has characterized the community. “What’s needed is an environment of respect for multiple understandings” of Judaism.

Lewittes added that those who call for pluralism also need to be wary of denying the presence of any particular community.

“We need to be inclusive of all voices,” she said, even those with whom we disagree.

Lewittes said that with respect to community process and lasting lessons, we should heed the words of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a seminal figure in modern Orthodoxy. “Rav Soloveitchik’s insight on how kedushah/holiness is found not in the neat and tidy resolutions to conflict but in the very paradox of the often conflicting and contradictory elements of our makeup, is most relevant,” she noted. “Our ability to hold together the different and disparate pieces of who we are as a community in a singular, pluralistic embrace is what will transform us into a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and is what we might model to other communities facing similar struggles.”

Rabbi David J. Fine believes strongly in the power of dialogue.

The religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood — the Smolens’ synagogue and the shul in which the gay couple celebrated one of their two aufrufs — said it would be an “easy out” to conclude that we are not one Jewish community but rather several disparate groups.

“Dialogue is one of the essences of how we do Judaism,” he said. “We learn from rabbinic tradition to honor and respect views we don’t agree with, to have a respectful discourse. We can only be one by listening to each other.”

Acknowledging that “tensions are coming to the boiling point,” Fine said the wedding announcement controversy has simply highlighted fissures in the community, particularly the fault line between the Conservative and modern Orthodox movements.

“We’re much more similar than we pretend to be,” said Fine, adding that both movements “look over their shoulder” when making halachic decisions.

“We’re the only two groups who believe that we have a place in the modern world but [adhere] to a normative halachic tradition,” he said. “It’s so hard to acknowledge sharing that space with the other,” he added. “It’s threatening because we’re so similar.”

Fine said the current flap is about much more than the wedding announcement.

“It’s about our own identities and who we are,” he said. “We’re not just arguing a specific issue but our specific identity.”

The rabbi said that not only is talking to one another “the only way to understand each other, but I determine how I articulate where I’m coming from by talking to someone who doesn’t agree with me.”

This is something every rabbi deals with, he said, noting, “We don’t want to preach to the choir.”

Fine said he doesn’t know why rabbis get so excited about the issue of gay marriage.

“Gay and lesbian Jews are just like everyone else,” he said. “Their private lives are different, but I don’t know why it animates people so much. Part of it may be generational.” He added that the position is likely to change as same-sex couples become more accepted in the wider society.

“The real issue is Jewish identity and questions of authenticity and different forms of Judaism, between liberal and traditional Judaism,” he said, pointing out that this division was apparent in the diaspora uproar over the Rotem bill — which proposed giving the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield has discussed the announcement controversy with people from many different communities “and their responses involve total incredulousness — the inability to grasp how in 2010 a small segment of the Jewish community can exert so much influence over a paper about something that so many people consider a normative thing in Jewish life — the inclusion of the LGBT community.”

Greenfield, religious leader of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, pointed out that Monday was National Coming Out Day, created to raise awareness, end discrimination against the LGBT community, and encourage LGBT people to be proud of who they are.

“It’s much wider than a newspaper issue,” she said. “It’s about how Jews and all of the institutions that represent us make decisions about who’s in and who’s out.”

“[Being LGBT] is a non-issue from my community’s perspective,” she said, calling opposition to same-sex wedding announcements “a retrograde perspective on contemporary life. Most of the Jews I work with already live in a context where they have one foot in tradition and one foot in contemporary life.”

“Being a Jew today is about drawing from both [contexts],” she said. “LGBT inclusion is not a problem of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ influences, but about integrating religious life with contemporary times.”

Greenfield said the issue of gay equality is not a “hot-button” topic from the perspective of most Jews. She noted also a distinction between Torah laws concerning issues such as kashrut and adultery and those pertaining to “human beings created in the image of God.”

“The distinction is that this issue is about human beings and their inherent nature. At the heart of the matter, it’s not about a behavior, or a sin, or a choice. That’s why it is not as black and white” as issues such as advertising events that take place on Shabbat.

The rabbi said that if there were firm commitments on both sides to have regular meetings “in which to learn about and from each other,” in the long term the different groups would come to better understand one another.

“No one has a strong hold on what constitutes legitimate Jewish identity,” she said. “Jewish identity is continually evolving. [It] has always changed and adapted within the various civilizations where Jews have lived. It’s not a matter of religious purity versus secular deviance.”

Greenfield said people gain respect through human contact rather than through antipathy expressed in the media.

“It’s impossible to overvalue the importance of human interaction,” she said. “We want to welcome Orthodox leaders into the circle.”

The rabbi suggested a possible “trade.”

Ideally, she said, “I would have all non-Orthodox Jewish leaders commit to condemning Orthodox-bashing in exchange for the Orthodox understanding that they are not the sole arbiters of authentic Judaism.”

Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Shomrei Torah in Wayne and head of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, to which no Orthodox rabbis belong, said the community rift is not a secret, nor is it unique to northern New Jersey.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last decade is that rabbinical groups rarely sit together anymore. There are times and places where the two communities easily coexist, but sometimes they bump up against each other.”

Mark did note that during his first year as president of the NJBR, he has had several conversations with the RCBC’s Rothwachs.

“The two of us were cognizant of the fact that our rabbinic communities are diverse, and we felt it important at least to have the ability to communicate,” he said. “My hope has always been to find places of agreement and ultimately work together.”

The NJBR president said that homosexuality in religious life is one of the most difficult social issues of the day for American religious communities.

“Religious groups have a long history of intolerance” on this issue, he said.

He suggested that strong feelings have resulted from the fact that the matter “deals with people and not just issues and because in issues concerning human sexuality, people will often react on an emotional level.”

He noted as well that the issue transcends the newspaper because “The Jewish Standard strives to be a community newspaper … and we are a very diverse community.”

“Any constituent group has the right to respond” to something with which he or she disagrees, he added, suggesting that appropriate responses include letter-writing and/or requesting meetings with the leadership of the paper.

“I’m pleased that they’re willing to sit down and listen,” he said of the Standard staff, which recently participated in a meeting of rabbis and communal leaders. The gathering, held last Thursday at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, was hosted by the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and was devoted specifically to the controversy.

“The newspaper, as an independent entity, has the editorial freedom to decide what it will or will not include,” said Mark. “Ultimately, people will decide if they’re happy or unhappy.”

Other Voices

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, wants to use the current conflict as a teachable moment.

“I want to convene a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Forum to continue the discussion about how we, as a diverse Jewish community, can learn to live together and work better together,” said Borovitz following last week’s meeting in Closter.

The rabbi said he believes firmly in the principle of a free press and expects the Standard to decide how it will respond “to all the simchas in our community,” with the hope that the paper will be “sensitive, responsive, and supportive of the diversity that exists in our northern New Jersey Jewish community.”

He noted other instances where the paper had provided equal access to conflicting views.

“When I disagreed with [Standard columnist Rabbi Shmuley] Boteach on the settlement issue, the Standard graciously gave me op-ed space to respond,” he said. “I believe the paper should be a forum for the free and open exchange of ideas, concerns, and information for our broad community.”

Borovitz said he hopes the forum will be a place where opinions “are put on the table,” even if they are not necessarily resolved. “We can agree to be civil in disagreements,” he said.

Charles Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Home Family, affirmed the “right and responsibility of a newspaper to publish news.”

“If you make a decision to put in no simchas,” that’s one thing, he said. “But to decide to put them in for only a certain segment of the community is wrong, regardless of which segment it is.”

Berkowitz said “some of the bright people in the community should sit down and begin to talk about issues we need to deal with, and not put our heads in the sand. No one should impose their will on others.”

He noted, however, that sometimes firm decisions must be made. For example, his organization — which embraces the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living; the Jewish Home Assisted Living, Kaplen Family Senior Residence; the Jewish Home Foundation of North Jersey Inc.; and the Jewish Home & Rehabilitation Center — does not allow people to bring in food from other than accepted vendors to maintain the level of kashrut.

“Some would prefer not to have that,” he said. “But it’s important for people of all religious beliefs to feel welcome here.”

Berkowitz said the fact that he is a social worker is a big help.

“We deal with the issues head on and face to face,” he said. “You don’t sit down in front of cameras but do it quietly and talk to each other.”

Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, said that since the Standard sees itself as the “paper of record for the Jewish community,” the current controversy should be dealt with by the whole community.

“When we face complicated issues, open exchange and dialogue is very helpful,” he said. “Not all parties will agree with all positions, but [when] active listening is happening and points of view are shared, then mutual respect is possible.”

Charish said that the next step, as he understands it, is that “before any further decisions are made,” there will be a series of discussions involving the JCRC, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, rabbis, and other interested parties.

“To me, that is a critical step,” he said.

As executive director of the Kaplen JCC, Avi Lewinson is “surprised and not surprised” that the announcement controversy became so heated.

“It wouldn’t have reached that level if there hadn’t been a retraction so soon after,” he said. While he believes that the Standard’s intentions were good, “they acted too quickly and people felt the paper was taking sides. That fueled the fire.”

Lewinson said that while the JCC has faced differences of opinions — for example, over whether to remain open on Shabbat — the facility, which is closed on Saturday, has never experienced “a firestorm of this size.”

The JCC director pointed out that times do change, and cited the racial discrimination rampant in the 1960s.

“I’m appreciative of the gains we’ve made,” he said, adding that, “personally, I think we should sit down with representatives of different viewpoints and start with the premise that everyone is coming with deeply held beliefs based on principle.” Still, he said, “The goal can’t be that, in the end, you’re in or out 100 percent.”

Lewinson said the community needs to strive for shalom bayit (literally, peace in the home), finding a compromise that will allow both sides to feel that their views have been acknlowledged.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” he said, “but maybe one possibility is not to use the word ‘marriage’ in a same-sex announcement but rather to use the term ‘commitment ceremony.’ The question is, ‘What can we do to find a way so we each feel we’re being heard and our principles and values are being considered?’”

Regarding the controversy, Lewinson said there have been “misquotes on both sides.” Still, he said, he is an eternal optimist and is convinced that the issue will be resolved.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” said Lewinson, who has called the JCRC offering the JCC as a resource for community forums. He noted that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the New York City-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote a book called “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right.” “We’re all part of the Jewish people,” Lewinson said, “and it is important for us to be able to sit and listen to each other with respect.”

For his part, Janoff knows that he has a lot of listening to do. In a statement published on Oct. 8, he wrote that the paper now understands “that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.”

As a result, he said, he is now engaged in meeting with local rabbis and community leaders, understanding that the exchange of views is necessary before the paper issues its final decision.

Wrote Janoff: “We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”

 
 

Sha’ar to open ‘Gate of Tomorrow’ even wider

Innovative youth programs get green light — and funds — from federation

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Sha’ar Communities packages surplus medical supplies with the AFYA Foundation Courtesy Sha’ar Communities

By any measure, Sha’ar Communities is an innovative venture.

Providing several gates of entry — the word “sha’ar” means “gate” — the network brings Jews together around common interests such as study, prayer, and tikkun olam.

“We offer participants a choice in the content of their Jewish lives and the opportunity to build community for themselves around different modes of engaging Jewishly,” the group’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, said. “While it might look to the outsider like a deconstructed synagogue, we’re responding to the trend of people moving away from large legacy institutions and looking for smaller, more mission-driven Jewish communities.”

The Gate of Tomorrow, targeted to Jewish teenagers, has been particularly successful, she said, noting that with the help of a grant it recently received from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Sha’ar hopes to attract even more youngsters — especially those from unaffiliated families.

The rabbi explained that given Sha’ar’s nature, “If someone belongs to another existing institution but sees a program [at Sha’ar] that they want, they can add it on to their Jewish affiliation without being confronted by loyalty issues.”

Some families, however, are not affiliated at all.

“The great challenge in Bergen County is that more than 50 percent of Jews who live here have no connection to the Jewish community,” Lewittes said, noting that Sha’ar’s expanded youth programs “will complement existing institutional models and create a low barrier offering a welcoming and affordable way for them to find a way in.”

With the grant money, “we’ll intensify our efforts to reach those Jewish kids whose families are off the grid completely — not in day schools, JCCs, or synagogues.”

To do this, Sha’ar will expand its Mosaic of the Mitzvot b’nai mitzvah program and launch a new program for high school students called Teens 2.0: Hitting the Refresh Button on Teen Jewish Identity.

Lewittes said that the Mosaic program focuses not on liturgy but on the spiritual aspect of preparing for b’nai mitzvah; it emphasizes “what it means for young adults to assume the full range of responsibilities of leading a Jewish life.”

Geared to seventh-graders and serving from 10 to 15 students each year, the program includes a wide range of youngsters, some of whom also are preparing for more traditional bar or bat mitzvah celebrations at a synagogue. Rather than teaching students about ritual, Sha’ar — “using the tristate area as a living beit midrash/house of study,” as Lewittes put it — stresses the commandments to care for others, for the community, for the environment, and for those who are different. Graduating students are acknowledged during a Shabbat evening ceremony.

Andy Arenson, a member of the Sha’ar board and the group’s chief relationship officer, said students who complete the Mosaic program often ask, “What’s next?”

She expects many of them to join the synagogue’s new Teens 2.0 program.

“Teens 2.0 will expose teens to professionals across a wide spectrum of roles who will engage them in conversation about the significance of Judaism in the work they do,” Lewittes said, noting that she hopes to recruit both students who have been involved in the community and those not yet active. “It’s an exciting way of getting to the slippery issue of Jewish identity.”

“We’ve tried to select people in the community who are professionals in all different walks of life who can speak to how their Jewish identity has informed their values and what they’re doing,” Arenson said.

One speaker will be the head of cytogenetics at Columbia University.

“Cytogenetics lab scientists make decisions every day about prenatal testing — how do Jewish values inform that?” Arenson said, noting that other guests will include a musician, a journalist, and someone from the business world. “How did their values influence where they are today?” she continued. “Why does it matter?”

Lewittes said the program will help students become more conscious of who they are as Jews, “bringing their values and heritage when they take over the reins of society.”

Her goal is to launch the program in January with between 15 and 20 students.

Arenson, whose daughter went through Sha’ar’s b’nai mitzvah program, said that while the youngster had been educated in day schools and is very involved in Young Judaea, Sha’ar’s program “offered something else to her — the opportunity to meet and to bond with kids who were not necessarily a part of her milieu,” expanding her awareness of people with differing Jewish identities.

“Over the years, we’ve had students from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated backgrounds coming together,” Arenson said. “Some years, a lot have come from day schools; other years many were from public schools or home-schooled. We’ve had kids from Tenafly, Demarest, Closter, Englewood, Teaneck, Haworth, Harrington Park, Oradell, Montvale, and other towns. There’s a low barrier. They don’t need to have a specific knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism. It gives them the opportunity to connect with Judaism in a way that feels comfortable to them.”

Sam Forman, who participated in the first season of the b’nai mitzvah program and is now a freshman at Temple University, where he plans to major in history, said the Mosaic program had a long-lasting effect on his Jewish identity.

“I remember that one of the first things we did was go to the Jewish Museum in New York City and look at pictures of immigrants coming to the U.S. and what they dealt with,” he said. Coming from a family with roots in Eastern Europe, the 18-year-old said the experience “made me feel connected with tradition. To see them and their struggle in coming here is something I care deeply about.

“I’m thankful that the program took me there,” he said. “I’ll always remember those portraits and pictures.”

Forman said that if he still were living in Teaneck, he certainly would attend the new teen program.

Explaining that he has felt somewhat disengaged from traditional prayer, he said, “It’s about heritage and continuing a very rich cultural tradition. I want to see how people deal with that — to hear what people have to say [about it] in a changing world.”

In the meantime, Arenson’s daughter, now 16, is planning to join Teens 2.0, and so are several of her friends. So is 17-year-old Sasha Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who is a member of Sha’ar’s board of directors. Kauderer-Abrams said she is reaching out to friends and classmates who might be interested and using Facebook “to spread the word.”

“I am telling them that it is a great opportunity to find out about different professions while engaging in interesting conversations,” she said. “I am also stressing that Rabbi Lewittes is great at translating Jewish learning into personal and real life examples. She makes it real for us and helps us explore challenging issues. It’s also a great chance to meet other kids with similar interests.”

Kauderer-Abrams said that participating in the Mosaic program was a “great experience, because we got to explore different aspects of Jewish life first hand that were new to me…. It was also great to have a chance to talk about the bar/bat mitzvah experience with other kids going through it at the same time.”

Lewittes clearly is excited about Teens 2.0.

“We feel really strongly about this,” she said. “To my knowledge, it’s the only program of its kind to be a connector between Jewish teens and Jewish adults from across the spectrum engaging in issues of Jewish identity.”

“Bringing Torah alive in the work of real-life Jews is a potential source of learning that isn’t usually tapped,” she said. “We want the kids to see the potential impact they can make not by becoming rabbis but by cultivating a deeper awareness of the privilege and responsibility of living as Jews in our world.”

Rob Hyman, the federation’s managing director of governance and strategic initiatives, said that Sha’ar received its grant as part of the allocations process under the organization’s new funding model. Sha’ar submitted proposals related to several of its “gates,” and the review committee ultimately recommended the Gate of Tomorrow for funding.

According to Hyman, the program was recommended for several reasons.

“Its target population, Jewish youth between 12 and 18, is something that lines up with our priority areas of Jewish education, identity, and continuity,” he said. The program also aims to engage the next generation, “which is a particular area of interest and emphasis to us.”

In addition, he said, “It is innovative. It offers new and different approaches to engaging the unaffiliated, in particular.”

With its focus on two of the federation’s main concerns, “and offering a creative and innovative approach to doing that,” the project was embraced warmly by the review committee. Hyman also applauded Sha’ar’s “both-end approach,” targeting both teens who are Jewishly engaged and those who are unaffiliated.

For more information on Sha’ar Communities and on the Gate of Tomorrow, go to www.shaarcommunities.org, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or call 201-213-9569.

 
 
 
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