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Veterans reflect on wars past and present

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Jewish War Veterans of Paramus march in the town’s Memorial Day parade earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Al Nahum

While President Obama debates whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, area veterans, just ahead of the national day in their honor, are pausing to reflect on their service

A spiritual outfit

“You can’t do what you do in the military without some degree of spirituality, and the military as an institution is highly respectful of your spiritual needs,” said Richard Musicant, a Marine from Pompton Lakes who joined up in 1988 during peacetime and ended up in Kuwait during the Gulf War.

He recalled that when he was stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1990, High Holiday services were held in a guarded warehouse, in defiance of the Saudi government.

The military services “don’t force anybody to worship but they go to great lengths to accommodate your spiritual needs,” he told The Jewish Standard. “They respect everybody’s spirituality or their faith.”

Musicant didn’t experience any anti-Semitism from his fellow Marines, but acknowledged that it was difficult to be a Jew serving in Saudi Arabia. Dogtags list a soldier’s religious affiliation, but Musicant recalled that a superior officer recommended that Jewish soldiers remove Judaism from their tags in case of capture by enemy Arab forces.

“They didn’t force anything; it was just something to consider,” he said.

For some in his unit, Musicant was the first Jew they had ever met. Their questions didn’t strike him as anti-Semitic, he said, just as genuine curiosity.

Paula Berkoff of Fair Lawn comes from a military family. Her son, Capt. Ross Berkoff, served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and now works for a security company in Washington. Her father, David Goldberg, served three years in the Air Force during World War II.

Ross Berkoff could not be reached for a comment, but his mother recalled his telling her about an incident when chaplains said that everybody had to attend the next Sunday morning service. The younger Berkoff raised his hand and said he was Jewish. While he still had to attend the service, a priest brought him a Jewish prayer book and a star of David. During Chanukah in Afghanistan, fellow soldiers tried to find Berkoff a menorah. One officer even said that his mother had told him that Jews were chosen so he had to take care of Berkoff.

“For my own child,” Paula Berkoff said, serving in the military has been “an amazingly wonderful experience. He loved every minute of it.”

Specialist John Schneider of the National Guard spent nine months in Iraq, returning home to South Jersey this past May. While overseas, he received care packages from the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/B’nai Israel.

“I had gotten care packages from family, which I kind of expected,” said Schneider, who is from Medford Lakes. “You know that other people are thinking about you [but] we got to see it. A lot of people benefited from an organization — it’s not necessarily a group we were expecting to receive care packages from — and it was wonderful.”

As a thank-you to the Jewish Center, Schneider, who is not Jewish, spoke to its Hebrew school students this past Sunday for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Mitzvah Day, and helped them prepare a new round of care packages to ship overseas.

“They made my life much more comfortable last year, so I wanted to return the favor,” he said. “It’s a big impact on our lives and [our] families’ lives. It’s nice to have the community rally around and not only take care of one person.”

The Afghanistan conundrum

Musicant did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He thought the United States was already doing a good job of containing its dictator, Saddam Hussein. He doesn’t have a solid feel for whether the Iraq war has been handled properly. Afghanistan on the other hand, he said, is “the right idea.”

“We need to go all in. Let’s get it done and get home,” he said. “There has to be a benchmark. At some point the Afghani people need to become self sufficient.”

Dr. Lawrence Nessman of Wayne — who served from 1954 to 1956 as an enlisted soldier and again in 1977 as a doctor in the Army Reserves for almost 20 years — does not think Obama should send more troops to Afghanistan. He is now a colonel in the Reserves.

“The Russians got slaughtered,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union’s military campaign in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the United States was arming Arab fighters. “They got the crap kicked out of them because we were supplying the Pakistanis with shoulder-to-air missiles. [They] still have the weapons.”

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Specialist John Schneider speaks to Hebrew school students at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. Bnai Israel during Mitzvah Day on Sunday. Photo courtesty UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey

Paula Berkoff relayed her son’s feelings on the possibility of future deployments.

“The president is his boss,” she said, “and whatever he and his very able group of advisers decide is what we should be doing.”

“They want to complete what they started but there’s just no plan,” Berkoff continued. “I don’t have an answer and I don’t think anybody does.”

Milton Trost, a World War II veteran from Oradell and the husband of The Jewish Standard’s bookkeeper, Alice Trost, said that today’s soldiers face obstacles his generation never did.

“I can’t believe the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan now are feeling too great about their situation,” Trost said, pointing to the free flow of information and often negative opinions on the wars.

“The information they must get through the news and Internet — they must be wondering what’s it all about?” he said. “Why after serving one tour are they being sent back for second and third tours? It’s crazy.”

Those fighting in World War II had the benefit of conviction in what they were doing, he added.

“We were fighting a war — we thought we knew the reason for it,” he said. “It was for a good cause, for our own safety in the world.”

Few would argue, though, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq carry the same weight with the American public as World War II did.

“This is such a different kind of war than the conventional wars before,” Ross Berkoff’s grandfather said. “It’s very hard to make any kind of decision. I just hope [Obama is] doing the right thing.”

Joining up                        

The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are among more than 100 veterans organizations in the United States, representing a broad spectrum of religions, races, and creeds. The oldest, however, is the Jewish War Veterans of America, created in 1896 to counter the anti-Semitic canard that Jews don’t serve their country.

“One thing we have learned from the experience of all of our soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is sometimes veterans simply need other veterans to validate their experience and help them understand what they’ve been through,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Weiner served as a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves from 1984 to 1991.

“People don’t think of the military as having large numbers of Jews but the truth is the number of Jews in the military pretty much mirrors the percentage of Jews in the country,” he said. “In times of war Jews have served disproportionate to our numbers and have been decorated disproportionately as well.”

Weiner is a member of Jewish War Veterans Post 669 in Paramus. That post’s commander, Al Nahum, said the wars America has fought in recent decades were very different than in the past, which partly accounts for fewer veterans joining fraternal organizations.

The United States wasn’t directly threatened by Vietnam, Nahum said, but stepped into an unpopular war. While the draft was enforced, draftees could get out of the obligation by attending institutes of higher education. Though the draft is still on the books, President Nixon initiated a fully volunteer army. That further changed the demographics of the military, Nahum said. Numbers are on the decline for JWV, as with many veterans organizations, he said, because the groups tend to attract mostly older members.

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Col. “Iron Mike” Smith presents the Purple Heart to Richard Musicant, with his father Alan Musicant watching, at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego in March 1991. Musicant was wounded while serving in Kuwait during the Gulf War. Photo courtesy Richard Musicant

“When [veterans] are young, they’re very busy getting an education or providing for their families, so not many are getting involved,” he said. “When they get older and have more time they get involved.”

Nessman is the second of a four-generation military family. His father, Sam Nessman, served in World War II; his son, journalist Ravi Nessman, spent three weeks volunteering in the Israeli army; and his grandson, 20-year-old Matan, serves in the Israeli Air Force.

“He’s Israeli, it’s his obligation, just like my father and me,” Nessman said.

Nessman credits the military, specifically the GI Bill, for giving him the opportunity to pursue a career in medicine.

“I never would have become a doctor if I didn’t serve,” he said. “When you’re a poor Jew from Brooklyn you don’t think about becoming a doctor. But the GI Bill changed the face of this country for everybody — Jews and Christians.”

In 1982, Nessman started the Jewish War Veterans Post 695 at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne. Because he was past chair of local chapters of Israel Bonds and Jewish National Fund, he said, area leaders felt he was the best candidate to start the post.

“JWV has an important role to play in our Jewish community and in national life as well,” Weiner said. “On the other hand, many of our Jewish war veteran organizations are made up of men who are by and large older, because [the members’ age] reflects a time when there was a draft and a time when it was normative to express pride in one’s military service through ethnic groups.”

In January, Ross Berkoff flew down to Florida to join his grandfather’s JWV chapter, Post 501 in West Palm Beach.

“It made me feel pretty good with all the opportunities thrown at him that he chose to join the one I belonged to,” David Goldberg said. “There are no words to explain how that made me feel.”

Berkoff is the youngest member of the post and the only veteran of the present wars.

“He wanted to honor my dad,” Paula Berkoff said. “It’s important to him to belong.”

Whether they served in World War II, Korea, or Afghanistan, many soldiers feel proud of the duty they performed and they have formed lasting bonds with one another.

“You feel those are your brothers out there, and you have to support them no matter what,” Musicant said.

For Gene Preschel of Hackensack, who served during the Korean War, religion and patriotism have shaped his identity.

“I’m not sure whether I’m a proud American Jew or a proud Jewish American, but I’m proud,” he said.

 
 

Burning issue

Local rabbis discuss Koran burning, sermon topics

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A page from the Koran FILE Photo
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Rabbi Arthur Weiner, top, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, Rabbi Ephraim Simon, and Rabbi Neil Tow

Calling Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed burning of the Koran on Sept. 11 both “catastrophically stupid and fundamentally immoral,” Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, said such an act would have major repercussions.

Jones — pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. — has proposed that 9/11 be declared “International Burn a Koran Day.” Defending his idea on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Aug. 26, the pastor said, “We want to send a very clear message” to Muslims that Sharia law is not welcome in America.

“It will likely be publicized all over the Islamic world, confirming in the minds of many Muslims that we hate them, that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and America’s real goal is not to stop terrorism but to attack and defeat Islam,” said Millstein. “This will only serve to strengthen extremists and terrorists in the Islamic world.”

The rabbi added that, as a Jew, he is “appalled and disgusted at the thought of someone burning the scriptures of another faith. How could anyone heap such disrespect upon another person’s cherished beliefs? It is astounding how low some Americans have gone in their prejudice and hatred.”

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County and religious leader of Marcus Chabad House, pointed out that “we have to be very sensitive to book-burning,” since we have seen our books, Torah scrolls, and talmudic texts burned throughout our history.

“It’s not a proper Jewish response to 9/11,” he said. “The proper response is to focus on adding acts of goodness and kindness, acts of love, to the world. We have to point out evil where we see it and stand up to it, but not everyone who studies the Koran is evil.”

Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said. “The first thing that came to mind was the burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books over the centuries — France in the 13th century, Italy in the 16th, Poland in the 18th, and Nazi Germany in the 20th. My sense is that choosing to burn a holy book in a public way can cause those who are religiously moderate to feel under attack and make radicals feel even more justified.”

Tow suggested that burning a holy book is an act of violence directed at the symbol of a people and that “violence only leads to more violence. We have to short-circuit the cycle of violence and find other ways to address the issues — in this case, the relationship among faith groups.”

He recalled reading “Fahrenheit 451” in middle school, which first introduced him to the idea of book-burning.

“I [fear] a place where if people don’t like ideas, they feel they can be torched and destroyed. I hope it’s not the kind of world our children will live in. Our society has always tried to foster a pool of ideas and debate about them. If there are things that are troubling or difficult or potentially harmful around us, we have a responsibility as American citizens to have a lively and engaging debate about it. I don’t think burning books is in the spirit of the ‘American way’ of talking things through.”

Tow added that he is also a book lover, with a “fondness for the wholeness of the written word and the books that contain them — whether they are things I agree with or not.”

“We should oppose [Jones’] actions and activity with the same passion we opposed the Westboro Baptist Church when they visited our area last fall,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner, leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. “Were we in Florida, I would insist that our [Jewish Community Relations Council] publicly oppose this horror, and join with those who oppose it. As it is, I am confident that our national organizations as well as local Florida communities are handling this well.”

Weiner said that despite Jews’ historic differences with both Christianity and Islam, “we have always held all faiths in esteem, even if we had to protect ourselves from their adherents.”

He noted that while Jones’ projected actions may be constitutionally protected speech — though, he added, he is not sure of that — “they are immoral, and completely and 100 percent forbidden by Jewish law.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation in Fair Lawn, said that burning a Koran “is not simply politically incorrect but borders on morally incorrect. The Jewish people paid dearly when the books of the Rambam were burned,” he said, “so we don’t burn books. That’s not the way to do it.”

What they’ll say in their sermons

While the rabbis agreed that political issues provide great fodder for sermons, those who are already certain of their High Holiday sermon themes will look in another direction.

“As a rabbi and spiritual leader, I always emphasize and focus on what we can do to make ourselves better people in every aspect of our lives,” said Simon, “better parents, better spouses, better friends. Ultimately, the High Holidays are a time we can reflect on our unique purpose and mission in the world.”

Simon said he will challenge congregants to ask, “Am I am utilizing all of the gifts God gave me to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world? We have to look at the past, reflecting within our own lives and [exploring] what we can do to improve on the past to make a difference.”

Tow said that on the first day of Rosh HaShanah he’ll look at some of the ways “we can begin to connect more closely with the words and messages of the prayer books … becoming more sensitive and connected in our davening.”

He said the focus of what he wants to communicate is that “aspects of prayer that can sometimes make it difficult for us can be used as opportunities for growth.”

On the second day of yom tov he will continue his tradition of looking at the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, from different points of view.

“This year, I’ll look at it from the point of view of the angel who calls to Abraham to stop.” He’ll use that as a starting point “to see if it’s possible for us in what we do and say every day to be more aware [and] in the moment,” truly perceiving the impact of what we do and say. “Is it possible to catch ourselves if we’re starting to move off the path, like the angel gave Abraham an insight in that moment, telling him to stop? We need to develop a more sensitive self-awareness.”

Tow suggested that if, instead of having to fix things afterwards, we catch ourselves as we’re about to go into something, “we can be an angel to ourselves.”

Weiner of Paramus said he will explore the issue of Jewish identity and the importance of reinvigorating that aspect of our lives. He said he has always believed that the High Holiday audience “is fully three-generational” and “rabbis have to craft a message that can reach everyone. It’s a challenge.”

He said that “some of the things we’re seeing, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, indicate or confirm our alienation, or the trend toward living low-impact Judaism.” The data, he said, “are symptomatic of a much larger issue: our self-perception as Jews.”

He will urge members to make their Jewishness an integral, basic part of their identity.

“The key to helping us get back on track is to reassert that identity,” he said. “How do we go about achieving this? Come to services and find out.”

Rabbis have to be careful speaking about political issues, he said. While they should address them, they should also be careful to distinguish between their own political opinions and “those laws God gave to Moses.”

No rabbi walks that “fine line” perfectly, he said, “but we have to make sure what we are sharing in the name of Torah is reflective of the Torah’s values and not our particular opinions.”

Asked what he will speak about at High Holiday services this year, Yudin laughed, saying, “You’re kidding, right? I’ll talk about Torah, mitzvot, and why it’s important to perpetuate Jewish tradition. What else is there?”

“It’s all in the packaging,” he added. “However I said it last year, I’ll say it differently this year, and in 15 different ways. And next year, I’ll talk about it again.”

 
 

Pushing conversion bill is ‘the wrong fight at the wrong time’

 

Paramus shul members help create new Torah mantles

When the rabbi says the Torah mantles are starting to look worn, it’s time to take action.

So when Rabbi Arthur Weiner — religious leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus — told longtime member Irene Reiss that the synagogue’s 11 Torahs might be ready for new covers, she got right to work.

Chair of the congregation’s memorials and dedications committee, Reiss organized a small group of volunteers to deal with the problem. After looking at catalogues, the committee chose not to order ready-made covers but instead to hire an artist to design them.

They selected Ronit Salei of Teaneck to do the job. The next step, said Reiss, was to choose a theme for the project.

“We chose ‘Tales from the Torah,’” said the project chair, pointing out that this directly connects the mantles to the Torahs they cover and also serves an educational purpose.

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Debbie Grundleger works on a beaded pelican. Beth Chananie

She noted also that the congregation actually has two additional Torahs.

“We really have 13 Torahs,” said Reiss, pointing out that the 58-year-old shul displays a Holocaust Torah in the main sanctuary and, in the small sanctuary, “an antique Torah used by itinerant rabbis in Hungary.” Those, however, were to be left in their original covers.

Looking for a way to involve more congregants in the design project, Salei and the committee came up with a way for members to help craft the mantles.

“We decided to use needlepoint and beaded appliqués,” said Reiss, who sent out a notice to member families seeking volunteer needle-workers.

“We got 26 talented stitchers,” she said, adding that each got his or her assignment at a kick-off meeting and then completed the assignment at home.

While most of the crafters were women, one man did volunteer, said Reiss, pointing out that the age range of the crew reflected the “spectrum of ages within the congregation.”

Reiss said many of the appliquéd pieces are now complete and she hopes the finished mantles will be ready by the end of the year.

When they are done, they will be “offered to congregants as memorials for their loved ones.” Customized linen panels, stitched by Teaneck artist Deborah Ugoretz, will then be sewn into each mantle, bearing the names of those they memorialize.

Reiss said each mantle “will be an original work of art” and that each appliquéd piece is different. For example, she said, in depicting the story of Adam and Eve, one volunteer worked on a snake while another worked on an apple.

“Some are larger, some are smaller,” she said, calling the appliquéd pieces “artful nice embellishments” to the mantles.

Congregant and committee member Debbie Grundleger, who worked with the artist and the volunteers, helped decide which parts of the project should be done as needlepoint and which as beading.

After working with Salei to select the textures and colors for the threads and beads, she then chose the types of stitches needed for each needlepoint piece.

“I set up packets with the appropriate material for each volunteer and was available for help, questions, and lessons in beading,” she said.

The volunteer, who is often called upon by the shul to make decorations for fund-raising events, said she created “giant ‘stained glass’ screens” for her daughter’s bat mitzvah. She has also fashioned synagogue floats for the town’s Fourth of July parades.

Grundleger said that when the packets of sewing supplies were distributed, volunteers had an opportunity to select what they thought would best fit their skills.

“Some of the volunteers traded in their work for something different if they found it was too much of a challenge,” she said.

All stitchers met their deadline, she said.

“All (the pieces)]] are beautiful and were created with love and enthusiasm,” she said. “It is very satisfying for our congregants to feel a part of creating beautiful works of art that will become a legacy in our synagogue.”

 
 

When is a twin (city) not a twin (city)?

When Wikipedia says it is

A 2007 editorial mistake by an unnamed Canadian has been roiling Teaneck township council meetings.

Earlier this year, Teaneck resident Rich Siegel discovered an article on Wikipedia that asserted that Teaneck was a twin city with Beit Yatir, a Jewish village just over the 1967 border in the west bank. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is one of the most popular sites on the internet.

Siegel, who describes himself as a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, set out to find the origins of this relationship.

“First I wrote the mayor and he ignored me,” Siegel told the Jewish Standard. Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin did not return requests for comment.

“Then I sent certified letters to the mayor and all the members of the town council. It was at some expense, but I wanted to show them I was serious about getting an answer,” Siegel said.

Siegel did hear from Elie Katz, a council member who is a former mayor, who said he had never heard of the twinning. Neither had Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor and former council member whose tenure on the council dated back to 1996.

Siegel spoke at a council meeting in January, demanding that township officials publicly renounce the connection. In February, following a letter he wrote on the topic that appeared in the Suburbanite, five other residents stood up at the council meeting to protest the reported twinning.

“We were able to determine that no one had brought this before the town council. They just decided to set the thing up unilaterally,” said Siegel.

Who “they” were was not clear to him.

However, an investigation of the editing history of the Wikipedia article about Beit Yatir shows that the reference to a twinning with Teaneck was inserted by a Canadian editor who goes by the name “Shuki.” Shuki had added a line that Beit Yatir was twinned with Teaneck in 2007, shortly after creating the article, which he based on one in the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia.

The Hebrew article, however, made no mention of a twinning relationship with Teaneck.

Shuki did not return a request for comment left on his Wikipedia user page. According to that page, he has created 149 Wikipedia articles and is responsible for more than 10,000 editorial changes to the site in his five years of Wikipedia involvement. Most of his articles concern Israeli places and personalities. He has been heavily involved in the disputes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors that make articles on topics as apparently neutral as hummus deeply contentious. In December, he was banned from editing Wikipedia for six months, for allegedly using a false account to vote on the deletion of controversial articles concerning Israelis and Palestinians.

So why did Shuki claim a connection between Beit Yatir and Teaneck?

Most probably because there actually is a link between the two communities: Beit Yatir has long been twinned with Teaneck’s Beth Aaron congregation.

The synagogue has supported Beit Yatir’s summer camp and playgrounds, according to congregation president Larry Shafier. Synagogue members visiting in Israel have gone to Beit Yatir and posted snapshots on the congregation’s website. Beit Yatir residents have written articles for the Beth Aaron newsletter.

As for the Beit Yatir article on Wikipedia: This week it was corrected to read that the twinning was with the congregation.

Could Teaneck decide to officially twin with an Israeli town?

“It would be something to be viewed on a case-by-case basis,” said Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen. “We certainly don’t have a policy for twinning with other municipalities.”

Siegel said he personally would oppose an effort to twin Teaneck with an Israeli city. “I’m an anti-Zionist. I would be personally against a twin town relationship within the Green Line as well.”

Nonetheless, he said, “if it went through proper channels, by a vote of the people of Teaneck or the town council, that would be none of my business. My concern is people acting unilaterally.”

At present, 18 New Jersey municipalities are twinned with foreign partners — if Wikipedia can be believed. And in the case of its listing of New Jersey municipal twinnings, it can’t be. According to the listing, the city of Camden has twinned with Gaza City.

But there are no citations, no references to the twinning discovered online, and, perhaps most compellingly, said David Snyder, the local Jewish official whose job it would be to monitor official ties between Camden and pro-Palestinian groups, that it’s news to him.

“I have never heard of this and cannot imagine it,” said Synder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. “I’ve been in the community for 20 years and that has never come up.”

Other synagogue twinning projects

Beth Aaron’s twinning with Beit Yatir is only one of a number of direct connections between Bergen County and Israel.

At least two other Orthodox congregations have twinned with communities in the west bank.

Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck has twinned with Otniel, a village of 120 families about seven miles northwest of Beit Yatir. The American congregation has bought security equipment for Otniel, and sends shalach manot to each resident on Purim.

The Young Israel of Fort Lee partners with Dolev. “In the early years, we supported them financially and helped them found a day care and kindergarten,” says Rabbi Neil Winkler.

Three additional congregations, two Reform and one Conservative, have twinned with Israeli congregations:

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes is twinned with Cong. Yozma in Modiin. “In 2006, we brought a Torah to them. Since then, we visit Yozma every other year with our congregational trips,” says Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has a long-standing relationship with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa, which includes sponsoring scholarships at the Reform community’s school.

The Jewish Community Center of Paramus is an overseas member of Kehilat Yaar Ramot, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem. “We try to support their fund-raising efforts when we can,” says Rabbi Arthur Weiner.

 
 

Recycling Jewish books

Rabbi works to ensure that Jewish texts find a good home

When Shira Weiner lost her father, Rabbi Bernard Schecter, religious leader of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, she and her siblings found themselves with a large and very valuable library.

“There were approximately 10,000 books,” said Weiner, adding “We got rid of everything except the Judaica,” recounting her unsuccessful efforts to connect those books with people who would appreciate their importance.

Her problem was solved when her husband—Rabbi Arthur Weiner, religious leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus—passed on to her an e-mail he received from a Maryland rabbi collecting books for emerging Jewish communities overseas.

While she is not sure where the books will ultimately be sent, she has been assured “they’ll go somewhere where they’ll be used.”

Her texts include publications from the 1800s, some printed in cities such as Vilna and Warsaw.

“I know what they meant to my father,” she said. “I respect them for what they are and what they symbolize. I owe it to his memory to ensure that the books will continue to be used and treasured.”

“I was raised to believe that books are our friends,” said Weiner. “I’ve imparted that to our own children by giving them special and unique volumes that were my dad’s. I know what pleasure and joy these books brought to my father. They’re more than books—they’re history.”

Rabbi Howard Gorin, who has led Tikvat Israel in Rockville, Md., for some 32 years, said his book collection project began in 2004, when he visited emerging Jewish communities in Nigeria.

Having led a bet din in Uganda in 2002, where he oversaw the conversion of about 300 members of the Abayudaya community to Judaism, Gorin was later invited to Nigeria, expecting to perform a similar service. Instead, he found large, diverse communities “not practicing normative Judaism.”

“I realized that if they want to learn what normative Judaism is, they need books,” said Gorin. So on his return, he began buying books.

“I couldn’t pass a used bookstore without stopping in,” he said.

In February 2006, Gorin’s synagogue shipped a 40-foot container to Nigeria with as much as 10 tons of books. The shipping costs were paid from his own pocket and from donations to his discretionary fund. A second shipment was sent in 2007; a third in 2009.

“Word got out that I was collecting books for shipment overseas,” he said. “For each shipment I bought fewer books and started getting free books from synagogue libraries and individuals.”

The books were sent to a warehouse in Port Harcourt, part of Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region in the south. Distribution is being coordinated by members of a local synagogue.

“In December 2009, I had what I thought would be my last book sale,” said Gorin, noting that he sells to local readers books that are not suitable for the Nigerian community. Monies raised from these sales help defray shipping costs.

“But on that very day, I got an e-mail from a friend saying that a public library in Pittsburgh had received a huge shipment of books from a bookstore going out of business, including a lot of Judaica.”

Since the books were likely to find few readers, he headed to Pittsburgh to get them. On the way, he received another e-mail, this time from a faculty associate at Gautam Buddha University in India. The writer said he wanted to create a course on Jewish history and to have a section of the school’s library devoted to Jewish studies.

Gorin realized that his desire to get out of the book business was now on hold. An article in a local newspaper about his efforts netted him even more books.

“People were calling and saying, ‘Are you still collecting?’”

In subsequent days, he heard from one rabbi who was downsizing his library, another who needed to sell her books to make room in her home for her mother, and a third who was moving to a smaller home. From each, he collected cartons of books.

Buoyed by the response, he wrote to fellow rabbis, notifying them of his project. His e-mail to Arthur Weiner resulted in his most recent donation, and a conversation with Shira Weiner gave him the idea of “repatriating” some of her Eastern European books. He has already spoken with someone at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

“I said, ‘Would you like them?’ and they said, ‘We’d love them.’”

“I’ve run out of storage space at my synagogue,” said Gorin, noting that by the time he holds another book sale, he will have some 7,000 volumes in hand.

“We’re the people of the book, not the Nook,” said the rabbi. “Books are an important aspect of who we are as a people. To learn Judaism by word of mouth just doesn’t do it.”

In addition to his overseas shipments, Gorin has sent books to U.S. organizations that serve Jewish prisoners; Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago; Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation in Mexico; a Bible Belt group that wants to know more about Christianity’s Jewish roots; and several other organizations.

“This is not a business,” he said. “It is a service with a mission: putting Jewish books into the hands of (mostly Jewish) readers. Finding new homes for someone’s treasured books—that is what keeps me going.”

For more information, call (301) 518-5340 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 
 
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