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entries tagged with: Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt


Anti-bullying measure moves forward in Trenton

New Jersey lawmakers this week introduced the public to legislation that would toughen school policies toward bullying, in an effort to prevent tragedies like last month’s suicide by a Rutgers student.

Deemed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the legislation would empower educators to better report and respond to bullying incidents, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, told The Jewish Standard Wednesday. The bill is not, she emphasized, a response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, as it has been in the works since January.

“It’s all about awareness, prevention, and training,” she said. “We need to change the culture of kids and we need to create a new school culture.”

New Jersey passed anti-bullying legislation in 2002 and 2007.

“Unfortunately, now the incidents of bullying [here] are higher than in the rest of the United States because the laws need to go further,” Vainieri Huttle said.

The legislation is a follow-up to a December report from the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, a taskforce formed in 2007.

“The tragedy at Rutgers didn’t affect our timetable, but I think it will help sway anyone who might … be on the fence,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League office and a member of the commission.

Through the last 10 years, he said, the public’s perception of bullying has shifted away from viewing it as part of childhood.

“It’s taken years of persistence and advocacy, and now it’s the unanimous consensus that schools, parents, and administrators can change the culture,” he said.

The bill would regulate only public schools and have no bearing on the area’s private yeshivas. Day-school administrators, however, welcomed the legislation. Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, said she was “thrilled” by the news. Gerrard Berman has a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy, and begins its education early, so there have not been any incidents at the school, she said.

“We deal with it from a Jewish perspective as well as from a secular perspective,” Bernhardt added. “We talk about how every person is created in God’s image and should be treated with respect.”

Rabbi John Krug, dean of student life and welfare at The Frisch School in Paramus and a clinical psychologist, lamented the need for such a law.

“It is a sad reflection on society when legislation has to step in and mandate something that should be part and parcel of the development of human beings in general,” he said.

Each year, Frisch seniors, with training from faculty, work with the freshmen on bullying issues. Like Gerrard Berman, Frisch has a zero-tolerance policy and Krug said he knows of fewer than a handful of cases in the school each year.

The Rutgers tragedy pushed the bullying issue to the forefront, he said, but it also highlighted the changing role of technology in social interaction.

“The world does not yet know how to cope with this new universe of technology and media, and all the rules that have governed human behavior until now are being redefined,” he said.

The bill has already garnered more than 40 bipartisan cosponsors in the Assembly. It will head to the Senate after the November elections.

“I don’t think we’re going to completely solve the problems of bullying,” Neuer said, “but parents and schools are going to find that bullying and harassment and intimidation will become fringe behaviors.”


Rabbis’ forum: Patrilineal dispute no bar to civility

Rabbi Ziona Zelazo (left) moderated the discussion on diversity with Rabbi David Bockman, Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, Rabbi Kenneth Emert, and Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. Larry Yudelson

Even the most contentious problems of defining Jewish status can be dealt with without rancor, a panel of rabbis from across the streams agreed.

“We can’t minimize differences,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, which is Orthodox, “but we can maximize connections.”

Zierler was speaking at a panel last Thursday night entitled “I Respectfully Disagree: Fostering Tolerance & Acceptance in Our Diverse Jewish Community.” The panel, at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, was also sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. The third and final in a series of panels on civility and diversity, it drew about 25 people.

Perhaps the most contentious issue dividing the Judaic streams is the question of “Who is a Jew” — or, perhaps more bluntly, “Are you Jewish?”

It is a question that cuts to the soul of the individuals concerned, as well as to the heart of the disagreements concerning the primacy of traditional Jewish law between Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism on one side, and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on the other.

And it is a question brought to the fore by patrilineal descent: the policy of Reform Judaism, dating back to 1983, of accepting as Jews the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. (All streams accept the children of Jewish mothers as Jewish.)

On the whole, the rabbis said, they were able to resolve the issues raised by conflicting standards through mutual respect and sensitivity to the people affected.

Rabbi David Bockman: “You don’t tell a kid — or an adult — that ‘you’re not Jewish.’”

Rabbi David Bockman of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes said that from his perspective, as a Conservative rabbi, children of patrilineal descent are not Jewish.

“And if a person is not Jewish, he can’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony,” he said. “I would have to insist on conversion.”

Nonetheless, he said, “I very much believe you don’t tell a kid — or an adult — that ‘you’re not Jewish.’ Even if they’re not a Jew.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘your child is going from being a non-Jew to being a Jew.’ I would want to validate their Jewishness while at the same time saying that in order to be acceptable to everybody in the Jewish world, we have to go through this ceremony. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not punitive.”

Similarly, even though his congregation accepts patrilineal descent, Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff advises parents where the mother is not Jewish to consider having their child formally convert. Temple Beth Rishon is an unaffiliated liberal congregation. Emert is a member of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinical associations.

“Probably a year before the bar or bat mitzvah,” he said, “I would speak to the parents and explain to them that at Beth Rishon we accept patrilineal descent, but this is only [recognized] in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations.

“I speak to the parents about this, only the parents. Never to the children. It’s very important.

“I follow the dictums of the congregation, but I certainly can make the family aware of what conditions the child may face later on.”

Emert told of a girl from his congregation, whose mother wasn’t Jewish, who came back from college saying that “half the guys at Hillel won’t date me. I want to go to the mikveh,” and converted.

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt is head of school at Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland. As a Conservative institution, the school does not recognize patrilineal descent. But it will accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers on two conditions, she said. The parents must intend to raise the children as Jews. And they must plan to have them converted.

Bernhardt told of discovering before a bar mitzvah that a child she thought was Jewish in fact was not: He had been adopted but never converted.

“The key is that I had a relationship with the parents where I could sit down with them. I brought in the rabbi of their synagogue to begin a discussion of what to do.

“Through a series of discussions and educating the parents, we were able to reach the agreement that the child would have a hatafat dam brit [a symbolic circumcision], go to the mikveh, and have a bar mitzvah,” she said.

“A lot of this has to do with the kind of relationship a rabbi or a teacher or principal has with the child, so when these tough issues come up, they can be addressed in a manner that will meet the halachic obligations,” she added.

The local dispute over patrilineality does not always end happily, however, according to Emert. He said that was one of the issues that prevented the Bergen Academy for Reform Judaism from merging with the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

“How do you deal with the many students where the father is Jewish and the mother is not? How do you merge those students together? That creates a real problem for some of the rabbis in the community,” he said.

Zierler said that even though he, an Orthodox rabbi, does not accept patrilineal descent, conflicts over it have no place in a school that serves the entire community.

“A school is an empowerment zone, not a playground for poor rabbinic behavior, when the casualty will be the education of children,” he said.

“The issue is touchy, but if you have children that are growing up in the framework of Jewish homes, you have to create frameworks for them,” he said.

“Why should we get sidetracked on the issue of patrilineal descent? It doesn’t belong in the classroom, it belongs in the synagogue. It’s for the rabbi’s study. If joint schooling does lead to marriage, problems of Jewish status can be rectified — in most cases — quietly and sensitively.”


Divine discovery

Four rabbis lead GBDS parents in prayerful discussion

GBDS guests blended camaraderie and learning during a Dec. 14 session at PRAY.

What do you get when you cross four gregarious rabbis with a community craving spirituality? To find out, The Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey (GBDS) invited supporters to my home in Wyckoff for individualized engagement with Head of School Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt and GBDS Board Members Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, Rabbi Randy Mark, and Rabbi Joshua Cohen. The event, offered as part of the day school’s popular Schmoozeday Series, was billed to revive one’s spirit, in and out of synagogue. As with other classes in the school’s Schmoozeday syllabus, PRAY attracted adults comfortable with becoming students again.

“The great thing about learning as an adult is you know better what questions to ask,” said GBDS parent Leah Matsil. When it comes to praying, “the Hebrew has always presented a sort of barricade,” said my mother, Joan Silna. “But now I am no longer ashamed to admit what I don’t know.” “

“There is a thirst for this kind of programming,” said Cohen, who recently began his tenure as rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Franklin Lakes.

After wine, cheese and latkes, the program began. Bernhardt dimmed the lights and urged attendees to relax, on the floor if they wished, and to close their eyes. With modern liturgical music playing softly in the background, Bernhardt, who holds a Master’s in Social Work, led the group through a visualization.

“Picture your very first spiritual memory….It might be playing with your grandfather’s tallis, or baking challah with your bubbe. Perhaps it is a song you heard as a young child at shul,” she said.

The goal? “To remember a time preceding judgment,” the rabbi explained later. “I see it at GBDS every day — our children have strong, positive connections to their Jewish identities. I wanted participants to reconnect with those earliest feelings of joy and belonging, and then from there, to envision a future self, filled with that same holiness.”

Cohen spoke of the tension that exists in all of us between keva (fixed prayer) and kavannah (prayer that comes spontaneously, or from the heart).

“This is not a modern phenomenon,” he said. “When the words seem void of meaning, it is time to integrate your heart, be reflective.”

He introduced a great parallel to the group: “You have no desire to work out, but by going to the gym, you will very likely still accomplish and achieve. So it is with prayer.”

Zelazo offered an anthropologist’s view of prayer, complete with mysticism and yearning, and Mark, of Shomrei Torah in Wayne, shared his personal journey of a secular childhood through to his rabbinic ordination.

Once divided into four groups, attendees shared their upbringings, fears, hopes and intentions. Bernhardt’s group played instruments, Zelazo’s chanted and wrote their own prayers.

“I found the evening enlightening,” said Jodi Abata of Wyckoff. “I didn’t realize there are many different paths that will bring you to the same place.”

To find out about upcoming Schmoozeday offerings, log onto

GBDS Board members Rabbi Randy Mark, Rabbi Josh Cohen, President Shana Siegel, Vice President Barry Blecherman, and immediate Past President Alex Paley. Front row: Rabbi Ziona Zelazo and Head of Gerrard Berman Day School Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt. photos Courtesy Amy Silna Shafron
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