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entries tagged with: Rabbi Elyse Frishman

 

Barnert launches Africa Initiative

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Barnert member Debby Zlotowitz visits the congregation’s sister school in Uganda.

When Ruth Messinger — president of American Jewish World Service and recent appointee to the White House Task Force on Global Poverty and Development — spoke last week to 175 people at Barnert Temple, she was addressing a group that is already heeding her humanitarian message.

According to Rabbi Elyse Frishman, religious leader of the Franklin Lakes congregation, the shul has ongoing relief programs in Africa and is poised to launch three new initiatives in Darfur, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The congregation’s Africa Initiative, launched at the Oct. 18 meeting with Messinger, will include a youth program to raise relief funds and awareness for victims in Darfur as well as projects linking Barnert with schools in Uganda and helping nascent women’s cooperatives expand their effectiveness in Rwanda.

“We’ve told the members of the congregation that if anyone has a particular nation they want [to help] or a project they want to do, we will help them do it,” Frishman said.

The rabbi noted that students Amanda Kroll and Amanda Lomega, both sophomores at Glen Rock High School, are coordinating a January concert, “Peace through Music,” with proceeds to go toward relief efforts in Darfur.

“They’re looking for high-quality performers,” said Frishman. “They’ve already begun screening.”

A second project, under the rubric of Positive Planet — founded in 2003 to create and support partnerships between school communities in the United States and in rural Uganda — will link the congregation to a “sister school” in Uganda.

“We’ll raise money to help them build a well,” said Frishman, explaining that young girls responsible for going to streams to draw water do not have time to go to school. Monies from this project may also be used to renovate a school, build a classroom, or send books, she said, noting that congregant Debbie Zlotowitz has been actively engaged in the project and recently returned from a trip to Uganda.

The shul’s third project is centered in Rwanda, where Aaron Soffin — son of Rabbi Joel Soffin, the congregation’s social action scholar-in-residence — is filming a documentary cataloguing stories of survivors of the Rwandan genocide. In the course of this work, she said, Soffin “has come into contact with women looking for support through micro-loan projects,” a venture the synagogue will now support.

Frishman said she was delighted that Messinger, who heard about the congregation’s work in Africa, “cleared her calendar to be with us. She spoke for about 40 minutes about the American Jewish World Service and its 400 grassroots projects, 36 in Africa.”

The rabbi explained her congregation’s focus on Africa, noting that factors such as colonialism have worsened the situation there, “a part of the world so rich in heritage and wisdom, yet so challenged by poverty and lack of opportunity.”

“We see our [Jewish] mandate to help as universal,” she said. “We bring all the gifts that have been granted us to bear upon the condition of others.”

She noted that Jordan Namerow, a 2001 graduate of Ridgewood High School and now a senior communications associate at AJWS, had served as an intern for AJWS in Uganda, prompting her decision to pursue a career in social action.

Frishman said about 30 percent of Barnert’s members are involved in projects of social action. The first step in enlisting their support, she said, is “awareness.”

“There are many ways for people to help,” she said. Members can become involved in the congregation’s social action board and, if they choose to become part of the Africa Initiative team, “they can work with religious school students on the solar cooking project, help with the concert, or petition the government on Darfur.” The solar cooking project, previously described in this newspaper, is an effort to help the families of Darfur refugees in camps by relieving women of the need to scavenge for wood, which makes them vulnerable to attack.

Members of the public can join the group’s efforts as well, said Frishman.

For more information, visit the synagogue’s Website, www.barnerttemple.org, and follow the link to the social action committee.

 
 

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.”

 
 

An EZ Key for access

Free High Holy Days tickets meant to attract newcomers

Synagogues are opening their doors.

But are they cutting their pockets?

With the High Holy Days approaching, more than two dozen synagogues are participating in a program to entice newcomers to the community with free tickets to services.

The program, dubbed EZ Key, is coordinated by the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“We want to lower the barrier to people who want to try out a synagogue for the High Holy Days and raise the profile of synagogues in the area,” said Lisa Harris Glass, director of the synagogue initiative.

The program is for people who have lived in the community for two years or less. By visiting the federation’s web site at http://www.jfnnj.org/holidaytickets, newcomers can sign up for tickets at their choice of participating congregations, or be matched up with a suitable congregation.

“It’s a one-shot offering,” said Glass, explaining that EZ Key is meant to introduce worshipers to a congregation, not to replace synagogue membership.

Rabbis of participating congregations are enthusiastic about the program.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “I love the idea of welcoming people in, particularly people new in the community.

“Philosophically, I’m of two bents. On one hand, it’s critical for people to support synagogues financially. In doing so, you benefit from belonging to a synagogue.

“On the other hand, there are many, many Jews who don’t understand that. They have such negative baggage that they carry about what a synagogue is. And they also have a sense of expectation that when it comes time for the High Holy Days, they feel they should be able to walk into a synagogue and take advantage of its services.

“Both are right,” she said, adding, “It saddens me that anyone would feel alienated from a congregation because they couldn’t afford it.”

Rabbi Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen, agrees that EZ Key “is a fantastic idea.”

“We certainly need to do more to make ourselves more marketable and outreach-oriented than we are. EZ Key is a way to get people in the door.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said, “EZ Key is an admission on the part of our community that the cost, real and perceived, of Jewish affiliation may be a barrier for less committed Jewish families, including interfaith families, to even seek out a synagogue.”

“Reaching out to unconnected Jews irrespective of the reason for their lack of affiliation is critical for both the institutions of our Jewish community and equally important for the unaffiliated Jews,” he said.

The United Synagogue of Hoboken has chosen not to participate, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. “We experience something like 25 to 30 percent turnover in our membership every year, which makes it hard for us to do a lot of giving things away for free for people who are new,” he said.

At the same time, “If someone wants to come and the recommended donation exceeds what they can do, we’re delighted to receive a donation of any amount.”

One issue for the congregation is capacity. The sanctuary holds 500 and tickets are needed to ensure that people are not turned away.

In part because the synagogue cannot serve everyone who might want to come to High Holy Days services, and in part to provide “some High Holy Day experiences that would be open to everyone with no tickets required,” the United Synagogue is holding services in what might be considered off-peak time slots.

“That includes an additional public shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, and an additional Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon,” he said.

At least one congregation, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is participating in EZ Key with free tickets, but also providing a service for which tickets are not required. Family services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will supplement the traditional egalitarian services led the rabbi and cantor in the main sanctuary. The family services are scheduled to last no more than 90 minutes, and are designed “to be engaging and meaningful to children from ages 4 and up, as well as to adults with limited Hebrew reading skills.”

At least one area pulpit rabbi, however, is unhappy with the thrust toward low-cost entryways to synagogue life.

“Synagogues depend on High Holy Days ticket sales to keep the lights on in their buildings throughout the year,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need to be educating people about the importance of contributing to a shul’s upkeep, not encouraging them to look around for the cheapest option.”

 
 

Reform Judaism in transition

Local synagogues ready to plan the future

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After 16 years as leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie handed the reins to Rabbi Richard Jacobs at last weekend’s convention.

Local leaders of Reform congregations returned from the movement’s biennial convention in a Washington suburb floating on clouds, energized, and determined to meet the challenge — set by the movement’s leadership — of more than doubling synagogue participation by high school seniors by the end of this decade.

“We all came back so charged up,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “It was a fantastic renewal opportunity.”

With more than 6,000 attendees, the biennial was the largest ever, the first to be sold out, and one of the largest indoor gatherings of American Jews ever.

“It was amazing,” said Irene Bolton, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It is the most awesome experience to sit in a space with 6,000 other Jews and to participate in Shabbat services as a group, and to be awed by the feeling of spirituality that permeates a space like that,” she said.

“You have to walk out of the biennial saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s hope for the Jewish people,’” she said.

The president of the Union of Reform Judaism leads the denomination in a way unmatched by his Orthodox or Conservative counterparts. This is a function of the URJ’s centrality within the Reform movement’s constellation of organizations, as well as the fact that, unlike the parallel organizations, the presidency of the URJ is a full-time position. Both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union are nominally headed by lay leaders who hold relatively short tenures.

Biennial pronouncements and initiatives by URJ leaders are subsequently quoted in a way reminiscent of how Chabad-Lubavitch followers quote the teachings of their late leader.

This year, the theme seemed to be reinventing Reform congregations to create “sustainable” communities that can retain the next generation.

The scope of the challenge was highlighted by the farewell sermon of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose 16 years at the URJ’s helm ended at the event. Yoffie noted that neither of his children belong to Reform synagogues.

Yoffie’s son, 28, is not a member of a synagogue, “but feels very much connected to his Jewish identity, and Israel and social justice are big passions for him,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

“His daughter is married and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue, but still considers herself a Reform Jew. She reads Torah on Shabbat morning,” said Mosbacher.

“Things need to change in how we educate our kids and how we sustain our families. That’s the challenge of the movement, and the opportunity, if we think big and creatively,” said Mosbacher.

With its new “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the URJ is focusing on the statistic that “80 percent of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no connection of any kind to their Jewish community by the time they reach 12th grade,” in the wording on the campaign’s web site.

“We can’t abide that,” said Mosbacher. “We can’t move forward as a movement with those demographics. We have to figure out ways to engage our youth and, by extension, the families that belong to the congregation in a different kind of way.”

“The goal of the campaign is that by 2020, we move that number from 20 percent to 50 percent who will stay involved through high school,” he said.

While the campaign defines a goal, it does not prescribe set programs to achieve it.

This reflects a bottom-up approach that attendees connect to the agenda of the new URJ president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

“We’re really moving away from that hierarchical corporate approach to how we do business, to a sense of looking outside of ourselves and saying, who needs us, how do we draw people in, how do we engage Jews in a meaningful way,” said Frishman.

“The youth engagement campaign is about helping the congregations ask intentional, challenging questions about themselves, about whether everything is as excellent as can be,” said Mosbacher. “If it’s not excellent, what are the other methods that are out there that can make the synagogue excellent?

“Rabbi Jacobs said we should not be talking about the unaffiliated; we should talk about uninspiring congregations. We need to look at what’s inspiring people.

“My educator and my cantor and my lay leadership have come back eager to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we ask those hard questions of ourselves, we will necessarily need to come up with new and creative alternatives,” he said.

The changes called for at the biennial are less a U-turn than an acceleration of changes Reform congregations are making to deal with a changing world.

Take the example of Hebrew school — clearly central to engaging teenagers.

“To say that ‘I hated Hebrew school and you my child will hate Hebrew school’ is not a sustainable model. But there are excellent models. We need to see how to use them,” said Mosbacher. “Drop-off Hebrew school is not the most excellent model we can offer,” he said.

Seven years ago, his congregation began a family school, where children and adults study Hebrew and Judaics together. Data show that participating families are more connected to the synagogue — “though whether that’s because they’re self-selected is for the professional demographers to figure out.”

The challenge now: how to make the family school the rule, not the exception.

At Barnert Temple, said Frishman, “we’re involved in an educational self-study looking at how we teach our youth and our adults. We’re looking to completely re-examine our methodology and our outreach, as a way of engaging people meaningfully.”

The study held its initial focus groups two weeks ago, and the plan is for the study to be completed in about a year.

“This work is as much about engaging people in the process, and having the process be determined by participants. By the time we have figured out what we’re doing, we’ll already be doing it. This is all the thinking that goes on behind community organizing, which is at the heart of the leadership that goes on at the URJ,” said Frishman.

The fact that the process is already underway, however, did not diminish the significance of the biennial. “When you’re with all these other synagogues and everybody is hearing this message, It’s a chance to say, ‘it’s not just us, this is the way it’s being done,’” she said.

Similarly, Temple Beth Or is in the initial stages of a major educational change. The congregation has just begun a new program for its post-bar mitzvah students — the focus of the youth engagement initiative — in the wake of the ending of the closure last year of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism.

“As a congregation, we picked up that piece after BARJ. We understood that there was a need to integrate students into Jewish life and learning. We were sad that BARJ was no longer in existence, but you know the expression that God closes a door and opens a window? We were able to open the window.”

“We found we had very few students attending BARJ. Today, we have 25 students in a post-bar mitzvah program who are learning together, who are having fun together, who are building community together, and who are here on the same night as the younger students.

“We can find ways to involve the teens in coming back and reading Torah again, or being present for a minyan if we have a shiva minyan, or helping us with our caring committee,” said Bolton.

Her work as an educator is not just focused on the “classroom environment, but I’m thinking about what kind of programs can we provide, what kind of mentors and role models can we provide, how are we going to work with them on an intergenerational basis so there will be a charismatic adult in their life,” she said.

This shift from classic textbook education to experiential education is something that Bolton said was evident in the way the biennial convention has changed over the years that she has attended.

“This biennial was much more about experiencing, feeling, and participating, whereas when I began in Jewish education over 30 years ago and went to my first biennial, it was much more about what class can we offer, what project can we do, what program will work. Today, it was much more about the big picture, about helping people internalize and find meaning.

“Teaching Torah is what this was all about. Building community, finding ways for us to link together, to connect, to become a more caring community that puts Torah at the center,” said Bolton.

The bottom line, said Frishman, “is understanding how living Jewishly as a Reform Jew is powerful. It gives you a voice in the work of the world. Our mission is not just to light a Chanukah menorah; it’s to light it and think ‘How can the light of Judaism inspire me to light the world and open my arms to everyone? ‘It’s the message of Reform Judaism, part and parcel of who we are as Reform Jews, to know that what I’ve learned as a Jew isn’t for me alone, but for the way I interact with the stranger and help the life of the stranger to improve.”

 
 
 
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