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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.”

 
 

Maywood’s Temple Beth Israel plans medieval feast

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A plate from the Golden Haggadah, a Spanish Hebrew manuscript from about 1420.

Few synagogue events are truly unique.

However, it would not be surprising to learn that the Nov. 14 event planned by Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood is one of a kind.

Taking up a proposal from its fund-raising chair, Jenne Heise, the synagogue is inviting community members to a medieval Judaic Spanish feast.

“Jenne’s very involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism,” said Caryn Starr- Gates, RTBI president and one of the chefs.

Heise and fellow congregant Sarah Fiedler, both Fair Lawn residents, have been part of the SCA for more than 10 years. The two belong to the local chapter, Shire of Rusted Woodlands, which encompasses Rockland County in New York as well as Bergen, Sussex, and Passaic counties in New Jersey.

According to the website of SCA’s East Kingdom, the international group is a nonprofit educational organization that studies the Middle Ages by re-creating the pastimes and crafts of the period.

“They love all things medieval,” said Starr-Gates. “[The congregation] thought it would be fun,” she added, citing the publicity flier for the dinner that invites would-be attendees to “eat like our medieval Sephardic ancestors.” The evening’s activities will center on La Convivencia, the “the golden age” of Iberian medieval culture, when Jews, Moors, and Christians coexisted in mutual tolerance.

Heise — web manager/reference librarian at Drew University in Madison — noted that she had coordinated a similar feast in Lancaster, Pa. That meal, however, had included Jewish, Christian, and Islamic elements.

“Sarah said it would be fun to cook a feast for the synagogue. I agreed and said I had already done some research” and could organize a meal around Jewish foods, she said.

Heise subsequently pitched the idea at an RTBI board meeting “and they were very enthusiastic.” Indeed, she said, “a number of people have come to help with the cooking.”

Heise said the SCA member who conceived the program was interested in La Convivencia because “it was a period of balance between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which is extremely rare in European history and especially in medieval history. It’s a fascinating time period.”

In addition, she said, Jewish history during that time is fairly well documented, although there is less material about food “for reasons that are not clear. We have only six recipes that are documented as Jewish that have been located in recipe books from this period.”

As a result, the Maywood dinner will be based on recipes “that have some compatibility with Jewish practice from a slightly later time.”

For example, she said, information has been obtained from “A Drizzle of Honey” (St. Martin’s Press; 1999), by David M. Gitlitz and Dr. Linda Kay Davidson. Called by Publishers Weekly “a cookbook of medieval recipes that is, more significantly, a document of religious persecution during the Spanish Inquisition,” the book contends that crypto-Jews who secretly struggled to maintain their Jewish identity “were betrayed by what they ate, what they wouldn’t eat, and how their food was prepared.”

According to Heise, the authors of that book did a lot of research into Inquisition reports, “looking for things indicative of a Jewish diet.”

The Maywood dinner will be both delicious and educational, said Starr-Gates, noting that Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, religious leader of RTBI, will kick off the event with a study session on Jewish life in medieval times. In addition, a speaker from the SCA will talk about the cuisine of the period.

Attendees will have a chance to sample many dishes, and children have been invited to dress up in costume and help serve.

The three-course meal will be based on 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century recipes — adapted, where necessary, for kashrut, said Heise. Among the offerings will be clarea de agua, a spiced honey drink; figs in the French style, stewed in wine; mustard sauce with red grapes; chickpeas with onion and honey; and quince paste.

While the event is open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are due by Nov. 10. For further information, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Mirror, mirror on the Wall: Striving for pluralism at home and at the Kotel

 

Gay teen documentary ‘Hineini’ sparks discussion at Kaplen JCC

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Judy Beck discusses “Hineini” with Sheilia Steinbach and Rabbis Isaac Sassoon, Jarah Greenfield, and Shmuel Goldin on Monday night. Josh Lipowsky

Shulamit Izen wanted to connect her identity as a lesbian and her identity as a proud Jew. The result was a film chronicling her struggle.

The ninth-grader’s effort to create a gay-straight alliance club at the New Jewish High School, now Gann Academy, in Waltham, Mass., is documented in the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” which was screened Monday night at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly to an audience of more than 80 people. After the movie, Judy Beck, senior community strategist at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, moderated a discussion with Sheila Steinbach of Jewish Family Service of Bergen & North Hudson and Rabbis Shmuel Goldin, Jarah Greenfield, and Isaac Sassoon about how to treat those who are different.

The documentary followed Izen, now a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as she sought out other gay students and teachers at her non-denominational Jewish high school and struggled to reconcile being gay with being an observant Jew.

Steinbach, director of clinical and adult care management services at JFS, said the community needs to teach children to use words appropriately because they can hurt.

“We need to teach our community to be ‘upstanders,’” she said. “We need to have open discussions in schools and our homes. We need to dispel the myth that bullying is a normal part of growing up.”

“I’m not sure our Jewish community is open or embraces all children in the same way,” said Sassoon, a faculty member of the Institute of Traditional Judaism in Teaneck. “We’re all somewhat responsible for allowing prejudices to be camouflaged as if they were Torah.”
He said that a few years ago, at a Shabbat table, an 8-year-old boy said that he had learned in school that Adam was white; it wasn’t until the sin of Ham that there were people of different colors.

“You can’t be mad at the messenger, because this is what he was taught; he didn’t invent it,” Sassoon said. “His mind was poisoned, [as were the minds of] all the other kids who attended that school, because that’s what they’re taught. And we do nothing.”

Contemporary Jews live within two civilizations, said Greenfield, religious leader of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood. One is Judaism as it has evolved throughout the centuries, and the other is modern American society.

“My understanding of Judaism … is we constantly balance contemporary life without abandoning our traditional teachings and wisdom of Judaism,” she said. “That dance is one that creates within us an obligation to view both Jewish life and American civic life as equally important responsibilities.”

A number of gay and lesbian rabbis and other Jewish leaders are providing examples for young gay Jews, Greenfield said, but they need more positive reinforcement from the community.

“For a person who is young and suffering problems of insecurity, feeling valueless, feeling unworthy, feeling shameful of his or her identity because of the normative teachings that Judaism can impose on him or her, what he or she needs to see is his or her leaders standing up and giving confidence through examples,” she said. “We need to see that represented in our newspapers, on our websites, in our synagogue bulletins with the photographs of happy and fulfilled and secure lesbian, gay, transgender, queer adults who have come through the hard times, are Jewishly engaged, and continue to advocate for the safety of their children.”

Without question, said Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, children should be made to feel comfortable and the Jewish community needs to teach children how to feel good about themselves without making others feel bad. “It is a fundamental failure,” he said, “that [the community] does not teach our children what it means to be a mensch.”

“Hineini” exemplified the struggle of the gay students of the New Jewish School, but it also highlighted the struggle of the Orthodox headmaster, Goldin said. That is a struggle Goldin shares, he added.

“Our community and the Torah maintain that all individuals are meant to be treated with respect,” he said. “At the same time, I and Orthodox people are committed to Torah law. How do I maintain both?”

“We have to teach our children there is a difference between a person and a lifestyle choice,” he said, adding that he firmly believes that being gay is not a choice. He compared his views on homosexuals to his view of someone who drives to his synagogue on Shabbat. That person is welcome to participate and given honors during the service, despite how he got there, Goldin said. If, however, that person approaches him and flaunts the fact that he drove to shul on Shabbat, Goldin said, he cannot allow the man an aliyah.

The Talmud says that sexual topics should be discussed one-on-one, Sassoon said, but in order to teach respect, there needs to be discussion. “Silence is the great destroyer,” he said.

Goldin pointed out that in this and similar discussions he has found himself to be the odd man out because he represents the Orthodox community, which, he told The Jewish Standard afterward, is the most torn on the issue of homosexuality.

“If you’re framing it as let’s be inclusive, let’s include everyone, that’s easy for those who don’t have the tensions that I have as an Orthodox rabbi. So I hope that came out of the discussion and people understand that,” he said.

Greenfield told the Standard that she is more and more gratified every time she and Goldin appear together to discuss the issue of homosexuality, but she still called for more conversations across denominational lines on the topic.

“I do perceive still a skewed emphasis on the Orthodox perspective and the place of LGBT Jews according to traditional teachings,” she said. “I still hear it characterized as a struggle. I’d really like to start to hear people shift their understandings so they understand that LGBT life as a Jew is full and is ripe and is joyous, and isn’t only a struggle with tradition. Tradition has lots of room for evolution.”

The screening was organized by the JCC’s Judaic and teen departments, UJA-NNJ’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, and JFS of Bergen & North Hudson. Screenings at the other JCCs in the area are in the works, organizers said.

 
 

Vandals strike Maywood synagogue

‘Enormous swell of support’ as broader community reacts

The vandalism at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood is both distressing and unacceptable, says Jarah Greenfield, the congregation’s rabbi. It may also offer an important opportunity, however.

Greenfield said that as shocked as people were to see the signs of hatred etched around the synagogue, “The stronger impression was how this desecration so quickly transformed into an opportunity to strengthen our community relationships. The sense of solidarity in the town is truly amazing.”

After the shul board convened an emergency meeting to discuss the damage — swastikas and hate symbols were spray-painted on four areas outside the building — Greenfield reached out not only to town authorities and Jewish communal groups, but to interfaith venues, as well. Their response, she said, “has been nothing less than impressive and beautiful.”

It is believed the vandalism took place Saturday night, at this point by unknown perpetrators. According to Greenfield, who was in the synagogue Sunday morning but had entered through the side — where there was no damage — two board members discovered the graffiti at 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, before children arrived for religious school classes. They reported it to her immediately and then notified the police.

“The police were extremely quick and thorough,” she said. “The most impressive part is that by time I had contacted the borough administration, the police department had already told them about it.”

The borough’s current mayor, Timothy J. Eustace; incoming mayor Gregg Padovano; administrator, Thomas Richards; and police Sgt. Mark Gillies met with Greenfield, demonstrating “a surge of concern and solidarity” and assuring her that a statement condemning the vandalism would be forthcoming.

In addition, said Greenfield, “The town’s DPW came [on Monday] and cleaned it up. They power-washed as much as they could.” Even though the damage was on private property, “they wanted to do it,” the rabbi said.

Greenfield also contacted the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and other local rabbis whose congregations were hit by anti-Semitic activity in recent years. In addition, she reached out to colleagues — members of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis — and to Father Lawrence Fama, a Catholic priest in the borough.

Gathering planned

The graffiti, which included not only swastikas but code phrases used by white supremacist groups, was found on the sidewalk outside the shul, on an entry ramp, on building columns, and on the synagogue’s front sign. One scrawl, said Greenfield, blamed Jews for the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

“It’s a beautiful synagogue,” said Greenfield, pointing out that the congregation has occupied the building since 1931. This is the first time she has witnessed vandalism against the building, although an older congregant said he recalled an incident many years ago.

As a next step, the congregation is planning to convene an interfaith gathering for the community at large to “recognize the strength of solidarity in a diverse community and to celebrate it,” said Greenfield. Billed “Spreading Light in Maywood,” the event will take place on Dec. 20, the first night of Chanukah, at 7 p.m. at the shul. Borough officials and representatives of other religious groups are expected to attend.

“We’ve seen the community function at its best and strongest,” said Greenfield. “I was particularly heartened by congregants who stopped by to check it out and by their gathering together to discuss how to address the issue, allowing us to grow from this with pride.”

At an assembly held for the synagogue’s youngsters to discuss the incident, one bat mitzvah student said she would commit to wearing a kippah to school to demonstrate her pride in being Jewish.

“For her bat mitzvah [project], she’s going to raise money for supplies to complete the clean-up and restoration,” said Greenfield. “She will also write a letter to the school paper about what happened, and is thinking about how to expand her fundraising to help other people who experience hatred and discrimination.”

The rabbi said the ADL stressed that the synagogue should make the issue of security a key priority. The shul’s board, she said, will certainly do that.

Respecting diversity

“This occurrence is a desecration, but it’s prompting an enormous swell of support ,” said Greenfield. Her synagogue, she said, prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive.

In the aftermath of this incident, “We will have a chance to demonstrate that we care about justice and respect diversity.”

Joy Kurland, the JCRC director, said the Maywood incident has to be seen in the context of a broader issue, “fostering mutual respect and tolerance. From it can come something positive,” she said. “People have to understand that we live in a diverse society.”

Kurland stressed the importance of building intergroup coalitions, so that when incidents such as this occur, they can be processed by the entire community “within an arena of mutual respect and understanding. A positive message can evolve when people stand together,” she said.

Such incidents are “totally unacceptable in any way, shape, or form in any community,” she said. “We would expect people to rally and take a hard stand against them.”

As former chair and now a member of the Bergen County Human Relations Commission, which supports programs promoting tolerance and combating bigotry, Kurland pointed out that there are many resources in the county for addressing situations of this kind.

The Maywood Police Department’s Sgt. Gillies said, to his knowledge, this is the first such incident in Maywood, “though people have been arrested elsewhere” for similar acts. He noted that the police department uses an e-mail system to share information with other towns “to link suspects with similar incidents in the same time frame.” In this case, he said, while there are no definite suspects, “There’s good information for people to look at.”

The Maywood police department, he said, has also reported the incident to the state police and the prosecutor’s office. While investigations of all crimes follow a similar procedure, he said, if an arrest should be made, penalties are stiffer for those who commit bias crimes.

“No one wants to see something like this,” he said. “It affects the whole community.”

 
 
 
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