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Congregations join effort to help the homeless

When Susan Oliff of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter approached her congregational board asking if the synagogue might do more to help the homeless, she quoted her son, Noah.

If the synagogue didn’t help, he said, “it’s not Jewish. It’s the only way the world is going to change.”

The family had already been involved for many years with the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County and specifically as volunteers at the now-closed Englewood Family Shelter, an experience Oliff called “transformative.”

The shelter, located at the former St. Cecilia’s High School, was forced to close in July. The IRF has been working hard to fill the void left by its closure.

Oliff was asking her congregation to participate as a host in the Bergen County network of Family Promise — a nationwide program that houses homeless families in local houses of worship. On Nov. 19, the Beth El board voted unanimously to do so.

While Family Promise is new to Bergen County, it already has 155 networks in 39 states, with 14 in New Jersey.

According to Marsha Mackey, executive director of the IRF, when the 38-bed Englewood shelter closed this summer, a new way had to be found to accommodate the Bergen County families who sought refuge there. The problem is increasingly urgent, since families with dependent children are among the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, she said. In addition, because of the current economic situation and the lack of affordable housing in the county, on average, families were remaining longer at the shelter.

The IRF decided to go in a new direction, affiliating with the Interfaith Hospitality Network overseen by the Summit-based Family Promise.

“Family Promise has a different model in working with and sheltering families,” said Mackey. “We’re looking to adapt to this model, which was similar to our overflow shelter.”

Even while the shelter was functioning, she said, there were always more than 38 individuals who needed help at any one time. To accommodate that need, churches and synagogues created a rotation system, opening their doors to the homeless on different nights.

Under the Family Promise program, “we would do a similar program but rotate families on a weekly basis,” said Mackey.

The IRF is looking to recruit up to 17 host congregations. So far, 12 congregations have come forward, including three synagogues: Closter’s Beth El, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, and Temple Sinai in Tenafly.

Each congregation commits to host up to 14 individuals for a total of three non-consecutive weeks of the year. Besides providing sleeping accommodations, host congregations must also provide three meals a day for the guests, with help from “support” congregations, also sought by the IRF.

“If they can’t host they can still sent volunteers to other congregations to help,” said Mackey, noting that support congregations “would help provide food, coming in to hang out, or stay overnight.”

Unlike the old system, where children younger than 14 were not permitted to help, the new program will allow for children of all ages to participate.

Roz Gerard, chair of the community affairs committee of the Jewish Community of Paramus, said her congregation has signed on to support St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in River Edge, which will be a host facility.

“We told them they should call if they need auxiliary support,” said Gerard, who pointed out that volunteers’ duties there might be “different every time. For example, we might help serve food or welcome the families when they come on Sunday, or help kids with homework.”

Mackey pointed out that the IRF is negotiating to buy a building that will accommodate not only the group’s offices but also provide showers, laundry facilities, and other services for the homeless during the day. Families will sleep at host congregations but spend their days at the new IRF center.

“They can visit with their case manager every day, have an address, and use the phone and computer” to help find employment, said Mackey.

According to the IRF director, the thinking behind Family Promise is that the movement provided by rotating between congregations helps motivate the families staying there, preventing them from becoming “complacent in a family shelter.”

Equally important, she said, “it allows many more volunteers to see and understand who is homeless now — families you would never imagine are homeless, who look just like us.”

Mackey said about 10 synagogues have participated in IRF programs, whether volunteering in the Walk-In Dinner Program, taking turns providing food for and serving up to 150 people at the Bergen County Community Action Partnership’s Drop-in Center in Hackensack, or hosting the homeless in their own shuls several evenings a year.

She said that while there is no accurate count of the homeless, the latest tally found more than 2,000 in Bergen County.

“We’re receiving more and more calls,” she said, noting that calls regarding homelessness, or the threat of eviction, have risen from about three per day to as many as 10.

“Homelessness does not discriminate,” she said, adding that she sees Jews among the homeless.

“So many different kinds of people are becoming homeless, from all communities from across the county. We try to help families stay together. If they are found sleeping on the street or in their cars, they will have their children removed. We want to get this up and running to assist more families.”

Anne Fleisher, a resident of Closter and a congregant of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, has been involved with the IRF for more than 20 years. Fleisher said that bringing homeless families to the congregation will provide “more of a teaching experience” for the congregation than sending volunteers to the shelter did.

In addition, she said, while children could not volunteer at the Englewood shelter, under the new program, “families can involve their children” in helping. Also, she added, “It’s more comfortable sleeping in your own shul” than sleeping in a shelter.

Fleisher said her request for the congregation to participate as a host was adopted unanimously by the board.

“I showed a DVD that was heart-tugging and asked, ‘How can we not do this?’”

She said that while synagogue logistics have yet to be worked out, it’s likely each guest family will sleep in a classroom, while volunteers will sleep on cots in the hall.

Fleisher noted that a van from the IRF will bring the cots, “but I’ll suggest buying our own sheets to ensure they’re clean.”

To avoid dates when the classrooms will be in use, Fleisher said the three host temples “are vying for Easter, Christmas, and summers. But this will work out because everyone wants it to,” she said, adding that she simply needs more volunteers.

Food will be served buffet-style in the kitchen, and guests are expected to clean up afterwards. Fleischer said an IRF van will bring the guests in the evening, and noted that the organization would greatly appreciate the donation of a van for this purpose.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of the congregation, pointed out that while the congregation is eager to participate, details have yet to be worked out.

“I believe strongly in the program,” said Millstein, noting that at his former pulpit, in Worcester, Mass., “we hosted families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the same organization. I was familiar with the model and [told the board] why it would work and how it was so great to do as a congregation.”

“It’s a great opportunity for us to live out the values we believe in as a Reform congregation,” he said. “It’s a great thing. I’m very excited about it. We’re going to make every effort to do it unless there is a logistical problem.”

In a social action report for her synagogue newsletter, Beth El’s Oliff said the shul is also planning to use some of its classrooms as sleeping quarters. The synagogue’s social hall will be used as the dining and recreation area.

In addition to needing volunteers to set up cots and greet and feed guests, Oliff asked for members to help with “socialization” as well.

“Some may help the children with homework, others may play board games or cards or simply chat with guests,” she wrote, pointing out that children are encouraged to volunteer with parents, “particularly to socialize with guest children.”

Oliff’s report noted that the shul would not be expected to spend any money as a host congregation, with food to be provided by donations.

According to Mackey, the IRF has held several orientation meetings for interested congregations.

Among the attendees was Martin Prince, a member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

“Helping the homeless is nothing new” for the congregation, said Prince. “We have had a shelter program at our temple and did the overflow program. We’re going to treat it as a continuation.”

Prince said that while the shul has a core of volunteers ready to help — some 60 from the shul helped out at the shelter in Englewood — “the main problem is the facility,” where a dedicated space will be needed.

The synagogue is “trying to figure out when we can dedicate two rooms to the program,” he said, adding that it would have to be in the summer or during Christmas vacation. Easter is a bit trickier, he noted, since it may conflict with Passover.

“We need to see when during the year we can accommodate” the families, he said, calling the shul’s participation a way “to give back to the community.”

“It’s what we’re supposed to do, just a part of our overall commitment,” he said. “It’s a way of living up to the commandments.”

Rabbi Debra Hachen, religious leader of Closter’s Beth El, said the congregation has been involved with the IRF for some three years, helping provide volunteers for the Englewood shelter. An IRF board member herself, Hachen said her shul “didn’t need much encouragement” to sign on with the program.

The rabbi said the shul will not have to make any major adjustments to accommodate the families, though it will have to install shades in several classrooms to provide privacy.

“We have more than enough volunteers,” she said. “People will volunteer wherever it is, but more will volunteer in their own synagogue: There’s a sense of ownership.”

“This program is an opportunity,” said Hachen. “It allows children to participate, and the parents have said their kids want to help, too.”

Hachen said the shul has a nice kitchen “and it may be that on Thursday the religious school students will cook, or the Men’s Club will come in and cook. We’ll see.”

The rabbi noted that while the people they host will certainly benefit, “it also reminds our congregants of what their core mission is, tikkun olam. It reinforces what the community is all about and creates connections between volunteers, building community.”

The program will begin when the IRF has its day center up and running, she said, it’s hoped by May or June.

She pointed out that there is a great need for funds, and an IRF fund-raiser in February will honor shul congregants Oliff and Ron Lieberman, “longtime past IRF board members and shelter supervisors for many weeks.”

“If people are thinking of giving tzedakah to a community organizations at Chanukah time, this is a wonderful organization. They’re really in need right now,” she said.

Congregations interested in helping with the Family Promise program should call Kate Duggan, IRF director of volunteers, at (201) 833-8009, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

Reform shuls to focus on Haiti during joint Tisha B’Av service

Six Reform congregations will join forces July 19 to mark Tisha B’Av, the ancient Jewish day of mourning, and raise awareness of the continuing crisis in Haiti as the country struggles to rebuild after January’s devastating earthquake.

The program marks the second year the Reform congregations have come together for Tisha B’Av. Because the holiday usually falls in the middle of the summer, it is largely observed within the Reform movement only in summer camps. Temple Sinai of Bergen County will host the program, co-organized by Temples Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter, Emeth of Teaneck, and Congs. Beth Am of Teaneck and Beth Or of Washington Township.

“Tisha B’Av is the memorial day on the Jewish calendar when we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, and the overall theme of suffering and coping with suffering is so important on that day,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein. “We thought it’d be important to find a connection to today.”

Sinai, Avodat Shalom, Beth Am of Teaneck, Temple Beth El, and Beth Or last year related Tisha B’Av to the Second Lebanon War.

“Tisha B’Av is about human choices,” said Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Neal Borovitz. “The message and the tie-in to contemporary tragic issues of death and destruction is: How do we make the memory of those moments teaching opportunities so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?”

The Haiti component will feature John Coppolino, co-founder of Sending Our Love to Haiti, a coalition of synagogues, churches, and individuals in northern New Jersey that works to raise money and awareness; Samuel Davis, president and founder of the Burn Advocates Network Ltd., which aids burn survivors; Thomas Bojko, senior vice chair of clinical affairs of the Department of Pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Temple Sinai member Caren Zucker, a producer for ABC news programs who went to Haiti with her 13-year-old son Jonah through the organization Operation Blessing.

“Just as last summer people weren’t thinking about the Second Lebanon War and the ongoing trauma that Israeli families affected by that war were having and continue to have, we felt that this year the tragedy of Haiti is out of sight and out of mind,” Borovitz said. “There’s still a terrible tragedy going on there.”

Haiti is not just a natural disaster but also a political one, Borovitz continued. Rebuilding Haiti requires the political will and economic support of the world, he said, adding that while Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, it also ushers in a season of hope.

“It’s the turning point of the year when we start to focus on the hope of Rosh HaShanah,” he said. “The despair of Tisha B’Av requires us to take action. It’s not just to pray to God for help but to act as if it depends on us — because it does. Prayer and action have to come together.”

After the speakers, rabbis and cantors of the six synagogues will chant passages of the Book of Lamentations, which tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem.

When Millstein first came to Temple Sinai two years ago, the congregation did not observe Tisha B’Av. Last year, he and Borovitz began planning for a joint observance.

“We decided that evening that we were going to make this a tradition of the Reform synagogues of Bergen County,” Borovitz said.

Temple Emeth is new to the joint ceremony this year, but, Rabbi Steven Sirbu pointed out, the synagogue has participated in Tisha B’Av services around the area for five years.

“Because Tisha B’Av is not ideologically a strong part of the Reform calendar, we were there much more to learn than to be full collaborative partners,” he said. “We can all struggle with and reinterpret Tisha B’Av together as part of the Reform tradition. Reform Jews at heart don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple as a means to pray for its rebuilding. Therefore, the way that we mourn that destruction is very different.”

Reform Jews look to the future for the restoration of the Jewish people, Sirbu continued, and the Temple is not a model for that future.

Millstein first experienced Tisha B’Av at summer camp in the 1970s. At each of the three synagogues where he has worked, he has introduced the observance and, he believes, it has lasted. Though the day was not observed early on in the Reform movement, he said, it provides an opportunity for a creative and meaningful connection to Jewish tradition.

“This is really one observance where no Reform synagogue can go it alone and have a really meaningful program,” Sirbu said. “We need each other to do Tisha B’Av in a way that will really speak to people.”

The program, which is open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (201) 568-3035.

 
 

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.”

 
 

Rabbis explore Jewish views of sexuality at Kaplen JCC forum

Rabbi Yosef Adler, who is Orthodox, said he might rejoice if his own child established a loving same-sex relationship, but that the Jewish community at large would not rejoice.

Adler, religious leader of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, spoke during a forum on sex roles at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week. He was answering a challenge from a young gay Orthodox man as to whether Adler would be as pleased as his own rabbi father would be with this son were he in that kind of relationship.

Three rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — spoke during the forum, and while there was disagreement among them about homosexual unions, their tone was civil. And Adler pointed out all of them agreed that bullying in general was to be condemned.

Still, Adler said, homosexual unions are contrary to Jewish law, and he opposes the publication of announcements of engagements between homosexuals, as The Jewish Standard had done in September. He contended that the publication of the announcement was a celebration of the union and suggested that if such announcements were paid advertisements they might be more acceptable to the Orthodox community.

Disagreeing with Adler about homosexual unions was Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who had officiated at two same-sex Jewish marriage ceremonies — which did not have legal standing — in the late ‘90s, at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. A Reform rabbi, he asked who has the right to decide that male and female are the only valid categories. As for the biblical injunction against homosexuality, Millstein said that the Bible has diverse views and people “cherry-pick” whatever ones they agree with. The ideal with any relationship, he went on, is that it be fully committed and honest, with trust and exclusivity. He added that homosexuals should feel that they have a place in the Jewish community. Temple Sinai and the Reform movement, he said, are dedicated to this notion.

David-Seth Kirshner, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said that whatever people do in private should remain private. Adler agreed, and went further: “If someone desecrates the Sabbath, that doesn’t mean that he has no right to be active in the Jewish community.”

Kirshner said that he had enjoyed the hour’s talk he had with Adler at an earlier date and was pleased to see in how many areas they agreed. He suggested that North Jersey rabbis from the different streams of Judaism communicate with one another more often and that there should be one board of rabbis from all the streams. At present, Orthodox rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis belong to the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey introduced the session, co-sponsored by UJA-NNJ and the Kaplen JCC. The moderator was Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University. Two more rabbinic forums are scheduled, one at the YM-YWHA in Wayne and the other at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township.

 
 

Teaneck’s Beth Am to close its doors

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Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld, president Sheldon Burnston, and treasurer Barry Dounn reminisce about their years at Temple Beth Am, which will close its doors in June. Josh Lipowsky

When the members of Cong. Beth Am gathered at the Teaneck synagogue earlier this month for a Chanukah party, their cheer was dampened by the knowledge that this would be their last Chanukah celebration as a congregation.

Faced with dwindling membership and income, the leaders of the almost-50-year-old Reform synagogue first announced in May that the shul would close when its building appeared in a “For sale” listing on the Teaneck shul’s listserv. The plan had been to court four area Reform synagogues and pick one to merge with. After a series of meetings and visits in the past few months, however, the congregation was divided. And so, when Beth Am closes its doors for the last time in June, its 35 member-families will go different ways, with just more than half going to Temple Sinai in Tenafly, a large number joining Temple Emeth in Teaneck, and a handful joining Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia. Synagogue leaders are working to smooth the transition and divide Beth Am’s religious texts and other items.

“They’ve all been very welcoming, very kind,” said Beth Am president Sheldon Burnston. “There have been other mergers in the past. We’ve tried to learn from other people’s experiences. We want to make this as pleasant as possible and as painless as possible.”

Burnston plans to join Temple Emeth and bring with him some of Beth Am’s programming, such as weekly visits to Teaneck’s Brightside nursing facility. Beth Am’s board members have been discussing closing for years, Burnston said. They looked for other options but found none.

“It hurts,” Burnston said. “I’m biting the bullet. I’m doing what needs to be done, but it’s with a heavy heart.”

Beth Am is a second home, said Barry Dounn, the synagogue’s treasurer, who has been a member for 22 years.

“We’re looking back and looking forward at the same time, celebrating our history here and looking forward to becoming members in our new homes,” he said.

Beth Am was founded in Hackensack in 1964. Two years later, the congregation bought the Claremont Avenue building from Grace Lutheran Church, which was moving to River Road. At its height, the synagogue had about 140 families and was an early career stop for Rabbi Marc Gellman of TV’s God Squad.

Beth Am’s confirmation and b’nai mitzvah portraits will be copied and given to Emeth and Sinai, Burnston said. The synagogue has three Torahs, one of which is a Holocaust scroll on loan from the Westminster Archive in Great Britain. Adas Emuno does not have a Holocaust scroll of its own, and Burnston has submitted paperwork for Beth Am’s scroll to be transferred there. Other items, such as the synagogue’s ner tamid and ark, are being apportioned between the synagogues.

“Packing up and moving is never an easy proposition,” Dounn said. “Many of us have been here 20-plus years. It’s the end of an era.”

Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld, who has been with Beth Am for 14 years, does not yet know what the future holds for him. He has a background in social work and has worked as a Hillel director as well.

“I’ve done lots of things and I don’t feel like stopping doing them,” he said. “I’ve got some energy left and I’m hopeful some employment will emerge.”

Despite the uncertainty of his own future, Rosenfeld praised his congregants for how they are handling the transition. “We’ve known this is coming and it’s sad, but it’s also a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a weight that’s heavy but it’s also very exciting to a certain degree to watch my congregation deal with these issues and confront them in a gracious way.”

Members of Temple Emeth and Temple Sinai are eager to greet their new members, according to their rabbis.

“Any time a synagogue closes it’s a sad thing,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai. “It’s very clear how much they love their congregation; the people who are there have been so dedicated.”

Sinai is not just getting a boost in membership, Millstein said. The members coming from Beth Am have proven themselves to be dedicated to synagogue life, he said.

“Here we’re getting people who have such a sense of what it means to be a real community, who have really dedicated themselves to the synagogue, to know what it means to be there for each other,” he said. “These are not just people who are going to join, these are people who are going to be leaders and part of the fabric of the synagogue.”

 
 

L’Taken makes students part of the legislative process

Some 250 high school students from across the country will gather at the Religious Action Center’s Washington headquarters this weekend for the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar for High School Students.

Students are scheduled to arrive in Washington this afternoon and will spend the weekend learning about domestic issues like poverty and separation of church and state and global issues like genocide and climate change. The teens will then spend Monday lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill.

“Students really do make a connection between their Jewish values and their responsibilities as citizens and understanding that Judaism isn’t something that just happens in synagogue or religious school,” said Barbara Weinstein, RAC legislative director. “Its values can be applied in all aspects of their lives. From the most basic choice, from ‘Do I leave the water on when I brush my teeth?’ to stopping genocide in Darfur, each of these things are things Jewish values can guide us on.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, took the L’Taken seminar when he was in high school. About 16 10th-and 11th-graders from Temple Sinai will join with about 15 students from the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism for this weekend’s L’Taken.

“I would argue it is the premier Jewish leadership development program in the country,” said Millstein, who will join the group. “The kids get to experience being part of a larger Jewish community, getting energized, and to actually have their own voices heard.”

“By Monday morning this group of ragtag teenagers [will] end up looking so mature and have gained so much self-confidence because they’re able to present in a strong way where they stand on any particular issue,” said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It’s inspiring to be a part of the democratic process,” she added. “On the individual level they feel their voices do count, and it’s a real experience.”

For more information on the RAC’s L’Taken weekends, visit www.ac.org/confprog/ltaken/.

 
 
 
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