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entries tagged with: Rabbi Kenneth Emert


Another campus for BCHSJS

A lot of Jewish kids have never had a Jewish education, said Fred Nagler. He keeps hearing about 13-year-olds who decide after their b’nai mitzvahs that they’ve had their fill.

“Some parents don’t see the need to go past bar mitzvah education,” said the principal of Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “That’s unfortunate, because you leave your child at a very elementary level.”

For families looking for more Jewish education but not for day school, programs like BCHSJS can provide it. As the once-a-week Hebrew high school begins its 36th year, it is adding a third campus at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Nagler expects enrollment numbers to jump in the coming weeks.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Jewish teens to come together,” said Beth Rishon’s Rabbi Kenneth Emert.

Enrollment in the synagogue’s own post-b’nai mitzvah program had dwindled in recent years, which led Emert and the synagogue’s leadership to seek out BCHSJS. Beth Rishon’s leaders were eager to replicate the success they saw at the branch at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, now entering its third year. Three weeks into the new school year, the program has 35 students signed up for the Wyckoff campus, and Emert sees “potential from a great many more.”

“There’s a draw for these Jewish teenagers to come to a place where they can combine the continuing exploration of their Jewish identity with a social space,” said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, BCHSJS senior vice principal, who is heading up the new campus.

The school’s original Teaneck branch meets on Sundays at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls. The program doesn’t have confirmed numbers yet, but Nagler expects enrollment among all three campuses to reach about 300 for this year. He hopes the Wyckoff campus will draw new students from western Bergen and Passaic counties.

“There is a need,” Nagler said. “And people want it but for whatever reason they wouldn’t travel to Teaneck on Sundays. So we’re coming there, basically.”

Students enrolled at any of the three sites may attend part-time at other locations. Each semester each student takes three electives. The program also holds Shabbatons, trips, and other social programs that unite the students.

“All research shows that [these] years are the most important for Jewish teens to be involved,” Forman-Jacobi said. “These are the years they’re asking identity questions. Going forward it gives them a good foundation for when they go off to college.”

Since BCHSJS came to Temple Emanuel and took over its Hebrew high school program, the number of students has doubled, said Rabbi Ben Shull. He credited the program’s social and tikkun olam programs with integrating teenagers from the synagogue with those from around the area.

“We’ve been able to sell it to the kids because it’s a fuller program than what we were able to offer ourselves,” he said. “It’s really benefited them in lots of ways.”

With the cost of day school continuing to make headlines, one option that has been proposed is an intensive after-school Jewish education program.

“Families have to understand that … a Jewish education is very, very important,” Emert said.

Programs like BCHSJS are not a replacement for day school, he continued, but they are “an excellent option.”


Temple Beth Rishon saves thousands, wins award for going green

Beth Rishon youth decorated reusable water bottles during the synagogue’s barbecue Oct. 3. Mark Niederman

The colors of Judaism may be blue and white, but at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, it’s green.

GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group, honored Beth Rishon at its Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston because the Reform synagogue’s conservation efforts have saved it thousands of dollars by trimming electricity and gas usage. Beth Rishon was the first synagogue to join GreenFaith’s Certification Program, which GreenFaith created in 2008 to help houses of worship integrate environmental themes into their daily operations and outreach.

“In their efforts in that program they’ve just achieved some remarkable things,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s executive director. “They really are standard-bearers for the entire religious community in terms of integrating environmental leadership into their identity.”

The certification program now includes 27 congregations of various faiths, including 16 other synagogues. Another 20 to 25 are expected to join in December. Beth Rishon is set to complete the two-year program next year.

Winners of Temple Beth Rishon Watt$ Green Worth contest:

Congregant: Jeffrey Zenn
Clergy member: Rabbinical Intern Sandy Olshansky
Board member: Elena Greene
Under 17: 10-year-old Justin Pecore

“The certification program has given us the structure for our work and made us part of a bigger community,” said Harriett Sugarman, co-chair of T’Green Olam, Beth Rishon’s environmental committee.

Beth Rishon’s board began investigating going green in 2007 and soon after created T’Green Olam to oversee its green strategy. From March 2008 to February 2009, the synagogue reduced its electricity usage by 30 percent and natural gas usage by 16.8 percent. By the end of 2009, the synagogue had saved $16,554 from the same 10-month period the year before.

The synagogue is on schedule to match last year’s level of savings in 2010, said T’Green Olam co-chair Mark Niederman.

The synagogue did not spend a lot of money to implement its environmental changes, Niederman noted. Rather, it lowered the thermostat in areas that weren’t being used; moved small meetings out of large rooms to avoid excess air conditioning for short periods; shut down walk-in refrigeration except during catered events; moved mid-winter services out of the sanctuary and into the small ballroom; and balanced heat distribution among rooms that were too hot or too cold.

“The ways that we shaved our energy use really had to do with vigilance and common-sense approaches to ways we use the building and the way the building is kept when it’s not occupied,” Niederman said.

The T’Green Olam committee has also taken the message to the synagogue’s Hebrew school and general membership. Earlier this year, it held the “Watt$ Green Worth?” contest, which challenged congregants to estimate the synagogue’s annual savings based on charts of its energy usage in 2008 and 2009. Despite e-mails heralding Beth Rishon’s efforts, it was the contest that really drove home the synagogue’s savings accomplishment, Niederman said. That, he added, was a part of a lesson learned from GreenFaith’s program.

“The work you do is admirable, but you accomplish more through the ripple effects,” he said, noting that the committee created the contest to inform congregants, but when local media picked up the story other synagogues began calling for green advice.

“The leverage effect of what we did magnified the accomplishment by virtue of informing everybody,” he said.

Rabbi Kenneth Emert was quick to credit Sugarman and Niederman for leading the shul’s efforts.

“I am overjoyed by what they’ve done. We’re very proud,” he said. “All the clergy and the congregation owe them a debt of gratitude for taking this on.”

The rabbi pointed to Midrash Kohellet Rabah, “Be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it,” calling the midrash his congregation’s inspiration.

“That’s really why Jews and people of faith are involved in GreenFaith at all,” he said.

During its soiree GreenFaith also honored the New Jersey Black Ministers’ Council and Sister Kathleen Deignan, a graduate of GreenFaith’s fellowship program.

Niederman was hopeful that the recognition of Beth Rishon’s activities would spur other houses of worship to make similar changes.

“If someone takes notice that we saved a lot of money, a lot of energy, and that inspires somebody to take action, that’s as good it gets,” he said.

With elections less than a week away, Niederman pointed to environmentalism as an issue everybody can get behind. National security, reducing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and improving the environment fall out on a broad spectrum of ideals, but can all be tied together, he said.

“Energy conservation cuts across all those barriers and is something everybody should rally behind,” he said. “It’s above politics.”

From left, Mark Niederman, Temple Beth Rishon; Rev. Fletcher Harper, Greenfaith executive director; Rabbi Kenneth Emert; and Steven Blumenthal, GreenFaith board chair, at GreenFaith’s Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. Courtesy Michael Frenkel

For more information on GreenFaith’s Certification Program, visit


Rabbis’ forum: Patrilineal dispute no bar to civility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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