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entries tagged with: Rabbi Larry Rothwachs

 

Community comes together to bury holy objects

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, two organizations that have not had much to do with each other, have dug up a reason to come together.

Together with the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the RCBC and NJBR are co-sponsoring the Genizah Project, a ceremonial burial of holy objects at the JCC on Oct. 18. With renovations continuing around the JCC, Rabbi Steve Golden, its Judaic director, approached the rabbinical bodies in June with the idea of creating a communal burial plot.

According to Jewish law, sacred objects that contain God’s name, shemot, and can no longer be used, must be disposed of in a respectful way. Such items include damaged or faded Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefillin, and prayer books.

“When they are essentially used up and no longer functional,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the NJBR and spiritual leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, “rather than throwing them away, because they are holy objects, we bury them as a sign of respect.”

While the project provides a practical resource to the community, Mark hopes to use the occasion more for education about an aspect of Judaism that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

“Genizah” can refer either to the storage space in a synagogue for such items before they are buried or to the actual burial space. Some funeral homes accept religious items, which are then buried next to coffins, with the permission of the deceased person’s family. In ancient times, Jewish communities would designate specific rooms or other locations for storage, and the papers would disintegrate in the dry climate of the Middle East. When Jews moved to less-arid Europe, burial became the modus operandi.

Perhaps the most famous genizah is in Cairo, where almost 200,000 Jewish manuscript fragments were found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Jacob Saphir first discovered the genizah in the mid 1800s, while Solomon Schechter is credited for bringing its contents to the attention of the scholarly community later that century.

In addition to the JCC, 17 organizations — including The Moriah School, The Frisch School, and an assortment of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues, as well as UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey — will share the 2,800 cubic feet at the JCC genizah. Each group has been asked to contribute $150 to help cover the costs of the burial. Organizers have not yet decided if the spot will be marked once it is covered over, but, Golden said, the genizah is located in an area that should not be disturbed.

The entirety of the plot has been allocated to the registered organizations, so individuals with shemot no longer in use must go through one of those groups.

The RCBC, which represents all of Bergen County’s Orthodox rabbis, and the NJBR, which represents mostly Conservative and Reform rabbis in Bergen and Wayne, last came together on the issue of cemetery costs, uniting with the New York Board of Rabbis and UJA-NNJ to lobby for decreasing the high cost of burials in New Jersey. The two groups typically have little contact with each other.

The respectful disposal of religious items, however, is an issue that transcends denomination, Golden said. As they praised the entire community for coming together for the project, the leaders of the NJBR and RCBC appeared hopeful that cooperation between their organizations would continue.

“I am especially proud that these two rabbinic groups have embraced this opportunity,” said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the RCBC and spiritual leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. “It is especially inspiring that we have found a common ground by highlighting the special sanctity and immutability of Torah and our collective commitment to insure its preservation.”

“We see this as the beginning steps,” Mark said. “Hopefully this will work out smoothly and we can find other places to work together for the benefit of the community.”

For more information on the Oct. 18 ceremony, call the JCC at (201) 569-7900.

 
 

Give more charity dollars to local causes: RCBC

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is urging community members to refocus their charitable giving on local causes.

The RCBC sent a letter to local Orthodox rabbis last month citing passages in the Shulchan Aruch that charity begins at home and that “the primary responsibility of tzedakah is to support the needs of our closest neighbors first.” The directive, said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, RCBC president and religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, is in response to the growing needs within the community.

“We want to make sure that we are prioritizing properly in terms of communal allocation of charity funds,” he said. “People need to be reminded that charity begins at home. That is a halachic idea and a secular concept.”

A year ago, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York, addressed the community about the importance of local giving and suggested that about 75 percent of contributions go to area charities and institutions. The RCBC letter emphasized that figure as a guideline for communal giving.

“We need to guarantee the future of our own community and the future of our schools,” Rothwachs said. “We’re not looking to shortchange anyone; we’re just trying to be responsive to the reality we’re facing.”

The letter, which RCBC rabbis have been sharing with their congregations, is meant to reinforce that concept, Rothwachs said. It is not, he emphasized, a declaration in support of any specific charities over others.

“People know what the local needs are,” he said. “If they have any questions about which local needs take priority, they should consult with their local rabbi for guidance.”

With a Jewish population of more than 100,000 and more than 180 Jewish organizations, according to Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Bergen County residents have been known for their Israel activism and giving to the Jewish state. Rothwachs said the RCBC would like to see that continue, but “there are times in life when people have to make choices and when there is a limited amount of resources to go around, people deserve the guidance on how to prioritize.”

“We hope that Israel will not lose,” he continued. “Our community’s been generous to [the state] in the past and we hope that generosity will continue. But we can’t ignore the realities we’re facing here.”

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the gateway to many area charities such as Jewish Family Service and Bonim Builders, recognized two years ago that the economic crisis had hit locally, and charitable priorities had to be readjusted, said executive vice president Howard Charish. The organization shifted its allocations last year to 63 percent local distribution and 37 percent overseas. In its fiscal year 2011 budget, which was just finalized, the federation lowered the local allocations to 62 percent.

“Unquestionably there is a need at this time for more resources locally,” he said. “The UJA feels its mandate is to help Jews everywhere.”

Charish said UJA-NNJ is a partner with RCBC in the spirit of the letter of reaching out to vulnerable local Jews.

“We have not turned a corner by any means here in the community,” he said.

He pointed, however, to increased requests for aid from agencies helping Jews in the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Israel.

“There is a tremendous need overseas,” he said. “It hasn’t relented. It’s almost a perfect storm with the crisis here at home as well as significant needs in Israel and around the world.”

Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, religious leader of Cong. Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and treasurer of the RCBC, has forwarded the letter to members of his congregation and has often spoken on the subject.

“Since the needs of the community are pressing,” he said, “it’s important to reinforce our values that the community comes first.”

The communal directive has no definitive end date and depends on local economics, according to Schiowitz.

“If things are fine, then we can focus charity elsewhere,” he said.

 
 

Kosher restaurants put ethical standards on the menu

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Kosher diners are starting to think about what goes on behind the counters where they eat, according to the Orthodox ethics organization Uri L’Tzedek. Three Bergen County restaurants have thus far signed up for the organization’s year-old ethical kashrut seal and a fourth will be announced later this month.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, then a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., founded Uri L’Tzedek in 2007. The organization unveiled the Tav HaYosher — the ethical seal — last year to reward businesses that recognize what its Website refers to as “The right to fair pay. The right to fair time. The right to a safe work environment.”

So far, 39 restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have signed up.

“It’s the next wave of 21st-century Jewish activism,” Yanklowitz said. “The simple act of a consumer choosing where to buy a sandwich is a matter of Jewish ethics. The act is so easy and the effect is so meaningful.”

Locally, Teaneck’s Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s Café and the frozen yogurt retailer 16 Handles at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus have signed up for the certification. A third Teaneck restaurant is expected to be announced next week, Yanklowitz said, adding he could not disclose any further details of its identity.

In addition to the businesses that have received its certification, Yanklowitz said Uri L’Tzedek has received commitments from synagogues, federations, schools, and other organizations and individuals to patronize only restaurants that have the seal. The recognition also sends a message to the non-Jewish community that watched the Agriprocessors scandal unfold in the media, he said.

“Many consumers have become disillusioned by the ethics of the kosher community,” Yanklowitz said. “By upholding the name yashrut, ethics, it expands the kosher clientele.”

When a restaurant signs up, a Tav Yosher compliance officer — one of some 60 volunteers — reviews the business’s payroll and other records and speaks privately with the employees. These inspectors are trained to review business ledgers and fluent in other languages to better communicate with non-English-speaking workers. The inspectors then return every two to three months to check the books and interview employees. The certification is free to businesses.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which oversees the kosher supervision of most of the area’s kosher restaurants, would allow restaurants to make their own decisions regarding the seal, said its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. Rothwachs declined further comment until he could learn more about the certification.

Calls to the manager of the 16 Handles Paramus branch, which received the Tav HaYosher last week, were not returned. The 16 Handles in Manhattan also carries the certification.

Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, told this newspaper that the community was outraged by ethical violations uncovered in recent years and wanted reassurance about local establishments.

“We’ve always felt we want our restaurants to be on a level where everyone feels comfortable,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to have an additional agency supervising an aspect we feel is important.”

Neither of his Teaneck restaurants nor his Manhattan Noah’s Ark restaurant, which also carries the certification, had to make any changes before Uri L’Tzedek awarded the Tav Yosher, he said. After the certificate appeared in his stores’ windows, however, customers began thanking the management, he added.

“They want to see people here locally are following the rules,” he said.

The Jewish community as a whole reacted very responsibly following the Agri fallout and has overcome the challenges it presented, he said.

“As long as we can move forward and do something constructive with the information that we have, we become better people,” Sokolow said. “It’s an evolution.”

 
 

Bringing down the house: Beth Aaron expanion ‘long overdue’

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Photos from http://www.bethaaron.org

With several mighty blows of a backhoe, the house next to Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck was razed last week, launching the long awaited expansion project of the synagogue at 950 Queen Anne Road.

The $2.4 million project calls for a larger lobby, a new multi-purpose room, a new teen minyan space, and additional youth department rooms.

The multi-purpose room will provide more functional space for lectures, community events and social programming, such as the Shabbat morning kiddush, said Larry Kahn, co-chair of the expansion committee. The new youth department rooms, located on the lower level, will accommodate the increasing number of children attending groups on Shabbat and holidays.

The construction will also add 65 seats to the main sanctuary, restoring 35 seats that were lost roughly nine years ago when the synagogue bought permanent pews and adding 30 seats on top of that, Kahn said.

Construction — scheduled to begin in the next few weeks by the Ridgewood-based firm Visbeen Construction — is expected to conclude late next spring.

The house, which Beth Aaron had owned, had been rented by Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, who has moved to the north side of Teaneck.

With a roster of some 300 member-families, the expansion of Beth Aaron’s building —which hasn’t been updated since 1986 — is long overdue, congregants say.

Pews at Shabbat services are often packed, and several minyanim need to be held simultaneously to accommodate everyone. The Shabbat morning kiddush draws overflow crowds and members have lamented for years about the cramped party room where it’s difficult to host a sizeable brit breakfast or bar/bat mitzvah luncheon.

Parents have also grumbled about the challenge of running youth groups for children on Shabbat and holiday mornings when the classroom space is inadequate for all the grades.

Indeed, said Rabbi Lawrence Rothwachs, it is not easy to serve the needs of everyone in the congregation in the current building. “This project will enhance our shul in numerous ways and allow us to serve all our members from the very young to old…. We’re extremely excited about the expansion. We are hopeful that this will be the beginning of another wonderful chapter in the history of our beit knesset.”

Synagogue President Larry Shafier said the new facility will allow us to “better serve our members and guests by providing for concurrent and additional prayer opportunities, classes, children, teen and youth programming, and an enhanced and more meaningful experience for everyone.”

Plans for the expansion were first introduced to the Orthodox synagogue in 1999. The project lay dormant for a number of years and was reactivated in 2006 after Rothwachs arrived at the shul.

Some congregants initially voted against the expansion, citing concerns about its high cost in a turbulent economy. But now, many of its critics have become staunch supporters of the project.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the amount and number of donations, especially in an uncertain economy, and we’re now running ahead of projections,” said Allen Friedman, co-chair of the expansion committee. “All of this indicates to us the importance the kehilla [the community] attaches to the project.”

The donations cover close to half of the project cost. But the synagogue still continues to collect more on its website. http://www.bethaaron.org., Friedman said.

“If we want a kehilla that will continue to be warm and to flourish, we need a building that let’s that happen.”

When the plan was initially proposed to the townshp, some neighbors expressed concern that an expanded building would bring more noise and parking woes to the neighborhood. But after they were invited to spend an evening at the synagogue to review the plans, they were won over, said Kahn. The township’s board of adjustment voted unanimously in favor of the project in 2009.

Beth Aaron was established in 1972 by Rabbi Meir Gottesman in a home on West Englewood Avenue at a time when many young people felt disenfranchised with their parents’ establishment synagogues, recalls longtime member and founder Mollie Fisch. Gottesman aimed to create a congregation that would attract young people who were rebelling against their parents and joining cults or running off to the Far East, she said. A Merrison Avenue family offered its basement in 1972 as a place for the congregation to meet and, years later, Dr. Stuart Littwin offered his home on Queen Anne Road, which eventually became the site for the existing synagogue building.

Although the expansion comes with hefty bills for members, Kahn says it has been met mostly with eager anticipation. “Many people are enthusiastic about the shul beginning a new chapter in its existence,” he said. “They’re looking forward to more opportunity for social interaction as well as spiritual growth in a setting that is conducive for that.”

 
 
 
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