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entries tagged with: Rabbi Lawrence Zierler


Jewish Center of Teaneck embraces Orthodoxy

After decades of labeling itself as traditional, the Jewish Center of Teaneck has defined itself as an Orthodox synagogue.

Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck might not have been surprised to get a letter earlier this month announcing that the venerable shul will “define” itself as Orthodox.

An identity crisis had been brewing for more than a year, as the shul sought to stem a fall-off of members in an increasingly Orthodox community.

According to the letter, dated Feb. 5 and signed by the Center’s president Eva Lynn Gans and Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, the board of trustees had participated in a series of retreats during the past five months in order to discuss the future of the center. On Jan. 10, the board decided to define the center as Orthodox, while also maintaining its traditional minyan.

“It’s a recognition of who we are,” said Wallace Greene, the Center’s executive director, on Tuesday. “[The board] felt it was very important to make this statement and perhaps look at options in moving in a different way.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler

Zierler and Gans were in Israel this week and could not be reached for comment.

The redefinition will have no effect on the center’s operations, Greene continued, nor will the synagogue affiliate with any Orthodox organization, such as the Rabbinical Council of America or Yeshiva University. The move is merely a recognition of what the center has already become, he said.

In June 2007 a mechitza was added to daily services in the Feldman Chapel and Zierler began the Orthodox Hallel V’Zimrah Shabbat minyan in October 2007, which runs concurrent with the center’s traditional minyan. That minyan has mixed seating, but women do not read from the Torah. It also uses an Orthodox prayerbook. The only difference between the traditional minyan and Hallel V’Zimrah, according to Greene, is the mechitza.

The new definition might, he added, help attract new members.

“The reality is that the demographics of the community are decidedly Orthodox and the center recognizes that,” he said.

Not including Chabad, 11 of the 16 synagogues in Teaneck listed in The Jewish Standard’s Guide to Jewish Life identified as Orthodox. The Jewish Center identified itself as Orthodox and Traditional.

According to the letter, the center’s leadership intends to hold parlor meetings next month to explain how the board reached its decision and hear members’ questions and concerns.

“There are people who are very comfortable with the way things are and some individuals who would not like to see any change,” Greene said. “The center has to look at different directions to attract younger people.”

The change hasn’t elicited raves from all of the center’s members. Milton Bornstein, a lifetime trustee, led a campaign last year with a group calling itself “Concerned Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck” to bring Zierler’s contract renewal to a general membership vote. The group protested what it called the sidelining of the synagogue’s traditional service, which they blamed on Zierler. In the end, the rabbi’s contract was renewed.

Now that the synagogue has defined itself as Orthodox, Bornstein said, “I believe it’s the dream of Rabbi Zierler but not necessarily the dream of the people of the synagogue. I believe a change like that should go to the membership [for a vote], which wasn’t done.”

The Jewish Center once boasted more than 1,200 member-families and a Hebrew school with more than 200 children. Bornstein, who joined the center in 1963, predicted that within a few years it would run out of money and people. Several people, he said, had already told him that the letter had prompted a decision not to return.

“It’s unfortunate the synagogue is going this route,” he said.

But Greene maintained that the center’s members “are now comfortable in stating who they are. The future will determine how much further they’re willing to move in that direction.”


Local lawyer expands burn network to Haiti

Sam Davis, right, and Dr. Tom Bojko are pictured with Presume and Roselyn DeHart at the For Haiti with Love burn clinic.

To most people, the January earthquake in Haiti had no connection to burn injuries – after all, it was not a fire. But the connection made sense to Sam Davis. The Teaneck-based attorney, founding director of Burn Advocates Network, helps equip and staff 22 burn camps and centers throughout the United States and one in Israel.

“A lot of our work is dedicated to helping burn survivors, so we did research and found out that because the standard [Haitian] method of cooking is using hibachis, hundreds of kids were burned when hibachi stoves went flying into the air with hot oil in them,” said Davis. “And kids with even minor burns were dying from infection because there was no supply chain for medicines and no facility left standing that was doing skin grafting; the biggest burn facility in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed.”

That left only a three-treatment table burn clinic called For Haiti with Love, founded 40 years ago by a Jewish man from Indianapolis and run by his adopted daughter, Haitian nurse Roselyn DeHart, and her husband Presume, a police officer. Its building sports a large Star of David on its façade.

“You would have a mother carrying a sick child for 70 miles, getting rides where she could, because this was the only place to get free care for burns,” said Davis. “Parents and children started essentially camping out and overwhelming this little facility.”

Ironically, DeHart’s dad had arranged spina bifida surgery for her many years ago at a Shriners Children’s Hospital, and — through Davis — Shriners surgeons, therapists, and dieticians are now helping DeHart treat burn survivors in Haiti.

Davis stumbled upon the clinic in March, while he was running a general BAN relief drive for Haiti. Through the generosity of the Israeli-owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, BAN and Cooper University Hospital in Camden shipped close to 50 tons of food and medical supplies out of Bayonne to the Royal Caribbean port in Labadee, North Haiti. Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck came to Bayonne with a check from his congregation to help defray costs.

“Our slogan was ‘From the dock to the doctor in six days,’” said Davis, a member of Temple Beth El in Closter.

That was not an easy goal to meet. Because the Haitian airport was shut down, he hopped on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, got off at Labadee to receive the first shipment, and escorted the goods over treacherous mountain passes with the help of a Nepalese U.N. convoy. Along the way, Davis discovered For Haiti with Love just five miles from Labadee in Cap Haitien, and mounted an effort to staff and stock the facility.

Though he had intended to focus on burn victims, Davis could not ignore other medical needs he witnessed at Cap Haitien’s Justinian University Hospital. “It was swamped with earthquake cases and badly needed equipment and physical therapy help because they didn’t have a PT capability to tend to all the amputees,” he said.

Securing permission from the Haiti Ministry of Health to start a physical and occupational therapy clinic at Justinian, Davis returned with Jim Ressler of Medical Angels and Premier Home Health Care in Fort Lee; Karen Canellos, a licensed physical therapist from Englewood Hospital and Medical Center; and Dr. Thomas Bojko, an Israeli pediatric specialist from Tenafly who is director of medical services and clinical operations at Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Among their self-appointed tasks was training a crop of local therapists.

At the April 27 dedication of the facility, presided over by a Catholic priest, Davis and his team wore clothing bearing the logo of BAN’s Israeli burn camp. “They knew we were Jewish,” he said. “As a result of the Israeli field hospital, the entire country has a favorable view of Jews and Israel and many people expressed that to us.”

BAN also arranged for Royal Caribbean to bring over a new $155,000 life-saving oxygen processor from Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck to the Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot, and recruited a team of burn surgeons from Shriners hospitals, therapists from Weill Cornell Medical Center, and doctors from all around the country who belong to the American Burn Association.

“We are committed to taking the burn care system in Haiti to a point where they’re able to do skin grafting and care for more serious cases,” he said. “We will see how we can coordinate care offered by small satellite clinics like For Haiti with Love. With a little more education and supplies, they could save more lives.”

Davis likened the current standard of care in Haiti to “Civil War medicine,” citing many cases of patients undergoing amputations without anesthesia. “They use coconut and herbal paste on burn wounds, which is not going to keep patients alive for long once infection sets in,” he said. “We’re still raising funds and finding volunteers to keep antibiotics and bandages and medical equipment flowing to a place where burn cases often take years of care. The biggest challenge right now for those burned in the earthquakes is to get scar surgeries, because their hands and feet can start to claw.”

Davis pledged to secure kosher food for any Jewish volunteers who come forward.

Ressler wrote in his blog that the Sacre Coeur Hospital is expected to become the national facility for serious burn cases. “The catchment area would extend the 70 miles to Port-au-Prince and beyond.... It is our goal to enable For Haiti with Love patients who require a higher level of care or surgeries to get that care at [Sacre Coeur] and return to FHWL for wound aftercare.”

Davis is convinced that additional burn injuries are inevitable. “The next big disaster in Port-au-Prince will be a burn disaster because thousands are living in tent cities in close proximity and they’re cooking and storing fuels there,” Davis predicted. “When this disaster hits, there will need to be an expanded capability to deal with the injuries. Hopefully through this program at Sacre Coeur, there will rotations of clinicians and educators. It will not be an American style burn center, but it will offer a more organized system to save more lives given the resources they have.”

For information, go to or call (877)-BURN-411.


What’s a Jewish paper all about?


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.”


New group for the not-yet-married

‘West of the Hudson’ to encourage mingling, personal development

At a recent community meeting at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, Josh Lipowsky, communications specialist at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and a former associate editor of this newspaper, stood up and complained about the lack of singles activities in the township.

“They were discussing Upper West Side synagogues reinventing themselves to reach out to a singles population,” Lipowsky recalled. “I stood up and said, ‘There’s a singles community here in Teaneck and there is nothing for us. We all go to different synagogues because no one synagogue is making a home for us.’”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, religious leader of the Jewish Center, took Lipowsky’s point.

“I thought, ‘You’re absolutely right,’” Zierler recalled in a recent interview with The Jewish Standard. “It is the responsibility of every synagogue to remember the not-yet-married, not only the families. You can get so caught up in lifecycle events that you forget” about the younger population, he said.

Who: West of the Hudson, a young Jewish professionals’ group based in Teaneck

What: Screening of Israeli sitcom episodes

When: Monday, June 20, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Jewish Center of Teaneck

Information: West of the Hudson on Facebook or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

To woo the not-yet-marrieds and address their concerns, Zierler has overseen the creation of a new social group in Teaneck.

Called “West of the Hudson,” the group — spearheaded by Lipowsky, 29, and Chaya Greenspan, 31, a pediatric occupational therapist — seeks to provide opportunities for young Jewish professionals to meet, mingle, and share experiences.

Its first event, a bonfire for L’ag B’omer, took place May 21 in the parking lot of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. About 40 young professionals turned out to celebrate the holiday by roasting kosher hotdogs and marshmallows supplied by Smokey Joe’s kosher barbecue restaurant on Cedar Lane.

“It was fun — there was socializing, there were hot dogs and marshmallows and pineapple at a little table by the fire, and another table with more food, sodas, and beer,” said Debra Segal, 22, a Teaneck resident who works in real estate in Manhattan. “I commend Josh for getting this together.”

For Zierler, the project is a way to serve the young, not-yet-married in the area and also to revitalize the Jewish Center, which will host the group.

“We are recreating ourselves,” he said. “A healthy synagogue has to express itself across the continuum of life, to look at the needs of not just … families with lifecycle events or people who are figuring out their lives beyond their working years, but to be a place the not-yet-married can develop those relationships.”

It’s also a great way to promote Teaneck, Zierler believes, which will in turn support the Jewish Center.

“We’d love to see people find their bashert [through the group], settle in Teaneck, and [retain] an affinity for the … Jewish Center because this is where it happened…. This is a community where you can hopefully come, meet your partner, and stay.”

That’s a perspective Segal says she can relate to.

“It’s really expensive to live in the city, and I have friends in Teaneck,” she said. “If there were more activities like this for people to meet and Teaneck were more of a scene like the Upper West Side … I would be more likely to stay here.”

While the group is geared toward young professionals in this area (hence its name), others are welcome and encouraged to come, according to Lipowsky.

“We are west of the Hudson River, but people from across the river are welcome also,” he said. “That we got 40-some people from all over Bergen County and even from New York at our first event shows there is a desire for this type of programming outside of the Upper West Side.”

Providing young people with opportunities to network is a Jewish religious imperative, Zierler believes.

“Social networking was spoken of by the rabbis — when you are rooted in a network, a community, and everyone knows someone, it’s social capital,” he said. “A friend has a friend who has a friend. Membership has its benefits when you exist in association.”

The group has a Facebook page, West of the Hudson, that boasts nearly 250 members and lists upcoming events.

For its next event, on Monday at the Jewish Center, members will screen “Srugim,” an Israeli sitcom about modern Orthodox singles in Jerusalem.

The sitcom’s storylines reflect the fact that “there are lots of similarities between Israelis and American singles,” according to Greenspan. She added that, while “all dietary and Shabbat rules are observed,” the group welcomes Jewish singles in their 20s and 30s regardless of affiliation. Some of the group’s members were drawn from a listserv Greenspan and a friend maintained to organize activities like Shabbat meals and Superbowl parties. Activities such as candle-making and beer-brewing are being discussed as possibilities for future events, she said.

Just don’t call it a singles group.

“We are not trying to create another singles scene or organization,” Greenspan. “We are not trying to marry anyone off, either. We are trying to support people’s personal development, whether they are married, divorced, or single. Friendships are just as important as romantic connection.”


Teaneck Jewish Center votes to install mechitza

Board said shul faced choice between Orthodoxy or dissolution

The Jewish Center of Teaneck voted Tuesday night to install a mechitza in its main sanctuary to separate men from women, completing the synagogue’s long transition from Conservative to Orthodox.

The vote was 79 to 38 in favor, just more than the two-thirds supermajority required. This was one more vote against the change than a similar measure drew in January, but 20 more votes in favor.

The measure was strongly urged by the shul’s board, which said that it confronted a choice between Orthodoxy and closing down.

“The town of Teaneck is Orthodox,” Arthur Freiman told the congregation on behalf of the board. “We must make the change given the changing population of Teaneck,” he said.

He also noted that in 2010 18 members died, while eight new members joined who were affiliated with the synagogue’s longstanding Orthodox minyan. The Orthodox minyan draws more members than the traditional minyan, according to the synagogue’s president, Eva Lynn Gans.

When the mechitza is installed, the congregation will have only one service on Shabbat and holidays. An additional service with mixed seating will be held for the High Holidays.

“It will take some time to implement,” Gans said of the change. “We need to think about how we handle it to make people comfortable.”

Gans said she first came to the synagogue as a child, 60 years ago. At its peak, the congregation had 1,400 families.

“We want to be known as an extremely welcoming synagogue,” she said. “Everyone is welcome regardless of their personal belief and how they observe.”

For Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, the vote culminated a process that began when he was hired five years ago with the understanding that he would work to make the synagogue Orthodox.

“It was probably a good five years before that that the discussion began,” he
said. “Change is not easy.”

Zierler said that he was moved by an argument made by one opponent of the change about not wanting to be separated at services from a spouse with Alzheimer’s.

“The challenge will be for us to recognize who is in shul with us,” he said, and to focus on their needs, not just on the prayers.

Zierler and Gans said they hoped that now that the synagogue is fully Orthodox, participants in other programs at the Jewish Center will consider becoming members.

“I don’t think every member has to daven with us,” said Zierler. “Membership is defined by any number of different encounters with the institution.”

Zierler said he strongly believed in the “Jewish center” model of the synagogue, which has also been referred to as “a shul with a pool.”

“It’s like Abraham’s tent, which was open to all directions. The non-transcendent can transform into something transcendent. I have people in leadership here who first became involved in the basketball league.”

Besides its gym and swim programs, Zierler is hoping to create an afterschool homework center.

“You need a demographic that spans the ages,” said Zierler. “You need the energy of youth and the experience of age.”


Screening Jewish genes

More information, more choices, more ethical dilemmas


As new couples prepare to start their families, they can access genetic information at their fingertips. The Android phone has an application called Genetic Disorders, documenting 118 genetic diseases. A new iPhone “app” called GeneScreen provides the carrier frequency of 28 specific genetic disorders. It also provides an ancestry map showing which genetic disorders are more commonly found in different regions of the world. These expanded resources provide more information and more choices for couples; but these choices also lead to more ethical quandaries.

“I was in a situation where my husband and I were carriers, and we had an affected child,” said Shari Ungerleider, of Wayne. After Shari and husband Jeffrey lost their son, Evan, age 4, to Tay-Sachs in 1998, she became an advocate for Jewish genetic testing, and now serves as co-president of the New York chapter of the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, and vice president of the national organization.

She also works for the Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium, which educates people on Jewish genetic disease screening. One of the programs they run, “Couples Aware,” is a training program for rabbis and cantors. Raising awareness of Jewish genetic testing is more important than ever as DNA technology now makes it possible to screen for up to 19 defects that occur in the Ashkenazi Jewish community, as well as hundreds of other genes found in the general population.

“There are more and more carrier tests for more and more disorders,” said Teaneck resident Peggy Cottrell, a genetic counselor at Holy Name Medical Center, also in Teaneck. “Genetic testing is getting cheaper and cheaper to do.” Genetics departments at New York University and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, as well as in other medical centers around the United States, have dramatically expanded the panel of Ashkenazi genetic tests they can perform. Thirty years ago, it was only possible to test and identify Tay-Sachs gene carriers. Ten years ago, there were four genetic tests commonly done; that was expanded to nine five years ago; today, it is possible to test up to 19 genetic disorders found in the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

“The tests are available not because Jews are more likely to get [the disorders], but because there’s a unique mutation in the Jewish population,” said Cottrell. “In all these cases, there’s a mutation that is common to Ashkenazi Jews, so it makes it easy to do the screening, and the test is relatively affordable.”

Most genes occur in pairs, so it is possible to be a carrier of one defective gene, yet not have the disease, since the second copy of that gene functions normally. However, if both parents have a defective copy of the same gene, there is a one-in-four chance that their child will inherit both defective copies and be afflicted with a genetic disorder or disease. Thus, many couples get tested to determine if they are both carriers of a specific genetic defect.

The first genetic tests developed using DNA technology detected gene variants that were found at a higher incidence in the Ashkenazi Jewish population compared to the general population. For instance, Gaucher disease Type I has a carrier frequency of one in 15 in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. The Tay-Sachs gene occurs in one in 25 Ashkenazi Jews, and one in 20 Ashkenazi Jews can carry the familial dysautonomia gene. Tests developed more recently, however, are for “genetic defects that are very obscure, so the carrier frequency can be low,” said Cottrell. Those diseases include Walker Warburg Syndrome, found in one out of 112 Ashkenazis, and Usher Syndrome Type I, occurring in one out of 165 Ashkenazi Jews. Those genetic diseases are not unique to Ashkenazis, and, in fact “can occur just as often in other populations,” added Cottrell.

Dr. Steven Schuss, a pediatrician in Teaneck, reported that he addresses the issue of testing with parents as well as teenage patients who are beginning to date. “I don’t see a downside in testing for recessive genes because the person who has the gene is unaffected and it’s important to know if you are a carrier.” Schuss tells his patients to “make sure this is something you’ve thought about.”

Schuss explained that some in the charedi [rigidly observant] community feel that being a genetic carrier carries a stigma. They developed a system through the Dor Yeshorim program that works well in a community where couples meet through a matchmaker. It involves genetic testing of young adults before they begin to date. Before being introduced, both individuals are tested genetically, and assigned numbers. “It has a lot to do with confidentiality….You just need to know if the boy and girl are compatible,” he said. “They just give you a yes or no. If there are two similar recessive genes in the two of them, they will call it a ‘no.’” On the other hand, he said, “someone may be positive for the CF [cystic fibrosis] gene and if the other partner is negative they will report it as a ‘go.’”

The key to the success of genetic testing programs is getting young people to be tested before they are in serious relationships, as that gives them the most options. “I can’t imagine anyone against genetic testing before pregnancy,” said Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, rabbi of Teaneck’s Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. “Every health insurance should cover it; it should be encouraged for all couples who are thinking of getting married.”

“In premarital counseling I discuss it,” he said. “When a couple discovers they are both carriers of a terrible disease, they have a difficult decision to make. It is a difficult discussion, but it is worth having the discussion before the woman gets pregnant.”

Dr. Efrat Meier-Ginsberg is an obstetrician/gynecologist who practices together with her father, Dr. Ronny Meier. Their Bergenfield office serves many Jewish patients in the Teaneck/Bergenfield area.

“I do recommend that testing be done,” said Meier-Ginsberg. “I give patients options. I tell them what tests are available.”

“I recommend it highly when they are dating and when they are engaged. Once they are pregnant, if they are a carrier, I recommend that the husband be tested, as well,” she said.

If both partners are found to carry the same recessive gene, there are tough choices to be made. “Even if they are dating, it doesn’t mean that they have to break up the relationship. They have the option of IVF and PGD,” said Meier-Ginsberg, referring to a couple’s option to conceive embryos by in vitro fertilization, i.e., by mixing the man’s sperm and the woman’s eggs in a petri dish. The embryos generated this way can be tested in the laboratory for genetic defects, and those found to be free of the defect can be chosen and implanted into the mother’s uterus. This permits the couple to have biological children free of that disease, without risking a pregnancy with an affected fetus and the difficult choices that might ensue.

When a couple discovers during pregnancy that both are carriers, they are faced with a daunting decision. “Regarding testing a pregnancy, different rabbis may give different advice,” said Schuss. “A couple should never make assumptions about the halachic p’sak [Jewish legal ruling]. Behind the scenes, abortions have been recommended. They may permit it, as mental health is health, too.”

“There’s always the question of the benefit, or the tyranny of knowledge,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. “We are going to find people faced with very difficult decisions.”

Zierler, who is rabbi of the newly Orthodox Jewish Center of Teaneck, also serves on ethics committees at Holy Name Medical Center, and chairs the ethics committee for the Hospice of New Jersey. Regarding genetic testing, he said, “They are going to have an awful lot of information. When you have information, what are you going to do with it? You need social supports.”

Zierler recommended that the community develop religious panels to guide individuals in these decisions. “The weight of these kinds of decisions should not rest on one rabbi alone. There are a certain number of rabbis who have the ability to digest and interpret the parameters of the science and the statistical information that people have to understand,” he said. He suggested that the yoetzet halachah [female advisor on Jewish family purity issues, a position found in some modern Orthodox synagogues] could be involved on such a panel. “Their role should be expanded to that,” he said. “It’s a logical place to begin.”

“Like it is with all good medicine, the modern Orthodox will want to have this testing,” said Zierler. “It’s good medicine to have an awareness, but what do you do with the information? There’s an element of psychotrauma that comes as a result of the information.”

“Dealing largely with a modern Orthodox congregation, many people make decisions independent of the rabbi,” said Zierler. “But rabbis can be very creative. We find solutions. No two situations are entirely the same; they have to be considered on their own merits.”


It’s official

Jewish Center of Teaneck completes rightward move with OU membership

The Jewish Center of Teaneck marks a milestone 80 years after its inception. Photos courtesy Jewish Center of Teaneck

When the Jewish Center of Teaneck began more than 80 years ago, Jews were not allowed to buy property in the blocks comprising the township’s former Phelps estate. A gentile had to front the transaction for the small group of synagogue pioneers.

Today, of course, Teaneck is one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the United States. And the formerly unaffiliated synagogue that started it all is formalizing another milestone in its history –—membership in the Orthodox Union — on Sunday evening at a banquet where the rabbi and his wife will be honored by the OU’s NCSY youth movement.

Rabbi Lawrence and Berni Zierler are to receive the Ezra Ben Zion Lightman Memorial Award in recognition of more than 30 years of Jewish communal service.

Rabbi Lawrence and Berni Zierler to be honored at banquet.

The rabbi told the Jewish Standard that the honor affords an opportunity to recognize his wife “as my partner in the work we’ve done to transform the synagogue. It’s an evening for the entire community.”

The couple came to the Center in 2006 as a move toward Orthodoxy already was in progress. “This was the mother congregation of Teaneck,” Rabbi Zierler said. He was ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1985.

In its heyday, the center had more than 1,000 member families and set the tone for Jewish life in town. That was particularly true after the 1953 arrival of its third rabbi, the late Judah Washer, sent by Yeshiva University to shore up Jewish life in Teaneck.

The fact that the sanctuary lacked a mechitza (the divider between men and women that signifies Orthodox worship) did not become an issue until Teaneck gradually became a magnet for modern Orthodox families and congregations.

“We were unaffiliated since the 1970s, after breaking with [the Conservative] United Synagogue,” Zierler said. “The center was a comfortable common place to meet the needs of the whole community. Eventually, understandably, people wanted something to fit the Orthodox model.”

In June 2011, a two-thirds majority of members voted in favor of installing a mechitza. The Jewish Center applied for affiliation with the OU in January 2012, Zierler said, “once the needs of the people who preferred a non-mechitza environment were resolved.”

About half of those 25 to 30 center members who voted against the mechitza ultimately opted to join a Conservative synagogue, while the rest remained.

“There was an organic transformation that was taking place,” said Zierler, who serves as the Jewish chaplain to the Teaneck Fire Department and president of the Teaneck Clergy Council. “We gave it time for people to get their bearings.”

Zierler stressed that though he feels OU membership is important for the community and the congregation, “we don’t want to forget the history of this shul. What’s been lost in the transformation is that at one time everyone davened under one roof though it was not perfect for everyone.”

It was the Jewish Center that donated a Torah scroll to the fledgling Congregation Bnai Yeshurun on the other side of town 50 years ago; Bnai Yeshurun now is Teaneck’s largest congregation. It was Washer who made such inroads as winning the right of Jewish physicians to practice at Holy Name Hospital, persuading the board of education to put the high holy days on the school vacation calendar, and gathering support to build the township’s mikvah, or ritual bath.

“Proud as we are of our community, it was built on the back of a lot of hard work,” Zierler said. The synagogue now has about 200 member families, some two dozen of whom have joined since the mechitza went up.

Ironically, the Zierlers are being honored by a teen movement at a time when the Jewish Center does not have many teenagers. “Our youth is mostly 2- and 3-year-olds in our Kinder Shul program,” the rabbi said. “We’re building from the bottom up.”

However, the Zierlers are longtime supporters of NCSY. Berni Zierler, nee Breen, was president of her NCSY chapter in St. Louis, later becoming a national advisor. Now a physician’s assistant, she was inducted into NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society in 1980 and has actively supported its work in raising scholarship money to help NCSYers continue their Jewish education after high school or attend NCSY summer programs.

“Berni Breen was marked for NCSY greatness at her first event as a 14-year-old,” said David Luchins, co-chairman of Sunday night’s event at the Sheraton New York. “As a chapter president and regional officer, she demonstrated the maturity and charisma that made her such an effective advisor, role model, and rebbetzin in the years that followed. The role she and Rabbi Larry have played in the Jewish Center of Teaneck’s historic transformation deserves our admiration and thanks.”

Berni Zierler reflected that her long history with NCSY instilled an appreciation for the work of the OU parent body.

“When we would go to national events we got to meet all the OU leaders,” she said. “They treated us not like children but like their next generation, making connections and relationships that have kept me in allegiance to the OU.”

Jewish Center President Sanford Hausler described Berni Zierler as a universally well-liked “strong right hand” of the rabbi and a respected woman in her own right for her communal and professional endeavors.

“It’s a great time for the center, with many opportunities to service the community. Under the religious guidance of Rabbi Zierler, we’re going to do very well,” Hausler said.

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