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entries tagged with: Rabbi Randall Mark

 

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.

 
 

Englewood begins Jewish hospice program

Though it only began on Oct. 1, half a dozen Jewish patients in the last stages of terminal illness already have benefited from Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s Jewish Community Hospice Program.

“For many years, we’ve provided a full range of medical and related services in our traditional hospice program,” said Ann Walter, executive director for continuing care. “Now, our hospice staff includes members of the Jewish community, helping to ensure that Jewish traditions and laws will be upheld and respected, both at home and in patient care.”

The Jewish Community Hospice team — a physician, a registered nurse, a medical social worker, a hospice aide, a trained volunteer, and a Jewish chaplain — work with the hospital’s Jewish community liaison, Rachel Dube.

The goal of hospice care is to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life for people whose life expectancy is six months or less. Dube explained that observant Jews require rabbinic guidance on end-of-life issues such as cessation of feeding and hydration, levels of pain medication, and the definition of death, among other critical decisions.

Though existing North Jersey hospices are generally accommodating of these concerns, only two programs in the state are listed as accredited on the Website of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice — one in Cranford, the other in Livingston — by virtue of having completed specialized training. In 2002, the NIJH granted accreditation to Paramus-based Life Source to set up a Jewish hospice program. However, that program folded after just six months.

“Hospice is underutilized nationally and in the Jewish community as well,” Dube acknowledged. “But it is such a helpful option for families at a difficult time and could change the whole experience for them in a truly positive way. In a Jewish program, the rabbi makes sure families receive services that recognize and align with their specific needs and customs.”

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Jewish Community Hospice chaplain Rabbi Nathan Langer and Rachel Dube, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s Jewish community liaison. courtesy Englewood Hospital and Medical Center

As part of the hospital’s effort to publicize this service, both the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis recently received presentations on the new program.

“We invited them so that we could learn more to be able to share information with our congregants,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the NJBR and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne. “Their name was somewhat confusing to us in that we had thought they would be a community-wide program, but they are restricted to Bergen County by New Jersey regulations. While the program currently only exists through Englewood Hospital, it is the hope of the rabbis that other hospitals will follow suit.”

Patricia Ballerini, patient-care director at the Englewood Hospital hospice for the past 26 years, told The Jewish Standard she was long convinced of a need for such a program, given the county’s large Jewish population.

“We always had a [gentile] spiritual counselor serving all our clients,” she said, “but now we have brought on Rabbi Nathan Langer, who is credentialed in hospice care and has been well received by Jewish patients. He can work with the patient’s rabbi or directly with the patient.”

She added that many Jewish clients are Holocaust survivors. “In the end stage of life, this brings up a lot of past memories and a great many issues that our chaplain would not have been able to discuss as well as Rabbi Langer can,” she said. “He’s been a tremendous help in resolving a lot of their issues.”

In order to serve patients who cannot be cared for at home, Englewood Hospital’s hospice is contracted with most nursing facilities in Bergen County, including the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. Ballerini had frequently discussed the idea of a Jewish-specific program with the home’s president, Charles Berkowitz, and with Alan Musicant, manager of Gutterman and Musicant Jewish Funeral Directors and Wien & Wien Memorial Chapels. “Finally we all sat down and decided to take on the project,” she said.

Musicant said that more than 30 percent of the families served by his chapel have been touched by hospice in some way. “Almost to the person, we hear that the family wished they had been introduced to hospice much sooner, because it had not only provided specialized care to a patient who was not responsive to curative care, but also to a secondary issue of being responsive to the strain on the family caregiver,” said Musicant, who called the Jewish Community Hospice Program “the most amazing thing I’ve been involved with in a long time.”

Musicant stressed the importance of a Jewish environment for Jews nearing the end of their lives as a way to maintain or rekindle their religiosity and “provide the spiritual dignity that enhances the quality of life in terminally ill patients.”

“Hospice is about promoting life, and that’s the same for all patients,” said Ballerini. “We do everything we can to enhance the time they have left.” She cited the example of one patient who was helped to realize her dream of going to Aruba before she died. “It’s about making the best of it, with comfort and dignity, on your terms.”

For more information on the Jewish Community Hospice Program or to learn about becoming a hospice volunteer, call Judith Stampfl, hospice volunteer coordinator, at (201) 894-3333.

 
 

Rabbis offer ‘full menu’ of Jewish studies

Members of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis will offer a full menu of Jewish study opportunities at the inaugural “Sweet Tastes of Torah: A Community Night of Learning,” Feb. 6 at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road in Teaneck. Music and munchies also are on the bill.

“At a recent meeting, we were discussing the state of adult education in the community,” said NJBR President Rabbi Randall Mark of Wayne. Recently, regional learning initiatives including the Jewish Learning Project at the YJCC in Washington Township lost their funding.

“We thought we should do something broadly based,” said Mark. “Being a collection of pulpit rabbis, and having human — but not financial — resources, we thought of a one-night event to make use of those resources.”

Responding enthusiastically to a committee headed by Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, nearly 30 of the organization’s members and their congregations signed on.

Mark, who leads Shomrei Torah, the Wayne Conservative Congregation, is to lecture on divisions within Judaism, challenging participants to judge whether internal discord is a source of strength or weakness. Shull will lead a session entitled “Is Barbie Jewish?” a look at beauty and American Jewish identity in the 21st century based on the short award-winning documentary “The Tribe.”

The Reform and Conservative pulpit rabbis who largely comprise the NJBR talked up the [event] and created a buzz, said Mark, who expected many preregistrants before the Feb. 1 deadline. Advance registration costs $10; admission at the door will be $18. Sweet Tastes of Torah even has a Facebook and Twitter presence.

“We have more than 25 classes being taught by members of the NJBR, and topics range from the serious to the not-so-serious,” said Nickie Falk, project coordinator. “This will give congregants from various synagogues the opportunity to learn from rabbis other than their own.”

A concurrent session is planned for elementary school-aged children, who will be admitted free of charge. “That will help us reach a broader segment of the community,” said Shull. “It was important to us that this event would have a cultural and social aspect as well.”

The planning committee included the members of Shull’s own weekly study group: Rabbi David Bockman, formerly rabbi of the Bergenfield Jewish Center; Rabbi Leanna Moritt of Tenafly, who runs an outreach project for intermarried couples; and Rabbi Gerald Friedman of Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge.

“It is important for us to convey to the community that we’re excited about this one-time event,” he said, “but our hope is to inspire study throughout the year.” Based on evaluations of the upcoming program, the committee hopes to offer ongoing initiatives.

Registration begins at 6:15 p.m. Sessions are to commence following havdalah at 6:50. Desserts afterward are to be provided by Kosher.com, a co-sponsor of the event along with the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. The evening will conclude with a performance by Migdal Oz, a Jewish funk, rock, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues band.

To view the full program and register, click “Sweet Tastes of Torah” at the UJA-NNJ site, www.ujannj.org. The rain date is Feb. 20.

 
 

That’s a wrap!

Men’s groups to promote tefillin at World Wide Wrap

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A US Airways pilot redirected his plane last month because the crew didn’t recognize the two black boxes a passenger was wrapping around his head and arm.

The young passenger was fulfilling the Jewish ritual of tefillin. Unaware of the significance of the holy objects, the crew reacted with suspicion. A recent e-mail sent around to Jewish men’s clubs after the incident showed an image of a young man wearing tefillin superimposed over an airplane and asked how readers would respond if they had to explain the ritual to the flight crew.

“It’s one of those traditions that looks weird and feels strange, and so there’s a fairly high barrier to overcome to get people to experience it,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne.

Thousands of men around the world will experience the mitzvah of tefillin on Sunday when the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs holds the 10th annual World Wide Wrap. More than 175 men’s clubs, representing thousands of people, are signed up for the event.

“It’s a fundamental form of prayer, which is very different than the normative prayer that everyone thinks about,” said Eric Weis, president of the Northern New Jersey region of the FJMC and a member of Shomrei Torah. “It’s nonverbal. It’s a physical way of relating to God.”

Mark, who is the spiritual adviser to the FJMC’s Northern New Jersey region, said the event gives men the opportunity to perform the mitzvah together and not feel out of place. He likened the experience to seeing a football player in full uniform. Such a sight would be normal in a football stadium, he said, but appear strange in a setting like a supermarket. The Wrap encourages learning about tefillin within the synagogue environment, he said.

“The men’s club understands that often men will do things collectively they may not be inclined to do individually,” he said.

At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, the seventh-grade Sunday school class will participate in the Wrap with the Sunday morning minyan. Tefillin are traditionally worn by men, but men and women will be invited to participate. In addition to putting on tefillin, students will peek inside a “non-kosher” set that has been opened up.

“It creates an awareness so our students know what [tefillin] are,” said Rabbi Sharon Litwin, Temple Israel’s education director. “In the Conservative movement, most people come on Shabbat morning [when tefillin aren’t worn]. This is an opportunity for people to see what they look like, how they’re worn, what’s inside them.”

To help educate children, Ira Ungar, chair of the FJMC’s tri-state region in Pittsburgh and one of the Wrap’s co-chairs, created the build-a-pair program, which distributes kits for children to make and decorate their own (non-kosher) tefillin. The sets make kids comfortable with tefillin, Weis said.

“They have fun doing it,” Ungar said.

While the Orthodox world has maintained the mitzvah, the non-Orthodox world has forgotten about it, Weis said. He credited Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the FJMC, for bringing tefillin back into Conservative practice.

“This is a Jewish mitzvah, it’s not an Orthodox mitzvah,” Weis said. “It’s a Jewish practice that went out of fashion, but we’re bringing it back.”

The US airways incident became “a teachable moment,” Mark said and gave a boost to FJMC’s efforts to raise the profile of tefillin.

“It raises the whole issue that Jews at a minimum should know what tefillin are and everybody else should have some idea,” said David Millman, of the Brandeis Men’s Club at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. Millman is also the correspondence secretary for the Northern New Jersey region of the FJMC.

Ungar created the e-mail challenging some 7,000 men’s club members on how they would react if they saw someone putting on tefillin on a plane.

“The idea is to educate Jewish men as to the significance of putting on tefillin and hopefully if ever faced with a similar situation, they’ll know what to do,” he said.

For more information and a list of participating men’s clubs, visit www.worldwidewrap.org.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: The communal response

The general feeling among North Jersey Israelis following Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza last week is one of disappointment, said Tenafly resident Udy Kashkash — disappointment in the world’s reaction and disappointment in how Israel has been treated in the media.

Despite world condemnation, though, 49 percent of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla were to blame for the resulting deaths, according to a Rasmussen Reports national survey released on Monday. Just 19 percent of those polled thought Israelis were to blame, while 32 percent were not sure.

Within the local Israeli community, though, there is a feeling that Israel is being unfairly castigated, said Kashkash, a member of the Israeli Club at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Israel’s taking all the precautions [during the flotilla raid] and even putting soldiers at risk — and after all that, who do they criticize? Israel,” he said.

Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, agreed that there is a sense of shock in the local Israeli and Jewish communities in reaction to the world’s response. Unlike last year’s Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza and 2006’s Second Lebanon War, no physical threat spurred Israel’s actions but rather a perceived threat. This, Levy said, has become a focus of his outreach.

“It wasn’t like suicide bombers or katyushas coming over to Israel from Gaza. It was going to be something that could threaten Israelis, and Israel does have a legitimate right protected by international law to put a maritime blockade around Gaza.”

The federation has been taking out ads in local media and sending e-blasts with talking points.

“What we hope to do as Israel activists is really get the message out in the community about the real facts on the ground,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

She recommended people write op-eds and letters to their local newspapers, as well as monitor local media for inaccuracies.

The Jewish community is largely playing defense now, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

“What’s troubling and frustrating for many defenders of Israel is that the flotilla incident will be viewed without much-needed context and critical pieces of information,” he said. “The tragedy of the deaths overshadows the facts of the circumstances that led to them. Critics of Israel will omit the part about Hamas and the effort to blame Israel in all of this.”

The ADL has not seen any spikes in anti-Semitic incidents around the state, Neuer said, but the organization does expect some backlash.

“We have noticed a rise in the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere,” he said. “The incident fueled many of Israel’s fiercest critics and provided them with the ammunition they needed to demonize Israel.”

Neuer cautioned every Jewish organization to review its security protocols in light of recent events. The organization has not received any threats as of yet, he said, but security reviews are always a good idea.

“It’s critical for the leadership of Jewish institutions to always be vigilant and especially so when the political temperature rises in the Middle East,” he said.

Many local rabbis addressed the flotilla incident during their sermons this past Shabbat, connecting the perspective of the world to that of the spies in the Torah reading who reported that Israel was full of giants and the Israelites should turn around.

“All 12 of the scouts came back with factual information about the land, but what made the reports pejorative was that everyone’s report was colored by their own perspective and expectation,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “When you have Joshua and Caleb going out with faith in themselves and faith in God, they see the challenges as obstacles to be overcome but within their capability.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, is heartened by the Rasmussen Reports poll, but said the American Jewish community needs to continue its efforts to promote Israel’s side of the affair.

“The rush to condemn Israel seems to have become more contagious from Israel’s usual slate of adversaries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” said the Ridgewood resident. “It’s reached those nations that in recent times had better relations with Israel. That’s worrisome.”

Cole urged support of Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.

“Weaponry has been brought into Gaza through the tunnels and other surreptitious means,” he said. “Weakening the blockade means ever-deadlier missiles and more powerful weapons could be delivered.”

Israel’s allies have been active on Facebook and in organizing rallies around New York City. One rally, sponsored by Amcha and several other pro-Israel groups, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon outside the Israeli consulate in New York. Kashkash appreciates such efforts but still wants to see more from the American political arena.

“We need our largest ally to be fully behind us,” Kashkash said. “What we hear coming from the White House is not something very strong and very stable.”

“As more information becomes common knowledge, the world will see that Israel acted correctly,” said Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood Cliffs-based Israel lobby NORPAC, “and this group that created unnecessary violence on the flotilla and unnecessary deaths instigated the incident and Israel will be fully vindicated.”

 
 

What do we do when we disagree?

Wedding announcement controversy leads to communal soul-searching

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The viral controversy surrounding The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement last month — and then deciding, one week later, not to do it again — caught publisher James Janoff off guard.

“I expected that there would be people who agreed and people who didn’t,” he said, “but I was unprepared for the volume, and passion, of the responses.”

“Maybe I was naïve,” said Janoff, who noted that while the paper has weathered many storms throughout its 80-year history, he has never seen one of this intensity.

But exactly what transpired, and what it means for the community, depends on who you ask.

Avi Smolen, who grew up in Ridgewood and whose same-sex wedding announcement appeared on Sept. 24, said he, too, was surprised by the barrage of media coverage the issue has received.

“We (Smolen and his partner, Justin Rosen) submitted our announcement to share the simcha with the community and we were happy it was published,” he said. “The follow-up decision not to publish (other announcements) was frustrating, and somehow the greater media picked up on the story and it has been everywhere in the news. We didn’t expect this.”

Smolen, communications and development associate at Keren Or Inc., Greater New York, said he didn’t really think much about submitting the announcement “because it was so accepted in our community; we didn’t think it was a big deal.”

He noted that recent communal meetings to discuss the ongoing controversy are of value, but said that members of the gay community should be invited.

It’s important, he said, “so that they can be part of the conversation and so it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There needs to be frank and open discussions so people can share their concerns and feelings.” In addition, he said, meetings should be “less about rhetoric and more about problem-solving.”

Smolen suggested that the strength of the uproar was at least partially a matter of timing.

“The previous two weeks, there were a number of suicides by young gay people that got attention, and that was a counterpoint to the announcement about celebrating our union. People really connected those two incidents and thought it was important to speak out.”

He said he can respect the position of those who do not support same-sex wedding announcements, but noted that he “does not agree with tactics to prevent them from being seen. In a way it’s comical,” he said. “The desire to marginalize [the issue] has made it larger than ever.”

“In a sense, I’m glad that this has occurred and I hope people will continue to talk about this,” he said. Being “pushed out of their comfort zone” may prompt diverse groups to deal with the issues and find a solution.

“I hope they will recognize that people with different beliefs and practices exist, and find a way to grow and unite.”

Looking back at what has occurred over the past several weeks, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and first vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said, “The problem emerged when the Standard underestimated the importance and sensitivity of this issue to the Orthodox community.”

Goldin telephoned the Standard following publication of the wedding announcement to “alert [the newspaper] to those sensitivities.” Janoff recalled that the rabbi said he had been in touch with Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Following several calls, the Standard printed a statement saying it would not publish such announcements in the future. Rebecca Boroson, the Standard’s editor, characterized the conversations with Goldin — in which the editors, publisher, and associate publisher took part — as “intense.” “He repeatedly told us that the paper had caused pain in the Orthodox community,” she added, “and that we had ‘crossed a red line.’”

The backlash resulting from the Standard’s about-face goes beyond the current controversy, said Goldin.

“The Orthodox community is involved in an ongoing struggle to determine how to live with the tension between two fundamental principles that have to guide our approach to the gay community,” Goldin said.

On one hand, the movement seeks to “respect all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation,” recognizing in particular “the personal struggles of those who belong to the gay community and want to continue identifying as committed Jews.”

On the other hand, the Orthodox movement must maintain “its allegiance to Torah law, which strongly prohibits same-sex unions.”

Goldin spoke of “the overwhelming animosity and resentment displayed toward the Orthodox community and rabbinate of Bergen County in particular” in the aftermath of the announcement.

“Gross misrepresentations have been accepted as fact,” he said. “The fact is that the RCBC had no official response” to the incident. “To say that the group threatened organized activity is an outright lie.”

He suggested as well that the issue of homosexuality “has become the civil rights issue of the era.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has issues and red lines,” he said. “I sometimes feel that because the Orthodox position is not the automatically popular position in the society in which we find ourselves — it’s easier to argue for inclusiveness than for certain limits — in a knee-jerk fashion the Orthodox are judged in a negative way without giving credence to our right to hold our positions.”

Susie Charendoff, who belongs to an Orthodox congregation in Englewood and has been a participant in recent discussions, said the most troubling aspect of the recent events was that in declaring that it would cease running same-sex announcements — citing offense to the Orthodox community — the Standard “only recognized the pain of one community on an issue that is sensitive across the board.”

“I think the Orthodox community is more complex than [the way] it is often characterized,” she said, highlighting the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” circulated this summer and signed by more than 100 Orthodox leaders.

Written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot — who has just become rabbi of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom and is chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — the piece was widely hailed as a progressive document within the movement.

“It was really a thoughtful piece on the part of the Orthodox community,” said Charendoff. “It attempted to be as welcoming as possible to same-sex couples despite the fact that [same-sex marriage] is antithetical to the Orthodox position. It reached out as far as it could within that framework.”

Charendoff said the “content and tone of that document is a voice that needs to be heard in the current discussion. While it doesn’t solve the issue, it changes the tenor of what’s going on. I’m disturbed by the assumption that the Orthodox don’t recognize the complexity of this issue.”

Describing the communal flap as “a controversy that is testing the boundaries of pluralism and inclusiveness within the Bergen County Jewish community,” Rabbi Adina Lewittes, religious leader of Sha’ar Communities, said the country is seeing a “ruthless physical, political, and social backlash” against the gay and lesbian community.

Lewittes — who describes her organization as “a suburban network of small, inclusive, and accessible Jewish communities connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance” — said that, given media reports about gay youths who committed suicide or were physically attacked, the paper “should have had the foresight and courage to respond to the resistance of the Orthodox in a way that sends the message that there is a home for everyone in the Jewish community.”

Still, she added, “the fundamental issue here is a matter of journalistic process and integrity…. Many people do not see this as a complicated issue or something needing conflict resolution.”

Front and center, she said, “is the flip-flopping” by the Standard “and the privileging of one group over another. This is a clear breach of journalistic responsibility, particularly given the self-stated goals of [the paper].”

The best-case scenario, she said, would be for the Standard “to acknowledge that it failed to adhere to its mission and steer itself back on course.”

Noting the mission of her own organization, “to enter Judaism through multiple gateways,” Lewittes said community dialogue will be useful only to the extent that it “acknowledges the many lenses through which different Jewish communities look at both Judaism and the broader world in which they live and what the different relationships between the two look like.”

She decried “tying your own legitimacy and integrity to what someone else might believe or think. We don’t need to achieve consensus,” she said. “Sure, it would be great,” but all parties to a discussion would inevitably want their positions to be adopted.

“To achieve consensus on matters of halachah or politics is not the goal here,” she said. “If anything, we have such a rich heritage because of the diversity” that has characterized the community. “What’s needed is an environment of respect for multiple understandings” of Judaism.

Lewittes added that those who call for pluralism also need to be wary of denying the presence of any particular community.

“We need to be inclusive of all voices,” she said, even those with whom we disagree.

Lewittes said that with respect to community process and lasting lessons, we should heed the words of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a seminal figure in modern Orthodoxy. “Rav Soloveitchik’s insight on how kedushah/holiness is found not in the neat and tidy resolutions to conflict but in the very paradox of the often conflicting and contradictory elements of our makeup, is most relevant,” she noted. “Our ability to hold together the different and disparate pieces of who we are as a community in a singular, pluralistic embrace is what will transform us into a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and is what we might model to other communities facing similar struggles.”

Rabbi David J. Fine believes strongly in the power of dialogue.

The religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood — the Smolens’ synagogue and the shul in which the gay couple celebrated one of their two aufrufs — said it would be an “easy out” to conclude that we are not one Jewish community but rather several disparate groups.

“Dialogue is one of the essences of how we do Judaism,” he said. “We learn from rabbinic tradition to honor and respect views we don’t agree with, to have a respectful discourse. We can only be one by listening to each other.”

Acknowledging that “tensions are coming to the boiling point,” Fine said the wedding announcement controversy has simply highlighted fissures in the community, particularly the fault line between the Conservative and modern Orthodox movements.

“We’re much more similar than we pretend to be,” said Fine, adding that both movements “look over their shoulder” when making halachic decisions.

“We’re the only two groups who believe that we have a place in the modern world but [adhere] to a normative halachic tradition,” he said. “It’s so hard to acknowledge sharing that space with the other,” he added. “It’s threatening because we’re so similar.”

Fine said the current flap is about much more than the wedding announcement.

“It’s about our own identities and who we are,” he said. “We’re not just arguing a specific issue but our specific identity.”

The rabbi said that not only is talking to one another “the only way to understand each other, but I determine how I articulate where I’m coming from by talking to someone who doesn’t agree with me.”

This is something every rabbi deals with, he said, noting, “We don’t want to preach to the choir.”

Fine said he doesn’t know why rabbis get so excited about the issue of gay marriage.

“Gay and lesbian Jews are just like everyone else,” he said. “Their private lives are different, but I don’t know why it animates people so much. Part of it may be generational.” He added that the position is likely to change as same-sex couples become more accepted in the wider society.

“The real issue is Jewish identity and questions of authenticity and different forms of Judaism, between liberal and traditional Judaism,” he said, pointing out that this division was apparent in the diaspora uproar over the Rotem bill — which proposed giving the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield has discussed the announcement controversy with people from many different communities “and their responses involve total incredulousness — the inability to grasp how in 2010 a small segment of the Jewish community can exert so much influence over a paper about something that so many people consider a normative thing in Jewish life — the inclusion of the LGBT community.”

Greenfield, religious leader of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, pointed out that Monday was National Coming Out Day, created to raise awareness, end discrimination against the LGBT community, and encourage LGBT people to be proud of who they are.

“It’s much wider than a newspaper issue,” she said. “It’s about how Jews and all of the institutions that represent us make decisions about who’s in and who’s out.”

“[Being LGBT] is a non-issue from my community’s perspective,” she said, calling opposition to same-sex wedding announcements “a retrograde perspective on contemporary life. Most of the Jews I work with already live in a context where they have one foot in tradition and one foot in contemporary life.”

“Being a Jew today is about drawing from both [contexts],” she said. “LGBT inclusion is not a problem of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ influences, but about integrating religious life with contemporary times.”

Greenfield said the issue of gay equality is not a “hot-button” topic from the perspective of most Jews. She noted also a distinction between Torah laws concerning issues such as kashrut and adultery and those pertaining to “human beings created in the image of God.”

“The distinction is that this issue is about human beings and their inherent nature. At the heart of the matter, it’s not about a behavior, or a sin, or a choice. That’s why it is not as black and white” as issues such as advertising events that take place on Shabbat.

The rabbi said that if there were firm commitments on both sides to have regular meetings “in which to learn about and from each other,” in the long term the different groups would come to better understand one another.

“No one has a strong hold on what constitutes legitimate Jewish identity,” she said. “Jewish identity is continually evolving. [It] has always changed and adapted within the various civilizations where Jews have lived. It’s not a matter of religious purity versus secular deviance.”

Greenfield said people gain respect through human contact rather than through antipathy expressed in the media.

“It’s impossible to overvalue the importance of human interaction,” she said. “We want to welcome Orthodox leaders into the circle.”

The rabbi suggested a possible “trade.”

Ideally, she said, “I would have all non-Orthodox Jewish leaders commit to condemning Orthodox-bashing in exchange for the Orthodox understanding that they are not the sole arbiters of authentic Judaism.”

Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Shomrei Torah in Wayne and head of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, to which no Orthodox rabbis belong, said the community rift is not a secret, nor is it unique to northern New Jersey.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last decade is that rabbinical groups rarely sit together anymore. There are times and places where the two communities easily coexist, but sometimes they bump up against each other.”

Mark did note that during his first year as president of the NJBR, he has had several conversations with the RCBC’s Rothwachs.

“The two of us were cognizant of the fact that our rabbinic communities are diverse, and we felt it important at least to have the ability to communicate,” he said. “My hope has always been to find places of agreement and ultimately work together.”

The NJBR president said that homosexuality in religious life is one of the most difficult social issues of the day for American religious communities.

“Religious groups have a long history of intolerance” on this issue, he said.

He suggested that strong feelings have resulted from the fact that the matter “deals with people and not just issues and because in issues concerning human sexuality, people will often react on an emotional level.”

He noted as well that the issue transcends the newspaper because “The Jewish Standard strives to be a community newspaper … and we are a very diverse community.”

“Any constituent group has the right to respond” to something with which he or she disagrees, he added, suggesting that appropriate responses include letter-writing and/or requesting meetings with the leadership of the paper.

“I’m pleased that they’re willing to sit down and listen,” he said of the Standard staff, which recently participated in a meeting of rabbis and communal leaders. The gathering, held last Thursday at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, was hosted by the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and was devoted specifically to the controversy.

“The newspaper, as an independent entity, has the editorial freedom to decide what it will or will not include,” said Mark. “Ultimately, people will decide if they’re happy or unhappy.”

Other Voices

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, wants to use the current conflict as a teachable moment.

“I want to convene a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Forum to continue the discussion about how we, as a diverse Jewish community, can learn to live together and work better together,” said Borovitz following last week’s meeting in Closter.

The rabbi said he believes firmly in the principle of a free press and expects the Standard to decide how it will respond “to all the simchas in our community,” with the hope that the paper will be “sensitive, responsive, and supportive of the diversity that exists in our northern New Jersey Jewish community.”

He noted other instances where the paper had provided equal access to conflicting views.

“When I disagreed with [Standard columnist Rabbi Shmuley] Boteach on the settlement issue, the Standard graciously gave me op-ed space to respond,” he said. “I believe the paper should be a forum for the free and open exchange of ideas, concerns, and information for our broad community.”

Borovitz said he hopes the forum will be a place where opinions “are put on the table,” even if they are not necessarily resolved. “We can agree to be civil in disagreements,” he said.

Charles Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Home Family, affirmed the “right and responsibility of a newspaper to publish news.”

“If you make a decision to put in no simchas,” that’s one thing, he said. “But to decide to put them in for only a certain segment of the community is wrong, regardless of which segment it is.”

Berkowitz said “some of the bright people in the community should sit down and begin to talk about issues we need to deal with, and not put our heads in the sand. No one should impose their will on others.”

He noted, however, that sometimes firm decisions must be made. For example, his organization — which embraces the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living; the Jewish Home Assisted Living, Kaplen Family Senior Residence; the Jewish Home Foundation of North Jersey Inc.; and the Jewish Home & Rehabilitation Center — does not allow people to bring in food from other than accepted vendors to maintain the level of kashrut.

“Some would prefer not to have that,” he said. “But it’s important for people of all religious beliefs to feel welcome here.”

Berkowitz said the fact that he is a social worker is a big help.

“We deal with the issues head on and face to face,” he said. “You don’t sit down in front of cameras but do it quietly and talk to each other.”

Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, said that since the Standard sees itself as the “paper of record for the Jewish community,” the current controversy should be dealt with by the whole community.

“When we face complicated issues, open exchange and dialogue is very helpful,” he said. “Not all parties will agree with all positions, but [when] active listening is happening and points of view are shared, then mutual respect is possible.”

Charish said that the next step, as he understands it, is that “before any further decisions are made,” there will be a series of discussions involving the JCRC, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, rabbis, and other interested parties.

“To me, that is a critical step,” he said.

As executive director of the Kaplen JCC, Avi Lewinson is “surprised and not surprised” that the announcement controversy became so heated.

“It wouldn’t have reached that level if there hadn’t been a retraction so soon after,” he said. While he believes that the Standard’s intentions were good, “they acted too quickly and people felt the paper was taking sides. That fueled the fire.”

Lewinson said that while the JCC has faced differences of opinions — for example, over whether to remain open on Shabbat — the facility, which is closed on Saturday, has never experienced “a firestorm of this size.”

The JCC director pointed out that times do change, and cited the racial discrimination rampant in the 1960s.

“I’m appreciative of the gains we’ve made,” he said, adding that, “personally, I think we should sit down with representatives of different viewpoints and start with the premise that everyone is coming with deeply held beliefs based on principle.” Still, he said, “The goal can’t be that, in the end, you’re in or out 100 percent.”

Lewinson said the community needs to strive for shalom bayit (literally, peace in the home), finding a compromise that will allow both sides to feel that their views have been acknlowledged.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” he said, “but maybe one possibility is not to use the word ‘marriage’ in a same-sex announcement but rather to use the term ‘commitment ceremony.’ The question is, ‘What can we do to find a way so we each feel we’re being heard and our principles and values are being considered?’”

Regarding the controversy, Lewinson said there have been “misquotes on both sides.” Still, he said, he is an eternal optimist and is convinced that the issue will be resolved.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” said Lewinson, who has called the JCRC offering the JCC as a resource for community forums. He noted that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the New York City-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote a book called “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right.” “We’re all part of the Jewish people,” Lewinson said, “and it is important for us to be able to sit and listen to each other with respect.”

For his part, Janoff knows that he has a lot of listening to do. In a statement published on Oct. 8, he wrote that the paper now understands “that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.”

As a result, he said, he is now engaged in meeting with local rabbis and community leaders, understanding that the exchange of views is necessary before the paper issues its final decision.

Wrote Janoff: “We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”

 
 

Rabbis will headline Y series

Ten area rabbis to offer views on a ‘meaningful life’

Last year, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey offered a series of lectures delivered by seven area rabbis.

“It was so well-received, we wanted to offer it again,” said Cheryl Wylen, the Y’s cultural arts director. “It’s wonderful having different rabbis in the community teach here. Each congregation publicizes it, and for each program we get a good percentage [of attendees] from that rabbi’s congregation as well as those who come for the full series.”

Last year, each rabbi selected his or her own topic, said Wylen. This year, each of the 10 participating rabbis has been invited to choose a subject related to a common theme, “Towards a Meaningful Life.” That theme, she said, was based on a suggestion by Rabbi Michael Gurkov of Wayne’s Chabad Center of Passaic County. The lecture series will begin on Thursday, April 14.

“When you have rabbis working together, it brings more to the program than everyone doing their own thing,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Shomrei Torah in Wayne and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is co-sponsoring the series.

He recalled that several years ago, he and Rabbi Stephen Wylen, of Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah, teamed up with Rabbi Chaim Listfield — who formerly led a congregation in New Jersey — to offer “The Three Rabbis” educational forum.

“On three consecutive Tuesday nights we did a lecture series on a theme,” he said, explaining that the rabbis took turns hosting. “One hosted, another spoke,” he said. “Cheryl [Wylen] said she’d like to bring the Y in on this.”

Mark said all of the rabbis in the Y’s catchment area were invited to participate in the upcoming series. In addition to Mark himself, those who signed on include (in order of presentation) Rabbis Baruch Zeilicovich (Temple Beth Sholom, Fair Lawn), David Saltzman (Lakeland Hills Jewish Center, Wanaque), Ken Emert (Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff), Wylen, Gurkov, David Bockman (Cong. Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes), Joshua Cohen (Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes), Ellen Bernhardt (Gerrard Berman Day School, Oakland), and Elyse Frishman (Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes).

Discussion topics range from tzedakah to dealing with pain, loss, and suffering.

Mark, who will explore how text study can enhance someone’s life, said the topic “coincides nicely with what I’ve tried to do at synagogue — help my contemporary American Jewish congregants see that there is actually value and meaning in the study of Jewish texts. We can read the ancient rabbis and pull out lessons applicable to life today.”

What he may do, he said, is follow a text though the rabbinic tradition, seeing how it plays out in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and codes.

Wylen, who has selected as his topic “The Five Questions They Will Ask You at the Gates of Heaven,” said that “one of the enduring legends that exists in nearly every culture is that when our life comes to an end, we have to explain ourselves and justify our existence at the gateway to the next world.”

He noted that the talmudic version of this legend is that there are five questions we are asked at the gates of heaven. During his presentation on May 5, “We will ask those five questions and see how they apply to our own lives. Hopefully, this will give each of us direction to discover the sacred meaning of our own existence.”

Bockman — who plays the trumpet — said he will explore how music adds meaning to our lives, using both music itself and teachings from traditional Jewish texts. While his first choice, he said, would have been to focus on prayer, the two topics are not dissimilar.

He said, “We can look at music in three ways: production, or making music; experiencing the music; and the music itself, the form of the music.” While making and listening to music “are not necessarily religious experiences,” he said, in some contexts “they can be understood as analogous to religious experiences.”

Whether music “becomes religious,” he said, “has to do with the group of people who are producing it and listening to it.”

For further information about the series, call (973) 595-0100, ext. 228.

 
 

Re-evaluating how dollars are spent

Federation puts some education programs on hold

A decision to suspend three long-running programs for area Jewish educators has left the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) on the defensive, but it may have helped spark greater cooperation on educational issues among the community’s rabbis.

Jason Shames, the federation’s chief executive officer, said the programs, which already had been scheduled, are “on hiatus” for the year. The programs were two conferences, one for early childhood educators and one for Hebrew school teachers, and an ongoing forum that gathered together day school principals every few weeks. The resources that would have paid for these programs are instead being used to evaluate the programs and goals of the federation’s Jewish Educational Services (JES) division.

“We don’t have enough bandwidth staff-wise to parallel everything we’re doing while undergoing a process to identify the priority areas,” Shames told The Jewish Standard.

“The core of JES remains the same,” said Shames, pointing to the federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program and the projects JES undertakes with the day schools. “Jewish education remains a priority.”

Shames pointed to a soon-to-be-announced grant in the $30,000 range to Jewish day schools to support collaborative professional development for teachers. This grant is part of the shift toward grant-based allocations called for by the federation’s strategic plan adopted last year.

Professional development had been the primary focus for JES, which prior to the global financial crisis had a staff of 11, several of them paid for by outside grants. Now it has a staff of two. Organizationally, the staffers are being reassigned to JFNNJ’s Synagogue Life Initiative (SLI).

Shames said the evaluation of JES is part of the process of moving federation’s operations in line with the goals and strategies called for by the strategic plan, which “gave this community a new mission. It talks about the federation providing added value and leadership to the community. It called for goals and objectives that meet that mission. The JES has not been put to the litmus test in terms of our strategic plan.”

Hence, he said, the need for the evaluation. “The needs of our community are far outpacing the entire communal effort to address them, so we need to focus on the federation’s priority areas,” he said.

Initial news of the federation’s retrenchment in educational programming, however, was poorly received by the area’s rabbinic leadership.

The North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR), which is mainly composed of the area’s non-Orthodox rabbis, had begun discussions about working together to enhance Jewish education when it learned of the changes at JES.

Some of the initial concerns the rabbis had were somewhat alleviated following conversations with Shames.

“There are some of us who are unhappy with the decision to reallocate the education dollars this year for the study,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, the current NJBR president. “There are others who have an issue with the process as opposed to the content: Tell us what you’re doing and why, not just that you’re doing it.”

He said that the rabbis understood the motivation for the hiatus. “All of us want the federation to spend wisely,” Mark said. “We acknowledge the need for them to ensure the dollars they receive go for the best possible use. Stopping to take a look is not a bad idea.”

Word of the hiatus at JES came as the rabbis were embarking on their own venture into promoting Jewish education. The group decided to put time and effort into that, and several volunteered to join a committee on the issue.

“We’re going to make this a larger part of our efforts, to work with federation, and to advocate for a broader community involvement in supporting Jewish education,” said Rabbi Benjamin Shull. The rabbi, who leads Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, will assume the NJBR presidency later this month.

The group has been discussing what they as rabbis can do to address “significant changes” in the Jewish educational landscape, among them “some shrinking of the institutions,” Shull said.

“If we need new models and broader representation and support for Jewish education — and I think we do — we should be having some rabbinic voice in trying to bring the broader community together. There’s an overall sense that our community is too fragmented, our educational institutions are working in their own areas, and there’s not enough discussion of collaboration.

 
 
 
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