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entries tagged with: Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

 

Hudson County: A federation no-man’s-land?

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Moishe House in Hoboken holds meetings like this one to plan programming for Jewish young adults in the area. Courtesy of Moishe House

Jewish life in Hudson County, home to thousands of Jewish young adults, has been on an upward swing in recent years, with new Jewish organizations opening up and working together with the area’s synagogues.

One major Jewish institution has not come to southern Hudson County, however: A Jewish federation, a local chapter of the Jewish Federations of North America, to raise money for and coordinate social services.

Joshua Einstein, a Teaneck native who now lives in Moishe House Hoboken, decried the lack of federation presence in a letter to The Jewish Standard last week.

Moishe House is a national organization that subsidizes housing for groups of young adults in exchange for their holding programs for local young Jewish adults. Einstein and his two roommates regularly have some 30 to 50 people in their apartment for Shabbat meals, study sessions, and social programs.

Unlike other Moishe Houses, they’re doing it without funding from a local federation.

“I find it very frustrating that we’re engaged in not just building a Moishe House community, but im yiritz HaShem [with God’s will] building institutions of a larger Jewish community in Hudson County,” he said.

Hoboken and Jersey City are transitory communities, he said, filled with thousands of young Jews who will eventually move to the suburbs. That population, he said, is woefully underserved and that will hurt the Jewish community down the road.

“For those five to 10 years there’s nothing for them to plug into while they’re in their apartments,” Einstein said. “The community’s not making an investment.”

In 2007 Adam Weiss formed HudsonJewish, a central forum for efforts to revive the county’s Jewish presence. The group organizes and promotes community events on its Website, which acts as the Jewish directory for the county.

“Apart from HudsonJewish there’s no organized voice of the community,” Weiss said. “So the conversation would probably need to start between one of the federations and HudsonJewish” if a merger were to take place.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken has been in the city for 12 years. He praised HudsonJewish, but said it does not fill the gap of a fully functional federation.

“I can only imagine the ideal, which is that a federation exists to assess Jewish communal needs and then raise funds to address those needs,” he said. “It’d be very helpful if there were a Jewish communal entity that played that role in Hudson County.”

He pointed to aging communities in Jersey City and Bayonne and the Jewish responsibility to provide for the elderly. His synagogue also runs a host of singles programs and has worked with Moishe House.

“We are trying valiantly,” he said, “to provide all the services that a Jewish community should have and to engage young adults in Jewish life — even without a federation.”

Southern Hudson County is not totally devoid of a federation presence.

Bayonne, south of Hoboken in Hudson County, does have its own Jewish federation, but it is focused solely on that city. The Hoboken/Jersey City region is part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Network of Independent Communities, which only provides for volunteers to raise money for overseas projects. Jewish Family Service of UJC of MetroWest extended its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area in 2003 ahead of what some thought would be an annexation of the area.

Federation leaders reportedly decided not to annex southern Hudson County because it is not contiguous with the federation’s catchment area. Calls to the MetroWest federation were not returned by press time.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes all of Bergen County, part of Passaic County, and northern Hudson County in its catchment area, offers some of its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area.

“We do have a relationship with those parts of Hudson County in an ongoing way,” said Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s marketing director. “Either they have come to us for help and we have provided it or we have included them in our programs that are available to people and institutions in the UJA-NNJ area.”

According to Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative has included southern Hudson synagogues in its programming; scholarships to Jewish camps, 16 percent of the total, have been provided to six campers from that area; and students from the area participated in a UJA-NNJ-sponsored Birthright trip this past spring.

“We’re delighted to work with them,” Allenson said. “There’s never been to my knowledge a time we’ve said no to them.”

North Hudson County — North Bergen, Secaucus, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York — affiliated with the federation’s precursor in 1988.

Moishe House, Allenson said, has not approached UJA-NNJ for any assistance.

“They’re welcome to come to us at any time for the resources that we have that we are able to provide them,” she said.

Annexing the region into UJA-NNJ, however, has not come up in discussions with area leaders, she said.

“We commend the efforts of HudsonJewish to provide Jewish community services for the residents of that geographic area,” said Howard Charish, UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president. “We also are very pleased about the progress they’ve made toward those goals. We have been, along the way, responsive to their efforts when they’ve called us.”

“We feel that it is the responsibility of an organized federation to help a neighboring independent community,” Charish added.

Weiss offered three scenarios for the region: A continuation of the status quo, the creation of a new federation, or the annexation of the area into an existing federation. All of the options have pros and cons, he said.

“There’s a strong desire to have the conversation and ask what can you do for us, what can we do for you, and what’s the best solution,” Weiss said. “It could be the best solution is to do nothing and continue the way things are.”

“There’s no reason you need to start from scratch,” Einstein said, “but that’s what we’re forced to do because nobody’s showing us the blueprint for the wheel.”

 
 

Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice

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Rabbi David Greenstein, top, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Rabbi Ovadua Yosef

Urging a return to “authentic Torah teachings,” Rabbis Robert Scheinberg and David Greenstein have drafted a statement calling for an “open-minded and pluralistic” religious vision.

“We’re critical when we don’t hear voices in other religions teaching inclusiveness, compassion, and tolerance,” said Greenstein. “We need to create a strong Jewish voice as well.”

The document — which emerged after a discussion on the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve and emphasizes “pleasantness and peace” — has drawn more than 200 signatories, including individuals from each major Jewish denomination.

Several weeks ago, with the approach of Rosh HaShanah and the Mideast peace talks, “David Greenstein posted something on an e-mail list of Conservative rabbis suggesting that this would be a good opportunity for such a statement,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “It appears to have resonated with a number of people.”

“It was immediately after Yosef’s statement,” he added. In late August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced peace talks with the Palestinians, dubbing them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel,” and called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “perish from this world.”

Still, said Scheinberg, the joint statement was not simply a reaction to Yosef’s comments — though it did condemn his words in strong language — but a wider call for Jews, especially Jewish religious leaders, to speak out against Jewish extremism.

“The [Anti-Defamation League] was quick to condemn Yosef’s statement,” he said. “But we thought there should be a specifically religious voice doing so. With the controversy over the Islamic center in Manhattan growing, [we thought] it was somewhat hypocritical for the Jewish community to get very upset when Muslim moderates do not regularly, quickly, and forcefully condemn incendiary statements,” without Jews’ doing the same thing. “We hope to get it on the record that when a statement like this gets made by someone as prominent as Yosef, rabbis react with disgust.”

That wasn’t happening, said Greenstein, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, who conceived the idea of posting a petition on the Conservative listserve and later of making it public.

“The question is, what kinds of religious voices are going to be out there,” he said, adding that Yosef and others who agree with him have made such statements before and are likely to do so again.

Scheinberg added that as a Conservative Jew who has studied Yosef’s responsa, “learning a tremendous amount from him,” he is especially bothered by the Israeli rabbi’s incendiary statements, “since he’s very much within the canon prized by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.”

The joint statement, he said, suggests criteria by which the teaching of Torah is measured — “such as, does it foster pleasantness and peace.” While the piece originally was targeted to Conservative rabbis, it later “got passed on to some other places on the Internet where interdenominational dialogue takes place,” he said, attracting signers from other denominations as well.

In addition, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has since drafted its own statement, incorporating some of Scheinberg and Greenstein’s wording.

Greenstein said he’s not sure how all the signers learned about the statement, since “people were signing it before we did the extra outreach. I’m very heartened that this has become a cross-denominational venture.”

While the document has not drawn many Orthodox signers, Scheinberg said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders condemn Yosef’s statements.

He attributed the small number of signers to “a general wariness of a completely grassroots statement, not attached to any organization.”

“Rabbi Yosef was only the jumping-off point” of the joint statement, said Greenstein. “The main point was the affirmation of a challenge and an opportunity to teach a different kind of Torah. We can all unite for that and must continue to work toward it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the petition will “push, promote, and inspire more rabbis to reconsider the priorities of how, when, and to whom we speak about Torah, creating a more vibrant and just religious culture.”

“This year, more than ever before, we have to focus on eradicating extremism,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, religious leader of The Temple in Atlanta and former rabbi of Temple Beth-Or in Washington Township. Berg, who is Reform, signed the statement.

While Judaism exists “in argument and tension and the Jewish tradition is that no one agrees on much of anything, so many in our troubled world believe that there’s only one singular right way,” he said. “That’s a short step from thinking of ourselves as morally entitled.”

“If we believe that there is only one truth, then violence and death are sure to follow. In a democracy, we have to call upon religious leaders to come to the middle.”

 
 

Kirtan rabbi to bring blend of Judaism and Eastern spiritualism to Hoboken

Rabbi Andrew Hahn sets Hebrew prayer to Indian chants

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Rabbi Andrew Hahn, second from left, brought his Kirtan Rabbi Band to Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, Calif., in September. Hahn will perform his blend of Hebrew and Indian chants Saturday night in Hoboken. Courtesy Rabbi Andrew Hahn

A distinctly Indian melody flows from Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s harmonium. People rise from their seats, hips swaying, arms waving slowly through the air as they slowly repeat the Hebrew words Hahn is chanting.

This isn’t your abba’s Lecha Dodi.

Hahn, aka the Kirtan rabbi, will bring his unique blend of Indian and Hebrew chanting to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Saturday night. Kirtan is a call-and-response, participatory form of chanting that originated in the Hindu temples of India. Kirtan is also considered to be the highest form of yoga, bhakti or spiritual yoga.

“It’s a kind of street music for the masses,” Hahn told The Jewish Standard. “The idea is to have a lot of fun.”

Instead of the Hindu words of praise, though, Hahn uses short Hebrew phrases from the Jewish liturgy. He has Kirtan-ized the Sh’ma, Lecha Dodi, and even the Kaddish. Hahn now finds himself an ambassador, bringing yoga meditation to the Jewish world and Jewish wisdom and Torah to the yoga world.

“There is an initial hurdle as to what this is, but once it’s overcome people readily embrace it,” Hahn said. “For many people this is a way for them to connect with Judaism that they have not been able to before. The most common comment I get at a yoga studio is, ‘I haven’t touched Judaism in 20 years and this is the first time I get it.’ It’s very gratifying and quite unexpected.”

Hahn received his doctorate in Jewish thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary and he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He didn’t want to be a pulpit rabbi, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. He went to Boulder, Colo., home of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and took part in regular study groups with the rabbi. Hahn didn’t consider himself one of Schachter-Shalomi’s disciples, however, and he was still looking for how he fit into the Jewish world — and the job pickings were slim.

“I expected to maybe be a funky but regular Reform rabbi — wear a tie and give sermons,” he said. “I was ready to give back something and it wasn’t working out.”

Hahn fell into a depression, but in 2004 he received a CD of Sanskrit Kirtan from a friend. After listening to it, Hahn thought he could do the chants in Hebrew. He ordered a harmonium — a European keyboard instrument that became a staple in India after the British introduced it — and began setting Hebrew words to the chants.

Since then Hahn has brought his energetic chants to synagogues, conferences, and retreats. During his concerts — Hahn prefers to think his audiences are performing in concert with him rather than just listening — he typically gives a short explanation of the Hebrew words.

“Increasingly the way I’m teaching Torah is through this context,” Hahn said.

Hahn has performed for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform audiences, as well as yoga centers. He doesn’t push any particular view of Judaism with his music, he said. He wants it only to be a gateway to education.

“There’s no ‘ism’ in Kirtan,” he said. “It’s just let it be what it is, let people enjoy it for what it is, and allow people to trust their maturity and respect their spiritual decisions.”

Like Hahn, United Synagogue of Hoboken’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg hopes people will look at Kirtan as a re-entry to Judaism.

“It’s always been very sad for me to see that for all of Judaism’s spiritual richness, there are some people who are never invited into Judaism’s spiritual doorways, and if the first time they’re invited into spiritual doorways it’s through another religious tradition, they just assume that tradition is spiritually richer than Judaism,” Scheinberg said.

There is a buzz in the synagogue about the program, the rabbi said, and he noted that some people who are planning to attend have looked outside of Judaism for spiritual fulfillment.

Hahn’s mix of Eastern chants and Judaism is “unambiguously Jewish,” Scheinberg continued.

“It’s Jewish, but in an art-form or an aesthetic form borrowed from another culture, and that’s something we’ve seen repeatedly in Jewish tradition,” Scheinberg said. “It is clearly in no way a religious or theological compromise.”

Hahn is known for his Kirtan and building a bridge between Judaism and Eastern philosophy, but the rabbi part of his title still outweighs the Kirtan side, he said.

“This is the way for me to be a rabbi,” he said. “This happens to be my rabbinate. The goal is to bring Torah or Jewish wisdom to the community, to both Jews and non-Jews.”

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

 
 

Out of Africa

Hoboken’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg travels to Ghana

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg learned many things from his recent trip to Ghana with the American Jewish World Service.

Most important, “The AJWS Young Rabbis Delegation made us confront directly the fact of global wealth imbalance in a way we often don’t,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “I had known about it intellectually, but had not really experienced it with my heart and my eyes.”

The trip—which took place July 24-Aug. 5—brought 16 rabbis to Ghana to learn about global poverty while studying Jewish texts and engaging in a hands-on service project.

“I think one of AJWS’s goals in organizing this trip was to help the American Jewish community [understand] what it means to be a global citizen in Jewish terms, and to get issues of global citizenship on the Jewish agenda,” said Scheinberg. “I feel like those kinds of issues are now irreversibly on my own agenda.”

The Hudson County rabbi said he was impressed by the AJWS approach, “which is to be careful not to impose solutions from the outside, but to find and fund visionary leaders and help them have the resources they need to achieve their vision.”

Ruth Messinger, AJWS president, said grantees tackle problems from child slavery and human trafficking to environmental sustainability and food self-sufficiency. Mission participants work hand in hand with AJWS-supported organizations.

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Rabbi Robert Scheinberg helped build a computer center for abused children in Ghana. Courtesy Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

In Ghana, volunteers worked with members of Challenging Heights (ChallengingHeights.org), which helps educate children who have been sold into slavery or forced into dangerous employment. Founded by James Kofi Annan, a survivor of child trafficking, the group is premised on the belief that education can transform the lives of abused and vulnerable children.

According to its website, the organization also supports at-risk and poor families “to ensure that children are protected from slavery and the worst forms of child labor through education.” It is estimated that 1.3 million children in Ghana are affected, “many of whom are engaged in the worst forms of child labor.”

Scheinberg’s group—consisting mostly of rabbis in their mid-30s to mid-40s—helped build a computer center.

“We stayed in a fishing village outside of Winneba, two hours from Accra,” said the rabbi. “In the morning, we worked on the construction site and interacted with the kids in school. While everyone is multi-lingual, English is Ghana’s only official language. Not everyone’s was good, but we were able to communicate.”

“It was wonderful for us to create bonds with people in the community—kids, teachers, construction workers,” he said. “It helped us realize that we need to build up those kinds of relationships. We didn’t just present a check, but rolled up our sleeves.”

Scheinberg noted that the primary problem in the village he visited is child slavery. “Families are desperate enough to sell their sons, justifying it to themselves by saying they’re apprenticing them to fishermen,” he said. “It starts at age 6.”

The current rate for a child laborer is $40 for a two-year contract. Fishermen seek small children as workers because they can fit more of them on their boats and because they need the children’s small fingers to untangle nets.

“It’s horribly dangerous work,” said Scheinberg. “There are many kids who drown.”

“The children are treated as property,” he said, pointing out that even children who survive or escape don’t have many options. Without Annan’s school, some would still be vulnerable.

Messinger said the rabbis’ mission included religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum. Following their daily work sessions, rabbis spent afternoons and evenings learning about social justice and global responsibility from Jewish texts and traditions.

Scheinberg said that one question the rabbis confronted during their study sessions was, “What are our circles of concern, and how do we balance our responsibility to ourselves, our families, our extended families, our community, the Jewish people, and the world as a whole?”

Even given participating rabbis’ differences in theology and approach to Jewish tradition, “We didn’t feel there was a difference among us in terms of the answer,” said Scheinberg, noting that all agreed outreach must extend beyond the borders of one’s own community.

Messinger said that AJWS provides the rabbis with follow-up materials for domestic programming when they return.

“Many have given sermons and divrei Torah about their experiences, written essays, and made donations to AJWS from their discretionary funds,” she said. “They tell us that the program has deepened their passion for global justice and that they are eager to share this passion with their communities.”

Scheinberg has already spoken to synagogue members about his trip, “and I know that this has just begun,” he said.

It is unlikely, however, that he will participate in such a trip again. “I think I can be most helpful being here and telling the story,” he said. “Any of the construction work done by the rabbis could have been done more easily by the Ghanaian workers. The real purpose of our being there was to have the experience and come back and tell the story—about Ghana and about how 80 percent of the world is living.”

“When people ask, I say it was terribly troubling to see it, but extremely inspiring to see how some of the problems that seem to be intractable can actually be addressed by visionary people and organizations,” said Scheinberg. “Slavery is such an important theme in the Jewish story. If there’s anyone Jews should feel a kinship with, it’s with people who have endured slavery and been liberated.”

Missions such as these enhance the image of Jews abroad, said Messinger. “It means we get to be seen as a people committed to social justice [while] respecting local people’s capacity to plan for themselves. Particularly when we take rabbis, we’re building a cadre of people who are leaders in the Jewish community and who will use their various pulpits, classrooms, etc., to engage Jews in global efforts.”

For more information about the American Jewish World Service, visit ajws.org.

 
 

An EZ Key for access

Free High Holy Days tickets meant to attract newcomers

Synagogues are opening their doors.

But are they cutting their pockets?

With the High Holy Days approaching, more than two dozen synagogues are participating in a program to entice newcomers to the community with free tickets to services.

The program, dubbed EZ Key, is coordinated by the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“We want to lower the barrier to people who want to try out a synagogue for the High Holy Days and raise the profile of synagogues in the area,” said Lisa Harris Glass, director of the synagogue initiative.

The program is for people who have lived in the community for two years or less. By visiting the federation’s web site at http://www.jfnnj.org/holidaytickets, newcomers can sign up for tickets at their choice of participating congregations, or be matched up with a suitable congregation.

“It’s a one-shot offering,” said Glass, explaining that EZ Key is meant to introduce worshipers to a congregation, not to replace synagogue membership.

Rabbis of participating congregations are enthusiastic about the program.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “I love the idea of welcoming people in, particularly people new in the community.

“Philosophically, I’m of two bents. On one hand, it’s critical for people to support synagogues financially. In doing so, you benefit from belonging to a synagogue.

“On the other hand, there are many, many Jews who don’t understand that. They have such negative baggage that they carry about what a synagogue is. And they also have a sense of expectation that when it comes time for the High Holy Days, they feel they should be able to walk into a synagogue and take advantage of its services.

“Both are right,” she said, adding, “It saddens me that anyone would feel alienated from a congregation because they couldn’t afford it.”

Rabbi Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen, agrees that EZ Key “is a fantastic idea.”

“We certainly need to do more to make ourselves more marketable and outreach-oriented than we are. EZ Key is a way to get people in the door.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said, “EZ Key is an admission on the part of our community that the cost, real and perceived, of Jewish affiliation may be a barrier for less committed Jewish families, including interfaith families, to even seek out a synagogue.”

“Reaching out to unconnected Jews irrespective of the reason for their lack of affiliation is critical for both the institutions of our Jewish community and equally important for the unaffiliated Jews,” he said.

The United Synagogue of Hoboken has chosen not to participate, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. “We experience something like 25 to 30 percent turnover in our membership every year, which makes it hard for us to do a lot of giving things away for free for people who are new,” he said.

At the same time, “If someone wants to come and the recommended donation exceeds what they can do, we’re delighted to receive a donation of any amount.”

One issue for the congregation is capacity. The sanctuary holds 500 and tickets are needed to ensure that people are not turned away.

In part because the synagogue cannot serve everyone who might want to come to High Holy Days services, and in part to provide “some High Holy Day experiences that would be open to everyone with no tickets required,” the United Synagogue is holding services in what might be considered off-peak time slots.

“That includes an additional public shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, and an additional Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon,” he said.

At least one congregation, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is participating in EZ Key with free tickets, but also providing a service for which tickets are not required. Family services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will supplement the traditional egalitarian services led the rabbi and cantor in the main sanctuary. The family services are scheduled to last no more than 90 minutes, and are designed “to be engaging and meaningful to children from ages 4 and up, as well as to adults with limited Hebrew reading skills.”

At least one area pulpit rabbi, however, is unhappy with the thrust toward low-cost entryways to synagogue life.

“Synagogues depend on High Holy Days ticket sales to keep the lights on in their buildings throughout the year,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need to be educating people about the importance of contributing to a shul’s upkeep, not encouraging them to look around for the cheapest option.”

 
 
 
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