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entries tagged with: Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick

 

L’Taken makes students part of the legislative process

Some 250 high school students from across the country will gather at the Religious Action Center’s Washington headquarters this weekend for the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar for High School Students.

Students are scheduled to arrive in Washington this afternoon and will spend the weekend learning about domestic issues like poverty and separation of church and state and global issues like genocide and climate change. The teens will then spend Monday lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill.

“Students really do make a connection between their Jewish values and their responsibilities as citizens and understanding that Judaism isn’t something that just happens in synagogue or religious school,” said Barbara Weinstein, RAC legislative director. “Its values can be applied in all aspects of their lives. From the most basic choice, from ‘Do I leave the water on when I brush my teeth?’ to stopping genocide in Darfur, each of these things are things Jewish values can guide us on.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, took the L’Taken seminar when he was in high school. About 16 10th-and 11th-graders from Temple Sinai will join with about 15 students from the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism for this weekend’s L’Taken.

“I would argue it is the premier Jewish leadership development program in the country,” said Millstein, who will join the group. “The kids get to experience being part of a larger Jewish community, getting energized, and to actually have their own voices heard.”

“By Monday morning this group of ragtag teenagers [will] end up looking so mature and have gained so much self-confidence because they’re able to present in a strong way where they stand on any particular issue,” said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It’s inspiring to be a part of the democratic process,” she added. “On the individual level they feel their voices do count, and it’s a real experience.”

For more information on the RAC’s L’Taken weekends, visit www.ac.org/confprog/ltaken/.

 
 

Area Reform synagogues to mark 50th anniversary of RAC

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has become one of the pre-eminent Jewish political organizations in the country, at the forefront of issues such as ending the genocide in Darfur, promoting human rights, and fighting poverty.

On Jan. 14 and 15, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Reform movement will celebrate Shabbat Tzedek, marking the RAC’s 50th anniversary.

Its founding in 1961 reflected a belief among its founders that as Jews who care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, they had to care about more than issues that affected them as Jews, said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the RAC.

“The center became a hub of social justice in Washington, not just for the Reform Jewish movement,” she said, noting that several congressional civil rights bills were drafted in the RAC conference room. “Our goal is to bring Washington to the Reform movement and the Reform movement to Washington.”

Several area Reform synagogues will mark the anniversary next week, using it as an opportunity to encourage congregants to perform acts of tikkun olam. Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter will use a Shabbat Tzedek liturgy provided by the RAC and Closter’s Mayor Sophie Heymann, a temple member, will speak. Instead of the weekly Torah portion, the temple’s Saturday morning Torah study will focus on readings with an emphasis on social justice.

“The Reform movement has such a long history of social justice and advocacy,” Beth El’s Rabbi Debra Hachen said. “Today many people think of tikkun olam in local ways — for example, helping a local food bank or the wonderful work Bonim does.” (Bonim, a group of volunteers from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, renovates homes for the needy.) “There’s a very important dimension to social justice that’s connected to the prophetic vision,” she continued. “A key part of Reform Judaism is the notion of transforming society, not just reaching out to the needy.”

Paul Kaufman, a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, will speak there during Shabbat Tzedek about a recent RAC mission to the Gulf Coast he took part in. The synagogue will also launch a six-month initiative to serve fair-trade coffee.

“It’s a chance to celebrate all [the RAC has] accomplished and really move forward in terms of advancing what separates Reform Jews from other Jews, which is a concerted commitment to social justice,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who interned with the RAC in 1994 and spoke at the 40th anniversary celebration 10 years ago.

“[The internship] really helped me understand the intersection of Jewish values and public policy,” the rabbi said.

Temple Beth Or in Washington Township will focus on King’s legacy, said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick. Members will be asked to bring poems, pictures, song lyrics, or other items that symbolize the Reform commitment to social justice, which will be used throughout the service.

“One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew,” Zlotnick said, “is because I feel the Religious Action Center has done a marvelous job of transforming freedom for all into advocacy across the spectrum to make sure we live up to our American ideals of democracy and freedom.”

Hachen is hopeful the celebratory weekend will encourage others to get involved in global tikkun olam, and she will hand out information about joining the RAC Social Justice Network. The RAC leadership has recruited about 15,000 to the network so far and hopes to reach 50,000.

“Part of our mandate is to create a just society, not just within our synagogues but within the nations in which we live,” Hachen said. “That’s what the RAC tries to do — help us understand that Judaism has something to say on these [social justice] issues.”

To watch a video highlighting the past 50 years of the Religious Action Center, visit www.rac.org.

 
 

After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.

“The issues were economic,” he said.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources — as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies — as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.

“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.

In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”

Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.

Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.

Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.

Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.

Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.

Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.

He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”

At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”

Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.

“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.

Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.

“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.

The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.

Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.

“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”

The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.

“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.

The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.

“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.

“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”

All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.

“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.

 
 
 
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