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Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

A shul with ‘tahm’

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Saul Turteltaub and his grandson Max.

Saul Turteltaub, who is perhaps best-known for producing such popular television shows as “Sanford and Son” and “Kate and Allie,” is also the author of a warm, affecting, funny, and as-yet-unpublished memoir of Cong. Ahavath Torah. Called “The Old Shul,” it is a treasure house of nostalgia and wry and poignant insights about his family and community.

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The Old Shul as it looked in the early part of the 20th century.

The “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s manuscript is not the mansion on Broad Street that has been demolished to make way for the new Ahavath Torah, but a building on Englewood Avenue between Armory Street and Bennett Road.

And according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the congregation’s current religious leader, there was a still-older shul, built during the summer of 1895 at 33 Humphrey St. in Englewood. “Before that they davened in a home on Liberty Road,” Goldin said in a telephone interview on Monday. “The Humphrey Street lot was bought as a result of a campaign that collected $200.” After 15 years, the congregation moved to the Englewood Avenue site, the “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s memoir.

“My father, Ben Turteltaub, was president of that synagogue,” Turteltaub recalled last week in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, “and I was bar mitzvahed there.” (See related story.)

The memoir, which he shared with The Jewish Standard, reconstructs — or reimagines — the board’s discussion about leaving the old shul and building “a modern synagogue”:

“What’s a ‘modern synagogue,’ asks member Moish Horowitz, “except all of a sudden it’s called a ‘synagogue’ and not a ‘shul’? It has more commandments? … A modern synagogue we have in this town. It’s where the goyim go on Tenafly Road.”

Turteltaub explains, “He was referring to Temple Emanu-El, the house of worship for Conservative Jews. To Moish and many of the old-timers, a person was either an Orthodox Jew or a goy. And someone who considered himself a Conservative Jew was worse than a gentile. He was not merely the enemy, he was a traitor. The Reformed? Mishugenas altogether.”

The old-timers lost, and the mansion, on the estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn, became “the New Shul.”

“It’s very hard to give up your old shul,” Turteltaub writes. “It is a vault of memories of the strongest and deepest kind.”

It had a gymnasium, he recalls — “not because the elders were such sports fans, because they weren’t, and not even so much because they thought the children should have a nice place to play…. Basically, they built it because the Catholic Church had one and they wanted to keep up.”

The New Shul did not have a gymnasium, but, writes Turteltaub, “was the most modern and beautiful house of worship in the entire county” — except that “it didn’t have tahm, a Yiddish word meaning ‘the taste.’ Not ‘taste,’ but ‘the taste.’ For instance, when you are looking for the beef and barley soup that reminds you of your mother’s beef and barley soup, you are not just looking for it to have taste, you are looking for the taste.”

The New Shul, he writes, “tasted like a shul. It had a Torah, a prayerbook, separate sections for men and women, but for those of us who grew up in the Old Shul, it was missing the taste, and that taste for the most part was the flavor of poverty.”

Turteltaub’s mother, Anna, died of a stroke two years and three months before his bar mitzvah, and he noticed, before he was called to the Torah, that his father’s eyes were filled with tears — “I believe it was because he was thinking how terribly wrong it was that poor Anna Turteltaub had died before this day.”

“Benny’s Famous Delicatessen in Hackensack supplied the food and soda, and the wine and schnapps came from Grusky’s in Englewood,” he recalls. “Pop knew nothing about whiskey. To him liqueur was how the gentiles pronounced liquor. So when he learned he could get a dozen mixed bottles of liqueur dirt cheap in 1945, when liquor was hard to get, he took them all. The schnapps at my bar mitzvah included apricot brandy, peach brandy, and a bottle of plum brandy called slivovitz, from Yugoslavia.”

Years later, long after his sons Adam and Jon were bar mitzvahed, he still had the bottle of slivovitz on his shelf, with perhaps a drop in it.

The rabbi at Turteltaub’s bar mitzvah was named Pincus. He was succeeded by Rabbi Bernstein (their first names are lost to history). Bernstein, writes Turteltaub, “didn’t have a chance. He was single. Why he was hired no one knows, but for an Orthodox rabbi with a pulpit to be single is out of the question…. The problem with a rabbi being single is he would be called on in the normal exercise of his duties to be alone in a room with a female member of the congregation.”

This, Turteltaub observes, “makes for an intolerable situation for everyone other than some unhappy married or single women.”

Bernstein soon left to attend medical school, and Turteltaub stresses that “there was never any suspicion of hanky panky” during his tenure.

Then came Rabbi Moshe Gold, who died in his early 40s of a heart attack. He “apparently did kill himself from screaming all the time,” Turteltaub writes. “[H]e thought people should pray during a prayer service. He didn’t agree with three-quarters of the congregation who looked forward to the … services as a great opportunity to kibitz with each other….”

Gold was followed by Rabbi Nussenbaum and then by Rabbi Benjamin Walfish — who officiated at the wedding of Saul and Shirley Turteltaub — and then by Rabbi Isaac Swift.

Swift, Turteltaub notes, “remained in the pulpit of the Old Shul and the New Shul from Rosh HaShanah 1960 until just before Rosh HaShanah 1987, when he retired.”

Turteltaub was “immediately impressed by his appearance. He was well over 6 feet tall, thin, approximately 45 years old and bearded. His prayer shawl was not only wrapped around his shoulders but it was draped from his head, giving him the appearance from the back of a very tall candle.”

But more impressive still was his dramatic — and effective — demand that chattering congregants be quiet. (Ben Turteltaub, his son recalls, summed up their response: “Hooha.”)

“Of all the memories I have of the Old Shul,” Turteltaub writes, “I think the warmest and happiest were those following the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. It seemed everyone in the shul was filled with love for everyone else. And why not? We had all just spent a full day asking forgiveness for the sins of pettiness, haughtiness, evil thoughts, and evil words…. [W]e kissed each other, shook hands warmly, and wished everyone a happy and good year. The first kiss, of course, was between my father and me, and it was a good and warm one. Then we headed to the back of the shul and down the stairs into the street, where it had become dark….”

 
 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

Rabbi reflects on synagogue’s growth

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah for some 26 years, attributes the synagogue’s growth and longevity to “good fortune, proximity to New York, a lovely area, and a sense of openness” toward people striving to lead Orthodox lives.

“A good deal of our character was set by the way it started,” said Goldin.

The rabbi, together with his wife, Barbara, will be honored on March 5 and 6 for their years of service to the congregation.

Describing the synagogue’s founders as “a group of people committed to Orthodox Judaism,” Goldin noted that they also were open to recognizing that they themselves were not always themselves ‘there.’”

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Barbara and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin Courtesy Rabbi Goldin

“The issue is to keep the community together and find ways to give people the ability to grow … maintaining a balance with a sense of tradition and continuity,” he said. “In each generation, Jewish law is given to us in trust, to use it and shape it and to engage ourselves and our generation.” But, he said, “we must then pass it down to another generation and it must bear a similarity to what we received. It’s a balance between continuity and adaptation — a fascinating amalgam of divine law and human logic.”

Goldin noted that, unlike in many other communities, “there’s been a vision and recognition by the lay leadership [of Ahavath Torah] that what we’re trying to build is one large congregation … rather than a bunch of splinters.”

That is not to say that members don’t have options, he stressed, “but people moving in can see that there is a center to this community. Young people gravitate to that center [and] we make them welcome.”

The Englewood shul, with more than 700 membership units, includes individuals of all ages, he said, with “a great number of young people and lots of children.” Figuring out how to accommodate and program for all these groups is a challenge.

Even in 1983, he said, when he came from Potomac, Md., to lead the Bergen County synagogue, “it was considered a major Orthodox congregation in the New York area.” With roughly 350 family units, the synagogue was then led by noted Rabbi Isaac Swift.

“I considered it to be a terrific opportunity,” Goldin said. He didn’t expect to get the job, being at least 10 years younger than all the other candidates, but the interview was a “great experience.” He met in the living room of longtime member George Feintuch with some “very distinguished looking people.”

Thinking he would probably not be hired, “I was very relaxed,” he said. “But then they started taking me seriously and I got nervous.”

On reflection, said Goldin, “it probably served me well that I was so different from the other candidates.”

Viewing the rabbinate as a “daily adventure,” the rabbi said that each day has presented different challenges. His goals, however, have remained consistent over the years.

“My first goal was to be a rabbi to the community, to serve their needs pastorally, to be there and play a role in their lives in whatever way they needed me,” he said.

He also strived “to keep the community together and grow it [believing that] it is better to be together under one roof with all our differences and points of views than splinter into small congregations.” Fortunately, he noted, the success of that strategy was enabled by the foresight of the lay leadership, giving the congregation a big enough building to accomplish that goal.

While the synagogue hosts numerous minyans, for special occasions — shul dinners, Yom HaShoah commemorations, and the like — congregants “unite for a cause,” said the rabbi. Since he is unable to attend each minyan on a regular basis, he shares this responsibility with the associate rabbi, Chaim Poupko; the rabbinic intern, Aaron Kraft; and the Ahavath Torah scholars, Rabbi Tzvi and Tova Sinensky. The synagogue also employs a yoetzet halakhah, who is available to answer the personal questions of women congregants.

“We just hired an administrator,” said Goldin, musing that “it’s a miracle we did so well without one” up to this point. He attributes this success to volunteerism within the community.

While Goldin feels he has been fairly successful in increasing the learning and Torah commitment of members, “we have a long way to go,” he said. He noted that his sermons and classes are directed toward critical issues “like the internal needs of the community, how can we pull together.”

In addition to adult education programs and scholars-in-residence, Goldin said, he has encouraged the development of groups within the community that study on their own, such as the Isaac Perry Beit Midrash Program.

Goldin said he also feels strongly about his members’ connection to Israel and has led more than 15 missions there. His was the first American congregation to visit Israel during the Iraqi Scud attacks, and in 2002 he spearheaded two rallies in Israel, bringing hundreds of people there to express their solidarity.

Goldin said he wants his members “to be open to the community at large. I’m proud that we have a good relationship with [UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey],” he said. “I work hard at that.”

He said he often cites the teaching about the patriarch Abraham, who described himself at the end of his life as a ger v’toshav, both a stranger and a citizen of the world. “This creates a unique dialectic,” said Goldin, recalling that during the height of the war in Kosovo, he traveled with 12 members of the congregation to work with Muslim Albanian refugee children, together with Israeli volunteers.

“This marks the kind of things we should do more of,” he said, adding that as the congregation settles into its new building, it should “look at ways in which we should play a world role.”

Another of his goals, he said, “is to keep the community abreast of and thinking about critical issues of the day.” He cited, for example, his involvement with NNJKIDS and Jewish Education for Future Generations, which is working to make day-school tuition more affordable for Jewish parents.

While it is important to have vibrant programming, said Goldin, the mark of a successful synagogue is “to try to be there each day and each week. The key to our community is being there every day.” The synagogue boasts four morning minyans as well as daily Minhah/Ma’ariv services.

Goldin, who has five children and four grandchildren, credits his wife, a speech pathologist, with “playing a tremendous role behind the scenes” and giving him some of his best ideas. “She’s not your typical rebbetzin,” he said.

He noted, for example, that it was her idea for him to meet every Friday night with third- to fifth-graders to study the Torah portion of the week.

“That way I get to know the kids pre-bar mitzvah,” he said.

Calling himself a “centrist” on the issue of women’s participation, Goldin said he believes strongly in advanced Torah education for women and “creating places of leadership for them within the Orthodox community that are unique and specific.” However, he added, “we should not attempt to break down role traditions.”

Goldin, who said he was “gratified” that he could concentrate on writing during his sabbatical in Israel three years ago, has published two books, “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit” and “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shemot.” His third book, on Vayikra, will be out soon. (He will speak about and sign his books at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades at 8 p.m. on March 3.) He is also pleased that he has been able to get more involved in the Rabbinical Council of America.

“It’s good for the community as well,” he said, noting that he is now able to tell congregants about things happening outside the community that he might not otherwise have been aware of.

“I can’t believe the years have passed the way they have,” he said. His relationship with the synagogue has been “a wonderful shidduch. I’m grateful to God that we found each other in a fashion that seems to work.”

Goldin pointed to the teaching about Mordecai that he was liked by most of his brothers, not all.

“You do the best you can,” he said. “You do what you think is right and bring others along with you. The new building will enable us to do what we do even better — it’s an absolutely positive move.”

 
 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

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The main sanctuary. Photos by Jerry Szubin

Unity is the underlying theme for the formal dedication of Cong. Ahavath Torah’s two-story, 60,000-square-foot synagogue complex, planned for the first weekend in March and culminating in the shul’s annual dinner honoring Rabbi Shmuel and Barbara Goldin.

Yeshiva University President Richard Joel is scheduled to join the Englewood congregation that Shabbat as scholar in residence during services as well as at a Friday night Oneg Shabbat and Saturday afternoon seudah shlishit. A festive Shabbat morning service is to be led by Cantor Chaim Muhlbauer, with Joel delivering remarks to the community.

“President Joel has been instrumental in all our efforts in the last year,” said Drew Parker, Ahavath Torah’s co-president. “He was supportive of our fund-raising efforts and of our community’s unique approach to unity through welcoming many different minyanim and cultures under one roof.”

Parker was referring to Ahavath Torah’s embrace of diverse Orthodox prayer groupings to accommodate Sephardim and Ashkenazim, youth and adults, even early-risers and later-risers. This was one reason the new complex was designed with elements including four sanctuaries in the main building, a two-story wing for a 250-seat sanctuary, beit midrash, and social hall for the 75 families of the congregation’s Sephardic community; a ballroom; multipurpose rooms for Shabbat children’s groups, adult education, and small events; and two kitchens in order to handle more than one affair at the same time.

Goldin stressed that there is much “cross-pollination” among the various worshippers, who mingle in the shul’s great hallway after services. The new synagogue is large enough to include additional minyanim, too. “We’re entertaining the possibility of a family minyan, where young children might be more welcome,” said Goldin.

The “unity” theme is apt, as well, for an event capping the sometimes contentious five-year process that preceded the completion of the multimillion-dollar edifice.

Last summer, congregants learned that while the “hard cost” of construction was first estimated at $15.5 million, the actual price tag was $22 million, excluding “soft costs” for architect fees and rental of the climate-controlled tent that housed the congregation since the 2006 demolition of the old, sprawling mansion on the former Broad Avenue estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn in which the congregation had been based since 1960.

The project’s higher expense was partly due to the later inclusion of a mikvah with a private entrance. Expected to be completed in the next few months, as is the Sephardic center, the mikvah will house seven dressing rooms, two mikvah pools, and a separate pool for immersing cooking and eating utensils. Englewood has never before had sufficient ritual bath facilities for its Jewish population; the independent Englewood Mikva Association runs a small mikvah on the grounds of Cong. Shomrei Emunah on Huguenot Street.

Though the Ahavath Torah membership ultimately approved a 75 percent rise in dues and assumption of a permanent mortgage (the amount of which synagogue officers declined to specify), the lay and rabbinic leadership pledged to address any lingering resentments. Before the new building’s opening last Labor Day, Goldin commented to The Jewish Standard, “We have a lot of work to do, as we always have in a community like ours with disparate points of view.”

This week, Goldin reported that “there’s been a tremendous amount of positive energy generated upon moving into the new building. Our various minyanim are working out very nicely, and the general feel is that we’re home, that we’re in.”

Parker said he views the dedication festivities as an appropriate time to acknowledge the Goldins’ contributions to the immediate and greater community. The rabbi, an instructor of Bible and philosophy at Yeshiva University’s college for men, is also active in the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, SINAI Special Needs Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America; Israel Bonds; the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Bergen County.

Former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, an Ahavath Torah member, and the city council have all been invited to participate, along with rabbinic colleagues of Goldin. The dinner highlight is to be a video presentation featuring tributes to the rabbinic couple from participants in the shul’s various minyanim, as well as interviews with their children.

 
 

Orthodox rabbinical parley to address women’s leadership

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Rabba Sara Hurwitz lectures to a group of junior high school students who attended the recent conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Josh Newman

With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near-ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision in January to confer the title “rabba” — a feminized version of rabbi — on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Weiss’ rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities — some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting “smicha,” or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” said Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and that is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Pruzansky said he supports the amendments in principle, adding, “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”

JTA

 
 

NNJKIDS launches awareness month to raise money for day schools

In order to increase responsiveness to their goal of stemming the rise of yeshiva tuition, the committee behind North Jersey’s day-school kehilla fund has declared May NNJKIDS Month.

NNJKIDS, or Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, is the community fund of Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group formed last year to explore ways to lower tuition. To date, the organization has received more than 1,000 donations and distributed more than $300,000 to eight area day schools.

“What we’ve seen in the past year is a step change in the impact you can have when you tackle the issue collectively rather than individually,” said JEFG chair Sam Moed. “The effectiveness of what you can do is magnified when you pool all of the resources and tap into broader community infrastructure and capabilities.”

More than 60 area businesses — including restaurants, salons, and hardware stores — are displaying signs advertising NNJKIDS Month, and customers will have the option of adding donations to the fund to their bills. Each school is sending letters to parents encouraging participation in the fund. The schools are also promoting learn-a-thons during Shavuot for students to raise money from sponsors for the number of hours they spend learning during the holiday.

“The idea is a multi-pronged strategy to reach people wherever they are,” said Jennifer Miller, an officer of JEFG. “The community lives in the retail establishments, they live in the synagogues and respect what the rabbis promote, and of course the community lives in the day schools. We wanted to hit every constituency at every level.”

NNJKIDS has made two distributions so far, with a third planned later this month. The organization intends to hand out money quarterly to the eight elementary day schools within the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey catchment area, based on the number of students each school has from that area.

“The funds we’ve received from NNJKIDS have enabled us to keep tuition increases at a very low level for the coming year,” said Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, who said the school has scheduled a 1.9 percent increase. “It would have had to be higher.”

There are 926 students in K-8 this year, and 22 percent of Moriah’s families receive tuition assistance. The school has seen an increase in applications in the past two years, said Prager, who expects the percentage to remain about the same for next year.

Yavneh Academy in Paramus has approved a $200 increase to its $14,000 annual tuition, said the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Without JEFG’s contribution, however, the school would have had to increase tuition an added $200, he said. Yavneh has received more than $100,000 from NNJKIDS to date.

“If it wasn’t for that, quite frankly, I don’t where we’d be,” Kirschner said. “People really need to get behind this effort, because this is hopefully going to change the face of education in the community.”

Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has received less than $10,000 from the fund to date. The funds have not had a major impact on scholarship levels, said head of school Ruth Gafni, but seven families were able to receive scholarships that allowed their children to remain in the school instead of withdrawing midyear.

“How blessed we are to have people in our community willing to spend an enormous amount of time on what may save Jewish education in years to come,” she said.

Beyond the money, Gafni praised NNJKIDS for bringing the tuition crisis to the forefront and uniting the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

Recognizing that all the schools are in this situation together is a major part of the organization, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, JEFG’s rabbinic adviser and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“It’s encouraged a level of cooperation that’s really wonderful to witness,” he said. “It’s opened up lines of communication between the communities that’s beginning to extend to other areas of education as well.”

NNJKIDS leaders appeared pleased with what they have accomplished so far but also warned against complacency. The ultimate goal, they say, is to get 100 percent participation from the community.

“We’ve taken a good first step,” said Gershon Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of JEFG. “Clearly there is a lot more education that has to be done. We’re still only reaching a small percentage of our target audience, but the initial results are certainly promising.”

For more information on NNJKIDS, visit www.nnjkids.org.

 
 

‘We can make a difference in our children’s lives’

 

Learning curve

Community confronts day-school tuition crisis

Students have closed their books for summer but schools and parents alike are working to make the grade in the next stage of the day-school tuition crisis saga.

Raising one child can cost a middle-income family $19,380 to $23,180 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And if that family is dedicated to a day-school education, which can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year, then it’s time to start getting creative. According to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 4,822 students attended kindergarten through 12th grade in one of Bergen County’s 13 yeshiva day schools during the 2009-10 school year.

The country’s economic downturn pushed the tuition crisis out of the shadows of griping around the Shabbat table and into a very bright spotlight. Beginning with an early 2009 educators conference at the Orthodox Union in New York, teachers, administrators, and parents heeded the call to action to ease what many described as an increasing burden on day-school families.

Throughout the past year, several key players emerged, each with ideas on how to solve the problem. Indeed, the community saw a number of initiatives put forward; some gained momentum while others fizzled.

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NNJKIDS

“The community’s voting with its feet and saying the model of day-school education is not broken,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbinic adviser to Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group created last year to explore new funding options. “It’s the model of funding that’s broken.” (See page 16.)

JEFG’s main project has been Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS, a fund-raising initiative meant to shift the burden of tuition off of the parents and make it a communal priority. Formed in May 2009, NNJKIDS handed out $300,000 to eight area elementary schools throughout the course of the past school year. Organizers declared May NNJKIDS Month, a fund-raising push in the community that netted about a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a tremendous increase and uptake in the amount of awareness around NNJKIDS,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG.

More than 60 businesses participated in the month-long program. Business-owners asked customers to contribute to NNJKIDS at checkout, and day-school children collected pledges for a learn-a-thon during Shavuot. One donor had promised a matching grant of up to $100,000 and NNJKIDS organizers reported that the full match would be collected.

“If anyone would have predicted when we began that we would be this far along, I would not have believed it,” Goldin said. “To be able to get all the schools to sit down and cooperate to the level that they have and get the communal support from various institutions and garner the support on the grassroots level is very encouraging.”

JEFG leaders said their donations mitigated tuition by $200 per student.

“NNJKIDS was a strong contributor to our ability to moderate the increase in tuition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, president of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The funds from NNJKIDS were considered after all other economic considerations and had a real impact on lowering tuition increases for next year.”

JEFG isn’t resting on its laurels, however.

“We’ve got to continue to work on this and not in any way take our focus off different funding models and different approaches to all models of day schools,” Moed said.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in northwestern New Jersey has successfully created a community mega-fund. The $50 million campaign began with $13 million in contributions from 11 families in 2007 and sparked an idea within JEFG to replicate the endowment fund here.

David Moss, assistant executive vice president for endowment at UJA-NNJ, who has been working with JEFG on the mega-fund, said the idea is still being explored. The hope, according to Moss, is that such a fund would contribute not only to North Jersey’s day schools, but to congregational Hebrew schools as well.

“A lot of details have yet to be determined,” he said. “We’ve been, as a Jewish community and a federation in particular, particularly pleased with the efforts that JEFG is undertaking. When we’re ready to move forward with the mega-fund for Jewish education, it’s going to make the project that much more manageable.”

While he is a firm believer in day schools, Goldin said expanding the mega fund to include congregational Hebrew schools is a demonstration of JEFG’s commitment to educate every Jewish child.

“None of us is on an island,” he said.

Indeed, NNJKIDS has pulled together representatives of the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools and earned the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the area’s Orthodox rabbis, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents the area’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis. Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard during NNJKIDS Month that the organization has created a sense of community.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

The government — navigating the separation of church and state

More than 170,000 students in New Jersey attend some 1,200 non-public schools, according to the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of New Jersey. Of those, about 80 percent attend religious schools. The government provides $137 in aid per private-school student — $72 for nursing services and $65 for textbooks. A handful of groups is exploring options to expand that funding within the confines of the separation between church and state.

Schools that will receive part of a $221,367 allocation from the UJA Federation of Northern N.J. during the 2010-11 school year:

• Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School

• Ben Porat Yosef

• The Frisch School

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Solomon Schechter Day School
of Bergen County

• Torah Academy of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshiva Ohr Yosef

• Yeshiva Noam

• Sinai Schools

In one of his final acts in office in December, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to investigate how the state can aid non-public schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, director of education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, co-chaired the commission, which turned in its report to Gov. Chris Christie last month. The 23-member commission also included the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state treasurer and attorney general, charged with monitoring the church-state barrier. As of earlier this week, the commission’s findings had not yet been made public. Schaer declined comment until Christie’s office releases the report.

“Gov. Christie has received the commission’s report and we are currently reviewing its findings,” said Sean L. Conner, a Christie spokesman. “We are working to ensure every child in New Jersey has access to a quality education, no matter their zip code or family’s socioeconomic status.”

Howie Beigelman, deputy director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, testified before the New Jersey Senate’s Committee on Economic Development in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill that would create scholarships to be funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland Senate recently passed a similar bill.

“That will be a great step forward for all of us,” Beigelman told the Standard. “Lower and moderate-income kids can get a scholarship to go to a better school of their choice.”

The IPA is focusing its efforts on the OSA and has all but abandoned the pursuit of school vouchers. Vouchers, according to Beigelman, are “a minefield. While we certainly think legally there are ways to draft it that are appropriate, we think tax credits are easier and in other states help public and non-public schools. We’re happy to help everyone at the same time.”

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the New Jersey State Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Christie’s stance toward school choice.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to have a governor like Gov. Chris Christie who understands the importance of having a child educated in a place where their parents decide is the best place to be educated,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our community to start reaping increased funding for our students.”

Christie has drawn criticism across the state for slashing public school funding. More than half of the proposed school budgets across the state were voted down during April’s contentious school board elections. The elections were particularly contentious in Teaneck because of a slate of candidates for school board who didn’t have children in the public schools. This led to some accusations that some in the Orthodox community were willing to sacrifice the public schools to lower property taxes. This is not the case, Beigelman said.

“We are pro-public school,” Beigelman said. “We also want and need our folks — and everyone who’s in a bad school — to have options.”

The local community is beginning to enter the political arena as well. Jerry Gontownik, vice president of the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC, earlier this year founded EDPAC, dedicated to promoting day-school funding in Trenton.

“We are a PAC that is limited to the state of New Jersey,” Gontownik said, “and focused on encouraging our state elected officials to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools.”

He said one of the areas his group would push is to increase state funding for special education in parochial schools. Tuition at Sinai Schools — which is devoted to special education and has campuses at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck — charges base costs of more than $40,000 for in-state students and more than $50,000 for out-of-state pupils.

“Some people choose for religious reasons to send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “But I don’t think that choice should cut off completely the right of those parents to receive some funding toward the cost of education for their children.”

Like other advocacy groups, EDPAC is waiting for the governor to release the non-public schools report.

“I hope that if and when there is legislation that would assist the community in paying for Jewish education, that the community will appreciate the potential for such legislation and will assist financially in bringing such legislation to fruition.”

The OU

The Orthodox Union first brought the issue to the public’s attention at a conference for educators last year. OU leaders promised action to stem the increasingly prohibitive tuition, and the organization has made some progress, said Cary Friedman, associate director of day-school and educational services at the OU.

Approximately 15 schools throughout the tri-state area have signed on to a joint health insurance program the OU is coordinating. The OU, Friedman said, has created a professional employer organization, Advantec, so that all staff of the schools in the plan become employees of the new, larger organization. That organization then negotiates lower insurance rates for all the employees spread throughout the different schools.

“The whole topic of health care is just a crushing burden for the schools,” Friedman said. “Even though we’re offering good rates, their concerns are if this is going to continue into the future.”

The Internet may provide another source of relief for day schools. Some states have online charter schools, which — if used for secular components of day schools — could represent cost savings of up to 30 percent, Friedman said. This could also be a way around the church-state issue for funding of secular education.

“That online participation a kid can do in his basement, in a public library, or in a yeshiva classroom next to 19 other kids also signed up for the charter classroom,” he said.

New York and New Jersey currently do not permit online charter schools.

The Chabad factor

Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly has run a preschool for 13 years, but each year it has faced a dilemma of continuing education, said executive director Rabbi Mordechai Shain.

In recent years, Shain has noticed a trend among parents to put their children into public school after they finish at Chabad. Their argument, he said, is the high quality of Tenafly schools and the cost: Free.

“That’s our challenge,” Shain said. “How do you balance telling parents that they can have an academic education at no charge and telling them here we’re going to charge you thousands?”

In response, Chabad opened a kindergarten last year with 11 children. In November, registration for the 2010-11 year had reached 40 students. In response to the growth, Chabad created a first-grade class, which will begin in September with a class of 10 at a cost of $9,700 per student for first grade, and $9,400 for kindergarten. Both classes require a $770 registration fee as well.

Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, the closest day school to Tenafly Chabad, said he does not expect the new school to affect Moriah.

Chabad’s school, Shain said, is not meant to detract from any of the existing day schools. He estimated that about half the enrollment of the kindergarten and 60 percent of the first-grade class comes from Tenafly or surrounding areas that don’t have large Orthodox populations or large percentages of students already in day school.

“To reach people here, in this community, there’s no other way if we don’t open our own [school],” Shain said.

The Staten Island option

One of the ideas floated around last year was to create a low-cost day-school that offered basic educational services without many of the perks — advanced computers, smartboards, extra-curricular activities — now common in day schools. This idea never took off, but it caught the attention of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, which charges local students an annual tuition of $8,500.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools distributed more than $300,000 to area elementary schools during its first year. The following schools receive quarterly allocations from the organization:

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Sinai Schools

• Solomon Schechter Day School \of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshivat Noam

JFS extended that tuition rate — which includes $2,000 for transportation — to Bergen County families. Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield sent their three children — ages 6, 9, and 11 — to JFS this year and said they were very happy with the less expensive option.

“We were lucky to have found JFS,” Uri Gutfreund said. “One year after the decision, we are so glad that we made the move and we hope other parents investigate the option for their children.”

The school held two parlor meetings in the area last year and another two in recent months. One additional family has expressed interest in the school for the 2010-11 school year. JFS principal Rabbi Richard Erlich said he has been disappointed with the response so far from Bergen County, but he understands parents’ fears.

“This is a very big jump for a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to decide to remove your children from the local institution and send them 45 minutes away to another state.”

The big stumbling blocks for parents, Gutfreund said, are the commute and social life of the child.

“The social issue is a big mental block,” he said. “It’s going back to the old days when you had shul friends and school friends and neighborhood friends.”

JFS will continue to offer the $8,500 tuition to North Jersey families, Erlich said. About half of the school’s 400-odd students from Staten Island and Brooklyn receive some form of scholarship, but none of those funds is available for New Jersey families. At a few thousand dollars less than the local schools, however, Erlich said New Jersey families are already receiving quite a bargain.

“I’m still surprised,” Erlich said. “Clearly the recession is as entrenched this year as last year. People who didn’t have jobs last year still don’t have jobs this year. I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t a much greater response to our offer.”

How the schools are coping

Funds from NNJKIDS mitigated tuition increases across the board by about $200 per child, according to JEFG and school officials. It’s a start, but many schools still had to raise their rates and find other ways to cut costs.

Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School in Paramus is raising its tuition for the coming year to $10,000, an increase of $1,000 from this year’s rate. The school relies on its efficiency and goodwill of its parents to keep its prices low, said principal Miriam Bak.

One of the areas in which the school saves is by not paying teacher benefits. Most of the staff of almost 30 teachers is part time, though they are well-trained specialists and the school goes out of its way to accommodate schedules, Bak said.

At Ben Porat Yosef, which shares the old Frisch building with Bat Torah, tuition for pre-K rose $400 to $13,600, while tuition for first through fifth grades rose $400 to $14,200. The nursery school lowered its tuition by $1,300 to $7,900 and the toddler class lowered its tuition by $800 to $6,900.

The school has 215 students enrolled for next year, an approximately 40 percent increase from this past year, said Yehuda Kohn, vice president of the school’s board. Next year will also mark the school’s first fifth-grade class.

“Ben Porat Yosef is in a unique position in that we are in a vigorous growth phase,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. “As a result, not only have we not had to cut any staff, but our current fixed costs are now becoming more cost-effective.”

The school held a scholarship walkathon recently that raised more than $60,000. BPY is also working with Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership to create new avenues for revenue without increasing tuition. In addition, the school is “actively pursuing” all cost-cutting ideas, Kohn continued.

“No line item on our budget is immune,” he wrote.

“We’re learning to do more with less. We’re going to have to take on that mantra,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, who spoke with the Standard last month.

Yavneh raised its tuition for kindergarten to fifth grade to $13,300 and tuition for sixth through eighth grade to $13,975 — representing a $200 increase on both levels. The school’s allocation from UJA-NNJ has also decreased in recent years, Kirschner said. The federation gave it $105,000 for the 2005-06 year, while the allocation for 2009-10 was under $30,000.

The non-profit world has been one of the biggest victims of the economic downturn, but UJA-NNJ has increased its 2010-11 allocation to 13 schools to a total of $221,357 — an $8,520 increase from this past year.

“In a year when we kept slack most of our allocations, the day schools got a 4 percent increase,” said Alan Sweifach, the federation’s planning and allocations director. “It’s going to take a solution beyond the allocation. The allocation and the increase to Jewish education is an important message. At least it is a recognition and step in the right direction when the dollars are so limited.”

Tuition levels at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck will remain at the 2009-10 rates, largely thanks to a 10 percent increase in the student body. Salaries were frozen during the 2009-10 year, but teachers can expect to receive “modest” salary increases during the 2010-11 school year, administrator Ceil Olivestone wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. Olivestone praised what she called “efforts to keep a tight control on programs and expenses.”

“While we have not affected any curricular or extracurricular program or expense that would compromise the quality and essence of the chinuch/education that we provide,” she wrote, “the budget was thoroughly reviewed by the administration and lay leadership.”

Fund-raising among parents of current and former students, as well as within the community, provides 10 percent of the school’s budget, Olivestone wrote.

Basic tuition at The Frisch School in Paramus for 2010-11 will increase to $21,950 from $21,250, according to the school’s president, Martin Heistein. About 27 percent of the families of the school’s approximately 660 students this year received some form of scholarship.

The school has also avoided layoffs, Heistein said.

“We’ve reviewed all the remaining aspects of the budget and tried to toe the line where possible,” he said.

Moriah has increased tuition by 1.9 percent across the board, bringing the total for kindergarten to second grade up to $13,380; $13,635 for third through fifth grade; and $14,050 for sixth through eighth grade.

Salaries stayed level this year and will remain the same into next year, he continued. The school did lay off “several” mostly part-time employees, though Prager would not comment on the exact number.

“It’s certainly something we didn’t want to do but felt in order to be financially responsible we had to tighten the staffing somewhat,” he said.

The school has cut back costs on color printing, energy, and is spending on only “necessary purchases” of educational resources, Prager said.

“In the short run, our cost-saving steps, together with whatever help we’ve gotten from NNJKIDS, has at least at the present time, we feel, enabled us to successfully meet the economic challenges we’ve faced this year and into the coming year,” Prager said. “As to what the long-range picture will be only time will tell.”

RYNJ cut 10 jobs and kept salaries flat during the 2009-10 school year. Along with a reduction of positions, responsibilities, and pay, the school avoided a tuition increase from 2008-09 by cutting $500,000 in costs, said the school’s president.

The school projects an enrollment of 970 children in preschool through eighth grade next year, an increase of 35 students, and an average increase of $150, or 1.1 percent, per student per grade, according to Rosenbaum.

The increase breaks down to $255 for grades four through eight, $125 for grades one through three, and no increase for preschool. No other increases are planned, according to Rosenbaum.

The school is also looking to restructure teacher compensation and benefits, including giving tuition breaks for children of employees.

“These efforts are having a one-time impact on our economics but once we get over the initial bump, will position us well in the coming years to manage our costs,” Rosenbaum said.

Sinai also moved one of its elementary programs into RYNJ last year, which has helped defray the costs of the school’s expansion, Rosenbaum said.

“Sinai has been a great addition to our school, and we look forward to finding additional ways to collaborate to reduce costs and run fund-raising programs together,” he said.

RYNJ is one of four schools that saved a combined $24,000 through an electrical group-purchasing plan under UJA-NNJ. The nine-month-old program also includes Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland.

Frisch, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and Moriah School also recently signed up.

“In these turbulent economic times, we recognize the value of working together as a community to reduce costs wherever possible,” said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager.

To make the program work, the schools turn their electric bills over to UJA-NNJ, which then arranges for a single supplier, such as Con Edison or Suez, through Public Service Electricity & Gas. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

“We get multiple bids from potential suppliers. We select the supplier that offers the best product, service, and price,” Holland said. “We’re looking at annual savings up to $45,000 per school on electricity costs alone.”

The program began as part of the Kehillah Partnership, a group of community organizations that works to save on expenses and resources. The Kehillah Cooperative is the cost-sharing arm of the Partnership and it has netted savings for numerous community organizations.

“We started with electricity, saving $350,000 to date, and look forward to working cooperatively with all Jewish non-profits in northern New Jersey,” Holland said. “Our success so far demonstrates the opportunity the Kehillah Cooperative offers schools, as well as agencies and synagogues.”

Looking forward

“Do I think we’re living through tough times? Absolutely,” said Frisch’s Heistein. “It’s a constant challenge.”

One vocal day-school critic has taken to the Internet to vent his views with a blog called The $200k Chump, which takes its name from the high salary required to afford tuition. The anonymous blogger, who declined a telephone or face-to-face interview, claims to be a parent paying full tuition at one of the county’s schools and frequently writes about the “legacy schools” — Frisch, Moriah, and other established day schools — and why efforts to lower tuition there will not succeed.

“Like many here in town, I am struggling to pay the high cost of yeshiva tuition and want to use this blog to explore some REAL solutions to the crisis,” the “Chump” wrote in the blog’s bio. “Some of my proposals may not be popular with many of the administrators, teachers, board members, and scholarship recipients at our local day schools but that is life and I don’t really care much. The system is broken and we need real change before it is too late.”

The blogger has lashed out against school officials, as well as NNJKIDS for raising money the writer claims is used to hire more administrators. The Chump has also written about other alternatives, including charter schools, JFS, and “the nuclear option” — enrolling students in public schools.

Ideas for charter schools — an Englewood man has been trying to create a Hebrew language charter for two years — and after-school Talmud Torah programs — the Jewish Center of Teaneck has flirted with the idea and is ready to go if enough families show interest, according to Rabbi Lawrence Zierler — are not new but have yet to gain steam. The community has a responsibility to continue exploring all options, said JEFG’s Goldin.

The OU’s Friedman warned against complacency, even if the national economic picture looks brighter.

“The economy seems to be in a little bit of a respite, but nothing has changed,” he said. “If we delude ourselves and pretend it’s going away, it’s not going to go away.”

 
 

Rabbi Helfgot’s Statement of Principles urges sensitivity toward gays in Orthodoxy

Excerpts from the Statement of Principles

Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.

We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject
therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.

Jews with a homosexual orientation who live in the Orthodox community confront serious emotional, communal, and psychological challenges that cause them and their families great pain and suffering…. Rabbis and mental health professionals must provide responsible and ethical assistance to congregants and clients dealing with those human challenges.

The decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.

Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community. As appropriate with regard to gender and lineage, they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join. Conversely, they must accept and fulfill all the responsibilities of such membership, including those generated by communal norms or broad Jewish principles that go beyond formal halakhah.

Halakhic Judaism cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood. But communities should display sensitivity, acceptance and full embrace of the adopted or biological children of homosexually active Jews in the synagogue and school setting, and we encourage parents and family of homosexually partnered Jews to make every effort to maintain harmonious family relations and connections.

Jews who have an exclusively homosexual orientation should, under most circumstances, not be encouraged to marry someone of the other gender, as 
this can lead to great tragedy, unrequited love, shame, dishonesty, and ruined
lives.

 
 

What do we do when we disagree?

Wedding announcement controversy leads to communal soul-searching

image

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.”

 
 

‘The answers lie in our love for our daughter’

 
 
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