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‘America deserves better’: A call for health-care reform

 

Beth Am seeks to sell building, merge with other shul

You can find a lot on the Teaneckshuls e-mail list: appliances, doctors, even somebody to bring packages to Israel. Earlier this week, readers learned that Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Am is for sale.

The Reform synagogue has initiated a plan to merge with one of the four surrounding Reform synagogues — Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, or Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia — although Beth Am leaders have not yet begun discussions as to which one.

“The congregation is grappling with its future and it’s trying to decide how to proceed,” said Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld. “It’s a self-examination based on demographics, based on community vitality.”

Barry Dounn, Beth Am’s treasurer, said the synagogue would like to complete a merger within a year. Because of the lagging real estate market, synagogue leaders decided to put the building on the market now, rather than wait until a deal is completed.

“We’re expecting it will take a while” to sell the building, he said.

A group of Teaneck residents created Beth Am in 1964 and moved into its Claremont Avenue building the following year. During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Beth Am had a membership of 140 to 160 families. Now the shul has 40 member-families. The board decided in late 2008 to begin working on a merger, although, Dounn said, putting the building on the market is the first active step it has taken.

“We’ve got a long and valued history,” he said. “It’s something of a difficult decision we’re going through. We need to be realistic and realize that we’ve gotten too small to survive and operate the way we have been.”

In 2008, Union for Reform Judaism leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie said that cash-strapped Reform synagogues could merge with financially struggling Conservative synagogues. Beth Am’s leadership, however, would like to merge with another Reform synagogue, said Dounne.

Rosenfeld, who has been with Beth Am for 13 years, said that much of the Teaneck Jewish community has become more traditional, and two Reform synagogues are no longer sustainable.

“People are beginning to mourn what will be lost, but at the same time people are looking toward, hopefully, the creation of a stronger synagogue,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the end of an era but the beginning of new possibilities.”

Ed Malberg, president of the Union for Reform Judaism’s New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council, has seen a number of Bergen County congregations from various streams seeking out mergers in recent years. The Reform population in the county is not as numerous as it was 30 years ago, he said, but in other parts of the state — such as Morris, Somerset, and Mercer counties — Jews are moving into areas where they had not previously clustered.

“It’s the kind of thing we saw much more frequently in Bergen and Essex 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.

The Reform movement remains strong, he said. He pointed to the movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth and camps, which he said have shown strong numbers last year and will likely top that this year.

Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn merged with Temple Sholom in River Edge last year to become Temple Avodat Shalom. Rabbi Jonathan Woll, Avoda’s religious leader, did not join the merged congregation in River Edge. Dounn said no decision has been made as to whether Rosenfeld or Cantor Susan Cohen DeStefano would continue in their roles after a merger.

 
 

Groups weigh in on flotilla confrontation

NEW YORK – The main U.S. Jewish umbrella organization is defending Israel’s raid of the flotilla heading to Gaza, but several left-wing groups are blaming the incident on officials in Jerusalem and calling for an investigation.

“We regret the loss of life and the injuries. But the responsibility for these tragic events lies primarily with those who organized and carried out this extremist mission and those that aided and abetted them,” said the heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main pro-Israel umbrella group in the United States.

Several members of the Presidents Conference and other pro-Israel groups issued similar statements, including the American Jewish Committee, which accused the pro-Hamas Free Gaza movement and its supporters of deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with the Israeli navy early Monday morning.

But several U.S. Jewish groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu — are pointing the finger at Israel.

Nine activists were killed and several dozen protesters injured aboard a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza during rioting after Israeli naval forces boarded the ships to redirect them to an Israeli port. The flotilla was attempting to break the Israeli navy’s blockade of the strip. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured.

Israel has circulated videos showing that their troops were attacked as they boarded the ships.

J Street and Ameinu called for independent investigations and cautioned observers against making any judgments before all the facts are known. At the same time, both organizations blamed the confrontation on Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza — a policy adopted in order to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Ameinu said that such incidents play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. J Street argued that there are “better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”

In addition to slamming the blockade, Americans for Peace Now also sought to portray the flotilla incident as part of an ongoing Israeli government effort to stifle dissent. It called for “an end to the radicalization of the Israeli government’s language and policy” and endorsed the idea that Israel is increasingly earning “the brutal and violent image it acquired in the last years.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue movement in the country and an organization that has backed robust U.S. peacemaking efforts, issued a statement that defended Israel’s actions and called for stepped-up efforts to “examine” any humanitarian needs in Gaza.

“We note that the Hamas government, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and which has long been responsible for attacks against Israeli forces and civilian centers, cannot expect to have open borders,” said the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “We also note that humanitarian aid sent to Gaza in the past has often been used as a cover for delivering weapons and military supplies.”

Yoffie added that in addition to working to address Jerusalem’s security need, the U.S. government and Israel needed to examine “the plight of those living in Gaza who require additional humanitarian assistance.”

“Recent events underscore the urgent need for real progress in addressing both sets of concerns,” Yoffie said.

JTA

 
 

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.

 
 

For Richard Jacobs, new Reform head, big tent movement is the idea

For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members, and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

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Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y., has been tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Union for Reform Judaism

In an interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism — including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy, and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said. “What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is “large and unwieldy,” the URJ underperforms when it comes to fund-raising, and it “is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.”

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization “peremptory and ineffectively executed.”

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summer for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the incoming head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change.”

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised,” Jacobs told JTA, “for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes told The Jewish Standard, “Rabbi Rick Jacobs is both visionary and humble. His life’s service addresses the critical issues facing our people: the vitality of our congregations, and our obligation to respond to the needy. He will lift us to new heights.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

 
 

Reform Judaism in transition

Local synagogues ready to plan the future

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After 16 years as leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie handed the reins to Rabbi Richard Jacobs at last weekend’s convention.

Local leaders of Reform congregations returned from the movement’s biennial convention in a Washington suburb floating on clouds, energized, and determined to meet the challenge — set by the movement’s leadership — of more than doubling synagogue participation by high school seniors by the end of this decade.

“We all came back so charged up,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “It was a fantastic renewal opportunity.”

With more than 6,000 attendees, the biennial was the largest ever, the first to be sold out, and one of the largest indoor gatherings of American Jews ever.

“It was amazing,” said Irene Bolton, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It is the most awesome experience to sit in a space with 6,000 other Jews and to participate in Shabbat services as a group, and to be awed by the feeling of spirituality that permeates a space like that,” she said.

“You have to walk out of the biennial saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s hope for the Jewish people,’” she said.

The president of the Union of Reform Judaism leads the denomination in a way unmatched by his Orthodox or Conservative counterparts. This is a function of the URJ’s centrality within the Reform movement’s constellation of organizations, as well as the fact that, unlike the parallel organizations, the presidency of the URJ is a full-time position. Both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union are nominally headed by lay leaders who hold relatively short tenures.

Biennial pronouncements and initiatives by URJ leaders are subsequently quoted in a way reminiscent of how Chabad-Lubavitch followers quote the teachings of their late leader.

This year, the theme seemed to be reinventing Reform congregations to create “sustainable” communities that can retain the next generation.

The scope of the challenge was highlighted by the farewell sermon of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose 16 years at the URJ’s helm ended at the event. Yoffie noted that neither of his children belong to Reform synagogues.

Yoffie’s son, 28, is not a member of a synagogue, “but feels very much connected to his Jewish identity, and Israel and social justice are big passions for him,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

“His daughter is married and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue, but still considers herself a Reform Jew. She reads Torah on Shabbat morning,” said Mosbacher.

“Things need to change in how we educate our kids and how we sustain our families. That’s the challenge of the movement, and the opportunity, if we think big and creatively,” said Mosbacher.

With its new “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the URJ is focusing on the statistic that “80 percent of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no connection of any kind to their Jewish community by the time they reach 12th grade,” in the wording on the campaign’s web site.

“We can’t abide that,” said Mosbacher. “We can’t move forward as a movement with those demographics. We have to figure out ways to engage our youth and, by extension, the families that belong to the congregation in a different kind of way.”

“The goal of the campaign is that by 2020, we move that number from 20 percent to 50 percent who will stay involved through high school,” he said.

While the campaign defines a goal, it does not prescribe set programs to achieve it.

This reflects a bottom-up approach that attendees connect to the agenda of the new URJ president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

“We’re really moving away from that hierarchical corporate approach to how we do business, to a sense of looking outside of ourselves and saying, who needs us, how do we draw people in, how do we engage Jews in a meaningful way,” said Frishman.

“The youth engagement campaign is about helping the congregations ask intentional, challenging questions about themselves, about whether everything is as excellent as can be,” said Mosbacher. “If it’s not excellent, what are the other methods that are out there that can make the synagogue excellent?

“Rabbi Jacobs said we should not be talking about the unaffiliated; we should talk about uninspiring congregations. We need to look at what’s inspiring people.

“My educator and my cantor and my lay leadership have come back eager to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we ask those hard questions of ourselves, we will necessarily need to come up with new and creative alternatives,” he said.

The changes called for at the biennial are less a U-turn than an acceleration of changes Reform congregations are making to deal with a changing world.

Take the example of Hebrew school — clearly central to engaging teenagers.

“To say that ‘I hated Hebrew school and you my child will hate Hebrew school’ is not a sustainable model. But there are excellent models. We need to see how to use them,” said Mosbacher. “Drop-off Hebrew school is not the most excellent model we can offer,” he said.

Seven years ago, his congregation began a family school, where children and adults study Hebrew and Judaics together. Data show that participating families are more connected to the synagogue — “though whether that’s because they’re self-selected is for the professional demographers to figure out.”

The challenge now: how to make the family school the rule, not the exception.

At Barnert Temple, said Frishman, “we’re involved in an educational self-study looking at how we teach our youth and our adults. We’re looking to completely re-examine our methodology and our outreach, as a way of engaging people meaningfully.”

The study held its initial focus groups two weeks ago, and the plan is for the study to be completed in about a year.

“This work is as much about engaging people in the process, and having the process be determined by participants. By the time we have figured out what we’re doing, we’ll already be doing it. This is all the thinking that goes on behind community organizing, which is at the heart of the leadership that goes on at the URJ,” said Frishman.

The fact that the process is already underway, however, did not diminish the significance of the biennial. “When you’re with all these other synagogues and everybody is hearing this message, It’s a chance to say, ‘it’s not just us, this is the way it’s being done,’” she said.

Similarly, Temple Beth Or is in the initial stages of a major educational change. The congregation has just begun a new program for its post-bar mitzvah students — the focus of the youth engagement initiative — in the wake of the ending of the closure last year of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism.

“As a congregation, we picked up that piece after BARJ. We understood that there was a need to integrate students into Jewish life and learning. We were sad that BARJ was no longer in existence, but you know the expression that God closes a door and opens a window? We were able to open the window.”

“We found we had very few students attending BARJ. Today, we have 25 students in a post-bar mitzvah program who are learning together, who are having fun together, who are building community together, and who are here on the same night as the younger students.

“We can find ways to involve the teens in coming back and reading Torah again, or being present for a minyan if we have a shiva minyan, or helping us with our caring committee,” said Bolton.

Her work as an educator is not just focused on the “classroom environment, but I’m thinking about what kind of programs can we provide, what kind of mentors and role models can we provide, how are we going to work with them on an intergenerational basis so there will be a charismatic adult in their life,” she said.

This shift from classic textbook education to experiential education is something that Bolton said was evident in the way the biennial convention has changed over the years that she has attended.

“This biennial was much more about experiencing, feeling, and participating, whereas when I began in Jewish education over 30 years ago and went to my first biennial, it was much more about what class can we offer, what project can we do, what program will work. Today, it was much more about the big picture, about helping people internalize and find meaning.

“Teaching Torah is what this was all about. Building community, finding ways for us to link together, to connect, to become a more caring community that puts Torah at the center,” said Bolton.

The bottom line, said Frishman, “is understanding how living Jewishly as a Reform Jew is powerful. It gives you a voice in the work of the world. Our mission is not just to light a Chanukah menorah; it’s to light it and think ‘How can the light of Judaism inspire me to light the world and open my arms to everyone? ‘It’s the message of Reform Judaism, part and parcel of who we are as Reform Jews, to know that what I’ve learned as a Jew isn’t for me alone, but for the way I interact with the stranger and help the life of the stranger to improve.”

 
 
 
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