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Sperber to explore the role of women in worship during Teaneck talk

While women’s participation in the synagogue service remains a controversial issue within the Orthodox movement, Rabbi Daniel Sperber says his writings on the subject have generally been greeted “respectfully.”

Sperber — professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University in Israel as well as prolific author, pulpit rabbi, and 1992 winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies — will speak in Teaneck later this month, advocating for greater involvement by women in communal worship.

An Orthodox rabbi, Sperber said he is trying to counter the “mistaken” idea that such participation is not halachic. That idea “is based on a lack of understanding, on a sociological situation that is no longer relevant,” he said.

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Rabbi Daniel Sperber

The rabbi’s views are expanded in “Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives,” published recently by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. According to a JOFA spokesperson, the book includes not only Sperber’s position but also two essays opposing that view by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Prof. Eliav Shochetman, thus demonstrating “the dynamic nature of the halachic process.”

Longtime JOFA board member Pam Scheininger, a Teaneck resident and president of Netivot Shalom, said she had read Sperber’s article before receiving the JOFA publication. While “he makes a great deal of sense,” she said, “both arguments have merit and are laid out very well.”

Scheininger said she applauded JOFA for “striving to give an honest analysis” of the issue, “presenting both arguments to empower the readers to come to their own decisions. It tries to be intellectually honest,” she said, “and to get members to think through and learn through these issues and try to participate in a meaningful way.”

“Many congregations are struggling with these questions in their own community and are not sure whether to make a certain move in a certain direction,” said Sperber, adding that they are “very grateful” when he presents his position. Still, he said, he ensures that they make their own decisions, asking “whether they’re willing to take on themselves all the possible sociological implications,” such as criticism from local rabbis.

Scheininger agrees that the role of women is high on the agenda of Orthodox synagogues. Independent of the specific issue of women reading Torah, she said, “Most Modern Orthodox congregations are struggling with the issue of women’s participation, trying to find a level of partnership they’re comfortable with.”

“In each Modern Orthodox congregation, discussion is happening as to how best to meet the needs of the whole community as well as those of individual members,” she said.

“Rabbi Sperber is a tremendous Torah mind and I’m sure many people will come out to hear him.”

“I go where I am invited to speak,” said Sperber, noting that even those who do not accept his views tend to be “respectful of them.” He said he began publishing his views on this subject several years ago. “Since then, I have been ‘on the circuit,’” he joked.

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He noted that several Orthodox synagogues in Israel, following the example of Jerusalem congregation Shira Hadasha, are already “semi-egalitarian,” adding that he believes such synagogues will become more numerous and more acceptable. His own congregation, Menachem Zion Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, is not likely to be one of them, he said.

Sperber said that not only was he aware of the recent controversy involving Rabbi Avi Weiss — who came under fire for dubbing a female rabbinic staff member “rabba,” replacing her previous title, “maharat” — but he had tried to discourage Weiss from taking that step.

“I was one of the signatories to her smicha, I tested her,” he said. Nevertheless, when discussions arose about changing her title, “I advised against it, suggesting that they take some time to let [the title] ‘maharat’ sink in.” He said the resulting flap reached Israel, “but not with the same degree of acrimony.”

“Here we hardly have women functioning in this position,” he said. “Certainly there is no official recognition.”

Sperber will speak about the JOFA book Friday evening, June 25, at the Davar Institute and on Shabbat morning, June 26, at Netivot Shalom. On late Shabbat afternoon, he will deliver a talk at Rinat Yisrael on not eating meat or drinking wine during the three weeks before Tisha b’Av.

For additional information, call (212) 679-8500 or visit .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

When is a twin (city) not a twin (city)?

When Wikipedia says it is

A 2007 editorial mistake by an unnamed Canadian has been roiling Teaneck township council meetings.

Earlier this year, Teaneck resident Rich Siegel discovered an article on Wikipedia that asserted that Teaneck was a twin city with Beit Yatir, a Jewish village just over the 1967 border in the west bank. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is one of the most popular sites on the internet.

Siegel, who describes himself as a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, set out to find the origins of this relationship.

“First I wrote the mayor and he ignored me,” Siegel told the Jewish Standard. Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin did not return requests for comment.

“Then I sent certified letters to the mayor and all the members of the town council. It was at some expense, but I wanted to show them I was serious about getting an answer,” Siegel said.

Siegel did hear from Elie Katz, a council member who is a former mayor, who said he had never heard of the twinning. Neither had Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor and former council member whose tenure on the council dated back to 1996.

Siegel spoke at a council meeting in January, demanding that township officials publicly renounce the connection. In February, following a letter he wrote on the topic that appeared in the Suburbanite, five other residents stood up at the council meeting to protest the reported twinning.

“We were able to determine that no one had brought this before the town council. They just decided to set the thing up unilaterally,” said Siegel.

Who “they” were was not clear to him.

However, an investigation of the editing history of the Wikipedia article about Beit Yatir shows that the reference to a twinning with Teaneck was inserted by a Canadian editor who goes by the name “Shuki.” Shuki had added a line that Beit Yatir was twinned with Teaneck in 2007, shortly after creating the article, which he based on one in the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia.

The Hebrew article, however, made no mention of a twinning relationship with Teaneck.

Shuki did not return a request for comment left on his Wikipedia user page. According to that page, he has created 149 Wikipedia articles and is responsible for more than 10,000 editorial changes to the site in his five years of Wikipedia involvement. Most of his articles concern Israeli places and personalities. He has been heavily involved in the disputes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors that make articles on topics as apparently neutral as hummus deeply contentious. In December, he was banned from editing Wikipedia for six months, for allegedly using a false account to vote on the deletion of controversial articles concerning Israelis and Palestinians.

So why did Shuki claim a connection between Beit Yatir and Teaneck?

Most probably because there actually is a link between the two communities: Beit Yatir has long been twinned with Teaneck’s Beth Aaron congregation.

The synagogue has supported Beit Yatir’s summer camp and playgrounds, according to congregation president Larry Shafier. Synagogue members visiting in Israel have gone to Beit Yatir and posted snapshots on the congregation’s website. Beit Yatir residents have written articles for the Beth Aaron newsletter.

As for the Beit Yatir article on Wikipedia: This week it was corrected to read that the twinning was with the congregation.

Could Teaneck decide to officially twin with an Israeli town?

“It would be something to be viewed on a case-by-case basis,” said Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen. “We certainly don’t have a policy for twinning with other municipalities.”

Siegel said he personally would oppose an effort to twin Teaneck with an Israeli city. “I’m an anti-Zionist. I would be personally against a twin town relationship within the Green Line as well.”

Nonetheless, he said, “if it went through proper channels, by a vote of the people of Teaneck or the town council, that would be none of my business. My concern is people acting unilaterally.”

At present, 18 New Jersey municipalities are twinned with foreign partners — if Wikipedia can be believed. And in the case of its listing of New Jersey municipal twinnings, it can’t be. According to the listing, the city of Camden has twinned with Gaza City.

But there are no citations, no references to the twinning discovered online, and, perhaps most compellingly, said David Snyder, the local Jewish official whose job it would be to monitor official ties between Camden and pro-Palestinian groups, that it’s news to him.

“I have never heard of this and cannot imagine it,” said Synder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. “I’ve been in the community for 20 years and that has never come up.”

Other synagogue twinning projects

Beth Aaron’s twinning with Beit Yatir is only one of a number of direct connections between Bergen County and Israel.

At least two other Orthodox congregations have twinned with communities in the west bank.

Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck has twinned with Otniel, a village of 120 families about seven miles northwest of Beit Yatir. The American congregation has bought security equipment for Otniel, and sends shalach manot to each resident on Purim.

The Young Israel of Fort Lee partners with Dolev. “In the early years, we supported them financially and helped them found a day care and kindergarten,” says Rabbi Neil Winkler.

Three additional congregations, two Reform and one Conservative, have twinned with Israeli congregations:

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes is twinned with Cong. Yozma in Modiin. “In 2006, we brought a Torah to them. Since then, we visit Yozma every other year with our congregational trips,” says Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has a long-standing relationship with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa, which includes sponsoring scholarships at the Reform community’s school.

The Jewish Community Center of Paramus is an overseas member of Kehilat Yaar Ramot, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem. “We try to support their fund-raising efforts when we can,” says Rabbi Arthur Weiner.

 
 

Cinematography without the sin at Maale Jerusalem film school

It bills itself as the only Jewish film school in the world.

Founded in 1989, The Maale School of Television, Film & the Arts in Jerusalem has two related goals. It offers a place where religious students can study filmmaking, and its graduates create films that reflect the experiences, sensitivities, and concerns of Israel’s modern Orthodox community.

That makes the movies — which its students create as their senior projects — a natural for Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael, said David Jacobowitz of the congregation’s adult education committee. The shul will be screening three short movies from the school Sunday at 7:45 p.m.

“I was struck by how relevant the films are to the issues that religious Jews face anywhere,” he said, “and also how professionally well-made they were.

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A scene from “Shabbos Mother,” top, “The Orthodox Way,” and “Willingly.”

“They represent the personal experience of people grappling with angst over what it means to be religious, how they relate to society, and the many issues that come up for a religious Jew in Israel today.”

Maale has 100 students and more than 200 graduates, 80 percent of whom work in Israel’s television and film industry. The school’s impact is embodied in the popular 2008 Israeli television series “Srugim,” which takes its name from the knitted kippot worn by the modern Orthodox characters. Created by a Maale graduate, it chronicles the life of Orthodox singles in Jerusalem.

The Maale curriculum includes standard courses in all aspects of filmmaking and the history of film, along with some unique Jewish courses, such as one on Judaism and aesthetics. The program is four years, with the second half focused on producing the graduation film.

As an independent institution, Maale is not under specific rabbinic oversight.

“There is a basic sense that the film’s sensibilities should be in line with Jewish sensibilities,” said Harold Berman, the school’s New Jersey-born director of resource development. “You won’t find nudity or hard-core violence, and it actually challenges the filmmakers to dig deeper. Anyone can film a bedroom scene. It doesn’t take much creativity. To hint at things, without having it all out there, requires creativity and requires the students to dig deep, and in the end it produces better films.

“We’re a big tent,” he added. “We do have a rabbi on staff, and the rabbi has a committee. Issues do come up. Not only whether something crosses the line in terms of being too graphic but also ethical issues,” such as whether a documentary film portrays its interview subjects fairly.

The rabbi — Mordechai Vardi — not only heads the school’s Institute for Torah and Creativity, he also heads the school’s screenwriting track, and is studying for a master’s degree at the Tel Aviv University film school.

Berman says the Israeli modern Orthodox community is better connected to the world of culture than its American counterparts.

“It’s not a question of how do we create culture in the Orthodox community and how does it relate to the larger work. Here, it’s what do we have to say to inform Israeli society, what is our place in the Israeli society,” he said.

“For example, if you go to the music conservatory in Jerusalem, you’ll find lots of teachers wearing kippot. I don’t think you’ll find that in Juilliard. The fact that people got together to start an Orthodox film school — it’s more organic here.”

In Teaneck, Jacobowitz agrees that the Maale offers a vision not found in the American Orthodox community.

“It broadens the possibilities that exist for professional development and creativity for Orthodox young people,” he said. “It shows that there are ways to fulfill one’s creative urge that go perhaps beyond the box of what many Orthodox people think are the possibilities.”

 
 

Good news, bad news

Jewish groups granted lion’s share of area’s federal security funds

The Department of Homeland Security last week announced the allocation of $19 million for 2011 to non-profit institutions deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The allocations were made as part of its Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).

With $14.9 million, or about 80 percent of the NSGP allocations, going to Jewish institutions, Jewish groups across the country received security dollars disproportionate to their numbers in the general population.

That is not necessarily the “good” news, however. The DHS makes its allocations based strictly on risk-assessment, according to Robert Goldberg, senior director, legislative affairs, for The Jewish Federations of North America, which helps Jewish organizations apply for the grants. “Really since the establishment of this program, Jewish entities have been the primary recipients of program awards based on risk assessment,” Goldberg told The Jewish Standard.

Goldberg said the NSGP program was formed as a result of efforts by the Jewish Federations of North America, specifically its Washington office, “to connect the dots on the threats to the Jewish community for decision-makers in Congress and within the Administration.”

He added, “The Orthodox Union from the start of the program has been a close and active advocate with us.”

According to the web site of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which helps to administer the NSGP, “[Fiscal year] 2011 NSGP funds were allocated based on risk analysis, effectiveness, and integration with broader state and local preparedness efforts. Each nonprofit organization was able to apply…for up to a $75,000 grant award.”

Locally, Jewish institutions received $550,000 — the lion’s share of the $700,000 in NSGP grants allocated to all Northern New Jersey non-profits. Eight area Jewish institutions qualified for the grants, said Alan Sweifach, planning and allocations director at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, who helped institutions apply for the funds.

The NSGP, which has existed since 2007, earmarks funds exclusively for physical improvements, such as security barriers, shatterproof glass windows, security cameras, upgrades to keys and locks, and other security measures, Sweifach said.

Since 2007, the DHS has awarded 36 grants through the NSGP program to 25 institutions in Northern New Jersey. “The fact we’ve received over $2.6 million since 2007 is a terrific result,” said Sweifach. “On a sad note, it shows our institutions have demonstrated they are at risk, and that’s been recognized.”

Local Jewish institutions that received NSGP funding this year are all schools and synagogues: in Teaneck, Cong. Beth Aaron, Cong. B’nai Yeshurun, and Cong. Rinat Yisrael; Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland; Temple Emanu-El in Closter; Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; Chabad Lubavitch on the Hudson in Fort Lee; and The Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple (Congregation B’nai Jeshurun) in Franklin Lakes.

The risk is real and the allocations demonstrate that, said Sweifach.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate Jewish organizations are at high risk, they’ve received threats, and some have had attacks,” he said.

Recent hate crimes and attempted attacks in the greater New York-New Jersey area include the 2009 attempt by four men to bomb the Riverdale Temple (a Reform synagogue) and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center (an Orthodox synagogue), and a May 2011 plot by two New York men to attack synagogues and churches. One of the men allegedly planned to dress as a chasid in order to more easily infiltrate and bomb a synagogue.

The FBI reported in 2009 that anti-Jewish crimes represented more than 70 percent of all anti-religious hate crimes, marking the 12th consecutive year that anti-Jewish bias crimes topped the list, according to Hate Crime Statistics, the FBI’s annual report, for that year.

Sweifach has helped local organizations obtain security assessments and prepare applications for the NSGP grants. Grantees, he said, have three years to spend the money, which they must lay out themselves and for which they will be reimbursed later. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness monitors the organizations granted funding to insure that the intended improvements actually are implemented, he said.

While three of the eight institutions that received grants this year had received grants previously, DHS typically prioritizes institutions that have not yet received grants.

“They try to spread the wealth,” Sweifach said.

New Jersey, specifically the Newark-Jersey City region, which includes sections of Northern New Jersey, received the fifth highest allocation of NSGP funds this year, suggesting DHS assessed it as one of the nation’s highest risk areas, according to Goldberg.

While the DHS does not publicly share its risk-assessment process in awarding the grants, recent news reports indicate “lone wolf” terrorists — or disgruntled individuals acting independently — top the list of threats.

“Many high profile ‘lone wolf’ cases have targeted the Jewish community,” Sweifach said.

Institutions that are not specifically Jewish receiving NSGP grants in this area were mostly hospitals and included Holy Name Medical Center, according to Goldberg.

 
 
 
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