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Interfaith teens to discuss their identity

Leaders plan to listen, not lecture

Felicia Sparozic gets presents for both Chanukah and Christmas. While she says “I make out pretty well,” at times she wishes she could talk with other teenagers about being between worlds.

“My mom’s Jewish and my dad isn’t,” said the 16-year-old junior at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes. “At times I’ve thought, ‘It would be good to hear from kids who are in the same boat.’”

Felicia will get her wish on Wednesday, March 16, when she and other local teens will gather to share stories and discuss issues related to growing up in interfaith families.

Hosted by Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, the “Teen to Teen Listening Tour” is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Goldberg.

Goldberg, a dentist who practices in Midland Park, would like to provide young people ages 16 to 18 with a chance to investigate their Jewish identity.

“We hope they will learn more about Judaism in this forum, and it might give them a seed to look further into their Jewish identity,” Goldberg told The Jewish Standard. “But we can’t do that by lecturing to them; they have to come to that conclusion themselves.”

Goldberg, the immediate past president of Temple Beth Rishon, initiated the project after taking part in a Torah study program that encouraged him to give back to the community. He says the idea was inspired by his own experience as a teen, when at times he feared that embracing Judaism might mean rejecting the Christian side of his family.

“I had grandparents in another culture and 65 cousins in another culture,” he said. “You want to respect the Christian side of your family but you also want to feel comfortable in your own skin [as a Jew]. It [will be] a forum for kids to come and discuss how they balance the two cultures.”

Goldberg approached Karen Brand, outreach coordinator of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, after seeing an article in this newspaper about her work with youngsters. JFSNJ will co-organize the project along with Beth Rishon and Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, a synagogue in Mahwah.

The evening will be social; kids will be served pizza and have a chance to share their stories.

Rabbis Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom and Kenneth Emert of Beth Rishon have lent their support to the program; both rabbis have sent an invitation to families in their congregations who have teenagers. They have also asked those teens to invite other teens from interfaith families. All area teens are welcome.

Leah Kaufman, executive director of JFSNJ, says that above all, the evening should be fun.

“It is a difficult age; lots of kids struggle then,” said Kaufman. “This is a support network for them to talk with peers and try to find their own answers. Each person is different.”

The religious portion will come from Rabbi Leana Moritt, who along with Brand will lead the discussion.

The evening will not be a lecture about the dangers of assimilation, but a chance to listen to teens and provide them with a forum to share feelings, as well as to give them guidance in how they can address their questions about being Jewish, according to Moritt, whose organization, Thresholds (http://www.Jewishthresholds.org), which is co-sponsoring the event, specializes in counseling interfaith couples and families.

“Look, it would be disingenuous to say this is not a Jewish program,” Moritt said. “[But] we’re not looking to give them a litmus test. They have questions [and] stories. What does it mean if their family goes to church and synagogue? If they are feeling Jewish does that mean they can’t go to their Christian family for Christmas? Do they have to minimize their experiences with the side of their loving family that is not Jewish? This is about being able to address their questions and challenges.”

The pilot session will take place at 7 p.m. at Beth Rishon. Another session is planned there for March 23. For more information, call Goldberg at (201) 970-1351 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

HaZamir: Teenagers reach for heights in music and spirit

‘Chai anniversary’ concert set for Lincoln Center

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HaZamir Bergen County teens rehearse on a recent Sunday for the upcoming Lincoln Center gala celebrating the eighteenth birthday of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. Ilana Schear

If Shachar Avraham had to give up something, it would not be HaZamir.

The 16-year-old junior at The Frisch School in Paramus has sung in HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir for four years. He says that not only is it a musical and social outlet, but HaZamir — which has 19 chapters in the United States and Israel and is now in its 18th year — is, for him, a spiritual gift.

“Music is a passion of mine and to be honest, Jewish music spiritually uplifts me,” Shachar told The Jewish Standard. “I do a lot of extracurricular activities, and if I had to give up something, it would not be HaZamir.”

This spiritual joy is one part of the vision of Matthew Lazar, founder of HaZamir’s high school choir movement and the Zamir Choral Foundation, the umbrella organization that also includes an adult choir, Zamir Chorale.

After joining Zamir Chorale in 1972 as a teenager himself (he participated in the adult choir because there was not one for teenagers at that time), Lazar told the Standard, he “was inspired to create an opportunity for Jewish teenagers to sing first-rate music combined with Jewish texts at the highest level, all within the context of a community,” meaning the choir. “I understood as a teen how great it would feel for a teenager to have this kind of experience.”

Envisioning a “plethora of choirs” for teens across the U.S. and the world, Lazar started by founding the first, in Manhattan, in 1963. At present, there are 19, including one in Israel.

Twenty-three Israeli teens will join 235 teenagers from chapters across the country, including chapters from Bergen County and North Jersey, in a March 27 gala concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall at Lincoln Center. Sold out for the past month, the concert will be a celebration of HaZamir’s 18th birthday — 18 signifying chai, or life, in Hebrew.

The teens will spend the weekend before the concert at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in the Catskills rehearsing, talking, and learning from one another, according to Sima Rolnick, coordinator of the Israel chapter, which is based at Katzenelson High School in Kfar Saba, 25 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv.

This social weekend, a HaZamir tradition, enables American and Israeli teens to “talk about being 17 and a half and going into the army as opposed to being 17 and a half and going into college,” Rolnick said, adding that the Israeli teens “learn that Israel is important to American Judaism and American Judaism is important to Israel — if we had no support outside Israel we’d die.”

Musically speaking, HaZamir combines old and new, according to Leon Sher, conductor of HaZamir Bergen County, which meets on Sundays at Temple Sholom in Teaneck and has 37 participants.

While he says the various conductors have some discretion in terms of musical selection, HaZamir exposes teenagers to a range of Jewish music, including liturgical tunes “from the 1600s” as well as “really cool pop music — remember, these are teenagers.”

Sher added, “The kids enjoy doing pop stuff and also very adult, mature-sounding music. These kids … mostly perform off the book,” meaning that they sing by heart without looking at sheet music.

HaZamir is social, too.

“Sunday mornings the kids run to one another screaming and hug,” said Sher. “It’s not just teenage hormones. They feel very connected to each other.”

“Whether liturgical, folk, classical, secular, or religious, all are texts of Jewish people,” Lazar said.

At the Lincoln Center gala, one selection will be Debbie Friedman’s “Shalom Aleichem,” performed as a tribute to the composer, who died this year.

Vivian Lazar, national director of HaZamir (and Matthew Lazar’s wife), explained that choral music is written for four voice categories: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. With its dedication to showcasing a range of voices and incorporating various types of Jewish music, the movement seeks to unite Jewish teens across denominations.

“HaZamir bridges gaps and differences among the Jewish people,” Vivian Lazar said.

“They’re able to express their diverse Jewish identities through singing together in the choral community,” her husband added.

Every HaZamir concert ends with performance of David Burger’s “Prayer for Peace in the State of Israel.”

Burger, a Jewish-American composer, wrote the piece following the Yom Kippur War. It sets to music the text of a prayer written by rabbis in 1948 for the security of the Jewish state — and for peace.

This song, said Vivian Lazar, in the voices of 250 teenagers who have come to know one another through their shared passion for music, “truly becomes a prayer. They are praying for the peace and safety of their friends, who are going to serve in the [Israeli] army next year.”

HaZamir Bergen County will be part of a synagogue-wide concert at Teaneck’s Beth Sholom on May 22 at 4 p.m. Tickets will be sold through the synagogue office, (201) 833-2620. For information on HaZamir Bergen County, e-mail Ronit Hannan, coordinator, at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). For information on HaZamir North Jersey, call Cantor Joel Caplan, its conductor (973) 226-3600, ext. 116, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). For information on the HaZamir Choral Foundation, visit www.zamirchoralfoundation.org.

 
 

After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

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

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

“The issues were economic,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 
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