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Shuls become bloggers and tweeters

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Participants at Darim Online’s social media boot camp on Long Island in October learn to tweet, among other skills. Courtesy Darim Online

Cong. Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nev., webcasts its bar and bat mitzvah services for family and friends who cannot attend.

The preschool director at Cong. Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., tweets from the classroom several times a day, so parents can get a sense of what their children are learning.

Within this past year, synagogues, religious schools, and other Jewish groups have been signing on to Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and other social media eager to learn how new technology can strengthen their organizations and improve their outreach.

Faith-based organizations have been “the last to the social media party,” say experts at NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network. Now they’re jumping in with enthusiasm — even the pope has a Facebook page, with nearly 80,000 fans.

What they’re finding out is that these tools are transforming who they are and how they operate. That can be scary to leaders comfortable with old organizational models.

“Social media changes the way people look at their faith-based institutions,” says Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps Jewish organizations get over their trepidation and understand new media’s potential. “Organizations don’t have a monopoly on organizing anymore. People can talk to each other directly.”

When synagogues and religious schools first turn to new media, Colton says, they tend to use them to perform typical tasks, just more efficiently. They send event invitations by e-mail instead of snail mail, or create a Website that clergy and staff use as an online bulletin board. The messages arrive quicker at homes and without stamps, but it’s still one-way, top-down communication.

By delving deeper, Colton continues, Jewish clergy, educators. and others discover that these media tools demand a different way of talking and listening, encouraging active participation and grass-roots involvement.

“Even at the simplest level, social media tools allow people to come together around a shared idea and shared goals in a decentralized and asynchronous way,” Colton says.

Fancy words, but what do they mean?

For Gabby Volodarsky, program director at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., they mean being able to rally support quickly for someone in need.

Someone posted a note recently on the synagogue’s year-old Facebook page saying that she was “praying for the speedy recovery” of two new members. Volodarsky wrote back immediately and found out that the couple, who didn’t know many people in the congregation yet, had been in a car accident.

“Within an hour they got calls from all our clergy and me,” Volodarsky reports. “I asked what our Caring Community could bring them. Because I saw that posting, I was able to reach out and make them feel cared about. Now they’re among our most active members.”

People often share information online that they would not share face to face. That’s especially true of younger people, says Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who uses Facebook to keep in touch with his religious school graduates when they head off to college.

When he first set up his page, Blake was pleasantly surprised that so many of his former students “friended” him. Now the rabbi is an ongoing presence in their lives, a link to their hometown Jewish community.

“I’m not there to spy on them,” Blake says. “But I know more about what they’re doing Friday night than their parents.”

If they’re involved in anything dangerous, he can step in — as a pastor, not a parent.

Social media enable congregants to talk to one another as well as to clergy or staff — a fact used by the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington to help promote its Chanukah cooking contest. Instead of sending out a straightforward invitation, the staff used Twitter to create online buzz, tweeting about the potato dish one woman planned to bring and linking to her blog.

Readers of her blog were linked back to the synagogue’s Web page — better advertising than anything else the synagogue might have come up with, says Meredith Jacobs, director of family programming.

“Why do young people come to synagogue? For community,” Jacobs posits. “With the Holy Chef contest, I saw them tweeting back and forth. They could see who else is going and get the word out fast.”

Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., did something even riskier — the congregation gave its senior rabbi a flip camera.

Although many older folks hesitate to use new media, Rabbi Alan Lucas took to the gadget immediately. Last month he posted his first YouTube video showing him at his desk discussing the Chanukah song written by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). His video has generated dialogue even outside his own congregation: One person gently accused him of taking offense that a Mormon dared write a Jewish holiday song, to which Lucas responded he thought Hatch’s decision to write the ditty “a bit strange — but I love it.”

Lucas already is preparing a second YouTube video, says Rabbi Jeni Friedman, who works with Lucas at Beth Sholom. Friedman attended Darim Online’s first Social Media Boot Camp at UJA-Federation of New York’s Long Island office in October, and is a huge fan of how new technology can help synagogues stay vital.

“I anticipate these videos will be a regular part of our congregational life,” Friedman says. “Our congregants are already on Facebook. They are using these tools, and it behooves us to get on board.”

JTA

 
 

Ark cover’s ‘exile’ ends at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai; ceremony honors Klingensteins

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At the dedication of the Klingenstein ark cover are, from left, Maggie and Dr. Jeffrey Klingenstein, Dr. Neil and Kathy Klingenstein Eisler, Rabbi Lawrence Troster, and Rabbi Jordan Millstein. Ophelia A. Yudkoff

An intricate and unique set of Torah ark coverings found a new home last month at Temple Sinai in Tenafly. The 8-foot-high “parochet” was commissioned in 2001 by longtime Bergenfield resident Max Klingenstein for the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center-Cong. Beth Israel in memory of his wife, Ruth. Canadian textile artist Temma Gentles based her “ghost layer” mixed-fabric appliqué design on Ruth Klingenstein’s oil painting of a New England landscape.

Max Klingenstein died in 2005, and when Cong. Beth Israel was absorbed into Cong. Beth Sholom of Teaneck two years later, the Klingensteins’ children sought a new home for the tapestries.

“I wanted them to be used, and not just sit in my living room, because they are beautiful,” said Kathy Klingenstein Eisler of Cresskill. “I felt they should stay in Bergen County, because my parents lived in Bergenfield for 48 years.”

Eisler’s son, Andrew, introduced her to Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai, who expressed an interest in acquiring the parochet. Synagogue President Michelle Harris came to see them at the Eisler home and enthusiastically agreed.

Eisler explained that her parents had been active members of Cong. Beth Israel from the start. Ruth Klingenstein had survived World War II hidden in a Strassbourg convent, while Max Klingenstein had escaped the Nazis and fled to Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood with his family. The two met after the war and settled in Bergenfield.

“My father was religious chairman for most of those [48] years and also served as gabbai,” she said. “My mother was involved with the sisterhood and, with her artistic flair, headed the decorating committee after the temple was renovated after a fire.”

Gentles’ execution, which she describes on her Website as “the most technically challenging piece I’ve done,” incorporates broad, flat areas of plum and shades of Wedgwood blue, as does the original artwork. As she interpreted it, Klingenstein’s “painting of water, mountain, house/barn, and trees become a New World folk version of Miriam’s well, Sinai, Temple, and Torah.”

Gentles added a yellow spiral running through the scene, which “represents God and makes the stunning landscape of hills and valley come alive,” said Eisler.

The parochet was dedicated following services on April 23. Eisler and her husband, Neil, attended along with her brother, Jeffrey Klingenstein of Manhattan, and his wife, Maggie. Also in attendance was Rabbi Lawrence Troster, former religious leader of Cong. Beth Israel. A native Canadian, it was Troster who had recommended Gentles to Max Klingenstein.

“The artist put a lot of my mother’s art into her artwork,” said Eisler, who belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Closter.

 
 

Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

Reform shuls to focus on Haiti during joint Tisha B’Av service

Six Reform congregations will join forces July 19 to mark Tisha B’Av, the ancient Jewish day of mourning, and raise awareness of the continuing crisis in Haiti as the country struggles to rebuild after January’s devastating earthquake.

The program marks the second year the Reform congregations have come together for Tisha B’Av. Because the holiday usually falls in the middle of the summer, it is largely observed within the Reform movement only in summer camps. Temple Sinai of Bergen County will host the program, co-organized by Temples Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter, Emeth of Teaneck, and Congs. Beth Am of Teaneck and Beth Or of Washington Township.

“Tisha B’Av is the memorial day on the Jewish calendar when we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, and the overall theme of suffering and coping with suffering is so important on that day,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein. “We thought it’d be important to find a connection to today.”

Sinai, Avodat Shalom, Beth Am of Teaneck, Temple Beth El, and Beth Or last year related Tisha B’Av to the Second Lebanon War.

“Tisha B’Av is about human choices,” said Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Neal Borovitz. “The message and the tie-in to contemporary tragic issues of death and destruction is: How do we make the memory of those moments teaching opportunities so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?”

The Haiti component will feature John Coppolino, co-founder of Sending Our Love to Haiti, a coalition of synagogues, churches, and individuals in northern New Jersey that works to raise money and awareness; Samuel Davis, president and founder of the Burn Advocates Network Ltd., which aids burn survivors; Thomas Bojko, senior vice chair of clinical affairs of the Department of Pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Temple Sinai member Caren Zucker, a producer for ABC news programs who went to Haiti with her 13-year-old son Jonah through the organization Operation Blessing.

“Just as last summer people weren’t thinking about the Second Lebanon War and the ongoing trauma that Israeli families affected by that war were having and continue to have, we felt that this year the tragedy of Haiti is out of sight and out of mind,” Borovitz said. “There’s still a terrible tragedy going on there.”

Haiti is not just a natural disaster but also a political one, Borovitz continued. Rebuilding Haiti requires the political will and economic support of the world, he said, adding that while Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, it also ushers in a season of hope.

“It’s the turning point of the year when we start to focus on the hope of Rosh HaShanah,” he said. “The despair of Tisha B’Av requires us to take action. It’s not just to pray to God for help but to act as if it depends on us — because it does. Prayer and action have to come together.”

After the speakers, rabbis and cantors of the six synagogues will chant passages of the Book of Lamentations, which tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem.

When Millstein first came to Temple Sinai two years ago, the congregation did not observe Tisha B’Av. Last year, he and Borovitz began planning for a joint observance.

“We decided that evening that we were going to make this a tradition of the Reform synagogues of Bergen County,” Borovitz said.

Temple Emeth is new to the joint ceremony this year, but, Rabbi Steven Sirbu pointed out, the synagogue has participated in Tisha B’Av services around the area for five years.

“Because Tisha B’Av is not ideologically a strong part of the Reform calendar, we were there much more to learn than to be full collaborative partners,” he said. “We can all struggle with and reinterpret Tisha B’Av together as part of the Reform tradition. Reform Jews at heart don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple as a means to pray for its rebuilding. Therefore, the way that we mourn that destruction is very different.”

Reform Jews look to the future for the restoration of the Jewish people, Sirbu continued, and the Temple is not a model for that future.

Millstein first experienced Tisha B’Av at summer camp in the 1970s. At each of the three synagogues where he has worked, he has introduced the observance and, he believes, it has lasted. Though the day was not observed early on in the Reform movement, he said, it provides an opportunity for a creative and meaningful connection to Jewish tradition.

“This is really one observance where no Reform synagogue can go it alone and have a really meaningful program,” Sirbu said. “We need each other to do Tisha B’Av in a way that will really speak to people.”

The program, which is open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (201) 568-3035.

 
 

Temple Sinai program targets unaffiliated Jews

Educators unveil new initiatives

For some time, Risa Tannenbaum and Sara Kaplan have been concerned about the children in their congregation who — after going through Temple Sinai’s early childhood program — might “miss some Jewishness” during the year before they enter kindergarten.

To create a “bridge” for these children and, said the two educators, serve both their own congregation and the entire community, they have created a program at the Tenafly Reform synagogue, “reaching out to the unaffiliated in the community who might want to have a taste of Judaism.”

Tannenbaum, director of the shul’s early childhood center for the past three years, describes the new venture as “a free pre-K parent/child interactive holiday program for unaffiliated families in the community.” The monthly sessions, for 4- to 5-year-olds and their parents, provide a way for families to “dip their feet” in Jewish life, she said.

The synagogue — which, she said, is fully subsidizing the program and has already hired one teacher — “is very excited about it.”

Kaplan, who has served as Temple Sinai’s director of education for 14 years, noted that the program, including stories, arts and crafts, and movement and dance, is likely to draw both parents from interfaith families and those Jewish parents who simply want to know more about Judaism.

It will also allow parents to meet the rabbi, cantor, and synagogue educators and visit the kindergarten. Tannenbaum and Kaplan said they hope this will “drum up” students for the kindergarten program and spur families to join the synagogue.

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Sara Kaplan, left, the shul’s director of education, says it’s important to work on values. Parenting is a challenge, says early childhood director Risa Tannenbaum, right. Courtesy Temple Sinai

“It’s less threatening to learn with your children,” said Tannenbaum, pointing out that no previous knowledge is necessary to attend.

“Parents need encouragement,” added Kaplan, suggesting that even in families with two Jewish parents, the further away one moves from the generation of Jews “who brought over their Jewishness” from Europe, the bigger the gap in their Jewish knowledge.

In a further effort to reach out to the parents of early childhood students, this year, for the first time, Temple Sinai is making its parenting workshop available to this group. The synagogue already offers parenting workshops for the families of older students.

Inspired by the book “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel, said Kaplan, she and Tannenbaum will put together a parenting program “based on Jewish values.” Joining them in leading the group will be congregant Richard Gallagher, a psychologist who heads the parenting program at the NYU Child Study Center.

While designed for parents in the early childhood center, “it will be open to anyone who is a religious-school parent with a child in elementary school,” said Kaplan, pointing out that unlike the new holiday workshops, the parenting program will charge a fee.

“Parents are looking for educational programs suited to their needs,” said Tannenbaum. “They need more support and we will offer it through this program.”

Kaplan pointed out that parents often come to her and Tannenbaum for guidance.

“We’re the first line of defense,” she said. “Parents question how, when they have so much, they can say no to their children. It’s important to work on values.”

“Parenting is a real challenge,” said Tannenbaum. “It’s bar mitzvah versus soccer games. Parents need language and support. They want to be more grounded.”

If parenting programs are offered to them when their children are young, “they won’t have to struggle later on,” she said. “They’ll be much more secure as parents.”

Among the topics the workshop will discuss is “downtime from all these gadgets,” said Kaplan, noting that many parents spend less time today talking to their children than they do talking on their cell phones.

“They don’t realize that they’re not communicating,” she said.

The group will also talk about Shabbat and the value of sharing a Shabbat dinner.

“We want to give tools to parents,” said Tannenbaum, noting that parents will receive transliterations of blessings and will be talked through the choreography of home Shabbat observance — for example, “covering your eyes and what to do with your hands” after lighting candles.

Tannenbaum said she has heard parents say they don’t go to services because they don’t know what to do there. The new programs, she said, “will try to create a comfort level for parents” that may help address this problem.

For further information, call the Temple Sinai religious school office, (201) 568-3075.

 
 

Mosque near Ground Zero?

‘This could have been us’

Cordoba House supporters cite religious freedom as crux of debate

Some local groups strongly support the mosque.

While their reasons range from First Amendment freedoms to trust that rank-and-file Muslims are well-intentioned, they speak with passion about the right of their fellow citizens to build houses of worship.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, whose Teaneck synagogue has partnered with the town’s mosque, Dar-Ul-Islah, to create an ongoing Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, wrote to his congregants, “I have long believed that Muslims occupy a similar place in American society today that Jews occupied about a century ago.”

“It is a community largely of immigrants who have come to America seeking a better life,” Sirbu continued. “It is a community struggling to determine which traditions to keep and which to shed in an effort to acculturate to American norms. And it is a community which is misunderstood by a large number of Americans who fear its influence.”

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Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, and Rabbi Kenneth Brickman

The religious leader of Temple Emeth pointed out that “it wasn’t long ago that synagogues were blocked by non-Jewish residents who didn’t want them in their backyards. The Jewish Center of Teaneck had to acquire its property near Cedar Lane through a third party, well aware that if their identity as the true purchaser were known, the sale would have been canceled.”

The rabbi told The Jewish Standard that he introduced the topic of the mosque at a Torah study discussion on Shabbat morning and that his congregants overwhelmingly supported the project.

“There was the sense that this could have been us,” he said, “and that these are the types of Muslims that we ought to be working with, building bridges.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who suggested that “we are only a few decades away from when Jews were kept out of Tenafly, when our neighbors tried to block the building of synagogues.” (For excerpts from his pre-Shabbat message about the mosque, go to ‘Good people can disagree’.)

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, leader of Temple Beth El in Jersey City, signed a letter in support of the mosque written by the interfaith Hudson County Brotherhood-Sisterhood Association and published in the Jersey Journal. Urging respect for minorities and for religious freedom, the letter took issue with a “very anti-Moslem” opinion piece and cartoon that had previously appeared in the paper.

Brickman said the issue of the mosque has clearly divided the Jewish community.

“Some of my best friends don’t agree,” he told the Standard, noting that ultimately he concluded the issue is one of religious freedom “and it should go forward or it could happen to us.”

While he was away for much of the summer, he said, “my colleagues who were around said it was a hot topic of conversation at social occasions and services.”

Brickman said that by weighing in on the issue, “the Anti-Defamation League inspired other Jewish organizations to take a more public stance. (See related story.)

“I get the feeling that some responses were because of the ADL statement,” he said. “They didn’t want it to stand as the only public statement.”

Sirbu said that while some argue against the building of Cordoba House, citing the loss of life on 9/11, to hear most of the arguments “is to be exposed to a series of rants motivated, it seems to me, not by grief but by animosity, fear, and politics.”

Questioning the comparison between the treatment of Muslims here and treatment of adherents of other religions in Arab countries, Sirbu wrote to his congregants, “One opponent of the plan said that the Cordoba House should not be built at the proposed location so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on churches and synagogues is outrageous, but do we really want to adopt Saudi standards for New York City?”

Nor does he accept the argument that the mosque should not be built near Ground Zero because it is “holy ground,” citing vocal protests recently held against mosques in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Sheboygan, Wis.; and Temecula, Calif.

Wrote Sirbu, “In Temecula, one protester held up a placard that said, ‘Mosques are monuments to terrorism.’ To me, this is so telling. If we allow the Cordoba House to be displaced from its intended location, we implicitly endorse the idea that every Muslim seeks to undermine our country — an argument made against our people countless times throughout history.”

Sirbu, who attended community-wide Iftar celebrations sponsored by three local mosques at the Glenpointe Marriott hotel in Teaneck Saturday night, said the topic of the Manhattan mosque was raised by several guest speakers, including Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Rep. Steven Rothman. Iftar is the celebratory meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan at the end of each day of the month-long fast. Sirbu pointed out that the root of the word is the same as that for “haftarah,” meaning conclusion.

The rabbi said there were hundreds of participants from the three mosques, some 12 representatives from his congregation, and dignitaries including not only the Teaneck mayor and Rothman but Sen. Robert Menendez, Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, and various Teaneck officials.

“The tenor of Rothman’s remarks was very positive,” he said. In addition, the congressman “made an offer. He said that since young people need to understand all [our] rights and liberties, those present should encourage them to apply for an internship in his office.”

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, noted that there have been no meetings over the summer of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee, nor any formal interactions between the JCRC and the local Muslim community. However, he said, “We will be open to discussing this issue with all of our interfaith partners when we reconvene our meetings after the High Holy Days.”

He added that his personal reaction to the building is that “it will more parallel a JCC than a synagogue.” He is preparing his second-day Rosh HaShanah sermon “on the topic of our entitlements and responsibilities as Americans and as Jews living in a multicultural, religiously diverse society.”

 
 

Burning issue

Local rabbis discuss Koran burning, sermon topics

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A page from the Koran FILE Photo
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Rabbi Arthur Weiner, top, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, Rabbi Ephraim Simon, and Rabbi Neil Tow

Calling Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed burning of the Koran on Sept. 11 both “catastrophically stupid and fundamentally immoral,” Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, said such an act would have major repercussions.

Jones — pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. — has proposed that 9/11 be declared “International Burn a Koran Day.” Defending his idea on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Aug. 26, the pastor said, “We want to send a very clear message” to Muslims that Sharia law is not welcome in America.

“It will likely be publicized all over the Islamic world, confirming in the minds of many Muslims that we hate them, that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and America’s real goal is not to stop terrorism but to attack and defeat Islam,” said Millstein. “This will only serve to strengthen extremists and terrorists in the Islamic world.”

The rabbi added that, as a Jew, he is “appalled and disgusted at the thought of someone burning the scriptures of another faith. How could anyone heap such disrespect upon another person’s cherished beliefs? It is astounding how low some Americans have gone in their prejudice and hatred.”

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County and religious leader of Marcus Chabad House, pointed out that “we have to be very sensitive to book-burning,” since we have seen our books, Torah scrolls, and talmudic texts burned throughout our history.

“It’s not a proper Jewish response to 9/11,” he said. “The proper response is to focus on adding acts of goodness and kindness, acts of love, to the world. We have to point out evil where we see it and stand up to it, but not everyone who studies the Koran is evil.”

Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said. “The first thing that came to mind was the burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books over the centuries — France in the 13th century, Italy in the 16th, Poland in the 18th, and Nazi Germany in the 20th. My sense is that choosing to burn a holy book in a public way can cause those who are religiously moderate to feel under attack and make radicals feel even more justified.”

Tow suggested that burning a holy book is an act of violence directed at the symbol of a people and that “violence only leads to more violence. We have to short-circuit the cycle of violence and find other ways to address the issues — in this case, the relationship among faith groups.”

He recalled reading “Fahrenheit 451” in middle school, which first introduced him to the idea of book-burning.

“I [fear] a place where if people don’t like ideas, they feel they can be torched and destroyed. I hope it’s not the kind of world our children will live in. Our society has always tried to foster a pool of ideas and debate about them. If there are things that are troubling or difficult or potentially harmful around us, we have a responsibility as American citizens to have a lively and engaging debate about it. I don’t think burning books is in the spirit of the ‘American way’ of talking things through.”

Tow added that he is also a book lover, with a “fondness for the wholeness of the written word and the books that contain them — whether they are things I agree with or not.”

“We should oppose [Jones’] actions and activity with the same passion we opposed the Westboro Baptist Church when they visited our area last fall,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner, leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. “Were we in Florida, I would insist that our [Jewish Community Relations Council] publicly oppose this horror, and join with those who oppose it. As it is, I am confident that our national organizations as well as local Florida communities are handling this well.”

Weiner said that despite Jews’ historic differences with both Christianity and Islam, “we have always held all faiths in esteem, even if we had to protect ourselves from their adherents.”

He noted that while Jones’ projected actions may be constitutionally protected speech — though, he added, he is not sure of that — “they are immoral, and completely and 100 percent forbidden by Jewish law.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation in Fair Lawn, said that burning a Koran “is not simply politically incorrect but borders on morally incorrect. The Jewish people paid dearly when the books of the Rambam were burned,” he said, “so we don’t burn books. That’s not the way to do it.”

What they’ll say in their sermons

While the rabbis agreed that political issues provide great fodder for sermons, those who are already certain of their High Holiday sermon themes will look in another direction.

“As a rabbi and spiritual leader, I always emphasize and focus on what we can do to make ourselves better people in every aspect of our lives,” said Simon, “better parents, better spouses, better friends. Ultimately, the High Holidays are a time we can reflect on our unique purpose and mission in the world.”

Simon said he will challenge congregants to ask, “Am I am utilizing all of the gifts God gave me to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world? We have to look at the past, reflecting within our own lives and [exploring] what we can do to improve on the past to make a difference.”

Tow said that on the first day of Rosh HaShanah he’ll look at some of the ways “we can begin to connect more closely with the words and messages of the prayer books … becoming more sensitive and connected in our davening.”

He said the focus of what he wants to communicate is that “aspects of prayer that can sometimes make it difficult for us can be used as opportunities for growth.”

On the second day of yom tov he will continue his tradition of looking at the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, from different points of view.

“This year, I’ll look at it from the point of view of the angel who calls to Abraham to stop.” He’ll use that as a starting point “to see if it’s possible for us in what we do and say every day to be more aware [and] in the moment,” truly perceiving the impact of what we do and say. “Is it possible to catch ourselves if we’re starting to move off the path, like the angel gave Abraham an insight in that moment, telling him to stop? We need to develop a more sensitive self-awareness.”

Tow suggested that if, instead of having to fix things afterwards, we catch ourselves as we’re about to go into something, “we can be an angel to ourselves.”

Weiner of Paramus said he will explore the issue of Jewish identity and the importance of reinvigorating that aspect of our lives. He said he has always believed that the High Holiday audience “is fully three-generational” and “rabbis have to craft a message that can reach everyone. It’s a challenge.”

He said that “some of the things we’re seeing, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, indicate or confirm our alienation, or the trend toward living low-impact Judaism.” The data, he said, “are symptomatic of a much larger issue: our self-perception as Jews.”

He will urge members to make their Jewishness an integral, basic part of their identity.

“The key to helping us get back on track is to reassert that identity,” he said. “How do we go about achieving this? Come to services and find out.”

Rabbis have to be careful speaking about political issues, he said. While they should address them, they should also be careful to distinguish between their own political opinions and “those laws God gave to Moses.”

No rabbi walks that “fine line” perfectly, he said, “but we have to make sure what we are sharing in the name of Torah is reflective of the Torah’s values and not our particular opinions.”

Asked what he will speak about at High Holiday services this year, Yudin laughed, saying, “You’re kidding, right? I’ll talk about Torah, mitzvot, and why it’s important to perpetuate Jewish tradition. What else is there?”

“It’s all in the packaging,” he added. “However I said it last year, I’ll say it differently this year, and in 15 different ways. And next year, I’ll talk about it again.”

 
 

‘Seeds of Peace’ graduates coming to Temple Sinai

_JStandardLocal
Published: 05 November 2010
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Daniel Scher (bottom center) is pictured with his Seeds of Peace bunkmates — they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian. courtesy scher family

Daniel Scher, a 16-year-old junior at Tenafly High School, will speak at the Temple Sinai brotherhood breakfast on Sunday, Nov. 14, about being a camper at the Seeds of Peace program in Maine this summer. A member of the Tenafly shul, Daniel will be joined by a Palestinian and an Israeli graduate of the Seeds of Peace program, which is dedicated to empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance reconciliation and coexistence. The three-week conflict resolution program, which received more than 8,000 applications this year, makes it possible for hundreds of young leaders from both sides of major conflicts to meet face-to-face, often for the first time in their lives.

Daniel was one of 15 American delegates selected to attend this program, which included Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Pakistani, Afghan, and Indian teenagers. An active member of the Tenafly High School debate team, he traveled to Eastern Europe on a “heritage journey” with his parents and grandparents. In 2009, he participated in the Brandeis University Genesis program “Judaism and Justice.”

Nadav Greenberg, 26, and Kareem Uri, 20, will also speak at the breakfast. Greenberg first attended Seeds of Peace camp in 1999. He returned in 2000 as a peer support camper. Since then he has been involved in many follow-up programs, including seminars and home visits in the region, a trip to Jordan, and the Seeds of Peace conference “Uprooting Hatred and Terror” that was held in New York in 2001. Greenberg served in the Israeli military for three and a half years and graduated from Harvard in May. He is working for “Just Vision,” a nonprofit organization that uses film and other media to tell the stories of Palestinians and Israelis working toward nonviolent solutions to the conflict.

Uri was born and raised in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. In 2005 he joined Seeds of Peace as a first-time camper and returned as a peer support camper in 2006. He has remained active in the organization and is involved with various other organizations that promote reconciliation and non-violent conflict resolution, including People to People, Palestinian Coalition for Peace, and Peace it Together. A junior at George Washington University, where he is pursuing a joint degree in economics and Middle Eastern public policy, he has been an active participant and leader in Seeds of Peace follow-up programming both in the United States and the Middle East.

A lox and bagel breakfast, for which an RSVP is required, will begin at 10 a.m. Call (201) 568-3035 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The program will begin at 10:45. Both are open to the public.

 
 

Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Area rabbis reflect on Reform’s past, future

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Rabbi Stephen Wylen, left, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, and Rabbi Steven Sirbu

The Reform movement that is marking its 200th anniversary this year looks vastly different from the movement that began as a rejection of what early Reform Jews saw as the rigid and outdated Judaism of their parents.

Today’s Reform Jews aren’t rebelling, because they don’t know as much about their religious traditions, said Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne.

“That has resulted in a return to tradition,” said Wylen who has spent the past 30 years as a Reform rabbi, navigating the movement’s changes. He chose Beth Tikvah because the synagogue has more of a focus on tradition, which he said he likes. And he has noticed a yearning among his congregants to give their children more in-depth Jewish educations than they themselves had.

“The feeling I get from many of the parents who faithfully bring their children [to Beth Tikvah’s Tot Shabbat program is that] they feel there was something missing from their own Jewish upbringing and they want their children to have more and a deeper connection,” he said. “They want their children to feel joy whenever they come into a synagogue, that there’s something here for them that they really need.”

He added, “Nobody does chasidism” — meaning joyous religious expression — “like Reform Jews.”

While many in the more traditional Jewish world may blame Reform Judaism for the rise in assimilation in North American Jewry, Reform Judaism is actually the counter-balance to assimilation, Wylen said.

“Most Jews, once they become Americanized, are not going to choose a way of life that rejects American life and culture,” he said. “If they’re going to remain Jewish, they have to remain Jewish in a way that affirms their culture at the same time. That path is Reform Judaism.”

The Reform movement is in the process of reinventing itself through the so-called Reform Think Tank, charged with reassessing the goals of the movement (see related story). This re-examination is in line with the character of the movement, which pioneered religious equality for women decades ago and turned a woman rabbi into a common occurrence outside of Orthodox circles.

“Reform means change,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly. “We are a movement known for being open to change. That dynamism continues.”

Four decades ago, Millstein said, Reform worship was fairly uniform, with congregants sitting in pews, listening to an organ, and doing responsive English readings.

Not anymore.

Now there are a multitude of services, all under the Reform banner. They include bands, more Hebrew, guitar instead of organs, and more interaction between congregants and rabbis.

One of the big changes in the past few decades, he noted, has been the inclusion of tradition in the Reform service and more textual studies. Different forms of worship have replaced the once-uniform Reform service, so that one Reform synagogue might look vastly different than another. Millstein noted a growth in traditional-style services that are still egalitarian but include more Hebrew than earlier Reform services did. Reform, he said, has begun to take tradition and modernize it.

Temple Sinai joined with five other Reform congregations this summer for a Tisha B’Av service that drew about 200 people. The commemoration of the destruction of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem has not typically been part of Reform observance, but it is one of the many traditional pieces now getting an update. The service included the traditional reading of the Book of Lamentations, but also a discussion of the Haiti earthquake and relief efforts there.

In January, Sinai will hold a Tu B’Shevat seder, which has deep kabbalastic roots. The congregation has created its own haggadah, Millstein said, and plans to include discussion of environmental issues.

“You’ve got the traditional piece there and a modern piece,” he said. “That’s a creative re-appropriation of tradition.”

Millstein noted that he frequently meets with b’nai mitzvah students who come from mixed backgrounds — with one parent who may have grown up in the Reform movement and the other who grew up Conservative. This speaks to the new allure of the movement in mixing tradition and modern values, he said.

“The Reform movement has managed to combine Jewish tradition with the progressive ideal of being an American,” he said. “That value of inclusion and progressive values of welcoming gays, lesbians, intermarried families is an important thing that’s happened in the Reform movement in the last 30 to 40 years.”

For years, Reform Jews have typically taken breaks from synagogue life after high school until their first child begins religious education.

“It’s become more of a challenge to engage Reform Jews in their adult years in synagogue life,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “Reform Jews, along with most Americans, are looking for religion to be highly personal.”

Sirbu pointed to the Internet as a prime example of instant access and customization to individual tastes.

“The more that a Reform synagogue and the Reform movement can really speak to each individual, the more we’re going to be successful in achieving our goals,” he said.

And what does the future hold for the movement?

Reform Judaism is a synagogue-based movement and will continue as such, Wylen said.

“We have to strengthen our individual congregations if we’re going to strengthen Judaism in America,” he said. “That the Reform movement is dedicated to the synagogue is one of our strengths.”

But as technology advances and people find new ways of interacting with one another, Reform Judaism will have to change as well.

“The next 30 years have to be a balance of tradition and technology,” Sirbu said. “We live so much of our lives online and yet the two major goals of synagogue life — worship and community — are achieved primarily in person. Our challenge is to take a generation that is very digitally adept and remind them that some things are best done in a synagogue building.”

 
 
 
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