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Jewish Labor Committee partners with Working Families United

JLC wants to be ‘shidduch between Jewish community and the local labor movement’

Jacob Taporek, center, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, was among the guests at the recent Labor Seder. courtesy JLC

Historically, the Jewish community has been a partner with organized labor, but the connection has weakened in recent years. Martin Schwartz, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, wants to reinvigorate it. To that end, the nonprofit JLC recently became a partner agency in Working Families United for New Jersey, a statewide grassroots coalition of labor, religious, community, civil rights, students’, women’s, and retirees’ groups.

This move is part of the JLC’s broader effort to rekindle traditional ties between Jewish groups and organized labor at a time when, according to the agency, labor unions are being unfairly blamed for the nation’s ills.

The partnership “will help us to advance both sets of interests — those of the labor movement and those of Jewish groups,” Schwartz said.

He explained that often there is overlap between the labor movement and Jewish communal organizations in terms of lobbying efforts.

“Often the labor movement and Jewish groups are advocating for the same issues and not aware of it,” he said.

He expects the partnership will strengthen both groups’ abilities to advance issues of common concern such as funding for education, health care, unemployment compensation, and job training.

“Unions are understanding they need to go beyond just union membership to work with people concerned about these issues,” said Schwartz. Similarly, Jewish groups that “receive a lot of federal money for services they provide to the elderly and the poor in the Jewish community and others” realize they need allies, especially in a cutback-happy climate, he said.

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, believes the JLC’s move is “natural” and will build the influence of Jewish organizations in the area.

“As much clout as the Jewish community thinks it has, it can’t be as effective as it is working with others who feel the same way about certain issues,” Toporek said.

Issues Toporek said are of growing concern to his agency include Medicaid reimbursement for the elderly and a “new lower middle class” of the unemployed seeking help from federations.

“We are concerned with the impact of cuts in Medicaid on nursing homes and the elderly poor,” Toporek said. “In that respect we do share a lot of those concerns [with the JLC and WFUNJ].”

The JLC seeks to be matchmaker between the local Jewish and labor communities, according to to Arieh Lebowitz, its associate director.

“We speak the language of the Jewish community and the language of labor,” said Lebowitz. “The Jewish community used to understand the language of labor, and a lot of labor unionists spoke Yiddish. There are still Jews in the labor movement, but fewer have roots in the Jewish community.… Our goal is to be a shidduch between the Jewish community and the local labor movement.”

The JLC was formed by Yiddish-speaking immigrant trade union leaders in 1934 in reaction to the rise of Nazism in Germany, according to the JLC website. During World War II, the JLC established underground channels to anti-Nazi labor, socialist, and Jewish forces. Historically, in the United States, the JLC maintained close ties with the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

One possibility that could emerge from the new partnership with WFUNJ would be the presentation to local labor unions of a program developed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey on Israel as a democracy, according to Joy Kurland, the agency’s director. Schwartz recently met with the JCRC and suggested this idea.

Another possibility would be to arrange for local labor unionists to meet with Israeli labor unionists, Kurland added.

The JLC’s effort to revive traditional ties between the Jewish and labor communities comes at a time when labor unions are weathering criticism across the state and the nation.

“Unions and collective bargaining are under attack,” said Schwartz. “It’s important to raise the level of awareness and advocacy on these issues.”

The JLC’s outreach is also social: The agency held its annual Labor Seder in partnership with the State Association of Jewish Federations on April 13. Held at Cong. Ahavath Sholom, the only remaining synagogue in Newark, it brought together members of the local Jewish and other communities as well as labor union activists. Guests included Thomas Giblin, president of the Essex-West Hudson Labor Council, as well as leaders of several local labor unions including the Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Union, the Service Employees’ International Union, and the International Association of Machinists.

Also in attendance were Toporek and Ruth Cole, president of the State Association of Jewish Federations.

“It was a lovely gathering of people from many walks of life celebrating freedom for the Jewish people and for all people,” said Cole, who lives in Ridgewood.

“I’ve been to three or four Labor Seders and this one was the best,” said Toporek. “The people who organized it worked well together. They tried to bring the labor unions and the communities together and succeeded. You could really feel warmth in the room.”


SLI Program puts community members on the same page

Participating groups will plan activities around one book

Synagogues are looking for activities that can bring them together, says Nickie Falk, consultant to the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Falk — who is coordinating SLI’s One Book, One Community program — said the project came about as an outgrowth of the group’s “synagogue collaboration pods,” targeting areas from programming through purchasing.

“It’s a way for synagogues to see what can be done together,” she said. “They can still operate on their own but also be part of the larger community.”

“We believe that shared experience connects people,” said SLI Director Lisa Harris Glass. “The goal of the One Book, One Community program is to create a sense that there is a large and connected Jewish community in the northern New Jersey area.”

Congregants and others will read this book as part of a community-wide project.

The idea for the project arose when “we were looking for something we could do collaboratively,” said Falk. “The idea is that we all love to read, that we’re the people of the book, and that here’s something we can all come together [around]. It’s an exciting communal learning opportunity.”

The program, which will kick off on May 9 and last throughout the year, will focus on “My Father’s Paradise” (Algonquin Books) by Ariel Sabar. Falk has been in touch with the author several times.

“He’s delightful,” she said, “and very excited about the project.”

SLI is asking participating congregations — and other communal organizations, such as Ys, Jewish Educational Services, and UJA’s Women’s Philanthropy — to offer a program between September 2011 and March 2012 on any aspect of the book they choose. According to Falk, the federation’s northern New Jersey catchment area includes some 82 congregations. She is hopeful most will choose to participate.

“My Father’s Paradise” tells the story of Sabar’s father, Yona, who emigrated with his family from the Kurdish region of Iraq in the late 1940s, during the waning years of Jewish life in that region.

“Partnering organizations can do anything,” said Falk. “A reading group, something related to the foods mentioned in the book, a project tracing family lineage, or something touching on another theme. They can show a related film or talk about immigration.”

During two conference calls on May 9, one to be held at noon and one at 7:30 p.m., SLI project organizers will discuss possible program ideas as well as additional resources. The federation group will also post its list of suggestions on a special website,

“Ariel has a recipe from his aunt,” said Falk, pointing out that a participating group might choose to focus on that as its activity.

Partnering organizations will be asked to post information about their projects on their own websites and link to the federation calendar, which will list each of these activities so that interested community members can attend. In addition, cooperating groups will be able to buy the book at a discount. (The list price is $14.95; the size of the discount will depend on the number of books ordered.)

In spring 2012, as the project ends, SLI will sponsor an event for the entire community. Both Ariel and Yona Sabar will attend the concluding program.

“The book touches on a lot of themes and subjects we can all relate to,” said Falk, noting that Ariel Sabar’s effort to find out more about his own history was to some extent spurred by a desire to pass a meaningful legacy to his own children.

“We can all relate to that no matter where our parents came from. It’s the story of being immigrants,” she said, “and we’ve all had our Jewish journeys. It’s also a story of hope and redemption. What seemed like a difficult beginning has ended in a beautiful place.”

For additional information about the project, call Nancy Perlman at (201) 820-3904 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). To join the conference call, dial into (209) 647-1075 and use participant access code 846852#.


Area to mark Yom HaShoah

Saturday night begins the 27th day of Nissan, the Hebrew date chosen by the Israeli Knesset as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust memorial day. For more than 20 years, one of the most vivid commemorations has been the March of the Living, in which thousands of young Jews walk the three kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the gas chambers at Birkenau.

This year, for the first time, the memorial ceremony held at Birkenau following the march will be broadcast by Jewish Life Television, and the broadcast will be the centerpiece of the annual commemorations of the UJA Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Frisch School in Paramus.

The broadcast will feature an addresses from Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Holocaust survivor Irving Roth, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Manhasset, N.Y., who founded the Adopt a Survivor program. There will also be music from singer Dovid (Dudu) Fisher and the chief cantor of Tel Aviv, who will chant the El Maleh memorial prayer.

The Paramus event is one of dozens of community Yom HaShoah commemorations around the country that will be tuning in to the March of the Living broadcast.

In addition to the broadcast, the Paramus ceremony will feature a procession of 68 children holding candles, marking the 68th year since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and a commemoration for the Jews of Europe held in Paterson in 1943. That commemoration became an annual event and was the precursor of the UJA Federation commemoration, making this the oldest continuous Holocaust program in the United States, according to Wally Greene, spokesman for the UJA Federation Holocaust Memorial Committee.

On Sunday evening, a recording of Hoenlein’s remarks will be played at another community Yom HaShoah event, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, at 7 p.m.

The keynote speaker at the JCC event will be Eva Lux Braun, who survived Auschwitz and lives in Queens. She will share her first-hand experience about what it was like for her and her loved ones to suffer in Auschwitz, how they coped with things that should never occur in everyday life, and the “small miracles connected to faith, hope, and survival.”

There will be a candlelighting ceremony by survivors and their families.

The Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance Award will be presented to the winner of a contest in which high school students were asked to write a poem that conveys lessons learned from studying the Holocaust.

The Yeshivat Noam Choir, students of the JCC Thurnauer School of Music, and Abraham Barzelay will provide music.

Also on Sunday night, at 8 p.m., five Englewood synagogues will hold a community Yom HaShoah event at Cong. Ahavath Torah, featuring a video presentation, “Triumph of the Spirit,” the story of Esther Jungreis and her family during and after the Holocaust.

“The message of the film is that even though the intent was to eradicate the Jewish people, we survived and came through,” said Richard Friend, chairman of the committee that organizes the event.

“It’s a very moving film,” he said.

In Teaneck, the annual Holocaust remembrance will take place 7:30 p.m Monday night at Teaneck High School featuring Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. Heller is the author of “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs,” which was made into the documentary film “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story.”

There will be a musical performance by Zalmen Mlotek.


Bergen Reads celebrates its 10th anniversary

Adult volunteers for Bergen Reads get as much from their experience as the children they help, says program co-chair Susan Liebeskind.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to give of yourself to the community,” said Liebeskind, one of 129 local men and women who spend an hour each week working with public school children in Teaneck and Hackensack.

The program — now in its 10th year — is a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey (the federation is scheduled to receive a name change Tuesday night).

Liebeskind described herself as a “floater,” working at six schools during her 10 years with the program.

Still, she said, “that is not the norm. Most people ask to return to the same school year after year.”

From left are Sasha Rose and Samantha Rincon with Bergen Reads volunteer Susan Liebeskind. The girls attend the Whittier School in Teaneck. courtesy susan liebeskind

According to the program co-chair, Bergen Reads sends “reading buddies” to eight elementary schools. A volunteer spends 30 minutes a week with each of two children chosen by teachers from kindergarten to fourth grade. Most of the students are in first and second grades.

“The aim is to make the children see reading in a positive light,” she said. Many come from a home where English is not their first language, while some come from families where no one has time to read with them.

“Sometimes our volunteers bring in their own books to expose the kids to ones that are not in their homes or classrooms,” said Liebeskind. In other cases, children bring in books they are working on in class, or they are permitted by their teachers to bring in any book they would like to read.

While many volunteers are retired teachers, some are simply people who like children and have an hour a week to commit to the program, she said.

“I have no teaching experience. I’m doing something to ‘give back.’ I love watching them progress, particularly the first- and second-graders. In the beginning, you’re doing all the reading. At the end, they read to you.”

Before beginning, volunteers receive training from school staff, whether principals or reading specialists.

“The schools are thrilled,” said Liebeskind. “We’re asked back each year.” She noted that many of the teachers and volunteers have developed warm relationships.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to interact,” she said, recalling that after she visited Israel, a teacher invited her to talk to her class about the trip.

Liebeskind said that while involvement in the project is “really easy, involving a minimal amount of time, one of the goals is for the kids to have a consistent relationship with an adult in a positive way.” That can’t be done if volunteers travel a good deal or are snowbirds, she noted.

While Bergen Reads receives funds from the federation as well as grants from private institutions such as TD Bank Charitable Foundation and the Target Foundation, “we raise a lot of money on our own,” said Liebeskind. One fundraiser, “Centerpieces for Tzedaka,” provides book centerpieces created by a party planner for use at simchas.

“It started three or four years ago,” she said. “We bought used books, and a balloon party planner glued them together to make centerpieces. They look nice, and the money you pay to rent them supports Bergen Reads.”

Program co-chair Sandy Alpern called Bergen Reads “a wonderful, fabulous program, so beneficial to the children.”

Alpern, who volunteers at the Parker School in Hackensack, said, “Being a reading buddy is not the same as being a formal teacher.” Rather, “The goal is to foster the love of reading. Both the kids and the volunteers get so much satisfaction. You make an attachment.”

Alpern said that when the program began, “I was looking for something just like this. It’s just what I wanted. I was a children’s librarian and a preschool teacher. It’s like a dream.”

The program co-chair said that last year, one of her students, an 8-year-old second-grader, wrote that he loved her “more than he loved dinosaurs. And he really loves dinosaurs,” she said. “They learn things they wouldn’t have learned before. It’s like having a grandma.”

“People should volunteer because it is so satisfying, [particularly] if you love books and reading and want to share that feeling with kids who have no one to do it with one-on-one. If you have lots of love and time, it’s a worthwhile volunteer opportunity and a good representation of the Jewish community doing outreach in the secular community. You’re doing something valuable.”

At the end-of-year brunch, to be held on Tuesday, Bergen Reads volunteers will describe what the program has meant to them.

“It’s an open forum where people can talk about their experiences,” said Liebeskind. “We hear incredible stories.”

Volunteers will also be given certificates of appreciation, and those who have served for 10 years will receive special recognition.

For more information about Bergen Reads, call JCRC Director Joy Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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