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Parshat Va’eira

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler
Published: 15 January 2010

It has been said that nature has a way of echoing human emotions. This concept, which is used as a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” finds itself powerfully expressed in our sedra of Va’eira, which describes seven of the 10 “makkot” or plagues that the Almighty rains upon the Egyptians.

Interestingly we find that the number seven in Kabbalistic literature represents “teva,” nature. In a sense we are treated here to a drama in which God turns nature on its head as a sign not only of His wondrous and powerful ways, but in divine protest over the egregious acts of the Egyptian people who were more than complicit with their Pharaoh in oppressing our Israelite ancestors. In many ways, in their slavish service to the gods of their day, they abused and misappropriated the forces of nature. All questions of theodicy aside, which are deserving of a separate study and analysis, one can find in each plague an element of justice done, or “middah k’neged middah.”

Indeed, “mei-oz yatzah matok” — from the bitter can come something sweet — and it is possible to mine from the expanse of destruction, lessons by which to live and improve our human condition. Consider as an example the seventh plague, that of hail. The Torah text writes that “there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been seen in the entire land of Egypt (Exodus 9:24).” The Hebrew words “v’eish mitlakachat b’toch ha-barad” (“fire flaming within the hail”) are described in Rashi’s commentary to represent “a miracle within a miracle” in that there was fire and frozen water mixed together. And to fulfill the will of their Maker, “asu shalom beineihem,” “they made peace with each other.” In order to please their Creator they defied the laws of nature and co-mingled and worked together to create this phenomenon of nature.

Certainly what was true of hail then is true of hail today. It represents an unusual mixture of opposites in nature. This past summer I drove through a hail storm the likes of which I had never seen before and which my son managed to capture on video. Frozen balls of ice rained down on my car with a fiery ferocity. Atmospheric antonyms, then and now, manage to somehow climatically coexist. And while there is for sure despair in the devastation, there might still be a moral lesson to harvest from this act of God, namely the challenge to create in our midst, under better and more optimal circumstances, unlikely alliances; to foster partnerships for the greater good of humankind rather than sow the seeds of discord and acrimony. It is sad that it takes tragedy to oftentimes bring otherwise disparate factions together. It is unfortunate that society, and Jewish life in particular, is too often defined by what I call “the Olive Oil Syndrome.” Just as the oil used to kindle the Eternal Lamp in the Temple of old was beaten from the olives, history has repeatedly demonstrated that we shine best when pressed and under duress.

Perhaps the Almighty, in this seventh plague, seeks to challenge us to similarly achieve the unnatural and unthinkable; to fulfill His will in a coalescence of conscience and concern.

Neither the fire nor the ice lost their natural properties and separate identities in the plague of hail but they managed for that moment and cause to effect a merger of wills. How and when to suspend our hard earned principles and at times parochial interests for the greater good of community and to please the will of our Maker remains a formidable challenge given the particularity of personalities and intensity of individual interests. But the gains to society when opportunities for growth and goodness loom so large on the horizon should beckon us to try harder and more often.

 
 

Holy Name to open inpatient Jewish hospice

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Holy Name Hospital’s Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River will be Bergen County’s first freestanding inpatient palliative care facility.

Signalling a growing emphasis on end-of-life care tailored to the needs of North Jersey’s sizable Jewish population, Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck recently received accreditation from the National Institute for Jewish Hospice as it prepares to open Bergen County’s first freestanding inpatient palliative care facility on a 26-acre estate in Saddle River. Just last month, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center launched a Jewish Community Hospice Program, although it is not NIJH-accredited at this time.

“For the Jewish patients in our in-home care hospice over the last 25 years, we have relied on their own spiritual counselors for support and guidance,” said Dr. Charles Vialotti, Holy Name Hospice medical director. “Then, two years ago, we started renovating a magnificent 100-year-old villa to become an in-patient hospice with 20 private rooms and up to 17 rooms for family members to stay in. In order to meet the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of residential patients of all faiths, we needed a much more formal program.”

Among its other facilities, including an Olympic-sized pool and other amenities to encourage family time with residents, Villa Marie Claire will have a kosher kitchen, Sabbath elevator, and Sabbath guest rooms.

Vialotti attended the November NIJH training conference along with Hospice Unit Director Ellyn Ward, Holy Name Hospice Spiritual Adviser Sister Regina O’Connell, and Holy Name Community Relations Coordinator Jacqueline Kates. The hospice is in the process of hiring a rabbi to serve both inpatient and outpatient Jews.

Kates explained that accreditation provides Holy Name’s hospice with materials, support, and assistance, including a 24-hour hotline offering end-of-life counseling and information to Jewish families, patients, and caregivers. The NIJH was founded in 1985 by Rabbi Maurice Lamm and his wife, Shirley, former Englewood residents.

Vialotti called the training “enlightening.” Held near JFK Airport to accommodate participants from across the country, it featured sessions on “Jewish Medical Ethics & End-of-Life Care,” “Connecting across Religious Lines with Integrity,” “The Psychology of the Dying Person,” and workshops related to observances of Jewish life, customs, and laws.

“I learned that before initiating any treatment in a futile situation, we should involve the program’s or the family’s spiritual leader,” said Vialotti, who will live at the new facility. “With that guidance, families won’t feel they’re failing their family member or violating their religious beliefs.”

Periodic religious sensitivity training sessions are planned for staff and volunteers.

Rabbi Larry Zierler of the Teaneck Jewish Center, a former student of Lamm’s at Yeshiva University, renewed his own accreditation at the November conference. A rabbinic consultant to the Hospice of New Jersey in Bloomfield and head of its ethics committee, Zierler also serves on the ethics committee at Holy Name Hospital.

He outlined several areas where Jewish hospice patients typically need knowledgeable assistance.

“One major issue between hospice and halacha [Jewish law] is nutrition and hydration,” said Zierler. “Hospices historically have believed that once a patient is in a futile care situation and is no longer responsive, artificial hydration is counter-indicated. Some believe that patients are comfortable without eating because endorphins kick in to sedate them naturally. But in halacha, nutrition and hydration are considered basic needs … to sustain life. The Hospice of New Jersey has a liberal policy about this for those who have religious or cultural sensibilities.”

Another issue is what Zierler terms the cure vs. care conundrum. “Hospice provides a care pathway when patients can no longer be cured. But artificial impediments to the natural process of dying — such as a ventilator — are easy to introduce today.”

The question is whether such measures truly benefit the patient or merely postpone the inevitable. “We do have a clear awareness of medical futility in Jewish tradition, and while there is no obligation to get in the way of the natural process of death, we are not allowed to hasten death.”

A related matter, continued Zierler, is the “double effect” issue. A common example is morphine, which alleviates pain but also suppresses respiration. “We have to contend with how to titrate properly so the benefit is more prominent than the deficit,” he said. “The patient’s rabbi will work with the palliative care team to determine the difference between palliative care and terminal sedation.”

Zierler educates hospice workers to assess at-home patients’ “religious constellation” by noting sacred books, mezuzahs on doorposts, and even preferences regarding attire and physical contact with a healthcare worker of the opposite sex.

“I teach them how to understand the high points in the Jewish calendar, because that has a strong effect on death and dying,” he said. “People tend to hold on to life through the High Holidays or Passover.”

Zierler said religious sensitivity can prevent a dying patient from feeling dehumanized. Even a non-Jewish hospice worker can be trained to help a Jewish patient pray or wind the straps of tefillin around his arm. “When rabbis are involved, we’re giving hospice workers more tools to reduce the sense of alienation patients feel from the activities of daily living. There are so many things that can bring quality of life at the end of life.”

 
 

Jewish Center of Teaneck still debating identity

Members vote on mechitza, but still divided

Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck voted down a controversial motion on Sunday to hold Traditional/Conservative services in the center’s smaller sanctuary and Orthodox services, in which men and women would pray divided by a mechitza, in the larger sanctuary.

In the vote’s aftermath, differing opinions among synagogue members on its outcome seemed to herald a conflict of visions for the synagogue’s future identity.

According to Eva Gans, the synagogue’s president, the majority of congregants who voted approved the motion, with 61 percent in favor. The motion was defeated, she says, because the synagogue’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 percent vote in support, to pass a motion.

“The motion was defeated despite a huge groundswell of support,” said Gans. “I was glad to see how many people are willing to take this courageous step. Even though it might inconvenience them, they were looking toward the enhanced future of the synagogue.”

A simple majority, 59 people, voted to pass the motion, and 37 voted against it.

“When we wrote the constitution we decided to make it a larger number,” instead of a simple majority to pass a motion, she explained. “We set ourselves a very high goal.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, religious leader of the synagogue, was present for the vote but left for Israel before the tally, Gans said. He could not be reached for comment.

Marilyn Bell, a longtime member and wife of A. Milton Bell, the synagogue’s former education director, spoke against the motion before the vote. Because her husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, she needs to sit beside him, she says, and not on the other side of a mechitza.

“My feeling is, if I can’t sit by my husband, we can’t go to shul,” she said.

Weekday morning services are now Orthodox, and it pains her that she and her husband cannot sit together when either one needs to say Kaddish because of a yahrzeit.

“I feel disenfranchised by the fact that I could not go to services early in the morning when I’d have yahrzheit … for my and my husband’s parents, because those are Orthodox services.”

Bell added, “I think the handwriting is on the wall. Now they are voting to make the larger sanctuary Orthodox and the smaller sanctuary Conservative. I feel in two years they’ll be voting to close down the Conservative section altogether.”

Bell says she bases this prediction in part on a presentation before the vote took place.

“The fellow who gave the presentation said if we can make the whole temple Orthodox we’d have no problem filling it with members,” said Bell.

The center has had Orthodox services for many years, only without the mechitza, Gans maintained. The synagogue uses an Orthodox prayer book, she said.

Members concerned about sweeping changes should realize the mechitza is the only one expected, according to Gans.

“When [some members] say they don’t want [the center] to be an Orthodox synagogue, they mean they don’t want a mechitza — because these services have been Orthodox all along,” she said. “Nothing else would change.”

Everone interviewed by The Jewish Standard said that tensions regarding this motion have not spilled over to synagogue social life.

At kiddush following services, “Everyone gets along and no one looks at anyone else and wonders which service they prayed in,” said Gans. “A number of people go back and forth just for the fun of it.”

Bell says she feels no ill will to those supporting the mechitza and sees the conflict as a clash of visions, not as personal.

“My feeling was that if they relegated us to the smaller room where there are no memorial plaques [for our family], we would have looked for another temple,” she said, adding that for now, she and her husband are happy to remain members. “You can’t lose sight of friendship.”

 
 

Jewish Center of Teaneck to vote on mechitza

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 10 June 2011

On Monday night, the membership of the Jewish Center of Teaneck will vote on whether to bring a metchitza, a barrier separating men and women, into its main service.

For many years, the center stood as a flagship of “traditional” Conservative Judaism, which accepted mixed seating for men and women but rejected the Conservative movement’s egalitarian innovations that, in the 1970s and ’80s, allowed women to read from the Torah and be ordained as rabbis.

Membership declined from a peak of 1,400 member families, even as Teaneck’s Orthodox synagogues multiplied and its egalitarian Conservative synagogue expanded.

Faced with changing demography, in 2006 the congregation hired an Orthodox rabbi, Lawrence Zierler. In 2007 the congregation installed a mechitza for its daily minyan and began an Orthodox service that meets in the auditorium.

In 2010, the center’s board of trustees voted that the synagogue be Orthodox.

A motion in January that would have switched the auditorium and main services narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds approval required to change the service in the main sanctuary.

If Monday night’s proposal is approved, the congregation will have only one service for Shabbat and holidays. A mixed service would be continued in the auditorium for the High Holidays.

 
 

Bat Torah moving to Teaneck Jewish Center

Girls high school to gain pool, access to 7-11

Maybe if lunch was longer than 42 minutes, and the parking lots lining Route 4 in Paramus were not so deep, then the malls would have appealed to the young women of Bat Torah–The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School, located since 2008 in the old Frisch School building.

But the lunch breaks were short, the malls were distant, and the girls longed for the 7-11 located across the street from Bat Torah’s former home in Monsey, N.Y.

Come September, there will again be a convenience store conveniently near the high school, as Bat Torah is moving into the classroom space in the Teaneck Jewish Center renovated by the Metropolitan Schechter High School, which occupied the facility for four years until it closed in 2007.

Besides the neighborhood, the Jewish Center offers other amenities lacking in Paramus, notably an Olympic-size swimming pool, which, said Miriam Bak, the school’s principal, will enable the school to field a swim team.

Bak said she feels “very appreciated” by her new landlord.

“Now that they’re becoming an Orthodox synagogue,” said Miriam Bak, the school’s principal, the Jewish Center “wants to show the community that they have an Orthodox girls’ school there.”

For his part, the Jewish Center’s Rabbi Lawrence Zierler is looking forward to having students in his shul again.

“When you have an educational plant, it spills over into the atmosphere of the building,” he said.

“It’s a good place to showcase fine Jewish education. We’ve incubated other schools,” he said, noting that at various times the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, and Yeshivat Noam all held classes at the Jewish Center before outgrowing the space.

Three years ago, when Bat Torah first prepared to relocate to Bergen County from Rockland County, the Jewish Center was one of the first spaces the school looked to rent.

But the space had been rented to Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School, which planned to house its middle school there.

Instead, Bat Torah rented the former Frisch building and Ben Porat ended up subletting space from Bat Torah. Subsequently, Bat Torah decided it would prefer to sublease from Ben Porat, which took over as Frisch’s direct tenant.

In its three years in Paramus, Ben Porat has grown. From 170 students, it expects more than 260 in September, including its new junior high school.

“We’re going to miss the Bat Torah girls,” said Rabbi Tomer Ronen, Ben Porat’s head of school. “They’re great girls.”

Ronen hopes his school will expand to fill the entire building. In the meantime, he’s looking for a tenant who wouldn’t mind being closer to a mall than to the 7-11.

 
 
 
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