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Area Reform synagogues to mark 50th anniversary of RAC

 
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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has become one of the pre-eminent Jewish political organizations in the country, at the forefront of issues such as ending the genocide in Darfur, promoting human rights, and fighting poverty.

On Jan. 14 and 15, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Reform movement will celebrate Shabbat Tzedek, marking the RAC’s 50th anniversary.

Its founding in 1961 reflected a belief among its founders that as Jews who care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, they had to care about more than issues that affected them as Jews, said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the RAC.

“The center became a hub of social justice in Washington, not just for the Reform Jewish movement,” she said, noting that several congressional civil rights bills were drafted in the RAC conference room. “Our goal is to bring Washington to the Reform movement and the Reform movement to Washington.”

Several area Reform synagogues will mark the anniversary next week, using it as an opportunity to encourage congregants to perform acts of tikkun olam. Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter will use a Shabbat Tzedek liturgy provided by the RAC and Closter’s Mayor Sophie Heymann, a temple member, will speak. Instead of the weekly Torah portion, the temple’s Saturday morning Torah study will focus on readings with an emphasis on social justice.

“The Reform movement has such a long history of social justice and advocacy,” Beth El’s Rabbi Debra Hachen said. “Today many people think of tikkun olam in local ways — for example, helping a local food bank or the wonderful work Bonim does.” (Bonim, a group of volunteers from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, renovates homes for the needy.) “There’s a very important dimension to social justice that’s connected to the prophetic vision,” she continued. “A key part of Reform Judaism is the notion of transforming society, not just reaching out to the needy.”

Paul Kaufman, a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, will speak there during Shabbat Tzedek about a recent RAC mission to the Gulf Coast he took part in. The synagogue will also launch a six-month initiative to serve fair-trade coffee.

“It’s a chance to celebrate all [the RAC has] accomplished and really move forward in terms of advancing what separates Reform Jews from other Jews, which is a concerted commitment to social justice,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who interned with the RAC in 1994 and spoke at the 40th anniversary celebration 10 years ago.

“[The internship] really helped me understand the intersection of Jewish values and public policy,” the rabbi said.

Temple Beth Or in Washington Township will focus on King’s legacy, said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick. Members will be asked to bring poems, pictures, song lyrics, or other items that symbolize the Reform commitment to social justice, which will be used throughout the service.

“One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew,” Zlotnick said, “is because I feel the Religious Action Center has done a marvelous job of transforming freedom for all into advocacy across the spectrum to make sure we live up to our American ideals of democracy and freedom.”

Hachen is hopeful the celebratory weekend will encourage others to get involved in global tikkun olam, and she will hand out information about joining the RAC Social Justice Network. The RAC leadership has recruited about 15,000 to the network so far and hopes to reach 50,000.

“Part of our mandate is to create a just society, not just within our synagogues but within the nations in which we live,” Hachen said. “That’s what the RAC tries to do — help us understand that Judaism has something to say on these [social justice] issues.”

To watch a video highlighting the past 50 years of the Religious Action Center, visit www.rac.org.

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

Paying it forward

Remembering Gabby Reuveni’s generous spirit

Just a glance at the web page created in memory of Gabby Reuveni of Paramus gives some indication of the number of people she touched and — through the ongoing efforts of her family — she continues to touch.

Killed two years ago in Pennsylvania by a driver who swerved onto the shoulder of the road, where she was running, Gabby, who was 20, was “an extremely aware and kind person,” her mother, Jacqueline Reuveni, said. “We’re continuing her legacy.”

The family has undertaken both public and private “acts of kindness,” she said, from endowing scholarships to meeting local families’ medical bills.

According to her father, Michael Reuveni, Gabby — then a student at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the school’s track team — was a victim of vehicular homicide.

 

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It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

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Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

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Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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