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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.

 

Where greatness lies

A memorial to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

On July 3, 5 Tammuz, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died. He was 89.

He inspired tens of thousands of people directly — and indirectly he inspired millions more, people who have yet to discover that the spiritual approaches they hold dear were invented and graciously shared by him.

Reb Zalman was prodigiously influential over many decades, but he was not proportionately famous. He was not always given credit for his vast learning or for his astonishing array of contributions. And he was okay with that.

The first time I saw Reb Zalman, he was on the bimah of an auditorium that held 2,000 people. His face beamed love at the congregation. I had been leading another High Holiday service, and I was able to join his congregation for the last few minutes of Rosh Hashanah morning.

 

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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Interactive program uses testimonies to give Schechter students a new understanding

“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Is there any way to turn that around? To make any miniscule amount of good come out of great evil?

The Holocaust as living memory soon will flicker out. Survivors who can tell their stories are growing old. Soon it will be just images, photographs, videos, written and spoken words.

The Holocaust was pure evil, the unleashing of the worst human fears and instincts. There was nothing at all good about it. But in a soul-affirming act of reversal, it now is possible, almost 70 years after it ended, to use it to teach students how to become better people.

The first steps in that process are never to forget it, to honor its victims, and to listen to its survivors.

 

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Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute teaches about war as rockets fall

If local rabbis attend the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to take advantage of what Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner calls “great learning and great people,” this year they got more than they bargained for.

Rabbi Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who this year spent his fifth summer at Hartman, said that “ironically, the topic was war and peace in Jewish texts. Little did we know it would be so relevant.

“A lot of rabbis in the diaspora talk about Israel from a distance,” he said. “But to be there, to attend the funerals of the three boys” — Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, whose abduction and murder were the catalyst for the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza — “to be familiar with bomb shelters,” makes a big difference.

 

‘It’s a communal responsibility’

The sages say that before a Jewish community builds a synagogue or buys a Torah, it should build a mikvah, the ritual bath used to observe laws of family purity and complete conversions.

The Teaneck mikvah on Windsor Road, next to Temple Emeth, was built in the 1970s, and the township’s mikvah association opened a second ritual bath this spring. Set across the street from the Jewish Center of Teaneck, it is positioned to better serve families on the south side of town. The two mikvaot serve about 1,000 people each month, but rely solely on donations to cover operating costs. Now, many of Teaneck’s Orthodox synagogues are creating a new kehilla fund fee in their membership dues to help support the mikvah.

“Certain things are communal responsibilities,” said Michael Rogovin, president of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom. “The eruv and the mivkah are really critical to our functioning as an Orthodox community.”

 
 
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