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More than kashrut

High cost of observance opens conference

 
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From left, Nachum Segal, David Greenfield, and William Rapfogel discuss the high cost of an Orthodox lifestyle in the opening session of the OU national convention. Josh Lipowsky

Day-school tuition: At least $13,000 a year per child.

Kosher chicken: $2 to $3 more per pound than non-kosher chicken.

Kippot, tzitzit, tallitot, sheitels, and regular dry cleaning for these and other Shabbat and holiday clothes: You don’t want to think about it.

The cost of Jewish living is one of the most talked-about topics in the community, said Nachum Segal, host of the radio show JM in the AM, who moderated a panel on the subject on Saturday night to kick off the Orthodox Union’s national convention. Before a crowd of about 400 at Teaneck’s Cong. Keter Torah, Segal questioned a panel of political and communal leaders about why costs have gotten out of control and what can be done.

The problem, according to panelist Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, is how the Jewish community arranges its priorities, which he said, are “out of whack.” While this is the “most prosperous” and “blessed” age of Judaism, the community spends too many resources on repetitive services — he questioned the need for multi-million-dollar budgets for the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Weisenthal Center, and other organizations with similar goals — and a focus on luxuries rather than necessities.

“Do we really need kosher Kobe beef at $75 a pound? Do we need to spend $100 million a year on Pesach vacations? We’ve lost our perspective,” he said.

Margy-Ruth Davis, vice president of Perry Davis Associates, a New York consulting firm focused on community and institutional leadership, agreed. The American dream is to have it all, and many in the Orthodox community want to have what their non-observant peers have, she said.

“In some neighborhoods, keeping up with the Joneses is a blood sport,” she said.

One family Davis knows, with special-needs children, could not afford the services they needed in a day school and enrolled their children in public schools. They supplemented that education with heavy Jewish tutoring and are happy with their choice, she said, but this is not for everybody. Jewish education should be the responsibility of the entire Jewish community, Davis said.

Public school is not an option, said panelist David Greenfield, a member of the New York City Council who represents a district in Brooklyn.

“The average American family is tightening their belts,” he said. “For us as Orthodox Jews, it’s very difficult to tighten our belts in the same way. Private school is not a luxury for our families, it’s a basic necessity.”

Schools should encourage families to become politically involved and require parents to register to vote when registering their children for school, Greenfield said. Voting then has to take place with a single message from an organized community, he said; in the case of the Orthodox community, that message should be supporting yeshivas.

“In this system, whoever’s the most organized gets the most results,” he said. “Sadly, the one group that’s not organized is yeshiva parents.”

A new framework is needed, said panelist William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. He noted that more middle-class families are coming to his organization for help, and their two greatest expenses are education and housing. He urged the OU to appoint a commission to create new ideas to solve the tuition crisis and advocate for the community.

“We have to challenge the absolute wisdom of past practices,” he said. “We have to make sure that when we advocate, we advocate with a collective voice.”

“Government is not the solution but there is no solution without government,” Greenfield said, urging the community to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals.

“This is a communal crisis; everybody has a responsibility,” he said. “If people can produce votes, they can move elected officials. If a community isn’t doing the minimum possible, they’re not going to achieve their goals.”

 

More on: More than kashrut

 
 
 

Teaneck’s Katz becomes new OU president

When Rabbi Simcha Katz arrived at the Orthodox Union’s New York offices on Monday, the first thing he did was turn on the lights. Newly installed as the organization’s 13th president, Teaneck resident Katz has plans to shine a light on what he sees as the two biggest threats to the Jewish community: Tuition costs and assimilation.

The father of Teaneck councilman and businessman Elie Katz, Simcha Katz was inaugurated as president on Sunday during the OU’s national convention in Woodcliff Lake.

In September, Stephen Savitsky, then the OU’s president, asked Katz about assuming the organization’s leadership. Katz, a retired businessman who had spent the past five years as chair of the OU’s kashrut division and many more years working in the division with its CEO, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, was reluctant about making the time commitment.

 
 

OU convention in North Jersey spotlights programs, calls for action

The Orthodox Union is more than just that little OU symbol on your can of baked beans, and that message was the focus on the OU’s biennial convention over the weekend in Woodcliff Lake.

More than 700 people from across the country came out to the Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, where more than 25 sessions during Sunday’s one-day conference on Jewish life focused on Torah, synagogue life, and communal life. The OU also installed its new president, Rabbi Simcha Katz of Teaneck, and passed a series of resolutions to guide the organization through the next two years.

 
 
 
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Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story — and his immigrant parents schep naches

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash — a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be — it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

 

Take my kidney. Please…

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have — and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 

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The Jewish people’s 911

Local archivist collects a century of JDC photographs

Twenty-six serious men sit around the table.

Two of the men have long beards; half wear mustaches. Scattered between them are two women, one of whom, of course, is the stenographer, known only as Mrs. F. Friedman. The other is the comptroller.

The year is 1918, and the men are leaders of the Jewish community. Most, like the host of the meeting, banker Felix Warburg, and his father-in-law, banker Jacob Schiff, are Reform Jews of German origin. A couple, including those with beards, are Orthodox and from Eastern Europe. Some are rabbis; one is novelist Sholem Asch. The comptroller is Harriet B. Lowenstein.

Meet the founders of the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers, the organization now known as the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and variously as JDC or “the Joint” for short.

 

The case of the family tree

Local rabbi solves genealogical mystery

Move over Sherlock Holmes. There’s some pretty good detective work going on right here in Bergen County.

Putting together clues and puzzle-like pieces of information, Rabbi Benjamin Shull has solved what he jokingly refers to as his “semi-obsession” — the search for more branches on his family tree.

In the process, he has discovered previously unknown relatives, uncovered a direct link to a renowned Lithuanian rabbi and Musar activist, and come into possession of a beautiful, illuminated honest-to-goodness family tree.

Rabbi Shull, the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has written a memoir, “Uprooted,” detailing his journey.

His story begins in the early 1990s, at the cemetery in Philadelphia where his father’s family is buried.

 

The little house in the big woods

Artist’s family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

Then pull the camera back a bit. You’ll see that the river is the Hudson, the time the second half of the 20th century, and the town is Fort Lee.

 
 
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