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A melodic mission for Silow-Carroll

He’d like to teach us how to sing in perfect harmony

 
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Andrew Silow-Carroll, photographed this year near the gravesite of David and Paula Ben-Gurion in Israel. Courtesy of Andrew Silow-Carroll

“If Torah doesn’t help us create a better society or battle widespread, systemic injustice, then what’s the point?”

Andrew Silow-Carroll lives in Teaneck, but works in Whippany, as editor-in-chief of The New Jersey Jewish News. This quote, taken from his award-winning column in that newspaper, is the fulcrum of his approach to Jewish life, and to journalism as it relates to Jewish life.

It also helps explain why Silow-Carroll, along with his wife, Sharon Silow-Carroll, will be among those honored Sunday evening at a dinner celebrating the 60th anniversary of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

The Conservative synagogue, in fact, is what drew Silow-Carroll and his family to the township in the first place.

Silow-Carroll spent two years in Israel, where he studied Jewish educational theory. “It was a tremendous two years,” he said. There was “tremendous intellectual ferment.”

Returning to the United States, Silow-Carroll turned to journalism. It helped him put his studies into practice and teach, he said. “As a Jewish journalist, I teach every week. In some ways, the newspaper is a classroom,” he said.

“Insularity breeds a lot of misunderstanding,” he added, commenting on strains in the Jewish community. He sees liberal and non-affiliated Jews “drifting away,” while the Orthodox world is becoming more isolated.

A Jewish community newspaper provides one place where all the streams can “get together and confront each other,” he said. “You can’t do that in neighborhoods and shuls.

“The saddest thing is not that we fight, but if we don’t talk at all.”

Silow-Carroll sees the Jewish community as more “contentious than in the past,” not just here, but in Israel as well. “There is a souring of the debate,” he said.

The heightened contentiousness applies to the broader non-Jewish world too. “We’re at a moment of polarization in the broader culture,” he said. Readers used to write letters and make their points civilly, but now they go after their opponents with a hard edge.

“The optimist in me says we’ll work it out,” he said.

The newspaper Silow-Carroll edits, The New Jersey Jewish News, is published by the local federation in Whippany, the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. Over the years the newspaper merged with smaller newspapers, and today it has five editions going to 40,000 households, ranging from the Newark suburbs down to the Princeton area. Because of his paper’s wide reach, Silow-Carroll is an influential voice in the MetroWest community.

“The weekly editor’s column is my most important contribution in getting a conversation going,” he said. “My favorite comment is when people say ‘I don’t agree with you, but I enjoy your column.’”

Silow-Carroll’s quest for harmony is literal, as well as metaphoric, extending to actual song — he sings in Tavim, Beth Sholom’s a capella choir. “Making harmony with just your voices is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Journalism was in his blood from early on, the North Bellmore, N.Y., native said. He worked on his high school newspaper, and then on his college paper at SUNY Albany. He didn’t expect to go into Jewish journalism, though, until he went to work for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, as it was then called, 25 years ago.

Journalism and Jewishness are intimately connected for Silow-Carroll. “Working for the JTA was like Jewish grad school,” he said. “I got paid to interview rabbis and Jewish leaders, and that really formed my Jewish identity.”

He sees the role of a community newspaper as twofold: Not only must it ask the hard questions, but it also must work with local leaders and institutions. “You have more indebtedness to the community, you’re not quite as adversarial” as a mainstream newspaper would be, he said.

The quote at the top of this story came from a September 2011 column headlined “Bima vs. Bully Pulpit,” concerning rabbis speaking out against injustice and political issues. Silow-Carroll won the inaugural David Twersky Journalism Award for that column. Twersky, a longtime activist in Labor Zionist affairs, worked at the weekly newspaper The Forward, but left to become editor of what was then known as The MetroWest Jewish News. Under his stewardship, the newspaper grew in prestige, merged with other newspapers, and renamed itself The New Jersey Jewish News.

Silow-Carroll is Twersky’s successor at NJJN. The journalism award recognizes the work of journalists at The Forward and NJJN.

“What I try to do is create a conversation,” Silow-Carroll said. “I try not to drive one hard ideological line or another, but raise some of the tougher questions and put the conversation back on the community.

Silow-Carroll and his family feel strongly about their own shul. “The synagogue is the center of our life in Teaneck. It’s a terrific place,” he said. In fact, Congregation Beth Sholom is part of what drew the family to Teaneck, from their home just over the bridge in Riverdale. The family also lived in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where Silow-Carroll worked at local Jewish community newspapers.

“We do everything we can to make it a great place,” he said of the Teaneck Conservative congregation that is honoring him. “There’s a sense of community we found nowhere else. It’s about families that celebrate together, families that mourn together.

“If somebody falls ill, the community just rallies around,” he said. “The synagogue is about like-minded people coming together in good times and bad.”

He and his wife “lived in Israel for a couple of years and had a great Shabbat lifestyle,” he said. “How do we re-create this here, we wondered. And everybody said you have to go to Riverdale.” They stayed put, and then again, a few years later, they wondered, “Where do we go next? And everybody said you have to go to Teaneck.” So they did.

“We definitely benefit from living in a shomer Shabbat community,” he said. “We pick up a lot of energy from our Orthodox neighbors and we love it.”

Silow-Carroll’s affection for Congregation Beth Sholom is reciprocated. “He is a treasured member of our community, someone we can rely on to help us talk about difficult issues,” said Joel Pitkowski, Beth Sholom’s new rabbi. Silow-Carroll’s contributions include teaching Shabbaton classes and writing and emceeing Purim shpiels. He also served on the rabbinic search committee, which last year had the difficult chore of finding a replacement for Beth Sholom’s long-standing rabbi, Kenneth Berger, who retired.

Silow-Carroll “is very valued for his kindness, wisdom, and intellect,” the rabbi said.

Silow-Carroll’s three children went to the Solomon Schechter school in New Milford until the eighth grade. Noah, 21, is a graduate of Bergen Academies and attends Rutgers. Elie, 18, is a graduate of Teaneck High School and will attend the University of Maryland. Kayla, 15, will be a junior at Teaneck High.

Silow-Carroll said attending Schechter nurtured his children’s Jewishness. At public school, their non-Jewish friends learned from them about Judaism, while they learned about their non-Jewish friends and their religions and cultures.

In a more lighthearted vein, Silow-Carroll lays tentative claim to coining the phrase “kishkes factor” in referring to President Barack Obama. As he put it in his blog during the 2008 election season, it was about then-Sen. Obama’s “need to convince Jewish voters that he sympathized with Israel in his guts.” Despite a long list of Jewish supporters and advisers, not to mention Michelle Obama’s rabbi cousin and Obama’s Jewish half-brother, the would-be president lacked credibility in some parts of the Jewish community because he was a member of a church whose pastor was known to be anti-Israel. The “kishkes factor” referred to having to take on faith that what Obama says about Israel and the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state is what he means.

 
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