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Area man appointed to new OU post

Judah Isaacs to oversee the organization’s community involvement

 
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Rabbi Judah Isaacs of Teaneck recently took on the newly created position of director of community engagement at the Orthodox Union.

Since coming on board March 21, he has been meeting with rabbis of OU member synagogues to identify the most pressing issues they face so that the organization can address these issues.

“What’s come up in conversations are strategic planning, people taking leadership roles in shuls, and finding good youth programming,” said Isaacs. “The overarching issue is fundraising and how to maintain shul finances. But that dovetails with leadership, because without effective leadership you can’t raise money.”

The purpose of his new position “is to oversee the work the OU is doing throughout North America, whether by programs or by involvement with individual shuls or schools on their issues — through their rabbis, executive directors, youth directors, directors of development, and lay leaders — and thereby to strengthen our community.”

OU’s roster of hundreds of member congregations include five in Teaneck, three in Englewood; two each in Fair Lawn, Jersey City, and Passaic; and one each in North Bergen, Fort Lee, Bergenfield, and Paramus.

Plans to service them more intensively will involve the OU’s new “Wings” synagogue consulting service and sessions targeted to youth professionals and synagogue executive directors.

“We also hope by Rosh HaShanah we will launch our new website with resources for synagogues across North America,” Isaacs said. “We are doing a lot of individual consultations and hope to expand that over the next few years.”

Isaacs said his approach “starts with planning — having a vision, a strategic plan, and a very clear direction of where we want to go. Once that direction is in place, my expertise is in helping staff and lay leadership work towards that vision and actualize it.”

His career began as coordinator of the Fair Lawn branch of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, a precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and in 1993 he embarked on a series of executive positions at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Agency for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Detroit. He moved back to the area last summer to work for the Jewish Education Project, formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.

“We look forward with excitement to Judah’s dynamic leadership in developing creative and impactful programs for our member synagogues and communities,” said OU President Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck. “In his more than two decades of service to the Jewish community, he has earned a reputation as an innovative ‘doer’ who works closely with lay people and professionals.”

In fact, noted Isaacs, along with his professional experience in organizational and strategic planning, he served as a synagogue president and youth chairman in his Detroit-area synagogue. This background, he said, allows him to bring a lay perspective to his work. “The way you develop a vision is by putting lay people and professionals together; it’s an organic process,” he said.

He will be working with Frank Buchweitz, national director of Community Relations and Special Projects; Laya Pelzner, Penny Pazornick, and Yehuda Friedman of Synagogue Services; and Rabbis Saul Zucker (of Teaneck) and Cary Friedman of Day School and Educational Services.

Isaacs is proud of the fact that he is a fifth-generation American Orthodox Jew, a descendant of Schachne Isaacs, who came to America in the 1850s. This ancestor and his sons built the religious Jewish infrastructure of Cincinnati, Ohio.

“This heritage is an important part of why I’m excited to be working on behalf of the Orthodox community in North America,” he said. “We are very fractured today, and people don’t really understand what it takes to create robust communities. This job goes back to the basics demonstrated by Schachne Isaacs.”

Isaacs and his wife, Beth, and their children attend Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. Beth Isaacs is a kindergarten teacher at Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

 
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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.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Mississippi burning, remembered

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It was a summer that changed lives.

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.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

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.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

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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