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Beyond Birthright

Continuing the journey

 
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Squirrels are running rampant in the rafters of a synagogue. Desperate to find a way to deal with the pests, the rabbi decides to bar mitzvah them. The day after, the squirrels leave the synagogue and never come back.

This old joke tells the sad truth about the many b’nai mitzvah kids who disappear from synagogue life after the ceremony. To bring those teens back into the fold, a group of philanthropists created Birthright Israel nine years ago, offering Jewish young adults free trips to Israel to ignite their passion for Judaism.

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Rabbi Ely Allen says the Jewish community needs to do a better job reaching out to Jewish young adults.

The program has had enormous success in sending more than 100,000 Jews to the holy land. Many participants get more involved in Jewish life on their respective campuses after the trip, but new research points to a staggering 44 percent of Birthright alumni who stop attending Jewish events after college. (See related story, Beyond Birthright — Report: Communities must do more to attract alums.)

That figure is representative of a larger problem in the Jewish community, said Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which operates on four area college campuses.

UJA-NNJ will sponsor its third Birthright trip this summer, which will bring the number of participants on its trips to 120. Some participants are from the local colleges, while others are area residents who go to schools elsewhere. On campus, about 80 percent of Birthright alumni stay active in Jewish life, Allen said, but Hillel can only offer so much. The larger Jewish community is not focused on what happens to Jews after they leave college, which makes the Birthright experience more of an isolated event, he said.

Follow-up “has to be an important part of the federation world and the Jewish education scene,” he said. “You can’t just expect people to have a 10-day trip and no follow-up … to carry them through their Jewish lives.”

An editorial in this newspaper last month lamented the lack of Jewish social opportunities for young adults outside of New York City. Allen agreed, adding that the Jewish community largely has been ignoring the population.

“There need to be organizations for young adults,” he said. “That’s the time we’re most likely going to lose them.”

Allen praised organizations such as Birthright Next that offer opportunities for alumni, but chastised the larger Jewish communal world for not following suit.

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Amy Winn-Dworkin

“If all these Jewish organizations want to have a next generation, there needs to be programming,” he said. “There needs to be a concerted effort and teamwork among all the organizations. We have to have the same [effort] for after they graduate from college.”

While most students stay active in Jewish life on campus after Birthright, Allen has noticed the falling away of about 15 percent to 20 percent of Birthright participants on his campuses. He had no answer as to why.

In addition to his work with Hillel, the rabbi runs classes and Shabbatons out of his home, open to students and young adults in the community. He sees many young adults who are out of college and have few other groups reaching out to them in the area.

Natalia Kadish attends events at Allen’s with her husband, Aaron. They both went on Birthright through Ma’ayanot, although on different trips. Kadish praised the trip but said that now that she and her spouse are out of college and living in Teaneck, they need more support. Both are in their mid-20s and feel that only Allen and another Teaneck family that hosts Shabbatons have consistently reached out to their age group, she said.

“I’m very blessed to have Ely and the Shulman family, and all our chevra,” she said, “but if it weren’t for Ely’s family and the Shulmans, my heart would not be as close to HaShem.”

To highlight the need for more outreach, Kadish paraphrased a quote from the band Tool: “If no one was here to see us through the tedious path we have chosen, we might have walked away by now.”

Debra Segal, who works for The Cornerstone Group in New York, has lived in Teaneck with her family since seventh grade and says there has never been any programming for her generation. She is active in her synagogue but says that it mostly reaches out only to young children. Now 20, Segal remains involved, but laments that the larger community still hasn’t extended itself to her demographic.

“People recognize that this is something we have to work on,” Allen said. “There are plans and things happening. At this time when we’re going through all these cuts, I hope there will be an increase in investment in young adults and who’s going to the future leadership of the Jewish community.”

The full impact of Birthright won’t be seen for a few more years, said Amy Winn-Dworkin, UJA-NNJ’s director of Birthright Israel Support. Those among the 18-26 age group that Birthright targets are either still in college or, in the case of the organization’s oldest alumni, still in the early stages of their careers and adult lives.

Winn-Dworkin argued that enough time has not passed to determine the full impact of Birthright on its participants. The years between ages 18 and 26 can be filled with critical decisions and Birthright could later affect whom alumni marry, how they raise their children, and how active they are in Jewish life.

“It’s going to be a constant research experiment to see what happens,” she said. “The people we are sending to Israel today, in this generation, are future shul presidents, federation presidents, mayors, heads of states, CEOs.”

Since going on Birthright in 2006 with Hillel at Penn State University, Perry Bindelglass, 22, has remained active in Jewish life. He has volunteered with UJA-NNJ for Super Sunday and other fund-raising events, and is an active booster of Birthright.

“I was always involved but because of my parents. I grew up with it,” he said. His parents, Gale and David of Franklin Lakes, are active in organizing and fund-raising for UJA-NNJ events.

After Birthright, Bindelglass would continue to run into other participants around campus. Some graduated soon after they got back, some he would see only at High Holiday services, but they always had a bond, he said.

“Any time I meet somebody who’s gone on the trip, we’ve connected,” he said.

Now Bindelglass lives in Washington and, while he has met with the president of the local federation, he has not yet gotten involved with the organization.

“It’s a little harder now,” he said. “But I’m still involved as much as I can be.”

UJA-NNJ does not offer formal Birthright alumni programming. Such organizations exist in New York, but for local Birthright alumni still in college those programs can be difficult to attend.

“We have tried a couple of times to try to engage alumni into other federation activities but it doesn’t work as well because most of our alumni are going to college out of the area,” Winn-Dworkin said.

Within the next seven to 10 years, Winn-Dworkin expects to see those numbers begin to change, and hopes the federation will be able to attract more alumni to its events. Many recent college graduates head to the city rather than the suburbs, but as they eventually marry and have children, northern New Jersey becomes more popular. That shared Birthright experience from college might be the foundation to build upon later.

“Trying to still maintain that Birthright connection might be something important for us to look at,” Winn-Dworkin said. “The value of this program is it creates connections where other things have not. This is going to be the future of our community.”

 

More on: Beyond Birthright

 
 
 

Report: Communities must do more to attract alums

Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.

Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.

That’s one of the findings of “Tourists, Travelers, and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.

 
 
 
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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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