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New voices in the community

Joel Pitkowsky: Opportunities and challenges

 
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Cong. Beth Sholom — a Conservative synagogue in Teaneck headed for three decades by Rabbi Kenneth Berger, now rabbi emeritus — recently welcomed Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, most recently religious leader of Cong. Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass.

Pitkowsky is the third full-time rabbi to serve the Teaneck synagogue since it was founded 60 years ago. Born and raised in Fair Lawn, he held his first service at Beth Sholom on Aug. 5, after serving for eight years at the Massachusetts synagogue. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, he is one of only several dozen Conservative rabbis certified to write gittin, or Jewish divorce documents.

The rabbi, who arrived here with his wife, Ingrid, and children Jonah (10) and Lili (8), said he is “trying to adjust to the move, to the [children’s] schools, and to life in Teaneck.” Ingrid will be teaching kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.

His is an unusual synagogue, because it includes as congregants a number of the very JTS faculty members who were his own teachers.

“They’ve been very supportive — wonderful and kind,” he said. “It’s clear that they are here to be supportive members of the Jewish community, providing whatever resources they can. I’m thrilled to have them.”

Far from feeling daunted, he said, “I feel I need to do my best to have something to teach everyone in the community — including my teachers.”

Pitkowsky said Beth Sholom is similar to his last congregation, in that they “both have a committed group of laypeople.” Still, he said, “There’s more of everything here. Larger regular Shabbat attendance; a larger number of other synagogues. I’m not used to it. There’s so much more Jewish culture.”

While this creates “a wonderfully rich community,” it also creates “an open market,” he said.

“We are in a strong position to help in building bridges to other synagogues in the community, to help explain what Conservative Judaism means, and to work together toward furthering common goals and interests.”

The rabbi said the synagogue has handled the transition from one rabbi to another “wonderfully.”

Berger served for 30 years, deeply affecting all aspects of the synagogue, Pitkowsky said, adding, “My role is to figure out where the shul is now and where we need to be in the future, building on the foundation he set.”

The 400-member-unit synagogue has a wide age range, he noted, with members ranging from people in their 20s to their 90s. There also are many children, he said “the vast majority” of whom go to day school.

The shul’s merger four years ago with Cong. Beth Israel in Bergenfield brought a religious school to the Teaneck congregation. “It’s now our religious school,” he said. “We’re pushing hard to have it be the best it can, so we can provide the best education in different settings.”

Pitkowsky is excited to arrive at the synagogue as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.

“I feel we have built a wonderful foundation of learning, commitment to Jewish life, and prayer, and [can now] take it into the next 60 years,” he said.

Among his duties, he said, he will “care for the religious, spiritual, and Jewish life of every member of the community, providing pastoral care, teaching classes, and helping to organize all the synagogue’s educational programs.” He will also teach occasionally in the religious school.

The synagogue has alternative minyanim each week, he said, adding that in addition to leading the sanctuary service, he plans on “having a presence” in each of the other services, as well.

While opportunities abound, there also are challenges.

One challenge is “creating a community that appeals to all different kinds of Conservative Jews,” he said. For example, if a family is shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant], sending their children to day school and Jewish summer camps, that family should be as comfortable in the shul as a family whose children attend public school and receive supplementary religious education.

“My goal is to create an environment where people feel personally connected to the community, seeing how Judaism can enrich their lives and how a committed Jewish community can enrich the greater community. The mission of the synagogue is to be a vehicle for personal and communal growth,” he said.

“I’m privileged to be in a community where so many people care about what happens here, about the Jewish community, and about the broader community. We can really make a positive impact on the world around us. That’s something I want to help foster.”

 

More on: New voices in the community

 
 
 

Mendy Gurkov: Seeking to be the lamplighter

Rabbi Mendy Gurkov, religious leader of the new Chabad Jewish Center of Upper Passaic County, received his ordination in 2008, spending a year after yeshiva working in Moscow, where he “interacted with different people, experiencing what it means to be a rabbi.”

“To see different people, who didn’t grow up religious, and connect with them on their level and share the warmth of Judaism with them — that was a great year for me,” he said.

The son of Rabbi Michel and Chani Gurkov of Wayne — who themselves run a Chabad center — the young rabbi said, “I was always helping out, running different holiday and bar mitzvah programs. As an assistant rabbi all my life, I wanted to be a rabbi and continue this amazing work.”

 
 

Moshe Stavsky: Seeking the ‘passionately engaged’

Founded in 2003, the Bais Medrash of Bergenfield serves some 60 member families. According to its website, “One of the founding principles…is to offer a warm and inclusive environment….Our shul is open to all those who want to daven with us. We plan on remaining steadfast to these principles even as we grow.”

Rabbi Moshe Stavsky, recently named the congregation’s religious leader, is looking forward to that growth.

Said Stavsky, “We hope to slowly build up the shul into a full-week, full-service shul, with services throughout the week and more adult education.”

Today, the synagogue offers Shabbat minyanim, Saturday morning groups for children, and classes and lectures throughout the week, open to the entire community.

 
 

Barry L. Schwartz: A new direction for Leonia shul

Like Bergenfield’s new rabbi, Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz — new rabbi of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia — will maintain a second job, in this case serving as CEO of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia.

Before entering the world of publishing, the rabbi spent 11 years as religious leader of Cong. M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. In addition to his rabbinic work, he has been active in Jewish environmental efforts, serving on the board of several nonprofit social justice organizations, and has written both books and scholarly articles.

Ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1985, Schwartz received an honorary divinity degree after 25 years in the pulpit.

 
 

Jim Simon: Paving the way for his successor

Describing itself as “a lively and active Reform Congregation of approximately 400 households serving the entire Northern Valley and beyond,” Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter is ushering in 5772 with an interim rabbi, Jim Simon. He will serve during the coming year as the synagogue searches for a permanent replacement.

Simon comes from Miami, where he maintains his permanent home. He said the nature of the interim rabbinate “is that I don’t know where I’ll be from one year to the next. I go where I can be most helpful.”

 
 
 
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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.

 

RECENTLYADDED

An American tale

Closter’s mayor talks about her journey from Nuremberg to New Jersey

Anyone trying to predict the course of newborn Sofie Dittmann’s life in 1928 would have imagined a solid, possibly even stolid upper-middle-class life, most likely in her birth city — Nuremberg, Germany.

It would have seemed an odd leap to imagine Sophie Dittman Heymann as she is today — the Republican mayor of Closter, coming to the end of her term as she completes eight years in office.

Her story, as Ms. Heymann tells it, involves hats, salamis, of course ambition, and a surprising but logical take on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It began with Sofie, as her name then was spelled, and her younger sister, Ilse, growing up in a comfortable German-Jewish home. Her father, Fritz Dittmann, a leather dealer, was a World War I veteran, and he had earned an Iron Cross fighting for Germany in that war. Her mother, Gerda, was the daughter of a banker. The family’s life in Germany ended abruptly in 1933, however, when one of her father’s employees — who “was a Nazi, but also very loyal to my father,” Ms. Heymann said — warned him that the Nazis would be coming for him the next day.

The family escaped that night — by taxi.

 

Got day school?

Federation launches marketing effort for nine area Jewish schools

“We can accomplish more together by pooling our resources for a common goal,” explained Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

“Through this project, we hope to raise awareness across the broader community about the benefits of a stellar dual curricular Jewish education,” he said.

“We’re trying to educate different audiences within our community about the value of a Jewish education and the importance of investing in these schools,” Ms. Scherzer said. “These are the schools that produce leaders.”

In addition to the advertising campaign, planned marketing efforts include a short video, a website, and parlor meetings to take the case for day schools directly to community leaders.

 

As easy as chewing gum

Sweet Bites launches program to prevent tooth decay

Convincing children to chew gum is easy. Distributing gum that prevents tooth decay to children in urban slums is a bit trickier.

Still, given the success they enjoyed during their pilot year in India, the creators of Sweet Bites stand a good chance of making widespread gum distribution a reality.

According to 22-year-olds Josh Tycko of Demarest and Eric Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who joined with several friends at the University of Pennsylvania this year to found the group, tooth decay has been a terrible burden on the lives of millions of slum dwellers.

Sweet Bites wants to popularize the use of 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum to reverse the trend. The students point out that clinical trials in both the United States and India have proved the gum’s efficacy in re-mineralizing enamel and reducing tooth decay.

 
 
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