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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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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

Take the Shab-bus

‘Horizontal Shabbat elevator’ picks up congregants in North Bergen and Cliffside Park

You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.

Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.

But that synagogue is five miles away.

Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.

What are you to do?

 

RECENTLYADDED

Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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