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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.

 

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

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

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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