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Orthodox rabbis promote ‘inclusiveness’ at Teaneck confab

 
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The Rabbinical Council of America held an “armchair conversation” Tuesday night during its annual convention at Teaneck’s Cong. Bnai Yeshurun. From left, Bnai Yeshurun’s Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, moderator Nachum Segal, Rabbi Barry Gelman, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner. Photos by Josh Lipowsky

Before the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s largest Orthodox umbrella group, concluded its annual convention yesterday in Teaneck, its leaders voiced their support for making Modern Orthodox Judaism more inclusive of the wider Jewish community.

“We want to show that … the Orthodox world is not monolithic,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, co-chair of this year’s conference and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun where the convention was held. “It is a big tent and there’s room for a variety of opinions within halacha, and especially for individual community articulations of that community vision.”

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton, Fla., was the event’s other co-chair.

Some 200 rabbis from across the country came to discuss the future of Modern Orthodoxy and the challenges they face. Sessions at the convention, which began Monday, focused on such challenges facing congregational rabbis as the financial crisis, concerns raised about kashrut by the Agriprocessors scandal, and support for Israel.

“Whatever’s been in the news the last one or two years, we try to prepare the rabbis to deal with it in an effective and substantive way,” Pruzansky said. “Not just platitudes, not saying words, but giving people direction and facts, ideas, programs that implement those values.”

Aside from being a co-chair’s home, Teaneck was chosen for this year’s conference site because of its thriving Orthodox community.

“Teaneck is a prototype of a Modern Orthodox community where people are engaged in every profession with the modern world, strong commitment to halacha, to Jewish law, to Jewish values,” Pruzansky said.

This year the RCA partnered with Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Richard Joel, YU’s president, addressed the convention on Tuesday, while the organizations have split costs and organization responsibilities. The partnership has been successful, said Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive director.

A session Tuesday night open to the public dealt with the challenges congregational rabbis face in interpreting halacha for their communities and the roles larger organizations play in such decisions. Nachum Segal, host of the radio program JM in the AM, moderated the discussion by Rabbis Kenneth Brander, Barry Gelman, Pesach Lerner, and Pruzansky.

The panel addressed such questions as how should a central body rebuke a colleague, how the movement can survive outside influences, and the recent controvery over Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s attendance at an interfaith prayer service with President Obama. The RCA had castigated Lookstein in a press release, saying he broke the organization’s rules by entering a church.

“The RCA mishandled how they dealt with Rabbi Lookstein,” Brander told the gathering. “We made a terrible mistake. We looked like people who don’t respect the president.”

Herring chose not to address the issue when speaking with The Jewish Standard after the session. Noting earlier statements about inclusiveness and discussion during Tuesday night’s session about increasing global fundamentalism, he said that the RCA does not want to be seen as an extreme organization.

The organization is working on a set of ethical guidelines for the kashrut industry, as have the Conservative and Reform rabbinical organizations. Such guidelines, Herring said, could be construed as left-wing. On the issue of conversions, the organization has taken what some would call a more right-wing approach in calling for uniformity in the conversion process, he said.

“We don’t want to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped as moving to the right in its entirety or moving to the left in its entirety,” he said. “Each issue has to be dealt with on its own merits.”

Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the incoming president of the RCA, wants to make the organization as inclusive as possible, he told the Standard.

“We are a very diverse organization,” he said. “We are diverse regionally. We are diverse ideologically, within certain norms. We need to focus on what unites us so we can be as inclusive as possible without compromising our values.”

The RCA represents close to 1,000 rabbis throughout North America, the majority of whom are congregational rabbis. Those rabbis have to reach beyond their synagogues, said Kletenick, in order to reach the wider Jewish community. For example, he said, noting that he lives in Seattle, he serves on the faith advisory board of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“We certainly are not only rabbis of our individual congregations but we are rabbis involved in our communities on many, many levels,” Kletenik said.

Herring pointed to rabbis who had been at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington earlier in the week before arriving at the convention, as well as RCA’s interaction with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, federations, and JCCs.

“The spirit you see here is the spirit of leaders,” Pruzansky said. “People want to go back to their communities and tell them, ‘This is what we expect from you, this is where we’re going, and this is how I intend to take you there.’ And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

 
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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.”

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

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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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