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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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Oslo, Birthright, and me

Yossi Beilin, to speak at Tenafly JCC, talks about his past

For a man who never served as Israel’s prime minister, Dr. Yossi Beilin had an outsized impact on Israeli history.

A journalist for the Labor party paper Davar who entered politics as a Labor Party spokesman before being appointed cabinet secretary by Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1984, Dr. Beilin made his mark with two bold policies that were reluctantly but influentially adopted by the Israeli government: the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and the Birthright Israel program.

On Thursday, Dr. Beilin will address “The future of Israel in the Middle East” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, in a program sponsored by the Israeli-American Council.

Dr. Beilin — he holds a doctorate in political science from Tel Aviv University — ended his political career in 2008, having served as a Knesset member for 20 years, and as deputy foreign minister, justice minister, and minister of religious affairs.


A new relationship in Ridgewood

Conservative, Reconstructionist shuls join forces, work together, retain differences

Last December, Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood wrote a thoughtful and perceptive op ed in this newspaper about why the word merger, at least when applied to synagogues, seems somehow dirty, perhaps borderline pornographic. (It is, in fact, “a word that synagogue trustees often keep at a greater distance than fried pork chops,” he wrote.)

That automatic distaste is not only unhelpful, it’s also inaccurate, he continued then; in fact, some of our models, based on the last century’s understanding of affiliation, and also on post-World War II suburban demographics, simply are outdated.

If we are to flourish — perhaps to continue to flourish, perhaps to do so again — we are going to have to acknowledge change, accommodate it, and not see it as failure. Considering a merger does not mean that we’re not big enough alone, or strong enough, or interesting or compelling or affordable enough. Instead, it may present us with the chance to examine our assumptions, keep some, and discard others, he said.


Mourning possibilities

Local woman helps parents face trauma of stillbirth, infant mortality

Three decades ago, when Reva and Danny Judas’ newborn son died, just 12 hours after he was born, there was nowhere for the Teaneck couple to turn for emotional support.

Nobody wanted to talk about loss; it was believed best to get on with life and not dwell on the tragedy.

Reva Judas wasn’t willing to accept that approach, and she did not think anyone else should, either — especially after suffering six miscarriages between the births of her four healthy children.

She soon became a go-to person for others in similar situations, and eventually earned certification as a hospital chaplain. In January 2009, Ms. Judas founded the nonprofit infant and pregnancy loss support organization Nechama (the Hebrew word for “comfort”) initially at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and then at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

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