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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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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

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Pascrell, Paul face off

Dr. Dierdre Paul, a 49-year-old Montclair State University professor, faces an uphill battle against Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the 77-year-old nine-term Democratic incumbent in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.

In a candidate’s forum Monday night at the Community Baptist Church in Englewood, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP, Dr. Paul said that she has not been a Republican for very long.

In fact, in 2008 she had been the Englewood chair of the Obama campaign. “No one hoped more than me that the president would succeed,” she said. “Even as late as 2012 I tried to maintain that hope and faith in the Democratic party. Instead, it was the African American base masking the same old Democratic policies.

“We have a failed war on poverty, a failed war on drugs,” she continued. “Why does the Democratic establishment feel they only need to show up in election time? People are hurting now.”

Mr. Pascrell opened by saying that his “first objective in Congress is to keep us safe. I solemnly swear to each one of you that I will keep us safe against foreign enemies and any domestic enemies who want to take advantage of us.”

 

RCA responds to scandal

Englewood rabbi to head committee looking into conversion process

Shmuel Goldin, the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, has agreed to chair a new committee the Rabbinical Council of America is convening to review its conversion process.

Rabbi Goldin also is the RCA’s immediate past president.

The committee includes 11 members; six are RCA-member rabbis and five are women. Two of the women are converts, one is a yoetzet halacha — an advisor in Jewish law — and one is a psychotherapist.

The committee has been established in response to the arrest of one of the RCA’s members, Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington, D.C. (Rabbi Freundel’s RCA membership has been suspended in response to the arrest, and he has been suspended from his job, without pay.) The shul arguably is the most prestigious Orthodox synagogue in the nation’s capital, and Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, for videoing some of his conversion candidates with a camera hidden inside a clock radio as they stripped for the mikvah, has been profoundly disturbing, both within the Kesher community and outside it.

 

Hearing, helping each other

Support groups for people with mood disorders to open in Paramus

A person who has a mood disorder has a chronic, manageable condition.

She is not lazy, not immoral, not self-indulgent. She is not suffering from some embarrassing unmentionable syndrome. She is just one of a large number of people whose body chemistry plunges her into the black hole of depression, or is one of the smaller but not insignificant group of people who swing between that hole and a fierce but unsustainable elation that takes them up into the blue sky until they crash again.

There is a stigma attached to having a mood disorder, though, that makes it hard to address, to attack, to subdue, to co-exist with.

Dena Cohen of Teaneck, a writer, editor, and social activist who writes under her maiden name, Dena Croog, knows this territory well. An op ed contributor to this newspaper, she introduced it to our readers on February 13, when her column, “I have bipolar disorder,” was printed and almost immediately went viral.

 
 
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