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Opinion: Letters
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In favor of belly dancing

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There was always something searching in me, something sensual and needful that pushed me from religious prayer and meditation towards dance.

Maybe it was simply the music — the music of the Mediterranean and the Middle East that got under my skin. As a child, ballet did not move me, despite many years of trying to prove I was graceful and swanlike. It was the music of the Middle East, particularly that of my deepest roots in Israel, that spoke to me as a young woman. It drew me inadvertently to a studio in New York City, where I learned to belly dance many uncountable years ago. (The term belly dance does not refer to the belly, by the way. It refers to a form of this dance called “beladi.”) No one is undulating, shaking, and gyrating with abandon. It is a sedate, beautiful, and life affirming dance. It is an art. Not a fad. Not a bunch of hussies looking for sex.

My original teacher and mentor was called Serena, a Jewish woman who had given up ballet and then modern dance for belly dance. I went reluctantly to the first class on the suggestion of a friend. Suddenly, the music took over, my body moved from its inertia, and I began the road to learn this art.

It was not so dissimilar from the Israeli dances I had learned before. With joy I continued, having found something that took me above my self, my consciousness, and my melancholy. It brought out such wonderful things in me. The music, the drums, the sensuality, all became a part of who I was. I loved to dance to Israeli music particularly, because that was what called to me.

Sephardic Jews would not find it unusual at all. It is a part of the Arab-Jewish culture, just as much as of the Ashkenazi or European culture.

This dance form, though thought to be exhibitionist and vulgar, is not at all that. This interpretation is a misrepresentation of a very ancient dance form. Mideastern or Oriental dance, began in all of the Arabic lands. During the flux and flow of Jews to Israel, much of this came to Israel, and fused with the Israeli dance that had only of late become the dance of our country.

The fusion of music and dance from various cultures are not new to the world today. In Israel, Sephardic Jews dance at weddings to the sounds of their original lands and the new sounds of the country within which they now reside.

Originally, mideastern dance was a dance of women for women. It was not meant to be for performing. It was a preparation for childbirth and marriage. Women danced for women. The whole concept of belly dance as cabaret is not really what is taught today.

Women learn belly dance to connect with their womanliness, to exercise, and to find an outlet to a life force. More than anything, it brings women out of themselves, into a higher state of awareness in the relaxing atmosphere of women. Often it is used in preparation for childbirth, and in the same vein for the restoration of the body after childbirth. There is no age limit for belly dance. It can be started at any time in life, and is not stressful to the older body or to someone who has never danced.

Oriental dance, mideastern dance, belly dance, or Sephardic Israeli dance is taught for the most part as exercise and movement. It is a form of empowerment that allows you to reach inside yourself and bring forth calm, peace, and most of all joy. This is a calming of the spirit.

We often seek too much from the power of prayer and not nearly enough from within the strength of the female body There is absolutely nothing in Judaism that prohibits dancing among women, and it is not the lascivious dance that is portrayed by old stereotypical notions of what is lewd. Belly dance has no ties to religion and has originated all over the Middle East and Mediterranean, having fused into what is now most popular amongst the secular and religious of Jewish women.

 

Sandra Steuer Cohen
Teaneck
 
 

Against Shulem Deen

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I wish to take exception to your article regarding Shulem Deen for several reasons (“Leaving New Square,” June 19).

First of all, while Mr. Deen has a perfect right to leave his chasidic community, he does not have the right to return and trash said community. There ought to be a sense of loyalty to the community that reared him and to which his daughters still belong.

While he may make valid points as to the sustainability of the chasidic communities without basic skills, these points should be made by someone else, someone who does not have an animus toward Orthodox Judaism.

Secondly, there are not large numbers of Jews from Skvare, Satmar or any other chasidic community who are waiting for Mr. Deen or Footsteps to rescue them. To imply that is insulting to all Orthodox Jews who are not necessarily chasidic. Furthermore, there are institutions such as Touro College and Makom who provide chasidic and charedi Jews with employable skills.

Thirdly, the goal of Mr. Deen’s organization, Footsteps, is not merely a path from the chasidic world but is to strip the individual involved with it with any religious observance at all. Why then does the organization insist that its members not associate with any Orthodox Jews at all and learn to eat non-kosher? One has to wonder what effect this may have for the families of its members who remain in these communities and their ties with family members.

Fourthly, I find it a bit disingenuous for Mr. Deen to claim he wants contact with his daughters. Why then does he insist on attacking the community that means everything to them?

Finally, because of their different clothing, language, and beliefs, these communities face hostility and discrimination from the general community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. People who leave these communities ought to be sensitive to that . Unfortunately, writers such as Shulem Deen and Debra Feldman are not.



Editor’s Note:

Footsteps, an organization that helps formerly chasidic Jews who are leaving or have left their communities make the transition to life in the outside world, does not insist that the people it helps drop all associations with Orthodox Jews, and it does not make them eat treif. To learn about Footsteps, go to footstepsorg.org.

I am sorry that as a writer I was not able to get across Mr. Deen’s heartbreak over the loss of both his daughters and his sons; certainly he made his longing and his pain clear to me, both in his book and in conversation. It is hard to classify that burning pain as “disingenuous.”–JP

Alan Mark Levin
Fair Lawn
 
 

Korean dance in Israel

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I was very interested to read the article about Korean Christians showing their love for Israel and the Jewish people (“Korean Christians reach out to Jewish neighbors,” June 19). This past April I was visiting my daughter in Israel. During my visit, we spent time in Beit She’an, where my daughter lived for the past 10 months.

While touring the Beit She’an National Park, I looked out across the ruins from the amphitheater and spotted a group of women, in traditional Korean dress, dancing among the columns. They were filming at the park! Living in a town with quite a large Korean population, I immediately recognized their bright dresses.

Imagine my surprise seeing this in Israel. It was unexpected to be sure. Had I read this article before my trip, perhaps I would not have been surprised at all! I would love to see the film, as the park is a beautiful setting for the colorful dancers. Unfortunately they did not speak English or Hebrew, so I could not find out what type of filming they were doing.

 

Amy Chartoff
Ridgefield
 
 

More about the Jewish future

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Last week, Shammai Engelmayer’s column (“Jeopardizing the Jewish future”) focused on the financial woes of Jewish day school education. My family experienced the problem firsthand, from the closing of a local Schechter high school eight years ago. The loss still stings.

He prescribes a meeting of two local rabbinic boards. (Our area probably is the only place with not one but two separate groups of rabbis.) A meeting of diverse minds and persuasions, in partnership with local educators, is said to be the key to solving a financial problem. Maybe.

In the adjacent column (“Common sense”), Dena Croog describes a Jewish response to mental illness. She highlights a local support group that meets twice a month. Ms. Croog is doing great work, and her group may grow to meet the needs of the greater population. But is not Jewish Family Service already tasked with serving our families and their needs?

The answer to both of these problems is not blowing in the wind. It is right in our backyards. Support your local synagogue. Attend its daily “support group” minyan. Show up for Shabbat. And in that place, build and support talmud Torah. The synagogue should be the central place of learning. By that, I do not mean a two-day-a-week religious school for children under the age of 13. It is the rest of us, adults and parents, who need continuing re-education.

From that foundation, the Jewish home can again become the primary classroom. Once that reality is established, day schools can simply serve as a supplement. Our children will learn day and night. Eventually we will have more educators, and school costs will decline.

In the meantime, as Rabbi Engelmayer suggests, the Jewish community must rally around its day schools and find ways to fund them. Otherwise, in another generation, our people will not know the difference between Zechariah and Zorro.

 

Eric Weis
Wayne
 
 

Animal-free circuses, please

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I do not think it is proper for a Jewish organization (such as the YJCC in Washington Township) to support or endorse a circus that features exotic animal demonstrations. The treatment, training, and handling of wild animals in circuses forcing them to perform actions against their instinctive nature for mere human amusement is a violation of the Torah commandment of ts’ar be’alla chyim (forbidding animal cruelty). In my opinion, the Y’s raising funds in this manner is a shonda (disgrace).

Circuses employ cruel methods. This is well documented.

It is by far a better option to enjoy circuses such as the Cirque Du Solei whose thrilling performances involve only humans, who have free choice over their actions.

 

Jerrold Terdiman, MD
Woodcliff Lake
 
 

It’s time for solutions

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I read with great interest Rabbi Engelmayer’s column, “Jeopardizing the Jewish future” (June 6). I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of the piece. Paying for Jewish education certainly is a communal responsibility, and many parents are just not able to afford it on their own.

Had Rabbi Engelmayer penned this column 5 to 10 years ago, I would have been the first to applaud. But the rabbi either is ignoring or is unaware of three major initiatives started in Bergen County over the past few years that are big steps in the right direction towards solving the “tuition crisis” — one on the revenue side, one on the cost side, and one in the political arena.

Let’s start with the revenue side. In 2008, under the leadership of Sam Moed, a group of lay leaders representing the seven (now eight) Bergen County day schools formed an organization — Jewish Education for Generations (JEFG) — whose goal was to address the long-term problem of Jewish day school affordability. A hallmark of JEFG was the inclusion of Jewish day schools across denominations and a commitment to a broad coalition.

In the spring of 2009, we launched NNJKIDS (http://www.nnjkids.org), whose goal was to do precisely what Rabbi Engelmayer is advocating — creating a fund that would be supported by the entire Jewish community, regardless of whether a family had children in day school or not, much like the American system of property taxes.

A key driver of NNJKIDS was (and still is) rabbinic support. The unfortunate reality is that while the Orthodox rabbinate enthusiastically supported the program, support from non-Orthodox rabbis was virtually nonexistent. And this showed in the results. At its peak, over 30 percent of Orthodox Jewish families were regular contributors to NNJKIDS, while the number of non-Orthodox donors was negligible.

If Rabbi Engelmayer really is interested in doing something toward the stated goal in his column, instead of organizing “a summit meeting” between our two rabbinic organizations, I’d suggest that he start with the New Jersey Board of Rabbis and convince them that this is a cause they should support. I am fairly certain that once again 100 percent of the members of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County will support communal funding of Jewish day schools.

Now on to the cost side. Rabbi Engelmayer ignores the establishment of Yeshivat HeAtid (http://www.yeshivatheatid.org), now finishing its third year at a tuition 40 percent below that of the average Jewish day school in Bergen County. His statement that “depending on grade and school, elementary school tuition plus fees ranged from $13,000 to $25,000” is factually incorrect, as Yeshivat HeAtid charges a total of $9,170 all in, with no additional fees.

Yeshivat HeAtid is using cutting-edge methodologies and technologies to substantially lower the costs of delivering a Jewish education. And the results have been impressive. From standardized test scores to parental satisfaction, Yeshivat HeAtid has proven that a high quality dual curriculum can be delivered at a substantially lower cost than traditional alternatives.

While the price point still may be too high for some families, this is a huge step in the right direction, as is evidenced by Yeshivat HeAtid requiring only about 1 percent of its budget for financial aid, versus 10 to 20 percent for the typical day school in Bergen County. We could use talented people like Rabbi Englemayer to further the availability and the excellence of these promising new cost-effective educational models.

Finally, a major new initiative called TEACH NJS was launched last week, as reported in this very newspaper (“Put this at the top of our agenda”) to access greater state funding for day schools and other parochial schools. The effort is supported by virtually all of the day schools in our state, is cross-denominational, and is supported by multiple federations along with the Orthodox Union. Once again, this is an amazing opportunity for the full range of rabbinic leadership and their communities to aggressively champion this cause.

Rabbi Engelmayer, I invite you to join all efforts to make Jewish education affordable for all. Support the idea that every Jewish family should contribute towards Jewish education, get involved in supporting educational models that lower the cost of providing that education, and get support and get involved with TEACH NJS. If for whatever reason you don’t find these initiatives to your liking, feel free to create, organize, and execute your own ideas. But the time for complaining is over. There are many community leaders hard at work at solving the problem. I’d respectfully ask that you relinquish the company of those who just write about the problem and join those of us actively working to solve it.

 

Gershon Distenfeld

Bergenfield

Founder — NNJKIDS

Chairman of the Board, Yeshivat HeAtid

 
 

More on Zahal Shalom

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Thank you so much for your coverage on our program with Zahal Shalom, the disabled Israeli veteran program (“‘Indescribable’ connection,” May 22). There was no website or Facebook page mentioned in the story, however.

Anyone who would like to know more can reach us at www.ZahalShalom.com or Zahal Shalom on Facebook.

 

Debbie Zingler
Ramsey
 
 

Racism and Jews

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In “The North, the South, the Civil War, and us” (May 22), Rabbi Eric Wisnia is reported to have developed a “lifelong obsession with the Civil War”.

He and I have several things in common. We grew up in racially sensitive areas of Pennsylvania, a fact that may explain our historical interests. We share a belief in revisionist history. And we are intrigued by the Jewish dimension of this period.

The Civil War was not civil. South of the Mason-Dixon line (which bisects New Jersey), its other name was the War Between the States. It was in Pennsylvania, specifically on a small hill in Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, that the Union was preserved. The man responsible was General Joshua Chamberlain. I am able to say that I slept in Chamberlain’s house (not during his life, of course).

Rabbi Wisnia correctly views both sides as participating in the evil of slavery. But even with the end of the “WBS” in 1865, it took another 100 years for Jim Crow laws to be wiped out. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and New Jersey’s ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1966, mark that coming of age.

One thing that was not mentioned in the article was the active support of southern Jews for the Confederacy. Judah Benjamin, the first Jewish U.S. senator (1852), was a wealthy slave-owner who became Jefferson Davis’ secretary of state. Benjamin was instrumental in obtaining European (British) financing for the southern secession. He fled the United States after the war and never returned.

Partially as a result of the alliance of Jews with the Confederacy, U.S. Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, effectively the first government-endorsed pogrom against the Jews. Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, and in later years, Grant became the first U.S. president to ever attend synagogue services (at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C.).

This letter is not intended to be just another history lesson. It is also a warning. Jews are not immune to racism. Our dislike and fear of the other has afflicted Israel for millennia. The Torah continually issues injunctions to treat the “ger,” the stranger, as one of our own, since we too were strangers in a strange land.

In our time, people of Am Yisrael must re-examine our relationship with the Afro-American community. Race tensions are rising in America. Which side are you on? I believe that both Rabbi Wisnia and this writer would be proud to walk side by side with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and once again pray with our feet.

 

Eric Weis
Wayne
 
 
 
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