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Learning curve

Community confronts day-school tuition crisis

Students have closed their books for summer but schools and parents alike are working to make the grade in the next stage of the day-school tuition crisis saga.

Raising one child can cost a middle-income family $19,380 to $23,180 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And if that family is dedicated to a day-school education, which can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year, then it’s time to start getting creative. According to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 4,822 students attended kindergarten through 12th grade in one of Bergen County’s 13 yeshiva day schools during the 2009-10 school year.

The country’s economic downturn pushed the tuition crisis out of the shadows of griping around the Shabbat table and into a very bright spotlight. Beginning with an early 2009 educators conference at the Orthodox Union in New York, teachers, administrators, and parents heeded the call to action to ease what many described as an increasing burden on day-school families.

Throughout the past year, several key players emerged, each with ideas on how to solve the problem. Indeed, the community saw a number of initiatives put forward; some gained momentum while others fizzled.

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NNJKIDS

“The community’s voting with its feet and saying the model of day-school education is not broken,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbinic adviser to Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group created last year to explore new funding options. “It’s the model of funding that’s broken.” (See page 16.)

JEFG’s main project has been Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS, a fund-raising initiative meant to shift the burden of tuition off of the parents and make it a communal priority. Formed in May 2009, NNJKIDS handed out $300,000 to eight area elementary schools throughout the course of the past school year. Organizers declared May NNJKIDS Month, a fund-raising push in the community that netted about a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a tremendous increase and uptake in the amount of awareness around NNJKIDS,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG.

More than 60 businesses participated in the month-long program. Business-owners asked customers to contribute to NNJKIDS at checkout, and day-school children collected pledges for a learn-a-thon during Shavuot. One donor had promised a matching grant of up to $100,000 and NNJKIDS organizers reported that the full match would be collected.

“If anyone would have predicted when we began that we would be this far along, I would not have believed it,” Goldin said. “To be able to get all the schools to sit down and cooperate to the level that they have and get the communal support from various institutions and garner the support on the grassroots level is very encouraging.”

JEFG leaders said their donations mitigated tuition by $200 per student.

“NNJKIDS was a strong contributor to our ability to moderate the increase in tuition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, president of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The funds from NNJKIDS were considered after all other economic considerations and had a real impact on lowering tuition increases for next year.”

JEFG isn’t resting on its laurels, however.

“We’ve got to continue to work on this and not in any way take our focus off different funding models and different approaches to all models of day schools,” Moed said.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in northwestern New Jersey has successfully created a community mega-fund. The $50 million campaign began with $13 million in contributions from 11 families in 2007 and sparked an idea within JEFG to replicate the endowment fund here.

David Moss, assistant executive vice president for endowment at UJA-NNJ, who has been working with JEFG on the mega-fund, said the idea is still being explored. The hope, according to Moss, is that such a fund would contribute not only to North Jersey’s day schools, but to congregational Hebrew schools as well.

“A lot of details have yet to be determined,” he said. “We’ve been, as a Jewish community and a federation in particular, particularly pleased with the efforts that JEFG is undertaking. When we’re ready to move forward with the mega-fund for Jewish education, it’s going to make the project that much more manageable.”

While he is a firm believer in day schools, Goldin said expanding the mega fund to include congregational Hebrew schools is a demonstration of JEFG’s commitment to educate every Jewish child.

“None of us is on an island,” he said.

Indeed, NNJKIDS has pulled together representatives of the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools and earned the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the area’s Orthodox rabbis, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents the area’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis. Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard during NNJKIDS Month that the organization has created a sense of community.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

The government — navigating the separation of church and state

More than 170,000 students in New Jersey attend some 1,200 non-public schools, according to the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of New Jersey. Of those, about 80 percent attend religious schools. The government provides $137 in aid per private-school student — $72 for nursing services and $65 for textbooks. A handful of groups is exploring options to expand that funding within the confines of the separation between church and state.

Schools that will receive part of a $221,367 allocation from the UJA Federation of Northern N.J. during the 2010-11 school year:

• Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School

• Ben Porat Yosef

• The Frisch School

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Solomon Schechter Day School
of Bergen County

• Torah Academy of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshiva Ohr Yosef

• Yeshiva Noam

• Sinai Schools

In one of his final acts in office in December, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to investigate how the state can aid non-public schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, director of education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, co-chaired the commission, which turned in its report to Gov. Chris Christie last month. The 23-member commission also included the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state treasurer and attorney general, charged with monitoring the church-state barrier. As of earlier this week, the commission’s findings had not yet been made public. Schaer declined comment until Christie’s office releases the report.

“Gov. Christie has received the commission’s report and we are currently reviewing its findings,” said Sean L. Conner, a Christie spokesman. “We are working to ensure every child in New Jersey has access to a quality education, no matter their zip code or family’s socioeconomic status.”

Howie Beigelman, deputy director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, testified before the New Jersey Senate’s Committee on Economic Development in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill that would create scholarships to be funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland Senate recently passed a similar bill.

“That will be a great step forward for all of us,” Beigelman told the Standard. “Lower and moderate-income kids can get a scholarship to go to a better school of their choice.”

The IPA is focusing its efforts on the OSA and has all but abandoned the pursuit of school vouchers. Vouchers, according to Beigelman, are “a minefield. While we certainly think legally there are ways to draft it that are appropriate, we think tax credits are easier and in other states help public and non-public schools. We’re happy to help everyone at the same time.”

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the New Jersey State Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Christie’s stance toward school choice.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to have a governor like Gov. Chris Christie who understands the importance of having a child educated in a place where their parents decide is the best place to be educated,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our community to start reaping increased funding for our students.”

Christie has drawn criticism across the state for slashing public school funding. More than half of the proposed school budgets across the state were voted down during April’s contentious school board elections. The elections were particularly contentious in Teaneck because of a slate of candidates for school board who didn’t have children in the public schools. This led to some accusations that some in the Orthodox community were willing to sacrifice the public schools to lower property taxes. This is not the case, Beigelman said.

“We are pro-public school,” Beigelman said. “We also want and need our folks — and everyone who’s in a bad school — to have options.”

The local community is beginning to enter the political arena as well. Jerry Gontownik, vice president of the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC, earlier this year founded EDPAC, dedicated to promoting day-school funding in Trenton.

“We are a PAC that is limited to the state of New Jersey,” Gontownik said, “and focused on encouraging our state elected officials to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools.”

He said one of the areas his group would push is to increase state funding for special education in parochial schools. Tuition at Sinai Schools — which is devoted to special education and has campuses at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck — charges base costs of more than $40,000 for in-state students and more than $50,000 for out-of-state pupils.

“Some people choose for religious reasons to send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “But I don’t think that choice should cut off completely the right of those parents to receive some funding toward the cost of education for their children.”

Like other advocacy groups, EDPAC is waiting for the governor to release the non-public schools report.

“I hope that if and when there is legislation that would assist the community in paying for Jewish education, that the community will appreciate the potential for such legislation and will assist financially in bringing such legislation to fruition.”

The OU

The Orthodox Union first brought the issue to the public’s attention at a conference for educators last year. OU leaders promised action to stem the increasingly prohibitive tuition, and the organization has made some progress, said Cary Friedman, associate director of day-school and educational services at the OU.

Approximately 15 schools throughout the tri-state area have signed on to a joint health insurance program the OU is coordinating. The OU, Friedman said, has created a professional employer organization, Advantec, so that all staff of the schools in the plan become employees of the new, larger organization. That organization then negotiates lower insurance rates for all the employees spread throughout the different schools.

“The whole topic of health care is just a crushing burden for the schools,” Friedman said. “Even though we’re offering good rates, their concerns are if this is going to continue into the future.”

The Internet may provide another source of relief for day schools. Some states have online charter schools, which — if used for secular components of day schools — could represent cost savings of up to 30 percent, Friedman said. This could also be a way around the church-state issue for funding of secular education.

“That online participation a kid can do in his basement, in a public library, or in a yeshiva classroom next to 19 other kids also signed up for the charter classroom,” he said.

New York and New Jersey currently do not permit online charter schools.

The Chabad factor

Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly has run a preschool for 13 years, but each year it has faced a dilemma of continuing education, said executive director Rabbi Mordechai Shain.

In recent years, Shain has noticed a trend among parents to put their children into public school after they finish at Chabad. Their argument, he said, is the high quality of Tenafly schools and the cost: Free.

“That’s our challenge,” Shain said. “How do you balance telling parents that they can have an academic education at no charge and telling them here we’re going to charge you thousands?”

In response, Chabad opened a kindergarten last year with 11 children. In November, registration for the 2010-11 year had reached 40 students. In response to the growth, Chabad created a first-grade class, which will begin in September with a class of 10 at a cost of $9,700 per student for first grade, and $9,400 for kindergarten. Both classes require a $770 registration fee as well.

Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, the closest day school to Tenafly Chabad, said he does not expect the new school to affect Moriah.

Chabad’s school, Shain said, is not meant to detract from any of the existing day schools. He estimated that about half the enrollment of the kindergarten and 60 percent of the first-grade class comes from Tenafly or surrounding areas that don’t have large Orthodox populations or large percentages of students already in day school.

“To reach people here, in this community, there’s no other way if we don’t open our own [school],” Shain said.

The Staten Island option

One of the ideas floated around last year was to create a low-cost day-school that offered basic educational services without many of the perks — advanced computers, smartboards, extra-curricular activities — now common in day schools. This idea never took off, but it caught the attention of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, which charges local students an annual tuition of $8,500.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools distributed more than $300,000 to area elementary schools during its first year. The following schools receive quarterly allocations from the organization:

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Sinai Schools

• Solomon Schechter Day School \of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshivat Noam

JFS extended that tuition rate — which includes $2,000 for transportation — to Bergen County families. Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield sent their three children — ages 6, 9, and 11 — to JFS this year and said they were very happy with the less expensive option.

“We were lucky to have found JFS,” Uri Gutfreund said. “One year after the decision, we are so glad that we made the move and we hope other parents investigate the option for their children.”

The school held two parlor meetings in the area last year and another two in recent months. One additional family has expressed interest in the school for the 2010-11 school year. JFS principal Rabbi Richard Erlich said he has been disappointed with the response so far from Bergen County, but he understands parents’ fears.

“This is a very big jump for a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to decide to remove your children from the local institution and send them 45 minutes away to another state.”

The big stumbling blocks for parents, Gutfreund said, are the commute and social life of the child.

“The social issue is a big mental block,” he said. “It’s going back to the old days when you had shul friends and school friends and neighborhood friends.”

JFS will continue to offer the $8,500 tuition to North Jersey families, Erlich said. About half of the school’s 400-odd students from Staten Island and Brooklyn receive some form of scholarship, but none of those funds is available for New Jersey families. At a few thousand dollars less than the local schools, however, Erlich said New Jersey families are already receiving quite a bargain.

“I’m still surprised,” Erlich said. “Clearly the recession is as entrenched this year as last year. People who didn’t have jobs last year still don’t have jobs this year. I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t a much greater response to our offer.”

How the schools are coping

Funds from NNJKIDS mitigated tuition increases across the board by about $200 per child, according to JEFG and school officials. It’s a start, but many schools still had to raise their rates and find other ways to cut costs.

Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School in Paramus is raising its tuition for the coming year to $10,000, an increase of $1,000 from this year’s rate. The school relies on its efficiency and goodwill of its parents to keep its prices low, said principal Miriam Bak.

One of the areas in which the school saves is by not paying teacher benefits. Most of the staff of almost 30 teachers is part time, though they are well-trained specialists and the school goes out of its way to accommodate schedules, Bak said.

At Ben Porat Yosef, which shares the old Frisch building with Bat Torah, tuition for pre-K rose $400 to $13,600, while tuition for first through fifth grades rose $400 to $14,200. The nursery school lowered its tuition by $1,300 to $7,900 and the toddler class lowered its tuition by $800 to $6,900.

The school has 215 students enrolled for next year, an approximately 40 percent increase from this past year, said Yehuda Kohn, vice president of the school’s board. Next year will also mark the school’s first fifth-grade class.

“Ben Porat Yosef is in a unique position in that we are in a vigorous growth phase,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. “As a result, not only have we not had to cut any staff, but our current fixed costs are now becoming more cost-effective.”

The school held a scholarship walkathon recently that raised more than $60,000. BPY is also working with Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership to create new avenues for revenue without increasing tuition. In addition, the school is “actively pursuing” all cost-cutting ideas, Kohn continued.

“No line item on our budget is immune,” he wrote.

“We’re learning to do more with less. We’re going to have to take on that mantra,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, who spoke with the Standard last month.

Yavneh raised its tuition for kindergarten to fifth grade to $13,300 and tuition for sixth through eighth grade to $13,975 — representing a $200 increase on both levels. The school’s allocation from UJA-NNJ has also decreased in recent years, Kirschner said. The federation gave it $105,000 for the 2005-06 year, while the allocation for 2009-10 was under $30,000.

The non-profit world has been one of the biggest victims of the economic downturn, but UJA-NNJ has increased its 2010-11 allocation to 13 schools to a total of $221,357 — an $8,520 increase from this past year.

“In a year when we kept slack most of our allocations, the day schools got a 4 percent increase,” said Alan Sweifach, the federation’s planning and allocations director. “It’s going to take a solution beyond the allocation. The allocation and the increase to Jewish education is an important message. At least it is a recognition and step in the right direction when the dollars are so limited.”

Tuition levels at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck will remain at the 2009-10 rates, largely thanks to a 10 percent increase in the student body. Salaries were frozen during the 2009-10 year, but teachers can expect to receive “modest” salary increases during the 2010-11 school year, administrator Ceil Olivestone wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. Olivestone praised what she called “efforts to keep a tight control on programs and expenses.”

“While we have not affected any curricular or extracurricular program or expense that would compromise the quality and essence of the chinuch/education that we provide,” she wrote, “the budget was thoroughly reviewed by the administration and lay leadership.”

Fund-raising among parents of current and former students, as well as within the community, provides 10 percent of the school’s budget, Olivestone wrote.

Basic tuition at The Frisch School in Paramus for 2010-11 will increase to $21,950 from $21,250, according to the school’s president, Martin Heistein. About 27 percent of the families of the school’s approximately 660 students this year received some form of scholarship.

The school has also avoided layoffs, Heistein said.

“We’ve reviewed all the remaining aspects of the budget and tried to toe the line where possible,” he said.

Moriah has increased tuition by 1.9 percent across the board, bringing the total for kindergarten to second grade up to $13,380; $13,635 for third through fifth grade; and $14,050 for sixth through eighth grade.

Salaries stayed level this year and will remain the same into next year, he continued. The school did lay off “several” mostly part-time employees, though Prager would not comment on the exact number.

“It’s certainly something we didn’t want to do but felt in order to be financially responsible we had to tighten the staffing somewhat,” he said.

The school has cut back costs on color printing, energy, and is spending on only “necessary purchases” of educational resources, Prager said.

“In the short run, our cost-saving steps, together with whatever help we’ve gotten from NNJKIDS, has at least at the present time, we feel, enabled us to successfully meet the economic challenges we’ve faced this year and into the coming year,” Prager said. “As to what the long-range picture will be only time will tell.”

RYNJ cut 10 jobs and kept salaries flat during the 2009-10 school year. Along with a reduction of positions, responsibilities, and pay, the school avoided a tuition increase from 2008-09 by cutting $500,000 in costs, said the school’s president.

The school projects an enrollment of 970 children in preschool through eighth grade next year, an increase of 35 students, and an average increase of $150, or 1.1 percent, per student per grade, according to Rosenbaum.

The increase breaks down to $255 for grades four through eight, $125 for grades one through three, and no increase for preschool. No other increases are planned, according to Rosenbaum.

The school is also looking to restructure teacher compensation and benefits, including giving tuition breaks for children of employees.

“These efforts are having a one-time impact on our economics but once we get over the initial bump, will position us well in the coming years to manage our costs,” Rosenbaum said.

Sinai also moved one of its elementary programs into RYNJ last year, which has helped defray the costs of the school’s expansion, Rosenbaum said.

“Sinai has been a great addition to our school, and we look forward to finding additional ways to collaborate to reduce costs and run fund-raising programs together,” he said.

RYNJ is one of four schools that saved a combined $24,000 through an electrical group-purchasing plan under UJA-NNJ. The nine-month-old program also includes Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland.

Frisch, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and Moriah School also recently signed up.

“In these turbulent economic times, we recognize the value of working together as a community to reduce costs wherever possible,” said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager.

To make the program work, the schools turn their electric bills over to UJA-NNJ, which then arranges for a single supplier, such as Con Edison or Suez, through Public Service Electricity & Gas. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

“We get multiple bids from potential suppliers. We select the supplier that offers the best product, service, and price,” Holland said. “We’re looking at annual savings up to $45,000 per school on electricity costs alone.”

The program began as part of the Kehillah Partnership, a group of community organizations that works to save on expenses and resources. The Kehillah Cooperative is the cost-sharing arm of the Partnership and it has netted savings for numerous community organizations.

“We started with electricity, saving $350,000 to date, and look forward to working cooperatively with all Jewish non-profits in northern New Jersey,” Holland said. “Our success so far demonstrates the opportunity the Kehillah Cooperative offers schools, as well as agencies and synagogues.”

Looking forward

“Do I think we’re living through tough times? Absolutely,” said Frisch’s Heistein. “It’s a constant challenge.”

One vocal day-school critic has taken to the Internet to vent his views with a blog called The $200k Chump, which takes its name from the high salary required to afford tuition. The anonymous blogger, who declined a telephone or face-to-face interview, claims to be a parent paying full tuition at one of the county’s schools and frequently writes about the “legacy schools” — Frisch, Moriah, and other established day schools — and why efforts to lower tuition there will not succeed.

“Like many here in town, I am struggling to pay the high cost of yeshiva tuition and want to use this blog to explore some REAL solutions to the crisis,” the “Chump” wrote in the blog’s bio. “Some of my proposals may not be popular with many of the administrators, teachers, board members, and scholarship recipients at our local day schools but that is life and I don’t really care much. The system is broken and we need real change before it is too late.”

The blogger has lashed out against school officials, as well as NNJKIDS for raising money the writer claims is used to hire more administrators. The Chump has also written about other alternatives, including charter schools, JFS, and “the nuclear option” — enrolling students in public schools.

Ideas for charter schools — an Englewood man has been trying to create a Hebrew language charter for two years — and after-school Talmud Torah programs — the Jewish Center of Teaneck has flirted with the idea and is ready to go if enough families show interest, according to Rabbi Lawrence Zierler — are not new but have yet to gain steam. The community has a responsibility to continue exploring all options, said JEFG’s Goldin.

The OU’s Friedman warned against complacency, even if the national economic picture looks brighter.

“The economy seems to be in a little bit of a respite, but nothing has changed,” he said. “If we delude ourselves and pretend it’s going away, it’s not going to go away.”

 
 

Rutherford’s small Jewish community establishes an eruv

Cong. Beth El is the only synagogue in Rutherford, tucked away on a residential stretch of Montross Avenue. Since the 1950s, the formerly Conservative shul has been housed in the same tree-shaded Queen Anne mansion — inconspicuous behind shade trees on a street lined with spacious, well maintained homes.

But this now modern Orthodox congregation of about a dozen families has quietly succeeded in establishing an eruv with a three- to four-mile perimeter, half a mile wide. At 5 p.m. today, the borough’s mayor, John F. Hipp, will issue the formal proclamation declaring its existence.

Although he praises the support he received from the mayor and the synagogue board, the person most responsible for this feat is Rabbi Nossan Schuman, a serious, slightly built father of five who came to Rutherford last August — less than a year ago — with a mission. “I had previous experience with creating an eruv at my last posting, in Indianapolis,” Schuman explained. Beth El became Orthodox 15 years ago, when members saw young congregants leaving and realized attendance had plateaued. “They knew that ultimately, growth would depend on an eruv,” the rabbi added, “so three years ago they had a fund-raiser, but the project never got propelled into actuality.”

image Albert Levy, head of Cong. Beth El’s eruv committee, works on the eruv.

Just across the river from Passaic, with buses and trains to New York and direct access to New Jersey Transit’s Secaucus Junction station, Rutherford has begun attracting young professionals. With the eruv, it’s hoped that some of them will be Jewish, open to modern Orthodox observance, and interested in living in a small close-knit community that is only a mile or two away from the crowds and the commerce of busy Passaic Park. Right now, the congregation is composed of a wide range of Jews, some who have been congregants since before the conversion — “some who are shomer Shabbos and some who are not. Everyone is welcome,” the rabbi said. “We respect each other and share a belief in the value of Torah. We are nonjudgmental; people are free to grow.”

While establishing an eruv in Bergen County in less than a year may seem like a major accomplishment, Schuman’s only complaint is that the process took longer than he expected. “Between getting the permissions from the utility companies and attending borough meetings — even the construction — every single component took longer,” he said.

Another element was the groundwork, done by the rabbi himself “going around town by bicycle and car, from telephone pole to telephone pole,” he recalled, “and a couple of times, being stopped by the Rutherford police for suspicious activity.”

Thanks to his previous experience, Schuman was able to keep costs down by making an effort to use telephone poles that already had covers, which minimized the cost of attaching a lechi, a post to hold the eruv in place.

“It’s a good skill to have,” he laughed, “but once you get involved in eruvin, you never look at a telephone pole the same way!” (For a map of the eruv, go to jstandard.com.)

A native of Forest Hills, N.Y., Schuman grew up, he said, “in an assimilated family.” He developed an interest in Torah as a freshman at the University of Michigan, and returned to New York to study first at NYU, then at Yeshiva University, and finally, for nine years, at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, where he was ordained. His first posting, however, was to Santa Barbara, a seaside mecca for tourists and laid-back Californians. But Schuman found the natives to be open to spirituality, and he and his wife Pessy discovered that they liked helping people “develop a path to Judaism.” In fact, 13 Santa Barbarans came to him seeking conversion not related to marriage, he said, “and all but one followed through.”

His next post, in Youngstown, Ohio, was also a major change from Brooklyn. Again, it was an opportunity to provide many with their first exposure to what he describes as “the depth of a Torah class or the splendor and joy of a Shabbos meal.”

But after Indianapolis, the Schumans decided it was time to find a community that provided good Jewish schools for their three girls and two boys now ranging from 5 to 13 1/2. Rutherford gave them all the perks of Passaic’s schools without the growing urban atmosphere.

Unfortunately, his children must also seek friendships in Passaic, since Beth El, at present, includes no other families with children even near their age. The board is applying for membership to the Orthodox Union, but how does a synagogue survive both physically and spiritually with so few congregants for so many years?

“It survives,” the rabbi said, “because it’s able to rent out rooms to a school and the gym to a winter baseball camp, so the building is sort of self-supporting.” But, he acknowledged, “it’s amazing it has survived. It seems there has been a will for this synagogue to persist, so we’re hoping for a rebirth.”

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Ambivalence on Ground Zero mosque

More often than not, Jewish and Muslim groups come down on the same side of battles over religious liberties.

Jewish organizations often file amicus briefs supporting Muslim religious rights in cases where zoning boards try to block the construction of houses of worship or bar the right of a Muslim to grow his beard.

“There are a lot of commonalities of interest,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

That made last week’s announcement by the Anti-Defamation League opposing the construction of a planned mosque near the Ground Zero site all the more remarkable. It was a rare instance of a Jewish establishment organization explicitly opposing a Muslim project or distancing itself from the role of upholding liberties for all. The $100 million mosque center was proposed by the Cordoba Initiative, a group that promotes interfaith dialogue.

Despite their common interests, however, Jews and Muslims have forged few formal alliances, mostly due to their deep differences on Middle East policy and Jewish concerns over Muslim organizations’ ties to radical groups. This has made Jewish groups ambivalent, supporting Muslim rights in principle but reluctant in practice to endorse specific Muslim organizations or programs.

This ambivalence was reflected in an American Jewish Committee statement supporting the Ground Zero mosque — with caveats and demands.

The AJC “urged the leaders of the proposed center to fully reveal their sources of funding and to unconditionally condemn terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology. If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands — the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.”

Defenders of the proposed Ground Zero mosque suggested that such calls are insulting, noting that the Cordoba Initiative and its directors, Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Kahn, have a long history of pressing for a moderate, engaged Islam.

“One of the ways to prevent future Ground Zeroes is to encourage moderation within Islam, and to treat Muslim moderates differently than we treat Muslim extremists,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog. “The campaign against this mosque treats all Muslims as perpetrators.”

On Tuesday, the mosque project at Ground Zero cleared what may have been its final hurdle before construction could begin. New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee declined to landmark a building on the site where the mosque would be built.

In recent years, Jewish organizations have defended Muslim interests in a variety of cases.

In 1999, Jewish groups defended the right of Muslim police officers in Newark to wear beards. This year, Orthodox Jewish groups and conservative Muslim organizations both were on the losing side of a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the University of California Hastings Law School, which receives federal funding, to reject official status for a group that discriminates on a religious basis.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix reported last week that Rabbi Charles Herring joined local Muslim groups in protesting against a course called “Islam 101” run by the local Board of Jewish Education. The class, taught by Carl Goldberg, included literature titled “Troubling Passages in the Koran.”

Herring, who leads a Jewish-Muslim interfaith group, noted that the Torah could similarly be misconstrued.

In Jacksonville, Fla., last May, a Jewish men’s club offered to help repair a mosque damaged in a firebomb attack. “We have a group of guys who like to do carpentry, painting, or whatever we can to help out,” Ken Organes of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Men’s Club told the local ABC affiliate.

“That’s a commonality that comes up again and again between Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims,” Diament said, “whether it’s scheduling issues for holidays for prayer time or wearing religious clothing or grooming.”

When the issues touch on the Middle East, however, the differences emerge clearly.

In 2007, when Debbie Almontaser, the principal of the Kahlil Gibran Arabic-language school in New York, came under fire for allegedly radical views, the ADL strongly defended Almontaser until she told a New York Post interviewer that the word “intifada” meant “shaking off.”

The newspaper cast the quote as defending T-shirts that read “Intifada NYC,” and the ADL subsequently fell silent. Almontaser eventually was forced to resign after critics said she should have explained the word in the context of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vindicated Almontaser, saying that her views were mischaracterized and that she had no connection with the offending T-shirts.

The Jewish hesitancy to ally formally with Muslim groups is grounded in alarms raised in the past about the supposedly radical origins and alliances of groups claiming to speak for moderate Islam.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, often cited in media reports as the Muslim equivalent of Jewish civil rights groups, had relations in the 1990s with groups and individuals subsequently identified as close to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

The council in recent years has issued statements distancing itself from such groups, but mainstream Jewish organizations still keep away in part because of the council’s vigorous criticism of Israeli actions. After Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish aid flotilla attempting to breach Israel’s embargo on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the council charged Israel with a “blatant disregard for international law” and called for a reduction in military assistance to Israel.

Jewish groups have differed over associations with another Islamic American group, the Islamic Society of North America. The American Jewish Committee has refused to work with the group, citing government investigations of its alleged associations with radical Muslims, although the society was never charged with any crime. The ADL and the Reform movement have worked with the society, noting its overtures to Jewish groups and the Holocaust education it has promoted for its membership.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he rejected the bigotry of some of the critics of the Ground Zero mosque but that the sensibilities of the families of the Sept. 11 victims should be paramount. The Philadelphia-based Shalom Center organized a statement from 29 Jewish lay leaders and clerics urging American Jews to press the ADL to reverse its decision.

In an interview with JTA, Foxman likened the sensibilities regarding the mosque project to those that led the Jewish establishment to oppose a Carmelite nunnery at Auschwitz in the 1980s. The nuns had good intentions, but Auschwitz wasn’t the right place for a nunnery. The Vatican ordered the nuns to leave, and they did in 1993.

“We’ve been out there as often as we can, as vociferous as we can, when signs of Islamaphobia are on the rise,” Foxman said. “And we’ll continue to be.”

JTA

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Plans for a mosque at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have generated ambivalence among some Jewish groups. Creative Commons/SpecialKRB
 
 

Survey seeks to paint fuller portrait of agunot, ‘chained’ wives

Her marriage of 18 years was marked by severe spousal abuse and ended in 2005 with a civil divorce.

But in the eyes of rabbinic authorities, the 44-year-old former Silver Spring, Md., woman remains married because her husband has refused to grant her a Jewish divorce by giving her a document called a get.

Known as an agunah, or a chained woman, she has been unable to start a new life. She has suffered financially and emotionally as a result; so have her five children.

“It definitely takes a toll,” said the Baltimore-area resident, who asked not to be named for fear of possible repercussions. The husband “used to have control over the household, and now the only control he has left is deciding whether or not I have my freedom.”

Agunot such as this woman are the focus of an unprecedented information-gathering campaign spearheaded by Silver Spring resident Barbara Zakheim, the founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington.

The effort — believed to be the first U.S. national survey of agunot — aims to illustrate the nature of the problem, its prevalence, and what communal organizations and other institutions can do to better assist these women, said Zakheim.

The survey, she adds, presupposes that the Orthodox rabbinic community will not make it easier for women to procure a get.

“This takes the problem out of the halachic box,” said Zakheim, using the term that refers to Jewish law.

The survey, which is scheduled to go out this month, seeks to paint a fuller picture of agunot by inquiring about such matters as their overall numbers, finances, number of children, existing support network, relationship with rabbis on the rabbinic court, unmet needs, and how long they’ve been “chained.”

Questionnaires will not be sent directly to agunot but rather to about 60 non-rabbinic organizations throughout North America that likely have dealt with these women and/or other victims of domestic abuse in the past five years.

Organizations collaborating on the project include Jewish Women International, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, and the Orthodox Union.

Deborah Rosenbloom, Jewish Women International’s director of programs, says she hopes the survey results will help spur rabbinic courts to action.

“This has been dragging on and on, and it seems that the rabbis will not respond in any effective manner until they see the extent of the problem,” she said. “Their actions have been totally irresponsible.”

Rosenbloom is concerned, however, that the survey may undercount the number of agunot because it is unlikely to reach women who have not approached an organization for help.

Survey information will be gathered, processed and compiled into a report by The Mellman Group, a Washington-based national polling research firm. A spokesman for the organization was unable to estimate when the report would be issued. He said the turnaround time for the project would depend largely on when the completed surveys are turned in.

This article first appeared at http://washingtonjewishweek.com.

 
 

Meeting again with Jewish leaders, Abbas broaches substance

WASHINGTON – For Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Jewish leaders, their second date featured a little more substance and a little less flirtation. And this time the Palestinian Authority president brought a wing man.

Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, met separately Tuesday evening with Jewish leaders in New York — a sign of understanding on the Palestinian side of the importance of Jewish sensibilities, in Israel and the diaspora, to advancing the peace process.

News Analysis

At the meeting, Abbas seemed ready to move forward on some substantive issues, which took place during the launch of the U.N. General Assembly session.

In the first meeting, in June, Abbas frustrated Jewish leaders by dodging issues of substance — returning to direct talks and incitement — but set a tone unprecedented in Palestinian-Jewish relations by recognizing a Jewish historical presence in the land of Israel.

When a group of Palestinian intellectuals challenged Abbas on the issue a month later, instead of backtracking — typical of the one step forward, two steps back peace process tradition — his envoy in Washington, Ma’en Areikat, repeated and reaffirmed the comments.

In the interim, direct talks have been launched.

“I would like for us to engage in a dialogue where we listen to each other and where I can respond to your questions because I trust we have one mutual objective — to achieve peace,” Abbas said at Tuesday’s meeting, according to notes provided by the Center for Middle East Peace.

The center, a dovish group founded by diet magnate Daniel Abraham, sponsored the Abbas meeting, as it did in June. The Fayyad meeting was sponsored by The Israel Project, which tracks support for Israel in the United States and throughout the world.

Making his clearest statement to date on the matter, Abbas said he would not walk away from negotiations should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to extend a partial 10-month moratorium on settlement building set to lapse next week. The PA leader suggested that a way out might be if Netanyahu does not make a public issue of the end of the moratorium.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the west bank and Jerusalem,” Abbas said.

Netanyahu is under pressure from the settlement movement not only to end the moratorium, but to resume building at levels unprecedented in his prime ministership. The Israeli leader also is heedful, however, of Obama administration demands that the parties not go out of their way to outrage each other.

Among the Jewish leaders at the Abbas meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein and Alan Solow, the executive vice chairman and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director; and leaders of umbrella groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Also on hand were Clinton administration foreign policy mavens such as Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, and Daniel Kurtzer, who maintain close ties with Obama’s foreign policy team.

Abbas also showed that he was attempting to bridge a gap on what until now seemed an intractable issue.

The Palestinians have long accepted the inevitability of a demilitarized state, but they reject a continued Israeli military presence. Netanyahu told Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday that he would trust no one but Israeli troops to preserve Israel’s security on the west bank’s eastern border. At the meeting, Abbas floated the idea of a non-Israeli force that would include Jewish soldiers.

On other issues, Abbas was less prepared to come forward.

Israel wants a clear commitment from the Palestinians that any discussion of the refugee issue would preclude a flooding of Israel with descendants of refugees of the 1948 war, which Israelis say is a recipe for the peaceful eradication of Israel. Behind closed doors, the Palestinians have said they are ready to provide Israel the assurances it needs, but Abbas said at the meeting only that it is a final-status issue.

Another issue could yet scuttle the talks now that the parties seem ready to put the settlement moratorium behind them.

Netanyahu, having extracted what seems to be an irreversible Palestinian recognition of Israel during his previous turn in the job, in 1998, now wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — a result of the emergence of movements that seek to strip Israel of its Jewish character.

Abbas has resisted, in part because he sees such recognition as cutting off the 20 percent of Israel that is Arab, but also because he seems baffled by the demand. He argues that states are free to define themselves and should not need the approbation of others.

“If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so,” the PA president said.

In a sign that he also was seeking conciliation on the matter, Abbas said at the meeting that he would accept the designation if it were approved by the Knesset. He repeated his recognition of Israel’s Jewish roots and decried Holocaust denial.

It was not far enough for some of his interlocutors.

Stephen Savitzky, the president of the Orthodox Union, wanted Abbas to recognize not only Jewish ties to the land but with the Temple Mount, the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.

“President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created good will in the Jewish community,” Savitzky said in a statement.

Fayyad, less charismatic but deemed more trustworthy than Abbas by the pro-Israel intelligentsia, appeared to fare well in the dinner hosted by The Israel Project, which hews to the centrist-right pro-Israel line of much of the U.S. Jewish establishment. He scored points for admitting that the Palestinian Authority had not done enough to combat incitement.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project.

“We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas — especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”

JTA

 
 

More than kashrut

Teaneck’s Katz becomes new OU president

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Teaneck councilman Elie Katz, right, presented a proclamation to his father, Simcha Katz, Sunday night congratulating him on becoming the new president of the OU. Josh Lipowsky

When Rabbi Simcha Katz arrived at the Orthodox Union’s New York offices on Monday, the first thing he did was turn on the lights. Newly installed as the organization’s 13th president, Teaneck resident Katz has plans to shine a light on what he sees as the two biggest threats to the Jewish community: Tuition costs and assimilation.

The father of Teaneck councilman and businessman Elie Katz, Simcha Katz was inaugurated as president on Sunday during the OU’s national convention in Woodcliff Lake.

In September, Stephen Savitsky, then the OU’s president, asked Katz about assuming the organization’s leadership. Katz, a retired businessman who had spent the past five years as chair of the OU’s kashrut division and many more years working in the division with its CEO, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, was reluctant about making the time commitment.

What convinced him, though, was hearing from one of his children who makes more than $200,000 a year about how difficult it is to manage day-school tuition bills.

“I was stunned by the situation we had created for our children,” Katz said. “I thought that the OU might be able to act as a coordinator for various activities to help address this problem.”

Day school tuition is a “bread and butter issue” for the Jewish community, said Katz, who plans to pull together an OU task force to explore revenue and cost-saving options. The community has to be prepared to invest in education, he said, adding that the current system is “breaking the banks of our families.”

Assimilation is the second issue on Katz’s agenda, and one he called a “critical priority.” While the OU has had success in reaching out to unaffiliated high school students through NCSY, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews the organization is not reaching, Katz said.

“We are losing Jews, whether it be on the high school level, when day-school kids go to college and get lost in the university melting pot…. It boils down to resources and organizing the community,” he said.

The OU partners with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to place Orthodox couples on college campuses for outreach to Orthodox students. The Jewish community tends to have a repetition of services, he said, and partnership is key to moving forward.

It is a world leader in kashrut, he said, which is beyond denominations. The OU, he continued, is “a big tent” that is responsible to all Jews.

“We don’t make judgments about people’s personal religious observance,” he said. “We provide services to the Jewish community and if somebody needs our services, we provide it.”

Katz and his family moved to Teaneck in 1973 when Bnai Yeshurun was the only Orthodox synagogue in the township. He soon got involved with the Yeshiva of Hudson County, and spearheaded its transformation into the Yeshiva of North Jersey and its move to Bergen County. The school opened its first branch in New Milford in 1979, with nine children, and is now the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge with more than 900 pupils. He was also involved in the creation of Teaneck’s first mikvah and, because of his experience dealing with the township on the mikvah issue, he became one of the founders of Cong. Keter Torah on Roemer Avenue.

In 1980, Genack became head of the OU’s kashrut division, and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Katz and Genack’s teacher and the man considered the father of modern Orthodoxy, asked Katz to help as a lay leader.

In addition to rabbinic ordination, although he has never served as a rabbi, Katz has advanced degrees in engineering and business and he is a professor of finance at the Zicklin Business School of the City University of New York. Katz and his wife, Pesha, have four children and 16 grandchildren.

 
 

More than kashrut

OU convention in North Jersey spotlights programs, calls for action

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More than 700 people came to the OU’s conference on Jewish life in Woodcliff Lake on Sunday. Courtesy the Orthodox Union

The Orthodox Union is more than just that little OU symbol on your can of baked beans, and that message was the focus on the OU’s biennial convention over the weekend in Woodcliff Lake.

More than 700 people from across the country came out to the Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, where more than 25 sessions during Sunday’s one-day conference on Jewish life focused on Torah, synagogue life, and communal life. The OU also installed its new president, Rabbi Simcha Katz of Teaneck, and passed a series of resolutions to guide the organization through the next two years.

The past three OU conventions were held in Israel, at the directive of outgoing President Stephen Savitsky, who wanted to boost the Israeli economy when it was suffering under the Palestinian intifada. When organizers decided to bring the conference stateside, Bergen County provided easy access for a large number of the OU’s members in the tri-state area, according to organizers.

One of the conference’s goals, according to Emanuel Adler, the Teaneck resident who chaired the convention, was to shine a light on the OU’s various programs and dispel the idea that the organization only provides kosher certification.

“The OU is really so much broader than OU kashrus,” Adler told The Jewish Standard after the convention. “We’re really a movement.”

Before the day’s plenary sessions, attendees watched videos highlighting such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and the OU Job Board, which showed the OU’s programmatic diversity.

“Community affairs, marriage seminars, publications … numerous services we provide to the community, our campus initiative, which is relatively new in the OU — all of these things we do really come together to make the OU that more powerful a movement,” Adler said.

The purpose of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, according to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, considered the father of modern Orthodoxy, was to create a sense of family among the Israelites, Katz said Sunday during his inaugural speech.

“The OU in its many activities is a communal manifestation of this sense of unity and caring,” Katz said. “Our mission is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life. We are a great unifying tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such we are the central address for those issues that can best be handled on a national basis.”

The sessions

Panels at the convention were divided among three tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Among the more than 25 sessions, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, religious leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Etz Chaim, led a discussion on “The Hidden Cost of Free Speech on the Internet,” focusing on what constitutes lashon harah in a public forum; Rabbi Menachem Genack, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood and CEO of the OU’s kashrut division, led a discussion on contemporary issues in kashrut; and Rookie Billet, former principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, led a discussion on “Dating and Mating: A Common Sense Approach for Singles, Parents, and Educators.”

“The idea is there are just so many issues and concerns that unite so many of us,” Adler said. “Being in America for the first time in eight years came as an opportunity to focus on the things we do here in the U.S.”

First-time attendee Carol Ginsberg of Monsey, N.Y., called the sessions “moving and inspiring,” while Esther-Malka Stroemer, another first-time attendee, from Teaneck, said the topics represented an “important beginning of dialogue for the Jewish community and the frum community.”

While Israeli issues played a larger role at past conventions, the Jewish state was still a major focus this year. Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington, moderated a panel discussion on U.S.-Israel relations, with Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor Bret Stephens and David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The “cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush administration alienated many in the Muslim world, while President Obama has made a large effort to reach out to that world, Stephens said, but that has gotten the president very little in reciprocation. Obama’s government, meanwhile, has been the most hostile to Israel since President George H.W. Bush’s, Stephens added.

“What the Netanyahu government seems to be trying to do is put on a good face and wait the Obama administration out,” he said.

“What Israel ought to be doing is pointing out it faces a Palestinian population that doesn’t want a Palestinian state confined to Gaza and the west bank, but to seize Gaza and the west bank as phase one.”

Israel faces a legitimate demographic challenge from the west bank, though. “At some point it is in Israel’s interest to have a Palestinian state alongside it,” Stephens said. The question then will be how that state’s character will be defined.

“Is that state going to be different in the way that Canada is different from the United States? If that state is going to be the tip of an Iranian spear then I have a problem with it,” he said.

Makovsky reminded the audience what the Middle East was like when the late Yasser Arafat headed the P.A. and created a “culture of victimization,” and the idea that Palestinians are victims responsible for nothing but entitled to everything.

“It was terrible for Israelis but no less terrible for Palestinians,” he said.

Since then, there has been a shift in the “culture of accountability” that has given Makovsky some hope because, he said, there is a spreading belief among the Palestinians that the Palestinian cause is “not just about whining about what the Israelis are doing to us but what are we doing for us.”

“We have more hope today than we have had in a very long time,” Makovsky said. “Israel has to stand fast in what it believes in and its security, but it has every interest in encouraging a non-Hamas approach to this problem.”

After the convention, Diament told the Standard that while Stephens and Makovsky differ on many issues, “the OU is a big tent and it’s very important that we bring in front of the community divergent points of view.”

He did regret, though, that Ehud Barak’s resignation from the Labor party and Labor’s resignation from Netanyahu’s coalition came too late in the day to be included in the discussion.

The past and the future

Two plenary sessions examined the role of Jewish tradition and the Jewish community of the future.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus, led the first session on the mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition, and its place in modern society.

“For me, Torah is a diamond but mesorah is the setting of the diamond. It brings out all the beauty of the diamond. It enhances it. You can remove a diamond from the setting and it remains sparkling and pure, but the beauty is in the [unity of the diamond and the] setting.”

Modernity is the opposite of mesorah, and “modern Orthodox” is actually an oxymoron, Weinreb said.

“Mesorah is the business of preserving the culture of one’s group,” he said. “We’ve suffered worse insults than being called old-fashioned and obsolete.”

The second session focused on “The Orthodox Role in the Jewish Community of Tomorrow” and included Jerry Silverman, president of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of the federation system; Marian Stoltz-Loike, dean of Lander College for Women/The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School of Touro College; Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future; Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.; and Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, and the OU’s managing director.

Rabbi Steven Weil, OU executive vice president and the panel’s moderator, asked, given the projected growth of the Orthodox community compared to other streams of Judaism in the coming decades, and if the commitment of future generations of non-Orthodox Jews weakens, what is the Orthodox responsibility to the entire Jewish community.

Silverman called on Jews and Jewish organizations to “collaborate and get in the game.”

Burg called for greater openness in the Orthodox community to welcoming the non-Orthodox.

“What we need to do as an Orthodox community is express our friendship,” he said. “And not just to people who might become Orthodox. Sometimes our shul doors are not as open as they should be.”

Insularity is the challenge of the Orthodox community, Stoltz-Loike said.

“We need to be much more open,” Goldberg said, “and say this is who we are and you may never be Orthodox at the end of the day, but there’s a friendship there and we value you as a human being.”

Too many Jews are focused on ritual instead of passion, he continued. He called for taking outreach out of the domain of the professionals and making it everybody’s concern.

“If we’re going to delegate outreach to the professionals, we’ll never make a dent,” he said. “If we’re going to make a dent [against assimilation], it won’t be with professionals. It’ll be when everybody gets involved.”

A community is different from a shul, he continued; it transcends shul.

“Let’s not be afraid to get involved,” Schacter said. “Our job is to take the world in which we live and try to elevate it; to take the Torah HaShamayim [from the heavens] and bring it down to earth and make it sing and make it meaningful and make us feel so excited about what we do so that we can transmit it via our own ambassadorship to others.”

The day was also one of transitions for the OU, which installed its new president and said goodbye to Savitsky, its president of six years, who assumed the chairmanship of the OU’s board of directors.

Many live their lives as if each day is just another day, Savitsky said during a ceremony marking the end of his three terms.

“When I came to the organization, I said I wanted every day to be yom harishon [the first day], every day is a day we can change the world,” he said, as he accepted a service award. “That’s what we’re about — looking up. If you keep looking up and keep thinking, you get closer and closer to the shechinah,” the presence of the divine.

Setting a political tone

OU members voted on a series of resolutions on Sunday to guide the organization through the next two years. Resolutions included a call for civility in public discourse; uniting with other Jewish organizations to combat the rise of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to exact economic damage on Israel; and recognizing the growing problem of childhood obesity and eating disorders.

The resolutions passed almost unanimously, said Diament, a member of the resolutions committee. While civility has become a hot-button issue in recent weeks because of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., the OU’s call for a change in how the community handles public discourse was drafted at least a month before the assault that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others hospitalized.

“It’s very much in the spirit of what’s going on in the past week,” Diament said. “We need to have more civil discourse in the United States and that’s something everybody ought to be able to agree to.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement represents a “clear and present danger to Israel,” Diament said, while health is a primary concern of everyone.

Next year in…

No location has been chosen yet for the next OU convention, which will take place either in late 2012 or early 2013. Adler expected that he and other organizers would spend this week reviewing evaluations, which, he said, have been largely positive.

“There was a real buzz,” he said. “I think people that attended did get a sense of being part of a movement.”

 
 

Would Opportunity Scholarship Act hurt public schools?

Local pols square off on controversial issue

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would provide tax credits to companies that help struggling families to send their children to private or parochial schools in New Jersey, passed an Assembly committee vote last Thursday after six hours of intense debate.

The act, which proposes that $360 million in scholarships be awarded over the next five years, has been characterized by supporters as a lifeline to families whose children want “an equal shot at the American dream” and blasted by critics as fiscally imprudent, undermining efforts to improve the public schools, and potentially breaching the constitutional wall between church and state.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), a primary co-sponsor of the bill, A2810, argued that it will help children who are not being well served in blighted areas and also strengthen the state’s network of private and parochial schools. Other primary co-sponsors are Assemblymen Angel Fuentes (D-5), Alex DeCroce (R-26), and Jay Webber (R-26).

“The state has an obligation to its children over an institution,” Schaer said. “It’s not an either/or. It’s not either you support the public schools or parochial and private schools. These are not mutually exclusive.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, speaking in support of the bill before the Commerce and Economic Development Committee of the State Assembly, where it passed last week in a step along the way toward a vote in the Assembly, argued that it would provide a competitive education to children who might fall through the cracks before long-range improvement happens.

“[This bill] will not take away from what’s happening in Newark … to change our schools, but it will help one child, two children, their parents,” he said. “It’s about time we give some small sliver of hope to parents who are desperate for that in our city.… Give them the same equal shot at the American dream.”

The Orthodox Union supports the bill and testified at last Thursday’s committee hearing.

“We are very supportive of the idea,” Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the OU, told The Jewish Standard. “It’s fantastic from the perspective of the Jewish day-school community. Pennsylvania and Florida have programs exactly like this that have raised millions for Jewish education. From the tikkun olam side, there are kids in New Jersey who are in failing schools and need help. They are not Jewish kids, but we care about every child. Education is a civil rights issue.”

The bill has brought supporters together across political, religious, and racial lines, according to Beigelman.

“You are seeing Democrats and Republicans, urban and suburban leaders support this. You’re seeing both sides of the aisle, folks from inner city, rural and urban areas all together. The coalition of supporters here is so broad it’s really just the teachers union that’s opposed,” he said.

The bill has been described in some quarters as “revenue neutral for the state,” in that it would provide tax breaks to companies in exchange for their sponsorship of students’ attendance at private or parochial schools.

However, opponents and even some boosters note that the scholarship money the bill would award via tax breaks to corporations would be lost to the state.

Yet some advocates argue that, since the bill would result in more students attending private and parochial schools, it would ultimately save state resources given the high costs of public education.

Some local politicians who oppose the bill characterized it as potentially unfair to those students who will not be beneficiaries.

“Some people say, ‘We’d rather save a few than none,’” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) representing Englewood, Teaneck, Hackensack, and Tenafly. “I don’t buy that. I’m concerned with children being left behind in failing districts and unable to go to private school.”

She added, “I think this voucher program will pit parents and students in failing districts against each other and instead the state should help them come together to benefit the public schools in their community.”

Other local politicians criticized what they see as the bill’s financial imprudence. Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-38) expressed skepticism about the claim by some advocates that the bill will be revenue neutral for the state.

“I am no CPA, but how can this bill be revenue neutral?” Voss said. She added that the system, especially state workers’ and teachers’ pension funds, are already financially strapped due to previous governors’ allocation of money from these funds for other uses.

“How can you take money out of a system that is already insufficient?” she said.

Subsidizing of some children’s education at parochial schools would breach the constitutional wall separating church and state, according to Voss. Moreover, the bill would deprive children sent to parochial schools of exposure to children from different religious and cultural backgrounds, undermining a central tenet of the public schools’ mission, she contended.

“If you don’t have social contact with people different from you, whether religiously, culturally, or racially, ignorance of people’s cultures and beliefs is the thing that brings about prejudice,” said Voss. “Public funding of religious schools is segregating kids based on religious beliefs.”

While noting that parents have every right to choose religious education for their children, Voss said she believes families, not government, should foot the bill for that choice.

Schaer acknowledged that $360 million — the maximum scholarship money that can be awarded under the bill over the course of five years — are “funds the state will not see,” but he contends that because proponents expect the legislation to encourage more families to send their children to parochial and private schools, it will end up costing taxpayers less money than it would to educate more students in public schools. He noted that several private and parochial schools have closed in recent years in the districts he serves.

Regarding the church/state issue, Schaer said he expects any final version of the bill to contain a provision directing state resources toward elements of parochial school life that are not religious.

There is a Senate and an Assembly version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The next stop for the Assembly version of the bill is the budget committee, which will vote on it in March. If it passes there, the entire Assembly will decide its fate. The Senate version of the bill is up for a general vote later in the year.

 
 

‘The best investment’ NCSY leader seeks to save youth

Teaneck’s Joseph Stechler named chairman of Orthodox youth commission

Joseph (Yossi) Stechler of Teaneck, the newly appointed chairman of the Orthodox Union’s National Youth Commission, envisions the movement’s NCSY as a massive life preserver for “Jewish teens floating away from the Jewish people without knowing anything about the beauty of Jewish tradition.”

At the helm of the international youth movement, founded in 1954, he hopes to shore up these floundering youth, with whom he can identify.

The public school-educated son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Stechler recalls feeling “very impacted by the fact that my father and mother would cry for forgiveness on Yom Kippur despite the horrific experiences in their childhoods” and determined to learn more about Judaism.

After Yeshiva University and a brief law career on Wall Street, Stechler built a successful investment firm and raised four children with his wife, Gail. “I decided, as a form of thanks to God for helping us to build a beautiful Jewish family, that I needed to help other Jewish kids who knew little about their heritage to make educated choices,” he says.

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Joseph Stechler, chairman of NCSY, standing, with Teaneck High School student Aaron Karp and Rael Blumenthal, an NCSY adviser.

He joined the leadership of NCSY about 25 years ago, when it consisted mainly of Orthodox synagogue-based youth groups, and advocated creating “cool” educational programs for Jewish public high school students.

“Over the years, I’ve been astounded by the extraordinary success NCSY has had in letting teens experience a taste of the warmth of Judaism and instilling in them a love of Israel,” he says. “Thirty-five thousand kids went through NCSY programs, and many have become observant, many have made aliyah, and virtually everyone has had a positive experience and built a stronger attachment to the Jewish people.”

The organization has chapters in 28 states, and in Israel, Canada, Germany, and Chile. In northern New Jersey, it has chapters in Hackensack, Fair Lawn, Teaneck, Passaic, and Paramus.

Stechler aims to expand NCSY’s informal education programs, one-on-one learning, Shabbatons, and Israel summer and university programs to reach additional unaffiliated Jewish teens, as well as day school and yeshiva students who have a knowledge base but lack a strong emotional commitment to Jewish observance.

“We need to touch the heart of every Jewish teen,” he says. “Everyone has to decide on his or her own future and level of observance, but we can give them the education and experiences to make the best decisions.”

That effort will require money as well as dedication. “During World War II, it was almost impossible to buy Jewish lives — even if one was willing to pay those trying to kill them — but now it’s easy,” he says. “For a $1,000 scholarship, for example, we can get an additional teen into an extraordinary Israel summer experience.”

One of his favorites is the four-week NCSY Jerusalem Journey for Jewish public high school students. He and his wife greet each one with home-baked chocolate-chip cookies at their second home in Zichron Yaacov, on the Mediterranean shore.

“One young man on that program asked me why we were providing scholarships to them. I said, ‘I’m in the investment field and you’re the best investment I can make,’” recalls Stechler.

He also hopes to use NCSY’s huge alumni base to build Jewish activity centers at major college campuses, working in tandem with the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and other groups. “I want to get more Jewish college kids involved with Shabbat meals, study programs, lectures, and trips to Israel,” he says.

NCSY has become one of the leading and fastest-growing providers of Birthright trips, giving thousands of college students an intense learning experience over 10 free days in Israel.

Stechler is not hesitant to address the 2000 scandal that rocked NCSY when Fair Lawn resident Baruch Lanner, then NCSY’s director of regions, was accused (and eventually convicted on several counts) of sexual and physical abuse by former NCSYers and students at a Deal yeshiva where he had been principal. NCSY subsequently formulated guidelines to assure “an environment in which NCSYers, NCSY volunteers, and NCSY professionals can grow and learn ... free from unwelcome attention and any other form of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse.”

Stechler says that when the accusations first surfaced, he and his wife immediately urged the OU to fire Lanner. Today, all NCSY leaders have Stechler’s emergency contact information in case of issues regarding inappropriate behavior.

“The safety of all the children is my first responsibility and that is the policy of the OU,” he says. “I believe NCSY learned a painful lesson and has grown dramatically since that time with a very important emphasis on the safety and growth of the kids entrusted to us.”

The Stechlers — who have also taken leadership roles in Jewish educational and outreach organizations including Yeshiva College, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, The Moriah School, Nishmat, and Ohr Torah — have four grown children, two of whom teach at Jewish day schools.

 
 

Japan disaster and Itamar killings put Jewish giving on the spot

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An aerial view of debris from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan on March 11. Alexander Tidd/U.S. Navy

Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding last Friday, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.

In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like ZAKA and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north. In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief, and rebuilding efforts in the Pacific.

But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish west bank settlement of Itamar, and the focus of the Jewish community seemed to shift.

“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levene, a British-Israeli event-planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The devastated remaining members of the Fogel family from Itamar, Gilad Shalit — five years in Hamas captivity — or the survivors of the Japanese tragedy and the dangers they may be facing.”

The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message last Friday calling on supporters to donate to the organization’s newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent out another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.

As of late Monday, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, the OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, told JTA.

“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need,” he said, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

By Tuesday, Israeli teams composed of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers, and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.

Several American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish federation in Chicago and the American Jewish Committee, are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.

In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center also trucked several tons of food and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.

In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.

“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $400,000 by midday Tuesday.

What makes the Japanese situation a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations is the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.

Indeed, when the American Jewish World Service, which led the Jewish aid response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, was asked what its aid effort would be for Japan, the answer was none at all because AJWS has no partners in the country, spokesman Joshua Berkman told JTA.

The JDC found itself in a similar situation.

“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake; we just worked with the local Jewish community,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC.

But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By Tuesday, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based organization specializing in shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable, and emergency supply distribution that had managed to send personnel to the ravaged Japanese prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima.

As with other disasters, Recant said JDC will stick around to help with long-term relief, budget allowing. Only money raised specifically for Japan will be spent on disaster relief. There is no money in JDC’s budget for additional nonsectarian, humanitarian work, Recant said.

While Japan continues to reel from the triple disaster of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami, and a subsequent nuclear crisis, experts in Israel are trying to figure out what lessons from Japan can be applied to the Jewish state, which lies on two fault lines, the Carmel fault and the Dead Sea fault.

Israel experiences tremors every so often, but the last time a ruinous earthquake struck the area was in 1927, when the west bank city of Nablus suffered serious damage. An 1837 earthquake destroyed much of the northern Israeli cities of Safed and Tiberias and left thousands dead.

Israeli building codes have been updated for better earthquake safety compliance, but regulations and enforcement still are said to lag behind places like California, which experiences larger and more frequent quakes.

“There’s still a lot that has to be done as far as building codes are concerned,” said Michael Lazar, a tectonics expert at the University of Haifa. “There’s an attempt to encourage people to renovate older buildings and make them earthquake-ready, but it really hasn’t caught on.”

A scenario in which Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev, would face the kind of meltdown scenario situation that Japan is seeing now is much less likely, Lazar said, because Dimona is far from the tectonic lines that cross Israel.

“But,” he cautioned, “it’s hard to tell how an earthquake would disperse.”

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has opened an emergency relief fund to provide aid and support to the victims of the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami and to help those in other potential disaster zones such as Hawaii and the U.S. mainland’s West Coast. To make a donation, go to http://www.ujannj.org.

Also visit .

JTA Wire Service

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report.

 
 
 
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