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Published: 30 September 2011
 
 

Rabbis, cemetery owners, legislators continue closed-door talks

New Jersey Senate okays rabbi to sit on cemetery board

Time passes slowly in the New Jersey cemetery world.

Three years after his name was first presented to Gov. Jon Corzine for consideration, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor has been appointed to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates the state’s non-religious cemeteries. To be considered a religious cemetery, the property must be owned and operated by a recognized church or synagogue. Most Jewish cemeteries are not considered religious under state law.

Kornsgold’s appointment, which was finally confirmed by the State Senate last week, comes as representatives of the northern New Jersey Jewish community and the cemetery industry have been meeting to see if the two sides can reach agreement on contentious issues without the need for legislative action in Trenton.

The meetings have been convened by Assemblyman Gary Schaer and have been hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The first meeting took place around a year ago. The most recent was held Tuesday.

Schaer declined to discuss the meeting’s deliberations. “There’s been tremendous discussion,” he said, adding that further comment “will be harmful to the process.”

Most of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting — about 10 — agreed with his no-comment policy. The other legislator participating, however, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, voiced some skepticism concerning the prospect of negotiating an agreement.

“I’m less optimistic than some,” she said after the meeting. It is a question, she said, “of how much we could and would do legislatively, and how much is done on an agreement of goals outside legislation.”

In 2008, Weinberg first introduced a bill that would address one of the major concerns of the Jewish community: the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. The bill would bar fees beyond actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another would require cemetery companies to file annual financial reports with the state.

There is a large gap in Trenton between introducing a bill and the first legislative hurdle, a committee hearing.

Weinberg said she has arranged with the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nia Gill, to meet next month with a group of rabbis to hear their concerns. Gill, according to some, has been a stumbling block to any efforts to reform the system.

Weinberg’s involvement in the cemetery issue, and her legislation, came in the wake of a February 2008 meeting convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the then-UJA Federation of Bergen County. The meeting brought local legislators together with representatives of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the New York Board of Rabbis. At that meeting, the rabbinical boards and JCRC issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul of New Jersey’s oversight of the cemetery industry.

Schaer was also a participant in that meeting.

Nearly four years later, the appointment of Kornsgold to the cemetery board may be the first concrete accomplishment of the process begun by the JCRC and continuing in the current meetings held under its auspices.

Kornsgold was asked to serve on the board by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis because of his location, near Trenton. In the years since, however, the cemetery board has relocated. When he attends his first meeting on the board next month, it will be in Newark.

Kornsgold is one of two public representatives on the 10-member cemetery board. Three are representatives of state officials, and five are selected by the cemetery industry itself.

This makeup of the board was criticized in a statement issued by participants in the 2008 meeting, among them Schaer.

“Essentially, the foxes are in charge of the hen house,” wrote Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, in a column for this newspaper earlier this year. Engelmayer now serves as interim editor of The Jewish Standard.

Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center / Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, Engelmayer chaired the February 2008 meeting and led the fight for cemetery reform when he served as NJBR president from 2008-2010.

“The appointment — finally — of Jay Kornsgold to the cemetery board changes almost nothing from a practical standpoint,” Engelmayer said for this article. “But it does mean that the community now has someone to turn to on the board who will listen to its concerns and put those concerns before the board. It also means that if the board chooses to ignore legitimate complaints, there is someone on the board who will help put the spotlight on that.”

 
 

Pow! Zap! Prize!

A hard-hitting editorial and a smashing superhero feature story published in the Jewish Standard won awards at the recent annual meeting of the American Jewish Press Association.

Taking first place award for “excellence in editorial writing” in the annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism was an editorial “A Deafening Silence.” (A Deafening Silence that shames us all)

The editorial, which appeared in this paper’s October 14, 2011 issue, denounced the silence of American Jews and Israeli officials in the face of violence by ultra-Orthodox Jews against Jewish schoolchildren in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh.

It was written by Interim Editor Shammai Engelmayer and Associate Editor Larry Yudelson.

“It is not acceptable that little girls are being screamed at by grown men,” they wrote.

The editorial appeared two months before a story about the violence broadcast on Israeli television led to international news coverage.

Josh Lipowksy’s cover story, “What is Still Jewish about Comic Books?” (Drawing on their Judaism) won a second place prize for excellence in arts and criticism.

“A good deal has been written about this topic,” wrote the awards committee, “but few have delved into the modern echoes of the comics’ Jewish background and the change in that influence over time,” the awards committee wrote.

The Jewish Standard’s publisher, Jamie Janoff, said that the awards made him feel both pleased and proud.

“It’s good to see the hard work of our editorial staff and our contributors recognized by an award committee,” he said. “But what we strive for even more, every single week, is recognition from our readers.”

 
 

The man in the mask

Meet Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer

Joanne PalmerLocal
Published: 26 October 2012
image
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer in his study. Courtesy Shammai Engelmayer

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer has done many things during his nearly seven decades of life.

His weekly commentaries, which have appeared nearly continuously in the Jewish Standard since the mid-1990s, have made him at times one of the most controversial figures in northern New Jersey.

But when he stood in front a room full of students at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Oct. 15, it was as a teacher, the role he relishes most of all. That night, he began his 20th year as an instructor in the Hebrew University’s Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Although definitive records are hard to come by, he also most likely became the longest serving Melton instructor in North America — perhaps in the world.

Yet the man whom radio personality Barry Farber used to call “The Big Shahm” (he appeared on the show over 300 times “a lifetime ago”) is an even more complicated mix than you’d guess. A rabbi, journalist, author, lecturer, and teacher — and reportedly a great cook and challah baker — he often has described himself as something of the Lone Ranger. He is forever the man in the mask, out to make the world a better place, but always keeping a part of himself hidden. It is hard to know who he is at any given time.

Even his name is up for grabs. He has written eight books and many scores of newspaper articles and won several prestigious journalism awards under the name Sheldon David Engelmayer. His parents called him “SHA-mee,” his teachers in yeshivah called him “Shammai,” and when he was called to the Torah at his bar mitzvah, he discovered that his name was Shamshon Dovid (“not Shimshon, please”). Everyone else calls him Shammai.

He may be a hard man to know, but at 6’3” and broad-shouldered, Engelmayer is a hard man to miss.

Looking dapper in the white linen suit he enjoys wearing well beyond Labor Day, topped with a straw hat, he looms less like the Lone Ranger and more like a cross between Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor.

Engelmayer, an only child, was born on the Lower East Side in 1945 to parents who emigrated from Galicia.

“I spoke Yiddish until I was five years old, although I can’t speak a lick of it now,” Engelmayer said. “When my parents didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, they spoke in Polish.”

He began school at a local yeshivah, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, but in third grade he transferred to Yeshivah Rabbi Jacob Joseph; he stayed there through high school.

“RJJ was a very important yeshivah, and it was very important to me, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time,” Engelmayer said. “It tolerated thought.”

“They allowed an idiot kid” — that would be him — “to go up to the rabbi” — his teacher — “at the beginning of every year and ask him something like ‘I accept the fact that God created everything, but who created God?’ If the rabbi told me, ‘You’re an idiot, sit down and shut up,’ I’d tune him out for the year. But if he said something like ‘maybe you’ll come up with an answer if you study hard enough,’ I could listen to him. They allowed me to do that.”

After high school, Engelmayer went to Yeshiva University for a year, but it was not a good match. “I didn’t thrive there, my grades were lousy, and we mutually parted company.”

The summer after YU, he got a temporary job as a law librarian at a Park Avenue law firm.

“I loved it,” he said. “It was so much fun.” The firm liked him enough to ask him to stay on permanently. He agreed; he even began thinking about going to law school. “And then came erev Yom Kippur,” he said. He asked the office manager for permission to leave early that day. It was a Friday, the office was lawyer-less, and so the man said yes. On Monday, Engelmayer was fired. The firm did not hire Jews, he was told; at least, not his kind of Jew.

“That’s when I knew what my profession was going to be. I was going to be a journalist. I was going to use the power of the pen to change the world.”

Because flat feet and bad eyesight kept him out of the war in Vietnam, Engelmayer was able to register in Brooklyn College and at the same time attend what he calls a “draft-dodger yeshivah,” where he actually studied and which gave him his s’michah in 1967.

He was a rabbi — but no one was supposed to know that.

Enter the man in the mask.

“I was told from the time I was a tot by my father that I would be a rabbi, that I was born to be a rabbi,” he said. “There were rabbis in the family for many generations and I was next. I was determined to make absolutely certain that would never happen.”

Engelmayer was very involved in Reform Democratic politics on the Lower East Side when he was a teenager and into his early twenties. In 1965, he worked with Bobby Kennedy to help reform the Surrogate’s Court system in New York City, and “was all geared up in June 1968 to work for him in the presidential primary when Sirhan Sirhan did what he did. That was my last day in politics. I just couldn’t do it any more.”

Engelmayer had already begun his journalism career in 1967 at the Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper headquartered in Coney Island. He was married by then; soon, his daughter Malki was born. Sons Juda and Jay followed in quick succession.

Recalling his experience at the law firm, Engelmayer began a weekly feature with the very unsexy title of “Jobs Discrimination Desk,” which soon became the equally unsexy “Legislative Desk.” Boring title aside, the column packed a punch. Because of it, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller introduced “and went to the mat for” a bill forbidding job discrimination in the public sector. “We called it ‘The Jewish Press Bill,’” Engelmayer said. “I have a pen somewhere from the signing ceremony. And a photo.”

In mid-1968, Engelmayer moved to the North American Newspaper Alliance-Bell McClure Syndicate. NANA, a supplementary news service, “had a star-studded history,” he said. “Ernest Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War for it. John Pershing’s memoirs were syndicated through it. Sheila Graham wrote for us, and so did Joyce Brothers. Drew Pearson was one of our owners at the time, as well as America’s most-read columnist.” These are names that might not have much resonance today, but they were stellar back then. “And here I was, at 23, the assistant editor.” Two years later, he became NANA’s editor.

“It was very heady,” he said. “I was 25, and now the youngest syndicate editor in the country. There was a lot of pressure, but also a lot of attention. I suddenly was at these great cocktail parties and soirees, the type straight out of ‘Annie Hall.’ I became a Tony voter and a first-nighter. I got into a major motion picture.” The film was “Rollercoaster”; he wound up on the cutting-room floor, with one still photograph to show for it.

At 26, he added the task of being Jack Anderson’s editor to his list of responsibilities. Anderson was Pearson’s successor and a very powerful columnist, who sometimes fell victim to the kind of deadline pressure that allow factual errors to slip by. It was Engelmayer’s job to try to restrain him when necessary. It was not an easy task, “but I was hanging out on the cusp of all the big stories of the day — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, the Yom Kippur War — and I loved every moment of it.”

He also became friends with former Supreme Court Justice and United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who tried to convince Engelmayer to move to Alaska to help Goldberg’s son start a newspaper there. He declined “respectfully.”

Engelmayer still lived on the Lower East Side, “and I was still Orthodox in my practice,” he said. And he still told no one that he was a rabbi. When his Italian secretary figured it out and then so did his Jewish boss, “I started dumbing down” the depth of his Jewish knowledge. “Sometimes, I think I did that too well.”

Engelmayer also tried his hand at investigative journalism.

After the Yom Kippur War, for example, there was a natural gas shortage in the United States; the official reason was that there were not enough rigs available to pump the gas. Engelmayer and his writing partner, Bob Wagman, “got on the telephone and called every oil and gas equipment company in the country.” They learned that many rigs were available. They wrote a story that NANA submitted to the Pulizer Prize committee. They did not win a Pulitzer.

“Then I got a call from Britt Hume” — another famous reporter and the future Fox News anchor — “who says ‘Congratulations! You just won the [Washington Journalism Center’s Thomas L.] Stokes award for national reporting!’

“I said, ‘We didn’t submit anything for the award.’ He said, ‘You really won the Pulitzer, but the board of governors took it away from you because they were sick of the investigative stuff. We didn’t think that was fair, so we gave you this award instead.’”

Between their newspaper writing and several books, Wagman and Engelmayer exposed the dangers of the birth control device called the Dalkon Shield; did some of the earliest reporting on the dangers of asbestos; outdid Detroit newspapers in covering the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance; and laid the foundation for a criminal case in Elkhart, Ind., against the Ford Pinto, which had a tendency to explode when it was rear-ended. They also produced a film about the making of “Lion of the Desert,” a film about Libya during World War II. It starred Rod Steiger, Oliver Reed, and Anthony Quinn.

“I was doing wonderful things, but the weird thing was that throughout all of these things, I kept being drawn back into the Jewish world, no matter how hard I tried to stay out of it.”

In the mid-1980s, Engelmayer became managing editor of the New York Jewish Week (he would become its executive editor), and was back in the Jewish world, this time for good. His rabbinic juices began to show, even through the mask.

“I realized that I had the world’s greatest pulpit,” he said. “I was delivering sermons every week to an audience of 100,000 people, and I didn’t have to worry about anything else that pulpit rabbis worry about.”

He won awards from the American Jewish Press Association for his editorials year after year.

After about five years, Engelmayer left the Jewish Week and soon joined the Jewish Theological Seminary as its communications director.

By then, he was married to his second wife, Marilyn Henry, a journalist who would go on to specialize in Nazi-era restitution, particularly of art plundered during the Shoah. They stayed married for 23 years, until she died on March 1, 2011.

Engelmayer was talked into teaching by a friend. The JCC on the Palisades had a problem — the teacher set to lead an eight-week summer course on Maimonides had pulled out a week before it was to begin, without having done as much as compiled a syllabus. Engelmayer compiled his own within a few days and submitted it to Vivian Kanig, then the director of adult education at the Tenafly JCC. She hired him based on the syllabus.

“The first week I taught it, it was awful,” Engelmayer recalled having told Henry. “I couldn’t connect with anybody.”

“‘Look at yourself,’ she told me. ‘You’re 6 foot 3, you weigh 250 pounds, and you’re wearing a suit and a tie. You’re overpowering everybody in the room. You’re not going to connect with anyone.’

“The next week, I came home and changed into jeans and a sport shirt before I went to the JCC. She was so right! The class and I connected.”

Engelmayer was hooked. (And his wardrobe was set, too. That’s why he wears the ice-cream suit and the straw hat — and jeans, he has lots of jeans. It’s less intimidating, he thinks.)

Before the summer session ended, Kanig recruited him for what was then known as the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, which was being run locally at the time by the JCC on the Palisades.

“There is something so amazing about teaching Judaism to adults who want to be in that room,” he said. “I love watching their faces for what I call the wow factor.

“I learn as much from my students as they get from me.”

In 1998, after a stint as rabbi in Hopatcong, Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park hired him. He’s been there ever since.

One of Engelmayer’s most salient characteristics — his inability to be small-o orthodox about anything — surfaced very early in his life, and led to his struggles with large-O Orthodoxy, as well. “I am unorthodox, but am I non-Orthodox?

“From the philosophical standpoint, I identify with the Orthodox. I believe the Torah of Moses was the Torah God dictated to Moses. I just believe that the Torah we have is full of accretions that Moshe had nothing to do with.

“I don’t belong anywhere. I’m no longer comfortable in the Orthodox world that I grew up in and that trained me, and I’m also uncomfortable in the Conservative world that I don’t think has lived up to its promise. I think the Conservative movement went too far in accommodating the laity, and not far enough in accommodating modernity.”

So now, “I want to create the world’s first Conservative egalitarian chasidische shtieble.”

With the help of an extraordinary membership, he said, that is what Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael is becoming, “if it’s not already there. It’s very relaxed, and it’s entirely Torah-driven.”

So now, at 67, he has a multitude of jobs. He’s still at the Jewish Standard, where, he said, ‘I’m grateful to still to have my hand in the paper, but also grateful that I’m no longer the editor. The day-to-day editing of a paper is not me anymore.

“Teaching Torah is who I am. I love teaching Torah more than anything else.”

Unmasked at last.

Now if only he can get his name straight.

For more information about the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, go to www.jfnnj.org, or call the Melton office at federation, 201-820-3900.

 
 
 
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