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entries tagged with: Argentina


Sha’ar links communities

People enter Jewish life through different pathways, says Rabbi Adina Lewittes, founder, executive director, and religious leader of Sha’ar Communities.

Sha’ar, which “has evolved organically over the last six to seven years,” offers people a chance to connect while choosing that pathway into Jewish life best suited to them, she told The Jewish Standard.

With “diverse opportunities for engagement in Jewish tradition” — including worship services, study sessions, a travel component, and a b’nai mitzvah program — Sha’ar is as much a concept as it is a collection of independent, yet interrelated, groups.

For example, she said, “We have a worship community, but 90 percent of those in our Tuesday study program won’t be found in the sanctuary on Saturday morning.”

Rabbi Adina Lewittes

“We’re connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance,” said Lewittes, noting that members of each group “belong to the larger institution but participate in one or more piece, finding their own way to affirm the connections they want to make.”

The rabbi noted that Sha’ar is unaffiliated with any one movement, “attracting both those who have experienced belonging to other synagogues and others for whom this is their first formal affiliation.”

In addition, she said, “We want to provide access for those who have been standing too long at the margins of the community — the intermarried, for example, and members of the LGBT community.”

The group is always on the lookout for new cohorts, said Lewittes, adding that “we continue to find new communities to try to build.” The rabbi said she has a particular interest in building teen communities and is “trying to build a gateway revolving around tikkun olam for those for whom it is the heart and soul of their Jewish connection.”

“It’s a boutique or à la carte kind of Jewish community-building,” said Lewittes, who realized after years of working in the larger Jewish community that there was “a need to create multiple pathways for people to create Jewish lives — not just multiple doorways but multiple forms of communities that acknowledge and affirm the diversity of engagement.”

Lewittes said she has seen similar models succeed in places like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, where “boutique kinds of Jewish organizations appeal to specific kinds of involvement” such as environmental activism or adolescent spirituality. Up until now, she said, they have been “ultra-urban. I haven’t seen it in suburbia. We’re one of the first to bring this model to Jewish communities in suburbia. It’s much more challenging.”

According to Lewittes, recent Jewish population studies demonstrate that people are seeking alternatives to large institutions while also looking for more involvement in the content of their Jewish lives. In addition, she said, they want more flexible forms of membership, including more financial flexibility.

“Sha’ar essentially offers fee for service,” said Lewittes. Those who attend Shabbat services, which meet twice a month in people’s homes, are asked for an annual contribution to sustain the group, while those who engage in study pay tuition toward their classes. Similarly, participants in Sha’ar’s travel programs pay for their trips, while the b’nai mitzvah program has its own fee structure.

Sha’ar offers two beit midrash classes, serving about 25 people. Worship services generally draw between 12 and 25 people, while the group’s b’nai mitzvah program is now in its “fourth iteration,” with previous sessions attracting up to 17 youngsters each year. Travel programs generally have included 10 participants, but for this year’s trip, to Argentina, Sha’ar is hoping to draw 20 travelers.

Members of the various cohorts have come from Fort Lee, Demarest, Teaneck, Closter, and Tenafly, as well as other towns in Bergen County, although the trips have included people from New York City.

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and having worked for years in traditional Jewish venues, Lewittes said she became increasingly convinced that a model of Jewish engagement could be created that is responsive to changing patterns in Jewish affiliation.

“Modeled in this way, we often find that people who belong elsewhere participate in some of our communities as well. They attend classes, or send their children to our b’nai mitzvah program. For others, this is their home: It’s accessible, open-minded, and open-hearted in a way that is new to them.”

“We take very seriously the idea of spiritual growth, wrestling with tradition, and we invite a lot of discussion in each of these settings,” she said, noting the importance and challenge of “maintaining Jewish relevance in a changing world.”

She cited as an example Sha’ar’s b’nai mitzvah program, The Mosaic of the Mitzvot, “which has nothing to do with the big day but everything to do with rest of your life as a responsible Jew in the world and in the community.”

The program, she said “seeks to explore with the kids the various dimensions of living purposefully and responsibly as a Jew,” focusing not just on learning the commandments between “us and God and between us and our fellow human beings,” but also exploring in more depth our relationships to the community, to the environment, and to those who are different.

“We provide kids with hands-on interactive experiential learning about those dimensions,” she said, adding that the next six-session series will begin on Dec. 20.

Among other activities, students will receive a guided tour of the Jewish Museum’s Jewish identity and culture exhibit, meet with a sofer/scribe to learn about the mitzvah of tefillin and the role of sacred stories, spend time mentoring special-needs children, and visit an organic, free-range dairy farm.

“We’ll also be teaching about living in a multicultural world,” said Lewittes, adding that the final segment of the program “will underscore the centrality of Israel.”

“We encourage parents to be involved and come to sessions with us,” said the rabbi, explaining that the program focuses on “the unfolding of the child’s sense of his or her place in the world” while finding ways in which parents and children can learn together.

This year’s Sha’ar trip will be to Argentina, “seeing it through Jewish eyes.” The tour, March 9 to 18, “is built on an itinerary including daily learning in combination with meeting people on the ground who are involved in the Jewish community,” said Lewittes. “They’re very excited that we’re coming.” Sha’ar’s previous two trips were to Israel.

“This trip is an attempt to see how culture and arts in South America have influenced the experience and practice of Judaism,” she said, noting that Argentina has one of the largest diaspora Jewish communities. An information session for the trip will take place on Sunday, Dec. 6. The meeting, said Lewittes, “will set the tone and create context.”

For further information about Sha’ar programs, call Andy Arenson, program director, at (917) 412-2639 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


UJA-NNJ head moving on to ‘next chapter’

Last week, after eight years as executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Howard Charish announced that he will leave the organization in December.

While it was not a sudden decision, he said, “it surprised many people. It’s not something one predicts.”

Still, he said, the response to his announcement has been very rewarding.

“You never know when you touch someone’s life,” he said. “At times like this you find out.”

Charish said he chose this time to leave because “as I reviewed the progress of the North Jersey federation, I saw that we were much better poised to move forward than during the past couple of years.”

It was a good time, he said, “to hand the baton on and move forward.”

Looking over the changes during the past eight years, both global and local, the UJA-NNJ head said the current economic situation is unparalleled in most people’s lifetimes. “This has had a real impact on how we do business,” he noted. In addition, he said, “Israel is under siege and more vulnerable than at any other recent time in history.”

In the local federation, as in federations around the country, “the biggest challenge is to engage the next generation, to get the next generation — with their vision and their willingness to grow the community — to step up,” said Charish.

That is already happening to some extent here, he said, citing the Berrie Fellows initiative as a major factor. The grant program produced its first cohort in 2004.

“We have 44 alumni who currently have assumed the presidencies of day schools, synagogues, and agencies,” he said, “and if you listen to them, they speak in a new language that is anchored in Jewish values and thought as well as cutting-edge leadership protocols.”

“[Another] advantage of the fellowship is that it includes men and women from all streams of Judaism, all parts of northern New Jersey, breaking down walls” and fostering collaboration. “It’s great to see,” he said.

Charish said he is particularly proud of the local federation’s enhanced relationship with Israel, through the Partnership 2000 initiative and the continuation of ties developed during Project Renewal.

In addition, “I am gratified that we were able to move our headquarters to a safe, secure building after 9/11. The old building was on stilts, and we were told to change our headquarters for security reasons.”

While the new building took three years to find, “Today, operating expenses at the old building and the one on Eisenhower Drive are the same,” he said. “We have a hospitable, secure facility.”

During his tenure, Charish oversaw the merger of two federations, UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson and the Jewish Federation of North Jersey.

“We had two federations in one geographic area. Where there were two previous efforts at merger that didn’t succeed, we finally did so, bringing two strong communities together.”

He is also proud of federation’s growing role “as concerned citizens of the overall community,” creating such programs as Bergen Reads, Mitzvah Day, and Bonim Builders, as well as crews of volunteers who have helped clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“During the economic crisis we raised additional sums on top of the annual campaign to work with Project Ezra and Tomchei Shabbos to provide relief,” said Charish. “We also developed a pro bono professional network, coaching and providing real services to people who otherwise could not have afforded that help.”

Such crises, he said, have “brought out the best in everyone. This community stands tall for responding to crises. We raised over $6 million for the second Israel emergency campaign, over $400,000 for Katrina, and $200,000 for Haiti. It demonstrates that this community has a big heart and is very generous.”

Engaging the next generation is only one of the challenges facing federation, said Charish. Another is “providing customization so donors feel they are connected to their gift.”

“While the concept of a collective pool is as important as ever and gives us the flexibility to respond, in today’s environment donors — particularly younger donors — want to follow the dollars, and we need to provide the way [for them] to do so.”

His successor, he said, will need to have both vision and the ability to take risks. In addition, he or she must be able to build relationships and must have a passion for Jewish life.

Reviewing his own career, Charish — who has not yet decided on his future course — said, “I’ve been privileged to participate in some of the great events of Jewish life, including the Soviet Jewry movement.”

Not only did he travel to Russia to visit refuseniks, he said, but he went to Ethiopia twice as part of Operation Promise, which joined federations across the country in an effort to address the needs of vulnerable Jewish populations. In Ethiopia, funds were used to provide food, medical attention, and education, as well as to prepare Jews there for aliyah and absorption into Israeli society.

In addition, before coming to this community, he was involved in a federation initiative to revitalize the Argentina Jewish community.

“I realize how blessed I’ve been to have had a part in repairing the world,” he said. “I’m excited about the future, looking forward to the next chapter, and grateful that I had this time in northern New Jersey with outstanding volunteer leaders and staff. I’m in awe of my executive and professional colleagues.”

Alan Scharfstein, now entering his third year as UJA-NNJ president, pointed out that Charish’s term of office will have been “one of the longest tenures of someone in that position.”

“He has accomplished a tremendous amount,” he said, citing the merger of the two federations and the move into the new headquarters. Also, he stressed, it was under Charish that the group’s new strategic plan was crafted and will soon be launched.

Scharfstein said he will soon appoint a search committee to find a new leader, looking for “an individual with energy, enthusiasm, and the vision to lead us into the future.”

The federation has already undertaken the process of creating a “road map,” he said, “which will change the future of UJA in many ways.”

“The greatest challenge facing our federation and others is how to engage and motivate the next generation of Jewish leaders,” he said, echoing Charish. “Our focus has got to change in order to attract and motivate the younger generation of Jews.”

“We know that the next generation wants to follow their money in a more hands-on way,” said Scharfstein. “Saying ‘Trust us’ is not enough. We have to both do the right thing and have more transparency in using money. We also have to leverage our dollars better.”

Scharfstein said there’s a perception that people donate, “and federation has an infrastructure and overhead and less goes to the community. We’re engaged in a program where every dollar we collect is leveraged to generate more money.”

He cited the Kehillah Partnership — which facilitates joint purchasing — as an example of this trend, noting that it saves “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The strategic plan also includes a program through which federation will hire a grant writer available to all constituent agencies, “giving them access to federal, state, and private grants.”

In this way and others, he said, “we’ll leverage dollars to provide more dollars.”

The new executive vice president, Scharfstein said, must “understand the strategic plan and be committed to implement it, [having the] capability of engaging the next generation and the financial skills needed to continue the program of leveraging dollars.”

Scharfstein said the board expressed “thankfulness and appreciation” to Charish not only for his many achievements but, in agreeing to remain until December, “for giving us enough time to have a logical and thoughtful process to find a replacement.”

“He’s the ultimate professional and consummate gentleman,” said Scharfstein, managing his departure “the way he’s done everything else, with concern for how it will affect the community.”

The federation president said he expects the strategic plan implementation process to be a multi-year initiative.

“It gives us the ability to bring an executive on board to be with us throughout this process,” he said. “It’s an exciting point in the life of the federation.”

He also cited the contribution of young leaders in this effort, pointing out that “an extraordinary group” has come to the fore at the federation. “We’re lucky to be where we are.”

Scharfstein pointed out that the federation campaign “is on target for our goals for the year and we’re still working hard to achieve them.” In addition, he said, from the financial management standpoint, “We’ve hit a target we haven’t hit in years,” paying all constituent agencies their full allocations within the fiscal year.

“In recent years, we always paid as allocated, but not as promptly as we would like,” he said. “The financial crisis has caused us to put greater emphasis on financial management and planning. We planned much better this year and executed much better. We have not let the crisis go to waste.”


A conversation with Rabbi Zeilicovich

Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich — who will be installed as religious leader of Temple Beth Sholom on Dec. 19 – is glad to be in Fair Lawn.

The rabbi, who was ordained by the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and spent the past 11 years with a congregation in Fort Worth, Texas, said he and his wife, Graciela, finally decided “that it was time to find a place where we don’t need to drive 400 miles for a kosher sandwich.”

Zeilicovich, who holds degrees in psychology and education, began his rabbinic career in Medellin, Colombia, home to some 4,000 Jews.

“I was rabbi there for six years, during the war between the drug-dealing cartel and the government,” he told The Jewish Standard. “You can’t imagine what it was like.” He described a situation where car bombs exploded on a regular basis and drug traffickers engaged in kidnapping and assassination.

Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich will be installed as spiritual leader of Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom on Dec. 19.

“You can’t imagine what it was like for a rabbi, in a congregation of 200 families, to have to bury a 19-year-old, a 25-year-old, a 30-year-old, and to be at the house of a family where the father was kidnapped. Everyone jumped when the phone rang.”

Nor was it comfortable to go to shul with bodyguards, he said, noting that the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly subsequently presented him with a pastoral merit award for staying in the ravaged city.

“Rabbis are not just for bar mitzvahs,” he said, crediting his wife for remaining at his side during these difficult years. “We have a lot of privileges, but we also have obligations.”

He stayed in Medellin until the drug cartel disbanded. The next three years were spent peacefully in a congregation in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The rabbi spoke warmly of his years in Fort Worth, which he called “one of the best-kept secrets in the U.S.” The only problem, he said, was the difficulty of being observant in an area that lacked a Hebrew day school, kosher restaurant, and other Jewish institutions.

Still, he said, his congregants tried their best, attending minyans each day and maintaining a kosher kitchen in the synagogue.

“It was the only kosher place in Fort Worth,” he said, adding the congregation also had active USY and Kadima youth groups. In addition, he said, he was the only rabbi to serve as president of the city’s Rotary Club.

His own children, Ruthie and Daniel (now 21 and 19, respectively), commuted to the Solomon Schechter school in Dallas — 50 miles away.

“For me, it was non-negotiable,” he said. “In a country with 5 million Jews, why in the world would we send our children to a non-Jewish school?”

Later, they attended the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C.

“That was one of the best decisions we ever made,” he said, describing the school as pluralistic, committed to high-tech, and environmentally conscious. “It should be the pride of the Jewish community in the United States.”

In 1993, invited by colleagues from Colombia, Zeilicovich joined a mission to Cuba organized by the Joint Distribution Committee.

“I was part of a rabbinical tribunal that performed the first conversions and weddings after 35 years of communism,” he said. “We were there because the government allowed us to be there,” he added. “We raised the first chuppah after years in which there was no Jewish life.”

Now, he said, the renewed Cuban Jewish community is doing quite well. He noted, for example, that President Raul Castro recently joined the Jewish community at Havana’s Shalom synagogue for a Chanukah celebration.

The rabbi said that when his daughter graduated from high school and announced that she wanted to attend Brandeis, he and his wife decided to relocate to a city “where Yiddishkeit would not be so rare.”

“Here I have colleagues and Jewish institutions and activities — what you take for granted,” he said. “I don’t have words to describe how much I enjoy it.”

Zeilicovich said it is his intention to “transform Beth Sholom into a thriving place and put it back on the map.”

His first priority, he said, is to bring healing to the synagogue, which recently weathered a serious controversy.

“The healing process is crucial,” he said.

In addition, he hopes to “engage the membership in working together in areas like education” and to develop a social action committee.

“I want to make people understand that we must be very active in that particular area,” he said. “We’re here to do tikkun olam, to make a better world every day.”

Congregations are about relationships, said Zeilicovich, who will be installed on his birthday.

“You try to create an environment of camaraderie, support, respect, warmth, teaching, and learning,” he said, pointing out that when people look at congregations, they should not look for size but rather for quality. “They should ask about who you are and how you are — not how many members, but are they good people? Nice? Supportive?”

Rabbis, he said, must serve not only as worship leaders but as “facilitators for enhancing relationships among members of the congregation.”

His approach has struck a chord in the synagogue, said Steven Ezratty, president of the 240-member congregation.

Calling the response “overwhelmingly positive,” Ezratty said the rabbi, who came to the shul in August, “has already been able to engage all of our congregants — from our children to our seniors and everyone in between.”

Citing Zeilicovich’s “warm personality and delightful sense of humor,” he added that the rabbi is also “perfectly in line with the temple’s goal of making itself a welcoming house of worship and education for families, singles, and seniors.”

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