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Bringing down the house: Beth Aaron expanion ‘long overdue’

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Photos from http://www.bethaaron.org

With several mighty blows of a backhoe, the house next to Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck was razed last week, launching the long awaited expansion project of the synagogue at 950 Queen Anne Road.

The $2.4 million project calls for a larger lobby, a new multi-purpose room, a new teen minyan space, and additional youth department rooms.

The multi-purpose room will provide more functional space for lectures, community events and social programming, such as the Shabbat morning kiddush, said Larry Kahn, co-chair of the expansion committee. The new youth department rooms, located on the lower level, will accommodate the increasing number of children attending groups on Shabbat and holidays.

The construction will also add 65 seats to the main sanctuary, restoring 35 seats that were lost roughly nine years ago when the synagogue bought permanent pews and adding 30 seats on top of that, Kahn said.

Construction — scheduled to begin in the next few weeks by the Ridgewood-based firm Visbeen Construction — is expected to conclude late next spring.

The house, which Beth Aaron had owned, had been rented by Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, who has moved to the north side of Teaneck.

With a roster of some 300 member-families, the expansion of Beth Aaron’s building —which hasn’t been updated since 1986 — is long overdue, congregants say.

Pews at Shabbat services are often packed, and several minyanim need to be held simultaneously to accommodate everyone. The Shabbat morning kiddush draws overflow crowds and members have lamented for years about the cramped party room where it’s difficult to host a sizeable brit breakfast or bar/bat mitzvah luncheon.

Parents have also grumbled about the challenge of running youth groups for children on Shabbat and holiday mornings when the classroom space is inadequate for all the grades.

Indeed, said Rabbi Lawrence Rothwachs, it is not easy to serve the needs of everyone in the congregation in the current building. “This project will enhance our shul in numerous ways and allow us to serve all our members from the very young to old…. We’re extremely excited about the expansion. We are hopeful that this will be the beginning of another wonderful chapter in the history of our beit knesset.”

Synagogue President Larry Shafier said the new facility will allow us to “better serve our members and guests by providing for concurrent and additional prayer opportunities, classes, children, teen and youth programming, and an enhanced and more meaningful experience for everyone.”

Plans for the expansion were first introduced to the Orthodox synagogue in 1999. The project lay dormant for a number of years and was reactivated in 2006 after Rothwachs arrived at the shul.

Some congregants initially voted against the expansion, citing concerns about its high cost in a turbulent economy. But now, many of its critics have become staunch supporters of the project.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the amount and number of donations, especially in an uncertain economy, and we’re now running ahead of projections,” said Allen Friedman, co-chair of the expansion committee. “All of this indicates to us the importance the kehilla [the community] attaches to the project.”

The donations cover close to half of the project cost. But the synagogue still continues to collect more on its website. http://www.bethaaron.org., Friedman said.

“If we want a kehilla that will continue to be warm and to flourish, we need a building that let’s that happen.”

When the plan was initially proposed to the townshp, some neighbors expressed concern that an expanded building would bring more noise and parking woes to the neighborhood. But after they were invited to spend an evening at the synagogue to review the plans, they were won over, said Kahn. The township’s board of adjustment voted unanimously in favor of the project in 2009.

Beth Aaron was established in 1972 by Rabbi Meir Gottesman in a home on West Englewood Avenue at a time when many young people felt disenfranchised with their parents’ establishment synagogues, recalls longtime member and founder Mollie Fisch. Gottesman aimed to create a congregation that would attract young people who were rebelling against their parents and joining cults or running off to the Far East, she said. A Merrison Avenue family offered its basement in 1972 as a place for the congregation to meet and, years later, Dr. Stuart Littwin offered his home on Queen Anne Road, which eventually became the site for the existing synagogue building.

Although the expansion comes with hefty bills for members, Kahn says it has been met mostly with eager anticipation. “Many people are enthusiastic about the shul beginning a new chapter in its existence,” he said. “They’re looking forward to more opportunity for social interaction as well as spiritual growth in a setting that is conducive for that.”

 
 

A fasting guide for the perplexed

The Yom Kippur fast is not intended to be a picnic. But fasters pleading for repentance don’t have to make themselves sick over it either, say health and nutrition experts.

There is a plethora of advice out there for those who want to have an easier time of it come Kol Nidrei, says Shannon Gononsky, a Teaneck-based dietician who observes the Yom Kippur fast religiously.

Fasting doesn’t have to be hard on your body if you prepare properly, she says.

Indeed, as Yom Kippur approaches, thoughts turn to repentance, charity, and, the intimidating mission of abstaining from food and drink for 25 hours.

The Jewish Day of Atonement begins this year on Friday, Sept. 17, before sundown, and ends the following night after nightfall with the Neilah prayer service.

The larger issues surrounding Yom Kippur deal with the questions of forgiveness and repentance. But then there are the smaller ones — like will we survive the fast without a migraine and nausea? Will the hunger pains be manageable? Gononsky and other experts say it can be done.

But first, they have a few caveats for would-be fasters. The restrictions on eating and drinking apply only to those in good health who are over bar and bat mitzvah age. Most rabbis agree that anyone whose health could be seriously threatened by fasting should not fast. If a person has a medical condition, is pregnant, or needs to take medication, it’s best to consult a doctor and/or rabbi, medical experts advise.

Preparation for the fast should begin in the days or weeks before it starts, according to experts.

For example, if you consume several cups of coffee a day (or any other caffeinated drinks), prepare yourself for the fast by tapering off your caffeine consumption at least a week before Yom Kippur, says L’via Weisinger, a Teaneck nurse. “Don’t try to go cold turkey or else you may end up with a terrible headache.”

Also, drinking a lot of coffee before Kol Nidre is not a great idea because it will cause you to lose a lot of water before the fast, she says.

It is also important to begin hydrating yourself several days before the fast. “Don’t wait until the fast is about to start to drink a lot of water,” said Weisinger. “Drink extra water for several days before.”

A pre-fast meal should ideally consist of complex carbohydrates, such as breads and pastas, said Gononsky.

She cites the finding of a study published in the September issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal that “a protein-rich meal creates the most discomfort and side effects during a fast.”

Water is better conserved when one eats a meal high in complex carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, beans, and other pulses. When protein breaks down, however, more water is excreted from the body, she says.

For her pre-fast meal, Gononsky cooks up a starchy potato soup, light grilled fish, couscous, and steamed squash. “The key to a good fast for us is that potato soup,” she says. “It really builds up your glycogen stores which are the way that you store up fuel as carbohydrates.”

Experts share pre-fast tips

• The pre-fast meal menu should be selected carefully: Emphasize carbohydrates. Stay away from high protein and fat-filled foods. Best choices are breads, pasta, potatoes, cereal, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and rice.

• Eat small meals throughout the day before the fast but do not gorge yourself – it will only make you feel hungrier later.

• Include soup in your pre-Yom Kippur meal. It helps keep you hydrated and makes you feel full.

• Avoid caffeine. Heavy coffee drinks can avoid the dreaded “withdrawal” headache by slowly tapering off coffee consumption over the week leading up to the fast day. One trick caffeine addicts can try is to brew mixtures of regular and decaffeinated coffee, increasing the proportion of decaf as you progress.

• Avoid eating chocolate or drinking alcohol (these cause you to lose too much water) and try to minimize salty or spicy foods that will increase your thirst.

• In addition to drinking plenty of water, Gononsky advises incorporating fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, into your pre-fast meal.

Tips for during the fast

• Spend your day in the synagogue; the refrigerator won’t tempt you, everyone else there will be fasting so they won’t distract you with thoughts of food, and you can reflect on repentance, which is the essence of the day anyway.

• Try to stay in cool areas and avoid direct sunlight so you remain hydrated and don’t perspire.

• Many people have a tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur. The added benefit is that light-colored clothing helps keep you cooler.

• Avoid strenuous calorie-burning exercise. While walking to synagogue, take it slow.

Post-fast tips

• Do not eat too much or too quickly when you break your fast. Your stomach will not need much to feel full. And if you eat too much, you will feel sick.

• The best foods to break your fast on are simple foods such as: crackers, juice or milk, and dairy foods. Drink a lot of water and avoid salty foods, since you will need to replace your fluids.

 
 

Just One Life, started by Teaneck man, growing in Israel

Just One Life was sparked more than two decades ago, when businessman Jack Forgash read a newspaper article reporting on abortions in Israel. The Teaneck resident recalls reading the article in shock. According to the story, roughly 20,000 pregnancies a year in Israel were being terminated, he said.

This could not go on, Forgash felt.

He started working the phones. Within a few months, he had a network of rabbis, doctors, and benefactors who were prepared to provide help to Israeli women who were about to choose abortion as their last resort.

In 1989, Just One Life was born. “Israel’s main resource is its children,” Forgash said. “Each child our organization helps bring into the world multiplies our people a hundredfold.”

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Jack Forgash of Teaneck helped found Just One Life , top, Rabbi Etan Tokayer is the organization’s executive vice president. PHOTOS Courtesy Just One Life

The group’s name was derived from the famous talmudic passage, “He who saves just one life in Israel is one who has saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a).

At the Jerusalem office of Just One Life, veteran social worker Madelaine Gitelman, the group’s director, said that she tries to reassure anxious couples that they can get help to continue a pregnancy if they wish. Many couples consider termination because of financial difficulties. Others turn to it as a last resort because they lack necessary emotional support, she said.

Gitelman said she doesn’t pressure couples but urges them to think through their possibilities. The organization’s aim is to make it possible for every couple to continue a pregnancy, even if they face enormous obstacles, said Gitelman.

“Because they are not equipped with financial resources, a natural support system, or if their daily lives are so fraught with stress, their ability to raise a family is severely compromised,” Gitelman said about her clients. “We have innumerable examples of women who are faced with difficult choices that have no easy solutions. Helping women cope with their choices and rallying their strengths has been the goal of our intervention.”

The roughly 1,000 women Gitelman and her small team of social workers help every year hail from more than 150 cities, villages, and settlements across Israel, she said. They also come from a broad range of backgrounds, including religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, recent immigrants and veteran Israelis.

The demand for the organization’s services appears to be rising. The client base is growing at a rate of 10 percent each year, according to organizers.

Most of the women find their way to Gitelman’s office through referrals from social workers, nurses, or professionals in local welfare offices, baby clinics, and hospitals.

What the women have in common is that all face limited income, difficult family pressures, or health issues — and have few outside sources of help. A pregnancy just adds to their fears that they will drown in a sea of problems, Gitelman said.

When they arrive at Just One Life, couples don’t encounter any anti-abortion propaganda, said organizers. Instead, they are asked what the family needs in order to feel comfortable raising a new baby. Sometimes it’s just a matter of money. Other times, they need services, counseling, or other kinds of help, said Rabbi Martin Katz, the group’s New York-based director.

For many young Israeli mothers living on the fringe of poverty, the prospect of another baby can often seem like too much to bear, he said. “Just One Life helps mothers choose life for their children by helping them through the economic and psychological problems that often accompany what might have been unanticipated,” he added.

Just One Life is responsible for helping women give birth to 13,000 children since it was began 20 years ago, according to Rabbi Etan Tokayer, the organization’s executive vice president.

“In America, a good number of pregnancies are terminated out of choice. In Israel, they are terminated because of lack of choice,” said Tokayer. “Many of these women feel they have no other choice. But if their issues are dealt with, they’d want to have their child. We try to bring down the crisis level and give them tools to help them arrange their lives.”

“The goal is not just to throw money at the problem,” Tokayer added, “but rather to empower the mother and give her the skills she needs to manage her life better, to help the whole person, not just to help her have the baby.”

He pointed out that the children born at the organization’s inception are approaching their 20s. They are going into the Israeli army, he said, as well as learning in Torah institutions and universities, and they are taking their rightful place in society.

“We’re not just saving a baby,” he said, “we’re saving a whole life. We’re giving a child the opportunity to live a life and give back. In Israel, 15,000 people can be a city. We’ve nearly created a city because we’ve saved 13,000 people.”

Just One Life provides roughly $1,800 to each mother to cover financial and psychological services, said Tokayer. It also provides assistance to women who have at-risk pregnancies or suffer from health problems.

In the 20 years since the organization has been helping women have their babies, Tokayer said, “we’ve never had a woman come back to us and complain. But we’ve had many come back to us years later and say, ‘I can’t imagine what my life would be like without my kids.’ They can’t thank us enough.”

For more information, go to www.justonelife.org.

 
 

Ari Hagler wants his bar mitzvah to be ‘Shabbat Gilad’

Ari Hagler of Bergenfield knows what he wants for a bar mitzvah gift: freedom for Gilad Shalit.

After Ari’s mother showed him a video several weeks ago about the captured Israeli soldier, the 12-year-old was moved to action. “I felt really bad for him, so I tried to think what I can do to help,” he said.

Shalit was captured on June 25, 2006, when a group of Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and attacked an army facility. He has been held captive in Gaza ever since.

Ari came up with a bar mitzvah project — with some help from his parents, Chavie and Rabbi Chaim Hagler — to promote awareness of Shalit’s plight. Thus the Shabbat of Ari’s bar mitzvah, Dec. 10, will be known across the world as Shabbat Gilad.

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Ari Hagler

Ari recently launched a website, http://www.shabbatgilad.com, to promote the program. People are invited to visit the website to register, tell how they will participate, and submit program ideas.

Ari is also asking schools to run programs that will educate students about Shalit’s plight and to implement projects to help bring about his release. Ari hopes that pulpit rabbis will make Shalit and the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim (redeeming a captive) the focus of their Shabbat morning sermons that weekend.

His goal is to get at least 100 schools and synagogues to sign up with the program. “I want to get people around the world to think about and try to help Gilad at the same time,” he said. Thus far, 25 schools and synagogues signed up, from New Jersey, Ohio, Canada, and Australia.

Ari said the concept ties in with the Torah portion that he will chant at his synagogue, Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. “In Parshat Vayigash we read about how Binyamin was imprisoned in Egypt,” said Ari. “His brother, Yehuda, refuses to leave without Binyamin, and even asks to take Binyamin’s place in prison, so that Binyamin can be set free. Yehuda becomes the first Jew to fight for a brother in jail, and it seems like an inspiration for all of us to fight for our brother, Gilad Shalit, imprisoned and alone.”

Ari, a seventh-grader at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, where his father is the principal, said that his family has been in touch with someone close to the Shalits to let them know about his efforts. Ari and his father organized a live video conference with Gilad’s father, Noam Shalit, at the school on Sunday. About 100 people attended the event, at which Shalit said he will not rest until he brings home his son.

When participants asked what they could do to help, Shalit urged them to write letters to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his son.

Chavie Hagler said that while she’s proud of her son’s recent undertaking, it came as no surprise that he would want to do something so altruistic. Ari has been very involved over the years in chesed activities, she said, such as “mitzvah-clowning,” helping to build the shul sukkah, and the Friendship Circle.

“We are very proud of Ari for his sensitivity for another Jew who is suffering and for developing ‘Shabbat Gilad’ and working so hard on it,” she added.

“For Ari, his bar mitzvah is much more than just a party, it is an understanding that he now has obligations to the Jewish people, especially those less fortunate than he is.”

 
 

Former Rockette Rachel Factor now performs women-only shows

In her former life, Rachel Factor starred in Broadway shows and kicked up her heels as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.

But that was back then, when she was known as Christine Frances Masave Horii. The Hawaiian born entertainer has come a long way since. Though she continues to enthrall audiences, her acts have been modified: These days, the Orthodox Jerusalem resident dresses modestly and performs only for women’s audiences.

Factor shares the story of her journey — from growing up in Hawaii to performing in Los Angeles and New York to her home in Jerusalem — in a one-woman show of dance, song, and story that has enchanted more than 30,000 women worldwide.

Factor will entertain a local audience on Monday, Nov. 22, at a fund-raising event at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck for the Teaneck mikvah.

Event organizers told The Jewish Standard that Factor motivates people to think, but is more entertaining than the typical speaker. “People love to hear about her journey to Orthodoxy,” said Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Assocation. “She dances and sings and shares funny and inspiring stories along the way.” The aim of the event is to bring the Jewish women of Teaneck together and to help raise funds for the recent $4 million mikvah renovation, she said.

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Rachel Factor used to be Christine Horii — and then she converted to Judaism. COURTESY RACHEL FACTOR

A fourth-generation Japanese-American, Factor was born and raised in Honolulu by her Protestant parents. She attended a prep school run by missionaries and found an outlet in the performing arts. Her talent in song and dance earned her renown, and she was enlisted to perform in the community theater.

She left Hawaii at 18 to pursue a career in Los Angeles, where she landed work as a dancer and earned acclaim in music videos, film, and television, where she appeared in more than 40 commercials. She moved to New York and performed in off-Broadway productions, as a Rockette, and in Broadway shows including “Shogun, the Musical” and “Miss Saigon.”

Yet for all of her success, Factor related in an interview conducted by e-mail last week, she felt spiritually dead.

Career driven, she had no time to think about whether she was leading a meaningful life. But everything changed when, at age 29, she met and fell in love with Todd Factor, a Jewish television commercial producer.

He told her that it was essential for him to marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. She was impressed by his devotion to the Jewish people and began studying Judaism. The beliefs resonated within her, and she was drawn to the rituals. Upon realizing that Factor knew very little about his faith, she urged him to join the Judaism class she was taking.

She underwent a Conservative conversion, married Todd Factor, and lived as a mostly secular Jew. But she continued learning about Judaism, and she bought her husband his first pair of tefillin.

The birth of their first child moved the couple to deepen their commitment to Jewish life. The Orthodox mohel they hired for their son’s brit milah encouraged them to develop greater Orthodox connections.

Having a child, said Rachel Factor, made her wonder whether she and her husband were living a lifestyle befitting their new task of nurturing a soul. She felt that Orthodoxy offered a structure that revolved around family life, and that appealed to the couple.

But to become Orthodox, she would have to give up her life as a performer, because it was a contradiction to the Orthodox way. Modest dress, hair-covering, and prohibitions against dancing with and singing for men would essentially bar her from working ever again in theater, she thought.

It was a painful sacrifice, she acknowledged. “I identified as an actor and dancer. What was I left with if I wasn’t ‘Tina the dancer’?” Despite that obstacle, she and her child underwent Orthodox conversions.

Eventually, she found new ways to express herself creatively. Her one-woman show makes use of all the artistic skills that she’s been working on for the past two decades, she said.

At first, Factor performed her show for gatherings of women in living rooms, but word spread about her performances, and soon the living rooms gave way to larger venues in theaters, Jewish centers, schools, and synagogues.

She marvels that she’s more in demand than ever before, and she feels that her search for identity resonates with both religious and non-religious audiences. “It is a journey from my old life as a professional dancer, looking for spirituality and finding it in the most unusual of places, Orthodox Judaism, through storytelling, song, and dance.”

But she wasn’t content simply to enjoy performing for audiences. She wanted to give the opportunity to other religious women to find ways of expression. In 2005 she opened Ha Machol Shel Bnos Miriam, a dance-and-wellness center in Jerusalem. The goal of the center is to provide women of all ages the opportunity to dance, work out, and express themselves in a Jewish environment, she said.

“The arts and spirituality are very closely tied together,” she added. “Artists are looking for truth, for beauty, for love. You can find all of those things in HaShem.”

Reflecting on her voyage, she said she is incredibly thankful for the life she now leads in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharei Chesed. “I just had my fifth child at the age of 41, I have a full life of Torah and mitzvos, and a dance studio giving religious girls and women the opportunity to express and rejuvenate themselves through the arts. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.

“As an artist, you want to be able to affect people even in the smallest way — to change them, inspire them,” she said. “I’ve never felt that so fully as I do now.”

 
 

Rinat Yisrael celebrates its expansion

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The materials for the new sanctuary were imported from Israel.

Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck celebrated the completion of its expansion project by dedicating the newly constructed 450-seat sanctuary to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Adler, and his wife Sheryl.

At the dedication ceremony held after last week’s Shabbat morning services, Adler marveled over the congregation’s transformation since a handful of families began meeting for services in each other’s homes in 1978 and appointed him rabbi.

The normally reserved scholar choked up as he thanked his congregants for allowing him the privilege of serving as their leader for the past 32 years, and thanked the Kukin family for donating the sanctuary and opting to dedicate it in his and his wife’s honor.

“I wouldn’t trade this job with anyone,” he said.

The new sanctuary — whose beechwood pews, aron kodesh, bimah, and mechitzah were imported from Israel — is only one component of the $5 million construction project that broke ground in December 2008 and was completed before Rosh HaShanah.

The extreme synagogue makeover transformed the 8,000 square-foot building into a nearly 24,000 square-foot structure, with much of it underground. Among the features of the renovation are a social hall, youth wing with eight classrooms, a parking lot, and a Shabbat elevator. The old sanctuary was converted into a 250-seat beit midrash (house of study), said synagogue president Orin Golubtchik.

The need for expansion had been discussed among Rinat members for nearly 10 years, amid complaints that the synagogue had grown overcrowded. The facility built in 1991 on West Englewood Avenue could no longer accommodate the swelling Modern Orthodox community flowing into Teaneck and through Rinat’s front doors.

Longtime members and newcomers alike found the process of finding a seat at packed Shabbat services a challenge. Families who came together to services often had to split up. Additional space at the Whittier School had to be rented on the High Holy Days to accommodate the overflow of worshippers.

The worst consequence of the shrinking space, said Charlie Eisenberg, an expansion steering committee member, “was that people wanted to come here but there was no room so they had to go to other shuls.”

Eisenberg, an architect, added, “We wanted more space for tefillah and expanded social space for us to celebrate together in our own house.” Just as critical, he said, was the need for more youth space so that children would find the experience of coming to shul a pleasant one. Rinat bought a house next door several years ago, to be used as the youth wing, which it quickly outgrew.

Membership surged after the expansion, with an additional 20 member-families and another 15 who became affiliates, bringing total membership to 300 families and 150 affiliate families, said Golubtchik. Because one sanctuary cannot hold everyone, three Shabbat morning prayer services are held at different times.

That the synagogue has become a popular destination comes as no surprise to old-timers in the congregation.

“This is a place for learning,” said Golubtchik, “with the rabbi giving nine shiurim to men, women, and children every week — a place for davening and a place where families get together, a real second home.”

Jonathan Kukin who, with his wife Leora, donated the sanctuary, said, “The essential spirit of Rinat Yisrael is defined by the people that comprise our kehillah, not the bricks and mortar that form our building.” The Adlers, he added, “personify the beauty of our kehillah in both word and deed.”

In fact, many attribute the popularity of the shul to the rabbi, who is praised for his vast Torah knowledge and courage to take a stance on controversial issues.

A 2001 study undertaken to determine the expansion needs of the membership revealed that most congregants joined because of the rabbi, said Kenneth Hoffman, an expansion steering committee member. “People have unending respect for and appreciation of the rabbi because of his approach, focus, and orientation relative to our community and Judaism, and he has succeeded in building a vibrant community based on his vision,” he added.

Adler is the sole Orthodox rabbi in Teaneck to endorse a yoetzet halacha — a woman halachic consultant — and to employ one on staff. Also, he was among the rabbis who signed the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” issued over the summer, which urges greater sensitivity toward people who are gay. He is also a fervent supporter of the State of Israel and of women taking on greater roles in Jewish life.

In his teachings and writings, Adler often aims to convey the wisdom of his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who was widely revered as the major rabbinic figure of Modern Orthodoxy in America. The principal of Torah Academy of Bergen County, Adler is also credited for his skill as an educator, ability to engage young people, and unwavering enthusiasm for the Yankees, noted Eisenberg.

“His Torah knowledge is unsurpassed,” Eisenberg continued. “When he is speaking Torah, he’s like Fred Astaire on the dance floor.”

Such qualities have left an indelible impact that is felt beyond the walls of the sanctuary that bears Adler’s name. “He’s not afraid to put himself out there for the things he believes strongly in,” said Golubtchik. “He’s inspired us with his learning and leads us by example.”

 
 

Ma’ayanot students help with homework

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Ma’ayanot mentors line up to help kids with homework. Courtesy Ma’ayanot

Homework help is on the way for local day-school students who want to boost their grades.

This boon to area parents has arrived thanks to the Pay It Forward Club, launched in October by Ma’ayanot High School students.

The club, which meets every Wednesday in the Teaneck-based high school, provides free tutoring to elementary and middle school yeshiva students. The program pairs the youngsters with “big sisters” from Ma’ayanot who guide them through the rigors of homework, studying, and tests.

The Pay It Forward Club, which has drawn 50 participants from local day schools and 50 mentors from ninth through 12th grades at the Orthodox girls high school, takes its name from the notion that young people should contribute to their community and inspire others to perform good deeds.

Ariella Steinreich, Ma’ayanot’s community service coordinator, said she was moved to create the program to provide an opportunity for the teenagers to perform a needed community service and aid parents during turbulent economic times when many can’t afford tutors.

The program has already received rave reviews from participants, who say the mentors make learning more exciting. Several parents noted that doing homework with their own children can often stress their relationship, and a program such as this one eases that burden.

Aviva Allen of Englewood said the program has been a wonderful experience for her two daughters, who have built a close relationship with their mentors. “My girls look forward to doing their homework on Wednesdays in Ma’ayanot,” she said. “The program has given them a sense of independence and the individualized attention has helped build their self-confidence.”

Steinreich said the Ma’ayanot students take their task seriously and often prepare hands-on learning techniques to teach everything from math and science formulas to Chumash (Bible) and Navi (Prophets). In a recent session, one mentor used ketchup packets to illustrate a math principle to her grade-school student, while another outlined a perek of chumash to help a middle-schooler, Steinreich recalled.

Because the pairs work one-on-one, the younger students form a connection with their mentors and are able to learn at their own pace. “The individualized attention lets these kids succeed and gives them a greater sense of confidence in their subjects,” said Steinreich.

Students enroll in the program for a variety of reasons; some need the extra help and reinforcement. Many others come because they find it more enjoyable to do homework with a teenager in a high-school setting than at home amid distractions of siblings and television.

Aviva Vogel of Teaneck said her third-grade daughter looks forward to Wednesdays because of the program. “She is paired up with a positive role model who makes learning fun,” Vogel said.

Mentors say that they have gained just as much from the experience as their mentees.

Molly Levi, a ninth-grader at Ma’ayanot who volunteers as a tutor, said, “I enjoy helping out other kids; it is so cool to see their progress each week.”

Chava Danishefsky, an 11th-grade mentor, said that she can see the positive results of her work almost immediately. “I enjoy working on homework with her and seeing her succeed in mastering these skills,” she said about her student. “Every Wednesday, I leave knowing that I helped someone.”

For more information, e-mail Steinreich at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call her at (201) 833-4307, ext. 233.

 
 

JWRP will take Bergenites on free trip to Israel

The typical modern mother, so busy juggling all the responsibilities of raising children, running a home, and, often, keeping up with a demanding job, frequently finds that the last item on the priority list is taking care of herself.

Julie Farkas wants to take a crew of Bergen County moms away from all of that. A busy Bergenfield mother of three, Farkas knows firsthand that most mothers need some time off to recharge their batteries. But she hopes to recharge them spiritually as well.

She’s searching for a few good women who are deserving of a free trip to Israel through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to empower Jewish women.

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Julie Farkas Larry Farkas

For nine days this summer, participants of the mission will travel across the Jewish state from Safed to Jerusalem. Among the items on the itinerary are floating in the Dead Sea, kayaking on the Jordan River, riding camels in the Judean desert, and visiting the Western Wall. But it’s not all fun in the sun: The women will attend Torah lectures, learn to make challah, and serve the poor in soup kitchens. They will also have the opportunity to be inspired by the women of Israel who are soldiers, business leaders. and politicians.

The JWRP-sponsored mission, dubbed Transform and Grow (T.A.G.), has taken 1,000 women worldwide to Israel in the three years since it launched the trips, which are mainly sponsored through private donations. (Women pay their airfare but everything else is free.)

JWRP leaders enlist non-affiliated Jewish women to travel on the missions in order to give them the opportunity to tour Israel, connect with other Jewish women from around the world, and discover how to bring Jewish values into their families and communities, said Lori Palatanik, JWRP director. “The goal is to inspire women in every way — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And if you inspire a woman, you inspire a family.”

The idea for a Bergen County mission was born six months ago, when Farkas attended a conference for women in Jewish outreach. She heard an intriguing presentation from Palatnik, who said she wanted to start a women’s movement to shift the values of the world. “They were going to bring women from all of the world to Israel for nine days for free and teach them about Jewish values and empower them, and thus through the women, we could change the world,” Farkas related. She was determined to bring the concept back home to help the women in her community.

A teacher at the Jewish Learning Experience and the Jewish Youth Encounter Program in Teaneck, Farkas loves teaching basic Judaism to those who want to connect to something meaningful. Organizing the trip for Bergen County residents, she said, is a natural extension of that.

She frequently invites strangers and neighbors to Friday night and Shabbat meals at her home, and said that over the years, she has been shocked to discover how many local women have never been to Israel and want to learn more about their Jewish heritage but lack the opportunity to do so.

“The Jewish people are the ones who gave the values to the world, and if we don’t teach our children what it means to be Jewish and what our values are, we can’t continue to be a light unto the other nations, which is our job,” she said. Farkas hopes that through the Israel trip, the women will become more determined to transmit Jewish values to their families, and more able, through education.

Unlike Birthright Israel and other missions like it, said Farkas, it’s not just about affecting one individual, it’s about affecting one person who will then bring Jewish values to her home, children, and community.

For more information and to apply to go on the mission, visit www.jwrp.org.

 
 

For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

Yachad support group a ‘haven’

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Members of the Junior Yachad division are pictured snowtubing in February 2008. With them are advisers from area high schools. Courtesy Yachad

As the mother of a child with developmental disabilities, Rena (not her name) often feels overwhelmed by her marathon-like schedule of shuttling her daughter to therapists, advocating for her at school, meeting with her caseworker, and pleading with the insurance company to cover the much-needed therapies.

Between private school tuition, tutors, therapy, and medical bills, Rena laments she is facing financial burdens that would leave anyone worried about their future.

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Chani Herrmann leads a Yachad mothers’ suppport group. courtesy chani herrmann

Worst of all, said the Fair Lawn mother, is the pain she feels when well-intentioned friends in her community prattle on about the relatively minor travails of their typically well-functioning children. “They say they’re so depressed that their son is leaving for college, or they complain about the tablecloths at their daughter’s wedding, and the whole time, I’m biting my lip, thinking about how my daughter will never graduate college or get married,” she said. “They have no idea how lucky they are, and no sense of what I’m going through.”

Fortunately, Rena has found a haven where she can freely express her feelings in a local support group for mothers of disabled children. It’s one of the few places where she knows she will be understood and she doesn’t have to feel alone.

The support group was launched four years ago by Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, in an effort to help Jewish mothers of special needs children in New Jersey. The group meets weekly in homes around Bergen County.

Yachad is an agency of the Orthodox Union that serves the broad Jewish community. Yachad, Hebrew for “together,” was founded in 1983 to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities and is the only Jewish group in the country of its kind, said organizers.

The mothers’ support group’s facilitator, Chani Herrmann, who is also director of New Jersey Yachad, is a social worker and Teaneck resident who has been involved in Yachad for more than 10 years. As much as the women have gained from her knowledge and expertise, she said, she has gained inspiration from their strength and warmth. “The women learn from one another, share resources, and gain strength and knowledge from each other’s personal experiences,” she added.

Among the topics discussed at the gatherings are school placements for their children, marriage and communication, the stress of having multiple children with special needs, financial stressors, and long-term planning, said Herrmann.

Herrmann said the feedback from the women who attend is that they “need” this group. “It is a safe place to come and be honest about the things they struggle with.”

In addition, it’s a warm environment where parents can celebrate accomplishments with one another in a special way, said Herrmann.

“We have shared important milestones with one another — births, bar mitzvahs, graduations. Nothing is taken for granted — every event in their lives is an important one, and a child’s success in school or at a job is celebrated by the whole group.”

The women who attend the New Jersey Yachad support group range in age and in their level of Jewish observance, and their children suffer from a broad spectrum of disabilities — including autism, developmental and cognitive delays, and ADHD. Yet their core issues are essentially the same, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, the national director of Yachad.

“If you have a child with special needs, you experience similar things, whether it’s grief over losing the dream of having a ‘perfect child’ to dealing with challenging school systems and difficult grandparents and communities that make them feel excluded,” said Lichtman.

Yachad also runs a fathers’ support group that meets monthly in Teaneck. The men’s group offers fathers of children with disabilities an opportunity to learn from one another, provide one another with support, and give them a place where they can be understood, said Lichtman.

“We at Yachad/NJCD very much relate to these families and the challenges they experience,” he said.

While the organization provides the support groups to help alleviate some of the stress for parents, Yachad/NJCD also runs an array of other programs such as North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) in February, which aims to educate Jewish communities nationwide to the challenges these families face and to the benefits of including everyone in the Jewish community, he said.

Another division of Yachad/NJCD, called Our Way, for the deaf and hard of hearing, works to promote inclusion of Jewish deaf and their families into the larger Jewish community. (See box above.) The Association of Parents of Jewish Deaf Children provides support groups for families and helps them find Jewish schools, camps, and community programs, said Batya Jacob, the national program director of Our Way.

“Each year, we have workshops for parents on various topics such as peer pressure or bullying, as well as an annual Shabbaton for families with deaf or hard of hearing members,” said Jacob. “The programs are interpreted into American Sign Language as well as oral interpretation.”

While participants of such programs say they learn a great deal from the facilitators and from one another about navigating their way through the educational and social services maze, one of the biggest benefits, they say, is that it alleviates their sense of isolation.

“No one else really understands the stress, the constant pressure, the social awkwardness, and the extraordinary effort we must make in order to get through the day,” Rena said.

Lori (not her name), a Teaneck mother of several multiply disabled children, said, “It’s good to connect with other mothers who share the same issues. There’s a lot of empathy and it provides a good social outlet.”

The world at large often seems oblivious to their needs and those of their children, said Rena. “It’s wonderful to have a group of women we can rely on to hold our hands and accept us. There’s no one who can relate to our situation except those of us who are in it.”

 
 

Local runners to raise money for Israel’s Emunah children’s home

A crew of runners from this area is training to go the distance for an Emunah home in Israel.

The young men and women, from Bergen County and beyond, will hit the pavement at the ING Miami Half Marathon on Jan. 31 as part of Team Emunah. They are aiming to raise funds for the Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya for some 220 children (aged 4 to 18) from underprivileged backgrounds whose parents are unable to care for them.

Runners throughout the world descend on Florida annually for the ING Marathon, whose 13.1-mile route takes participants on a tour through Miami.

Elanit Lichtiger of Englewood, chairwoman of Team Emunah, volunteered three summers ago at Bet Elazraki and went back this past summer as a coordinator of the summer program at the home.

Many of the children come from dysfunctional families and need therapy, tutoring, and special attention from counselors and psychologists to help them reach their potential, said Lichtiger.

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Sara Faber, left, and Elanit Lichtiger, are taking part in a half-marathon to raise money for a children’s home in Israel. Courtesy Sara Faber

“We’re not just running a marathon,” said Lichtiger, a freshman at New York University and an avid runner. “We’re helping the children of Bet Elazraki. It’s such a happy place,” she added. “Even though the kids have been through so much, they really enjoy llfe.”

Lichtiger’s ties to Emunah run deep. “My grandmother was president of Emunah years ago,” she said, “and my parents have been very active over the years.”

She’s been training for the run for several months and hopes that each runner will raise at least $3,000 toward the cause. Thus far, the response to the newly formed Team Emunah has been positive, with 20 runners signed up from around New Jersey, New York, Florida, and other Jewish communities around the globe.

Deciding to launch the run-a-thon for the children’s home, she said, was a no-brainer. Lichtiger ran the ING Half Marathon last year and wanted to connect her love of running with her passion for the Emunah home.

She raised the idea of creating a “Team Emunah” to local Emunah leaders and they were enthusiastic, telling her to run with it.

Mindy Stein, national president of Emunah of America, who lives in Teaneck, said she was immediately impressed by the concept of Team Emunah. “Not only are the kids having fun and getting exercise through the run, they are learning about raising money for people who are not as fortunate,” she said.

Bet Elazraki is one of five Emunah homes in Israel. “The parents of many of the children there are on drugs, in jail, or are abusive,” said Stein. “At the home, the children are learning to have a normal life and they are able to learn Jewish values. They feel loved. The kids are getting a future and will be able to become independent members of Israeli society.”

Ronnie Faber, a Teaneck resident and Emunah field representative, added that the young men and women in Team Emunah are demonstrating a high level of commitment through their training for the race and their fund-raising efforts.

“All of them have spent a least a summer working in Bet Elazraki,” she said, “and have come away with the understanding that this is a place that changes children’s lives.”

Many of the runners, she said, are teenagers or college students who have volunteered at Bet Elazraki and want to raise awareness and funds so that it can continue its work successfully in the years to come.

Faber’s daughter, Sara, a senior at the Frisch School in Paramus, is on Team Emunah. She spent the last two summers volunteering at the children’s home and hopes to run the race, she said, as a way of showing her support for the children.

“This home is very dear to my heart. I have gotten to know these kids in a special way,” said Sara.

On her first night at the home, Sara said, she was tucking the children into bed when a 6-year-old girl began to cry.

“She needed some attention and TLC in order to fall asleep,” Sara recalled. “These kids all have different needs, but each of them needs love and care.”

She dreams of raising enough money someday to build them a swimming pool. “In the summer, it gets extremely hot in that part of Israel,” she noted, “and the kids love to spend time in the water.”

She has never run a marathon and is not sure how fast she will trek, having recently undergone orthopedic surgery, but she is determined to make it to the finish line, she said.

Anyone of any age is welcome to join the team, Lichtiger said, by registering on the Emunah website. Once participants sign up, they receive training calendars, nutritional advice, workshops, and support for the run.

 
 
 
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