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Joel Pitkowsky: Opportunities and challenges

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 23 September 2011
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Cong. Beth Sholom — a Conservative synagogue in Teaneck headed for three decades by Rabbi Kenneth Berger, now rabbi emeritus — recently welcomed Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, most recently religious leader of Cong. Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass.

Pitkowsky is the third full-time rabbi to serve the Teaneck synagogue since it was founded 60 years ago. Born and raised in Fair Lawn, he held his first service at Beth Sholom on Aug. 5, after serving for eight years at the Massachusetts synagogue. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, he is one of only several dozen Conservative rabbis certified to write gittin, or Jewish divorce documents.

The rabbi, who arrived here with his wife, Ingrid, and children Jonah (10) and Lili (8), said he is “trying to adjust to the move, to the [children’s] schools, and to life in Teaneck.” Ingrid will be teaching kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.

His is an unusual synagogue, because it includes as congregants a number of the very JTS faculty members who were his own teachers.

“They’ve been very supportive — wonderful and kind,” he said. “It’s clear that they are here to be supportive members of the Jewish community, providing whatever resources they can. I’m thrilled to have them.”

Far from feeling daunted, he said, “I feel I need to do my best to have something to teach everyone in the community — including my teachers.”

Pitkowsky said Beth Sholom is similar to his last congregation, in that they “both have a committed group of laypeople.” Still, he said, “There’s more of everything here. Larger regular Shabbat attendance; a larger number of other synagogues. I’m not used to it. There’s so much more Jewish culture.”

While this creates “a wonderfully rich community,” it also creates “an open market,” he said.

“We are in a strong position to help in building bridges to other synagogues in the community, to help explain what Conservative Judaism means, and to work together toward furthering common goals and interests.”

The rabbi said the synagogue has handled the transition from one rabbi to another “wonderfully.”

Berger served for 30 years, deeply affecting all aspects of the synagogue, Pitkowsky said, adding, “My role is to figure out where the shul is now and where we need to be in the future, building on the foundation he set.”

The 400-member-unit synagogue has a wide age range, he noted, with members ranging from people in their 20s to their 90s. There also are many children, he said “the vast majority” of whom go to day school.

The shul’s merger four years ago with Cong. Beth Israel in Bergenfield brought a religious school to the Teaneck congregation. “It’s now our religious school,” he said. “We’re pushing hard to have it be the best it can, so we can provide the best education in different settings.”

Pitkowsky is excited to arrive at the synagogue as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.

“I feel we have built a wonderful foundation of learning, commitment to Jewish life, and prayer, and [can now] take it into the next 60 years,” he said.

Among his duties, he said, he will “care for the religious, spiritual, and Jewish life of every member of the community, providing pastoral care, teaching classes, and helping to organize all the synagogue’s educational programs.” He will also teach occasionally in the religious school.

The synagogue has alternative minyanim each week, he said, adding that in addition to leading the sanctuary service, he plans on “having a presence” in each of the other services, as well.

While opportunities abound, there also are challenges.

One challenge is “creating a community that appeals to all different kinds of Conservative Jews,” he said. For example, if a family is shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant], sending their children to day school and Jewish summer camps, that family should be as comfortable in the shul as a family whose children attend public school and receive supplementary religious education.

“My goal is to create an environment where people feel personally connected to the community, seeing how Judaism can enrich their lives and how a committed Jewish community can enrich the greater community. The mission of the synagogue is to be a vehicle for personal and communal growth,” he said.

“I’m privileged to be in a community where so many people care about what happens here, about the Jewish community, and about the broader community. We can really make a positive impact on the world around us. That’s something I want to help foster.”

 
 

No ‘Kisses’ in this shul

Teaneck shul joins town’s fair trade effort

When a congregant approached Joel Pitkowsky in December suggesting that he consider replacing the Hershey’s Kisses distributed to children after Shabbat services, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck took the suggestion quite seriously.

“Hershey’s is kosher, self-contained, and easy to distribute,” said Pitkowsky. “But she told me about the company not wanting to get on board with fair trade.”

“I noticed the rabbi handing out Hershey’s Kisses,” said Marcia Minuskin, the congregant who brought the issue to the rabbi’s attention. “They’re easily recognizable. I told him about the issue and he said to send him the information.”

Minuskin said she learned of the Hershey’s situation from the group Green America, which has been urging companies that make chocolates to buy from plantations that use fair trade practices and are socially responsible — avoiding both child labor and slave labor.

Compiling “scorecards” for each chocolate company, they awarded Hershey’s a failing grade, noting that much of its cocoa comes from West Africa, “a region plagued by forced labor, human trafficking, and abusive child labor. Hershey does not have a system in place to ensure that its cocoa purchased from this region is not tainted by labor rights abuses.”

“They decided to ask Hershey’s to step up their game and reveal where they get their chocolate from,” said Minuskin. “So far, Hershey’s has refused.”

After reviewing this information, Pitkowsky began to do some research of his own, consulting synagogue member Dennis Klein, who several years ago organized Teaneck’s fair trade steering committee.

The educational and advocacy efforts of that group, whose initial members included Teaneck business owners Tim Strunk of Tiger Lily flowers and Bruce Prince, owner of the Teaneck General Store and a member of Beth Sholom, led to Teaneck’s being named, in October 2010, a fair trade town — one of 21 towns in the United States to have that designation. Signs proudly proclaiming that can be seen at Teaneck exits on Route 4.

To win that title, a specific number of businesses and community organizations, depending upon a municipality’s population, must agree to sell or make available at least two fair trade products. According to Prince, eight Teaneck businesses have signed up so far.

“I asked [Klein] for a website to look at that had things for sale, as opposed to just theory,” said Pitkowsky. “He directed me to EqualExchange.com, which partners with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).”

That partnership, begun in 2010, enables “congregations, community organizations, and individuals to buy top-quality coffee beans and chocolate while supporting the efforts of small growers and co-operatives in the developing world,” said the AJWS statement announcing the new venture.

At the Equal Exchange website, Pitkowsky found “tiny little chocolate bars we could buy in bulk.” Checking the kashrut of the product took a bit longer, since the product has a German hechsher and the rabbi needed to find his way around a second website, this one in German.

“I bought a box and was thrilled to be able to say we are trying to do our part,” he said, noting that the synagogue already uses fair trade coffee and is looking into tea. “We’re trying to show that Judaism, and Conservative Judaism, care not only about ritual and morals, but about everything we should care about — like workers and the environment. We’re trying to make it a reality, no pun intended, in small bites.”

Pitkowsky said that, in addition to Klein and Prince, the members of his synagogue demonstrate “real sensitivity to caring about the world outside of Teaneck.” The shul has inaugurated a recycling program, something he had discussed with the social action committee, and — if possible, said the rabbi — he would love to see the synagogue connect with providers of kosher, free-range beef.

“We’re making a concerted effort to green the synagogue,” he said.

Pitkowsky pointed out that one problem with the new chocolate is its relatively high cost, since a box of 150 bars costs $24, while Hershey’s is much less expensive. He is hopeful, however, that the synagogue will look upon the use of the fair trade chocolate as a way to express its Jewish values, “on Shabbat or at any time.”

“As Jews, we’re supposed to care deeply for the environment and for a safe working environment,” he said. “This is a way to do that. If people care enough, it’s possible to make the switch or to do it in some way that supports people engaged in fair work practices. There was a time when we didn’t know about the work environment for people overseas,” he said. “But it’s out there now. We can’t ignore it.”

According to Prince, Fair Trade USA provides a kind of “hashgachah for human rights,” documenting the manufacturing practices of third-world countries with a track record of abusive labor relations.

The nonprofit group, says its website, uses “a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices, workers safe conditions, and entire communities resources for fair, healthy, and sustainable lives. We seek to inspire the rise of the conscious consumer and eliminate exploitation.”

Prince challenged the “fallacy” that fair trade products are necessarily more expensive. “The market determines value,” he said. If coffee costs more at some stores that use fair trade beans, “It is because people are willing to pay more for a higher-quality product.”

 
 
 
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