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entries tagged with: Rabbi Neal Borovitz


Paul Fishman named state’s new U.S. attorney

Paul Fishman was sworn in as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey on Monday.

When Paul Joseph Fishman was sworn in as New Jersey’s 54th U.S. attorney on Monday, his speech included allusions to how Judaism shaped his sense of justice.

The 52-year-old Fishman grew up attending Temple Sholom, now Temple Avodat Shalom, in River Edge. Rabbi Neal Borovitz, who attended the swearing-in ceremony at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, has a 22-year-long relationship with New Jersey’s new top prosecutor and he noted the impact Judaism has had on Fishman.

“His passion for social justice very clearly comes out of his Jewish background,” the rabbi said. “We’re very blessed to have a person like this who has a passion for justice. He stressed a sense of the responsibility of administering justice justly.”

Fishman, who now lives in Montclair with his wife, Lynn, and their sons, Noah and Ian, still attends Avodat Shalom on the holidays with his family. His father, the late Myer Fishman, was a past president of the synagogue, and his mother, Gloria Fishman, formerly worked at the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township.

President Obama nominated Fishman in June and the Senate confirmed him in October. More than 500 people attended Monday’s ceremony, making it the largest ever for the swearing in of a U.S. attorney. Guests included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Sens. Bob Mendendez and Frank Lautenberg, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.


DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted

For Andrea DeVries, Mother’s Day is forever etched into her mind as the day her youngest son was killed in a traffic accident.

Twenty-four-year-old Daniel DeVries was engaged and working in human resources at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus. He had graduated a year earlier from Monmouth University and lived with his parents, Andrea and Roger, in their Paramus home near the Ridgewood border. On Mother’s Day 2008, he was crossing the intersection of Maple and Ridgewood avenues when he was struck by a driver making a left turn. He was killed almost instantly.

The only charge brought against the driver was failure to yield to a pedestrian. There was no investigation into whether he had been intoxicated or operating a cell phone at the time of the accident, according to Andrea DeVries. The driver paid $300 in fines and had his license temporarily suspended, but DeVries said she felt justice had been eluded.

“We were just flabbergasted,” DeVries told The Jewish Standard earlier this week. “We were outraged. We were just shocked that this could just happen, especially after we read the witnesses’ accounts.”

Andrea DeVries and her son Daniel, who was killed while in a Ridgewood pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008.

Since then, DeVries has been on a crusade to promote pedestrian safety and seek harsher penalties for motorists who drive and talk on their cell phones.

Last year, she attended a legislative breakfast at her synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. Her rabbi, Neal Borovitz, invited her to ask the speakers, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and a proxy for her then-rival for lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, about the case.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, who represents Paramus and sits on the state’s transportation committee, was in the audience. At her invitation, DeVries testified before the Assembly in January as it considered a bill increasing fines for those drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians.

“It made that bill come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The bill passed the legislature and Gov. Jon Corzine signed it as one of his final acts in office. The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian.

“It was a baby step,” she said of the legislation.

On average, 150 New Jersey pedestrians die each year in traffic accidents, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. And for each fatality, two more are injured. New Jersey began counting the number of crashes associated with cell phones in June 2001. In 2004, the state banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. In 2008, the state made texting while driving illegal.

In 2008, the state recorded 1,821 hand-held cell phone-related crashes and 1,383 hands-free cell phone-related crashes. With 159, Bergen County had the third highest number of hands-free crashes that year. Essex County recorded the highest with 380 and Hudson County the second highest with 310. Essex also led the number of hand-held related crashes with 252, while Bergen registered 149. Hudson recorded 102.

“Pedestrian deaths are an epidemic in New Jersey,” DeVries said. “Drivers are not being held responsible. Drivers are more and more distracted by technology.”

According to, a Website set up by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are three main types of driver distraction: visual, taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off what you are doing.

Texting is the most alarming distraction, according to the site, because it involves all three types of distraction.

“I don’t know whether adults realize this,” said Elana Flaumenhaft, assistant principal at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, but “a student can have a cell phone in her pocket, look you in the face, and text the entire time with her thumb. Because they can do that, they don’t see what the issue is.”

None of the three yeshiva high schools in Bergen County offer drivers’ education. At Ma’ayanot, however, the senior class each year is witness to a presentation on the dangers of drunk driving.

Texting while driving should be addressed as well, said Ruth Wang Birnbaum, assistant principal for academic affairs at Ma’ayanot. She pointed to statistics that show that texting while driving is as dangerous as drinking while driving.

“It’s not an issue of your hands being free, it’s an issue of you being distracted,” she said. Hands-free devices, she continued, are “irrelevant.”

An estimated 515,000 people were injured and 5,870 people were killed nationwide in 2008 in police-reported crashes in which at least one driver distraction was reported, according to According to the National Safety Council, at least 1.4 million crashes nationwide are caused by drivers talking on cell phones, while at least 200,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are texting.

According to statistics from the University of Utah posted on, using a cell phone while driving, whether hands-free or not, affects a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08, the legal limit. Carnegie Mellon University found that driving while using a cell phone results in a reduction of 37 percent in the amount of brain activity associated with driving, while a Virginia Tech study found that 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some type of distraction.

Drivers using hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes that result in injury, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

During the past 23 months, according to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, police issued 224,725 citations — an average of more than 9,000 a month — to drivers violating the state’s cell-phone laws.

“We are making progress in our efforts to ensure that all motorists are aware of the consequences they face if they choose to talk on a cell phone or text while driving,” said Pam Fischer, director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety in a statement on Wednesday. “Any cell-phone conversation while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, is distracting and dangerous and can result in crashes, injuries, and in some cases the loss of life.”

Teaneck Police Chief Robert Wilson said his department has been targeting cell-phone usage since the second half of last year. New Jersey, he noted, has a very high rate of seatbelt usage because of high rates of enforcement.

“Hopefully we’ll get the same effect [for cell-phone usage] as seatbelt usage,” he said.

Teaneck’s Lt. Robert Carney does not see cell-phone usage increasing among drivers but he does not see the problem abating until the state punishes violators with points on their licenses.

“People seem to believe if they put [a cell phone] on speakerphone while still holding it, it’s hands-free,” he said.

The man who struck and killed Daniel DeVries will never return to trial or face stiffer punishment than the handful of fines he has already paid. Andrea DeVries’ personal quest for justice is over, but she continues fighting to prevent others from having to share her nightmare. Through Weinberg, DeVries has been in touch with the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, which does pro bono work to promote victims’ rights, in order to help others get the justice she feels she never received.

“The only thing I can do now is try to prevent this from happening to other people,” she said. “When you get behind the wheel of a car it can be a deadly weapon if it’s not operated properly.”

Freedom carries responsibility under Jewish law, said Avodat Shalom’s Borovitz. Drivers need greater accountability under the law. (See also Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer’s column.)

“The Jewish idea of freedom emphasized throughout the Torah is freedom under law,” Borovitz said. “We have to have rules where we recognize every human being is created in the image of God and has value and therefore we have to be accountable for our actions.”

He pointed to strict laws in Massachusetts and California that stop traffic when pedestrians enter crosswalks. In April, state law will change regarding pedestrians and crosswalks, a result of another last-minute Corzine act. The new law will require motorists to come to a complete stop for pedestrians in crosswalks instead of just yielding to them.

“Nothing can be done to bring back the pure and wonderful soul that was Danny DeVries,” Borovitz said, “but there should be something to make sure there aren’t more victims like Danny.”


Reform shuls to focus on Haiti during joint Tisha B’Av service

Six Reform congregations will join forces July 19 to mark Tisha B’Av, the ancient Jewish day of mourning, and raise awareness of the continuing crisis in Haiti as the country struggles to rebuild after January’s devastating earthquake.

The program marks the second year the Reform congregations have come together for Tisha B’Av. Because the holiday usually falls in the middle of the summer, it is largely observed within the Reform movement only in summer camps. Temple Sinai of Bergen County will host the program, co-organized by Temples Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter, Emeth of Teaneck, and Congs. Beth Am of Teaneck and Beth Or of Washington Township.

“Tisha B’Av is the memorial day on the Jewish calendar when we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, and the overall theme of suffering and coping with suffering is so important on that day,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein. “We thought it’d be important to find a connection to today.”

Sinai, Avodat Shalom, Beth Am of Teaneck, Temple Beth El, and Beth Or last year related Tisha B’Av to the Second Lebanon War.

“Tisha B’Av is about human choices,” said Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Neal Borovitz. “The message and the tie-in to contemporary tragic issues of death and destruction is: How do we make the memory of those moments teaching opportunities so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?”

The Haiti component will feature John Coppolino, co-founder of Sending Our Love to Haiti, a coalition of synagogues, churches, and individuals in northern New Jersey that works to raise money and awareness; Samuel Davis, president and founder of the Burn Advocates Network Ltd., which aids burn survivors; Thomas Bojko, senior vice chair of clinical affairs of the Department of Pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Temple Sinai member Caren Zucker, a producer for ABC news programs who went to Haiti with her 13-year-old son Jonah through the organization Operation Blessing.

“Just as last summer people weren’t thinking about the Second Lebanon War and the ongoing trauma that Israeli families affected by that war were having and continue to have, we felt that this year the tragedy of Haiti is out of sight and out of mind,” Borovitz said. “There’s still a terrible tragedy going on there.”

Haiti is not just a natural disaster but also a political one, Borovitz continued. Rebuilding Haiti requires the political will and economic support of the world, he said, adding that while Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, it also ushers in a season of hope.

“It’s the turning point of the year when we start to focus on the hope of Rosh HaShanah,” he said. “The despair of Tisha B’Av requires us to take action. It’s not just to pray to God for help but to act as if it depends on us — because it does. Prayer and action have to come together.”

After the speakers, rabbis and cantors of the six synagogues will chant passages of the Book of Lamentations, which tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem.

When Millstein first came to Temple Sinai two years ago, the congregation did not observe Tisha B’Av. Last year, he and Borovitz began planning for a joint observance.

“We decided that evening that we were going to make this a tradition of the Reform synagogues of Bergen County,” Borovitz said.

Temple Emeth is new to the joint ceremony this year, but, Rabbi Steven Sirbu pointed out, the synagogue has participated in Tisha B’Av services around the area for five years.

“Because Tisha B’Av is not ideologically a strong part of the Reform calendar, we were there much more to learn than to be full collaborative partners,” he said. “We can all struggle with and reinterpret Tisha B’Av together as part of the Reform tradition. Reform Jews at heart don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple as a means to pray for its rebuilding. Therefore, the way that we mourn that destruction is very different.”

Reform Jews look to the future for the restoration of the Jewish people, Sirbu continued, and the Temple is not a model for that future.

Millstein first experienced Tisha B’Av at summer camp in the 1970s. At each of the three synagogues where he has worked, he has introduced the observance and, he believes, it has lasted. Though the day was not observed early on in the Reform movement, he said, it provides an opportunity for a creative and meaningful connection to Jewish tradition.

“This is really one observance where no Reform synagogue can go it alone and have a really meaningful program,” Sirbu said. “We need each other to do Tisha B’Av in a way that will really speak to people.”

The program, which is open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (201) 568-3035.


Israeli Consul Gil Lainer makes his country’s case at JCRC meeting

Optimism, underlined by caution, was the message Monday night as Gil Lainer, consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York, spoke of the prospects for peace in the Mideast and the challenges facing the Israelis and Palestinians in the quest for an accord.

Lainer, a career diplomat who has held postings in Africa and the United States, addressed a rapt meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at the federation’s Paramus headquarters.

Going beyond headlines and sound bites, Lainer told of behind-the-scenes work done by Israelis to help developing countries. He cited the rapid response of medical teams to the recent earthquake devastation in Haiti, where Israel established a field hospital even before U.S. aid arrived.

He noted that Israel sent a 747 loaded with supplies even before it was known that the plane could land in Haiti.

Gil Lainer, Israel’s consul for public diplomacy in New York, sees signs of hope on Mideast peace. Charles Zusman

Lainer quoted from Monday’s speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres at the U.N. Millenium Development Goals Summit, where Peres noted the progress Israel has made in development, particularly in food production.

Five decades ago an Israeli farmer produced food for 15 people, but today produces enough for 120, Peres said. Peres’s message was that education and diligence lead to growth and peace, and this can work for countries around the world.

“We have so much to offer the world in so many areas,” Lainer said. Israel has been helping those in developing countries, notably Africa, for more than 50 years, he noted. Its experts have been training others, both as visitors to Israel and in their own countries, in fields such as medicine, education, agriculture, and fishery.

“We have been dealing with tikkun olam as a country for decades,” he said. But, he said, while not out to score points, Israel does not get the credit for its good works.

“We don’t ask anything in return,” he said. “We do what we do because it’s our role to give to the world, as Jews, as Israelis.”

Turning to the Palestinian issue, he cited statistics showing 9 percent GDP growth for the first half of 2010 in the west bank, where trade is blossoming and infrastructure projects are steaming ahead. While budget problems remain in the west bank, the Arab countries have not done their fair share to help out, he said.

The “numbers are amazing,” Lainer said, noting the statistics come from international, not Israeli, sources. He said they show increasing trade with Israel for the last four years, growth in tourism, and less unemployment.

“On the ground you can see the improvement, but we don’t get the international recognition I think we should get for that,” he said.

While Gaza is more problematic, being under the control of Hamas, the region still has had a 16 percent GDP growth for the period.

Concerning Gaza, he said the policy remains one of containment, but there is a much freer flow of goods into the area than before. While in the past there was a list of only what could go through, now the much shorter list just says what can’t, notably weapons.

Even cars are now legally imported, where before they were smuggled in, he said. This is hurting Hamas, which used to profit from the illegal trade, Lainer said.

On the peace talks, “there are serious people on both sides,” but serious compromises must be made. “The process has started again, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

He pointed to reports that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had dined at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu’s house. “When you read more about what they ate than what they talked about, that’s a good sign,” he said.

He acknowledged that easing travel has brought more terror attacks, but also said that the security barrier is working and better training and enforcement by Palestinian police are having their effect.

Key, he said, is the realization by the Palestinians that peace is the only viable way forward. Palestinian Authority President Abbas is a hard-liner, but he is making a genuine effort toward peace, Lainer said.

On the negative side, the fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, is still unknown, and rocket attacks from Gaza have not stopped. “I haven’t seen any international condemnation of this,” he said.

Iran remains a threat, not only to Israel, but to the region and the world, he said. “We should not take our eyes off the ball,” he said. “A nuclear Iran is a threat to everyone.”

Israel would like to see stronger sanctions against Iran and condemnation from the world community, he said. Iran is keeping the pressure on Israel through its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, he said. “It’s a challenge to break that link,” he said.

In response to a question, Lainer critcized Russia’s decision to sell cruise missiles to Syria, particularly since Russia has been playing a role in the Mideast peace process. “This is a serious development we’re very unhappy about,” he said.

Concerning Shalit, Lainer said his fate remains a painful issue for Israel. He hoped further negotiations and progress on peace in general would lead to a resolution.

Asked about the U.S. sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Lainer said Arab fears in the Mideast were focused on Iran, not Israel.

Lainer concluded his talk, which stretched for more than an hour, with a plea for help on the public relations front.

“We rely on you to get the word out” on the positive role Israel plays in the world, he said.

That message was seconded by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, JCRC chairman. “Our job is to get the message out,” he said. “Fighting for the hearts and minds of the public is our responsibility.”


What do we do when we disagree?

Wedding announcement controversy leads to communal soul-searching


The viral controversy surrounding The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement last month — and then deciding, one week later, not to do it again — caught publisher James Janoff off guard.

“I expected that there would be people who agreed and people who didn’t,” he said, “but I was unprepared for the volume, and passion, of the responses.”

“Maybe I was naïve,” said Janoff, who noted that while the paper has weathered many storms throughout its 80-year history, he has never seen one of this intensity.

But exactly what transpired, and what it means for the community, depends on who you ask.

Avi Smolen, who grew up in Ridgewood and whose same-sex wedding announcement appeared on Sept. 24, said he, too, was surprised by the barrage of media coverage the issue has received.

“We (Smolen and his partner, Justin Rosen) submitted our announcement to share the simcha with the community and we were happy it was published,” he said. “The follow-up decision not to publish (other announcements) was frustrating, and somehow the greater media picked up on the story and it has been everywhere in the news. We didn’t expect this.”

Smolen, communications and development associate at Keren Or Inc., Greater New York, said he didn’t really think much about submitting the announcement “because it was so accepted in our community; we didn’t think it was a big deal.”

He noted that recent communal meetings to discuss the ongoing controversy are of value, but said that members of the gay community should be invited.

It’s important, he said, “so that they can be part of the conversation and so it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There needs to be frank and open discussions so people can share their concerns and feelings.” In addition, he said, meetings should be “less about rhetoric and more about problem-solving.”

Smolen suggested that the strength of the uproar was at least partially a matter of timing.

“The previous two weeks, there were a number of suicides by young gay people that got attention, and that was a counterpoint to the announcement about celebrating our union. People really connected those two incidents and thought it was important to speak out.”

He said he can respect the position of those who do not support same-sex wedding announcements, but noted that he “does not agree with tactics to prevent them from being seen. In a way it’s comical,” he said. “The desire to marginalize [the issue] has made it larger than ever.”

“In a sense, I’m glad that this has occurred and I hope people will continue to talk about this,” he said. Being “pushed out of their comfort zone” may prompt diverse groups to deal with the issues and find a solution.

“I hope they will recognize that people with different beliefs and practices exist, and find a way to grow and unite.”

Looking back at what has occurred over the past several weeks, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and first vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said, “The problem emerged when the Standard underestimated the importance and sensitivity of this issue to the Orthodox community.”

Goldin telephoned the Standard following publication of the wedding announcement to “alert [the newspaper] to those sensitivities.” Janoff recalled that the rabbi said he had been in touch with Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Following several calls, the Standard printed a statement saying it would not publish such announcements in the future. Rebecca Boroson, the Standard’s editor, characterized the conversations with Goldin — in which the editors, publisher, and associate publisher took part — as “intense.” “He repeatedly told us that the paper had caused pain in the Orthodox community,” she added, “and that we had ‘crossed a red line.’”

The backlash resulting from the Standard’s about-face goes beyond the current controversy, said Goldin.

“The Orthodox community is involved in an ongoing struggle to determine how to live with the tension between two fundamental principles that have to guide our approach to the gay community,” Goldin said.

On one hand, the movement seeks to “respect all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation,” recognizing in particular “the personal struggles of those who belong to the gay community and want to continue identifying as committed Jews.”

On the other hand, the Orthodox movement must maintain “its allegiance to Torah law, which strongly prohibits same-sex unions.”

Goldin spoke of “the overwhelming animosity and resentment displayed toward the Orthodox community and rabbinate of Bergen County in particular” in the aftermath of the announcement.

“Gross misrepresentations have been accepted as fact,” he said. “The fact is that the RCBC had no official response” to the incident. “To say that the group threatened organized activity is an outright lie.”

He suggested as well that the issue of homosexuality “has become the civil rights issue of the era.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has issues and red lines,” he said. “I sometimes feel that because the Orthodox position is not the automatically popular position in the society in which we find ourselves — it’s easier to argue for inclusiveness than for certain limits — in a knee-jerk fashion the Orthodox are judged in a negative way without giving credence to our right to hold our positions.”

Susie Charendoff, who belongs to an Orthodox congregation in Englewood and has been a participant in recent discussions, said the most troubling aspect of the recent events was that in declaring that it would cease running same-sex announcements — citing offense to the Orthodox community — the Standard “only recognized the pain of one community on an issue that is sensitive across the board.”

“I think the Orthodox community is more complex than [the way] it is often characterized,” she said, highlighting the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” circulated this summer and signed by more than 100 Orthodox leaders.

Written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot — who has just become rabbi of Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom and is chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — the piece was widely hailed as a progressive document within the movement.

“It was really a thoughtful piece on the part of the Orthodox community,” said Charendoff. “It attempted to be as welcoming as possible to same-sex couples despite the fact that [same-sex marriage] is antithetical to the Orthodox position. It reached out as far as it could within that framework.”

Charendoff said the “content and tone of that document is a voice that needs to be heard in the current discussion. While it doesn’t solve the issue, it changes the tenor of what’s going on. I’m disturbed by the assumption that the Orthodox don’t recognize the complexity of this issue.”

Describing the communal flap as “a controversy that is testing the boundaries of pluralism and inclusiveness within the Bergen County Jewish community,” Rabbi Adina Lewittes, religious leader of Sha’ar Communities, said the country is seeing a “ruthless physical, political, and social backlash” against the gay and lesbian community.

Lewittes — who describes her organization as “a suburban network of small, inclusive, and accessible Jewish communities connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance” — said that, given media reports about gay youths who committed suicide or were physically attacked, the paper “should have had the foresight and courage to respond to the resistance of the Orthodox in a way that sends the message that there is a home for everyone in the Jewish community.”

Still, she added, “the fundamental issue here is a matter of journalistic process and integrity…. Many people do not see this as a complicated issue or something needing conflict resolution.”

Front and center, she said, “is the flip-flopping” by the Standard “and the privileging of one group over another. This is a clear breach of journalistic responsibility, particularly given the self-stated goals of [the paper].”

The best-case scenario, she said, would be for the Standard “to acknowledge that it failed to adhere to its mission and steer itself back on course.”

Noting the mission of her own organization, “to enter Judaism through multiple gateways,” Lewittes said community dialogue will be useful only to the extent that it “acknowledges the many lenses through which different Jewish communities look at both Judaism and the broader world in which they live and what the different relationships between the two look like.”

She decried “tying your own legitimacy and integrity to what someone else might believe or think. We don’t need to achieve consensus,” she said. “Sure, it would be great,” but all parties to a discussion would inevitably want their positions to be adopted.

“To achieve consensus on matters of halachah or politics is not the goal here,” she said. “If anything, we have such a rich heritage because of the diversity” that has characterized the community. “What’s needed is an environment of respect for multiple understandings” of Judaism.

Lewittes added that those who call for pluralism also need to be wary of denying the presence of any particular community.

“We need to be inclusive of all voices,” she said, even those with whom we disagree.

Lewittes said that with respect to community process and lasting lessons, we should heed the words of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a seminal figure in modern Orthodoxy. “Rav Soloveitchik’s insight on how kedushah/holiness is found not in the neat and tidy resolutions to conflict but in the very paradox of the often conflicting and contradictory elements of our makeup, is most relevant,” she noted. “Our ability to hold together the different and disparate pieces of who we are as a community in a singular, pluralistic embrace is what will transform us into a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and is what we might model to other communities facing similar struggles.”

Rabbi David J. Fine believes strongly in the power of dialogue.

The religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood — the Smolens’ synagogue and the shul in which the gay couple celebrated one of their two aufrufs — said it would be an “easy out” to conclude that we are not one Jewish community but rather several disparate groups.

“Dialogue is one of the essences of how we do Judaism,” he said. “We learn from rabbinic tradition to honor and respect views we don’t agree with, to have a respectful discourse. We can only be one by listening to each other.”

Acknowledging that “tensions are coming to the boiling point,” Fine said the wedding announcement controversy has simply highlighted fissures in the community, particularly the fault line between the Conservative and modern Orthodox movements.

“We’re much more similar than we pretend to be,” said Fine, adding that both movements “look over their shoulder” when making halachic decisions.

“We’re the only two groups who believe that we have a place in the modern world but [adhere] to a normative halachic tradition,” he said. “It’s so hard to acknowledge sharing that space with the other,” he added. “It’s threatening because we’re so similar.”

Fine said the current flap is about much more than the wedding announcement.

“It’s about our own identities and who we are,” he said. “We’re not just arguing a specific issue but our specific identity.”

The rabbi said that not only is talking to one another “the only way to understand each other, but I determine how I articulate where I’m coming from by talking to someone who doesn’t agree with me.”

This is something every rabbi deals with, he said, noting, “We don’t want to preach to the choir.”

Fine said he doesn’t know why rabbis get so excited about the issue of gay marriage.

“Gay and lesbian Jews are just like everyone else,” he said. “Their private lives are different, but I don’t know why it animates people so much. Part of it may be generational.” He added that the position is likely to change as same-sex couples become more accepted in the wider society.

“The real issue is Jewish identity and questions of authenticity and different forms of Judaism, between liberal and traditional Judaism,” he said, pointing out that this division was apparent in the diaspora uproar over the Rotem bill — which proposed giving the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield has discussed the announcement controversy with people from many different communities “and their responses involve total incredulousness — the inability to grasp how in 2010 a small segment of the Jewish community can exert so much influence over a paper about something that so many people consider a normative thing in Jewish life — the inclusion of the LGBT community.”

Greenfield, religious leader of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, pointed out that Monday was National Coming Out Day, created to raise awareness, end discrimination against the LGBT community, and encourage LGBT people to be proud of who they are.

“It’s much wider than a newspaper issue,” she said. “It’s about how Jews and all of the institutions that represent us make decisions about who’s in and who’s out.”

“[Being LGBT] is a non-issue from my community’s perspective,” she said, calling opposition to same-sex wedding announcements “a retrograde perspective on contemporary life. Most of the Jews I work with already live in a context where they have one foot in tradition and one foot in contemporary life.”

“Being a Jew today is about drawing from both [contexts],” she said. “LGBT inclusion is not a problem of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ influences, but about integrating religious life with contemporary times.”

Greenfield said the issue of gay equality is not a “hot-button” topic from the perspective of most Jews. She noted also a distinction between Torah laws concerning issues such as kashrut and adultery and those pertaining to “human beings created in the image of God.”

“The distinction is that this issue is about human beings and their inherent nature. At the heart of the matter, it’s not about a behavior, or a sin, or a choice. That’s why it is not as black and white” as issues such as advertising events that take place on Shabbat.

The rabbi said that if there were firm commitments on both sides to have regular meetings “in which to learn about and from each other,” in the long term the different groups would come to better understand one another.

“No one has a strong hold on what constitutes legitimate Jewish identity,” she said. “Jewish identity is continually evolving. [It] has always changed and adapted within the various civilizations where Jews have lived. It’s not a matter of religious purity versus secular deviance.”

Greenfield said people gain respect through human contact rather than through antipathy expressed in the media.

“It’s impossible to overvalue the importance of human interaction,” she said. “We want to welcome Orthodox leaders into the circle.”

The rabbi suggested a possible “trade.”

Ideally, she said, “I would have all non-Orthodox Jewish leaders commit to condemning Orthodox-bashing in exchange for the Orthodox understanding that they are not the sole arbiters of authentic Judaism.”

Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Shomrei Torah in Wayne and head of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, to which no Orthodox rabbis belong, said the community rift is not a secret, nor is it unique to northern New Jersey.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last decade is that rabbinical groups rarely sit together anymore. There are times and places where the two communities easily coexist, but sometimes they bump up against each other.”

Mark did note that during his first year as president of the NJBR, he has had several conversations with the RCBC’s Rothwachs.

“The two of us were cognizant of the fact that our rabbinic communities are diverse, and we felt it important at least to have the ability to communicate,” he said. “My hope has always been to find places of agreement and ultimately work together.”

The NJBR president said that homosexuality in religious life is one of the most difficult social issues of the day for American religious communities.

“Religious groups have a long history of intolerance” on this issue, he said.

He suggested that strong feelings have resulted from the fact that the matter “deals with people and not just issues and because in issues concerning human sexuality, people will often react on an emotional level.”

He noted as well that the issue transcends the newspaper because “The Jewish Standard strives to be a community newspaper … and we are a very diverse community.”

“Any constituent group has the right to respond” to something with which he or she disagrees, he added, suggesting that appropriate responses include letter-writing and/or requesting meetings with the leadership of the paper.

“I’m pleased that they’re willing to sit down and listen,” he said of the Standard staff, which recently participated in a meeting of rabbis and communal leaders. The gathering, held last Thursday at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, was hosted by the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and was devoted specifically to the controversy.

“The newspaper, as an independent entity, has the editorial freedom to decide what it will or will not include,” said Mark. “Ultimately, people will decide if they’re happy or unhappy.”

Other Voices

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, wants to use the current conflict as a teachable moment.

“I want to convene a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Forum to continue the discussion about how we, as a diverse Jewish community, can learn to live together and work better together,” said Borovitz following last week’s meeting in Closter.

The rabbi said he believes firmly in the principle of a free press and expects the Standard to decide how it will respond “to all the simchas in our community,” with the hope that the paper will be “sensitive, responsive, and supportive of the diversity that exists in our northern New Jersey Jewish community.”

He noted other instances where the paper had provided equal access to conflicting views.

“When I disagreed with [Standard columnist Rabbi Shmuley] Boteach on the settlement issue, the Standard graciously gave me op-ed space to respond,” he said. “I believe the paper should be a forum for the free and open exchange of ideas, concerns, and information for our broad community.”

Borovitz said he hopes the forum will be a place where opinions “are put on the table,” even if they are not necessarily resolved. “We can agree to be civil in disagreements,” he said.

Charles Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Home Family, affirmed the “right and responsibility of a newspaper to publish news.”

“If you make a decision to put in no simchas,” that’s one thing, he said. “But to decide to put them in for only a certain segment of the community is wrong, regardless of which segment it is.”

Berkowitz said “some of the bright people in the community should sit down and begin to talk about issues we need to deal with, and not put our heads in the sand. No one should impose their will on others.”

He noted, however, that sometimes firm decisions must be made. For example, his organization — which embraces the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living; the Jewish Home Assisted Living, Kaplen Family Senior Residence; the Jewish Home Foundation of North Jersey Inc.; and the Jewish Home & Rehabilitation Center — does not allow people to bring in food from other than accepted vendors to maintain the level of kashrut.

“Some would prefer not to have that,” he said. “But it’s important for people of all religious beliefs to feel welcome here.”

Berkowitz said the fact that he is a social worker is a big help.

“We deal with the issues head on and face to face,” he said. “You don’t sit down in front of cameras but do it quietly and talk to each other.”

Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, said that since the Standard sees itself as the “paper of record for the Jewish community,” the current controversy should be dealt with by the whole community.

“When we face complicated issues, open exchange and dialogue is very helpful,” he said. “Not all parties will agree with all positions, but [when] active listening is happening and points of view are shared, then mutual respect is possible.”

Charish said that the next step, as he understands it, is that “before any further decisions are made,” there will be a series of discussions involving the JCRC, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, rabbis, and other interested parties.

“To me, that is a critical step,” he said.

As executive director of the Kaplen JCC, Avi Lewinson is “surprised and not surprised” that the announcement controversy became so heated.

“It wouldn’t have reached that level if there hadn’t been a retraction so soon after,” he said. While he believes that the Standard’s intentions were good, “they acted too quickly and people felt the paper was taking sides. That fueled the fire.”

Lewinson said that while the JCC has faced differences of opinions — for example, over whether to remain open on Shabbat — the facility, which is closed on Saturday, has never experienced “a firestorm of this size.”

The JCC director pointed out that times do change, and cited the racial discrimination rampant in the 1960s.

“I’m appreciative of the gains we’ve made,” he said, adding that, “personally, I think we should sit down with representatives of different viewpoints and start with the premise that everyone is coming with deeply held beliefs based on principle.” Still, he said, “The goal can’t be that, in the end, you’re in or out 100 percent.”

Lewinson said the community needs to strive for shalom bayit (literally, peace in the home), finding a compromise that will allow both sides to feel that their views have been acknlowledged.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” he said, “but maybe one possibility is not to use the word ‘marriage’ in a same-sex announcement but rather to use the term ‘commitment ceremony.’ The question is, ‘What can we do to find a way so we each feel we’re being heard and our principles and values are being considered?’”

Regarding the controversy, Lewinson said there have been “misquotes on both sides.” Still, he said, he is an eternal optimist and is convinced that the issue will be resolved.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” said Lewinson, who has called the JCRC offering the JCC as a resource for community forums. He noted that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the New York City-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote a book called “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right.” “We’re all part of the Jewish people,” Lewinson said, “and it is important for us to be able to sit and listen to each other with respect.”

For his part, Janoff knows that he has a lot of listening to do. In a statement published on Oct. 8, he wrote that the paper now understands “that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.”

As a result, he said, he is now engaged in meeting with local rabbis and community leaders, understanding that the exchange of views is necessary before the paper issues its final decision.

Wrote Janoff: “We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”


Forum models civility while addressing divisive issues

Local Jewish leaders discuss hot-button issues at the YJCC civility forum. From left are Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Chaya Batya Neugroschl, and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu. Courtesy JCRC

The second of three programs initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to model communal unity was held Jan. 30 at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township.

Called “Are We One?,” it explored “how to foster tolerance and acceptance in the diverse community, especially around the areas of intermarriage, patrilineality, and homosexuality,” said Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and JCRC chairman.

The point of the dialogue, said Joy Kurland, JCRC director, was not just to hash out the issues but to demonstrate that while perspectives might differ, individuals can respect one another’s approach.

Questions drafted by moderator Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, a Teaneck resident who is a faculty member of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, had been distributed to the panelists in advance.

The event, which drew some 100 attendees, was co-sponsored by the JCRC, the YJCC, and the Kehillah Partnership. Panelists included Rabbis Adina Lewittes (Sha’ar Communities, Closter, Conservative); Joshua Finkelstein (religious leader of the egalitarian minyan at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, Conservative); Elyse Frishman (Barnert Temple/Cong. B’nai Jeshurun, Franklin Lakes, Reform); Joel Mosbacher (Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah, Reform); and Nathaniel Helfgot (Cong. Netivot Shalom, Teaneck, Orthodox). Also on the panel was Chaya Batya Neugroschl, head of school, Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Orthodox). The Jewish Standard spoke with them after the event.

Finkelstein suggested that the JCRC program was especially necessary given the existing “zeitgeist” of both the Jewish and secular world. While periods of incivility have existed throughout our nation’s history, he said, “This is the time of the Internet, not just a few people with printing presses. The Internet never goes away.”

The rabbi said that in some ways, “the people at the [session] were self-selected. If they couldn’t talk to each other, they wouldn’t be there.” He noted that during the 16 years he has served as a rabbi in Bergen County, “I’ve never had the sense of [our] not being able to speak with one another,” even while holding differing positions.

Finkelstein said that Neugroschl’s presentation “made me realize that one can disagree while recognizing that people with other views are trying to be true to themselves. When other movements are struggling, we can be understanding.”

He pointed out that the Conservative movement still has issues to resolve in the area of homosexuality and that “Modern Orthodoxy is struggling, too. When you hear someone explain and work through an issue, there’s more that unites us than divides us.”

Neugroschl, a Teaneck resident, said that while the goal of the session was “for the community to hear in a thoughtful manner about some of the significant issues and differences the Jewish community is facing,” it also sought to “put forward a model for the community of people who are deeply committed to resolving or digging deeply into ways of building greater understanding” of the approaches being explored to deal with these issues.

She said she understood “that some of the ways in which communities draw their defining borders are emotionally stressful for anyone on the fringe.”

“These issues are really about that,” she said, and called for “great sensitivity, so — as much as possible — we can maintain a cohesive commitment to all Jews who are striving to be part of the community.” She added, however, that there is a big difference between civility, tolerance, and acceptance.

“They come with many different connotations,” she said. “To me, it’s not about changing halacha but [about] how we treat individuals and train our community to think about each other and recognize that we’re all on a path of growth. It’s the mandate of the Orthodox community to always keep in mind the dignity of each member of the Jewish community without compromising definitions of what is halachically acceptable.”

Lewittes said she found one of Neugroschl’s comments particularly touching.

“She said that when you’re sitting across from someone who turns to you for guidance on matters of Jewish identity and enfranchisement, it’s important to remember that for those people, you are the face of Torah, the essence of the spirituality they are seeking.”

Lewittes called the concept both “humbling and emboldening. It teaches both humility and passion, the twin pillars that make up what it means to be a rabbi.”

The rabbi said it was important to acknowledge that for some segments of the Jewish community, “welcoming efforts are important but still limited.”

She cited, for example, the readiness with which synagogues around the nation acknowledged the Jewish identity of Gabrielle Giffords but pointed out that — because of patrilineal descent — Giffords could not receive an aliyah in many of those shuls.

“This balancing act, between acknowledging someone as Jewish and recognizing someone as Jewish, is possible, but increasingly cumbersome — halachically, spiritually, and emotionally — for many of us, and of course for patrilineal Jews themselves,” she said.

Of the panel, Lewittes said, “My hope is that the renewed sense of respect for each other will allow for greater understanding and patience when those positions collide.”

Frishman stressed that the panel “wasn’t really an exchange of views but [rather] an opportunity for the assembly to hear our different positions and understand why we might not agree.”

“As a Reform Jew, I am used to and expect Jews to think differently, depending on where we are on the spectrum,” she added. “The challenge is when we judge one another and isolate one another because of those responses. I’m willing to say you don’t have to agree, but don’t condemn me for my views.”

Frishman noted that two of the participants referred to their own “pain” when they had to turn down an individual’s request, feeling bound to honor tradition. But there are two kinds of pain, she said. One leads to personal growth, but the other “is a sharp alert that something is seriously wrong and if we don’t attend to it, we will die.”

“On issues like homosexuality, it’s the ‘I’m going to die’ kind of pain,” she said, calling it an ethical rather than a legal issue. “It’s not a question of empathy but of sustenance,” she said.

Despite the civil nature of the forum, Frishman said “there are significant differences between us. It’s not about being friends. You’re either pluralist or not.”

Still, she said, bringing people together to listen and learn is important, especially since it is generally parents, not clergy, who teach their children to say hurtful things about people with different positions.

Helfgot said he appreciated the fact that the panelists had a chance to listen to one another, but that it would have been helpful, as well, to have more of a chance to address each other’s comments.

“It’s helpful because it demystifies the different communities to each other,” he said. “It fosters personal relationships and it sets a good tone about how difficult issues should be talked about in public, with a willingness to appreciate other people’s sincerity.”

Helfgot said that most of the attendees did not seem to be Orthodox, “so it was worthwhile for them to hear a clear, hopefully measured, and articulate presentation on some of these sensitive issues from someone with a Modern Orthodox point of view, which they might generally not have a chance to hear.”

He said in his own presentation he tried to reflect on the “tensions that exist when you’re trying to balance classic halachic values, and sometimes limits, inherent in the system together with one’s sense of compassion and wanting to be open and accepting.”

“People were very respectful,” he said, and added that the forum “confirmed for me … that there are very passionate and sincere leaders in all the movements, working very hard and committed to the Jewish people.” He also noted that while there seemed to be unanimity among speakers from the Reform perspective, the Conservative speakers “reflected the tension that exists within that movement.”

Mosbacher said that while the forum was “nice, it’s sad that a panel like this is so extraordinary. In other communities, such a panel would almost not be newsworthy. I want Bergen County to be such a place.”

The real test of whether the forum was meaningful will be if it creates an opportunity for ongoing relationships, he said.

“I wanted that to be a theme of my rabbinate,” he said, “deepening relationships among people across whatever lines. I don’t want us to pat ourselves on the back so hard that we feel we’ve done our intrafaith work for the year. It should be the start of something meaningful and ongoing.”

Mosbacher said that “it was interesting for me to hear how the colleagues I didn’t know speak about their movements and their work.”

Also, he said, the forum “confirmed in some ways where some of the differences are.”

It will be helpful, he said, when congregants ask him about the positions of other movements.

The next forum will take place in March in Wayne. For information, call Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Local organizations promote Israeli goods to counter boycott

‘Buy Israeli Goods’ day set

In the face of an international campaign designating March 30 as a day to boycott Israeli products, national and local Jewish organizations are organizing supporters to fight back with their wallets.

Pro-Israel and Jewish groups in the United States are calling on supporters to buy Israeli goods to counter a global anti-Israel boycott coordinated by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. The website of the BDS campaign calls for “divestment from corporations that allow and profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

StandWithUs, a New York-based nonprofit pro-Israel education and advocacy organization, has designated Wednesday, March 30, as Buy Israeli Goods (BIG) day. It is working with area Jewish agencies, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, to rally Israel’s supporters to buy Israeli goods on that day and in general.

To that end, StandWithUs has set up a website,, in cooperation with the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a New York-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting U.S.-Israel commerce, providing information about vendors and establishments that sell Israeli products.

Organized by product categories and geographical regions, the website provides information on finding everything from Israeli-grown coffee to Israeli-designed jewelry.

Avi Posnick, regional coordinator for StandWithUs in New York, said that “BDS is calling for March 30 to be a global day to boycott, and we are encouraging people to go to all the places and to use all the products that are being targeted.”

StandWithUs maintains that boycotting Israel actually retards the development of Palestinian society and therefore the cause of peace.

“We feel the BDS movement is hypocritical because it’s hurting the very people they say they are trying to help,” said Posnick. “They are only hurting cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that can improve the lives of both. Palestinians and others have told us it doesn’t help peace — it divides people.”

The JCRC sent out a message to its network, including rabbis, agencies, day schools, and congregational schools, “encouraging them to participate and including the information we got from StandWithUs,” said Joy Kurland, regional JCRC director.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who chairs the JCRC, is coordinating the local counter-boycott effort. He believes that one of the greatest threats to Israel today is a tarnishing of the Jewish state’s image via a campaign to delegitimize it.

Borovitz thinks American Jews can play a vital role in countering the boycott.

“I think that one of the greatest dangers that we face today as friends of Israel is this movement that is known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions,” said Borovitz. “Those three tools are being used to delegitimize Israel. We’ve got to counter that. It’s an interesting and important role we American Jews can play.”

He says Israel’s detractors have modeled their strategy on what was used to “disinvest South Africa.”

“Buy Israeli Goods is our campaign to encourage people to combat this boycott,” he said. “[People should] buy Israeli goods because Israeli goods are of high quality — Israel has the same right to compete in the economic marketplace as any nation.”

StandWithUs has created an additional website,, to provide information, including talking points, and other ways to respond to the BDS movement.


After BARJ, plans for Reform teens

After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.

“The issues were economic,” he said.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources — as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies — as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.

“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.

In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”

Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.

Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.

Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.

Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.

Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.

Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.

He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”

At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”

Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.

“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.

Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.

“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.

The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.

Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.

“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.

At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”

The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.

“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.

The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.

“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.

“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”

All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.

“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.


‘Sign here!’

Petition effort launched against likely unilateral Palestinian statehood bid

Sign here. That is what Jewish organizations across the country are asking people to do in e-mails and up-close-and-personal appeals in advance of next month’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly. In this area, many rabbis have joined the effort, although not everyone is doing so.

Earlier this month, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in cooperation with the Israel Action Network (IAN), a nationwide Israel-advocacy initiative, drafted a petition calling on the U.N. to reject an expected Palestinian Authority initiative for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Across the country, rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders have begun to circulate the petition. As of noon on Wednesday, more than 45,000 people had signed it.

While both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have stated that the United States will oppose the initiative should it come before the General Assembly, local Jewish leaders interviewed this week said that American Jews should not take the U.S. position for granted — and that they should continue to make their voices heard on the issue.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said he believes the Jewish community can unite around this issue.

“Support for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians [as opposed to] an imposed settlement by the U.N. or any other outside body, is a position we can stand on united, irrespective of other differences,” he said.

Asked whether it is appropriate for rabbis to circulate so political a petition to members of their congregations, Borovitz said yes. In fact, he said, he is circulating the petition to members of his congregation and urging his colleagues to do the same.

“I think there is a very distinct though sometimes hard-to-see line between partisan political activity from the pulpit and standing up and speaking out on issues of social and moral concern,” said Borovitz. “We have the right and responsibility to speak out on issues that impact us.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said he is not sure whether he will circulate the petition to members of his congregation, but if he chooses not to do so, “it will not be because I don’t think rabbis should take a stand, including on political issues. If we don’t, it’ll be because we have 150 things on our plate and this may not be the way we want to go about” standing up for Israel.

That said, he added, “I think it’s an imperative part of our job description to do this kind of thing. Strong rabbis are those who take a stand.… We don’t want rabbis so concerned everything must be pareve — we want to hear what rabbis believe.”

Rabbi Ilan Glazer of Temple Beth El of North Bergen said that he will not promote the petition. He will, on the other hand, discuss it with members of his congregation and “leave it up to individual congregants whether they want to sign it.” He added that, personally, he “would like the petition to go even further to suggest ways we could get the process rolling again. The petition is against unilateral statehood, but what are we for and how do we get the parties back to the negotiating table?”

Only one local Jewish leader who opposes the petition campaign spoke with the Standard by press time.

The leader, a rabbi who wished to be anonymous, said, “I don’t agree with a unilateral declaration, but I don’t think [opposing it] is a good idea,” he said. “Sixty years later, we are resentful the Arab world was against us [when Israel was declared] so for us to go on record opposing [Palestinian] statehood seems like a step backward.”

Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the JCRC of New York, defended the reasoning that led to the petition effort.

“Lobbying efforts are under way to get as many countries as possible to vote against the unilateral declaration of independence,” she said, “but it’s always important to couple lobbying efforts with grassroots initiatives. We felt there was a need for our community on a local and national level to take a public stand against the Palestinian effort to seek unilateral recognition at the U.N. this September. We decided an online petition would give an opportunity for individuals to go on the record to have their voices heard.”

Poupko said that the petition does not oppose Palestinian statehood, only a unilateral declaration outside the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its potential use as a way to diplomatically isolate Israel.

“The petition is explicit in supporting Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s vision of two states for two peoples….[We] believe the only true path to peace is through direct negotiations between the two parties.”

Poupko added, “The success of the petition both in its numbers and diversity of co-sponsors speaks to the degree to which this message has resonance.”

The 73 co-sponsors listed at the bottom of the petition include Coalition of 100 Black Women, an advocacy organization whose membership is composed of “progressive women of color,” according to its Bergen/Passaic chapter’s website (; dozens of Jewish federations; JCRCs; and synagogue movements across the United States.

What the petition says

A petition calling on the United Nations to reject an expected call for Palestinian statehood reads, in part: “We, the undersigned, call upon the 193 Members of the United Nations to vote against endorsing a unilaterally declared Palestinian state and to promote the resumption of bilateral negotiations. We are of the belief, as reaffirmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his May 24, 2011, speech to the United States Congress, that a central goal of direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the establishment of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state in secure and recognized borders. A unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state would serve only to undermine a lasting and negotiated peace agreement and deepen the conflict.”


An EZ Key for access

Free High Holy Days tickets meant to attract newcomers

Synagogues are opening their doors.

But are they cutting their pockets?

With the High Holy Days approaching, more than two dozen synagogues are participating in a program to entice newcomers to the community with free tickets to services.

The program, dubbed EZ Key, is coordinated by the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“We want to lower the barrier to people who want to try out a synagogue for the High Holy Days and raise the profile of synagogues in the area,” said Lisa Harris Glass, director of the synagogue initiative.

The program is for people who have lived in the community for two years or less. By visiting the federation’s web site at, newcomers can sign up for tickets at their choice of participating congregations, or be matched up with a suitable congregation.

“It’s a one-shot offering,” said Glass, explaining that EZ Key is meant to introduce worshipers to a congregation, not to replace synagogue membership.

Rabbis of participating congregations are enthusiastic about the program.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “I love the idea of welcoming people in, particularly people new in the community.

“Philosophically, I’m of two bents. On one hand, it’s critical for people to support synagogues financially. In doing so, you benefit from belonging to a synagogue.

“On the other hand, there are many, many Jews who don’t understand that. They have such negative baggage that they carry about what a synagogue is. And they also have a sense of expectation that when it comes time for the High Holy Days, they feel they should be able to walk into a synagogue and take advantage of its services.

“Both are right,” she said, adding, “It saddens me that anyone would feel alienated from a congregation because they couldn’t afford it.”

Rabbi Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen, agrees that EZ Key “is a fantastic idea.”

“We certainly need to do more to make ourselves more marketable and outreach-oriented than we are. EZ Key is a way to get people in the door.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said, “EZ Key is an admission on the part of our community that the cost, real and perceived, of Jewish affiliation may be a barrier for less committed Jewish families, including interfaith families, to even seek out a synagogue.”

“Reaching out to unconnected Jews irrespective of the reason for their lack of affiliation is critical for both the institutions of our Jewish community and equally important for the unaffiliated Jews,” he said.

The United Synagogue of Hoboken has chosen not to participate, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. “We experience something like 25 to 30 percent turnover in our membership every year, which makes it hard for us to do a lot of giving things away for free for people who are new,” he said.

At the same time, “If someone wants to come and the recommended donation exceeds what they can do, we’re delighted to receive a donation of any amount.”

One issue for the congregation is capacity. The sanctuary holds 500 and tickets are needed to ensure that people are not turned away.

In part because the synagogue cannot serve everyone who might want to come to High Holy Days services, and in part to provide “some High Holy Day experiences that would be open to everyone with no tickets required,” the United Synagogue is holding services in what might be considered off-peak time slots.

“That includes an additional public shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, and an additional Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon,” he said.

At least one congregation, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is participating in EZ Key with free tickets, but also providing a service for which tickets are not required. Family services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will supplement the traditional egalitarian services led the rabbi and cantor in the main sanctuary. The family services are scheduled to last no more than 90 minutes, and are designed “to be engaging and meaningful to children from ages 4 and up, as well as to adults with limited Hebrew reading skills.”

At least one area pulpit rabbi, however, is unhappy with the thrust toward low-cost entryways to synagogue life.

“Synagogues depend on High Holy Days ticket sales to keep the lights on in their buildings throughout the year,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need to be educating people about the importance of contributing to a shul’s upkeep, not encouraging them to look around for the cheapest option.”

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