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entries tagged with: Rabbi Steven Sirbu


JCRC reaches out to evangelicals

Evangelical Christians have a record of showing support for Israel, but many Jews question their motives.

To promote better communication and understanding, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has arranged a series of meetings between some of its members and representatives of an area evangelical church.

The relationship between JCRC and the evangelical community, however, is nothing new. The Rev. Bill Fritzky from In My Father’s House in Wayne has led several groups from Christians United For Israel on JCRC-sponsored buses to pro-Israel rallies in New York in recent years.

“They’ve been very supportive of us with all kinds of Israel matters,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Regional CRC, which is an agency of UJA-NNJ, UJC of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

About a year ago, members of the JCRC created a PowerPoint presentation, Hope For Peace, to create a better understanding of Israel for non-Jewish audiences. They took it to In My Father’s House, and that led to what Kurland called a “desire on the part of the evangelical clergy to foster greater relationships with the Jewish community.”

The result was a four-month study group of JCRC members and evangelicals, which began in January.

“A lot of people approach the evangelical community with skepticism,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Temple Emeth in Teaneck and vice chair of the JCRC’s intergroup relations committee. “You can’t tell if your skepticism is founded or not until you engage in dialogue. That’s the reason I found this so rewarding.”

Sirbu leads the eight-member delegation from the JCRC, while the Rev. John Diomede of the House of Bread in Park Ridge leads the eight-member evangelical delegation.

“We’re approaching this as an opportunity to really learn from one another,” Sirbu said. “We know we have a really strong common bond in our love for Israel. We haven’t explored the details, and we’re bound to find some differences in why we love Israel.”

The House of Bread, also known as Beth-Lehem, is not a messianic Jewish congregation, Diomede said, but its congregants do believe their heritage comes from the Tanach and Israel. As a result, Diomede said, the church is “Jewish friendly” and “Israel friendly.”

“The JCRC invited us because they wanted to know why we were Israel friendly,” he said. “These sessions became a dialogue that helped them understand why.”

The sessions, Sirbu emphasized, are about building trust and understanding, which is why they are not open to the public. How participants will funnel what they have learned about each other to the wider community has not yet been discussed, but Sirbu appeared open to continuing cooperation beyond the four sessions.

The first session focused on a part of the Bible Jews and evangelicals share: the Ten Commandments. After discussing how each side viewed them, the groups debated whether they should be displayed publicly. Sirbu argued they should not be, while Diomede took the pro side.

“The point was not for either one to win but to hear the differences in how we perceive the Ten Commandments, and, second of all, how we perceive the First Amendment,” Sirbu said. “If we’re going to learn from each other as people in such a diverse country, it’s important for us to not only study each other’s interpretations of the Ten Commandments but of the First Amendment as well.”

Sirbu learned from his counterpart that for Christians, the Ten Commandments represent a symbol of “a certain societal order” and the role God plays in society.

“They’re not necessarily in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments as rules, but they’re interested in displaying the Ten Commandments as symbols of what a civilized society stands for,” the rabbi said.

Conversely, he said, when most Jews see the Ten Commandments displayed publicly, in a classroom or courthouse for example, they see it as an intrusion of religion into what ought to be a secular space.

The second session, earlier this month, focused on misunderstood concepts within Judaism and Christianity. Sirbu discussed the idea of Jews as the chosen people, while Diomede focused on Jesus.

“He argued that the figure we have come to understand as Jesus has been distorted over the centuries,” Sirbu said.

“Part of the problem with Christianity is that historically it has become something different than what it started out to be,” Diomede said. “Our goal is to reach back to our roots and look at the messianic writing and see that cohesiveness with Tanach.”

The next session, in April, will focus on chapter 56 of Isaiah, which includes the verse, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” According to Sirbu, the group interprets this verse as a mandate for interfaith work. The last session, in May, will focus on why each side loves Israel.

“We felt it had to be discussed but we had to build up to it — we had to understand each other in these other ways first,” Sirbu said.

The study groups have given Sirbu and other JCRC members a new understanding of their evangelical allies, the rabbi said. On the flip side, said Diomede, the evangelicals are happy to clear up misconceptions the Jewish community may have about them.

“What these sessions are bringing out is we’re able to represent ourselves to the Jewish people as a friend and a supporter, as opposed to a different religion,” he said.


Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties

From left, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Elijah Muhammad, Imam Saeed Qureshi, and Andrea Winters stand in front of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism urged its congregations to embrace a broader vision of interreligious understanding, says Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.

In a major initiative launched at URJ’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s president, declared that “Jews are not well-educated about Islam, and Muslims are not well-educated about Judaism. In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues.”

Heeding the call for synagogues to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, in 2008 Sirbu’s congregation began a dialogue with a mosque in Teaneck, Masjid Darul Islah, using a curriculum written and published by URJ and the Islamic Society of North America. Working from a text entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Committees of Temple Emeth and Masjid Darul Islah began a series of monthly meetings.

With 12 members from each institution, the group — meeting two hours on a Sunday, sometimes at one of the houses of worship and sometimes at members’ homes — tackled “segments organized from low-tension to high-tension topics,” said Leonia resident Andrea Winters, a member of Temple Emeth and co-coordinator with mosque member Elijah Muhammad of the dialogue team.

“As we got to build trust, we could embark on more difficult terrain,” she said, citing hot-button issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As time went on, she said, “more and more stories were shared about individual personal experiences [like] anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.”

Winters said that as the scheduled curricular meetings were coming to an end in December, “we discovered that we were only just beginning to talk.”

As a result, the group — with members from Leonia, Teaneck, Tenafly, Fort Lee, and Paterson — opted to continue through May. Since January, she said, “we have been engaged in topics of our own choosing, such as gender.”

Up to this point, she said, she and Muhammad have served as “co-chairs, co-coordinators, and process facilitators.” The additional sessions, however, have had rotating discussion leaders.

The dialogue team began with sessions designed to “introduce us to each other and to basics such as the Torah and the Koran and issues of charity in both faiths,” said Winters.

“The goal is to listen to each other, not to change minds,” she added, mentioning an upcoming dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She noted that there had been some tension in an earlier discussion on the topic, particularly as regarded “the perception of Jews as oppressors. [The Jews] were defensive about others seeing them that way,” she said.

Another discussion involved the immigration experiences of both groups, a topic that brought the members closer, she said.

Sirbu pointed out that the clergy of the two religious institutions have fully endorsed the project but decided not to sit in on the meetings from month to month.

“We felt it would be a better process if we took a step back,” he said. He noted as well that while a dialogue could succeed only in a small and closed environment, his congregation has sought various ways to share the committee’s achievements.

In the fall of 2008, for example, “Our annual Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture was on ‘Jerusalem: Holy City in Judaism and Islam,’ presented by Rabbi Phil Lieberman, an expert in Jewish law,” said Sirbu. All members of the mosque were invited to attend the event, held during a Shabbat service, “and there was a nice turnout. We were very encouraged and heartened.”

Noting that he enjoys cordial relations with the mosque’s imam, Saeed Qureshi, Sirbu added that last Chanukah he invited all dialogue members to the synagogue to lead a discussion for the entire Temple Emeth community on what they had accomplished.

The rabbi pointed out that the dialogue members from Temple Emeth had been appointed by the synagogue leadership “because we thought they would be good representatives” of the congregation. He did not know how their Muslim counterparts were chosen.

At the Chanukah session, “we had a great turnout and very rich discussion. The congregation didn’t know what was being accomplished. [Now] they had a sense of the worth of this project.”

“We talked to the congregation about what we learned from each other,” said Winters. But even more, “we were joking around [and] the congregation observed our teasing and playfulness,” she said.

“We’re looking for more ways to share the dialogue process and its goals with the entire temple-mosque community and whole community,” said Sirbu. “It opens our eyes to the struggles of peoples of different faiths, makes us aware of our own prejudices, and promotes understanding.”

One such effort will take place on Sunday, April 25, when Temple Emeth co-hosts “Under the Veil,” an interactive theatrical performance.

According to Winters, last spring one of the dialogue members saw the presentation at a meeting of the Ethical Culture Society.

“He loved it. So I brought it to Pace [University, where she teaches] and the students loved it as well.”

The presentation is intended to challenge audience members to think in ways they haven’t thought before, she said, adding that the program is free and open to the whole community. It is the dialogue project’s first joint initiative.

Performed by the TE’A Project (Theater, Engagement and Action), the show is based on interviews conducted by the actors in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is intermixed with facilitated dialogue between the actors and the audience.

To broaden the range of those involved in the program, it is being co-sponsored not just by the dialogue committees of the two houses of worship but by their youth groups as well.

“The performance is intended for people of all ages,” said Sirbu, noting that while it was not appropriate for the youth to be involved in the dialogue itself, “it will get them thinking about it.” The young people will also help with refreshments.

The rabbi was pleased about the “enthusiasm” the dialogue team brought back to the congregation. “They brought back the understanding that coexistence depends on relationships. They don’t meet as Jews and Muslims but as a group of 24 people who know and like one another and enjoy the chance to share ideas.”

“Under the Veil” will be presented at Temple Emeth from 2:30 to 4 p.m., April 25. For further information, call (201) 833-1322.


Brotherhood-Sisterhood brunch marks 24 years of breaking bread in Bergen

The Interfaith Youth Choir performs at the event under the direction of Gale S. Bindelglass, left, Cantor Ilan Mamber of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Jane Koch.

This is Bergen County — we talk to each other here.

That sentiment might well have been the theme Sunday at the Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County’s annual brunch. It was the group’s 24th such event, at which representatives of the religious and secular sectors of society gathered to celebrate the county’s diversity and unity.

“The world is one family,” said Jyoti Gandhi of the Hindu community, which was the host for this year’s brunch. “We are here to find commonality in diversity,” she said.

“Sit with someone you don’t know, come out of your comfort zone,” Gandhi told the gathering of some 420 guest as they filled the banquet room and looked for seats.

The group is composed of eight faith groups — Baha’i, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Sikh —and representatives of each were on the dais, sharing their prayers. Each year a different community hosts the brunch, giving insight into its beliefs and practices, and this year the Hindus filled that role.

Gandhi served as mistress of ceremonies, introducing the guest speaker, Rita Sherma, a professor at Binghamton University and a theologian. She spoke about the Hindu tradition — what makes it unique and what it shares with other faiths. “It sanctifies and bestows meaning to our lives,” she said.

Sherma dispelled what she said is a misconception that Hindus believe in multiple gods. “We don’t have gods,” she said. “We believe in the one God who is personal and beyond personal. That God has many powers and energies for us to harmonize with.”

“Our many traditions are different windows in which to see God, but our vision is clouded,” she said. “If we step out of our boundaries, we see a panoramic view of God, of truth, of reality.”

She spoke of the Hindu concept of “dharma,” explaining that it refers to what “sustains you and allows you to unfold into your true self.”

“If you follow the dharmic way, you are on track with God’s purpose,” she said. “It is the unity that pervades the cosmos and creation.”

Sherma shuns the term “Hinduism” as too limiting. She spoke of the Hindu path as “a way of life” with an extensive tradition involving medicine, drama, aesthetics, dance, nutrition, economics, ethics, “and so much more.”

“The thread is that everything is connected, interrelated,” she said.

Gandhi said that while the brunch is a focal point for the interfaith group, there are activities year-round. As an example she cited a model seder last Passover.

Performances were woven into the program, beginning with a prayer-in-song by Sunia Kapur Aurora and singing by the Interfaith Youth Choir. When the choir sang “America the Beautiful,” it was impossible not to feel the warmth of the gathering.

Young women from the Hindu community staged a dance program, and Gandhi explained that the dancing is a form of worship, rather than entertainment.

She praised the Interfaith committee’s youth group. “We think we are teaching them, but they are our gurus,” she said.

Habib Hosseiny of the Baha’i community continued the tribute to the youth group, noting how they themselves came up with ideas such as attending one another’s services and holding interfaith classes. “Our hope, our future is on their shoulders,” he said.

Commenting after the event, Father Donald Sheehan of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Ridgefield said that Sherma clarified the idea that Hindus believe in one God. He said her talk was a demonstration of “how much holds us together.”

“We are looking for a denominator that is common, not the lowest common denominator,” he said.

“This is a very diverse community,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “We don’t often see that diversity, but we can today,” said Sirbu, vice chairman of the Intergroup Relations Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersy.

Sirbu noted that the Hindu tradition shares the value of reaching such a point of enlightenment that we would never cause a “sentient being to suffer.” “That is a basic value of the Torah and prophetic tradition,” he said.

The attendees included the secular as well as the religious. Emerson Police Chief Michael Saudino was there in his role as president of the Bergen County Police Chief’s Association, and his mission was to glean a better understanding of the county’s diversity.

“The more we can learn about each other, the better we can work together,” Saudino said.

The brunch served as a window on the religious makeup of the county. Wendy Martinez, the director of the county’s Office of Multicultural Community affairs, said that, “little by little,” Bergen is learning about and honoring the various religious and ethnic groups that make up its population.

“As we talk, we learn that we are all human beings and that is the most important bond,” she said.

County Executive Dennis McNerney read a proclamation setting May 1 as “Interfaith Bortherhood-Sisterhood of Bergen County Day.”

“Diversity diminishes no one,” he said.

Prayers were offered by the representatives of the eight faiths.

“Let our eyes be open to the divine image of one another,” said Sirbu, quoting from the morning prayer.

“Where there is hatred, let us bring love…. Where there is darkness, let us bring light,” said Imam Saeed Quareshi of the Dar Ul Islah mosque in Teaneck.

The event was “a wonderful collaboration of the interfaith community and an appreciation of working together,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a key organizer of the event. “Bergen County is a tapestry of groups that form a beautiful quilt,” she said.

“Whether we like it or not, our community is becoming more and more diverse,” said Gandhi, so it’s important to learn about one another’s faith.

The youth choir, under the direction of Gale Bindelglass with Cantor Ilan Mamber and Jane Koch of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, closed the event, singing, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”


Teaneck religious leaders travel to Birmingham, address poverty

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, right, and Pastor Keni Ashby in front of a tree in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park. The plaque near the tree includes words written by Anne Frank.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu returned from Birmingham last week with new insights into social injustice, a mandate for change, and a partner to help him carry out that change.

The religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth — together with Pastor Keni Ashby of the Covenant House of Faith International, also in Teaneck — joined five other “teams” convened by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities.

Seeking to develop what a JCPA spokesman called “concrete steps blacks and Jews could jointly implement to help alleviate poverty and promote justice in their local communities,” the teams spent four days in Alabama, hosted by the Birmingham Jewish federation. The initiative was part of the JCPA’s anti-poverty initiative, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You,” launched in 2007.

Participants needed to apply as teams, said Sirbu, noting that he already knew Ashby through involvement in dialogue programs between Jews and Evangelical Christians.

As part of the mission, participants visited sites important to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These included the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four little girls in 1963.

“We had the chance to tour the building, including the pulpit where Martin Luther King and every other civil rights leader spoke at one time or another,” said Sirbu.

The group also visited Kelly Ingram Park, a central staging ground for large-scale civil rights demonstrations. A tree was planted there in April in memory of Anne Frank and other victims of the Holocaust.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — made famous by the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965— Sirbu and Ashby were called upon to offer reflections and lead prayers.

The focus was not simply historical, said Sirbu, pointing out that the teams also took part in a service project in Birmingham’s West End, where they confronted poverty and discussed its causes. While the immediate focus was Birmingham, “there was the assumption that the same general causes apply nationwide.”

“We were impacted in different ways,” he said, pointing out that the civil rights movement “affected both African Americans and the Jews involved” in that struggle.

Among other issues, the group discussed access to education as well as inequality in the justice system, “something that really resonated with Keni,” said Sirbu.

Sirbu explained to the Standard that in Alabama, young teenagers can be sentenced to life imprisonment, even if they haven’t killed anyone. “Most kids who get sentenced are victims of abuse and neglect,” he said. “It offers no chance for redemption or rehabilitation.”

While New Jersey is not as punitive, he said, “that’s not to say we’re doing everything we can to make sure kids are getting age-appropriate justice.”

Sirbu said he intends to explore this issue, looking for ways to partner with others to bring about needed changes.

He added that while his experience will take some time to fully digest, “I’m sure there will be a sermon in this.”

Calling the mission “absolutely of value,” Sirbu said “there are very few ways to get a good grasp of how poverty affects our communities and the resources available to reverse it.”

Not only did he learn a lot about the juvenile justice system and the Birmingham civil rights movement, but he did “extra research about Abraham Joshua Heschel and the friendship he had with Dr. Martin Luther King and how important that friendship was in maintaining King’s support of the Jewish community and Israel for his entire life.”

He also noted that he was “shocked to see how Alabama’s state constitution was an impediment to social change.”

“It’s an example of how laws written over 100 years ago can tie the hands of people working for change today,” he said. “It was written in 1901 by landholders to protect their interests and has a provision allowing for judicial override.”

That means, he explained, that a judge can override a jury decision sentencing a person to life imprisonment, changing the punishment to the death penalty.

Since judges are elected, he said, “overrides only seem to increase in an election year,” with candidates running on a “law-and-order platform. Tragically, it becomes a campaign tool,” he added, noting that only three states have this kind of override.

“New Jersey isn’t one of them, but there are other aspects of our judicial system that offer inequality,” he said, adding that if we don’t work together with other groups, “we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s definitely a gap and plenty more to do.”


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.


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.


Exchange students

Pastor and his ‘worship team’ to visit Temple Emeth

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 29 July 2011

It’s almost a tradition.

In two weeks, Teaneck’s Temple Emeth Reform congregation will host the nearby Covenant House of Faith International church for Friday night services.

Pastor Keni Ashby will speak from the pulpit, and his “worship team” — a band in which Ashby plays drums — will lead the congregation in singing.

This will be the third pulpit exchange between the two congregations.

“Last year, this was the most exciting, energetic service of the summer,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu of the first such exchange. In December, Sirbu addressed Ashby’s congregation on “everything we wish you knew about us Jews.”

Pastor Keni Ashby, left, and Rabbi Steven Sirbu in front of Temple Emeth’s ark. courtesy rabbi steven sirbu

The collaboration reflects a friendship between the two spiritual leaders that is the fruit of a two-year-old dialogue between Jews and evangelical Christians organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Explains Sirbu: “I like the fact that he brings so much passion to everything he says. I like the fact that I can disagree with him but still feel it doesn’t affect our friendship. I like the fact that I feel we can teach and learn from each other equally.”

This time, at the request of Sirbu, Ashby will speak about change.

“His church and our congregation are both changing in different ways, and his insights into the nature of change and how people respond to change will be really interesting,” said Sirbu.

“We’re experimenting with liturgy. His appearance along with his worship team is part of that liturgical experimentation,” he said.

The topic came from a conversation between the two about their different services.

“He was telling me about some of the changes he wanted to make,” said Ashby. “He noticed that we have a big video screen. Now people don’t have to hold a book. It’s more easy to read and sing along. He liked that idea, but said his people may not.”

Ashby said that when he preaches, “there’s a lot of improv,” but that he has begun “praying and meditating and looking in the Scriptures where change came about.

“I can show from the Scripture, look what happened when change came, look at the people who embraced change, look at the people who rejected it,” Ashby said.

“The first time we came to Temple Emeth, we said we have a couple of songs that sound really really upbeat, it’s like an Israeli tempo, a clap your hands type thing. Then we submitted the words” to make sure they would be appropriate in the Jewish setting.

What: Pastor Keni Ashby preaching and leading musical worship service

Where: Cong. Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck

When: Friday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.

“Most of the songs we do we write ourselves. They’re nice worship songs, singing to God,” he said.

“There is a lot we can learn from people of other faiths,” said Sirbu. “Interfaith partnership is a key to being a vibrant part of this community.”

Ashby, 46, moved to Teaneck when he was 12 years old. For the past seven years, he has coached girls softball at the Teaneck Baseball Organization, “which is basically 95 percent Orthodox. They just know me as Coach Ken,” he said.

So when he was scheduled to speak at Temple Emeth last year, it seemed only natural to invite the parents of his team.

“I didn’t know how they feel about going to a Reform synagogue. I was kind of heartbroken that the Orthodox community doesn’t want to have anything to do with Temple Emeth. I just don’t understand it.”

“That’s another thing he should preach on, one of the things I never knew, that synagogues don’t do things together. I thought Jewish people stick together. Now it makes sense to me the reason why the Church has all these different denominations, because it’s also in Judaism.”


Israel’s A-G says the state will pay non-Orthodox rabbis’ salaries

Rabbis here react to ruling

Israel’s attorney general on Tuesday announced that the state will now at least partially recognize the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative rabbis and pay their salaries, just as Orthodox rabbis’ salaries are paid now. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said the rabbis will be listed as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities,” however, which is meant to suggest that their ordinations are not recognized by the state.

The decision comes as a response to a 2005 case involving a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold. Backed by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Gold petitioned the court demanding that a local municipal authority provide financing for non-Orthodox religious services, as it does for the Orthodox.

The case was referred to arbitration and several weeks ago came close to a decision, but then began to unravel. The state — while it agreed to recognize the non-Orthodox rabbis as “community leaders” — refused to refer to them as rabbis.

A panel of Supreme Court judges led by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who is Orthodox, urged Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to intervene. Weinstein came up with the compromise language.

The announcement, seen by some as a “half a loaf is better than none” move towards full acceptance, was hailed both in Israel and here. The newly elected president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, said that he hoped the decision “will strengthen Israel and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition.”

Clearly, local rabbis recognize the significance of the Israeli ruling.

Randall Mark, rabbi of Wayne’s Conservative synagogue Congregation Shomrei Torah and current president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR), said he “applauds the attorney general’s office for its decision and will await its implementation.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “If it plays out the way we anticipate, then it’s recognition that is long overdue. But considering the number of High Court decisions on matters such as conversion, often the things they rule have not come into being the way we in the liberal community would have anticipated.”

How the attorney general’s decision will play out, he said, only time will tell. Already, one Orthodox cabinet member, Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi of the Sephardi Shas Party, said that he would resign his post if called upon to implement the decision.

Mark pointed out that the non-Orthodox in Israel have often worked through the court system to achieve their goals, since “they’ve generally found the government to be non-supportive.” It was the court system that caused the attorney general to issue his own decision on Tuesday.

Mark said the decision is important because it provides “recognition,” even if not totally so.

“Up to now, Israeli society has complicitly accepted that the only legitimate form of Judaism is Orthodox Judaism,” he said. “While Reform and Masorti are tolerated, they’ve never experienced broad support even among the non-Orthodox. It’s a huge step in terms of communal recognition.”

The NJBR head said he does not think the Israeli decision will hasten efforts to bring together local Jews of various streams. He noted, however, that this week the executive boards of the NJBR and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) held a joint meeting “to look at places where we can work together for the community.”

Neal Borovitz, rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom and chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said he is both “grateful and excited.”

“I’m very grateful in particular to one individual who has made this his life’s passion and his work,” he said, citing Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli with a law degree from Tel Aviv University and ordination from Hebrew Union College. “For 30 years, he has fought this battle in the court system of Israel on all different levels.”

Borovitz said he is also grateful for the joint efforts of the international Reform and Conservative movements.

“It’s a statement by Israeli society that the State of Israel belongs to all of us,” said Borovitz, “that every one of us has equal rights and responsibilities.”

He said he prays that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — with an expanded cabinet that does not rely on a majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews — will implement the attorney general’s decision.

“Time will tell,” he said, “but I believe it’s a very important civil and human rights battle. Everyone should have equal access to worship and freedom of religious expression. It’s a fundamental principle in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and is extended to every non-Jewish community. What we’re doing is implementing [that] principle.”

Borovitz said he hopes the decision will encourage more Israelis to align with non-Orthodox movements, suggesting that it offers Israelis “a very important opportunity.”

He pointed out that thousands of Israelis now travel to Cyprus for their “legal” weddings and then come home for ceremonies performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

“That shouldn’t have to happen,” he said. He is hopeful that this will now change and that the weddings can be performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

The rabbi noted that a great deal of progress has been made in the last few years to find areas of greater cooperation and mutual respect across religious streams in our own community. He said he is hopeful that this will continue.

“I’m sure there will be different reactions [to this decision] across religious streams,” he said, “but I hope this will show that our religious differences are all l’shem shamayaim,” for the sake of heaven.

Steven Sirbu, rabbi of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue, called the attorney general’s decision “a great one promoting pluralism in Israel and acknowledging the reality that there’s more than one way to believe in Judaism and practice Judaism.” He is hopeful, he said, that the Israeli government will respect the authority of the court and its own atorney general, and implement the ruling.

The rabbi said that while he does not know if the ruling will encourage Israelis to align with non-Orthodox movements, “good publicity can’t hurt.” Ultimately, however, “It is the responsibility of the non-Orthodox movements to get their message out about a meaningful Judaism that people can relate to.”

Sirbu said the Israeli decision is “big news for American Jews. Our dream is for Israel to be a thriving democracy. Respecting religious pluralism is yet another step toward that goal.”

David Fine, rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, said that the greatest challenge facing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel has been the “financial challenge. The Orthodox are funded by the state. No fundraising on the ground in Israel or in the diaspora can compare with state funding.”

He pointed out that the budget for the entire Masorti movement in Israel has been comparable to the budget of just one large Conservative congregation in the United States.

“I know of some cases where Conservative rabbis who had the dream of making aliyah and building a rabbinate in Israel were unable to make a living and support their families,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary step to open up state funding for non-Orthodox Jews.

Fine noted limitations contained in the ruling, which applies to farming communities and regional councils, but not to cities, and acknowledged the concern of parties such as Shas, who fear that the ruling will open the door to expanded funding and even greater recognition of legitimacy.

“I hope they’re right,” he said. “This kind of allocation of state shekels hasn’t happened before,” he said.

Fine said it is also exciting that the announcement came not from the court but from Israel’s attorney general. He noted that while over the past few decades the court has made decisions in favor of equal treatment, “the government has asked for extensions and found ways to postpone and delay. This was announced by the government. That’s an entirely different animal.”

“That’s a positive side of the new unity government,” he said, referring to the recent agreement between Kadima and Likud. “When there’s consolidation, there’s an opportunity for the government to take positions it may have wanted to take before but didn’t have the political ability to do so.”

The Ridgewood rabbi said the decision “allows the development of more options for Israelis than were there before. I think Israelis are sophisticated modern Jews, just like us, and they will consider the various options they have,” he said. “They will look at different synagogues and decide where they’re more comfortable.”

Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and current president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said he thinks the ruling “reflects an inevitable development in a country that has a secular government. If a particular community chooses someone to be their rabbi, whether traditional or not, the government will eventually fund that rabbi as an acknowledged religious leader. I understand that and accept that this is probably inevitable.”

Goldin said that at the same time, “I think we have to be careful about exporting divisions and religious denominations [from the] diaspora willy-nilly to Israel, and saying that everything that applies here, applies there. It’s a different society; it has different needs.”

“It’s not clear to anybody that Orthodox/Conservative/Reform divisions are same [here] as they were 40 years ago, or that they will be the same in 20 years,” he said. “It’s counterintuitive to say that these have to be the denominations in Israel,” he added, suggesting that we must be “careful about imposing [on Israeli society] what have been uniquely diaspora developments and assuming they will take root and be effective there.”

Goldin said that when the government of Israel is called upon to have “religious standards that unify us,” he would hate to see us export our divisions to that country.

“What will happen is that things that divide us here will start dividing us there,” he said, citing issues such as conversion, Who is a Jew, and matters concerning divorce and marital status. “We’ll end up having a situation where the unity that does exist will be threatened. That can be dangerous.”

Still, he noted, “Having said that, I recognize the problems of the unified standard as it exists. There are issues that need to be addressed by the rabbanut, but they should be addressed internally.

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