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entries tagged with: Steven Sirbu


Mosque near Ground Zero?

‘This could have been us’

Cordoba House supporters cite religious freedom as crux of debate

Some local groups strongly support the mosque.

While their reasons range from First Amendment freedoms to trust that rank-and-file Muslims are well-intentioned, they speak with passion about the right of their fellow citizens to build houses of worship.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, whose Teaneck synagogue has partnered with the town’s mosque, Dar-Ul-Islah, to create an ongoing Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, wrote to his congregants, “I have long believed that Muslims occupy a similar place in American society today that Jews occupied about a century ago.”

“It is a community largely of immigrants who have come to America seeking a better life,” Sirbu continued. “It is a community struggling to determine which traditions to keep and which to shed in an effort to acculturate to American norms. And it is a community which is misunderstood by a large number of Americans who fear its influence.”

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, and Rabbi Kenneth Brickman

The religious leader of Temple Emeth pointed out that “it wasn’t long ago that synagogues were blocked by non-Jewish residents who didn’t want them in their backyards. The Jewish Center of Teaneck had to acquire its property near Cedar Lane through a third party, well aware that if their identity as the true purchaser were known, the sale would have been canceled.”

The rabbi told The Jewish Standard that he introduced the topic of the mosque at a Torah study discussion on Shabbat morning and that his congregants overwhelmingly supported the project.

“There was the sense that this could have been us,” he said, “and that these are the types of Muslims that we ought to be working with, building bridges.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who suggested that “we are only a few decades away from when Jews were kept out of Tenafly, when our neighbors tried to block the building of synagogues.” (For excerpts from his pre-Shabbat message about the mosque, go to ‘Good people can disagree’.)

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, leader of Temple Beth El in Jersey City, signed a letter in support of the mosque written by the interfaith Hudson County Brotherhood-Sisterhood Association and published in the Jersey Journal. Urging respect for minorities and for religious freedom, the letter took issue with a “very anti-Moslem” opinion piece and cartoon that had previously appeared in the paper.

Brickman said the issue of the mosque has clearly divided the Jewish community.

“Some of my best friends don’t agree,” he told the Standard, noting that ultimately he concluded the issue is one of religious freedom “and it should go forward or it could happen to us.”

While he was away for much of the summer, he said, “my colleagues who were around said it was a hot topic of conversation at social occasions and services.”

Brickman said that by weighing in on the issue, “the Anti-Defamation League inspired other Jewish organizations to take a more public stance. (See related story.)

“I get the feeling that some responses were because of the ADL statement,” he said. “They didn’t want it to stand as the only public statement.”

Sirbu said that while some argue against the building of Cordoba House, citing the loss of life on 9/11, to hear most of the arguments “is to be exposed to a series of rants motivated, it seems to me, not by grief but by animosity, fear, and politics.”

Questioning the comparison between the treatment of Muslims here and treatment of adherents of other religions in Arab countries, Sirbu wrote to his congregants, “One opponent of the plan said that the Cordoba House should not be built at the proposed location so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on churches and synagogues is outrageous, but do we really want to adopt Saudi standards for New York City?”

Nor does he accept the argument that the mosque should not be built near Ground Zero because it is “holy ground,” citing vocal protests recently held against mosques in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Sheboygan, Wis.; and Temecula, Calif.

Wrote Sirbu, “In Temecula, one protester held up a placard that said, ‘Mosques are monuments to terrorism.’ To me, this is so telling. If we allow the Cordoba House to be displaced from its intended location, we implicitly endorse the idea that every Muslim seeks to undermine our country — an argument made against our people countless times throughout history.”

Sirbu, who attended community-wide Iftar celebrations sponsored by three local mosques at the Glenpointe Marriott hotel in Teaneck Saturday night, said the topic of the Manhattan mosque was raised by several guest speakers, including Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Rep. Steven Rothman. Iftar is the celebratory meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan at the end of each day of the month-long fast. Sirbu pointed out that the root of the word is the same as that for “haftarah,” meaning conclusion.

The rabbi said there were hundreds of participants from the three mosques, some 12 representatives from his congregation, and dignitaries including not only the Teaneck mayor and Rothman but Sen. Robert Menendez, Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, and various Teaneck officials.

“The tenor of Rothman’s remarks was very positive,” he said. In addition, the congressman “made an offer. He said that since young people need to understand all [our] rights and liberties, those present should encourage them to apply for an internship in his office.”

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, noted that there have been no meetings over the summer of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee, nor any formal interactions between the JCRC and the local Muslim community. However, he said, “We will be open to discussing this issue with all of our interfaith partners when we reconvene our meetings after the High Holy Days.”

He added that his personal reaction to the building is that “it will more parallel a JCC than a synagogue.” He is preparing his second-day Rosh HaShanah sermon “on the topic of our entitlements and responsibilities as Americans and as Jews living in a multicultural, religiously diverse society.”


Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Area rabbis reflect on Reform’s past, future

Rabbi Stephen Wylen, left, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, and Rabbi Steven Sirbu

The Reform movement that is marking its 200th anniversary this year looks vastly different from the movement that began as a rejection of what early Reform Jews saw as the rigid and outdated Judaism of their parents.

Today’s Reform Jews aren’t rebelling, because they don’t know as much about their religious traditions, said Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne.

“That has resulted in a return to tradition,” said Wylen who has spent the past 30 years as a Reform rabbi, navigating the movement’s changes. He chose Beth Tikvah because the synagogue has more of a focus on tradition, which he said he likes. And he has noticed a yearning among his congregants to give their children more in-depth Jewish educations than they themselves had.

“The feeling I get from many of the parents who faithfully bring their children [to Beth Tikvah’s Tot Shabbat program is that] they feel there was something missing from their own Jewish upbringing and they want their children to have more and a deeper connection,” he said. “They want their children to feel joy whenever they come into a synagogue, that there’s something here for them that they really need.”

He added, “Nobody does chasidism” — meaning joyous religious expression — “like Reform Jews.”

While many in the more traditional Jewish world may blame Reform Judaism for the rise in assimilation in North American Jewry, Reform Judaism is actually the counter-balance to assimilation, Wylen said.

“Most Jews, once they become Americanized, are not going to choose a way of life that rejects American life and culture,” he said. “If they’re going to remain Jewish, they have to remain Jewish in a way that affirms their culture at the same time. That path is Reform Judaism.”

The Reform movement is in the process of reinventing itself through the so-called Reform Think Tank, charged with reassessing the goals of the movement (see related story). This re-examination is in line with the character of the movement, which pioneered religious equality for women decades ago and turned a woman rabbi into a common occurrence outside of Orthodox circles.

“Reform means change,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly. “We are a movement known for being open to change. That dynamism continues.”

Four decades ago, Millstein said, Reform worship was fairly uniform, with congregants sitting in pews, listening to an organ, and doing responsive English readings.

Not anymore.

Now there are a multitude of services, all under the Reform banner. They include bands, more Hebrew, guitar instead of organs, and more interaction between congregants and rabbis.

One of the big changes in the past few decades, he noted, has been the inclusion of tradition in the Reform service and more textual studies. Different forms of worship have replaced the once-uniform Reform service, so that one Reform synagogue might look vastly different than another. Millstein noted a growth in traditional-style services that are still egalitarian but include more Hebrew than earlier Reform services did. Reform, he said, has begun to take tradition and modernize it.

Temple Sinai joined with five other Reform congregations this summer for a Tisha B’Av service that drew about 200 people. The commemoration of the destruction of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem has not typically been part of Reform observance, but it is one of the many traditional pieces now getting an update. The service included the traditional reading of the Book of Lamentations, but also a discussion of the Haiti earthquake and relief efforts there.

In January, Sinai will hold a Tu B’Shevat seder, which has deep kabbalastic roots. The congregation has created its own haggadah, Millstein said, and plans to include discussion of environmental issues.

“You’ve got the traditional piece there and a modern piece,” he said. “That’s a creative re-appropriation of tradition.”

Millstein noted that he frequently meets with b’nai mitzvah students who come from mixed backgrounds — with one parent who may have grown up in the Reform movement and the other who grew up Conservative. This speaks to the new allure of the movement in mixing tradition and modern values, he said.

“The Reform movement has managed to combine Jewish tradition with the progressive ideal of being an American,” he said. “That value of inclusion and progressive values of welcoming gays, lesbians, intermarried families is an important thing that’s happened in the Reform movement in the last 30 to 40 years.”

For years, Reform Jews have typically taken breaks from synagogue life after high school until their first child begins religious education.

“It’s become more of a challenge to engage Reform Jews in their adult years in synagogue life,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “Reform Jews, along with most Americans, are looking for religion to be highly personal.”

Sirbu pointed to the Internet as a prime example of instant access and customization to individual tastes.

“The more that a Reform synagogue and the Reform movement can really speak to each individual, the more we’re going to be successful in achieving our goals,” he said.

And what does the future hold for the movement?

Reform Judaism is a synagogue-based movement and will continue as such, Wylen said.

“We have to strengthen our individual congregations if we’re going to strengthen Judaism in America,” he said. “That the Reform movement is dedicated to the synagogue is one of our strengths.”

But as technology advances and people find new ways of interacting with one another, Reform Judaism will have to change as well.

“The next 30 years have to be a balance of tradition and technology,” Sirbu said. “We live so much of our lives online and yet the two major goals of synagogue life — worship and community — are achieved primarily in person. Our challenge is to take a generation that is very digitally adept and remind them that some things are best done in a synagogue building.”

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