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Selichot at Ground Zero

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 04 September 2009

Two years ago, some 80 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter brought their Selichot service to Ground Zero, offering prayers and stories at the site of the devastated World Trade Center.

“The solemn feelings [at the site] made it more potent and powerful,” said the congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, noting that this year — with Sept. 11 and Selichot observances falling so close together — congregants will once again travel to lower Manhattan for the service.

The shul will hold “a traditional Conservative Selichot service” on Saturday night, Sept. 12, said Kirshner. A series of penitential prayers, Selichot takes place late on the Saturday evening preceding Rosh HaShanah.

“Selichot invokes the High Holy Days,” said Kirshner, “like a beacon or trumpet.” Using special prayer melodies that offer a foretaste of those used on the High Holy Days, “they are a wake-up call, reminding us of the High Holy Days.” The shul’s chazzan, Cantor Israel Singer, will join in the service, he said.

Joining the members of Emanu-El will be Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis — of which Kirshner is treasurer — and a chaplain of the New York Fire Department.

Potasnik, a first-responder in 2001, was also with the congregation at its service two years ago, when congregants “told stories in between their prayers,” said Kirshner. Speakers ranged from “people who lost friends, to physicians who worked at the site,” he said.

Kirshner noted that the service was made possible with the help of site developer Larry Silverstein, “who allows access to this area of Ground Zero.”

The rabbi added that members of the congregation will make Havdallah in the synagogue parking lot before leaving for New York. He expects more than 60 people to attend, he said, adding that he is not aware of any other congregation planning to hold a service at the World Trade Center site.

“Selichot is a time that puts a microscope on the month of Elul,” said Kirshner. “We blow the shofar every day…. It’s really a bell-ringing, telling us to prepare ourselves to usher in the new year.”

In addition, he said, “it’s a solemn time to make right what’s wrong between you and God, as well as you and other people, and to recalibrate” those relationships. Selichot, he said, reminds you “not to fall into your usual Saturday night customs but to do some soul-searching.”

The rabbi said it is important as Jews and as members of the wider community to keep alive the memory of those who died in the attacks on Sept. 11.

“We need to memorialize those who died needlessly on that day. It needs to stay in the frontal lobe of our memory so we don’t forget the reason they died,” he said.

Explaining that the holiday is about “asking for forgiveness and the ability to forgive,” he said, “it is our responsibility to do this in a place where it may be the hardest to do.” While those who will attend the service are certainly not ready to forgive the bombers, he said, going to a place of tragedy “brings a sense of solemnity and introspection,” just as people visit Poland to reflect on the Holocaust or go to a cemetery between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

He said he hopes the service at Ground Zero will accomplish two things — ushering in the season of reflection and renewal “and branding the memory of 9/11 in our daily actions. I’m afraid we’re reaching a state where we’re quickly forgetting.”

For further information, call the synagogue at (201) 750-9997.

 
 

‘We prayed with our feet’

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Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the AIPAC conference. Courtesy Rabbi Kirshner

Mayor Corey Booker of Newark once said, “Democracy is not a sideline sport.” If ever one wanted to prove that statement true, one would only need to spend three days in Washington at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This week, 76 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter joined the ranks of 7,724 (close to 200 from Bergen County alone) others — Jews and gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young — and ran on to the field of the American Israel relationship. Little did we know when we signed up for the policy conference, some as early as 11 months ago, that Israel and America would be embroiled in a public relations mess that would not only take some of the focus off of health care but would also serve as a re-examination and reiteration of the core principles of the 62-year-old partnership. It made for an exciting, engaging, and energetic conference.

First Person

The topnotch speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, members of the Israeli Medical Corps who serviced Haiti, and many more. But perhaps one of the most moving was Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla, who was brought to Israel in the middle of a cold and dark night from somewhere in the desert of Sudan more than 25 years ago. His story of perseverance and determination was powerful.

As a young man living in Ethiopia, he faced a communist regime that did not allow him or his community to practice Judaism. The country continued to enforce more obstacles to normal living and cruelty to the point where Molla and thousands of others had to flee. They escaped, barefoot, with no possessions and little food and water. Their journey eventually led them to the African Sudan. Some 4,000 of their brethren did not make it. The punishing elements took their lives. But Molla and others were airlifted by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel, where they made a home within a homeland and created a family surrounded by new and familiar brothers and sisters.

This story rang the bell of our memories to the Ethiopian children and the Russian grandmothers who walked down the stairs to the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and danced and kissed the ground as our arms opened for their embrace and our collective eyes welled with tears of gratitude. In each of our mind’s tickers ran Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The foundation of the state and the spirit of the state was realized; a home for every Jewish person, then and now, will endure.

Today, Molla, a distinguished member of the Kadima Party, spoke to the AIPAC plenary and at various smaller sessions, too. Many were reminded, when we listened to him and his story, why we were in Washington just before Passover — because we are still making the case for Israel to live in peace.

We took the information we learned from our sessions and speakers, along with the words of our political leaders and Molla’s spirit and determination, and we took to the streets. Tuesday morning we realized Booker’s words, and the AIPAC delegates met with representatives in each Senate office and more than 400 offices in the House of Representatives to lobby in support of a strong Israel-America relationship. We underscored basic principles critical for the continued strength of the Jewish state: the need for quickly passing crippling sanctions against Iran, continuing to condemn the flawed and non-factual Goldstone Report, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority to come to a meeting table with the Israeli leadership immediately for discussions followed by negotiations for peace and the creation of a two-state region. It was a life-changing experience for our new participants. As almost every AIPAC rookie said to me, “This is my first AIPAC event, but certainly not my last.”

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Heschel proclaimed that he was praying with his feet. That is how many of us felt as we boarded airplanes and trains back to Bergen County rejuvenated by our time spent in Washington. We prayed with our feet. The foundations of Judaism and the core fundamentals of America are similar; we celebrate our voice and how we share it, our hand and how we and both America and Judaism are as much about our possibilities as they are about our histories and traditions. Those shared values are the reason the Jewish people have thrived in the United States.

On the eve of Passover, may we never take the freedoms of Shlomo Molla and the State of Israel for granted. May we realize the freedoms afforded us as Americans, and may we use our voices, our feet, and our passion to celebrate America’s and Israel’s unbreakable bond.

 
 

Consortium ensures revival of education program

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Richard Michaelson, Allyn Michaelson, instructor Bette Birnbaum, and Roz Melzer examine an ancient Israelite coin in a 2007 Melton class.

Melton is one of those incredible programs,” said Frieda Huberman, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s director of school services and of the Florence Melton Mini-School. “It’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Clearly, that view is shared by others. When the two-year adult education program was scaled back this past year because of cuts in funding, a group of graduates banded together to launch what has proved to be a successful rescue effort.

“It came out of the minds and hearts of Melton alumni,” said Huberman. “They wanted it to continue.”

The Melton loyalists — spurred by Sharon Weiss, a member of Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon — created a network of synagogue liaisons to reach out to their respective shuls, seeking financial support for the program. Thanks to their efforts, a consortium of some 20 synagogues and two JCCs has joined with UJA-NNJ to fund the program for the foreseeable future.

An educator herself, Weiss said, “I know great teachers and great curricula when I see them. I was taking a Melton class last spring when I heard the program was in jeopardy. I was concerned mainly because the program had such a strong impact on me and I was afraid that this wouldn’t be available for other lifelong learners.”

Weiss, with several other Melton graduates hailing from Beth Rishon, Temple Israel in Ridgewood, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, met with then Melton director Rena Rabinowitz “to get a sense of what our options were.”

“We felt strongly that we should give it a try,” she said. “We felt it was unconscionable not to make an attempt to see what we could do.”

Armed with a list of graduates, together with information about their synagogues, the group conceived the idea of a consortium, asking Melton graduates to arrange meetings between synagogue leaders and those pitching the consortium plan.

“We created a PowerPoint presentation and budget and set up appointments with heads of synagogues,” said Weiss. “The liaisons had a strong influence, talking about the impact the program had on them. It worked out fabulously. We now have enough financial support to offer the program.”

Weiss said the consortium is still a work in progress and she expects that more synagogues will “come aboard.” She said she is not worried about attracting students, since there is already a waiting list.

“I felt very passionate about it because of how it changed my life,” said the retired high school biology teacher. “It helped me understand my place on the Jewish continuum. I was brought up as a cultural Jew but with no understanding and appreciation of the shoulders on which I stand.”

“I have a responsibility,” she said. “I never understood that. I’ve found my Jewish voice,” she added, noting that not only did Melton inspire her to visit Israel but it empowered her to take leadership positions within her synagogue.

Helping to restore the Melton program entailed “full-time involvement,” she said, but it has been worth it. “Not only will we get learners, but we’ll get people who can become leaders.”

“I’m one of many,” she pointed out. “We couldn’t have gotten [so many] liaisons unless people cared.”

Melton graduate Susan Lieberskind, one of the graduates who helped create the consortium, said that once she realized the key to teaching her children to love Judaism lay in her own actions, “Melton became a ‘requirement.’”

Still, added the Hillsdale resident, “participating in adult Jewish education so that my children see that learning is a lifelong endeavor is only part of why I signed up for Melton. Being Jewish is an integral part of my life and I wanted to know the ‘why’ behind the various things I do.”

“Individual synagogue classes are great, [but] Melton provides a sophisticated, pluralistic curriculum and an opportunity to learn with a broader base of community members,” she said. “It makes new meaning of previous Jewish experiences and increases a student’s connection to the Jewish community, creating role models and leaders.”

Lieberskind noted that her Melton education has not only provided her with a better Jewish foundation but has given her “confidence to pursue leadership opportunities in the Jewish community.” One of her classmates recently completed a term as synagogue president, she said, while “a member of my original class went on to be UJA-NNJ president. There is no question that the presence of Melton students makes for a better community.”

According to UJA-NNJ’s Huberman, there will be three Melton 1 classes in Fall 2010, to be held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake. Students will attend two hours a week for 30 weeks. As regards instructors, she said, the program will draw on “the phenomenal Melton teachers who taught in the past.”

Calling UJA-NNJ the “anchor” of the program — which she expects to attract between 100 and 200 students — she pointed out that federation is providing staffing for the program as well as serving a fiduciary role.

“The details are still evolving,” she said, adding that the fall program will include one Melton 2 class as well as post-Melton graduate classes. The program will be open to the community.

For additional information, visit www.ujannj.org/meltonschool, call (201) 820-3914, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

On your mark, get set, read

Everybody's doing it

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So many books, so little time — and local synagogues, JCCs, and Chabad houses are doing their best to help members enjoy that time.

Susan Kolodny — leader of Gesher Shalom–The Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee’s Sisterhood/Ya Ya Sisterhood Book Club — waxes euphoric about the group of 20 to 30 women who meet once a month on Wednesday evenings.

This year, they read 11 books: “Sarah’s Key” (Tatiana de Rosnay), “The Outside World” (Tova Mirvis), “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows), “A Pigeon and a Boy” (Meir Shalev), “My Father’s Paradise” (Ariel Sabar), “All Other Nights” (Dara Horn), “Have a Little Faith” (Mitch Albom), “The Book Thief” (Markus Zusak), “People of the Book” (Geraldine Brooks), “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” (Lucette Lagnado), and “The Help” (Kathryn Stockett).

Books slated so far for the coming year include “The Invisible Wall” (Harry Bernstein), “The Invisible Bridge” (Julie Orringer), “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (John Boyne), “Day after Night” (Anita Diamant), “The Diplomat’s Wife” (Pam Jenoff), and “Those Who Save Us” (Jenna Blum).

Kolodny takes her role very seriously, researching each book and sending handouts to participants before each session. In addition, she recently sent out a survey asking attendees which books they liked best.

“I’m big into feedback,” she said, adding that she has already tabulated the results from the questionnaire and circulated the results to members. She said that in creating the next year’s book list, “I listen to what (the members) say and then formulate the list,” asking members if they would like to lead any of the sessions.

While Kolodny has generally led each discussion, she said this year she will be seeking greater participation from members. The August session, for example, will be led by Carol Garvin and Madeleine Vilmos, focusing on “The Invisible Wall.”

Before each session, Kolodny approaches the Fort Lee Public Library to ensure that it will have copies of the book at the front desk.

The group leader said she was “just a member of the shul” when she was asked to head the book club this past year.

“I try to mix things up,” she said, noting that while she generally begins her book discussions in the same way — citing the book’s title and author, reviewing the author’s biographical information, and providing a synopsis — she always tries to add “one unique thing.”

For example, in the discussion on “People of the Book,” which deals with people throughout the ages who handled and left their marks on the Sarajevo Haggadah, she created a collage of blood (her own, drawn by her husband, a physician), wine, table salt, sea salt, and various kinds of hair. Similar substances are named in the book.

“I asked the members to try to figure out which was which,” she said, noting that “they could identify the human hair but messed up on the cat hair.”

For another session, she arranged that author Dara Horn participate through a teleconference, which members clearly enjoyed, judging from later feedback.

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The Glen Rock Jewish Center welcomed Eva Etzioni-Halevy, author of “The Garden of Ruth,” “The Triumph of Deborah,” and “The Song of Hannah.”

To prepare for her own presentations, she does Internet research, “pulling up all the interviews I can find” with the authors. Preparing for Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith,” she even traveled to The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was speaking.

For “My Father’s Paradise,” which deals with Kurdistan, “I brought pita bread and hummus for the guests to eat,” she said. And for “Man in the Whie Sharkskin Suit,” she compiled a genealogy and a family album of the author’s extended family.

Wherever possible, she also tries to schedule appropriate readings “to match up to a Jewish holiday,” for example, assigning Horn’s “All Other Nights” around Passover time.

Kolodny shared with The Jewish Standard the result of her membership poll.

Asked to list their three favorite books (there was a tie for number one), members chose “The Book Thief,” “Sarah’s Key,” “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” and “The Help.”

It’s not always easy, says Michelle Strassberg, coordinator of the Glen Rock Jewish Center’s book club, which she has led for three years.

“It probably existed before I started,” said Strassberg of the group, which tries to meet every other month.

“It’s challenging, because we’re all volunteers,” she said. “I wish I had more time to give,” she added, pointing out that the synagogue’s rabbi, Neil Tow, takes an active role in the group and often leads the book discussions.

“I feel strongly about keeping people reading and keeping the library a central part of what’s going on,” she said, noting that her goal is to integrate reading, and the shul library, into other things the synagogue does.

Among the difficulties is finding a good time to meet — one that works for all members.

“One year, we tried having our discussions after kiddush on Saturdays,” she said. “This worked well for some, those who attend services, and not so well for others. We usually meet on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, but we try to be flexible to allow more members to attend.”

Strassberg said her book group has a core group of about six regulars, with new people coming each time, depending on the book selected. The average attendance, she said, is between 10 and 12, mostly women.

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Members of the Chabad Center of Passaic County’s book group paid a visit to the rebbe’s gravesite after reading “The Rebbe’s Army.”

“Though we usually have a few men,” she said, noting that attendees’ ages range from the mid-30s to the 70s.

Strassberg and Tow generally put together a list of suggested titles — books with Jewish themes — to which they add members’ suggestions and books Strassberg learns about through reviews.

In addition, she said, “I try to get an author to visit each year.”

This past season, the group welcomed Valerie Farber, the Israeli author of “City of Refuge,” who was seeking synagogue venues through which to promote her book.

“More popular authors are generally too expensive,” said Strassberg. “The rabbi got an e-mail from her publicist. She was pretty good. About 25 people came.”

You can’t always predict a group’s response, said Strassberg. “You plan things, but you just never know,” she added, noting that in conjunction with the shul library’s renovation two years ago, Eva Etzioni-Halevy — author of “The Garden of Ruth,” “The Triumph of Deborah,” and “The Song of Hannah” — came to speak at the synagogue.

“She was quite racy,” said Strassberg.

This year, Glen Rock book club members also read “The Jew in the Lotus” (Rodger Kamenetz) and “Sarah’s Key” — which, said Strassberg, generated a lot of discussion.

“There were all age groups at the meeting and we didn’t know about the roundup at the Vélodrome,” she said. “We were really shocked.”

The Vélodrome d’Hiver was an indoor cycle track in Paris where thousands of Jews were held during World War II before being moved to a concentration camp in the Parisian suburbs and then to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The incident became known as the “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.”

Strassberg is now compiling her book list for the fall season. Possible titles include “People of the Book,” “Day after Night,” and either “As a Driven Leaf” or “The Prophet’s Wife” (both by Milton Steinberg).

“Some of our members were on a trip in San Francisco and found a book about the Sarajevo Haggadah,” she said. That Haggadah is the subject of “People of the Book.”

“It’s really nice and they purchased it for the library,” she said, adding that she will bring the book to the meeting.

“It’s a more popular title and I’m hoping it will bring in more people,” she said. She is also trying to get a children’s author for the coming season.

Strassberg said the group tries to have the rabbi there to moderate discussions “because he has so much knowledge. He’s young and enthusiastic.” While she has also led some discussions, she would be happy to have other members volunteer as well, she said.

The synagogue also offers book discussions in other venues, said Strassberg.

“Our Widows and Widowers group had Sandy Rubenstein, the author of ‘Mark it with a Stone.’ Joseph Horn, the subject of the book, and his wife, Dinah, were members of GRJC.”

In addition, she said, “our book group did an author visit in conjunction with Temple Israel of Ridgewood. Sue Vromen, author of ‘Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis,’ spoke and sold signed copies of her book. It was very well-attended by members of both synagogues, and the question-and-answer session could have gone on for hours, despite the fact that Ms. Vromen was well into her 80s.”

Chani Gurkov, co-director of the Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne and coordinator of its book club, describes it as a reading group for women focusing on books by Jewish authors writing about Jewish themes and Jewish life in different periods and places. The women meet “roughly every six to eight weeks” at a member’s home.

This year, said Gurkov, the group read “The Septembers of Shiraz” (Dalia Sofer), “Sarah’s Key,” “Have a Little Faith,” “The Color of Water” (James McBride), and “The Rebbe’s Army” (Sue Fishkoff).

“(‘The Rebbe’s Army’) is a very important book,” she said, noting that it was suggested by her husband, Rabbi Michael Gurkov, who felt the women should read it.

Because of that book, she added, members of the group were inspired to visit the rebbe’s gravesite.

“It was so informative,” said Gurkov. “Afterward the women had answers, but even more questions. Some said, ‘Now we know why we do (something) this way.’”

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From left, Fran Westerman and Phyllis Mirchin, co-chairs of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel “Book of the Lunch” program.

The next session, scheduled for July 28, will deal with “The Jewish Soul on Fire” (Esther Jungreis).

“The person in whose house we’re meeting sets the tone,” said Gurkov. Participants, averaging about 10 women per meeting, come primarily from Wayne but also from other areas in Greater Passaic County. The group is open to all the women in the area. “We’ve been meeting more than a year and have read about 13 books,” she said, explaining that the group had been initiated by an Israeli woman who offered to host the first session.

“I told her, ‘You pick the book, I’ll send out an e-mail.’ We had about a dozen takers, and the first meeting was great,” she said.

Gurkov said she started with a list of the 100 best Jewish books of the year and that her husband, an avid reader, also contributed suggestions. In addition, participants brought their own lists and proposals. At the end of each session, the group selects its next book.

“It’s been a very positive experience,” said Gurkov. “No one has dropped out and everyone seems to look forward to it.” Participants were “not necessarily friends” when the group began, “but now we are.”

Cheryl Wylen, cultural arts director of the YM-YWHA in Wayne, said the book group at the Y’s Goldman Judaica Library has been meeting for over 15 years — “and several of the attendees have been with the group since the beginning.”

“Some of our most lively discussions have been on books that the group didn’t like,” she added. “People tend to come whether they’ve read the book or not. The discussions often bring up thoughts or memories from the past and individuals like to add their personal experiences to the discussion.”

According to Y librarian Wendy Marcus, the book discussion group varies in size, ranging from 10 to 20 participants. While most attendees are women, “we have a few men who come as well.”

In general, she said, the group meets once a month, from September to June, frequently on the fourth Thursday of the month.

“Our book choices have a Judaic theme or are written by a Jewish author,” she said.

Among this year’s books were “The Dream” (Harry Bernstein), “The Romance Reader” (Pearl Abraham), “The Rabbi” (Noah Gordon), “Have a Little Faith,” “Sarah’s Key,” and “Disobedience” (Naomi Alderman).

Sometimes the librarian herself facilitates the discussion, but it may also be led by a library committee member or one of the group members.

“Several authors presented their books during our Lunch and Learn program, which meets every other Monday at noon from September through June,” said Marcus. “Michelle Cameron told us about her book ‘The Fruit of Her Hands,’ the story of Shira of Ashkenaz, and Rich Leitman spoke on his book ‘Dear Roz,’ about his father’s letters home during World War II. Sondra Gash and Gail Fishman Gerwin read us their poetry.”

Marcus added that sometimes library committee volunteers present a program called “The Next Level,” discussing in depth the writings of a particular author, or a particular topic. This year’s author was Cynthia Ozick.

While next year’s agenda has not yet been set, she said, the group will probably start off the year with “Golden Willow” (Harry Bernstein).

Sharry Friedberg, River Vale resident and book discussion leader at the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township, said the idea of a book club spun off three years ago from a sale of gently used books.

“I put out a piece of paper (at the sale) to see if anyone wanted to join a book club,” said Friedberg. “Ten people gave me their e-mails.”

The group — which this year read “Mudbound” (Hillary Jordan), “The Commoner” (John Burnham Schwartz), “The Space Between Us” (Thrity Umrigar), and “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” (Katherine Howe) — meets once every two months, drawing different people each time. Most attendees are women between the ages of 40 and 65.

Dates have already been set for the coming year, with books including “Little Bee” (Chris Cleave), “The Wives of Henry Oades” (Johanna Moran), and “The Fruit of Her Hands.”

“You get to put part of yourself in a book discussion,” said Friedberg. “You become friends, getting to know each other through your thought processes. It’s nice that we’re all different ages,” she added, explaining that it brings a wider perspective to discussions.

While Friedberg has been the moderator so far, she is hoping others will volunteer, since “it will give them more ownership of the group” and might also stimulate them to bring friends along.

Fran Westerman and Phyllis Mirchin have been leading the Fair Lawn Jewish Center (now FLJC/Cong. B’nai Israel) “Book of the Lunch” club for some 15 years, regularly drawing crowds of 60 to 90 people to its bimonthly meetings.

Sometimes, said Westerman, the organizers are “fortunate to get an author,” but they have also been lucky in drawing popular reviewers such as former Jewish Community News editor Edith Sobel, who always does the first review of the year.

The secret to their success?

“We’re on the phone every month making calls,” said Westerman. “Basically, our concern is to get the speaker, then let them choose the book.”

“Edie always tells us what she wants to do, and Rabbi (Ronald) Roth knew what he wanted to do as well,” she said. “Rabbi (Neil) Tow will do one in the fall and choose his own book.”

All books “have to be Jewish in some way,” she said.

Westerman said that while the sessions attract more women than men, “we have a nice group of men who come mostly with their wives. It’s definitely a senior citizen crowd,” she added. “We usually don’t get anybody younger than their 60s.”

This year’s books included “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” (Peter Manseau), “My Father’s Paradise,” “Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self” (Carole S. Kessner, who attended the session), “Conquering Fear” (Rabbi Harold Kushner), “All Other Nights,” and “Indignation” (Philip Roth).

“Edith always chooses books that are more thought-provoking and not always the happiest,” she said, pointing out that perhaps only a third of attendees actually read the book being discussed. “But a lot of people come and then read the book afterwards,” she said.

“Rabbi (Simon) Glustrom did one last fall and was really very good, and we just did Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation,’ led by a Roth scholar.”

The group leader said author Dara Horn spoke at a book lunch at the shul to promote her first book.

“She was a kid, who spoke like a bat mitzvah girl — so fast that no one could understand her.” But when the group invited her back to talk about her second book, “she said, ‘Call my agent,’” laughed Westerman.

Temple Emanu-El in Closter started its book group in September, said Sisterhood president Karen Farber. While some 25 women attended the first session, “not everyone comes to every meeting.”

Books are chosen on the recommendation of club co-chairs Jill Besnoy and Lisa Fischberg, Farber said, adding that the two also moderate each session.

“It’s a great way to learn from each other and connect with one another,” said Farber. “It’s enjoyable if you like to read and get together with others to discuss what you’re reading.”

Besnoy said the group “tries to mix it up a little,” alternating books with Jewish and non-Jewish themes.

“We should read about other communities,” she said, citing books like “The 19th Wife” (David Ebershoff), which deals with Mormons. “It allows us to have an interesting discussion from a Jewish standpoint.”

They also read “The Help” as well as “Those Who Save Us.”

“We get people from all different age groups — from 31 into their 70s — and all types of people,” said Besnoy, who belongs to three other reading groups.

The co-chair said the diversity of the attendees, the fact that members choose the books they read, and the mix of books “make it unique. It’s my favorite book club.”

In September, the group will read “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Diane Ackerman).

Mimi Levin, book discussion chair at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, said the group is now entering its fourth season. Generally, she said, its draws between 20 and 25 people, both men and women.

“It’s targeted for all age groups,” she said, though so far it has attracted mostly seniors.

Next year, the club will meet every other month, she said, noting that she has sent out a survey to “everyone who ever came” asking them to review and rate 30 suggested titles.

“I did a blurb on each one,” she said.

Levin will compile the results and send out a proposed book list to interested members.

“We’re working hard to get more organized by date, books, and facilitators,” she said.

She noted that attendee Beth Chananie (guide and gallery editor of this paper) did a review on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” while member Belle Rosenbloom will review “Shanghai Girls” (Lisa See) in August.

“I ask people if they want to do a particular book,” she said, adding that “we would like to have an author (attend) if we could, though it probably won’t be this year.”

While the group started off by reading only Jewish books, it has now begun to add others to the mix.

“We’ll venture off occasionally into other books to relate to different points of view,” she said.

According to Levin, “People respond to the presentation more than the book. The fact that they keep coming back (shows that) they’re willing to accept one that may not have been their favorite. Members are very enthusiastic, they love the discussion, there’s a lot of interest and participation, and people seem to feel we’re serving a good purpose.”

The Sefer Society book group at Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne is heading into its fifth year, says group coordinator Janet Simon.

“Attendance fluctuates from month to month,” she said, noting that the club, which meets every six weeks, is attended mostly by women in their 50s and 60s.

Last month’s selection, however — “The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood” (Mark Kurzem) — “got a whole group from the Y who wanted to listen to see what it was all about.” Simon said the book drew a “great turnout. It’s a true story, and in some ways unbelievable. It led to a lot of discussion.”

The group coordinator said she particularly enjoys the June meeting, when members select books for the year.

“It’s one of my favorite meetings, talking about books and planning. Everyone brings in ideas.”

While the format up to now has been “easygoing,” next year different members will be asked to lead the discussion. In addition, while previous books have had either a Jewish author or a Jewish theme, she has suggested that the group “branch out and learn about different things.”

Among the books read this year was Norman Mailer’s “The Castle in the Forest.” “Everyone said they would never have read it on their own, but they were glad they did,” she said. “It was well written and interesting, (though) strange.”

Books the Wayne club will tackle this year include “A Pigeon and a Boy,” “The Glass Room” (Simon Mawer), “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” (Dan Senor and Saul Singer), “The German Bride: A Novel” (Joanna Hershon), “The Postmistress” (Sarah Blake), “Blooms of Darkness: A Novel” (Aharon Appelfeld), and “The Invisible Bridge.”

“This is a great thing when you love to read,” said Simon. “It keeps you focused.”

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Members of the Gesher Shalom-Fort Lee Jewish Center book club.
 
 

Community mourns Sidney Schonfeld

Philanthropist called ‘a very caring individual’

Sidney Schonfeld, who died Sept. 15 at the age of 87, is being remembered by many in the same choice words: “mensch,” “friend,” “gentleman”; “kind,” “caring,” “principled.”

The Tenafly resident left Nazi Germany with his family at the age of 12, knowing no English. But as he told The Jewish Standard in 2006, on the occasion of his receiving the Shem Tov (good name) award of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, he quickly taught himself the language, eventually attended City College at night, and started a successful food-importing business. This gave him the means and the time to be generous to worthy causes.

In his eulogy at Schonfeld’s funeral at Temple Emanu-El last Friday, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner said, “Sid was a giver. He always had his hands in his pockets and was helping out someone or some group in need. He would confide in me, ‘Rabbi this person came to me. They are in trouble. They need help. They are getting divorced, paying for day school. It is hard for them to make ends meet.’”

Kirshner said he would reply, “‘Sid, you are a tzaddik. You give to any and every organization that has the letter J in its initials. UJA, JNF, UJC, JTS JFS, USCJ, JCC, JCRC, and many more. Sometimes you can say no, Sid.’

“It was like I was speaking a language he had never heard,” Kirshner continued. “He said to me, ‘Rabbi, he needs help. I can. I will.’”

Ed Ruzinsky “knew Sidney through his caring affiliation with JFS” — Jewish Family Service, one of those J-initial organizations. Ruzinsky, a JFS board member for more than 30 years, said that “from the day he got involved he was committed to the mission of JFS and he lived it…. Until his health began to deteriorate he would be at board meetings. Sid was a trustee to the end of his life.”

He was also, Ruzinsky said, “as close to the perfect gentleman as you can find — a mensch, unequivocally devoted to our community, a very caring individual and a great human being.”

Sandra Gold, the president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, worked with Schonfeld on the boards of the JHR, the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities, and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and in other ways.

“When he undertook to resolve a need in our community he was tenacious,” she recalled. “He took it upon himself to create a scholarship fund at the JCC for students who could not [afford to] go to college without some help. He was relentless in his pursuit of raising enough funds to make a difference.”

Also, she said, Schonfeld “knew how to be a good friend…. I do not know a kinder soul. He was an elegant, old-world, sensitive human being who resonated with the people around him…. You just have to look at the causes that he undertook. He just couldn’t look the other way. He felt compelled to reach out his hand and help.”

Gold and her husband, for whom the Arnold P. Gold Foundation is named, promote “humanism in medicine,” the tradition of compassionate care, and she was touched by the fact that Schonfeld “never failed to go out without a ‘Humanism in Medicine’ pin on his jacket.”

And like Ruzinsky, she was struck by the fact that Schonfeld did not let age and illness keep him from communal work.

“As Sid grew more frail,” she recalled, “he still managed to come to allocations meetings at UJA and board meetings at the Jewish Home. He put himself second. He continued to work on behalf of those in need.”

Gold called him “a terrific role model,” adding, “he could have put his feet up and watched television and leave [communal work] to others, but he continued to advocate for those in need….

“When I think about Sid,” Gold said, “I think about 1. what a good soul he was, and how kind, and 2. how much he loved his wife Hilde.”

That love was legendary. Hildegard Schonfeld died 10 years ago, and those who knew him say that he missed her every day.

Emanu-El’s Kirshner noted that Schonfeld had donated a Torah to the shul in her memory, and “each week, as we would march the Torah around, a smile would go from ear to ear, not only because it was a reminder of his tradition but also because it was a reminder of his wife.”

At Schonfeld’s funeral, which was attended by some 500 people, Kirshner said, “We can be consoled that, after 10 years, Sidney is in Hilde’s embrace.”

Schonfeld is survived by his son Gary and his wife Elisabeth; his daughter Victoria and her husband Victor Friedman; and five grandchildren, Jared, Remi, Zachary, Matthew, and Sam.

Contributions in his memory may be made to the Sidney Schonfeld Fund at Temple Emanu-El or the Schonfeld College Scholarship Fund at the JCC on the Palisades.

Arrangements were by Gutterman-Musicant Funeral Directors in Hackensack.

 
 

Israel is your country, too

Knesset member Dalia Itzik brings messages of peace, unity to Solomon Schechter in New Milford

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Dalia Itzik, head of the Kadima faction in Israel’s Knesset, addressed students and community members at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford on Tuesday. SSDS/Rachel Banai

Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female speaker of the Knesset, brought a message of peace to New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School on Tuesday as she addressed community leaders and students.

“We need you as our friends, we need you as our partners,” the former Knesset speaker said to a group of rabbis and community leaders. “We need you to continue your longtime support of Israel.”

Itzik’s visit was sponsored by Israel Bonds and coordinated by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter. He praised Schechter’s plurality and told The Jewish Standard, “She’s going to see some of the plurality we hope for in Israel.”

Itzik first addressed a group of rabbis and school officials, updating them on events in Israel and the peace process and Iran. Last year’s Operation Defensive Shield was a response to a constant barrage of rockets from Hamas and eight years of restraint by Israel, she said. She labeled those who criticized Israel during the operation as hypocrites, and dismissed the notion that Hezbollah and Hamas are fighting for land.

“They’re not fighting over borders. They’re not fighting over agreements,” Itzik said. “The real conflict is with our values, the values we share with you and the free world. The rest is just an excuse.”

Extremists are also a threat to the Palestinians, so reaching “a clear and viable solution” is a common interest, she said. Itzik warned that Iran will be a danger to Israel and the entire West if it attains nuclear weapons.

“Bitter experience has taught us to take such madmen [as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] seriously,” she said. “The ruler of Iran denies the Holocaust and has made us his target.”

After a performance of “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” by the first-grade class, Itzik moved from one room to another to address the school’s sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grades. She began by asking how many students understood Hebrew. The majority raised their hands. She then asked how many planned to visit Israel during Pesach. Again, the majority raised their hands. But when she asked how many wanted to be members of the Knesset, not a single hand went up, which drew a few chuckles.

Itzik then took a few questions from students, which they asked in Hebrew and then in English.

“Israel is your country, too,” she said. “I am very, very proud we have a country. With your help and your parents’ help, it will be a better place.”

Every day Israelis greet each other with “shalom” or “mah shlomcha,” how are you, which comes from the same root as shalom, she said.

“I don’t know any country in the world that dreams of peace [more than Israel],” she told the children.

Speaking to the Standard afterward, Itzik said the number of Israelis and diaspora Jews who never knew a world without Israel is growing, and they need to understand their responsibilities to help the state, just as the founding generation built Israel. Even her own children, now grown, she said, don’t understand what a miracle the Jewish state is, and that Israel still needs to fight for its existence.

That Israel is a democracy is another miracle, she said, considering that so many of the first wave of immigrants came from non-democratic countries in the Arab world.

“It’s very important for the young generation that they understand, that they continue what we started,” she said.

The 10-month settlement freeze, which Itzik did not support, was a major gesture to the Palestinians, which they should appreciate, she said. She does not support extending the freeze, but she and her Kadima Party support continued negotiations. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and other extremist elements in the region do not threaten only Israel, and the Palestinians should recognize that, she continued.

“When you talk with moderate Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, they understand we are in the same boat,” she said. The extremists “have adopted violence as a way of life,” she continued. “Since we’re in the same boat, [the moderate Arab governments] understand they must make concessions [in negotiations with Israel].”

Peace is the ultimate goal, she said.

“We want peace. This is our dream,” she said. “We have to convince the international community [that the terrorists] fight against what we represent — democracy, human rights, women’s rights, values.”

Itzik, who began her career as a teacher, is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of education. She was elected to the Knesset in 1992 as a member of the Labor Party, and has served as minister of the environment, minister of industry and trade, and minister of communications. In 2006, she left Labor for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s fledgling Kadima. Later that year, she was appointed speaker of the Knesset, a position she served in until 2009. During that time, she twice served as acting president of Israel.

“It was such an amazing match for her to see the kind of young leaders we raise, the level they care for the State of Israel,” said Ruth Gafni, SSDS head of school. “I was very touched by her commitment to support the peace process despite the difference in the parties.”

Especially for the school’s female students, Itzik is an example of what women can accomplish, Gafni said.

“It’s a wonderful fit,” said Gafni. “For the children, Dalia Itzik is a perfect role model.”

 
 

Rabbi Naomi Levy to speak in Closter about finding light in dark times

Chanukah provides a perfect metaphor for Jewish teachings, says Rabbi Naomi Levy, former pulpit rabbi and founder of the Jewish outreach group Nashuva.

Levy — who will be scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-el in Closter this weekend —told The Jewish Standard that “our tradition chose to put a festival of light right when the world is darkest. It’s not exactly an accident.”

“Judaism is telling us that when the world seems bleak, dark, and cold, we should light a candle” rather than giving in to despair or hiding under the covers, she said. “The light of one little candle can illuminate a great space, and when it bestows light, the original flame is not diminished.”

The same is true of loving and caring, added Levy, who said she learned a great deal from her daughter Noa, now 14, who was diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease ataxia-telangiectasia at age 5. She credits Noa with giving her the title of her new book, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living” (Doubleday Religion, 2010).

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Rabbi Naomi Levy Courtesy Rabbi Levy

“Noa saw hope not as an idea, but really understood it as something like a living force,” she said of her daughter, whose ataxia, lack of balance, ultimately proved to be static, rather than degenerative.

“What she was saying was that it’s one thing to search for hope, but there’s another option, something deeper: to open up and let hope find us. What I’ve learned over the past seven years is that the resources of hope and blessing are all around us, at every turn, every day.”

Levy said that while we might not necessarily get what we hope for, there are nevertheless “sources and openings of hope and blessing and strength that are here.” For example, she explained, we should never assume that we have to go it alone.

“It’s one of the most important principles of Judaism,” she said. “We’re a communal people.” Some prayers, like the Mourners Kaddish, cannot be said alone. This is psychologically helpful, she said, since it allows the community to provide comfort to the bereaved.

Levy said she was blindsided by her daughter’s initial diagnosis.

“I had this paralysis; I didn’t know what to say to God. The irony was that I had just written a book called ‘Talking to God.’ But I didn’t know what to pray.”

Ultimately, however, she gained strength from Noa herself.

“One morning Noa woke up with a terrible bout of ataxia and couldn’t keep her balance. She was in second grade. There was no way she could eat breakfast; I had to hold her up.” After telling her daughter that she couldn’t go to school that day, she followed Noa to her room, where she saw the girl hold on to the wall and recite her traditional morning prayers.

“I watched,” she said. “All I can tell you is that it seemed like somebody was lifting her up and strengthening her — just a solid ‘pull’ that had suddenly entered her and made her erect and solid. When she was done, she walked toward me with stability and grace and said, ‘Mom, I’m ready for school now.’”

What she learned, said Levy, was that we all have the power to pray for strength and to receive it.

The mother learned something else as well when, for her 12th birthday, Noa said she wanted to have a rock-climbing party.

“I tried to talk her out of it,” Levy said, “but she insisted. She put on the harness, made her way up a 24-foot wall, and then came down.”

Levy then saw a boy Noa’s age who was crying and too frightened to climb.

“I realized that in life, the greatest disability is fear and the greatest strength is courage,” she said. “Often, [things] keep us from experiencing our world that have nothing to do with our limbs and muscles but with internal obstacles.”

In her talk at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, Levy will discuss the ways fear affects us and how we often spend our days “waiting for our lives to begin.”

She uses the analogy of a real waiting room to make her point. During her daughter’s treatments, she has spent countless hours in these facilities.

“Things started to shift when I began embracing the waiting room,” she said. “I stopped saying ‘I hate this place’ and realized that this is a sacred place, too. It’s a place of community, where mothers of sick children come together.” And, unlike situations where children stand out because of their disabilities, “everyone was normal and beautiful there.”

Citing the verse from Jeremiah, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness,” Levy said she has seen that “when you’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see how far you’ve come, and yet you have come a long distance from that initial place and already so much has been gained and learned.”

Among the first women to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary, Levy was the first female Conservative rabbi to head a congregation on the West coast, serving as religious leader of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Ca., for seven years. Appearing on the list in Newsweek of the 50 top rabbis in America, the author — whose husband is Ron Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles — founded Nashuva in 2004. According to the rabbi, the group has reached out to tens of thousands of Jews, “bringing them back” to the community.

Rabbi Naomi Levy will be scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, Nov. 19-21. At Friday night and Saturday services, she will speak about her books “To Begin Again” and “Talking to God.” On Sunday she will lead a study session and healing program geared to survivors of cancer. For more information, call the synagogue, (201) 750-9997.
 
 

Shlomo Molla, Ethiopian member of Knesset, brings message of diversity to North Jersey

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Knesset member Shlomo Molla meets with members of Solomon Schechter Day School’s student government. Josh Lipkowsky

Few members of Israel’s Knesset can say their journeys to Israel included walking hundreds of miles and escaping from a Sudanese prison.

Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian member of Israel’s Knesset who came to the Jewish state as a teenager, told his story to members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.

During his talk at Emanu-El, which attracted more than 40 people, he spoke about the challenges of his Kadima Party’s remaining outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s need to be a Jewish state but not necessarily one based on Jewish law.

“He’s very quick to have those conversations with people as a black Jew because he knows what it’s like to be told you don’t count,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who met Molla at AIPAC’s Policy Conference earlier this year and arranged the visits.

At Schechter, Molla recounted his harrowing journey to Israel. Molla grew up in the Ethiopian village of Gandar, whose Jewish community traced itself back 2,500 years to the expulsion from Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. The 16-year-old Molla had heard about the Jewish state, and he and a group of friends began a 780-kilometer journey on foot across Ethiopia to reach “the land of milk and honey and gold.”

It was a dangerous journey, Molla said, but they were motivated. Their planned route was from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt and finally to Israel. When they reached Sudan, however, they were accused of being spies for Ethiopia and Israel and were thrown in prison, where Molla saw one of his friends murdered. They were soon taken to a Sudanese refugee camp, where an Ethiopian reached out to Molla and his friends. He directed them to a clandestine location, where they were met by Israeli commandos who brought them to Israel in 1984.

His first shock, Molla said, was seeing all the white people. He wondered if they were really Jews, he said. He now praises the Jewish state for its diversity.

“Israel is not like America,” Molla told an assembly of SSDS’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes. “Israel is the Jewish homeland, a country for each minority of Jews.”

Eventually, Molla went to work in the same absorption centers that helped him adapt to his new life in Israel, and he became a champion of Ethiopian rights. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forming his new Kadima Party, he encouraged Molla to join its parliamentary list, and Molla has been a member of the Knesset since 2008.

Molla left nine brothers and two sisters in Ethiopia. He had no contact with his family there until they came to Israel seven years later as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours.

The story of the Ethiopian immigration is largely unknown to American Jewish children, Molla told The Jewish Standard. He spent last week visiting schools and synagogues in New Jersey and New York, as well as meeting with political leaders in Washington to discuss the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.

“We need the United States to stand behind Israel,” he said, noting that the Israeli public is mostly unaware of the support President Obama has provided Israel militarily and financially.

When Obama spoke in Cairo, Germany, and Turkey during the early days of his administration, he missed an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people, Molla said.

“Obama must come talk to the Israelis eye to eye,” he said.

Molla is the second Knesset member to visit Solomon Schechter in as many months. Last month, Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female Knesset speaker and also a member of Kadima, addressed the students.

“It’s an inspiration,” said Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, who praised the politicians as role models for the children.

While Itzik brought a message of accomplishment for Schechter’s female students, Molla reinforced ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, said Gafni, who added how important it is for the children to see that there are black Jews.

“Our goal at the school is to provide the children an opportunity for learning from the experts in any field and to inspire them with role models in any field, and have them be eyewitnesses to history,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”

 
 
 
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