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entries tagged with: Temple Emeth


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.


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.”


Tenafly youth in Weizmann Institute program

Before beginning his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tenafly resident Mark Velednitsky is manipulating fruit fly genes in a laboratory at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

Mark is one of 19 American students chosen to attend the 42nd annual Dr. Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) science program at Weizmann, one of the world’s foremost centers of scientific research and graduate study. The other 60 students in the program — not all Jewish — hail from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland, and Turkey.

“For the large majority, it’s their first exposure to Israel, and they bring diverse perspectives,” said Mark, a 17-year-old 2010 graduate of the Bergen Academies in Hackensack. “We had a cultural-presentation night where everyone talked about their country, and some sang [traditional] songs. We have plenty of opportunities to learn about other people, but at the end of the day we’re all here to learn science.”

Mark Velednitsky works on a project in his lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

ISSI combines four weeks of intensive exploration in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, or computer sciences with trips and lectures on Israeli history and current events. The ISSI program’s first trip was a guided tour of Jerusalem. The students are also going north to the Galilee, south to Eilat, and east to Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea.

The goal of Mark’s research is to better understand neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. The hypothesis is that in affected brains, the natural “pruning” mechanism used by neurons (nerve cells) somehow goes haywire, killing off healthy neurons.

“In the lab, we manipulate genes in Drosophila flies and then look at their brains to see what affect those genes had on certain neurons,” Mark said. “This can help us to figure out the mechanism behind changes in the development and decay of neurons. Hopefully, many years down the road, this research will have applications for understanding human neurodegeneration.”

Mark’s first love is mathematics. He was captain of the math team at the Academies in his senior year, and each year took part in seven two-day math competitions at top-tier universities such as Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duke. A psychology research course in his sophomore year sparked his interest in brain and cognitive science, which he approached from a computational perspective to understand how complex thoughts arise from the interaction of simple nerve cells.

With the help of the course’s instructor, the following year he and a friend did a research project on the importance of order in educational design. “That is a fancy way to say that we assessed how the way in which material is presented to students will affect how they ultimately understand it,” Mark explained. “I used students in my school as subjects.”

That project took first place in the behavioral sciences category of the North Jersey Regional Science Fair and earned a semifinalist slot in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition.

Mark lives with his mother, Robin Privman, and is a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. His father, Boris Velednitsky, lives in Bridgewater. Last year, Privman took her son on his first trip to Israel.

“Weizmann and ISSI interested me because my mother lived in Israel for a few years and has distant relatives here,” he said. “I came across it when I was browsing a Website of summer program ideas. The sophistication of the work they gave people really impressed me and I thought, ‘This is right up my alley.’ I wanted to have a cultural and travel experience on top of a great research experience going into college.”

Under the supervision of a graduate student, he and his American lab partner have learned to dissect the tiny flies with forceps under a microscope. “It took about three days to get it right,” he said. They manipulate the genes of the flies using various solutions and instruments. “There are a lot of techniques we use that I’d never heard of, so I’m grateful I got put on this project to learn them.”

Living on Weizmann’s lush Rehovot campus with access to swimming and sports facilities, ISSI participants are also learning about the Israeli way of life. Mark said the work culture in Israel seems different from that in the United States.

“The lab is more relaxed, informal and social,” he observed. “For instance, the lab director invited everyone out for hummus last Tuesday. But there aren’t so many other differences. There is a lot of commonality among people passionate about science.”


Mosque near Ground Zero?

Jewish-Muslim dialogue team speaks out on Cordoba House controversy

On behalf of this newspaper, Rabbi Steven Sirbu asked members of the Temple Emeth-Dar-Ul-Islah Mosque dialogue team how they felt about the Cordoba House controversy and what effect, if any, the controversy might have on relations within the two communities. Below are some of the replies.

Stephen Friedman, a board member of Temple Emeth, said that while initially [before joining the dialogue team], “I had to overcome some trepidation and irrational fear, due to the frequent media association of Islam with terrorism that had filtered into my consciousness … after a year of dialogue I count my Muslim colleagues as my friends.” This does not mean, he said, that there are not differences needing to be addressed, “but the fact that as a group we were able engage in meaningful dialogue on challenging issues like the Middle East conflict was very encouraging.” Adding that he strongly supports the building of Cordoba House, Friedman wrote, “The vast majority of Muslims, like Jews or Christians, are good people living lives of faith, dedicated to their families and communities. The Cordoba Center represents moderate voices in the Muslim world, the kind of voices that we should all support.”

Elijah Muhammad, a member of the mosque, suggested that “the controversy in itself shows that as a country and as a community, we are not accepting to groups who are outside the norm of our thinking. Instead of protesting the building of a cultural center that will happen to have a mosque inside, we as a community should be celebrating our diversity, not rejecting it…. It was not Islam that did those (9/11) attacks, but a group of people who were on a mission that did not reflect the teachings of Islam.” Muhammad said his biggest concern was the ADL statement, which “really caught me by surprise. Being a group that was involved in the civil rights, I would assume they would have been more sensitive.”

Arthur Lerman, an Emeth member, pointed out that in 1964 he had been a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was in a Mississippi church when it was attacked. He drew a comparison between his experiences then and now, noting that his support for both the southern church and the Islamic center “is based on the furtherance of Jewish values: the right of our fellow human beings to live in freedom, and our obligation to live well with one another — without suspicion, in an atmosphere of open-hearted good will.”

Shaheen Khateeb, from the mosque, said that since she could not express her feelings as eloquently as those who have already spoken on the subject, she would quote several of them instead. She cited New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reminder that “Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans.” She also quoted CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, who said, “The debate over whether an Islamic center should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center has ignored a fundamental point. If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them.”

Applauding plans to build Cordoba House, team member Dr. June Moss Handler of Emeth called it “a practical and symbolic opportunity for the Muslim community to remind us that most Muslims seek interfaith respect and understanding and are willing to work to gain that consideration. They should not have to,” she added. “As Jews we understand this only too well.”

Marcia Shapiro of Emeth said she has been “quite upset” over the controversy “and especially at the reasons given for opposition to the project. For those who say that it is hallowed ground, I remind them that the site is a former Burlington Coat Factory,” she said, noting that while she would have had the same opinion even if she had not participated in the dialogue, “there is no way I could have felt such an emotional reaction before this experience.” Said Shapiro: “As recent events have unfolded, I have seen them through the eyes of my Muslims friends and I imagine how it must feel to hear that the mosque will be an ‘insult’ to 9/11 victims…. The Muslims I grew to know are good-hearted people of faith who are committed to their families and their communities. The true insult is to them.”


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.”


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.


Is anything unforgivable?

Pre-High Holy Day workshops to explore Wiesenthal book

Would you—should you—forgive someone who has confessed to torturing and murdering your co-religionists?

While many would agree with noted Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal—whose protagonist in “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,” withholds granting such pardon—others might answer differently.

Indeed, reactions to Wiesenthal’s book, first published in 1976, were so diverse and so passionate that the publishers reissued it 20 years later, including dozens of responses from people supporting different positions.

Idajean Fisher

“The story is very visceral,” said Teaneck resident Idajean Fisher, who will lead a three-part reading and writing workshop on the book at Temple Emeth beginning Sept. 13. “It’s not possible for anyone to read the book and not put themselves in the author’s shoes, not wonder what they would have done,” she said, noting that while the original 100-page book has been called a novella, it is based on a real experience.

“It’s really startling to look at the list of who responded to the book,” she said, pointing out that for the most part, these responses were unsolicited. The 53 responses included in the book’s second edition come from theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocides throughout the world.

“People began writing to the author, saying things like ‘You really made me think,’” she said. “It invites discussion.”

Fisher’s class is part of the shul’s mini-university, which supplements the synagogue’s regular education program, focusing intensively on specific topics.

The first session of the workshop will discuss the original book, in which a forced laborer who has seen the destruction of his family and community is brought before a dying German officer, who pleads for forgiveness. The Jewish laborer remains silent, but wonders years later if he had done the right thing.

“At that moment, he has to decide what is the higher commitment to a Jew,” said Fisher, “to give comfort, or to never forget. There are all different answers.”

In sessions two and three of the class, participants will read and discuss some of the responses and compose their own answers.

“They can be in whatever form a person is comfortable developing,” said Fisher, adding that she expects most will be done as essays or as poetry.

Fisher’s goal is to further participants’ “introspection—helping people look at how they feel about forgiveness, what their limits are,” she said. “In essence, we as modern American Jews look back at the Holocaust and even to make sense of [it] is a monumental thing.” One result of her class may be to help people “get in touch with and articulate those feelings and how we feel about it.”

Fisher, a congregant who often volunteers to teach at the synagogue, said she thought the book, and the problems it poses, would make “a neat workshop.”

She said that while the synagogue does not usually hold educational programs until after the High Holy Days, her class—with the topic of forgiveness, so appropriate for the penitential season—”is being offered at an unusual time of year.”

Longtime Temple Emeth congregant Peter Adler will be among those attending the workshop. Born in Germany, Adler escaped from that country in 1939, at age 8.

“I saw that Idajean was doing this workshop and I was interested because I was familiar with the subject,” he said. A former Teaneck resident now living in Fort Lee, Adler said that over the past few years, he has put together a presentation called “Forgiveness: Out of the Ashes,” which he has delivered to various Jewish groups.

“I put it on at the JCC [on the Palisades], Temple Emeth, and for a Second Generation group at the JFS in Teaneck,” he said. “The whole idea is that you can’t continue hatred of the German people because at one time the Nazis were in control and did horrible things.”

“There’s a new generation,” he said. “We have to forgive and learn how to get along.”

Adler noted that older people, as well as children of survivors, have found his position difficult to accept.

“They can’t forgive,” he said, adding that he himself has gone back to Germany more than once. He and his wife, Ruth, traveled to Frankfurt on a trip sponsored by the city for former citizens. On a second trip, he brought his children.

While there, he was “moved” by what he saw, visiting the city’s remaining synagogue. These trips, he said, triggered the creation of his presentation.

Still, Adler recognizes that he might feel differently had he not been able to escape Germany when he did.

“The whole idea is that [Wiesenthal] was asked to forgive after horrible things happened. Faced with that, I don’t think I could forgive. It may depend on what you’ve experienced personally. I might feel differently if I had been in a concentration camp.”

He noted that a close friend of his, a survivor, did forgive the Germans, although he felt compelled to drop his religious observance after the Holocaust.

“I’ll definitely think about the book during the High Holidays,” said Adler. But mostly, “I’ll ask if I can forgive my own sins.”

The workshop will be held on three Tuesdays, Sept. 13 and 20 and Oct. 4, from 8-9:30 p.m. For more information, call Temple Emeth, (201) 833-1322.


Shofar time is here again

Something old, something new

Lois Goldrich
Published: 09 September 2011
Shofar-sounders prepare to follow new mahzor
Temple Emeth’s Carly Etzin honing her shofar-sounding skills at home. Courtesy Carly Etzin

Teaneck’s Temple Emeth has not had to look further than its religious school graduates to find accomplished shofar sounders.

According to Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of the synagogue, his congregation relies on two alumna to sound the ram’s horn on the High Holy Days.

“The older of the two, Jessica Firschein, is in her mid-20s and does all her preparation on her own,” he said. The younger, 15-year-old Hillsdale resident Carly Etzin, has been working with Jessica and the rabbi to prepare for the holidays.

“Jessica was looking for an apprentice,” said Sirbu. “She did a class after religious school four years ago and drew about 10 students. Carly was one of them.”

Having sounded a shofar since age 11, Carly says she was inspired by Jessica’s example. “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said, noting it has been something of a challenge to manage her breathing. But Jessica has helped her master the skill.

“She said to practice holding your breath and sounding it out slowly,” Carly explained.

Last year, Carly sounded the shofar at both the main service and the family one.

“It was so nice,” she said of the family service. “All the kids sit on the bimah. It’s nice to watch them enjoying it.”

Having learned the importance of shofar-sounding in Hebrew school, Carly said she’s always excited as Rosh Hashanah approaches because “I love doing it. It’s a good thing to do for the temple.”

According to Sirbu, Jessica has been the shul’s main shofar sounder for several years. A song leader at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam, “She brings a certain musical element to blowing the shofar.”

Sirbu said that in addition to good breath control and “the patience needed to practice until it’s right, a shofar-blower is like a place-kicker in football or a relief pitcher. They have to work well under pressure. They have one chance to do it right.”

The rabbi pointed out that shofar-sounding in his synagogue has always been done in the service three times consecutively after reading the haftarah. But this year, for the first time, the congregation will follow a different format.

Explaining that Temple Emeth is piloting the morning service of the Reform movement’s new mahzor, he said that “the re-envisioned mahzor pictures the service like a work of classical music, in three movements.” Thus, shofar sounding will now take place in three distinct parts of the service. “I doubt it will affect [the shofar-sounders],” he said, “though it might make it easier, giving them a chance to rest.”

In addition, the new mahzor adds shofar calls in two places they haven’t appeared previously. “There’s a single blast very early, before we declare ‘God, majestic one,’” he said, “like a trumpet announcing the king.” Later, in the prayer Unetane Tokef, the shofar will be sounded during the passage referring to the instrument—“And the great shofar will sound.”

Sirbu noted that at the most recent convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held in New Orleans, “We spent a whole session being updated on the philosophy and goals of the book.”

The rabbi said that sounding the shofar “is a form of being a shaliach tzibur, representative of the congregation.” Therefore, shofar-sounders need to be Jewish and above bar and bat mitzvah age.

“They also need to be able to blow it well,” he said, explaining that the congregation allows children below b’nai mitzvah age to sound shofar at the family service “to groom younger shofar blowers and set them up as role models.”

Some of the youngsters, he said, view the sounding of tekiah gedolah, the long final blast, as a kind of contest.

“We’re trying to discourage that,” he said. “The point of the shofar is for [listeners] to be called to attention as members of the congregation of Israel — not to break some record.”

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