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entries tagged with: Lois Goldrich


New voices in the community

Barry L. Schwartz: A new direction for Leonia shul

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 23 September 2011

Like Bergenfield’s new rabbi, Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz — new rabbi of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia — will maintain a second job, in this case serving as CEO of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia.

Before entering the world of publishing, the rabbi spent 11 years as religious leader of Cong. M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. In addition to his rabbinic work, he has been active in Jewish environmental efforts, serving on the board of several nonprofit social justice organizations, and has written both books and scholarly articles.

Ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1985, Schwartz received an honorary divinity degree after 25 years in the pulpit.

Schwartz said he is “excited to be living in Leonia,” from which he commutes once a week to Philadelphia.

The Leonia shul, he noted, was headed by a cantor for the past seven years.

“The congregation is very happy now to go with a new model — a part-time rabbi and a student cantor from HUC. It now has the opportunity to have both each week. Everyone is enjoying it.”

Schwartz noted, too, that the town’s Conservative shul, Sons of Israel, was very generous to its sister congregation in Leonia when it closed its doors and became a part of Cong. Gesher Shalom/Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee.

“They donated their ark doors to our synagogue and also gave us a bequest. They were heartfelt in their intentions and it was graciously received by us. They wanted to ensure a Jewish presence in Leonia.”

Schwartz called Adas Amuno, founded in 1871, “a small but old congregation, one of the oldest in New Jersey.”

Members include about 100 families, with “a complete mix of ages.” The synagogue has a religious school and its 75 children range from kindergarten to confirmation.

“We’re for people who are seeking a small, haimish, informal, and warm atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a very down-to-earth community — do-it-yourself — where the laypeople do almost everything. They’re a very hard-working group.”

As a part-time rabbi, Schwartz will lead all Shabbat and holiday services, offer a new Tot Shabbat program once a month, and lead services and celebrations in the religious school. He will also conduct regular Torah study sessions every Shabbat morning.

The shul’s cantor, he said, will lead Shabbat evening services, train b’nai mitzvah students, and teach in the religious school.

“The shul is very proud of its Reform heritage, which means it embraces both tradition and change,” he said. “It has evolved with the times and is proud of its legacy.”

Schwartz acknowledged that “as a small synagogue with limited resources and in the older community of Leonia, we have some financial and demographic challenges.” Still he said, “Our congregation has endured for a remarkably long time and has the will” to continue.

He said that just this past year, the synagogue began cooperating with two other Reform congregations, one in Teaneck and one in Tenafly, to hold joint festival morning services.

He expects such efforts to continue.

Schwartz said the synagogue’s former leader, Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, “was very forthcoming and it was a very smooth transition. The congregation has not had a rabbi for at least seven years,” he said. “There was a real thirst for studying and worshiping with a rabbi and a cantor.”

Schwartz’s wife, Deborah, is a hand rehabilitation specialist. He has three grown children.


New voices in the community

Jim Simon: Paving the way for his successor


Describing itself as “a lively and active Reform Congregation of approximately 400 households serving the entire Northern Valley and beyond,” Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter is ushering in 5772 with an interim rabbi, Jim Simon. He will serve during the coming year as the synagogue searches for a permanent replacement.

Simon comes from Miami, where he maintains his permanent home. He said the nature of the interim rabbinate “is that I don’t know where I’ll be from one year to the next. I go where I can be most helpful.”

The rabbi has been formally trained by the 30-year-old Interim Ministry Network — which, says its website, dedicates itself to the “health and wellness” of congregations. Such wellness is influenced by three kinds of learned leadership skills: “prevention of unhealthy practices before they take root, maintenance of congregational health during times of stress or change, and restorative care when it is required.”

“People who are formally trained by the IMN go to congregations where there has been a trauma of some type — whether conflict, scandal, or death,” said Simon, “something that requires the congregation to take a year to have a rabbi who will help them process this big change and prepare for the future.”

“I’m not a babysitter,” he added. “I’m there as a rabbi but also to help the search and transition committee and to help the board work on a number of issues to help them avoid repeating mistakes of the past.”

“I’m not a big messiah who says ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that,’” he added. “I’m a coach, helper, adviser. My job is to make it easy so when the next rabbi comes, he can hit the ground running.”

Simon, who spent more than 25 years as a pulpit rabbi in the Reform movement, went through his IMN training in 2009.

“It was a chance to do a whole other challenging thing I had the skills for,” he said.

The “rabbi” part of his job in Closter is “easy,” he said, being “basic stuff I have always done: worship, teaching, involvement with life-cycle ceremonies, teaching in the religious school and nursery school — everything a pulpit rabbi would do.”

“I’m not there to make big changes,” he said, “but to provide a year of some stability, tranquility, and wholeness.”

Simon said one of his big goals is to make sure that those who need to move from “some form of mourning” can do so. When rabbis who have been with a congregation for several years leave, for whatever reason, it is inevitably traumatic for some congregants. “The congregation needs its own little grief process,” he said.

In fact, interim rabbis are becoming more common for that reason. Teaneck’s Beth Sholom, for example, hired an interim rabbi for a year before hiring Pitkowsky.

Simon said his congregation is well mixed demographically, dividing almost equally into families with nursery age to bar mitzvah age children; those with children from 13 to 21; and empty nesters and retirees.

He said he will be “teaching a lot,” offering “more ways to help people increase their literacy in some unusual ways.” For example, he said, he will teach a class called “Torah Girls” for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 and their mothers.

In this class, he will focus on four different sections of the Torah, identifying women “who are hidden sources of wisdom, or unappreciated and underrated role models, or women who have been seen in an unfair light.”

He is hopeful teenage girls will come with their mothers to study about women they may not have heard of. While it’s open to anyone, he said, “It’s geared to the teenagers in our congregation.”

The synagogue’s transition to his leadership has been smooth, he said, but “The big transition will take place next year” when a permanent rabbi is hired.


Matching b’nai mitzvah with mitzvot

Kesher Olam provides critical connections

CLEANING UP FOR KESHER Children of members of Kehillat Kesher, the Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood, banded together on Sunday, Sept. 25, to raise funds for the Teaneck Baby Gemach, a local charity which provides diapers and formula to families in need. (“Gemach” is a Hebrew acronym meaning “gemilut chasadim,” or “deeds of lovingkindness.”) The children raised over $320. Courtesy Andrew Leibowitz

Several years ago, as Noah Shlufman began the road that would carry him to his bar mitzvah, his father made a discovery.

As Dan Shlufman joined other parents at his synagogue to discuss the year ahead, students were sent to a different area of the shul to discuss bar/bat mitzvah projects.

“We sent them down with the educational director and past students to talk about different projects,” said Shlufman. “It seemed a bit ad hoc — like reinventing the wheel.”

He also realized, he said, that organizing b’nai/b’not mitzvah projects was precisely the kind of venture the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) might be involved with.

Said Shlufman, the JFNNJ secretary, “We have the resources, and it’s a way to connect to our synagogues and provide ‘added value’ — a real connection to people in the community.”

After speaking with his rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, he became even more excited about the bar mitzvah initiative and presented the idea to federation leadership, which warmly endorsed the project.

Working with a committee that included rabbis and community leaders, Shlufman and his group created Kesher Olam (“Connection to the World”).

The idea, he said, was to “coordinate a lot of bar mitzvah projects for the synagogues in our catchment area.” Five synagogues were selected to pilot the project — his own, Shomrei Torah (Wayne), Avodat Shalom (River Edge), the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, and Temple Beth Or (Washington Township) — but the initiative ultimately is intended to embrace all area shuls.

Shlufman said that while the project involves different arms of the federation — from the Synagogue Leadership Initiative to the Jewish Community Relations Council to the Israel Program Center — “it is being branded as a [federation] program.”

He noted that Alice Blass, the JCRC volunteer coordinator and the professional assigned to the project, prepared a booklet about the initiative.

“Kesher Olam: Connection to the World,” says the booklet, “provides meaningful projects for b’nai mitzvah children, ages 12-13, to join in the good work that is done by various agencies in our community and abroad. Inside this booklet are opportunities to learn, to give back, to experience tikkun olam, repairing the world, and the joy of helping others through hands-on experiences.”

Participation in the program is voluntary. Those who opt to join must devote 15 hours to a project involving “hands-on activities and not merely fundraising.” Quarterly check-ins with federation or with their synagogue is required, and participants are asked to keep a journal of their experiences.

Suggested programs are grouped by interest area, such as “Cancer Assistance Programs” or “Israel Programs,” and specific organizations, such as Sharsheret and One Family Fund, are suggested. The booklet also provides project descriptions and contact information, as well as application forms.

“It doesn’t have to be a Jewish project, but it has to be Jewish-related or espouse Jewish values,” said Shlufman.

Blass, he said, reached out to 40 agencies to gauge their interest in having student volunteers. Of those, more than 20 voiced interest. The next step was to ensure they had programs suitable for 12-year-olds and could provide the necessary oversight.

Synagogues participating in the venture “pre-approve” the listed projects, which, are “optional but sanctioned,” said Shlufman, pointing out that one part of UJFNNJ’s strategic plan is volunteerism, which dovetails nicely with Kesher Olam.

In addition, he said, it will help federation reach out to individuals between 35 and 50, “people we don’t usually get.”

He has already spoken with parents at the five pilot synagogues and gotten good feedback on the project.

“Our hope is to open this up to all synagogues within a few years,” he said, “but we don’t have the professional staff to do that now. We’d like to get some sponsors for the program so it can be expanded and self-sustaining.”

Joy Kurland, JCRC director, said she thinks the importance of the project “is its ability to connect synagogues in an even greater and more meaningful way to federation and provide opportunities for their engagement.”

“Doing community service and meaningful hands-on volunteerism is of great value in learning about tikkun olam,” she said. “It provides [students] with a rich and meaningful experience.” Blass, she said, is the ideal coordinator since in her work with JCRC “she matches volunteers with projects.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the JCRC chairman and religious leader of Avodat Shalom in River Edge, said, “For more than 20 years, my congregation has required that b’nai mitzvah students give a portion of their cash gifts to tzedakah and some time to the community.”

When Shlufman and federation leader Michael Starr — the president of Avodat Shalom — approached him about Kesher Olam, “It brought to the table a new initiative: How to do this communal service in a Jewish communal context.”

Borovitz said he “thought this would be great way to connect to people doing tikkun olam through the Jewish community. I think it’s great. It brings structure to a program that is really good and worthwhile for our kids and families.”

Most important, he said, “It brings an awareness of what we, as an organized Jewish community, do,” he said, describing as “holy work” projects such as those launched by the JCRC, SLI, and Bonim.

“It’s important to make the average Jew in our community aware that this is part of our own Jewish community,” he said.


Babi Yar was part of a pattern

New Jersey high schools to highlight horrific massacre on 70th anniversary

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 07 October 2011
Paul Winkler will remind New Jersey educators about Babi Yar lesson.

Seventy years ago this week, 33,771 Jews were murdered in Babi Yar, near Kiev. According to scholars, the event — commemorated so eloquently in poetry and song — was only one of many such actions taking place throughout that region at the time.

“Despite its singular horrific nature, it has to be seen in the context of Germany’s overall war against the Jews,” says Michael Riff, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College.

Still, Riff acknowledged that Babi Yar holds a special place in our memories, given the “sheer number” of Jews killed during the massacre.

This week in Israel, memorials included a wreath-laying ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem — done in partnership with the Association of Ukrainian Immigrants in Israel — as well as a special memorial concert, “Requiem for Babi Yar,” at the Jerusalem Theater.

In addition, the first-ever educator’s seminar for Ukrainian graduates of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies was held in Kiev itself, focusing on the Holocaust in the Ukrainian collective memory, according to a statement from Yad Vashem.

Riff pointed out that while the Babi Yar massacre was a horrible event, “The horror of it all was already taking place. Jews were being killed on an unprecedented scale in areas of the Soviet Union occupied by Nazi Germany. That is the big story.”


And I myself

am one massive, soundless scream

above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am

each old man

here shot dead.

I am

every child

here shot dead.

Nothing in me

shall ever forget!

>— An excerpt from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” published 50 years ago.

Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said the story of Babi Yar is presented in the curriculum designed for the state’s high schools. Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the event, he intends to send a note to educators reminding them that “this might be a time to use that lesson” when they begin teaching about the Holocaust and genocide.

According to its website, the commission, which promotes Holocaust education in New Jersey, not only designs educational materials, but promotes their implementation throughout the state.

“We teach about [Babi Yar] in the same vein in which we teach about other destructions that took place,” he said. “It’s separate only in the sense that this happened not in Germany or Poland, but outside. It showed the tentacles moving further and further away from the center of Berlin.”

Riff said that while “the machinery of death was at its horrible climax in the concentration camps and killing centers,” research shows that many people were killed in massacres such as those at Babi Yar, through the actions of German units on the eastern front.

“It didn’t just start with the invasion of the Soviet Union,” he said, but had already begun with the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Riff suggested that one reason Babi Yar has captured our imagination is its portrayal in popular media.

“A lot of it has to do with the poem [“Babi Yar”] by [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko,” he said, referring to the poem published 50 years ago in Russian and five other languages. In addition, the depiction of the massacre in the television miniseries “Holocaust” was one “that no-one can ever forget. You want to put it out of your mind, but you can’t. And that was the most influential piece of media on the Holocaust.” [The four-part miniseries was broadcast on NBC in 1978.]

He noted that since 1980, Ramapo College has expanded its opportunities for students to learn about such events through a minor in human rights and genocide studies, with classes taken at the Holocaust Center. He estimated that he teaches about 100 students a year. In addition, he trains dozens of educators twice a year in teaching about the Holocaust.

“We teach them to put it in context,” he said. “People think everything occurred in Auschwitz, Sobibor, etc. But [the killing] took place on an unimaginable scale on the eastern front.”

Riff pointed out that the Ramapo College choir performs at many events commemorating the Holocaust, particularly gatherings marking Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah. He noted that the Holocaust Center has worked for many years with Mahwah’s Beth Haverim — Shir Shalom in sponsoring such events.


Water, water, but not everywhere…

‘Teachable Moments’ gives students new perspective on water conservation

New Jersey has ample water — especially this year, when heavy rains have caused severe flooding. Israel, on the other hand, has suffered from a chronic water shortage for years.

In July, two educators — Jill Grunewald, enrichment teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and Tal Glat, a fifth-grade teacher from Nahariya — found ways to bring this point home to their students.

As participants in the Teachable Moments program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — part of its Partnership2Gether initiative — the teachers created a curriculum they now both use.

Phyllis Miller, Partnership2Gether education task force coordinator, said each year the Teachable Moments program pairs 10 sets of teachers, half from northern New Jersey, half from Nahariya. The educators come together in July to develop a joint project.

“They tour Israel, and everyplace they go they find teachable moments,” she said. “The idea is for both the teachers and their classes to cooperate during the [school] year.”

After working with their counterparts for two years, the New Jersey educators may return to Israel to teach the classes they twin with. “It’s amazing [for them] to see the schools in session,” said Miller. “They meet the teachers and principals and see bulletin boards of projects from New Jersey hanging in Nahariya.”

So far, at least 20 local teachers have participated in the project, said Miller. The teachers hail from 11 towns “from Fort Lee to Oakland.”

Grunewald said she heard about the program from teachers who participated and said it was “wonderful. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with teachers who are excited about a concept,” she said.

When she met her Israeli counterpart, “I told her about the wetlands in New Jersey and that I was working on conservation, a little bit in every grade. She pointed out that there’s so much about water in the Mishnah and Torah. It just seemed a perfect thing.”

“We have too much water, they have too little,” she said. “We started talking about it and got excited.”

Grunewald said she has introduced Schechter students in grades 1 through 6 to programs sponsored by Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) and Project Wild, two federal environmental education initiatives.

She also took students on a tour of New Jersey wetlands last year, during which they explored different-sized sponges, observing their effects on the water. While she is pleased that Israeli children will learn more about New Jersey, she said, she also wants her students to learn more about the Kinneret, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea.

Grunewald said she and Glat decided to launch their joint activities in conjunction with Jewish holidays.

For Rosh Hashanah, students exchanged hand-made greeting cards with an Israeli “twin,” including written introductions describing themselves, their families, and information on how they celebrate the holiday.

For Sukkot, both teachers will provide an overview of the two countries. At Chanukah time, students will start to map and compare rainfall and temperature.

“It’s not just about math,” said Grunewald, “but about relationship-

Not only will the joint projects “link science, geography, Hebrew, Judaics, writing, and real connections, but at the end, [students will] see how similar New Jersey and Israel are, in size, for example. But they’ll see that the water [situation] is different.”

Grunewald said she and Glat e-mail each other “sometimes three or four times a week. We compare notes on what we’re implementing.”


Marking Shabbat in Zuccotti Park

Wall Street protesters make time for Friday night dinner

Now in its third week, the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in New York is gaining strength. Not only is it attracting increased media attention, but it has spread to other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

While no Jewish organizations have formally set up camp at the New York gathering, Jews are clearly involved, said former New Milford resident Daniel Sieradski, who has joined the demonstration about five times.

“I’ve seen folks I know from the young New York Jewish social innovation scene and from the Israeli activist scene,” he said, pointing out that the Shabbat potluck dinner he organized at the protest last Friday night drew some 25-30 participants.

“Our thing was the first and only Jewish event,” he said.

One of the attendees was Sieradski’s mother, Jewish Standard contributor Jeanette Friedman, who lives in New Milford. “I’m a victim of the banks and the bankruptcy court,” she said, noting that her home is in foreclosure. Her husband lost his job after becoming ill and the couple is no longer able to make their mortgage payments.

“A lot of families are being thrown out of their homes in New Jersey,” she said, explaining her support for the protest. “What are the banks going to do with these houses? Knock them to the ground? Leave empty lots? They’re not even trying to renegotiate.”

Friedman is also troubled by “skyrocketing drug prices,” pointing out that she has changed health care plans several times to try to contain costs. “I marched against the war in Vietnam in 1965, for women’s liberation in 1970, and for Soviet Jewry. Why wouldn’t I march for myself? What am I, nuts?” she joked.

Friedman said she brought challah, tuna fish, luckshen kugel, and juice to the ad hoc Shabbat dinner.

“We washed our hands in the rain since there was no water available,” she said. “Some people stopped by and asked for food. One person asked if we had anything gluten-free,” she said. Fortunately, her daughter-in-law had made a “huge pot” of vegetarian cholent.

Sieradski advertised his Shabbat dinner through Facebook and Twitter, and everyone who participated agreed in advance to bring some food.

“I put out the call erev Rosh Hashanah, so only people not fully shomrei mitzvot were likely to hear about it,” he said. Nevertheless, “There were observant people present, including a rabbinical student.”

He said he plans to hold a dinner again, possibly during Sukkot, so that more people can attend. He may also seek a permit to erect a sukkah.

Sieradski said there was “no negativity” directed to the group as Jews. The only complaint from some longtime protesters was that the food should have been donated to the official “kitchen” of the demonstration.

“We brought enough food to feed 50 people,” he said, adding that the guests recited kiddush, made motzi, and sang niggunim (religious tunes) and zemirot (Shabbat songs). Among those present was musician David Peel, who, said Friedman, “used to hang out with John and Yoko,” referring to the late singer John Lennon and his widow, Yoko Ono.

“The mood was very pleasant in a way, like back in the day,” she said. “People were cooperative. Even the [police] were nice at that moment. There need to be more people coming out, but they shouldn’t get ugly about it. Our country needs leaders who will speak to our needs.”

She said she would like to see Jewish organizations that provide social services participate in the demonstration. “We need those who are in touch with people who are hurting to make their voices heard,” she said.

While the demonstration has so far drawn mainly college-agers, attendees “run the gamut,” said 32-year-old Sieradski.

“My mother was there,” he said. “And young kids, 12-year-olds, were among those arrested on the [Brooklyn] bridge. I’ve also seen 80-year-olds.”

He noted that the organizers — who spread the word mainly through social media such as Facebook and Twitter — “are working on the ethnic diversity issue.” While the protest began with a preponderance of young, white men, “We’re working on getting more women and people of color.”

In addition, he said, the demonstration is “all consensus-driven. There’s no-one in charge; we’re all cooperating. That’s what’s so radical. It’s the first protest action that’s completely decentralized.”

Sieradski said he has been attending the demonstration every few nights.

“I was drawn by the fact that there is zero accountability,” he said. “Bankers are buying political clout by financing politicians who don’t hold those bankers accountable when they impoverish the nation.”

He described the often-chaotic decision-making process at the protest as “kind of like a Quaker meeting. One reporter called it ‘a church of dissent.’”

He said he feels “an extremely positive vibe,” describing participants as a diverse group, from the left and right, “from anarchists to Ron Paul supporters and everyone in between.”

Sieradski said that for the vast number of participants, anti-Semitism is not “on their radar.” As in all demonstrations, however, some groups want to publicize their own cause.

This includes radical anti-Zionists, who conflate economic injustice with U.S. support for Israel, and neo-Nazis, who blame economic unrest on the Jews.

The former Bergen County resident said he has been pointing out to organizers that these streams exist, and that there is a need to deal with the problem they create. “It steals the thunder from our focus on challenging politicians,” he said.

The young activist also said he will join the protest again this weekend.

“I’m going because of the words of Isaiah,” he explained, citing the Yom Kippur morning prophetic reading. “How should I spend Yom Kippur — beating my chest, or standing in solidarity with suffering people?”


Seeking relief for ‘chained women’

New study shows agunah tragedy is greater than thought

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 28 October 2011

When she commissioned a survey of agunot in North America, Barbara Zakheim was not certain what to expect. “I didn’t have a feel for the number,” she said. “I thought it was about 300, but it’s closer to 500, and those are just the ones we’ve identified.”

Agunot, or “chained women,” are stuck in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to provide them with a get, or document of Jewish divorce.

Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, noted that the study of agunot was not a “primary survey. Due to the nature of who they are, we don’t know how to find them.”

Barbara Zakheim

As a result, the study — begun in August 2010 and completed one year later – was compiled on the basis of responses provided by Jewish domestic violence organizations, as well as groups that work with agunot. According to these groups, they have seen 462 such women over the past five years.

Zakheim suggested that the denial of a religious divorce is a misuse of power, and therefore a form of emotional abuse. Still, she said, “nobody is leading the charge” to resolve the problem.

Most people, she said, “consider this something that rabbis need to solve, since it’s halachically based.”

Rabbis, however, she said, have not managed to find a solution.

“I cannot say that they’re right or wrong, or that the solution is staring them in the face,” she said. “But rabbis have found solutions to all sorts of other problems that, halachically, seemed very difficult.” She cited for example, rabbinic reasoning that led to the ability of Israeli banks to charge interest, and the creation of eruvs, which allow people to carry on Shabbat within prescribed areas.

With regard to agunot, “The community has thrown up its hands,” she said. “There are agunot in North America who live in difficult circumstances, and no one is taking care of them on a day-to-day basis.”

The study, spearheaded by Zakheim, was conducted by The Mellman Group, a D.C.-based national polling research firm. Lending their names to the effort was the Orthodox Union, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Jewish Women International.

The survey was designed to find out exactly how many women are affected by the problem, how long they have held that status, the number of children involved, the financial situation, custody arrangements, support systems, etc.

“What took me by surprise was the percentage of those living close to poverty or at the poverty level,” said Zakheim.

Among its main findings, the report noted that rabbinic courts have considered half of the cases the responding organizations have seen, and sanctions are not frequently employed against recalcitrant husbands. In addition, it found that most agunot are younger women who have children and are trying to leave their first marriages; have little money; and are unaware of the resources available to them.

Zakheim said she hopes to use the study to interest communal organizations in joining together to provide services to agunot, whether counseling or legal assistance. “They may lose out without a lawyer,” she said, pointing out that many do not know how to deal with a bet din, or religious court.

Another goal is to “finally give some definition to the problem and demonstrate to the Jewish community that this needs to be addressed with the same compassion given to widows and orphans. It’s important to look at this and realize that it’s not just a few people,” she said. “This is a community responsibility, and the community needs to step up.”

Rabbi Howard Jachter — a teacher at Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County and chairperson of the Agunah Prevention and Resolution Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America — characterized Zakheim’s portrayal of rabbis as an “ugly accusation.”

The Teaneck resident, who has overseen the administration of some 3,000 gets, said Zakheim’s analysis, scoring “rabbinic inaction,” ignores efforts being made by the modern Orthodox — at least “here in Bergen County, in Riverdale, and in the Five Towns.”

Jachter — a judge on the Rabbinic Court of Elizabeth and a major proponent of the RCA’s prenuptial agreement, in use among the modern Orthodox since 1992 — said that in his experience, the number of “irresolvable” cases is rare.

(The problem is also not limited to the Orthodox community. The Conservative movement has attempted to deal with the problem by including a get stipulation directly in the marriage contract, or ketubah.)

“Because of the RCA prenuptial agreement [stipulating that a man will give his wife a get in the event that the marriage ends], fear of community sanctions, and rabbis like me,” cases where women become actual agunot are infrequent in our area, he said.

“I’ve had men and women tell me that they’re afraid of public pressure,” he said, adding that he has no doubt that all the modern Orthodox rabbis in this community would take the appropriate measures — e.g., denying synagogue honors to recalcitrant husbands — if that became necessary.

“The Beth Din of America is very active and does whatever can be done to [obtain] a get,” he said.

He noted, for example, that he made a quick trip to a Starbucks in the hours before Yom Kippur “to meet a difficult husband,” bringing some TABC students to serve as witnesses. In addition, he has twice visited jails — “not a pleasant experience,” he said — to obtain gets for local women.

Jachter said it was important to remember that to be classed as an agunah, a woman must first have undergone a civil divorce. Some women also refuse to accept a get, he added, noting that he has seen several such cases.

“It goes both ways,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s not a difficult situation, but I’m not aware of any agunot in this area.”

Zakheim’s charges, he said, “have nothing to do with reality. There’s not one case where the RCA prenuptial agreement has been used and there has not been a get. It’s 100 percent successful. Why is there no mention of that?”

Her “reality,” he said, may be based solely on the “ultra-Orthodox.”

Elke Stein, coordinator of Project SARAH — a domestic abuse project funded primarily by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety – Stop the Violence Against Women Grants Program in conjunction with Passaic County Women’s Center, and the Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic — agreed with Zakheim that “withholding a get can be used as a weapon.”

“We do encourage women to obtain a get as soon as possible, not to wait for a civil divorce,” she said. “If someone is willing to give it, take it.”

Stein — who has referred clients seeking gets to Jachter — said she also agrees that communal agencies should work together to help agunot, “just as we should help victims of domestic violence and anyone who is being abused by a partner.”

The Project SARAH coordinator said that while the RCA prenuptial agreement has been helpful, “It doesn’t solve all the problems. It’s not a complete solution.” Nor would she say that any one group has a bigger problem than another.

“Every situation is different,” she said, noting that she is sometimes surprised by how quickly some women are granted gets when there are still so many issues unresolved in their efforts to secure a civil divorce.

Stein said Jachter has always been “very helpful, persistent, and thorough. He’s a good partner with us.”

She pointed out, however, that not all women want gets. “Many want to stay in their marriages and just want them to improve,” she said.

The full North American Study on Agunot can be found at


Bringing skills to Micronesia

‘Phenomenal’ opportunity to help draws dentist to program

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 28 October 2011
Harry Harcsztark saying his morning prayers on the back porch of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Micronesia. The Teaneck dentist volunteered to work with the U.S. Navy to bring much needed dental care to the former U.S. protectorate. Courtesy Harry Harcsztark

Harry Harcsztark — who has twice participated in U.S. Navy humanitarian missions to third-world countries — says he has come full circle. “I was in the Navy during the 1970s,” said the Teaneck resident. “It feels good to be there again.”

This summer marked the third time Harcsztark traveled abroad as a volunteer dentist. Three years ago, he went to Ghana with The Health & Humanitarian Aid Foundation, recruited by fellow Teaneck resident Mendel Markowitz, medical director of the organization. Last year, Harcsztark worked in Cambodia, under the auspices of the Navy.

“I enjoyed my experience in Ghana quite a bit,” he said. “It was very rewarding.” But since the group he traveled with to Ghana did not need a dentist the following summer, he began to look for a new place. He found it a short time later through an ad in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

“The ad said the University of California San Diego Pre-Dental Society was looking for volunteers to work with the U.S. Navy on two humanitarian missions,” he said. “I answered it, and with the background I had in Ghana, they liked me.”

This summer, Harcsztark joined the naval mission again, this time heading to Micronesia, which he describes as “one of the few true Israel-supporting countries in the U.N.”

He was gone for a month and was based on the U.S.S. Cleveland. Only three weeks were spent working, however. The other week was spent traveling to and from his destination — a trip he paid for himself.

Micronesia, some 1,000 miles southeast of Cambodia, has no Jews, said Harcsztark.

“Nothing, not even a Chabad [House],” said the dentist, noting that he worked on Pohnpei, “somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.” The Navy, he said, was “extraordinarily accommodating” of his religious needs, providing vegetarian food and granting him leave on Shabbat.

Harcsztark said that Navy humanitarian missions last for five months. He chose the Micronesia segment because it was the only one that did not conflict with the High Holy Days and Sukkot.

“I participate in these missions because they provide places to travel and see cultures I wouldn’t ordinarily go and see,” he said. What really makes it worth it, however, is “being able to help people.”

In addition to treating more than 100 patients himself, Harcsztark — the only civilian dentist on the mission — supervised the work of eight other volunteer dentists hailing from the Australian, Canadian, Japanese, and U.S. militaries. He also delivered several lectures on basic dental hygiene and on the more arcane subject of Temporomandibular Joint Disorder, or TMJ, a disorder in the joints connecting the mandible to the skull.

According to Harcsztark, the people of Micronesia “need education more than anything.”

An American protectorate until the 1990s, the nation, still partially supported by the United States, has developed an “addiction to American junk food,” he said. “Kids are addicted to sugar and have little dental education. Their teeth are rotting. I can’t even save some of [the teeth], but have to extract them. By the time they’re 40, most of the population has diabetes and is overweight.”

Harcsztark said the U.S. ambassador even suggested that Israel might reciprocate Micronesia’s friendship by providing more medical care. “He told me to tell this to Netanyahu,” said the dentist.

The volunteer said those who participate in naval missions such as the one in Micronesia serve as “phenomenal humanitarian ambassadors for the United States. They give the U.S. an excellent name,” he said. “It’s only a small outlay of money, but local people love it.”


Alan Sweifach’s Mission

‘It’s all Jewish’ to him

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 02 December 2011

Born and raised in New Jersey, Alan Sweifach — co-managing director of community planning for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) — had four grandparents born in this country. It is the music of European Jews, however, that fired his imagination.

The Teaneck resident has been playing klezmer music since age 14. Clarinetist for the Hester Street Troupe — which includes his brother, Jay, on keyboard, and drummer Jim Bazewicz — Sweifach said the music brings back memories for older adults and “allows them to see their traditions and music still being carried on.”

Sweifach and his brother began playing music together at the urging of their grandfather. “We played by ear,” he said. “I was seven and my brother was nine. My grandfather said we should play something together, so we played duets on piano.”

Alan Sweifach has been playing klezmer music since age 14. “Music,” he says, “lets me make people happy on a large scale.”

Later, he took up the clarinet and his grandfather again asked that he play something with his brother. “Someone from our shul heard us, then people kept asking us to play. We added the drummer when I was 15.”

Sweifach, whose wife, Debra Turitz, is director of the senior adult department at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, has an 11-year-old son, Raphael, who attends the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.

He and his brother have lived “parallel” lives, he said, both graduating from Montclair State and attending graduate school in New York City. Both also work in the Jewish community.

The JFNNJ executive said he got his “first real job” in 1988, after graduating from Columbia University with a major in counseling psychology. “I thought the be-all and end-all was to be a clinical psychologist,” he said. “I wanted a job in college counseling doing academic advisement.”

While doing fieldwork at William Paterson University, “Someone I knew from the band sent me to interview for a job at Jewish Vocational Service in Metrowest. As I was sitting there reading the agency brochure, I realized this was Maimonides’ highest degree of charity, like teaching someone to fish. I said this is where I wanted to be, working for a Jewish agency.”

Sweifach ultimately got that position, working on Russian resettlement.

“I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before,” he said. “My brother and mother work for JCCs, and I was raised with a strong traditional Jewish background. I got into it by chance and have been working in the field for more than 20 years.”

These days, in addition to his work with the federation, Sweifach and his troupe do concerts three to four times a month. Coming up soon, he said, is a Dec. 17 performance at Teaneck’s Puffin Cultural Forum.

“It’s my first local job in a long time,” he said, noting that these concerts of Jewish music are now becoming “second generation” events. “My son and my brother’s three kids are starting to sing Yiddish songs,” he said.

For Sweifach, music is “more than just a hobby. It put us through college and grad school,” he said, explaining that he and his brother often played more than 15 times a month while in school. “We’ve got three record albums out,” he said.

He noted that performing is like a second job, adding that someone once told him that “sweifach,” as it happens, translates as “two jobs.”

“Music lets me make people happy on a large scale — make them smile, laugh, and tap their feet,” he said. “I also get to spend time with my brother and my nieces and nephews.”

Sweifach said that whether in his work life or his band life, “It’s all Jewish. It all has a Jewish component.” In addition, he said, performing at a young age gave him the skills and confidence that have helped him in his professional life.

Over the years, he said, he has seen changes in the Jewish community, “as we Jews have to work harder to get people involved. That’s involvement for the positive [things] that it brings to one’s life, as opposed to people getting involved because they’re excluded from other areas.”

“Jews have unprecedented access to places they were excluded from before, both in business and socially. It’s a whole new world,” he said. “We have to show what individuals can get out of being involved Jewishly — how it enriches their lives.”

“I love every aspect of what I do,” he said.


Helping the federation save big bucks for synagogues

Meet Matt Holland

As an engineer for Black and Decker, Matt Holland held 19 patents.

“The plaques hang proudly in my basement,” said the Highland Park resident, now community purchasing manager for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Kehillah Partnership Initiative.

Holland is the man responsible for negotiating savings for the JFNNJ catchment area’s nearly 160 eligible groups — including synagogues, day schools, affiliated agencies, and community centers. He says his technical knowledge has come in handy.

Matt Holland

For example, when he tells a synagogue board member how the shul can save money on an electric bill, “I can go through the fine print on a PSE&G bill and make the average congregant understand it.”

Born and raised in Baltimore, Holland studied mechanical engineering at Philadelphia’s Drexel University before taking a job at Black and Decker, where he worked for eight years. After five years as a developmental engineer, “It soon became clear to those around me that I had a talent for negotiation.

“I moved into the purchasing world,” he said. “My personality was different from that of the standard engineer. When I went to China — and all over the world — as an engineer, the people I traveled with realized that my personality was suited for negotiation and vendor development.”

Holland met his wife, Shelley, in college. Living in Baltimore while working at Black and Decker, the couple decided to move to Highland Park — a place they knew well from previous visits and where they have lived for the past six years.

Leaving Black and Decker, he got a job as the “purchasing person” at Echo Unlimited.

“It entailed indirect spending — back-office stuff that people take for granted,” he said, adding that he was able to streamline purchasing for the company, putting the process online. Subsequently, he was asked to manage the facility.

When the economy began its downward trend, Echo — as did so many businesses — felt the negative effects. “We were closing facilities, retail and distribution centers, and putting a freeze on spending,” he said. “I could see the writing on the wall.”

As he began to look for other employment, he did some “soul-searching,” resolving to “look outside the box.” Fortunately, he said, Robin Greenfield, JFNNJ’s chief financial officer, saw his resume.

The federation “had been looking to do group purchasing for years,” he said. “They realized that they needed someone to do it on a day-to-day basis, to have somebody living and breathing it every day.”

With his background, he said, “It was a great fit.” As an observant Jew, he welcomed the opportunity to work for a Jewish organization.

One of the first cost-savings areas he investigated was utilities, looking to leverage volume purchases to save the community money on electricity and gas.

“I love math,” he said. “I get excited about crunching numbers on a big spreadsheet. It’s nice to help organizations understand how they could save money. I can talk technically to people who aren’t technical.”

Holland said his “big passion” is running, although, with three young children — Jonas, 5, Nina, 3, and Bella, 6 months — he does not have as much time to do this as he used to.

“I also love landscaping,” he said, noting that he not only mows his own lawn, but knows a good deal about hedges, bushes, and other plants. In addition, he said, “I’m a huge Baltimore sports fan.”

More than just launching initiatives

Holland said he is gratified that there are now close to 100 community organizations participating in his joint purchasing initiatives.

“There were 16 when I started,” he said, adding that he has so far rolled out nine initiatives: electricity, natural gas, shipping, credit card processing, office supplies, telephone service (voice and data), janitorial supplies, waste removal, and financing.

To date, said Holland, participating groups have saved a combined $1.2 million.

“We have shown that working together can truly impact our bottom lines, as well as create leverage when negotiating with vendors,” he said, suggesting that the program has spread primarily by “creating successes people can look at.”

Joining the program is simple, he said. “All organizations have to do is call or e-mail me and I’ll walk them through our offerings and explain the process to move forward. They just have to supply me with their invoices so I can do a savings analysis. There’s no fee to participate. It’s really a no-brainer.”

“This is how the federation can bring people together,” he said. “It’s about forming relationships. That’s what it’s all about.”

New initiatives this year will include maintenance services and solar power.

School savings seen

“Yeshiva University and the Jewish Education for Future Generations are currently looking at areas that would lower costs among our day schools in northern New Jersey, and maintenance services is one of these areas,” he said. “A few schools have already implemented this and are realizing significant savings.”

For solar power, he said, “I am working behind the scenes with about seven institutions.” If enough organizations participate, combining their kilowatt usage in aggregate, “Solar companies may be willing not only to offer competitive rates but to cover the cost of new roofs for these institutions.” Not only will utility bills be less than what these groups are currently paying, “but they’ll be going green and getting a free roof while saving additional dollars.”

In addition to initiating joint purchasing ventures, Holland has also become a “purchasing sounding board,” advising Jewish organizations on buying items such as new copiers and resolving ongoing vendor issues.

“It’s more than just rolling out initiatives,” he said. “People are looking at their expenses more closely.”

For example, he said, one big synagogue that is doing construction realized that it was being charged for a meter that is not active. Holland worked with all the parties involved, helping the synagogue get a $17,000 refund from PSE&G.

The next community meeting to discuss cost-savings opportunities will be held Dec. 16, 9 a.m., at the JFNNJ office. For more information, call Holland at (201) 820-3932 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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