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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.”

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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.”

 
 

What to do?

 

Joe Traum, ‘waking up to a new career, replaces real estate with writing

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 27 August 2010

Secaucus resident Joe Traum finds special meaning in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man” — especially the line, “Paul is a real estate novelist.”

Traum, retired real estate investment broker and author of the newly published suspense thriller “Waking Up,” says he always dreamed of being a writer.

In 2005, after concluding his final business deal, “the time had come. I finished work in March 2005 and in April joined the Gotham Writers Workshop.”

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Joe Traum says research is crucial to his writing success. Courtesy Joe Traum

Before that, Traum hadn’t done much writing, although, he said, he wrote a chapter on property analysis in the nonfiction book “Shopping Centers and Other Retail Properties.”

“I had to come up with 10,000 words. It was fun, but difficult,” he said, adding that when he had a few minutes, he “pounded out a few words.”

As it happened, he wrote 5,000 of those words during a plane ride home from Portugal, although he doesn’t remember doing it.

“I drank Grand Marniers like orange juice” to calm down after a harrowing trip to the airport, he said. Thinking he had slept through the flight, he was surprised to hear from his wife that he had spent the time “writing furiously.”

Generally, though, his work style is less dramatic, although, he said, the research part is critical.

For example, he visited the Minnesota drug rehabilitation clinic mentioned in his book and did significant research on the Japanese mafia, which also figures in the novel.

“If you want your work to be honest, you have to go,” he said, adding that he chose to locate a section of the book in Japan because he knows the country well.

His last 13 years in business were at Nomura Real Estate, a large Japanese development company. His work took him to Japan often, enabling him, he said, “to gain an insider’s understanding of ‘the Japanese way.’”

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Traum, a member of the Clifton Jewish Center, said that at least one major source of inspiration for his book came from a long-ago sermon by Rabbi Aryeh Gotlieb, then religious leader, now rabbi emeritus, of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

“He had one sermon I considered extraordinarily powerful; I hadn’t heard that take on Judaism before,” said Traum.

According to the author, Gotlieb spoke about the saying “forgive and forget,” noting that while the two words are always linked, they shouldn’t be.

“Forgiving is relatively easy,” he said, explaining that even though Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land after striking a rock in anger, “God forgave Moses his temper tantrum.”

But he never forgot, said Traum, recalling Gotlieb’s words.

The sermon stayed in his mind, said Traum, finding expression in the pages of his book, which he began writing in June 2006.

“Some authors will write and daven over every word until they have it perfect,” he said. “Some write and just keep going. Basically, for each chapter I knew what I would do because I had a detailed daily outline.”

In addition, he said, he had written a short story with a similar theme, “so I knew where I was going. On July 21, 2007, at 3:21, I shouted, ‘I’m done.’”

At a Clifton Jewish Center program last month, Traum joked that he didn’t make his protagonist, Michael Hayes, Jewish because “he’s not a nice guy.” He is, however, “someone we all knew growing up who we loved to play punch ball with; but then he began to separate himself,” ultimately looking down on former friends.

The book begins as Hayes receives a phone call telling him that his son has been kidnapped. When the boy is subsequently killed, Hayes sets out to track down the killer.

A former member of the JCCP — and a former resident of Paramus, Carlstadt, Teaneck, and Tenafly — Traum said he attends synagogue every Shabbat, where more than one congregant has asked, “‘When are you going on Oprah?’ A lot of them have read the book,” he said, “and their comments are meaningful.”

“When I found a publisher that wanted to buy my book, it was a wonderful moment,” he said, adding that he’s well into his second novel, based on an actual incident involving a suspicious death.

“Having a dream is a great thing,” said Traum. “But living it is so much better. If you think this is something you want to do, don’t just hope — go for it.”

 
 

Jewish Family Service’s WISE program empowers victims of domestic violence

Loss of income is only one effect of the economic downturn, says Sheila Steinbach, director of clinical and adult care management services at Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.

“The downturn has caused higher stress levels in families. Over the past two years, I’d say we’ve seen a 50 percent increase” in the number of women who report domestic violence, said the Teaneck resident, whose agency recently won a $45,000 grant to help abused women.

The monies — a Stop Violence Against Women Act grant awarded through the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety — will provide counseling and employment services to 24 domestic violence victims.

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Sheila Steinbach

“We’re very excited about this,” said Steinbach, who developed the concept.

Pointing out that the program’s acronym, WISE, stands for “Women, Independent, Strong, Enriched,” she said, “research points to the fact that economic hardship and dependence, or lack of financial independence, is one of the biggest factors” compelling women to stay in an abusive household.

Steinbach is hopeful that by giving abused women the skills they need to find and keep a job, the program will empower them to move forward. The WISE program will use staff from both the JFS Job Search Network and clinical department.

“We’ll work together as a team so we’ll know if something from the clinical end is interfering with their finding a job,” said Steinbach, adding that part of the agency’s work is to reduce the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence.

“We’ve been running a support group for a year, the same six or seven women, and the level of support among them is unbelievable,” she said, noting that the women — “from all ethnic, religious, sociological, and economic groups” — remain in touch even outside the group.

The number of Jewish domestic violence victims seems to be proportional to those from other groups, she said.

“But I have a gut feeling that they [experience] more shame and embarrassment,” she added.

She is hoping to begin the first of the year’s three program cycles during the first week of October. Each cohort will include eight women “who are appropriate for the program,” in terms of both clinical needs and economic position. For example, they must be unemployed, underemployed, or looking to enter the workforce.

Each session will last for eight weeks and include intensive individual therapy as well as group therapy.

Steinbach said that each year, businesses lose millions of employee days because of domestic violence issues. WISE will provide sensitivity training for employers and, when necessary, dispatch a “work coach” to mediate problems between job holders and employers.

“We have the ability to have on-site help,” said Steinbach, promising that “we’re not saying goodbye after eight weeks. There will be an aftercare group and up to a year of support groups even after they’re finished.”

The WISE program “uses the existing strengths of our agency,” said Steinbach, noting that Bergen County experiences some 5,000 domestic violence offenses every year “and there are never enough services.”

“It just makes sense to help [abuse victims] gain employment,” she said. “They feel less isolated, less ashamed. We support them as they make healthier choices in their life.”

She said that the JFS program would undoubtedly engender resistance among abusive spouses, “so confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us.” Part of the clinical work will be to help participants build a safety plan.

“If they feel they can make it on their own, then they can get out of the relationship,” said Steinbach, adding that the program will include family counseling for victims and their children “so they can come in and work on those issues. We’re looking at it as a holistic approach.”

 
 

Uphill battle for renewed Mideast peace talks

 

A conversation with Joyce Heller

A master teacher talks about math, music, and loving her job

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Heller’s 11th-grade Algebra II class surprised her with a cake for her half-birthday. Madeline Schmuckler

Joyce Heller has some great stories.

Hired four years ago to teach math at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, she learned that while students there had performed dramas, they had never done any musicals.

Setting out to remedy that, she directed and produced their first musical, “Oliver,” which she describes as a “great success.”

“Finding an appropriate musical for an all-girls school is a daunting task,” she said. “Too much kissing and hugging doesn’t work.”

The next year, the girls performed “The Sound of Music.”

“My favorite thing was to announce rehearsals” over the school’s sound system, she laughed, recalling that she would say, “Will the mother superior and nuns please report to the beit Knesset?” The day of the play, “The ‘nuns’ could be seen davening mincha.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” was also a hit, she said, “though our 5’2” Tevye was shorter than her five daughters and wife.”

“My first job was at an all-boys school, DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx,” she recalls, reflecting that while she started out teaching only boys, now she teaches only girls.

In between, she taught at Bergen Community College and Glen Rock High School, where she chaired the math department.

The Fair Lawn resident — the 2003 recipient of the governor’s award for best teacher —has been an educator for some 36 years, spending the school year teaching math and the summers teaching drama.

Among other subjects, Heller, a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, has taught advanced calculus and statistics. Dubbed a “master teacher” — “When you have taught for a while, that’s what they call you,” she said — she has also written a statistics review book.

“I wanted to be an actress,” she said, “but my father said it was not the right profession for a nice Jewish girl. He said I should teach and then do acting in the summer.”

Listening to her father, she spent 13 years directing productions at Camp Hillel in Monticello.

Now, at Ma’ayanot, she is able to combine her two passions, serving as chair of the school’s math department as well as its musical director.

“A musical is a wonderful outlet for girls to express themselves,” said Heller, who last year created the Ron Heller Award for outstanding graduating seniors, in memory of her late husband.

“It’s like a scholarship for excellence in drama,” she said.

Recipients each receive a trophy and $100, presented by the Ronald Heller Memorial Fund.

“I should raise it to $136,” she joked, noting that her original intention was for girls to use the money to buy a good theater ticket.

Heller is passionate about the importance of the theater arts.

“It gives the kids a sense of community and team work as well as an element of excitement. They learn how to sing, how to interpret a song, and Broadway movements. It’s really a team sport.”

Rehearsals take place after school and during lunch.

“It’s very popular,” said Heller. “We had 34 students involved in ‘Annie.’” On Dec. 23, the students will perform “Beauty and the Beast.”

The musical director said, “Everyone who tries out gets some part,” if not acting, then operating lights and curtains — skills she teaches them. She is also involved in staging and choreography.

According to Heller, math knowledge is helpful in producing plays.

“There’s a kind of precision necessary in organizing rehearsal schedules, marketing, and selling tickets,” she said, adding that “math can be very creative too.”

She noted that students who are in both her math classes and her theater productions “work harder in both. It fosters a tremendous bond…. The girl who played Tevye in math class gave as much energy and dedication on stage as in the classroom.”

Recalling her days teaching drama at camp, Heller said, “For many Jewish kids, this was the first musical comedy they ever did. They didn’t even know how to stand on the stage.” She said that one camper wrote her a “beautiful letter” afterward, thanking her for the experience.

“Teaching is a calling,” she said. “Whether teaching math or teaching drama, you work with the kids and see them grow. It’s tremendously gratifying.” She likened the role of a director to that of a teacher administering an exam.

“You’ve coached them and now they’re on their own. They always rise to the occasion. It’s quite spectacular.”

Heller noted that Ma’ayanot’s policy of excluding fathers from the audience — fathers can hug their actor/daughters before and after each performance but they must watch the show in another room, where it is simulcast — has been particularly helpful to her, as a widow.

“Having no men in the room has made it easier,” she said, recalling that her husband used to attend each of her shows. “I think God helped me find this kind of supportive environment.”

 
 

Burning issue

Local rabbis discuss Koran burning, sermon topics

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A page from the Koran FILE Photo
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Rabbi Arthur Weiner, top, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, Rabbi Ephraim Simon, and Rabbi Neil Tow

Calling Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed burning of the Koran on Sept. 11 both “catastrophically stupid and fundamentally immoral,” Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, said such an act would have major repercussions.

Jones — pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. — has proposed that 9/11 be declared “International Burn a Koran Day.” Defending his idea on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Aug. 26, the pastor said, “We want to send a very clear message” to Muslims that Sharia law is not welcome in America.

“It will likely be publicized all over the Islamic world, confirming in the minds of many Muslims that we hate them, that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and America’s real goal is not to stop terrorism but to attack and defeat Islam,” said Millstein. “This will only serve to strengthen extremists and terrorists in the Islamic world.”

The rabbi added that, as a Jew, he is “appalled and disgusted at the thought of someone burning the scriptures of another faith. How could anyone heap such disrespect upon another person’s cherished beliefs? It is astounding how low some Americans have gone in their prejudice and hatred.”

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County and religious leader of Marcus Chabad House, pointed out that “we have to be very sensitive to book-burning,” since we have seen our books, Torah scrolls, and talmudic texts burned throughout our history.

“It’s not a proper Jewish response to 9/11,” he said. “The proper response is to focus on adding acts of goodness and kindness, acts of love, to the world. We have to point out evil where we see it and stand up to it, but not everyone who studies the Koran is evil.”

Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said. “The first thing that came to mind was the burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books over the centuries — France in the 13th century, Italy in the 16th, Poland in the 18th, and Nazi Germany in the 20th. My sense is that choosing to burn a holy book in a public way can cause those who are religiously moderate to feel under attack and make radicals feel even more justified.”

Tow suggested that burning a holy book is an act of violence directed at the symbol of a people and that “violence only leads to more violence. We have to short-circuit the cycle of violence and find other ways to address the issues — in this case, the relationship among faith groups.”

He recalled reading “Fahrenheit 451” in middle school, which first introduced him to the idea of book-burning.

“I [fear] a place where if people don’t like ideas, they feel they can be torched and destroyed. I hope it’s not the kind of world our children will live in. Our society has always tried to foster a pool of ideas and debate about them. If there are things that are troubling or difficult or potentially harmful around us, we have a responsibility as American citizens to have a lively and engaging debate about it. I don’t think burning books is in the spirit of the ‘American way’ of talking things through.”

Tow added that he is also a book lover, with a “fondness for the wholeness of the written word and the books that contain them — whether they are things I agree with or not.”

“We should oppose [Jones’] actions and activity with the same passion we opposed the Westboro Baptist Church when they visited our area last fall,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner, leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. “Were we in Florida, I would insist that our [Jewish Community Relations Council] publicly oppose this horror, and join with those who oppose it. As it is, I am confident that our national organizations as well as local Florida communities are handling this well.”

Weiner said that despite Jews’ historic differences with both Christianity and Islam, “we have always held all faiths in esteem, even if we had to protect ourselves from their adherents.”

He noted that while Jones’ projected actions may be constitutionally protected speech — though, he added, he is not sure of that — “they are immoral, and completely and 100 percent forbidden by Jewish law.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation in Fair Lawn, said that burning a Koran “is not simply politically incorrect but borders on morally incorrect. The Jewish people paid dearly when the books of the Rambam were burned,” he said, “so we don’t burn books. That’s not the way to do it.”

What they’ll say in their sermons

While the rabbis agreed that political issues provide great fodder for sermons, those who are already certain of their High Holiday sermon themes will look in another direction.

“As a rabbi and spiritual leader, I always emphasize and focus on what we can do to make ourselves better people in every aspect of our lives,” said Simon, “better parents, better spouses, better friends. Ultimately, the High Holidays are a time we can reflect on our unique purpose and mission in the world.”

Simon said he will challenge congregants to ask, “Am I am utilizing all of the gifts God gave me to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world? We have to look at the past, reflecting within our own lives and [exploring] what we can do to improve on the past to make a difference.”

Tow said that on the first day of Rosh HaShanah he’ll look at some of the ways “we can begin to connect more closely with the words and messages of the prayer books … becoming more sensitive and connected in our davening.”

He said the focus of what he wants to communicate is that “aspects of prayer that can sometimes make it difficult for us can be used as opportunities for growth.”

On the second day of yom tov he will continue his tradition of looking at the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, from different points of view.

“This year, I’ll look at it from the point of view of the angel who calls to Abraham to stop.” He’ll use that as a starting point “to see if it’s possible for us in what we do and say every day to be more aware [and] in the moment,” truly perceiving the impact of what we do and say. “Is it possible to catch ourselves if we’re starting to move off the path, like the angel gave Abraham an insight in that moment, telling him to stop? We need to develop a more sensitive self-awareness.”

Tow suggested that if, instead of having to fix things afterwards, we catch ourselves as we’re about to go into something, “we can be an angel to ourselves.”

Weiner of Paramus said he will explore the issue of Jewish identity and the importance of reinvigorating that aspect of our lives. He said he has always believed that the High Holiday audience “is fully three-generational” and “rabbis have to craft a message that can reach everyone. It’s a challenge.”

He said that “some of the things we’re seeing, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, indicate or confirm our alienation, or the trend toward living low-impact Judaism.” The data, he said, “are symptomatic of a much larger issue: our self-perception as Jews.”

He will urge members to make their Jewishness an integral, basic part of their identity.

“The key to helping us get back on track is to reassert that identity,” he said. “How do we go about achieving this? Come to services and find out.”

Rabbis have to be careful speaking about political issues, he said. While they should address them, they should also be careful to distinguish between their own political opinions and “those laws God gave to Moses.”

No rabbi walks that “fine line” perfectly, he said, “but we have to make sure what we are sharing in the name of Torah is reflective of the Torah’s values and not our particular opinions.”

Asked what he will speak about at High Holiday services this year, Yudin laughed, saying, “You’re kidding, right? I’ll talk about Torah, mitzvot, and why it’s important to perpetuate Jewish tradition. What else is there?”

“It’s all in the packaging,” he added. “However I said it last year, I’ll say it differently this year, and in 15 different ways. And next year, I’ll talk about it again.”

 
 

Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice

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Rabbi David Greenstein, top, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Rabbi Ovadua Yosef

Urging a return to “authentic Torah teachings,” Rabbis Robert Scheinberg and David Greenstein have drafted a statement calling for an “open-minded and pluralistic” religious vision.

“We’re critical when we don’t hear voices in other religions teaching inclusiveness, compassion, and tolerance,” said Greenstein. “We need to create a strong Jewish voice as well.”

The document — which emerged after a discussion on the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve and emphasizes “pleasantness and peace” — has drawn more than 200 signatories, including individuals from each major Jewish denomination.

Several weeks ago, with the approach of Rosh HaShanah and the Mideast peace talks, “David Greenstein posted something on an e-mail list of Conservative rabbis suggesting that this would be a good opportunity for such a statement,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “It appears to have resonated with a number of people.”

“It was immediately after Yosef’s statement,” he added. In late August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced peace talks with the Palestinians, dubbing them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel,” and called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “perish from this world.”

Still, said Scheinberg, the joint statement was not simply a reaction to Yosef’s comments — though it did condemn his words in strong language — but a wider call for Jews, especially Jewish religious leaders, to speak out against Jewish extremism.

“The [Anti-Defamation League] was quick to condemn Yosef’s statement,” he said. “But we thought there should be a specifically religious voice doing so. With the controversy over the Islamic center in Manhattan growing, [we thought] it was somewhat hypocritical for the Jewish community to get very upset when Muslim moderates do not regularly, quickly, and forcefully condemn incendiary statements,” without Jews’ doing the same thing. “We hope to get it on the record that when a statement like this gets made by someone as prominent as Yosef, rabbis react with disgust.”

That wasn’t happening, said Greenstein, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, who conceived the idea of posting a petition on the Conservative listserve and later of making it public.

“The question is, what kinds of religious voices are going to be out there,” he said, adding that Yosef and others who agree with him have made such statements before and are likely to do so again.

Scheinberg added that as a Conservative Jew who has studied Yosef’s responsa, “learning a tremendous amount from him,” he is especially bothered by the Israeli rabbi’s incendiary statements, “since he’s very much within the canon prized by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.”

The joint statement, he said, suggests criteria by which the teaching of Torah is measured — “such as, does it foster pleasantness and peace.” While the piece originally was targeted to Conservative rabbis, it later “got passed on to some other places on the Internet where interdenominational dialogue takes place,” he said, attracting signers from other denominations as well.

In addition, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has since drafted its own statement, incorporating some of Scheinberg and Greenstein’s wording.

Greenstein said he’s not sure how all the signers learned about the statement, since “people were signing it before we did the extra outreach. I’m very heartened that this has become a cross-denominational venture.”

While the document has not drawn many Orthodox signers, Scheinberg said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders condemn Yosef’s statements.

He attributed the small number of signers to “a general wariness of a completely grassroots statement, not attached to any organization.”

“Rabbi Yosef was only the jumping-off point” of the joint statement, said Greenstein. “The main point was the affirmation of a challenge and an opportunity to teach a different kind of Torah. We can all unite for that and must continue to work toward it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the petition will “push, promote, and inspire more rabbis to reconsider the priorities of how, when, and to whom we speak about Torah, creating a more vibrant and just religious culture.”

“This year, more than ever before, we have to focus on eradicating extremism,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, religious leader of The Temple in Atlanta and former rabbi of Temple Beth-Or in Washington Township. Berg, who is Reform, signed the statement.

While Judaism exists “in argument and tension and the Jewish tradition is that no one agrees on much of anything, so many in our troubled world believe that there’s only one singular right way,” he said. “That’s a short step from thinking of ourselves as morally entitled.”

“If we believe that there is only one truth, then violence and death are sure to follow. In a democracy, we have to call upon religious leaders to come to the middle.”

 
 

You’ve come a long way, baby

Embracing the difference: Former shul president April Rudin says women leaders nurture congregations

Being a woman means bringing unique gifts to the table, says April Rudin, past president of Gesher Shalom–Jewish community Center of Fort Lee.

“We should really encourage young women to get involved” in synagogue leadership, said Rudin, suggesting that woman may “bring something more” to the role than men.

Contending that women convey a sense of “warmth and mothering, just as Golda Meir was the mother of her country,” the Fort Lee resident said that “people in general flourish under a mother’s watchful eye. We should embrace what it is that makes women different from men.”

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April Rudin

Rudin, who runs her own marketing firm, said woman have “an ability to empathize and to sympathize with each situation. They understand that although you have to lead, you also have to hear what the congregation is really saying.”

She recalled growing up in Detroit and working in an environment where “we did an imitation of men with our shirts and little ties. How ridiculous was that.”

Rudin said she doesn’t believe that gender is an issue in the selection of synagogue presidents, and that many women hold this position.

According to Nancy Perlman, manager of process, program, and funding development for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, at least 15 women head synagogues in the group’s catchment area.

Breaking this down by denomination, Perlman said this figure includes three Orthodox, eight Conservative, one Reform, and one Reconstructionist, as well as one president from a non-affiliated congregation.

Rudin — who shared her one-year presidency with a male co-president — said some congregants responded more readily to her, some to her colleague.

Noting the diversity of the congregation, embracing both older and younger members, she said that “some people are unfamiliar with who the president might be, even though they see her at services or hear her voice on the phone.”

She recalls one older man insisting, “Let me speak to someone in charge, young lady!”

“That would be me,” she replied, adding that at 50 years old, she had to assure him that she, in fact, held a position of authority.

“It’s the only place I can hang out where they still call me young lady,” she joked.

While being a synagogue president is a “thankless position, where activity and effort may not always be equal to result,” Rudin said it has been important for both of her sons to see what community involvement means.

“They can walk into the shul at any time and not feel it has to be a holiday. It’s part of their everyday life,” she said.

Of course, she added, given the frequency of her late night meetings, the boys — graduates of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County and now attending the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in New York — had to forgo more than their share of hot meals during her presidency.

Rudin reflected that while her grandmother, raised in Montgomery, Ala., used to speak to her about the importance of equality between blacks and whites, her own message to future generations would probably center on women.

“What she had seen in her lifetime in terms of the progression of society was parallel to what we’ve seen with women,” she said. “We don’t want to be equal. That’s what’s changed. We want to bring our own warm personality to the position.”

 
 

You’ve come a long way, baby

Women’s work

Barbara Kaufman, former president and now program chair of the National Council Section that will host Gloria Steinem Sept. 21, said the group is “always interested in finding speakers who share the same point of view we do — pro-women, pro-children, pro-families.”

She pointed out that the Bergen County Section, with some 1,200 members, is one of the largest contingents in the 100,000-member national volunteer organization.

image
Lisa Fedder

Kaufman, a Bergenfield resident who has been a member of the group for some 45 years — though she was not active during the years she pursued her own career in public relations — remembers that “the key issues in the 1960s were equal pay, still a key issue, and a woman’s right to work. In those days, men were leaders of the workforce and there were few women heads of companies.”

“Women were in a whole different place,” she said, noting that most of her peers were stay-at-home moms. But at a time when activists such as Betty Friedan were encouraging women to become more independent, “many of my friends went to graduate school and then went back to work.”

Kaufman pointed out that the history of NCJW itself reflects the changing role of women. According to the group’s website, in 1893 Hannah G. Solomon of Chicago was asked to organize the participation of Jewish women in the Chicago World’s Fair. When Solomon and her recruits discovered that participation would consist of pouring coffee and other hostess duties, they walked out.

“They wanted to become part of the brain trust,” said Kaufman, adding that today’s NCJW president, Nancy Ratzan, was appointed to the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009 by President Obama and was present for the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Despite such legislative gains, Lisa Fedder, executive director of the Teaneck-based Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said that the issue of equal pay has yet to be resolved.

Fedder, whose agency includes a Job Search Network, said that she has not seen obstacles to women getting jobs.

“In fact,” she said, “and recent findings reflect this, it is sometimes easier for women to find work, perhaps because they are generally paid less than men for equal work.” She estimated that women earn about 80 percent of what men do.

In addition, she noted, “There are some issues resulting from women leaving the workforce for years to raise children and having a hard time getting back at the same level or higher.”

“We have also seen a lot of women who were homemakers who have been forced into the job market because of the economy. They have had a very hard time getting the skills necessary for today’s workforce and translating their activities into a résumé that will catch [an employer’s] eye.”

She said the agency’s Job Search Network, which collects and publicizes job listings, can help women deal with some of these problems through career counseling, job search coaching, support groups, and computer training.

L.G.

 
 
 
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