Rabbi Elyse Frishman has followed a guiding principle throughout her 15 years as religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
“I’ve worked hard from the beginning to shift the culture from corporate to spiritual,” said the rabbi.
“A corporate culture is hierarchical in nature,” Frishman explained, assessing contributions she has made to the congregation, founded in 1847.
“There’s someone at the helm and everyone else filters in” in his or her own way. “A spiritual culture is relational, building relationships with one another with regard to each other’s skills.”
The building of relationships has been a key ingredient in the synagogue’s outreach efforts, whether in its social action program or in the relationship between its congregants and the State of Israel.
Fostering members’ relationship with Israel has been an important part of her vision. On June 10, she and her husband, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, will be honored with the Lifetime of Israel Achievement Award by the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The award recognizes the couple’s “outstanding commitment to pluralism.”
Frishman and Freelander – senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Union for Reform Judaism – are funding a new residence in Jaffa for the Mechina program sponsored by ARZA and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. The building, still under construction, will be dedicated to the memory of Freelander’s mother, Aviva Jacobson Freelander, who was born in Tel Aviv and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
The URF executive said he lost his parents at about the same time he became aware of the Jaffa Mechina program, which is now entering its sixth year. A pre-army one-year deferment program sponsored by the Israeli government, the Mechina program includes both learning and community service components. The Jaffa facility is the only one administered by the Reform movement.
Mechina participants study ethics four hours each morning, exploring “dilemmas in the military, from a Jewish perspective.” In the afternoon, the 60 students engage in volunteer projects with the impoverished Arab community in the city.
Freelander said that over the past five years, graduates from the Mechina program have gone on to have successful army careers. Also, he said, “I predict that within 10 years, they will be a dominant force within the Reform movement [in Israel].”
“It’s one of the most exciting things happening there,” he said, describing the effort as heralding “the creation of the Jewish future.”
Freelander, who has been with URJ for some 35 years, said his grandfather moved to Jaffa from Pinsk during high school, and much of his family grew up there.
“This is returning to our roots,” he said of his new connection to the city.
On the home front, Frishman said her congregation of 480 member-families is committed to “introducing people to Israel” as part of an initiative to foster lifelong Jewish learning.
“We try to send young people on NFTY programs [the youth arm of the Reform movement],” she said, adding that Barnert also sponsors frequent Israel trips.
She noted, as well, that Barnert encourages students to spend a semester in Israel through the Eisendrath International Exchange High School in Israel program.
“We want to get people over there. It’s a big goal for us,” said Frishman, who spent a semester on EIE during high school and later lived for four months with an Israel family outside of Tel Aviv.
“It’s important to have people be able to experience Israel because it solidifies the link,” she added. “My EIE ‘sister’ is still close.” In fact, she said, that particular classmate went on to become a deputy editor of Ha’aretz.
“When [Barnert congregants] visit Israel, we always spend time with key Reform leaders like Anat Hoffman,” director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, said Frishman, citing the efforts made by Barnert to further the cause of pluralism. “What she does is very important.”
Barnert also has a sister congregation, Yozma, in Modi’in. “We gave them a Torah and have been helpful financially,” she said. “Every year we spend a Shabbat with a member of the congregation. When they come here, they visit with us.”
Frishman added that this year the Barnert sisterhood sponsored a dvar Torah on Women of the Wall and is “engaged in support of that.”
The rabbi – who, when she spoke with The Jewish Standard, was preparing to deliver a talk on radical fundamentalism in Israel – said, “We have to talk about the dark side of Israel.”
“We need to be able to talk about that because they’re our family,” she said, noting that Israelis can’t solve these problems themselves because of the structure of the government, which does not allow for separation of church and state.
She pointed out that Mishkan T’filah – the prayerbook she edited in 2007 and which has been adopted by most Reform congregations throughout North America – also has a connection with Israel and Zionism. Not only does it now include a prayer for the State of Israel, but it incorporates “slight changes to prayers” reflecting the movement’s increased involvement with that country.
Frishman and Freelander – the parents of three children, ages 27, 25, and 19 – try to get to Israel at least once a year, said Freelander.
They both have high hopes for that country.
“I’m most influenced in my thinking by the conversations of Rav [Abraham Isaac] Kook about Israel,” said Frishman, “and about the ability to accommodate diverse Jews and the dangers of extremism and the ability to love one another. I’ve always fantasized Israel as a vision for what the world could be. It’s so far from that right now. All I want to do is support the people there who share that vision.”
“The purpose of pluralism goes beyond being receptive to diversity,” she said. “It’s really about ahavat Yisrael, not about my way being only way.”
Freelander pointed out that over the past 10 years, there have been big changes for the Reform movement in Israel. Not only are there more Reform synagogues – as well as “synagogue trailers” provided by the government – but “it’s a younger movement, no longer an immigrant population” from Europe or North America.
“We’ve got our footprints on the ground,” said Freelander, a noted musican and songwriter. He added that Reform movement summer camp programs in Israel have served large numbers of young people, “giving them Jewish pride and comfort” in a country where religion had previously been defined as either Orthodox or secular.
“These kids feel very comfortable,” said Freelander, a member of ARZA since its founding, pointing out that it has been his job, and remains his goal, “to keep Zionism and love for Israel high in the profile of Reform Jews.”