Now in its sixth year, Sweet Tastes of Torah – a project of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis – remains committed to its original goal.
“The Bergen County Jewish community is siloed in many ways,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth and president of the NJBR. “We’re attached to our synagogues. We identify with our municipalities. It’s difficult to realize we’re part of a greater Jewish community.”
One reason to sponsor the annual night of learning, he said, is “to emphasize that we are much more when we connect with other communities.”
Apparently, this message resonates with its intended audience.
“Every year the community shows up and participates,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “The feedback has been one of gratitude.”
This year’s program – Sinai Revisited: Views from the Mountaintop – will bring together 20 rabbis from Bergen and Passaic counties, who will explore the topic from a variety of perspectives.
As always, said Rabbi David Bockman, religious leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes – who, according to program coordinator Nicole Falk, is the “driving force” behind the program” – the group tried to choose a “canvas” wide enough for individual “rabbis to choose some aspect of it. There will be a lot of different angles.
“Some are going with modern things, saying, ‘Look, we’re here. What is it about Sinai or about the Torah that speaks to us now?'”
One session – New Songs of Revelation: Mount Sinai in Modern Poetry, offered by Rabbi Noah Fabricant of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township – will explore modern poetry that has to do with Sinai. Another – Increasing Happiness: Clues from the Peak, led by Rabbi Cathy Felix of the Jewish Center of Sussex County – will look at the peak experience of receiving the Torah for clues to increasing happiness in our own lives.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes will look at a more recent experience of entering into the covenant, as he discusses the Conversion of the Abayudaya Community of Uganda: A First-Hand Account. Another session – Looking at Leviticus: Still a Relevant Revelation?, taught by Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center – will explore material in Leviticus that is still current, as well as rituals no longer practiced today.
Seizing on an issue much in the news lately, Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities will lead a session called Should a Rabbi Perform Intermarriages? Rabbinic I-Dos and I-Don’ts. Rabbi Benjamin Shull, the immediate past president of NJBR and chair of the Sweet Tastes of Torah committee, will speak on the different ways in which Jews and Christians interpret the Ten Commandments, and Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson will explore When Sinai-and Therefore Why-We Stood at Sinai, exploring different traditional ideas, within the Torah and rabbinic literature, about when revelation occurred at the mountain.
“I think there will be a spectrum of views,” Rabbi Bockman said. “Some will say that this is really a defining moment for us as Jews, and others will say that it seems like an outmoded way of dealing with things. We can relate to a piece of it, but it was too far away.”
Still, he added, there is always an impact exerted by a major event, whether it occurs in history or in our personal lives.
“It affects you later on, even if it is not present in your life,” he said. “For example, if you went through a trauma, perhaps in a war, even if you don’t re-experience it, the choices you made following that event changed your life.”
His own class – Geological Spirituality: Mountains of Revelation – will be a bit different.
“I always give the rabbis a few topics and let them choose ideas, then I choose something different,” he said. Noting that he took some geology courses in college, Rabbi Bockman said he will talk about how mountains are formed and what they are about geologically.
“You’re driving and you see a mountain,” he said. “Do you ignore it, or do you ask what it tells you about the place you’re in and its history? You can use that as a template for drawing a geological map of your spiritual self, your experience of the world, and transcendence.”
Rabbi Bockman explained that the NJBR always tries to tie the learning program into that Shabbat’s Torah portion. Usually, that portion is “Yitro,” where we read about Sinai.
“It also opens us up to other possibilities,” he said, suggesting, for example, that ties can be made to Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech, popularly called “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
“To me, Sinai is a symbol of what binds the Jewish community together,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “And since we will have just read about the experience that morning in synagogue, this is a perfect opportunity to explore the nuances of what that symbolism means to us.”
His own topic is The Twenty Commandments: Comparing and Contrasting What We Are Told in Exodus and Deuteronomy. He will look not only at the difference but at how they have influenced Jewish practice.
“It’s part of examining the nuances,” he said. “Was Sinai, at its heart, a revelation of commandments? Or was it at its heart the beginning of a relationship with God that takes on many permutations? We’ll try to answer that in the program.
“This is our only annual public program,” he said of the NJBR. “It’s an important way we give back to the Jewish community for their support of us as their rabbis all year. We’re trying to present something for everybody, from the beautiful Havdalah service at the beginning, to the different options for learning at the heart of the evening, to the socializing that will conclude our time together.”