Building bridges by breaking bread
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Building bridges by breaking bread

Harold Steinbach and Jon Bendavid have known each other for a long time.

They have much in common. They’re both married, both have children. Both have lived in Teaneck for almost 30 years. Both are committed, observant Jews.

Ah.

They are different kinds of committed, observant Jews. Bendavid is Orthodox. He belongs to Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. Steinbach is Conservative. He belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom.

The two men met when Bendavid coached Steinbach ‘s daughter in Little League, not through any Jewish experience (or, to be precise, through any more formally Jewish experience).

But although the divisions between the Orthodox and the liberal Jewish streams of American life are deep here in northern New Jersey – so deep that at times they seem unbridgeable – at other times there seems to be the merest little shakes of possible change.

Steinbach was at Bnai Yeshurun for two Shabbatot in a row, a few months ago, to celebrate aufrufs. (They were for relatives – family usually bridges even bigger gaps.) “I knew a bunch of their guys from Little League coaching,” he reported later.

“They have a longstanding kiddush at Bnai Yeshurun that the men’s club puts on,” he said. “You can have the men’s club do a whole fleishig kiddush, as long as you invite the whole shul. They buy it, set it up, serve it, and clean it up.” It’s elaborate, frequently it’s delicious, and often it’s a fundraiser for a commonly held goal.

“I said it would be wonderful if we” – Beth Sholom, he meant – “could do it, too,” he said.

“So Jonny Bendavid, who is big on k’lal Yisrael, said, ‘Do you want to do something with us?’ I said ‘I’d love to.’ I hadn’t spoken to anybody at my own shul, but I’m concerned because things are so polarized.

“Then Jonny came up with the idea a few weeks later,” Steinbach said. “‘We do things for charities,’ he said. ‘Let’s do that together.’ And I said ‘It’s brilliant.’ And it was.”

Bendavid is president of the men’s club at Bnai Yeshurun, and Steinbach is a member of the club at Beth Sholom, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

The men decided that Beth Sholom would host the kiddush, set for April 13, and Bnai Yeshurun would run it – they’d work with the caterer and the mashgiach to ensure that everything would be done to their satisfaction.

The cause it would benefit was one both sides could agree upon. They chose the Israel Defense Forces; local Jewish organizations are strong, fierce supporters of the IDF, and especially the lone soldiers who are among its troops.

The venue for the kiddush is new for Bendavid, but the mission is not. “We’ve been doing this at Bnai Yeshurun for seven or eight years now,” he said. “We work with different organizations to support the IDF. We do it once a year; normally, we raise between $35,000 and $40,000, but during the war in Lebanon, we raised between $150,000 and $200,000.

“It’s a big shul.”

Both shuls’ rabbis – Beth Sholom’s Joel Pitkowski and Bnai Yeshurun’s Steven Pruzansky – are okay with the idea, Bendavid reported, and he is enthusiastic about the layout of Beth Sholom’s kitchen. Because it’s an outside caterer, there would have to be a mashgiach in any case, according to Beth Sholom’s rules, so there is no question about whose standards to impose.

“It’s something we should be proud of,” he said. “People should know that we’re doing it. We should have more of this sort of thing – not reasons to divide us, but things to bring us together.”

It is not lost on Bendavid that this joint kiddush will take place the day before Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, which falls this week on Sunday, April 14, and two days before Yom Haatzma-ut, the country’s Independence Day, which always is the next day.

“We don’t do much on Yom Haatzma-ut in the Orthodox world,” he said. “We get together, we say a few prayers, we sing Hatikvah and eat some food, so I thought it would be appropriate on or about Yom Haatzma-ut to honor the kids who serve in the army, where they sacrifice their lives a lot of the time.

“We all go to Israel all the time, and we’re all being protected by these kids who are 18, 19 years old. I think that at least once a year we can go, eat a lot of food – and say thank you to them.”

Bendavid also thinks that the more connections that can be built to connect various parts of the Jewish world, the stronger the whole structure will be.

“I’d like to see more cooperation about things we can agree on, like the Holocaust programs the whole community puts together every year,” he said.

“There is not a lot we all can do together. This is another bridge.

“Once you meet people, they’re not strangers any more. You get to know them, you see that they have feelings too. They have their own issues.

“In the end, we’re all the same.”

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