Congregants turn to rabbis when they have questions, face personal or religious crises, or simply need help preparing for a life-cycle event. But where do their rabbis turn when they need help?
Rabbi Steven Sirbu, past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, says that his organization was created precisely to provide that help.
Founded decades ago as the Bergen County Board of Rabbis, in 1977 the group changed its name to signal the inclusion of all rabbis who live or work in Bergen, North Hudson, or Passaic counties. Throughout, the NJBR has remained committed to fostering collegiality among local rabbis and pursuing ways in which they can work together.
“An important feature of any board of rabbis is being a source of chizuk” — strength — for its members, Rabbi Randall Mark said. Rabbi Mark, the religious leader of Wayne’s Shomrei Torah, was president of NJBR for three years. “The rabbinate can be an isolating position. There are not many people in the building to discuss problems with. It’s nice to have colleagues with similar experiences.”
Rabbi Mark implemented a monthly “check-in,” as he called it, a time when rabbis can talk about what was going on in their lives. “My goal was to have people connect to one another and be a source of support to one another,” he said. “It’s a nice place for colleagues to come together who normally wouldn’t.”
According to Rabbi Sirbu, who leads Temple Emeth in Teaneck, “About 25 rabbis show up during the year, but we generally reach out to about 65. We keep track of every rabbi who is eligible to join.” Members include religious leaders from the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal streams of Judaism. Orthodox rabbis have their own group, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.
“It’s a great way for a rabbi to feel connected to the rabbinic community,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “We can provide resources beyond what their individual organizations can provide.” Still, he continued, “Like a lot of volunteer organizations, we have to face the fact that we have much more we’d like to do, but don’t have the resources.”
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and NJBR’s incoming president, pointed out that there are many rabbis for whom New Jersey is a “bedroom community. It would be nice to get them on board,” he said, adding that he wants to give that effort “more of a push,” gaining some of these rabbis as members.
Throughout the years there have been attempts to connect the RCBC and NJBR; those attempts have been met with varying results, not including much long-term success. According to Rabbi Sirbu, the amount of effort expended toward that end depends on the priorities of each NJBR president. For his part, he said, he recognized that the two groups “have significantly different needs in terms of schedules, the expectations of our congregations, and the fact that so many more non-Orthodox rabbis are full time, in contrast to Orthodox rabbis. Our needs are different. I didn’t set it as a priority.”
That is not the case with his successor. One of his goals, Rabbi Kirshner said, will be to “extend an olive branch to the RCBC. It’s silly to have two separate rabbinic bodies. I want to create a commonality, a platform to share, on issues such as resources and the security of Israel and our communal institutions. Why keep two Shabbeses?
“There are dates on the calendar we share in common, such as Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. Why not collaborate?”
His aim, he said, is “to create a platform to link ourselves together, not all fend for ourselves.” He acknowledged that previous efforts to accomplish this goal have not been successful. But while his attempt will not be the first, “hopefully it will be the last.”
One past effort, under Rabbi Mark, was moderately successful. “I tried to build bridges between the RCBC and NJBR,” he said. “I met with Larry Rothwachs” of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, who then was the RCBC’s president — “and we talked about things we could do together.” He noted, for example, that in 2009, the geniza project — where rabbis across denominations could bring materials from the synagogue to be buried at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, then under renovation — “worked well.” Still, he said, “many of these things are cyclical. If you stop putting in energy, the progress stops.”
Another priority for the organization under Rabbi Mark was “connection to the community,” he said. “We made sure each year at one of our meetings to bring in the executive director of Federation and the JCRC director, and we met with Schechter principals or head of schools and were involved with both BARJ” — the now-defunct Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism— “and the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.”
Working together with the community is another of Rabbi Kirshner’s major goals. “It’s important to establish ourselves as a part of the community, to work with other spokes of the wheel,” he said, citing the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and Jewish Home at Rockleigh as examples. “We want to have an established presence at communal events. It’s important for political, social, and even ‘perception’ reasons that people see our involvement in communal events.
“Our role is to be a resource for rabbis and the community as a whole,” he added. “While the board of rabbis has accomplished a lot, its best days are still ahead of it.” He pointed to the continued success of the Sweet Tastes of Torah — created to promote Jewish learning — where different local rabbis teach throughout one evening in February, “offering differing perspectives to the community.” The NJBR also sponsors an annual yom iyun, where rabbis of different streams come together to hear a guest speaker.
“There are exciting things on the horizon,” Rabbi Kirshner said, noting that the group sent a delegation to the AIPAC convention and met together with the New York Board of Rabbis to discuss High Holiday sermons.
Another goal for the incoming president is to take a rabbinic mission — including members of the RCBC — to Israel. “When you travel, you come back transformed,” he said, suggesting that if Reform and Orthodox rabbis had the opportunity to travel together, it might lead to further collaboration down the road. “How special that would be,” he said. “There are many new leaders in the community. We can’t fall back on old reasons. There’s new blood. I hope we can maximize that.”
Rabbi Kirshner said he is excited about working with the new NJBR executive board, including Rabbis Sharon Litwin, Paul Jacobson, and David Fine. “They’re smart, kind, and empathetic,” he said. “They represent the best values of Judaism in our rabbinate. I’m inheriting a strong organization.”
Asked how political the NJBR can be, given that Jewish values are being challenged by various pieces of proposed legislation on the federal and state levels, Rabbi Kirshner said that “rabbis will deal with that in their own pulpits and individual lives.” However, he did say that he is hoping to facilitate meetings with New Jersey’s two leading candidates for governor, Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno.
“It’s important to sit and have serious conversations on issues that are directly related to the community,” he said, citing such subjects as school vouchers and Jewish day schools. In addition, he expects when such issues as health care and immigration are raised, issues that connect strongly to Jewish values, the rabbis at the forum will feel free to voice their opinions.
Rabbi Sirbu is proud of what the NJBR has accomplished. In addition to sponsoring the Sweet Tastes of Torah, in 2015 the organization passed a resolution in partnership with Hiddush, which is working toward a pluralistic approach toward marriage in Israel. The resolution called upon the Israeli government to “take immediate measures to create a mechanism for civil marriage in Israel and to recognize Jewish marriages within Israel by rabbis of all streams of Judaism.”
Rabbi Sirbu agreed that while it is increasingly hard, “we do try to steer clear of politics. It’s important that our relationship be nonpartisan.” Also important, and “more unifying” for the board, is to take leadership on issues such as Jewish continuity, education, support for Israel, and fighting anti-Semitism.
Also to be considered, Rabbi Mark said, is that while NJBR is an important venue for rabbis to come together “and have a collective voice as opposed to individual rabbis making statements, the board is a collection of rabbis with diverse religious and political backgrounds. It’s across the spectrum, from very liberal to conservative.” On some issues, he said, “we couldn’t speak with one voice.”