Still breaking barriers
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Still breaking barriers

Synagogue and its rabbi mark major milestones

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Rabbi Elyse Frishman and her husband, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, met at Eisner Camp. Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

Barnert Temple – once of Paterson, now firmly planted in Franklin Lakes – is 165 years old.

It predates the Civil War, tracks the development of the Reform movement in this country, and was long established by the time the great waves of Jewish immigration hit American shores. When the State of Israel was established, it was more than a century old.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman has led Barnert for 18 years. Last week, the synagogue celebrated her anniversary and its own with a gala dinner.

Like Barnert, Frishman models a way to be Jewish in the world, and how to affect change Jewishly. Most recently, her actions with Women of the Wall in Jerusalem have shaken the Jewish world.

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The imposing architecture of the Barnert Temple on Broadway in Paterson.

First, Barnert.

Created as B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue was given a huge boost by Nathan Barnert, a wildly successful Jewish businessman who immigrated to Paterson, made a fortune in real estate, dispensed much of it to the community, and attached his name to many of his philanthropic ventures. (The synagogue formally was the Miriam and Nathan Barnert Temple; he also founded Barnert Hospital.)

Paterson flourished as a center of the textile trade, and many Jews who had worked in related fields found their way there. Barnert Temple built itself an imposing building, and Jews flocked to it. Eventually the community moved from west to east Paterson, and the synagogue followed, again building itself a monumental home. But soon the city shriveled as its trade dried up.

Twenty-five years ago, the congregation made the painful but clearly necessary – if not somewhat overdue – decision to follow the Jews to the suburbs.

There, in Franklin Lakes, once again it has flourished.

Frishman was born in Armonk, N.Y., in exurban northern Westchester County, in 1954. She was a true child of the Reform movement; her family belonged to the Reform synagogue in neighboring Chappaqua, and she celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah and her confirmation there. When she was a junior in high school, she spent six months in Israel on NFTY-EIE, an exchange program that sent her to classes in Tel Aviv.

“It changed my life,” she said.

“During that summer, we had an ulpan experience for all the Americans on the program, and for the first time I found myself surrounded by teens like me – smart, attractive, athletic, interested in all sorts of things.”

Next, she worked with the Reform movement’s Mitzvah Corps, and was a counselor at the movement’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass.

When Frishman considered her future, her options seemed limited. She went to Mount Holyoke, a very good college that turns out strong-minded, well-educated women, but still she felt constrained. Her father was a doctor, “and he wanted me to be one too, but at the same time he said, ‘I don’t know who would go to a lady doctor.'” But she spent the summer before her senior year in college as a unit head at Eisner, where a rabbi on faculty “said you should be a rabbi,” Frishman remembered.

“I laughed, and said, ‘Women can’t be rabbis.’ And he said, ‘There are two women on staff here now who are studying to be rabbis.'”

So she “made a grid of all the things I loved to do, and all the possible career choices – doctor, lawyer, teacher, social worker, and rabbi. And when I checked things off, the rabbi list had everything I wanted to do.”

Frishman enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

“When I was in school, there was still tremendous gender discrimination,” she said. “There were very few women. The first had been ordained in 1972, but the next one wasn’t until 1974. I was ordained in 1981, and there were still very few of us.

“The discrimination wasn’t deliberate. The faculty were kind. But we got a lot of comments on things like what we should or shouldn’t wear.” Among them was the mandate always to wear lipstick on the bimah.

Frishman and her husband, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, met at Eisner. He was two years ahead of her in rabbinical school, and supported her as she decided whether she too would apply.

“It was pretty clear that we couldn’t both be congregational rabbis,” Frishman said. Freelander already worked at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as the Union for Reform Judaism was then called, so they decided that the pulpit would be her track. (He is now senior vice president at the URJ, as well as the composer of some very well-known prayer settings, including Shalom Rav.)

Frishman and Freelander have three children, Adam, Jonah, and Devra.

Frishman interned at Woodlands Community Synagogue in Greenberg, N.Y., under Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, who is now retiring as head rabbi of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. She learned a great deal from him, she said, so she felt ready to take charge of a synagogue herself when she graduated. She became the only rabbi at the Reform Temple of Suffern, which had 90 families when she arrived and grew to 220 when she left, 14 years later, to go to Barnert.

Gender discrimination does not vanish quickly or easily, she said; “even in 1995, it took a great deal of courage for this congregation to hire a female rabbi.” But Barnert went ahead with that risky move. “They did the right thing,” Frishman said. “They hired the best candidate.”

Barnert is a place with strong roots, but it always questions itself. “When we look into the eyes of our children, we have such a vision of who they are and what we want them to become,” she said. “But then at a certain point, if we really look at them, we start seeing what they want.

“It might not be what we want, but we have to respect it, and help to get there.

“That’s a good part of what we do. One of the reasons we’re so strong is that we do everything for our youth, but not in a pediatric way. We ask how we as adults are modeling Judaism. We have to let them take the reins from us, even though it might look different from what we have now.

“Our future is trying to vision a new form of synagogue. We look at work like Rabbi Adina Lewittes’ with Shaar, that takes you out of the synagogue.

“Much work has been done with such projects in urban synagogues. But I live in suburbia, and there is extraordinary imagination and value here.

“Just as Barnert always has been able to re-envision itself, we are doing it now. It touches on everything we do. That’s the work for the next five years.

“I don’t know what it will look like in the end – if I did, that would make it a manipulative process – but I trust that we will all figure it out.”

Frishman has been influential in many ways – among her other accomplishments, she was the editor of the Reform movement’s new siddur, Mishkan T’filah.

She was recently in the news in late December, when she was among a small group of women arrested with Women of the Wall.

Since then, more Women of the Wall were arrested. Eventually a judge said that what they were doing was allowed, and earlier this Jewish month protests by charedim became violent. Women of the Wall attempt to hold services at the site at the beginning of each Jewish month.

“I believe that this is a critical time in Israel,” Frishman said. “The issue of the Wall is pivotal because it touches on the essence of what it means to be a Jew.”

“The Women of the Wall who are Orthodox are asking not to be invisible. This is not a Reform Jewish issue, it is an issue of Judaism.

“The judge’s ruling is absolutely breathtaking and revolutionary. It says that Jewish custom cannot be defined as Orthodox. There is a range of what Jewish custom means.

“This is deeply threatening to the ultra-Orthodox, and therefore some are reacting violently.

“This goes against what I believe Judaism to be about, which is inclusivity.

“I can’t imagine an Israel that does not include all of us, but it is going to require great courage on the part of politicians, judges, all the people who have the opportunity to make change. And of course it demands great courage from the pioneers, the women -but they have already demonstrated it.”

One of those women, Anat Hoffman, was among the speakers at the gala evening at Barnert – the others included the president of the URJ, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, and Ruth Messenger, head of American Jewish World Service.

“I am a big fan of Elyse Frishman,” Hoffman said. The two women have been friends for more than two decades; she is a wonderful friend, Hoffman said, always working to stay in touch.

“Her arrest on the 12th of December really was the watershed as far as Women of the Wall are concerned,” Hoffman said.

“Before her, many of us had been detained. I was arrested on October 16 and spent the night in prison. None of this every got any Israeli attention. We didn’t make it into the papers. The bottom line is that they didn’t find it interesting.”

Israelis just didn’t understand the problem, she said.

“They couldn’t make the cognitive leap between two positions: If she is a feminist, what is she doing praying in a patriarchal holy place? And if she is religious, what is she doing fighting for equal rights? They couldn’t get their heads wrapped around this dilemma. And when it came to a male feminist supporting them …” Her voice trailed off.

“And then when Elyse Frishman is arrested, she is detained for a few hours, she is very poised, and she says to the policewoman, ‘This must be very hard for you.’ She explains that she is a rabbi, and that she wraps herself in her tallit every day. This is not breaking any Jewish law, or any law whatsoever, she says.

“She is the voice of reason. She is grounded, completely focused and centered and benign.”

And she has connections.

When Frishman was 16, studying in Israel, she made some lifelong friends, and she knows how to keep them. One is Tamar Litani, who is the deputy editor of Haaretz.

“It’s not like she knew the telephone number of Haaretz and I didn’t,” Hoffman said. “But I couldn’t get through. I am third-generation Israeli, and I know everyone, but I couldn’t get it to happen.”

Frishman’s call to Litani resulted in major media coverage, both in Israel and abroad (including a front-page story in the Jewish Standard).

“Now Israelis understand, and the last poll showed that 67 percent of them support the Women of the Wall,” Hoffman added. “Elyse is the person who made that switch, who moved us from the very very back burner – no, we weren’t even on the stove, we were in the deep freeze.

“She put us on the front of the agenda. I can’t thank her enough.”

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