For more than two weeks now, since the beginning of Elul, the shofar each weekday morning has been blaring out its urgent call to us as individuals to reflect on our behavior and amend it for the better.
That shofar, however, blares out a message for us as a community as well, and it is one the rabbis of our community especially need to hear: Set aside the divisiveness and the rivalries, roll up your sleeves, and start dealing with the harsh realities of Jewish life in northern New Jersey and how we, acting together, can change those realities for the better.
Let us stop the nonsense that we must never talk with each other. There are two boards of rabbis in our area — the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County for the Orthodox and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis for the rest of us. We need the RCBC because we need a communal arm to regulate kashrut, and Orthodox standards are the only ones that suit as a common denominator. However, we also need a board of rabbis that speaks for all segments of the community because the problems that confront us cut across the board. For that, the NJBR is best suited.
And, for the record, this is not just an RCBC vs. NJBR problem. The North Jersey Board of Rabbis has a small, dedicated group that meets each month, but too many rabbis in our area never attend a meeting or show any interest in what was discussed. Even the people who can talk with each other do not. (I would not be surprised if the same situation existed within the RCBC.) Attending meetings of the local chapters of movement arms is often used as an excuse, but it is no substitute for across-the-stream communal meetings.
Words spoken by John F. Kennedy to America’s allies 46 years ago have application here, as well. "United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder."
"Let both sides explore what problems unite us," Kennedy added, "instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."
We have many powerful challenges. They are the problems that unite us, and Jewish education stands front and center. If we do not educate future Jews to be Jews, they will not be Jews in the future and there will be no Jewish future. It is as simple as that.
An Orthodox rabbi who often does attend NJBR meetings, Rabbi Shimon Feld of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, put it bluntly: "Jews are very careful to see to it that their children get a good education, so that they can become doctors, lawyers, businessmen," Feld said. "But they’re not so careful when it comes to seeing that their children get a good education so that they can become Jews."
We need to change that and the place to begin is with cost. Every parent who wants to send his or her child to a day school should be able to do so, but the cost of a day school education — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, it matters not — long ago skyrocketed out of control. Jewish federations do the best they can, but they have many pulls on their communal coffers. We as a community have dropped the ball. We have not been motivated to find a solution. We have not been mobilized into action. Why not? Because the leaders who should motivate and mobilize us — the rabbis of our community for whom Jewish education should be the central issue — cannot bring themselves to sit at the same table to discuss how to go about it.
Then there are the after-school synagogue programs and their costs, too often disguised as "dues" and "building funds," but nonetheless present and prohibitive. Most synagogues cannot afford high-quality educational programs; they do the best they can with extremely limited resources. What we desperately need is a series of communal "Hebrew schools" throughout our area in which resources are pooled, high-quality teachers are hired and paid decently, the best educational tools are made available to the students, educational standards are set and met, and every child who wants that kind of education is assured of getting it, regardless of whether his or her parents can pay for it.
Why is there no such "regional Hebrew school"? Because too many congregations still insist on maintaining their own schools as come-ons for new members. Their rabbis, who should be banding together to lobby for a communal approach, are unwilling to rock the boat.
One solution — certainly not the only one — would be the creation of a Board of Jewish Education with the power to standardize everything from the textbooks used in classrooms to the towels used in washrooms, and the ability to negotiate from strength with vendors to bring down the costs. It could establish the regional Hebrew schools as well, and set and maintain the standards. With proper communal backing, such a board can also work to keep day school tuition and attendant costs in line.
Only the rabbis of this community, banded together, can bring about such a solution, but not if we cannot talk with each other. If we cannot act in concert, then we are powerless.
There are other serious problems facing us as a community, not all involving money. Can rabbis change any of them? United, we might be able to make a dent in some or all. Divided, we do not stand a chance with any.
If we, the rabbis of this community, cannot come together of our own volition, perhaps it is time for our congregants to demand that we do.
"Now the trumpet summons us again," Kennedy said on that Jan. ‘0 long ago. Another kind of trumpet summons us Jews — the shofar. Are we prepared to heed its call?
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, and may it be a year of health, peace, and prosperity.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.