A holiday sampler 
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A holiday sampler 

Schechter students gain Chanukah enlightenment from a minyan of guest rabbis

Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck
Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck

On the second day of Chanukah, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford gave its middle school students a chance to learn from five different rabbis from across the Jewish religious spectrum.

All together, 10 visiting rabbis discussed some aspect of Chanukah with rotating groups of either fifth and sixth, or seventh and eighth graders. Each session lasted 12 minutes.

Rabbi Efrem Reis, the school’s rabbi, compared the experience to speed dating, but the goal was not for the students to form a permanent relationship with one of the visiting rabbis. It was, instead, to appreciate “the 70 faces of Torah.”

“One of my goals for this year was to let our community rabbis have a chance to experience our school and create a relationship with us,” Rabbi Reis said.

Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of the Glen Rock Jewish Center

Of the 10 rabbis, two were Orthodox — Rabbis Chaim Poupko and Daniel Goldberg from Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah — and two were Reform — Rabbi Noah Fabricant from Kol Dorot in Oradell and Rabbi Steven Sirbu from Temple Emeth in Teaneck. Schechter, affiliated with Conservative Judaism at its founding, now describes itself as a halachic and egalitarian Jewish community day school.

The other rabbis who came to teach Chanukah Torah on November 30 all are Conservative. They’re Rabbi Ami Hersh, the director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack; Rabbi Lauren Monosov of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake; Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter; Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck; Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of the Glen Rock Jewish Center; and Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Englewood.

And whether it was the chance to hear new voices, the different approaches those voices offered, or the rapid-fire pace of the program, the middle schoolers were captivated by it.

“It was really beautiful,” Rabbi Reis said. “I had never heard the hallways be so quiet. The kids were really engaging with these different discussions. There wasn’t really an overlap — every teacher was teaching something different. You could hear a personal story, or a textual discussion, or someone reading a piece of Yiddish literature. But it was all about Chanukah.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Beth Sholom in Teaneck

Mika Afriat, a seventh grader, said she particularly liked Rabbi Schlosberg’s session, which took the debate between Hillel and Shammai over how to light the Chanukah lights — do we start with eight the first night and count down to one, as Shammai maintained, or should we start with one and count up to eight, as Hillel argued successfully — and applied Hillel’s principle that we should strive to increase rather than decrease holiness — “and asked us to respond to real life situations and bring the learning into our lives.”

Celan Rotenberg-Schwartz, another seventh grader, was captivated by Rabbi Poupko’s comparison of the rules of Chanukah with those of Purim, a discussion he anchored in the texts of Maimonides’ law code.

And eighter-grader Dov Liben liked the lesson from “The Parakeet Named Dreidel,” the Isaac Bashevis Singer story that Rabbi Sirbu taught. “Even if you feel like a solution is not reachable, in time it can still happen,” he said.

Rabbi Reis said the school aims to bridge the school community and the students’ shul communities. “We want to make our students feel we’re all partners in making Torah accessible to them,” he said. Schechter has students from about two dozen congregations.

Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Ahavath Torah in Englewood

In general, Schechter invites congregational rabbis to attend their students’ in-school simchas such as bar or bat mitzvahs and graduations.

And Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, the school’s director of education and Judaic studies, said the program sent an important message to the students that “Limud l’shma — Torah study for its own sake — is such an important value to us. Our students are used to having expert visitors come and speak. To bring in rabbis from our own communities is such an obvious thing to do.

“From a covid perspective, this one of the first wider community things we were able to do.”

Rabbi Reis said he hopes to bring in more rabbis to speak to his students — including some who have non-pulpit careers, including a friend who is a chaplain in the New York City prison system, and another who works for the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council which provides military chaplains for the U.S. military.

“The role of being a rabbi can mean so many things,” he said.

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