Since I had the privilege of serving as the first president of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism, I thought it would be appropriate to supplement the March 18 article about its dissolution with some words of appreciation for those who were instrumental in its founding. Although there were many dedicated volunteers who gave generously of their time and efforts, BARJ would not have been possible without the close cooperation and collaboration of two rabbis from two very different streams of Judaism: Rabbi Benjamin Yasgur, an Orthodox rabbi who was then the director of Jewish Educational Services of what is now UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, a Reform rabbi who was then the regional director for the New Jersey West Hudson Valley Region of what is now the Union for Reform Judaism.
They each agreed to make seed money available from their limited budgets in order to start BARJ as a series of weekend retreats for post bar and bat mitzvah students in the county, with the thought that it could grow into a supplementary high school program. To this end, they went to Hebrew Union College in New York to hire a rabbinic student who could serve as a retreat coordinator, which was all the budget could support. They came back having agreed to hire then student, now rabbi, Jonathan Kraus, as the educational director for much more than the budget could possibly allow. At the time we had no school, no location, and no students, but we had already acquired a deficit.
At that point we turned to the federation for help, and submitted an application for an allocation to bridge the budget gap. The allocation process was somewhat different then, and our application was referred to an education subcommittee that was composed primarily of representatives of the Orthodox day schools and the largely Conservative representatives of the Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies. In yet another example of cooperation and collaboration, that committee unanimously endorsed BARJ’s application, even though it might reduce the funds that would be available for those schools. Thanks to the federation’s support, which continued through good times and rough ones, BARJ came into being and served us well for 24 years.
BARJ will be no more, but the example of cooperation among all streams of Judaism that led to its founding should serve as a reminder of what is possible when we work together for a common goal.