Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck assumed the presidency of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County a little more than 18 months ago. During that time, he has built on efforts of his predecessors, especially in working with the more liberally observant rabbis of the community.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Observers who are familiar with the organization, which provides kashrut supervision to more than 60 area restaurants, say that Baum’s understated professionalism and willingness to listen has allowed him to further the relatively recent moves toward rapprochement between the Orthodox RCBC and the New Jersey Board of Rabbis, which includes 35 members from the area’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal streams.
The two rabbinic boards, in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, are in closer conversation now than they ever have been. They have found issues of mutual interest, including Jewish education in general and the high cost of day schools in particular. Some joint programming and a better line of communication has grown out of this effort.
Rabbi Benjamin Shull has been at the NJBR’s helm since August, and the two have some shared aims. “We see this as a major goal to work more closely together,” Baum said of Shull. “He’s been a phenomenal partner.”
The one time lack of communication between the groups was not born of conflict or animosity but simply the result of the groups operating within their own silos, Baum said. With the assistance of the federation and its executive director, Jason Shames, however, important steps have been taken to ensure better communication.
The result has been a program, sponsored by both groups, that brought former Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to Bergen County. A rally in support of Israel at the Frisch School, an Orthodox high school in Paramus, was another success. And now the two groups are looking to possibly partner for another joint effort this spring.
Israel and education are natural subjects over which the two groups can form alliances, Baum said. Tikkun olam projects, as well, are something he believes the two groups could develop that would help engage the community. They also could discuss plans to help strengthen Jewish campus life and foster Israel advocacy among college students.
“The connection or bond has been developed, and we are both in touch as presidents of these organizations to strengthen that bond,” Shull said. “I think there are a lot of walls separating the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox world, and there is a lot of work to be done. But I think we are beginning to move in the right direction at this point.”
Both rabbis credit Shames with helping further the conversation by bringing key players from their respective organizations together over constructive issues.
Having the two groups in discussion can only lead to a communal benefit for Jews in Bergen County, Shames said.
“The big thing for me is they are sitting around the room as partners,” he said.
Baum, who has been the rabbi of the 430-family Keter Torah for a decade, didn’t start out thinking that the rabbinate would be his profession. He attended Yeshiva University, receiving his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a law degree from the university’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He was heading for a career in law and worked as a clerk for the Surrogate’s Court of New York City.
He ultimately changed course, however, pursuing a career as a rabbi. Recognizing that his love of Talmud and his interest in the American legal system overlap strongly, he felt that “I’d be more valuable in the Jewish community than in the legal profession.”
He served for nine years at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Fairfield, Conn., before coming to Keter Torah, a contemporary building of polished wood and stone, with nary a dedication plaque in sight.
In addition to his efforts to help further the conversation between the two rabbinic boards, Baum is proud in general of the RCBC’s supervisory role for the county’s kosher establishments – efforts begun by predecessors. He cites initiatives to streamline the kashrut certification process in which every restaurant has a profile and “understands what exactly happens form A to Z…; it’s a blueprint of what happens,” he said, and it is now computerized, as well.
Baum cites with pride the effort to create better standards for the RCBC itself. That initiative was begun by his predecessor, Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs. By bringing in an outside agency – in this case the Chicago Rabbinical Council – the RCBC was able to “show how seriously we take [our role],” Baum said. The CRC made several recommendations that the RCBC adopted.
“He has made the administration of kashrut more professional, and that the standards are appropriate, and that things should be done in a fair and equitable way,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah. Goldin, an RCBC member, also is president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
“He has a no-nonsense style and the facility to cut to the core of an issue,” Goldin said of his colleague. “He’s very balanced, and he doesn’t come to the issue with preconceived agendas.”