Bubbles, bridges, and Torah

Bubbles, bridges, and Torah

Two Teaneck shuls join for afternoon of study

The session will begin with an explanation by Dr. Mermelstein and will end with talks by both rabbis, Rinat’s Yosef Adler and Beth Sholom’s Joel Pitkowsky.
Harman Grossman of Beth Sholom and Avi Mermelstein of Rinat Yisrael are working on texts for the study session.

Congregation Rinat Yisrael and Congregation Beth Sholom, both of Teaneck, are holding a joint study program on March 14.

On the one hand, not so groundbreaking, right? The shuls are “only a few thousand feet apart,” said Avi Mermelstein, a Rinat member who is on the committee preparing for the day.

On the other hand, as is true for most members of most, if not all, shuls in the shul-rich town, people “live in a bubble” – a shul bubble, that is – “and they are focused on their own events and their own congregants,” he added.

And it is also true that Rinat is Orthodox and Beth Sholom is Conservative. That makes the walls that separate them just a bit thicker.

But there is almost always more than one way of looking at anything. The texts that participants will study are from the Haggadah (yes, Pesach is approaching rapidly), and they focus on the two ways we are told to look at our enemies. Is it about revenge (“Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You,” we implore God at the seder), or is it with forgiveness (“Do not abhor the Egyptian,” the Haggadah also tells us, and God forbade the angels from celebrating the deaths of the Egyptians, who also are his children, midrash adds).

The study session – it’s to start at 4 p.m., at Rinat, and end early enough to allow Beth Sholom members to make it back for Mincha/Ma’ariv at their shul – is “a kind of unique special event that brings together people from very different synagogues to sit down and study Jewish texts,” David Jacobowitz said. Mr. Jacobowitz is a co-chair of Rinat’s adult education program, and he is one of the co-chairs of the study day. “Rinat is very focused on promoting Torah learning. Our rabbi has been incredibly effective – he is a wonderful teacher – and has always put as the highest priority everybody learning Torah, at whatever level they can.

“We believe that Torah is the foundation of everything we believe in as Jews. If you take away Torah, the edifice collapses. And if we have a program that promoted learning of Torah and brought in people of disparate backgrounds, it could be a real winner.

“We love to see more bridges built among different parts of the community. We recognize that this is a little bit out of the box, but we believe that Torah is a common denominator.”

There are two main goals to the program, he said. “One is to promote the learning of Torah, and the second is to create feelings of friendship and kinship and amicability between different parts of the community.”

Elaine Cohen of Beth Sholom, Mr. Jacobowitz’s counterpart on the committee, said although “there are some places in Teaneck that focus on nondenominational learning, it tends to be segmented.” She and Mr. Jacobowitz started talking and realized they both thought “it would be a good opportunity to learn with and from each other. So we came up with the idea of doing it beit midrash style. We thought that members of both congregations could come together on a Shabbat afternoon; it was an optimal time because people didn’t have to decide between that and taking their kids to soccer or whatever other commitments people have on Sunday mornings.

“There is a habit of looking within our own community, and unfortunately these divisions have become barriers and obstacles rather than bridges,” she said. “I don’t think it’s ideological. I think it’s habit.”

Dr. Mermelstein, working with Beth Sholom’s Harman Grossman, was responsible for selecting the texts, and he will speak at the beginning, explaining how the day will work.

The issues that participants will consider “is what emotion we adopt when we consider our enemies,” he said. “Do we characterize it as revenge, forgiveness, compassion, love, hate? There are a couple of takeaways. One of them is that revenge is an emotion that sometimes can be troubling for our modern sensibilities, but on the other hand it can be a moral emotion that emerges from our recognition that a profound wrong has been committed and should not go unpunished. On the other hand, we might decide to embrace love and forgiveness. Many sources suggest doing that, and others suggest that love for one’s enemy can be dangerous if one’s enemy takes advantage of it.

“We can see that our tradition does not speak with one voice about the emotions we are supposed to feel. Our tradition prescribes different emotions at different times, from different sources, in different historical contexts. Each has arguments in its favor.”

Mr. Grossman is direct about the challenge. “What’s novel about this is that it is a Conservative shul partnering with an Orthodox one,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that this is novel. Learning Jewish texts is what Jews do. These texts belong to everybody.

“It is a great idea to do it jointly.

“The subject matter is particularly relevant at this time of year, between Purim and Pesach. And considering what the Jewish stance toward our enemies ought to be is more relevant now than it was in years past because – as people like Yitz Greenberg” – that’s Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the Orthodox rabbi who founded Clal – “have been saying very articulately for a long time now, Jews have power now, so now it matters.

“It’s been a real pleasure for me to work with the folks at Rinat,” he continued. “Some of them are old friends of mine, and some of them I hope are new friends. There is quite a bit of crossover between the shuls.” There are, in fact, couples who belong to both, Mr. Grossman said.

The study session will be organized into chevrutas – small groups. Participants – who need not belong to either Rinat or Beth Sholom – are urged to register. The organizers will put together groups that ideally will include people from both places and will be made up of people at roughly the same educational level. (The registration form, which can be found online, asks registrants for that level.) Texts will be available in both Hebrew and English.

read more: