The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, two organizations that have not had much to do with each other, have dug up a reason to come together.
Together with the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the RCBC and NJBR are co-sponsoring the Genizah Project, a ceremonial burial of holy objects at the JCC on Oct. 18. With renovations continuing around the JCC, Rabbi Steve Golden, its Judaic director, approached the rabbinical bodies in June with the idea of creating a communal burial plot.
According to Jewish law, sacred objects that contain God’s name, shemot, and can no longer be used, must be disposed of in a respectful way. Such items include damaged or faded Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefillin, and prayer books.
“When they are essentially used up and no longer functional,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the NJBR and spiritual leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, “rather than throwing them away, because they are holy objects, we bury them as a sign of respect.”
While the project provides a practical resource to the community, Mark hopes to use the occasion more for education about an aspect of Judaism that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
“Genizah” can refer either to the storage space in a synagogue for such items before they are buried or to the actual burial space. Some funeral homes accept religious items, which are then buried next to coffins, with the permission of the deceased person’s family. In ancient times, Jewish communities would designate specific rooms or other locations for storage, and the papers would disintegrate in the dry climate of the Middle East. When Jews moved to less-arid Europe, burial became the modus operandi.
Perhaps the most famous genizah is in Cairo, where almost 200,000 Jewish manuscript fragments were found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Jacob Saphir first discovered the genizah in the mid 1800s, while Solomon Schechter is credited for bringing its contents to the attention of the scholarly community later that century.
In addition to the JCC, 17 organizations – including The Moriah School, The Frisch School, and an assortment of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues, as well as UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey – will share the 2,800 cubic feet at the JCC genizah. Each group has been asked to contribute $150 to help cover the costs of the burial. Organizers have not yet decided if the spot will be marked once it is covered over, but, Golden said, the genizah is located in an area that should not be disturbed.
The entirety of the plot has been allocated to the registered organizations, so individuals with shemot no longer in use must go through one of those groups.
The RCBC, which represents all of Bergen County’s Orthodox rabbis, and the NJBR, which represents mostly Conservative and Reform rabbis in Bergen and Wayne, last came together on the issue of cemetery costs, uniting with the New York Board of Rabbis and UJA-NNJ to lobby for decreasing the high cost of burials in New Jersey. The two groups typically have little contact with each other.
The respectful disposal of religious items, however, is an issue that transcends denomination, Golden said. As they praised the entire community for coming together for the project, the leaders of the NJBR and RCBC appeared hopeful that cooperation between their organizations would continue.
“I am especially proud that these two rabbinic groups have embraced this opportunity,” said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the RCBC and spiritual leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. “It is especially inspiring that we have found a common ground by highlighting the special sanctity and immutability of Torah and our collective commitment to insure its preservation.”
“We see this as the beginning steps,” Mark said. “Hopefully this will work out smoothly and we can find other places to work together for the benefit of the community.”
For more information on the Oct. 18 ceremony, call the JCC at (201) 569-7900.