Finding common ground at the Board of Rabbis

Finding common ground at the Board of Rabbis

Rabbi Benjamin Shull makes education and cooperation priorities

Rabbi Benjamin Shull has been at the helm of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis only since July 1, but he already is clear about which issues are likely to shape his tenure there.

Education tops his agenda, spurred in part by the announced closing earlier this year of the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in Rockland County, where his son was a student. Another catalyst was the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s restructuring of its educational department and offerings.

Both events gave him a sense that the board must take a more active role in helping to shape a broader educational mission for the Jewish community in northern New Jersey. The Gittelman school closing came five years after the Metro Schechter Academy, a joint New York/New Jersey regional high school, folded, giving Shull a sense that the future of Jewish education for the liberal streams of Judaism is more fragile than it should be.

“Witnessing a day school closing was certainly upsetting and deeply concerning about the state of Jewish education,” he said in a recent interview in his office at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

“There’s a real problem, and we as rabbis have a role to play.”

The NJBR, which includes about 35 members from approximately 25 congregations and organizations, serves as a professional organization and sounding board for rabbis from the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal streams. Unlike its Orthodox counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, it is a regional body, accommodating rabbis from communities all around northern New Jersey.

Shull would like the rabbis to address how Jewish education and institutions continue to lose focus and vitality. Hebrew afterschool and high school programs continue to dilute their programs to remain competitive, offering fewer days and hours per day. Weakened standards, however, have not led to increased enrollment or an improvement in students’ experience.

“If we had a joint voice, we could say ‘These are the standards,'” Shull said.

In today’s climate, the “lowest common denominator wins out,” he said. What he would like to see happen is the creation of a Jewish education council, which could convene a larger conversation and allow synagogues to work together.

In some ways, that was the role once played by the Jewish Educational Services department at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. Over the last several years, the federation has been restructuring the department. Earlier this year, it put on hold or downsized various planned educational conferences, including the spring 2012 early childhood conference and the fall teachers’ workshop. The federation has not eliminated JES, it says, but rather has taken a step back, in its words, to determine how its dollars can be best spent. It will be using some of the education funds to study the best approaches as JFNNJ moves forward.

Dr. Wallace Greene, who was JES’s director until 2009, said that the rabbis had never been particularly attentive to the federation or its role in education in the past, allowing the federation to eliminate much of its department without speaking up. Part of that was due to a lack of communication between federation and the NJBR. Part of it was due to an internal debate about whether the NJBR should involve itself in education matters that did not concern all of its rabbis; some Reform rabbis, for example, objected to the NJBR involving itself in day school issues, because the movement does not have a day school of its own in the area.

“I wish Ben Shull the best of luck, but I don’t know what they can do at this point,” Greene said, describing the desire for the board to have a “seat at the table” as “too little, too late.”

Shull does see a way for the board to work with the federation, pointing to such programs as PJ Library, which sends books to Jewish families with young children every month and also plans outreach efforts to the unaffiliated, and the board’s own offering, Sweet Tastes of Torah, an annual evening of learning that features 20 to 30 rabbis teaching two one-hour sessions on a variety of topics. The program, now going into its fourth year, was created to replace a similar one that the YJCC of Washington Township had to cancel for lack of funding.

Shull has been at Temple Emanuel for the past seven years; he came to it from congregations in Virginia Beach, Va., and Tampa and Stuart, both in Florida. With a background in social work, he has broad experience in the Jewish communal world, having served as the head of both Tampa’s Jewish Family Service and Hillel at the State University of New York in Albany. He began his two-year leadership position on the board, succeeding Rabbi Randall Mark, who served an extended three-year term.

Shull has a serious and thoughtful manner and is deliberate in choosing his words. He continues to study with a group of rabbis that includes Rabbi Gerald Friedman, who recently retired from Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge; Rabbi David Bockman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes; and Rabbi Leana Morritt, who founded Thresholds, a Jewish education center and interfaith resource consultancy.

Shull sees some of the problems the community faces as reflecting not only a national trend toward decreased Jewish engagement, but also as being particular to the way the county and region have functioned. During the boom years here, local Jewish communities, each with its own focus and identity, established many religious institutions, clustered near each other. This worked well until recently, when shifting demographics meant that the community could no longer sustain many similar congregations. This has led neighboring congregations to look toward consolidation of services and programs, and even toward mergers.

“The synagogues have historically not worked together,” he said. “The nature of the political structure – each is autonomous. But we can’t continue to operate in isolation.”

In addition to making education a high priority, Shull also would like to forge a stronger bond with the RCBC and find ways to work with it. The desire to find common ground is a result of the two organization’s widely divergent responses to the same-sex wedding announcement this newspaper ran in 2010. Shull has reached out to the RCBC and found it receptive, he said.

His predecessor, Mark, like Shull a Conservative rabbi, said that finding any common ground would continue to be a major challenge for the two different boards, which until two years ago “never really had anything to do with each other.”

There was one exception. In 2007, the two boards joined forces in attempting to reform how cemeteries are regulated in New Jersey.

“Working with the Orthodox community is something he values and I think he’s well situated to bridge that gap,” Mark, who is the rabbi of Shomrei Torah in Wayne, said of Shull. “From my perspective, it’s become clear that this is a community issue.”

For Shull, the NJBR is a place where he can step out of congregational life and find topics that he and his colleagues can discuss and debate.

“Denominationalism is weakening,” he said, referring to a blurring of lines among the more liberal streams. “That’s good in some ways. We can work more collaboratively when it’s not as strong.”

Mark said that the board’s primary function is to serve as a professional organization. Rabbis work in what can be a profoundly isolating profession. Many of the issues that rabbis handle, he said, simply cannot be shared with congregants.

Shull will continue outreach and work on building bridges, Mark said. “The fact is, he cares and he’s willing to put in the time. Not everyone is willing to take on a leadership role in a group like that, on top of everything else you are doing.”

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