JCT conflict culminates in vote of confidence for rabbi

JCT conflict culminates in vote of confidence for rabbi

Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck have been debating its future – and the future of its religious leader, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. Charles Zusman

The Jewish Center of Teaneck, once the true center of Jewish life in the area, is at a crossroads.

For years the congregation followed the Conservative tradition. But when Conservatives moved to the left, granting a greater role and even ordination for women, the “traditionalists” at the center held their ground, resisting that pull to the left.

At the same time, a significant portion of the congregation moved to the right, following the Orthodox tradition. This move is seen as mirroring the change in the Jewish demographics of Teaneck, which has experienced an influx of Orthodox Jews within the last 20 years. Over the years, the center’s rolls have declined from a high of about 1,500 families to 280 families today.

Rabbi Lawrence Zierlier

In a tangible sign of the division within the center, two separate services are conducted – the “traditional” minyan in the Pressburger, or main sanctuary, where men and women sit and pray side by side, and the Orthodox minyan, in the Weiss auditorium, where men and women are separated by a barrier, a mechitza. Neither service is egalitarian.

The differences were underlined in a dispute over the center’s rabbi, Lawrence S. Zierler, who began his duties Aug. 1, 2006, and whose contract is scheduled for renewal in July.

A group of center members, calling themselves “the Concerned Members,” who favor the “traditional minyan” and say the rabbi, who is Orthodox, slights them, called for his contract not to be renewed. The issue came to a vote Thursday, March 5, during which the membership cast secret ballots.

The vote favored the rabbi 97 to 57.

The vote was very gratifying to supporters of the rabbi. “It was wonderful to see the recognition of the membership of the hard work of the rabbi,” said Eva Lynn Gans, first vice president of the congregation. “He’s turning us around to be the Jewish center we used to be,” she said.

The vote was preceded by pro and con statements in letters written to the membership.

In a letter dated Feb. 18, the Concerned Members said that the rabbi’s “ultimate goal remains making the entire shul ‘under one umbrella,’ Orthodox.” They said that his comments “belittling” the membership have “created an atmosphere of divisiveness, resentment, polarization,” and the like.

They said that attendance does not bear out the rabbi’s contention that the Orthodox service will draw more members.

A letter dated Feb. 26 and signed by six past presidents challenged the Concerned Members. The past presidents acknowledge the serious dip in membership, but say the Concerned Members offer no solution, want the Pressburger service to remain, and “offer no programs or policies to increase the membership.”

They said that the Orthodox minyan has been growing steadily, but, they concede, slowly. They cited a “steady diet of programs including lectures, films, and classes” that have spurred “a sense of camaraderie that has not been present for a long time.”

They said that the Concerned Members don’t recognize this because they do not take part.

The Concerned Members responded to that letter by charging that it “was filled with untruths and innuendos” and that the past presidents have “chosen to support the rabbi’s personal needs and goals over those of the membership at large.”

Those who signed as Concerned Members either declined comment or did not return numerous telephone calls.

Zierler himself declined to be interviewed at present, citing the press of a busy schedule.

Those at the March 5 vote, which was open only to full members in good standing and closed to the press, said the session was orderly and polite, with each side taking turns expressing its point of view. Anonymous paper ballots were counted twice by representatives of both sides.

One long-time member, Jacqueline Kates, joined as a youngster with her family in 1957. “It was the center of Jewish life in Teaneck, no, of Bergen County,” she recalled. It was a social place for area Jewish teenagers to hang out, she said.

Organized in 1933, it was the first synagogue in Teaneck. It expanded to its current home at 70 Sterling Place, just by the Teaneck Township Hall.

It is just that status that makes its trials and tribulations relevant, more than just another dispute among a congregation about its spiritual leader. It mirrors deeper currents in society, the old and the new.

It may be seen as ironic that the synagogue traditionalists are the Conservative-leaning ones and the new contingent are the Orthodox, led by the 48-year-old Zierler.

The “traditionalists” see the Orthodox rabbi as eroding their status at the center. Until recently the rabbi prayed only in the Orthodox minyan, where he delivered his sermon.

He now divides his time between both, and after services both groups gather for the sermon.

For many years the center has been unaffiliated. The synagogue has been described as Orthodox in practice, with the exception that men and women sat together. The members approved the mechitza for the Orthodox minyan in June 2007.

The last census, in 2000, put the population of Teaneck at 39,260. Press reports at the time estimated the Jewish population of the township at 40 percent, or about 16,000 persons.

According to The Jewish Standard’s Guide to Jewish Life, there are 16 Jewish houses of worship in the township; 10 are described as Orthodox.

Longtime member Burton Greenblatt joined the center in 1961 when there were 1,346 member families.

Greenblatt, an outspoken supporter of Zierler, sees a move to Orthodoxy as the synagogue’s salvation. “The only way we can preserve our beautiful Jewish center is to convert it to Orthodox,” he said.

Center leaders combine their praise of Zierler with hope for the future.

“The vote was an overwhelming support of Rabbi Zierler,” said president Dr. Howard Wang. He said Zierler is a “24/7 rabbi” who has brought innovation to the center. “Now we have to unite for future growth,” he said.

The main point of the vote, said Gans, is that a lot of people care about the center. “I hope we can use all this positive energy to bring the center to new heights,” she said.

Asked whether the center might be sold because of declining membership and rising costs, Gans said, “That’s never been on the table. We love the building and we’re working very hard to keep it up.”

In her view, it’s noteworthy that the rabbi has many supporters among those who pray in the traditional service, and many of those who oppose him have never met him.

“In the two brief years he has been with the synagogue he has done so much and has brought so much life,” said Greenblatt.

While the rabbi’s role and a move to Orthodoxy may have ruffled feelings, long-time members remember the good old days but look ahead.

Gans said that the synagogue’s religious orientation would not change and that both minyans would continue.

But on the other hand, “It’s a realistic assessment that the [synagogue’s] future is with [its becoming] Orthodox,” said Kates. “The rabbi is here and I want our rabbi to unite us,” she continued. “It’s important for all of us to think of ourselves as one center family.”

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