Jewish Center of Teaneck still debating identity

Jewish Center of Teaneck still debating identity

Members vote on mechitza, but still divided

Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck voted down a controversial motion on Sunday to hold Traditional/Conservative services in the center’s smaller sanctuary and Orthodox services, in which men and women would pray divided by a mechitza, in the larger sanctuary.

In the vote’s aftermath, differing opinions among synagogue members on its outcome seemed to herald a conflict of visions for the synagogue’s future identity.

According to Eva Gans, the synagogue’s president, the majority of congregants who voted approved the motion, with 61 percent in favor. The motion was defeated, she says, because the synagogue’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 percent vote in support, to pass a motion.

“The motion was defeated despite a huge groundswell of support,” said Gans. “I was glad to see how many people are willing to take this courageous step. Even though it might inconvenience them, they were looking toward the enhanced future of the synagogue.”

A simple majority, 59 people, voted to pass the motion, and 37 voted against it.

“When we wrote the constitution we decided to make it a larger number,” instead of a simple majority to pass a motion, she explained. “We set ourselves a very high goal.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, religious leader of the synagogue, was present for the vote but left for Israel before the tally, Gans said. He could not be reached for comment.

Marilyn Bell, a longtime member and wife of A. Milton Bell, the synagogue’s former education director, spoke against the motion before the vote. Because her husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, she needs to sit beside him, she says, and not on the other side of a mechitza.

“My feeling is, if I can’t sit by my husband, we can’t go to shul,” she said.

Weekday morning services are now Orthodox, and it pains her that she and her husband cannot sit together when either one needs to say Kaddish because of a yahrzeit.

“I feel disenfranchised by the fact that I could not go to services early in the morning when I’d have yahrzheit … for my and my husband’s parents, because those are Orthodox services.”

Bell added, “I think the handwriting is on the wall. Now they are voting to make the larger sanctuary Orthodox and the smaller sanctuary Conservative. I feel in two years they’ll be voting to close down the Conservative section altogether.”

Bell says she bases this prediction in part on a presentation before the vote took place.

“The fellow who gave the presentation said if we can make the whole temple Orthodox we’d have no problem filling it with members,” said Bell.

The center has had Orthodox services for many years, only without the mechitza, Gans maintained. The synagogue uses an Orthodox prayer book, she said.

Members concerned about sweeping changes should realize the mechitza is the only one expected, according to Gans.

“When [some members] say they don’t want [the center] to be an Orthodox synagogue, they mean they don’t want a mechitza – because these services have been Orthodox all along,” she said. “Nothing else would change.”

Everone interviewed by The Jewish Standard said that tensions regarding this motion have not spilled over to synagogue social life.

At kiddush following services, “Everyone gets along and no one looks at anyone else and wonders which service they prayed in,” said Gans. “A number of people go back and forth just for the fun of it.”

Bell says she feels no ill will to those supporting the mechitza and sees the conflict as a clash of visions, not as personal.

“My feeling was that if they relegated us to the smaller room where there are no memorial plaques [for our family], we would have looked for another temple,” she said, adding that for now, she and her husband are happy to remain members. “You can’t lose sight of friendship.”

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