Jewish Center stressed by minyan’s exodus

Jewish Center stressed by minyan’s exodus

The Mercaz Minyan, a group of about 50 families who daven with a mechitza, has left the Jewish Center of Teaneck and has met for the past several weeks in the home of the JCT’s outgoing president, Jeff Weber. The center’s Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, its religious leader for the past nine months, hopes to welcome them back as a lay-led group, pledging to join them in the shul from time to time.

The group chose to leave the JCT shortly after Passover when attendees were informed that Rabbi Daniel Feldman, who has led them in prayer for the past several years, would no longer be permitted to do so. (Feldman, the son of the JCT’s rabbi emeritus, David Feldman, e-mailed The Jewish Standard, "I … do not believe that it is appropriate for me to comment on this in any public forum. I wish the Jewish Center and Rabbi Zierler only success in the future.") Mounting tension has followed their exodus.

Zierler insists it is healthy for the Jewish Center of Teaneck to permit lay-led minyanim that daven outside the shul’s main Pressman sanctuary but believes that as he is the sole religious, halachic authority sanctioned by the JCT constitution, it is his responsibility to guide all worship that takes place in the building.

Before a congregation can sustain multiple minyanim, Zierler observed in an interview this week at the Standard’s office, it must be secure in its identity. "Change doesn’t mean casting aspersions on the past, but fine-tuning earlier commitments," said Zierler. While he acknowledged that as an Orthodox rabbi, he would like to see the main service incorporate a mechitza, that is not likely to happen solely at his behest, he said. Long-term members must remain hosts in their own home, the synagogue, which should be the base from which all other religious expression is embraced.

"I want to help people begin and continue their Jewish journeys," he said, "and, as the moreh derech, the tour guide, I need to interact with the total complement of the congregation, to bond with all the members."

JCT has been struggling to regain its footing since the retirement six years ago of Rabbi David Feldman, who led the congregation from 198′ to ‘001. Central to the challenges it has faced is that of its religious direction. A 1,400-family community through the 1960s and ’70s, affiliated with the Conservative movement under the leadership of the late Rabbi Judah Washer, JCT long ago gave up its formal denominational association. With membership now hovering around 350 households, it has maintained a strictly traditional service in its main sanctuary, eschewing egalitarian practice and signaling a move toward Orthodoxy in first hiring Rabbi Ira Grussgott, who received Orthodox smicha, and welcoming the formation of two lay-led mechitza minyanim. (At the same time, an egalitarian minyan was invited to daven in the building, but it failed to attract a core group of regular worshippers.) One of these, the Mercaz (which means "center") Minyan, soon gained a following under the direction of the younger Feldman, a graduate of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Talmudic Seminary at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy, and a Talmud instructor and director of the Rabbinic Resource and Research Center there.

By the time Zierler, another REITS alumnus, was engaged in August ‘006, following a prolonged process that involved an executive search firm, the Mercaz Minyan was meeting every Shabbat in the JCT basement.

Supporters of the Mercaz Minyan reached this week unanimously said they did not want to say anything to undermine Zierler’s rabbinic status or to cast JCT in a negative light. Nonetheless, they were not optimistic that a solution could be worked out that would enable them to continue to daven with Daniel Feldman at JCT.

Weber, who was instrumental in forming the Mercaz Minyan and who invited Feldman to lead it in ‘003, said, "In order for the shul to survive, I believe [we should have] various minyans [including] an Orthodox minyan. I would rather hear young Jewish babies in the hallway than the tapping of canes."

While the JCT’s immediate neighborhood, Zierler conceded, is now largely made up of Orthodox Jews who would not be comfortable worshipping without a mechitza, the shul could become a convenient place for them to exercise, find affordable childcare, or attend lectures or cultural events, even if it doesn’t suit their style of worship.

He articulated his hope that the 60,000 square-foot JCT could become "a big-tent environment, a magnet for the community."

He wants to establish "multiple membership lines" that would capitalize on the facility’s unique physical features: a gym and a pool to offer affordable health and wellness activities, as well as building bridges with organizations to revitalize cultural and educational programming.

He outlined his vision at an April 30 meeting at the synagogue.

Asked by this newspaper if his ambition to turn JCT into a true community center might put it in competition with JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, Zierler said he believed that there could be opportunities for collaboration with these as well as a need for affordable programs and services closer to home. Although he declined to name them, he said he has already initiated conversations with different organizations with which JCT could partner and has begun investigating revenue streams to implement plans that are being developed with "a very strong committee structure and cohesive board."

Howard Wang, the congregation’s incoming president and a board member for ‘5 years, said in a telephone interview last week, "The rabbi is my leader. He is the one with the foresight and the initiative, and my job is to try to re-energize the institution."

But not all long-time members liked what they heard at last week’s meeting, nor do they have confidence that Zierler’s goal is feasible.

Robin Benoff, a member since 1988 who was present at the meeting called Zierler’s plan a recipe for "turning JCT in into a cash cow.

"We tried to explain that’s not going to happen. [Our] pool and gym are small. As a Realtor in town, I know that new young Jewish couples that send their children to public school are not moving into town. His vision is naive. A lecture series will not turn [JCT] into a money-maker."

To initiate a process of reflection and self-examination that Zierler anticipated could precipitate an evolution in religious practice in the main sanctuary, a non-egalitarian service with mixed seating, he has launched a learning experience he calls "tools of empowerment and partnership." A Monday night class he offers typically draws about 50 people, he said. A monthly rabbi’s tish he has been holding on the Shabbat before rosh chodesh, "Cholent, Cugel and Conversation," is likewise gaining steam, with 100 or more regulars sticking around after kiddush to explore such questions as "what is a good Jew?" This week, Zierler will ask people to consider the question "What is truth?" Another critical issue now under the microscope is the role of women, as dictated by halacha.

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