Love and hate in Bergen County

Love and hate in Bergen County

An interview with Rabbi Nosson Schuman

Pessy and Nosson Schuman and their children, ranging in age from 7 to 15. Their lives could have been lost when their home was firebombed. Courtesy Rabbi Nosson Schuman

On Monday, Rabbi Nosson Schuman went shopping with his wife to buy new sheets to replace the ones scorched by a Molotov cocktail thrown through their bedroom window just before dawn on Jan. 11.

That night, he had planned to kick off a new adult-ed class on prayer in Congregation Beth El of Rutherford, the small synagogue that shares the house where he and his family have lived since August 2009. Instead, the congregants gathered to discuss the incident, which police are still puzzling over.

Less than a week later, the second-degree burns on four of his fingers were still tender. Schuman, however, had become adept at handling reporters on his Montross Avenue lawn. He had shaken hands with police officers and politicians. He had typed responses to hundreds of e-mails and Facebook messages. And he had managed to strum his guitar at an interfaith sing-along that attracted 300 VIPS, clergy, and ordinary people the Saturday night after the attack. (See accompanying article.)

The leader of a flock of fewer than 20 families probably never expected to be the center of this sort of attention. Sometimes, however, the darkest cloud can have a sterling silver lining.

“Like John Lennon said, ‘imagine,’ but this was real,” Schuman said Monday, recalling the Saturday night gathering. “There were people from all different faiths: Catholics, Protestants, the highest imam in New Jersey, Indian [Hindus], words of blessing from the archbishop of New Jersey, people of all different skin colors. Everyone was there in unity. It wasn’t a prayer service, but a night of thanksgiving and hope.”

A local pastor had suggested organizing a prayer vigil at the Orthodox synagogue, but Schuman thought that would be too sad. “I wanted to do something positive, something toward fostering unity,” he said. “I liked the idea of people coming up and sharing, and music is a beautiful way of sharing emotions.”

As interest quickly grew, Schuman kept seeking larger venues. He finally settled on the gymnasium of Felician College, after making certain there was no crucifix on the wall that might have made some Jews feel uncomfortable.

Still, he admits that playing Shlomo Carlebach tunes at a Catholic college in the company of gentiles singing church hymns (with no mention of Jesus, at his request) is not de rigueur for rabbis ordained by the “black hat” Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. Schuman, now 44, studied there for nine years after attending the University of Michigan, New York University, and Yeshiva University.

“No, it’s not common. But I’ve been an ‘out of town’ rabbi for over 13 years, and the paradigm of Judaism in Brooklyn is different than what needs to be done outside that area. Judaism is not just for Jews. We are supposed to be ‘a light unto the nations’ and tikkun olam [repairing the world] will not take place with us alone, so we must find the good in others,” said Schuman.

It also is not common for an Orthodox rabbi to feature a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi on his Facebook page (“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”) or to list The Who among his favorite musicians.

Brought up in an assimilated Queens family, Schuman arrived at college on a quest for meaning. “I felt that there was a God, and that he must have communicated with us because he didn’t create us not to have a relationship with us,” he said.

At 19, he began befriending Orthodox students at the campus Hillel and discovered there was indeed a record of divine communication: the Torah. “It contains all that we have to do to imbue our lives with meaning,” he said.

He became a pulpit rabbi because he felt he could use his secular background to “relate Judaism’s eternal values and messages” in a way that would resonate with congregants and their children regardless of their level of belief or observance.

“I try to give respect to everybody, whether Jews who don’t practice their Judaism the way I do, or anyone else. Everyone is made in the image God and was created to be beloved by God. We Jews have a unique mission with our 613 mitzvot, but it’s in conjunction with the world as whole, and we have to treat everyone as partners,” said Schuman, who recently began a master’s degree program in Jewish education and administration at Yeshiva University.

The gathering at Felician, he added, “was the vision of what we daven [pray] for on Rosh Hashanah – that all nations of the world will come together. As we get closer to the messianic era, I hope these kinds of things will get more frequent. We’ll work on more programs to foster understanding.”

He has not forgotten that the trigger for this warm get-together was an ugly incident.

The way he recalls it, an object smashed through his bedroom window, spurting flaming oil, at about 4:30 a.m. He and his wife, Pessy, were awakened by the noise.

“When I saw flames, my first instinct was to put them out, so I threw the quilt over the windowpane and luckily that worked,” he said. “Then I looked out the window and I saw three of these incendiary devices on the windowsill and realized it was a continuation of the hate crimes.” Beth El was the fourth Bergen County synagogue to be targeted by vandals since shortly before Chanukah.

“The carpet was on fire, too, but luckily I was able to get to the fire extinguisher and put it out,” he continued. He realized only later that his hands were burned.

The rabbi and his wife live in the house with their five children and Schuman’s father, and his mother-in-law was visiting at the time. They all escaped safely.

“My wife is suffering a lot of stress,” he confided. “Both of us have images of the light behind the window and the fire coming in. But I try to look at our bedroom as a place of miracles. I was able to contain the flames within a minute or two. And there were at least four other firebombs on the roof and the window ledge that didn’t detonate. So there were a lot of miracles, but it’s still a bit scary and very traumatic.”

His children, ranging in age from seven to 15, were frightened by their parents’ screams. He said the older ones “understand that there have been anti-Semitic acts throughout the ages. But this one wasn’t done by our neighbors. It was the act of a very radical minority. The great majority are showing a lot of brotherhood to the Jewish people.”

The suddenly famous rabbi reckons that “there were about 10 minutes of hate and four days [so far] of an outpouring of love and support from New Jersey and all over the country. There is much more love than hate out there, and we have more friends in the non-Jewish community than we ever realized.”

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