Rabbi ‘starts the conversation’ on rabbinic role in the community
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Rabbi ‘starts the conversation’ on rabbinic role in the community

The high price of day school education. Strengthening after-school religious school. Runaway costs at local cemeteries. Financing Jewish chaplains for area hospitals.

These are some of the communal challenges that are top-of-mind for the new president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, Shammai Engelmayer, who began his two-year tenure in the post in May. NJBR members are Reform and Conservative rabbis from Bergen, Passaic, and North Hudson counties.

A new head of the local Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, was also named recently, but when reached this week, Rabbi Pinchas Weinberger of Young Israel of Teaneck declined to answer questions about the RCBC’s agenda for the coming year. He urged a reporter to call back in September, saying he would be happy to talk then, once the board, on summer hiatus, has reconvened.

Engelmayer, a Jewish Standard columnist and religious leader/executive director of Temple Israel Community Center, a Conservative congregation in Cliffside Park, has some specific notions about how he would like to see the NJBR operate. However, his first intention, this summer, is to "take a tour" as he put it, visiting all the NJBR members in their synagogues and studies to get their perspectives and hear their ideas and suggestions firsthand.

It is as important to him to meet with NJBR members who are not active as it is to spend time with those who regularly attend meetings, he said, wondering, "What would it take to get them there?"

This initial exercise, he believes, is essential to maximize the board’s effectiveness. "The more we can make the NJBR meaningful to the rabbis, the more able we will be to provide leadership to the community."

He continued, "In many locales, the board of rabbis is the place from which communal leadership flows. It’s also a place where different streams can come together to discuss issues of common concern," those that cross denominational and ideological boundaries.

What fuels his vision of the board’s potential collective force, said Engelmayer, is a conception of the rabbi as a communal leader, not simply the leader of his or her congregation. "A rabbi’s role has to entail all Israel, not just those people paying the bills," he said, adding, "That’s what we mean by community. It is simultaneously narrow and broad."

Careful to note that his rabbinic colleagues may not entirely agree with his views, Engelmayer laid out his blueprint for communal cooperation, advocating, as he has in his Standard column, the pooling of financial and resources and human capital whenever possible to strengthen local Jewish life.

For example, said Engelmayer, "the community has an obligation to help provide" relief to parents from the high cost of day school tuition, asking, "What can we [the NJBR and the Orthodox RCBC] do to minimize the tremendous sacrifices people have had to make?"

Similarly, additional communal support ought to be forthcoming for improvements in after-school religious school programs. It is not possible, he said, for small congregations or those with a large proportion of day-school students to create enough of a tuition base to afford high-quality programming. "How do we provide children with the best possible Jewish education under those circumstances? Whose obligation is it?" he asked.

"Right now, there is little to no communal support for after-school programs, other than the marvelous job of teacher training provided by Jewish Educational Services. Educational quality in most schools is lacking; the children are left short-shrifted," he charged. JES is under the auspices of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which, Engelmayer lamented, has been forced to cut its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. (UJA-NNJ made this announcement at its annual meeting in June.)

One solution, said Engelmayer, may be the creation of regional religious school programs, like the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism that serve students post b’nai mitzvah through high school and are supported by consortia of the area’s Reform and Conservative congregations. BCHSJS meets on Sunday mornings at the Frisch School in Paramus and will expand its programs in September at a satellite campus at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake; BARJ, hosted Wednesday evenings at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, also receives funding from the Union for Reform Judaism.

The regional model for younger children is one that might work, Engelmayer speculated.

"But unless that conversation gets going, nothing is going to happen. A body of rabbis can supply that leadership. The conversation needs to get started there," he maintained. "A working and symbiotic relationship can only be to the greater benefit of the community."

Engelmayer cited the Jewish Learning Project, an annual program of adult study that takes place at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township and area synagogues as a model of communal collaboration that facilitates greater participation in Jewish learning than any one institution would be able to offer on its own.

Among the thorniest issues to cut across the denominational spectrum is that of inflated charges and practices at area cemeteries, according to Engelmayer. In addition to the runaway costs of burying a loved one, Engelmayer pointed to what he called "strange rules" in effect at Cedar Park in Paramus. Management there, he charged, blames the workers’ union for prohibiting mourners to follow a centuries-old tradition of making seven stops between the hearse and the gravesite to recite psalms. The Ceder Park management could not be reached for comment.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson and Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (all of District 37), were involved in discussions to change the configuration of the state’s cemetery board, to date composed only of cemetery owners. According to a spokeswoman in Weinberg’s office, in April, following a meeting she had with the board, the senator sent a letter to Gov. Jon Corzine’s office recommending that Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor be appointed to the board. While appointments reportedly take months, Engelmayer argued that it wouldn’t hurt for the boards of rabbis to line up in concert to voice support.

Another area of concern to arise out of federation budget cuts, said Engelmayer, "is chaplaincy coverage at area hospitals. Providing a Jewish presence at hospitals to patients and their families in crisis who are presently unaffiliated is a communal responsibility, he said, adding, "The NJBR and the RCBC have to deal with that and provide leadership so that there can be a chaplaincy. We have been involved in chaplaincy through UJA-NNJ’s chaplaincy committee, but our leadership role could be stronger. And hopefully, it will be."

Despite the strain that budgetary woes may place on support for programs, Engelmayer expressed eagerness to nurture rabbis’ ties with UJA-NNJ, a sentiment echoed by Judy Beck, the director of federation’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative. She described her interaction with both local rabbinic boards as a "really good working relationship, a partnership."

Said Beck, "Our goal is to provide a venue for rabbis of the various movements to meet together to study and develop a collegial atmosphere and to enhance their community-building." She said she’s already had an in-depth conversation with Engelmayer and intends to reach out to Weinberger.

SLI is organizing a multi-session program, she said, designed to foster rabbis’ management and administrative skills. It will include workshops on building membership, spotting domestic abuse, creating welcoming congregations, and focusing on spirituality to make the worship experience more meaningful, led by outside scholars and experts in the social services and institutional advancement. All such sessions are an opportunity, she pointed out, for the area’s rabbinic community to exchange ideas and share common challenges.

Beck’s agenda appears to dovetail with another of Engelmayer’s stated intentions: to focus greater attention on rabbinic professional development, an area he feels the NJBR has neglected of late. "We have had educational experiences in the past, but not in recent years," he remarked. "I think that’s something we need to go back to and improve upon."

Pending the outcome of talks with his rabbinic colleagues, Engelmayer envisions an informal but frequent format. "Every couple of months we could have someone on the board do some teaching," he suggested.

Another idea he has is to peg text study to timely topics. "What are some of the halachic pitfalls in election campaigning? A program on lashon hara would be appropriate around [this November’s] election time or during the presidential primary season that begins a couple of months later," he offered.

Job-related issues that all rabbis deal with at one time or another could also be brought up for consideration. For example, said Engelmayer, "When a rabbi is set to leave a pulpit in a year, either for another job or to retire, his or her spiritual leadership is compromised. How does a ‘lame duck’ rabbi deal with congregants and congregational issues?"

Resurrecting dialogue between the NJBR and the RCBC, which "hasn’t existed in many years, sadly," is on Engelmayer’s mind as well. "We can be far more effective working together for the sake of the Jewish community."

Beck agreed. "I’m really interested in having a collaborative community where everybody works together," she said, not an unrealistic goal in her experience. SLI strategy sessions for increasing synagogue affiliation, she noted, routinely draw professional and lay leadership from congregations of all streams to the same table. "They are great at sharing ideas and techniques with one another."

But to have a truly powerful voice in federation affairs, the rabbinic boards, Engelmayer believes, must learn to better function as a group. "We should become involved in federation in tangible ways as a group, not just as representatives of individual congregations. For example, on Super Sunday, we should have a table full of rabbis making calls together."

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