The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has formed a rabbinic committee that includes rabbis from both the Orthodox Rabbinic Council of Bergen County and the liberal North Jersey Board of Rabbis.
It is a break from the usual polarization that has marked the local Jewish community, and it follows a successful trip to Israel that a similarly diverse group of rabbis and federation leaders made this spring.
“We’ve been looking for a platform for a long time to engage the rabbis on commonality and unity,” Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said. “As someone living in this community, you’ve got to feel proud when you see Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis sitting together and building a relationship, asking each other about their families and kids, and talking about ideas going on in their synagogues and temples,” he continued.
“In our community, there’s a nice relationship between the rabbis of the different streams, but there’s not so much engagement,” Rabbi Shalom Baum said. Rabbi Baum, who was one of the rabbis on the federation Israel trip, leads Congregation Keter Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck. “It’s not due to anything negative. Everyone is just busy with their own congregations, their own lives.”
That’s true in ordinary times. The exception: “We generally get together at times of crisis,” Rabbi Baum said.
And it was at just such a time, at a federation-sponsored memorial for the 11 people killed in the white supremacist terror attack in Pittsburgh last October, that Rabbi Baum decided it was time to strengthen the connection between the two groups of rabbis. He told this to Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, a Conservative congregation. Rabbi Baum and Rabbi Kirshner have become friendly, the result of being together on North Jersey delegations to AIPAC and other Jewish organizational events.
“We’ve been talking for years,” Rabbi Baum told Rabbi Kirshner. “Let’s do something together, not just as a reaction, something more pro-active.”
Rabbi Kirshner agreed.
“We came to the conclusion that the best place for some us to form and strengthen a relationship would be in Israel,” Rabbi Baum said. “That’s what happened.
“The goal of the trip was not to lobby for what any individual movement sees as the right way — it was not a trip to discuss the Kotel or the Israeli rabbinate. It was an opportunity for us to work on the relationships and find common ground.
“One of the ultimate goals is to get some of our congregations to interact more,” Rabbi Baum said. “It’s good for Jews to know each other, and to be able to work together on common issues.”
The four-day trip, in the end of April and the beginning of May, included Yom HaShoah.
“We spent time at the borders with some military figures,” Rabbi Baum said. “We met people involved in some of the rescue efforts with Syrian refugees.” The group also went to Nahariya, the federation’s sister-city, and met with leaders there.
“The most important point was bonding with each other,” Rabbi Baum said. “It was not like it was a first-time meeting — many of us on the trip knew each other beforehand. All of us as individuals have been involved with the federation.”
The others rabbis on the trip were Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who is Orthodox; Beni Wajnberg of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff and Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, who are Reform; and Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah of Wayne and Loren Monosov of Temple Emanuel Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, who are Conservative.
Dr. Zvi Marans of Teaneck, a past president of the Jewish federation, also went on the trip, and so did Roberta Abrams of Montvale, the group’s president now, and Lee Lasher of Englewood, the federation vice president who is scheduled to succeed her.
“There was great rapport and interaction among the rabbis,” Dr. Marans said. “It created relationships and dialogue. Not dialogue about religious differences, but dialogue about the commonalities among all the rabbis. There are so many more issues and things in common than there are not in common. After all, the rabbis are all committed to clal Yisrael, and are mission-driven to help the Jewish people.
“The rabbis themselves are very eager to continue with a type of council under the aegis of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. We’ve already had a meeting or two about next steps. We’re already planning a second mission with a second group of rabbis.
“This was really an aspiration of mine personally, to be able to create the structure and environment for this to occur,” Dr. Marans said. “When people ask what does federation do, I emphasize the things federation can do that no other Jewish organization can accomplish. Because we’re a broad-based Jewish community organization with a commitment to all the Jews in the community, we are able to bring these rabbis together. The mission of federation as the convener, as the organization that has the contacts and the means to be able to do this, is certainly unique to us in the community, and it is something I am very proud of.”
Dr. Marans said he was “impressed by the rapport that was created and sustained during the mission. There was absolutely no tension, no conflict.
“This is something some of the rabbis have been talking about from the day I got here,” Mr. Shames said. “The rabbis unified on things like board management, membership, the challenges of how synagogues operate and function. They got to know each other socially. They bonded in a way that exceeded our expectations.”
“One of the fundamental aspects of being a Jewish community is having a forum where everyone can come together. You have some of the leading rabbis in the Jewish community working together and able to convey that message to their members that we’re not islands to ourselves, we’re part of a bigger community.