They made the news in 2008
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They made the news in 2008

Here we go again: We take a deep breath as we imagine the path ahead, which promises (threatens, rather) to be rocky, and turn back for a look at those who made the news in the rocky year just past.

This is our 14th year of naming the newsmakers. We seek not to judge but to inform, and to that end we created criteria that have served us well over the years.

“¢ First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

“¢ Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

“¢ Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

“¢ Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

For Newsmaker of the difficult days of 2008, we name the area’s Jewish Family Services.

Even before the recession was formally acknowledged, our local Jewish Family Service agencies saw what was happening and told the Standard – in the face of declining resources and increasing demand – “We must be there for people who count on us.”

With grants drying up, allocations cut, and supporters in the financial industry having to reduce their donations, JFS reps told us back in September that while they were “doing OK,” they saw hard times ahead.

What struck us then – and what we found most affecting – was not just the role of JFS as a barometer of communal need but the dedication and creativity of the people working to help the community.

Describing the measures being taken by her agency to address the increasing need, Lisa Fedder, director of the JFS in Bergen County, in Teaneck, said there had “a 55 percent increase in requests for case management and vocational assistance.”

People need help “with the basics,” she said, “to pay for gas and electricity and rent.” She pointed out that the funds she receives from FEMA, “which usually last a year, were spent in three months.”

“We’re doing fine today,” she said in September. “We’ll have to figure it out and make the donor part work. But right now the problem is increased needs.”

Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service in North Jersey, in Wayne, said she had also seen an increase in the number of clients experiencing financial distress. “There’s always a core group who have difficulty finding employment,” she said, but the numbers have “increased dramatically.” (And remember – this was back in September.)

She noted that her agency – with limited funds available for emergency assistance – tries to “link [clients] up with resources” such as the Hebrew Free Loan Society. That group, too, has seen a sizable increase in requests for assistance, said the JF&CS director.

Still, she said, even with the increase, “we can’t turn anyone away. Children are feeling the stress of parents out of work and [we see] more marital discord. It affects the whole family. We’re getting more calls from people who are depressed, discouraged, and in despair.”

Esther East, director of Jewish Family Services of Greater Clifton-Passaic, said the economic crisis promised to have a definite effect on the agency, many of whose major donors are connected to the financial industry.

“People are panicky and depressed,” she said, adding that even those who previously were successful in their careers are now coming in for vocational counseling.

East estimated that there has been an increase of some 20 percent in the number of people asking for direct financial assistance. Some, she said, lack “the basics of survival,” including health insurance. Often, she said, JFS offers financial counseling together with some cash assistance to help people deal with an immediate emergency.

Hats off to those professionals working increasing hours, with fewer resources, to help the community through troubling times.

Still, perhaps we can be heartened by East’s analysis: “We’re a faith-based agency,” she said, noting that when she starts to despair about the agency’s financial future, “something turns up.”

“It’s not much of a strategic plan,” she joked. “We do what we have to do. We must be there for the people who count on us.”

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In very close contention for the year’s top newsmaker is the local electorate. Certainly this has been the most fascinating – and tumultuous – election in recent memory. At the height of the election season, so many people wrote letters to the editor for or against particular candidates that we had to provide two full pages of letters for many weeks running.

And some local people were in the thick – and sometimes it got very thick – of things.

In addition to running successfully for re-election, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), as northeastern chairman of (now President-elect) Barack Obama’s election campaign, got out there on the stump and spoke and wrote forcefully on his behalf. He also battled to keep the 84-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg on the ballot in the New Jersey primaries – so strongly that he was depicted in a cartoon on the Website www.politickernj.com, headed “Rothman the Mohel, or, Ferriero’s Bris,” about to wield a meat cleaver on Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero’s (artfully blocked out) private parts. Meanwhile, Lautenberg was shown holding Ferriero down for the procedure.

The Standard protested, by the way. We editorialized, “A joke we can take; in fact, a similar cartoon could appear in a Jewish newspaper or on a Jewish Website without drawing our criticism. We can even imagine a host of captions (including wondering whether the knife is fleishig). It’s the old saw: We are the only ones allowed to make fun of us. But this cartoon, in particular, is inappropriate for a general-interest site.

“It is distasteful and unseemly – and could be viewed as defamatory – to depict two Jews in the act of gleefully performing bodily harm on a non-Jew.”

Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood stood by his man, Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president. Chouake, the president of the North Jersey Political Action Committee, was a member of McCain’s finance committee and hosted a well-attended fund-raiser for him in Teaneck.

NORPAC was a newsmaker in its own right. The thousand-member PAC, which is bipartisan and mainly supports incumbents with a pro-Israel record, endorsed McCain in the countdown to the election.

Dennis Shulman, a blind rabbi from Demarest, ran against three-term incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5), and lost. The race got national attention, rating articles in Newsweek and The New York Times.

Other rabbis got into the act. Six of them, locally or with local ties, joined more than 400 others in Rabbis for Obama, formed by two Chicago area rabbis to address rumors being spread about the candidate. The local members included Rabbis Neal Borovitz, Temple Sholom, River Edge; Debra R. Hachen, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter; Gloria S. Rubin of Oakland, formerly of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Conn. (and a former Guide editor for this newspaper); Eliezer Diamond and Benjamin Kelsen of Teaneck; and Gordon Gladstone of Temple Beth Am, Bayonne. Also in the group is Rabbi Judith Kummer, formerly of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood and now of California.

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One of the most gratifying things this paper does is to report the stories of individuals who make a difference – people of all ages who help Jewish and non-Jewish causes here and throughout the world.

Some of the stories are awe-inspiring; all are inspirational. The thread running through all these accounts is the commitment, creativity, and (sometimes) chutzpah demonstrated by people who share their passions and their skills to help others.

From teenagers to seniors, community members have taken action on a number of fronts.

The following are just a few:

Fair Lawn resident Flora Frank last year founded a project – under the auspices of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel – to collect one and a half million new crayons in memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust. In November, her group donated 10,000 of those crayons to public schools in Paterson that needed the supplies.

Ridgewood High School student Arvind Krishnamurthy joined forces with Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center’s tikkun olam committee there to buy solar cookers for the women of Darfur. According to committee member Naomi Strachman, both were looking for “some way to support the Darfur effort while ensuring that the aid would reach the intended recipients.”

Two local women are bringing their healing arts to the victims of Rwandan genocide. Former Fair Lawn resident Lara Lauchheimer, only in her 20s, is there now, teaching yoga to women and children who are HIV-positive. Ridgewood resident Nancy Recant will go there in February to teach the self-help art of Jin Shin Jyutsu to orphans and their caretakers.

Fran Leib, co-chair of the community affairs committee of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, created a program to ensure that needy Paramus residents would have food to eat on Thanksgiving. Leib hadn’t known that Paramus operated a food pantry. When she found out, she took immediate action.

Through JCorps International – founded by Teaneck native Ari Teman – scores of young Jews engage in weekly non-denominational charitable activities such as feeding the hungry, entertaining senior citizens and pediatric patients, painting houses for the poor, and cleaning up parks. Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County and Brandeis University, owns the consulting firm 12gurus.

Thirteen students from Torah Academy of Bergen County and Fair Lawn High School spent several days in Texas cleaning up homes damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Ike. The trip, organized by the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth and the Teaneck-based TABC, was inspired by one the youth group and yeshiva took to New Orleans.

Retired podiatrist Harvey Roter of Jersey City has traveled to Honduras for more than a decade, volunteering for work that draws on both his medical expertise and his passion for social activism. Roter and a small group of volunteers administer medical treatment and provide health education to the rural community of Atima in mountainous Santa Barbara County. Despite sleeping on the floor every night and being bitten by “all kinds of creatures,” he says “all it takes is going once and realizing how good you feel when you get back.”

Dr. Scott Dubowsky, a dentist who lives in Tenafly with a practice in Bayonne, became a member of Dental Volunteers for Israel. For a week this summer, he donated his skills (and dental supplies) at a clinic in Jerusalem that provides free dental care to the estimated 200,000 children, 5 to 18 years old, who live below the poverty line.

The Health Care Association of New Jersey selected Bergen Regional Medical Center’s Cong. Ahavat Chesed as its 2008 “Volunteer of the Year.” The congregation says it is proud of its volunteers, who “come to the chapel every week – rain, snow, or shine – to push wheelchairs, feed patients, arrange luncheons, and facilitate religious programming.”

A grateful community – not just locally – thanks all these dedicated people, and the many other volunteers who make the world work.

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Just days before the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah the Jewish community was in grief after a horrific car accident claimed the life of 10-year-old Miriam Avraham of Fair Lawn.

Miriam had been riding in the back seat of her family’s car with her mother Helene, 14-year-old brother Schachar, and a family friend, 14-year-old Eric Brauner, when a stolen car ripped through the vehicle at high speed. Helene and Shachar Avraham, in the front seats, escaped with minor injuries. Eric, who had been in the back with Miriam, spent more than a month in the hospital but recently came home after extensive rehabilitation.

Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, where Miriam was in sixth grade, has dedicated a tree in its garden and set up a scholarship fund in Miriam’s memory. The school is also leading a Tanach study program dedicated to Miriam. For more information on the study, visit www.TanachMemorial.wikispaces.com.

“When you’re part of a community you almost take for granted that you go to synagogue, you participate in activities here and there,” Helene Avraham told The Jewish Standard after a memorial service at the school in November. “You find out how important it is in a time of tragedy.”

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Tenafly resident Michael Granoff made news with his involvement in the emerging field of electric cars. Early in the year, he facilitated a partnership between Israel and Project Better Place – a portfolio company of Granoff’s Maniv Energy Capital LLC – to create an infrastructure for the mass deployment of electric vehicles and recharging stations throughout the Jewish state.

A member of the inaugural class of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, Granoff said there were “several sound business reasons” to choose Israel for this exciting pilot project, pointing out that not only is the country small enough for a viable test run but it is famous for embracing new technologies and gadgets.

The partnership aims to create a half-million charge spots and a network of battery exchange stations in Israel by 2010.

Said Granoff, “I’m confident that because oil is finite, dirty, and in the hands of unfriendly regimes, the public will want to move away from oil.”

“¢

Thirteen-year-old Alex Woinski of Paramus made news when he went to his school’s Halloween bash dressed as Jesus. School officials were not amused, and Alex was told to lose the costume. Unable to remove the beard (which took hours to apply), he was sent home. (He did, however, remove the crown of thorns.)

Alex said the school called his costume “offensive,” though school spokepeople later dubbed it merely “disruptive.” He returned to school later in the day – sans costume – but felt aggrieved.

“I was pretty surprised by what happened,” said Alex. “[The school] said it was offensive and I didn’t think it was. My friends thought it was a great costume and they were mad at the school for making me take it off.”

Later, Paramus schools superintendent James Montesano told the Standard, “We try to strike a balance between providing students with an opportunity to celebrate American traditions” and maximizing instructional time. “It was not an attempt to take a position for or against a particular faith.”

“¢

In Newsweek’s second annual list of the top 50 rabbis in America, Englewood resident Mark Charendoff came in at No. 10. President of the New York-based Jewish Funders Network, Charendoff oversees a collective of Jewish philanthropists and provides them with resources and advice. Charendoff received his ordination in Israel in the 1980s and does not make use of it anymore. However, as the head of a major philanthropic organization, he has been in the eye of the storm of the financial crisis and the Bernard Madoff scandal and watched firsthand the effects on Jewish philanthropy.

Interviewed in The Jewish Standard shortly after the revelation of Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, Charendoff said that even philanthropies that find themselves unscathed now may be affected in a year because of the large hit on their donor base.

“The only way we’re going to be able to minimize the damage to the charities we all care about is to work together to figure out what the needs really are – to figure out which programs can be salvaged, postponed, which organizations should merge,” he said last month. “We can’t avoid the damage but it is in our power to minimize it.”

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is everywhere. The Englewood resident and columnist for this newspaper is author of 20 books on sex and family values. His newest, “The Kosher Sutra,” is hitting shelves now. In addition to hosting “Shalom in the Home” on cable’s TLC, Boteach was Oprah’s marriage, parenting, and relationships expert on the “Oprah and Friends” national radio network and hosted the daily “Rabbi Shmuley Show.”

Boteach’s high visibility earned him the No. 9 spot of Newsweek’s list.

“My dream has been to make Judaism mainstream in the United States, to have Jewish values, ideas, and Jewish ritual shape and mold the U.S. and, by extension, the world,” he said after receiving word of his place on the list.

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Chabad has had a year of ups and downs. Most newsworthy, in the down category, was the November attack on the Mumbai Chabad center in which Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg and a handful of other Jews inside the Nariman House were killed. The Holtzbergs’ 2-year-old son, Moishe, was rescued by a Chabad employee and is in Israel with his grandparents.

Area Chabad houses responded to the tragedy with memorials, while Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman of Fair Lawn, who attended yeshiva with Gavriel Holtzberg, shared his grief and memories with the community.

Chabad has also been making headlines for happier news. Rabbi Michoel Goldin joined Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck as the youth director and has spearheaded a series of programs to engage area youth. In addition to laser tag and pizza parties, he has led youngsters in making thank-you cards for local police and other program to instill pride in the larger community. Youngsters have also collected coats for those in need and raked leaves for those unable to do it themselves.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch organized a minyan in early 2008 so that Samuel Drix, a Holocaust survivor whose son was his only living Jewish relative, could have a Jewish funeral. Severin Drix reached out to Chabad, which responded with a minyan not only for the funeral but also for the unveiling last month.

“I was very moved by Rabbi Simon,” Drix told The Jewish Standard after his father’s funeral. “I could see he took the time to really talk to me about my father and I could see how open his heart was to my father. It meant very much to me.”

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An alliance of rabbinical and state organizations has been pooling resources for more than a year to bring about comprehensive reform among New Jersey’s cemeteries.

The group, consisting of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and local legislators, seeks a reduction in the cost for Sunday burials, which cost more than burials during the rest of the week; an end to a state regulation that imposes an additional 15 percent surcharge on community organizations that buy large quantities of plots and then resell them to their members; and a reorganization of the state’s cemetery board to include non-industry members.

The group received one victory in 2008 when Cedar Park & Beth El Cemetery in Paramus announced it would lower its Sunday rates. After that announcement, in June, Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, president of the NJBR and a columnist for this newspaper, said, “It’s an indication that we’re having an effect. I wouldn’t call it a step forward but a positive development.”

Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering bills that would abolish the 15 percent surcharge, dispose of Sunday overtime charges, and add more members of the public to the cemetery board. All three bills remain tied up in their various committees.

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UJA Federation of North Jersey also deserves a pat on the back this year, carrying on its community-building efforts while moving its headquarters to a larger, more accessible location.

Not only has the group been at the forefront of efforts to rally the community in the face of emergencies – think the current war taking place in Gaza – but it has held frequent consciousness-raising gatherings to remind Jews of the plight of Darfur and the victims of the ongoing violence there.

In addition, UJA-NNJ is hard at work planning an economic resource fair to offer help and encouragement to those who need help steering through these difficult financial times. The success of Super Sunday testifies to the needs of the community and the willingness of people to help. UJA-NNJ is a key player in this effort.

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