They made the news in 2009
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They made the news in 2009

Fifteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: Naming the newsmakers of the year just past.

Particularly because of the recession (and Bernard Madoff), it was a very rough year. People lost their savings and their jobs. Some even lost their homes. Charities suffered and were hard-pressed to continue their good works. But the year called forth the best in us. We helped each other. We used our seichel and invented new ways of dealing with difficulty. Some of them even bridged age-old divisions.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival? Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

“¢ 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.

“¢ Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we name two people to the top of our list: State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Rabbi Ephraim Simon.

In December of 2008, we reported that Weinberg had lost her life savings in the Bernard Madoff scam. Instead of retreating to nurse her financial wounds, Weinberg – who by her own account has a tough skin – went on to run for lieutenant governor in November.

Tough indeed.

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg continues to champion laws that benefit families, fairness, and ethics.

Weinberg, who described herself during the gubernatorial campaign as a “feisty grandmother,” is a former Bergen County assistant administrator (1975 to 1985), member of the Teaneck Township Council (1990-1994), and New Jersey assemblywoman (1992-2005). Now, as state senator, she continues to pioneer important state legislation while mentoring young women new to the political arena.

Challenge is nothing new for the New Jersey leader, a Teaneck resident since the mid-1960s. When she entered the N.J. Assembly in 1992, she was the only woman in the group’s Democratic caucus. Today, she is in the forefront of the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage.

That issue, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard last month, basically comes down to separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

Born in New York in 1935, Weinberg graduated from the University of California with a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science, subsequently completing all coursework for a master of arts degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Throughout her legislative career, she has introduced and supported dozens of measures targeted primarily to families.

Among her other achievements, she sponsored a law to require health insurance companies to pay for at least 48 hours of hospital care for new mothers and their babies; helped establish New Jersey’s Child-Proof Handgun Bill; shaped the autism research funding bill that gives $1 from every New Jersey traffic violation to autism research; fought to enact a law lowering the legal alcohol level to .08 in New Jersey; and sponsored the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits smoking in indoor public places and workplaces.

She has also been active in the community, in both Jewish and secular organizations. A longtime member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, she is a life member of the National Council of Jewish Women and a founding member of Shelter Our Sisters, which helps victims of domestic violence.

Known for her outspoken approach to government corruption, she was a valuable addition to the Corzine team in November.

“If we don’t clean up politics, we can’t address anything else in a fair, open way,” she said, noting that she has had some “ugly first-hand experience.”

Weinberg’s politics and Jewishness are inextricably linked. Telling the Standard that she doesn’t want to sound “chauvinistic,” she pointed out that “the values imparted through our religious background are wonderful for being office-holders,” citing Jewish teachings on repairing the world, reaching out to help others less fortunate, and philanthropy.

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Rabbi Ephraim Simon literally gave of himself to save a stranger’s life.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon saved a stranger’s life last year by giving him his kidney. But in effect the Teaneck Chabad rabbi saved an entire family: The recipient was a desperately ill 51-year-old father of 10 who is now healthy enough to give his children the care they need.

Simon’s selfless act did much to clear the noxious air of the summer’s allegations of money-laundering by respected rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn and of illegal brokering of organs by an observant Brooklyn man.

It also spread the news that organ donation is halachically permissible – and it likely inspired many people to get an organ donor card.

There is, in fact, no way to know how many lives it will save over the years.

As the Rabbis tell us, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.”

Simon was among the top 20 candidates in the Jewish Community Heroes competition of the Jewish Federations of North America, and he’s certainly one of our heroes.

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Ari Teman, founder of JCorps, became the first JFNA Jewish Community Hero.

As it turned out, the award stayed in our community: JFNA named Teaneck native Ari Teman its first Jewish Community Hero, awarding him $25,000.

Teman, a standup comedian and the founder in 2007 of JCorps – which matches young Jews with volunteer opportunities in nine cities over three continents – beat out some 400 competitors, winning a contest that was part of the federation system’s new effort to broaden its base of support.

During a press conference after he was declared the winner, Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County, paid tribute to Chabad, which, he said, has influenced him in his outreach efforts.

“Chabad is way ahead of us,” he said. “If you’re traveling somewhere in the world, in some far remote village, there’s a Chabad guy willing to let you in no matter what. We’ve been able to borrow from them [the philosophy of] ‘a Jew is a Jew’ and not get into the conversation of what kind of Jew are you. We got that from Chabad.”

JCorps has already enlisted some 10,000 volunteers for local community service projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel – all with virtually no budget.

The award money “will enable us to take in a lot more volunteers rapidly without having to worry, ‘Do we have to slow it down because we can’t afford to bring more people in?'” Teman said.

The 27-year-old also rated an invite to the White House Chanukah party on the fifth night of Chanukah. According to JTA, he “e-mailed friends that he earned a presidential laugh and a hug with a joke: ‘They’re calling Obama a Nazi … which I think is fantastic … because if you thought the presidency was a tough job for a black guy to get – Nazi? We have overcome! Mr. President, you are breaking down color barriers!'”

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Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) was a powerful voice in Washington in 2009.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rothman has been involved with several resolutions that have awarded funding to New Jersey and area institutions. He has also played a large role in forwarding U.S.-Israel relations and local Jewish causes.

In January, he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for increased transparency in the operation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Rothman demanded an overhaul of UNRWA, starting with its educational materials, because, “[w]e certainly want to make sure that United States taxpayer dollars are not being passed along from UNRWA to Hamas or any other terrorist groups,” he told The Jewish Standard at the time. Rothman began the struggle to revamp UNRWA in 2004.

After a meeting in November with John Ging, UNRWA’s director of operations in Gaza, Rothman said, “While there is still much work to be done, we have come a long way in a small number of years…. UNRWA has stepped up its compliance with U.S. law stating that no United States taxpayer dollars will go to fund terrorists.”

As mayor of Englewood in 1984, Rothman lobbied the U.S. Department of State to block Libya from buying a mansion in the city. As a result of his efforts, the State Department and Libya signed an agreement limiting Libya’s use of the property. That agreement was the basis for preventing Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi from taking up residence at the house this summer during the opening session of the United Nations. Rothman joined Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives next door to the Libyan property, and current Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes in protesting the expected visit. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the house in November, which is permitted under the 1984 agreement.

As one of the original sponsors of the Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, Rothman has also been an important voice in pushing for tougher sanctions against Iran.

When the Mock Trial team at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck could not take part in the national competition in 2005 because it conflicted with Shabbat, Rothman went to bat, advocating that the national organization make an exception for TABC. Eventually an accommodation was made so the team could compete.

The House passed a Rothman-sponsored resolution in 2007 calling on the board of directors of the National High School Mock Trial Championships to accommodate students of all faiths to allow them to participate in the annual competition without violating the practices of their religion. History repeated itself last year, however, when it looked like the Maimonides School in Boston would be left out of the national competition because of a Shabbat conflict.

Last month, the Mock Trial board of directors adopted a formal procedure for a possible modification of the competition schedule due to religious beliefs and practices held by a team’s members.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was ubiquitous last year. A columnist for The Jewish Standard and The Jerusalem Post, Boteach released new books, filed an international lawsuit, and become a spiritual adviser to reality TV stars.

First the books. This year Boteach penned “The Kosher Sutra,” a guide to Jewish romantic passion, and “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” about his relationship with the late pop star and Jackson’s desire to see families focus more on their children.

That desire sparked the “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” campaign by Boteach’s This World: The Values Network. The campaign kicked off with a series of public service announcements featuring a slew of celebrities urging families to spend Friday nights together.

In November, The Values Network and Yeshiva University hosted An International Symposium on Jewish Values, which featured Boteach with such notable guests as law professor and author Alan Dershowitz, Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt, radio host Dennis Prager, and YU president Richard Joel.

When reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, of TLC’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” split earlier this year, Jon Gosselin sought spiritual counseling from Boteach for a short while. TLC airs Boteach’s reality show, “Shalom in the Home,” in which he attempts to heal family discord.

The Boteach brand also grew a little more recently, with the release of “I’m a Rabbi Shmuley Groupie” T-shirts and mugs through his Website.

Most recently, though, Boteach has been making headlines as an outspoken critic of his next-door neighbor, the country of Libya. In August, Boteach led a protest against reports that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi would stay at a Libya-owned mansion next door to Boteach’s home in Englewood. (See page 7.) In the end, Kaddafi stayed elsewhere during his visit to the United Nations, but Boteach filed a lawsuit against the country alleging damage to his property caused during renovations on the Libyans’.

In Late November, while Boteach was on a humanitarian mission in Africa, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the mansion, sparking protests from Boteach and the city’s mayor, Michael Wildes. The rabbi’s lawsuit against Libya is continuing and the court is waiting on a response from the country, according to Boteach’s lawyer.

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Under Jerry Nathan’s stewardship, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has collected 150 years’ worth of local Jewish history.

Jerry Nathans is a man with a mission. Just as the Jews have moved from country to country throughout our long history, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has moved from place to place, coming to rest (at least for the present) at the Barnert Medical Arts Complex in Paterson.

From Yiddish books printed in Paterson to wall hangings found on the streets of that city, the collection offers a unique look at local Jewish history, says Nathans, president of the group and the man who has virtually single-handedly shepherded northern New Jersey’s Jewish history for more than 20 years.

But the society is in trouble, says Nathans, 81, who doesn’t have the help he needs to keep it going and is seeking not only a board of directors but skilled professionals, including an archivist, to help preserve the treasures he has collected.

As the caretaker of 150 years of history – packed into some 300 boxes containing paintings, banners, and boxes filled with photographs and documents, detailing events from synagogue groundbreakings to synagogue closings, as well as everything in between – he says the long-range goal of the group is to establish a local Jewish heritage center for exhibits and research open to students, scholars, and other interested persons.

For information or to volunteer, e-mail jhsnnj@yahoo.com.

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UJA President Alan Scharfstein oversaw a transformative year for UJA-NNJ.

This was a transformative year for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. It had been planning major changes for two years, according to its president, Alan Scharfstein, changes designed “not only to manage funds but to engage the next generation.” The crisis caused by the recession acted as a catalyst.

In addition to trimming its budget and staff, it expanded donors’ options, allowing what it called “a new, personalized approach to philanthropy.” Thus, in addition to its annual campaign and its customary allocations to Jewish causes locally, in Israel, and worldwide, it advised donors that “supplemental projects can be created anywhere there is a need you want to help meet. From northern New Jersey or New Orleans to Nahariya or North Ossetia, UJA Federation has the partners in place to create and implement a project for you. And once your project is up and running, we’ll … report measurable outcomes so that you can be directly connected to the impact of your philanthropy.”

The federation also restructured itself into what it called “four centers of service”: the Center for Leadership and Volunteer Development; the Center for Philanthropy; the Center for Community Development and Innovation; and the Center for Israel Engagement.”

As Scharfstein told the Standard in June, “We want to be … nimble, responsive, fast…. We’re doing what needs to be done.”

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Rabbi Noam Marans, coordinator of the Kehillah Partnership, told delegates at the General Assembly why the program has worked so well.

The Kehillah Partnership – a Northern New Jersey program created in 2006 and linking the YJCC of Bergen County, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and local synagogues – garnered some well-deserved praise in November at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Washington, D.C. Promoting cost- and resource-sharing initiatives as well as joint programs, the venture is coordinated by Rabbi Noam Marans, associate director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.

“The Partnership is a place where local community agencies and institutions … work together to foster innovation and connectedness, doing together what no agency can do alone,” said Marans at the GA. “Institutions maintain individual identities and allegiances but embrace the benefit of working together with others.”

Among its other programs, the Partnership developed a curriculum for sixth-grade Hebrew school teachers that integrates the arts. In addition, the group recently brought the national PJ Library – geared toward getting young children and their families to read Jewish books – to the area.

Marans said that the program, which at present embraces 10 congregations, will eventually expand not only to more synagogues but to more Jewish institutions as well.

“We have learned,” he said, “that if one creates an environment of trust between institutions, the institutions and their lead players will work together on projects for the betterment of the entire community.”

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Beginning in late 2008, letters and columns filled the pages of The Jewish Standard about the rising costs of day-school tuition, comparing those costs to a form of Jewish birth control. America’s economic downturn had shoved the problem of escalating day-school tuition to the forefront of the battle for Jewish continuity.

In January 2009, the Orthodox Union convened a host of rabbis and day-school administrators to discuss the growing problem of high day-school tuition. The Standard fostered the wider discussion by launching an occasional column, contributed by readers, it called “Continuing the Conversation.”

The OU, the world’s largest Orthodox umbrella group began exploring a series of nation-wide cost-saving programs, but that wasn’t enough. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood soon began gathering local day-school leaders, parents, and rabbis to tackle the problem.

The result was Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, NNJKIDS. It is the main project of Jewish Education For Generations, an organization launched in June to explore various options to solve what many have deemed a tuition crisis.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the entire community.

Goldin, who was our first Newsmaker of the Year 15 years ago, previously told the Standard that, “We’re trying to move away from the tuition-based model alone to a model of broad-based support.”

With the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, NNJKIDS has reached out to every Orthodox synagogue in the county, as well as a growing number of Conservative synagogues. Perhaps the organization’s greatest accomplishment in its short history has been its ability to bring people together from across the denominational spectrum to support the area’s Orthodox day schools as well as its two Solomon Schechter schools, which are affiliated with the Conservative movement.

In November, NNJKIDS awarded more than $180,000 – the first of what it hopes will be quarterly distributions – to eight elementary day schools.

They are: Ben Porat Yosef, Paramus; Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, Oakland; The Moriah School, Englewood; The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, River Edge; Sinai Schools; Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, New Milford; Yavneh Academy, Paramus; and Yeshivat Noam, Paramus.

For more information on the fund, visit www.nnjkids.org.

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Congregant Debbie Zlotowitz working with schoolchildren in Uganda as part of Barnert Temple’s Africa Initiative.

Responding to the tremendous needs of people in war-torn and impoverished African nations, Barnert Temple – which for several years has sponsored relief projects in that region – this year significantly expanded its outreach efforts.

The congregation’s Africa Initiative, unveiled in mid-October, includes a youth program to raise relief funds and awareness for victims in Darfur as well as projects linking the Franklin Lakes congregation with schools in Uganda and helping nascent women’s cooperatives expand their effectiveness in Rwanda.

Among other activities, the congregation will help fund a well in a Ugandan village so that girls charged with drawing water will have time to go to school.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman told The Jewish Standard that factors such as colonialism have worsened the situation in Africa, “a part of the world so rich in heritage and wisdom, yet so challenged by poverty and lack of opportunity.”

“We see our [Jewish] mandate to help as universal,” she said. “We bring all the gifts that have been granted us to bear upon the condition of others.”

She said that about 30 percent of Barnert’s members are involved in projects of social action.

The Barnert religious school is involved as well through its solar cooking project, which helps families of Darfur refugees in camps by relieving women of the need to scavenge for wood, making them vulnerable to attack.

For more information, visit the synagogue’s Website, barnerttemple.org, and follow the link to the social action committee.

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Threatened with loss of funding for the school’s successful Music Discovery Partnership, the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly appealed to the community – and won.

According to the school’s director, Dorothy Roffman, the initiative – which has brought musical enrichment to more than 1,000 students in the Englewood public schools over the past 10 years – was able to survive the expiration of the Englewood District’s federal and state program grants. Recognizing the importance of the program, the district decided to use federal stimulus money to support the program as part of a comprehensive plan to raise student achievement.

Ironically, in August the Thurnauer school had announced that it was designated a Major Arts Institution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State and had been awarded $18,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Learning in the Arts Program – for the very program later threatened.

Roffman said the Music Discovery Partnership benefits both the students and the community as a whole.

“A rewarding and extensive artistic experience can have an enormous impact on individuals, their families, and peers, including learning to focus, gaining self-confidence, and developing sensitivity to other points of view,” she said. In addition, “Consistent exposure to the arts has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate long-term, systemic change in the way that the arts are perceived and valued by our society.”

For further information about the Thurnauer school or the Music Discovery Partnership, call the school, (201) 408-1465, or email thurnauer@jccotp.org.

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