Local Jewish lay leaders work to overcome denominational differences

There is much that divides Jews from each other. Differences in theology and practice run deep, and sometimes it can be difficult to see across the chasm.

There is much that connects Jews with each other. Shared history, shared family, shared cultural assumptions, shared sensory memories. These things might be emotional rather than logical, but they run just as deep.

The Berrie Fellows Leadership Institute, an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, works with a 20-member cohort of local young lay leaders over the course of two years, exposing them to high-level Jewish learning as it nurtures and challenges their leadership ability. The cohort, equally divided among men and women, is diverse, reaching into all parts of the pluralistic local Jewish community.

This year, two Berrie Fellows, united by their shared Jewishness, acknowledging but refusing to be divided by the difference ways they express it, have decided to start a new organization, Unite4Unity. It will introduce itself on Tuesday evening, March 12, when three local rabbis – Dr. Kenneth Emert, Shmuel Goldin, and David-Seth Kirshner – meet to discuss the question “Facing the Future Together: How can we all get along?”

The two fellows, Lee Lasher and Ian Zimmerman, offer a prime example of how to get along. The two have become very good friends.

Their backgrounds are dissimilar.

Lasher, who is turning 50, is a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. He is Orthodox. “I did not grow up religious,” he said.

He grew up in Brooklyn. His parents did not want to send him to public schools there; had he lived Manhattan, with its wide choice of secular private schools, most likely he would have gone to one of them, he said. In Brooklyn the pickings were slimmer, so his parents sent him to the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Later, he went to Ramaz. “I had an interesting journey,” he said. “I became religious as a senior.” After a year in Israel, he went to McGill University in Montreal.

Zimmerman, 48, grew up in the Bronx and then in “a Conservative but nonreligious household in Fair Lawn,” he said. “I was typical of many of my friends. We went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvaed. We could have gone to Hebrew high school, but we didn’t. I didn’t stay involved in Judaism except for culturally, and of course we went as a family to synagogue on the high holy days and celebrated Chanukah and Passover.

“But I didn’t really find my way back to real religion until my daughter was born.”

Zimmerman’s wife is not Jewish. They took their daughter to the mikvah for conversion when she was 3½ months old. They tried to join the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, but Zimmerman balked at having to take a single-parent family membership. “I’m not single, I’m not divorced, I’m not widowed,” he said, but the rabbi was adamant and the rules were the rules. The family found Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, an unaffiliated synagogue whose rabbi, Kenneth Emert, was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. Zimmerman is active in the shul.

Both men feel strongly that their similarities outweigh their differences, and they quickly decided that the practicum that the Berrie program demanded of them should be devoted to unity. “Our idea was that it should be primarily lay leaders driving it,” Lasher said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for the rabbis, because of their position.”

He hopes that eventually Unite4Unity, or U4U, as they call it, will allow local shuls to share best practices. On a deeper level, “we are also thinking long term,” Lasher said. “We would love to see a community beit midrash program, something like Limmud. We’re doing research to see what other communities are doing.

“We’re working with Joy Kurland and the JCRC,” he added. Kurland is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is a federation program.

Zimmerman hopes that his friendship with Lasher can be a model for intrareligious cooperation. “We both enjoy drinking good wine and good Scotch, enjoy good food, and following football and baseball. There is nothing different about me and Lee except that we practice our Judaism differently. It doesn’t make one better or worse, right or wrong. It’s just different.

“We are good coming together as a group when there is an external force. When some meshugane decides to throw a firebomb through a rabbi’s bedroom window in Rutherford, we all seem to know how to support each other.

“It’s not that we’re necessarily antagonistic, it’s that we don’t engage with each other,” he said.

Both Lasher and Zimmerman hope that the evening U4U will sponsor will balance itself on the line between unnecessarily divisiveness and bland kumbaya know-nothingism. It is a balance they both negotiate with grace.

Who: Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Tovah, Englewood, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El, Closter, are panelists; Linda Scherzer will moderate the debate

What: A discussion, “Facing the Future Together: How can we all get along?” followed by wine, cheese, and dessert

When: Tuesday, March 12, at 8 p.m.

Where: Congregation Ahavath Torah, 240 Broad Street, Englewood

Why: Unite4Unity’s first event

How: Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and its Jewish Community Relations Council, Ahavath Torah, Beth Rishon, and Emanu-El

For whom and how much: Free and open to the community

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