It’s that time of year again — the beginning, when we look back at the year we’ve escaped by the skin of our teeth and name the "newsmakers." We’ve been doing this for 13 years now, and we like the perspective it gives us, and readers.
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.
Thus the newsmaker of the year can only be Metropolitan Schechter High School.
Mourning Schechter: The high school that couldn’t
When in September 2006 The Jewish Standard reported the merger of Solomon Schechter High School of New York and Solomon Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck, hopes were high that the creation of the new 120-student facility — Metropolitan Schechter High School — could, by virtue of increased numbers, overcome the problems experienced by the two schools.
Sadly, just one year later, this paper reported the demise of the new, larger school and the resulting hardship among students and teachers. With the announcement of the closure coming just weeks before the start of the new academic year, students — now spread out in schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout the area — were left scrambling, as were members of the faculty. (See photo above taken during the school’s last week.)
As the community searched for an explanation, some attributed the situation to poor financial management, others to the unwillingness of the area’s philanthropic community to support the institution. But whatever the reason for the Schechter high school’s inability to survive, its closure marked a dark day for the community and gave rise to much soul-searching.
The school had financial problems from the start. In May, when the board first announced a deficit and discussed closing the school — to the dismay of parents, who had not received prior notice of the severity of the situation — public outcry led to a pledge to raise the needed funds. Much of the money was raised, but the deficit remained, with a major donor unable to make good on his promised contribution. Nor could an emergency appeal to community organizations cover the shortfall.
Community leaders used terms such as "mourning" to describe their reaction to the closure of the school, while others called it "a tragedy for the community." Also, said some, it was an ill omen for the Conservative movement, which apparently could not support a high school in such a vibrant Jewish community.
In post-mortems following the school’s demise, Schechter Regional founder Adam Brown bemoaned the fact that while "all studies show that the high school years are the most important for establishing Jewish identity," the philanthropic community never recognized the urgency of the situation. Another early supporter, Eli Spielman, noted that success takes a certain amount of "mazal. You have to be at the right place at the right time," he said. "You may have the best concept, but the timing may be wrong."
The closure of Metropolitan Schechter was indeed a blow to the community. Let’s hope that lessons were learned.
HudsonJewish: The community that could
Trustees of HudsonJewish sign the new organization’s bylaws in a ceremony at Temple Beth El of North Bergen. From left are Adam S. Weiss, chairman; Yael Israel, treasurer; Michelle E. Levine, secretary; and Dr. Neil L. Davis, vice chairman. Photo courtesy of HudsonJewish
This is a first: We name an entire community, the Jews of Hudson County, a newsmaker.
Hudson, where The Jewish Standard began its long life, was once home to nearly 40,000 Jews, with thriving synagogues, a day school, and Jewish community centers. But as the Jews moved on to greener, suburban Bergen County, they took some of their institutions with them and shut others down. Now a new generation of Jews — particularly singles and young families — is being drawn to the area by (comparative) real estate bargains and discovering its many virtues.
In 2007, mobilized by Adam Weiss of Jersey City, Hudson County Jews became a true community, determined to revitalize existing Jewish institutions and create new ones. It built a Website (www.hudsonjewish.corg), published a local synagogue map for the High Holy Days, and held a county-wide Chanukah party, which drew more than 300 people, at the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne.
Last month the group incorporated as HudsonJewish in a ceremony at Temple Beth-El of North Bergen. A trustee, Dr. Neil Davis of Jersey City, said, "HudsonJewish is the culmination of effort by community activists … who realized that issues like synagogue membership, community finance, and the lack of a Jewish day school affect everyone. We created HudsonJewish as a medium to address these issues cooperatively."
Abe Foxman: Defending the faith
One name that makes every Jewish Standard newsmakers’ list is Abraham Foxman’s. This year the national director of the Anti-Defamation League took on some nasties, and we put him on the cover wearing (photo-shopped) boxing gloves.
One of the nasties was former President Jimmy Carter, whose book "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid" raised many hackles — and voices. "One should never judge a book by its cover," Foxman wrote in the Standard, but Carter’s case was different. "All one needs to know about this biased account is found in the title."
Foxman, who lives in Bergen County, did not limit his deserved wrath to Carter. In that piece, and in his book "The Deadliest Lies," he also took on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose notoriously extreme views of Israel and its supporters he called "outlandish." Foxman’s book, subtitled "The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control," was a direct response to Carter’s book and Mearsheimer and Walt’s "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy."
And as the year drew to a close, he injected a much-needed note of rationality into the political debate. In a piece called "Religion in the presidential race: A troubling new precedent," he wrote that "[t]he creeping emphasis on religion in our political culture, with some candidates openly professing their beliefs on the campaign trail — at times even hawking them — is something that should deeply concern all Americans."
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg: Informing public discourse
Over the past two years, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, religious leader of United Synagogue of Hoboken, has been featured in these pages for mobilizing congregants to become increasingly involved in social action — whether volunteering to work with Habitat for Humanity or stuffing food packages at the town’s emergency food pantry. "We are especially conscious of the problems associated with poverty," he told the Standard in August 1986.
This year, Scheinberg was able to make his views felt on a wider stage, bringing a distinctively Jewish viewpoint to the deliberations of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. The group’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty in the state and to replace it with life imprisonment without parole was ultimately embraced by the New Jersey Legislature, making this the first state to legislatively abolish this procedure.
Through his work on the commission, and by co-writing a rabbinic letter in support of the commission’s position — a letter that garnered more than 50 signatures from local rabbis — Scheinberg helped further this historic development. The rabbi, who noted that his views are "definitely informed" by his study of Jewish ethics and Jewish law, pointed out that the Talmud is replete with restrictions that try to prevent the execution of innocent people. That, coupled with the fact that evidence that "the death penalty serves as a deterrent is at best inconclusive," helped shape the rabbi’s position
Rabbi Elyse Frishman: Bringing liturgy into the 21st century
Thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Elyse Frishman, religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, the Reform movement has a new siddur, Mishkan T’filah, published this fall. The siddur is expected to ultimately replace Gates of Prayer, itself the replacement for the Union Prayer Book.
The prayerbook represents the culmination of a 10-year effort to balance the input of multiple constituencies — men and women, traditional and contemporary thinkers, rabbis and cantors, and laity — said Frischman, its editor. She noted that she tried to "strike a balance between wanting to embrace anyone and everyone who walks through our doors and making our worship service distinctly Jewish."
Pointing out that the siddur reflects 21st-century Reform thought and sensibility, the rabbi added that "there’s been an evolution in what we [Reform Jews] have embraced, in terms of spirituality, learning, social justice, and creating sacred community."
While the new prayerbook has a marked increase in Hebrew content, it also includes a transliteration for those who can’t read the Hebrew. To be more inclusive theologically as well, the book’s right-hand pages are devoted to the traditional Reform text, while its left-hand pages contain selected readings on the themes of individual prayers, reprinted from contemporary sources, and original liturgy composed by Frishman or one of the other five members of her final editing team.
Felice Gaer: Keeping up the good fight
Paramus resident Felice Gaer, elected in October to a third four-year term on the United Nations Committee Against Torture — the only American and only woman on that body — has been an advocate for human rights since she was a student, when she took up the cause of Soviet dissidents. Her energy has not flagged.
Not only does she try "to get governments to live up to promises they make and treaties they sign," but, through the International League for Human Rights, which she serves as vice president, and the Ford Foundation, Gaier has worked to end violence against women. Indeed, she was one of the first to call for the issue of rape in armed conflicts to be addressed by the international war crimes tribunal of the former Yugoslavia.
As director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, a position she has held since 1993, Gaier continues to advocate strengthening international human rights protections and institutions. Not only is the institute involved with the situation in Darfur, but, she says, it is "trying to get the U.N. to function more effectively to protect religious freedom around the world."
A frequent lecturer, and the author of more than 25 articles on human rights, Gaer said one of her proudest achievements was "getting the U.N. to address anti-Semitism as a human rights issue." In addition —according to the Encyclopedia Judaica — Gaer "played the key role in assuring passage by consensus of the U.N. General Assembly’s first-ever condemnation of anti-Semitism" in 1998.
Lance Laifer: More than talk
While many people hear of populations in distress, few actually take action to alleviate the situation. But some do. Englewood resident Lance Laifer, who became "shocked and outraged" when he heard that millions of children die each year from malaria, set out at once to do something about it.
After hearing Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, report that little was being done to help these children, Laifer launched initiatives to raise awareness, and funds, to combat the disease.
With two colleagues, the hedge fund manager organized "Hedge Funds vs. Malaria," which, we reported in March, had so far raised about $1 million and contributed to some 20 malaria-fighting organizations. He also helped fund a clinic in Ghana, which he visits to ensure that the money is being spent wisely.
Laifer, whose group has helped fund "malaria-free zones" in five African nations by sending over mosquito nets and medication, also launched "Madness against Malaria," which raises funds for bednets, in the belief that more people would help if they had more information.
Laifer noted that Israeli expertise in fighting malaria — a problem faced by the country during the early 20th century — is in huge demand throughout the world.
"The American public doesn’t understand," he said, and this lack of information and connection is devastating. But, he believes, citing Hurricane Katrina, "if people focus on an issue, they’ll contribute their last dollar."
Bill and Maggie Kaplen: Extending helping hands
Bill and Maggie Kaplen of Tenafly had a very good year — a year of doing good.
Their foundation made the lead gift to create the Kaplen Family Senior Residence in River Vale, Bergen County’s first kosher assisted-living facility. As Bill Kaplen noted in a Jewish Standard opinion piece, "We are at the birth of an important movement," the movement to provide assisted living for those who need it, "a movement nurtured by the novel idea that a helping hand can extend independence rather than diminish it."
The couple, who have long been involved in communal affairs, also extended a helping hand to the JCC on the Palisades by launching the Tenafly facility’s capital campaign with a gift of $5 million — the single largest donation the JCC has ever received — through their family foundation. Monies from the campaign will be used for a major facility upgrade. In September the JCC was renamed the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, in the couple’s honor.
Catherine Taub: Honoring a hero
Catherine Taub has had a very good year as well — she’s seen many of her efforts to gain recognition for Ridgewood’s "homegrown hero" of the Holocaust, Varian Fry, bear fruit.
Fry — who helped some 2,000 refugees from the Holocaust escape Vichy France — is well-known to Standard readers. Taking inspiration from Taub, founder of the Committee to Honor Varian Fry, the Standard launched a drive for a commemorative stamp in his honor in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth. The stamp did not materialize in time, but a special postmark did. It was dedicated on Oct. 9, in the Ridgewood Post Office, with Taub, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-dist. 9) — who had sponsored a congressional bill in support of a Fry stamp) — and the Standard’s editor looking on.
Two weeks later, more than 100 people — including Taub, Rothman, and Isi Canner of Teaneck and Jeanette Berman of Saddle River, both of whom were saved by Fry — gathered at a "birthday party" for Fry at the Ridgewood Library and watched the dedication there of a plaque, donated by Taub, in his honor. Annette Riley Fry, his widow, and Rosemary Sullivan, author of a book detailing his deeds, were special guests.
Taub, whom we named Fry’s shlicha, his emissary, is continuing to spread the word about this little-known brave man. For one, she’s trying to get a New York City street named for him, and if she succeeds, the Standard will be delighted to report it.
U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman: An emerging player on the world stage
Rep. Steve Rothman has made his voice heard this year.
Shortly after Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Rothman introduced a resolution to charge Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with war crimes. And after a trip to Iraq last spring the representative from the ninth district came out in favor of a "very robust diplomatic role" for the United States in promoting unity among Iraq’s warring factions.
On the home front, Rothman has taken a harsh tone while criticizing President Bush for proposing to cut Homeland Security funding and vetoing a labor bill that included $1.5 million in earmarks for New Jersey Jewish federations.
That $1.5 million passed last week as part of the robust multi-billion-dollar omnibus spending bill. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey credited Rothman, a member of the House appropriations committee, for helping push through the funding, of which $162,000 will go to UJA-NNJ.
And we cannot forget Varian Fry. Rothman has been a tremendous help in pushing forward a postage stamp to honor the Holocaust hero who grew up in Ridgewood. (See previous entry.)
While speculation flies about where Rothman will end up, we note that he became the northeast coordinator for Sen. Barak Obama’s presidential campaign. Rothman is well positioned should Obama win the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg: Infusing Jewish values into government
Gov. Corzine recently signed two religious protection bills that make it easier for Sabbath-observant Jews to go to the hospital on Shabbat and for anybody to reschedule a state licensing test that conflicts with a religious holiday. Both bills were introduced into the state Senate by Loretta Weinberg.
A member of the New Jersey Israel Commission and the National Council of Jewish Women, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard that she has been guided by the Jewish values she learned growing up.
Earlier this year she facilitated a $20,000 grant to Jewish Family Service for programming for adults with Asperger’s syndrome and pushed for the creation of a state Asperger’s program. She’s been a Senate sponsor of legislation to abolish the death penalty and divest from Iran, and she’s leading an inquiry of a state cemetery regulation that would add charges to communal organizations, such as synagogues, that buy cemetery plots and pass them on to members.
Weinberg served in the state Assembly for 14 years before taking over the final two years of (then retiring) Sen. Byron Baer in 2005. She has served in the Senate since.
Stuart Rabner: Serving the cause of justice
As the son of Holocaust survivors Stuart Rabner is all too familiar with injustice. But after several years in the U.S. attorney’s office and then as special counsel to Gov. Jon Corzine, Rabner has made it his mission to make sure that justice is served.
Rabner acted as the state’s attorney general, the highest law enforcement official in New Jersey, from 2006 until June 2007, when Corzine nominated him to be chief justice of the state supreme court.
Rabner, who grew up in Passaic, maintains close ties to the Jewish community as the chairman of the Holocaust Resource Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic, where he has organized the center’s annual Holocaust commemoration since its inception 18 years ago.
"It’s a very important part of his fabric and part of him," said Mark Levenson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic. "I hope he’d be able to participate in our commemoration going forward. I know it means a lot to him and his family."
Although Rabner’s appointment was initially blocked in the Senate by two Essex County senators, his confirmation passed later in June with a 36-1 vote. On June 21, he was sworn in as New Jersey’s eighth chief justice since the ratification of the state’s constitution in 1947.
Jerry Nathans: Guardian of history
Jerry Nathans is a man with a mission — to collect and safeguard the artifacts and documents that testify to Paterson and this area’s Jewish past. President of the Jewish Historical Society, Nathans, who lives in Wayne, closed his West Paterson store last year and has turned his attention to revitalizing the society and engaging the rest of us in his passionate quest. He would like to see his collection — boxed in his store and at William Paterson University — permanently housed and properly displayed. He’d also like to see it grow. One problem he’s encountered, the Standard reported, is that people throw away treasures they don’t even know they have. To contribute memorabilia, call him at (973) 785-9119 or (973) 595-7881, or write to him at P.O. Box 708, West Paterson, NJ 07424-0708.
YM-YWHA of Wayne: Return to kashrut
Kashrut is relatively new at the YM-YWHA of Wayne. Its Tel Aviv Café went kosher only in 2001 after almost 30 years without a hechsher. But when the community center decided to do away with its certification in the fall, it caused a community-wide uproar.
The Y announced that while all food at the Tel Aviv Café would still come from kosher vendors, the café itself would become "kosher style," meaning both meat and dairy options would be available and the café’s rabbinic supervision would end. Y executive director Steve Allen said the policy change — the final act of his predecessor, with the approval of the Y’s board of directors — was a cost-saving measure.
But while Allen said the café’s business was mostly unaffected — if not better — because of the change, members of the Jewish community could not tolerate a Jewish community center’s going non-kosher. After extensive coverage by the Standard and calls from area rabbis to bring back the certification, the Y announced in November that it would rehire its mashgiach and rekasher the kitchen.
Michael Wildes: Taking action on immigration
New Jersey ranks third in the nation in the number of foreign-born residents as a percentage of the population. Of these, 5 percent — or some 400,000 people — are undocumented, according to the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network. The state is seeking to correct that.
In August, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigrant Policy. Serving on that panel is longtime immigration lawyer Michael Wildes, mayor of Englewood, who has brought a distinctively Jewish voice into the conversation.
Pointing out that the Talmud equates silence with acquiescence, Wildes noted that "while the challenge of immigration has been heightened since 9/11," Jews must be concerned about immigrants and "about the vulnerable." He pointed out that Jewish history is replete with immigration stories, beginning with the biblical tale of the exodus from Egypt.
"Our community must appreciate the great blessings of this country and not turn our backs on others, as people turned their backs on us," he said. "We need to be an example to others and honor the biblical mandate of hachnasat orchim," the mitzvah of hospitality.
The former federal prosecutor noted that the signing of the executive order creating the panel was particularly meaningful for him, taking place at Liberty State Park, close to where his four grandparents first arrived in the United States.
Michelle Citrin: A Rosh HaShanah love affair
Amber Lee Ettinger’s "Obama Girl," a tribute to Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama, was already a parody of music videos about unrequited love. But Will Levin and Michelle Citrin decided the genre needed a little Yiddishkeit.
The result was "Rosh HaShanah Girl," starring Citrin in a ballad to the Jewish New Year. The video showcases Citrin leaving a heartfelt message on Rosh HaShanah’s answering machine and then singing her love for the holiday while blowing a shofar and running through the streets of New York City. The video is available on Youtube.com, Birthright Israel, and a slew of Jewish blogs that were as fascinated as we were. Altogether, the video has received about half a million hits, according to Citrin.
Now a singer/songwriter in the city, Citrin hails from Fair Lawn, where she was the former youth director at Temple Avoda. As for the future, Citrin says more Jewish videos "are in the making. Expect more."
Among the losses our community sustained in 2007 was that of three longtime friends: state Sen. Byron Baer, community activist Leonard Rubin, and Rabbi Martin Freedman.
Baer’s legacy extends beyond the New Jersey Senate, in which he served for 39 years. As author of the state’s sunshine law, Baer redefined the way people interact with the government. Born in 1929, Baer learned of the horrors of the Holocaust while growing up in America. That experience forged his devotion to justice, according to his widow, Linda Pollitt Baer. During the 1960s he spent time in jail after joining the Freedom Riders, and while a young assemblyman in the ’70s, he broke his arm tangling with farmers who were mistreating their immigrant workers. According to Senate President Richard Codey, Baer had an “inherent belief that any good idea was worth fighting for.”
Our community’s activists were more than politicians, though. For 38 years Rabbi Martin Freedman served Barnert Temple, moving it from Paterson to its current home in Franklin Lakes, pushing for the creation of its nursery school, and furthering the rights of others.
A Freedom Rider in the ’60s, Freedman never stopped being an activist. Throughout his tenure he championed civil rights, Soviet Jewry, and Israel. “Rabbi Freedman’s faith was manifest in action: Respond to the injustices of the world,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Freedman’s successor at Barnert.
Leonard Rubin is remembered as one of the architects of this community. The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades owes much of its life and growth, since its humble beginnings in Englewood more than 50 years ago, to Rubin and his wife, Syril. He served several terms as its president and was also a driving force behind the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. Truly, his imprint can be seen in almost every aspect of Jewish life across our area.