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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Continuing Implosion of the Movement That Calls Itself "Conservative Judaism"

Modern American Jewish history as a Biblical narrative:
And it was in the second half of the previous century: The Children of Israel that dwelled in New York City, Newark etc. fled from their urban homes to the suburbs of New Jersey, Upper State New York and Long Island. These very same Children of Israel were not ready to serve The Lord with all of their heart and all of their soul and all of their might. On the other hand they not willing to worship the Ba'al. And it was that they built many edifices for their brand of worship, which they called "Conservative Judaism". And so it was that the land of New Jersey was covered with these edifices that they called Temples, complete with a full time rabbi, a Sisterhood, USY, and Bingo games to pay the mortgage.

And it was that these very same Children of Israel took wives and begat children. These children grew up among the nations, and learned from their deeds. The Hebrew School that they attended after Public School was loathsome unto them, as it took place at the time when the children of the nations were playing the holy game of baseball. And it was that two or three generations had passed, the number of congregants dwindled, and these Temples were sold to the local gentiles.

I was inspired to write this by the following article that I read in the New Jersey Jewish News. I added the emphasis in bold:
After more than 50 years of existence, Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona held its final Shabbat service on June 3. The future of the building, at the corner of Grove and Personette avenues, is uncertain but the remaining members will find a new home at B’nai Shalom, a Conservative congregation in West Orange.

In the end, it came down to money, said Allen Paisner, 28, of Verona, who worked in the synagogue office until it closed last week. But to listen to him talk about the Conservative synagogue, where his grandparents and parents were members before him, it feels like the memories will never run out. “Something special has been lost,” he said. “We were a nice, warm place. There’s something comforting in such a small synagogue.”

Among the last tasks assigned to him was sorting through the books in the library. Some were already packed in boxes for donation, some set aside for burial, and another set placed against the wall to be given to B’nai Shalom.

Debbie Dretel Lawrence, 61, who served as the congregation’s final president, is another third-generation member. Her grandparents joined just one year after its founding in 1936. She remembers from her youth a robust community with a full Hebrew school, when the membership was near its peak of about 350 families, but she acknowledged that the synagogue has always had a niche among older people. It’s just that at some point, she said, it stopped attracting a younger crowd, which would have provided the critical mass necessary for growth. “It’s been a long time coming,” she acknowledged.

Congregants had taken to calling Beth Ahm, founded as the Jewish Community Center of Verona, “the little shul with the big heart.” Closing has taken its emotional toll. But Dretel Lawrence said, “This whole process is something we’ve done together.”

She described the last services as “sad and sweet at the same time.” She added, “There were people there who have been members for a very long time. It was very emotional.” Everyone had the opportunity to have one final aliyah during the Torah service, including Dretel Lawrence.

Looking around, she said, she took comfort in the physical names on the plaques, names she’s known all her life; each one holds a memory. “I find our shul a very comforting place to be. I can still see where my parents sat. I remember coming with my grandparents on Simchat Torah.”

The decision to close came as the synagogue was down to approximately 50 family units, according to Paisner. It was a significant drop from 2011, when the congregation celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala at the Richfield Regency in Verona and still had about 160 members.

But there were concerns even then.

Throughout its history, the congregation was served by eight rabbis. But it was just two, Rabbi Alter Kriegel and his son Aaron Kriegel, who came to define the congregation. Rabbi Alter Kriegel served the community from 1937 until 1974; his son took the helm in 2001 and retired in 2013. The years that followed were difficult.

Rabbi Mark Biller, who succeeded Aaron Kriegel, tried many creative solutions to attract new members, including his “Top of the Morning Shabbat” in 2015, which offered a casual learning and discussion alternative to traditional services. And while Dretel Lawrence praised his ability to engage others in discussion, and to welcome anyone and everyone, it wasn’t enough.

It was something past president Marc Wurgaft, whose father was a close friend of Alter Kriegel, had foreseen in 2011. At that time, he told NJJN that the biggest challenge was neither financial nor a dwindling membership. “It’s what we are going to do when Aaron retires.”

A portrait of the senior Rabbi Kriegel graces the wall in the central entry hall, and the intersection of Grove and Personette avenues bears a second name: Rabbi A. Kriegel Way.

A deal, approved May 1 by the Verona town council to buy the building for $1 million to become the new home of the Verona Rescue Squad, fell through weeks later after neighborhood residents filed a petition citing concerns about the noise, added traffic, and other issues.

The congregation’s five Torahs have already been distributed: two to B’nai Shalom, one to Rabbi Yaacov Leaf at Chabad of Montclair, one to Rabbi Shalom Lubin and his Congregation Shaya Ahavath Torah in Parsippany, and one to Rabbi Efraim Mintz of Brooklyn, who came to the synagogue regularly to teach.

After the congregation sang “Adon Olam” on June 3, the congregation concluded its last service with “Hatikvah” and“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (also known as “America”) the latter a tradition that goes back to World War II, in honor of the members serving in the war. The elder Kriegel is said to have directed that the congregation would sing the song until every serviceman returned. But one member, Private Max Novick, was killed in action, so they maintained the custom of singing, right down to the very end.

It is worthy of notice that most of the Torah scrolls were given to Chabad Rabbis. As the Conservative Temples close and merge with one another, Chabad keeps setting up more congregations.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Six Day War: An Event of Biblical Proportions

Wow! It's been 50 years since the day when Israeli troops liberated Jerusalem. Among other things, that means that I am getting old!

Much has been written and said about the Six Day War. One aspect of that war, which I believe is not stressed enough, is that we are dealing with an event of Biblical proportions. Something "really huge", as President Donald Trump might say.

Although prophecy has temporarily disappeared from the Nation of Israel, Divine Providence's guiding hand has not. In fact, through the annals of the Jewish People, the Creator of the world is revealed. "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee" (Deuteronomy 32:7). It's a mitzvah to learn Jewish history. Doing so increases one's understanding of the Divine.

History is being made here in the Land of Israel. One can sit back in his armchair and watch it on the screen, or one can be part of it.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Shulamit Kishik-Cohen z"l

Today an Israeli hero was laid to rest. Shulamit Kishik-Cohen z"l, after a long and blessed life of almost 100 years, was buried in the soil of Jerusalem which she loved. Here's a little about this most remarkable woman:
Shulamit Cohen (b. 1920) was born in Argentina and raised in Jerusalem with her twelve brothers and sisters. Her father was from a wealthy Egyptian-Jewish merchant family, and her mother was the daughter of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. In 1936, the family experienced severe financial strain, and Shulamit’s father arranged her to marry Joseph Kishak-Cohen, a wealthy businessman from Beirut. Shula moved to Lebanon, and had five kids by the time she was 24. One day in 1947, she overheard people discussing military activities against Israel. Shula recorded the information in a letter to the Haganah, which was fighting for a Jewish state in Israel, addressing it to her brother in Jerusalem. Five weeks later, an agent of the Haganah’s secret service contacted her. For the next 14 years, Shula worked as an Israeli spy in Lebanon. Her work consisted of two major goals. The first was to gather intelligence about Arab military activities, which she was able to do by getting herself into Lebanon’s high society, including the home of the prime minister, who considered her like one of his own daughters. The second was to help smuggle Jewish families fleeing persecution in the Arab world, particularly from Syria. Over the years, she helped countless families find safe passage to Israel. Shula communicated with the secret service using invisible ink, under the code name “Pearl”. She was first caught for smuggling in 1952. Pregnant at the time, Shula was taken to jail just three weeks after giving birth, and spent 36 days in confinement. She continued her clandestine activities for another 9 years before things got too dangerous and she moved to Rome for three months. Upon her return in 1961, she was immediately arrested for espionage. The trial went on for several months during which she was brutally tortured. She was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but the verdict was softened because she was a mother of seven. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years of hard labour. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Lebanese citizens, and used them in a prisoner exchange for Shula and a captured Israeli pilot. Shula has lived in Israel ever since, and still volunteers at schools and IDF bases, despite her advanced age. Two of her sons have high-ranking roles in the Israeli government. A book about her story has been published, called “Shula: Code Name The Pearl”.
I had the privilege of attending the funeral. May her soul be bound in the bundle of life, and may her family be comforted with the builing of Zion.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Israeli Flag Waves While American Jewry Withers

It is a annual routine. A few days after the end of Passover, just around of the start of the Hebrew month of Iyar you will see them. Flying from apartment balconies and car windows, the flag with the two blue stripes and the "Star of David" in the middle is an ubiquitous sight. That flag, that symbol of the miraculous return of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, is flown for practically the entire month. The fourth of Iyar is Israel's Memorial Day for its soldiers that have fallen in battle. Immediately following Israeli Memorial Day is the fifth of Iyar, Israeli Independence Day. Towards the end of the month comes the 28th of Iyar, the day that the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were liberated from Jordanian occupation.

In the Passover Haggadah it is written that "everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy." I think that one who discusses at length the miraculous accomplishments of the State of Israel, which are numerous, this is also praiseworthy. For one will come to see the hand of Divine Providence that has accompanied the Jewish People from its outset.

I have been here for more than thirty years. In this time period I have witnessed so much progress here. This little country is advancing, not only in the physical realm but in the spiritual realm as well.

“And the gold of that land is good...” (Gen. 2:12) “This teaches that there is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel.”

As I write these words the people of Israel mourn the soldiers that gave their life protecting the country and its people. Tomorrow night at this time the country will a sharp turn to rejoice and gives thanks to the Lord of Israel for giving us the opportunity to live here as free men and fulfill our potential. As Rashi explains, "...there I will make you into a great nation..."

I myself really want to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, but I cannot help but remember what I left behind. All of those poor American Jews, who may be well off financially, may have multiple degrees in higher learning, but never had the privilege of learning Torah or learning what Judaism, real authentic Judaism, is really about. If I have been blessed in seeing the State of Israel blossom, I have also been so unfortunate to watch American Jewry shrivel up and fade away.

Perhaps I should be indifferent to the demise of the American Jewish Community. Our sages tell us that only one fifth of the Israelites actually left Egypt, while the others died during the plague of darkness. Why did they die? Because they did not want to leave Egypt! I have a feeling that the Israelites that did take part in the Exodus did not mourn their brethren who were "stuck in the darkness". So why should I care about the Jews that are "stuck in America"?

Of course this is nonsense. We are one nation, one big family, responsible for one another. The holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria taught,

Every morning, before your prayers, commit yourself to love every other Jew as your own self. Then your prayers will be accepted and bear fruit.
I am not a kabbalist or even a Hasid, but this is part of my daily routine. I cannot possibly be completely happy while so many of my brothers and sisters are drowning in the sea of assimilation.

This Israeli Independence Day is an opportunity for every Jew to realize that he is part of a nation that in many ways was dormant but has now come back to life. It is time to free ourselves from the chains of the Diaspora, physically and spiritually. A voice is crying from Mount Horeb, and Rachel is crying for her children. Our mother, the land of Israel, is beckoning. "Whoso is wise, let him observe these things, and let them consider the mercies of the LORD."

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