A local rabbi’s “hurt” over his Conservative synagogue’s exclusion from an Orthodox-run Purim carnival has led to a new effort to promote Jewish communal unity in Highland Park.
Spearheaded by a new group, Ahavat Achdut B’Highland Park, the effort is dedicated to building bridges among Jews of all denominations.
Launched on Facebook by Lisa Geller, a member of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, the group held its first event — a unity walk — on Shabbat afternoon, March 26.
The walk, on an unseasonably cold day, drew about 50 Conservative and Orthodox Jews, according to Geller, as well as Highland Park residents who are members of the Reform Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
“Most of the shuls were represented,” said Geller. “We had a quite a cross-section. More people saw us along the way and asked us what we were doing and then joined us. It got bigger and bigger as we walked. After we were finished one couple started to sing ‘Hinei Mah Tov’ and everyone joined in. It was a beautiful way to end Shabbat.”
The idea for the group came in the wake of a March 19 sermon — and subsequent apology — by Rabbi Eliot Malomet of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
In the sermon, Malomet lamented that his synagogue seemed to have been purposely left out of planning for a March 20 community Purim carnival sponsored by the Mekor Chaim Steinsaltz Ambassadors — young Israeli educators spending time in the area under the auspices of the New York-based Aleph Society — and nine Orthodox synagogues in Highland Park, East Brunswick, New Brunswick, and Edison.
At the time of the sermon, Malomet was under the impression that the Vaad HaRabonim of Raritan Valley, the local Orthodox rabbinic group that oversees kosher supervision and other religious matters, had made a deliberate decision to exclude the Conservative synagogue.
In a sermon a week later, Malomet apologized for suggesting the Vaad had intentionally excluded his synagogue. But in the week in between, congregations in Highland Park and Edison buzzed with debate over his sermon and who, if anyone, was to blame for the perceived slight.
In the original sermon, which was widely circulated in the community — and obtained by NJJN — Malomet said, “We are all hurt. It hurts to be excluded. It hurts to be told literally, ‘You can’t play with us. You are not good enough to plan with us.’”
While he called the perceived slight “deeply troubling,” Malomet was careful in the sermon to say that the Purim episode “does not represent the norm, nor is it representative of the greater Orthodox community.”
The Vaad members have since put out the word through congregants that they were never asked about, discussed, or made any such ruling.
Steinsaltz Ambassadors director Rabbi Shmuel Greene confirmed that the idea for a Purim carnival originated with his group. One of the young Israeli “ambassadors” devised the concept months ago to stage a community carnival similar to those held in Israeli cities, he said.
“We were trying to do things differently,” said Greene, who said the group specifically did not want to involve any synagogues or institutions, “just because you have these sorts of problems.”
“We envisioned it as a true community carnival where everyone would be welcome without labels,” said Greene, who said the synagogues got involved because money was needed to fund the event.
HPCT, which had its own Purim event scheduled the same day, March 20, moved the time of its carnival and scaled back its scope so as not to conflict with the larger event, according to Geller.
Geller said the miscommunication touched off “a lot of destructive speech over the phone, Internet, and on Facebook,” most of it supporting the Conservative synagogue.
Malomet was reluctant to talk about the incident, except to say that “out of some unfortunate circumstances something positive happened. Now people are sensitive to the whole concept of community. People want to do something to bring a sense of achdut — unity — to our community.”
He said the area’s various denominations in general had a good relationship and temple members often attend events at the Orthodox synagogues. Conversely, Orthodox Jews come to the temple for family celebrations. His synagogue hosts a Shabbat-observant, kosher Boy Scout troop that includes many Orthodox youngsters.
“I think there’s now greater sensitivity in the Orthodox community,” said Malomet. “I think the Orthodox community will be mindful of the non-Orthodox community in the future when planning events. There has to be a greater awareness in the community and it has to be done with great sensitivity.”
A source told NJJN that Rabbi Steven Miodownik of Ahavas Achim also spoke from the pulpit about the need for community unity in response to the turmoil over the incident. Miodownik declined to comment. Geller said another Orthodox rabbi, whom she wouldn’t name, has invited her to his home for Shabbat lunch.
Those involved in Ahavat Achdut B’Highland Park (the name means “Lovers of Unity”) say they prefer to focus on the positive. The new group is striving to focus on events that are unifying and will not involve disagreement over religious practices, said Geller, such as whether women should be counted as a minyan, or anything involving food, which might foster disagreement over kosher issues.
Following on the success of the walk, Ahavat Achdut is planning a community-wide gathering to chant the traditional blessing over the first flowering fruit tree of the month of Nisan, which began April 5.
That suggestion was made by Larry Lennhoff, a member of two Highland Park Orthodox shuls, Khal Chassidim and Ahavas Achim, and an associate member of Agudath Israel of Edison/Highland Park. Lennhoff has embraced the group’s concept.
“One of the things that drew me to Highland Park in the first place was the way everybody got along,” he said.
Upon hearing about the fallout from the Purim carnival, he said, his thoughts turned to the late Modern Orthodox authority, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who advised followers not to dwell on why bad things happen, but to focus on responding to them.
“I wanted to restore feelings of unity in the Jewish community,” said Lennhoff. “We have various shuls in town that have their own organizational agendas and that’s how it should be. People in town also have their own agendas. But we as individuals can say, ‘I may not like what your shul does, but I like you as an individual and you like me.’ We need to recognize that we are a family who belong together. I’ve been in this community about seven years and I met people from the Conservative shul I had never met before.”
Lennhoff said he hoped the group would operate without institutional involvement and without the organizational baggage of having a president and other officers.
Rabbi Moshe Silver, who teaches at local Orthodox synagogues, was invited to the unity walk by one of his students at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park.
“I have no political agenda and I don’t believe in labels,” he said. “They create these kinds of divisions. I am all about promoting Torah and klal Yisrael.”
After the walk, he handed Geller his business card and asked her to introduce him to Malomet. He declined to comment on what he planned to discuss with his Conservative colleague.
Along the walk, which began in the park behind Highland Park High School, Geller said that many of the walkers made new friends as they chatted about a variety of subjects, and put the divisiveness of the Purim carnival behind them.
“There was no negative talk at all,” said Geller. “There was no talk by rabbis, about rabbis.”
Geller is convinced the community is already healing.
“What happened in the past is no longer relevant,” said Geller. “The only thing that is relevant is what happens in the future. Rabbi Malomet has apologized and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. I hope this will make our community stronger than before.”
In addition to Facebook, Geller can be reached at email@example.com.