For Rabbi Clifford Kulwin and the staff and congregants at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston, it has been a time to kvell.
In a 48-hour period, the rabbi and his independent congregation received two honors from organizations outside the Jewish community.
On April 30, the congregation was honored by the Oranges and Maplewood Unit of the NAACP with the organization’s President’s Award.
Chapter president Tom Puryear cited Kulwin and his congregation for “ensuring that activities on behalf of civil rights for all and concern for the less fortunate remain at the heart of the temple’s mission.”
As he accepted the award at a luncheon ceremony at the Atrium Country Club in West Orange, Kulwin called the honor “especially meaningful.”
He told the gathering that his congregation has partnered with the Elmwood United Presbyterian Church in East Orange in running a soup kitchen. “The African-American community understands — as this award indicates — that the Jewish community’s concerns extend to all who live where we live.”
Two days later, Kulwin himself was one of three honorees at the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ Jewish Heritage Month celebration at the county’s Hall of Records in Newark.
Freeholder Pat Sebold, a Livingston resident and member of B’nai Abraham, cited Kulwin for “his leadership and numerous contributions to the community.”
She said that since he became its religious leader in 1999, the congregation “has grown and continued its good works in the community at large.”
After receiving the citation, Kulwin said, “Our congregational family has done our best to exemplify what we believe to be the Jewish tradition of service.”
He said he has been inspired by one of his predecessors on the TBA pulpit, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who served from 1939 to 1977. Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany, became deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and preceded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the speakers’ podium at the 1963 March on Washington.
Kulwin reminded his audience that in his speech that day in the nation’s capital, Prinz “laid out the idea that a Jewish congregation had to be involved in the community….” At TBA, added Kulwin, “we have striven to live up to that.”
The freeholders also paid tribute to two other New Jersey Jews, one an educator, the other a political activist.
Clifford Smith, who resides in South Brunswick, is a science teacher at Union Avenue Middle School in Irvington. Speaking after Freeholder Lebby Jones presented his certificate, Smith noted that his classroom is populated by black and Latino students.
“Diversity is a good thing,” he said. “Maybe it is time they know they have a Jewish teacher in front of them, and that is OK, because it is good that we are different.”
The third honoree was Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, a political activist from West Orange who was given her certificate by board president Britnee Timberlake.
Before presenting the award, Timberlake said she had received a confidential “heads-up” from Salowe-Kaye days before the gathering warning that she was planning to participate in a sit-in at the office of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11, which includes parts of Essex County), and if she were arrested, she might be absent for the ceremony. (The sit-in, however, did not happen.)
The freeholder praised Salowe-Kaye, a veteran activist who is executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, as someone she was willing to “link arms with in making sure we do what’s right and never forget the horrific past of many cultures.”
In her acceptance speech, Salowe-Kaye said she came from an Orthodox background, grew up in a Conservative congregation, and now belongs to a Reform synagogue, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. “The Jewish values I was taught — peace and love, kindness and decency, compassion and inclusion — were the same in all three movements.
“We all have the opportunity to say ‘no’ to those who incite racism, bigotry, homophobia, and violence,” Salowe-Kaye said, “and say ‘yes’ to values — Jewish values and values of peace and love, kindness and decency, compassion and inclusion.”