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Livingston celebrates Israel
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Livingston celebrates Israel

Orthodox rabbi, Reform lawyer behind event that straddles religious divides

As Sheri Goldberg thought about Israel’s upcoming 70th anniversary on April 19, she had a tough choice to make.

An ardent Zionist who is active in the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West NJ’s Peoplehood Project, which links community members with residents of its Israeli partner cities of Arad, Ofakim, and Merchavim, she had signed up for the project’s trip to Poland, Ukraine, and Israel. Marking Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel is the climax of an emotional tour of Eastern Europe that includes a Yom HaShoah observance on April 12 at Babi Yar in Ukraine, where the Nazis murdered 33,771 Jews in September 1941. 

But Goldberg felt conflicted. She’s become a prime organizer of a community-wide celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut in her hometown of Livingston. Whether to go to Israel or stay home “began weighing heavily on my mind,” she told NJJN. “It was a really tough situation.”

The inaugural “Livingston Celebrates Israel at 70” builds on the solid foundation the Jewish community shares with the town council. In November 2016 it became the first municipality in Greater MetroWest to pass a resolution condemning the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the five members of the Livingston Town Council having voted unanimously. 

That vote emboldened Goldberg to ask the council if the Peoplehood Project could raise an Israeli flag in front of the town hall on Yom Ha’Atzmaut in 2017, when delegations from partner communities in Israel would be in town. Once again, the council members said “yes.” 

Rabbi Elie Mischel, religious leader of Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, attended last year’s ceremony and said he was “really impressed” with the way Goldberg organized it. It led to a collaboration between the Orthodox rabbi and the Reform attorney that Mischel described as “a little unusual” because of their religious differences. 

Motivated by a vision that Jews are “one big family who should get together and connect with each other,” Mischel readily formed a partnership with Goldberg to “pull off something much bigger than anything we’ve ever tried before,” inviting members of every synagogue in Livingston and beyond to take part in the planning sessions that began after the fall High Holy Days.

They recruited committee members from Mischel’s congregation and Goldberg’s synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills; other Livingston synagogues such as Temple Beth Shalom and Temple B’nai Abraham; and expanded the pool to include Caldwell’s Congregation Agudath Israel and Summit’s Temple Sinai, along with the youth groups of many congregations. 

They extended their reach even farther by inviting all the residents of Livingston to attend. 

The planners connected with the town’s voluntary Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which “seeks to raise awareness, foster respect, and promote inclusion of all of the town’s residents in town-sponsored events.” 

“This is not just something for the Jews,” Goldberg said. “We are reaching out through the clergy council and inviting all faiths to attend. It is our attempt to include anybody and everybody.”

Because it is to be an ecumenical celebration, the planners had to tamp down potential arguments.

“We made a conscious decision not to bring politics into it,” said Mischel. “There would be no AIPAC or J Street involvement. We wanted to make it an event for everyone, but we would not push anything on anyone.”

All food available for purchase will be kosher and there will be no women permitted to sing as part of a performance — two criteria for some observant Jews. “But we didn’t go any farther. You can buy meat and ice cream,” he said. “It will not be an Orthodox event.” 

The kosher food vendors will be Mike’s Ice Cream Truck from Caldwell, Premier Catering from Clifton, Shakshooka Food Truck from Tenafly, and That Sushi Truck from New York.

The celebration will run at the Livingston Oval from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Entertainment will include performances by the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy’s Daglanut Squad, the Golda Och Academy lower school’s Raglayim Shel Zahav Dance Troupe, the Pey Dalid Simcha Band, Israeli pianist-songwriter Gon Halevi, and jazz guitarist Tal Yahalom.

Mayor Ed Meinhardt, who is actively involved in the planning sessions, agreed to have the town provide round-trip transportation for senior citizens between their homes and the Oval to facilitate attendance. (Call 973-535-7925 for information.) 

In addition, police officers from Israel and Livingston will be in attendance, and there will be a Krav Maga demonstration, a petting zoo, graffiti art project, and more.

In the event of rain, the entire proceedings, minus the petting zoo, will be relocated indoors at Temple Beth Shalom.

“We are hoping to spread the excitement of Yom Ha’Atzmaut to people who would otherwise not have the opportunity,” said  Goldberg, who has a private law practice representing families with children with disabilities. 

Mischel said he “really hopes” that the celebration will pave the way for other collaborative programs among Livingston congregations, such as joint Torah study evenings for all the town’s Jews under a single synagogue roof he is planning for a future date. 

 “It would create a sense of connection and family, which is what Judaism is all about,” he said. “But equally or maybe more important than celebrating Israel is that this event is bringing all of us together. We are laughing together, working together, and enjoying each other’s company. We are developing real friendships, and to me, that is the best part of the entire program.”

By year’s end, Goldberg will have visited Israel twice on federation missions. So, she decided to visit Poland and Ukraine with her Peoplehood
Project cohort, then fly back to New Jersey on April 17. Two days later she plans to be celebrating in the Oval. 

“I was so much looking forward to being in Israel. But I knew I couldn’t miss what would be happening in Livingston. It is a sacrifice to not go but I will be here for Yom Ha’Atzmaut,” she declared. “It is heartbreaking, but for every sacrifice there is another blessing.”

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