Nearly 200 members of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community celebrated the 10th birthday of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life on May 31 and honored two prime movers in its success, Gary and Susan Aidekman.
Kicking off the festivities at the “Birthday Bash” dinner on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, where the “Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ” has its headquarters, event cochair Paula Gottesman, a Morristown resident and long-term benefactor of Jewish education, saluted Gary Aidekman of Madison, a past president of what was then United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, for “drafting the blueprint for the new educational entity to inspire, engage, and empower a lot of young people in the community.”
In 2006, the Partnership became a streamlined reinvention of the 49-year-old Jewish Education Association of MetroWest.
Ten years later, its founding and current executive director, Robert Lichtman, told NJ Jewish News before the celebration, “Our motto is bringing Jewish learning to life. We want to teach the child to reach the family.”
Testifying to the success of the new agency, four young people who have been actively involved in Partnership programs took turns explaining how those programs have benefited them and many others throughout the community.
Jennifer Emdur of Randolph spoke of the enrichment her son and daughter receive as two of the several thousand children in the community, from infants to six-year-olds, who participate in the PJ Library program. Through the program, administered by the Partnership, they receive free Jewish-themed books every month to encourage their families to pursue Jewish learning.
Macy Gimbel, a teenager from Boonton, said that in 2007 she received a $1,000 grant from the Partnership to help pay for her first year’s tuition at a Jewish summer camp, and how she continued her immersion in informal Jewish learning and culture for the next eight years. Then, she said, Charlotte Frank, educational director at Adath Shalom in Parsippany, where Gimbel’s family are members, made her aware of the Partnership’s Destination Jewish Service Learning Grant, allowing her to travel to Israel, where she had, she said, “one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.”
“My involvement with the Partnership,” said Gimbel, allows me to see my role as a Jew in a new light, giving me the skills, the knowledge, and the attitude to be better.”
Moments later, without fanfare, a young man burst onto the stage wearing a gladiator’s costume, replete with plastic armor and a matching sword. Proclaiming “My name is Maccabee — Judah Maccabee,” he said his family “had believed we were Scottish until we went on ancestry.com and found out we were Jewish.”
The actual name of the “gladiator” is Michael Strom, and he is the Partnership’s coordinator of Jewish service learning.
As he brandished his sword, Strom said many of the Partnership’s programs focus on teens, providing them with opportunities to hone their skills in community leadership and service and guiding them to draw on “Jewish sources to grapple with real-life questions about real issues.”
Among those programs are J-SERVE, a Day for Jewish Teens Serving the World; the Justice League, about working toward an equitable society; the Iris Teen Tzedakah Program, which develops young philanthropists; and Mitzvot of MetroWest, a fair that offers bar and bat mitzva projects.
“Judah Maccabee” reflected on his time at the Partnership: “For the first time I understood what it was like to be one diverse and yet unified Jewish community — each one of us responsible for all of us….
“As a result of my experiences with the Partnership, I am the Jewish hero I am today.”
Sarvenaz Singh, who now lives in Montclair, was born in Iran two years before its 1979 Islamic Revolution and was raised there seemingly as a practicing Muslim. But in her grandmother’s basement, out of sight of their neighbors, her family furtively conducted Jewish rituals, afraid to reveal the secret of their Jewish faith. “It was not safe practicing Judaism” in post-revolutionary Iran, she said, where religions other than Islam were officially banned.
Singh came to America at the age of nine, and though her family could now practice their religion openly, she said, she “really didn’t know what it means to be Jewish.” She “went through the motions,” she said, but “I really didn’t like it; being Jewish wasn’t relevant to me.”
But after she and her husband had a son, they were determined to live a more Jewish life. They began observing Shabbat, then attended a Partnership-sponsored puppet show about Purim. That led to other Partnership programs and, Singh said, her “first real understanding” of Jewish life. “Partnership brought me full circle.”
As Dana Aidekman introduced the honorees, her mother and father, she said she and her two sisters grew up in Madison, a town without a substantial Jewish population. As a result, “my parents had to find ways of squeezing in Jewish culture whenever possible by building Jewish connections and helping us find meanings…. They were always motivated to find a way.” That determination triggered her father to become involved in founding the Partnership.
Partnership president Jody Hurwitz Caplan of Short Hills said Aidekman’s early and ongoing support “is valued and will always be of considerable value as we continue to build upon what you have allowed us to achieve — bringing Jewish learning to life.”
She noted that in 2007, with the Aidekman Family Foundation’s support, the Partnership became “the first organization of its kind in the United States to place Jewish summer camp on its agenda.”
Nine years later, along with funds from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ and a matching grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Partnership Summer Camp Enterprise has distributed nearly $2 million in grants to first-time sleepaway campers.
Hurwitz Caplan also said that the Aidekman Foundation “takes the lead in promoting areyvut,” the concept of giving primacy to focusing Jewish philanthropy on Jewish causes “and entrusts the Partnership as their agent to advance that value. We look to our future with optimism and excitement.”
Gary Aidekman used the concept of areyvut as a cornerstone of his brief thank-you. “It is important for Jews to help Jews. It is not chauvinistic, racist, tribalistic, or otherwise unethical but rather part of our mission — a light to the nations,” he said. “Areyvut was natural to prior generations. Now the openness of American society means Jewish mutual responsibility is no longer a given. We need to find ways to promote the value and instill it again.”