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TITLE: "Building Community in White Plains"
Author: Rabbi Chaim Marder
The Hebrew Institute of White Plains, N

The Hebrew Institute of White Plains, N.Y, has been involved in an important community building effort.  Over the past 4 years, I, as its Rabbi, have participated in the creation of a series of dynamic and innovative programs that seek to foster a strong sense of fellowship for the Jews of the city.  Most significant is the fact that these efforts involve collaboration with local Jewish communal agencies and non-Orthodox congregations as well.

Having served as Rabbi in a small yet highly inter-connected city in my previous post, I recognized a marked absence of "community" upon my return to the NY area.  White Plains is the county seat in Westchester, and in many ways feels more like a city than most other suburban towns and in many ways feels more like a city than most other suburban towns in the region.  Yet Jewish White Plains suffered from the same phenomenon experienced by other "bedroom communities" surrounding NYC, and by NYC itself: a sense of isolation from one synagogue to the next, a feeling that there was little, if any, communal cohesiveness.  It became apparent that a concerted effort was needed to help change that reality.

I was not the only one to come to that conclusion; the other rabbis of the area arrived at the same point as well.    Without actually articulating a "goal", we set off on a journey that would forever change the White Plains Jewish community.

One of the significant elements of the White Plains Jewish community is the fact that the rabbis across the spectrum have a positive working relationship.  Most meet on a weekly basis to study Torah together, and that association, nurtured around Torah texts, served as a basis for a series of programs and projects that have begun to reshape the way the Jews of White Plains see themselves and one another.

The first program came in response to tragedy - the murder of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  On the Saturday night following his death, a group of the rabbis gathered to plan a memorial program for the next night.  Together, we crafted a program which we hoped would reach     everyone, would not present a political agenda that might run counter to one another's strongly held beliefs on the peace effort, was sensitive to Halachik considerations, and which incorporated all the Jews in the city.  With less than 24 hours notice, close to 800 people gathered to mourn together as members of one community.

That event served as a catalyst for more searching and exploration of ways we could help build community. Some lay-representatives of the synagogues coordinated a series of joint Jerusalem-3000 programs, which met with success.  But the alliance of the congregations via the rabbis ultimately held the most promise.

In 1996, the rabbis guided the congregations into a strategic effort to link the synagogue teens attending public high school in some shared experiences.  Together, we applied for, and were awarded, a  

UJA-Federation Grant to fund curricular development and programming planning for a program called "B'Yachad Teens".  The initial component of B'Yachad called for a series of 5-6 special events, meeting in  

different synagogues each time.  Teens had the opportunity to meet their peers from other congregations and experience a unique program together.  Just around this time, in the larger Jewish world, tensions between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews were rising to a boil.  There was a real sense that we had reached a mashber, that a horrific rupture in the Jewish world was imminent.  This very grave concern motivated us to take a further step.  The community began to develop what would become the Elul Study Series, before the High Holidays.  Under the sponsorship of UJA-Federation of Westchester and the Westchester Jewish Conference, the congregations participated in a four-week study series in which the rabbis and their assistants and cantors offered multiple classes on themes of the holidays.

I was, admittedly, hesitant to join in this effort.  I expressed my concerns to the other non-Orthodox rabbis, concerns over appearing to confer "legitimacy" to non-Orthodox views.  We worked hard together to assure that the integrity of my Orthodox stance could be maintained.  With great sensitivity, we crafted a program that did not claim to "validate" all views.  The only statement we wanted to make was this: in a period in which so much has arisen which would divide us, we must work harder than ever to find ways to hold on to each other.  Sharing in the preparation for the Days of Awe was seen as a most appropriate venue.  Topics were purposefully "non-partisan" and those who took part in the program had full choice of which person's classes they wished to attend, so that no one felt compelled or compromised in any way.  The program   that took place in my synagogue consisted of a lay person Beit Midrash study, followed by a panel discussion.  Logistical factors (multiple-class space limitation) made that format necessary; it was also a framework with which I could be comfortable.  It gave me the additional opportunity to respond to any views with which I might disagree.

With all my initial misgivings, I do know that, thanks to this series, more than 400 White Plains Jews prepared in a meaningful way for the High Holidays - and began to think differently about what being part of a community could mean.  The excitement and good feeling generated by this program linger to this very day.

Following on these positive results, we became convinced that there must be a community-wide celebration of Israel's Jubilee, in addition to whatever programming was being planned in each congregation.  This joint program was especially important in light of the tension throughout the  

Jewish community over the Neeman commission and the reaction to it proposals at that time.  It was our group decision that a celebration be just that-a celebration of the miracle of Israel, leaving aside the issues that might divide Jew from Jew.  We met numerous times to map out the format and feel of this major event.  Lay representatives were selected from each congregation to serve on the planning committee.  This event-again coordinated with assistance from UJA-Federation and the Westchester Jewish Conference (and directed by a consultant hired specifically for the event) -- was a huge success with a wonderful attendance (1,000 people!) and deep impression made.

The community is presently embarking on a joint venture with Westchester Jewish Community Services.  The White Plains Jewish community has received a grant from the UJA-Federation for a multi-layered program plan.  The first component will consist of a twice yearly educational series: a pre High Holiday series (a la the Elul series, still sponsored by the UJA-Federation and Westchester Jewish Conference), and a second one which will focus on personal development and ethics, areas of personal crisis, aging, etc.  This spring session will incorporate rabbinic teaching and WJCS staff persons.  A second component will consist of a monthly informational insert to be provided to each of the congregations, schools, other agencies, and the media describing the major events and services offered at all the synagogues and agencies.  As I reflect on these efforts, I see their significance in linking together numerous and varied communal agencies and fostering cohesiveness within the White Plains community. Indeed, we are building new and important alliances with both religious and secular Jewish institutions.  These endeavors are the result of the coming together of synagogue communities which realize that, notwithstanding the significant differences that distinguish one from the other, there is a shared destiny that links us together. Nothing could have happened without the backdrop of good relations among all the players, which enabled us to speak honestly and frankly, to express our concerns, and limitations, and the lines that we felt we could not cross.  Much of it would not have come off well without the assistance of communal agencies in funding, planning, and implementation. 

Has it been worth it?  I believe so, and for a number of reasons, which I can list here.

* More learning: These efforts have produced important results in our synagogue life.  I have run pre-High Holiday sessions in shul in the past, and have seen a marginal attendance at best.  When a large program, such as the Elul series, is offered, there is an energy and excitement that motivates large numbers to come out.  People actually understood that preparing for the yamim noraiim entailed more than  

baking honey cake and boiling kreplach.  

* I had the opportunity to reach a much larger audience and share Torah with them.  I would never have had the opportunity to gain their ear in other settings.

* The role our synagogue played in this effort truly transformed our sense of ourselves.  We see ourselves as community builders, not brakers, (the unfortunate stereotype that is often associated with the frum community.)  Put another way - we enhanced the hadar of our synagogue in our eyes and in the eyes of our fellow Jews. 

*Community is a very important commodity, and necessary for our survival.

To me, these are four significant benefits, that far outweigh the possible concerns that might be raised.  I cannot comment on whether this is right for your community; I do believe that it is right for ours.  Recently, the rabbis were honored by the UJA-Federation for this special work.  At that event each of us  

spoke of the important and rewarding nature of this journey we are taking  - for us and our community.  With great sensitivity to one another, and to Halachik concerns, we have created a sense of togetherness in White Plains.

(Rabbi Chaim Marder is the Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains.  For information about the synagogue and its programs call (914) 948-3095.)


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