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
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
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.)