What do you get when you bring together 12 rabbis of various denominations, a wide swath of Jewish subjects, and about 150 Jewish community members from Mercer, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties?
The answer is Torathon 5776, held April 3 at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge.
The annual day of learning was a comeback of sorts. While it was started in 1983 by Beth Ohr’s former religious leader, Rabbi Matt Futterman, the day of learning went on hiatus beginning in 2009.
The event was revived this year by Beth Ohr’s Rabbi Joel Mishkin, assisted by a grant from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
“I loved it from the minute I came to this synagogue in 1983 and began running it with Rabbi Futterman,” said chair Linda Benish. “After he made aliya I continued working on it every year with several rabbis.”
Mishkin, who is completing his first full year as rabbi at Beth Ohr, said when he learned of the program’s history he wanted to revive it as an annual event.
“This is something Congregation Beth Ohr has proudly done for a number of years and members wanted to reinvigorate the program,” he said. “The reception was tremendous. The 12 participating rabbis responded enthusiastically and, based on the feedback we’ve received, people had only one criticism — that it wasn’t long enough. They found it inspiring and meaningful. This is something that should have never stopped and we appreciate the federation’s support in bringing it back.”
The program featured three different sessions with numerous programs running concurrently.
With Passover starting on the evening of April 22, several of the study programs explored issues relating to the holiday. Rabbi Michael Pont of the Marlboro Jewish Center-Congregation Ohev Shalom, focused on a new responsum from the Conservative movement permitting previously forbidden kitniyot.
“Rice, legumes, and corn” — examples of kitniyot — are not hametz and cannot become hametz so you are not violating any law of Passover by eating them,” Pont said. “By and large, the reasons for not eating them have become obsolete, and in my opinion kitniyot should never have been forbidden.”
Rabbi Jay Weinstein of Orthodox Young Israel of East Brunswick spoke of the “mysterious” presence of Elijah the Prophet at a seder. Because the rabbis debated whether to have four or five cups of wine, it was decided to set aside the fifth cup for Elijah, who appears, said Weinstein, to answer participants’ questions.
“We believe Elijah the Prophet comes because as a people of faith we have many questions that are unanswered,” said Weinstein.
Other rabbis took on topics spanning politics, entertainment, religion, and the mystical. Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor explored medical ethics involving organ donation, euthanasia, tattooing, and body piercing. The Conservative rabbi said organ donation is encouraged since it will save the life of the recipient.
He said although tattooing is prohibited by Jewish law, contrary to what some believe, a tattooed person may be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Other rabbis conducted sessions focusing on visiting the sick or overcoming grief. Rabbi Ellie Shemtov of Reform Congregation Kol Am in Freehold compared the emotions and mood swings experienced through Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, to the five stages of grief laid out by famed psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kubler Ross.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner, chaplain at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, outlined the rewards and challenges of the mitzva of bikur holim, visiting the sick.
Rabbi Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, in a program provocatively titled, “Sex, Murder, and a Two-Year Old’s Temper Tantrum,” explored the role of God in Tanach versus the role of God in life, while Rabbi Nathan Langer — manager of Jewish hospice services for the Visiting Nurse Association Health Group of NJ and former religious leader of Congregation Anshe Emeth in South River — went lighter, offering insights about Jewish comedians and their impact on Jewish culture.
Other religious leaders and their topics were: Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Reform Temple B’nai Shalom, East Brunswick, rabbinic teachings about the Book of Jonah; Rabbi Ben Levy, Reform Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center, the marriage of God and the Jewish people; Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe, holiness versus spirituality through exploration of biblical text; Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, Conservative Congregation B’nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, the legitimacy of the State of Israel in international law; and Mishkin, a new approach to daily prayer.
Those attending Torathon were effusive in their praise.
“I loved it because I love to learn,” said Linda Green of Old Bridge. “It was so diverse and you could really learn a lot from each individual. They all had such great knowledge and experience.”
Gladys Nahmias of Monroe described the program’s sessions as “excellent, clear, concise, with many interesting topics.”
Ashna Pincus of East Brunswick found the experience “exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking,” adding, “There was such a feeling of unity among the rabbis and community. I am so happy to be here.”