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Shaping a different kind of Jewish community on Long Island

A trailblazing after-school program brings together kids from Judaism's three movements — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — to teach them about their faith.

Teacher Nathan Litman uses the chalkboard to help

Teacher Nathan Litman uses the chalkboard to help explain how to make a mezuzah, a small box containing a parchment with Hebrew verses from the Torah. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

It was an audacious idea at the time: Bring together kids from the three denominations of Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — into a single after-school program to teach them about their faith.

Many Jews in Merrick shook their heads. They thought the differences in the branches couldn't be bridged. 

Today, 30 years later, the trailblazing program serves as a model to foster greater unity in the Jewish world, organizers said.

“The idea was that we wanted to do something that would send a message … that what unites us is much greater than what differentiates us,” said Rabbi Charles Klein, leader of the Merrick Jewish Centre and one of the program's founders.

Created in 1989, the program was the first of its kind on Long Island and possibly in the nation, Klein and others said. In the past few years, a handful of similar programs have popped up, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis.

“I think you are seeing it more now than you did in the past,” Potasnik said. “I think there are many who recognize we need to be together, especially in smaller communities.”

Getting the Merrick program off the ground wasn't easy because there were members in each movement who couldn't see how everyone could come together, organizers said. And there are real distinctions: Orthodox Jews, for instance, keep kosher and men and boys wear a kippa, or skullcap, while Reform Jews often do neither.

“It took a long time to convince everyone that we would respect all the different aspects,” said Les Grussgott, a lay organizer. “There is a belief that it could only be one way. Either you are what you are or you are nothing.”

Those days are over.

Now, for a couple of hours every Tuesday evening, about 150 kids — they range from seventh-graders to seniors in high school — get together to talk, learn about Judaism and have a little fun like learning an Israeli dance or woodworking.

Where they meet alternates year to year. One year, it's at a Reform synagogue; the next year, a Conservative synagogue. No Orthodox synagogue in Merrick is big enough to accommodate the class, said Grussgott, who is Orthodox.

Four synagogues participate: two Conservative, Merrick Jewish Centre and Congregation Beth Ohr in neighboring Bellmore; one Reform, Temple Beth Am in Merrick; and one Orthodox, Congregation Ohav Sholom in Merrick.

The school teaches respect for the tenets and practices of each movement, Grussgott said. For instance, when classes are held at the Conservative synagogue, students must wear a kippa. At the Reform synagogue, kippas aren't required, though Reform students are encouraged to wear them out of respect for their Orthodox and Conservative peers.

“We had to balance, and thank God, it worked out,” Grussgott said. “They truly understood.”

One Tuesday night, a woodworking teacher showed students how to make a mezuzah, a small box containing a parchment with Hebrew verses from the Torah that Jews traditionally affix to doorways. Nearby, a group of girls practiced a traditional Israeli dance called the Horah.

In another classroom, students watched clips of “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 film about a German industrialist who saved more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers during the Holocaust.

“I think it’s really cool because all different types of Jews are learning in the same place, and learning the same thing,” said Gabe Ades, 12, a seventh-grader.

Organizers have kept the program fresh by incorporating more technology and bringing in speakers such as Israeli soldiers and Holocaust survivors, said Rabbi Mickey Baum of Temple Beth Am.

The program also keeps Merrick’s young Jewish population united, because they all come together at Merrick Avenue Middle School but then are split up among three public high schools that serve Merrick and Bellmore, said Charles Rosenblum, a leader of Temple Beth Am. Some Orthodox children in Merrick enroll in private Jewish academies or schools.

“This is an incredible place to be,” said Samantha Koffler, 17, a senior. “I think it is needed. It’s so good to have the opportunity to meet with other types of Jews and create a community.”

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