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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz

Rabbi Kenneth (Kenny) Schiowitz, rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck since its inception in 2003, was elected president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) last month. He replaced Englewood’s Rabbi Chaim Poupko, who has served, congenially and professionally, since 2016. The RCBC is a vaad, or board of rabbis, as well as a kashrut-granting institution. It also houses a regional conversion beit din.

A RIETS/YU musmach, Rabbi Schiowitz is chair of the Talmud department at The Ramaz School, where he also serves as director of Judaic studies and religious life.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rabbi Schiowitz shared with The Jewish Link a number of far-reaching projects in the works at the RCBC, and shared his perspective on recent RCBC activities. Published this week in The Jewish Link is his first accomplishment, a statement promoting vaccination according to nationally published pediatric guidelines signed by 28 RCBC rabbis and 12 Bergen County school heads. See the article and the statement on page 72.

RCBC Goals Moving Forward

Rabbi Zev Goldberg, rabbi at Young Israel of Fort Lee, joins Rabbi Schiowitz as the RCBC’s new vice president. A member of the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive committee for several years, Rabbi Goldberg is no stranger to rabbinic bridge building, and expressed his hope that additional cohesive projects can be accomplished by the vaad. “The RCBC is an important organization that allows the rabbanim in Bergen County to unite and tackle critical issues,” Rabbi Goldberg told The Jewish Link. “There is tremendous potential when the rabbis from the vaad sit around one table with the objective of enhancing our community.”

Next on Rabbi Schiowitz’s and Rabbi Goldberg’s agenda? Making the high school admissions process easier. “I spoke to a number of principals and spoke about the need for everyone to find a placement without the need to go through a shameful process. We are interested in playing that role,” said Rabbi Schiowitz.

Rabbi Schiowitz explained that individual rabbis in the vaad have tried to help to make high school admissions processes smoother for individuals, but “it could be that the RCBC could help by being a neutral party for kids who face obstacles getting an admission.” Rabbi Larry Rothwachs has spearheaded this project since its inception, Rabbi Schiowitz explained.

Rabbi Rothwachs, who is stepping down as the RCBC’s vice president, shared that “RCBC rabbis have been working closely together with our local heads of school to establish a set of guidelines and principles which will refine and enhance the admissions process. We all share the desire to see the continued success of each individual institution, while simultaneously facilitating and securing the religious, educational and social success of all of our children,” he told The Jewish Link.

As a trained CPA, Rabbi Schiowitz also looks forward to working on budgetary matters within the RCBC and creating a more transparent process, though he shared that the vaad’s profits are used to offset the costs of its conversion beit din, which covers multiple counties in the region, including all of Bergen and some towns in Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. “The reasonable costs we charge for kashrut supervision, which are much more affordable than a national kosher agency, make the beit din self-sustaining, requiring no community contributions,” he said. Approximately 20 individuals join the conversion process each year, and it’s a two-year process requiring frequent check-ins and discussions, meaning that 40 people are generally in the process of conversion with the RCBC at any one time. “With funding from the kashrut program, it’s good that no one in the community has ever been asked to contribute toward a geirus fundraiser,” he said.

On that note, to make local kosher establishments and its supervision more economically feasible and profitable, Rabbi Schiowitz shared that the RCBC, under Rabbi Poupko’s guidance for the last two years, has been working with the Kof-K and the OU to update its supervisory operations. “The Kof-K is helping us get better in a lot of ways. They have more technology, more apps; the Kof-K developed an app for visiting stores, creating very good records, and you can file notes about the visit. We are in a new cooperative arrangement with them which is very beneficial, especially as we are meeting the increasing demands of the growing market of kosher food in Bergen County,” Rabbi Schiowitz explained.

Rabbi Poupko, as immediate past president of the RCBC, will stay on for the next term as treasurer of the vaad, in order to see the kashrut program through to its next iteration, with Rabbi Ari Zahtz also staying on in the same post as vice president for kashrut. Rabbis Poupko and Zahtz, along with Rabbi Rothwachs, have been working on this project with intense concentration, so much so that the RCBC didn’t have much bandwidth to pursue other community-minded projects over the last two years. “The vaad is made up of all the Orthodox rabbis in Bergen County and we oversee the kashrut program as volunteers. It was taking a toll on us, operationally and financially, and it definitely needed an upgrade,” Rabbi Poupko explained.

“We are basically hiring the Kof-K as subcontractors to help us getting better organized and efficient in our operations. The operators of the Kof-K, the Senters, are local and have strong ties in Bergen County and felt that this was a way for them to give back,” Rabbi Poupko said.

“Nothing is changed in terms of our kashrut supervision at our restaurants or businesses, which are all aware of the operational changes; these are temporary as we figure out how to better staff the kashrut portion of our operation. Along with the involvement of the OU, we are benefitting from the Kof-K’s abilities to bolster the RCBC’s kosher operations for the future,” said Rabbi Poupko.

Addressing Disputes

When Rabbi Schiowitz was elected president of the RCBC on November 15, he was looking forward to a term that would be filled with service to the broader Bergen County Orthodox community in ways “that would enhance our religious and communal lives.” However, right away, things took a tricky turn involving a hot-button topic, he recalled.

Rabbi Schiowitz brokered the passage of a resolution altering the RCBC bylaws, effective beginning in September 2019, that would codify the group’s opposition to women serving as clergy. This updated the RCBC bylaws based on current OU and RCA policy regarding acceptable roles for women in synagogues.

The agreement was noteworthy in that the outcome did not provide any single entity with all that they wanted, but it was something that everyone could live with for the time being. “Everyone compromised for the sake of communal harmony and unity,” said Rabbi Schiowitz, noting that the change in the bylaws required and received a two-third majority for passage.

“The RCBC is committed to an unwavering fealty to halacha,” explained Rabbi Goldberg. We are also committed to ensuring harmony between shuls and community leaders. The compromise we reached does a good job of managing our different priorities.”

A Preference for ‘Collaborative Projects Based on Consensus’

Rabbi Schiowitz expressed a dilemma here so often present with leaders, which is that to speak out and take many positions on issues can place limits on who will support you, and in some cases it’s better to allow for a broad range of viewpoints by not making as many public statements. The need to make a bylaw change came about organically, but is likely not a harbinger of things to come during Rabbi Schiowitz’s tenure. In fact, collaborative projects based on consensus are more his speed, and in fact are present as well already in the work he did to promote a unified policy on vaccination. However, he added that there are limits to what the RCBC should do in this regard, noting that the community should not look to or expect the RCBC to make statements on most or every community issue.

“I don’t want to set the agenda for the whole community. Why does the RCBC have to take a stand on everything?” he asked. “Perhaps we can share a vaad even if we disagree about fundamental issues of Orthodoxy. But perhaps we cannot,” he mused, noting that while the vaccine letter was met with approval in all quarters, the women clergy compromise elicited a more complex, nuanced reaction.

“But the very last thing that I hope to achieve in my tenure is to fracture the community. I very much hope that we will be able to remain unified. Perhaps further compromises in the future are necessary and will enable this in the coming years.”