April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Disparate Acts, Over Decades, Lead to Enriched Jewish Lives

On an early summer Sunday morning in 1972, George Blank attended a lecture given by a young, red-headed rabbi named Adin Steinsaltz at Temple Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Bridgewater, New Jersey. In 2004, and again in 2008, MD&DI (Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry) magazine identified George as one of the 100 most notable people in the medical device industry. He has become a prominent lay leader in the New York and New Jersey Jewish communities. George was so taken by the lecture that Sunday morning that he had an urge the next morning to put on tefillin. He hasn’t stopped doing so every day since.

As the years went by, and George was becoming a leader in the Central New Jersey community, he convinced Dr. Kenneth and Susan Kunzman to join him on a UJA mission to Israel. The year was 1991 and this was their first time visiting the country. The trip made a deep impression upon them and, upon their return, they convinced their 16-year-old daughter, Jill, to go on the March of the Living. That trip changed her life, as she later spent time living in Israel, became more Jewishly knowledgeable and observant, married and, eventually, ended up working with her husband on programs that enrich Jewish life in Central Jersey (not far from Bridgewater, New Jersey).

One of the initiatives that Jill and her husband created and ran brought students of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s hesder yeshiva to different Jewish communities to enhance their programming. The Blanks were introduced to this program by their daughter, Leslie Ostrin, and became one of its benefactors. As a result of their support, and becoming more familiar with the work of Rabbi Steinsaltz, they were formally introduced to the rabbi who was searching for benefactors to commission the different Talmud tractates that were being published in English with his translation and commentary.

George and Harriet Blank agreed to commission a tractate and asked which one does the rabbi recommend. He answered that tractate Yoma made sense since their families were killed in the Holocaust, therefore, “it’s worthy to commission a tractate dedicated to the holiest day of the year to the holiest people that lived.”

During this time, the Steinsaltz students were working at the Highland Park Conservative Temple, enhancing the youth and adult programming. A member of that temple was Michael Beberman, who befriended the young Steinsaltz students. Michael grew up in a Jewish-oriented home, married a woman who converted and had three children, Jonah, Sydney and Isaac.

When Michael turned 50, he inquired who was the director of the Steinsaltz student outreach program and reached me. I am the husband of Jill (now Esther) Kunzman (now Greene) and I was working as the director of teen initiatives at the Greater MetroWest Jewish federation and running the Steinsaltz student program on the side. He told me that he never studied Talmud and he would like to start as a birthday present to himself. We decided to study Tractate Yoma in honor of the Blanks’ commission.

We have been studying the tractate for over five years. During this time, the Bebermans have become more Jewishly observant and knowledgeable. Following her brother, Jonah, Sydney Beberman, the teenage daughter of Michael and Roz, became a leader in the NCSY local chapter and president of her public-school Jewish club called JSU (the Jewish Student Union). She participated in TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey, the four-week summer trip to Israel for public school teens run by NCSY), TJJ Ambassadors and Yarchei Kallah (a Torah-learning retreat for public school teens) amongst a myriad of other NCSY programs. All of these programs are generously supported by NCSY donors who don’t usually know the teens participating, their circumstances and the impact they have.

Upon Sydney’s high school graduation in June of 2019, she decided, with the encouragement of NCSY staff and peers, to study in Israel for the year at the Machon Maayan seminary. Once more, the NCSY donors were approached and after a collaborative effort with other community organizations and the seminary itself, sufficient funds were raised to help send Sydney to Israel.

Two Conservative temples, the March of the Living program, different Jewish Federations, Rabbi Steinsaltz and his institutions, NCSY, Machon Maayan and individual supporters. Different Jewish communal organizations (unknowingly) collaborating over a period of almost 50 years and produced the following remarkable result.

Leading up to this past Shavuot, Michael and I finished up studying Tractate Yoma while Sydney celebrated her in-depth study of the book of Ruth, the prototypical conversion story, before the Torah reading at Machon Maayan in Israel. Sydney can now study Torah independently and she will be returning to the seminary for a second year.

At present, I am the NCSY director of Central New Jersey, and that job entails encouraging people to ask meaningful questions and make impactful life-changing actions, especially with regard to their own Jewish journey. Rarely do I, or anyone else involved in these types of matters, get to witness the impact that we have.

We were recently allowed this glimpse.

Something here is working. Sometimes I am concerned about how all of our efforts actually make a difference in people’s lives. But, as we can see with this story and sequence of events, when many institutions and individuals keep their eyes on the prize, impact happens and people’s lives do indeed change.


Rabbi Shmuel Greene is the NCSY director of Central and Southern New Jersey. As a passionate and devoted Jewish educator, constantly striving to empower Jews of all backgrounds to connect to and enjoy the richness of Jewish living, Rabbi Greene has served the Jewish community as director of education at Rutgers Hillel, director of teen initiatives at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life at The Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation, and director of The Steinsaltz Ambassadors program.

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