Kelly Toledano is proud of her Jewish heritage. Like many observant tribe members, the 26-year-old Owings Mills resident regularly celebrates Shabbat, keeps kosher and attends synagogue.
But growing up in France, Toledano felt she had to hide her religious identity, at least in public circles, because of what she felt was a growing number of anti-Semitic incidents. That, in part, prompted her family to immigrate in 1999 to the United States, where they settled in Boca Raton, Fla.
Although Toledano had to overcome language and cultural barriers, she made herself feel right at home in her new surroundings. As a child, she helped her father and a group of his friends establish Bircat Shalom Congregation for the Sephardic community.
Just last year, she traded in her sandals for snow boots and moved to Baltimore to start her business, QDRO Solutions, and to further expand her Jewish identity. Welcomed with open arms, Toledano worships at Chabad of Downtown and B’nai Israel Synagogue, volunteers at Jewish Community Services and is active with the Friends of Israel Defense Forces Midatlantic Region.
A lawyer and certified mediator, Toledano specializes in helping separated and divorced couples divide their retirement benefits under what is known as a qualified domestic relations order.
What led your family to come to the United States?
We came because my parents were business owners. It became very hard for people like them to own businesses in France, because the laws changed to subsidize the people who were unemployed. So business owners had to pay a lot of taxes. Also, anti-Semitism started to grow, and although it wasn’t as publicized as it is now, you could see what was happening. A lot of Jews were — and continue to be — targeted because of their spiritual beliefs. It’s really heartbreaking to see so many being forced to flee to other countries.
Are there any cultural differences?
It’s very different. In America, if you’re Jewish, it’s a big deal. In France, Jews are very secluded. For the most part, Jewish people only hang out with other Jewish people. When Jews are with other people who are not Jews, they specifically don’t identify that they are Jewish. Every time I go back to Paris to see my family, I eat at kosher restaurants, but I’m very careful. I don’t wear any necklaces with Hebrew words on them that could show that I’m Jewish, because you’re scared.
Have you had a chance to visit Israel?
Yes. I have been there many times. It’s so spiritually pleasing to be in a place where you know everybody understands you because you all share the same background. Can you imagine the one place in the world where you can go and most of the people share the same religion and values as you?
How would you describe Jewish life in Baltimore?
I was very pleased when I moved here. I learned a lot about the opportunities for young professionals for the holidays, for Shabbat and for other things. I hadn’t celebrated Purim from being outside my family for years until I moved to Baltimore. That was a huge deal to me.
How have you gotten involved in the community?
I go to almost all the young Jewish professional dinners with Chabad of Downtown and try to recruit a lot of people to go. I really think it’s a great experience to be with other people who are like you and get to have Shabbat. For me, there’s nothing better. I do Shabbat dinner every Friday night and have hosted two dinners through OneTable. Usually, I’ll have about 20 people come to my house. I cook, make everything and set up the food buffet style. I’m also a part of FIDF Young Leadership, so I get tickets to events and donate that way.
Talk about your work.
I wanted to open my own firm. What I do is a niche. I specialize in splitting retirement accounts after divorce. My specialty within my specialty is that I split a lot of military pensions and government plans, so I wanted to be in an area where there is a lot of government employees. I’m also a mediator, so I really want to be someone in the Jewish community who helps people.