Author Archives: Ebony Brown

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The Freedom Summer of 1964

Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

At the Freedom Summer anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., the activists who registered black voters and taught in Freedom Schools under the threat of violence 50 years ago stood up to introduce themselves.

It took three hours to hear what they did in the Magnolia State back in 1964 and have gone on to do in the half-century since.

“Almost everyone had a social justice connection,” said Heather Booth, who went to Mississippi as a college freshman from New York before moving on to a career as a nationally prominent liberal activist. “The former volunteers went on to work as teachers, environmental activists and in the field of health care.”

Organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Freedom Summer sent mostly white college students to Mississippi to confront the violent racism in the state.

In the summer of 1964, some 1,500 volunteers worked registering blacks to vote, teaching in Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.

Jews were represented among the young civil rights volunteers in numbers far exceeding their share of the population.

Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” said that like other SNCC activists, Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers were motivated by a desire to hold the country to its full promise of democracy. Many were inspired as well by their Jewish and often left-leaning backgrounds.

“Among particularly ‘Jewish’ motivations, we can cite: an identification with another racialized people and a passion for racial justice, born of the
recent experience with the Holocaust,” Schultz said.

Booth said that she came to Mississippi a year after visiting Israel, where she made a commitment at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice. Schultz noted that her synagogue had funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest.

The first days of Freedom Summer saw the murder of three civil rights workers — Jewish New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney, who had been investigating the burning of a black church. During the weeks-long search for the workers, the bodies of eight murdered black men were found in the Mississippi countryside before the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s remains.

Tension and danger lurked throughout the summer.

There were another four people critically wounded, 80 activists beaten, 1,000 arrests, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned.

Booth recalls feeling frightened all the time that summer.

“But it was also very exhilarating,” Booth said. “There were nightly meetings at black churches, with a lot of singing.”

In Shaw, Miss., where blacks were neglected, Booth said she felt honored that her hosts generously gave up their beds for her and three other volunteers.

“In the black part of town, there were no toilets, no sewers and no street lights,” Booth said.

Booth continued her activism after Freedom Summer. She became involved in the women’s movement, founding Jane, an underground abortion counseling and referral service in Chicago. She went on to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform. She also coordinated grassroots efforts to win passage of President Obama’s first budget.

Based in Washington, D.C., she currently consults for and advises a variety of liberal advocacy groups.

At the anniversary conference in late June, Booth was one of more than 200 former Freedom Summer volunteers in attendance. They met with nearly 2,000 younger activists.

Larry Rubin, a veteran labor movement activist who came to the reunion from Takoma Park, Md., worked on the SNCC staff as a young man from 1961 to 1965, first in southwest Georgia. In early 1964, he went to Mississippi to set up the infrastructure for Freedom Summer.

Rubin said that when he trucked donated books to the Freedom Schools, he was pulled over, roughed up and arrested by police who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. (But when he came back to Mississippi later as a labor organizer, he recalled, a policeman who had once threatened to kill him if he ever again showed his face in his town praised his efforts to unionize a local business.)

When local blacks faced harassment, he said, all the civil rights workers could do was offer to report it to the federal government.

Rubin left the SNCC in 1965 as it was turning toward Black Power and whites were being pushed out of the organization. Rubin recalls feeling a sense of relief, like he was dismissed and could go home.

He returned to university studies to learn more about his Eastern European Jewish roots, just as the Black Power movement was encouraging African-Americans to embrace their heritage.

Rubin, who grew up in Philadelphia, said his civil rights work was influenced by his parents, who taught him to fight for social justice because of what his grandparents went through fleeing Europe.

But while many volunteers were Jewish, their backgrounds were not necessarily at the forefront within the movement.

“In the 1960s we didn’t discuss being Jewish, and we didn’t bring up our motivation for getting involved in the movement,” Rubin said. “There was no space to discuss Jewishness.”

Bob Moses, the well-known black civil rights leader and Freedom Summer organizer, said that he was not aware at the time of participants’ Jewish identities.

“I didn’t know if Freedom Summer people were Jewish,” he said.

At the anniversary gathering, however, it was a topic of discussion, with a breakout session focused on Jewish participation. Also, concurrent with the reunion, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life organized events on Jewish involvement in civil rights and social justice activism.

Freedom Summer volunteer Annie Popkin said her family was very aware of discrimination because her father was shut out of Harvard Medical School due to quotas that limited the numbers of Jewish students. At times her family embraced their Jewishness. Other times they turned away from it, seeing it as a painful liability, she said.

She said she was “so ready to go” south when organizers recruited students like her at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.

Popkin started early in her activism. When she was 12 or 13, Popkin said, her mother took her to a picket line to demand fair housing in her hometown on New York’s Long Island after a black family who moved into the white section had their house burned.

Later, in ninth grade, she and a friend organized pickets of Woolworth’s in New York City in support of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. Once when she was picketing, Popkin said, a woman shouted at her, “You’ll make my husband lose his job, and that’s not nice of you!”

“I realized I was not going to be a nice 1950s girl,” Popkin said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., where she works as a counselor.

By the time of her Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had already disappeared. Freedom Summer organizers feared the worst.

But Popkin remembers feeling optimistic as hundreds of black and white SNCC volunteers locked arms, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“Just imagine if everyone in the country could feel this spirit and see this vision. Wouldn’t people want to end segregation?” she recalled thinking.

Popkin calls her optimism naive.

“It was so moving to be part of the embodied vision of beloved community we were creating in working together, singing together, risking our lives together, believing together,” she said. “We knew what was right, and we spent our days and nights organizing for it.”

She went to Vicksburg, Miss., where she gathered signatures for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She witnessed the threats and reprisals — economic and physical — that kept blacks from attempting to register to vote.

“We got to see the strong consequences of what we were doing,” Popkin said.

Popkin, who went on to become involved in the women’s movement and teach women’s studies at various universities, pointed to the value of recalling the experiences of rank-and-file civil rights activists like her.

“There’s been a media emphasis on leaders in the civil rights movement and not the individuals who participated,” Popkin said. “All of our stories can be inspiration. If we could make change at 18, 19, 20, so can others today.”

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Family Owned & Proud of It

Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)

Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)

For most people, a bad day at the office might involve bad coffee, an angry customer or a tidal wave of emails. For the Levinson family, all of that pales in comparison to burying a child, something it does on a relatively regular basis.

“There’s no room for mistakes here,” said Matt Levinson, the fifth generation of Levinsons to enter the business.

At a time when large corporations dominate the funeral industry, Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home is a rarity. When Matt joined the staff full time in 2005, the business entered into rare company. A 2012 USA Today article cited estimates that out of the 5 million family businesses in the U.S., one in three is operated by the second generation. Only one in every 500 is sixth-generation run.

While Levinson’s has become a Baltimore institution over the century it has existed, the situation is different elsewhere.

The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the employment of funeral service workers will grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, and revenue, which has been steadily increasing across the industry, is expected to increase to $16.2 billion by the end of 2014. But while the funeral industry has been gaining steam, the number of funeral homes in the United States has been gradually declining. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, the number of homes registered with the National Directory of Morticians Redbook slipped by more than 2,200.

Part of the reason behind the decrease might be the growth of large funeral service companies that often purchase privately owned funeral homes and cemeteries, forcing regional competitors out or merging smaller businesses together.

Waves were made 40 miles south in the fall when Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral service provider, sought to acquire Stewart Enterprises, the country’s second-largest funeral service provider.

At the center of the unrest in Washington was the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home of Silver Spring, which was owned by Stewart Enterprises and had a contract with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee that ensured the availability of low-cost funerals to those who requested it. The community feared that SCI would not renew the contract, and the cost of burying a loved one would skyrocket. The merger has since been permitted by the Federal Trade Commission on the condition that the new combined company sell off 91 of its locations.

Elsewhere, SCI has gained a reputation for complaints of deceptive sales tactics, desecration of graves and mishandling remains of the deceased, according to a July 2014 Philadelphia Inquirer article that cited lawsuit settlements of $14 million, $80 million and $100 million in California and Florida.

Also read, “How much does a funeral cost?”

In the 1990s, the Levinsons say, SCI tried to purchase the funeral home, but the Baltimore community convinced the family to decline the offer.

“We’re proud to still be family owned,” said Matt, adding that not a lot of communities have the option of a family-owned Jewish funeral home available to them anymore when they find themselves having to bury a loved one.

Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz has officiated funerals all over the mid-Atlantic but said Sol Levinson sets the bar on Jewish funeral services.

“Levinson’s is the cream of the crop,” said Schwartz. Going to other funeral homes after working with Levinson’s, he added, is “like a different world.”

A major part of why the family’s business has been so successful, Schwartz speculates, in addition to the professionalism the company brings to every occasion, is how involved the Levinsons are in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“In Baltimore you have the whole dynamic of everybody in the Jewish community knowing everybody else,” said Schwartz. “There’s something nice about it, and when you go into Levinson’s, they know your family, probably. It’s that sense of community.”

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New Lease on Life

Not many people who battle drug addiction and Hepatitis C live to tell about it. Yet, 62-year-old Baltimorean and former county drug czar Mike Gimbel fought and conquered both.

Mike Gimbel, a Hepatitis C survivor, battled back from heroin addiction (below, when he was admitted to rehab) to a 25-year career as director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse. (Photos provided)

Mike Gimbel, a Hepatitis C survivor, battled back from heroin addiction (below, when he was admitted to rehab) to a 25-year career as director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse. (Photos provided)

Gimbel, a former heroin addict, spent his teenage years leading a double life. By day, he was a typical Jewish boy from Pikesville. By night, he was scouring the streets of Baltimore for drugs. Nearly bankrupting his family, Gimbel spent about $250 a day to satisfy his drug habit.

“I had no idea what long-term damage I was doing to my body,” he said. “To be honest, I’m lucky I made it to 20.”

After several near-death overdoses, his parents convinced him to admit himself to Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, Calif. “I was so far gone that I overdosed on the airplane to the treatment center,” he said. “My dad is my Schindler. He, along with my mom, saved my life and gave me a second chance.”

Gimbel returned home sober seven years later and quickly made a name in the drug-prevention world. Transformed from Jewish junkie to drug czar, Gimbel became the first director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse in 1980 and served for 25 years. Despite nearly 43 years of sobriety and a career in drug prevention, Gimbel feared that repercussions from his drug abuse would steal years away from his life. A doctor’s diagnosis confirmed those fears.

In 1998, Gimbel learned he had contracted Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles during his years of drug use. Though he had no physical symptoms, his liver enzyme levels were rapidly increasing. He enlisted the help of gastroenterologist Anurag Maheshwari at Mercy Medical Center to carefully monitor his health until the right treatment came along.

“It was like playing Russian roulette,” said Gimbel. “I wanted to bet my chances and hold off for the best cure possible. In July, Dr. Maheshwari told me about a new drug being developed, Sovaldi. I asked him when it would be approved by the FDA. He told me Dec. 6, 2013. I made an appointment for Dec. 7.”

With an 80 to 90 percent cure rate, Sovaldi is a medical breakthrough for patients with Hepatitis C. Developed by an American biopharmaceutical company, Gilead, Sovaldi is an NS5B inhibitor, which means it prevents the Hepatitis C virus from replicating in the body’s RNA.

A single Hepatitis C virus can multiply up to a million copies in a day, but the drug can stop it from multiplying and ultimately cure the disease, said Maheshwari.

“For the first time, we have a treatment that cures Hepatitis C quickly and with fewer side effects,” said Maheshwari. “We always knew Hepatitis C is a curable disease, but Sovaldi is a potent inhibitor. In just 12 weeks of medication, patients are done with Hepatitis C for life.”

Sovaldi on its own will not cure Hepatitis C. For 12 weeks, Gimbel took one Sovaldi daily and two RibaPaks, an antiviral medication that reduces the amount of Hepatitis C virus in the body, and one weekly injection of PEGASYS, an interferon protein that augments the patient’s immune system. Within one month, his Hepatitis C was undetected in his blood work.

082214_hepatitis1“It is still surreal to me,” said Gimbel. “I still can’t believe it. They monitored my blood work for 12 more weeks once I went off Sovaldi. After all these years, I cannot believe [my Hepatitis C] is finally gone.”

However, Sovaldi comes at a steep cost.

Priced at $1,000 a pill, the total cost for Sovaldi is $84,000 for the prescribed 12-week period. Once patients add in costs for other medications and medical assistance, Hepatitis C treatment can easily top $150,000. Not all patients can afford treatment; Gimbel’s insurance covered his costs.

In 1991, Joel Bernstein was doing his job as a physician’s assistant at Sinai Hospital.

“With one simple needle cutting my thumb, I got stuck with Hepatitis C,” said Bernstein. Since then he needed and received a liver transplant, endured fevers of more than 105 degrees and suffered from general bad health. Bernstein has been unemployed since 1998 due to the disease.

Bernstein cannot afford insurance that would cover the costs: “It is hard knowing there is a magic pill to cure me but that I cannot get it,” he said. “I do not have the funds to cover $1,000 a pill.”

It is no surprise to Maheshwari that Sovaldi comes with such a large price tag. “They have a short window of time where they have a monopoly,” he said. “There are similar medications being developed to Sovaldi that will be approved later this year. As the competition heats up, the price will go down.”

Bernstein hopes to raise money to fund his treatment despite its high cost.

“My Hepatitis C is active and progressive,” said Bernstein. “It is a full-body disease and affects all aspects of my health. If I could cure my Hepatitis C, it would be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I would frame my blood results and bow down to them every night.”

More than three million Americans suffer from Hepatitis C. Passed through blood transmission, Hepatitis C can be spread by sharing needles and sexual contact, among other ways. Nicknamed the silent disease, Hepatitis C can lie undetected for decades without proper testing.

According to a United States Health and Human Services’ 2011 report, 65 to 75 percent of infected Americans remain unaware of their Hepatitis C status. Conversely, Hepatitis C has surpassed HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplantation in the country.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” said Gimbel. “If I had not gotten tested, I never would have known I had it. I especially encourage the baby boomers, individuals born between 1945 and 1964, to get screened because that generation makes up more than 75 percent of Hepatitis C victims.”

Maheshwari also emphasized the importance of getting tested and raising awareness about Hepatitis C.

“We come across patients who either do not know that they have it or feel like they have to live with the disease forever,” he said. “Hepatitis C is a curable disease, and there is no reason to live with it for the rest of your life. With new medical breakthroughs like Sovaldi, you can get cured in 12 weeks.”

For Gimbel, access to Sovaldi has been like a new lease on life.

“I feel like I’ve cheated death twice, said Gimbel. “I was lucky enough to survive my heroin addiction, but I never thought I would be cured of Hepatitis C. I always figured I would need a liver transplant or die of liver disease. It is a medical miracle.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

Which Rally Did You Go To?

The Jewish Times’ Aug. 7 article, “Baltimoreans Rally over Gaza” says that hundreds of people showed up. As the first one there at 3:30 p.m. and leaving after Mincha and tehillim at around 8 p.m., I saw a different reality. With plenty of video and pictures to prove the point, and having spoken to the police unofficially, you can be sure that there were a minimum of 1,000 or 1,500 people rallying for Israel, far outnumbering the pro-Palestinians. If I had not been there myself but read the article, I would not have known of the enthusiasm, the spirit and the breathtaking love for Israel displayed by young and old. It was a major Kiddush Hashem. The police, under the leadership of Lt. Col. Melissa Hyatt, respected both sides and did an extraordinary job, above and beyond.

Frank Storch
Pikesville

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In It Together

Nadav Korman (middle left) and Andy Sokal (middle right) pose with their  instructor, Jennifer Lake, and Lake’s  father, the founder of CSA, Douglas Lake, after receiving their black belts. Below: Sokal and Korman test for their black belts at he Owings Mills JCC. (Photos Provided)

Nadav Korman (middle left) and Andy Sokal (middle right) pose with their
instructor, Jennifer Lake, and Lake’s
father, the founder of CSA, Douglas Lake, after receiving their black belts. Below: Sokal and Korman test for their black belts at he Owings Mills JCC. (Photos Provided)

History was made last Sunday at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center when two martial arts students tested and achieved their black belts in karate.

After more than a decade of study, practice and hard work, Nadav Korman, 18, and Andy Sokal, 23, completed the final stage of their testing Sunday morning with friends and family looking on.

“It was the greatest experience,” said Korman.

“It was really awesome and unique,” added Sokal.

Both men began their journey to the black belt level around age 10. For Korman, it was a way to learn how to defend himself against school bullies and get active. For Sokal, it was a way to learn life skills that could help him cope with his autism.

Korman’s parents signed him up at the age of 8 after trying unsuccessfully to get him involved in other sports and to combat lower school bullying, which got so bad that he suffered a broken back after being shoved down some stairs. Through it all, karate offered Korman an outlet and a group of friends he could rely on.

082214_blackbelt2Sokal began lessons at 10 years old. He took a liking to the sport from the start, he said, and the opportunity to teach it, which both have done for years, has only grown his love of karate.

“I’m really proud of it,” he said of being able to teach young students.

Their teacher, Jennifer Lake, head instructor at the Comprehensive Survival Arts (CSA) Martial Arts and Wellness School at the JCC, couldn’t think of a time when she had been more proud of any of her students.

“It was really emotional for me,” she said of watching the pair complete the final part of their test last weekend. “It was the culmination of years of hard work.”

That work involved getting to the karate studio at about 6:45 every morning to work out until students arrived for lessons, which they taught. After classes were over for the day, the pair would put in another half hour of practice before heading home. They also incorporated running, tai chi, kickboxing and other training into their own workouts to improve their strength and stamina.

For Lake and CSA, it was the first time in six years that the program gave out a black belt. For the younger kids in the classes, Korman and Sokal are an inspiration, she said. But while the final test showed off both men’s mastery of the physical skills involved in karate, they said the accompanying mental and emotional benefits of years of karate were, in some ways, even more gratifying than the ability to precisely execute each move.

At the end of this month, Korman will leave Baltimore for yeshiva in Beit Shmesh, where he knows no one. As part of his schooling, he must give back to the community in some way, so he plans to teach karate to underprivileged children. Though he’ll have to start over in a new place, the ability to spend a portion of his time in a familiar setting doing what he loves makes him more confident.

For Sokal, the nest stage involves swapping his sweats for business attire, as he begins to search for a job in the computer science industry. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Towson University in the spring and said karate has given him the confidence to approach the workforce head-on. Because of karate, he said, he no longer fears public speaking, and he has the self-assuredness he needs to approach job interviews with confidence.

“[Having a black belt] is a good thing to put on a resume; it shows that you have discipline and you can work hard whenever they ask you to,” he said, adding that a few stripes on the new black belt might also look nice.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com