Synagogues Team Up for Election Series

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands after their first presidential debate, which was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands after their first presidential debate, which was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

With Election Day closing in, Beth Am Synagogue, Beth Israel Congregation, Beth El Congregation and Chizuk Amuno Congregation have collaborated to put on a lecture series that explores the polarizing campaigns of presidential candidates Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton through a Jewish lens.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who leads the Beth Am Synagogue of more than 500 families, said the necessity to start such a program was two-fold. The idea was to develop a project that had particular relevance to the election and to work with a respected Jewish institution in Yeshivat Hadar, a liberal yeshiva in New York, to execute that.

“This election season has been so divisive,” Burg said, “and to be able to bring a sense of broader responsibility within the Jewish community is a great counterpoint to some of the rhetoric we have seen.”

Sponsored in part by the Baltimore Jewish Council, the four-part series, “Debate and Decision: Thinking About the Election with Jewish Values,” kicked off on Oct. 20 at Beth El with Rabbi Shai Held, a teacher at Mechon Hadar yeshiva, leading a discussion at Beth El. Rabbai Aviva Richman, a faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar, presented a talk at Beth Am on Oct. 27, discussing whether it’s possible, wrong or imperative for political enemies to creative community harmony. There are two remaining sessions.

This has to do with the well-being of our community and how our votes fit into that narrative.

— Howard Libit, BJC executive director

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, said the sessions have less to do with Trump’s or Clinton’s candidacy but more with personal reflection and shared values among Jewish people.

“This has to do with the well-being of our community and how our votes fit into that narrative,” Libit said. “It gives us an opportunity to think more broadly and deeply about the election beyond what we see on TV or read in the newspaper.”

The final two discussions, at Beth Israel on Nov. 3 and Chizuk Amuno on Nov. 16, will sandwich Election Day on Nov. 8, giving ample time for the participating rabbis to digest the results.

Burg, Beth Israel Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Beth El Senior Rabbi Steve Schwartz, Chizuk Amuno Rabbi Ron Shulman and Dr. Neil Rubin of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University will dissect the results in a panel discussion, capping what figures to be an eventful election cycle.

“About a little more than a week after the election, we’ll be able to digest what we have learned from the election,” Libit said. “It’s not a postmortem on getting out to vote or which candidate did a better job, but I think a lot will center on the tone and the nature of how the election went.”

Outside of rabbinical assembly meetings and board of rabbi meetings, the four conservative synagogues don’t often team up for programs, Burg said. During his six years as rabbi at Beth Am, Burg said this is the first time he can recall the four Conservative synagogues coming together in such a capacity.

Moving forward, Burg hopes it’s a relationship that can continue to grow and blossom when fundamental political and social issues present themselves to the public.

“It’s exciting to be able to do something like this just because we haven’t really done much of anything like this before,” Burg said. “I think this is something that we can explore doing more of in the future.”

For more information about these free events, visit

Fashion! Turn to the Left

Synchronicity Boutique (Photo by David Stuck)

Synchronicity Boutique (Photo by David Stuck)

One crucial aspect of the b’nai mitzvah ceremony, not to mention post-party, is looking the part.

“Thirteen is a very tricky age,” Synchronicity Boutique owner Karen Mazer said, amplifying her observation with the notion that in outfitting both younger and older persons alike, she and her staff have all manner of considerations to deal with in assuring their customers — whether bat mitzvahs, parents, aunts, siblings — are satisfied.

“Girls do not want to dress like little girls, and women do not want to dress like old ladies,” Mazer, who opened her store in 2003, said. She laughed at the dichotomy extant that “kids can’t wait to be 21, and adults want to stay 29.”

Hence, the importance of Mazer’s store having dresses that “appeal to just about every woman of every age, shape, size and budget” for every occasion, be they bat mitzvahs or any other “happy occasion.”

Though Mazer said her store does focus more on adults than children, she added that there’s a great deal of care that must be put into outfitting a younger person. Sudden physical changes are certainly an issue — hence her urging customers to buy their bat mitzvah dress no more than three months in advance.

She also suggested a dress with a corseted back for bat mitzvahs and a similarly functioning corset for mothers, aunts and grandparents alike.

Permitting a young woman whose shape and size is in flux over the course of a short amount of time to tighten or loosen up her dress easily is ideal for comfort, and, similarly, lace in the back of a dress for a mom or another more mature woman will allow for “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative” accordingly, as Mazer tactfully put it.

For every occasion, the happy and special part should be starting at my store. It should be fun.
— Karen Mazer, owner, Synchronicity Boutique

The right dress also depends on other elements involved: whether the ceremony will take place in a synagogue or not; whether it takes place at night or in the morning; whether there’s a party immediately after or not; and the various dress requirements depending on denominational observation.

“The universal themes are that shoulders must be covered,” Mazer said. “Which is something a lot of rabbis have urged us to emphasize for mothers; something that should be considered for themselves as well as their daughters.”

Mazer went on to say that rabbis have additionally requested that mothers and daughters remember the all-important proposition that the ceremony should not be the first time a young woman wears heels.

“They’re going to be on the bimah for a long time and march around with the Torah, and you don’t want them wobbling or falling,” Mazer pointed out.

Cohen’s Clothiers (Photo provided)

Cohen’s Clothiers (Photo provided)

Of course, suitable length of the dress is needful too. Mazer suggests that her customers sit on a chair in front of a mirror with their chosen dress on and make sure they’re comfortable … but also not unintentionally revealing more than they’d like in so doing.

“Now, this doesn’t mean the dress has to be down to the ankles,” Mazer said, laughing.

Given all of these particulars — height/build/synagogue requirements/ time of day/colors/themes, etc. — Mazer said her staff and she “find as close to what the person is looking for as possible, usually quite successfully.”

Jan’s Boutique’s Paul Virilli agrees that customers generally have an idea of what they want before they come to his store (in New Jersey, a two-hour drive from Baltimore).

“Most people have images of dresses on their phone,” Virilli said. “Customers are looking online. They know what they want; they’ve been shopping around.”

“People come to us from Delaware, Washington and Maryland for a reason,” Virilli said, boasting that his store happens to have the largest selection in the region.

“Once we know where the affair is going to be, whether it’s going to be fancy or casual, we can direct them. There’s also price points: Everyone has a different budget. Once we know what they’re looking for, we point them in the right direction.”

The right direction can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, as Mazer suggested in her observation of this being a “tricky” age to fit young people.

“The timetable is around puberty, and that’s when you have very significant growth spurts, especially in males,” Gilbert Cohen, third-generation owner of 112-year-old Cohen’s Clothiers, said.

“Males can explode in that 12- to 13-year-old range. What happens is if you get something too far ahead of time, you get to the bar mitzvah and you can’t even wear the garment.”

Cohen, who specializes in male sartorial effects, recommended boys wait no more than four to six weeks before the ceremony to purchase their suits. He added that his business offers a free, in-store alteration service “because most tailors don’t understand children.” So last-minute changes are not impossible to make, if needed.

Another challenge for Cohen beyond the typical budgetary and growth concerns on the part of parents is the fact that sometimes he must deal with “the maelstrom” that comes up when parents are no longer married and might be rather disputatious with one another about how they see the ceremony and outfit for their son’s bar mitzvah.

“When the parents are arguing, we have to satisfy both parties,” Virilli said. “We have to remember that we can’t leave the bar mitzvah boy in the middle of that, though.”

Virilli seemed unfazed by such challenges: “This is what we do, this is our game. We know what we’re doing here.”

At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about a magical experience for all involved, celebrating a critical transition in the life of these special young people.

“For every occasion, the happy and special part should be starting at my store,” Mazer said. “It should be fun.”

Getting the Party Started

© Merlini

Photo credit: © Merlini

There is an art to entertaining. Stand-up comedians need timing, warm-up guys need to be able to get a crowd excited without surpassing the main act. However, nothing surpasses the magic of the b’nai mitzvah emcee.

“You can bring someone in to play music, but we specialize in entertainment,” said Doug Sandler, who has DJ’ed nearly 2,000 bar and bat mitzvahs locally since he started entertaining under the name DJ Doug in 1984.

“We play plenty of games, but engagement is key,” he explained. “It’s not just engagement of the kids, it’s how we can get the kids and adults to play on the same page without alienating one group or the other and ending up with two separate parties.”

To say the least, the games he plays are innovative. He plays scooter hockey, has pyramid-building contests and uses toilet paper for mummy-wrap contests. Of course, traditional games are still commonplace. “People still love and request Coke and Pepsi; they have since it started in 1991,” Sandler said. “We do Simon Says. I didn’t invent it, but I’ve played it 2,500 times, so I think I’ve got it down.”

There are also all sorts of activities that engage kids and parents alike: for example, a musical scavenger hunt in which kids rush to retrieve items from members of the audience. And guests are sure to be entertained by watching two fathers rush to see who can give their kid a sock the quickest.

With today’s technology, there are also ways that you can do a geo-scavenger hunt, Sandler explained.

“It’s so easy to have plasma screens now that people want a lot of technology at their parties,” he said. “But whether you have all the tech in the world or you just have an emcee, the party is really about this celebration of an incredible milestone. It doesn’t have to be a keep-up-with-the-Joneses-type situation. You just have to make it so it’s fun for everybody at your event.”

In line with new technologies, a growing trend in the bar and bat mitzvah party scene is automated photo booths. David Hartzman, an event photographer for the Washington Talent Agency, explained: “We really try to keep with the new trends, and as far as upcoming and new stuff, photo booths have really blown up over the past two years.

“People think that they’re retro and cool in spite of them being much newer. We can fit 20 people in one booth as opposed to two. They’re also getting bigger because [they’re] more economical as far as novelties come. It’s not a photo station that involves a photographer and posing, although there is still an attendant at the booth to help out.”

According to Harzman, one booth has a giant, full-length “magic mirror.” If you walk past the mirror, it has a little animation that says “touch here to start,” which brings the display to life.

“It talks to you, it says smile for the camera, and you can even sign your own picture on the screen,” Hartzman said. “It’s very interactive. There are a lot of props for people to be slightly more dressed up or goofy for the photo booth.”

Of course, the music at a party is one of the most important elements. There are always the Top 40 hits, which kids love so much. According to DJ Doug, “Uptown Funk” has been the most requested song recently, while a few years ago it was the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Technology has completely changed the world of the DJ. If you don’t have a requested song, you can download it instantly.

“There’s such a huge overlap in the music that adults and kids like these days too,” Sandler said. “XM Radio brings the kids’ music to adults while video games bring ’80s music to kids. You can have 8,000 songs in your library, but if I have the 60 songs that I know will be a hit, I don’t need all of this huge collection.”

When it comes to the bar and bat mitzvah entertainment, there will always be new trends hand in hand with the classics. As Hartzman said, “People like seeing new things, and the people who come up with those new ideas, they are the ones who push parties to the next step above and beyond.”

Reflecting on Bar, Bat Mitzvah Experiences

Andy Hoffman (Photo provided)

Andy Hoffman (Photo provided)

Although it was more than 21 years ago, Andy Hoffman remembers his bar mitzvah party like it was yesterday.

Hoffman, 34, owner of Gourmet Again, celebrated with about 175 family and friends at the Woodholme Country in Pikesville, where the theme of the night was golf. Each table had a different professional golfer whom Hoffman admired at the time as the centerpiece, and there was a special room that featured hitting nets, long-drive contests and miniature golf for the kids.

“One of the best parts about that night was that a lot of the adults ended up in the kids’ room with all the golfing activities we had,” said Hoffman, a standout on the Towson University golf team from 2000 to 2004. “It was great to see all the kids trying to outdo the adults and vice versa in a good, competitive way.”

Simply put, the evening was a hole-in-one event for Hoffman, who basked in the glory after entering Jewish adulthood at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville hours earlier.

A bar or bat mitzvah is one of the most important days in a young boy’s or girl’s life. It marks a rite of passage for which a young Jewish boy or girl spends months, sometimes even years, preparing.

For Rebecca Ellison, who had her bat mitzvah service at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, her party was a “candy land dreamland.”

Ellison, 22, had a candy-themed affair, incorporating her favorite sugary treats into her centerpieces, food selections and candle lighting, among other things, at the now-defunct Chestnut Ridge Country Club in Lutherville.

“I always think it’s funny that everyone had a theme to their party,” Ellison said with a laugh. “We had giveaways at the end of my party, so everyone could take a candy bag home or make their own bag of candy.”

Perhaps more important than any extravagant celebration is the religious significance, which was not lost on either Hoffman or Ellison.

Rebecca Ellison (Photo provided)

Rebecca Ellison (Photo provided)

Hoffman, who said his mother didn’t have a bat mitzvah until she was about 50, studied under the watchful eye of his grandfather in addition to then Beth El Rabbi Mark Loeb.

Although one of the few things he can’t recall is his Haftarah portion, Hoffman came away with a greater understanding of what it mean to be Jewish by learning from the two men. His parents also provided him with overwhelming support at every turn, as he prepared for the big day.

“My mom was definitely into quizzing me and tutoring me as much she could with the Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “My grandfather also tutored me. He was old-school, semi-Conservadox, and he definitely played a large part in helping me as well.”

Ellison very much enjoyed her time at Beth Israel in Owings Mills, learning under the guidance of Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Cantor Roger Eisenberg and music teacher Doris Sugar.

Ellison studied her Haftarah portion, Shabbat Shel Rosh Chodesh, rigorously for a year-and-a-half with Sugar, ensuring she would be more than ready to lead her service as a single bat mitzvah (sometimes there were more than one b’nai mitzvah per service).

“If it wasn’t the longest Haftarah portions, it was definitely one of the longest,” Ellison said of the Shabbat Shel Rosh Chodesh. “I was a single bat mitzvah, so there was definitely a lot going on and a lot to take in as far as the studying went.”

Ellison, a development associate with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said she continues to incorporate a lot of what she learned in her bat mitzvah process.

“I was always dedicating — even if it was just one day a week — a lot of my time to Judaism and learning about my identity [at Beth Israel],” said Ellison, who graduated from Towson University this past spring with a degree in psychology. “I think that was something that was always consistent for me.”

You Should Know … Amy Bree Becker

Amy Bree Becker (Photo provided)

Amy Bree Becker (Photo provided)

“I think I’ve always been interested in political engagement and young people in particular,” said Amy Bree Becker, 38, in reference to her indomitable passion for the intersection between politics and popular culture.

Often focusing her incisive analysis on how comedy — specifically that in the realm of satire via cinema and such television shows as “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and recent election “coverage” (so to speak) by “Saturday Night Live” — might affect voter turnouts and decisions, for example, Becker writes commentary for such outlets as The Washington Post and while teaching communications courses at Loyola University Maryland.

Factors that particularly intrigue Becker in the political proscenium include how and why people are driven to feel as they do about political elections and the like, as well as how specific attributes of voter identity along the lines of gender and educational level may come into play.

Originally from Clark, N.J., Becker met her husband — computer scientist Andrew Goldberg — while working toward her Ph.D. in mass communications (with a dissertation on “political comedy”) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After receiving said doctorate in 2010, Becker and her husband moved to Maryland.

Becker taught as an assistant professor at Towson University in that same year until 2014, at which time she started as an assistant professor at Loyola.

Becker has two young children — a son and a daughter — who both attend preschool at Temple Isaiah, where her family have been members for the last year.

How did you end up getting involved in the study of politics and communication?

I was a political pollster before I went back to school. My parents called me “bug” as a kid because I was always asking questions. That was part of what got me into earning my Ph.D. I’m very interested in what happens when entertainment becomes political or when politics becomes entertainment. This does help young people learn about politics; there’s an idea here about comedy providing news information for people who might otherwise not pay attention.

As someone interested in identity, could you discuss your own connection to Judaism?

I am Reform and was raised as such. I’m really committed to being Reform. I really like Temple Isaiah. The rabbi is great, the school is great. It’s familiar in that it’s really similar to the temple I went to when I was growing up in New Jersey. I went to camps and to Israel and that kind of stuff growing up, and it was a pretty important part of my experience. Judaism hasn’t really been a focus of my work, but it has popped up a little, like when I did some studies on Jon Stewart and it came up more than I thought it would. There’s certainly a rich history of Jewish comedians doing satire, but I’m more interested in broader political effects.

Who are some of the specific television hosts you prefer to watch?

I like Colbert. I miss Jon Stewart. I don’t think [current “The Daily Show” host] Trevor Noah has quite filled Stewart’s shoes yet. Seth Meyers is doing some good coverage. Samantha Bee brings in a more diverse voice and perspective. Up until recently, there was just a whole crop of white male hosts, and so it’s a little groundbreaking with her there now too. John Oliver and she, their humor is a little more substantive, and they are kind of attracting more of a diverse audience than “The Daily Show,” which is younger, more male and liberal. Those watching Oliver are certainly liberal, but also an older, more sophisticated audience.

What is the general take on the political scene right now by your students?

The thing that has been really interesting to me is they’re all really disappointed. This is the first election they get to participate in, and they don’t really like either candidate. Some of my female students are excited about the possibility of the first woman president. But most of them, they’re upset about the rhetoric, how divisive and uncivil things have gotten.

The Challenges for Greek Jews Coming to Baltimore Post-Holocaust

Baltimore’s Greek Jewish community is a tight-knit one. Bottom row, from left: Louis Yohanas, Marla Yohanas, Soulamith Yohanas, Josephine Velelli Becker, Tilda Koulias Trattner, Esther Koulias Rauseo, Connie Velelli, Rachel Velelli Glaser, Jeannette Carasso Katzen and Lonnie Katzen. Top row, from left: Isaac Yohahas, Marcia Salis, Joe Salis, Steve Rauseo, Victor Velelli and Rick Glaser. (Provided)

Baltimore’s Greek Jewish community is a tight-knit one. Bottom row, from left: Louis Yohanas, Marla Yohanas, Soulamith Yohanas, Josephine Velelli Becker, Tilda Koulias Trattner, Esther Koulias Rauseo, Connie Velelli, Rachel Velelli Glaser, Jeannette Carasso Katzen and Lonnie Katzen. Top row, from left: Isaac Yohahas, Marcia Salis, Joe Salis, Steve Rauseo, Victor Velelli and Rick Glaser. (Provided)

In the immediate post-World War II years, the United States saw a massive influx of refugees from war-torn European nations. While typically the Jewish community looks to the European theater when addressing WWII, fewer are aware of the chaotic conditions in Greece at the time.

When the Greco-Italian War started in 1940, beginning the Balkan campaign of the war, Greek-Americans mobilized in support of Greece and garnered respect from the American public. However, the fall of Greece boded ill for many families, and Greek Jewry was in particularly dire straits. This week, the JT sat down with members of the Greek Jewish community in Baltimore to learn more about the conditions of Jews who immigrated to the United States during that time with the aid of the HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which partnered with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Columbus Day in 1956 fell on Oct. 12, and the day saw two of Baltimore’s enduring Greek Jewish families arrive on new shores: the Velelli family and the Yohanas family. Throughout the 1950s, Greek Jews had been immigrating to the United States, and Baltimore hosted a small community; approximately 15 families composed the community at its height.

“My father especially wanted to make a change post-Holocaust because the situation of Greek Jewry was quite dire,” shared Rachel Glaser, a local of Velelli descent. “It was impoverished and so much of Jewish culture and people had been destroyed. Over 85 percent of Greek Jews were killed. It was very hard to pick up the pieces. Those who had survived had lost everything. That, combined with the fall of Greece, put everyone in bad circumstances, particularly financially.”

The Velelli family was one of the last Greek Jewish families to move to Baltimore. Glaser’s grandparents were still living, and her father did not want to uproot them. “My parents and grandparents went on continuing to try and live. I think coming back and having more children is the most amazing thing that my parents have ever done.”

Her father, Emmanuel Velelli, reopened his textile business, but no one really made it back to where they were before the war. After his parents passed away, he began to seriously undertake the work necessary to move to America. The U.S. had a quota system for immigrants that made it very difficult to get into the country — it was essentially necessary to already know people living in America in order to come. At some point, however, the quota system was relaxed for Greece, so it made coming to America a far more realistic possibility. Glaser’s parents took advantage of the opportunity when HIAS came to Greece.

There was this moment of, ‘how can you be Jewish if you don’t speak Yiddish?’ That was the first time we really felt different. We didn’t really fit into the Baltimore Jewish community, nor did we fit into the Greek part of town.    — Rachel Glaser

Post-Holocaust, HIAS was working throughout Europe on two fronts. First and foremost, the organization’s goal was to help resettle Jewish survivors and revitalize their communities. Additionally, HIAS wanted to reunite families that had been scattered by the war, helping those who had family elsewhere to resettle near their family members.

When a family immigrated to the U.S., it was assigned to a city that could support its members. Cities had specific numbers of refugees that they could accept, and it was necessary to know someone in the city who could help support the newly immigrated family.

Glaser’s father was given the choice of moving to Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Baltimore because that’s where they had family members. The family in Los Angeles was having trouble finding work, and those members in Minneapolis told the family that it was far colder than they were used to. Her uncle told her father not to come to Israel because of poverty and the difficulty of finding jobs as well, so the family decided to move to Baltimore when a cousin living in the city spoke up.

Isaac Yohanas, who moved to the United States with his family at the same time, shared a similar experience. “My mom did not want to come to the U.S.,” he said, “but my father did. We would get letters in the mail saying to come to the U.S., that it would be a good experience, essentially that the streets were paved with gold. We moved to Baltimore at the request of one of the people already here who were sending us letters.”

Upon arrival in Baltimore, the families were met by representatives of The Associated who showed them to the furnished apartments that had been set aside for each family. “We had a lot of help from the Associated Jewish Charities,” said Yohanas, referring to the Federation’s previous name.

“I didn’t speak English when we first got here,” recalled Glaser. “My older sister, who was already 20, had taken English lessons in Greece in preparation, as had my father, so they knew a little bit. I was the youngest, so I knew no words of English. We went to the neighborhood public school; it was very intimidating and scary. The system wasn’t what it is now. There wasn’t English taught as a second language. Eventually, I just had to figure it out. Both my brother and I were put back a grade to help us catch up.”

For many of these families, acclimating to the Jewish community in Baltimore proved to be a challenge. Baltimore Jews had never encountered Greek Jews who were not Ashkenazi like most of Baltimore’s Jewry at the time.

Glaser recalled, “An Associated member tried speaking Yiddish to us, and my father had to explain that we didn’t speak Yiddish. There was this moment of, ‘How can you be Jewish if you don’t speak Yiddish?’ That was the first time we really felt different. We didn’t really fit into the Baltimore Jewish community, nor did we fit into the Greek part of town, where the community revolved around the church. It seemed like we didn’t fit anywhere until we were able to get more consonant.”

For Yohanas and his family, the neighborhood of immigrants they lived in was where they fit.

“We were accepted because we were living in an area that housed a lot of immigrants as well,” Yohanas said. “They were so helpful, and everyone was staying together; we all socialized a lot. When we came home, our parents wouldn’t be there, so we went around to different people’s houses — everyone took care of each other. It’s like the Hassidic community, where everybody took care of everybody else and their children. We didn’t have to worry about anything happening to us. We knew we could go over to so-and-so’s house because we were all immigrants together and family friends. The neighborhood was our sanctuary.”

Yohanas added that the families who still live in the area have walked to the same shul together for 60 years now.

“For a long time, we were quite in-between,” said Glaser. “A lot of Greek Jews felt that way. My family was always a shul-going family, but there was none that matched our customs, so we joined an Orthodox shul because it was the closest to what we knew. And slowly, we were able to become a part of Jewish life. But we are truly grateful for the work of The Associated through HIAS to bring our family over. We didn’t do it on our own.”

Good for Democracy

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

With practically all the attention surrounding the 2016 elections going to the two presidential candidates and their contest’s seemingly improbable race to the bottom, you’d be forgiven for thinking that theirs was the only matchup that mattered. But the JT hasn’t forgotten that while the race to the White House is unquestionably important, there are a host of races down the Nov. 8 ballot that could  affect the control of the U.S. Senate, impact how your tax dollars are spent and, in Baltimore, govern how the city and region finally emerge from the dark days of last year’s riots.

As we’ve done in elections past, the publication is endorsing more than just our pick for president, which we revealed last week. This week, you can see our choice for Senate.

But our cover story is going further local with an examination of the hard-fought race in Baltimore’s 1st District, a swath of land across the city’s south that encompasses the neighborhoods of Brewer’s Hill, Butchers Hill, Canton, Fells Point, Greektown, Highlandtown, Little Italy, Patterson Park and Upper Fells Point. The district is close to where the Jewish community here first got started and is home to some of our community’s millennial set. And now a Massachusetts transplant and Goucher and Johns Hopkins alumnus by the name of Zeke Cohen is battling to replace retiring City Councilman James B. Kraft to represent the district.

Conventional wisdom would say that the Democrat’s run should be a piece of cake. Donald Trump is supposedly dragging down Republican races throughout the country and registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in  Baltimore, which hasn’t had a  Republican on City Council since 1942. But Maryland, despite being a solidly blue state, elected Republican Larry Hogan governor just two years ago; many of those votes came from the 1st District, a fact that a city native named Matthew McDaniel is seeking to exploit.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, Cohen and McDaniel are fighting over crime, poverty and taxes. They have competing visions of how Baltimore can claim a bright future, and neither is taking anything for granted.

McDaniel’s candidacy, although in support of policies many in the Jewish community disagree with, presents the interesting question of the merits of single-party rule in a major American city. Baltimore is not the only city to have essentially been run by Democrats, of course, but so much of the American system of government depends on give-and-take between majority and minority parties. If one party is effectively shut out, some argue, little stands in the way to check a trend toward mismanagement.

That’s not an argument in favor of McDaniel’s winning on Election Day so much as it is an acknowledgement that a competitive general election race is a refreshing thing in this part of the country. It’s forcing voters in the 1st District to grapple with the issues. Whoever wins in the southeast, it will have been a race that was good for democracy.

Local Survivor, Doctor Spread Awareness of Breast Cancer Genes

(file photo)

(file photo)

When a routine mammogram revealed she had early- stage breast cancer three years ago, Nisa Felps wondered about treatment.

The Baltimore resident opted to have a bilateral mastectomy to remove both her breasts to rid herself of the cancer after consulting with a breast surgeon.

“After I came through it, I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Felps said. “It took almost about a year, and I wanted to give back.”

Phelps, now 43 and a mother of four children, ranging in age from 5 to 13, said she received overwhelming support from her family, friends, co-workers and the community, which was pivotal in her fight.

Through a grassroots effort, Felps has teamed up with Dr. Dee-Dee Shiller for nearly the last two years to provide that same type of assistance to those all around the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community.

For Shiller, who practices at LifeBridge Health and Baltimore Suburban Health in Pikesville, promoting breast cancer awareness, education and treatment is one of her main focuses.

“What Nisa and I are doing … we just want people to know what their family risk is,” Shiller said. “We want people to take this head on, and we are changing the face of this issue in our community.”

According to Shiller, a 43-year-old board certified gynecologist and osteopath, roughly one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews whose ancestors emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe are carriers of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutated gene. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the two genes doctors can test for certain mutations that indicates a high risk for breast cancer.

Half of the offspring of men and women who carry the BRCA gene are susceptible to this hereditary form of the disease, making the need to alert Jews a pressing topic for Felps and Shiller.

In the United States, however, the non-Jewish BRCA rate is about one in 400 people.

“We’re literally navigating through the Baltimore community trying to reach one woman at a time,” Felps said.

Shiller and Felps visit individual homes, community centers and places of worship throughout any given time of the year to spread their message. This year alone, they have put on 16 events and plan to ramp up their efforts for the remainder of October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as well as in the years to come.

At the meetings, which typically draw anywhere from 10 to 100 women, Shiller lends her expertise as a doctor and Felps shares her perspective as a survivor. Men, who can also carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2, have also taken an interest by coming out to several events to hear Shiller and Felps.

“We’re approaching this from a place love,” Felps said. “We care about our community, and we’re not trying to spread fear or scare people. We can change the destiny of Jewish people by being proactive.”

Early detection through testing women’s embryos for the gene can actually help a family eliminate the risk of passing on the dominant BRCA gene to a child, Shiller said.

“My suggestion is we should know about this head on, so that we can change a generation and limit the risk of this disease among Jewish people,” Shiller said.

There is a misconception, Felps said, that such measures can be costly and lead to daunting bills for those who seek to take a proactive approach to monitor for breast cancer.

Under the Affordable Care Act, however, the genetic test is among the preventive services that insurance companies are required to cover without cost sharing. Previously, costs for the screening ran as high as $3,000, making it difficult for women with an average risk of cancer who lack such means to afford paying for part of the test.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that only women with a strong family history of cancer be evaluated for genetic testing for BRCA mutations.

Still, Shiller said it is important for women who feel they are at risk regardless of family history not to take any chances.

“I just find that helping the Jewish community is just part of who I am,” Shiller said. “I can’t leave that, and we need to work toward bettering our community against breast cancer.”

A Bipartisan Battle Contested District 1 race could mean first Republican city councilman in more than 70 years

Baltimore City Hall (Mbell1975 via Wikimedia Commons)

39Baltimore City Hall (Mbell1975 via Wikimedia Commons)


On an overcast October morning on East Bank Street in Southeast Baltimore, Zeke Cohen and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, clad in suits, were preparing to canvas as Election Day draws closer.

Cohen, 31, a Canton resident, has enlisted the muscle of prominent Democratic politicians with strong Baltimore ties such as Cardin in his pursuit to fill departing 1st District Councilman James Kraft’s highly contested seat.

“I truly believe in Zeke and his vision for Baltimore City,” Cardin said. “He has a real concern for the issues going on in the [1st District] neighborhoods, and I am really confident Zeke can deal with these issues and work with the appropriate channels to get whatever he needs done.”

Zeke Cohen addresses Baltimore residents at a community event held by his nonprofit, The Intersection. (Photo provided)

Zeke Cohen addresses Baltimore residents at a community event held by his nonprofit, The Intersection. (Photo provided)

Since defeating five Democrats in a hard-fought primary last April, Cohen has been pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to drum up excitement about his campaign and get supporters to the polls on Nov. 8.

“We’re operating as if we’re 10 points behind,” Cohen said, “because I think our citizens want a City Council person who is going to work hard for them every  single day. I think having a competitive race is good for democracy, and I think it gives some contrast and makes it exciting to be in a district where there is some ideological diversity.”

The Baltimore City Council has remained Democratic for as long as many can remember, but for the first time in years, the party’s hold on city government is not a lock.

In the race to replace retiring Councilman Kraft, who held the 1st District seat for 12 years, Republican Matthew McDaniel presents a viable challenge.

McDaniel, a 28-year-old lawyer and Canton resident, is running a forceful campaign in hopes of becoming the first Republican to serve on the City Council since Daniel Ellison, a Jew of Russian  descent, was elected to the 4th District seat in 1939.

“Talking to people in the area, especially older folks, they always say: ‘Every four years, it could be a different face, but every year four years, somebody gets in front of us and says it will be different, and then four years later, they’re saying the same thing.’” McDaniel said. “That message, I think it has really disillusioned a lot of people with local politics. Not to sound negative or anything, but it’s very easy to play the blame game instead of giving people solutions to look forward to.”

Cohen and Ben Cardin (Photo by Justin Silberman)

Cohen and Ben Cardin (Photo by Justin Silberman)

The 1st District, which stretches from Harbor East to the city-county line in Dundalk and includes Southeast Baltimore, has shown a willingness to vote conservative in recent years. Just two years ago, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan carried that district against favored  Democrat Anthony Brown, 53 percent  to 47 percent, despite garnering only 22 percent of the vote citywide.

In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-to-1, the primary usually determines who sits on the council. But that trend is being put to the test with McDaniel, who has gained strong support from Hogan.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Cohen should not be taking anything for granted but added the “fundamentals” (campaign contributions and party affiliation) remain heavily on his side.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports filed on Aug. 30 through the Maryland State Board of Elections, Cohen has more robust funding.

Cohen has spent more than $122,000 during the last two years and has more than $77,000 in campaign contributions at his disposal. McDaniel, on the other hand, has just $12,000-plus in funds, per his most recent filing on Sept. 11, and used just over $1,000 to capture victory in the primaries.

“I don’t know if McDaniel can generate the same type of buzz Hogan did when he was running for governor,” Kromer said. “[Hogan] ran a very expensive campaign and dumped a lot of money into that  part of the city, and I just don’t know if McDaniel has stood out in the same way in that respect.”

For his part, Cohen has become a popular figure in his own party’s circle, drawing the support of 2nd District City Councilman Brandon Scott and state Del. Antonio Hayes (D) in addition to Cardin.

I think having a competitive race is  good for democracy, and I think it  gives some contrast and makes it  exciting to be in a district where there  is some ideological diversity. — Zeke Cohen

Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said Cohen has also taken the time to get to know voters and their concerns, making him the ideal choice to succeed Kraft.

“When you look at Zeke and his background, what he is committed to and what his vision for the future is and compare that to his Republican challenger [McDaniel], I don’t think there is a comparison,” Connor said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who are receptive to Zeke and a  lot of people who are supporting his  campaign and have been supporting him for a long time.”

Matthew McDaniel has his sights set on the city’s $60 million deficit and promises a more conservative economic approach. (Photo provided)

Matthew McDaniel (Photo provided)

A Northampton, Mass., native, Cohen studied political science at Goucher College, received a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University and taught middle school social studies through Teach For America. Cohen currently is executive director of The Intersection, a nonprofit he founded as a graduate student five years ago that has helped more than 30 high school students earn college scholarships. He also sits on the Baltimore Advisory Council for Jews United for Justice.

His Republican challenger, McDaniel, comes from a background practicing both public and private law.

A Frederick County native, McDaniel graduated from Catsonville High School and earned his undergraduate degree in history and political science from Loyola University Maryland and his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law.

He is an associate at the Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew law firm, where he specializes in helping small businesses get off the ground. Prior to joining the Baltimore-based firm in 2014, McDaniel worked for the special victims unit of the state’s attorney’s office and as a judicial law clerk for the Maryland Judiciary.

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said if “the citizens of Baltimore are ever going to end the monopoly government” in the city, McDaniel gives them the best chance to do just that given his qualifications.

“Matt understands that if this becomes a race between Democrats and Republicans, he loses,” Cluster said. “So we’re not going to put our face out there for him publicly as much we’ve done for other candidates, but we’ve been very supportive of him. Matt is his own individual candidate, and people will judge him on his views, his beliefs and decide whether they want him or Cohen to represent them in District 1.”

Matthew McDaniel (Photo provided)

Matthew McDaniel has his sights set on the city’s $60 million deficit and promises a more conservative economic approach. (Photo provided)

McDaniel, whom Gov. Hogan endorsed in September, believes that having a  Republican on the council would be  instrumental to the city to generate support from state lawmakers in Annapolis.

“I think the people in Baltimore City, especially in District 1, respect the governor,” McDaniel said. “I also think people have seen that [Hogan] is willing to work across party lines to get things done and to bring the changes people have been asking to see for a while.”

As for the issues, both Cohen and  McDaniel agree that reforming the police, fixing the education system, holding city agencies accountable and tax reform are among the most important topics facing residents. The way the two men plot to go about bringing those changes, however, differ in a variety of ways.

If elected, Cohen says he plans to put his educational experience to good use  by pressing the city to make universal  pre-kindergarten one of its top priorities. Because space in pre-kindergarten is limited in Baltimore City Public Schools, a priority system consisting of economic and social factors is used to enroll children in two different groups.

Cohen understands the importance of early school success for children and how that can lay the foundation to ensure a rich academic future.

“Having been an educator, one of the big things for me is to make sure our schools are great, which starts early,” Cohen said. “Ages zero to 5 are critical years for children, and I want them to have a safe, high-quality educational space to be in.”

City Council president Bernard “Jack” Young, who has pledged more than $3,000 to Cohen’s campaign, has worked tirelessly with the Democratic nominee to set aside funding for many youth issues, which will appear on the ballot for voters.

It’s very easy  to play the blame game  instead of  giving people  solutions  to look  forward to.  — Matthew McDaniel

Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, said the City Council president is fully behind Cohen and expects to work with him on carrying out that idea, if passed, when the new Council takes office in December.

“I think Zeke sees children as the key to growing and making Baltimore City thrive,” Davis said. “That has been the bedrock of the City Council president’s tenure since he has been on the council, so I think [Young] and Cohen have a lot in common.”

McDaniel also is a strong proponent of investing in the city’s youth. He is a firm believer that students graduating from city high schools should either be prepared to pursue a post-secondary degree or gain  the skills needed to hold down a job in an ever-growing competitive marketplace.

To accomplish this, he feels the city — which, according to the Census Bureau Report, spends the third-highest per pupil in the country’s 100 largest school districts at approximately $15,000 per year — needs to spend more efficiently.  McDaniel wants to see some funds put into public-private partnerships with nonprofits that supplement learning in and outside the classroom to better prepare students for the challenges of transitioning to adulthood.

“I think we really have to get our house in order,” McDaniel said. “I’ve said this to a few people before: It’s no one person’s or party’s fault, but it just so happens that in Baltimore, it’s been one party.”

In recent years, City Council members have sought to get the city’s charter amended to force audits of municipal departments every two years. City Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the 11th District, sponsored a bill in June that would require more frequent audits, which received support from eight of the current 15 Council members and was backed by City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.

Zeke Cohen (Photo by Justin Silberman); Matthew McDaniel (Photo provided)

Zeke Cohen (Photo by Justin Silberman); Matthew McDaniel (Photo provided)

Cohen said he would work to carry out this piece of legislation and use his skills running his own nonprofit to assist in making that transition smooth.

“The challenge has been the political will to actually enforce them,” Cohen said of the audits. “I’ve run a nonprofit [The Intersection] for a number of years, and every year, I was audited. If I misspent a single dollar, my organization would lose its license. Yet, we’re in the enormous  city budget, and we can’t seem to get the audits done, which is unacceptable.”

With the city trying to navigate a $60 million deficit, McDaniel said one of the big reasons he decided to run in the first place was to help Baltimore balance its budget. He believes bringing a more conservative economic mindsight to the table can accomplish that.

McDaniel is pushing to incrementally lower property and personal taxes with the idea of spawning economic growth.

“I have yet to hear a Democrat say, ‘Oh no, I’m against all those things,’” McDaniel said. “I say that as a bit of joke, but it really is true. When you’re looking 10, 15, 20 years down the line, the city is going to be running into some significant financial problems to grow the population and bring people and businesses back in.”

Finding new and innovative ways to  reduce crime and working in conjunction with the Baltimore Police Department is something that both candidates would like to bring to the forefront. From Oct. 1 through Oct. 8, there were a reported 121 robberies, larcenies and assaults in Southeast Baltimore alone, according to figures from the Baltimore City Government data website.

McDaniel feels the city needs more police officers, increased community walks with officers to build a sense of community and more citywide surveillance cameras. Cohen stressed that rebuilding trust between the police and those they serve is pivotal, and he would like to offer regular public meetings.

Dr. Remington Nevin, a 42-year-old post-doctoral fellow in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, has donated several hundred dollars to McDaniel’s campaign and said he likes that McDaniel would bring a different perspective to the fold.

“I feel [McDaniel] has much better ideas for the city than [Cohen] does,” Nevin said. “He’s a Republican, but I think he approaches a lot of Baltimore’s issues as an independent.”

Louis Monk, a 45-year-old Patterson Park resident who owns Patterson Park Laundry and Dry Cleaners, said he appreciates Cohen’s willingness to work with people from all walks of life.

“Zeke is always out and about listening to what everyone has to say, and he is someone who takes a genuine interest in what we have to say,” Monk said. “He has been a very personable person, and that really does go a long way with a lot of people.”

Howard County Names Interim Sheriff


James Fitzgerald resigned as sheriff, effective Oct. 15. (Photo provided)

Don Knott, a lieutenant in the Howard County Sherriff’s Office, was named interim sheriff on Monday following the resignation of Sheriff James Fitzgerald, whose alleged anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic remarks were detailed in a September report, county spokesman Andy Barth said.

Knott has more than 43 years of experience in state law enforcement.

Fitzgerald, a Democrat serving his third term, signed an agreement on Oct. 11 stating his last day in office would be Saturday, Oct. 15. Howard County officials confirmed Fitzgerald vacated his office as planned.

Howard County Council chairman Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement last week that he worked diligently to negotiate a pact that ended with Fitzgerald agreeing to step down from his post.

“Responding to concerns about Sheriff Fitzgerald and allegations of discrimination, I have diligently worked with all parties to reach a resolution so that our community can begin healing,” Ball said in the statement. “This wasn’t just one call or conversation or press release. This was a difficult process. I believed from the instant the issue came to light that resignation was the only option, and I needed the sheriff to see that as well.”

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, hopes to have a permanent solution in place no later than November, Barth said. In accordance with the state’s constitution, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will appoint a replacement to complete the remainder of Fitzgerald’s term, which concludes in 2018.

“[Howard] County Executive Kittleman is pleased that the sheriff followed the wishes of many, many people inside and outside of the county that he resign,” Barth said via email.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a  Democrat who was among many politicians statewide calling for Fitzgerald to resign, said in a prepared statement that he is looking forward to Howard County moving on from Fitzgerald.

“Sheriff Fitzgerald has done the right thing for Howard County by agreeing to resign his post. Howard County’s officers deserve a safe and respectful workplace, and residents deserve to feel confidence in all levels of their law enforcement,” Cardin said in the statement. “Sheriff Fitzgerald’s disparaging behavior had justifiably eroded that essential trust. I’m grateful that there will now be a fresh start and a new opportunity for leadership in the Howard County Sheriff’s office to demonstrate the integrity and respect that we expect from our law enforcement.”

The county’s Office of Human Rights released a 48-page report Sept. 1 that detailed Fitzgerald referring to former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman as “little Kenny Jew-boy” as well as derogatory comments about African-Americans and women. Fitzgerald was also accused of retaliating against deputies who did not support his re-election in 2010.