Author Archives: Ebony Brown


The Heat’s On

A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Devorah Brous’ San Fernando Valley home is shaded by green trees, studded with 19 fruit trees and patrolled by a pair of affable chickens that strut around the backyard. But at the moment, she is eager to show a visitor her dying lawn.

Comparing the withering grass with a thriving orange tree a few feet away, Brous, the founding executive director of the Jewish environmental organization Netiya, says, “It’s survival of the fittest.”

For Netiya — Hebrew for “planting” — and other Jewish environmental groups, California’s debilitating drought has tied together a number of issues that have been gaining prominence in the Jewish activist community: sustainability, social justice and ethically and environmentally responsible food production. Their efforts range in size and scope.

In San Diego, the local branch of Hazon had children paint rain barrels that will capture rainwater for irrigation as part of the environmental group’s Sukkot festivities.

Meanwhile, in Pescadero, south of San Francisco, the environmental education group Wilderness Torah hosted a panel discussion on water usage as part of its annual Sukkot on the Farm festival. After the panel, there was a ceremony based on an ancient Temple rite in which the high priest would draw water from the spring and offer it at the altar in hopes of bringing seasonal rains.

Participants circling around a fountain “bless the waters of the world and call in the rain,” said Suzannah Sosman, festivals manager for Wilderness Torah. Last year’s Sukkot festival came amid a downpour.

But the main thrust of the work of Jewish groups working on drought relief is water conservation, capture and reuse.

“I don’t think people are necessarily aware of how to save water other than turning off their faucets when they’re brushing their teeth,” Sosman said.

Netiya, which organizes religious communities to create sustainable gardens on underused institutional lands, has installed gardens at 11 congregations around Los Angeles, including at Ikar, where Brous’ sister, Sharon, is the founding rabbi. All the gardens include drip irrigation, a technique invented in Israel to conserve water during the irrigation process.

This summer, Netiya conducted a series of five workshops focused on water conservation and gardening.

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah. (Anthony Weiss)

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah.
(Anthony Weiss)

At a recent workshop, volunteers helped install a water-capture system that will disperse rainwater on the grounds of a Los Angeles church.

At another Netiya event, attendees helped put in place a greywater irrigation system at the home of Devorah Brous that recycles used water from her washing machine and funnels it to her herb garden.

“Every time I turn on the faucet, I’m thinking about all the water that’s not going back into my landscape,” Ashley Sullivan, who is Jewish and who attended the greywater installation, said. ”We use so much perfectly good water once, just rinsing our hands.”

For other organizations, water conservation is not simply a response to the drought but a perennial concern.

Urban Adamah, an urban farm and educational center in Berkeley, not only uses drip irrigation, but also began roughly a year ago to grow some of its plants using aquaponics, a system that utilizes 80 percent less water than conventional agriculture.

“Even though we’re in a drought now, we’re sort of in a perpetual state of drought in California,” said Adam Berman, the executive director of Urban Adamah. “Our mission is to teach sustainable agricultural practice, of which water conservation is a key part, even in good years.”

Brous, in turn, hopes to spark a broader conversation in the Jewish world about the relationship between food and the environment. In the process, she plans to reach out to Stewart and Judith Resnick, billionaire residents of Beverly Hills, in a bid to bring them into a conversation about food and resources.

The Resnicks are among the largest landowners in California’s Central Valley, as well as among the largest growers of water-intensive crops such as almonds, pistachios and pomegranates. (A request for comment placed with the Resnick-owned Roll Global Corp. was not returned.)

“Are these boutique perennial crops things that we should be growing in California, or should we grow something else?” Brous asks rhetorically. “There are questions we should be asking.”

Judaism originally grew out of the life of a desert people, and though much of Jewish life has long since moved into towns and cities, its foundational texts still speak of ethical principles for caring for land and water. Brous begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah, as well as the Koran and the Christian Bible, and she hopes that they can serve as the basis for a renewed Jewish conversation about water, food and environment.

“It’s still in the text,” she said. “It’s extraordinary spiritual soil to grow from.”



Security Sweep

Despite Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged crime, the National Capital Mikvah did not close and remains fully operational. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Despite Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged crime, the National Capital Mikvah did not close and remains fully operational. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Washington, D.C.-area mikvahs are grappling with security concerns in the aftermath of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s highly publicized arrest on voyeurism charges. Freundel is accused of setting up a hidden camera in the shower room of the National Capital Mikvah in order to spy on women who changed there before taking the ritual plunge.

There are seven ritual baths in the Washington region, and they are responding in different ways to the shocking revelations. (Chabad Lubavitch Mikvah-Northern Virginia Region could not be reached for comment before press time.) The scene of the alleged crime — the National Capital Mikvah — never closed and is currently fully operational. However, director Sarah Barak says that major security precautions have already been implemented, and more are in the works.

The locks have been changed, the police have searched the mikvah to make sure there are no recording devices, an expert security firm is going to do a second search and a halachic expert will conduct a third security search and also ensure that the mikvah’s religious integrity is still intact.

The decision to keep the mikvah open was made after consulting with Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, former rabbi of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring who now lives in Israel. Breitowitz said that the mikvah is still kosher and is fine to use.

The Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington, which operates two ritual baths in Montgomery County — Wallerstein in Kemp Mill and Ballard Street in Woodside — is planning a security sweep at its Wallerstein location, and male volunteers no longer will be permitted to enter the mikvah without a female counterpart. Ballard is managed by women. Mikvah Emunah held two women-only events on Monday evening to address concerns and answer questions from the community.

James Mesis, a New Jersey-based private investigator, security specialist and editor-in-chief of Professional Investigator Magazine, says hidden cameras are increasingly harder to find because they can be as small as a period at the end of a sentence.

“You can hide a pinhole camera or the body of the camera behind anything, and you just need a tiny, tiny little hole that’s the size of a button-thread hole to be able to look through,” said Mesis. “So unless you have the right equipment to find these hidden cameras, you’d never find them.”

Freundel allegedly hid a camera inside a Dream Machine digital clock radio.

Rabbi Barry Freundel

Rabbi Barry Freundel
(Courtesy Towson University)

Mesis recommends hiring a professional Technical Surveillance Countermeasure (TSCM) technician. “Establishments, what they need to do — on a regular basis — is have a TSCM technician come in who’s been properly trained and is credentialed with the proper equipment and just do an inspection of all of the target locations,” said Mesis. “And what I tell people, wherever a person could be in the form of undress is an area where you want to search. You don’t really need to search anything other than areas where somebody is going to be undressed.”

But some mikvahs do not plan yet on hiring a professional security firm. A representative from Mikvah at the Jewish Family Center in Olney said there are no additional security arrangements in place yet. The mikvah is sporadically used, so it isn’t as urgent as some other facilities.

Mikvah at the Silver Spring Jewish Center does not plan to increase security.

Rabbi Herzel Kranz calls Freundel an “aberration,” adding that there is a “deficiency in this human being — a mishegas that goes through people’s heads.”

He doesn’t seemed concerned that Freundel’s behavior could be replicated at his mikvah.

“Are we lacking for pornography in the United States? Something is screwed up here. We are bringing holiness here, conversions,” he said. “There is no bigger contradiction than that.”

Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Cleveland Park, which welcomes more than 400 immersions per year and describes itself as the D.C. area’s only “progressive and pluralistic” mikvah, scheduled a security sweep immediately after hearing the news about Freundel’s arrest.

“The Adas Israel Community Mikvah remains in solidarity with every other mikvah affected by recent events while continuing to offer meaningful and secure experiences to the entire community,” said Naomi Malka, mikvah director and ritual coordinator.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Lubavitch of Maryland, said that Mikvah Ateres Yisroel in Potomac has had a longstanding policy that its mikvahs be operated exclusively by women for women, with a rabbi serving as the halachic authority. “Security is always a concern, and we review and upgrade the system from time to time as technology improves.

“The mikvah is one of the oldest and most important institutions in Jewish life,” said Kaplan, “and we are confident that despite the recent horrific episode, the institution of mikvah will continue the remarkable comeback it has made over the past few decades.”

Suzanne Pollak and Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this report.


Hoffberger Takes Stock

 LeRoy E. Hoffberger (File photo)

LeRoy E. Hoffberger (File photo)

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Baltimore history without talking about the Hoffberger family. Natives and transplants alike are aware of the family’s historic ties to the Orioles and the National Brewing Company, former producers of Natty Boh, Charm City’s beloved hometown beer. The Hoffberger name graces buildings on college campuses, hospitals, synagogues and museums across the region.

The family made fortunes manufacturing and distributing ice, coal and fuel oil. They were sole or major shareholders in businesses such as the Baltimore Transfer Company, the Pompeian Olive Oil Company and Grecian Formula as well as real estate developers and supporters of the city’s arts, educational, medical and Jewish communal organizations.

In his new memoir, “Measure of a Life: Memoirs, Insights and Philosophies of LeRoy E. Hoffberger,” Hoffberger, 89, reflects upon his childhood, young adulthood, career and philanthropic endeavors. In the process, he gives readers an engrossing, honest and introspective history of the life of a man, a family and a city.

When he first began to write, in his early 80s, Hoffberger said it was a means of testing his memory. In recent years, he had noticed that he was having some short-term memory lapses, and he wanted to see whether his long-term memory was still sharp.

“When I got to page 100, I said, ‘Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this,’” said Hoffberger. “One hundred years from now, what will my great-grandchildren know about me? They might be able to find information about my education, my professional successes and failures, my philanthropy. But they may want to know who I am, my insights and philosophies, my struggles with clinical depression; what I have done with my life considering both my talents and my disabilities. God puts us on earth for a purpose. How did I deal with the hand that God gave me?”

He grew up in Baltimore, the son of Jack and Mildred Hoffberger, and the younger of two brothers. His father’s grandparents, Sarah and Charles, immigrated to Baltimore from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1881. Jack Hoffberger was one of seven brothers, and by the time LeRoy was born, the brothers had already achieved some success in the business community. The family lived in the Forest Park section of Baltimore, next door to four of Jack’s brothers and their families. As he grew up, the extended Hoffberger family remained closely knit.

“My generation of Hoffbergers had been raised to understand that we were to work in one of the family’s businesses,” he wrote.

After serving in a Navy officers training program during World War II, Hoffberger completed his education at Princeton University. When he graduated in 1947, his father asked him to get his law degree so that he would be qualified to work in his Uncle Sam’s law firm, which provided counsel to the family’s many business interests. Hoffberger agreed, and graduated from the University of Maryland in 1950. Following in his Uncle Sam’s footsteps, he gravitated toward real estate. He made many investments but was most proud of the development of 2,000 acres of farmland in Montgomery County 25 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.

“Today, Germantown,” Hoffberger said proudly, “is the third largest urban area in the state and home to 80,000 people.”

In his role as an attorney, Hoffberger also became active in fundraising for Democratic candidates, helping to get Sen. Barbara Mikulski elected. A highlight in his political career came in December 1973, when he was on President Richard M. Nixon’s “second enemies list.”

“This meant that I, along with 574 other Americans, was to be harassed by the IRS for having played an active role in Sen. George McGovern’s
unsuccessful run for president,” he wrote in his memoir. “My Democrat friends and I considered this a badge of honor.”

Though his career was flourishing, a bout with depression required Hoffberger take time off from his work.

Although he would soon return to his job, Hoffberger’s anxiety and depression required treatment with psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication throughout his life.

His service to the Jewish community was another source of personal pride.

“Soon after I began working for Uncle Sam’s company, I was told that he wanted me to be very active in the Jewish community,” he recalled. “He even told me what board he wanted me to join. It was Levindale [Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital]. I served 60 years on that board, was a board president and am still an emeritus.”

Recognizing that not everyone who was elderly needed to be in a nursing home, he and Bob Weinberg built Concord House, now known as Weinberg Gardens. When The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore created Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI), Hoffberger became the new agency’s first president.

“I was incoming president of The Associated when the battle over whether to open the JCC on Shabbos began,” he recalled. “It was a 30-year battle.”

Although at the time Hoffberger was a Reform Jew, he felt The Associated needed to represent all parts of the Jewish community and feared that opening the JCC on the Sabbath would alienate the Orthodox community.

“It seemed like hypocrisy to me that the JCC was closed on all these obscure Jewish holidays but open on Shabbos,” he said.

After his marriage to his second wife, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, with whom Hoffberger founded the American Visionary Art Museum, he became more interested in Judaism. Hoffberger left Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and joined the Conservative Chizuk Amuno Congregation. As he became more religiously observant, Hoffberger became more concerned by statistics that showed increasing levels of intermarriage and assimilation among American Jews. He discovered the work of Rabbi David Fohrman and raised money to launch the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies so that more peopl could benefit from Fohrman’s lectures.

Perhaps Hoffberger’s way of life is best described by the handwritten message printed on the jacket of his memoir. In contrast to the words of authors such as C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind,” Hoffberger wrote: “What we leave behind is far more important than how far we get ahead.”


Unlikely Mix

The Bible Players Andrew Davies (top) and Aaron Friedman combine Torah, comedy and improv to bring Jewish stories and values to life for young audiences and adults. (Provided)

The Bible Players Andrew Davies (top) and Aaron Friedman combine Torah, comedy and improv to bring Jewish stories and values to life for young audiences and adults. (Provided)

The Bible Players, also known as Andrew Davies and Aaron Friedman, love Jewish teachings for their rich stories, interpretations and values. They also love comedy and understand its effectiveness as a method of engagement, and they bring that surprising combination to their performances.

“It all started on a rainy day,” when they worked at Camp Ramah, recalled Friedman, 32, stand-up comedian and artistic director. The camp director asked Friedman and Davies to quickly devise an activity that could entertain 200 campers indoors and keep attention away from the gray weather.

“We wracked our brains, wrote scenes, came up with some Jewish [improvisational] games, and that started the whole ball rolling,” said Friedman. The campers had a great time, and the Jewish comedy duo received repeat requests for material, so they knew they were on to something.

Officially begun in 2011, the Bible Players now tour about twice a week to different synagogues, Jewish day schools and organizations around the country representing all Jewish denominations and even at some churches.

“The goal of the show is to use theater and improv to live out the Jewish values,” explained Davis, 30, artistic director and trained in improvisational comedy. “We want to make everyone laugh, have a good time, and we love the stories and values that we grew up with, so if we can make people laugh and learn about those values at the same time — that’s the idea.”

Davies and Friedman grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and met at Akiva Academy, now known as Barrack Hebrew Academy, while in a production of “The Music Man,” and have been friends and collaborators ever since. Now they live in New York City and work hard to keep their performances fresh, often using pop culture references, and they cleverly infuse ancient Jewish stories with modern-day relevance.

“There’s an amalgam of thousands of years of Jewish learning” to draw from, said Friedman, who marvels at how his double major in creative writing and Jewish philosophy is
relevant to his “real job.”

The Bible Players’ shows might include a Jewish tale sung in rap style, musical “Mitzvah Moments,” dancing, singing and always lots of hands-on participation, which they consider key for the enjoyment of the audience, but also to allow the Jewish content and values to take root. Most of the audience participation comes through improvisational games.

Davies said that mastering improvisation, which he’s practiced for over a decade, transformed many aspects of his personal life and saw that it worked to teach Torah stories and values as well.

“You have to be a great listener,” said Davies. In improv “you need to hear what someone is saying and add on to it. … You have to say, ‘Yes, and …’ but a lot of time [in life] we spend saying, ‘No, no thanks, I’m not interested.’

“But improv forces you to say yes, jump in and build stories,” he continued. “It’s a community, and you have to work together with others” to make it happen.

Rabbi Stuart Seltzer, director of congregational education at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, has invited the Bible Players to perform multiple times, including a performance for a family Shabbat weekend Nov. 15.

“They provide a methodology that integrates the arts and Torah study to reach students on their level, in a different way,” said Seltzer. “The language of biblical text is difficult, so they unpack it in a way the kids can understand.”

A interactive story the pair share with audiences is called “Kindness at the Well” in which they combine three biblical stories that start at a well — Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Moses and Tsipora — who all meet and become partners because of acts of kindness performed at a well. It creates lots of fun and physical comedy for the audience, said Davies, and the message is “even though [today] we don’t meet people at a well, we still form relationships through those acts of kindness.”

“Luckily, Andrew and I are both very immature for our age,” said Friedman laughing, in reference to the constantly updated pop-culture references in their material. “We do keep aware of what kids are watching, write parody songs of what songs are popular. … It’s how you stay relevant.”

Davies and Friedman hear comments such as, “These guys make Torah cool,” and “I hated coming to Hebrew school but my kids love coming to your shows.” On return engagements, in anticipation of their arrival they’ve been met by groups of kids delivering their latest Bible story learned with rap, emulating the Bible Players’ methods. In addition to Chizuk Amuno, they’ve performed at Johns Hopkins Hillel and Temple Beth Ami Hebrew School in Rockville.

Seltzer said he likens the Bible Players’ performances as another lens through which kids can experience Jewish holidays, texts and values. He added that through the arts, students can ask themselves deep questions and find their own interpretations.

“I think [what we do is] important because I really want to make Jewish kids proud of our culture and our heritage and the stories we’ve inherited and have been passed down for so many generations,” said Davies. “I love passing down that tradition.”

For more information about the Bible Players and to see video of their shows, visit or contact Aaron Friedman at (347) 994-9386 or


The Final Divorce?

Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to the Netherlands, is less than than enthused at the P.A.’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges. It’s a “one way move, no way back,” he said. (Courtesy James Madison University)

Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the Netherlands, is less than than enthused at the P.A.’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges. It’s a “one way move, no way back,” he said. (Courtesy James Madison University)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Loading a newly released video of a beheading in Syria on his smartphone, Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinians’ ambassador here, shakes his head in disbelief.

“Look at those animals,” he said, referring to the fighters from the ISIS jihadist group who carried out the decapitation. “Do you think Israelis are immune from this craziness? Me, I’m even more scared of this fundamentalism.”

To Abuznaid, who has represented the Palestinian Authority in the Netherlands for the past five years, such barbarity is a sign that the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve their differences peacefully and stand united against the shared threat of extremism.

But on Abuznaid’s desk, under a life-size portrait of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, are documents connected to a move that could undo 24 years of efforts to find common ground: The Palestinian Authority’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Abuznaid said he is advancing the motion with little enthusiasm. But if P.A. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki is to be believed, within the year the Palestinian Authority will accede to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC in 1998, which would give the U.N. tribunal jurisdiction to probe war crimes investigations against Israel.

Both the Palestinians and Israelis consider the move a game-changer, a step after which a negotiated two-state solution may be all but impossible.

“This is not the Palestinian preferred choice because going to the ICC is the final divorce: one-way move, no way back,” said Abuznaid, 60, a former lecturer in international relations from Hebron who spent a few months in an Israeli jail in the 1980s for his membership in the PLO. “I don’t think Palestinians and Israelis are ready for a final divorce.”

If the Palestinians move ahead with their plans, it is Abuznaid who will be the P.A.’s point person on the matter. Abuznaid said his family is from Haifa, where they lived before Israel’s establishment in 1948, when they left along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of Israeli-controlled areas during the War of Independence.

As a young man, Abuznaid believed in the Palestine Liberation Organi-zation’s strand of radicalism. He was a self-described revolutionary who thought Israel had to be destroyed. But over time his politics have softened, and today even his Israeli detractors consider him a pragmatist.

“Let the person who is living in my family’s house in Haifa enjoy the beach there, and I will enjoy my life in Hebron and we can be friends,” he said. “There is no choice but todivide the land.”

Equipped with good English and a political science degree from James Madison University in Virginia, Abuznaid climbed the PLO ranks to become a personal adviser to Arafat, serving under him during the Oslo negotiations. Abuznaid later returned to the United States to serve as deputy head of the Palestinian Authority’s mission in Washington, D.C., among other positions. His wife, Lubna, and their two children are living in the United States.

“Abroad I’m a diplomat who receives the red carpet. But when I return home, I need to wait in my car for a boy the age of my son who’s treating me like I’m barely human,” he said of the soldiers who check his papers when he crosses the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank.

Unlike his position on checkpoints — a longstanding Palestinian gripe — Abuznaid’s reluctant attitude to the ICC move seems out of sync
with Ramallah’s public defiance. Yet, despite the rhetoric, it’s not clear how eagerly the Palestinians are to play the ICC card.

In July, the Palestinian Authority’s justice minister and the general prosecutor in Gaza sent an official request for an ICC investigation of alleged war crimes committed by Israel this summer during its campaign against Hamas in Gaza. The following month, during Maliki’s visit to The Hague, he told reporters that
accession is “only a matter of time and will occur this year.”

But a letter from ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, leaked last month, states that Maliki was asked to confirm the request contained in the July letter and declined to do so.

“A decision was taken to go ahead with the ICC move, yes,” Abuznaid said. “But it’s not final until the papers are submitted. So it’s still something that can be avoided. Because if we realize the ICC option, what then? How would we go forward with the peace process? The day we sign, things will be different between us and the Israelis.”

It’s impossible to know if Abuznaid’s qualms may merely be part of a strategy that keeps the ICC option as a bargaining chip in the Palestinians’ diplomatic chess match with Israel or if he is expressing a genuine aversion to what could be a grand but ineffective gesture.

Haim Divon, Abuznaid’s counterpart at the Israeli Embassy in The Hague, believes it’s the latter.

“As a pragmatist, Mr. Abuznaid knows an ICC bid would lead nowhere and only poison the atmosphere,” Divon said.

Abuznaid and Divon know each other well from appearing together in so many forums that Divon once jokingly referred to the configuration as “The Haim and Nabil Show.” They have their disagreements, including over Abuznaid’s drawing of parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian exodus of 1948, but the relationship has remained cordial.

Asked about his relationship with Divon, Abuznaid said, “If it were only up to him and me, I think we would sign a peace agreement pretty soon.”