Author Archives: Heidi Traband

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The Ultimate Gift

The monument at the dedicated grave  site on the Springfield Hospital  Center grounds has given closure to many family and friends.

The monument at the dedicated grave site on the Springfield Hospital
Center grounds has given closure to many family and friends.

Dr. Alan Seyfer claimed his most valued instrument as a surgeon during his more than 40 years of practice has been, on many occasions, his in-depth knowledge of human anatomy.

Seyfer, chair of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene State Anatomy Board, speaking to a crowd of approximately 250 at the Maryland Anatomical Donors memorial service June 16, said that because of that understanding he has been able “to help my patients to counter the ravages of tumors, to repair birth defects or to repair structures that had been injured in accidents during wartime service — so that my patients might have the possibility of returning to good health.”

As a course director at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, he acknowledged the importance of access to human anatomy study and gratitude to those donating their bodies to scientific research. Seyfer said to the crowd, which included about 50 medical students, “These unselfish men and women and their families have given a new generation of physicians the knowledge that they need to help people across the globe and for decades to come.”

Lyn Book Star and her brother, Dr. Jonathan Book, have been attending the annual memorial service, held at the DHMH Springfield Hospital Center grounds, for more than 30 years. Their parents, Joseph and Lois Book, once active members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, donated their bodies to medical research; their father did so in 1976, only a decade or so after anatomy donation became an option upon death, and their mother followed suit when she died in 2004.

“My father died at home and representatives from the anatomy board showed up,” recalled Star. “They were very respectful, they showed up with a hearse, and we just thought OK, he’s gone.” They have learned since then, from the experience with their mother, that the Maryland anatomy board clearly communicates all procedures surrounding the death of an anatomical donor, including the choice of what can be done with remains after study is completed.

The family had a memorial ceremony, but they just assumed that due to the circumstances of anatomical donation, the location of their father’s remains would forever be unknown.

“So for several years we went without knowing what had become of my father’s remains,” said Book. But that changed after Book graduated medical school and began his practice.

Rabbi Ruth Smith, chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center,  officiates at the Maryland Anatomical Donors memorial service.

Rabbi Ruth Smith, chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center, officiates at the Maryland Anatomical Donors memorial service.

Book became a psychiatrist at Springfield Hospital, eventually becoming its clinical director and then superintendent. When leaving the offices and crossing the grounds one day, he noticed a large monument on which was written, “This monument has been placed with deep appreciation for those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education and research.” He looked into it and discovered it was the anatomy board’s dedication and burial site and then confirmed that his father’s remains had been buried there in 1976.

“From the time we knew that our father’s remains were here, it was very meaningful,” said Book. “It’s interesting the difference between not knowing where the remains are – even though we planted a memorial tree on the Baltimore Hebrew grounds. Still, knowing that his and her remains are really here, it feels different, it feels stronger, and there is a deeper connection.”

It was Rabbi Ruth Smith’s first time officiating at the anatomical donor memorial, at which she was joined by clergy from other faiths as well. Smith, a Reconstructionist rabbi and chaplain at University of Maryland Medical Center for eight years, explained the Jewish concept of honoring the dead to the assembly. She said that what Jews do to honor and respect the dead is a way to show love for them, since the deceased can never reciprocate.

“Today it’s the other way around,” she said to the assembly. “These people have made a gift that is so immense there is no way for us to thank them — and we are all beneficiaries of these gifts. So today we come
together to observe kvod hamet, to honor the dead. We honor them and come to them with the grateful
appreciation for the gift which they have so unselfishly given.”

The concepts of saving a life, known in Hebrew as pikuach nefesh, and showing respect to a deceased’s remains, Smith explained after the ceremony, are two important and weighty directives of Jewish law that intersect when considering donating one’s body to scientific research or even organ donation. She admitted that the two concepts come crashing together for some people.

“It is these questions that are at the forefront of what chaplains deal with,” she said. “I really believe in
respecting Halacha. I don’t always follow it, but I always want to show people that it’s a good idea, I
always like to show how it’s beneficial,” when helping someone talk through the decision of becoming an anatomical donor.

Ronn Wade, director of the state anatomy board, said that between 75,000 and 80,000 people in Maryland have already committed their bodies to medical study upon death.

Wade explained that the normal process for safe disposition of an anatomical donor is to cremate the body and return the ashes to the family if requested, or bury the ashes. “If (the family) wants to do something different that’s possible,” he said.

The minimum cost for the state of Maryland to provide the service is about $695, he estimated, and an
average funeral home could charge from $1,300 up to about $3,000 for cremation services.

Wade said his duty and obligation is to advance public interest, public health and welfare. So when a donor dies, Wade’s first concern is the family.

“So if they say, ‘But Aunt Nelly is not going to like it if Uncle Joe doesn’t have a funeral, and we want him buried instead of cremated,’ fine. It’s not mutually exclusive,” explained Wade. The family can call a funeral director and prepare the body so that it can still be used for research and bury it afterwards.

The ability to be buried instead of cremated, according to Smith, may be what is needed to address and satisfy some of the Jewish legal concerns for many considering becoming an anatomical donor.

Sisters Brenda Katz and Terry Harmon attended the ceremony in memory of their late brother, Donald Michael Jones, who recently died at age 52 of a brain tumor. He donated his body to Springfield Hospital medical research.

“I actually have a brain tumor,” said Katz, “and knowing the value of what [medical students] learn by having access to these donated bodies, it’s very precious.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson addresses a Brooklyn audience in 1987. Photo by Mordecai Baron via Wikimedia Commons

Rebbe’s Teachings Continue to Inspire

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson addresses a Brooklyn audience in 1987. Photo by Mordecai Baron via Wikimedia Commons

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson addresses a Brooklyn audience in 1987. Photo by Mordecai Baron via Wikimedia Commons

Several new books are seizing upon the upcoming 20th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to point out how much the late Jewish leader’s teachings have bearing upon the events of today. Not following the trend of previous works, which subjected the unprecedented growth in the Chabad- Lubavitch movement — either from 1951, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed leadership of the Chasidic group as its seventh Rebbe, or from his passing in 1994 — to a kind of scholarly fascination with its uniqueness, these new volumes instead see in the Rebbe a model of leadership and conduct that can be emulated by all.

What emerges is a distinctly human portrait of a brilliant rabbi who silenced his inner conflicts to grasp the reins of an obscure Chasidic sect and propel it into the living rooms of Jewish (and non-Jewish) families around the globe. And whereas collections of secondhand stories of miraculous healings have left readers awestruck at supposed superhuman qualities attributed to the Rebbe, this most recent crop of literature is more likely than not to leave readers determined to change their lives for the better.

No one knows how the Rebbe, for instance, would have reacted to last week’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by suspected Palestinian terrorists, but Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who has spent the last five years researching the life of the Jewish leader, nevertheless ventures a guess.

“I don’t know if I could come up with any innovative insight,” says the 66-year-old author of more than 16 books on Judaism and Jewish subjects. “Other than prayer and support for the actions of the Israeli army, on the issues where there’s been terrorist attacks, the Rebbe’s attitude would be to not be cowed by it. … You just keep building ahead. You don’t stop.”

The release last week of Telushkin’s latest book, “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” (Harper Collins), comes alongside commemorations of 20 years since the Rebbe’s passing on June 12, 1994 (the third day of the month of Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar). He’s been crisscrossing the country to talk about the book and the lessons he’s gleaned from chronicling, in his words, “how a man took over a relatively small movement in 1951 located in one neighborhood in Brooklyn and turned it into a worldwide movement.”

Just five years after the Rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — the two parts of the Chasidic group’s name alternately refer to the intellectual underpinnings of its teachings and the town in Russia that housed its leaders until the early part of the 20th century — tragedy struck a small enclave of its adherents in Israel, when Palestinian terrorists murdered five students and their teacher in Kfar Chabad. The Rebbe’s response came in a cryptic telegram from New York several days later: “By your continued building will you be comforted.”

The inhabitants of the village took inspiration from those words and built a vocational school for underprivileged children.

Looking at the current events in Israel, Telushkin — who on Tuesday night spoke alongside CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv at an event at George Washington University sponsored by the American Friends of Lubavitch, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Washington Jewish Week  and the Jewish Community Relations Council — says the Rebbe would probably now, as back then, seek to build something from the ashes of tragedy.

“We as Jews shouldn’t allow any act to destroy us,” explains Telushkin, who although not an adherent of Chabad is descended from a Chabad family. “Chabad, unlike most other movements, has not focused many efforts on commemoration of the Holocaust, because the Rebbe intuitively understood that in the generations following [World War II], strengthening Jewish unity will come from the joy of” Jewish actions, such as laying tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, visiting the sick and giving charity.

“He cared very much emotionally, he himself lost family members in the Holocaust, including his brother,” continues Telushkin. “But that’s not where he wanted to put his focus.”

An American journey

Born in 1902 in Nikolayev, Russia, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the oldest of three boys born to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson. His father, a Kabbalist and descendant of the third Chabad Rebbe, would move the family to Yekatrinoslav (present day Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine), where he took a position as chief rabbi.

In his early years, as chronicled by Telushkin and Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the Talmudic scholar whose “My Rebbe” (Maggid Books) hit store shelves in May, the Rebbe exhibited an extraordinary grasp of Jewish texts and the more secular fields of mathematics and astronomy. He would go on, especially after marrying the daughter of the then-Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to straddle both the religious and secular worlds, composing detailed notes and commentaries on obscure concepts in Talmudic exegesis and Jewish mysticism and attending university classes in Berlin — where he was an acquaintance of a young Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik — and Paris.

That scholarship, further developed in the public talks he would give for more than 40 years in New York, would emerge, writes Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in the latest issue of Jewish Action, as “a vital source of education and inspiration for all Jews, irrespective of one’s background.”

Consistently one step ahead of the advancing Nazi powers, the future Rebbe and his wife escaped to Vichy-controlled France, secured papers to the United States and boarded a ship in Lisbon, Portugal for London and then New York. It was there, in 1941, that he was reunited with his father-in-law, who had arrived in the U.S. a year prior.

In 1950, the previous Rebbe passed away, leaving the movement without a leader. Although his son-in-law originally resisted attempts to draft him as a successor, he overcame his original misgivings and formally became the movement’s leader exactly one year later. A recent account, mentioned in Telushkin’s book, credits the influence of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, who reportedly told her husband, “If you don’t become Rebbe, 30 years of my father’s life will have gone to waste.”

In the ensuing four decades, the Rebbe would dispatch emissaries — known as shluchim, the institution continues today, with the ranks of these couples increasing at a greater pace after the Rebbe’s passing in 1994 — around the globe, receive dignitaries and thousands of visitors from near and far for one-on-one meetings at his Brooklyn office and launch a series of campaigns designed to increase Jewish awareness and push the role of Jewish life from the private to the public sphere. Under his guidance and in ways that sometimes sparked the ire of the wider Jewish community, public Chanukah menorah lightings became commonplace; he also famously called on many occasions for a moment of silence in public schools to emphasize what he called the duty of society to inculcate moral values in its children.

“Rabbi Schneerson’s written works fill multiple library shelves, and his spoken words have been eternalized in audio and video recordings and in many print volumes,” writes Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, who will address an event sponsored by Chabad centers in the greater Baltimore area alongside syndicated radio host Dennis Prager on Sunday, June 29, at Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall. “His care and concern for every Jew — indeed for every human being — were his essential personal characteristics.”

Central precepts

Speaking from his office in Brooklyn, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky says that the real takeaway 20 years after the Rebbe’s passing is not really that thousands of young couples have taken up permanent residence in the farthest corners of the globe to strengthen Jewish life, but what exactly is animating them to do so. The newest crop of shluchim, he points out, likely never met the Rebbe.

“Even if they can’t see the Rebbe, the Rebbe’s [teachings], his [talks], his letters, they’re so full of truth and direction,” says Krinsky, who began working for the Rebbe as a press liaison in 1957 and today effectively runs the Chabad-Lubavitch movement as chairman of its educational and social service arms.

Krinsky will address an event at the Round House Theater in Bethesda sponsored by the Chabad-Lubavitch centers of Montgomery County on Monday, June 23.

“I don’t think anybody can explain” why a young rabbi and his wife, maybe with one or two children, would move to an unfamiliar community, continues Krinsky. “Can you explain life?”

For authors such as Telushkin and Steinsaltz — Rabbi Chaim Miller’s “Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of the Rebbe” (Kol Menachem) also hit store shelves this month — the span of the Rebbe’s leadership can be boiled down to essential precepts. According to Telushkin, who devotes the entire third part of his more than 580-page book to what he calls the “seven virtues” taught by the Rebbe, chief among these precepts is believing in the innate value of the individual and focusing more on areas of agreement with others than on disagreement.

“That’s what so drew me,” says Telushkin, who tells of one time when his father, who was for a long time the Chabad movement’s accountant, had just days earlier emerged from a coma and received a telephone call from the Rebbe’s office asking an accounting question.

“I realized that the Rebbe, sitting there in Brooklyn concerned with macro matters affecting the destiny of the Jewish people, nevertheless took time to ask a question. It reminded my father that he was still needed,”
explains Telushkin. “It’s widely known that the Talmud says that every life is of infinite value. Most people give lip service to that teaching, but the Rebbe seems to have had an unnatural ability to give that focus.”

That, coupled with a tendency not to mention publicly the names of those with whom he disagreed, preferring instead to question viewpoints as opposed to specific people, as well as a way of appreciating “people for what they were doing rather than for what they weren’t doing,” reveals, says Telushkin, a way of life that has the power to animate others.

“That becomes the basis for a wonderful nonjudgmental love,” concludes Telushkin. “The Rebbe was modeling behavior for people. … [For] people to come out as a result of this book as more loving people, as more committed to Jewish study and to leading Jewish lives and to practice the love that cuts across denominational and religious lines … I’m convinced the Rebbe wanted to see happen.”

Area events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing include those sponsored by the Chabad centers of Northern Virginia on June 22 (for more information, call 703-426-1980), the Chabad-Lubavitch centers of Montgomery County on June 23 (for more information, call 301-887-3250) and the Chabad centers of the Greater Baltimore area on June 29 (for more information, call 410-647-7273).

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Baltimore Stands with Israel

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JCC employees spell out #BringBackOurBoys, the hashtag that went viral after three Israeli teens were kidnapped in the West Bank, in front of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC. Photo Provided

As Israeli security forces conduct searches for three Israeli teens Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says were kidnapped by Hamas, the Baltimore Jewish community is standing in solidarity with the Jewish state.

“Everybody is concerned,” said Beth Tfiloh Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “If you’re Jewish, you feel connected. These are our boys.”

Three Israeli Yeshiva students — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 — were kidnapped June 12 from Gush Etzion in the West Bank.

Netanyahu said that he holds the Palestinian Authority, which recently formed a government with Hamas, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responsible for attacks against Israel from Palestinian-controlled territory and that the danger of the Hamas-Fatah unity pact should now be clear to all. The United States and Israel, as well as other countries, consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

“We have seen Hamas strengthen its presence there, and this increases the likelihood that Hamas will take control of the Palestinian Authority, precisely as it did in Gaza,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “This will not advance peace; it will advance terror.”

As the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Police continue a widespread hunt for the teens, worldwide Jewry is showing its support through prayer and social media, with the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys going viral. The hashtag, modeled after #BringBack OurGirls, which went viral after 230 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by the Islamist Boko Haram group in April, has received as many as 4,600 tweets per hour, according to social media analytics site hashtags.org. A Facebook page with the same name had more than 93,000 likes as of Tuesday, and a companion Instagram account had more than 1,800 followers.

Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, who was scheduled to speak at Beth Tfiloh Tuesday night, was forced by the recent events to cancel his appearance. In lieu of that program, the congregation is holding a group recitation of Psalms in merit of the kidnapped teens.

“Prayer, signing petitions, does it serve any purpose?” asked Wohlberg. “If nothing else, it makes you feel like you’re doing something about it.”

At least 10 Baltimore-area congregations held similar gatherings Monday night, and more were due to do so throughout the week.

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Jewish Federation of Howard County released statements sending thoughts and prayers to the families of the missing teens and denouncing the kidnappings.

“At a time when Hamas has become part of the Palestinian Authority, the kidnapping is a tragic paradox,” the statement from The Associated read. “Seizing Israeli teenagers is neither a path to legitimacy nor peace.”

Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer at The Associated, said that the best thing the community can do is express its solidarity with the family and the entire State of Israel. The online posts do help, he said, noting that several people from Baltimore’s sister city of Ashkelon who are in town this week said they feel the support from social media posts.

“To see the number of posts on the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership Facebook page or to see the hashtag ‘Bring BackOurBoys,’ to see thousands of posts means something, that the people of Israel are not alone in these tragic times,” said Hoffman.

Chana Siff, associate director of Israel and government relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the council and The Associated are in constant contact with the Israeli Embassy and are providing the embassy with what they need. Siff, who oversees the Baltimore Israel Coalition, said the embassy asked for certain information to be distributed and promoted on social media, including use of the hashtag.

The JCC of Greater Baltimore posted to social media a photo of employees holding letters that spelled out “Bring Back Our Boys” in front of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Monday.

The online support has spread worldwide with Bring Back Our Boys billboards and bus ads in Israel, social media support from Paris, Barcelona and the United Kingdom and a song, “Bring Back Our Boys,” by popular
Israeli singers Naftali Kalfa and Gad Elbaz.

“It does make a difference,” said Hoffman.

This story is developing. For updates, visit jewishtimes.com.