Building for the Future Talmudical Academy Turns 100, Starts Its Expansion

Talmudical Academy starts its expansion. (Photo by David Stuck)

“In rural history, 100 years is not long, but in American Jewish history, it is an incredibly long time,” Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, executive director of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim — Talmudical Academy (TA), proclaimed proudly. “To have a Jewish day school around for 100 years is historic.”

Cohen cannot stop raving about the monumental anniversary that one of Baltimore’s staple schools for Torah learning is celebrating this year.

Talmudical Academy is marking its centennial with a much-needed expansion of its campus, which remains largely unchanged since it was first built. The buildings were meant to serve a population of 450 students. Today, however, that space and more than a dozen portable trailers house more than 1,000 students.

Although construction has started, the school will hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 10:15 a.m. at its campus, 4445 Old Court Road.

Founded in 1917 by Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz, Talmudical Academy was only the third Jewish day school in the United States and the first outside of New York City. The school has been located on Old Court Road since 1967 after a devastating 1964 fire eventually caused the school to move from its Cottage Avenue campus. One hundred years ago, Schwartz’s Hebrew Parochial School was housed in a Baltimore City apartment, and the school had just four students in that first year.

“We have a tremendous number of proud alumni,” said Cohen. “The legacy is what people are so proud of. We have over 50 students documented who are third-generation TA, some students who are fourth generation. That just doesn’t happen in other schools. You have families that are a part of the Baltimore community and just intricately woven into the history of TA, families that have watched us grow and flourish and have been a part of it.”

The expansion will grow the campus from 9½ acres to 11½ acres and will include new buildings for an early childhood center and a high school building, adding a total of 70,000 square feet of educational space. The expansion will provide the school with a total of 70 classrooms, doubling available learning space.

Digital rendering of the new campus (Provided)

According to the school’s building campaign, the expanded space will feature state-of-the-art facilities including a beit midrash, a large cafeteria, multipurpose rooms, “technological aids in every classroom,” therapy and resource rooms, new playgrounds and fields and a new gymnasium.

Currently, preschoolers and kindergarteners share a building with the elementary school, while the middle and high schools share a separate space. The expansion will provide each division of the school with its own building.

“An alumnus told me the other day [that] normally when you make an addition to a building it is more of a luxury, something nice,” said Rabbi Yaakov Lefkovitz, TA’s director of development. “This is not a luxury. This is a necessity to build. We were cramped when we were here, and future generations shouldn’t have to be like that.”

The $22 million campaign has been in the works for about five years.

“I think it’s really cool,” said seventh-grader Eli Friedman. “A long time ago, they said they would do it, but everybody in the school wasn’t certain if it was going to happen. It’s going to look really good.”

The groundbreaking ceremony is primarily for the community, which has strongly supported TA since its move to the Scott’s Hill neighborhood.

From left: Rabbi Yaakov Lefkovitz, Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz and Rabbi Yaacov Cohen (Photo by Rabbi Elchanan Ciment)

“As we have been preparing [to expand], we have seen a demonstration of pure love and support for our school,” said Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz, who is celebrating his 30th year as president of TA. “People have not even begun to see the development, yet we have been successful in raising substantial dollars toward this campaign. The Scott’s Hill community at large, the neighbors that we have here are very supportive. We want to express our sincere appreciation. We really want this to be an opportunity where we can say, ‘Thank you.’”

In celebration of the expansion, the Krupp and Ray families are dedicating a new Torah scroll as a part of the project. The first word of the new scroll will be written at the groundbreaking.

The idea was proposed by Ari and Shoshana Krupp, Talmudical Academy parents and active members of the school community. Ari is a former chairman of the TA executive board, and Shoshana is a former co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association. The couple first had the idea of producing a new Torah scroll to celebrate the school’s milestone at the 99th anniversary dinner last year.

“We were excited to participate in the physical building of the next 100 years while also participating in the next 100 years of spiritual Torah learning for the yeshiva as well,” said Ari. “A Jewish education is the fundamental component of the future of the Jewish people. It is our responsibility to give our children the best education possible. It is something that we consider personally to be very meaningful. Ultimately, that is what the school does. We are teaching the Torah, and to participate in this way with the physical growth of the school is awesome.”

The Ray family, Shoshana’s parents, have taken part in the writing of several Torahs in the last decade, according to Ari. The new scroll for Talmudical will be written by a sofer, Rabbi Heshy Pincus.

“We are starting to write the new scroll with the construction of the building, and we will finish it and bring it in as the new building is completed,” said Cohen. “It’s the essence of what the whole school is about. It revolves around Torah study.”

“There is a beautiful connection,” affirmed Yehuda Lefkovitz. “We are building these buildings to celebrate our role in teaching Torah for 100 years in this community, so that linkage is wonderful.”

As an additional element of the centennial celebration, Rabbi Yechiel Spero, an eighth-grade teacher at TA, is authoring a book — to be presented at this year’s annual banquet — that will tell the history of the school and share stories from alumni.

“We would love for people to come back and tell their stories,” said Cohen. “There are alumni all over Baltimore who we don’t know about. Many of them are elderly. This is the year we need them back. We want them to meet our kids. Imagine if someone who was here in the 1930s or ’40s came and told their stories to these kids. We want to find these people.”

TA students catch a glimpse of construction. (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Tali Strum, a parent of TA students and a member of the school’s executive board, explained that he can’t go a few weeks without bumping into someone with a connection to Talmudical Academy. He said that although TA primarily serves the Orthodox community, he runs into alumni in nearly all of his interactions, “be it academic, Jewish and local leadership, legal, medical, academia.”

“It is uncanny the reach of the school,” Strum added. “Understanding a little history and how much the world in general and Baltimore itself have changed, it is incredible to realize that this institution has managed to change and grow and stay crucial and relevant to these new generations.”

Strum says TA’s mission is “to produce boys who are not only motivated and driven, but equipped to exhibit and expect excellence from themselves in three areas: religious study and observance; secular studies and involvement in the professional and business world; and a commitment to personal growth and interpersonal relationships.”

Although for now, students learn in classes the size of closets, Strum says “the boys are still happy and smiling and learning, but it is not as comfortable as it should be.”

Students already are feeling the excitement.

“People are eager to see what is going on outside,” said eighth-grader Mordechai Michael, “but it hasn’t interrupted our daily schedules.”

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

End-of-Life Hearing in Md. General Assembly Draws Passionate Testimony

Doug Tsitouris and Ellen Dinerman make their case for the End-of-Life Option Act. (Justin Silberman)

Doug Tsitouris suffers from advanced emphysema and says with certainty that he isn’t afraid to die. But when the time arises, he wants to go out on his own terms.

Tsitouris, 68, of Cape St. Claire in Anne Arundel County, was diagnosed with his terminal illness about seven years ago. But an oxygen tank with plastic tubes running through his nose to help him breathe led to him living longer than his doctors expected. Eventually, he said, his condition will get to the point where he wants “some measure of dignity” and comfort in how he will die.

That’s why Tsitouris backs the Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act, which would grant terminally ill Marylanders with six months or less to live the opportunity to request lethal medication to end their lives.

“I think we should treat ourselves with as much dignity and compassion as we treat our pets,” Tsitouris said. “For me, it’s all about quality of life. As an adult, I think the person doing the dying should have the last word if they are terminally ill.”

Members from the House Health and Government Operations Committee listened to hours of gut-wrenching testimony from those who both support and oppose the act in a hearing that drew more than 300 people to Annapolis on Feb. 16.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13) and Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-District 13), would require two doctors — including the patient’s primary care physician — to confirm that a patient meets all the requirements of the measure. A doctor would have to decide whether the patient has six months or less to live, has the mental capacity to make a sound medical decision and could administer the medication on his or her own.

“This is about personal autonomy,” said Pendergrass, a Jewish delegate from Howard County. “People should have the right to have a say over their bodies without any interference from the government. No one knows my own destiny better than me.”

This marked the third consecutive year the House has held a hearing for the measure, which remains one of the most polarizing issues in the Jewish community. In each of the two past years, previous versions of the bill failed to generate enough support to make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

While proponents affirmed that sufficient protections would be carefully outlined for elderly, disabled and otherwise vulnerable patients, not everyone was persuaded patients couldn’t be coerced or manipulated into making a decision against their wishes.

Sheryl Grossman, 41, of Pikesville, has Bloom syndrome, also known as Bloom-Torre-Machacek syndrome, a rare autosomal recessive disorder characterized by short stature and predisposition to the development of cancer.

Grossman has beaten nine different forms of cancer and said she fears that if the bill were signed into law, she wouldn’t be alive today.

“As a disabled person, this bill scares me even more because I know the societal barriers, stigma and discrimination that [disabled people] face. Our lives are often seen as being the worse quality of life and less worthy than others,” said Grossman, who added that doctors told her parents she wouldn’t live past the age of 2. “It is far too easy to coerce someone into thinking of themselves as a burden to medical care staff or family members.”

Rabbis who have witnessed the painful death of loved ones say they think the bill could provide suitable closure for terminally ill patients.

George Driesen, an adjunct rabbi at Bethesda-based Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, said Jewish tradition clearly states that people are not obliged to suffer.

“People can’t take over God’s role and limitations of what they can do, but it is clear that suffering and Judaism is not a virtue, whereas among other faiths, it’s a sin,” Driesen said.

Tsitouris, who is of Greek descent, said he doesn’t consider himself a very religious person. But if he were, he said he would identify as Jewish because of the freedom he feels the religion allows for individuals to make their own choices, which he thinks the bill accomplishes.

“To Jews, what is important is that you lead a good, moral life, and that makes clear and complete sense to me,” Tsitouris said. “In evey respect, this bill allows for people to do what’s right for them.”

Some rabbis took issue with the bill on religious grounds, citing Halachah. They also believe the legislation could lead to the premature deaths of individuals who have longer to live.

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, said he had doubts if any of the Jewish legislators supporting the bill took religious beliefs or values into account.

“We’ve never tried to influence public policy, because we feel that the way of Judaism should be accepted by the state. It’s pretty insulting to go ahead and say someone who is accepting their faith by God is considered to have a lack of dignity,” said Sadwin, who testified for the third time in as many years. “The greater dignity is when you go ahead and accept the fate that has been handed to you, even if it’s not easy. So to go ahead and hit the restart button and say ‘I can’t hack it anymore’ is insulting.”

In a letter of opposition, the Baltimore Jewish Council asserted “all life is sacred and that we are all created in the image of God. Suicide is a violation of Jewish law, as is assisting in a suicide.”

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41), one of the bill’s 55 co-sponsors in the House, urged critics to keep an open mind.

“No one would be forcing anyone to take advantage of this law,” Rosenberg said. “In my mind, the individual choice takes precedent. The value of giving an individual the choice is a positive, not a negative.”

The practice is legally permitted in six states — Oregon, Washington, California, Vermont, Montana and Colorado — and Rosenberg said it’s Maryland’s turn to join them.

Dr. Michael Strauss, 63, of Montgomery County, is a retired internist and current health policy consultant who said there is greater optimism for passage this year.

He pointed to a Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) poll that found 65 percent of Maryland voters support end-of-life measures and 60 percent of physicians either support it or are neutral.

“This is a decision that should be between a doctor and a patient, and we have seen that the majority have expressed those sentiments,” Strauss said. “For the small minority of patients who suffer with physical pain, why should they be denied this option?”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Well-Connected Day School Teacher Suspected of Sexual Abuse in Pittsburgh

(©iStockphoto.com/RinoCdZ)

After a lengthy investigation, a former teacher at Yeshiva Boys School of Pittsburgh, an important institution in the Chabad-Lubavitch educational system, is a suspect in several alleged incidents of child sexual abuse.

According to police, Rabbi Nisson Friedman, 26, who is well connected in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and is the son of an influential Minnesota-based rabbi, is suspected of sexually assaulting at least three boys while employed by the school. Det. Bryan Sellers of the city’s Bureau of Police Sex Assault Team, who is investigating the case, said he is “absolutely certain” there are additional victims.

The suspected assaults occurred both privately and publicly, including at least once in the Yeshiva building on Wightman Street in Pittsburgh. According to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools, that incident was discovered last year on Sept. 24 during Shabbat services in the building. Rosenfeld said that a member of the community observed Friedman “touching a child inappropriately” in the facility’s library and alerted the school’s administration.

The administration promptly reported the disclosure of the suspected assault to the police, to the state’s mandated ChildLine and Abuse Registry as well as to other authorities, said Rosenfeld, and immediately suspended Friedman from his teaching duties. Friedman has left his position with Yeshiva Schools permanently.

Attempts to contact Friedman were unsuccessful. A member of his family who did not want to be identified noted that Friedman himself is a victim of child sexual abuse.

The school’s swift response to the suspected assault was praised as “exemplary” by Sellers as well as by others who are experienced in matters of child sexual abuse.

“Yeshiva followed the correct procedures right out of the gate,” said Sellers. “They got Rabbi Friedman out immediately, they have been accommodating law enforcement, and they have been providing spots at the school to conduct interviews [relative to the case].”

Additional claims of assault against Freidman are coming from parents in Pittsburgh as well as from other communities, said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of Yeshiva Boys School.

“For a long period of time, there was one allegation we were aware of, but now there are multiple stories,” Rosenblum said.

Friedman began working at Yeshiva as a full-time teacher in September 2014; he worked as a teacher’s aide for one year prior to that and also was on staff for five years at Yeshiva’s Camp Gan Israel summer day camp in the boys’ primary division. Campers at Gan Israel include families beyond those affiliated with Pittsburgh’s Chabad community.

Friedman also worked at other camps in the Pittsburgh Jewish community during that time, Sellers said, although he did not identify the other camps.

Yeshiva informed many of its parents about the accusations against Friedman shortly after the suspected abuse was discovered last fall and, after the police determined that doing so would not impede their investigation, had a meeting with the wider school community on Tuesday, Jan. 31, “to keep all apprised of the status of the investigation and to make available the mental health and law enforcement professionals we are consulting with to answer any questions that can be answered at this time,” according to a prepared statement from Yeshiva.

An arrest warrant has not yet been issued, but it is “inevitable” that one will be forthcoming, said Sellers. Friedman is no longer in Pittsburgh and may be living in New York, according to multiple sources.

Deborah Fox, founder of Magen Yeladim, a national organization based in California that works to prevent child abuse through education, and intervenes with resources when abuse does occur, commended the Yeshiva administration for its handling of the case. Fox came to Pittsburgh two years ago to help train Yeshiva staff on child abuse prevention and to speak to children about staying safe and was also present at the Jan. 31 meeting.

“When this current situation came up, [Yeshiva] called me immediately,” Fox said. “I recommended they call Child Protective Services, and I advised the school to get an attorney. And they did. They really followed through in every way. They were exemplary and a model for how a school should handle a very dramatic situation. Nobody wants this to happen, but if it does, you have to know how to deal with it.”

Fox noted the particular “sensitivity” in this case, praising the school for acting in accordance with proper protocol despite outside pressures. Friedman is connected to several Jewish institutions throughout Pittsburgh. Moreover, Friedman hails from a renowned Lubavitch family and is the son of an influential Minneapolis-based rabbi.

Despite Nisson Friedman’s connections, Yeshiva Schools employed the same vetting procedure before hiring him as it does for all its other potential employees, according to Rosenblum. That vetting includes procuring FBI clearances, checks with the Department of Homeland Security and personal interviews.

“It just shows you, with everything, you never know,” Rosenfeld said. “Unfortunately, this is a sickness like so many others. It is unfortunately sad, but it is what it is, and we have to protect our children. The safety of our children is paramount.”

The actions of Yeshiva may be contrasted to those of other schools in both secular and religious communities that chose instead to cover it up. The examples include the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State and Yeshiva University High School in New York City, where 34 former students claimed in a $680 million lawsuit that administrators had covered up abuse for decades.

Fox’s advice to the community when it comes to child abuse is: “If you see something, say something. The more that the community is aware, the more the community can make it unsafe for a predator.”

Toby Tabachnick is a reporter at The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Soldiering On Love for Israel and its people draws locals to Israel Defense Forces

Just their first week on the job and Gil Kuttler’s friends were run over by a terrorist.

As newly minted soldiers, the potential for terrorism and violence — in general, if not the specifics of a collision with a car — comes with the territory. Just maybe not quite so early.

Gil and his friends are lone soldiers, those who serve in the Israel Defense Forces without the support of immediate Israeli family. In practice, this includes Israelis who serve either in defiance of their family or who do not have any family, but is predominated by foreign volunteers of Jewish descent, like Gil.

Gil Kuttler, 19, a class of 2015 Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, was acclimating himself to his kibbutz while his four friends were waiting at a bus stop just outside Jerusalem when a car being driven by a Palestinian rammed into them in late November 2015. Two were injured and, after exiting the car to keep the fight going, according to Israeli media reports, the driver was shot and killed by a passing citizen with a pistol. The incident was covered across Israeli media and even made it overseas into U.S. outlets.

Though Gil was not (yet) in harm’s way, it was certainly not the most auspicious beginning in the eyes of his mother home in Pikesville, Robyn Schaffer.

“I make the conscious decision not to go there [with worry] because if I do, I would go crazy,” she said. Gil has about half of his two-and-a-half years of service left.

Instead, Schaffer said she is “bursting with pride” for her two sons, Gil and his elder brother, Joseph (who goes by Yossi) Kuttler, who both made aliyah to serve the Jewish homeland through the IDF.

The IDF is the official military of Israel, established at the same time as the State of Israel in 1948, although it traces its roots back to relatively ad-hoc paramilitary organizations of the early 1900s, according to the IDF website. It encompasses the country’s army, air force and navy. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are conscripted into service, barring certain exemptions made on religious, physical or psychological grounds.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lone soldiers, many of them specifically making aliyah to serve in the IDF. There are currently about 3,000 lone soldiers in the IDF, according to Friends of the IDF, a lone soldier support organization, out of about 176,500 active personnel. Of those from overseas (a total of 80 countries), a quarter were from the United States in 2014. The mid-Atlantic region, which includes Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is generally third or fourth in the country for how many recruits it sends to the IDF (vying with New Jersey, New York and California), said Ari Dallas, executive director of the Midatlantic Region for FIDF.

“I think it’s really the essence of what we are,” he said about helping lone soldiers. “Their job is to protect Israel, and it’s our job to protect them.”

The FIDF provides plane tickets to lone soldiers to visit their families and and friends back home, along with other support, primarily in Israel.

Those plane tickets are provided for free or very cheap by the Israeli airline, El Al, whose spokesperson said it is a service they are happy to provide.

“We are a national company,” said Yoram Elgrabli, managing director for El Al in North and Central America who has a son serving as a lone solder. “We know the importance of the soldiers. … I like to say the real bridge between Israel and the U.S. is El Al.”

Gil (left) and Yossi Kuttler (Photo provided)

Those from outside Israel who serve in the IDF all share a love of Israel, of course, but from there, individual motivations vary. The brothers Kuttler are a good example. Gil and Yossi are close, both in age and relationship, if not necessarily personality. Gil, though he joined up after his brother (they overlapped in service for about a year), is more gung-ho about his military service, a longtime dream of his.

“I don’t know what [Yossi] told you, but it was my idea first,” he said from his base in Hevron, where he was (rather grudgingly) chopping vegetables for dinner while chatting with the JT. “I’ve been thinking of this since I was 5.”

Yossi doesn’t disagree with that characterization at all. He’s more introspective about his service, which he viewed as his duty to Israel and the Jewish people. Now a 21-year-old freshman at University of Maryland, College Park studying English and English education, he’s glad to be done with service but wouldn’t trade his experience.

Before making aliyah in 2014, Yossi, a 2013 Beth Tfiloh grad, was all set to attend business school at the University of Maryland. Then he visited Israel on the senior class trip and felt a pull, not just to the country, but to protect its heritage, his heritage.

“It was something I thought I could look back on and be proud I had served the greater good of the Jewish people,” he said.

He was “bit by the bug” of Israel, his mom said, as she had been at his age after her first trip to Israel. She was a little shocked, she said, by his decision but passed on the advice of her father.

Yossi Kuttler receives his beret upon completion of basic training. (Photo provided)

“When Yossi called me [from Israel] and said, ‘Mom, we have to talk,’ I said, ‘I know you have a whole speech rehearsed, but I’m going to tell you what my dad told me: Come home for the summer, and if you still want to do it, I’m all behind you,’” she said.

And he did. And then Gil followed a short time later. Both joined the Paratroopers Brigade, a unit with a storied history in the IDF.

Gil and Yossi are not the only from the Baltimore area to serve in the IDF. They’re not even the only ones from their neighborhood. There’s something in the water off the corner of Labyrinth Road and Smith Avenue in Pikesville, right by Pikesville High School. The number of young men and women who recently did serve or are serving the IDF is practically enough to form their own squad.

The Kuttler brothers on Labyrinth south of Pikesville High, the Harrison kids — Eyal, Qeshet and Baraq — on Labyrinth just across from Pikesville High and Lily Walder on Smith have all donned the lone soldier uniform. Coincidentally, Yossi, Lily and Eyal even ended up on the same kibbutz that was their home away from home in the early days prior to full service in the IDF.

Lily, like Yossi, had other plans in mind before deciding to make aliyah and join the IDF. She had just been accepted into the five-year master’s program for occupational therapy at Towson University. Also a Beth Tfiloh lifer, she had taken a Young Judea gap year in Israel and fell in love. Israel had always been relevant to her life, she said, but that year shifted her perspective, and she came to view Israel as “my home, my responsibility, my territory.” One year into school and she left. Israel was beckoning.

Her dream IDF job was as a weapons instructor, but first, she had to improve her Hebrew.

Lily Walder with a group of fellow soldiers (Photo provided)

“I didn’t leave everything in the states to be someone’s secretary and get them coffee,” she said. Luckily, her studying paid off, and Lily went on to teach handheld explosives to other soldiers.

“When I say it to Americans, it sounds badass,” she said from Tel Aviv, where she now makes her home since finishing her two years this past April. “But when I say it to Israelis, it’s normal.”

Lily’s parents, Charles and Suzanne Walder, worried about her, as every parent worries for their children, they said, but saw how happy and confident she was in Israel.

“She loved it,” Charles said.

“Yeah, and she was good at it,” Suzanne added. Watching their daughter’s graduation ceremony from boot camp in Israel was “one of the proudest moments of our lives,” Suzanne went on to say.

And, much to Lily’s pleasant surprise, the army turned out to be welcoming and respectful to women, treating everyone as soldiers, she said.

“I am so impressed with the Israeli army and how they treat women there,” she continued. “I always felt very much respected, very much appreciated and taken seriously.”

It was Lily’s love for Israel that carried her through aliyah and IDF service, and, at least for now, she’s staying put. Israel is home.

Alex Simone (Photo provided)

Yossi, Gil and Lily all served either right after, or shortly after, graduation from high school. That’s the most frequent choice, but it’s not how Alex Simone, 28, a 2006 Beth Tfiloh grad, did it. He did the college life first and, once graduating, felt a bit adrift in his early 20s.

“Part of it was just looking for adventure after university,” he admitted. “I was only 22 and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ This was something that really connected with me at the time. So, I decided I could do it and eventually found I had to do it.”

For Alex, telling his parents was a little tricky. He knew they would force him to defend his position. So, he researched his way to success.

“They were tough conversations,” he said. “I made sure I did my research and had some plans ahead of time.” His father, Vito Simone, agreed he and his wife, Gail, wanted to ensure their son knew what he was doing.

“When he first brought it up, of course, my wife was scared to death, and we both challenged Alex vigorously to defend his decision,” said Vito, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s. “That’s our parenting style, I guess you could say.”

Alex made his case, and his family got on board “100 percent,” his dad said.

Alex, in what is apparently the Baltimore special, also joined the Paratroopers Brigade. And what started out as adventure, well, was an adventure, but it was also something more.

“To me, [Israel] means we have a place in the world,” he said. “We have no idea if we would even exist without this place.”

All those who join do so with the knowledge they may be putting their life on the line for the love of Israel — for Jordan Low, a classmate of Yossi’s at Beth Tfiloh who served as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, and his family, that became a much more tangible concern in July 2014 when he and fellow soldiers were searching a potential Hamas weapons stash during Operation Protective Edge and the building was struck by two rockets, according to local media reports at the time.

Jordan held the ladder for all his fellow soldiers to get out safely, his father, Jeffrey Low, told the JT at the time, and was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah — and commitment — to join up with the armed forces, any armed forces. Perhaps more than other military options, the IDF also has a specific ideological purpose, a tie to an identity that is bigger than just Israel.

“I spent part of my life dedicated to an idea greater than myself,” Yossi said, summing up his complicated thoughts on his time with the IDF. “It was extremely difficult — mentally, physically, being away from my family and America — but, yes, I would do it again.”

hmonicken@midatlanticmedia.com

David Simon-Organized Pro-Immigrant Rally Draws Sold-Out Crowd to Beth Am

David Simon (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

The sold-out City of Immigrants rally organized by “The Wire” creator David Simon filled Beth Am Synagogue Monday night and raised tens of thousands of dollars for local and national nonprofits who work on behalf of immigrants.

The event was also livestreamed by The Washington Post, the Facebook video of which had more than 75,000 views as of Tuesday afternoon.

Beth Am Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, whose congregation holds 1,100 people, opened the event, telling the story of a time, shortly after the election, when he called a Muslim colleague (Imam Yaseen Shaikh, resident scholar at the Islamic Association of Baltimore and also a speaker at the rally) to tell him the rhetoric of islamophobia and xenophobia does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Muslim brethren. The next day, Burg went on to say, he received a call from a Christian colleague of his, telling Burg that the anti-Semitic rhetoric does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Jewish brethren.

The crowd laughed, but Burg had a larger point: “Our worst America tendencies can reveal our best American values,” he said.

Simon spoke shortly after Burg, praising both “my city” and “my synagogue.” He read from a post to his website in November 2015 that used the story of his family — many on both his mother’s and father’s sides died in the Holocaust — to shed light on the cruelty of U.S. leaders’ intents to shut out refugees in their time of need.

“These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain,” he said. “Or we could be more. And looking at this audience, I know we can be more.”

Steve Earle (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

There were a number of other speakers throughout the evening, including those representing the four benefiting organizations: the National Immigration Law Center, the Tahirih Justice Center (which works with women and children fleeing violence), the International Rescue Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Also among the speakers were well-known Baltimoreans such as DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, and Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of a trilogy of books on Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner of Baltimore City, was perhaps, on the surface, a surprising choice until she started speaking of her own family’s fraught immigration story. Wen was born in Shanghai and her parents were political dissidents. Her father was in jail for much of the early years of her life. When she was 8 years old, she and her father joined her mother in the United States.

When her mother’s visa extension was denied, the family was close to living illegally, but their application for political asylum came through just days before that was set to happen. Wen said she is all too aware of how lucky she is, when it does not work out as well for so many other immigrants.

“This is my story and it’s not one I’m used to telling,” she said. “I don’t know if you can tell, but this is hard for me. Now, in some ways, my story is unique, but it is also the story of multitudes of refugees.”

Wen ended her speech with a plea for those attending to “tell our stories.” Those in the room, she said, have the lives they do thanks to the sacrifice of previous generations.

“This is not them, the immigrants, versus us, the Americans,” she said. “They are us.”

The event ended with some loud hand clapping, foot stomping and cheering from the crowd, roused by “House of Cards” writer Beau Willimon, leading into a short set from rock, country and folk singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

Earle’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” turned into a moving audience sing-along. He played two more songs — appropriately, given the venue, “God is God” and “Jerusalem” — before ending with his song that gave the event its name, “City of Immigrants.”

“It made me proud to be Jewish tonight, with this event being held in the synagogue,” said attendee Lissa Abrams after the event. “It felt good.”

Kevin Heslin, another attendee, heard about the event from his daughter’s boyfriend in Connecticut. He couldn’t go but felt someone should, Heslin said.

“I looked it up and thought, ‘This is a good cause,’” he said. “We need more of this right now. It was great.”

hmonicken@midatlanticmedia.com

Baltimore Jewish Film Festival Turns 29

“Rock in the Red Zone” (Dir. Laura Bialias; 2015, Israel) (Photo Provided)

“Rock in the Red Zone” (Dir. Laura Bialias; 2015, Israel) (Photo Provided)

The Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the JCC of Greater Baltimore will present the 29th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival starting Sunday, March 19.

Running through Sunday, April 30, the festival — one of the oldest in the country — will screen nearly 20 short and feature films from around the world and will be bringing a number of special guests to take part in spirited question-and-answer sessions following certain showings.

“Baltimore is the cultural hub of the region,” said Alyson Bonavoglia, director of film festival & special projects at the Gordon, which is for the second time facilitating the BJFF.

“It’s a region that has one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities on the East, so it absolutely makes sense to have a Jewish film  festival in Baltimore.”

“Even though, technically, we’re not actually in Baltimore,” Bonavoglia laughed about  the Gordon’s being located in Owings Mills.

“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” (Dir. Daniel Raim; 2015, USA) (Photo Provided)

“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” (Dir. Daniel Raim; 2015, USA) (Photo Provided)

Seventy films were originally nominated (by word of mouth or direct submission) for the festival, and the selection committee made its decisions from July to November 2016.

“It was pretty obvious after all of the vetting which ones rose to the top,” Bonavoglia said.

One such film is director Laura Bialis’ documentary “Rock in the Red Zone,” which will have its Maryland premiere at the BJFF on Sunday, April 23 at 3 p.m.

“I’ve done a lot of films about Jewish subjects,” said Bialis, 43, who grew up in and still lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and will be coming out to the Gordon to speak at her screening. “They tend to be about human rights stuff.”

Bialis lived in Israel for 10 years to produce her film, which explores the unique music scene that has sprung up in the war-torn city of Sderot. Dangerously close to Gaza, Sderot has been pummeled by rocket fire for the past 15 years, and yet, what Bialis found there was “some of the most amazing music I had ever heard, coming from some of the most incredible bands.”

During the process of filming — which included learning Hebrew and becoming so ingrained in the community of Sderot that she began giving tours to other visiting Americans — Bialis also discovered a young singer-songwriter who became more than a large focus of her story.

Originally roommates who hadn’t known each other prior, Bialis and Avi Vaknin would become friends and then husband and wife over the span of the film’s chronicling of what eventually became a very personal journey for the director.

The two moved back to Bialis’ hometown so that she could tour around the country with her film (which premiered in the United States in November 2015) and husband Vaknin could play his music, often as a live-action part of the film screenings.

“Awake Zion” (Dir. Monica Haim; 2013, USA) (Photo Provided)

“Awake Zion” (Dir. Monica Haim; 2013, USA) (Photo Provided)

Scurrying away from rocket fire while running around with her camera was a challenge for Bialis that was only mitigated in part by the fantastic stories she heard and people she met, along with that singular music of those who had grown up ready to run at any moment from impending missile attacks.

“There were times that the rockets fell right across the street from our house,” Bialis said. “But since the most intimate stuff was just me and my camera and these people, I  felt like I needed to be there. I became friends with all of these people, and it changed the film, making it what it is today.”

The 29th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival will take place at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts from Sunday, March 19 to Sunday, April 30; tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door and $5 for students (at the door only, as available); for more information, visit gordoncenter.com.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

The Great Divide Love him or hate him, Trump has put his presidency on the firing line

U.S. President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast event in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (Newscom TagID: rtrleight533093.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

(Ebony Brown)

President Donald Trump’s first three weeks in office is all the confirmation Bernie Salganik needed to reinforce that he voted for the right candidate.

Salganik said it initially took some time for him to get behind Trump. But Salganik, a registered Republican who refers to himself as an “independent,” said he was drawn to Trump because he is someone “with a strong work ethic who gets things done.”

“It became easier to support Trump as I heard him talk and listened to his message of what he wanted for the people of America,” said Salganik, a 76-year-old Edgemere resident who is Orthodox and grew up a staunch Democrat in Baltimore City. “I wouldn’t have called myself a Trump backer at first, but as he started to emerge, what he was saying really started to click.”

For many other Jews in the Greater Baltimore area who opposed the election results and inauguration, however, Trump is a far cry from the ideal president.

In heavily Democratic Baltimore, where only about one in four voters backed Trump, protests have become commonplace in the wake of what some view as controversial actions taken by the president.

Ben Silverberg, 32, an Owings Mills native who is Conservative, said those like himself who don’t support Trump shouldn’t spend the next four years sitting around silently.

“What this man has done in only such a short period of time is absolutely reprehensible,” said Silverberg, who added he has attended several Trump protests in the city since November. “We need people to band together, think about the future and how we should proceed next with everything that is going on right now.”

In his first three weeks as president, Trump, at 70, the oldest elected president, took steps to deliver on many of his signature campaign promises.

He signed executive orders aimed at building a wall along the Mexico border, stopping the flow of Syrian refugees into the country and banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, and he announced his selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result of these actions, the reality of Trump’s presidency has led to a great rift in the Jewish community across the denominational spectrum, provoking both fear and hope. There are a number of differences taking place along normal political lines, which have grown more noticeable as the country has become more partisan.

Split Opinions

President Donald Trump reads the first of three executive orders he signed on Jan. 23. This one concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The others were a government hiring freeze for all departments but the military and a ban on federal funding of abortions overseas. (Ron Sachs, Pool/Getty Images)

Where many Trump detractors see a serial exaggerator, a spreader of lies and a hurler of insults, Trump’s supporters see a man of action looking to deliver for the nation.

Ruth Goetz, an Orthodox Pikesville resident and registered Republican, believes Trump is carrying out precisely the plans he vowed he would to prioritize U.S. national interests over those of foreign countries. Only in politics, Goetz confidently pronounced,would a politician “keeping his promises be so shocking.”

“Our only obligation is to the American citizen,” said Goetz, a Trump supporter. “It’s what’s best for our country. I need to feel safe on my daily routine and for my family to feel safe. It doesn’t say in the constitution that we have to let everybody into our country who wants to come in. Those people can go to other places, because we don’t have any obligation to them.”

In many primarily Orthodox sections of Pikesville, excitement for Trump is robust.

At Pikesville High School on Smith Avenue, a polling place with a large number of Orthodox Jews, voters went for Trump by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

However, as with some Trump rhetoric, the president’s staunch “America First” message, which he proudly delivered during his inauguration speech, has made others uncomfortable and rubbed them the wrong way.

Politics_cover_Ruth Goldstein_provided

Ruth Goldstein (Provided)

Ruth Goldstein, 64, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, is worried about how civil liberties for minorities around the country could be challenged under the Trump administration. Much of that fear stems from Trump’s elevation of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former executive chairman of alt-right Breitbart News, to the National Security Council, describing Bannon as “racist, homophobic, xenophobic [and] misogynistic.”

“The fact that [Trump] has practically put Bannon in the Oval Office is terrifying to me,” Goldstein said. “Any pious Jew who purports to be observant is a hypocrite if they can support Trump, who has embraced this white supremacist.”

Calls from state Democratic leaders for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to speak out against recent actions of the Trump Administration have gone widely unnoticed.

In response, General Assembly Democrats introduced legislation late last month that would protect Marylanders’ rights against potentially “negative actions” from Trump and the federal government.

One of the measures in the five-bill package, the Maryland Act of 2017, would grant Maryland Democratic Attorney General Brian E. Frosh the power to take legal action against the federal government without permission from Hogan or the General Assembly. Frosh and 15 other attorneys general filed an amicus brief on Monday in support of the federal lawsuit against Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Rayna Verstandig, 20, a registered Republican from Pikesville who is Conservative and a sophomore at Tulane University, said such a measure, if passed, would do more to add to the political discourse between Democrats and Republicans in Maryland.

“In my opinion, the Democratic opposition that has occurred just in the first weeks of this presidency is counterproductive to persuading the voters they lost in November,” said Verstandig, who added she voted for Trump.

politics_cover_Rayna Verstandig_provided

Rayna Verstandig (Provided)

Verstandig said she’s able to have civil political discourse with those whose views differ from hers and hopes others can do the same in the coming years. She also feels the nation is shifting toward “making political correctness a higher priority than national security,” a trend she said she finds particularly “troubling.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I think that a vital component to a well-functioning society is the ability to have constructive conversations and respectful, open debate,” Verstandig said. “However, the political atmosphere has become so divided that many individuals are not capable or willing to engage in a dialogue that would justify an opposing view. The Republicans and the Trump administration are not innocent in creating controversy.”

Immigrants and the Economy

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Trump made headlines when he issued a statement in which he called to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

It also marked the same day he followed through with an executive order banning all people from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

“If a sizable fraction of the Jewish population and community in the country begin to oppose Trump, then he will do toward them what he’s done toward everyone else who has opposed him,” said Donald Norris, director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s School of Public Policy. “He will belittle, bully, berate and, ultimately, take action to shut them down.”

Mandee Heinl, 26, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, said she’s concerned Trump could follow through with his plans to deport illegal immigrants. She also fears he will set back women’s rights.

“I think we have an administration that has an idea of what America and Americans should look like and what they should believe,” said Heinl, who added her ancestors had to change their last name from Silberberg to Simmons after World War II to escape anti-Semitism. “I think they will target anyone who doesn’t fit that mold, and that is a very scary thought. When you have an administration that you feel isn’t capable of making fair and just decisions, it’s terrifying to think about.”

Garrett Sawyer, 26, a Reisterstown native now living in Greenville, S.C., who is Reform, believes illegal immigration at the southern border is a problem.

But one of means by which Trump plans to go about funding the project — enforcing a 20 percent tariff on goods imported to the U.S. from Mexico — is not an ideal to proceed with the project, he said.

Politics_cover_Garrett Sawyer_provided

Garrett Sawyer (Provided)

“Personally, I think there are more financially feasible ways to protect our southern border,” Sawyer said. “By the way, a wall doesn’t stop illegals from getting here by boat or other means.”

For Phil Kaplan, 38, a lawyer and Towson resident who grew up in an Orthodox household, stiffening penalties for undocumented workers and providing jobs for Americans are inseparably linked.

“Trump is doing the things that are going to try and help the American people,” Kaplan said. “He’s doing it without regard to what big corporations may want. The corporations still have an interest in shipping jobs overseas and doing things to benefit themselves while continuing to financially hurt 99 percent of the country.”

Salganik’s wife, Linda, 69, who is from Baltimore and Orthodox, voted for Trump, who she views will end bad economic deals and remove government restrictions.

She said Trump’s business acumen will play a critical role in helping reduce the national deficit of nearly $20 trillion, which she feels reflect years of stagnant economic growth, failed trade agreements and reckless spending.

“Our country is in serious, serious trouble financially,” Linda Salganik said. “These politicians just print money, print money and print money. Sooner or later, we’re going to be even more trouble. I don’t think a lot of these young kids who follow what the movie stars or celebrities or rock ‘n’ rollers say negatively about Trump really understand this country could go down the tubes real fast.”

Respect for Gorsuch

One thing some Trump supporters and detractors appear to have in common is a respect for the credentials his Supreme Court nominee, Gorsuch, would bring to the vacancy on the bench left by Antonin Scalia’s death.

By most accounts, Gorsuch is a widely acclaimed jurist, held in high esteem by both conservatives and libertarians but also respected by liberals. Gorsuch boasts an Ivy League pedigree — he earned degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, as well as Oxford University — and has served as a justice on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006.

While Heinl does not agree with how Gorsuch has ruled in the past in cases involving women’s and workers’ rights, she said Democrats should look at his qualifications rather than his political ties.

“I respect his background, his education and his professional history, all of which qualifies him for the job,” Heinl said of Gorsuch. “I mean, I hate his stances and his rulings on certain things, but he’s qualified nonetheless. So, really, if the Democrats try and block this, then how is it any different than the Republicans blocking [former President Barack] Obama’s nomination of [Merrick Garland]?”

Gorsuch’s legal background, which consists of time in both the public and private law, “make him a valuable asset to the bench,” said Bernie Salganik, who holds a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.

Salganik added: “You don’t go to Oxford if you’re the village idiot. The people on the other side of the aisle need to let him come in and do the job he was rightfully picked to do by President Trump.”

Looking Ahead

While Trump won the presidency with an unorthodox approach, he faces a long road in mending the current political atmosphere, according to experts.

Mentioning the fallout from the contentious campaign season, Norris said it would take time to mend the divisions but wondered just how long it would take for things to get back to “business as usual.” Norris added the number of demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest Trump in waves have not reached such levels since the Vietnam War.

“The difficultly with what’s going on is that can it be sustained over six months, one year or four years? There has to be a matter of constant organization,” Norris said. “One march [Women’s March on Washington] won’t do it. The folks who marched in Washington, men and women, and in other cities around the country are going to have to keep mobilizing.”

Demonstrators pack the National Mall during the Women’s March on Washington last month (Ebony Brown)

Heinl was among the estimated 500,000-plus people who took part in the Women’s March and is actively involved in promoting similar causes on social media. She plans to combat Trump’s divisiveness by supporting nonprofit organizations that might be threatened by the new administration.

“Each decision [Trump] is making is more concerning than the one before,” Heinl said. “We have to be on guard.”

Sawyer, meanwhile, said it is up to all to press Trump to follow through on changes that benefit everyone and that it is time to accept him as president.

“At the end of the day, there are lessons to be learned. We need to engage in political discussion, and we need to see and appreciate opposing viewpoints,” Sawyer said. “We need to be honest with our friends, families, business interests and ourselves. The best thing we can do is embrace the idea of balance and diversity.”

Salganik said, “like all presidents,” he expects Trump to have his missteps here and there but that “he will do the job the American people elected him to do.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Advocacy Day Amplifies Jewish Voices in Annapolis

32787377355_4d1617e6ca_z(1)

Avi Schneider and Jonathan Allen of Terps for Israel (David Stuck)

Jonathan Allen and Avi Schneider normally plan their own lobbying trips to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. But on Tuesday night, the pair of University of Maryland, College Park, sophomores decided to shake things up and head to Annapolis.

Allen, 19, and Schneider, 20, the president of and vice president, respectively, of Terps for Israel, joined about 200 people from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Jewish communities for Advocacy Day, which was hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).

“While we have met with members of Congress and Senators, we had really never done anything like this before, so we said, ‘Let’s give it a try and see what happens,’” Schneider said. “It turned out to be a no-brainer.”

It was the first time they had joined another organization’s pre-planned lobbying trip.

“While I have had access on Capitol Hill and met with members of Congress before, I saw a lot more state delegates and senators walking around very casually,” said Allen, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) campus activist. “It was very easy to speak with them just about any issues or topics that are relevant in what’s going around the state.”

The group spent the evening meeting with leaders of the General Assembly from Baltimore City, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties to discuss a host of subjects important to the Jewish communities of Baltimore and Washington.

These included the state’s efforts to divest itself from companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, whether Maryland companies should offer earned sick and safe leave to their workers and budget items the community would like to see funded.

32746839056_ee3cbd40bd_z

Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19) (David Stuck)

Del. Benjamin Kramer, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Montgomery County, said he was pleased to see so many active residents taking an interest in an anti-BDS bill he is the sponsoring.

The bill would prevent the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System from investing in any companies that participate in the BDS movement and also prohibits companies that support BDS from securing state procurement contracts.

“There is a lot of support in the community for this anti-BDS bill, but it is important for my colleagues to hear that. I think we saw that here tonight, so it is important that we have such a strong presence here,” said Kramer, who added he has attended every Advocacy Day since his first full year in the House of Delegates in 2007. I am hoping a lot of folks here leave energized to take up the initiative and get the message out there.”

In addition to pushing for an issue or project, many people used Advocacy Day as a chance to network and foster meaningful relationships with local leaders beyond just politics.

31973288393_e9767631f6_z

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin (David Stuck)

“Just being here, living in our Democratic system in ways that it should be experienced, is essential for America,” said Nina Beth Cardin, 63, a community rabbi and Baltimore native. “I’m afraid with all that is happening that we are losing the fundamental fabric of Democracy that keeps us strong. Democracy is not a spectator sport, but it’s a participant activity.”

Linda Hurwitz, 59, a Baltimore native and chairwoman of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said she feels confident Jewish legislators are committed to working on behalf of the community. She feels the face time cognizant residents such as herself and legislators get to have at Advocacy Day goes a long way toward accomplishing just that.

Among the issues Hurwitz hopes pan out are the BJC’s budget requests for $75,000 for its elder abuse program and for $350,000 in aging-in-place funding for Holocaust survivors.

“To put a face [to the name] and show a sense of passion with personal opinions means so much more than a one-dimensional piece of paper,” said Hurwitz, who has attended Advocacy Day three times. “I believe it is multifaceted when people come and share not only their passions, but their support of something that speaks to them.

“My concerns with everyone are from cradle to grave. We take care of every Jew.”

Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC, said this year’s Advocacy Day is one of the most noteworthy she has been involved with.

32634070792_3161f3475d_z

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) (David Stuck)

Those who attended Tuesday also had the chance to listen to remarks from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) and Kramer during a dinner reception in the Senate Office Building.

“It really is up to our community to make sure they are reaching out to their elected officials, which I think is one of the most important parts of this,” Mersky said.

Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC, said he was also encouraged by the events of the evening.

“This was a very positive day,” Halber said. “There was strong support on almost wall-to-wall issues for all of our issues.”

Photos from Advocacy Day:

Advocacy Day 2017

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Renovations, New Venue Coming from Merriweather Operator

A Bird’s Eye View of Merriweather (Courtesy of Merriweather Post Pavilion)

A Bird’s Eye View of Merriweather (Courtesy of Merriweather Post Pavilion)

“I truly enjoy creating venues,” Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. Productions, which owns the famed 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., operates Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia and promotes concerts at various venues throughout the Baltimore-D.C. areas, told the JT.

To those who know Hurwitz, it’s no wonder that his company name is a humble tip of the hat to the 1963 pop song “It’s My Party.” Though Hurwitz takes his work promoting concerts by such legends as Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Justin Timberlake and Adele seriously, the music venue mogul said the game still always has to be about having a good time.

“A lot of people, when they talk about the music and show businesses, they forget this is about fun,” Hurwitz said.

To spread the vibe, Hurwitz and his I.M.P. have announced the name of their latest venture, a new venue in Southwest Washington called The Anthem, which is being built out as I.M.P. continues renovating Merriweather.

The Anthem will be a $60 million concert venue opening on Oct. 12 as part of The Wharf, itself opening on Oct. 12 as a $2 billion mixed-use waterfront development situated on the Washington Channel and adjacent to the National Mall.

The flexible capacity of The Anthem will vary from 2,500 to 6,000 by employing various configurations via a movable stage and backdrop.

“People ask me all the time about expanding or doing the 9:30 Club somewhere else, but I have no interest in doing that,” Hurwitz said. “There wasn’t The Anthem yet, though, so we’re doing that.”

Hurwitz went on to clarify that as much delight as he takes in creating new venues, he has little to no interest in doing the same thing twice.

The Anthem is a means for Hurwitz to indeed do something different, being that he  already has one nightclub (9:30), one theater (Washington’s Lincoln Theatre) and one amphitheater (Merriweather).

“What was missing was the ‘in-between,’” Hurwitz said. “We’ve had to rent other people’s venues like the Towson Center and school gyms.”

Seth Hurwitz (Erick Gibson)

Seth Hurwitz (Erick Gibson)

Meanwhile, renovations continue at Merriweather, which has been a Maryland music staple since the late 1960s and was ranked as Rolling Stone’s fourth-best amphitheater in the country in 2013.

It was in June 2014, that Hurwitz — along  with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and musician Jack Johnson — announced their $19 million plan for renovating Merriweather, with a projection of reaching completion over the next five off-seasons.

Such renovations include new seating, new restrooms and concessions, new artist dressing rooms, a raised main roof and environmental  improvements as well as a new stage.

“We’re working on it,” Hurwitz said. “A lot of it [the renovations] is backstage. Although you’ll be able to see some interesting things by the stage too.”

Hurwitz revealed that such “interesting things” patrons will be able to see for themselves once work is finished by the end of April or early May, is a new lighting system by the stage that will be timed with the music being played rather like a large sound meter.

“We’re trying to make Merriweather the most  enjoyable, fun experience we can for the bands so they will want to fight to play there,” Hurwitz said.

But it’s not just about the bands, of course.  Ensuring the audience is having the best  experience imaginable is also very important to Hurwitz, something he imparts to his staff.

“If they’re not happy and don’t have smiles on their faces, we can’t expect [concert goers] to have smiles on their faces,” Hurwitz said. “But it can’t be fake. You can’t just say, ‘Have a smile, goddamn it!’ It has to actually be fun on both sides of the stage. This is the core of the business.”

“So when I walk around Merriweather, I’m ready to have some fun,” Hurwitz concluded. “Don’t  forget: if the audience isn’t having fun and the bands aren’t having fun, something is wrong. But it has to start at the top.”

Merriweather’s Rotating Stage:

(Courtesy of I.M.P.)
mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

More Than Junk … It’s Scrap! Local Jewish families ‘turned dross into gold’ and helped build 20th-century Baltimore

CoverRotator

(Stockphoto.com/shaunl)

Everything is eventually scrap,” began Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland since June 2012.

“All materials are eventually no longer useful in their original form,” he continued. “The business itself started off as ‘junk’ before being known as ‘scrap.’ Today’s ‘recycling’ is really the same model of our being able to reuse material and is a vital part of society.”

No matter the semantics, the notion of “scrap” as an industry is based around the commerce of deconstructing new or used materials — cars, bridges, boats, industrial detritus — into manageable, much smaller and organized pieces that can then be melted down at steel mills or other facilities that transform “junk” into something that can be used again to create, well, more bridges or cars or, inevitably,  industrial materials that later become detritus themselves.

“As they say, ‘This one’s personal,’” Pinkert noted. “I grew up in the scrapyard business. This was a situation where,  because I was sensitive to the idea that the scrapyard industry was an undervalued part of our economy and an undervalued part of the Jewish experience, I thought it would be great if I could do something on a national level.”

It’s a goal of Pinkert’s to develop the  exhibit, which is set to open at the museum October 2018, as one that would travel around the country to promote “the vision and ingenuity required for the ‘un-making’ and reuse of our material culture,” as written in the project proposal.

Having grown up in Chicago where his family started and ran People’s Iron and Metal Co. before it was sold off two decades ago, Pinkert hopes the upcoming exhibit will “honor my parents and grandparents as well as others who were transformed by the industry and became a central part of the Jewish community.”

According to a 2015 report by the  Institute for Scrap Recycling (ISRI)  — scrap’s U.S.-based nonprofit trade  association that advocates for its more than 1,500 companies in front of government bodies including Congress — the  business has become a monumentally  robust industry on par with those of data processing/hosting, automotive repair and dental, generating an annual $105.81 billion in national economic activity.

In the earliest days of the industry, when one would have scoffed at the very idea of calling it such, hearty souls were simply “junkmen,” detailed, in fact, by Pinkert’s census records of his grandfather.

“It was seen as an occupation someone would enter because there was no other choice due to language skills, lack of technical training or religious discrimination,” Pinkert said. “And then folks advanced bit by bit to become business people, then entrepreneurs.”

It’s an expansive story perhaps best illustrated by the central core of scrap as an industry itself: “You’re going from material that is considered worthless to material that is integral to the creation of this country,” Pinkert said.

Like Pinkert, lifelong Pikes-ville resident Neal Shapiro, 52,  is a scion of the scrap that he  referred to as “a colorful industry for a lot of years, full of a colorful array of characters, which made it fun and interesting.”

Shapiro is himself one of this “colorful array” and a proud member of what is a major dynasty of Baltimorean Jewish family members whose ancestral patriarchs were three brothers who came over in the earliest years of the 1900s, fleeing a section of Russia that today is the country Latvia, before establishing their individual businesses all revolving around scrap.

There was Shapiro’s grandfather, Isaac aka Ike, who founded Cambridge Iron & Metal, Jacob aka Jake with his United Iron & Metal and Morris Schapiro’s company, Boston Iron & Metal.

And, yes, that “Schapiro” surname is not a typo. The original family name back in the old country was Tomke, something that changed when Morris, the first to come over in 1902, met up with a distant cousin whose address he happened to have and who was named “Shapiro.”

Morris was far more than simply the first of the three brothers to seek his fortune in the United States. His multiple enterprises would later include whiskey distilling, owning and running a “near beer” brewery during Prohibition and —  before it was sold off by his son John in 1984 — ownership of the Laurel Park Racetrack, among many other ventures. His scrapyard business would be the largest of the brothers and, as the legend goes, “the ones with the ‘c’ are the ones with the cash,” joked Jim Shapiro, grandson of Jacob.

“I can’t imagine that when they [the brothers] first started picking up scrap, they could ever imagine what it would turn into today,” said Neal,  reflecting on Morris’ adventures through the industry as well as his own grandfather’s and, of course, his own.

“So many weird things happened over the years,” Neal said. “So many crazy things.”

A Vision  for Value

From left: Leroy and his son Neal Shapiro with Sandy and his father Joe Shapiro of Cambridge Iron & Metal in 1985 (Neal Shapiro)

From left: Leroy and his son Neal Shapiro with Sandy and his father Joe Shapiro of Cambridge Iron & Metal in 1985 (Neal Shapiro)

Indeed, Schapiro’s story is a true shmata-to-riches series of adventures with echoes of John Steinbeck’s and Upton Sinclair’s work before turning into pure Horatio Alger.

A native of Czarist Russia, Schapiro started working  menial jobs at the age of 11, before a frightening encounter with a large soldier asking if he was Jewish led him to leave the country.

It was 1902 when, after  saving for nearly a decade to earn 100 rubles (approximately $50 at the time), Schapiro made his way through Europe to Hamburg, where he waited a week for the SS Pennsylvania to whisk him away to the States.

“I was sick as a dog,” Schapiro said in an oral history interview kept at the Jewish Museum. He was crammed in with 500 people in an area of the ship “worse than steerage … just like cattle. They wouldn’t permit that on any boat today.”

For his trouble, Schapiro would also lose all but 25 cents after being pickpocketed at some point along his voyage that took him to Boston by way of New York and Providence, R.I.

A series of odd jobs and even odder experiences including hustling and being hustled followed, leading Schapiro from his cousin’s Boston to Georgia, where, with $12.75 in his pocket, he boarded a boat for $12 that happened to take him to  Baltimore.

“If the boat was going to Chicago,” Schapiro said, “I would’ve gone to Chicago.”

Arriving two weeks after the Great Baltimore Fire of February 1904, Schapiro — who taught himself English by reading newspapers and street signs — was able to find himself a job cleaning bricks just outside what would eventually become the famed Southern Hotel at the corner of Light and E. Redwood streets.

The job lasted four days, and Schapiro moved on to other vocations including working for a baker who specialized in matzoh. Running into some of his Boston relatives walking down Baltimore Street one day, he came to find they were engaged in a clever junk shop venture.

His cousins and uncle were buying up the basest material from the burned district and selling it as scrap. Infuriated by their not allowing him to join up for fear of competition, Schapiro decided to give the scrap game a shot himself.

“So I made up my mind to go into the junk business [and] went to the burn district,” Schapiro said. “[I] bargained for a whole day to buy a couple loads of iron for $7.50.”

With some help from a colleague who assisted his hauling the scrap around in a cart, Schapiro made $10 in one day, concreting his plan to be in the “junk business” forevermore.

By the end of his first week, Schapiro had $100 in his pocket. Buying up whatever he could from blacksmith shops, machine shops, chemical works and “everything where junk accumulated,” along with yet another series of unfortunate events involving a few of his family members and partners, Boston Metals was born and property of Morris Schapiro.

He soon would bring over his brother Isaac and Uncle Oscar to help him run the business that would allow him to eventually purchase his first “little house” with a $200 down payment on Woodbrook Avenue.

The shift from cutting up scrap by hand and basic tools to “oxygen” (torches) in the mid-1920s wasn’t the only major shift that later occurred in the life of Schapiro. By this time, the magnate was easily bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars every month and his empire was assured.

A humble and good-natured businessman throughout his life and multifaceted career, Schapiro’s greatest feat of vindication came down to a tale often told by his relatives involving the simple scrapping of a familiar boat.

Boston Metals would specialize in the junking of boats (at one time as many as 124 purchased from the federal government), and one day he came upon one that caught his attention.

“I was walking along and saw this great big ship,” Schapiro stated in his oral  history.

“Well, it’s for sale and you can go over to Washington to buy her,” said his colleague, and that’s just what Schapiro did, eventually scrapping the SS Pennsylvania, the very boat that took him on his horrendous journey across the seas on his way to America only two decades earlier.

The professionally produced oral history was based on an interview Schapiro granted on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1953 — 16 years before he passed away — and donated to Pinkert’s Jewish Museum by Schapiro’s granddaughter, Barbara Katz, in March 1988.

Katz, an 83-year-old Pikesville resident, learned much about her grandfather, with whom she was extremely close growing up, from the oral history. It was the only time she heard her grand-father refer to himself as a “junkie.”

“He was a remarkable man,” Katz said. “He was very intelligent and was a great philanthropist. … But he was also very low key, very quiet.”

There was a kind of unspoken understanding in Katz’s family that “no one would ask him about his background. That was the thing about those of the first generation: You didn’t ask about it.”

“If you talk to all three families, you get three stories,” 76-year-old Pikesville resident Sandy Shapiro, scion of Ike’s Cambridge Iron & Metal, said, laughing about the notion that all they have is minor hearsay from grandfathers and uncles who mostly kept mum on the past.

Sandy had a simple reason why these men never spoke about their time back in Latvia: “Because it was rough.

“Jake once took his wife back to Latvia during the [Great] Depression just to visit where he came from,” Sandy continued, “and they went to the old house, and it had a dirt floor. Theirs was strictly a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ story.”

As had his brother before him, Sandy’s grandfather, Ike, labored away working menial jobs from country to country before having enough money to make it to England from where he was able to embark on a boat to America and join Morris. All while speaking only Russian and Yiddish.

“These were tough guys,” Sandy said, chronicling what it was like for Ike even after he arrived in America.

“My grandfather would rent a horse and wagon for $1 a day and would get scrap in the morning with his assistant,” Sandy said, “and then he and his helper would take hammers and chisels and break the scrap apart. They were real guys.”

Needless to say, the business would always be a rough-and-tough one for laborers in the years that would follow, as technology changed and entire bridge beams or automobiles would be scrapped through machines such as “shredders” that could break gargantuan pieces of metal down to its bare elements or, in the case of “balers,” pounded into smaller cubes to be sold off to smelting plants, steel mills and the like.

“It’s not like we were dirt bags; we just got dirty,” was how Michael Hettleman put it.

K. Hettleman & Co. (Ellen Kahan Zager)

K. Hettleman & Co. (Ellen Kahan Zager)

Another Pikesville resident from the industry, 80-year- old Hettleman is the son of Isadore “Izzie” Hettleman who, along with brother Emanuel “Mannie” Hettleman, ran K. Hettleman and Sons — founded by their father, Kalman, in 1904 — until it was sold in 1962.

K. Hettleman was less a competitor with the Shapiro- and Schapiro-run companies and more of a peripheral partner (as the Schapiro/Shapiro clans more or less operated, with Jake’s company junking a lot of cars, Ike’s focusing a great deal on industrial scrap and Morris’ on boats). Ike’s Cambridge Iron & Metal, for example, sold much of its brass and copper to Hettleman, which in turn would make ingots — manageable blocks of metal — that would later be sold off to appropriate dealers.

Send in  the Jews

It’s likely the scrapyard industry flourished in Baltimore for three very important reasons.

First, as Pinkert pointed out, Baltimore at the time had its fair share of steel mills, a requirement of any successful scrap community.

Baltimore was also one of the few port towns in the United States where large boats — like those being scrapped by Morris’ Boston Metals — could be acquired. And, of course, the Baltimore fire of 1904 left a great deal of otherwise valueless material to be transformed into “junk” and “scrap” for a burgeoning field that would support the Schapiro, Shapiro and Hettleman families in the earliest days of their individual enterprises.

But then there’s the obvious question: Why were so many scrapyard families Jewish?

As it turns out, it’s a trend that resonated throughout the country. Historian and author Carl Zimring writes in his 2009 book “Cash For Your Trash” that in the mid-1930s, while the scrapyard industry was really on the rise throughout the United States, 70 to 90 percent of the business was Jewish owned and operated.

“It was considered an undesirable and filthy business,” Neal said. “Jews [at the time] were not allowed to do a lot of things, and this was relatively inexpensive to get into. As long as a person could get a horse and cart, he could start something.”

Jewish immigrants, or “refugees” as Sandy put it, speaking little or no English, having little or no education, money or resources, were able to discover something in “junk” that so many other communities at the time simply found untouchable.

“Some of it may have been the merchant mentality that came from Eastern Europe,” Neal continued in speculating. “Collecting, buying, selling, haggling.”

Ellen Kahan Zager, granddaughter of Mannie Hettleman and cousin to Michael, also believes that the Jewish dominance of the industry was greatly related to the community’s culture of communication.

“There is deal making in the scrap business, and that is a  reflection of a communication process that is very embedded in the Jewish culture,” Zager said.

“[The scrap business is] not very straight forward, so there’s a lot of give and take, and this is a very Jewish way of communicating, from the very beginning to the very end,” Zager said. “It’s not about  ‘retail.’ It’s built on relationships and trust … or at least it used to be.”

End of  an Era

“When [Pinkert] reached out to me, I was a tad hesitant just because I was trying to break free of the industry and head in a new direction,” Neal said about what has become his retirement since the doors on Cambridge Iron & Metal closed in 2016.

“But then I thought this was a great way to honor our heritage and everything my grandfather did for me.  He started something; he built it and passed the torch to my dad and uncle who passed it onto me.

“And while I never got the opportunity to physically meet him, in a way, I had a connection to him because I was able to continue something he started. That was something too that was really hard for me when I shut down the business; I felt I lost that connection.”

These original businesses no longer exist for reasons ranging from rapidly accelerating technological expenses to stricter environmental constraints, growing competition or the simple reason of owners feeling it was time to move on and sell (as in the case of United).

Such tales as those told here are responsible for making the scrap industry “part of who you are — you do it long enough and it gets in your blood,” according to Neal. And yet, he confessed that he doesn’t really think he wants his own children to go into the business.

“I had always been cognizant of trying to keep the business going long enough so they had that option,” Neal said, “but I don’t think either of them wanted to, and I’m OK with that.

“Friends of mine around the country, they’re not grooming their kids for the business because it’s changing too much.”

“I wouldn’t want my children to do it,” Sandy confirmed.

Sandy is satisfied that “we all did well, we were in a good business. We had nothing to be ashamed of, and all the families worked hard.”

He nevertheless recently began seeing “Jewish kids coming out of college becoming lawyers and doctors, saying [about going into scrap], ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ So the families didn’t see another generation and were selling their businesses.

schematics for the exhibit they’ll have at the Museum of the show revolving around this topic. Said schematic needs to be credited to: JMM/Alchemy Studio and it must state that these are “conceptual outline” or “conceptual rendering” in captions/labels.

Conceptual architectural rendering for the exhibit (JMM/Alchemy Studio)

“What was important about it?” he asked rhetorically. “It was about tracing a larger history, all that stuff about what it meant to be Jewish, how they were able to do all of this and become prominent, make their money and let their families take it to other places around the country to start furniture companies and department stores wherever their train would stop. … They were  able to send their kids off  to college …”

They were able to fund the lives of those who never had an interest going into the same business, be it Sandy’s own brother Burt Shapiro, who became such a renowned classical music and film critic in the area, the Charles Theater honored him by name on their marquee after he died in 2014.

Scrap helped lay the foundation of the education of the likes of Jill Vexler, the Jewish Museum curator involved  in the upcoming exhibit and, of course, executive director Pinkert himself. The recipients of opportunities that came from ancestral tireless toil are those such as Pinkert’s cousin Mandy Patinkin, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor from such beloved films  as “Yentl” and “The Princess Bride.”

These descendants of the scrap industry were able to achieve their dreams because of the “figurative and literal alchemy” that was their parents and grandparents “turning dross into gold,” Pinkert said.

“They created so much from things other people threw away.”

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com