Clinton, Trump to Headline AIPAC Gathering

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

The 2016 presidential campaign will make a stop at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington next week, where front-runners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will address an expected 18,000 attendees at the pro-Israel advocacy organization’s annual event.

The conference, March 20-22 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. Iran will still be on the agenda, with sessions that discuss its compliance with the deal and likelihood of it continuing to develop a nuclear weapon.

This will be Clinton’s fourth address to the conference. The Democrat spoke twice when she was a senator and more recently when she was secretary of state. Trump has not addressed an AIPAC conference. But in December he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition and described himself as “a negotiator like you folks” and insisted that he would be able to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The conference comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal.

All Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been invited to speak, said an AIPAC source, who spoke on background. This is key in seeing where a potential president believes the U.S.-Israel relationship stands, the source said.

Iran was the key issue during the last two conferences. Both featured addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly condemned any agreement between the United States and Iran.

Netanyahu had planned to speak at this year’s conference in conjunction with a scheduled visit to the White House. However, last week, he canceled his trip to Washington and will speak to AIPAC via satellite.

Netanyahu said his office determined that he would not be able to meet with Obama ahead of the president’s trip to Cuba on March 21. But National Security Council spokesman Ned Price disputed this rationale, saying that the White House had offered to arrange a meeting between the two leaders on March 18.

Other Israeli speakers include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Knesset member Ofer Shelah and former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor.

Other topics to be discussed will be U.S. security assistance to Israel; the two countries are negotiating an increased defense aid package beginning in 2018. The potential for bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is also on the conference agenda.

AIPAC’s actions, particularly working with Republicans and Congress to oppose the administration-supported Iran nuclear deal, revived criticisms that the once bipartisan pro- Israel group is now firmly aligned with the GOP.

Last summer, AIPAC spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign that was carried out by the group Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. AIPAC also lobbied members of Congress to oppose the deal.

When the Senate voted, all Republicans and four Democrats came out against the nuclear agreement.

Former AIPAC executive director Morris Amitay said AIPAC remains a bipartisan organization, but Obama’s foreign policy has complicated American support for Israel.

“As far as partisan, [the conference] is partisan because we have a Democratic president who’s been the worst president on Israel we’ve ever had.”

“A lot of the senators were under incredible pressure to go with [Obama],” Amitay said. “It’s not the first big fight that AIPAC or the pro-Israel community has lost.”

Clinton supported the Iran deal, as did Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), and both will also speak at the conference. Vice President Joe Biden also is scheduled to speak.

Longtime AIPAC member Steve Sheffey of Chicago said he thinks Clinton’s presence is simply an attempt to “create the appearance of bipartisanship”.

He said AIPAC is committing “political malpractice” by punishing Democrats who supported the deal but are otherwise pro-Israel.

“AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last fall, “but there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized.” JT

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Catering to Love for 75 Years

Louis and Edith Bluefeld married Feb. 23, 1941 and just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. They live in Boca Raton, Fla., after several decades living, and working, in the Baltimore area. (Photos provided)

Louis and Edith Bluefeld married Feb. 23, 1941 and just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. They live in Boca Raton, Fla., after several decades living, and working, in the Baltimore area. (Photos provided)

Louis and Edith Bluefeld have settled into a comfortable marital rhythm in their relationship. He’s the talker, but she chimes in with details. She plans everything, but he’s the happy socializer. It works for them.

And it should. After all, they’ve spent 75 years perfecting it.

The Bluefelds married Feb. 23, 1941 and just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. And those 75 years have no shortage of good memories.

Baltimore natives Louis and Edith Bluefeld are well-known for running Bluefeld Catering, a kosher catering company started by Louis’ mother that fed the Baltimore Jewish — and non-Jewish — community for more than 40 years.

Bluefeld Catering made its mark beyond Baltimore, however. The company was the first to kosher the White House kitchen, served former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he visited Washington, D.C. for the announcement of the 1978 Peace Accords, catered the inaugural dinner for former President Richard Nixon and became go-to caterers for the movers-and-shakers of Capitol Hill.

“Oh, we met everyone,” Louis said, more or less dismissively. He and Edith don’t shy away from their accomplishments, but take a great deal more pride in the family events they catered in the community — weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.

“It was a good time in people’s lives,” Edith said.

“Our business was a joy,” Louis added. “The Baltimore Jewish community …” Louis paused and Edith filled in, “… are wonderful.”

bluefeld1Events done for Holocaust survivors and their families were particularly special to them.

“They couldn’t stop celebrating,” Louis said. “They never thought they’d have this.”

Louis and Edith met when they were 16 years old. His Criterion Club was throwing a party at the downtown Howard Hotel. They each came with different dates.

Edith spotted Louis across the room and told her friends, “This fella on the other side of the room, I want to meet him.” And, at least in this one case, wishing made it so. Louis asked Edith’s date to drive him to pick up the family car from his father. Edith’s date brought her along for the ride.

Before the end of the night, Louis had Edith’s phone number. He called her two nights later — “at 7,” Edith said, briefly cutting into Louis’  recounting of the story with the exact time — and asked her out, with one caveat. Since Louis was already working in the family business by then, their first date was on a catering job.

Edith was a hit with her  future mother-in-law right away. Louis’ mother even asked him, at 19, what his intentions were with Edith. She wanted them to get married; Louis was afraid he didn’t have enough money to get married yet.

“She said, ‘If you’re serious, you get married. It will all work out.’ She was right,” Louis said.

So, a few years after they met, they were married. But war was on the horizon, and, in 1943, Louis shipped off to New Guinea and the Philippines to serve in World War II. He was gone for three years, and Edith wrote him a letter every single day.

“Mail was so important [for the] servicemen,” Louis said. “I always had lots of mail.”

Once Louis returned, the couple settled in to post-war life — Louis working full time at Bluefeld Catering and Edith running the household, and raising their two children.

Their 25th anniversary was the big party, but their 50th was a smaller affair, at least by the standards of two people used to catering large-scale events. It was just 50 people. For this most recent one, they kept it a family celebration.

Louis and Edith retired to Boca Raton, Fla., more than 30 years ago after selling the company in 1984. Several of their friends in Boca are from their old days in Baltimore, however. One friend in particular is Burt Gold, now in his early 80s, who Louis has known since they were young. Bluefeld Catering had catered Gold’s bar mitzvah, his wedding, his children’s bar mitzvahs and weddings and other family celebrations.

Louis and Edith are impressively healthy for their 95 and 94 years, respectively. It could be all the walking — they  always take the stairs to their fourth-floor apartment. Or, maybe it’s the trips to the gym three times a week, where they each ride two miles on a  stationary bike.

But they also attribute their overall health to a healthy  relationship. They spoke with some sadness about couples, young and old, who don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company.

“I don’t need a lot of people,” Louis said. “I still enjoy being with my wife. We’re not bored with each other.”

“He’s just my favorite — his personality, his disposition,” Edith said.

If there’s one secret Louis and Edith impart to their happy relationship, it’s this: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let the little things go and tolerate each other’s quirks, Louis said.

Edith agreed: “You’ll have a day that is bad, but tomorrow is going to be better.”

hjohnson@midatlanticmedia.com

Past Presence Baltimore’s ‘Jewish’ architecture remains testament to character, conviction, mobility of its people

First of two parts


 

Former Temple Oheb Shalom (Eutaw Place Temple) has been home to Maryland Prince Hall Masons since 1960. (Melissa Gerr)

Former Temple Oheb Shalom (Eutaw Place Temple) has been home to Maryland Prince Hall Masons since 1960. (Melissa Gerr)

To reflect on some of Jewish Baltimore’s architecture is to walk a path through its past. Whether the desired outcome was to culturally assimilate or stay true to faith, to differentiate from other immigrants or simply to embrace the modern, Jews have fervently proclaimed their identity and maintained a strong physical presence in a cityscape that is constantly evolving.

Between the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, the city’s Jewish epicenter was East Baltimore, home to a growing number of immigrants. German and Central European Jewish immigrants are responsible for the Lloyd Street Synagogue, dedicated in 1845 as the Orthodox Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the first synagogue built in Maryland and the third-oldest standing synagogue structure in the country.

Its Federal-style design says, “We are now Americans, we’re participating in the white American political history. That was important for every immigrant group,” architect and director of the master of architecture program at Morgan State University, Jeremy Kargon, said.

“It shows how the Jewish community was trying to  express its American identity more than its Jewish identity at the time,” said historian,  author and former researcher for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Deborah Weiner. “They weren’t hiding their Jewishness but emphasizing their American-ness.”

The synagogue’s façade features a triangle pediment resting on four great pillars that flank the entrance, and there were few Jewish identifiers  on its exterior (no longer visible). But inside it is still rich with Jewish artifacts. Rabbi Abraham Rice from Bavaria,  believed to be the first traditionally ordained rabbi in the United States, was invited to lead the congregation, where there were strict rules in place, noted by Earl Pruce, author of the comprehensive 1993 book, “Synagogues, Temples and Congregations of Maryland, 1830 to 1890.”

“There was a system of fines, such as 25 and 50 cents for talking during services, for chewing, for gathering on the sidewalk in front of the synagogue and for leaving the  synagogue during services without permission of an officer,” the book states.

The fact that the Lloyd Street Synagogue still stands — and is a museum and open for tours — is a testament to those who fought to save it, Weiner said.

When Baltimore Hebrew Lloyd Street members moved north in 1890, the synagogue was sold to a church, but  then in 1905 became Eastern European Orthodox Shomrim Mishmeres, led by Rabbi Abraham Schwartz, who held Talmudic study in its basement and eventually founded the Talmudical Academy in Pikesville, she said.

In the 1950s, long after the Jews had moved out of the area and the building went up for sale, some feared it would be torn down.

“That’s when Baltimore  Hebrew Congregation swooped in, and said, ‘It’s part of our heritage, it’s the first synagogue in Maryland, we can’t let it be torn down,” Weiner said. “Then it got its fourth owner, the Jewish Historical Society [which became JMM], which was started in order to save the synagogue.”

The other significant synagogue on Lloyd Street came about because as German Jews became Americanized, Baltimore Hebrew began leaning toward Reform in the early 1870s — including the abolishment of separate seating for men and women — and there was a breakaway group that started Chizuk Amuno (Hebrew for defenders of faith). That building, erected less than 150 feet south, was dedicated in 1876. More ornate but still Jewishly understated, the brick building façade features a Star of David and the Ten Commandments tablets at the apex of the roof, and the window and door treatments show the Moorish-style influence that became popular for synagogues a few decades later. It’s now home to Modern Orthodox B’nai Israel Synagogue, which acquired the building in 1895 and has a growing membership, including Darren Margolis, whose Lithuanian great-grandfather, Chaim Dovid Margolis, once served as its cantor.

Past Presence

See more photos, click here

 

“I remember when I got married, standing there and thinking I wasn’t too far away from where he was leading services,” Darren said, adding that just last year he celebrated his son’s bris at the synagogue — his son being named for Darren’s father, who had been named for his own grand- father, the cantor Chaim Dovid.

Current Rabbi Etan Mintz added, “In many ways changes have taken place, but it’s about carrying on a legacy. … The story of B’nai Israel is a story of continuity.”

Though these two larger synagogues are important markers of the past, in reality East Baltimore and its surrounding areas, such as Patterson Park and what is now called upper Fells Point, were dotted with dozens of small Orthodox neighborhood shuls, Weiner said, characteristic of how Eastern European Jews congregated in their native countries, and they carried that tradition here. Most are no longer in existence, but Tzemach Tzedek, built for one of the early Lubavitch congregations organized in 1913, still stands at 2120 E. Fairmount Ave.,  although is in significant disrepair. It was dedicated in 1924 and “is a more typical representative of the immigrant shuls, but it didn’t get the special treatment of being preserved like Lloyd Street,” even though there is an effort underway to restore and renovate the building.

Preservation is important to a city and a community because it means “we’re recognizing that we’re part of a continuum, that we’re here  because of what people before us made possible,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, an organization that promotes and  advocates for the preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods. “And in preserving the most important parts, we’re contributing to that line of progress and heritage.”

Preservation has an economic impact on a city, he added.

Millennials are the largest demographic in the workforce, and studies show they decide where to live first and job search after, Hopkins said, and they seek areas that offer  a quality of life that speaks  to them.

“What contributes to that quality of living in Baltimore? Our historic places and our historic neighborhoods are absolutely at the heart of that answer,” he said. “It’s that  history. [A preserved building] is valuable for its own sake, but it has a real economic price tag and component to it as well, that we can use to  distinguish ourselves from other places people might choose to live.”

Hopkins added that preservation of Baltimore’s immigrant history teaches “lessons about assimilation and about community that you might not get from just taking a snapshot in 2016.” He points to the soon-to-be-restored and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places  Hebrew Orphan Asylum building, dedicated in 1875, as an example of philanthropy and service. Now owned by Coppin State University, the castle-like structure stands in West Baltimore on Rayner Street, founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Baltimore on land provided by German Jewish immigrant William S. Rayner.

 

“It shows how the Jewish community was  trying to express its American identity more  than its Jewish identity at the time. They  weren’t hiding their Jewishness but  emphasizing their American-ness.”
— Deborah Weiner, historian and author

“The orphanage wasn’t just a place to put kids whose  parents were dead or couldn’t take care of them, it was really meant to be a full-on training institute so that kids could  go on to the brightest futures  possible,” Hopkins said. “There was education, dance and music. There’s a lot of commonality [among Baltimore’s immigrant groups] and a lot of shared experience that goes back hundreds of years, and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum is a great example of that.”

It’s not only institutional buildings that came to represent the spirit of Baltimore’s Jews,  asserts Hopkins’ colleague,  director of preservation and outreach Eli Pousson, who refers to Lithuanian immigrant Jacob Epstein’s Baltimore Bargain House (now the Nancy S. Grasmick building) —  on West Baltimore near North Liberty street that opened in 1911 — as an example.

Epstein, who began as a street-goods peddler, eventually became the fourth-largest wholesaler in the country and later became a major benefactor of the Baltimore Museum of Art, “would have his agents down at the docks at the  immigration receiving ports, and when Eastern European Jews were arriving, he’d set people up and say here’s the business, here’s how it works, this is how you make a living,” Pousson said, quoting a story heard from Weiner. Epstein’s Baltimore Bargain House represents, in part, “the story of Jews helping Jews in a city [where] there wasn’t necessarily anyone else who was going to help them.”

The Moves North,  More Lavish Tastes

According to Weiner and Kargon, the migration of Jews out of East Baltimore wasn’t en masse. German and Central European Jews moved in the 1890s, and then in the 1920s, Eastern European Jews followed. Three main reasons prompted them, they said. First was a  desire by the German Jews, who had been in Baltimore for decades, to distance themselves from the newly arriving Eastern European Jews because they  no longer felt like immigrants. Financial success for both  immigrant groups allowed the relocation away from “those areas that were considered slums, the decades of well-worn use of houses that were overcrowded,” Weiner said. And finally, as people became more assimilated, they simply chose different ways of life.

“A whole second round of synagogue building began … so by the 1890s there were  several synagogues in the area right below Druid Hill Park,” Weiner said.

Architecturally, ostentation was spurned with the first synagogues in East Baltimore, but “that changes in the 1880s and 1890s,” Kargon said. “[Architectural design] becomes more exuberantly orientalist, and the Moorish style becomes  assigned to synagogues in a certain way” and eclecticism becomes more pronounced.

Kargon holds up Baltimore Hebrew in 1891 (Madison  Avenue Temple, design begun by Charles Carson), Temple Oheb Shalom in 1893 (Eutaw Place Temple), Har Sinai in 1894 (Bolton Street Temple) and Chizuk Amuno in 1895 (McCulloh Street) — all located below North Avenue — as examples of that approach, designed by prestigious architect Joseph Evans Sperry.

“They all represent a single vision of what urban Jewish life meant,” Kargon asserted. “Very middle class. [The archtectural style reflected] they were not interested in religion so much as they were with striving.” They were “all German Jewish, all had money, all willing to relocate to slightly suburban areas in advance” of other populations.

In the early 20th century, areas of the city were restricted to Jews, so they populated those that were open to them.

Associated Jewish Charities (now The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of  Baltimore) was dedicated to assisting Baltimore’s Jews, but during this time of transition, their constituents were straddling many areas of the city: East and Southwest Baltimore and Liberty Heights and Forest Park, as well as Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill. The African-American population, many living in overcrowded neighborhoods, was becoming economically successful and began moving north as well, Weiner said, and at times the two groups competed for housing.

 

[A preserved  building] is valuable for its own sake,  but it has a real  economic price tag  and component  to it as well.
— Johns Hopkins, Baltimore heritage executive director

“The Associated thought, ‘What if we build [somewhere] and it ends up being in a black neighborhood within three years?’” Weiner said. “They were in a quandary. So they decided, ‘If we put it on the edge of downtown, then it will be in the middle.’ They had raised all this money, and they needed to build it. [Monument and Eutaw streets] was an odd place to put it, and it was controversial. But there was so much population movement happening at the time, they didn’t know which area would end up being black and which would be Jewish.”

The Young Men’s Hebrew Association building (now an apartment building) was built alongside the Associated Charities, (now the Patuxent Institution), a movement started because “in the 1920s there was a lot of concern about the children of Jewish immigrants being lost to assimilation.” Baltimore historian Gilbert Sandler remembers summers he spent there as a child.

Sandler grew up in lower Park Heights, selling newspapers in Park Circle in the evenings. He attended Shaarei Zion (dedicated in 1926 at 3459 Park Ave.) with his family, where he became a bar mitzvah. He and his brother rode the streetcar from home to the Y.

“I took classes as part of summer camp — I loved the model airplane class, but my favorite was swimming,” he said, adding that he and his brother sometimes had coddies and a coke at the cafeteria.

While the YMHA center was built in reaction to the Jewish community’s mobility, the Jewish Community Center in upper Park Heights, built in 1960, was ahead of the curve, said Wiener.

“When [Associated Charities] built the Y they were  trying to follow the Jewish community, but in 1960, they were directing where the Jewish community would grow.”

Next week: The jump across Northern Parkway; seduced by the suburbs; and the burgeoning Orthodox community.

 

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

 

Pew Finding on Expulsion of Israeli Arabs Prompts Sharp Reactions

Pew Research released a study of Israeli’s attitudes, which show that a majority of Israelis agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pew Research released a study of Israeli’s attitudes, which show that a majority of Israelis agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — In a survey that spanned politics, religion and interfaith relations, one statistic stood out: Nearly half of  Israel’s Jews support expelling the country’s Arabs.

The Pew Research Center’s study of Israelis’ attitudes,  released Tuesday, had asked respondents whether they agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Forty-eight percent of Israeli Jews agreed, while 46 percent did not. Among self-described right-wing Jews,  72 percent agreed, along with 71 percent of religious Zionists.

The figure was inconsistent with the findings of previous studies and provoked strong reactions in a country that sees its Arab minority as proof of its commitment to democratic values and respect for diversity. It has also shined a spotlight on what has been seen previously as a fringe proposal. No party in the Israeli Knesset  advocates mass population transfer, and it has never been seriously discussed as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The idea that the State of Israel could be a democracy only for its Jewish citizens is unconscionable and we must find a way to address this,”  ­Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said at a meeting with officials of the Washington-based Pew Center. “I believe also that our democratic values are born out of our Jewish faith, a love for the stranger and equality before the law.”

Rivlin called on the public to engage in “soul-searching and moral reflection.”

But Alan Cooperman, the Pew study’s lead author, said support for expulsion comports with other data points in the survey. Cooperman pointed to survey findings that nearly four out of five Israeli Jews say Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews, 60 percent of Israeli Jews believe God gave the land to them, and that majorities of religious Zionists and Haredi Orthodox also feel that Jewish law should be the law of the state.

“You see it really makes sense,” he said. “Support is strongest among [religious Zionists], very high among settlers.”

Analysts say Jewish animosity toward Israeli Arabs has been exacerbated by the recent wave of Palestinian terror  attacks and a government  response that some consider  inflammatory. Rawnak Natour, co-director of Sikkuy, a  nonprofit that works toward Arab-Jewish coexistence, pointed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech decrying “two nations within Israel”  following a January terror  attack in Tel Aviv.

“I think there’s a feeling of fear here that’s strengthened by the political echelon,”  Natour said. “There’s a lack of familiarity of the other side.”

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, is “alarmed” at the research results and said that “there’s a serious question about the separation of church and state,” and it leaves him concerned for Israel’s security.

“As someone who has worked with the American Jewish community for over 30 years,” Abramson said, “we are very much a tie-in to Israel and related to Israel and associated to Israel on the basis of the kind of Israel that we grew up wanting to see. [That is an Israel that] respects Judaism and being Jewish on both a  religious and cultural basis. And we want to see an Israel that is tolerant of minorities and is democratic. To the extent this study says Israel is moving in a different direction, [and] the American Jewish community should be concerned.”

Abramson continued, “Israel’s best friend in the world is the United States. If Israel was to move to an apartheid state, discriminatory in nature, then my greatest concern is Israel’s security. … These Pew trends have me concerned that there is a growing debate in a right-wing direction, and that is  of ultimate concern to the  security of Israel.”

The Pew finding on expulsion is significantly higher than other recent polls that have sought to measure Israeli attitudes toward coexistence. The 2015 Israel Democracy Index, a survey published  annually by the Israel Democracy Institute, found 37.5 percent support for the government merely encouraging Arab  emigration.

A 2015 poll by Haifa University professor Sammy Smooha found that six in 10 Israeli Jews felt “it would be good for Arabs and Jews to  always live together in Israel.” That survey also found 32 percent of respondents in favor of encouraging Arabs to leave Israel in exchange for compensation.

Israeli pollsters have laid blame on the question itself, calling it vague and misleading. Is the question about  Israeli Arabs, West Bank Palestinians or both? When would this expulsion occur and under what conditions? Would the Arab refugees be compensated?

“It was asked in a very  unclear way,” said Tamar Hermann, academic director of IDI’s Guttman Center for Surveys. “If we didn’t get a majority on a more cautious and less aggressive version [of the question], what happened here? I would say take it with a grain of salt.”

The statistic is a sign not only of extremism, but also of polarization in Israeli society, said Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who consulted on the Pew study.  Regardless of the exact level of support, he called the figure a “warning sign” for Israeli and Jewish leaders.

“There’s a lot of support for this notion that God gave this land to me — not to them, to me,” Cohen said at a panel discussion of the survey Tuesday in Tel Aviv. “Is there a context in which it seems the authorities are trying to diminish the place of minorities in this country? Is that happening? If that’s happening, then this question becomes very critical.”

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s co-chair of Israel and Overseas Initiatives, Yehuda Neuberger, said in a written statement, “Given Baltimore’s significant efforts to foster communal unity and cohesion, it is concerning to see increasing polarization in Israel. In the last couple of years, The Associated’s Israel and Overseas committee has funded programs that we hope will create a more harmonious and integrated society, and we hope to increase our efforts in that regard. While we are not in a position to change Israeli society, we can work to increase dialogue and understanding and to model communal  behavior that counters the current societal dynamic in  Israel.”

Gardner Aims to Take Her Experience to the Next Level

Betsy Gardner (provided)

Betsy Gardner (provided)

The mayor’s race won’t be the only hotly contested election this season. While a large pool of candidates hope to shape Baltimore’s future as the city’s top elected official, others are vying for City Council seats in crowded races.

Betsy Gardner, who currently serves as the neighborhood liaison for the 5th and 6th City Council districts and as the citywide Jewish community liaison for the City Council president’s office, is running for the 5th District Council seat being vacated by longtime Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. She has worked as a community liaison for the past 14 years, including under the last three mayoral administrations.

She faces Democratic primary challengers Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, an Orthodox Jewish small business owner and community activist; Derrick Lennon, a transportation coordinator and former president of the Glen  Improvement Association; Chris- topher Ervin, a criminal justice reform advocate; Sharif Small, a small business owner; Kinji Scott, a community organizer; and Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, an attorney. There are no  Republican challengers.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot but have a lot more to accomplish,” Gardner said.

Spector, who endorses Gardner, tapped her to run when she was considering not seeking re-election. Gardner said she wouldn’t have run against Spector out of respect, and Spector said she would have run had Gardner not stepped up.

“I just couldn’t take the risk of my legacy not being maintained … Betsy is really so well prepared. She’s the right person for the job,” said Spector, who has partnered with Gardner on various projects over the last 14 years. Spector said she would help Gardner transition into the office.

Gardner, 49, a member of Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue and Temple Oheb Shalom, moved to Baltimore from her native Charleston, W.Va., 25 years ago. She has worked for H&S Bakery, Alex. Brown & Sons and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

In her time at the City Council president’s office, Gardner has worked on a number of issues that affect the Jewish community. She has worked on Homeland  Security grants for synagogues and worked in conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council to get security cameras installed on Park Heights Avenue. Each year around the High Holidays, Gardner has worked with police districts across the city to make sure synagogues have police coverage.

When Hatzalah of Baltimore, a volunteer medical services organization, formed, Gardner worked with the fire department and mayor’s office to make sure they were linked in to the city’s fire department and 911 system. She helped Chabad with their menorah car parade and public menorah lighting in the Inner Harbor. When the city’s chametz burning outgrew the parking lot at the Engine Company 45 parking lot on Glen Avenue, she helped relocate the burning to the parking lot at the Pimlico Clubhouse parking lot, where organizers starting taking food donations to feed needy families in the area.

She said public safety is one of her biggest concerns, and she expects to see more community policing under Baltimore City police commissioner Kevin Davis.

“You will start to see more officers in the community, and people need to get to know the officers and the officers need to get to know the community,” she said. Gardner and a police officer worked with Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, director of the Jewish Uniformed Association of Maryland, to conduct sensitivity training classes for officers and firefighters; the training is in its third year.

Garnder names education as a priority. In addition to wanting to provide affordable early childhood education and daycare, she would like to see the city provide tutoring services and career-related learning opportunities for students as well as expand job training opportunities for students who don’t plan to go to college.

She has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Asian American Merchants Association and Baltimore Construction Laborers Local 710.

While she faces six opponents, including another member of the Jewish community, Gardner is simply focused on her campaign.

“The community knows what I’m capable of doing,” she said. “I think my work speaks for itself.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Coming to Terms with a Nazi Past

Jennifer Teege (left) who learned her grandfather was the notorious Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth, spoke at Chizuk Amuno Congregation Monday night. (Photo by David Stuck)

Jennifer Teege (left) who learned her grandfather was the notorious Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth, spoke at Chizuk Amuno Congregation Monday night. (Photo by David Stuck)

In the 70 years since World War II, the word “Nazi” has become shorthand in the cultural lexicon for a wide spectrum of ills and can be thrown around rather carelessly.

But what happens when someone discovers her relative was an actual Nazi?

Jennifer Teege felt her whole identity called into question when she happened to pick up a copy of “But I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?” at the library where she lives in Hamburg, Germany. In a revelation that would shock anyone, Teege realized the book was about her biological mother and, by extension, her grandfather — a notorious Nazi war criminal and the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp, Amon Goeth.

“While I was leafing through the pages, there were photos and text. I continued and continued and saw a photo of a woman who reminded me of my mother,” she said Monday evening during an event held at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

Turns out, it wasn’t just a passing resemblance.

The event was the third stop of six in a cross-country tour sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Edna Friedberg, a historian with the museum, interviewed Teege and space was standing room only with more than 450 people in attendance. Teege’s book “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past” was published in English nearly a year ago, and Teege has since been traveling and telling her story publicly.

I had a very different life before. It changes you. You are a part of something bigger. You can’t inherit guilt. What you can inherit is responsibility.
— Jennifer Teege

And what a story it is. Teege was 38 when she stumbled upon this life-changing revelation seven years ago. The daughter of a German woman and Nigerian man, Teege had already had her share of ups and downs. She was given up for adoption at 4 weeks old and spent the next few years at an orphanage, seeing her biological mother and grandmother occasionally. At 3 years old, she was fostered by a German family and subsequently adopted by them.

She grew up not knowing much about her biological family and knowing of the Holocaust only through school and popular culture.

Most people are familiar with Amon Goeth from the portrayal by Ralph Fiennes in the movie “Schindler’s List.” He is a sadistic character, shooting Jews indiscriminately at the camp — a trait true for the real-life man as well, as told by testimonies from survivors.

More than 450 people attended Monday night’s event at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. (Photo by David Stuck)

More than 450 people attended Monday night’s event at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. (Photo by David Stuck)

Teege’s grandmother was Goeth’s mistress and pregnant with Teege’s mother when Goeth was arrested and brought to Poland for trial. Teege’s mother was born in 1945; Goeth was hanged in 1946. They never met.

It was more than 60 years later that Teege — a woman who attended college in Israel in her 20s, is fluent in Hebrew and has several friends who are descendants of Holocaust survivors — would inadvertently discover the family secret that her grandfather was a monster.

“It was difficult not only to understand, but to accept,” she said during the talk. “It took a long, long time.”

She said she would hold a photo of Goeth up in the mirror and look for similarities in their faces. Friedberg brought up the idea of “biology is destiny” as a main tenet of Nazism and asked Teege how learning this information affected her.

“I had a very different life before,” Teege said. “It changes you. You are a part of something bigger.”

At first, there was a lot of guilt that came with such a discovery. But in the years since, she’s been able to see it in a new light.

“You can’t inherit guilt,” she said. “What you can inherit is responsibility.”

There was a short question-and-answer period after the talk, and one attendee asked Teege if she thought all the coincidences leading to her discovery of this story was a kind of “divine intervention.”

“Was it coincidence or was it meant to be? I don’t know,” she said. She went on to add that she feels we all make our own choices in our lives, but with all the elements of her story — her years spent in Israel, the way she stumbled upon the book — perhaps some things are meant to be.

The talk was well received by the audience at Chizuk Amuno, which included a number of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors.

“As long as I think I connected with people, I feel it was a success,” Teege said afterward. So many people have personal connections not only to the Holocaust, but also to her story in particular, she said, and it’s important to her to be able to make those connections.

“It was very well done, very good. She was very forthright,” said Rella Kaufman Zimmerman, a member of the audience and daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

Morris Rosen was another member of the audience and is a survivor himself. He was shuttled among several different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and now volunteers with the Holocaust Museum and speaks up to five times a week about his experiences.

“It was very good,” he said, although he also wanted to remind people that this is only one story of many and not to lose the context of all the other terrible things that happened — and those they happened to.

It may have taken Teege a while to come to terms with this new aspect of her identity, but it brought her to one important conclusion: “History does not need to repeat itself.”

hjohnson@midatlanticmedia.com

Hillel Conference Empowers Young Jewish Women

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

More than 125 students gathered at the University of Maryland Hillel to network, mingle and learn from guest lecturers at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference on Feb. 28.

“Leadership is one of the core pillars of our work [at JWI],” Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, told students and fellow speakers during her keynote speech. “There is nothing more important for every one of you as you go out and get started in your career and your life than to take on the challenges of your own economic empowerment.”

The conference, co-chaired by students Rivka Golding and Raquel Weinberg, was sponsored by the Career Center at the University of Maryland, Keshet, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Sigma Delta Tau, JewelErry, Quartermaine Coffee Roasters and OPI.

“I hope that [the students] make lasting connections with the women they’ve talked to today and that they follow up and email the people they’ve met,” said Golding, who emphasized the conference was focused on the concept of mentorship. “I also hope they walk away feeling empowered and they see these women as role models. [I want them to] walk away knowing that in five or 20 years, this could be them.”

The range of women speaking at the conference varied from recent school alumnae to corporate executives.

“It’s really gratifying and fun [to speak at my alma mater],” said Jenna Gebel, who graduated in 2010 and is now an M.B.A. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think [the fact] they do this conference is incredible and anything I can do to better the school and help other women is wonderful.”

Gebel’s presentation, “Building and Maintaining a Professional Network,” focused on her experiences networking and offering practical advice. She spoke about her experiences meeting Goodwill Industries International senior vice president Wendi Copeland.

While attending a conference about social entrepreneurship, she was seated next to Copeland and decided to start a conversation. After being “blown away” by Copeland’s work, she decided to give her a phone call that afternoon.

“What’s even [crazier] is that [despite how busy Copeland was], she actually picked up the phone when I called,” said Gebel.

After meeting for coffee and discussing Copeland’s work, Gebel saw a position open up at GII. She was chosen for the position and later discovered that Copeland vouched for her from a pool of more than 100 candidates.

“That, for me, was the first lesson that networking is powerful,” said Gebel.

Another leader at the conference who was reaching out to students during the opening cocktail hour was Melissa Rosen, director of national outreach at Sharsheret, an organization that supports young Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer.

“This is a great time [to talk about family health history], as men and women are forming health habits and living as adults for the first time,” said Rosen.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a BRCA gene mutation, according to Shasheret, nearly 10 times the rates of the general population. This makes Jewish families more susceptible to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Abbie Weisberg is the CEO of Keshet, a Chicago-based organization providing educational, recreational, vocational and social programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities that operates according to traditional Jewish values.

Her presentation, “Pursuing Your Passion,” focused on how she became the head of the nonprofit and on how to turn a passion into a career.

“Always start backwards. Ask yourself where you want to be, what is your goal?” said Weisberg to the 50 students who attended her session. “It’s OK if you don’t know. … When I started at Keshet, I had no idea where my career was going to go.”

Weisberg, who has devoted more than 25 years to children with special needs, was named Jewish Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Jewish News and placed on JWI’s list of 10 Women to Watch.

Other speakers included Julie Kantor, president and CEO of Twomentor; Shulamith Klein, chief risk office for Emory University and Emory Healthcare; Juanita Weaver, owner of Creative Connections; and Erica Bernstein, founder and CEO of JewelErry.

Weisberg’s piece of advice to the women in attendance was concise.

“Continue to learn.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

A Living Story of Gypsy Survival Family’s Holocaust experiences strike lasting chord with guitarist Lulo Reinhardt

It’s truly miraculous that Lulo Reinhardt is here to tell his family’s story and carry on its musical traditions. The Reinhardts — gypsies from India who settled in Germany 600 years ago — survived Buchenwald, Auschwitz and death marches. Some were inside, and moments from entering, the gas chambers when Auschwitz was liberated.

Reinhardt, the great-nephew of gypsy jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt, plays Saturday at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the Owings Mills JCC as part of International Guitar Night.

A Living Story of Gypsy Survival

He lost hundreds of cousins he never met to the Holocaust, in which up to 220,000 gypsies were killed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But his grandparents and his father as well as his father’s siblings, with the exception of one brother, survived.

“It’s just a miracle,” Reinhardt, 54, said.

The guitarist brings his diverse sound, which draws on gypsy, flamenco, Latin and Brazilian influences, to the Owings Mills venue along with International Guitar Night tour founder Brian Gore, contemporary fingerstyle player Mike Dawes and multi-genre guitarist Andre Krengel.

“I love his style. I’m definitely a fan,” SONiA Rutstein of Disappear Fear said of Reinhardt. The Grammy Award-winning Baltimore native singer-songwriter brought him to Baltimore to play on an album she produced by young violinist Sam Weiser in 2010. She heard some gypsy sounds in Weiser’s playing and thought Reinhardt could complement the music. She also performed with him at Musikmesse, a music merchandising convention in Germany, and will be performing at his club in Koblenz, Germany this April.

“[His style is] a combination of, of course, the Django, the jazz, with also a touch of the flamenco style. He’s lightning fast with the movement, but it’s very tasteful, and he’s not a speed demon,” she said. “He’s hysterical actually. He’s very determined, he’s a perfectionist and a little crazy, as most extraordinary musicians are.”

Born in 1961, Reinhardt learned the music of his family from a young age, and he also learned its Holocaust stories, which echo the struggles and journeys of Jews during that time period.

Toward the end of the 1930s, a doctor came to the “gypsy ghetto” where about 50 families lived, bearing gifts in an effort to attract participants to submit to blood tests and other physical measurements and conduct interviews about where they came from since gypsies were not native to Germany. Reinhardt said that although the gypsies had problems in Germany much like the Jews, they trusted the doctor. But a few years later in 1942, when Reinhardt’s father, Bawo, was just 18 months old, the gypsies were moved from the ghetto to the city of Koblenz in western Germany, which was used as a collection point. From there, the gypsies were put on trains destined for Buchenwald.

At the time, Reinhardt’s grandfather, Joseph, who was a violinist, actually worked for the German army in a secretarial position.

“Many gypsies were fighting for the German army, also many Jewish [people],” Reinhardt said. “At this time it was a good job. It was a good paying job, even if you [did] an office job.”

Arriving home after work one day, Reinhardt’s grandfather was surprised by what he found.

“He came home from his work and the ghetto was empty. No one was there anymore. He was shocked. It was like a ghost street,” Reinhardt said. “He went to back to work and he was asking his colleagues and said, ‘Where’s my family?’”

His co-workers couldn’t answer and suggested he ask the police, who at that point were SS officers. He eventually found out that the gypsies were deported to the concentration camp.

As the story goes, Joseph rode his horse to a city near Buchenwald, but the horse died along the way. It took him two weeks to reach the camp.

“You imagine he had this German uniform and he was knocking on the door at Buchenwald. The German soldier there said, ‘What do you want here?’ and so my grandfather said, ‘Let me in, my family is here,’ and the soldier said, ‘You better go,’” Reinhardt said. “My grandfather took off his uniform and said, ‘Let me in, I’m a gypsy and my family is here.’ … They gave him a tattoo.”

You imagine he had this German uniform and he was knocking on the door at Buchenwald … my grandfather said, ‘Let me in, my family is here,’ and the soldier said, ‘You better go.’ My grandfather took off his uniform and said, ‘Let me in, I’m a gypsy and my family is here.’ … They gave him a tattoo.
— Lulo Reinhardt

But the gypsies had been sent off by then. Some family members went to Ravensbruck, the camp for women and young children, and others to Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen-Gusen before they all wound up at Auschwitz.

Reinhardt said his father was in line for the gas chamber at Auschwitz when Soviet troops arrived in January 1945. One of his brothers was inside, and survived, although there may have been some brain damage. After being liberated, the family went back to Koblenz, where Lulo was born in 1961.

His legendary great-uncle, Django, narrowly avoided concentration camps. During the war, Django was popular enough that he actually entertained the Nazis in Paris in underground clubs.

“There were many jazz aficionados among the Nazi occupiers, so they put together jazz clubs and jazz concerts,” said Bret Werb, music and sound collection curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Django was pretty well protected. Eventually, he left Paris and survived in the countryside.”

The family story is that Django encountered some Nazi troops when he was leaving Paris and was arrested. While some officers wanted to send him to a concentration camp, one soldier who was a fan convinced the others to let Django go.

Lulo Reinhardt visited all the camps where his family was held prisoner and the barracks where gypsies were held. He and his fellow International Guitar Night performers played in the library at Auschwitz last year. On one of his albums, Reinhardt recorded a suite of songs called “Memories of Dachau,” dedicated to his uncle, also named Lulo, who was held at the camp.

Music wasn’t completely absent from the Reinhardt family, or the gypsy people, during World War II, similar to the experience of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

“My father’s oldest brother, he was 12 or 13. He was playing every single day,” Reinhardt said. “Even sometimes the Nazis said, ‘Come out and play,’” and he would play, sometimes barefoot and scantily clad in subzero temperatures.

“I asked my uncle, ‘How can you play in this cold weather?’ And he said, ‘You just play,’” Reinhardt said. “He was so scared.”

Werb said each concentration camp had its own culture, and so it’s hard to generalize how music worked in the camps. In the ghettos, some people brought instruments, but sometimes they’d get lost along the way, burned for fuel or traded for food. In the concentration camps, the instruments could have arrived with people or could have been confiscated from other prisoners.

“There’s definite documentation that there were gypsy ensembles, and there were groups called gypsy orchestras that may have included gypsies and non-gypsies,” Werb said.

Rutstein, a Pikesville High School graduate and member of Congregation Beit Tikvah, said the Reinhardt family’s experiences speak volumes about their character and their music.

“The Reinhardt family, I think, is a strong breed. That they survived really says a lot in mind and body and spirit,” she said. “I think that’s indicative of gypsy music as well … it’s going to seek the strongest path going forward.”

Having toured the world, including Israel six times, Rutstein can speak to the universality of gypsy music and noted that the music has found popularity in Baltimore, with last weekend’s sold-out Charm City Django Jazz Fest at the Creative Alliance.

“It sort of takes you back several decades, but [the music is] still quite vibrant now. It’s fun. It can really be a nice palette for excellent playing; you really can showcase your playing to a magnificent extent because, kind of like bluegrass does, you take a lead and you just go with it,” she said. “It’s sort of like European bluegrass in a way, somewhere in between klezmer and polka. It’s very in the moment, and yet the melodies are powerful and indelible.”

Reinhardt’s Musical Evolution

Through survival, the family’s rich musical traditions live on.

“I started with Django’s music when I was 5,” Reinhardt said. “My father was teaching me guitar for the first two years, from age 5 until 7. He showed me all the main, basic chords and everything on guitar.”

His father, Bawo, introduced him to French music, Brazilian guitar and Frank Sinatra’s music as well — his father’s eclectic musical tastes rubbed off on him.

At age 7, Reinhardt started playing with his cousin and next-door neighbor, Mike Reinhardt, who taught him the rhythm guitar parts of Django’s music. They’d play five, sometimes 10 hours a day. At age 12, he joined Mike’s band.

“After Django died [in 1953], there was nothing between ’53 and ’63 because no one wanted to play guitar anymore because they had so much respect for Django,” Reinhardt said.

He played in Mike’s band, which became quite popular because of this lull in gypsy music, for 25 years.

In 1992, Reinhardt and his father started a band called I Gitanos that played Latin music with lyrics sung in the Romani gypsy language. In his downtime, he started the Lulo Reinhardt Project, which evolved into the Lulo Reinhardt Latin Swing Project in 2008. His namesake projects feature his diverse musical interests, from samba to flamenco to rumba to jazz to Latin swing.

When Reinhardt’s father died in 2013, he wrote a song called “The Fighter,” which he performed at the funeral. Weeks later, he and the Latin Swing Project recorded an album, “Bawo,” dedicated to his father. The band recorded the entire album in two days. “Best CD I ever made,” Reinhardt said.

While the horrors Bawo and the Reinhardt family endured during the Holocaust are behind them, anti-gypsy sentiment still lives on.

“We are confronted with this every single day, the gypsies,” he said. “They kill gypsies still, neo-Nazis.”

Despite a complicated history and present-day anti-gypsy sentiment, Reinhardt remains a proud ambassador of his heritage. Next year, he plans to undergo his third film project, in which he will retrace the journey his ancestors took from India to Germany and connect and play with gypsy musicians along the way. He also plans to tell the story of his musical journey and that of his family in a book he’s writing called “The Way to Latin Swing.”

As for Saturday’s show at the Gordon Center, Reinhardt said it’s the best tour he’s ever done.

“As a guitar player, you can learn so much from other guitar players,” he said. “We have four different styles, four different guitar players, four different characters. That makes this show so special.”

Gore, the tour’s founder, said Reinhardt is deeply committed to his craft.

“Lulo believes that developing his own style is the best way to honor Django, rather than repeating his playing note for note, over and over again,” he said. “Django was an innovator after all; and so it should be for Lulo, who has been living and breathing Django since he was a toddler.”

Randi Benesch, managing director of the Gordon Center, said when she came to the Gordon Center three-and-a-half years ago, she didn’t know what to expect from International Guitar Night, which is an annual staple at the venue.

“I was really overwhelmed and amazed by the talent and diversity of the guitarists that Brian [Gore] puts together each year. The Gordon is such an intimate space and the acoustics are so incredible that it’s the perfect program for the Gordon,” she said. “These are always true guitar masters, and they really represent the great versatility that the guitar can provide. It always amazes and wows me how each player has their own unique style and technique.”

International Guitar Night plays the Gordon Center on Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 in advance and $35 at the door. Visit jcc.org/event/international-guitar-night for more information.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

 

Recourse for renters Proposal to reform Baltimore rent court system makes its way through legislature

District Court of Maryland (David Stuck)

District Court of Maryland (David Stuck)

An effort by several Baltimore-based civil rights organizations to improve conditions in the city’s rent court system has made its way into Maryland’s public discourse, attracting support from like-minded groups and opposition from a network of land- lords along with the city’s  administration.

The movement, known as the 7,000 Families Campaign, began in 2014 when the city’s Right to Housing Alliance teamed up with the Public  Justice Center to conduct a study that examined the challenges that face tenants in Baltimore City. The study, published in December 2015, found that more than 7,000 families are evicted each year — second only to Detroit.

Baltimore’s chapter of Jews United for Justice has partnered with the two organizations in calling for changes that would institute a 14-day pre-filing notice to tenants of their failure to pay rent before a landlord is allowed to bring a suit to court, extend the amount of time for the sheriff to serve  a summons on the property and increase documentation requirements for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in rent court cases.

These proposals have made their way into a bill in the legislature known as the Fairness and Integrity for Baltimore City Renters Act, or HB 796, which is being sponsored  by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41). Jessica Lewis, a community organizer with the Right to Housing Alliance (RHTA), said she thinks the reforms will cut the amount of litigation in half by giving tenants a chance to receive one more paycheck and seek legal counsel before heading to court.

“It’s really just about correcting an imbalance that  exists there,” she said. “It’s not about asking for the sky or asking for renters to get a pass in court.”

Lewis said 80 percent of about 300 renters surveyed in the study reported health and safety problems with their property, including the presence of lead. She said it is  important for renters to know of their rights in such cases where withholding rent is  justified.

“If they had known their rights, if they had alerted their landlords, they would have had a valid defense for withholding part of their rent, and we just find that that never happens,” she said.  “We’re hoping that the conversation we’re starting here with this bill shifts the narrative and opens up a broader dialogue about the rights of renters in this city because we make up half the population of the city.”

RTHA member Felicia A. Lockett said one of the goals  of the bill is to hold landlords  accountable, which means  requiring them to explain extra charges that are often slapped onto someone’s account. She said this can happen when utilities are counted as a part of a tenant’s rent owed. Lockett said she has experienced this several times, once incurring $700 in additional charges that she has fought in court.

(David Stuck)

(David Stuck)

Lockett thinks the bill will hold landlords accountable for these types of charges by  requiring them to submit  additional paperwork detailing what they are.

“It cannot just be your word, you have to have this evidence,” she said. “You have to have your paperwork.”

JUFJ Baltimore director Molly Amster said the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,200 per month, meaning people with low  incomes are either signing  expensive leases or living in substandard housing.

“People are trying to access housing, but there’s not a lot of affordable housing available to them,” she said.

Amster said JUFJ’s involvement in the campaign stems from an obligation Jews have to ensure safe living conditions for one another, which she said is a tradition that can be traced to a Jewish law code from the 16th century.

“We are supposed to be providing people with a safe place to live,” she said. “It’s our obligation if we are renting it to someone. And we are not  opposed to the court functioning and doing what it needs to do to hold both parties’ contractual obligations, but it’s only doing one right now.”

Landlord Stephen Thomas, who serves as the director of the affordable housing community Park Heights Angel, said there is a misconception that renters are trying to use the court system to their  advantage by asking for more time to pay.

“There are isolated incidents where there are individuals who are misusing the system,” he said. “But by and large, most renters want to be able to afford the rent, pay the rent on time and live without the burden of being pushed out of the place they call home.”

The issues in rent court have had a trickle-down effect on other parts of the city including schools with low-income populations. Jennifer McDowell, a community schools coordinator with Child First Authority, said at the school where she has worked for the past five years, parents often come to them for help with a pending eviction. If they are not able to find a family that can house them, the school may refer them to a shelter on the other side of town.

Jews United for Justice Baltimore director Molly Amster (third from left) stands with other leaders of civil rights organizations advocating for rent court reforms at a hearing in Annapolis on Feb. 19. (Daniel Schere)

Jews United for Justice Baltimore director Molly Amster (third from left) stands with other leaders of civil rights organizations advocating for rent court reforms at a hearing in Annapolis on Feb. 19. (Daniel Schere)

“This disrupts the daily routines that our students have, and it causes many problems,” McDowell said. “Suddenly, a student who rarely missed school before an eviction is missing a day or more a week and is arriving tardy due to the long travel and irregular bus service.”

McDowell added that students whose families have been evicted often come to school out of uniform due to a lack of access to laundry facilities. At present in her school in West Baltimore, as many as 11 students are in unstable housing situations.

Rent court takes place every morning during the week in the District Court of Maryland building at 501 E. Fayette St. Starting at 8:30 a.m., the courtroom may be packed with more than 100 people waiting for their case to be called.

Associate Judge Mark Scurti, who presides over rent court on a rotating basis with 26 other judges, said more than 1,000 cases per day is typical.

“If both parties are present, the judge will listen to both sides and allow both parties to try to [determine] the amount of rent due in an owing,” he said, but added that cases often move quickly when tenants do not show up.

At last Thursday’s court session, Associate Judge James Green spent no more than two minutes on several cases but arrived at a more complicated dispute when a tenant attempted to explain how she had created an escrow account in November after an inspector found 14 safety violations on her property, but she still owed rent to her landlord from a previous judgement.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) testifies on Feb. 12 in support of HB 796, which would given tenants in Baltimore more time to pay their rent and seek legal counsel. (Melissa Gerr)

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) testifies on Feb. 12 in support of HB 796, which would given tenants in Baltimore more time to pay their rent and seek legal counsel. (Melissa Gerr)

The tenant said her landlord did not show up in escrow court and was not aware that she owed rent for November until her husband received a text message.

After showing Green the communication she had with her landlord, he determined that she and her husband had paid off judgements from previous months, stopping evictions in December and February, but that the November judgement preceded the filing of the  escrow case. He ultimately sent the case to escrow court.

“It’s good that you showed up today to bring all this information to the court,” Green told the tenant. “But it does appear that although you may not have understood the  accounting, which is a different issue, the monies that were paid went to redeem the premises for the prior eviction and did not encapsulate the November matter.”

In that tenant’s case, she had sought out legal assistance from the Public Justice Center. Scurti, who has served in district court since 2013, said tenants do not have a lawyer present at their side in the majority of cases he sees. He said other  resources tenants can use to their advantage are ones the court provides, including brochures that illustrate the eviction process and an  instructional video shown at the beginning of each rent court session that explains how the court operates and what constitutes evidence.

“It has a little bit of a mock situation with a landlord and a judge and tenant,” he said.

“We are supposed to be providing people with a safe place to live. It’s our obligation if we are renting it to someone. And we are not opposed to the court functioning
and doing what it needs to do to hold both parties’ contractual obligations, but it’s only doing one right now.” —  Molly Amster, director of JUFJ Baltimore

Scurti said in cases of conditions issues, it is rare for a tenant to bring evidence the day of the trial, but such cases call for three inspections within a two-week period  before the inspectors report back to the court.

Among the dangers commonly found in homes is the presence of lead-based paint, which was used in the United States until being banned in 1978; Scurti said lead complaints are fairly common.

“[Lead], I would say, is a high number of items that are checked off, and it’s typically phrased in the way of chipping paint,” he said.

After two brief hearings in front of the Baltimore City House Delegation in Annapolis on Feb. 12 and Feb. 19, it  appears the fate of HB 796 will be decided by a rent court work group that will conduct a study of the proposed changes. The group consists of district court judges that  include Scurti as well as attorneys, the Housing Authority and landlord agents.

Despite the potential for the reforms, instituting them may require a change of heart from Baltimore’s leaders. In a Feb. 19 memo to the delegation from Deputy Mayor of Government Relations and Labor Andrew Smullian, the city  administration expressed its opposition to the bill, citing increased financial constraints and potential public safety  issues. It states the requirement that the sheriff post the summons in a visible location is impractical due to the presence of multi-floor and multi-unit buildings that would require entry to the entire building first.

“The practical reality of HB 796 would be that this bill would incentivize a landlord to leave front-door vestibules unlocked in order that the sheriffs may enter and therefore make all such properties less safe for tenants in Baltimore City,” states the memo.

It goes on to point out other aspects of the bill that would require additional time and money, such as the creation of a legal assistance fund for tenants that would operate under a $30 fee imposed on the Housing Authority for each eviction  filing. This, it says, would amount to an additional $900,000 to $1.1 million per year. It also points out that the Housing Authority provides a number of resources to the public, including an intervention group for tenants who struggle to pay their rent.

The city’s financial concerns were echoed by Kathy Howard, the legislative committee chair for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, who thinks the bill has “a lot of moving parts.”

“It is clear it affects not only the multi-family housing  industry, it affects the Sheriff’s office, it affects the city housing departments and how they run things, it affects the court system, and none of these  departments have been consulted about the massive, sweeping changes that this bill makes,” she said.

Howard said she does not think the 14-day pre-filing  notice is necessary since there is already a waiting period of 45 to 90 days for an eviction in Baltimore City. She noted that it is important to consider that the well-being of the landlord is directly tied to the tenant’s ability to pay their rent.

“Just think of it from this perspective. You have a mortgage. Your mortgage is due on the first. If the tenant does not pay rent, which pays the mortgage and other expenses, and there is a 14-day waiting period to even be able to file his initial pleading, he’s already in default on his mortgage just as the tenant is already very much in default on theirs.”

dscheremidatlanticmedia.com

Loaves of Love Shared with Howard County Seniors

Lisa Welch (fourth from left) hosted a group of BBYO parents at her home to bake challah for the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s new community service initiative, Loaves of Love. (Justin Katz)

When it comes to homemade food, freshly baked challah has always held a special place in the Jewish tradition, and several Howard County parents are giving back to the community with the braided delight.

“A lot of people have good memories of challah and Shabbat. I think if you went to a Sunday school and asked any grade for five Jewish symbols,” said Lisa Welch, a Howard County resident, “challah would always be one of them.”

Last week, Welch hosted a challah-baking night for Loaves of Love, a community service initiative created by the Jewish Federation of Howard County in partnership with BBYO and the Kugel Connection.

The program brings parents of BBYO students in Howard County together once every several months to bake and package freshly made challah. Then the challah, along with grape juice, is delivered to  elderly residents in the Jewish community.

The parents are connected to seniors in the community through Cheryl Kaufman, founder of the Kugel Connection, a nonprofit organization that assists elderly residents in the Howard County Jewish community by providing  volunteer workers.

Kaufman, who worked with Meals on Wheels for several years, was inspired to start the Kugel Connection in January 2014 after traveling to Israel with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, a birthright-style trip for Jewish mothers. Following the trip she wanted to connect her Judaism to her volunteer work.

“The idea is that we help [seniors] celebrate Shabbat, but [after] you give them the food and the grape juice,” said Monica Recht, who attended the last baking session, “you give them company and bring a spark to their day they might not have otherwise have.”

Jonah Potasznik, regional director for Howard County at BBYO, said the initiative  reflects Howard County’s ability to experiment with different forms of engagement due to  its size.

The Jewish Federation of Howard County started the initiative as a way to get parents of BBYO teens engaged Jewishly.

The “committee felt community service brings people together,” said Michelle Goldberg, director of outreach and family programming. The parents convened in the fall last year and are planning to meet again in the spring.

In addition to helping the community, Welch and Recht both said it’s also an opportunity for the parents to connect with each other.

“I enjoy having people [at my home], and I haven’t had the chance to meet [some of these parents],” said Welch.   “Our kids are in BBYO together and go to school together, but we don’t know each other,  so it’s a great way to bond. We’re all going through the same things [such as] driver’s  education and colleges.”

Last Thursday night, all hands were on deck, as the women mixed, kneaded, braided and baked challah dough to a golden brown finish at Welch’s Clarksville kitchen.

“I think it’s important to give back to the elders in the Jewish community,” said Welch. “A lot of the Jewish seniors don’t have Shabbos in the same way they did earlier in their lives. It’s [important] to bring a little Shabbos to them and say, ‘You’re a member of the community; this is what Jews do for each other.’”

“I think there are a lot of people who are lonely and could use companionship,” said Recht. “And [it’s important] to value them and [make them] feel like they’re important and feel the Jewish community is behind them.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com