Syrian Refugee Crisis Safety concerns, Jewish ethics guide attitudes toward helping those in need

Saturday morning, a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am used his Shabbat sermon time to invite an open discussion about the brutal and tragic incidents that occurred throughout the city and their aftermath.

Several people expressed their anger and concern about the way Syrian Muslim refugees — those fleeing possible persecution and fear of death — were repeatedly linked with terrorist activities in the rhetoric of some politicians and in the media. They also voiced concern about an ensuing climate of fear and hateful sentiment aimed at refugees that could spread from that portrayal.

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

The discussion resulted in a small group of congregants meeting with employees of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore office on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown a few weeks later to learn what they might do to welcome and assist Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Baltimore in the coming year.

Congregant Wendy Schelew, who has a decades-long history volunteering and working in refugee resettlement in her native Toronto, went to the IRC, she explained, because “as a Jew I really felt it was a moral obligation to help people who didn’t have a home and that we could not relive the history of the Second World War and turn away from people in need.” She added that though she has her concerns about  the State Department’s ability to screen refugees adequately to weed out potential terrorists, “I believe that most of these people are not security threats. They’re homeless just like so many of our [ancestors] were, and they deserve a chance to start over in a new place.”

If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected. So we have to stand up for everybody.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

The group learned that the IRC helped resettle more than 800 refugees last year; 35 of them are Syrians, but there is no information on how many Syrians will be resettled in Maryland in 2016. The organization provides clients with up to eight months of case-management support when they arrive to help them stabilize and navigate a new life. Refugees are met at the airport and ensured simply furnished affordable housing — the first month’s rent is paid for — and a first warm meal, and their children are enrolled in school. Each new arrival must attend a five-day orientation that covers details such as instructions for riding the bus, getting groceries and finding English-language classes; and everyone receives a full medical screening within a week or so of arrival. Then the IRC’s employment services team steps in to help the adults find work.

“That’s the big ask by the U.S. government,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore and Silver Spring offices. “We welcome you, but you’ve got to work, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So we help folks find their first job. Then usually within three to four months, 85 percent of our clients are working and paying their bills.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

Staffers at the IRC cited several large local employers who regularly return to them seeking employees, impressed by the pool of new immigrants’ work ethic. About 12 percent of Maryland’s population is foreign born, yet immigrants own and run about 22 percent of small businesses, which are viewed as economic generators. Currently, there are sizable communities of Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese and Iraqi populations throughout the greater Baltimore area.

The available resources and capacity of resettlement agencies determine the number of refugees assigned to a city. About 1,800 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in 2015, and the largest Syrian community is located in Toledo, Ohio. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Syria’s civil war remains the single biggest generator worldwide of both new refugees and continuing mass internal and external displacement.

“The reality is, because [Syrians are] a new migrant group and because of the lengthy vetting process, we’ll be seeing very few coming to Baltimore in the coming year,” said Beth Am member Joe Nathanson, who went on the IRC visit and has an extensive background in economic urban planning for refugee communities.

With nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, and 4.5 million of whom are Syrians — one quarter of that country’s population — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called the Syrian displacement “the biggest refugee crisis” since World War II.

“Frankly, the U.S. response is disproportionately low compared to other refugee crises,” he said.

Hetfield noted that 240,000 refugees were admitted to the United States from Vietnam in 1980; by contrast, just 10,000 Syrians are slated for admission this year.

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

In 2016, for a person to gain refugee status and legally enter the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, he or she must first apply through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. Less than 1 percent of those applying achieve resettlement. A person must prove he’s been driven from his home “due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was created in response to the Holocaust and to prevent countries from denying refugees entry and sending them back to life-threatening situations.

If an applicant clears this first step, his or her documents are sent to the State Department, where more information is collected and security screenings are done via the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Syrian applicants get additional interviews and screenings called the Syrian In-House Review, which could include more cross- referencing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ fraud detection and national security directories. Biometric screenings, including fingerprinting and often iris scans, are collected from all applicants and are crosschecked with databases at the FBI, DHS and the Department of Defense. If the applicant passes all of these screenings, he or she submits to health screenings and is enrolled in cultural orientation classes while information continues to be checked against terrorist databases to ensure no new intelligence has turned up since the application process began.

We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

In total, the vetting process can last 12 to 24 months from application to arrival here, and it’s considered the most rigorous of any country in the world. However, in November, the House of Representatives voted 289 to 137 in favor of a bill that would further tighten the vetting process for Iraqis and Syrians. The bill was defeated in the Senate on Jan. 20.

Still, FBI director James Comey testified in October that “a number of people who were of serious concern” have slipped through screenings, including two Iraqis arrested on terrorism-related charges, as reported in The Washington Post. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less-than-excellent vetting,” Comey said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Hetfield compared the Syrian vetting process with the scrutiny of the Iraqi and Afghan vetting process, but “we actually occupied those countries and had access to their criminal records to use during the screening processes, and we don’t have that luxury with Syrians.”

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

“But security is not a new issue for refugees,” Hetfield added, citing the more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who came here from what was “probably the most fearsome [foe] that the United States has ever had. There was plenty of opportunity for mischief by the Soviets … and the U.S. knew that and tried to screen for it. I’m sure they caught some and others slipped through, but the bottom line is, we’re stronger as a country because we brought in those 400,000 Soviets. But there was a risk.”

Chandrasekar hopes that advocacy by his and other resettlement organizations will push the U.S. to increase President Barack Obama’s pledge to accept 10,000 Syrians and 85,000 refugees overall to 100,000 and 200,000 refugees, respectively.

It’s a prospect that has some in the Jewish community, including Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, concerned about the nation’s safety.

My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other.
— Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Am Congregation

“The violence perpetrated by Muslim immigrants in Europe —  especially toward European Jews — portends what America has in store if we bring more such immigrants here,” Klein wrote in an opinion piece published late last year by the Jewish Times. He reproached HIAS, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Council, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide for signing a letter that opposed the induction of additional restrictions and security measures and for “supporting dangerous Syrian immigration.”

Groups representing the Conservative and Orthodox movements, however, have joined the JCRCs, the AJC and the URJ in backing the call to resettle Syrian refugees.

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Jewish Roots, Jewish Ethics

Albert Einstein’s plea for political asylum in 1933, when the Nazi regime took hold of Germany, “was the guiding force behind the creation of the IRC,” Chandrasekar said. “He was responsible in many ways in stimulating the IRC.”

He added that in the beginning it was “a clandestine organization that had staff in German occupied territory,” such as Varian Fry, a Jewish journalist-turned-activist who created fake travel permits allowing Jews to escape to other parts of Europe and the United States. “Our history as an organization is linked to the Jewish community and its history.”

Now, the IRC has offices in 33 countries and 26 American cities. Internationally, it provides humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter and medical care. Within the United States, many refugees helped by the IRC have stories similar to that of Ali and Amina (not their real names).

Ali was a successful carpenter in Damascus and owned three retail furniture stores. He and his wife, Amina, had five daughters with a much-hoped-for son on the way. Violent conflicts and eventually civil war erupted in Syria, but the family chose to remain in their home country. While the civil war raged on, the hospital Amina gave birth in was bombed and her infant was killed.

It was then the couple had to make a difficult decision to leave for their safety and that of their daughters. So in 2012, they left for Lebanon and lived off of savings for a while. Soon Ali needed work and found a job delivering furniture. They tried to make ends meet, but life as a displaced refugee was a dangerous struggle with no end in sight.

Finally, they applied for entry into the United States.

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

“We resettled them 18 months after they applied, in 2014,” Chandrasekar said, adding that a goal of the IRC is to help repopulate Baltimore City, which lost about 300,000 inhabit-ants during the decades between 1980 and 2000, and to increase its tax base. “Now, Ali works at Under Armor as a fork-lift driver. Amina just received her driver’s license and the kids are in school.” After losing so much, “refugees come here with the passion to rebuild.”

“And when you look at the nation’s history for more than 200 years, that’s what refugees have done,” Hetfield said.

“They’ve strengthened this country not weakened it.”

Since its inception in 1881, HIAS has resettled nearly 5 million new immigrants. This month, after 130 years in New York City, the organization moved its headquarters to Silver Spring, Md.

In the past decade, HIAS readjusted its mission as the first and only agency to protect and resettle Jewish refugees to focusing on non-Jewish refugees. It has received some criticism for the change.

“We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish,” said Hetfield, who has worked with HIAS on and off since he began as a caseworker in Rome in 1989. “Now, we’re a humanitarian service agency, an advocacy agency that is guided by Jewish values and history.”

The result has been that a majority of Jewish family service agencies HIAS previously partnered with to do the groundwork once a refugee entered the United States have either dropped out of the network or will do so this year, including such agencies in Maryland and Washington.

But supported by Jewish laws protecting strangers Hetfield notes are the most repeated in the Torah, he sees his mission as a righteous one.

We were “once strangers ourselves,” he said. “So for that reason it’s very important we’re committed to refugees regardless of who they are. If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected.

“So we have to stand up for everybody.”

To that end, HIAS “managed to easily” get more than 1,200 rabbis to sign a declaration — including more than 80 from the Baltimore-Washington area — that was delivered to all members of Congress in December imploring them to learn from Jewish history, welcome all nationalities of refugees to the country “and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”

Cotzin Burg of Beth Am was one of the letter’s signees.

“My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other,” he said. “And this [refugee crisis] seems to me a great opportunity to do so.”

A Continuing Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Since 2000, the Baltimore Jewish Council has hosted interfaith events that stimulate a dialogue among members in the Baltimore community. The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is one of them.

“The mission is to create genuine and organic relationships and open the dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities,” said Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, “and focus on the topics we do have in common and can work on together.”

There were more than a dozen events last year, and they expect to host as many in 2016. Suggs noted that Gov. Larry Hogan’s office “has been a fantastic partner,” with its office of community initiatives that does interfaith work, as well as the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies with Muslim scholars Homayra Ziad and Ben Sax.

Martha Weiman, BJC Interfaith Commission chair, warned of the danger in generalizing about an entire community, as people have historically done to the Jews, but “when you keep the doors open there’s dialogue — whether it’s small or whether it’s large. And you have to hope that it spreads.”

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

This month, the BJC cosponsored a Jewish and Muslim women’s advocacy program, where they trained on lobbying techniques and strategies with Ziad and Rep. Shelly Hettleman. There were about 25 women in attendance, Suggs said, and “it was a rallying call to focus on how we can work together. The unifying factor was women’s issues, she added, but the overall message was, “We can’t give in to the polarizing climate of the national dialogue.”

There are social justice and social programs as well, such as collecting goods for donation that go to each community, which is “a great way to see what our faiths have in common, and charity is one of them,” Suggs said. The BJC also hosted dinner in the sukkah, and in the spring, it will collaborate with ICJS and The Stoop Storytelling Series to host an evening of stories about what “home” means to them as Muslims and Jews.

Suggs said gender for attendance is split 50-50, and there is a “really strong young professional age group.” But depending upon the programming, ages range from 30 to 70.

After 9/11 there were federal and state Homeland Security grants available to communities that felt threatened, and “the Muslim community asked us to help them with the grant for a fence around their mosque on Johnnycake Road,” Art Abrams, BJC executive director, said. “We helped them get $20,000, and we continue to do so; we work together constantly.”

Suggs said a new dinner program will be launched in May, a trilogue of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. There will be panelists including an imam, a rabbi and a priest to kick off discussion, then attendees will break into small discussion groups.

One of the biggest causes of anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim sentiment, Suggs said, “is a fear of the unknown, and by creating relationships and friendships, we’re able to tackle the fear and misconceptions that make that happen.”

HIAS: For the Refugee from Moth on Vimeo.

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Split Decision in Stevenson Chabad Case Court order ruled that proposed synagogue meets some requirements, possibly violates others

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

The case concerning whether a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation can build a synagogue on Stevenson Road will be heard before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Attorneys for both the neighborhood opposition and the congregation appealed the opinion and order rendered by Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen on Jan. 12.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky aims to build a permanent home for his Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a congregation for Russian Jews, but has drawn opposition from a number of neighbors due to concerns over pedestrian safety, traffic, county code and the character of the neighborhood.

The ruling ordered that the synagogue is permitted under the property’s current residential zoning classification, that the proposed residential transition areas (RTAs) that are required to blend the building in with its surroundings are sufficient and that the house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, can be used as the rabbi’s parsonage.

But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not “consistent with the spirit and intent of the [county’s] original plan,” which called for two single-family homes to be built on the 3-acre property. Beverungen did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the plan needed to be amended, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement. The original plan was approved by the county in 2006.

Beverungen’s opinion added that he believes that Ken and Jassamyn Abel, the petitioners who live next door to the property, should be afforded protections from another part of zoning code that protects residents who made decisions — such as buying a house — based on development plans from “inappropriate changes” to those plans.

Beverungen and Belinsky’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood opposition (a third attorney, a resident, joined the legal team), addressed the seemingly split decision.

“My feeling is that we’re very pleased with what I believe is the more important ruling in the judge’s decision, and that is the ruling on the amendment of the final development plan,” McCann said, “particularly the strong language he used.”

Beverungen called the proposed synagogue a “radical departure” from and “inappropriate change” to the original development plan.

On the RTA question, he said he thought the judge “misapplied the law.”

“But even if he was correct, the ruling on the amendment issue would carry the day,” he said.

Belinsky said he was “delighted” by the RTA section of the hearing.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

“The vast majority of his ruling [was] on explaining why all the claims of the neighbors about traffic and safety and RTA compliance have no grounds,” he said.

Ken Abel said he and his neighbors believe the rabbi would have had to have been successful on both questions to move forward, pending appeals.

“The message to the community was this is good news,” Abel said. “It validates what we’ve been saying since the beginning: The synagogue on that property wasn’t appropriate.” He said they disagree with the judge’s decision on the RTA issue.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), who lives next door to the property on the other side, said he is “very pleased” with the court opinion. Stein cleared his involvement in the case with the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics adviser.

Beverungen heard the two cases over the course of eight hearings between June and November. Those who testified included civil engineers, land use and zoning experts, a traffic expert, a landscape architect, residents of the surrounding neighborhood and the rabbi.

Belinsky proposes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and a basement with classroom and office space. His congregation currently meets at Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s synagogue on Old Pimlico Road.

The neighborhood opposition circulated a petition that was signed by 638 residents from 426 homes, 394 of those homes being located within the boundaries of Greenspring Valley Road and I-695.

Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond said her office received between 150 and 200 emails about the proposed synagogue, some of which were from her constituents, and estimated that about 90 percent of them were in support of the synagogue. She is not taking a position on the issue.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s office received 101 emails opposing the synagogue in the spring and early summer and 139 emails and phone calls of support between September and mid-November. Most of the support came via email.

The Board of Appeals hearing functions as a new hearing, and dates have yet to be scheduled. Three members of the seven-member board must sit for hearings and a majority vote of two is necessary for decisions. If the cases are further appealed, they would go to the Baltimore County Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

The Blizzard that Battered Baltimore Organized Jewish community holds strong during Jonas

The historic storm Jonas that brought nearly 30 inches of snow to some parts of Maryland and left at least 29 dead in its path may have come to an end this past Sunday, but many in the Jewish community are still joining forces to dig themselves out.

“It is a tremendous principle in Judaism that the preservation of life and safety comes above all else,” Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler said in a video posted to the synagogue’s Facebook page last Friday. The message: Take your time.

The Chesed Fund/Project Ezra, a community group in Baltimore founded by Frank Storch that oversees community safety and security awareness activities, initiatives and projects in conjunction with other community assistance groups, started preparations early.

Frank Storch (center), founder of the Chesed Fund, and others in the Jewish community pulled out all the stops to prepare for the historic storm Jonas. (Provided)

Frank Storch (center), founder of the Chesed Fund, and others in the Jewish community pulled out all the stops to prepare for the historic storm Jonas. (Provided)

Groups working with the Chesed Fund included Shomrim, Hatzalah, an emergency medical service catering to Jewish communities, and Chaverim, a nonemergency assistance service.

The groups distributed lanterns, flashlights and shovels, prepared an emergency vehicle for Hatzalah, shuttled doctors to and from local hospitals and gave out bagels to first-responders, among other tasks.

“Throughout the last few days, [Storch] has handled dozens of phone calls and email requests regarding transportation needs, snow removal and food delivery,” a Chesed Fund representative said via email. “While we were obviously hit with a record-breaking amount of snow, we are very fortunate that our area did not lose power. We are even more fortunate to have exemplary volunteer community organizations such as Hatzalah, Shomrim and Chaverim, whose volunteers worked tirelessly around the clock for our community.”

Synagogues throughout Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties canceled activities, services and other programs over the weekend and even through Monday.

“I can’t say enough about how everyone came together to do whatever they could to make the challenging situation a bit easier,” said Beth El Rabbi Steven Schwartz via email. “I am extremely proud of Beth El, its staff and our entire community. At the end of the day, as the old Yiddish saying goes, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’”

Storm or no storm, there were still bar and bat mitzvahs scheduled this past weekend. Andrew and Marcee Senker and their daughter, Emily, from Chizuk Amuno Congregation are one of the families who powered through the  weekend to celebrate, and they said the congregation made the best of it.

“Obviously, it was not as expected, but it was a perfect solution to a bad situation,” said Andrew Senker. The family decided to hold the ceremony on Friday afternoon, and although the turnout was relatively low, Emily’s extended family still witnessed her moment in the spotlight. “Since it wasn’t Shabbat, we were able to livestream [the ceremony to our family who couldn’t attend].”

His wife said Emily was unfazed by the change of plans.

“I think that the Friday service for Emily was special for her,” said Marcee Senker. “Not only because it was for her bat mitzvah, but because of the weather, she was able to see family and friends sitting in front of her. The small service was much more personal as opposed to a traditional Saturday morning service.”

Chizuk Amuno was not the only congregation with a bat mitzvah during the storm.

Due to the storm, Amit Peled conducts a music lesson with one of his students via Skype. (Provided)

Due to the storm, Amit Peled conducts a music lesson with one of his students via Skype. (Provided)

Elisa Frost, a member of Beth Am synagogue, came home on Thursday evening to several messages from Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg asking to reschedule Frost’s daughter Lila’s bat mitzvah. As Frost’s stepbrother put it, the “blitzmitzvah” was moved to Friday afternoon and drew an impressive crowd considering how quickly it was planned.

“From my perspective, it was a really beautiful gathering, where many Beth Am congregants made a point of coming out before the storm,” said Burg, “[and] risking not being able to get back [home just] to support a kid who has grown up a lot in the synagogue.”

Since Frost had extended relatives flying in from out of state, Burg offered to put Frost’s family and relatives in his own home so they’d have a place to sleep near the synagogue. Many Beth Am congregants offered similar invitations.

“Our family was moved by the efforts and dedication of Beth Am’s clergy and staff, including our inimitable custodian, Mr. Warren McFarlane. What an outpouring of warmth from all corners of the community,” said Frost via email. “As I said afterward to our executive director, Henry Feller, the best-laid plans are sometimes best laid aside to make room for what we wouldn’t dream up on our own.”

Synagogues were not the only ones rearranging plans due to the blizzard.

The Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts canceled its Sheldon Low and Gibson Brothers concerts. Low has not been rescheduled yet, and the Gibson Brothers will perform on Feb. 25, according to Randi Benesch, senior managing director of the center’s arts and culture.

“As we say, ‘The show must go on,’” said Amit Peled, cellist and professor at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

Peled, who is from northern Israel, lives in Pikesville and is known by his neighbors as the “Jewish Yo-Yo Ma.” Unable to meet with his students at Peabody, he “decided to take up the technology” of today and meet with his students via Skype.

“It’s actually working so well I’m thinking about just staying at home [for all of my lessons],” Peled said, jokingly. “The quality might not be as good as sitting in front of people in the same room, but we got a lot done.”

Peled said the idea seemed novel to him, but his students were onboard immediately.

He added that the technology is “scary because the whole human contact is going away. But it also saves you when you’re stuck. It’s the first time I’ve done it, and now I have lessons planned all day.”

However, not everybody on the East Coast was able to conduct business through Skype due to power outages.

Baltimore remained lucky by comparison to the thousands who were without power as early as last Friday night in some parts of the country.

Baltimore Gas and Electric estimated that 5,500 customers were without power at the peak of the storm. Power was restored to approximately 12,000 customers overall by Sunday morning, and all remaining customers had power restored by Sunday afternoon.

BGE had teams from 15 different states including its sister utility, ComEd in Chicago.

“We were in preparation mode for several days leading up to the storm, so we were able to start restoration efforts as soon as our customers began experiencing outages,” said Rob Biagiotti, vice president and chief customer officer for BGE. “While the forecast called for heavy snow and high winds, which can make for very challenging operating conditions, we were fortunate not to experience the worst, and crews were able to keep working. We are very appreciative of the mutual assistance program and the more than 1,000 utility workers who joined us from around the country to help put our customers back in service.”

According to Baltimore County statistics, there is $5.9 million budgeted into snow removal for 2015-16. It costs the county more than $108,000 per hour to salt and more than $54,000 per hour to plow the 8,742 roadways it oversees.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

‘Calm and Simple’ Morocco’s seaside Essaouira blends old, new

A lone walker crosses a field near the ramparts. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

A lone walker crosses a field near the ramparts. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

If when you think of Morocco, you conjure up Bob Hope and Bing Crosby crossing the desert on the hump of a camel, a few words of advice: You don’t have to ride that way in this large country whose land area is about 173,000 square miles and is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior and swaths of desert.

There’s another part of Morocco: Its coastal area, which is certainly well worth a visit. Indeed, Morocco is one of only three nations (with Spain and France) to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines.

And it’s the seashore where I headed on my other road to Morocco.

Ah, Essaouira, Morocco’s most relaxed seaside resort town.

“A northeast wind, a cloudless sky, a glowing sun,” that’s what a British consul wrote about Essaouira a hundred years ago. His description of this Moroccan city, formerly called Mogador, a Berber word meaning “safe anchorage,” is still valid.

This white-walled port city on the Atlantic coast has captured the hearts of tourists. Midway between Safi and Agadir, it once was occupied by the Phoenicians and then Carthaginians.

The city of Essaouira has an interesting Jewish past. Still here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis. There were Jewish families that dominated Moroccan trade.

Known for travelers wandering along its picturesque walls, Essaouria is thought to be derived from the Arabic word for “ramparts” but translates as “little image.” The walls give the city its charm, as well as the blue and white medina, a “sweet retreat.”

Essaouira remains exotic. It is quiet and calming without the rush of the major cities, and it’s somewhat off the beaten track. Its market is not old and overcrowded with visitors, and its passageways are wider than in other markets.

I relaxed while walking the seashore and seeing the fishermen mending their nets.

I sat in one of the cafes on the Place Mouley Hassan and watched the world go by. I later dined on delicious grilled fish caught fresh that morning for lunch or dinner. I had walked with my guide to stalls and watched as he carefully examined each fish, choosing the best one to be grilled for our meal.

Here, the sky is blue or is it azure; the contrast is amazing, appealingly against the white buildings and sand-colored fortifications. Seagulls are continuously wheeling overhead, their cries occasionally silenced by the muezzin’s call.

Essaouira remains a difficult place to leave because it has more open spaces and wider streets than most cities in Morocco. A travel writer wrote in 1900 that it is the best planned and cleanest town in the empire, “and in consequence, it stands high as a health resort.” Still true today.

In 1760, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah, founded the city and named the fortified port Essaouira to be a rival to Agadir.

Interestingly, the Encyclopedia Britannica says “a colony of Moroccan Jews was installed to extend commerce.” Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah chose 10 of the important families and conferred upon them the title of “Merchant of the King.” They received luxury housing and were entrusted with missions to the European courts. For a century and a half, they dominated Moroccan trade. The privileged personalities became the nucleus of a dynamic community which lasted until just after World War II and gave the town a distinctly Jewish character, says the Encyclopedia Judaica, noting that everyone rested on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

But back in 1808, it was decided to confine the Jews within a mellah, a Jewish quarter. From then on, the only exceptions were families of the above-mentioned “Merchants of the King,” and some businessmen of European origin. The mellah became overcrowded with new arrivals, and during the 19th century, the Jewish population grew from 4,000 to 14,000.

Under the 1912 French protectorate, the city lost some of its economic importance and only a small community of 5,000 Jews remained. Many left in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, most of its former Jewish citizens lived in Europe, America and Israel; only a few hundred Jews continued to live in Essaouira.

The medina (old city) here is smaller, hassle-free and is considered the cleanest in the country. It is a good place to shop.

Joseph Sebag operates a fine book store known as Galerie AIDA, 2 Rue de la Skala. I bought Paul Bowles’ book, “The Sheltering Sky,” from him.

Located in the city is a large international community, but very few Jews actually live here.

Still here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis.

Synagogue Rabbi Haim Pinto at 9 Impasse Tafilalet, Essaouira, has been preserved as a historic site of Rabbi Pinto (1748-1845) who was born into a distinguished rabbinic family in Essaouira, then called Mogador. He became the leading rabbi in the city. On the anniversary of his death (26 Elul, 5605 in the Hebrew calendar, just before Rosh Hashanah), large numbers of Moroccan Jews come from all over the world to pray at his tomb in the large, older Jewish cemetery here. Rabbi Pinto is remembered as a man whose prayers were received in heaven in such a way that miracles resulted.

Physically, the city has expanded to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry. Twenty years ago, there were perhaps six hotels in the city; today, the figure is about 200.

As I strolled around this city which has an interesting Jewish past, I realized that unlike Jews in neighboring Algeria, Jews have never completely departed from Morocco. On the contrary, there is still much nostalgia for the days when Moroccan Jews lived in what some call a “Golden Age” —when Jewish and Muslim children played side by side, when, in some cases, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an easy life, slow, calm and simple.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published “Klara’s Journey,” “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and other Jewish travel guides.

‘Not One Step Back’ Havre de Grace synagogue, church honor MLK day with mosaic unveiling

Havre de Grace’s Temple Adas Shalom and St. James AME Church worked together to create a mosaic that represents a quote from the Book of Amos to which Martin Luther King Jr. frequently referred. (photo by Justin Katz)

Havre de Grace’s Temple Adas Shalom and St. James AME Church worked together to create a mosaic that represents a quote from the Book of Amos to which Martin Luther King Jr. frequently referred. (photo by Justin Katz)

Temple Adas Shalom and St. James AME Church in Havre de Grace joined together last weekend to unveil and dedicate a mosaic the two congregations created in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The mosaic represents a quote from the Book of Amos to which King frequently referred.

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” the quote says.

Adas Shalom Rabbi Gila Ruskin said that she always partners with an African-American church wherever she lives. In Havre de Grace, that partnership has been St. James and its reverend, Baron Young. She said her time, as a religion teacher, at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore City was the impetus for this commitment.

“[It was by] spending time with African-American teenagers who live in Baltimore City and really want to get an education and have a productive life,” said Ruskin. “Despite all of the adversity they face, I learned so much from them about what it’s like to be a young African-American in today’s world.”

The dedication ceremony had three speakers, and following the mosaic’s unveiling, the congregations joined together to help make blankets for the homeless of Harford County. The first speaker was Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Howard County’s Beth Shalom.

When I say, ‘Forward together,’ you say, ‘Not one step back.’
— Keshia Thomas

Plotkin focused on his experiences participating in the 2015 Journey for Justice Walk from Alabama to Washington.

“At the front of the line, not just that day, but every day was a man named Middle Passage,” said Plotkin. Although Plotkin didn’t speak with Passage directly, he heard his story through colleagues. “He was an older gentleman who had taken his name to honor the way his ancestors came to America.”

Plotkin explained that many of his own ancestors came to the United States on a boat, eager and excited to see the Statue of Liberty. However, many of Passage’s ancestors came against their will on the “Middle Passage” route across the Atlantic Ocean that brought slaves from Africa.

To Plotkin’s — and many others’ — disbelief, the unthinkable happened during the march.

“The line stopped suddenly. I saw from about halfway back a man fall, and it was Middle Passage,” said Plotkin. “Initially we thought, perhaps hoped, that he got tired and tripped, but it very quickly became apparent that this was not the case.”

The buses took the marchers back to their home base, where Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP who marched next to Passage and accompanied him to the hospital, delivered the news. Passage had died.

For his participation in the march, the Union for Reform Judaism honored Plotkin, as well as each of his rabbinical colleagues, with a Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award. The award is named after a rabbi who advanced the cause of social justice through the creation of the Religious Action Center in Washington.

During his presentation, Plotkin removed the award from its packaging to show the crowd. He began to introduce the next speaker, Keshia Thomas, but not before making a special announcement.

“To recognize what you have brought to this community, to myself and to communities around the country and to this cause you so passionately support,” said Plotkin, “I present you with this plaque.”

Thomas also walked in the 2015 Journey for Justice but said she’s been an activist since childhood. She staged a walkout at her school after Rodney King’s brutal 1991 arrest in Los Angeles and mentioned how difficult it was to explain her actions to her parents.

After being introduced, Thomas began her speech by teaching the crowd one of the many chants she has learned.

“When I say, ‘Forward together,’ you say, ‘Not one step back,’” said Thomas.

Throughout her speech, Thomas intermittently chanted “Forward together,” and the audience responded, “Not one step back.” Thomas, who has received several awards from different organizations and universities for advocacy for racial equality, shared the story that brought her into the public eye in 1996. It began when she heard that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to rally in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“The Ku Klux Klan was coming to Ann Arbor to spread hate. I had to stand up to say, ‘No, not today and not in my town,” said Thomas.

When Thomas arrived at the rally, she noticed someone on a bullhorn.  Without warning, that person changed the crowd’s demeanor for the worse.

“All of a sudden, [the person on the bullhorn] said, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd. Get him,’” said Thomas. The crowd fell silent and turned to a white man wearing a black vest with a Confederate flag. He had an SS tattoo.

Thomas’ first reaction was to confront him. But after seeing the man get struck in the head with a sign, Thomas acted. A now-famous photo of the incident, taken by Mark Brunner, shows Thomas protecting the man while yelling at protestors to stop. Ultimately, police arrived on the scene, escorted the man away and arrested several protestors who had become violent.

Media outlets later confirmed that he was not a Klansman.

Although Thomas’ actions were well publicized at the time, she shared the next, lesser-heard part of her story with the audience. A few weeks after the incident, she was sitting in a coffee shop when a white teenage boy approached her and said, “Thanks.” Confused, Thomas asked what he was thanking her for.

The teenager was the son of the man who Thomas protected.

The final speaker of the evening was local attorney Philip Hunter, who participated in all three Selma, Ala., marches as a teenager. As a result, he was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama along with other members of the original marches.

Hunter recalled that his father was an active member in the NAACP when “it was not popular to be a part of a subversive group.”

Hunter’s father and seven other men were nicknamed the “Courageous Eight” because they petitioned the superintendent of schools to integrate; this was before Brown v. Board of Education. Many people lost their jobs as a result of signing that petition. Hunter’s father and seven other men refused to remove their names.

Hunter explained that during one of the marches, the group knew authorities were waiting for them. Being athletic, he thought he could outrun the tear gas. He was wrong and faced the same brutality that many others of the time experienced.

Throughout his speech, Hunter repeated one of King’s famous quotes several times.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Hunter

He repeated, “Where do you stand in times of challenge and controversy?”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Make Way For Millennials America’s youngest politicians eligible for presidency

The oldest members of the millennial generation are turning 35 this year, making them eligible for the highest seat in the land. While we may not hear “Hail to the Chief” as the intro for a millennial president this election cycle, 2016 is the last presidential contest in which America’s largest generation will be forced into the spectator-only role.

The Pew Research Center defines millennials as people born in 1981 and after, making them the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. The center describes this generation as “linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry and optimistic about the future.”

Make Way For Millennials

Millennials’ engagement with political structures differs wildly from their predecessors’.

“Millennials are dissatisfied with politics,” said Nik Sushka, 32, a former president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats. “Many millennials don’t identify with the political structures of the past, and it’s difficult to get millennials excited about serving in political office.”

Sushka has seen both sides of the coin when it comes to politically engaged — or in some cases disengaged — millennials. Her organization has successfully helped several millennial politicians with campaigns for public office, including Maryland state Dels. William Smith (D-District 20) and Marc Korman (D-District 16), who is Jewish.

However, getting millennials out to vote is still a problem facing candidates at all levels.

Although millennials are less interested in the polls, they are not disengaged from the issues. Sushka said millennials are dissatisfied with policies that would help to address issues such as sexism, racism and immigration reform. This feeling cuts through party lines.

“I think millennials, by and large, definitely respond more strongly to the single-issue advocacy angle,” Brent Tracy, chairman of the Modern Republicans of Howard County, said in an email.  “Our generation responds more to what is being said, rather than to who is saying it.”

Tracy, 28, said this feeling comes down to the individual. In his early 20s, he felt more passionate about the issues than the policy; however, he now takes more interest in creating “practical policies,” because he thinks “it is important to note that we can’t fix issues without good policies.”

Millennials, Tracy said, are more interested in tackling political issues through organizations, rather than policies, for two reasons.

First, the generational wall is becoming more difficult to break through due to people generally living longer and holding office longer.

Second, “they don’t trust politicians.”

“People are more and more cynical about politics — and Washington in particular,” said Matt Dallek, assistant professor of political management at the George Washington University. “I don’t see millennials moving into political space in the traditional offices [but] more so through advocacy, given the anger and animosity toward elected officials alike and the relative suspicions of each party.”

Korman, and Smith, who are from Rockville and Silver Spring respectively, are among the few millennials to buck that trend. With assistance from the Young Democrats, Korman, 34, and Smith, 33, were elected to the General Assembly in 2014.

What sets older liberals apart from their younger counterparts, said Korman, is how baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) and the greatest generation (born before 1928), have developed their positions.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (a baby boomer) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt., and of the silent generation) are both seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

“[Millennials have] always had these positions,” said Korman, referring to issues such as marriage equality and marijuana legalization. “Clinton and Sanders have had an evolution over time because they have been around longer.”

Korman said that millennials are able to tap into change easily, and change is an idea that voters can get behind. This change is possible for politicians such as Clinton and Sanders, but it doesn’t come as easily.

Though millennials don’t have the political cohesion of the baby boomers and the greatest generation, they have concrete positions on certain social and foreign policy issues, said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the school of government, policy and international affairs at George Mason University.

“On gay rights, they have made up their minds,” said Mayer. “They are against foreign wars. This is a generation shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Unlike their parents’ generation, which saw the first Gulf War as a political success, the foreign conflicts millennials have been exposed to means they’re “not going to vote for the neo-conservative America as policeman of the world,” Mayer said.

Conservativism among millennials, said Mayer, will be more libertarian in its identity, in part because millennials are less religious. A 2014 Pew Research Survey concluded that only 27 percent of millennials attend a religious service on a weekly basis, compared with 38 percent of baby boomers and 51 percent of the silent and greatest generations.

Chrysovalantis Kefalas, 36, who is gay, epitomizes the ideals of young members in the Republican Party who are less conservative on social issues. Kefalas, who is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), characterized this not as a potential shift within his party, but as a rapid re-embracing of Republican core values of “free enterprise, individual rights [and] equal opportunity.”

“One of the things I think millennials more than any other generation seem to understand and appreciate is an unwillingness to wait for justice to occur,” Kefalas said.

“[Millennials] want to see a lot of social change. They want more involvement not just with brand change, but with voters who aren’t reached right now,” like young voters and minority voters, said Melanie Harris, 29, chair of the Baltimore Area Young Republicans Club and a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Jimmy Williams, treasurer of the Modern Republicans, said he thinks prioritizing social issues is a key difference between older and younger Republicans.

“A major difference between millennial Republicans and older Republicans is that we tend to prioritize [issues like] the economy, jobs, national security and education,” Williams said in an email. “Older Republicans still tend to put social issues at the top of their lists of important issues.”

Regardless of their differing views on social issues, Harris said she believes young activists in Baltimore, and Maryland in general, are united in their discontent with the political status quo.

“Some [millennials] have come to view our current political climate as status quo regardless of which of the two major parties is in charge,” Williams said. “As a result, [millennials] look to membership in advocacy organizations as a way to effect real change.”

Kefalas, who served as Maryland’s youngest deputy legal counsel during Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration, joked that his greatest age-related concern is that he looks 20 years old — but in a serious vein said he believes that voters care more about his experience than his age. He argued that millennials have already begun to influence politics from the inside out.

“Things are getting done and it’s not necessarily the senators and representatives who are getting things done; it’s the young staffers who are pushing for results,” he said.

On the state level, Kefalas said he counts criminal justice reform as an issue he successfully pushed from within the Ehrlich administration. Ehrlich initiated a strategy that provided nonviolent offenders substance abuse treatment and implemented a clemency program in an effort to reintegrate them into society — as productive members of communities.

“I think one of the key sleeper issues in American politics is pensions,” said Mayer. “Pension politics directly pitches the young against the old. If we come to a pension crisis, that may be the moment millennials get engaged.”

Mayer predicted several states are only a few years away from pension crises.

Student loan debt is another financial issue that has exposed deep generational divides and resentment.

“I think that this generation of Democrats and millennials is on a different fiscal path than previous [generations] for a number of reasons. First is student loan debt,” said Smith, who estimates that his generation has $1.2 trillion of student loan debt. In Maryland, students attending public universities have approximately $25,000 in student debt after earning an undergraduate degree.

“[The amount] of debt that millennials have from the start changes our trajectory,” said Smith. “If you ask average millennials, [this is the] first generation where the outlook is not better than our parents.’”

Though Sanders has focused on economic disparity on the campaign trail, attracting a wide millennial following in the process, young voters are largely ignored by mainstream political operatives. Brian Zuzenak, former deputy director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spelled out the reason why to one of Mayer’s classes.

“It’s really expensive to talk to your generation, and when we try, it’s not worth the money because you don’t vote,” Zuzenak said during his lecture, according to Mayer. Although President Barack Obama’s campaign received praise in 2008 and 2012 for its use of social media to bring out younger voters, Mayer said he doesn’t think the millennial turnout was as large as reported.

“I think most campaign operatives would rather improve one or two points among baby boomers than five points among millennials,” said Mayer.

That does not mean millennials will be ignored forever.

“This generation is up for grabs, and I think Republicans and Democrats have yet to figure them out,” said Mayer. “Whichever party figures out how to get this short-attention-span generation to pay attention is going to win.”

(To prove a point, Mayer assigned his class with designing a political advertisement for their peers. The winner: A 12-second Vine video.)

“Everyone has a smartphone, everyone’s on social media all day,” agreed Harris, who re-chartered the Baltimore Young Republicans in July. “There’s a blissful ignorance of decades past. The radio’s off, the TV’s off; you might not know what’s going on outside your door.

“With this computer in your pocket [it changes the dynamics].”

“I think the way [the party communicates], that’s a part of change there, the use of social media to engage people instead of old-fashioned methods,” said Korman.

And in an era where a single Facebook post can mean getting a pink slip, social media may also become the downfall of some would-be millennial politicians.

Jonathan Sachs, who graduated from the University of Maryland, was president of the student body and the university’s College Democrats and has interned on Capitol Hill for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

He previously served as the campus mobilization director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“[The millennials’] biggest liability is also a positive. The positive is how people can connect with each other seamlessly” through websites such as Facebook and Twitter, said Sachs. “It’ll be interesting when people who were on Facebook for so long start running for office.

“Everyone has things [on Facebook when] they weren’t at their proudest moment or were voicing an opinion on a controversial topic they don’t still believe.”

Ultimately, millennials believe that — in the words of Korman — “candidates shouldn’t run because they’re young or because they’re old. If there is a well-qualified 35-year-old who can make a case to run for president, their case shouldn’t be [dismissed].”

“The generation that is in power now has been in power for a long time,” Sachs said. “No one in the millennial generation will be elected president on their 35th birthday.

“But the question is how do [politicians] in the next generation lead people in [both generations] to solve some of these big issues we’re facing as a country.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com, mapter@midatlanticmedia.com

Wanted: Safe Spaces First few weeks of 2016 see continued crime in Northwest Baltimore

For residents in Northwest Baltimore, crime has picked up in 2016 right where it left off at the end of last year, and once again it has raised concerns over public safety in the Jewish community. According to the Shomrim of Baltimore Facebook page, more than 20 incidents have occurred during the last few weeks.

These concerns were voiced during a town hall meeting at the Park Heights JCC on Monday, when members of the Baltimore Police Department addressed several hundred residents of the surrounding community.

WANTED: SAFE SPACES

“I can tell you without the shadow of a doubt that the work ethic and the talent is here in Baltimore,” Commissioner Kevin Davis said in support of his department. “I know that we have to do better with property crimes, quality-of-life crimes.”

Davis, who spoke only briefly due to another engagement, said he hopes that the crime-heavy year of 2015 will be an “asterisk year,” and he added that the department is in the process of coming out with a sophisticated burglary strategy.

Capt. Jason Yerg, a commanding officer in the Northwest District, said many of the recent break-ins were occurring during 15-minute windows and in broad daylight when parents were taking their children to school. He said two juveniles who attend Northwest High School are believed to be behind the most recent string of robberies and have been taken into custody.

“Now the onus falls on the criminal justice system,” Yerg said. “And sometimes we in the city would like to see the criminal justice system act a little more swiftly.”

One man suggested that Baltimore introduce stop-and-frisk policing tactics similar to those of New York City in the 1990s during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration. Yerg was quick to point out that Baltimore adopted the policy 15 years ago, but it has been heavily scrutinized due to criticisms of racial profiling.

I think the police department is afraid to do its job because of what happened in [the riots].
— Sharon Saroff of Owings Mills

“Unfortunately, the ACLU and various civil rights organizations have a huge problem with that,” he said. “A lot of the things that we did back in 2001, 2002, 2003 that were Giuliani-esque alienated the city. Some of the things that used to happen in the back alleys that kind of kept people on the straight and narrow, they’re not acceptable anymore.”

A number of recent crime victims were in attendance Monday and complained that on-the-scene police officers never wrote reports. One man who was robbed last summer said that a truck he and his neighbors were warned about pulled up to his house after the incident. “I wrote down the license plate number. He was driving slowly because he was casing houses. I got in my car and drove behind him,” he said.

The man called 911 while following the truck on Woodcrest Avenue, but the 911 operator said police could not respond because he was in a moving vehicle and did not have a fixed location. The truck then drove off.

“I told [the operator], ‘You get an A-plus for procedure and an F for results.’ So if we call 911 and that’s the runaround we get, who do we go to besides Shomrim?” the man asked.

Yerg said that Shomrim was a great resource, and in that situation the police should be called, But, he added, sometimes property crime is not prioritized.

“We’re not going to be able to solve all the problems in the Northwest,” he said. “You call 911 and you get an ill-trained 911 operator, and they don’t get it to a patrol in a timely manner, or the call is coded based on priority because we have higher priorities taking place, and police officers don’t show up for 20, 25 minutes. That’s not [Northwest] Maj. [LaTonya] Lewis’ fault or our fault; that’s all of us working together.”

Maj. Robert Smith told attendees that the size of the Northwest District creates challenges for police because they often focus on the more economically depressed areas as opposed to Upper Park Heights.

“This is a pretty big district,” he said. “You have communities that are stable, you have communities that are fractured, and you have communities that are in shambles.”

The meeting followed a series of robberies at gunpoint that had occurred during the week of Jan. 3. On Jan. 6 at Seven Mile Market, a man held up an employee who was loading the ATM machine about a half hour before the store opened; the thief made off with an undisclosed amount of cash, according to the Baltimore County Police Department. Neil Schachter, president of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, said the suspect was likely a disgruntled employee.

“I think this was an unusual anomaly,” he said. “This person was sitting in the hallway wearing a Seven Mile Market shirt. How did he get a shirt? They clearly thought he was one of the workers.”

Another incident occurred on Jan. 5 at 9:30 p.m. outside Bais Haknesses Ohr HaChaim, when a man was robbed at gunpoint by three individuals, according to Schachter. He said despite the frightening nature of some of these attacks, residents should have no reason to be fearful.

“These incidents happen very far and few between, and I don’t think it’s going to stop one congregant from going to shul,” he said. “We have confidence in the police department, and we’re sure that this will be totally under control in a short period of time.”

Law enforcement did increase its presence over the weekend, however, adding three officers to patrol targeted areas during Shabbat hours. Schachter said this was a request from the NWCP, Shomrim and a delegation of local rabbis. He wasunsure whether this would continue in future weeks.

Baltimore Jewish Council executive director Art Abramson said he has had a number of conversations with police about safety and that the most important thing for residents is to make sure their doors are locked and their possessions are secured. He said he feels safe where he lives in the Summit Park neighborhood.

“The major thing right now is that there are police throughout the neighborhoods,” Abramson said. “I see them in the morning [going to work], and I see them on the way home. They are moving in the right direction.”

Many residents blame the increase in crime on a diminished police presence, which they attribute to lingering inner-city violence in the wake of last April’s Freddie Gray riots during a year that recorded 344 homicides — the most in any year since 1993.

“I think we need to have more [police presence], because the police department isn’t doing enough right now,” said Sharon Saroff of Owings Mills.

Saroff, a regular shopper at Seven Mile Market, said her husband once served on the NWCP and thinks more security in general is needed.

“It’s not just here in the Northwest area, it’s all over the city, and I think that something has to be done,” she said. “I think the police department is afraid to do its job because of what happened in [the riots],” she said.

Pikesville resident Bari Efron also feels the police needs to increase its presence in the area.

“I think one of the reasons that we’re seeing this upsurge has to do with the riots and that police feel that their hands are tied,” she said.

Efron, a Seven Mile shopper, said [the crime upsurge] is upsetting but not to the extent that she feels unsafe.

“I feel safe on a daily basis pretty much, but there’s always that feeling that you always have to be careful and look around you,” she said.

Diane Dorman, a resident in the Towers Condominiums near the intersection of Falstaff Road and Clarks Lane, said she has lived in Baltimore for eight years and said much has changed in that time, even to the point where she no longer feels comfortable walking alone. Dorman was particularly concerned about a recent carjacking on Clarks Lane and hopes additional security measures are taken.

“They’re putting more lights in the parking lot,” she said. “Maybe that’s what they need, more street lights.”

While most have blamed Pikesville’s crime problems on lack of police and security, resident Ann Kibel Schwartz said she thinks socioeconomic and educational disparities play a larger role. Schwartz moved to the Baltimore area 15 years ago and said she thinks more partnerships between schools and on-the-job training would help reduce the crime rate.

“We could have programs in the schools where [students] get a combination of practical life training and jobs in partnership with maybe hospitals and other big places that are potential employers,” she said.

Schwartz said she volunteered with Head Start in the 1960s and thinks that people are less likely to commit crimes when they have hope.

“When [children have] enough to eat and clothes on their back and lots of love, it makes a big difference,” she said.

Schwartz, who teaches art appreciation at the Community College of Baltimore County, said her students often find constructive ways of dealing with their emotions through creative means.

“What gives me a lot of hope is how many young students I have who write poetry,” she said. “Having a way to express yourself calms people down, so I just think it’s important.”

Schwartz said she thinks empathy is the key ingredient in making a community safer.

“There’s no 100 percent cure, but if people know each other and they have empathy for each other, they’re less likely to hurt each other,” she said. “When you live among strangers, it’s stressful and you have less empathy.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Curly’s Mojo Local artist’s work now included in coloring books for adults craze

Coloring2

Howard Greenberg and Joe Shansky teamed up their creative efforts to create Curly’s Mojo Amazing Stuff, a line of adult’s and children’s coloring books featuring Greenberg’s artwork and Shansky’s writing and design. (Photo provided)

Howard Greenberg (aka Curly) and Joe Shansky (aka Mo), both 70, met when they were about 13 years old as they battered a ball for hours against a concrete wall, playing paddleball (similar to handball) in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood playground. They became fast friends and remained paddleball partners for nearly a decade, playing every summer at Sheep’s Head Bay beach. They’ve remained close friends ever since.

Now Greenberg and Shansky are partners again, this time as creators of Curly’s Mojo, a line of coloring books for adults and children featuring the hypnotic pen-and-ink abstract doodle designs and realist images by Greenberg, an artist and photographer, with stories and book design by Shansky, a writer and graphic designer.

The idea came when Shansky, after writing about the adult coloring book craze for a regional magazine, remembered the “55 years’ worth of doodles taking up space in [Greenberg’s] closet,” he recalled. He approached his longtime friend and said, “Howie, let’s do something with them; there’s a phenomenon just starting.”

Greenberg said he began doodling as a teen “when I watched TV and then during school a lot. … I could pay attention better, I don’t know why.” He added, with a big laugh during a recent phone interview, “I’m doodling right now as I’m talking to you. I like to keep busy.” The doodles are actually intricate drawings, and he’s collected them over the years.

“They’re very intense; they’re very detailed,” Shansky said of his pal’s artwork, “They’re impressive drawings. He’s really got an obsessive-compulsive kind of process going on.”

Greenberg, a Baltimore resident since 1968 and a member of Beth Israel Congregation, prefers to draw with a ballpoint ink pen on paper, because there’s no erasing and you must incorporate “mistakes” into your drawings. This, Greenberg said, is good practice because it echoes real life — he likens it to learning how to roll with the punches and go with the flow. He’s an accomplished artist and has exhibited his work regionally.

Shansky remembered the “55 years’ worth of doodles taking up space in [Greenberg’s] closet” and approached his longtime friend: “Howie, let’s do something with them, there’s a phenomenon just starting.”
— Joe Shansky

Their first book, “Coloring Book and Stress Reliever for Adults of All Temperaments,” and a second, titled “When the Circus Came to Curlyville, a coloring storybook for children of all ages,” are available at the American Visionary Art Museum gift shop, Barrington Books in Rhode Island, where Shanksy lives, and online at Amazon.com and CurlysMojo.com. They’re hoping to get them into other venues such as hospital gift shops.

Becky Kuhn, a librarian at the Baltimore County Public Library Towson branch, sees the evidence of what coloring can provide for adults.

“I think it’ relaxing for people, it gives them [focused quiet] time,” Kuhn said. “They just like to relax and feel like doing what they want” during Creative Coloring for Adults, the hour-long session offered at the library. “Staying in lines is not the issue. [It’s about] being with other people; it’s relaxing, there’s no pressure at all.”

It was in October that Kuhn suggested offering the informal gathering that happens twice a month at Towson, and soon after, five other branches picked up on the popularity of the activity, including the Pikesville branch, where they receive a lot of calls asking about it.

“We play soft music” during the hour, Kuhn said. “We have pictures that we’ve printed out [from copyright-free sites] that they can choose to color, and we provide pencils and crayons,” but people are free to bring their own supplies as well.

She added that some of the branches host a family-oriented coloring event, but Towson’s is for adults only. Attendees have included university students, professors and adults of all ages, from 30s up to seniors. Class size varies from week to week and ranges from about 12 to 20 participants. The gathering is free of charge, and there is no registration required.

Both Greenberg, who retired in 2007 after 39 years of teaching art in public schools, at camps, with youth groups and with Vietnam veterans, and Shansky, who retired from a long career in commercial graphic design creating branding and logos for large companies and teaching as well, said working on the books has given them a renewed focus and energy. They find the process of collaborating and creation “a real ego boost,” especially because “people are really taking to the effort,” Shanksy said.

Greenberg and Shansky already have more books in the works, one called “Confessions, Recipes and Regrets of a Coloring Addict,” a weight-loss book of sorts with real recipes featuring foods Greenberg didn’t eat because he kept busy doodling while watching TV to avoid snacking; another is a sequel to the circus book called “Under the Big Top,” and they plan to create an illustrated animal alphabet book. They may even attempt a Hebrew Aleph Bet version, Greenberg said. Shansky added that they hope to use some of the abstract designs to create a line of material goods such as pillows, ties and scarves.

“I’m really pleased to be able to do this with him,” said Shansky of his pal Greenberg. “We’re both really enjoying doing this venture. If it’s a financial success it would be gravy and whipped cream on the cake. But we’re doing it for the fun of it and for people who feel likewise.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Gospel Prince Comes to the Gordon Joshua Nelson draws on his black and Jewish heritages to create a hybrid style

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will perform with the Bethel AME Church Choir at the Gordon Center on Sunday. Provided

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will perform with the Bethel AME Church Choir at the Gordon Center on Sunday. Provided

Joshua Nelson is going to take the people to church at the Gordon Center on Sunday, but the Jews in the audience will feel right at home.

The Prince of Kosher Gospel, as he is known, fuses American gospel music with lyrics rooted in Judaism to create what he calls “kosher gospel.”

“Overcoming was not a destination. It was a journey,” Nelson said, “and kosher gospel music explains the journey and the commonality of Judaism and African culture and how they have so much in common.”

Nelson, an African-American Jew, draws on his heritages to break down the musical barriers and creates an electrifying upbeat music.

Sunday is his second annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Gordon Center. He will be joined by his band, the Kosher Gospel Singers and Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church Choir.

“Last year was such a beautiful cross-cultural spiritual celebration — high energy, people dancing in the aisles,” said Randi Benesch, the Gordon Center’s managing director.

“Joshua Nelson just brings so much spirit and energy and passion, and it just filled the auditorium. People were literally hand-in-hand dancing through the aisles. It’s never happened at the Gordon Center, and I just decided we néed to make this an annual tradition.”

Nelson, whose family goes back to Senegal and West Africa, grew up going to an Ethiopian synagogue. The Newark, N.J., native started going to a Reform congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, at the age of 12. He would teach Hebrew school there for 15 years, and it was during those years he’d come up with the sound of kosher gospel.

“The kosher gospel developed from the children,” Nelson said. “I began writing songs from the prayers but with a different sound. … The music we were using there, it didn’t resonate with them, so I created more music and made it fun and made the classes more interactive.”

Nelson discovered gospel at the age of 8 when he found an album by Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” in his grandparents’ record collection. He would make a name for himself playing gospel in his teens and early 20s, but his experience living in Israel for two years had a big impact on his identity, and his music.

He went to Israel at age 17, celebrated his 18th birthday and lived on a kibbutz for two years. While living in the Jewish state, he noticed how much Israelis appreciated cultures outside of their own.

“When you’re in a country where they’re all Jews, people love to hear the gospel music, and they don’t mind to hear Jesus and Mohammed, and when you’re in a Jewish country eating Jewish food, you’re looking for anything that isn’t Jewish,” he said. “As a Jew, I learned to respect my blackness, and I learned to respect African-American-Jewish traditions and black tradition. I learned a lot from that Israeli point of view.”

Nelson draws parallels between nigunim, Jewish religious songs with vocalized sounds instead of words, and moans and groans of African slave songs that were the precursors to gospel.

“Nigunim are songs without words … moans and groans and chants and la la la’s — they’re melodies without lyrics, and that’s exactly what the singers did when they came over from Africa,” Nelson said. “You’re dealing with the pain through the natural spiritual currents in moaning and groaning. … And it wasn’t just African. Kosher gospel music is to bring that out on the surface.”

At the Gordon Center, Nelson said concertgoers are going to hear all the sounds, cultures and history he brings into his music.

“They’re going to get that eternal flame on the 17th, just a burst energy,” he said. “But not just coming from me, it’s coming from them.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Living Life Through Giving Life Everyman Theatre uses real-life organ donor example to illustrate the experience’s powerful emotions

Birth, bar mitzvah, wedding … liver transplant? Donating or receiving a vital organ does not typically make the list when we think of events in the cycle of life. But for several in Baltimore’s Jewish community, it can be a signature moment in the lives of the recipient, donor and everyone else involved.

Everyman Theatre lighting designer Jay Herzog had lived a relatively healthy life until the summer of 2014, when he began gaining weight rapidly. On Labor Day, he had become so large he could no longer feel his feet and said at that point he knew something was wrong.

Herzog went to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH.

“It basically means that you have cirrhosis of the liver that is determined not to be caused by alcohol,” he said. “I was blown away. I’d like to say I stayed positive as much as I could.”

Everyman Theatre’s production of “Under the Skin” follows the journey of Lou, played by Mitchell Hébert (pictured), who is in need of a kidney transplant and must seek help from his estranged daughter, Raina, played by Megan Anderson.  (Courtesy of Everyman Theatre)

Everyman Theatre’s production of “Under the Skin” follows the journey of Lou, played by Mitchell Hébert (pictured), who is in need of a kidney transplant and must seek help from his estranged daughter, Raina, played by Megan Anderson. (Courtesy of Everyman Theatre)

Herzog said his first reaction was one of panic: He decided he needed to “get his papers in order” and even assembled a living will.

“I needed to first take care of my family, that was my first reaction,” he said.

Herzog said he had never considered the possibility of being disabled but knew from communicating with others online who had suffered similar illnesses that going back to work after surgery was against the odds.

“Most people by the time they’re two years into their diagnosis, they’re not working,” he said.

Herzog’s disease was caught in an early stage, and this put him at a disadvantage for a transplant, as most occur when the eligible patient is roughly 30 days from death.

“You go through this system, which is a national system. There are 11 regions in the United States, and the livers are distributed through the regions,” he explained, adding that he has had friends who waited up to five years for a transplant.

At that point he began to consider a living donor option and reached out to family and friends as well as putting out a plea on Facebook for a donor with the same blood type.

Director Vincent Lancisi said Michael Hollinger has “a real gift for personalizing stories and incorporating humor” while raising important questions about the duty of human beings to one another.

“For me, being a B-positive blood type I was able to take anybody who’s B and anybody’s whose O,” he said.

Herzog said he received an enormous response that included not only close friends, but also high school acquaintances and former students of his at Towson University.

“It was really quite eye-opening to see who would do it, especially since a liver transplant is so complicated,” he said.

Until then, Herzog said he was not aware that it was possible for a liver to regenerate over six to 12 weeks and become fully functional again.

“The only difference is that neither of us [donor and recipient] can become a living donor again,” he said.

Herzog had secured a living donor by mid-December 2014 and had surgery on Jan. 21, 2015. Now, one year later, Everyman is commemorating his successful surgery and recovery by putting on a production of “Under the Skin” — a new play written by Michael Hollinger that follows the story of Lou, a man in need of a kidney transplant, and his estranged daughter, Raina, who must wrestle with the decision to donate one of her kidneys despite their rocky past.

The Springfield Hospital grounds contain a memorial that recognizes the contributions of organ donors. (Melissa Gerr)

The Springfield Hospital grounds contain a memorial that recognizes the contributions of organ donors. (Melissa Gerr)

Director Vincent Lancisi said Hollinger has “a real gift for personalizing stories and incorporating humor” while raising important questions about the duty of human beings to one another. Lancisi said Hollinger effectively uses the father-daughter relationship to raise broader questions about the concept of organ donation.

“Why does it take a family member who’s suddenly in need of an organ to consider giving it? And who is family anyway? If I’m a match, what is my responsibility to the human race?”

Lancisi said he attended the first production of “Under the Skin” last year at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia and was immediately drawn to the story.

“I walked in kind of blind and was bowled over by the show and was saying, ‘I have to do this in my theater,’” he said.

The play, which opens Jan. 20 and runs through Feb. 21, mainly takes place in a hospital and involves six characters played by four actors; Mitchell Hébert, Megan Anderson, Keith L. Royal Smith and Alice Gatling. It traces the journey of the donation as told through Raina, but Lancisi said the purpose of the play is to illustrate the human struggle as opposed to providing an instructional display.

“You don’t need to know anything about organ donation to see this play,” he said. “It’s not an educational play. It’s a human drama.”

Lancisi said that the timing of Herzog’s illness was a coincidence but did influence his decision to pursue this type of play.

“We were all so shocked when this man who I’ve probably seen drink three alcoholic drinks in the time I’ve known him needed a liver transplant,” he said of Herzog.

It’s the greatest feeling. You can’t imagine. Knowing that you’re able to help someone and give someone life and it doesn’t sacrifice anything for myself.

— Yossi Burstyn, organ donor

The company has been in production for a few weeks, and Lancisi said the biggest challenge for him has been realistically portraying a medical environment, which includes adding props such as a hospital bed and electronic charts.

“You don’t have to have all of the bells and whistles,” he said. “You have exactly what you need to tell the story as it’s going.”

While Lancisi attempts to illustrate a difficult medical journey through theater, Rabbi Ruth Smith, a chaplain at UMM, tries to offer spiritual comfort to patients and make sure they have resources in the community. Smith said she frequently comes into contact with patients who have received heart, lung and liver transplants. There is a complicated set of Jewish laws that dictate when organs from the dead can be donated, but for living donations, Smith said, all denominations are fully embracing of the process.

Rabbi Ruth Smith, chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center, leads a service in 2014 honoring anatomical organ donors. (Melissa Gerr)

Rabbi Ruth Smith, chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center, leads a service in 2014 honoring anatomical organ donors. (Melissa Gerr)

Smith, a Reconstructionist rabbi, explained that an organ donation is part of the concept of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, and is one of the most important mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition. Despite being a rabbi, she emphasized that her role is more of a conciliatory one as opposed to one of spiritual guidance.

“I’m not their authority,” she said. “My job for any religion is to support their lives in whatever way they need.”

As an observer to the process, Smith has become familiar with both the physical and mental anguish patients and their families often go through during a transplant. For five years, Harry Burstyn and his family experienced this firsthand when he began experiencing kidney failure in 2008. As the JT reported in 2013, he eventually went on dialysis before receiving a donation from his cousin, Yossi. Burstyn said up until Yossi responded, he had been proactive in getting the word out, and eight potential donors had gone to the hospital to go through testing.

“I had friends do it, I had strangers who I haven’t met to this day who posted on Facebook, and thank God, Yossi stepped up,” he said.

Burstyn said there was never any question as to whether he would be comfortable with a living donor giving him a kidney, even from a religious perspective.

“The stereotype is it’s forbidden to be an organ donor,” he said. “If you want to be a donor and you’re donating to a living person, not only is it a good deed, it’s an obligation because if you save one life, you save the world.”

Yossi said that after the operation it took a couple weeks for him to recover, but it was worth it, and he celebrated by skydiving.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” he said. “You can’t imagine. Knowing that you’re able to help someone and give someone life and it doesn’t sacrifice anything for myself.”

Since receiving the transplant, Burstyn has become active in the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, which works to educate and promote the concept of organ and tissue donations.

Burstyn said going through a transplant can be a leap of faith for many, but for him, it was a second chance at life.

I don’t wish a kidney transplant on anyone, but it does a lot more than transplant your kidney, it transplants your life,” he said.

Herzog too has become involved with Living Legacy as well as several other donor advocacy groups. He said his goal is to let others know what it means to be a donor.

“Every single time that the donor walks into the room, the doctors remind them that they could die,” he said.

Herzog is once again teaching full time at Towson and will watch opening night of “Under the Skin” on the one-year anniversary of his surgery. He said the play is important in serving as an educational tool about an eye-opening experience that made him more grateful.

“I’m not a different person,” he said. “I’m more appreciate of people in general. I’m much more hopeful.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com