Muslim Ban Inspires Protests in Maryland

Nadia Hassan, a member of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus, protests in Highlandtown on Jan. 26. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Nadia Hassan, a member of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus, protests in Highlandtown on Jan. 26. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Protests erupted nationwide in the wake of an executive order from President Donald Trump that bars citizens from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days and suspends the admission of refugees for 120 days.

Airports around the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, were crowded with thousands of protesters on Sunday. At BWI, Jewish communal officials, members of Congress and elected officials were among the demonstrators.

“I think people are concerned that [the executive order] is potentially unconstitutional and is fundamentally out of step with the values we want to project around the world,” said Congressman John Sarbanes, who, along with Congressman Elijah Cummings, addressed the crowd at BWI.

Just three days earlier, more than 200 people gathered at the Salem-Baltimore Hispanic United Methodist Church in Highlandtown for a solidarity vigil in support of immigrants, Muslims and refugees led by the Baltimore Jewish Council, CASA de Maryland, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ).

A federal judge in New York issued an emergency stay on Jan. 28 that temporarily allowed people who traveled to the U.S. with a valid visa to remain, following a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Sameer Abdulkhalq Alshawi following their detainment upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

According to the ACLU’s website, “The lead plaintiffs have been detained by the U.S. government and threatened with deportation even though they have valid visas to enter the United States. One plaintiff, Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi husband and father of three, worked for the U.S. military [as a translator], and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. [Alshawi’s] wife and son were threatened because of their perceived ties to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained both men in JFK Airport in New York as they entered the country.”

At the Highlandtown church gathering on Jan. 26, Maya Perez, an immigrant from Mexico and a member of CASA de Maryland, spoke about how her parents came to the U.S. illegally. “Everything I am, the reason I am here right now, is thanks to my dad,” she said. “Our parents decided to leave their countries, their homes, not knowing what would happen to them.”

This spur-of-the-moment gathering and another protest in Annapolis on the morning of Jan. 27 called on Gov. Larry Hogan to reject the implementation of the ban in Maryland as well as to support the Maryland TRUST Act, legislation that would prevent police in Maryland from continuing to detain individuals once they are eligible for release if continued detention is only for the purpose of assisting federal immigration enforcement efforts, according to the ACLU.

“It’s not just citizens who have equal protection under law, it is all people in the country,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore director of JUFJ. “When people who are undocumented fear that involvement of police will result in deportation or the loss of their livelihood or even physical danger, they are unlikely to go to the police. It puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position where they can easily be taken advantage of. This law creating a separation between police and immigration is critical to protecting people’s rights.”


The Highlandtown vigil in support of immigrants, Muslims and refugees (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs for the Baltimore Jewish Council, attended both protests and addressed the crowd in Annapolis. She shared that after the two bomb threats to the Park Heights JCC, the first people that she heard from were members of the Muslim community. The BJC received phone calls as well as two dozen letters from Muslim elementary school students to show their support.

“We really wanted to return that support on Thursday and Friday,” said Suggs. “It is really important to stand with all of these minorities that are feeling scared.”

The BJC’s statement on the Muslim ban reflected this sentiment and said, “We believe the United States has a moral and historical obligation to create a welcoming environment for individuals and families looking to start a new life after suffering atrocities in their native countries. Laws that implicitly target specific religious groups should be avoided to the greatest extent possible, and we stand with our friends and neighbors in the Muslim community who are concerned about the effect this ban will have on refugees suffering violence abroad.”

Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), who also attended the BWI protest, felt similarly.

“I think people are really upset at the xenophobia and at the ham-handedness by which this administration rolled out its changes,” she said. “I understand people’s security concerns, but I have a hard time believing that when it’s mostly women and children, the two-year vetting process they go through isn’t enough to give us security.”

Andrew Miller, who helped spur others to attend the BWI protest, said there was a strong Jewish presence, with a number of people wearing kippot.

“I think it is vital to be involved,” he said. “If we start to differentiate between refugees based on their country or religion, we aren’t adhering to Jewish values or human rights. It is an outrage to the fundamental values on which this country was founded.”

Seasons Next Season?

Seasons plans a late-spring opening. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Seasons plans a late-spring opening. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

While contractors are working inside the future home of Seasons kosher market to install electrical and plumbing systems, officials remain tight-lipped on an opening date for the store, which has been in the works for about three years.

A series of delays combined with little public information from Seasons has left the community in the dark about a much-anticipated franchise that will provide the Reisterstown Road corridor’s many kosher residents with a second kosher market.

In a phone interview, general manager Zachary Richards said the store, at 1628 Reisterstown Road, most likely will open in late spring but declined to give a specific date.

“We are working on installing electrical systems and plumbing before we move to equipment installation,” he said.

When plans to open a Seasons in Baltimore were first made public, it was slated to be the first of the market’s stores outside New York. However, since the announcement of the Baltimore store, two Seasons markets have opened in New Jersey while progress in Maryland has been notoriously absent. There are four locations in New York.

Despite grumblings about parking, Richards, in a previous interview, said it “was a challenge but, thankfully, has been resolved.”

The Reisterstown Road location had been sitting empty for months before the recent restart of construction. The approximately 15,000-square-foot store will have produce, bakery, sushi, fish, meat, deli and grocery departments. There will also be shop-from-home and delivery options.

Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond and her office have been in contact with Seasons and issued the following statement: “One of the questions that I am frequently asked in the Pikesville community is the status of the Seasons market on Reisterstown Road. Work has resumed at the site. Seasons has not committed to a date for an opening. I will continue to monitor the progress on this project.”

Hebrews on the High Seas Tales of Jewish mapmakers, pirates, privateers and islanders

Harry Ezratty holds a copy of his book, “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean.” (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Harry Ezratty holds a copy of his book, “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean.” (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

History and tradition are rife with tales of seafaring Jews, from the story of Jonah and his travails at sea to the tribe of Dan, known for their nautical nature. Members of the tribe have had a significant impact on shaping the modern world as a result of their involvement with maps and shipping.

To understand the impact of Jews on modern maritime history, it is important to address the skills and innovations of Jews during the early modern era. According to local experts, long before Christopher Columbus set out on his quest to reach Asia by traveling west, the best mapmakers in the world were Jews.

Based largely in the Spanish island Mallorca, Jews made maps of Europe that were treasured for their accuracy. The two main mapmaking families, known as the Map Jews, were the Ribas and the Cresques. Even beyond maps, these families made compasses and a device called an astrolabe. The forerunner of the sextant, the astrolabe was an important device for sailors that allowed them to measure latitude (but not longitude) by the sun as a means to navigate the open ocean.

A portrait of Abraham Zacuto (Photo from Wikimedia Commons/{{PD-US}})

A portrait of Abraham Zacuto (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most influential Jew of the time period is virtually unknown today — his name is Zacuto, from the Hebrew word zechut, which means merit.

“He was brilliant,” said Harry Ezratty, a Baltimore resident and expert in maritime and admiralty law. “He was a rabbi, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and cosmographer — one of the very few Jews permitted to teach at the University of Salamanca, one of the great medieval schools.”

Zacuto’s impact on history is immeasurable. When Columbus appeared before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain with his plan to reach Asia, Zacuto was sitting on the advisory board and encouraged the mission. Additionally, Zacuto was responsible for one of the major innovations of the time, the brass astrolabe.

Before his suggestion to make the device out of brass, it was made of wood. The wood would expand with water while at sea and would shrink when it dried out, making the brass device fashioned by Zacuto far more accurate.

Another of Zacuto’s crowning accomplishments is the Tables of Zacuto. Written before Columbus’ first voyage in 1492, it is one of the earliest tables depicting the phases of the sun and moon. The printing press had not yet been invented, so each copy was painstakingly drawn by hand. Every famous explorer of the time used Zacuto’s maps, astrolabe and table, from Bartolomeu Dias, the first man to circumnavigate Africa, to Magellan, to Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus.

In 1503, during his fourth voyage, Columbus was shipwrecked in Jamaica for a year.

“He is trying to convince the natives that they are gods because they are white and come with a ship and have armor and guns,” said Ezratty. “After a few months, the natives are getting wise and stopped bringing them food and water. They had been bringing food and drinking water to the beach because the Europeans were scared what would happen if they went into the jungle. Columbus takes the Tables of Zacuto and sees that there is going to be a lunar eclipse. He tells the natives that his gods are angry and, as a result, are going to take away their night light if they don’t continue to bring food and water. It happens just as he says and the natives continue to bring them supplies.”

The catalyst that caused these old world Jews to scatter throughout the globe was the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Jews were either forced to convert or were thrown out of Spain, resulting in many such as

Zacuto fleeing to Portugal while many more sought shelter in the New World.

The Jews who landed in the Caribbean while it was first being colonized were Sephardim. Columbus claimed land in the name of Spain and the Spanish Armada, the most powerful navy in the world at the time and ensured that nobody else was able to start settling colonies until the British defeated them in 1588.

“Until that time, Jews came over as what they call ‘crypto- Jews,’ or anusim in Hebrew,” said Ezratty. The terms refer to Jews who maintain Jewish traditions, but adhere to another faith in public — Catholicism, in this instance.

Jews would have had to operate as Catholics in order to reach the New World. Ezratty cited Columbus’ journals, explaining that the crews would do a Hail Mary every morning and vespers every evening. It would have been impossible for someone to operate as a Jew for fear of being locked up.

It is important to realize the impetus of the Inquisition on Jews. Many were imprisoned or killed, even more were converted and those that managed to escape were forced to flee land that their family might have occupied for centuries. Revenge against the Spanish was a driving force that resulted in these crypto-Jews becoming pirates or privateers, the difference being that privateers are authorized by a government with a letter of mark, rather than operating outside of any law.

“If you go to Curaçao, there is a very famous cemetery that has about 3,000 Jewish graves from when it was first founded as a Dutch colony up until today,” said Ezratty. “If you were a mohel, on your gravestone they had the implements of circumcision. If you were a rabbi or a Levi, you would have the birchat kohanim. If you were a scribe, you would have a hand with a quill, and if you were a ship owner, you would have a ship.”

Peggy and Russ Israel pose with a book of Israel family genealogy. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Peggy and Russ Israel pose with a book of Israel family genealogy. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Two Baltimoreans, Peggy Israel and her son, Russ, can trace their lineage back to Caribbean Jewry. Their ancestors, Abraham Israel and his son, Isaac, left Spain for Jamaica as crypto-Jews in the 1600s. In an effort to protect the Jewish population of Jamaica, Abraham and another Jew by the name of Moses Cohen convinced England to take over Jamaica on the grounds that they could reveal a local gold mine if they were free from Spain. However, Cohen mislead the British for personal gain and the Israel family was forced to flee to New York for their safety.

The Israel family genealogy originates from Solomon Israel, whom they believe to be the grandson of Isaac. According to family history, Solomon Israel was very wealthy and bought up large amounts of land. He married a Christian woman in New York before moving to Albemarle County, Va., in the early 1700s, where he is believed to be the first Hebrew settler. There are locations such as Israel Mountain in Albemarle that bear his namesake, and if the family is correct, Solomon is the forefather to nearly every non-Jew in the United States with the last name Israel.

Isaac Rodriguez Marques was a Danish citizen, ship owner and, according to his family, a pirate. Presumably spurred by seeing friends hung as pirates, Isaac came to New York in 1695 while it was still a Dutch colony. Bernard Baruch, who served under seven American presidents, starting with Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and ending with Harry Truman in 1947, was one of his descendants.

“If you wanted to make money in the early Caribbean, there were two ways to do it,” said Ezratty. “You did it in the shipping business or you did it with sugar because sugar was like petroleum at the time — Jews made fantastic fortunes in sugar in Jamaica and Barbados and Antigua.”

In Newport, R.I., the largest seaport in New England in terms of trading before the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, a family of crypto-Jews known as the Rivera family was the largest of the ship owners at the time, having cornered the markets for oil and soap with the whale trade. Up until the Revolutionary War, the Rivera family was the leading maritime family in what would become the United States. Other wealthy families of crypto-Jews existed in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Perhaps the most well-known Jew in early American history is Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy and the highest ranking officer at the inception of the Civil War in 1861.

Levy was notorious for getting into fights over being called a “dirty Jew” while he was in the Navy. He was court-martialed at least eight or nine times and famously killed a man in a duel in Philadelphia after being slandered for his Judaism.

“This was the days before Annapolis,” said Ezratty. “If you wanted to be an officer, you had to go on a ship as an apprentice. The people that did this were often from upper class families, and here is this Jew who had a higher rank than all of them.” It is no wonder that Levy’s subordinates felt the need to attack him.

According to Ezratty, Levy first worked on a ship as the attendant to a Quaker ship owner when he was 11 years old. He told the Quaker that he had to get off of the ship to be a bar mitzvah when he turned 13. However, following his bar mitzvah, he went back to sea, attended a naval academy, got commissioned, was assigned his own ship, and his first act was to put a mezuzah on the door of his cabin. “He was always a Jew,” Ezratty said.

The Pirate Captain Toledano

Arnon Shorr is a Jewish filmmaker who found his passion for Jewish narrative upon moving to Baltimore with his wife. “I was raised modern Orthodox, went to Jewish school, but I wasn’t drawn to Jewish narrative,” he said. “In Baltimore though, telling Jewish stories seemed more urgent and necessary. I started making exclusively Jewish films and content while I was there. The challenge of telling Jewish stories is to tell them in a way that is relevant to a mainstream audience — there is a lot in the Jewish narrative tradition that can be of value to the world.”

A few months ago, Shorr was inspired to explore creating another Jewish film after attending a meeting about Jewcer, a Jewish crowdfunding platform “with a lot of quirks that make it stand out, especially for Jewish-themed projects,” he said. The whole concept is simple, and he wrote a short, five-page script entitled, “The Pirate Captain Toledano.”



“The story really resonated with me, but as soon as I was done writing it, I realized that I had done something foolish,” he said. “I was looking to raise a small amount of money for a short film and ended up with a period piece on a boat. One rule of low budget shooting is to never shoot anything on the water, and another is never shoot anything with period props and costumes.”

The story itself is straightforward — a ship of pirates catch a stowaway who is a Jewish refugee from the Inquisition. He wants to become a pirate to attack the Spanish. The captain must decide whether to toss him off or let him join the crew.

“This motivation goes beyond greed and thirst for adventure,” said Shorr. “There is a sense of almost a noble purpose, not just to survive but to strike back. … My purpose was not to educate about the historical facts, but rather to bring a historical ordeal to light.

“To me, the idea of Jews taking to the high seas to escape the Inquisition is very powerful, especially that some of these people took to piracy to enact revenge. The fact that they could have existed, the idea that some of these characters are an actual part of maritime and Jewish history is enough for me to want to tell their story.”

Stephen DeCordova, who previously collaborated with Shorr on a web series called “Mad Mensch,” has been cast as the lead in this new film and has an interesting personal connection to the story.

The DeCordova family's ancient Kiddush cup belonged to their Caribbean ancestors. (

The DeCordova family’s ancient Kiddush cup belonged to their Caribbean ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Stephen DeCordova)

“My parents are Jewish,” said DeCordova. “My mother was born in Kingston, Jamaica. My grandmother had a very big family, I have many aunts and uncles, all from Jamaica, and at the time, the notion of a Jamaican Jew was unheard of. It was a big conversation piece.”

For DeCordova, the prospect of making this film is appealing because he feels that the Jewish diaspora is far more varied than the cliché views that the general public may have. More importantly, for both DeCordova and Shorr, it is important to tell this story because it is an unheard Jewish narrative, they feel.

“If you Google the history or narrative of Jewish piracy, it is something that anti-Semites have started picking up on,” said Shorr. “Not everything that you find is flattering or nice. If we don’t engage in this history and define it as our own and claim it, we will lose the ability to do so to the anti-Semites who are already beginning to capitalize on this particular piece of history. People are nervous about this idea of connecting Jews and piracy, but what we are afraid of is the anti-Semitic usurpation of this narra- tive, so we need to make it our own.”

The Exodus

Perhaps the most relevant story to Baltimore Jews in modern maritime history is that of the Exodus, a catalyst for the birth of Israel known as “the ship that launched a nation.”

The Exodus, originally a luxury steamer named the President Warfield, would transport people back and forth between Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. During World War II, the ship was requisitioned for military service and was involved in the Invasion of Normandy. However, when it returned to the United States, it was derelict and fell into disuse.

Through a ring of local collaborators, the Exodus was bought by a shell corporation that was controlled by the renegade organization Aliyah Bet, which aimed to help Jews illegally immigrate to British-mandated Palestine before the State of Israel was founded.

In order to be made seaworthy, the Exodus was brought to Baltimore to be refitted, where — according to Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation — it was an open secret due to its illegality, with many saying, “What ship?” while the Exodus was refitted, crewed and funded entirely by Americans.

The ship Exodus (Provided)

The ship Exodus (Provided)

Rooms on the interior of the ship were torn out and every available inch of space made accessible to carry refugees. The ship, originally designed to carry 600 people, managed to fit 4,500 Jewish refugees.

After loading the passengers, the plan was to use it to escape the British blockade in the Mediterranean’s shallow waters. Ships from the Chesapeake Bay are unique in that they have a shallow, rounded bottom, as opposed to the V-shaped bottom that British ships used to slice through the waves. This feature enabled the Exodus to travel in waters that were too shallow for British ships to navigate. By going along the Mediterranean where the water was shallow and the British couldn’t follow, the crew hoped to offload their passengers quickly in Palestine before the British could stop them.

According to Klinger, “17 miles to sea, the ship was attacked by the British in international waters. They put a destroyer on either side and demanded that she surrender, but started to smash her sides and crush her wooden superstructure when she wouldn’t — they were willing to kill these 4,500 Jews unless they surrendered. The British then attacked with boarding parties and killed four Jews, wounded over 100 and gave simple options — surrender or be sunk. The commanders decided to surrender, and the British took the ship into Haifa, where they decided to make an example of the Jews. Prison ships were awaiting them, and these people were forced off of the Exodus and sent back to [refugee] camps. After this incredible journey, German camps under British control.”

This entire debacle would have gone unnoticed if it were not anticipated and witnessed by the press, who knew they had to get the story out, Klinger said. At the time, British officials were meeting to decide what to do about British-mandated Palestine and whether to terminate the mandate and withdraw. Up until this point, the United Nations committee had refused to hear testimony from Jews about why it should designate the territory as a haven for Jews.

“On the Exodus, there was deliberately placed a Christian priest named John Stanley Grauel, a Methodist minister and secret agent of the Haganah. He was let off the ship and put under house arrest because he knew the story,” said Klinger. “When the Exodus put out its distress calls, the voice that came across the airways was his — an American Christian was describing this attack by the British on the Jews. He was very important to the Haganah. They smuggled him to Jerusalem so he could present to the U.N. special committee.”

The Exodus sculpture in progress (Photo by Sam Philipe)

The Exodus sculpture in progress (Photo by Sam Philipe)

Grauel did what no Jew could do — he gave testimony to the U.N. special committee. Committee members believed him specifically because he wasn’t a Jew, but rather a Christian minister. Before his testimony, the vote was leaning away from partitioning Israel, but after hearing from Grauel, the committee changed their view and decided to listen to testimony from Jews, which ultimately led to the U.N. vote for partition creating the State of Israel in 1948.

To this day, the Exodus remains scuttled in Haifa’s port. “What has bothered me the whole time is that there are memorials specifically to the Exodus in Germany and in downtown Baltimore, but in Israel itself, there is nothing specific, she was just a ship,” said Klinger. As a result, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation is working with an Israeli artist to create the Exodus Memorial in Haifa, which will be dedicated on July 18.

“It will be the finest [tribute to Exodus] in the world,” he said. “The replica of the anchor will be attached where Haifa is. The Memorial will be a symbolic, historical interpretation and educational exhibit that Israel will be very proud of.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier on Inauguration, American Democracy

Rabbi Marvin Hier (Bart Bartholomew/SWC)

Rabbi Marvin Hier (Bart Bartholomew/SWC)

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, knows a thing or two about receiving criticism.

On Friday, Jan. 20, Hier  became the first rabbi since Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in 1985 to contribute prayer services at the swearing-in ceremonies.

One of the six diverse spiritual leaders to read his benediction at the event, Hier is only the ninth rabbi to be invited to a presidential inauguration and the first from the Orthodox  denomination.

Despite the auspiciousness of his involvement, Hier received backlash before and after the ceremony from both sides of the political spectrum.

There were critics on the political left critical of Hier’s participation in the legitimization of an election they believe symbolizes an affront to their way of life.

Hier was similarly condemned from some on the extreme right who issued virulently anti-Semitic statements and, according to the rabbi himself, replaced his face in photos of the service with the devil in their postings online.

“We have to be very straightforward that the anti-Semites are not only those on the extreme right like the Neo-Nazis,” Hier told the JT. “We have to remember there’s an extreme left. The two of them are coming at it from different angles, but they both join the anti-Semitic club.”

Hier is further concerned by a possibly direct relationship between his observation that “anti-Semitism is more rife today than it’s been in a very, very long time” and what he sees as the proliferation of anti-Zionistic rhetoric.

Though Hier was clear that the Wiesenthal Center, and by proxy he, cannot endorse a political candidate, he was just as forthright that “I’m very eager to be supportive of anyone that supports the State of Israel, because I think Israel was treated in a horrible manner in the last few months.”

One of the reasons he accepted the invitation, in fact, is the rabbi’s stance that “there’s no question Donald Trump will be a very close friend to Israel. … He’s showing the world that if you think the United States will desert Israel … we’re going to have very close ties to the state and I’m happy about that signal.”

Hier said he was comforted too by Trump’s involving such an eclectic pool of spiritual leaders at the inauguration, which the rabbi believes to be emblematic of the president’s “signaling that he wanted it to be representative of American society.”

When asked if he believed this “inclusivity,” as he put it, was in earnest on the part of Trump, Hier responded, “It would be only speculation, but he seemed very sincere. I watched him very closely when my colleagues came up and [Trump] was concentrating; it was a great moment for him.”

Although Hier hopes the gesture will open doors to  involving more rabbis at future inaugurations, saying “it’s a good idea to be more inclusive,” he’s less enthused by the message broadcasted by the chorus of those who have and continue to oppose the election results.

“That doesn’t sound like tolerance,” Hier said. “It sounds like intimidation.”

As he’s expressed in previous interviews, Hier fears that such oppositional engagement becomes a “game of seesaw where both sides hit rock bottom. So this time the left hits rock bottom and they’re not coming [to the inauguration]. As a result, four years from now or eight years from now, if a Democrat wins, the Republicans might say they won’t come to the  inauguration.

“The loser is American democracy,” Hier said. “So I’m not a big fan of the Democrats who boycotted. I think it was a mistake. 364 days a year of bickering ought to be enough. For one day, both sides should be able to come together.”

Hier suggested that those who might not necessarily agree with Trump should “follow thier leaders,” pointing out that unlike those who boycotted the inauguration, “the smarter move was made by the Obamas, Carter, the Bushes and the Clintons. … They don’t like anything Trump stands for, but they came.”

Proclaiming that it’s “time for a little patriotism,” Hier is emboldened by his sense that, if nothing else, once those  opposing Trump “get a letter in the mail saying that their taxes have been cut, they’ll immediately jump for joy.”

In the meantime, Hier hopes that those “trying to figure out how they can get rid of Donald Trump” will consider that such continued tension “will take us back to the 1860s. And nobody wants that.”

To Hier, not only would America suffer should the growing schism here lead to some kind of unfortunate civil war, but being that “we’re holding up the rest of the world,” the rest of the globe would suffer in his estimation as well.

“I would recommend to those people who are popping pills because the election didn’t turn out the way they planned to get a hold of themselves and do what people have done for generations in America: hope that the new president is a great president.

“You can be a Republican, you can be a Democrat, but  either way, the election is over,” Hier concluded.

“So if you want, make plans for four years from now. But in the ensuing time, hope that he turns out to be a great president. That’s much better than bickering and trying to do something you can’t do anything about … We don’t hold elections every two weeks. That’s not democracy.”

JCCs in Baltimore and Beyond Evacuated for Second Time in Two Weeks JCC was also evacuated Jan. 9; other facilities report threats across country


(Daniel Nozick)

The Park Heights JCC, along with JCCs across the country, has now been the target of two bomb threats this month after the most recent threat Jan. 18, which follows a previous threat on Jan. 9.

The second round of bomb threats affected 27 JCCs in 17 states.

The Park Heights JCC received the phone call threat around 11 a.m. Jan. 18 and the Baltimore Police Department responded shortly thereafter. The JCC reopened after about an hour, once police had done a walkthrough with staff to check for any suspicious materials.

The JCC made the decision to immediately evacuate, according to Paul Lurie, chief operations officer for the JCC of Greater Baltimore, following protocol as they did after the Jan. 9 threat.

“They were evacuating as officers arrived,” said BPD spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert.

In addition to Maryland, there were threats to facilities in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut and South Carolina, among states, according to the JCC Association of North America.

Lurie said the Baltimore facility had actually heard of some of the threats to other JCCs through Secure Community Network, a safety initiative from the Jewish Federations of North America, before receiving one. The staff was already on heightened alert after the previous week, he added, and evacuation protocols went smoothly.

“We have always had really strong protocols in place,” he said. “Obviously, after what happened [Jan. 9] we are working with our community partners and law enforcement to be at the top of our game.”

None of the threats thus far have been substantiated, but Lurie said they always assume a threat is serious. Other Jewish groups, such as Anti-Defamation League, are urging all JCCs to do the same.

“Although the threats do not appear to be credible, the League is urging all communal institutions to take these threats extremely seriously,” the ADL said in a security alert statement issued shortly after the Jan. 18 threats.

In the last round of threats on Jan. 9, 16 facilities in nine states were victims of the calls. In that instance, the Park Heights JCC was evacuated after the late morning call. The JCC reopened by 2 p.m.

Silbert said the case is under investigation and city police are working with state and federal officials.

A House Divided The one place meant to unite the Jewish community is becoming one of its biggest rifts

cover1This week, the country inaugurates its new president.

Due partially to a lack of government experience to draw from and partially to Donald Trump’s propensity for holding competing positions on the same issue, it is hard to say how exactly the new president will govern.

For the Baltimore Jewish community — and American Jewish population at large — one of the main issues to watch will be that of its homeland: Israel.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Israel to many Jews. It is a key part of Jewish identity, and yet, the one place meant to unite all Jews has become possibly the community’s greatest divide. For some, criticism of Israel undermines the Jewish history of overcoming oppression and anti-Semitism. For others, not to criticize the Israeli government’s controversial policies violates Jewish values and the community’s progressive track record.

For decades, supporting Israel was a bipartisan effort in the United States. That has become less and less true in recent years, with approaches to Israel splitting more and more along party lines. The Baltimore Jewish community of more than 93,000 (at last count, according to a 2010 study by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) is not immune to this trend.

“I think what we’re seeing now is the beginning of a political shift,” said Art Abramson, former longtime executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “And I don’t see it boding particularly well for the Jewish community.”

Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a professor at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, has edited a number of books about Israel and agreed with Abramson.
He pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress (at then-Speaker John Boehner’s invitation) two years ago as one of the first indications of Israel’s move to a more partisan consideration.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

“So what you’re seeing is a major split in the American Jewish community — Orthodox voting Republican and Conservative/Reform voting Democrat,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see increasing alienation of Reform and Conservative Jews from Israel, not only because of the settlements, but also because of the Western Wall issue and their being treated as second-class citizens.”

Many JT readers will be familiar, to some extent, with Israeli politics, but the crux of the issue is this: The Orthodox and Haredi Orthodox Jewish voice in Israel is amplified in politics and government
beyond what it represents in population, often to the exclusion of those who identify with the Conservative or Reform or other non-Orthodox movements of Judaism. As of a Pew Research Center study released last year, those identifying as “Haredi Orthodox” and “Religious” were 18 percent
of the Israeli population (for context, 19 percent of Israel is non-Jewish, with 14 of the 19 percent Muslim). The remaining 63 percent of Jews identified as “Traditional” (23 percent) or “Secular” (the largest single segment of the population at 40 percent). By contrast, the Jewish population in the United States, according to a 2013 Pew survey, is about one-third nondenominational (30 percent), one-third Reform (35 percent), and the remaining third Conservative (18 percent) along with Orthodox (10 percent); a small percentage falls into the “other” category.

There is a prevailing attitude among the more religious in Israel that non-Orthodox Jews are “not real Jews,” Freedman said, and that plays out in ways both big and small that only serve to further alienate many non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel, as well as the non-Orthodox in Israel.

For example, non-Orthodox women are frequently made to dress in a way the more religious consider modest, even in certain public areas. Israeli religious authorities (the only ones allowed to perform marriages) are barred from marrying interfaith couples, and non-Orthodox Jewish couples can only be married under Orthodox rules.

But one of the main, ongoing discussions has been who’s allowed to pray (and how) at the Western Wall. The main prayer plaza at the Wall separates visitors by gender, as dictated by traditional Jewish law. And the southern part of the Wall (around Robinson’s Arch) was designated in 2000 to be an unofficial pluralistic prayer site for those wishing to hold mixed-gender ceremonies or prayers. An interdenominational group called Women of the Wall has also been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men — reading from the Torah, wrapped in a prayer shawl, etc.

"Women of the Wall", an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

“Women of the Wall”, an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the
Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

Earlier last year, a government resolution would have formally recognized and expanded the designated space at the southern end of the Wall and Robinson’s Arch as a pluralistic prayer space. The Haredi Orthodox leaders in the coalition later got cold feet and instead introduced a bill to the Knesset that would essentially criminalize progressive prayer services across the whole Wall.

“Acting as if it’s an Orthodox monopoly means Israel and the Wall are not for all Jews, but a special kind of Jews — the ultra-Orthodox Jews — and that’s very unfortunate in terms of Jewish unity,” Freedman said, continuing that all of this adds up to increasingly mixed views on Israel, especially from non-Orthodox Jews. So, within this already-fraught religious (and political) divide steps the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians.

The conflict has been bloody and long. Since just the turn of the century, more than 1,300
Israelis and, exponentially larger, 9,200 Palestinians have died, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, respectively.

The international community has, in recent weeks, made moves that appear to be both criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and attempting to renew a stalled peace process aimed at a two-state solution. Just last weekend, representatives from 70 countries in Paris for a Middle East Peace Conference endorsed renewed talks and the existence of a two-state solution, a move largely seen as warning Trump and Netanyahu not to ignore this process.

And then there was the U.N. resolution. The most recent measure to reveal the divide specifically in the American Jewish population, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank and was passed unanimously. The United States abstained from voting, a break from usual policy when it would frequently veto any resolution seen as too critical of Israel.

AIPAC, the staunchly pro-Israel group, was quick to speak out against the resolution, calling it “destructive” and “one-sided.”

Conversely, J Street, the more liberal, relative upstart pro-Israel group to AIPAC, welcomed the resolution, saying it “reaffirm[ed] the need for a two-state solution and call[ed] for a halt to actions by both sides that serve to undermine the prospects for peace.”

Even further left, Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement from its executive director both celebrating the resolution and saying the U.S. should have voted for the resolution as opposed to abstaining. “As the only country that abstained, the evidence of the U.S.’s isolation from the global consensus during the vote was stark,” the statement, posted on the group’s website, says in part.

Perhaps tellingly, the BJC fell on the AIPAC side, issuing a statement — made by the executive committee on behalf of the full board — that it was “profoundly disappointed” in the U.S. abstention. “The BJC believes that the United States’ strong support for its most steadfast democratic ally in the Middle East is both principled and strategic,” it went on to say. “Unfortunately, the abstention from last week’s U.N. resolution was neither.”

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, says the council is always striving to bring the community together and weigh in on issues they think their voice can make a difference.

“I hope we will continue to be an advocate for the community,” he said. He also said the BJC is committed to interfaith cooperation and standing with the local Muslim community against rising Islamophobia, but did not go into detail on where the council might stand in the coming Trump administration’s future.

“It’s just kind of a confusing time politically, so I think everyone is trying to figure it out,” Libit said. But he does want the council to be a voice for everyone. “I think the BJC is really broadly representative of the community.”

Abramson does think the Baltimore Jewish community is divided on Israel but cautions against equating the Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox divide with the political right vs. left one. He points to broad Jewish support for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that didn’t translate across the community into support for Trump.

This tracks for Baltimore Zionist District president Robert Slatkin, who is a member of a Conservative congregation. He said BZD includes people from a spectrum of Jewish denominations, but its membership leans more religious. BZD aims to both advocate for Israel’s continued security and educate about the challenges still facing it.

“We’re very clear: We continue in our unwavering support of a democratic state of Israel,” Slatkin said.
Siding with Slatkin is Dr. Gary Applebaum, who is involved locally with both AIPAC and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Though he is a staunch supporter of Israel — he criticized the Palestinians for not coming to the table and for their lack of leadership — he believes it still has some unifying power.

“Those of us who love Israel and want to do right by Israel often realize Israel is the one issue that can bring Congress together,” he said.

And yet, Al Mendelsohn, GOP chairman for Baltimore County, said he’s seeing more local Jews come over to the Republican Party, partly, he feels, because of the Israel issue.

“You can certainly say something you don’t agree with regarding Israel without being an anti-Semite, but I think that the national Democratic Party has become very accepting of that crowd,” he said, adding that he feels even Sen. Ben Cardin sometimes goes out of his way not to offend those Mendelsohn saw as anti-Israel. “I’m finding an awful lot of people who are Jewish who aren’t afraid to say, ‘I voted Republican last time.’”

Cardin, the senior senator for Maryland, a Democrat and member of Beth Tfiloh, took issue with that characterization.

“No, I don’t accept that there is a difference in passion of support for Israel,” he said. “In reality, we all want to maintain bipartisan, bicameral — executive, legislative — support of Israel.”

Cardin co-introduced the Senate resolution opposing the U.N. resolution. There are always people, on both sides, who will try to make Israel a partisan issue, he said, though he doesn’t see it as one.

“It’s not unusual to see different views in the Jewish community,” he said. “That’s in our DNA. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on support for Israel.”

Josh Greenfeld is a local representative of J Street, which supports working toward the two-state solution, and said there’s a reason the organization is growing and becoming more visible. Since Trump’s surprise election, J Street has seen some of the biggest gains ever, both in membership and finances, according to Greenfeld. And he says he is having more and more people from the Baltimore community reach out to him about being involved.

“When J Street started, it was like a breath of fresh air,” he said. AIPAC has done great work, he added, but more recently it has “failed to represent views of many in the community.”

Many of those in the community who are more critical of Israel tend to fall in younger demographics — look at J Street’s fairly large presence on college campuses (this includes a chapter at Johns Hopkins University). Those who are more hardline pro-Israel often dismiss these groups as simply “less educated” on the facts or saying they don’t remember all the violence Israel has faced in getting where it has (specifically the 1948 Arab-Israeli, 1967 Six-Day and 1973 Yom Kippur wars).

This is true to some extent, but it also does a serious disservice to young Jews, many of whom ground their criticisms of Israel firmly in their Jewish faith. Annie Kaufman, 38, is an active member of the Baltimore Jewish community (although she is currently attending yeshiva in Chicago) and also very progressive on issues of social justice. She has been a longtime member of Jewish Voice for Peace and said she has been frustrated that it can feel like Baltimore Jewish institutions have very pro-Israel assumptions of those attending their events.

“They try to make it look like all Jews in Baltimore stand with Israel and that it’s a big part of what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “But I know from many of my friends that there is a lot of diversity of opinion regarding Israel.”

Kaufman, who recently led a progressive-minded Talmudic study session in Baltimore, thinks some synagogues are now engaging with discussions that vocalize and support criticisms of Israel.

Local Rabbis are as divided and diverse in opinion as the community they serve. Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Congregation supports Israel, but also thinks too many people conflate the Israeli government with the whole State of Israel.

“Israel is not an issue, it’s a state,” he said. He may disagree with some of its policies as a self-described progressive, but he believes absolutely that “being pro-Israel is supporting its right to exist as a Jewish, democratic and free state.”

The key, Burg said, is to welcome the discussions, to allow for the Jewish tenet of “sacred arguing” to take place respectfully among the community.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation was actually in Israel when the JT reached out to him. He characterized both his and his congregation as a staunchly pro-Israel group. Or, as he put it, “I wasn’t put on this earth to be critical of Israel.”

“This is not a J Street congregation,” he went on to say. “We take great pride in our support for Israel.”

How someone approached Israel also tended to predict how he or she viewed the potential for the new administration. Those hardline Israel supporters are optimistic about Trump, and hopeful for improved U.S.-Israel relations. If personnel are policy, Applebaum said, then he saw it as a positive sign that Trump was surrounding himself with pro-Israel people in his administration.

Among Trump’s personnel is his pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — a controversial choice due to his support for far-right groups in Israel and previous statements likening J Street members to kapos, Jews who supervised their fellow Jews in concentration camps. Friedman also supports moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move at odds with longtime U.S. policy. Those more critical of Israel have numerous concerns, not only for the future of Israel, but also for those minority groups here at home, including the Jewish community.

“I’m very nervous about Trump’s presidency in general and his appointees, including David Friedman,” Burg said.

Cardin, who is the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, which will be overseeing Friedman’s confirmation, said he always reserves judgment until the hearings, but assured that Friedman will be asked to address head-on his “unacceptable statements about Jews who disagree with him.”

Almost everyone the JT talked to about this subject predicted the divide in the Baltimore Jewish community, and larger American Jewish population, would only widen. And they all also said something else: They love Israel. Almost all of them had visited at least once, more often a double-digit number of times.

The community may not agree on Israel, maybe ever, but they all still have something that unites them — their Jewish heritage.

All That Glitters Judy Gold continues her comedic kvetching at the Gordon Center

Comedian, writer and actress Judy Gold will be performing at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Jan. 28.

Comedian, writer and actress Judy Gold will be performing at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Jan. 28. (Provided)

Emmy Award-winning writer and longtime comic mainstay Judy Gold never thought she’d be waking up in the morning to finish her cup of hot coffee while tweeting at the president of the United States.

Gold’s well aware of the absurdity here: but that’s her job. Pointing out the ridiculousness of the everyday humdrum world or, barring that, playing up the ridiculousness of her own life to ensure she still has enough material for her next gig.

Hers is a three-decade career in loud and proud, gleefully biting humor that has led Gold to developing and producing “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” guest  appearances in numerous popular television programs such as “Inside Amy Schumer,” “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Louie” and “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” along with an impressive spate of cable specials, her own podcast called “Kill Me Now” … and the occasional pop-up cameo in Woody Allen’s endless stream of projects (most recently his pitch-perfect Amazon series “Crisis in Six Scenes”).

For those interested in what all the fuss is about, Gold is bringing her trademark mordant comedy to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, Jan. 28.

For those who happen to be one of the many who don’t necessarily see Trump through the lens of Gold’s ecru-colored glasses, she told the JT she’ll likely be leaving well enough alone during the set.

“It’s not funny to me because the bad feelings are so deep,” Gold, 54, said. “It’s not really a part of my comedy. At this point, it’s just anger.”

Of course, there’s also the practical proposition that, as Gold reconciled, she doesn’t know how many Trump supporters might be in the audience paying good money to laugh with their fellow Americans.

“But,” Gold sighed, “he’s still dumb. And I want the president to be smarter than me. Which isn’t possible.”

Gold was kidding about that last part … probably. But she did contend that what comedians and Jews have in common (and perhaps why it’s long been a cliché that they often are one in the same) is they’re both intelligent, thinking people.

“There are people right now in Brooklyn reading these texts [Jews] have been studying for thousands and thousands of years, and they’re trying to find some new take on it,” Gold said. “And that’s what a joke is.”

Thinking outside of the box, as Gold put it, is essential to comedy — to keep it fresh, incisive and ultimately entertaining — just as the same mentality has been crucial for the Jewish people who have needed “out of the box” solutions to problems such as, say, “being kicked out of every country” throughout the course of time.

“Humor gets you pretty far,” she continued. “It helps us feel safe. I talk about my mother on stage all the time and always feel safe that she’s not going to be mad.

“Most of the time, after my shows, she’ll call me up and ask, ‘So how was I?’ But then again, she asks me that after therapy too.”

Though Gold tends toward the autobiographical in her work, regularly expressing her perspective as a Jewish mother herself in the LGBT community, she does have some trepidation about her stage presence overlapping into her personal life.

Take something as simple as going to a party.

“No, I’m not there to be  on display,” she said. “I’m a human being. And it’s so interesting because I’ve gone to parties and then I get feedback later: ‘So and so said you weren’t that funny.’ But I’m not performing! I’m just being a  person at a f—ing party!”

Gold remembers how isolated she felt out on the road back in the days before cellphones, back when just to make a long-distance call to her friends and family back home would “eat up your  entire salary for the week.”

Though she’s proud of all those sacrifices made in the ’80s and ’90s when “you really had to want to be a comic,” Gold would certainly not want to go back to the days of pure hustle out on the lonely, often unfriendly road.

Back when it also wasn’t quite as acceptable to openly discuss her views as a lesbian and when comedy club owners would tell her that a woman had just bombed, meaning they wouldn’t have another one on for at least a month.

Gold nevertheless worries that today “with phones and such, we’ve lost ways of communicating with each other and looking into each other’s eyes when we’re talking … [And] no one was videotaping your act at a club saying ‘so and so is racist’ or ‘so and so is homophobic.’”

Despite her morning Trump tweeting, Gold resents the  imposition of having to keep up something of an online persona.

“Are you kidding me?” Gold carped. “I want to sit here and work on writing material, but now I have to work on getting more ‘followers’ [on social media] to get booked at a club?”

Gold revealed that she’s aware of some club owners who will actually book comedians they know are less talented but have more Twitter followers in lieu of better comics.

The funnier comic with less online presence might bring  in less customers, after all. Whereas the comic with more of a social media audience might not be as adept at telling jokes, at least his followers will potentially show up in larger numbers to buy more drinks … even if, as Gold has observed, they might then leave after the first few awful jokes.

Gold made the salient point too that all of this compulsive over-sharing online has made people forget that they should just “get a diary! Remember when people had diaries? That’s the problem: You have so much free time? Go volunteer. Help someone less fortunate than you. Read a book!”

Though these elegiac views may seem curmudgeonly to some, Gold would remind critics that therein lies the power of her self-deprecatory comedy: “You can say whatever you want about me, but I’m going to say it first. You don’t get the satisfaction; I’m way ahead of you here.”

This kind of comedy can be a powerful thing, Gold said: “Getting a laugh is the greatest feeling in the world, but knowing you can make the enemy laugh is something else altogether.”

And that’s the ultimate  revenge, if you will (or won’t; she doesn’t much care), in Gold’s work when it comes to those in the audience she deems “voted for everything  I disagree with” in this past election. At least she’s making them laugh.

“The one thing I know how to do is stand-up, and I love it,” Gold said. “[At the Gordon], you’re going to get out of your head and see someone say all the things you’re thinking but are too normal to figure out how to make it into a joke.

“And I love the Jews. They’re my people. Most of the show will be me singing my haftarah.”

Comedian Judy Gold performs Saturday, Jan. 28, at 8 p.m. at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. Tickets are $36 in advance, $41 at the door. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Maryland Legislators Will Introduce Anti-BDS Bill

antiBDSMaryland lawmakers and Jewish advocacy groups are in the process of putting the final touches on a bill that would ban companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from doing business with the state.

The bill, which is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks, would prevent the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System from investing in any companies that participate in the BDS movement and also prohibits companies that support BDS from securing state procurement contracts. The bill would amend the 2008 Divestiture from Iran and Sudan Act, which prevented companies that do business with Iran and Sudan from doing business with the state, to include these measures.

Lawmakers are working with the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) on the legislation.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, said the push to get Maryland on the record against BDS is part of an effort for the state to stand in solidarity with Israel.

“I just want to ensure that this ridiculous messenger movement against Israel never sees the light of day in our state,” Zirkin said.

The bill will use language similar to that of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s anti-BDS bill, which defined BDS as “actions … intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations” with Israel, said Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC.

This past September, in response to a request from Dels. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), a Maryland State Retirement and Pension System staff review found two companies, Denmark-based Danske Bank and Nordea Bank, would potentially be banned from participating in ongoing services. Danske Bank is the only one of those two companies held directly within the pension system with less than $3.5 million, or 0.08 percent, of the market value of the system’s $46-plus million in assets.

In addition to identifying companies that support the BDS movement, the state’s pension system is also evaluating the risk to the system’s beneficiaries and how to address that issue.

On its surface, many feel the goal of the BDS movement is to delegitimize Israel and end the Jewish state.

As a result, Rosenberg said it is critical for Maryland to have a firm approach when it comes to combatting companies tied to BDS.

“In a state like Maryland, where we have an ongoing relationship with Israel economically and culturally, it’s important to send a message to businesses saying that if they support BDS, they can’t do business here,” Rosenberg said.

Maryland, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, was Israel’s 43rd-largest trading partner in 2015 with $145.1 million in product exports, according to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office.

Del. Benjamin Kramer, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Montgomery County and is the bill’s lead sponsor in the House of Delegates, said he is confident the legislation can pass because of Maryland’s longstanding cultural and economic relationship with Israel.

“It would be ludicrous to have an entity receiving state tax dollars that would seek to undermine a declaration of cooperation that we have with Israel,” Kramer said, referring to the 1988 Maryland-Israel Exchange. “So I think we have a very valid reason to ensure that Maryland’s best interests with Israel are protected and that we don’t allow our decades-long efforts with Israel to be undermined.”

Three years ago, Kramer and Baltimore City Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-District 43) introduced a bill in the House and Senate that would have reduced state aid to universities that fund organizations that support BDS. Those bills were tied to the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel and pitted those in favor of academic freedom against the anti-BDS crowd.

But those bills were amended, removing the threat of financial sanctions.

Instead, Kramer was able to successfully get language passed in the state budget that condemned BDS, making Maryland the first state to pass such a resolution.

Now, Kramer believes this precedent in part has laid the foundation to incorporate similar measures into state law on a larger scale.

“I would not be introducing this legislation if I did not feel that it’s meritorious,” Kramer said. “All I can say is that I’m hopeful, and that I’m working hard and putting forth my best effort to get this passed.”

Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations at the JCRC, said all parties are in agreement with the current proposal and that she expects no amendments to be added.

“We feel the structure of the bill is one of the best models anywhere and that it benefits the state of Maryland,” Weisel said. “Everybody is on board with it, and we feel we will be able to generate enough support for this bill.”

Opponents of the anti-BDS effort, however, argue that such bills violate free speech.

“As long as our government sanctions foreign governments for engaging in behavior that we decide we do not like for some reason, the residents of this country have a right to organize and press the government to sanction particular countries and conduct that they find troubling,” American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland spokeswoman Meredith Curtis Goode said via email. “Those who oppose such sanctions have an equal right to express their opposition. But neither side has a right to muzzle the other, or to prevent their view from being expressed or acted on.”

During last year’s session, the BJC and JCRC had discussed pursuing similar anti-BDS legislation before ultimately deciding to put those plans on hold. At the time, BJC officials said, they didn’t feel the BDS movement garnered enough attention to pursue legislation.

BJC executive director Howard Libit said the timing now couldn’t be better, especially with Hogan having just completed a fruitful weeklong trade mission to Israel in late September.

Libit said while he doesn’t give predictions on pending legislation, he said “there is a strong case that the legislature will be supportive” of the bill.

“I don’t want to sound overconfident, but I believe the state’s strong record of support [of Israel] will demonstrate to lawmakers the importance of passing this legislation,” Libit said.

Anti-BDS resolutions have already been passed in 17 states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11) said the decision for Maryland to move forward in its continued backing of Israel has “both symbolic and practical impacts.”

“I’m very happy to hear that this is going to be moving forward this session,” Stein said. “The BDS movement is pernicious in its attempt to delegitimize Israel and making the false claim that Israel is an apartheid state.”

Come for the Party … Stay for the Judaism Area Jewish organizations find new ways to keep 20s/30s engaged


JHeritage hosted its Purim party downtown at PowerPlant Live!. (Leba D. Photography)

You’re jury-rigging the final acorn to a long piece of misshapen tree bark.

As you put down the glue gun used to complete the makeshift menorah, you’re bumped by a young brown-haired girl bundled up for the winter despite the fact the dimly-lit brewery is jam-packed with other 20-somethings and 30-somethings like yourself.

Then again, it is still rather refreshingly crisp in here (what with the frigid weather outside and all the beer cans perfectly stacked around the sides of the room).

The young woman apologizes, smiling and squeezing your shoulder thoughtfully before making her way through the crowd that surrounds you both toward a nearby activity table, where she fits a large cardboard dreidel upon her head.

The group around you laughs, and you join in the merriment.

But … it’s time to hush down, as the  relayed “Shh!” and “Quiet!” make their way around the room of 250 people as though this were a nostalgic game of “Telephone.”

The DJ on the other side of the room has stopped playing Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” the candle lighting far to your right commences, and while trying to figure out which of the four versions of Sandler’s lovingly comic ode to the festival of lights had just been cut short, it dawns on you: This isn’t just a party. This is  Judaism.

The time is approximately 9 p.m. The place: Union Craft Brewing. It’s the fifth  of Chanukah’s “eight crazy nights,” as Sandler would put it, and you’re one of many enjoying another successful Chanukah BrewHaHa presented by Baltimore’s own Jewish outreach organization, Charm City Tribe.

CCT is one of many entities working to attract or reconnect area Jews in their 20s and 30s to their heritage.

In this face-paced, digitally connected postmodern era, groups such as CCT are producing all manner of specialty events revolving around good food, good drinks and good music as a vibrant alternative to the kind of traditional synagogue services that have left some young Jews seeking connection elsewhere.

Adam Yosim, 29, a television reporter for Fox45, proudly stands holding one portion of the prayer written on a large white poster board above his head.

He wears a hip-hop inspired “Chanukah sweater” and a flat-brimmed hat trendily tilted just so.

He is not alone, as a handful of other young Jews hold prayer portions above their heads. Some, shorter than the formidable Yosim, stand on chairs to ensure they’re well seen throughout the crowd.

Finding Oneself in the Community

A North Carolina native who has traveled around the country as a television reporter in different news markets, Yosim has discovered that the quickest, easiest way to meet new people and get ingratiated in the city — on both a  professional and personal level — is to reach out to area Jewish community members.

“Everywhere you go, there’s a Jewish community,” Yosim, who’s lived in Baltimore for two years and resides in Mount Vernon, said. “That’s been a big part of everywhere I’ve moved, getting immersed in that community.”

CCT was one of the first such groups Yosim reached out to when he came to Baltimore, and after meeting with director Rabbi Jessy Gross within the first few weeks in town, he began going to events regularly.

Beyond such outings being Yosim’s primary means of connecting with his Judaism, there’s a significant socializing element involved.

Last June, Yosim met his fiancée at CCT’s Schmooze and Brews, a monthly happy hour the group hosts every month for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

Atlanta-born Perrin Shapiro, 24, similarly found her beshert through a local young Jewish outreach event after moving to Baltimore following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I moved to Little Italy, and the first week here, my roommates hadn’t moved in yet, and I didn’t know anyone,” Shapiro recounted. “My mom sent me a link to the [Downtown] Chabad, which was literally the next block over, and that’s where I met [my boyfriend].”

More than two years later, Shapiro is still dating 27-year-old Jared Hurwich. The two have moved in together in Canton as of Jan. 1. This after her first encounter with one of the monthly Downtown Chabad young professional Shabbats, each with a different theme.

Motifs for food and decorations range from “Harry Potter” to a Brazilian night and a “men in the kitchen” night, when the guys in the group help out Chani Druk, wife of Rabbi Levi Druk, in the kitchen. There’s also been a black tie Shabbat  produced as a kind of “winter formal.”

Raised Jewish and having attended Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Shapiro revealed that she wasn’t nearly as involved in Jewish activities or culture in college as she is today through the Chabad.

“In college,” Shapiro said with a knowing laugh, “I had a lot going on!”

Two young Downtown Chabad regulars bless the Four Kinds while their friends enjoy a lunch in the University of Maryland, Baltimore Sukkah. (Chabad of Downtown)

Two young Downtown Chabad regulars bless the Four Kinds while their friends enjoy a lunch in the University of Maryland, Baltimore Sukkah. (Chabad of Downtown)

Shapiro said what draws her to the young professional Shabbats and other events through the Downtown Chabad is a mixture of everything offered: the tasty grub and the fact that Druk and his wife are close enough in age to her that they have become friends in addition to spiritual guides … and also the “group of kids” Shapiro has become so close to.

“I feel like I really lucked out with this group,” Shapiro said. “I like being involved in the Baltimore Jewish community.”

Shapiro’s boyfriend Hurwich agrees that “it’s not a big sacrifice” for him to make time attending events through the Downtown Chabad.

A local delivery station manager for  online retailer, the Montclair, N.J.-born Hurwich was an infrequent  visitor to the Chabad when he first moved to town three-and-a-half years ago after college in Philadelphia.

Hurwich went on to say that although he has remained “on the same page” as his Conservative upbringing, he doesn’t “go to shul as much as I did when I was younger; I do go to more Jewish events now than I did when I was younger.”

It’s a way for Hurwich to remain connected to his Jewish heritage while also seeing some friends and having fun. Hardly a Friday night sacrifice.

“We won’t go to things just because ‘it’s important to go,’” 28-year-old educator Michal Wetzler, who arrived in Baltimore this past September from Israel as a shlichah at Pearlstone, said. “No, we want to go to things because they’re interesting.”

Celebrants enjoy the Pearlstone Center’s Havdallah bonfires. (Mira Menyuk)

Celebrants enjoy the Pearlstone Center’s
Havdallah bonfires. (Mira Menyuk)

For Wetzler “interesting” definitely means a strong connection to Judaism and to other Jews in the community … but also “talking about stars and stuff,” or — as part of Pearlstone’s regular Havdalah events — evening bonfires and BYOB live-music jams.

As an Israeli, Wetzler sees such events as less specialty “attractions,” as she put it, and more traditional evening fare. Bonfires and spending time out in the open at night playing music, marveling over the cosmos has less to do with finding a space to connect with other Jews — since this is less of an issue in Israel, of course — and more about enjoying oneself.

For Wetzler, it’s fairly simple: These evening outdoor Havdalah events are less a get-together and Jewish observance and just simply a different kind of means to connecting to the Jewish culture overall.

Though Wetzler confesses she may be at something of a disadvantage since she’s only been in Baltimore a short time,  she does feel that there continues to be a need for more opportunities offered to young Jews who crave a less “formulaic” approach to connecting than, say, routine synagogue visits.

“Right now, going to services on a Friday night for two hours and having to stand up and sit down and stand up and sit down is kind of on the backburner for me,” Yosim said. “It’s more appealing for me to go to dinner for Shabbat at somebody’s house.

“I’d rather do stuff with people my age,” he continued. “And you don’t see a lot [of people around my age] going to temple every week.”

Indeed, according to a startling October 2013 Pew survey, the number of people who refer to their religion as “Jewish” has declined by nearly 50 percent since the late 1950s.

Pikesville resident Nicole Talor, 26, is president of JNFuture and on the board of FIDF, both fundraising and advocacy groups supporting Israel. She worries that lower numbers of young people associating with their Jewish background may have something to do with the rising anti-Semitism on college campuses and support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“Even if you’re a proud Jew, you’re feeling like you’re being silenced,” Talor said. “As a young Jew, I think it’s important to surround yourself with other members of the community, and that’s pretty easy to find in Baltimore.”

Filling a Room with Light

Mickey Rubin, 29, is a senior regional  director of the decade-old global nonprofit Moishe House. He believes there’s a simpler reason more than a third of millennials are “unaffiliated” on a religious level, as noted in a May 2015 Pew survey, particularly when it comes to Jews.

“Religion is not really something that’s very hip and cool anymore,” Rubin said.

He still believes “younger Jews in general are looking for something bigger than themselves to connect with.

“I think that young Jews and millennials in general are all about creating something new and fresh and innovative, and Moishe House is about that,” continued Rubin, who oversees the Baltimore chapter of Moishe House which was founded  in 2010.

The challenge becomes finding a way for these Jews, who are looking for a connection (or reconnection) to something larger, to do so on their own (contemporary, individualistic) terms away from that routine that some ostensibly find banal and not worth their time anymore, especially being as busy as they are in their 20s and 30s.

“They don’t like to be told what to do,” Rubin said. “We have to think about  Judaism a little differently: not necessarily about being told what to do but being able to express yourself in a spiritual, social and communal way.”

Moishe House grants resources to young Jewish residents who host various events that, in turn, draw in other young Jews. Events range from Shabbat dinners to social causes. (Moishe House)

Moishe House grants resources to young Jewish residents who host various events that, in turn, draw in other young Jews. Events range from Shabbat dinners to social causes. (Moishe House)

Moishe House is a unique organization in that supervisors such as Rubin, who refers to himself as a “fairy godmother” of the small dormitory-esque houses he oversees, grant resources (namely in the form of funding) to young Jews who create their own programming that draws in other young Jews to their houses via hosting Shabbat dinners and similar activities.

“I think what makes it work,” Rubin said, “is giving them the resources to create what they want to create and giving them easy access. It’s a very 21st-century and millennial way of thinking about it.”

Personal trainer David BenMoshe found that when he first came to Baltimore from Mt. Airy, Md., “everyone being so welcoming” inspired him to be able to give back through his engagement in the Jewish community here. He refers to this as a “blessing.”

Having converted to Judaism in 2010, BenMoshe became a member of B’nai  Israel — out of which is run a youth outreach program called BIYA (B’nai Israel Youth Association) — in 2012.

With the assistance of Rubin, who is also involved in BIYA, BenMoshe hosted his first young professional night for Shabbat in mid-December.

The evening’s agenda involved BenMoshe’s leading a short, guided meditation and yoga practice before Shabbat services were read by B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Etan Mintz (who also took part in the yoga, BenMoshe giggled in recounting). For dinner, there was schnitzel, eggplant salad, sesame salad and couscous.

“The schnitzel was delicious,” BenMoshe said.

As with Wetzler, BenMoshe doesn’t see the aspects of his evening or others like  it as a dilution of or distraction from  the Jewish engagement, but rather an  inextricable component of what it means to observe one’s Judaism.

“Putting these other life experiences in actually enhances the experience,” BenMoshe said. “Anything that builds community is a huge part of being Jewish.”

Chai Life is a program provided by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)

Chai Life is a program provided by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)

Reisterstown resident Marcie Lehnhoff, 28, is an HR specialist with a social policy research firm who found, somewhat  dismayingly, that she had become disconnected from her own Jewish experience.

Observing modern Orthodox Judaism as a lifelong member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Lehnhoff grew up in what was more or less a Reform home; the somewhat confusing juxtaposition is part of what she believes resulted in this disconnect later in life.

Once she hit high school and college, she discovered that “services weren’t fun,” noticing along with Yosim that “there weren’t really people there my age.”

Today, she delights in more synagogues and other Jewish institutions offering more for high school kids and teenagers to engage with, “but I think when I was growing up, there was a gap,” she said. Even Birthright turned out to be a means for her to feel more connected to Israel and issues revolving around the Jewish state as opposed to a direct spiritual  connection.

Getting older, Lehnhoff began missing “the religious aspect” of Jewish culture. She found her way back after an event of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where she heard about JHeritage, a locally founded nonprofit that helps support various causes and hosts social events.

“It was a lot of fun, a way to meet people around my age with the same kind of background,” Lehnhoff said. “I reconnected with the people in my community. It was great because the more events I went to, the more people I was meeting.”

Through her connection to JHeritage and participation in its events — including one of her favorites, the Purim party that took place at Power Plant Live! last year — Lehnhoff has strengthened her connection to Judaism and been led to a group of like-minded friends who she said are the closest she has now.

“I would say that my daily circle of friends now are more JHeritage people than not,” Lehnhoff said. “I think this is Judaism: having a strong community, having fun. That’s what makes Judaism great.”

JHeritage rabbi, director and co-founder Ariel Fishman, 30, has noticed that “for some people, Judaism fell off after bar and bat mitzvahs.”

Once b’nai mitzvahs are no longer in Hebrew school and go into high school and later college, where other activities, study, work and socializing take over much of their time, that “sacrifice” of  attending regular services becomes too large for many to make.

“We don’t want your Jewish tradition to end at 12 or 13,” Fishman said. “For most people, they haven’t found a right balance between spirituality and fun, exciting events as well.

“When you can take the deeper meanings of Jewish tradition and show that it’s about kindness and love and community, you can really light up the whole room,” Fishman said. “You just need to provide this in an accessible format.”

Once again, Charm City Tribe’s BrewHaHa took place at Union Craft Brewing in Hampden. (Marc Shapiro)

Once again, Charm City Tribe’s BrewHaHa took place at Union Craft Brewing. (Marc Shapiro)

This accessible format and room of light is quite literally what CCT’s Chanukah BrewHaHa is all about.

If these events are, in the end, continuing to build, maintain and strengthen the  Baltimore Jewish community — itself an integral aspect of Judaism — then Gross clearly succeeds in helping to better establish her own definition of “community”: a network of people connected together through, yes, a party of all things.

“This is a connection in a way that makes sense to me; it’s something that  I want to do,” said David Alima, 37, co-owner of The Charmery who regularly serves ice cream at BrewHaHa.

“It’s hard to say people getting together to drink beer, eat ice cream and listen to good music will make the world better. But whenever people get together like that, there will be good energy in there.”

Read about how Jewish activist organizations are engaging young people by visiting

Board of Appeals Rules against Proposed Chabad Synagogue


Rabbi Velvel Belinsky hopes to build an 8,000-square-foot synagogue on this Stevenson Road property. (Marc Shapiro)

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled Jan. 4 that a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue proposed for the 8400 block of Stevenson Road did not meet certain Baltimore County zoning requirements.

Board members Maureen Murphy, Jason Garber and James West said the plan for the synagogue did not comply to the extent possible with RTA (residential transitions areas) requirements — setbacks that help blend a property with its surroundings — and that the plan was inconsistent with a previous development plan for the property.

The decisions, which came after 10 hearings that began in May 2016, were reached in a public deliberation attended by about 20 residents who oppose the synagogue. A written opinion is forthcoming.

“We’re obviously extremely pleased,” said Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood to challenge the synagogue proposed by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky.

The rabbi said he and his attorneys “are utterly disappointed.”

“We disagree with the decision, and we are looking at all options available to us to continue moving forward and continue fighting,” Belinsky said. “We would get our synagogue built much easier and much quicker had the ruling went our way. But we’re not discouraged.”

Belinsky said a federal suit, which would be based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, is one of those options he and his team are looking at. In a 2016 interview, Belinsky said he would file a federal suit if he lost at the Board of Appeals. He has retained Roman Storzer, a top RLUIPA attorney who attended most of the Board of Appeals hearings.

Ken Abel, a petitioner who lives next door to the property, said he and the community felt confident from the beginning that the rabbi’s plan violated a section of zoning code that said amendments to development plans must be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan.” The original plan for the three-acre property, approved by the county in 2006, called for two single-family homes.

“I expect them to [appeal], and I respect the process, but I think we’re going to have the same result we said [we would have] two years ago as to why this is inappropriate,” Abel said.

Chabad JCT-Balinksky_02_4c

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (File photo)

It was indeed two years ago at a community meeting that Belinsky shared his plans, which were met with opposition. The rabbi is spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian Jews that currently meets in Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s space on Old Pimlico Road. Many congregants are from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish practice was restricted. Belinsky hopes 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 classroom and office space.

Neighboring residents cited issues such as pedestrian safety, traffic and the character of the neighborhood in its opposition.

The two cases — the RTA issue and the question over consistency with the original development plan are two separate cases — were first heard over the course of eight hearings in 2015 by county Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen. His opinion, released in January 2016, said the proposal met RTA requirements and that the rabbi could use the existing house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, as his parsonage. But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not consistent with the original development plan. He 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 whether the original plan needed to go through the amendment process, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement.

The cases were appealed, sending it to the county Board of Appeals, which began a new set of hearings on May 12, 2016 during which both sides restated their cases, rather than the board review Beverungen’s decision.

Storzer told the JT in a 2016 interview that while RLUIPA is not a “blank check” for religious organizations, it does trump local zoning code.

“In general, a government cannot burden religious exercise unless it uses the least restrictive means of compelling government interest,” he said. “Normal zoning rules don’t apply.”

As far as traffic and other safety issues raised by residents are concerned, Storzer said: “It’s been my long experience that these types of justifications have often been used to oppose uses where they really have no merit. … There has to be demonstrated evidence that there is some real threat, not simply a hypothetical or speculative threat, to public health and safety.”