Pikesville’s ‘Jewel’ North Oaks celebrates milestone with its 25th anniversary

Everyone at North Oaks — from the staff to the leadership to the residents — will say that the Pikesville retirement community is like a family. Put five of the residents together, and it’s immediately evident. “I think the thing is, we’re all getting older together so we all have the same complaints,” Freida Mazer said.

“You hear that typical ‘oy vey’ when they sit down and ‘oy vey’ when they get up,” added Paul Wartzman.

“‘Oy vey’ is more sitting up than ‘oy vey’ sitting down,” quipped Marvin Solomon right on cue.

For 25 years, North Oaks has been not only a retirement community, but the backdrop for making new friendships, rekindling old friendships and aging with dignity (albeit with some humor) and engagement.

“We see ourselves as being Pikesville’s retirement community,” executive director Mark Pressman said. “People come here to be with their friends, and there are frequent reunions of friends from school, and I’ve come to learn that when we talk about reunions from school we’re talking about elementary school. I refer to these as ‘Pikesville moments,’ and they happen all the time.”

North Oaks held a 25th anniversary celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 11, where residents, community members, staff and elected officials enjoyed a catered cocktail reception and several presentations. North Oaks was honored by Delegates Dana Stein and Shelly Hettleman, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Councilwoman Vicki Almond and Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger.

“This is one of Baltimore County’s jewels,” Almond told the crowd. “We’re fortunate to have this beautiful residence on this hilltop for people  who want to stay in their community but are ready for a place that offers support services and assistance.”

She echoed earlier comments from Kamenetz, who said his wife’s grandmother, Bernice Hoffberger, was among North Oaks’ first residents.

“We understood the benefit of this facility,” he said. “It gives all the residents the opportunity to stay engaged with family, and that’s the most important thing that keeps us going.”

Pikesville’s ‘Jewel’

The Evolution to North Oaks

The property on which North Oaks sits was once Livesy Farm. It became a country retreat in 1879, thanks to an endowment by businessman and shipping magnate Thomas Wilson, who had two children who died at young ages of “summer complaint” from city living. While the retreat was established for kids who became sick because of unhealthy city air, it was closed in 1914 when the source of the children’s sickness was identified as bad milk, not “bad air,” according to research conducted by North Oaks resident Lottie Greene, which was published in a pamphlet given out at the 25th anniversary celebration.

In 1924, the state of Maryland bought the property and opened a tuberculosis treatment center that then-Gov. Albert Ritchie called “the nerve center” of Maryland’s fight against the disease, which was the leading cause of death at the time. In the summer of 1950, work began on a $3 million “state-of-the-art” hospital. In the mid-1960s, with a cure for tuberculosis available, the facility switched gears to treat other respiratory diseases and later became a treatment center for those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. That center closed in 1981.

The property sat vacant for nearly a decade, until Life Care Services, Mullan Contracting and Pikesville surgeon Dr. Elmer Hoffman partnered to remodel the facility, which would reopen as North Oaks Retirement Community in December 1990.

Jewish life thrives at North Oaks. There are classes on contemporary Jewish issues and Yiddish, residents and volunteers lead Shabbat services, and holidays are celebrated. And Shabbat dinner can include latkes, kugel, gefitle fish, herring and chopped liver.

“Twenty-five years ago, some visionaries determined that … this would make a nice place for some lucky people to spend their senior years. Today, we, the residents of North Oaks, are those lucky people,” said Marty Waxman, president of the North Oaks Residents Association. “[We’re] participating in the celebration today of an idea that blossomed into a full-service retirement community.”

Although it’s a lively, booming place now, North Oaks’ success and current look can be traced back to rougher times, 2008 to 2010, during the economic recession and its aftermath.

“That recession hit North Oaks very hard with a lagging occupancy and an aging building,” Pressman told the crowd during last week’s celebration. People were dying but not being replaced by new residents. Selling the facility was possible, but a well-publicized sale to a local physician fell through.

That’s when Joe Brucella, who recently retired from Life Care Services, came up with a plan to move forward via capital improvements. In 2012, the “new” North Oaks emerged with a redone lobby area with a café that now serves as a community meeting space and other upgrades such as brightening up the hallways and a redone roof.

“The revitalized North Oaks emerged … to take our hospitality culture to a new level and to regain the confidence of our residents and families,” Pressman said.

And it paid off, as North Oaks has grown by about five residents per year since 2012. Pressman said the retirement community is on track for that addition this year as well.

North Oaks currently has 175 residents, 20 percent of whom are couples, and 176 apartments. The retirement community offers independent living, assisted living, comprehensive care and skilled rehabilitation.

Staying Engaged

A look at North Oaks’ November calendar shows the variety of activities in which residents can participate — there are classes on contemporary Jewish issues, music and immigration; bingo; aerobics; chair yoga; Wii bowling; art workshops; outings to theaters, grocery stores, banks and restaurants; choir practice; knitting; and screenings of football games and movies.

And Jewish life at North Oaks is thriving. Resident Paul Wartzman leads Shabbat services on Saturday mornings, a couple comes in once or twice a month to lead as well, and there are High Holiday services. There was a Sukkah for Sukkot this year as well.

“We get latkes on Shabbos,” Wartzman said.  “We get kugel, gefilte fish, herring, chopped liver occasionally.”

He even started a Yiddish class that generated considerable interest from residents.

“I don’t know how much better it could be, really,” he said about Jewish life at North Oaks.

Another big hit at North Oaks is the writing class, which Goucher College professor Barbara Roswell has taught for years.

“It’s never explicitly therapeutic, but it can be healing,” she said, “and it can be wonderfully entertaining.”

Pressman recalls a resident who was often “angry and bristling” after his wife passed away but became much more mellow and at ease by participating in the writing class.

As another commemoration of North Oaks’ 25th anniversary, Roswell decided to publish a volume of works from her writing class. The result is “View from the Hilltop,” more than 60 essays, poems and short stories. Roswell’s mother, North Oaks resident Edith Sherr, is among the authors.

In her introduction, Roswell writes how, through the stories “you meander down the streets of Baltimore City in the 1920s to the Ideal Music Shop, absorb the shock of Pearl Harbor, camp on Korean battlefields, meet Jackie Mason, celebrate marriages and careers, ride horseback in Afghanistan. You debate Donald Trump and share hard-won advice for great-grandchildren whose lives are just beginning.”

“If you think about this group as the Greatest Generation, to think about what the cauldron was that shaped that generation,” Roswell said, “many of them write about [the Great] Depression, war, overcoming anti-Semitism, leaving jobs because the positions were for organizations that were in bed with McCarthy and on principle saying ‘I will not do this.’”

“People have released many tensions and have freed themselves of emotional burdens through writing,” said Sherr, whose writing in the book touched on memories of being a high school teacher, starting college and wanting a little sister and instead getting a little brother.

While North Oaks is ripe with stimulating activities, residents and leadership say the atmosphere also owes a lot to its 155 employees.

“You come in here and a couple days later they’re calling you by name. They’ve all learned your meds. They make you feel good,” Solomon said.

If a resident is sick, employees call their children to keep them posted.

“You’re taken care of,” Mazer said. “Your children can have their lives, and they don’t have to worry about it, which is so important.”

Things as small as knowing that a residents likes iced tea with dinner go a long way.

“It’s harder to find someone with the right attitude about working with seniors and being of service to them,” Pressman said. “If you’re a server, housekeeper or maintenance tech, we can teach you how to do much of that. To care about the people you’re working with, that are surrounding you, that’s a whole other thing. We try to recruit people that seem to have that quality from the start.”

North Oaks residential health services coordinator Diane Witles, an employee since its beginning in 1991, said she and her staff get to know clients, their families and their idiosyncrasies very well because it’s a smaller community. And the atmosphere at North Oaks is informed by their work.

“Most of the folks you take care of are very appreciative. Older folks, in general, I think are treated as sub-citizens, stupid, childlike,” she said. “I like to treat my clients as if they are adults who need some assistance.”

For many, such as the North Oaks Residents Association president, the 25-year milestone was a sign that North Oaks has a rich past and bright future ahead.

“To mark this 25th anniversary, a tree was planted in the courtyard,” Waxman said. “The planting of a tree literally establishes roots on this hilltop and gives us assurance that North Oaks is here to stay. And on behalf of the residents association, I say ‘amen.’”


Reimagining Milldale Declining enrollment, change in camper needs, desires spur decision

Beginning summer of 2016, the JCC is terminating Camp Milldale as its own program and instead, all J Day Camps campers will have access to the Milldale grounds in Reisterstown. In 2015, counselors from Odessa, Dima Garkavluk and Irina Gokhman (back row, center), enjoy time with the campers. (Photo by David Stuck)

Beginning summer of 2016, the JCC is terminating Camp Milldale as its own program and instead, all J Day Camps campers will have access to the Milldale grounds in Reisterstown. In 2015, counselors from Odessa, Dima Garkavluk and Irina Gokhman (back row, center), enjoy time with the campers. (Photo by David Stuck)

Access to Camp Milldale, the outdoor adventure land that has been an epicenter for vivid memories for Jewish children in Baltimore for decades, will now be available to all those attending JCC camps next summer, through the newly configured J Day Camp experience.

The decision by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore to expand Milldale access to all campers also means termination of the Camp Milldale program as a separate entity. The news was announced to families last month.

Beginning in the summer of 2016, it’s estimated that upward of 1,000 campers will have access to activities found at Milldale such as boating, swimming and navigating the ropes course, instead of the 200 or so who typically enroll for the Camp Milldale program alone. The grounds, housed on several acres of natural area situated in Reisterstown, are nestled next to the Pearlstone Center, also to be utilized by all campers.

Susan Sherr-Seitz, about three months into her role as senior vice president for programming and innovation at the Owings Mills JCC’s Rosenbloom Campus, said the financial challenges and a change in personnel “gave [staff and board] a moment to pause and look at our camping landscape.” And to ask, “What did that mean for Milldale, and was this an opportunity to look at things in a new way, to take a pivot if you will?”

Sherr-Seitz said the decisions didn’t come swiftly or easily, because Milldale has been such a memory-maker for Baltimoreans, and the emotional impact of the changes had to be taken into account. She said that key stakeholders were consulted, such as the JCC’s camping and executive committees, and that it “was an extensive, thoughtful community process.”

“The consensus, but with some outliers, was that we really needed to build on our successful camping at Milldale,” Sherr-Seitz said. “Really, the goal for us is to continue to provide sound, safe, amazing Jewish camping programs for the kids in our community. Changing the model a bit will only improve upon the experience we have already.”

The “best of both worlds” plan, said Sherr-Seitz, is that every child —  whether enrolled in the bursting-at-the-seams arts-and-culture camp or the karate, sports, music and pioneer programs or any of the other camps — will be based at the multiuse facility of the JCC campus in Owings Mills. They will have access to the outdoor and indoor pools, a gym and nature and hiking trails there as well as everything available at Milldale and Pearlstone.

“We will be able to broaden and enrich their summer experience,” JCC board chair Annette G. Saxon said in a prepared statement. “[All] campers will be able to ride on our zip line, boat on our lake and learn to take on a challenge on our ropes course.”

“Our goal is to engage as many children as we can with highly trained staff in a safe nurturing, warm, welcoming, inclusive Jewish environment during the summer,” added JCC president Barak Hermann. “Camping is identified as one of the most powerful Jewish experiences,” for young people. “And now the kids can see themselves as part of the whole J Camps community.”

Change can be difficult, but Randi Hertzberg, vice chair of the JCC board and camp co-chair with Jonny Lewis, pointed out that with the change, Camp Koolanu, a Park Heights-based JCC camp for Orthodox boys, could also take advantage of the grounds at Milldale.

“This is perfect. There could be a day where it’s just [the boys] there for the day, and that’s an experience they never get,” said Hertzberg, referring to religious requirements that they not attend events with girls. “We also feel like we’re building a stronger community among our camps, that’s valuable too. The kids don’t even know [everything that is] out there.”

But not all parents agree. Judith Tortora, 39, of Pikesville, has “fond memories” from her five years at Camp Milldale, where she continued on as a counselor-in-training as well. There was no question in her mind where she would send her two children when it was time for camp, and they’ve attended Milldale for three summers.

“It’s become a part of my kids’ childhood,” she said. “I had to break the news to them” that Camp Milldale would not exist as a standalone program.

Tortora said she even wrote the director at the end of last summer, describing that her kids came home happy every day, totally worn out and loved learning about Judaism and Hebrew.

“I congratulated the director on what she accomplished in eight weeks,” said Tortora. “My kids hadn’t connected with [Judaism that strongly] before. They had an amazing summer. They wanted to go there as counselors.”

Now with the change, “I think it’s really sad,” she said, adding that she and a friend have decided not to send their children to the JCC’s J Day Camp.

“If they were worried about finances before, now there are four kids not going,” said Tortora. “That’s $12,000.”

Tortora will likely send her kids to Beth Tfiloh Camps, she said, because that is the only other eight-week Jewish day camp option in the area.

“I was really disappointed,” she said. “I feel like it’s the end of an era.”

But Mark Eisner, 54, also from Pikesville, has a more business-as-usual take on the change.

“[Camp Milldale] was fine and I had a nice time,” said Eisner, who attended Camp Milldale for three summers from 1970 to 1972. But a “change in business operations and land use and the priorities of those who own and fund camping operations are part of life and part of progress.”

He added, “I’m not feeling as though the facility needs to be dipped in lacquer and made a shrine.”

Emily Peisach Stern, the new J Day Camp director, is dedicated to making the transition as smooth as possible for parents and their children who do plan to attend, she said.

“I think change is hard for anybody,” said Stern, who was also the Noah’s Ark director for five summers. “We’ve got parents who went to Milldale themselves. It’s hard to comprehend that kind of change, it’s been around for a very long time.”

Stern said there were several families at a recent information session about the new camp configuration and that there were “lots of questions, but the mood was good.”

“We’re excited about what the summer is going to offer for the kids in our community. They’ll still get a wonderful Jewish camp experience,” she said. “We’re not changing what we do for the kids, we’re just changing where we do it.”


The Power of Solidarity Amid terror, French Jews show resolve

French Jews remain guarded but resilient following the attacks in Paris last weekend that left 132 dead and hundreds injured.

Led by the chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, some 200 French Jews and Israel’s ambassador to France gathered at the Synagogue de la Victoire on Sunday evening to pray for the victims and those healing.

Shocked Parisians gather outside the Bataclan concert hall after the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Shocked Parisians gather outside the Bataclan concert hall after the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

“Our people, who have been tested more than others, know the healing power of solidarity and unity in the face of the pain of torn families, broken couples and orphaned children,” said Michel Gugenheim, chief rabbi of Paris.

Activities at Jewish institutions were suspended due to security concerns and out of respect for grieving families. As of Tuesday, no Jewish victims had been identified.

Washington-area residents with ties to France immediately checked in with their loved ones and expressed outrage and grief over the attacks.

Victor Obadia, a member of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, and his wife contacted their loved ones in France immediately following the attacks. Fortunately, their immediate families were unharmed, but a family friend was killed in the attack.

“We have a lot of sorrow,” said Obadia. “My heart goes to all the families that have been touched by this event, and the barbaric [acts must] stop.”

He blamed the attacks on France being too generous in taking in immigrants and refugees from the Middle East. Obadia faulted the French minister of justice, saying Christiane Taubira-Delannon “has the police arrest people, and she frees them right away from the prison.”

The France of his earlier life, Obadia recalled, was more civil and democratic, and “there was not radicalization of Islam.”

Still, Obadia does not believe the Jews of France will leave.

“For generations you live somewhere, we don’t go,” said Obadia. “We don’t have to be afraid of people like this who are fanatics. If you leave and go somewhere else, you don’t face reality.”

It is better for French Jews to stay and defend their country, he added.

Gerard Leval, a member of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, who grew up in France, feels similarly. His family has lived in France since the 1630s and remained in Paris during World War II. They have no intention of leaving.

Leval, who was readying for a business trip to Paris in the days following the attack, described the situation as “reminiscent of the post-9/11” feeling in the United States.

“I spoke to one of my cousins who lives just a few blocks away from where one of the cafe attacks occurred on Friday night,” said Leval. As his family observes Shabbat, they were unaware of what was going on until they reached their synagogue. Instead of the usual contingent of three armed soldiers, there were six.

Since the attacks last January on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store, Paris synagogues have been assigned armed guards. In 2012, four people, three of them children, were murdered outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. The father of one of the victims was present at the prayer service.

“Now ordinary French people are beginning to understand how we Jews have been living in recent years,” said Samuel Sandler, father of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, the teacher who was slain.

Leval echoed the same sentiment.

“I don’t think it changes much for French Jews,” said Leval. “What I hope is that the French people will come to understand what Israelis experience every day” with groups such as Hamas promoting “the same kind of violence for the sake of ideology.”

Korsia, speaking at the prayer service, said French society “will rise up from its grief like American society rose up from the tragedy of 9/11 and like Israeli society, which never lays down for attacks.”

JTA contributed to this report.


I Jew! Interfaith marriage is on the rise, but so are alternative ways for Jews to meet Jews

The image of dating in the Jewish world has come a long way from the days of fix-ups and the parental expectation that children marry within the faith. Today, there are virtually endless options for finding your beshert, but many are concerned about the trend toward interfaith marriage and are creating opportunities to counter this reality.

111315_cover_RotatorA recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the rate of intermarriage among Jews was 58 percent between 2005 and 2013, up 36 percent from 30 years before. It also found that roughly one-third of intermarried Jews are not raising Jewish children.

The movement away from traditional Jewish marriages has sparked concern from some within the Orthodox community, such as Baltimore matchmaker Mashe Katz.

“A mixed marriage does not allow the same Jewish values that we seem to find when two people of the same faith marry, regardless of their religious convictions,” she said. “They, and definitely their offspring, are lost to our people. There may be some exceptions, but as a general rule this is definitely true.”

Katz has been helping couples tie the knot for more than 50 years and for the past year has written a column called “Ask the Shadchan” for the website wherewhatwhen.com. A school office manager by day, she has always enjoyed helping Jews find their match as a hobby, but it has become more difficult due to changing societal values.

Jewish “frum” dating is much more formalized then it was years ago,” she said. “I started this over 50 years ago. In those days, people went out to have fun within our parameters until they met their beshert. We had a general picture of what we wanted and hoped that we would find the appropriate person for us. The couple worked it out together. Today, we live in a box. Everything has to be done according to rules and date in a certain manner which one may not deviate from.”

Adrienne and Paul Zimmerman met through matchmaker Michelle Mond. (Provided)

Adrienne and Pini Zimmerman met through matchmaker Michelle Mond. (Provided)

Matchmaking is still alive and well for many Jews, including Michelle Mond, who met her husband, Yehuda, while he was playing keyboard with the Zemer Orchestra.

“I got this vibe,” she said. “I don’t know why. I just got this feeling that he was something amazing.”

Mond gave her future husband’s name to a shadchan (matchmaker), who in turn set the two up. She later went into the matchmaking business herself and has since matched 10 successful couples.

“In the Orthodox Jewish world what you’re inherently doing is you’re having someone look out for you and looking out for what’s important,” she said. “All these people are all in the same boat. They’re not in this for playing games or anything. If they’re in the system for trying to find someone, they’re all in the same boat with the goal of marriage in mind.”

Mond, a mother of three, said she often acts as a facilitator between two people who are interested in each other but have not yet made the connection, just as her shadchan did for her eight years ago.

“You have to get two people on board for going out with each other,” she said.

Mond said she knows of seven Jewish matchmakers in Baltimore and emphasized that marrying within the faith is important not simply for producing Jewish children, but also for ensuring that the relationship lasts.

“There’s so much to having a similar background and coming from the same place,” she said. “I think [Jews] should marry Jews. They’re from the same heritage, they’re from the same background. You’re more likely to succeed.”

Rivka and Dovi met courtesy of Michelle Mond, and they will tie the knot on Dec. 20. (Provided)

Rivka and Dovi met courtesy of Michelle Mond, and they will tie the knot on Dec. 20. (Provided)

Mond splits her time between personal matchmaking and working for the site SawYouAtSinai, which serves Jews of all denominations. SawYouAtSinai blends the old and new of Jewish dating by asking users to create a personal profile, which requires references who can attest to the person’s character. It then uses the information to pair the user up with a real matchmaker.

Katz praises SawYouAtSinai and said it is better than some dating sites but advised users to be critical of some profiles.

“One must check references and make sure that what was written on the site is reality and not fiction,” she said. “However, it is a good way for people to meet, and I do know that there have been many successful marriages from this site.”

Online dating in the Jewish world has been a hot ticket since the late 1990s, when JDate burst onto the scene. Founder Joe Shapira said the site was “successful from the get-go,” due to the fact that it was a response to family pressure and cultural affinity encouraging Jews to marry within the faith.

“As a Jew, you get the opportunity to meet other Jewish singles in your community or college, and you go, pretty fast, through your grandmother’s introductions. And then, if you’re not dating a Jew, 95 percent of the people you meet are not Jewish,” he said. “Jewish apps make it less painful to find a Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend.”

JDate matches singles based primarily on location and can be beneficial in finding nearby Jews with similar interests. Shapira said the first JDate marriage occurred between two people in Caracas, Venezuela who lived right around the corner from each other but didn’t know it until they took to the Web. He says JDate is a measure intended to reverse the negative effects of a society increasingly glued to screens.

There’s so much to having a similar background and coming from the same place. I think [Jews] should marry Jews. They’re from the same heritage, they’re from the same background. You’re more likely to succeed.

“With the infiltration of various online services into our personal and business lives, there is less interaction among people,” he said. “For example, what you used to do over the phone years ago is done via email nowadays, and it’s less personal. Therefore, you meet less people in real life. So the decline in personal interactions and the normalization of online life make online dating (a) sort of an extension of your other online activities and (b) an opportunity to meet for dating purposes.”

Just as Shapira created JDate in response to sites such as Match.com in 1997, entrepreneur David Yarus launched JSwipe in 2014 as a response to the mobile app Tinder.

“Marrying someone Jewish is very important to him — as it is to many others — so the ease of finding a match with the swipe of a finger was negated when the first half of the conversation was finding out if his matches were Jewish or not,” JSwipe spokeswoman Stephanie Freeman said.

JSwipe uses a smartphone’s GPS to find other users within a certain radius and allows you to narrow down the type of Jew you are looking to meet based on criteria such as denomination and kosher status.

“We are a niche dating app geared specifically at Jewish culture,” Freeman said. “We provide our community with a fun, free and easy way to find love.”

Despite JSwipe’s target audience, the app is open to non-Jews, and there is even a “Willing to Convert” option.

On Oct. 14, JSwipe’s parent company Smooch Labs was purchased by Spark Networks, which owns JDate, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. Shapira, who left the company in 2005, said he thinks this was due to a general shift away from traditional dating websites to mobile apps.

“JDate has lost a lot of momentum in recent years with revenues declining by more than 50 percent, because dating is moving to mobile, and they could not put together a quality app,” he said.

Shapira has now taken to the mobile world, developing his own app known as Jfiix. Jfiix verifies the authenticity of users using their Facebook account. He said manual inspectors look at each new profile and photo that has been uploaded in order to ensure its safety.

“We have artificial intelligence technology that analyzes in-app chats and flags abuse (i.e. foul language, etc.), and each flagged conversation is manually checked,” he said. “Abusive users are blocked.”

If you are looking for a more professional application, the solution may be on the way. Matzomatch, created by Andy Rudnick, will match people based on their LinkedIn profiles. It will be free for women and around 99 cents for men, which Rudnick said is in response to female complaints that men who use online dating are afraid of commitment.

“At least there’s something where they have to make an effort,” he said.

Rudnick is an innovator in Jewish singles events, having started Christmas Eve “Matzoball,” parties in 1987 after attending a bad Jewish singles event at a hotel in Boston. He realized that it would be less awkward to talk to people if singles met in a nightclub with lights and music.

“It’s just a hotel ballroom, you have to wait in line to buy a drink,” he said. “It’s just not conducive to that kind of environment.”

The first Matzoball party drew more than 2,000 people, more than six times the expected number of attendees. Rudnick said he did a series of radio spots, which proved effective so much so that the line was out the door on Christmas Eve.

“I made my salary for that night and quit my job,” he said.

Rudnick’s idea eventually led him to his wife, who he met 10 years later at another Matzoball party. There have been more than 1,000 marriages in 28 years of Matzoball parties. This year there will be parties in 18 cities including Washington’s Midtown DC club. More than 50,000 people are expected to frequent the clubs on Dec. 24 between all of the parties.

“I didn’t invent Christmas Eve for Jews, I basically put it into a nightclub environment,” Rudnick said.

Despite the increasing popularity of alternative ways for Jews to meet other Jews, the dating method of choice for the old-school crowd remains matchmaking.

Katz said there is simply no replacement for the natural chemistry she senses in the couples she is able to match.

“Hashem gave me a certain insight and feeling that I cannot explain, but many times I see a ‘match’ in my eyes, and it works,” she said. “Hashem is the ultimate shadchan. All shadchanim are his emissaries.”


‘Rough Night for Everyone’ Israeli filmmaker’s presentation draws protest at Goucher Hillel screening

Student protestors from the LGBT campus group TALQ Big disrupted a film screening at the Goucher College Hillel last week, claiming the event was ignoring larger issues about Israel.

Israeli television personality and LGBT rights advocate Assi Azar was invited to Hillel to screen his movie “Mom, Dad, I Have Something to Tell You,” which addresses how parents cope with their children coming out as gay. During the screening, about 15 students sat with pink duct tape over their mouths. At the end of the screening they removed the tape and began chanting anti-Israel sentiments.

Protestors interrupted Assi Azar’s post-film question-and-answer period at Goucher Hillel. The group claimed “pink-washing” of the event. (By Uri Chachick/Wikimedia Commons)

Protestors interrupted Assi Azar’s post-film question-and-answer period at Goucher Hillel. The group claimed “pink-washing” of the event. (By Uri Chachick/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Israeli filmmaker, this was the first time in his U.S. tour that he has encountered “pro-Palestinian protestors.” The event, organized by Goucher Hillel and Gophers for Israel, a student group at Goucher, was full with about 70 people in attendance.

“There were many students, many non-Jewish students and many students who are part of the LGBTQIAA community,” Azar reported in a Nov. 6 Facebook post that has been reposted by some in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“Before the screening began, I told the audience that I hope we could all engage in an open dialogue as we all share the same goal: Jews and Arabs living side by side in peace,” he continued. “We are all against the death of innocent people. We all must engage in dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict.”

Sammy Eisenberg, a senior and student co-president at Hillel who was in attendance at the event, said, “The LGBT group had seen the screening as a form of pink-washing  (using the LGBT issue as a cover of sorts to smooth over bigger issues about Israel) and had asked for the event to be shut down prior to the screening. It wasn’t, so they decided to protest.”

Eisenberg continued, “From what we understood, they were protesting the organization that was funding the film, Brand Israel, and they tried to make it clear prior, but it came out like it was [in protest toward] the speaker and the story. … Many people left feeling more confused, hurt, more alienated. There was a lot of misunderstanding.”

“The film screening was peaceful, but it was quickly succeeded by students removing the tape, standing and chanting against Israel, with posters in their hands,” Azar wrote in his Facebook post. “These chants were combative [and] filled with distortions of facts, mostly anti-Semitic. I found myself under attack, accused of ridiculous accusations. I was arguing with 20-year-old students who were brainwashed against Israel, had never visited Israel and who were targeting pure hatred against us.”

Kristen Pinheiro, interim executive director of communications at Goucher, said the institution supports “the students’ right to protest.”

“But we don’t tolerate obstruction of events, and that was communicated to both sides,” she said. “Public safety knew about this well in advance, and five safety officers and five staff members, including a chaplain, a provost and the vice president of student affairs, were there.”

After about 45 minutes of heated discussion between the students and Azar, “some of the college officials decided the dynamic was changing and decided to end the event,” said Pinheiro. “Everyone left around 9 p.m., and the event started at 7:30 so it was not cut short in any way.”

Eisenberg thought the question-and-answer period after the film had mixed together too many heated topics, such as LGBT rights, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict and race issues.

“Those three very large issues spiraled out of control, and in a way it had masked what [TALQ Big] intended to protest,” said Eisenberg. “It was a rough night for everyone, protestors included.”

Assi Azar did not respond to inquiries for comment.


A Plea for Unity Netanyahu, Herzog headline JFNA’s General Assembly

A hoarse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told thousands of Jewish community representatives at the Washington Hilton Tuesday that disagreements over issues as divisive as the recent nuclear deal with Iran should not undermine either communal unity or the Israeli-American alliance.

“Maintaining the unity of our people is of paramount importance,” Netanyahu said at the closing plenary of the 2015 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. “There is only one Jewish people, there is only one Jewish state … and now more than ever, we must work together to secure the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu acknowledged that passions were higher this year due to the Iran deal, which he had urged Congress to scuttle, but he reiterated that Israel has no better friend than the United States and vice versa — a line for which he received a standing ovation.

Netanyahu had met the day before with President Barack Obama and said he was grateful for the United States’ financial support of Israel’s military needs.

“We have to pay for defense, and defense is very, very expensive,” he said. “In fact, it gets more and more expensive all the time.”

A Plea for Unity

The prime minister also spoke out against anti-Semitism and said the Jewish state cannot be held to a “triple standard.”

“Today, we have a voice, and we must ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear,” he said. “We must speak out against the slander of the Jewish people and against the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu said he remains committed to a vision of two states for two peoples with a demilitarized Palestinian state.

“When we meet a leader who is able to finally  recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we will have peace,” he said.

Netanyahu’s speech came one day after Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog addressed the G.A. Herzog had met with Secretary of State John Kerry Monday morning and called him a “great, great friend of Israel.”

“I told him that we commend and express great gratitude to him and to the president for their indelible support of the State of Israel and their contribution to Israel’s safety and well-being,” said Herzog.

Herzog referred to American historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Brandeis and Betty Friedan as leaders he feels have been important in influencing the nature of U.S.-Israel relations. He also praised Aung Sang Suu Kyi for her democratic leadership in Myanmar after facing difficult odds under house arrest for 21 years.

“I think it’s only a symbol, a symbol for us here as Jews, to wish well to another nation seeing democracy shine again out of the darkness of dictatorship,” he said.

Among those who turned out for Monday’s events were 60 people from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. One of the conference’s primary purposes is to allow members of the Jewish philanthropic community to share ideas about how to improve their own communities.

“The G.A. to me is an intellectual hub. It is a place where there is so much philanthropic thinking,” said Linda Hurwitz, chair-elect of The Associated. “It’s just a fabulous, fabulous opportunity that every lay and professional leader should take advantage of.”

Hurwitz, who was JFNA’s National Campaign chair last year, said the G.A. is an opportunity to “rub shoulders with people who have years of experience.” She attends the conference every year and said she always enjoys speakers who “inspire the hell out of her,” such as former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

“My whole life is klal yisrael, one Jew for another, and I don’t feel that for anywhere else except Israel and the G.A.,” she said.

Michelle Gordon, chief of staff for The Associated, said she has been to seven G.A.s and she always enjoys learning how they can utilize the best practices they hear about from other federations.

“It’s great to hear what all of our other counterparts are doing across the country and North America, the relationships that we can build with other organizations that are here,,” she said.

Gordon said such a geographically diverse abundance of Jews fosters a strong sense of community that she feels makes the G.A. unique.

“When you come here and you see so many people who are living passionately about the same things you are, you feel energized and supported and part of something much bigger than yourself; you can’t replace that by reading a book or reading an article,” she said.

Monday’s activities began with a series of morning breakout sessions followed by a three-hour plenary meeting, at which point all of the federations gathered by tables in the main ballroom. Speakers included Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The delegation then headed to their afternoon breakout sessions, including one entitled “Major League Fundraising,” which was co-led by Associated Senior Vice President Leslie Pomerantz. Pomerantz gave a presentation on how federations must think outside the box when it comes to fundraising.

“We allocate $47 million every year, $31 million of that comes from our unrestricted annual campaign,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re not in a crisis situation, but yet we know that we have community needs that are not being met and that we are leaving money on the table.”

Pomerantz said last year, The Associated changed the way it engages with its donors by doing things such as changing the job descriptions of senior-level fundraisers and focusing on making sure they get out of the office.

“All of us are fabulous organizers; we are great at making sure the events look great, that the trains are running on time, that direct mail is getting out, that the list pool is correct,” she said.

Pomerantz emphasized that when communicating with donors, it is important to maintain a good rapport and be “sellers, not tellers.”

“This isn’t about not taking no for an answer, this is about reframing the question,” she said.

Melissa Apter contributed to this story.


Coming Home The obstacles of transitioning from military to civilian life can be daunting

The tactics and weapons of war have changed drastically since the turn of the 20th century, and so too has the toll, both physically and mentally, that active duty can take on servicemen and women when they transition out of the military and back to civilian life.

According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, 40 percent of homeless men are veterans, 200,000 homeless veterans sleep on the street every night, and 76 percent of homeless veterans experience alcohol, drug and mental health problems.

“[Soldiers] coming back now have conditions that we never had in prior wars,” said Michael Winnick, director of veteran services at Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.

The JWV, originally named the Hebrew Union Veterans, is a congressionally chartered veteran-service organization started in 1896 due to the misconception that Jews did not serve in the Civil War.

Erwin Burtnick is a retired colonel and holds several titles at different veterans’ organizations. He said the cause for substance abuse with veterans can stem from stress, experimentation while on active duty, how individuals are treated and what they go through during their service.

“If you’re in a vehicle and it gets hit by an [improvised explosive device] and you see body parts go flying, it affects you mentally,” said Burtnick, who pointed to his hat that identified him as a veteran. “I have teenagers come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Vietnam veterans wouldn’t have worn that hat. They were told, ‘As soon as you get back to this country, get out of your uniform.’”

Coming Home

Winnick, who was issued a bronze star and a “V” device for combat operation and valor in Vietnam, experienced firsthand the public’s reaction to veterans returning home. He was invited to a family wedding, and although he wasn’t in uniform, people at the reception asked him, “How could you kill women and children?”

“I told them ‘I was a medic, I was saving people,’” said Winnick.

Winnick left the Army in 1970, and by then the attitude of the public “was improving, but it wasn’t by any means what it should have been. You sent people to war, you have an obligation to take care of them.”

Winnick said although they were seldom, there were some positive moments following his service in Vietnam. After walking into a bar at an airport with his friend, a stranger asked Winnick if they were veterans.

“I clenched a fist ready for a fight,” he said. “The guy said to the bartender, ‘Whatever they have, put it on my tab.”

Winnick didn’t question it at the time, but he thinks the man was a veteran who knew what it was like to come home.

While the public’s treatment of veterans has become less of an issue recently, the transition to home home is still not always easy, specifically for younger members of the military. Rabbi Yonatan Warren is a 4th Battalion chaplain at the Naval Academy, and much of his job revolves around counseling midshipmen on both religious and nonreligious issues.

Warren served in Afghanistan, and he’s had discussions with soldiers about the transition back to civilian life. He said many of them are concerned where they will live.

“For younger people, they tend to go home where it’s comfortable, but some of them joined the military to get away from home,” said Warren. “Some people have left their family on purpose, and now because they are leaving the military, willingly or unwillingly, they may not want to go back, but the only safe place to go is home.”

Homelessness among of veterans is one issue that the Baltimore-based Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training is fighting. MCVET works to provide veterans with transient housing to help them get back on their feet.

Burtnick added that many programs such as MCVET require veterans to be clean of any kind of substances and sober. For some veterans this can be a challenge, but Burtnick emphasized that “you have to meet them halfway.”

Warren added that he serves a diverse population of soldiers, and they all have different concerns based on their ages and backgrounds. He also said that there are some individuals who will connect with him after they leave the military but in those cases his goal “is to help them find [another rabbi or counselor] who has a normal work week in that community.”

Even after an individual knows where they want to live, one of the most challenging issues members of the military face is finding employment. Burtnick explained that although individuals may have strong leadership skills or teamwork, they may not know how to market themselves in the civilian world. This can make things like writing a resume difficult.

“In the military, you command; in the civilian world, you manage,” said Burtnick.

Dr. Harvey Kaplan achieved the rank of colonel in the Army and served on active duty around the world for more than two-and-a-half decades. When Kaplan first retired from active duty there was very little offered by the military in terms of transitioning programs. However, Kaplan was recalled for Desert Storm and ended up retiring again.

By that time the Army Career Alumni Program had formed, which assists military personnel and Department of Defense civilians affected by downsizing and their family members with the employment process. After gaining experience working on a team from ACAP, Kaplan and one of his colleagues decided to develop their own program geared toward older military members.

The classes, which Kaplan is working to host in different venues in Montgomery County, aim to help individuals by giving them all the questions they need to ask themselves “to make a smooth, efficient and meaningful transition into a second career.”

“The first thing we would do [in a class] is stress the need for a total self-assessment: family, financial and personal,” said Kaplan. “We give people the questions they need to answer: What sort of commitment does an individual need to succeed in this process? What kinds of skills and habits do they bring to the private sector? Do you want to work for someone else or yourself?”

Kaplan added that to make a smooth transition, it requires time and planning, especially for older veterans who have spent their careers in the military. He said a well-planned transition can take up to two years of preparation, and “when a soldier, sailor or airmen only has three months to do it, it’s not enough.”

Burtnick said many programs at the local, state and federal level have been developed to help veterans with the issue of employment. Organizations such as Hiring our Heroes and Operation Hire Maryland focus on matching veterans with employers looking for the knowledge and experience that veterans have to offer.

While those coming home from active duty may be stationed at a base, when members of the Reserve come home they return to a civilian employer.

Burtnick is the Maryland area chair for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve which is an extension of the department of defense. He explained that when guardsmen (or service members in the Reserve) return from active duty, their former employer is required to rehire them with the same pay, status and benefits if they did not exceed five years of extended active duty.

However, most employers are not aware of this law and unintentionally violate it. ESGR calls employers and tries to get individuals rehired amicably. Most of the time this just means explaining the law. However, if an employer still refuses even after ESRG has called, a claim can be made with the Department of Labor.

“[The Department of Labor] first tries to get your job back in a nice way — sort of like what we do — but with a hammer behind it. If that doesn’t work, they start subpoenaing records,” said Burtnick. “They may look to see if this is a policy of the company. Have they done this to others? If it gets really bad, they take it to the U.S. Attorney’s office, and it goes to court.”

Burtnick emphasized most employers are willing to comply once they understand the law and that many organizations have called him back with questions to ensure the mistake isn’t repeated.

While many programs exist on the state and federal level, there are also local organizations that aim to assist veterans. Lisa Terry is the executive director of the Howard County Office of Military Affairs.

The office has been pushing initiatives such as asking businesses to create reserved veteran parking spots, urging the county to construct a memorial monument dedicated to veterans, supporting a Veterans Day parade in Ellicott City and teaming up with local college students who are interested in supporting veterans through service projects.

Harris Asbeil, who lives in Columbia, achieved Sgt. First Class in the Army. He said the transition from active duty to civilian life was comparable to making the transition from graduating from college to finding a job. However, he credits his ease of transitioning to the degree he had earned before entering the Army.

Asbeil said depending on what job someone had in the military, their skills may be limited.

“In the case of my son-in-law, the only translatable skill set he had was truck driving, and there’s need for it, but it’s limited,” said Asbeil. “My daughter was in personnel administration, and she’s working now doing just that.”

Asbeil added that his daughter joined the military straight out of high school and now lives in Michigan, where she is studying for her bachelor’s degree. He said during his second enlistment he intentionally aimed for a position that he knew would have translatable skills. He ended up working in electronics maintenance.

Many of the veterans and organizations interviewed all stressed that transitioning from military to civilian life is a broad topic. It encompasses much more than simply having a house to live in and a job.

“The guys coming back today are getting hit with different attitudes,” said Winnick, director of Veteran Services at JWV. “There are people going out of their way to make sure the guys get the things they need.”

Winnick said the cost is expensive, and while no one questions the financial aspect of it, the public is starting to learn one thing about war.

Said Winnick, “Today, people realize you don’t stop paying for a war after you pull the guys out.”


Chili Fundraiser for Vets

The Baltimore Station, a residential treatment program that helps veterans with poverty, addiction and homelessness, is hosting a Stars, Stripes and Chow: Chili Edition fundraiser on Nov. 7. Attendees can sample different chili recipes made by teams of first responders and members of the military and the Baltimore Station.

The event will also feature a panel of guest judges including Baltimore City councilmen Nick Mosby and Eric Costello; former Baltimore Sun food critic Richard Gorelick and a question-and-answer session with Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

“Most programming [like the Station’s] is a shorter stay, but since ours is longer, the success rates are higher, and there is more opportunity for someone to become stable,” said John Friedel, executive director at the Baltimore Station.

Friedel explained the Station’s average resident stays for 13 months, but the program allows for an up to two-year stay.

“It’s a comprehensive program that deals with mental, physical and holistic health,” said Friedel. “The generous amount of time works well [to tackle] all of the demons that may have led to homelessness and substance abuse.”


Doors Closing Opens Up Mall’s Future Developer looking to makes moves at Owings Mills Mall

The interior doors of the Owings Mills Mall closed in late September. Mall owner Kimco plans to raze the mall and build an open-air outdoor shopping center. (Daniel Schere)

The interior doors of the Owings Mills Mall closed in late September. Mall owner Kimco plans to raze the mall and build an open-air outdoor shopping center. (Daniel Schere)

The closing of the interior doors of the Owings Mills Mall means many things to a community that has long considered the site an eyesore. To some, it paves the way for redevelopment that has long been in the pipeline. To others, it serves as the long overdue obituary to a mall that has been dead for more than a decade.

For Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, it means the mall, once the area’s premiere shopping destination, has a future.

“We’re just really excited that we’re on the same page [with developers], and we see a lot of movement taking place,” he said. “I’ve made myself available to meet with any of the retailers to sell them on how great the area is.”

With shovels in the ground at Foundry Row, which will be home to a Wegmans grocery store set to open next fall, and most of that project leased, Kamenetz is hopeful that the public will now see some development at the mall.

The interior doors closed in late September, and Macy’s announced it would be closing this month. Kamenentz said Kimco has acquired the Macy’s property as well as the majority of the mall from General Growth Properties, which was Kimco’s partner on the project. While a J.C. Penney spokesman said the company does not plan to close its Owings Mills store, Kimco is in acquisition talks with the retailer, according to Kamenetz. Baltimore County District 4 Councilman Julian Jones expects to hear from Kimco about the fate of J.C. Penney in January.

There’s millions and millions of dollars being invested in our community.

Members of the surrounding community have bemoaned the loss of the mall but are optimistic for the site’s future. Jeff Freedman, a community member who grew up with the mall in its better days, said he thinks converting the existing structure into an entertainment complex would be far more cost-effective than performing a complete overhaul, as has been discussed. He thinks transparency is key to ensuring the new complex is a success.

“It’s very important that Kimco asks the community for input in terms of which stores they would like to see and what would bring them back to the mall before determining the next steps,” he said.

Freedman added that the mall building, while empty, has sentimental value for people who grew up with it.

(Daniel Schere)

(Daniel Schere)

“Many people have also created memories here, so there are many people who do not want to see it demolished,” he said.

There has been a growing sense of discontent among some residents who have become concerned with the changing demographics of the region surrounding the mall, something Chabad of Owings Mills’ Rabbi Nachum Katsenelenbogen said he hears from his congregants.

“Some people are concerned that they’re going to put up a lot of residential buildings there,” he said. “They’re afraid that if 1,500 or 2,000 apartments go up and they’re not Jewish people, the percentage of Jews could go down.”

Katsenelenbogen, who was quick to note that he was not speaking for himself, said the perception among many he knows is that an influx of residents could form a barrier between the “Jewish section” and “not-so-Jewish section,” as has been the case with the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway.

We’re just really excited that we’re on the same page [with developers], and we see a lot of movement taking place.

Kimco plans to raze the mall structure and turn it into an open-air outdoor shopping center. Previous plans that included building a new center around the structures of J.C. Penney and Macy’s were scrapped, and Kimco retreated from the spotlight after the Foundry Row site was granted commercial zoning in August 2012.

Jones is excited to see some activity at the mall and thinks Owings Mills has a bright future. He said Kimco’s new plans, which have several renditions, are similar in scope to the original plans.

“There’s millions and millions of dollars being invested in our community,” he said.

Meanwhile, activity at the eventual site of Foundry Row has flourished, with construction having begun on its centerpiece store, Wegmans. Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans, confirmed that the store is set to open in the late summer of 2016 with employee recruiting set to begin early next year.

Wegmans currently has a location in Hunt Valley Towne Center, and Natale said Owings Mills is a promising community due to its population density.

“We look for the same criteria no matter the site,” she said. “We only open three or four new stores each year, and because the pace of our growth is very measured, we tend to be very selective.”

Baltimore County will be the only county in Maryland with two Wegmans stores, Kamenetz said.

The Metro Centre at Owings Mills has also made a splash with six retailers open and a seventh on the way, 85 percent leasing in the first of two luxury apartment buildings and a four-story, 200,000-square-foot office and retail building under construct­­­ion with an expected completion in summer 2016. The site is also home to the County Campus Building, which houses a branch of the Community College of Baltimore County and the county’s largest public library branch.




Classical Meets Rock in New BSO Series BSOPulse puts top indie bands in Meyerhoff with orchestral accompaniment

From left: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, BSO assistant conductor Nick Hersh and WTMD morning host Alex Cortright discuss the BSOPulse series prior to Dawes' set in September. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

From left: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, BSO assistant conductor Nick Hersh and WTMD morning host Alex Cortright discuss the BSOPulse series prior to Dawes’ set in September. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Baltimore is home to a world-class symphony, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, that plays hundreds of classical concerts each year at its premiere, 2,443-seat home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

While younger audience members tend be a smaller percentage a–t the classical concerts, a new series aims to bring the next generation to the Meyerhoff by exposing them to classical music in a format they’re more familiar with: a rock concert.

BSOPulse, in its inaugural season, pairs the BSO with renowned indie rock bands and transforms the Meyerhoff into a classical-meets-rock concert experience, from the lobby to the concert hall.

“We wanted this to feel different than a night in which [people would] typically walk into the Meyerhoff,” said Toby Blumenthal, executive producer of the series. A major part of that experience includes opening the lobby early for happy hour, which includes a whiskey lounge, food from local restaurants and pre-show entertainment.

While Blumenthal had dreamed up the series years ago, a grant to the BSO from the Wallace Foundation to fund a project to attract younger audience members helped turn the idea into reality. The symphony, for which Blumenthal worked at the time of the series’ inception, partnered with WTMD and tapped assistant conductor Nick Hersh to work on the music.

BSOPulse kicked off on Sept. 24 with alt-country indie rock band Dawes, and continues Thursday, Nov. 12, with Baltimore’s own indie rock duo Wye Oak.

While Blumenthal brought a variety of eclectic acts to play with the BSO in his time as director of rentals and presentations at the Meyerhoff (he is now vice president of programming and chief innovation officer at the Mann Center in Philadelphia) such as Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Elvis Costello and Ben Folds, he said those one-off events don’t do much to build an audience for the Meyerhoff.

To build a series that would introduce a new crowd to the Meyerhoff — and keep them coming back — Blumenthal looked to indie rock bands.

“I felt that the indie rock audience was probably the most accepting of different forms of music,” he said.

While there are other eclectic genres, Baltimore’s strong indie scene also meant WTMD could pull in its audience by presenting bands that the station has a history with, Blumenthal said. And while Dawes and future performers Wye Oak, Dr. Dog (March 24) and The Lone Bellow (April 28) are all quite different from each other under the indie rock umbrella, WTMD acting general manager and program director Scott Mullins said these artists’ music does have some commonalities.

“I think there’s a sense of adventure in their music, and there’s a sonic quality of their music that just seems to open up the possibilities to collaboration with the BSO,” he said.

At September’s Dawes concert, the success of the series was immediately evident, as the packed house sat in total silence while string players from the BSO played Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 3” to kick off the evening.

“The reaction from the audience to the piece by Philip Glass, I thought, was extraordinary but extremely telling,” Hersh said. “Seriously one of the best audiences I’ve ever performed for. There was such silence you could hear a pin drop, which means that people were really dialed in to what was going on with music many of them probably never have thought of listening to before.”

Following the Glass piece, Dawes took the stage to play a set and were later joined by the BSO string players. Hersh, who composed the orchestra’s accompaniment for Dawes’ music, said he balanced a number of things in composing for the collaboration. He wanted to make sure the orchestra’s abilities were utilized and showcased so that they were more than just backup musicians to Dawes, but he didn’t want to step on Dawes’ toes, musically speaking. He wanted to make sure it was a true collaboration.

“[I wanted to] delve into the song itself, delve into the lyrics and … compose something new for the orchestra, where we’re interweaving what the band does,” Hersh said.

Mullins said watching the collaboration was “overpowering.”

“I think the addition of the orchestra really adds an emotional element to the music,” he said. “It’s such a dramatic, grand, sweeping element.”

For Dawes singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, it was a dream come true.

“It was a richer sound than any of the songs we ever had before,” he said via email. “A lot of what we do as a rock band changes from night to night according to our moods and levels of inspiration, so to have an orchestra play meticulously and beautifully arranged charts gave the songs a new identity and a new depth.”

As a classical musician in college who dropped out of the program after his teachers told him to drop his songwriting and playing in a rock band, the show was validation for Goldsmith. He said it was the first step in making orchestral music part of the band’s future, and he got Hersh’s contact information after the performance.

“It certainly exceeded our expectations from a performance standpoint as well as just the general vibe and feeling of the space,” Blumenthal said.

As for the series’ mission, Hersh believes it’s working, with just about everyone he bumped into after the Dawes show telling him they would come back for the next one.

“It is sort of a fantasy [of mine] simply to explore how orchestral and classical music can find its place for modern ears, and I think the introduction that we’re giving people to this style of music by way of their favorite bands, per se, that’s a great way of doing it,” he said.



Gordon Center Turns 20 Performing arts center continues to grow as it enters its third decade

When the $4 million facility opened, it was of the highest caliber.

No detail was overlooked in the creation of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts, from its masonry block design, lightweight concrete roof, ceiling panels and acoustic curtains — all of which contribute to the venue’s acoustic superiority — to its 550 roomie, sound-absorbent valor seats that wrap around the wide no-bad-seat-in-the-house venue to its hydraulic-powered orchestra pit to its 40-by-17-foot film screen. The 35-by-70-foot stage is large enough for theatrical and dance productions but small enough for intimate musical performances.

“When they built it, they made sure the sight lines were perfect for dance and the acoustics were perfect for music, and we had the second-largest film screen in Maryland,” said Randi Benesch, managing director of the Gordon Center and of arts and culture for the JCC. “We can really do anything in the Gordon.”

Gordon Center Turns 20

Twenty years later, the Gordon Center, located on the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC campus, remains the gem it was when it first opened in 1995. Last year, 30,000 people came through its doors.

Its 20th season exemplifies the diverse, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary, community center the venue has become, with shows from Chinese acrobatic dancers, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, The Maccabeats, Israeli-Palestinian pianists Duo Amal, the Reduced Shakespeare Company and much more. And that’s not including the classes, the teen and children’s programs, the performing arts camp, open-mic night and other programs Benesch has championed in her three years at the Gordon Center.

“I don’t want this place to be a façade, a venue that people come buy tickets, see a show and leave,” she said. “We want this to be the community’s performing arts center.”

When they built it, they made sure the sight lines were perfect for dance and the acoustics were perfect for music, and we had the second-largest film screen in Maryland. We can really do anything in the Gordon.

In the Beginning
It was difficult to sell the boards of the JCC and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore on building a multimillion-dollar performing arts center during the recession of the early 1990s, but the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust was willing to dedicate $2 million to the project, money that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

“We thought it was a great opportunity at the time to build a performing arts center. The Jewish community didn’t really have one,” said Joe Meyerhoff, who was on the JCC board when the idea was first presented by the Gordon trust in 1991. “And when you have one group willing to put out that much capital to get the thing built, it was a pretty hard opportunity to say no to.” Meyerhoff would become the first chairman of the Gordon Center when it opened in spring 1995.

The Gordon Center has extremely good acoustics. It’s truly a world-class venue for the design of the theater, especially when you are talking about [a] concert experience. It’s very unique sounding — I can’t think of another place quite like it. It’s kind of a ‘best-kept secret.’

The Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust was formed in 1980 as a way to support local musicians and classical music. While the trust’s beneficiaries include legendary Baltimore institutions such as the Peabody Institute and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as Har Sinai, Oheb Shalom and Baltimore Hebrew congregations, the Gordon Center is held in highest esteem by trust director Phyllis Friedman.

“I think it was the best grant we ever made,” she said. “It puts Yale and Peggy’s interest in the performing arts on a building that has continuity. You make a grant for a concert and they play the concert and it’s finished, but this give [the Gordons] some stature.”

Although the Owings Mills area was rural at the time, it was a Baltimore County-designated growth area, and the JCC saw value in investing in Owings Mills. The growth would later be evident, as Owings Mills JCC, once an outpost in a rural community, had a membership increase of 40 percent in the five years prior to 1995.

Once everyone was on board, the rest of the money for the Gordon Center was raised in about three months, so as to not interfere with The Associated’s annual campaign.

To ensure the venue would be flawlessly designed, Meyerhoff and Nancy Goldberg, the JCC’s cultural arts director who would become Gordon Center director, set out to do some research.

“Joe Meyerhoff and I spent many months traveling the East Coast, anywhere we could find performing arts facilities that were smaller,” Goldberg said. “Finding out what did work, what didn’t work [and asking], ‘If you could do it over again, what would do you do?’”

Out of that research came the idea for the 650-square-foot hydraulic-powered orchestra pit (the only in Maryland at the time), which can accommodate 45 musicians below the stage and be raised to floor level to allow for 48 additional seats. Seats were built to be 20- to 22-inches wide with a generous 38 inches between rows. They opted to have a center aisle rather than have continental seating so that families with young children — one of the venue’s target audiences — would be able to get up and go to the bathroom quickly. The women’s restroom was built with about double the amount of stalls required by law for the same reason. All these features, of course, were in addition to designing the venue so that staging and sound would be perfect for any variety of performance types.

“We really did put a lot of thought into what we were building,” Goldberg said. “We wanted to utilize every penny we had and utilize it in the best way.”

Opening and Development
The Gordon Center officially opened its doors on May 1, 1995 with a performance by Israeli-born jazz singer Achinoam Nini, known as Noa, and guitarist Gil Dor. Because of the recession and contractors needing work, construction costs were less than projected, allowing the Gordon Center to open ahead of schedule and under budget.

The opening month featured an off-Broadway production, author appearances including Theodore Bikel speaking about his autobiography, a national dance company and the Jewish Film Festival, which was moved from the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Gordon Center.

Goldberg said it was one of the most exciting times in her life, from the idea stage to the opening. She ran front of house and sought constant feedback from patrons.

“In the beginning, that really prompted what I did book, and when the people saw that [I was] doing what they’ve requested, they came back,” she said. “So it wasn’t so much getting people in the door, it was getting people in the door and coming back.”

Outside of performances, one of the highlights of Goldberg’s 17-year tenure was holding the first Maccabi Artsfest at the JCC and Gordon Center. Kids came from all over the world, including Baltimore’s sister cities of Odessa, Ukraine and Ashkelon, Israel for the fest, which allowed them to display their final works and stage performances at the JCC and Gordon Center.

“To me, that moment, it was all these years, we’ve done all these things, and now look at what we’ve done for Jewish youth,” Goldberg said.

As Goldberg worked to curate events the community rallied behind, she also took a chance in helping performers along the way. Guitarist Brian Gore, founder of International Guitar Night that plays annually at the Gordon Center (March 5, 2016 is this season’s performance), said Goldberg helped the tour in its earlier days. He said his tour looks for venues to “adopt” IGN and help it build an audience at the venue, and the Gordon Center, along with The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., helped establish a solid East Coast tour route for IGN.

For a tour of mostly acoustic guitars, the venue couldn’t be better.

“The Gordon Center has extremely good acoustics. It’s truly a world-class venue for the design of the theater, especially when you are talking about [a] concert experience,” Gore said via email. “It’s very unique sounding — I can’t think of another place quite like it. It’s kind of a ‘best-kept secret.’”

He described the Gordon Center audience as “cultivated, yet decidedly down-to-earth.”

“You have a huge number of regulars alongside a healthy dose of newcomers,” he said. “It’s a mix of people including long-term supporters and patrons of the Center who rub shoulders with classical, jazz and rock music fans, all of whom are grateful for the show.”

A New Direction
In the late 2000s, several people involved in arts at the JCC began researching the best ways to move the arts programs forward. JCC executive director Buddy Sapolsky as well as executive vice president Dale Busch, were set to retire soon.

“They both knew they were leaving and they wanted to have a legacy project, and they both loved the arts,” said Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, a Baltimore-based artist who helped them with the research along with Rabbi Phil Miller, now vice president at the Park Heights JCC, and Goldberg.

The group found statistics that said arts at JCCs were diminishing due to funding.

“That was pretty shocking to everybody. This is one of the areas which make America, historically for Jews, one of the greatest places we’ve ever prospered,” Schlossberg-Cohen said. “The fact that now we’re discovering that something’s reversed [that trend] was pretty alarming.”

Out of research and surveys, the group presented a plan to the JCC board that was built around the changing geography of the Jewish population, what demographics to reach and what kinds of events to have, with a major focus on people of all ages in the community. And with Goldberg retiring in 2012, the door was open for someone to implement this new vision.

That’s when Randi Benesch came into the picture. She had been working at Center Stage for eight years, managing development events and individual giving campaigns when Miller and Schlossberg-Cohen came to speak with the venue’s director about the JCC’s new vision for arts and culture.

“My ears perked up because I grew up at this JCC and I always had an eye on the Gordon Center,” Benesch said.

She grew up in Owings Mills and attended Franklin High School and has been involved in the arts all her life, from studying theater in college to working in the artistic programming department at the Kennedy Center to managing the Columbia Festival for the Arts.

“Randi was hired because she had an amazing background,” Schlossberg-Cohen said. “They wanted someone mature and experienced enough, but also someone young enough to bring new vision to it.”

Rather than branching out on her own and starting a consulting business, she took the helm at the Gordon Center in July 2012.

On Benesch coming to the Gordon Center, Goldberg said, “I told Randi from the beginning, ‘You’re not taking my place. This is about you starting something.’” And start something she did.

“I really felt like we were new, starting from scratch in so many ways,” Benesch said. “I think was an exciting time because we had so much support from the board and from this [arts and culture] council to reinvigorate the arts. I felt like I was starting with this blank slate.”

Under Benesch’s leadership, the JCC’s arts and culture council has greatly expanded family programming, started a dance month in conjunction with Baltimore County’s Commission on Arts and Sciences, expanded its music-presenting season, expanded educational programs and started a monthly open-mic night. The Gordon Center has developed a bluegrass following thanks to a partnership with the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival.

“Randi reinvigorated the place,” said Marilyn Zvili, arts and culture operations assistant at the JCC and Gordon Center. “I think we’re going in a great direction.”

Adults can now take art classes through a partnership with the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and teens can learn from professional artists through YAD, the Young Artists Division. The Maccabi Artsfest delegation has grown, with Baltimore bringing 12 kids from Houston this summer, making it the largest arts delegation. A children’s theater production company for preschool- and elementary school-age dancers was started in conjunction with Towson University Community Dance. The Habimah performing arts camp, which doubled attendance from its first to second summer, has children learning music, theater, dance and singing with experts from Center Stage, the Children’s Chorus of Maryland, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Beatwell and more.

“In the last three of four years I think the Gordon Center is evolving into exactly what it should be and that is a resource for the community to explore performing arts,” Meyerhoff said.

“And the theater gives the community an opportunity to do that in a very high-quality space.”

In addition to its many offerings for the community, the Gordon Center has also been opened to community organizations. CHANA showed a film about domestic violence earlier this month at the Gordon Center, and Krieger Schechter Day School will have its musical at the venue this year. In September, Temple Emanuel held its High Holiday services at the Gordon Center.

Although the theater has been kept in pristine condition, there are always upgrades to be done. In the coming 2016 General Assembly session, the Baltimore Jewish Council will push for a bond bill that would help upgrade the Gordon Center’s devices for those with hearing disabilities as well as its lighting system to more energy-efficient LED lights.

As for Benesch, she wants to continue to do all the things the Gordon Center is doing but do them better. More artist residencies and master classes, more community partnerships, more integration with regional arts organizations.

“I just really want to continue to bring the best of the best to the Gordon in all the different disciplines that we present,” she said.


Highlights from the 20th Season

Sunday, Nov. 8
Eating Delancey: A Delicious
Celebration of Traditional Jewish Food
Authors Aaron Renzy and Jordan Schaps speak about Jewish food at this event, which includes brunch, an autographed copy of the book and a tour of a gallery of food photography.

Sunday, Dec. 13
The Maccabeats Chanukah Concert
The charismatic a cappella group brings its
upbeat mix of popular Jewish, American and Israeli songs fused with inspirational stories.

Sunday, Jan. 17
The Joshua Nelson Band
In a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., the “Prince of Kosher Gospel” teams up with the Bethel AME Choir for an evening of powerful spiritual, celebratory music.

Saturday, Feb. 6
Israeli-born, American-raised Achinoam Nini (NOA), a superstar in Israel who has shared the stage with Sting and Stevie Wonder among others, brings her eclectic sounds to the Gordon Center, the venue for which she gave the opening performance 20 years ago.

Saturday, Feb. 20
ZviDance in “Dabke”
This New York-based dance troupe, led by Israeli-born choreographer Zvi Gotheiner, combines liquid movement, diversity of ensembles and Middle Eastern themes with Israeli and Arab dance traditions.

For a complete calendar and ticket information, visit gordoncenter.com.