A Moral and Legal Obligation Private schools stand up for vaccinations By Daniel Schere

Private and religious schools in Maryland will no longer be required to admit unvaccinated students as a result of a new interpretation of a state law granting religious exemptions on such occasions.

In a letter dated Aug. 7 from the attorney general’s office to state Dels. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), Sandra Brantley explained how the original state law allowed both public and private institutions to grant religious exemptions beginning in 1969, but was vague in saying whether the latter were required to admit students with this need.

091115_vaccinations“It is our view that the General Assembly did not intend to force a private school to admit a student with a religious exemption,” she wrote. “Rather, the more reasonable interpretation is that the General Assembly’s purpose in enacting the legislation was to authorize DHMH (Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) to allow parents to assert a religious objection to vaccines, thus, exempting their children from any state required vaccinations.”

Brantley cited the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as a factor in her decision, writing that granting an exemption on religious grounds at an institution of a different faith could cause a conflict. In an interview with the Jewish Times,  Brantley said previous policies set by the Maryland State Department of Education and DHMH did require private schools to accept unvaccinated students.

“That’s what they thought the law required,” she said.

Brantley said that because the legal advice she gave to Rosenberg and Hettleman is a current interpretation, it may be treated as law.

The impetus for the letter came from concerns raised by Orthodox Jewish Day schools in Baltimore.

“This is a very important health issue for the students, parents, teachers and administrators in our schools,” said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin with Agudath Israel of Maryland’s Mid-Atlantic Region.

Attorney Hillel Tendler, representing the religious school principals, came at the issue from the constitutional perspective.

“If the state were to require nonpublic religious schools to accept the religious exemption claimed by a parent of a child who is not vaccinated, the state would be requiring the religious school to go against its own religious convictions,” he said. “A parent’s religiously based anti-vaccination views should not be forced on a non-public religious school which does not share those beliefs.”

When Sadwin and other reached out to their legislators, Rosenberg said he and Hettleman decided that the most expedient approach to dealing with the issue would be to go to the attorney general’s office as opposed to attempting to pass a new law clarifying the meaning of an old one.

“You’re making a legal argument, it’s not a political argument,” Rosenberg said. “I think this is an important issue to the parochial school community and you don’t always have to put a bill in to solve a problem.”

Rosenberg said that while the letter will serve as law, it could still be challenged were someone to take the issue to court.

Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, the executive director of Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, said all students there are required to be immunized, arguing that as a public health issue it outweighs everything else. He compared vaccination requirements to a dress code.

“It’s up to each private school to determine what criteria to require of each student,” he said. “We want to apply the state’s vaccination requirements as a public health issue.”

Cohen said an outbreak of measles within the past year and other health epidemics have brought vaccinations to the forefront of his mind, prompting him and others to speak up.

“The overall concern for ours and should be for anybody is the safety of the children,” he said.

Some schools, like Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, have had a longstanding policy of required vaccinations. Director of Education Zipora Schorr said this has been in place for at least 20 years, calling it a “moral imperative.”

“Our moral obligation is to protect the health and well-being of our children,” she said. “Admitting children without immunization is putting in danger the safety of our children.”

Schorr added that there are three children that are cancer survivors at Beth Tfiloh who have compromised immune systems, making a clean environment vital to them.

She said that while she cannot speak for every religious school, she has reached out to other principals and they are “in synch” on the subject of vaccinations.

Schorr said that while Beth Tfiloh has taken a strong stand on vaccinations for more than two decades, having the added protection of the law carries more weight.

“It validates what we’ve been doing and for those people that object and have tried to coerce us or strong-arm us into changing the attorney general’s position has given the school a very strong stance,” she said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Done Deal 41 senators back Iran agreement

The nuclear agreement with Iran will likely survive the Senate, as President Barack Obama on Tuesday garnered the final votes he needed to block a vote on a resolution of disapproval.

In quick succession, three Democratic senators — Ron Wyden (Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), both Jewish, and Gary Peters (Mich.) — announced they would vote in favor of the deal, giving Obama the 41 votes he needed to deny Republicans the opportunity to reject the deal.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jewish Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in opposing the deal. All 54 Senate Republicans pledged to reject the deal. As of press time, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) remained undecided.

Last week, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) provided the 34th vote the president needed to sustain his promised veto of any resolution rejecting the deal.

Speaking Tuesday morning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “I am gratified to say this agreement with Iran will stand. America will seize this opportunity to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Vice President Joe Biden make a joint appearance at an event with Jewish community leaders in Florida. (JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS/Newscom)

Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Vice President Joe Biden make a joint appearance at an event with Jewish community leaders in Florida. (JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS/Newscom)

Although Senate Democrats have the numbers to filibuster, Reid offered to go straight to a vote.

“I hope we can avoid the usual and unnecessary procedural hurdles. Democrats have already agreed to forgo our opportunity to filibuster, and I’ve offered Leader [Mitch] McConnell the chance to go straight to a vote on passage of the resolution,” said Reid.

“But of course, as [McConnell] has noted many times in the past, everything of importance in the Senate requires 60 votes. So passage will require 60 votes.”

Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group and former deputy assistant secretary of state for House Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, said he would “prefer to see a situation where Republicans have to justify why they should be voting against this deal and not about why Democrats are blocking a final passage vote.”

Greg Rosenbaum, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council, conceded that if Democrats do filibuster in the Senate, such a move will give opponents of the deal fodder; however, he said, “I think the political consequences of preventing cloture are far less than the consequences of voting against the deal.”

He was impressed by the way the vote count swung in the president’s favor before the end of the Congressional recess. Rosenbaum attributed the success to the White House’s “deliberate attempts over the last three weeks to provide, in an increasingly formal way, reassurance” to members of Congress and American Jews that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between world powers and Iran was the best way to keep Iran from obtaining a
nuclear weapon.

Despite millions of dollars spent protesting the deal, Rosenbaum added, opponents seemed to be playing defense during the August recess.

The fight, opponents maintain, is not over until every vote is cast. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a group backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sent an urgent notice to supporters Tuesday morning, urging them to call their members of Congress. Rallies and vigils against the deal were scheduled earlier this week.

Republicans in the House are unified against the deal. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for a vote on the deal this week, with
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicting the vote would be concluded by Friday. By Tuesday morning, 119 members of the House had declared themselves for the deal, including recent announcements by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Wasserman Schultz made her announcement in the days following Vice President Joe Biden’s Sept. 3 visit to the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in South Florida.

At a DNC meeting earlier this summer, Wasserman Schultz was accused of blocking a resolution of support of the Iran deal. Wasserman Schultz denied the accusation.

A source familiar with the DNC proceedings said, “There was no Iran Deal resolution submitted before the required deadline. A few DNC members discussed submitting a resolution, but because of the missed deadline, they circulated something called a ‘letter of support’ — it doesn’t come up for a vote, it doesn’t get included in the party platform, it’s mainly a symbolic effort.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, who has actively called for the release of the side deals between the IAEA and Iran, said it would be a “horrible move tactically and strategically” for Senate Democrats to block a vote of the deal.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “it’s obvious they are choosing party loyalty over national security and none of them should be re-elected.”

mapter@midatlanticmedia.com

At What Cost? As times change, synagogues rethink traditional membership dues

As Jews around the world prepare to usher in a new year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, more synagogues around the country are reconsidering whether  mandatory dues should be treated like 5775: left in the past.

The traditional model for membership has synagogues dictate to their members how much money they should contribute each year. Although this model has persisted through several generations, it is losing its original appeal. Across the board and with few exceptions, synagogues in the United States are contracting instead of expanding.

“It’s a cultural shift taking place. … What was once an innovation is now, like other American institutions, being challenged,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, author of “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue.”

Men pray at a morning minyan held at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emmunah Hebrew Congregation, a synagogue that uses a traditional dues structure. “We try to keep things affordable,” says Jeff Forman, president.

Men pray at a morning minyan held at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emmunah Hebrew Congregation, a synagogue that uses a traditional dues structure. “We try to keep things affordable,” says Jeff Forman, president.

Olitzky’s book is focused on providing synagogues with alternatives to the traditional model of synagogue membership. He explained the traditional model is under scrutiny, not for its cost, but for its cost-benefit. Members want to know exactly what they are receiving for the fees they pay. Olitzky wrote the book with his son, Rabbi Avi Olitzky.

“We have to get ahead of the curve because the traditional dues model has already failed,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis. “We’re lucky being in the Midwest, because we’re behind the movement and the trend.”

Maryland synagogues clearly do not have that luxury. Although the traditional model is far from gone, many local synagogues recognize its downfalls and want to find alternatives. The JT reached out to the leadership of roughly 80 synagogues in the city of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Howard County and other area locales for this story and spoke to more than 25 percent of them.

“We’ve been following studies about affiliations and [the current] membership dues model is a disincentive,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman from Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. “To a certain extent, it is more similar to a business model like a health club, and it equates synagogue membership as a discretionary income decision rather than an identity.”

Grossman said Beth Shalom uses a hybrid model that allows for members to pay what they are able if they cannot afford the full rate. This model has been used elsewhere, but Beth Shalom does not require members to provide documentation proving their financial situation, which can be an unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing situation.

Although many synagogues will not turn people away over finances, they all have bills to pay for programming, overhead, salaries and Hebrew school.

“We still have a traditional dues structure, but it is becoming more of a challenge,” said David Sliom, president of Kneseth Israel in Annapolis. Sliom added that many parents of younger children want to send their children to Hebrew school, but the congregation requires membership to make use of the Hebrew school.

091115_cover2For some congregations, it makes more sense to share space with others rather than sustaining their own building.

Temple Emanuel recently sold its building and is now sharing space with Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, according to its president, David Beller.

“[We] have a unique situation of a Reform [congregation] renting space from a Conservative congregation,” said Beller. “At this point our [membership] structure parallels the Beth Israel structure.”

Beller added that the congregation looked at what models other congregations are using and decided it was not in a position to implement them.

Both Columbia Jewish Congregation and Bet Aviv in Howard County are based at the Oakland Mills Meeting House — an interfaith center designed to host several religious congregations. They share space not only with each other, but also with three Christian congregations.

“We’ve had a traditional [dues] model, but for the past year and upcoming two years we are re-evaluating that model. We’ve had people coming from our movement to talk about different options,” said Rabbi Sonya Starr from Columbia Jewish Congregation.

CJC’s board has agreed to commit to whatever the congregation decides to do. But what is more important, according to Starr, is that the fee structure is responsible, from not only a fiduciary point of view, but also a Jewish one.

“This has to be done as a Jewish organization with Jewish values and ethics,” said Starr, who anticipates CJC having a new membership model by 2017.

While traditional synagogues have struggled with dues, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has always taken a different approach to membership in general.

091115_cover3“Fluid is a good way to describe it. [Each Chabad] figures out what audience [they] are servicing and how to attract them,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland. Kaplan added that if Chabad charged service fees on college campuses, he “can guarantee that very few people will come.”

“Every synagogue needs funding, but membership is more limiting for people who are disenchanted with organized religion,” added Rabbi Kushi Schusterman from Harford Chabad.

Schusterman, who like many Chabad rabbis does not require membership, explained that Chabad organizations must find a balance between fundraising and their obligations as a religious institution. Schusterman said that when he has a stable flow of money, it allows him to attend to other obligations such as births, bar mitzvahs, funerals and other life-cycle events.

“The way I put it is: By us, membership is a final step, not the first step,” said Rabbi Sholom Raichik from Chabad of Upper Montgomery County.

With their movement having spread worldwide, Chabad’s formula has managed to prosper but the Chabad rabbi at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., went a step further than most do in justifying his financial expenses.

In 2007, Rabbi Peretz Chein laid out all of his finances for maintaining his Chabad House, hosting programs and paying his salary on his website for the public to view.

“My donor base doesn’t interact with me on a regular basis so I wanted them to be connected with the institution and beyond telling them what we do, I wanted them to see under the hood,” said Chein. “I want their financial support so I figured it would be meaningful to them if they can see happens with those dollars.”

Chein’s actions received a positive response from the community and ended up eliciting a strong sense of connection and care for the Chabad House. However he doesn’t see what he did as extraordinary. He believes that showing people how he spends their money is simply a reasonable thing to do.

“The question isn’t why am I doing it, the question is why are others not doing it?” said Chein, who has continued to be transparent about his finances to date.

Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework.

Rabbi Dan Judson, professor at Hebrew College, has studied the history of synagogues and money. He believes other synagogues could take a page from Chein’s book.

“I believe that synagogues need to become more transparent places. It’s about improving the conversation about money and in our culture to have these organizations have such a lacking of transparency,” said Judson. “It makes no sense, it is totally out of touch with the zeitgeist, the cultural feeling of the time.”

Among other forms of programming, services for the High Holidays is an issue that is interwoven into membership models. Synagogues must decide whether to include tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into their dues or whether to charge separately.

Excluding the several Chabad synagogues, which have open door policies, there was an even split among the synagogues interviewed for this article between those that include tickets with dues and those who do not.

Regardless of the approaches synagogues take when it comes to membership, many of the experts agree that the discussion surrounding dues is not all about money.

“Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework,” said Kerry Olitzky.

Judson and Debbie Joseph were researchers for “Are voluntary dues right for your synagogue? A practical guide,” which focused on 26 congregations in the U.S. that use a voluntary dues model and was commissioned by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.

Both Judson and Joseph worked with Olitzky on his book and echoed his comment about changing the institutional culture. Joseph said the biggest problem with the traditional model is the relationship it creates between synagogues and their members.

“People talk about money first, ‘I want to join the congregation. How much does it cost?’ The first line of joining was associated with what it costs to belong,” said Joseph. “Part of that cultural change is how you talk to people about money and belonging. How do you get people, in their minds, to not equate money with membership?”

However, when Joseph and Judson began their research, a pattern emerged among many of the congregations.

“When we started [our research,] we thought the synagogues had already made cultural changes which would make it easier to move to this system [of voluntary dues,]” said Judson. “But in many congregations, it worked the opposite way.”

Judson explained that once synagogues transitioned to a voluntary dues model it led to more positive interactions between the synagogue and members in general. Many of the synagogues, that Judson and Joseph researched, reported an overall positive change in revenue, membership growth and cultural change as a result of the switch.

“Synagogues changed the conversation they were having with their members about money. They found a better environment to ask members for resources because there wasn’t the obligatory nature of telling people what to pay,” said Judson. “And by in large even without a dues system, members paid, they didn’t take the moment to abandon the synagogue.”

In his book, Olitzky included 25 reasons to join a synagogue and while he recognizes that people will disagree with some of the reasons, he hopes to ignite a conversation.

Olitzky said synagogue affiliation is at an all-time low since World War II. When it comes to membership, millennials are voting with their feet and establishing the institutions that cater to their own needs.

“The institution [of a synagogue] represents something very different for the generation of my children then it does for older generations,” said Olitzky. “And because of this they are not prepared to support the edifices of their parents.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Something for Everybody For area rabbis, a High Holiday sermon that resonates is the ultimate goal

Next to writing a dissertation, crafting an effective High Holiday sermon may seem like one of the more monumental achievements for any writer. But talk to rabbis from congregations of all sorts in Baltimore and it becomes apparent that they have it down to a science.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation uses a simple litmus test to determine whether a message will fly with his congregants or not.

“Someone should be able to summarize it in a sentence or two,” he said. “That is the underlying approach of whenever I do a talk.”

Yet, this task increases in difficulty with the onset of the High Holidays because many Jews who do not regularly attend synagogue throughout the year will show up. Sharff said this does not intimidate him.

“The size is immaterial,” he said. “It could be a size of two and you’re going to wrestle with the same question.”

090415_cover2Sharff typically begins thinking about which topics he will focus on during the preceding spring and into the summer. The actual writing process can take either hours, days or weeks, he said. Sharff said a good sermon must speak to congregants emotionally and intellectually while also motivating them to take up a cause of action.

“What I find really helps connect people is stories,” he said. “I want them to walk away feeling like they got good value.”

A common practice among many rabbis is to collect newspaper clippings and pieces of writing that stand out and may have relevance to the themes of the High Holidays.

Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation said the day after Yom Kippur he sets a folder aside for this purpose. He often turns to Torah commentaries for intellectual fuel.

“Sometimes a whole sermon can grow out of that,” he said.

It isn’t until the next summer that he really begins thinking about what the subject of his sermon will be. He compared this part of the process to organizing messages on a bulletin board and seeing which part of the board was the most full.

“I kind of work organically, and things sort of form themselves into topics,” he said.

Schwartz is going into his 18th year at Beth El and says there is no magic bullet to making a sermon resonate with a large group of congregants. But he notes that most of the themes of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lend themselves to multiple generations and are interchangeable. He said he will write all of his sermons out and then decide which one to give on each holiday one week prior.

090415_cover“Most High Holiday sermons you could give on either High Holiday,” he said.

Schwartz gave a Yom Kippur sermon last year focusing on the Book of Life in which he described how the modern-day higher-education system focuses on tangible results, such as getting a job, as opposed to simply making the experience formative for students. He explained that this is similar to the way in which people misinterpret the Book of Life as something that will ensure them a long life instead of a fulfilling one.

“You’re not praying for time, you’re praying for quality of life,” he said.

This year, Schwartz said one of his sermons will include the image of a cluttered desk and will present solutions for how to unclutter it.

While Schwartz gears his sermons for a general audience, Columbia Jewish Congregation’s Rabbi Sonya Starr will often direct each sermon at a particular segment of the population.

“It says on Mount Sinai God spoke to everybody the words they needed to hear. I’m not God,” she said.

This year, Starr will give six sermons between the two holidays and the intervening Shabbat. One of her Rosh Hashanah sermons will take a more Jewish text-based approach that is intended for an older crowd, and another will focus on current events. For the last two years she has devoted one of her sermons to race relations.

“For me it’s about trying to find something for everybody throughout the High Holiday period,” she said.

Starr will also sometimes write a sermon that focuses on an issue specific to her congregation, such as the one she gave last year on CJC’s dues structure.

“When I gave that sermon last year, that was very particular to our community,” she said.

Starr said she does not start thinking about sermon topics as early as some rabbis.

“I probably begin thinking and reading about it around Passover,” she said. “It’s usually part of my Omer.”

Starr said she formulates ideas during her summer vacation and is ready to write by the time she returns in August. In addition to readings, many of her ideas come from conversations with congregants.

“It’s much more of an experiential experience than it is an intellectual one,” she said.

Despite months of planning, rabbis sometimes make last-minute decisions to change the topic of their sermon based on recent events.

As a rabbinical student in 2001, Sharff had prepared four sermons prior to the High Holidays but ended up rewriting all of them after the 9/11 attacks that year.

Two years ago, Sharff had prepared a Kol Nidre sermon entitled “Can you see God in Camden Yards” but instead decided to share stories that were much more personal from the past year.

“Three people that were important to me had died of cancer,” he said. “It just ended up being one of the most profound sermons I’ve ever given.”

Sharff said this year he plans to give one sermon on tikkun olam and another focusing on current events in Israel.

“That sermon is not written until the last minute because things are always changing,” he said of the latter one.

Not all rabbis choose to focus on current events, preferring to avoid controversial topics that might spark disagreement such as the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. But Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation said he plans to discuss the deal in one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons.

“To me, there is no issue that’s more important to discuss with the Jewish community,” he said. “The very security of the State of Israel is at stake.”

Wohlberg said his purpose in discussing the deal in a sermon is to educate congregants about the issues and recognize that there are differences of opinion. He said the deal is “the most loaded issue in recent memory” and to not talk about it would be “absurd.”

“This is one that is putting the U.S. and Israel in a conflict, and that’s not a comfortable position for anybody,” he said.

Wohlberg said he understands that many rabbis choose not to discuss politics on the High Holidays but asserts that any issue involving Israel should not be categorized as “political.”

“I think a lot of [rabbis] are just afraid to take a stand because there are people in their congregation who don’t agree with them, but it’s not for me to say,” he said.

Wohlberg gives three sermons each year including one of “Jewish interest,” one focusing on world events and one that is more personal. He said congregants generally give him positive feedback.

If my sermon makes someone think, even if they disagree with what I’m arguing for, for me it was a good sermon.

“They always like it, they come back for more,” he said. “They don’t always agree, although for the most part they generally do.”

Wohlberg, like the others, starts giving serious thought to his sermons during the summer with the process being completed one month before the holidays. He said there have only been a couple of occasions when he changed a speech entirely, but he is a thorough editor.

“I’m always making changes and additions and subtractions, and that doesn’t stop until the day before,” he said.

There is a fine line between a sermon and a lecture, and that is something Rabbi Ronald Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation takes into account when writing. Shulman said he tries to make sure he chooses topics that are from the heart.

“My conviction comes from my personal connections to a topic, from my personal experience, from sharing in life moments with others and from my learning and reflection,” he said.

Shulman admits that a good sermon does have a point of view but said the purpose is not to get everyone in the congregation on board as long as they understand the main point.

“If my sermon makes someone think, even if they disagree with what I’m arguing for, for me it was a good sermon,” he said.

Shulman said his High Holiday sermons attempt to address rebuilding society through strengthening personal relationships.

“I am focused on two things,” he said. “First is our responsibility to respond to the need for social justice and human dignity in our Baltimore region.

“Second is to take the opportunity we have to grow with each other in our understandings of Jewish identity toward more active engagement in Jewish life and learning.”

Shulman added that he also plans to offer commentary on Israel’s position in the world, although it will not address the Iran deal directly.

The idea of speaking in front of a large congregation may seem intimidating and even rabbis such as Starr, who has been with CJC for 16 years, admits that a High Holiday sermon makes her pause and think about the weight her words will have.

“We are given an incredibly awe-provoking task to speak things that are meaningful,” she said. “How would I not take a deep breath and realize the task before me.”

Schwartz said he recognizes that some sermons will resonate more than others, but it is impossible to please everyone.

“You give it your best shot, and you hope it goes well,” he said.

Wohlberg has been at Beth Tfiloh since 1978 and said if he absolutely had to, he could give a sermon tomorrow.

“Now I feel like I’m talking in my living room,” he said. “I feel very connected with the congregation.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

‘We’re Not Giving Away Anything’ Obama takes Iran pitch directly to Jewish community

In an address to American Jews on Aug. 28, President Barack Obama insisted that the agreement negotiated between world powers and Iran blocks the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons without limiting the United States’ options in case of violations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Obama said during the 50-minute live webcast from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they choose to cheat.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Obama made a few remarks before responding to questions, many submitted by American Jews to the organizers in advance.

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran deal during a live webcast on Aug. 28 co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (Screencap)

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran deal during a live webcast on Aug. 28 co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (Screencap)

The deal reached on July 14 between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, requires Iran to remove all but a “handful” of centrifuges from Natanz; to rebuild the heavy water facility at Arak in such a way that weapons-grade plutonium enrichment would be impossible; and to turn the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow into a research facility, Obama said.

“In the best of all worlds, Iran would have no nuclear infrastructure whatsoever,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, that’s not a reality that’s obtainable.”

The president reiterated that the United States had ensured it could “snap back” the sanctions on Iran that he credited with bringing the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table “in the event that Iran cheats or does not abide by the terms of the deal.”

Obama said that without this deal, he and his successor would be forced into military action. He conceded that Iran could feel “cocky enough” to develop nuclear weapons when parts of the agreement expire in 15 years, but he said Iran “could pursue it next week if we didn’t have this deal.”

The president stressed that the United States has not taken any options off the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that a “military approach at this juncture would forestall a determined Iran for a year or two from getting a nuclear weapon.”

He defended his record on Israel’s security, saying that even his fiercest critics would say there has been “unprecedented military cooperation” during his time in office and that there had been an enhanced degree of military aid, including for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Obama rejected the “heated” rhetoric that has been used by both sides, though he challenged the idea that the vitriol has been equal on both sides, laying most of the blame on detractors of the deal.

He denied calling deal opponents “warmongers” and defended Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who recently came out in support of the agreement. Nadler, he said, “for personal and political integrity, stood by Israel and has been attacked in ways that are appalling.

“I would suggest that in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives.”

Obama brushed off comments tweeted out by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “The president of the United States doesn’t respond to taunts. The president of the United States responds to interests, facts, evidence” in making decisions for the American people and American allies.

In a personal moment, the president said that if he lived in Israel he would have a “visceral reaction” to dealing with a country that denies the Holocaust.

“As an African-American, I understand history teaches us that man can be very cruel to man and you have to take threats seriously, but what history also teaches us is that sometimes the best security is to enter into negoti-ations with your enemies,” he said, referencing negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“The bond between the United States and Israel is not political. It’s not based on alliances of convenience; it is something that grows out of family ties and bonds that stretch back generations and shared values and shared commitments and shared beliefs in democracy,” Obama said. While the two governments may disagree, as families do, it “does not affect the core commitments we have to each other.”

The president promised to make sure Israel keeps its military edge in a dangerous neighborhood where Iranians prop up Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies, though he was adamant that military aid and sharing of intelligence was not to compensate for the deal as critics have suggested. Obama said that Israelis and Americans have been in discussion “for months” over enhanced sharing of military knowledge.

Congress has until late September to decide whether to reject the deal. Obama has pledged to veto a rejection.

On Aug. 30, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) came out in support of the Iran deal, bringing the total number of Democratic supporters in the Senate to 31. Obama needs 34 senators to uphold a presidential veto. Only two Democratic Senators have come out against the deal: Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

mapter@midatlanticmedia.com

Owings Mills Chabad Dedicates New Torah Celebration attracts hundreds; Torah dedicated to rabbi’s late father

There’s no party like a Chabad-Lubavitch Torah dedication party.

People marched and danced in the streets, music was played, flags were waved, tiki torches were lit and a festive meal was enjoyed to mark the occasion.

Hundreds came out to the Chabad of Owings Mills on Sunday, Aug. 30, for the Grand Torah Dedication. The Torah, inscribed in Israel and finished on the spot by New York sofer Rabbi Moshe Klein, was dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen, the father of Owings Mills Chabad Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen. Rabbi Moshe, along with his mother, Sarah, and father, Michoel, were instrumental in educating and strengthening the Jewish community in Soviet Russia and helping Jews flee the country, serving jail time and risking their lives in the process.

“My father was a living Sefer Torah,” Katsenelenbogen, known in his community as Rabbi K, told the crowd as the Torah was finished being written. The elder Katsenelenbogen passed away on Sept. 3, 2014, a month ahead of Yom Kippur. During Rabbi K’s annual appeal on Yom Kippur last year, he announced a Sefer Torah campaign to be dedicated to his father.

Chabad of Owings Mills Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen and his family help Rabbi Moshe Klein, a scribe from New York, write one of the remaining letters in the Chabad’s new Torah. (Photos by Marc Shapiro)

Chabad of Owings Mills Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen and his family help Rabbi Moshe Klein, a scribe from New York, write one of the remaining letters in the Chabad’s new Torah. (Photos by Marc Shapiro)

The new Torah and the dedication event cost more than $60,000, Katsenelenbogen said. As the Torah was finished, various sponsoring families, relatives of the rabbi as well as other Chabad rabbis, including Lubavitch of Maryland Director Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, helped inscribe the remaining letters.

Once the Torah was finished and dressed, Katsenlenbogen led attendees in a celebratory parade. Korn’s Hachnosos Sefer Torah Truck, a festively decorated trailer, led the way, blasting Jewish music, as Katsenlenbogen and others — carrying flags and tiki torches and dancing — followed, carrying the new Torah under a chuppah canopy on wheels through the parking lot, down Owings Mills Boulevard, up Crondall Lane and back into the Chabad space. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a Proclamation declaring Aug. 30, 2015 Torah Dedication Day.

Kaplan said the event brought to memory Katsenelenbogen’s father, who he called an extraordinary individual who was the “personification of selfless devotion to Torah and the Jewish people,” and it was a great tribute to his ancestors.

“To see their children, grandchildren preserving Judaism with the same selflessness in this free country is extraordinary,” Kaplan said. “Stalin is dead, communism is dead. The spark of Judaism [from Rabbi K’s family], that’s what still alive today.”

Moshe Katsenelenbogen was born in 1931 in Gzhatsk in the former Soviet Union. His parents were active in the local yeshiva, his father being a prominent student and his mother serving as the yeshiva’s cook as well as arranging underground Torah schools for young children and saving Jewish children from government orphanages. Moshe’s father, Michoel, would later be taken away by secret police and killed.

Moshe became an expert in Talmud, Jewish law and Chasidic teachings, and helped the underground network of Chabad synagogues and schools. His mother Sarah sent hundreds of people to safety by helping obtain documents needed for escape. Both were later incarcerated in Siberia, where Sarah died of a heart attack. While in prison, neither gave up information about their Jewish activities and maintained religious observance to the best of their ability.

Moshe, who rescued Torah scrolls from being destroyed in Soviet Russia, would later settle in London, where he taught at a Chabad high school and started a family.

Katsenelenbogen said his father was very proud of the Owings Mills Chabad’s progress, which was encapsulated by the Torah dedication.

090415_dediction2“This is a sign that we have matured as a community. We have grown to the point that not only have we purchased a Torah, but we commissioned our own brand new Torah,” the rabbi said. “It was not cheap, but it’s a mitzvah. It’s the last mitzvah of the Torah. Commandment 613 is that every Jew is obligated to a Torah scroll for him or herself.”

At the celebration, Katsenelenbogen’s congregants praised him for making Chabad a welcoming place for all Jews.

“There’s diversity here not a lot of synagogues can get,” said Gayle Beltrand, a Reisterstown resident whose children go to Hebrew school at Chabad. She noted that her husband, who is not Jewish, is always welcome there. “You’re here to soak in the spirituality.”

Susan Ansel, another congregant, said the Chabad has a great social atmosphere and good food.

“They welcome people wherever they are in Judaism,” she said.

Added Stan Friedman, “It’s nice to see all [types of Jews] in one place and not to see the separation among Jews.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Safety First! Baltimore Jewish community aims to expand city’s crime lab, supply of cameras

A surge in crime across Baltimore has had a ripple effect on several parts of the city, and the Jewish community has been taking measures to mitigate its share.

The uptick in violence has come in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots in April, with 45 homicides occurring last month — the deadliest month since 1972. Much of the crime in Northwest Baltimore recently has come in the form of car and home burglaries, most of which have been reported to occur between midnight and 6 a.m. Some victims have reported 10- to 15-minute police response times after calling 911.

These incidents have sparked concern from local officials and citizens groups in neighborhoods throughout the Northwestern District. Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector said in her neighborhood someone’s mountain bike was stolen but police arrived right away.

“In my personal experience, county police and city police work together,” she said. “They spotted this guy at 2 in the morning, and they got the guy Johnny-on-the-spot.”

(©iStockphoto.com/pixinoo)

(©iStockphoto.com/pixinoo)

In addition to the Baltimore City and County police departments, Spector praised the work of citizens watch groups such as the Northwest Citizens Patrol and Shomrim, calling them the “eyes and ears” of the community.

“I wish it could be cloned all over the city,” she said.

Spector was among those present at a meeting Aug. 9 with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that was hosted by the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association. About 30 people attended, including several clergy members and volunteer citizen patrol members. For the most part, the event was an opportunity for citizens to voice their public safety concerns to Rawlings-Blake, but the discussion became slightly more heated when Rabbi Jonathan Seidemann, from Kehilath B’nai Torah, questioned the mayor’s initial response to the riots.

“As the city burned, for law-abiding citizens it would have been so much more reassuring if they would have seen you spending the afternoon with the governor rather than spending the afternoon with the Rev. [Al] Sharpton, who came in from out of town and has never really run a municipality, has never really solved a riot, has never really brought healing,” he said.

Seidemann said he felt her motives were “pure,” but that the image of Sharpton meeting with Rawlings-Blake sent a message of comfort to the protestors without addressing the immediate public-safety needs of the city.

“The people who by and large were smashing police cars and throwing rocks at our dedicated law enforcement officers and burning CVSs, they’re not the contributing members of this city who pay taxes and go to work,” he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says that police could do a better job of getting criminals off the street with the better crime lab resources. (BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS/Newscom)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says that police could do a better job of getting criminals off the street with the better crime lab resources. (BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS/Newscom)

Rawlings-Blake’s response to the comments was off-the-record, but she was intrigued by a suggestion made by Cheswolde Neighborhood Association Vice President Isaac Schleifer about increasing the police department’s crime lab resources.

“There’s really no need for the amount of policing if we’re not going to be resolving the crime,” Schliefer said at the meeting. “And in order to resolve the crime, you need a crime lab that can respond to calls and not get tied up someplace else in the city with a murder, which is going to happen.”

In a comment to the JT, Rawlings-Blake said she thinks this would help solve crimes similar to those occurring in the Northwest District.

“If we had more resources available in the crime lab, we could do a better job identifying [criminals] and getting them off the street,” she said.

There’s really no need for the amount of policing if we’re not going to be resolving the crime. And in order to resolve the crime, you need a crime lab that can respond to calls and not get tied up someplace else in the city with a murder, which is going to happen.

Schleifer, who is running against Spector for her Fifth District seat, also brought his suggestions to Crime Lab director Steve O’Dell, who informed him that there are only 30 crime scene scientists for all of Baltimore, and that, due to the recent rash of violence, it is very difficult to focus on anything other than homicides and shootings. O’Dell said targeting property crime would require an additional 25 crime scene personnel and 15 latent prints, of which there are four for the entire city. He added that these numbers have stayed the same overall since the early 1970s. Yet, at 7,000 crime scenes analyzed per year, O’Dell said Baltimore is well below the national average by more than fourfold.

Schleifer said many of his concerns come from neighbors who have had their homes broken into. He said that although activity has decreased since Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis took over July 8, he still loses sleep at night.

“You have to feel safe and comfortable in your own home to live a peaceful life,” said  Schleifer, who added that there are certain short-term measures the city can take to protect the community, such as stationing officers on Park Heights Avenue during High Holidays. He also thinks it is reasonable for businesses to hire security for large events.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector calls citizen watch groups the “eyes and ears” of the community. (File photo)

City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector calls citizen watch groups the “eyes and ears” of the community. (File photo)

“I think it is essential for specific types of businesses and specific kinds of organizations to hire security for specific events,” he said. “However, that should be done in communication with the police department.”

Schleifer said he does not think police presence should be altered based on where the most crime occurs.

“If there’s a situation on the other side of the city, I don’t believe officers should be pulled out of an area just because there’s no crime happening there,” he said.

Jeremy Silbert, a public information officer with the Baltimore City Police Department, said it does not share specific information about officer
deployments.

“We are constantly evaluating our deployment strategies based on recent crime trends and intelligence received from data sharing and technology,” he said. “In addition, our deployment unit monitors BPD resources across the entire city.”

One measure that has been successfully employed by the city in the past is a system of security cameras, known as the CitiWatch program. Members of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association have been working to construct a similar system for an area surrounding Pimlico Race Course.

“I’m working directly with Sgt. (Samuel) Hood,” Schleifer said. “We’ve already identified locations — the main streets that people come and go through.”

Schleifer said there are currently plans to put cameras at the intersection of Clarks Lane and Fallstaff Road, the intersection of Greenspring Avenue and Cross Country Boulevard, the county line near Pimlico and one more on Greenspring.

“We’re covering different major end points into the Cheswolde community,” he said.

Schleifer said installing their own infrastructure for the project would be too expensive, so they will use funding provided by revenue from slot machines in the state’s casinos. Schleifer said currently $115,000 has been approved for the camera project, but they will look for other sources of funding.

Ronnie Rosenbluth, a member of Shomrim, said he has been involved with the group for 10 years, and has pushed for cameras for the last five. He said the planning department held a meeting at Cross Country Middle School about four years ago in order to determine where the slot machine money should go. About 800 attended.

“The overwhelming majority was about safety and security,” he said.

Rosenbluth said the camera idea became more real when he began mentioning it to lieutenants in the police department. He said in the time since the meeting, hundreds of incidents have occurred in his neighborhood that he thinks a camera might have prevented or aided in identifying a suspect.

Officer Jacob Gabbard patrols the Northwestern District. (Photo from the JT’s “A Night In The Life,” ride-along article from January 2014. (Photo by David Stuck)

Officer Jacob Gabbard patrols the Northwestern District. (Photo from the JT’s “A Night In The Life,” ride-along article from January 2014. (Photo by David Stuck)

“I kept saying, ‘This is one spot the camera would have been,’” he said.

Rosenbluth said several locked cars on his block, including his, were broken into one night after a National Night Out event.

“I went to sleep at midnight and when I woke up at 6 in the morning my car had been broken into,” he said.

Rosenbluth said he does not know of any synagogues that have been vandalized recently, although occasionally random people will take pictures of them that raises concerns.  He does not think there is an issue with regular police response times.

“If the police can respond to calls within 10 to 15 minutes, that’s pretty good,” he said, while noting that “serious crime gets top priority.”

Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 41st District, said Pimlico is the only neighborhood of its kind to receive this kind of funding without being located near a casino, making the success of the camera program vital in order for the funding to continue.

“It’s very important that we be able to say to our colleagues, this money is being well spent,” he said.

Rosenberg, who lives in Coldspring-Newtown, said he thinks the cameras will be important by acting as additional protection for communities such as Cheswolde.

“The government’s obligation is to make sure people feel safe 24/7, and hopefully we can resolve the issues here,” he said.

Spector said in order for the camera program to be a success, they must be in synch with the city’s existing cameras.

“It has to maintain the maximum interoperability to be beneficial,” she said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Pray for Victory? It can be a problem for Jews when the Ravens’ first game falls on one of the year’s most important holidays

When the sky goes dark on Sept. 13, most Jews will flock to synagogue to begin the annual ritual of celebrating Rosh Hashanah. But some will likely be sitting on their couch, enjoying beer and pizza while watching their beloved Ravens open the season in Denver against the Broncos.

“It’s going to be one of those things where it’s kind of a teaser,” said Yudy Brody, a member of Congregation Beth Abraham.

Brody is a diehard Ravens fan who frequently tailgates with friends during home games. He said he plans to record the game, but watching it later will have significantly less suspense since he likely will know the result by then.

“Guys will come in and tell everyone what the score is no matter what,” he said.

082815_football“It always gets ruined. If you can maintain the secretiveness of the score over a two-day holiday, then it works.”

Despite the frustration of not being able to watch the game, Brody said the experience of the holiday overshadows it by far.

“The Jewish holiday is an amazing experience, and it only comes around once a year,” he said.

Chaim Finkelstein, a member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah who also tailgates, said when he misses a game due to the High Holidays, he will watch it on tape regardless of the result.

“If it were the playoffs, then that’s important,” he said. “But the first game of the season is just as important as the last game.”

Finkelstein and Brody are observant Jews who are more than willing to make the sacrifice of sports for the sake of religion. But as Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah explained, there are a handful of Ravens season ticket-holders who are not willing to miss a game that they paid for in advance. Since the game this year is not at home, it doesn’t present an issue, but he has had to urge congregants not to attend sporting events in the past.

“When it comes down to it, the Ravens are entertainment and Rosh Hashanah is life and death,” he said. “It’s really bringing everything into perspective and preparing for the year to come.”

Shapiro said Ravens and Orioles season ticket-holders would still be violating Jewish law by attending a game, even if the monetary transaction for the tickets took place before the holiday.

Historically, football and baseball games have often fallen on the High Holidays, presenting a problem for Jews who are passionate about sports. The most famous example is Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax’s decision to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series in observance of Yom Kippur.

Jerry Coleman, the Ravens’ beat reporter for 105.7 The Fan, said he plans on spending Rosh Hashanah with his family.

“Religion with me comes first, and that’s where my loyalty lies,” he said.

Coleman grew up in Pikesville and attended Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

He said there have been occasions where he has attended services part of the day on the High Holidays and worked later in the day, but not often.

“It’s never a dilemma for me, because family and religion come first,” he said.

When it comes down to it, the Ravens are entertainment and Rosh Hashanah is life and death. It’s really bringing everything into perspective and preparing for the year to come. …I don’t think the Ravens’ decision should be based on our calendar.

Ultimately, Jews who bleed purple hope that the world of sports and the world of religion do not collide, but they also are willing to forgive the NFL for a scheduling mishap or two.

“I don’t think the Ravens’ decision should be based on our calendar,” said Shapiro, who called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl of Judaism, respectively. He said the best way to cheer for the Ravens on Sept. 13 is to pray for their success in the coming year.

“It won’t help the Ravens for us not to be thinking of lofty topics,” he said.

 

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Pet Friendly Two Columbia Jewish Congregation kids put 4-H livestock skills to the test

Ian Quill, 12, and Hayley Russell, 10, from Columbia Jewish Congregation showed off their rabbit and chicken, respectively, at the 70th annual Howard County Fair, which ended its one-week run on Aug. 15.

Both of them began raising their animals as a part of 4-H, a national youth development program focused on providing children with life skills through various clubs and projects. The “H” represents the organization’s motto: head, heart, hands and health. The program is run in Maryland through the University of Maryland Extension.

Although 4-H offers a variety of different programs, Hayley and Ian both chose to participate in the livestock program, where children can learn techniques for handling animals, the cost of raising them and demonstrate their knowledge at competitions.

082815_hoco1Ian took an interest in rabbits three years ago when his father, Joe Quill, found a breeder in western Howard County. It turned out Quill had gone to high school with the breeder so he drove, with all three of his children, to see her.

“[My parents] said, ‘Come on, let’s go,’” recalled Ian, but they didn’t tell him where they were going. “They said, ‘You’ll see,’ and as a kid in middle school, we all know that’s never a good sign.”

Ian’s prediction turned out to be false. When they got to the breeder’s house, they were met by a variety of animals.

After spending some time with the bunnies Ian, and both of his siblings, each picked one out to take home. While his first rabbit was a chocolate Dutch, appropriately named Cocoa, the rabbit Ian showed at the Howard County fair is a Holland lop.

Gary, who Ian affectionately calls “Gyarados,” named after a character from the television show “Pokèmon,” competed at the fair.

Quill explained that children get judged on the quality of their animal, their skills as a handler, their showmanship and their knowledge about the breed.

My favorite part about taking care of Molly is holding her; it is much easier than I thought it would be.

For rabbits, the competition is divided into separate categories based on their breed, age and gender. Ian and Gary won their class, which was Holland lop males younger than 6 months.

Although they did not win Best of Breed, Ian said Gary, who initially wouldn’t respond to affection, has come a long way in terms of socialization.

“Now, when you put him out in public, he’ll put his front paws up on you to get you to pet him,” said Ian. Some of the families who participate in 4-H’s livestock program end up selling their animals at auction, however Ian intends to continue raising Gary and breed him.

Ian Quill (top), 12, and Hayley Russell, 10, competed at the 70th annual Howard County Fair with their rabbit and chicken, respectively. (Provided)

Ian Quill (top), 12, and Hayley Russell, 10, competed at the 70th annual Howard County Fair with their rabbit and chicken, respectively. (Provided)

Karen Russell and her daughter, Hayley, joined 4-H several months ago after finding out about the program through friends.

“[Six months ago] if you had asked me if I had a daughter showing a chicken in the fair,” said Russell. “I’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’”

The friends of the family were already raising chickens and allowed Hayley to continually visit to help care for them. Eventually, Hayley took to one chicken in particular, a Silkie named Molly. Over time the two bonded.

“These chickens are raised by humans, so when we take them out to free range,” said Russell, “they like to stay near us. And if [Hayley] walked away, Molly would follow her.”

Since joining 4-H, Hayley has participated in several other projects aside from the competition at the fair such as volunteering at a local petting zoo and giving a presentation, with a friend, about chickens.

Beyond learning about the animals, Russell credits the 4-H program as being a good way for children to build self-confidence. It is also an outlet to practice public speaking, which plays a large part in the showmanship category while presenting animals to judges.

After placing third at the fair, Hayley is looking forward to next year when she intends to show a rabbit with her brother, Sam. Although she has been in several different competitions with Molly, Hayley’s favorite part of raising a chicken has been in the simple things.

Said Hayley, “My favorite part about taking care of Molly is holding her; it is much easier than I thought it would be.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Tourism to Israel Is Down, but Optimism Abounds Despite decline in visitors, experts remain positive about country’s tourist offerings

Senior reporter Marc Shapiro recently traveled to Israel as part of a Jewish press trip that was sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. The weeklong trip, from July 22 to 28, allowed Shapiro and seven other journalists to travel throughout the country to Jerusalem, the Negev Desert, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and more. The following articles capture a few of the places he visited and the people he met.

 

For a country only slightly larger than New Jersey, Israel offers a diversity of activities and scenery — mountains, desert, beaches, wineries, museums and history of literally biblical proportions — for tourists from all over the world.

It also serves as a destination for people of varying backgrounds, with holy sites important to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Despite all of this, tourism to Israel was down about 12.6 percent January to July 2015 compared with that same period in 2014, according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

Israelis and those in the tourism industry point to various factors, including the world economy, especially the decreased value of the euro and the financial crisis in Greece, as well as last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, which saw fighting between Israel and Gaza in July and August, and the media frenzy that accompanied it.

“It’s a destination that you almost don’t have to market if everything is quiet,” said Uri Steinberg,  of the Israel Tourism Commissioner for North America, a position in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

A record 3.6 million people visited Israel in 2013, and there was a significant increase in the first half of 2014, but ultimately that year topped off at 3.3 million visitors, less than the year prior.

Steinberg said the picture changes depending on how you look at the numbers and notes that last year was still a good year.

“In June 2014, people were afraid of not having places to put tourists,” he said.

The outlook with regard to tourism from North America is less bleak.

From January to July, tourism from North America is down 4.8 percent compared to 2014, but up 2.2 percent compared to 2013, the year in which Israel experienced record-breaking tourism numbers.

While El Al Israel Airlines also suffered last summer, with a 62 percent decrease in operating profit in the third quarter of 2014, things have picked back up for the airline, which recently announced the purchase of 15 additional aircraft and the possibility of adding 13 more in the future. The company announced a net profit of $17.3 million in the second quarter of 2015. The company had a net profit high of $57.9 million in the third quarter of 2013, which dropped to $10.1 million in the third quarter of 2014 due to military action.

Tourism from the United States, which sends the largest percentage of tourists to Israel (about 18 percent of its total), is strong, Steinberg suggests, because of the U.S. economy’s improvements in recent years. In Europe, however, it’s a different story.

“The euro has really damaged the incoming tourism from various countries to Israel,” Steinberg said. “People have been feeling it the last couple of months really hard.”

As of press time, 1 euro equaled 4.21 Israeli shekels.

Elie Gertler, a Jerusalem resident and a licensed tour guide since the 1960s, said that, in addition to the euro being distressed, Israel is an expensive country for travelers, pointing to the high price of hiring a private car for tours as well as the high price of gas. He’s personally seen a decline in clientele and thinks the decline in overall tourism is even higher than 20 percent.

“Right now I work with the Ministry [of Tourism] because there is no work,” he said, adding that his private bookings pay more. While his calendar is usually booked solid from July to December, during a weeklong tour in late July he lamented that his next job wasn’t for a few weeks, and his calendar beyond that was very much open.

Yuval Frucht, a driver with North Negev Tours who lives in Netanya, said business is about 50 percent off, but his company, which has about 120 buses, hasn’t laid off anyone.

“I sit at home too much,” he said. But the company keeps busy with business from Israelis, including the military and schools. It’s not just tour guides and drivers who suffer when tourism is down, he said.

“It’s tour guides, restaurants, hotels; it’s one big circle,” said Frucht. “The airports, the bell boys. Businesses close because of war.”

Oded Schickler, a tour guide with Ramon Desert Tours, which gives tours of the Ramon Crater, said the two months during the fighting last summer were tough for his company. There were less youth programs and less American families. But this past winter was one of their best, he said, because a lot of Jewish tourists came to Israel to support the country.

For some lucky tour guides, things haven’t slowed down. Asaf Salomon, a licensed freelance tour guide who works with different companies and conducts private tours for likes of The Rolling Stones, said that although friends and colleagues have felt the decline, he personally hasn’t. He thinks it has to do with his personal situation, since he guides VIP tours for the Western Wall tunnels in Hebrew and English, works with Hebrew University, the National Library of Israel, the AJC and the Shalom Hartman Institute and also guides congregations, birthright groups and Jewish schools. While some agencies he works with have had a drop in groups, he’s been assigned his usual amount of groups.

Salomon said he can empathize with those who get spooked by the media, which he feels doesn’t showcase the positive sides of Israel.

“People hear about Israel in security issues, and the other aspects are not shown enough; culture, history, religion, food, high-tech, etc.,” he said via email. “I also think that the news that comes out about the region has an effect — Syria, Egypt, ISIL. [It] doesn’t really sound welcoming. If people want to travel to a place and visit a region, I’m not sure this is a choice I would make if that’s the news I was receiving.”

Other tour guides share Salomon’s sentiment.

“I’ve been to the U.S. … I look at the news and I say, ‘I’m not going back home,’” Frucht said. “The truth is everything is OK. It’s quiet. It’s nice.”

Caroline Shapiro, spokeswoman for the historic Tower of David and Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which has seen a 20 percent dip in visitors, recommends those interested in traveling to Israel check event calendars in various cities to find festivals and other cultural opportunities.

“We hope that people continue to come to Jerusalem and discover a city not only rich in history and prayers, but a city diversely rich in cultures, in art, drama and dance,” she said. “While the media looks for the negative to report, the rest of the country and its visitors from abroad don’t have to look far to find the positive and to enjoy the fusion of old and new in Israel.”

Salomon thinks Israel needs to invest in reaching individual travelers and cost-friendly tourism and advertise the diversity of sites and activities the country has to offer.

That’s precisely what the Ministry of Tourism is doing, Steinberg said.

“The Middle East is a hot spot and we have to acknowledge that. It’s about targeting those audiences, targeting those influences in those circles like rabbis, pastors and priests who can really convince their followers,” he said. “It’s about safety and a transformative experience.”

And it’s been working, Steinberg said, as Israel has seen more faith-based travelers from places such as India and Brazil.

“The idea of walking where Jesus walked is a very powerful one in Brazil,” he said.

He said the ministry is undergoing a “significant digital revolution” to try to reach specific people in a personal way.

“One of the most remarkable things in Israel is it has so many faces that fit so many different audiences that it feels like they’re living almost in a fantasy. People can connect you to who you are whether you’re in the LGBT community, the Jewish community, the Catholic community,” Steinberg said. “It’s a crossroads for so many different things.”

Destination Israel articles

Israel’s Biblical Chef

Museum on the Seam: Not Your Average Art Venue

The Ramon Crater

Soreq Stalactite Cave

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com