Changing the Way We Teach Students learn there’s no one way to be pro-Israel

From left: Joseph Gelula, Noah Green and Barak Widawsky. Being pro-Israel means “I want Israel to exist,” Gelula said. ( David Holzel)

From left: Joseph Gelula, Noah Green and Barak Widawsky. Being pro-Israel means “I want Israel to exist,” Gelula said. ( David Holzel)

You would be hard-pressed a decade ago to find any mainstream Jewish organization including Palestinian narratives as part of its Israel education efforts.

And yet, those perspectives are an integral part of the Israel Engagement Fellowship, a seminar sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

“Today, students require more understanding,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC. “As a community, we love to debate the issues. But when it comes to Israel, we seem to think there’s one way to be pro-Israel. We want to create a safe space where students can ask questions. We want them to know that they can criticize Israel but love Israel.”

Encouraging students to think hard about their feelings toward Israel and giving them information so they can work out where they stand on the issues facing the Jewish state are among the goals of the 2-year-old fellowship program.

As they sipped cans of soda and munched on chocolate-chip cookies, the teens spent six Wednesday evenings recently listening to speakers, asking questions, role playing and airing their opinions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conflict colors the world’s view of Israel, and the seminar participants, almost all of whom have spent time there, know they’ll run into questions — if not hostility — about Israel when they go to college. The fellowship was launched to prepare students for that possibility and to teach them that there is no one way to be pro-Israel.

Professionals involved in Israel advocacy and university work agree that high school students are better prepared for a college environment when they are well-informed about Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“All knowledge is good,” said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, or Emet, a pro-Israel think tank. “The more we can do to prepare students the better.”

Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said such preparation should allow the students to “support Israel and to also have sympathy for the Palestinians, whose lives are disrupted by Israel’s need to struggle for security.”

Program participants already had a better-than-average knowledge about Israel. They were chosen based on recommendations from rabbis or youth group leaders.

Katrina Young, 17, a student at  Walter Johnson High School who recently spent six weeks in Israel on a program sponsored by the Habonim Dror youth movement, said the program made her more knowledgeable.

“I’ll be able to answer when friends ask, ‘What’s going on in Israel?’ she said. “I’m learning a lot about Israeli politics. It’s really, really complicated.”

The students also learned about the Palestinian side of the story. At a session called “Parallel Narratives Never Meet,” community educator and coexistence activist Ira Weiss presented the Israeli and Palestinian national narratives — their versions of the last century of history — side by side.

“National narrative is what we learn in school,” Weiss said. “Both are true. To get the full view you need both narratives.”

He told the familiar story: of Jews fleeing oppression and returning to their ancient homeland after 2,000 years of wandering and of the Arabs who tried to destroy the fledgling Jewish state.

Alongside was a less familiar narrative: of Jewish outsiders coming in and disrupting a society that had endured for 1,200 years.

Weiss didn’t suggest that there was a way to make the narratives connect. But as he told parents who were visiting for that session, it’s better that they learn this history in the “safe environment” of the Jewish community. “What happens is, they’re brought up to love Israel. Then they hear the other narrative from Palestinians [on campus]. When they discover they weren’t told the whole story, they flip [their loyalty]. They feel betrayed.”

That was Daniel Klein’s experience.

“Growing up I was falsely taught that Israel’s history was shaped by Arab aggression and that all of its actions were taken in defense of its people,” the Pittsburgh designer and Washington-area native wrote in an email. “Learning more about the history of the region changed my perspective.

“Making aliyah allowed me to see the many ways that the Jewish state systematically oppresses non-Jews, especially Palestinians,” added Klein, who helped found the Pittsburgh chapter of the leftist Jewish Voice for Peace. “The conflict is not between Jews and Arabs, but rather between those who believe in equality and human rights for everyone and those who do not.”

“I like that we learned the Palestinian side of the conflict,” said seminar participant Melanie Ezrin, 16, a student at Quince Orchard High School. You can’t argue your side if you don’t know both sides.”

“The point of this course is to understand that there are several ways of being pro-Israel and you do not support Israel blindly,” Noa Meir, director of the JCRC’s Israel Action Center, who led the seminar with Pnina Agenyahu, the federation’s community shlicha, or Israeli emissary, told the students.

“The tachlis, the bottom line, is that there are two peoples who lay claim to the land,” she said. “The question is, where do we go from here?”

Too Hot To Handle Jewish community evaluates fire-safety measures

Electric hot plates are a mainstay in  observant Jewish homes during Shabbat and holidays when turning knobs and electrical switches are prohibited. (David Stuck)

Electric hot plates are a mainstay in observant Jewish homes during Shabbat and holidays when turning knobs and electrical switches are prohibited. (David Stuck)

In the wake of a horrific fire caused by a faulty hot plate that claimed the lives of seven children in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., observant Jews are re-evaluating how they warm food during Shabbat and holidays.

Here in Baltimore, community members gathered at the Park Heights JCC on Monday night for a Fire and Life Safety presentation hosted by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and

Fires kill more people in the United States than all other natural disasters combined, with 81 percent of civilian fire deaths occurring in house fires. The startling statistic underscores the increased risk that traditionally observant Jews take upon themselves in observing holidays whose proscriptions outlawing the turning of electrical knobs and switches mandate any appliances being used be left on for an extended period of time.

At the community meeting, Dr. Eli Matt Goldstein, founder and president of Maccabee Aish Jewish Fire Prevention, told the audience, “The problem is that we’re exposed to additional fire risk that most people in the world would never even believe.”

The March 28 Brooklyn fire struck the home of Gabriel Sassoon, who was out of town at a religious conference when the Shabbat blaze claimed the lives of seven of his eight children shortly after midnight.

Thirty percent of fires are caused by cooking, and 5 percent of home fires are caused by candles such as those lit to usher in Shabbat and holidays, Goldstein pointed out. “What do we do on most holiday observances? We do a whole lot of cooking.”

To quantify that risk, Goldstein showed a calendar from 2008 with 136 days marked in red, each representing a day of increased risk. This weekend — Passover begins Friday night — an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the 2.9 million Jewish households across the country will light candles or take on some Passover holiday observance that puts their household at risk.

There is no national database that tracks fires having to do with religious Jewish observance, but based upon what Goldstein has witnessed as a Hatzalah responder, he urged the audience to visit to learn about life-saving precautions such as taking care when lighting Sabbath candles, creating no-go zones for children near ovens and stovetops, creating escape routes and practicing home fire-safety plans.

As Young and Baltimore City Council member Rochelle “Rikki” Spector looked on, Baltimore City Fire Department Lt. Gerald Quarles spoke of the “rash of fires” started by unattended hot plates.

“They don’t have proper clearance,” said Quarles. “Even when they’re not on, when they’re plugged up, they still catch fire.”

Dr. Eli Matt Goldstein (David Stuck)

Dr. Eli Matt Goldstein (David Stuck)

Quarles suggested the use of crock pots as an alternative to hot plates and asked community members to keep a three foot radius around hot plates, avoid keeping them near flammable materials and to unplug them when not in use.

Community members peppered Quarles with questions.

“What if we use a timer with a hot plate?” one person asked, while another asked about the safety of a blech, a metal sheet designed to cover a stove top kept on during holy days.

Though familiar with traditional observant practices — he grew up on Jonquil Avenue turning ovens off for his Jewish neighbors — Quarles would not endorse the use of timers or specific appliances, having done research only into hot plates.

“These things that conduct any type of electrical current are going to fail at some point,” he concluded.

None of the top advertised Shabbat hot plates available for purchase on are certified by Underwriters Laboratories, the firm whose UL seal is viewed as the gold standard for safety consulting and certification.

“We have tips in the instruction manual [of any products UL certifies], and one of them is unplug the product when it’s not in use,” said John Drengenberg, the company’s consumer safety director.

He explained that hot plates go through rigorous testing. Each item tested is covered in sensors inside and out to test for temperature. Technicians look for good cord anchorage, test for insulation and even re-create shipping conditions to make sure that the product won’t fail from the jostling that occurs in transport. Hot plates manufactured in Europe or Israel and rewired in the United States — such as many popular models used by Orthodox Jews up and down the East Coast — are not eligible for UL certification.

“As far as the heating test goes, it usually takes an hour or two hours,” said Drengenberg. “The expectation when the standard was developed was that when you’re done cooking or heating that it will be turned off.” Leaving such an appliance on overnight is not a consideration.

Betsy Gardner, neighborhood liaison (David Stuck)

Betsy Gardner, neighborhood liaison (David Stuck)

Even hot plates and hot pots that carry a UL mark — consumers who are unsure if their appliance carries a UL mark can check the company’s online database — are not certified to be left on longer than the time period proscribed by the manufacturer, which is far less than the 25 hours of Shabbat or the 48 to 72 hours of a longer holiday.

A potential reason a hot plate fire can occur has to do with the amount of power the product draws, not just faulty wiring, as has been blamed for the Brooklyn fire.

“A lot of heating products draw a lot more current than other products, like a battery charger for a cellphone,” warned Drengenberg. “Hot plates are drawing a significant amount of power.”

If there is a grim silver lining, it is that tragedies often spur new inventions.

According to the Forward, David Y. Sarna, an engineer from New Jersey, is in the early stages of creating an induction cooktop that would heat pots using magnetism. In essence, food would get hot, but not the surrounding surfaces.

An alternative, by contrast, is a Sabbath oven.

The Baltimore-based Star-K kosher supervision organization certifies certain ovens with Sabbath-mode features from prominent manufacturers such as Amana, Bosch, Electrolux and General Electric. The organization does not certify hot plates or blechs and cautions consumers who call to be safe and make sure proper ventilation is in place.

What of the hot-water urns and hot pots commonly used for tea and coffee?

“These hot pots are the worst thing you can have in the entire world,” said Goldstein. “I’ve taken kids down to the burn center with the most unbelievable burns from these hot pumps, pump pots.”

A lot of heating products draw a lot more current than other products, like a battery charger for a cellphone. Hot plates are drawing a significant amount of power.

He continued, “These pump pots are not normal. I personally would recommend, that if you have anyone in your home that you care about, go with a little bit of a weaker cup of coffee on Shabbos morning, and don’t go with one of these pump pots.”

Fires can happen any time, said Goldstein. “You can’t prevent accidents from happening; however, there are things we can do to do things more safely.”

Having smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that work are essential to any home safety plan. Baltimore City residents can call 311 to receive a free smoke alarm installation. The city fire department guarantees a two-hour response time, and Quarles estimated that firefighters have distributed more than 80 smoke alarms since the Brooklyn fire. The fire department will give each residence one detector per floor. An adult must be present at the time of installation.

Outside the city, the Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters Association provides free smoke alarms to the community through Baltimore County’s 24 professionally staffed fire houses and has done so since 1994, according to Local 1311 first vice president Michael Crosby.

Lt. Gerald Quarles (David Stuck)

Lt. Gerald Quarles (David Stuck)

A state law passed two years ago requires that smoke alarms distributed by firefighters be sealed 10-year lithium-ion battery models with a hush feature. As Maryland is one of the few states with these requirements, the main producer, Kidde United Technologies, effectively has a monopoly on the supply.

In a store, Crosby estimated, the smoke alarm will go for $20; Local 1311 gets a small discount when buying in bulk. Though the union is in favor of the new alarms, the increased cost – a fewe years ago, fire stations could distribute $3 alarms with $4 batteries – means that county residents can request only one alarm per family designated for the main sleeping area.

The union tries to keep 12 smoke alarms on hand at each career station at all times. The Pikesville station, Crosby reported, was swamped after the Brooklyn fire.

Despite the additional cost, the Professional Fire Fighters Association will ensure that the program remains funded.

“If we have to buy them every two months, we’ll buy them. If we run out of funds, [we’ll dip into savings],” said Crosby. “That’s how strongly we feel about saving lives.”

The Changing Face of Poverty Cities, no longer the only centers of poverty, bequeath its effects to suburbs

A little more than a year ago, Mrs. Y and her husband were both employed full-time. They were able to pay their bills, including the mortgage on their Pikesville home, and support their teenage daughter and baby boy.

But in February, with her human services employer downsizing quickly, Mrs. Y lost her job. Her husband, who worked in sales and marketing, had been looking for a job for a year when his employment ran out a couple of months ago. The couple, both in their 30s, are surviving off of their tax refunds.

“I need to have a job by after Passover,” Mrs. Y, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “Financially, we’re okay until the end of April, beginning of May.”

The job market they face is not an easy one to navigate. Mr. Y is finding a lot of sales jobs seeking to pay in commission only with no base salary, something he won’t do because he has a family to support.

“My issue with finding a job right now is that I’m overqualified for many of the places I’m applying to,” Mrs. Y said, “and directors don’t want somebody who’s overqualified.”

The family is not alone in their situation. In recent years, poverty has migrated from inner cities to places once mostly insulated from the grasps of socio-economic hardship: the suburbs.

032715_coverstory_associated“People don’t think it’s in the northwest corridor here, but it definitely is,” said Ed Hartman, executive director of the Community Crisis Center in Reisterstown, which works to prevent homelessness through various forms of assistance.

Baltimore’s Jewish community, largely concentrated in the corridor stretching from Pikesville through Owings Mills up to Reisterstown that Hartman refers to, saw a jump in financial hardship, according to studies conducted in 1999 and 2010 by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

In 1999, less than 1 percent of survey respondents said they could not make ends meet and 26 percent said they were “just managing.” In 2010, 3 percent said they could not make ends meet and 30 percent said they were just managing. In the 1999 study, 31 percent of respondents reported that they had extra money on hand, but that number dipped to 10 percent in 2010. (Another 10 percent said they are “well off” in 2010, which was not a reported category on the 1999 report.)

At the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, members receiving financial assistance has fluctuated between 792 and 906 between 2011 and 2015, with 849 member units (a unit can be an individual or family) receiving $405,294 in assistance in the fiscal year ending in 2015, according to figures provided by the JCC. The organization receives 19 percent of its funding from The Associated and more than $500,000 of that money goes to scholarships that include membership as well as preschool, afterschool care, camps and Maccabi participation, according to JCC president Barak Hermann.

Baltimore is not the only Jewish community whose members are dealing with increased financial insecurity. In the 2010 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Community Study, 5 percent of respondents said they could not make ends meet and 30 percent said they were just managing. In New York, 32 percent of people living in Jewish households in the eight counties in and around New York City live in poor or near-poor households, according to the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York. Ninety percent of the poor households and 84 percent of near-poor households were located in New York City.

Statewide in Maryland, 13.3 percent of residents live in or near poverty, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Students on Free and Reduced-Priced Meals (FARM) in Maryland increased from 31.7 percent in the 2003-2004 school year to 45.3 percent in the 2013-2014 school year, according to Maryland Department of Education data.

The Free State has similarly seen a 53.5 percent increase in participants in the its Food Supplement Program (FSP) from September 2009 to September 2014, increasing from 511,673 participants to 785,630 participants, according to Maryland Hunger Solutions, which culled data from the Maryland Department of Human Resources. The FSP is Maryland’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federally-funded initiative formerly known as Food Stamps. During that period of time, counties that saw the largest increases were (in order) Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore, at 98.1 percent, 88 percent and 87.7 percent, respectively.

At Jewish Community Services’ offices in Owings Mills and Park Heights, the need for social services in the community is plain to see.

“They’ve seen a massive increase since the downturn of the economy,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

In the last five years, mental health visits at JCS have increased more than 60 percent, with 14,689 individuals in Fiscal Year 2009 to 23,445 in FY 2014. JCS clients whose services were funded by Medicaid and other public medical programs more than doubled from 98 in FY 2009 to 211 in FY 2014, Tolle said.

Financial assistance given out by JCS has also increased over the years, rising from $1.26 million in 2008-2009 to $2.6 million in 2013-2014.

As economic distress has increased in the Jewish community, the numbers of Marylanders in the Food Supplemental Program and students on Free and Reduced-Priced Meals have gone up.

Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at JCS, attributes the increase in the need for her organization’s services to a variety of factors. Some clients recovered slowly from the recession and after having gone through a lot of savings to stay afloat, got jobs that paid less post-recession. While parents helped children and children helped parents, with those situations extending for long periods of time, some families found themselves with multiple economically stressed generations. In other cases, people on disability as well as non-essential employees were fired first when companies downsized, she said.

“We’re seeing all of those phenomena in our offices,” Paliath explained. “Families are really stretched to the max. To find a job that will pay you what you will need to get paid is almost a full-time job in itself.”

According to Maryland State Data Center figures, the average salary of jobs lost during the recession was $71,000; the average salary of jobs that came back after the recession is $51,000, Maryland Food Bank representatives said.

At the Maryland Food Bank, which served 425,000 people about 37 million meals in 2014, providers are seeing a rise in both under-employed people and highly educated clients.

“We are definitely seeing a diversification of the people that are accessing the charitable food assistance network,” said spokeswoman Meg Kimmel.

In the Jewish community, officials and statistics attest, people are still recovering from the economic downturn of seven years ago.
In The Associated’s 2010 study, 43 percent of Jewish households reported that they were negatively impacted by the downturn, including 18 percent that reported a job loss. In the year prior to the survey, 12 percent of households reported someone seeking job or career assistance and 6 percent reported seeking assistance for a housing problem, housing assistance or housing advice.

Mrs. Y has recently gone to JCS offices for help on her resume and cover letter, as well as making herself more marketable in social media settings. JCS has also linked her with specific job opportunities, she said. Her family is also receiving FSP assistance and help from the Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund, which provides food, shelter, clothing and basic living needs for needy Baltimore residents.

Eli Schlossberg, executive trustee at Ahavas Yisrael, said there has been an increased need for the organizations’ services as the community has grown. He added that Orthodox Jews, the largest percentage of his organization’s clients, face the added economic costs of a religious lifestyle.

“In the Orthodox community … the major issue that confronts families is the educational costs,” he said. “I think [families] tighten their belts all the way around. That’s a sacrifice they’re making, but what they feel is it’s of utmost importance.”

Ahavas Yisrael also runs a kosher food bank.

Mrs. Y, who is Orthodox, has thought about not keeping kosher to save money, but does not see it as a viable option.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “I go to ShopRite and I look at their steaks on sale for 99 cents a pound and say, ‘I wish I could [do] that.’ It’s just not worth it.”

Poverty moves to the ‘burbs
A few miles up the road from JCS’ Owings Mills offices, Ed Hartman is seeing more people living in single-family homes and condominiums come into the Community Crisis Center. Along with an increased demand, the area has given way to the ancillary effects of poverty, such as crime and drug use.

Last year, the center served 1,446 families and delivered more than 6,660 units of service, which can be anything from food assistance to utility assistance to help finding a job. Since Hartman first came to the center three years ago, the number of units of services has increased by about 500, he said. The center gives out 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of food a month from its pantry, Hartman said.

The clientele has changed a bit, too. The heroin epidemic has hit some of the center’s clients, Hartman pointed out. About once a month, he said, he’s seeing sex workers coming in who have been abused by a client or a pimp. He said prostitution is becoming more prevalent in the Reisterstown Road/Liberty Road corridor.

In northwest Baltimore County, the problems get compounded by several factors, as Hartman sees it. There’s a lack of affordable housing combined with a surplus of low-paying, low-skilled jobs, many of which may not give 40 hours a week to avoid having to pay for health insurance. Many jobs are not accessible by the area’s lackluster public transit system. With average apartment rent in the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon area at $1,000 a month, combined with the job opportunities, after utilities, health insurance, clothing and food are factored in, Hartman is not surprised to see his center’s demand increased.

A low paying hourly salary at less than full time doesn’t cover the costs of living, he said. “It just doesn’t add up.”

According to Maryland Poverty Profiles, created by the Maryland Alliance for the Poor in conjunction with Catholic Charities, the Baltimore Jewish Council and The Associated, 9.1 percent of Baltimore County residents lived below the poverty line in 2012. Twenty-three percent of county residents lived below 200 percent of the poverty line, an adjusted poverty threshold since many argue the federal guidelines are extremely low.

Although Maryland’s 13.3 percent poverty rate is the third lowest among the states, it has the highest deep poverty rate among the 50 states, with 38 percent of its low-income residents living in deep poverty, which means they are earning below 50 percent of poverty guidelines, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“When you’re living in a pocket of poverty, it’s very hard to escape that,” Tolle said.

While this can apply to city residents, a Pew analysis found pockets of poverty in rural western Maryland, miles away from economic growth centers and government-run safety net programs.

The suburbs are also home to more areas with poverty rates of at least 40 percent, according to a Brookings Institution study, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012.” In the year 2000, suburban tracts (census-recognized subdivisions) accounted for 4 percent of tracts with poverty rates of at least 40 percent. The number increased to 6.3 percent during the 2008-2012 study. During the same time periods, suburban tracts in the 20 to 40 percent poverty rate increased from 23.3 percent to 32 percent. Concentrated poverty still remained highest in big cities.

“However, suburban communities experienced the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty over this time period,” the study concluded. “Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent — almost three times the pace of growth in cities.”
Jewish advocacy
As poverty rates grow in the suburbs, social service organizations are having to play catchup.

“Because of the notions by some communities that they want to insulate themselves from the poverty — a very common thing for affluent communities — it has directed the social services over the decades to specific areas,” said Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The problem in my hometown, Los Angeles, is there is a tremendous concentration of social services downtown. There isn’t the same breadth across the rest of the city. You couple that with transportation difficulties and it becomes a lot harder for folks to access some of those services.”

JCPA has a Confronting Poverty Initiative that works on a variety of issues, including early childhood education, early childhood nutrition programs and health care for children. At the same time, the initiative is also looking at ways to make sure parents of those children have sustainable jobs and adequate childcare services.

“The problem is we need more social services and we need to figure out how to make them super effective,” Feldman said.

The organization also advocates for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, an annual bill taken up by Congress that provides funding for student meals outside of school and during the summer.

The Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies (AFJCA) also advocates at the federal level on poverty-related issues, including on the Farm Bill, which funds SNAP. The Maryland Food Bank advocates for these programs as well.

The AFJCA also focuses on seniors, and successfully got $2.5 million in this year’s federal budget for services to Holocaust survivors; it also has worked on reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, which helps with a variety of services for the nation’s senior citizens.

“We are seeing more people today who are outliving, in many cases, their resources,” said Lee Sherman, the AFJCA’s CEO. “So thankfully, they’re living longer, but their savings are not lasting as they’d anticipated.”

A Brookings Institution study found that “Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent — almost three times the pace of growth in cities.”

According to the BJC’s Tolle, the amount of seniors in Maryland has increased by 42 percent in the past 13 years. People older than 65 now outnumber school-age children, she said. At the same time, funding has not increased in many areas serving this population.

In The Associated’s 2010 study, 27 percent of Jewish seniors living alone had incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty standard.

Sherman said with poverty rising among seniors and in the suburbs, it is important to talk about the changing face of poverty as a means of spreading awareness.

“Our agencies are always stretched with funding. The needs of the community consistently outstrip the financial resources that are available,” he said. “So, difficult choices always have to be made in serving a variety of different populations.”

As for Mrs. Y, she’s keeping a positive attitude as her husband tries to start a business and she looks into starting her own nonprofit.

“Everything is temporary,” she said, “and that’s what I’ve been taught.”

My Family Story Local eighth graders delve into their family histories

Through musical displays, videos and visual arts, local eighth grade students related their personal family history and connection to Judaism as part of the My Family Story project, a global educational program sponsored by Beit Hatfutsot — The Museum of the Jewish People.

Two Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School students, Rivi Goloskov and Eitan Murinson, were selected to advance in the international competition. Goloskov’s “Fighting for Judaism” and Murinson’s “The Special Guests” will be sent to Beit Hatfutsot in Israel as one of approximately 200 projects to be judged and narrowed down to a pool of 40 winners, who will be invited to tour Israel and meet Jews from different communities worldwide.

Lizabeth Shrier, sixth grade humanities and eighth grade ancient history teacher, explained how the projects displayed at the Jewish Museum of Maryland through March 15 dovetailed with the first eighth grade ancient history unit: identity. The students, she continued, were given free rein with artistic expression and what aspect of their heritage they wanted to share. All eighth graders participated.

Shrier, alongside music teacher Russell Kirk, creative arts department director Jason Dougherty and art teacher Shelly Spector — who all helped the students craft their projects — saw tremendous engagement and growth from her students.

“From day one there was a real buy-in where students were excited to explore their own families and their own histories,” said Shrier. “Then I saw kids who didn’t have a lot of interest at first — ‘my family doesn’t have any interesting stories to tell’ — but after digging deeper, talking to family members, they opened up and saw there was so much more to their families.”

Goloskov, 13, created a piece using photos and newspaper clippings from her great-grandfather’s scrapbooks. Mickey Goloskov, she discovered, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II’s deadliest battles, and also served as a photographer, capturing moments of the war for the regiment newspaper. Among the discoveries that touched her most was a postcard penned by her great-grandfather that read, “Went to synagogue this morning and prayed for the first time with tefillin.”

Noting that many soldiers ceased to practice their religion after witnessing the horrors of war, Goloskov said, “Overall, it was a great experience to learn about my family history, to know that my family stuck with Judaism is inspiring to me.”

“‘Fighting for Judaism,’ that one stood out to me right away,” said Valerie Thaler, a BT high school Jewish history teacher who judged the displays alongside fellow BT high school teacher Paul Bolenbaugh, a Johns Hopkins University professor, a Jewish Museum board member and Shula Bahat, CEO of Beit Hatfutsot of America.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector also took time to tour the exhibit.

“Basically, what stood out to me was the amount of depth the project had,” said Thaler. “It made me want to go and read the whole scrapbook.”

Murinson, 14, described his project as a hybrid that combined media and music. He connected the musical heritage of his great-great grandparents, who worked the vaudeville circuit from New York to Chicago, with the band his parents played in called The Special Guests that gave musical presentations at Jewish venues around Baltimore.

To honor his family’s musical heritage, Murinson created a stage and performed two songs: “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” and “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” the former a popular tune from his great-great grandparents’ era and the latter a standard from his parents’ repertoire.

Thaler said that with Murinson on stage, “it was very much like you were a viewer and you were experiencing the show.”

Though Murinson is no stranger to performance — he plays piano, sings and recently participated in the high school production of “Les Miserables” — he was in shock when his project had won.

“I was in disbelief. I actually had to go to the nurse,” said Murinson. “I’m really amazed that my project is going to be shown on this [international] stage. I’m ecstatic!”

He also appreciated getting an opportunity to view his classmates’ projects.

“Everybody put so much work into their projects. It was really great to be able to reach into my family’s history at Beth Tfiloh,” said Murinson. “I think we’re in a great environment and all the kids really enjoyed it.”

“Opening night was emotional,” said Shrier. “Often there were three generations of families there who were all feeling so connected to one another and feeling connected to their Jewish identity.”

What’s Next for the Israeli Left? J Street Conference presses forward on two-state solution, support for liberal parties

Stav Shaffir is a young Labor Party legislator. (Photo by David Stuck)

Stav Shaffir is a young Labor Party legislator. (Photo by David Stuck)

WASHINGTON — When self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street selected “A Clear Choice for a Better Future” as the theme of its fifth annual conference, organizers hoped that the Israeli election results would have shown a leftward shift. So with the decisive March 17 victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the run-up to the election seemingly pledged to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, the mood at the March 21-24 gathering could easily have slipped into despair.

Instead, the speakers and the 3,000 attendees at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center rallied for renewed hope in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Knesset member Stav Shaffir, of the Labor Party, summed up the mood, saying, “I’ve been here twice before and every time, I grow in hope and encouragement. This time, it seems, I will have to do some encouraging [because] since I arrived in the United States, I’ve heard a frustration that I haven’t heard in the past. Beyond frustration, almost despair. The frustration is natural; this is not the result we had hoped for.

“But despair,” she continued, “this we cannot afford.”

Shaffir admitted that the Israeli left fell short for not giving “Israelis a clear enough picture of what dream we have for a better future,” but she was hopeful for the future and the role American Jewry can play in a two-state solution.

Like Shaffir, left-wing members of the Knesset expressed their frustration with the outcome of the election, taking digs at Netanyahu throughout their addresses. But they saw a silver lining in having a strong left-wing opposition.

Tamar Zandberg, of the Meretz Party, which earned four seats in the Knesset, said in a meeting with the press that in the election last week, votes were not transferred from center-left to the right, as there will be no left-leaning party in the new coalition government.

Netanyahu’s previous government had Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni as justice minister, but now, added Hilik Bar of Labor, the prime minister will not benefit from a “center-left fig leaf.” He predicted that the right-wing government would descend into battle over who, either Netanyahu’s Likud Party or one of several parties further to the right, is the king of the right wing.

For her part, Nabila Espanioly, an activist with the Arab Hadash Party, pledged that the so-called Joint Arab List, a coalition of Arab parties that emerged from the elections as the third-largest power in the Knesset, would continue to work together in the opposition.

Whither the White House?
Of course, the moment conference attendees were waiting for was an address by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who as expected, addressed Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration against a Palestinian state and a comment on Election Day urging Likud voters to come to the polls to counteract the effect of Arabs voting “in droves.”

Though the prime minister walked back his two-state solution statement during an interview late last week, President Barack Obama on Saturday rejected the clarification.

“After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution,” said McDonough, “as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established.

“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made,” he continued, “or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat earned rounds of applause. (Photo by David Stuck)

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat earned rounds of applause. (Photo by David Stuck)

The White House, he said, is reevaluating its policy toward Israel and the Palestinian territories, but he did not further elaborate on that point.

McDonough did underscore the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, specifically through the U.S. backing of the Iron Dome missile defense system and the scheduled delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets to Israel next year.

Aaron Levin, chair of J Street Baltimore, was among those who left the conference feeling “hopeful and energized.” He thought highly of the White House chief of staff’s address.

“[McDonough] affirms some basic American values of democracy and U.S. commitment to a negotiated agreement,” he said. “Americans can play some role in [a two state solution], in changing the conversation in the American Jewish community.”

Though Iran was far from the centerpiece of the conference, McDonough did take time to reiterate the president’s position on the ongoing multilateral negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program and to excorticate Congress members who wished to impose more sanctions on the Islamic republic as potentially harmful to the deal currently under negotiation.

As part of J Street’s Advocacy Day on Tuesday, Levin visited Rep. John Sarbanes (D- District 3) to ask for his support in the negotiations and support for the two-state solution.

At closing plenary was chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who participated in a brief panel discussion with Bar and former U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk and moderated by Ethan Bronner, managing editor of international news for Bloomberg.

Erekat, who emphasized that the Palestinian Authority was nearing collapse because of tax revenue being withheld by Israel, earned loud applause.

“I will do everything in my power to maintain the two-state solution,” he said. “Not for Israel, but for my grandchildren.”

Erekat’s appearance at the J Street conference was the reason cited by Hillel International CEO and President Eric Fingerhut as to his withdrawal from the conference, which drew an estimated 1,100 college students. According to J Street U members, in the middle of their student session Sunday night, they received an email from Fingerhut.

“I’m deeply sorry that my decision to not speak there hurt you. I admire your dedication to Israel, to the Jewish people and to Jewish life on campus,” Fingerhut wrote. “Hillel has worked hard and successfully to build inclusive, welcoming Jewish communities on campus that help strengthen Jewish identity and deepen a commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. That this incident has made you doubt that commitment is of great concern to me and only serves to push us to rebuild your trust.”

Fingerhut concluded by inviting the students to speak with him in person, an invitation several hundred students took him up on Monday when they marched from the convention center to Hillel International’s headquarters.

Crowding the sidewalk in front of the Schusterman International Center, the students cheered as Yaakov Malomet, co-president of the J Street U chapter at Brandeis University, declared that Fingerhut’s email missed the point.

“We’re here because we want to work together with Hillel International for a two-state solution and a secure Jewish democratic state,” he said.

Other speakers followed suit, declaring that the conversation with Jewish communal leaders needs to change. They then unveiled a proposed public agenda calling on Hillel to divulge the donors “tying [Hillel’s] hands” and Hillel’s “plan to address that dynamic,” and asking how J Street U can “be partners in this effort?”

Their protest completed, the students left letters asking for an on-the-record meeting between the J Street U National Student Board and Hillel International’s Board of Directors prior to the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. In one last parting shot, the students left sticky-notes on the windows and doors of the Hillel building with the words “Dear Eric Fingerhut you cancelled on [student name].”

According to a J Street Twitter post, Fingerhut agreed to the meeting shortly after the march completed.

All About Bibi On Election Day in Israel, change comes as decisive victory

032015_cover1BEERSHEVA, Israel — When he called for new elections late last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast the contest as a referendum on his rule. On Tuesday, amid early energetic turnout and anecdotal evidence of successful get-out-the-vote operations by Netanyahu’s political enemies on the left, the prime minister got what he wanted.

Put simply, he won. But even with the decisive victory of his Likud Party, which according to vote totals, garnered 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to the Zionist Union slate’s 24, the first task of forming a coalition may prove difficult.
In this windswept gateway city to southern Israel’s Negev Desert region, pretty much the only thing voters agreed on in the March 17 parliamentary elections was that love him or hate him, it was all about Netanyahu.

Noa Herman, 26, a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from Asheklon, said she was casting her vote for the Zionist Union bloc led by Isaac Herzog, who conceded the election late Tuesday night.

“I believe Herzog [is] someone who can lead and also represent all the different groups in Israel,” said Herman. “In our party, there are Arabs, Russians and people from the periphery and young people, so this party can represent all of Israel.”

She believes Zionist Union, which is made up of Herzog’s Labor Party and the Tnuah Party led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has the best approach to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appreciates the bloc’s socialist-leaning economics.


Hundreds of students at David Ben-Gurion University of the Negev main campus in Beersheva wait for free transportation vouchers in order to travel home and vote.

“I also believe we need a change in Israel, because I’m scared if there [is] another right-wing government,” added Herman. “I am hopeful we’ll win.”

President Reuven Rivlin must now ask either Herzog or Netanyahu to try to form a governing coalition representing at least 61 seats, but Netanyahu already began calling leaders of other parties.

If Herzog is asked, he’ll have a bigger hill to climb. Meretz, a natural left-wing coalition partner, won just four seats. He might include the Joint Arab List parties, representing 14 seats, in his coalition, but he would still need the support of a centrist party such as Kulanu — a new faction led by former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon that will get 10 seats — and possibly a haredi Orthodox party such as Shas, which garnered seven seats, or United Torah Judaism, which will receive six seats.

The inclusion of either of the religious parties, though, might prove problematic, given their aversion to establishing a Palestinian state and their support for social policies that are anathema to most of Herzog’s constituency.

A center-right coalition led by Netanyahu and including Likud’s 30 seats, along with Jewish Home’s eight, six from Israel Beitenu — a secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Liberman — and the support of Shas and Kulanu’s faction, altogether totaling 61 seats, is one of several possibilities. In opinion polls leading up to Election Day, Israelis even indicated their preference for Netanyahu to continue to an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister.

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with last-minute appeals. But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.

“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dry fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.

Just before the election, a Likud rally in Tel Aviv reportedly drew more than 25,000 people, and Netanyahu had taken in recent days to warning right-wing voters not to abandon Likud for fear of granting an electoral win to Zionist Union.

Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win re-election and wanted to push him further to the right.


An Israeli citizen casts her ballot.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy, and he’s religious.”

In Beersheva, Meital Dadosh, 21, who recently completed her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, said she was voting for Shas, but Nisim Vaknin, 51, was fully on the side of Netanyahu and Likud.

“I think it’s a strong party and that Netanyahu is strong,” Vaknin said through a translator. “[Netanyahu] stands up for his principles. He doesn’t want to return West Bank territories; he stands up for his state.

Still, Vaknin acknowledged the scandals that have tainted Netanyahu’s campaign, such as spending by the prime minister’s residence viewed by the public as profligate and the deterioration of late in Israeli-U.S. relations.

“There have been problems in the past, but I hope that the elections will improve them,” he said.

Guy Ben-Porat, head of the Department of Public Policy and Administration in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management at Ben Gurion, called Tuesday’s balloting “a very personal election.”

“It’s around Netanyahu,” said Ben-Porat. “It’s very much [about] his character and the people around him and on questions of integrity.”

It’s a “very personal election. … it’s very much [about] his character and the people around him.”

Ben-Porat saw little ideological debate in the run-up to the election and credited the two centrist parties, Kulanu and Yesh Atid, with turning it “into a very technical election” by appealing to Israeli citizens’ economic concerns. Polling last week indicated the availability of housing and the cost of living topped Israelis’ agendas.

But “Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — the two large parties and the two centrist parties have said very little about these issues,” said Ben-Porat. “It’s almost completely off the agenda. I think it shows on the one hand that Israelis are skeptical on the prospect for peace, so it doesn’t really matter who will be in charge, it will all be the same.”

Mazal Peretz, 51, and her friend, Orly Pahina, 47, arrived at a polling booth in Beersheva before 6 a.m. to set up campaign signs in support of Kahlon and Kulanu. They spent the remainder of the day assisting elderly people and those with disabilities to vote.

Peretz said through a translator that she hopes the election will bring “a social change, that it will change the way people think, that things will get better, and [Israelis] will wake up with a smile on their face.”

“I believe him,” Pahina said of Kahlon. “He’s working on behalf of the people.”

She offered the example of Kahlon’s push last year to dissolve the monopoly of cellphone carriers in Israel.

“It used to be very expensive for cellphones,” she said, adding, “He’s doing a lot for all the handicapped people.”

Tour guide Ori Zaber, 23, was adamant in her support for Meretz.

“I might be the only one who will be behind it, but I want Bibi to go,” he said. “We need a change, internal and external. I’m going to vote [Meretz] because Herzog’s is the biggest party, and because without Meretz in the Knesset, things would not look the same. And they’re right on the edge of disappearing.


The Zionist Union slate led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Tnuah leader Tzipi Livni will win as many Knesset seats as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

“I’m not going to support any party that will support Bibi,” added Zaber. “I want to change the leadership.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of Potomac, who led the Israel Project for 10 years, was in Tel Aviv for the Jewish Funders Network conference this week. She said this was her 30th trip to the Jewish state and that she’s noticed a change in how the people respond to elections. Some people are simply not interested.

“This time … there are the paid ads on TV and the paid billboards that are everywhere, but if you drive by people’s houses or apartments, you don’t see that they’ve put signs in their windows or on their yards,” said Mizrahi, who has worked with all of the major candidates through her advocacy efforts.

“They’re not going to stand up and wave a flag for them, because they’re not that sold, and they’re not that excited about them.”

As an outside observer, Mizrahi said she believes this election could offer a chance to regroup and improve Israel’s relationship across the entire global community.

“Netanyahu has a negative relationship with the president of the United States, and he’s had challenges with French and German leaders,” she said, “so this actually could be an opportunity for people who care about Israel’s place in the world to hit a restart button and repair and rebuild the relationship with Western democracies, which is really important for Israel’s security.”

JTA contributed to this story.;

Schmuck Takes on Klezmer Baltimore band presents classic Jewish music in tongue-in-cheek manner

For Evan Tucker, all signs point to klezmer.

The violinist grew up playing classical music and got into pop music as a teenager, but neither quite felt right to him.

“When you grew up in Pikesville — for me going to Schechter and then Beth Tfiloh — that experience has to be filtered through Jewish music one way or another,” Tucker, 33, said. “My problems in the pop world are my same problems in the classical world: It doesn’t feel like a mother tongue. For some reason, Jewish music does feel like a mother tongue.”


Photo by Marc Shapiro


And so, a few months ago, Tucker assembled a group of Baltimore-area musicians to form a klezmer band flippantly named Schmuck.

While the band plays traditional, classic klezmer songs, the presentation is hardly traditional. On its Facebook page, the band lists its genre as “unkosher klezmer” and interests include bacon, shrimp, cheeseburgers, the media and a variety of other playful pokes at Tucker’s people.

“Over and over people ask, ‘Why did you name the band Schmuck? Won’t you offend some people?’” he told the audience at a recent concert at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. “Yes, but you’ll never forget the name of this band.”

For Tucker, the band name is a way of asserting the group and giving it an edge.

“I wanted a way of immediately signifying to people that this is not just klezmer as it’s generally practiced,” he said. “Fundamentally, we want to be something that can both appeal to the Park Heights Avenue crowd and the North Avenue crowd,” referring to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore.

At its Creative Alliance show on March 8, part of Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus event, the band was decked out in yarmulkes, although Tucker is the only Jewish member; the Facebook lists members as “Whole Lotta Goyim.”

The six-piece band belted out traditional klezmer songs with their eerie European/Middle Eastern tones as Tucker sang in Yiddish and bounced up and down as the songs sped up.

“The whole point of the Jewish scale, what we call the freygish scale, it’s not quite minor, it’s not quite major, but it sounds minor key-like enough that it sounds sad,” Tucker said.

“But the thing is, it’s usually played so quickly, so it gets that sort of bittersweet feel that you don’t get in too many other cultures.”

Evan Tucker (center) leads “unkosher klezmer” band Schmuck during a recent performance at Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Photo by Marc Shapiro

Evan Tucker (center) leads “unkosher klezmer” band Schmuck during a recent performance at Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Photo by Marc Shapiro

In addition to his new klezmer effort, Tucker also plays violin in local gypsy/Slavic jazz group Orchester Praževica and directs a cappella choir Kol Rinah, which operates out of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. For him, Jewish music is inescapable, especially the klezmer.

“It’s in the background of every kid who grows up in Pikesville without them even realizing it’s there,” Tucker said.

For his non-Jewish bandmates, playing in Schmuck has been a learning experience.

Brannock Reilly, the band’s soprano saxophone player, said his time in the band has been “baptism by fire” in learning about klezmer.

“I like the melodies, I like the feel of it,” Reilly, who also plays in Orchester Praževica, said. “It’s a lot of fun to play.”

Bassist Zach Serleth, who’s been playing klezmer for a few years, said the genre contrasts well with the music he’s used to playing — bluegrass and old-timey music that’s usually in major keys.

“Those kinds of note choices and darker melodies are really interesting to me in the folk world,” he said. “The music’s a little bit more complex. It’s a little more arranged. It’s got this darkness to it.”

And how did the non-Jewish band members feel about the band name?

“We didn’t do it to offend anyone, but it makes people talk about it. We’re not trying to be malicious,” Serleth said.

“We’re just trying to take this beautiful part of Jewish culture, this form of music that not a lot of people know and give it to the people in a very digestible way that they wouldn’t normally otherwise hear.”

Schmuck plays at Liam Flynn’s Ale House, 22 W North Ave., Baltimore, every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

United Through Motherhood Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project holds conference in Baltimore

Two hundred Jewish mothers from nine countries descended on Baltimore for three days of leadership building and learning as part of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s third annual conference.

The women attended workshops and presentations at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown during the March 9-11 conference, which focused on building leadership qualities. According to JWRP co-founder Lori Palatnik of Rockville, the goal of the conference was to give participants “really concrete skills” such as public speaking, board management and the utilization of social media.

“We feel that if you inspire a woman, you inspire a family, and if you inspire enough families, you inspire a community,” said Palatnik, who was recently named to Hadassah’s annual list of Most Outstanding Jewish American Women of Our Time.

Two hundred Jewish mothers filled the Pearlstone Center in  Reisterstown for three days of learning and leadership training. (Photos provided)

Two hundred Jewish mothers filled the Pearlstone Center in
Reisterstown for three days of learning and leadership training. (Photos provided)

JWRP was founded in 2008 with the mission of empowering women to change the world through Jewish values. Its flagship program, the Momentum Trip, takes mothers to Israel for eight days. To date, more than 5,000 women from 17 countries have participated. The trips are conducted through a partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.

“One of the Jewish values we teach on the trip is to be responsible,” said Palatnik. Often, “we stand in the way of our own potential. Here, we help women reach their own potential.”

When I went on the trip I was so absolutely moved and inspired. I felt in touch with my roots, and I wanted to build more on that experience.

Sitting in the Pearlstone conference room, where the Israeli movie “Beneath the Helmet” had been screened the night before, participants pored over thick binders full of follow-up curriculum, as presenters coached them through sample lesson plans, which are also available for members online. What JWRP leadership found, according to board president and co-founder Manette Mayberg of Silver Spring, is that city leaders wanted uniform content and additional guidance in crafting follow-up programming back home. (Mayberg is part of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes the Jewish Times.)

At the core of JWRP, said Mayberg, are three goals: first, to connect Jewish women to their Jewish legacy; second, to connect them to the land of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces; and third, to understand the communal responsibility they carry as a Jewish woman.

Those goals resonated with Adrienne Gold, a city leader from Toronto. At 40 years old with a husband, two sons and a successful fashion television show, she began studying and “fell in love with what is in our bones.” She left television, went to the Village Shul and became a teacher. She now leads three trips a year with JWRP and is one of the co-hosts of soon-to-debut “Momentum TV,” JWRP’s take on the popular daytime talk show “The View.”

“In every Jewish woman there is the potential to change the world,” she said. “You have to see her neshama like a coal and fan it.”

JWRP is an outreach organization, although Gold insists the approach is not to push a particular brand of Orthodoxy on participants.

“My goal is not to make you anything but more Jewishly identifying than before you left, whatever that looks like for you,” said Gold.

Edana Heller Desatnick, an executive coach and leadership consultant from New Jersey who gave the opening and closing remarks at the conference, found herself identifying more after her 2010 trip. Though she was active in leadership at her conservative synagogue, the mother of three admitted she didn’t have much religious knowledge.

Photo provided

Photo provided

“I really didn’t know anything. I’d never met an Orthodox person in my life,” she said. On the trip, “they spoke in such a beautiful way about heritage, what it means to be Jewish, to give back to Israel, and not in a guilt-driven way, but in a change-the-world tikkun olam way.”

The impact on her family was noticeable right away. They began lighting candles each Friday night and slowly incorporated more practices in their daily life. Her 15 year-old daughter will attend an Orthodox youth group camp in Israel this summer, and her 19-year-old daughter went on a Birthright Israel trip through Aish HaTorah. The older daughter will spend a semester studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Erin Chado of Baltimore, who describes herself as looking outwardly “more secular or Reform,” attended the conference to build on her experience from the Momentum Trip she took in December through the Etz Chaim Center in Park Heights. Looking around the room at the conference, she was impressed by “the sheer willpower that we have as women.”

“When I went on the trip I was so absolutely moved and inspired. I felt in touch with my roots, and I wanted to build more on that experience,” she said.

Chado, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, said that she is constantly approached by other mothers inquiring about her experience.

“I tell them it’s a safe and exciting way to really connect with your Judaism. They will not only get a connection themselves with their religion, they’ll get a connection to other mothers,” she said. “For any woman who’s even thinking of it, don’t second guess. Do yourself and your family a favor and go.”

The Somali Connection Muslim, Jewish communities unite to combat terrorist recruitment

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

As the U.S battles Islamist terrorism abroad, cities such as Minneapolis, with its large Muslim Somali population, have emerged as ground zero in the psychological and sociological battles at home. Somali community groups there have joined forces with the federal government to prevent terrorist recruitment as well as anchor, educate and support young Somalis in hopes to assuage an identity crisis that can leave many susceptible to recruitment tactics.

At the recent three-day conference at the White House on countering violent extremism, leaders from Minnesota’s Somali community presented their plans to counter recruitment efforts, in conjunction with local clergy, educators and law enforcement. Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and a prominent member of Minneapolis’ Jewish community, was asked to lead the initiative.

“From 2007 until today, our community has struggled with the cycle of recruiting by overseas terrorists,” Luger began, as he addressed the assembled group at the White House. After many months of meetings with hundreds of community members, “the Minnesota Somali community told us what it would take to combat this recruiting.”

Minnesota, and specifically its major metropolitan area of Minneapolis, is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, at approximately 33,000 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It comprises about one-third of the total Somali population nationwide.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their home country. Many landed in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which remains a densely Somali-populated area located a few miles from the downtown district and about midway between Minneapolis and its “twin city,” the state capital of St. Paul.

About a decade later, from 2007 to 2009, the FBI tracked more than 25 Somali Minnesotan young men traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. That initial wave included the first documented American-born suicide bomber, who in 2008 detonated himself during the Somali conflict against occupying Ethiopian armies.

Since then, more than 20 of the men have been federally charged for their involvement, but others remain active, pursuing young Somali-American men with savvy social media-based recruitment tactics “to join the fight overseas or conduct an attack in the United States,” said FBI agent Rick Thornton, who provided current intelligence to the summit attendees. And in 2013, more young Minnesota-based Somali-Americans traveled overseas to join terrorist organizations, he continued, “only this time instead of al-Shabaab, it was [the so-called Islamic State], and instead of Somalia, the destination was Syria.”

In the presentation, which also included comments from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Luger outlined the three main components of a proposed anti-recruitment pilot program that draws directly from the needs expressed by the Somali community.

The project intends to increase community engagement by local law enforcement, address the root causes of radicalization in the community — identity crisis, a lack of job opportunities, the need for mentors, a shortage of effective after-school programs and a widening disconnect between youth and their religious leaders were all noted as major factors — and develop community-led intervention teams trained to respond at the earliest signs of radicalization.

Now a year into his tenure as U.S. attorney, Luger didn’t realize at the outset he would take on such a high-profile initiative. But he said that following his instincts shortly after he was sworn in has paid off.

One of the first things he did was ask Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, where Luger is a member, to introduce him to several of the local imams. Zimmerman holds close ties with many clergy as part of an interfaith group that meets monthly.

“Growing up Jewish, I’ve had a deep respect for clergy of any faith,” said Luger. “I knew it would be important for me, no matter what, to reach out to the Muslim community. … When I knew the recruitment from 2007 and 2008 was back, I needed to start to understand the Somali community here, to see how I could assist on civil rights issues and the efforts to stop the recruiting, so it made sense for me to start with the religious leaders.”

Meetings take place about every four to five weeks, he said.

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

A month after Luger asked Zimmerman for assistance, Washington officials turned to him to coordinate anti-recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Luger, though, is the first to admit his is a community-driven effort. Joining Luger is Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog.

At the White House summit, Farah explained the mission of his organization to steer youth toward higher education, civic involvement and volunteer commitment by providing options and outlets for young Somalis. He relies on after-school programs, college preparation and leadership training to “break the cycle of recruiting and radicalization.”

“In 2007 and 2008, none of the community wanted to talk about al-Shabaab and that such things were taking place,” Farah said during an interview. “We didn’t have too many fans in the Somali community, but we did that because it was an issue that was a reality. Now more people realize it’s not just a Somali issue, but an American issue as well.”

Farah explained that about 80 percent of the young people he works with are American-born, but their Somali-born parents are “physically here, but mentally they’re back home.”

Parents encourage their children to become educated and return to help rebuild Somalia, he said. “So a lot of the kids have been confused, and a lot of the young people don’t know anything about Somalia, so that’s a big issue.” When conflicts arise, “the elders tend to use solutions that have worked in
Somalia, but because we’re in a different environment, that doesn’t work, so there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of communication between these two generations.”

Typically, parents don’t speak English well either, he added, “so there is a disconnect.”

It’s a dangerous and confusing situation if both parents and terrorist recruiters are telling young people to go back and take care of their home country, though obviously with very different motivations, he said. “But the idea of integrating into our society here in America is a lot better than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Now people are comfortable being here, thinking about the future of our community, and many nonprofits are making sure kids are graduating and giving back to their communities.”

Madeline Barnett, assistant director of community and public relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, knows the challenges of dealing with ethnic immigrant populations well. BJC regularly hosts several interfaith programs, such as the Jewish Muslim Dialogue, that includes programming directed at young adults.

“We need to teach young people about different [media] outlets so they can interpret [the information] and think about it through a critical lens,” said Barnett. “They’re capable, but we need to give them the tools to do so. I think it’s 100 percent necessary and effective” in educating young people against persuasive messaging.

At Luger’s suggestion, Zimmerman invited Farah and other members of Ka Joog to speak at a Temple Israel study session during Yom Kippur last fall. The session is traditionally used to draw congregants in to participate in dialogue that can sometimes include “difficult conversations” said Zimmerman, adding that she is proud to be part of a congregation where “even if people might disagree, they understand that talking is the antidote to violence and that these are our guests.”

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

The hall was packed with about 300 people, with many standing on the periphery of the room, said the rabbi. Since there is nominal interaction between Jewish and Somali communities and a lot of press about terrorist recruitment activity, “it’s important to be based in facts. It’s important to confront [the issues], but also to know that the majority of Somalis want to be American and integrate into society and retain their culture, which Jews understand historically.

“We also wanted [the Somali community] to understand the Jewish perspective,” she added, “and if no one is at the table, then you can’t understand it.”

The members of Ka Joog spoke for about an hour, said Luger, who was in attendance, and “people were just fascinated to learn” about their lives in refugee camps, what it was like to come to Minnesota and what they’re doing to combat recruitment and actively build up their community.

“I think the Jewish community has a natural affinity for other communities that are developing their infrastructure and that want to succeed and pursue the American dream,” said Luger, “and you could feel it that day at Temple Israel.”

Bibi or Bougie? Despite focus on security, Israeli elections could come down to social issues

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Israelis will head to the polls early next week to cast their votes for the country’s 20th Knesset. As Election Day draws closer, the question has become: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retain his position, or will Isaac Herzog, the not-as-charismatic leader of the opposition Labor Party and its joint Zionist Union slate with Hatnuah, win out?

Pundits largely agree that the most probable outcome is a national unity government that likely will be tasked with conducting electoral reform. But a narrow Netanyahu government that would pair his Likud Party with right-wing religious parties is possible, as is an outright Herzog victory, provided centrist parties deliver in a big way.

On March 17, Israelis will vote on lists of parliamentary candidates put forward by front-runners Likud and Zionist Union along with Ha’am, Itanu, Jewish Home, Kulanu, Meretz, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as a joint United List of three Arab parties, Balad, Hadash and Ra’am Ta’al.

The threshold for any party to win seats in the Knesset is 3.25 percent of the total vote, with the legislative’s 120 seats then divvied up by vote percentages.

Polling data has shown that Israelis rank socioeconomic issues, cost of living and social equality as high on their list of priorities.

“What we’re seeing, what the polls are showing is that more Israelis are focused on socioeconomic issues and cost of living [rather] than security issues,” said Guy Ziv, assistant professor at the American University School of International Service and author of “Why hawks become doves: Shimon Peres and foreign policy change in Israel.”

Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, in a recent panel discussion alongside former Knesset member Yohanan Plesner of the now-defunct Kadima Party, agreed that Israelis say social issues are number one, but come Election Day, security issues could still reign.

“By and large, Israelis still vote on traditional issues,” he said, but there is maneuvering on the edges when it comes to such issues as housing costs, environmental concerns and poverty.

According to Plesner, most politicians are on the same page on Iran and other security issues.

“The main dogma … around security has crumbled,” said Plesner. “By and large, even [right-wing politician and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett] doesn’t want to control Palestinians in the West Bank.”

The policy differences among politicians are really minute, which Plesner predicted could help centrist parties focused on the economy and civil rights, such as Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, gain traction closer to the election.

Netanyahu, whom Israelis refer to as Bibi in common parlance — Herzog is referred to as Bougie — has played up his security bona fides, pressing on the Iran nuclear negotiations in talks both in Israel and before the U.S. Congress, an appearance last week that many pundits viewed as a campaign tactic.

But Netanyahu’s Washington, D.C., speech, which proved controversial among the American public, garnered the prime minister little sway at home.

“The speech had limited impact,” said Ziv. “It may have given Netanyahu a very mild boost. He is tied in the polls, so the speech is not a game changer.”

Israelis are largely indifferent to the Iran issue in Ziv’s estimation. He noted that it was not brought up in a recently televised debate.

“I think Israelis are tired of Netanyahu exaggerating the Iran issue,” continued Ziv. “His issue warnings have not materialized in terms of timeline.”

Despite so-called “Bibi fatigue” — an anti-Netanyahu rally drew 40,000 protesters to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last weekend — Netanyahu still comes out on top in terms of who the public views as prime minister material. With Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu announcing he would not join a Herzog government and Arieh Der’i of Shas backing Netanyahu, the prime minister should not be counted out.

A number of political personalities have emerged as potential successors to Netanyahu, Herzog being at the forefront of those who have made gains in the court of public opinion.

“Herzog is someone who has shown himself to be moderate, cool-headed,” Ziv said of the son of Israel’s sixth president. “He’s been criticized for being a nerd. He has a high-pitched voice that doesn’t sit well with Israelis who are used to a more authoritative [figure], but he is intelligent and hardworking.”

Moshe Kahlon, running on the Kulanu list, has been dubbed a “kingmaker” by Sachs. Kahlon’s party is crucial for any proposed government to cross the 60-seat threshold needed to control the Knesset. After the election, President Reuven Rivlin will review each party’s performance at the polls and decide, based in part of recommendations by new Knesset members, who to ask to become prime minister.

“Should [Kahlon] recommend Netanyahu to President Rivlin, the game is likely over, assuming Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox do not change their minds,” Sachs writes in a recent blog post. “Should Kahlon choose to side with Herzog … or the Zionist Union outperform the polls dramatically, a Herzog coalition would be possible as well.”

It is possible that Kahlon will recommend no one, or recommend himself, to Rivlin.

Left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon has served as the de facto opposition leader, vocally opposing Netanyahu and Likud policies on all fronts.

Despite the political jockeying, there are a huge number of Israelis who are undecided, said Plesner. There’s a feeling, he said, of “Why do we have to bother two years later?”

Israelis typically have a high voter turnout. By Plesner’s estimation, until the late 1990s more than 70 percent of eligible voters participated each election cycle. But as elections have been called with more frequency, there has been less enthusiasm to participate and anger over the cost of holding elections.

One group who may turn out in higher numbers are Israeli Arabs in order to vote for the United Arab list. Traditionally, Israeli Arabs have stayed away from the polls despite comprising 20 percent of the population.

Whereas in previous years Israelis living in America have traveled back to Israel to vote — only Israeli diplomats can cast ballots abroad — this year, there were no advertised election airfare specials by El Al.