Baltimore Jewish Film Festival Fest features award-winning documentaries, dramas from Europe, Israel, Russia

Ronit Elkabetz stars in and co-directs “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the true story of of a woman’s five-year struggle to obtain a divorce in Israel’s rabbinical courts. (Provided)

Ronit Elkabetz stars in and co-directs “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the true story of of a woman’s five-year struggle to obtain a divorce in Israel’s rabbinical courts. (Provided)

The 27th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival runs at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts from March 22 to April 28, featuring 11 films with subjects that originate from France, Israel, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States.

Themes this year, both meaty and provocative, tackle Israeli/Palestinian relations and delve into modern Israeli culture as well as scrutinize Russian immigration policies and explore the Holocaust and its aftermath. Several evenings feature after-film question-and-answer sessions with guest speakers and filmmakers.

Marty Cohen, who has screened “a couple thousand films” during his seven-season tenure as festival chairman, said, “The selection process is vigorous; we received over 170 films” this year.

A committee used a standardized scoring process while screening to choose the top 35 or 40 films. From that, said Cohen, the final list was chosen, and “we work to make sure that we’re giving the audience good quality films.”

Cohen highly recommends “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” considered for best foreign film at the Golden Globe Awards and also enjoying theatrical release nationwide.

Directed by Israeli brother-and-sister team Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz and starring Ronit, “Gett” is a sober and powerful drama based on the true story of Viviane Amsalem’s five-year struggle to secure a divorce from the only legal authority allowed to grant divorce in Israel, the Rabbinical Court. Though separated from each other for years, Amsalem’s husband is stubbornly unresponsive to her request for divorce, manipulative and at times doesn’t even show up when summoned to court. Filmed entirely in the space of a small, sparse rabbinical courtroom, Amsalem and the lawyers are incredulous with the husband’s inaction, yet the trial continues, because the power remains in the hands of the men.

The film is third in a trilogy about Viviane’s struggle as a woman in Israel; the other films are “To Take a Wife” and “7 Days.”

Other dramas include “Run Boy Run,” based on a true story about 9-year old Srulik, a Polish boy who, at the urging of his father, flees to the woods to escape the Warsaw ghetto and survives in his solitary struggle to outlast the Nazi occupation and keep his Jewish faith alive.

“The Art Dealer/L’antiquaire,” follows a Jewish woman’s quest to recover family paintings that were stolen by the Nazis. During her search, she discovers family secrets that are better off kept hidden. “24 Days,” another real-life story, is a mystery that begins in a cellphone shop and ends in a kidnapping. “Barriers,” from Israel, tells the story of a soldier, a checkpoint, a bomb threat and how to negotiate ethical decisions in an unpredictable world.

“Farewell Baghdad/The Dove Flyer” is a historical look at a one-year period from 1950 to 1951, when Iraqi Jews were told to leave or be expelled from their country and nearly 130,000 Jews left, creating the dissolution of one of the most ancient communities in the world. The story is told through Jewish families’ experiences in the Iraqi capital, just as the State of Israel was being established, and the hostilities they suffered along the way.

Shorts are featured in this year’s festival too, including the lighthearted comedy/drama “Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion” from Great Britain. The film examines the intersection of Jewish and Irish culture through the eyes of a 7-year-old Jewish girl’s desire to make Holy Communion and just fit in like her friends. “Strangers” from Israel, which won best short film at Sundance Film Festival, looks at how fear can serve as a motivator to overcome racial prejudice and hatred.

Documentary lovers can find some gems at the fest, first in “Above and Beyond,” co-presented with Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which looks at a group of World War II pilots who, in 1948, volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. The men helped prevent the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth and also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

“Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” illustrates the lives of the two beloved Jewish icons, by weaving together their wit, wisdom and talent. “Stateless” is a historical account of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the USSR in the late 1980s, only to discover that their final destination, America, no longer welcomed them so they remained stranded in Italy. The director, Michael Drob, will be on hand for a post-film discussion. The film is co-presented with the Jewish Museum of Maryland.


The 27th Annual William and Irene Weinberg Family
Baltimore Jewish Film Festival

March 22 to April 28

Gordon Center for the Performing Arts
Rosenbloom JCC
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave.,
Owings Mills, MD 21117

For full schedule and tickets, call 410.356.7469 or visit

Radioactive Affairs Netanyahu and AIPAC make full-court press on Capitol Hill

The signs at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference were emblazoned with the words “This is Israel,” but the overarching message to the record-setting crowd in Washington, D.C., was clear: Stop Iran now.

On the first night of the three-day conference, which ended Tuesday, March 3, Brad Gordon, director of policy and government affairs at AIPAC, told the 16,000 attendees that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was their one and only goal in lobbying legislators on Capitol Hill.

“When we go to the Hill on Tuesday, we will stress the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue. And we will ask Congress first to support diplomacy by increasing economic pressure on Iran [and] second to insist on a good agreement, one that truly prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”

Gordon, a former U.S. ambassador who worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, said that a third emphasis would be for Congress “to play a key role in reviewing any agreement” reached between U.S. and Iranian negotiators at talks in Geneva.

Before AIPAC sent teams to lobby representatives and senators on Capitol Hill, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told a joint meeting of Congress that the contours of a deal being drafted with Iran prior to a summer deadline portend doom to not only the Jewish state, but to the United States as well.

It is a “very bad deal,” said Netanyahu. “We’re better off without it.”

Typically, AIPAC lobbies for three issues. In recent history those items have been securing foreign aid for Israel, lobbying for a negotiated peace on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But with the Iranian negotiations looming large, longtime AIPAC member Ellen Lightman of Baltimore, who served as a lobbying group leader, called Iran “the issue of the conference.”

“In Maryland, we are very fortunate that our members of Congress are understanding of the issues,” said Lightman. “Nobody loves Israel more than [Sens.] Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski,” who on Monday announced her decision not to seek a sixth term in 2016.

Lightman continued by touting the organization’s good relationships with Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes but cautioned that such relationships should not be taken for granted; continuous advocacy on U.S.-Israel relations are key, she said.

Iran dominated the speeches of nearly every guest invited to the main stage of the morning and evening plenary sessions.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke for nearly 30 minutes Monday about the importance of the U.S.-Israel bond and reiterated a commitment to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

“Talks, no talks; agreement, no agreement — the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest allies,” she said.

Power won over the audience by addressing how the United States supports Israel at the U.N.

“Before the United States joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, more than half of the country-specific resolutions adopted there were focused on Israel,” she said. “Today, we’ve helped lower that proportion to less than a third.”

Power also touted America’s lone dissenting vote against a resolution to create a commission to investigate alleged human rights violations during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas last summer.

But the speech by Power, who urged attendees to hear the Obama administration out before pronouncing judgment on the Iran negotiations, addresses from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and well-received remarks from foreign dignitaries including former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman were merely a prelude to the man everyone had gathered to see: Netanyahu.

As Bob Cohen, president of AIPAC, began his introductory remarks, the audience got to its feet before the prime minister even stepped foot on the stage.

Clearly in his element, Netanyahu, whose presence in Washington and push to derail a nuclear deal between the West and Iran earned rebukes from the White House as well as from Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, his challenger in the country’s March 17 parliamentary elections, showed off the English he polished growing up in Philadelphia and as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

He teased the crowd by calling out to competing whoops and cheers, “Anyone here from California? Florida? New York?”

“You’re here from coast to coast, from every part of this great land. And you’re here at a critical time,” he exhorted the crowd. “You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of Israeli-U.S. relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong.”

After thanking a litany of guests, including Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prossor and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister attempted to downplay the political furor of his congressional address.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” Netanyahu said. (He echoed that point a day later in Congress.)

Getting to the heart of his approximately 20-minute AIPAC address, Netanyahu said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.” He further emphasized his contention with a projection of a world map detailing areas where Iran has been accused of sponsoring terrorism.

“Now disagreements among allies are only natural from time to time, even among the closest of allies. Because there are important differences between America and Israel,” he said. “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”

In Congress, Netanyahu contrasted the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to Iran’s charter, which he said guarantees “death, tyranny and a pursuit of jihad.”

“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons,” he added.

He called on the world to demand of Iran three things: “First, stop aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country Israel, the one and only Jewish state.” Each statement was met with thunderous applause.

He cautioned that a bad deal would spark a nuclear arms race.

“A region where small skirmishes can start big wars would turn into a nuclear tinder box,” he said before refuting the notion that the failure to achieve a deal would result in Israeli military intervention. “The alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal,” he said, “a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live.”

After referencing the horrors of the Holocaust and addressing Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the gallery directly overhead, Netanyahu promised, “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel, I know that you stand with Israel.”

Dr. Gary Applebaum of Pasadena, Md., attended both of Netanyahu’s speeches. He agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment that any current disagreement would not cause lasting damage, particularly when the U.S. and Israel have common “values, mission and purpose.”

“For better or worse, the world was listening. … I think he made his case,” said Applebaum. “Who else but the prime minister of Israel can stand there and say ‘never again’ and really mean it?”

A Turn to the Right Boteach hosts shadow conference during AIPAC

Panel host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (second from left) stands between  featured guests Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Elie Wiesel.

Panel host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (second from left) stands between
featured guests Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Elie Wiesel.

WASHINGTON — While thousands of attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference milled around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, D.C., awaiting a speech by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, a who’s who of right-leaning pro-Israel leaders, donors and supporters filled the large main-floor committee hearing room of the Dirksen Senate office building to listen to a panel featuring Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Guests at the Monday event, “The Meaning of Never Again: Preventing a Nuclear Iran,” numbered in the hundreds, watching the two panelists — with host Boteach acting as sometimes moderator, sometimes panelist — holding court in the cavernous room. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who announced her retirement earlier that day, often presided over that room in her role chairing the Senate Committee on Appropriations, discussing federal funding legislation that includes foreign aid to Israel.

But on this night, the show belonged to the other side of the aisle, in the person of audience member and billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson and Boteach, who, in 2012, won a New Jersey GOP primary for a House of Representatives seat but came up short in the general election. Illuminated by bright television lighting and recorded by several cameras, the panel discussed the danger of a nuclear Iran and expressed support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress.

As the elder statesman, Wiesel provided the philosophical backbone for the event, which sought to equate Iran with Nazi Germany and illustrate the danger it poses for Jews and the State of Israel.

“We have America today. In my time, we didn’t have America,” said Wiesel, highlighting the need for the United States to take an active role against Iran rather than merely participate in negotiations.

Cruz’s remarks drew the biggest applause, as he reflected on the issue with his usual red-meat conservative rhetoric and rhythm of speech more reminiscent of an actor performing a monologue than a politician trying to work a crowd.

Iran’s leaders “have not been subtle in any regard about what their objectives are in the nuclear program. This is not about powering the lights,” said Cruz. “The father of the Iranian nuclear program, who thankfully has now met his maker, involuntarily, I might add, in his last will and testament he explicitly provided what he wanted on his tombstone. He specified that his tombstone would read, ‘Here lies a man who has sought to annihilate the nation of Israel.’

“What matters is what we do right now to address the single greatest national security threat facing both the nation of Israel and the United States, what we do right now to ensure that in no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability,” he continued. “The gravity of this threat cannot be overstated.”

Most of the audience had come from the AIPAC Conference but were not the normal collection of bipartisan AIPAC attendees. This was a crowd that wouldn’t mind if they missed Rice’s speech back on the main stage of the convention center. The room on Capitol Hill was full of leaders from a number of right-wing pro-Israel organizations — a detail not lost on members of the leftist anti-war organization Code Pink.

Demonstrators wearing their trademark color set the tone of the meeting early when they unfurled large anti-Israel, anti-AIPAC posters in front of the room and began chanting, shocking some audience members. The audience responded with shouts of its own, first in unison with “Get out, get out” and followed by “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.

Code Pink, a familiar sight in this committee room, typically shows up to hearings to heckle witnesses for a few minutes until they are led out by police. But due to the event’s last-minute location change, Capitol Police were not in the room. The police were notified through Cruz’s aides, and the long response time led to a brief period of confusion.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who sat in the front row, ended up in an altercation with the protestors, being pushed and threatened with a lawsuit, he said, after he tried to take one of the group’s signs.

Part of the reason for the crowd and the event may have been the result of a recent controversy embroiling Boteach. The previous weekend, Boteach and the organization he leads, This World: The Values Network, took out an advertisement in The New York Times that featured images of skulls and bones of victims from the Rwandan genocide next to a picture of Rice and comparing the United States’ decision not to interfere in the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust.

“What matters is what we do right now to address the single greatest national security threat facing both the nation of Israel and the United States, what we do right now to ensure that in no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability.”

Boteach’s ad was roundly criticized by Jewish communal organizations of all denominations.

The panel was originally intended to be a bipartisan discussion, with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) representing the pro-Israel left, but he quickly withdrew after the controversial ad was published.

“Since 1998, I have taken advantage of every opportunity to urge the toughest sanctions on Iran, including nearly 20 presentations at AIPAC policy conferences,” Sherman said in a statement to explain his decision to withdraw from the event. “I cannot appear at a forum that was advertised using an unwarranted incendiary personal attack. I will be working with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and others to create appropriate forums to focus on the danger posed by Iran.

“Nothing has done as much to unify the Jewish community, and nothing has done so much to bring the Jewish community in agreement with the Obama administration, as this ad,” Sherman added. “J Street and AIPAC, the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the leading organizations in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish communities, all agree — this ad is a harmful distraction from efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear program.”

Boteach mentioned the ad briefly during the event but later clarified his position in an interview. He said that he did not go after Rice the person, but a high-level national security official and her role in underestimating the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s.

“What we wanted to demonstrate was, given that human rights has this record … she should be extra sensitive to Israel’s defense,” said Boteach. “Now, was that communicated effectively? A lot of people thought that it wasn’t. … We weren’t communicating in any way that this was personal; we were speaking of her as the national security advisor of the United States.

“But to the extent that we communicated it and it was personal, that’s what I apologize for,” he added. “I have nothing against Susan Rice. I don’t know Susan Rice. Why would I dislike Susan Rice?”

Soulful Sound

As a promising young talent on the basketball court and the cello, 14-year-old Amit Peled found himself at a crossroads: He needed to concentrate his energies.

Ultimately, he resigned himself to the fact that he’d never get the height needed for professional basketball like his idol, Miki Birkovich of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, whose pictures plastered the bedroom walls of his kibbutz home. So, why not, he thought, “stick with the cello?”

Now at 40 years old and 6 feet, 5 inches (yes, as fate would have it, the growth spurt came later), Peled is a sought-after soloist and one of the foremost professors at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. He also recently became keeper of the legacy for the world’s most famous cello — one belonging to famed musician Pablo Casals — that he played last month on the Peabody stage, re-creating a legendary concert from a century ago; he will play again at the Kennedy Center next week.

Peled laughs at the memory of his adolescent reasoning to choose music over basketball, the same reasoning that provided the motivation to play cello in the first place.

At age 10, children on the kibbutz had to choose an instrument to study. Though his teachers expected Peled, “a cool kid like me who played basketball,” recalled the musician, to choose drums or guitar and then quit soon after, he surprised everyone, including his parents, when he chose to study the cello. But his newly found adoration wasn’t for classical music; it was for a girl, a cellist, four years his senior.

“I had a plan,” he said during a recent interview. “I’ll play with her; we’ll go on the school bus together, we’ll do duets, then we’ll get married and have children.”

Laughing, he added, “But I never talked to her.”

He didn’t get the girl, but Peled did get a cassette tape from his parents, who were eager to support their son’s enthusiasm for the instrument. On the tape were bite-sized musical pieces performed by Maestro Casals, regarded as one of the greatest cellists of all time.

Each night, Peled recalled, he would press play on his boom box and listen as he drifted off to sleep. He repeated the same thing night after night, listening over and over.

“Since an early age I wanted to imitate that sound,” said Peled. “I didn’t know how, or who was Casals, or what it means that he had this special cello. I just wanted to imitate it. So that’s how I started and how I fell in love.”

Peled’s natural talent and drive began to get noticed. After a year of study with a private instructor, he was chosen, at 15, to attend the Thelma Yelin High School for the Arts in Tel Aviv, where in ninth grade, Peled held the spot for last cellist in the orchestra. By his senior year, he was principal cellist and soloist for the orchestra’s traveling performances. That’s when, he said, it was clear that music would be his path.

“When we were kids, he would practice for hours to understand how, physically, the body should work to play [a] phrase better,” said childhood friend and now colleague Guy Ben-Ziony, an accomplished violist and instructor at Leipzig Musikhochschule who first met Peled on the basketball court. They also attended the arts high school together before entering the
Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF has a highly competitive music unit that accepts eight musicians each year, a group Peled referred to jokingly as the “classical commando” unit. The musicians completed basic training and wore uniforms like other soldiers, but they played almost every day, said Ben-Ziony — for soldiers, at memorials, for the prime minister and the president.

Peled stands out because of “his warm sound, his honesty when he plays, his command of the instrument, and he really plays like every note means something for him,” said Ben-Ziony, who will perform a Brahms program with Peled in October in Berlin. “To really be that music, that piece, the notes, the rhythm, the soul and the spirit of the piece and to really take it into you and from there to kind of let it go — the music goes not only through his cello, but through his body and through his emotions.”

After service in the IDF, Peled attended Yale University on a full scholarship. Though he was grateful for the opportunity, after a year, he said, “I didn’t like the teacher. So with my Israeli chutzpah I told him that it’s not the right place for me, and I left. It was the best decision of my life. But no one could believe I would do something like that. [It was] because I wanted to fulfill a dream of mine.”

At that time, Peled was consumed with the music of Bernard Greenhouse, who had been a student of Casals, although Peled didn’t know that when he tracked the 81-year-old down in Cape Cod, Mass. Peled became Greenhouse’s student.

“I just had a goal. I wanted to look for a certain sound on the cello that I could not get anywhere else, and that sound came from Greenhouse,” said Peled. Though Greenhouse was shocked at Peled’s request when he called, he granted him an audition.

While the two had lunch together afterward, “I told him, if you’re willing to accept me to come here, live here somehow and study with you, I will leave everything,” said Peled. “I don’t have even one dollar in my pocket, but I really want to study with you. And [Greenhouse] responded, ‘If you want it that much, and you’re willing to leave and sacrifice so much to study with me, I’m willing to accept you for free.’”

Thrilled, Peled found a place to live nearby, then went to Israel to inform his parents of his decision to leave Yale. They fully supported him.

“I studied with [Greenhouse] for an intense year. I observed him completely,” said Peled. “We had two, three, even four lessons a week.”

He often joined Greenhouse and his wife for martinis at the end of the day, and they would gaze out at the ocean, while listening to Casals’ music.

While on Cape Cod from 1996 to 2000, Peled completed his degree at the New England Conservatory of Music, receiving funds from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation. It was through the organization that Peled stumbled onto the next path in his musical journey.

Miriam Benbassat, then on the board of the Young Concert Artists of Washington, helped Peled find a host for a house concert in order to make a run-through rehearsal of his debut recital. Benbasset knew Linda Shapiro hosted concerts in a small performance space in her Baltimore home, which would be the perfect venue.

At the after-concert reception, a woman introduced herself to Peled.

“I really like the way you play Bach and the way you communicate with the pianist, and I wonder if you like teaching,” Peled remembered the woman saying. “I’m hardly 28, just out of school and I said, again with my Israeli chutzpah, ‘I love teaching! Of course!’ Even though I never taught in my life.”

It’s not that he plays music, he is music.

The woman was Eileen Soskin, then associate dean for academic affairs at the Peabody Conservatory. She told him there was no position available but asked if he’d teach a master class.

Soskin described Peled’s teaching style as “total focus on the individual. Amit’s students do not play like Amit, they play like themselves. He gives them both the inspiration and the technical tools to become the best musicians they can become.”

About a year later, in 2003, Peabody invited Peled to audition for a faculty placement. During that daylong process, he said, “I decided to be myself, not to impress anybody.” The next day, “I got an email from [Peabody] that said the committee unanimously decided to hire me.”

In tears, he called home. “I said, ‘Ima, your son is a professor at Johns Hopkins.’ They were all crying. … The following August, I came here with two suitcases and my cello and my wife.”

“It’s not that he plays music, he is music,” Soskin said from her home in Washington state. “When you combine that with his very sweet and genuine personality and love for people and for the music, he is a spectacular teacher.”

Sam Matthews, 34, one of Peled’s first students, now teaches cello and owns a music store in Houston. He said Peled provided “a lot of practical experience, because he’s out there performing every day. It’s pretty rare to find a teacher who can teach and perform, it’s usually one or the other.”

Benbassat arranged a meeting with Neale Perl, then president of the Washington Performing Arts Society, that brought Peled closer than ever to Casals.

“I was blown away by the level of musicianship and the beauty of the sound,” said Perl, now president and CEO of the Scottsdale Cultural Council. “Amit plays from the heart, and people feel that. And a big part of my professional life has been devoted to helping young artists.”

Understanding the need to invest in an artist for at least a decade, “because it takes time,” Perl assisted in finding Peled a manager and “knew that Amit needed a better cello,” he said.

In 2012, he arranged for Peled to meet with Marta Casals Istomin, Casals’ widow. After she heard Peled play, she offered some critiques.

“From that moment on, she practically killed me. She was so tough, and it reminded me of the lessons with Bernard Greenhouse … the same mentality of taking care of each note, of making the phrase alive, controlling the vibrato, controlling the bow, all those little details that I really looked for from that tape cassette, and from Greenhouse,” said Peled.

At the end of the evening, Istomin invited Peled to return and play “the maestro’s cello.” Two weeks after that visit, she offered Peled to play Casals’ cello on loan.

“I think he’s incredibly deserving, and I particularly love the fact that he is continuing the legacy of Pablo Casals,” said Perl. “A new generation doesn’t always focus on the past, and sometimes to move forward, you have to look back and realize where we all came from musically speaking. For him to continue the Casals legacy by playing this cello is very powerful, and obviously to Marta, it’s very powerful.”

Since coming to Baltimore 13 years ago, Peled, his wife, Julia, and their three children, who attend Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, have made a home in Pikesville surrounded by the Orthodox community that refers to him as “the Jewish Yo-Yo Ma.” The Peleds invite the neighbors into their home for run-through concerts and even provide kosher receptions for their guests.

Said Peled, “I felt a great vibe being here in Baltimore and at Peabody.”

This year for Founder’s Day at Peabody, Peled performed the identical recital that Casals performed on its stage with the same cello 100 years ago.

“All the time, it’s going through my mind, the history — that I’m playing a piece on the cello that Pablo Casals played,” Peled said. “Here I am putting my fingers on the same spot, and so many people heard those pieces through that piece of wood, with Casals. It’s an amazing feeling but also a great responsibility at the same time.

“And at the end of the day you also feel like you are a passenger,” he added. “[Casals] was a passenger, and I am a passenger, and … this instrument lives through us all and will hopefully stay for generations to come. So my voice through it should be mine and not an imitation of his. And the instrument is so great to allow me to do that.”


Tres Pablos: Casals, Neruda, and Picasso: A Multimedia Celebration

Amit Peled will play on Pablo Casals’ cello at the Kennedy Center’s intimate tribute to three giants and contemporaries of the Spanish-speaking world — Pablo Casals, Pablo Neruda  and Pablo Picasso. It will also include videos of all three late artists as well as live music and interviews with several special guests.
Friday, March 13 at 8 p.m.
Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center
For tickets and more information, call 202-467-4600 or visit

Raise Hell Instead of Money

Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced Monday that she will not seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

There was “nothing gloomy about the announcement,” she said. “There’s no health problem,” and “I’m not frustrated with the Senate; the Senate will always be what the Senate is.”

But, she said, “I had to ask myself who am I campaigning for?  Am I campaigning for me, or am I campaigning for my constituents?  Fighting for my job or fighting for their job? Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell?”

By the end of her current term, on Dec. 31, 2016, she will have served more than 30 years.

In an emotional announcement, Mikulski thanked the people of Maryland for “the trust that they have given” her and thanked Sens. Ben Cardin and Paul Sarbanes for their support and strong partnership over the years.

“First and foremost I look at this an opportunity to celebrate an incredible record of a remarkable person who has made a permanent positive mark on our political system,” said Cardin, who was at the announcement. “But I must tell you, this is bittersweet for me. It will leave an incredible void because she’s been a real powerful force for our state.”

When asked what was her proudest moment serving the people of Maryland, she said there was “no job too big or too small,” whether it was removing stigmatized language in reference to special-needs children or listening to the financial needs of firefighters and ultimately engaging Republicans to create a national funding program. “My best ideas have come from the people –listening to the people, knowing what their needs are, responding to that need and trying to turn it into national policy,” she said.

Congressman John Sarbanes, the son of Paul Sarbanes, called Mikulski a political force in Maryland and on Capitol Hill.

“Breaking glass ceilings and fighting for working families, her career is nothing short of historic,” he said. “I am among the many Marylanders who feel privileged to have benefited from her outstanding service. We wish her all the best in her well-deserved retirement.”

On Jan. 5, 2011, when she was sworn into the 112th Congress, Mikulski became the longest-serving woman in U.S. Senate history.

“Though I’m turning a new page.” said Mikulski, “make no mistake, we’re not writing the last chapter.”

Lifelong Learning in Harford County Melton School expands to Temple Adas Shalom

Over the course of four years, 27 adults in Harford County are aiming to complete 100 hours of Jewish learning.

Through the expansion of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, now housed at the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, in Park Heights, members of Temple Adas Shalom, The Harford Jewish Center are joining more than 50 international Jewish communities for intensive text-based study.

Brett Temple of Abingdon sought out the class for two reasons. First, he is a trustee of adult education for Adas Shalom, and second, he desired to gain more in-depth knowledge about the faith he chose 17 years ago.

“At our temple there is a desire to understand why we do what we do,” he said of the Reform congregation. “We say this prayer every week, but where does it come from? Or, we say this prayer every day; why?”

A traditional Melton model takes place over two years, but through examining the schedules of the participants, organizers decided that a four-year model was a better fit for the Harford County community. The adult learners began meeting in October and will complete 13 two-hour sessions by May. The Adas Shalom class size is larger than a typical Melton class, but the participants were adamant about not dividing into smaller sections. They want to complete each step together.

Adas Shalom members didn’t have to look far to find a Melton instructor. Their very own Rabbi Gila Ruskin has been teaching Melton courses since the first year it was offered at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville and estimates that she has taught every course offering, including graduate classes.

From 6:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. on the days the class meets, they study Rhythms of Jewish Living with Ron Mitnick, who comes from an Orthodox background. Following a short break, the class meets with Ruskin for another hour to study Purposes of Jewish Living.

Each lesson has a theme, Ruskin explained, from biblical to rabbinical, responsa literature to modern literature. The texts are pluralistic, and the instructors purposefully selected from different backgrounds and, when possible, different genders to give participants an all-encompassing view of Judaism.

“It’s a bit like drinking from a fire hose trying to filter down 5,000 years of tradition,” said Temple.

Karen Wolkow of Joppa agreed. She is a lifelong member of Adas Shalom, having just switched from her parents’ membership to her own, and loves to learn.

“If I could make a living by going to school that would be my career of choice,” she said. The course put her in a setting where she could listen to those more knowledgeable and offer her thoughts to those less so, a process she describes as fascinating.

One session that sticks out in her mind was a discussion focusing on Jewish symbols.

“We discussed why the mezuzah is mounted at an angle, and if it really should be. We discussed why the tallit has four corners and the importance of the blue threads. We discussed the menorah, with its various branches all coming together at the base, representing various branches of knowledge coming together to support us,” she said. “I never put much thought into some of the finer intricacies of these items.”

An anonymous donor offset the cost of the course, said Ruskin, so some participants were able to apply for scholarships, though everyone paid a minimum $100 fee to help cover the cost of the course materials and instructor salary.

Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace was the lone outpost of Jewish life in Harford County for a number of years. Temple refers to his home congregation as “Reform-Conserva-dox” because of the diverse mix of religious observance.

“We’re very welcoming. We have to be very welcoming,” said Temple. “We meet the needs of whoever comes to [our door].”

Harford Chabad in Bel Air opened a few years ago.

The course and discussion among members has sparked new ideas for adult learning in the community. Temple is working on a class tentatively titled, “I’d be honored, I just don’t know how” to teach bimah etiquette, such as when to open the ark and how to raise the Torah scroll.

Melton education director Rabbi David Bienenstock is not surprised by the participants’ reactions.

“A typical response is, ‘I want to show my children that Jewish learning doesn’t end’ or ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘In the past I’ve only observed the High Holidays and I want to know more,’” said Bienenstock.

Throughout the course, Bienenstock observes the classes and gathers feedback from students. The universal response has been positive, he said, with students citing ample interaction and the instructors’ knowledge as reasons to continue on toward the 100-hour goal.

“[This class is important] because they want to be literate Jews. They want to feel that they’re on equal footing with Jews in Baltimore, Philadelphia or anywhere else,” said Ruskin. “In Harford County, you have to make the effort to have Jewish involvement, and I appreciate that people make the effort. It’s a wonderful community.”

Shomrim’s Watchful Eye Patrol group embraces community’s concerns, challenges

For many in Baltimore’s Jewish community, a call to Shomrim precedes even a call to police when someone spots suspicious activity.

The community watch group — one of at least three dedicated to protecting the bulk of the Jewish community in Northwest Baltimore — is growing.

“The organization is growing both in profile and community outreach,” said Nate Willner, a lawyer and Shomrim member.

022715_shomrim1Easily identified by their jackets and response cars, nearly every Orthodox community in the country, and more around the world, has a Shomrim affiliate, and some cities, such as London and New York, even have two or three.

Baltimore’s Shomrim — literally “watchers” in Hebrew — was founded in 2005 after a spike in burglaries in the Pikesville/Park Heights area put neighborhood residents on edge. Despite a highly publicized incident in 2010 in which a Shomrim member and his brother were charged, and later cleared, of assaulting and kidnapping a black teen who was walking through the neighborhood, the group has managed to recover and even thrive over the past four years, members say.

“It’s sort of a citizen’s patrol group on steroids,” said Willner.

With some 150 to 200 calls per month, Willner said, the need in the community is huge. Today’s calls involve mostly stolen bikes and car break-ins, but Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History, said groups such as Shomrim have deep roots in the Jewish community, both in the United States and abroad.

Today’s Jewish community watch groups were preceded by the Jewish Defense League, said Sarna. The JDL was founded in New York City in 1968 in the midst of the city’s racially charged tension over the teachers’ union strikes, when many alleged the local police were not adequately protecting the Jewish community. As time went on, the organization switched its focus to the Soviet Union and influencing Soviet groups in America to pressure their government back home to begin allowing Jewish immigration to Israel.

After a series of attacks, the Jewish community distanced itself from the group, and the JDL has since been placed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremist organizations.

But other groups have taken the torch of protecting the Jewish community.

“I think that you would find that they were influenced, really, by some of the efforts in the Holocaust,” said Sarna. “Jews were very proud when Warsaw Ghetto Jews defended themselves and armed themselves — Mordechai Anilevitch and others — to fight the Nazis.”

While private organizations designed to patrol communities have long been branded by some as vigilantes, the United States has a long history of pride in self-defense. And recent anti-Semitic events in other parts of the world have helped to solidify the community’s support for such groups. Though the problems facing the American Jewish community are far less pressing than those being felt by Jews in Europe, he said, community watch organizations still serve a vital role in American Jewish society.

“The events in Europe, they legitimate the formation of these new groups now,” said Sarna.

And protecting the community against any potential terror plots is indeed a major focus of Shomrim and other community patrols.

“That’s an area that, unfortunately, we have to look at,” said Willner.

In addition to responding to missing persons calls, break-ins and reports of stolen bicycles, Shomrim also spends a great deal of time and energy emphasizing to residents the importance of being on the lookout for “things that look out of place,” Willner said. Members, he said, are looking “through a different kind of lens these days.”

Community members are instructed today to be mindful of anyone hanging around synagogues and Jewish communal buildings, possibly watching the comings and goings or taking photos or videos. Shomrim relies on the ability of neighbors to know when something or someone looks out of place on their block and recently asked local synagogues to recruit drivers for the organization.

But distinguishing what and who looks out of place is cause for concern among some in Baltimore. Shomrim in the past has been criticized for posting notices on Facebook that some have felt were racially tinged.

As groups like Shomrim or any other neighborhood patrol grow, the need for proper training of volunteers increases as well. Rev. Heber Brown III, a local pastor and community organizer, who was critical of Shomrim after the 2010 incident, said he is hopeful that the city’s neighborhood patrol groups have learned that the actions of even one volunteer can tarnish the reputation of any organization.

“With those groups that have greater connections with city leaders and police department heads, I think it’s incumbent of those kinds of organizations to kind of go above and beyond the basic requirement,” he said. “I think that Shomrim is one of the more sophisticated groups.”

Lt. Jim Perez is a veteran police officer in Fairfield, Conn., where he also teaches community groups how to organize neighborhood patrols and effectively protect their own communities. Through the National Crime Prevention Council, he trains neighborhood groups around the country how to operate both safely and effectively to protect their neighborhoods.

The relationship between community groups and local police is vital to the effectiveness of both groups, he said.

The Dushinsky Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, addresses Shomrim members in December 2014. (Photo David Stuck)

The Dushinsky Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, addresses Shomrim members in December 2014. (Photo provided)

For example, one of the first things Perez said he teaches community members is how to “speak the language” of police and emergency responders. Being articulate and specific can have a direct effect on the length of time is takes for an officer to arrive at a call. Additionally, it establishes the neighborhood watch group’s credibility with the department. This is a lesson Willner said Shomrim members are taught early on.

The best advice for groups looking to protect their own community, Perez said, is to be suspicious of everyone and everything.

He hears often from people who tell him that they don’t want to “bother” the police with something that could end up a nonissue. But the key to successful police-community relations, he insists, is a public that doesn’t hesitate to call the police with its concerns.

“You’re paying taxes.” he said. “That’s our job: to respond to you.”

Perez is fond of using the example of the Times Square bomb plot that was foiled in 2013 after a couple of street vendors noticed a suspicious car idling in the tourist center of New York as a depiction of the important role any one person’s instincts can play.

“‘Not normal.’ That’s a great phrase,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what’s not normal and then report not normal.”

For Shomrim, operating in the largely Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore, Willner believes members are uniquely qualified to identify “not normal.”

It is not uncommon for Shomrim to get calls on Friday evening about observant Jews who may be stuck in traffic and, in an effort to avoid driving on Shabbat, leave their car on the side of a road and begin walking to their destination.

While that same call to the police department might be met first with a series of questions about why the driver chose to leave his or her car, Shomrim’s process is expedited by the fact that members already understand the aspects of Orthodox life that make the community unique. The learning curve is eliminated, said Willner.

However, he stressed, the existence of the watch does not eliminate the need for police in the area.

“We’re happy to see police cars,” he said.

And the city’s police department insists it is happy to work with any citizen or group of citizens that wants to take a more active role in protecting his or her neighborhood.

“We are strong believers in the concept of community policing and making sure that we have healthy, safe neighborhoods,” said Eric Kowalczyk, a media relations officer for the Baltimore Police Department. “We’re not going to be in a position to restrict a neighborhood group or a neighborhood association.”

Security is a concern in every neighborhood, he said, and the police department is encouraged by groups that want to work with them. “I think that the real tribute here is the fact that people care enough about their neighborhood and city that they’re willing to sacrifice their own time to come together to be
active partners with the police department, and that’s a really truly wonderful thing.”

Payback PLO, PA found liable; must compensate American victims of terror

A federal jury in New York found the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) liable in a civil lawsuit over terrorist attacks perpetrated in Israel during the second intifada more than a decade ago.

The jury at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan found the PLO and the PA liable to compensate the plaintiffs, American victims of Palestinian terror, $218.5 million in damages. The award will likely be tripled to $655.5 million because of the unique terrorism law under which the case was brought.

Israeli bomb experts search bus number 32 in Jerusalem's Pat junction near the neighborhood of Gilo June 18, 2002 after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 17 people and wounding many others. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS/Newscom)

Israeli bomb experts search bus number 32 in Jerusalem’s Pat junction near the neighborhood of Gilo June 18, 2002 after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 17 people and wounding many others. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS/Newscom)

The lawsuit before Judge George Daniels was filed in 2004 under the Antiterrorism Act of 1996 that gives American courts jurisdiction to try acts of terror that harmed Americans while they were abroad. The suit covers six specific terror attacks that killed 33 and wounded more than 450 civilians between 2002 and 2004.

After more than a decade of carrying this around with them, victims said they finally have some peace.

Jamie Sokolow, 25, was just 12 years old when a Jerusalem terrorist attack left her bloody, with shrapnel damaging her right eye.

“I am thankful that, after 13 years since our attack and 10 years since the filing of the case, we and the other plaintiffs have finally received justice in a U.S. court,” Sokolow said. “I am also grateful to our lawyers who worked so hard on our behalf.”

“This historic verdict against the defendants will not bring back these families’ loved ones nor heal the physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon them, but it truly is an important measure of justice and closure for them after their long years of tragic suffering and pain,” Nitsana Darshan Leitner, the director of Israel-based Shurat HaDin, which worked on the case, said in a response to the verdict.

Speaking for the prosecution’s legal team, Kent A. Yalowitz said, “We hope as lawyers that we have, after years of difficult and emotional effort,
secured for the families today a small measure of justice.”

Though this is a win for the victims and their families, many speculate that the defendants will appeal the verdict. Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in Palestinian politics, noted that this verdict provides “one victory” in what could be a “long, drawn-out legal battle.”

The PLO and the PA’s defense lawyers argued that they did not violate the Antiterrorism Act and that they, as governing bodies, should not be held accountable for the violent actions of criminals who acted on their own accord or under the influence of more radical militia groups such as Hamas. Mark J. Rochon, one of the defense lawyers, told the jury on Feb. 19 that he did not want “the bad guys, the killers, the people who did this, to get away while the Palestinian Authority or the PLO pay for something they did not do.”

This verdict, coupled with last September’s Brooklyn federal court ruling that found Arab Bank Plc. liable for having provided material support to Hamas, could have tense implications for Arab-Israeli relations.

“There are going to be three ways this verdict impacts the Palestinians,” Rumley said.

From the standpoint of the Palestinian Authority, this blow could cause even more difficulties to their already dire financial state. “The PA is strapped for cash,” he said, alluding to the fiscal crisis brought on, in part, by Israel’s withholding of tax revenues designated for the Palestinian Authority.

Leitner offered a different view.

“If the PA and PLO have the funds to pay the families of the suicide bombers each month,” he said, referencing advertisements used in the case offering financial compensation tothe families of suicide bombers, “then they have the money to pay these victims of Palestinian terrorism.”

The verdict may put Palestinian moves to join the International Criminal Court, which had been criticized for opening Israel up to further investigations of potential war crimes in Gaza, in jeopardy.

“The PA is now responsible for actions for even some of the lowest foot soldiers,” Rumley said, pointing to what he said was a new legal precedent in the Manhattan ruling. “Are they [now] responsible for Hamas firing rockets from Gaza?”

Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance writer based in New York.

Interfaith Success Jewish-backed Baltimore Catholic high school celebrates first college grads

Cristo Rey students celebrate graduation. (Provided)

Cristo Rey students celebrate graduation. (Provided)

Four years ago, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School graduated its first class of students. This spring, the school, which though Catholic, benefits from a significant amount of Jewish funding, will celebrate the graduation of that first class from college.

Dozens of Cristo Rey alumni will graduate with their four-year degrees in May, said Jessica Gregg, Cristo Rey’s director of communications, thanks in no small part to local charitable foundations that support the school and students financially.

Part of a national network of schools that combine traditional classes with corporate internships to provide kids from low-income families in inner-city neighborhoods access to high-level education, Cristo Rey wants students to gain real-world work experiences that can also offset the cost of tuition at the private parochial school.

In the eight years it has existed in Baltimore, it has also benefited from the Jewish community, with sponsors including the Marvin Schapiro Family Foundation, the Jack and Marilyn Pechter Foundation, the Cordish Family Fund, the Lipitz Family Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which provided the school with the second-largest donation ever given by the foundation to a Catholic school to fund the renovation of the school’s building and the internship program that serves as its cornerstone. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore also helps connect students with opportunities at local nonprofits.

The school “provides the opportunity for students to get real-world experience,” along with their high school education, said Sheryl Goldstein, the Weinberg Foundation’s program director, who added that Cristo Rey’s method is an exciting new take on private education. “It helps the kids gain this great internship opportunity, and it’s a great business model.”

For Kambriel Lewis, who graduated a semester early from Frostburg State University in December with a degree in business administration, the chance to learn skills hands-on helped her in her traditional classes as well. And the benefits have continued past high school and college and into the job market, she said.

“They say it’s not enough to have a degree. When you do job applications they want a bachelor’s degree with like one to three years of experience. If you’re already getting that type of experience, it gives you an edge,” said Lewis.

Karis Harris, another Cristo Ray class of 2011 grad who will receive her degree from Stevenson University in May, said the advantage her education gave her over other college students was evident from the first day of her freshman year.

“To me it seemed like I was more prepared than my peers at Stevenson because a lot of [the work] was either something I learned fully or something we touched on at Cristo Rey,” she said. “I’d already been prepared to expect how it was going to go in college with the workload.”

Though still relatively new, Cristo Rey expects to have a long future in Baltimore driven by the interest the community has already shown in supporting the school and the success of its graduates. So far, students from Cristo Rey have been accepted into almost 150 different schools around the country. In addition to a host of local schools, students have gone on to study at Boston University, Lehigh University and the University of Rochester.

“The students, as well as the faculty and staff, have to be open-minded,” said Harris. “Everybody’s not raised the same way, they’re not exposed to the same things. Not all people come from the same area. You have to be able to interact.”

Congregational Evolution Synagogues refocus to remain vital in Jewish life

Congregants at Beth Tfiloh Congregation take part in a Havdalah service. (David Stuck)

Congregants at Beth Tfiloh Congregation take part in a Havdalah service. (David Stuck)

Temple Emanuel of Baltimore moved into a brand new building in Reisterstown in 1995. By the early 2000s, the synagogue was approaching 400 memberships and expanded its footprint by building a two-story education wing.

As time went on, the Reform synagogue’s numbers slowly shrunk to its current 218 memberships. (A membership can be an individual or a family.) With a diminishing revenue base, the congregation made the decision to sell its building and move to a smaller space. Come July 1, the congregation will rent from and share space at Beth Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Owings Mills, becoming Temple Emanuel at Beth Israel in the process.

Although a unique arrangement, the situation is hardly an anomaly for the Baltimore area or the nation. Non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish community such as the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have experienced declining affiliation in recent years, with experts putting the decline at 10 to 15 percent over the past decade. Some say it began during the Great Recession, but others point to millennials’ low institutional involvement, the cost of synagogue membership, intermarriage, the growing number of Jewish communal options outside of synagogues and the synagogues’ failure to adapt to changing needs and interests of members and potential members as contributing factors.

“It used to be that people weren’t worried … but that’s no longer the case. This isn’t just a Jewish phenomenon, and it’s not just a religious phenomenon, it’s really an American cultural phenomenon,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which works with unaffiliated and intermarried families as well as the organized Jewish community to help welcome these families. He is also co-author of forthcoming book New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue. “We have to turn our institutions inside out and become community institutions that aren’t as worried about membership as we are engagement.”

While some congregations, such as Temple Emanuel, are selling their buildings, others are renting space to other organizations or changing their membership dues and offerings. With the current landscape of the Jewish community, it’s nearly impossible to find a congregation that isn’t re-evaluating its structure and looking for new ways to engage the community and maintain, or perhaps revive, its relevancy.

By the numbers
According to the Pew Research Center’s October 2013 study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 31 percent of respondents belonged to a synagogue. Thirty-nine percent of those who identified as Jewish by religion were members, and 4 percent of those who don’t identify religiously were members. In the Orthodox community, synagogue membership was at 69 percent; the Conservative community was at 50 percent and the Reform community 34 percent.

022015_coverstory2Olitzky’s numbers match up to the studies, with synagogue membership at 46 percent in the early 2000s, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which was conducted by the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America).

Experts keeping tab of these numbers say at least one factor is the free market economy of Jewish life in 2015.
“There’s synagogue competition in a way that the Jewish world has not seen, the American Jewish world has not seen,” said Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. “For a long time, you needed a synagogue for Hebrew school, for a rabbi to do lifecycle events and for a general sense of Jewish community. Now there’s independent Hebrew schools, rabbis in the community willing to do lifecycle events and bar mitzvahs, there’s online Jewish education. … I think what we’re experiencing now is hyper-competition.”

The membership figures in Baltimore are slightly higher than the national Pew numbers, with 46 percent of Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, according to The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s 2010 Baltimore Jewish Community Study. While the statistic was at 52 percent in 1999, the study noted that the actual number of synagogues members has essentially remained the same since the number of Jewish households (42,500 in 2010) has increased 16 percent since 1999. Ninety percent of Orthodox households reported synagogue membership.

Changes In Baltimore
Renting out space has become the norm for some congregations in Baltimore whose memberships aren’t swelling.

In December 2003, when the Bolton Street Synagogue moved to its Roland Park location, it had more than 200 memberships. The synagogue now has between 130 and 150 memberships, according to Marc Hartstein, the congregation’s president.

What made Bolton Street unique, Hartstein said, in addition to being unaffiliated, was its openness to interfaith families as well as same-sex couples. He doesn’t think these aspects are as unique in the community anymore, but he sees the low numbers as only temporary setbacks. With its eclectic events, such as its Saturday night Israeli film series, and vibrant, diverse community, Hartstein thinks Bolton Street will thrive in the long run.

“When you come to Bolton Street, you’re coming to a very eclectic group, which makes us an enormous amount of fun,” he said.

While the synagogue has been in discussions with schools and other organizations in the past, an ongoing suit with the Evergreen Community Association is preventing the synagogue from entering into lease agreements. The association says any lease would mean the property is being used commercially, which is prohibited in an agreement the synagogue signed.

At Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, space is rented out for b’nai mitzvah parties, family parties, Shabbat dinners and even, for the past two years, New Year’s Eve parties. Community theater group Pumpkin Theatre also has space at Har Sinai. The building has a number of advantages: a space that can accommodate up to 350 people for a sit-down dinner, a large parking lot, a dance floor that can be built and broken down, a kosher-style kitchen fit for caterers and rooms for brides and grooms.

“We’re looking for leasing, rentals, all that, but not without an ethical mission we can all buy into,” said Melanie Waxman, the congregation’s director of programming and membership.

When the congregation moved from its Park Heights location to a newly constructed Owings Mills building in 2001, following the migration of its members, membership was around 600 families; Waxman said the new facility was meant for 800 families. Today, the synagogue has 375 memberships.

Waxman said the congregation is retaining its current membership numbers, which has meant flexibility and openness on Har Sinai’s part.

“Membership, I don’t think it’s a buzzword,” Waxman said. “I don’t think it speaks to where the community is going. Engagement does.”

To that end, Har Sinai has tried to meet the needs of its congregants and connect with their values in other ways. For example, the congregation has gone green, no longer using paper or plastic, and started an executive professional networking group, so that congregants prosper “not just spiritually at Har Sinai,” Waxman said.

Tight budgets for synagogues are nothing new, according to Chizuk Amuno Congregation executive director Glenn Easton.

“Every synagogue could use more members,” he said. “It’s just always tight. It’s just the economic makeup of synagogues.”

When historians write about this period of time, they will name this ‘The era of Transition.’

Like Chizuk Amuno, whose membership has hovered around 1,200 for the last few years, not all synagogues are seeing plunges in their membership.

At Beth El Congregation, there have been about 1,650 memberships for the last 12 to 15 years, according to its president, Jerry Schnydman. With what he calls a “dream team” of clergy who are active in the community, a top-notch religious school, brotherhood and sisterhood groups and a volunteer group, Schnydman said the congregation appeals to all of its members.

“We’ve come close to meeting everybody’s needs and we hope there’s something for everybody,” he said.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation recognizes the diverse needs of the Jewish community, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg said. On Shabbat, congregants are welcomed at the door and invited for coffee before they choose one of eight services.

“The bottom line is, it’s my feeling today that if all a person is coming to [synagogue] is three times a year, they may very well decide it’s not worth their money, so we have to give them a reason to come more often and get their money’s worth,” Wohlberg said.

Associated Partnership
Ever since The Associated’s 2010 study shined light on low affiliation rates in Baltimore, the community has been looking for ways to address those figures.

Through a partnership with the Kolker-Saxon-Hallock Family Foundation, The Associated launched a pilot project with three synagogues to find ways to deepen the engagement of their members.

“This is a great opportunity to … be more relevant to [their members],” said Debs Weinberg, executive director of ACHARAI: The Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Development Institute. “We’re also looking at ways, of course, to bring in people who are not affiliated with our congregations in the Jewish community.”

Those three synagogues in the engagement partnership are Temple Oheb Shalom, Beth Am Synagogue and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Although Temple Oheb Shalom is experiencing an increase in members, the congregation is re-examining how its members engage.

“It’s not necessarily how many people are showing up for a program,” said Maxine Lowy, director of development and special programs, “[but] how many people feel the synagogue is important to them, it’s relevant to their lives.”

As the congregation’s population has gotten younger, something staffers say is due to their Hebrew school and students reeling in their parents, the synagogue has focused on programming for young families. Through The Associated partnership, Oheb Shalom is going to focus on meeting the needs of its baby boomers.

Each congregation involved in the partnership will undergo a “listening campaign” in which they will reach out to members of the congregation to gauge their engagement and find out what they want out of synagogue life. Oheb Shalom is in the process of determining how it will do that — how many people it will speak with, what kind of personal information will be taken and how to measure people’s engagement.

“What we’re doing is the same adaptation that has kept us alive, in our case, for the past 160 years,” said Executive Director Ken Davidson. “We’re just doing it faster and more visibly than we once did.”

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation will begin its conversations with congregants this month. The synagogue has named its listening campaign “Congregational Conversations: Our Path Forward.”

“The engagement partnership has encouraged us to have a more strategic eye towards engagement and it has helped us facilitate our own discussions of how to strengthen our community,” said Andy Wayne, director of communications and engagement. “The shift is really a step back and saying, ‘What is important to us? What do we value? What makes this congregation relevant to our lives? What does that mean for us in the future?’”

In addition to the engagement partnership, BHC has fostered engagement through programs such as Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars, which began nine years ago and attracts thousands to Oregon Ridge Park each year. The synagogue is also redesigning its website to be more dynamic and user-friendly and examining its dues structure, although dues may not change, Wayne said.

Beth Am has a bit of a different situation, being located in Baltimore City’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood, according to executive director Henry Feller. For them, it’s not about just engaging members, it’s about engaging the surrounding community. Community members sit on a synagogue committee charged with bringing in programs, the congregation’s Eutaw Place concert series has brought non-religious concerts to Beth Am for more than two years and Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, along with community members, actively
engage with the surrounding community.

“I believe all Jewish organizations are looking at how we can make ourselves more open and available to the community,” Feller said.

While engagement is the focus, there are still financial factors at play.

“Locally, I think we’re dealing with a number of different things: more liberal congregations than there once were, more options in Jewish life than there once were,” said BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch. While the congregation has more than 1,200 memberships, he said there may have been as many as 1,800 in “living memory.” “Our building is bigger than we would build it if we were to build it today.”

That challenge is exciting to Weinberg in light of the new engagement

“I really do believe that people are searching for Jewish learning and are searching for being inspired and searching to be part of the Jewish community,” she said. “To me, the challenge is how do we do that within the current buildings we built?”

The Future
“I think that when historians write about this period of time, they will name this ‘The Era of Transition,’” Olitzky said. “The Jewish community will look nothing like it did when it began.”

While he is optimistic about the Jewish future, he said he is scared for what he has seen as a lack of adaption is leadership in some Jewish communal institutions.

“They have to be mission driven,” he said. “There has to be a clear, articulated mission for the individual institution. It’s no longer enough to say a denomination.”

Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, an organization that helps Jewish organizations adapt and change with the digital age, said people are and will continue flocking to synagogues for different reasons than in the past.

“We will start to see much more differentiation and specialization across different synagogues that will attract people for particular things,” she said.

Locally, some synagogues simply look at the future as a part of continual evolution and adaption. At least Ken Davidson of Oheb Shalom does.

“As we progress along this continuum, we’re going to continue to improve the agencies and organizations and Jewish life in Baltimore,” he said. “That can never be a bad thing.”