A Neighborhood’s Fix Epidemic opiate crisis hits home

Over the course of the past few weeks, Baltimore’s Mount Washington neighborhood has become a ground zero of sorts for the debate surrounding how to handle a problem that many say has taken over the city: the resurgence of heroin.

Tensions ran high last week when residents and local professionals packed into the Mount Washington Conference Center for a public meeting concerning a proposed drug and alcohol rehabilitation center just steps from the neighborhood’s main business district.

The Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, which currently operates out of an office on West Road in Towson, has requested to lease a building on Newbury Street in Mount Washington to open a second treatment center. MARC, which was founded in 2013, serves primarily middle- to upper-class patients and families suffering from addictions ranging from alcohol abuse to drug use.

This building on Newberry Street near Kelly Avenue has become a heated point of contention between the lease-seeking Maryland Addiction Recovery Center and Mount Washington residents. (Heather Norris)

This building on Newbury Street near Kelly Avenue has become a heated point of contention between the lease-seeking Maryland Addiction Recovery Center and Mount Washington residents. (Heather Norris)

While they emphasize their center is essentially a counseling center that addresses the roots of clients’ addictions, they do prescribe Suboxone, a drug that inhibits the ability of opiates to take effect. The proposal to use the vacant building at the corner of Newbury and Kelly streets is awaiting a decision on zoning pertaining to the number of parking spaces needed to operate a medical clinic, but Mount Washington residents arrived at the meeting ready to do battle.

Representatives from MARC faced questions that ranged from plans for landscaping to how many of their patients reside in Mount Washington and rebuffed accusations that they had been evicted from their original Towson office and that they were misleading the community about the kinds of treatment they offer. The owners told attendees that they had no plans to change the exterior of the building they are seeking to rent, that they could not disclose ZIP codes of patients, that their Towson location is still in operation and that, though they do prescribe Suboxone to aid in the treatment of opiate addicts, they do not distribute the drug out of their offices. Still, several neighbors were far from happy about the possibility of a center for addicts opening up down the road.

“They need help, and they need it here,” Mike Gimbel, former Baltimore County drug czar and current adviser to MARC, told the crowd of concerned residents. Still, many expressed doubts about whether addiction was really a problem in their neighborhood.

But odds are it is, say many experts in the field of addiction treatment.

In summer 2014, the National Geographic channel, in its “Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire,” put into words what many people had known for a long time: Baltimore has a serious heroin problem. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is expected to declare a state of emergency over heroin any day, dedicated part of his State of the State address earlier this month to discussing the situation.

“Throughout Maryland, from our smallest town to our biggest city, it has become an epidemic, and it is destroying lives,” Hogan told the General Assembly on Feb. 4, adding that he has tasked Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford with leading the charge to tackle what he called an “emergency” in the state.

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One out of every 10 city residents is addicted to the highly dangerous drug, estimates the White House’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. While that number has been disputed by some officials, consensus nonetheless is that the rate of addiction is extremely high. According to a 2013 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Baltimoreans accounted for half of all people admitted to treatment programs statewide for heroin addiction in 2012. In that same year, Baltimore City saw more than twice as many heroin-related deaths than any other place in the state. With easy access to extremely pure forms, experts predict that the trend will only grow.

Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS) is a New York-based organization that helps addicts and their families around the country. Unlike previous heroin spikes, the heroin being sold on the streets today is exceptionally pure, JACS experts say. As a result, it’s both more powerful and more potent. Also, users are finding alternative ways to ingest the drug into their system. Instead of shooting liquid heroin into their veins through a needle, kids as young as early teens are simply snorting or smoking the drug, alleviating some of the sense of danger surrounding it and making it more appealing to a wider clientele.

“The heroin producers and distributers have made heroin a purer, more powerful substance,” said Jonathan Katz LCSW, director of the Rita J. Kaplan Jewish Community Services for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York. “In other words, it’s not cut as much as it used to be with all kinds of adulterants that required it to be injected to get a high.”

That lack of syringes and needles, he added, can sometimes lead to a false sense of security for the user, making the chances of overdose greater.

The proposal to open the treatment center in Mount Washington cuts to the core of what many experts are urging people to acknowledge: Heroin is no longer the inner-city drug people still picture it as. Many of the city’s addicts come from affluent areas and live relatively privileged lives.

“More money just means better drugs,” said Daniel Brannon, founder of Right Turn/IMPACT, an alcohol and drug addiction treatment program based in Park Heights. A Baltimore native and recovering addict, Brannon himself was one of the first clients at the former Jewish Recovery House, which has since closed. Of the three men who moved into the center together on the first day in 1996, he says he is the only one who lived long enough to get clean.

The Jewish community, he said, has made major strides over the past decades in acknowledging addiction as a problem that exists in the Jewish neighborhoods.

“It used to be that in our communities, in Jewish communities, people didn’t want to talk about it,” said Brannon. “But addiction is everywhere.”

What many people who oppose the opening of treatment centers in their neighborhoods don’t realize, Brannon contends, is that the centers are places where people are not doing drugs. Residents of communities being eyed by potential rehab centers have a choice, he insisted: “You can have our houses or you can have crack houses.”

[pullquote]I feel bad for the people here tonight, because if their kids end up in trouble, where are they going to go?[/pullquote]
The expansion of local treatment options also means more people could get the help they need, said Brannon. Instead of having to pay for a stay at a center in Florida or California, Baltimoreans could pay half the price and receive treatment just minutes from home.

“People have families, people have jobs,” he said. “But at the same time, they need help.”

Howard Reznick LCSW-C, senior manager of prevention education at Jewish Community Services, said the path to the current state of Baltimore’s heroin crisis is chartable.

“Societies go through phases of the drug of choice,” said Reznick. The path to Baltimore’s heroin addiction can be traced through a series of societal changes dating back to the 1950s.

In the ‘50s, Reznick said, valium became the drug of choice for suburbanites and the upper class. Then, in the ‘70 and ‘80s, so-called “uppers,” such as cocaine, surged in popularity. In the 1990s and 2000s, pain medicines, such as oxycodone, became popular again. In some ways, Reznick said, the new spike in heroin use is an extension of the painkiller trend.

A person doesn’t simply wake up one day and start taking a drug like heroin, he said. While every addict’s journey is unique, Reznick described what he called a “well-worn path” to heroin addiction as experimentation with prescription painkillers that eventually leads to the user’s tolerance reaching a level that makes it nearly impossible to achieve that high with the kinds of drugs they can find in friends’ and family members’ medicine cabinets. Seeking a more powerful, cheaper alternative, they turn to heroin.

Unlike cocaine addicts, who generally can sustain an addiction for an average time of three to four years before going over the edge, opiate addicts can live with the addiction for decades.

“You can walk for a much longer time than you can run,” said Reznick of the difference between addictions to uppers compared to the addiction to downers.

Last year, JCS teamed up with a number of other local organizations to form the Jewish Recovery Network, which includes MARC. The organization supports the center’s plans to open an office in Mount Washington.

Although the network focuses a lot of attention on educating school children about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse in hopes of preventing addiction before it begins, easily accessible treatment is an important tool in any community’s ability to combat addiction.

“It’s obviously incorrect,” said Reznick of the reputation of heroin as an inner-city drug. While the majority of addicts JCS sees are in their 20s, Reznick said it is not at all uncommon for 16- and 17-year-olds to turn to the JRN for help.

“This doesn’t discriminate,” said MARC adviser and former county drug czar Gimbel after the Mount Washington meeting. After an hour-and-a-half of tense debate, his frustration with the lack of community support for the center was clear.

“I feel bad for the people here tonight,” he said, “because if their kids end up in trouble, where are they going to go?”

hnorris@midatlanticmedia.com

Dermer’s Dance Eyes turn to Israeli ambassador amid firestorm over Netanyahu invite

(Provided)

(Provided)

A week after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) touched off a political and diplomatic firestorm by announcing an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress, attention turned to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and his role in the controversy.

How serious you believe the U.S.-born Dermer’s role is in setting off that firestorm may depend on what you think of him and Netanyahu. But even if the ambassador’s actions balloon into Dermergate, it’s likely that with Israeli elections ahead, Dermer’s job, according to Israel-watchers, is safe — for now.

The controversy has led Boehner take the unusual step of publishing a chronology showing the steps taken that led to Netanyahu’s invitation, in which Boehner took the leading role. It also spurred some House Democrats to urge that Netanyahu’s appearance be postponed until after the Israeli elections and the deadline for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program has passed. Both issues have become tangled in Netanyahu’s visit.

Dermer came to Washington in 2013 as a close adviser to Netanyahu.

Unlike other Israeli envoys, the ambassador to Washington represents the prime minister and not just the foreign ministry, said Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, also made it clear that he represented the prime minister, Peri said. “But he didn’t go into confrontations with others. Nor was he seen as preferring one [U.S. political] party over another. Dermer really doesn’t care if he’s seen with one party. That is a major mistake.”

Dermer is Netanyahu’s man, and if the prime minister wins the March election, “Bibi will keep him.” But if criticism of Dermer continues to build, Netanyahu may decide to replace him, Peri said.

“With bad blood created around this issue, Dermer can’t be a well-functioning ambassador,” said a staffer for a Jewish organization who is knowledgeable about Israeli politics. “But it would really look bad if Netanyahu ejects him now. He won’t pay a terrible price to have a lame-duck ambassador for a few months.”

Dermer will keep his job, said Josh Block, CEO and president of The Israel Project. “I have no doubt that Ambassador Dermer regrets the way this invitation issue has played out. There are major issues at stake for us and for Israel, and in the sweep of history, this won’t even be a footnote.

“He is a very effective representative of the State of Israel and of his government,” added Block, “and as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, I think we’ll be seeing Ambassador Dermer continue to play that important role here in the United States.”

Oren, now a candidate for the Kulanu party running against Netanyahu’s Likud, called on the prime minister to cancel his address to Congress. Netanyahu “created the impression that this is a cynical political move, and it could hurt our efforts to act against Iran,” the former ambassador said.

Peri put the chances of Netanyahu canceling at 60-40 against.

Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, made the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, caught the White House, congressional Democrats and pro-Israel groups by surprise and, with Israeli national elections scheduled for March, was attacked by Netanyahu’s political opposition.

The Obama administration was reportedly furious at how it was bypassed in the planning. On. Jan. 28, The New York Times cited an unnamed “senior administration official,” who said the view within Obama’s inner circle is that Dermer “had repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.”

Two days later, Dermer defended his actions and his boss’ intentions to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic: “The prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully — and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention,” Dermer said.

“The consensus in the foreign policy community is that the prime minister overreached,” said a senior official in a pro-Israel organization. “But the president blew it out of proportion and is using this as an opportunity to pick a fight.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Dermer seems eager to put all his eggs in the Republican basket. That’s foolish, short-sighted, risky and irresponsible,” Alan Elsner, vice president for communication at J Street, wrote in <em<Ha’aretz.

And JTA quoted a “source close to AIPAC,” the pro-Israel lobby, saying, “The bottom line is, it would have been smarter to consult.”

The invitation to Netanyahu also left congressional Democrats and Jewish Democrats fuming.

The result is that support for Israel and the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program have become partisan issues, said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “We think this is a bad thing.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress on March 3, when the AIPAC policy conference will be underway nearby. Rosenbaum said Netanyahu should have just planned to make “a fiery policy speech” about Iran at AIPAC rather than have accepted Boehner’s invitation.

House Democrats Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) are circulating a letter urging Boehner to reschedule Netanyahu’s appearance, JTA reported. “Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship,” it reads.

The backlash from the invitation has created linkage between the prime minister’s visit and proposed legislation to increase sanctions on Iran if talks with the West on its nuclear program fail, Rosenbaum said. “For the NJDC, this has been beneficial,” because the group opposes the legislation, believing Iran might leave the talks if it passes.

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com

Nothing To Lose Terps guard Jacob Susskind ‘walks on’ to basketball success

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Jacob Susskind shows his skills in a game earlier this season against Wagner College. (Maryland Athletics)

Despite three recent losses on the road, the University of Maryland men’s basketball team is riding high, having gone into Week 13 of its season with a No. 17 ranking in the Associated Press poll and an 18-4 overall record. Prior to the team’s game against Northwestern University on Jan. 25, which the Terps won, 68-67, in a heart-pounding finish, guard Jacob Susskind sat down with the JT.

The 6-foot-4 senior hails from West Orange, N.J., where he graduated from the Golda Och Academy, formerly a Solomon Schechter Day School, and attended Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, N.J.

He is the only Jewish member of the team, a fact he trumpeted to the world when he entered Midnight Madness this year to the tune of “Hava Negilla” — his mother’s request.

“She’d been bugging me for years, so finally, for senior year, I said OK,” he said.

You were being looked at by the Ivy League and Patriot League and yet you came to Maryland as a walk-on. What led up to that?
In my senior year of high school I tore my ACL, so after that, pretty much all the recruiting stopped because I wasn’t playing. After that, Division III schools were still looking at me, but I wanted to go to a big school. I applied to Maryland and got in, and then my brother gave me the idea to try and walk on for the team. He said, ‘You got nothing to lose.’ I contacted the coaches — I wasn’t even fully healed when I met them — and then I came in at the beginning of the school year, and [after] a couple individual workouts, they kept asking me back.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to say, ‘You know what? I could be on a Division I team?’ Where does that confidence come from?
Probably from both my parents. My dad played basketball at Muhlenberg, which is Division III. He also played tennis there, so he’s really into sports. He’s a winner at heart; he always wants to win. The last time we were playing one-on-one full court — I think I was 14 — I was winning, and I had a lay-up to win the game. But he grabs my jersey — this is my own dad — and throws me to the ground so I wouldn’t score. And he ended up beating me. My mom is an ovarian cancer survivor, and just the drive she’s shown over the past nine years raising over $1 million for ovarian cancer research through a 5K run she put together [is] probably where I get all my motivation, my drive.

How have you been involved with your mother’s fundraising efforts?
I gave all of my teammates “Suss & Us” shirts, which is our cancer team’s name, and we took pictures. And social media kind of blew up and helped raise a lot of money. Maryland basketball [also got] involved, which is nice because it’s such a big name. People started seeing it and started to understand the different things that might happen with ovarian cancer. To get on this scale, to reach a lot of people who don’t know a lot about it is great.

You made it through all the tryouts, you’re on the team. How do you mesh with your teammates?
My freshman year definitely started off tough. I think a lot of the players thought I didn’t belong — I was dragging my knee around because I couldn’t really move. But finally I got healthy. This is probably the best year it’s been with a group of guys who respect each other and want to win and who like each other on and off the court.

Last spring, there were a lot of changes. Maryland was leaving the ACC for the Big Ten, and then a bunch of your teammates transferred. What was the feeling in the locker room?
The locker room was fine. We don’t like to talk about what happened last year. We just kept moving forward, and we knew that we were going to be fine. We knew that we had great freshmen coming in and we had transfers coming in who were going to help us. And from the way we’ve been playing this season, [they have] helped a lot.

Before the season started, several reporters who cover the Big Ten picked Maryland to finish 10th.
Tenth, and now they’re saying we’re going to win it, so it’s awesome.

[pullquote]“This is probably the best year it’s been with a group of guys who respect each other and want to win and who like each other on and off the court.”[/pullquote]

How do the national rankings play into how the team feels? Or does it?
I don’t think it does that much. It definitely changes the way the fans act, but I think that we definitely have our heads on straight. We do want to get that championship.

Maryland recently had a tough loss at Indiana. What happened?
Indiana played very well. They could have beaten any team in the country [that night]. They hit shots. We usually play better defense, and people don’t usually shoot like Indiana did against us. We’re playing them again [Feb. 11]. They’re going to come here, and it’s going to be a completely different game. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll win that game.

What is it like to play at home in the Xfinity Center when it’s full?
It’s awesome. It’s loud. We played Duke there two years ago and we beat them, and I remember that the sound system in the building actually started to fail because it was so loud. It was just awesome to hear people screaming. It gives me the chills.

Any big games coming up?
Honestly, we just play it game by game, so our next game is our biggest game.

The Terps won the national championship in 2002. Can you do it again this year?
Well, there are a couple of championships. We already brought home one championship from Kansas City earlier this season [the CBE Hall of Fame Classic]. The Big Ten’s regular season championship is the only one we’re looking for right now. And then the Big Ten tournament — we’re looking for that one too. We did have a team meeting about how we could win the three championships we have left, including the national championship. [We] could definitely make a run and shock some people.

One of your brothers is a sophomore at Maryland and another is in high school. Is your younger brother interested in sports?
He’s an all-around athlete. [Everybody in] my family is an all-around athlete. My mom constantly tells everyone that I get my basketball skills from her because she played going into eighth grade. I think my brother has been playing really well this season for [Golda Och Academy]. He could definitely play somewhere [in college].

What are your post-college plans?
I’m applying to different jobs. I did five years of school in four years. I did 150 credits instead of 120, so I’m getting two degrees [in accounting and finance]. Right now, I have an offer from a commercial real estate firm in D.C., but I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I’m still weighing my options, seeing what’s the best fit for me.

Do you plan to be involved with sports after college?
Definitely. I see myself playing basketball — or any sport — as long as my body holds up.

Are you involved with Jewish life on campus?
I’m in a Jewish fraternity, AEPi. I go to Chabad and I talk to the rabbi. I see him for all of the holidays, I go there for Shabbat sometimes for dinner, so I’m pretty involved.

From Awareness to Inclusion Quarter century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, how far have we come?

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Disability advocates are pushing for all Jews to be included in all aspects of Jewish life. (Courtesy of RespectAbility)

When he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 25 years ago this July, President George H.W. Bush aimed to change the lives of millions of Americans living with disabilities. According to Virginia Knowlton Marcus, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, the broad-based law mandated access to governmental services, employment, business and transportation, allowing people to achieve goals and live their lives integrated into a community just like everyone else.

But while the ADA, as the legislation is known, was, in the words of Ruderman Family Foundation president Jay Ruderman, who presides over projects benefiting the disabled in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, a “landmark statement by the government” in the realm of equality and civil rights, implementation of the law, say critics, has fallen short. Whether in terms of enforcement or the state of economic opportunities for the disabled, many acknowledge that a lot more work is left to be done.

“[The ADA has] been the beginning of a sea change in how people with disabilities are regarded in our society,” said Marcus. “There’s a long history of discrimination and segregation that the ADA provided a legal tool to overcome, and we have made significant progress in the last 25 years.

“Before the ADA, there were hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities shut away in large facilities rather than being included with their families and their communities,” she added. “[The ADA] has begun a shift of resources out of the outmoded way of dealing with people with disabilities.”

Ruderman agreed that the ADA was “significant.”

[pullquote]“Jewish values teach us that every Jewish soul deserves to be included in our community. unfortunately, we don’t live up to those values.”[/pullquote]

“It shifted the way people think about disabilities,” he said. “Before the ADA there was a medical approach: ‘Disabled people have problems. We have to cure them.’ What the ADA said was, ‘No, we need to change the environment, make our public institutions accessible institutions.’”

But one of its biggest flaws, he pointed out, was in exempting religious institutions from certain aspects of accommodation.

“I think our Jewish values teach us that every Jewish soul deserves to be included in our community. Unfortunately, we don’t live up to those values in our Jewish communities,” he said. “We tend to focus on the best and the brightest, and we don’t tend to look after the people on the fringes of our community.

“[People say it’s] expensive to include people with disabilities, but that’s a cop-out,” he continued. “There’s enough money in our community to do what we want. Our community is very focused on social justice, on being a light to the world — that’s a very important value; unfortunately, we don’t look at ourselves.”

So many Jewish philanthropies are focused on the continuation of the Jewish people while ignoring a large segment of the population that wants to be connected, he charged. “When I hear philanthropists don’t do disability, to me, that’s an absurd statement. You want to connect the Jewish community, but you’re willing to write off 20 percent of the community and their families? That tells me we need to change attitudes, and part of that is self-advocates standing up and demanding their rights.”

Ben Dubin, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation who has testified in Annapolis on disabilities and serves as vice chair of the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities, agrees with Ruderman.

Dubin, whose adult daughter is deaf, sees lack of compliance with the law as a significant barrier to the disabled.

“I guess its unfortunate today that people have to sue [to meet ADA standards],” said Dubin. “I’m really cognizant of venues, facilities when there is not a signer or oral interpreter for the deaf, or captioned for the deaf. When I take my daughter to these places, why do I constantly have to ask in advance [if these services are offered]?”

Answering his own question, Dubin offered that “some of it is still attitudinal. People don’t think people with disabilities can do what people [without] disabilities can do with regard to the job market, but if you hold businesses and government [agencies] to the letter of the ADA, what’s in the law, things would be ideal.”

According to national statistics provided by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. In Maryland, where slightly more than 80 percent of those aged 21 to 64 are employed, only slightly more than 42 percent of people with disabilities in the same age bracket are employed, according to disabilitystatistics.org, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

In her writings, Mizrahi points out that while other minority groups have made huge gains in employment opportunities, disabled individuals are no more likely to be employed than they were before the ADA was passed.

That’s why she wants to see the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was signed into law in July 2014, succeed. Mizrahi, who is dyslexic and suffered a car accident before the passage of the ADA, testified before the U.S. Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities, calling the committee’s attention to the “Disability Employment First Planning Tool” crafted in conjunction with other leading disability advocates.

“We want to see the investment the taxpayer is making [used wisely], giving people with disabilities [a] better future,” said Mizrahi.

Locally, there are a number of organizations that provide vocational training and educational opportunities for the disabled. Among them are the Arc, Chimes and the League for People with Disabilities, Inc., which was co-founded by the Council of Jewish women. The Community College of Baltimore County works in collaboration with these agencies to host classes and provides students with learning differences or cognitive challenges an accessible education through the Single Step Program.

Melanie Hood-Wilson, director of special populations at CCBC, estimates that 90 to 125 students enroll in the noncredit program each semester on campus. There are two types of students at Single Step, she said: the student who wants to go out in the world and have a career and the student who simply wants to have the same college experience as his or her nondisabled peers or siblings who might attend nearby Towson University or UMBC.

Teaching life skills is also part of the experience, as there has been “a growing awareness that self-advocacy and self-determination are essential,” said Hood-Wilson.

While the ADA opened up doors to higher education, accommodations are not guaranteed in the same way the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates for the K-12 population, which can leave disabled adults out in the cold.

“All people want to be as independent as we can be; some of us just need more support,” explained Hood-Wilson. “That’s really what the disability world is all about in the 21st century — helping people with disabilities figure out how to live the lives they want to live and providing them with the resources they need.”

Shelly Christensen, co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) — now running for the seventh consecutive February — literally wrote the book on inclusion, titled, “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.” Her advocacy efforts were inspired by her middle son, Jacob, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was not diagnosed until he was 15.

Jacob Christensen was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 15. His mother co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month. (Provided)

Jacob Christensen was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 15. His mother co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month. (Provided)

“We always saw Jacob as Jacob and if he had a disability going on then we needed to work with him and not marginalize him and not create a persona that was less than,” she said. “And the one place that we did not have problems was at our synagogue and our religious school. Jacob was just Jacob there.”

As inclusive as her home congregation in Minneapolis was, Christensen and other members of the Jewish Special Education International Consortium recognized that inclusion was not on the radar of many educators. They looked to JDAM to move from simply educating disabled Jews to including them in the mainstream community as full participants with whatever supports they needed.

“Think of the variety of ways you participate in the Jewish community,” she wrote in a recent blog post leading up to this year’s JDAM. “You choose how you wish to be involved. So it must be for people with disabilities. The key is supporting each person to determine what is important to them instead of us determining what we think is important for them.

“The whole idea of inclusion isn’t complicated: You treat people with dignity and respect that all people are created in God’s image and it’s not a mitzvah project,” she added. “We have a ways to go.”

Joining Christensen in spreading the message that inclusivity must be an ideal constantly pursued is Lisa Friedman, education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J. She blogs about JDAM at jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com and matankids.org, and offers her expertise to Jewish communal groups, particularly religious schools and synagogues. This year, she is challenging other disability advocates to think about inspiration, awareness, acceptance and inclusion each week of February.

“[The] tagline of JDAM is from awareness to inclusion,” said Friedman. “Often when I present, there’s this progression: First, you have to make sure people are on board, that they agree [with inclusion], and that’s pretty easy, but a lot of times that’s where it stops. … I went in this direction of, ‘OK, you’re inspired, now learn.’”

Two of the biggest challenges congregations often cite are lack of funds and lack of expertise.

“I’ll [be told], ‘Sure, it’s easy for you to say xyz because you’re an expert in [inclusion], but we’re not experts,’” said Friedman. When it comes to “money, people get scared off. … But there are simple ways to be more inclusive,” like offering large print books or video streaming.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, a senior advisor on disability rights for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, experienced exclusion firsthand.

While taking her son to religious school years ago, she was in a car accident that left her in a coma for six weeks; she suffered a traumatic brain injury and needed to relearn how to walk and talk.

She said via email, “To my dismay, many synagogues I visit tell me that their attempts to welcome people with disabilities fall under the purview of their social action committee. We Jews must help our synagogues understand that welcoming people with disabilities is not a social action item. … Social action is teaching every segment of our community about this minority that is seldom acknowledged.”

Self-advocacy, an increasingly popular buzzword, is a movement that Friedman fully supports. The involvement of disabled individuals into how they want to be included in the community and what supports they will need should be an obvious place to start, she contends.

As to how well the Jewish world has done with inclusion, Friedman says it’s a work in progress.

“I think we’ve done well in pockets. I think there are some places … that do some aspect of inclusion well,” she said. “The whole Jewish camping movement isn’t inclusive, but there are exemplary, outstanding examples of inclusion within Jewish camps.”

Exclusionary practices at Jewish camps is something that rings true to Ari Ne’eman, winner of the 2014 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion and president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

“The Ramah camps has a policy that each Ramah camp will welcome a camper with a particular disability,” said Ne’eman. In other words, he continued, if you are disabled, you might not be able to go to the same summer camp as all of your friends from home. “Now, if the Jewish camp system were subject to the same requirements under the ADA as secular camps that would be a very questionable arrangement.”

Camp is not the only place Ne’eman has seen or experienced exclusion firsthand. He described having to leave religious school because of his disability.

“To be frank, there are many ways that Jewish communal life is very exclusionary,” he said. “Sometimes that comes in the form of having separate segregated programs instead of being welcomed into the greater community.”

Ne’eman, who holds a degree in political science from UMBC, co-founded ASAN in 2006 as a response to a “growing discussion on autism, but it was excluding the voice of autistic people.”

ASAN is firmly in the “nothing about us without us” camp and is unafraid of voicing its views — from using identity-first language to opposing autistic individuals being institutionalized or placed in sheltered situations — even when those views garner pushback, even open hostility, from parents and other advocates. Ne’eman wants to see disabled individuals not only brought to the table, but sitting on Federation boards or at the head of Jewish communal institutions.

In terms of local Jewish life, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has a Caring Commission that works to ensure services for the most vulnerable populations, according to commission member and Jewish Federations of North America’s Disability Committee co-chair Janet Livingston. “I do think we’ve done quite a lot in our community,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to make people with disabilities able to participate and function and give all our families services to be able to participate.”

Another Associated-funded Jewish communal resource Livingston points to is the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance. Its website, jewishabilities.org, serves as a one-stop shop for Jewish and general services for a wide array of disabilities from early childhood through adulthood.

To mark JDAM, The Associated is partnering with the JCC, Jewish Community Services, the Macks Center for Jewish Education and SHEMESH on a number of workshops and programs. The Associated will be sending representatives to Washington D.C. on Feb. 25 to participate in Jewish Disability Day, organized by the Jewish Disability Network, JFNA and the RAC.

The Hogan Era Budget delivers on promise of cuts

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Governor Larry Hogan (File)

Newly sworn-in Gov. Larry Hogan started his tenure in office with a bang last week when he announced his 2016 budget, following through on his campaign promise to close the state’s looming budget gap.

“Maryland’s FY 2016 budget establishes balance without slashing agencies, laying off workers and while fully funding education and all of our essential priorities,” said Hogan in his Jan. 22 news conference announcing his proposed budget.

The budget, he told news crews and officials gathered in Annapolis, achieves three main objectives: It is structurally balanced; it does not raise taxes or fees or eliminate agencies, departments or services or require furloughs or layoffs; and it increases spending on kindergarten through grade 12 education and higher education.

While some praised Hogan’s fiscal conservativism, for many in Maryland’s government, the budget left much to be desired. The legislature’s chief budget analyst, Warren Deschenaux, criticized the budget’s unspecified call for state agencies to cut 2 percent from their budgets, and though education overall would see a record high in funding, areas such as Baltimore City and the counties surrounding Washington, D.C., will lose millions of dollars in funds over the next few years.

“I’m really disappointed that there are such enormous cuts to our education budget. Baltimore County is due to lose nearly $13 million and Baltimore City over $30 million,” said Baltimore County Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. “If the governor is serious about creating a better business environment, research has shown that one of the most important aspects businesses look at when considering where to locate is the quality of a state’s schools. Such dramatic cuts to our school budgets will, no doubt, have a detrimental effect on the quality of our public schools.”

Hettleman was far from alone in her critique of the governor’s education spending plan.

“It’s just not a tenable way to fund education,” said Montgomery County Sen. Roger Manno (D-District 19), who sits on the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee and chairs the Spending Affordability Committee. “You might be able to balance the books that way, but it seems to me that that’s a hell of a way to balance the books: on the backs of kids.”

Manno said he understands the difficult financial situation the new governor came into but stressed that the state has grappled with deficits before and managed to not cut funding from education and environmental programs.

“We don’t deconstruct state government because revenue estimates came in south of where they thought they’d be,” said Manno. “We figure it out.”

Manno was also concerned about the lack of funding included in the budget for some of the Jewish community initiatives in Montgomery County.

“Some things pay for themselves,” he said of Jewish social service agencies and programs that had seen state dollars in the past but would not be seeing funding in 2016. “They’re investments in communities and people that yield huge dividends, and the truth of the matter is this: They define us. What we do down here is who we are.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council is also concerned about funding for community programs that have received state aid in the past. In the FY 2015 budget, the Jewish Museum of Maryland was allotted $12,533 in funds from the state; Sinai Hospital received $2.5 million; and the Hillel Center for Social Justice at the University of Maryland was the recipient of $1 million in funding for construction. This year, Executive Director Arthur Abramson sees few of the items he and the BJC have been advocating for in the governor’s proposal.

“We are concerned — based on prior conversations with the governor and others — that, as we peruse the budget, we’re not finding some of the items that we believe are vital to our community and that we expected, based upon prior conversations, would be in the budget,” said Abramson, who added that he and his staff are in communitcation with both the governor’s office and legislators about what can be done to salvage some of the funds he said the community desperately needs.

In particular, Abramson said, the BJC is looking for funds to help equip Sinai hospital with the tools necessary to respond to any potential attack on the community of Northwest Baltimore and funds for Northwest Hospital’s domestic violence and elder abuse programs.

“We are dependant upon funding and we hope that Gov. Hogan will continue providing the necessary money to enhance the quality of lives for those people who require our efforts.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Spring into Performing Arts Baltimore’s hot performing arts scene warms up the start of the spring season

Ronen Koresh, artistic director of the Koresh Dance Company of Philadelphia. (Photos provided)

Ronen Koresh (bottom left), artistic director of the Koresh Dance Company of Philadelphia. (Photos provided)

The Jewish community will take an active role in the Baltimore County Dance Celebration, Feb. 1 to March 9, when the Gordon Center of Performing Arts plays host to many events including four major performances, dance workshops, seminars and smaller ensemble and solo performances.

“We are thrilled to shine a spotlight on dance this February with an eclectic array of riveting, hypnotic dance programs,” said Randi Benesch, managing director of the Gordon Center. “From amateur to professional performances, from dance improvisation to hip hop and tap, from modern to jazz to ballet, there is something for everyone and we hope you’ll take a leap with us!”

A series highlight is the Koresh Dance Company of Philadelphia, in residency beginning Feb. 24 and performing on Saturday, Feb. 28. Visiting in partnership with the Baltimore County Public Schools, company members will teach master classes to Baltimore County middle and high school students during their stay.

Koresh artistic director Ronen Koresh, 53, was born and raised in Israel and was first exposed to dance at age 10 thanks to his mother, an Israeli folk dancer and member of a Tel Aviv-based Yemenite folk dance group. Soon Koresh became known as a “street dancer,” dancing at parties and clubs, eventually becoming a student of jazz and ballet. He choreographed his first piece at age 16, with 40 girls who performed the dance at a local soccer field. He later joined Martha Graham’s Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premier dance company.

After mandatory army service Koresh immigrated to the U.S. in 1983 and trained with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. In 1984, he began performing with Shimon Braun’s acclaimed Waves Jazz Dance Company in Philadelphia. Koresh taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 1985 and was asked to choreograph for an ensemble in 1987.

Koresh, who founded his company in 1991, is not bound by allegiance to any single dance tradition, regularly drawing on modern, jazz and ballet and a range of musical styles to provide audiences a unique and accessible experience.

“We deal a lot with humanity,” said Koresh. “Relationships — person to person, community to community, senses, feelings. We are not too sublime or too abstract. Everything is based in emotion, so you can feel, you can relate to [the dance]. You don’t feel dumb.”

Koresh’s music choice is as eclectic as his choreography.

“We don’t shy away from anything — world music, classical, the mystery of other cultures and languages,” he said. “They trigger the imagination.”

Asya Zlatina has been dancing with the Koresh Dance Company for the past seven years. A Maryland native and Goucher College graduate, Zlatina is looking forward to returning to her home turf. Zlatina, 27, credited Goucher’s dance department with much of her success.

“My teachers invested a lot in me,” she noted.

Zlatina also praised Koresh, who gave her an apprenticeship with the company at age 20, lauding his emphasis on real-life experience and emotional connection, in order to create powerful dance.

“We are always very physical, very emotional,” she explained. “It can be draining because it is about relationships and pieces of our own lives. It is not about fairy-tales. Roni doesn’t do cheesy. He does real life. He is very influenced by his Israeli roots.”

Koresh would likely agree with Zlatina’s analysis.

“In Israel, there is an urgency. We are just trying to survive. Some people think Israelis are rude, but it is just that we are always going to the heart of it, moving forward, dealing with the subject, not going around it,” he said. “Israeli culture has a lot of passion, it is very open, aggressive, in your face.”

Koresh claims that is why Israeli choreographers are at the forefront of modern dance, they straight to the heart. He also believes dance has changed with the times.

“Before, dance was too slow. That’s why a lot of people fell asleep in the 1990s,” he said, pointing to historically diminished ticket sales and the focus dance demands from its audience. But, he added, “they don’t fall asleep in my shows. If anything, they wake you up.”

Amy Herzog (Photo provided)

Amy Herzog (Photo provided)

The Play’s The Thing
In preparation for the spring season, Baltimore’s theater companies unveiled details for their 2015 production schedules. Offerings are diverse and eclectic, with a mix of classic, contemporary, experimental and in some cases, offbeat. And Charm City’s upcoming theatrical season is not lacking in Jewish-themed plays, Jewish actors or directors.

Especially significant is Center Stage’s Amy Herzog Festival. Center Stage’s dramaturge, Gavin Witt, explained the decision to produce two of Herzog’s plays, “After the Revolution” (2010) and “4000 Miles” (2011) this spring. Both plays are based upon the playwright’s own family history, in particular her Jewish Marxist grandparents.

“Amy [Herzog’s plays] very quickly became one of the candidates. Part of it was that [artistic director], Kwame [Kwei-Armah] became interested in introducing Baltimore to an emerging voice in theater,” he said. “Amy just had a surge of productions and performances and her plays suit us. They are rooted enough in psychology, in human relationships but also deal with civic and political issues. That has always been a touchstone for us.”

Witt described how the two family saga plays work well together, even though written in different styles. One is a sweeping epic and the other is an intimate play, featuring a small cast and taking place in one isolated time period. Viewing the two plays, audience members can experience the historical arc of the 20th century from the 1930s, the New Deal, and Jewish left aspiring socialists, and then into the blacklists of the 1950s and the disillusionment of that time. Together, the plays illustrate how much things change and how people experience history differently.

Witt added, “It’s such an interesting kaleidoscope of America.”

Members of Baltimore’s Jewish community will also be pleased by Vagabond Players’ production of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” a beloved musical revue featuring music from legendary Jewish composer, Stephen Sondheim’s most popular shows including “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “A Funny Thing Happened,” “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

The play is the directorial debut of Pikesville native and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation board member Shannon Wollman, 46, who is also known for her roles in “Evita,” “Funny Girl,” “Next to Normal,” “Gypsy” and many others.

“With age and experience, I’ve gotten a lot of ideas,” said Wollman. “When you’re a performer, you have to quell those ideas, because you are not the director. Finally I said, ‘It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.’ This will teach me if I really love directing or, I might say, ‘Better leave directing to others.’”

Wollman said it’s perfect timing for “Side by Side” because Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” is now in theaters.

“And I love Vagabond, the intimacy of the space,” she concluded. “I’m very excited!”

Emily Hearn (Photo provided)

Emily Hearn (Photo provided)

Fine Tuning
Now in its third season, Eutaw Place is a unique venue that showcases indie singer/songwriters and local talent.

On March 14, Eutaw Place, located in the lower level of the historic Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, welcomes Emily Hearn, 24, to its stage. A native of Georgia, Hearn taught herself guitar in her senior year in high school. Her freshman year at the University of Georgia, she began writing songs and has performed professionally for four years. Hearn’s success as a professional musician came as something of a surprise to her.

“When I applied to college I wanted to study journalism,” she said. “But a group of friends at college had a big party every semester and they asked me to play. I got a good reception.”

She said Athens was a welcoming music scene, so she played locally and at nearby college towns, and eventually at bigger regional venues.

Hearn said her music is influenced by indy rock bands, as well as by other women singer/songwriters such as Brandy Carlisle and, naturally, Taylor Swift. She also listens to a lot of jazz, especially the vocal music of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

About her own music, she said, “It’s a mix of Americana, country but it comes out more pop.”

In 2012, Hearn married musician and songwriter Michael Harrison and now the couple writes and performs together.

“I’m very creative and spacey, my ideas kind of float around — and he’s very focused,” Hearn explained. “I actually enjoy writing with him even more than writing by myself. Before, I mostly wrote about relationships and heartbreak. It was draining to perform [those songs]. Michael brought a male perspective. Now we tackle bigger issues.”

In March 2015, Hearn’s first album, “Hourglass” will be released.

“All the songs are based on growing up and life lessons,” said Hearn. “The title, from a lyric in one of the songs, signifies the passage of time.”

Also performing at Eutaw Place on March 14 is singer/songwriter, Luke Brindley and on Feb. 14, Eutaw Place will feature Tony Lucca in a special Valentine’s Day concert, complete with wine-tasting. April 18, indy/ folk/Americana music duo Dawn & Hawkes help Eutaw Place celebrate its third anniversary.

The Jerusalem Quartet (Felix Broede)

The Jerusalem Quartet (Felix Broede)

Chamber Notes
Chamber music fans will enjoy the Gordon Center’s Winter Chamber Music Series: “From Darkness to Light,” featuring two concerts by the Aura Nova Ensemble that traces the history of Jewish music from the 19th Century to modern times.

On Feb. 8, the ensemble will perform music by Ernest Bloch, Jonathon Leshnoff, Gideon Klein, Gustav Mahler and Dimitri Shostakovich.

“After the formation of the German Weimar Republic following World War I and with the rise of Nazism and later, Stalinism, the political and social clouds in Europe grew ominously dark,” said founder and Aura Nova violinist, Mark Singer. “With the Nazi takeover of the German government in 1933, Jewish participation in musical culture came to a standstill. Those that could, fled, but many others perished, and Continental Europe’s loss was Great Britain, Israel and America’s gain as many musicians found havens in these three countries.”

Other chamber music events include a concert by the internationally renowned Jerusalem Quartet on Feb. 15 at Shriver Hall. The quartet performs Joseph Haydn’s Quartet Op. 74 No. 3 in G Minor, “Rider;” Erwin Schulhoff’s “Five Pieces for String Quartet” and Franz Schubert’s Quartet No. 14 in D Minor “Death and the Maiden.”

An annual favorite, International Guitar Night at the Gordon Center returns Feb. 7, and Israeli pop star, Rami Kleinstein will perform there on March 19.

 

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Negotiating the Negev The coexistence of development, preservation and growth

David Ben-Gurion’s vision was to make the Negev desert bloom, but Israel’s efforts to develop the arid lands of its southern interior often pit environmentalists against government land officials, and native Bedouin tribes against an influx of immigrants and longtime Israeli urban-dwellers.

Only 8 percent of Israel’s population lives in the vast Negev region, an area that comprises about 60 percent of the nation’s landmass. Agriculturally, the country can produce about 45 percent of its calories, while the larger percentage of food is imported, said Alon Tal, associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Institute for Dryland Environmental and Energy Research in Be’er Sheva. He thinks Israel could do better — such as by growing food in the Negev — but, he urges, not at the price of environmental destruction.

“We need innovative agriculture,” not government subsidies to bring in “one Jewish family … so they can hire 40 Thai workers. I don’t think this is in the national interest,” said Tal, who sits on the international board of the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet LeYisrael. He believes non-profit foundation and government subsidies should focus on “solar industries and clean tech and biotech and make [the Negev] a place to be.”

Wadi Attir, a unique sustainable agriculture project that addresses Tal’s urging, celebrated its dedication ceremony Jan. 27 in the Bedouin village of Hura, north of Be’er Sheva. Initiated at the end of 2007 and estimated to be a $10 million project once fully realized, it is a collaboration of Dr. Michael Ben-Eli’s New York-based Sustainability Laboratory and Hura Mayor Dr. Mohammed Alnabari.

Ben-Eli, a 20-year veteran of sustainability research and advocacy, found himself drawn to the region’s 180,000 Bedouin residents during a visit to the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

“My God, this is impossible,” he recalled saying, during a trip through some villages, “that Israeli citizens live in such conditions.”

Alnabari said the average age is 14 in the Bedouin community, and more than 60 percent are under 18. The Bedouin have lived a very simple and stable life, he explained, but now they feel they’ve lost everything, as a highly technological life encroaches on them. They need to learn methods to bridge those worlds, he said.

Interested in applying sustainability practices to help improve Bedouin living conditions, Ben-Eli met with Alnabari and others in Hura on a subsequent trip as well as researchers at the university. Seed funding from private donors allowed them to proceed.

“We were able to assemble a very unusual group of partners,” namely the Israeli government, academia, NGOs, the Jewish National Fund and private donors.

Wadi Attir fuses traditional Bedouin agricultural and husbandry practices with the pioneering and inventive agriculture methods presented by Ben-Eli’s team. The staff learns techniques for soil enhancement and water retention and can receive training for eventual employment. They maintain the herds and crops and produce dairy products, medicinal herbals and cosmetic goods.

“[Wadi Attir] is a big opportunity,” said Alnabari, “with many resources for the future.”

Situated in a semi-arid region, the teams were charged with the sizable task of enriching the soil.

 

Stefan Leu, a scientist at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, said in the Negev region “the soil productivity and fertility is about 10 times less than it could be” and he is working to replenish it after its destruction “thousands of years ago by early settlers and passing armies. The problem is the restoration of this vegetation; getting it all back is a very slow process.”

Echoing Bedouin farming practices, Leu recommended planting native trees such as olive, acacia, pistachio and carob that are useful as food as well as anchoring and nourishing the soil. He devised systems of augmenting the landscape with natural rain catches made of small earth mounds and also overlaying the soil with leaves and straw, all of which capture water and prevent it from being washed into gullies or ravines.

Leu admits restoration of vegetation can take years, though initial successes are taking root as he and his team make the soil more permeable. But, he said, there is an obstacle even more impenetrable.

“It is the nonexistent or ambiguous land ownership,” he said. Wadi Attir, after years of permit applications and negotiation, finally owns about 100 acres. “Every single other piece of land from this area from Be’er Sheva to Eilat and to Dimona … is not available because it’s under disputed ownership. Bedouins claim it is theirs, the government does not want to accept that claim, and, therefore, nothing can be done.”

But the collaboration of Wadi Attir has been encouraging, he noted, because it encompasses “sustainable development and also addresses economic, environmental and social problems” and it helps to ameliorate them within the Bedouin community. That holistic approach is a steadfast principle of Ben-Eli’s Sustainability Laboratory.

To date, staff at Wadi Attir has planted 3,500 olive trees, constructed animal pens for their goat and sheep herds and built a large barn. There is also a sophisticated combination solar- and wind- energy system that heats up stored power to augment its energy output. Plans include a visitors’ center, a milking facility, dairy operation and technology to convert waste into an energy resource. Ultimately, Ben-Eli said, the desire is to replicate the project in other desert regions around the world.

But agriculture is only part of the Negev’s evolution, with government planners seeing the region as a potential home for those seeking suburban, or more affordable, lifestyles.

It’s nearly impossible to look around anywhere in Israel and not see some development, power lines or a village, said Shahar Solar, head of the Environmental Planning and Green Building Division at the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection.

“You can drive for days [in the U.S.] and the only thing you’ll see is the road. You see nothing,” Solar said, recalling a recent two-week cross-country drive during his stay as a Wexner Israel Fellow at Harvard. “And here we don’t have that. So we have to think really carefully how we develop Israel. And the planning system should be precise.”

Shahar said “people perceive the Negev as empty” so it attracts projects such as hazardous waste treatment plants and power facilities that, he admits, are needed, but the government also sees it as fertile ground for growing new communities. In the planning stage are 11 new villages, said Shahar, most are north and east of Be’er Sheva, and includes Kasif, a village designated for an ultra-Orthodox community just across the road from a Bedouin village.

He likened the new villages to suburbs, containing about 100 to 200 homes and offering lower taxes, so they tend to attract higher economic-level families. His hope is that he and his colleagues can prevent some of the projects from moving forward.

“We think the way to develop Israel is going to existing cities like Dimona, Yerucham, Be’er Sheva, Netivot, Sderot … and invest there.” He added, “Then more people will enjoy the investment, not [just] the small minority.”

Tal agrees.

“We’ve got to help people make their [existing] towns economic and social successes,” he asserted. “We don’t need to take the limited resources we have as a society and build expensive new infrastructures so that a group of privileged yuppies can have their own little garden community. Those days are gone; they should be gone if we were running this country responsibly, both in terms of our ecological responsibilities and in terms of our social responsibilities.”

Solar said it is not only suburban sprawl, but also the unrecognized, unauthorized Bedouin communities that create challenges for the design and implementation of responsible planning.

He explained the danger is, with many small communities spread so far apart, that infrastructure cannot be efficiently disseminated to allow access for basic needs such as educational and health facilities or even electrical power. For example, when long power lines are used, 4 percent of electricity is lost in the transmission.

“We have to deal with this issue, … and on the way minimize [the Bedouin] impact on the environment. It’s a big issue.” He added, “The [Bedouin] people now live in insufficient conditions. … It’s not a matter of religion, it’s because they live so spread out … There is very low density but the impact is there.  They have roads and houses, tents, cattle, all the impact of a small village.”

Proposed plans would require Bedouin families from low-density areas to move to larger settlements in order to access the provided services. Solar said in addition to improving the living situation of the communities “the ecological system will benefit. It’s a very political issue.”

With all of the good intentions of planned development and nonprofits encouraging movement to the Negev, Solar said, making it a reality is a very different thing.

“There is no demand to live in the Negev, especially in the remote places,” he said. “We should increase the demand for cities like Be’er Sheva, which has huge potential. … We can’t spread the money, the attention, the energy, in all kinds of remote places which are not serving anyone.”

The Jewish National Fund, which owns of about 13 percent of the land in Israel, maintains a bird’s -eye view across many different desert developments that reach far south into the Negev region. Its Blueprint Negev initiative is comprehensive in that it works with new and established communities and promotes improvements in health care accessibility and agriculture as well as cleaning up, restoring and preserving areas of historic and natural beauty.

According to Eric Narrow, JNF Midatlantic senior campaign executive, his organization’s role “is to be the collaborator and a partner in resources and funding.”

[pullquote]“Because right now, in terms of intergenerational justice ecologically, Israel is failing. We are not leaving our children as healthy a land of Israel, as that which we received. We need to do better. We owe them that.”
[/pullquote]

JNF grants funds but also works to empower its partners, explained Narrow. “Our goal is to create a sustainable model for socioeconomic growth and prosperity.”

Previous to Wadi Attir, JNF was not working directly with Bedouin communities but welcomed the opportunity to support and collaborate with the Sustainability Laboratory, an organization that mirrored its mission, said Narrow. “When you look at what our focus is, it’s providing a future for Israel, so as the needs of the country changed, that changed the focus of what we were doing.”

Since then JNF has implemented other programs focused on Bedouin communities.

Continuing with the spirit of collaboration and meshing with its desire to sustainably develop the southern Negev, JNF also partners with Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, near Eilat, where primarily Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian students work with a cadre of international environmentalists on interdisciplinary research that centers on innovative environmental technologies.

Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT) is another JNF partner organization committed to sustainable development and education, located in the central Arava region.

“Now [the institute] hosts 1,200 students from more than a dozen countries that learn cutting-edge farming techniques they can bring back to their countries,” Narrow said. “We also teach them about Israel.”

One of the ways you can bridge cultures is through the shared struggle with land challenges, said Narrow, “So there becomes a shared interdependency. They go back [to their countries of origin] with a stronger knowledge of business and agriculture and a stronger knowledge of the Jewish people … They are usually from countries that would not [typically] be inclined to work with us.”

The Arava Institute, co-founded by Tal, exemplifies the innovative, collaborative thinking he promotes as necessary to responsibly foster growth in the Negev.

“I’m a powerful advocate for development of the Negev,” said Tal, “But we have to do it right so we leave something for our children to be proud of.  Because right now, in terms of intergenerational justice ecologically, Israel is failing. We are not leaving our children as healthy a land of Israel as that which we received. We need to do better. We owe them that.”

Focus on Bedouin Youth
A New Dawn creates opportunity for young at-risk population

Jamal Alkirnawi, 35, grew up in the Negev’s largest Bedouin community of Rahat, just north of Be’er Sheva. Since his teen years, he’s not been satisfied sitting on his laurels, instead, he has pushed “to enact real change” in his community.

At 16, he established a never-before-existing student council at his school and through that met students from around the country. That exposure widened his horizons, and he began to see the opportunities possible, he said. At that young age Alkirnawi dedicated himself to activism for his community.

He earned a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, completed a degree in social work and returned to Israel as an academic counselor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Alkirnawi quickly realized he couldn’t “just be in a nice office, at a university.”

“I needed to get back to the ground,” he said. “I can’t sit on the [sidelines] and say things will move by themselves.”

Alkirnawi also became a father.

“You care about your kids, you don’t want them to have the same challenges, you want to break the cycle,” he said. “This drives me so much.”

In 2009, he and several Bedouin and Jewish colleagues founded A New Dawn in the Negev, for which he is director. A New Dawn provides academic and cultural education and international exposure for about 600 Bedouin youths from ages 5 to 18. Programs range from after-school English instruction, a language exchange that includes German, English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew, the Strings of Change Bedouin Youth Orchestra and a digital media center. Visiting graduate students from around the world also work with the youths.

Imminent approval by the Israeli government will enable the start of a scholarship program for A New Dawn’s international student exchange, beginning with Germany.

“Change is always hard and is sometimes shunned, but we have been successful in the Bedouin communities for a few reasons,” Alkirnawi said. The main reason is the large demand for youth programming, previously nonexistent. The programs stand out because they are “social services for Bedouins by Bedouins,” he added.

“A New Dawn is working to bring the Bedouin community to a higher standard … in partnership with the surrounding society,” he said, “to create a flourishing and blooming Negev.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Inauguration Celebration Hogan sworn in, promises bipartisanship

Larry Hogan inaugurationThe hundreds of Marylanders who braved cold temperatures and heavy snow on Wednesday to witness the swearing-in of the second Republican governor in more than four decades were treated to a snapshot of the new governor’s plan for the next four years.

“Today is the beginning of a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Annapolis,” declared Gov. Larry Hogan from the steps of the statehouse after being sworn in as Maryland’s 62nd governor. The ceremony was attended by Hogan’s father, former congressman Lawrence Hogan; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who campaigned heavily for Hogan ahead of the November election; outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley; former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich; Attorney General Brian Frosh and delegates and state senators from both parties, along with numerous family members, friends and citizens.

Hogan told attendees that he and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford’s administration will focus on four key objectives in his tenure. First, he will set a standard of fiscal responsibility in all aspects of governing. Second, he said, he will utilize the resources available in the state Maryland, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the wealth of top-notch colleges and universities, to spur economic growth in the state. Third, he promised to work to ensure that the state government is maximally responsive to and representative of the citizens of Maryland. And fourth, he said, he will restore fairness and balance for taxpayers.

“This is our chance to build a state that works for the people, and not the other way around” he told an energetic crowd as the snow began to collect.

Hogan’s speech centered on creating an environment of bipartisanship in Annapolis, where he will have to work with the heavily Democratic state legislature. He assured the crowd that the next four years would be marked by unprecedented cooperation rather than gridlock and stalemate. With his first budget due Friday, Marylanders will soon find out what kind of atmosphere the next four years will carry.

“In the end,” he said, “it isn’t about politics, it’s about citizenship.”

Inauguration day began at 8 a.m. for the new Hogan administration with an interfaith service held at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis and ended with a gala at the Baltimore Convention Center. At the gala, a visibly tired Rutherford and Hogan addressed the crowd of party-goers, thanking them for their support.

When Hogan launched his campaign almost a year ago, said Alfred Redmer Jr., Hogan’s new insurance commissioner who emceed the team’s election night party and introduced the governor and lieutenant governor at the gala, the pundits said “Larry who?” By the springtime, he said to a cheering crowd, “you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing his bus.”

For Marylanders Dave and Mary Manley, who enjoyed the food and cocktails at the packed gala, the party was a long time coming.

“We’ve only ever been on the other side of [elections],” said Dave Manley. He and his wife were not living in Maryland during Ehrlich’s time in office and jumped at the opportunity to attend Hogan’s Inauguration gala to celebrate the rare Republican victory. The pair was looking forward to the lower taxes and more business-friendly climate the Hogan campaign championed during the election.

“It’s always good to get some change in [the governor’s seat],” said Dave.

City Council Conflict Differing messages about councilwoman’s removal from committees

newWhen Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector was removed from all but one of her committee assignments last month, the official message from the City Council was that Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young wanted to get some fresh blood into the city’s 12 committees. Last week, that message changed.

“What Rikki did, she crossed a line of decorum with the Council,” Young, a Democrat, said in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “Rikki has been disrespectful to me as Council president.”

In early December, Spector, a Democrat who represents Upper Park Heights, parts of Fallstaff, Mount Washington and other neighborhoods in the far Northwest 5th District, was removed from two of her three committee positions. The loss of her seats on the Urban Affairs and Aging committee and Land Use and Transportation committee left her with only the Executive Appointments committee, a relatively thankless position compared with the other legislative bodies, responsible solely for vetting candidates the mayor recommends for heads of city departments. Every other Council member is assigned to at least three committees. Most sit on four or five.

“Rikki has not been supportive of me, I’m telling you, and I can’t have people in my leadership, on my important committees in the City of Baltimore, who are not supportive of anything that I’ve done,” said Young, who accused Spector of not supporting him until the last minute when he ran for president of the Council in 2010.

Young added that he would not be reinstating her onto any of the committees for the remainder of the current Council term, which expires in 2016.

“As long as I am president Rikki will never get those committees back. No way,” he said. “You can’t disrespect me. … No, because if she was in Annapolis and she’d done what she’d done, she would have been stripped of everything and put in the corner.”

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Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (left) and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake found themselves on the same side of bills outfitting police with body cameras and banning the sale of plastic bags. (Photos provided)

Spector, the longest-serving councilmember and only Jewish representative, gained notoriety late last year when she was the only member to vote against body cameras for all members of Baltimore’s police force and a ban on plastic bags at city stores. The bills were both fiercely advocated for by Young and eventually vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

In his interview with the Jewish Times, Young accused Spector of having a history of not supporting him and being a mouthpiece for the Rawlings-Blake administration. The mayor’s office had no comment.

“Anything that the administration is against, whether it’s right or wrong, Rikki is with the administration,” said Young. “And it’s just total disrespect.”

To those in the Jewish community who may be worried about adequate representation on the Council, Young said he represents the Northwest community just as much as Spector does.

Since his election, Young has worked closely with Baltimore’s Jewish community, hosting black-Jewish dialogues and, most recently, representing the City Council in a meeting with local rabbis and police representatives about security in light of the Paris attacks, a meeting held in Northwest Baltimore to which Spector was not extended an invitation.

For Sandy Johnson, president of the Fallstaff Improvement Association, that is little consolation.

“I think it’s very, very, very unfortunate,” said Johnson, who said that Spector has worked hard on behalf of the association in the past. She is concerned by the effect the move will have on respresentation for the area.

“I don’t think it will go over well in this community,” she said.

Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41), whose district covers Spector’s, echoed Johnson’s dissatisfaction.

“It’s wrong,” said Rosenberg. “Every member of a legislative body has the right and should be serving on committees.”

He added that elected officials are not bound to vote with their presiding officer and should not be punished for having their own opinion.
[pullquote]
To those in the Jewish community who may be worried about adequate representation on the Council, Young said he represents the Northwest community just as much as Spector does.[/pullquote]

Rumors have swirled since as early as 2010 that Spector does not live in her district. A number of political blogs have traced her real residence to an Inner Harbor condominium more than five miles outside the boundaries of her district.

In his interview with the JT, Young referenced doubt about Spector’s residency.

Spector dismissed the notion, offered by Young staffers, that the Council president was simply working to get new councilmembers committee experience.

“Well everybody knows the best way to give experience to someone who doesn’t have it is have them sit along with someone who does have the experience,” she said. “I can understand giving everybody experience, but don’t take the experienced people away from benefiting the ones who don’t have the experience.”

Stripping officials of duties and committee assignments is not rare, but it’s usually reserved for elected officials who have run into legal troubles involving impropriety. Last year, Anne Arundel County Del. Don Dwyer (R-District 31) was stripped of his committee assignments in the state General Assembly after two DUI convictions in as many years. (Dwyer lost in the June 2014 Republican primary election.)

In 2011, a state representative in Oregon was stripped of several of his committee assignments after accusations were made public that he groped a state employee. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford earned international notoriety last year when he was stripped of his duties as mayor after video surfaced of him smoking what was believed to be crack cocaine.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (right), with the City Council’s Jewish liaison, Betsy Gardner, Rabbis Chesky Tenenbaum and Shmuel Kaplan pose alongside the City Hall menorah.  (Provided)

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (right), with the City Council’s Jewish liaison, Betsy Gardner, Rabbis Chesky Tenenbaum and Shmuel Kaplan pose alongside the City Hall menorah. (Provided)

John Bullock, a professor of political science and metropolitan studies at Towson University, said the practice of removing City Council members from committee assignments is fully with-in the power of the Council president, but it’s relatively rare to see a president do so.

“It happens not very often. There are a couple cases: one, if there’s an election. For example, if there’s a new crop of councilmembers who come in and there’s a reshuffling of the deck. That can happen,” he explained. “In other instances, it may be when someone has either been accused of or convicted of some sort of violation.”

With the most recent Council election having been held in 2011 and Spector the subject of no current crime investigation, Bullock said Young is flexing the muscle of his office.

“It does speak to the power of the Council president,” said Bullock. “I think people understand that it’s the prerogative of the Council president to do so, but at the same time that doesn’t prevent community groups or anyone else who’s represented by that particular Council person to have something to say about that.”

Spector said it’s not the first time that Young has threatened her with removal from committees. Past disagreements over legislation, she said, have resulted in him warning her he possessed the power to strip her of assignments.

Though she is no longer required to attend a vast majority of the meetings attended by other councilmembers, Spector plans to be as involved as ever in the meetings that are open to the public, taking advantage of the open meetings to voice her opinion on topics that she said affect her community.

On Tuesday, Spector sat in on the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee’s hearing on a proposed amendment to the city charter that would make it easier for the council to override a mayoral veto. Despite warnings from committee chair James Kraft that the hearing was solely for the purpose of discussing the veto amendment, Spector used the opportunity to draw some attention to her own proposal to restructure aspects of city government.

Early last week, she proposed that instead of the 14 single-representative districts the Council now comprises, a charter amendment should delineate four districts with three representatives each. The four-district structure, she argued, would ensure that the people of any one district have representation at all times; if one councilmember is stripped of their assignments or falls ill, she contended, there would still be two members representing the district in their full capacity.

The Council has not yet decided whether to take the proposal to a vote.

“It’s about time she start introducing bills,” said Young of Spector’s proposal. “It’s about time she start working, because she hasn’t been.”

Any change to the city charter must be approved by voters in a referendum. “You earn respect and you work for it,” Spector said in response to Young’s accusations about her lack of esteem for him.

If she disagrees with the behavior of a member of the Council, she contended, she will not respect that member.

“I don’t work for anybody but the people who elect me,” she said. “I get myself elected.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Watchful Eyes London Jewish community heightens already tight security after Paris attacks

Kosher Kingdom is one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the United Kingdom. (Rachel Stafler)

Kosher Kingdom is one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the United Kingdom. (Rachel Stafler)

LONDON — Guards, CCTV, locked gates, 24-hour surveillance: These are some of the security measures that Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues in the United Kingdom and Europe have in place. The protections are especially striking compared to what can seem like little or no security at Jewish communal buildings in the United States.

Still, since the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, Jewish organizations and institutions in London are reviewing their safety protocols and putting even tighter arrangements into place.

The U.K. has the second largest population of Jews in Europe, after France, with the total population reaching just under 300,000, around the size of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Jewish populations combined. More than 200,000 Jews live in the greater London area, mostly in the Northwest section of the city, home to scores of schools, synagogues and community organizations.

But the U.K. isn’t the only country in Europe to take stock in the wake of recent events. In continental Europe, where security at Jewish buildings can include bulletproof doors and concrete barriers, scores of community leaders gathered in the Belgian capital of Brussels just three days after the Paris attacks to simulate and train for the next crisis. The program was organized by the European Jewish Congress’ Security and Crisis Centre.

“Although the threat level hasn’t changed, when something happens like the events in Paris it unnerves people and causes an increase in concern and anxiety,” said Dave Rich, spokesman for the Community Service Trust, the organization that provides physical security, training and advice for British Jewry. “In terms of communal anxiety, there is still a hangover from the summer when we had a big rise in anti-Semitic incidents during the Gaza conflict. The police and CST have put on extra security to reassure people that they can go about their normal lives and know that they are protected.”

In a measure of the community’s anxiety, Rich said that the organization has never had such a high volume of calls, and it added staff to deal with the many inquiries coming in. It also saw about 40 volunteers coming forward to patroll Jewish areas. This comes after a year when anti-Semitic incidents were at a record high: In excess of 1,000 events were recorded, according to the CST, the vast majority not severe.

Last Friday, police said there’s “heightened concern about the risk to the Jewish community,” according to a statement issued by Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner at the National Policing Lead for Counter Terrorism.

On Sunday, Home Secretary Theresa May said that Britain must do more to tackle anti-Semitism.

“I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say they were fearful of remaining here,” she said at an event commemorating the Jews killed in the Paris attacks. “And that means we must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here.”

Despite reassurances, there is still widespread insecurity in the Jewish community given the attacks in Paris.

“We are a lot more alert now,” said Shana Leitner, 30, who lives in the London neighborhood of Golders Green. “When we leave the house, we don’t just walk out. We first look around. At the supermarket, no one is standing around and chatting. … And it’s the same at my children’s school.”

Police are quick to dismiss any parallels between the threats to the Jews of London and Paris. At a community meeting for the Northwest London Jewish community, the local police commander emphasized the strength of the counter-terror intelligence system and detailed the difficulty terrorists would have acquiring automatic weapons in the country, where firearms legislation is notoriously strict. Even so, the police and the CST have increased foot patrols in Jewish areas, especially during busy shopping times.

The owners of Jewish shops in London, such as bakeries, supermarkets and butchers, are also taking no chances. The Kosher Deli, a chain of five butcher stores in northwest London, has altered its security plan to include 24-hour CCTV surveillance.

Kosher Kingdom, one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the U.K., sent out an email to customers describing steps it is taking to enhance customer safety, including staff training, a new CCTV network and walky-talkies for workers.

“As soon as it happened we had to make sure that all the right systems were in place,” said Chuny Rokach, the owner of Kosher Kingdom. “We thought we had to take steps to reassure our customers and staff. Footfall hasn’t been affected, but people are … definitely concerned.”

Many Jewish schools have also reviewed their security procedures, with some briefing parents on revised protocols. In addition to high gates and permanent security guards, many also assign parents to stand guard during pick-up and drop-off times.

“We are definitely more alert and the police are also more visible,” said the spokesman for one Jewish school in London, who asked not to be named on security concerns. “Security at most of the Jewish schools was already at a high level after the events last summer. … We have to be on point 100 percent of the time, but they only need to get lucky once.”

A native of Baltimore, Rachel Elbaum is a freelance writer in London.