Slow … Quick, Quick, Slow

Baltimore native John Dawson, owner and head instructor of dance StudioDNA in Pikesville, teaches a smooth fox trot and a spicy salsa, but some of his students feel they gain more than improved rhythm and sure footing. More confidence, a sense of accomplishment and feelings of grace and pure joy are also what keeps these students practicing and coming back for more.

“Aside from the health benefits,” said Donna Siegel, 62, an executive at the Social Security Administration, “I feel free when I dance. I feel pretty when I dance. I feel graceful, it just feels good.”

Thirteen years ago, Siegel and her husband wanted to dance at their son’s bar mitzvah and started taking lessons. Her husband’s interest fell off after several years, but he encouraged Siegel to continue on her own. Now she can’t imagine a life without dance and, with lessons three times a week in addition to gym visits, massage and acupuncture, she’s also managed to stave off surgery for her spinal stenosis.

Siegel dances fox trot, waltz, salsa, merengue, cha-cha, rumba and tango, but swing is her favorite. She recently danced in a competition with Dawson and won for her age group and dance level. But there are days, she said, that she’s very challenged, such as when she recently worked on a difficult tuck turn. But, she added, “other times when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. … You’re just dancing, it’s pure joy.”

Dawson said clients come to dance for many reasons. It may be in anticipation of a wedding or other event or simply to spend time as a couple. Or clients may be working through an illness or even the loss of a spouse or child.

“But at least for an hour’s worth of time,” said Dawson, “you can get involved in music and movement and forget everything around you.”

Dawson first worked as a mental health administrator at Sheppard Pratt hospital but was laid off after a few years, which, he says, was really a godsend. He answered a dance instruction ad and began formalized training; fortunately, he had a base of many hours spent onstage dancing and singing through high school and college.

He opened StudioDNA in 1994, and now, at an almost perpetually-in-motion 45 years old, he teaches students from ages 7 to 87 and has the reputation of being able to coax and coddle a saucy cha-cha move out of a stiff student. But he also doesn’t shrink from pointing out —sometimes very bluntly — a step that isn’t working, a directive he may deliver with gesticulating arms and a perfect Brooklyn Jewish mother accent.

“Sometimes we’re laughing so hard during the lessons,” said Siegel, “that we’re having trouble dancing and we’re standing there laughing ‘til we cry, and we have to serious up a little bit.

“Other times, when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. You’re just dancing … it’s pure joy.”

Often, people start dance lessons because of the “glitz and the lights,” said Dawson, referencing the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” “and then you get down to the fact that it’s a lot of dedication, it’s a lot of work. But it’s a lot of fun as well, even if I have to smack someone on the tuchas once in a while [to get them] back on track.”

StudioDNA, which has a second location in Canton, is dedicated to providing safe and comfortable spaces where people can go to move and learn, not feel judged, and be able to laugh at themselves, Dawson said.

Liza Massouda and Patty Simmons also teach with Dawson, and Simmons has been working with her client, Steve Levin, since May.

Levin, a youthful and physically fit 70-year-old, was the primary caretaker to his father, Jake, for more than 20 years. He met Simmons at the Envoy nursing home where their fathers were resident roommates. Over a few years, their friendship grew, and Simmons occasionally suggested he take lessons. But Levin always balked at the idea. Then Levin’s father passed away in March 2014.

“Patty called me maybe a month or six weeks after that and asked me if
I would be interested in trying ballroom dancing,” recalled Levin, who has danced zydeco. “I think somehow she knew it would be a good thing for me, maybe before I knew it.”

He added, “I had the time and was inclined to give it a try, to help with my grief. You can get lost in dancing, you can transcend the moment.”

Seven months into his ballroom lessons, Levin danced a waltz in a showcase at StudioDNA, an event at which students and instructors perform routines for invited family and friends. Levin appreciates the connection he feels with his instructor and other dancers and the sense of levity that pervades the studio, even when improvement is the goal.

“I remember one time after I made a dance move, Patty said, ‘Steve, maybe you should take that look of horror off of your face.’ It was funny, but she was right,” he said, laughing. “I’ve learned to relax my face when I dance, it was a good tip.”

Dawson prides himself in the ability to meet people where they are in terms of how they learn. He may simply demonstrate a step for someone to mimic but can break it down to the mathematical and mechanical elements as well. Dawson also offers group lessons that Marge and Roy Deutschman, both 67, have taken for six years with their friends, Berly and Avi Hershkovitz.

“For us, it’s a date night,” said Roy Deutschman. “It keeps us young, fresh and vibrant and all those things old people need to be. It’s exercise and socialization, and we have a lot of fun with John — we kibbitz, dance and yell at each other.”

Marge Deutschman added, “I feel like a princess, I feel like Ginger Rogers. Anybody can dance with John; he just makes you feel so good. And after every session I thank him for making me feel that way.”

Roy Deutschman said he’s amazed that if needed, John can just grab him and “take the role of the woman” in order to address a step that needs correction. Marge Deutschman said dancing regularly helps her get through some of life’s trying times, and it’s helped with her attitude too.

“It gives me a lot of security to know that I’ve mastered dance,” she said. “I feel confident in the things I do. I just retired, and that took a lot of confidence.”

Siegel admitted it didn’t come naturally for her to let someone else lead, even on the dance floor.

“It’s been a lesson for me to let somebody else be in charge,” she said. “Sometimes I do just need to shut up and let somebody tell me a different way to learn something. And that’s kind of a life lesson. Dance is kind of a microcosm of everything.”

Good As New

Congregants packed the halls of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for a once-in-a-lifetime experience: the chance to help repair a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and dates back at least 250 years.

“It was great,” said Linda Speert, who helped write an aleph on the scroll the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 14. She wanted to bring her grandkids along for the experience, but with them out of town, she decided to sign up on her own.

“I just wanted to be part of the tradition and to be part of what people will read in this Torah even after I’m not here,” she said.

The congregation has been working for months to restore nine of its 14 Torah scrolls. While most of the scrolls have either been sent to a rabbi in Florida who specializes in restorations or will soon be on their way, one of the congregation’s scrolls — the 250-year-old scroll that survived the Holocaust in Europe — is being restored largely on-site so that congregants may take part in the process.

BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon reads from the  congregation’s 250-year-old Holocaust Torah scroll. (David Stuck)

BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon reads from the
congregation’s 250-year-old Holocaust Torah scroll.
(David Stuck)

“In a sense, it’s a community activity we’re doing,” said Cantor Robbie Solomon. “The Torah, it’s the center — can be considered the center — of our religion. It’s a thing that’s been with us for many thousands of years.”

Over the span of three sessions, more than 300 community members have done their part to help refurbish the fading and weathered script in the congregation’s Holocaust Torah. After signing up for a 20-minute slot — congregation leaders are now determining how to address the wait list that developed by the end of the last session — participants arrived early to speak with the clergy and cleanse their hands. When they were ready, they proceeded to the table where the scribe, Rabbi Moshe Druin, who is also restoring the congregation’s other Torahs at his home office and has traveled to Baltimore from Florida for each of the three sessions, sat with the scroll.

Druin told the participants, who included individuals, couples and families, as well as representatives from brotherhoods and sisterhoods, about the letters they helped him write. From there, the participants held the top of the quill as Druin guided the strokes to darken the letters.

“This scroll, it has really seen a lot in its career,” Druin told Richard and Ann Fishkin as they prepared to write the letter zayin on the parchment. Druin was referring not only to the Torah’s Holocaust past, but also to the history that predates even the world wars.

Like many of BHC’s scrolls, the congregation’s Holocaust Torah has remained in use up until its restoration. Clergy read from the Torah on special occasions each year. But when the rest of the parchment was unrolled to begin the restoration, Druin noticed something that has since captivated all of BHC’s clergy: the form of the letters throughout the scroll varies from Ashkenazic to Sephardic to Kabbalistic traditions in different passages, something that adds a layer of mystery for the more detail oriented.

Most Torahs are written in one style or another, but the variation in style in BHC’s Torah, which was brought to the congregation by the late Rabbi Morris Lieberman when the rabbi returned from serving as a chaplain in the Army in 1945, seems to suggest that the original scribe was trying to send a message of his own through his scroll. Though they know the Torah was rescued from a synagogue destroyed by Nazi forces in the Czech Republic, little else is known about the scroll.

“Combined, [Cantor Solomon and I] have been clergy for over 50 years and neither of us has seen a Torah like this,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch. “He’s trying to make some kind of point,” Busch said of the scribe’s decision to include various styles of writing.

The most puzzling part of the writings, though, is that no one knows what that 250-year-old point is. Instead, the clergy are left to speculate and admire the occasional extra decorations on some of the letters.

And the congregation’s other Torahs are no bore either. The oldest of the Torahs appears to have originated in Italy and features Sephardic text, an anomaly at Baltimore Hebrew, Maryland’s oldest synagogue and a community founded by mostly Ashkenazic immigrants from Germany. By looking at the text, Druin estimates that the scroll was first written some 400 years ago.

“There’s been a lot of excitement,” said Annette Saxon, director of development at BHC. “The buzz has been building.”

For BHC’s clergy, the benefit of the project has been threefold. In addition to providing an opportunity to learn more about their own Torahs, money is being raised to sustain regular Torah maintenance and congregation staff and clergy are getting the chance to interact with congregation and community members they might otherwise had never had to the opportunity to get to know.

“A lot of the people who’ve come through this aren’t the people who make appointments with us,” said Busch, adding that he’s enjoyed the chance to talk to some of the less involved members of his congregation.

“We’ve reached out and touched a lot of people who, you know, aren’t so attuned to going to services every week and doing your mainstream type of participation in Torah,” said Richard Gross, who chairs the congregation’s Torah restoration project. “There are people who have come out of these sessions crying.”

Martha Weiman, president of BHC, said the decision to participate was easy. In addition to her interest as a congregation leader, she wanted to experience the restoration of such an important text.

“It was very special. There was a certain spirituality that went with it,” she said. “If the opportunity ever came up again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

A Holocaust survivor herself, Weiman said she especially enjoyed the chance to work so closely on the restoration of a Torah salvaged from Nazi Europe. The connection, she said, made the experience extremely personal.

“That made it particularly moving for me,” she said. “Looking at it and touching it and just thinking about where it’s been” was fascinating.

Some of the participants have come from outside the BHC family as well. One woman who came to help write in the scroll used to be a BHC member but had, in more recent years, let her membership expire. After writing on the parchment with Druin, she decided to rejoin the congregation. Even a couple of church groups made an appearance, wishing to observe the process and see the historical Torah for themselves.

“It’s been better than we even anticipated,” Gross said. “We knew we would reach some people who would not be your mainstream congregants
involved in your men’s club, sisterhood, things like that, social action committees. These people have been touched, and we hope to build on it.”

To watch the scribe and participants at work, visit For more information about BHC’s Tikkun Torah project, visit

Alphabet Soup

Happy refugees at Farchana in Chad spell out “Thank You HIAS!”  (Photo by Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

Happy refugees at Farchana in Chad spell out “Thank You HIAS!”
(Photo by Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

The announcement last week that HIAS, the century-old Jewish immigrant and refugee aid organization, will relocate its headquarters from New York City to Silver Spring is just another sign that the Jewish organizational universe is changing.

Once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the agency has responded to the end of Jewish refugee immigration into the port of New York by refocusing on refugee advocacy Washington, D.C.

In doing so, HIAS is joining an exodus of religion-based immigrant agencies, said Mark Hetfield, HIAS president and CEO.

“All of us started in the Ellis Island days when almost all immigrants came through New York and all migration organizations and refugee organizations were based in New York,” he said. “Then, over the 1990s, that gradually started to change, and now five of the nine refugee organizations [sanctioned by the U.S. State Department] are already based in the Baltimore-Washington area.”

Those organizations include: the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service (LIRS), World Relief (Evangelical), the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Church World Service (mainline Protestant), Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

In the Jewish community, HIAS’s shift is part of a growing trend of organizations shedding old identities when their original missions have been filled. That often includes streamlining names to avoid referring to those outdated missions. The result can sometimes seem like an alphabet soup, with the Anti-Defamation League becoming the ADL and the American Jewish Committee rebranded AJC — not to be confused with the American Jewish Congress.

Hetfield said that one of the motivations for the upcoming move was a belief that HIAS could have a greater impact by being closer to Congress, the State Department and other federal agencies where immigration and refugee policy is made.

Although HIAS already has a small advocacy contingent in Washington, bringing the leadership, experts and program staff to the area is intended to better assist this advocacy wing shape immigration and refugee policy, he said.

According to Charity Navigator, which gives HIAS its highest rating for transparency and accountability, 65.3 percent of the agency’s annual budget of $25 million comes from government grants — from the State Department, the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Still welcoming the stranger
From its establishment in the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, HIAS’s primary goal was to facilitate the immigration and resettlement of Jews coming to the United States — the majority of whom were escaping persecution in Europe, Russia and later the Soviet Union. But with the end of immigration from the former Soviet Union, during the last 20 years, HIAS shifted to apply its experience in resettlement and to non-Jewish refugee communities worldwide.

HIAS says this new work is based on the biblical commandment to welcome the stranger as well as the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or social justice.

“After doing it for our own community almost exclusively for over 120 years, we’re now in the position where we can do it for others,” said Hetfield. “We and others feel that it is important to have the Jewish community, not just the various Christian communities, taking part in refugee protection and refugee resettlement.

“It would be a tragedy, it would be a shandah [scandal] to have the Jewish community absent from refugee protection programs in the United States when every other faith community is represented,” he added.

HIAS’s expansion and rebranding included making the group’s acronym its official name. Hetfield said the word “Hebrew” is exclusionary and outdated, much as the word “colored” is to refer to African-Americans.

Not only will HIAS join other refugee aid organizations in Washington, it will also compete with other Jewish organizations involved in advocacy and claiming to be the “Jewish voice” on this or that political issue. Each group is fighting to carve out a niche for itself in what some think is an oversaturated market of advocacy groups, none of which seems to close down when its job is done.

But Jewish historian and Brandies University professor Jonathan Sarna sees a cycle in the growth of American Jewish institutions.

“There are periods in American Jewish history that had a great growth in organizations, and certainly as the community grows from a quarter of a million in 1880 to a community that is going to be about 3.5 million in 1920, it’s not surprising they needed new organizations for that community,” said Sarna.

“And, of course, we’re seeing a lot of new organizations in our own day, where young people look around the world of startups and say ‘I want to change American Jewish life, but I don’t want to work with these great big organizations. I’m going to start something little, hopefully it will take off.’”

Sarna added that although there are many examples of Jewish organizations failing to evolve and shutting down, there is a phenomenon that “Jewish organizations come into existence but are not so easy to put out of existence.”

The March of Dimes goes on
The event that most recently strained the Jewish organizational world was the crash of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. Many Jewish organizations lost significant investments with Madoff.

“Nonprofits have a way of self-preservation,” said Alan Ronkin, regional director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “The March of Dimes was founded to cure polio. And miraculously, Dr. Jonas Salk cured polio. Now, in theory, the March of Dimes should have gone out of business, but their leadership decided that they had a great way of helping people, so they expanded their mandate to all childhood diseases, and to this day they still exist and help children.

“Sometimes you do see that nonprofits evolve to adapt to a changing world, and those that don’t disappear,” he added. “So in some ways, having the larger, sort of aircraft-carrier nonprofits that are very solid and hard to get rid of is a good thing because they have longevity and can last through times of crisis.”

Ronkin sees the proliferation of aid, benevolence and advocacy organizations in the Jewish community as a sign of success and the will to use this success to help others.

But are there enough donations to keep so many of these behemoths afloat? Yes, said Ronkin. Despite the number of old and new active Jewish organizations, they are managing to raise more money than they ever have. Only, there is a change in where the money comes from and what it is for.

“We’re raising more money but from fewer people,” he said. “In the past, American Jews gave almost exclusively to Jewish organizations. Many in our community have diversified their philanthropy such that they can give to a host of mainstream organizations in the general community that wouldn’t have accepted them years ago.

Ronkin also said that today, even though organizations are receiving more money on average, there has been a rise in designated giving: money given for specific projects or programs. This sometimes makes it harder for administrators, who would traditionally allocate money within the organization to where they felt it was most needed.

With so many organization such as HIAS moving to the Washington, D.C., area and the ones already there, Sarna points to another trend — the increasing importance of Washington.

“There has been a significant migration because I think American Jews increasingly believe that they have to engage with government in order to really demonstrate power,” Sarna said. “The sense of Washington of being where the power is is very strong, but I would say that this has something to do with the migration of power from New York to Washington nationally. Government is increasingly recognized as being big and powerful, and you’ve got to be there.”

Silver Lining

The Ten Commandments sculpture is central to the artist’s exhibit at  Evergreen Museum and Library.

The Ten Commandments sculpture is central to the artist’s exhibit at
Evergreen Museum and Library.

“Repoussé Style Then and Now,” the Johns Hopkins University Evergreen Museum and Library’s latest exhibition, features the intricate metal work of artist Michael Izrael Galmer, a Russian Jew who emigrated to America from the former Soviet Union.

Galmer, 67, said his career as an artist would not have been possible in Russia, due to anti-Semitism that existed in the former Soviet Union.

“Of course, I always felt some pressure being Jewish. I got used to living this way,” said Galmer, who left Russia with his wife, Galina, and young daughter, Lina, in 1981. “When given the opportunity to leave, I could not give it up. Once I was in a free country, I was free to pursue the arts.”

Since then, Galmer, who earned a Ph.D. in technical science engineering from Moscow University, has been living his dream, creating sculpture, jewelry and decorative pieces carved in silver.

Once the family reached the U.S. they settled in Long Island City, N.Y., where Galmer created a home studio in his garage. Combining ancient techniques with modern technologies, Galmer gradually built a name for himself.

In time, his talent came to the attention of American companies such as Tiffany and Co. and Gorham as well as several museums and historical societies. Galmer specializes in repoussé, a technique in which metals typically are shaped and adorned by hammering and pressing the reverse side of the piece. Afterward, the artist uses a technique called chasing or engraving to decorate the front of the piece. Galmer said he chose to work exclusively in silver because it is challenging and highly regarded.

Michael Izrael Galmer creates artwork and jewelry using repoussé, a  technique that is applied to both sides of silver, his preferred medium.

Michael Izrael Galmer creates artwork and jewelry using repoussé, a
technique that is applied to both sides of silver, his preferred medium.

“You have to be very well prepared to touch this metal because there is little room for mistakes,” he explained. “I wanted a challenge and felt prepared to handle it. This is similar to painters who prepare by making sketches prior to actually painting with the oils. They have to know their art before they apply the oils.”

Galmer was commissioned to create replicas of fragile historical pieces including the 1914 U.S.S. Oklahoma Punchbowl and the Woodlawn Vase, the trophy presented to the owners of Baltimore’s Preakness-winning horse. Galmer, who said he is influenced by his Jewish heritage, has also created several replicas of historic Judaica including a 17th-century Moorish menorah and 17th-century kiddish cup, a late 19th-century Polish doorpost mount, an 18th-century kiddish festival goblet,
a 19th-century Iranian kiddush cup and 19th-century European candlesticks.

Perhaps his most ambitious work to date is a 51/2-foot-tall sculpture of the Ten Commandments, which premieres at, and is central, to the Evergreen Museum and Library exhibition. The sculpture, which Galmer began in 2003 and completed in 2011, represents three phases of the world’s development.

The base of the sculpture is made of a roughly textured piece of bronze and symbolizes the chaos of the world in its earliest beginnings when “there were no rules,” Galmer explained. On that rests an intricately designed model of Jerusalem sculpted in silver, which represents the beginning of human
civilization. From that grows a sterling silver tree with 10 branches that represents the Ten Commandments, a symbol of the goodness of humanity.

“We [the Jewish people] spread this to everyone,” said Galmer.

The exhibition also includes examples of Galmer’s decorative items such as a sterling silver iced tea set with napkin rings shaped like lemon slices, a martini pitcher and tray, baby cups and a gem-studded vase. Also on display is jewelry that represents the artist’s newest endeavor.  Recently, Galmer partnered with Baltimore native Carolyn O’Keefe, a veteran publicist in the fine jewelry field to form Repoussé Jewelry by Galmer. O’Keefe was introduced to Galmer by Jim Stieff of Baltimore’s Stieff Company family, renowned for its early 20th-century repoussé sterling silver flatware.

“He is America’s finest living silver artist,” said O’Keefe. “There’s just no end to the caliber there.”
James A. Abbott, curator and director of Evergreen Museum and Library, recalled when he first discovered Galmer’s work.

“It was far different from Baltimore repoussé, and it was exciting,” said Abbott. “I knew I wanted to do an exhibition. Evergreen’s mission is to celebrate contemporary artists. Galmer is a great artist, and I’m hoping that more people will come to appreciate him.”

Chanukah and the Holidays

Dozens of cars drove down Interstate 83 with giant electric menorahs on their roofs Tuesday night to mark the first night of Chanukah. The spectacle culminated in the lighting of a 30-foot menorah at McKeldin Square in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

While some feel such displays may oversell a Jewish holiday that isn’t as significant as others, others see the pageantry as a proud display of Judaism and a celebration of American Jews’ distinct identity.

“We want to bring the beauty of Judaism to every Jew and the message of Chanukah — the victory of freedom over tyranny — to everyone,” said Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore, which hosted Gov.-elect Larry Hogan for the menorah lighting.

Such celebrations have popped up only in recent decades, as the Jewish community has carved out its own slice of the holiday season. But keeping Chanukah’s traditional significance intact and distinct from other holidays can be a complex balancing act.

For couples with young children, imparting the meaning of Chanukah unto their kids takes many forms. It could be carrying on family traditions, creating new traditions, participating in religious rituals, having a festive meal, celebrating with family, friends and neighbors or finding events in the organized Jewish community to attend.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, after the Civil War, that Chanukah started becoming “magnified” in the American Jewish community, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and president of the Association for Jewish Studies.

“We have very many more mentions of Purim” prior to the Civil War, Sarna said. “There were Purim plays and balls and dances and so, none of which you have really for Chanukah.”

Once Christmas started getting more national attention in the late 1800s — the trend gained force by the concerted commercializing efforts of newly found department stores and culminated in the declaration of Dec. 25 as a national holiday — the American Jewish community started ramping up Chanukah celebrations.

“Some of the earliest people who looked to Chanukah were folks who wanted to revitalize Judaism as a whole and saw Chanukah as a symbol of revitalization of Judaism,” Sarna said.

Naturally, this movement to bring some renewed energy to the American Jewish community catered to kids, according to Dianne Ashton, a professor of religious studies at Rowan University and author of Hannukah in America: A History.

“In the late 19th century, we see the Reform movement developing Chanukah assemblies for the kids who attended their religious schools … where the kids would have a big production, songs and poetry readings, candle lighting, skits, and, of course, they’d feed the kids something sweet,” Ashton said. “It was developed to give Jewish kids something fun and special at Chanukah, but also to give them something to think going to synagogue is fun.”

Also read, “A Celebration for Everyone.”

Fast forward to 2014, and giant menorahs, Chanukah parades, decorations, special chocolates and vast catalogues of Chanukah music are still reeling in the little ones. But the methods by which parents are engaging their children in the holiday are diverse and constantly evolving.

“The rituals are easy to observe,” Sarna said, noting that other holidays and Shabbat have more stringent traditions and rules. “In that regard, it leaves a lot of room for people to make it their own. … The key is to make it inviting enough and memorable enough that the next generation will want to carry it on.”

Creating Tradition

Crofton resident Jackie Gambone plans to introduce her 18-month-old daughter Giuliana to dreidel and gelt this year, and she plans to tell her the story of Chanukah as well. She and her husband, Mike, who is not Jewish, plan to really do the holiday next year, making up their own family traditions as their daughter grows up.

“We’re not the most religious people. We’re spiritual, [and] our traditions in the religions were an important piece of us growing up,” she said. “One of the things we decided when we were pregnant [is] for any holiday we’re celebrating, we want to spend time studying what it is, why it’s celebrated and really use it as a learning opportunity for all of us.”

Randi Benesch, with husband Adam and children Mollie, 6, and Jacob, 9, says Chanukah traditions center around spending quality time together. (Provided)

Randi Benesch, with husband Adam and children Mollie, 6, and Jacob, 9, says Chanukah traditions center around spending quality time together. (Provided)

For Ellicott City resident Randi Benesch, whose children are 6 and 9, Chanukah traditions revolve around quality family time. She and her husband, Adam, will make sure to get home from work early on those nights and get the celebration started.

“We definitely light the candles and sing songs every night. We give them a small gift every night all eight nights,” she said. “We always make potato latkes, we pull out the dreidels and the gelt, and we play a dreidel game.”

Benesch has hit on two points that Ashton feels has helped carry Chanukah traditions through the ages: songs and food.

With new Chanukah songs being written each year, Ashton said people are able to convey or expand upon the meaning of the holiday. For example, “Rock of Ages” changed a tune — “Ma’oz Tzur” — from being about God rescuing the Jews from tyrants to a song about a joyous time at home and hope for a future in which tyrants are disappearing.

Chanukah’s culinary offerings have also increased over the years, Ashton said, with a growing number of Jewish cookbooks available and a variety of fried foods — tradition holds that such delicacies as latkes and sufganiyot recall the core Chanukah miracle of a cruse of oil lasting for eight days — coming into the fold.

“I think that really expands what Chanukah means for Jewish kids. It gives them a more global perspective; it gives them more variety in Jewish life,” she said.

For Elkridge resident Rita Cardim, food is becoming a big part of her family’s tradition. While Rita, who is not Jewish, and her husband are raising their 3-year-old son, David, in Judaism, they are incorporating traditions from Cardim’s home country of Portugal into David’s upbringing. And like her son, Cardim is learning about Judaism along the way.

“I enjoy learning about the holidays and learning about the tradition and in particular learning about the Sephardic traditions, because those traditions come from my country as well,” she said. “We want to teach him he’s Jewish, but also that he’s Portuguese.”

To that end, they eat rice for Passover and other traditional Sephardic dishes during other holidays.

Creating tradition and instilling a Jewish identity in children can become all the more complicated when children are inheriting two religions from their parents.

“All of the complexities of intermarriage are played out in this season of the year and you have all the possible permutations,” Sarna said. “The so-called
‘December Dilemma’ is something that is talked about year in and year out as families try to negotiate this difficult issue.”

For North Baltimore resident Dori Henry, who has a 2-year-old son, Liam, and a 9-week-old baby boy, Griffin, that means only giving gifts and celebrating Christmas with her husband’s family, and taking part in cultural Chanukah traditions such as lighting the candles and eating potato latkes. Liam goes to preschool at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which Henry said cements his Jewish identity to the point that he sometimes comes home singing the hamotzi blessing.

Pasadena resident Leah McCullough said her 5-year-old son Kellen “understands that mommy’s Jewish and Daddy’s not, but he’s both,” she said. She wants her son, and her future son who is due this month, to understand his heritage.

“I have family in Israel who we’re very close to, so I absolutely want him to visit and go where our family comes from,” she said. “I don’t want to tell him that the Jewish religion is the right religion to choose and everything else is wrong; I want to leave that up to him. [My husband] and I are not forceful when it comes to religion. We skim it and hope something sticks with him on both sides, and whatever he ends up choosing in the future is his choice.”

Do Kids Get It?

Adam and Amy Hebbel, with son Dylan, 4, and daughter Millie, 1, want their kids to understand the background and history of Jewish holidays. (Hope Blumenthal)

Adam and Amy Hebbel, with son Dylan, 4, and daughter Millie, 1, want their kids to understand the background and history of Jewish holidays. (Hope Blumenthal)

For young kids, especially those in preschool or younger, teaching the meaning of Chanukah outside of family traditions and rituals is a process that can be expanded upon over time.

Timonium resident Amy Hebbel, whose son Dylan is 4 and daughter Millie is 1, said she thinks Dylan is starting to catch on as he becomes more inquisitive.

Hebbel said she and her husband, Adam, probably will go deeper in educating about Chanukah “so our kids understand the background behind the holiday and understand where it’s coming from and that it’s not just for presents. … I definitely want them to understand the background and the history and everything.”

Pikesville native Ryan Porter, who lives in Bethesda with his wife and two sons, Zackary, 5, and Joshua, 3, takes a realistic approach to what the holiday means for his boys.

“It’s hard because they’re so young. Bottom line: They like the toys,” he said.

Zackary went to Jewish preschool, which Joshua currently attends, so they’ve both learned about the holiday and get excited to light the menorah.
But Porter thinks what they learn in school can sometimes take a backseat to presents.

“I think they definitely understand what’s behind [Chanukah], but again, it all goes back to the fun and the toys,” Porter said. “We’ll see as they get a little bit older if we’re able to maintain that excitement.”

For South Baltimore resident Liz Simon-Higgs, it’s about creating a Jewish identity for her kids, Daniel, 5, and Micah, 2, that goes beyond the holiday season and contextualizes holidays in terms of the overall Jewish calendar. Although her husband is not Jewish, they are raising their kids Jewish. In addition to celebrating Shabbat every Friday, making Saturday a low-key family day and closing it out with Havdalah, Simon-Higgs is involved in the downtown JCC, where her family shares the holidays with other families.

“Kids need to learn about the rhythms of Jewish life year-round and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar even if they don’t understand everything at age 2 or age 5,” she said. “It’s who they are, so I feel like once I’ve made that foundation, we can either have fun or explore the other holidays, and if they don’t totally get it one year, it comes around next year.”

Simon-Higgs said her only reservation is that Chanukah is a “minor” holiday in the Jewish calendar, and she does not want her kids to see it as the high point or a counterpoint to Christmas.

Ryan Porter, with wife Monica and sons Zackary, 5, and Joshua, 3, says it can be difficult to teach his kids about Chanukah when presents excite them the most. (Provided)

Ryan Porter, with wife Monica and sons Zackary, 5, and Joshua, 3, says it can be
difficult to teach his kids about Chanukah when presents excite them the most. (Provided)

Ashton said most surveys of American Jews show that they are most likely to celebrate Passover, then Chanukah, then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“This is hardly reflecting their importance and ranking according to Judaism,” she said. “But holidays are complex events, and it’s not just religious meaning, there’s also cultural meaning and psychological meaning and social meaning. Because Chanukah has wider meaning for American Jews beyond its religious meaning, I think this … reflects that.”

Sarna sees the magnification of Chanukah as Jews participating in the season and claiming their own “distinctive holiday with distinctive rituals.” He said there are numerous examples showing how inclusive the holiday season is now, especially at the national level with the national menorah lighting and presidential Chanukah parties.

“I once looked at the Christmas message of American presidents, earlier presidents including John F. Kennedy, and you would imagine everybody in America celebrated Christmas,” Sarna said. “More recently, these messages have real awareness that not all Americans celebrate Christmas but celebrate something else.”

Ashton thinks the magnification of Chanukah, which she attributes largely to the Chabad- Lubavitch movement, came as a shock to American Jews initially.

“Through the mid-20th century, the main effort that the Jewish community did was to get Christmas stuff out of public schools and off of City Hall because these are all paid for by tax money,” she said. “And here come the Chabad-Lubavitch, and they build these giant menorahs and they have a really different perspective. Their take is, ‘If everybody is displaying their religion, why should we be shy?’”

Druk agrees and thinks that if anything, Chanukah isn’t magnified enough.

“It’s a significant holiday even though it’s not a biblical holiday,” he said. “I think it’s message is very important, especially nowadays: the importance of being able to practice a religion and be proud of it.”

Rabbis Face Off


Rabbi Yehuda Steiner (with some of his students) was appointed to coordinate Chabad’s at George Washington University in 2008. But by 2011, his relationship with Rabbi Levi Shemtov (below) had soured. (

Two well-known D.C. rabbis squared off in civil court this week, resulting in the loser being virtually barred from George Washington University’s campus.

“You can call up the president of the university and wish him Happy New Year,” was all Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz said that Rabbi Yehuda Steiner, affectionately called “Yudi” by students, could do.

At first glance, the case appears to be a garden-variety breach-of-contract claim. But what makes the case so unusual is the nature of the parties themselves.

“American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), et al. v. Yehuda Steiner, et al.” pits Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), one of the most recognizable and politically connected Jewish leaders in the country, against Steiner and his wife, Rivky Steiner, the couple Shemtov appointed in 2008 as shluchim, or emissaries, to coordinate Chabad’s presence on George Washington University’s campus.

By 2011, the employment relationship and operation of Chabad GW was strained, according to Shemtov’s complaint, by the Steiners’ wish for “operational independence” from Shemtov. That June, the parties went before a beit din, a Jewish court, whereupon they were ordered to continue working under the terms of a new contract they were to negotiate — and sign — with each other.

In August 2012, the parties did exactly that. Under the terms of the new contract they negotiated, a copy of which was obtained by Washington Jewish Week, the Steiners agreed that Shemtov was the sole religious and executive Chabad-Lubavitch authority in D.C., with control over political, communal and university life, and that they were to report directly to him.

121914_shemtov1The contract mandated that all religious programming at GWU had to be preapproved by Shemtov and that, in exchange for $4,200 in monthly salary, a three-bedroom apartment near campus, health insurance and other benefits, the Steiners were obligated to turn over any proceeds they raised for Chabad GW directly to American Friends of Lubavitch. The Steiners agreed not seek independence from Shemtov, with the contract going so far as to bar them from even broaching the topic for discussion.

In addition, the contract listed five offenses for which the Steiners could be immediately fired, among them failure to keep accounts of their fundraising activities on campus; failure to turn over financial contributions to Shemtov in a reasonable amount of time; opening any organizational bank accounts or new legal entities without Shemtov’s permission; and failure to turn over any other data requested by Shemtov.

In the event of their termination, the Steiners agreed to “peacefully transition” out of their employment within 30 days and cease doing anything that would confuse students or the public about who leads Chabad activities at GWU. A non-compete clause barred them from operating a rival Chabad-Lubavitch campus organization in the District, Maryland or Virginia.

Finally, the parties agreed that in the event that Shemtov wished to fire the Steiners for any one of these enumerated offenses, he could do so only after panel of three other shluchim independently verified such a continuous and intentional breach of the contract. Shemtov could select one such fact finder, the Steiners could select one, and a third would be jointly appointed.

In July of this year, Shemtov said, he determined that the Steiners had failed to provide data requested by him and had failed to turn over two contributions to Chabad GW totaling a little more than $1,000. He moved to fire them. A panel of shluchim from Florida, Toronto and Oslo was empaneled to investigate. On Aug. 6, they issued their findings: The Steiners, they said, had breached the employment agreement by failing to turn over data and funds. The panel concluded that Shemtov was entitled to terminate the Steiners’ employment without further delay or appeal.

The next day, Shemtov fired the Steiners in an email, a copy of which has been obtained by WJW, and requested that they cease all operations at GWU, turn over credit cards and the lease to the Chabad lounge on campus to him. The Steiners, according to Shemtov’s complaint, failed to acknowledge their termination, continued to solicit donations for their activities on campus and advertised themselves on the Internet and through social media as being associated with Chabad GW. As of press time, a Facebook page ( jewishgw) showed dozens of photos of Steiner involved in student activities on the D.C. campus.

On Oct. 7, Shemtov filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, bringing one count of breach of contract against the Steiners. In his prayer for relief, Shemtov sought a judicial declaration that the Steiners violated their employment agreement, an injunction preventing them from continuing their activities on campus and whatever additional relief the court found necessary and appropriate.

What makes this case “very rare,” according to Nathan Lewin, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice who teaches Supreme Court advocacy at Columbia Law School, is that a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi chose to seek relief in a civil court as opposed to a beit din.

He has seen — and even litigated — other cases like this, however, including one pending before the Michigan Supreme Court right now involving Shemtov’s own uncle, Rabbi Berel Shemtov. “In that case, it took a number of times going to internal Chabad courts, in which they strongly urged and directed the rabbi who was claiming independence not to do what he is doing, before they got authorization to go to the civil courts. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth visit [that] they got [permission].”

No longer, said Lewin, “is there a question as to whether a panel of rabbis can be considered an arbitration panel,” as the three appointed shluchim functioned in this case. “If both parties agreed to go to arbitration, including rabbinic arbitration, it is binding like any arbitration panel’s decision,” except, he said, in circumstances where an arbitrator’s decision is challenged on procedural grounds. Case law has made it clear, Lewin said, “that it is not a violation of the Constitution to leave this kind of decision to rabbis.”

In an interview, Shemtov stressed that his decision to take his dispute to the D.C. Superior Court is supported by Jewish law, not an affront to it. Even the judges who sat on the original beit din, he said, have since confirmed in writing that he was entitled to ask the civil courts to enforce his award from the shluchim panel and to fire the Steiners.

Judge Kravitz on Monday agreed, ruling in front of a gallery packed with lawyers, law students and a half-dozen solemn-looking Jewish men clad in dark hats and suits that Shemtov had negotiated in good faith and at arms’ length with the Steiners; that the Steiners were no more than Shemtov’s agents, working for him; that the employment contract was enforceable except for the geographical boundaries contained in the non-complete clause; that Shemtov would suffer immediate and irreparable harm without the issuance of an injunction; and that he was likely to prevail on the merits of his underlying breach-of-contract case if it went to trial.

Noting on the record that “GWU students will miss him [Steiner],” Kravitz said that “ultimately, I believe the students will show resilience and the ability to adjust to a new leader on campus.” Whatever harm the Jewish community at GWU will suffer from the firings of Steiner and his wife, said the judge, is outweighed by “the public’s interest in the enforcement of contracts.”

The judge then ordered the Steiners to comply with Shemtov’s requests and enjoined them from leading further Chabad activities at GWU. Kravitz did prop open one door to the Steiners, however. Kravitz reformed the non-compete clause in the contract to permit the Steiners to move their operations to nearby Georgetown University, a move that “would not threaten the plaintiffs’ legitimate interests.” A wider ban “is unnecessary,” he ruled.

Moments after the judge had ruled against him Monday, Steiner was huddled in a second-floor hallway with his team of lawyers from the D.C. firm of White & Case. He followed up on an earlier written statement to WJW that “my primary interest is simply that I be able to continue my work providing religious instruction and outreach to students in the D.C. area,” by saying that “I know the students want to work with me” and vowing to continue doing so.

Asked for clarification as to whether he meant that he would move his operations to Georgetown University or try to remain at GWU, Steiner said only, “I will leave it up to the lawyers.”

Reached for comment, Shemtov said on Tuesday, “I trust that Rabbi and Mrs. Steiner will comply with the law, honor their contract and peacefully conclude their work at GW, as we mutually agreed they would do in this instance.”

Pressed further for how he would respond if the Steiners do not leave GWU, Shemtov said:  “The reason we are in court is because he wouldn’t comply with the halachic ruling. If he doesn’t comply with this court order, we’ll have to explore what other remedies we have.

“I intend to seek relief and justice,” he continued. “Too high a price has been paid by his refusal to abide by his very clear commitments made in the presence of a beit din, many a handshake agreement and ultimately the power of his signature.”

As for the needs of the students, Shemtov said that they will be “robustly addressed” and that American Friends of Lubavitch intends “to continue growing our programs on this campus. I trust, given our goodwill and reputation, we will surely be able to do that now that this problem seems resolved.”

On campus, word had quickly spread of the dispute and its aftermath.

“When I heard of the legal issues that Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner were facing I was shocked and distraught,” said Jewish GWU student Moshe Pasternak in an email.  “The Steiners have transformed Chabad GW from a fledgling startup to a paradigm of what Chabad on Campus can and should be.

“One of the earliest programs that helped me realize these opportunities was a weekly Pizza and Parsha class taught by Rabbi Yudi,” added the sophomore political science major from New Jersey. Learning “Gemarah and even bits of Halacha and Tanya with Rabbi Yudi have helped strengthen my Jewish identity dramatically. Through learning I felt a connection to the past and the Jewish people as a whole, but I also began to feel a personal connection with Rabbi Yudi. Here was someone who always took the time out of his life to learn with me just because I asked.”

He concluded: “Rabbi Yudi and Rivky have left a permanent mark on [me] and dozens of others, but their work is not finished. Denying them the opportunity to do what they love and help students grow would be a grave mistake that would leave many without a place to turn.”

Another Jewish GWU student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wasn’t willing to go quite

“I think it will be hard,” said the student.

“If Rabbi Steiner does leave, I think it can’t be in the middle of the year. I hope [it’s] in May, not any time earlier or later. Over the summer … is a perfect time.”

Alan Gross Comes Home

Recently reunited Alan and Judy Gross walk through a Washington, D.C., parking lot Wednesday on their way to a press conference. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Recently reunited Alan and Judy Gross walk through a Washington, D.C., parking lot Wednesday on their way to a press conference. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for five years, returned home to Maryland Wednesday in what was dubbed by many as a Chanukah miracle.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was informed Tuesday night by Vice President Joe Biden of Gross’ release, was at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County to greet Gross when he landed aboard a State Department plane. He was arrested in 2009 while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community.

Cuban authorities accused Gross of trying to instigate a “Cuban Spring” and sentenced the Baltimore-born Jew to 15 years. Gross, 65, of Potomac, is in poor health and reportedly lost more than 100 pounds while incarcerated. In recent weeks, his family warned that he couldn’t last in captivity much longer; he had even told his wife and daughter goodbye.

Cuban officials said he was released on humanitarian grounds, but Gross’ freedom came amidst a recalibration of U.S. policy that is expected to include the swap of three imprisoned Cuban spies for what news reports were calling a high-value American intelligence asset that has been held by Cuba for 20 years.

American Jewish organizations kept Gross’ plight in the public eye for years, but it was the Vatican and Pope Francis who reportedly played key roles in winning Gross’ release. Canada also helped facilitate talks between the U.S. and Cuba since June 2013, according to a CNN report.

Alan Ronkin, Washington, D.C. regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “Maybe he’s going to the Chanukah White House party today. We are just so thrilled for the family and thankful to the administration for their work and to the Vatican.”

Confirmed for the White House Chanukah reception Wednesday night was Gwen Zuares, Gross’ sister-in-law, who intended to personally thank President Barack Obama for his efforts in securing his release.

Administration officials called the larger prisoner swap a separate exchange, but Obama told reporters that the United States had to chart a new course with its island neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.

“While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way — the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID sub-contractor, Alan Gross, for five years,” said Obama. “Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship.”

Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who has visited Cuba several times and went in Nov-ember as part of a three-member Joint Delegation of American Religious Leaders that participated in meetings with high-level Cuban officials with the goal of freeing Gross, said he learned Wednesday that a colleague, Rev. John McCullough of Church World Service, had gone to the federal prison in Kentucky on Monday to visit one of the Cuban prisoners. The prisoner had been moved out of the prison. McCullough contacted the Cuban mission in Washington, which knew nothing about the move.

Gross’ release was immediately cheered by the American Jewish establishment, with statements of support released Wednesday morning by the Orthodox Union, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and the Anti-Defamation League.

“We’re beyond elation. This is the goal that our Jewish community has been seeking to fulfill for five years,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC, who helped lead efforts by the D.C. Jewish community to free Gross. “We see the value of pidyon shvuyim, the ransoming of captives.”

Criticism of the exchange came swiftly from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), two of three Cuban-American senators.

Though he called Gross’ release a “profound moment of relief” for the family, Menendez, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, harshly criticized the “asymmetrical trade.”

“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” he said in a statement. “It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”

Appearing on Fox News, Rubio said, “It’s absurd and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established.”

In contrast, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who traveled to Cuba several years ago to seek Gross’ release, fully welcomed the exchange, calling it “a good and proportional deal.”

Gross’ homecoming  accompanied a White House announcement of sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” said Obama. “Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”

Diplomatic ties, which were severed in January 1961, will be reestablished with the opening of an embassy in Havana. Legal travel to Cuba will be expanded, remittance levels to Cuba will be raised and authorized commercial sales and exports from the U.S. will be expanded along with other policy reforms.

Notably, Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; Cuba was added to the list of such countries in 1982.

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, will travel to Cuba in January to lead the U.S. delegation in the next round of negotiations.

In a separate release, Kerry said, “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.”

“Tonight as we kindle the second Chanukah candle,” the Greater Miami Jewish Federation said in a statement, “we know it will burn that much brighter for us in gratitude for the release of Alan Gross and for all those who championed his cause for so long.”

Statement from Gross on Return Home from Cuba

Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Upon returning home from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, Alan Gross had the following to say:

“Chag Sameach.  What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America.  Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today.

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary and determined efforts of my wife of forty four and a half years, Judy Gross, and my lawyer and Personal Moses, Scott Gilbert, to restore my freedom.  They have my endless gratitude, love, and respect.  The relentless and often intense efforts by Judy and Scott, the partners, associates, and staff of Gilbert, LLP law firm, Tim Rieser on Capitol Hill, and Jill Zuckman of SKDKnickerbocker have been inconceivable.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has been instrumental in shepherding the arrival of this day.  I want to thank all of the members of Congress from all sides of the aisle, such as Senator Jeff Flake and Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee, who supported, spoke up for, and visited me, subjected themselves to my ranting, and helped me to regain some of my weight.  [Even in Cuba, M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.]  To all of those who tried to visit me but were unable to, thank you for trying.  I am at your service as soon as I get some new teeth, hoping that they will be strong and sharp enough to make a difference.

To the Washington Jewish Community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), all of the executive directors, staff, and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian, and Moslem organizations nationwide, God Bless You and thank you.  It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten.  Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining.  And to my extended family, especially my sister, Bonnie, my cousins, and friends – Howard, Bruce, our Shabbat group, Nonie and Larry and so many others who exemplify the true meaning of friendship – thank you.

I do understand that there are many others who actively participated in securing my freedom, of whom I am only nominally aware at this juncture.  I promise that I will express a more direct and personal gratitude just as soon as I know who you are.  But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office.  To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you.  In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my 5-year tenure in captivity I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly would not want to trade places on this glorious day.  Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community.

I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba.  In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected.  To me, Cubanos (or at least most Cubanos) are incredibly kind, generous, and talented; it pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.  Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment; two wrongs never made a right.

I truly hope that we can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies.  I was very happy to hear what the President had to say today – it was particularly cool to be sitting next to the Secretary of State as he was hearing about his job description for the next couple of months.  In all seriousness, this is a game changer which I support.  In the meantime, I ask that you respect my wishes for complete and total privacy.  Claro?

A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free.  And, as personified by Scott and our entire team, we must never forget the two pillars of Moses’ covenant, freedom, and responsibility.  I am incredibly blessed – finally – to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life.

But for now I will close with a quote from a Nelson DeMille character, “it’s good to be home”.  Thank you.  I wish all of you a happy holiday season.”

United Stand

Throughout the past four months, between officiating bar mitzvahs and weddings and leading her congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve, of  St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation, has been traveling north to Ferguson, Mo., to join the protests.

“There was moral outrage,” Talve said of the nights immediately following last week’s announcement that charges would not be brought against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in August. “I’m not calling it violence.”

Talve has been one of a group of St. Louis-area clergy who have made it their mission to be present at all of the protests. Dressed in matching orange vests, they march alongside community members day and night in an effort to show Ferguson’s citizens that they are not alone. They have even undergone training in de-escalation techniques.

“That’s our place. Our place out there is to lift up the voice of the young people, to keep them safe and to de-escalate when we need to. And we’ve been able to do that,” she said.

On Nov. 25, a day after the grand jury’s decision, a Washington University student protesting in Ferguson asked Talve why she was there.

“We’re here to make sure that everybody who messes with you knows that they are messing with us,” she told the young man. “We want the world to know, and we want St. Louis law enforcement to know, that when they profile you, that they have to be accountable to us.”

Talve is especially proud of the response of some in the Jewish community. In October, Talve said, the community hosted an event aimed at focusing on the moral message brought by the events in Ferguson. More than 20 rabbis attended the weekend rally from all over the country.

“We pray for peace. We pray that the voices of the youth will not be silenced by police violence and media ignorance. We pray for the day when people of color do not have to fear the police,” read a statement from T’ruah, a rabbinic organization that focuses on human rights and helped organize the rally. “We must use our resources to amplify those voices and to share their words with our own communities.”

Photos by Marc Shapiro

“In the Jewish community, this is an issue for us because we know what it is to be profiled, even in America,” said Talve. “We know what it is to be profiled throughout the world and the reason we were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago is the same reason we need to be involved today.”

For its part, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council has been working to collect books to send to the library in Ferguson for area children, many of whom have been out of school since Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Nov. 17. The council also worked in conjunction with another local synagogue and church to staff and supply a safe place for people to get food, charge their phones and pray, and it has started a #fergusonifnotuswho hashtag on Twitter to collect messages of support, said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC executive director.

In Baltimore, there were at least four protests on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day following the grand jury announcement. That morning, Morgan State University students marched around campus. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, students lay down in chalk outlines and chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” which has become a mantra at Ferguson protests.

Two protests were held that evening downtown, the first of which took place at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor and was organized by Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the People’s Power Assembly.

“We’ve got to send a message that what happened in Ferguson, Mo., was completely unacceptable, and it was a true miscarriage of justice,” said Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries. “We hope to send the message that Jim Crow Jr. is indeed very much alive and well and that we have to double our efforts, lock arms and come together like never before to ensure that we fight the good fight of the faith.”

Others hoped the protests would bring to light problems in the criminal justice system.

“People of color are overwhelmingly affected by police brutality and law enforcement policies that treat them like the enemy, and I think that’s an unfair and terrible thing to have to live with,” said Baltimore resident Michael Hanes. “The mobilization around [Michael Brown’s] murder is bringing a lot of attention to it, and so I hope more people will look at the broader problem; this isn’t unique. It’s not about a bad cop; it’s about a police system that does this regularly, that regularly abuses people.”

“These are our people that are out on the streets and are not feeling safe,” said Talve, noting that the Jewish community includes many black and other minority members. “But even if it wasn’t our people, we need to be there for all of the people. This is an American value, a Jewish value, and I’m very proud of my city, I’m very proud of St. Louis, that the people here are giving voice to something people have called for for a long time, and we’re taking the civil rights movement to a new level.”

Lexington Lady Bows Out

Owners Rich (left) and Bernie Krieger with their loyal staff (from left): Marsha Wartzman, Myrna Claire, Sharryn Greenberg, Amy Shuster andDebbie Schwartz. (Provided)

Owners Rich (left) and Bernie Krieger with their loyal staff (from left): Marsha Wartzman, Myrna Claire, Sharryn Greenberg, Amy Shuster andDebbie Schwartz. (Provided)

“Lexington Lady! More than a woman to me. It’s the look that you wear that shows on your face you’re a Lexington Lady. Lexington Lady,” crooned the singer in the Lexington Lady jingle that ran for years on Baltimore radio and television stations.

But now the iconic plus-size women’s clothing and accessory shop on Reisterstown Road has “Going Out of Business” yard signs dotting the grass leading up to the store. The Pikesville location is the last of the Krieger family owned and operated stores, which have been a staple in the greater Baltimore area for 81 years.

In the middle of the afternoon on a recent Thursday, the store was filled with shoppers snapping up deals. A woman studied herself in the mirror, twirling in a red-and-black striped skirt while a sales lady fetched a red coat with a black fur trim to complete the look. Others milled about in front of the jewelry display by the registers, reminiscing about the store.

Customer loyalty is strong. VIPs filled the Festival at Woodholme shopping center location at the end of October for a preview sale, and there has been a steady stream of business ever since. Rich Krieger, 76, who co-owns the store with his brother, Bernie Krieger, 71, has had to buy more inventory from New York to keep up with demand.

“Customers are so upset, they come in crying,” said Ilana Shochat, an employee of more than 10 years. “This is the place to come to get something. The customers are so appreciative.”

Sundra Jones of Baltimore estimated she’s been shopping at Lexington Lady for 25 years.

“I will miss the elegance of the clothing, the elegance of the jewelry. I’m not sure where to go now,” she said as she exited the store with her last purchase.

The first family store was opened by the Kriegers’ maternal grandfather, Ben Herman, in Virginia in 1923. The Herman family moved to Baltimore in 1924 and opened Herman’s apparel store on N. Eutaw Street in 1933. Two years later, Rose Herman, Ben’s daughter, married Alexander Krieger, who joined his wife in the retail business.

Rose and Alexander were active in the Jewish community and were among the founders of Beth El Congregation, which was originally located in Ashburton.

“Originally, we would close for one day on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur,” recalled Bernie, who, like his parents and brother, belongs to Beth El, now in Pikesville.

By the time Herman’s closed after its 27-year run, the family had opened a discount clothing store called the Three & Five Shop.

“Our father was from New York, and he had this friend named Jack Rose who sold hats,” said Bernie. “So he comes home and he tells our mother, ‘I have this great idea. We’re going to open a store, and half the store will be $3 hats, and the other half you will sell $5 dresses.’

“We got the loan for the building from American National Bank,” he continued. “Howard Scaggs was the president. The way my father got the loan was he shook hands with the bank president — no paperwork. From that handshake we stayed in business for 29 years and supported three families.”

The store, which “ran a block long,” eventually phased out the hats and went on to sell clothing in all sizes.

The Krieger boys were put to work in the family shop at an early age.

“I started working in the store when I was 7 years old as a floor walker,” recalled Rich. “One time I was walking the floor and a lady stopped me. She looked me up, she looked me down and said, ‘What do you know about ladies dresses other than looking up them?’ Well, can you imagine how many shades of red I turned? I told my dad, I need another job, so he had me make boxes.”

The brothers pitched in whenever they were needed. When his father contracted tuberculosis during Rich’s first year of law school, he came home to work and then went back to finish his degree when his father was well. Likewise, Bernie, who played lacrosse for Penn State, recalled having to miss a game to go back home to help out for Easter sales. (“The team wouldn’t even look at me when I got back,” said Bernie, “but I did what needed to be done”).

The elder Krieger made sure his boys knew the importance of customer service, an area in which they continued to emphasize during their reign as owners, which began in the mid-1960s.

“Personal attention to the customer, give service to the customer, wait on the customer — you don’t see that at department stores today,” said Bernie.

“When he comes home at night, he always talks about a customer he helped and says our customers are such nice people,” said Rich’s wife, Ellen Krieger. “Customers would say to me, ‘Your husband always gave me special service, would always smile, ask about my family.’ It’s the personal touch.”

Alexander Krieger wanted to leave his sons a legacy. Knowing that a handshake deal wouldn’t do, he bought a building across the street from the Three & Five at 105 W. Lexington St., gutted and renovated the inside, restored the marble front and moved the plus-size clothing line into the new store in 1977. A picture of the downtown storefront is pinned to a bulletin board next to the registers in Pikesville.

The business expanded into the suburbs with additional locations in Mondawmin Mall and Timonium. One by one the stores closed for a variety of reasons — rent costs, security issues, flattening sales.

In its heyday, customers would travel among the four stores to scoop up the different fashions available in each, said Bernie.

With added competition from chain stores and online shopping, sales have flattened out.

Amy Shuster, a longtime employee, said, “All the girls, we just started crying. We’ve been together so long, we’re family. It’s hard to say goodbye.”

Rich and Bernie expect to close their doors for the last time around Christmas or by the end of the year when their lease is up. The neon lady — an abstract of their logo — which has watched over Lexington Lady for decades, will dim for the final time.