Shift in Power

100314_senateWith the Republican Party pushing to retake control of the Senate in the upcoming November elections, a partisan shift in power may significantly affect a broad range of foreign policy and domestic social issues that are prioritized by American Jews.

Midterm elections in the Senate and House of Representatives historically have been difficult for the party holding the presidency. Democrats have held the Senate since public disapproval with the administration of President George W. Bush led to a Democratic sweep of both houses in 2006. Similar backlash against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010 led to a GOP takeover of the House.

The past six years of the split Congress have seen increased partisanship, a government shutdown and an ever-drying supply of major legislation passing the legislature. With the status quo, the obstructionism Obama faces from Capitol Hill is unlikely to improve in his last two years as president.

Currently, the Senate includes 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans, and the GOP will need to pick up at least six seats to obtain a majority.

In Montana, Sen. John Walsh, a brigadier general in the Montana National Guard, was nominated by the state’s Democratic governor to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Max Baucus, who was tapped by Obama to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. But Walsh’s term was short-lived, as allegations came to light that he had plagiarized a large part of a research paper that was required for his advancement to general officer ranks. Walsh admitted to the plagiarism and ended his campaign, creating an open seat.

Montana’s at-large congressman (the state’s population only entitles it to one member in the House), Republican Rep. Steve Daines, is running for the Senate seat and is seen as an almost guaranteed winner in a state that Mitt Romney won by 13 percentage points in the 2012 presidential election. He faces Democrat Amanda Curtis on Nov. 4.

In West Virginia, 77-year-old Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced in January 2013 that he would not seek re-election. In the race for his open seat, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito leads her opponent, Democrat Natalie Tennant, 53 percent to 34 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics projection. In 2012, Romney won the state, 62 percent to 36 percent.

One of the most likely Republican pickups is in South Dakota. Last year, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement. The state’s current governor, Republican Mike Rounds, easily defeated his primary opponents and has a wide lead over his Democratic opponent, businessman Rick Weiland.

Another important gain for Republicans would be the hotly contested Senate seat in Louisiana, where embattled incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu is facing two GOP challengers. Des-pite having his vote split by another Republican candidate in Louisiana’s unusual open election, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-District 6) leads Landrieu in most polls.

All told, there are six Senate seats currently held by Democrats that are either open seats or occupied by a weak incumbent. These include contests in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Polling in these states is too close to call, though most polls slightly lean Republican.

Although Jewish voters are unlikely to make a major difference in any of the contested races, a shift to Republican control in the Senate is sure to impact Jewish policy priorities. The Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council are thus both helping their parties get out the vote.

“I think there’s no question that support for Israel will, I think, increase dramatically with the Republican leadership in the Senate,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the RJC and the Jewish Policy Center think tank. “[This is] mostly because so much of what [Senate] Majority Leader Harry Reid has been doing is bottling up critical legislation, including pressuring members of his own party to not support bipartisan legislation for enhanced sanctions on Iran.

“I think it will be very clear that a top priority of the Republicans, if we get the Senate, would be to follow the lead of the House, which has already passed enhanced sanctions, and give the opportunity for Sen. [Mark] Kirk (R-Ill.) and [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert] Menendez (D-N.J.) to get their critical legislation through the Senate and to the president,” Brooks added.

Brooks also pointed to the August battle in the Senate to pass emergency funding for Israel to replenish the Iron Dome missile defense system’s supply of interceptor rockets. Though the funding passed unanimously minutes before the Senate “adjourned for its August recess, Democrats included the Iron Dome assistance in a broader emergency appropriations bill that included funds for fighting fires in Oregon as well as funding requested by Obama to handle the influx of illegal immigrants from Central America. At the time, Republicans called for a separate bill for Iron Dome funding.

“Those kind of shenanigans, at a time when Israel was in the middle of a critical battle in which they needed to have strong support from America, [prove that] Majority Leader Reid would rather have played domestic politics than help Israel,” said Brooks. “In the end we got there, but that kind of stuff, I think, is not going to happen when it’s [the job of] Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), who was one of the strong voices pushing Harry Reid to free up the $250 million emergency appropriation [for the Iron Dome].”

Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the NJDC, does not believe Republicans will take control of the Senate, citing races in states such as Georgia, where Democrats are relying on an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort among a growing demographic of young and non-white voters to deliver the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss to Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn.

“I think bicameral Republican [majorities] in Congress will be problematic for the social issues that are of concern to 70 percent of the Jewish community,” said Moline. “I think it’s a pretty fair bet that you will see attempts to stymie meaningful immigration reform, you’ll see attempts to further restrict the ability for women to control their own health care.

“I think you will find problematic approaches to religion in government from a Jewish perspective,” he added. “I think that initiatives to create equal pay for equal work and to raise the minimum wage would be frustrated by a philosophy … that is more identified with the Republicans than the Democrats.”

Moline noted that the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of U.S. Jews showed that 70 percent of respondents still identify as or lean Democrat compared with only 22 percent identifying or learning Republican.

Unlike Brooks, Moline does not see a shift in control of the Senate changing American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“I think there will probably be some tension between the president and the Senate over his pursuit of certain foreign policy objectives, but I don’t think that’s any different from the way things are now,” he said.

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Looking for Answers

Michael Zeisler and his wife, Elizabeth, encourage those of Ashkenazi descent to  undergo genetic testing. (David Stuck)

Michael Zeisler and his wife, Elizabeth, encourage those of Ashkenazi descent to
undergo genetic testing. (David Stuck)

On the day almost five years ago when a neurologist told him the tremor in his right hand was a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, Andrew Katz cried all the way home.

His father had suffered from the disease, and he knew what it could mean for his future. Still, Katz, who was 62 at the time, was grateful that his disease was at an early stage. He chose not to take medication and was determined to live his life normally for as long as possible. At the same time though, Katz wanted to learn all he could about Parkinson’s and what was being done to find a cure.

“I started doing some investigating and decided I needed the care of a neurologist who specialized in movement disorders,” he said.

Katz also became well informed about the resources available in Baltimore’s formidable medical community. When he discovered that Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was one of 32 clinical sites across 13 countries conducting the Michael J.Fox Foundation-sponsored Parkinson’s Progression Marker Initiative (PPMI) studies to identify and validate biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease, Katz decided to see if he qualified.

Since PPMI research commenced in 2009, scientists such as Hopkins associate professor of neurology Dr. Zoltan Mari, chief investigator of the JHU-based consortium site, have studied multiple cohorts, collecting clinical, imaging and bio-sample data that may help them to better understand why people get Parkinson’s and how it progresses. Of particular interest is the genetic arm of the study that follows the progression of the disease in people who carry mutations on their LRRK2 or (less frequently) on their SNCA genes.

These mutations are found in 20 percent of Ashkenazi Jews as compared with only 2 percent of the general population. Of the 20 percent of Ashkenazi Jews who have the mutations, Mari said 70 percent will be stricken with Parkinson’s disease at some point in their lives.

“It’s an interesting disease,” said Katz. “I call it a salad-bar disease. There are a whole lot of symptoms, and every patient is unique.”

Nowadays, Katz has tremors in both hands as well as a tremor of his head. Sometimes he experiences stiffness and cramping. He manages his symptoms with a mild medication regimen and regular exercise. Compared with other Parkinson’s patients, Katz counts himself as “lucky” since his disease has progressed relatively slowly. Mari said that in patients diagnosed as younger adults, such as actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed at age 30, the progression of the disease is usually more rapid. In addition to the symptoms Katz described, Parkinson’s can also cause slowed movement, loss of spontaneous and voluntary movement, rigidity, postural instability including problems with standing, walking, balancing and coordination. Patients may also suffer from “non-motor” symptoms such as cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, constipation and the loss of sense of smell.

“If we can understand the LRRK2 mutation and why it causes Parkinson’s disease in most people but not all people who have it, we can learn what protects the 30 percent who don’t get [Parkinson’s],” said Mari. “That could help us help all [Parkinson’s] patients — not only those with the mutation.”

Although Katz has not yet received the results of his genetic testing and does not know if he is a carrier of an LRRK2 or SNCA mutation, the brain scans he underwent as part of his enrollment in the PPMI study did show an abnormality in his brain function and formally confirmed his Parkinson’s diagnosis. He was accepted into the study.

While he is not part of the PPMI study, Michael Zeisler of Owings Mills also noticed a tremor in his right hand at age 62.

“The doctor took one look at my tremor and said, ‘You have Parkinson’s.’ That’s not what you want to hear,” Zeisler shared. “He tried to buck me up. ‘People don’t die from this. We’ll work to keep the symptoms manageable.’”

Like Katz, Zeisler, who is now 73, said his disease has progressed slowly. He was tested for the LRRK2 and SCNA mutations but did not have them. Nevertheless, he and his wife, Elizabeth, who serves as an ambassador for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, encourage other Ashkenazi Jews to undergo the genetic testing in order to grow the PPMI database. With more data, the Zeislers said scientists will gain the information they need to prevent, treat and ultimately cure Parkinson’s disease.

“I don’t expect there will be a cure in my lifetime,” said Zeisler. But he’s hopeful that future generations will be spared the suffering that he and so many other patients and their families have endured.

Katz shares Zeisler’s hope. “For me,” he said, “I’m not so concerned. Everything I do is for my kids. I just want them to find a cure.”

Arita McCoy coordinates the Johns Hopkins PPMI study. She explained that enrolling in the study is simple and free. Study applicants are asked to take a saliva test and are scheduled to meet with a genetic counselor. Each participant is given the option whether to receive their genetic testing results or not.

“This is an observational study so there are no drug trials,” said McCoy. In addition to the saliva test, study participants receive blood tests and brain scans. McCoy said the PPMI study team is actively recruiting people with Parkinson’s who are of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish, North African Berber or Basque ancestry and individuals without Parkinson’s who are related to someone with the disease and who are of Ashkenazi, North African Berber or Basque ancestry. She reminded prospective study subjects that JHU is only one of the 32 study sites.

“If Baltimore isn’t convenient,” she said, “candidates can probably find a study site closer to home.”

For additional information, contact McCoy at 410-955-2954 or visit michaeljfox.org/ppmi/genetics.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Just Screen It

 Depiction of autorecessive inheritance in Tay-Sachs disease. (Cburnett via Wikimedia Commons)

Depiction of autorecessive inheritance in Tay-Sachs disease. (Cburnett via Wikimedia Commons)

For most people, the chances of being a Tay-Sachs carrier are one in 250. But Ashkenazi Jews face far worse odds with a “high-risk” carrier rate of one in 30, according to the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association (NTSAD).

Yet, through screening, Tay-Sachs has been less prevalent in recent years among the Jewish population. Before couples could screen for it, one in every 3,600 Jewish babies had the disease, according to Mimi Blitzer, professor of pediatrics and head of the Division of Human Genetics at the University Of Maryland School of Medicine.

“The number of Jewish couples who have Tay-Sachs children has gone down significantly due to testing,” said Blitzer. “Now, through testing, the number of Jewish babies born with Tay-Sachs is very low. But this disorder occurs in every population. We are now seeing more cases of Tay-Sachs offspring in non-Jewish couples than Jewish couples.”

While Tay-Sachs can strike later in life, most cases emerge in infancy. The victims develop normally until approximately 3 to 6 months of age, when they begin to experience a loss of motor skills and visual acuity, progressive weakness and an increased startle response. Eventually, they become totally immobilized and unresponsive. Most die before their 4th birthday. In order for a child to inherit Tay-Sachs, both parents must be carriers. That puts children at a 25 percent chance of having the disease at birth.

While the incidence in the Jewish community has decreased, the disease affects other groups who are at risk, including French-Canadian, Cajun and Irish-American populations. According to NTSAD, a carrier study at the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia is focusing on the Irish community.

Surprisingly, Blitzer said that the only Baltimore family she is currently seeing with a Tay-Sachs child is not Jewish.

“Tay-Sachs is known as a Jewish disease, but screening has made it easy to combat,” she said. “Once a couple discovers they are Tay-Sachs carriers, they have many medical options to still conceive a healthy baby.”

Non-Jewish mother and pediatric nurse Desiree Hopf lost her son, Conner, when he was just 22 months old. While she is Catholic and her husband is Methodist, the couple from Columbia both carried the recessive gene.

When the Jewish community of Baltimore started its first voluntary screening program in 1971, thousands of people were able to find out that they were carriers prior to pregnancy. While there is a huge outcry to screen in the Jewish community, many non-Jewish couples do not think about it, affirmed Hopf.

“After losing Conner, I want people to know that it is not just a Jewish disease anymore. Anyone can be a carrier for Tay-Sachs,” said Hopf. “It has been so publicized in the Jewish religion that most Ashkenazi Jews get screened. We have to pass that message onto everyone.”

The Hopfs experienced a series of indicators, including behavioral and health changes, before their son passed away.

“We found out that Conner had Tay-Sachs when we realized he was not hitting his 6-month milestones,” said Hopf. “We drew blood and found he had the disease. By 16 months, he didn’t smile. By 19 months, he could not coordinate smiling. By 21 months, he contracted pneumonia, and at 22 months, he passed away.”

With new advances in screening, saliva and blood tests are able to detect Tay-Sachs quickly and more effectively. While the saliva genotype “spot test” has a 90 percent detection rate in Ashkenazi Jews, a more thorough sequencing from a saliva sample examines the whole length of the gene and has a 99 percent detection rate in everyone. Blood tests are also highly effective with a 98 percent detection rate. Since the number of Tay-Sachs carriers are still the same, screening is crucial to lessen the number of children with Tay-Sachs being born.

“We want to give access to as many screenings as possible, preferably before they get pregnant,” said reproductive geneticist Evelyn Karson, a medical consultant for genetic screening company J Screen. “Screening is important even if you and your partner are not Jewish. We all have some broken genes with changes that keep them from working properly.”

Retired Baltimore resident and Jewish Museum of Maryland volunteer Ilene Cohen discovered that she was a Tay-Sachs carrier when she was tested in college.

“Since I was so young and single when I found out, I feared my children would have Tay-Sachs,” said Cohen. “My whole family got tested, and we discovered my dad was a carrier. Luckily, my husband was not, but it is still scary to think about.”

In Baltimore, Dor Yeshorim offers premarital annual screenings at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Bais Yaakov School for Girls as well as appointments with local physicians.

Michael Ring, Baltimore’s Dor Yeshorim representative, stated that the organization’s “goal is to prevent double carrier matches in an anonymous, safe fashion that is also convenient. Most importantly, we follow the guidelines established by respected rabbinic authorities in dealing with this very personal information.”

In addition to Dor Yeshorim, J Screen screens all over the country and has a representative in Washington, D.C. Founded in September 2013, the company now offers mail-in home kits for potential Jewish carriers to get tested.

“Our saliva tests are easy, postage free and affordable,” said Washington representative Hillary Kener. “Last Wednesday and Thursday, J Screen came to the Baltimore federation’s Employee Health Fair. By bringing our tests to local communities, we are spreading awareness.”

While research is ongoing, including at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and in university labs throughout the country, there is no cure for the disease. Scientists are hoping to replace the defective gene responsible for Tay-Sachs with a corrected copy, explained Staci Kallish, a clinical geneticist and a board member at the NTSAD.

Tay-Sachs research has entered the animal-testing phase; monkeys are undergoing tests that were successful in smaller animal models such as mice and cats. In other studies, scientists are exploring the possibility of removing stem cells from the blood of an affected person, performing gene therapy and then replacing the stem cells. Since at least 2002, NIH has been recruiting Tay-Sachs sufferers for observational studies only. No clinical trials on human subjects are underway.

While feeding tubes may prolong life for a Tay-Sachs patient, the emphasis is on prevention. Before deciding to have a child, the NTSAD recommends that couples be genetically tested — usually just a blood test — to see if they are carriers.

Despite the decline in the Jewish community, there are still families who suffer with Tay-Sachs children today. One Jewish mother of a child with Tay-Sachs wonders what her 2-year-old son Russell would be like without the disorder.

His “muscles are getting tighter, and he’s losing his eyesight,” said the Rockville mother, Melanie, who preferred that her last name not be published. “He’s starting to have seizures.

“Who would Russell be without this disorder? I wish that the essence of Russell could have come into a healthy body,” she continued. “That’s what I wish for. I wish that Russell could have a full and healthy life.”

Because Melanie was in her 40s when she wanted to have children, she and her husband conceived both their children with donor eggs. Melanie and her husband are Ashkenazi Jews, but the woman who supplied the donor eggs for both boys is not. However, she was a carrier nonetheless.

“We have the screening, and we have the tools,” said Karson. “The most important thing to do is take the test before it is too late.”

afreedman@jewishtimes.com
spollack@washingtonjewishweek.com

Dollar for Dollar

The well-funded, highly influential pro-Israel lobby goes both ways in political support. In 2013-14, a variety of political action committees gave money to both Democrats and Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

J Street, known for its liberal advocacy, gave away about $1 million in contributions, almost entirely to Democrats, in those two years. It was the biggest PAC donor of that time period. The second-largest donor, NorPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates and politicians, gave $582,531, split between Democratic and Republican candidates. The third largest PAC contributor was the National Action Committee, which gave slightly more of its almost $240,000 to Democrats.

Contributions from the other top 20 pro-Israel PACs were as diverse at the top contributors. A local PAC, the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens, was listed as the eighth-largest contributor at $118,850, most of which went to Democrats in the 2013-14 cycle.

July filings with the Federal Elections Commission for the PAC list a P.O. box address in Pikesville and list several prominent members of the Baltimore Jewish community as contributors, including three members of the Cordish family, several Caves Valley Partners executives, political fundraiser Josh Fidler, Glenn and Joseph Weinberg, Harvey Meyerhoff and Mark Neumann, chairman of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The PAC’s largest contributions include $2,500 to Aimee Belgard, a Democratic congressional candidate for New Jersey’s 3rd District; $5,000 to Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman for Virginia’s 6th District; $2,500 Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democratic congressman running for the Senate; $2,500 to Gary Peters, a Michigan Democratic congressman running for the Senate; and Brad Schneider, a Democratic congressman in Illinois’ 10th District.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Schneider is the sixth-ranking recipient of the pro-Israel lobby at $190,638 in 2014. The top five (in descending order) are New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and former Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor.

McConnell and Udall are facing tight re-election battles this year, and Cantor lost to a relatively unknown Republican in this summer’s Virginia primary, forcing him to abandon the post of House majority leader. Graham and Booker and considered shoo-ins for re-election.

Orioles Rally

More than 300 people participated in an Orioles rally at Stevenson University as part of the team’s “We Won’t Stop” campaign on Monday. The event featured former Oriole Scott McGregor, the Oriole Bird and trivia with signed memorabilia as prizes.

Still Waiting

Photo by Melissa Gerr

Photo by Melissa Gerr

After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.

Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.

The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.

Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.

Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.

Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.

“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”

Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.

“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.

After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.

Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

 

Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.

“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.

“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.

Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.

“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.

Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure.  A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”

But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.

“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.

“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”

He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.

“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”

Election regulations were not the only last-minute communications in Ramapo. There was a glimmer of possible compromise the day before that appeared via robocalls and a booklet that went out to hundreds of Orthodox homes. The booklet appeared on social media as well.

The booklet on the Preserve Ramapo Facebook page appeared to come from a loosely identified Jewish group. It featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield was listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.

Several pages of graphics and text urged citizens to vote in favor of redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that a yes vote would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”

Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.

“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” he said. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”

Polarized Polling

10714006_10152453633743935_923254016792451115_oAgudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, recently disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town of Ramapo, N.Y. — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey — to vote against today’s referendum on political districting. The measure would reshape the town’s voting districts away from a citywide to a ward-based system of membership on the Town Board that would ultimately, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

The second part of the referendum calls to increase the Town Board from four to six members. Agudath Israel’s statement also cited “voter minority dilution” as the referendum’s purpose and equated the potential lack of Orthodox representation with that of the local African-American community.

“The reason we felt a particular need to speak up loudly here was to make sure that voters were aware of what is at stake, namely the inhibiting of the voting power of easily disenfranchised minorities,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel, wrote in an email. “Currently, the Orthodox Jewish community in Ramapo is able to play a role in electing public officials, as are other minorities. The referendum at issue seems clearly intended to erode, if not eradicate, that ability.”

Agudath Israel is not the only voice bringing Ramapo’s local politics to a national light.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and everybody else over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

Both the Town Board and the school board function independently, but it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the upcoming referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100 percent just as polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grass roots organization Power of Ten, which hopes to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community to poll sites today.

“Right now they take all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, added White. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now … since the 90s.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition to ward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

Two other villages are Wesley Hills and New Hempstead, which White called “extremely segregated.”

“That’s why I think the [redistricting] referendum would work,” he said. But “this is not a Jewish thing or a non-Jewish thing, it’s about when democracy is not really working well, when people cannot have free communication and free will.”

Ramapo has had its share of political discord, and even the redistricting vote taking place this week took two years to finally happen. According to news reports, the battle began with petitions that were thrown out. The petitioners sued the town and were granted the right to hold the referendum by the New York State Supreme Court.

Social media has played a strong part in mobilizing the vote in Ramapo for announcing meetings, polling sites and volunteer opportunities.

A Facebook post the day before the election on the Preserve Ramapo page appeared to come from a loosely-identified Jewish group that used Hebrew phrases throughout and featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield is listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.

Several pages of graphics and text then urged citizens to vote yes for the redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that voting yes would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”

Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.

“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” said Castelluccio. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”

White wasn’t as hopeful.

“I think that we’re going to get clobbered,” he said. “They’ll bring out their full force of 12,000 [voters].”

Shafran saw the election in broad terms.

Though he wrote via email that he “wouldn’t go so far as to say that as goes Ramapo so goes the nation,” he added, “It isn’t paranoia to imagine that if a tactic is employed successfully to disenfranchise Jewish voters in one locale that others might see fit to try to follow suit. So anyone concerned with preserving the rights of minorities to play a meaningful role in the election of public officials should be concerned with the current situation in Ramapo.”

Voters in Ramapo will cast their ballots from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sept. 30. An update of the events and results will be posted online at Jewishtimes.com.

Let the Refs Make the Call

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

If you were lucky enough to catch Sunday’s NFC matchup between divisional rivals the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles — most Baltimore-area television sets were tuned to the Ravens’ field-goal-clinching 23-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns — it either came across as old-style football or thuggery run amok.

One thing’s for sure, though: The Week 3 rough-and-tumble defeat of Washington, 37-34, in which a post-down tackle of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles led to a bench-clearing sideline fight and the ejection of the Redskins’ Nick Baker and the Eagles’ Jason Peters, will go down as one of the most interesting battles of the NFL season.

To football fans, the game is a microcosm of life, and in the great Jewish tradition of finding larger lessons in the mundane, the antics of that particular Sunday offer some telling truths. To the green-clad Eagles’ faithful, Baker’s launch upon a none-the-wiser quarterback amounted to the kind of dirty pool that harkened back to previous seasons’ pay-for-blood scandals. But to citizens of Redskins Nation, Foles was a legitimate target; who could blame a 325-pound lineman for a well-placed tackle?

As in politics, sometimes it all depends upon whose ox is gored.

As the two teams clashed in Philadelphia, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched a couple of hours north in New York City. Timed to coincide with a U.N. climate panel, the Manhattan march demanded action on global warming, but more than one participant — their angry cries broadcast the following day on National Public Radio — decried the “evil” corporations of the world for putting profits above the good of the earth.

In truth, industry titans are no more evil than the Ivy League-educated, fashion-clad protesting class who hold them in contempt are communists. (Although, there were probably more than a few die-hard actual communists scattered throughout the march.) Political discourse frequently invokes the tactic of demonizing the other side, but at the end of the day, a corporation’s job is to remain true to its core principles, profit motives among them, just as a defensive lineman’s job is to aim for the quarterback.

The sacrificing of objective truth for political posturing can also be seen in Israel. To hear the rhetoric emerging out of both the Jewish state’s ruling and ruled classes — as featured in this week’s cover story — is to witness the wholesale maligning of groups.

At issue is the fate of thousands of Africans who have made it from war-torn nations to Israel to seek asylum. To several politicians, these potential refugees — a High Court decision Monday reverses policies of indefinite confinement and gives the government 90 days to close an unpopular detainment facility in the Negev — are criminals and vagrants. But who would really fault a person for fleeing horrific dangers back home?

To many of the Africans’ advocates, Israeli politicians’ stances are malicious and run counter to the Jewish people’s history as refugees seeking protection as well as Judaism’s exhortation to pursue justice in all its forms.

It took a judicial body to settle the dispute. Perhaps we should all tone down the rhetoric, whether in sports, in politics and in our relations with each other, and realize that an arbiter is needed to dispense justice.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

The Day After

Participant Michael Greenbaum displays rocket scraps from the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Participant Michael Greenbaum displays rocket scraps from the Iron Dome missile defense system. (Courtesy of the Associated)

When the 15 Baltimoreans who attended a mission to Israel last week initially signed up for the trip, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” said Ira Malis, who, along with the rest of his fellow travelers, signed up for The Day After mission coordinated by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore before the current cease-fire. “Signing up was easy.

Malis saw the trip as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel. Hesitant to believe much of anything he heard reported on the summer conflict secondhand by news outlets, Malis wanted to experience the situation himself.

“You hear of, yeah, they’ve been bombing, they’ve been bombing, they’ve been bombing. You almost get numb to it. But I think when you actually talk to the people who are on the ground, you see just how disruptive [it is] and what they have to live with day to day, minute to minute,” he said. “You can see why it really has to stop.”

Mark Neumann, who was also on the trip, agreed.

“Here, we discuss it, but then move on and talk about the Ravens,” said Neumann. “There, it’s just front and center in their lives.”

The group left Baltimore at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 15 for Newark Liberty International Airport, where they caught a flight to Tel Aviv. They then traveled from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon, Jewish Baltimore’s sister city, where they spent two days hearing from citizens and experts about the recent conflict and its aftermath.

Participants heard from doctors and staff at Barzilai Hospital about the challenges of operating a hospital while at constant risk of attack. They then heard from teens involved in Ashkelon’s Baltimore-funded AMEN teen program. For the 50 days of the war with Hamas, the teens volunteered their time to care for the young children of parents who had to go to work but had no way to ensure the safety of their children while they were out of the house.

“The thing that keeps going through my head is the resilience of the people and the way they were doing their utmost to bring some normalcy to their lives during a crazy time,” said Neumann.

Making the trip even more important, Neumann said, is the fact that talks have since resumed between the two sides in extending the cease-fire. In the U.S., he said, people view the immediate conflict as over, but for many he met in Israel, peace comes with a hint of tension; citizens of the oft-targeted southern region are waiting for government officials to decide their future, he pointed out.

Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom was proud to travel to Israel so soon after the violence. He was impressed by what he described as the “resilience” of the people who choose to live in the settlements surrounding Gaza and the lone soldiers who choose to move to a country away from all friends and family to serve in the Israel Defense Forces

“These people are on the front lines on the war facing all of us,” said Fink. “Every Jew and every American is a combatant in this war against Israel and Western civilization.

“The question is not if it’s going to occur again, the question is only when,” he added. “And we have to do our very best to ensure that the people of Israel are ready to meet the next challenge.”

 

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Yom Kippur Without Fasting

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Each sect of Judaism has its own way of observing the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, but there is at least one custom observed across the board: fasting.

As members of the Baltimore Jewish community spend the day in synagogue with empty stomachs beginning the night of Oct. 3, some observing the holiday won’t be able to take part in the ritual.

“I have Stage 3 kidney failure,” said Pikesville resident Mike Solomon. “They don’t want me not drinking or eating, because the kidneys could shut down.”

While Solomon said his condition is stabilized and that he is not on dialysis anymore, he and his doctors would like to keep it that way.

Solomon’s condition is just one of many that exempts him from fasting, according to rabbis and physicians.

“In Judaism life always takes priority over anything else,” said Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, director of pastoral care and chaplaincy at LifeBridge Health. “If fasting is going to get you sicker, then you shouldn’t be fasting.”

Dr. Elliot Rothschild, an internist at Pikesville’s Baltimore Suburban Health, said patients who can’t fast include those who are frail, have heart conditions, take medications that require food, some diabetics and those with acute conditions such as pneumonia that could worsen from fasting.

“I tell somebody not to fast if I think it will destabilize their condition, particularly someone who is frail,” Rothschild said.

Perfectly healthy people, such as some pregnant women, don’t fast either.

“It’s just generally not a good idea,” said Daniela Levine, an expectant mother. “You don’t want to deprive the growing fetus of nutrients.”

Levine, who is modern Orthodox, still plans to celebrate the holiday and said she will miss fasting.

“It gives you a chance for introspection, it gives you a chance to really think about all the things you’ve really done over the past year,” she said. “Although difficult, I think it takes away that little bit of pleasure you get from eating, and it gives you a chance to really think about all the things that Yom Kippur is about.”

Owings Mills resident Dennis Duell said he last fasted about 10 years ago. He and his wife both have medical issues that prevent them from fasting.

“That’s what happens when you get into your golden years,” he said.

He takes medicine for his rheumatoid arthritis that requires food. And although they can’t fast, Duell sees the value in the tradition. He explained it as a way of connecting to past generations and their hardships.

“We didn’t suffer as other people suffered prior to us, so [fasting is] really little compared to what other people went through before us,” he said. “It’s an important thing because it’s symbolic.”

Rothschild said some patients do fight him on not fasting but joked that it’s no different than any other time he gives them instructions. Some, he added, can fast with precaution and consume small snacks and drinks. For those who fight him, he cites a story a rabbi at his synagogue, Suburban Orthodox Congregation, told about a man whose wife told the rabbi he wasn’t following doctors’ orders to not fast.

“The rabbi visits him [and says], ‘I just want to let you know I won’t be able to give you an aliyah in shul anymore,’” Rothschild said. “The rabbi says, ‘You have decided to practice a different religion. The law is you have to eat.’”

Rabbi Ackerson has dealt with similar situations. Although those admitted to the hospital generally understand why they can’t fast, there’s one population that sometimes has trouble with the notion of not taking part in the ritual.

“It takes more effort in terms of that emotional side, particularly with some of my very elderly Holocaust survivors,” he said.

“They’ll say, ‘I fasted in Auschwitz and now you want me to eat?’ That’s a very different situation.”

So what does a rabbi say to that?

“For most, it was their deep faith, that’s what allowed them to make it through,” he said. “We tell them, ‘That deep faith is what tells you to make your life a priority.’”

At the end of day, even though it means missing out on a lifelong practice, Solomon said there really isn’t another option.

“It’s just one of those things where you have to go by what the doctors and the rabbi says,” he said.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com