Just Add Water

runyan_josh_otIn chemistry, a solvent is a liquid capable of dissolving another substance. The resulting homogeneous mixture is known as a solution.

In this regard, water is known as “the universal solvent” because of its unique ability to dissolve seemingly impermeable things. Jewish tradition teaches that the great Rabbi Akiva was even motivated to learn Torah — he had previously been illiterate — when contemplating how water, one drop at a time, was able to carve its way through rock. And the cleansing properties of a spring rain have not been lost on the countless poets and naturalists who have marveled at the ability for life itself to be renewed and rejuvenated through water.

But when we say a business is solvent, we mean that it is able to meet its financial obligations. In both the chemical and financial understandings of the word “solvent,” we can trace it back to its roots in Latin signifying the loosening up of something. A business is solvent if it is loose, if it is flush with cash. A problem is solved — or a solution is found — when, like a stubborn knot that finally unravels, all of its constituent parts are untangled.

But here in Baltimore, the rain and waters of the Gwynns Falls and the Jones Falls rivers have been too good at dissolving and the muck of decades of growth now sits in solution at the Inner Harbor. The water quality is so bad, one local businessman tells Melissa Gerr in this week’s cover story, that tourists have taken heed of signs warning of the harbor’s health hazards and taken their business elsewhere.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, a coalition of groups thinks it has the solution and aims to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. They’ve scored some successes, although the harbor recently received another F on an environmental firm’s report card. And as demonstrated in Toledo, Ohio, over the weekend, when residents discovered that their water, sourced from nearby Lake Erie, was suddenly unusable, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Water isn’t just a great tourism resource. Since time immemorial, clean water has been a prerequisite for a functioning society. And some political scientists have been warning for years of impending global wars fought over something as simple as access to water.

Over in the Gaza Strip, where a tenuous cease-fire announced Monday appeared to return calm to the troubled region — Israeli schools opened in the south, and the Israel Defense Forces redeployed the units that took part in Operation Protective Edge’s destruction of cross-border tunnels used by Hamas — many residents have for years used salty water from the local aquifer for bathing; potable water comes desalinated from local neighborhood facilities and home-based purification units.

For sure, upgrading the infrastructure was never really a priority of Hamas, which while controlling the territory spent more time and effort on digging underneath the Israeli border to launch terror attacks. But now, Israeli military officials are speaking of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip — albeit without Hamas in control — as a necessity from both a humanitarian and strategic point of view.

Only time will tell, but perhaps peace will be achieved a drop at a time.


Baltimoreans Rally Over Gaza

When Raquel Minka heard about a rally taking place in downtown Baltimore protesting Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, she had to do something.

“They’ve been having so many,” she said of the pro-Palestinian protest. “We also need a chance to speak up.”

Minka took to Facebook to organize her own demonstration — one in support of Israel and its military offensive — and on Wednesday, hundreds of Baltimoreans turned out to stand with her, waving flags, singing and dancing outside Penn Station.

The rally was a response to another rally organized by Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine which was scheduled to take place at the same time in the same spot. The Hopkins group held another protest the previous week, but the addition of the counter protest made Wednesday’s event far larger than any other Gaza-related rally in Baltimore to date, even drawing a police presence complete with metal barriers and helicopters.

Malika, a Baltimore native dressed in a headscarf and long sleeves, attended the rally with her husband and young daughter. Even though she stood on the Palestinian side of the makeshift police barriers, she found herself unable to fully commit to one side or the other, standing to the furthest edge of the crowd.

“I just realized I’m not really a protest person,” Malika, who would not give her last name, said. “There should be a neutral [group].”

She came to the rally with the intention of supporting Palestinians and other oppressed populations around the world, but didn’t want to bring a sign and open herself and her daughter up to heckling from other protestors. As she watched the scene unfolding in front of her — crowds beginning to form around the barriers while each side shouted slogans at the other — her resolution wavered slightly.

“I’m so moved right now I want to cry,” she said as she watched rally attendees shout back and forth across the no-man’s land occupied primarily by reporters or photographers; a brief stand-off in a largely tame event. “I just wish it was about humans” instead of one group pitted against the other, she said.

For Kfir, who had stationed himself comfortably on the pro-Israel side of the block, the issue is less murky. He moved to the U.S. from Israel six years ago, but updates from his friends and family living overseas keep the situation in Israel in the back of his mind at all times.

“It’s pretty tough, but you learn to live with it,” Kfir, who also would not give his last name, said of growing up amid constant Israeli-Palestinian tension. Now a U.S. resident, he has found himself spending a lot of time lately defending Israel to coworkers and friends.

When people hear about the disproportionate casualty counts in the most recent military offensives, he said, he struggles to try to justify the actions of the Israel Defense Forces.

“At the end of the day, numbers talk,” said Kfir, who added that the force used by the IDF is justified by the history of the situation. “It’s very hard to convince somebody.”

Within two hours, the Baltimore Zionist District-funded buses had reloaded their passengers and the pro-Palestinian crowd had reconvened at Red Emma’s, a few blocks down the road. There, a likeminded group packed into the café to listen to political scholar and author Norman Finkelstein blame Israel for the situation in Gaza.

Finkelstein, who has raised the hackles of national Jewish groups for embracing the Palestinian narrative of events in the Middle East, told the crowd, which poured out of the door and into North Avenue, about a set of three “gifts” that fell into the lap of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in order to allow for the current situation to fall into place.

First, Finkelstein said, was the June kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli teens. The fallout from the search and discovery of the bodies of the teens allowed for Netanyahu to rally hostility toward Hamas, which was blamed for the kidnappings.

“Now Netanyahu had a pretext,” said Finklestein. “He saw an opportunity.”

The second gift, he said, was the Tony Blair-backed, Egyptian-proposed cease fire. According to Finkelstein, the conditions would have handed Hamas a total loss and the group had no choice but to reject the proposal.

Thirdly, he said, was the downing of the Malaysian airliner. The uproar surrounding that event, he said provided the perfect distraction for Israel to begin its offensive in Gaza.

Finkelstein ended his talk, which was followed up by questions from the audience about political law and Middle Eastern politics, with an anecdote.

Imagine Dan is suffocating James, he told the crowd. James struggles and reaches his hand up and scratches Dan and Dan retaliates by walloping James, claiming he is justified because he was defending himself.

“If he doesn’t want James to scratch him, all he has to do is stop suffocating him,” he concluded.

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), called Finkelstein’s analysis an attempt to make unconnected circumstances fit a pre-existing belief.

“The idea that any of these are gifts is a little obscene by itself,” Rozenman said. “Finkelstein’s whole approach is to blow the micro, or the minor, into the major.”

He added that Finkelstein lacks a big-picture view, noting that around 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

“This is not about reaching some accommodation between Israel and Hamas like it’s a labor management dispute,” Rozenman said. “One side wants to destroy the other. A compromise that gives them something they demand gives them strength to fight another day.”

Staff reporter Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.

Vested Interests: Raising Funds to Purchase Bulletproof Vests

About a week ago, Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, director of the Teacher’s Institute at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, received a call from Rabbi Yissocher Dov Eichenstein of Mercaz Torah and Tefillah regarding Eichenstein’s desire to “do something for our soldiers, specifically that they go into battle with the right safety gear.”

As explained in a Facebook post from Oberstein dated July 26, the Ner Israel rabbi’s son Yoni is a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces. Yoni, whose unit retrieves combatants’ bodies in order to provide proper burial, said that he and his fellow soldiers “desperately need modern ceramic bulletproof vests, that they had only a very few old Vietnam-era vests and that they could use 80 of the better vests that can withstand modern warfare.”

Baltimore’s Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox community, responded quickly to a grassroots effort to fulfill the request begun by Congregation Ohel Moshe.

“They have delivered 80 vests to Yoni’s unit, and we have received pictures of our boys wearing them,” Oberstein said in his Facebook post. Research is being done to identify additional units that need more safety equipment, because, according to Ohel Moshe’s site, the response to donate has continued beyond the amount originally requested. Each bulletproof vest costs about $1,500 and has been purchased from a certified IDF provider.

For more information, go to ohelmoshebaltimore.com/vest.


Shalom to the Enshrined

Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame director, holds a bat used by the great Jewish Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame director, holds a bat used by the great Jewish Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

For Jeff Idelson, the director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., induction weekend is all about teamwork.

“When you get to signature events [and] you’re in a small community, all the pieces have to come together effectively for it to be a grand slam,” Idelson said recently from his office in the Central New York village of 1,852.

The team includes Mayor Jeff Katz, like Idelson a passionate baseball fan, and they oversaw last weekend’s festivities as the unofficial welcoming committee for the game’s elite and the tens of thousands of fans who came to pay them homage.

Former players Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and ex-managers Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox were inducted Sunday.

Calling Cooperstown home is heavenly for the two officials.

“To be the mayor of a place like Cooperstown is a special thing,” Katz said, sitting in Idelson’s office filled with shelves of bobble-heads representing baseball and pop-culture figures as well as Idelson’s Little League bat — a Mike Schmidt model — on the side.

The men have been friends ever since Katz, his wife and their three sons moved to Cooperstown more than a decade ago. The families gather for Passover seders, and Aaron Idelson and Joey Katz were classmates who graduated from Cooperstown High School in June.

The two Jeffs work together occasionally — but always when induction weekend rolls around.

“The village has always been there to work with hand-in-hand, whether it’s parking issues [or] dealing with crowds,” said Idelson, 50. “That’s enhanced now because we have a mayor who really loves baseball.” He adds quickly that previous mayors “have all been great” too.

On induction weekend, the eyes of the American sports world turn annually to the one-square-mile, one-stoplight village that has been revered as baseball’s birthplace ever since the myth arose of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there in 1839.

Besides the large induction class of 2014, this midsummer’s gathering was notable for falling near the museum’s 75th anniversary and the centennial of the Major League debut of slugging icon Babe Ruth, a member of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.

The weekend also followed on the heels of another spectacle: President Obama becoming the first chief executive to tour the Hall of Fame, when he visited Cooperstown on May 22 to deliver a speech promoting tourism.

Idelson guided Obama and Hall of Famer Andre Dawson through some exhibits. Obama even grasped the baseball used by William Howard Taft when, in 1910, he became the first president to throw a ceremonial first pitch at a game.

The days prior to Obama’s visit felt “like I was cramming for a final,” Idelson said.

“I was so nervous he’d ask a question I wouldn’t have an answer to.”

Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz (left) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enjoy a May visit to the Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of Jeff Katz)

Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz (left) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enjoy a May visit to the Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of Jeff Katz)

Katz, 52, is kept busy responding to queries too.

His home on Chestnut Street is a 10-minute stroll from work, but it often takes an hour to get there when residents stop him to chat. That’s been a common occurrence, especially since paid parking was instituted in 2013 on village streets during the summer tourist season.

The measure wasn’t universally popular.

“People would say, ‘Go back to Chicago,’ “ Katz said.

That was where Katz had lived and earned a hefty income as an options trader, enabling his family to relocate to Cooperstown, where Katz had wanted to purchase a second home. He’s served in unpaid positions as a Cooperstown Board of Trustees member, deputy mayor and, since 2012, mayor.

Katz is also president of the Society for American Baseball Research’s local chapter, and being in Cooperstown allows him easy access to the Hall of Fame’s library. That’s where he researches the book he’s writing about the oddity of 1981, when the players’ strike from June to August split the season in two and created first-half and second-half champions.

In a previous book, Katz examined the 13-year existence of the Kansas City A’s, when the franchise, in many experts’ view, was exploited by the New York Yankees before being sold and decamping for Oakland.

Growing up in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, Katz was a diehard New York Mets fan. Idelson, a native of the Boston suburb of Newton, worked in public relations for his hometown Red Sox before taking a similar position with the Yankees.

Now in his 20th year of working for the Hall of Fame and his sixth as its president, Idelson takes the diplomatic stance that “you don’t love an individual [player] or an individual team — you love the game.”

The numbers arriving for last weekend’s festivities — Idelson said it was “one of our largest” crowds ever — prompted Katz and the board to close Main Street to vehicles. That was last done in 2007, when the induction of Orioles infielder Cal Ripken drew a record crowd of 82,000.

“Every mayor, every board, has understood the importance of the Hall of Fame in the village,” Katz said. “We certainly do everything we can to accommodate the Hall’s needs.”

Speaking of Idelson, he added, “And because we’ve been friends for almost 11 years now, there is a comfort level. I think there is an extra level of cooperation because of the nature of our friendship.”

Instant Minyan



Searching for a minyan? Look no further than your smartphone.

On July 8, Web development company RustyBrick released its newest mobile application for Android and iPhone users: Minyan Now. The New York-based company, best known for creating a popular phone siddur, uses modern technology to enhance traditional Jewish practices. The company’s latest product is designed to help Jewish men form and find minyans anywhere.

The idea for Minyan Now was inspired by RustyBrick CEO Barry Schwartz and founder and CFO Ronnie Schwartz after they personally struggled to find the quorums necessary for public prayer after their mother’s death. According to Jewish law, recitation of the traditional mourner’s prayer known as Kaddish requires a minyan.

“Barry and I are twins, and our mother passed away a year-and-a-half ago,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “It was difficult to find minyans in different areas, especially on the go. As a result, we wanted to help people find minyans easily. It is not always easy to get 10 Jewish males in the same place at once. Now, Jewish boys over the age of 13 can find a minyan anywhere, anytime in seconds.”

The brothers dedicated the app to their deceased mother.

So how does it work?

Minyan Now utilizes the smartphone’s built-in GPS system to find users’ locations. Users can create or join a minyan, gather 10 people and get their prayer on.

“Users can create a minyan at the push of a button. All they need to do is set up a time and place and fill in how many people they are bringing,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “After the minyan is created, the mobile application alerts other Minyan Now and RustyBrick Siddur users close by. Once 10 men respond yes, everyone receives a second notification that the minyan is ready to go.”

After just a week and a half, Baltimore resident and RemSource CEO Azi Rosenblum is already impressed with the new application. A huge fan of RustyBrick’s siddur application, Rosenblum praises Minyan Now’s success at creating minyans for people on the go.

“I think RustyBrick’s cutting edge creation will pull more Jews together,” said Rosenblum. “Imagine finding a minyan in the middle of an amusement park, train station or ballgame. Everyone is constantly on the road, including me. They are helping Jews get done what we’ve been doing for thousands of years in an easy, accessible way.”

The Schwartz twins emphasize that their apps use 21st-century tools to aid conventional Jewish practices.

“Our goal is not to infringe on the traditions of Judaism,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “We’re Orthodox and don’t want to change the rules. We want to help others through technology and make all of our lives easier.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

No Meat, No Problem!

080114_ninedaysFrom chicken soup to cholent, Jews love their meat.

With a vast array of kosher meat restaurants in the Baltimore area, Jewish meat eaters are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining out. Yet, from July 28 until Aug. 4, observant Jews are forbidden to eat meat during the nine days between Rosh Chodesh and Tisha B’Av.

But meat-eating Jews need not fear, many kosher meat restaurants have unveiled special fish and vegetarian menus for the nine days.

Newly opened African-inspired kosher steakhouse Serengeti and contemporary family-style kosher grill Accents have re-kashered their kitchens and created new dishes for the nine-day period. The sister restaurants, owned by Larry and Lara Franks, offer an exclusive fish menu featuring sesame-studded salmon, bronzed tilapia, oven-baked sole, pan-seared red snapper, Asian rainbow trout and more. In addition, Accents provides a full sushi bar to bring even more variety to the meat-free diet.

“You will be excited by what you eat. Both Serengeti and Accents have designed special fish menus for diners to enjoy over the nine days,” said Phil Rosenfeld, Serengeti’s front-of-house manager. “We have a beautiful menu that includes several fish, pasta and sandwich dishes. From seared ahi tuna to house-made vegan quinoa to vegetarian lentils, you will not feel deprived.”

Others who don’t have much adapting to do aren’t worried about losing business. Easta LaVista owner Elad Barmatz is confident his restaurant will thrive thanks to his primarily vegetarian cuisine. Easta LaVista, which brings Middle Eastern flavors to Baltimore, simply swaps fish for shawarma during the nine days.

“My restaurant is already 90 percent vegetarian,” said Barmatz. “Many restaurants close during this period, but Middle Eastern cuisine is known for classic vegetarian dishes like shakshuka, falafel and hummus.”

Offering Moroccan fish and salmon steak, the restaurant indulges diners with a buffet-style selection of salads and sides to accompany their main course.

“We give our diners plenty of variety in our food,” said Barmatz. “You decide what your plate looks like.”

While many restaurants tweak their menus, others decide to remain closed during the meatless nine days, as Barmatz mentioned. Kosher Bite, Royal Kosher Restaurant and David Chu’s will all go dark during this period.

David Chu’s manager Amy Fan believes that it is not worth keeping the restaurant open when her diners cannot consume meat.

“Of course, we are closed,” says Fan. “I can’ t imagine any of our customers paying for vegetables. Meat is our specialty.”

Despite many restaurants closing their doors, Baltimore Jews will not go hungry during the nine days.

“Whether you order fish, falafel or eggs, we are ready for you,” said Barmatz. “You won’t even know the meat is missing.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

Cruz Takes Aim At Iran

In a lengthy speech on the Senate floor this month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed the Obama administration’s stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict and nuclear negotiations with Iran — indicating that he will  present a bill to reimpose the sanctions on Iran previously lifted by the United States.

Cruz said that U.S. efforts should be focused on supporting and ensuring the security of Israel and backing Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket
attacks from Hamas, not forcing Israel to make security concessions to the Palestinians in pursuit of a cease-fire.

“Only when the Palestinians take it upon themselves to embrace their neighbors and eradicate terrorist violence from their society can a real and just peace be possible,” Cruz said. “Until then, there should be no question of the United States’ firm solidarity with Israel in the mutual defense of our fundamental values and interests.”

Up until the start of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Israeli officials were clear that their main priority was to ensure that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not create a nuclear bomb — often putting itself at odds with the United States and Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought a more moderate approach that included allowing Iran to maintain a level of enrichment capability as part of a final deal.

In his speech, Cruz linked his position on Iran to the safety of Israel, noting that Iran is considered to be a significant sponsor of Hamas. He called Kerry’s Joint Plan of Action, an agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear ambitions to energy production only, that after an extention will expire on Nov. 24, a “historic mistake.”

“The connection between Hamas and Iran is a sobering reminder of the larger context in which the events of the last month have taken place,” Cruz said. “They are not an isolated local issue that could be managed if only Israel would act with restraint. Both the United States and Israel want the Palestinian people to have a secure and prosperous future free from the corrosive hatred that has so far prevented them from thriving.”

Cruz’s proposed bill, which he said he will be introducing later this week, will include strong sanctions and mechanisms for their enforcement as well as calling for a dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.

“A negotiated settlement is not an absolute prerequisite to Israel’s security, as the administration has claimed,” Cruz concluded, “but rather establishing Israel’s security may well be the only way to eventually reach any such settlement.”

Cruz is also the sponsor of another pro-Israel bill presented two weeks ago which would require the U.S. State Department to offer a $5 million reward for capturing the Hamas terrorists responsible for the murder of a dual American-Israeli citizen, Naftali Fraenkel, along with two other Israeli teens. The bill is co-sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and includes a version in the House co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

That bill, along with another bipartisan Senate resolution in support of Israel’s operation in Gaza, appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.


A Chapter Closes

Shimon Peres speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for his successor as Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, July 24, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shimon Peres speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for his successor as Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, July 24, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JERUSALEM — In the midst of a grinding war in Gaza, a sometimes near-empty Knesset gallery was packed last week for an uplifting moment: what probably was the final political act of Israel’s elder statesman.

Shimon Peres — former Israeli prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and now former president — stood before the Knesset for the last time as a public servant on July 24, just prior to the inauguration of his successor, Reuven Rivlin.

Facing his professional home for almost all of the past six decades, Peres gave a farewell speech that traced the arc of his long career, recounting
Israel’s past, defending it in its present predicament and offering hope for its future.

“We are a people that experienced unimaginable agony,” Peres said. “And we are a people that reached the lofty heights of human achievement. We made great efforts. We paid a heavy price.”

It was a toned-down ceremony due to the continuing conflict in Gaza and was an inauspicious time for Peres, 91, to be exiting the political scene.

For decades, the man who in 1994 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping engineer the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords has repeated over and over that peace is within reach and could be achieved in his lifetime. Yet the final months of his presidency saw the acrimonious collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the murder of four boys — three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian teen — and Israel’s bloodiest military offensive in five years.

Peres is known today as a peacemaker, but he began his career in the Defense Ministry, helping to cement a close military alliance with France in the 1950s and developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Peres advocated the settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.

Only in the 1980s, as Labor Party leader, did Peres become the peacenik he’s known as today. And it was only after he left party politics for the presidency, in 2007 that he rose above the parliamentary rivalries and failed leadership bids that had embroiled and foiled him over the previous few decades to become the unifying figure he is today.

Peres is the phoenix of Israeli politics. From hawk to dove, from faction leader to uniter, he has ridden the wave of Israeli history and somehow stayed afloat while others fell, faded away or died. It is that history that makes Peres one of the few Israeli leaders who could deliver the speech he did last week: at once vociferously defending Israel’s offensive in Gaza while also calling for an aggressive approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“There is no place to doubt our victory,” Peres said, adding immediately: “We know that no military victory will be enough. There is no permanent security without permanent peace. Just as there is no real peace without real security.”

In a political career that spans 55 years, Peres has never prevailed in a popular election. He became prime minister in 1984 after his party, unable to form a government, entered into a unity coalition with the Likud. He also occupied the post briefly in 1977, after Yitzhak Rabin resigned, and in 1995, after Rabin’s assassination.

The peace treaty Peres yearns for has yet to be signed. But whether or not peace comes in his lifetime — though in his 10th decade he still appears energetic — his starring role in so much of Israeli history has earned him a respect that transcends political divisions.

At the Knesset session on July 24, Peres received thunderous applause from a generally divided house.

The man who succeeds him, Reuven Rivlin, is in many ways Peres’ opposite. Rivlin is a lifelong Likudnik; Peres has bounced between three parties. Rivlin wants to annex the West Bank; Peres prefers a two-state solution. Rivlin has pledged to focus his efforts on healing Israel’s internal divisions; Peres at times has acted like Israel’s second foreign minister.

Though he is no longer a government official, Peres is unlikely to disappear. He intends to continue working for regional reconciliation at his Peres Center for Peace, and he still will be a presence in the media and at international conferences.

And Peres’ story remains woven into the history of Israel — its successes, its failures, its frustrations and its resilience.

“When I return and meet the beauty and strength of the State of Israel, I find myself shedding a tear,” he said near the end of his speech. “Maybe excited slightly more than my younger friends. Because throughout my years I witnessed the entire incredible journey and the miracles of Israel.”

Economic Impact

A Gap store at the quiet Mamillamall in Jerusalem. Sales are affected due to a drop in tourism during Operation Protective Edge.  (Photos Joshua Runyan)

A Gap store at the quiet Mamillamall in Jerusalem. Sales are affected due to a drop in tourism during Operation Protective Edge. (Photos Joshua Runyan)


A storefront, quiet and lacking customers last week, in Jerusalem’s Old City.

JERUSALEM — There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a visitor to Jerusalem’s high-end outdoor Mamilla mall skirting the Old City’s Western Wall just outside the Jaffa Gate would strain to hear Israel’s native language of Hebrew. Among the throngs of people perusing the jewelry stores, fashion houses and art galleries during the height of the summer tourist season would be visitors from North America, South America, Europe and Asia.

But on Wednesday night last week, such tourists were nowhere to be found, and the thoroughfare lined by Rolex, Abercrombie & Fitch, the Gap and upscale restaurants was reduced to the equivalent of a municipal mall found in dust-strewn Israeli towns such as Beit She’an or Kiryat Malachi. There were still people, but they were locals.

And they weren’t spending.

“We’re hurting,” said Esther Berdugo, 60, standing outside the Israel Antiquities store where she’s worked for seven years, her back leaning against the ubiquitous Jerusalem stone that lines buildings new and ancient in the Israeli capital. “We feel it. We feel it in the stores. There are no tourists, just Israelis.”

She pointed to the Rimon café across the street to prove her point.

“People over there used to stand in line to wait for a table, it was so busy,” she said in Hebrew.

At 8:30 that night, just a handful of people patronized the restaurant. Most of them sipped coffee.

Over at the A & F Brands Factory Store, one of the first storefronts people encounter when they walk through the mall’s entrance facing the pricey David Citadel Hotel, clerk Dan Levi, 23, walked among the retailer’s displays of button-down shirts and designer jeans. No one else was in the store.

“In July and August, we get 20,000 people per day walking through Mamilla,” he said. “Since the war began, it’s 6,000. And we depend on business during the summer to carry us through the winter season.”

As Israel entered its 17th day of fighting in its Operation Protective Edge to destroy enemy tunnels dug by the terrorist group Hamas and stop the firing of rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, life in Jerusalem — the economic realities of decreased tourism notwithstanding — continued more or less as before. Air-raid sirens hadn’t been heard for several days; cars and buses still moved along such central thoroughfares as King David and King George streets; pedestrians still clogged the small sidewalks along Agrippas Street leading to the famed Mahane Yehuda market.

But beneath the surface were the worries and concerns of shopkeepers such as Berdugo, who realize that with each additional day of fighting in Gaza, Israel’s economy gets more and more isolated. When asked what she felt about the planeload of North American immigrants who arrived in the country just a day before, Berdugo’s face lit up. Like many Israelis, she spoke effusively of how important it was for foreign Jews to cast their lot with Israel.

Also read, Aliyah During Wartime.

“I am inspired,” she said. “The Jewish people are one. This is very important. But even more so, they’ve come because they truly love the land.”

But press further, and some locals can’t help but call the new arrivals “crazy” for giving up easy lives in places such as the United States for a life of hardship in a dangerous part of the world.

Yoel Cohen, former chairman of the School of Communication at Ariel University and author of “God, Jews and the Media,” explained the dichotomy in Israeli attitudes as part of how they view the diaspora Jewish community in general.

“Overall, there’s not a great deal of interest among Israelis in the diaspora, and that gets expression in the extent to which the Israeli media covers the diaspora,” he said. “The interest is mainly unidirectional, such that Jewish newspaper editors are interested in what happens here … but the Israeli media fails to cover the diaspora in an important way.”

The disinterest only goes so far, however, and in times of existential crisis or when anti-Semitic attacks threaten Jews abroad, said Cohen, Israeli attitudes reflect more of an identification with a united global Jewish community.

That sense of shared identity goes both ways, said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg. Wrapping up a four-week visit to the Jewish state, Blumenthal said that witnessing war from the perspective of a non-tourist — he took part in a rabbinical conference run by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — has strengthened his sense of Jewish identity.

“I’m still trying to process everything and decide what it’s all really about,” he said of the ongoing conflict. “But it’s deepened my sense of Jewish peoplehood.

“It’s striking that in my program of 27 rabbis, nobody went home [when the fighting started]. Everybody stayed,” he continued. “So on the one hand, yes, people decided this might not be the best place to take a vacation, but I’ve seen lots of people stay.”

And while he experienced firsthand what fleeing to a bomb shelter is like when air-raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem weeks ago, a recent trip to the war-torn community of Sderot just a mile from the Gaza Strip afforded Blumenthal the “opportunity,” he said, of witnessing just how “normal” life in Israel is during a war.

“There’s a tremendous pride and strength [among Israelis], a sense that we’re not going anywhere,” the rabbi said of locals in Sderot. “And throughout my time in Israel, I feel incredibly protected, as long as you follow directives. It’s a strange feeling to hear a siren while on a bus. You pull over like every other car, you crouch down and you protect your head. Then the siren is over, you wait a couple of minutes, and everything starts up again like nothing happened.”

Life goes on, emphasized Berdugo. “People who come here are not afraid. They realize that this land is ours.”


Working Together

Jewish Community Services Director Barbara Gradet was one of about 50 faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to discuss treatment of young migrants from Central America. (Richard Lippenholz )

Jewish Community Services Director Barbara Gradet was one of about 50 faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to discuss treatment of young migrants from Central America. (Richard Lippenholz )

While uncertainty continues over how to quell the rush of young migrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. illegally and what to do with the children awaiting trials that will determine their fate, one thing is assured in Maryland: local faith leaders will have a large role in any upcoming action.

“Texas shares the borders, but we all share the concern and the passion for the children,” said Barbara Gradet, who attended a meeting between Gov. Martin O’Malley and faith leaders from around the state. Gradet attended on behalf of the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Services, of which she is the executive director. Already, she said, she has received phone calls from Jewish community members as far away as Bethesda wanting to get involved.

The meeting, which was followed up by another similar meeting on Monday, was closed to the press, but Gradet said discussion focused on options for housing the children and other ways to help the young migrants.

Many children entering the country illegally travel to family members already living in the U.S. when they are released from Border Patrol custody. The fate of the thousands of children who do not have family to be reunited with is in limbo, however, as officials all over the U.S. grapple with how and where to house the children while they await their immigration trial.

“This is a humanitarian crisis that really belongs to our whole community,” said Gradet. “If we all pitched in and we harnessed the resources that we all can offer, then we can get these kids the main care and treatment that they need while they’re waiting for the federal process to happen.”

From what Gradet could tell, all of the 50 or so attendees were in agreement on the need to prevent the children from being sent back. They also agreed that, while the kids await their trials to determine whether they will be permitted to stay in the U.S., they need to be housed in a comfortable environment.

The group talked about placing an emphasis on the existent foster care system rather than repurposing old warehouses or recreation centers to house the kids. O’Malley has been vocal in his opposition to both sending the children back to their home countries and housing them in large temporary shelters.

While Catholic Charities, which was present at the event, has offered the use of one of its buildings in Timonium to house the children, Gradet said the focus of last week’s meeting was on fostering and the use of small group homes as a last resort.

“We need open arms and caring families,” she said. “People of faith have that very strong passion of caring.”

For many attendees, the issue is personal. O’Malley discussed his own great-grandfather’s immigration to America and Gradet said she couldn’t help but think of her great-grandmother escaping persecution by hiding under the false bottom of a hay cart to travel undetected out of her home country.

Each attendee was encouraged to start a discussion among their own faith community about volunteering to foster the Central American children, but not all communities are equally capable.

While some communities, such as the Catholics, have a large population of Spanish speakers, making them a better option for children who don’t know any English, other communities with few Spanish speakers are finding other ways to help. For JCS, Gradet said this might involve vetting potential foster parents — something the organization has experience with — or establishing a network of available babysitters to help those who  do house the children, in addition to collecting clothing and supplies children might need.

Gradet said she realizes the Jewish community has a lot on its plate right now, but insisted people find the time to think about the situation in the southwest as well.

“What an opportunity for them to see what this country is about and who we are,” she said of the young migrants.