The Joys and Oys of Being Jewish

Bolton Street Synagogue member Steve Snyder rehearses for “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of  Contemporary Jewish Life” Stoop  Storytelling at the synagogue.  (Photos Melissa Gerr

Bolton Street Synagogue member Steve Snyder rehearses for “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of
Contemporary Jewish Life” Stoop
Storytelling at the synagogue.
(Photos Melissa Gerr

Bolton Street Synagogue and The Stoop Storytelling Series are teaming up to present “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of Contemporary Jewish Life.” The April 5 event will feature six storytellers, some of whom are well-known locals, telling their own personal stories — humorous, poignant and surprising  — about being Jewish.

WBAL-TV anchor Deborah Weiner, author and commentator Marion Winik, public relations executive Greg Abel, educator and long-time Bolton Street member Steve Snyder, devoted Orioles fan Ira Gewanter and philanthropist and psychotherapist Lois Feinblatt will take the stage for the storytelling event.

Plans for the show have been in the making for about a year; Bolton Street member and Stoop fan Nancy Savage contacted Stoop hosts Jessica Myles Henkin and Laura Wexler to see if collaboration could happen. The Stoop has collaborated with several other organizations in the area to co-present shows.

“The model [of Stoop Storytelling] is really simple; it’s really powerful and really flexible,” said Wexler. “The model can be used for an organization to explore a certain theme, talk about its history, build community and inspire people. It’s a simple model that really works.”

Each performer has five minutes to tell their tale. The topics at Bolton Street’s event will range from the story of a blind date with one of the most infamous female figures of the 20th century, a striking near-death experience that brought the teller closer to Judaism, the conflicts that can arise when a devout Jew is also a devout Orioles fan and a newscaster’s challenge as a Jew starting her career in the Deep South. Laughs and tears are guaranteed, said organizers.

Laura Wexler (left) and Jessica Myles Henkin watch the rehearsal for the  upcoming Stoop Storytelling performance at Bolton Street Synagogue.

Laura Wexler (left) and Jessica Myles Henkin watch the rehearsal for the
upcoming Stoop Storytelling performance at Bolton Street Synagogue.

As with all of the Stoop shows, audience members will be invited to submit their names into a lottery for a chance to tell their own story during the show.

The co-chairs of the event include decades-long synagogue members Ken and Jeannette Karpay, Peggy Brennecke and Mark Hyman.

“We decided this would be a great community building event,” said Hyman. “We surrounded it with food, drink and live music to make it a fundraiser. It’s for our members, for the larger Jewish community and for our neighborhood as well. We’re always looking for opportunities to bring in our neighbors.”

Bolton Street Synagogue is located at 212 W. Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. The event begins with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at 7 p.m.; storytelling begins at 8:30 with dessert at 9:30. Proceeds from the event will benefit Bolton Street Synagogue’s educational programs. The event will also feature a raffle for Ravens tickets and a silent auction.

Auction items include lunch with Nobel Prize winner Adam Riess, also a member of Bolton Street congregation; a week at a condo in Ocean City; lunch for 25 at Chipotle; a day on a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay and, perhaps the most coveted prize of all, a parking space for High Holidays in the synagogue’s main lot.

For past Stoop Storytelling shows go to stoopstorytelling.com/shows/past.

IT’S COMPLICATED: STORIES OF THE JOYS AND OYS
OF CONTEMPORARY JEWISH LIFE’
• Saturday, April 5 at 7 p.m.
• Tickets can be purchased in advance for $50 at www.StoopBoltonStreet.eventbrite.com. Proceeds benefit Bolton Street Synagogue’s educational programs. The event will also feature a silent auction, a raffle for Ravens tickets, food, drinks and live music.

Son of a Stitch


Photos provided

The sewing machine looked harmless enough until it almost shot him.

Mike Peisach, a veteran of the Korean War, fished a live .32-caliber bullet from under the needle plate of a machine during a routine repair. Peisach, who started repairing sewing machines when he was 15, has handed down death warrants on many machines, but this was the first one that fought back.

“She brought it in for repairs and wanted to know why it wouldn’t work. The wheel was jammed and I took the needle plates off and found it. If I’d turned the crank hard enough, the arm would’ve hit the bullet,” said Peisach.

When the woman returned for her machine Peisach asked her why she tried to shoot him.

Sheepishly, she blamed her son: “We were missing some shells.”

Peisach handed her the bullet, her working machine and suggested she watch her kids while she was sewing.

Peisach, 82, is one of the last remaining sewing machine repairmen in the Baltimore area. Working out of Weiner’s Vacs in Owings Mills, Peisach estimates he fixes 10 to 15 sewing machines a week. Most of his customers are older and dedicated to machines they’ve used for years. Peisach said that the new machines operate with a “planned obsolescence” of four to five years.

“When it stops working, they throw it away and buy a new one. It can take an hour to take apart a new machine just to move a screw,” said Peisach. With today’s cheaper sewing machines, the repairs can be costlier than the machine itself.

But for customers attached to an older machine that they’re not willing to trash, Peisach is ready with 62 sewing machines stacked up in a corner of his tidy basement for extra parts. Peisach explains that while looking different on the outside, about five manufacturers made the bulk of the sewing machines, so the insides are the same in many older machines.

Even if the machines are similar, they’re all special to Peisach.

“I have an illusion. My thought is I own all the sewing machines in the world and I let people use them,” he said with a smile. “When they abuse them, I get very angry at them.”

Peisach, wearing a dapper brown vest over a crisp button down shirt on a Sunday afternoon, proudly showed off a picture of his parents in a frame shaped like a Singer sewing machine. A statue of a character from “Fiddler on the Roof” bent over a sewing machine is perched nearby. “My favorite part,” said Peisach as his trim and energetic wife, Barbara, bustled through the house keeping Peisach on point.

Baltimore Bound

Peisach’s family moved from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore in 1939. They happened to move on Halloween, and Peisach, 8 at the time, was in awe.

“It was 95 percent Jewish in Brighton Beach,” he recalled. “They didn’t really celebrate Halloween, and it was a big deal in Baltimore. I thought ‘Where did they take us?’”

Peisach’s parents emigrated from the Crimea area in Russia. His father’s friend, Willy Harris, “mishpocheh” according to Peisach, arrived on the same boat and was like an uncle to him. Harris moved to Philadelphia and opened a sewing machine company. Peisach’s parents were in the fish business but looking for a change due to his mother’s rheumatism.

Harris suggested they move to Baltimore and start their own sewing machine company. He helped them get started, and they opened the New York Sewing Machine Exchange in the 700 block of West Baltimore Street. In 1941, his father bought 11 N. Eutaw St. and moved the company to the new location. Peisach, his two sisters and his parents lived in a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. His parents worked the store, and Peisach helped after school.

“My first job was putting belts on treadle machines,” said Peisach. “I couldn’t get into much trouble that way.”

Peisach “learned at the bench” as he described it, working side by side with his father. When he was 16, his father handed him the keys to the car and told him he was on delivery duty that day.

They sold both factory- and family-type sewing machines and did repairs. Many customers were one- and two-man tailor shops. Wardrobe mistresses with traveling shows appearing at Ford’s Theatre or the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre always stopped at the New York Sewing Machine Exchange to get their sewing machines tuned up. The Exchange worked with Towson University’s theater department through the 1970s.

Peisach took over the family business in 1961 and ran it through 1990, when he sold the company. Until a couple of years ago, Peisach worked with Hancock Fabrics, traveling to their stores and fixing their customers’ machines. Peisach needed a new gig. His wife had vacuums serviced at Weiner’s Vacs, and it gave Peisach an idea. Customers could drop their machines with Morris Weiner at Weiner’s Vacs, and he could bring them home for repairs. Historically, vacuums and sewing machines were often sold at the same store since they attract the same type of customer.

Peisach, who’s allergic to dust and dirt, had no interest in vacuums, and Weiner never worked with sewing machines.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea. Sewing machines and vacuums go hand in hand,” said Weiner. He added that he and Peisach were such old hands that they could practically tell what was wrong with a machine as the customer walked through the door.

Back in their Pikesville home, the “starter home” that they’ve lived in for 60 years, according to Barbara Peisach, the couple showed pictures of their nine grandchildren and served hamantashen and coffee with hazelnut creamer.

Peisach’s two sons and one daughter didn’t take up the family business, but Peisach has no plans to hang up his tools and stop repairing sewing machines.

“Old sewing machine guys don’t die,” he remarked. “They just stitch away.”

To contact Peisach for a repair, call 410-274-6161. He’ll even make house calls in the Northwest section of Baltimore.

Amy Lynwander is a local freelance writer.

Foundry Row Moving Forward

An artist’s rendering shows what Foundry Row will look like upon completion. (Provided)

An artist’s rendering shows what Foundry Row will look like upon completion. (Provided)

Foundry Row developers have cleared another hurdle in their plans to build a Wegmans-anchored mixed-use center on Reisterstown Road.

Development plans by Greenberg Gibbons and Vanguard, the companies building Foundry Row at the site of the old Solo Cup factory, were approved on Feb. 24. Arguments opposed to the plans were also rejected in the decision by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Demolition is 90 percent complete, with another building due to be knocked down in May, and grading and construction should start by the end of the summer, said Greenberg Gibbons chairman and CEO Brian Gibbons. LA Fitness and Sports Authority have signed on as tenants, and the company will soon sign leases with a national cosmetics company, a national clothing company and some restaurants and shops.

As Greenberg Gibbons applies for grading permits, David S. Brown Enterprises’ million-plus-square-foot transit-oriented development, the Metro Centre at Owings Mills, is also taking shape nearby.

The newest tenant there, Subway, joins Baltimore County Public Library’s largest branch, the Community College of Baltimore County and Metro Crossing Apartments.

Howard Brown, the chairman of the Metro Centre developer who was staunchly opposed to Foundry Row — he favored redevelopment at the Owings Mills mall — appeared to be looking on the bright side.

“When you look at, in between the Wegmans project and in between the Metro project and what’s going on in Owings Mills, I think it’s going in the right direction,” he said.

Gibbons, as well as Councilwoman Vicki Almond, have been hyping the synergy between the projects from the start.

Neither Almond nor Brown have heard anything about the fate of the more-than-half-vacant Owings Mills mall. A representative of would-be redeveloper Kimco Realty did not return emails seeking comment. The company said it would halt plans to redevelop the mall into an open-air center if Foundry Row got the zoning it needed to house retail on the site, which it did in August 2012.

Gibbons said his company offered to buy the mall and was rejected.

While opposition to Foundry Row, which began more than two years ago, has consisted mostly of legal challenges to plans in recent months, the issue is likely to come up in this year’s race for Baltimore County’s 2nd District seat.

Vicki Almond’s challenger, attorney Jon Herbst, said he would have approached Foundry Row differently. While he said the project will “probably be good for the community,” he said he would have considered phasing in the zoning, perhaps using the Planned Unit Development Process (PUD), which would have required additional community input.

“She came out in favor [of Foundry Row] at the start,” Hebst said of Almond. “I think that created a lot of resentment, and it’s not just with the big developers.”

His concern is about the impact bringing in national chains will have on neighboring local businesses, offering the example of of LA Fitness moving next door to Lynne Brick’s fitness club in the St. Thomas Shopping Center.

Some residents remain concerned about potential traffic issues as well as impacts on the local economy. Members of the Valleys Planning Council had widely different opinions, so the organization took a neutral position on Foundry Row, said executive director Teresa Moore.

“A lot of people are excited about it,” she said. “They want the upgrade in the area, they want the ability to shop, and other people are concerned about the impacts.”

While a traffic study released by Kimco in March 2012 said Foundry Row would increase traffic in the area, Greenberg Gibbons’ assessment, which includes road work and widening as well as traffic light improvements, said the development will improve the area’s traffic.

“The traffic will be better with our project, with all the improvements we are doing, than it is today,” said Gibbons.

Foundry Row will feature 360,000 square feet of retail and 60,000 square feet of office space. Wegmans will occupy 130,000 square feet and is expected to open in 2016, a spokesman for the chain said.

The Metro Centre will be home to 1.2 million square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of retail, 1,700 apartments and a hotel with up to 250 rooms. Brown said plans for the hotel and high-rise apartment buildings are being finalized.

Almond thinks Foundry Row will become the new center of Owings Mills, and economic development will spread from there. She thinks whatever retail doesn’t open at the center, which will be about half the size Hunt Valley, will still want to be close by, making the Metro Centre an attractive option.

“I am feeling excited and optimistic,” said Almond. “I think this is the time for Owings Mills.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Boycott Update

Maryland’s anti-boycott bill may not be dead, but it’s on life support.

Two weeks after hearings on the bill in the Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations committees, the bill that dropped in the House of Delegates with 51 co-sponsors has undergone a lot of trimming, including an amendment that would strip it of the penalties that had put the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington at odds earlier this month.

“This has been a tough issue for us,” said Cailey Locklair, deputy director of the BJC. “To have the community divide in front of legislators was not something anybody wanted to see.”

With just 10 days left before the end of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2014 legislative session, proponents of the bill have a few options left before time is up. If the session closes without action on the measure, supporters must wait until 2015 to reintroduce similar legislation, something they say they are more than willing to do.

According to Locklair, one option includes drafting a resolution in which the state would publicly condemn academic boycotts of states with which Maryland has a declaration of cooperation.

The bill stems from the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel and set those who condemn any attempt to stifle academic freedom against those who equally condemn all attempts at delegitimizing Israel.

In the weeks since the March 5 and 6 hearings, the BJC has worked with legislators and representatives of the Maryland system to edit the bill into something both parties can agree on. Where there was once a 3 percent penalty on schools using public funds to reimburse faculty for ASA expenditures, there is now a preamble singling out the boycott of Israel and denouncing anti-Semitism and academic boycotts.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, predicted that the bill is headed in the direction of what the JCRC had argued for from the start.

“Now the solution that is developing is the same solution that we called for in the first place,” said Halber. “Legislators in Annapolis don’t want to pretend that they’re the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

According to Halber, all the bill accomplished was to give those in support of the boycott the platform to voice their views.

“The ASA has actually used this bill as a way to grow their membership substantially by claiming to be defending academic freedom,” he explained. “By having this bill proposed, there had to be a hearing, which gave a wonderful opportunity for several anti-Semites and several anti-Israel activists to appear in Annapolis before the legislature, giving them their day in the sun.”

Delegate Ben Kramer (D-District 19), who sponsored the House bill, said he was disappointed in the lack of JCRC support for the bill.

“As a consequence of their aligning themselves with the pro-Palestinian organizations, there is a lot of push back from the Jewish community in the Washington area,” said Kramer. “I’ve had a number of calls from folks who are incensed at what the JCRC has done. … It has created confusion among legislators.”

Although the current form of the bill and the version Halber said his organization would support are, at this point, nearly identical, Kramer said he is no longer seeking JCRC backing.

“I certainly have no interest in their support,” he said.

For his part, Halber said he hopes the two Jewish organizations can work together in the future to accomplish shared goals.

In the case of the bill turning into a resolution, Halber said, “Our goal is that we would join together with the Baltimore Jewish Council in maybe issuing a joint statement or maybe working with the Baltimore Jewish Council and sending out a similar action alert and encouraging our people to support it.

“Hopefully, this one-time public faux pas or miscommunication will just remain that,” he added, “and it will just go into the annals of history as one that everybody forgets about a few years from now.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

The Stories That Connect Us

runyan_josh_otAt a time in life when others get lost in music or drugs or the high school social scene, one particular headstrong 16-year-old decides that his teenage rebellion requires wearing a yarmulke.

He knows little about kashrut, even less about Jewish history and practice, but he knows that he’s Jewish. And so he makes a statement, proudly declaring his identity in the form of a blue knit kippah while meandering through the sometimes conflicting worlds of religious practice and modern life. He is naïve and lost, but his search is pure.

One day, this headstrong young man finds himself at a Target, standing in the checkout line, when a figure from what appears to be another era — a bearded rabbi dressed in black — spots the boy from amid the crowd.

“You’re Jewish!” the rabbi exclaims, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that the adolescent standing before him is somewhat of a puzzle. He stands there in jeans and a T-shirt, clutching his purchases, and, save for the skullcap, clearly inhabits a “non-Jewish” existence.

“Rosh Hashanah is in two weeks,” the rabbi tells the young man. “You must spend it at my house.”

And so propelled a Jewish journey that continues now, almost two decades later. The young man’s story might never have been shared were it notfor a workshop at the Owings Mills JCC sponsored by Limmud Baltimore. What the gathering — which you’ll read about in this week’s JT —illustrated is that everyone has a story, everyone grapples with their role in Jewish life and Jewish community, everyone continues on their journeys.

It is only through sharing these stories that we develop an appreciation for not only what others have gone through, but also how similar our own journeys appear to others. And so, you’ll find in this week’s pages the tales of Ben Hyman, whose love of Baltimore has planted him in what could be the most un-Jewish of locations; and Mike Peisach, whose love of family and familiarity has made him one of the last sewing machine repairmen; and even the tragedy of Esther Lebovitz, the 11-year-old whose murder stunned a community and in whose memory hundreds of people turned out to protest an appeal by the man who took her life almost a half-century ago.

It takes a lot to share a story; because of the difficulty of introspection, it’s even harder to share your own story. It requires careful reflection, an openness to critique and a willingness to be vulnerable.

But it’s through stories that we learn of obstacles overcome, of loves gained and lost, of achievements and failures. It’s through stories that we inspire ourselves and each other, take stock of our lives and the world around us and find answers to the questions that plague us.

More importantly, stories provide the fabric that binds each of us to our past and future, to our family members and friends, to our community and neighbors.

What’s your story?

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Baltimore County Police Release Photos in Connection with Home Invasions

2014-0326 02The Baltimore County Police Department released five photos in connection with a robbery and a home invasion that occurred on March 4 in Pikesville.

Police are not referring to the individuals in the photos as suspects.

“They are people we wish to talk to,” said Cpl. John Wachter, police spokesman. “We want to talk to them about what happened.”  

Police are seeking information on a home invasion that occurred in the 3200 block of Hatton Road and a robbery that occurred in the 700 block of Leafydale Terrace, both on March 4. Police believe the incidents may be related, according to a statement.

2014-0326 05

In the Leafydale Terrace incident, two men wearing masks and armed with handguns approached a man getting out of his car in front of a home at 7:50 p.m. They took the man’s cell phone and wallet, walked him to a nearby house and went inside. The robbers noticed many people inside the home, and fled the scene towards Milford Mill Road after one of them commented that there were too many people there, according to police.

2014-0326 04

At 8:15 p.m. that same night, two men knocked on the door of a Hatton Road home, and one was holding an empty cup and asked for some water. The man who answered the door took the cup and turned to go

to the kitchen, at which point the two men entered the home. One of them brandished a handgun, forced the man and his teenage daughter into the living room, tied them up and robbed them, police said. They suffered minor injuries that did not require transport to a medical facility, police said.

2014-0326 01

The men stole computer tablets, jewelry, a camcorder, a wallet, cash, an iPod Touch and a cell phone, police said.

In the Leafydale Terrace incident, one suspect was described as a black male, 30 to 40 years old, 6 feet tall, was wearing a black leather jacket, ski mask and

dark blue jeans and had a silver handgun. The second suspect was described as a black male, 18 to 26 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, was wearing a black jacket, ski mask, black jeans, brown boots and had a dark colored handgun, police said.

2014-0326 03

In the Hatton Road incident, one suspect is described as a black male, 28 to 30 years old, six feet tall, wearing a black parka-style jacket, a brown mask that covered his face from the nose down, black pants and brown work boots, and had a silver handgun. The second suspect was described as a black male, 18 to 20 years old, 5 feet 10 inches, wearing a black jacket, black mask that covered his face from the nose down and black pants, police said.

Those who recognize the individuals in the photos are asked to call 410-887-1279 or 410-307-2020.

Community Protests Murderer’s Appeal

Poster for support eventApproximately 250 people from Baltimore’s Jewish community traveled by bus, car and subway train to protest the appeal trial of then 24-year-old Wayne Stephen Young, who was convicted of killing 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz in 1969.

A student of the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, she was last seen in Pikesville after being dropped off at the end of a school day at a local drugstore. Her body was found three days later in a ditch not far from her Mount Washington home.

The courtroom, almost stiflingly hot, was beyond capacity Thursday, with spectators filling the benches, aisles and perimeter. The lawyers in attendance were even permitted to fill the 13 juror chairs to make more room.  On the buses and in the courtroom, many people silently read from prayer books. Lebowitz’s immediate family, who moved to Israel shortly after the incident, was not in attendance.

Young, who has been denied parole 12 times, requested appeal of his conviction based on a recent ruling by Maryland’s appellate court. Known as the Unger ruling, it cites incorrect jury instructions administered in Maryland courtrooms that may have led to unfair trials. More than a dozen Maryland prisoners convicted before 1980, when the jury instructions were amended, have had their convictions retried and have been released. The state reviews these appeals on a case-by-case basis.

Now 68, gray and balding, Young was dressed in Department of Corrections issue blue shirt and pants and sat silently next to defense attorney Erica J. Suter. He seemed relaxed and appeared to be following the two lawyers’ testimony. Suter gave the opening statement requesting to reopen the conviction for a retrial based on the Unger ruling.

“It is not in the interest of justice to reopen this trial,” began assistant state prosecuting attorney Antonio Gioia, who spoke for more than 20 minutes. He read from transcripts detailing the heinous crime, including autopsy results of Lebowitz being beaten with a blunt instrument at least 17 times and sexual molestation.

Gioia also read a statement made by the officer who administered a polygraph test to Young, who had pled temporary insanity at the time of his original trial.

“I did this,” the officer testified that Young told him. “I killed that little girl.”

Frank Storch, 56, was 12 when Lebowitz was murdered. Storch, whose father was president of Bais Yaakov at the time, said of the murder that he “remembers it like it was yesterday.” He organized transportation to leave from the Seven Mile Market so that community members could show their support in the courtroom.

“In silence our community gathered,” Storch said after the hearing, “and spoke millions of words.”

Bus full of supporters wait to leave from Seven Mile MarketNeil Schachter has been president of the Northwest Citizen’s Patrol since 2000. He explained that when someone comes up for parole he is typically notified far in advance. Because Young’s appeal was not parole-based this time, Schachter heard about the hearing only days before from Abba Poliakoff, a cousin of the Lebowitz family. His organization got the word out via Facebook, websites and letters to community rabbis.

“[Poliakoff] got a phone call last week,” related Schachter. “He called me and said we need to do something. … We didn’t have much time to put this together to garner this support.”

Schachter was thankful and impressed with the number of people who came out.

“But I can tell you, if needed we could have gotten thousands of people,” he added. “We could have gotten even more than the OrthodoxJewish community.”

Rabbi Yaakov Menken was one of the throngs of people who took time off in the afternoon to attend.

“It’s important to stand as a community when something so horrible has happened that affects the entire community,” he said.

Debbie Lowenstein, from Pikesville, patiently waited in a long line outside the courthouse as each person was shuttled through security.

“I’m here because as soon as I heard that story [as a young girl] it affected me greatly … because it was so close to home,” she explained. “And any Jewish girl is like a sister – it’s like family and you think how could this happen and they cannot let this man go.”

supporters board buses courthouseBaltimore Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hardagon did not make an immediate decision. He explained that he must review records and would issue a written statement at a later date, but acknowledged the enormous show of protest by the community when he spoke to the courtroom.

“It does not go unnoticed how many people are here,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Dr. Bert Miller of Park Heights, a retired teacher from Bais Yaakov, said Lebowitz would have eventually been in his 11th grade class if she hadn’t been killed. He added that it wasn’t just Lebowitz that was murdered that day, but her future children and even grandchildren.

“We have a saying,” he said, “one who takes one life, kills the whole world.”

Embracing the Purim Spirit

runyan_josh_otYou certainly don’t need to be reminded, but there’s nothing like spending Purim in Baltimore. As if last week’s pre-holiday carnivals weren’t enough, entire streets became parking lots on Sunday, bumper-to-bumper traffic competing with costumed revelers in the race to deliver precious shlach manot to neighbors and friends.

The scene was one of tremendous unity, of Jewish joy and celebration. It served as reminder of what can be accomplished when the Jewish people focus within and celebrate their shared identity. That was the spirit that saved the Jews in Persia thousands of years ago and is the spirit behind many of the community’s initiatives at home and abroad.

That spirit can be seen in the flow of money and support to Jewish residents of Odessa and other cities throughout Ukraine, a communal effort you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT. By committing hard-earned dollars, donors are collectively acknowledging a common bond between Jewish Baltimore and those caught in the crossfire between nationalist Ukrainians on the one hand and the hegemonic desires of an expanding Russia on the other.

People around the world, whether in Ukraine or in Israel and beyond, need help.

But as this week’s cover story demonstrates, people also need help right here in Baltimore. Spousal caregivers can benefit from several programs, including support groups and counseling organizations, but as Simone Ellin discovered in her reporting, many of those who have found themselves caring for a chronically ill spouse feel isolated and alone.

That state of affairs might be caused by the fact that this growing phenomenon — one rabbi in Cherry Hill notes that long-term care issues will only multiply as baby boomers age and medical advances lengthen lifespans — has traditionally taken a back seat to other pressing concerns, be they addressing the needs of children with special needs and their families or helping families taking care of aging parents and grandparents, issues that the JT has covered recently.

It could also be that spousal caregivers occupy a unique environment, a world of round-the-clock needs, mourning the loss of what could have been and coping with the reality of what is. In the words of a 56-year-old spouse who preferred to remain anonymous: “You have to accept that the person you married is here, but not here.”

It comes as no surprise then that such people are tremendously lonely.

And so it falls on the surrounding community to reach out. Many are already doing a tremendous job, as one reader pointed out recently: Caring residents regularly flock to the Levindale complex off of Northern Parkway to bring patients and their family members a sense of community. The program, though, could always use more volunteers.

We need more of such programs. We need more helping hands, more shoulders to cry on and more gestures of support.

In short, we as a community need to keep that Purim spirit of unity going, on through Passover and beyond, so that everyone knows he is not alone.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Synagogue to Press Charges

A California synagogue is expected to file criminal charges against its former executive director, Eric Levine, a Bethesda resident who most recently worked for Adas Israel Congregation in the District, for allegedly stealing almost $400,000 over a five-year period.

“We anticipate that criminal charges are going to be filed,” said Sonia Israel, president of Congregation Beth El in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla. “We are preparing a police report.”

Israel added that charges should be filed “within the next few weeks.”

Levine only worked at Adas Israel for about a month, and synagogue officials there are confident that he did not steal any money while there. He reportedly admitted to the Beth El theft and deceptive record keeping last month after synagogue officials there discovered discrepancies in their financial records; he also told Adas Israel officials of the issue and resigned from his executive director position at the Cleveland Park synagogue.

Between 2008 and Levine’s resignation in December 2013, he stole at least $390,000 from the synagogue on an ongoing basis, said Israel. “It was a regular pattern, every month.”

Assuming the alleged theft took place over the course of 60 months, the take would have amounted to roughly $6,500 per month. Although Beth El had a part-time bookkeeper, Levine was protective about the way the synagogue’s financial records were handled, explained Israel. “He kept a lot of it to himself,” she said, adding that “we are very confident he worked alone.”

Because of this incident, an independent task force has been established to make sure no one will embezzle money from the synagogue funds again, she said. The task force consists of three synagogue members, two nonmembers and one board member who is a nonvoting member. Among the task force members are CPAs, auditors, attorneys and “people who understand nonprofits,” said Israel.

The synagogue held a town hall meeting to update congregants about what happened. About 185 people attended.

Israel said she was especially hurt.

“I never suspected anything,” she said. “That was the whole problem. We were duped.”

Also expressing concern was the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Diego.

“We are profoundly shocked and saddened that a trusted staff member of a leading community organization would behave in this manner,” said a spokeswoman at the organization. “We have confidence in the leadership of Congregation Beth El to determine what happened and to take all corrective action necessary, and [we] are ready to help and support the congregation and its leaders in every way possible.”

About 45 days after Levine had stopped working at Beth El, officials discovered that the money was missing. In a joint telephone call to Levine on Feb. 9, he “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” said Israel.

The California synagogue is still reviewing its report to police, and Levine could be charged with state or federal charges. Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mulins, Riley and Scarborough LLP, said that with many embezzlement cases in which large amounts of money are stolen from a nonprofit, interstate bank, mail or wire fraud is involved.

If Levine is found guilty of fraud, he is likely to serve time in jail, explained Wisenberg. Also, in this case, it could be argued that every congregant who pays membership dues was harmed, making the penalty more severe, he said.

Potential federal charges could include tax evasion if Levine took $390,000 and never reported it on his taxes.

Levine has not returned messages, including one left in the door of his Bethesda home. A woman who answered the door at that address said, “No thank you” when asked about the case.

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007. He is married with young children.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

Not a Passing Hobby

Hobby Lobby’s challenge cites owners’ “sincere religious beliefs.” (DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

Hobby Lobby’s challenge cites owners’ “sincere religious beliefs.” (DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 25 on two prominent cases that could have far-reaching effects on Jewish-owned businesses and their employees. Both challenge the legality of an Affordable Care Act mandate requiring firms with more than 50 employees to provide contraception coverage as part of their insurance policies.

Jewish organizations have staked out positions on either side of the issue, filing amicus briefs in what has become the Hobby Lobby case and a similar suit invoking religious freedom protections on the one hand and reproductive rights on the other.

A national chain of arts-and-crafts stores operating as a closely held corporation by the Green family, Hobby Lobby was founded by the family’s patriarch, David Green, a devout Christian, in the 1970s. He and his children, who claim to run it in adherence tobiblical principles, are challenging the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and its secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, for what they see as the new health law’s undue burden on religious businesses. The case mirrors elements of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, which deals with a Mennonite-owned wood cabinet manufacturer in Pennsylvania. The court linked the cases; attorneys will argue both simultaneously on Tuesday.

Hobby Lobby’s owners’ “sincere religious beliefs prohibit them from covering four out of 20 FDA-approved contraceptives in their self-funded health plan,” the retailers’ attorneys wrote in their brief to the court.

The Affordable Care Act, however, prescribes financial penalties for violators of the law, which Hobby Lobby maintains is a violation of its owners’ rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That law forbids the government to establish laws that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless a compelling government interest is served and the law represents the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

So far, HHS has granted exceptions to the contraception mandate to nonprofit organizations such as religious charities, which Hobby Lobby and its supporters are quick to invoke as proof that alternatives exist to achieving the goal of universal contraceptive coverage for religion.

In response, HHS — backed by friend-of-the-court briefs by the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the American Jewish Committee — claims that a for-profit corporation such as Hobby Lobby, whose business of selling arts and crafts is not a religious undertaking, should not be granted an exception, as the values are not necessarily those of its approximately 13,000 employees.

“I actually think that this is a situation where religious free exercise rights are better protected by not allowing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to do what they want,” said attorney Hope Freiwald, partner at Dechert LLP and author of the brief on behalf of JSPAN, a Philadelphia-based organization that calls itself the “progressive voice” of the Jewish community. “In this context, the corporations have positioned themselves as holding the mantle of religious free exercise, but I would argue that if you think about the importance of protecting the rights of religious minorities, if you think about the importance of protecting the interest of peoples whose practice of their faith may not conform to what is accepted at major institutions in this country, you’re much better off with the government’s view.”

Freiwald drew a comparison to recent actions in Arizona, where companies were invoking a state law similar to the federal Religious Freedom Res-toration Act to claim that “they could refuse to do business with homosexuals if it offended their religious free exercise.” Corporations already are forbidden to discriminate in hiring and promoting based on gender and religious beliefs, he pointed out, so they’re already used to certain governmental restrictions.

“The Jewish community knows about discrimination; it knows about the challenges of being a minority religious voice,” said Freiwald. “The best way to protect free exercise is to make sure that you’re protecting individual rights rather than corporate rights.”

In its filing, the AJC asserted that there was no feasible alternative to ensuring that women receive access to contraceptive coverage if companies decide not to provide it through employer-sponsored health plans.

“The hard question is, as it should be, whether the government has a compelling need to override your religion,” said AJC counsel Marc Stern. “We think [that] in the equality of women and protecting their ability to make choices, there isn’t any other way to make sure that most women have access to whatever form of contraception they either need or choose to use other than this.”

The perspective of many in the Orthodox Jewish community in these cases is reflected in a brief filed by the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs by famed Orthodox attorney Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP. His brief is joined by seven Orthodox organizations: Agudas Harabbanim, Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbinical Council of America, Torah Umesorah and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

In an interview, Lewin called the brief original in its intent to bring a strictly Orthodox perspective on the issue as opposed to interpreting precedent.

“Basically, I’m challenging the government’s theory that there should be a distinction between whether you run a business individually and whether you run it as a corporation,” said Lewin. “I want the Supreme Court to appreciate that there are religious observances, like Orthodox Jewish religious observances, that make no difference in terms of the burden on the person who is engaged … whether it’s through a corporation or not through a corporation.”

An example Lewin pointed to is Judaism’s prohibition on working on the Sabbath. That prohibition extends to non-Jewish workers in the employ of a Jew; Judaism makes no distinction, Lewin argued, between a Jewish employer and a Jewish-owned business. Through that lens, the government distinction between for-profit and nonprofit corporations would fall apart.

“There have been very, very, few briefs in the Supreme Court that have cited Jewish halachic authorities,” said Lewin.

Both sides said the case will be a close decision. As in similar controversial issues, they believe that when the court hands down its decision at the end of the term in June, the outcome will likely be 5 to 4.

Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review, said that the law should not hold corporations and individuals to different standards.

“The basic idea is that individuals don’t lose their rights when they engage in social activity, when they associate in groups or when they incorporate their business,” explained Shapiro, who also filed an amicus brief in the cases. “So in the case of Hobby Lobby, where religious business owners try to conduct their business in accordance with their faith, they shouldn’t be forced by the government to pay for certain procedures or medicines with which they have a religious disagreement.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.