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.


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.


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.”

JNS.org contributed to this story.

Eyes on Ukraine



The increasing political and economic unrest in Ukraine has prompted The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore to launch the Ukraine Assistance Fund in order to provide urgent funds needed for the care and security for more than 300,000 Jews in Ukraine.

According to The Associated, Ukraine is home to some of the world’s poorest Jews, particularly the elderly. Odessa, Baltimore’s sister city, as well as communities all over the country will receive 100 percent of funds raised to ensure deliveries of food, medicine, heating and cooking fuel as well as provide live-saving care and security personnel.

Marina Moldavanskaya, The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership coordinator, explained via email that the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, both supported by The Associated, ensure that the most vulnerable elderly receive services at home so they do not risk their lives to get basic necessities. JDC and JAFI have deployed emergency mobile units to deliver food, medicine and other critical supplies. They have
increased security as needed and provided uninterrupted daily home care services for the frailest of the elderly, with some home-care workers spending nights with the elderly in their apartments.

“The [JDC and JAFI] action strategy changes all the time … depending on the situation and needs of the Jewish community,” wrote Moldavanskaya.

Michael Hoffman, vice president of Community Planning and Allocations at The Associated, said that the current situation in Ukraine epitomizes why the sister city relationship with Odessa is so important, because it enables organizations to raise money in support of these relief campaigns. Hoffman said The Associated has been receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in requests from JDC, JCCs, synagogues and orphanages since November 2013. The need for assistance, he pointed out, has not increased solely from the most recent events in Crimea.

“We are also recognizing this is a very fluid situation,” said Hoffman. “[We are] in contact with partners on a daily basis. Every day you turn on the news, you see a new development. … We’re trying to be as proactive as possible and at the same time we’re responding to the facts on the ground.”

Many who fled Ukraine in past decades have created a large community in Baltimore. Yelena Gelfen, 50, of Reisterstown, left Kiev in 1989, and her husband Alexander left in 1979. They met in the United States. Gelfen’s aunt, Brony Factorovech, 68, still lives in Kiev. Gelfen is in close contact with her aunt and regularly sends money to help her out.

“During the problems in Kiev, we sent her money more often because the banks were closed,” said Gelfen. “She [was] afraid to go out. … People started to buy nonperishable items, and they panicked.”

Vladimir Volinsky, 44, also came to the U.S. from Ukraine. He still has relatives in Kiev, and his mother communicates with them regularly. Volinksy has been associated with a Jewish assistance organization in his hometown of Belaya Tzerkov, just south of Kiev, a town where the Jewish population has dwindled to about 1,500.

“We’re trying to [help out the Ukranians],” said Volinsky, “been trying since before the revolution started.”

In absence of a crisis, about $1 million per year supports a variety of needs and services in Odessa, said Hoffman. So far, about $100,000 has been sent in relief funds, combined from The Associated’s allocations as well as from donations to its Ukraine Assistance Fund, which were sent in partnership with Jewish Federations of North America and distributed to partners on the ground in Ukraine.

“There is the hope that things get quiet and we can focus on core business,” said Hoffman, “but I’m always amazed by the strength of our community.”

To donate to the Ukraine Assistance Fund go to associated.org/helpukraine, or send a check to:

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore
101 W. Mount Royal Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21201
Attn: “Ukraine Relief”

For more information or questions, call The Associated Donor Center at 410-369-9300.


Costuming a City

Daniel Shriki (left), a former Diller Teen Fellows participant, Einav Koren (center), overseas volunteer coordinator for the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and Gail Pinsky, a former Diller participant, display some of the costumes distributed in Ashkelon. (Provided)

Daniel Shriki (left), a former Diller Teen Fellows participant, Einav Koren (center), overseas volunteer coordinator for the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and Gail Pinsky, a former Diller participant, display some of the costumes distributed in Ashkelon. (Provided)

Thanks to one young Baltimore man, Purim was a little brighter for needy kids in Ashkelon this year.

Mazlow Cohen, 20, organized a costume drive earlier this year that sent used and unwanted costumes to Baltimore’s sister city last month. The college student, who splits time between Towson University and the Community College of Baltimore County, said he fell in love with the city when he visited on a trip sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore in January.

“I stayed there with an extension through The Associated for four days, and then I stayed an extra six days on my own in Ashkelon and did some volunteering, and I just felt a really strong connection to the city,” said Cohen. “I just loved it there.”

While in Ashkelon, he learned about a Purim drive hosted by a community center in the city’s Shimshon neighborhood. This year, the volunteer-run center worked with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership and an alumni branch of the Diller Teen Fellows to provide costumes to underprivileged children.

“When I got back [home] I really missed it. I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I wanted to keep some connection so I thought this would be a good way.”

Unsure of how he would get the costumes to Israel in time for the holiday, Cohen worried he wouldn’t be able to follow through with his plan. Then he learned about a group of Baltimoreans traveling to Israel.

With just over a week to pull everything together, he approached people he knew about donating. He was able to fill a large duffle bag of costumes and get it on the plane with the group. From there it was delivered to Cohen’s connection in Ashkelon for distribution to local families.

“For the kids, dressing up is the fun part they look forward to,” said Cohen. “They get all excited.”

With the donations from Baltimore, the community center was able to provide more than 100 costumes to those in need.

Cohen said he hopes to visit Ashkelon again over the summer. In the meantime, he will stay active in participating in and organizing other drives.

“Hopefully we can make this an annual thing,” he said.


Victory at Sea

An Israel Defense Forces captain serving on the vessel that intercepted an Iranian ship two weeks ago told a rapt audience at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville how the missiles, grenades and ammunition destined for Gaza were captured.

“This time, the intelligence was very, very accurate. We knew months before,” said the captain, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons. His speech was sponsored by the Washington and Baltimore chapters of the Friends of the IDF.

The Israeli navy found 40 missiles, each 16 feet long, deeply hidden in the Klos-C ship that was traveling under a Panamanian flag in international waters, said the young soldier, who turned 24 about two weeks after the capture.

The missiles, hidden beneath boxes in crates and covered with rice and sand, took more than an hour to find once members of the IDF boarded the ship. The crew and its Turkish captain were cooperative and completely unaware of the weapons they were transporting.

If those missiles, which have a range of about 125 miles, had not been intercepted, they would have been taken by land from Sudan to Egypt and then through tunnels into Gaza to be used against Israel, the captain explained. Also found on board were grenades and 400,000 bullets.

While it was crucial to keep these weapons away from terrorists, the captain told the audience of about 150 that it was also “diplomatically important, because now we can say Iran really is attached” to spreading terrorism throughout the region.

“Iran. Hezbollah. Hamas. They were acting like they were one organization,” the captain said, adding the rockets came from Syria to Iran.

Normally, his navy ship carries “60 to 70 people, tops, but on this operation, we were 92 people. People were sleeping everywhere,” he said. While not being specific, it was clear that the extra riders were IDF members who knew how to defuse bombs and others who would know what to do if the Klos-C ship’s crew had resisted.

It was the job of the navy ship’s crew, of which this captain was second in command, to track the vessel and follow it closely enough to learn if there were terrorists on board.

After several days observing, the captain’s ship as well as another vessel got “very close to them. We tried to scare them.” They next called to the ship from their radio.

“The minute they saw us they said, ‘OK, you can come aboard,’’’ recalled the captain, adding that their crew dropped a ladder for the Israelis.

While the Israelis searched the ship, its crew was kept together in one room. Once the weapons were found, the vessel was taken to Eilat, where the weapons were unloaded and studied, he said.

The return to Israel was dangerous, because the crew was concerned that terrorists might be hiding along the shoreline, ready to attack, he said.

When they made it back safely, the crew members were greeted by “thousands of people waiting for us, cheering, clapping their hands.”

Those in attendance at the JCC did likewise. “He is a true, true war hero,” said Philip Berry of Potomac, regional executive director for the Midatlantic Region of the Friends of the IDF. That chapter helps to support the well being of the men and women in the Israeli navy, donating $1.5 million over a three-year period.

Shelly Lohmannn, director of dev-elopment in the Baltimore office of the Midatlantic FIDF, called it “a gift” to be able to hear the captain’s story in person.

Eugene Meyer of Pikesville said the story made him very proud and propelled him back to the days, many years ago, when he was a member of the Israeli Air Force. He felt the captain was at times too modest, making it sound like all he did was drive a boat. “They weren’t there to take a cruise,” said Meyer.

Lawrence Kravitz of Rockville, whose grandson serves in the Israeli army, called the speech “excellent.”

“He said what he could,” noted Kravitz. “He didn’t say what he shouldn’t.”

After listening to the captain, Peter Huessy said it was even more evident just how isolated Israel is in the world. Thanks to a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel was able to sail through the Suez Canal on this mission, but that could change at any time with the current situation in Egypt, said Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis.


Paul Charts a Conservative Way

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

In striking a more libertarian tone than in previous years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference might be taking the constituency represented by American Conservative Union down a path that is alienating to some in the Jewish community.

According to some observers, the conference’s apparent toning down this year of foreign policy concerns certainly played to the base of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who won the March 6-8 gathering’s straw poll of presidential contenders but could prove a liability in the effort to win over moderate Jewish voters for the Republican Party.

“The most important thing is to find a candidate who speaks to all these people,” said Eric Rappaport, director of PolicyHill.com. “I think a lot of Jews are Reagan Democrats who are more centrist, and what the Republicans really need instead of rhetoric is someone who can garner those votes and bring them into the fold.”

Though Jews make up a small minority of CPAC attendees, their number in recent years has been increasing. This year, the invocation at the beginning of the conference at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor near Washington, D.C., was given by an Orthodox rabbi.

“Everybody knows him here,” David Keene, former CPAC chairman and current opinion editor at The Washington Times, said of the choice to have Rabbi Chaim “Nate” Segal of Staten Island, N.Y., deliver the invocation. “Rabbi Segal is our rabbi.”

Keene also mentioned how recent elections show a growing number of Jews voting Republican.

“The Jewish vote has begun to shift, but it’s mostly younger people because that’s who you have to get [to change voting trends],” he argued. “You either have to get younger people, or there has to be some cataclysmic event.”

Whereas in previous presidential election years, the Jewish Republican vote at the top of the ticket hovered in the 20 percent range, exit polling data in 2012 indicated that upward of 30 percent of Jewish voters chose Republican nominee Mitt Romney for president. Historic highs in the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote came in the 1956 re-election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 1988 election of then-Vice President George Bush.

Because CPAC always runs Thursday through Saturday, attending each conference has traditionally been difficult for observant Jews. In 2012, the Young Jewish Conservatives began hosting a Shabbaton at or near the conference so that religious Jews could attend sessions in between prayers and meals. This year’s Shabbaton drew about 120 attendees, who were addressed by former GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Rep. Allen West of Florida and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); each in their own way expressed their support for Israel.

Though Franks received the greatest response from Shabbaton attendees, Santorum came in a close second, delivering a thinly veiled attack at the conference’s prevailing message of isolationist foreign policy.

But among attendees of the general CPAC conference, the momentum undoubtedly belonged to Paul and his brand of libertarianism, which, until this year, has not seriously threatened the loyalty of the GOP elite on the boards of organizations such as the ACU that project a mainstream mix of conservative fiscal and social policies.

Paul’s speech was the best attended and best received by attendees — especially among college students — than any during the entire conference, including a keynote address by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who read from a Dr. Seuss book to rail against Democrats.

Key points in Paul’s address focused on the ideals of liberty and freedom, referencing National Security Agency wire-tapping programs to military drone strikes, an issue on which he conducted a filibuster on the Senate floor last year.

“Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled on?” he asked. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace, or will we stand like men and women of character and say, ‘We are free, and no man, no matter how well intentioned, will take our freedom from us?’ “

Among Jewish attendees backing Paul was Joseph Strauss, 24.

“I think that his message is the most refined message that traditionally isn’t reached by the Republican Party,” said Strauss, a consultant and native of Washington, D.C., who spends half the year in West Virginia. “I think it’s the most expansive message of liberty and freedom. I think that that’s attractive to everyone, and I think that the outreach would provide for a larger voter base than we normally have access to.”

Strauss said that although Paul raised eyebrows in September by apparently suggesting in an interview that hawkish Republicans were backing military action because of concern for Israel and the Jewish people, he could tolerate the senator’s isolationist approach. In Strauss’ view, presidential intervention in conflicts around the globe has only led to mistakes.

“I’ve watched president after president — whether on the right or the left — stumble in foreign policy,” he said. “They’re always supposed to be these experts, and they hire all these academia types and consistently they underperform.”

Rabbi Yitzhok Tendler, co-founder of the Young Jewish Conservatives, acknowledged a divide in the part of the Jewish community that hews close to conservative politics, saying that those who tend to identify as Zionist side more with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who finished a distant second in last weekend’s straw poll — but that Paul appeals to the younger generation.

“Young people in general identify with those [libertarian] ideas and typically identify with people who express their beliefs in an articulate and unambiguous fashion” said Tendler. “Though the more strongly Zionist young Jews identify, the more likely they will have questions about Rand Paul’s foreign policy.”

JNS.org contributed to this story.

True Joy Needn’t Be Hard to Come By

runyan_josh_otYou don’t need to be a political scientist to recognize that what passes for social discourse nowadays is anything but social. The severity of the invective and the frequency with which it appears can be observed in the corridors of power, can be read in the newspapers — particularly among the letters to the editor — and can be heard on the radio and seen on the television news.

It may always have been this way, as King Solomon reminds, but you need only look outside to realize that we live in an “us versus them” world. It’s probably part of human nature, this condition of building walls between the first person and the second, fences between families and neighbors, dividing lines between neighborhoods and theological faults between communities.

But for a moment in time, at synagogues such as Suburban Orthodox Torat Chaim in Pikesville and countless others in the Baltimore Jewish community and beyond, such divisions fell by the wayside as Jews from across the spectrum of religious and “non-religious” life joined together for Shabbat Across America.

Phil Rosenfeld, Suburban Orthodox’s executive director, pointed out that the only price of admission to last Friday night’s communal dinner was to bring a person who didn’t have a Shabbat meal of their own to go to. And so, members of the local fire department joined longtime synagogue members, and visiting family joined neighbors from down the street. The scene offered a vision of what could be in a world in which what we can achieve is more important that what I can be.

The vision continued the next day at pre-Purim carnivals many miles apart but alike in their goal of celebrating the type of unity seen thousands of years ago when the Jewish people emerged from Haman’s decree victorious. At Ner Tamid in Baltimore and Reservoir High School in Fulton — site of what was described as the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s largest annual Jewish communal event — hundreds of costumed children and adults let loose in preparation for the fast-approaching Purim holiday. You’ll read about their plans in this week’s JT.

All of these events deserve mention because of what they represent. In the eyes of the infinite, each and every one of us, as finite and transient beings, is the same. Ironically, as the Purim story demonstrates, it was only through uniting together — a feat possible only when ignoring the many external differences between persons — that the Jewish people were able to draw down heavenly blessings and nullify Haman’s evil plan.

The message, however, shouldn’t be relegated to the special times of the calendar — Shabbat, Purim, Passover, etc. Just as Talmudic sages spoke of the peace of Shabbat being drawn down into every day of the week, the joy of Purim should be infused into every day of the year, transforming the divisiveness of the outside world into a reflection of an internal truth: Ultimately it doesn’t matter that one person exists if asserting himself means questioning the existence of another. Doing so is akin to occupying an island of one, and it’s pretty hard to find true joy when you’re alone.

A freilichen Purim!



Chag HaSemikhah


(Photo Yeshiva University/Susan Woog Wagner)

On March 23 Yeshiva University in New York City will ordain its largest-ever rabbinic class, conferring on 205 graduates — nine of them with ties to Maryland — from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary the title of rabbi.

According to the university’s communications department, between 75 and 80 percent of its rabbinical program graduates pursue careers in the Jewish nonprofit, educational and outreach spheres, while only about 20 to 25 percent take pulpit positions. The new crop of Maryland rabbis — who, because of the quadrennial nature of the ordainment ceremony, actually completed the rabbinical program between 2011 and 2014 — do not depart from the statistics.

Yaakov Hoffman, 26, originally from Bethesda, finished his studies in June 2013 and took an assistant rabbi position in August at Washington Heights Congregation in Manhattan; in a few weeks, he will be installed as the head rabbi there.

Hoffman’s undergraduate degree is in Jewish Studies and Semitic Languages, and he was considering further study in order to teach when he enrolled in the rabbinical program.

“I had an internship last year where I could try out what being a pulpit rabbi was like, so it made me want to do it more,” Hoffman, who is currently studying to become a rabbinical judge, said of his internship at Ahavas Achim congregation in Highland Park, N.J.

Fellow graduate Dovid Zirkind of Pikesville is also on the pulpit path.

Zirkind, 28, is currently assistant rabbi at the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He said growing up in a yeshiva-based culture, as so many of the YU students do, it’s a natural progression to continue with rabbinical studies. Zirkind said that though many stay on for the love of studying Torah, they don’t necessarily see it as professionally significant.

“But you’ll often hear a story of someone who got his [rabbinic ordination] because he loved learning Torah, [and] one semester, someone asks him if he can teach a Talmud class. Then, before you know it, the rabbi takes a sabbatical and he steps in, and all of a sudden he’s the rabbi of the shul,” explained Zirkind. “They never thought it could be their career.”

Zirkind also emphasized that education and access to rabbinical wisdom doesn’t stop at graduation.

“We joke that we have our rabbis on speed dial,” he remarked. “The ones who taught our Talmud classes at YU are the ones we’re calling the night before a funeral, so the education continues in that sense.”

Another graduate embracing congregational work is Herschel Hartz, 28, of Rockville. Hartz currently lives in Washington Heights and for the past year has been working on a startup outreach center, Inwood Jews, located in a burgeoning Jewish neighborhood in upper Manhattan above 155th Street. He wasn’t raised Orthodox but became observant in his adult years and is now affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch. He claimed his is not the typical YU graduate’s path.

“[Inwood Jews] is what I consider to be congregational work,” said Hartz. “The classical YU grad goes off to a shul that’s already built. I’m planning to build a synagogue from the bottom up. That’s what I’m planning on doing with the next few years of my life, God willing, with fundraising.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” he continued. “It’s a little bit out of the box.”

Hartz said his approach is different because he shies away from a “denominational or affiliate box.” He didn’t have a specific path in mind when he began his rabbinical studies four years ago, but he learned how to operate a Jewish institution and how to deal with people and relationships while immersed in the program.

“I was looking for an excuse to continue to learn Jewishly,” explained Hartz, “but now that I’ve finished it, I feel more that I’m a Jewish person who’s on a mission of some sort to serve the Jewish community.”

Mayer Kovacs, like a majority of his fellow graduates, is infusing the knowledge he obtained from his rabbinic studies into the secular professional interests he holds.

Kovacs, 29, lives in Baltimore and went to the University of Maryland School of Law. He spent time studying in Israel and also spent a year in the Israeli army. He attended YU as an undergrad and just recently completed the rabbinical program.

He explained that at YU, the traditional study of Talmud, which includes challenging rabbis’ interpretations, greatly influenced his experience studying law; both require analytical thought, he discovered.

“You can’t just accept things the way they are; it’s a constant challenge,” he said. “[It] helped develop my analytical and critical thinking. When you see something, you don’t say OK, this is what’s written in the text, this is what’s written in the law. You have to [ask], is this really consistent? What about other supreme court cases, other statutes?”

Yonah Bardos, 29, has long been interested in medicine and now sees the opportunity for a career at the intersection of his rabbinical training, bioethics and medical studies. Bardos grew up in Pikesville and attended Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the Talmudic Academy. He attended YU medical school while pursuing the rabbinate, and completed his master’s degree in bioethics. Bardos is a resident at Sinai Hospital in New York and lectures on fertility and Jewish law.

He said his field is growing because as technology advances, there are more questions in the Orthodox community of what is possible and what is allowed according to Jewish law.

“I’m fascinated by how a 3,000-year-old code of law can be applied to modern-day technology,” said Bardos.

Bardos said the opportunity to access law, medical and rabbinical schools all on one campus was a unique element of his education at YU.

“The motto at YU is Torah Umadda —secular studies enmeshed with rabbinical studies — and what I did really was that,” he observed. “Torah and science are not separate; you use them hand in hand.”

Zev Eleff, 28, grew up in Baltimore and is a doctoral candidate in American Jewish History at Brandeis University in Boston; he’s published many scholarly articles focused on the Orthodox community and teaches part time at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. Eleff said he is committed to holding a leadership position in his community, but at the same time he is keeping his options open regarding congregational work.

Mendel Breitstein of Montgomery Village, meanwhile, lives in Jerusalem and is a cartoonist at Snap Magazine, a children’s publication of The Jerusalem Post, and a lecturer at Open University, teaching English literacy to haredi men; Yitzchak Brand of Baltimore teaches algebra, trigonometry and physics at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys; and Ari Poliakoff of Pikesville is finishing his master’s degree in social work at Touro College in New York. He is also working at YU’s high school as a guidance counselor and plans to integrate his rabbinical studies and social work skills to address social issues within the Jewish community.


Community Groups Dig In

JCRC Vice President Michael Freeman (right) joined Abba David Poliakoff, chairman of the Maryland/Israel Development  Center and a member of the executive committee of the  Baltimore Jewish Council, and Ellen Lightman, a chair of the Baltimore Israel Coalition, to testify on the bill. (Provided)

JCRC Vice President Michael Freeman (right) joined Abba David Poliakoff, chairman of the Maryland/Israel DevelopmentCenter and a member of the executive committee of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and Ellen Lightman, a chair of the Baltimore Israel Coalition, to testify on the bill. (Provided)

Those both for and against a bill in Annapolis that would financially penalize any college that was involved in an academic boycott of any country with which Maryland has an official relationship had some strong words for the legislature last week during lengthy committee hearings in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

The bill, which has its roots in the American Studies Association’s boycott of the Jewish state, faces an uphill battle in Annapolis, pitting those who condemn any attempt to stifle academic freedom against those who equally condemn all attempts at delegitimizing Israel.

In its original form, the legislation would levy a 3 percent penalty against any Maryland public college that uses public money to send professors and other staff to conferences hosted by organizations that support a boycott of any country that meets the bill’s criteria, a list of nations that includes Israel.

However, Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said his organization is working with Maryland’s university system to find a resolution both can accept.

“We agreed to strip the penalties,” said Abramson, adding that the amendment makes the bill more acceptable to a wider range of people.

“We are working with the university to reach an equitable, fair, positive bill,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”

“We believe that an agreement is in sight,” he added, but if an agreement is not reached, the BJC plans to pursue the issue next year.

Abramson, who just weeks ago was backing inclusion of the penalties, said his organization has worked hard to educate and accommodate as many people as possible to affirm Israel’s rights. His counterpart at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, executive director Ron Halber, staked out a position against the bill.

A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Supporters and detractors of the bill made for some interesting partners. The BJC joined local Methodist and Baptist churches, the Maryland Israel Development Center, Agudath Israel of Maryland and the Baltimore Israel Coalition, a 23-member consortium of local organizations working to support Israel.

Joining the JCRC in opposing the bill are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, all 12 presidents from the University System of Maryland and pro-Palestinian groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

Hearings on the proposed legislation were held March 5 in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and March 6 in the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee.

Abba David Poliakoff, chairman of the Maryland Israel Development Center and a member of the executive committee of the Baltimore Jewish Council, called those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “abhorrent; as a Jew, it is intolerable and unacceptable.”

During his testimony before the appropriations committee, he went on to caution, “Let’s not forget the slippery slope in the Republic of Germany between 1933 and 1938. We cannot let that happen again, not here, not anywhere, never again.”

Michael Friedman, vice president of the JCRC of Greater Washington, told the legislators that while the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israel is “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” the proposed law “is offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Not a single university in the United States has agreed to participate in the boycott.”

He called the bill a hindrance to academic freedom, as “it would undermine the efforts of our allies within academia who will not be able to offer opinions contrary to those propagandizing against Israel and alienate potential allies, who will see this prohibition as challenging cherished values and limiting their professional development.”

Shelley Cohen-Fudge, coordi-nator for the D.C. metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said she opposed the legislation and didn’t believe the boycott movement “against Israel’sillegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories is discriminatory or anti-Semitic.” She said the ASA’s boycott is not an attack on academic freedom and that “the bill itself, if it were passed, would actually squash debate on college campuses.”

Delegate Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19), who introduced the bill in the House of Delegates, stressed people can conduct boycotts, but that public funds should not be involved.

“This issue is not what Jews do or do not support. It’s about the appropriate use of public dollars,” he testified.

During the Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Roger Manno (D-District 19) pressed P.J. Hogan, the University of Maryland’s associate vice chancellor for state relations, on whether or not the Budget and Taxation Committee has the authority to dictate where state funds go.

“You have the authority to do anything you want,” said Hogan, calling lording over which conferences faculty members attend “micromanaging.” “But do you want to do that?”