House of Delegates Approves $10.10

030714_Minimum-Wage-Bill-Passes-CommitteeMaryland’s House of Delegates voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017 on March 7. The bill passed with a vote of 89 to 46.

The move to increase the minimum from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour has been a key theme in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s final year in office and has been steadily gaining popularity in the state. An October 2013 poll by Goucher College showed 74 percent of Marylanders support raising the wage to $10 per hour, while only 24 percent opposed it.

The issue gained more momentum in January when President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he would sign an executive order increasing the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10, a figure consistent with the 1960s’ minimum wage adjusted for inflation.

“Raising the minimum wage makes good business sense: when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, growing our economy in a way that works,” O’Malley said in a statement March 7. “Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage higher than Maryland. As one of the top states for upward economic mobility, it’s time to give Maryland workers a raise.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council announced its support for raising the wage for the state’s lowest-paid workers in October, when it released a policy statement advocating for a wage that would enable workers to “earn over the federal poverty line.”

“We’re pleased with [passage of the] the legislation we support,” said Arthur Abramson, the BJC’s executive director. “We applaud the legislature and we applaud the governor.”

Next, the bill moves to the Senate, where it awaits consideration by the Finance Committee.

‘4 Rabbis, 5 Opinions’

Rabbis Josh Snyder, Jessy Gross, Etan Mintz and Daniel Burg (Photo provided)

Rabbis Josh Snyder, Jessy Gross, Etan Mintz and Daniel Burg (Photo provided)

The upstairs bar at Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point was packed last week, but it wasn’t the beer that brought the crowd; it was Israel.

The discussion group “4 Rabbis, 5 Opinions,” which comprises Rabbis Josh Snyder, Jessy Gross, Etan Mintz and Daniel Burg, each from a different denomination, hosted a talk the night of Feb. 26 all about the Jewish state, from the SodaStream controversy to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and even Hillel’s decision last fall to block “anti-Zionist” individuals from speaking at any Hillel.

“I was very proud,” said Mintz of the SodaStream Super Bowl commercial, featuring actress Scarlett Johansson. Leading up to the game, Johansson’s
appearance in the ad had been the subject of a lot of attention when she dropped her role as a global ambassador of Oxfam International over the humanitarian organization’s protests to her endorsement of SodaStream, which operates a factory in the West Bank.

On the other end of the spectrum, Snyder questioned whether Johansson’s decision to stick with her SodaStream gig was more political or financial.

“Did this get over-politicized?” he asked, adding that the two conversations that stem from the settlement debates focus either on who is to blame or where to go from here. “I want to have more of that conversation,” he said of the latter option.

When Mintz mentioned a February Haaretz article that suggested Palestinians enjoy the presence of Soda-Stream far more than resent it, the conversation turned to information and how much the American Jewish population really knows about day-to-day life in Israel and the surrounding areas.

“There is a lot of spin to every story,” said Gross, who noted that the year she spent living in Israel only added to her confusion about what life is really like on both sides of the issues. “The question is: What do we really know?”

Burg disagreed.

“Talking about Israel is a Jewish conversation,” he said, adding there are political issues, but that cannot overpower the Jewish connection to the Jewish state.

When conversation turned to the Pew survey of American Jews and the connection young Jews feel to Israel, Burg offered an explanation.

“We were expected to grow up and buy into a narrative as if we grew up [during] the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War,” he said. “We need to find a narrative that works for younger generations.”

For attendee Sarah Edelsburg, who moved to Baltimore from New York just over four years ago and has made a point to explore the different streams of Judaism available in Baltimore, her connection to Israel defies any narrative.

“I always love talking about Israel,” said Edelsburg. She has attended other multidenominational discussions in the past, but this one really caught her attention.

Everyone has their own experience that shapes their connection with Israel, she said, but with half of her family living in the country, her experience has drawn her closer than many.

Said Edelsburg: “My blood lives there.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Purim for All

From left: Leslie Goldberg, Elaine Gerstenfeld and Adriana Steinberg. Gerstenfeld is holding the Purim Unity Extravaganza on March 16 to bring together Jews of all denominations and backgrounds. (Photo Provided)

From left: Leslie Goldberg, Elaine Gerstenfeld and Adriana Steinberg. Gerstenfeld is holding the Purim Unity Extravaganza on March 16 to bring together Jews of all denominations and backgrounds. (Photo Provided)

For Elaine Gerstenfeld, Purim is a tale of Jewish unity.

In the biblical story, Queen Esther gathered the Jews to unite against Haman, a royal official on a mission to kill the Jews of Persia.

“When he describes the Jews, he describes them as divided and dispersed,” explained Gerstenfeld, who is organizing the second annual Purim Unity Extravaganza at the Greenspring Shopping Center’s Atrium on Sunday, March 16 at 1 p.m. “Unity seemed to be the essence of the story in terms of our being saved from this.”

The Jews looked internally when an external threat faced them back then, something Gerstenfeld feels resonates even today with Iran, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment threatening the Jewish people.

“If you’re Jewish, be there,” she said of her event. “We should stand together and say, ‘We are one people.’”

The event features a short Purim carnival with music, a balloon artist, temporary face tattoos and prizes for the best disguises. From 1:45 p.m. until 3 p.m., participants will split up into smaller groups to deliver shelach manot, traditional baskets of food, to elderly members of the Jewish community in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Jewish Volunteer Connection, which collaborated on the event last year, determines which facilities the smaller groups will visit. The organization is always looking to help senior facilities, said executive director Ashley Pressman.

“Isolation is a big issue,” she explained. “I think people just love to know that somebody cares, getting a visitor and something sweet to eat.”

Leslie Goldberg, who is new to the event this year, is helping get the word out to the Reform and Conservative communities and soliciteddonations for the shelach manot. Donations came from Safeway, Mars, Giant, Fresh Market, Wegmans, Miller’s Delicatessen, The Knish Shop and Gourmet Again. Volunteers from Etz Chaim’s WOW! program are packing the baskets, and Accents and Cocoaccinos donated the space for the event.

Goldberg said she didn’t have to push the donors to get involved.

“It was not a twist [of the] arm,” she remarked. “They were definitely on board.”

Adriana Steinberg, a friend of Gerstenfeld’s, saw the theme of unity among last year’s attendees.

“I really love the fact that we had different people in the community with different backgrounds and interests and even ways of living all together bounded by this desire to celebrate Purim and the mitzvah of delivering shelach manot,” she said.

Her three children, 5, 4 and 1, helped give out the shelach manot last year and loved the experience.

“They loved singing; they had also drawn some pictures and given them out,” recalled Steinberg. “They loved visiting ‘bubbies’ and ‘zaydies,’ as they like to call them.”

For Gerstenfeld, who lives and breathes this event, it’s about knocking “down the walls that divide us.”

“I really want to inspire us to look beyond our differences and to realize whoever the person is, everyone has a special mission,” she said. “We can learn from each other.”

Attendees can enter into a grand prize raffle by preregistering and emailing seebeyondthemask@gmail.com or visiting facebook.com/seebeyondthemask.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Family Business

Rick Grossman will play Sancho Panza in an upcoming performance of “Man of La Mancha.”

Rick Grossman will play Sancho Panza in an upcoming performance of “Man of La Mancha.”

Asked how he got his start in the theater business, veteran actor and director Rick Grossman will tell you he was born in a trunk. And things haven’t changed much. These days, Grossman, who was raised among three generations of theater people, is living not in, but out of a trunk, as he tours the country playing the role of Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha.”

“My grandparents were pioneers of the Yiddish theater in North America,” said Grossman, who is private about his age. “My grandmother had an acting background, and when she met my grandfather, a tailor by trade, she pushed him into theater too.”

Though the Yiddish theater in America was based in New York City, Grossman’s grandparents broke ground by taking it on the road.

“Everywhere in the country where there were Jews, there was a thirst for Yiddish theater, and they would go there,” he said.

Eventually, Grossman’s grandparents settled in Chicago, where they formed the Grossman-Reinhart Repertory Company. Grossman’s father and his three siblings got their starts there, as did Broadway star and Academy Award-winning actor Paul Muni.

Grossman’s parents, Irving Grossman and Dinah Goldberg, met in New York City, where they performed together in Yiddish theater companies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The couple had two children, but only Grossman was involved in the theater.

“When I was 6 years old and my parents were in a show and needed a child for a role, there I was,” he said. “I’ve been in theater since then, with a few breaks when I’ve done other things.”

Although he recalled a time during his childhood when he resented the expectation that he would become an actor, Grossman said he always found his way back to the theater. He received acting training from Stella Adler, who was also from a Yiddish theater family, and he attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. After graduation, Grossman headed to California, where he acted at the Pasadena Playhouse Theater Academy. He later returned to New York, where he studied at Hofstra University.

Grossman’s favorite roles include Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Eddie Jacobson in “Harry and Eddie,” an off-Broadway play about Harry Truman and his Jewish friend, Eddie Jacobson, but he noted that the role of Sancho in “Man of La Mancha” holds a special place in his heart for several reasons.

Rick Grossman first played the role of Pancho Panza 35 years ago. His uncle, Irving Jacobson (left), played the role on Broadway.

Rick Grossman first played the role of Pancho Panza 35 years ago. His uncle, Irving Jacobson (left), played the role on Broadway.

For one thing, his uncle (by marriage) Irving Jacobson starred in the original Broadway production in 1965. When Grossman played Sancho Panzo in a revival 35 years ago —he’s played the role five times — he was honored to have Jacobson in the audience on opening night.

Beyond his family connections, Grossman also loves the show because of its messages of hope.

“When I first saw the show in 1965, I was taken with it from the get-go,” he explained. “I knew the story of Don Quixote, a man who is always trying to look for the good in people and the world and denying all the evil. It’s a transforming message. As an actor, you are trying to transform people’s lives, to touch them. If I do that each night, I have done my job.

“Many people who have seen other productions [of “Man of La Mancha”] want to come back again because they were touched by the show and want to re-experience it,” he continued. “You don’t find a lot of shows written like that today — shows that really challenge the audience. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love and doing it for so many years.”

“Man of La Mancha” comes to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on March 14 and 15. For more information and tickets, visit lyricoperahouse.com.

That’s Debatable

Pikesville Branch, Baltimore County Public Library  (Photo David Stuck)

Pikesville Branch, Baltimore County Public Library (Photo David Stuck)

It’s rare that the left-leaning J Street, a 5-year-old political advocacy organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the conservative voice in the room. But that was the case on a recent Sunday, when about 75 people gathered at the Pikesville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library to hear Mark Gunnery of the Jewish Voice for Peace and Rebecca Kirzner, J Street’s mid-Atlantic director, debate the merits of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, the Feb. 16 gathering in the library’s meeting room did not include a presence from the much-larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will have its annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of March. The event was moderated by the BJCC’s co-president, Bob Jacobson, who noted that his organization does not hold a position on the global BDS campaign that has resulted in several sectors of academia boycotting Israeli professors and high-profile boycotts of businesses in the West Bank.

Jacobson brought with him a handwritten sign that read “Choose Civility,” a nod to the strong emotions that debate on the conflict typically evokes. As it turned out, there was little need for the sign; the crowd was remarkably calm and respectful. Each side spoke for between 15 and 20 minutes, and a long question-and-answer period followed.

Gunnery, who grew up in Pikesville as a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation and attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School, began his presentation by referencing the hypocrisy he sees in the Jewish community’s response to the Middle East crisis.

“I came up with values like respect for human rights, concern for my fellow human being, the need for justice, the yearning for peace. … I learned that the world is ruptured and full of conflict and that it is my responsibility as a human and as a Jew to work toward healing,” he said. “I learned that Jews historically have been at the forefront of struggles for social justice … that we’ve organized in the labor, feminist, environmental, civil rights and gay rights movements; we’ve protested against countless wars; we’ve fought for equality and peace whenever inequality and violence stood in the way. But I also learned that when it came to Israel, it was a different story.”

Gunnery went on to say that JVP supports the use of boycotts, divestments and sanctions designed to influence Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. He explained that JVP’s goals are ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, equality for Arab Israelis and respecting Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

The BDS campaign has earned headlines in recent months due to the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities. Conversely, a bill under consideration in the Maryland legislature would disallow public funding for departments in the state university system that support the BDS campaign.

Kirzner, a former Philadelphia public school teacher, shared J Street’s perspective.

“J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that supports U.S. advocacy for a negotiated two-state solution for Israel and Palestine,” she said, explaining that her organization opposes the BDS campaign because J Street believes boycotts undermine the achievement of a solution “where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and security.”

“The two-state solution is the only answer,” said Kirzner. “The BDS movement is agnostic on the issue of a two-state solution, and for me that’s a nonstarter. … The reality on the ground is that this is a conflict between two competing narratives, two competing nationalist narratives, two populations who have claims on the same piece of land and two populations who want their own states.”

Kirzner said that Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts have brought Israel and the Palestinians closer than ever to a solution; she urged American Jews to support the secretary in any way possible.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Admiring the Youthful Pursuit of Truth

runyan_josh_otGod bless the vibrancy of youth.

I use this variant of similar expressions aired by countless old men and women throughout the ages not in an attempt to join their wise ranks, but to remark approvingly at the dedication of those who will soon become the Jewish community’s next cadre of leaders.

There they were, 24 students from the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School, roaming through the halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with a purpose. Theirs was among the largest high school delegation sent to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this week, and, as you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT, their advocacy efforts joined those of thousands of like-minded young professionals, lobbyists and career activists who descended on Capitol Hill Tuesday to make the case for Israel in the halls of Congress.

Whether or not the Beth Tfiloh kids were successful in their quest is beside the point. Israel does have a large hill to climb in combating the existential threat posed by the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and in negotiating the treacherous path toward peace with the Palestinian Authority, and it comes as no surprise to many that there are and will continue to be outspoken critics of Israel within the U.S. government and in governments around the world.

What these students’ engagement and passion instead demonstrates is that for all the talk of Jewish youth “not getting it,” here were kids who did. It wasn’t their politics that mattered, it was their shared Jewish commitment that, to them, mandated their participation in one of the largest Jewish gatherings in Washington, D.C.

In another article in this week’s issue, Melissa Gerr examines the work of a former Pikesville philosopher who questions whether there’s something inherently Jewish about a specific style of scientific pursuit. “Jewish science,” he concludes, refers to a discipline in which many truths, as it were, lead to a higher truth that requires a greater level of understanding. This dialectic approach can certainly be found in the pages of the Talmud; it can also be found at gatherings like that hosted by AIPAC.

It’s no secret that ours is a community composed of disparate parts, at some times fractious, at other times united. Each constituent part claims the mantle of Judaism both to define itself and give strength to its own particular view and mission. An outside observer would be forgiven for hearing in the conglomeration of viewpoints a lot of noise.

But the higher truth is that through the back and forth, through the struggle and the give and take, the Jewish people ultimately discovers the higher truth that the differences among individual members are merely a facade. At the end of the day, each is part of a greater whole.

It takes hard work to reveal that truth. Thank God, we have an everlasting source of energy in the youth who will lead us into tomorrow.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Home Invasion Shakes Pikesville Community

(Google Maps)

(Google Maps)

A man and his teenage daughter were tied up and robbed after two men forced their way into a home in the 3200 block of Hatton Road in Pikesville Tuesday night.

The men stole computer tablets, jewelry, a camcorder, a wallet, cash, an iPod Touch and a cell phone, according to a statement from Baltimore County police. The suspects moved a television, but did not take it, and fled the scene after the man told them he activated the home’s alarm, police said.

Nathan Willner, a Shomrim spokesman, said the Northern Park Heights community has never seen this type of crime.

“This is extremely frightening and we’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “It’s definitely shaken the community to its core.”

Police believe this may be related to an incident that occurred earlier that evening in the 700 block of Leafydale Terrace in Pikesville.

In the Hatton Road incident, the men knocked on the door at 8:15 p.m., 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.

Police responded to the scene at 8:36 p.m.

At 7:50 p.m. Tuesday, two men wearing masks and armed with handguns approached a man getting out of his car in front of a home in the 700 block of Leafydale Terrace. 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.

The Baltimore County Police Pikesville Precinct Investigative Services Team are investigating the incidents and trying to determine if the victims were targeted, police said.

Shomrim President Ronnie Rosenbluth said that crime in the neighborhood has progressed over the past year from shed break-ins, to burglaries when residents are not home, to burglaries while residents sleep, to this recent incident.

“I haven’t heard of anything like this in the last 25 years in our neighborhood,” he said.

After Shomrim received a call from the family at 8:41 p.m., Rosenbluth sent Shomrim members to the home. Shomrim received another call from a family that said two suspicious men had knocked on their door, and Rosenbluth relayed the description of the men to Shomrim members at the scene, who relayed it to police.

“We followed through and somebody checked in on the family again last night, and we’re hoping these guys get caught,” Rosenbluth said.

He estimated that Shomrim had more than a dozen people on the street last night looking for possible suspects to help police in their investigation.

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.

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.

Police reminded residents to not open the door for strangers and to report suspicious activity to police. Anyone with information about these incidents is asked to call Baltimore County Police at 410-887-1279.

Hadassah’s Woes Continue

022814_Hadassahs-Woes-ContinueThe dust may have settled at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, but the underlying financial troubles that caused workers to go on strike earlier this month remain, as an organization that predates the State of Israel struggles to move on.

Staffers at the two Hadassah hospitals in the Jerusalem enclaves of Ein Kerem and Mount Scopus returned to work on Feb. 19 following a two-week strike protesting unpaid wages and the financial disarray of the Hadassah Medical Organization. One of Israel’s largest private hospital managers, the group, according to Haaretz, currently is running a $360 million deficit.

Despite the workers’ return — who ended their strike after hospital administrators and the workers’ union agreed to gradual reductions in pay for higher-paid staff and a delay until mid-April of any requisite layoffs — the medical organization and the American institution that founded and owns both hospitals find themselves playing a prominent role in an Israeli reassessment of privatized health care and corporate mismanagement.

Standing as somewhat of an anomaly amid an otherwise socialist health care system, HMO is managed by an executive board, most of whose seats are held by Hadassah International, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The president of the international body, Marcie Natan, admits that the hospitals made critical management mistakes but that Hadassah has long been engaged in a process of reform.

“We brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers about 10 or 11 months ago to do a study using a team of experts from the U.S. and Israel working together,” Natan, who represents an estimated 330,000 members around the world, offered in a phone conversation with Washington Jewish Week from Israel. They “looked at the structure here at the hospital and made recommendations to put it on the road to a full recovery.”

The team recommended that HMO cut 550 members of the hospitals’ staff, of which 250 have already been cut; salary reductions for highly paid doctors; reforming private visitation contracts; renegotiating union contracts; and increasing more lucrative services such as maternity care.

The group made clear that none of the reforms would end HMO’s deficit problems without renegotiating contracts with the state-supported health insurance funds. Such contracts make up the greatest part of an Israeli hospital’s operating budget.

Natan said that every hospital negotiates a three-year contract with health funds and that when HMO negotiated its last set of contracts, they provided deeper discounts for services offered at Hadassah Medical Center — 25 to 26 percent — instead of the usual 18 percent at other private hospitals in the hope of capturing a larger market share of patients.

“In retrospect, that was not a good decision on the part of HMO’s management because it actually cost the hospital money to service the patients,” said Natan, adding that negotiators agreed to the concession knowing that they could renegotiate three years later.

According to Natan, since then, the government put a freeze on all contract negotiations to stem the rising cost of benefits, leaving HMO with an unsustainable discount.

David Chinitz, professor of health policy and management at the school of public health at Hebrew University-Hadassah, said that part of the problem is the lack of accountability in the Israeli financial system.

“The Israeli Ministry of Finance and the Budget Department is known for being neo-liberal, and that means they want to constrain the public budget,” explained Chinitz. “But on the other hand, their style is very centralist and I would say almost Bolshevik. They want to keep control so they negotiate the wages, they set the prices, and these things that they do create different kinds of strains and stresses on the health funds and on the hospitals.”

Similar to the insurance exchanges brought about by health care reform in the United States, Israeli health funds came out of the country’s 1995 reforms dependent upon yearly government allotments meant to cover their expected costs.

“Israel has actually implemented the model that America has been after for more than 20 years, and it’s done it quite well,” said Chinitz. “The problem is the overall political economy structure and public administration in Israel — and in particular, the centralized control of the ministry of finance over wages, over prices; it doesn’t let this nicely designed system work in a smooth fashion.”

Another criticism of HMO’s management results from the higher-than-average salaries paid to doctors. Natan described this decision as necessary to establish the quality of health care Hadassah members envisioned.

“Jerusalem is not the city that attracts young up-and-coming doctors; they’re much more comfortable and much happier in the Tel Aviv area,” argued Natan. Hadassah, “understanding that we wanted a hospital that would be the leading institution here in Israel, was comfortable with management making agreements with the doctors that did give them more than they would have gotten if they’d gone somewhere in Tel Aviv.”

Though a private institution, Hadassah Medical Center prides itself for serving everyone like a public hospital — no matter how critical patients’ conditions or where they are from — as envisioned by Hadassah pioneers. Natan said that the hospital often sees the most critical conditions, despite health funds paying the same rate no matter how long the patient stays in the hospital or how many staff members are needed to provide care.

Hadassah donors and members are the largest single funding source for the hospitals, with a total yearly contribution averaging around $85 million for capital, operational and research expenses.

“If the [Israeli] government isn’t prepared to help in some significant way, no matter what this hospital does, we cannot continue to maintain it as a state-of-the-art research and clinical care facility,” said Natan, highlighting how Hadassah’s hospitals serve as the Hebrew University’s medical school.

Chinitz agreed.

“If the government decides to raise the wages of physicians in their hospital, it’s no skin off their nose because the Ministry of Finance is going to pay, but for Hadassah, where’s the money going to come from?” he said. “Hadassah has it worse because it doesn’t have the safety net either of the government or a health fund.”

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

Jewish Hospitality

Rabbi Tsvi G. Schur puts the finishing touches on the suite. (Provided)

Rabbi Tsvi G. Schur puts the finishing touches on the suite. (Provided)

For Sheryl Grossman, a short visit to Baltimore from Morgantown, W. Va., for  a small procedure quickly turned into a nightmare last winter, until Bikur Cholim, the Johns Hopkins Minyan and other local community groups got involved.

“I would not have made it without the generosity of the community,” said Grossman, who came to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in January 2013 with stage IV lymphoma, the sixth of seven cancers she has battled since childhood.

When doctors and staff at Hopkins decided to start her on chemotherapy, Grossman, who made the trip without friends or family, found herself in need of support. She called out for help in a Facebook post, and within a day she was enveloped by a network of volunteers from the Baltimore Jewish community.

In the span of just a few days, Bikur Cholim, along with Jewish doctors and other professionals working at Hopkins, had given Grossman a support system she could count on for just about anything she needed.

On Feb. 19, Grossman again traveled to Johns Hopkins from West Virginia, where she returned home last fall in remission, to celebrate with her friends and adoptive family the grand opening of Bikur Cholim’s new Jewish Hospitality Suite at the hospital.

Located in a quiet hall off the Blalock lobby, the suite, which officially opened its doors in October, offers Jewish patients and their families a peaceful space to get away from the bustle of the hospital. Amenities include kosher snacks and coffee, two microwaves, a refrigerator and separate sinks for dairy and meat.

At the end of the ceremony, which was attended by the hospital’s leadership and Baltimore rabbinic leaders, including Rabbis Moshe Heinemann and Moshe Hauer, hospital chaplain Rabbi Tsvi G. Schur affixed a mezuzah to the room’s door frame.

Aron Katz, president of Bikur Cholim of Baltimore, read a letter from the parent of a sick child to the dozens of people gathered to officially dedicate the room. In it, the parent described how the room helped both parents and children looking to escape the stress of the hospital. Often, said Katz, families that have to rush to the hospital unexpectedly or stay longer than anticipated don’t have the chance to prepare small comforts such as kosher snacks or gather reading material. The new room helps with that.

In January 2012, Bikur Cholim and Sinai Hospital opened a Bikur Cholim Kosher Hospitality Room, where patients and their families can access Shabbat meals, electric candles, kosher foods and other items to help make their stays more comfortable. The organization also stocks a kosher suite at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Bikur Cholim of Baltimore was founded in 1985 to assist Jewish patients. It is run entirely by volunteers and helps both members of the Baltimore Jewish community and others, such as Grossman, who were drawn to Baltimore by the city’s well-known hospitals and medical centers. In addition to the establishment of kosher suites, the organization also helps those struggling with illness get to and from appointments, find temporary housing and access free-loan medical equipment.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

State Slashes Health Care Enrollment Goals

A screenshot of Maryland's online health care exchange website.

A screenshot of Maryland’s online health care exchange website.

With little more than a month until a March 31 deadline, Maryland health exchange officials revised insurance enrollment goals and terminated their contract with the company that built the state’s health exchange.

Noridian Healthcare Solutions, the North Dakota company behind the state online exchange that crashed when it launched Oct. 1, will no longer operate the site. The nine-member board governing the voted to terminate Maryland’s contract with Noridian on Sunday night.

In the interim, the exchange will be taken over by Optum/QSSI, the Columbia-based firm that was hired by the federal government in October to fix healthcare.gov.

The board also slashed Maryland’s private insurance enrollment goal by more than half, from 150,000 to 70,000. The move was reportedly attributed to an error found in data that a nonpartisan analyst group used for Maryland’s enrollment projections. The state still appears unlikely to hit its goal by March 31, with only 33,251 individuals enrolled in private plans through Feb. 15, according to Maryland Health Connection, the state’s online insurance marketplace.

The changes come two weeks after a bipartisan “oversight” committee of lawmakers met for the first time to probe Maryland’s troubled implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

In a project that has been marred by skepticism and scrutiny, those watching health care even have doubts about what the oversight committee will accomplish.

“If the oversight committee could be neutral people that really care about the technical aspects, then that’s really good,” said Larry Burgee, associate professor and chair of Stevenson University’s Department of Information Systems. “If it’s loaded with politicians from either side of the fence, there’s going to be problems. It’s too political on both sides.”

Even the change in vendors was met with skepticism. Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at Jewish Community Services, said changing a vendor on a big government project is never an easy process.

“If the problem was with the vendor, then absolutely move it and cut your losses now,” said the former assistant director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. “But if there is a problem with the communication … switching the vendor may or may not fix it.”

As far as lowering the enrollment goal goes, it remains to be seen if Maryland can more than double its enrollment numbers in little more than a month. How well the exchange is working depends on who’s doing the talking.

Sheila C. Bennett, an exchange navigator who works in the Randallstown area, said the glitches in Maryland’s health care website have diminished significantly since its launch.

“It’s tremendously better than it was in the beginning,” she said.

Bennett walks people through the enrollment process and answers any questions they may have. She said it takes people an average of one hour to sign up for insurance with her help, depending on the size of the family.

Steve Land, a support services coordinator at Jewish Community Services, said it took him and one client five-and-a-half hours over the course of three separate sessions to enroll in health care. The client was on disability but had an income too high for Maryland’s Primary Adult Care program. PAC participants are being rolled into Medicaid, which has expanded its availability.

“When they wrote this Affordable Care Act, if there was a client tailor-made for it, this client was,” said Land, who would not reveal the gender of the client for privacy reasons.

The two of them experienced delays with Maryland’s website, which wouldn’t move to the next page, locked up and quit. After finally getting through, the pair experienced issues with the start date of the Medicaid plan and records of the application being submitted.

“For a client that really deserved and really would have benefited from this, this would have been the person,” said Land. “It was discouraging.”

The client wound up going to the Medicaid office in Baltimore and getting the plan figured out.

Paliath worked with another client who applied for insurance in November. He was supposed to have a subsidy through CareFirst, according to the exchange, but CareFirst didn’t see that subsidy in its paperwork. After reaching out to a “high-level contact,” the client, a small business owner, was set to get his subsidy in February but had to pay the full premium in January.

For the Evergreen Health Co-Op, a new nonprofit health insurance company, the woes of the exchange have hit hard, especially since the co-op doesn’t carry the name recognition of the bigger insurance companies on Maryland’s exchange.

“We depended on the vast majority of our enrollees to come off the individual exchange, which crashed in Maryland,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the co-op’s founder, president and CEO. “We’ve had to take care of ourselves, and since we’re not able to sell on the individual exchange, we’re now starting to sell to small business.”

About 500 people have enrolled in plans with Evergreen, he said.

Beilenson’s assessment is that the online exchange has been fixed “modestly,” and he thinks Maryland might switch over to the federal exchange site between March 31 and the next open enrollment period, which is proposed to start in November.

As far as Maryland’s decreased goals are concerned, some think enrollment will increase in future years, as penalties for not having insurance increase. This year, penalties are 1 percent of annual income or $95 per person, $47.50 per child under 18, with the maximum set at $285 per family. In 2016 and beyond, the penalty will be 2.5 percent of yearly income or $695 per person, according to healthcare.gov.

Paliath, having worked in government, said it’s possible that issues related to the website and enrollment numbers could be chalked up to bad communication between different levels of government.

“However, you would think that on a project like this, with as much public attention as it was going to get and scrutiny, that there would have been some point person who would have had the ear of someone in power to do something,” she said.

Only time will tell how these recent changes will turn out.

“This is a conjecture on my part. If it was a vendor problem, they did the right thing,” added Paliath. “If it wasn’t, this won’t be the end of the story.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com