You Should Know …
Casey Yurow

Casey Yurow (Photo provided)

Casey Yurow (Photo provided)

Pearlstone Center program director Casey Yurow has two primary aspirations in this life: working to create an inspirational model for what can be achieved in community farming that he hopes will be emulated by cities beyond his hometown of Baltimore … and profoundly radicalizing the perception most people have of vanilla.

“I’m a huge fan of vanilla,” the 35-year-old, who lives with his Israeli wife of four years in Stevenson, said.

“I love the taste and it’s an exotic orchid flower,” Yurow added. “It gets a bad rap sometimes, often being equated with ‘plain.’ But I’m on a sort of personal mission toward a largescale renewal of appreciation for vanilla.”

Yurow has meanwhile enjoyed the opportunity of working  toward his secondary life’s work during his tenure at Pearlstone, a full-functioning farm and Jewish retreat center for visitors from all lifestyles.

Having grown up “down the street” from the estate, after his family moved from Park Heights to “the countryside of Owings Mills” when he was in the fourth grade, the space was long in Yurow’s purview.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in the fairly new discipline of environmental sciences/policy from the University of Maryland,  College Park, stints living in locales as close as Connecticut and as distant as California and Israel followed.

Yurow joined the permanent staff at Pearlstone in 2008 as education director before leaving to California in 2010. He came back as program director at Pearlstone in 2015.

“This is Chapter 2 for me here at Pearlstone,” Yurow  declared proudly.

How did you get interested in the intersection between Jewish connectivity and community farming?

While I was at the University of Maryland, I got really turned onto the Jewish community for the first time. It was very interesting to me and became an important part of my life. After graduation, I decided I wanted to spend some time in Israel and was there for two years, from 2003 to 2005. I was learning and traveling and playing throughout Israel, then came back to work at a place called the Teva Learning Center, the only full-time Jewish environmental education center in the country, in northwest Connecticut. They really sent me on my professional career path — experiential outdoor Jewish education — that’s been going strong for 11 years.

How did you end up coming home to Baltimore and  ultimately Pearlstone?

For the three years I worked as an educator for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Teva  during the seasons — spring and fall — I would go to Israel every winter and fall. I also led a month-long backpack trip there with some teenagers, which was awesome. At the same time, I was involved in Palestinian-Israeli peace work, playing music and just being Jewish in places like Jerusalem. After those three years, I was ready to plug into a place again and this was around the time Pearlstone’s farm started, around 2007.

There was a lot of growth there both personally and programmatically, but my partner at the time (who is now my wife), wanted to expand her own learning and I was still young and up for an adventure, so I went with her to California where she studied herbal medicine. On the way, we stopped at Eden Village Camp in New York and worked there for what was the first summer of this new residential, pluralistic, organic farm sleepaway camp that two of our best friends started. I was farm director, and my wife was spirituality director.

When we moved to California, I worked as one of the founding team members for Urban Adamah (“Earth” in Hebrew), which was just starting as a new model of a Jewish community center. Instead of being based in a building, it was based on a one-acre farm in the middle of Berkeley, Calif. It was a tremendous four years I was there, first as director of education and then  associate director. Then I left there and moved back here.

You play music, too?

I’ll play anything I can get my hands on but mainly mandolin and guitar. Also flute, drums, kitchen tables and pots ’n pans!

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

The Backbone of MPT CEO Larry Unger continues to move the station into the future

CEO Larry Unger. Photo by David Stuck

CEO Larry Unger. Photo by David Stuck

Tight budgets, increased competition and mass technological and cultural shifts in the way viewers demand content and broadcasters try to deliver it — this is what Larry Unger confronts on a daily basis.

As CEO and president of Maryland Public Television, Unger, 68, juggles fundraising, technological updates, public appearances and ensuring diverse programming at the station.

This is not a position, however, he ever envisioned himself holding after leaving the banking  industry more than 21 years ago.

“I have to be candid: Television was not one of the things I thought about. Public television was certainly not one of the things I thought about,” Unger said. “MPT had been going through quite a tumultuous transition at that time.”

In 1997, when Unger first joined MPT — headquartered in Owings Mills — as a consultant, he brought nearly three decades of expertise in the local financial  services industry with him. This made him an ideal candidate to deal with the  reorganization MPT was going through  at the time with a new president and CEO, Robert J. Shuman, not to mention dwindling government financing.

“[Shuman] told me he was interviewing [Unger] and asked me what I thought of him? I knew we were looking for a chief financial officer at the time, and I had known Larry and told [Shuman] I thought he would do well,” said David Nevins, CEO and founder of Towson-based public relations firm Nevins &  Associates and former chairman of MPT.

ungercover2Unger, an Owings Mills resident, worked directly under Shuman, keeping the station financially solvent while  enhancing leadership skills needed to oversee a staff of more than 150. Together, Shuman and Unger continued to help MPT produce award-winning local and national content and grow its online presence and community outreach efforts while offering an array of education resources for children, teachers and daycare providers.

But when Shuman opted for retirement in 2011, after more than 15 years at the helm, a search committee was put together to conduct a national search for MPT’s next CEO and president. The search, which lasted several months, ended with Unger being promoted.

Edward Kaplan, chairman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission since 2007, said Unger possessed a unique set of traits and invaluable experience with the station that made him the best  fit for the position over several other high-profile candidates.

“You don’t often get that from someone in a nonprofit organization when they come in from the outside and apply their knowledge of business and finance to making your organization financially sound,” Kaplan said. “He really had all these background factors that helped him do the best job.”

For Unger, who said he was mostly  involved in MPT’s finances up until his  appointment to the No. 1 spot, it was an  adjustment that took some getting used to.

“If I have learned anything, it’s that management is management,” Unger said. “A lot of it is the way you treat people and the way they respond to that. I think I learned after a little while that it works pretty much the same at [MPT] as it did in banking.”

Once he got his feet wet in the position, Unger, the first Jewish CEO and fifth overall in MPT’s more than 40-year history, hit the ground running. Just last year, he was named one of Maryland’s 32 most admired CEOs for 2015 by The Daily Record, comprising officials from private companies, public companies, nonprofit organizations and government entities.

Larry Unger’s wife Sherry calls him the “hardest-working person I know,” which is evident in the way he involves himself at MPT. Photo by David Stuck

Larry Unger’s wife Sherry calls him the “hardest-working person I know,” which is evident in the way he involves himself at MPT. Photo by David Stuck

ungercover4

Photo by David Stuck

George Beneman, senior vice president and chief technology officer at MPT, said the new and innovative ideas Unger has brought to the forefront have MPT in a healthy place for years to come.

“I would say that Larry is — and has  always been into — new technology,” said Beneman, who has been with MPT since its launch in 1969 and is the company’s current longest-serving employee. “He truly is an early adopter of whatever is new in technology, and he encourages what we’re doing. When the industry moved to high definition, it rolled a lot faster than most of us in technology thought it would, which Larry had a part in before he was CEO.”

MPT, with an annual budget of approximately $32 million, averages more than 1.7 million viewers on a monthly basis and reaches more than 3 million households in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. It is the eighth-largest public television station of 161 PBS member stations, with such shows as “MotorWeek,” “Chesapeake Collectibles,” “Artworks,” “Direct Connection,” “Your Money & Business” and “State Circle.”

A little more than seven years ago, Unger, as executive vice president, helped MPT balance an expensive transition from analog to digital as part of a Federal Communications Commission mandate. A big portion of that undertaking included replacing four of the station’s six outdated antennas on the transmitter towers located throughout various cities, which Unger said costed as much as $1 million per antenna.

Today, MPT offers three channels, MPT-HD, MPT-2 and V-me, the first  national Spanish-language television  network in association with public television stations. By the end of this December or January, Unger said, MPT plans to add a fourth channel, NHK World, an international broadcasting service of NHK Japan’s public broadcaster, to broaden  its offerings. As part of the move, MPT-2  will switch from standard definition to high definition, giving the station a pair  of each.

ungercover5“The addition of NHK World will offer a different perspective with more international news,” Unger said. “That’s going to be a very different channel lineup from what we have right now.”

ungercover6When it comes to the programs that MPT puts together, Unger leaves that to the producers and on-air talent but still maintains an active presence in what goes on behind the scenes.

Unger, who served six years in the Coast Guard Reserve, was heavily involved in an MPT production that paid tribute to Vietnam War veterans from around the state.

In its largest initiative ever, MPT aired a three-part documentary series, “Maryland Vietnam War Stories,” featuring the stories of Vietnam-era veterans from Maryland and their families, presented in their own words. “Maryland Vietnam War Stories,” which cost $2.5 million and took about a year-and-a-half to complete, is exactly the type of programming Unger hopes to continue in order to separate his station from commercial networks.

Rhea Feikin, longtime host of  “Chesapeake Collectibles” and “Artworks,” has been with MPT for more than four decades and said Unger has done a lot to rekindle the spirit of the longtime employees with projects such as “Maryland Vietnam War Stories.”

Larry Unger proudly shows off MPT’s many awards. Photo by David Stuck

Larry Unger proudly shows off MPT’s many awards. Photo by David Stuck

“Larry is a real mensch in the best sense of the word,” Feiken said. “MPT has been a really great place to work, and it’s never been better than it is now. Larry is a wonderful leader, and his door is always open. You can talk to him about anything,  because he’s great at listening. He’s just made a real difference in the general feel and tone of the building.”

John Davis, who came to MPT in 1973 and is the host and senior executive producer of “MotorWeek,” now in its 36th season, said Unger has a knack for getting the most out of his employees.

“He came in with a very good idea of money, how it should be spent and how it should be conserved,” said Davis, who worked for a Wall Street investment firm before joining MPT. “He’s been on top of the numerous crises we’ve had in the state, during the recession, and he navigated us through that. Frankly, I can’t think of anybody else doing it better, and I think he’s doing it better than any of his processors could have, in my opinion.”

Because MPT only receives a combined $11 million from state and federal funding, Unger often meets with prospective donors for social lunches to solicit contributions. This is something he had not done much of in the past, but he has come to embrace that aspect of the job.

“I kid people by telling them, ‘You  really don’t want to go to lunch with me,  because I will ask you for money,’” Unger said with a laugh. “Most of the people who I’m making these asks of, they know why we are there.

“But I have found it very rewarding. I make the joke all the time now that it’s been a number of years, and no one has thrown anything at me at lunch yet. So I feel like I must be successful.”

Unger has also been pivotal in expanding MPT’s membership list to more than 65,000, meaning the station receives a monthly contribution from those people. In March 2015, the station set a new high in voluntary paid members that included 10,928 sustainers.

Larry Unger outside MPT’s headquarters in Owings Mills. Photo by David Stuck

Larry Unger outside MPT’s headquarters in Owings Mills. Photo by David Stuck

“We have a very, very loyal viewership, and Larry works extremely hard to make sure that particular group continues to grow,” said Howard Rosen, who has sat on the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission board for the last 10 years. “We measure those figures very close, and we think Larry has us in a great position for the foreseeable future.”

His relaxed demeanor is also something his employees relish because that, in turn, allows their creative juices to flow to the surfaces.

“Larry isn’t a micromanager, which is something I think the employees here can all appreciate,” said Jeff Salkin, who hosts businesses and political shows “Direct Connection,” “Your Money & Business” and “State Circle.” “It really is a family-like atmosphere around here, and I can’t stress how important that is to him and in his work.”

Outside of MPT, Unger has been an  active participant in many Jewish community service initiatives around the Greater Baltimore area  and is a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He was an advisory board member for the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, formerly Baltimore Hebrew University, which is housed at Towson University, and served on the Jewish  National Fund board.

He and his wife Sherry have been married 48 years and have three children and five grandchildren. Sherry stressed Larry has always been driven.

“He’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known,” Sherry said, “and Larry has always been very goal-oriented. Every goal he’s ever set, he has always reached for as long as I’ve known him.”

She added that Larry takes great pride in attention to detail. Even after Larry comes home after a long day of work, Sherry said, one of the first things he will do is go to their bedroom and catch up on all of the MPT programs he prerecords on their DVR.

For his part, Unger is so consumed with everything he has going on in his life that he really hasn’t considered the thought of retirement.

“I haven’t given much thought to that,” Unger said. “I plan to be here for the foreseeable future and continue to see through all the new projects we have in the works. I’m very fortunate to have this job and will continue to do it to the best of my ability for as long as I can.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

One Funny Jew: Rabbi Telushkin Delivers at JNF Event

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was the featured speaker at JNF’s  Baltimore Israeli-style breakast. Photo by David Stuck

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was the featured speaker at JNF’s Baltimore Israeli-style breakast. Photo by David Stuck

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin stood stocky, white bearded, bespectacled and altogether proud behind the lectern at the forefront (both literally and figuratively) of the magnificent, almost palatial grand hall of Temple Oheb Shalom, rimmed by emerald art deco portraitures depicting revered figures from Jewish history.

More than 500 well-dressed cognoscenti of the local Jewish community sat eager for the speech to come. Telushkin is, after all, one of the 50 best speakers in the United States according to Talk Magazine and bestselling author of more than 15 books including “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion,” which remains the past two decades’ most widely selling book on the subject.

Some of his anecdotes revolve around personal encounters with such prominent statesmen as Joseph Lieberman.

The room was held in rapturous silence, each person at the 30 or so tables leaning forward.

“Three Jewish mothers were talking about their sons,” Telushkin quipped, “with one bragging, ‘My son, he loves me so much, he just bought me tickets for a cruise around the world!’ Another said, ‘That’s nothing. My son loves me so much he paid for a fully catered meal at a glorious dinner.’ The last chimed in cheerfully, ‘I have you both beat: My son pays a therapist $300 per hour … and all he talks about is me!’”

The joke resulted in an explosive eruption of raucous laughter from the audience, which was there to support the Jewish National Fund, a 115-year-old organization dedicated to fructifying needful expansion and emboldening in Israel. It was a perfect moment, if not necessarily an incongruous one.

Along with the procession of monumentally prestigious accolades he has received over the years, Telushkin is  notable in the nascent scholarly field of comedy. His speech for the morning was in fact based largely on his 1998 book “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews” and thoughtfully explored the intersectionality between the Jewish identity and humor through a kaleidoscopic prism of sobering probity.

Following his introductory remarks — the only part of the speech he smirkingly claimed would be “serious” — that included the New Yorker’s admiration for Baltimore, a place he’s visited many times, as well as the community’s high percentage of Jews active in the JNF’s goals, Telushkin “switched gears,” launching right into his first joke … about promising not to go beyond another two hours.

Erika Pardes Schon (pictured) co-chaired the event with  Ellen Taylor. Photo by David Stuck

Erika Pardes Schon (pictured) co-chaired the event with Ellen Taylor. Photo by David Stuck

(A clever way to mollify some slight tension, met by resoundingly boisterous chuckles, in reference to some mumbled collective mutterings about the event having started a bit late.)

Being true to his word, so to speak, Telushkin immediately cut to the chase and focused on the brunt of his morning’s premise. He explained that so-called “ethnic humor” deals in broad strokes, stereotypes and clichés. A joke about a “drunken Irishman” or “cheap Jew” hold much more water, for example, than, say, “a drunken Jew” or “cheap Irishman.” Obviously, to suggest all Jews are cheap is as ridiculous as to imply Jews can’t or don’t get drunk, that all Irishmen are drinkers or can’t be cheap themselves.

The ridiculousness inherent to stereotypes of such humor is exactly what can make long-entrenched and oft-told jokes funny. To some.

As Telushkin suggested, it might be worth considering that those who take umbrage with this brand of humor may be taking the stereotypes they caricature a little too seriously, which brings into question these persons’ own embedded sensibilities about said unfortunate clichés.

“One Jew crossed another in the night and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I heard your business burned down last night.’ ‘Shh,’ said the other. ‘That’s tomorrow night.’”

After the uproarious laughter died down, Telushkin explained that it might be slightly easier to laugh at an old joke such as this one about Jews being avaricious “tricksters” if one comes into the conversation already understanding that, of course, this is not the case and thus the joke is mere lampooning.

Many groups of people like Jews have a long  history of  oppression. And telling these jokes is one way to deal with that. It’s something that can unite all those who have been marginalized  at one time or  another.

— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

“People who abhor ethnic humor might be those who think all persons in each group are the same,” Telushkin said.

Certainly, such jokes can be used to discuss various seemingly established traits of, for argument’s sake, Jews: their ties to family (as showcased in the aforementioned jibe about the three Jewish mothers) or their propensity toward analysis (an element of the same joke).

This last dubious notion may be somewhat understandable, Telushkin said, due to the father of psychoanalysis — Sigmund Freud — being Jewish. According to Telushkin, Freud, in fact, was surrounded by so many like-minded Jews in his vocational circle that he made sure to request the appointment of the gentile Carl Jung as president of the International Psychoanalytic Society so that the burgeoning field of study would not be considered a “Jewish science” vulnerable to anti-Semitic criticism.

Humor, Telushkin continued, always takes the various extremes of situations and exaggerates them. That’s a critical component to its absurdity.

“A Jewish husband was told by his wife’s therapist that she has trust issues. ‘I know,’ said the husband. ‘I read about it in her diary.’”

There’s a patent absurdity in Telushkin’s gag that stretches to near tearing the rubbery extremes of stereotypes involving a paranoid Jewish husband who would go to the extent of reading his neurotic Jewish wife’s private diary.

All people laugh at and understand such narishkeit, was Telushkin’s overall point. It’s something that unifies not only Jews but all peoples, no matter their religion, race, gender, creed, class, ability.

“Many groups of people like Jews have a long history of  oppression,” Telushkin told the JT shortly after his speech. “And telling these jokes is one way to deal with that. It’s something that can unite all those who have been marginalized at one time or another.”

“I think that in everything that [Telushkin] writes, we can learn so much about human behavior, and much of this unifies all of us,” JNF’s national campaign director, Diane Scar, told the JT.

“By revisiting the generalizations that we maybe grew up with,” Scar continued, “we can look at so many important issues through a different lens and see, yes, that we’re all so much more similar than different.”

“We [at the JNF] wanted this morning to be a time when attendees could feel that they were with a very, very scholarly gentleman like Rabbi Telushkin and also have an opportunity to sometimes laugh at themselves and expose some of the nuances that sometimes might be taboo to talk about,” Scar said.

“We knew he would do this in a professional manner and that people could go into the High Holidays not only focusing on their transgressions necessarily, but also the positive things they do. Especially our contingent who are doing good throughout the day and feel just really proud of the work that they’ve done.”

It’s no wonder then that Telushkin ended what was already a jovial colloquium with the reminder Hebrew might be the only language he knows of whose word for “charity” — tzedakah — is the same for “justice.”

Here again is the ultimate contradiction that lends itself to a kind of absurd humor in its formulation: In continually seeking a certain justice for the past, Jews may be seen as pessimistic while optimistically giving charity where needed in looking toward the future, leading to Jews being, in Telushkin’s final summation, “optimists with worried looks on our faces.”

Now that’s funny.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

 

Yom Kippur: A Community Lens

(credit: ©iStockphoto.com/lipmic)

(credit: ©iStockphoto.com/lipmic)

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, marks the end of 40 days of penitence and commemorates the day that God forgave the Jewish people for the folly and sin of the Golden Calf.

In contemporary Judaism, however, Yom Kippur serves as a day to atone for sins from the past year. For community members, the holiday — on Oct. 12 — has varied and deep meanings.

“I think that Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to wipe clean the slate of the past year,” said Rachel Glaser, an Owings Mills resident. “For me, it gives me the opportunity to set things right if there are people that I may have  had disagreements with, or if  I did not live up to my own  expectations for myself or the expectations of others in my community. My whole relationship to God is through the lens of my relationships with my community, my family and the world. I don’t see it as something separate. I reflect a lot on Yom Kippur and stay all day in synagogue, I use the words of the prayers to inspire me on how to approach this new opportunity to make things better.”

“Yom Kippur is the day the accountant comes,” said Martin Perel, who was eating at Goldberg’s New York Bagels on a recent afternoon. “You have your moral books checked to see if you’re in the red or the black.”

This thought was mirrored by Shomrim spokesman Nathan Willner, who shared, “Yom Kippur really just represents new  beginnings and time for introspection. It means taking a moral inventory of your year’s work, celebrating your successes and taking the time to improve on how you deal with challenges.”

I don’t just think to be  forgiven for  the past year  on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about  how you live your life. — Gail Walton

“It’s about forgiveness, not just atonement,” said Ruby Grossblatt, a Jewish reporter from Atlanta who was in Baltimore to get married and was also dining at Goldberg’s. “It is about forgiving yourself as well as others. You want to make a better year and come back to your roots a little.”

“All of the holidays were ingrained in me by the way I was raised, but I believe that God is forgiving, no matter what you do,” said Gail Walton, another Goldberg’s customer. “I don’t just think to be forgiven for the past year on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about how you live your life.”

This belief seems to be becoming more and more common. One aspect of the holiday that has shifted over the years is the form in which people seek repentance. The traditional practice for the holiday is to fast and reflect on the past year. However, many people in the community find that being active and volunteering in the community in the 10 days  between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Days of Awe — is an another way  to derive meaning from the holiday.

Walton explained: “A rabbi that I met at Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim once told me, ‘Going to synagogue and praying isn’t being a good Jew. It’s what’s in your heart and what you do.’ My son decided the other day, ‘I want to do a mitzvah, it is the High Holidays.’ He went and helped somebody apply for college, someone who didn’t about the process and needed some help. I believe that performing a mitzvah can make up for everything.”

David Bienenstock, a retired day school teacher, said Yom Kippur is a happy day for him.

“Even though you are fasting, the idea is that whatever you’ve done over the year, you will get forgiven at the end of the day if you did what you are supposed to do,” he said. “It is an intense and busy day but knowing that you will be forgiven is worth it.”

Bienenstock also makes sure to engage the community around the High Holidays. “Every year for many years,” he said, “I have been going to people’s houses to blow shofar for them. People will write to or call me and ask me to come for all sorts of reasons. Some people are ailing and bedridden, some people have young children. I got a call from a man whose wife had just had leg surgery.”

Like Bienenstock, Yom Kippur turns over a new leaf for others.

“When Yom Kippur is over, I feel that something is different in me,” said Glaser. “I sense a new spirit in myself, and the challenge is to maintain that momentum over the course of the year.”

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Messages for the New Year Seven rabbis talk High Holidays and sermons

The High Holidays are a particularly heavy time of the year: a time for reflection, renewal, forgiveness and repentance for individuals, the Baltimore Jewish  community and the Jewish world at large.

For rabbis in the Greater Baltimore area, there is no uniform approach to composing sermons for the High Holidays nor uniform topics to cover. Some plan to cover topical issues such as the refugee crisis — although most plan to stay away from politics — while others plan to address more universal spiritual topics.

The JT spoke with seven area rabbis to hear about their approaches to the High Holidays. Here’s what they had to say.

— Marc Shapiro

 

Rabbi Dana Saroken

Rabbi Dana Saroken (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbis Dana Saroken and Steven Schwartz

Beth El Congregation
Rabbi Dana Saroken, who joined Beth El in 2007 as the congregation’s first female rabbi, touches on certain topics each year, maintaining soulful and spiritual themes in her Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons.

This year, she’ll be focusing heavily on the Jewish society striving for happiness and the way people engage and value one another in a world that has become divided and polarized, as well as regret. Saroken will incorporate a bevy of techniques in her sermons to have her audience think outside the box.

“I try to address a range of topics over the course of the holidays and to find messages that have broad application and meaning,” Saroken said. “I also use a lot of kavannot (introductions) to the prayers and themes in the service to get people thinking. The main goal of the [High] Holy Days isn’t to move through the Machzor (prayer book) page by page. It’s to have the prayers and the experience of the day move us, so that we emerge from the [High] Holy Days as different people than we were when we began them.”

While spending countless months of coming up with these themes, Saroken hopes her congregants take a step back to think of the bigger picture and push that discussion beyond their everyday lives.

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

“Where do we need to be awakened? What causes are worthy of our time? And how can we be agents of change amidst the brokenness?” Saroken said.

“The moment that the shofar blasts at Neilah, marking the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we have a clean slate. We rid ourselves of the albatrosses and regrets and pain and brokenness that we as human beings with consciences inevitably carry, and we can go forth into the world and begin anew.”

For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Saroken and senior rabbi Steven Schwartz will each hold separate services. On the second day, they will join together to cap all three services they hold for adults. There will also be sermons going on around the congregation simultaneously on both days for both teenagers and young children.

Some rabbis opt to bring current events into the fold, discussing subjects that might spark heated debates such as this year’s presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Although he said he won’t spend too much time dwelling on the matter, Schwartz will touch on the election and the two major party candidates during his Rosh Hashanah evening sermon.

“I think that it is a highly unusual election cycle,” said Schwartz, who has been with Beth El since 1998. “I think people are anxious about it, and I think people are going to vote for a candidate they don’t feel fully invested in.”

— Justin Silberman

 

Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink

Temple Oheb Shalom
Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom has the routine for his sermons down pat. Fink, 65, starts compiling ideas for his sermons and drafting them during the summer while making sure not to get too far ahead of himself.

This year, he has settled on a number of societal and cultural themes that many in the Jewish community find pressing.

Starting with Rosh Hashanah, he will address the difference between being alone and lonely in his evening service and then share his vision for America in his morning service.

“I won’t be speaking about the presidential election, but I’ll be speaking about my vision for America,” Fink said. “I’ll be talking about the ideals America aspires to achieve and how we should strive toward those ideals.”

For Yom Kippur, in his evening service, he will dissect how to fix the brokenness that many carry with them throughout their lives. He will spend his morning service examining what traits help make up a Jewish person’s DNA.

Fink’s sermons, which typically run anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the topic, may deviate from what he’s written if he finds that it is warranted.

In his 17 years at Oheb Shalom, Fink said there is one special humbling prayer not commonly practiced in Reform synagogues that he especially looks forward to.

“One of our most beautiful traditions is that during Yom Kippur afternoon during the Great Aleinu, the rabbis and cantor touch our heads to the floor at during the appropriate time,” Fink said. “When it says we bow our knees, we literally just put our knees on the floor and touch our floors to the head to show our complete humility before God.”

— Justin Silberman

 

Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz

Congregation B’nai Israel

 

A Bergen County, N.J., native, Rabbi Etan Mintz, 38, of Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel in downtown Baltimore saw his move to the area as “an incredible opportunity,” one that has greatly heartened his wife and him for the past four years they’ve been here.

“I’m really taken by the opportunity in particular of developing and revitalizing Jewish life downtown,” Mintz said, delighting over the confluence of tradition he sees in the historic synagogue out of which his congregation is housed with the vibrant revivification the building and surrounding region has been undergoing.

Examples of physical renovation include repainting the building itself and making the space more accessible for older and/or disabled congregants wishing to join in on services. On a spiritual level, Mintz made sure to add, this renewal is one of his own “leading the congregation toward more personal study and reflection in order to have a greater individual religious growth.”

Mintz has been preparing a sermon for Rosh Hashanah that will expand upon “finding meaning and purpose in living every day to its fullest” along with the similar reverence for history and tradition fostered by more topical reflection that marks his excitement at having settled in Baltimore and at B’nai Israel.

It is essential to Mintz that his is a congregation that “focuses on spiritual value” and maintains an “open, warm, nonjudgmental environment.”

Hence, congregants can expect a Yom Kippur service that will be “not only spiritually uplifting but filled with energy and song,” courtesy Mintz’s bringing in a group of vocalists who will accompany their chazzan in order to “have more harmony for the formal service.”

Prefaced by a calming and reflective meditation, Mintz believes this thoughtful melding of a vocal group with the music of the chazzan will allow for “more intensity” of the experience for those present at a service he promises will be “filled with ruach.”

Although Mintz said he will not speak directly about the upcoming presidential election in his sermon, he intends to “touch on issues surrounding it: the importance of civil discourse and trying to make sure the conversation is uplifting,” with a hope that these conversations will be imbued with Jewish values, especially around the High Holidays.

— Mathew Klickstein

 

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen

Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation

 

At first blush, Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Yisrael Motzen may surprise some as unconventionally young at the age of 32.

As Motzen laughed heartily, it’s in fact an attribute he refused to reveal when asked during a recent interview with another local media outlet.

But with four children and a master’s in counseling from Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with his bachelor’s in Talmudic Law from prestigious Pikesville yeshiva Ner Israel, the Montreal-born Modern Orthodox rabbi is anything but unprepared for the sacred role he took on four-and-a-half years ago.

Motzen’s infectious, ebullient spirit grants him a refreshing air of a leader primed to guide his congregants toward the new year with an almost palpable cheer.

Armed with his youthful vitality and effervescent ready-to-launch mindset, Motzen confessed that he has yet to consign to paper the thoughts that will be expressed during his High Holiday services.

Though he’s well aware that many rabbis toil tirelessly throughout the summer or perhaps earlier still over their sermons, such is not the style of Motzen who prefers to be fueled by the sense of raw intensity he feels waiting until the last minute. This sensibility also allows his message to be one of supreme timeliness, something that will touch on the most current exigencies of his congregants.

“It’s challenging,” Motzen admits about his admittedly unorthodox approach. “The size of our synagogue just about doubles during the holidays, and there’s a real pressure of having that perfect message for all the people you’ll maybe see only three times a year.”

Although it’s Motzen’s intention to make sure that those attending his services feel welcome and comfortable, his slightly contrarian methodology again reveals itself in his goal of also “pushing people a little out of their comfort zone.”

Indeed, he doesn’t want those joining him to be too at ease, lest they miss out on his overall suggestion of “finding a way to think a little differently during this time of year.” Motzen’s satisfaction will come from their “walking out a little different than they were when they walked in.”

— Mathew Klickstein

 

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr

Columbia Jewish Congregation
According to Rabbi Sonya Starr, what makes Reconstructionist Judaism different from other sects “is a belief that there is no one person who is charged with interpreting, teaching or transforming tradition for others.”

“I don’t teach you how to keep kosher. Rather, I tell you my understanding of kashrut, but it is your job as an educated Jew to decide what works best for you,” she said. “I serve more as a facilitator than as an educator.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Columbia Jewish Congregation will be having its first day’s services at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Age-appropriate programming will be provided for children and teens on Monday morning, whereas Sunday evening will be a more communal service.

Additionally, Tashlich will occur at the Wilde Lake Boat Dock on Sunday evening.

In her sermon, Starr plans to address change — “the fact that we always change, whether it is conscious or not.” According to the rabbi, “This whole month allows us to make that change conscious, to reflect on what we want to achieve and how we can be better. We talk about positive change and repentance, but this is another type of change as well, which is changing from something to something else because the act of change keeps everything fresh and keeps us engaged; the act of changing is beneficial in itself.”

Starr explained that she does not plan on bringing politics into her sermons, citing that it is unethical. However, she said that on Yom Kippur, she would address tikkun olam and some specific contemporary problems, because “we have a moral and ethical responsibility to talk about issues.”

Ultimately, she wants to use traditional Jewish values to support a community in the modern world. “I think what we do is work really hard to make the ancient rituals relevant to people’s contemporary lives. We are better people when you engage in these rituals and if we strive to make Judaism relevant to the contemporary world.”

— Daniel Nozick

 

Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler

Temple Isaiah

For the last four years, Temple Isaiah has hosted, in addition to regular synagogue services, a free afternoon service at Centennial Park in Ellicott City for Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tashlich at the park, which provides a perfect medium for reflection, Rabbi Craig Axler said.

“It is a fantastic, open community celebration. It is free and in a public space, which really provides for people in the community who wouldn’t have a place to go otherwise,” Axler said. “It is a fun, musical, family-friendly experience. I continue to run into people in the community who say that they or someone they know goes. Many of these people have no other connection to the Jewish community, and I am happy to be able to provide that connection point.”

There are two main points that Axler intends to address in his Rosh Hashanah sermons. “The first comes off of the Torah reading of the past Shabbat, talking about lost items and the mitzvah it is to return them,” he said. “It translates as ‘you shall not be indifferent,’ directly, but I prefer ‘you are incapable of indifference.’ When there are significant problems of the day, you are the cause or the problem, but you cannot just stand there on the sidelines.”

Specifically, Axler wishes to address the plight of refugees. “There should be a Jewish response to the plight of refugees,” he explained. “It is our duty toward them based on our history of needing refuge as a people.”

The rabbi’s second main point is about Israel. “I can’t be neutral on the legitimacy and safety of the state of Israel,” said Axler. “We need to call out unfair media bias toward Israel where it exists, and there are ways in the Jewish community that we don’t show our love and support as fully as we could. The current news cycle, every single moment seems to bring up a new life-or-death situation. We can’t be silent when there is tremendous discrimination in our country and community.”

Outside of his congregation, Axler intends to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a family dinner and a long walk on the second day with his wife, perhaps to do Tashlich together. “My favorite service is always the second day,” he said. “It is a bit smaller service but less formal as well. The people come simply because it is Rosh Hashanah. I just really enjoy the beginning of every new year.” Axler hopes that this year, he will successfully bake a round challah as opposed to the oblong loaves that he has attained in past years. JT

— Daniel Nozick

Community Kibitz: Gefilte Fish

This week the JT popped into three area Jewish eateries to ask customers about what turned out to be a rather ticklish subject:

Do you like gefilte fish?

Miller’s Deli, 2849 Smith Ave., Pikesville

Chatting with the ladies who meet here every week to play mah-jongg.

A group of local friends meets weekly at Miller’s Deli to play mah-jongg (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

A group of local friends meets weekly at Miller’s Deli to play mah-jongg (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

EILEEN GARFIELD (Pikesville): I make it from the can and it comes out delicious! My family doesn’t really like it, though. They like the fish that I make myself.

MARION AKMAN (Quarry Lake): I make a gefilte fish loaf; I grind it up with veggies, put it in the oven and bake. Everyone loves it.

This leads to an overlapping discussion about gefilte fish grinders; “Do you remember those?” “I saw one on Facebook!” “My bubbe had one.” Further conversing leads to the conclusion that the majority prefers making their gefilte fish from a can. As for whether or not they prefer the gefilte fish that comes in jelly or not, the consensus is a resounding anti-jelly vote. Although some do enjoy using the cooked jelly juice as a kind of de facto broth.

SALLY GROSSMAN (Pikesville): I make my own loaf and all the kids always ask for it: “We want Grandma’s gefilte fish!”

Goldberg’s New York Bagels, 1500 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore

Disparate customers at the bustling deli during lunch time. One, a visitor from as far as Brooklyn, N.Y.

JACK LEW (Brooklyn): I like my gefilte fish. I like it sweet. But food is not a priority in my life.

Pikesville resident Ed Kafes at Goldberg’s New York Bagels (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

Pikesville resident Ed Kafes at Goldberg’s New York Bagels (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

ED KAFES (Pikesville): I like it from a bottle. Better than homemade; I don’t know why. Consistency, maybe? I don’t like the jelly. I’m a picky eater; wish I was not. I do like my horseradish hot. Nothing watered down.

ANONYMOUS (Baltimore): I love gefilte fish. It tastes good! But only around the Holidays. I don’t like horseradish. I do like the loaf and I like my gefilte fish sweet. Some don’t like it from a jar, but I do.

JEN KAPLAN (Pikesville): Oh, no jelly, no jar! I prefer veggies if I ever make it. If you mix it with mayonnaise, it’s really good.

Kaplan’s lunch mate sitting across from her wishes not to be named but says she only eats gefilte fish around the Holidays, loves horseradish, and then points across the table, distinguishing Kaplan as a bona fide “gefilte fish expert.”

I used to make it a lot more often. I used to make it on Shabbat a lot, but no more. Too many leftovers. Maybe I should make it for Rosh Hashanah. We’ll see.

Elie Zirkind of Pikesville immediately reveals he at first thought the conversation would be about sushi and is delightfully surprised to discover the subject to be gefilte fish.

ELIE ZIRKIND (Pikesville): I love the kind that comes in a roll. I slice it up and use a little horseradish. It’s good any time of year, not just the Holidays. I know some people who don’t like it and some people who eat it all the time!

STEVE’S DELI, 11299 Owings Mills Blvd., Owings Mills

They call themselves “The Rat Pack” and they meet here once a week after meeting at the local JCC.

Owings Mills’ own “Rat Pack” at Steve’s Deli (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

Owings Mills’ own “Rat Pack” at Steve’s Deli (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

JOE MYEROWITZ (Owings Mills): Some of the Ravens players like it! And I love it. But I like it plain. I don’t like anything on it.

JERRY LEVENSON (Owings Mills): No, gotta have carrots and a little bit of sauce.

ERIC YOSPE (Pikesville): Debate in my family is … I like it how my mother made it — in pieces — but everyone else? They like it as a casserole. And I hate it as casserole!

A rowdy cacophony erupts over which variety of horseradish is best: white or red?

ROB GERSTEIN (Reisterstown): I like white; it’s hotter. My wife won’t eat regular gefilte fish. Gotta be sweet. And no carp: either white fish or pike.

HOWARD COHEN (Pikesville): I love it. My wife over there? [He points across the small deli to where the Pack’s collective wives are sequestered, enjoying the spectacle of their boisterous husbands deliberating over gefilte fish.] Her mother made it from chicken! And you’d never know it!

ARNOLD SPEART (Mt. Washington): Aw, everything tastes like chicken.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Shimon Peres, Israeli Founding Father and ‘Soul of Israel,’ Dies at 93 1923 - 2016

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Peres Peace House, in Tel Aviv, on November 30, 2015. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Peres Peace House, in Tel Aviv, on November 30, 2015. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90

Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of Israel’s leaders and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died Wednesday morning (Israel time)  after a career in public service that spanned seven decades. Peres was 93.

Peres served as prime minister twice and was president from 2007 to 2014. He played an instrumental role in the development of Israel’s nuclear program and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their role in the Oslo Accords.

“I think Israel has lost not just a major statesman, but it’s also lost a little bit of its soul,” said Dov Zakheim, who served in the George W. Bush administration and worked closely with Peres in the 1970s.

Stuart Eizenstat, who served in three U.S. administrations and knew Peres personally, called Peres an Israeli version of Thomas Jefferson because of his importance, because of his intellect and because he was a “renaissance man.”

Eizenstat praised Peres for treading a very fine line as president — traditionally a ceremonial position —— between remaining an advocate for the peace process, while not undermining the hawkish Netanyahu government.

“Later in his career, he transformed himself into the most beloved man in Israel,” Eizenstat said. “It was really a beautiful thing to see.”

Peres is sometimes seen as having evolved politically over the course of his life because of his close ties to the Israeli military and hawkish positions at the beginning of his career and his later determination to nurture the peace process.

But Guy Ziv, a professor at the American University School of Foreign Service, said that Peres was actually an “extreme pragmatist” throughout his life and it was the circumstances around him that changed.

“Peres’ key concern was always Israel’s security, and that’s something that’s often lost,” said Ziv, whose book “Why Hawks Become Doves” documents Peres’ career.

Despite the multitude of positions he held in various governments and his two stints as prime minister, Peres suffered numerous political defeats, most notably in 1996, when his Labor Party narrowly lost to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I say this with love, but he wasn’t a great politician,” said Eizenstat. “I think that was in many ways because he was an intellectual. As the country became more and more conservative, he was seen as more of a dreamer, which I think is wrong.”

Ben- Gurion’s protégé

Peres was born Szymon Perski in Poland in 1923, and he emigrated with his family to British Mandate Palestine in 1934. He lived in Tel Aviv and spent his later teen years on a kibbutz.

David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, took an interest in Peres after the younger man won an elected position in the Labor-Zionist youth movement. Peres soon became Ben- Gurion’s protégé, and in 1947, the year before he declared Israel’s independence, Ben-Gurion gave Peres responsibility for personnel and arms purchases of Haganah, the predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces.

In Israel’s early years, Peres, who spoke French fluently, played a pivotal role in acquiring arms for Israel from France and other European countries while there was an American arms embargo against Israel.

“He was in many ways Ben-Gurion’s extension to the outside world,” said Eizenstat. “Ben-Gurion asked Peres to acquire arms, and he did.”

Peres’ career continued its quick rise and by the age just 29 he was appointed deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

In the 1950s, Peres worked with Britain and France to plan the Suez War against Egypt. It was also in this decade that Peres began work on Israel’s nuclear program with the French government. Ziv credited Peres’ openness and diplomatic skill in leading Israel’s scrappy nuclear program at a time when the country “could hardly afford to grow tomatoes.”

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES CELEBRATES ISRAEL’S INDEPENDENCE DAY IN 2013. PHOTO BY BEN GERSHOM / ISRAEL GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES CELEBRATES ISRAEL’S INDEPENDENCE DAY IN 2013. PHOTO BY BEN GERSHOM / ISRAEL GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE

“In France, Peres would meet with anybody and everybody,” said Ziv. “He built his own fiefdom in France of key figures like politicians, key industrialists and other elites.”

Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, and he served as the head of various ministries until 1977 when, as the Labor party’s candidate for prime minister, he suffered a major electoral defeat to Menachem Begin and the Likud party.

Zakheim, who worked with Peres in the 1970s, praised him for his charisma.

“He would make his points in the most charming way possible,” he said. “He was prepared to say what he believed even if it wasn’t the most popular thing to say at the time.”

During the 1980s, Peres served as leader of the opposition, and following the 1984 elections, he was prime minister for two years as part of a rotation government established by an alliance with the Likud party. He served in various ministries in the late 1980s as part of a continued alliance with Likud.

“His preference was the PLO over Hamas.”

In 1990, Peres’ Labor Party lost power after it attempted to form an alliance with small leftist and  ultra-Orthodox parties.

It was in the early 1990s, now serving as foreign minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, that Peres participated in secret negotiations with Yasser Arafat of the PLO that led to the Oslo Accords.

Ziv said that Peres’ initial desire was to negotiate peace with Jordan’s King Hussein, but he eventually came to the conclusion that he had to work with Arafat. Ziv said that Peres worked with Arafat because he anticipated Hamas’ rise to power.

“His preference was the PLO over Hamas,” said Ziv. “That’s his pragmatism.”

Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Peres again became prime minister, but opted to wait before scheduling elections, a decision that has been criticized by his political supporters because of Likud’s victory in 1996.

“Peres’ decision not to call for a snap election after Rabin’s assassination profoundly changed and complicated the peace process,” said Eizenstat.

Peres declined to seek reelection as the leader of the labor party in 1997, but remained active in politics, serving as foreign minister, deputy prime minister and vice prime minister.

Then, in 2007, Peres became president of Israel, a position he held until 2014. Peres is widely credited for using the traditionally ceremonial position in a proactive way, while not interfering with Netanyahu’s agenda.

Because of this, Peres became popular in Israel as an elder statesman. Zakheim also said that Peres’ popularity grew at the time in the United States.

“He was very popular in Washington, because anyone who had a vision of peace in the Middle East immediately looked to him,” Zakheim said. “His serious support for the two-state solution was really very important because as some of the leadership in the American Jewish community moved to the right, he stood his ground.”

Eizenstat recalled that during Peres’ time as president, he would host Shabbat dinners every year at the Davos World Economic Forum with dignitaries and businesspeople. The gathering started with “barely a minyan” but ended up with 250 people by 2014. Eizenstat saw these dinners as an example of Peres’ warmth and leadership.

After receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012, Peres retired from politics in 2014.

In his last years he continued his work on the Peres Center for Peace, an organization he established in 1996 to enhance intercultural understanding in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In fact, just hours before being hospitalized for his stroke on Sept. 13, Peres recorded a video for Facebook urging people to buy local products.

Peres is survived by his three children, Yoni Peres, Nehemia Peres and Dr. Tsvia Walden.

Updated: 9/28/16 4:40 P.M.

 

galtshuler@midatlanticmedia.com

Alternative Worship Chavurot provide another means of Jewish connection

(Tree illustraion collage of: ©istockphoto.com/Shanina and anamad)

(Tree illustraion collage of: ©istockphoto.com/Shanina and anamad)

Synagogues in greater Baltimore and all over the world will be packed with crowds for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the coming weeks. For some, the High Holy Days kick off another Jewish year in which Shabbat will be observed, holidays will be celebrated, and life will flow according to the Jewish calendar. For others, it may be the only two times this year they set foot in a Jewish congregation.

Outside of the traditional brick-and-mortar buildings, there is an alternative means of worship some turn toward to celebrate the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement.

Chavurot, smaller groups of like-minded Jews who place a similar emphasis on culture, history and family, have  become popular for many Baltimoreans looking to practice their faith in community-led worship and programming.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent  Judaism, formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute, said chavurot have begun to effectively buck the trend of  established Jewish denominations.

“I think [chavurot] are providing a different experience,” Olitzky said. “I think the onus of the synagogue and the  rabbinate is to help people to understand what the value is that is added and what’s the benefit of participation. I think members of chavurot like the informality of intimacy of it all, which is often gained in small groups.”

The East Bank Havurah’s Havdalah service celebrates the end of Yom Kippur in 2013. (provided)

The East Bank Havurah’s Havdalah service celebrates the end of Yom Kippur in 2013. (provided)

When the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah formed in 1998, it was aimed to provide a sense of community and cultural fostering not commonly offered in most traditional synagogues.

“We’re the only chavurah in town that is cultural,” said Bob Jacobson, a former co-president and current member of the BJCC. “It started mainly for people who identify as Jews  culturally, not religiously, though we have members who both do and don’t belong to shuls.”

The East Bank Havurah, formed in 1979, sought to create an “egalitarian fellowship of people of diverse backgrounds and ages seeking to practice Judaism in a joyful participatory manner.”

“It’s hard to define ourselves,” Stephen Siegel, a 69-year-old member, said, “but we’re probably still ‘Jewish Renewal,’ which some people say isn’t a denomination … even though it really is.”

“We’re probably somewhere between Radical and Conservative,” he said, laughing.

Another group of Baltimoreans meet only during the High Holidays for services  run by the Reform Temple, which began in the early 2000s. While the organization is not  a chavurah, the services were  inspired by one woman’s dissatisfaction with the overall movement and provide a family-friendly accessible service more in line with classic Reform  Judaism.

Part of the East Bank Havurah’s attraction is a lay-led chavurah that features particpation. (Provided)

Part of the East Bank Havurah’s attraction is a lay-led chavurah that features particpation. (Provided)

“The classic Reform that I was raised with, it was more  of a philosophy, social ethics and the Ten Commandments,” said Susan Dudley, one of the founders of the Reform Temple.  “We didn’t keep kosher or make Aliyah; we would drive on Shabbat. Now, all of those are written into the principals of modern Reform movement. All the focus is on having people perform rituals that make them think they are being religious. The Reform Judaism that I was raised with was intellectual — you really needed to know everything that the Talmud said and be able to figure out what parts of that worked for you and why.”

Connecting  to Culture  

Today, the BJCC includes  22 members — made up of  individuals and families — and offers a High Holiday  experience unlike many other traditional or nontraditional places of worship in town. Annual dues run from $120 for a single-adult household and $240 for a household with two or more adults, but that number is adjusted for those whose  incomes don’t permit that amount.

Jacobson, 65, said the manner in which the BJCC rings in the High Holidays is one of the  aspects that piqued his interests when he joined the group  several years ago.

“Being a part of this group, it’s one that has always been interested in the Jewish heritage and all that comes with it,” Jacobson said. “It’s a very small group of us who belong to synagogues and don’t belong to synagogues, which I think has always made for a nice mix of people at all of our programs.”

“When historians write about this period in time, they’re going to call it the era of transition. We don’t know when this era will conclude, and the only thing we can be sure of is the Jewish community will look nothing like it does [now] when this era began.” — Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Ten Judaism, formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute

“When historians write about this period in time, they’re going to call it the era of transition. We don’t know when this era will conclude, and the only thing we can be sure of is the Jewish community will look nothing like it does [now] when this era began.” — Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Ten Judaism, formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute

A standard Rosh Hashanah program — the BJCC does not use the word service — consists of holiday-themed readings,  poetry and songs compiled from various Jewish sources and, of course, plates of apples and honey. The festivities usually take place at a social hall in  the evening, but scheduling conflicts this year have forced the group to put on a morning program at a member’s home in Lutherville.

Generally, Jacobson said, the BJCC has not celebrated near a body of water, leading the group to use a variety of unconventional methods to repent for sins from the last year. In the past, members have taken part in the ritual using fire and a paper shredder, among other items, to ask for forgiveness while ridding themselves of past sins.

“We’re just looking to recognize some of the sins and  misbehaviors from the last year, so I don’t think it’s necessarily contingent to be at a body of water for the same point to get across,” Jacobson said.

Olitzky, referencing his 2013 book “Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future,” believes breaking the mold from those types of conventional practices is what many find  attractive about chavurot.

“A lot more Hebrew and singing of songs that hadn’t been heard before were added to services. ... I continued to belong because I felt that it was my obligation.” — Susan Dudley, founder of the Reform Temple

“A lot more Hebrew and singing of songs that hadn’t been heard before were added to services. … I continued to belong because I felt that it was my obligation.” — Susan Dudley, founder of the Reform Temple

“I think members of chavurahs like the informality and intimacy of it all, which is often gained in small groups,” Olitzky said. “Also, I think it’s reflective toward previous trends of what might be called ‘do-it-yourself Judaism.’”

For Yom Kippur, meanwhile, the BJCC will celebrate the night before this year in the community room of one of the member’s condo building, not allowing them to break the fast together.

Still, they will continue with many traditions that have  become popular within the group over the years. Among them includes listening to the recording of “Kol Nidre” from famous musicians such as Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, a world-renowned cantor and composer in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and Johnny Mathis, a 20th-century African-American jazz icon.

“I think only once we have had musicians within our group do “Kol Nidre,” which was pretty interesting and very entertaining,” Jacobson said. “But it’s also great and fascinating to hear it from people you never would have expected to record a Jewish song like that.”

While members participate in a shortened version of the Tashlich for Rosh Hashanah and the Al Chet for Yom  Kippur, they spend more time harping on good deeds they have contributed around the community.

“We like to look at all the good things that we have done to see how we can continue moving forward,” Jacobson said. “I think it’s important to be proud of the good things we accomplish while working on improving in other aspects of our lives.”

At Rosh Hashanah, Jacobson or another group member will come up with a laundry list of positive behaviors to share and then encourage others to think of their own on the spot. One of the biggest emphases placed on this particular exercise is to build a sense of camaraderie and trust among liked-minded individuals who share many of the same values, Jacobson said.

“It’s not like we’re jumping off a building or plane or anything like that,” Jacobson said. “But it’s just a creative thing we do to accompany the listing of the good things our group members have done from within the last year.”

More information is available at baltimoresecularjews.org.

Offering a Modern Perspective  

A sense of belonging is key to the chavurah movement. (Provided)

A sense of belonging is key to the chavurah movement. (Provided)

East Bank Havurah is the putatively second-oldest organization of its kind in Baltimore.

“I’m pretty sure we’re also the oldest havurah that still  actually operates regularly,” said Siegel, a lifelong Baltimorean who graduated from the University of Maryland, studied electrical engineering and now works in finance and advertising on a semiretired basis.

Siegel has been a member of his chavurah since its inception under the guidance of Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

That movement was popularized to some extent by Shalomi and fellow rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Abraham Joshua Heschel, along with  Israeli philosopher Martin Buber in the 1960s and 1970s. Also considered “neo-Chasidism,” Jewish Renewal is a modern re-envisioning of Judaic traditions through the cipher of modern perspectives such as  social justice and contemporaneous environmental concerns.

The movement’s participatory and inclusive sensibilities are concomitant with East Bank Havurah’s pseudo-anarchic communalism. This ethos has become attractive for a younger generation of Jews somewhat disenchanted with the rigid formalism they see gilding conventional congregations.

“I think [chavurot] transcend any specific denomination for religious framework, because we see variations of these groups,” Olitzky said. “Whether we call them a chavurah, an independent minyan or an emergent prayer community, we see them in various places along the religious and psychological continuum.”

It was, in fact, the group’s “spiritually led, nonhierarchical, participatory Judaism” that piqued the interest of world-traveled Joshua Rosenstein, 40, and his wife Teri Jedeikin to the East Bank Havurah shortly after the two were married in 2013.

“We both came to Baltimore in many ways in search of an alternative Jewish community and found it at East Bank Havurah,” said Rosenstein, who runs a small backyard farming company called Eden Baltimore Foodscapes. “Both my wife and I have extensive Jewish backgrounds but haven’t found a home in a more formal Jewish situation.”

This informality manifests itself through the chavurah being lay-led, meaning each service is guided by a different person or family at a different location.

“Baltimore has such a diversity of Jewish options, but chavurah being a home-hosted community requires a little more  engagement than just being able to stop by a synagogue at your convenience,” Rosenstein said.

East Bank Havurah is the alternative Jewish community Josh Rosentein and his wife, Teri Jedeikin were looking for. (Provided)

East Bank Havurah is the alternative Jewish community Josh Rosentein and his wife, Teri Jedeikin were looking for. (Provided)

“It becomes a question of finding people who have enough Jewish background to feel comfortable in an informal, lay-led scenario but who don’t necessarily feel a sense of  belonging with more conventional mainstream Judaism.”

“Whomever is leading can be quite creative,” Siegel said, noting the inclusion of poetry, the bringing in of photographs from Greece by an artist leading a discussion on the topic and his own wife’s guiding their group in a session of meditation and chanting.

Siegel laid out a highly  active and, of course, participatory series of events for the High Holidays. For Yom Kippur, East Bank Havurah members will take a retreat to the Pearlstone Center, where they’ll have pre-holiday dinner before spending the night on the communal farm and enjoy services the following day for a full 26 to 28 hours (depending on weather) of observation.

East Bank Havurah members will spend Rosh Hashanah on a farm owned by their own Myrowitz family. There’s a small stream on the property at which the group will perform Tashlich.

“The Yom Kippur retreat is a particularly meaningful and inclusive program,” Rosenstein said. “It was [my wife’s and my] first exposure to the chavurah, and we’ve subsequently led different components of it since. We’re really looking forward to gathering at the Myrowitz farm.”

“From the little bit I know from reading about them, what we’re doing reminds me a little bit of old neighborhood shtetls,” Siegel said. “It really is a community rather than trying to be a community. It’s family. We encourage people to be as involved as they’re comfortable being. Even though one person is leading each meeting, we’re all a part of it. No matter if male,  female, young or old, we’re  all there to create that sacred space.”

More information is available at meetup.com/East-Bank-Havurah.

(©istockphoto.com/alefbet)

(©istockphoto.com/alefbet)

Rise of the Reform Temple

Susan Dudley has always had a wonderful association with Reform temples — after all, generations of her family have been members and founders, finding Reform Judaism to be “a doctrine to live happily and beautifully by.” However, when the national Reform movement began to change a lot of things about Reform services and philosophies, she felt that her needs were being overlooked.

“I continued to belong  because I felt that it was my obligation,” she shared, but she stopped going eventually and would just read a prayer book at home instead. After a while, she decided to see if other people were interested in  experiencing the classical  Reform Judaism that she grew up with. For her first service, she rented a space for 20 people at the Grey Rock Mansion in Pikesville, thinking she would be lucky to have that many people attend.

However, before the service had even started, she had to upgrade to a 100-person ballroom instead, and even then people were on the steps and out the doors. The popularity of her service made Dudley wonder why people went along with the modern Reform movement if they didn’t enjoy the changes and concluded that it was not left up to congregations.

“A lot more Hebrew and singing of songs that hadn’t been heard before were added to services,” Dudley explained. “They started putting out kippahs for people to wear, there began to be a plethora of people wearing head covers and prayer shawls. Rabbis started instituting things that to me were not intellectually acceptable, like making people turn around to welcome the Sabbath bride and davening and marching the Torah around every week.”

According to Dudley, a religious person is one who treats other people the way he or she would want to be treated. She cited Hillel, saying that to be religious, you just have to be a caring human being. It is this ideology around which the Reform Temple revolves.

cover7The Reform Temple only meets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “People are forced to pay a lot of money to have somewhere to go for these holidays, and I think that’s cruel,” said Dudley. “A lot of people can’t afford to pay for seats. You shouldn’t have to pay to practice your beliefs. The best part of my no-pay-to-pray is the whole families I see stretched across the rows, with their neighbors together. It should be a family affair, and the fact that people can’t afford the number of seats they need to be together on such an  occasion is just not right.”

“I like that Christian people come and can understand what we are saying,” explained Dudley. “A lot of people who have worked for Jewish families forever always wanted to know what it was. There was a minister who was painting my house and wanted to know so he came. There are a lot of people who have interfaith marriages. It can be difficult to ask a spouse to spend that kind of money to practice a  religion that they weren’t raised in.”

The Reform Temple’s services are designed to appeal to everyone, she said. “We talk about things that are relevant to ethics and make for a better society and a better you,” Dudley explained. The service, in English, lasts about an hour. In its Rosh Hashanah service, little bags of candy are distributed to participants for a sweet new year, because “apples and honey are a complete mess, and we care about the custodians.” For children, plastic shofars are handed out.

“I think what we’re seeing is an interesting trend where people are still marking Jewish time, but they’re doing so in nontraditional ways outside of traditional institutions,” Olitzky said. “To me, that’s the critical change that has taken place.”

Douglas Zinn was significantly influenced by services at the Reform Temple. After attending its services for over a decade, he decided that he wanted to start his own organization in the same vein as the Reform Temple but for Shabbat services. He liked that it was open to the public and there was no membership. He put out feelers and made an announcement after a Reform Temple service. Five years later, Zinn’s services attract anywhere  between 10 and 30 people for Shabbat services, which are held the first Friday of each month in Hunt Valley. Known by the name Sharing Shabbat, the events typically entail a brief, 15-minute service, a Shabbat dinner and discussion.

Looking at the bigger picture, Olitzky said, the rapid growth of chavurot is part of a bigger phenomenon that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“When historians write about this period in time, they’re going to call it the era of transition,” Olitzky said. “We don’t know when this era will conclude, and the only thing we can be sure of is the Jewish community will look nothing like it does [now] when this era began.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com 

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Pikesville High Is Now a Cut Above

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz gets ready to cut the ribbon. To his left are BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance and Pikesville High principal Sandra Reid. (Photos provided via flickr.com/photos/baltimorecounty/iNG VISUALS)

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz gets ready to cut the ribbon. To his left are BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance and Pikesville High principal Sandra Reid. (Photos provided via flickr.com/photos/baltimorecounty/iNG VISUALS)

At 9:37 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 19, the 1-foot-tall, stage-length purple ribbon representing the team color of Pikesville High School was cut by ceremonially gigantic scissors (also purple rimmed), commemorating the completion of the school’s two-year, $50 million  series of renovations.

What followed was an immediate groundswell of thundering applause from the 300 audience members seated in the school auditorium — a third of whom were current Pikesville High students — punctuated by a burst of cheers from both the seats and the stage crowded by variously aged personnel, some of whom blew bubbles to hail a propitious high point in the school’s 52-year history.

“We are proud of our 21st-century schoolhouse and the impact it will have on the achievement of our fortunate students,” voiced the school’s staff and students as represented in the printed program handout.

“Our current mission is to be a premiere school in Baltimore County, the state and the nation,” declared the first speaker, Principal Sandra Reid, who was recently named 2016-17 BCPS Principal of the Year.

Reid championed the “bright and shiny” appearance of the school whose faculty she joined about a year ago after operating for nearly a decade as principal of nearby Pine Grove Middle School.

Joining in Reid’s extolling of the school’s new look was 18-year-old Pikesville High junior Antwan Williams, who was one of many volunteers handing out programs and, later, guiding tours through the building.

“It looks really nice here now,” Williams said in the white and purple balloon-lined entryway filled with attendees and scored to the live soundtrack of a student string trio.

Wearing both a bright smile and a purple (of course) shirt emblazoned with the school motto — “PRIDE. HONOR. SUCCESS.” — on its back, Williams too admired the “nice and shiny” school he’s  attended since his freshman year when the luster of the building was lacking and inner halls radiated a dim “brownish lighting” as per his recollection.

“It just makes you want to go to school, because it looks so awesome,” echoed another student speaking in a brief  introductory video on loop playing off of a massive screen hovering over the auditorium stage while audience members filed inside to find their seats.

Two Pikesville students share their enthusiasm with Kevin Kamenetz.

Two Pikesville students share their enthusiasm with Kevin Kamenetz.

“It was remarkably done,” concurred Adam Carney, now in his second year as assistant principal. “The building looks beautiful.”

As was stated throughout the proceedings, Carney was quick to add that the changes made to the school over the span of time he’s been there are far more than superficial.

Carney was not alone in his electric excitations over the school’s newly integrated central air conditioning that will allow for students and faculty alike to enjoy a much more comfortable day in class, thereby decreasing both unnecessary distraction from schoolwork and gratuitous absences.

The installation of a robust central air system at Pikesville High is part of an expansive program to have the feature become standard in every  Baltimore County classroom, courtesy the prodigious investment umbrella of the Schools For Our Future initiative, which has been running since 2011 and will continue through 2021 “all without raising the income tax or property tax rates in our country,” promised a Sept. 15 Baltimore County media release.

Additional improvements beyond mere physiognomy and climate control will bolster Pikesville High’s cachet, already regularly recognized as it is by The Washington Post as one of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” (based on superlative student proficiency in Advanced Placement work and high levels of student  participation in general).

These additions include ADA-compliant elevators for students with disabilities and/or injuries, security cameras that will provide for a safer campus environment, as well as the  establishment and upgrading of state-of-the-art facilities such as on-site television production studios and the Interactive Media Production program that grants students opportunities to engage in advanced multimedia educational endeavors.

“We’re now pretty much on par with any other top school, technology-wise,” Carney said before referring to the fact that Pikesville High has become one of only three Lighthouse schools in the county, meaning every one of the 850 students enrolled receive their own HP Elitebook Revolve 810 G2 tablet PC.

“We’re proud of Pikesville High’s being one of three Lighthouse High Schools,” Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — whose brother graduated from the school long ago enough to make him laugh at the memory of it — told the JT.

During his own portion of the ceremony onstage, Kamenetz expanded on the notion that the renovations were about modernization.

Leaps made in the technological accessibility will allow students to better “learn the language spoken in the digital age,” Kamenetz continued.

“Investing in the school is a sign of pride for the future of student success,” Kamenetz said, echoing Carney’s own confidence in his students  becoming the next leaders of the 21st century.

In Kamenetz’s estimation, such potential encourages the continued support of the community at large, making way for area denizens to rally around the school’s progress.

“Great schools lead to great neighborhoods,” Kamenetz  reminded audience members during his speech.

“When I look into the eyes of the students here today,” BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance said onstage, “I see hope not only for Pikesville High School, but for all of Baltimore County.”

“In a word,” Reid concluded during the ceremony’s introduction, “we’re ecstatic.”

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Wegmans Opens at Foundry Row

(David Stuck)

(David Stuck)

The opening of the much-anticipated Wegmans at Foundry Row on Reisterstown Road was officially realized on Sunday, Sept. 18. This year, Wegmans was ranked as the No. 1 supermarket in the nation, a favorite of consumers in the northeast region of the United States.

The new Owings Mills Wegmans offers a vast assortment of kosher goods, in addition to a labeling system designed to make finding kosher product simple and easy.

Bill Dell, Wegmans’ kosher category merchant, has been in charge of everything kosher at the store. He conservatively estimated that the store carries more than 8,000 separate kosher items but shared that it is more likely between 10,000 and 12,000.

In order to ensure that kosher goods are easy to locate, “kosher” has its own label throughout the store. All kosher food is denoted by a blue label that backs price listings, all labeled  as “kosher.” Kosher foods are grouped together to make these sections easily identifiable. Additionally, separately colored labels will denote foods that are kosher for Passover come spring time.

Wegmans Owings Mills Tour

As the store worked on its kosher offerings, a call to the  Owings Mills JCC put Wegmans into contact with Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation.

“For me as a rabbi, it is a very exciting thing, and I am grateful that [Wegmans] gave me the opportunity to have some input into the design,” he said. “I think it is a wonderful addition to Owings Mills, to allow the people in this area to shop at a place that really contains all of the food that meets their needs. Those people who keep kosher can easily come in and buy their fresh fruits and vegetables and an array of kosher products. And even better are the kosher labels that they put around the store that make it much easier to realize where kosher foods are.”

“We want to know what the community is looking for and simplify finding it for them,” Dell said. He personally contacts kosher companies to ensure that the store is well stocked on their products. For example, Dell made certain to contact Rosendorff’s Artisan Bakery for its challah.

Wegmans’ “Kosher Entertaining” guide for 2016-17 lists an array of options available to the kosher customer, ranging from prepared meals such as brisket and turkey to more traditional kugel offered at its kosher deli to baked goods. The guide also has a section dedicated to holiday and Shabbat meals, including selections such as gefilte fish, latkes, blintzes, homemade apple cobbler and babka.

The store employs 475 employees, 425 of whom are from the local community.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com