The Jewish ‘Jersey Boys’ Writers of the Baltimore-bound smash hit talk about the musical’s Jewish-Italian connection

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If there’s one thing that our Italian cousins and we Jews share, it’s a needling sense of conscience. We’re each compelled by our own personal and shrill Jiminy Cricket forever prodding us to spill the beans. About ourselves, about our worldview, our foibles, what we wish we were and, inevitably, what we wish were not.

Whereas the prototypical Italian Catholic finds reprieve through private congress with an unseen priest, we Jews tend to accomplish the same via public confessionals … by way of making movies, television shows and, often, Broadway spectacles.

Which is why it should be of little surprise that two good Jewish boys from the hoighty-toighty Upper West Side of Manhattan would end up the chosen ones anointed to tell what has become one of the most salient representations of the Italian-American’s 20th-century experience, working-class Jersey-style.

“Aside from possibly speaking another language or believing that Jesus is the savior, do I feel something in common with the Italians? Of course I do,” said the first of the writers in question, Rick Elice.

Along with his sometimes writing partner Marshall Brickman, Elice penned the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” which won multiple Tony Awards when it first premiered in 2005 and which will be playing for the second time since its initial run in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2.

“Jersey Boys,” adapted into a film (also written by Elice and Brickman) helmed by actor-cum-director Clint Eastwood in 2014, tells the unabashedly warts-and-all, rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who found international success with such chart toppers as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

Along with being “intensely family-oriented,” Elice suggested that what Brickman and he discovered in common with their background and those of the Four Seasons — four Italian toughs, some of whom served jail time before they were 30 — is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“There’s the possibility in all of our backgrounds to have felt marginalized or disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks,” said Elice.

Even in the “great bastion of Judaism” that was New York City during the time he was growing up, Elice encountered anti-Semitism, something he still sees as prevalent today and that, he worries, may in fact be on the rise.

This shared, profoundly palpable sense of being “othered” made it easier for Brickman and Elice “to understand  another demographic’s sense of isolation.”

While Elice, 59, aligns himself with Conservative Judaism — in his teens he considered becoming a cantor and in fact heard the music of the Four Seasons for the first time at a Jewish summer camp — Brickman, 73,  refers to himself as “culturally Jewish.” A self-professing “red diaper baby” raised in what he calls a socialist home environment by his mother and union-organizer father, Brickman’s Jewish identity was one of “pride for our history” more than religious conviction.

His bar mitzvah, therefore, was “more an excuse to have a little bit of a coming-of-age ceremony” held in a hall his parents rented and to which were invited a few friends and relatives who watched as the young Brickman, in lieu of reading from the Torah, gave a short speech whose content he can’t today recall but was likely “something about peace in the world.”

Brickman asserted Elice’s and his dissimilar religious ethos “doesn’t preclude our being very close friends.”
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The duo first met in the mid-’90s, courtesy a series  of auspicious circumstances revolving around mutual friends who included filmmaker Stanley Donen, writer Peter Stone and actor Roger Rees, Elice’s longtime domestic partner and husband-to-be who passed away in 2015.

It was some point around 2002 that Elice, working in  advertising and music promotion, received a call from an associate who had secured the rights to the Four Seasons’ catalogue. Elice thought it would be a wonderful idea: he loved Vivaldi.

“No,” the aspiring producer clarified. “Not that Four Seasons. The singer-songwriters behind ‘Rag Doll’ and other favorites.”

“Oh,” Elice countered. “Why?”

“To produce a musical based around the quartet’s songs. You know,” the fellow on the other end proceeded, “like the ABBA-based Broadway show ‘Mama Mia!’ that just came out to rave reviews and huge ticket sales.”

Elice balked at the concept. For one thing, he had no interest in writing a musical like “Mama Mia!” Someone else had already done that … and it was called “Mama Mia!”

There was also the problem that Elice had never written  a Broadway-bound musical. When the producer metaphorically and perhaps literally got down on his hands and knees to ask if Elice would at least  have lunch with principal songwriters Valli and Bob Gaudio, Elice asked, “Can I bring a friend?”

Brickman and Elice had been lackadaisically kicking around the notion of working together on a project, but they had been considering something along the lines of a film. Elice nevertheless rang his comrade in arms up and announced they were being tapped to  potentially write a musical about the Four Seasons.

Brickman’s immediate  response: “Why?”

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

Besides, Brickman reminded his friend, “I don’t know how to write a musical.” Elice conceded neither did he, but, “We’ll only be wasting our own time, they’re not gonna pay us anything, and if we screw it up, we screw it up. Maybe it’ll be fun.”

And, as Elice recalled, “That’s all it took.”

The fateful lunch with Valli and Gaudio would be a revelatory one. Brickman and Elice marveled at the many songs they hadn’t known were originally by the Four Seasons (and, it should be added, did lead to the selling of 175 million records). They also learned the unheralded story of the musical group that was so fascinating to the two that they couldn’t help but lean forward and ask why these astounding tales hadn’t been made public before.

It seems that while the Four Seasons had their fair share of hits and notoriety, as individuals they didn’t get many write-ups due to the mainstream press at the time’s zeroing in on contemporaries such as The Beatles and the bands of the British Invasion that, frankly, made for more popular headlines.

Of course, there was also a certain self-generated circumspection in talking with the press due to the Four Seasons’ checkered background. It was a different time back then, Valli and Gaudio reminded Brickman and Elice. That was back when brushes with the law tarnished one’s public image and career.

“So this true story turned out to not only be good, but untold,” Elice recalled. “And that’s really a mother lode for a writer. Marshall and I looked at each other and we knew. It was a eureka moment.”

Next came the unforgiving arctic glare of the blank page for two men who had never before done what they were about to do.

Though they were admittedly inexperienced at this particular form of artwork, they had one obvious ace in the hole: Brickman’s well-seasoned background in film, television and musical performance.
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“Marshall would hate me saying this, but he was one of the ‘bold face names’ of the people I most aspired to be,” said Elice, audibly swooning on the other end of the phone about the “pleasure of meeting Marshall, someone who is like an icon,” the first time on what would be “a big day for me.”

Brickman “was and is a part of the cognoscenti, especially when one is an over-privileged, overeducated, Jewish, liberal, left-leaning New Yorker who wants to think of himself as a potential person of letters,” Elice said.

“Marshall is like a lion of the culture, and I’m just a kid who got lucky.”

Brickman would humbly disagree with Elice’s sentiment that “there is absolutely no equality in our stature at all,” reciprocating the seemingly lavish praise.

“He may say something different because Rick’s very generous in his evaluation of our relationship,” Brickman said, “but I never thought of him as a protégé. I thought really early on after meeting and working with him that he was a great, undiscovered talent. So smart, so bright, so funny, so knowledgeable, and he knew so much more about the machine and process of Broadway than I.”

The almost neurotically modest, if you will, Brickman sees himself as less a lion and more someone whose career was “all about making sure I never fell on my face.”

We had a great time and ended up writing ‘Jersey Boys’ very quickly. — Rick Elice

To better understand Elice’s pseudo-fanboyistic gushing, it’s necessary to realize Brickman’s career has been as culturally impactful as impressively protean; if anything, it’s been one of a continual fall upward, with such steps along the way as: playing on the ubiquitous version of “Dueling Banjos” incorporated into the 1972 film “Deliverance,” producing “The Dick Cavett Show,” working as head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” co-writing the pilot to “The Muppet Show” with Jim Henson and gigging with John and Michelle Phillips in their group the New Journeymen before Brickman “fled as though from a burning building” a year later with the Phillipses soon creating a subsequent project, the Mamas & the Papas.
And, of course, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary film is aware, there’s ’60s folk-music-playing Brickman’s fortuitous sharing of management with an upstart comedian who at first baffled New York coffee shop audiences before honing his skills to become the Woody Allen we (think) we know of today, leading to a  series of collaborations between Brickman and Allen not limited to the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner for 1977 and one of the most influential films of modern cinema, “Annie Hall.”

As he learned while working with Allen, Brickman found that “in every collaboration, there must be one side that is the ‘dominant force’ so that what comes out the other side has a semblance of elegance and consistency.” Here, the “lion of culture” confessed then that, yes, “there probably were times when Rick did defer to me.”

But it was always a healthy working relationship, the pair agree, with Elice stating that, “We had a great time and ended up writing “Jersey Boys” very quickly.”

The occasional disagreement would be easily salved by the underlining fact that, to Brickman, “when you have two people in a good working relationship who are sufficiently intelligent, the best idea usually wins.”

How this syllogism played out over the course of the writing could be illustrated by the distinct difference between Elice and Brickman in the employment of soi-disant sentimentality.

“Rick is by definition a much warmer and more open person than I, generally,” Brickman said. “And I tend to run screaming from sentimentality.”

Elice would bring to the table “a kind of warmth and emotion to the story of ‘Jersey Boys’ that I think really deepened it enormously and helped it to reach an audience on a different level than I would have been able to manage myself,” Brickman said.

Brickman’s incisive comedy-writing skills came in handy to “undercut” Elice’s more sympathetic moments to keep the overall framework relatively lambent and, ultimately, veiled with a humanistic humor that years of working with a master such as Allen helped manifest.

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

There was a scene early on in the writing process in which the characters of Valli and Gaudio were talking about going back out on the road again after a lacuna in their career. Valli confides in Gaudio that he’s nervous people might not like him anymore. In this earlier draft, Gaudio leans into Valli and encouragingly supports his fraternal friend, “This is your time.”

“Nuh-uh,” thought Brickman, who changed Gaudio’s line to an equally brotherly jibe more accurately depicting the true-to-life, complicated relationship of both the boys individually and fellow members of their social niche  generally: “Who says they ever liked you?”

As writers and artists themselves, Elice and Brickman know that where any story gets  interesting is in the conflict.  Including such counterpoint and, again, a “warts-and-all” version of the Four Seasons story was an essential component to the writers’ process.

There’s the possibility in all of our  backgrounds to have felt marginalized or  disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks.
— Rick Elice

When telling the life story of someone else (four someone else’s, at that), it can be a real tightrope walk. Contractually, Valli and Gaudio were given carte blanche to pull the plug if they didn’t like what they read or saw. Brickman revealed that early on in the creative process, there was a scene dealing with a woman who had had an affair with more than one of the quartet members.

“Oh, no,” Brickman said Valli pronounced, effectively knocking the scene onto the cutting room floor. “You can’t put that up on stage.”

“The impulse to include the warts in the story came from the fact that the warts is what made the story good,” Elice said. “As Marshall’s fond of putting it, you have these movie posters that say, ‘Based on a true story.’ With ‘Jersey Boys,’ we were able to say, ‘Based on a good story.’”

It’s this quality of the art beyond anything else that attracts Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in which the Hippodrome is housed, to the story and is why he’s proud to be bringing “Jersey Boys” to Baltimore.

“I think ‘Jersey Boys’ hit home on so many levels for me,” Legler said, fondly recalling his first seeing the show during its premiere run.

Legler is equally excited by the galvanizing of what he says is a relatively new core audience.

“So often, you have these shows specifically geared toward women,” Legler said. “This is the kind of show you could take a guy to who never has been to Broadway, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, that was a great show, and I could do that again!’”

Legler sees the match of “Jersey Boys” and Baltimore to be “perfect. There’s a lot of similarities between the people of that time and today in a drive to be better than you ever thought you could be.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that in the future, you’ll see ‘Jersey Boys’ back on Broadway,” Legler said, referring to the Broadway production’s closing in January 2017. “It’s such a compelling story, and you can’t help but feel fantastic after  seeing it.”

‘Jersey Boys’ plays at the  Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St.,  Baltimore, from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday,  Oct. 2. For more information and tickets, visit bit.ly/2ciRt66.

To read more about Elice’s and  Brickman’s work with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, visit bit.ly/2craeHI.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Baltimoreans Protest, Rally for Trump on Monday

Owen Silverman Andrews believes Donald Trump is regarded as anti-Semitic. (Justin Silberman)

Owen Silverman Andrews believes Donald Trump is regarded as anti-Semitic. (Justin Silberman)

No matter where Donald Trump visits as the Nov. 8 presidential election draws near, appearances from the polarizing Republican nominee always seem to stir up fervent  debate for his advocates and opponents.

That trend held true when Trump visited the Baltimore Convention Center on Monday afternoon to address the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States. In his address to military officers from around the country, Trump slammed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for describing his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” telling the audience that the remark “disqualifies her from public service.”

Hours earlier, dozens of Trump advocates at a nearby rally described the 70-year-old business mogul-turned-politician as the candidate who could best unite the country.

Phil Kaplan, a 37-year-old Jewish lawyer and Towson resident, said Trump would make good on his promise to tighten national security and strengthen protection at the borders.

“There is absolutely no constitutional right to come to America,” Kaplan said, “and if we have to shut down immigration in certain ways for our protection, we may have to. I say that as a lawyer, and we need to do what we need to do for our basic, physical safety.”

Trump protestors, on the other hand, say he is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief in large part because of his lack of experience and short-fused temperament.

Sean Yoes, a journalist and West Baltimore native, said Trump supporters — the majority white with a mix of other races and ethnicities — were not representative of the country as a whole. Also, he does not think Trump’s hard-charging, aggressive rhetoric will solve the socioeconomic, racial and violence issues that persist in major cities with large African-American populations such as Baltimore.

“I simply believe that we have enough issues and troubles in our city without having Trump here stirring up hatred,” Yoes said. “Honestly, after what we’ve been through as a city over the last two years, he wants to make our city a backdrop for his hatred.”

It was Trump’s first appearance in Baltimore since earning the GOP nomination in late July. Addressing the National Guard officers as national  security has become one of the focal points of the presidential race, Trump spoke about beefing up the entire military to help squash threats of terrorism.

A Trump supporter (left) and a Trump protestor argue near the Baltimore Convention Center, where Trump spoke Monday. (Justin Silberman)

A Trump supporter (left) and a Trump protestor argue near the Baltimore Convention Center, where Trump spoke Monday. (Justin Silberman)

“We will empower our generals to do the job they were hired to do, and that begins with defeating and destroying ISIS,” Trump said. “Instead of endless wars, we want a real plan for victory. We will abandon the policy of reckless regime change favored by my opponent, and we will instead work with our allies to advance the core national security interests of the United States.”

Nina Therese Kasniunas, a political science professor at Goucher College, said the visit from Trump had a lot more to do with him portraying a certain image than his message.

“As he comes to cities like Baltimore, he’s trying to show he is expanding his reach to minorities, not just visiting cities populated mostly by working white middle-class men,” Kasniunas said. “It was very convenient for him to visit with him opening his new hotel in Washington, D.C., earlier in the day and then visiting Asheville, North Carolina later in the day.”

More than 100 people stood side-by-side outside the Transamerica Building at 100 E. Pratt St. to welcome Trump. Organizers sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” chanted “U.S.A. U.S.A.,” waved American Flags and encouraged drivers to honk their horns in support of Trump.

Elam Stoltzfus, 66, a real estate agent from Lancaster, Pa., sold Trump hats, T-Shirts and buttons at a roadside table. He said he is the third-largest  independent contributor to the Trump campaign, having spent more than $10,000 while following Trump to 13 different states across the country. All the money he generates through the sales go directly to the Trump campaign.

“He can balance a checkbook,” Stoltzfus said. “He does it every 30 days. The folks in Washington, D.C., don’t have a clue, so I just want to support someone who is going to put Americans first before anyone else.”

On the other side of the street, meanwhile, the Peoples Power Assembly organized a raucous demonstration to denounce Trump, whose adversaries shouted, “Black lives matter,” “Dump Trump” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”

Owen Silverman Andrews, a 29-year-old member of the Jewish community who teaches English as a second language, said he has a number of reservations with Trump. For one, Andrews feels Trump has a troubling image that is widely regarded as anti-Semitic, citing the example of Trump stereotyping Jewish business people.

“I just want to call on people here in the Jewish community in Baltimore and elsewhere to get involved,” Andrews said. “This is not someone else’s problem — this is our problem. We shouldn’t be the people of ‘never again’ for us, but we should be the people of ‘never again’ for anyone.”

In heavily Democratic Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, the state has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan won his second term in 1988. A poll conducted last week by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks concluded that Trump was trailing Clinton by 29 points in the Old Line State.

Even with Trump making a last-ditch effort to appeal to Maryland voters, Kasniunas isn’t convinced it will be enough when the election rolls around.

“I still don’t think Trump will generate much support from voters in Maryland despite the visit,” Kasniunas said. “For him, it’s all about getting as much support from outside his core constituents as possible and rallying independent voters to come out to the polls for him.”

Updated 9/14/16 from an earlier 9/12/16 post.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

5 Feel-Good Stories from Israel That Will Echo into the Jewish New Year

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome watch lions at the presidential compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome watch lions at the presidential compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Jewish state has nearly made it through another Jewish year and, as always, there was plenty to kvetch about in 5776.

But Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time to take stock and celebrate.

Before the shofar blowing begins, here are five Israeli stories from the past year worth trumpeting. Expect them to echo into 5777 and beyond.

1. The Olympics Gave Israelis Reason to Hope

For Israel, the margin between Olympic disappointment and glory can be a single medal. The country came up empty in 2012, but two Israeli judokas grappled and leg-swept their way to bronze at the Rio games in August.

Their fellow citizens rejoiced: Waving flags and singing patriotic songs, hundreds thronged Ben Gurion Airport to give Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson a hero’s welcome. The athletes were showered with flowers and hugs, and were immortalized by countless selfies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later met with the judo team.

The Olympics have special meaning in Israel, where everyone remembers the 1972 Munich massacre of 11 athletes and coaches by Palestinian  terrorists. The Rio games kicked off with Lebanese athletes  refusing to share a bus to the opening ceremony with the  Israeli delegation. And days before Sasson won his medal, a defeated Egyptian adversary pointedly refused to shake his hand. Israelis booed along with the crowd at the stadium.

Israel’s new medals brought the country’s total to nine since 1952.

Hoped-for windsurfing and rhythmic gymnastics successes proved elusive — and, as usual, some Israelis bemoaned inadequate national investment in the Olympics.

Yet, there were reasons to be buoyant. Seven Israelis made it to the finals in Rio, and the country competed in 17 sports, up from 10 in London, including three newer ones: golf, triathlon and mountain biking. Israel Olympic Committee CEO Gili Lustig has promised to do “some thinking” about improving Israel’s showing at Tokyo in 2020.

2. Israel Made New Friends in a Hostile World

As the Olympics reminded  Israelis, their country is unlikely to win any international popularity contests. But in the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government managed to find some new friends and potential allies.

Israel and Turkey officially reconciled recently following a six-year falling-out over the Mavi Marmara affair. While the deal, signed in June, may not make the countries BFFs again, it should help them  cooperate amid the chaos of the Middle East. Exporting  Israel’s natural gas bounty and rebuilding the Gaza Strip are potential joint projects.

Meanwhile, the shared threats of Islamic extremism and Iran have brought Israel closer to the region’s Sunni Muslim states, even if those states are loath to admit it. Weeks after a telling handshake with Israel’s Foreign Ministry  director-general, Dore Gold, Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki publicly led a Saudi delegation to Jerusalem. And Gold flew to Cairo to  reopen the Israeli Embassy there — four years after protesters stormed the building and forced its closure.

In an update of former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s Africa policy, Netanyahu toured the continent for four days in July. Offering Israeli high-tech and security know-how and seeking diplomatic support, he was received in country after country like the leader of a world power.

Looking east, Gold has said Israel is building new relations with Asia, and Chinese investment in Israeli companies and venture capital funds has reached record highs. Spurred by the civil war in Syria,  Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin are in regular contact, and the Russian president may be plotting an Israeli-Palestinian peace push of his own. Who isn’t?

3. Haredi Orthodox Men in Israel Rolled Up their Sleeves

A majority of Haredi Orthodox men in Israel have jobs. That may not seem worth blowing the shofar about, but it’s a first. Since officials started keeping track, most of the  demographic has been out of work.

In 2015, the workforce participation rate for Haredi men was 52 percent, part of a 12-year rise since the figure was 36 percent in 2003, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics  reported in February. Haredi men in Israel have long preferred Torah study to work or army service, living off yeshiva stipends, state benefits and perhaps their wives’ salaries.

Haredi women are even better represented in the workforce at a rate of 73 percent, according to the government — more or less the same as among secular Israeli women. Israel’s overall workforce  participation rate is 80 percent.

Four of the 21 government ministers are women.

Many observers see a larger trend of Haredi society opening up to the outside world due in part to public and private investment — despite successful Haredi reversal of political reforms aimed at integrating the community. Today, an estimated 11,000 Haredi Jews are studying at  institutes of higher education, 5,000 are in the army and most are said to have internet access.

On a seemingly related note, Haredi birth rates have fallen. A surge in the relative size of Haredi preschool enrollment during the first decade of the millennium provoked much handwringing about the growing economic and social burden. But the trend has quietly  reversed, with Haredi schools accounting for less than 23 percent of preschoolers in 2015, down from more than 25 percent in 2008, according to the Taub Center for Policy Studies in Israel.

The share of preschoolers in Arab-Israeli schools has fallen even further. But the government has some work to do to reach its goal of putting more Arab women to work.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joins a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the president's residence in Jerusalem in July. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joins a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the president’s residence in Jerusalem in July. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

4. More Women than Ever were Making  Israel’s Laws

The 28 women elected to  Israel’s parliament in 2015 set a record. Since then, political reshuffling has seen the number move a little higher.

When Avigdor Liberman became defense minister in June, his Knesset seat went to Yulia Malinovsky, a member of his hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party — sending the number of female lawmakers to 33. That’s right, more than a quarter of the 120 legislative seats are now occupied by women.

These lawmakers span the political spectrum. From left to right, there is the anti-Zionist firebrand Haneen Zoabi of the Arab Joint List; peacenik  Zehava Galon, the chairwoman of Meretz, and self-described “religious right-winger” Tzipi Hotovely of the ruling Likud. Notably absent are any haredi Orthodox women, whose parties prohibit them from running.

Four of the 21 government ministers are also women: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home; Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel, both of Likud, and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver of  Yisrael Beiteinu.

Despite the ideological  diversity, the women lawmakers sometimes come together to tackle issues related to women, including in the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Given lawmakers’ personal experience, sexual harassment may well be on the agenda when the Knesset starts its winter session in October.

5. The Government Backed Adding Sunday to The  Israeli Weekend

It’s not often that something happens with the potential to redefine how an entire country understands the relationship between time and space.

But that something happened in Israel in June, when ministers approved a bill that would give Israelis six three-day weekends a year starting in 2017 as a step toward making Sunday a day off. The legislation is to be reworked in committee before going to the full Knesset for voting.

Israeli weekends now run from Friday afternoon through Saturday to accommodate the Jewish Sabbath and Muslim Friday prayers. Many Israelis don’t work on Friday. But for religiously observant Jews, Shabbat rules prevent them from driving or visiting most entertainment venues from Friday night until Saturday night, allowing precious little time for fun.

Economists are divided on the merits of adding Sunday to the weekend. Supporters argue the plan would boost the economy by syncing Israel with the rest of the world and promoting consumption by a wider swath of Israeli society. Opponents worry it would reduce productivity, with observant Jews and Muslims getting less done on Fridays, and everyone potentially struggling through longer days to compensate for the long weekend.

But c’mon: Sunday Funday!

Rezoning Means Homes Coming To Woodholme

Maps created using Baltimore County’s My Neighborhood interactive map highlight areas in which zoning changes could lead to new development. (Zoning maps: baltimorecountymd.gov)

Maps created using Baltimore County’s My Neighborhood interactive map highlight areas in which zoning changes could lead to new development. (Zoning maps: baltimorecountymd.gov)

The Baltimore County Council on Aug. 30 approved a rezoning request that will pave the way for homes to be built on a piece of vacant land near the Woodholme Country Club.

On another contentious zoning issue, the matter of the Hidden Waters property in Pikesville, the council blocked a developer’s request to up-zone the land for high-density housing.

The decisions were part of the council’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) that occurs every four years and allows property owners, businesses and community  organizations to petition the seven-member council to  request zoning changes on specific properties.

Council chair Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who represents District 2, said she hopes her constituents understand she did what she felt was best for the community as a whole.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the outcomes, and I believe in all of my decisions,” Almond said. “Those decisions were made with thoughtful care, and I made them with the thought of my community, my district and Baltimore County in mind. They’re tough decisions, no doubt.”

The council voted 7-0 to  approve the rezoning of a 40.94-acre parcel along Mount Wilson Lane and Iron Horse Lane that serves as the final piece of the puzzle for Woodholme to build 153 townhomes. Under the original proposal, Woodholme had sought to build 225 townhomes on the plot, reducing the number of units in the approved legislation by about 35 percent.

Still, Woodholme spokesman David Nevins, CEO of Towson-based public relations firm Nevins & Associates, said Woodholme officials were thrilled a compromise was reached that benefits all sides.

“We’re thrilled with the outcome,” said Nevins, a Woodholme member. “We think that it was a win for all parties. All we want is to do right by what’s best for the community and what’s best for the club, and I think this decision accomplishes just that.”

Now that the council has authorized the rezoning, Nevins said Woodholme is in the process of marketing the property to a developer who will respect both the club’s and community’s interest.

He added that there is currently no timetable for when Woodholme plans to hire a developer and break ground on the land.

The council passed the  rezoning after Woodholme and neighboring communities formed a covenant on a number of key issues.

At first, some of the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods opposed because they felt the area — specifically Mount Wilson Lane — wasn’t equipped to handle large-scale construction. Less than a week before the vote, Almond and representatives from Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Woodholme Reserve, Pikesville Farms, North Oaks and Cobblestone sat down to hammer out their differences.

As part of the agreement, there are a number of restrictions and requirements Woodholme must follow. For one, the minimum width of the townhomes must be 22 feet, exceeding the Baltimore County mandate of 20 feet. In addition, the agreement requires the use of masonry and other quality materials for the townhouses, open space on the  corner of Mount Wilson and  Division Lane, notation of a  historic burial ground off Division Lane and a substantial  contribution to the Woodholme Elementary School PTA.

Critics of the rezoning said they wanted to see more  environmental protections for wildlife and open-space requirements for developments in the surrounding areas.

Sid Bravmann, a resident at the Villages of Woodholme, a community for residents 55 years and older, said those were two of the biggest reasons he was disappointed with the council’s decision.

“I just don’t think this is what’s best for the area at this time right now,” Bravmann said. “How is all the additional incoming traffic into Mount Wilson Lane when there isn’t enough road space to accommodate all the traffic that there is right now? What about all the animals in the area that are going to be forced from that land now?”

In another case that stirred community debate, the council denied an application from the Bozzuto Group, a Greenbelt, Md.-based real estate and development firm, to up-zone at Hidden Waters. The Bozzuto Group requested the DR 3.5 zoning, which would allow three-and-a-half homes per acre, and hoped to build 50 units on 25 unprotected acres of land, but the council ultimately decided that was not ideal for the area and went with its own recommendation of keeping the current zoning DR 1, which allows one home per acre to be built.

Neighbors of the property on Old Court Road were pushing for it to be downzoned to RC 8, which is intended to encourage agricultural use and allows single-family dwellings, farms and limited-acre wholesale flower farms, among other amenities.

Micha Carton, vice president of the Old Court-Greenspring Improvement Association, said she was satisfied with the decision the council came to after meeting with Almond repeatedly in the last few months.

“We are grateful that zoning has remained at DR 1 on the Hidden Waters property,” Carton said. “We would have preferred downzoning to RC 8, obviously, but at least we are not anticipating intense development on this property at this time.”

While Almond met with Bozzuto Group officials toward the end of the zoning process, she said she had already decided to go with her own recommendation of DR 1, which allows one home per acre to be built. She doesn’t know if the Bozzuto Group plans to regroup and come up with another plan to build on the land.

Bozzuto officials did not  respond to requests seeking comment.

“It was a brutal process,” Almond said of CZMP. “I visited every single site, because I am a visual person and I need to be there to see everything. It takes a lot out of you, and I think maybe for me, it’s a little harder to get over and move on because I take it so seriously. I know that I have affected  people’s lives.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Classroom Conundrum County schools wrestle with air conditioning, calendar

(©iStockphoto.com/subjob)

(©iStockphoto.com/subjob)

The new school year brings new teachers, old friends and for some kids and parents a countdown to the next summer break.

But for Baltimore County students and parents, a number of lingering issues resurfaced right at the  outset of the 2016-17 school year.

High-heat weekdays forced county schools without air conditioning to close twice in the first week of class, and the school calendar has been a hot topic as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced an executive order for Maryland schools to open after Labor Day beginning next year. Baltimore County Public Schools also discussed the subject of Muslim holidays, ultimately deciding to remain open on holy days Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

During two of the first five school days alone in Baltimore County, sweltering temperatures exceeding well over 90 degrees forced 37 of 173 schools to close.

The Baltimore County Board of Education, whose Towson offices are pictured, must adjust its calendar to comply with an executive order from Gov. Hogan.

The Baltimore County Board of Education, whose Towson offices are pictured, must adjust its calendar to comply with an executive order from Gov. Hogan.

“I am glad that they closed schools, because it is absolutely ridiculously hot,” said Lori Wheat, a local substitute teacher and the parent of an elementary schooler who attends one of the 37 schools. “I know what it’s like from working in the classrooms. Of course, it is not fair that they close these schools but leave the rest of the county open. But as a parent, I am happy that my child is home and safe.”

While he didn’t draw a connection between the two issues, Hogan issued an executive order to push back the start of the school year to after Labor Day starting in 2017, citing the best interests of the state.

“Starting Maryland public schools after Labor Day is not just a family issue — it’s an economic and public safety issue that draws clear, strong, bipartisan support among an overwhelming majority of Marylanders,” Hogan said. “Comptroller [Peter] Franchot and I believe, and the people of Maryland strongly agree, that this executive order puts the best interests of Marylanders first, especially the well-being of our students. This action is long overdue, and it is simply the right thing to do.”

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, said he specifically took issue with how Hogan proceeded to institute the edict without seeking advice from any outside counsel.

I think a lot needs to be discussed about what they are planning. I have an issue with it, because they might take away from our breaks if we have too many snow days, too. Spring and winter breaks are the only time that teachers can take a vacation during the school year, and if that is going to be taken away as a result, that’s a big issue.” — A Baltimore County teacher who wished to remain anonymous

 

This is not the first time Kamenetz has squared off with state officials on school issues. In the fall of 2015, a contentious debate played out between Kamenetz and Franchot, with the comptroller pushing for window air conditioning units in county schools. The county executive refused, citing expense and electrical infrastructure concerns. Shortly after the debate played out, Kamenetz announced a plan to accelerate school renovations.schoolcover_2

“I think this is a worthy discussion, but it should involve our education experts and the General Assembly,” Kamenetz said in a statement. “There seems to be a troubling pattern where Gov. Hogan takes a ‘my-way-or-the-highway approach’ with a lot of issues.”

Mychael Dickerson, chief communications officers of Baltimore County Public Schools, said his district would comply with the executive order and adjust if  the Hogan administration calls for any additional changes.

Calendars are submitted for approval in late October or early November, but the need to resolve scheduling conflicts is paramount. Because the executive order signed by Hogan stipulates that public schools must start after Labor Day and complete 180 days by June 15, it leaves school systems with less control over their own schedules.

“The new mandated start and end dates require us to go back to our Stakeholder Calendar Committee and the [Baltimore County] Board of Education to consider all options to identify ways to meet the  required instructional time and days  for school systems,” Dickerson said in  an email.

schoolcover_3A teacher employed at a county school without air conditioning who wished to remain anonymous said that the calendar change brings up the issue of spring and winter breaks.

“I think a lot needs to be discussed about what they are planning,” the teacher said. “I have an issue with it, because they might take away from our breaks if we have too many snow days, too. Spring and winter breaks are the only time that teachers can take a vacation during the school year, and if that is going to be taken away as a result, that’s a big issue.”

Shortening the length of vacations is not the issue that may cause planning  issues. To accommodate the new schedule, the school system might have to eliminate time for some religious holidays, Dickerson said.

In recent years, parents of Muslim students have lobbied school board members for closures to allow their children to recognize major Islamic holidays without falling behind on their studies.

A move to close schools in Baltimore County for Muslim holidays was voted down in a 6-5 decision last month. This year, though, Eid-al-Adha falls on Sept. 12, a day students are scheduled to have off for a teachers’ training day.

Casey Parson, Pikesville High School Parent Teacher Student Association president, wonders how Baltimore County will draw the line with what religious faiths’ holidays get time off in the school calendar. She thinks that since Jews and Christians get off for their holiest days, giving that same consideration to Muslims would accommodate a majority of the school population.

“There’s ways to accommodate the school schedule to recognize that,” Parson said. “We’re a very tiny portion of the world, yet the school system recognizes the Jewish faith.”

Still, moving the calendar may save the school system from closing on those hot August days and may be what’s best for their children’s well-being in the long run.

Jeff Jerome, chair of the Pikesville Schools Coalition, remembers his son’s first day of school at Pikesville High School, when Jeff first realized a lack of air conditioning was a serious problem.

“I picked him up at the end of the day and one of his papers was all smeared and I asked him what happened,” Jerome said. “It was all sweat.” Jerome’s son is now a junior in college.

While Pikesville High just underwent a $45 million facelift — which included air conditioning — Jerome still feels for those without air conditioning.

“We’re asking kids to concentrate, we’re asking kids to pay attention six to eight hours a day in a non-air-conditioned school,” he said. “That’s almost impossible.”

Jerome thinks the group of parents that lobbied for Pikesville High’s renovations may have helped the county speed up school construction by providing actual measurements of temperatures, some of which were provided by Jerome’s son when he was a student.

“I think they started to seriously approach the problem. Up until then it was anecdotal,” he said. “After they had already committed to renovate Pikesville, that helped bring the whole issue for all the schools to the forefront.”

But for those schools that aren’t as fortunate, some teachers will just have to deal with the heat until the cooler months hit.

“I know a few teachers have even taken pictures of the thermometers in their classrooms as proof,” the anonymous teacher said. “I sweat nonstop. I’ve gone through three water bottles today and still have a headache from being dehydrated. The cafeteria is sweltering. We can get through it — it is just hot and packed.”

In May, Kamenetz and Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance pledged $83 million in the county schools budget to accelerate school construction and renovation projects. The additions are part of a 10-year, $1.3 billion program called “Schools for Our Future,” which also includes renovations and construction projects to relieve overcrowding.

“Even if the state allowed it, which it does not, it would be fiscally irresponsible for the county to spend millions of dollars to put portable units in those schools for such a short period of time,” Kamenetz said in a statement. “Taxpayers would be outraged at such a shortsighted expenditure. And let’s not forget, that the county puts up [$2] for every dollar that the state spends on school construction.”

The county, however, remains in a committed process to install cooling systems in all its schools.

While significant progress has been made, county and state officials have debated over funding, scheduling and whether to use portable air conditioners as a stopgap measure at the schools still awaiting relief.

District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, is not in support of pushing back the start date to the school year because she said hot temperatures still persist well into September.

But Almond is satisfied with the fact that students will be able to learn in a more comfortable environment once air-conditioning units are put in at all the schools.

“I worry about the kids, because in this day in age, they are so used to living in air conditioning,” Almond said. “I think I’m looking at this from an older person’s point of you view, like, ‘Hey, I lived through it.’ I know that’s not the right way to look at it, so I am thrilled that [Kamenetz] has a plan. It’s not like we’re not doing anything about it, but I don’t see how we can go any faster.”

In Almond’s district alone — which covers parts Pikesville, Owings Mills, Reisterstown, Lutherville-Timonium and Ruxton — students at Bedford and Reisterstown elementary schools, parts of Franklin Middle School and parts of Franklin High School are all without air conditioning.

Under the plan, all but 13 schools are slated to have central air-conditioning systems by next fall. In addition, every school but three, Bedford, Colgate and Berkshire elementary schools, which are all being replaced, will have air conditioning by 2020.

“I understand how hot it is,” said Richard Train, the father of an 11th-grade student. “But the issue shouldn’t have gotten to this point. The heat index for outside does not reflect the heat and lack of airflow inside of these old schools.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Trump, Clinton Talk Tough on Iran Following Controversial Report

Hundreds of demonstrators in Los Angeles protest the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. (Peter Duke)

Hundreds of demonstrators in Los Angeles protest the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. (Peter Duke)

WASHINGTON — The Trump and Clinton campaigns issued tough-on-Iran statements in the wake of a report alleging that negotiators allowed Iran secret loopholes in the nuclear agreement.

The Institute for Science and International Affairs, a think tank founded by a former United Nations nuclear weapons inspector, David Albright, said in a report released this week that Iran complied with most of the sanctions relief for the nuclear rollback deal when it was implemented in January.

However, the report also said there were a number of exemptions, citing anonymous sources.

The Obama administration strongly denied the thrust of the report, saying the deal was being implemented according to the letter. Parties to the deal were Iran, the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia.

The campaign of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, pounced on Sept. 1, taking a shot at his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s first term helped set the stage for the deal.

“The deeply flawed nuclear deal Hillary Clinton secretly spearheaded with Iran looks worse and worse by the day,” said a statement by the campaign attributed to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now advising Trump.

“It’s now clear President Obama gave away the store to secure a weak agreement that is full of loopholes, never ultimately blocks Iran from nuclear weapons, emboldens our enemies and funds terrorism,” he said.

Republicans have strongly opposed the deal. A number of candidates during the GOP presidential primaries pledged to trash it, but Trump, while decrying it as a giveaway, has said he would first consult with his national security advisers should he be elected president.

Clinton, in subtle ways, has sought to differentiate herself from the deal’s outcome, praising the agreement while suggesting she would be more vigilant in keeping Iran on track.

The Clinton campaign did not address the report co-written by Albright directly but called for reauthorization of sanctions and sounded a tough note about how she would oversee its implementation.

“Hillary Clinton supports a clean reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act and believes Congress should get this done in short order when they return from recess,” said her spokesman, Jesse Lehrich. “And as president, she will also continue to enforce, and strengthen as necessary, sanctions on Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missile activity.”

The Obama administration says it does not need a reauthorization of sanctions first passed in the 1990s and enhanced over the years to force compliance but would not oppose a reauthorization. Many of the sanctions — but not all — have been waived as part of the deal.

Democrats in Congress favor a “clean” reauthorization that they say would allow any future president to quickly “snap back” sanctions, while Republicans want to add new provisions to address Iranian misbehavior not addressed by the deal, including backing for terrorism and activities in other countries.

Democrats and Clinton oppose the Republican proposals, saying they are stealth maneuvers to undercut the deal.

“She has always made clear that while the historic deal passed last year represents a crucial step forward toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we must proceed with a ‘distrust and verify’ approach,” Lehrich said of Clinton. “Maintaining the infrastructure to immediately snap back sanctions if Iran  violates the terms of the deal is essential. Congress should put partisanship aside and send the president a clean ISA reauthorization bill for his signature.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was “troubled” by Albright’s report.

“If the report is accurate, this unwarranted leniency sets a dangerous precedent concerning adherence to the agreement,” the pro-Israel lobby said in a statement. “No further concessions should be granted to Iran, and complete transparency related to the deal’s implementation must be provided.”

‘Welcome Home’ Now in Israel, former Baltimore-area residents are living their dream, thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh

TEL AVIV — At just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, their 10-hour ordeal of a flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off the El Al charter.

They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were in for next.

As they walked down the makeshift steps to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, they were met by a phalanx of photographers, each trying to capture the moment.

After posing for pictures — including a group shot of the 75 young men and women who will be joining the Israeli  Defense Forces (IDF) in three months  following a crash indoctrination course — they boarded buses and proceeded to a hangar set aside for the occasion.

Then it became even more surreal.

As the buses approached the hangar, the music picked up and the celebration began. Loved ones, friends and basically anyone who wanted to come out at 7 a.m. to greet people they felt an immediate kinship to were there to welcome them. To hug them. To wave signs with individual and family names. To wave Israeli flags.

These olim weren’t just anybody, you see.

'Welcome Home'
These boys, girls, men and women ranging in ages from 3-and-a-half weeks to 85 years old were telling them and the rest of the world, “This is where I want to be.”

“I am not used to being treated like a celebrity, but that is the way the ceremonies made you feel,” David Leichter, who brought his wife, Tzippy, and their five children from Baltimore, said via email less than a week since their arrival. “You felt like you were doing something incredible. But for us, this was something that we were dreaming of for a long time. So it was strange and at the same time  exhilarating to be treated like this.

“Our first week has been great! I find  it amazing how kind and sympathetic  Israelis can be once they learn that you’ve just made aliyah.”

They’re hardly alone among Baltimoreans.

Avidan and Ilana Milevsky also have moved their five children — three girls and two boys, ages 1 to 11 — to Eretz Yisrael, as have Menachem and Sara Lanner and their gang of five. Then there are those such as Jaqui Austen, Lily Ganse and Jacob Roshgadol, who’ll join the army once they get acclimated.

Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. that is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them stay.

— Doreet Freedman, vice president of partnership and development at Nefesh B’Nefesh

They’ve all taken the plunge thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the group that coordinates flights bringing hordes of like-minded Americans and a few Canadians to Israel twice a year.

What began as a startup out of a garage 14 years ago has evolved into an organization that provides invaluable service to those considering such a weighty decision. From the moment they inquire about making aliyah through the mounds of paperwork that have to be filled out prior to arrival and then the constant follow-up once they settle into their new home, NBN is there with advice, support and a sympathetic ear.

“I can’t image doing this without Nefesh B’Nefesh,” said Ilana Milevsky, a few days  before she and her family headed to New York, where the sendoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport included Israel’s new Consul General in New York Dani Dayan. “They give a tremendous amount of support.

“They help with the documentation and also give proactive, emotional support reassuring us. They’ve been helping us out with everything from schools for the kids to health insurance. They cover so much, and instead of needing a month or two to take care of it, they’re doing it over days and weeks.”

That’s why it’s been so successful, the Aug. 16 trip being NBN’s 55th charter flight since its 2002 origin, encompassing more than 50,000 oleh.

“We were trying to reinvent the failing mechanism of immigration,” explained Doreet Freedman, NBN’s vice president of partnership and development and one of five charter members. “When we started off, of the 1,500 to 2,000 a year who made aliyah, about 60 percent returned to America.

“Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. That is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them to stay,” he continued, noting that other sponsors include Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

But don’t try telling the 233 people being serenaded with love by some 1,800 adoring fans — among them Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — that they’re simply being used as good PR for the Jewish homeland.

We Feel This Is The Place All Jews Should Be. It’s The Best Place For Our Children. — Tzippy Leichter

No wonder so many of them, like the Leichters, truly believe the signs filling that hangar, the words Rivlin and others repeated like a mantra: They were coming “home.”

“It’s really been in my head for four years or so,” said University of Maryland, College Park graduate Roshgadol, 21, who hopes his degree in mechanical engineering will give him options with the IDF that enable him to avoid combat. “When  I wanted to go then, I was  already in Israel studying in the yeshiva in Jerusalem. What’s changed is now I go to the army coming in with a skill they want me to have. It’s a major incentive for them to take me.”

If nothing else, Roshgadol will be close to his older sisters, Ayelet and Liora, both of whom made aliyah a few years back. Not that he’ll get to see much of them right away, since the IDF immediately puts young men and women into a pre-training regimen on a kibbutz to prepare them for their induction.

“We’re part of [Tzofim] Garin Tzabar,” said Roshgadol, who indicated that the political climate in the U.S. had nothing to do with his decision to leave. “We go to different kibbutzim for three months before we go in the army.

“While I was over there over for the summer last year, I had an interview with one of the units. A long as I get security clearance, I can go into the unit. Garin Tzabar and Nefesh B’Nefesh take care of lot of bureaucracy needs. I just had to pick a date, go to the Israeli consulate and get a visa. They took care of all the arrangements.”

Doing it for yourself is one thing. Doing it for a family of seven is something else, which is why the Leichters originally backed out on their dream seven years ago.

“We went on pilot trip for 10 days to check out the communities and talk to people about what it would be like,” recalled David Leichter, a CPA whose business has evolved to the point he’s now confident he can make it work from both ends. “I went on some job interviews and  visited a half-dozen communities and Jewish day schools.

“When we came home I said, ‘This is not going to happen.’ The salaries were well below what I was looking for, and we didn’t find a suitable community. It changed about a year ago. Things fell into place, and we decided this is a good time.”

So Leichter, his wife, sons Binyamin, 13, Noam, 11, and Avi, 4, daughter Nava, 8, and  4-week-old baby boy Shalom are settling into their new home.

Also read, 50 Years Later, Israel Different but Still the Same.

“We are currently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh off of one of the main streets,” Lechter wrote. “We had no idea what the apartment looked like ahead of time or where it was located, but as it turns out, it is in the very best location that we could have hoped for.

“It’s right near the center of the city and very near the synagogues where we pray. The kids probably still feel as though they are on vacation, as they haven’t started school and haven’t had to ‘live’ here yet. So they’re in seventh heaven.”

In time they’ll understand why their parents made such a momentous decision.

“We feel this is the place all Jews should be,” said Tzippy Leichter, a teacher and speech therapist who met her husband when both were attending neighboring yeshivas in Manhattan. “It’s the best place for our children.

“There’s a connection. You really feel like you’re a part of the Jewish people when you’re there. You feel you’re where you’re supposed to be.”

Whatever their reason for coming, whether it’s to raise their family or serve in the army, they’re equally valued to Rivlin and the rest.

“For nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people have known exile,” a boisterous Rivlin told the new arrivals, which included 24 families, 78 children and representatives of 22 states. “For you, dear new olim, that exile that began then ends today.

“Welcome to Israel. Welcome to Zion. Welcome home.”

It remains be seen whether those making aliyah are truly home or just visiting for the time being.

But at least on this day for the Leichters, Milevskys and Lanners, along with Roshgadol, Austen and Ganse, their task is simple: Just live their lives.

jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

Gene Wilder ‘One of the Truly Great Talents of Our Time’

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gene Wilder, whose likeness became synonymous with the energetic and mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka, died on Monday in his Stamford, Conn., home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to a widely reported statement from Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. He was 83.

Beyond the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Wilder captured audiences with his leading roles in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” all of which he collaborated with fellow legendary Jewish actor and director Mel Brooks.

Brooks tweeted Monday afternoon saying: “Gene Wilder [was] one of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic, and he blessed me with his friendship.”

Alyson Bonavoglia, director of the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival and special projects at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, said Wilder had a unprecedented knack for conveying sadness through comedy. His role as the title character in the classic film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Bonavoglia said, was perhaps one of Wilder’s most defining character studies.

“He had a real talent for playing a childlike role while being an adult because he came through in a way that children and adults alike could relate to his work,” Bonavoglia said. “He made neurotic acting funny,  absurdly funny for that matter, because of how he conveyed himself.”

Ilya Tovbis, director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, said Wilder’s work with Brooks “grandly changed the complexion of American comedy and cinema.” With his corky look, subtle humor in everyday situations and wide range of roles, Wilder’s accomplishments are comparable to few others in his field.

“From a Jewish perspective, they integrated Jewish humor, values and cultures into mainstream American culture in a way that is only on par with someone like Woody Allen,” he added.

I’m going to tell you what religion is. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito. — Gene Wilder

“Young Frankenstein,” which won the pair an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, moved past the two-dimensional physical comedy that was prevalent at the time to something more complex and multilayered, Tovbis said.

“Wilder always had an outsider’s perspective,” he said, referencing the actor’s time at Black Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, where, by Wilder’s account, he was the only Jewish boy and was  bullied incessantly. “A lot of his comedy  [incorporates] that lack of ability to fit in.”

Asked about his personal favorite Wilder movie, Tovbis didn’t hesitate.

“’Young Frankenstein,’” he said. “What he did with that movie holds up today. Something like ‘Blazing Saddles,’ which I found laugh-out-loud funny at the time, hasn’t aged as well. I’ve seen ‘Young Frankenstein’ 10 or 15 times and continue get find great laughs from it.”

Gene Wilder starred with Cleavon Little in the 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles." (Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)

Gene Wilder starred with Cleavon Little in the 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles.” (Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)

Jerome Silberman, who took up the stage name Gene Wilder, was born on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wis., and was the son of Jeanne Baer and William J. Silberman, a Russian Jewish immigrant. He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Webb and his nephew.

Wilder was married four times, including to Jewish comedian Gilda Radner in 1984. Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989.

Following her death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and research, co-founding “Gilda’s Club,” a nonprofit organization providing support to those affected by cancer.

In 1991, he married Karen Webb, a speech therapist who survives him.

Wilder’s family kept his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s out of the public eye for much of his later life, but the statement from Walker-Pearlman revealed Wilder’s deeply personal reasoning behind the  decision, following his passing.

“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children who would smile or call out to him ‘There’s Willy Wonka’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight  to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said, as reported by Variety.

Abigail Pogrebin, who authored a book about prominent Jews discussing their Jewish heritage, interviewed Wilder about his religious views.

“I’m going to tell you what my religion is. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito,” Pogrebin wrote of the interview in Tablet magazine. “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful  to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”

Justin Silberman contributed to the report.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

What Would Heschel Say About Black Lives Matter?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

When the Movement for Black Lives published its platform last month, many Jews were shocked that in addition to its call for the end of systemic racism against African-Americans, the platform demanded an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Support for Israel made the United States complicit in the “genocide” against the Palestinians. Israel, the platform asserted, is “an apartheid state.”

With its harsh denunciation of Israel, the platform placed many American Jews who sympathize with Black Lives Matter in a quandary: If the movement is so hostile to Israel, must Jews choose between the Jewish state and Black Lives?

Jewish organizations have had their say, ranging from outright rejection to calls for continuing dialogue. We wondered, what would Abraham Joshua Heschel say?

Heschel, a Conservative rabbi who died in 1972, is perhaps most famous for his activism in the civil rights movement and the iconic photograph of him marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march of 1965.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said her father hated when people used words improperly, and he would have objected to the Black Lives Matter’s accusation that Israel is guilty of genocide.

“My father would have been appalled as he always was by lies, and he would have been appalled that the Black Lives Matter platform would seek to alienate and close the door on the closest ally the African-American community has,” she said. “I also think it is terribly self-destructive for the Black Lives Matter movement. He would have said that black lives matter even more than that political platform or the people who wrote that platform.”

Civil dialogue is the way to understand these complexities, according to Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. It was part of his goal on Aug. 14 when he delivered a sermon at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Md. In it, he highlighted the experience of marginalization that Jews and African-Americans have faced, referring to the incident at the Olympics in which the Lebanese team refused to allow the Israelis on its bus.

“So I am here to tell you, that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus,” he told his listeners, in an allusion to civil rights worker Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955.

Weinblatt’s father, Samuel, attended King’s March on Washington in 1963. The younger Weinblatt said Heschel was a role model to him because of his ability to combine compassion with and activism in his writings and teachings. Weinblatt, too, thinks Heschel would subscribe to the goals of Black Lives Matter but would call the movement out for its anti- Israel language.

“I think what Heschel would say is, ‘We need to work that much harder to make sure the voices of love are louder than [those of] hatred and divisiveness,’” Weinblatt said. “‘We shouldn’t stand on the sidelines and allow the anti- Israel pro-Palestinians to hijack this movement.’”

It was a combination of Heschel’s teaching and his social justice activism that touched Adas Israel Congregation Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Wohlberg, who studied with Heschel at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Wohlberg, who now lives in Atlanta, said there is no question that Heschel loved the Jewish state.

“I think his deepest of emotions and philosophic commitments would have been supporting the modern State of Israel whether he agreed with current political positions or not,” he said. “At the same time, we all know he was committed to human rights, which led to him speak out and act publicly.”

Wohlberg said Heschel would have attempted to communicate the importance of both of these passions in today’s world.

“I’m sure he would have been caught up with trying to reach, as he did with Dr. King, a level of public understanding and expression that would have spoken for both of those concerns,” he said.

Among Heschel’s writings was “Israel: An Echo of Eternity” in which he discussed the 1967 Six-Day War two years after Israel’s victory. Edward Kaplan, a professor of romance studies at Brandeis University and one of Heschel’s biographers, said after the war Heschel went to Israel to walk the streets “as if the Bible were being written again.”

“If you look at [“Israel: An Echo of Eternity”], you have this extremely passionate, spiritual attachment to Israel. He quotes at length from [dovish] Abba Eban, who was the Israeli representative to the U.N. during the war. Heschel would be oriented toward a peaceful solution.”

Kaplan noted that Heschel was “more subtle and more learned than most of us,” because of the historical experience he had of being born in Poland, educated in Germany and then fleeing the Holocaust by coming to the United States in 1940. Kaplan said that Heschel’s identification with blacks during the civil rights years came from the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe.

Today’s debate over the killing of unarmed black men would have raised “religiously urgent questions,” said Rabbi Shai Held, who teaches at the Mechon Hadar yeshiva in New York and has also written about Heschel.

“He was very wary of situations where some people had all the power and others were very vulnerable,” Held said. “Were Heschel alive today, he would insist that Jews ask the question about the moral and religious damage caused by subjugating another people,” referring to the Palestinians.

Held thinks Heschel would have had similar feelings about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he would not have regarded the occupation as “genocide,” he would have “insisted that the occupation has done great damage to Israel.”

“I don’t doubt that the Jewish people had a claim on the land, but I think he thought that subjugating another people [Palestinians] is wrong,” Held said. “And subjugating them in the long term damages both the oppressor and the oppressed.”

But the key in all of this may be time. Susannah Heschel said that when she was growing up, she observed a gradual shift in the American Jewish community’s attitude toward her father’s civil rights activism. Initially, the support came from rabbis who had fled religious persecution in Europe. She observed a similar trend when her family began speaking out on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

So will Jews again be able to feel they can comfortably support both American social justice and the legitimacy of Israel? Heschel’s daughter thinks so, but only if Jews continue to speak their conscience.

“My father said the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference,” she said. “You don’t give up. You keep talking. And my father kept talking.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Wage Dispute Will the city be at a disadvantage if it raises minimum wage to $15?

Larry Brenner prepared for the worst when Baltimore officials announced two years ago they would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2018.

For the last eight years, he has owned and operated Konstant’s, a stand in Lexington Market, and raises doubts about the ramfications additional increases could have on his business in the near term.

Brenner’s anxiety stems from an Aug. 15 Baltimore City Council vote that sent a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 back to the Labor Committee for modifications. Because his small business would be exempt, he worries about the quality of workers he would attract.

Wage Dispute

“If I’m trying to hire people and they can go to McDonald’s for $15 an hour and they can work for me for only about half of that, what people am I going to get? I’m not going to get very many people or many who are very good — one or the other,” Brenner said. “Us little guys, we now have to compete for labor.”

City business owners, politicians and minimum-wage workers alike have taken strong stances on both sides of the aisle.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14), the bill’s chief sponsor, called for the measure to be pushed back to as early as December, when eight new members will join the council after the November election.

Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (D-District 5), the so-called dean of the council, expressed her reservations with how Clarke plans to carry out her proposal since she hasn’t been able to generate enough support.

“Everything that [Clarke] has done has been bogus, because she can’t get enough votes,” Spector said. “It won’t pass anymore next term than it would have this term,  because it’s not good for Baltimore. The only way it would make sense is if the  two surrounding jurisdictions [Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties] passed it — Baltimore is the hole of the doughnut.”

There also is widespread disagreement on how potential wage hikes would be implemented, and many small-business owners like Brenner feel the measure would derail the economy in Baltimore.

Under the current proposed legislation, first introduced in April, businesses with fewer than 25 employees and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income would be exempt.

The bill also calls for the minimum wage to rise to $9.50 from $8.75 next July, with $1 increases from that point on until getting to $13.50 in 2021. It would then increase  to $15 in 2022 and would rise with the cost of living after that. Under the current  proposal, a commission would determine cost-of-living adjustments.

Although Brenner said he falls into the exemption category — he employs 10 people but did not disclose his earnings — he acknowledged he pays his workers $3 to $4 an hour above minimum wage to get the best possible service. At his peak, Brenner said he employed as many as 15 people, but an uncertain economic climate has forced him to cut back in recent years.

 The new council people, I hope and pray that they will be well educated on what’s going on. Where are we going to be more fiscally responsible for the people who live here and have this tremendous, tremendous financial burden?

— Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, D-District 5 councilwoman

 

“I like to take care of my employees the best that I can, because it helps build loyalty,” said Brenner, who added he hasn’t taken a salary in several years. “The only way I can ensure that and get the most value is to take care of them the best that I can. Now, it’s starting to become a bigger and bigger challenge.”

Konstant’s, which sells candies, coffee, barbecue, fresh-roasted peanuts and hot dogs, has been busy enough to cover its overhead for now, Brenner said. But an increase in the minimum wage, he noted, would cause him to raise prices on all his items by a slight percentage to absorb a proportional wage bump for his employees.

The feeling among some economic experts is that niche businesses like Brenner’s can maintain, but larger national corporations may eliminate some positions to maximize profits.

Daraius Irani, chief economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said if wages become too high, it could lead to consumers ordering from self-service kisok screens as companies cut labor costs. It’s a measure that many fast-food restaurants have adopted across the country in the last year, allowing customers to order and pay without even having to interact with another person.

“If the city were to raise the minimum wage to $15 without the state raising its minimum wage to an appropriate level, I think it would put the city at a great competitive disadvantage,” Irani said. “What we’re already seeing is that many restaurants like McDonald’s are already replacing people with capital. At the end of the day, these kind of businesses will find a way to maximum their profits, and one way to do that may be to cut back on their number of employees.”

Other companies, meanwhile, have  already contemplated seeking greener pastures outside of Baltimore.

Jay Steinmetz, CEO of Baltimore-based Barcoding Inc., a technology company that specializes in radio  frequncy technology, said the proposal, if passed, would force him to consider leaving the city and may put many of his 90 employees out of work. One of his company’s main competitors, RMS Omega Technologies Group, moved its headquarters to South Carolina from Baltimore several years ago, he noted, for similar reasons.

In June, Steinmetz, who serves on Gov. Larry Hogan’s Regulatory Reform Commission, pleaded at a city council hearing for committee members to dismiss the bill altogether.

 

If the city were to raise the minimum wage to $15 without the state raising its minimum wage to an appropriate level, I think it would put the city at a great competitive disadvantage.

—  Daraius Irani, chief economist,  Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University

“Despite our size, it’s hard to make a profit, especially in Baltimore City,” Steinmetz said. “Some years, multiple years, I don’t take a paycheck. Regardless, we employ 45 people in Baltimore City alone. At least half the manangment team lives and works in Baltimore City. If you eliminate the low-paid positions, you corrupt my ecosytem. We risk collapse, [it’s] that simple. … The proposed increase in minimum wage will continue isolating Baltimore as a high-cost location with high taxes and high crime.”

Steinmetz said most of his employees are skilled workers who make more  than $12 an hour. Depending on the time of year and demand, though, he said he hires several temporary workers for miscellaneous tasks, often paying them minimum wage.

Still, it remains uncertain just how many workers would be impacted.

According to a study published in  May by David Cooper of the labor union-supported Economic Policy Institute, 98,000 workers, or 27.1 percent of Baltimore workers, would benefit from increased wages.

Irani, however, said a number of those workers could see their hours cut or jobs terminated.

“I would expect some businsses to limit the number of people they hire,” Irani said. “The Baltimore City Council needs to understand that it would now make the city the high-cost location in Maryland.”

Because many restaurant owners feel like relocation isn’t a realistic option, compensation for tipped workers has been at the center of their focus.

Germano Fabiani, owner of Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy, has mixed feelings regarding how tipped workers are being incoporated into the bill.

The bill would increase the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers to $5 by 2020. State law currently sets the minimum wage for tipped workers at $3.63, with the understanding that their tips will cover or exceed the standard minimum level. If those workers’ wages do not reach state minimum wage, employers are rquired to make up the difference.

The originial measure called for tipped workers to receive $15 per hour by July 2025, eliminating tipped wage requirements, but that was later amended. Fabiani was happy to see that change made for the 12 servers he employes, but he still raised concerns about possible alterations that could change between now and the next vote.

“To me, it made no sense that they wanted to get rid of tips, because my staff can make up to $100 more on a good night with tips,” Fabiani said. “So they would have seen that money coming out of their pockets, and it probably would have led left me short-staffed at some point.”

For organizations that employ workers with disabilities, such as nonprofit Chimes Inc., there is a fear that if government funding does not increase, they may have to cut the number of services offered in Baltimore.

“As an organization that serves the  underserved — and oftentimes those lacking a voice — we fully support the intent of this law,” Levi Rabinowitz, Chimes’ spokesman, said. “But we do not believe the law will achieve its goal. And it may well put people at risk and actually harm some of the very people it seeks to help.”

Clarke requested an amendment to be considered that would require employers of disabled workers to pay the city’s minimum wage by 2020. In 2016, the state passed bills that would phase out subminimum wage, the practice of paying  disabled workers below minimum wage.

Clarke hopes when the next council takes office, the younger, more progressive legislators will pass the bill.

Spector disagrees.

“The new council people, I hope and pray that they will be well educated on what’s going on,” Spector said. “Where are we going to be more fiscally responsible for the people who live here and have this tremendous, tremendous financial burden?”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com