Tzedakah Amazon.com Style

A new online platform makes giving tzedakah as easy as buying a book on Amazon.com. It’s called jgives.com.

“With the site they can give with just one click,” said jgives.com co-owner Jodi Samuels.

Samuels said she and partner Allen Ganz founded the platform to give people the opportunity to send aid to worthy causes, Jewish and otherwise, with the same ease and confidence as when they purchase other goods online. Users can go to the website, look through list of more than 40 charities associated with the company and give $9, $18 or $36 to whichever they prefer.

“Charities love this model,” Samuels said. “It helps them reach small donors they wouldn’t otherwise reach.”

The website grew out of jdeal.com, which Samuels and Ganz also co-founded. That website offers deals on Jewish-themed products and services, similar to Groupon or LivingSocial. It didn’t take long before the partners realized this model could apply to nonprofits, too.

Not all of the charities listed are specifically Jewish and any valid charitable group may get recommended and eventually put on the site.

“People want to do something to help,” Samuels said. “But they don’t want to have to spend time researching charities.”

Samuels said it is an unfortunate fact that scams and data-stealing operations masquerading as charities infest the Internet, making people legitimately suspicious of giving credit information to groups they don’t know, excluding smaller or limited causes from getting donors. But because jgives rigorously vets the charities they offer on their site, using personal references, public records and even in-person visits, users can feel comfortable donating without worrying they’ve been tricked.

“Consumers trust our brand,” Samuels said, adding that, much like how small brands can appeal directly to the masses via crowd-sourcing websites such as Kickstarter, charities that would otherwise never have a chance to reach many people can really get their message out.

“It has the feel of the crowd-source model but with the marketing side on steroids,” she said. “There’s definitely some level of cross-marketing between people who are looking for deals and people who are looking for charities to give to,” Samuels said.

The majority of users fall between the ages of 25 and 45, unsurprising considering the similar age groups that commonly use deal websites, but it should appeal to any demographic.

“We hope to reach all different age groups and regions,” Samuels said.

The website only launched alittle over a month ago, but there have already been large amounts of traffic coming in from the more than 85,000 people registered on jdeal, and not just in the United States.

“We actually have a lot of people in Israel using it,” Samuels said.

Samuels is confident that the benefits of using jgives as a portal for charitable giving will only draw more people to it, especially as the list of charitable destinations grow.

“It’s a win-win for charities and gift givers,” she said.

The Hard Reality Of The New Pew Report

The latest study by the Pew Research Center put on paper a lot of what our communal leaders already knew. Intermarriage is on the rise (71percent of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried) and younger Jews are opting out of ritual and affiliation (1/3 of Millenials identify as Jews of no religion).

But it also reported other striking numbers which deserve attention. For instance, notwithstanding the troubling assimilation statistics, it does not appear that the Jewish population is getting smaller.  In fact, when compared to a 2000 Jewish Federation study, the North American Jewish population is now larger or at least the same size as it was more than a decade ago.  So what does that statistic tell us?  And what segment of our community is growing?

According to the report, those Jews identifying as Orthodox remained 10 percent of the population, those identifying as Conservative 18 percent, and as Reform 35 percent. And those identified as “Unaffiliated” rose to 30 percent of the Jewish population. Add to that the number of children in Jewish homes — an average of 1.7 in Orthodox home versus .3 to .4 in all other Jewish homes — it appears that the likely trajectory of growth in the North American Jewish community will be toward the right of center. Should that statistical projection hold, future retention rates should also improve, since the report indicates that Orthodox retention rate is improving, with “only” a 17 percent fall off among 18- to 29-year-olds, with the majority of de-identification and denominational switching occurring in the less traditional streams of Judaism (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Orthodox, versus 6 percent over 65). In contrast, Reform and Conservative are on the decline (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Conservative versus 24 percent of those over 65; 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Reform, versus 38 percent over 65).

Adding to the issues of concern, however, is that an increasing number of Jews appear to identify themselves as “Jewish” based on conventional moral values that are not tied to religious belief or practice.  The concern being that such “morality-based Judaism” lacks the unique Jewish character to promote future generations of engaged Jews.

The good news for Jewish Baltimore is two-fold. Comparing our community’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study with the Pew report, we are trailing behind on some of the less-than-comfortable national trends. For example, Jewish Baltimore has much less intermarriage (20 percent), and a much higher affiliation rate (46 percent belong to a congregation).   But while those numbers should give us some communal comfort, the trends — even in Baltimore — are troubling.

We all agree on the goal:  To strengthen and grow our Jewish community, to assure the continuity of the Jewish people and to promote Jewish identification and affiliation.  And, by and large, we also appear to agree on some of the best means for assuring those results:  day school education for our children, Jewish camping programs and Israel experiences.  We urge further investment in these activities, and a focused effort to expand recruitment of more of our children into one or more of these program opportunities. The problem is that those efforts alone are not enough.  Even within those segments of the population that are exposed to those programs, we are seeing too high a fall-off rate.

The Orthodox community’s statistics appear to be far more impressive than those of the other streams, though there has been some attrition there, too. Orthodox leadership should not be satisfied when Pew reports that only 48percent of those raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox. This is so even if the Orthodox community is found by the Pew report to be “much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population [which] suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow.” Losing a reported 52 percent of your population is unacceptable. But the problems are far more pronounced in the other streams.

Given these statistical realities, we urge a comprehensive communal self-evaluation, focused on means for promoting those issues which unite us rather than evaluating those which pull us apart.  Let’s invest our communal resources in those activities and programs which promote Jewish continuity, survival and growth, rather than those which simply support the status quo.

See related story, “Pew Survey of U.S. Jews.”

Understanding J Street’s Policy

At the J Street policy conference, the organization unveiled what it is terming its 2Campaign, which is focused on defining what it means to have two states for two people. The organization plans to invest $1 million in this campaign in the coming year.

As part of that, J Street outlined the four components it sees as key to the two-state solution:

• Bases borders on pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps and provides robust security guarantees

• Evacuates settlements outside Israel’s future borders while compensating the estimated one-in-five settlers who relocate to make peace possible

• Establishes the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestinian neighborhoods as the capital of the future state of Palestine. Holy sites would be internationally protected and accessible to all

• Resolves the Palestinian refugee issue through resettlement in the future Palestine or third countries, compensation and a symbolic level of family reunification in Israel itself.

Checking In on the Peace Process

While there is a strict gag order on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ambassador Martin S. Indyk, lead American peace negotiator, did share some thoughts about the process during his talk at the J Street gala. He asked the rhetorical question, “What is different this time?”

To this, Indyk said, No. 1 is that the key “enemies of peace” are weakened. Hamas has been reduced by the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Iran is suffering from sanctions, and most other Middle East countries are focused on their own internal affairs. The chaos in surrounding countries “is generating a common sense of purpose between the Arab states and Israel.”

No. 2, he noted, there are low expectations for the process. While some might see that as a deterrent, Indyk said that in contrast “those low expectations give us, the negotiators, some space within which to operate.”

He also cited the positive voice of the Arab League, which indicated it would endorse a final status agreement, and that the political standings of both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are at a peak. A July poll released by Ha’aretz showed Netanyahu’s popularity at 56 percent. A Palestine Center for Public Opinion poll, released Oct. 1, showed that more than 62 percent of Palestinians are at least “somewhat satisfied” with Abu Mazen’s performance (20.8 percent said they are “very satisfied”).

Celebrating close to 25 years of the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership

Jonathan Kolker was the treasurer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the early 1990s and was one of the first on the ground in the Former Soviet Union to assist with Jews who chose not to emigrate but rather to sustain their lives in Eastern Europe.

Odessa was one of the first major former Soviet cities where JDC set up services and positioned a full-time person. The Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, spearheaded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, was one of the first Soviet-American Jewish community pairings. By the late 1990s, there were dozens of these partnerships.

At the time, recalled Kolker, JDC was operating on the same two fronts it does today: assisting those in need and providing Jewish renewal. But because of the situation of many elderly Jews at the time, the latter took greater focus.

“The most pressing and immediate problem we found in the FSU was [that] with the political collapse came also a financial collapse and the people’s pensions stopped flowing,” said Kolker. The elderly who had worked their entire lives as teachers, doctors, firemen, who had retired with a pension, their pensions had stopped coming.”

Kolker said JDC found 300,000 Jews across the FSU in this situation, with literally nothing to eat. An initial partnership between JDC, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany infused $10 million in food packages to these people. By the late 1990s, as other investors joined, JDC was spending $60 million per year in what was one of the largest humanitarian service programs in Jewish life in centuries.

In Odessa, The Associated was instrumental.

Suzanne Levin-Lapides was among those who were involved with the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership early on. She said the community invested “so much emotion, time and energy in making sure [Soviet] elders were fed and cared for.”

Over the years, missions to Odessa were about visiting elderly people in their third-floor walkups, bringing joy to the abandoned and delivering hope to the downtrodden.

Today, the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership is much more.

“Today, there is a Jewish education component,” said Lapides. “We learn from each other, and we celebrate what we are all about.”

Lapides said that in recent trips, while there are still visits to elderly residents, there are talks with students involved with the Odessa Hillel — young adults volunteering at the nursery schools and day schools and senior centers.

Kolker said he knows it, too.

“There is a tremendous desire for reconnection with the Jewish world,” he said. “There is a curiosity and hunger for Jewish life.”

Vadim Kashtelyan, who moved to Baltimore from St. Petersburg in 1992, said he went back at the age of 16 to visit his hometown. Then, when he wore his Jewish star necklace, one which his grandmother had purchased for him in Israel, he was asked to take it off for fear of anti-Semitism. After that trip, in 2005, his view of the FSU was one of “bad stuff, communal apartments, no money.”

But today it is very different.

Kashtelyan traveled with The Associated to Odessa in May 2013 and described the situation as “the opposite.” He described a revitalized city, a youthful Odessa, creative with its Jewish culture and Jews who have “a burning desire to stay in Odessa.”

Kashtelyan said today the two communities are learning from one another.

“They [the Odessians] kind of want to mirror our system” of volunteerism and how we work with youth,” he said. “We are learning from them and what they do [to take care of their] senior citizens.”

Recently, The Associated hired Marina Moldavanskaya to serve as the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership coordinator.

In a column, published on jewishtimes.com, Moldavanskaya wrote, “I am excited to help develop projects between our two communities that will generate mutual relationships and connections between people. The future projects will create long-lasting bonds that will educate us about our Jewish family around the world, as well as make the connection between Baltimore and Odessa even stronger.”

To learn how you can get involved, visit associated.org/globalimpact.

Journey Together Events

092713_reconect-with-the-people_lgSaturday, Oct. 12 from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.:
Ethan Bortnick Performs

The Gordon Center For Performing Arts
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
Russian-born Ethan Bortnick, 13, began playing on a toy piano when he was 3. Today, this piano prodigy holds the Guinness World Record for being the youngest musician to host a solo concert tour. ($36 in advance; $42 at the door)

Sunday, Oct. 13 from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.:
Family Celebration

Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
Bring your whole family for a taste of
Russian culture and learn about the history of Soviet Jewry before and after coming to America. This event includes an arts and culture fair, athletic and traditional performances, Russian treats, an art exhibit, a showing of the film “Refusenik” and a special presentation by four-time gold-medal swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg. (free)

Monday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.:
Showing of “My Dad is Baryshnikov”

Part of CineFest
The Gordon Center For Performing Arts
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
A coming-of-age movie directed by Dmitry Povolotsky and starring Dmitri Viskubenko as Boris Fishkin, who lives with his swinging single mother and attends the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in which it’s de rigueur to be a male dancer rather than an exception for young men. ($11 in advance; $13 at the door)

Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 9:30 a.m.:
Celebrating the Journeys of Older Immigrants

Weinberg Park Heights JCC
5700 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore
A thoughtful morning honoring the older immigrants and Russian veterans of Jewish Baltimore. (free)

Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.:
Comedy on the Rocks

Oheb Shalom Congregation
7310 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore
An event targeted toward younger adults with Russian comedian Vicky Kuperman. ($8)

Sunday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m.:
Celebratory Gala

Lord Baltimore Hotel
20 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore
This celebratory evening will feature a welcome address by Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated, as well as keynote remarks by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The event includes festive dancing, musical performances and a delicious taste of kosher Russian delicacies. ($125)

Event details and registration at associated.org/together

Understanding the plight of Soviet Jewry before the fall of the Iron Curtain

How Many Soviet Jews Were There?
In 1986, an averaging of figures by Western demographers suggests that there may have been 2 million to 2.5 million Jews in the U.S.S.R., making it the third-largest Jewish population in the world outside of the U.S. and
Israel. In 1986, Soviet Jews represented approximately 65 percent of European Jewry and 15 percent of world Jews.

What was the legal status of the Jewish community in the U.S.S.R.?
Jews were identified as a nationality group and a religious faith. If both parents were Jewish, the child was
considered a Jew and was registered as such. If one parent was Jewish, the child had the option of choosing his nationality at the age of 16.

Were Jews permitted to practice?
At best, practicing Judaism in the U.S.S.R. was inconvenient. The freedom to practice one’s religion, although
constitutionally guaranteed, was strictly controlled by the Council of Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers. Teaching religion to persons under the age of 16 was prohibited by law.

How many synagogues were there?
In 1979, there were 60 official synagogues in the U.S.S.R. This was down from 1,000 in 1926 and 467 in 1960. Assuming a conservative estimate of even 1.8 million Jews, this translates to one synagogue for every 30,000 Jews.

What was a refusenik?
The term was derived from the Russian word otkaznik, meaning a Soviet Jew who had applied for an exit visa and had been denied. In 1986, there were over 15,000 known cases of refuseniks. waited as long as 15 years to emigrate.

How The System Works

The Affordable Care Act mandated that states start their own health exchange systems or participate in a federal exchange. The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange (MHBE) was created on April 12, 2011, as an
independent, public corporation responsible for developing and operating Maryland Health Connection, the marketplace.

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange’s nine-member board includes board chair Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; vice chair Darrell Gaskin, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Therese Goldsmith, commissioner of the Maryland Insurance Administration; Ben Steffen, acting executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission; Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association;?Jennifer Goldberg, assistant director of Advocacy for Health Care and Elder Law, Maryland Legal Aid Bureau; Enrique Martinez-Vidal, vice president for State Policy and Technical Assistance, AcademyHealth and director of State Coverage Initiatives; Thomas Saquella, former president, Maryland Retailers Association; and Kenneth S. Apfel, professor of practice, University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

The Maryland Health Connection is open to all uninsured Maryland residents, including those with pre-existing conditions. All Americans 18 and older are required to have health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a fine.
There are 216,587 uninsured residents ages 18 to 64 in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, which is the area Health Care Access Maryland is tasked with reaching. Of those individuals, 33.1 percent have incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty line, 48.5 percent have incomes between 138 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, and 18.5 percent have incomes above 400 percent of the federal poverty line.

Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, which is a form of free health care, was expanded to cover all adults under the age of 65 with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which equates to about $32,500 annually for a family of four. Those making below 400 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about $85,000 annually for a family of four, may be eligible for subsidies.

Maryland residents will be able to use marylandhealthconnection.gov to compare plans, enroll in plans and find out if they are eligible for tax credits or public health programs.

Under the law, plans must cover a wide variety of services, including doctor visits, hospitalization, emergency care, maternity care, pediatric care, prescriptions, medical tests, mental health care and substance abuse treatment. The plans must also cover preventative care at no extra cost, including flu and pneumonia shots, birth control, routine vaccinations and cancer screenings, which include mammograms and colonoscopies.

Maryland Health Connection will offer 45 different medical plans from companies such as CareFirst, Evergreen, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare. Of those, 36 of the plans include pediatric dental benefits and 24 offer statewide coverage. There are 20 standalone dental plans from Delta Dental, DentaQuest, Dominion Dental and United Concordia. Twelve of the plans offer family coverage, and eight of them offer pediatric dental benefits only.

According to figures provided by Maryland Health Connection, premiums can range from $73 for a 20-year-old single non-smoker to more than $2,000 for a family of four with varying deductibles. The plans will be categorized based on how costs are shared and will be known as bronze, silver, gold and platinum plans. Bronze plans will have lower premiums and higher deductibles, with silver and gold in between.