Naale Gives Students an Elite (and Free) Israeli Education

Chaim Meyers (kneeling) poses with a group of international Naale students. (Provided)

For many families in the United States, a private education is financially beyond reach. Jewish day schools in particular can be notoriously expensive, although many do offer scholarships.

But through a program called the Naale Elite Academy, Jewish students from around the world are provided a free high school education, provided they are willing to attend public boarding school in Israel.

“Our main obstacle is that most of the Jewish communities around North America are not aware of the program; they don’t know that it exists,” said Chaim Meyers, director of Naale’s Western World Region. “That is what we are trying to do. As my boss likes to say, ‘Let my people know.’”

Meyers and other Naale officials visited the JT office on Feb. 6. During their North American trip, they visited current families, prospective families and Jewish communal leaders in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and Miami, as well as Canadian cities Calgary and Edmonton.

The program started in 1992, when Israeli officials were trying to educate students from the former Soviet Union whose families weren’t able to make aliyah. Sending teachers there did not work, so it was decided that bringing students to Israel to be educated would be more prudent. Naale stands for “noar oleh lifney horim” meaning “children immigrate before their parents.”

Today, Naale is geared toward Jewish children from around the world, with students from about 50 countries enrolled. The program has approximately 1,700 students and more than 17,000 graduates to date. It also boasts a 90 percent retention rate of students who successfully earn their Israeli matriculation certificate, which is recognized at universities worldwide.

“The opportunity that Naale offers almost borders on the outrageous,” said Simeon Pollock, who serves as the Naale ambassador in Maryland and has two children in the program. “It’s that amazing. I thought, ‘It can’t be true, free high school? And for a religious kid?’ They mentioned something on the website about Orthodox schools; they have three for religious children. It was something we had to talk about because it was religious and free, compared with the cost of a religious education in America.”

While the religious schools appealed to the Pollock family, Naale is not exclusively religious. Rather, it serves as an umbrella program and partners with 25 different schools around Israel. There are schools that cater to a variety of different languages, including six for native English speakers. There are schools geared toward religious and nonreligious children and different programs for students who wish to focus their studies in science and or the arts.

Every year, the school reaches out to new communities. Smaller communities often have a bigger demand for Naale’s services because of a lack of Jewish schools or infrastructure.

“People are surprised that this program exists and ask why there aren’t more advertisements,” said Dikla Sity-Meir, regional director for Naale in Pennsylvania. “Our budget for advertising is limited, so that is our main job. The leaders of the community are our best allies. They identify the families that would be well suited for us.”

A student can apply in the eighth, ninth or 10th grade. The only fees are a registration fee and an acceptance fee, costing $600 each. Potential students and at least one parent then attend a special screening day that entails academic and psychological examinations to ensure that students are suited for the program.

“We aren’t necessarily looking for A-plus students, but we are looking for motivated students who can deal with coming to a new country alone, all the academics and 20 hours a week studying Hebrew,” said Sity-Meir. “Social skills and maturity level are a main component. The downside of this project is that parents and kids are separated, which is hard because it is a young age.”

If a student is accepted, the only thing a parent must pay for is if their child wants to fly home for vacation. Beyond that, all expenses are covered. This includes the flight to Israel, pocket money, extracurricular activities, school trips, school uniforms and school books.

Students do not need to know Hebrew before attending a Naale school — ulpan is a part of the core program in a student’s first year. Additionally, students come to Israel on a student visa, so they have no obligation to make aliyah or join the army following graduation. While the Israeli matriculation certificate is recognized at universities worldwide, many students choose to stay in Israel.

“People say, ‘If students don’t stay in Israel, what is the point? You’ve failed,” explained Meyers. “However, we say the opposite. Any student who goes home brings their experiences to their community. They are the best ambassadors for Israel that we could possibly have.”

Soldiering On Love for Israel and its people draws locals to Israel Defense Forces

Just their first week on the job and Gil Kuttler’s friends were run over by a terrorist.

As newly minted soldiers, the potential for terrorism and violence — in general, if not the specifics of a collision with a car — comes with the territory. Just maybe not quite so early.

Gil and his friends are lone soldiers, those who serve in the Israel Defense Forces without the support of immediate Israeli family. In practice, this includes Israelis who serve either in defiance of their family or who do not have any family, but is predominated by foreign volunteers of Jewish descent, like Gil.

Gil Kuttler, 19, a class of 2015 Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, was acclimating himself to his kibbutz while his four friends were waiting at a bus stop just outside Jerusalem when a car being driven by a Palestinian rammed into them in late November 2015. Two were injured and, after exiting the car to keep the fight going, according to Israeli media reports, the driver was shot and killed by a passing citizen with a pistol. The incident was covered across Israeli media and even made it overseas into U.S. outlets.

Though Gil was not (yet) in harm’s way, it was certainly not the most auspicious beginning in the eyes of his mother home in Pikesville, Robyn Schaffer.

“I make the conscious decision not to go there [with worry] because if I do, I would go crazy,” she said. Gil has about half of his two-and-a-half years of service left.

Instead, Schaffer said she is “bursting with pride” for her two sons, Gil and his elder brother, Joseph (who goes by Yossi) Kuttler, who both made aliyah to serve the Jewish homeland through the IDF.

The IDF is the official military of Israel, established at the same time as the State of Israel in 1948, although it traces its roots back to relatively ad-hoc paramilitary organizations of the early 1900s, according to the IDF website. It encompasses the country’s army, air force and navy. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are conscripted into service, barring certain exemptions made on religious, physical or psychological grounds.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lone soldiers, many of them specifically making aliyah to serve in the IDF. There are currently about 3,000 lone soldiers in the IDF, according to Friends of the IDF, a lone soldier support organization, out of about 176,500 active personnel. Of those from overseas (a total of 80 countries), a quarter were from the United States in 2014. The mid-Atlantic region, which includes Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is generally third or fourth in the country for how many recruits it sends to the IDF (vying with New Jersey, New York and California), said Ari Dallas, executive director of the Midatlantic Region for FIDF.

“I think it’s really the essence of what we are,” he said about helping lone soldiers. “Their job is to protect Israel, and it’s our job to protect them.”

The FIDF provides plane tickets to lone soldiers to visit their families and and friends back home, along with other support, primarily in Israel.

Those plane tickets are provided for free or very cheap by the Israeli airline, El Al, whose spokesperson said it is a service they are happy to provide.

“We are a national company,” said Yoram Elgrabli, managing director for El Al in North and Central America who has a son serving as a lone solder. “We know the importance of the soldiers. … I like to say the real bridge between Israel and the U.S. is El Al.”

Gil (left) and Yossi Kuttler (Photo provided)

Those from outside Israel who serve in the IDF all share a love of Israel, of course, but from there, individual motivations vary. The brothers Kuttler are a good example. Gil and Yossi are close, both in age and relationship, if not necessarily personality. Gil, though he joined up after his brother (they overlapped in service for about a year), is more gung-ho about his military service, a longtime dream of his.

“I don’t know what [Yossi] told you, but it was my idea first,” he said from his base in Hevron, where he was (rather grudgingly) chopping vegetables for dinner while chatting with the JT. “I’ve been thinking of this since I was 5.”

Yossi doesn’t disagree with that characterization at all. He’s more introspective about his service, which he viewed as his duty to Israel and the Jewish people. Now a 21-year-old freshman at University of Maryland, College Park studying English and English education, he’s glad to be done with service but wouldn’t trade his experience.

Before making aliyah in 2014, Yossi, a 2013 Beth Tfiloh grad, was all set to attend business school at the University of Maryland. Then he visited Israel on the senior class trip and felt a pull, not just to the country, but to protect its heritage, his heritage.

“It was something I thought I could look back on and be proud I had served the greater good of the Jewish people,” he said.

He was “bit by the bug” of Israel, his mom said, as she had been at his age after her first trip to Israel. She was a little shocked, she said, by his decision but passed on the advice of her father.

Yossi Kuttler receives his beret upon completion of basic training. (Photo provided)

“When Yossi called me [from Israel] and said, ‘Mom, we have to talk,’ I said, ‘I know you have a whole speech rehearsed, but I’m going to tell you what my dad told me: Come home for the summer, and if you still want to do it, I’m all behind you,’” she said.

And he did. And then Gil followed a short time later. Both joined the Paratroopers Brigade, a unit with a storied history in the IDF.

Gil and Yossi are not the only from the Baltimore area to serve in the IDF. They’re not even the only ones from their neighborhood. There’s something in the water off the corner of Labyrinth Road and Smith Avenue in Pikesville, right by Pikesville High School. The number of young men and women who recently did serve or are serving the IDF is practically enough to form their own squad.

The Kuttler brothers on Labyrinth south of Pikesville High, the Harrison kids — Eyal, Qeshet and Baraq — on Labyrinth just across from Pikesville High and Lily Walder on Smith have all donned the lone soldier uniform. Coincidentally, Yossi, Lily and Eyal even ended up on the same kibbutz that was their home away from home in the early days prior to full service in the IDF.

Lily, like Yossi, had other plans in mind before deciding to make aliyah and join the IDF. She had just been accepted into the five-year master’s program for occupational therapy at Towson University. Also a Beth Tfiloh lifer, she had taken a Young Judea gap year in Israel and fell in love. Israel had always been relevant to her life, she said, but that year shifted her perspective, and she came to view Israel as “my home, my responsibility, my territory.” One year into school and she left. Israel was beckoning.

Her dream IDF job was as a weapons instructor, but first, she had to improve her Hebrew.

Lily Walder with a group of fellow soldiers (Photo provided)

“I didn’t leave everything in the states to be someone’s secretary and get them coffee,” she said. Luckily, her studying paid off, and Lily went on to teach handheld explosives to other soldiers.

“When I say it to Americans, it sounds badass,” she said from Tel Aviv, where she now makes her home since finishing her two years this past April. “But when I say it to Israelis, it’s normal.”

Lily’s parents, Charles and Suzanne Walder, worried about her, as every parent worries for their children, they said, but saw how happy and confident she was in Israel.

“She loved it,” Charles said.

“Yeah, and she was good at it,” Suzanne added. Watching their daughter’s graduation ceremony from boot camp in Israel was “one of the proudest moments of our lives,” Suzanne went on to say.

And, much to Lily’s pleasant surprise, the army turned out to be welcoming and respectful to women, treating everyone as soldiers, she said.

“I am so impressed with the Israeli army and how they treat women there,” she continued. “I always felt very much respected, very much appreciated and taken seriously.”

It was Lily’s love for Israel that carried her through aliyah and IDF service, and, at least for now, she’s staying put. Israel is home.

Alex Simone (Photo provided)

Yossi, Gil and Lily all served either right after, or shortly after, graduation from high school. That’s the most frequent choice, but it’s not how Alex Simone, 28, a 2006 Beth Tfiloh grad, did it. He did the college life first and, once graduating, felt a bit adrift in his early 20s.

“Part of it was just looking for adventure after university,” he admitted. “I was only 22 and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ This was something that really connected with me at the time. So, I decided I could do it and eventually found I had to do it.”

For Alex, telling his parents was a little tricky. He knew they would force him to defend his position. So, he researched his way to success.

“They were tough conversations,” he said. “I made sure I did my research and had some plans ahead of time.” His father, Vito Simone, agreed he and his wife, Gail, wanted to ensure their son knew what he was doing.

“When he first brought it up, of course, my wife was scared to death, and we both challenged Alex vigorously to defend his decision,” said Vito, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s. “That’s our parenting style, I guess you could say.”

Alex made his case, and his family got on board “100 percent,” his dad said.

Alex, in what is apparently the Baltimore special, also joined the Paratroopers Brigade. And what started out as adventure, well, was an adventure, but it was also something more.

“To me, [Israel] means we have a place in the world,” he said. “We have no idea if we would even exist without this place.”

All those who join do so with the knowledge they may be putting their life on the line for the love of Israel — for Jordan Low, a classmate of Yossi’s at Beth Tfiloh who served as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, and his family, that became a much more tangible concern in July 2014 when he and fellow soldiers were searching a potential Hamas weapons stash during Operation Protective Edge and the building was struck by two rockets, according to local media reports at the time.

Jordan held the ladder for all his fellow soldiers to get out safely, his father, Jeffrey Low, told the JT at the time, and was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah — and commitment — to join up with the armed forces, any armed forces. Perhaps more than other military options, the IDF also has a specific ideological purpose, a tie to an identity that is bigger than just Israel.

“I spent part of my life dedicated to an idea greater than myself,” Yossi said, summing up his complicated thoughts on his time with the IDF. “It was extremely difficult — mentally, physically, being away from my family and America — but, yes, I would do it again.”

The Ethics of Combating Terrorism

From left: Stuart Diamant-Cohen, IDF Brig. Gen. Bentzi Gruber and Leon Berg (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

From left: Stuart Diamant-Cohen, IDF Brig. Gen. Bentzi Gruber and Leon Berg (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Warfare has changed dramatically in recent decades. On the Israeli frontlines, terrorism and guerrilla warfare persist, forcing Israel Defense Forces soldiers to make life-or-death decisions in the field.

IDF Reserve Brig. Gen. Bentzi Gruber spoke to the Jewish National Fund’s Lawyers for Israel Society in Baltimore on Jan. 24, where he talked about ethics in the field and how IDF soldiers are trained to make split-second decisions in an ethical manner. Gruber serves as the vice commander of armored divisions and leads five brigades, a total of 25,000 soldiers.

His talk came just weeks after the high-profile manslaughter conviction of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who killed a wounded Palestinian lying on the ground after the man lunged at and stabbed an Israeli solider at a checkpoint.

In the course of his presentation, Gruber focused on how soldiers are trained to make ethical decisions on the spot, without time to wait for orders from superiors.

“We have to start with a framework — you have eight seconds to make a decision. That is the main difference between making a decision in the field and elsewhere. You have eight seconds, shoot or don’t shoot?”

Many factors can influence a soldier’s judgement. Physical and mental fatigue will dull a soldier’s senses. Gruber explained that the IDF has urban training facilities, where soldiers practice making these hurried decisions “so that the first time you are confronting a life-or-death decision is not in the field, it is in the [demonstration].”

Gruber explained that in order to make a properly informed decision, there is not a specific procedure for a soldier, but rather a specific set of simple questions for them to ask themselves that dictate what can and cannot be done.

“The first question is simple,” he said. “In the army, you can use force but only to accomplish the mission, so the first question should always be, ‘Are we using the force to accomplish the mission?’”

The example he uses is of entering a house to arrest a terrorist. If force needs to be used to restrain the terrorist, then that is acceptable because it is a part of the mission. However, to destroy the TV in the terrorist’s house does not have a purpose in accomplishing the mission and therefore is crossing the line.

“The second question is a bit more complicated,” Gruber said. “Make sure that you are only using force against the enemy, not against innocents or noncombatants. If you have a doubt, there is no doubt — you do not shoot. You can use force only if you know that it is the enemy.”

The third factor that a soldier must consider is also the most complicated — collateral damage. Gruber asserted that you are allowed to cause collateral damage to accomplish a mission “but only in proportion to the immediate threat.” Immediate is the key word.

“Even if I know that a guy killed five Israelis yesterday and five IDF soldiers two weeks ago, I will not shoot. The pilot [shooting rockets] is not a judge. He is not trying to punish someone for what they have done in the past. He is trying to avoid terror in the future.”

One ethical dilemma that soldiers often face in Gaza is that terrorists grab children to protect themselves from snipers while crossing a street.

“The sniper won’t shoot,” said Gruber. “This is a moving target, the kid is struggling and yelling. Why are they doing this? Because they know that when it comes to collateral damage, it is a big issue for Israelis. That is the difference between terrorism and soldiers — soldiers try to kill the enemy, terrorists purposefully target civilians.”

The IDF takes avoiding collateral damage at all costs so seriously that the procedure when taking control of an urban area is to alert everyone ahead of time, even the enemy, that they are coming. Forty-eight hours in advance, leaflets drop from planes asking residents to please leave the area; 24 hours in advance, people begin to call the families, and another phone call is made five minutes out.

“We even send text messages and recently have started to use social media,” said Gruber. “Why? It is unthinkable for an army to tell you when and where they will attack in advance. It goes against everything that I know, but it is to avoid collateral damage.”

Stuart Diamant-Cohen, director of JNF in Greater Washington, D.C., and Virginia, said the JNF holds no political standpoint on the issues Gruber discussed.

“However, this presentation provided a remarkable opportunity to see Israel and examine its ethical and moral dilemmas from the perspective of a living hero,” Diamant-Cohen said.

Leon Berg, co-chair of Lawyers for Israel, said that being informed about the ethics of the IDF is important for those who want to advocate on the morality of the Israeli army.

“As an advocate, this knowledge is something that you want to be able to offer to other people,” he said. “All of us are committed to being advocates of the State of Israel, and this is just one more thing to be proud of in terms of the great emphasis the IDF places on ethics in the field.”

New Vegan Birthright Trip Takes Flight in August


A Birthright Israel: Mayanot group learning about innovations in vegetation in Israel. (Mayanot Institute)

A Birthright Israel: Mayanot group learning about innovations in vegetation in Israel. (Mayanot Institute)

For the first time in its nearly two-decade long history of sending young Jewish adults to Israel for a free 10-day immersive cultural experience, Birthright  Israel: Mayanot will be offering a trip specializing in the vegan diet and lifestyle.

The announcement was made by Mayanot’s partner in this endeavor, Jewish Veg, earlier this month. Registration is open now for the trip, which takes place from Aug. 13 to 23. Space is limited to 40 slots, 10 of which are going to vegan young adults in Israel, “adding to the experience,” according to Jewish Veg’s press release.

Along with traditional Mayanot activities — among them spending Shabbat at the Western Wall and climbing Masada — the forthcoming vegan trip will include a uniquely tailored diet as well as meetings with vegan leaders in the nation state and visits to specialty farms.

“I give Mayanot a ton of credit for recognizing this was an unmet need,” said Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, a more than four-decade old nonprofit whose mission is to help people internationally transition toward a plants-based diet via the ideals of Judaism.

Cohan, based out of Jewish Veg’s office in Pittsburgh, referred to the trip as long “overdue” for two principle reasons.

“So many vegan and vegetarian young adults in the Jewish community have been estranged from that community because we haven’t been meeting their needs,” Cohan said. “And of all the amazing things that have been happening in Israel, the rise of the vegan movement is most exciting of all. It was time for there to be Birthright trips that would showcase this.”

Though Mayanot already offers specialty diets — vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. — to those taking the organization’s regular trips to Israel, Cohan believes that the culinary component of veganism is only one facet of a larger movement that needed to be better catered to.

“The word ‘vegan’ does have more than one definition, as many English words often do,” Cohan said. “And it can often connote lifestyle as well as diet.”

To illustrate his point here, Cohan referenced the proposition that many vegans would object to the thought of a camel ride, a typical activity on Mayanot trips through Israel.

“I think it’s more than just about dietary needs,” agreed Levi Margolin, director of marketing at Birthright Israel: Mayanot. “I think it’s also about the ideology of the trip. It’s something deeper.”

Margolin, who said the idea of an exclusively vegan trip to Israel had been in the works for a little more than a year before the announcement was made, added that other singular activities for those onboard will include vegan shopping at local markets, cooking classes and hearing from religious leaders about the aforementioned vegan lifestyle.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb has been the spiritual leader  at Bethesda’s Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation for the better part of the past two decades and is also a member of the Rabbinic Council of Jewish Veg.

Although he is not directly involved in Jewish Veg’s partnering with Mayanot on the vegan trip ahead, he is very  excited by the impact he hopes it will have on Jewish youth.

“My primary commitment is to Creation and the environment as a whole,” said Scherlinder Dobb, who confesses to being vegetarian though considering the vegan lifestyle at some point himself.

“I am mostly in this because of the simple reality that eating low on the food chain is vastly more sustainable for the global climate and for our grandkids,” he said.

To Scherlinder Dobb, such support of vegetarian advocacy is therefore a kind of subset of environmental advocacy, both being a matter of his “living out my Jewish values.”

What particularly delights him about Mayanot’s vegan trip is what he called “a classically Zionist perspective. This enables a broader swathe of people to access Israel, because like any other group with particular needs, now a certain percentage of young adults who prioritize a vegan or vegetarian diet can feel comfortable [on the trip] or even be  incentivized to participate.”

Though Scherlinder Dobb is of course well aware that it’s difficult for a young person (or anyone else) to turn down a free trip to Israel, he believes Mayanot’s vegan trip will help people who may have other life priorities — such as this animal and environmental  advocacy he feels is so essential to the overall Jewish experience — to see going to Israel as a priority in their busy lives as well.

“I think it is important that Jewish young people will have the opportunity to enjoy this trip without worrying about their food containing animal products or their activities  [involving] animal exploitation,” wrote Ori Shavit in an email from her home in Israel.

Shavit is an integral part of Jewish Veg, which brings the food journalist and highly  regarded leader of the vegan movement in Israel to America through a partnership with Hillel twice a year to speak about veganism.

Shavit stated the trip will also “show [participants] and others the way that Israel became the number one vegan country in the world, how that  effects everybody and why it is so strongly connected to our culture and Jewish roots.”

For more information about Birthright Israel: Mayanot’s vegan trip to Israel and other trips, visit:

A House Divided The one place meant to unite the Jewish community is becoming one of its biggest rifts

cover1This week, the country inaugurates its new president.

Due partially to a lack of government experience to draw from and partially to Donald Trump’s propensity for holding competing positions on the same issue, it is hard to say how exactly the new president will govern.

For the Baltimore Jewish community — and American Jewish population at large — one of the main issues to watch will be that of its homeland: Israel.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Israel to many Jews. It is a key part of Jewish identity, and yet, the one place meant to unite all Jews has become possibly the community’s greatest divide. For some, criticism of Israel undermines the Jewish history of overcoming oppression and anti-Semitism. For others, not to criticize the Israeli government’s controversial policies violates Jewish values and the community’s progressive track record.

For decades, supporting Israel was a bipartisan effort in the United States. That has become less and less true in recent years, with approaches to Israel splitting more and more along party lines. The Baltimore Jewish community of more than 93,000 (at last count, according to a 2010 study by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) is not immune to this trend.

“I think what we’re seeing now is the beginning of a political shift,” said Art Abramson, former longtime executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “And I don’t see it boding particularly well for the Jewish community.”

Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a professor at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, has edited a number of books about Israel and agreed with Abramson.
He pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress (at then-Speaker John Boehner’s invitation) two years ago as one of the first indications of Israel’s move to a more partisan consideration.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

“So what you’re seeing is a major split in the American Jewish community — Orthodox voting Republican and Conservative/Reform voting Democrat,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see increasing alienation of Reform and Conservative Jews from Israel, not only because of the settlements, but also because of the Western Wall issue and their being treated as second-class citizens.”

Many JT readers will be familiar, to some extent, with Israeli politics, but the crux of the issue is this: The Orthodox and Haredi Orthodox Jewish voice in Israel is amplified in politics and government
beyond what it represents in population, often to the exclusion of those who identify with the Conservative or Reform or other non-Orthodox movements of Judaism. As of a Pew Research Center study released last year, those identifying as “Haredi Orthodox” and “Religious” were 18 percent
of the Israeli population (for context, 19 percent of Israel is non-Jewish, with 14 of the 19 percent Muslim). The remaining 63 percent of Jews identified as “Traditional” (23 percent) or “Secular” (the largest single segment of the population at 40 percent). By contrast, the Jewish population in the United States, according to a 2013 Pew survey, is about one-third nondenominational (30 percent), one-third Reform (35 percent), and the remaining third Conservative (18 percent) along with Orthodox (10 percent); a small percentage falls into the “other” category.

There is a prevailing attitude among the more religious in Israel that non-Orthodox Jews are “not real Jews,” Freedman said, and that plays out in ways both big and small that only serve to further alienate many non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel, as well as the non-Orthodox in Israel.

For example, non-Orthodox women are frequently made to dress in a way the more religious consider modest, even in certain public areas. Israeli religious authorities (the only ones allowed to perform marriages) are barred from marrying interfaith couples, and non-Orthodox Jewish couples can only be married under Orthodox rules.

But one of the main, ongoing discussions has been who’s allowed to pray (and how) at the Western Wall. The main prayer plaza at the Wall separates visitors by gender, as dictated by traditional Jewish law. And the southern part of the Wall (around Robinson’s Arch) was designated in 2000 to be an unofficial pluralistic prayer site for those wishing to hold mixed-gender ceremonies or prayers. An interdenominational group called Women of the Wall has also been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men — reading from the Torah, wrapped in a prayer shawl, etc.

"Women of the Wall", an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

“Women of the Wall”, an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the
Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

Earlier last year, a government resolution would have formally recognized and expanded the designated space at the southern end of the Wall and Robinson’s Arch as a pluralistic prayer space. The Haredi Orthodox leaders in the coalition later got cold feet and instead introduced a bill to the Knesset that would essentially criminalize progressive prayer services across the whole Wall.

“Acting as if it’s an Orthodox monopoly means Israel and the Wall are not for all Jews, but a special kind of Jews — the ultra-Orthodox Jews — and that’s very unfortunate in terms of Jewish unity,” Freedman said, continuing that all of this adds up to increasingly mixed views on Israel, especially from non-Orthodox Jews. So, within this already-fraught religious (and political) divide steps the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians.

The conflict has been bloody and long. Since just the turn of the century, more than 1,300
Israelis and, exponentially larger, 9,200 Palestinians have died, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, respectively.

The international community has, in recent weeks, made moves that appear to be both criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and attempting to renew a stalled peace process aimed at a two-state solution. Just last weekend, representatives from 70 countries in Paris for a Middle East Peace Conference endorsed renewed talks and the existence of a two-state solution, a move largely seen as warning Trump and Netanyahu not to ignore this process.

And then there was the U.N. resolution. The most recent measure to reveal the divide specifically in the American Jewish population, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank and was passed unanimously. The United States abstained from voting, a break from usual policy when it would frequently veto any resolution seen as too critical of Israel.

AIPAC, the staunchly pro-Israel group, was quick to speak out against the resolution, calling it “destructive” and “one-sided.”

Conversely, J Street, the more liberal, relative upstart pro-Israel group to AIPAC, welcomed the resolution, saying it “reaffirm[ed] the need for a two-state solution and call[ed] for a halt to actions by both sides that serve to undermine the prospects for peace.”

Even further left, Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement from its executive director both celebrating the resolution and saying the U.S. should have voted for the resolution as opposed to abstaining. “As the only country that abstained, the evidence of the U.S.’s isolation from the global consensus during the vote was stark,” the statement, posted on the group’s website, says in part.

Perhaps tellingly, the BJC fell on the AIPAC side, issuing a statement — made by the executive committee on behalf of the full board — that it was “profoundly disappointed” in the U.S. abstention. “The BJC believes that the United States’ strong support for its most steadfast democratic ally in the Middle East is both principled and strategic,” it went on to say. “Unfortunately, the abstention from last week’s U.N. resolution was neither.”

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, says the council is always striving to bring the community together and weigh in on issues they think their voice can make a difference.

“I hope we will continue to be an advocate for the community,” he said. He also said the BJC is committed to interfaith cooperation and standing with the local Muslim community against rising Islamophobia, but did not go into detail on where the council might stand in the coming Trump administration’s future.

“It’s just kind of a confusing time politically, so I think everyone is trying to figure it out,” Libit said. But he does want the council to be a voice for everyone. “I think the BJC is really broadly representative of the community.”

Abramson does think the Baltimore Jewish community is divided on Israel but cautions against equating the Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox divide with the political right vs. left one. He points to broad Jewish support for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that didn’t translate across the community into support for Trump.

This tracks for Baltimore Zionist District president Robert Slatkin, who is a member of a Conservative congregation. He said BZD includes people from a spectrum of Jewish denominations, but its membership leans more religious. BZD aims to both advocate for Israel’s continued security and educate about the challenges still facing it.

“We’re very clear: We continue in our unwavering support of a democratic state of Israel,” Slatkin said.
Siding with Slatkin is Dr. Gary Applebaum, who is involved locally with both AIPAC and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Though he is a staunch supporter of Israel — he criticized the Palestinians for not coming to the table and for their lack of leadership — he believes it still has some unifying power.

“Those of us who love Israel and want to do right by Israel often realize Israel is the one issue that can bring Congress together,” he said.

And yet, Al Mendelsohn, GOP chairman for Baltimore County, said he’s seeing more local Jews come over to the Republican Party, partly, he feels, because of the Israel issue.

“You can certainly say something you don’t agree with regarding Israel without being an anti-Semite, but I think that the national Democratic Party has become very accepting of that crowd,” he said, adding that he feels even Sen. Ben Cardin sometimes goes out of his way not to offend those Mendelsohn saw as anti-Israel. “I’m finding an awful lot of people who are Jewish who aren’t afraid to say, ‘I voted Republican last time.’”

Cardin, the senior senator for Maryland, a Democrat and member of Beth Tfiloh, took issue with that characterization.

“No, I don’t accept that there is a difference in passion of support for Israel,” he said. “In reality, we all want to maintain bipartisan, bicameral — executive, legislative — support of Israel.”

Cardin co-introduced the Senate resolution opposing the U.N. resolution. There are always people, on both sides, who will try to make Israel a partisan issue, he said, though he doesn’t see it as one.

“It’s not unusual to see different views in the Jewish community,” he said. “That’s in our DNA. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on support for Israel.”

Josh Greenfeld is a local representative of J Street, which supports working toward the two-state solution, and said there’s a reason the organization is growing and becoming more visible. Since Trump’s surprise election, J Street has seen some of the biggest gains ever, both in membership and finances, according to Greenfeld. And he says he is having more and more people from the Baltimore community reach out to him about being involved.

“When J Street started, it was like a breath of fresh air,” he said. AIPAC has done great work, he added, but more recently it has “failed to represent views of many in the community.”

Many of those in the community who are more critical of Israel tend to fall in younger demographics — look at J Street’s fairly large presence on college campuses (this includes a chapter at Johns Hopkins University). Those who are more hardline pro-Israel often dismiss these groups as simply “less educated” on the facts or saying they don’t remember all the violence Israel has faced in getting where it has (specifically the 1948 Arab-Israeli, 1967 Six-Day and 1973 Yom Kippur wars).

This is true to some extent, but it also does a serious disservice to young Jews, many of whom ground their criticisms of Israel firmly in their Jewish faith. Annie Kaufman, 38, is an active member of the Baltimore Jewish community (although she is currently attending yeshiva in Chicago) and also very progressive on issues of social justice. She has been a longtime member of Jewish Voice for Peace and said she has been frustrated that it can feel like Baltimore Jewish institutions have very pro-Israel assumptions of those attending their events.

“They try to make it look like all Jews in Baltimore stand with Israel and that it’s a big part of what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “But I know from many of my friends that there is a lot of diversity of opinion regarding Israel.”

Kaufman, who recently led a progressive-minded Talmudic study session in Baltimore, thinks some synagogues are now engaging with discussions that vocalize and support criticisms of Israel.

Local Rabbis are as divided and diverse in opinion as the community they serve. Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Congregation supports Israel, but also thinks too many people conflate the Israeli government with the whole State of Israel.

“Israel is not an issue, it’s a state,” he said. He may disagree with some of its policies as a self-described progressive, but he believes absolutely that “being pro-Israel is supporting its right to exist as a Jewish, democratic and free state.”

The key, Burg said, is to welcome the discussions, to allow for the Jewish tenet of “sacred arguing” to take place respectfully among the community.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation was actually in Israel when the JT reached out to him. He characterized both his and his congregation as a staunchly pro-Israel group. Or, as he put it, “I wasn’t put on this earth to be critical of Israel.”

“This is not a J Street congregation,” he went on to say. “We take great pride in our support for Israel.”

How someone approached Israel also tended to predict how he or she viewed the potential for the new administration. Those hardline Israel supporters are optimistic about Trump, and hopeful for improved U.S.-Israel relations. If personnel are policy, Applebaum said, then he saw it as a positive sign that Trump was surrounding himself with pro-Israel people in his administration.

Among Trump’s personnel is his pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — a controversial choice due to his support for far-right groups in Israel and previous statements likening J Street members to kapos, Jews who supervised their fellow Jews in concentration camps. Friedman also supports moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move at odds with longtime U.S. policy. Those more critical of Israel have numerous concerns, not only for the future of Israel, but also for those minority groups here at home, including the Jewish community.

“I’m very nervous about Trump’s presidency in general and his appointees, including David Friedman,” Burg said.

Cardin, who is the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, which will be overseeing Friedman’s confirmation, said he always reserves judgment until the hearings, but assured that Friedman will be asked to address head-on his “unacceptable statements about Jews who disagree with him.”

Almost everyone the JT talked to about this subject predicted the divide in the Baltimore Jewish community, and larger American Jewish population, would only widen. And they all also said something else: They love Israel. Almost all of them had visited at least once, more often a double-digit number of times.

The community may not agree on Israel, maybe ever, but they all still have something that unites them — their Jewish heritage.

Israel’s Economy Expected to Slow in 2017

Tel Aviv residents protest the high cost of living in 2011. (LEVINE/SIPA/Newscom)

Tel Aviv residents protest the high cost of living
in 2011. (LEVINE/SIPA/Newscom)

Israel’s economy hummed along in 2016 with an impressive estimated economic growth rate of 3.5 percent.

That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, “this year has been an outlier,” said Avi Weiss, executive director of the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy, a nonpartisan, socioeconomic think tank.

Israel’s economy has been growing slowly in the 2010s, and the country’s endemic problems — notably high housing costs and high rates of poverty — will continue to plague it in 2017. But the good news for Israelis is that more American dollars might be on the way, despite the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Israeli economy.

Those are two of the predictions that economic experts make for 2017.

Poverty Will Remain Relatively High

One in every five Israelis lives below the poverty line, Weiss said.

Compare that to other similarly developed countries, in which one in every nine or 10 people live in poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which measures the economic standings of different countries.

While the Israeli government has established a committee to address the country’s poverty, it is fighting an uphill battle, according to Weiss.

The Haredi Orthodox and Arab populations account for more than half of those living in poverty, he said. Both groups have large families with only one parent working.

“It’s unlikely Israel will attain its goal” of hitting the OECD average of one in roughly 10 people in 2017, Weiss said, because “poverty is measured per person. If you have a large family, you divide [the wages among the] kids.”

Israel Has an Edge over the BDS Movement

Despite activism by pro-BDS groups in the United States, the movement is of “very little” concern for Israel in 2017, said Dany Bahar, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Bahar said Israel exports goods such as medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and electronics. These are goods that people need regardless of political arena.

He compared the modern BDS movement with the one waged against South Africa in the 1980s. He explained the difference is the goods South Africa exported — such as fruit — were easily substituted.

No More Accidental  Divesting

In 2010, Israel was promoted from an emerging to a developed market for global indexes, said Joe Levin, chief investment strategist of BlueStar Indexes, which builds and maintains indexes of Israel’s market.

Consequentially, Israel’s relative market weight — the amount and value of shares publicly traded — plummeted.

“Israel went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” said Levin. He added the problem was exaggerated by the fact that a third of Israeli companies are not classified as Israeli in global indexes.

This caused some pro-Israel organizations to divest from Israel accidentally to mirror indexes.

Levin predicts that in 2017, investors, such as board members at Jewish federations, will become savvy to this and begin asking more questions about their portfolios, and how accurately their dollars reflect their stated mission.

Levin said: “How much Israel is in our portfolio? What exposure do we have in companies that are against [our] values? What message do our investments say about the values of our community?”

BlueStar has already addressed these questions with more than a dozen federations and is continuing to do so with others.

Despite Government  Efforts, Housing Costs Will Not Drop

The majority of the country’s land is owned by the Israel Land Authority, and in the past decade, the authority cut back the amount of land it releases for public use, Weiss said.

An increase in demand without an increase in supply is a recipe for high prices.

To address the problem, the government passed a law taxing individuals who own three or more apartments.

But Bahar predicts even if those who are taxed put their apartments on the market — which is not guaranteed — the country as a whole will only see a minimal return.

Why? Because of Israel’s eight million citizens, it is estimated only 50,000 will be taxed.

BJC ‘Profoundly Disappointed’ by UN Resolution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was criticized for telling the World Zionist Congress that a Palestinian leader convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews, but “on one side of the room it was well received,” said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Jewish Council released a statement Monday saying it is “profoundly disappointed” by last week’s U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The United States abstained from voting, a departure from its usual policy of vetoing any resolutions seen as too overtly critical of Israel.

The BJC called the resolution “one-sided,” claiming it didn’t capture the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“U.N. resolutions like the one approved last week — attacking the only democracy of the Middle East and choosing to focus on isolated issues — harm, rather than help, efforts to restart peaceful negotiations, by making it far less likely that the parties will come to the negotiating table,” the statement goes on. “The BJC believes that the United States’ strong support for its most steadfast democratic ally in the Middle East is both principled and strategic. Unfortunately, the abstention from last week’s U.N. resolution was neither.”

The U.S. is one of five permanent members on the UNSC, along with 10 nonpermanent, rotating members. This resolution — the first addressing “the Palestine question” since 2009, according to the United Nations’ website — was passed nearly unanimously, with all but the U.S. voting in favor. News outlets also reported a burst of audience applause in the packed room upon its passing.

The resolution did not mince words, calling out Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as having “no legal validity” and as “a flagrant violation under international law.”

President-elect Donald Trump had expressed support for a veto and said in a tweet, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.” His named ambassador to Israel — David Friedman — is a more hardline Israel supporter, including pro-settlement.

Since the resolution passed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has targeted those countries who voted for the resolution, suspending, or at least limiting, working ties with 12 of the UNSC members, according to CNN. The Israeli Foreign Ministry also tweeted that it has removed the ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand, both co-sponsors of the resolution, back to Israel as well as canceled a trip to Israel by the Senegalese foreign minister and halted its aid programs to that country.

Trump’s Israel Envoy Pick Shakes Up American Jewish Status Quo

President-elect Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, N.J., in Feb. 2010. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, N.J., in Feb. 2010. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) -– Nearly six years ago, when President Barack Obama was set to elevate one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community to the Israel ambassadorship, Dan Shapiro asked for – and got – the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement – or, really, anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum – to extend that embrace to David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer who is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community and whom he nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman’s denigration of J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis; his calling Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic,” and his lament that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

The nomination of Friedman has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organized Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 percent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton: One of marginalization, not of outreach. While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the U.S. support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes moderation best builds a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’” — the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine – “what does that say about respect for civil discourse and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are less than a handful of ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland and, occasionally, Greece and Italy.

American Jewish leaders have long expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel. “It’s more than diplomatic, it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements — the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding U.S. and international policy.

Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups have already denounced Friedman, citing his online history thick with broadsides against liberals, many appearing on the pro-settlement Israeli news site, Israel National News, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organized community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund launched a fund-raising appeal on Monday based on what they called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA. It said Friedman has “has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever.”

In an interview, Klein said he stood by his 2011 endorsement of Shapiro, who strove to reach out to right-wing Jews in the United States and hard-liners in Israel as a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council and then as ambassador.

“I said I found Shapiro to be a person of integrity,” Klein said. “That’s true of Dan and it’s true of David Friedman.”

Friedman was reported to have said earlier this month at an off-the-record segment of the annual Saban Forum colloquy of U.S. and Israeli influencers that were he to become ambassador, he would not take meetings with J Street.

“He’s not there to represent the views of most Jews,” Klein said of Friedman, although he said he believed that Friedman’s support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem and for settlement expansion was representative of the Jewish community.

Klein said he would not use “kapos” to describe J Street, which opposes settlement expansion and advocates for an assertive U.S. posture in bringing about a two-state solution, but he understood how Friedman might have done so out of “anguish and misery.”

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman, but expressed concerns about his statements and his rejection for the two-state solution.

In an interview, URJ President Rick Jacobs said that the Reform movement has relied on U.S. administrations to represent to Israel, through their ambassadors, the broad range of American Jewish opinion. An ambassador who represented only one segment of the Jewish community would diminish attachment to Israel among Jews already unsettled by Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, and by exclusion of non-Orthodox groups from civil matters like marriage and divorce, he said.

“Our larger project has been to keep people connected to Israel,” Jacobs said of the URJ. “We may be seeing a series of policy shifts” under Trump “that make it harder for non-Orthodox Jews to see Israel as a place they love.”

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a JTA request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League was also not forthcoming.

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what picking Friedman said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict — and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the AJC said.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said in reply to a JTA query that Friedman was representative of the minority of Jews (and a majority in his community) who voted for Trump.

“Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his Administration’s ambassador to Israel is consistent with the policy view Trump expressed during the campaign and consistent with the view of most of those American Jews who actually voted for Trump for president,” he said.

Burton, whose Boston JCRC called on Friedman to apologize for his past remarks, said that it was key for Jews who object to Friedman not to be drawn into the polarizing invective that characterized Friedman’s writings in the past.

“We have to acknowledge that some members of our community are optimistic about the next administration,” he said, noting parts of Trump’s Israel message that should please most Jews, including his expressions of friendship to the country and his desire for peace. “We do ourselves a disservice collectively if we are in the black or white zone on everything.”

Protecting Israel’s Coastline

aquarium2When Israel comes to mind, it typically evokes thoughts of the country’s rich history or the ongoing conflict in the region today. Few may think in terms of its natural resources, namely its coastline and access to the Mediterranean.

But those resources were front and center on Nov. 17 when EcoOcean partnered with the National Aquarium to bring a small exhibit to Baltimore, “Israel Sea The Future,” as well as a panel discussion detailing the various environmental issues affecting the region and the necessary steps to protect both the sea and the many ancient artifacts hidden beneath its waters.

“EcoOcean is an NGO that supports research, educates and does community involvement to protect the marine environment in Israel,” according to Arik Rosenblum, CEO of the organization. The group has been operating in the Mediterranean waters off Israel’s coast for 14 years, having assessed the importance of the area years before the discovery of natural gas and oil.

Israel is just coming to terms with the fact that it actually has a sea, according to Rosenblum. It has international borders that are recognized by all, and there are important resources there, “one being the gas and oil and the second being water.”

The entire Middle East region has had a crisis with water, he said. With recent technological advances in Israel such as desalination plants, however, Israel has been able to render the Mediterranean’s water drinkable. Israel has so much water now that it is exporting it to countries such as Jordan.

“The exhibit is basically trying to show what we are beginning to learn, what we need to know, what is missing and what has to be done about that square,” said Rosenblum. “This exhibition shows examples of what is there and what we need to do to make sure it is protected.”

It is common knowledge that Israel is full of archaeological finds that shed light on the history of three major religions, but it does not stop at the coastline. The exhibit is rife with pictures of recent finds, one such discovery being that of a sunken ship carrying more than 3,000 gold coins inscribed with the name of a historical leader.

A particularly fascinating shipwreck is of Byzantine origin. Byzantium had come and taken all pagan objects to melt down, but a ship full of pagan idols sunk off the coast. A statuette of a Greek goddess pictured in the exhibit was found a half-mile from EcoOcean’s offices, Rosenblum said.

“Really, we have four coasts: the Dead Sea, Red Sea, Galilee and Mediterranean,” said Dr. Beverly Goodman, a Haifa University assistant professor and National Geographic explorer who sits on EcoOcean’s board. “We have to be really careful with all of the pressure on our coastline and take the time to understand what we need to protect. Because of the erosion on the Mediterranean coast, we have had a lot of exposure of antiquities. We have to be gentle and aware so that we do not lose these resources before we find them.”

Dr. Assaf Ariel, a scientific adviser to EcoOcean, outlined further issues with Israel’s Mediterranean coast. “There are a lot of people and countries that put high pressure on the land and sea and create a lot of garbage and sewage. When the Suez Canal was opened 150 years ago, the problem was that it opened the gate to massive marine invasion from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. On top of that, in the 1960s they build the Aswan Dam to regulate the water level, which caused the flow of sand and nutrients into the Mediterranean to reach a dramatic low.”

Approximately 1 percent of Israel’s marine environment is protected under current law and that protected environment is in the north of Israel rather than in the important square block in which EcoOcean has focused its efforts.

“What we are doing now, with the support and help of the Israeli government, is our research vessel is now mapping all of the waters of that square and trying to identify where could be the potential places for marine protected areas,” said Rosenblum. “It has been proven worldwide that protecting marine environments by law is a major step toward preventing the area from being harmed, even if gas or oil is found. That is why we’re pushing it so hard.”

Recently, the European Commission requested that EcoOcean create a standard for how to collect artifacts and specimens without harming nature during research. A similar exhibit to the one at the National Aquarium is going around Israel in Arabic and Hebrew.

According to Rosenblum, the goal is “to get the average Israeli citizen to know that Israel doesn’t end at the beach line.”

To learn more, visit

Baltimore Firefighters Help Battle Blazes in Israel

Baltimore-area firefighters, including Scott Goldstein (third from left), Jason Broth (fourth from left), Sholom Reches (fifth from left) and Howie Cohen (second from right), flew to Israel to help stem hundreds of fires as pasrt of the Emergency Volunteers Projects. (Provided)

Baltimore-area firefighters, including Scott Goldstein (third from left), Jason Broth (fourth from left), Sholom Reches (fifth from left) and Howie Cohen (second from right), flew to Israel to help stem hundreds of fires as part of the Emergency Volunteers Projects. (Provided)

When a rash of wildfires spread in Israel last week, a group of Americans were ready to drop everything and head overseas to help the Jewish state.

“The motherland called,” Capt. Scott Goldstein of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company said via email from Israel. “Outside of America, there is no other country on the planet I would step out of my life for with no notice.”

Goldstein and 39 other American firefighters — including three others from Baltimore — flew to Israel last weekend as part of the Emergency Volunteers Project, a not-for-profit Israeli organization that deploys seasoned emergency service workers to backup first responders in Israel at nearly a moment’s notice during times of conflict.

Goldstein was joined by paramedic Howie Cohen, EMT Jason Broth, both from the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company, and paramedic Sholom Reches from the Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Company.

The Baltimore firefighters were assigned to the fire station in Herzliyah.

“The guys from Baltimore for the most part are responding to traditional emergencies from one of the busiest stations,” said EVP spokesman Eitan Charnoff.

The EVP firefighters were helping respond to the hundreds of fires that flared up in Israel starting Tuesday, Nov. 22, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Some 32,000 acres of forest and brush — an area more than twice the size of Manhattan — burned along with hundreds of homes and businesses. Israeli authorities said the fires started because of an unseasonably long dry spell and high winds and then were exacerbated by Palestinian and Arab-Israeli arsonists with nationalist motives. At least 35 people have been arrested since Nov. 24 in connection with the fires.

Last Friday, when Israel’s Ministry of Public Security requested help from EVP, the wheels were already in motion in Baltimore.

Yossi Kelemer, who serves on a board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, approached Linda Hurwitz, chair of the board of The Associated.

“He was told that if possible, there were volunteer firefighters willing to go to Israel immediately in order to help alleviate the flames and assist with what’s going on, but they were in need of immediate funds for travel,” Hurwitz said. “There was no time to waste.”

So Hurwitz spent part of her Thanksgiving reaching out to lay leaders and Associated officials, and the organization was able to underwrite the $13,000 cost of travel for the local firefighters through its Israel and Overseas allocation.

“It’s a tribute to how the collective in The Associated functions and can immediately respond in a crisis situation because we are prepared to help,” she said. “That’s our mission, to help and care for those in need as expediently, efficiently and effectively as possible.”

The four Baltimore firefighters and one more from out of state left the Pikesville fire station around 4:30 p.m. Friday to catch their overnight flight out of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, but not before Hurwitz swung by to wish them well and bring a freshly baked challah for Shabbat. She noted that two of the firefighters are observant, and one had even asked his rabbi if traveling on Shabbat for this trip was OK, to which the rabbi said it was.

“There was no question they needed to go save lives, so they would travel even on Shabbos,” Hurwitz said. “I was very touched by their herculean effort in getting all things straightened out in their lives so quickly to go help Israel.”

The crew from Baltimore was the first to arrive in Israel on Saturday morning, and the rest of the EVP volunteers were there by Sunday. Twenty-five more firefighters were on standby in the U.S.

“Plenty of them are officers and chiefs with years of experience,” Charnoff said. “They come from Baltimore to Austin, Texas, to LA City, LA County. We’ve got guys from all over the place.”

EVP volunteers are fully integrated into Israeli rescue services and work in conjunction with the Israeli Fire Service, the Ministry of Public Security, the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command, the Ministry of Health and a variety of hospitals.

The American firefighters helped abate brush fires, responded to emergencies and gave the Israeli firefighters some much-needed room to rest — some had worked 90-hour shifts from when the fires started.

“They’re additional highly experienced manpower. Just having the extra manpower around has provided the Israeli firefighters much room to rest,” said Oren Shishitzky, spokesman for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority.

Speaking in Hebrew translated by Charnoff on Monday, Shishitzky said the situation was under control, but firefighters were still at a very high level of alert. Rain was expected, and authorities hoped the state of emergency would be lifted Thursday. No civilians or emergency workers had lost their lives as of press time.

Goldstein said morale was high, and the Israeli firefighters were welcoming. “They are tired, but determined,” he said.

“American firefighters have boosted morale,” Shishitzky said. “It’s a demonstration that we’re not alone, that we have people we can count on at a moment’s notice to lend a helping hand.”

About 2,000 Israeli firefighters fought the blazes with assistance from a dozen other countries. The Palestinian Authority sent 41 firefighters and eight trucks to help.

For Goldstein, the trip was a no-brainer.

“This is my third trip here, the second trip under emergency conditions,” he said. “It is part for love of Israel, part out of the commitment we made to EVP, and we are firemen, and this is what we do.”

JTA contributed to this report.