Pennsylvania Dad Files Complaint over Star of David

A middle school father outside Harrisburg, Pa., has filed a complaint with his son’s school alleging that a teacher’s Star of David necklace violates Pennsylvania state law.

Act 14 Section 1112 prohibits public school teachers in the state from wearing any “dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.” The law was passed in Pennsylvania in 1942. While similar laws have been revoked in many states around the country, the “Pennsylvania Religious Garb Law” has been upheld.

“If a child is subjected to a teacher where a symbol of Judaism is allowed to skirt the law, I believe that a Muslim should be allowed to cover her head as well as a Christian to cover her head like the Bible commands,” the parent, Ernest Perce, told local television station ABC 27.

Hank Butler is executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, an advocacy group that includes members from all 10 of the state’s Jewish federations. Though he said he has no plans to take any direct action in response to the complaint, which was filed with the East Pennsboro Area School District, he said his organization has had its eye on the garb law for a long time and hopes this upcoming legislative session will finally see it revoked.

If the district decides the teacher did in fact violate the law, the teacher could be subject to a one-year suspension. If a school district is aware of a violation and does not respond, the district director could be charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a fine of as much as $100.



Dalia Rabin and Aaron David Miller (center) were the guests in a panel  discussion that was moderated by New York Times deputy national editor Ethan Bronner.

Dalia Rabin and Aaron David Miller (center) were the guests in a panel
discussion that was moderated by New York Times deputy national editor Ethan Bronner.

“It’s serious” was the simple, yet striking response of Dalia Rabin, daughter of the late Israeli prime minister, when asked about the West becoming more critical of Israel during a wide-ranging panel discussion that covered relations between Israel and the United States.

The chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, the national institute dedicated to the legacy of her late father, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was joined by Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in a discussion titled “America and Israel: The Way Forward” at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Moderated by Ethan Bronner, deputy national editor of The New York Times, the Dec. 4 discussion, which was co-presented by American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, was made available via private webcast to participating community organizations across the U.S., including Beth El Congregation in Pikesville.

About 75 people filled Beth El’s Offit Auditorium for the presentation.

What started out as a hopeful relationship between Israel and the U.S. has turned to President Barack Obama becoming “very cautious and very risk averse when it comes to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” according to Miller.

“In that first year and a half, on somebody’s bad advice, [Obama] decided to have an unproductive fight with Israel,” he said. “And let me be clear, you don’t do Arab-Israeli peace without fighting with the Israelis. That’s clear. The only three breakthroughs in the entire 50-year peace process — Kissinger, Carter and Baker — all came as a consequence of tough wrangles with the Israelis.

“The question is not whether you’re going to fight with the Israelis … and the Arabs too,” he continued. “The question is whether those fights are productive. That’s the key.”

Miller termed the current relationship between the two countries “dysfunctional” and “functionless,” but neither speaker would lay blame for the nadir in bilateral affairs at the feet of Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. Contrasting current events with the Camp David accords negotiated by President Bill Clinton, Miller argued that back then, America acted too much like Israel’s lawyer, rather than providing a neutral ground for bilateral talks.

Clinton, Rabin said, was “totally taken” with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and that close relationship made the Palestinians suspicious.

“The history of peacemaking in Israel is one of transformed hawks, beginning with Menachem Begin,” said Miller. Rabin, “Dalia’s father, the breaker of bones during the first intifada, was very, very tough.”

Miller described the late prime minister as a “visionary” and a “pragmatic hawk.” He further attributed the relative calm between Israel at its neighbors during the 1990s to Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

“To make peace, to make tough decisions, you need two things: You need incentive and you need capacity. You could argue that Yitzhak Rabin was the last Israeli leader who had both,” said Miller. “You could make the argument that [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has the capacity but not the incentive, and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas has the incentive, but perhaps not the capacity.”

Bronner steered the conversation toward Netanyahu’s call for early elections, which will take place on March 17.

Rabin, who shied away from making a prediction, noted that neither Finance Minister Yair Lapid nor Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were able to achieve their respective agendas as part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

“Right now if elections were held, the prime minister would win,” said Miller. “He’s now the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, save David Ben-Gurion. There doesn’t appear to be anyone who has his political skills, his security credentials and a track record for winning.”

Inevitably, the conversation turned to Hamas.

Miller pointed out that the U.S. deals with “groups that have blood of American soldiers on their hands,” but we don’t deal with Hamas. There are ways around the official embargo on negotiating with Hamas, but what is the point if such negotiations are a “key to an empty room.”

Rabin said that the Israeli government made mistakes over the past year, which she believes strengthened Hamas.
“We got out of this war with nothing,” she said of Israel’s summer offensive in Gaza. “At the end of the day we have to deal with them. When my father took over, he said he’d never talk to Yasser Arafat, so never say never.”

As the program wound down, Bronner asked if now is the time for Israel to cut a deal.

“I’m not sure,” said Rabin. “I think that we should negotiate. … We should keep channels open. We have to show that we are willing to go somewhere.

Goucher Graffiti

Sometime between Nov. 25 and 26, campus officials say, the  Hillel building was spray-painted with a variety of messages.

Sometime between Nov. 25 and 26, campus officials say, the
Hillel building was spray-painted with a variety of messages.

The Goucher College community is split this week on how to handle the recent emergence of graffiti on the campus’ Hillel building.

Students returned from Thanksgiving break early last week to find a cross, two crescent moons and a Star of David spray-painted on the outside of the building, along with two messages: “Stop the hate” and, in all capital letters,  “F—k White People.” The paint has since been removed.

While some in the Goucher community have chalked the vandalism up to well-intended but out-of-hand activism, some members of the college’s Jewish population say the act targets Jewish students.

“I still contend that I think it was very much purposeful and very much symbolic,” said Goucher sophomore Maxwell Adelstein, who participates in Hillel activities. “Whether or not it was hateful, I think it was basically charging Hillel with hate.”

Adelstein said that even the other students involved with Hillel are divided on whether the markings were meant to make a statement about Hillel students specifically or a simple effort to place a message in a spot many students will see it. The Hillel building is situated in the residential part of the campus.

Though no one has claimed responsibility for the markings, they come among a rush of protests and campus activism concerning Israeli actions in Gaza over the summer and the failure of a grand jury to indict a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Adelstein noted. Earlier this fall, students founded a branch of Students for Justice in Palestine and debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has played out in several op-eds in school publications over the past semester.

“Tensions are running high on campus about a number of important issues facing the nation and our campus: the situation in Ferguson, a union vote, and concern about drugs and sexual misconduct. There have been protests and several instances of graffiti and vandalism,” read a statement released to students on Dec. 2 by Jose Bowen, Goucher College president. “A number of our students feel angry, hurt and afraid. The graffiti above the Hillel patio may not have been directed at Jewish students, but it was still painful for them.”

Kristen Pinheiro, Goucher’s senior director of communications, said the school cleaned the paint off the building as soon as it could and has been looking into the incident. She said school officials have heard from students who are concerned about the appearance of the graffiti, but at this point the administration does not believe those responsible were
attacking Jewish students.

“We have no reason to believe it was in any way targeted toward our Jewish student population,” said
Pinheiro, noting the content of the markings. “It was just foul language in general terms.”

The area where the graffiti appeared is not monitored by cameras and, unless someone comes forward to the administration to claim responsibility or provide information, the case will likely go unsolved, said Pinheiro.

France Will Pay Reparations

SNCF is France’s state-owned railway company. Its subsidiary, Keolis, operates Virginia’s rail sytem.

SNCF is France’s state-owned railway company. Its subsidiary, Keolis, operates Virginia’s rail sytem.

After years of debate and numerous lawsuits, French officials announced late last week that the country has agreed to establish a $60 million fund that will be used to compensate thousands of Holocaust victims and their families.

Victims eligible for compensation are those deported from France during the Holocaust and ineligible for the country’s previously existing compensation fund. As part of the country’s agreement, the United States will curb lawsuits and claims against France.

“We welcome the conclusion of an agreement between France and the United States to establish a compensation fund for the Holocaust victims who were deported from France and who have not been able to access the French compensation scheme,” said French Embassy spokesman Arnaud Guillois. “This agreement highlights our joint determination to bring
closure to the situation whereby certain foreign victims were not covered by the existing compensation scheme in France within a coordinated and bilateral framework.”

The agreement, which was signed Dec. 8 and still must be approved by the French parliament, follows in the wake of numerous attempts by state legislatures — including Maryland’s General Assembly — to withhold rail contracts from SNCF, France’s national rail company, over the company’s involvement in transporting thousands of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Maryland passed a bill in 2011 that required all bidders for MARC contracts to disclose any involvement in deportations. A 2014 bill demanding SNCF pay reparations before it would be considered for rail contracts in the state did not make it out of committee.

SNCF subsidiary Keolis was one of several companies to bid on the Purple Line project connecting Washington, D.C., suburbs across Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“I think the agreement is mostly a symbolic acknowledgement of the French rail company’s responsibility and involvement and activities and guilt in the transportation of over 75,000 people — mostly Jewish — to their death in World War II,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “Seventy years seems like quite a long period of time to delay and to not accept responsibility, but in the end I think justice was done.”

The effort to force France to settle outstanding claims for reparations was championed in Baltimore by the late Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who passed away earlier this year.

The American Jewish community, Halber said, effectively “held a sword over [the French government’s] head” by backing legislation that would have withheld American rail contracts until reparations were paid. That, in addition to France’s desire to put the issue behind them, he said, largely contributed to the decision.

“I know they’ve spent a lot of money, they’ve contributed money to Holocaust memorials and that kind of thing … but the bottom line is that I want to hear their responsibility, their acknowledgement that ‘we are guilty,’ and I think that’s what that $60 million by the French government on behalf of SNCF says.”

Halber and Arthur Abramson, executive director of Baltimore’s Jewish Council, praised the Obama administration for its role in reaching a solution to the longstanding issue of reparations. Both organizations had been involved in efforts to block SNCF business in Maryland in the past.

Abramson said he is happy the French government will establish the fund, but he is cautiously optimistic about the future of SNCF in Maryland.

“I’m glad they reached a settlement but now the next step is for payments to be made and people to be comfortable with what occurred,” said Abramson. “Time will tell.”

According to the agreement, disbursement of funds will be handled by the United States. Three categories of people may apply for the reparations. Survivors who were deported from France and now live in another country, French officials estimate, will receive an average of more than $100,000. The second category includes spouses of those deported from France who are now citizens of another country. These claimants could receive payments amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.

The estates of survivors or their spouses who were citizens of another country and died after World War II could also receive compensation. The amount of money estates are eligible to receive is dependent on the year survivors or their spouses died.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41), who was active in efforts to hold SNCF accountable, said he was pleased with the agreement, though he acknowledged that some of victims fall outside the tent of qualification.

“The goal was twofold,” said Rosenberg. “One: the value of the information. But it was also to do through the legislative process what the survivors had been unable to do through the legal process.”

The Maryland legislature’s efforts to force SNCF to take responsibility for its actions before being able to do business in Maryland, Rosenberg said, played a role in this agreement.

“Speaking generally, there are instances when you introduce … legislation to bring people to the table,” said Rosenberg. “Having a bill hearing and a public discussion of the issue … is a way to get both parties to the table, in particular to give leverage to the little guy and gal who is seeking a benefit and hasn’t been able to win it in the court system.”

David Holzel contributed to this report.

Reconstructing Beit Tikvah

It has been just over a year since Rabbi Larry Pinsker joined Congregation Beit Tikvah as its spiritual leader. But on Nov. 22, the Reconstructionist synagogue, which turns 30 next year, officially celebrated the rabbi’s installation.

“It has been an exciting period of assessment and revitalization,” said Pinsker, a 68-year-old Chicago native who previously led congregations in San Antonio, New York City, Toronto and Winnipeg, Canada. “Longevity doesn’t come because you wish it, it comes by working hard and reinventing. That’s what enables the incredible richness of Jewish life across the millennium.”

Beit Tikvah, which has approximately 175 members, is unique for several reasons, said Pinsker. It was the first synagogue to make its home in Roland Park, a place where Jews were not always welcome. It also shares a building with four church congregations.

Every week, prior to services, the building is transformed from a church to a synagogue.

“The building was envisioned as a spiritual community center,” said the rabbi, who noted that the arrangement has lent itself to more moderate membership costs and innovative interfaith programming.

“We had an amazing five-week program where clergy from each of the five congregations taught Psalms. There was such a sense of respect around the text study,” said Pinsker.

Additionally, Beit Tikvah joins its church-going neighbors in social justice projects such as collecting, boxing and delivering food to the Maryland Food Bank.

Among the first local congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and transgender Jews, Beit Tikvah also welcomes those who wish to involve themselves in synagogue life but do not necessarily wish to convert to Judaism.

“The congregation was started by people with sophisticated ideas about what synagogue life and community should be,” Pinsker said.

Pinsker takes pride in the quality of Beit Tikvah’s Kesher School, which meets every Sunday at the Waldorf School.

“I met with this bar mitzvah kid who had just been to his cousin’s bar mitzvah elsewhere. He came back amazed by the limited expectations for his cousin. He knew and could use such a larger skill set,” said Pinsker. “‘Are we really Orthodox?’ he asked me. I explained that every denomination has a different standard. At Beit Tikvah, we believe if you’re going to learn, you should learn to lead and teach.”

The rabbi compared his own installation to a bar mitzvah.

“To quote an aging pop star, Bob Dylan, and not meaning to be sexist since his language is male, ‘He who is not busy being born is busy dying.’ Jewish life depends upon reimagining,” said Pinsker. “There is a tremendous amount of ownership at Beit Tikvah, which I admire. Everyone has the ability to be a part of Jewish life. We are really Reconstructionist Jews. We use every usable part of what’s been inherited, and where there are broken bricks and mortar, we repair it and use new materials. We are constantly reimagining and recommitting ourselves. It is inspiring to see.”

USCJ Announces Inaugural Winner of Cardin Award

When the number of young families at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., was on the decline, Dr. Jessica Katz Poscover and the Family and Youth Engagement Committee she co-chairs got to work personally welcoming young families to the community. For her efforts, Poscover was awarded the inaugural Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Award of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at the movement’s General Assembly Dec. 7 in New York City.

On the occasion of the USCJ centennial last fall, Cardin, a longtime member and leader of Chizuk Amuno in Pikesville, established the award to recognize “an emerging Jewish leader who is making a difference in advancing the values of a 21st-century Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian and traditional.” The award recipient receives a $5,000 stipend and an opportunity to network with other Jewish leaders.

Cardin’s daughter, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, is a member of the award committee.

“The future doesn’t just happen,” said the rabbi. “It must be built. And we need leaders to help build it, all kinds of leaders with all kinds of talent working at different places in our community.”

Poscover’s activism began four-and-a-half years ago when she resurrected the Parent Teacher Organization at her synagogue’s preschool. Though her children have since graduated, she continued to reach out to local parents. When her synagogue offered free High Holiday tickets to nonmember community members, Poscover and her committee members succeeded in personally welcoming those ticket-holders prior to the holiday and greeting them at the traditional family services. Two hundred tickets were claimed, with an estimated 50 to 75 families included.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon, who nominated Poscover for the award, called her “an inspiration” to him and his congregation.

Poscover, an optometrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is a fellow in the OnBoard program, an initiative of the Legacy Heritage Fund to strengthen board members of Jewish nonprofits, and is a past participant of the 2012 pilot cohort of Sulam for Emerging Leaders, a USCJ program developed to engage the next generation of Jewish leaders.

“Shoshana Cardin is a real leader in the Jewish community,” said Poscover. “I’m honored and humbled by the whole experience.”


Four Jewish Organizations Among Baltimore’s Top 100 Workplaces

Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Congregation, Jewish Community Services, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc. have been named as “Top Workplaces” in 2014 by The Baltimore Sun.

The daily newspaper recognizes 100 companies each year with information drawn from employee surveys and bases its results on employee evaluations of their companies. The ranking originated with the company WorkplaceDynamics, based in Exton, Pa., in 2006, which partners with 30 publications across the country to process the surveys for companies interested in collecting the information. In its fifth year, more than 4,000 organizations participate nationally.

The survey questions are based on three themes: organizational health; engagement and motivation in the workplace; and general satisfaction with the employee’s position in the company, management and salary.

“What’s most impressive about being named a top workplace is that it’s all because of our employees,” said JCS executive director Barbara Gradet. “They clearly feel very passionate about what they do. Every single member of our staff plays a critical role in helping people to improve their lives.”

Ulman Plots Next Move

Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman will announce his next position soon, he says.

Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman will announce his next position soon, he says.

Nearly two weeks after his eight-year term as Howard County executive came to an end, Ken Ulman is waiting to announce what his next move will be.

“One way or another I will be very involved in making a positive difference in the state of Maryland,” he said. “I hope to focus on innovation, the 21st-century economy, making sure Maryland is a real leader in the innovation economy [and] pushing forward solutions to our challenges whether that be in the private sector or the public sector.”

On Monday, Dec. 1, Republican Allan Kittleman was sworn in as the next county executive. While Ulman, 40, hoped to be heading to Annapolis in January as lieutenant governor under Anthony Brown, with the election of Larry Hogan and Boyd Rutherford, Ulman finds his future open to possibilities.

“I will be heavily involved [in the state] in one way or another and hope to announce very soon,” the Jewish Democrat said.

To that end, Ulman met Gov.-elect Larry Hogan at an Annapolis restaurant last week, according to The Washington Post. The two discussed economic development and a Hogan spokeswoman told the paper the meeting was productive.

Ulman has also met with his successor, with whom he spent some time discussing ongoing projects, such as the development happening in Town Center in Columbia.

As far as the gubernatorial election goes, Ulman attributes his ticket’s loss to a number of things.

“I think a big part of that was certainly the mood of the country,” he said, referring to the Republican momentum that gave the GOP control of the U.S. Senate and expanded its majority in the House of Representatives. “One thing you learn is that the higher up you go, there’s a more direct correlation with what’s going on in the country and the national mood.”

He also thought that after an “intense” primary, it was hard to continue that momentum leading up to the general election. While he didn’t directly say the tax hikes during the O’Malley-Brown administration — something critics of Brown often pointed to — contributed to the Democrats’ loss, he believes the economy and the continuing impact of the past recession played a role in voting.

“I think it’s incumbent upon elected officials to better connect the taxes that people pay to things that make a difference in their lives,” Ulman said. “To me, it’s not about taxes being too high or too low, it’s about demonstrating that people are getting value for their tax dollar.”

In Howard County, Ulman felt like he had that kind of rapport with his constituents. Between being one of the first counties to have once-a-week compost pickup, building a significant broadband network, launching telemedicine in schools, facilitating business development and high-tech opportunities and funding development in Columbia, renovations at the Merriweather Post Pavilion and transitional housing for inmates reentering the community, he feels he has given county residents their money’s worth.

“I feel like over the last eight years, we’ve done a number of things that have really sent that message both to our own citizens and to folks outside of Howard County, that you can count on Howard County to be a leader,” he said.

Columbia residents had a close relationship with the former county executive, according to Milton Matthews, president and CEO of the Columbia Association, the nonprofit organization that operates parks, recreational facilities and community centers in Columbia.

“His support for CA initiatives and his presence at many events in the community are reflective of a growing and collaborative relationship between CA and Howard County government,” Matthews said in a statement. “Ken was instrumental in our partnerships with county government, the business community and other stakeholders, which is
essential in the pursuit of our goal of making Columbia an even better place to live, work and play.”

Ulman also left an impression on his fellow Jews, having been a consistent presence at the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s events, including the annual Yom Hashoa commemoration. He was also involved in getting Elta, the Israeli company that makes the Iron Dome radar system, to come to Howard County, said Michelle Ostroff, the federation’s executive director.

“He was very instrumental in making that happen and that was a great thing for the county, great thing for Israel and a great thing for the Jewish community in general,” said Ostroff.

With a lot of support in his home county, would he consider running for office again?

Said Ulman: “I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

Brewing Bromance: Men Learn to Open Up on Israel Mission

Making new and  lasting connections was the goal for these men, who made the trip to Israel.

Making new and
lasting connections was the goal for these men, who made the trip to Israel.

You’re a middle-aged guy. You’re established in your career. Got a great wife, beautiful kids. But none of your friendships nowadays are anywhere as deep or profound as the ones you had in school.

Last month, about 100 men tried to rekindle that old bromance during a week in Israel. Far from career and family, encouraged to be “open” by tour facilitators, they found that almost forgotten depth, said Salvador Litvak, a trip participant, Los Angeles filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist blogger.

“I was doing it with a bunch of guys my age, at a similar place in life,” said Litvak, 49. “You make those dear friends the way you do in school or college.”

The Momentum Men’s Trip was organized by the Rockville-based Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which runs similar Israel tours for women. The men’s trip gave husbands of women’s trip alumnae a taste of their spouses’ experiences — just with more action, according to Lilach Cohen-Holden, digital communications manager for Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.

“The idea is not to get them to cry and to be emotional, but to make a connection,” she said.

The tour included usual Israel fare — kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel, and visits to Yad Vashem and Masada — plus Shabbat lectures such as “Who are you: Body or Soul?” at the Aish HaTorah World Center.

Participants found their inner dude while jeeping, driving all-terrain vehicles and rappelling. Long days ended with barbecues, drum circles, dancing and singing. “Guys were getting in touch with parts of themselves they didn’t know existed,” Litvak said.

Far from the ones they loved, the men drew together — “You just put your arm around a guy,” Litvak said — and left with the feeling that they had become better husbands and men.

The next men’s trip is scheduled for June 2015. For information, go to



Jews United for Justice Comes to Baltimore

Molly Amster is the new Baltimore  executive director of Jews United  for Justice.

Molly Amster is the new Baltimore
executive director of Jews United
for Justice.

Molly Amster found her dream job at Jews United for Justice.

Whether it was working on a sheep dairy in Wisconsin and teaching schoolchildren about where their food comes from, working at Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI) and bringing together African-American and Orthodox girls to talk about identity or planning BBYO conventions in high school, Amster has been building momentum toward her new position for nearly her entire life.

“I knew I wanted to be doing social justice work in this city. I’m really committed to Baltimore,” she said. “I knew I wanted to help create positive change, really lasting structural change.”

And when she saw that Jews United for Justice was looking for a Baltimore executive director, she thought, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I need to do.” She started on Sept. 2 and has since met with other nonprofits, activists and potential partners to inform JUFJ’s campaign selection process and built a base of nearly 50 people hoping to be involved.

“We’re looking to create an intergenerational progressive Jewish community in Baltimore,” she said.

JUFJ formed in Washington, D.C., in 1998 to concentrate on issues of local concern through a Jewish lens.

“In the past few years in the D.C. area, we’ve helped to win higher minimum wage, paid sick days for all workers in the district, marriage equality, [getting] the Maryland DREAM Act on the ballot and key funding for safety-net programs like homeless services through a fairer tax system in the district,” said Jacob Feinspan, executive director of JUFJ. The organization is now working on issues of affordable housing and paid family leave in D.C.

With a JUFJ community already established in Montgomery County, where the group has worked on the DREAM Act, marriage equality and paid family leave, and organizations asking the group to come to Baltimore, it was an obvious move. A Baltimore presence coupled with the Montgomery County branch will also allow the organization to build more clout in Annapolis.

“We know that Baltimore faces many of the same challenges that the D.C. area faces of huge income and opportunity gaps, and we think that the Jewish community can and should be part of the response,” Feinspan said.

And for the woman who will be leading the charge in Baltimore, advocacy runs in the family.

Amster’s great-grandparents and grandparents were members of the Jewish Labor Bund, a Jewish socialist group, and Workmen’s Circle, respectively. Growing up, her mother worked as a social worker and spent most of her career working in the Jewish communal field. She also grew up in what she described as an “egalitarian, conservative, socially progressive” synagogue, Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.

“Those values of justice and equity were very much instilled in me as a kid,” she said.

In addition to celebrating Shabbat each week along with the Jewish holidays, the Amsters would host about 30 people for Rosh Hashanah and other celebrations.

Amster, 31, a Montgomery County native, spent time in high school and college in various community organizing and advocacy capacities. In high school, she served as the D.C. Council president for B’nai B’rith Girls, in which she had the “formative experience” of booking her chapter’s convention as a high school freshman, which she said was her first time creating her own Jewish community. She was also involved in a program that offered peer education on dating, domestic violence and bullying in high school.

In college, Amster ran a girls mentoring program called All Kinds of Girls and worked for the Main South Community Development Corporation, which left a significant impression on her. Main South, a neighborhood near Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where Amster attended college, had a reputation for being downtrodden and dangerous.

“That was the first time where I really saw how power works in a real way in neighborhoods,” she said. “I think also it was a good lesson — rather than just dismissing the neighborhood as [awful] and full of problems and danger — to work in solidarity with the people who are living there to try to make it better and to use my power and privilege to aid in that effort.”

After spending a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science and traveling to Scotland, Amster got interested in farming. That led her to work on a grass-based cow dairy in northern New Jersey and then a sheep dairy in Wisconsin. Through those experiences, Amster taught people about where their food comes from and what it takes to raise food, and she learned a lot about the environmental impacts of raising food. That led her to Baltimore, where she became a member of the Pearlstone Center’s first summer staff at the farm.

“I was interested to hear what Judaism had to say about the environment and agriculture. Those were the things that were really important to me at the time and made me feel connected,” she said. “I was interested to learn about stuff I wasn’t taught in Hebrew School.”

From Pearlstone, Amster went to CHAI, where she spent the past seven years. Most recently, she was working with public schools to develop resources and establish new partnerships but brought political organizing into it. Through that effort, CHAI joined the Baltimore Education Coalition and worked to get additional funding for school construction in Baltimore.

JUFJ was the perfect place to continue working for structural change, she said. Since starting, Amster has been forming a coalition of like-minded organizations and individuals, including Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol HaLev Synagogue.

“There is a hunger for Jewish progressive activism that is not being tapped in Baltimore,” said Basik. “There is this hunger, or pent-up energy, to express ourselves politically.”

Kol HaLev has been around for seven years, and the congregation has grown developmentally each year, but the social action piece is still missing, Basik said. He hopes JUFJ can help get that off the ground at his synagogue.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he plans to have a working relationship with Amster’s organization.

“We want them to have input on our decision-making processes,” he said. “They represent a segment of the Baltimore community. … We will take that into consideration as we develop policy.”

Baltimore’s JUFJ chapter will decide what specific issues it plans to tackle in its first year at a community meeting in February.

Issues on the table include paid sick leave, police brutality and criminal justice reform, returning citizens’ quality of life, water privatization in the city and the Curtis Bay incinerator, a proposed trash incinerator in the south Baltimore neighborhood that has a number of environmental and neighborhood concerns, Amster said.

For more information, contact Molly Amster at or visit