Finding Inspiration

Rabbi Yisroel Porter and his wife, Chaya, head up the Etz Chaim Jewish Family Institute. (Justin Tsucalas)

Rabbi Yisroel Porter and his wife, Chaya, head up the Etz Chaim Jewish Family Institute.
(Justin Tsucalas)

Since 2010, Rabbi Yisroel Porter and his wife, Chaya Porter, of Baltimore’s Etz Chaim Center have been offering programs for young families of all Jewish affiliations through their Jewish Family Institute. Programs for Jewish women such as free women’s trips to Israel through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, Roughly Rosh Hodesh and the Jewish Moms Coffee Club are among JFI’s most popular.

On Sunday, May 4 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., JFI will present its inaugural Women’s Day of Wisdom.

“From what we’ve seen, moms usually put themselves last,” said the rabbi. “They are taking care of their husbands and children, working and [usually] relegate their own personal growth for later.”

Porter said that JFI has made an effort to provide activities designed to help women take time to focus on their own Jewish journeys. Women’s Day of Wisdom will feature presentations by two Jewish women who Porter believes will inspire women to attend.

One is Slovie Jungreis-Wolff, author of “Raising a Child with Soul.” Jungreis’ topic is “Spa for the Soul: Bringing Joy and Blessing into your Life.” The other is Nili Couzens, co-founder and executive director of Jewish Life Seminars, an outreach organization in Philadelphia and an organizer and group leader for the Renaissance Project’s free trips to Israel. Couzens will present “Three Secrets to an Amazing You.”

The Porters engaged Jungreis-Wolff on the recommendation of Claire Tesh Stoltze, a wife and mother of two who works in Washington as a community education center manager at the American Council of Immigration. Tesh Stoltze met the Porters shortly after she moved to Baltimore and has taken part in JFI programming ever since.

“I’m a member of Beth Am, which is amazing,” said Tesh Stoltze. “But Etz Chaim gives me a foundation. They do really good workshops and make it fun to learn.”

About a year ago, Tesh Stoltze went on one of JFI’s trips to Israel.

“I had just lost my father, and I needed a spiritual jump-start,” she recalled. “It was amazing.”

After she read “Raising a Child with Soul,” Tesh Stoltze approached the Porters about having Jungreis-Wolff come to Baltimore.

“I said, ‘Look, if you bring her here, I will fund it,’ ” said Tesh Stoltze, who will introduce the author at the Women’s Day of Wisdom, which she has dedicated in loving memory to her father, the late Arnold Tesh. She is also preparing a poem for the occasion.

“Being in a life with a lot of business travel, the book just inspired me to slow down,” she said. “It’s one thing to read the book, but to be in a room with all these amazing women learning together, maybe it will help us all to think about how to slow down.”.

Jungreis-Wolff echoed Tesh Stoltze’s sentiments.

“We live in very challenging times, and we have the wisdom to get through those times. We will discover the pockets of peace and serenity in our lives based on the Torah,” said Jungreis-Wolff.

“We will discuss this with personal stories and find solutions and true inspiration.”

For additional information and to register for the Women’s Day of Wisdom, visit

Yerushalayim Shel Lego

Architect Stephen Schwartz and his wife, Bunny, hauled 70,000 Lego pieces from their Building Blocks Workshops in New Jersey to Beth El Congregation last weekend to host Lego Jerusalem — an event one had to see through to the end to believe.

At 10:15 last Sunday morning, about 130 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Beth El’s religious school and about 60 grandparents and parents entered the synagogue’s Offit auditorium. On the floor lay a 400-square-foot architectural map of Jerusalem. It included details where walls, gates and historic landmarks were to be constructed, filling in the streets of the Old City. The multigenerational builders, expertly shepherded by Schwartz and his wife, were tasked to finish building the Old City by 11:45 a.m.

“I don’t think it’s going to work,” said Betty Cohen of Owings Mills, who attended with her grandchildren, Avery and Merrick Porter.

“Too much frutummel,” echoed her husband Norman Cohen.

According to Schwartz, he is used to hearing these comments from people at the outset. He admits it can seem like a daunting task and said “it looks like total chaos. However, I have this so orchestrated I know where we need to be at every minute.”

Schwartz began creating building-block events when his daughter, a second-grade teacher at the time, invited him to talk to her class.

“When I saw you could teach second-graders about city planning with Legos, I knew I was on to something,” said Schwartz. “I saw that people understand three-dimensional models so much more clearly than a two-dimensional drawing. It turns on the light.”

Someone at his synagogue heard about it and asked if he could add Jewish content. That was 18 years ago. Now Schwartz and his wife travel around the country hosting the construction events and have expanded to include cities and landmarks such as Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto and, most recently, a windmill map of New Jersey, helping people visualize where the windmills will be placed.

In the auditorium, grandparents, parents and children were shuffling around in stocking feet — a requirement for participation to protect
the map they all worked on — scooping up armfuls of building blocks and spreading out at tables or on the floor after receiving their structure assignments.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Marlene Nusinov, attending with her granddaughter, Ella Nusinov. “I think it’s really smart, bringing grandparents and kids together. It brings families together and brings out the best in all the families.”

Brendan Collins attended Lego Jerusalem with his grandparents, Rona and Larry Snyder. Collins is a Lego fanatic and has a bin full of 450 Legos at home.

“I’m excited,” he said after being assigned to the team building David’s Tower.

Bernard Fox was hard at work on a section of wall around the city. His granddaughter, Jenna Aiken, was working with him.

“I didn’t start off excited, but I was curious,” said Fox, adding that working on the model was reminiscent of his childhood.

Lego Jerusalem was sponsored by Beth El’s Israel Affairs Committee and the Berman-Lipavsky Religious School. The event was designed for a Yom Hashoah remembrance and Israel celebration.

“We’ve taken the approach that we want to provide programs and activities that help educate and inform people about Israel, and that can take many forms,” said chairwoman Hedy From. “[The programming] is an opportunity to broaden our congregants’ and community’s understanding of all things Israeli. … This is not like anything we’ve done before.”

Lego Jerusalem was also intentionally scheduled in conjunction with the Bring Your Grandparent, Parent or Special Friend to School Day.

“In order to educate, we need to bring in hands-on activities that involve grandparents and children,” said Dr. Eyal Bor, director of education at Beth El. “Grandparents now have a greater impact on a child’s Jewish education than parents, different from what I witnessed 25 years ago.”

Matthew Sachs is a seasoned builder, and when his grandmother, Gloria Luchinsky, heard about this event she thought it was a perfect fit. Sachs likes to build 2,000-piece structures and has visited Jerusalem but said he has “never seen a bird’s-eye view of the city” like the map he worked on at Beth El. His grandfather, Ira Luchinsky, was seated on the floor opposite Sachs, working on his own section. Luchinsky laughed when he explained he grew up using Lincoln Logs and erector sets because “Legos hadn’t been invented yet.”

To the astonishment of most people in the room, right on time at about 11:45 the whole city really began to take shape. Groups that had been working “off the map” on the perimeter of the room began to place structures on their designated spots. The wall around the city was complete, the gates were in place, David’s Tower was in view.

“I didn’t think it would come together,” said Gerard Title, grandfather to Emily, Jessica and Rachel Bowers.

Then about 150 additional religious school children entered to partake, as Schwartz conducted his “walking tour” of Jerusalem for the group.

“So they get this amazing visual picture. Now they understand the city; they’ll never forget the Jaffa Gate because it’s on the Jaffa side,” said Schwartz. “I give them geography [during the tour] as well. And it stays with them as a visual lesson.”

Schwartz said in addition to the educational component, Legos have a creative component.

“I say, ‘I want you to use all your favorite colors. Because when we’re finished, I want you to be able to see what you contributed,’” said Schwartz. So it’s an activity that incorporates teamwork and individual expression.

At the end of the activity, as buildings were deconstructed and the blocks sorted back into bins, Israel Affairs Committee member Robert Cherkof observed of the event, “It went across all generations, just like the Ravens and the Colts.”

75 Years & Counting

Arthur Abramson (left) became  exectuvie director of the BJC in 1990. (Courtesy of the Baltimore Jewish Council)

Arthur Abramson (left) became
exectuvie director of the BJC in 1990. (Courtesy of the Baltimore Jewish Council)

When news broke earlier this month of shootings at two Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kan., Arthur Abramson, Cailey Locklair and the rest of the Baltimore Jewish Council sprang to action.

Within minutes of the initial reports, the organization halfway across the country from the crime scene was fielding calls from local political and news organizations. More than four days later, the calls were still coming in, said Locklair, deputy director of the BJC. While the subject of the calls was grim, the fact that the Baltimore Jewish community relations office was getting the calls at all was a testament to the status it has achieved over its more than seven decades of existence.

“Within an hour of us knowing about what was going on — we learned it about 15 minutes before the media got it — we had a police presence within a half-hour at the Park Heights JCC, and in Owings Mills within an hour,” said Abramson, the organization’s executive director, adding that the first call he answered that Sunday afternoon was from a local Homeland Security agent making sure he was informed. “After 9/11 there was a police presence at every Jewish institution within an hour. … It comes down to relationships that the Council has with the governor on down.”

Seventy-five years ago, as Europe sank deeper into turmoil with the beginning of what would become World War II, Jewish Baltimore was organizing.

By 1939, tensions reached the point where the Baltimore Jewish community felt it needed to act. It formed the Baltimore Jewish Council as a community relations organization that would serve to combat anti-Semitism, encourage communication between local communities and deal with other issues facing the urban population by maintaining relationships with officials at the state, county and local levels.

Today, almost every major metropolitan area with a significant Jewish population boasts similar organizations. In Baltimore, it began as a grouping of only a few local community members.

Neither Abramson nor many others in the Balt-imore Jewish community can say for certain how the organization formally started — one popular story involves organization meetings in one member’s kitchen — but it’s core mission of protecting Jewish interests at home and abroad has not changed.

Today’s BJC, which boasts members from every sect of Judaism, has five primary functions: government relations; community relations; Israel advocacy and education; Holocaust remembrance and education; and the operation of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, a fellowship for Baltimore-area high-schoolers.

As the community relations branch of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, its most influential function, at least in its scope of effect, is the securing of funds for the many Jewish establishments in the Baltimore area. From whipping up support for campus Hillels to Jewish Community Services, the BJC spends a large amount of its time and resources working in City Hall and in Annapolis to advocate on behalf of those in the community who need state and federal funds to operate.

In November, the Council met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to go over items the BJC wanted included in the 2015 budget. All of the items made it into the final budget passed earlier this month.

“Since the beginning of the O’Malley-Brown administration, the Baltimore Jewish Council has been a faithful and stalwart partner in our work to strengthen and grow our state, creating a better future for all of our children. From repealing the death penalty to protecting our environment and the health of our loved ones to our recent efforts to increase the minimum wage, the Council truly embodies tzavta,” said O’Malley, who, before he was governor, worked with the BJC as mayor of Baltimore.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has worked closely with the Council during her four years in office.

Myrna Cardin became the first-ever female president of the BJC in 1996. (File Photo)

Myrna Cardin became the first-ever female president of the BJC in 1996. (File Photo)

“What’s good for the city is good for the Jewish community and what’s good for the Jewish community is good for the city,” Rawlings-Blake saidin an email. “I have always appreciated the BJC’s willingness to partner with the city. Whether it is legislative support, community development or issues surrounding education, public safety or health, Art [Abramson] and the BJC staff are there to assist and advocate on behalf of their community and the city overall.”

In 1996, Myrna Cardin became the first female president of the BJC.

“I’m glad I was there to do that,” said Cardin, who still speaks to Abramson on a regular basis though she is no longer a member of the Council.

During her time with the Council and in the years since, she said she has seen the Council grow in strength, largely due to the work of Abramson, who joined the BJC in 1990.

“We became a force as a Jewish council,” said Cardin, describing the work she was able to do with the BJC as a “constant high.”

“I think there is a respect that we receive,” she said. “Year after year we are sending the message that we are there and we care.”

The work with state and local officials was constant, said Cardin. Immediate past president Martha Weiman agreed.

“We just do a lot,” said Weiman. “There’s a lot on our plate.”

Weiman, who survived the Holocaust as a child, first became involved with the BJC as part of the Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, where she trained teachers and offered accounts of her experience to students. Years later, she became BJC president.

In her time at the BJC, Weiman said there has never been a shortage of bills to advocate for or against.

“We bring a lot of money through Annapolis and into the community,” she said.

For the 75th anniversary celebration, Weiman and another BJC officer have been preparing a timeline of the organization, a project that came to life when they happened upon old meeting minutes from 1939 in the BJC office.

While the timeline isn’t complete yet, Weiman has enjoyed looking through the old records and was surprised to see how little the work has changed. While main areas of concern were access to housing and jobs when the Council began, the basic mission of fighting on behalf of the community’s civil rights and liberties has stayed the same.

“It’s very, very interesting to read,” she said.

Pointing to the fact that the BJC has been around for 75 years already and is still going strong, Weiman said she is confident the organization has a bright future.

Seventy-five years from now, she said, “hopefully the need won’t be there, but it will be.”

Peggy Wolf was council president eight years ago. She grew up hearing stories from her father about the birth of the BJC in a local woman’s kitchen, and when the Council’s leadership approached her about getting involved, it was a no-brainer.

“The Council is truly a group effort,” she said of its successes. “I think it’s a process of creating relationships and opening up dialogue, and that is one of the strengths of the Council.”

“Our office in Annapolis is perceived to be one of the strongest lobbying arms of any nonprofit,” echoed Abramson.

With the BJC’s involvement in outreach and advocacy at the local, state and federal levels, he added, “we are very much the public face of the Jewish community in the non-Jewish world.”

With a diverse membership, the BJC prides itself in its ability to reach a consensus on most issues, added Locklair. When a problem is brought to the Council to address, the board discusses it at length before voting whether or not to act. Any issue the executive committee deems a divisive issue must get at least a 60 percent approval rating from the board before it takes any official position. Occasionally, such as two years ago during the apex of the same-sex marriage debate, internal politics means the group must bow out the most controversial topics.

“It’s vital that the different ends of the community participate,” explained Abramson, adding that much of the strength of the BJC comes from the fact that it speaks on behalf of the organized Jewish community as a whole, not just the Orthodox or Reform communities.

From left: Rabbi Ron Shulman, current BJC president, Lynn Weinberg, Government Relations Commission chair and Martha Weiman, immediate past president at Advocacy Day 2013. (David Stuck/BJC)

From left: Rabbi Ron Shulman, current BJC president, Lynn Weinberg, Government Relations Commission chair and Martha Weiman, immediate past president at Advocacy Day 2013. (David Stuck/BJC)

Pamela Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies program at American University, put the work of the BJC in perspective, seeing it as part of a long history of united Jewish community organizations across the country.

“American Jews have an extraordinary tradition of activism in the community,” she said. “It really packs into one of the key markers of their Jewish identity, which is to connect to the community through an organization.”

In the first decades of the 20th century, said Nadell, many of the national Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, were formed. She credited the transnationalism of the Jewish faith, in addition to the desire to connect to the community, as major reasons for the longstanding success of so many Jewish organizations such as the BJC.

“It’s a commitment that relates to Jewish tradition — that we care for our people,” she explained. “In the early part of the 20th century, that meant doing things like establishing the Joint Distribution Committee, for example, to help Jews who were suffering during World War I. And then of course, Jews continued to suffer in various places around the world for a good portion of the 20th century and into the 21st century, and so the mission of these organizations remains very relevant.”

“Our job isn’t to prescribe, it’s to reflect,” said Andi Milens, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national community relations organization of which the BJC is a member. The collective effect of all of the groups is that “we can all speak together. … It enables us to do big things” as a community.

Even more than a half-century after the peak of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad, Milens said, it is still essential to have a strong Jewish voice in every community.

“The Jewish community can’t live in isolation in this country,” she said, pointing to the Kansas City shootings. “The response of that community was not about the Jews. It was about the entire community because not only were the people who were killed outside the JCC and Village Shalom not Jewish, but those places are just as much home for the general community as they are for the Jewish community.

“The response of that community, the media and the clergy and everyone was a community response,” added the Kansas City native, “not just a Jewish community response. What we do is about living in this society with our neighbors. The relationships that we build are key for us to further protect our own interests, but also the interests of general society.”

BJC 75th Anniversary Celebration

The BJC will commemorate its 75th anniversary on June 11, at the Council’s Annual Meeting. The event will take place at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and feature a panel discussion by past BJC presidents, a keynote address by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the installation of new officers.

Help for Jewish Women

Adina Fradkin, dietician (left), and Genny Roanhouse, director (right), of the Renfrew Center in Baltimore.

Adina Fradkin, dietician (left), and Genny Roanhouse, director (right), of the Renfrew Center in Baltimore.

Observant Jewish women who struggle with eating disorders now have a religiously sensitive treatment option close to home. Last fall, the Renfrew Center, long recognized as a leading provider of eating disorders treatment, opened a site in Towson. On May 21, the center will present “Feasting, Fasting and Eating Disorders” a seminar for health and mental health professionals, educators and clergy on eating disorders in the Jewish community.

Adina Fradkin, who is Jewish, is a registered dietician at the new treatment center. Fradkin hopes the Towson location’s special track for Orthodox Jewish girls and women will encourage them to feel more comfortable seeking help. She believes that shame may be a contributing factor to the reluctance of some in the Orthodox community to address their eating disorders.

According to Renfrew’s research department, a 2008 study from Toronto published in the The American Journal of Psychiatry found that 25 percent of Jewish females ages 13 to 20 reported eating disorder behaviors, compared with just 18 percent in other religious affiliations. Another study published in 2004 in the journal Epidemiology found that Jewish women between the ages of 36 and 45 were twice as likely to meet criteria for an eating disorder as women in the same age group affiliated with other religions. Between 2007 and 2012, 8.5 percent of patients seeking residential treatment at the Renfrew Center were Jewish.

Sarah Bateman, the Renfrew Center’s Jewish liaison, is not convinced there is enough evidence to substantiate the claim that Jewish women are more prone to suffering from eating disorders, but she noted that Renfrew has seen more Jewish women seeking treatment for eating disorders in recent years.

“We have explored the possibilities that Jews may be seeking treatment more than the general population,” said Bateman. “Over the past few years there has been more recognition of eating disorders in the Jewish community, thus perhaps lowering the stigma and increasing the number of people seeking treatment.”

One thing that makes Renfrew a more comfortable environment for Orthodox girls and women from the get-go, said Fradkin, is the fact that the center only treats female patients.

“That is such a benefit to a young Jewish girl who has gone to an all-girls school and is not used to being around boys,” explained Fradkin. “She might not feel comfortable sharing her feelings in a mixed group.”

In addition to having Jewish clinicians on staff, Renfrew’s Jewish track approaches such religiously rooted themes as Bishvili Nivra Ha’Olam (“self-esteem”), Shidduch V’Zivuggim (“dating and marriage”), HaGuf beMar’eh (“body image”), Sh’ma beKoli (“my voice”) and the place of food in Jewish life with sensitivity and an understanding about Orthodox Jewish customs.

“It’s nice for people to feel they are not speaking a different language. In order to treat Orthodox women, you need to be aware of dietary laws, holidays, dress and the role of food in Jewish culture,” said Fradkin with a chuckle. “It seems we are always eating!”

“I’ll give you just one example,” said Bateman. “It’s Passover. We have found that 80 percent of Jews, regardless of affiliation, attend a Seder. This is stressful for all Jews but even more stressful for someone with an eating disorder. It is [one of the] most restrictive times for eating. Even the recurrence of the Sabbath meal every week is stressful.

“I often do a pre-Passover seminar to help patients before the holiday,” she added. “Imagine how much stress someone with an eating disorder might feel before Thanksgiving? It’s eight days straight for Passover!”

An additional stressor for Orthodox girls and women, said Fradkin, is the fact that “these women are on a timeline to some extent. They’re done with school and studies, then they are getting matched and dating and getting married. Treatment can be an impediment to that timeline.”

The Renfrew Center offers a continuum of care, ranging from residential treatment at their Philadelphia and Coconut Creek, Fla., locations to day treatment, intensive outpatient treatment and individual treatment programs all located at the Baltimore site. “As part of our assessment, we provide recommendations for the treatment level that we feel best fits the need of the patient,” said center director Genny Roanhouse.

Patients in Renfrew’s day treatment program eat two supervised meals at the center, and those in the intensive outpatient program eat one supervised meal there. In order to meet the needs of their Orthodox patients, the Renfrew Center serves food prepared under the strict supervision of Orthodox rabbis. These meals comply with USDA guidelines that meet standards for moderation, balance and variety of food groups.

“At least one staff member eats with the patients at every meal,” said Fradkin. “The staff member eats exactly the same food the patients eat and can model healthy eating for them. After each meal, there is a meal support group, where we process everything that happened during the meal. Was there something they struggled with? Or maybe it went really well and they tried a new food. We have challenge meals where we serve foods that the patients haven’t allowed themselves to eat. It’s a great way to show that there are no good foods or bad foods. It’s all about moderation.”

In addition to the regular mealtimes and challenge programs, Roanhouse said that the program includes family meals.

“During treatment, each patient has the opportunity to have her family bring a meal for them to eat at the center together,” said Roanhouse. “A therapist is at the meal to monitor conversation. It’s a great teaching tool.”

For additional information, or to register for the seminar, “Feasting, Fasting and Eating Disorders,” visit or call 1-800-RENFREW.

Additional Eating Disorder Resources

• Jewish Community Services,

• The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt,

• Johns Hopkins Medicine Eating Disorders Program,

Background Check

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the  Waverly area of Baltimore. Many nonprofits require background checks for volunteers who work with vulnerable populations.

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the Waverly area of Baltimore. Many nonprofits require background checks for volunteers who work with vulnerable populations.

Volunteers are often considered precious currency for a nonprofit organization. Donating their time and skills, they help organizations serve the often vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly or disabled, they aim to assist.
Verified Volunteers, started in 2012 and connected to the 40-year background screening veteran Sterling Infosystems, is working to help those organizations create a more readily available, reliable and affordable volunteer base.

Lee Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies (AJFCA), said that he often hears from member agencies that conducting background screenings is a big expense in both time and money. So when AJFCA was approached by Verified Volunteers to become a strategic partner, he saw an opportunity to eliminate mounds of paperwork, long waiting periods and the time and dollar investment on the part of resource-limited nonprofits.

“It’s all about finding ways to free our agencies up to do more of the needed work that they do,” said Sherman. “If there are tools out there that help them do that, we try to bring them to our network. And we think [Verified Volunteers] is a tool that can do that.”

Background checks can be a barrier to some volunteers as well, explained Tom Klein, executive director at Verified Volunteers, which draws on the work of 20 employees across the country. The wait time to participate, combined with the prospect of repeated background checks if volunteering with more than one organization, can add to volunteers’ frustration levels and provide incentives to quit.

“We didn’t purposely know we were getting into this,” said Klein. “We heard the call from the grassroots sector and saw the problem was endemic to the entire sector, whether it was a mentor organization, a youth sports group or a volunteer manager at a museum, homeless shelter or food bank. Wherever it was we saw similar problems and saw general unhappiness with the status quo [of background screening].”

Early on in its research phase, Verified Volunteers partnered with the Points of Light Foundation, which had been conducting similar research at the same time, said Klein. Points of Light provides access to resources for approx- imately 250 volunteer centers across the country and was looking for a way to eliminate repeated screenings, allow information to be shared across organizations and generally streamline the screening system. In 2012, at a Points of Light conference, attendees met these suggestions with a standing ovation, recalled Klein.

“In the past 10 years as nonprofit organizations have grown, the screening process has overwhelmed them,” said Klein. “It’s a huge budget suck, full of paper, bad checking services and overlap from one organization to another.”

When an organization partners with Verified Volunteers, it provides a thorough background screening for individuals obtainable at three levels of prices ranging from about $10 to $40 each, said Klein. Reports include criminal history and sex offender- based background checks, and as the level increases, reports draw on an increasing number of criminal locators.

“There are 3,500 counties, thousands of sheriff’s offices, 50 states,” said Klein. “For instance at Level 3, we’ll look at an entire address history, look at every county courthouse, alias name searches, we also look at where you work and play — so we go well beyond the local environment.”

When a nonprofit signs on with Verified Volunteers, a prospective volunteer first must agree to submit to the background check. The individual is then granted access to an online portal, where he or she inputs required personal information and is often given the option to pay the fee for the screening. Verified Volunteers conducts the background screening and delivers the information to the applicant and the nonprofit simultaneously. Typical turn around is a couple of days — some reports come back in a few hours, “thanks to all of our data pipelines into the courthouses in America,” said Klein.

The individual’s information can then be shared with other organizations he or she chooses to volunteer with, at no additional cost to either party, for up to one year. During that year all of the checks are updated monthly, and Verified Volunteers alerts organizations of any changes.

Klein compared the service to the online site LinkedIn, where the service becomes stronger and more valuable as more organizations — and ultimately individuals — join.

An early member is Raul Roman of UBELONG, the Washington, D.C.-based “international volunteering and talent development organization that brings people together across borders to collaborate for the common good.”

When Roman heard about Verified Volunteers and met Klein at the Points of Light Institute national conference on volunteerism, he said, “Tom, you and I need to talk right now.”

Roman and UBELONG established a partnership with Verified Volunteers about five months ago. Roman said that last year his organization had 1,000 volunteers; this year, it’s on track to enlist about twice as many.

“Time is money, and we’re saving lots of time,” said Roman. “Before we spent lots of time worrying about that, we wanted to make sure the background checks were of quality and were standardized. Considering how different states’ regulations are in the U.S., we were concerned about it.”

Roman said his volunteer feedback is that the service is fast, easy and thorough. Roman added, “Verified is professional and client oriented, so if there’s any problem in the system they jump in and solve it.”

Ashley Pressman is executive director at Jewish Volunteer Connection, which serves as a clearinghouse to match volunteers with opportunities in Baltimore and Israel. JVC places about 2,000 volunteers a year. Pressman recently received a pitch about the Verified Volunteers service from Jennie Gates-Beckman, director of volunteer strategy and Repair the World programming aimed at young Jewish adults. Gates-Beckman also collaborates with AJFCA.

Pressman happened to be at the same Points of Light conference in 2012 in Chicago where the idea of a streamlined background screening process was first brought up.

“The place erupted,” recalled Pressman. “Now, two years later here is that service.

“It seems like a really great system,” she added. “Once you screen, you own your [individual] info. You only have to be screened once. So people can share info, and there are a lot of volunteers that serve in multiple organizations. … The biggest appeal is that you can share information, and it allows a person to volunteer with more than one organization easily.”

Kosher Wine Compromise

Diana Coyle and Michael Fishman stand with some kosher wines at newly opened Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits. (Marc Shapiro)

Diana Coyle and Michael Fishman stand with some kosher wines at newly opened Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits. (Marc Shapiro)

Maryland residents looking for a wider variety of kosher wines should have more options by 2015.

A compromise reached between the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA), Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, Inc., and the state comptroller’s office will create an online list of wines available, increase the number of wines available in Maryland to 1,000 by 2015 and educate retailers on how to make special orders.

“It is my sincere hope that this resolves the difficulty so many Marylanders have had to obtain quality kosher wine,” wrote Delegate Sam Arora (D-District 19) in a letter to Delegate Dereck Davis (D-District 25), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, withdrawing legislation known as HB 830 in light of the compromise.

While a 2011 direct-to-home wine shipping bill in Maryland opened up consumers’ ability to order from wineries in the United States, most kosher wines are made overseas.

“The problem for observant Jews is there are only about six kosher wineries in the United States,” explained Cailey Locklair, BJC’s director of government relations and public policy.

The lack of kosher wine options stemmed from several factors. Although the U.S. imports thousands of wines every year, only about 4 percent wind up in Maryland, said Locklair. The Beverage Journal, the “alcohol Bible” for retailers, she said, only had 14 wines listed in its kosher section, although the BJC found 253 kosher wines in the journal after combing through it.

In areas with small Jewish populations, stores wouldn’t stock kosher wine, and placing a special order sometimes meant ordering an entire case rather than one bottle.

“They have to go out of their way to do this,” Locklair said of those retailers. “I think it was easier for them to say, ‘No, I’m really sorry. I can’t help you.’”

Under the compromise, as outlined in Arora’s letter, the comptroller has created an online listing of all the kosher wines available in Maryland and the distributors who sell them. Distributors will regularly submit lists of the kosher wines they sell semiannually to the comptroller, and the MSBLA will educate retailers and consumers on how to special order wines not listed in The Beverage Journal. The journal will also be updated to reflect available kosher wines.

A goal of the compromise is to increase the number of available kosher wines in Maryland to 1,000 by 2015. The BJC is helping distributors determine what wines to carry and has already added 71 new wines. As more wines become available, distributors will update the comptroller’s kosher list, the letter said.

Retailers will also be able to order consumers single bottles of kosher wine, said Locklair. Special orders may require working with out-of-state distributors or importers.

“It seems really straightforward that you should be able to walk up to the counter and say, ‘Hey, I want to order one bottle of wine,’” said Locklair.

Antonio Busalacchi, wine consultant, climate scientist and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, said international sales of kosher wines are up 12 percent this year compared with 2013.

“Kosher wine is no longer your old grandfather’s Manischewitz,” said Busalacchi. “The quality is on par with other wine regions around the world.”

He said non-Jewish populations are interested in wine from the Middle East, and kosher wine goes through high-quality processing that is required by the laws of kashrut.

At Quarry Wine and Spirits, wine consultant Michael Fishman stocked his Quarry Lake store with more than 100 varieties of kosher wine. His wife, Diana Coyle, who co-owns the store with a business partner, just opened Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits downtown.

Although the Canton store will be focused more on beer because of the area’s younger demographics, the 12 varieties of kosher wine it carries will be displayed among the non-kosher wines.

“The wines that we’re carrying are of great quality; they’re every bit as good as the wines they’re sitting next to,” said Fishman. “We want people who maybe wouldn’t go into a kosher section to have the opportunity to taste the wines and try them. We don’t want to pigeonhole them.”

At the Canton store’s opening on April 8, there was a small section of kosher for Passover wines, which included wine from Yarden, a subsidiary of the Golan Heights Winery, Galil Mountain Winery, Ella Valley Vineyards and Ein Karem — all Israeli wineries, alongside Manischewitz.

Fishman said he’s seen the selection of kosher wine increase in recent years with more retailers and distributors carrying it.

“I think the supply chain has increased,” he said. “I think that we’ve come a long way.”

Locklair is already seeing progress.

“At least in Anne Arundel County, the liquor stores I’ve been in have signs that say, ‘Ask us about ordering kosher wine,’ “ she said.

The comptroller’s kosher wine list is available at

Bonds that Bind

Members of the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays baseball team.  Top row, from left: Daniel Albert, Sam Einhorn, Colin Friedman, Jake Rogers.Bottom row, from left: co-captains Johnathan Hettleman and Tyler Goldstein.  Not pictured: Frank Schiff

Members of the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays baseball team. Top row, from left: Daniel Albert, Sam Einhorn, Colin Friedman, Jake Rogers.Bottom row, from left: co-captains Johnathan Hettleman and Tyler Goldstein. Not pictured: Frank Schiff

Commitment to common goals, rigorous training and game participation — whether from the field or bench — for the Johns Hopkins University baseball team creates a strong bond among its teammates, say several players and coach Bob Babb.

But when a shared background of Judaism and all that it represents — observances, upbringing, ethics, food — is added to the mix, the bond becomes even stronger for seven members of this year’s team.

Frank Schiff is a senior from San Jose, Calif., and an infielder for the consistently high-ranking Blue Jays. He comes from a close-knit Jewish family and has been playing baseball since he could walk, though when he was younger, he says, his parents “laid down the law” and forbade play on Shabbat mornings. He is still deeply devoted to the game, the process and his team and appreciates the added connection among his Jewish teammates.

“[The bonding] starts right away,” said Schiff. “When I came in as a freshman, you have a team meeting the very first day and after the meeting the Jewish seniors say, ‘OK, all the new Jewish kids stick around. Yom Kippur is coming up, and we do this tradition [breaking fast at a downtown steakhouse].’

“It’s not the most pleasant experience, but it’s a lot of fun,” he added, laughing. “The fact that we have this major holiday right after everyone comes, immediately that bond is formed.”

Jonathan Hettleman, from Pikesville, is a catcher for the Jays and a team captain. He credits Rabbi Debbie Pine and assistant director Jon Falk at Hopkins Hillel for helping facilitate an even stronger bond for Jewish members of the team by encouraging events such as the “November Classic” Shabbat dinner that the team now hosts each fall. Hettleman assumed his stay at Hopkins would be filled to the brim with academics and baseball, leaving little room for Judaism, but now finds himself pleasantly surprised.

“I wasn’t expecting to be a part of the Jewish community in a significant way here,” he explained. “But when I met Jon, he started organizing a Jewish community on the baseball team and related it to Hillel, and it changed my experience here. We wouldn’t have had Shabbat dinners, we wouldn’t have had the Passover Seders, we wouldn’t have gone on Birthright … without Jon’s effort to connect with Jewish students in general [and] us, as members of the baseball team.”

“It’s a perfect way to model Jewish athletes,” said Falk. “It’s a way to balance being an athlete and [observing] Jewish holidays. … This baseball team — they own Shabbat. They’re going to take this with them for the rest of their lives. And doing that as a team is really special.”

Senior Tyler Goldstein is a pitcher and co-captain originally from Highland Park, Ill., who last year was voted onto the Jewish Sports Review’s Jewish All-American team. He says that Babb, who at 59 is in his 37th season as coach and with 1,000 wins is only the ninth coach in Division III to accomplish that feat, has created an environment in which it’s not all about wins and losses.

“Coach Babb puts a big emphasis on giving back to the community,” explained Goldstein. “In fall semester when the team has a little more time, he and his wife, Gilly, have a group of us over to make sandwiches for a homeless shelter, or as a team we’ll go and clean up a park. So not only is he really good at what he does, but in terms of molding his players into citizens and good people, I think that’s equally admirable.”

Sophomore Jake Rogers, 20, plays first base for the Blue Jays. He started playing ball at age 3 with his father and grandfather in Massapequa on New York’s Long Island. Coming to Hopkins, he was surprised at the size of the Jewish community in Baltimore.

“You almost take it for granted how special it is to be a part of the [baseball] program, but also the Jewish group,” said Rogers. “You never feel like you’re alone, and you feel like there’s always someone there for you. I’m going to cherish that when I leave here.”

Though sophomore pitcher Colin Friedman, 20, grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., his father, Gary, is from the Northeast and is a Yankees fan who instilled a love of baseball in his son. Friedman also counts his close relationship with his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip he took last spring with teammates among crucial elements of his Jewish identity.

It’s “important to me,” he said of being Jewish. “It’s a proud part of who I am as a person.”

This year there are two Jewish freshmen on the 44-player roster: Woodstock, N.Y., pitcher Sam Einhorn, 19, and first baseman/catcher Daniel Albert, 19, of Newport Beach, Calif. Albert grew up participating with his family in community service through Chabad of California, teaching baseball to special-needs children and playing in games.

“It’s definitely nice to have a special bond with the guys,” Albert said of the Hopkins team, “and it’s great to have a lot of Jewish people on the team.”

Einhorn, who has played ball since before he could walk — he has home movies of his father rolling a baseball to him as he sat on the ground — and has played cello since age 3, chose Hopkins “for a perfect mix of high-level [Division III] baseball and high-level academics,” he said. “I’m excited about being in Baltimore too.”

He was the only Jewish player on his high school team, so his experience at Hopkins has been an interesting change, he explained. And of Coach Babb, he says, “He’s a guru; he’s seen everything.”

Even out-of-town team members’ families keep current with their sons’ games, whether in person or via the Hopkins online game tracker. Many families also attend the annual Florida trip the team takes each year, and Hettleman’s family in Pikesville often host players for holidays and dinners.

“Luckily for me when I came out here I met Jon and his family,” said Schiff. “They’ve provided me with that close-knit crew that I can go with to High Holiday services; on Passover his family takes me in, so it’s been nice to find that niche here that I had at home.”

Goldstein, also from out of town, has had a similar experience.

“The Hettlemans have been like a second family to me,” he said. “They have us over for the holidays, they take us to dinner occasionally, they drop off food. It’s really been nice having them. I’m really thankful for the Hettlemans being here; it’s really made my whole transition of coming to a pretty foreign place a lot easier.”

To their coach, the Jewish players’ camaraderie is part and parcel of what it means to play for Hopkins.

“I don’t care if it’s Jewish, Muslim or whatever, I have certain values that we stress,” said Babb, “and one of them is, our team values community service. And they’ve all been very active in that role. And our team is a fraternal kind of group because they spend so much time together and are working toward a common goal.

“They’re just really fine individuals,” added the coach. “I really enjoy being around the type of student athlete that I get here.”

Rabbis Reflect on New Oriole’s Anti-Semitic Past

Some are concerned over new Orioles player Delmon Young’s anti-Semitic incident in 2012. ( hueytaxi)

Some are concerned over new Orioles player Delmon Young’s anti-Semitic incident in 2012. ( hueytaxi)

When Pikesville resident Avi Harris heard that Delmon Young would be playing with the Orioles this year, he was less than excited.

“It was disconcerting,” Harris revealed recently. “I did not want him here.”

What bothered Harris was an incident in April 2012, when the then-Detroit Tigers player allegedly got into a tussle with an Illinois businessman and his friends outside of a hotel in New York in the early morning hours. A drunken Young reportedly yelled, “You bunch of f—king Jews” after the man gave money to a panhandler who was wearing a yarmulke. The Illinois man was not Jewish, and the tussle continued inside the hotel.

Young pleaded guilty to aggravated harassment, was suspended from Major League Baseball for seven games, underwent anger management and alcohol counseling and also completed a program at the Museum of Tolerance in which he spoke to a Holocaust survivor.

“Having a chance to meet a Holocaust survivor and hear about the horror she faced firsthand allowed me to truly appreciate the history of that time,” the player told the New York Daily News. “It was an eye-opening experience that I won’t soon forget.”

Harris, who has since become familiar with all of the details surrounding Young’s apparent change of heart, now says that he can forgive the Oriole.

While a spokesman for the Orioles declined to comment, citing that the outfielder and designated hitter wasn’t with the team in 2012, local rabbis and avid fans have taken a nuanced view of Young.

Rabbi Daniel Burg at Beth Am Synagogue, and Rabbi Steve Schwartz at Beth El Congregation, were in agreement that athletes shouldn’t necessarily be looked at as role models.

“We expect for some reason as a society athletes to behave at a certain standard, and certainly I think we shouldn’t be looking to athletes as exemplars of menschlichkeit in the world,” said Burg. “That being said, people have to be responsible for their actions.”

Burg is not so sure anti-Semitic beliefs can fade overnight, and he hopes the Orioles have talked seriously to Young about his role in the public eye.

“Do I feel ambivalent about cheering for the guy? I do, for what it’s worth,” he said.

Schwartz said Jews believe in the idea of teshuva, repentance, as well as the Talmudic concept of giving a person the benefit of the doubt.

“Maybe he learned from that experience. Maybe he doesn’t feel that way anymore,” he said. “Maybe when he said it he didn’t know what he was saying.”

At the end of the day, his past might be a moot point.

“If he plays well and doesn’t make any unsavory comments, everybody will be happy,” said Schwartz.

Young hit his first home run as an Oriole on April 8 in a 14-5 win over the Yankees in New York.

Free Books for Milbrook Students

Second-grader Erin Bess looks through her options at Milbrook Elementary School’s free book fair, which is made possible through donations supplied  by Jewish Volunteer Connection’s  Bookworms program. (Marc Shapiro)

Second-grader Erin Bess looks through her options at Milbrook Elementary School’s free book fair, which is made possible through donations supplied
by Jewish Volunteer Connection’s
Bookworms program. (Marc Shapiro)

Students were in a festive mood at Milbrook Elementary School. Not for recess, not for a party, but for a book fair.

And this wasn’t an average book fair. Students in first through fifth grades were able to choose three books to take home for free. Those with younger siblings could grab two more books if they promised to read with them.

The April 9 book fair, in its second year, was run by Bookworms, a reading program of Jewish Volunteer Connection, in conjunction with second-grade teacher Laurie Rosenberg.

“We are a Title I school, so our kids don’t have all the resources at home,” said Rosenberg, the school’s Bookworms coordinator.

As provided for by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was passed in 1965, the Title I designation is given to economically disadvantaged schools to provide them with extra resources.

According to Rosenberg, who, after taking over from reading teacher Jenny Raivel, was the program’s coordinator last year as well, the students “are so excited to be able to get books for free.”

Bookworms volunteers, who have been active at the school for four years, collected more than 1,200 books for this year’s fair, doubling last year’s number. There were books by Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling, as well as volumes from the ever-popular Nancy Drew series.

“A lot of these children have immigrant parents who don’t speak English at home, so they can’t help them with their homework,” said volunteer Sherry Billig, adding that many students likewise don’t have books at home. “The majority of students at Milbrook qualify for free breakfast and lunch, and many are being raised in single-family or grandparent-guardian situations.”

Billig and other volunteers read to eight first-grade and eight second-grade classes at the school once a month; she said the school and its community are extremely supportive of the program. She is hoping to set up a partnership with the McDonogh School nearby in which students would fulfill their service learning hours by tutoring Milbrook students.

The kids at Millbrook love the volunteers, said Billig, and will sit on their laps, play with their jewelry or check out their nail polish.

“The kids get so excited as soon as they hear us coming in,” she said. “They say, ‘The Bookworms are here! The Bookworms are here!’”

At the book fair, students picked over donated books that volunteers cleaned and categorized. Fourth-grader Myles Johnson couldn’t wait to finish his lunch and pick his books out.

“I like how they’re free and if kids want to read at home, they can have books,” he said, adding that his favorite books are adventure books and books about basketball.

Second-grader Erin Bess picked her books, including “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody: Double Trouble” based on a Disney Channel show.

“You get it for free!” she said as she waited to label her books.

Assistant principal Kim O’Connor was all smiles as she watched students rush into the rooms filled with books.

“It’s a remarkable program,” she said of Bookworms. “They’re a very generous group of women.”

Billig has a team of 32 volunteers and dispatches 16 of them on each monthly visit so each class has a volunteer to read to them.

Annette Ingerman, a second-year Bookworm and former teacher, was ecstatic to see student after student walking out with their bundles.

“The last time I read, I was walking out of the classroom and one of the boys gave me the biggest hug,” she said. “I walk out with my heart warmed from all of this.”

The book fair got a boost this year from Zach Charapp, Billig’s nephew, who chose the fair as his bar mitzvah service project. Through family, friends and his school, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the seventh-grader collected about 150 books. The donated books, which included several from Charapp’s collection, were used as center pieces at his bar mitzvah reception.

“I like to give away stuff,” he said. “I didn’t need them and wanted to give them to people that needed them.”

Books were also collected by JVC staff members who held birthday parties for their kids and asked adults to bring a book to donate; another Bookworm volunteer who had a Christmas party asked guests to bring books instead of wine.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and this community has certainly come together to support this very important project,” said Billig.

Chametz Burned, Donated at Pimlico

The Baltimore community gathered at the Pimlico Race Course Clubhouse parking lot on Monday, April 14, to burn and donate its chametz just before the start of Passover.

The pre-Passover tradition involves ridding homes of leavened foods to prepare for the holiday. For the second year, community members were not only able to burn their opened chametz, but to donate their unopened chametz as well. The collection, organized by the nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance, benefited food pantries in northwest Baltimore.

“I came up with the idea a couple of years ago, when not only witnessing [and] realizing how much unopened food we throw out, but also when members of the community asked if we could place food on the church’s step  across the street from the race course,” Betsy Gardner, the neighborhood liaison for the Jewish community in the 5th, 6th and 7th Baltimore districts for City Council President Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young, said via email.

The event was organized by the city of Baltimore, Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Star-K.