Meant to Be

For Hannah Rodewald, the whole idea is to put books into children’s hands. (David Stuck)

For Hannah Rodewald, the whole idea is to put books into children’s hands. (David Stuck)

Whether you call it “divine providence,” as Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore’s Language Arts department chairwoman Sara Arno did, or “kismet,” as Wee Chic children’s apparel storeowner Bridget Quinn Stickline did, it must have been fate that Stickline and Arno met in Greenspring Station in Timonium.

“I was there [at Greenspring Station] to take a child to a doctor,” Arno said of last month’s meeting. “And I was in the wrong building. I walked by the store [formerly the home of The Pleasure of Your Company, a stationary store, and soon to be the new home of Wee Chic], and it was dark, but I could see two people in there and also some empty bookcases.”

The bookcases seemed perfect for the library that Arno had always wanted to create at her girls’ school. So Arno went in and asked Stickline what she was planning to do with them.

“We’re giving them away tomorrow,” Stickline said, according to Arno’s recollection. “But you can call Hannah [Rodewald] right away, and maybe she’ll give them to you.”

Rodewald offered four, but Arno would have to pick them up the very next day. And as luck would have it, Rodewald was passionate about literacy issues.

“I do a lot of volunteering for the United Way,” said Rodewald. “A few years ago, I chaired the United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council, and we started a program called ‘Read, Learn and Succeed.’ I found out that it is so important for kids to be reading at grade level by the fourth grade. I’m no longer chairing, but since then, my husband, Lynn, and I have moved forward with literacy issues. We’re still involved with putting books into children’s hands.”

Though Arno said the school does have a library, it “wasn’t the kind of library that would make a child fall in love with reading. I was putting it together on a shoestring budget.”

“The books were old and yellowed,” she added.

Bnos Yisroel was founded 14 years ago, and Arno said that until recently, the school had “only ancient bookshelves and ancient books.” Two years ago, the school benefited from the generosity of Edward Whitfill, co-owner of Ukazoo Books in Towson.

“He gave us about $1,000 dollars’ worth of books, and I only spent $200 on them,” noted Arno. “Do you know how good that made me feel?”

When Arno returned to the future Wee Chic with a U-Haul truck to take the bookshelves, Stickline and Rodewald offered additional furniture.

“These were beautiful custom cabinets, things that would have cost thousands [of dollars]. And now that we have the furniture, we have more of a budget for new books,” said Arno. “The students are so excited about this. I want them to hold a book and say,  ‘A book is a wonderful thing.’

“What’s surprised me most is the kindness of the business community,” she added. “All these people just came into our lives because I was at the wrong place at the right time!”

Ready to Roll

041114_bikes1This spring a lively group of women bike riders plan to hit the road for friendship and fun.

Parkton resident Cathy Myrowitz has organized a new group called the “Annie ‘Londonderry’ Jewish Women and Friends Bicycle Circle.”

It’s “AL’s Gals” for short.

The name was inspired by the achievements of Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, a Jewish mother of three from Boston who, in 1895, biked around the world.

Myrowitz has a couple of goals for herself and the group.

First, in November, she’s flying to Israel to take part in the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. She undertook the five-day, 350-mile journey once before and is eager to try it again. She’s got a lot of training ahead of her and wants companionship for her rides.

Second, she hopes to encourage more women to hop on their bikes and set off to explore the world, or at least the byways of northern Baltimore County, where Myrowitz believes her fellow riders will be as entranced by the rolling hills and scenic vistas as she is.

“It’s like right out of ‘Downton Abbey,’” she said. “It’s so beautiful  there.”

Judging from turnout at her initial meeting on March 23 at Reisterstown’s Pearlstone Conference Center, interest is strong. Close to 20 people gathered to hear about the group, to learn about Annie Londonderry and get bicycle safety tips from a representative of Bike Maryland.

Towson resident Deborah “Spice” Kleinmann is looking forward to the outings. Years ago, she rode all the time and wants to get back into it.

“I still have all my gear,” she said. “I grew up riding. … I didn’t get a car until I was 25.”

Reisterstown resident Victoria Eisner skis in the winter and is looking for an off-season activity.

“I live on one of Baltimore’s scenic bike routes, but I don’t bike on it because it’s kind of hilly and dangerous, so I thought this would expand my horizons, show me some different places in Baltimore and hopefully Baltimore County that I can cycle,” she said.

Annie Londonderry is a little-known figure. That’s changing, however, thanks to a book about her life, (“Around the World on Two Wheels,” by Peter Zheutlin, Citadel Press, 2007) and a new documentary by Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker Gillian Willman, who screened “The New Woman” for the group.

Members of AL’s Gals learn bicycle safety at a recent meeting. (Photos provided)

Members of AL’s Gals learn bicycle safety at a recent meeting. (Photos provided)

“Hearing about someone who was so ahead of her time, who was just lost to history, who, had she been remembered, probably would have been world famous,” said Willman. “Even cycling enthusiasts didn’t know about her.”

While there were numerous newspaper reports about Annie’s exploits, she left no diaries or personal papers. She started her trip in long skirts, riding a 42-pound bike but soon switched to bloomers and a lighter-weight model. A $100 sponsorship from the Londonderry Spring Water Company earned her the nickname “Londonderry.”

Willman spent seven years on “The New Woman,” which has been screened at about 15 film festivals. Now, she hopes the half-hour documentary will have a long life, with showings in museums and for bike clubs, women’s groups and Jewish organizations.

Safety is top priority for AL’s Gals, and the inaugural meeting featured a talk from Bike Maryland program coordinator Marla Streb, who noted that the more cyclists on the road the better. It’s good for the environment, and with more bikes on the road, motorists just get in the habit of watching out for them.

Streb urged the group to safety check their tires, brakes and chains before every ride and to gear up in eye-popping orange or green so drivers will see them.

“You notice that  construction workers aren’t wearing camo,” she said.

As for motorists who forget that cyclists also have a right to the road, Streb noted that “a nice wave and eye contract” go a long way toward reducing driver hostility.

In addition, Streb reviewed the details of Maryland’s 2010 law, which requires motorists to give cyclists three feet when passing.

AL’s Gals is open to all women riders from Baltimore and D.C. While most of the women at the Sunday meeting were in their 50s and 60s, it’s open to women of all ages. Wyrowitz says the group will start out with 10 a.m. Sunday morning rides on the NCR trail in Ashland (officially, the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail) and then make the transition to road trips. That way, her dream of a Jewish women’s bike circle, for women of all ages and athletic ability, will really get rolling.

The New Woman: Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky (a documentary trailer) from Gillian Willman on Vimeo.

For information on AL’s Gals, visit the group’s Facebook page at

Bald Is Beautiful

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Beth Shalom Congregation sports his new look. (Provided)

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Beth Shalom Congregation sports his new look. (Provided)

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, education director of Temple Beth Shalom is bald. Bald as a bowling bowl. And he isn’t alone. He is among 70 other Reform (as well as a few Conservative) rabbis across the country, including Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation, who shaved their heads to raise money for research on pediatric cancers.

The mass hair-shaving fundraiser came about after Samuel “Superman” Sommer, the 8-year-old son of Plotkin and Sharff’s dear friends fellow Reform Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Samuel fought valiantly, but he lost his battle with AML in December 2013. His illness focused Plotkin’s attention on the surprising fact that only 4 percent of cancer research is spent on pediatric cancers. The Sommers decided to do something about it.

Last fall, they joined forces with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer research. St. Baldrick’s was founded in 2000 and is an all-volunteer charity committed to raising money for childhood cancer research grants.

St. Baldrick’s raises money through its Shave for the Brave head-shaving events that take place all over the country. Participants shave their heads to show solidarity with child cancer patients who often lose their hair from chemotherapy. The “head-shavers” are sponsored by friends and family members, who make donations to the foundation in their honor.

“Phyllis decided to try to find 36 Reform rabbis who would be willing to shave their heads at our annual Central Conference of American Rabbis on April 1 in Chicago,” said Plotkin. Instead, more 70 rabbis participated. Including Phyllis Sommer, Plotkin said that about 12 women rabbis were among the shorn.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

“Some of the women had such long hair that they were able to donate it to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, which creates wigs for women cancer patients,” said Plotkin.

Plotkin engaged his congregation in the cause too.

“In February, we raised $700 from our religious school students as part of our February tzedakah collection,” he said. The rabbi made the students’ collecting efforts into a contest.

“I offered the first swipe [of hair] to a representative from the class that raised the most money. We had a tie, though. On March 30 at the beginning of religious school, a representative from the fourth grade and the preschool swiped me,” said Plotkin. “They created a reverse Mohawk. Not a good look. It’s much better now that it is all shaven.”

Plotkin raised another $1,000 from religious school families and almost $1,000 more from his own friends and family.

“Now, I’m just shy of $3,000,” he said.

The Chicago event raised a whopping $593,000. Plotkin said the original goal for the CCAR hair-shaving event was $180,000. The rabbis hope to raise $613,000 by December.

Sharff was at first reluctant to have his head shaven and to get involved in a fundraising effort.

“Har Sinai is presently in the middle of a capital campaign,” he said, “and some fundraisers thought that an additional fundraising project might not be a good idea.”

When he arrived at the CCAR, Sharff planned on supporting the event from the sidelines. “Then it dawned on me,” he recalled. “Every one of my closest friends were up there. Much to my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone else, I went up and had my head shaved too.”

Since then, Har Sinai’s rabbi has been making up for lost time with an “after-the-fact” fundraising project.

Sharff is very glad he did it.

“I should have done this from the beginning,” he said. “It would have been a tremendous regret. No one should have to go bald alone.”

Organic Inspiration

Seth Goldman, “TeaEO” at Honest Tea, speaks to Jewish professionals about running a mission-driven business. (Marc Shapiro)

Seth Goldman, “TeaEO” at Honest Tea, speaks to Jewish professionals about running a mission-driven business.
(Marc Shapiro)

When Seth Goldman started making tea is his kitchen in 1998, he couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams how much Honest Tea would blossom.

“If you had told me 16 years ago that I’d be running an organization that was involved in helping to eliminate millions of calories from the American diet, helping to promote the spread of organic agriculture and helping to support fair trade labor standards in the developing world, I would have said, ‘Oh, that sounds like an amazing nonprofit,’” said Goldman. “I never would have guessed that it could be a beverage company, let alone one that today is owned by the Coca-Cola Company.”

The Honest Tea “TeaEO” spoke about the growth of his company and running a mission-driven business at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Business and Professional Affinities’ spring event on April 2. His tea company, which is fair trade, organic and kosher, is the U.S.’s top-selling bottled organic tea.

Goldman spoke about the formation of the company, how it keeps true to its ideals and how it has expanded into kids drinks and soda. Before Coca-Cola invested, Honest Tea bought 800,000 pounds of organic ingredients in one year. Last year, the company bought more than 5 million pounds, and this year, Honest Tea is on track to buy more than 8 million pounds of organic ingredients, said Goldman.

Approximately 100 people attended the lunch to network, catch up with friends and hear Goldman speak. But at least one person in the audience was hoping to be the next Seth Goldman.

Blake Wollman, 36, started selling his all-natural hummus at area farmers markets in 2011. He first made hummus in the kitchen of his Mount Washington restaurant, The Desert Café, and the demand was high. But he was bothered by the healthy reputation hummus had gained, considering that the country’s most popular hummus company, Sabra, has preservatives in its hummus.

“So I decided that I needed to look and find out how fattening mine was, and it was one-fifth the fat [compared to Sabra], not to mention all natural,” he said. “I’ve pursed that, and that’s been my mission really — to make an all-natural, low-fat, low-calorie, low-sodium product that tastes good.”

His company’s motto, “Take a walk on the wide side of hummus,” fits with its flavors, which include cinnamon raisin, honey sesame and black truffle, in addition to traditional flavors. The Wild Pea hummus is now being sold at Whole Foods locations in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, Wegmans in Maryland and at area famers markets and stores.

Wollman already seemed to be following Goldman’s advice. When Honest Tea released its Honest Kids line of organic juice drinks, Goldman realized it cost more than twice the price of Capri Sun.

“We’ve got to sell this on the merits of the product,” said Goldman. “Don’t compete on price; just make the product dramatically different and better.”

And much like Goldman invested in technology to expand his capacity, Wollman invested the right space to make his hummus since The Desert Cafés kitchen wasn’t cutting it.

“It was a small little 10-by-10 kitchen, and the most important thing about hummus is making it cold, keeping it cold, getting it cold, and I had everything against me there,” said Wollman. “So I knew if I was going to take this to the next level I needed to get a better facility.”

He moved into his Baltimore County facility in June 2012 and has refined his practices. On a recent Monday he made 2,400 pounds of hummus, which “seems like a lot, but it’s really not,” he said. And he’s ready for more business.

“We’ve gotten so good at it, we need to get busier now, because now we can get everything done that would have taken us days in [one day],” he said.

Wollman wasn’t the only one fired up by Goldman. Representatives of the Pearlstone Center — where the farm and animals are cared for in sustainable, environmentally conscious ways according to Jewish law — thought the story of Honest Tea fit perfectly with their work.

“Just to see that you can do sustainable and environmentally conscious and socially conscious … it fits along with everything we’re trying to do,” said P.J. Pearlstone, first vice president of Pearlstone’s board of directors.

Jakir Manela, executive director at Pearlstone, said it was a statement in itself that The Associated brought in Goldman to speak to Jewish professionals, and they came out in large numbers. Goldman exemplifies what Manela has seen in recent years, he said: sustainability, organic practices and environmentalism becoming mainstream.

“People still need to be educated, but … we’ve passed that tipping point, and it’s just becoming part of basic consciousness,” he said. “This is how the world works now; we all need to be responsible. It’s a part of business just as much as it’s part of the nonprofit world and it’s part of the Jewish community.”

“The question is,” added Manela, “how long will it take for the ideas to turn into practices?”

Torah Institute Achieves Milestone in Energy Efficiency



Torah Institute of Baltimore is implementing plans to both save money and protect the environment.

The school recently completed a comprehensive lighting component upgrade that has resulted in a $2,350 monthly savings, it announced last month. Funding came from leveraging Baltimore Gas and Electric utility rebates with its partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Green Loan Fund and its Sustainability Initiative’s Energy Efficiency Projects for Schools funded through AVI CHAI.

“We are very proud to be a model of energy conservation for schools,” said Yaakov Goldstein, executive vice president of Torah Institute. “This project is consistent with the efforts of our finance office to eliminate waste in all forms — in time, in spending, and now we can include energy as well. It not only fulfills the mitzvah of baal tashchis [broadly applied to the prohibition of all forms of waste], but also results in significant annual savings to the school.”

Until now, nearly half of the school’s electric bill was spent on lighting. To improve the situation, 850 light fixtures were re-lamped and re-ballasted. New components use 55 percent less energy to operate and produce more light than the original bulbs. The project cost $45,000 but was completely covered by a BGE rebate program. The initial cost of the project was covered by an interest-free loan provided by the Green Loan Fund.

In addition to approximately $28,000 per year in savings, the bulbs reportedly last more than 10 times the life of the existing bulbs, resulting in additional savings of cost and labor associated with changing light bulbs every summer over the next 12 years.

Finally, the school earned $1,500 in scrap-metal sales from the old fixtures. The old bulbs that were only a few months old were donated to local nonprofit organizations.

“On top of the significant cost savings associated with this project, the school is able to impart a series of valuable lessons to its student body,” said Yehuda Neuberger, co-chair of The Associated’s Day School Task Force. “Not only is conservation a Torah value, such a project models responsibility and inculcates an appreciation of the need for careful allocation of funds by communally supported institutions. I applaud Torah Institute for exercising leadership and finding creative opportunities to further some of the more indirect elements of its educational mission.”

MIDC Salutes Poliakoff

Gov. Martin O’Malley and Abba David Poliakoff share a laugh at a reception honoring Poliakoff’s seven years as chairman of the Maryland/Israel Development Center. (Marc Shapiro)

Gov. Martin O’Malley and Abba David Poliakoff share a laugh at a reception honoring Poliakoff’s seven years as chairman of the Maryland/Israel Development Center. (Marc Shapiro)

Abba David Poliakoff has a catch phrase about the Maryland/Israel Development Center that he’s practically known for.

“The mission of the MIDC is to facilitate the soft landing of the Israeli company in the U.S. through Maryland,” he said. “And we implement this mission by utilizing what we call our ‘instant infrastructure.’”

Poliakoff, 62, is referring to the MIDC’s network of high-tech companies throughout Maryland that serve as ambassadors to Israeli businesses by offering their expertise and connecting them with potential customers, vendors and collaborators. This system has vastly expanded and flourished under Poliakoff, who is retiring from his position as the MIDC’s chairman after seven years.

The MIDC now has more than 300 members, an active Southern Maryland branch, academic collaborations between Israeli companies and the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University and its own venture capital fund, while about 30 Israeli companies have opened American offices in Maryland.

“I think I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to change this from a project and a grant-based program to a real live organization with people, with a mission, with goals and with accomplishments, and I think we’ve done that,” said Poliakoff.

Poliakoff was honored at a reception at the Woodholme Country Club on Thursday, April 3, which was attended by representatives of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, local elected officials and Gov. Martin O’Malley. The governor, who has gone on three missions to Israel, including two as governor, with Poliakoff, spoke at the reception about the work of MIDC and its outgoing chair.

“Your work on the Maryland/Israel Development [Center] has really shone the light on what is possible if our communities who call Maryland home realize that they are also able to provide  entré to Maryland businesses and entrepreneurs in places all around the world, and in our case the great state of Israel,” O’Malley said at the reception.

Israel is Maryland’s 19th largest trading partner with $114 million in exports in 2013, the governor said, representing an increase of more than $73 million since 2009.

Last year, Roboteam, which manufactures unmanned vehicles and controllers for law enforcement, defense and public safety, opened its U.S. headquarters in Bethesda, and Shekel Scales, which makes scales for retail sales, opened in Owings Mills. The company that makes Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, ELTA North America, has called Howard County home since 2012.

Poliakoff, chairman of law firm Gordon Feinblatt LLC’s securities practice and Israel practice groups, was first tapped by MIDC executive director Barry Bogage to head a strategic planning committee to determine the future of the MIDC. When the plan was approved, Poliakoff was told to implement it by chairing the organization.

Under his leadership, the organization has grown to five employees, one of whom is in Israel, and started a venture capital fund, a nontypical and somewhat difficult undertaking for a nonprofit.

“Abba knew that the best way to support Israel, to support the start-up nation and the future of Israel was to create a structure and provide that early funding to the youngest of companies,” Bogage said at the reception.

While it was tough to find investors for a fund with no track record, the Maryland/Israel Trendlines Fund is now fully invested in 12 Israeli companies.

Members of the MIDC in Maryland find great value in the organization.

Sage Growth Partners helps make growing companies “bigger and better,” said vice president of research and planning Chris DeMarco.

“Our organization is health care, information technology and marketing,” he said. “And we have a venture arm, which helps get other companies established. So [MIDC] fits right in with our mission.”

Steven Brooks, the company’s chief innovation officer, said his unpaid internship with MIDC redefined his career path. Through Poliakoff and the MIDC, Brooks learned about high-tech start-ups, and found a job with Sage that allows him to help these kinds of companies.

Michael Rosen, senior vice president of new business development for Forest City, has gone on mission trips to Israel to learn about how his company can better structure activities with Israeli companies. Forest City is building a science and technology park at Johns Hopkins, and Rosen hopes Israeli companies looking to work with Hopkins will move to the new space.

“Israel is as good as it gets for innovation, especially medical innovation, but the market is tiny,” said Rosen.

With so many moving parts to the MIDC, the organization’s new chair is someone who has been involved for a decade and knows the organization’s ins and outs. Rob Frier, president of electronic product testing lab MET Laboratories, speaks Hebrew, was in the Israel Defense Forces and has Israeli customers.

“I want to build on the solid foundation that Abba has started,” he said.

America’s Other Pastime

For years, the clicking of the colorful tiles taunted Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. She wanted to learn the game, but she couldn’t find anyone to teach her.

“It was the most mysterious thing my mother did,” said Shapiro of her mother’s regular mah jongg games.

Finally, Shapiro attended an instructional event hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland last month as part of its Late Night on Lloyd program.

“It just seemed like something a member of the Tribe should know how to do,” said Shapiro. As a former antique dealer, she had collected a lot of mah jongg-themed goods over the years — even a wooden set, although the sound of the wooden tiles never quite satisfied her.

“I love the sound of the clicks,” she said. “It’s about the sound.”

Whether they were introduced to the game by their aunt, mother, grandmother or someone else, for many Jews, mah jongg was a part of family life growing up.

“People speak of the ‘ancient game of mah jongg,’” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the JMM, where the mah jongg exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” opened March 30, “but there’s no such thing.”

Rather, said Pinkert, the origins of the modern version of the game date back to the mid-19th century, when tiles began being used in place of card strips. In the early 1920s, American businessman Joseph Babcock took a liking to the game while living overseas and began importing sets to the United States.

“It’s like the Beatles coming to New York,” described Pinkert of the way the game took the country by storm. Just as everything “mod” was in while he was growing up, “everything that was of Oriental character [became] popular” in the 1920s flapper culture.

Young people looking to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation were lured by the exotic style and games of Eastern culture. From mah jongg-themed clothing sketches by modern fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to mah jongg dolls, a lot of the museum’s exhibit, which ends June 29, explores the game’s effects on popular culture.

“It [became] such a fad that it [affected] everything around it,” said Pinkert, noting that The Saturday Evening Post even featured an illustration of a flapper playing mah jongg on its Jan. 5, 1924 cover.

By the end of the ’20s, the craze had largely died out. But when the Great Depression hit and Jewish charities were looking for creative ways to raise money, the game made a comeback as a fun way to “go retro,” said Pinkert.

In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed. The initial meeting was attended by some 200 ladies, said Pinkert, most of whom were Jewish.

“Now it becomes Jewish culture,” he said.

The National Mah Jongg League established a standard set of rules for American players to follow. Unlike Chinese mah jongg, the mah jongg played by American women of the 1930s involved score calculator cards and multiple winning hands.

By the 1940s, women had begun to rely on mah jongg as a part of regular life.

“In the ’40s, with men away at war, mah jongg became part of the way women kept their social sphere alive,” said Pinkert.

The game quickly became an integral part of “the good life” for American Jewish women, he detailed. Vacations to the Catskills and Miami began to include hours spent playing with the tiles.

“Project Mah Jongg” originated in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and illustrates not only the game’s history, but also its role in the community.

“What began as a Chinese game is now part of the Jewish American narrative,” said Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of collections and exhibitions at the New York museum and curator of the traveling exhibit.

Designed by Pentagram Design, it takes the viewer through a chronological journey through the life of the game, from China to America. Complete with audio stations, where viewers can listen to interviews with mah jongg players and the clicking of mah jongg tiles, “Project Mah Jongg” allows the viewer to step into a larger-than-life game. The centerpiece of the design is a table set for people to play on, surrounded by large tile-shaped frames filled with memorabilia and game pieces. Along the outside of the display are cultural items related to the game, such as fashion designs and vacation photos. At the apex of the display, tying everything together, is a large Star of David.

For Pinkert, the exhibit brings him back to his childhood.

“I grew up in the next room listening to the clatter of mah jongg tiles,” he said of his mother’s regular game nights.

Lois Madow is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based American Mah-Jongg Association. In addition to providing access to lessons and tournaments, the organization also hosts one or two two-week tournaments at sea each year.

“The game is very popular in Baltimore,” Madow said in an email sent during her latest mah jongg cruise, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Barcelona. “Just go to almost any restaurant in Pikesville and you will see people playing. Of course, a lot of people play in their home [as well].”

With 3,000 people on the group’s mailing list, the American Mah-Jongg Association is easily one of the biggest names in Western mah jongg. In addition to event sign-ups and sets for purchase, the group’s website also features mah jongg-themed bags, jewelry, license plates, clothing and other items for sale.

Striving for Unity

Sister Barbara Ann English makes a point at the 54th Inter- faith Institute at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Joining English are, from left, Rabbi Andrew Busch, Rev.  Andrew Foster Connors and Rev. Ojeda M. Hall (David Stuck)

Sister Barbara Ann English makes a point at the 54th Interfaith Institute at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Joining English are, from left, Rabbi Andrew Busch, Rev. Andrew Foster Connors and Rev. Ojeda M. Hall (David Stuck)

From the moment he took the microphone at the 54th annual Interfaith Institute at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, it was clear that keynote speaker Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, meant business. This year’s topic was “When There is No Vision, Community Will Perish.” Connor began by referencing BHC’s former rabbi, Morris Lieberman, who served the congregation from 1937 to 1970.

“Fifty years, six months and five days ago … Rabbi Morris Lieberman stepped to the bima of this congregation on the morning of Rosh Hashana. It was four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., had left four little African-American girls dead and the nation reeling from the incident,” said Connors.

The reverend went on to share highlights of Lieberman’s sermon, in which he recalled his 1949 European visit to Germany. On that visit, Lieberman drove from Munich to Dachau and along the way, passed many churches whose priests, pastors and congregants had remained silent about the trucks, trains and buses that passed the religious sites day after day as they transported Jews to the death camps.

“What did the priests and pastors preach about at Easter and Christmas?” Lieberman asked his congregants. “Did they speak about peace on earth and good will toward men?”

And then, said Connor, Lieberman did something that showed courage. He drew parallels between the churchgoers and clergymen in Nazi Germany and his own Jewish congregation in Baltimore, beseeching them not to remain silent in the face of racism. By doing so, he knew he risked offending them and opening up a controversial topic.

“Our congregation must act as a holy instrument of divine purpose as 20 million Americans suffer in our country because of the Nazi-echoing philosophy of racial superiority,” said Lieberman.

Connor’s keynote address went on to illustrate how more than 50 years after Lieberman’s sermon and the voicing of Martin Luther King’s dream, Baltimore remains a city of staggering inequality. He illuminated his point by reciting statistics that characterize the Baltimore of the 21st century: In Roland Park, the median income is $90,000 while just a few blocks away in Upton, the median income is $13,000; in Roland Park, the 2010 unemployment rate was 3.4 percent, while in Upton, it was 17.5 percent; in Roland Park, no one lives in poverty, but in Upton, 49 percent live below the poverty line; in Roland Park, the average life expectancy is 83, and in Upton it is only 63.

The reverend shared his observation that in 2014, “many of us no longer seem to possess a kind of urgency to do anything about it. Perhaps many of us have lost hope that anything can be done. Or perhaps the sentiment ‘they’re only Jews’ possessed by some of those Christians on the road to Dachau is not too far off from the feeling of many along the road to Baltimore. ‘They’re only poor blacks.’”

Connor explained why in his view, religious leaders and followers should be concerned about and take action to change the growing inequality between rich and poor and African-Americans and whites.

“First, we will never have peace in this country, much less in this world, until we face the fact that race matters in our city, perhaps more than anything else,” he said. “Baltimore was built on racism that we cannot simply choose to leave behind until we have faced the truth of how it still shapes us.”

Religious groups, he pointed out, “are the only institutions possessing deep narratives of liberation from oppression, storied illustrations of justice and the organizational capacity to reach people across current divides.”

Additionally, he continued, “religious communities are the only institutions with enough independence from special interests to have a credible voice of integrity in the public sphere.”

After Connor’s keynote, Dr. Agha S. Kahn, a Pakistani neurosurgeon, Ahmadiyya Muslim and representative of the Ahmadiyya mosque now situated across the street from BHC echoed Connor’s calls for joint action.

“If we don’t act, we will perish,” he said. “It is time to join forces of good against forces of evil.”

Kahn also spoke about the need for people of different faiths to know each other so that their fear of difference will be diminished: “Ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence,” he warned.

Sister Barbara Ann English, past director of the Julie Community Center was the next respondent.

English also discussed the need for unity in advocating for Baltimore’s poor.

“Imagine what would happen if we declared an interfaith day? [We could talk about] what we see as assets and problems in our city. We could take over M&T Stadium and we would collectively discern what we would do together,” she said. “We would develop a plan. Finally, together, we would rock and roll with our city leaders.”

Rev. Ojeda M. Hall, lead organizer of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, stressed that action was needed more than just talk.

“We believe that by us getting together with action is the way things will happen,” she said. “We’ve listened to people in this city. … Their No. 1 concern is jobs — access to high-quality jobs and living wages. … We’ve talked to drug dealers and they’ve told us, ‘We have to feed our families. Give us jobs, and we will stop selling drugs.’”

The morning ended with a performance by BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon. Soloman performed “If I Had a Hammer” by American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who died earlier this year.

Searching for Community

The night Gidon Feen came out as gay at his Orthodox high school after-graduation party, he said he could feel his stomach boiling. While he had come out to his close friends in 11th grade, this was his entire high school.

“Oh, by the way, I’m gay and I’m coming out tonight,” he said. And after a quick silence, he said the room burst into applause. “It truly was the best moment of my life.”

Feen, now a freshman at George Washington University, spoke of this moment and his initial struggles of being gay in an Orthodox Jewish family and community during “All in the Family: Narratives of Gay Orthodox Jews and their Families.”

The program, held Sunday at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue, began with an introduction from Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi. His introduction was followed by a screening of the Israeli short film “And Thou Shalt Love,” which focuses on a young student trying to overcome feelings for a study partner at a yeshiva.

Feen said that growing up in an “almost haredi community,” followed by a modern Orthodox one, he didn’t encounter the word “gay” until he was in seventh grade and noticed it came with bad connotations.

He eventually came to terms with his sexuality and came out to his parents at a Shabbat dinner, which turned out to be a great experience for him, as his parents were happy and accepting. But attending a yeshiva high school in Memphis, Tenn., he said he “felt tortured and oppressed” and struggled with the fact that his religion didn’t seem accepting of homosexuality. In his senior year, he said, he gained full confidence and embraced the fact he was a gay Orthodox Jew, which led to his graduation party announcement.

“People who come out don’t need to leave communities,” said Feen.

The two other speakers were mothers of gay children. Rena Fruchter’s daughter came out to her at a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference 14 years ago. She said she felt clueless and insensitive for not having any idea her daughter was gay.

“Did this fit into a Jewish picture?” said Fruchter, director of arts integration at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.

She recalled at first getting blank stares from rabbis she asked for advice and failing to find other parents in the community with gay daughters. On Sunday, she spoke emotionally of a rabbi who recently spoke to students at her daughter’s former high school about supporting gay Jews.

“I want my daughter and others to not be celebrities because they’re gay,” she said. “We take pride in celebrating her. [A gay Jewish lifestyle] can be complicated, doable and supported.”

Mindy Dickler’s son came out when he was a college freshman, home on break for Rosh Hashanah in 2011. Dickler joked about him making his announcement standing in front of a closet.

She said that while she was speechless, she realized that he was still the same person he was before his announcement.

Like Fruchter, Dickler said she was lost at first. She found no local news coverage on Jewish LGBTQ life and couldn’t find any other families in her situation but concluded that many in the community were still in the closet.

Eventually, she came in contact with someone Jewish at Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, a national LGBTQ support group. Soon after, she co-founded JQ Baltimore, an organization that advocates for inclusiveness and educates the community on LGBTQ rights.

“We can’t sit idly by as family members struggle with self-acceptance. That can lead to suicide,” she said. “I know there are other parents out there. I want to connect with them. I just have to find them.”

Questions for the speakers included how to deal with hate speech from both students and members in the community and from rabbis in the many factions of Judaism.

“I think the best way to address it is head on,” said Feen. “The way to respond isn’t with more hate. [It’s to] talk about the issue with a positive response.”

Dickler also noted that with the huge spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, the best way to make progress is by talking with those who are open, and moving down the line.

Greenberg summed things up this way: “Ideologies are always possibly wrong,” he said. “Stories are never wrong.”

Freedom at a Price

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch shared his experiences as a Soviet  refusenik with students at the  Bais Yaakov School for Girls. ( David Stuck)

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch shared his experiences as a Soviet refusenik with students at the Bais Yaakov School for Girls. (David Stuck)

High school and middle school students from the Bais Yaakov School for Girls gathered in the auditorium at the school’s Mount Washington location to hear famed refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch share his story of fighting Russian oppression from behind the Iron Curtain.

Mendelevitch, whose “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival” was recently translated into English, traveled from his home in Israel to address Baltimore audiences March 27 to 30. He spoke at Bais Yaakov the morning of March 28.

Prior to Mendelevitch’s presentation, Bais Yaakov seniors Ruty Nadoff and Shaindee Schmell said they were looking forward to the event.

“[I want to hear] how people struggled for something that is so easy for us,” said Nadoff. Schmell said she expected an inspiring story that would “lift her heart” and provide encouragement to “keep on growing in this beautiful religion.”

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1947, Mendelevitch grew up in a secular household and received no formal Jewish education. Nevertheless, the rabbi’s parents spoke Yiddish, and Mendelevitch was aware that the family was Jewish.

At Bais Yaakov, he began his address with memories of his childhood in the Soviet Union.

“When I was a child, our teacher [in public school] decided to ask every child in my class to stand up and tell their nationality. Each child stood up and proclaimed [his or her nationality] proudly. Only one boy, 7 years old, sitting in the back row, was afraid,” said Mendelevitch. “That was me. For I did understand that to be a Jew was something shameful. I was afraid I would lose my friends. This demanded courage and I didn’t have it.

“So I decided to say that I didn’t know what [nationality] I was,” he continued. “I stood up and saw [the image of] my father before me. I felt if I didn’t know who I was, I would be saying I didn’t know who my father was, so I whispered, ‘I am a Jew.’ Everyone started yelling. ‘Why am I different?’ I asked myself.”

Mendelevitch went on to share pivotal experiences, such as his father’s arrest and imprisonment for fabricated crimes, his decision as a high school student to take pride in his religion, his discovery of an underground movement of people who shared his views, and, most remarkable, his involvement in a 1970 plot to hijack an airplane to Sweden and eventually to Israel, where he desperately wanted to be.

Mendelevitch and more than a dozen other underground refuseniks bought all 12 seats on a small civilian airplane. They claimed the plane was transporting them to a family wedding. Once in Sweden, the hijackers planned to hold a news conference to inform Western audiences about the oppression that existed in the Soviet Union.

“In the airport, when we heard the announcement, ‘Boarding,’ we were excited,” recalled Mendelevitch. “[We thought] we would be free and would bring freedom to Russia. But the moment we came close to the plane, we were arrested by Russian soldiers, who brought us to prison and started questioning us.”

Although he knew he was risking his life, Mendelevitch refused to cooperate with the KGB authorities, who were trying to intimidate him and the other hijackers. The plan was to put the hijackers on trial, where they would be forced to give false testimony about the state of affairs in the Soviet Union. By doing so, the KGB hoped to fool leaders of Western countries into complacency.

Once they realized that Mendelevitch wouldn’t cooperate, the KGB threw him in jail. Over his 11 years of imprisonment, Mendelevitch would spend time in labor camps and confined to a small cell.

In prison, Mendelevitch did his best to practice Judaism. Despite the ridicule and threats from the prison guards, he attempted to keep as many mitzvot as he could.

He created a yarmulke out of his handkerchief, saved a portion of his meals so he could have a Shabbat meal each Friday and prayed by remembering as much as he could from his studies with members of the underground. Mendelevitch even missed visits from his beloved father, because the prison guards insisted he remove his makeshift yarmulke before the visits and he refused to do so.

Despite the Russian government’s attempts to hide its anti-Semitic activities, the arrests of Mendelevitch and his co-conspirators raised red flags for people elsewhere in the world. Responding to pressure from world leaders in 1981, thousands of Russian Jews,  Mendelevitch among them, were finally permitted to leave the country. Mendelevitch went to Israel, where he continued his Jewish studies, eventually becoming an Orthodox rabbi.

Speaking after the event, Mendelevitch expressed appreciation for Baltimore’s Jewish community but also shared concerns about the broader Jewish community.

“American Jews are not much involved in supporting Israel, as we are accused of all these crimes we haven’t done,” said the rabbi. “They are just sitting back. Do something to pressure the White House. Don’t send Kerry to make us compromise. Jews are being silent, and Arabs are winning the war of propaganda.”

“I fought against assimilation in the Soviet Union, and as an outcome I went to prison. These days in America, the same thing is happening with 68 percent intermarriage,” he added. “American Jewry has to say this is an emergency and an obligation. We are losing people. It is like a silent Holocaust.”