BJC Prepares For Advocacy Day

Rabbi Ron Shulman says “knowledgeable advocates are vital to democracy.” (Justin Tsucalas)

Rabbi Ron Shulman says “knowledgeable advocates are vital to democracy.” (Justin Tsucalas)

The Baltimore Jewish Council is gearing up for its annual Advocacy Day in Annapolis on Wed., Feb. 5.

As in past years, organizers expect about 150 community members, state legislators and executive branch officials to come together to discuss the council’s legislative priorities.

“On Advocacy Day, we enthusiastically represent the Jewish community and inform our state delegates and senators about our community’s views on pending legislation,” Rabbi Ron Shulman, president of the BJC, said via email. “Knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates are vital to democracy and the legislative process. Our Jewish heritage values this, urging us to participate in creating a just and decent society.”

Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy, said that the event draws on the participation of legislators from across the state and their staffs.

“Legislators have to hear from their constituents,” she said.

Beginning at 4:30 p.m., with a briefing for participants, the program includes more than an hour devoted to meeting with legislators and a reception.

The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year include funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice, the Maryland/Israel Development Center and the Maryland Education Credit. Policy issues of importance to the BJC include disparities in storm water management fees, the debate over raising the minimum wage and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.

Lawmakers in Annapolis said they were looking forward to the conversations.

“There may be people who can personalize [an] issue who have specific experience with the problem that prompted the legislation,” said Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (D-41).

Delegate Dana Stein (D-11) agreed.

“It’s also good to hear from residents back home about why they think an issue is particularly important,” he said. “It helps personalize the importance of the BJC’s agenda.”

In addition to having face time with their representatives, Shulman said Advocacy Day allows community members to connect their Jewish values with the legislative process.

The BJC held another event in Annapolis recently in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Community Relations of Council of Greater Washington. The luncheon featured presentations on the museum’s creation and the importance of keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive.

The luncheon featured Maryland State Police Col. Marcus Brown, who regularly takes troopers to the museum. While not part of Advocacy Day, Locklair said it supported the BJC’s work in Annapolis.

“We haven’t really done anything like that before,” she said.

O’Malley: State of our state is strong

Gov. Martin O’Malley (CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT)

Gov. Martin O’Malley (CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley gave his eighth and final State of the State address last week in Annapolis.

He used the Jan. 23 speech as a way to chronicle his two terms as governor and call on the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage, move toward universal pre-kindergarten, better protect domestic violence victims and invest in transportation infrastructure.

“I think it’s a nice coda to his major successes in many ways,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “He sets out what’s been done, and he says to America, ‘Look what I’ve done, and you know, I might be ready for the next step,’ whatever that is.”

O’Malley has hinted at a possible presidential run in 2016.

In the address, O’Malley listed accomplishments, such as the repeal of the death penalty, passage of the DREAM Act and legalization of gay marriage.

“The state of our state is strong and growing stronger by the day,” he said.

He highlighted Maryland’s job recovery, environmental triumphs, such as trees being planted on public lands, and public safety and health achievements, such as traffic death reductions.

Abramson said the O’Malley administration has been a great friend to the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish community at large.

“[O’Malley] continues a long line of governors being extremely supportive of our needs,” he said, adding that the capital budget reflects BJC’s priorities and concerns.

In his speech, O’Malley acknowledged that his administration fell short in the rollout of the state’s health-care enrollment website.

Happy 100!

Sam Gertner’s 100th birthday celebration was a family affair. (Melissa Gerr)

Sam Gertner’s 100th birthday celebration was a family affair. (Melissa Gerr)

On Sunday Jan. 26, Sam Gertner — father to three, grandfather to four, great-grandfather to five, accomplished musician, voracious reader, seasoned writer and avid traveler — celebrated a century of living surrounded by family and friends. The party took place at Springhouse of Pikesville, a senior living facility on Reisterstown Road, but Gertner has come a long way in his 100 years.

In the early 1900s, Gertner’s parents, Jacob and Jenny, fled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to escape Polish pogroms. They stayed with family in Denmark, and Sam Gertner was born there in 1914. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, first to Brooklyn, N.Y., then to Baltimore, all by the time Sam Gertner was 6 years old.

Gertner grew up on Broadway near Lombard Street, playing basketball and softball with friends in the Spartan Club at the Jewish Educational Alliance on East Baltimore Street and in Patterson Park. When asked about life near Lombard, Gertner recalled with a smile street vendors, special food stands, busy storefronts and friendly neighbors.

His father, Jacob, worked as a tailor at Silverstein and Schlossberg on Greene Street. In the mid-1920s the Gertners moved to 4204 Park Heights Ave., and Sam’s father started his own tailoring business, working out of the family home.

Gertner attended Baltimore City College, “the Castle on the Hill,” and also received musical instruction at Peabody Conservatory. He played the violin, guitar, bass fiddle and saxophone. Gertner won a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison journalism school but stayed in Baltimore to take care of his ailing mother.

Like many young Jewish adults at that time, Gertner met his future spouse, Katherine Friedman, at a JEA event.

“The girls liked to dance and sing. If you saw one you thought was a bit better than the others, you’d go talk to her,” Gertner said with a laugh.

He joined the Army Air Force in 1942 and married Katherine in 1943. The couple had three children: Alan, Larry and Mark. While in the military Gertner traveled and performed with the U.S.O. across Europe and South America. He played with bandleaders such as Ted Weems, Kay Kyser, Glenn Miller and Freddy Martin. He also backed up Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore.

But Gertner’s most memorable concert was performed without a bandleader or celebrities.

“When we came home and had knocked the hell out of Germany, on that Air Force plane we played [music] … coming home,” said Gertner. “[We] were just fighters but played music on the sidelines.”

After his military service Gertner continued to play locally for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“Next to the ironing board in the basement was a stand-up piano,” said Sam’s oldest son Alan Gertner. “My grandfather would be sewing, and my father would be practicing with his band next to him.”


Sam at work at media department of Enoch Pratt Library (Provided)

The elder Gertner began working at Enoch Pratt Central Library soon after he returned from the service, staying there for about 30 years until his retirement in 1977. He read and reviewed books for the library and ran filmstrips and films in the media department. He spoke passionately about writing and, most of all, about reading so many books.

“Those are some of my favorite memories,” he said.

In retirement he continued working in the audio-visual arts, showing filmstrips and films for organizations and showcasing cartoons at children’s parties and for his grandchildren. Gertner continued to read, fervently.

At 100, he is engaged with those around him, sporting an upbeat and lively attitude. He still manages the library at Springhouse and chats with the residents and staff. If there’s one thing that frustrates him a bit, it is that about one year ago an illness made it difficult for him to read as much as he likes.

“Up until then he could read five books a week. Anytime we would go over to the house, I knew where he’d be: in one room, sitting at a table reading a book,” said daughter-in-law Ellen Gertner.

Though he grew up as an only child, at his 100th birthday party, Gertner was flanked by a great progeny of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Robin, Amy and Eric — three of the grandchildren present — have fond memories of spending Jewish holidays and Shabbat each week with their grandparents.

Gertner was a member of Agudas Achim before the family joined the Liberty Jewish Center, which became the current-day Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation.

Gertner claims one of the secrets of living to 100 is to keep learning. And judging from his continuing love for literature, he plans to keep going strong.

Watch Sam Gertner and his family celebrate his 100th birthday below!

Columbia Community Searches For Answers


The Mall in Columbia Jan. 25, 2014. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT/Newscom)

Last Saturday morning’s fatal shooting at a popular Howard County shopping mall sent shock waves through the typically quiet suburb of Columbia, Md., with members of the area’s close-knit Jewish community joining their neighbors in mourning a sense of safety shattered by a teenager’s bullets.

Lynn Green, president of local Reform congregation Bet Aviv, shops at The Mall in Columbia nearly every day; she was inside the Macy’s department store at the other end of the mall when police say College Park resident and James Hubert Blake High School graduate Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, gunned down Zumiez employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy.

“All of a sudden, it sounded like cattle running through,” said Green. “All you heard were feet, and it looked like teenagers running through. I said to the cashier [that] it must be a flash mob.”

When a second group of people ran by yelling that there was a shooter, she knew what had happened. Aguilar later took his own life, according to police.

Even though Green did not see the shooter or hear any gunshots, it took her until late afternoon to fully recover from the shock.

“My heart was pounding the entire day,” she said. “I have never had that kind of experience in my life, and I take things relatively well.”

Green wondered why, with the mall being such a popular destination, especially on the weekends, and with what appeared to be an increased presence of security to handle the crowds, no one apparently spotted heavily armed Aguilar prior to the shooting.

Police accounts, through surveillance footage, determined that Aguilar arrived by taxi approximately an hour before the shooting. He was carrying a backpack filled with improvised explosives and a pistol-grip 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun.

Terry Erfer, who lives approximately two-and-a-half miles from the mall, had not shopped at the mall in about six months; she happened to be there that day nevertheless.

“I went with some friends to do some walking before the mall opened,” she said. “We got there at about 9:30 a.m. and then walked three times around [the mall] and left.”

Erfer said she felt lucky; she found out about the tragedy when her son called her from Texas to find out if she was all right.

“It’s scary because it could have happened half an hour earlier, and I would have been there,” she said.

Rabbi Susan Grossman, head rabbi at the nearby Beth Shalom Congregation, saw in the shooting a need to re-examine how the nation approaches gun control.

“How many more shootings will we allow to happen before we unambiguously enforce our gun control laws and create the proper checks and balances so that people who shouldn’t have guns don’t have them?” she asked. “In Judaism, if you’ve saved one life, it is as if you’ve saved the whole world.”

“I think that we in the Conservative movement have favored gun control,” she continued. “There are certain types of equipment that should not be sold, and there’s no reason not to have a waiting period before someone could walk out with a gun, so that their record could be checked.”

While surprise that such violence could happen in Columbia was a common refrain, many questioned the shooter’s mental state as well as the services available to those with mental health problems.

“I don’t think it’s possible to do gun control in this country anymore,” commented Elise Striz, a hydro geologist at the United States Nuclear Commission who the night of the shooting attended a concert at Beth Shalom with her family. “I think there are too many weapons out there, and we’re past the point of being able to control guns. I would have liked to have seen it earlier, but I think it [the window of opportunity] is done.”

“I don’t think that we put enough funds into mental health and into helping people who have mental health and anger management issues,” she added. “I wish we would put more funding into those areas.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Green, a retired middle and elementary school teacher.

“I feel very badly for the two people who got killed; I feel badly for their parents; I also feel badly for the shooter because — and I was a teacher for 35 years — if this guy is 19, he didn’t get meshugge overnight,” said Green. “There were kids [who attended my school] who committed crimes and you’d see it in the newspaper, and it didn’t surprise you because their personality showed this years ago.”

“I think we probably need to give some education,” she continued. “The schools give sex education, but maybe they need to give some mental health education.”

Despite what happened, Green will be back at the mall as usual on Monday. Striz, as well, doesn’t plan to let the shooting deter her from shopping.

“I don’t believe that in a free society you can ever really protect yourself from these kind of incidents, and I refuse to be frightened by it,” said Striz. “You have to go about your daily lives.”

Medicinal Reefer Madness


At the Takoma Wellness Center in
Washington, D.C., medical marijuana strains are labeled with percentages
of natural chemical compounds and symbols that tell which strains help
with staying awake, sleeping or eating.

The waiting room at the Takoma Wellness Center looks not unlike a doctor’s office. Two black leather chairs bestride a coffee table, and informational pamphlets reside in a display on the back wall. A hamsa, a Middle Eastern symbol for health, happiness and good fortune, sits above one of the chairs.

But in the next room, nine different strains of marijuana, four types of leaves for cooking marijuana-infused foods and two concentrated extracts sit ready for purchase by Washington, D.C., medical marijuana patients.

“We want to make sure that we match the strain to what it is they’re looking for,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the dispensary.

About 120 people in Washington, D.C., are registered medical marijuana patients, 35 of whom get their medicine from the Takoma Wellness Center on Blair Road, said Kahn. The city allows patients suffering from HIV, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and muscle spasticity to obtain doctors’ recommendations and register their medical marijuana need with the department of health, which then issues patient identification cards.

Just blocks away, in the state of Maryland, people suffering from the same ailments cannot legally acquire that same medicine. That may change in the near future, however, because of the work of the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission.

The commission, which held its first meeting in September 2013, was established when Gov. Martin O’Malley signed House Bill 1101 into law last May. The independent 12-person group, which reports to Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is tasked with establishing regulations that would allow an academic medical center to establish a medical marijuana program.

“It’s time to put in a responsible, accountable program for the purpose of helping people,” said Del. Dan Morhaim (D-11), who introduced and sponsored the original bill. “I think people finally see that this makes sense from a point of compassion and care for themselves and their families, and I think the medical community has come together as well.”

A wide margin of Marylanders — 90 percent — support the use of marijuana for medical purposes when prescribed by a doctor, according to a 2013 poll by Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. Nationally, polls that have asked Americans since 2010 if they favor medical marijuana range between 60 and 81 percent in favor. A diverse array of health organizations, which include the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, of which Morhaim is a member, Kaiser Permanente and various HIV/AIDS and cancer advocacy groups, support the idea of medical marijuana.


In Washington, D.C., about 120 people are registered for medical marijuana. Most patients use vaporizers rather than smoke, one dispensary owner said.

Washington, D.C., and 19 states — not including Maryland — have medical marijuana laws on their books. While the fine print of the programs varies, most require a doctor’s recommendation, which then allows a patient to be issued an identification card and placed in a state registry. Some states have dispensaries, where patients can buy medical marijuana; others, such as Alaska and Hawaii, allow patients to grow their own cannabis.

Maryland takes a different approach with its Medical Marijuana Commission, which is named after bill co-sponsor Del. Cheryl Glenn’s mother. Glenn (D-45) became a medical marijuana advocate after seeing her mother and brother-in-law suffer from pain that their prescribed medications didn’t alleviate.

The law stipulates the commission consist of the secretary of health and mental hygiene or a designee; someone who is or was a medical marijuana patient; someone appointed by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; three physicians who specialize in addiction, pain, oncology, neurology or clinical research; a pharmacist; a scientist who has studied marijuana; a representative of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association; a representative of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and an attorney knowledgeable about medical marijuana.

Under the law, a medical marijuana program would be under the direction of an academic medical center defined as a hospital that operates a medical residency program for physicians and conducts research overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services with human subjects. The law stipulates that the program would be investigational in nature and would provide marijuana to patients for medical use.

“We should have a very careful and concise type of program,” said Nancy Rosen-Cohen, a commission member and executive director of the
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Maryland.

Doubts Among Advocates
Sharfstein calls Maryland’s law a “middle-of-the-road approach,” modeled after how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration handles a drug that has potential benefits and harms.

But advocates for medical marijuana patients aren’t so sure patients will actually get medicine in their hands under the law.

“We don’t even consider Maryland one of the medical marijuana states because the program that has been created is so weak that potentially no patients who need medical marijuana will be able to obtain it,” said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The functionality of Maryland’s program depends entirely on the participation of these university hospitals.”

The bill’s fiscal and policy note, a summary and assessment of a bill’s impact prepared by the Office of Policy Analysis in the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services, notes that both the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins University signaled they did not intend to participate as academic medical centers for a similar bill in 2012 and confirmed that the positions have not changed.

“DLS notes the possibility that — although the bill requires a specified infrastructure to be established and expenditures to be made — ultimately, there may be no programs for that infrastructure to support,” the note said. The fiscal and policy note also pointed out that costs are likely to be significant for a participating institution.

A spokesman for the University of Maryland School of Medicine said the institution is still in the process of evaluating its position. Johns Hopkins Medicine is open to discussing it with the state, but it would be premature and speculative to commit to a program or discuss its pros and cons until regulations are passed, a spokeswoman there said.

Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, has studied addiction and withdrawal in chronic marijuana use. He was on the advisory group that assisted the Maryland legislature on two medical marijuana bills. The bill that did not pass would have allowed dispensaries, similar to those in D.C., to open in Maryland. Vandrey supported both bills, but he thinks a lot of questions have yet to be answered about the bill that passed and how regulations will deal with those issues.

“Even though this is a passed law in the state of Maryland, there’s no guarantee it’s going to get up and running and work, no guarantee a teaching hospital will sign on and get a program going. It’s not entirely clear how that interaction of supply of the drug and medical oversight and billing is going to work or make it work,” he said. “I think money is a key thing that hasn’t been solved yet.”

Yeung and others with doubts about an academic medical center pursuing a medical marijuana program say institutions may fear losing federal funding or facing federal prosecution. Although in August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would not challenge state medical marijuana programs, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and a Maryland commission member, is playing a major role in crafting the state’s regulations. He said whatever program is implemented in Maryland will comply with the Justice Department’s guidelines.

“We’re not operating in an area of fear,” he said. “The commission is going to have to develop regulations which have to go through a rigorous process of review before they take effect.”

Sterling and other commission members think the allure of doing groundbreaking medical marijuana research will reel in researchers and their respective institutions.

If prosecution were to become an issue, the law offers reimbursement of attorney fees for state employees who face a federal criminal investigation in connection with their work in carrying out the program. The law also allows the governor to suspend medical marijuana programs if there is a chance state employees will face federal prosecution.

To help potential patients in Maryland, Morhaim will introduce a bill this session that will allow doctors at Maryland hospitals and hospices, once approved by the commission, to recommend marijuana.

“It will make the program workable [and] available to patients,” he said.

The Patients
From appetite stimulation to muscle relaxation, according to the current research, patients suffering from a wide range of ailments benefit from marijuana’s therapeutic effects. While there are differences between each policy, in the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have medical marijuana programs, illnesses such as HIV, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasticity, chronic pain, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and severe nausea can all qualify a patient for medical marijuana.

“What makes it a medicine is that it works to relieve very troubling symptoms,” said Sterling. “It’s effective to reduce pain so that somebody who is in pain can use much less of a much more dangerous narcotic drug.”

Although patients’ marijuana use technically is illegal in Maryland, an affirmative defense law allows a defendant to prove medical necessity.

For some patients, marijuana is simply the most effective medicine.

Adam Epstein, a 17-year-old Reisterstown resident, was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome in fifth grade. It manifested itself in uncontrollable head shaking that caused severe neck pain. In the beginning, his head would be shaking all day, every day.

“The known medications that all the neurologists used for Tourette’s, none of them worked,” said his mother, Kathy. “They didn’t give him one minute of relief.”

Some flattened his personality and made him tired all the time, while another medication’s possible side effects included a patient’s eyes rolling up and getting stuck, requiring a shot of epinephrine.

After doing research to make sure marijuana wouldn’t interfere with his medication, Epstein decided to experiment. When he did, a friend noticed Epstein’s shaking had stopped. He used it on an as-needed basis and realized that using it once could alleviate his symptoms for more than a week at times. His family thinks the severity of his symptoms might have lessened in intensity long-term from his marijuana use.

Keeping The Pressure On

Supporters of Alan Gross attend weekly vigils to keep his name in the news. (Emily Minton)

Supporters of Alan Gross attend weekly vigils to keep his name in the news.
(Emily Minton)

Recent events — the release of Jacob Ostreicher, President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro and the ongoing diplomatic talks with Iran — may bode well for the fate of several Americans being held hostage overseas.

While each case is different, the outcomes of such figures as Alan Gross in Cuba and Robert Levinson in Iran may hinge on what former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is known for his efforts to free American hostages, termed combining “private and public pressure and government pressure.” Such a strategy “often succeeds,” he said, in convincing a foreign government to free an American captive.

Ostreicher, the Orthodox businessman who had been held against his will in Bolivia for more than two years, returned to America last month. In that case, the U.S. government worked behind the scenes, congressional hearings highlighted his captivity, the New York Orthodox community exerted pressure, and actor Sean Penn used his contacts to create a situation in which the father of five was able to flee his house arrest.

“In the case of Jacob Ostreicher, the government did do a lot,” said Richardson, crediting as well “very positive Jewish community pressure.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) used his position as senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold several hearings on behalf of Ostreicher, including one in which Penn testified. Penn’s presence piqued the interest of numerous news organizations, thereby sharing Ostreicher’s predicament with many who probably had never heard of him.

“I am overjoyed — and relieved — that Jacob is back in the United States after his unjust, grueling imprisonment in Bolivia,” said Smith. “Jacob’s case is a stark reminder of other Americans cruelly held captive, like Alan Gross in Cuba, Bob Levinson in Iran and Warren Weinstein kidnapped in Pakistan, and their heartbroken families waiting back home. We have to be persistent and always place them at the top of our diplomatic priorities.

“Last month, at a hearing I chaired of the global human rights subcommittee, members of Congress focused on Americans held hostage overseas,” he continued. “Congress and the administration must keep working in every possible bilateral and multilateral venue to bring these Americans home — and never let these cases grow cold or forgotten.”

Richardson agreed with the importance of keeping a hostage’s name in the news, both locally and in the country he is being held.

“I think what works is effective public pressure, raising the profile, quiet diplomacy within the government, stoking pressure points” and vocal support by whatever particular community group happens to be involved, he explained, noting that in the cases of Ostreicher, Gross and Levinson, the Jewish community has played a major role.

He pointed to the case of Gross, a State Department subcontractor who was arrested in December 2009 after a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet, as one area in which world events might portend his eventual release. The simple yet controversial handshake between Obama and Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa “sends a message to bureaucrats” in both countries, said Richardson. “I think there is some movement, slight optimism.”

Gross, who has been serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state” is “key to the United States and Cuba improving relations,” asserted Richardson. Releasing the Potomac, Md., man would go far in showing America that Cuba can be part of the world community.

The Cuban government, however, has linked the release of five accused Cuban spies currently held in prison or on probation in the United States in exchange for Gross’ freedom,

Richardson praised the weekly Monday vigils held outside the Cuban Interest Section in D.C., attended by members of the Maryland Jewish community and spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

“It keeps it in the news,” he said. “It keeps the Obama administration aware.”

Richard Shore, Gross’ attorney, echoed that sentiment.

“We think it’s important for the administration to understand that there is wide and deep interest” in Gross’ fate, he said. Ostreicher’s freedom “really [does not] have any effect on Alan’s situation. Each of these situations are unique and has its own set of facts. Fundamentally, Alan’s situation is, he was sent to Cuba by the U.S. government, and yet the U.S. government has done essentially nothing.”

Shore, a partner at Gilbert LLC, said that his client needs the Obama administration to talk openly with the Cuban government. “We are not attempting to set the terms of the debates other than he needs to be released.”

JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber was equally pessimistic that Ostreicher’s freedom changed the calculus in any way as it relates to Gross.

“I don’t think one is related to the other. Alan is being held as a political prisoner. He is a casualty in the dysfunctional relationship” between this country and Cuba, explained Halber. “The reality is until the White House shows the political courage to make a deal to bring Alan home, Alan will sit there.”

The weekly vigils will continue, affirmed Halber, calling them “a long-standing promise to make sure there is awareness. It reminds the Cubans we are not going to drop it. Is the vigil enough to bring Alan home? Probably not. Is the vigil enough to keep him in the news? Yes.”

Richardson also credited the work of Gross’ wife, Judy, as key.

“She’s been sort of the point person,” he said, “but she’s done it in a very dignified way” through humanitarian appeals rather than political ones.

Other Cases
Levinson is another American being held against his will. The private detective and former FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla., disappeared while in Iran in March 2007 while apparently researching a case. He is the father of seven children.

Richardson expects the American government to let Iran know that the release of Levinson would improve its standing in the world.

Last summer, the United States asked Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, “to work cooperatively with us” to free Levinson.

But in the case of Warren Weinstein of Rockville, who has been held by al-Qaida since August 2011, there is reportedly no one with whom to negotiate. The 72-year-old former Peace Corps and USAID official was kidnapped by that terrorist group when he was about to leave Pakistan. He had been in that country working for a private company.

“We are talking to Iran. We are not talking to al-Qaida. That’s where you need an out-of-the-box solution,” stated Richardson.

According to published reports, al-Qaida has demanded a halt to airstrikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and the release of al-Qaida and Taliban members held in U.S. custody before it will allow Weinstein to go free.

Still, last month’s release of a video, in which Weinstein is shown pleading with Obama to secure his release, could be seen as a positive sign.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney, the Maryland Democrat who represents Weinstein’s hometown, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry following the release of the video. Delaney wrote that while he understands and respects the U.S. government’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists, “I encourage you, in the strongest sense possible, to do everything you can to work with Pakistan and our global partners to secure Warren’s release and bring him home to his family. Doing nothing is simply not an option.”

Delaney called the video “confirmation he was alive. That was obviously a big deal.”

Therefore, he said, America needs to “refocus its efforts” and come up with a strategy to raise awareness. “You really don’t know what works” so it is best to try several things.

When a hostage is freed, he noted, “you never really learn what was the final straw.”

Supporting Stem Cell Research

Bruce in the USA, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band, will perform at CELL-A-BRATE, Hadassah of Greater Baltimore’s event to fund stem cell research. (Provided)

Bruce in the USA, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band, will perform at CELL-A-BRATE, Hadassah of Greater Baltimore’s event to fund stem cell research. (Provided)

Hadassah of Greater Baltimore’s eighth annual CELL-A-BRATE event will feature a night of music and dancing with Bruce in the USA — a tribute band to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — as well as a catered reception, drink offerings and a silent auction. The gathering promises to raise critical funds necessary to support the Hadassah Medical Organization’s continuing stem cell research, treatment, therapies and advocacy efforts.

Hadassah’s work remains at the forefront of stem cell research as shown by its  approaches to the treatment and research of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related macular degeneration, say officials with the organization. It continues to battle diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis by applying cell transplantation treatments and therapies also used in bone fracture repair and some cancer treatments.

Hadassah’s efforts are global, points out Jill Sapperstein, president of Hadassah of Greater Baltimore. In Washington, D.C., and across the nation, the organization has taken a lead role in educating elected officials about the importance of stem cell research. In Israel, the Hadassah Research Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cells was established to further its pioneering work and has drawn scientists from around the world.

“The only way the research can continue is to continue to fund it,” says Sapperstein. “Every day the research gets closer and closer for cures to diseases like ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] and MS.”

“Medical research at Hadassah Medical Organization is one of the core pieces of Hadassah’s mission,” she continues. “It’s what it was founded on and continues to live by: To improve the lives and health of people in Israel and worldwide.”

This year, Hadassah of Greater Baltimore is honoring the memory of Alvin and Louise Myerberg. Working with Dr. Justin McArthur, chair of the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Alvin Myerberg funded a research project to test a novel therapy to treat multiple sclerosis; his wife, Louise, suffered from the disease.

The National Institutes of Health contends that the use of stem cells in research is vital because of their unique characteristics. Stem cells are essentially undeveloped and therefore not genetically programmed to become a specific cell type. Because of this, stem cells have the potential and flexibility to develop into many different cell types, a valuable trait to researchers. They also renew themselves through cell division quickly and can do so over prolonged periods, and can be induced under the right conditions to become tissue- or organ-specific cells.

Although stem cells can be sourced from adult lines, amniotic fluid and induced pluripotent cells, the use of embryonic stem cells ignited a fierce ethical debate that continues in the scientific and public policy worlds today. In the United States, embryonic stem cell research funding was severely restricted until 2009, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order that removed some of the barriers.

Diary of Hate

012414_dairy_hate1Adolf Hitler’s close confidant Alfred Rosenberg actively sought out his leader’s praise, but was himself deeply-committed to the cause of creating a superior race in a world without Jews.

So concludes Juergen Matthas, director for applied research at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. As the point man at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum assigned to read the recently acquired diaries belonging to Rosenberg, he’s become familiar with the daily writings of one of the Nazi Party’s influential figures.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement turned over the handwritten notes to the museum last month. The 400 pages had been in the possession of German-Jewish researcher and Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Kempner, but went missing following Kempner’s death in 1993. An agent from Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE, located the loose-leaf pages at the home of academic Herbert Richardson near Buffalo, N.Y.

According to Matthas, Rosenberg’s diary reads like an agenda of what happened in the day-to-day events spanning 1936 to 1944. The only time the writing is descriptive is when “he notes anything positive from Hitler to him, every tap on the back, any acknowledgement. He looks for confirmation. He looks for approval.”

Otherwise, there is very little personal material included. Rosenberg rarely mentions his family or his life unconnected to his work.

“This is not a personal diary,” states Matthas. “It’s just a non-private document that deals with business affairs.”

His writing “ranges from the very cryptic to the more descriptive” Matthas goes on. “He just doesn’t really like diary writing. He sometimes says, ‘I even don’t have time or desire to write a diary.’”

Rosenberg, the pages show, “absolutely does” believe in Nazism. “That is consistent from his first writings,” contends Matthas. But there’s very little in the way of anti-Semitic references in the diary. “That’s a little difficult to explain,” as he was “obsessed with that, just not in the diary. He talks about it all the time in his speeches. He probably didn’t see the need for it.”

According to the diary, Rosenberg was the last person to be with Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess before he flew out of Germany in 1941.

012414_dairy_hate2Matthas is working to incorporate historical data and references from Rosenberg’s speeches with the text of the diary and hopes to have his work, which is being written in German, completed by the end of this year. After that, he expects his work to come out in English.

John Morton, director of ICE, calls Rosenberg’s writings “no ordinary diary of the time.” Instead, it “is the unvarnished account of a Nazi leader, his thoughts, his philosophies, his interactions with other Nazi leaders.”

“Reading Rosenberg’s diary is to stare into the mind of a dark soul, a man untroubled by the isolation and violent extermination of Jews and others he considered undesirable, a man consumed with racial and ethnic superiority” says Morton.

In accepting the diary last month, museum director Sara Bloomfield states that “the Museum encourages people to think about why the Holocaust happened and how it was possible in such an advanced society. The Rosenberg Diary will add to our understanding of the ideas that animated the extremist ideology of Nazism.”

Rosenberg, who was born in Russia in 1893, was found guilty at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany for conspiracy to commit aggressive warfare, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was hanged Oct. 16, 1946.

Budget Cuts Impede Survivor Services

Holocaust survivor Jack Rubin: “The only fair … option today is a partnership with the German government.” (Provided)

Holocaust survivor Jack Rubin: “The only fair … option today is a partnership with the German government.”

Government grants and health insurance companies award a bigger share of benefits to senior citizens living in residential facilities, but Holocaust survivors are better off aging in their own homes, according to several people testifying at a two-hour Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing Jan. 15.

The United States, they reasoned, must convince the German government to increase its funding of compensation programs so that survivors can receive in-home services.

“The emotional triggers that can be set off by institutional care can be devastating for them. Things that other residents would likely ignore can take aging Holocaust survivors psychologically and emotionally back to their traumatic youth or childhood,” argued Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s top Republican. “Confinement in an institutional setting with certain rules, schedules and uniformed staff can literally bring back nightmares. Everyday experiences — showers, doctors, hunger, a lack of privacy — can trigger flashbacks and nightmares.”

Jack Rubin, a survivor of several Nazi concentration and death camps, said the way it is now, many Holocaust survivors are living below the poverty line and can’t afford two hearing aids, let alone someone to come into their house daily.

“The only fair and decent option today is a partnership with the German government,” he testified. “Holocaust survivors are not asking for more money from the taxpayers. U.S. taxpayers are already burdened enough.”

“We are not schnorrers,” he continued. “We are not beggars. What we are asking for is what we deserve.”

Rubin called on the Obama administration and Congress to pressure the German government and corporations that partnered with the Nazi regime to “fulfill their moral obligations to Holocaust survivors today.”

Besides Rubin and Anat Bar-Cohen, a daughter of two survivors, organizational leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America and Selfhelp, a community services group that helps survivors living in New York, testified for the need for increased funding.

Lee Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies in Baltimore, testified that the health problems of survivors tend to be greater than those of average senior citizens.

“Some survivors may unsafely attempt to stand or walk without assistance, because during the Holocaust, their strength sustained them, while the sick and the weak were marked for death,” stated Sherman.

Survivors need a multitude of services, he noted, including home health care, home-delivered meals, financial and legal services, transportation, counseling for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and socialization services.

Jewish agencies are able to recognize these needs, even when survivors are too proud to ask for them, continued Sherman. But all these services cost money, and what is provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is not enough.

“Our agencies report that they require an additional $100,000 to $4 million per year to provide for the basic needs of Holocaust survivors,” he said. The request range is so broad, because it was calculated using the least amount each agency needs all the way up to the most each requested.

Sherman urged the senators to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which includes provisions for Holocaust survivors, and end the sequestration that mandates cuts to social service agencies.

According to the committee, one fourth of the roughly 140,000 survivors in America live at or below the poverty line, with many facing significant health and mental illnesses beyond normal aging due to the malnutrition, lack of medical care, little exercise and sunlight and exposure to severe weather conditions that they experienced during World War II.

“These complex dynamics require a different approach to traditional long-term care models,” acknowledged committee chair Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “The emphasis on caring for aging survivors must be on creating a safe space surrounded by a trusting caretaker, familiar environment and a basic sense of control over daily life.”

Bar-Cohen, a Bethesda resident, noted that the Jewish Social Service Agency in the Washington metropolitan area “has experienced a 15 percent budget cut for each of the past four years from the Claims Conference and other sources.”

The result is “across-the-board cuts to vital services, placing fragile and impoverished survivors in waiting lists and eliminating social events, transportation and other crucial services,” she testified. “JSSA had projected a shortfall for designated Holocaust survivor services in the D.C. area of $730,000 for 2013 and similar or greater shortfalls for the next 10 years.”

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden announced plans to appoint a special envoy to assist Holocaust survivors living in poverty.

MLA Members Petition Executive Committee

After approximately four hours of debate during their annual convention this month in Chicago, members of the Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly completed the first stage in enacting a resolution calling on the State Department to chastise Israel for denying entry permits to U.S. academics invited to Palestinian universities in the West Bank.

The resolution now goes to the academic association’s executive committee for review before a full vote by the MLA membership.

The MLA resolution is rooted in, but not directly connected to, language in last month’s American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel that prompted the presidents of more than 100 academic institutions to publish public statements rejecting the boycott and hundreds of individual academics to come out in favor of it.

Sangeeta Ray, professor of English and comparative literature at University of Maryland, College Park and an MLA member since 1987, attended part of the debate that was held the Saturday afternoon of the conference.

“I’ve seen secondhand the harassment my colleagues have been receiving, like hate mail for supporting the boycott,” said Ray. “And the president of Indiana University revoked ASA membership without even talking to the faculty.”

As a result of the alleged harassment claims, a petition urges the MLA executive committee “to issue a statement against acts of retaliation, intimidation [and] coercion aimed at students, faculty [and] academic organizations because of their political opinions and/
or activism.”

Slightly more than 400 MLA members have signed the petition; it requires 500 signatures before the executive committee can consider the motion. David Palumbo-Liu, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University, authored the petition through the online site An active proponent of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he blogs for The Boston Review, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera America.