Yom Kippur: A Community Lens

(credit: ©iStockphoto.com/lipmic)

(credit: ©iStockphoto.com/lipmic)

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, marks the end of 40 days of penitence and commemorates the day that God forgave the Jewish people for the folly and sin of the Golden Calf.

In contemporary Judaism, however, Yom Kippur serves as a day to atone for sins from the past year. For community members, the holiday — on Oct. 12 — has varied and deep meanings.

“I think that Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to wipe clean the slate of the past year,” said Rachel Glaser, an Owings Mills resident. “For me, it gives me the opportunity to set things right if there are people that I may have  had disagreements with, or if  I did not live up to my own  expectations for myself or the expectations of others in my community. My whole relationship to God is through the lens of my relationships with my community, my family and the world. I don’t see it as something separate. I reflect a lot on Yom Kippur and stay all day in synagogue, I use the words of the prayers to inspire me on how to approach this new opportunity to make things better.”

“Yom Kippur is the day the accountant comes,” said Martin Perel, who was eating at Goldberg’s New York Bagels on a recent afternoon. “You have your moral books checked to see if you’re in the red or the black.”

This thought was mirrored by Shomrim spokesman Nathan Willner, who shared, “Yom Kippur really just represents new  beginnings and time for introspection. It means taking a moral inventory of your year’s work, celebrating your successes and taking the time to improve on how you deal with challenges.”

I don’t just think to be  forgiven for  the past year  on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about  how you live your life. — Gail Walton

“It’s about forgiveness, not just atonement,” said Ruby Grossblatt, a Jewish reporter from Atlanta who was in Baltimore to get married and was also dining at Goldberg’s. “It is about forgiving yourself as well as others. You want to make a better year and come back to your roots a little.”

“All of the holidays were ingrained in me by the way I was raised, but I believe that God is forgiving, no matter what you do,” said Gail Walton, another Goldberg’s customer. “I don’t just think to be forgiven for the past year on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about how you live your life.”

This belief seems to be becoming more and more common. One aspect of the holiday that has shifted over the years is the form in which people seek repentance. The traditional practice for the holiday is to fast and reflect on the past year. However, many people in the community find that being active and volunteering in the community in the 10 days  between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Days of Awe — is an another way  to derive meaning from the holiday.

Walton explained: “A rabbi that I met at Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim once told me, ‘Going to synagogue and praying isn’t being a good Jew. It’s what’s in your heart and what you do.’ My son decided the other day, ‘I want to do a mitzvah, it is the High Holidays.’ He went and helped somebody apply for college, someone who didn’t about the process and needed some help. I believe that performing a mitzvah can make up for everything.”

David Bienenstock, a retired day school teacher, said Yom Kippur is a happy day for him.

“Even though you are fasting, the idea is that whatever you’ve done over the year, you will get forgiven at the end of the day if you did what you are supposed to do,” he said. “It is an intense and busy day but knowing that you will be forgiven is worth it.”

Bienenstock also makes sure to engage the community around the High Holidays. “Every year for many years,” he said, “I have been going to people’s houses to blow shofar for them. People will write to or call me and ask me to come for all sorts of reasons. Some people are ailing and bedridden, some people have young children. I got a call from a man whose wife had just had leg surgery.”

Like Bienenstock, Yom Kippur turns over a new leaf for others.

“When Yom Kippur is over, I feel that something is different in me,” said Glaser. “I sense a new spirit in myself, and the challenge is to maintain that momentum over the course of the year.”


Super Sunday A Success

From left: Women’s campaign chair Linda Elman, Associated board chair Linda Hurwitz and Annual Campaign chair John Shmerler (Provided)

From left: Women’s campaign chair Linda Elman, Associated board chair Linda Hurwitz and Annual Campaign chair John Shmerler (Provided)

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore kicked off its annual fundraising campaign on Sunday, Sept. 25 with its Super Sunday phonathon, which raised $1.4 million from 739 donors.

The Associated’s goal is to raise $31 million during its 2017 Annual Campaign.

“Super Sunday was a huge success and we are privileged to have such a generous community,” campaign chair John Shmerler said in a press release.

He added, “We hope to raise 85 percent of our Annual Campaign by the end of 2016 so that we can successfully plan for next year. The community’s support will enable us to provide the financial  resources to ensure our vulnerable do not fall through the cracks, while building a vibrant Jewish future for our children.”

The money raised will support a number of Associated agencies. One such institution is CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, which has  provided more than 1,048 services for older adults through Northwest Neighbors Connecting (NNC), a program designed to ensure that these adults can remain in their communities as long as possible. Jewish Community Services (JCS), another outreach organization, assists more than 1,450 individuals who are struggling financially.

The Macks Center for Jewish Education actively works to engage the community as well with its community connector program, which helps develop new relationships and introduce individuals to organizations of interest and generally showcase all that Jewish Baltimore has to offer.

Super Sunday was the culmination of Super Week, a week of events that aimed to get members of local communities active and engaged with Baltimore’s Jewry. Events included a concert, “Meditation and Yoga for the Jewish Women’s Soul,” a gathering at the American Visionary Arts Museum and a panel discussion about how to care for relatives as they age.

FIDF Raises $500K in Baltimore

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) held its annual gala at Beth Tfiloh Congregation on Thursday, Sept. 22. Nearly 600 attendees came  together to support the men and women of the IDF, including local, national and international leaders. The event raised more than $500,000.

“It is so fulfilling and gratifying to see how beautifully our community has embraced and supported Friends of the IDF. We never would have guessed that we’d attain the level of support we have now in such a short amount of time,” FIDF supporters Michael and Tsipi Renbaum said in a prepared statement. “The Baltimore community is united and dedicated to the brave young men and women of the IDF, these wonderful sons and daughters of Israel who watch over and safeguard our Jewish homeland every day. Am Yisrael Chai.”

According to a news release, the FIDF Mid-Atlantic region has adopted the soldiers of the Israeli Navy’s 3rd Flotilla and the Baltimore Chapter has adopted the IDF Home Front Command’s Kedem Battalion, a search-and-rescue unit that conducts emergency operations in Israel and abroad. FIDF’s Adopt-A-Brigade Program supports soldiers by providing  financial assistance to soldiers in need, caring for lone soldiers and funding rest and recuperation weeks for combat units.

Gilchrist Unveils Expansion

Steven Fader watches Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg hang a mezuzah at the  entrance of the new chapel. (Provided)

Steven Fader watches Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg hang a mezuzah at the entrance of the new chapel. (Provided)

Gilchrist Hospice Care, the largest hospice organization in Maryland, just opened the doors to its latest expansion, which will abet its new Jewish Hospice Program. The new program has been brought to fruition with the aid of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s partnership, fundraising $4.2 million.

“The new space is simply stunning — with a cascading waterfall and sunlight streaming into the chapel,” said Gilchrist’s president, Catherine Y. Hamel, in a news release. “We know our Jewish families — and Gilchrist Center families of all faiths and beliefs — will find great comfort there. We are thrilled to be able to provide this beautiful space for our  patients and families and so thankful to those who helped make this project a reality.”

Jay Brown,  architect for the new expansion, explained: “The impetus for our design is based on the writings of Rabbi Alvin Fine who states that ‘birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage made stage by stage to life everlasting.’ The journey of life is  represented by the irregular progression of the stone wall both horizontally and vertically. The journey begins in the world outside and progresses inward, where the journey continues through the ups and downs of life’s encounters. The vertical changes in the wall texture represent the journey from birth through life to passing.”

The new chapel was created with Jerusalem stone from a quarry in Israel. It serves to represent the Western Wall.  As at the Western Wall, those who visit the chapel are  encouraged to leave messages in the spaces between the stones.

“I think we are all very  excited about the new addition,” said Lori Mulligan,  senior director of development, marketing and community services at Gilchrist. “It is really beautiful, and although it is open to every faith, it is aimed at  Jewish patients and families.”

In addition to the new chapel, the expansion features a courtyard, a family room and a kitchenette, as well as patient rooms that have been enhanced to reflect various cultures to ensure that care is compatible with the religious and cultural beliefs of patients.

The Gilchrist Jewish Hospice Program was first launched in January 2016. The fundraising campaign was led by Steven Fader, CEO of MileOne Automotive who secured commitments from organizations including the Judi & Steven B. Fader Family Foundation, The Associated, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, GBMC Healthcare, Jane and David Smith, the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, the Hackerman family, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Pearlstone Family Fund, and the Lowell and Harriet Glazer Family Foundation.

Ian Alexander Scher: Young Light Shined Bright

Ian Alexander Scher, with his loving parents, Marci and Brian, and twin sister Becca. (Provided photo)

Ian Alexander Scher, with his loving parents, Marci and Brian, and twin sister Becca. (Provided photo)

Ian Alexander Scher (Yitzak Avraham) passed away in his Pikesville home, surrounded by his loving family, on Thursday, Sept. 15 at approximately  7 a.m. Ian was 13 years old.

According to his mother Marci, Ian had been challenged by myriad health complications throughout the course of his  unfortunately truncated but ultimately exuberant life. Wheelchair bound by the time he was 7, it was not until 2012 that Ian was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy stemming from a mutation of the VRK1 gene, which would result in a terminal prognosis.

“Even during his most painful days, he was able to smile some and make us all laugh,” Marci wrote in a blog post entitled “Rest in Peace,” published one day after the effulgent fire of her son’s iridescent life ceased to burn.

“His smile was radiant,” she wrote the following day. “The light in his eyes shined bright up until the last few days. His spirit was large.”

Ian’s passions were for Legos, films such as “Tangled” and “Frozen,” and nearly all manner of television shows. Marci jovially elaborated that “if we lost the internet, we were in trouble,” as Ian loved having the television on as much as possible.

“That was something he still had control over,” Marci said. “His eyes were the one thing that never really left. He could  always still watch TV.”

As Ian’s ability to vocalize became more and more strained, he would find other means to communicate his wants and needs by way of movements of those eyes of his or, in the example Marci gave about a certain particularity that did come about during television watching, the use of his tongue.

“Ian definitely didn’t like the ‘girl shows,’” she said. “He made it clear he didn’t want to watch them. That tongue would come out to let us know: ‘Nope, I don’t want to watch that one.’”

“Ian was every bit a 13-year-old boy,” beamed father Brian with something of an elegiac chuckle, adding that “not to sound crude,” Ian did enjoy his fair share of age-appropriate scatological humor punctuated by a playful predilection for bodily functions.

“To watch him smile like that,” Brian said, “it would make me smile, too. Whenever Mom and [Ian’s twin sister] Becca would leave the house and it was just him and me, we’d have ‘guy time,’ and not having to say ‘excuse me’ would make Ian laugh. It would send him to Cloud 9.”

During that final week in extremis, Brian maintained a dynamic of “just being father and son” with Ian, something that had always been important for the family. Brian would roughhouse with his son — though less so during those last days.

“I would walk over to him and pretend like I tripped and would fall on him,” Brian said. “Every little thing like that would bring a smile to his face. Even when I was tired, I never minded doing those kinds of things because I saw the enjoyment it brought to him.”

As for Ian’s proclivity for Legos, Marci mused this might have had something to do with her son’s interest in mechanics and science via his one-on-one specialized in-house/hospital schooling. Marci explained that Brian would be “Ian’s hands,” building various Lego objects such as giant “Star Wars” R2-D2 statues.

“For years, his room was full of Legos,” Brian said. “So much so that many of the sets weren’t built yet because we ran out of space in his room. Really, up until the last year or so, we were always putting  together, taking apart and rebuilding  different Lego sets.”

“I’d put the book [of instructions] as best as possible in Ian’s lap or in a way that he could see it,” Brian said. “I’d purposely pull out an incorrect piece to: one, see if he was paying attention; and two, make sure he was involved. I’d joke around with him: ‘Did you take it? You took it, didn’t you?’ Of course, we knew he didn’t, because he couldn’t move. But he’d always smile at that.”

Ian would also act as the  father-and-son team’s quality assurance “spot checker,” with Brian holding up the set in progress so Ian could observe it and make sure they were  following the guidebook.

Playing video games on their Nintendo Wii system was another favorite pastime of Ian’s that he enjoyed with his father.

“I wasn’t allowed to play on the Wii with him,” Marci giggled. “It always had to be Daddy.”

The game that father and son would play the most was one involving Ian’s favorite  superhero, Spider-Man.

“No matter how many times we’d already played it, Ian  always wanted to play it again. I could play that game forward, backward, with my eyes closed,” Brian said. “Sometimes I’d ask if we could play another game, maybe ‘Super Mario Galaxy,’ but Ian always wanted to play his Spider-Man game.”

Everyone in Ian’s life was well aware of his fealty for the arachnoid superhero, with Brian noting that no matter how much Spider-Man stuff they had, there was always someone coming over with even more.

Ian’s Make-A-Wish Foundation trip in 2010 took him to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., where he met his longtime idol, and his adaptive bar mitzvah was Spider-Man themed, with Ian as involved in the service as much as possible, supported by assistance from the likes of his longtime Camp Simcha Special camp counselor Danny Trestman, who has become another member of the family, in Brian’s words.

As for Ian’s twin sister Becca, Marci said the two survived the typical sibling rivalry one would expect from a red-blooded brother-and-sister duo. Though Brian said that their family’s needful prioritization of Ian’s health drove her into “growing up a lot faster than she needed to” and that Ian could “annoy the heck out of her,” Becca was also typically “very motherly” and  “always up to offer a hand when asked. They had a very special bond.”

When the two siblings were much younger, in preschool, they were separated into two classrooms. Ian would leave his own class without asking his teacher to go find Becca in order to make sure he knew where she was and that she was doing all right. Marci, who worked in the same building as her children’s early school, said Ian would come wandering into her office for the same reason.

“His soul was old, always needing to make sure everyone else was OK and taken care of,” she continued in her blog. “The bonds he had with many were incredible, one everyone will hold onto.”

Ian is survived by his mother Marci, father Brian and sister Becca.


Hogan in Israel: Commonality with Maryland in Cyber Security and Defense

Gov. Larry Hogan recently spent a week in Israel forging economic and academic partnerships. (Photos provided)

Gov. Larry Hogan recently spent a week in Israel forging economic and academic partnerships. (Photos provided)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan made stops last week at iconic Jerusalem sites such as Yad Vashem and the Western Wall during his weeklong trade mission to Israel.

“It was just a very emotional experience to see the faces and to hear the voices of victims of the Holocaust, one of the darker chapters in history,” the Republican governor said by phone from Israel about his visit to the Holocaust memorial.

He also visited Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to meet with medical professionals  involved in cancer research.

“I was extremely impressed with the work being done at Hadassah Hospital, including innovative treatments to provide care for patients with cancer, and I am proud of the collaboration between Hadassah and Maryland facilities,” Hogan said, according to a news release after his visit. “It’s evident that Hadassah is intent on providing world-class service to their  patients.”

While at the hospital, Hogan spoke about the recent battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that he successfully fought.  In the audience was Aaron Rapoport, an oncologist with the University of Maryland Medical Center who Hogan credits with saving his life. Hogan said he intended to go to Israel last year, but his cancer diagnosis led him to delay the trip.

Hogan spent most of his week in Israel meeting with leaders of Israeli companies, as he sought to expand Israeli business presence in Maryland. There are 24 Israeli companies that do business in the state. The trip was sponsored by the Maryland Department of Commerce and the Maryland/Israel Development Center. It included several local Jewish community leaders.

Hogan’s trip also led to new academic partnerships between the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and  another between University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Tel Aviv University. He noted during the phone interview that Maryland and Israel both have robust cybersecurity industries.

“The primary focus is really in two areas where we have a real commonality,” he said. “The cybersecurity businesses and defense kind of things are a real focus.”

Bruce Spector, founder and CEO of Electronic Technology Associates, joined Hogan on his trip to help announce the newly formed partnership  between his company and  Cyberbit, the second-largest cybersecurity company in Israel.

The partnership will lead to the creation of ETA Cyber Range, a training center that will be located in Baltimore to instruct cybersecurity professionals in protecting national assets and infrastructure against cyberattacks. Spector, who hopes to employ 10 people for the project by the end of 2017, said it will house the first live, standalone, hands-on cybersecurity training in the United States.

Hogan prays at the kotel in Jerusalem

Hogan prays at the kotel in Jerusalem

“We appreciate the assistance of the MIDC in bringing this project to fruition,” Spector said. “As a lifelong resident of Baltimore, I’m excited to bring high-paying cybersecurity jobs to my hometown. The training center, powered by Cyberbit, will accelerate our local security professionals’ certification and improve their ability to confront today’s advanced  attacks.”

Hogan and University of Maryland, Baltimore President Jay A. Perman signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hebrew University of Jerusalem to extend a student-exchange program while adding more opportunities to work together.

Over the next five years, the MOU and universities located throughout Maryland will seek to increase opportunities for training, exchange scholars for seminars and increase the number of exchanges of students and faculty.

“[The] agreement will further strengthen the successful  partnership between these world-class universities and help to advance research in Maryland, particularly in the study of military medicine,” Hogan said. “Exchanging  students and faculty will bring new perspectives and new  opportunities for collaboration to both University of Maryland, Baltimore and  Hebrew University of Jerusalem and we are excited they are continuing their important work together.”

From a business standpoint, Hogan also enjoyed a very  effective trip that will see several Israeli business bring their operations to Maryland.

He said he looks forward to welcoming Nayax, a global leader in the cashless payment solutions industry, to the state after announcing the the opening of the company’s U.S. headquarters in Hunt Valley.

“Maryland’s strategic location and unique access to quality  employees, international airports, rail lines, and the Port of  Baltimore will provide Nayax with a competitive advantage to expand into new markets and attract new customers,” Hogan said in a release.

He met with leaders of  Enzymotec, parent company of Baltimore-based VAYA Pharm, whose U.S. headquarters recently moved to the University of Maryland BioPark.

Hogan also touted the partnership between Baltimore’s Electronic Technology Associates and Ra’anana-based Cyberbit that will bring a cybersecurity training center to Baltimore and create what he estimated as 100 new jobs.

“On the business side, it’s been extremely productive and I’ve found people here to be very welcoming and anxious to do business with us,” he said.

During a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, meanwhile, Hogan visited the Garden of Gethsemane and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.

He met with Israeli Ambassador Liora Herzel, deputy  director for North America for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the state’s trade mission. The focus of the meeting was on the longstanding history Maryland and Israel share economically, particularly in entrepreneurship, innovation and high-growth industries.

On the final day of his trade mission, Hogan signed a sister-state agreement between Maryland and the Negev  region that he feels will mutually benefit both sides in security,  information technology, aerospace, water management,  education and defense.

“I can’t think of a better way to wrap up our trade mission than by signing this Memorandum of Understanding,” Hogan said. “This week has given me the opportunity to see firsthand the outsized contribution Israel makes, both here and around the world.

“Maryland values the partnerships we have already, and I have no doubt that there will be even greater cooperation and collaboration generated as the direct result of this trade mission, and the execution of this MOU with the Negev,” Hogan said in a press release.

Updated from 9/23/16 version


Interfaith Connections Battle Bigotry, Promote Goodwill

Dr. Benjamin Sax addresses the audience at the Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day to Serve event. (Justin Silberman)

Dr. Benjamin Sax addresses the audience at the Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day to Serve event. (Justin Silberman)

For as long as Nejaat Ibrahim can remember, she has always had a soft spot for helping those who are less fortunate.

It started when Ibrahim, 20, came to Maryland from Ethiopia 15 years ago and has continued to take shape since she started at Goucher College last year. In high school, she was heavily involved in Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that teaches teen girls to deveop  essential life skills, and continues to carry all the lessons she learned with her to this day.

“As a Muslim, I believe it’s my job to share my blessings, because nonprofits have been a part of my life and helped  me so much,” Ibrahim said. “I feel like it’s part of my duty to give back however I can, and  I just think it’s everybody’s  responsbility to do what they can.”

The third Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day, which took place at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Monday, provided Ibrahim the chance to show her support for a worthy cause. She was one of more than 50 people from the Greater Baltimore Jewish and Muslim communities who  assembled “blessing bags” for homeless Marylanders and took part in an interfaith discussion on social justice.

It was all made possible by the Baltimore Jewish Council and Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, an independent, educational nonprofit organization that seeks to advance interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Martha Weiman, past president of the BJC and chair of the organization’s Interfaith Dialogue, said bringing local Muslims and Jews together has been an essential initiative of hers for quite some time. For more than 10 years, Weiman, who helped organize the event and delivered the opening  remarks, has been heavily  involved in Muslim-Jewish  dialogue, putting together various meetings aimed at uniting the two groups.

“We like doing these hands-on events, because it gets people out of their seats, gets them talking and gets them to meet people.” Weiman said. “I love the idea of getting into small groups, where you can share your perspective, because I think it’s very important we have this type of dialogue.”

Participants put together “blessing bags” for needy residents. (Justin Silberman)

Participants put together “blessing bags” for needy residents. (Justin Silberman)

A $1,800 grant from Gov. Larry Hogan was used to buy household supplies — such as baby wipes, socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, granola bars and water — for the 150 blessing bags. Particpants were encouraged to take as many of the bags as they saw fit and to provide them to anyone on the streets they felt might be in need.

Benjamin Sax, the Jewish scholar at ICJS, said he has witnessed firsthand how team-building excercises between people from all different walks of life help aliveate whatever differences they may have  religiously.

“This is a way for us to be more entrenched in activites between Jews and Muslims and Christians,” Sax said. “We’re background on all this, because we do the educational piece to edify the event and provide more service.”

Alison Kysia, an educator at the ICJS, agreed, adding that it is important to understand varying viewpoints even if people don’t necessarily agree with them.

“We can’t just get into a room and stand next to one another. We have to engage in one another’s traditions and start to think about what it means to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim and how we can build friendships,” Kysia said. “If religion is always this taboo subject, which in American culture we are taught that you shouldn’t talk about religion in the public sphere, I think at [ICJS] we are trying to challenge that idea. If we really want to build friendships with one another, we have to  engage those relationships.”

Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American Islamic Relations, spoke on the number of similar challenges that Muslims and Jews around the world continue to combat on a regular basis.

“Islamphobia is on the rise, and anti-Semintism is also on the rise,” Chaudry said. “The same forces of bigtory and hatred and predjudice that fuel one also fuel the other. It’s so  important for the [Muslim and Jewish communities] to work together not only to push back against the hate, but also  to show that we can work  together for a positive purpose and bring more peace and goodwill into the world.”

Tabra Sy, an 18-year-old freshman at Goucher College, said she plans to remain active in volunteering events involving the ICJS.

“I am definitely all for  humanity,” Sy said, “and I love having the ability to help people. I feel like this was a humbling experience for myself in terms of being able to give back to those less forunate and see that people who are privileged do care about them and don’t marginalize them.

Josh Sherman, a former ICJS intern and current program  associate for Repair the World Baltimore, hopes to see more  interfaith services geared toward buidling stronger relations within the community.

“I’ve always found that I connect best with my Judaism in interfaith settings when talking about interfaith issues or talking about religion,” Sherman said. “I think this a really beautiful thing, and I think there needs to be more interfaith work.”


Messages for the New Year Seven rabbis talk High Holidays and sermons

The High Holidays are a particularly heavy time of the year: a time for reflection, renewal, forgiveness and repentance for individuals, the Baltimore Jewish  community and the Jewish world at large.

For rabbis in the Greater Baltimore area, there is no uniform approach to composing sermons for the High Holidays nor uniform topics to cover. Some plan to cover topical issues such as the refugee crisis — although most plan to stay away from politics — while others plan to address more universal spiritual topics.

The JT spoke with seven area rabbis to hear about their approaches to the High Holidays. Here’s what they had to say.

— Marc Shapiro


Rabbi Dana Saroken

Rabbi Dana Saroken (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbis Dana Saroken and Steven Schwartz

Beth El Congregation
Rabbi Dana Saroken, who joined Beth El in 2007 as the congregation’s first female rabbi, touches on certain topics each year, maintaining soulful and spiritual themes in her Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons.

This year, she’ll be focusing heavily on the Jewish society striving for happiness and the way people engage and value one another in a world that has become divided and polarized, as well as regret. Saroken will incorporate a bevy of techniques in her sermons to have her audience think outside the box.

“I try to address a range of topics over the course of the holidays and to find messages that have broad application and meaning,” Saroken said. “I also use a lot of kavannot (introductions) to the prayers and themes in the service to get people thinking. The main goal of the [High] Holy Days isn’t to move through the Machzor (prayer book) page by page. It’s to have the prayers and the experience of the day move us, so that we emerge from the [High] Holy Days as different people than we were when we began them.”

While spending countless months of coming up with these themes, Saroken hopes her congregants take a step back to think of the bigger picture and push that discussion beyond their everyday lives.

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

“Where do we need to be awakened? What causes are worthy of our time? And how can we be agents of change amidst the brokenness?” Saroken said.

“The moment that the shofar blasts at Neilah, marking the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we have a clean slate. We rid ourselves of the albatrosses and regrets and pain and brokenness that we as human beings with consciences inevitably carry, and we can go forth into the world and begin anew.”

For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Saroken and senior rabbi Steven Schwartz will each hold separate services. On the second day, they will join together to cap all three services they hold for adults. There will also be sermons going on around the congregation simultaneously on both days for both teenagers and young children.

Some rabbis opt to bring current events into the fold, discussing subjects that might spark heated debates such as this year’s presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Although he said he won’t spend too much time dwelling on the matter, Schwartz will touch on the election and the two major party candidates during his Rosh Hashanah evening sermon.

“I think that it is a highly unusual election cycle,” said Schwartz, who has been with Beth El since 1998. “I think people are anxious about it, and I think people are going to vote for a candidate they don’t feel fully invested in.”

— Justin Silberman


Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink

Temple Oheb Shalom
Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom has the routine for his sermons down pat. Fink, 65, starts compiling ideas for his sermons and drafting them during the summer while making sure not to get too far ahead of himself.

This year, he has settled on a number of societal and cultural themes that many in the Jewish community find pressing.

Starting with Rosh Hashanah, he will address the difference between being alone and lonely in his evening service and then share his vision for America in his morning service.

“I won’t be speaking about the presidential election, but I’ll be speaking about my vision for America,” Fink said. “I’ll be talking about the ideals America aspires to achieve and how we should strive toward those ideals.”

For Yom Kippur, in his evening service, he will dissect how to fix the brokenness that many carry with them throughout their lives. He will spend his morning service examining what traits help make up a Jewish person’s DNA.

Fink’s sermons, which typically run anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the topic, may deviate from what he’s written if he finds that it is warranted.

In his 17 years at Oheb Shalom, Fink said there is one special humbling prayer not commonly practiced in Reform synagogues that he especially looks forward to.

“One of our most beautiful traditions is that during Yom Kippur afternoon during the Great Aleinu, the rabbis and cantor touch our heads to the floor at during the appropriate time,” Fink said. “When it says we bow our knees, we literally just put our knees on the floor and touch our floors to the head to show our complete humility before God.”

— Justin Silberman


Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz

Congregation B’nai Israel


A Bergen County, N.J., native, Rabbi Etan Mintz, 38, of Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel in downtown Baltimore saw his move to the area as “an incredible opportunity,” one that has greatly heartened his wife and him for the past four years they’ve been here.

“I’m really taken by the opportunity in particular of developing and revitalizing Jewish life downtown,” Mintz said, delighting over the confluence of tradition he sees in the historic synagogue out of which his congregation is housed with the vibrant revivification the building and surrounding region has been undergoing.

Examples of physical renovation include repainting the building itself and making the space more accessible for older and/or disabled congregants wishing to join in on services. On a spiritual level, Mintz made sure to add, this renewal is one of his own “leading the congregation toward more personal study and reflection in order to have a greater individual religious growth.”

Mintz has been preparing a sermon for Rosh Hashanah that will expand upon “finding meaning and purpose in living every day to its fullest” along with the similar reverence for history and tradition fostered by more topical reflection that marks his excitement at having settled in Baltimore and at B’nai Israel.

It is essential to Mintz that his is a congregation that “focuses on spiritual value” and maintains an “open, warm, nonjudgmental environment.”

Hence, congregants can expect a Yom Kippur service that will be “not only spiritually uplifting but filled with energy and song,” courtesy Mintz’s bringing in a group of vocalists who will accompany their chazzan in order to “have more harmony for the formal service.”

Prefaced by a calming and reflective meditation, Mintz believes this thoughtful melding of a vocal group with the music of the chazzan will allow for “more intensity” of the experience for those present at a service he promises will be “filled with ruach.”

Although Mintz said he will not speak directly about the upcoming presidential election in his sermon, he intends to “touch on issues surrounding it: the importance of civil discourse and trying to make sure the conversation is uplifting,” with a hope that these conversations will be imbued with Jewish values, especially around the High Holidays.

— Mathew Klickstein


Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen

Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation


At first blush, Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Yisrael Motzen may surprise some as unconventionally young at the age of 32.

As Motzen laughed heartily, it’s in fact an attribute he refused to reveal when asked during a recent interview with another local media outlet.

But with four children and a master’s in counseling from Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with his bachelor’s in Talmudic Law from prestigious Pikesville yeshiva Ner Israel, the Montreal-born Modern Orthodox rabbi is anything but unprepared for the sacred role he took on four-and-a-half years ago.

Motzen’s infectious, ebullient spirit grants him a refreshing air of a leader primed to guide his congregants toward the new year with an almost palpable cheer.

Armed with his youthful vitality and effervescent ready-to-launch mindset, Motzen confessed that he has yet to consign to paper the thoughts that will be expressed during his High Holiday services.

Though he’s well aware that many rabbis toil tirelessly throughout the summer or perhaps earlier still over their sermons, such is not the style of Motzen who prefers to be fueled by the sense of raw intensity he feels waiting until the last minute. This sensibility also allows his message to be one of supreme timeliness, something that will touch on the most current exigencies of his congregants.

“It’s challenging,” Motzen admits about his admittedly unorthodox approach. “The size of our synagogue just about doubles during the holidays, and there’s a real pressure of having that perfect message for all the people you’ll maybe see only three times a year.”

Although it’s Motzen’s intention to make sure that those attending his services feel welcome and comfortable, his slightly contrarian methodology again reveals itself in his goal of also “pushing people a little out of their comfort zone.”

Indeed, he doesn’t want those joining him to be too at ease, lest they miss out on his overall suggestion of “finding a way to think a little differently during this time of year.” Motzen’s satisfaction will come from their “walking out a little different than they were when they walked in.”

— Mathew Klickstein


Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr

Columbia Jewish Congregation
According to Rabbi Sonya Starr, what makes Reconstructionist Judaism different from other sects “is a belief that there is no one person who is charged with interpreting, teaching or transforming tradition for others.”

“I don’t teach you how to keep kosher. Rather, I tell you my understanding of kashrut, but it is your job as an educated Jew to decide what works best for you,” she said. “I serve more as a facilitator than as an educator.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Columbia Jewish Congregation will be having its first day’s services at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Age-appropriate programming will be provided for children and teens on Monday morning, whereas Sunday evening will be a more communal service.

Additionally, Tashlich will occur at the Wilde Lake Boat Dock on Sunday evening.

In her sermon, Starr plans to address change — “the fact that we always change, whether it is conscious or not.” According to the rabbi, “This whole month allows us to make that change conscious, to reflect on what we want to achieve and how we can be better. We talk about positive change and repentance, but this is another type of change as well, which is changing from something to something else because the act of change keeps everything fresh and keeps us engaged; the act of changing is beneficial in itself.”

Starr explained that she does not plan on bringing politics into her sermons, citing that it is unethical. However, she said that on Yom Kippur, she would address tikkun olam and some specific contemporary problems, because “we have a moral and ethical responsibility to talk about issues.”

Ultimately, she wants to use traditional Jewish values to support a community in the modern world. “I think what we do is work really hard to make the ancient rituals relevant to people’s contemporary lives. We are better people when you engage in these rituals and if we strive to make Judaism relevant to the contemporary world.”

— Daniel Nozick


Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler

Temple Isaiah

For the last four years, Temple Isaiah has hosted, in addition to regular synagogue services, a free afternoon service at Centennial Park in Ellicott City for Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tashlich at the park, which provides a perfect medium for reflection, Rabbi Craig Axler said.

“It is a fantastic, open community celebration. It is free and in a public space, which really provides for people in the community who wouldn’t have a place to go otherwise,” Axler said. “It is a fun, musical, family-friendly experience. I continue to run into people in the community who say that they or someone they know goes. Many of these people have no other connection to the Jewish community, and I am happy to be able to provide that connection point.”

There are two main points that Axler intends to address in his Rosh Hashanah sermons. “The first comes off of the Torah reading of the past Shabbat, talking about lost items and the mitzvah it is to return them,” he said. “It translates as ‘you shall not be indifferent,’ directly, but I prefer ‘you are incapable of indifference.’ When there are significant problems of the day, you are the cause or the problem, but you cannot just stand there on the sidelines.”

Specifically, Axler wishes to address the plight of refugees. “There should be a Jewish response to the plight of refugees,” he explained. “It is our duty toward them based on our history of needing refuge as a people.”

The rabbi’s second main point is about Israel. “I can’t be neutral on the legitimacy and safety of the state of Israel,” said Axler. “We need to call out unfair media bias toward Israel where it exists, and there are ways in the Jewish community that we don’t show our love and support as fully as we could. The current news cycle, every single moment seems to bring up a new life-or-death situation. We can’t be silent when there is tremendous discrimination in our country and community.”

Outside of his congregation, Axler intends to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a family dinner and a long walk on the second day with his wife, perhaps to do Tashlich together. “My favorite service is always the second day,” he said. “It is a bit smaller service but less formal as well. The people come simply because it is Rosh Hashanah. I just really enjoy the beginning of every new year.” Axler hopes that this year, he will successfully bake a round challah as opposed to the oblong loaves that he has attained in past years. JT

— Daniel Nozick

BHC Enlists CHAI for Future Planning

Rabbi Andrew Busch

Rabbi Andrew Busch

After more than a year of discussions, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has enlisted the assistance of a major community group to bring improvements to its aging infrastructure.

In collaboration with Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), BHC since August has been in the initial stages of putting together a vision plan that will focus on renovating existing buildings on its 100,000-plus-square-foot facility at the intersection of Park Heights and Slade avenues.

Rabbi Andrew Busch, who has been with BHC since 2008, said CHAI was brought on board to help the Reform congregation combat the realities it faces in the 21st century.

“We’ve been sitting on our campus here since 1951, and it’s just time to take a fresh look at our physical plan and how it aligns with congregational life today,” Busch said. “We are seriously engaging our community, and we’re feeling good about ourselves as a congregation. But it’s time to wrestle with some of the  issues put forward by our physical plan.”

While an official master plan is not expected to roll out until February or March, CHAI’s executive director, Mitch Posner, said his agency already has a head start in its preparations. CHAI has put together a team of consultants, including Baltimore-based landscape architecture, urban design and planning firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, to assist in the planning.

“This is not just any congregation or real estate. This is a Jewish congregation with a spiritual mission,” Posner said. “So what does it mean to be a sacred space, and how do you take examples from Jewish texts, in other religions and other real-life applications of the concept of sacred space and apply it?”

Some examples center on  repurposing playing fields  created for BHC’s now-defunct day school, the Hebrew school building itself and a sanctuary that dates back to the 1950s.

Posner said it still remains to be seen if BHC will ultimately break ground and start new construction on its 17-acre property once the plan is adopted.

“We’ve started a planning process that some number of years from now — one or more years from now — could end up breaking ground on something,” Posner said. “The truth is, it may not break ground in terms of new construction  for anything. We don’t know where we’re going to end up.”

To ensure all input is taken into consideration, CHAI and BHC have developed a couple of initiatives aimed at hearing any and all suggestions from community members.

In late September, CHAI and Mahan Rykiel Associates are scheduled to roll out a “community engagement website” that will allow both BHC’s 1,200-plus families and the community to engage in the process. Also, the congregation and CHAI will host a day-long Sacred Spaces Workshop on Oct. 30, applying the study of some Jewish texts to the goal of creating a modern campus that reflects BHC’s values.

“We look forward to working with community leaders and stakeholders in this master planning process with CHAI so that the result will be a  positive impact on our congregation and the surrounding community,” Steven S. Sharfstein, president of BHC, said in a news release.

Posner said he is particularly intrigued to see how the workshop turns out since participants will learn about the concepts of sacred space and then see how they apply that during a walk of the BHC campus. He added what is learned and discussed could be taken into consideration as the master plan is eventually put together.

“This is an opportunity to showcase some real Jewish learning as it applies at least to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s campus,” Posner said. “I’m really excited about that and CHAI’s involvement in this.”


Apples and Honey for Seder?

sephardim1For Rosh Hashanah, many Jews eat an apple dipped in honey as an auspicious sign for a sweet new year. The symbolism is clear, and the ritual as easy to pull off as squeezing a bear-shaped plastic bottle of honey.

But what kind of a year could one expect from eating leeks, spinach and a fish head? A year of being a contestant on “Chopped”?

Many Sephardic Jews practice a custom at Rosh Hashanah dinner called yehi ratzones — “may it be God’s will” — which calls for a kind of mini-seder in which a—special blessing is said before eating certain ceremonial foods. Though it’s a custom practiced mainly by Sephardim whose forebears lived in the Ottoman Empire, the idea of eating these special foods at this time of year can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which mentions that certain fruits and vegetables should be seen on our Rosh Hashanah tables.

In addition to a fish head, Sephardim also serve leeks, beans, squash, dates, pomegranates and a slew of other sweets. The first night, everyone tries not to eat anything sour. The foods are all cooked to be as sweet as possible. Much like apples and honey, the symbolic foods eaten for yehi ratzones also represent the hope for a good coming year.

Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of the custom. Not only that, but some of the yehi ratzones foods — notably spinach, traditionally served in the form of a cheese-free quajado (a kind of spinach kugel) and — fried leek patties, were found on the family’s seder tables, not at Rosh Hashanah.

Daniel Golfeiz stands in front of a Torah box that stores Sephardic scrolls as a means of protection. Ashkenazi scrolls are freestanding. (Photo provided)

Daniel Golfeiz stands in front of a Torah box that stores Sephardic scrolls as a means of protection. Ashkenazi scrolls are freestanding. (Photo provided)

Ty Alhadeff, the coordinator of the Sephardic studies program at the University of Washington, is a third-generation Rhodesli, as descendants of the Sephardim from Rhodes are called, and a member of Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, which practices the customs of the Rhodes traditions.

Alhadeff explained that the pairing of blessings and foods during yehi ratzones is, at its heart, Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay — puns that rely  on certain words for foods sounding similar to certain Hebrew verb forms.

“It’s like saying ‘May our  enemies be mashed like these mashed potatoes,’” Alhadeff explained.

For instance, the Aramaic word “squash” is “karah,” he explained. The Hebrew word connecting it to the blessing is “karah,” a form of the verb meaning “to tear.” Therefore, when squash is eaten during the seder, the accompanying blessing is “May it be Thy will … You should tear up our evil decree, and let there be read before You, our merits.”

A bit more of a stretch is the Aramaic word for leek, karati,,” and the Hebrew word yikaretu,” cut off, as found in the blessing: “May it be Thy will … to cut off our enemies.”

As for the fish head —  Alhadeff said he uses fish cheek instead — it’s because the word for head, rosh (as in Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year”) figures into the yehi ratzones blessing “May it be Thy will … that we may be on the forefront as the head and not in the background as the tail.”

Alhadeff said there have been some attempts at reinterpretations of the yehi ratzones blessings, which shift the meaning while staying true to the specific foods.

“It’s not about the evil decrees being cut,” he said. For example, Alhadeff said he found a blessing for squash that says, “May the coming year grow as a gourd in the fullness of blessing.”

Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of any common Sephardic practices, surprisingly. For example, whereas most Ashkenazi Jews will only begin to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays within the week before Rosh Hashanah, Sephardim begin to prepare on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur.

We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less  observant individuals, but we practice together and  respect each other’s methods.
— Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the  Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center


These 40 days represent the time that Moses spent on the Temple Mount to receive the second stone tablets, after the “golden calf error,” said Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center in Baltimore. On each  of these 40 days, Sephardic  congregations will have numerous minyans every morning so that the entire community will have the opportunity to attend.

Golfeiz explained some of the traditions at his shul. During these 40 days, there are four separate minyans every morning. Each morning, different community members will bring cakes, cookies, soup, lentils or some other small dish because they know that everyone in the community will stop by to attend a minyan at some point in the day. Particularly if someone is remembering the passing of a loved one, people will bring food as a mitzvah in the memory of the deceased.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is only one minyan each day. “On the High Holidays, we only have one minyan so that the grandfather, father and child can all come together,” Golfeiz said. “There are always three generations at least, if not four. We want generations to have a chance to mingle and learn together.”

“We all pray together, regardless of background,” Golfeiz continued. “We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less observant individuals, but we practice together and  respect each other’s methods.”

Another unique practice at Ohr Hamizrach is that the synagogue auctions the right to take the Torah out of  the ark. This prevents issues arising when trying to pick someone for the honor and also serves as a way to raise money for the shul.

Another notable difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues is the bimah. The bimah is slanted in Ashkenazi synagogues so that the Torah scroll can be laid out and read. However, in Sephardic synagogues, the bimah is flat for the different style of scroll. While Ashkenazi Torahs are freestanding scrolls, Sephardic Torah scrolls are stored in a standing box that confines them, serving to further protect the scroll.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com with reporting from JTA