Howard County Synagogue Adopts Voluntary Dues

Columbia Jewish Congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue, has voted to change the structure of its dues system from a mandatory system to a voluntary commitment, which allows members to pledge as much money as they choose.

The congregation voted for the change May 1, at its annual meeting.

The committee that recommended the change said in a statement that mandatory dues are “incompatible with a spiritual community and that a voluntary/choice approach would help create a sense of shared responsibility to build and create a community based on commitment.”

The voluntary system also removes the dues-abatement process for families who are financially unable to pay the full amount.

The primary criticism of the voluntary system is concern over whether members would contribute enough money to meet the synagogue’s financial needs to remain open. Members “will get precisely the congregation we are willing to pay for,” according to the committee’s statement.

About 30 congregations across the country use a voluntary dues structure, and Columbia Jewish Congregation is the first to adopt the system in Howard County.

Fight and Flight Documentary Tells Triumph of American Pilots in Israel’s War for Independence

Al Schwimmer (left) and David Ben-Gurion (Provided)

Al Schwimmer (left) and David Ben-Gurion (Provided)

There are many ways to honor Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, but one Pikesville synagogue chose to shine a light on a little-known (and unsanctioned) post-World War II operation that proved critical in the creation of the Jewish state.

Beth El Congregation, in partnership with the Center for Jewish Education, hosted a screening the evening of May 4 of “A Wing and a Prayer,” a documentary that chronicles the illicit operation by several U.S. pilots to assist the young Israeli army in its War of Independence.

“[A member of the congregation who had seen the film] came to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘You have to bring this to Beth El,’” said Eyal Bor, the director of education at Beth El.

So he did. He and the CJE decided to host not only a showing of the documentary, but also invited the filmmaker, Boaz Dvir, and one of the pilots, Harold Rothstein, for a post-screening Q&A.

 It’s an astonishing — and astonishingly unknown — story.

“It’s really a Jewish tradition, putting the joys and oys together,” said CJE director of Israel and Overseas Education, Amalia Phillips, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “First, the remembrance, which is the oy. Then the act of heroism [in the documentary], which is the joy.”

The documentary mostly recalls the year 1948, three years after the end of WWII and about a year into the Cold War. American pilot Al Schwimmer was disturbed by the United States’ lack of support for the Jewish fighters up against the more well-resourced armed forces of the surrounding Arab countries.

Movie poster (Provided)

Movie poster (Provided)

So Schwimmer recruited a number of his pilot friends and set up an illegal operation to smuggle weapons from then-Czechoslovakia (the only country willing to sell to them) into Israel — all while evading the FBI. Many of the pilots in the film remember thinking of what they were doing as helping to prevent a potential second Holocaust.

It’s an astonishing — and astonishingly unknown — story.

Rothstein, now 94 and living in a suburb of Chicago, met Dvir at a previous showing in New York. He is not in the documentary, but has been traveling with Dvir for some of the recent screenings. Seeing the documentary brought up a lot of memories he hadn’t thought about in decades, he said, but he is happy it exists. He hopes that people take away “the realization of how close they came to losing Israel,” he said. “It was by hours, not just days. Hours.”

“What I love getting across is the message that these guys were in their 20s when they did that and they changed the world,” Dvir said.

Rothstein’s response was just to laugh. “Although, at that time, we really didn’t realize it.”

Dvir originally became interested in the story through his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who moved with Dvir’s grandmother to Palestine after WWII to fight for Israeli independence. His grandfather told him that he and the other soldiers fought with rifles branded with the German eagle, and asked him if he knew how they got those weapons.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t know, but I am a journalist, so give me a couple days and I can find out.’ Well, it took me 10 years, but here is the answer,” Dvir said, while introducing the film. It turns out, those guns were the ones sold to them by Czechoslovakia and carted to Israel by the American pilots.

More than 350 people attended the screening. And once Rothstein took to the stage post-screening, the audience rose in a respectful — and awed — standing ovation for his efforts nearly 70 years ago.

Harold Rothstein (left) and Boaz Dvir (Photo by Hanna Monicken)

Harold Rothstein (left) and Boaz Dvir (Photo by Hanna Monicken)

“It was marvelous,” said Linda Mondel, who attended with her husband Jerry. “I thought it was such a beautiful story.”

Many in the audience had never heard the story before and were both sad it was not more well-known, but also excited to see it now being told.

“I thought it was incredible. I also liked the style, the humor. He told [the story] well,” said Ali Weinberg, whose father fought in the 1948 war. She added that she wished she could have had the chance to ask her father about this story.

Dvir doesn’t usually attend synagogue showings, but felt this was a special exception. Not only because it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, but also because he loved the energy of those organizing the event. And he was not disappointed, he said.

“I always love the Q&As,” he said. “This was a great crowd. They asked great questions.”

Beth El to Honor Eyal Bor for 25 Years of ‘Deeply Committed’ Service

Dr. Eyal Bor (Justin Tsucalas)

Dr. Eyal Bor (Justin Tsucalas)

Dr. Eyal Bor, director of education and the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning, will be honored at a dinner on Friday, May 20 for his 25 years of service at Beth El Congregation.

Bor came to Beth El in 1990, and as Beth El’s director of education, he brought the award-winning, nationally renowned Dr. Beatrice Miller Mishpacha Program to the Hebrew school and created the Schapiro Yerushalayim special needs program in response to congregants’ requests. He also collaborated with the Jemicy School and implemented  Hebrew School in Your Neighborhood, which allows children who live far from the synagogue to access a Beth El educator near their residence. Because of this program, a young man in Carroll County came to Beth El to be bar mitzvahed, Bor said.

“He’s the definition of an out-of-the-box thinker — always willing to try something new and always with a fresh idea,” said Beth El’s senior rabbi, Steven Schwartz. “He cares very deeply about the synagogue and the quality of the education, the programming and the services. He’s got to be one of the most creative and talented Jewish educators in the country. Dr. Bor is an astonishingly energetic presence in the synagogue.”

He is a visionary. He is a dreamer with the ability to  turn his dreams into reality  and actualize those dreams.” — Rabbi Dana Saroken


There are currently 40 babies enrolled in Beth El’s infant/ toddler program, a concept  realized by Bor in 2005. To  address the growing urban Jewish population, he and his colleagues opened the Beth El @ Federal Hill Preschool. Bor also took on the role as director for the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning in 2010, which, under his leadership, has seen great success.

“He’s always looking for  innovative ways to further the Jewish educational experience for young people,” said Beth El executive director Gilbert Kleiner, who added that his daughter’s decision to work in Jewish communal services was deeply influenced by learning with Bor.

Dr. Eyan Bor (provided)

Dr. Eyan Bor (provided)

A native Israeli and an  internationally recognized musician, Bor said one of his proudest moments was when he was  invited to perform a duet with renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman at Goucher College. But by far, fulfilling the dream and the mission of his friend and mentor, Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, stands out most, using his creative energies to direct the institute that bears his name.

“[Bor] is a visionary. He is a dreamer with the ability to turn his dreams into reality and actualize those dreams,” said Dana Saroken. Beth El’s associate rabbi. “And he is deeply committed to synagogue life and to creating a thriving synagogue community that can endure.” As a colleague and teacher, she added, “he’s generous; he’s always there when you need him.”

Over the years, Bor and Schwartz have led about 700 people on tours to Israel, where “he creates incredible experiences for people to  reconnect with the State of  Israel and their Judaism,” Schwartz said.

Above all, Bor has worked hard to make Beth El not just a religious center, but also a cultural center.

“Because of Beth El’s leadership and clergy, we were able to try out things that enabled us to be a role model for other communities,” Bor said. “And for that I’m very proud.”

The dinner honoring Bor is $36 per person, $15 for children under 12. RSVP to Ellen Marks at or 410-580-5166.

Bubbie Inspires Kind Mind, a Mitzvah Project to Help Those with Alzheimer’s

Back row, from left: Steve Venick, Jordyn Venick, Holly Venick, Ilene Rosenthal, program director at the Alzheimer’s Association and John Ottena, manager of therapeutic recreation and volunteer services at Levindale. Front row, from left: Jordyn’s siblings and grandparents Hunter Venick, Herman Venick, Marley Venick and her bubbie, Beverly “Bubbles” Venick. (provided)

Back row, from left: Steve Venick, Jordyn Venick, Holly Venick, Ilene Rosenthal, program director at the Alzheimer’s Association and John Ottena, manager of therapeutic recreation and volunteer services at Levindale. Front row, from left: Jordyn’s siblings and grandparents Hunter Venick, Herman Venick, Marley Venick and her bubbie, Beverly “Bubbles” Venick. (provided)

Jordyn Venick, a student at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, was surrounded by friends, family and residents of Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital when she presented a check for $4,200 to the Alzheimer’s Association on May 1.

She raised the money through a mitzvah project that she dedicated to her grandmother, who is a resident of Levindale, and made the donation in her name.

“I created this project in honor of my bubbie, [Beverly] ‘Bubbles’ Venick, as a way to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jordyn, 11. “Kind Mind is a project that my parents and I came up with to help dementia patients by using their senses more.”

Alzheimer’s disease, which is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, affects approximately 5 million people in the U.S. and 100,000 in Maryland. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only one in the Top 10 for which there is no cure, treatment or prevention, said Ilene Rosenthal, who is a program director at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“But we are working on that, and because of special people like Jordyn, we will get there,” Rosenthal told the audience. “There is new science, new research, and somebody is going to unlock the mystery of this disease so other families don’t have to live with this.”

Rosenthal attended the ceremony to accept the donation for the global nonprofit organization that works to advance research to end Alzheimer’s and dementia while enhancing care for those living with the disease.

Following the presentation, Jordyn presented the residents — and their families — at Levindale living with Alzheimer’s disease with a bag filled with different activities and items that help engage their senses.

“The sensory stimulation helps out greatly [to keep]  dementia patients [calm]  because they can’t focus as much on the here and now,” said John Ottena, manager  of therapeutic recreation and volunteer services.

Many of Jordyn’s family were also in attendance including her parents, Steve and Holly.

“We’re very proud of Jordyn. She has only known her bubbie with Alzheimer’s disease. This is something very near and dear to our family,” said Holly. “There’s very little we can do to help her [medically], but we can do this to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and help her, other patients at Levindale and, hopefully, other facilities in the future as well.”

“Since we created it, [Jordyn has] been overly enthusiastic,” said Steve. “She comes up with new ideas each day and has really been an integral part of getting this off the ground.”

Rosenthal commended Jordyn on her efforts despite still being more than a year from her bat mitzvah.

“This is so impressive to see a young woman, all of 11 years old, who is just so inspired by her grandma and wanting to do this so that other families don’t have to deal with [Alzheimer’s],” said Rosenthal.

When asked about her motivation, Jordyn’s answer was concise but powerful.

“I wanted to do this because I wanted to give back and try to help other people.”

Emanuel Legacy Lives On at Baltimore Hebrew

Temple Emanuel’s former home on Berrymans Lane in Reisterstown. (Screen shot from Google Maps)

Temple Emanuel’s former home on Berrymans Lane in Reisterstown. (Screen shot from Google Maps)

After several months of discussion, the deal is done: Baltimore Hebrew Congregation will absorb Temple Emanuel and its membership, sacred objects and other resources.

“Temple Emanuel has had a wonderful place in this community, and we’re honored to embrace much of that legacy and welcome its members,” said BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch. “While never the biggest congregation in town, [Emanuel has] had an impact with its value of social justice and commitment to education and spirituality as a congregation.”

Although the temple sold its property several months ago, Emanuel’s legacy will live on at BHC in several different ways, including Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, Gustav Buchdahl, taking up the title of Emanuel emeritus rabbi of BHC.

“I think it is good for Emanuel,” said Buchdahl. “It did what it had to do for 60 years. It had a good run, and I think that Baltimore Hebrew is just a very fine [congregation] in terms of the rabbi and the lay leadership. We’ve been warmly welcomed.”

BHC is dedicating several spots on its board of electors for incoming Emanuel members as well as creating specific programming to assist Emanuel members in meeting BHC members.

Temple Emanuel’s financial r sources are being donated to BHC and will become the Emanuel Fund within the congregation’s endowment funds. BHC will also receive several Torah scrolls, a megillah scroll, art work and educational materials, among other items.

Emanuel’s congregation president, David Beller, described the transition as “bittersweet.”

“We reached the point where remaining independent was no longer in our best interest,” said Beller. “Baltimore Hebrew presented the best option for our membership to transition into an active center of Jewish life in a meaningful way.”

He emphasized that “Baltimore Hebrew has done everything reasonably possible to make our members feel welcome and to provide an opportunity for our members to feel that they belong there.”

As Emanuel members transition into their new congregation, BHC will also welcome a new congregation president, one who is no stranger to BHC or the Baltimore community at large.

“I’ve been very active in Reform [Judaism] since adolescence when I [had my bar mitzvah],” said Dr. Steve Sharfstein, retiring president of the Baltimore-based Sheppard Pratt Health System who will take up the position as congregation president on May 6.

Sharfstein, who currently serves as BHC’s first vice president, has been a longtime member of the congregation and was a part of the search committee that found Busch, BHC’s current rabbi. Last year, Sharfstein announced that he will retire from Sheppard Pratt on July 1 after serving as president and CEO since 1992.

He said he had been planning his retirement for several years, and having watched the congregation’s current president, Martha Weiman, he understands how time consuming the position can be.

“At this point in my life, it’s a way to give back to the Jewish community and the community at large,” said Sharfstein. “I think Baltimore Hebrew and other synagogues are very important as part of the fabric of Baltimore. I’m very committed to the city, I live in the city, and I want to see the city do well.

“[Congregation president is] an important role,” he added, “and I look forward to meeting the people and getting a greater sense of the life of a synagogue.”

Administrative Changes at Bais Yaakov

After 36 years at the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, Rabbi Mendel D. Freedman, principal of the elementary and preschool division, will retire at the end of this school year.

“His 36 years of masterful leadership is virtually unmatched in Jewish education. Rabbi Freedman has led the elementary and preschool divisions for many years of burgeoning growth and during a period of unprecedented changes in chinuch,” Shmuel Markovitz, the school’s president, said in a letter to the Bais Yaakov community. “Through this era, Rabbi Freedman has provided rock solid educational leadership for our faculty, students and parents. For this and everything he continues to do for us, we will be eternally grateful.”

Through this era, Rabbi Freedman has provided rock solid educational leadership for our faculty, students and parents. For this and everything he continues to do for us, we will be eternally grateful.”

— Bais Yaakov president Shmuel Markovitz

On his time at the school, Freedman said: “Working with the students and faculty has been an unforgettable experience. … Our sole priortity is the development and success of each and every one of our precious talmidos. This is accomplished through an extraordinary faculty, board and parent body.”

With his retirement comes changes in the school personnel. The lower school will continue to operate under one roof but administratively will be divided into the lower division of preschool, first and second grades and the upper division of third, fourth and fifth grades.

The lower division principal will be Rabbi Yitzchok Sanders, who will be assisted by several coordinators. The preschool will continue under the direction of Miriam Trout, assisted by Ettie Wolf. The Limudei Kodesh coordinator will be Liora Rosen, and the secular studies coordinator will be Jane W. Baker.

The upper division principal will be Rabbi Yochanon Stein, who will be assisted by Shira Hochheimer as the new Limudei Kodesh coordinator. Lisa Schecter will be the secular studies coordinator.

Tom Kahn, Capitol Hill’s Voice of Reason, Retires

Tom Kahn says he still gets an adrenaline rush from walking into the Capitol. He says that behind the federal budget are “millions and millions of people who depend on things like food assistance or housing assistance or refugee assistance or student loans.” (Daniel Schere)

Tom Kahn says he still gets an adrenaline rush from walking into the Capitol. He says that behind the federal budget are “millions and millions of people who depend on things like food assistance or housing assistance or refugee assistance or student loans.” (Daniel Schere)

Being politically active was a must for Tom Kahn.

He grew up in a home where Jewish identity, Israel and politics were the most common subjects discussed at the dinner table, and that led him to find his moral compass in a niche area of public  policy: the federal budget.

Kahn, 60, retired last month from his position as Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee after 19 years in the job. In all, he spent more than three decades on Capitol Hill.

“If you want to know a person, you look at his wallet,” he said in his new office at the American Association of Government Employees, where he has been legislative director for a month. “And that makes sense to me — because if you really want to understand a person, look at how he or she spends his money. What’s  important to him. How much he spends on food. How much he spends on housing. How much he spends on charity.”

Behind the tables of numbers that form the federal budget are “millions and millions of people who depend on things like food assistance or housing assistance or refugee assistance or student loans,” Kahn said.

One of his most notable  accomplishments came in 1997, the year that he became the minority staff director of the House Budget Committee. He helped facilitate the budget negotiations between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that led to four consecutive years of budget surpluses.

Kahn does not brag about his role in the negotiations, but he emphasizes that setting spending priorities for the country is a key test for any politician.

Kahn believes the United States’ economy, prosperous in the 1990s, was damaged by the debt incurred during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as the George W. Bush administration’s two tax cuts that were not paid for. Kahn thinks the only way to balance the budget now will involve cuts to Social Security, cuts to Medicare or raising taxes.

“The American people do not have a good understanding of the budget process at all,” he said. “For example, people talk about the problem of budget deficits, and people are worried about government waste. But when you ask them which program would you get rid of in order to cut the deficit, the only thing people seem to agree on is to cut foreign aid.”

The Brookline, Mass., native became interested in politics in 1968, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey.

“My father loved him because he was a strident supporter of the State of Israel and a strident supporter of civil rights and equal rights for all Americans,” Kahn said. “And so I remember standing on the street corners of Boston handing out leaflets.”

Kahn said that his other  political role models were Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban.

“Healing the world, tikkun olam, in my mind is very much tied up in public policy,” he said.

After graduating from Tufts University and law school at Georgetown, Kahn began working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to then-Maryland Democratic Rep. Barbara Mikulski (She will soon retire from the Senate). He later worked for Democratic Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Kahn fondly recalled the first time he set foot on the House floor.

“It really felt like a hallowed place, because the House floor was where democracy was put in action — the place where our laws were written — and that did not just seem like a political place. It seemed like a sanctuary,” he said. “It is almost a spiritual place.”

Kahn still gets an adrenaline rush from walking into the Capitol. But, he pointed out, the political atmosphere has become increasingly polarized over the course of his career.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” he said, quoting the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Now, people have not just their own opinions, but they have their own facts. They have their own cable news cycles, they read their own websites, so they now have their own facts.”

Kahn has earned the reputation of being a unifier between the two parties, said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has been a member of the budget committee for six years and its chairman since last year.

“It takes a cooperative of spirits among the majority and minority parties, and especially the staffs, to be able to continue to work in a collegial way,” Price said. “Tom was  always just stellar.”

Most of Kahn’s time on the committee was spent while the House was under Republican control. Price said he and Kahn got along well despite their differences.

“He understood that just because we differ on policies and strategy doesn’t mean that we can’t work together in a positive fashion and in a collegial fashion, and often in Washington, that seems to be lost,” Price said. “He was an absolute gentleman, and it was a great privilege to be able to work with him.”

Kahn will spend a considerable amount of time on the Hill in his work with the American Federation of Government Employees. The new job allows him to advocate on behalf of government employees — a group of people he says are not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

“These are the people who protect us and keep our prisons safe,” he said. “They’re the people who keep our skies safe, the people who do the cutting-edge research in our national labs against cancer and other deadly diseases. And unfortunately, they are not appreciated.”

Congregation’s Dream, Neighbors’ Headache Chabad Synagogue Battle Reminiscent of Cases Around State, Country

(Photo by David Stuck)

(Photo by David Stuck)

As Rabbi Velvel Belinsky heads into the second round of hearings over his proposed Chabad synagogue in Pikesville, rabbis and attorneys from the Baltimore area and beyond are reminded of a myriad of similar cases in which it was community versus synagogue or mosque or church.

Chabad synagogues throughout Maryland and the country have faced and continue to face community opposition. And while the issue is not unique to Chabad, or to synagogues, Belinsky believes that trying to build synagogues outside of the Orthodox community can make Chabad an easy target.

“[Chabad] comes into nonobservant areas or areas where there are nonobservant Jews, and that’s why we always end up facing more opposition,” he said.

Belinsky, the spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews, wants to build a permanent home for his synagogue on a 3-acre plot at 8420 Stevenson Road in Pikesville. The synagogue would have two stories of 4,000 square feet.

You want a religious institution to be part of the community. When it comes to Orthodox synagogues that are particularly focused on being neighborhood institutions, it baffles me that anybody would really have opposition.

— Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland

A group of surrounding residents has organized in opposition to the plan. After a split decision in a Baltimore County Administrative Law Hearing was appealed, the issue will be heard in the Baltimore County Board of Appeals as a new set of hearings beginning May 12.

Belinksy’s story is strikingly similar to many others in the state and country and all too familiar to Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland.

In the early 1980s, neighbors sued Kaplan over services he held in a Rockville home. He won the suit. In the early 1990s, he faced a similar issue when he held minyanim at his house on Deancroft Road in Baltimore. He won that suit, and the case became an example to follow for small synagogues that are held in homes.

Ken Abel (left) and attorney J. Carroll Holzer dissect a document at a county hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

Ken Abel (left) and attorney J. Carroll Holzer dissect a document at a county hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

The building Kaplan’s congregation is housed in now, at 6701 Old Pimlico Road, was the subject of a five-year dispute with the community from 1991 to 1996. He’s also familiar with issues at other Chabads in Montgomery and Howard counties.

“All of them eventually got resolved in our favor,” he said.

Kaplan said the litigation in the 1990s cost about $70,000. He hired a prominent zoning attorney who told him he wouldn’t lose the case, it would just be a matter of time and funds.

“It was torturous. Absolutely tortuous,” he said. “Had I known to begin with it was going to cost $70,000, I may have not done it. But it starts with $10,000, $5,000 … then you look back and it’s $60,000 to $70,000. I wanted to buy in the neighborhood. There was no other property here.”

As in Belinsky’s case, Kaplan’s legal costs were paid by money raised through the congregation. Chabad is set up so that each congregation is financially independent.

Kaplan believes his synagogue has been a stabilizing force in his neighborhood and said housing prices have remained steady.

Neighbors opposed to the synagogue wore these red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

Neighbors opposed to the synagogue wore these red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

“You want a religious institution to be part of the community,” he said. “When it comes to Orthodox synagogues that are particularly focused on being neighborhood institutions, it baffles me that anybody would really have opposition.”

But residents of the surrounding neighborhood, who have worn shirts to hearings that say “Friends of Stevenson Road — Protecting Our Neighborhood,” disagree. During the administrative law hearing, residents cited concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety, noise, and light pollution from the synagogue’s rear parking lot, among others. They’ve argued that the proposed synagogue violates the Baltimore County zoning code and is not compatible with a decade-old development plan that called for houses to be built on the property.

Belinsky, his attorney and the experts they called on during the hearings argue that the proposal does meet county code and doesn’t even have to comply with the property’s former development plan.

A split decision was issued in January after Baltimore County Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen heard arguments over the course of eight hearings between June and November last year. While the judge ruled that the synagogue complied with certain zoning regulations, he said it may have violated other sections of code but did not say whether the synagogue was subject to those other sections it would violate.

Ken Abel, the property’s immediate neighbor to the south, said at a hearing that his dream home has turned into “a little bit of a nightmare.” When he moved to the neighborhood from Worthington Park a little more than two years ago, he expected a quiet neighborhood and houses to be built on the property in question, he said.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and his attorney, Herbert Burgunder, state their case at a county hearing, with a large number of community members behind them. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and his attorney, Herbert Burgunder, state their case at a county hearing, with a large number of community members behind them. (Marc Shapiro)

Dana Stein, a state delegate for the 11th District and the property’s immediate neighbor to the north, has also been involved in the opposition effort and hired an attorney. He cleared his involvement with the state legislature’s ethics adviser. He and his wife, Margaret Presley-Stein, share Abel’s concerns. Presley-Stein helped circulate a petition that collected 638 signatures from 426 residences.

Abel said the neighborhood plans to take the case as far as it needs to go. Belinsky and his congregants, who have been stepping up financially, said the same.

“There is a level of commitment,” Igor Goldberg said. “We’re going to stick it out with the rabbi … there’s a trust in the rabbi, and so he will do what is necessary.”

If the cases are further appealed, they would go to the Baltimore County Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

“There’s no limits to these things,” Kaplan said. “They’re almost interminable with these things. What they try to do is kill you by delay. And justice delayed is justice denied. But that theory isn’t the way it applies in real life in the judicial system.”

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky’s congregants, Russian immigrants from various parts of the former Soviet Union, say the rabbi has taught them what it is to be Jewish. (David Stuck)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky’s congregants, Russian immigrants from various parts of the former Soviet Union, say the rabbi has taught them what it is to be Jewish. (David Stuck)


The state court system might not be the next stop for this issue if Belinsky were to file a federal suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, which allows synagogues to be built in residential areas as a right and protects religious institutions in a number of ways. As a federal statute, it trumps local zoning code.

Roman Storzer, a top RLUIPA attorney who Belinsky recently retained, said RLUIPA is not a “blank check” for religious organizations.

“In general, a government cannot burden religious exercise unless it uses the least restrictive means of compelling government interest,” he said. “Normal zoning rules don’t apply.”

As far as traffic and other safety issues are concerned, Storzer said: “It’s been my long experience that these types of justifications have often been used to oppose uses where they really have no merit. … There has to be demonstrated evidence that there is some real threat, not simply a hypothetical or speculative threat, to public health and safety.”

He believes an RLUIPA issue may have been raised when, prior to the beginning of the administrative law hearings, any plans for Ariel submitted to county zoning needed to be reviewed directly by Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, or W. Carl Richards Jr., zoning review supervisor, Richards told the JT at the time.

“I believe that ‘flagging’ the project certainly raises an issue under RLUIPA and can be evidence of improper differential treatment of Ariel, which is prohibited by the statute,” he said.

Abel and Stein declined to comment on RLUIPA, and an attorney for the neighborhood opposition declined to comment as well.

Nat Lewin, another prominent RLUIPA attorney, said that while RLUIPA has helped synagogues, there are cases he’s seen where religious institutions have lost because of issues such as the size of the parcel of land and insufficient parking.

Storzer’s firm is currently working on another Chabad dispute in Toms River, N.J. Rabbi Moshe Gourarie has been operating a synagogue and Jewish community center out of his home since 2011, but a 2009 revision to the township’s zoning banned religious institutions from locating in the residential zone where the rabbi lives, according to the Asbury Park Press. In March, the Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River and Gourarie filed a federal lawsuit against Toms River and its zoning board.

The complaint in the suit documents extensive anti-Semitic sentiment that was posted on social media, including in various private Facebook groups.

“There’s a range of issues that are involved [in opposing religious institutions] from flat-out old-school discrimination all the way to the typical NIMBYism you see where somebody doesn’t want something built next to them,” Storzer said.

In February, two Boca Raton, Fla., residents filed a suit against the city, claiming the city showed preferential treatment in approving the Harry and Celia Litwak Chabad Center, according to the Palm Beach Post. The Chabad was subject to debate at council meetings, with opponents concerned about the size of the proposed building, parking problems, traffic and proximity to nearby homes, the newspaper reported.

Locally, several non-Chabad congregations faced opposition when moving. Har Sinai Congregation, located on Walnut Avenue near the intersection of Greenspring Avenue, was subject to sizable opposition when its 62,000-square-foot building was proposed in the late 1990s.

Residents cited concerns about traffic, the synagogue drying up neighboring wells or its septic system polluting groundwater. Opponents also pointed to environmental concerns since the site was an unregulated dump, even though Har Sinai said it would clean up the site. Disputes were settled when Har Sinai agreed to noise abatement and landscaping and lighting restrictions, and stopped plans for a commercial day care, according to The Baltimore Sun.

When Beth Tfiloh sought to expand to a property in Glyndon to house its elementary school, neighbors also filed a lawsuit because of traffic concerns. The school, which operated there for several years, has since moved back to Beth Tfiloh’s Pikesville campus, and the Forbush School of Glyndon now operates on that site.

Not ‘If’ But ‘When’

While Kaplan did refer to Belinsky’s opposition as “mind-boggling,” he’s not completely unsympathetic.

“The neighbors next door, I don’t like what they’re doing. I can understand it. It’s not that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t make it right,” he said. “There’s a certain zoning. There are laws. We live by laws.”

As the neighborhood opposition is prepared to fight as long as it takes, confident it will come out on top, so are Belinsky and his congregants.

“If we are getting denied [at the Board of Appeals], we are going to the federal level,” Belinsky said. “I want to win, but I’m not very concerned because either way we are going to be in good shape. The only question is how long it’s going to take us. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’”

Only time (and litigation) will tell.

Former ‘Hidden Child’ Out Of Shadows, Into Spotlight

Edith Mayer Cord flips through a book with the names of people who were deported by the Nazis from France. “The Germans kept records,” Cord says. “There are still people who say [the Holocaust] didn’t happen. How they can say that? I don’t know because the Germans kept records.” (Justin Katz)

Edith Mayer Cord flips through a book with the names of people who were deported by the Nazis from France. “The Germans kept records,” Cord says. “There are still people who say [the Holocaust] didn’t happen. How they can say that? I don’t know because the Germans kept records.” (Justin Katz)

Edith Mayer Cord tells her story of  hiding in plain sight as a teenager in Europe during the Third Reich while invoking a range of emotions from the fear of nearly being discovered as a Jew in a convent to the desperation of constantly trying to overcome poverty.

Cord, who was born in Vienna, now lives in Columbia , Md., and documented her story in “Becoming Edith: The Education of a Hidden Child.” She spoke to members of Columbia Jewish Congregation on April 20 about going underground to avoid persecution by the Nazis.

But she does not shy away from infusing her story with messages about the issues that face today’s American Jewry.

“One of the Nazis’ militias was the Brownshirts. They were a bunch of a thugs. They would beat you up if they didn’t like you [and] disrupt meetings.” said Cord, 87, referring to the Sturmabteilung, a paramilitary unit of the Nazi Party.

“So when I see people on our [college] campuses who prevent speakers from speaking because they don’t agree with them, it brings back [those memories] of when the Nazis — when the Brownshirts — prevented speakers from speaking,” continued Cord, who has taught French and German at  Indiana University of Pennsylvania.


I don’t hate anybody.  I don’t hate the Germans.  … Hatred only begets hatred.” — Edith Mayer Cord, author of “Becoming Edith:  The Education of a Hidden Child”


Cord’s upbringing was in a traditional Jewish home, where her father put on tallis and tefillin every day, and her mother went to the mikvah. Despite being poor, she described the year she spent in a Jewish day school as the “happiest year of my childhood.” In 1938, things started to decay; her parents had moved the family to Italy, fearful of what was happening in Germany. When things went sour in Italy, the family became refugees.

“My father went from one consulate to another” and one after another, each country rejected them. “And because of that, that’s what gave Hitler a free hand to kill us,” said Cord.

Her father and brother would eventually be deported and sent to several concentration camps including Auschwitz.

“Most people don’t realize that the French had concentration camps all over the place,” said Cord, as she pointed to a map of World War II France littered with Stars of David, each one representing a concentration camp. She listed the camps where her brother and father were sent.

“This is the French, this is not the Germans,” as she pointed at photos showing the conditions. “This is the French,” she repeated.

An audience member asked if Cord knew where her father and brother were at the time. She responded that she did not, but she later received a postcard from her father and brother from when they crossed the demarcation line that divided southern France from a German-occupied zone.

The postcard said, “We are crossing. I hope to see you again. God bless you and goodbye.” This card gave her a vague idea of where they were going.

Cord was 14 years old when she said goodbye to her mother in July 1943 to begin her life as a hidden child. She did not see her mother again until after the war.

“It wasn’t a simple thing to hide in plain sight. I was lying all the time. I had to be on my guard all the time,” said Cord.

“It’s a terrible crisis for [hidden children] and a problem that they couldn’t communicate with their parents,” said Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice, acting senior historian for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “They couldn’t communicate with rescuers or teachers about it because it would endanger themselves. They had to bottle up their emotions, which is very hard for a young child.”

Cord emphasized that the deprivation of education was especially difficult. Heberer-Rice said this was a common problem because when Jews were ghettoized, there was a general ban on educating Jewish children. While Heberer-Rice said there are no official numbers about the number of hidden children — mainly due to the very nature of what it meant to be hidden — a lack of education was likely a common problem among them.

“When you’re moving from place to place you lose all [your] skillsets,” said Heberer-Rice, who said sometimes that included one’s native language. “You have children missing entire [skills such as] writing, mathematics and reading.”

Cord was eventually smuggled into the neutral country of Switzerland, which the Nazis never invaded due to its role in the international banking system, according to Heberer-Rice. She would reunite with her mother after the war, but their financial situation was equally as dire.

When she returned to France, she “had absolutely nothing. I had no skills, no education. I had nothing, and I am confronted with this abomination [of the aftermath of the war]. Now what do I do? Do I commit suicide because life isn’t worth living?”

She decided that her only hope was gaining an education. In 1949, and after an intense struggle to catch up, she earned the French equivalent of a high school diploma. But this was by no means the end of her problems.

She recalled that when she went to the president of the Jewish community in Toulouse and asked for help finding a job, he told her that a local rabbi’s wife had just given birth and needed help with housework. Since Cord had worked as a nanny in Switzerland, she quickly went to the rabbi’s home, but the rabbi’s wife refused to give her work.

“I can’t tell you to scrub the floor,” the rabbi’s wife told Cord.

“I need a job,” said Cord with desperation in her voice. “I can scrub the floor. I’m young, I’m strong; if you want me to scrub the floors, I’ll scrub the floors.”

“You have your [diploma], I can’t tell you to scrub the floor,” the rabbi’s wife repeated. And so Cord became a sales girl for a local merchant. She described the job as the lowest position one could have in French society at the time.

In 1952, Cord made it to the United States, and by working a minimum-wage job, she quickly became self-sufficient, an accomplishment she professes with pride.

Through her speaking engagements, Cord said her goal is “to share the hard lessons of her life.”

“The reason we chose [Cord to speak] was because she has a unique story that she was ­­separated from everybody [at a young age] and she had to be a hidden child,” said Suzanne Waller, a founding member of CJC who organized the event. “[Despite] the terror that it must have caused, she goes on to be resilient and learned life lessons all of us can learn — how to move on and deal with hatred.”

Despite what she’s endured, she ended her presentation by saying, “I don’t hate anybody. I don’t hate the Germans. … Hatred only begets hatred.”

Suddenly Dark, My World At Last Has a Chance for Light

Suddenly blinded at age 58, Robin Blum (left) will undergo experimental surgery in hopes to revive her eyesight. Her mother, Helene, provides encouragement.

Suddenly blinded at age 58, Robin Blum (left) will undergo experimental surgery in hopes to revive her eyesight. Her mother, Helene, provides encouragement.

In the dark, I stumbled to my car. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I stroked the  velvet steering-wheel cover.

“We had some good times, didn’t we, Crikey?” I say.

I felt like it was the end of my independence and tried not to imagine — six months into my blindness — the scenario the next day, when a stranger would hand me cash and drive Crikey away forever.

Instead, I get up on unsteady feet and start re-creating my life at age 58.

Within the span of six days in August 2014, an unknown trauma caused a lack of oxygen to my optic nerves, leaving me blind. The result, according to top neuro-ophthalmologists at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, is a rare, irreversible condition called  non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy, or NAION. There’s  a better chance of being struck by lightning three times.

In my right eye, I can see through a pinhole-sized area, with black-and-white vision and darkness encircling it like the screen of a broken ’60s TV. Everything is soft — I can tell it’s a tree but can’t see a single leaf.

Through my other eye, sight is only possible in the left-lower peripheral. A dark mass covers the pupil, but I can  distinguish colors. Between the two, my sight is 20/400 — legally blind, with 85 percent loss of clarity. You wouldn’t know by looking at me, my eyes are still green, from the outside in.

I wince at sunlight like a newborn vampire. With no depth perception, I grab at air instead of a glass and bruise myself on open cabinets. I’ve attached baby guards to furniture and wrapped Day-Glo tape around knives.

My family and friends question whether I will come home to Pikesville, where I graduated from Milford Mill High School in 1974, but I want  to stay in my own home  in Washington, D.C., as  independent as possible.

But one day walking to the store — thankfully I live in the safe Capitol Hill neighborhood with shops nearby — I slam into a metal pole. Blood pours from my nose (luckily, unbroken). I know it’s black and blue, but, disturbingly, I can’t see my face in the mirror.

As I lie in bed in a fetal  position recovering from the store outing, tears fall onto my cat’s soft fur, and the realization sinks in that I wouldn’t be able to attend High Holiday services at Moses Montefiore Congregation, the synagogue where my father, Monte Blum, was a founding member 50 years ago.

Later, I’m referred to  Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, which sends a teacher for my first white-cane mobility training. As we walk, I feel stares — and can see people part like the Red Sea at my  approach. When did I become a freak?

Re-creating a life continues.

A friend buys markers and index cards; notes go up on the fridge like giant Post-its. She sits on the floor with garbage bags, surrounded by years of paperwork that she condenses into one box. (Don’t care what she throws out — can’t see it!)

With my iPhone, I learn to photograph cooking directions and menus. My magnifying eyeglasses enlarge type and I can read four letters at a time. I’m able to, sort of, watch movies on my iPad, and with TV shows I stand inches from the screen. Every morning, I call the Newsline to read/hear newspaper stories. After 25 years in the newspaper business, I dearly miss reading  it with my morning coffee. Audiobooks are my salvation. At my local pool I swim endless laps to calm the panic  attacks I now endure.

I’ve found kindness others will never see. Teenagers offer me their seat on the Metro. Strangers reach out protectively — they’re unconditionally kind. I feel their discomfort but know the satisfaction: Not long ago, I was one of them. Assisting a disabled person made me feel good too.

A Lighthouse class introduces me to low-vision appliances:  a liquid level detector and contrasting colored cutting boards. Instructors take me to a treacherous traffic intersection, and on my tail like border  collies, they teach me to cross safely with my newly enhanced hearing.

I miss eye contact. I miss beauty, I miss ugly, and I miss the differentiation between the two. It would be amazing to see the pink tutu on the little girl next door or a tuft of lavender.

Instead, two years later, I continue to re-create myself, now at age 60.

Maybe there’ll be a cure for NAION in my lifetime. What if there was one? What if you were me and there was an  operation that gives a fighting chance to see again? If you could leave this dark organization that you never joined, wouldn’t you take that small chance?

On May 17, my brother, Murray Blum, and I, fly to Florida where I will undergo a revolutionary stem-cell transplant, not FDA-approved and not covered by insurance.

Dr. Jeffrey Weiss and his team will remove healthy stem cells from my hip bone marrow and inject them into my optic nerves. The stem cells will, hopefully, regenerate new, live nerves.

On my Facebook page (Robin Blum), please open the link to read and watch an  exciting video, featuring a “formerly” blind woman from Baltimore who successfully underwent the surgery. I have also been writing a blog since this began that’s linked to Facebook and on Tumblr  titled ”legallyblindblonde.”

I’m keeping my expectations low but my hopes high. Resigning myself to the fact that I may never enjoy viewing the gentle brushstrokes of Degas’ ballet dancers again would be hard.

But as my mom, Helene Blum, said, “You’ve seen them — remember them.”

Robin Blum can be reached at