NASA Goddard’s Semion Kizhner Always Reaches for the Stars

Semion Kizhner (Melissa Gerr)

Semion Kizhner (Melissa Gerr)

As a 30-plus-year veteran aerospace systems engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Semion Kizhner knows how to stare down a challenge and emerge victorious.

The Owings Mills resident has received accolades for projects he’s worked on such as the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform, some of the first deep-space satellite communications; the Space Transportation System Program, a precursor to the International Space Shuttle program; the Hitchhiker Program that allowed fast turnaround testing of electronics in space; Wfirst, a white infrared space telescope that will allow study of dark matter and dark energy; and, most recently, ADAPT “that will give us insight about the structure of cosmos,” he said.

The creative approach and perseverance in the face of  adversity has served him well outside of rocket science too.

Kizhner, 75, small in stature with sparkling eyes and an impish grin, was born only months before Germany and its allied powers invaded the Soviet Union, including Kizhner’s village of Khotyn in western Ukraine on the Dneiper River. His entire village was sent to concentration camps, he said.

“I wasn’t a year old, but I do  remember toys falling from  the sky,” recalled Kizhner.    “They were paratroopers from the Nazi army. … I ended up with my family in a concentration camp, where I was for four years until the Russian army liberated us.”

Kizhner lost his parents to the Holocaust, so his grandparents, of whom he speaks of dearly, raised him. They had 13 children of their own, and only eight survived the war.

“Things happen in life —  and nobody is that unique —  but you must have the ability    to change and adjust, not to be bitter and go on with your life,” he said.

‘Change and adjust’ became words to live by.

Seeing education as a way to transform his life, Kizhner left his village after seventh grade and never looked back. He  arrived in Chernovitz, Ukraine, where he studied and apprenticed at an industrial vocational school, earning a stipend. He graduated as a technician in   construction materials with distinction, and that allowed him entrance to any university without exams. Kizhner applied twice to one school until he  finally understood what was happening.

“In the old county there were rules, and if you had certain things written in your documents, like where it says your nationality, if it was saying you’re Jewish, some schools were just closed,” he said.

Still determined, Kizhner went to Gorky State University in Moscow that “happened to be a school that was preparing people to work on the space program” and earned a degree in applied mathematics and  cybernetics, a new discipline at the time. Kizhner had evolved from speaking Hebrew and Yiddish in a small village, studying Ukrainian and Romanian in middle school, going to university and perfecting his Russian and ultimately learning several computer languages.

“As I see it now, I changed my personality — or my being — drastically,” he said.

More change was on the horizon.

University graduates were required to work in exchange for free tuition. Because Kizhner finished at the top of his class, he had first choice, so he taught at the same university, but he also unloaded coal trains and dug trenches, he said, always working toward bettering his situation.

At the university he met “a beautiful Russian girl of Jewish descent,” he said with a big smile, now his wife, Sophia, of 47 years, and they had their first child, Helen. In 1974, the political climate changed, and colleagues and neighbors were immigrating to Israel.

“I woke up one morning and I said I’m not going to die in this country, and I applied for exit visas,” he recalled. “Three months from the day I woke up with that idea, I left.” The government was stripping Jews of their credentials upon emigration, “so I took all my books, my 4-year-old daughter Helen, my wife, her mother and her brother and five mighty warriors crossed the frontier into Austria,” he said, unsure of the destination.

People met refugees at the Vienna train station offering immigration to Israel, Kizhner recalled, but then “an Austrian officer came up to us and said, ‘These people are too pushy — you’re in a free world now,  you can go to the moon. It’s up to you.’”

The officer directed the family toward a railway building where an American embassy representative waited.

“They asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’” Kizhner recalled, chuckling over the memory. “So I said France. I didn’t know — it was close, and I like hiking; they got very mad,  because France was an impossible option.” He asked about other options — Canada? Australia? “They said no. So I said United States, and they said ‘OK, this is possible.’

“That person disappeared, and we were approached by representatives from JDC and HIAS,” he continued. “They took over and were in command from then to when we arrived in Baltimore,” where Kizhner would join relatives.

Ever since I remember, I wanted to  be involved in working on something challenging, that is bigger than myself. Here at NASA Goddard we’re working on problems that are larger than  I am. I’m always challenged. — Semion Kizhner

 

The family arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport on April 22 at 2 a.m., he said, then traveled to Baltimore the next day where HIAS settled them into an apartment.

“So when we came here I changed once more, to a new culture, to a new language.”

Stripped of his professional credentials upon exiting Russia, HIAS directed Kizhner to Johns Hopkins University, where he tested out and qualified for master’s-level study. He worked hard and completed a computer science master’s degree in 22 months, considerably less than the five years he was quoted. HIAS helped find him work, which led to a contract with Lockheed Martin at NASA Goddard. After the contract ended, Kizhner applied and got the job.

“Ever since I remember, I wanted to be involved in working on something challenging, that is bigger than myself,” Kizhner said. “Here at NASA Goddard we’re working on problems that are larger than I am. I’m always challenged.”

As an electronics subsystem architect, Kizhner leads and collaborates with teams that develop electronic devices to measure science phenomena such as rainfall, ice, pollution, cosmic events, gamma ray events or X-ray events from space, he said.

“Everything that science is interested in, using in-orbit devices and instruments, we build the electronics systems that support that demand.”

At NASA Goddard, “the goal is to find a solution. Be it an ugly solution, a very rude solution, we have to find a solution to the problem,” Kizhner said. “Then we’ll optimize and make it elegant and beautiful if cost allows. … And this is what attracts me. I’m forever obligated to NASA [for] giving me challenging  assignments and challenging problems, but when NASA poses a problem, it comes with means to do it — money  resources, equipment, laboratories, teams. … We’ll go to the edge of the universe to find a  solution, and if it exists, we’ll find it. This is our challenge.”

Kizhner, who feels “forever indebted to this country,” paid back every dollar of assistance he and his family received from HIAS and gives back to his work and community via mentoring as well.

R. Scott Leszczynski, an aerospace engineer for Raytheon Corporation and former mentee of Kizhner’s, said via email, “Semion takes a large problem and breaks its down into smaller pieces. He keeps plugging away … he is very patient. He doesn’t get discouraged, even if it takes him months or even years to  determine a final solution.”

“He really cares about people,” said former mentee Katherine Heinzen, now an electrical  engineer. “He’s incredibly well-rounded. He’s so well read … and loves being outdoors,  poetry and camping.”

Kizhner won a prestigious Silver Snoopy Award for his work, a distinction less than  1 percent of NASA’s employees receive, as well as three exceptional service medals.

“The first service medal  belongs to Caledonia State Park, site 17, that’s where I got the ideas,” Kizhner said. “And the second one belongs to Caledonia State Park, site 57. You work wherever you are. You hike in the mountains or at a lake, and in a tent, when it’s raining, you sit there and there’s nothing to do and you get ideas. The mind, the human spirit, never stops.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Sights Set Squarely on Iran AIPAC Policy Conference targets nuclear deal as top priority at event that draws record numbers

Iran was center stage at this week’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Months after its nuclear deal was ratified internationally and approved by the Senate after the pro-Israel lobby had fought hard to kill it, speaker after speaker denounced the agreement. It was, in the words of Republican candidate Donald Trump, speaking to 18,000 attendees, “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole Middle East.”

AIPAC 2016: Sights Set Squarely On Iran

Meanwhile, think tank experts, speaking in smaller break-out sessions, concluded that when the deal expires in 15 years, the United States will have no choice but to launch a military attack on Iran.

With the mood against the Iran deal even more pronounced than in years past and the expectation of hearing from presidential candidates from both parties (although Democrat Bernie Sanders declined to appear and AIPAC refused to let him deliver a prerecorded speech), the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was not large enough to hold the record number of attendees, who walked the half-mile to the larger Verizon Center to hear big names such as Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton speak about the U.S-Israel relationship.

AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr made it clear that Iran was its top priority: “The struggle to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he said on Sunday night. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the Middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival.”

Kohr said the other items on AIPAC’s agenda are negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution and increasing American support for Israel’s military strength. The two countries are negotiating a 10-year defense memorandum of understanding, and many speakers during the conference pushed for the United States to be generous in the defense equipment it will provide Israel.

If Iran was the meat of the conference, the expected appearance of Trump was the sugar high that fueled two days of meetings and speeches.

“That’s what really got me excited,” said Michael Goller from Cincinnati, a Trump supporter.

The struggle to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over. So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the Middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival.

— Howard Kohr, AIPAC executive director

Trump’s expected appearance led to calls for walkouts or boycotts of his speech in protest of his incendiary remarks against Mexicans, Muslims, women, Jews and the disabled.

Lee Rosenfield, of Philadelphia, said he supported Clinton for president. He favored taking “the moral high road” when it came to Trump, “all while disagreeing with his posturing, his distasteful opinions.”

Ross Mellman, of Boca Raton, Fla., said that he was looking forward to what the candidates had to say. He disapproved of plans to boycott or protest Trump’s appearance.

Also read, Clinton Eliminates Daylight; Biden Defends Iran Deal

“All candidates are here to speak and should be heard,” he said. “Some of the people here are missing that message. It’s just common courtesy.”

What AIPAC heard from Trump was a scripted, Trump-like address touting the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides and his commitment to Israel’s security.

“I speak to you today as a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel,” he began. “I came here to speak to you about where I stand on the future of American relations with our strategic ally, our unbreakable friendship and our cultural brother, the only democracy in the Middle East, the State of Israel.”

He said his “No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” A few minutes later he said, “At the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”

Trump denounced the United Nations and said he would veto anything that came from discussions in the Security Council “for terms of an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine.” Such an imposed agreement would be “a total and complete disaster,” he said.

Also read, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld Protests, Gets Ejected

He said Israel and the Palestinians must negotiate themselves. The United States could act as a facilitator.

“What Obama gets wrong about deal-making is that he “constantly applies pressure to our friends and rewards our enemies,” he said, drawing applause.

“The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable,” he said. “They must come to the table willing and able to stop the terror being committed on a daily basis against Israel. They must do that. And they must come to the table willing to accept that Israel is a Jewish state and it will forever exist as a Jewish state.”

Trump’s 25-minute speech was punctuated by hearty applause. But he received the loudest cheers when he attacked President Barack Obama.

“President Obama is in his final year. Yay!” Trump said.

AIPAC’s leadership on Tuesday apologized to Obama.

“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama,” Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s newly installed president, said, joined by other AIPAC lay and professional leaders.

AIPAC’s evident anguish in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks could undercut the hopes that the Republican front-runner’s speech to the lobby would somehow help bring him into the mainstream.

“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said, her voice choking. “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”

Also read, Reporters’ Notebook: AIPAC Protests

Trump was the third Republican in line speaking on Monday afternoon. Ohio Gov. and presidential contender John Kasich was first out, followed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) followed Trump.

Kasich said he has called for “the suspension of U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal in retaliation for Iran’s recent [missile tests]. These tests are both a violation of the spirit of the nuclear deal and provocations that cannot be ignored.”

Cruz repeated the promise he has made on the agreement.

“On my first day in office, I will rip this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal to shreds,” he said. “If I am president and Iran launches a missile test, we will shoot that missile down” — a promise that won moderate applause.

Ryan pledged “that as long as I am speaker of the House, we will not allow any legislation that divides our two countries to come to the floor for consideration. Our friendship is too important. The dangers we face are too real. America is safer when we stand with Israel.”

Jay Steinmetz of Baltimore said it was fine to demonstrate against Trump — as long as it wasn’t AIPAC members doing the protesting.

“If you’re part of AIPAC, you stick with AIPAC, and you don’t protest people coming to an event to tell us how you they feel or interact with us,” he said. “You can vote behind the scenes. You can vote with your vote. You can have conversations within AIPAC to AIPAC members, but when it comes to creating a unified front, our appearance needs to be unified.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed the conference with words of warning about the Iran agreement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, check your enthusiasm at the door,” he said by satellite feed. “You see, this deal doesn’t make peace more likely. By fueling Iran’s aggressions with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it makes war more likely.”

“Under this deal, if Iran doesn’t change its behavior, it becomes even more dangerous in the years to come — the most important constraints will still be automatically lifted by year 10 and by year 15. That would place a militant Islamic terror regime weeks away from having the fissile material for an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs. That just doesn’t make any sense.”

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

dholzel@midatlanticmedia.com; dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Processing the Pain of Grief During Passover

Loss is an unfortunate part of life that everyone is forced to face at some point, and while there is no simple solution to coping with grief, it can be magnified around the holidays.

“In our experience, we have found that for people who may not be observant of other holidays or people who are not affiliated with a synagogue, Passover has a lot of meaning because of the tradition,” said Donna Kane, a grief specialist at Jewish Community Services. “It’s a family gathering that they’ve always had, and it’s a very different experience when someone is missing from the table.”

“There’s a lot of unaddressed pain and suffering out there, and a lot of it revolves around the holidays, which should be a time of happiness and joy and celebration. But for so many people it’s, at best, bittersweet and sometimes not even that.” — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman (Photo provided)

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman (Photo provided)

JCS, in partnership with Sol Levinson Bros. Inc., the Foundation for Spirituality and Medicine and the Jewish Federation of Howard County, will host Empty Place at the Seder Table, a program to help those coping with the loss of a loved one during the holidays. Kane, alongside Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, will lead a session at Temple Isaiah on April 6.

“There’s a lot of unaddressed pain and suffering out there, and a lot of it revolves around the holidays, which should be a time of happiness and joy and celebration,” said Scheinerman. “But for so many people it’s, at best, bittersweet and sometimes not even that.”

While the Torah, Scheinerman said, does not specifically address how to cope with grief, Jewish tradition encourages people to find outlets to address their pain and mechanisms to cope. The holidays have rituals built into them to allow for just that, such as Yizkor, a memorial prayer for those who have passed.

“It’s fairly brief, but it is also deeply emotional and offers people an opportunity to express their continuing grief in a safe, communal-supported setting,” said Scheinerman. “[It lets people] acknowledge that this holiday is not idyllic or complete for them because someone is missing.”

Scheinerman added that the prayer is also a good time for people who are not in pain to honor the memory of a loved one.

Kane said that coping begins with the acknowledgement that somebody important is missing and to not “allow there to be an elephant in the room.” Additionally, people should not avoid talking of memories of loved ones. Lastly, it’s important that people allow themselves to cry if they’re sad or laugh if they’re happy; moments of happiness do not diminish the grief or importance of loss.

Donna Kane, JCS grief specialist (Photo provided)

Donna Kane, JCS grief specialist (Photo provided)

“One of the messages I hope will come across is that the notions of ‘perfect’ and ‘ideal’ that runs so much through our culture is not a Jewish value,” said Scheinerman. “We don’t expect anybody to be perfect. We don’t expect life to be ideal; we expect life to be full of holes.”

While coping is stressful enough on adults, children grieve in different ways, and JCS offers other programs that provide parents with tools to help children cope. Kane emphasized that it’s important to address a child’s questions honestly while taking age into consideration before getting into detail.

Euphemisms such as “grandpa went to sleep” can be misunderstood by children and should be avoided.

The program at Temple Isaiah is geared for adults, but Kane said that some teenagers (16 and older) may find it helpful as well.

Chizuk Amuno Congregation will host another session, and there is a series for those coping with ongoing grief hosted by Beth El Congregation.

“We are very pleased to be a co-sponsor,” said Cheryl Snyderman, director of Gemilut Hasadim at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, via email. “Those who attend will receive support and feel comforted. It’s very meaningful to be able to give that to someone, particularly when they are struggling and contemplating an upcoming seder without their loved one.”

 

Empty Place at the Seder Table
Coping with Loss During the Passover Holiday

Temple Isaiah, 12200 Scaggsville Road, Fulton
April 6 at 6:30 p.m.

The program is free. Preregistration is requested. For information, visit jcsbaltimore.org/griefsupport or call 410-466-9200.

 

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Charm City Tribe Gets ‘Wild’ for Purim

Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus features music, mask-making, an animated film and a whole lot of dancing. (David Stuck)

Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus features music, mask-making, an animated film and a whole lot of dancing. (David Stuck)

For Charm City Tribe Rabbi Jessy Gross, Purim is the perfect holiday to engage Baltimore’s Jewish young adult population.

“It’s the one holiday that I feel really comfortable that we’re giving as much thought to the party as we’re giving to the Jewish content because they’re one in the same if we’re doing it right,” she said.

In step with Charm City Tribe’s low-barrier, high-content events — essentially, come for the party, stay for the Jewish content — the Wild Purim Rumpus is being held March 24 at famed Federal Hill concert venue The 8×10, where  a number of partner organizations will have activities  related to the holiday and a band of longtime Baltimore musicians will play two sets of funky party songs.

“We chose The 8×10 because there are a lot of us that have a connection to it as a place  of music and celebration,” Gross said.

The content comes thanks to a grant from the Kolker-Saxon-Hallock Family Foundation that allowed Charm City Tribe to hire local illustrators the Dandy Vagabonds and animator Rabbi Dan Medwin, who are working with the band to create a multimedia experience that tells the story of Purim.

“They made a short film  depicting the story of Purim with really rich stylized animation,” said Matt Chase, the guitarist in the band, aptly named Queen Esther’s Court Jesters for the evening. “It’s a beautiful-looking short film.”

Chase is joined by bassist Dave Markowitz, drummer Paul Weinberg and keyboardist Aaron Levy. The musicians all once played together as Black-Eyed Susan, and members later went on to play in a number of bands including The Bridge, Talking Heads tribute band The Psycho Killers and the James Brown Dance Party, among others.

Live narration for the animated film will be done by Casey Yurow from the Pearlstone Center, and the live soundtrack will be played by the band. Chase said the band will borrow some music from well-known songs for its arrangement, which also includes some original music.

“It will be interactive, it will be ridiculous,” Gross said. “It will be an opportunity for people to learn the Purim story or hear the Purim story in a way they’ve never heard before.”

There will be hamantashen and kazoos will be available in lieu of groggers. Charm City Tribe will have a station set up for attendees to make mishloach manot, Purim baskets, to send to family and friends. Jewish Volunteer Connection will have a station where attendees can make gift bags for those in need, and JQ Baltimore will have a mask-making station for those who forget to don costumes.

“I like to sit in the middle space of the Venn diagram  between adult Jewish life at large and making meaningful Jewish connections, and Purim is such a great way to do that,” Gross said. “Who doesn’t love Purim?”

Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus
Thursday, March 24 at 8 p.m.
The 8×10
10 E. Cross St., Baltimore
Tickets available at bit.ly/1pjZ0ra

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Baltimore’s ‘Jewish’ Architecture Testament to Character, Conviction, Mobility of Its People Second of two parts

Beth Tfiloh Congregation sanctuary, designed by Morris Lapidus (Jeremy Kargon)

Beth Tfiloh Congregation sanctuary, designed by Morris Lapidus (Jeremy Kargon)

After establishing faith communities, neighborhood networks and businesses in East Baltimore from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, German Jews, and then later Eastern European Jews, moved to areas of the city not restricted to them because of their faith. Assimilation and varying degrees of financial success prompted their moves from the crowded immigrant neighborhood, but a mindset and attitude played into that as well.

Around the same time, and sometimes even pre-empting relocation of families, religious and cultural institutions that anchored the community also migrated north. The result is Baltimore’s flourishing Jewish population, manifested in part by its brick-and-mortar expansion along the northwest corridor of the city.

“Where they moved was  dependent on their income. Forest Park had wealthier people living there than lower Park Heights,” said historian, author and former researcher for the Jewish Museum of Maryland Deborah Weiner. Jewish families also populated Druid Hill and Reservoir Hill into the 1920s and 1930s.

Many former synagogue buildings still stand as markers of that initial move north. Designed by sought-after architects of the time, they reflect the changing upscale tastes from their congregational counterparts in East Baltimore. The designs also exhibit an eagerness to embrace modern ideas and to strike out into unknown territory, said Jeremy Kargon, architect and director of the master of architecture program at Morgan State University, because at the time, the areas of Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill were still considered somewhat suburban.

Shearith Israel on Park Heights at Glen Avenue (Melissa Gerr)

Shearith Israel on Park Heights at Glen Avenue (Melissa Gerr)

Then in 1926, a physical and psychological leap occurred, Kargon said, when Orthodox Shearith Israel congregation, commonly referred to as the Glen Avenue Shul, dedicated a new building at Park Heights and Glen avenues and became “the very first Jewish congregation north of [what is now] Northern Parkway.”

Though there was an active Shearith Israel building less than two miles away on McCulloh Street near North Avenue, the bold move addressed the needs of — and perhaps directed — a growing Orthodox community.

Shearith Israel's former building at 2105-2107 McCulloh Street, now the M.W. Zerubbabel Grand Lodge.  Melissa Gerr)

Shearith Israel’s former building at 2105-2107 McCulloh Street, now the M.W. Zerubbabel Grand Lodge. Melissa Gerr)

It was referred to as the suburban branch of the congregation and remained steadfast to its traditional German rituals and melodies until about 30 years ago.

Ben Adler, a longtime but now former member, attended Hebrew school in the basement of the building and still lives in the house with his wife, Judy, that his parents bought on Bancroft Avenue in 1923 when the Orthodox community was just beginning. Adler’s father, Nathan, had images made of his hometown synagogue in Kitzingen, Germany, which were the basis of the design for the understated stone-arched Shearith Israel that remains active today. For the interior, there was much discussion of where to seat the women, Adler said. As assimilation took hold, separate seating was a recurring point of contention for many synagogues, along with driving to shul on the Sabbath, which caused many a rift and resulted in more lenient spin-off congregations. Shearith Israel decided upon wrought iron encircled balconies for female members, which remain today.

Mobility and  Seduced by  the Suburbs

Ohr HaMizrach Congregation, Iranian synagogue (David Stuck)

Ohr HaMizrach Congregation, Iranian synagogue (David Stuck)

Jews essentially abandoned the areas around lower Park Heights in the years after the war, but “I don’t think you can ascribe it all to white flight,” Weiner said.

“The country’s whole industrial capacity was going toward the war so you had a period in the early ’40s where everything was suspended,” she said. “There was a housing shortage, so there was a huge pent-up  demand. GIs were coming back, and the GI Bill gave them housing loans,” and it was exacerbated by the growing number of young couples starting families and the resulting baby boom.

Walter Gropius was an architectural consultant for Temple Oheb Shalom (David Stuck)

Walter Gropius was an architectural consultant for Temple Oheb Shalom (David Stuck)

Weiner added, “So there’s lots of competition for housing in city limits; there’s overcrowding, so all these new areas [in the suburbs are] opening up.”

Blacks in particular had been confined and segregated, so  demand was high for better housing, Weiner continued. Blacks likely found Jewish neighborhoods more welcoming due to less resistance from neighbors toward renting to and living alongside black families.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, designed by Percival  Goodman (Melissa Gerr)

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, designed by Percival Goodman (Melissa Gerr)

“Jews were more mobile in general than some of the other groups too,” Weiner said, such as Catholics, whose churches must be approved by the Archdiocese and are tied geographically to parishes. It’s possible that “one reason Jews didn’t put up a fight [when blacks moved into their neighborhoods] is they were more willing to move” because a synagogue and its community can pick up and relocate.

Ner Israel Rabbinical College campus. (Eli Greengart)

Ner Israel Rabbinical College campus. (Eli Greengart)

There were ads beckoning people to developments in upper Park Heights, Randallstown and Pikesville, Weiner added, “so the pressure of the black community expanding was part of [the reason for Jews moving]. But that refers more to the speed with which [neighborhoods] turned over, rather than why.”

During the post-war years, Jews slowly migrated up Park Heights and Liberty Heights  avenues. As people moved farther out — and as car ownership became the norm — institutions relocated as well and in some cases would have two active synagogues simultaneously while housing and congregational structures caught up to each other.

“Then [dedicated in 1951] Baltimore Hebrew leapfrogs everybody, and they go to the farthest corner of Baltimore City [at Park Heights and Smith avenues],” Kargon said. “And by the mid ’50s, everyone else is doing the same thing.”

Designed by renowned architect Percival Goodman, the building reflected “a new attitude toward the modern decorative arts,” Kargon wrote in his book “Baltimore’s Modernist Religious Buildings.” It continues, “Most new synagogues were built to serve a quickly  relocating population served by new roads and cars. [Suburban] religious buildings shared in the implicit promise of a  new way of life, removed from perceived threats, conflict and biases endemic to American urban life.”

Other world-class architects were invited to design synagogues along the northwest corridor such as Erich Mendelsohn for Har Sinai in 1959 (now Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore); Walter Gropius, architectural consultant for Temple Oheb Shalom in 1960; and Morris Lapidus for Beth Tfiloh in 1968.

“There’s an element of prestige associated with this,” Kargon said. “You want the newest and the best.” The [Jewish] embrace of modernism in the 1950s and ’60s is an important story not to overlook.”

 

 Architecture tells a story about our ideas and our way of life. So when you look at the buildings, they are documents to understand where we were and where we are now.
— Jeremy Kargon, architect and director of the  master of architecture program at Morgan State University

Modernist architecture “came with a series of ideas about modern life that have been — historically and internationally — widely accepted by Jewish communities around the world. You see it in France, England, North Africa, Israel — this was an architecture that wasn’t encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism.”

Jews also lived in Randallstown in the 1950s, but by  the 1980s, migration was to Pikesville. Pikesville stuck, Randallstown didn’t. Part of that had to do with the black community moving up Liberty Heights Avenue, and “part of it was because that’s where the Jewish institutions were” said Weiner, such as the JCC and a host of The Associated services.

When The Associated perceived “white flight” happening around upper Park Heights in the early ’80s, Weiner said, “they panicked, so they put in a lot of resources to stabilize it,” one of which was CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) in 1983.

A Burgeoning Orthodox  Community

In the 1980s, many families in Park Heights had raised children, then became empty-nesters and moved out of the city. Young Orthodox couples began purchasing the homes — these were families un- affected by concerns of a crippling public school system  because their children attended Jewish schools, said Ken Gelula, CHAI’s first executive director in 1983 who served just shy of 30 years. Schools, shuls and shopping were within walking distance, and the community grew.

“It was serendipitous,” he said. “CHAI wanted to invest in retaining the quality of the housing stock, so there was a market [of families] to work with.” CHAI serves all populations, he added.

Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore sanctuary, originally Har Sinai synagogue, dedicated in 1959 and designed by Erich Mendelsohn (Melissa Gerr)

Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore sanctuary, originally Har Sinai synagogue, dedicated in 1959 and designed by Erich Mendelsohn (Melissa Gerr)

CHAI works to nurture and stabilize Jewish communities, as well as others, by providing assistance with rehabilitation, repair and weatherization of housing, financial counseling and loans for new and existing homeowners and services for seniors and people with disabilities. It also prioritizes collaboration with neighboring community groups to promote understanding between diverse populations.

“Upper Park Heights and Pikesville have been remarkably stable for the past 30 to 40 years,” Weiner said. “It seems like the movement kind of stopped. There’s more stability there than had ever existed before.”

The establishment and growth of Ner Israel Rabbinical College has also had an impact on Baltimore.

“It’s a really important institution in terms of the Orthodox community and one reason there is such a large Orthodox community,” Weiner said. “And the fact that they were able to build such a big campus is  significant.”

Founded in 1933 by Jacob Ruderman, who enlisted Rabbi Herman Neuberger as an executive director who became integral to the yeshiva, Ner Israel began with less than 10 students. It was originally located in the basement of Tifereth  Israel on Garrison Boulevard in Forest Park, said Eli Schlossberg, businessman, community activist and a past student. In 1970, they purchased a larger property in Owings Mills on Mount Wilson Lane.

“Ner Israel plays a major role in Baltimore’s Orthodoxy,” Schlossberg said, “because back in the ’60s, Ner Israel alumni began to settle in Baltimore. So you had young couples — many of them lived in the Glenview apartments. These were all young newly married alumni.”

Aerial shot of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College campus in Owings Mills, where the school moved in 1970 (Eli Greengart)

Aerial shot of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College campus in Owings Mills, where the school moved in 1970 (Eli Greengart)

It was common practice for students to study at the yeshiva during the day and take college courses at night, he said. “And they were taking different [government and legal] positions, but they made their home in Baltimore. They were students, they wanted to be around the yeshiva, and that’s where Baltimore Orthodoxy really began to blossom.”

Neuberger was also responsible for fostering what has become a large Orthodox Iranian community, arriving as yeshiva students and then remaining in Baltimore. There are even several Iranian synagogues; one the most visible is Ohr Hamizrach Congregation at 6813 Park Heights Ave.

Schlossberg said the Orthodox community’s infrastructure also has helped retain the Orthodox in Baltimore such as Bikkur Cholim, the Caring Network, the Shomrim and Chaverim. “If your battery goes dead in your car, they’ll give you a hot shot faster that AAA,” he said. Schlossberg also cited Hatzalah of Baltimore, an Orthodox ambulance service that assists anyone in need who lives within the ZIP codes served.

Finally, Schlossberg credits the installation of the Park Heights eruv — a nearly invisible elevated filament that encircles an urban area, effectually extending the private domain of Jewish homes into the public area, permitting its inhabitants to perform otherwise forbidden activities during the  Sabbath and holidays within its boundary — as a crucial determining factor that drove the Orthodox community  toward Park Heights and away from Reisterstown.

Case in point, “they’re all different sizes … but today there are over 40 operating [Orthodox] synagogues in Baltimore,” Schlossberg said, and the impact on homes in the Fallstaff neighborhood is significant too. “There were maybe three Orthodox families in 1968 in that area, now it’s 95 percent Orthodox.”

The Orthodox synagogues today actually outnumber those that populated East Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century, but all of them, present and past,  help construct the city’s historical narrative.

“Architecture tells a story about our ideas and our way of life,” Kargon said. “So when you look at the buildings, they are documents to understand where we were and where we are now.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Refocusing Baltimore Despite last year’s unrest, city’s future has much in its favor

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)

With memories still fresh of last April’s unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, the young African-American man from Sandtown who sustained fatal injuries while in police custody, organizations throughout the city are working to erase the disgrace that national headlines heaped upon Baltimore, even as the upcoming trials of the officers involved generate almost daily news.

“The publicity made it look like the city was in flames, when in reality only a few areas were directly affected by the violence,” said Bob Merbler, a resident of Federal Hill for more than 30 years and a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty.

Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood met with a group of rabbis immediately following the unrest to provide support to the areas heavily affected by violence. The reactions from his congregants varied based on their backgrounds.

B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)

B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)

“Some people remembered living through this [kind of violence] in the 1960s,” said Mintz. “Some people were focused on the injustices and the question of police accountability. Other folks had a sense of anger because they saw people burning down their city. It definitely gave the city a bad image.”

Despite this, Mintz added, people didn’t necessarily feel the urge to abandon Baltimore but rather wanted to ensure the city would come out stronger after self-introspection.

“Nothing happens in a day. Communities, organizations and governments need to work together to find a mutually beneficial solution going forward,” said Rabbi Ariel Fishman, director of JHeritage, an urban educational and social organization for young Jewish adults at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “I think that what we can do on a practical level is build a positive outlook. When you have a situation where there’s been a lot of baggage and pain, the only way you can start to develop that in a positive direction is with acts of kindness.”

It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.

— Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder, Charm City Tribe

Mintz added that many of his congregants wanted to enact positive change and see the inequities and systemic problems addressed. “There was a real sense of wanting to make a difference,” he said.

Fishman, who regularly speaks with prospective students, has a message for those on the fence about coming to the city for school or employment.

“Baltimore isn’t just about something that you want to [avoid] because there were some issues in the past,” he said. “There are still issues that we need to take care of, but there are [also] opportunities for change. [These are] opportunities where we can work together as a community, both within the Jewish and the general community to try to find a way to go forward.”

Steven Gondol (provided)

Steven Gondol (provided)

Live Baltimore is an organization, founded 18 years ago, that focuses on portraying the city through positive marketing.

“I do respect and realize there is a crime problem,” said Steven Gondol, its executive director. “We had one of our worst years [in 2015], but I don’t think it affects every neighborhood to the same degree. We recognize we have a problem. We recognize it’s not the whole city, [but] it does paint the image [of the city] as being violent.”

Live Baltimore studied the city’s real estate market following the unrest by examining factors such as number of homes being sold, who is buying homes (traditional homeowners or investors) and the number of days a home is on the market.

Joe Quinn (provided)

Joe Quinn (provided)

Baltimore’s population has declined for several decades since hitting its peak, just short of 1 million in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gondol, who studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, explained that Baltimore’s initial decline in population was not unique.

Following World War II, many American cities experienced population decline due to housing policies that supported suburban migration for returning servicemen and safety issues in cities that stemmed from unbalanced employment opportunities and neighborhood destabilization, among other issues.

While Baltimore’s real estate market did lag shortly following the unrest, according to Merbler, the market did not falter as much as people may have expected.

Gondol said when cities experience disruptive events, such as in Baltimore, the first red flag is a large influx of new homes being listed — a signal that people are panicking and trying to leave. Home sales and values would drop, and the average days of homes on the market would rise.

Bob Merbler (provided)

Bob Merbler (provided)

But “fewer homes were being listed, so people weren’t panicking. We saw home values [and the number of sales] go up and days on the market drop,” said Gondol on the months following the unrest. “It defied everything that a textbook would say would happen after a major incident like that. That baffles people; they would have expected this huge drop, [but] it followed the trend of [the previous year].”

Gondol added that not only were home sales up 25 percent from May 2014 to the beginning of 2015, but 60 percent were being financed — rather than being purchased with cash — which is a sign that the property is being bought by a traditional homeowner instead of an investor.

 Scott Lederer (provided)

Scott Lederer (provided)

“We look at inventory in the real estate world and gauge it by the number of months to deplete everything on the market for sale,” said Scott Lederer, broker and Maryland regional president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty. “In a normal market we would expect six months of inventory. We’re closer to four in Baltimore City, which means we don’t have enough homes to sell right now.”

Gondol attributes the market’s behavior to the power of social media and distribution of information that kept Baltimoreans well informed on the reality of the situation in a way that was unavailable in 1968, when riots broke out across the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Prospective mayoral candidates, in anticipation of the upcoming election, have cited the need for population growth in the city as a platform issue.

But Donn Worgs, associate political science professor at Towson University, said the challenge of bringing in new residents is a balancing act.

“[A mayor has] to create a sense that the city is growing and evolving and is an attractive place for these newcomers,” Worgs said. “The challenge is, can you do that while not losing existing residents?”

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Worgs added that depending on the economic profile of new residents and where they choose to live could cause gentrification, which can lead to tensions that drive longstanding residents away.

“The mayor is the chief salesperson for the city, [but] at this particular time, the mayor’s race will be decided by how people [already here] manage things inside the city,” said Worgs. “It’s kind of like getting your house in order before you [have an open house].”

Businesses play a large part in attracting new residents through recruitment. Joe Quinn is the chief human resources officer for LifeBridge Health.

When asked about how he reconciles Baltimore being between major cities such as New York and Washington, Quinn said he considers Baltimore’s geography an advantage because it has ease-of-access into other larger cities.

“If someone is looking at a different [city], they are looking at the opportunity [of the job] rather than what does Baltimore have to offer,” said Quinn.

Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)

Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)

Visit Baltimore generates economic benefits through the attraction of convention, group and leisure visitors. This includes overseeing the Baltimore Convention Center.

One tool the organization uses to gauge its success is “definite future room nights” booked within its fiscal year. These include different events such as conventions, meetings, family reunions, weddings and group tours.

A room night is the equivalent of a single night stay by a visitor.

“The unrest of April 2015 and resulting negative media attention was felt in a slower than usual [fourth-quarter] sales figure, with several major citywide groups deferring their booking decisions to fiscal year 2016,” according to Visit Baltimore’s financial report. “While total room nights booked in fiscal year 2015 fell below prior years, Visit Baltimore is still outperforming our [peer cities] and booking convention center business at a rate to maximize the Baltimore Convention Center’s impact.”

Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

From 2010 to 2014, Convention Center activity generated 337,877 room nights per year on average; and it only booked 225,777 room nights in 2015. Despite the drop, said Visit Baltimore president and CEO Tom Noonan, the deferred business puts the company ahead of schedule at the start of its fiscal year.

“People are not being scared off by unrest,” said Noonan. The question that remains unanswered is, how much better we would have been without unrest?”

Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder of Charm City Tribe, an organization that is part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Community Center, works to bring Jewish young professionals together who live in Baltimore City.

Gross said the group’s strength comes from what others might consider a deficiency. Since it has no official residence, CCT meets in public spaces around the city, which results in attracting people who may not seek out a Jewish experience, to come and learn.

She sees Baltimore’s size and challenges as something that actually attracts people.

“[Baltimore] is a small enough city that you can be somebody but large enough that you have options,” Gross said. “It’s also in a state of transition and people are interested in [making a change]. It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Annual CJC Book Fair Is Kick Start to Passover

While Jewish children have opportunities to learn about the tradition of Passover each year, the classroom can be  a challenging place for the youngest members of a synagogue’s congregation.

In an effort to create a more engaging atmosphere around the study of Passover, Columbia Jewish Congregation will host its third annual Passover Book Fair at the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City.

“[The book fair is] a great opportunity for parents with little kids to expose them to music, to Jewish culture and to celebrate the holidays when their kids are young,” said Gail Goldstein, who has been a member at CJC for 15 years.

Goldstein added that while her children are a bit older, they still attend the book fair when able to help with the event.

The congregation holds the book fair on March 13 to  ensure it doesn’t conflict with other events and holidays leading up to Passover. CJC will host an additional event also connected to Passover in April called Journey to Freedom.

“[We’ll be] engaging our youngest students in music and singing. Some of our preschool teachers will lead us in song, and there’s going to be crafts to make an Elijah’s Cup or bookmarks,” said Karen Russell, membership director at CJC.

Goldstein said the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City has a small stage the event can  utilize, which, along with  decorations, helps to provide a fun and engaging atmosphere for younger ages.

While there is a fundraising element to the event — the book fair raised just more than $150 combined in the past two years — the main goal is to  engage not only young children, but also entire families and give them an opportunity to connect with each other.

“I enjoyed taking [my kids] to things like this because it’s an opportunity to expose them to music and crafts,” said Goldstein. “But when they are surrounded by something that is in their heritage, culture and religion, it adds an extra depth to fulfilling my responsibility as a mother.”

The holiday of Passover,  Russell said, still holds relevance today not only as a religious  tradition, but also as a lesson in migration and immigration. She hopes the event will echo for people, Jewish or not,  issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, where even today people are “searching for their freedom.”

Russell said, “I think those are topics that are not going away and are very relevant and important, regardless of religion. And that also happens to be our story of Passover.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com


 

Passover Book Fair
4300 Montgomery Road, Ellicott City
10 a.m. to noon
Call Robin Rosenfeld for more information, (410) 730-6044, ext. 4

BJC Adocates in Annapolis

More than 200 Jews from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis Tuesday, March 1 for the annual Jewish Advocacy Day — a day where constituents from the Jewish community meet with legislators to lobby for the legislation they hope will pass in the current session, which runs through April 11. This included several members of the Baltimore Jewish Council who were pushing for legislation dealing with disability rights, harassment and universal voter registration.

Throughout the day, constituents had a chance to meet with their elected officials. In the District 11 delegation meeting, Dels. Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim made brief appearances.

“Your being here is helpful. Your writing to us, your calling us, your letting us know about what is important is incredibly important,” Hettleman said.

Morhaim echoed those sentiments and directed part of his encouragement toward a young boy sitting in the front of the room.

“If you’d like to come down to testify in Annapolis, you don’t have to be 18, you don’t have to be a citizen, you don’t have to be a lobbyist. All you have to be is patient and wait your turn, but we will listen to you,” he said.

BJC director of public affairs Madeline Suggs said constituent meetings are a critical component of Advocacy Day.

“Even though a lot of our constituents are meeting with their local legislators while they’re at home, there’s a huge power in numbers in Annapolis,” she said. “And to get a huge group coming down to Annapolis, talking about what’s important to them really has a powerful effect to make sure the legislation gets passed.”

Among the legislation  important to the BJC is a bill that would widen the definition of stalking and harassment to anything intended to cause “serious emotional distress to another.” The law currently only considers stalking when there is “malicious,” intent.

Members of CHANA were on hand in the District 11  delegation meeting to make their case for the bill, which they feel would help some of their clients who are struggling with issues — such as in one case when a client received 100 texts in quick succession from a former spouse.

“The key part of the stalking bill that has been of most  importance has been to add a component of seeing serious emotional distress as harm that would elevate this to a crime,” said Lauren Shavitz who serves as the program  director of CHANA. “Often, people who are victims of stalking might not have issues that rise to the level of what the current law says.”

Shavitz said that the bill is important because it seeks to dispel the notion that a victim of stalking or harassment must have a serious injury or constantly be living in fear in order to receive protection under the law.

“It’s not always the typical stalking behavior that people think of where there’s someone lurking behind the bushes and then jumps out and might attack or scare them,” she said.

BJC director of government relations Sarah Mersky added that this bill is a priority since CHANA and BJC are both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “That bill is specifically important to us because we represent CHANA,” she said.

The BJC also advocated for the ABLE Act, which allows states to establish a tax-advantaged savings program that would allow eligible people with disabilities to set up a separate account earmarked for qualified health-related  expenses such as medical or dental care, transportation and housing without losing Medicaid or Social Security benefits. Currently, if a person with disabilities holds more than $2,000 in assets, he or she does not qualify. The ABLE Act is similar to a college savings program. BJC board member Elizabeth Green, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, said creating a savings fund is key to the success of this population.

“The biggest piece of what those with disabilities need is health insurance,” she said. “If they could get health insurance without paying for other things that they need to pay for, then they could put aside savings for other things. But unfortunately they’re all tied together.”

The ABLE Act will provide funding for people with  disabilities who receive assistance from agencies of The  Associated including SHEMESH and CHAI, Mersky said.

The BJC also has secured funding for a number of budget items including $2 million for fiscal year 2017 and $4 million over the course of 2018 and 2019 that will go  toward the construction of a primary and specialty care complex at Sinai Hospital.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Gloria Harris, Mentor and Matriarch

Gloria S. Harris (provided)

Gloria S. Harris (provided)

Gloria Harris, a founder of the Edward A. Myerberg Center who spent much of her life  involved in Baltimore’s Jewish communal organizations, passed away on Feb. 22. She was 91. Her family and friends remember her as a decisive leader and true matriarch.

“She was a ball of fire, and she burned to be of service,” said Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “She said what she meant and she meant what she said. If you had a problem with it, then that was your problem, not hers.”

Harris grew up in Windsor Hills and, aside from attending Northwestern University, was a lifetime Baltimorean. Shortly after graduating, she married Sanford Harris, to whom she was married for 58 years.

“She really was the hardest working person that I ever knew, and she never really had a job,” said Harris’ son, Edward. “She was a professional volunteer.”

Harris was an active member, and at one point president,  of the Ladies Auxiliary of Levindale (now known as the Levindale Auxiliary), a community group that organizes and hosts events for the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.

“I learned so much after the fact — in terms of what she did,” said her grandson, Bobby Harris. “She was truly the  matriarch of our family.”

Harris was active in The  Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, acting as the women’s campaign chair in 1970 and 1971. She also was the Associated Women’s president from 1979 to 1981 and was honored with the Elkan R. Myers Memorial Award for “dedicated leadership and  devotion to the highest ideals of community service.”

She was a ball of fire, and she burned to be of service. She said what she meant and she meant what she said. If you had a problem with it, then that was your problem, not hers.
— Beth Tfiloh Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg

 

Harris was also presented in 1983 with the Hannah G. Solomon Award for her time as the chair of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“She has inspired me to pursue my career path [because] she was dedicated to volunteering and helping people in need,” said her granddaughter, Lindsey Harris. “I have pursued a career in special education, and I have her in mind when I’m working with students.”

Lindsey had a special relationship with her grandmother, being the first girl to be born in the family in two generations, and has taken on many of her grandmother’s attributes.

“She was a woman who  enjoyed glitz and glamor, and she treated me to those kind of things,” said Lindsey. “Everyone calls me ‘Little Gloria.’ It’s  kind of an honor for me to be called that.”

One of Harris’ best known endeavors was her work toward the opening of the Edward A. Myerberg Center in 1976, an adult health and wellness center that boasts 1,200 members.

“Gloria has been my mentor, and she’s almost been my mother too,” said Deverah Routman, who met Harris through the Myerberg Center and knew her for 12 years. “She was my Baltimore friend and my Florida friend. My friends in Florida went out with her like she was part the gang.”

Harris and husband Sanford regularly traveled between Baltimore and Florida each winter.

“After my father passed away, she was worried about how she was going to [travel] without Sandy,” said her son, Donald. “But she went down there [alone], and [made] many new friends.”

Those close to Harris all  remember her for her personality and character.

Grandson Zachary Harris said, “I’ll remember her as a very generous lady who was not afraid to speak her mind.”

Gloria S. Harris (née Sagner) is survived by sons Donald (Janice) Harris and Edward Harris; grandchildren Robert, Zachary and Lindsay Harris; and by many loving nieces and nephews.

She is preceded in death by her husband, Sanford Harris and sister Elaine Wasserman.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Delegate’s Bill Holds Life Insurers Accountable

Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s bill is based on similar legislation adopted in Colorado. Photo by Melissa Ger

Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s bill is based on similar legislation adopted in Colorado. Photo by Melissa Ger

A two-year quest by Maryland state Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) to pass a law that would crack down on life insurance companies that attempt to limit coverage based on an individual’s travel destinations is making progress in the General Assembly.

House Bill 803 would prevent insurers from charging different rates or refusing coverage to anyone based on future travel plans. It passed the House on March 4 and went to the Senate for consideration.

Rosenberg worked on similar legislation in 2005 that prevented insurance companies from discriminating against clients based on prior travel. The issue of future travel came up when a constituent, Ken Birnbaum, an agent with New York Life, approached Rosenberg about difficulties he was having in securing coverage for a client who planned to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Rosenberg first introduced his bill in the 2015 session. It died after receiving an unfavorable report in the Senate Health and Government
Operations Committee.

This year, Rosenberg remodeled it, based on similar legislation adopted 10 years ago in Colorado.

“I put the bill in last year, and it did not pass, and then around the same time decided to model the bill after the one that had passed in Colorado,” said the 33-year House veteran. “I was violating one of my own principles of bill drafting, which is don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Rosenberg said that this session he sold the bill to House members by explaining that discrimination from an insurance company against a client based on travel plans to a country deemed “unsafe,” must be backed up by a travel advisory from the State Department and include data that illustrates the degree of danger visitors to that country face.

It is unclear how widespread the practice is. But in 1996, Israel-bound clients of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. were denied coverage. Then-New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver co-sponsored legislation similar to Rosenberg’s. Met Life soon reversed its policy.

In 2004, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would have declared any discrimination by insurance companies based on travel a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. At the time, several major life insurance companies were denying coverage to Israel-bound clients. The bill died in committee.

Birnbaum said in an interview that he believes insurers have a bias against travel to Israel. Rosenberg did not accuse insurance companies of singling out Israel.

“My recollection is that there was testimony at last year’s bill hearing that a similar action had been taken regarding travel to another country,” he said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com