Repair the World Partners with JVC In third year, organization repositions its Baltimore operations

In its first year, Repair the World fellows turned this once trash-strewn West Baltimore lot into an urban garden and gathering place. (David Stuck)

In its first year, Repair the World fellows turned this once trash-strewn West Baltimore lot into an urban garden and gathering place. (David Stuck)

Repair the World, an organization that launched in several major cities in the fall of 2013 with the mission of engaging young Jewish adults in volunteerism, has refocused its Baltimore operations and will now operate under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore as part of Jewish Volunteer Connection.

Jewish Volunteer Connection will employ two full-time staffers that will work primarily out of Repair the World’s Highlandtown workshop. Officials expect to have these employees in place by the spring.

While the arrangement is the first of its kind for Repair the World and a departure from its model of 10-month fellowships of immersive service and intentional living, officials at the organization say it was a necessary change that will make the organization more effective in Baltimore.

“We needed to understand what was special about Baltimore that required a different kind of approach,” said its CEO, David Eisner. “The advice we got from a very large number of folks we were talking to was we needed to be less of an independent organization and more aligned and operating under the auspices of a solid and  effective organization.”

While adjustments were made from the first year to second year across Repair the World cities, Baltimore underperformed compared with other cities in both years.

Eisner said officials spoke with 50 to 60 leaders in Baltimore’s Jewish and social justice communities, and The Associated kept coming up. Since The Associated and JVC had already been partners and advisers for Repair the World in Baltimore under its fellowship model in the organization’s first two years, it seemed like a good fit, Eisner said.

Repair the World now has fellows in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York City and Pittsburgh, whose mission to engage Jewish millennials in  volunteerism and make it an essential part of their lives and Jewish identities. While each city partners with its local federation on recruiting and programming, the organization is still fundamentally independent in other cities.

The closeness of the Baltimore community and the reach of The  Associated make Baltimore a unique city that led to a unique arrangement, Eisner said.

“I think it’s a really unique organization in terms of its uniform leadership across the Baltimore Jewish community, in terms of the sort of universal buy-in that all levels of the Jewish community have in working with The Associated and JVC, and I think in terms of the breadth of their lay leadership, it is breathtaking,” he said.

We needed to understand what was special about Baltimore that required a different kind of approach. — David Eisner, CEO, Repair the World

Ashley Pressman, JVC’s executive director, said the partnership is a good fit because the missions of the two organizations are closely aligned, and there is a lot of synergy in the work they both do.

“They are absolutely the expert  in the country in engaging Jewish millennials,” Pressman said. “What JVC brings to the partnership is the relationships with organizations in Maryland.”

As the fellows did, Eisner said the two full-time staffers will similarly build relationships with nonprofits, find ways those organizations can utilize volunteers to have greater capacity and make greater impact and reach out to and enlist young adults in the Jewish community to help those in marginalized communities improve their lives.

Baltimore’s first Repair the World cohort included nine fellows, most of whom were recent college graduates. They lived together and worked with Baltimore organizations such as Civic Works, CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc.), the Incentive Mentoring Project, the mayor’s success mentoring program and Banner Neighborhoods.

In year two, Repair the World  adjusted in its cities as the organization saw fit. It adopted its two main focus areas: food justice and education  justice. How much time fellows spent on particular projects was adjusted.

Eisner said recruitment and training was modified so fellows truly understood that a big part of their jobs would be recruiting inside the Jewish community and to ensure they were excited and comfortable with that. Repair the World officials also saw a need to better set expectations and better explain their mission to nonprofit partners, so adjustments were made in that area.

In its first year, the organization engaged 4,000 participants, which grew to 12,000 in year two, and Eisner said Repair the World is on track to have engaged 15,000 Jewish young adults in year three.

“That’s really because we are learning fast and are very willing to make the changes that we need to make in order to succeed as well as we can,” he said.

Pressman is also committed to that mindset and said JVC will adapt and evolve as the two employees get on the ground.

“We are all working towards the same movement,” she said, “and that movement is about engaging Jews in volunteerism as a way of informing Jewish identity and also as a way of impacting the world.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Legislators, Advocates Rally for End-of-Life Option Act Revised bill increases protection from coercion, includes data collection

Del. Shane Pendergrass (center) and Sen. Ronald Young (left) are the sponsors of the End-of-Life Option Act. (Marc Shapiro)

Del. Shane Pendergrass (center) and Sen. Ronald Young (left) are the sponsors of the End-of-Life Option Act. (Marc Shapiro)

Legislators and advocates kicked off this year’s push for the End-of-Life Option Act on Thursday, Jan. 28 ahead of the introduction of Senate and House bills.

The Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act, sponsored by Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13) and Sen. Ronald Young (D-District 3), would allow terminally ill individuals with six-month prognoses to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug from a physician.

This year’s bill has the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and at least one Republican, Baltimore County Delegate Christopher West (District 42B).

“It’s all about personal choice, when you reach a point in life that you say, ‘I can’t bear going on, and I want to make this choice to end on my terms in a peaceful way,’” Young said at the Jan. 28 news conference.

“It’s about people and their experiences and their control over the end of their lives,” Pendergrass, a Jewish delegate who represents Howard County, said.

After the bill failed to make it out of a Senate committee last year, a work group convened over the summer to revise it. This year’s version states that an oral request must be made by a patient in a one-on-one conversation with his or her doctor, something Pendergrass said would help remove the possibility of coercion, which is a concern of the bill’s critics.

“We tried very hard to do everything we can to strengthen that this is the choice of the individual, not the choice of someone else,” she said.

The revised bill also required the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to collect and report data on the issue. Additionally, the name of the bill was changed from the Death with Dignity Act to the End-of-Life Option Act, since some felt the former name implied other deaths were without dignity.

Under the bill, a mentally competent patient must make three requests to obtain a lethal prescription; first an oral request, then a written request, then a second oral request at least 15 days after the first oral request and 48 hours after the written request. The doctor is required to go over all palliative care options and the patient must be able to self-administer the medication.

A number of advocacy organizations joined the bill’s sponsors and many co-sponsors on Jan. 28, including Compassion & Choices, which had a number of Jewish advocates who drove from near and far to show their support and meet with their representatives.

Some had horror stories to tell in explaining why they got involved in the issue.

“In 1992, my father asked me to shoot him in the head. He was a World War II vet,” said Bill Snyder of Gaithersburg. “It’s the only time I ever disobeyed my father … it haunts me.” His father was a smoker, had trouble breathing at the end of his life and was well-aware of what was happening, Snyder said.

Marilyn Shapiro of Owings Mills, 83, said her husband died a horrible death from colon cancer.

“It’s inhumane to let someone suffer like that,” she said. “My own son wanted to cover my husband’s mouth with the pillow. I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ He was so terribly upset to see his father writhing in pain like that.”

Edna Hirsch, a dentist, came down from Harford County to show her support. She’s a two-time breast cancer survivor whose father, a physician, died a painful death.

“On his death bed he very much wished he could have had this medication. He suffered a lot,” she said. “He would have liked to have done it this way.”

Last year, the bill faced opposition from religious communities, including the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as from the Baltimore Jewish Council. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington opposed the bill last year and will not support it this year because it goes against Halacha, Jewish law.

The Baltimore Jewish Council planned to address the matter at its board meeting Thursday. Executive director Art Abramson said the BJC can’t support the bill because it goes against Halacha, but it could step back and not heavily lobby against it. A number of members of the Baltimore Jewish community as well as Pendergrass criticized the BJC for its stance against the legislation.

Those who attended the news conference thought religion should not play a part in the debate.

“It is unthinkable that the conditions of one’s death, one of the most deeply personal moments in one’s life and the lives of their families, might be influenced by the personal beliefs and ideologies of strangers,” said Matthew Goldstein, chair of the Secular Coalition for Maryland. “But this is the reality confronted by those tragically faced with terminal illnesses in Maryland.”

Les Heltzer, a member of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville who had a close friend die from brain cancer, said religion doesn’t enter into the debate for him.

“Among my friends, the idea of compassion and self-choice at the end of life is not something they put in religious grounds,” he said.

Added Shapiro: “I feel that our rabbis would not be happy with us doing this because they believe God gives life and takes it away, but that’s an old-fashioned feeling. It’s not enlightened.”

Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) said she felt “very comfortable” as a Jewish legislator supporting the end-of-life option, likening it to issues of choice in women’s reproductive issues and same-sex marriage.

“I imagine that religious leaders would differ on those too. As a legislator, I have to represent all the people in my district,” she said. “I feel very comfortable as a Jewish legislator supporting this as I do the other issues that I mentioned.”

According to a 2015 Goucher Poll, 60 percent of Maryland residents support the end-of-life option, and 35 percent oppose it.

Among the Senate bill sponsors are Montgomery County Sens. Jamie Raskin, Cheryl Kagan, Brian Feldman, Nancy King, Richard Madaleno Jr. and Roger Manno, Baltimore City Sen. Lisa Gladden and Baltimore County Sen. Delores Kelley. The House bill sponsors include Baltimore City Dels. Curt Anderson, Peter Hammen, Maggie McIntosh, Nathaniel T. Oaks, Sandy Rosenberg and Mary Washington, Montgomery County Dels. Marc Korman, Benjamin Kramer, Andrew Platt, Kirill Reznick and Craig Zucker, among others, and Baltimore County Dels. Stephen Lafferty and Hettleman.

“This is something I’ve heard about from constituents. It’s really important to community members in Baltimore County,” Hettleman said. “Personally, I just feel like this is something that every individual should be able to consult with their faith leader, with their family, with their doctor and make a decision for themselves.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Beth Tfiloh Student Makes a Wish: Laker for a Day

Yitzi Teichman, 18, who has been battling brain cancer, signed a one-day contract with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 31, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Lakers. Teichman, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School student, was given the VIP treatment, received special items signed by the players, participated in pregame warm-ups on the court and stood with the team during the national anthem before a home game with the Charlotte Hornets, said a spokesperson from Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic.

Teichman wore a number 18 jersey, which, in addition to his age, means “chai” or “life” in Hebrew.

Lakers star Kobe Bryant sent the teen a video message several months ago before his surgery.

“I hear you have a big challenge ahead,” Bryant said in the video,  according to NBA.com. “But I know you will respond, just like we do, and take the challenge straight on and come out stronger and tougher for it.”

The Lakers lost their game that night, but Teichman was still a winner after a full day with his favorite team, and he walked out of the Staples Center with a signed game ball and the players’ game shoes.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

BJC: No Anti-BDS Bill This Session

briefBJCThe Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) will not pursue a bill against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in this year’s Maryland General  Assembly session.

“We spent a few weeks researching it and there’s no problem now,” BJC executive director Art Abramson said. “Given everything else going on, budget issues … there’s no sense in fighting a battle that’s not needed at the moment.”

The bill would have prevented pension divestment, making it so state pensions could not be invested in companies that support the BDS movement, and would have changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who support BDS could not earn state contracts. Both measures are similar to laws  enacted relating to companies who do business with Iran.

BJC officials researched both of those issues and found that while there is pressure on some companies to divest, none have. Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC, said one small electrical workers union passed a statement in support of BDS, but it is not clear if it has divested.

“It’s something we’re really tracking, where unions are, because if a larger union were to divest, it would have an effect on the state,” she said. “We’re just working really hard to talk to different elected officials about it and continuing to have conversations.”

Abramson said he believes the bill would have passed this year because of support from legislators and partnering with the JCRC, but didn’t think it would pass it there was no way to show a problem exists.

“I am pleasantly surprised given a lot of rhetoric in this state about BDS that that there isn’t a problem,” he said. “The council and our counterparts in D.C. will certainly get into this as soon as and if it becomes a problem.”

The other issue is that BDS supporters in Maryland argue that the bill goes against free speech.

“It’s got nothing to do with this, and I did not want this to become a free speech issue,” Abramson said.

The BJC is continuing to speak with legislators about the BDS movement and monitoring the movement in Maryland and on Maryland’s  college campuses.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

The Ability to Succeed Employers look beyond disabilities, find dedicated, talented workers

Randy Duchesneau is director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility.

Randy Duchesneau is director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility. (Lauren Appelbaum)

Yoel Krigsman, 48, is an average Jewish Baltimorean by most accounts; he has a wife and four children, davens regularly and commutes to Washington, D.C., where he has managed computer systems at Gallaudet University for 18 years.

But statistics indicate that employers would think twice about hiring him because he’s deaf.

Dr. Andrew Houtenville, director of research for the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, said, based on a bureau of labor statistics job report, the number of employed people with disabilities has decreased by 4.3 percent from December 2014 to December 2015. The institute released its year-in-review report during the first week of February, which is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.

A wide range of disabilities affects approximately 56 million Americans, and while the job market in general fluctuates, the challenges of finding employment for people with disabilities are constant.

Part of the challenge stems from peoples’ perceptions of those with disabilities.

“I happen to be deaf. I don’t consider myself deaf first — I’m Jewish first,” said Krigsman, who speaks and reads lips but also uses American Sign Language. “Other hearing-impaired people [might] say they’re deaf first and Jewish second,”

Krigsman, who moved to Baltimore from New York, got his job at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington D.C. for the deaf and hard of hearing, after exceling in a computer course.

Krigsman’s abilities are what earned him his job, and several experts emphasized that a person’s skills — even when they are disabled — can be utilized well if they are given the right tasks.

But challenges for finding employment can begin with how — and if — a person with disabilities completes a high school education.

“Some individuals with disabilities graduate [high school] at 18,” said Mira Labovitz, Baltimore coordinator for Yachad, a global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of Jewish individuals with disabilities. “If they are in a special needs school, some are on a diploma track, and some are on a vocational track.”

cover2Labovitz added the vocational track connects students with state employment agencies that help them find a career path based on their skills and desires.

And, as Eric Adler, whose son has autism, told the Jewish Times last October, even if students do graduate, they may not be equipped, or qualified, to hold down a full-time job.

While disabled students are entitled to certain benefits from the Developmental Disability Administration, if an individual graduates at 17 or 18, they aren’t entitled to any services from the DDA until they are 21.

“When the school bus stops coming, they don’t have much to do during their day. So they sit on their parents’ couch,” said Jennifer Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a national nonprofit that works for the inclusion and empowerment of the disabled community. “When their parents die, they sit on their siblings’ couch. This is a huge problem for them.”

According to statistics provided by RespectAbility, 300,000 people with disabilities age into the workforce each year — when they turn 18.

“There are many myths and stereotypes surrounding [autistic spectrum disorder], and employers can be reluctant to hire people on the spectrum,” said Theresa Ballinger, treasurer of the Howard County Autism Society, via email. “Employers need to understand individuals with disabilities like ASD are an untapped resource. Many who work are very excited about their jobs, and they’re really dedicated. All they need is a workplace that’s accommodating and welcoming.”

Randy Duchesneau, 30, director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility, has felt the impact of public perception. At Cornell University, he was an exceptional student who easily nailed interviews and landed internships. Then during his senior year, a gymnastics accident left him a quadriplegic, and he underwent a year of rehabilitation. When Duchesneau returned to Cornell, despite having an excellent resume, his experiences with interviews and internships changed.

“If I disclosed my disability in a cover letter I wouldn’t be selected [for an interview] at all,” said Duchesneau.

cover3Struggling to find employment, he went on to earn a master’s degree in public health from Yale University. It was there he learned to leverage his networks and eventually landed an internship at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“People think I’m intelligent because I have these degrees [from Cornell and Yale]. But for people who don’t have these degrees from top universities,” said Duchesneau, “there’s an additional stigma that [employers] think [people with disabilities] are limited in what they are capable of doing.”

But that perception, claims Krigsman, could easily be ameliorated.

“[There’s] not enough education about what we do. What is normal in our world may not look normal in yours,” he said.

For example, some people in the deaf community might beat a tabletop with their fist, which could be misinterpreted as anger. But Krigsman said it’s done to get someone’s attention because a deaf person feels the vibrations.

“Sometimes we don’t realize how loud that can be,” said Krigsman.

He added that people apologize to him when they find out he is deaf.

“What are you sorry about? I didn’t do anything to make you feel sorry,” said Krigsman. “Why do they keep saying that? It’s because it’s something new to them.”

“There’s always hesitation that [the employer doesn’t] know anything about these individuals, and they are weary of what the [individual] brings to the table,” said Jack Gourdji, executive director of the Jewish Union Foundation in New York, a partner of Yachad.

JUF works with individuals on social skills, workplace skills and behavior to help prepare people with disabilities for a business setting. It then finds volunteer and employment opportunities based on his or her skills.

“We always send job coaches with them,” said Gourdji. “The responsibility of a job coach is to assist the individual to the point that they can handle things on their own.”

Gourdji explained job coaches give employers some reassurance about hiring people with disabilities. With a coach present, the employer knows  the task will get done.

However, Gourdji emphasized that jobs are earned, not just awarded.

“I never place somebody as a favor,” said Gourdji. “I do it because I feel over a period of time, if not immediately, I believe they can succeed at the job.”

Devorah Lieberman, 31, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y, and has used Yachad’s services since she was 12. When she came of employment age, she also turned to JUF. She, and her mother, Andrea, credits the organization for her success in gaining employment, despite having Down syndrome.

cover4“The confidence they’ve given her and the abilities they’ve given her are wonderful,” said Andrea. “People should not be afraid to let your child do something. They are very optimistic about what they can do. Just let them try and go as far as they possibly can.”

Now, Devorah has three jobs: one at a clothing store in Manhattan; another at the Foundation for Jewish Camp; and a third at Yachad. Her message to the nondisabled community is concise.

“[They should] not make fun of my syndrome,” said Devorah. “They should treat me with the same respect [as anyone else] and not judge me by [my] disability.”

Positive experiences employing people with disabilities can be the incentive for some business leaders to make more hires and encourage others to do the same.

“I think the best motivation doesn’t come from governors, it comes from business leaders talking to each other,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said. “When they can say, ‘[Employing someone with a disability] has helped our company,’ then that is more powerful.”

Markell, who has championed employment of people with disabilities during his time in office, launched the initiative “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities in 2012” as the chair of the National Governors Association.

Markell’s reason for taking up the cause, he said, was his experience visiting a bank several years ago. He met a disabled man who was creating T-shirts for promotional material. Markell asked him what he did before getting that job.

“I sat at home watching television with my parents,” the man said.

“A light bulb went off in my head about how much his quality of life improved because of this job,” said Markell. “He had a purpose and a reason to get up every day. It was a big quality-of-life improvement for him and his family because he wasn’t sitting around doing nothing.”

Despite the negative perceptions held by some, businesses have thrived because of people with disabilities.

“Baking lends itself beautifully to people with certain disabilities,” said Sarah Milner, who has spent most of her career helping people with disabilities as a social worker.

Milner, with co-founder Laurie Wexler, also runs Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg, Md. In addition to running a full production bakery, they aim “to prepare individuals with developmental or other cognitive disabilities for employment in baking and related industries through skilled on-the-job training.” They offer 10-week courses, and students work alongside people without disabilities. Similar to JUF, students learn skills necessary to be successful in any work place such as promptness and self-advocacy.

Milner said some disabilities are conducive for the precise procedures of baking such as making exact measurements, following recipes and making repetitive motions.

cover5Another business known for hiring workers with disabilities is Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Sinai’s workforce development program, called VSP, tries “to maximize the employability of persons with barriers to employment,” said Mira Appleby, manager of program development at VSP, such as  employee Walter Beatty.

Beatty, 57, grew up in Baltimore City and struggled with alcoholism, something one in 12 Americans experience, according to the American Psychological Association.

After completing six months of rehabilitation, he was determined to change his life around and credits VSP for helping him do it.

“VSP taught me how to speak with people and how to be courteous to people,” said Beatty, who works as a cook at Northwest Hospital. “VSP taught me how to stand up properly, how to act toward people. They took the bad attitude from me and made me change my attitude around.”

Beatty is celebrating six years of sobriety and said spending time with his niece’s children every day after work keeps him motivated.

While Beatty doesn’t have the same challenges as those who are physically or mentally disabled, he did face the doubts and criticisms of others who didn’t think he would be successful. Despite that, he’s been recognized at the hospital as an exemplary employee and takes pride in helping others succeed.

“While there may be some accommodations that have to be made,” said Markell, “what most [employers] will find is that people with disabilities are great employees. They show up, they are grateful for their job, there is less turnover, and they do a good job.”

Milner added there is a moral responsibility to be considered as well.

“If every Jewish employer “[regardless of his or her type of business] would hire one person with a disability, what a great thing that would be,” she said. “We are all responsible for one another, and it’s not except for the people with disabilities.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

‘Heart of Gold’ Charles Oberman, usher for decades at Baltimore venues

Charles Oberman (photo provided)

Charles Oberman (photo provided)

If there were a song that best described the life of Baltimore resident Charles Oberman, it would be Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart,” his family members say. Oberman, perhaps best known for his 40-plus years as a supervisory usher for the Orioles and at Royal Farms Arena, died on Jan. 23 at the age of 96.

“No matter what section of town we would go in, there would always be someone who knew him,” said his niece, Sandy Rosen who has been Oberman’s caretaker for the past seven years.

“I tried to get him to join the senior center and he refused because it’s all old people,” she joked. “What I’ve noticed about him the most, even in his last couple of senior years, is that he loved and embraced everybody. He was the most unpretentious person you ever you met.”

Oberman served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, where he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands between 1942 and 1945. One year later, he married Rose [Adelman] Oberman — a union that lasted more than 50 years until her death in 2009.

That was his life … The arena was really his second family. He saw generations come and go. Little boys who came to ice skate at the arena would [years later] take their own children to ice skate.
— Sandy Rosen, niece of Charles Oberman

Oberman began to work as an usher at what was then known as the Baltimore Civic Center when it opened in 1962. He often worked hockey games when the now-defunct AHL Baltimore Clippers were in town, and he had the opportunity to witness the Beatles’ only visit to Baltimore, in 1964.

“It was fantastic. I couldn’t see for an hour after the performance for all the flashbulbs that went off. The police had to move the horse patrols in to try to clear Howard Street,” Oberman told the Baltimore Sun in 1992, reflecting on the performance. His tenure at the arena has become the stuff of legend, even to the point of receiving recognition and a plaque from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake a few years back.

“That was his life. Not so much the Orioles, but the arena was really his second family,” Rosen said of Oberman’s career. “He saw generations come and go. Little boys who came to ice skate at the arena would [years later] take their own children to ice skate.”

Rosen said that her uncle had “a heart of gold” and taught everyone he knew to accept everyone despite their differences, and to be humble.

“He looked out for people,” she said.

Oberman’s son-in-law, Mark Donald, said his legacy will be the generations of Baltimoreans he got to know from his ushering days.

“Charlie was a very, very outgoing person,” Donald said. “He never met anybody he didn’t like. He was a people person.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Split Decision in Stevenson Chabad Case Court order ruled that proposed synagogue meets some requirements, possibly violates others

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

The case concerning whether a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation can build a synagogue on Stevenson Road will be heard before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Attorneys for both the neighborhood opposition and the congregation appealed the opinion and order rendered by Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen on Jan. 12.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky aims to build a permanent home for his Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a  congregation for Russian Jews, but has drawn opposition from a number of neighbors due to concerns over pedestrian safety, traffic, county code and the character of the neighborhood.

The ruling ordered that the synagogue is permitted under the property’s  current residential zoning classification, that the proposed residential transition areas (RTAs) that are  required to blend the building in with its surroundings are sufficient and that the house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, can be used as the rabbi’s parsonage.

But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not “consistent with the spirit and intent of the [county’s] original plan,” which called for two single-family homes to be built on the 3-acre property. Beverungen did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that  requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the plan needed to be amended, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement. The original plan was approved by the county in 2006.

Beverungen’s opinion added that he believes that Ken and Jassamyn Abel, the petitioners who live next door to the property, should be  afforded protections from another part of zoning code that protects residents who made decisions — such as buying a house — based on development plans from “inappropriate changes” to those plans.

Beverungen and Belinsky’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Michael McCann, one of two  attorneys hired by the neighborhood opposition (a third attorney, a resident, joined the legal team), addressed the seemingly split decision.

“My feeling is that we’re very pleased with what I believe is the more  important ruling in the judge’s decision, and that is the ruling on the amendment of the final development plan,” McCann said, “particularly the strong language he used.”

Beverungen called the proposed synagogue a “radical departure” from and “inappropriate change” to the original development plan.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

On the RTA question, he said he thought the judge “misapplied the law.”

“But even if he was correct, the ruling on the amendment issue would carry the day,” he said.

Belinsky said he was “delighted” by the RTA section of the hearing.

“The vast majority of his ruling [was] on explaining why all the claims of the neighbors about traffic and safety and RTA compliance have no grounds,” he said.

Ken Abel said he and his neighbors believe the rabbi would have had to have been successful on both questions to move forward, pending appeals.

“The message to the community was this is good news,” Abel said. “It validates what we’ve been saying since the beginning: The synagogue on that property wasn’t appropriate.”  He said they disagree with the judge’s decision on the RTA issue.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), who lives next door to the property on the other side, said he is “very pleased” with the court opinion. Stein cleared his involvement in the case with the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics adviser.

Beverungen heard the two cases over the course of eight hearings  between June and November. Those who testified included civil engineers, land use and zoning experts, a traffic expert, a landscape architect, residents of the surrounding neighborhood and the rabbi.

Belinsky proposes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and a basement with classroom and office space. His congregation currently meets at Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s  synagogue on Old Pimlico Road.

The neighborhood opposition  circulated a petition that was signed by 638 residents from 426 homes, 394 of those homes being located within the boundaries of Greenspring Valley Road and I-695.

Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond said her office received between 150 and 200 emails about the proposed synagogue, some of which were from her constituents, and estimated that about 90 percent of them were in support of the synagogue. She is not taking a position on the issue.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s office received 101 emails opposing the synagogue in the spring and early summer and 139 emails and phone calls of support between September and mid-November. Most of the support came via email.

The Board of Appeals hearing functions as a new hearing, and dates have yet to be scheduled. Three members of the seven-member board must sit for hearings and a majority vote of two is necessary for decisions. If the cases are further appealed, they would go to the Baltimore County Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

A Political Mishegas Iowa Jews experience the spirit of the political season

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed 150 people on Jan. 25 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines in Waukee, Iowa. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are close in the Iowa polls, with the caucus on Feb. 1. (Mike Theiler/UPI)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed 150 people on Jan. 25 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines in Waukee, Iowa. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are close in the Iowa polls, with the caucus on Feb. 1. (Mike Theiler/UPI)

With the Iowa caucuses less than one week away, the 2016 presidential candidates are making their final rounds throughout the state, and the more than 6,000 Jews who live there are taking notice.

About 150 were on hand at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines Monday to hear former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton deliver an 18-minute address, much of which focused on the U.S.-Israel relationship and combating terrorism.

“Israel needs a strong America by its side, and America needs a strong and secure Israel by our side — to have an Israel that remains a bastion of stability and a core ally in a region of chaos,” Clinton told attendees, according to the Times of Israel.

Clinton, the favorite in the Democratic primary, is running practically neck and neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Iowa. Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the race other than Green Party member Jill Stein, is leading Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire, which holds its primaries one week after Iowa, making for a competitive beginning to the race for the Democratic nomination. Yet, those involved in her campaign still feel confident in their belief of her ability to win both states.

“I believe that going into the caucuses we have an advantage in that we’ve done it before; they know what they’re doing, they know how the game is played,” said Scott Sokol, who chairs Baltimore County’s Hillary for President Chapter. “Women tend to be much more significant and powerful in both the Republican and the Democratic nominations. And women are a force supporting Hillary. … So we’re not out of it at all.”

Sokol said that even if Clinton were to lose the first two states, she still has a tremendous advantage in other parts of the country, such as the South, and that the race may be ultimately decided by the so-called super delegates who are free to vote their conscience at the Democratic National Convention this summer, as it was in 2008, when she was narrowly defeated by then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Iowans know everything. I had to know each of the positions each candidate took on issues and why my candidate was the best. And it was so spectacular. I was so overwhelmed to see how they took this whole process. This happens nowhere else but Iowa.
— Scott Sokol, chair, Baltimore County’s Hillary for President Chapter

“She has people from every single state in the country who would die to get her elected,” he said. “She is not out of it if she loses Iowa or New Hampshire.”

Sokol himself is no stranger to the hoopla that is election season in Iowa, having lived there in 1984 while working on the campaign of presidential candidate Walter Mondale as well as that of former Sen. Tom Harkin.

“It was democracy at its best,” he said of the experience. “You have to get people, and they have to be committed. And they have to be willing to come out to the caucuses. The whole idea was to capture as many people as you can. It was very intense. You were on the phone all the time.”

Sokol said he recalled TV cameras almost everywhere he went while working there, and residents he spoke with were particularly sharp when it came to politics.

“Iowans know everything,” he said. “I had to know each of the positions each candidate took on issues and why my candidate was the best. And it was so spectacular. I was so overwhelmed to see how they took this whole process. This happens nowhere else but Iowa.”

Very little has changed from three decades ago, and Des Moines resident Wendy Adato said the four-year election cycle has now become a two-year cycle since candidates usually begin campaigning the year before the election.

“It’s just crazy,” she said. “In the Des Moines Register, there’s a schedule every day of who’s going to be in the state and the times and everything, so if you want to see someone you know where to go.”

Adato moved to Des Moines from Gaithersburg, Md., in 2005 due to a relocation of her husband’s job, making this the third presidential election she’s seeing from an Iowa perspective. In 2008, Obama made an appearance at the firehouse in her neighborhood, which she attended and said was “packed.” It is these small-scale events that she said make Iowa political events more intimate than others.

“You really do get a chance to see them, ask questions, sort of get to know them,” she said of the candidates.

Adato had planned to attend Clinton’s speech at the Federation Monday but was unable to due to another commitment.

Adato’s son, Michael, has also found his way into the political scene, having attended both Obama and Clinton rallies in 2008 while in seventh grade. Now 16, Michael is working as a precinct captain for the Sanders campaign. While he is not old enough to vote, he is responsible for organizing phone banks and canvassing for caucus-goers.

“It frustrates me to no end, which further motivates me because I want to make up for the fact that I can’t vote, and when I meet people who aren’t going to caucus just because they don’t care, I tell them, ‘I would pay you for your vote if I could use your vote for myself,’” he said.

Michael said his top priorities in the election are college affordability and income inequality, two planks of Sanders’ platform.

“I just think it’s not fair that people die because they can’t pay to go to the doctor while Donald Trump is trying to choose which yacht he’s going to take,” he said.

Michael said Sanders has been an inspiration to him and has motivated him to seek a career in politics.

“I don’t want to be a member of a party, I want to be there and fight the systematic corruption of the government,” he said.

Iowa has been won by the eventual Democratic nominee in five of the past seven caucuses in which an incumbent Democratic president was not running for re-election. Heidi Moscovitz, a Bethesda, Md., resident who lived in Des Moines for 13 years, said attending a caucus in 2008 was an eye-opening experience.

“It was really exciting to be there during political times,” she said. “You could meet any candidate you wanted up close and in person, really. I knew I wanted to do it because I hadn’t had that experience. I don’t think a lot of people in Iowa have done it. It’s kind of an odd thing.”

As she was walking toward the Clinton campaign table and her husband was walking to Obama’s, she noticed a particularly dramatic trend.

“As people were talking, you could see them slowly going over to Obama, and the Clinton side of the room was getting smaller and smaller,” she said. “And that’s kind of how the nation went too.”

Moscovitz said she does not typically discuss politics or get involved but mentioned that, as a New York City native, she is excited by the prospect of former mayor Michael Bloomberg potentially entering the race as an Independent.

“He knows how to get things done,” she said. “He’s got a vast amount of money, but he’s willing to use his own money to do things. I know people say he goes a little too far with things like the size of sodas, but I think his heart is in the right place, and he gets the job done.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Assembly Opens with Veto Overrides Legislators reverse five of Hogan’s decisions, with a sixth pending

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2016 session began Jan. 13. (Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia.com)

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2016 session began Jan. 13. (Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia.com)

Maryland legislators, in the first full week of the 2016 General Assembly, overrode five of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes.

One bill decriminalized possession of marijuana paraphernalia, another bill limited the power of police and prosecutors to seize an individual’s assets, two bills changed the way hotel taxes are collected, and another veto will mean $2 million for the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

A sixth veto, on a bill that would give ex-offenders the right to vote as soon as they enter parole and probation after leaving prison, was voted to be overridden in the House of Delegates, but the Senate postponed the vote until Feb. 5.

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), reached via email, cited statistics that show restoring civil rights leads to less crime and decreased rates of recidivism. The rest of the District 11 House delegation, which includes Dana Stein and Shelly Hettleman, voted to override the veto on this issue.

“In general, I think the idea of trying to reintegrate ex-offenders into society is a good thing,” Stein said. “There’s other things that help. … This is one part of the process.”

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) agreed.

“I think what we are doing there is following in the historical tradition of expanding the franchise,” he said. “And when we’re talking about the importance of enabling people who were in prison to get back into the workplace, I think a corollary of that is enabling them to participate in the political process.”

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) described the paraphernalia decriminalization bill as a “cleanup bill” since possession of small amounts of marijuana had already been decriminalized.

“The paper or the pipe or the bag that [the marijuana] was contained in could still be considered a criminal offense,” he said. “That obviously made no sense.”

The governor had vetoed the bill because he believed that it made driving while under the influence of marijuana a civil offense rather than criminal, which was simply not true, Zirkin said.

I think what we are doing there is following in the historical tradition of expanding the franchise.
— Del. Sandy Rosenberg

Zirkin said the asset forfeiture bill was passed because it had come to light that in some cases, money and property seized in criminal investigations, often in drug cases, was taken by the government and not turned back over to individuals even if they weren’t charged or convicted with a crime.

He said the bill forces the state to prove that seized assets were involved in criminal activity and prohibits the government from seizing small amounts of money unless it is proven that the money was involved in the drug trade.

Zirkin was troubled by another statement from the governor’s office that characterized the bill as putting money back into the hands of drug dealers.

“I hope this doesn’t become a pattern,” Zirkin said, referring to the statements from the governor on asset forfeiture and marijuana paraphernalia.

In addition to the vetoes, Baltimore-area legislators introduced several pieces of legislation.

Rosenberg introduced a bill that would create the Commission on the Solemn Remembrance of the Victims of Lynching, which would work to construct public memorials and historical markers for victims of lynching in Maryland. He plans to introduce a bill that would give the Attorney General’s office the power to challenge changes to early voting, voting locations, voter registration, absentee or provisional ballots if the changes could diminish someone’s ability to vote based on race, national origin or disability.

Stein introduced a bond bill that would give $100,000 to the JCC for renovations and accessibility upgrades to the Gordon Center under the condition that the JCC matches funding. JT

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Syrian Refugee Crisis Safety concerns, Jewish ethics guide attitudes toward helping those in need

Saturday morning, a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am used his Shabbat sermon time to invite an open discussion about the brutal and tragic incidents that occurred throughout the city and their aftermath.

Several people expressed their anger and concern about the way Syrian Muslim refugees — those fleeing possible persecution and fear of death — were repeatedly linked with terrorist activities in the rhetoric of some politicians and in the media. They also voiced concern about an ensuing climate of fear and hateful sentiment aimed at refugees that could spread from that portrayal.

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

The discussion resulted in a small group of congregants meeting with employees of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore office on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown a few weeks later to learn what they might do to welcome and assist Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Baltimore in the coming year.

Congregant Wendy Schelew, who has a decades-long history volunteering and working in refugee resettlement in her native Toronto, went to the IRC, she explained, because “as a Jew I really felt it was a moral obligation to help people who didn’t have a home and that we could not relive the history of the Second World War and turn away from people in need.” She added that though she has her concerns about  the State Department’s ability to screen refugees adequately to weed out potential terrorists, “I believe that most of these people are not security threats. They’re homeless just like so many of our [ancestors] were, and they deserve a chance to start over in a new place.”

If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected. So we have to stand up for everybody.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

The group learned that the IRC helped resettle more than 800 refugees last year; 35 of them are Syrians, but there is no information on how many Syrians will be resettled in Maryland in 2016. The organization provides clients with up to eight months of case-management support when they arrive to help them stabilize and navigate a new life. Refugees are met at the airport and ensured simply furnished affordable housing — the first month’s rent is paid for — and a first warm meal, and their children are enrolled in school. Each new arrival must attend a five-day orientation that covers details such as instructions for riding the bus, getting groceries and finding English-language classes; and everyone receives a full medical screening within a week or so of arrival. Then the IRC’s employment services team steps in to help the adults find work.

“That’s the big ask by the U.S. government,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore and Silver Spring offices. “We welcome you, but you’ve got to work, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So we help folks find their first job. Then usually within three to four months, 85 percent of our clients are working and paying their bills.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

Staffers at the IRC cited several large local employers who regularly return to them seeking employees, impressed by the pool of new immigrants’ work ethic. About 12 percent of Maryland’s population is foreign born, yet immigrants own and run about 22 percent of small businesses, which are viewed as economic generators. Currently, there are sizable communities of Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese and Iraqi populations throughout the greater Baltimore area.

The available resources and capacity of resettlement agencies determine the number of refugees assigned to a city. About 1,800 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in 2015, and the largest Syrian community is located in Toledo, Ohio. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Syria’s civil war remains the single biggest generator worldwide of both new refugees and continuing mass internal and external displacement.

“The reality is, because [Syrians are] a new migrant group and because of the lengthy vetting process, we’ll be seeing very few coming to Baltimore in the coming year,” said Beth Am member Joe Nathanson, who went on the IRC visit and has an extensive background in economic urban planning for refugee communities.

With nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, and 4.5 million of whom are Syrians — one quarter of that country’s population — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called the Syrian displacement “the biggest refugee crisis” since World War II.

“Frankly, the U.S. response is disproportionately low compared to other refugee crises,” he said.

Hetfield noted that 240,000 refugees were admitted to the United States from Vietnam in 1980; by contrast, just 10,000 Syrians are slated for admission this year.

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

In 2016, for a person to gain refugee status and legally enter the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, he or she must first apply through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. Less than 1 percent of those applying achieve resettlement. A person must prove he’s been driven from his home “due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was created in response to the Holocaust and to prevent countries from denying refugees entry and sending them back to life-threatening situations.

If an applicant clears this first step, his or her documents are sent to the State Department, where more information is collected and security screenings are done via the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Syrian applicants get additional interviews and screenings called the Syrian In-House Review, which could include more cross- referencing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ fraud detection and national security directories. Biometric screenings, including fingerprinting and often iris scans, are collected from all applicants and are crosschecked with databases at the FBI, DHS and the Department of Defense. If the applicant passes all of these screenings, he or she submits to health screenings and is enrolled in cultural orientation classes while information continues to be checked against terrorist databases to ensure no new intelligence has turned up since the application process began.

We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

In total, the vetting process can last 12 to 24 months from application to arrival here, and it’s considered the most rigorous of any country in the world. However, in November, the House of Representatives voted 289 to 137 in favor of a bill that would further tighten the vetting process for Iraqis and Syrians. The bill was defeated in the Senate on Jan. 20.

Still, FBI director James Comey testified in October that “a number of people who were of serious concern” have slipped through screenings, including two Iraqis arrested on terrorism-related charges, as reported in The Washington Post. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less-than-excellent vetting,” Comey said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Hetfield compared the Syrian vetting process with the scrutiny of the Iraqi and Afghan vetting process, but “we actually occupied those countries and had access to their criminal records to use during the screening processes, and we don’t have that luxury with Syrians.”

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

“But security is not a new issue for refugees,” Hetfield added, citing the more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who came here from what was “probably the most fearsome [foe] that the United States has ever had. There was plenty of opportunity for mischief by the Soviets … and the U.S. knew that and tried to screen for it. I’m sure they caught some and others slipped through, but the bottom line is, we’re stronger as a country because we brought in those 400,000 Soviets. But there was a risk.”

Chandrasekar hopes that advocacy by his and other resettlement organizations will push the U.S. to increase President Barack Obama’s pledge to accept 10,000 Syrians and 85,000 refugees overall to 100,000 and 200,000 refugees, respectively.

It’s a prospect that has some in the Jewish community, including Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, concerned about the nation’s safety.

My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other.
— Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Am Congregation

“The violence perpetrated by Muslim immigrants in Europe —  especially toward European Jews — portends what America has in store if we bring more such immigrants here,” Klein wrote in an opinion piece published late last year by the Jewish Times. He reproached HIAS, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Council, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide for signing a letter that opposed the induction of additional restrictions and security measures and for “supporting dangerous Syrian immigration.”

Groups representing the Conservative and Orthodox movements, however, have joined the JCRCs, the AJC and the URJ in backing the call to resettle Syrian refugees.

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Jewish Roots, Jewish Ethics

Albert Einstein’s plea for political asylum in 1933, when the Nazi regime took hold of Germany, “was the guiding force behind the creation of the IRC,” Chandrasekar said. “He was responsible in many ways in stimulating the IRC.”

He added that in the beginning it was “a clandestine organization that had staff in German occupied territory,” such as Varian Fry, a Jewish journalist-turned-activist who created fake travel permits allowing Jews to escape to other parts of Europe and the United States. “Our history as an organization is linked to the Jewish community and its history.”

Now, the IRC has offices in 33 countries and 26 American cities. Internationally, it provides humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter and medical care. Within the United States, many refugees helped by the IRC have stories similar to that of Ali and Amina (not their real names).

Ali was a successful carpenter in Damascus and owned three retail furniture stores. He and his wife, Amina, had five daughters with a much-hoped-for son on the way. Violent conflicts and eventually civil war erupted in Syria, but the family chose to remain in their home country. While the civil war raged on, the hospital Amina gave birth in was bombed and her infant was killed.

It was then the couple had to make a difficult decision to leave for their safety and that of their daughters. So in 2012, they left for Lebanon and lived off of savings for a while. Soon Ali needed work and found a job delivering furniture. They tried to make ends meet, but life as a displaced refugee was a dangerous struggle with no end in sight.

Finally, they applied for entry into the United States.

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

“We resettled them 18 months after they applied, in 2014,” Chandrasekar said, adding that a goal of the IRC is to help repopulate Baltimore City, which lost about 300,000 inhabit-ants during the decades between 1980 and 2000, and to increase its tax base. “Now, Ali works at Under Armor as a fork-lift driver. Amina just received her driver’s license and the kids are in school.” After losing so much, “refugees come here with the passion to rebuild.”

“And when you look at the nation’s history for more than 200 years, that’s what refugees have done,” Hetfield said.

“They’ve strengthened this country not weakened it.”

Since its inception in 1881, HIAS has resettled nearly 5 million new immigrants. This month, after 130 years in New York City, the organization moved its headquarters to Silver Spring, Md.

In the past decade, HIAS readjusted its mission as the first and only agency to protect and resettle Jewish refugees to focusing on non-Jewish refugees. It has received some criticism for the change.

“We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish,” said Hetfield, who has worked with HIAS on and off since he began as a caseworker in Rome in 1989. “Now, we’re a humanitarian service agency, an advocacy agency that is guided by Jewish values and history.”

The result has been that a majority of Jewish family service agencies HIAS previously partnered with to do the groundwork once a refugee entered the United States have either dropped out of the network or will do so this year, including such agencies in Maryland and Washington.

But supported by Jewish laws protecting strangers Hetfield notes are the most repeated in the Torah, he sees his mission as a righteous one.

We were “once strangers ourselves,” he said. “So for that reason it’s very important we’re committed to refugees regardless of who they are. If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected.

“So we have to stand up for everybody.”

To that end, HIAS “managed to easily” get more than 1,200 rabbis to sign a declaration — including more than 80 from the Baltimore-Washington area — that was delivered to all members of Congress in December imploring them to learn from Jewish history, welcome all nationalities of refugees to the country “and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”

Cotzin Burg of Beth Am was one of the letter’s signees.

“My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other,” he said. “And this [refugee crisis] seems to me a great opportunity to do so.”

A Continuing Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Since 2000, the Baltimore Jewish Council has hosted interfaith events that stimulate a dialogue among members in the Baltimore community. The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is one of them.

“The mission is to create genuine and organic relationships and open the dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities,” said Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, “and focus on the topics we do have in common and can work on together.”

There were more than a dozen events last year, and they expect to host as many in 2016. Suggs noted that Gov. Larry Hogan’s office “has been a fantastic partner,” with its office of community initiatives that does interfaith work, as well as the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies with Muslim scholars Homayra Ziad and Ben Sax.

Martha Weiman, BJC Interfaith Commission chair, warned of the danger in generalizing about an entire community, as people have historically done to the Jews, but “when you keep the doors open there’s dialogue — whether it’s small or whether it’s large. And you have to hope that it spreads.”

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

This month, the BJC cosponsored a Jewish and Muslim women’s advocacy program, where they trained on lobbying techniques and strategies with Ziad and Rep. Shelly Hettleman. There were about 25 women in attendance, Suggs said, and “it was a rallying call to focus on how we can work together. The unifying factor was women’s issues, she added, but the overall message was, “We can’t give in to the polarizing climate of the national dialogue.”

There are social justice and social programs as well, such as collecting goods for donation that go to each community, which is “a great way to see what our faiths have in common, and charity is one of them,” Suggs said. The BJC also hosted dinner in the sukkah, and in the spring, it will collaborate with ICJS and The Stoop Storytelling Series to host an evening of stories about what “home” means to them as Muslims and Jews.

Suggs said gender for attendance is split 50-50, and there is a “really strong young professional age group.” But depending upon the programming, ages range from 30 to 70.

After 9/11 there were federal and state Homeland Security grants available to communities that felt threatened, and “the Muslim community asked us to help them with the grant for a fence around their mosque on Johnnycake Road,” Art Abrams, BJC executive director, said. “We helped them get $20,000, and we continue to do so; we work together constantly.”

Suggs said a new dinner program will be launched in May, a trilogue of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. There will be panelists including an imam, a rabbi and a priest to kick off discussion, then attendees will break into small discussion groups.

One of the biggest causes of anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim sentiment, Suggs said, “is a fear of the unknown, and by creating relationships and friendships, we’re able to tackle the fear and misconceptions that make that happen.”

HIAS: For the Refugee from Moth on Vimeo.

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com