An Unconventional Tradition Arab Christian Israeli diplomat George Deek to address Beth Am

George Deek will speak at Beth Am Congregation on Yom Kippur, and he is also “very eager to learn” about Americans’ and Jewish Americans’ perception of Middle East events.

George Deek will speak at Beth Am Congregation on Yom Kippur, and he is also “very eager to learn” about Americans’ and Jewish Americans’ perception of Middle East events.

In what has become a highly anticipated afternoon of learning, lively exchange and contemplation open to congregants and the community, Beth Am Synagogue’s Yom Kippur afternoon programming this year features Arab Christian Israeli diplomat George Deek, who will share his unique take on current events in the Middle East; annual favorite Rheda Becker with her powerful Martyrology presentation; and an open forum in which “you get the rabbi up there when his blood sugar is lowest and pepper him with questions about anything Jewish,” said Beth Am’s Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg.

Burg, who joined Beth Am in 2010, described the forum topics as “anything goes” as long as it’s Jewish content. He typically fields questions that range from political to religious to personal views, he said.

The forum tradition harkens “back to Dr. Louis L. Kaplan, our founding spiritual leader,” explained Burg, who looks forward to it each year. “It’s just a chance for people to talk to me, and I try to make it as conversational as I can.”

Burg invited Deek as a special guest; he learned about Deek through a recent magazine profile that featured a video lauded as “the best speech an Israeli diplomat ever held.” The speech came from Deek’s tenure in Oslo, Norway.

“He is this young dynamic thoughtful Israeli diplomat who was doing the hard work of representing the State of Israel in Oslo, and, in addition, the fact that he is an Arab Christian, I found to be intriguing,” said Burg. “Mostly I’m interested in hearing a highly regarded Israeli diplomat and his particular take on Israel and Zionism, and I’m also intrigued by his life story.”

And Deek’s story is a fascinating one, especially at the young age of 31.

Currently on a year leave from the diplomatic corps, Deek is a Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University. Also a lawyer, he was deputy ambassador for three years in Nigeria and then in Norway, where his last year was spent as acting ambassador during the time of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. He was there for the first Israeli presidential visit to Norway and had the honor to share a table with former President Shimon Peres and King Harald V and Prince Haakon of Norway. Deek’s family, who fled to Lebanon during the 1948 war but soon after returned, has lived in Jaffa for more than 400 years.

For such a resume, his demeanor is easy going, but his passion for shedding light on and generating inspiration for change in the Middle East is palpable. He will address this passion at Beth Am.

“For me to have the opportunity to speak on that day … a day to cleanse yourself toward God and preparing your soul for the next year … is a real honor and unique opportunity,” Deek said.

“Coming from a region of the Middle East that is torn into pieces by wars and intolerance and waves of immigrants [fleeing] and communities being eradicated and exiled … how can we have our own Yom Kippur?

“What is necessary for our region to do in order to cleanse itself from its current sins and to find a new path? What are the weaknesses or the issues we are suffering from, and how can we take it forward?

“I believe Israel specifically has a special role in that process to reach a new reality,” Deek answered, “where minorities and people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions can actually continue to live in that region that they’ve called home for so long.”

Deek will also address the rise of religious extremism and “one of the biggest challenges we’re facing today, and that is the rise of a possible nuclear Iran.”

But his desire for the afternoon is also to listen and learn. Being new to the United States, he’s “very eager to learn” about Americans’ and Jewish Americans’ perception of Middle East events, especially in Baltimore, a city that has seen violence based on discrimination and racial background, he said. “I’m really looking forward to hearing the Baltimore experience,” with hopes of applying it to his work in Israel.

Also part of the afternoon is professional narrator and founding Beth Am congregant Rheda Becker’s Martryology presentation. She is “legendary in Baltimore” said Burg. Her presentations have become a congregational favorite, with Burg calling them “moving, haunting and spectacular.”

Martryology stems from the part of the Yom Kippur service that tells the story of 10 Talmudic sages murdered by Romans, but Becker’s take is contemporary.

In past years, her stories and personal accounts of martyrs have drawn from periods such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Stalin regime and the Holocaust.

“This year is a very unusual one, it’s Samuel Pisar, who recently died” and who was a Holocaust survivor, said Becker, who has also performed as narrator for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for more that 40 years. “Pisar was a renowned international lawyer and I knew about him because he wrote a text for the ‘Kaddish,” by Leonard Bernstein.

The stories are intentionally “about specific people and what happened to them, not generalizations,” said Becker, who researches her subjects in great depth, usually for months in advance. “[Pisar’s] story is one of such incredible self-recovery and accomplishment, even though he was only 10 when the Nazis came. I’m going to read some of the text from his ‘Kaddish,’” as part of the presentation.

Becker lauds Beth Am’s congregation for being diverse in every way and a community that encourages deep thinking about difficult issues.

It’s important to “bear witness to what happened and to those who were murdered simply because they were Jews,” she said. “That’s why we do this; it’s not about being unhappy or listening to horrors. It’s the least we can do is to hear the stories of their suffering.”

She added, “This is something we do only on that day. It’s not printed or published — I speak it that day, and together we bear witness as a congregation. I think of it as one of the greatest privileges in my adult life, to learn about the history of these people.”

Pikesville Native Finds Her Calling TaketheFight assists cancer patients in navigating the system

A cancer patient and her husband share a supportive moment with TaketheFight Chief Operating Officer Robyn Lessans (right).

A cancer patient and her husband share a supportive moment with TaketheFight Chief Operating Officer Robyn Lessans (right).

College students interested in the health care professions have one more avenue in getting up-close experience, thanks to the work of a driven young woman from Pikesville.

Robyn Lessans, a 2015 graduate of Wake Forest University, became  involved with a volunteer organization called TaketheFight two years ago when she was pursuing a philosophy major. TaketheFight is a nonprofit organization that pairs students with cancer patients and helps assist the latter with responsibilities such as going to doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy treatments and organizing patient’s medical history.

“One of my friends was involved in the organization and at the time I was looking for an organization where I could make an impact,” she said.

TaketheFight was founded by David Warren after his father, Steve, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2011 and ended up traveling to numerous hospitals around the country for treatment, only to see Steve eventually lose his battle. Dr. Glen Lesser, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, encouraged Warren to start TaketheFight in order to get volunteers involved in the process of helping patients navigate the system. The goals of the program are mainly to provide the patients with emotional support and streamline the processes of diagnosis and treatment.

Lessans acknowledges she was not well-versed in medicine at the time but said one does not have to be in order to become a lay-navigator. She said since the program started, it has been praised by a number of oncologists for its efficiency.

“The reality is, oncologists, nurses, they just do not have the time because of the way the health care system has changed over the past 20 years, and there’s this gap TaketheFight strategists are trying to fulfill,” she said.

Lessans became the chief operating officer after graduating in the spring, and earlier this month she announced the beginning of a two-year fellowship program in which a college senior spends one year helping their patient and then spends his or her first year out of college working for the organization full time.

“After they graduate, our cancer strategists work full time to problem-solve at a systemic level the issues they experienced while fighting alongside their individual patients,” she said.

The fellowship is open to anyone in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The program currently exists at Vanderbilt University, Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

Lessans said she plans to hold an information session soon about bringing it to Johns Hopkins University as well but does not yet have a timeline.

So far TaketheFight has had a profound emotional impact on several students including Philippe Ayres, who grew up in Howard County and is in his senior year at Wake Forest. Ayres was a pre-med sophomore when someone came into his chemistry class one day and spoke about the program.

“I had never heard anything like that before, and I thought it would be a great way to be a doctor,” he said.

Since joining TaketheFight, Ayres has worked with two patients, including one woman who successfully battled Squamous Cell Carcinoma and eventually bonded with him.

“She didn’t even know me and she was all for it,” he said. “Having someone there for her meant a lot.

“She told me the other day the greatest thing was to have someone there to talk to.”

Ayres said he has wanted to be a doctor since a very young age, following in the footsteps of his mother. He called the experience “eye opening” and plans on attending medical school next year.

Lessans grew up in Pikesville, where she and her family were members of Temple Oheb Shalom until after her bat mitzvah.

Her family later moved to Reisters-town.

Lessans said her mother, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, had some influence on her in getting her interested in the health care field, although at this point she says she does not plan to attend medical school. Rather, she said TaketheFight is her way of carrying out tikkun olam.

“That was kind of my struggle with finding ways to do it,” she said. “I could do it a different way by being a nurse or being a lawyer.

“It really does heal people and heal the world.”

Shomrim Moves Headquarters to Pickwick East

bshom-300x300_4cShomrim of Baltimore moved to a new apartment last week that will serve as the group’s headquarters.

The building housing the previous headquarters, located in the Green Acres apartments at 3607 Fallstaff Road, was condemned after a two-alarm fire in May.

The new space at Pickwick East Apartments will be used for equipment storage, meetings and as a command center for incidents such as missing persons. Meetings for Shomrim’s seven committees, as well as its general monthly meetings, will be held at the apartment.

The organization has more than 30 members, said Ronnie Rosenbluth, vice president and director of operations.

“Our goal is to be at 50 [members] by the end of next year,” Rosenbluth said. Shomrim’s training and background-check process takes about three to four months, and it costs more than $950 to outfit new members with radios, backup batteries and other equipment.

While Rosenbluth said Shomrim was happy with its arrangement with Quest Management at its previous headquarters, Pickwick East management reached out to Shomrim when a space opened up for them.

“We were responding to calls in that general area and we found that Pickwick East management was very good about dealing with any kind of issues that came out,” Rosenbluth said.

While May’s fire was on the third floor of a building in which Shomrim had a basement apartment, furniture and other items were destroyed by smoke damage. While the organization initially sought to raise $20,000, Rosenbluth said the cost of replacing equipment was lower since a high-end copier and printer that was previously believed damaged was salvageable. The copier and printer is used to quickly produce missing-persons flyers.

The organization raised some money (Rosenbluth didn’t have the amount available), including via donations from some of its volunteers, and replaced some equipment using money from its general fund, Rosenbluth said.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake Will Not Seek Reelection

BALTIMORE MAYOR - 10.02.2013Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Friday morning that she will not seek reelection in 2016, saying she wants to devote her remaining time in office to the challenges Baltimore faces.

“As I prepared to engage in a vigorous mayoral campaign and participated in planning meetings with my campaign team and volunteers, I came to the realization that every moment that I spend running for mayor would take away from the urgent responsibilities to the city that I love,” she said in a statement. “Over the next 15 months, my time would be best spent focused on continuing to move the city forward and building upon our progress, without the distraction of campaign politics.”

She said she plans to spend her remaining 15 months in office working to improve police-community relations, invest in recreation centers, create jobs and tackle neighborhood blight.

In addition to former Mayor Sheila Dixon, State Sen. Catherine Pugh, City Councilman Carl Stokes and four lesser-known candidates have announced campaigns for the city’s high office. Others considering mayoral runs include author and entrepreneur Wes Moore, City Councilman Nick Mosby, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and state Del. Jill Carter.

MICA Student Admonished for Pro-Israel Views at Coffee Shop Matt Adelberg says Red Emma’s employees aggressively questioned him over views on Israel

Matt Adelberg, a graduate student at MICA,  was questioned about his views on Israel  and Zionism at Red Emma’s bookstore.

Matt Adelberg, a graduate student at MICA, was questioned about his views on Israel and Zionism at Red Emma’s bookstore.

Matt Adelberg won’t be going back to Red Emma’s anytime soon.

Although it would seem a convenient place to grab a bite to eat and relax for a student of the Maryland Institute College of Art such as himself, an unpleasant exchange with employees regarding Adelberg’s views on Israel has forced him to patronize other establishments.

Adelberg, a student of MICA’s MAT (master’s of arts and teaching) program was in the Station North coffee shop, bookstore and eatery on Wednesday, Aug. 26, looking through the store’s books about the Middle East while he and two friends waited for their food. When he couldn’t find books about Jews in the Middle East, he asked an employee if they had any.

“They said no because they don’t want to carry books that encourage racism,” Adelberg recalled. “Throughout the entire discussion they wouldn’t say Israel once. So they were basically saying they wouldn’t carry books that were racist or supported racist or colonial ideas. I said, ‘Hold on a minute, Zionism is not a racist idea.’”

Adelberg, who wears a yarmulke and tefillin, said the employees asked him to make clear his views on Israel and Zionism. He told them he supports Zionism and Israel, but added that’s it’s not a black-and-white situation, and he can support something and still criticize it.

“Immediately they cut me off and said, ‘You’re a racist. Zionism is racist; it oppresses the native people of Palestine,’” Adelberg said. “There are so many things wrong with that statement factually and historically, but I couldn’t really get a word in edgewise. … This is a book store that prides itself on being progressive and open.”

He tried to speak with a second employee, who he said was dismissive, and then a third, who told him he should be held personally responsible for the actions of his “brothers and sisters” in “colonial Palestine,” Adelberg said. He spoke about how the Anti-Defamation League considers that line of thinking anti-Semitic, only for the employees to tell him the ADL is propaganda.

While he sat to eat his food with his two friends, he said the employees were whispering about him and looking at him.

His friends told him they overheard an employee complain to another customer about him. Not sure what to do after this, Adelberg took to Facebook to post what happened and has been telling Jewish friends to stay away from Red Emma’s.

Reached by phone, a Red Emma’s worker-owner — all employees are worker-owners or on their way to being one since it’s a co-op — said she was sorry to hear the conversation went south as quickly as it did.

“Everyone is welcome in our space as long as they can adhere to the rules of civil conversation and behave in a way that’s not harmful to anyone else,” said Kate Khatib, who was not in the store that day but heard about the incident. “It is not in our policy in any way to police anyone’s views on Zionism or anything else.”

She said Red Emma’s employs people with a diversity of opinions, and the store has books by authors who identify as Jewish and Palestinian. In July 2014, the store hosted Norman Finkelstein, at the time a prominent figure in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, after a rally was held protesting the war in Gaza. Finkelstein has since come out against BDS.

On the incident, Khatib said, “Beyond that, there’s no punitive action we’re planning on taking with anyone who was involved in this action, but certainly as a group of people working together we will sit down and process this action and discuss what we could have done differently.”

Adelberg said Red Emma’s response sounded like “a bunch of nothing.”

“I was more than calm and more than accommodating and I treaded very carefully in speaking with them, and so any direction that the conversation went was not a product of any hostility I exhibited,” he said.

Ruth Guggenheim, executive director of Jews for Judaism, said this incident underscores the need for young Jews to be educated and confident so they can adequately defend themselves as Adelberg did.

“Most people, Jews and non-Jews, are just not familiar with the true history of Israel and what’s going on in the Middle East,” she said. “The challenge is more, not to Red Emma’s, but to the Jewish community. How are we going to sit down and bring people together to have this discussion?”

She said the Jewish community needs to coordinate its efforts the way, it appears, the anti-Israel movement does.

“We’re being challenged [in a way] we haven’t been since the ’40s,” Guggenheim said. “His experience is, right now, hundred-fold across the country.”

Here’s the Buzz! Bee population has been on steady decline for past decade

(Photo credit: ©

(Photo credit: ©

The taste of apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah may make the holiday a little bit sweeter, but a few not-so-sweet trends are endangering some of the world’s most efficient and important pollinators.

The bee population has been declining steadily since 2006, when the concept of Colony Collapse Disorder surfaced. CCD occurs when a colony’s worker bees disappear, leaving behind the queen and a few immature bees according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Various factors have been linked to CCD including the introduction in the U.S. of the invasive species Varroa Mites and diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus in Israel. It can also be caused by changes to the environment of the hive.

Roger Williams, president of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, said there are between 1,500 and 2,000 commercial beekeepers in the United States and that the honeybees play a “major economic role.”

“Bees are responsible for pollinating one third of our food and the foods with the most vitamins and minerals,” he said.

Williams said this works out to about 170,000 people that each beekeeper helps to feed, and that one American has 400 honeybees working for him or her. He emphasized that not all bee die-offs are considered CCD, particularly those that occur as a result of commercial pesticides.

“If you find a bunch of dead bees in front of your hive, it’s most likely they were poisoned,” he said.

In May, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to reduce the losses of bees and Monarch butterflies by phasing out some of the more toxic insecticides such as neonicotinoids. A White House report estimated that bees add $15 billion to the value of crops every year. Williams praised the federal government’s bee-saving initiative.

“He’s (Obama) understanding that there are four major aspects that have to be looked at: pesticides, habitat, management and genetics,” he said.

On the other hand, Williams said, on a state level there is basically “nothing that is changing the ways pesticides and bees interrelate” and that farmers are saying to beekeepers, “You are not of value to us, we need to spray.” He said the only suggestion he has heard in Maryland is a 48-hour notice farmers would need to give registered beekeepers before spraying anything.

“That has no teeth in it,” he said. “Where is [the bee] supposed to go when every farmer in X number of square miles is starting to spray?”

Williams said another problem has been a well-intentioned effort to reduce the presence of the Varroa Mite, which has hurt the bees.

“That mite has been very destructive to bees, so what do we do about it, we put poisons on the hive to try to kill the mite,” he said.

Williams got his first hive in 1972 and said he became enamored of bees because of their ability to talk to each other.

“I just found them rather amazing because of their communication capability,” he said. “There is a thing we easily refer to as the hive mind and the ability of bees to make decisions as a group is rather fascinating.”

CCD has not been as much of an issue lately, with the EPA reporting only a 23 percent hive loss rate last winter — down 5 percent from eight years before. Ashley Jones, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said there have been no symptoms of CCD in the state for the last four years.

Jones said CCD is “like a 500-piece puzzle where several of the pieces are missing,” and that it usually occurs under a certain subset of living conditions. She said bees in Maryland help pollinate carrots, cucumbers and soybeans, but other states, such as those in the Midwest, use monoculture practices.

“When you’re limiting a bee’s resources to one type of crop you’re going to have some health problems with that,” she said.

Jones said the majority of beekeepers in Maryland are hobbyists as opposed to commercial beekeepers, so issues like colony collapse do not have a detrimental effect on the state’s economy.

Dennis Vanengelsdorp, a professor at the University of Maryland who heads up the Honey Bee Lab there, said climate change also plays a role in the loss of food production, but this occurs because plants are less resilient when it comes to changes in temperatures.

“Honey bees are probably a little bit more robust against extreme weather events,” he said.

Vanengelsdorp has been one of the leading voices in the national effort to save the bee population and gave a TED Talk in 2008 educating the public on the importance of bees. He admits beekeeping is not for everyone but says there is nothing like witnessing a miracle of nature.

“I think everyone owes it to themselves to open a colony because there’s nothing quite like it,” he said. “It’s an eye opening experience.”

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, the leader of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, said the interconnectedness of all the earth’s creatures is essential for the survival of humans and bees are a part of this web.

“The loss of bees reminds us that all life on earth, all creation, is radically connected, fundamentally intertwined; not just poetically or metaphorically but physically, essentially,” she said. “What we do at our homes, businesses, tables affects all earth’s wildness, for good or bad; and what happens to earth’s wildness affects all of us, for good or bad.”

Apples All-Around From rootstock to Rosh Hashanah

(Photo credit: ©

(Photo credit: ©

Jews around the world will bite into succulent apples dipped in honey in the upcoming week, but while Rosh Hashanah only lasts two nights, growing a bountiful apple orchard can take years.

Rabbi Susan Grossman, from Beth Shalom Congregation, explained there are several reasons that Jews eat apples on Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the fruit’s natural sweetness, the combination of apples and honey engages all of the body’s senses.

“The first reference we see to eating apples and honey is from Rabbi [David] Abudraham,” said Grossman. “He has a book that recounts many of the Jewish traditions; a sort of paper trail to apples and honey.”

Larriland Farm and Butler’s Orchard are family-owned-and-operated farms based in Howard County and neighboring Montgomery County, respectively.

Butler’s Orchards opened in 1950 with 27 acres of peaches. After several cold years caused it to lose a significant amount of crops, it started growing and selling other kinds of fruits and vegetables.

“My grandmother is still working here; keeping everyone in line and holding meetings,” said Tyler Butler, a third-generation farmer and assistant manager at Butler’s Orchards.

Butler explained that to start an apple orchard, farms order rootstocks from nurseries. The rootstock is the beginning stages of the tree’s life, grown underground by a nursery. Because of the high demand across the country, there can be a three-year waiting list to receive rootstocks.

For the most part the average customer, I would say, has very little chance of having a worm in an apple.

Although 2,000 different kinds of apples exist in the world, Butler’s specifically grows Gala, Jonathan, Golden Delicious and Stayman apples. They are also looking to plant Cameo, Autumn Gala and Pink Lady in the spring.

The rootstock choice is determined by the diseases and weather conditions most prevalent in an area. Once the farm receives its rootstock, it plants it with bud wood, which are cut off pieces from an apple tree. This will determine what kind of apples the tree will produce.

“You want to get a rootstock that can do well in your area,” said Butler. “By having rootstocks with resistances, like to drought, you’re setting yourself up to not have to use as many pesticides.”

Larriland farm was established in 1973 and is now run by Lynne Moore, president of the farm, and her brothers Guy and Fenby, who are vice presidents. Similarly to Butler’s, they have three generations working on the farm with more than two dozen varieties of apples.

Moore explained that once the rootstock and bud wood are planted the trees have to be intensively cared for through the year.

“They’re hand pruned in the dormant season and growing seasons, pruned twice a year, fertilized, irrigated and need to be protected from pests and diseases,” said Moore. “In Maryland, being in the mid-Atlantic region, we have the northern and southern problems.”

Aside from insects and diseases that can attack the trees, an issue that Maryland farms face is that apple trees are considered cool-season crops while the temperature is relatively high in September.

Butler said if all goes to plan he can harvest apples within the second year using a new high-density system that cuts down on the space in between each tree.

Butler said that Montgomery County has many Jewish groups and organizations, and as a result the farm has seen more calls regarding apples recently. Additionally, since the farm has its own beekeeper, it also gets many calls inquiring about local honey around this time of year.

While apples can be difficult to grow, Butler said, customers don’t have to worry about one age-old problem.

Said Butler, “For the most part the average customer, I would say, has very little chance of having a worm in an apple.”

Shmitah: A Chance to Step Back Agricultural sabbatical year gives Pearlstone and others valuable downtime

The Torah mandates that there be a sabbatical year in the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle for Israel. The land is given a rest and agricultural activities — from planting to pruning — are forbidden under Jewish law.

In the United States, this shmitah year takes on similar implications, but its message goes beyond the land. In addition to environmental sustainability and justice, Jewish farms and education centers focused on community, social justice and professional introspection.

At the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, which houses an education center and farm that uses sustainable and organic methods, shmitah — which ends with this Rosh Hashanah — meant replenishing the soil by taking the farm out of production, planning for the next seven-year cycle, holding shmitah-themed programs, volunteering in the community and putting a few programs temporarily on hold to plan for how to move them forward.

Greg Strella, farm director at the Pearlstone Center, stands with cover crops Pearlstone planted to replenish its soil during its shmitah year, which Strella says has been a “rich experience.” (Marc Shapiro)

Greg Strella, farm director at the Pearlstone Center, stands with cover crops Pearlstone planted to replenish its soil during its shmitah year, which Strella says has been a “rich experience.” (Marc Shapiro)

Shmitah, not just in Baltimore, but across the country has really risen in Jewish consciousness this year because there are more Jewish farms and Jewish outdoor education centers for whom shmitah is a very inspiring area of wisdom within the Jewish tradition,” said Jakir Manela, executive director of the Pearlstone Center, which is an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

While the shmitah year has put Pearlstone in a good place to move forward, including a seven-year shmitah plan for the farm, the organization is still in mourning over the sudden and tragic death of program director Neely Snyder, who was killed last month in a car crash.

Through Snyder’s work, Manela said programming at Pearlstone continued unabated because she embraced the challenges and opportunities of shmitah.

Snyder ran Shmita Fest, which celebrated non-mandatory trade and barter, food equity, sustainable agriculture and restorative rest through a barter fair, wild edible walks, a time bank board, shmitah relaxation spa, pickling and crafts, artists, music and food.

Greg Strella, farm director, said the farm has planted cover crops in several of its fields to heal the soil and its ecology and to be disruptive to pests and disease.

“It’s been a rich experience these past several months working with a living landscape in a different rhythm with different intentions,” he said. “For us, it’s not really about bells and whistles, it’s a process we’re learning with. … Part of the conversation we’re having this year is one that activates the whole space.”

Perri Dejarnette, Pearlstone’s perennials manager, who worked half-time during the shmitah year, said the farm didn’t prune, mulch or fertilize this year, but kept up with weeding and took care of the farm’s animals. She said the farm is working to move towards perennials that have as little maintenance as possible for their yields and fruit varieties that are adapted to Maryland’s humid summers. To that end, the shmitah year was also about caring for the long-term wellbeing of the farmers in addition to healing the land by letting it rest.

“When you start disturbing soil, you’re disturbing the whole ecosystem that lives in the soil — microbes, bacteria, fungus, very small insects that live in there,” she said. “It’s healing itself because every time you dig a hole, every time you peel up the earth and turn it over you’re disturbing those organisms that are actually working for you. Those are organisms that are going to help you grow your vegetable crops.”

In addition to planning for the next seven-year cycle financially and agriculturally, Pearlstone took a year off from some of its more intensive programming, including the annual Beit Midrash Shabbaton and young adult apprenticeship program, to reflect internally and figure out what direction the organization wants to take those programs in.

“Both have emerged with greater clarity,” Manela said.

Pearlstone is also expanding its CSA program by partnering with other local farms, while focusing 90 percent of its on-site production on farm-to-table dining at its retreat center.

The Pearlstone staff was also given paid shmitah days that they could use to volunteer in the community. Manela also did a shmitah session for Jewish professionals through The Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development, where shmitah sources and texts were discussed and he spoke about the principle of release, whether agricultural, economic, social, personal or professional.

“This is what shmitah’s about,” he said. “What might you want to [release] this year in your own life?”

Manela isn’t the only Baltimore Jewish communal professional thinking about shmitah. Rabbi Jessy Gross of Charm City Tribe has also found inspiration in shmitah.

Shmitah means, to me, intending for the next cycle of seven, to think about the conversations and engagement I had in this cycle. What’s the next piece of that?” she said. “To me shmita is just another particularly Jewish framework to think about something that comes up time and time again.”

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, an environmental activist and founder of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network and Baltimore Orchard Project, said shmitah acts as a reset or a check on human impulses.

The Torah, she said, gives us a vision of ideal creation in which there is mutual care, respect and sharing with a lack of want and need and enough for everybody. But immediately after that, the Torah reminds us that this vision can’t happen since our impulse to want more sometimes overtakes us.

Rabbis say that the same impulse is also the impulse for discovery, creativity and progress, Cardin said.

“So it seems to me that what shmitah is all about is that corrective, that we live six years in our lives with that impulse for more, the ability to discover and grow and progress and all that. But if we didn’t have a check on that, we would be like a cancer. We would over consume, we’d be jealous of one another, there’d be no break,” she said. “Shmitah provides us that reset, the reboot that life has an ultimate focus … so it’s resetting and recalibrating our appetites, our relationships with each other and relationships with the earth and with God and with the powers beyond us.”

At Pearlstone, Manela said it’s not just about preparing for the next shmitah, but building a sustainable and just society. Although he knows the laws of shmitah don’t apply halachically in areas outside the Land of Israel, Pearlstone sees a spiritual significance to the concept that applies everywhere.

Shmitah inspires us and I think calls on us to do more personally, in our families, in our shuls, in all of our communities and as a broader Jewish community to rest, to restore, to be in balance and to create a sense of sustainability and justice,” he said.

A Moral and Legal Obligation Private schools stand up for vaccinations By Daniel Schere

Private and religious schools in Maryland will no longer be required to admit unvaccinated students as a result of a new interpretation of a state law granting religious exemptions on such occasions.

In a letter dated Aug. 7 from the attorney general’s office to state Dels. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), Sandra Brantley explained how the original state law allowed both public and private institutions to grant religious exemptions beginning in 1969, but was vague in saying whether the latter were required to admit students with this need.

091115_vaccinations“It is our view that the General Assembly did not intend to force a private school to admit a student with a religious exemption,” she wrote. “Rather, the more reasonable interpretation is that the General Assembly’s purpose in enacting the legislation was to authorize DHMH (Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) to allow parents to assert a religious objection to vaccines, thus, exempting their children from any state required vaccinations.”

Brantley cited the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as a factor in her decision, writing that granting an exemption on religious grounds at an institution of a different faith could cause a conflict. In an interview with the Jewish Times,  Brantley said previous policies set by the Maryland State Department of Education and DHMH did require private schools to accept unvaccinated students.

“That’s what they thought the law required,” she said.

Brantley said that because the legal advice she gave to Rosenberg and Hettleman is a current interpretation, it may be treated as law.

The impetus for the letter came from concerns raised by Orthodox Jewish Day schools in Baltimore.

“This is a very important health issue for the students, parents, teachers and administrators in our schools,” said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin with Agudath Israel of Maryland’s Mid-Atlantic Region.

Attorney Hillel Tendler, representing the religious school principals, came at the issue from the constitutional perspective.

“If the state were to require nonpublic religious schools to accept the religious exemption claimed by a parent of a child who is not vaccinated, the state would be requiring the religious school to go against its own religious convictions,” he said. “A parent’s religiously based anti-vaccination views should not be forced on a non-public religious school which does not share those beliefs.”

When Sadwin and other reached out to their legislators, Rosenberg said he and Hettleman decided that the most expedient approach to dealing with the issue would be to go to the attorney general’s office as opposed to attempting to pass a new law clarifying the meaning of an old one.

“You’re making a legal argument, it’s not a political argument,” Rosenberg said. “I think this is an important issue to the parochial school community and you don’t always have to put a bill in to solve a problem.”

Rosenberg said that while the letter will serve as law, it could still be challenged were someone to take the issue to court.

Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, the executive director of Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, said all students there are required to be immunized, arguing that as a public health issue it outweighs everything else. He compared vaccination requirements to a dress code.

“It’s up to each private school to determine what criteria to require of each student,” he said. “We want to apply the state’s vaccination requirements as a public health issue.”

Cohen said an outbreak of measles within the past year and other health epidemics have brought vaccinations to the forefront of his mind, prompting him and others to speak up.

“The overall concern for ours and should be for anybody is the safety of the children,” he said.

Some schools, like Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, have had a longstanding policy of required vaccinations. Director of Education Zipora Schorr said this has been in place for at least 20 years, calling it a “moral imperative.”

“Our moral obligation is to protect the health and well-being of our children,” she said. “Admitting children without immunization is putting in danger the safety of our children.”

Schorr added that there are three children that are cancer survivors at Beth Tfiloh who have compromised immune systems, making a clean environment vital to them.

She said that while she cannot speak for every religious school, she has reached out to other principals and they are “in synch” on the subject of vaccinations.

Schorr said that while Beth Tfiloh has taken a strong stand on vaccinations for more than two decades, having the added protection of the law carries more weight.

“It validates what we’ve been doing and for those people that object and have tried to coerce us or strong-arm us into changing the attorney general’s position has given the school a very strong stance,” she said.