True Virtue of Israel ZAKA, Israel’s inspirational national disaster team, visits Baltimore

Last week Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation hosted Yehuda-Meshi Zahav, chairman of ZAKA, Israel’s national disaster identification team whose mission is to rescue and recover victims following terror attacks, bombings and natural disasters.

“[ZAKA is] a unique organization that does very difficult and very special work that has earned the admiration of the Jewish world and the world at large,” said Bnai Jacob’s Rabbi Moshe Hauer.

ZAKA, a Hebrew acronym for disaster victim identification, was recognized as an official organization in 1995. However, the impetus for it came in 1989 when Zahav, then a yeshiva student, witnessed firsthand the destruction caused when Egged bus No. 405 exploded after being steered off a mountain by a terrorist.

Yehuda-Meshi Zahav (right) and ZAKA volunteers assist at the site of a 2014 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. (ZAKA)

Yehuda-Meshi Zahav (right) and ZAKA volunteers assist at the site of a 2014 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. (ZAKA)

“The scenes we go to are scenes that most people are running away from,” said David Rose, international director of development for ZAKA who accompanied Zahav to Baltimore.

One of ZAKA’s key principles is chessed shel emet which refers to the act of honoring the dead. It is considered one of the highest acts of altruism because there is no way for the recipient to repay the kindness.

The organization’s primary goal is to ensure that both Jewish and non-Jewish victims receive a timely and proper burial following any kind of disaster from terrorist attacks to earthquakes.

They are the only official Israeli police recognized organization allowed to handle the recovery and identification of body parts during a mass attack or natural disaster.

“There are Jewish laws, not only about a dead person, but about respecting life,” said Rose. “Families need closure and a place to mourn. Nobody wants to know that their loved one was treated like a sack of potatoes.”

ZAKA trains and works with Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency response team, and while on location, ZAKA volunteers are clearly identified by their clothing. ZAKA uses reversible jackets: they wear the orange side out, the same color worn by MDA medics, when volunteers are providing medical assistance to the living. They wear the yellow side out when they are recovering and identifying bodies.

Most recently, ZAKA volunteers were among those assisting victims of the Nepalese earthquakes.

“From the moment we heard about the earthquake in Nepal, it was clear to us that we must send a delegation as quickly as possible,” said Eli Beer, founder of Israelife Foundation and president of United Hatzolah, in a written statement. “In most cases, members of our delegation were the first medical personnel to arrive at the scene, and their activities helped save hundreds of lives.”

“On hearing the news, we realized immediately that this was a mass casualty event,” said Zahav in a written statement. “At first there were about 200 Israelis with whom contact was lost. The [ZAKA] delegation carried out their holy work in very difficult field conditions and with great dedication.”

Nepal ambassador to Israel, H.E. Prahlad Kumar Prasai, awarded certificates of appreciation to volunteers from ZAKA, United Hatzolah and F.I.R.S.T this past June, and ZAKA has been recognized as an international humanitarian organization by the United Nations for their work in places like Nepal.

Similar to MDA, ZAKA receives little money from the Israeli government for the work they do, yet all of the services they provide are free of charge.

Because of this, ZAKA depends on donors both domestically in Israel and abroad. Although Zahav and Rose visited the U.S for a training drill in Indiana with the National Guard, they visited Baltimore to help spread the word about ZAKA’s work.

Hauer hopes that his congregation was inspired ZAKA’s commitment to human life and faith.

“To stand as a model for living your faith, there’s an inspiring lesson in that,” said Hauer.

Jewish Camp, Jewish Life The lasting effect of Jewish summer camp

Jewish summer camps across Maryland opened their doors last week and the rising enrollment rates are likely to mean a more engaged and involved Jewry for the years to come.

“Jewish day camp attendance is clearly a conduit for teen Jewish experiences, and there’s no question that teen Jewish experiences affect adult Jewish engagements,” said Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

A 2011 study showed an increased likelihood, between 5 and 55 percent, of adult Jewish engagement was linked to attending an overnight Jewish summer camp, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“Jewish [overnight] summer camps strengthen Jewish social networks and commitment as well as Jewish knowledge,” said Cohen. “The effects are seen decades later,” even in cases when parents are from different backgrounds or exposure to Jewish education varies.

Camp Shoresh, “a day camp with an overnight feel” according to its staff, began its summer session on June 22.

Shoresh, which is 36 years old, started in Frederick as a three-week summer camp based in Beth Sholom Congregation with less than 20 campers. Today, its campus sits on 107 acres of farmland in Adamstown with 450 campers enrolled, an increase of 30 campers — more than 7 percent — from last year.

The word shoresh in Hebrew means roots, and the camp’s method of inspiring kids, some of whom do not come from Jewishly active households, to take an active role in Judaism ended up inspiring the camp’s name.

“Shoresh made sense for us because we are bringing kids back to their roots,” said Rabbi Dave Finkelstein, executive director.

Shoresh has become a model for success, not only in Maryland, but throughout the country, and Finkelstein said he is called regularly from other camps asking for advice. One factor he attributes to its growing popularity is the fact that it engages campers all year round, far beyond the seven weeks that camp is in session.

“You can’t expect them to get the whole experience [of Judaism] in seven weeks. You have to deal with them all year round, from baby to bubbie,” said Finkelstein. For Shoresh, this includes having Purim carnivals, Chanukah parties and Shabbat dinners together. Finkelstein has personally officiated at his campers’ b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and funerals of family members.

Shoresh, though, is not alone in reporting rising enrollment. According to several other Jewish camps, both day and overnight, the number of campers is rising.

The Baltimore-based Camps Airy & Louise run overnight camps for boys and girls, respectively. Executive director Jonathan Gerstl said more than 650 boys are attending Camp Airy for Boys in Thurmont, Md., and 950 girls are attending Camp Louise for Girls in Cascade, Md., this summer. He says their combined numbers make the institution one of the top five Jewish summer camps by size in the country.

Jonah Geller, CEO and camp director of Capital Camps in Rockville, said this year has the highest enrollment in the camp’s history.

“We take our responsibility seriously to inspire Jewish curiosity and let campers explore and discover for themselves what’s meaningful to them,” said Geller. The camp  is located in Waynesboro, Pa.

Overnight summer camps in particular have proven to have an impact on Jewish teens lasting into their adulthood.

According to a 2010 study sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, a private foundation committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, 71 percent of young American Jewish leaders attended an overnight summer camp.

However, overnight camp can be intimidating for some kids, which is why day camps, such as Shoresh, are equally as important.

“A lot of kids will not go to Jewish overnight camp if they do not go to Jewish day camp first,” said Finkelstein.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s summer camp program, which started in 1943, is also seeing a rise in enrollment. David Schimmel, executive director, said its enrollment soared past 1,100 campers this year. He reported at least a 5 percent increase from last year.

One of the goals of any Jewish summer camp is to have a lasting effect on its campers.

“[Jewish summer camp] lends itself to an open disposition for a child to experience new things that they may not be open to experience in school,” said Chabad Rabbi Levi Kaplan, director of Camp Gan Israel.

Even though it’s not an overnight camp, conversations with Shoresh campers reveal just how transformative the camp experience can be.

“I can’t even describe how much I love this place,” said Keren Binyamin, 14, who has spent more than five summers at Shoresh. “When it’s not camp, I am counting down the days until it is. Everyone is so warm, accepting and friendly. They make you feel special here.”

Ella Messler, 12, has been going to Shoresh for six years and attends Jewish day school. Her peers tell her that she doesn’t need to attend a camp such as Shoresh to establish a Jewish identity, but she disagrees.

“There’s so much more to being Jewish than just keeping kosher and learning Torah,” said Ella. “No matter what kind of school you go to, there is always more you can learn about your Jewish identity.”

Messler, whose bat mitzvah is approaching, will be studying her Torah portion with Rabbi Tzvi Tuchman, Shoresh’s assistant director. For her, learning from a friendly face is important.

“I’m excited that there is someone from Shoresh that I know who will help me study and learn the parshah and what I need to do,” said Ella. “I feel like all of my Jewish identity is a giant web with Shoresh, my family and my bat mitzvah.”

Aside from making kids excited to learn, the camp’s staff has a strong relationship with each other.

“The head staff is more than just friends and [that deep connection] has passed onto the kids,” said Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky, head counselor for the younger boys division.

Although you’ll find a lot of smiles at Shoresh, the staff ensures that the older children learn about some of the realities of Judaism in the world today. The camp currently has a large piece of open land surrounded by trees. Through the trees there is a small opening where a broken down bus sits in two distinct parts.

here’s so much more to being Jewish than just keeping kosher and learning Torah. No matter what kind of school you go to, there is always more you can learn about your Jewish identity.

On Jan. 29, 2004, Egged bus No. 19 was blown up in a terrorist attack, killing 11 and injuring scores more, near the Israeli president’s home. A Christian pastor took possession of the bus and used it to teach lessons about anti-Semitism in different parts of the world. Eventually the bus ended up in a junkyard near Frederick. The owner of the junkyard, whose kids went to Shoresh, contacted the camp and said there was no way he could junk it. Shoresh was quick to take the bus and incorporate it into its curriculum.

“It’s hidden at the end of campus, because you have to want to see it,” said Tuchman. He noted that the camp only shows the bus to older children.

On one of the trips to Israel that Shoresh coordinated for its teens, the delegation visited the site of the attack and said a prayer.

Understanding and dealing with anti-Semitism is a reality that the camp and its counselors take seriously.

“Kids will come back from Israel feeling excited and want to wear a pair of tzitzit or a kippah to school,” said Finkelstein. “One of our people here had their Jewish star ripped off of them by his own football teammates.”

Although visiting Israel is sometimes a somber experience, it has also been noted as one of the three pillars to young people establishing a healthy Jewish identity.

“Jewish camps, Jewish day school and a trip to Israel are the primary identity builders for young Jews,” said Barbara Schlaff, co-chair of the Center for Jewish Camping advisory committee run by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “I’ve seen it in my own life and my kids’ lives. Their friends today are all their camp friends; many of them are clergy or active lay leaders in the Jewish community.”

The Center for Jewish Camping advocates for different Jewish camps around Baltimore to maximize the number of campers enrolling each year.

Directors of many camps agree that beyond going to camp, counselors play an important role in terms of giving kids positive role models.

“When you come to Shoresh and you work on our staff, you’re told, ‘You’re not going to sleep for seven weeks,’” said Finkelstein. “You’re going to be non-stop and always be involved as a role model for kids.”

The campers at Shoresh not only have energetic counselors like Krawatsky, but some of Baltimore’s star athletes as role models.

“I met Rabbi Dave through a teammate and he brought some of us [to Shoresh,]” said Prescott Burgess, former linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. “He calls me every summer to come out and I just enjoy my time with the kids, and teach them to play soccer and football.”

Burgess noted earlier that day he played Ga-Ga — Israel’s form of dodgeball — with some of the campers.

“I think all the girls wanted to get me out so they were all against me,” said Burgess, laughing. “The kids are very respectful and they ask a lot of questions to me as a football player and me as a person.”

Shoresh has such a lasting impact on its campers that many go far beyond simply observing Shabbat or becoming counselors. Sharon Nicholas wears several hats, but her position is special events director. Although she said she wasn’t raised in a very observant background, Shoresh has had a huge impact on all of her children.

After Nicholas moved to Frederick, she began looking for a synagogue to practice the small aspects of Judaism that she knew. Eventually her oldest son said he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Nicholas found Beth Sholom, where Shoresh was originally based, and was approached by Finkelstein.

“I put [Finkelstein] off for a couple of years,” said Nicholas. “But once we joined, the kids loved it. They loved going to camp.”

Nicholas also noted that when her sons attended, the camp was nothing like what it is today in terms of facilities and space available.

“What they built from almost 36 years ago, it’s tremendous,” said Nicholas. “I can’t say enough about what this organization does, and does year round.”

Two of her sons moved to Israel, one serves in the Israel Defense Forces and one studied at a yeshiva. Her other
two sons embraced Orthodoxy. Her 13-year-old daughter has attended Shoresh since she was 3.

“Shoresh has just been amazing for all of the kids,” said Nicholas. “What I respect about Shoresh is the way they do things. They don’t try to throw things down your throat. It’s baby steps and whatever you choose to accept or grasp onto.”

Regardless of who attends or where they have been, Shoresh’s mission is clear.

“All kinds of Jews walk through our door,” said Finkelstein. “There are no labels, everyone is a loved and respected Jew. We just want them to become a better Jew whatever that means for their families.”

Confederate Battle Flag Comes Under Fire Efforts underway in Maryland, Washington and Virginia to remove it from public displays

More than two weeks after nine people were gunned down at Charleston, S.C.’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack, states and municipalities across the country are grappling with what to do about symbols rooted in the darkest days of the nation’s history.

In addition to the infamous Confederate battle flag used by Southern forces during the Civil War — and which the suspected 21-year-old Charleston gunman, Dylan Roof, is seen holding in one of several photographs that surfaced on social media in the days after the attack — groups of citizens are targeting the numerous roads, parks, schools and public displays honoring Confederate figures and bearing their names.

A heated point of contention for decades, “arguments defending the flag ... [have] almost evaporated because of this horrible person who killed these people in a church and brandished this battle flag,” said historian Marc Leepson. (The Washington Times/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

A heated point of contention for decades, “arguments defending the flag … [have] almost evaporated because of this horrible person who killed these people in a church and brandished this battle flag,” said historian Marc Leepson. (The Washington Times/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

“This is a real sea change,” historian and author Marc Leepson said. “It’s rare that events in history just change radically.”

He was referring to, among other things, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, advocating for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s capital grounds and Wal-Mart, Amazon and other major retailers removing products bearing the image of the flag.

“Even the fact that some people who use the flag are saying now is the time to put it away is really significant,” he said.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is looking to recall license plates that display the flag, as is Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In Washington, D.C., there are calls to remove Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the National Cathedral’s stained glass windows.

In Baltimore County, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is pushing to rename Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park.

“We think the name more accurately depicts the centerpiece of this great park, but also it’s more reflective of the diversity and inclusion that we believe Baltimore County represents,” he said. “We can respect our history, but we don’t have to adore it.”

In 2009, the county took over management of the park, which is still owned by the city. Kamenetz has asked the city to approve the new name. The county has put about $6 million in improvements into the park over the years, and Kamenetz said each time a new improvement was made, there would be comments from staff about coming up with a more inclusive name.

While Kamenetz said he started the name-changing process a few months ago, the tragedy in Charleston prompted him and his staff to accelerate the process.

Dels. Dana Stein, Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim and Sen. Bobby Zirkin, all Democrats representing District 11’s delegation in Annapolis, issued a letter in support of Kamenetz’s effort. Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district includes the park, said she recently discussed the issue with the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, and since it was OK with a change, she is as well.

While similar conversations are happening in jurisdictions around the country, Leepson called the discussions unprecedented.

“The same arguments defending the flag have been out there,” he said. “I think they’ve almost evaporated because of this horrible person who killed these people in a church and brandished this battle flag.”

Leepson said the flag was made after the first Civil War battle in 1861, when the literal fog of war confused commanders as to who was who. The Confederate States of America flag was red, white and blue, with two red stripes, one white stripe and 13 stars in its final version, an eerie likeness of the flag belonging to the Union.

“Because of the guns and the cannons, there was smoke all over the place and the commanders had a difficult time telling apart the two sides,” Leepson, a Middleburg, Va., resident said. “That’s when they developed the battle flag, which you cannot ever confuse with the American flag.”

For most, displaying the flag served to honor those who fought and died well into the 20th century. It started to become controversial in the 1960s when groups of college students in the Deep South who were opposed to the civil rights movement began using it, Leepson said. While it wasn’t being overtly used in opposition to civil rights, it was used in virtually everything the groups did, he explained.

Fast forward to 2015, when today, many acknowledge the battle flag as a symbol of hate, as Kamenetz said in regards to the license plate issue.

“It resonates as a symbol of hate. Why promote it?” he said. “We wouldn’t want a swastika on a license plate, it’s no different.”

Leepson agreed with that analogy, adding that since license plates are government-issued, forbidding a symbol on them is not a First Amendment issue. The U.S. Supreme Court appeared to endorse that viewpoint, deciding last month that Texas, which allows citizen groups to propose new commemorative license plates, could forbid the issuing of plates bearing the Confederate battle flag.

In Richmond, which was the capital city of the Confederacy, Temple Beth-El Rabbi Emeritus Gary S. Creditor said things have changed.

“It’s been a revolution in the South in terms of its attitudes and its memories,” Creditor said. “The world around here has changed.”

But he still sees people holding onto the battle flag.

“There are people who are very resentful over the changing demographics of this country, so the battle flag doesn’t have to endorse ‘I want slavery,’” he said. “It can be ‘I don’t want to deal with people different than me.’”

With Richmond’s historic and modern-day segregation, with pockets of deep black poverty, Creditor feels that removal of the flag is appropriate. As recent as 1993, when he bought a house, there was a clause in his contract about not selling it to “Negroes,” he said.

While he is not advocating for the removal of all namesakes and statues of Confederate figures — something he doesn’t see gaining traction in
a city with bigger issues to deal with — he does think places such as Monument Avenue in Richmond, which has several statues of Confederate figures, can be more inclusive of history. He’d like to see more monuments like that of African-American Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and tennis star who can also be found on Monument Avenue.

But for decedents of the more than 10,000 Jewish Confederate soldiers, the issue isn’t so “black and white.” Pikesville resident Carl Berenholtz, who is the Sons of Confederate Veterans Maryland Division’s judge advocate, found that his great-great-uncle served in the Confederate Army. Michael Nufbaum came to America prior to the Civil War, leaving his family in Germany where they couldn’t own land, vote or hold public office, and landed in the South.

As shop owners from small villages, many German Jews looked to the agrarian South rather than the big city, Berenholtz said. Nufbaum settled in San Antonio, Texas, and enlisted in the Fourth Texas Light Artillery at 37 when the war started.

“He was fighting for one reason and one reason only, and that was state’s rights,” Berenholtz said. “He thought fighting for that fact would provide later on for the ability of Jews, his family in particular, to own land, vote, hold public office, et cetera, and that’s what he fought for.”

According to Berenholtz’s research, the Jewish soldiers were consciously not fighting in favor of slavery, given their people’s history. He is not in favor of taking down flags and removing Confederate figures from public display. For him, it’s a slippery slope, and he noted that slave ships carried the American flag.

“This is our history. Are you going to deny history? Are you going to change everything?” he asked. “I see that flag, it has nothing to do, for me, [with] slavery. It is, to me, about the second revolution, shaping our Constitution.”

Hearing On Stevenson Chabad Begins Hundreds attend to oppose Russian synagogue building

Herbert Burgunder III (right) speaks on behalf of Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) at a Baltimore County hearing over Belinsky's proposed synagogue. (Marc Shapiro)

Herbert Burgunder III (right) speaks on behalf of Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) at a Baltimore County hearing over Belinsky’s proposed synagogue. (Marc Shapiro)

Hundreds of people packed a Baltimore County hearing room on Wednesday, June 24 for the first in a series of deliberations over a proposed Chabad-Lubavitch congregation to be built on a three-acre property just north of the 695 beltway on Stevenson Road.

Many neighborhood residents, some of whom sat on the floor and stood in the hallway, wore red T-shirts that said “Friends of Stevenson Road, Protecting Our Neighborhood.” The crowd was there to show opposition to The Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews led by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, which is proposing to build a 4,000-square-foot synagogue on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road.

While synagogues are allowed to be built in residential areas — a right that is protected by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — neighbors said they’d rather see houses built on the property than deal with a synagogue’s activity and traffic.

At the hearing, Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen heard arguments on the first of two issues — residential transition areas, or RTAs, which are buffers put in place to blend a building in with its surroundings and make it less visible from the road. The second issue, to be debated at a later date, is if Belinsky’s plans are compatible with a nearly decade-old development plan for the property that divided its three lots into five subdivisions. The synagogue would have 22 parking spaces in the back of the building and 88 seats in the sanctuary.

Belinsky’s attorney, Herbert Burgunder III, contended that the issue with the subdivisions was moot since no development plan has been filed by Belinsky (previous plans were scrapped). Burgunder called two witnesses, Stacey McArthur, a landscape architect at DS Thaler & Associates, who spoke about the RTAs, and Mickey Cornelius of The Traffic Group, who researched traffic patterns in the neighborhood.

The opposition was represented by three attorneys, two hired by residents, and one of whom is a resident. One attorney had been retained by Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), a resident who sported one of the red T-shirts at the hearing. Stein, who hired the lawyer with his wife and a neighboring couple, said he is acting as a homeowner and not a politician and that he cleared his involvement with the legislature’s ethics adviser.

Ken Abel, a neighborhood resident who has been one of the organizers of the opposition, believes the attorneys acting on the neighborhood’s behalf will show that there are legitimate problems with the synagogue’s plans.

“What they’re doing doesn’t comply with the rules,” he said.

Belinsky still believes he has a right to build his synagogue and his plans are compliant with county rules, but acknowledges that the opposition is hampering his progress.

“Because there are so many fierce [members of the opposition] and two separate attorneys hired by two separate groups opposed to us, it’s probably going to be a pretty lengthy and drawn-out trial,” he said ahead of the first hearing.

At the hearing, McArthur showed mock-ups of possible landscaping buffers and maps of what the landscaping would entail. Cornelius spoke about his research into the area’s traffic during which he determined the synagogue would not add a significant amount of traffic to Stevenson Road or decrease traffic safety. Following questioning by Burgunder, both witnesses were questioned by the other three attorneys.

The trial will continue at a later date that has not been set yet.

From Germany to Baltimore and Back Baltimore resident returns to German hometown on 80th bar mitzvah anniversary

Erich Oppenheim, 93, seated at center, is joined by Nenterhausen Burgermeister Ralf Hilmes (fourth from right) and Monica Kingreen (third from right) and family members (from left) Abby Leipsner, Shimshon Oppenheim, Itzhak Oppenheim, Iris Ingber, Lee Oppenheim, Nachson Oppenheim and Janet Oppenheim to celebrate the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. The two people at far right are local historians. (Provided)

Erich Oppenheim, 93, seated at center, is joined by Nenterhausen Burgermeister Ralf Hilmes (fourth from right) and Monica Kingreen (third from right) and family members (from left) Abby Leipsner, Shimshon Oppenheim, Itzhak Oppenheim, Iris Ingber, Lee Oppenheim, Nachson Oppenheim and Janet Oppenheim to celebrate the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. The two people at far right are local historians. (Provided)

Many people remember their bar mitzvah as a time for celebration and festivity, but Erich Oppenheim’s first bar mitzvah was followed by a moment that likely saved his life and simultaneously changed it forever.

On Jan. 26, 1935, Oppenheim had his bar mitzvah at a small synagogue in Nentershausen, Germany, which would later be desecrated by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in 1938. The day after his bar mitzvah Oppenheim traveled to Hamburg where he boarded the SS Washington bound for New York with his brother, Manfred. That was the last he saw his parents, Isidor and Flora Oppenheim, who sent him to the United States to spare him from the turmoil soon to envelope Germany.

This past May, Oppenheim returned to Germany, at age 93, with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to visit the synagogue that was rebuilt in Hessenpark, now an open air museum.

“It made me feel grateful that all of my children and grandchildren were able to be with me and wanted to be with me,” Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim originally contacted the synagogue when a man living in Boston, also from Nentershausen, heard Oppenheim’s story and told him the synagogue was rebuilt. The museum had been inviting Oppenheim to come see it for some time, but Oppenheim and his late wife, Thelma, were unwilling to travel at the time.

With his wife having passed, Oppenheim agreed to visit the synagogue under one condition.

“I’ll come if they open the synagogue and let us have a minyan,” said Oppenheim to Monica Kingreen, who works at the Fritz Bauer Institute, a museum in Frankfurt focused on Holocaust studies, and also played a key role in arranging Oppenheim’s visit.

Hessenpark agreed and, with Kingreen’s help, began preparing the synagogue for Oppenheim’s arrival. This included arranging a group of men from the neighboring town, Bad Nauheim, to travel, with a Torah and food for a kiddush in tow, to Hessenpark on the day of Oppenheim’s minyan.

“I’m going to Germany to visit the synagogue,” said Oppenheim, to his daughter, Iris Oppenheim Ingber. “She said, ‘You’re not going by yourself,’ and I said, ‘Yes I am.’ She said, ‘No you’re not because I’m going with you.’”

The last thing [my father] did was bless me and my brother. He couldn’t stay, he just did that and left.

Several of Oppenheim’s family members accompanied him for the journey, including several of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For Oppenheim’s grandchildren it was a unique experience to see Nentershausen firsthand.

“I was excited to join him and see it from his perspective,” said Abby Ingber Leipsner. “I had been to Germany before but never to his hometown.”

Leipsner recalled that on her first day in Germany on May 3, she noticed clips on a local television news show about the Holocaust. She believes it was being shown to commemorate the anniversary of a concentration camp being liberated.

“I remember hearing the police siren in Germany. It’s a typical siren in Germany but Americans associate it with the Holocaust,” said Leipsner.

Leipsner, who has two children, including a 13-year-old daughter, said as a parent she can’t imagine the idea of allowing her daughter to make a daring trip like the one that her grandfather made at the same age.

“At the time [Oppenheim’s parents] probably thought it was temporary. I don’t think they imagined they were saying goodbye forever,” said Leipsner.

During Oppenheim’s visit, the bürgermeister, Ralf Hilmes — similar to a mayor — in Nentershausen located a woman who lived next door to Oppenheim’s parents, the same house she lived in during wartime. When Oppenheim and his family visited the house, the woman said her parents spoke very fondly of Isidor Oppenheim. According to the woman, Isidor brought Berta, Oppenheim’s sister, to her house on the night of Kristallnacht, and the family hid Berta in their barn during the violence. Berta later escaped to England on the Kindertransport and would be brought to Baltimore by Oppenheim in 1949.

“The day [Isidor] was being deported, he brought two suitcases to their house,” said Ingber. “He said, ‘If I’m not back in two years, you can get rid of them.’ So he knew he may not be coming back.” Ingber asked about the suitcases but they were long gone. Along with Isidor and Flora, Oppenheim’s two other brothers, Ludwig and Fritz, would eventually perish in the Holocaust.

Oppenheim remembers the last time he saw his biological father.

“The last thing he did was bless me and my brother,” said Oppenheim. “He couldn’t stay, he just did that and left.”

Oppenheim and his brother, arrived in New York where they stayed at the Clara De Hirsh Home for Working Women until a foster family was found for them. Eventually,  Mr. and Mrs. Irving Star, Baltimore residents, took Oppenheim and his brother in as foster children.

This past year was the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah; however, Oppenheim chose to learn his haftorah portion 10 years ago because he had never recited it during his bar mitzvah in 1935. Since then, he has read it once per year ever since.

In addition to reading his haftorah during his bar mitzvah visit to Germany, Oppenheim also said a special tribute to his biological parents.

“It has been 80 years since my parents sent my brother and me to America, and it is 80 years since my parents sacrificed for me,” said Oppenheim in his tribute. “I used to sit next to my father where my great- grandsons sit now. I did not say my haftorah then [in 1935], I say it now in memory of my mother who stood in the street watching and waving as we drove away.”

Ingber noted that Oppenheim initially refused to sit at his father’s place in the synagogue because, she said, “he did not feel like he earned the right.” But Ingber urged that indeed he had and convinced him to sit down where his father sat in shul 80 years prior.

Aside from Hessenpark, Oppenheim also visited a cemetery in Nentershausen where he paid respects to his grandmother.

“The first gravestone in the cemetery was my grandmother’s,” said Oppenheim.

Before returning to Baltimore, Oppenheim’s son, Lee, and daughter-in-law, Janet, accompanied him to Bnei Netzarim, Israel where his grandson Itzhak and great-grandsons Nachson and Shimshon live along with five other grandchildren.

Shimshon told his great-grand-father that he will have the same haftorah portion, Yithro, when he celebrates his bar mitzvah.

“He was quick to point it out to me,” said Oppenheim, smiling. “So I gave him my book.”

Candy King Turns 100 Beloved employee Matthew ‘Toots’ Cohen celebrated by colleagues, family

Clockwise from bottom left; family and colleagues from George J. Falter Co. candy distributor Chris Bitzel, Frank H. Falter III,  Fred Parsons Jr.,  Aimee Falter, Alice Falter, Frank H. Falter Jr. , Frank H. Falter IV and Morgan Falter surround Toots Cohen at his party, hosted by the company. (Melissa Gerr)

Clockwise from bottom left; family and colleagues from George J. Falter Co. candy distributor Chris Bitzel, Frank H. Falter III, Fred Parsons Jr., Aimee Falter, Alice Falter, Frank H. Falter Jr. , Frank H. Falter IV and Morgan Falter surround Toots Cohen at his party, hosted by the company.
(Melissa Gerr)

While holding court in a room with about 50 of his (very recently) former colleagues and donning a sporty Tommy Hilfiger striped jersey and double-red racing-striped black silky sweats, Matthew ‘Toots’ Cohen basked in the outpouring of affection from George J. Falter Co. candy distributor employees last month and regaled the crowd with his tales “from the old days” of work and a century of life experience.

Cohen’s family came down from Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 2 years old, so he calls ‘Bawlmer’ his home, pronouncing it like a true-blue local. He grew up on East Lombard Street, where he said he was “always out working,” even at an early age.

On Saturdays in elementary school, Cohen worked at the Ira Lebow Candy Company at Baltimore and Eden streets, where he would “buy broken candy from the manufacturer and put them in little bags. I used to make a big half dollar doing that,” recalled Cohen. Lebow had a daughter Cohen’s age, so “after the shift, I’d take her to Broadway movies, buy a hot dog and a chocolate soda” and still have change from his earnings, he said.

Cohen began working part time when he was just 15, in 1930, at one of the dozens of candy wholesalers in the area, helping out in the stock department and gradually worked his way up. It was at Broadway Candy & Tobacco, on Aliceanna and Broadway streets in what is now Harbor East, where Cohen spent more than 30 years as a salesman. He retired from there, then went to F.A. Davis, another wholesale supplier where he worked another 25 years.

“When I was with F.A. Davis, they were bought out and they had an efficiency expert come in,” said Cohen. “They said they don’t need me, they let me go. They still send me a cigar now and then,” he said with a laugh.

Though Frank H. Falter Jr., the CEO of George J. Falter company, the oldest candy distributor in Maryland, knew Cohen well when they worked “on the street” as salesmen decades ago, it wasn’t until a chance candy transaction that Cohen became Falter’s employee.

“I made a wrong turn on 695, I wanted to get a couple boxes of Valentine’s candy,” said Cohen. “So I figured I might as well go to Falter’s, I know them.” When he arrived, Falter Jr. said to Cohen, “Your money is no good here.” That was in 2002.

Falter Jr., who hired Cohen almost on the spot said, “He’s respected and admired by his peers, his customers and the employees. He’s more than a salesman, he’s an advocate for his customers.”

Those customers, over the years, have become close friends too, including Gamith Desilva, and his wife, Getha, who attended the birthday celebration. They own the 7-Eleven convenience store at 9100 Liberty Road and have known Cohen for about 20 years. They still bring him meals and spend time with him about once a week.

Fred Parsons Jr. (left) and Buddy Bernstein show off the birthday cake to Toots. (Melissa Gerr)

Fred Parsons Jr. (left) and Buddy Bernstein show off the birthday cake to Toots. (Melissa Gerr)

“He’s more than a salesmen, he’s like a father to me,” said Desilva. “He’d come to my office and give advice. He does his job, but it’s not like a ‘job’ — he’s goes out of his way” for his customers.

Nisar Chaudhri, owner of the 7-Eleven at 1801 Reisterstown Road at Hook’s Lane, made Cohen’s acquaintance in 1973 when he was the sales rep that serviced his store.

“He was living not too far [away] so he would come and spend time in the store, and within a very short time he became a family friend,” said Chaudhri. Cohen and Lillian, his late wife of 64 years, would accompany Chaudhri’s children on outings, and “my kids started calling him a grandpa,” he said.

Years ago, Cohen took Chaudhri’s son, Saquib, to an Orioles game. Cohen lost track of the car in the lot, but Saquib, only about 4 years old at the time, took Cohen by the hand and led him to back to the car.

Cohen brought my son home and said to me, “He’s going to be a doctor, he’s a smart boy.” In fact, Saquib just completed his residency at Long Island Jewish Hospital, said Chaudhri, and added that Cohen has attended all of his children’s weddings.

Just a few years ago, when Cohen’s 1970 Buick died suddenly, Chaudhri gave him his son’s BMW; he didn’t need it since he was at school. “He’s like a part of our family,” he said.

Mark Horwitz, vice president of sales at George J. Falter, said up until just a few months ago, Cohen was attending sales meetings where “he loves getting the samples” and that a couple of customers will still call him directly if they’re in need of something fast. Cohen still has a sweet tooth too and favors Hershey’s chocolate.

Frank Falter III, president of George J. Falter Co., said they award the Toots Cohen Salesperson of the Year plaque to a top performer each year, and Cohen himself has received numerous awards from candy and tobacco associations. He added Cohen is “a genuine polite person with a lot of character and a man full of a lot of wisdom.”

I’ll tell you like I tell ‘em all. A nice breakfast in the morning, a nice lunch, smoke a nice little cigar, read the newspaper, make a few phone calls and have sex at night.

At the birthday celebration as employees and friends were swapping stories, Chris Bitzel, operations manager said, “I learned a lot from Toots; he’s kind of like my Yoda. He taught me if you like what you do, it’s not work, it’s pleasure, and you’ll be successful.”

Leslye Fitterman, Cohen’s niece, said the family planned a separate party for him over his birthday weekend. She said Cohen’s “ability to connect to all kinds of people” stands out to her most and how he is “loyal and committed to his family.”

“He has joy in his heart, has a great sense of humor, and he’s a role model for all of us who know and work with him,” said Falter Jr. “We’re all just awestruck by him; he’s someone you just want to be around more and more. His stamina is incredible.”

Cohen secret to that stamina and longevity is simple.

“I’ll tell you like I tell ‘em all,” said Cohen. “A nice breakfast in the morning, a nice lunch, smoke a nice little cigar, read the newspaper, make a few phone calls and have sex at night.”

Nothing Suspicious Found in JCC Bomb Threat

BrandEMailMastheadThe Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills was evacuated Monday night after a reported bomb threat. The building was searched and nothing suspicious was found, according to a statement from Baltimore County Police.

“The initial investigation into this incident has indicated that an unknown suspect called the facility and stated that the building was going to blow up,” the statement said.

Police responded to the JCC, located at 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., at 7:51 p.m. Monday. After evacuating and searching the building, people were allowed back inside when nothing suspicious was found.

Police ask anyone with information about the incident to call 410-307-2020.

Kosher a la carte Personal chefs catching on in Jewish Baltimore

Shelbie Wassel

Shelbie Wassel

In the Baltimore area, there are several good kosher restaurants to choose from when you want to dine out, but sometimes eating in is more appealing and there are some local personal chefs ready to deliver a home-cooked kosher meal right to your kitchen.

Longtime Baltimore resident Shelbie Wassel runs a personal chef service called Shallots and teaches cooking classes part time at the Community College of Baltimore County. She first learned to cook with her grandparents and discovered Jewish foods, and then after suffering through one year of George Washington University’s dining hall food, she revisited her love for the kitchen.

“I actually skipped a philosophy class because I had a beef stew cooking,” she said.

Wassel earned her degree in political science and took several cooking classes afterward, but starting her own catering business didn’t immediately occur to her.

“It just wasn’t something that women did,” she said.

Wassel’s first endeavor into the field was 20 years ago when she started to teach cooking classes, and 10 years ago she decided she wanted to cook full time. She said many of her recipes are self-taught, and she has had to adapt to different culinary techniques over the years.

“You read, you experiment, you taste and you define your skills,” she said.

Wassel first asks her clients to complete a food history to determine their needs.

“I had one client who was an elderly woman who told me that her stove privileges had been revoked because her vision was poor,” she recalled.

Wassel then buys all of the groceries for a five-course dinner that she cooks in the client’s home. If she is cooking for a kosher-keeping client, she will use their pots but otherwise she brings her own.

“With a personal chef you’re getting homemade food that your grandmother cooked 50 years ago. I guess that Jewish mommy in me wants to feed people.”

Sometimes “I’ll have one bachelor who barely has a pot,” Wassel said.

Her clients vary from people who don’t have time to cook to people who hate to cook to people with dietary needs, she said, but no matter what, there is nothing like a home-cooked meal and added she goes “nuts” for Thanksgiving meals.

“With a personal chef you’re getting homemade food that your grandmother cooked 50 years ago,” she said. “I guess that Jewish mommy in me wants to feed people.”

Shirlé Hale-Koslowski

Shirlé Hale-Koslowski

Personal chef Shirlé Hale-Koslowski, like Wassel, also was exposed to ethnic food at a young age, growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia. Then she developed her skills in Southwestern cuisine after taking a gap year in Spain before college.

“I thought I was going to be living over there the rest of my life,” she said.

But she returned, and Hale-Koslowski attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she worked in various restaurants to help pay her tuition while trying to get band gigs.

“[Cooking] was something I never thought I would do professionally because I wanted to be a rock musician,” she said.

Hale-Koslowski lived in Baltimore in the 1990s before she and her husband moved to Durham, N.C. It was there that she started the business, Four Corners Cuisine, 13 years ago. She moved back to Baltimore in 2011.

Hale-Koslowski, like Wassel, goes through a 30-minute consultation session with each client prior to cooking each meal.

“I find out what they like, what they don’t like, what their allergies are. We go through every vegetable known to man,” she said.

Hale-Koslowski normally prepares five entrees and five sides, in the home, for each client, cleaning up after she’s done. She said she currently has two clients that keep kosher.

“Probably the most confusing part is keeping the cookware separate,” she said.

Hale-Koslowski said 90 percent of her recipes are self-taught, but she is inspired when someone gives her a recipe. Although she currently delivers within a 45-mile radius of Baltimore City, she said her service will soon expand to Frederick. She encourages people who are short on time to consider a personal chef over eating out.

This retains “the intimacy of cooking in people’s homes,” she said.

Gershon Topas

Gershon Topas

Perhaps one of the most unconventional culinary ventures in greater Baltimore is run by Gershon Topas, a modern Orthodox Jew. Last year, the JT reported on Topas’ kosher tailgate ritual he practices with his friends before Ravens home games.

Topas has been the personal chef for several Ravens players including Prescott Burgess and Paul Kruger.

“They’re the nicest guys I ever worked for,” he said of the players.

Topas’ specialty is smoked meats, and he said smoked brisket is a favorite among Ravens players. “They go crazy over it.”

In addition to his activities with the Ravens, Topas is in charge of catering at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, where he cooks for students between ages 8 and 18. He said normally kids’ palates haven’t developed by that age, but he’s found they enjoy ethnic soups such as mulligatawny.

“The soups’ [popularity is] really growing, and in a young crowd I didn’t expect that,” he said.

Topas and his partners, Chaim Silverberg and Tony Crumbling, discuss menus each week to determine how to prepare foods kosher-style that are popular with kids, such as lamb bacon.

“Between the two of us [Crumbling is not Jewish] we got together and it tastes pretty darn close,” he said. Of the collaboration with fellow chefs, Topas said, “On a daily basis we’re taking different foods and saying what do you think of this?”

Topas also delivers Shabbat dinners to people’s homes through his Facebook group, Gershon’s Foodies, which requires an invitation from him. He lives in Indian Village and grows all of his fruits and vegetables in a garden in his backyard.

Said Topas, “The taste is night and day between what you get out of the garden and what you get off the shelf at the store.”

Hogan Announces He Has Cancer Maryland governor vows to beat the disease

Gov. Larry Hogan (file photo)

Gov. Larry Hogan
(file photo)

Gov. Larry Hogan announced in a news conference Monday that he has been diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that he described as “very advanced and very aggressive.”

Hogan is expected to undergo six cycles of chemotherapy, each three weeks long, to help rid him of the lymphoma. In this form of cancer, a person’s normal white blood cells in the lymph system become malignant.

Hogan called the cancer a challenge “that will require me to once again be an underdog and a fighter, which is something I’m known for,” he said at the news conference, surrounded by family.

He said there is a strong chance of survival and ridding his system of the cancer, and although he appeared somber at times, he lightened the mood with some jokes.

“The best news is that my odds in getting through this and beating this are much, much better than the odds I had in beating Anthony Brown in becoming the 62nd governor of Maryland,” he said.

As needed, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford will step in as Hogan undergoes treatment.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said her organization is “shocked” and their thoughts are with his family and friends.

“I think all of us know how tough he is and how hard he works,” she said, “ … and obviously his physicians are very optimistic about his future, and so are we.”

Ron Halber, executive director of The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said his organization admires the governor’s “fighting spirit” and that the way he discussed his diagnosis showed his “everyday man” nature.

“We just wish him well and a speedy recovery,” Halber said. “He’s in our thoughts and prayers.”

While Hogan described his cancer as aggressive and in Stage 3 of four stages, Dr. Mark Roschewski, staff clinician at Center for Cancer Research with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, said that is not as bad as it sounds.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is an aggressive disease, and a cluster of malignant cells can double in size in anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, Roschewski said.

When Hogan said he felt a lump on his neck and the cancer was also detected in his abdomen and near his spinal column, that probably means a group of lymph nodes was found in those locations, Roschewski said. It doesn’t mean the governor has cancer in his abdomen or spinal column, the doctor, who works in the center’s lymphoid malignancies branch, said.

During Hogan’s chemotherapy treatments, he most likely will receive between three to five different drugs intravenously. He should not feel ill during the procedure but generally will be affected the following week, Roschewski said.

Whether he can continue working during that time is hard to predict and depends on several factors, including his general health and the molecular profile of individual tumor cells. The goal is for patients to be treated without having to be admitted to a hospital, Roschewski said.

It is crucial to start the chemotherapy quickly, Roschewski said, which is something Hogan said he was doing.

Because Roschewski is not familiar with Hogan’s exact medical condition, he wouldn’t give a prognosis. However, he said more than 50 percent of people with this form of cancer go into remission and only need to be monitored over time to check for reoccurrence.

“Typically things that grow quickly come back quickly,” Roschewski said.

The disease often occurs in people in their early to mid-60s. Hogan is 59 years old.

Many area politicians expressed their concern for the governor.

Del. Dan Morhaim, D-District 11, wished the governor a full and speedy recovery and praised him for the nature of his news conference.

“I thought his speech was poignant and very brave and honest,” Morhaim said. “I compliment him for being so upfront about something that’s tough to talk about.”

During his speech, Hogan spoke about recent procedures as well as the treatment to come.

Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-District 11, said this is “beyond politics” and said her thoughts and prayers are with Hogan and his family.

Del. Dana Stein, D-District 11, also gave him credit for his transparency and wished him a full recovery.

“My heart goes out to him and his family,” Stein said.,

Chabad Event Prepares for Gimmel Tammuz

The Chabad Lubavitch Center of Pikesville hosted a lecture June 17 titled “Timeless Leadership” — an event held in honor of the 21st yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, falling this year on Shabbat last weekend.

Rabbi Moishe New, director of the Montreal Torah Center, was the featured speaker for the event, open to both men and women, and the audience included many rabbis from around the greater Baltimore area as well.

The evening began with an introduction from Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Lubavitch Maryland, describing the significance of the day of the Rebbe’s passing, known as Gimmel Tammuz, and a short video archive about the Rebbe.

New, also a sought-after lecturer on Kabbalah, spoke about his personal encounters with the Rebbe, the week’s Torah portion, Korach, as well as the concept of individuals taking responsibility to accomplish God’s objectives in the world. That evening, New declared his commitment to take more responsibility for his own role in the world as an emissary of Chabad-Lubavitch.

To illustrate, New recalled a moment when he was at a mall in Jerusalem with his children. At the top of an escalator stood several soldiers who, when they saw New, asked, “Are you Chabad?”

After acknowledging that yes, he was from Chabad, the soldiers told New they wanted to put on tefillin. Embarrassed, New apologized and said that he did not have any tefillin with him that day.

When New later explained the encounter to some friends and family back in Montreal, he said, “I’m not going to travel without my tefillin anymore,” and one friend even offered to pay for the tefillin he resolved to carry around.

New responded that he was willing to travel with his personal tefillin, so if his friend offered to pay for it, then the tefillin should be top of the line.

“I may meet a Jew and this may be the only time he’ll put on tefillin,” New said. “So he should put on the best tefillin!”

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson