Navy Midshipmen Killed in Derailment Was Dedicated Jew, Student Justin Zemser had his eyes on being a Navy SEAL

Justin Zemser pictured on June 27, 2013, at the United State Naval Academy, days after graduating from high school.

Justin Zemser pictured on June 27, 2013, at the United State Naval Academy, days after graduating from high school.

Richard Zemser, the uncle of United States Naval Academy midshipman Justin Zemser, couldn’t say enough good things about his nephew.

“He did more things in his young 20 years than anybody can imagine,” his uncle said Thursday afternoon. He was taking a break from writing what he would say the next day at Justin’s funeral.

The 20-year-old was one of eight people killed when Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Justin Zemser was co-captain of his high school football team, class president and valedictorian at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park. At the Naval Academy, he was involved in the Jewish Midshipmen Club, and on deck to possibly be its next president, his uncle said. He was also set to mentor incoming freshman. His eyes were set on becoming a Navy SEAL.

“The bottom line is he was looking for what he can do to make the world a better place,” Richard said. “No question. That’s why he was in the academy, that’s why he wanted to serve his country.”

He recalls his nephew’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Derech Emunoh, where several other members of the family had their b’nai mitzvahs. The synagogue’s main building had burned down in an accident, and Zemser was bar mitzvahed in a portable trailer, the congregation’s first bar mitzvah in several years. Although membership was low, if they knew Justin was coming in for a Shabbat service, phone calls would be made to make sure there was a minyan, Richard said.

Justin later became active in another synagogue he attended with his father, Howard.

“Because he was a Levite, occasionally he would get an aliyah,” Richard said. “They would always call him up for something.”

At the time of Justin’s death, he was headed home for about a week. He had been home for Mother’s Day the previous weekend. He and his uncle had been emailing back and forth about a paper Justin wrote for his final exam in a class that examined the Bible.

“For 20 years old, you can tell that this was a really bright fellow,” Richard said on the essay Justin wrote. “If I could choose another son, it would be someone like Justin. He was a wonderful kid.”

Check back on for updates.

Jewish Midshipman and Tech CEO Confirmed Dead Despite carnage, commuters not deterred

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child. Photo credit: JTA

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child.
Photo credit: JTA

A New York-bound Amtrak train originating in Washington, D.C. derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia, killing at least eight and injuring more than 200 people, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said.

Northeast Regional Train 188 was traveling at 106 mph as it entered the sharp curve, where the speed limit is 50 mph, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Among those reported dead are a Jewish midshipman from the United States Naval Academy and the Jewish CEO of a Philadelphia tech company.

Midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, from Far Rockaway, N.Y., was one of several people killed when Train 188 jumped the tracks northeast of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, according to reports.

Rachel Jacobs, 39, a Detroit area native, was reported dead by CNN late Wednesday night. She was recently hired as CEO of Philadelphia-based online education startup, ApprenNet. Jacobs lived with her husband and 2-year-old son on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College also had a Columbia Business School MBA.

Zemser’s family issued a statement Tuesday afternoon which was posted to the Yeshiva World News.

“He was his high school’s valedictorian and was just finishing his second year as midshipman at the United States Naval Academy,” the statement said. “He was a loving son, nephew and cousin, who was very community minded. This tragedy has shocked us in the worst way and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends. At this time we ask for privacy from the media.”

Jacobs’ family issued a statement to the media late Wednesday night.

“This is an unthinkable tragedy. Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend,” the statement said.

Many Washington-area Jews ride Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor. One of them is William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, who was on an Amtrak train heading back to Washington from New York on Monday night.

“As I was hearing the news and watching the news on TV I could very much picture the bodies being thrown around and the laptops flying through the air and the sense of panic,” said Daroff. “I can just imagine how unprepared any of us are for that to occur.”

Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, director of the Lubavitch House at University of Pennsylvania, was at home when the incident occurred and rushed to Temple University hospital, where many of the injured were taken. He met with victims in the emergency room and consoled family members waiting in a building across the street.

“I spoke to everybody and checked in with them. It happened to be that some of them were Jewish and they were very appreciative that somebody came down and checked in,” Haskelevich said.

One of his students was on the train, but escaped without injuries.

“It’s a train we all take, Philadelphians to New York, many of us take [it]. So it hit very close to home,” added Haskelevich.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of disability rights organization RespectabilityUSA, said that she tried to take the train from Washington to New York on Wednesday morning, but only got as far as Philadelphia when Amtrak suspended service between Philadelphia and New York. Mizrahi had to go to the Philadelphia International Airport and fly the rest of the way. The flight cost her an extra $600, but she said she feels lucky that she wasn’t on the train that crashed.

Samantha Silver, a Washington-based journalist from Baltimore, takes the MARC train to Union Station on a weekly basis.

“I was flabbergasted,” Silver said upon hearing about the accident. “I took the 6:20 p.m. train last night so I probably just missed [train 188].”

Ed Grinspan, a Philadelphia native and Baltimore business owner, has commuted between the two cities for 36 years. He’s never given the safety of trains a second thought, but said seatbelts should be given serious consideration. Despite the incident, Grinspan, who is retiring in several days, is still grateful to Amtrak for making it possible to live in Philadelphia and work in Baltimore. “I’m a satisfied customer,” he said.

Weldon Spurling, a medical student who recently began commuting daily from Washington to Baltimore, sees taking the train as relatively safe compared to other activities.

“Whatever hysteria is being brought up by this train accident or any other type of accident with mass transit, I would suggest that [instead you] consider your lifestyle, what you do, what you eat, what you smoke, what you drink,” he said. “Worrying about riding on a train or flying in a plane is the least of your concerns.”

Silver shares his sentiment.

“You take risks in life,” said Silver. “There is nothing any of those people could have done.”

For Silver, taking the train isn’t the scary part. What worries her is the idea that a meeting was scheduled to take place only hours after the derailment to decide if Amtrak should receive a $252 million budget cut. The Obama administration has called for boosting Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion and on Wednesday Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a bid by Democrats to increase Amtrak’s budget by more than $1 billion, including $556 million targeted for the Northeast Corridor. The Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 along party lines to slash Amtrak’s funding.

“It is deeply troubling that my Republican colleagues defeated an amendment to fully fund Amtrak just hours after this tragic rail crash,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said. The top Democrat on the Appropriations panel added that “starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel.”

Daroff said while he will be more cognizant of safety factors, he will be boarding an Amtrak train again soon.

“At the end of the day I’m sure statistically it’s more dangerous to cross the street in Rockville than it is to take a train,” he said.

A Positive Train Control safety system would have prevented the crash, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, who is leading the investigation, told The New York Times. Positive Train Control, or PTC, automatically slows or stops trains to prevent high-speed derailments. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates installation of the technology by the end of the year, but the railroad industry is seeking an extension. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday also voted down a Democratic amendment to increase by $825 million for the adoption of Positive Train Control technology.

Amtrak has set up an incident hotline for those who believe their friends or family may have been on regional train 188. That number is 800-523-9101.

County Budget Includes $4M for Pikesville High Property, income tax rates stagnant, funding allocated for new elementary schools

Kevin Kamentez (File)

Kevin Kamentez (File)

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes $4 million to help fill a funding gap in the renovations at Pikesville High School as well as money for a new elementary school that will help alieve overcrowding in the Northwest corridor.

The $1.96 billion operation budget, a 4.7 percent increase over last year, does not raise property or income tax rates and includes pay raises for county employees, teachers, administrators and other school personnel.

District 2 Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond said the council has been working well with Kamenetz on the budget, which is expected to be finalized and approved on May 21.

Almond, along with Maryland District 11 Delegates Shelly Hettleman, Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein, Sen. Bobby Zirkin and the Pikesville High School PTSA lobbied for the extra funding for Pikesville, which is undergoing a major renovation. The county committed to providing $38 million of the $44.9 million project, but due to higher-than-anticipated construction costs, it was uncertain if the full scope of the project would be completed.

Higher costs meant that sound and lighting upgrades to the auditorium, a renovated gym and several other items included in the original plans became “add alternates.” Almond said those two items, as well as a new weight room, would be top priorities.

“It’s a 50-year-old auditorium, and it’s got ceiling tiles falling down and a lighting system such that when there’s events there you can barely see those on stage,” said Jeff Jerome, chairman of the Pikesville Schools Coalition, which worked on the effort to get more funding. “It’s like a black hole in there. The sound system is not really good.”

Those who worked on the effort, which included letters written to the county, state legislators and county schools superintendent Dallas Dance, also said it’s more cost-effective to do additional work during the major renovation phase, which includes a new HVAC system, a new roof, accessibility upgrades, new classrooms and technology, rather than later.

“You’re spending some $40 million, your contractors are already going to be there,” said PTSA President Casey Parson. “It doesn’t make sense to spend that kind of money and not finish it the right way.”

Pete Dixit, executive director of physical facilities for Baltimore County Public Schools, said his office is coordinating with Pikesville’s principal, the assistant superintendent and the project’s general contractor to work out how the $4 million will be spent.

The county’s budget also includes nearly $1 million in startup costs for Lyons Mill Elementary School, which will be located at 9435 Lyons Mill Road in Owings Mills. The 700-capacity school, which opens in the fall, will relieve overcrowding at New Town and Woodholme elementary schools. Another $30 million is allotted for three other elementary schools to be built in the future.

Almond, along with her fellow council members, is hoping to get some capital projects funded in her area, including enlarged culverts in the Dumbarton community, where there is a longtime flooding problem, and some new street lights in other areas.

The county is also matching the state’s $200,000 for a new nature and environmental education center at Robert E. Lee Park, something the District 11 team lobbied for.

Almond said the council is looking into certain county contracts. For example, the county has a responsibility to mow fields and grass at elementary schools, while the county school system takes care of the middle and high schools, but the job is not being done by Baltimore County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Almond said. With the Department of Property Management being reorganized and some uncertainty about who does certain jobs through them, Almond said the council is awaiting more information and asking a lot of questions.

“The council has had some real questions from the administration about things we outsource rather than have Baltimore County employees perform, and I have a real issue with that and some of my colleagues do as well,” she said. “We’re doing our due diligence.”

Umami Not Closing

More than a month after the restaurant put up signs saying it would be closing, Umami Bistro remains open. And it will stay open, according to an employee of the restaurant and the developer who operates the shopping center Umami Bistro has called home for several years.

A woman who answered the phone at the restaurant but would not identify herself said the eatery had “no plan to close at all” last week.

The restaurant also never gave required notice that it would be closing to its landlord, according to America’s Realty President and CEO Carl Verstandig, whose company owns and operates Club Center, located off of Reisterstown Road just south of Old Court Road.

“Their lease is very specific, they would have had to notify us,” he said. “They never gave any of that notice.”

In early April, the restaurant announced that it would be closing its doors, but it remained open. Verstandig said he ate there last week and the restaurant was fully operational.

A Facebook page for Umami has varying reviews, ranging from one star to five. Many customers have posted that the food is great but the service is not. There is also a lot of chatter about the restaurant potentially going out of business.

“Going out of business is good for business,” one person posted.

Some people, such as Chana Friedman, just don’t go because of the service.

“I don’t enjoy their customer service so I don’t go,” she said. “I prefer to give my business to other restaurants that have customer service.”

Increased Inclusion at Area Synagogues

Two local congregations have taken new steps to make Shabbat more accessible to individuals on the autism spectrum.

The Kolker Room of Beth El Congregation was filled with the sounds of children singing prayers and playing musical instruments at the May 2 Shabbat service led by Rabbi Faith Cantor and accompanied by Josh Bender on guitar. Alongside regular chairs were oversized pillows and rocking, floor-level ergonomic chairs. Oversized books explaining the synagogue and service were made available as were stickers and other fidgets.

No one batted an eye when a child needed to burn off some energy; in fact, light physical activity, such as mimicking crossing the Red Sea, was built into the program. The children and their families followed along with familiar Shabbat prayers shown in large Hebrew and transliterated lettering on a projector screen.

In creating the hour and a half long sensory-friendly Shabbat service, Cantor reached out to practitioners at Kennedy Krieger, the Shafer Center for Early Intervention and Pathfinders for Autism among others. Cantor hopes to repeat the service in the future as part of Beth El’s new “We Fit” campaign aimed at being more inclusive of autistic individuals and their families.

Last month, Har Sinai Congregation incorporated autism awareness into its “Shabbat Rocks!” Friday night service. Worshippers clad in blue as part of the Autism Speaks “Light It Up Blue” initiative filled the sanctuary. Even the band, Chai-Jinx, Har Sinai’s in-house rock band — comprised of the rabbi, cantor and a number of musically gifted congregants — wore blue.

Jo-Ellen Unger, director of congregational learning, explained that in an effort to make the prayers more accessible, two large projection screens were set up on either side of the ark with the Shabbat prayers shown in large lettering in Hebrew, transliteration and English translation.

For Unger, whose son Micah, 12, is on the spectrum, having the congregation come together in this way was especially meaningful.

“My son loved it. He was bouncing in his seat clapping around to the music,” said Unger. “For him, he loves that sensory stimulation. The most important thing to us was to honor the fact that it was Autism Awareness Month and put it in the forefront through worship and the congregation’s support.”

In mid-April, Har Sinai co-sponsored a shop for a cause event alongside Pathfinders for Autism, a local autism advocacy organization.

BT Dahan Community School Earns Green Certification

Students at Beth Tfiloh celebrated Tu B'shvat while incorporating environmental issues into the meal. (Photo provided by Beth Tfiloh)

Students at Beth Tfiloh celebrated Tu B’shvat while incorporating environmental issues into the meal.
(Photo provided by Beth Tfiloh)

Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School has announced its certification as a 2015 Maryland Green School by the Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education.

“We are gratified to see the results of the incredible work that went into making this happen,” BT’s director of education, Zipora Schorr, said.

Founded in 1999, the Maryland Green Schools program educates students in pre-K through grade 12 schools on responsible environmental practices and promotes general environmental awareness.

For a school to qualify, it must demonstrate sustainable environmental management practices, provide an environmental education curriculum, offer professional development opportunities and take part in community engagement on a regular basis over the course of two years.

The school’s environmental club, HIPEA (Helping Implement the Promotion of Environmental Awareness), took a leading role in encouraging the school to pursue Green School certification. The club was responsible for campuswide clean-ups, meatless Thursdays, walk/bike-to-school days and more.

“[Green School certification] was something that had been on the radar screen for a long time but finally got off the ground with their involvement,” said Schorr.

BT alumnus Corey Gold helped to spearhead the Environmental Club’s participation in the certification process.

“Though it is gratifying to see the efforts of many over the past several years recognized, what’s much more exciting is the impressive progress BT has made in building a more environmentally conscious community,” said Gold.

Hall of Fame Jewish Baltimoreans to be honored at fifth induction ceremony

Lenore “Lyn” Pancoe Meyerhoff (Provided)

Lenore “Lyn” Pancoe Meyerhoff (Provided)

For their contributions to the arts, business, education, philanthropy and community building, 10 Jewish Baltimoreans will be inducted into the Baltimore Jewish Hall of Fame at the JCC.

The fifth set of inductees, men and women, living and deceased, from all streams of Judaism, will be honored at a reception and ceremony May 20 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills.

Among the living honorees are Lois Blum Feinblatt and Barry Levinson.

Feinblatt, born Lois Hoffberger, was part of the first group of female psychotherapists trained at Johns Hopkins University in a “new and unorthodox way” and spent more than 40 years as part of the Sexual Behaviors and Consultation unit. At 94 years old, Feinblatt continues to work part time and is active in the community, having recently started the Teachers Democracy Project with the stated goal of enhancing the professional lives of Baltimore City public school teachers. Feinblatt’s first husband, Irving Blum, who died in 1973, will also be honored for his role as the first president of the Associated Jewish Charities (now The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) and Welfare Fund of Baltimore.

The Baltimore-born Levinson is best known for his work as a movie director and producer. Baltimore played the backdrop to several of his films, including “Diner,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.” He won an Oscar for best director for his 1988 film “Rain Man,” which starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Lenore “Lyn” Pancoe Meyerhoff and Rabbi Mark G. Loeb are among those honorees who have already passed. Their families will be in attendance at the ceremony on their behalf.

Meyerhoff was active locally, nationally and internationally. In Baltimore, she and her husband, Harvey, worked to build Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and helped fund the Meyerhoff Digestive Disease Center at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.

She was a staunch Israel advocate and took pride in being on a first-name basis with many of Israel’s leaders. In 1983 and 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed Meyerhoff a citizen delegate to the United Nations.

Loeb led Beth El Congregation from 1980 until June 2008. The synagogue’s center for lifelong learning is named in his honor. The rabbi was a civil rights activist, served as the national president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and co-founded the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Rounding out this year’s inductees are: Laurence M. Katz, former dean of the University of Baltimore Law School; Julian “Bill” Lewis, longtime Baltimore school teacher and director of athletics; Henry A. Rosenberg Jr., president of the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation; Jerome “Jerry” Schnydman, president of Beth El and a former lacrosse star at Johns Hopkins University; and Morton “Sonny” Plant, deceased, who was instrumental in the success of the 1992 JCC Maccabi Games hosted in Baltimore.

“They are people who have devoted their lives, either in the past — some are deceased — to a certain field and have absolutely excelled and have become very well-known leaders in their field,” said Debbie Vogelstein, event co-chair.

The Baltimore Jewish Hall of Fame at the JCC was established in 2008 as a way to “keep alive the memory of these remarkable individuals for the benefit of all future generations.”

From left: Robert De Niro; director Barry Levinson and writer Art Linso (File photo)

From left: Robert De Niro; director Barry Levinson
and writer Art Linso (File photo)

Past Hall of Fame inductees include such noted Jewish Baltimoreans as Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, Rabbi Jacob B. Agus, past leader of Beth El Congregation, and Judge Ellen Heller, the first woman in Maryland to hold the position of Circuit Administrative Judge.

Over the course of four months, Vogelstein explained, the 20-member selection committee pored over hundreds of applications before narrowing the field to 25. The committee members were responsible for researching and presenting on the nominees before the list was whittled down through a series of blind ballots to this year’s 10 honorees.

On Wednesday evening, attendees will have an opportunity to mingle with the guests of honor at a dessert reception and have their photos taken before proceeding into the theater, where Ron Shapiro, renowned sports agent, best-selling author and 2013 Hall of Fame inductee, will emcee the ceremony. A professionally produced video giving insight into the lives of each honoree will be shown, and the guests of honor, or the family of those deceased, will be given citations and recognized by the community.

“It’s inspirational,” said Vogelstein of the evening’s events. “You’ll see in the videos how the Jewish factor has played a part in the honorees’ lives through tikkun olam, the desire to make a difference in the world by excelling in a certain field.”

Vogelstein, a mother of eight, noted that the ceremony can be particularly impactful on youth, both in terms of inspiration and through the raising of needs-based scholarship funds.

“While this event will  showcase to our community how our Baltimore and Jewish roots and values have played formative roles in the lives of our most successful and prominent people, it also raises crucial funds, through sponsorships, ads and ticket sales, for scholarships for the JCC’s hallmark children’s programs, which engage, connect, guide and stimulate our Jewish community’s younger
generation,” said Vogelstein.

For children who aren’t formally affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish summer camp, she continued, participation in JCC programming allows them “to be connected to the Jewish community.”

Tickets are $50 in advance and $60 at the door. Children and young adults can purchase a steeply discounted $10 ticket, provided they are accompanied by a paying adult.

The Obvious Choice Relief for Britain’s Jews as Cameron elected to second term

LONDON — A large chunk of Britain’s Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief on May 8, when David Cameron secured a second five-year term as prime minister. The Conservative’s win of an outright majority in the House of Commons shocked the nation, as nearly all pre-election polls suggested that the Labour party led by Ed Milliband and the Conservatives, who have ruled in coalition with the Liberal Democrats for the last five years, were running neck-and-neck.

Unlike in America, where a majority of Jews regularly vote for Democratic candidates, Jews in the United Kingdom are less likely to follow one particular party.

Prior to the election, nearly 70 percent of British Jewish voters said that they would vote Conservative, according to a poll conducted in April by Britain’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle. Only 22 percent of respondents said they would cast their vote for Labour. Statistics indicating how the Jewish community actually voted are not yet available.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s support for Israel brought in the Jewish vote. (Paul Edwards/Newscom/The Sun/News Syndication)

Prime Minister David Cameron’s support for Israel brought in the Jewish vote. (Paul Edwards/Newscom/The Sun/News Syndication)

For Jewish voters who place a strong emphasis on a candidate’s support for Israel as well as on other issues that affect the community, Cameron was the obvious choice. With him now in power for the next five years, Britain’s Jews can expect his support for traditional Jewish causes to continue, analysts predict.

“We are particularly delighted that the vast majority of those in the prime minister’s newly formed cabinet are longstanding friends of Israel,” said James Gurd, political director of the lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel.

It’s not only on Israel that Cameron won praise from the Jewish community. His government has been equally supportive of the Jewish community’s domestic concerns. After the recent terror attacks in Paris, Home Secretary Theresa May spoke out strongly against anti-Semitism, saying, “We must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here in the United Kingdom.”

Under her watch, the government increased security funding for Jewish communal institutions.

Over the last five years, the government has also defended kosher animal slaughter, known as shechita, which has increasingly come under fire from animal rights activists, and supported funding for “faith schools,” a category which includes many Jewish institutions.

The Conservative record stood in contrast to Miliband’s perceived hostility toward Israel.  Miliband, who is Jewish, spoke out strongly against Israel during the conflict in Gaza last summer.

Calling Israel’s actions “unacceptable and unjustifiable,” he criticized the Cameron for his “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.” The comments, which were perceived by some as political posturing, led many Jews to feel that he didn’t appreciate Israel’s challenges and pushed away potential voters as well as long-time Labour supporters.

“I feel I don’t recognize the party of principle and serious government that I knocked on doors and delivered leaflets for. It has let me down,” wrote the former director of the lobbying group Labour Friends of Israel, Kate Bearman, in a piece published in the Chronicle in August. “I simply don’t think Labour is fit to govern when its leadership issues simplistic statements that are at odds with the realities Israel faces.”

Miliband further alienated Jewish voters in the fall with his support for a symbolic House of Commons vote recognizing a Palestinian state.

“The ultimate irony is that here’s a Jewish leader who the Jews couldn’t bring themselves to vote for,” said David Mencer, a political consultant and former head of Labour Friends of Israel. “It didn’t have to be that way. He chose this.”

After the election, Miliband resigned from his party chairmanship.

Other U.K. political parties have been even more vocal in their opposition to Israeli policies and actions. The Green Party supports a cultural boycott of Israel. The centrist Liberal Democrat party came under fire from Jewish groups for failing to discipline MP David Ward, who regularly made provocative statements against Israel, including one tweet in July that read: “The big question is — if I lived in Gaza would I fire a rocket? — probably yes.” The third largest party in parliament, the Scottish Nationalist Party, has voiced its support for the unilateral recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Although the polls were too close to call for much of the campaign, the end result came as no surprise to some political veterans.

“The Jewish community holds a fascinating place in society, because if you win it over then it’s likely you will win general election,” said Mencer. “It’s what Tony Blair did in ’97 and what Cameron did in 2015. The Jewish community is aspirational, has traditional values, is socially conscious and has a belief in helping those less fortunate. If a candidate can win over the Jewish community then it’s likely that it will win the election.

“This is exactly what Cameron has done,” continued Mencer. “He has positioned his party to be center right rather than extreme right.”

Though it may be a bellwether, Britain’s Jewish community is small, numbering around 270,000, or .5 percent of the population, a fact which led Jonathan Boyd to discount the community’s power.

“Even if [Jews] were to vote as a bloc, which they do not, their capacity to influence the outcome is extremely limited,” said Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

That being said, in at least two swing London constituencies where Jews are concentrated, Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, there were strong majorities for Conservative candidates despite polls predicting a dead heat. In Hendon, the Conservative candidate, Matthew Offord, won by 3,724 votes, a significant jump from the 106 that put him over the top in 2010.

In the end, it was the stark contrast between the heads of the two parties that inspired many Jews who had not previously voted to head to the polls.

“I voted Tory for both Jewish and economic reasons,” said Corinne Tapnack, a 39-year-old London resident who voted for the first time on Thursday. “I felt the Tories should stay in control of the recovery given how much progress country has made. Plus I didn’t feel Miliband portrayed himself as a friend of Israel. I didn’t feel like he would be the right person to represent the Jewish community. His tendencies didn’t lie toward supporting Israel and he made that clear.”

A native of Baltimore, freelancer Rachel Stafler lives in London.

The Debate on Policing Jewish organizations in position to help make change

Interfaith St. Louis community members gather in song during last year’s 9/11 commemorative concert that focused on reconciliation. (Provided)

Interfaith St. Louis community members gather in song during last year’s 9/11 commemorative concert that focused on reconciliation. (Provided)

WASHINGTON — From roundtable discussions to protests and prayers to candid talks with law enforcement officials, American Jewish communities are joining in the debate about community policing in the wake of several high-profile deaths of unarmed black men while in police custody.

Officials were short on specifics, but several said that protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray on April 19 have sparked a determination to confront the tensions between police and minority communities.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella public policy body, last week called for a “new national conversation” about police tactics.

“At this critical time in our nation’s history it is abundantly clear that a conversation not only needs to be had between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities — particularly the African-American community — but within our own communities,” JCPA president Rabbi Steve Gutow said in a statement.

In several communities, Jewish organizations with strong ties to both the African-American community and law enforcement see themselves as well positioned to help bridge differences.

In Baltimore, where violent protests led the mayor to impose a curfew on the city for several days following Gray’s death, the local chapter of Jews United for Justice appealed to its members in the legal profession to volunteer “as a legal observer … or as a hotline volunteer” during the protests.

In Detroit, the Michigan Round Table, an umbrella body for minorities in which local Jewish groups take part, called an emergency meeting following the Baltimore protests. Heidi Budaj, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the meeting was mainly an opportunity to share reactions to what was unfolding in the Maryland city.

“These incidents are bringing to the forefront in our discussions feelings that may have been hidden for many, many years,” Budaj said. “All of us want to resolve any issues before it turns into Ferguson or Baltimore.”

Through its various law enforcement training programs addressing bias and hate crimes, among other topics, the ADL has long forged close relations with local police departments. At its national conference here over the weekend, the ADL featured a session about police-community relations and the organization’s role in improving them.

In Detroit, Budaj said the Jewish community is also part of a coalition, Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust, that has held monthly meetings with area police about police brutality and other “touchy issues.” The group rallied members, including 14 rabbis from Baltimore and Washington, to join in protests in Baltimore on May 1.

In Ferguson, Mo., a city near St. Louis, protests following the shooting last summer of Michael Brown by a local police officer were a major catalyst for a renewed national debate about police relations with the African-American community.

“What we’re focusing on is healing what’s broken and building a St. Louis that is safe, equal and just for all,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, which helps organize an annual 9/11 commemorative concert that last year made reconciliation its focus.

The Ferguson protests also drew attention to the increased militarization of local police departments.

“To suggest we need police looking like they did in Ferguson, it’s outrageous,” Gutow said. “When you see the blue uniform of police it should be a sign of friendship.”

The expanded availability of military-grade hardware to local police departments coincided with a growing concern about counterterrorism following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. John Cohen, who until last year was a senior counterterrorism official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the war footing adopted by police departments after the attacks put community policing on the back burner.

After race riots in the early 1990s, “there really was a broad and energized movement within the policing discipline to expand local community cooperation focused on preventing crime, improving life,” said Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice in New Jersey who is helping to direct a project examining attacks on faith communities. But after 9/11, he said, “there was a shift in priorities.”

Jewish groups “benefited greatly” from the shift, according to Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community. Concerned that Jewish institutions were prime targets for terrorism, Jewish groups won significant grant money from the Department of Homeland Security — including 97 percent of all funds doled out in 2012 under the department’s Non-Profit Security Grant Program, according to a report that year in the Forward.

Goldenberg praised law enforcement agencies for the “extraordinary amount of time” spent assisting Jewish communities. A degree of militarization was inevitable, he said, to face terrorists at home and abroad.

“Police officers a decade ago were carrying 357s with six shots and rounds on their belts, and they found themselves being confronted by adversaries with automatic weapons,” Goldenberg said. “The paradigm has changed.”

Jewish Midshipman Dead, Tech CEO Missing in Amtrak Derailment

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child. Photo credit: JTA

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child.
Photo credit: JTA

One Jewish midshipman was killed and a the CEO of Philadelphia tech company is missing after an Amtrak train derailed Tuesday night.

Midshipman Justin Zesmer, from Far Rockaway, N.Y., was one of the seven people killed when Amtrak Northwest Regional train 188 derailed, according to reports. Another 200 were injured.

Rachel Jacobs, the CEO of ApprenNet, a Philadelphia tech company, is among those reported missing.

According to the Naval Academy’s website, Zesmer, 20, was the vice president of the Jewish Midshipman’s club.

“He was his high school’s valedictorian and was just finishing his second year as Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy,” Zesmer’s family said in a statement to the Yeshiva World News. “He was a loving son, nephew and cousin, who was very community minded. This tragedy has shocked us in the worst way and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends. At this time we ask for privacy from the media.”

Jacobs commuted regularly via Amtrak, friends told reporters. Amtrak has not been able to determine whether she was onboard.

Jacobs reportedly used a 10 pass, instead of a regular ticket, which allows passengers to board at any time.

Karl Okamato, Jacobs’ friend and co-founder of ApprenNet, told CNN Jacobs left a meeting with the intent to board train 188 and no one has heard from her since 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Although commuters are sympathetic to the victims of the derailment, some said they still plan to ride Amtrak.

Samantha Silver, a Washington-based journalist from Baltimore, takes the MARC train to Union Station on a weekly basis.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Silver upon hearing about the accident. “I took the 6:20 p.m. train last night so I probably just missed [train 188].”

For Silver, taking the train isn’t the scary part. What scares her is the idea that a meeting was scheduled to take place only hours after the derailment to decide if Amtrak should receive a $252 million budget cut.

In the wake of the accident, Congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) issued statement saying he voted against the 2016 Transportation-HUD Appropriations Bill.

Silver believes public infrastructure needs to be as well-funded as possible. Amtrak’s 2013 national report states they had 86,000 riders daily and a total of 31.6 million passengers in the fiscal year.

Amtrak has set up an incident hotline for those who believe their friends or family may have been on regional train 188. That number is 800-523-9101.

Check for the latest updates.