From Awareness to Inclusion Quarter century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, how far have we come?

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Disability advocates are pushing for all Jews to be included in all aspects of Jewish life. (Courtesy of RespectAbility)

When he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 25 years ago this July, President George H.W. Bush aimed to change the lives of millions of Americans living with disabilities. According to Virginia Knowlton Marcus, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, the broad-based law mandated access to governmental services, employment, business and transportation, allowing people to achieve goals and live their lives integrated into a community just like everyone else.

But while the ADA, as the legislation is known, was, in the words of Ruderman Family Foundation president Jay Ruderman, who presides over projects benefiting the disabled in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, a “landmark statement by the government” in the realm of equality and civil rights, implementation of the law, say critics, has fallen short. Whether in terms of enforcement or the state of economic opportunities for the disabled, many acknowledge that a lot more work is left to be done.

“[The ADA has] been the beginning of a sea change in how people with disabilities are regarded in our society,” said Marcus. “There’s a long history of discrimination and segregation that the ADA provided a legal tool to overcome, and we have made significant progress in the last 25 years.

“Before the ADA, there were hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities shut away in large facilities rather than being included with their families and their communities,” she added. “[The ADA] has begun a shift of resources out of the outmoded way of dealing with people with disabilities.”

Ruderman agreed that the ADA was “significant.”

“Jewish values teach us that every Jewish soul deserves to be included in our community. unfortunately, we don’t live up to those values.”

“It shifted the way people think about disabilities,” he said. “Before the ADA there was a medical approach: ‘Disabled people have problems. We have to cure them.’ What the ADA said was, ‘No, we need to change the environment, make our public institutions accessible institutions.’”

But one of its biggest flaws, he pointed out, was in exempting religious institutions from certain aspects of accommodation.

“I think our Jewish values teach us that every Jewish soul deserves to be included in our community. Unfortunately, we don’t live up to those values in our Jewish communities,” he said. “We tend to focus on the best and the brightest, and we don’t tend to look after the people on the fringes of our community.

“[People say it’s] expensive to include people with disabilities, but that’s a cop-out,” he continued. “There’s enough money in our community to do what we want. Our community is very focused on social justice, on being a light to the world — that’s a very important value; unfortunately, we don’t look at ourselves.”

So many Jewish philanthropies are focused on the continuation of the Jewish people while ignoring a large segment of the population that wants to be connected, he charged. “When I hear philanthropists don’t do disability, to me, that’s an absurd statement. You want to connect the Jewish community, but you’re willing to write off 20 percent of the community and their families? That tells me we need to change attitudes, and part of that is self-advocates standing up and demanding their rights.”

Ben Dubin, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation who has testified in Annapolis on disabilities and serves as vice chair of the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities, agrees with Ruderman.

Dubin, whose adult daughter is deaf, sees lack of compliance with the law as a significant barrier to the disabled.

“I guess its unfortunate today that people have to sue [to meet ADA standards],” said Dubin. “I’m really cognizant of venues, facilities when there is not a signer or oral interpreter for the deaf, or captioned for the deaf. When I take my daughter to these places, why do I constantly have to ask in advance [if these services are offered]?”

Answering his own question, Dubin offered that “some of it is still attitudinal. People don’t think people with disabilities can do what people [without] disabilities can do with regard to the job market, but if you hold businesses and government [agencies] to the letter of the ADA, what’s in the law, things would be ideal.”

According to national statistics provided by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. In Maryland, where slightly more than 80 percent of those aged 21 to 64 are employed, only slightly more than 42 percent of people with disabilities in the same age bracket are employed, according to disabilitystatistics.org, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

In her writings, Mizrahi points out that while other minority groups have made huge gains in employment opportunities, disabled individuals are no more likely to be employed than they were before the ADA was passed.

That’s why she wants to see the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was signed into law in July 2014, succeed. Mizrahi, who is dyslexic and suffered a car accident before the passage of the ADA, testified before the U.S. Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities, calling the committee’s attention to the “Disability Employment First Planning Tool” crafted in conjunction with other leading disability advocates.

“We want to see the investment the taxpayer is making [used wisely], giving people with disabilities [a] better future,” said Mizrahi.

Locally, there are a number of organizations that provide vocational training and educational opportunities for the disabled. Among them are the Arc, Chimes and the League for People with Disabilities, Inc., which was co-founded by the Council of Jewish women. The Community College of Baltimore County works in collaboration with these agencies to host classes and provides students with learning differences or cognitive challenges an accessible education through the Single Step Program.

Melanie Hood-Wilson, director of special populations at CCBC, estimates that 90 to 125 students enroll in the noncredit program each semester on campus. There are two types of students at Single Step, she said: the student who wants to go out in the world and have a career and the student who simply wants to have the same college experience as his or her nondisabled peers or siblings who might attend nearby Towson University or UMBC.

Teaching life skills is also part of the experience, as there has been “a growing awareness that self-advocacy and self-determination are essential,” said Hood-Wilson.

While the ADA opened up doors to higher education, accommodations are not guaranteed in the same way the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates for the K-12 population, which can leave disabled adults out in the cold.

“All people want to be as independent as we can be; some of us just need more support,” explained Hood-Wilson. “That’s really what the disability world is all about in the 21st century — helping people with disabilities figure out how to live the lives they want to live and providing them with the resources they need.”

Shelly Christensen, co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) — now running for the seventh consecutive February — literally wrote the book on inclusion, titled, “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.” Her advocacy efforts were inspired by her middle son, Jacob, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was not diagnosed until he was 15.

Jacob Christensen was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 15. His mother co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month. (Provided)

Jacob Christensen was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 15. His mother co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month. (Provided)

“We always saw Jacob as Jacob and if he had a disability going on then we needed to work with him and not marginalize him and not create a persona that was less than,” she said. “And the one place that we did not have problems was at our synagogue and our religious school. Jacob was just Jacob there.”

As inclusive as her home congregation in Minneapolis was, Christensen and other members of the Jewish Special Education International Consortium recognized that inclusion was not on the radar of many educators. They looked to JDAM to move from simply educating disabled Jews to including them in the mainstream community as full participants with whatever supports they needed.

“Think of the variety of ways you participate in the Jewish community,” she wrote in a recent blog post leading up to this year’s JDAM. “You choose how you wish to be involved. So it must be for people with disabilities. The key is supporting each person to determine what is important to them instead of us determining what we think is important for them.

“The whole idea of inclusion isn’t complicated: You treat people with dignity and respect that all people are created in God’s image and it’s not a mitzvah project,” she added. “We have a ways to go.”

Joining Christensen in spreading the message that inclusivity must be an ideal constantly pursued is Lisa Friedman, education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J. She blogs about JDAM at jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com and matankids.org, and offers her expertise to Jewish communal groups, particularly religious schools and synagogues. This year, she is challenging other disability advocates to think about inspiration, awareness, acceptance and inclusion each week of February.

“[The] tagline of JDAM is from awareness to inclusion,” said Friedman. “Often when I present, there’s this progression: First, you have to make sure people are on board, that they agree [with inclusion], and that’s pretty easy, but a lot of times that’s where it stops. … I went in this direction of, ‘OK, you’re inspired, now learn.’”

Two of the biggest challenges congregations often cite are lack of funds and lack of expertise.

“I’ll [be told], ‘Sure, it’s easy for you to say xyz because you’re an expert in [inclusion], but we’re not experts,’” said Friedman. When it comes to “money, people get scared off. … But there are simple ways to be more inclusive,” like offering large print books or video streaming.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, a senior advisor on disability rights for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, experienced exclusion firsthand.

While taking her son to religious school years ago, she was in a car accident that left her in a coma for six weeks; she suffered a traumatic brain injury and needed to relearn how to walk and talk.

She said via email, “To my dismay, many synagogues I visit tell me that their attempts to welcome people with disabilities fall under the purview of their social action committee. We Jews must help our synagogues understand that welcoming people with disabilities is not a social action item. … Social action is teaching every segment of our community about this minority that is seldom acknowledged.”

Self-advocacy, an increasingly popular buzzword, is a movement that Friedman fully supports. The involvement of disabled individuals into how they want to be included in the community and what supports they will need should be an obvious place to start, she contends.

As to how well the Jewish world has done with inclusion, Friedman says it’s a work in progress.

“I think we’ve done well in pockets. I think there are some places … that do some aspect of inclusion well,” she said. “The whole Jewish camping movement isn’t inclusive, but there are exemplary, outstanding examples of inclusion within Jewish camps.”

Exclusionary practices at Jewish camps is something that rings true to Ari Ne’eman, winner of the 2014 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion and president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

“The Ramah camps has a policy that each Ramah camp will welcome a camper with a particular disability,” said Ne’eman. In other words, he continued, if you are disabled, you might not be able to go to the same summer camp as all of your friends from home. “Now, if the Jewish camp system were subject to the same requirements under the ADA as secular camps that would be a very questionable arrangement.”

Camp is not the only place Ne’eman has seen or experienced exclusion firsthand. He described having to leave religious school because of his disability.

“To be frank, there are many ways that Jewish communal life is very exclusionary,” he said. “Sometimes that comes in the form of having separate segregated programs instead of being welcomed into the greater community.”

Ne’eman, who holds a degree in political science from UMBC, co-founded ASAN in 2006 as a response to a “growing discussion on autism, but it was excluding the voice of autistic people.”

ASAN is firmly in the “nothing about us without us” camp and is unafraid of voicing its views — from using identity-first language to opposing autistic individuals being institutionalized or placed in sheltered situations — even when those views garner pushback, even open hostility, from parents and other advocates. Ne’eman wants to see disabled individuals not only brought to the table, but sitting on Federation boards or at the head of Jewish communal institutions.

In terms of local Jewish life, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has a Caring Commission that works to ensure services for the most vulnerable populations, according to commission member and Jewish Federations of North America’s Disability Committee co-chair Janet Livingston. “I do think we’ve done quite a lot in our community,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to make people with disabilities able to participate and function and give all our families services to be able to participate.”

Another Associated-funded Jewish communal resource Livingston points to is the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance. Its website, jewishabilities.org, serves as a one-stop shop for Jewish and general services for a wide array of disabilities from early childhood through adulthood.

To mark JDAM, The Associated is partnering with the JCC, Jewish Community Services, the Macks Center for Jewish Education and SHEMESH on a number of workshops and programs. The Associated will be sending representatives to Washington D.C. on Feb. 25 to participate in Jewish Disability Day, organized by the Jewish Disability Network, JFNA and the RAC.

Ohio Rabbi Remains in Jail

New details have emerged in the case of the Ohio rabbi accused of sexually abusing a Baltimore County girl.

Booking photograph of Frederick Martin Karp

Booking photograph of Frederick Martin Karp

Reached at the seminary from which Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp, who is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson, graduated in 1998, Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, dean of the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Spring Valley, N.Y., said that Karp “was a very fine young man.”
“He was very dedicated to rabbinical work,” said Spivak, adding that Karp had a close group of friends at the school and took his studies seriously.
Though Spivak is a graduate of Loyola College and Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore, the rabbi said he was unsure of what connection Karp had to the Jewish community in Baltimore. Karp’s wife is a graduate of the University of Maryland.
Karp made his first appearance in Baltimore County court last Thursday for a hearing at which a judge reduced his bail from $5 million to $500,000 and forbid him from any contact with his accusers, witnesses or children under the age of 18.
Karp, 50, a Beechwood, Ohio resident and director of spiritual living at the Menorah Park Center for Senior Living there, was extradited to Maryland on Jan. 28 from New York City, where he was arrested Jan. 15 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport as he awaited a flight to Israel. He is charged with second- and third-degree sex offense, sexual abuse of a minor and perverted practice stemming from an accusation made on New Year’s Eve that Karp had been repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl in Baltimore County over a five-year period.
Before moving to assume his role at Menorah Park, Karp lived in Monmouth, N.J., where he worked as the local federation’s community chaplain from 2001 to 2008.
Karp, who wore an orange jumpsuit and sat quietly during the Towson proceeding, made his appearance via closed circuit television from a holding area.
State prosecutor Lisa Dever, who heads the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s sex offense and child abuse division, detailed some of the allegations against Karp to the judge. The alleged victim, she said, came into contact with Karp through a close relationship between the rabbi and her family. The abuse, the state claims, began when the victim was 7 years old and continued into present day. The girl is now 12. Furthermore, the attorney added, two of the victim’s sisters have since come forward and accused Karp of inappropriately touching them as well. The State’s Attorney’s office would not say whether more charges would be pursued.
Karp’s lawyer, Marc Zayon, told the judge his client was not aware of any investigation surrounding him until Jan. 14, when Baltimore County police came to his home in suburban Cleveland to speak with him. Karp was not trying to flee the country, said Zayon. Rather, he was leaving for a planned vacation he had scheduled in September.
Karp’s wife, Sarah Epstein Karp, was present at the bail hearing, along with Karp’s brother-in-law. Both sat quietly while the judge told Karp and his lawyer that his bail would be reduced in light of what the judged described as evidence that Karp had not been planning to flee the country, as investigators had initially suspected.
Karp’s two adult children were absent at the hearing.
Karp founded Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains and served as its president. He was suspended from that role, as well as his position at the Menorah Park Center, late last month.
“We have no knowledge of any details other than those published in the media,” Neshama said in a statement. “NAJC must trust the legal process of the State of Maryland and, until these charges are either proven or dismissed in a court of law, have suspended his membership in the organization.”
A pretrial hearing was granted but has not yet been scheduled. As of press time, Karp had not posted bail and remained at the county detention center.
Baltimore County Police said last week that there is no evidence that any incidents of abuse occurred at any Baltimore-area Jewish facilities.

Pikesville High Renovations Scaled Back

013015_pikesvilleThe $44.9 million renovations to Pikesville High School might not include all of the originally proposed improvements due to higher-than-anticipated construction costs.

The renovations, which include a new HVAC system, new roof, accessibility upgrades, new classrooms and technology, now includes a list of “add alternates” — pieces that will get done if money is left after the initial renovations — such as sound and lighting upgrades in the auditorium, a renovated gym, a greenhouse, cafeteria skylights and new kitchen and serving line equipment.

Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said construction costs appear to be higher than they were when the schematic design for the renovations was made. The funding has not been cut, he added.

“It is quite common that everything that we want we cannot do because the market fluctuates,” said Pete Dixit, executive director of facilities at BCPS, “and sometimes the market is favorable and we are able to do a lot more.”

The school opened in the fall of 1964 to sophomores and juniors. The building did not have an HVAC system, and recent studies determined it would be more efficient to rebuild than to retrofit the existing building with air conditioning. The renovations are slated to be completed in time for the 2016-17 school year.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2), along with state Dels. Dan Morhaim, Dana Stein and Shelly Hettleman and state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, all of the 11th District, wrote a letter to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz asking for the renovations to be completed in full. Almond said the additional pieces may cost around $7 million.

“This happens once every 50 years and we feel like we shouldn’t be skimping on any of the items,” Almond said. “We just feel like after all this time and trouble that we deserve to have the full funding for the full project whether [costs] came in higher or not.”

Because the state had already given what funding it can according to a formula, Almond said, additional funding would have to come from the county. With uncertainty on how much state funding the county will be receiving in the state’s budget, she said the request for additional funding is at a stand-still.

The school community is also rallying to get all pieces of the renovations done. Jill Cohen, vice president of programming for Pikesville’s parent teacher student association, said the most upsetting possible cuts were a sun shade outside of the front entrance and the auditorium upgrades.

“I was on the stage when I was a student there back in the mid-’80s,” she said. “It hasn’t changed.”

She said the PTSA is appealing to the Baltimore County Board of Education. Her son Bradley graduates in May.

As construction trudges along, about 80 percent of the school is now in three modular buildings that hold a total of 34 classrooms. Acting Principal Joy O’Brien-Krack said construction seems to be running on schedule, and is excited about what renovations are sure to get done.

“We’re still gaining classrooms and state of the art equipment,” she said. “I’m grateful that it’s happening and it’s going to be a beautiful building.”

Dixit said there’s little chance that the add alternates will get done with the current funding, or even further down the road, but stressed that the essential improvements are getting done.

“Most of the key instructional spaces and all the code and health license safety requirements, they will be met and it will beautiful building once it’s done,” he said.

For more info on the renovations, visit bcps.org.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Ohio Rabbi Apprehended

013015_abuseRabbi Ephraim Karp, director of spiritual living at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, was arrested in New York Jan. 15 on an active felony warrant from Maryland.

According to the Queens, N.Y., district attorney’s office, Karp has been charged by the state of Maryland with perverted practice, sex offense, sex abuse of a minor and sex abuse. He is listed in court records as Frederick M. Karp, and a release from the Baltimore County Police Department linked the charges to the alleged abuse of a juvenile female over a period of time.

Karp, 50, was arrested at 9:25 p.m. Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as “a fugitive from justice” on the warrant issued by the District Court of Maryland, Baltimore County, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department.

He was arraigned Jan. 16 in Queens Criminal Court and will likely be extradited to Maryland, said Ikimulisa Livingston, spokeswoman for the Queens district attorney’s office. As of Jan. 21, he was in custody at the Anna M. Kross Correctional Facility in East Elmhurst, N.Y., according to the New York Department of Correction website. Public records were not available from Baltimore County referencing the case.

Karp is president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, formerly known as the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and was en route to the annual NAJC conference in Jerusalem at the time of his arrest, a spokesperson for Menorah Park said. The conference is set for Jan. 26 to Jan. 29.

In June 2013, the organization’s national board, which includes Karp, was at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown for a conference.

In a statement, however, Baltimore County Police said there was no evidence that any incidents of abuse occurred at any local Jewish facilities.

Steven R. Raichilson, executive director at Menorah Park, issued this statement Jan. 21: “[On Jan. 20] we learned that Rabbi Ephraim Karp has been charged in Baltimore County, Md., with a series of offenses accusing him of sex abuse that allegedly took place in Maryland. We do not have further details regarding the charges, but we continue to be assured by local authorities that there is no connection between these charges and Rabbi Karp’s work for Menorah Park.

“We were tremendously saddened by this development. Rabbi Karp joined us seven years ago with solid recommendations,” he continued. “We conducted a thorough background check, and no issues or concerns surfaced during that process.”

Beachwood Police Chief Keith Winebrenner confirmed that police from Baltimore County came to Beachwood on Jan. 15 looking for Karp but said he could not provide any more details.

“I know he was arrested in New York, but I don’t know what he was arrested for or if he has been charged with anything,” Winebrenner said. “It’s still under investigation.”

Karp, of Beachwood, came to Menorah Park in 2008. He is one of two full-time Orthodox rabbis in the nursing home’s spiritual living department.

Before coming to Menorah Park, he was community chaplain for seven years for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County in New Jersey, where he founded its joint chaplaincy program.

Karp, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., was ordained at the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Spring Valley, N.Y., in 1998. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a master’s degree in social work in international and community development at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.

Queens County records show that, at the time of his arrest, Karp was aware of the incident in question and had been in contact with a lawyer and the Baltimore police. He awaits extradition to Maryland.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com
Ed Wittenberg writes for the Cleveland Jewish News.

The Hogan Era Budget delivers on promise of cuts

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Governor Larry Hogan (File)

Newly sworn-in Gov. Larry Hogan started his tenure in office with a bang last week when he announced his 2016 budget, following through on his campaign promise to close the state’s looming budget gap.

“Maryland’s FY 2016 budget establishes balance without slashing agencies, laying off workers and while fully funding education and all of our essential priorities,” said Hogan in his Jan. 22 news conference announcing his proposed budget.

The budget, he told news crews and officials gathered in Annapolis, achieves three main objectives: It is structurally balanced; it does not raise taxes or fees or eliminate agencies, departments or services or require furloughs or layoffs; and it increases spending on kindergarten through grade 12 education and higher education.

While some praised Hogan’s fiscal conservativism, for many in Maryland’s government, the budget left much to be desired. The legislature’s chief budget analyst, Warren Deschenaux, criticized the budget’s unspecified call for state agencies to cut 2 percent from their budgets, and though education overall would see a record high in funding, areas such as Baltimore City and the counties surrounding Washington, D.C., will lose millions of dollars in funds over the next few years.

“I’m really disappointed that there are such enormous cuts to our education budget. Baltimore County is due to lose nearly $13 million and Baltimore City over $30 million,” said Baltimore County Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. “If the governor is serious about creating a better business environment, research has shown that one of the most important aspects businesses look at when considering where to locate is the quality of a state’s schools. Such dramatic cuts to our school budgets will, no doubt, have a detrimental effect on the quality of our public schools.”

Hettleman was far from alone in her critique of the governor’s education spending plan.

“It’s just not a tenable way to fund education,” said Montgomery County Sen. Roger Manno (D-District 19), who sits on the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee and chairs the Spending Affordability Committee. “You might be able to balance the books that way, but it seems to me that that’s a hell of a way to balance the books: on the backs of kids.”

Manno said he understands the difficult financial situation the new governor came into but stressed that the state has grappled with deficits before and managed to not cut funding from education and environmental programs.

“We don’t deconstruct state government because revenue estimates came in south of where they thought they’d be,” said Manno. “We figure it out.”

Manno was also concerned about the lack of funding included in the budget for some of the Jewish community initiatives in Montgomery County.

“Some things pay for themselves,” he said of Jewish social service agencies and programs that had seen state dollars in the past but would not be seeing funding in 2016. “They’re investments in communities and people that yield huge dividends, and the truth of the matter is this: They define us. What we do down here is who we are.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council is also concerned about funding for community programs that have received state aid in the past. In the FY 2015 budget, the Jewish Museum of Maryland was allotted $12,533 in funds from the state; Sinai Hospital received $2.5 million; and the Hillel Center for Social Justice at the University of Maryland was the recipient of $1 million in funding for construction. This year, Executive Director Arthur Abramson sees few of the items he and the BJC have been advocating for in the governor’s proposal.

“We are concerned — based on prior conversations with the governor and others — that, as we peruse the budget, we’re not finding some of the items that we believe are vital to our community and that we expected, based upon prior conversations, would be in the budget,” said Abramson, who added that he and his staff are in communitcation with both the governor’s office and legislators about what can be done to salvage some of the funds he said the community desperately needs.

In particular, Abramson said, the BJC is looking for funds to help equip Sinai hospital with the tools necessary to respond to any potential attack on the community of Northwest Baltimore and funds for Northwest Hospital’s domestic violence and elder abuse programs.

“We are dependant upon funding and we hope that Gov. Hogan will continue providing the necessary money to enhance the quality of lives for those people who require our efforts.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Negotiating the Negev The coexistence of development, preservation and growth

David Ben-Gurion’s vision was to make the Negev desert bloom, but Israel’s efforts to develop the arid lands of its southern interior often pit environmentalists against government land officials, and native Bedouin tribes against an influx of immigrants and longtime Israeli urban-dwellers.

Only 8 percent of Israel’s population lives in the vast Negev region, an area that comprises about 60 percent of the nation’s landmass. Agriculturally, the country can produce about 45 percent of its calories, while the larger percentage of food is imported, said Alon Tal, associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Institute for Dryland Environmental and Energy Research in Be’er Sheva. He thinks Israel could do better — such as by growing food in the Negev — but, he urges, not at the price of environmental destruction.

“We need innovative agriculture,” not government subsidies to bring in “one Jewish family … so they can hire 40 Thai workers. I don’t think this is in the national interest,” said Tal, who sits on the international board of the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet LeYisrael. He believes non-profit foundation and government subsidies should focus on “solar industries and clean tech and biotech and make [the Negev] a place to be.”

Wadi Attir, a unique sustainable agriculture project that addresses Tal’s urging, celebrated its dedication ceremony Jan. 27 in the Bedouin village of Hura, north of Be’er Sheva. Initiated at the end of 2007 and estimated to be a $10 million project once fully realized, it is a collaboration of Dr. Michael Ben-Eli’s New York-based Sustainability Laboratory and Hura Mayor Dr. Mohammed Alnabari.

Ben-Eli, a 20-year veteran of sustainability research and advocacy, found himself drawn to the region’s 180,000 Bedouin residents during a visit to the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

“My God, this is impossible,” he recalled saying, during a trip through some villages, “that Israeli citizens live in such conditions.”

Alnabari said the average age is 14 in the Bedouin community, and more than 60 percent are under 18. The Bedouin have lived a very simple and stable life, he explained, but now they feel they’ve lost everything, as a highly technological life encroaches on them. They need to learn methods to bridge those worlds, he said.

Interested in applying sustainability practices to help improve Bedouin living conditions, Ben-Eli met with Alnabari and others in Hura on a subsequent trip as well as researchers at the university. Seed funding from private donors allowed them to proceed.

“We were able to assemble a very unusual group of partners,” namely the Israeli government, academia, NGOs, the Jewish National Fund and private donors.

Wadi Attir fuses traditional Bedouin agricultural and husbandry practices with the pioneering and inventive agriculture methods presented by Ben-Eli’s team. The staff learns techniques for soil enhancement and water retention and can receive training for eventual employment. They maintain the herds and crops and produce dairy products, medicinal herbals and cosmetic goods.

“[Wadi Attir] is a big opportunity,” said Alnabari, “with many resources for the future.”

Situated in a semi-arid region, the teams were charged with the sizable task of enriching the soil.

 

Stefan Leu, a scientist at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, said in the Negev region “the soil productivity and fertility is about 10 times less than it could be” and he is working to replenish it after its destruction “thousands of years ago by early settlers and passing armies. The problem is the restoration of this vegetation; getting it all back is a very slow process.”

Echoing Bedouin farming practices, Leu recommended planting native trees such as olive, acacia, pistachio and carob that are useful as food as well as anchoring and nourishing the soil. He devised systems of augmenting the landscape with natural rain catches made of small earth mounds and also overlaying the soil with leaves and straw, all of which capture water and prevent it from being washed into gullies or ravines.

Leu admits restoration of vegetation can take years, though initial successes are taking root as he and his team make the soil more permeable. But, he said, there is an obstacle even more impenetrable.

“It is the nonexistent or ambiguous land ownership,” he said. Wadi Attir, after years of permit applications and negotiation, finally owns about 100 acres. “Every single other piece of land from this area from Be’er Sheva to Eilat and to Dimona … is not available because it’s under disputed ownership. Bedouins claim it is theirs, the government does not want to accept that claim, and, therefore, nothing can be done.”

But the collaboration of Wadi Attir has been encouraging, he noted, because it encompasses “sustainable development and also addresses economic, environmental and social problems” and it helps to ameliorate them within the Bedouin community. That holistic approach is a steadfast principle of Ben-Eli’s Sustainability Laboratory.

To date, staff at Wadi Attir has planted 3,500 olive trees, constructed animal pens for their goat and sheep herds and built a large barn. There is also a sophisticated combination solar- and wind- energy system that heats up stored power to augment its energy output. Plans include a visitors’ center, a milking facility, dairy operation and technology to convert waste into an energy resource. Ultimately, Ben-Eli said, the desire is to replicate the project in other desert regions around the world.

But agriculture is only part of the Negev’s evolution, with government planners seeing the region as a potential home for those seeking suburban, or more affordable, lifestyles.

It’s nearly impossible to look around anywhere in Israel and not see some development, power lines or a village, said Shahar Solar, head of the Environmental Planning and Green Building Division at the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection.

“You can drive for days [in the U.S.] and the only thing you’ll see is the road. You see nothing,” Solar said, recalling a recent two-week cross-country drive during his stay as a Wexner Israel Fellow at Harvard. “And here we don’t have that. So we have to think really carefully how we develop Israel. And the planning system should be precise.”

Shahar said “people perceive the Negev as empty” so it attracts projects such as hazardous waste treatment plants and power facilities that, he admits, are needed, but the government also sees it as fertile ground for growing new communities. In the planning stage are 11 new villages, said Shahar, most are north and east of Be’er Sheva, and includes Kasif, a village designated for an ultra-Orthodox community just across the road from a Bedouin village.

He likened the new villages to suburbs, containing about 100 to 200 homes and offering lower taxes, so they tend to attract higher economic-level families. His hope is that he and his colleagues can prevent some of the projects from moving forward.

“We think the way to develop Israel is going to existing cities like Dimona, Yerucham, Be’er Sheva, Netivot, Sderot … and invest there.” He added, “Then more people will enjoy the investment, not [just] the small minority.”

Tal agrees.

“We’ve got to help people make their [existing] towns economic and social successes,” he asserted. “We don’t need to take the limited resources we have as a society and build expensive new infrastructures so that a group of privileged yuppies can have their own little garden community. Those days are gone; they should be gone if we were running this country responsibly, both in terms of our ecological responsibilities and in terms of our social responsibilities.”

Solar said it is not only suburban sprawl, but also the unrecognized, unauthorized Bedouin communities that create challenges for the design and implementation of responsible planning.

He explained the danger is, with many small communities spread so far apart, that infrastructure cannot be efficiently disseminated to allow access for basic needs such as educational and health facilities or even electrical power. For example, when long power lines are used, 4 percent of electricity is lost in the transmission.

“We have to deal with this issue, … and on the way minimize [the Bedouin] impact on the environment. It’s a big issue.” He added, “The [Bedouin] people now live in insufficient conditions. … It’s not a matter of religion, it’s because they live so spread out … There is very low density but the impact is there.  They have roads and houses, tents, cattle, all the impact of a small village.”

Proposed plans would require Bedouin families from low-density areas to move to larger settlements in order to access the provided services. Solar said in addition to improving the living situation of the communities “the ecological system will benefit. It’s a very political issue.”

With all of the good intentions of planned development and nonprofits encouraging movement to the Negev, Solar said, making it a reality is a very different thing.

“There is no demand to live in the Negev, especially in the remote places,” he said. “We should increase the demand for cities like Be’er Sheva, which has huge potential. … We can’t spread the money, the attention, the energy, in all kinds of remote places which are not serving anyone.”

The Jewish National Fund, which owns of about 13 percent of the land in Israel, maintains a bird’s -eye view across many different desert developments that reach far south into the Negev region. Its Blueprint Negev initiative is comprehensive in that it works with new and established communities and promotes improvements in health care accessibility and agriculture as well as cleaning up, restoring and preserving areas of historic and natural beauty.

According to Eric Narrow, JNF Midatlantic senior campaign executive, his organization’s role “is to be the collaborator and a partner in resources and funding.”

“Because right now, in terms of intergenerational justice ecologically, Israel is failing. We are not leaving our children as healthy a land of Israel, as that which we received. We need to do better. We owe them that.”

JNF grants funds but also works to empower its partners, explained Narrow. “Our goal is to create a sustainable model for socioeconomic growth and prosperity.”

Previous to Wadi Attir, JNF was not working directly with Bedouin communities but welcomed the opportunity to support and collaborate with the Sustainability Laboratory, an organization that mirrored its mission, said Narrow. “When you look at what our focus is, it’s providing a future for Israel, so as the needs of the country changed, that changed the focus of what we were doing.”

Since then JNF has implemented other programs focused on Bedouin communities.

Continuing with the spirit of collaboration and meshing with its desire to sustainably develop the southern Negev, JNF also partners with Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, near Eilat, where primarily Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian students work with a cadre of international environmentalists on interdisciplinary research that centers on innovative environmental technologies.

Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT) is another JNF partner organization committed to sustainable development and education, located in the central Arava region.

“Now [the institute] hosts 1,200 students from more than a dozen countries that learn cutting-edge farming techniques they can bring back to their countries,” Narrow said. “We also teach them about Israel.”

One of the ways you can bridge cultures is through the shared struggle with land challenges, said Narrow, “So there becomes a shared interdependency. They go back [to their countries of origin] with a stronger knowledge of business and agriculture and a stronger knowledge of the Jewish people … They are usually from countries that would not [typically] be inclined to work with us.”

The Arava Institute, co-founded by Tal, exemplifies the innovative, collaborative thinking he promotes as necessary to responsibly foster growth in the Negev.

“I’m a powerful advocate for development of the Negev,” said Tal, “But we have to do it right so we leave something for our children to be proud of.  Because right now, in terms of intergenerational justice ecologically, Israel is failing. We are not leaving our children as healthy a land of Israel as that which we received. We need to do better. We owe them that.”

Focus on Bedouin Youth
A New Dawn creates opportunity for young at-risk population

Jamal Alkirnawi, 35, grew up in the Negev’s largest Bedouin community of Rahat, just north of Be’er Sheva. Since his teen years, he’s not been satisfied sitting on his laurels, instead, he has pushed “to enact real change” in his community.

At 16, he established a never-before-existing student council at his school and through that met students from around the country. That exposure widened his horizons, and he began to see the opportunities possible, he said. At that young age Alkirnawi dedicated himself to activism for his community.

He earned a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, completed a degree in social work and returned to Israel as an academic counselor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Alkirnawi quickly realized he couldn’t “just be in a nice office, at a university.”

“I needed to get back to the ground,” he said. “I can’t sit on the [sidelines] and say things will move by themselves.”

Alkirnawi also became a father.

“You care about your kids, you don’t want them to have the same challenges, you want to break the cycle,” he said. “This drives me so much.”

In 2009, he and several Bedouin and Jewish colleagues founded A New Dawn in the Negev, for which he is director. A New Dawn provides academic and cultural education and international exposure for about 600 Bedouin youths from ages 5 to 18. Programs range from after-school English instruction, a language exchange that includes German, English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew, the Strings of Change Bedouin Youth Orchestra and a digital media center. Visiting graduate students from around the world also work with the youths.

Imminent approval by the Israeli government will enable the start of a scholarship program for A New Dawn’s international student exchange, beginning with Germany.

“Change is always hard and is sometimes shunned, but we have been successful in the Bedouin communities for a few reasons,” Alkirnawi said. The main reason is the large demand for youth programming, previously nonexistent. The programs stand out because they are “social services for Bedouins by Bedouins,” he added.

“A New Dawn is working to bring the Bedouin community to a higher standard … in partnership with the surrounding society,” he said, “to create a flourishing and blooming Negev.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Kamenetz Proposes Stormwater Fee Reduction

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is proposing a reduction in the stormwater management fee, known derisively as the “rain tax,” by about one-third, for homes, businesses and nonprofits.

“The Council and I have been discussing ways to reduce this fee for some time,” Kamenetz said in a press release. “This has been a collaborative effort, and it allows us to continue to protect the Chesapeake Bay while making the fee more reasonable for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits.”

Kamenetz is also asking Gov. Larry Hogan to advocate for an extension on a 2025 federal compliance date.

The proposed reductions will be introduced at the Council’s legislative session on Feb. 2, discussed at a public work session on Feb. 24, and the bill will be voted on at its March 2 legislative session.

The fees came about from a 2010 federal lawsuit between the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, the result of which was the EPA ordered Maryland to reduce runoff water that carries toxins and nutrients into the Bay with measurable results by 2025. The Maryland legislature instituted a mandate under which Maryland’s 10 largest jurisdictions would pay for cleaning up the Bay. Baltimore County established a fee-based structure, which took effect July 1, 2014, to curb phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment pollution into the Bay.

Although fees nonprofits are currently paying were reduced from what was originally proposed, businesses and nonprofits alike feel that the fees affect them disproportionately. Both entities’ fees are based on the amount of impervious surfaces they have, i.e. parking lots. The larger the parking lot, the higher the fee.

“Now that we’re into this a little bit we see that our business are suffering from the amounts of money they have to pay for stormwater management,” Councilwoman Vicki Almond, D-2, said.

The county is able to reduce the fees because of a lesser revenue requirement due to efficiencies achieved in the first year of the program, the press release said.

Under Kamenetz’s proposal, the fee for an individual home would be reduced from $39 to $26, the fee for an attached home from $21 to $14, the fee for a condominium from $32 to $22, the fee for a commercial property from $69 to $46 per 2,000 square feet of impervious surface and the fee for institutional nonprofits from $20 to $14 square feet of impervious surface.

Almond said the Council is discussing Kamenetz’s proposal, but she hopes the county executive’s administration will look for more money in its budget rather than ask for a federal extension, which she acknowledges will be a challenge given the uncertainty in state funding for the county.

“I think we want to study the issue more,” she said. “The Council is certainly talking about it, but I think we need to study it more.”
— Marc Shapiro

Pikesville Guidance Counselor to be Honored at White House

A local high school guidance counselor will be received at the White House by the offices of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and the American School Counselor Association.

Jeremy Goldman, school counseling department chair at Pikesville High School, was named one of the 16 national semifinalists for the ASCA’s National School Counselor of the Year awards program. Goldman, now in his fourth year at Pikesville, was the winner of the 2014 Maryland School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year award at the high school level. He serves as the president of the MSCA. Goldman lives in Lutherville and is a member of Temple Oheb Shalom.

The semifinalists, among them two other Maryland counselors, will be honored at a White House ceremony on Friday followed by a black-tie gala hosted by the ASCA.

This is not Goldman’s first brush with the first family. At the ASCA annual conference last summer, the first lady called him out by name.

“Well, Jeremy noticed that hardly any African-American students in his school were enrolling in AP classes, so his counseling team worked with teachers and the principal and created an action plan to close this gap,” she said. “And today, both enrollment and test scores are up for African-American students in his school.”

Goldman, who will be attending the gala with his wife Emily, is glad for the publicity just ahead of National School Counseling Week, which begins on Monday.

“I think that having that recognition on public school counselors shows that students in public schools have just as much opportunity to attend competitive colleges,” said Goldman. “[Guidance counselors] can be proactive and reach out to all students and help all students achieve their goals.”
— Melissa Apter

Krieger Schechter Wins $1,000 BGE Grant

013015_krieger_schechter_briefKrieger Schechter Day School was awarded $1,000 by Baltimore Gas and Electric for its entry in the company’s Wires Down Video Challenge.

The school was one of 11 elementary schools awarded prizes out of 26 video submissions from 24 participating schools. The $10,000 winner was Sarah M. Roach Elementary School in Baltimore City; Northwood Elementary School in Baltimore City won $5,000. There were three $3,000 winners, and KSDS was one of six $1,000 winners.

The students had to make a video about downed wires using BGE’s famed “Wires Down” song, which debuted in a 2000 commercial that won an Emmy Award.

Alex Thaler, the school’s science teacher, was teaching the fourth-graders about electricity when it came to their attention that BGE was holding the contest. They decided to enter and came up with comic book imagery for their video.

“It was really the fourth-graders’ idea. One of them said ‘Let’s have the BGE workers be super heroes and they’re fighting these evil downed wires,’” he said. “That’s how it evolved into super hero versus villain.”

Over the next three to four weeks, the class practiced the song, came up with choreography, made costumes and turned the class into a movie studio, complete with a blue screen. The video was shot in two class periods, and Thaler edited the video himself.

Last week, the school found out the video won the $1,000 grant. The money will support the lower school’s science program.

“It was great. There were cheers in the classrooms, and faculty were congratulating the fourth-graders,” Thaler said. “It was really a feeling of accomplishment, and I think the students saw that what they did in the classroom really had a real-life appreciation, and that’s what I was aiming for.”

He hopes to enter the contest, in its third year, every year.

To date, BGE has awarded almost $81,000 to 27 elementary schools in Central Maryland through the contest. To view the winners, including Krieger Schechter’s video, visit bgevideochallenge.com.

New Coalition Aims to Strengthen Pikesville Schools

How does a school, in an area saturated with choices both public and private, rise above persistent rumors and misconceptions?

Pikesville Middle School advocates are hoping the answer lies with a new dynamic principal, a newly formed schools coalition and support from CHAI.

CHAI decided to expand outreach to Pikesville, taking a cue from its successful involvement with schools in Northwest Baltimore for many years, according to executive director Mitchell Posner, because “strong schools are a core element of a strong community.”

“Schools are the hub and the heartbeat of a community,” said Michelle Shaivitz, director of school and community partnerships at CHAI. “We are trying to engage in community conversations about diversity and equity. We’re trying to have a continuation of academic success for the students.”

CHAI is in the early stages of collaborating with Pikesville school principals, community leaders and other stakeholders to identify and secure resources, in what CHAI envisions will be a long-term commitment. Coalition.

The announcement of CHAI’s involvement was music to the ears of Eddie Matz.

Dr. Whitney and Eddie Matz have three children in Pikesville schools. Two of their children attend Summit Park Elementary School and their oldest, Ben, is in sixth grade at Pikesville Middle. Eddie is, in his own words, “a huge proponent of the public schools.” He grew up in Randallstown, graduated from Randallstown High School and estimates that “99 percent” of the kids he grew up with attended the public schools. It was a no-brainer that his children would also attend public school.

Whitney, on the other hand, had a few reservations. She had heard rumors about fights, about the alleged over-rigor of the gifted and talented classes, of not enough rigor in the non-GT classes.

“We had many discussions about what we were going to do,” said Whitney. “We talked to our son about it and he was very interested in Pikesville because all his friends were going.”

So far it has worked out. Whitney and Ben even spoke at a CHAI-sponsored question and answer session for potential PMS families hosted at the Parke at Mount Washington in mid-December.

“Ben is very happy. He is extremely academically challenged. Eddie and I have absolutely no concerns about Ben’s safety at school,” said Whitney. “I have a lot of confidence in the teachers. They are a big reason why it has been a success for our family.”

The Matzes, along with other parents, believe that the negative rumors surrounding Pikesville Middle are a byproduct of ignorance as to what is really going on in the halls of the school. Jeff Jerome, leader of the Pikesville Schools Coalition and former Pikesville High School PTSA president, concurs.

“When my son was going to school, the feeling in the community was that Pikesville Middle school may have had some behavioral issues,” he said. “It was sort of an unsaid thing…” Now, Jerome is working with the coalition to inform the community about school realities and “keep the school system in the area strong.”

“The coalition gives all these [stakeholders] a voice to give us more leverage than we would have as individual groups,” he added.

“People think these schools are different because there is diversity. I think that they are better because of it,” Jen Rosen, president of the PTA at Summit Park ES, said via email. “The Pikesville schools are a reflection of the society we live in, there are children from all walks of life learning and socializing together. The teachers are really great at PMS and with Diane Richmond in charge, disciplinary issues will be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible.”

Despite these assurances, parents still struggle with the public versus private school question.

Michael Mann is frequently approached by parents for advice. He has a unique perspective because his eldest child is in seventh grade at The Park School of Baltimore, while his two youngest attend PMS and Fort Garrison.

“We try to walk [parents] through the same thought process we went through,” said Mann. “[We] explain our experiences with the Park school and the public school system. Both offer distinct advantages.” And, he added, he tells parents not to start from a place of thinking of public schools are “second best.”

“There’s not necessarily a drop-off in quality in public or private. It’s just different. It’s not orders of magnitude different and each has a lot to recommend the choice.”

Julie Jacobstein likewise has a foot in both worlds. Her family has a third grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School, a sixth grade student at PMS and an eighth grade student at McDonogh School. When her middle son was readying for middle school, a natural transition point, he wanted to partake in the Gateway to Technology — a STEM program — at PMS.

Jacobstein, who attended Fort Garrison Elementary School as a child but did not attend PMS, admits to being a bit wary, but was blown away by the teachers and principal at the back to school night.

“In Baltimore [there] are so many choices and so many options. It’s all about what’s best for your kid,” said Jacbostein, even if having three kids in three different schools might make life more hectic for parents. “It would be really easy to have them all in the same place and have the same schedule, but they are all really where they need to be.”

The PMS parents were unanimous in their support of Principal Richmond, who came to PMS this year after 12 years at Summit Park ES. She is careful not to comment on the private versus public school question, calling it a personal choice that has long been a topic of conversation in the community, nor on the rumors that have plagued PMS.

“I can’t tell you where these misperceptions come from. I do know that Pikesville Middle School is an outstanding program because of the caliber of teachers that we have here.”

Adding, “I couldn’t be more proud of this school and the teachers here, the students here and the parents that have gotten involved. It’s a wonderful, warm community.”

mapter@jewishtimes.com