Obama’s Last Lap Deep divisions exposed by president’s final State of the Union

In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama  reflected on his tenure in office and outlined his vision for the country — not just for his final year in office,  but for the “next five years, 10 years and beyond” — and drew mixed reactions from the Jewish community.

Barbara Goldberg Goldman, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council’s Women’s Leadership Network, watched the State of the Union from the White House on Jan. 12 surrounded by others who had campaigned for the president in 2008 and 2012.

“It was quite an emotional moment for me,” said Goldberg Goldman, adding that it brought back memories of the night before Obama’s first election. “I remember standing in a tent and watching tears fall down his cheeks during a speech that was really riveting. It confirmed for me, at that moment, why I worked so hard for him to get elected.”

She has been a fierce defender of the president’s record and echoed the successes Obama outlined in his  reflection on the last seven years, namely, the addition of 14 million new jobs over 70 straight months, an uptick in high school graduation rates and the expansion of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.

The president dedicated a significant portion of his final State of the Union to his administration’s foreign-policy achievements and goals for  the future.

“The third big question we have to answer is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem,” Obama said.

He cited the Iraq war launched under his predecessor, George W. Bush, as an example of a policy that weakens the United States.

“[We] can’t try to take over and  rebuild every country that falls into  crisis,” Obama said. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the  lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq? — and we should have learned it by now.”

Instead, Obama said, he favors a foreign policy that “says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but  on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”

“He has brought the image of the United States of America back to where it belongs,” said Goldberg Goldman. “He has brought it back to an image of strength, of leadership, of success. The rhetoric coming from the other side is nonsense.”

And, she said, paraphrasing former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama has “done more for the State of Israel … than any other leaders of the free world.”

But Israel was not mentioned at all during the president’s address, which did not go unnoticed by Obama’s  Republican foes.

“Israel, our dear friend and the only free democracy in the Middle East,  wasn’t mentioned at all during the speech. Our friend and ally Ukraine was inexplicably referred to as a Russian ‘client state,’” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said in a statement. “This reflects a lack of understanding of geopolitical reality. Sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect from President Obama.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, touted as a contender for the Republican vice presidential spot, delivered her party’s response and spoke of  Israel while lambasting Obama’s deal with Iran.

“We would make agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran and not the other way around,” she said.

Obama did not mention the 10 American sailors captured the day of the State of the Union by the Iranian Navy after two small U.S. naval vessels entered Iranian waters. Critics of the nuclear deal say that while Iran is complying with its narrow strictures, it is also expanding its influence and mischief-making in the region.

“The president touted his nuclear deal with Tehran, yet what the president didn’t say is that, since the deal, we have seen an increasingly bellicose regime flouting the international community, daring us to take action against its illicit behavior and then threatening to walk away from the nuclear deal if we do respond,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.,) chairwoman of the House Middle East subcommittee, said in a statement.

Aron Schwartz, who serves as the communications vice chair for the Montgomery County Young Republicans, said the State of the Union wasn’t worth his time.

“It was nothing but lies. [Obama] was patting himself on the back for doing nothing,” said the Pikesville  native, who credits his modern  Orthodox upbringing with shaping his libertarian views.

The speech crystallized the objections Schwartz has with Obama’s  recent actions — executive actions on gun control, in particular, which Schwartz dubbed “illegal” — and with the president’s legacy as a whole.

“Liberal politicians think the government is your lord and savior. It will save you and take care of all your problems,” he said. “It can’t. It won’t. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, took a more measured tone.

“I think that there’s several really positive things about the past seven years and some things, as the president referred to, [that] are regrettable,” said Feldman.

“Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest,” said Obama. “Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor  and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

The president is a “polarizing figure,” Feldman said, though he didn’t rest the blame solely on Obama. “The president doesn’t get to instantaneously change the conversation or rework the policies of the last 200 years.”

“For an organization like JCPA, which is built on a notion of consensus and building coalitions, the partisanship that has turned into gridlock is  really troubling,” Feldman added. “I think from all accounts, both from the Americans and Israel, the cooperation between the United States and Israel is terrific, but the rhetoric around the issue was very concerning for those of us who care about the stability of the United States-Israel relationship.”

On a hopeful note, Feldman said that he was pleased by the pieces of the president’s address that spoke to building opportunity.

“There are a lot of impediments and obstacles that too many American children face to unlocking their potential, [and] it’s a tragedy for us as a society,” said Feldman. “[We need] to be mindful of how do we empower our neighbors and, in doing so,  empower ourselves.”

JTA contributed to this report.


‘Human Rights Are Human Rights’ Left and right make common cause on alleged torture of Jewish Duma suspects

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, protests at a New York demonstration organized by the right-wing Americans for a Safe Israel.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, protests at a New York demonstration organized by the right-wing Americans for a Safe Israel.

The issue of torture in Israel has received unusual attention in recent weeks because of the identity of the alleged victims.

Human rights groups say nothing is new in the allegations that Jewish youths, arrested in connection with an arson attack over the summer that killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents in the West Bank village of Duma, were tortured by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service. (Two of the youths were indicted on Jan. 3.)

For years, Palestinians have charged Israeli authorities with doing much the same. And it is likely that, despite the renewed attention to the issue, little will change for a number of reasons, including the overarching trust that most Israelis place in their security services and the human tendency to fret over one’s own more than the perceived enemy.

But for a moment, however brief, claims by Jewish suspects have yielded an unusual convergence, with left-wing groups that have long decried Israeli interrogation methods making common cause with groups on the right angry that the Shin Bet has swept up some of their own.

“As long as it happens to others — in our case, the Palestinians — it’s one thing. But when it happens to a group that has greater access to media attention, it’s another,” said Yuval Shany, the dean of the law faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a group of experts that monitors compliance with international human rights standards. “A lot more attention was paid to these allegations than to parallel allegations by Palestinians.”

Lawyers for the three Jewish youths in the Duma case alleged last week that their clients were deprived of sleep, blindfolded and beaten. At least one of them, Elisha Odess, has dual Israeli-American citizenship. His family maintains he is innocent.

Supporters of the youths have stirred some sympathy in light of the allegations. A protest rally in Jerusalem last week drew hundreds, and a right-wing American pro-Israel group, Americans for a Safe Israel, organized a vigil outside the Israeli Consulate in New York.

Moshe Feiglin, a one-time contender for the leadership of the ruling Likud party, bemoaned the allegations of detention in an opinion piece in the Jewish Press, an Orthodox New York weekly.

“What kind of state will be left after this horror, taking place with the authorization and oversight of the ‘law’?” Feiglin asked.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s main internal security agency, denied the allegations in a rare statement, calling them “lies,” and the prevalent reaction among Israeli leaders was to side with the agency. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli Cabinet minister and leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, defended the agency in a statement typical of a political class that, with exceptions only on the margins, tends to defer to the security establishment as the best guarantor of the country’s safety.

“Those who, like us, support the Shin Bet’s actions on Palestinian terrorism, whose objective is to save Jewish lives, can’t oppose them when they’re applied to Jewish terrorism,” Bennett said at a conference for Orthodox educators, according to the Times of Israel.

David Haivri, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuach, said there has been a mix of reactions among settlers, in part because of an appreciation of the Shin Bet’s role in quelling Palestinian terrorism.

“If this case of suspected Jewish terror hadn’t come up, many would have been content with ignoring or even supporting the need for torture when interrogating [Arab] terrorists,” Haivri said in an interview. “Now this case has caused a predicament.”

The deference to the security establishment extends to mainstream American Jewish organizations, with groups that tend to pronounce on human rights issues — including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — declining to comment on the charges.

Americans for a Safe Israel involved itself only because of its familiarity with the communities where the suspects lived, said Judy Kadish, a member of the group’s board of directors.

“We tend to be action oriented, and knowing so many of the people in these settlements, knowing they’re very good people and of very fine character, and they’re religious Zionists, we felt this was what we should do,” Kadish said.

Kadish said she did not expect the issue would continue to be a priority for her organization as it has become for left-wing groups, who have seized on the allegations to advance a wider campaign against Israeli interrogation methods. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who directs T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, joined the Americans for a Safe Israel vigil, in part to make clear that torture is unacceptable
regardless of the victim.

“The real test of human rights is whether you will apply it to people who are not sympathetic, to people who have done reprehensible things, including people who have killed a toddler, or people who are stabbing someone on the streets of Jerusalem,” Jacobs said.

B’tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, launched a campaign to show that Palestinian allegations exactly parallel those of the youths in the Duma case.

“People under interrogation must not be subjected to abuse and torture, no matter what,” the group said on Twitter, captioning a picture of a man handcuffed to a chair with a quote from a Palestinian describing sleep deprivation methods similar to those that lawyers for the Duma suspects have related.

Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, which helps fund B’tselem, among other groups, said its American donors are keenly interested in the allegations. She said the donors also favor greater Israeli scrutiny of the extremist community that produced the Duma murderers and their enablers.

“Human rights are human rights,” Paiss said. “It’s so cynical for the Israeli government to make human rights a leftist issue. Torture is torture. You don’t use it, period.”

Advancing NGO bill Israel’s Cabinet fires another shot at its critics

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, (far left), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AMIR COHEN/Photo via Newscom)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, (far left), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AMIR COHEN/Photo via Newscom)

TEL AVIV — Its backers call it a victory for transparency. Opponents say it smacks of dictatorship.

Either way, a new bill requiring certain Israeli nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding is moving toward passage after it was approved by a Cabinet committee on Sunday. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked,  who proposed the bill, said it uncovers foreign meddling in Israeli affairs.

“The transparency law, which passed the ministerial committee for legislation today, doesn’t label people and doesn’t label organizations,” Shaked, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, wrote on Facebook. “It labels the foreign interest of different states, which seek to enable NGOs here, and in whose name they give hundreds of millions of shekels.”

Shaked’s bill is the latest in a string of measures undertaken by Israel’s right-wing governments to target left-wing NGOs. Sunday’s vote occurred two weeks after government ministers restricted the  activities of Breaking the Silence, an organization of military veterans that draws attention to alleged Israeli military abuses in the West Bank.

In 2011, the Knesset enacted a law requiring NGOs to declare any foreign government funding on a quarterly basis. A 2013 bill sought to levy high taxes on foreign government donations, but foundered after the Israeli attorney general advised that it was unconstitutional.

Recent years have also seen legislative efforts to  prohibit boycotts of settlement products and allow  individual soldiers to sue groups that defame the army.

“This is part of the attempt to hurt groups that criticize the regime,” said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “They’re trying to put NGOs on the stand and say they’re not legitimate.”

Shaked’s bill would require NGOs that receive  a majority of their support from “foreign political  entities” to declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report or speak with a public  official. An earlier draft of the law would have  required representatives of such groups to wear badges identifying themselves as lobbyists of  foreign governments.

The NGOs affected by the bill have decried the measure as an attempt to silence opponents in Israel of the government’s policies. They say by singling out foreign government funding, which goes mostly to left-wing groups, the bill ignores foreign funding of right-wing groups by private donors.

“This creates a negative image and has no place in a democratic state,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, executive director of Peace Now, which would fall under the bill’s purview, having received donations in the past from the British, Belgian and Spanish governments. “There’s no reason I should wear a tag that says I get foreign funding while right-wing NGOs will stand next to me as if they got all their funding from home.”

Right-wing politicians have been working to clamp down on left-wing NGOs since 2009, when a United Nations report accusing Israel of war crimes cited research by left-wing groups. Shaked’s bill, which would expand the disclosure requirements of the 2011 law, comes amid a campaign by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu, which has posted ads in major cities accusing prominent left-wing  activists of being foreign “moles” in Israel and  supporting terror.

Im Tirtzu’s founder, Ronen Shoval, wrote in a column on the news website Walla that the bill provides necessary transparency around foreign  entities seeking to meddle in Israeli affairs.

“Imagine what would happen if the state of Israel chose to give money to groups in Spain working  toward Catalan or, God forbid, Basque independence,” Shoval wrote. “For years, European states have been undermining Israeli democracy.”

NGO Monitor, an Israeli organization that  scrutinizes the work of human rights organizations, says European governments provide some $100 million in direct or indirect funding to NGOs  operating in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — funding that constitutes an illegitimate effort to sway Israeli policy.

“When sovereign states disagree, they disagree through diplomacy and other measures,” said NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg, who said his group neither opposes nor supports the bill, though it has long drawn attention to what it calls the “problem” of foreign NGO funding. “They do not do it through the manipulation of civil society. When states provide money to influence  policy in another country, that’s a unique infringement on sovereignty.”

Critics counter that Shaked’s bill represents a ploy to suppress dissent by taking aim largely at groups on the left. The New Israel Fund, which funds several groups that would be affected by the law, said Sunday in a statement that the bill “is a very precise imitation of the policies of Putin’s Russia  and other authoritarian regimes clamping down on civil society.”

Centrist and left-wing politicians are also criticizing the bill as a vehicle to shame left-wing groups. The notion that the law enhances transparency  is a sham, they say, since the 2011 law already  requires financial disclosure.

Critics also called the bill inconsistent for mandating a public declaration of governmental funding, but not of private donations. Peace Now released a study earlier this month reporting that hundreds of millions of shekels in private donations to nine right-wing NGOs could not be traced to a specific individual or organization.

“This is not a law aimed at transparency, rather a law aimed at labeling Israelis,” opposition lawmaker Tzipi Livni wrote on Facebook. “The goal in this law is to label bodies that oppose the  government’s policy.”

All In on Climate Jewish organizations back Paris pact

COEJL Manager Liya Rechtman (center) leads an interfaith prayer service in the Green Zone of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. (Photo provided)

COEJL Manager Liya Rechtman (center) leads an interfaith prayer service in the Green Zone of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. (Photo provided)

The organized American Jewish community reacted positively to the Paris climate agreement signed this month by almost 200 nations. The Dec. 12 accord aims to significantly curb carbon emissions in order to avert dangerous climate change, but those elements of the community backing the agreement say the deal is only the beginning and that Jewish individuals and institutions can help lead in the transition to a clean energy and climate resilient economy.

The pact, reached following two weeks of negotiations at the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a more ambitious target than the original 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) goal at the start of the talks.

“Given the constrained reality of the conversation, especially in America in 2015, the Paris accord went about as far as we could have hoped,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).

While Dobb celebrated the achievement as a “ray of hope,” he warned that “energetic follow-up actions” are required.

“There’s still a huge gap between the commitments made in Paris and the scientifically driven need to reach sustainability for our descendants,” Dobb said.

The Reform movement commended the international climate agreement, with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, calling the pact a “historic step in the global fight against climate change” that “if implemented, will have the effect of arresting the progression of climate change and mitigating its effects, particularly on the most vulnerable.”

Liya Rechtman, manager of COEJL, joined an interfaith delegation at the conference, held just outside Paris at Le Bourge. Traveling to France with Asma Mahdi, director of communications at Green Muslims, Rechtman said COP21 offered a chance for interfaith dialogue.

“We engaged in discussions on climate change mitigation as a tool for Jewish-Muslim peace-building and international security,” recalled Rechtman. “Especially coming to Paris immediately after the terrorist attacks there, the context for the talks were deeply influenced by the connection between climate change, poverty and security.”

While there, Rechtman realized the magnitude of tackling climate change, but found inspiration in the diverse groups gathered for a shared purpose.

“Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. Climate change is the future of our planet, and it requires people from all corners of the earth to take up the mantle of responsibility and do their part,” said Rechtman. “The Paris conference demonstrated to me that that was possible.”

Among the countries doing their part to solve global warming, said Jewish National Fund spokesman Adam Brill, is Israel, which is leading in the areas of forestry, water and renewable energy.

The Paris agreement devoted an entire section to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Trees sequester carbon and Israel is the expert at countering
deforestation with reforestation, explained Brill, having entered the 21st century as the only country with more trees planted than from the previous century.

“We’ve planted 250 million trees in the last 100 years in Israel. Trees from the north to the south that provide not only shade but of course air and the ability of people to enjoy green spaces,” Brill said. “When Jews settled in Israel/Palestine a hundred years ago there were no trees, it was just arid lands. So we’ve got to counter the effects that are taking place where the lands are going dry and barren and repopulate them with trees and that’s what reforestation is all about.”

Brill also pointed to Israeli water innovations such as drip irrigation and the more than 250 JNF reservoirs across the country that store recycled and reused wastewater used for the agricultural sector.

JNF also works closely with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on developing solar technology and supports the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, which opened an off grid hub last December that is “bringing folks together from all over Israel and the world to share technology and innovative practices to create new renewable energies and sources, whether it’s solar, whether it’s wind or hydro,” explained Brill.

“Any agreement that brings people together to talk about how they can make the world a better place is wonderful,” said Brill. “JNF and Israel have led the way a long time now on various ways to make due with less and how to deal with the climate that we have. Whether it’s arid or dry or wet, we become masters of safeguarding it so I think that folks should know that Israel is the place to go to for help and for so many different things and I’m happy to see that people are getting together and discussing these important issues because we’ve only got one planet and we have to take care of it.”

While Jodi Rose, executive director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, said she is pleased about the Paris agreement, she is more concerned with the work cleaning up the air and water in Maryland and Washington.

The organization’s Trees for Sacred Places program has over the past two years planted 10,901 trees at congregations and faith-owned properties across Maryland, according to Rose. She also cited the growing number of congregations installing rooftop solar panels and faith leaders advocating in Annapolis for issues such as banning plastic bags.

Said Rose: “There’s so much we could still be doing at the local level and need to be and must be doing at the local level that will never get national headlines but makes all the difference in the world.”


‘There’s an Urgency’ Former Maryland attorney general to lead Pennsylvania’s ‘porngate’ investigation

Former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler

Former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler

A Washington, D.C. law firm has been officially contracted to pore over thousands of emails on Pennsylvania state servers as part of an independent investigation into a scandal locally dubbed as “porngate.”

The final signature needed on the contract between the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General and BuckleySandler LLP was added on Dec. 10, and the contract was made public Dec. 11. The firm is tasked with investigating emails legally embattled Attorney General Kathleen Kane described as “racist, misogynistic, homophobic and religiously offensive.”

As many as 1 million emails dating to 2009 will be scrutinized by the BuckleySandler team. Former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, a partner in the contracted law firm, is Kane’s choice to oversee the independent investigation. His contract, as of press time, was under review, but he confirmed to Washington Jewish Week that he expects to be paid on a per-diem basis commensurate to what the current attorney general earns, approximately $80 per hour.

Gansler, who is Jewish, served as the attorney general of Maryland for eight years. He ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for governor in 2014.

According to Appendix A of the contract released late last week, BuckleySandler LLP has been tasked with investigating and prosecuting of any crimes “related to the use of Commonwealth e-mail communications systems.” That includes Kane emails provided to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in October 2014.

Gansler and his team are looking into “improper disclosure of criminal investigative or grand jury matters and the viewing or transmission of sexually explicit, racially or otherwise discriminatory or
illegal materials” by current and former members of the Office of Attorney General, members of the judiciary and other public officials.

Under the contract, BuckleySandler will be compensated at a 15 percent discount of its 2015 normal hourly rate. Five attorneys are anticipated to work on the matter at the following rates: Benjamin B. Klubes at $880 per hour; Caitlin Kasmar at $740 per hour; Antonio Reynolds at $685 per hour; Elizabeth R. Bailey at $480 per hour; and Leah Kuo at $205 per hour.

None of the lawyers assigned to the case are members of the Pennsylvania bar, Gansler said. This was done intentionally to maintain the integrity and independence of the investigation.

“We really want to maintain our independence,” said Gansler. “The public corruption allegations here include members of judiciary, district attorneys, members of the Office of Attorney General —
independence is paramount.”

Some news outlets have quoted a $2 million price tag for the investigation, which Gansler said is based on an expired independent counsel statute. He expects the investigation, which should take “months, not years” to complete, will fall far short of that number.

To those who might balk at the cost of the investigation, Gansler said, “The cost of not having the integrity and confidence and trust of the folks of Pennsylvania … is, in my view, a far higher cost than conducting an independent investigation of allegations.”

Much of the case will be handled in-house, though his team will travel to Pennsylvania as needed to conduct interviews and any grand jury work, prosecutions or referrals, added Gansler.

“There’s an urgency to get this done [as quickly as possible] without compromising the integrity of the investigation,” he said. “It’s not like wine; it doesn’t get better with age.”

The investigation is in its earliest stages. Gansler said his firm is coordinating with the Office of
Attorney General to get materials in the most “technologically feasible way.” He was scheduled to meet with people party to the investigation in Pennsylvania later this week.

His appointment is complicated by the fact that Kane is facing her own legal troubles separate from the investigation, which prompted some of Kane’s staff to question whether she had the standing to hire Gansler.

Kane, the first woman and first Democrat elected to the position, is facing felony charges of perjury for allegedly lying under oath about releasing grand jury secrets to a reporter in an effort to discredit her critics. The state Supreme Court has indefinitely suspended her law license. Kane is also facing a federal defamation lawsuit that accuses her of abusing her power.

She has denied the allegations and has said she is the victim of a conspiracy that stems from her administration’s review of her predecessor’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case.


Baltimore Residents Protest and Call for Reform After Porter Mistrial

Protesters chanted outside of City Hall Wednesday evening.

Protesters chanted and marched through downtown and outside of City Hall Wednesday evening. (By Marc Shapiro)

Dozens of police officers stood on corners on Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore just after a mistrial was announced Wednesday afternoon in the case of Baltimore Police Officer William Porter, the first of the six officers who face various charges in the death of Freddie Gray. Blocks away, other officers stood behind barricades in front of City Hall, and others blocked doors to the courthouse.

While some arrests were made, the evening was one of peaceful protest as people marched through downtown in the late afternoon into the evening and later assembled at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues.

Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody earlier this year.

“I’m disappointed because I thought he would be found guilty of misconduct at least,” said Renaya Nkechi, who was protesting outside of city hall on Wednesday. “I’m scared for society … where you can be injured in the presence of public servants and they will turn their back and do nothing and let you die and then not be held accountable that’s a scary society. That’s a society we need to address with reform of our police.”

In an email to Jews United for Justice supporters, Baltimore director Molly Amster said the mistrial underscores the need for police reform.

“It is clear to us that injustice pervades at the Baltimore City Police Department. This trial – which marks the first in a long series – makes even clearer how desperately we need to improve our police accountability and transparency in the city and across the State of Maryland.”

By 8 p.m., about a dozen protestors from the People’s Power Assembly had gathered on the corner on Pennsylvania and North avenues, the area that was the epicenter of unrest during the riots that occurred the day of Gray’s funeral.


Elder C.D. Witherspoon speaks to a small group of protesters at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues Wednesday night. (By Marc Shapiro)

Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries was leading the crowd in chants.

“I completely disagree with the decision. I realize that [the jury] had a very tough task but this is a major blow to the fight for justice in Baltimore and nationally and I think we missed the opportunity early on to send the message that we are taking a hard line against an in opposition to police terror,” he said. “We believe that all the officers violated the public trust and they all could gave done something to prevent Freddie Gray’s brutal and heinous murder and they really let the general public down.”

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams was expected to decide Thursday morning if Porter would be retried.

This is a developing story.

Negotiating Interfaith Burial As time goes by, where to bury is becoming more and more of an issue

Nearly two years ago, Rabbi Jillian Cameron stood in a Catholic church in a deeply religious community in Massachusetts and gave the eulogy for her grandfather at the request of her relatives.

When her grandfather’s casket was lowered into the ground, Cameron’s mother leaned over to her and whispered, “Can you stay and say Mourner’s Kaddish with me?” Though Cameron’s mother never converted to Judaism, she raised a Jewish family with her Jewish spouse, and in that moment of deep sorrow, she wanted a meaningful spiritual connection, Cameron recalled.

For interfaith families, death and mourning rituals are yet another lifecycle event that needs to be carefully addressed, but one with which the wider Jewish community must also grapple. As demographics change, how Jewish cemeteries accommodate or do not accommodate interfaith couples will confront cemetery boards across the country.

People are thinking about this more openly, both in terms of ritual and burial space.

Cameron, director of InterfaithFamily in Boston, said couples frequently come to her and ask about where they can be buried and if their spouses can be buried with them.

The easiest way to find out is to look at the cemetery charter, said Morris Rodenstein, Jewish Community Services counselor at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Prince George’s County.

Mount Lebanon was established as a strictly Jewish cemetery more than 50 years ago with thousands of burial plots for the region’s Jewish population, which are now owned by a number of area congregations. Its charter cannot be changed.

About a decade ago, Rodenstein estimates, two area congregations bought plots in an interfaith section that is across a narrow road from the Jewish cemetery. There, interfaith couples can be buried side by side according to their preferred customs. There are roughly 200 plots available in that section.

This is in response to a trend David Zinner, vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, has seen in the last five years of Jewish partners saying they want their non-Jewish partners buried next to them.

“Most typically, cemeteries carve out a new piece, make a border with edges or benches or a pathway so that people who are more into Halachah” have their burial spaces kept separate, said Zinner. “It’s possible to do if you have enough land and you’re creative enough. There are plenty of cemeteries that say to you, ‘Only Jews can be buried here,’ but when push comes to shove, who’s really checking?”

That burden rests mostly on the congregations that sell the plots, said Rodenstein, but Dignity Memorial, which oversees Mount Lebanon, does ask families if the deceased is Jewish. The issue can become complicated when plots are handed down to family members who may or may not be Jewish. If a family “pulls one over” on the cemetery, then there is not much that can be done, said Rodenstein, which is why it’s better to address these issues well in advance. Rodenstein encourages couples to fill out a personal planning guide so as not to burden their loved ones.

“People are thinking about this more openly, both in terms of ritual and burial space,” said Cameron. “The associations that exist around the country are having these practical conversations. All these different types of people are going to have to think about this even more consciously, because it will become more of an issue as time goes on.”

Rabbi Maurice Harris, rabbi/senior educator for the national office of InterfaithFamily, has been approached by synagogues and burial societies across the country on the topic of how to adjust their regulations to accommodate changing demographics.

“I haven’t encountered a rabbi who calls me and says we don’t have any place to bury a non-Jewish loved one,” said Harris. “The controversy is what kind of religious symbol can we permit on the grave marker? Or, can we have a clergy member of another faith administer at the service? Or, how does patrilineal descent factor in?”

He continued, “What happens when you have a Conservative- or Orthodox-leaning person in a very small community who has done their part for years pitching in around the cemetery and may not be as comfortable with [being buried in an interfaith section]?”

Zinner said, “It depends.” It is possible to consecrate individual graves, though there is a desire for contiguousness in traditional Jewish cemeteries.

“Jewish cemeteries,” Zinner added, “started in about 1000 C.E., when Christians evolved to burying in church yards and Jews started burying in their own areas [outside the city boundaries], with some notable exceptions in Palestine, like the Mount of Olives.”

“Intermarriage,” Harris speculated, “is still new enough that we haven’t really hit the point where we’re seeing lots of people in their 80s and 90s who were intermarried, or whose children are intermarried, needing burials.” But in 30 years’ time, that could change.

He doesn’t believe that there will be a large problem, as the majority of synagogues in the middle of the religious spectrum — at least where he lives on the West Coast, which he says trends more religiously and culturally liberal — already have some sort of option for interfaith couples to be buried together.

Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington, addressed this issue by purchasing approximately 400 plots in the Jewish and interfaith sections of Mount Lebanon. According to Rabbi Daniel Zemel, the decision to purchase plots in the interfaith section was straightforward.

“Since the Jewish part of the cemetery was governed under bylaws that said it was for Jewish people to be buried there, we did not feel that it was proper to change that rule to have a non-Jewish person buried there,” said Zemel. “We wanted to retain the integrity of the cemetery, and our solution was to purchase a second section to be governed according to the wishes of the people buried there.”

Zemel said for his congregation it worked well, particularly since the congregation addressed the issue years ago “calmly, rather than at a time of stress with a lot of interfaith families. In that sense, I’m very, very glad our community was proactive in this decision.”


Bernie Sanders in Baltimore: “We Need Fundamental Changes”

Bernie Sanders walks through Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. (By Daniel Schere)

Bernie Sanders walks through Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. (By Daniel Schere)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood Tuesday morning, calling for increased investment in depressed urban communities across the country.

“Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think we were in a wealthy nation,” he told reporters. “They would think we were in a third-world country where unemployment is over 50 percent. We need fundamental changes in our national priorities. We do not need to give more tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. We need to start investing in communities all over this country that are hurting, that are forgotten about.”

Sanders began the morning at 9 a.m. by walking around the neighborhood, which received national attention in April after the police custody death of Freddie Gray, which sparked protests for weeks and rioting on the day of Gray’s funeral. Amidst cries of “all night all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray,” Sanders addressed the crowd in his immediate vicinity.

“Fifty one percent of young African American kids in this country are unemployed or underemployed,” he said. “That is a national tragedy. That has got to change. And it’s got to change for human reasons because we don’t want to see lives destroyed. But even if you’re a conservative, we’ve got to change for fiscal reasons because you save money when you create jobs and education rather than locking people up.”

After touring the neighborhood for 20 minutes, Sanders met with religious and civic leaders at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center before holding a brief press conference. In reflecting on his visit, Sanders said the dream young black Baltimoreans pursuing higher education is “as real as going to the moon.”

Sanders addressed concerns of police brutality that have been swirling around the country and Baltimore in the wake of Gray’s death and other police-involved deaths, pointing out that he has also called for a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department following the officer-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“It is my view that when any individual is killed while in police custody, that should bring forth a federal investigation,” he said. “It is my view that the federal government can play a very important role in terms of police reform by providing incentives to police departments around the country that do the right thing. And the right thing is to demilitarize our police departments. The right thing is to make sure that police officers have the training that they need to understand that lethal force is the last resort, not the first resort. To make sure that police departments look like the communities they serve in terms of their diversity, so there’s a lot to be done.”

Bernie Sanders supporters eagerly await the Democratic presidential candidate's arrival in Baltimore. (By Daniel Schere)

Bernie Sanders supporters eagerly await the Democratic presidential candidate’s arrival in Baltimore. (By Daniel Schere)

Toward the end of the press conference, Sanders was asked to comment on ISIS despite the request of a campaign official to stick to domestic issues. He responded by indicating he would talk about ISIS another day but wanted to focus on his domestic agenda while in Baltimore.

“Of course, I’ll talk about ISIS but today what we’re talking about is a community in which half of the community don’t have jobs,” he said. “We’re talking about a community in which half of the buildings are uninhabitable. We’re talking about a community where kids are unable to go to schools that are decent. You want to ask me about ISIS, we’ll talk about ISIS.”

“What I have said is that obviously ISIS and terrorism is a huge national issue that we have to address but so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is healthcare. And I will continue to talk about those issues.”

Candidates on Parade at Jewish GOP Gathering

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Nearly 700 Jewish Republicans gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, D.C., on Thursday to hear from Republican presidential candidates. The forum, sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, is the only event outside of the debates in which the 14 remaining candidates are scheduled to attend.

“We absolutely need a Republican president in the White House,” said David Flaum, RJC national chairman, to thunderous applause. “We cannot elect someone like Hillary Clinton who will not protect Americans in harm’s way or answer the phone at 3 in the morning.”

The RJC, Flaum said, is “preparing to execute the most well-funded advanced campaign ever undertaken in the Jewish community, so that [the community knows] that only a Republican can protect our interests at home and abroad.”

What follows is a snapshot of each candidate. Please check back for updates.


Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

“I believe this nation needs a wartime president to defend it,” said Cruz. He went on to criticize the president, calling him the “most antagonistic president to the State of Israel in our nation’s history.” He laid into Secretary of State John Kerry for calling Israel an apartheid state.

“When Kerry called Israel an apartheid state, I went to the Senate floor and called for his resignation. And I would note that we need more senators, both Republicans and Democrats” held accountable for when “the secretary of state undermines our allies.”

Playing to the staunchly pro-Israel crowd, Cruz said that in his administration, universities engaging in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel would be stripped of federal funds; that on his first day in office, he would begin the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; and that he would “rip to shreds” the Iran nuclear agreement.

“I do trust the Iranians,” said Cruz. “When the Ayatollah Khamenei burns Israeli and American flags and says ‘Death to America,’ I trust that he means it.”

He continued, “The next president needs to have the fortitude to say to the Ayatollah Khamenei in no uncertain terms: Either you stop your nuclear weapons program or we will stop you.”

In response to a question comparing his one Senate term to Obama having only one Senate term, Cruz said, “Obama isn’t a bad president because he was a first-term senator. Barack Obama is an unmitigated socialist who won’t stand up and defend the United States of America.”

He repeatedly contrasted himself with Obama and Clinton, saying that he cannot wait to take a debate stage with the former secretary of state.


Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

In his unhurried Southern drawl, Graham started slow but finished strong by detailing, in his opinion, the two demographics where Republicans have lost ground: young women and Hispanics.

Graham queried the room: Should there be an abortion exception for pregnancies that result from rape and incest? “If you’re going to tell a woman that she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re going to lose an election,” he emphasized.

As for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Graham said that Republicans aren’t losing elections because “we’re not hard-ass enough on immigration — I believe we’re losing the Hispanic vote because they think we don’t like them.” He would have undocumented immigrants pay a fine and face restrictions on getting a green card.

Graham rejected Cruz’s notion that Republicans need to drive more evangelicals to the polls by running to the right rather than the center.

“Do you really want to win this election?” he said to a resounding “Yes,” from the audience. “Then take what we say seriously and push back when we make no sense.”

On the Middle East, Graham said he has the know-how to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and would put the United Nations “on notice that if they keep coming after Israel they won’t get a dime of American taxpayer money.”


Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

The young Republican who is reportedly favored by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a financial backer of the RJC, hit all the right notes with the conservative crowd. (Adelson’s wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, Yahoo News reported, favors Cruz.)

He condemned the European Union for labeling products made in “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical term for the West Bank.

“We need a president who is not afraid to call this what it is: This is anti-Semitism.” And anti-Semitism, he continued, hides behind anti-Israeli sentiment in the form of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which, he said, “reeks of hypocrisy,” particularly on college campuses.

Like the other Republican hopefuls, Rubio pledged to tear up the Iran agreement and re-impose congressional sanctions. He chided Obama for confusing “our allies for adversaries.” He added that “the days of giving the ayatollah of Iran more respect than the Prime Minister of Israel are over my first day in office,” in reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before congress last spring that the president, vice president and a number of Democrats boycotted.


Former Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.)

Pataki began with the question on everyone’s mind: Why is he still in this race?

“Let me tell you seriously why I am: [Because] we have to win this race … we have to beat Hillary Clinton!” said Pataki.

“We have to elect someone who isn’t going to talk about all the things they’re going to do,” he said, adding that the country needs someone who “will go out and get it done.”

Getting it done for Pataki means reducing the size of the federal government by 15 percent, cutting Obamacare, cutting Common Core, scaling back the Environmental Protection Agency and prosecuting any IRS employee involved with targeting Republican and conservative groups.

In the fight against ISIS extremists, Pataki would “arm, supply and support” Kurds and Yazidis.


Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio)

For Kasich, supporting Israel is a family affair. He said that he can’t wait to take his 15-year-old daughters to Jerusalem, which he describes as a “shining city” — a direct reference and homage to Reagan, whose appropriation of the John Winthrop quote about America being a “shining city on a hill” is one of his most enduring legacies. (Virtually every candidate at the event referenced Reagan as well, a testament as much to his lasting impact on the party as to the location.)

Terrorism, said Kasich, is “destroying our way of life.” He was incredulous that the “president went to Paris and said, ‘We’re going to fight terrorism by taking on climate change.’ ”

Kasich stated that were he in Obama’s shoes, he would be meeting with all the countries that make up NATO to form a coalition that will destroy ISIS. He would engage with moderate Arab allies like Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States to counter extremism.

The United States, he said, is absent in Ukraine, absent in the Balkans, and seemingly powerless against Chinese aggression. America needs to lead, he told the audience.

“When America leads, people follow.”


Donald Trump, businessman

“You just like me because my daughter is Jewish,” Trump joked. “I can’t reach her on Saturday anymore. I call and call and she doesn’t answer.”

(Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism prior to her marriage to Jared Kushner in 2009.)

As has come to be expected on the campaign trail, Trump boasted of his negotiating skills and his ability to self-fund his campaign.

“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” said Trump. “I would love your support, but I don’t want your money.”

Trump estimated it would take six months to put together a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m a dealmaker. I will know very quickly … if I’ll be able to put this deal together,” said Trump. However, he wasn’t sure if either Israel or the Palestinians “has the commitment” to make such a deal. He quickly added that Israel is not given credit for what they’ve given up.

Trump was booed when he refused to say that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the Jewish State. He said he’d need to talk about it first with Netanyahu, who, Trump reminded the crowd — as he had in Manassas, Va., the night before —had called on the businessman to make a commercial for his re-election bid.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be happy, OK?”


Dr. Ben Carson

Carson, the last candidate to speak before the marathon forum broke for lunch, gave the audience a recap of the modern State of Israel’s history.

Speaking directly from his written comments, Carson failed to elicit the emotional response other candidates enjoyed even when referencing his faith.

He did garner some applause when he said the conversation surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian was flawed. Carson said “lasting peace” should center on what a future Israeli state should look like rather than what a future Palestinian state should look like.

U.S. foreign policy, he said, must ensure that Israel comes out of negotiations “as a Jewish state for generations to come.”

He dismissed the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of ongoing strife throughout the Middle East. According to Carson, of the millions of Muslims killed in violent conflicts in that region, “only 35,000 have been killed” as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Teen Engagement Conservative leadership emphasizes youth at biennial convention

With a focus on their movement’s youth and young families, leaders at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  expressed hope for the future.

Under the banner of “Shape the Center,” USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick used his platform to push the 1,200 attendees of the Nov. 13-17 convention in the Chicago area to focus on the young people of the Conservative movement.

“If we want to have the ability to maximally impact Jewish people  for their futures, [then] teen engagement should be one of our top three priorities,” he said.

It was fitting, then, that Eric Leiderman, co-founder and director of institutional advancement of Masorti on Campus, was named the winner of the 2015 Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Award. Cardin, an influential Jewish leader and educator based in Baltimore, founded the award in 2013 in honor of USCJ’s centennial. The prize carries a $5,000 stipend and an opportunity for the award recipient to engage with USCJ and its kehillot leaders.

Convention attendees from Har Shalom are (from left) Bob Sunshine, USCJ International board member; Beth Ann Spector, synagogue vice president for membership; Carly Schmand, synagogue membership coordinator; David Helfand, director of youth engagement; Shelley Engel, synagogue executive director; Cantor Henrique Ozur Bass; and Rabbi Adam Raskin. (TK)

Convention attendees from Har Shalom are (from left) Bob Sunshine, USCJ International board member; Beth Ann Spector, synagogue vice president for membership; Carly Schmand, synagogue membership coordinator; David Helfand, director of youth engagement; Shelley Engel, synagogue executive director; Cantor Henrique Ozur Bass; and Rabbi Adam Raskin. (TK)

Leiderman, a student at Binghamton University and an alumnus of USCJ’s Israel gap year program Nativ, called the experience “humbling” and reveled in the exposure it has given to Masorti on Campus.

Attendees of the convention have been “very supportive, and they’re impressed that this grassroots movement has really taken shape,” said  Leiderman. “A lot of people who were upset by the closing of Koach are very excited when they learn of students taking ownership of this area of our lives.”

Koach was the college campus arm of the Conservative movement until it was discontinued over budget constraints in 2013.

“He really stood out with his  extraordinary vision, and his work to engage this vital demographic of young adults on college campuses is having impact on North America and globally,” said Judy Guzman, an active member of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., and a member of the award selection committee.

She added, “He’s enabled young Jewish leaders to take ownership of their needs. He noticed a tremendous gap, and he’s working very hard to  fill it.”

Leiderman said he is heartened  by how the USCJ is embracing traditional egalitarian communities that operate outside of traditional brick-and-mortar congregational buildings.

“They are in support of how young adults are expressing themselves, whereas in years past they were trying to get people back into shuls, they are moving to where the people are,”  he said.

Non-Orthodox  streams of Judaism  are struggling with  demographics,  according to recent  reports from the Pew Research Center,  but USCJ leadership and laity seem  confident in the space Conservative Judaism occupies.

Approximately 145 United Synagogue Youth members and 40 collegians were present for the Shabbaton and convention. Though there was a millennial track, the USYers did intermingle with the rest of the attendees and led services.

Cliff Spungen, executive vice  president of Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh, participated in a youth-led morning worship service, which he described as full of enthusiasm and went well beyond rote recitation to be truly accessible.

“It was a beautiful thing and it  really seemed to get the kids motivated,” said Spungen. “It’s important that we go back to our home kehillot and really do something with this.  If we don’t, then it’s going to be  our fault.”

According to Wernick, 30 percent of teenagers with affiliated families are part of USY, but he would like to see that number increased to at least 50 percent.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington shared her own twist on worship through a tisch Friday night (Nov. 13) and Shabbat services Saturday morning that incorporated the Return Again musical Shabbat program she uses in her home synagogue.

“I felt there was hope,” said Holtzblatt. “There were five different davening options for Saturday morning, and all of them were using the liturgy to its fullness.”

Here, she said, is where the Conservative movement can thrive, by  offering “deeper access points” to  traditional liturgy and not being afraid to “open up to new ideas.”

Congregation B’nai Tzedek in  Potomac won a Solomon Schechter Award at the convention for its  Community Builders program. In  exchange for 10 hours per month  of synagogue engagement, young families receive 50 percent off of their early childhood tuition.

As Diane Steren, vice president of strategic planning for the congregation said, “It’s beginning a cultural change from ‘drop and go’ to ‘drop and stay.’”

Steren, who attended sessions on engaging young families, said, “Young families today aren’t looking to be  entertained. They’re looking to be engaged an acknowledged.”

LGBT families and congregants were likewise proactive in pushing  for acknowledgement and increased inclusivity in Conservative spaces.

Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are struggling with demographics,  according to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, but USCJ leadership and laity seem confident in the space Conservative Judaism occupies.

Wernick pointed to a recent piece published by Steven M. Cohen, a  researcher at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who wrote that although the quantity of Conservative identifying Jews has dropped, the quality has remained strong and has even grown between surveys administered in 1990 and 2013.

Still, USCJ has branding challenges. To better stake their claim  as the center ground between the  Reform movement and a burgeoning Open Orthodox scene, sometimes called derisively “Neo-Conservatism” by other branches of Orthodoxy,  at the biennial, an “IdeaLab” was  convened to brainstorm a new tagline for Conservative Judaism.

Instead of focusing on well-publicized population challenges, Raskin believes that the Conservative movement should instead focus on “growing from within,” building upon the movement’s engaged core.

“I think we occupy a niche still  important to the Jewish world,” said Raskin. “It’s not the space of modern Orthodoxy, it’s not the space of  Reform Judaism.

“That traditional egalitarian space is still our unique landscape. There are still people seeking that unique landscape.”