A Positive Spin Young entrepreneur, motivated by chronic illness, creates health record management company

Noga Leviner used her experiences as a patient to start PicnicHealth.

Noga Leviner used her experiences as a patient to start PicnicHealth.

Crohn’s disease isn’t typically associated with positive outcomes, but battling the chronic disease was the impetus for Noga Leviner, 34, to start PicnicHealth.

PicnicHealth helps patients retrieve and organize their medical records — a sometimes overwhelming task
— that can burden those managing a chronic illness. Collected records are stored and organized electronically in an easy-to-read format so that any clinician can quickly access a patient’s full background history.

“Coordinating medical records when you’re seeing doctors in different health care systems is a huge
hassle,” said Leviner. “As a patient, I’d have to stay on top of whether my latest lab tests results got sent from my primary care doctor to my GI specialist. This can mean lots of phone calls, waiting on hold, faxing and mailing requests and carrying around binders between doctors.”

After Leviner decided to drop out from her previous business, Lumni USA, which helped underserved students access low-risk student loans, she tossed around ideas with her husband, Lukas Biewald.

“I asked her, ‘what else do you know or have insight into?’ She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be really sick,’” said Biewald, adding that “most people who have a serious condition like Crohn’s are not in a position to start a company.”

However, Leviner, who has been able to manage her symptoms, was an exception. Through mutual connections she would eventually meet her partners, Troy Astorino and Gillian Hanson.

“I’m a doctor, and I have a hard time getting my records,” said Hanson, director of medical informatics at
PicnicHealth. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who has no experience with the health care system.”

Hanson has firsthand experience with the issue PicnicHealth is tackling. She was diagnosed, as a child, with a rare bleeding disorder, similar to hemophilia.

“I think for most people, if you are healthy, you have no idea what it is like to manage your medical forms,” said Hanson.

Leviner likens the task to filing tax forms, a chore most people deal with only annually, whereas patients of chronic illnesses need up-to-date information ready for numerous doctors on a regular basis.

Most companies who have tried to help patients compile their records, such as the no longer existing Google Health, have used a top-down approach, where the company works with the hospital to implement their system. PicnicHealth learned from their predecessor’s mistakes and took another route.

Instead of implementing systems within hospitals, PicnicHealth uses its knowledge of the medical system to request a patient’s medical files on their behalf quickly and efficiently. This also means it can service patients’ in any part of the country.

John Marquette, 59, lives in Pennsylvania but visited Baltimore for a memorial service this past January. After landing in Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, he made an unexpected
hospital visit to St. Agnes when he started experiencing severe pains.

“When you go into a hospital they ask you to rate your pain from 1 to 10 based on the pictures of the faces,” said Marquette. “I know what it feels like to be past a 10; it was so bad I lost consciousness.”

The pain he was feeling ended up being kidney stones.

Marquette, who is active and makes an effort to lead a healthy lifestyle, takes several medications for conditions, which, on their own, are not serious or atypical for men of his age. Nevertheless, it is imperative for all of his doctors to be “in the same boat at the same time.”

When he lived in California his provider and insurer, Kaiser Permanente, had already invested in an organized medical records system. Marquette quickly realized that, in Pennsylvania, many of his doctors were in different practices and didn’t communicate with each other.

Marquette heard about PicnicHealth last year through a blog, and being a historian by practice, he did his

“PicnicHealth lets me pull together and have good control over all of my medical records, and God forbid something happens, I can provide that information to the doctors who need it,” said Marquette.

PicnicHealth recently partnered with uBiome, a company that provides patients the tools and data necessary to understand their own bodies and ultimately live a healthier life.


A Time to Act Thousands in Jewish community speak out in opposition to Iran nuclear deal

Little more than a week after the Iran nuclear deal agreement was announced and as the details begin to sink into the minds of Americans, many members of the Jewish community are raising their voices in protest and concern.

At Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation, approximately 1,500 congregants and other community members came together at short notice for a Community Gathering for Prayer and Action on July 19, called by the Rabbinical Council of America.

“The rabbis feel that this is a critical moment and requires a communal response of both prayer and action,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer of BJSZC via email. “If not now, when?”

Speaking to the congregants, Hauer invoked the spirit of Esther, “the original lobbyist/advocate for the Jewish people,” and how she fasted and prayed to prepare herself to stop the Persian king from destroying all of Israel and called upon the Jewish people to act and to do the same — on her behalf and for themselves.

We gather “to make clear that we have learned the lessons of our history, our recent history. We are not here to be comforted but to be awakened, to be stirred to daven and to act,” Hauer said. In order not to leave the praying or lobbying “for the Jewish people in the hands of a few isolated heroes, as we have done in the past, we will all neither sleep nor slumber until we have done all that we can for the sake of the world and for our people.”

Hauer chose to address elected officials directly for much of his sermon as a way to urge community members to raise their voices and do the same.

“And so let us begin today a process … to plead and to lobby and to work to bring this issue to the eyes and hearts of our elected officials, so they can do what they can at this critical moment. And yes, there are many concerns about what exactly can be accomplished — with veto threats and U.N. resolutions and the like — but it is clear, and all those involved agree, that lobbying the Congress is of great importance and what we need to do at this time.”

Lobbying Congress is familiar territory for the Baltimore Jewish Council, which commended President Barack Obama for his diplomatic efforts and willingness to negotiate a deal. However, after sufficient time to review its details, the organization believes the Iran nuclear deal “does not foreclose Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon and, indeed, could lead to highly unstable conditions in the Middle East and around the world.”

N.Y.C. photos by Richard Chaitt and D.C. photos by Melissa Apter

In its four-point written statement, the BJC said it supported the original idea of lifting economic sanctions in exchange for a “true dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program,” but the resulting deal fell quite short of that, it said, by permitting Iran to begin a nuclear program after 10 years.

Because “the extraordinary sums of money currently frozen pursuant to international sanctions will be released and can be expended in further pursuit of Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and its demonstrated desire to wreak global havoc and terror,” the BJC does not support the current deal and asserts that the deal’s incentive for foreign firms to enter into commercial agreements with Iran — along with the ability of Iran’s neighbors to pursue nuclear weapons — could be “disastrous.”

“We should remember the president’s oft-cited remark that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal,’” continued the statement. “We need to go back to treating Iran like the rogue terrorist nation that it is. We need to present a credible economic and military challenge that will bring about change in Iranian behavior. … We encourage the president to heed the voices of those who are concerned over this agreement and to negotiate a better deal. If the president is right that this is the best deal that he can achieve at this time, and if he is nonetheless unwilling to walk away from it, then Congress should reject the agreement.”


NYC Protest Draws Thousands
An ecumenical, bipartisan crowd numbering more than 10,000 people gathered in New York City’s Times Square on July 22 and included Christians and Jews, Republicans and Democrats, to name just a few of the disparate groups that united in the heart of the city to denounce the proposed United States-led nuclear deal with Iran.

The Stop Iran Rally was coordinated by the Jewish Rapid Response Coalition in partnership with more than 80 other sponsors. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the rally organizer, said he and several other JRRC members put their know-how and connections together to create this event.

He said there are very few Jewish organizations that advocate solely for Jews, and this rally represented standing up for them and for Israel.

Wiesenfeld said the agreements between the U.S. and Iran are essentially a negotiation for surrender, but with hard work from citizens, he thinks the deal can be undone.

“It’s not just enough that they vote for this,” he said. “This must be stopped for the security of the United States, for the future of Israel, for the future of the Jewish people; now is the time for Jews to act.”

Speakers at the rally — including congressmen and Israel advocates — echoed Wiesenfeld’s view of the deal and urged the crowd to contact their members of Congress to vote against the deal.

As the talk of national security was broadcast from the stage, shouted responses rippled through the crowd.

“Kill this deal!” they shouted. “Where is Chuck?” — a reference to New York’s senior senator, Democrat Charles D. Schumer who is seen as a key to its approval. Schumer is Jewish and the heir apparent to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. His decision will go a long way in influencing other Senate Democrats.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Gross led a sizable delegation at the rally, including a group of students and parents from the BT Dahan Community School.

One student said, “It was great to be a part of something to help Israel, America and the world.” A classmate added, “Today, I really cared about Israel — I felt like I was a part of something.”

The usual throngs of tourists appeared curious but unfazed by the large gathering and still managed to snake their way through the sea of protesters, who enlivened their presence with Israeli and American flags and black-and-white anti-Iran posters.

East Brunswick, N.J., resident Karen Golding-Kushner changed her work schedule so she could attend the rally with her 23-year-old son, Leor Kushner.  “I wanted to make sure there was going to be a sufficient crowd here to make a point,” she said.

Golding-Kushner said she marched against the war in Vietnam and also supported the Soviet Jewry movement. Since then, she said, she hasn’t felt as strongly about an issue of national significance until news of the Iran deal struck.

“I think we’re on the brink of, God forbid, a tragedy,” she said. “And if they’re not stopped, I want to know that I did everything I possibly could.”

Golding-Kushner mentioned to her son on the drive from their home to the rally that one day, he will be able to tell his children that he stood up against Iran and did what he thought was right.


ALSO READ: Most Jewish Federations Find ‘Plethora’ of Opinions on Iran Deal


“Hopefully,” Leor said, “my children will be able to say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

Mandel Bar-David didn’t have to travel as far to get to the rally. But the 22-year-old hates big crowds and often doesn’t go to Manhattan from Crown Heights for that sole reason. Still, he felt compelled to attend this rally.

Bar-David is a Persian Orthodox Jew.

Some of his family still lives in Iran. He said it is wrong that they can’t go outside while wearing a kipah without facing scrutiny.

Bar-David said he connects to this issue as a Jew more than an American citizen or a Persian. He said it hurts him to see other Jews supporting Iran when Israel should be the focus of united support from the community.

“If we lived” in Iran, he asked rhetorically, “would they care for us? Would they be talking about our faith and supporting us? I don’t think so. They’re killing us.”

He said he wanted to stand up for his Jewish pride at the rally and give both Chasidim and Persians a good name.

As the crowd started to pick up again in volume and energy, Bar-David raised his voice as well, cheering “Am Yisrael Chai” three times in a row.

“My family is Persian, but I would never in my life support Iran. I am not Iranian,” he said. “I am Jewish. I am Israeli.”


Cruz vs. Code Pink
The day after thousands of people flooded Times Square to protest the Iran nuclear deal, concerned Washington, D.C.-area residents voiced their objections at a rally across the street from the White House.

Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group, organized the afternoon protest in Lafayette Park to criticize the deal and shed light on the four Americans being held hostage in Iran. Their protest drew the attendance of the liberal anti-war group Code Pink, who earlier last Thursday cheered Secretary of State John Kerry when he testified before Congress.

A scuffle broke out between members of Code Pink and CWA supporters as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) addressed the 100 or so attendees in the sweltering July sun. Later, a Code Pink supporter attempted to shout down Cruz, prompting the senator to call forward co-founder Medea Benjamin for an impromptu debate.

Responding to Benjamin’s accusations that the senator was engaged in war mongering, Cruz said, “In the midst of this negotiation the Ayatollah Khamenei led thousands of Iranians in chanting ‘Death to America’ while they burned American flags and Israeli flags.

If you want to know what this Iranian deal is, listen to President [Hassan] Rouhani of Iran who said, ‘We got everything we wanted out of this deal,’” Cruz added. “This deal is a complete capitulation by President Obama to radical Islamic theocratic zealots who want to murder millions of Americans.”

The majority Jewish audience cheered Cruz and later Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth. Stern addressed her remarks to Obama.

“Why, Mr. President, have you negotiated away the future of our children and our grandchildren to the world’s leading state sponsor of Islamic terrorism?” she said.

As the protest dragged on past the scheduled one-hour mark, supporters and detractors of the deal splintered off in mostly congenial debates.

Nate Atwell, a Code Pink member, strolled the lawn with Cruz pressing the senator to further explain his stance. Though Atwell said he respected Cruz’s consistency, he rejected the senator’s position regarding the deal.

“I believe it’s a good deal because it’s a step away from war, a step toward peace,” said Atwell, who added that members of Congress have rushed to condemn the deal without adequately reviewing its terms.

Shlomo Bolts of Silver Spring attended the rally while waving a Syrian revolutionary flag. Citing Iran’s engagement in other conflicts in the region, Bolts said he doesn’t trust Iran to follow through on the terms of the deal.

“I think Syria is the best proof that Iran is a bad actor in the world and in the region now,” he said. “They’re not going to moderate their behavior, they’ve only gotten more crazy.”

rkurland@midatlanticmedia.com; mapter@midatlanticmedia.com; mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Making the Connection Israeli Corporations use MIDC to invest in Maryland

Panelists from the Israel Embassy answer questions at MIDC day in Washington, D.C. (Photos provided)

Panelists from the Israel Embassy answer questions at MIDC day in Washington, D.C. (Photos provided)

About 130 people turned out for MIDC day at the Israel Embassy in Washington, D.C., last month, hosted by the Maryland Israel Development Center. The attendees — a mix of businesspeople, academics and advocates from various Jewish organizations — mingled for an hour over food and drinks before listening to a panel discussion made up of embassy members.

The discussion was moderated by MIDC board member Lynn Shapiro Snyder and included panelists Oren Marmorstein, Anat Katz and Inbal Hanasab.

Marmorstein is the Counselor for Public and Academic Affairs and spent the last three years in Cairo before taking his position with the embassy.

“My department is the most important,” he said in gest. “We try to engage university presidents. We try to engage university faculty and we do all that we can to engage students.”

Marmorstein discussed the different partnerships between universities in the United States and Israel, such as between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

“The idea is to build together a joint campus here in the states,” he said.

Marmorstein also took a few moments to address controversy from the past year surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that has made its way onto college campuses around the country. He said contrary to what the media has reported, “All elite universities in America have a close relationship with Israel.”

Marmorstein added that a good indicator of those strong ties is to look at the number of joint academic publications between the two countries, which, he said, are up 40 percent from last year.

Marmorstein said one of his recent projects has been increasing efforts to send more Latino students to study in Israel and the Israeli government is investing $100,000 to do so.

“We have allocated an entire scholarship fund,” he said. “Its purpose is to ensure that Latino students can come study in Israel. Basically they can come and study whatever they want.”

Marmorstein will depart for Tel Aviv after he finishes serving his post at the embassy this summer.

072415_midc2Katz, the embassy’s Commercial Attaché, heads its trade mission and expressed excitement about the 30th anniversary of the free trade relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

“We try and really support the economic activity in Israel itself,” she said.

Katz said her role at the embassy is to assist Israeli companies coming into the U.S. in their initial stages.

“They approach us and they basically tell us what they want,” she said.

One such company is the now Baltimore-based Jedvice, which is a technical design and engineering company that manufactures security systems such as cameras and radars. Eran Jedwab is CEO and owner, who moved to Maryland from Israel in August 2013 with his wife, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Jedwab earned two engineering degrees from Technion and spent six years in the Israel Defense Forces, in the cadets program. About 1995 he became a technical officer of the land radar unit and later helped manage a defense systems program for the West Bank during the Second Intifada. Jedwab said the technology operated based on historical data gathered, such as from locations of past terrorist attacks. He said the program covered about 20 villages including some with children, where the threat level was highest.

“It was kind of a collection of multiple projects,” he said. “Each one was designed with a system specific to the terrain around the village.”

He then became a consultant for the Ministry of Defense in 2004 and has since employed his engineering skills on a jail in Israel and on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Jedwab said he’s excited about taking the skills he developed in Israel and applying them on a much larger scale for a wider market.

Upon moving to the U.S., he received a grant from TEDCO, an independent organization the state set up to fund entrepreneurial ventures and startups.

“MIDC got me in connection with some key folks that helped me to really make some progress during this recent year [and] they helped get TEDCO funding,” he said.


‘A Great Meeting Place of Ideas’ Jews from across country to gather in D.C for National Retreat

Attendees of the 2014 National Jewish Retreat mark the end of Shabbat on Aug. 9 with a musical Havdalah ceremony at the Palmer House Hilton.

Attendees of the 2014 National Jewish Retreat mark the end of Shabbat on Aug. 9 with a musical Havdalah ceremony at the Palmer House Hilton.

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the adult education arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, will host its 10th annual National Jewish Retreat at the Omni Shoreham resort in Washington, D.C.,  from Aug. 11 to Aug. 16, featuring some of the most influential rabbis and lay leaders from across the country as guest speakers, with an expected attendance of over 1,200.

Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of JLI, is overseeing the retreat and has been involved in much of the planning and preparation.

“From morning to night all five days, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., everyone is engaged in discussion and conversation,” said Mintz. “[The retreat] allows people to pause from the day-to-day and reflect as individuals, as a family and as a community on where we are and where we ought to be.” Through study and exploration, it offers “a deepening awareness of our heritage,” he said.

JLI, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., provides Jewish education in more than 900 communities throughout the country and over the Internet.

“What we try to do at the retreat is bring these communities together, so people who are going through the same journeys can connect with each other,” said Rabbi Hesh Epstein of Columbia, S.C., who also serves on the executive committee at JLI. “This retreat creates a support network, friendships and a community.”

Baltimore will have a strong presence at the retreat this year.

As hosts, the regional directors of Chabad-Lubavitch in Maryland, Rabbi Shmuel  and Rochel Kaplan will be attending the retreat with contingents from around the state.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for people to get away and do something constructive and worthwhile,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan. “It is a cruise on land for both the mind and the stomach.”

The JT’s editor-in-chief, Joshua Runyan, will speak at a panel with other journalists challenging an
Israeli spokesman about how the country is portrayed in the media. He will also interview Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who was an assistant to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, and a part of the Rebbe’s secretariat for more than 40 years.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Aiken of Baltimore will speak on issues related to women and Judaism.

Aiken, who grew up in Pikesville, went to Towson University. Before starting graduate school in Chicago, she realized the difference in her secular and religious education.

“I was about to enter graduate school and get a doctorate degree in psychology, but I had a seventh-grade education when it came to Judaism,” said Aiken. “I wanted my level of education in Judaism to be on par with my secular education.”

Aiken, the author of several books, has given similar talks in 200 cities worldwide and works with clients in New York and Jerusalem. This year will be her first time attending the retreat and one of her topics will be women and prayer.

“Most people don’t know why 10 men constitute a minyan and why women are not counted,” said Aiken. “A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to the answer.”

She’ll also talk about issues that couples may face when discussing the level of observance kept in the home.

“If one [spouse] gets excited about their Judaism at a different pace than the other,” she said, “a lot of issues can come up, and they need guidelines and tools to deal with those issues.”

Aiken cited kosher laws and keeping Shabbat as particularly sensitive points. Echoing the remarks of other speakers and organizers, Aiken also feels education of the attendees is what makes the retreat such a critical event.

“This retreat is important because every Jew deserves to be educated about the brilliant, wonderful religion we have,” she said. “It’s only fair that if we have this amazing legacy, everyone should share in its inheritance.”

“I believe that in general when you are in a beautiful surrounding, and it’s luxurious, you feel comfortable,” said Shaindy Jacobson, director of JLI’s women’s studies division, called the Rosh Chodesh society. “You feel open and are willing to accept things that during our daily lives we don’t have the opportunity to examine.”

Jacobson, educator and lecturer to women about their Jewish heritage for more than 25 years, will speak at a farbrengen, a Chasidic gathering,  for women. Many of her discussions focus on empowering Jewish women with the knowledge that they can achieve any goal they set while maintaining a Jewish lifestyle.

One of the strongest aspects of the retreat, this year in particular, is the wide range of speakers.

“The diversity of the retreat is phenomenal; it’s a great meeting place of Jewish ideas,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie, from Chabad of Orange County, Calif., and a member of JLI’s advisory committee. “It has really become a place where there is a [wide range] of Judaism at the highest level. Everything there is excellence, everything there is the top of the top.”

Eliezrie will discuss his upcoming book, to be published in September, “Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement.”

“Our main goal is that people leave the retreat empowered to grow as Jews and, equally important, empowered to inspire others in their communities,” said Mintz.


‘We Can Win’ Green Party’s Stein launches run for president

Dr. Jill Stein announces her 2016 Green Party presidential bid on June 23 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Josh Marks)

Dr. Jill Stein announces her 2016 Green Party presidential bid on June 23 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Josh Marks)

Calling for an end to corporate capitalism and the two-party system, Dr. Jill Stein kicked off her campaign for president on the Green Party ticket with a speech June 23 at the National Press Club in downtown Washington.

“I’m running because this nation is in crisis. Only we the people have the power to fix it,” Stein said. “The American people have the power to create a new way forward, and the solutions we need are in our hands.

But many of the solutions being proposed by Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist candidate running for president as a Democrat, are similar to those that Stein and the Green Party are advocating: A “Green New Deal” jobs program to solve the climate crisis that would transition America to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, guaranteeing every American the right to a living-wage job with union protections, creating a “Medicare for All” single payer health care system, making college free and abolishing student debt and cutting military funding by 50 percent.

Stein conceded that Sanders’ platform is similar to hers, but said the difference is that if Sanders doesn’t secure the Democratic nomination, he will stand next to the podium and endorse Hillary Clinton or whoever the Democratic presidential candidate will be as “the party continues to march to the right.”

Like Sanders, Stein is Jewish. The Chicago native was raised in Highland Park, Illinois and her family attended North Shore Congregation Israel, a Reform synagogue in Glencoe.

However, unlike Sanders who last summer at a heated town hall meeting condemned Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, building terror tunnels and refusing to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, Stein has taken a much harder stance against Israel that could turn off liberal American Jews who might agree with her on domestic policy issues but are also supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself.

[pullquote]This is the time, if there ever was a time, for us to stand up. To not be cowed by this mythology of lesser evilism. This is the time for us to stand up and not take no for an answer and recognize that we have that power.[/pullquote]Stein formally announced her candidacy in an interview with Democracy Now! where she was asked by host Amy Goodman what separates her from Sanders and Democratic front-runner Clinton.

“My campaign is perhaps more critical — I would say definitely more critical — of funding for regimes like that of the Netanyahu government, which are clearly war criminals. You know, so we would not be funding the weapons used in the massacre on Gaza,” Stein told Goodman.

At the news conference, Stein also had harsh words for President Obama, saying that he has gone further than George W. Bush the past six years on issues such as bailing out the banks and expanding wars.

Some people claim that in 2000 Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader played the role of spoiler, costing Al Gore the election. However, Nader and others have disputed this allegation. Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida. Gore lost the state and thus the presidency to Bush by 537 votes.

When asked about playing spoiler at the news conference, Stein was defiant and said she would not accept “lesser evilism.”

Said Stein: “This is the time, if there ever was a time, for us to stand up. To not be cowed by this mythology of lesser evilism. This is the time for us to stand up and not take no for an answer and recognize that we have that power. And the minute we flick the switch in our heads from powerless to powerful, we actually are the majority and we already have support in spite of the oceans of propaganda that are rained down on people every day. We already have support in polls for the kinds of transformational solutions that we’re putting forward so I say let’s get out there. Let’s get organized and let’s fight like our lives depend on it because they do, and we can win this battle.”


Jewish Groups Decry UCC BDS Resolution ‘It contributes nothing to peace’

Demonstrators take part in a boycott, divestment and sanctions protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia.

Demonstrators take part in a boycott, divestment and sanctions protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia.

The United Church of Christ passed a resolution Tuesday calling for the boycott and divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The resolution, which passed 508-124 at the 30th General Synod in Cleveland, was submitted by the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC, which represents 167 UCC congregations in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia and West Virginia.

Jewish leaders called the resolution disturbing and tragic yet not surprising.

“I think the United Church of Christ’s decision to divest from Israel is deeply disappointing and demonstrates a lack of knowledge of Middle East reality, and is a terribly flawed statement that assigns total blame to Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “It contributes nothing to peace. … BDS will never be the way that Israelis and Palestinians will come to a peaceful solution.”

While proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement known as the BDS Movement claim they are showing support for the Palestinian people, as a UCC statement said, Jewish leaders and those on the other side claim that the movement aims to dismantle the State of Israel, and often cite anti-Semitism as part of BDS.

The UCC joins the Presbyterian Church and United Methodists in the BDS movement.

“We know that academic organizations and professional organizations and religious groups are being targeted by the BDS movement to come out in favor of BDS, so it’s not ultimately surprising to us, but also disheartening,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, “and we have a lot of work to do. I think that’s what these votes keep telling us.”

Local UCC churches deferred comment to the Central Atlantic Conference Minister, Rev. John Deckenback.

“As disciples of Jesus, we hear and seek to heed his call to be peacemakers, responding to violence with nonviolence and extending love to all,” Deckenback said in a press release. “It is in that spirit of love for both Israelis and Palestinians, and a desire to support Palestinians in their nonviolent struggle for freedom, that the United Church of Christ has passed this resolution.”

Halber said the resolution “is not worth the paper it’s printed on” and “totally one-sided.”

“They can say [what they want]. The reality of the BDS movement is it’s designed to stigmatize and delegitimize Israel out of existence,” he said. “They’ve chosen the side that calls for dismantlement of Israel.”

Local efforts to combat BDS are underway in Maryland, Tolle said. In the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session, language was included in the budget that condemned academic boycotts of Israel. Halber also sees the need for coordinated national efforts to combat BDS, and the Jewish community needs to let it be known that this resolution does damage the relationship between the Jewish community and the UCC.

A variety of other Jewish organizations expressed their disappointment with the UCC vote.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Israel Action Network called the resolution “deeply skewed” in a joint statement.

“The UCC General Assembly Synod decision occurs in the face of relative silence to the humanitarian catastrophe currently facing Christians and other minorities in many other Middle East countries as well,” the groups said. “The resolutions evidence a lack of recognition of the steps Israel takes to protect religious minorities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel is the only country in the region with a growing indigenous Christian population.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the vote “a travesty and a tragedy.”

“The UCC has voted to support the anti-peace BDS movement that will not improve a single Palestinian life but only succeeds in encouraging those seeking to demonize and weaken the Jewish state and her supporters around the world,” Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said in a statement.

Even the UCC’s newly elected general minister and president expressed mixed emotions.

“I will be obligated as the officer of this denomination and by mandate of General Synod to speak publicly the action taken here. But I will do so with a deep awareness at the pain that I will cause to people who I care about deeply,” he said according to various reports. “And I will do so, to be quite frank, wondering if the benefits of our divesting from those companies is equal to cost to the relationships that we have with people who are critical to our movement towards justice, not just in Palestine but in many other places.”

What Next? Orthodox Jewish groups brace for consequences of gay-marriage ruling

070315_consequencesWASHINGTON — The name that keeps coming up when Orthodox Jewish groups consider the consequences of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision extending same-sex marriage rights to all states has little to do with Jews or gays.

Bob Jones University, the private Protestant college in South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 when the Supreme Court ruled that its policies banning interracial dating on campus were “wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption.”

Orthodox Jewish organizations, several of which publicly dissented from the Jewish community’s broad endorsement of the high court’s decision, now worry that similar consequences could befall Jewish organizations that decline to recognize gay marriage.

“It remains to be seen whether gay rights advocates and/or the government will seek to apply the Bob Jones rule to all institutions that dissent from recognizing same-sex marriage,” Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union, said in an email.

The groups point to an exchange in April between Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration solicitor general, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who asked whether a school could lose its tax-exempt status if it opposed gay marriage?

“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”

How much of an issue is what is now exercising Jewish groups. Will Jewish schools lose their tax-exempt status if they don’t recognize gay couples? Could they become ineligible for government grants? Or face discrimination lawsuits for teaching the traditional Jewish perspective on homosexuality?

Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office for Agudath Israel of America, called the court’s ruling an “ominous” sign.

“When an impression is given that religious views are bigoted and are vilified, and that [their adherents] really should be given the status of second-class citizens, once you’re dealing in that kind of atmosphere, you don’t know what kind of disadvantages and disabilities people will suffer,” Cohen said.

After the court’s decision was released on Friday, an array of Jewish groups were rejoicing, including several that had joined briefs in favor of same-sex marriage. But the Orthodox groups — including Agudah, the O.U. and the Rabbinical Council of America — expressed worry.

“We are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly,” said a statement from Agudah, which had filed an amicus brief opposing same-sex marriage.

The justices themselves acknowledged the possible fallout for religious groups. Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the First Amendment protected religious groups that wished to advocate their view that same-sex marriage is illegitimate. But in their dissents, Chief Justice John Roberts and Clarence Thomas said such protections were insufficient.

“Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage …,” Roberts wrote. “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

Marc Stern, the counsel for the American Jewish Committee, which also filed an amicus brief in favor of same-sex marriage, said immediate consequences were unlikely at the federal level. But on the local and state levels, there would be challenges, Stern said, especially in areas where the gay community has a strong political presence.

“Will a state or city official take the decision to remove a tax exemption? In San Francisco, it’s a possibility. In New York City, it might happen,” said Stern, who pointed out that he was speaking as a legal analyst and not expressing the AJC’s views.

Another potential challenge cited by Diament is whether groups that reject gay marriage might become ineligible for government grants. Diament cited a debate that erupted during the administration of George W. Bush a decade ago over whether drug rehabilitation programs run by proselytizing religious groups should be eligible for funding through the White House’s faith-based initiative.

“We also can anticipate a fight akin to what we had in the context of the Bush faith-based initiative — whether institutions must recognize same-sex marriage to participate in government grant programs,” Diament said.

The Agudah’s Cohen wondered whether Jewish adoption agencies might be prohibited from limiting placement to heterosexual couples, or if schools run by religious groups that reject homosexuality could be subject to discrimination lawsuits.

“If you teach what the Torah says about homosexuality, and you admit all kids to your schools, are you creating a hostile environment?” he asked, noting the possibility that some of the children might have same-sex parents or, as they grow older, realize their own orientation is gay.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a supporter of the Supreme Court ruling, said such concerns are overblown.

“We will continue to advocate for a healthy balance for religious institutions honoring their traditions and values and needs for a society to protect and defend all people,” Pesner said. “It’s important that faith groups are able to treat people equally and uphold their traditions.”

Law of the Land Jewish groups react to SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage supporters celebrate outside the supreme court on June 26. (Photo Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Same-sex marriage supporters celebrate outside the supreme court on June 26. (Photo Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling announced last Friday morning, approved same-sex marriage for residents in all 50 states. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor and Elana Kagan.

“Love is love. Ahava is ahava,” said Halley Cohen, director of GLOE-Kurlander Program for GLBT Outreach & Engagement at the DCJCC. “I was so proud of our community, which has been fighting for LGBTQ equality from the beginning.”

Matt Nosanchuk, liaison to the American Jewish community through the White House Office of Public Engagement, arrived at the Supreme Court at 6:15 a.m. and sat among other lawyers when the decision was announced. As soon as it was known that Kennedy would be delivering the majority opinion, he realized that his hopes had come true.

Nosanchuk said he expected the court to rule in favor of marriage equality as he had “read, studied and taught” all the court’s previous rulings on gay rights and had even been in the court when those decisions had been announced.

Still, he was “thrilled it was such a complete and total victory,” and that Kennedy based decision on due process and equal protection.

Looking around, he noticed “tears of joy,” he said, adding, “I was moved. I recognized history was unfolding before my eyes.”

Nosanchuk chose not to miss any of Friday’s history-making day. He quickly went outside the courtroom to join in the celebration with others gathered on the court steps before rushing off to the White House’s Rose Garden to be present as President Barack Obama said, “Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect.”

Nosanchuk was one of many Jews celebrating Friday. Seventy-eight percent of Jewish Americans favor marriage equality, according to data collected in a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Of that number, 47 percent strongly favor same-sex marriage.

Evan Wolfson, who founded Freedom to Marry in 2003, is generally considered the architect of the national marriage equality movement. The Pittsburgh native and Harvard-trained attorney has been in the trenches on the issue for 32 years.

“I was not surprised, but I was thrilled and moved and not a little relieved” after hearing the decision, he said.

“While I always believed we were going to win,” Wolfson said the text of the majority opinion was “extraordinarily powerful and resonant and will have a real impact going forward.”

He was particularly moved, he said, by “the way that Justice Kennedy talked not only about the importance of marriage, but also the importance of including gay people.”

Many Jewish organizations also expressed their joy. Both the Reform and Conservative movements employed phrases such as “moral victory,” “historic” and “a magnificent achievement for our country” in describing their reactions.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said, “Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what has been clear for a long time: same-sex couples deserve the same rights as opposite-sex couples.”

The ruling also “is about affirming the inherent dignity of same-sex couples and affirming that all people, regardless of whom they love, deserve the full protection of our Constitution,” Pesner said.

“As Jews, we believe we are all created in God’s image,” said Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press. CCAR is Reform Judaism’s rabbinical leadership organization.

“All citizens of the United States should have the same rights” in financial, legal and other matters, said Person.

Matt Berger, senior adviser for strategic communications at Hillel International, said he stood among supportive friends and family when he was married to a man at a Jewish ceremony officiated by two rabbis. Speaking on his behalf, he said the court’s decision “codifies what so many of us have always believed, which is that our relationships are absolutely equal and deserving of the same rights. The true victory is for those who have not been so lucky to be in such a supportive community.”

Maryland State Sen. Rich Madaleno Jr., a Democrat from District 18, was vacationing at the beach when he heard the news. “I am thrilled,” he said, pointing out that Maryland played a role in the historic decision.

Lead plaintiff James Obergefell was married in Maryland to John Arthur, who was suffering from the incurable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; the couple could not be wed in Ohio, where they lived.  When Arthur died, Obergefell could not be listed on the death certificate as the surviving spouse, as Ohio did not recognize the couple’s marriage. Obergefell sued, and Richard Hodges became the respondent because he was the director of Ohio’s Department of Health.
Virginia Congressman Don Beyer called the decision “a watershed moment in American history.”

Beyer, of Virginia’s 8th District, added, “Gay rights are human rights and today we have ensured that all Americans, regardless of their sexuality, have the right to share the rest of their lives with the person they love. I could not be prouder to stand with my LGBTQ constituents and celebrate this incredible moment.”

Both Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring praised the ruling, which Herring said protects the marriages of nearly 2,000 Virginia couples and “thousands more who have had their marriages recognized.”

He called the ruling “an extraordinary moment in our nation’s recognition that Americans cannot and will not be denied dignity, rights and responsibilities, including those of marriage, simply because of who they love.”

And Rabbi Sonya Starr of the Columbia Jewish Congregation called it an “incredibly exciting step forward,” noting there are “many different paths to a sacred union.”

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service and a strong advocate of gay rights all over the globe, said, “After decades of tireless work to advance the rights of LGBT people, I’m in awe and in tears that we’ve reached a day when dignity has triumphed over discrimination. As the mother of a lesbian daughter, and with many close LGBT relatives and friends, today’s historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality has huge personal significance for me, for my family,
and for so many of my friends and colleagues.”

But not everyone supported the ruling, including the Orthodox Union, which noted that Judaism forbids homosexuality “in our Bible, Talmud and Codes.”

“Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable,” the organization said in a statement.

However, the OU cautioned that “Judaism teaches respect for others, and we condemn discrimination against individuals.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Jim Campbell, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom said the ruling “stripped all Americans of our freedom to debate and decide marriage policy through the Democratic process.”

Geoffrey Melada contributed to this article.


At Long Last State Department’s human rights report released after four-month delay

Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a spokesperson, is “very excited” about the release of the Human Rights Reports. (United States Department of State )

Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a spokesperson, is “very excited” about the release of the Human Rights Reports.
(United States Department of State )

The State Department was set to release the long overdue Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on June 25, after a delay, the longest ever, that spurred speculation in some political spheres that it was done in an effort not to upset Iran during ongoing nuclear negotiations, a charge the State Department denied.

The Human Rights Reports, as it is commonly known, is mandated for release on Feb. 25 each year. That deadline was pushed back to April 20 and then postponed yet again until an announcement was made during a news briefing on June 22.

Chanan Weissman, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, confirmed on June 23 that the report was due out on June 25.

“We’ve been pretty public about it being a scheduling issue. It’s a priority for the secretary, but with his travel and his subsequent medical issues we had to find a time when it could be released,” said Weissman, who said that Secretary of State John Kerry is “very excited to release it.”

But there are those who believe the delay is linked to ongoing nuclear
negotiations with Iran.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent blog post: “There are two likely explanations for the delay and they are not inconsistent. The administration (a) isn’t all that interested in the reports except (b) to the extent that they could be used against the Iran deal, by reminding people in Congress of the nature of the evil regime in Tehran.”

Weissman said, “we absolutely rejects that notion” that the delay had anything to do with the P5+1 negotiations, whose June 30 deadline to reach a deal is rapidly approaching.

“Regardless of the outcome of negotiations, we will continue to [report on human rights] and press Iranian respect for rule of law, and we’ve been very clear about that,” said Weissman.

The State Department’s 388-page Country Reports on Terrorism, released June 19, well after the April 30 deadline, noted in the section on state sponsors of terrorism that “Iran remains a state of proliferation concern.”

The report further stated Iran continues to rearm Lebanese Hezbollah, whose fighters “continued to carry out attacks along the Lebanese border with Israel.” Funding, training and weapons were supplied by Iran to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups and to Iraqi Shia militias, one of which has a Foreign Terrorist Organization designation.

[pullquote]Providing sanctions relief without rolling back sanctions on non-nuclear related issues, such as terrorism and human rights abuses, is easier said than done.[/pullquote]

As noted in a letter, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), David Perdue (Ga.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.), sent to Kerry in mid-May, human rights sanctions will not be part of a list of phased-out sanctions in a final deal with Iran.

Sanctions related to Iran’s terrorist activities will also remain in place, U.S. counterterrorism envoy Tina Kaidanow said during the unveiling of the Country Reports on Terrorism.

But providing sanctions relief without rolling back sanctions on non-nuclear related issues, such as terrorism and human rights abuses, is easier said than done given that many of the sanctions targeted Iran for multiple reasons, including the country’s nuclear ambitions.

As reported by the Associated Press, of the 24 Iranian banks currently sanctioned by the United States, only Bank Saderat is clearly subject to non-nuclear sanctions. The rest have been sanctioned for nuclear and ballistic missile financing. Untangling what institutions are or are not eligible for sanctions relief has reportedly been given to Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s sanctions czar.

Adding to the complexity of the talks — which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif recently alleged could go past the June 30 deadline — last weekend 199 of 213 members of Iran’s parliament voted to ban access to military, security and sensitive non-nuclear facilities, documents and scientists in a nuclear agreement. The bill, which is not yet ratified, reads in part: “The International Atomic Energy Agency, within the framework of the safeguard agreement, is allowed to carry out conventional inspections of nuclear sites.”

The State Department reiterated June 21 that inspections are a key part of any final deal.


Uncertain Future BDS ties to trade package riles pro-Israel community

Despite unprecedented Democratic backing, including the overwhelming support of the Senate Finance Committee that approved it more than a month ago, Congress’ only legislative volley in the war against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill.

In advance of a likely vote Wednesday on the so-called Trade Promotion Authority that President Barack Obama says he needs in order to close a deal with 12 Pacific Rim nations and that contains an amendment authored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) committing the United States to the elimination
of state-sponsored boycotts against Israel, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) indicated late last week that, despite supporting the amendment, he will ultimately vote against the bill.

Even Cardin, who approved an earlier iteration of the bill that failed to advance in the House of Representatives when Democrats spurned entreaties by Obama to support the trade package, was noncommittal Monday on how he would vote.

Sen. Ben Cardin (Photo REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

Sen. Ben Cardin (Photo REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

If that leaves members of the pro-Israel community scratching their heads, Casey said that while fighting BDS remains a core priority of his, defeating the trade package is even more important.

“I don’t believe that this TPA legislation, or frankly any bill on TPA, is the only way to combat [BDS] or the most effective way,” he said.

When the legislation was last taken up by the full Senate — and approved in a 62-37 vote — Casey voted against it. When the House took it up June 12, a must-pass companion bill on Trade Adjustment Assistance that would provide funds for workers displaced by international trade fell victim to Democrats arguing that past comprehensive trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s, ravaged America’s labor force.

At Obama’s urging, the TPA and TAA provisions were then decoupled, and the House approved the trade authority, which would subject any trade deal negotiated by the White House to a simple up or down vote in Congress, last week.

Through a spokeswoman, Cardin said that he bemoaned the fact that he would have to vote on the trade authority without the corresponding worker assistance package, which he supports.

“On TPA, Sen. Cardin prefers that the measures were bundled together,” spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said in an email.

Labor union members and environmentalists were scheduled to rally outside of Cardin’s district office in suburban Maryland.

“It’s time that you listened to your constituents and reject the effort to advance fast track trade authority in the Senate,” Communications Workers of America member Pam Wilt said in a news release directed at Cardin. “You cannot walk away from working people for a second time.”

When the Finance Committee discharged the trade legislation in a 20-6 vote on April 23, Cardin hailed the legislation for containing the BDS amendment, which passed unanimously. It requires trade negotiators to make rejection of BDS a principal objective in negotiations with the European Union.

“Israel is one of the America’s closest allies and the only stable democracy in the Middle East,” Cardin said at the time. “We may not agree with every Israeli policy, but we cannot allow our potential trading partners in the EU to fall prey to efforts that threaten Israel’s existence.”

In his interview June 19, Casey stood by Cardin’s assessment, calling BDS a movement rooted in anti-Semitism and having as its design the delegitimizing of Israel in the international arena.

“It is really, really disturbing,” he said. “Virtually every American knows about the strength of our relationship with Israel and how it is such a partner with us in the Middle East. So to have an effort that I believe undermines that relationship is disturbing and insulting to what we stand for.”

Although the only BDS legislation with any reasonable chance of passing on Capitol Hill will ultimately fail if Casey gets his way, Pennsylvania’s junior senator said there are other ways he can lead in the fight against BDS.

“As a senator, to prevent it and to mitigate it is first of all to use my voice,” he said. “The good news is as an elected official, you have a voice. But you can also use your vote to vote against any policy consistent with BDS or that advances a policy … counterproductive to working towards peace with the Palestinians.”

Associates of Casey’s on both sides of the aisle said that it would be unfair to see in his objection to the trade legislation anything more than a stand against a bill opposed by the labor movement. They didn’t question his commitment to Israel.

“Sen. Casey is probably as pro-Israel as any member of Congress right now,” said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, who has traveled to the Jewish state with the senator. “I can guarantee [BDS] is going to come up [again] and in the way he wants it to come up.”

Melissa Apter contributed to this article.