Vaad Changes Policy on Food Certification Other Orthodox hechshers allowed

In a major reversal of policy, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington has announced that it will allow any kosher food that is certified by specific outside Orthodox organizations to be served in its synagogues, even if the food did not bear its own Capitol-K hechsher.

For decades, the Vaad has required its own Capitol-K certification for restaurants, caterers and other food providers to sell their products in the Washington-area market.

Earlier this year, the Vaad turned to Star-K, the kosher certification of the Vaad Hakashrus of Baltimore, for its kosher supervision and agreed that only meat from suppliers on the Star-K’s approved list would be permitted by the Vaad in Greater Washington. But the new policy, which went into effect May 8, means food and packaged products “under the supervision of the major certifications with whom we have worked extensively over the years,” such as the Orthodox Union of New York and the Star-K, are approved for serving at Vaad-certified functions.

Other kosher-certifying organizations that are Orthodox can apply to be on the approved list, the policy notes.

The new policy, announced Friday, also leaves it up to individual rabbis to decide what food will be allowed inside their synagogues.

“It’s a big change,” said Benny Berkowitz, president of Kemp Mill Synagogue. “For a long time, the Vaad has always been in charge of our kitchen.”

There are at least 11 Vaad-affiliated synagogues in Montgomery County and one in Washington, D.C.

Jay Lehman, a member of the Vaad-affiliated Kemp Mill Synagogue, called the new policy “extremely significant.” Prior to the policy change, kosher meant “the Vaad or nobody,” he said.

The Orthodox Union, a national organization whose mission is to engage, strengthen and lead the Orthodox Jewish community, was not accepted by synagogues affiliated with the local Vaad even though its OU hechsher is widely sought by kosher travelers outside of Washington. Until Friday, the Vaad would not certify any product bearing only the OU hechsher; another accepted hechsher also had to be on the product.

Lehman is excited that the policy change may lead to more competition in the Greater Washington area, resulting in more kosher restaurants and lower prices.

“It will create a more welcoming environment for those who want to open [a restaurant] here,” he said.

The new policy will both weaken and strengthen the Vaad, Lehman believes. The Vaad will no longer be a monopoly, he pointed out. However, “more people will respect it” and that should strengthen it. “The community would look up to them in a more positive way,” he said.

Jules Polonetsy, a member of Beth Sholom Congregation and the former consumer affairs commissioner in New York City, is pleased. “It’s great to see the Vaad responding to the desire of consumers to have greater access to reliable kosher kitchens. More competition and more options should lead to more access to kosher food and better prices,” he said.

Criticism of the Vaad and kosher dining in Greater Washington, already disparaged for its dearth of restaurants, kicked up a notch recently after two kosher restaurants walked out from under the Vaad’s umbrella, and a new, competing organization — the Beltway Vaad — was established.

Char Bar Restaurant, its accompanying Eli’s Market in Washington and Blue Star Restaurant in Bethesda, all owned by Sina Soumekhian and Marc Zweben, switched to the OU supervision last month.

“It was strictly a business decision,” said Zweben.

Earlier this year, those under Vaad supervision were informed that, as per the Star-K, certain meats and tuna were no longer acceptable. That many OU-certified meats were not allowed incensed Char Bar’s owners, said Zweben, pointing out that the decision only took effect after Pesach.

With the Char Bar family moving over to the OU, the Vaad removed the eateries from its list of approved restaurants. It also banned its food from being served in any Vaad-affiliated synagogues. The Vaad’s updated policy reverses the ban.

With Zweben’s restaurants outside of the Vaad’s umbrella, the organization now supervises kashrut mostly for Montgomery County restaurants, including Ben Yehuda Cafe, Max’s Place, Moti’s Grill, Siena Pizzeria and Royal Dragon as well as three Goldberg’s New York Bagels. In D.C. itself, the RC supervises Silver Crust in the D.C. Jewish Community Center and Souper Girl, which has locations in Washington and Takoma Park.

Although those restaurants carry the Capitol-K hechsher, the Vaad has little to do with kosher supervision at all. Several months ago, it entered into an agreement with Star-K for that work.

In an email, the Vaad said it contracted with Star-K “after a careful review of the growing needs of the local kosher community.”

The move to Star-K “represents a significant achievement and benefit to the Washington, D.C., kosher community, as it enables the [Vaad] to meet the growing demands of the community and leverage the considerable local, national and international resources, experience and expertise of the Star-K to provide training and standardization protocols to further professionalize and improve the [Vaad’s] kashrus operations.”

Star-K president Avrom Pollak emphasized that the Vaad approached his organization, not the other way around.

“We would never, ever consider coming into a community” that has its own hechsher, he said.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kosher division, explained that the OU has a policy of not going into a city that has its own certifying agency.

“What changed,” he said, was that the Vaad was “no longer giving its own certification.” Rather, it was using Star-K, “a direct competitor” of the Orthodox Union. Further, Genack said, Star-K was “going to exclude some OU products. That’s what makes this different.”

Still, Genack said, he respects the rabbis in the Greater Washington’s Vaad and is “looking forward to working with the Vaad.”

OU Advocates Outline Priorities Busing remains top issue at legislative breakfast

Attendees of the OU Advocacy’s recent legislative breakfast chat up Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (left of center). (Anthony Marill Photography)

Attendees of the OU Advocacy’s recent legislative breakfast chat up Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (left of center).
(Anthony Marill Photography)

Community advocates who gathered May 17 for the annual Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s Maryland Legislative Breakfast to lay out their legislative priorities for the coming year pushed for funding for several programs.

But busing for parochial school students remained the focus of the modern Orthodox community.

“Our No. 1 priority is getting busing back up and running,” said Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director for OU Advocacy. “That’s the most important to our constituents.”

That point was reiterated during the breakfast by Edwin Zaghi, co-chair of OU Advocacy-MD to the 250 participants and more than 25 elected officials and their representatives in attendance at the Silver Spring Civic Center.

Among officials there were Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and several Montgomery County council members.

Other OU priorities are funding for universal pre-kindergarten, increased services for special needs children in nonpublic schools and security for synagogues and other Jewish establishments.

It was Leggett who had recommended that $660,000 be allotted in fiscal year 2016 and a seventh school be added to the list of private schools eligible to use Montgomery County Public School buses to transport their students.

Members of the county council’s transportation and education committees voted unanimously at the end of April to cut the budget to $159,000, enough to pay a consultant to study the issue.

The council will recess in June, giving the OU and other stakeholders little time to work with the council to devise a solution. The issue will likely be taken up again in September.

“We are trying, but our expectations are low as to getting something done before they recess,” said Barall.

Given the dim outlook on having a busing program in place for the start of the 2015-16 school year, tensions could easily have arisen at the breakfast.

“There was a little bit of tension going into it, but kudos to both sides for recognizing that it’s not the only issue important to the community,” said Alec Stone, a Democratic political activist and unsuccessful candidate in 2006 for delegate in District 19, which includes much of Kemp Mill.

“We prepared our constituents and what they should say to their elected leaders as to how busing is important to their lives,” Barall said.

“There was a little bit of tension going into it, but kudos to both sides for recognizing that it’s not the only issue important to the community.”

Their message wasn’t lost on council at-large member George Leventhal, whom Barall described as “very honest” about the council’s decision.

“He explained that it’s the county’s responsibility to provide transportation for all students in the county whether they go to public or nonpublic schools, and he pledged to work with the stakeholders,” Barall said.

Del. Bonnie Cullison, who couldn’t attend the breakfast, sent her aide and Kemp Mill resident Ira Ungar in her place. For years, Cullison has been a leader on the busing issue. Nevertheless, she is caught between the teachers’ union, which she once led, and the wishes of the nonpublic school parents, trying to balance their concerns.

That balance is something Barall said other counties and states have their eye on as they debate their own busing policies.

The breakfast was also an opportunity for Kemp Mill residents to flex their political muscle. Their votes are courted by officials and candidates for election in District 19.

Leisure World, with its three precincts and higher voter turnout, receives the most attention from elected officials and candidates. But the Kemp Mill precincts — which number three or four, depending on how boundaries of Kemp Mill are defined — also have high voter turnout and have seen an increased willingness among residents to contribute financially to campaigns.

“I think in the past year and a half [the community] has really started to engage their elected officials … and get a lot more politically active,” said Barall.

“The voter turnout in last year’s election was higher than it had been in previous years. And if we could keep that growing, we could be much more influential in Montgomery County politics.”

Houston’s Meyerland Surveys Flood Damage

Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was flooded Tuesday after the Brays Bayou overflowed, making Braeswood Blvd impassible.

Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was flooded Tuesday after the Brays Bayou overflowed, making Braeswood Blvd. (pictured) impassible.

The devastation from a pattern of torrential rain and flooding that has killed 19 people in Texas and Oklahoma Tuesday is being felt in one neighborhood in Houston where a sizable portion of the city’s Jewish community lies.

Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, which lies on the city’s southwest side, was one of the more heavily affected areas due to its proximity to the Brays Bayou. Flooding can occur during heavy rains when the Bayou overflows.

Pat Pollicoff, president of Houston Congregation Beth Israel, said their sanctuary was flooded Tuesday with about one foot of water that came as far as the third row.

“The sanctuary literally faces toward the bayou,” she said.

Pollicoff said she does not think any of the Torah’s were destroyed since they were sitting on a raised bimah. A number of events scheduled in the sanctuary this week, including Thursday’s graduation ceremony and Friday night Shabbat services.

“We had crews working overnight last night to pump all of the water out, which is nearly complete. Carpets will have to be cleaned and dried and some replaced, but it will be in good enough shape that we will be able to prepare for a large Saturday night wedding that we have scheduled in there,” she said.

Congregation Beth Israel is home to about 1,500 families, many of which live close to the bayou and suffered damage as a result of the flooding, Pollicoff said.

“We’ve asked them to let us know if they need any assistance because we want to help in any way that they can,” she said.

The Schlenker School, adjacent to Beth Israel, was closed Tuesday after parts of the campus were flooded, but has since reopened, said spokeswoman Lisa Miller.

One of the hardest hit congregations was United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, which sustained extensive damage after it was submerged in three feet of water.

Lee Wunsch, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, said the city was virtually immobilized Tuesday, making communication very difficult.

“There was total paralysis yesterday (Tuesday) so today was really the first day we’ve been able to figure everything out,” he said. “Having gone through these disasters before, it usually takes two, three, four days before we know how many homes, institutions and families are affected.”

Rodi Franco, the federation’s Chief Marketing Officer, said the Bellaire and Willow Meadows neighborhoods were also severely affected. She said she can relate to people who lost possessions in the storm, having suffered through $70,000 in damage during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“Your car was flooded. It was sitting on the street. OK there’s no more water it all drained out. But you’re waiting for the assessor,” she said of what she endured during that storm.

Obama Gets Candid on Middle East President speaks about Israeli policy, Iran deal at Adas Israel

Adas Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Gil Steinlauf greets President Obama.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama went on the charm offensive last week, declaring publically what his most ardent Jewish Democratic supporters have said he’s expressed privately: a love of the Jewish people and Israel.

Speaking before an audience of 1,000 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., Obama joked about his status as the “first Jewish president,” so conferred upon him by Atlantic magazine writer and Adas member Jeffrey Goldberg, and declared that the values of Israeli pioneers “in many ways came to be my own values.”

But those strong sentiments did not cause the president to back down on criticisms of Israeli policies.

“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland,” said Obama. “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

That criticism has been a hallmark of administration diplomacy of late, as several statements attributed to Obama, his advisers and members of his Cabinet have singled out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for blame in the failure of the peace process to move forward.

“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” Obama argued at the synagogue, “Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.”

Though much applause and cheers rang out from the pews, there were more than a few audience members who sat in silence and saved their applause for when the president declared the Palestinians as “not the easiest of partners.”

“The neighborhood is dangerous,” said the president. “And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”

With a white kippah perched atop his head, Obama forged on, addressing the ongoing nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran.

“I will not accept a bad deal,” he said of the nuclear accord expected before a June 30 deadline. “As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.”

Goldberg, who interviewed the president at length for his magazine, was seated just a few rows from Obama as the president acknowledged that a good deal doesn’t erase “Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. … And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.”

Noticeably absent from the occasion was Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

The fraught relationship between Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, and the White House is an open secret inside the Beltway, but several politicos commented that given the rare appearance of a sitting president addressing a Jewish congregation from the bimah — only the fourth time in U.S. history that America’s chief executive has visited a synagogue — the ambassador should have been present.

Obama’s presence was in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month and coincided with Solidarity Sabbath, an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that called upon world leaders to stand with victims of anti-Semitism.

Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the foundation and daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), for whom the foundation is named, was in attendance alongside her mother Annette Lantos. The initiative, she explained, “grew out of disturbing events in Europe and North America.”

She added that close to two dozen countries chose to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath and that the initiative’s website would soon be populated with information detailing information on how partner countries are combatting anti-Semitism within their borders.

“We wanted to give governments a chance to put their makers down in an international context to say, ‘Yes, we stand with our Jewish communities,” said Swett.

“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire.”

Greg Rosenbaum, chair of JAHM, shared similar thoughts.

“Persecution, historically, has been against a backdrop of leaders or government policies that had anti-Semitic themes,” said Rosenbaum. “If we can educate the population about the contributions of Jewish Americans to everyday life, then if something happened here, then the people would be less likely to support it.”

Obama named Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis as examples of American Jews who have “made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect.”

The president recognized Ira Forman, special U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, seated toward the front of the sanctuary, and noted the “deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in parts of the world where it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years or decades ago.”

“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire,” said Obama. “And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.”

Rachel Beyda, the University of California, Los Angeles student who faced an apparent anti-Semitic line of questioning in her quest to join her university’s student judicial board, was specifically requested to attend by the White House. Beyda, alongside Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, met with Obama briefly before his remarks.

The president’s condemnation of anti-Semitism resonated with Beyda.

“Jews seem to have lost their minority status. It was very interesting that President Obama made links between the struggles African-Americans and Jews have gone through,” she said. “That part of history is often forgotten and I think those attitudes need to change.”

Added Fingerhut, “I think [the speech] will turn out to be a moment when we became clear as a nation that what is happening on our college campuses is not simply anti-Israel political activity but anti-Semitic activity targeted at no other nation in the world, no other people.”

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who ceded his pulpit for the morning, said, “How blessed we are in our time to have a president of the United States to take the time to address the Jewish people, acknowledge our contributions [and raise] our awareness to the [rise] of anti-Semitism and how world leaders need to combat anti-Semitism.

“I thank God,” added the rabbi, “that we have a president like this who is able to make that kind of stand.”

Reform Biennial to Feature Presidential Hopefuls

“Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd has been tapped to host a presidential candidates’ forum at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial in November.

The NBC News political director will interview 2016 presidential candidates one-on-one and give the hopefuls an opportunity to answer questions from URJ leadership and biennial delegates at the event scheduled for the evening of Nov. 7 at the Orlando World Center Marriott in Orlando, Fla.

“URJ’s Biennial, because of its timing, location and audience, will be a must-attend event for the top presidential candidates,” Todd said in a statement released by the URJ. “Florida has long been a key state in presidential elections, and I am very much looking forward to this unique presidential forum.”

Candidates will be confirmed closer to the fall. A spokesperson for the URJ stated that the organization has been in ongoing conversations with candidates from both parties.

An estimated 5,000 Reform Jews are expected to attend the 73rd URJ Biennial from Nov. 4 to 8. Confirmed speakers include New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit and Israeli Knesset member Stav Shaffir.

Where Freundel May Serve Satellite camp would be ‘real privilege’

Courtroom sketch artist  William J. Hennessy completes his  treatment of the Freundel sentencing  on the courthouse’s front steps.

Courtroom sketch artist
William J. Hennessy completes his
treatment of the Freundel sentencing
on the courthouse’s front steps.

Where Rabbi Barry Freundel spends the next 6 1/2 years now lies in the hands of Senior Judge Geoffrey Alprin and the Board of Prisons.

Joseph J., a Jewish former judicial official who served 181/2 months in federal prison for soliciting bribes from two attorneys, believes Freundel should push hard to be sent to a “satellite camp,” a stand-alone camp located next to a federal correction facility.

“A camp is very open. You are still in jail. The food is terrible. You have no privacy,” said Joseph J., who asked that his last name not be used. However, “your movement is free throughout the day” once an inmate finishes his mandatory job.

“It’s a real privilege to be in a camp,” he said. There is little fear of physical or sexual abuse, because inmates understand that any wrongdoing can send them to a more restrictive cellblock “with barbed wires.”

Freundel, the former rabbi of Washington, D.C.’s Kesher Israel congregation who was sentenced May 15 for multiple counts of surreptitiously recording women as they used the National Capital Mikvah next to his synagogue, is eligible to serve in a satellite camp as his sentence is less than 10 years and his crime was nonviolent, Joseph J. said.

Although it’s been 13 years since Joseph J. walked out of prison, he still recalls the “basically inedible food” and “the very, very poor mattress” that caused him to spend $5 over and over again to purchase wood from the woodshop that he used for slats under his bed. Those slats were illegal and often confiscated by guards.

Joseph J. worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the prison kitchen, preparing lunches and dinners. Other jobs
Freundel may be assigned to include office or machine shop work, he said.

While serving in a satellite camp is preferable, Joseph J. stressed that “it is not a country club.” He slept on a bunk bed in one of two large L-shaped rooms, each holding 200 prisoners. Of those 400 prisoners,
40 were Jewish.

Sleeping “can be tough if you are next to a snorer,” he said. The one pillow he was allocated was not a good one, he said. “People scrounge for pillows.”

Breakfast is the best meal, although Joseph J. said his favorite meal was the half chicken served for lunch one day a week. Meals included a cold bar, usually salad, and a hot bar, which usually consisted of vegetable soup, rice and beans. “Old army cheese” is frequently included in many meals.

“I lost 20, 22 pounds,” especially in the beginning. New inmates often were “in such a state at first, you can’t eat,” he said.

A normal day included being awakened at 6:10 a.m. for the first of several head counts. Then it was on to breakfast before heading to a job. At 11 a.m., inmates changed from their work clothes back to their prison khaki or green uniform for
another count and lunch.

Following the end of the workday, there was another count at 4 p.m. The rest of the day included free time until dinner and more free time until 10 p.m., when inmates had to return to their bunks for another count.

During free time, prisoners could watch television, exercise on the grounds, play softball, run on the track, work out in the gym or go to the library. Joseph J. spent much of his unsupervised time in the library, reading a total of 185 books during his stay.

In a minimum security facility, where Freundel also could be sent, there is freedom of movement “to an extent,” Joseph J. said. A prisoner can go somewhere “on the hour,” only after telling a prison official where he was headed, he said.

Prisoners do receive mail, but delivery is “sporadic at best.” Joseph J. subscribed to The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh. “Sometimes I would go six weeks without and then there would be three” newspapers delivered in one day.

Joseph J. prayed with his fellow Jewish inmates. There was a Jewish chaplain attached to his camp.

Freundel will be able to remain observant. “We as an institution make sure,” said Rabbi Moishe Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute-N.E. Regional Headquarters, a not-for-profit Jewish organization aiding Jews in prison and their families.

Prisoners “are able to pray three times a day,” he said. They also can have tefillin and a prayer book, although those items first must first go through a security check, Vogel said.

The Aleph Institute strives to make sure every prison has a rabbi and that its volunteers visit prisoners. The organization also works with inmates once they are free and is available to assist family members of inmates, who Vogel called “the silent sufferers of all this, sitting at home.”

As long as Freundel registers for the certified food menu, he will be provided with kosher meals and kosher for Passover ones as well.

Vogel would not be surprised if Freundel is sent to a prison where there are other Orthodox Jews.

“Keeping the faith will help them when they get out,” Vogel said of Jewish inmates. His organization has between 8,000 and 9,000 Jewish prisoners in its national database, but “we know there are many more who don’t identify as Jewish.”

Once Freundel finishes his time in prison, he is likely to spend time in a halfway house, followed by months under supervision.

Said Vogel: “When he comes out, he will know who his friends were.”

Riding High Young pot entrepreneurs hope for potent business mixing Jewish, cannabis connections

Seth Wong (left) and JJ Slatkin have high hopes for their new marijuana testing business.

Seth Wong (left) and JJ Slatkin have high hopes for their new marijuana testing business.

DENVER — Seth Wong’s place of work is heavily cluttered, with shelves loaded with moldy bagels, stale cake and fermenting carrots. There’s a not-so-faint smell of urine in the air.

But if all goes according to plan for Wong and his new business partner, JJ Slatkin, their new office soon will have something else in abundance: marijuana.

The two Jewish 30-somethings are launching a new company that will offer contaminant testing and potency analysis for cannabis, which Colorado legalized in 2014.

Wong’s current place of work is no frat house; he is president of a 70-year-old company called Industrial Laboratories, which does food and drug analysis. The aging cakes and other foods are being analyzed for shelf life and examined for pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, the clutter includes $500,000 machines that deconstruct molecules to ensure the nutritional claims on food product labels are accurate, and the stench comes from racehorse urine being tested for banned substances. The lab also drug screens the urine of livestock, carrier pigeons, greyhounds and Iditarod racing dogs.

“Normally, our lab smells like a stockyard,” Wong said during a recent tour of the facility in Wheat Ridge, Colo., just west of Denver.

When it comes to their new company, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Wong and Slatkin are hoping two
elements will give them a leg up over the competition: Wong’s strong reputation for quality microbiological testing and their personal connections with many of the state’s leading marijuana producers — many of whom happen to be Jews.

“Many of the original real trailblazers and entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry are Jewish, and there are a handful of major operations within Colorado that have Jewish ownership,” said Slatkin, who has a background in finance. “Our Jewish community relationships have definitely been important.”

There’s Ean Seeb, chairman of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a Jewish federation leader who has his own Jewish events company. There’s Joseph Max Cohen, who started the Clinic Medical Marijuana Center in 2009 and now has multiple facilities in the Denver area. Many of the administrators at the Pink House Blooms chain of marijuana dispensaries are Jewish. So is Richard Greenberg, executive vice president of Global Cannabis Ventures and an investor in an Israeli company focused on improving marijuana breeding methods.

Slatkin and Wong are well connected in this world, largely through their Jewish associations. They count Seeb as a good friend. They often run into marijuana entrepreneurs at events sponsored by the local Jewish federation, where Wong and Slatkin are young leaders. (Wong met his fiancee on a Jewish federation retreat.) The business partners are also Wexner Heritage fellows, a program that supports young Jewish volunteer leaders.

Wong, 34, has an unusual Jewish background. His mother is from a Jewish family in Philadelphia and his father is from a Protestant Chinese family. Wong’s grandfather came over from China in the 1920s at the age of 9 as a “paper son” — with fake identity papers. Though his father and brothers already were in the United States, they were running bars and brothels during Prohibition and weren’t much help, and Wong’s father was adopted by a Jewish family.

He never became Jewish, but four decades later his son — Wong’s father — brought home a Jewish wife. Wong himself grew up in Boulder, going to Hebrew school and Jewish youth groups, yet relishing his family’s famed Chinese roast pork recipe. When he turned 13, Wong asked his father — who owns Industrial Laboratories, which Wong now runs — to convert to Judaism so he could stand alongside Wong on the bimah platform at his bar mitzvah. He obliged.

Slatkin, 32, comes from a long line of Denver Jews. Five generations ago, his ancestors fled pogroms in Russian to move to a Jewish agricultural settlement in Cotopaxi, Colo., that flourished briefly in the 1880s. After the settlement failed, they migrated to Denver and in 1887 founded an Orthodox synagogue on Denver’s west side, Congregation Zera Abraham, and had a hand in founding several others.

A Jewish day school graduate, Slatkin is a leader in his minyan at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, a Conservative synagogue in Denver, and he maintains a weekly Torah study date with an Orthodox rabbi in town. He and Wong met through Jewish channels.

“My personal life revolves almost entirely around Jewish life in Colorado,” Slatkin said. “The continuity of the Jewish people is probably the most important goal in my life. That and getting married at some point — to a Jewish girl, obviously.”

Professionally, Slatkin and Wong’s near-term goal is getting their new company up and running — and courting clients. They’ve obtained state licensing, are building their new lab at the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora and have raised about half of the $1.5 million they need to get started. Once they are certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and other third-party certifiers, they’ll be ready to go — perhaps as soon as June.

Colorado already has nine labs certified to provide potency testing and four labs certified to provide residual solvent testing. But TEQ, Slatkin said, would be certified to meet all testing requirements mandated by the state.

There’s a bit of a Wild West element to Colorado’s marijuana industry. Fearful of federal retribution (marijuana is still illegal under federal law), banks are wary of dealing with marijuana companies, so almost everything is handled in cash. The state is wary of licensing any entrepreneurs with criminal histories dealing or growing pot. Potency labeling is confusing and inconsistent —
a problem Wong hopes the lab will help rectify.

The principal psychoactive element in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol — better known as THC. Currently, cannabis producers must disclose the amount of THC present in each serving of their product, but producers are still seeing great variability in potency. Slatkin and Wong say TEQ can help remove that variability so products have a consistent level of potency.

“We’ve been watching the cannabis industry for some time, and the industry could benefit from a lab of our expertise,” Wong said. “Now is our time.”

Now What? With White House set to approve Iran deal, options to shape outcome remote

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), left, joins Ben Cardin (D-Md.)  at a news conference in the Capitol’s Senate studio after the chamber passed the Iran Nuclear Review Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), left, joins Ben Cardin (D-Md.) at a news conference in the Capitol’s Senate studio after the chamber passed the Iran Nuclear Review Act.
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

WASHINGTON — The Iran deal may not be done, but bids by its opponents to shape it are all but buried.

Skeptics of the nuclear negotiations have all but given up on a congressional role before the June 30 deadline for an agreement between Iran and the major powers.

“I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do now to ensure a better deal,” Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank consulting with Congress and the administration on Iran, said in an interview.

Attempts to limit sanctions relief on Iran, to roll back further its uranium enrichment program, and to link the deal to changes in Iranian relations with Syrian and Yemeni leaders — all goals sought by skeptics — are off the table, at least for now.

Last week, the House of Representatives approved a bill mandating congressional review of any deal in a 400-25 vote. That measure was approved by the Senate in a 98-1 vote a week before. President Barack Obama has indicated he will sign it into law.

In order to secure the necessary bipartisan support, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to strip out what the Obama administration had deemed “poison pills”: provisions that would determine what a deal looked like, for instance requiring Iran to give up its backing for terrorism. Instead, the bill simply gives Congress an up or down vote on the deal. Even if the Congress disapproves, Obama has veto power.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which for two decades has led efforts to isolate Iran, signed off on the formula.

“Our priority is to make sure the bill gets passed with the strongest bipartisan majority as soon as possible so that Congress is guaranteed the opportunity to pass judgment on the final agreement,” an AIPAC source said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still hopes to influence the outcome.

But how Netanyahu plans to go about shaping a better deal is unclear. He thought his best bet was speaking to Congress, and risked a rupture with the Obama administration when he accepted an invitation to address the body in March without consulting with the White House.

That avenue is now closed, according to opponents of the deal. Congress, under the Corker-Cardin bill about to pass, may disapprove of the deal but is not likely to garner the two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a presidential veto of its disapproval.

“It won’t be easy for Congress to override a presidential veto of a joint resolution of disapproval on a final Iran agreement,” a senior GOP congressional staffer said. “It’s not even certain the Senate will get cloture for a resolution of disapproval,” the staffer added, referring to the 60 votes needed to end debate.

In the House, 151 Democrats signed a letter to Obama supporting diplomacy with Iran. The letter did not directly address the Iran deal, but leading the signatories was Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader. Leaders rarely sign letters, and her signature was a signal that Pelosi had more than the 149 votes required to avoid a veto override.

Dylan Williams, the vice president of government affairs for J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group that helped circulate the letter, said Democrats — and probably a handful of Republicans — would not want to kill a deal that comported with the terms governing the talks now underway, including an invasive inspections regime, an enrichment rollback and staggered sanctions relief.

“Sufficient numbers of Democrats will understand it’s a choice between the agreement and a complete breakdown in diplomacy and international sanctions,” Williams said.

Once a deal was in place — as early as next fall, given that Congress has up to 52 days to review a deal after the June 30 deadline — the avenue to register opposition would be the law’s requirement that the president certify to Congress Iranian compliance with the deal every 90 days.

Without existing sanctions in place, it would be difficult for Congress to reverse a bad deal, even should it find Iran is not compliant, Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Dubowitz said, noting the difficulties of corralling businesses and other countries into reimposing sanctions.

“The administration is putting the United States on a trajectory where it will be very difficult for a future president or Congress to fundamentally change the terms of this deal,” Dubowitz said.

“It will be very difficult if not impossible to reconstitute the sanctions regime, and then there will be only be two options” should Iran breakout to a nuclear weapon. “One is to concede an Iranian nuke; two is to use force to forestall that possibility.”

Melissa Apter contributed to this report.

Dreams Derailed As Amtrak resumes service, communities cope with loss

With mandated Federal Railroad Administration safety measures and rail improvements in place, Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor reopened Monday, just shy of one week after a deadly train derailment north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station claimed eight lives and injured more than 200 people.

Among the dead were two Jewish victims, Rachel Jacobs, 39, the CEO of Philadelphia-based online education firm ApprenNet, and Justin Zemser, 20, a New York-native and second-year midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Funerals were held for Zemser on Friday and for Jacobs on Monday.


Amtrak train derailment May 12.

The investigation into the disaster will take months, with investigators seeking an explanation as to why Northeast Regional Train 188, traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York City, was speeding along at a reported 106 mph before encountering the sharp curve in North Philadelphia. News reports have also focused on the possibility of a projectile or other object striking the engineer’s compartment shortly before the accident, but a larger issue, according to rail safety consultant José Marquez, is the lack of safety systems that could have prevented the derailment.

“There were control systems in place, but not in both directions,” said Marquez, a former safety manager for Tren Urbano in Puerto Rico. “Why put it on one direction and not the other? That is very peculiar.”

Marquez was referring to technology known as automatic train control, which had already been in use for southbound trains and, due to new federal directives, is being added to all northbound lines. The system detects when a train is traveling above the speed limit and sends a signal to the engineer. If the engineer fails to act, the system will automatically apply the train’s brakes.

Risk assessment of all the curves along the Northeast Corridor and increased wayside speed limit signage to provide “a redundant means to remind engineers and conductors of the authorized speed” were also included in the federal requirements put in place last week for Amtrak to resume service.

Marquez, who said National Transportation Safety Board investigators are “top of the line and everyone in the industry respects them,” said that future rail travel will likely be safer as a result of the investigation.

“There is a saying, every safety rule is written in blood. Any time something happens, [an] industry looks into it to find out what’s wrong,” he said. “From every tragedy we learn something. … If people think these reports end up in a desk somewhere and no one reads them, they are wrong. We read them and share them, discuss it among ourselves and throughout our systems.”

There is a saying, every safety rule is written in blood. Any time something happens, [an] industry looks into it to find out what’s wrong. From every tragedy we learn something.

William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, is among the commuters who regularly ride Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, who numbered 750,000 last year. Shortly after the May 12 derailment — he was going the other way on the Amtrak line — he spoke about how the risk of an accident is not something that crosses most riders’ minds.

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

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

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

Fred Jacobs, senior vice president at AKRF, Inc., an environmental and engineering consulting firm, travels to New York from Baltimore on average once a week, and has done so for the past 13 years.

Also read, Despite Tragedy, Rail Travel Is a Safe Bet.

In order to return to Baltimore after the Amtrak accident, he took the Bolt Bus for the first time. Jacobs said it was “OK in a pinch,” but “I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.” It took longer, was less comfortable and had fewer amenities for professionals, though on that day there were many suit-clad “Acela riders who had to get out of town,” he said. Jacobs chose to video conference into a meeting he had to facilitate in New York the next day and “it wasn’t good,” he lamented. “You lose a lot.”

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

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

Silver shared his sentiment.

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

For Silver, taking the train isn’t the scary part. What worried her was a meeting took take place only hours after the derailment to determine whether Amtrak should receive a $252 million budget cut. The Obama administration called for boosting Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion, but on May 13, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a bid by Democrats to increase the federally-subsidized carrier’s budget by more than $1 billion, including $556 million targeted for the Northeast Corridor. The Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 along party lines to slash Amtrak’s funding.

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

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

Justin Zemser, who was about to complete his second year at the U.S. Naval Academy, also died in the crash.

Justin Zemser, who was about to complete his second year at the U.S. Naval Academy, died in the crash. (Provided)

Lives lost

Among the dead, Zemser, the Naval Academy midshipman, was traveling home to visit his family in the Rockaways.

Zemser was completing his second year at the academy, said Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a chaplain at the academy. Sherwin has known Zemser and his parents, Howard and Susan, since the day Justin arrived in Annapolis.

“Justin was a regular at services; he was here almost every week and actively participated,” said Sherwin. “He was a member of the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club and was recently elected incoming vice president” after serving a year as secretary.

In addition to knowing Justin through faith-related activities, Sherwin got to know him “as a fun kid.” Zemser, known to friends as Z, traveled with a group to Israel in March led by Sherwin and sponsored by the Friends of the Jewish Chapel.

The 10-day interfaith trip comprised religious activities, touristy outings and a day spent with the Israeli navy that included a visit to the Golan Heights led by a colonel who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

“He was deeply moved,” Sherwin said of Zemser. “He asked a lot of questions and really dug in throughout and engaged with the trip. It affected him on the personal Jewish level and in the larger world view.”

Prior to the May 15 funeral, Justin’s uncle, Richard Zemser, encapsulated his nephew’s short life.

“He did more things in his young 20 years,” he said, “than anybody can imagine.”

Zemser was goal oriented, said the uncle, deeply dedicated to education and encouraging of such traits in others. He was co-captain of his high school football team, class president and valedictorian at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park, N.Y. At the Naval Academy, he was set to mentor incoming freshman and had his sights set on becoming a Navy SEAL.

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

Midshipmen in crisp white uniforms carried Zemser’s flag-draped casket at the funeral in Hewlett, N.Y. More than 400 people attended another service May 17 at the Commander Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy. Commandant Capt. Bill Byrne and company officer Capt. Brandy Soublet spoke at the service, as did Ross Gilchriest, Zemser’s best friend and Navy football teammate.

Sherwin said the hour-long Jewish-themed service was intentionally accessible to everyone.

“We wanted to be true to who Justin was,” said the rabbi, who described leading the service as difficult. “I was having a hard time emotionally, but that’s what we do. … We get together and celebrate someone’s life.”

Todd Waldman (left) lost his wife, Rachel Jacobs (pictured), to the deadly Amtrak train derailment May 12.

Rachel Jacobs (Provided)

Rachel Jacobs, the daughter of former Michigan state Sen. Gilda Jacobs, was commuting home to her husband and 2-year-old son in Manhattan when the train derailed. In statements to the media, friends and family members remembered her as loving and attentive, a person who devoted her life to education and social justice. A private service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York memorialized her life.

“We will continue to honor her,” her husband, Todd Waldman, said at the service, according to the New York Daily News. “Remember how each and every one of you shaped her world.”

Songs that were special to the Swarthmore College and Columbia Business School graduate were played at the memorial, including The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which she sang to her son; the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels”; and Journey’s “Faithfully,” the first dance at her wedding.

“When we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community,” Jacobs once said in describing Detroit Nation, a nonprofit group she co-founded in 2010 to help Detroit-area natives stay connected and involved even if they didn’t live there.

A funeral for Jacobs was held Monday in Michigan, where she was buried in her hometown of Ferndale.

JTA contributed to this article.,,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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