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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silver shares his sentiment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Days In L.A.’s Koreatown, Wilshire Boulevard Temple bets big on the past for its future

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s new campus will take up an entire block.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s new campus will take up an entire block.

LOS ANGELES — The time has long since passed when the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s address on its namesake boulevard was considered glamorous.

Now the surrounding blocks are the clamorous heart of Koreatown, with all its urban grit: traffic snarls, hulking office buildings, electronics shops, dentists, and banks with signs in Korean and some in Spanish. Here the Wilshire Boulevard Temple — the grand Byzantine-revival synagogue built in 1929 — seems like a relic of another era, before this city’s prospering Jewish community moved west and north, leaving the neighborhood to subsequent waves of immigrants.

But these days, the temple complex is alive with its own dust and clamor. Construction workers are toiling to put up new buildings and renovate old ones, part of a multiyear capital project that has restored the polish to the once-neglected sanctuary building. The religious school is full, and a new elementary day school is growing with each school year.

When all is said and done, the Reform congregation’s expansion project will have taken more than a decade to build and cost nearly $200 million. The Glazer Campus, as it is called now, will fill an entire city block.

If successful, the project will be not only a stunning rebirth for a complex that once seemed at risk of moldering into obscurity, but a large and expensive commitment to Jewish presence in the type of diverse urban neighborhood that the American Jewish community once seemed on the verge of abandoning.

“This is really an urban synagogue that has decided to commit to the urban core of a city,” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg, one of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s eight rabbis to be assigned full-time to the eastern campus. “It’s a different way of seeing our strong Jewish identity as one identity in this multicultural community of L.A.”

That commitment to the urban core was, at one point, in serious doubt. When Steven Leder took over as senior rabbi in 2003, the temple was large and prosperous, with not only the original temple complex but a gleaming new full-block campus 10 miles away in wealthier west Los Angeles, a pair of campgrounds and a conference center in the Malibu hills. The membership was more than 2,000 families.

However, there were festering problems at its original home. The synagogue building was deteriorating from years of neglect, and the size of the kindergarten class at the accompanying east side religious school was zero. Synagogue leaders debated whether it was time to sell the building.

But Leder had fallen in love with the sanctuary from the first moment he walked into it in 1987, when he first interviewed to work at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He had no intention of selling.

“I said to the board, we have to make this decision, but if you guys really think it’s best to sell it and become an exclusively west L.A. congregation, you should look for another senior rabbi,” he said. “I’m not going to be the one who turns that place into a church.”

Besides, Leder saw signs of opportunity. He had noticed, and a demographic study for the temple confirmed, that younger Jewish families had again started moving to the east side. The key was to attract them, and that meant more than simply restoring the old synagogue — the result, he believed, would be a beautiful but empty building.

Working with the firm of architect Brenda Levin starting in 2005, the congregation developed the ambitious master plan for the campus — a restored synagogue, a new Jewish early childhood center, a new Jewish elementary school, a social service center, an athletic field, a community gathering space and more.

It was a plan that would require the synagogue to buy up the rest of its city block and embark on a massive fundraising campaign, sustained through the Great Recession that has raised $126 million toward an apparently unprecedented total estimated at $180 million to $190 million.

“There’s nothing comparable in my experience,” said David Mersky, a fundraising consultant who has worked with a number of synagogues on fundraising campaigns and consulted briefly with the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The closest reference he could recall was a $30 million drive by Central Synagogue, a congregation on the East Side of Manhattan, for a 2001 restoration.

(Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side spent some $50 million on its new building, which opened in 2013. Funds for that congregation included proceeds from a land swap, and a fundraising push that included an anonymous $20 million donation.)

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple is undergoing a restoration and expansion  project that, when complete, will have taken more than a decade and cost  nearly $200 million. Above, the synagogue’s sanctuary.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple is undergoing a restoration and expansion
project that, when complete, will have taken more than a decade and cost
nearly $200 million. Above, the synagogue’s sanctuary.

Large and expensive projects are nothing new to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. When the 1929 building was constructed, the synagogue was known as the “Temple to the Stars,” and its list of contributors to the building fund in the lobby includes Hollywood studio honchos such as Jack Warner, B.P. Schulberg and Louis B. Mayer.

These days, the membership leans more toward professions such as real estate, law and finance, sources close to the congregation said, although it is still home to members such as former Disney board member Stanley Gold and “Pulp Fiction” producer Lawrence Bender.

But as in the past, the synagogue’s members have opened their deep pockets. Erika Glazer, the daughter of shopping mall developer Guilford Glazer, donated $30 million to the restoration and expansion, as well as another $6 million for a new early childhood center. An anonymous donor gave $10 million, and a total of 30 donors have made gifts of $1 million or more.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s new campus will take up an entire block.

The temple is in the midst of building a four-story garage that will house parking for 450 cars and a full-sized playing field on the roof. On the ground floor will be the new Karsh Social Service Center.

The parking garage, field and school buildings are expected to open in September, and the social service center early next year. Plans are still being developed for the final construction phase, a five-story building that will likely include a banquet hall, cafe, offices and only the second non-Orthodox mikvah in Los Angeles.

The germ of the idea for the social service center came from a desire to build a new space for the temple’s
28-year-old food pantry, which lacks proper cold storage and dedicated distribution space. But the idea quickly expanded as the temple sought to join with existing organizations in the community to create a walk-in center that could serve as a one-stop shop for a variety of social service needs.

The synagogue is planning to partner with the Korean Health, Education, Information, and Research Center, which runs a nearby health clinic, to open a dental and vision clinic — medical services that are not provided by emergency rooms and thus are in intense demand among poorer residents. An array of nonprofit legal centers, including Bet Tzedek and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, will offer low-cost or pro bono legal services on issues ranging from elder care to citizenship. And over time, the temple hopes to add additional services ranging from grief counseling to resume mentoring.

“If we are nothing more than a landlord that charges no rent, we are a failure,” said Rabbi Beau Shapiro, who is overseeing the planning for the social service center.

Steve Leder, senior rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, saw  opportunity in the synagogue's  deteriorating landscape.

Steve Leder, senior rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, saw
opportunity in the synagogue’s
deteriorating landscape.

On that front, the early signs are positive. A January workshop for citizenship applications held at the temple was so popular that it attracted more volunteers than the number of clients the organization had brought for the occasion. One of the volunteer lawyers was so moved by the applicant he was helping that when he discovered that she didn’t qualify for a fee waiver for her citizenship application, he arranged for his law firm to cover the cost.

“We were like, ‘Oh my God, we hit the jackpot here,’” said Nasim Khansari, the citizenship project
director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who ran the workshop.

Johng Ho Song, the executive director of the nearby Koreatown Youth and Community Center, said he
has been impressed with the temple’s outreach to community groups like his own and expressed hope that the temple’s collaborative vision could become a model for institutions in other neighborhoods as well.

“They’re making a very conscious decision to work together and share their resources, which is very unusual here,” Song said. “I think they’re really trying to demonstrate that they like to be involved with the community, they want to be part of community, and they want to make a positive impact.”

That, in turn, could help nurture a closer relationship between the temple members and the surrounding community.

“It builds partnership, it builds trust in the community,” Song said. “It’s an opportunity to break down some of the differences and cultural stereotypes.”

At the same time, Rabbi Goldberg has been tasked with reaching out to the east side’s burgeoning Jewish community, a task that ranges from teaming with organizations such as East Side Jews to create events from living room Havdalahs to monthly Friday night services where everyone sits on the grand sanctuary’s bimah to make the space feel more intimate.

So far, the signs for the new campus are positive — synagogue membership has been stable at around 2,400 members, and Leder notes that the age of membership is trending younger, as new families joining replace older congregants who have died. The schools are at capacity with waiting lists.

If Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s very expensive bet does pay off in the long run, it will be because what were once thought to be its greatest vulnerabilities — the massive old sanctuary and the diverse, teeming neighborhood around it — prove to be unique strengths.

Leder argues that the synagogue and the social service center, on opposite sides of the block, represent the two portals into Judaism — worship and engagement with the problems of the world.

“All we have to do is open our doors,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Midshipman Dead, Tech CEO Missing in Amtrak Derailment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check for the latest updates.

Religious Action Center Welcomes New Leader Washington confab highlights Reform movement’s activism

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rabbi David Saperstein (left), Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (center) and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner. (Photo Pat Jarrett)

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rabbi David Saperstein (left), Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (center) and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner. (Photo Pat Jarrett)

Though the Reform movement’s social action arm has a new leader, the goals of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism remain the same.

Close to 400 clergy and Reform movement activists packed the DoubleTree hotel in Arlington, Va., April 26 during the RAC’s three-day Consultation on Conscience to thank Rabbi David Saperstein for his 40 years of service to the organization. Saperstein was appointed by President Barack Obama to become ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the State Department.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid tribute to Saperstein, calling him “a leader who has not only been true to America, but who has kept America true to itself for 40 years.”

The following afternoon, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner was installed as the RAC’s new director. During the ceremony, Torahs were passed around the room among the clergy and ended in the arms of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who passed one scroll to Saperstein by way of symbolically handing over the reins to his successor.

Pesner, at times getting choked up, said that he hopes under his leadership, the organization will become “more impactful in states and congregations. The fight for social justice today is [not just in D.C.] but neighborhood by neighborhood.”

He noted that the RAC has more than 70 issues it advocates for including overcoming economic inequality, racial injustice, LGBT rights and nondiscrimination, in addition to religious freedom.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, spoke ahead of Tuesday’s Supreme Court arguments on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. Pointing to the 37 states in which gay marriage is legal, 65 cases ruled in favor of gay marriage and the bulk of Americans in favor of legalizing gay marriage, Wolfson predicted that the court’s decision, which will likely be handed down in June, would affirm that right.

But he cautioned, “The number one thing to remember is it’s not done until it’s done, and then it’s still not done! This [would be] a huge step forward, but there is still more work to do. We must remain engaged, harness the power of activists” to secure other legal protections.

Wolfson was joined in a panel discussion by Rabbis Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C. Their discussion signaled that the RAC will become more engaged in transgender activism.

RAC members were urged to lobby their Congress members in favor of the Healthy Families Act, which would require employers with 15 or more daily employees to allow them to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days every year, funding for the U.N. Green Climate Fund and the Democracy Restoration Act, which ties into the RAC’s landmark legislative accomplishment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a staple of Jewish communal conferences, were addressed by Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state and undersecretary of state for political affairs. The Baltimore native reiterated the administration’s desire to resolve issues with Iran through negotiations.

“[We] can’t bomb away knowledge,” she said, referencing the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that a military option would only delay Iran by two years.

Conference attendees journeyed to Capitol Hill Tuesday morning where a final plenary session was held in the Dirksen Senate office building auditorium with scheduled remarks from Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

Maintaining the Moral Center State Sen. Raskin running for Congress

State Sen. Jamie Raskin is among a field of Democrats seeking to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is running for the U.S. Senate. (Provided)

State Sen. Jamie Raskin is among a field of Democrats seeking to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is running for the U.S. Senate. (Provided)

At his campaign kick-off, Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin  declared that his “ambition is not to be in the political center.”

“My ambition,” said the congressional candidate, “is to be in the moral center.”

It’s a refrain that Raskin, who is Jewish and who is seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-District 8) as he runs for the Senate, has invoked often. In his kick-off speech for his successful 2006 run against a 32-year incumbent, he vowed to work toward marriage equality. A supporter confronted him afterward and said Raskin’s stance on gay marriage made it sound like he “wasn’t in the political center.”

“I thought about it for a second and said, ‘I guess my ambition is not to be the political center, it’s to be the moral center,’” Raskin said in a recent interview. “The political center moves; marriage equality is a great example [of that shift].”

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves as the Maryland Senate’s majority whip, is in many ways the quintessential progressive. He has championed rights for the LGBT community, women and minorities, is in favor of a single-payer health care system and wants to raise the minimum wage.

He believes “we have an urgent responsibility to halt and reverse the disastrous effects of climate change” at the federal level and views himself as a champion of small businesses against “big business lobbyists.” He’s been lauded by the American Civil Liberties Union and Progressive Neighbors alike.

But in making his views the centerpiece of a run for Capitol Hill, Raskin might be setting himself up for an uphill climb. The federal district he seeks to represent is among the most gerrymandered in the state, encompassing pieces of metropolitan Montgomery County — home to a significant portion of greater Washington, D.C.’s Jewish population — and large swaths of the more rural, conservative and Republican-leaning Carroll and Frederick counties.

Since Van Hollen unseated moderate Republican Connie Morella in 2002, the district has become a firmly Democratic stronghold, with Van Hollen capturing just more than 60 percent of the vote in 2014. Most of his victory came from Montgomery County; in Carroll and Frederick counties, Republican challenger Dave Wallace took in the most votes.

Given the geographic and political disparities between the southern and northern portions of the district, how will a Harvard-educated American University law professor be received outside of liberal Takoma Park?

Quite well, Raskin believes, pointing to the 100-plus bills he’s passed in Annapolis. On a drive back from visiting Democratic activists in Frederick, he rattled off a list of bipartisan successes, including the Second Chance Act aimed at shielding certain nonviolent misdemeanor criminal records from public view to help reformed criminals seek an easier path to employment.

“I’m not going to pretend I’m not a liberal,” he said. “The root of that word is liberty and I’m for liberty. I’m a progressive; the root of that word
is progress. I even call myself a conservative sometimes, because I want to conserve the air, the water.”

The real challenge in the race isn’t the Democrat versus GOP divide — no Republican candidates have declared as of yet — but the lines being drawn between Montgomery County Democrats. The rare opportunity to compete for a national platform in a Democratic stronghold has mass appeal. Four candidates have officially declared and at least four more are eyeing a run.

Del. Kumar Barve announced his candidacy in early March; as such, he is the only candidate required to file a quarterly fundraising report. Barve took in $66,200 — of which $10,800 was donated by Barve and his mother — between March 9 and 31. He’s been endorsed by Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), the only Indian-American in Congress.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase announced her candidacy late last week. Gutierrez became the first Latina in the Maryland State House when she captured Van Hollen’s old seat in 2002. Will Jawando of Silver Spring threw his hat into the ring just days before. The former White House associate director of the Office of Public Engagement finished fourth out of nine candidates vying for a delegate seat for the 20th Legislative District in the 2014 primary.

Dels. Ariana Kelly of Bethesda and Jeffrey Waldstreicher of Kensington, former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin and Marriott International executive Kathleen Mathews of Chevy Chase are still mulling runs.

With a crowded field growing even more cramped as the campaign season ramps up, Raskin has quite strategically sought to raise his visibility right out of the gate with a long list of endorsements.

More than 40 elected officials have thrown their support behind him. Predictably, he picked up endorsements from Montgomery County Council members, many of whom live in his district, and from nearly all of the Takoma Park City Council. State Attorney General Brian Frosh, former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings and state Sen. Ron Young of Frederick County have come out in favor of Raskin, joining nearly half of Maryland’s 33 Democratic state senators who have done the same.

Maryland Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, has lent her voice to the chorus of Raskin supporters.

“He brings his tenacity, his drive, his concern about community and neighbors to the senate,” she said. “It would be very difficult for anyone who has served with him to do anything other than endorse him.”

Raskin gained fame in Montgomery County when in 1997, he successfully defended students from Montgomery Blair High School whose news program covering the gay marriage debate was censored by school officials. The Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which sends law students into public high schools to teach constitutional law and juvenile rights, grew out of that experience and is housed in the Washington College of Law where Raskin teaches.

“It struck me that the schools that should be educating students about constitutional rights were violating [students’] constitutional rights,” he said.

Raskin is far from the first family member involved with government. His wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, is a deputy secretary at the Treasury Department, and his father, Marcus Raskin, is well-known in Washington as a co-founder of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies think tank and was a member of the special staff of the National Security Council during the Kennedy administration.

Both he and his wife have called Takoma Park home for 25 years and are members of Temple Sinai in D.C., where their three children celebrated their b’nai mitzvah.

When not in the classroom or general assembly, Raskin values his family time, but with his children grown, he has more time to entertain his hobbies. He is a lifelong chess lover and co-founder of All the Right Moves, an organization that fosters chess clubs in Montgomery County Public Schools. He is a frequent collaborator with Lumina Studio Theatre in Silver Spring, where he has co-written several play adaptations, and is the author of several books including “Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court versus the American People.”

Jewish Community Protests, Marches, Prays

IMG_0879About 100 members of the Baltimore Jewish community marched and rallied in Baltimore City on Friday afternoon. Among the group was about a dozen rabbis from Baltimore and Washington, D.C.-area synagogues.

The group, led by Jews United for Justice, merged with a march led by Casa de Maryland, who held a rally outside of City Hall following the march.

Although it was announced earlier that day that six officers were charged in the police custody death of Freddie Gray, 25, the marchers said there were a variety of social justice issues that still needed attention.

On Saturday, Rabbi Eitan Mintz led about 100 people from B’nai Israel Synagogue and surrounding churches and organizations in the Jonestown neighborhood in a vigil of singing and prayer in solidarity with events happening around the city.

Clergy from Helping Out Mission, St. Vincent de Paul church, St. Leo’s church and Gallery Church spoke during the short service, which was held in the field outside the synagogue.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Taking a Stand

Ethiopian-Israeli Danny Ayanou (center) meets with students during a  Confronting Apartheid event at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Ethiopian-Israeli Danny Ayanou (center) meets with students during a
Confronting Apartheid event at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

As anti-Israel rhetoric heats up on college campuses throughout the world, a cadre of young people at
Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya has dedicated themselves to countering this disturbing trend.

Participants in “Israel at Heart,” IDC’s leadership program for students from the Ethiopian-Israeli community, feel they are in a unique position to counter the charge that Israel is an apartheid state that officially practices a system of racial segregation and discrimination.

The Israeli students believe that by describing their everyday life in Israel and the diversity of Israeli society, as well as their families’ personal history, they can offset some of the misinformation pro-Palestinian students present. This year, IDC sent 20 delegations of Ethiopian students abroad. As in the past, some worked as interns in their chosen professions; some traveled the United States speaking at Jewish schools and campus Hillels. Every year, there is a delegation that works at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“Israel has 130,000 Ethiopian Jews,” said Jonathan Davis, IDC’s vice president for external relations. “We believe that by sending students of Ethiopian backgrounds to different locales, they are in the best position to explain to the public that Israel is not segregated; they can tell the story of the country and the university and dispel the myth of apartheid. We have seen that this effort has an impact.”

For Shlomit Zinba and Danny Ayanou, two 20-something communications majors, the effort involved challenging the perceptions of students at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, where they spent Israeli Apartheid Week in a tent directly facing the pro-Palestinian tent supported by BDS, the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Until they travel overseas, most Israelis do not really understand the barrage of anti-Israel hostility and its many manifestations. Although they had received a comprehensive orientation before they left Israel, both Zinba and Ayanou used the word “shocked” to describe what they encountered. “We didn’t really know what Apartheid Week was until we went,” Ayanou said. “The reality was very emotional. People don’t realize how bad the situation is out there.”

“Our tent had an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag,” said Zinba, “with a big sign stating ‘Let’s talk.’ Our motto was ‘What was is in the past — let’s talk about the future.’ We tried to talk to as many people as we could.”

“We met a lot of students,”Ayanou said. “They didn’t know anything about Ethiopian-Israelis. They thought Israel was an apartheid country like South Africa had been in the past. What they believe about Israel is nothing like what Israel is. Most of them get their information from Al-Jazeera English,” a
division of the Arabic-language news network based in Qatar.

Even students with Israeli connections couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the misinformation, Zinba said. “We met an Israeli Arab from Nazareth. Most of his family had served in the army, yet he told one story publicly and another privately. With only about 600 Jews on a campus of 27,000 students, there’s no one to defend Israel,” she pointed out.

“The first day I was shocked when I saw what their tent contained,”Ayanou said. “It was full of misinformation about Israel. We spoke with some girls from BDS who have family in Tel Aviv. After we talked, they wrote on Facebook: “Don’t talk to the Ethiopian Jews. Everything they say is Israeli propaganda.”

“They speak about apartheid,” he said with a touch of bitterness, “but what they are saying is really racism. The Palestinians came to see what our tent was all about and we had a debate. They’re very aggressive.”

“We told them that Israel is not a perfect country, but they didn’t suggest a solution to the situation,” Zinba added.

Every year during Israeli Apartheid Week, BDS calls for a boycott of a different company, she noted. This year the target was G4S, a multinational British company that supplies security equipment and services to Israel and other countries throughout the world. “We told them that in boycotting Israel, they’re also boycotting Gaza, but they don’t care,” she said.

For Zinba and Ayanou, their 10 days in Cape Town left an indelible impression. “After Apartheid Week, I came back more of a Zionist than ever,”Ayanou said. “I realized that we don’t have any other place to go.”

Born in Ethiopia, he and his family were airlifted to Israel by Operation Solomon in 1991 when he was four years old. They settled in Ashkelon. After his military service, he was one of 50 young Ethiopian-Israelis chosen for IDC’s Ethiopian leadership program and is now about to graduate. “Before I went to South Africa I wanted to go into politics. Now I want to get an advanced degree in political science and really pursue it.”

The youngest of five children, Zinba was born and grew up in Or Yehuda, a small town north of Tel Aviv, where she now lives. Before being chosen for the IDC program, she served as a flight controller in the Israel Air Force. Currently completing her second year of study, Zinba said the South African
experience reinforced her desire to be part of another overseas delegation, to continue to go out and spread the word about Israel.

“We feel that IDC is a Zionist institution,” Davis said, noting that IDC views the Ethiopian leadership program as an aspect of its Zionist mission. “We saw that Ethiopian kids were not studying at good universities so we set out to change the status quo. Some universities look at the psychometric exams [the equivalent of SATs] as if they are the standard. We feel the exams are culturally biased and that the chances of psychometric success for Ethiopians are negligible.”

Rather, the program’s 50 students are chosen on the basis of their high school grades, their military or national service performance and a personal interview. The program provides a full tuition scholarship, a stipend and a laptop computer. The students also receive social, personal and academic support and mentoring, with the accent on learning English. “We invest $1 million a year on the Ethiopian program,” Davis said. Now entering its 10th year, he noted that the program’s 95 percent graduation rate speaks for itself.

IDC applies the same accessible admissions criteria to combat soldiers and has a special scholarship program for students with academic potential from disadvantaged families.

“Another part of our mission is to help make the case for Israel,” Davis said. “Sometimes people don’t want to be confused by facts. The Ethiopian program is part of making the case for Israel. People need to hear from these students.”

Jonathan Davis has a special connection to Israel’s Ethiopian community and the IDC program he administers. He was a member of the team that participated in Operation Solomon. “It is entirely possible that Ayanou was one of the toddlers I helped off the plane when we landed in Tel Aviv,” he said. “With students like Ayanou now studying at IDC, I feel I have come full circle.”

While they may not be able to completely push back the rising tide of student antagonism to Israel, IDC is making it possible for young Ethiopian-Israelis like Zinba and Ayanou to counteract myths with facts by telling Israel’s story from their own distinctive perspective.

Protests Remain Peaceful on Wednesday


Protesters march from City Hall to Penn Station on Wednesday, April 29.

A crowd of hundreds marched from Baltimore’s Penn Station to City Hall and back Wednesday evening, waving signs and shouting chants of “No justice, no peace. No racist police.”

National Guard troops, Maryland State Police and Baltimore City Police stood behind barricades in front of City Hall and helped direct march and vehicular traffic. While guardsmen had guns and batons ready, other officers had zip ties hanging off of their uniforms. There were no reported clashes between law enforcement and protesters; the march was peaceful.

For two weeks, individuals from Baltimore and beyond have been protesting over the death Freddie Gray, 25, who was arrested on April 12 and died on April 19 after suffering injuries while in police custody. It is not known when and how he sustained the injuries.

National Guardsmen were stationed behind barricades in front of City Hall.

National Guardsmen were stationed behind barricades in front of City Hall.

Baltimore Police were expected to announce that their investigation was completed and turned over to prosecutors on Thursday, but no more public information was to be released, according to reports.


From left: Alfred Moses, a former ambassador to Romania, and Robert and Bill Gottesman, of the Gottesman Fund, are applauded as Jewish Primary Day School officials announce that their gifts from Moses and The Gottesman Fund will enable Washington’s only Jewish day school to add a middle school. (Provided)

From left: Alfred Moses, a former ambassador to Romania, and Robert and Bill Gottesman, of the Gottesman Fund, are applauded as Jewish Primary Day School officials announce that their gifts from Moses and The Gottesman Fund will enable Washington’s only Jewish day school to add a middle school. (Provided)

With a total of $21 million in gifts, the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital will finally get the middle school its parents have always wanted.

“This is among the largest gifts to a Jewish Day School in the country,” said Adina Kanefield, director of institutional advancement at JPDS.

The only Jewish day school in Washington teaches students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. By September 2018, the school will offer a seventh grade and eighth grade as well.

A ceremony was held Monday night in the school’s Gottesman Auditorium featuring much fanfare and a little mystery. The 150 community members gathered were not told of the gift ahead of time, but only that a “major announcement” was forthcoming.

Attendees soon learned that Alfred Moses, a former ambassador to Romania, and the Gottesman Fund will donate $10 million each for the new facility that will be built at the school’s north campus on 16th Street. Another $1 million, plus an additional $500,000 if the school community matches that amount, was pledged by school parents Steven and Chani Laufer.

A third-floor addition to the north campus facility will become a middle school and will be named the Moses Family Middle School. JPDS will officially become the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. The north and south campus will continue as the Kay and Robert Schattner Center North Campus.

Construction is expected to begin in June 2017.

The announcement was a culmination of talks that begin two years ago when Moses approached Milton Gottesman’s nephews for help in funding a middle school in Washington, D.C. “We were not approached. We approached the school,” Moses said.

When school officials first learned of the $20 million gift, it was important to determine if a new set of parents, not yet active in the school, will be around to make sure JPDS has a future, said Greg Shron, president of the school’s board of trustees.

It was determined there was “a critical mass of new leaders and board members” willing to step up when the current board’s children begin attending high school and college, Shron said.

While there was a great deal of excitement following the announcement, Shron said there is much to be done before any seventh- and eighth-graders can start class. Plans and actual construction loom large, he said, adding, “There is a tremendous amount of work left to be done,” he said.

Most of the roughly 300 students who graduate from JPDS go onto public school or independent private schools, Kanefield said.

Moses, a member of Kesher Israel Congregation, said he is determined to stop the flow away from Jewish education, pointing out that a child’s formative years begin after seventh grade, or what he called the b’nai mitzvah year.

Keeping students in Jewish day school for even two more years will make “a meaningful difference,” said Moses, a partner in the Washington law firm Covington & Burling and co-founder of Promontory Financial Group.

“Without it, we are not going to have a Jewish community,” said Moses, who was a special presidential emissary for the Cyprus Conflict from 1999 to 2001 and a special adviser and counsel to President Jimmy Carter.

Moses was life-long friends with Milton Gottesman, who died 10 years ago.

Two of his Gottesman’s nephews spoke at the official announcement, noting that JPDS taught a well-rounded curriculum, which was what their uncle preferred.

They described their uncle as an intellect who spoke and wrote Hebrew, loved being Jewish and doing things for the community. He rode his bicycle to work every day, well into his 70s. He would not be interrupted when “Masterpiece Theater” came on television, played Gilbert and Sullivan on the piano and took up painting with water colors in his 80s, said nephews Robert and Bill Gottesman.

Bill Gottesman compared his uncle to the Star Wars character C-3PO — both were tall, proper, finicky, hyper-educated and hyper-verbal. They even walked the same way.

Moses and the Gottesman Fund have donated to JPDS in the past. The Gottesman Fund also donates to numerous other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Historical Society, Birthright Israel, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Beit Din of America and numerous synagogues, mostly in New York.

“They give to many causes in Israel and here, Jewishly,” Kanefield said.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser pronounced the new middle school not just an asset for Jewish education, but for all of Washington. “Great school choices” bring families here “who care about value-based education,” said Bowser, prompting a standing ovation.

Also addressing the crowd was Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. JPDS’s expansion at a time when other day schools are losing students “speaks volumes about the future of the Jewish community” in D.C., he said.