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.”


A Vaudeville Approach Beth Tfiloh eighth-grader ‘wows ’em’ with Family Story project

Beth Tfiloh eighth-grader Eitan Murinson presents his project with Jewish Museum of Maryland education director Ilene Dackman-Alon (left) and teacher Lizabeth Shrier. (Rina Goloskov)

Beth Tfiloh eighth-grader Eitan Murinson presents his project with Jewish Museum of Maryland education director Ilene Dackman-Alon (left) and teacher Lizabeth Shrier.
(Rina Goloskov)

An academic journey that took 14-year old Eitan Murinson to the days of vaudeville will be taking him to Israel next month.

Murinson, an eighth-grader at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, was chosen as one of 40 students out of more than 12,000 who submitted projects about their family history as part of the My Family Story program. The curriculum was developed 20 years ago by Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv as a way for Jewish students between ages 12 and 15 to learn more about their family heritage. It includes the annual Manual Hirsch Grosskopf International Competition in which students from around the world create projects that explore their family roots.

Murinson created a vaudeville-era stage replica using cardboard and wallpaper to honor his ancestors who were performers in the early 1900s. He made curtains out of fabric and even included stage lights. To accompany the stage, he used a Lazy Susan to display several old photos of his family that his mother had found.

“It was composed in an interesting way, but it worked, and I was very pleased,” Murinson said.

Murinson plays piano, sings and is involved in theater at Beth Tfiloh. He said his inspiration for the project came from his love for music.

“I really thought that that was a great topic to do my project,” he said.

This was the first year Beth Tfiloh implemented the program as part of a joint effort with the Jewish Museum of Maryland. In March, 41 projects were displayed at the museum, and two were selected as finalists for the competition. According to the museum’s director of education, Ilene Dackmon-Alon, the projects were judged based on the criteria of depth and research, aesthetics, creativity and connection to Jewish peoplehood.

Dackmon-Alon said the program succeeded at Beth Tfiloh with the help of a small grant from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education. She said she was thrilled when she found out Murinson had been selected as one of the 40 winners.

“I was over the moon,” she said. “We were very excited. It’s a wonderful program, and it just speaks volumes about how kids learn and connections. And the project is so student focused, and with kids’ creativity, it just amazing.”

“[Eitan has] been an absolute pleasure to teach. He’s curious and intelligent and has strong opinions and is able to stick by them. He’s a wonderful student to have.”

Eighth-grade ancient history teacher Lizabeth Shrier said all of her students submitted projects, which she called “great examples of resilience.” They included a bridge representing a death march in Poland and a door of buttons in honor of a student’s grandfather who worked in a tailor shop.

“It was a very impactful program,” she said. “I don’t think that our students realized how meaningful this was until the actual night of the exhibit.”

Shrier said she has thoroughly enjoyed having Murinson in her class this year and that he has added an interesting perspective to the classroom.

“He’s been an absolute pleasure to teach,” she said. “He’s curious and intelligent and has strong opinions and is able to stick by them. He’s a wonderful student to have.”

Shrier hopes to include the My Family Story curriculum in her future classes but said she is making sure it will work logistically.

“We’re definitely evaluating it,” she said. “We see lots of worth and value in this program.”

Just as Murinson was shocked when he found out he was one of the final 200 projects selected, he was equally shocked to discover he had been selected as one of the winners. He credits his mother and Shrier as being important guides.

“Ms. Shrier’s been an exceptional adviser,” he said. “She’s really helped me through every one of my endeavors this year. She’s been here to talk and help me through different aspects of life.”

Murinson will travel to Israel for the formal ceremony on June 14 in Tel Aviv.


‘Not Your Bubbie’s Brisket’ With Texas kosher barbecue, JCC Block Party promises to spice thing up

It will be a homecoming for Chaim Goldfeder, who is bringing his kosher barbecue all the way from Dallas. (Provided)

It will be a homecoming for Chaim Goldfeder, who is bringing his kosher barbecue all the way from Dallas. (Provided)

With an 11-foot trailer in tow, Chaim Goldfeder will arrive from Texas to his hometown in time to serve up authentic kosher barbecue at the second annual JCC Community Block Party.

Goldfeder, the pit master and proprietor of Texas Kosher BBQ based out of Dallas, plans on giving the attendees of Sunday’s festivities a taste of true Texas ’cue. That means lots of beef — the Lone Star State, of course, being famous for its cattle — treated with a dry rub and then smoked.

“If someone puts barbecue sauce on their brisket without trying it first, I’m taking their plate away,” joked Goldfeder.

He and his wife, Miriam, moved down South about 15 years ago, shortly after they married, and quickly adapted to the Texas lifestyle. Five or so years ago, Goldfeder estimated, he took up barbecuing as a hobby.

Everything is big in Texas, including the dreams of newcomers from up North.

“My son and I built our own pit. I was cooking; people were liking it so I started to do this professionally about a year and a half ago,” said Goldfeder. “I haven’t had a passion for food like this, for cooking, in a long, long time.”

Goldfeder has a long history in the food service industry dating back to his first job at age 15 at the Milk & Honey Bistro in Pikesville, then known as the Premier Bistro, when Goldfeder was a student at Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. He went on to work with Schleider-Hoffman caterers, NYC Roasted and Star-K among others.

The wood-burning pit — called a stick burner because of the logs that need to be fed into it every hour to an hour and a half — can handle tall orders. Goldfeder has done long cooks, sometimes pulling 18-hour shifts and the occasional three-day marathon.

Low and slow is his motto to achieve a flavor profile that’s decidedly “not your bubbie’s brisket.”

“I use a straight spice rub and it goes on the pit,and it will stay there for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s a long day, but once you pull it off and you slice and you taste it — it’s a whole body experience.”

With smoked brisket, beer butt chicken, turkey legs and barbecue chili as mainstays of Texas Kosher BBQ, Goldfeder frequently gets requests to cater Shabbat dinners, bar mitzvah parties and pop-up events at synagogues; he will even cater a sheva brachot upon returning to Dallas. The whole operation is supervised by Rabbi Sholey Klein of Dallas Kosher. When needed, Goldfeder uses the kitchen at his synagogue, Congregation Ohr HaTorah.

Goldfeder, who has taken his operation on the road to Houston and San Antonio, plans to dazzle guests at the block party with his signature dish, chopped beef on a roll with barbecue sauce, coleslaw, pickles and jalapenos.

“Most people need some time alone with it,” he said. “People need to try that; it’s a flavor that is just out of this world.”

The second annual JCC Community Block Party will take place Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC. It’s free and open to the public.


One on One County’s top teacher makes it a point to connect with each student

New Town High School teacher Orly Mondell, according to a  colleague, “is like a magnet that pulls everyone in.” (Provided by Orly Mondell)

New Town High School teacher Orly Mondell, according to a
colleague, “is like a magnet that pulls everyone in.” (Provided by Orly Mondell)

Ask Orly Mondell, a ninth-grade teacher at New Town High School, the secret behind her being named Baltimore County’s Teacher of the Year, and she’ll stress her commitment that every student should receive a quality education.

After working in the Manhattan public school system in New York City, she has seen students whose parents don’t have time to be personally involved in their child’s education.

“The question shouldn’t be, ‘Are you going to college?’” Mondell said. “It should be, ‘What Ivy League school are you applying to?’”

In order to fulfill that commitment, she’s connected with all of her students on an individual level.

“[Students] gravitate to people who want to help them,” said Adam Carney, one of Mondell’s colleagues. “She’s like a magnet that pulls everyone in and gets people to feel the same passion she does.”

Mondell, who has more than a decade of experience teaching, is the freshmen coordinator and works closely with local middle schools to ensure students have a smooth transition from eighth to ninth grade.

“There is a class of 225 freshmen, and she seems to know every single one of them — their backgrounds, their strengths and their weaknesses,” Kevin Whatley, the school’s principal, said.

However, as their senior adviser, this upcoming graduating class has a special place in Mondell’s heart. The freshmen program she works with started four years ago, making this the first group of freshmen she has seen go from first day to graduation day.

“They’re my children,” Mondell said. “I was at the prom with them the other night, they’re truly my own children.”

This personal involvement with each student is reflected in her career and at home with her daughter, who recently started kindergarten.

“Your kids need you like they needed you the first day of kindergarten,” said Mondell, talking about her message to parents.

“High school is a scary endeavor. Just like you held their hand on the first day of kindergarten, you need to hold their hand on the first day of high school.”

Beyond teaching government at New Town, she plans events and attends services at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation.

Alongside Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, she helped to start the Bernie Smith Hebrew Unschool. The program, based at MMAE, focuses on teaching Hebrew language and Jewish ritual to local children without the formal set up of a classroom.

“Orly is really an awesome, and even a holy person with a spirit that is not typical of most people,” Shapiro said.

“She’s using it to better her students at New Town, but she does it with everyone she meets.”

Mondell and finalists from other local schools will be considered for Maryland Teacher of the Year.

What is most telling about Mondell and her methodology for teaching is her message for students and what she wrote in her application.

“We must inspire and empower students to dream big and take the steps necessary to cultivate their story into the one they want to be told instead of the one they have been dealt.”


Clear Skies Combining faith, service, WVU grad sets sights as Air Force chaplain

For Ze’ev Lowenberg, “becoming an Air Force chaplain was how I could connect what I had been learning in the classroom with my desire to serve my country and my Jewish faith.” (Photo by M.G. Ellis)

For Ze’ev Lowenberg, “becoming an Air Force chaplain was how I could connect what I had been learning in the classroom with my desire to serve my country and my Jewish faith.” (Photo by M.G. Ellis)

Once there was a 6-year-old boy who wanted to be a firefighter — or a rabbi. When he was 8 years old, on a sunny Tuesday morning in 2001, he was sitting in his Jewish day school classroom when someone came in and said, “Don’t worry if you see your teachers crying. There’s been a plane crash in New York. Your parents may be coming to pick you up.” He saw the horrifying images on the TV screens and understood that something terrible had happened to his country.

Even before that, he wanted to be in the military, but as he got older he realized that the freedoms he had were because “there were men and women protecting us so that kind of thing was not going to happen again in the United States. I wanted to give back, and that was the way I was going to give back.”

Rabbi — soldier — for some kids, those dreams would have faded as they grew up, but not for Baltimore native Ze’ev Lowenberg. On May 17, Lowenberg graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in sociology and anthropology/criminology and in a few weeks will be moving to New York City to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary’s five-year program for Conservative rabbinic ordination.

After he graduates, he will serve his country and his people by becoming one of a handful of Jewish chaplains in the Air Force.

“I realized that becoming an Air Force chaplain was how I could connect what I had been learning in the classroom with my desire to serve my country and my Jewish faith,” said Lowenberg.

With not quite 1,000 Jewish students on a campus of 30,000, West Virginia University was a surprising choice for a young man who attended a Jewish day school and high school. The easy and expected path would have been to go to college at one of the main Jewish centers on the East Coast such as New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Lowenberg pointed out that, “Most people would choose to stay in their comfort zone; West Virginia was far outside of mine.”

But Lowenberg wanted a place where he could make a difference.

WVU turned out to be an excellent choice. He was the only Jewish student there who had a day school education. From his first semester, he led services at WVU Hillel, led Seders, led almost every service since he arrived. For the past two years he was WVU Hillel president.

Lowenberg said he “got to be a big fish in a little pond, to be able to influence the Jewish community” at WVU in a way he never would have been able to in a large, established Jewish community. He got to “experience the love of Judaism in a much different way. The Jewish community was relying on me, but I was also relying on them — to lend their presence to the services, to offer their prayers and to make a connection with God.”

Lowenberg’s original plan was to have a career in the military and then join a government intelligence agency after separation. But while at WVU, he joined the Air Force ROTC and saw what an impact the Air Force chaplain made on the cadets, how he was able to calm and comfort them. That sealed it for him: He would become a chaplain.

Half of WVU’s students are West Virginia residents; the other half are from outside the state and outside the country. The vast majority are Christians.

Some students “have told me I was the first Jew they had ever met,” said Lowenberg. “They ask me about rituals and why do you wear a kippah. Have you ever tasted pig? How can you not eat a pepperoni roll? Pepperoni is huge here and of course I can’t eat it. I tell them about keeping kosher, where it comes from. Most of them are incredibly interested: they want to know more.

“I love being the first Jew people meet because I think that if they can meet someone who is proud of being Jewish, who is knowledgeable about Judaism, and about Israel, we can educate people and rid the world of anti-Semitism, slowly but surely,” he added.

WVU official Marissa Sura was effusive in her praise of the graduate.

“Zevi is a natural leader,” said Sura. “He is extraordinarily mature, he’s funny. He is confident about his choice of a lifelong calling, and as soon as you talk to him you can tell he is perfect for it. I’ve spoken to a lot of students in my career. He is one of the most outstanding students I’ve ever met.”

Lowenberg described his core beliefs: “I believe in an active God. I think that everything happens for a reason. It may take us five minutes, five weeks or five years to understand that reason,” he said. “If we take a step out of ourselves and make that connection with God, it helps us get through both the good and the bad things of life. We shouldn’t just ask God for things and pray in times of need or in times of sorrow. I do my best to also pray and to thank God when good things happen.”

A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh.

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.

Dollars and Sense Local Hebrew schools feeling the pinch

Walk through any number of the area’s supplemental Jewish educational programs and it’ll be quickly clear that these aren’t your parents’ Hebrew schools.

For them, or perhaps in your own Hebrew school experience, upward of six agonizing hours a week were devoted to rote memorization of prayers and traditions. As The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Learning Commission noted in its “Spotlight on Supplementary Jewish Education,” “[there is an] awareness that there has been much significant negative review of supplementary schools in the latter part of the 20th century.”

Today’s supplemental schools — also known as Hebrew schools, Sunday schools, religious schools and congregational schools — have changed dramatically in the new millennium. The changes range from what they’re named — you don’t dare call Beth Am Synagogue’s program a Hebrew school, for instance — to when, where and for how long classes are held to the adoption of effective secular teaching techniques.

In such programs, educators see a wealth of opportunity, if not always a wealth of monetary resources. Innovative programming is great, they say, but field trips and special guest appearances cost money, and funds are frequently tight. No educator interviewed for this story said that the price of tuition actually covered the cost of a religious school education.

And yet, the general desire not to overwhelm parents forces programs to seek alternate forms of funding.

“A family of five with three kids in third through seventh grades may pay up to $5,000 between tuition and dues, not including all the other extras — camp, donations, Shabbat dinners,” said Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, education director at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia.

No family is ever turned away for inability to pay, he was quick to add, a sentiment echoed by other educators.

As a result of fiscal realities, congregations end up supplementing the budgets of their religious schools, sometimes in excess of 50 percent of the school’s operating budget. Principals, therefore, turn to communal organizations for a financial boost, but some of those funds are becoming scarcer.

Last week, the Jewish Federation of Howard County approved a budget that changes how religious schools will be funded come September.

In years past, explained Michelle Ostroff, the federation’s executive director, the religious schools located in Howard County received funding in two ways. Each institution received a block grant and an allotment for scholarship money on a per-capita basis.

Last year, $32,000 was disbursed to religious schools, with a small portion of the money designated for needs-based scholarships for families sending their children to day schools in Baltimore or Montgomery counties. There are no day schools in Howard County.

But as of the budget vote on May 21, schools will no longer automatically receive funding. Instead, they will have to apply to the federation for grants for specific programming. The exact amount that will be made available was not disclosed as of press time, but Ostroff stated that the pool of money available for religious schools come this fall will see “a slight reduction.”

This reflects the fact that the Jewish Federation of Howard County raised $605,000 in its most recent annual campaign. To be commensurate with similarly sized federations, such as the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater in Virginia, Ostroff estimated her federation would need to manage a $1 million campaign.

Howard County is a growing Jewish community with limited resources, Ostroff explained, home to 17,500 Jews across 7,500 Jewish households, according to a 2010 community study. Fewer than 800 donors contributed to the 2014 campaign.

Speaking anonymously, members of the community expressed frustration and concern at the cutbacks and change in how funds will be awarded to Hebrew schools. Ostroff, though, asserted that “the federation is absolutely dedicated to teaching our children. That’s one of our core values and will not change.”

“I would encourage federations not to give up on supplemental schools because that’s the main way that non-Orthodox students get their Jewish education,” said Plotkin.” In Howard County especially, the religious schools are important if not the sole source of Jewish education outside the home. Or at least the source that’s available [nearly] year round.”

The funding switch approved in Howard County dovetails with a decision made by the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated, more than a decade ago, according to the agency’s CEO, Larry Ziffer. That move, he said, was in response to shifting priorities and a decline in enrollment.

“We had to realize that we [couldn’t] fix the schools, the challenge was too great,” said Ziffer. “In order to turn the CJE into a successful model, we had to turn the priority of the schools over to the congregations, to the movements.”

He further asserted that educators who express a desire for the good old days of more teaching hours, stipends and incentives for professional development and a widely advertised community-wide teacher salary scale may be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.

“There are ample resources,” said Ziffer. “The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it’s a lack of participation.”

Ziffer and his chief operating officer, Amian Frost Kelemer, pointed to the financial, educational and professional resources that continue to be made available to congregational schools and educators in greater Baltimore. Resources include a free lending library, Sulam Salon classroom trade books, Gratz College-NEXT: The Professional Learning Program for Supplementary School Teachers — a professional development program developed in Philadelphia which CJE will supplement up to 75 percent — Crane Professional development stipends and Jewish Education Enhancement Projects. According to a report by The Associated, $110,500 was distributed through JEEP.

For her part, Ostroff noted that beyond direct funding, religious schools in Howard County, like those in Baltimore’s orbit, also benefit from federation programming, such as a Jewish Agency for Israel emissary who works in the religious schools on Israel-related education.

But at the end of the day, those on the front lines of providing Jewish education continue to stress they need more.

Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation, said, “I think that it’s mandatory for large Jewish communities as a whole to support and
enhance Jewish education for future generations [and] to make it affordable for young Jewish families. We are commanded l’dor vador, to teach future generations.”

[we’re trying] to build in more immersion experiences. It’s continuing to evolve depending on the wants and desires of the families and congregation.

Such support, though, needn’t come solely from Jewish federations. Other philanthropic foundations, like the Blaustein Philanthropic Fund, award grants for innovative education, while in Baltimore, the Charles Crane Family Foundation, Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Study, alongside The Associated, provide funds for Beit-RJ, a Jewish educational program for teens affiliated with the Reform movement.

These funds are seen as crucial to the continuing evolution of religious school education.

Some of that evolution has been as simple as doing away with the terminology of the past.

Starting this fall, Har Sinai Congregation is rebranding its school as the Judaic Education Magnet, or JEM, as in “the crown jewel of the congregation,” explained Jo-Ellen Unger, director of congregational learning. Likewise at Beth Am, Rabbi Kelley Gludt developed the Jewish Discovery Lab, known as the Lab for short.

And rebranding is just the start. When and for how long students are in the classroom has changed dramatically, particularly within the Conservative movement, Plotkin explained. “Religious school has changed a lot. Twenty years ago, three day a week programs were the standard and today those programs are exceedingly rare.”

One of the challenges of meeting two days a week, he said, is that the children arrive right from school and they’re tired or they’d rather be playing sports or participating in the school play.

To address the reality, Plotkin and his staff created Jewish Experiential Wednesdays. Third through seventh graders are given a theme for the semester that is broken down into subtopics. The theme this semester is Jewish history and a recent subtopic was life in the shtetl. Students learned about the shtetl — there were even some snippets of “Fiddler on the Roof” involved — and created their own model shtetl out of clay, down to the tiniest detail: little braided challahs went in the baker’s cart.

There’s also been a shift to meeting families where they are. For Beth El Congregation in Pikesville that means in the physical sense; the synagogue has seven satellite Hebrew schools where teachers travel for the benefit of students who may live too far away to attend the regular weekday class. Jill Eisen, director of the Hebrew School in Your Neighborhood initiative, was recently feted by the CJE for the development of the program.

Over at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s religious school, under the leadership of education director Brad Cohen, families can choose an education model that meets their schedule and the children’s educational needs.

The student who doesn’t do well in a classroom setting can participate in Jewish Outdoor Education with his or her family on select weekends and work with a tutor during the week. The program will likely evolve into a family and mitzvah program, according to Cohen. Though the BHC religious school meets on Sunday mornings, students who want to explore Hebrew more in-depth can partake in a midweek Hebrew class or Skype one-on-one with a language tutor.

“[We’re trying] to build in more immersion experiences,” said Cohen. “It’s continuing to evolve depending on the wants and desires of the families and congregations.”

Hands-on, engaging field trips and activities have also been incorporated into religious education alongside history, Judaics, prayers and Hebrew. In its pilot year, Hebrew School on the Farm brought 70 students from Beth El, BHC and Beth Israel Congregation to the Pearlstone Center to learn about Hebrew blessings, tzedakah, avoiding waste and communal responsibility.

“Immersive,” “engaging,” “hands-on” — these are not the experiences of previous generations of religious school attendees, but through the best use of public school best practices, incorporation of innovative experiences and intentionally probing curricula, Unger said educators like her are beginning to see positive results. All of her b’nai mitzvah students have returned to class within weeks of their ceremonies, she pointed out, and she has 22 counselors in grades eight through 12 who volunteer their time in younger students’ classrooms.

“In 10 years when these kids who had a positive experience are out in the world,” she said, “I wonder how that will change Judaism?”


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.”


Repair the World Takes a Step Back Organization will use next year to re-evaluate its strategy in Baltimore

Repair the World fellows in Baltimore helped Civic Works transform vacant lots into community green spaces last year. (Photo by David Stuck)

Repair the World fellows in Baltimore helped Civic Works transform vacant lots into community green spaces last year. (Photo by David Stuck)

Repair the World launched almost two years ago with the mission of making volunteerism a crucial part of young adult Jewish life in Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

With about 10 post-college-aged fellows in each city, each Repair the World chapter ingrained itself in neighborhoods, worked with various community organizations and nonprofits and has worked to recruit other volunteers.

As with any young organization, there is time to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate strategy. So when Baltimore’s current class of fellows makes way for next year’s group this fall, it will transition to a few experienced fellows rather than a larger number of first-year fellows.

“What we’re hoping to do next fall is really to have a very highly targeted, focused approach,” said Mordy Walfish, Repair the World’s vicepresident for programs. “What we’re trying to do is really take next year as a year of experimenting and learning.”

It’s a similar approach to what Repair the World did in New York this year, having two experienced fellows test pilot programming and work with a few partners in different neighborhoods.

Jodie Zisow, Repair the World’s Baltimore director, said her fellows got to know the Highlandtown area, where they are based, from the neighborhood association to nonprofits to the neighbors themselves.

“Understanding the situation here takes a little time,” she said. “The challenge is figuring out how you open up those [volunteer] opportunities in a real way and create ways people can plug in and come out.”

This year, each Repair the World city tackled the topics of food and education justice.

Baltimore fellow Kate Thomas works in education justice. Her primary partner is Thread, a mentoring and tutoring organization that creates a family of mentors for high school students and stays with them from ninth grade through 10 years later. She’s also worked with Beth Am Synagogue’s In, For and of the Neighborhood program, which develops the congregation’s relationship with neighbors in Reservoir Hill.

Thomas, who will go to graduate school at New York University for social work in the fall, said her time in Baltimore gave her some invaluable real-world experience she’ll be able to carry into her chosen career.

She sees the move to re-evaluate Repair the World in Baltimore next year as a positive step. While she’s seen success at individual events and one-off opportunities, she’s not sure Baltimore has achieved the organization’s goal of recruiting young Jews into a community of service.

“I do think it’s a smart idea for Repair to rethink things structurally and to make it as best as it truly can be,” Thomas said. “I know they’re committed to Baltimore.”

Baltimore fellow Lauren Fine, who worked on food justice this year, partnered with the Baltimore Orchard Project.

“The goal is to really get the community together to rally around fruit and nut trees that already exist in their neighborhood and get them excited to plant more,” she said.

She also dabbled a bit in education, working with Banner Neighborhoods’ after-school program, Academic Achievers. She helped kids with homework at the program, which also provided a safe environment for them after school, she said.

Fine, who applied for the site development position in Baltimore next year, said the changes coming next year make sense.

“I think what it really comes down to is Baltimore is a complex, unique flower and really needs time and care, and it’s very different from the other cities,” she said. “I think this step back is really an opportunity to take time to really delve deep into the different relationships we have and into the dynamics of the city itself.”

Zack Block, Repair the World’s Pittsburgh director, said Pittsburgh changed its model between year one and year two for the better. In its first year, fellows would volunteer for 30 hours a week with one partner. This year, they spend about 15 hours a week with a few different organizations.

“What it did was it kind of kept us from being able to focus on the capacity-building side we wanted to work on,” he said of trying to get other young Jews involved in service. “We weren’t around for a long time so it was easy to make a tweak like this between year one and year two.”

He said what’s happening in Baltimore could influence the future of the organization.

“I think they want to see if this more middle-ground setup could work or have a similar type of effect in Baltimore,” he said. “I think it’s a very intentional and strategic decision to see if what they’re doing in Baltimore could have a more national rollout.”


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.