Bais Yaakov May Sell Owings Mills Campus

122112_bais_yaakovCiting growth in enrollment, Bais Yaakov School for Girls officials said the school could sell its Owings Mills campus and expand its Smith Avenue campus.

“We’d like to do whatever we can to make it easier for our parents,” said Sandy Nissel, the school’s chief operating officer.

That may mean selling its campus on Park Heights Avenue in Owings Mills, which houses its elementary school and pre-kindergarten, and expanding its Smith Avenue campus, which houses its middle and high schools. The school’s overall enrollment has steadily increased over the past several years, Nissel said, with more than 1,450 total students, including about 675 at the Park Heighs campus.

“One of the options is to consider selling it,” Nissel said of the Owings Mills property. “There’s no sign up in front of the property, but if it’s right for the school, we will do it.” He added that the school is not aggressively marketing the property.

Bais Yaakov is exploring ways to get more classroom space, Nissel said. According to a press release, the school’s board of directors established an exploratory committee more than two years ago to plan for the school’s growth.

While additional construction at the Smith Avenue campus is possible, and preferable because of its proximity to the Orthodox community, there are issues with traffic, parking, campus access and outdoor fields that may make expansion difficult, the release said. Other options are being explored.

Taking on the ‘Israel Lobby’

A daylong seminar — “The Israel Lobby: Is It Good for the U.S.? Is It Good for Israel?” — was convened last Friday to discuss the so-called Jewish lobby’s power to influence politicians on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration.

Such perspectives are rarely heard, but a safe space was provided by the National Press Club, which allows organizations to hold events at its facilities without ideological consideration. The same room once hosted a mock congressional hearing with former members of Congress and government officials to hear testimony about whether the government is hiding contact with alien life forms. The mock committee concluded that the government was indeed hiding its interaction with space aliens.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University, accuses the United Nations of being biased against the Palestinians. (National Press Club)

Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University, accuses the United Nations of being biased against the Palestinians. (National Press Club)

Common conspiracies that the Israel lobby was responsible for every misfortune to befall the United States and the world were generally avoided by nearly all speakers, though factual inaccuracies throughout the day were plenty. Still, following the theme, every issue that was discussed was connected to the Jewish lobby’s power to influence politicians on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration.

Kicking off the conference, Grant Smith, director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy — an organizer of the event — bemoaned the proliferation of what he said had grown into  approximately 350 pro-Israel organizations in four distinct waves throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The first wave was focused on state building; the second wave, fundraising; the third wave, media watchdog and think tanks; and the fourth wave, speech and campus monitoring.

All these groups, said Smith, were given tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.

“The Justice Department tried to get pro-Israel organizations to register as foreign agents seven times” when they first began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s but did not succeed, Smith said.

He said the time has come for the IRS to review the charitable status of these organizations, claiming that donations to pro-Israel groups in the United States fund Israel military operations.

Smith calculated that these groups have so far cost American taxpayers a total of $234 billion.

“Our question must be: How much are Americans at this point owed for all of the aid that was delivered on false pretext?” he said.

The few hundred supporters packing the event room at the National Press Club listened as Smith and a variety of pro-Palestinian activists complained about the restriction of their pro-Palestinian activism by college administrators, employers and international organizations.

A few former members of Congress — two of them addressed the gathering — were in attendance, reminiscing about their days fighting against the lobbying efforts of AIPAC and a slew of other pro-Israel organizations.

Rather than the college hippies one usually associates with these kinds of movements, the audience was made up almost entirely of professorial-looking, retired, baby boomers — nodding their heads or commenting to the side in disgust whenever a speaker would mentioned that Israel violated the human rights of the Palestinian people.

When not listening to the speeches inside the conference room, guests mingled with their ideological heroes in the hallway. Those heroes included Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University and former holder of the politically charged title of United Nations special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967”; radical left-wing writer Gareth Porter; and Paul Pillar, Georgetown University nonresident fellow, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CIA veteran.

Speaking about his experience with pro-Israel groups during his time prior to his ouster at the United Nations, Falk blamed pro-Israel watchdog groups for exerting pressure on the organization to ignore the Palestinian plight.

An “approach used on behalf of Israel to weaken and discredit the U.N. involves trying to both manipulate the organization and to undermine it at the same time. It is a very sophisticated kind of relationship that Israel has,” said Falk.

“It both pretends to be victimized by the organization, and yet because of its relationship to the U.S. and its clever use of these tactics, it intimidates the organization more than any other government however large or small,” he added. “It’s a kind of tour de force of a negative variety that it is able, despite being so uncooperative, to impose its views and the U.N.

“Rather than being biased [against Israel, the United Nations] leans over backward in every particular context to make sure that Israel’s best arguments are made fully available and given as much attention as possible. In other words, the reality is just the opposite of the perception in this country. If anything, the organization could be criticized as being indifferent to the Palestinian reality and biased toward not offending Israel.”

Event sponsors included the American Educational Trust, which publishes the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian semimonthly publication “Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,” and Middle East Books and More, a Washington-area bookstore specializing in the pro-Palestinian cause.

Joining Together

Israelis in the Netherlands celebrate Purim at an event organized by the Dutch Israeli scouts movement Hatsofim.  (Courtesy of Hatsofim)

Israelis in the Netherlands celebrate Purim at an event organized by the Dutch Israeli scouts movement Hatsofim.
(Courtesy of Hatsofim)

Whenever he would fly from his native Israel back home to the Netherlands, Serge Lypcyz would bring a heavy load of Hebrew-language books with him.

Lypcyz and his Israeli friends in Amsterdam depended on such shipments — not only for reading material in their native language, but also to feel connected to their country of birth.

“Unlike Dutch Jews, we old-generation Israelis hardly go to synagogue here,” said Lypcyz, who moved to Holland in the 1990s. “We didn’t grow up together in a youth movement. We all met here by chance, so we need the books to be our social glue.”

Fortunately for Lypcyz, those days are long gone. Today he can look on Facebook to swap books at Shookbook, a Hebrew-language book fair started in 2003. He can enjoy Hebrew films — and buy their DVD versions — at Amsterdam’s FilmIsrael festival, which began in 2008. And since September, he can get his news from the Hebrew website, which was launched by Mokum Ivri, a Dutch nonprofit that caters to local Israelis that was founded in 2011.

In the past six months alone, Israeli activists in Europe have launched AGIV, a Britain-based lobbying and advocacy group; Good Deeds Day, an Israeli charitable initiative in Holland; and a London conference that was the first of its kind — the Global Israeli Leadership Summit, which in March brought together Israeli activists from around the world.

The initiatives joined several others launched in recent years to help build community among Israelis in Europe. The Israeli Salon social club started in England in 2011. Germany’s first Hebrew-language publication aimed at Israelis, Spitz Magazine, started in 2010. And in 2011, Dutch Israelis launched a Hebrew scouts movement — modeled on the popular Tzofim movement in Israel — that became hugely popular among Israeli parents.

“They came [to Europe] when they were young, had kids and worked to build their careers,” said Israel Pupko, the founder of Mishelanu, an Israel-based nonprofit that aims to engage Israeli expatriate communities. “They didn’t have time for community work. Now the kids are grown up, many have achieved financial success. So they have more time to develop the trappings of a community.”

When it comes to community building, Israelis in Europe still lag behind their counterparts in North America, Pupko said. In the United States, which U.S. Census figures report is home to 100,000 Americans born in Israel, the Israeli American Council has raised millions since its establishment in 2007 as a national umbrella group.

The council, which aims to integrate Israelis into the wider American Jewish community, now has offices in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Nevada. In November, the council drew 750 participants from 23 states to its first national conference.

Mishelanu, which was founded in 2011, and the Israeli Jewish Congress are among several groups founded in recent years to help communities in Europe and beyond follow the North American example. And European Jewish communities have a vested interest in making that happen, according to Anat Koren, the London-based publisher of the Hebrew-language newspaper Alondon and the founder of AGIV.

“The Jewish community here in Britain, which numbers 250,000, is declining because of assimilation and emigration,” said Koren, who also serves as liaison between the Israeli community and the umbrella Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Meanwhile, the Israeli contingent is increasing or remaining stable. To British Jews, Israelis are a reserve of quality members to replenish the ranks.”

Edwin Shuker, vice-chair of the board’s international division, confirmed that declining numbers are an incentive for building bridges between Israelis and British Jews, but he emphasized that solidarity and shared heritage is driving the process.

Israelis in Europe were the subject of some controversy last year after an expat in Berlin noted online that a dairy product similar to a popular Israeli dessert was selling in Germany for a fraction of the Israeli cost. The issue drew attention to the large numbers of Israelis living abroad — a sensitive issue in a country built on the ingathering of exiles to the Jewish state.

But Koren said the Berlin episode is not really representative of the reality of Israeli expats elsewhere in Europe.

“The Berlin community is a unique case in many aspects,” she said, noting that the German capital is among Europe’s cheapest cities. “No one comes to London, which is more expensive than Israel, to reduce their cost of living.”

In Amsterdam, where Israelis constitute 24 percent of the country’s Jewish population, according to community estimates, the local Jewish charity JMW established a small Israeli department, Tsavta, that organizes activities with an annual budget of approximately $25,000. Last month, the group for the first time brought dozens of Israelis to volunteer at a Jewish old-age home.

“Israeli communities will never blend into the existing Jewish communities because the cultural differences are too deep,” said Tzippy Harmsen-Seffy, who runs Tsavta. “But due to circumstances, these two communities are engaging each other more closely than ever before.”

Damage Control

041715_indianaThe talk at Rabbi Michael Friedland’s Seder table in South Bend, Ind., was about Memories Pizza in the small Indiana town of Walkerton. Not that the celebrants already had tired of unleavened food — rather, they were bemused at how the restaurant owner’s stand in favor of the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act was turned into a windfall.

“The owner said that if someone asked them to cater a gay wedding, they wouldn’t do it,” said Friedland, who leads Conservative Sinai Synagogue. A four-day crowdfunding campaign in support of the pizzeria, set up by conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV network, raised $842,387.

“Someone joked that the synagogue should come out in favor of discriminating against gays, and we could raise almost a million dollars, too,” Friedland said. “Somebody else asked who would go to a pizza parlor to cater a wedding.”

The catering question was hypothetical, and the pizzeria’s owner said they would serve gay couples in the restaurant.

But the national attention that focused on Indiana after Republican Gov. Mark Pence signed the bill into law on March 26 been something that Indianans — and the state’s 17,000 Jews — are unaccustomed to. The fact that in the face of national outrage the law’s proponents passed a “fix” a week later, which the governor signed. It says that religious freedom cannot come at the expense of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons has calmed the atmosphere for now.

“There’s a little bit of schadenfreude — that the governor was embarrassed and had to walk this back,” Friedland said.

Still, the unfriendly spotlight on Indiana — and the travel bans and beginnings of a commercial boycott — “is not how we want to be the center of attention,” said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, the state capital.

“Every time I bump into someone, they say ‘I can’t believe this is happening. I’m so embarrassed.’ You really can’t go anywhere without people talking about it.”

In Evansville, at the southwest end of the state, Rabbi Gary Mazo, spoke at his Seder about the meaning of freedom in the context of the RFRA debate.

“I emphasized that in today’s world, where we are no longer slaves, we are compelled to focus our efforts on both remembering and working toward securing freedom for those who are oppressed, enslaved or persecuted,” said Mazo, of Reform Temple Adath B’nai Israel. “I then made it very clear that we live in a state that has sanctioned oppression and bigotry under the guise of religious freedom, and our job is to combat that.”

Mazo said the clarifying legislation passed on April 2 does not resolve the controversy. “It was too little, too late, and the law should never have been enacted and should be repealed.”

“At this point, we’re doing what we can to make sure the rights of minority religious communities are being addressed,” said David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, which opposed RFRA.

Sklar said the JCRC began discussing the bill last summer. The agency opposed the legislation and lobbied against it as “less of a specifically LGBT issue and more of an issue of potential discrimination,” he said.

“Decades of court precedent has resulted in a workable balance in Indiana between individual and religious freedoms. RFRA would upset the balance,” he explained.

And although Jews are protected by the constitutions of Indiana and the United States, “RFRA could cloud and confuse the landscape of religious freedom in the United States,” Sklar said.

Jews have come down on both sides of the issue, and an equal number of Jews testified before legislative committees for and against RFRA, Sklar added. But the overwhelming majority of Indiana Jews oppose the legislation, he said.

Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, of Congregation B’nai Torah in Indianapolis, has come out in favor of RFRA. The Orthodox rabbi appeared with Pence in the photo taken at the first bill signing, along with “supportive lawmakers, Franciscan monks and nuns, Orthodox Jews and some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists on conservative social issues,” according to USA Today.

Gettinger declined to speak for this story. Last year, he explained his opposition to “homosexual acts” to the Indianapolis Star: “One cannot be more certain of something being inappropriate if it’s called an abomination in the Bible,” he said. “Those are not my words. Those are the Bible’s words. Those are God’s words.”

“Saying they didn’t mean to discriminate against gays was a little hard to buy.”

Critics of the bill say that it was not promoted to assure religious freedom, but to hold fallback position after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 let stand a circuit court’s decision to strike down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage.

“Given who was at the original signing, saying they didn’t mean to discriminate against gays was a little hard to buy,” Friedland said. “Most people saw it as a reaction to the frustration that gay rights have moved to far.”

“It’s part of this trend after Hobby Lobby,” the Supreme Court decision that decided that a corporation can be considered a person under RFRA, said Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.

Laser and others interviewed for this article differentiated the Indiana RFRA — and others under consideration in Arkansas, North Carolina and elsewhere — from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed under President Bill Clinton in 1993.

“It was to be a shield for religious people. It allowed a boy who wants to wear his yarmulke in school or the Catholic priest who wants to give communion wine to his child parishioners. These new RFRAs are intended to be used as a sword to discriminate,” Laser said.

Nineteen states have RFRA laws on the books. Asked why Indiana was singled out for attention, Sklar said one reason was that it had more potential than others to be discriminatory.

“In the Indiana law, what a person entails is much broader. And Indiana did not have the protections for LGBT persons in place that other states do.”

Although the fixed RFRA does not make gays a legally protected class, it does say they cannot be discriminated against.

“This is the first time that a state law makes a positive reference to LGBT Hoosiers,” Sasso said. “The only good thing to come out of this is the outrage of the community that forced the governor and legislators to revisit this.”

On April 9, Indianapolis diners at any of four restaurants owned by Patachou Inc. can support gay rights at what owner Martha Hoover calls a “sit-in.” All proceeds for a $50 four-course meal will go to Lamda Legal, a civil rights group supporting LGBT communities.

The event is an example of how Jewish entrepreneurs are joining others in the business community in opposing discriminatory legislation.

“If you allow any discrimination, who controls the leap to what comes next?” Hoover said.

She calls the Republican backing of RFRA “both a miscalculation and a tremendous lack of leadership. It did catch them off-guard and suggests how out of touch they are.”

That disconnect is particularly strong with young adults, said Rabbi Leonard Zukrow of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in Munster, an Indiana town in suburban Chicago. “This is not an issue for them. Young people in Indiana are worried about jobs.”

“Our tradition speaks to inclusiveness,” he added, and quoted from the Passover Haggadah: “To all who are hungry come and eat.”

Indiana’s apparent lack of hospitality is ill-advised “for a state that is not a leading state for business opportunities,” Friedland said.

Following the passage of the “fix,” the governors of New York, Washington and Connecticut canceled their travel bans to Indiana.

The fix does not mean all is well in Indiana, Hoover said.

By “signing one law,” Pence “has damaged the state,” she said. “Our concern is, how long lasting is the damage?”

Iran Oversight Advances

Sen. Ben Cardin

Sen. Ben Cardin

In the end, Maryland’s newly ascendant junior senator got what he wanted.

The unanimous passing Tuesday of the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, referred to colloquially as the Corker bill after its chief sponsor, by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marked an important first test of Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin’s ability to negotiate the conflicting minefields of White House pressure and Republican resistance as the committee’s ranking member.

Cardin is now among the most visible Jewish legislators on Capitol Hill, thrust into the spotlight upon replacing Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is under federal indictment for suspected influence peddling.

Working in tandem with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Robert Corker (R-Tenn.), and convincing less-than-pleased senators to withhold certain amendments — 52 were filed, but only one was brought to vote during the markup session — showcased Cardin’s ability to compromise on legislation that, if approved by both chambers of Congress, would submit any final nuclear deal reached between the Obama administration and Iran to congressional review.

Cardin and Coker’s compromise brought together Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a newly announced GOP presidential contender, and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on language pertaining to Israel’s safety, security and right to exist.

Boxer, who initially opposed the bill as undermining the administration’s ability to negotiate, said, “I believe this bill has been changed from a point where I did not support it to the point where I can.”

At a briefing Tuesday morning, White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that the president is willing to sign the proposed compromise. Corker claimed victory, telling The Hill that the administration backed down from its promised veto after realizing the “number of senators [who] were going to support this legislation.”

As part of the compromise, an initial 60-day review period of any Iran deal — which was proposed by Corker and Menendez — was reduced. Assuming that a deal is delivered on time, defined as July 10, Congress will get 30 days to review the arrangement and vote on lifting economic sanctions, a key demand of Iranian negotiators. Twelve days will automatically be added if Congress sends a sanctions-related bill to the president. If the legislation is vetoed, 10 further days will be added to the review period.

In the event that the deadline to submit a final agreement to Congress is not met, the review period reverts to 60 days. During the review period, the president cannot waive sanctions put in place by Congress.

The legislation also mandates a presidential certification every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the terms of a final agreement. Should Iran be found to have violated the terms of an agreement, Congress would snap sanctions back into place.

“We’ve eliminated from the original draft certain presidential certifications that were not [directly related to Iran’s nuclear ambitions],” said Cardin.

Reiterating what he had told the JT a day prior to the vote, Cardin said in his opening remarks that congressional sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and only an act of Congress could permanently remove sanctions imposed on Iran.

Corker clarified that while the bill dealt with nuclear activity, reports on Iran’s other offensive acts, including regional terrorism, would still be required.

“The sanctions relative to ballistic missile testing — they stay in place. The sanctions relative to terrorism — they stay in place. The sanctions relative to human rights — they stay in place,” said Corker.

My goal is one goal — and that is to make certain Iran does not have the infrastructure to develop a nuclear weapon.

Menendez, who along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was thanked repeatedly for his efforts in crafting the original legislation, said his “goal is one goal — and that is to make certain Iran does not have the infrastructure to develop a nuclear weapon.”

“The best way to achieve that goal is with bipartisan support that strengthens the United States’ hand in moving from a political framework to a comprehensive agreement and sets out expectations for Iranian compliance,” he added.

As part of the administration’s campaign to sell the Iran deal, two separate meetings with Jewish leadership were held Monday afternoon. The meetings came amid a drop in the president’s approval rating among Jewish voters and stepped up pressure from local congregations such as Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim in Pikesville, which urged its members to lobby Cardin in favor of the Corker bill.

In the first meeting, 15 top officials from Jewish organizations, including Robert Cohen and Lee Rosenberg of AIPAC, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, three J Street board members and representatives from the major streams of Judaism, heard directly from the president and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

The outreach stood in contrast to an earlier briefing on an April 2 framework agreement reached with Iran in which Jewish leaders were briefed by Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser.

Rather than give leaders the hard sell, the president offered a softer pitch.

“He tried to explain he understands Jewish trauma, history, the Jewish feeling of being alone in a bad neighborhood,” one participant told JTA on condition of anonymity, as both meetings were off the record.

A number of the more conservative organizational leaders attending the first meeting, among them Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Allen Fagin, the Orthodox Union’s CEO, challenged Obama on the particulars of the Iran deal.

The second meeting with fundraisers — attended by Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment mogul who has been critical of Obama’s Middle East policies, and Democratic donors associated with AIPAC, including past presidents Amy Friedkin and Howard Friedman, and with J Street, including Alexandra Stanton, Lou Susman and Victor Kovner — turned into a strategy session on how Obama could better his message to American Jews, Israelis and the American public. The meeting was joined by Biden and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.

JTA contributed to this report.

B’More Represented in Inaugural Leadership Class

Barak Hermann (File Photo)

Barak Hermann (File Photo)

JCC of Greater Baltimore President Barak Hermann has been selected as a Schusterman Fellow, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation announced Monday.

Hermann is one of 24 fellows from the United States, Israel, Australia and Europe from a variety of Jewish and secular nonprofit and for-profit organizations who were selected for the inaugural fellowship.

Each fellow will receive individualized and group-based learning, have access to a coach and develop an organizational change initiative.

“I want to continue to grow and improve my own leadership skills so I can maximize the success of our organization in achieving its mission,” Hermann said. “I’m hopeful that it’ll help me continue to think strategically and innovatively of ways to ensure the sustainability of the JCCs’ impact on the community.”

Adam Simon, the foundation’s director of leadership initiatives, said the fellowship continues the foundation’s work in identifying leaders and setting them up for success.

“The Schusterman Fellowship is designed to make some targeted, strong investments in people who have the greatest potential to be the positive forces our communities need,” he said.

The fellows, who went through a competitive application process, will have their own plans designed based on assessments from those they work with.

“The customized plans are directly tied to what their assessments from their peers, their supervisors, their direct reports have identified where their greatest need for growth is,” Simon said.

He added that the foundation spent about nine months researching the best practices in academic research and existing programs around the globe to prepare for the fellowship.

“What’s great about professional development and executive coaching is that it really helps me identify and maximize my strengths and evaluates opportunities for me to grow in other areas that allow me to be an effective leader for the JCC and in our community,” Hermann said. “The stronger that I am as a leader, the more affected the JCC can be.”

Along with individualized work, Simon said the fellowship aims to create a strong network of leaders that can implement change in their respective organizations and communities.

“We [at the Schusterman Foundation] envision these individuals being called upon individually and as a group as the Jewish community’s needs grow and change over time,” he said.

Out in the Open

Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg are co-founders and co-directors of Eshel, which  provides support, education and advocacy for  LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families. (Photos Provided)

Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg are co-founders and co-directors of Eshel, which provides support, education and advocacy for LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families. (Photos Provided)

It’s no doubt at the forefront of the minds of the approximately 45 attendees at this weekend’s Eshel retreat — designed to support Orthodox parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children — that the Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether the Constitution allows for a state to deny same-sex couples their right to marry or to renounce a couple’s marriage from another legal jurisdiction. Also of concern is that “the wave of anti-LGBT bills filed across the country continues to swell” with more than 85 bills appearing in 28 state legislatures, as reported by the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for LGBT rights.

Eshel, founded in 2010 to provide support, education and advocacy for LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families, hosts its third annual event at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa., April 17 to 19, with the theme of “Family.” Featured are workshops that address the impact on immediate and extended family members when a child “comes out” as gay, bisexual or transgender. Topics include how to deal with rabbis, teachers, summer camps and neighbors; parenting LGBT teens; how to be a child’s best advocate; what to do when a child comes out of the closet and the parent goes in; and what actions to take if your child chooses to leave the faith.

Eshel serves as a year-round resource for Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families, but the retreat, said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, co-founder and co-executive director of Eshel and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, grew out of “a desperate need for parents, who were totally in shock and didn’t know where to turn and were fearful and ashamed about a secret they didn’t know how to manage.”

“Parents of teens were in acute crisis,” added Miryam Kabakov, also co-founder and co-director of Eshel. They were asking themselves, “‘What do I do with my child if they want to stand on the other side of the mehitzah?’ and were trying to figure out how their kids could integrate into the [Orthodox] community.”

Kabakov, a social worker with more than two decades of experience in the Jewish LGBT community, added that when older children come out, for parents it becomes more of an internal crisis. They struggle with questions such as, “Should I be telling people? What will that mean for my other children and my other relationships? What do I do if I hear homophobic things at the Shabbos table or from my rabbi?” It isn’t as much about what the child is going to do, but instead how the parents are trying to figure out their own path, she said.

With his spouse looking on, Dr. Isaac Namdar (with black shirt, on left) speaks with attendees at a past Eshel national retreat. This weekend, Eshel expects approximately 45 attendees at its retreat in Waynesboro, Pa.,  designed for Orthodox parents of LGBT children. Six Maryland participants will be among them. (Provided)

With his spouse looking on, Dr. Isaac Namdar (with black shirt, on left) speaks with attendees at a past Eshel national retreat. This weekend, Eshel expects approximately 45 attendees at its retreat in Waynesboro, Pa.,
designed for Orthodox parents of LGBT children. Six Maryland participants will be among them. (Provided)

A mother, recently relocated to Silver Spring, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is attending the retreat for the second time this year. Her son came out about two years ago, she reflected on that time.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh my God, my son has a boyfriend,’ but it’s a new identity” you have to contend with, she said. “I’ve always considered myself as an ally of LGBT, but the crazy thing is I thought I was better with it than I was. It’s easy to say you accept your child, but after a while it hits you; it’s hard.” Citing she needed tools to cope with the situation she added, “That’s when I began to seek support. I needed to talk to others who are going through similar things.”

Eshel’s retreat provides opportunities for parents to swap stories and share coping strategies. Attendees, including six from Maryland but only one from Baltimore, share Shabbat meals and attend formal presentations by lay people and professionals such as Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a pioneer in the development of guidelines for the care of LGBT adolescents.

Ryan is the director of the Family Acceptance Project with San Francisco State University and a four-decade clinical social worker and researcher. Her findings reveal that support for LGBT adolescents and young adults from parents and caregivers is directly linked to the well-being and healthy development of the child. In contrast, actions such as rejection, punishment, praying to change or preventing an LGBT child from talking about their situation can correlate with higher suicide and substance abuse rates and other serious health risks.

Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, cites research that claims rejection or punishment of or praying to change an LGBT child can correlate with higher suicide and substance abuse rates for those adolescents. It’s most important, she said, to provide support that culturally resonates. (provided)

Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, cites research that claims rejection or punishment of or praying to change an LGBT child can correlate with higher suicide and substance abuse rates for those adolescents. It’s most important, she said, to provide support that culturally resonates. (provided)

Supportive behaviors, even if a parent doesn’t agree with the child’s choice, are powerful, she asserted. “Standing up for them when they’ve been victimized … or just talking to your child and listening respectfully” reduces dangerous health risks and leads to better self-esteem.

A distinctive factor in observant communities are the tight bonds and socialization that typically include nuclear and extended family and even a congregation, noted Ryan, so there is very little chance for anonymity or access to more comprehensive education about sexuality.

Mindy Dickler, founder and co-chair of JQ Baltimore, which offers outreach and support to LGBT individuals and their families locally, is on the planning committee for the retreat.

“For Orthodox parents who have LGBT children there are many levels of shanda around such an experience, and often parents are not at ease talking about their situation with neighbors and friends,” she said, citing the retreat’s networking and camaraderie as valuable to parents. Dickler added, “One of my battle cries has been we have far too many young people in our community that we are losing,” because of the inability to deal openly with the issues.

“When you get all of your info from your cultural world … all of the interaction comes from that culture. So the opportunity for someone to learn what transgender means or [have access to] the latest research is going to be much more difficult,” Ryan said. “What’s really needed are culturally appropriate educational materials,” which she is developing.

Ryan noted that more than 65,000 religious leaders, care givers, health and mental health providers and families have been trained on her family-supportive approach. “One of the most important things a family needs to find for their child is culturally resonant peer support from their cultural world,” she said.

Elana Altzman’s oldest son, now 20, was 16 when he told his parents he is gay. She and her husband ultimately moved their four children from New York to Linden, N.J., where they found a more supportive and accepting Orthodox community. Four years ago, she said, there were few resources for support; this year’s Eshel retreat will be her third.

We wanted to make the Orthodox community aware of this. That it’s not somebody else. This is your uncle and your niece, these are people you love and you need to be more open-minded about it.

“I’m hoping I can be in some small measure some source of support to parents who are newer at [dealing with LGBT child issues]. And it’s a way to reconnect with people,” she said, noting that throughout the year parents are in touch via email and a phone support group facilitated by Eshel. “It’s an opportunity to see each other, to bond over a friendship.”

Mark and Ellen Schwartz of Englewood, N.J., have attended the retreat each year since its founding. Their daughter, at 26 and at the time married to a man, told her parents she is gay about four years ago. Mark said he values the retreat for what he can offer other parents and what he receives in return.

“You feel like there couldn’t be anyone else going through what you’re going through … but it [is] very moving to be part of this group, listen to
stories, weep unashamedly,” he explained. “It’s not the conventional model in the Orthodox family.”

The Schwartzes are advocates in their community and the Orthodox community at large to help bring LGBT issues out in the open.

Eshel’s retreat for Orthodox parents features workshops that address the impact on immediate and extended family members when a child “comes out” as gay, bisexual or transgender. Attendees share experiences and strategies for coping with issues within their family and community.

Eshel’s retreat for Orthodox parents features workshops that address the impact on immediate and extended family members when a child “comes out” as gay, bisexual or transgender. Attendees share experiences and strategies for coping with issues within their family and community.

“We wanted to make the Orthodox community aware of this. That it’s not somebody else,” said Mark. “This is your uncle and your niece, these are people you love and you need to be more open-minded about it.”

Kenneth Prager, in Englewood, N.J., said he and his wife “grappled somewhat” when their daughter came out as a senior in college, “but at no point was there any question of our continuing love and support for her. It’s been a journey of education for all of us.”

Prager’s daughter has since married her partner at a religious commitment ceremony, and “there was a chupah and brachot and it was a beautiful, joyous, meaningful event,” he said. “That she wanted to surround herself with Judaism made me pleased.”

Prager said of the retreat attendees, “These are all good affiliated Jews who want to feel that their children will not be rejected by the religion that they love. The parents of LGBT children are more concerned and distressed of the fact that their child might leave Judaism than the fact that their child is gay.”

But Prager admits the climate of acceptance in the Orthodox community is “moving in the right direction, but at a very slow pace” and attributed the improvement in part to rabbis becoming more educated on the issues that are present in their communities. He referenced a document published by members of the Orthodox community in July 2010.

Kenneth Prager’s daughter Tamar (left) and her partner, Arielle, pictured with their two children, were married in a religious committment ceremony.

Kenneth Prager’s daughter Tamar (left) and her partner, Arielle, pictured with their two children, were married in a religious committment ceremony.

“Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” — written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, who has been a leader in the Rabbinical Council of America, with the input from dozens of Jewish law scholars, educators, communal rabbis such as Aryeh Klapper and Yitzchak Blau, and mental health professionals — distinguishes between the physical same-sex act (which is forbidden by Jewish law) and that of sexual orientation (not forbidden), supports the right to reject reparation therapy to “cure” a person of their homosexuality and urges Jewish Orthodox communities to exhibit sensitivity and acceptance of any devout Jew regardless of sexual orientation. It has more than 200 signatures from rabbis, educators and mental health professionals.

The document “Orthodox Rabbis Stand on Principle,” created in December 2011 and signed by 100 rabbis in response to Greenberg officiating at a same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C., states that “Jewish tradition unequivocally teaches that marriage can only exist as a union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of a homosexual relationship.” It goes on to state that “rabbis are always available to discuss congregants’ personal issues, including intimacy,” but concludes with the statement that the public shouldn’t be misled in thinking that Orthodox Jewish views on homosexuality “can change, are changing or might someday change.”

“I doubt my place in the [Orthodox] Jewish community all the time,” said the mother in Silver Spring. “It’s hard, it’s not easy, but running away from it isn’t going to help the kids. It’s frustrating at times. But I do see people being accepting. All people need is to meet one gay person and it changes their mind. It changes their viewpoint. [My] friends have done this. This gives me hope.”

Mimouna 5775

With red fezzes perched on their heads and sweet treats in hand, Baltimore Jews marked the end of Passover with a Mimouna celebration.

Nearly 150 community members attended the Sunday event co-sponsored by Chevrei Tzedek Congregation and the Baltimore Zionist District and supported by a Jewish Education Enhancement Project grant from the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Mimouna is a Jewish celebration that originated in North Africa and has since become a national event in Israel observed by Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews alike, explained Betsy Diamant-Cohen, one of the organizers of the festivities.


In the evening following the end of Passover, Moroccan and Algerian Jews open their homes and offer visitors treats and lay out their tables with lucky symbols often revolving around the number five. The following day, Israelis gather in parks for picnics with friends.

“I lived in [Jerusalem] for 12 years and I loved the picnics all over the parks,” said Diamant-Cohen. “When we saw that Passover ended on Saturday this year, we thought it would be the perfect time to [host] Mimouna, to have an event open to the whole community.”

Mimouna is a Jewish celebration that originated in North Africa and has since become a national event in Israel.

Together with Jan Fabiyi and other Chevrei Tzedek volunteers, the Myerberg Center, where the Conservative congregation meets each Shabbat morning, was transformed with paper palm trees and colorful Middle Eastern prints covering the walls.

Assisted by her daughter, Fabiyi brewed authentic Moroccan tea garnished with mint sprigs — a sign of good fortune and new beginnings — and Simcha Ohana, who was born in Tiberias, made authentic mufletta from scratch.

As she expertly prepared the treats, Ohana explained how to prepare the mixture of water, flour and salt, which is then rolled into a ball, fried in hot oil and served with sugar or honey.

Attendees gathered up their fried treats, kosher cookies and picnic lunches and spread out on blankets in front of a stage where Daveed Korup, performing arts specialist at Port Discovery Children’s Museum, pounded out Middle Eastern beats on a variety of percussion instruments. Ma’aravi/ Polak — named for Rabbi Shuviel Ma’aravi and Josh Polak of Guitars of Pikesville — took the stage in the second hour of the three-hour event to the delight of the crowd.

Attendees tried their hand at Moroccan games awari, marrakech, shesh besh (aka backgammon) and mancala. Guests giggled as they tried on traditional Moroccan outfits and showed off their artistic abilities at the jewelry and card-making stations. Many attendees left with their hands covered in henna by Sadia’s Henna & Crafts and trinkets from the shuk.

Future of Mosque Uncertain

AMC Baltimore bought the Slade mansion with the intention of renovating it and using it as their house of worship. (David Stuck)

AMC Baltimore bought the Slade mansion with the intention of renovating it and using it as their house of worship.
(David Stuck)

The building at the corner of Park Heights and Slade avenues was supposed to open as the new home of the Ahmadi Muslim mosque, but it appears that its doors remain closed.

As of the last JT reporting, the Muslim congregation was using its location on Garrison Boulevard for worship and Sunday school until the Slade Mansion property could be renovated and opened in late 2014. With the deadline well past, whether the mosque will ever open its doors across from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation remains undetermined.

Dr. Faheem Younus, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, would not comment on the future of the Park Heights property, as the matter is still being discussed internally. Another congregational leader reached for comment referred the JT back to the president.

Though there were initially hesitations over a mosque moving into the heart of Jewish Baltimore, feelings of mistrust were quickly dispelled through interfaith dialogue and joint programming with BHC and with the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.

State’s Chief Judge Appoints Staff Chief

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera has named Suzanne Schneider as her chief of staff. Schneider, who had been the assistant court administrator for the Montgomery County Circuit Court, began her new duties March 11.

As chief of staff, Schneider reports directly to Barbera and will manage the daily operations of the chief judge’s chambers. In addition to leading the state’s highest court, Barbera is the head of Maryland’s  judicial branch and is responsible for the administration of the state court system, overseeing a budget of
$468 million with nearly 300 judges and about 4,000 employees.

“Suzanne brings a wealth of varied experience and skills to this role,” Barbera said. “She has an impressive track record of problem-solving, prioritizing, multitasking and consensus-building. These wide-ranging attributes and abilities make her an outstanding choice to help achieve the Judiciary’s goal of improving service to all the people who have business with our courts.”

A member of the Maryland bar since 1993, Schneider has served as assistant court administrator, differentiated case management coordinator, family division coordinator and juvenile division coordinator for the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.