McDaniel College Offers Free Tax Help

Accounting professor Susan Milstein helps students and a client with a simple tax return at McDaniel College’s free tax assistance program. (Marc Shapiro)

Accounting professor Susan Milstein helps students and a client with a simple tax return at McDaniel College’s free tax assistance program.
(Photo by Marc Shapiro)

On a recent Thursday night in a computer lab at McDaniel College in Westminster, local clients were getting their tax returns done a few weeks ahead of the April 15 deadline.

But this was no accounting firm, this was the college’s free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program in which students, who spend three Saturdays learning how to file simple tax returns, help low-income individuals from the surrounding area file their taxes.

“The clients are people who need free tax help,” said Susan Milstein, professor of accounting at McDaniel who brought the program to the school and has been running it for about 24 years. “That was the whole thing for me, people really didn’t have enough money to begin with and then they had to put out money to do their tax return.”

Milstein, who is also an accountant in private practice, has since helped bring the program to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg and Frostburg State University and presented to various organizations, including the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants, to get them interested in the program. Some organizations in Westminster have also picked it up.

“I just felt like it was a win-win for everybody, and thank goodness life has been good to me and I could give back to those who really need help,” she said. “It just worked out beautifully.”

Generally, clients qualify if they make $35,000 or less as a single person or if they are a married couple or a head of the household who makes $50,000 or less. Those requirements can be adjusted for a client’s circumstances, Milstein said, provided they still present the need for help.

Each year, McDaniel’s VITA program churns out about 200 tax returns. More than 30 student volunteers see clients on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons during tax season.

Andrew Roberts, this year’s VITA student coordinator, started his freshman year. The junior economy, business and accounting major wants to be an accountant after graduating.

“I was looking for something that would give me a tangible skill,” he said. “It’s been one of my favorite parts of being a student at McDaniel.”

On that Thursday night, freshman Denis Montero worked on a client’s tax return with junior Ellen Archibald.

“It’s like a puzzle, and I really like puzzles, trying to figure it out,” Archibald said.

And the clients come back year after year, some working with the same students.

Woodbine resident Joan Knight came back for the third year after finding the students helpful and friendly.

“It’s a lot of help,” she said. “You don’t get paid a lot of money in housekeeping.”

Fourth-year client Mark Fino of McSherrystown, Pa., said he went to a major tax firm prior to the VITA program and was charged around $120.

“They do an excellent job, and the best thing is I get a refund every time,” Fino said.

In addition to getting credit for every 37 hours they volunteer, VITA is a major resume booster for students, Milstein said. The college has an extensive network of alumni in top positions at accounting firms, and in getting jobs and internships, having VITA experience on the resume sets students apart from other candidates.

“I see a lot of personal growth,” said Barbara Rowell, associate professor of business administration. “A lot of these [students] have worked, but they’ve done lawn work or house work or fast food. It should make them more marketable.”

Since Milstein is retiring from McDaniel after this semester, Rowell and Kerry Duvall, assistant professor of business administration, will be taking over the VITA program. Rowell will also be running interview day, where 40 companies interview business students for jobs and internships.

Public Information Reform Moving Through House

Maryland lawmakers may soon pass a bill that amends the Maryland Public Information Act to create more oversight and further define the process by which the public can access public records.

House Bill 755, sponsored by Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-District 19), is currently in the House Health and Government Operations Committee and should soon head to the Government Operations Subcommittee chaired by Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County physician who supports the bill.

“It helps the public get information in an expedient way,” Morhaim (D-District 11) said. “It addresses a lot of issues with the Public Information Act and makes it clearer and more straightforward for the public and the government [in terms of] rules by which information can be shared.”

A companion bill, Senate Bill 695, sponsored by state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-District 20), passed the Senate.

The bill creates a Public Information Compliance Board, a voluntary five-member board that must include a lawyer, a representative of a nonprofit that works on open government issues and someone who has experience with the Public Information Act as a former or current custodian of records. The state Attorney General’s office will provide office space for the board as well as a Public Access Ombudsman, who will serve as a mediator between applicants and custodians.

The House and Senate bills amend the Public Information Act to allow for more timely responses to requests and offer the public a remedy for denials of requests.

The board will hear appeals from Marylanders who feel that they were unlawfully denied a record, charged an unreasonable fee of more than $250 or improperly denied a fee waiver.

“Under current law, you have no one to complain to,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, of which the JT is a member. “There is no recourse; you have to sue them. You don’t want to sue people, you want the information.”

Current law also does not clearly define what a “reasonable fee” is, Snyder said.

The board would provide the General Assembly with recommendations for how to improve the Public Information Act, as well as issue opinions to custodians of records on how to comply with the law. Those opinions would be available online.

The bill also specifies that if a custodian thinks it may take more than 10 days to get requested information, the custodian must let the applicant know within 10 days of application how long it will take, an estimate of fees and the reason for the delay. If the request is being denied, they must notify the applicant within four days, and within 10 days provide to the applicant reason for denial and a description of the undisclosed records.

Public information requests are often used by media organizations, nonprofits and environmental advocates to acquire government data.

Snyder said she worked in conjunction with Marylanders for Open Government, a coalition led by Common Cause’s Maryland chapter. More than 50 nonprofits support the legislation. The editorial boards of The Baltimore Sun, the Carroll County Times, The Frederick News-Post and the Cumberland Times-News also support the bills.

A poll of 500 Maryland voters conducted by OpinionWorks found that 87 percent of respondents support updating the Maryland Public Information Act.

Snyder said the reforms should curtail issues she’s heard about from various MDDC members who have had problems getting information from local and state government as well as police.

“There were just difficulties,” she said. “When this coalition approached me in the fall, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to shed light on these issues.”

Morhaim thinks the House bill is in good shape, especially since it took input from a variety of stakeholders into account.

“I think the bill is well-crafted, and we’ll make some changes from the Senate version which needed to be done,” he said. “It’s a big step forward for making sure the public has access to information from their government.”

Top of the List

Gabriel Scheinmann (Provided)

Gabriel Scheinmann (Provided)

Alan Garten traveled to the campus of Goucher College last week with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its most current incarnation. He walked away feeling more hopeful than ever.

“I think it’s the only viable solution to keep Israel as a democratic and Jewish state,” he said of creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and on the West Bank of the Jordan River, roughly using the Israeli border established at the end of the Six Day War in 1967. Garten attended a discussion of the so-called “two-state solution” sponsored by the Baltimore Zionist District and Goucher Hillel.

Garten traveled to Israel last month with a group from Beth Am Synagogue. While there, he met with both Israelis and Palestinians and tried to deepen his understanding of the issue from every angle, he said. At Goucher, he was especially excited to ask the speakers, Ori Nir, communications and public engagement director for Americans for Peace Now, and Gabriel Scheinmann, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, for their thoughts on Rawabi, a new planned city built for and by Palestinians in the West Bank.

“I think that rubs against the grain, against sort of what the Palestinian leadership would allow,” noted Scheinmann. But “is it hope? Yes, I think it’s a glimmer.”

“Rawabi is an anomaly,” echoed Nir, who emphasized that the town, which just recently saw its water supply green-lighted by the Israeli government, is the first one built by the Palestinians in decades due to Israeli prohibitions that prevent the formation of new towns. “It just goes to show how miserable the situation in Palestine is.”

The pair spent the lengthiest portion of the night discussing the status of Israeli settlements in territory deemed to be part of a future Palestinian state, a point on which they disagreed.

If Israel does not withdraw from the West Bank, the security risk for the country will be even greater, Nir argued.

“It’s unclear to me whether Israel stops building settlements, whether it makes a difference,” countered Scheinmann. He added that the rate at which settlements have been constructed under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no faster than the rate at which settlements have been constructed under previous leaders.

Ori Nir (Provided)

Ori Nir (Provided)

The talk also focused heavily on Israel’s relationships with other international powers, an issue thrust into the spotlight by the deterioration of relations between the Obama administration and Jerusalem in the lead-up to and aftermath of Israel’s March 17 elections.

Israel is far more integrated into the global economy than it was even a decade ago, said Scheinmann, who argued that the relationships the Jewish state has developed with countries such as China and nations in Africa have made the potential for strained relations with America and other Western countries less worrisome.

The announcement from the Obama administration that it will be “re-evaluating” its working relationship with Israel, however, is not something that should be taken lightly, argued Nir. The veto protection the U.S. supplies Israel in the realm of the United Nations alone, he said, is a hugely important cornerstone in the success of the Jewish state.

“This is serious,” he said, adding that Israel is risking becoming a pariah state in the international arena. “It will push Israel very close to the status of South Africa during apartheid.”

Both Scheinmann and Nir agreed that the Palestinians are not the ideal partner in a peace negotiation. But, said Nir, “you deal with who you have.”

It’s unclear to me whether Israel stops building settlements, whether it makes a difference.

Palestinian politics, he added, are the “politics of the weak.” Palestinian leaders know that they are the far weaker party in any negotiations, and they are determined to force their issues by saying no to anything that does not accommodate all of their needs.

“For them, it’s all or nothing,” he said. “But their all is too high.”

The recent victory of Netanyahu’s Likud Party also says a lot about Israeli priorities, both men said. While the pre-election debate concerned so-called “pocketbook issues,” security seemed to be the issue on the mind of Israelis at the voting booth. And Netanyahu is the man they trust to protect them.

“The healthy thing would be for Israel to get rid of this occupation, to get rid of the Palestinians by creating a Palestinian state,” said Nir.

Parenting in the 21st Century

Lisa Ferentz speaks to a group of mothers at the Community Parent  Symposium at KSDS. (Provided)

Lisa Ferentz speaks to a group of mothers at the Community Parent
Symposium at KSDS. (Provided)

Are you a tiger mom? A free-range parent? How do you deal with cyber-bullying? Is it ever OK to snoop through your child’s social-media accounts?

These questions, so foreign just two decades ago, are regularly faced by today’s parents, who as a result of the unique challenges of raising this generation of children and teenagers are seeking help through parenting classes and symposiums.

In early March, 120 parents participated in a Community Parent Symposium hosted at Krieger Schechter Day School and jointly sponsored with the women’s division of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Jewish Community Services. The evening featured a keynote address by Meredith Jacobs, vice president of marketing and communications for Jewish Women International and former editor of the JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week, who discussed the ups and downs of trying to be the perfect parent. Symposium participants then had the opportunity to participate in breakout sessions tackling the rise of childhood anxiety, overly involved parents, the “selfie” generation and a spotlight on how to raise children with Jewish integrity called “Making Mensches.”

Lisa Ferentz a clinical social worker and founder of the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, Inc., facilitated a breakout session titled “The Challenges and Vulnerabilities of Early Adolescence.”

Simply put, “it is different to be a kid and teenager in 2015,” said Ferentz. “Parents get hit with challenges and want to make the right choices but may feel at a bit of a loss.”

The adolescent brain, she explained to participants, is wired differently and can start developing  as early as age 10 and may not finish developing into a fully “adult brain” until age 26. During that time span, the adolescent self — physical, spiritual, emotional, academic, social and social-media self — are evolving, and doing so at different rates. Teenagers are subject to peer pressure, generally have poor impulse control, a desire for risk taking and a limited ability to think in the abstract.

All of these factors combined means that more supervision is necessary, not less.

“Parents are sometimes under the impression that [teenagers] need less supervision when the opposite is true,” said Ferentz. “Parents have a right and responsibility to know what’s going on in a child’s life.”

Trust your gut, she tells parents. A certain level of moodiness is to be expected, but severe depression and anxiety are not a normal part of adolescence. If you suspect that your child is committing self-harm, being cyber-bullied or are cyber-bullying others, look into their social-media accounts and limit their screen time, she said.

Parents who feel overwhelmed, she continued, should seek professional guidance for their children and for themseelves. “A parent is not expected to be their child’s therapist.” In fact, a child may be more willing to disclose to a nonfamily member.

JCS is one community resource parents can turn to for help. Free half-hour consultations with mental health professionals are readily available. Parents can request a session through or fill out a form at the Owings Mills and Park Heights Jewish Community Centers. All appointments are kept confidential.

Rachael Abrams, a clinical social worker and parent outreach specialist with JCS, reiterating a common theme, said that in addition to seeking professional help, parents are looking for ways to convey safe practices to their children when it comes to technology and social media as well as to develop strategies to communicate appropriately and effectively at every stage of their child’s development.

Bullying remains a huge area of concern.

“Bullying is big,” said Abrams. “We did a large program two years ago and we were going to take a step back from the topic, but parents keep asking for it.”

In Harford County, Rabbi Kushi Schusterman, in conjunction with Harford Community College, recently concluded the six-part Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s “The Art of Parenting.”

Each class focused on a different topic from being a parent versus a “peer ant” to issues of discipline and boundary setting to cultivating healthy self-esteem and granting appropriate responsibilities.

Schusterman told parents to “make sure that they know that you’re the parent and they’re the child, and those boundaries are in place. As opposed to being a peer, [children] want you to have a certain level of healthy authority over them, and that will give them true freedom to fly on their own, as challenging as it will be for the parent.”

Did They or Didn’t They? Allegations of Israeli spying put cloud over Iran deadline

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Experts on intelligence matters in the United States are brushing off last week’s allegations from anonymous Obama administration sources alleging Israeli espionage concerning the multilateral nuclear negotiations. Scholars such as Michael Makovsky at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) dismissed the allegations, first published in The Wall Street Journal, and accusations that Israel was feeding illicitly obtained information to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as nothing more than normal behavior hyped by the White House to besmirch the Jewish state.

“It seems part of the administration’s campaign to attack Israel,” said Makovsky. “That has maybe subsided in recent days after some pushback by Democrats.”

The revelations came in the final days leading up to the negotiations’ self-imposed March 31 deadline, as Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from five other nations attempted to finalize a deal preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration provided high-level briefings on the talks to Israeli government officials but abruptly canceled them over frustration with Israeli espionage activities.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official told the newspaper.

Yet, leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill said that they were unaware of anyone receiving these alleged briefings from the Israelis or that they were provided with any information about the negotiations that was not already public or not provided in closed-door briefings by U.S. officials.

“Frankly, I was a bit shocked because there was no information revealed to me whatsoever,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference the morning the story broke. “I was shocked by the fact that there were reports in this press article that information was being passed on from the Israelis to members of Congress. I’m not aware of that at all.”

Although the United States and Israel maintain strong ties in defense and intelligence matters — often sharing information on security threats — the article alleged that the Israelis were active in obtaining information on the talks that was not publicly available other than through espionage, but it did not mention which methods were used and who the Israelis monitored to obtain this information.

It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S.legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy.

Beyond a “gentleman’s agreement” against spying on allies, Israel pledged to permanently suspend all espionage activities against the United States following the capture and incarceration of former U.S. intelligence contractor Jonathan Pollard in the mid-1980s.

“It is a very well-known fact that at that time and since then, Israeli leaders have made this pledge quite clearly, repeatedly, that they were not going to do that again,” said Meir Elran, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I do not have any reasons to doubt that it is an ongoing policy and that Israel is keeping to it religiously.”

As expected, senior officials with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office unequivocally denied the administration’s allegations.

That Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have met, often publicly, with American lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other branches of government is no surprise, said Elran. That they would discuss Iranian nuclear ambitions, which Netanyahu has described as an existential threat to Israel, is no surprise either.

“When a given country is perceiving a situation or a phenomenon that is an important threat to deal with, it needs information,” said Elran. “So it collects whatever information it’s possible to acquire. … There are different ways and means to collect reliable information without breaching this kind of commitment.

“If you ask me, I would say it would be very unwarranted on the part of Israel not to do whatever it can in order to collect the most reliable information on the issues,” he continued. “It considers this to be of very high significance.”

Jewish Museum Tackles Egyptian Afterlife

With their elaborate tombs filled with amulets, jewelry, food and cosmetics, the Egyptians certainly did not pack light for the afterlife.

In a one-hour lecture titled “What the Ancient Egyptians Took with Them — and Why,” Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University gave insight into the ancient Egyptians thoughts on death for a packed audience at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

The presentation was a part of a lecture series running alongside the A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit, which details the 19th-century figure’s life in the United States and his travels abroad. Among Cohen’s possessions on display are artifacts from his time sailing down the Nile River.

Ancient Egyptians, Bryan conceded, had an obsession with an afterlife where they believed they had the potential to become godly themselves. Thus, their bodies were preserved through mummification, adorned with jewelry, their innards placed in jars close to their sarcophaguses — except for the heart, which was seen as the seat of all emotions. Statues and depictions of their good deeds on earth were painted on tomb walls in an effort to tip the scales in their favor in the hall of judgment.

“For the Egyptians, you have to understand, they did not believe in something we call dead. When you passed over, you were not dead, regardless of whether you were good, bad or indifferent. You could continue to move and do things,” said Bryan. “And that was even more scary for the Egyptians. To be moot, to be dead meant that you could still cause problems for people back on earth.”

To emphasize the point, Bryan read aloud from a “Letter to Ankhiry” written in 1250 B.C.E. The letter was placed in the tomb of the woman Ankhiry years after her death by her husband who believed that she was the cause of his misfortunes. He insisted in the letter that he had not been adulterous and had attended to all of her needs, so wouldn’t she please leave him alone?

Bryan concluded the lecture by explaining the oft-seen image of the scarab beetle. The beetle’s lifecycle mirrors the lifecycle of the god Osiris, who traveled to the underworld each night and emerged at dawn each morning as newborn life.

The Jewish museum has two upcoming events on the calendar: Egypt Family Activity Day on April 12 from noon to 4 p.m. and a lecture by Deborah Weiner titled “A 19th-Century American Jew Visits the Holy Land: Mendes Cohen in Jerusalem” on April 19 at 1 p.m.

Changing the Way We Teach Students learn there’s no one way to be pro-Israel

From left: Joseph Gelula, Noah Green and Barak Widawsky. Being pro-Israel means “I want Israel to exist,” Gelula said. ( David Holzel)

From left: Joseph Gelula, Noah Green and Barak Widawsky. Being pro-Israel means “I want Israel to exist,” Gelula said. ( David Holzel)

You would be hard-pressed a decade ago to find any mainstream Jewish organization including Palestinian narratives as part of its Israel education efforts.

And yet, those perspectives are an integral part of the Israel Engagement Fellowship, a seminar sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

“Today, students require more understanding,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC. “As a community, we love to debate the issues. But when it comes to Israel, we seem to think there’s one way to be pro-Israel. We want to create a safe space where students can ask questions. We want them to know that they can criticize Israel but love Israel.”

Encouraging students to think hard about their feelings toward Israel and giving them information so they can work out where they stand on the issues facing the Jewish state are among the goals of the 2-year-old fellowship program.

As they sipped cans of soda and munched on chocolate-chip cookies, the teens spent six Wednesday evenings recently listening to speakers, asking questions, role playing and airing their opinions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conflict colors the world’s view of Israel, and the seminar participants, almost all of whom have spent time there, know they’ll run into questions — if not hostility — about Israel when they go to college. The fellowship was launched to prepare students for that possibility and to teach them that there is no one way to be pro-Israel.

Professionals involved in Israel advocacy and university work agree that high school students are better prepared for a college environment when they are well-informed about Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“All knowledge is good,” said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, or Emet, a pro-Israel think tank. “The more we can do to prepare students the better.”

Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said such preparation should allow the students to “support Israel and to also have sympathy for the Palestinians, whose lives are disrupted by Israel’s need to struggle for security.”

Program participants already had a better-than-average knowledge about Israel. They were chosen based on recommendations from rabbis or youth group leaders.

Katrina Young, 17, a student at  Walter Johnson High School who recently spent six weeks in Israel on a program sponsored by the Habonim Dror youth movement, said the program made her more knowledgeable.

“I’ll be able to answer when friends ask, ‘What’s going on in Israel?’ she said. “I’m learning a lot about Israeli politics. It’s really, really complicated.”

The students also learned about the Palestinian side of the story. At a session called “Parallel Narratives Never Meet,” community educator and coexistence activist Ira Weiss presented the Israeli and Palestinian national narratives — their versions of the last century of history — side by side.

“National narrative is what we learn in school,” Weiss said. “Both are true. To get the full view you need both narratives.”

He told the familiar story: of Jews fleeing oppression and returning to their ancient homeland after 2,000 years of wandering and of the Arabs who tried to destroy the fledgling Jewish state.

Alongside was a less familiar narrative: of Jewish outsiders coming in and disrupting a society that had endured for 1,200 years.

Weiss didn’t suggest that there was a way to make the narratives connect. But as he told parents who were visiting for that session, it’s better that they learn this history in the “safe environment” of the Jewish community. “What happens is, they’re brought up to love Israel. Then they hear the other narrative from Palestinians [on campus]. When they discover they weren’t told the whole story, they flip [their loyalty]. They feel betrayed.”

That was Daniel Klein’s experience.

“Growing up I was falsely taught that Israel’s history was shaped by Arab aggression and that all of its actions were taken in defense of its people,” the Pittsburgh designer and Washington-area native wrote in an email. “Learning more about the history of the region changed my perspective.

“Making aliyah allowed me to see the many ways that the Jewish state systematically oppresses non-Jews, especially Palestinians,” added Klein, who helped found the Pittsburgh chapter of the leftist Jewish Voice for Peace. “The conflict is not between Jews and Arabs, but rather between those who believe in equality and human rights for everyone and those who do not.”

“I like that we learned the Palestinian side of the conflict,” said seminar participant Melanie Ezrin, 16, a student at Quince Orchard High School. You can’t argue your side if you don’t know both sides.”

“The point of this course is to understand that there are several ways of being pro-Israel and you do not support Israel blindly,” Noa Meir, director of the JCRC’s Israel Action Center, who led the seminar with Pnina Agenyahu, the federation’s community shlicha, or Israeli emissary, told the students.

“The tachlis, the bottom line, is that there are two peoples who lay claim to the land,” she said. “The question is, where do we go from here?”

Shomrim Seeking to Raise $20K After Apartment Fire

(Marc Shapiro)

(Marc Shapiro)

Shomrim of Baltimore is trying to raise $20,000 after the apartment building housing the organization’s informal headquarters was condemned following a two-alarm fire Tuesday morning.

Spokesman Nathan Willner said the apartment at the Green Acres complex, located at 3607 Fallstaff Road, “was sort of like an office” and the organization stored supplies such as jackets, batteries and radios there. There was also a desk, television, large bookshelf, couch and functioning kitchen.

The organization’s “high-end” full color copier and printer, which Shomrim uses to quickly produce missing-persons flyers, was damaged in the fire, according to a Facebook post, which said the organization estimates that at least $20,000 worth of damage was done.

Nobody lived in the apartment, which was donated to Shomrim by the landlord, Willner said. The organization would have meetings there, work out of the apartment during incidents that occurred off-hours and would monitor-missing persons reports from there. Shomrim has had the apartment for six or seven years, Willner said.

The Baltimore City Fire Department got the call about the fire at 6:50 a.m., fire spokesman Capt. Roman Clark said. The fire was under control by 8:30 a.m. Of the 24 apartments in the three-story building, four were heavily damaged, Clark said.

The cause of the fire was an unattended stove. No one was injured in the blaze. Shomrim’s apartment, on the first floor of the building, suffered smoke and water damage.

Willner said a number of organizations have reached out to Shomrim to offer help. The group is hoping to get another space donated, or it may consider renting a place, he said.

Shomrim’s apartment did not have renters’ insurance. As an all-volunteer organization, Willner said the lack of insurance could be due to Shomrim not looking to spend extra money.

Civic Pride At The Intersection, justice and Jewish values prevail

A local nonprofit organization, The Intersection, is generating what it hopes to be the next leaders of the city, state and country with the children of impoverished and underprivileged communities in Baltimore.

The nonprofit was founded in 2011 by former Goucher College graduate and Teach for America participant Zeke Cohen. Cohen, a Jewish transplant to Baltimore, was inspired after taking his students to New Orleans in 2008 to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“As my students got to work on a home, they just completely took over,” Cohen said. “I realized that too often we think of children living in poverty as part of the problem or as victims. Instead we should look at them as being the solution.”

Cohen also serves on the board of Jews United for Justice. He said that the Jewish value of tikkun olam, healing the world, inspires much of his work with The Intersection.

“The way I practice my Judaism is through [this] prism of social justice,” he said.

Fellow board member Sue Cohen (no relation), a past president of the Baltimore Jewish Council and a life member of the board of The Association: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, also views the organization as an “extension” of her Judaism.
“I fell in love with Zeke a few years ago when he courted me to support The Intersection, which was in its infancy,” she said. “Little did he or I know how immersed I would become in it. To me, The Intersection is a natural extension of my Jewish values, particularly tzedek, which truly means justice and tikkun olam.”

Dawnya Johnson, a participant in The Intersection and a senior at Seton Keough High School, has spoken at major conferences in Mumbai, India, Miami and North Carolina to share her experience and inspire others to get involved in the nonprofit’s campaigns against various injustices.

“This program gave me the opportunity to expand my universe and my possibilities,” Johnson said. “The world only seemed to be Baltimore, but with these opportunities I got to see a lot of the world and what’s out there.”

The Intersection is different from other nonprofits, said Ifetayo Kitwala, a sophomore at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“I’ve seen a lot of people try to ‘fix the problem’ and end up making it worse,” Kitwala said. “Instead, Mr. Cohen acknowledges diversity and understands that he doesn’t have the same background as us, but he’s always there to help.”

The nonprofit campaigns for communal and civil issues within Baltimore City. Since its founding, it has fought for the passing of two Maryland laws: the Maryland Dream Act and the Maryland Firearm Safety Act.

“We want to teach our kids civic engagement,” Cohen said. “During the first 14 weeks of the program we have deep conversations about race, color and sex and what it means to live in a city like Baltimore, which was constructed around segregation.”

In addition to community involvement, The Intersection is committed to guiding its students into secondary education institutions.

“So far, 10 out of our 10 program graduates have gone on to college. We are teaching leadership, which manifestsitself through college and civic involvement.”

“So far, 10 out of our 10 program graduates have gone on to college,” Cohen said.

“We are teaching leadership, which manifests itself through college and civic involvement.”

The Intersection’s current campaign is called 235 Lives, which is aimed at creating one youth job for each of the lives lost to gun violence in Baltimore. Students at The Intersection held a forum, asking what they could do to resolve Baltimore’s gun violence, Cohen said. Attendees responded by saying violence is primarily due to young people’s lack of employment.

“Our problem with crime in Baltimore is directly related with our joblessness,” said Cohen, who discovered that the youth unemployment rate in Baltimore is a staggering 44 percent.

“When I joined The Intersection I had just lost my cousin to city violence,” Johnson said. “Many of his friends wanted to take a vengeful road. All 15 of us [at The Intersection] have been directly or indirectly affected by gun violence.”

The 235 Lives Campaign is definitely going to be more difficult than the organization’s previous campaigns, Kitwala said. “We’re looking at actually getting jobs for a large number of people who don’t have the best connotation that comes with their name. But it’s a step in the right direction.”

Carly Kempler is a freshman at the University of Maryland and a staff writer at The Diamondback, the university’s independent student-run newspaper.

Umami Bistro Closes Its Doors

Jewish Baltimore lost a kosher mainstay this week with the April 2 closing of Umami Bistro, a kosher Chinese and Japanese restaurant located in Pikesville’s Club Centre shopping plaza.

“It’s a big shame,” said Chana Bernstein, a Greenspring resident who said that Umami has been one of her favorite restaurants in town.

There are options for those who keep kosher to find a variety of food, she said, but “there aren’t very many places with any ambiance.” Plus, she noted, the ability to order an alcoholic drink and some Pad Thai was a definite draw.

“I’m definitely going to miss that,” she said.

For some, however, the closure of Umami is far less heartbreaking.

Umami’s online reviews are full of posts praising the kosher restaurant’s food and knocking the service.

Baltimore City resident Chava Baskin said she will have no problem simply driving to David Chu’s for her Asian kosher needs.

“The food’s good, the service is horrible [at Umami’s],” she said.

With one fewer kosher restaurant in the area competing for business, some local restaurateurs are looking forward to the effects of the closure of one of the more recognizable kosher Baltimore eateries.

“I think it’ll pick up a little bit,” said Javin Sher, owner of Mama Leah’s Pizza, also located in Club Centre. He observed that his cuisine differs from the kind of food offered at Umami. But other restaurants, he said, should expect to be a bit busier.