Jewish Voice for Peace Converges in Baltimore


Photo by Jules Cowan

A progressive look at the Middle East with an emphasis on sympathy toward the Palestinian people may not be the mainstream approach to Israel in the organized Jewish community, but Jewish Voice for Peace is proudly bucking the trend.

The organization met in Baltimore last weekend for its national membership meeting, with the growing organization celebrating its accomplishments while hearing from Israeli, Palestinian and American scholars and activists.

“We are helping redefine the progressive Jewish worldview and that must include speaking out for the rights of Palestinians,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, said at the organization’s opening plenary on Friday, March 13. “We are creating an alternative to the Jewish institutions in this country that demand loyalty to political ambitions that are antithetical to our Jewish values.”

According to its website, the organization conducts campaigns to defend and free Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists and fights censorship of debate and misuses of the charge of anti-Semitism. But it has also drawn the ire of the mainstream Jewish community for its support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. It also works with Arab, Muslim, Palestinian and Christian groups to fight bigotry and end an Israeli presence in the West Bank, facilitates congressional outreach and supports alternative Jewish rituals that include Palestinian narratives.

“JVP is our political home, the place where we can bring our full selves, the place where we don’t have to leave our politics for Israel and Palestine at the door,” Vilkomerson said in her opening remarks.

Rev. Heber Brown III, of Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, spoke at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Membership Meeting about Palestinian voting rights and the racism he said he experienced in Israel. (Provided)

Rev. Heber Brown III, of Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, spoke at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Membership Meeting about Palestinian voting rights and the racism he said he experienced in Israel. (Provided)

Over the summer, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas targets in Gaza, more than a dozen JVP chapters opened, and members were busy protesting for peace and against Israeli military actions. Later in the summer, those same JVP members protested in solidarity with those angered by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

“Our anti-racist principles make us part of a broad coalition, one that brings many movements together,” Vilkomerson said. “Whether we’re fighting for immigrant rights or against the prison-industrial complex or for justice in Palestine, they’re simply difference facets of the same fight — for full equality and dignity and collective liberation of all human beings.”

Following her remarks at Friday’s opening plenary, a panel addressed the current Israel-Palestinian situation, which featured the Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. For Brown, there are obvious parallels between the civil rights movement and what is happening in Israel right now.

He started his talk by speaking about his experience in traveling to Israel five years ago. As the only African-American in the delegation, he said, he was stopped and questioned by Israeli soldiers at the airport. He said that pattern repeated throughout the trip.

A number of others, including organizers from the Black Lives Matter organization and African-American Jew and chef Michael Twitty, have similar stories from recent travels to the country, Brown pointed out.

“It’s not about my individual experience; I’m more so concerned about the pattern of discrimination. That is a greater issue for me,” Brown said. “What I faced at that airport that day was something my grandparents faced at airports, restaurants and on highways in this country 50 years ago and so much longer ago than that.”

Brown said that stories of Palestinian disenfranchisement resonates with him as a civil rights activist.

“Anybody would see disenfranchisement from voting as a knock or forging against democracy,” he said. “I don’t think we have the luxury to be silent in that no matter where your political persuasion might be. Whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, whether black or white, I don’t think we can justify people not having the right to vote.”

Angela Davis, political activist and author, earned a standing ovation after her keynote address. (Jules Cowan)

Angela Davis, political activist and author, earned a standing ovation after her keynote address. (Jules Cowan)

Brown takes a middle of the road approach on the BDS movement. He said he is hearing and heeding to the call of Palestinians pushing for BDS because he doesn’t think someone from the outside can tell those most directly impacted what to do.

“At the same time,” he said, “I recognize that BDS by itself is not the answer either.”

Brown plans to continue working with local Jewish organizations on issues of importance, including the various issues Black Lives Matter has brought to light. The night before he spoke at the JVP conference, he was testifying in Annapolis in favor of a bill that would reform Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“We have to work to a commitment for justice for everybody,” he said. “I think justice helps bring about peace.”

The Big Question Is Tom Cotton the future of the GOP?

Sen. Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton

Despite having served in the Senate for little less than three months, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is making his presence felt through his willingness to stand on his own and advocate a hawkish foreign policy. While his antics have alienated fellow lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill — including some from his own party — others believe that Cotton’s ideology is representative of a new generation of Republican lawmakers.

Cotton stirred up controversy last week by authoring an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which condescendingly explained, citing two constitutional provisions, why no deal resulting from the P5+1 nuclear negotiation among the United States, its international allies and Iran would have any permanence unless voted for and approved by Congress.

“What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revote such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen, and
future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time,” wrote Cotton.

The letter, which was signed by 47 Republican senators, was blasted by Democrats who said that a senator, especially one who has been in the Senate only for a couple of months, has no right to interfere in the presidential domain of foreign policy and to engage foreign leaders. Some even went as far as calling Cotton’s actions an act of treason.

Although Cotton made his maiden speech on the Senate floor on Monday, he already has shown his colors early, passionately criticizing administration officials who testified for one of the three committees on which he sat and displaying extremely hawkish foreign policy views that previously were only matched by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Some observers, such as Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously held high-level foreign policy positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, read the controversy over Cotton’s letter as a sign that a new generation of veteran lawmakers are picking up the mantle of leadership and asserting themselves on defense issues.

“If you look at Tom Cotton and you look at some of the others, you really have a new generation of Republican leadership, and they’re veterans,” said Abrams. “I’m a great fan of Tom Cotton. I think, first of all, he’s very smart and he knows a great deal about foreign policy. He has a terrific academic record and a terrific military record.”

The tall, lanky Cotton is native of Dardanelle, Ark., (population 5,000) who looks more like a farm-raised high school track athlete than a sitting U.S. senator. Cotton, 37, is also the Senate’s youngest member. But his appearance and thick Arkansas drawl belies an elite academic pedigree — undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. His military credentials are just as impressive, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, receiving a Bronze Star for his service.

After serving only one term in the House of Representatives, Cotton took advantage of the favorable GOP headwind during the last election to take on incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor. Pryor sensed his weakness as a Democrat in a state quickly turning to favor Republicans and enlisted the help of a former Arkansas governor, President Bill Clinton, to stump with him throughout the state. The race became one of the hottest contests in the country with both candidates spending astronomical sums of cash raised mostly through large donors from outside of their state. Pryor, who ran unopposed six years earlier, raised $12.5 million and spent $14.6 million in the race — three times as much as when he defeated an incumbent in 2002. But even with the flood of money and help from Clinton on his home turf, Pryor lost.

Cotton’s fundraising was likewise impressive, raising and spending approximately $13.9 million, and his list of donors included far-right political superstars and donors such as Weekly Standard editor-in-chief and political pundit Bill Kristol, mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, President George and Laura Bush, David and Charles Koch — better known collectively as the Koch Brothers — and Abrams to list only a few.

All of these donors could be found contributing to GOP presidential candidates in a general election, but they don’t always align on down-ballot races such as those for Senate and House.

Even the Koch brothers sometimes disagree between themselves with David Koch preferring more traditional Republican candidates and Charles Koch tending to side with more libertarian candidates.

Cotton managed to bridge the gap between foreign policy-minded Republicans and fiscal conservatives. He was a rare candidate who appealed to both neoconservatives and paleoconservatives — an ideology that espouses limited government and non-interventionist foreign policy with traditional social values.

Cotton does not have the slightly isolationist tendencies of a paleoconservative and the truly isolationist ideology of libertarians. Yet, he doesn’t quite fit the mold of a neoconservative either. Abrams believes these battles and terms are from the 1980s and ‘90s and no longer apply.

“What you’re talking about here is a new generation of people who fought in Afghanistan and/or Iraq and are now watching, from their point of view, a decline in American power and prestige, and they don’t like it,” said Abrams.

In attempting to explain Cotton’s line of thought on foreign policy, Abrams referred to political scientist and Bard College and Yale University professor Walter Russell Mead, who once describe a lingering “Jacksonian influence on American foreign policy,” which is named for early 19th-century President Andrew Jackson.

Abrams defined the concept as Americans, often from places such as Arkansas, “who don’t necessarily want us involved in every international matter but believe that the United States has to be strong and respected and that when you’re involved, you fight to win.”

But negative political reaction caused by Cotton’s letter to the ayatollah has made some Republican senators, even some who signed the letter, back down or explain their positions, particularly Republicans senators in blue states who re taking heat from angry constituents.

The fear among Republicans and their staffs was that the partisan, open attack on the authority of President Barack Obama would steer Democrats from supporting two pieces of legislation on Iran — the Kirk-Menendez Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act that calls for additional sanctions if a deal is not reached and a bill written by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that calls for the president to send the final deal to Congress for approval. The president has promised to veto both bills.

Key supporters of these bills and their staff had been working on building a bipartisan coalition of 67 senators in order to override a guaranteed presidential veto. Most now feel that Cotton’s unilateral action has jeopardized this coalition.

Some staff members of senators who signed Cotton’s letter — for whom the focus is specifically on the issues of foreign policy and Iran — also felt slighted by the way the letter was put together. Since senators are responsible for knowing about every subject, staff is responsible for providing a more detailed assessment to guide the lawmaker’s actions.

Instead, Cotton went directly to his colleagues by circulating the letter for signatures at the senators’ weekly conference lunch and by phoning them directly, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“While it’s not an everyday occurrence for a member to approach another member to sign a letter, it’s also not an unusual practice when a member is extremely eager to get a letter out,” said a senior aide who was not authorized to speak on the record. “That said, members are probably best served when they have had a chance to carefully go over with advisory staff the pros and cons of signing a letter, especially a controversial one.”

While the effect the letter on foreign policy is still unknown, there is a feeling among some Republican staffers that Cotton’s actions have served more as self-aggrandizement at the expense of collective party strategy.

Yet, despite the collateral damage inflicted by Cotton, the letter did get the administration to publicly admit that an executive order could be replaced by a future president who disagrees with the deal.

Abrams said that the letter did not change his opinion of Cotton.

“I think [what] people are missing [is] that this was an open letter,” said Abrams. “There was no contact between Cotton and the other senators with the government of Iran.”

An open letter is “like an op-ed. It’s just that at the top it says, ‘To the leaders of the Islamic Republic,’ instead of saying, ‘To the readers of The New York Times,’” he added. “I think that’s a big difference, because if you say that senators can’t do an open letter, you’re saying that they’re role is to shut up, and that’s not our constitutional system.”

Abrams recalled that in 2007, during his time with the Bush administration, then- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Syria to speak to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite disapproval from the administration.

“At that moment, it was the policy of the United States to try to isolate Assad, and the president specifically asked her not to go,” Abrams recalled.  “We went through a period there of about a year or two where no European foreign minister visited Damascus. The isolation of Assad was working, and then she broke it.”

Baltimore Jewish Council and D.C. Counterpart Lobby Annapolis

Maryland’s Jewish community turned out in full force Tuesday evening in the state capital to lobby legislators for a number of Jewish causes.

More than 240 Maryland Jews met with more than 30 state legislators and legislative staff members at the state Senate and House of Delegates office buildings at the annual Advocacy Day, hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Talking points focused on budget items the community would like to see funded, but also included support of the Maryland Education Credit, which would provide a tax credit to companies that donate to non-public schools, the reevaluation of the state’s stormwater management fee and the expansion of services for the disabled and affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Jewish support “had a lot to do with me being here,” Gov. Larry Hogan told the crowd in his dinnertime address. He noted his long working relationship with BJC Executive Director Arthur Abramson and the fact that his first public appearance after announcing his candidacy in 2014 was at a BJC meeting.

“You have a friend in the governor’s office,” Hogan said, noting the work he has been doing to push for the passage of the education credit, a longtime Jewish community priority.

Comptroller Peter Franchot called the Maryland Jewish community the most active and engaged in the country before promising to build a legacy as a fierce advocate for Israel.

“Your organizations succeed because of you,” he told the group. “You don’t just advocate for the Jewish people, you stand up for Jewish values and, here’s the essence, Jewish values are Maryland values.”

Barry Bogage, director of the Maryland/Israel Development Center, was encouraged by the events of the evening. One of the talking points disseminated to participants was the push for a $275,000 grant to the MIDC to support staff.

“Economic development is his thing,” Bogage said of the Republican governor, adding that the MIDC is just the kind of program Hogan seems to want to support in Maryland. The other legislators he met with in smaller breakout sessions appeared supportive as well, he said.

Nathan Willner, who attended the event with the Baltimore contingent, walked away confident that the new legislature and executive branch are committed to working together on behalf of Jewish issues.

“It shows the importance of this group,” he said of the swelling crowd of community members, legislators and legislative staff, which spilled out into the hall during the governor’s speech.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, whom Abramson credited with putting the event together, said this year’s Advocacy Day was likely the most important Advocacy Day she has ever been involved with. With dozens of new legislators and a new governor’s office, the work has been nonstop.

After making a point to meet with as many new legislators as possible, seeing several of them pack into the banquet as soon as they got out of their day’s hearings was gratifying, she said. “It’s so important that we have a presence here.”

Created with flickr slideshow.

Saying Goodbye

Jory and Barbara Newman plan to close their longtime Northwest Baltimore shop, Pikesville Silver and Antiques, by the end of spring. (Pam Stegemarten)

Jory and Barbara Newman plan to close their longtime Northwest Baltimore shop, Pikesville Silver and Antiques, by the end of spring. (Pam Stegemarten)

In a few short months, Pikesville will lose two of its longest-lasting storefronts with the closure of Pikesville Silver and Antiques and Pikesville Jewelry & Coin.

At the end of the month, Pikesville Jewelry & Coin will close its doors in favor of switching to a consult-only business model, and, just more than two months later, Pikesville Silver and Antiques will close up shop when the owners retire and move to Florida to be closer to family.

“It wasn’t like a spur-of-the-moment decision,” said Jory Newman, who along with wife Barbara has been operating Pikesville Silver and Antiques out of a shop in Suburban Square Center for more than a decade. “We planned it out. Like a life plan.”

Pikesville Silver and Antiques has been a Northwest Baltimore-area staple for three decades after Newman’s father, Jay Newman, opened shop in a warehouse south of Reisterstown Road Plaza in the 1980s.

A longtime eyeglass manufacturer, the elder Newman opened the store after he returned to Baltimore from a 15-year stint living and working in Barbados. While in the Caribbean islands, he became well-versed in the art of silver polishing when the family’s silver was constantly getting tarnished by the harsh tropical climate. Having regularly used the machinery in his manufacturing plant to polish glasses, he decided to apply the same practice to his silver. When he returned to Baltimore, he decided to make a business out of his hobby.

“My father was really a gutsy kind of guy,” said Newman. “When he came back, he ended up buying a polishing machine and putting an ad in the Jewish Times.” From there, Pikesville Silver and Antiques was launched. Newman’s mother ran the business’ books while his father handled the physical labor of polishing antiques and family heirlooms brought to the store from all over the region.

About 12 years ago, when Newman’s father had retired and Newman and his wife took over the family business, the couple decided to move the shop to a more shopper-friendly space.

The Pikesville location was an easy decision.

“Pikesville was the mainstay of our customer base,” said Newman. Though he has taken great pride in all his work, Newman describes a special feeling of pride that comes from helping someone restore a piece of silver that has been passed down from generation to generation — “l’dor v’dor” he calls those pieces. Some pieces he cares for are a family’s only artifacts to have survived the Holocaust.

“It was never a money-maker. It was never a dynasty type of thing,” he said. “It was a little Ma and Pa dinosaur of a business in the sense that nobody does that kind of work.”

With the popularity of modern designs and stainless steel, silver polishing is becoming a sort of “lost art” said Newman. Business has quieted down as of late. But he describes the pieces he’s seen over the years as “like artwork.”

“I am not going to miss getting dirty, but I’m going to miss the pride and the customers,” he said.

At Pikesville Jewelry & Coin, business partners Marc Schauder and Rich Bardach expect they’ll be as busy as ever but in a different way.

“We’ve had a ton of fun here and some great customers,” said Bardach. But it is time to “shake things up a little bit.”

Later this month, when Pikesville Jewelry & Coin’s lease runs out, the store will close its doors for the first time in three decades.

Over those three decades, Bardach said, “We’ve seen every trend you can possibly imagine.” But it’s the latest trend — an overwhelming majority of business coming through estate sales — that led the pair to revamp their model.

Bardach remembers a time when Pikesville Jewelry & Coin was one of many similar businesses in the Pikesville area. After years spent watching competitors close down, the time came for the store to think about its future.

Instead of operating their longtime storefront on Reisterstown Road, the owners will now deal exclusively with customers who contact them directly.

A New York native, Bardach describes his Pikesville clientele as “some of the nicest, warmest people I’ve ever met.”

“Nobody needed to shop with us,” he said, but they chose to support the business anyway, and many more still referred friends and family members to the store.

Today, Bardach said, the business is buying from and selling to its third generation of Pikesville customers.

“My fear is that I’ll be busier [now] than I was,” said Bardach with a laugh. “I want to get a little golf in.”

Common Ground

Rabbi David Lapin (Provided)

Rabbi David Lapin (Provided)

PHILADELPHIA — Professional and lay Jewish day school leaders gathered in the City of Brotherly Love for three days to forge “uncommon connections” with their peers.

The fifth North American Jewish Day School Conference, which ended March 10, brought an estimated 1,000 participants to the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, where the stated goal was to learn about systems intelligence. PARDES Day Schools of Reform Judaism, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Schechter Day School Network and the Yeshiva University-School Partnership co-hosted the conference, with sponsorship from the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Kohelet Foundation and Jewish Federations of North America.

The packed schedule featured workshops, plenaries and “Constellations of Learning” blocs, in which participants could pick and choose among sessions ranging from free-wheeling, unstructured conversations to three-hour intensive discussions.

New this year were opportunities for participants to study Torah, excursions to Philadelphia educational and cultural landmarks and a special track for small school communities.

The focus on small Jewish day schools grew out of last year’s joint RAVSAK-PARDES conference in which a sort of conference within a conference for small schools and communities was hosted. According to Dr. Marc Kramer, co-executive director of RAVSAK, the endeavor was wildly successful.

At this year’s conference, Kramer’s back-to-back small schools sessions were packed, particularly a session that examined four case studies ranging from dealing with donor stipulations to dealing with dissatisfied families. Case studies, explained Kramer, are a useful tool for identifying problems and digging beyond the superficial to find a meaningful answer. Work shopping the cases together with a wide range of voices helped small school leaders gain insights they might not otherwise have opportunity to hear.

“One thing that we heard, which we knew, is leadership is lonely business,” said Kramer. “If the next Jewish school is two or three hours away that’s really limiting, but when you can sit in a room with other Jewish leaders from small schools you can have relationships with your colleagues that are missing throughout the year.”

To further facilitate conversation, the NAJDS conference featured an interactive meeting environment dubbed “The Playground” designed by Fielding Nair International, the architects behind creative learning spaces around the globe. The room was divvied up into learning spaces — campfire, cave, watering hole and life — where attendees took advantage of sitting down for one-on-one conversations or learning about blended learning techniques from the multitude of educational technology companies present.

Just across from the technology-laden tables, Rivky Ross, head of school at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick, N.J., sat on the floor surrounded by classroom objects and demonstrated how the Montessori multisensory approach is incorporated into Hebrew language learning.

Ross explained that a benefit of a smaller school — her school has 125 students from infant through eighth grade — was the sense of community created.

“We’re a school where the children feel they’re a close-knit family, and that has a lot of value,” said Ross.

At the Monday afternoon address, Rabbi David Lapin, CEO of Lapin Consulting International, and his daughters, Ashira Lapin Gobrin and Bruria Lapin Martin, urged a return to traditional Talmudic methods of study as a means of giving Jewish students an edge in an automatized future.

“What do we have to give to our students?” he asked the audience. “The capacity in the future to compete with robots. To be able to do what robots cannot.”

He impressed upon the audience that Talmudic methodology makes sense to children growing up in the digital age. Unlike traditional education, he continued, where students are taught that to get from one to three you must go by two, the study of Talmud allows a leap from one to three, to go out of order and ask questions. It is the asking of questions that will give Jewish students the advantage, he contended.

Lapin urged the crowd to “change [the] conversation from competitive advantage to Jewish advantage.”

To drive the point home, Gobrin had the audience study the first tractate that discusses the Shema and share their results and conversations.

Concluded Gobrin, “Western education teaches students to answer our questions. Jewish education inspires students to question our answers.”

Workshops on fundraising, building endowments and affordability were threaded throughout the conference.

In an 80-minute Constellation session held Monday, Harry Bloom, strategy manager at PEJE, and Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, gave a joint presentation on “What does governance have to do with Fundraising? Everything!”

Bloom posited that the secret to school board success is a combination of strategic board meetings, board education about programs and budget, formal board education and conflict-of-interest avoidance agreements in place. He also highlighted the sometimes uncomfortable, but necessary, task of profiling board members’ ability to give financially — the ideal being that board members’ gifts to their schools be among their top three donations yearly.

Schorr presented BT as a board model that has been restructured for success, using the steps Bloom outlined.

“We created a board, a board that was interested in what we were doing,” said Schorr. “We made sure that we gave them some very formal board education. We actually encouraged them to see themselves as fiduciary responsible. And we did something that seemed so counterintuitive, but Harry pointed it out as one of the most important things ever: we got them to sign conflict of interest statements.”

There was some fall-out from the restructuring, she admitted, but the transition was worth it. “It’s very important for you, whether you’re the head of school or whether you’re in development, to surround yourself with people who understand the mission of the school and who understand the fiduciary piece of their position on the board.”

By creating an environment of philanthropic engagement and transparency, BT made notable gains. One hundred percent of board members donate to the school, she said, and the endowment grew to $12.5 million.

This spring, Schorr said, BT will celebrate the successful completion of an $18 million capital campaign.

Hearing Held on Life Insurance Bill

Legislation forbidding life insurance providers in Maryland from limiting coverage, discontinuing coverage or requiring larger payments from clients based on future lawful travel plans — such as to Israel — could be inching closer to law.

In a hearing two weeks ago on House Bill 352 in the House Health and Government Operations Committee, lobbyists scheduled to testify against the bill said that they would be willing to support a version of the legislation that includes two amendments of their own specifying the standards necessary to meet before a provider can choose to charge a client more or deny coverage for the timespan the client is in a particular region.

As things stand now, life insurance providers cannot discriminate against clients based on past lawful travel. If this legislation, which is sponsored by Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41), is passed with the amendments included, life insurance providers would have to provide coverage to clients while they travel to any region not actively affected by Centers for Disease Control-recognized deadly outbreaks or ongoing armed conflicts involving the nation in question and another structured military organization.

“This is something that affects people of different faiths” and backgrounds, Rosenberg told the committee.

The Attorney General’s office is currently reviewing the amendments offered by the insurance industry advocates. The Insurance Subcommittee met on Tuesday, but no vote was taken on the bill.

Freundel Resigns from Towson

Rabbi Barry Freundel (provided)

Rabbi Barry Freundel

Rabbi Barry Freundel, who pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism on Feb. 19, has resigned from Towson University, effective March 27, according to a universityspokesperson.

Freundel, who started teaching at Towson as a tenured professor in 2009, was suspended from the university after his arrest in October. He will have received $30,830 since the suspension, with the final $4,746 of that amount to be paid by March 27.

“Because he resigned, as a result, there will be no administrative hearing,” said Towson spokeswoman Gay Pinder.

Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, said Freundel’s resignation was worked out with the university.

“Towson was amenable to it, and it seemed to us the best way to proceed,” he said.

Freundel faces a maximum penalty of 52 years of incarceration and could be ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines. His sentencing is set for Friday, May 15.

The conviction stems from Freundel’s setting up hidden cameras inside a clock radio and a fan in the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath next door to Kesher Israel Congregation in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Freundel was terminated from the synagogue in November.

While he was charged with 52 counts of voyeurism, prosecutors said Freundel videotaped more than 150 women undressing at the mikvah. The 52 counts of voyeurism he was charged with are for the 52 victims within the statute of limitations.

Shortly after Freundel’s arrest, a search of his Towson office turned up several hidden cameras, a handwritten list of names, computer storage devices, batteries, charging cables, remote controls and a laptop. There is no indication that students were filmed at the university.

The Somali Connection Muslim, Jewish communities unite to combat terrorist recruitment

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

As the U.S battles Islamist terrorism abroad, cities such as Minneapolis, with its large Muslim Somali population, have emerged as ground zero in the psychological and sociological battles at home. Somali community groups there have joined forces with the federal government to prevent terrorist recruitment as well as anchor, educate and support young Somalis in hopes to assuage an identity crisis that can leave many susceptible to recruitment tactics.

At the recent three-day conference at the White House on countering violent extremism, leaders from Minnesota’s Somali community presented their plans to counter recruitment efforts, in conjunction with local clergy, educators and law enforcement. Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and a prominent member of Minneapolis’ Jewish community, was asked to lead the initiative.

“From 2007 until today, our community has struggled with the cycle of recruiting by overseas terrorists,” Luger began, as he addressed the assembled group at the White House. After many months of meetings with hundreds of community members, “the Minnesota Somali community told us what it would take to combat this recruiting.”

Minnesota, and specifically its major metropolitan area of Minneapolis, is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, at approximately 33,000 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It comprises about one-third of the total Somali population nationwide.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their home country. Many landed in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which remains a densely Somali-populated area located a few miles from the downtown district and about midway between Minneapolis and its “twin city,” the state capital of St. Paul.

About a decade later, from 2007 to 2009, the FBI tracked more than 25 Somali Minnesotan young men traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. That initial wave included the first documented American-born suicide bomber, who in 2008 detonated himself during the Somali conflict against occupying Ethiopian armies.

Since then, more than 20 of the men have been federally charged for their involvement, but others remain active, pursuing young Somali-American men with savvy social media-based recruitment tactics “to join the fight overseas or conduct an attack in the United States,” said FBI agent Rick Thornton, who provided current intelligence to the summit attendees. And in 2013, more young Minnesota-based Somali-Americans traveled overseas to join terrorist organizations, he continued, “only this time instead of al-Shabaab, it was [the so-called Islamic State], and instead of Somalia, the destination was Syria.”

In the presentation, which also included comments from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Luger outlined the three main components of a proposed anti-recruitment pilot program that draws directly from the needs expressed by the Somali community.

The project intends to increase community engagement by local law enforcement, address the root causes of radicalization in the community — identity crisis, a lack of job opportunities, the need for mentors, a shortage of effective after-school programs and a widening disconnect between youth and their religious leaders were all noted as major factors — and develop community-led intervention teams trained to respond at the earliest signs of radicalization.

Now a year into his tenure as U.S. attorney, Luger didn’t realize at the outset he would take on such a high-profile initiative. But he said that following his instincts shortly after he was sworn in has paid off.

One of the first things he did was ask Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, where Luger is a member, to introduce him to several of the local imams. Zimmerman holds close ties with many clergy as part of an interfaith group that meets monthly.

“Growing up Jewish, I’ve had a deep respect for clergy of any faith,” said Luger. “I knew it would be important for me, no matter what, to reach out to the Muslim community. … When I knew the recruitment from 2007 and 2008 was back, I needed to start to understand the Somali community here, to see how I could assist on civil rights issues and the efforts to stop the recruiting, so it made sense for me to start with the religious leaders.”

Meetings take place about every four to five weeks, he said.

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

A month after Luger asked Zimmerman for assistance, Washington officials turned to him to coordinate anti-recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Luger, though, is the first to admit his is a community-driven effort. Joining Luger is Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog.

At the White House summit, Farah explained the mission of his organization to steer youth toward higher education, civic involvement and volunteer commitment by providing options and outlets for young Somalis. He relies on after-school programs, college preparation and leadership training to “break the cycle of recruiting and radicalization.”

“In 2007 and 2008, none of the community wanted to talk about al-Shabaab and that such things were taking place,” Farah said during an interview. “We didn’t have too many fans in the Somali community, but we did that because it was an issue that was a reality. Now more people realize it’s not just a Somali issue, but an American issue as well.”

Farah explained that about 80 percent of the young people he works with are American-born, but their Somali-born parents are “physically here, but mentally they’re back home.”

Parents encourage their children to become educated and return to help rebuild Somalia, he said. “So a lot of the kids have been confused, and a lot of the young people don’t know anything about Somalia, so that’s a big issue.” When conflicts arise, “the elders tend to use solutions that have worked in
Somalia, but because we’re in a different environment, that doesn’t work, so there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of communication between these two generations.”

Typically, parents don’t speak English well either, he added, “so there is a disconnect.”

It’s a dangerous and confusing situation if both parents and terrorist recruiters are telling young people to go back and take care of their home country, though obviously with very different motivations, he said. “But the idea of integrating into our society here in America is a lot better than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Now people are comfortable being here, thinking about the future of our community, and many nonprofits are making sure kids are graduating and giving back to their communities.”

Madeline Barnett, assistant director of community and public relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, knows the challenges of dealing with ethnic immigrant populations well. BJC regularly hosts several interfaith programs, such as the Jewish Muslim Dialogue, that includes programming directed at young adults.

“We need to teach young people about different [media] outlets so they can interpret [the information] and think about it through a critical lens,” said Barnett. “They’re capable, but we need to give them the tools to do so. I think it’s 100 percent necessary and effective” in educating young people against persuasive messaging.

At Luger’s suggestion, Zimmerman invited Farah and other members of Ka Joog to speak at a Temple Israel study session during Yom Kippur last fall. The session is traditionally used to draw congregants in to participate in dialogue that can sometimes include “difficult conversations” said Zimmerman, adding that she is proud to be part of a congregation where “even if people might disagree, they understand that talking is the antidote to violence and that these are our guests.”

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

The hall was packed with about 300 people, with many standing on the periphery of the room, said the rabbi. Since there is nominal interaction between Jewish and Somali communities and a lot of press about terrorist recruitment activity, “it’s important to be based in facts. It’s important to confront [the issues], but also to know that the majority of Somalis want to be American and integrate into society and retain their culture, which Jews understand historically.

“We also wanted [the Somali community] to understand the Jewish perspective,” she added, “and if no one is at the table, then you can’t understand it.”

The members of Ka Joog spoke for about an hour, said Luger, who was in attendance, and “people were just fascinated to learn” about their lives in refugee camps, what it was like to come to Minnesota and what they’re doing to combat recruitment and actively build up their community.

“I think the Jewish community has a natural affinity for other communities that are developing their infrastructure and that want to succeed and pursue the American dream,” said Luger, “and you could feel it that day at Temple Israel.”

Time to Celebrate Shabbat Across America

031315_briefs_shabbat_americaWhen the sun sets this Friday, thousands of Jews across the United States will come together to learn and observe Shabbat as part of Shabbat Across America, a project organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program.

A number of local congregations are switching up their normal Shabbat routines to celebrate the 18th year of the national effort.

According to Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah in Pikesville, 150 people are expected to participate in a “Happy Minyan” Friday night with a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by dinner and a guest lecture from Jerusalem Post reporter Jeremy Yonah Bob on the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections and that country’s security issues.

Shabbat morning at MMAE will feature a large Kiddush to welcome the congregation’s new associate rabbi, Rabbi Joel Dinin, and his family. For a change of pace, the synagogue will host a third meal that afternoon and have board games and kids’ games available between services.

Shapiro noted that Shabbat Across America corresponds to this week’s Torah portion of Vayakhel-Pekude.

“First thing [Moses] says is, ‘Keep the Sabbath, observe the Sabbath,’” said Shapiro. “Sabbath is the common core connection between people and God. Six days a week are action and one day a week is rest and introspection, and that’s why it’s so important, it’s key. Everyone deserves to have Shabbos.”

Also adding spice to its normal Shabbat programing is Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. It’s putting its own twist on the theme by celebrating Shabbat Across the Americas, complete with a Latin American and Caribbean-themed dinner and a guest lecture from Carmel Nitsani, the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Israeli cultural emissary who will speak about the history of Ladino and Sephardic culture. Rabbi Susan Grossman will share a lesson on how the Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, went on to found communities in South America and North America.

Baltimore Hebrew Institute and B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore have teamed up to host Barry Gittlen as a scholar-in-residence. Gittlen will deliver a lecture following dinner titled “The Amazing Aquatic Adventures of Noah and Moses.”

Bibi or Bougie? Despite focus on security, Israeli elections could come down to social issues

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Israelis will head to the polls early next week to cast their votes for the country’s 20th Knesset. As Election Day draws closer, the question has become: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retain his position, or will Isaac Herzog, the not-as-charismatic leader of the opposition Labor Party and its joint Zionist Union slate with Hatnuah, win out?

Pundits largely agree that the most probable outcome is a national unity government that likely will be tasked with conducting electoral reform. But a narrow Netanyahu government that would pair his Likud Party with right-wing religious parties is possible, as is an outright Herzog victory, provided centrist parties deliver in a big way.

On March 17, Israelis will vote on lists of parliamentary candidates put forward by front-runners Likud and Zionist Union along with Ha’am, Itanu, Jewish Home, Kulanu, Meretz, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as a joint United List of three Arab parties, Balad, Hadash and Ra’am Ta’al.

The threshold for any party to win seats in the Knesset is 3.25 percent of the total vote, with the legislative’s 120 seats then divvied up by vote percentages.

Polling data has shown that Israelis rank socioeconomic issues, cost of living and social equality as high on their list of priorities.

“What we’re seeing, what the polls are showing is that more Israelis are focused on socioeconomic issues and cost of living [rather] than security issues,” said Guy Ziv, assistant professor at the American University School of International Service and author of “Why hawks become doves: Shimon Peres and foreign policy change in Israel.”

Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, in a recent panel discussion alongside former Knesset member Yohanan Plesner of the now-defunct Kadima Party, agreed that Israelis say social issues are number one, but come Election Day, security issues could still reign.

“By and large, Israelis still vote on traditional issues,” he said, but there is maneuvering on the edges when it comes to such issues as housing costs, environmental concerns and poverty.

According to Plesner, most politicians are on the same page on Iran and other security issues.

“The main dogma … around security has crumbled,” said Plesner. “By and large, even [right-wing politician and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett] doesn’t want to control Palestinians in the West Bank.”

The policy differences among politicians are really minute, which Plesner predicted could help centrist parties focused on the economy and civil rights, such as Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, gain traction closer to the election.

Netanyahu, whom Israelis refer to as Bibi in common parlance — Herzog is referred to as Bougie — has played up his security bona fides, pressing on the Iran nuclear negotiations in talks both in Israel and before the U.S. Congress, an appearance last week that many pundits viewed as a campaign tactic.

But Netanyahu’s Washington, D.C., speech, which proved controversial among the American public, garnered the prime minister little sway at home.

“The speech had limited impact,” said Ziv. “It may have given Netanyahu a very mild boost. He is tied in the polls, so the speech is not a game changer.”

Israelis are largely indifferent to the Iran issue in Ziv’s estimation. He noted that it was not brought up in a recently televised debate.

“I think Israelis are tired of Netanyahu exaggerating the Iran issue,” continued Ziv. “His issue warnings have not materialized in terms of timeline.”

Despite so-called “Bibi fatigue” — an anti-Netanyahu rally drew 40,000 protesters to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last weekend — Netanyahu still comes out on top in terms of who the public views as prime minister material. With Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu announcing he would not join a Herzog government and Arieh Der’i of Shas backing Netanyahu, the prime minister should not be counted out.

A number of political personalities have emerged as potential successors to Netanyahu, Herzog being at the forefront of those who have made gains in the court of public opinion.

“Herzog is someone who has shown himself to be moderate, cool-headed,” Ziv said of the son of Israel’s sixth president. “He’s been criticized for being a nerd. He has a high-pitched voice that doesn’t sit well with Israelis who are used to a more authoritative [figure], but he is intelligent and hardworking.”

Moshe Kahlon, running on the Kulanu list, has been dubbed a “kingmaker” by Sachs. Kahlon’s party is crucial for any proposed government to cross the 60-seat threshold needed to control the Knesset. After the election, President Reuven Rivlin will review each party’s performance at the polls and decide, based in part of recommendations by new Knesset members, who to ask to become prime minister.

“Should [Kahlon] recommend Netanyahu to President Rivlin, the game is likely over, assuming Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox do not change their minds,” Sachs writes in a recent blog post. “Should Kahlon choose to side with Herzog … or the Zionist Union outperform the polls dramatically, a Herzog coalition would be possible as well.”

It is possible that Kahlon will recommend no one, or recommend himself, to Rivlin.

Left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon has served as the de facto opposition leader, vocally opposing Netanyahu and Likud policies on all fronts.

Despite the political jockeying, there are a huge number of Israelis who are undecided, said Plesner. There’s a feeling, he said, of “Why do we have to bother two years later?”

Israelis typically have a high voter turnout. By Plesner’s estimation, until the late 1990s more than 70 percent of eligible voters participated each election cycle. But as elections have been called with more frequency, there has been less enthusiasm to participate and anger over the cost of holding elections.

One group who may turn out in higher numbers are Israeli Arabs in order to vote for the United Arab list. Traditionally, Israeli Arabs have stayed away from the polls despite comprising 20 percent of the population.

Whereas in previous years Israelis living in America have traveled back to Israel to vote — only Israeli diplomats can cast ballots abroad — this year, there were no advertised election airfare specials by El Al.