New Blood Missouri’s secretary of state, who is young and Jewish, challenges longtime incumbent senator

030615_missouriNational Democrats looking to take back the Senate in 2016 scored what they considered a victory on Feb. 19, when Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, 33, who is Jewish, officially announced his candidacy to challenged first-term incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in his hometown of Columbia.

For many Missourians, even Democrats, the announcement by Kander, a fifth-generation Missourian who served eight years as an Army officer, came as a surprise. With so much time left before voters go to the polls in late 2016, very few candidates for any office and of any party have so far officially begun their campaign. Even more, Kander’s position as secretary of state is an important office for Missouri Democrats, and political analysts in the state considered him a shoe-in for re-election.

Having won the narrow surprise victory over his Republican opponent in 2012 for the office he currently holds, Kander, his relatively brief political career notwithstanding, is undaunted by the odds in going against Blunt.

“Like a lot of Americans, I hoped things would change in Washington,” Kander said. “I hoped that the politicians there would finally remember that they were there to work for their constituents, not their campaign donors. But that hasn’t happened. We clearly need a different group of people there to get the job done.”

Although Kander is a Democrat, much of his rhetoric steers away from partisan issues; in the first weeks of his campaign, he is instead attempting to paint his opponent as a Washington insider, beholden more to government insiders, lobbyists and his Capitol Hill Republican colleagues at the expense of representing Missourians.

“This election is going to be about whether or not Missourians are happy with how things are going in Washington, and it’s going to be a stark choice between someone who has been there almost 20 years and has become a part of the problem and someone who served this country in Afghanistan and came home to serve his state.” Kander said. “I think most Missourians are ready to give someone else a chance.”

Kander’s campaign of fresh, young outsider versus the monolithic D.C. establishment, which includes differ-entiating himself from President Barack Obama, is closer to the electoral strategy used by the GOP, especially since the rise of the populist Tea Party movement. This, according to Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at Saint Louis University, is just what Democrats do when they run in Missouri.

“If they run statewide, they run on a very conservative platform, like Southern Democrats,” said Warren.

According to Warren, Missouri had long had a strong Democratic party, one that he believes is still strong in the state today. A shift in attitudes among religious rural voters, however, has made Republicans currently dominant in a majority of the state’s electoral districts.

“One of the reasons for it recently has been the reawakening of the evangelical vote, which is enormous in Missouri. Absolutely enormous,” Warren said. “In the two elections I compared — 2008 and 2012 — the evangelical vote accounted for 38 percent of the vote. The national average is 23 percent.”

Kander did not spare the Obama administration in his criticisms of Washington, especially in his belief that both Congress and the administration are not doing enough at keeping national political debates and partisanship out of prescient foreign policy decision-making. Kander included the U.S.-Israel relationship in this critique.

“I think no matter whose fault it is, the relationship with the leader of our country’s most important ally in the war on terror has to be better than this,” he said. “And I would hope that the president could put personal feelings aside and be a partner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sake of both of our countries.”

Attempts to contact Blunt for this story were unsuccessful.

Kander, like other military veterans who enter politics, sees his services for the state and candidacy as an extension of a will to serve, which he attributes to his Jewish upbringing. Jewish through his father’s side, he was raised Reform. He and his Ukrainian-born Jewish wife plan to raise their infant son, True, with the same religious ideals.

“I was raised in a tradition of always trying to make the world a better place,” said Kander. “And I’ve always believed that that had a lot to do with our faith.”

Pulling No Punches

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point during his forceful speech to Congress. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point during his forceful speech to Congress.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, in the end, was about reminding Americans that the enemy of your enemy may still be your enemy.

He may have lost some friends in the process.

Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, March 3 following a six-week buildup that spurred questions about the propriety of an Israeli prime minister using Congress as a platform for his views two weeks before elections in his country and resulted in a rupture, for now, between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.

“To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle and lose the war,” Netanyahu said during his 45-minute address, using an acronym referring to the so-called Islamic State, the terrorist group targeted by a U.S.-led coalition. “That is exactly what would happen if the deal currently being negotiated is accepted by Iran.”

Netanyahu spoke at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who in a breach of protocol did not consult the White House, congressional Democrats or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. No Obama administration officials attended the speech, and Vice President Joe Biden, who conventionally co-chairs such events with the House speaker, was out of the country.

“I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy,” the Israeli leader said early in his address. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”

Netanyahu praised President Barack Obama for his support of Israel, eliciting a rare standing ovation for the president from both sides of the aisle. (Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is a patron both to Netanyahu and the Republican Party and was present, did not clap.)

It was clear, however, that there were those on the Democratic side who remained unhappy with the speech. At least 60 lawmakers, including one Republican, chose not to go, and applause was often perfunctory on the Democratic side.

When Netanyahu strode up the center aisle of the House of Representatives chamber, it was mostly Republicans who rushed to shake his hand. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and one of the most prominent Jews and outspoken Israel supporters in the party, studiously hung back. So did Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the House.

“As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’ s speech,” Pelosi said afterward. “Saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

The P5+1 is the acronym for the six major powers negotiating with Iran: the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Great Britain.

Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations. However, at the point in which he came out most forcefully against the deal being negotiated, most Democrats remained seated, with some clapping politely, while many Republicans stood, whooped and hollered.

“This is a bad deal, it’ s a very bad deal, and we’ re better off without it,” Netanyahu said.

Republicans said Netanyahu’s speech was a necessary tonic for talks that they say have been conducted without transparency.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear how dangerous the direction of these negotiations really is,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said in a statement. “With two deadline extensions behind us, with the administration’ s acquiescence to enrichment, and with a potential sunset clause of no more than 10 to 15 years in the agreement, we now know once and for all this is a bad deal.”

Earlier in the week, there were reports that the Obama administration was worried that Netanyahu would reveal secrets that its negotiators had shared with the Israelis. Netanyahu in his speech said that the two main areas of the emerging agreement that concerned him were easily found in a Google search.

As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech.

He said that the two likely outcomes — allowing Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity and letting the deal lapse after a period of at least 10 years — would leave Iran a nuclear threshold state. Netanyahu instead counseled a deal that would require Iran to moderate its behavior, ending its regional troublemaking and backing for terrorism, and its threats against Israel.

Obama administration officials have said that demanding the dismantling of Iran’ s enrichment capacity would collapse the talks, in part because it is seen as unrealistic by some of the major powers now squeezing Iran with sanctions. Additionally, the administration has said that any deal must have a period of duration, and it has resisted attaching non-nuclear issues to the talks, including Iran’ s behavior in the region.

On Monday night, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, confirmed reports that any deal would lapse after a set period. Rice said the term would be at least 10 years.

“I know that some question a deal of any duration,” she said, pre-empting whatever surprise Netanyahu may have reserved for his speech. “But it has always been clear that the pursuit of an agreement of indefinite duration would result in no agreement at all.”

A nuclear deal with Iran must include access to its nuclear facilities even after the expiry of restrictions “to provide the international community the assurance that it was not pursuing nuclear weapons,” Rice said.

Delegate Accused of Domestic Violence

State Del. Hasan “Jay” Jalisi (D-District 10) failed to appear in Baltimore County District Court Monday morning to address a protective order brought against him by his teenage daughter.

Jalisi, whose disputed residence in Baltimore County drew headlines last fall, is accused by his daughter of slapping her during a Feb. 21 altercation at a home on Greenspring Avenue in Lutherville, where she and Jalisi’s wife live, according to court documents. Though political filings list Jalisi’s address on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, documents filed by the daughter say he is at the Greenspring Avenue house, outside of the district he represents, three to four days a week. His absence in court resulted in a one-week extension of a temporary restraining order granted Feb. 24.

Jalisi “pushed open my bedroom door and demanded I agree with him in an argument with my mother,” his daughter wrote in a petition to the court. When she refused, documents allege Jalisi grabbed her laptop and the two struggled for the computer.

“As my mother and younger brother rushed to the scene, he slapped me with his left hand on my left cheek and almost hit me again to quiet my screams, but my brother pushed us away,” the account continued. The police were called, and Jalisi was escorted off the property.

Filings also acknowledge at least six other incidents of “verbal harassment, intimidations, persistently following to places or demanding whereabouts, slandering,” and also requests protection for Jalisi’s wife and 13-year-old son.

The daughter, a student at Johns Hopkins University, attended the hearing with her mother.

Jalisi acknowledged the matter in an email to the Baltimore Jewish Times but has not officially been served with his summons, although online records show he has retained an attorney.

“I love my daughter very much and have always had her best interest at heart,” Jalisi said. “Parenting of a child, especially a teenager, is hard for everyone. My family and I are working to resolve this situation privately and quickly, and I am confident that it [will] be resolved very soon. I request everyone to allow us some privacy in dealing with this unfortunate family matter. “

Alan Silverberg, the attorney present for Jalisi’s daughter, said that he and Jalisi’s attorney have been in contact, but “we’ve been unable to negotiate any kind of resolution,” he told the court. Jalisi’s attorney had not been authorized to accept service on his client’s behalf at the time of the hearing.

The first-term delegate sits on the Judiciary Committee, Civil Law and Procedure Subcommittee and the Juvenile Law Subcommittee.

Office staff said the delegate did not make an appearance at his office on Monday. Another hearing is scheduled for March 9.

The deadline to reach Jalisi for service extends six months, after which time the petition for a final order effectively dies, said Judge Sally C. Chester, who presided over the hearing. If the final order is granted, it could forbid Jalisi from contacting his wife or children for one year. He would not indicate whether he planned to attend the March 9 hearing or disclose when he retained the lawyer.

Jewish Groups Slam Boteach Ad on Susan Rice

WASHINGTON — An array of Jewish groups condemned an ad by a foundation associated with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach accusing National Security Adviser Susan Rice of turning a blind eye to genocide.

“Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide,” said the advertisement appearing in Saturday’s New York Times, touting a talk on Iran this week in Washington hosted by Boteach, the New Jersey-based author and pro-Israel advocate.

As soon as the Sabbath ended, Jewish groups rushed to condemn the ad by This World: The Values Network.

The American Jewish Committee called it “revolting,” the Anti-Defamation League called it “spurious and perverse,” the Jewish Federations of North America called it “outrageous” and Josh Block, the president of The Israel Project, said it was “entirely inappropriate.”

Marshall Wittmann, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will host Rice on Monday at its annual conference, said, “Ad hominem attacks should have no place in our discourse.”

On Sunday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement blasting the ad.

Other condemnations came from the Orthodox Union, J Street, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. In a combined statement, the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and Reform’s Religious Action Center called the ad “grotesque,” “abhorrent” and a “sinister slur.”

The ad notes Rice’s recent complaints about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday, which was organized without consulting the White House. Netanyahu plans to speak against the nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers, which President Barack Obama backs. Rice said last week that the way the speech was organized was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The ad also notes a controversy from the 1990s, when Rice was on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff and reportedly advised against describing the mass killings in Rwanda as “genocide.”

“Ms. Rice may be blind to the issue of genocide, but should treat our ally with at least as much diplomatic courtesy as she does the committed enemy of both our nations,” it said.

In an interview, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Rabbinical Assembly, said Rice deserved an apology from Boteach.

The ad “is completely inconsistent with the record of friendship and loyalty this public official has shown Israel and the Jewish people,” Schonfeld said.

Rice grew close to pro-Israel and Jewish groups during her stint as U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in Obama’s first term, through her efforts to head off attacks on Israel and protect vulnerable populations in Sudan.

“It is not up to Shmuley Boteach to make it appear this is the way the Jewish community treats our friends,” Schonfeld said.

Boteach in an interview said he stood behind the ad.

“The stakes could not be higher, and our ad rightly points out that Susan Rice has gone beyond any mandate in condemning the prime minister for simply speaking out,” he said. “Condemnation should be directed not at those who seek to give Israel a voice but to those who seek to deny it.”

Boteach, whose talk on Monday will take place in a Senate office building and will include Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist, as well as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has appealed to AIPAC activists to attend.

Sherman condemned the ad on Twitter, but did not say if he was still participating in the event it was promoting.

“This ad is outrageous and harms the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he said. “It should be denounced in every forum.”

AIPAC, like many of the groups that have condemned the ad, is skeptical of the Iran nuclear talks.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, a group that has been pronouncedly skeptical of the talks, on Twitter described the ad as an “inappropriate ad hominem attack” that “doesn’t advance discourse on key issue of Iran.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, who heads the JCPA, the public policy umbrella for the community, said the ad was a blow against bipartisan support for Israel.

“It’s a sad moment for the Jewish community to have this ad appear,” he said in an interview.

Order of Protection Against BalCo Delegate Extended

Baltimore County Del. Hasan “Jay” Jalisi (D-District 10) failed to appear in Baltimore County District Court Monday morning to address a protective order brought against him by his teenage daughter, resulting in a one-week extension of a temporary order granted Feb. 24.

Jalisi “pushed open my bedroom door and demanded I agree with him in an argument with my mother,” his daughter wrote in a petition with the court. When she refused, documents allege Jalisi grabbed her laptop, and the two struggled for the computer. “As my mother and younger brother rushed to the scene, he slapped me with his left hand on my left cheek and almost hit me again to quiet my screams but my brother pushed us away,” the account continued. The police were called and Jalisi was escorted off the property.

Jalisi acknowledged the matter in an email to the Jewish Times Monday evening.

“I love my daughter very much and have always had her best interest at heart,” he said. “Parenting of a child, especially a teenager, is hard for everyone. My family and I are working to resolve this situation privately and quickly, and I am confident that it would be resolved very soon. I request everyone to allow us some privacy in dealing with this unfortunate family matter. ”

He would not indicate whether he planned to attend the March 9 hearing.

The first-term delegate sits on the Judiciary Committee, Civil Law and Procedure Subcommittee and the Juvenile Law Subcommittee. Jalisi had not been served at the time of the hearing, but a defense lawyer was listed in electronic records late last week. Staffers said he was not in his Annapolis office on Friday and did not make an appearance on Monday either. More information to come.

Blooming with Innovation

The mid-winter board meeting of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev convened in Baltimore this month to discuss the research of BGU’s staff and even explore a deep, albeit mysterious, Baltimore connection as part of the organization’s “Blooming with Innovation” program.

Dr. Tuvia Friling, a senior researcher at BGU’s Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, believes that the relatively unknown Dr. Joseph Schwartz, a rabbi, native Baltimorean and president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) from 1939 to 1950, “was a real hero.”

Schwartz, during his tenure at the helm of the JDC, orchestrated and was “in charge of the main clandestine methods to rescue Jews from Europe,” said Friling. But details of the often covert work are fuzzy and currently under scrutiny by Friling in preparation for his book about Schwartz’s life, to be published next year.

“I don’t know why [in Israel] we don’t have one square or one place with the name of Joseph Schwartz,” lamented Friling, putting Schwartz and his accomplishments on par with other celebrated names associated with Israel’s founding and survival such as Weizmann, Herzl, Begin and Jabotinski, all of whom have many places named for them in Israel.

Dr. Tuvia Friling is researching the life of Baltimorean Dr. Joseph Schwartz, who according to Friling, is a forgotten hero in the history of rescuing European Jews. Friling will publish a book about Schwartz’s life next year. (Melissa Gerr)

Dr. Tuvia Friling is researching the life of Baltimorean Dr. Joseph Schwartz, who according to Friling, is a forgotten hero in the history of rescuing European Jews. Friling will publish a book about Schwartz’s life next year. (Melissa Gerr)

Schwartz, from his offices in Lisbon, Portugal, “understood what the logistical meaning of rescue” meant and strung together many links —both financial and operational — across the U.S. and Europe and beyond, creating chains of support in order to carry out his missions, said Friling.

This included everything from dealing with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to working with the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization of then-Mandatory Palestine, as well as collaborations with other Jewish agencies.

“Even some parts of the JDC didn’t know” all of the details of Schwartz’s rescue efforts, said Friling.

Schwartz was involved in coordinating delivery of food and medicine, providing fake identity documents, relocating people to more Jewish-friendly cities and the gradual but massive mobilization of Jews to Europe’s shores, enabling transportation to happen as swiftly as possible.

His mission was to “either help Jews survive in Europe or take them out,” said Friling, adding Schwartz’s job was made more challenging because it was during a time when the U.S. and much of the rest of the world was closed for mass migration. Consequently, many were sent to Istanbul, Lisbon, Stockholm, Geneva and Palestine for safety.

“How did he get lost in history?” asked Friling. “He is a forgotten hero of saving European Jews.”

Jonathan Kolker, a past president of JDC and his wife, Judy, of Pikesville attended the lectures specifically to learn more about Schwartz.

“I hope that the book will bring knowledge of [Schwartz’s] life to the Baltimore community,” said Jonathan. “He is one of the most important figures to come out of Baltimore in the 20th century.”

Providing a more forward-looking lecture, professor Alon Friedman of BGU’s Department of Physiology and Neurobiology described his interdisciplinary team’s research “working together to solve one problem” in their quest to develop brain damage treatments.

He explained that every capillary, including those in the brain, contains a barrier that allows or prevents passage of different chemicals or proteins that are carried by the blood into different areas of the body.

“Over 30 percent of the population suffers some type of brain disorder,” such as from stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, said Friedman.

He showed a graph that illustrated the spike of brain disease occurrence since 1800 to 2012 and pointed out that there will be a 248 percent increase expected in dementia disease of the brain between 2013 and 2050 in the U.S. population.

“Longer life expectancy has a price,” he said. “There is a whole list of diseases that are associated with age.”

His team is working to discover methods for early diagnosis or treatment.

Attendees of “Blooming with Innovation” were invited to choose two of the three presentations.

Lew Winarsky, a dedicated supporter of AABGU who has been involved with the university for about year and a half, follows the sciences as a lay person and was particularly impressed by the lecture offered by Professor Gabby Sarusi.

Sarusi, a member of BGU’s Homeland Security Institute, the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology and the university’s Electro-Optics Engineering Unit, believes everyone, not just specially outfitted military personnel, should have the capability to see well in darkness.

A world-renowned expert in thermal imaging night-vision systems, Sarusi is leading his team of researchers in developing the simple application of a thin coating to everyday glasses that will transform infrared light into visible light, thus converting them into night-vision glasses.

“For me, to hear someone who is a point person for these [research] activities,” said Winarsky, “is like listening to someone who has a crystal ball to the future of what things will look like.”

Jewish Doctor Bids for Vitale’s Seat


Dr. Ron Elfenbein (provided)

Emergency room physician Ron Elfenbein is bidding for the hotly contested state delegate seat in Anne Arundel County’s 33rd District, which was left vacant when former Republican Del. Cathy Vitale was sworn in as a county circuit court judge appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Vitale resigned on Monday, Feb. 23 upon assuming the bench. According to reports, Hogan is asking the Republican State Central Committee of Anne Arundel County to submit multiple names rather than one, as outlined in the state constitution,but the committee’s chairman said Hogan has yet to make the request. The governor would confirm the appointed delegate.

Elfenbein is one of 16 individuals who filed an application to be considered for the delegate seat. The county’s Republican central committee will hold a public hearing for interviews and balloting on Tuesday, March 3 and will resume voting the following day if a candidate isn’t selected. The top candidate must receive seven of the committee’s 13 votes to be nominated for the seat.

Elfenbein, an Arnold resident, ran for the House of Delegates in 2006 but lost to Democrats Michael Busch and Virginia Clagett and Republican Ron George. He then ran unopposed in the Republican primary during a run for the state Senate in 2010 and lost to Democrat John Astle by a little more than 1,000 votes, or 2.3 percent of the vote.

“As a Republican, I think having a Republican governor in office, we can really start to help redden the state a bit, certainly from a tax and spending and job perspective,” Elfenbein said on his decision to apply for the seat.

He would become the legislature’s only Republican physician, something he sees as a crucial voice in health care debates.

The Republican Central Committee took written public comments via mail and email through Friday, Feb. 27. One such letter was written by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum of Kneseth Israel Congregation, Elfenbein’s synagogue.

“His honesty and integrity — a keystone for any public servant — has been evident since I first met him 12 years ago, as is his genuine care of others,” Weisblum wrote. “He is an active member on Kneseth Israel’s board of directors and has been vital to the synagogue’s fundraising efforts as well.”

Elfenbein’s background includes volunteer firefighting and medical work, time as a Baltimore Ravens doctor and a teaching position at the U.S. Secret Service Academy in Beltsville, Md. He also finished in the top 5 percent of more than 8,000 applicants for NASA’s astronaut program and worked on developing better ways to administer medical care in space through a $700,000 NASA grant.

In addition to the economy, were he appointed to the delegate seat, Elfenbein would like to work on environmental issues, such as re-evaluating programs that aim to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and look at cost-effective programs, as well as education. He thinks state funds should be available for parents to send their children to the schools of their choosing; public, private or charter.

“I think it’s a travesty that you have kids born in a bad neighborhood and go to a bad school, and it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

Others on the list for consideration include Louisa Baucom, who was an aide to former Del. Don Dwyer; political consultant Jim Burton; cupcake shop owner Angelette Cintron-Aviles; and Jamie Falcon, Jeff Ferguson, Jeff Gauges and Nora Keenan, all of whom ran in the Republican primary for the same seat in the 2014 election and several others.

Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee Chairman Nathan Volke said each candidate has received some support via letters.

“I probably am getting close 20 to 25 emails a day from people supporting candidates, and that’s probably on the conservative side,” he said. “Those are going to the full committee.”

Volke said each of the committee’s 13 members are trying to speak with every applicant, either in person or over the phone. It may take multiple rounds of voting to get one candidate with seven votes, he said. (The committee has not received a request for multiple candidates from Hogan.)

The public hearing is on Tuesday, March 3, at 6 p.m. in Room 145 of the Maryland House Office Building, 6 Bladen St., Annapolis. If the hearing, interviews and voting are not completed on March 3, they will resume on March 4.

A Funding Fight

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson hosts the media on Feb. 23 to discuss the need for a clean, full-year Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler.)

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson hosts the media on Feb. 23 to discuss the need for a clean, full-year Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler.)

As attacks on and threats levied against Jewish communities are on the rise around the world, a fight is raging in Congress over the funding of the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, Jewish communal officials and security experts in the United States are beginning to worry that the possibility of a departmental shutdown would strip away significant support that the DHS provides to help domestic Jewish communities monitor and safeguard against impending threats. A DHS shutdown puts in jeopardy the points of communication that keep Jewish communities informed of threats and would end the Nonprofit Security Grant program, for which Jewish organizations have long lobbied.

“No other government department in the United States has provided more precious resources to the Jewish community than [DHS] from a security standpoint,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, a faith-based threat-assessment and advising organization affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America focused on protecting the American Jewish community.

“It’s a matter of record that over the past six weeks Jewish communities in Westernized nations are under attack, and they’re under attack from a sophisticated, well-trained, well- inspired and well-funded assailant,” said Goldenberg.

According to Goldenberg, although there is no current imminent threat, violence against Jewish communities in the United States and Europe have increased dramatically, pointing out incidents such as the recent murder of a guard outside a Copenhagen community center during a bar mitzvah celebration, the attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris last month, the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France and, here at home, last year’s deadly shooting rampage at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan.

Goldenberg said that the Jewish community in the United States has become the quintessential “soft target” and that in most cases when a terrorist attack is committed, Jews and Jewish institutions, although not the primary target, are often the assailant’s secondary target.

“There isn’t a day that I’m not in touch somewhere in the United States connecting members of the DHS directly with members of the Jewish community who are providing expertise and resources on the ground,” he said. “We are at a very, very sensitive time and a very challenging time, where our assailants and those who desire to kill us are having great success.”

There’s never been a more important time than now, he added, “where we have a need for an entity or an enterprise like the DHS, and for Congress to think about not funding it at a time in history when we have enemies who are extremely sophisticated and desire to hit the homeland is absolutely absurd.”

Angry over President Barack Obama’s executive order last November to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented aliens, Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives prevented DHS from being funded for the entire length of fiscal year 2015 during the 113th Congress, providing DHS with a short-term extension until Feb. 27. Their hope was that a majority in both legislatures in the following year would allow them to pass a DHS funding bill with amendments that block funding for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to implement the president’s executive order.

Conventional wisdom of legislative tactics on Capitol Hill used to mean that both parties might continue to fight bitterly on such issues, but at the last minute they would come to an agreement through a process of backdoor negotiations and the exchanging of political favors — thus avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation where both parties could face a backlash from constituents.

But as sequestration and the 2012 government shutdown has shown, Congress’ division makes it not entirely unlikely that an agreement on DHS funding is not reached, which would force a shutdown of all nonessential DHS services. This leads some observers to ask, if lawmakers once shut down the whole federal government, what incentive do they have when it is only one federal department on the chopping block?

With the deadline fast approaching, Congress has a number of ways it can proceed. The House passed H.R. 240 on Jan. 14, providing $39.7 billion for the department, but that included amendments that would restrict any federal funds, fees and resources to go toward the president’s immigration initiatives.

But Senate Democrats, now the minority, successfully blocked consideration of the House version of the bill. Instead, they introduced S. 272, which is identical to the House bill but without the anti-executive order amendments. Even if the House version passed the Senate, as it stands now, the GOP would not have enough votes to prevent a presidential veto.

With less than a week left until DHS loses funding, the possibility of shutting down the department responsible for domestic security in the event of a terrorist attack or national disaster is very real. Though essential activities will still continue, some fear the strain on the organization would make the United States vulnerable to ever-growing terrorist threats, and many in the often-targeted Jewish community feel especially concerned.

After years of lobbying by the Jewish Federations of North America, Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and other Jewish advocacy organizations, the DHS established the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provided capital grants of up to $75,000 to nonprofit organizations to harden their facilities. Funding for this program has ranged over the years from between $9 million to $25 million annually and helps cover security measures such as video surveillance systems, reinforced locks and blast-proof windows in sensitive areas.

Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools, federations and other institutional facilities throughout the United States have been successful in leveraging this aid, and according to the Orthodox Union, 90 percent of the $13 million program funds for fiscal year 2014 went to 186 Jewish nonprofits.

“From my perspective, from JFNA’s perspective, this is a critical resource, and it’s something that we fight for every day, knowing how difficult it is with the budgets and how competitive the whole appropriations process is,” said Robert Goldberg, senior director of legislative affairs at JFNA. “There’s not a day [I haven’t been] working on this program for 10 years.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, head of the Washington, D.C., office of Agudath Israel, a group representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, was part of the coalition that created the grant and said that even though the $13 million divided to organizations throughout the country may not seem large, the grants help communities of all sizes prioritize the their resources on charity and other communal objectives.

The community itself is already invested in its own security, “because we know that these grants don’t go to every city and they don’t go to every institution,” said Cohen. But the grant’s “funds are meant to go, and they do go, to things like concrete barriers, security cameras to harden the site. And really, that is our most immediate need, and that’s exactly what the program provides.”

Beyond such funding, DHS does more to secure the Jewish community that is rarely noticed by community members, said Goldenberg.

These programs include DHS agents who develop and implement training exercises to help Jewish communities know how to respond to various threats such as an active shooter situation; protective security advisers who advise on how to strengthen a community’s security; and offices throughout the country that communicate real-time threat intelligence to help Jewish organizations make correct security decisions.

“The sad part is that these members of Congress, when they think of DHS, they’re thinking TSA, they’re thinking ICE, they’re thinking the border; they don’t realize that DHS is on the ground with these communities and [that] these services and are essential,” said Goldenberg, calling DHS officials unsung heroes. “Right now, we have never been in a more challenging time with regard to threats against Jewish communities globally. We need these partnerships to be strong. And DHS is our greatest partner. If DHS is not strong, then we may not have the resources that we need to stay resilient.

“This is the wrong time to do this,” he added, referring to the partisan fight.

Desperation to prevent a DHS shutdown has entered the GOP’s ranks with some — such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — calling for the GOP to support passing an unamended bill, known as a “clean” bill, and then deal with immigration separately.

These calls have intensified since last week, when a federal district court in Texas struck down the administration’s immigration initiatives, forcing DHS to suspend the executive action’s programs while the issue is fought over in the courts.

With the president’s immigration program suspended, even if a clean bill is passed, the immigration policies that the Republicans oppose might not even be implemented at all if higher courts find the president’s executive actions unconstitutional.

But other Republicans are not convinced because of the chance the president’s executive action could proceed if the administration wins its appeal. To them, the Texas court’s ruling confirms that the president went beyond his authority in issuing the executive order, and now that the administration itself suspended the program, the Senate should pass the amended House bill.

“It wouldn’t make any sense for any senators to hold up funding the Department of Homeland Security because they want to fund an executive order that isn’t being enforced and was ruled as being improper by the courts,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who also took issue with some who call a bill that does not include amendments “clean.”

“A clean [Continuing Resolution] in my opinion does not include funding an illegal executive order,” said Zeldin. “I would not support an ‘unclean’ C.R. that funds an illegal executive order.”

Yet, Zeldin is confident that the department will not close because both parties support the work DHS does beside immigration.

“I put the onus on the Senate to pass it,” he said. “It’s a responsibility of Congress, regardless of the letter next to your name. Regardless whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, it seems to be everyone’s very strong preference that it’s in our best interest for the [DHS] to be funded.”

Lifelong Learning in Harford County Melton School expands to Temple Adas Shalom

Over the course of four years, 27 adults in Harford County are aiming to complete 100 hours of Jewish learning.

Through the expansion of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, now housed at the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, in Park Heights, members of Temple Adas Shalom, The Harford Jewish Center are joining more than 50 international Jewish communities for intensive text-based study.

Brett Temple of Abingdon sought out the class for two reasons. First, he is a trustee of adult education for Adas Shalom, and second, he desired to gain more in-depth knowledge about the faith he chose 17 years ago.

“At our temple there is a desire to understand why we do what we do,” he said of the Reform congregation. “We say this prayer every week, but where does it come from? Or, we say this prayer every day; why?”

A traditional Melton model takes place over two years, but through examining the schedules of the participants, organizers decided that a four-year model was a better fit for the Harford County community. The adult learners began meeting in October and will complete 13 two-hour sessions by May. The Adas Shalom class size is larger than a typical Melton class, but the participants were adamant about not dividing into smaller sections. They want to complete each step together.

Adas Shalom members didn’t have to look far to find a Melton instructor. Their very own Rabbi Gila Ruskin has been teaching Melton courses since the first year it was offered at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville and estimates that she has taught every course offering, including graduate classes.

From 6:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. on the days the class meets, they study Rhythms of Jewish Living with Ron Mitnick, who comes from an Orthodox background. Following a short break, the class meets with Ruskin for another hour to study Purposes of Jewish Living.

Each lesson has a theme, Ruskin explained, from biblical to rabbinical, responsa literature to modern literature. The texts are pluralistic, and the instructors purposefully selected from different backgrounds and, when possible, different genders to give participants an all-encompassing view of Judaism.

“It’s a bit like drinking from a fire hose trying to filter down 5,000 years of tradition,” said Temple.

Karen Wolkow of Joppa agreed. She is a lifelong member of Adas Shalom, having just switched from her parents’ membership to her own, and loves to learn.

“If I could make a living by going to school that would be my career of choice,” she said. The course put her in a setting where she could listen to those more knowledgeable and offer her thoughts to those less so, a process she describes as fascinating.

One session that sticks out in her mind was a discussion focusing on Jewish symbols.

“We discussed why the mezuzah is mounted at an angle, and if it really should be. We discussed why the tallit has four corners and the importance of the blue threads. We discussed the menorah, with its various branches all coming together at the base, representing various branches of knowledge coming together to support us,” she said. “I never put much thought into some of the finer intricacies of these items.”

An anonymous donor offset the cost of the course, said Ruskin, so some participants were able to apply for scholarships, though everyone paid a minimum $100 fee to help cover the cost of the course materials and instructor salary.

Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace was the lone outpost of Jewish life in Harford County for a number of years. Temple refers to his home congregation as “Reform-Conserva-dox” because of the diverse mix of religious observance.

“We’re very welcoming. We have to be very welcoming,” said Temple. “We meet the needs of whoever comes to [our door].”

Harford Chabad in Bel Air opened a few years ago.

The course and discussion among members has sparked new ideas for adult learning in the community. Temple is working on a class tentatively titled, “I’d be honored, I just don’t know how” to teach bimah etiquette, such as when to open the ark and how to raise the Torah scroll.

Melton education director Rabbi David Bienenstock is not surprised by the participants’ reactions.

“A typical response is, ‘I want to show my children that Jewish learning doesn’t end’ or ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘In the past I’ve only observed the High Holidays and I want to know more,’” said Bienenstock.

Throughout the course, Bienenstock observes the classes and gathers feedback from students. The universal response has been positive, he said, with students citing ample interaction and the instructors’ knowledge as reasons to continue on toward the 100-hour goal.

“[This class is important] because they want to be literate Jews. They want to feel that they’re on equal footing with Jews in Baltimore, Philadelphia or anywhere else,” said Ruskin. “In Harford County, you have to make the effort to have Jewish involvement, and I appreciate that people make the effort. It’s a wonderful community.”

Shomrim’s Watchful Eye Patrol group embraces community’s concerns, challenges

For many in Baltimore’s Jewish community, a call to Shomrim precedes even a call to police when someone spots suspicious activity.

The community watch group — one of at least three dedicated to protecting the bulk of the Jewish community in Northwest Baltimore — is growing.

“The organization is growing both in profile and community outreach,” said Nate Willner, a lawyer and Shomrim member.

022715_shomrim1Easily identified by their jackets and response cars, nearly every Orthodox community in the country, and more around the world, has a Shomrim affiliate, and some cities, such as London and New York, even have two or three.

Baltimore’s Shomrim — literally “watchers” in Hebrew — was founded in 2005 after a spike in burglaries in the Pikesville/Park Heights area put neighborhood residents on edge. Despite a highly publicized incident in 2010 in which a Shomrim member and his brother were charged, and later cleared, of assaulting and kidnapping a black teen who was walking through the neighborhood, the group has managed to recover and even thrive over the past four years, members say.

“It’s sort of a citizen’s patrol group on steroids,” said Willner.

With some 150 to 200 calls per month, Willner said, the need in the community is huge. Today’s calls involve mostly stolen bikes and car break-ins, but Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History, said groups such as Shomrim have deep roots in the Jewish community, both in the United States and abroad.

Today’s Jewish community watch groups were preceded by the Jewish Defense League, said Sarna. The JDL was founded in New York City in 1968 in the midst of the city’s racially charged tension over the teachers’ union strikes, when many alleged the local police were not adequately protecting the Jewish community. As time went on, the organization switched its focus to the Soviet Union and influencing Soviet groups in America to pressure their government back home to begin allowing Jewish immigration to Israel.

After a series of attacks, the Jewish community distanced itself from the group, and the JDL has since been placed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremist organizations.

But other groups have taken the torch of protecting the Jewish community.

“I think that you would find that they were influenced, really, by some of the efforts in the Holocaust,” said Sarna. “Jews were very proud when Warsaw Ghetto Jews defended themselves and armed themselves — Mordechai Anilevitch and others — to fight the Nazis.”

While private organizations designed to patrol communities have long been branded by some as vigilantes, the United States has a long history of pride in self-defense. And recent anti-Semitic events in other parts of the world have helped to solidify the community’s support for such groups. Though the problems facing the American Jewish community are far less pressing than those being felt by Jews in Europe, he said, community watch organizations still serve a vital role in American Jewish society.

“The events in Europe, they legitimate the formation of these new groups now,” said Sarna.

And protecting the community against any potential terror plots is indeed a major focus of Shomrim and other community patrols.

“That’s an area that, unfortunately, we have to look at,” said Willner.

In addition to responding to missing persons calls, break-ins and reports of stolen bicycles, Shomrim also spends a great deal of time and energy emphasizing to residents the importance of being on the lookout for “things that look out of place,” Willner said. Members, he said, are looking “through a different kind of lens these days.”

Community members are instructed today to be mindful of anyone hanging around synagogues and Jewish communal buildings, possibly watching the comings and goings or taking photos or videos. Shomrim relies on the ability of neighbors to know when something or someone looks out of place on their block and recently asked local synagogues to recruit drivers for the organization.

But distinguishing what and who looks out of place is cause for concern among some in Baltimore. Shomrim in the past has been criticized for posting notices on Facebook that some have felt were racially tinged.

As groups like Shomrim or any other neighborhood patrol grow, the need for proper training of volunteers increases as well. Rev. Heber Brown III, a local pastor and community organizer, who was critical of Shomrim after the 2010 incident, said he is hopeful that the city’s neighborhood patrol groups have learned that the actions of even one volunteer can tarnish the reputation of any organization.

“With those groups that have greater connections with city leaders and police department heads, I think it’s incumbent of those kinds of organizations to kind of go above and beyond the basic requirement,” he said. “I think that Shomrim is one of the more sophisticated groups.”

Lt. Jim Perez is a veteran police officer in Fairfield, Conn., where he also teaches community groups how to organize neighborhood patrols and effectively protect their own communities. Through the National Crime Prevention Council, he trains neighborhood groups around the country how to operate both safely and effectively to protect their neighborhoods.

The relationship between community groups and local police is vital to the effectiveness of both groups, he said.

The Dushinsky Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, addresses Shomrim members in December 2014. (Photo David Stuck)

The Dushinsky Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, addresses Shomrim members in December 2014. (Photo provided)

For example, one of the first things Perez said he teaches community members is how to “speak the language” of police and emergency responders. Being articulate and specific can have a direct effect on the length of time is takes for an officer to arrive at a call. Additionally, it establishes the neighborhood watch group’s credibility with the department. This is a lesson Willner said Shomrim members are taught early on.

The best advice for groups looking to protect their own community, Perez said, is to be suspicious of everyone and everything.

He hears often from people who tell him that they don’t want to “bother” the police with something that could end up a nonissue. But the key to successful police-community relations, he insists, is a public that doesn’t hesitate to call the police with its concerns.

“You’re paying taxes.” he said. “That’s our job: to respond to you.”

Perez is fond of using the example of the Times Square bomb plot that was foiled in 2013 after a couple of street vendors noticed a suspicious car idling in the tourist center of New York as a depiction of the important role any one person’s instincts can play.

“‘Not normal.’ That’s a great phrase,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what’s not normal and then report not normal.”

For Shomrim, operating in the largely Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore, Willner believes members are uniquely qualified to identify “not normal.”

It is not uncommon for Shomrim to get calls on Friday evening about observant Jews who may be stuck in traffic and, in an effort to avoid driving on Shabbat, leave their car on the side of a road and begin walking to their destination.

While that same call to the police department might be met first with a series of questions about why the driver chose to leave his or her car, Shomrim’s process is expedited by the fact that members already understand the aspects of Orthodox life that make the community unique. The learning curve is eliminated, said Willner.

However, he stressed, the existence of the watch does not eliminate the need for police in the area.

“We’re happy to see police cars,” he said.

And the city’s police department insists it is happy to work with any citizen or group of citizens that wants to take a more active role in protecting his or her neighborhood.

“We are strong believers in the concept of community policing and making sure that we have healthy, safe neighborhoods,” said Eric Kowalczyk, a media relations officer for the Baltimore Police Department. “We’re not going to be in a position to restrict a neighborhood group or a neighborhood association.”

Security is a concern in every neighborhood, he said, and the police department is encouraged by groups that want to work with them. “I think that the real tribute here is the fact that people care enough about their neighborhood and city that they’re willing to sacrifice their own time to come together to be
active partners with the police department, and that’s a really truly wonderful thing.”