Seeing the Light

This aerial view shows the damage of a December 2014 oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, near where the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative is  underway to reduce the world's reliance on petroleum.

This aerial view shows the damage of a December 2014 oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, near where the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative is
underway to reduce the world’s reliance on petroleum.

TEL AVIV — In the sun-parched fields near where the largest oil spill in Israeli history poured millions of liters of crude oil into the desert on Dec. 4, an ambitious effort is underway to help reduce global dependency on petroleum for energy.

Known as the Eilot Belt, the area is the site of Israel’s largest solar energy field. It’s the locus of an effort to provide by next year the daytime energy needs for the area’s 55,000 residents and all their energy needs by 2020.

The area’s eight commercial solar fields are part of a wider initiative that aims to reduce the world’s reliance on the black liquid that befouled a 3.5-mile stretch of Israeli desert. The plan also includes a model village subsisting entirely on renewable energy sources and an incubator for clean energy high-tech startups.

“We have a lot of sunlight and a lot of open space, so this is the most appropriate for us,” said Dorit Banet, CEO of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, a local government body that aims to transform the region into a global hub of renewable energy research and development. The spill, Banet said, “strengthens the fact that we don’t want to stop with oil, that we want to do clean energy.”

Banet’s organization hopes to make renewable energy an economic growth engine for the Eilot Belt, a region around the southern resort town of Eilat that has traditionally supported itself with date and dairy farming. Along with fostering the growth of solar power plants, the Renewable Energy Initiative designed an educational curriculum around renewable energy for local schools, runs international renewable energy conferences and offers tours of the area’s clean-energy attractions.

The initiative, which has brought 80 jobs to the area, also hopes to export Israeli expertise abroad. Entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, who spearheaded the construction of the area’s first solar field in 2011, is now marketing renewable-energy solutions in Africa based on his success in Israel.

“We were supposed to use the success of Eilat-Eilot as a region to say to places in Africa, this region is going 100 percent solar during the day, so can you,” said Abramowitz, the CEO of Energiya Global Capital, which recently built a solar field in Rwanda. “The idea was to show the State of Israel that it’s possible, and then we wanted Israel to be able to demonstrate that for the rest of the world.”

To help develop alternative energy solutions for the developing world, the Renewable Energy Initiative has built a life-size model of an off-the-grid village, where they test new technologies such as biodiesel cooking or solar-powered lights. The village doubles as a tourist attraction and destination for school field trips, providing visitors an opportunity to experience alternative energy firsthand.

“We want to raise awareness about renewable energy, to show the activity in the desert plains,” said Avital Nusinow, the initiative’s training and education coordinator. “For tourists, it’s interesting to see how that works. We’re the only place with so many renewable energy facilities in one place.”

Clean energy entrepreneurship is nothing new for the region. Lotan, a kibbutz founded by Reform Jewish immigrants in 1983, hosts a village of geodesic domes made largely of earth and straw bales.

The domes, which house 20 students, need no heating, and all other power needs come from solar panels on the top of the kibbutz recycling center. Lotan resident Alex Cicelsky, who designed the domes, said the goal is “a building that uses very little energy and has a small carbon footprint.”

The initiative is also encouraging the spread of renewable energy through its startup incubator, which currently houses six early-stage companies working on new energy technologies. One is working to make solar panels more efficient; another is integrating a solar panel with a wind turbine.

The Renewable Energy Initiative hopes such technologies spread across Israel and worldwide. But in the meantime, Nusinow said, solar power is something to get excited about in a previously struggling — and now polluted — region.

“This is the agriculture of the future for us,” she said. “We’re harvesting the sun.”

On the Front Lines

University of Virginia students Pierce Eggan, Madison Orlow (center) and Patricia Garvey (right) participate in volunteer work on their campus.

University of Virginia students Pierce Eggan, Madison Orlow (center) and Patricia Garvey (right) participate in volunteer work on their campus.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jewish campus groups were ready for the painful national dialogue that took place in the wake of murky rape allegations at the University of Virginia.

That’s because organizations such as Hillel and historically Jewish Greek houses such as Alpha Epsilon Pi, Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Tau had been having the conversations for months before the explosive Rolling Stone story made national headlines — first for the brutality of the alleged gang rape detailed in the magazine and then for the subsequent evidence of flawed reporting on the part of Rolling Stone.

Zeta Beta Tau last year joined Sigma Delta Tau and Jewish Women International in launching a workshop called  “Safe Smart Dating.” Hillel International is a partner in the White House’s It’s On Us campaign against sexual violence, and the network of Jewish campus centers has also dedicated to sexual violence a stream of its Ask Big Questions program, which organizes lectures and salons on topics of Jewish interest.

Meanwhile, Alpha Epsilon Pi features sessions on consent at its conclaves, and a fraternity brother, Matthew Leibowitz, launched the Consent is So Frat movement this year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“The prevention of suffering is what we do as Jews, and making pathways for people to heal if they’ve been traumatized is also what we do,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, editor of the anthology “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” and director of education for Hillel’s Ask Big Questions program. “We need to take care of our own in creating a world in which consent is non-negotiable.”

The Rolling Stone story has begun to unravel. The magazine revealed that it had not reached out to the alleged assailants in the attack that was the article’s centerpiece, and friends of the alleged victim have since told The Washington Post that they had been misrepresented.

Nevertheless, since 2011, the university has been under federal investigation for allegedly not treating adequately complaints of sexual misconduct, and the Rolling Stone article broadly addressed the complaints.

Madison Orlow, 19, a first-year premed student, said the school’s initial reaction to the allegations did not reach far enough and led her to question its honor code. The code, first formulated in the 1840s, mandates permanent dismissal if a student lies, cheats or steals.

“The honor code does not encompass all of the things that are needed,” said Orlow, volunteering at a Challah for Hunger booth on a chilly afternoon on the university’s fabled lawn, which was designed by the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

“It doesn’t cover sexual assault,” offered her fellow volunteer, Patricia Garvey, 20, a student of environmental science. Volunteers for the group bake and sell challahs to students just before Shabbat; the proceeds go to the needy.

“There was an initial sense of ‘this needs to be dealt with,’” said Jake Rubin, director of the university’s Hillel, the Brody Jewish Center, describing reactions by university administrators to the article. “It certainly is a problem at the University of Virginia, but it is not only a problem at the University of Virginia. It has moved to what do we do, how do we fix this issue? It’s being absolutely committed to really taking a hard look at the community and trying to figure out steps forward.”

The University of Virginia is not a destination university for students who want deep Jewish involvement, although in recent years the school has increased its Jewish profile. This year it added graduate courses to its Jewish studies program; three years ago, the school opened a new Hillel building.

Among the 21,000 students overall at the university, there are 1,200 to 1,400 Jewish undergraduates and 400 to 600 Jewish graduate students, according to Rubin.

The modern Hillel building is not particularly distinctive looking. It sticks out on University Circle, a street just off Rugby Road, the leafy winding causeway where many of the elegant Victorian fraternity houses are situated and ground zero for what the Rolling Stone article described as an out-of-control culture of drinking, sexual aggressiveness and worse.

Rubin said venues such as Hillel provided a homey refuge for students dealing with what has been a traumatic semester, including the alleged kidnap and murder of a student and two suicides, in addition to the allegations described in Rolling Stone.

“Frankly, students are overwhelmed,” he said. “To have a resource for them that’s comforting in a sense, just to be there for them, that’s been our first priority.”

Jewish fraternities are among those taking the lead nationally in addressing sexual assault on campus.

Leibowitz, a 22-year-old recent Wesleyan graduate, started Consent is So Frat this year in part because of reports of fraternity-related sexual assaults at Wesleyan during his undergraduate years. AEPi chapters at other campuses, including Rutgers, have spread the program.

The initiative developed and distributes a curriculum on consent that is aimed at members of fraternities and sororities.

Ruttenberg said the notion of sexual consent is rooted in Jewish texts.

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia was the scene of an alleged gang rape that was detailed in Rolling Stone. The magazine later apologized for the story amid evidence of flawed reporting.

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia was the scene of an alleged gang rape that was detailed in Rolling Stone. The magazine later apologized for the story amid evidence of flawed reporting.

“It’s deeply embedded in our tradition,” she said. “In the Talmud, consent is one of the great non-negotiables in any sexual encounter. The Talmud forbids marital rape, which is astonishingly forward-thinking, considering it took until 1993 for North Carolina to ban it. The Talmud says that if a woman is raped and has an orgasm, she is still raped.”

Jonathan Pierce, a past president of AEPi International, said the fraternity solicits advice on sexual consent from groups such as Jewish Women International, inviting its experts to speak at its annual conference, and from its own board of rabbis.

The AEPi website links to broad restrictions mandated by the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, to which it is affiliated. According to the guidelines from the national risk-management association, fraternities “will not tolerate or condone any form of sexist or sexually abusive behavior on the part of its members, whether physical, mental or emotional. This is to include any actions, activities or events, whether on chapter premises or an off-site location, that are demeaning to women or men, including but not limited to verbal harassment, sexual assault by individuals or members acting together.” Pierce said the best programs arose from the grassroots, citing Consent is So Frat.

“This is where real learning takes place, you have your own members coming up with programs,” he said.

Jeffrey Kerbel, the president of the University of Virginia’s AEPi chapter, said its consent education begins with pledges and is sustained throughout the brother’s university career.

“This responsibility and this education are also stressed to our probationary members — first through formal trainings and then through further emphasis within the chapter,” he said via email. “Our aim is to emphasize these points consistently and frequently; otherwise we risk growing vulnerable to the social and cultural influences that can diminish the value of consent and the place it must have in society.”

The “Safe, Smart Dating” workshop was scheduled before the Rolling Stone article for a University of Virginia appearance in April.

The two-hour presentation starts with students texting their encounters with sexual assault, firsthand or otherwise. The texts are projected on a screen, prompting discussion in smaller groups.

Case studies also are included, including the 2010 murder of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love by George Huguely, also a lacrosse player at the university, as well as more ambiguous outcomes, such as the acquittal of Taylor Watson, a Minnesota man who had sex with a friend who was in a drunken stupor. Jurors accepted the defense’s argument that the woman had deliberately intoxicated herself before asking to sleep at Watson’s apartment.

Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Rau train campus facilitators to run the program.

“It’s starting conversations that people are often uncomfortable with and unwilling to have,” said Dana Fleitman, director of prevention for Jewish Women International.

Included among the hypotheticals handed out to participants on slips of paper are scenarios of digital abuse through online harassment, she said.

“The girlfriend who texts all the time and gets mad if you don’t respond” is one scenario, she said.

Laurence Bolotin, the national director of Zeta Beta Tau, said the program does not “reinvent the wheel” but guides students on how to use existing resources, including sexual assault responders on campuses. A focus of the program, as in the programs that Hillel directs, is how to be an “active bystander” and how to intervene when witnessing what appears to be sexual assault.

“It’s not a Greek issue, it’s a college issue,” Bolotin said.

Israeli Youth Movement

A student village built by Ayalim in the embattled town of Sderot will house 300 students next year.

A student village built by Ayalim in the embattled town of Sderot will house 300 students next year.

LOD, Israel — He says he’s a leader of a “Zionist settlement” movement, but Raz Sofer’s home is no West Bank outpost.

Sofer, 25, is the manager of a 100-member student village in this mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel. The village, comprised of several apartment complexes, offers students cheap rent in exchange for volunteer work with Lod’s poor residents, many of them Arab-Israelis.

Sofer is fluent in Arabic and is proud of the students who volunteer in Arab kindergartens or run extracurricular activities for Arab youth. He loves when local Arabs come to the nonprofit bar he and other students founded on the ground floor of their apartment building.

But he also believes that despite their shared Israeli citizenship, “the conflict is not over.”

“They don’t see themselves as Israeli,” Sofer said. “If they see themselves in a certain way, and that conflicts unequivocally with the values I have, we have a conflict.”

The Lod village is the largest of 13 such communities across Israel, all of them located in the economically depressed areas that Israelis refer to as the “periphery.” They are run by Ayalim, an organization with a dual mission whose components might appear to be incompatible.

In exchange for reduced rent, students volunteer at least two hours each week in their communities, often serving their Arab neighbors. But their presence there is inspired by a belief that Arab-Israelis represent a demographic threat to the Jewish state — a threat that can be countered by bringing Jews to settle areas in which Arabs constitute a majority.

Ayalim’s founders acknowledge the tension inherent in that mission but say it’s not a problem as long as Arabs accept the idea of being a minority in a Jewish state.

“There’s tension, and maybe you can live with it,” said Ayalim co-founder Effy Rubin. “Our state contains many conflicts, but the Zionist movement is very young. We want Jewish industriousness in the land of Israel, and we also know how to embrace the
minorities who are here.”

Ayalim’s founders employ the language of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, insisting that a physical Jewish presence — what settlers often call “facts on the ground” — is the best bulwark against threats to Jewish sovereignty. But the threats they are countering are not from West Bank Palestinians clamoring for statehood but Arab citizens of Israel.

Rubin says that if the state neglects to ensure a Jewish majority in the South, it could create a power vacuum that will lead to Arab-Israelis insisting on independence from Israel.

“In the place where we won’t be a majority, it won’t be ours,” Rubin said.

But Rubin also says he is a defender of Arab-Israeli rights and faults the government for giving them scant resources. Though he deems them a threat, Rubin believes his work is crucial to their welfare.

“Even though we’re super Zionist, we’re really not anti-Arab, anti-Bedouin,” Rubin said. “They have no less of a right to this land. They need to be here and have total equal rights.”

Activists say Ayalim can’t have it both ways. Improving the lot of Israel’s Arab communities should be done by direct investment, not treating them as a fifth column.

“Essentially they’re relating to a part of the population in Israel as a threat and not as citizens,” said Haia Noach, executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “It doesn’t bother me that Jews come to the Negev, just like it doesn’t bother me that Arabs live in the Negev. It’s strange that a state decides it has to be scared of its citizens.”

Such criticism hasn’t stunted Ayalim’s growth. Founded in 2002 by two Israeli students living in a trailer in the southern town of Ashalim, the group now houses more than 1,000 students in its 13 villages. A new village in the embattled southern border town of Sderot will house an additional 300 students next year.

The group has received funding from several mainstream Jewish and Israeli organizations, including the American federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of its 2015 budget is coming directly from the Israeli government, which has made assisting the South a priority.

Nor does the demographic mission deter Arab-Israeli members from joining. Students appreciate the cheap rent — Sofer pays less than $150 a month for a room in a comfortable, renovated apartment — and they say the villages foster a sense of community and do important work with underserved populations.

“I like the organization’s activism,” said Habeeb Hajaj, an Arab resident of the Lod village who says he doesn’t enjoy the occasional group lectures on Zionism but values his volunteer work with Arab youth. “In general it does good because it gives so many solutions and responses to people around it, and it starts with the students.”

Ayalim doesn’t expect to turn Arab-Israelis into Zionists, but the group does hope to demonstrate to them that Israel is here to stay. Eventually Ayalim hopes to grow into a larger movement for settlement in the periphery and is building 120 residential units for young people across the North and South. The entire effort, Rubin says, aims to resurrect the pioneering spirit of the early Zionists.

“We have young people who come in concentrated groups, go to faraway places for an ideology and make the desert bloom,” Rubin said. “Aside from the demographic problem,
the significance of Ayalim is that we created a national movement of young people.”

‘Clear Choice’

For the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street, the upcoming Israeli election is a moment of “clear choice.” Either Israelis will elect leadership that puts the Jewish state on the path of isolation and violence, say the group’s activists, or on a path toward a two-state solution that maintains both the Jewish and democratic natures of the state.

“The reason it’s a [clear] choice in Israel is because there are elections and polls that show the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution,” explained Steven Krubiner, J Street’s chief of staff, during an interview at his Washington, D.C., office. “Now is the time for leaders to deliver one.”

But for all the bluster about a course J Street firmly believes Israel should embrace, Krubiner clarified that his group does not get involved in Israeli politics. But it has ramped up efforts to become a one-stop shop for Americans seeking coverage of Israeli politics as part of a larger “ongoing effort to change the dynamics in this country to create leadership” in the United States fostering a two-state solution.

To that end, J Street, which openly supports the joint ticket of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, launched The site tracks polls, news stories, political parties and the ever-changing alliances of Israel’s parliamentary system.

The “Herzog-Livni ticket genuinely believes that the two-state solution is necessary for Israel to survive. There is no greater incentive,” said Krubiner.

In the event of a victory, Herzog will become prime minister for the first two years of the joint ticket’s term, according to the arrangement. Livni, who was ousted as justice minister when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government to seek new elections, would be prime minister for the remainder of the term.

Because of the demographics in Israel today, said Krubiner, it is impossible for Israel to simultaneously control the West Bank, maintain a democracy and keep the Jewish character of the state.

Unlike the last election, when Netanyahu’s re-election was a forgone conclusion, there is a strong “anyone but Bibi” undercurrent, Krubiner said. J Street doesn’t count Netanyahu out, but Krubiner rejected the notion that only a politician seen as tough on security can win.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has used fear as his coordinating device and has offered a promise of artificial security,” said Krubiner. “How can he claim to be the candidate who will safeguard Israel’s security when over the past six months, Israel’s security has been so fragile, and from all observers’ standpoints, he wasn’t serious about the [U.S.] initiative, which was Israel’s greatest promise for a more secure future?”

Three months out from the election, anything can happen in the constantly changing Israeli political landscape. Not two hours after Krubiner finished preparing for a recent presentation in Pittsburgh, the formation of a new political party was announced.

It was a teachable moment, said Krubiner, to demonstrate how coalitions form and reform on both the left and right.

Bolton Street Sues Evergreen Association

Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore is suing the Evergreen Community Association over the synagogue’s future plans for an educational facility in the neighborhood.

According to court documents filed on Nov. 10, two years after the synagogue purchased property at 212 W. Cold Spring Lane in October 2000, it signed an agreement with the neighborhood association stipulating that the property be used only “for religious purposes (including education and social purposes), and other non-commercial purposes.”

At the time of the agreement, the synagogue had approximately 250 members, while its religious school served about 160 children. But according to the complaint, membership has declined to about 130 members, and the synagogue has been operating at a significant deficit for the past two years.

In an attempt to close the budget gap, the synagogue reached out to other organizations about leasing the Cold Spring Lane property, but according to the documents, “Evergreen has taken the position that any lease agreement … would be a violation” of the agreement it signed with the synagogue. Evergreen’s argument, according to the synagogue, is that such leases “would constitute a commercial use of [the] property.”

“The [community association] is concerned how that will impact the neighborhood,” said Harold Weisbaum, Bolton Street’s attorney. “We’re not sure what the concerns are, we’re trying to work out the details.”

The president of the Evergreen Community Association declined to comment, and other requests for comment from members went unanswered.

In order to enter into a lease agreement for its property, the synagogue would be legally obligated to disclose the objections made by Evergreen. The suit is asking that the synagogue be “free to enter into a lease agreement with any organization that provides religious, social, education, non-profit or community services or any other non-commercial purpose … and that non-commercial lease agreements will not be a violation” of the original agreement with the community association.

“The suit was filed because we needed a deadline,” said Weisbaum. “We need a time by which someone can decide what we can and can’t do. … We all prefer to work it out by agreement and we’re working on that.”

Gross to Receive $3.2 Million from Federal Government

Alan and Judy Gross

Alan and Judy Gross

Alan Gross will receive $3.2 million from the federal government to cover expenses he incurred during his five years in a Cuban prison.

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Dec. 23 that it would pay the money under a contractual agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, USAID will make payment directly to Gross, according to a spokesperson from USAID.

Gross had been working for Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, bringing Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community, when he was arrested in 2009 after being accused by Cuban authorities of trying to instigate a “Cuban Spring.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served five.

He was freed Dec. 17 on humanitarian grounds as President Barack Obama announced new diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“The settlement avoids the cost, delay and risks of further proceedings, and does not constitute an admission of liability by either party,” according to a press release from USAID.

The DAI had sought a $7 million payout, according to a spokesperson. The smaller amount was agreed to in November and was not related to his release, according to the spokesperson.

The money awarded to Gross is connected to his legal fees and other expenses. According to the spokesperson, the DAI and USAID did not reach an agreement on whether Gross’ expenses were reimbursable, but rather decided to pay the $3.2 million “given the cost, delay, risks, and uncertainty of further proceedings.”

On Monday, Gross and his wife, Judy, visited the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Relations Council to express their thanks for their efforts to help free him. He lit Chanukah candles while at the JCC.

Sephardic Vogue

Ahuvah (Amanda) Gipson (left) and other members of the Bet Januka community examine the scrolls that Gipson discovered at Naval Station Rota. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ahuvah (Amanda) Gipson (left) and other members of the Bet Januka community examine the scrolls that Gipson discovered at Naval Station Rota.
(Cnaan Liphshiz)

ROTA, Spain — While setting up a synagogue at the American naval base where she works, Ahuvah (Amanda) Gipson made something of a bitter-sweet discovery.

Rifling through a storage area at the sprawling American-Spanish military complex Naval Station Rota in 2012, Gipson, a former naval outreach professional who now teaches off base, found three dusty Torah scrolls and a dismantled 4-foot Chanukah menorah.

The objects were all that remained from a community that American Jews serving at Rota established many years ago but that fell apart after they shipped out.

Setting up a durable congregation on a military base is difficult because of frequent turnover, but nearly three years later, Gipson’s 15-member Bet Januka community — a name referencing the found menorah — is still going strong, largely because many congregants now are local Jews.

“We’re small, but we’re here to stay,” Gipson said. “It’s kind of like the bigger story but on slightly smaller scale.”

The bigger story is the rapid growth of Jewish life in Spain, once home to one of the world’s largest and most accomplished Jewish communities but which has had only a modest Jewish presence since the expulsion in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Nowhere is the growth felt more strongly than in Madrid, home to Spain’s largest Jewish community of some 12,000 members, where six of the capital’s seven synagogues have opened in the last decade. Bet Januka is one of six Reform communities founded across the country since 2007.

“[It’s] a phenomenal regeneration not only in interest in Judaism, but also in the level of encouragement from the government,” said Leslie Bergman, president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism.

Locals say the process is being driven by a number of factors, including a supportive government and the arrival of thousands of Argentine Jews who were driven to Spain by the financial crisis of the 2000s and earlier by the Dirty War, the reign of political terror in the 1970s. Prior to their arrival, the Jewish community was constituted overwhelmingly by a small group of Orthodox Jews of Moroccan descent.

“The small community of Moroccan Jews that lives here and runs the Orthodox synagogue is pretty low-profile,” said David Pozo Perez, president of the Reform congregation Beit Rambam in Seville, who was born in Spain and is married to an Argentine. “They aren’t very big on the cultural activities that Argentinian Jews are used to from home. And so the Argentinians’ desire to re-create such an environment gave a big push to setting up social frameworks, activities and also Reform synagogues.”

But Spain’s so-called Jewish revival is also being fueled by processes outside the Jewish community.

Following Portugal’s lead, Spain this year introduced legislation that may make many Jews of Sephardic descent eligible for citizenship, a measure officials described as a form of atonement for the expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition. Along with a host of public initiatives to celebrate Spain’s rich Jewish heritage, the law has helped foster the growth of local Jewish communities.

“It isn’t affecting the growth of communities directly, [but] it certainly helps generate a climate that is more positive to Judaism and conducive to strengthening communities,” said David Hatchwell, president of the Jewish Community of Madrid. “When rural municipalities with hardly any Jews celebrate Sukkot and Chanukah in festivals, it encourages Jews to also celebrate their tradition more proudly than before.”

In addition to encouraging Jews to celebrate their faith, the initiatives to highlight Spain’s Sephardic heri-tage is drawing out the anusim, the descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. While only some of them formally convert, many more attend and even organize Jewish-themed events in the Spanish and Portuguese countryside.

The rural festivals have also made it easier for small Jewish communities like Rota’s to access municipal resources that facilitate community building.

Rota’s municipality, for example, allows Bet Januka to make use of a community center in the city’s center, which is more convenient than dealing with security procedures at the base.

All the processes reshaping Jewish life in Spain were on display during a recent Havdalah ceremony at the center.

“This scene probably wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago,” said Jose Manuel Fernandez, a retired police officer who converted to Judaism with his wife after learning he was descended from anusim.

“The Argentinians were not here yet,” he said, “and I’m not sure the municipality would’ve necessarily let us be here.”

‘A Miracle’

Barbara Levy Gradet

Barbara Levy Gradet

Jewish communal officials the world over were gratified by the recent announcement by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) that social service agencies that provide assistance to frail, elderly and low-income Holocaust survivors will receive substantial increases in their allocations for 2015. In Baltimore, funding to Jewish Community Services will increase by 70 percent, from $600,000 this year to $1.4 million in 2015, with most of the money earmarked for homecare.

JCS executive director, Barbara Levy Gradet called the windfall, a “Chanukah miracle.” The dramatic increase in funding resulted from negotiations between Germany and the Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiating for compensation and restitution for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.

“They have been fabulous advocates,” said Gradet. “They made a case — and it is the reality — that while the numbers of survivors among us are dwindling, those who are still with us need more care and resources.” The additional funding has nothing to do with the reparations to which all survivors of the Holocaust are entitled, she noted. “This is service delivery money for low-income, frail survivors.”

Gradet said that the extra money will enable JCS to better cater to the 300 Holocaust survivors the agency already serves, but she also hopes that other eligible people in the community who may not be aware of the services JCS provides will learn of the funding increase and contact JCS for assistance now or in the future. After all, Gradet pointed out, those who were children during the Holocaust are also aging and may be in need of services in the next few years.

“All Shoah victims should be able to receive the help and support that they need to live the rest of their lives in dignity, after having endured indescribable suffering in their youth,” said the Claims Conference president, Julius Berman. “This tremendous increase in funding will directly help many survivors, including those who need more help at home than they currently receive, as well as those needing care for the first time. Abandoned by the world in their youth, Holocaust victims deserve all the aid and comfort that it is possible to give them in the twilight of their lives.”

Statistics show that most elders prefer to age in place, in their own homes, rather than in nursing or assisted living facilities. This preference is magnified in the case of elderly Holocaust survivors.

“Research has shown that as they get older, Holocaust survivors re-experience the trauma [of the Holocaust], making aging even more difficult,” Gradet said. “We know from survivors and their adult children, when a survivor needs to go into a nursing home or anywhere that their movement is restricted, they can be re-traumatized, reminded of their concentration camp experience. The lion’s share of the money will go into home-care services that allow them to remain in their homes.”

There will also be more funding available for [expenses such as] counseling, emergency financial support, uncovered medications, dentures and hearing aids.

“While we can’t erase the anguish these elders withstood,” Gradet added, “we can ensure that they have the care and support they need to live safely and with dignity.”

Civil Lawsuit Filed Against Freundel’s Former Employers

122614_Freundel_BriefWhile the criminal trial of Rabbi Barry Freundel, formerly of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., on six counts of voyeurism has not yet begun, some women who allege they are Freundel’s victims have joined a class-action civil lawsuit against his former employers, seeking to be compensated for emotional injuries.

A team of attorneys from the Baltimore-based firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White LLC, led by attorney Steven Kelly, held a news conference at the National Press Club last week announcing the addition of the Rabbinical Council of America to the list of defendants in the civil action they filed earlier this month.

RCA now joins Kesher Israel, the National Capital Mikvah and Georgetown University as defendants in the suit, all of which are accused of negligently failing to oversee Freundel prior to his arrest in October, despite previous RCA inquiries into improper conduct between Freundel and conversion candidates.

Two plaintiffs who believe themselves to be victims of Freundel (the U.S. Attorney’s office has not publicly released the identities of the six victims listed in the criminal complaint) were also added to the case. They are Emma Shulevitz, 27, of Rockville, and Towson University student Stephanie Smith.

“For years, Defendants turned a blind eye to obvious signs of Freundel’s increasingly bizarre and obviously improper behavior, ignoring the bright red flags that Freundel was acting inappropriately with women subjected to his authority,” said the plaintiffs in their complaint.

Good As New

Congregants packed the halls of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for a once-in-a-lifetime experience: the chance to help repair a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and dates back at least 250 years.

“It was great,” said Linda Speert, who helped write an aleph on the scroll the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 14. She wanted to bring her grandkids along for the experience, but with them out of town, she decided to sign up on her own.

“I just wanted to be part of the tradition and to be part of what people will read in this Torah even after I’m not here,” she said.

The congregation has been working for months to restore nine of its 14 Torah scrolls. While most of the scrolls have either been sent to a rabbi in Florida who specializes in restorations or will soon be on their way, one of the congregation’s scrolls — the 250-year-old scroll that survived the Holocaust in Europe — is being restored largely on-site so that congregants may take part in the process.

BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon reads from the  congregation’s 250-year-old Holocaust Torah scroll. (David Stuck)

BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon reads from the
congregation’s 250-year-old Holocaust Torah scroll.
(David Stuck)

“In a sense, it’s a community activity we’re doing,” said Cantor Robbie Solomon. “The Torah, it’s the center — can be considered the center — of our religion. It’s a thing that’s been with us for many thousands of years.”

Over the span of three sessions, more than 300 community members have done their part to help refurbish the fading and weathered script in the congregation’s Holocaust Torah. After signing up for a 20-minute slot — congregation leaders are now determining how to address the wait list that developed by the end of the last session — participants arrived early to speak with the clergy and cleanse their hands. When they were ready, they proceeded to the table where the scribe, Rabbi Moshe Druin, who is also restoring the congregation’s other Torahs at his home office and has traveled to Baltimore from Florida for each of the three sessions, sat with the scroll.

Druin told the participants, who included individuals, couples and families, as well as representatives from brotherhoods and sisterhoods, about the letters they helped him write. From there, the participants held the top of the quill as Druin guided the strokes to darken the letters.

“This scroll, it has really seen a lot in its career,” Druin told Richard and Ann Fishkin as they prepared to write the letter zayin on the parchment. Druin was referring not only to the Torah’s Holocaust past, but also to the history that predates even the world wars.

Like many of BHC’s scrolls, the congregation’s Holocaust Torah has remained in use up until its restoration. Clergy read from the Torah on special occasions each year. But when the rest of the parchment was unrolled to begin the restoration, Druin noticed something that has since captivated all of BHC’s clergy: the form of the letters throughout the scroll varies from Ashkenazic to Sephardic to Kabbalistic traditions in different passages, something that adds a layer of mystery for the more detail oriented.

Most Torahs are written in one style or another, but the variation in style in BHC’s Torah, which was brought to the congregation by the late Rabbi Morris Lieberman when the rabbi returned from serving as a chaplain in the Army in 1945, seems to suggest that the original scribe was trying to send a message of his own through his scroll. Though they know the Torah was rescued from a synagogue destroyed by Nazi forces in the Czech Republic, little else is known about the scroll.

“Combined, [Cantor Solomon and I] have been clergy for over 50 years and neither of us has seen a Torah like this,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch. “He’s trying to make some kind of point,” Busch said of the scribe’s decision to include various styles of writing.

The most puzzling part of the writings, though, is that no one knows what that 250-year-old point is. Instead, the clergy are left to speculate and admire the occasional extra decorations on some of the letters.

And the congregation’s other Torahs are no bore either. The oldest of the Torahs appears to have originated in Italy and features Sephardic text, an anomaly at Baltimore Hebrew, Maryland’s oldest synagogue and a community founded by mostly Ashkenazic immigrants from Germany. By looking at the text, Druin estimates that the scroll was first written some 400 years ago.

“There’s been a lot of excitement,” said Annette Saxon, director of development at BHC. “The buzz has been building.”

For BHC’s clergy, the benefit of the project has been threefold. In addition to providing an opportunity to learn more about their own Torahs, money is being raised to sustain regular Torah maintenance and congregation staff and clergy are getting the chance to interact with congregation and community members they might otherwise had never had to the opportunity to get to know.

“A lot of the people who’ve come through this aren’t the people who make appointments with us,” said Busch, adding that he’s enjoyed the chance to talk to some of the less involved members of his congregation.

“We’ve reached out and touched a lot of people who, you know, aren’t so attuned to going to services every week and doing your mainstream type of participation in Torah,” said Richard Gross, who chairs the congregation’s Torah restoration project. “There are people who have come out of these sessions crying.”

Martha Weiman, president of BHC, said the decision to participate was easy. In addition to her interest as a congregation leader, she wanted to experience the restoration of such an important text.

“It was very special. There was a certain spirituality that went with it,” she said. “If the opportunity ever came up again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

A Holocaust survivor herself, Weiman said she especially enjoyed the chance to work so closely on the restoration of a Torah salvaged from Nazi Europe. The connection, she said, made the experience extremely personal.

“That made it particularly moving for me,” she said. “Looking at it and touching it and just thinking about where it’s been” was fascinating.

Some of the participants have come from outside the BHC family as well. One woman who came to help write in the scroll used to be a BHC member but had, in more recent years, let her membership expire. After writing on the parchment with Druin, she decided to rejoin the congregation. Even a couple of church groups made an appearance, wishing to observe the process and see the historical Torah for themselves.

“It’s been better than we even anticipated,” Gross said. “We knew we would reach some people who would not be your mainstream congregants
involved in your men’s club, sisterhood, things like that, social action committees. These people have been touched, and we hope to build on it.”

To watch the scribe and participants at work, visit For more information about BHC’s Tikkun Torah project, visit