Lloyd Street Synagogue Celebrates Rededication

The Lloyd Street Synagogue has a rich history, dating to 1845. (Provided)

The Lloyd Street Synagogue has a rich history, dating to 1845. (Provided)

Baltimore’s historic Lloyd Street Synagogue celebrated the 50th anniversary of the rededication of its downtown Greek Revival building.

Dubbed Synagogue Night, the Nov. 6 event drew 40 community members to a presentation given by Gary Zolah, executive director of the American Jewish Archives, titled “Profiles in American Jewish Courage.”

In 1959, the city made plans to demolish the decaying building on Lloyd Street and put in its place a parking lot. Determined to save the oldest synagogue in Maryland, the Jewish community banded together to rescue and restore the historic building.

The newly restored synagogue opened to public view on Nov. 8, 1964. Today, it stands as a cornerstone of the Jewish Museum of Maryland with the popular “The Synagogue Speaks” exhibit.

Anniversary festivities continued the following Sunday with the debut of a new tour titled “Technology in the Temple.” The tour, available Mondays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June, touches on the technological innovations that swept the city when the synagogue was built in 1845 and expanded in 1860.

Ilene Dackman-Alon, the museum’s director of education, led a group of 20 people through the basement displays and mikvah area of the synagogue, then up into the sanctuary, pointing to the wooden pews, women’s balcony and iconic stained-glass windows the former Jewish Historical Society of Maryland had restored.

Standing before the ark, a reproduction of the original, Dackman-Alon quoted E.B. Hirsch, who wrote of the restoration project, “The holes where the colored stained glass windows fit had been boarded up. They despaired of knowing exactly what the colors would be. But in cleaning out the building they found a bushel basket full of broken glass. And they pieced all of it together, and then they could have it restored.”

Dr. Gary Zola addresses the crowd in the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue (Photos courtesy of Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Dr. Gary Zola addresses the crowd in the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue (Photos courtesy of Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Because the rededication anniversary coincided with Kristallnacht, the museum invited artist Marty Levin to display his meticulously crafted miniature facades of former European synagogues. Added to the collection was a miniature Lloyd Street Synagogue and its neighbor down the block, B’nai Israel.

As for the future of the building, museum executive director Marvin Pinkert said increased accessibility, additional audio aids and an expansion of virtual technology experiences were on the horizon.

“If I look 50 years ahead, I think this will remain a hallowed space,” said Pinkert. “There’s a continuity here … a time capsule of Jewish Baltimore history, from the earliest German Jewish immigrants to 1950s life downtown to the formation of the historic society to now. It’s a long chain.”

mapter@jewishtimes.com

Step Right Up!

Roboteam CEO Shahar Abuhazira shows off one of his company’s robots at the MIDC showcase in Silver Spring. (Photo by Suzanne Pollak)

At first glimpse, it looked like a Lego toy, but the robot demonstrated at last week’s Showcase of Maryland-Israel Business in Silver Spring was the same one that swept the Gaza tunnels for explosives during this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. And like so many of Israel’s hi-tech and national security inventions, this robot has ties to Montgomery County.

Israeli companies that are involved in Iron Dome’s radar system; apps to get emergency workers to the scene of an emergency more quickly; scales to weigh wounded patients who can’t get out of bed; devices to make sure a premise is secured; and equipment to detect illegal drugs right on the scene were on display Nov. 18 at the Silver Spring Civic Center Building in an event sponsored by the Maryland-Israel Development Center (MIDC).

While the ideation and construction of these products take place in Israel, these companies have offices in Bethesda, Rockville or Gaithersburg, where efforts are made to sell the product in the United States, provide customer support or obtain funding.

Montgomery County is a hotbed of Israeli business due to what Barry Bogage, executive director of the MIDC, calls the four Cs. The area surrounding Washington, D.C., is where the customers are, where many of America’s chief executive officers can be found and where many Israelis have families, or cousins, Bogage said. The fourth C refers to capital and is why other Israeli companies turn to the Silicon Valley, Bogage said.

Israeli companies also set up base in Montgomery County because “we spread the word that the market is here,” Bogage said.

For the past 22 years, the MIDC has been working on bilateral economic development between Israel and Maryland, with offices in Rockville, Baltimore and Tel Aviv. While working to bring Israeli companies to the state, MIDC also helps match Maryland companies with businesses in Israel.

MIDC operates on a budget of $275,000 from the Maryland Department of Economic Development, $40,000 from the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development and $150,000 from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

It also receives money from membership dues.

The event in Silver Spring was MIDC’s fourth annual showcase and the first one ever to be held in Montgomery County. A crowd of people — most of them under 40 years old — mingled and viewed the products while nibbling on hors d’oeuvres of chicken and Israeli dips and sipping Israeli wines.

Close to 25 companies displayed their wares, including Roboteam, the company that created the robot that crawled through the tunnels that terrorists in Gaza used to smuggle weapons and to launch attacks. The company has an office in Bethesda, where it provides training and customer support for its unmanned systems.

The robots it creates can climb stairs and utilize up to seven cameras for a 360-degree view, said CEO Shahar Abuhazira.

Also attending last week’s event were representatives from Medispec, a company that offers shock-wave therapy used in various medical procedures. Its office in Gaithersburg distributes the machines that were made in Israel.

Equivo is an Israeli company that takes large quantities of computer text and analyzes it for large corporations, picking out what a particular company deemsimportant without a human needing to search large amounts of data. Its customer support center is
located in Rockville.

Also attending the event were representatives from Elta, which operates in Fulton and is a subsidiary of the Israeli company that designed and produced the radar system used by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Another company featured was Jedvice, which operates in Baltimore, and utilizes sensors to ensure an area is secure.

During the two-hour showcase, speaker Jeremy Bash, a former senior adviser to Leon Panetta at both the CIA and Department of Defense, spoke about his work. Currently, Bash is founder and managing director at Beacon Global Strategies.

America continues to support Israel with money and weapons, and “MIDC is part of that strategic alliance,” Bash said.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

No Place Like JTown

JTown gives young children the experience of a miniature Jewish community. (Provided)

JTown gives young children the experience of a miniature Jewish community.
(Provided)

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and the mercury dropping to below freezing on some nights, the season for outdoor playdates is dwindling. But starting Dec. 1, parents with infants and young children can breathe a sigh of relief.

According to officials at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, JTown, a new child-sized play space on the first floor, is the perfect cure for cabin fever.

Designed by Jen Byrnes of Little Main Street Playhouses and built by master carpenter Chris Maclay and assistant Fletcher Daniel, JTown is a miniature Jewish community, where children and their parents can read, play, perform and pretend in a colorful, warm, safe environment. JTown includes a miniature home, a grocer, a veterinarian office, a bagel shop, a combination synagogue/theater and a real lending library. The space even contains a “baby garden” built with cushioned floors and walls and enclosed with a white picket fence, where infants can play without being trampled by older children.

“Jen is a creative genius,” said Sharon Seigel, director of parenting education and engagement for the JCC. “For every one idea someone else has, she has 10. The attention to detail [in JTown] is remarkable.”

For example, she noted, the house has a front porch, where a sukkah can be built during Sukkot; there is a working stoplight, street signs, a fire hydrant and even a sign reminding JTown residents to pick up after their dogs. In the synagogue/theater space, children can dress up like their favorite “neighborhood helpers.” There is a plush miniature Torah and even a teddy-bear rabbi. JTown’s grocer sells Jewish products such as challah and matzah, and there are separate sections for meat and milk products.

“We imagine that children can go to the grocer and purchase food and then come home to prepare Shabbat dinner,” said Seigel.

The space will be decorated for all Jewish holidays, she said. JTown is fully accessible, and doorways are built to accommodate children in wheelchairs.
One of the most exciting features of JTown, said Seigel, is the fact that it is built around a real PJ Library. A program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, sponsored in partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Macks Center for Jewish Education, PJ Library engages Jewish families with children from 6 months to 61/2 years by sending a free Jewish-themed book or CD to their homes every month. While PJ library programs now exist in Jewish communities across North America, JTown includes the first actual library in the program’s history, said Amiam Frost Kelemer, chief operating officer at the CJE.

Kelemer detailed when the idea for the library was originally conceived.

“Sometimes, good ideas come from heaven,” said Kelemer. “At Mitzvah Day last year, we set up a little nook with bean-bag chairs and all the PJ Library books. One little boy looked in and said, ‘Wow, it’s the real PJ Library!’ The boy’s idea got staff members thinking: Why not have a PJ Library on-site, where children and their families can meet up, play, listen to stories and even check out books?”

Kelemer and others at the CJE knew that the JCC was considering ways to utilize the large space near the entrance that was formerly a gallery, so agency representatives came together to brainstorm.

“We are over the moon,” said Kelemer of the project. “We are having so much fun thinking of the Jewish educational possibilities. There is nothing else like this.”

Kelemer said that the JCC and the CJE will share the space, and each agency will provide its own programming. Programs will include story times and Tot Shabbats, but at other times, the space will be available for free play, socializing and birthday parties.

“We’ve been fortunate that several people fell in love with the idea right from the start,” said Seigel. “We are very appreciative for the supporters who made this possible. The potential for the future of JTown is limitless.”

sellin@jewishtimes.com

A Revelation

Photos courtesy of M. STAROWIEYSKA, D.GOLIK/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Photos courtesy of M. STAROWIEYSKA, D.GOLIK/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Given that half of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust came from Poland, many descendants of Polish Jews may be surprised to learn about the current hospitable environment for the Jewish population of their ancestors’ country. Poland experiences far less anti-Semitism than the typical European country and is home to a burgeoning — albeit relatively small — Jewish community (estimates suggest 10,000-20,000, but no definitive figures are available). At the same time, young non-Jewish Poles are increasingly curious about Jews and the Jewish religion.

Recognizing that this environment was fertile ground for a museum highlighting the history of Polish Jewry, a group of Warsaw-based organizers invited émigré scholars and cultural activists in New York to help promote the museum concept and identify funding sources for what two decades later became the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened its core exhibition on Oct. 28.

The museum, located on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising directly across from the Monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, has received more than $60 million from the Municipality of Warsaw and Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The rest of the needed funding was raised by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a nonprofit that has served as a caretaker of the country’s Jewish heritage for more than six decades.

As a civic initiative and state-funded institution, the museum’s target audience “is much broader than the Jewish community in Poland,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the museum’s core exhibition, which traces the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland.

“It is intended for a much broader public: Poles, including Jews; the world Jewish community; and the European and world public,” she said.

From the perspective of Polish-born philanthropist Tad Taube, honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in San Francisco, the significance of the museum’s content goes beyond Polish Jewish history. “In portraying 1,000 years of Jewish culture and history in Greater Poland, the museum traces the foundations of Judeo/Christian Western culture,” he said, referring to the contribution of Polish Jews to the various spectrums of Jewish and Christian faith in addition to significant Jewish cultural influence in philosophy, literature, theater, music, and the physical sciences. Taube is the chairman of Taube Philanthropies and president of the Koret Foundation, which together provided significant funding for the museum.

Retired Polish diplomat Krzysztof (Kris) W. Kasprzyk, who has been an enthusiastic promoter of the project for more than two decades, sees the museum as particularly important to the Poland of today. “Our national cultural heritage is really impoverished without all that Jewish history in Poland had been bringing for centuries,” he said. “This museum is like bringing fresh water to the desert—maybe that is an overblown metaphor, but we needed this venue badly.”

The museum’s goal of reaching out to both the Polish Jewish and broader Polish communities stems from the country’s increasingly welcoming environment for Jews. Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich suggests two reasons for that trend: first, the papacy of Polish-born John Paul II, who he noted was “the first pope to ever say that anti-Semitism is a sin according to the Catholic Church.”

The second factor is the fall of communism, which created not only political and economic change, but also a social upheaval. “People are willing to be more open to change than under normal circumstances,” Schudrich said, adding that younger Poles are curious about Jews, who had been largely absent or secretive about their identity in the country for 50 years after the Holocaust.

The fall of communism, adds Kasprzyk, gave people the gift of free speech, which has allowed them to explore painful events from the past. One of these was the 1941 murder of Jews in Jewabne, a small town in northeast Poland where a Polish mob, encouraged by German Nazis, burned Jews from several surrounding communities in a barn. This incident was revealed to the larger Polish public in the book “Neighbors” by Tomasz Gross (published in 2000) and was widely and openly discussed, a process that Kasprzyk says “heals the wounds.”

Although Kasprzyk had strong Jewish connections from an early age and today cooks gefilte fish and Jewish sweets, the definitive moment in his lifetime devotion to Polish-Jewish relations came during his sophomore year at the University of Krakow. That year, during the 1968 Polish political crisis, Kasprzyk recalled that he “witnessed the expelling from Poland of many colleagues from my high school and from the university [because of the anti-Semitic campaign sponsored by the communist government], and I also witnessed labeling them simply as ‘Jews,’ as somebody who would be outside of the Polish community.”

“Ever since that time, the subject of Polish Jewry was always very dear to my heart,” he said.

About two decades after the political crisis, the fall of communism in Rabbi Schudrich’s estimation marked “the first time in 50 years people [could] now think about, ‘Do I feel safe telling my children and grandchildren that they are really Jewish?’

“Since ‘89 thousands and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Poles, have discovered they have Jewish roots,” Schudrich added.

Schudrich, whose job is to create pathways back to Jewish identity for Poles, says the museum can play a role in that process. “For Poles with Jewish roots it can be an entry point into some kind of connection with their Jewish identity; they can learn more about their past and what Judaism is about,” he said.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the museum “can support the renewal of Jewish life” by showing to “Jews in Poland, who kept their Jewish roots a secret, that they have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be afraid of, and much to be proud of.”

But the museum goes beyond a sense of pride, offering a tangible resource for Polish Jews to learn about their history.

Featured in the POLIN Museum are  two magnificent galleries — The Jewish  Town (left) and The Paradisus Iudaeorum.

Featured in the POLIN Museum are
two magnificent galleries — The Jewish
Town (left) and The Paradisus Iudaeorum.

“[The museum’s creation] says Jewish roots are not enough—you also need to know who you are,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett . “And who you are is not simply genetic. It is also historical and cultural. While the chain of transmission may have been broken, because of the Holocaust and communism, there is an opportunity to restore that chain of transmission, and the museum can play a very important role.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests that Jews today are not aware that their coreligionists lived in the Polish territory continually for 1,000 years. “It’s quite baffling, because they assume it was one unmitigated story of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust,” she said, explaining that if this was true, Polish Jewry would never have become a center of the Jewish world and also, for some of its history, the world’s largest Jewish community.

“We place the Holocaust within the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews, not a 1,000-year history of anti-Semitism,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

The approach of the core exhibit is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls a “theater of history” that organizes the story of Polish Jewry “as a continuous visual narrative.” The exhibit intends to explore more than instruct, empowering the visitor.

“We are not offering a master narrative, but a rather more open story, asking visitors to engage in that story and engage with primary sources and engage with debates and with conflicting views on particular subjects,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

Regarding how the museum presents Poland and Poles, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, “We are a history museum and have to be intellectually responsible, so it is not our intent to improve anyone’s image and engage in any kind of polemic. We never start from the misconceptions. We think Jews will be surprised, and Poles will be surprised. Jews expect that the museum will whitewash Polish history, and Poles expect an unmitigated indictment of Polish history. I think the museum will be a revelation for both.”

Some highlights of the exhibit are a hand-painted gallery of the medieval period based on Hebrew illuminated manuscripts; a comic-book version of the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism; a painted animation telling the story of the modern yeshiva via 24 hours in the life of the Volozhin Yeshiva; and an 85 percent scale model of the painted roof and bimah of the 17th-century wooden Gwozdziec Synagogue. The model, built over the course of two years by an international group of volunteers, is based on complete drawings and sketches of both the synagogue and its ceiling.

Emphasizing why he believes this museum is as important for young non-Jewish Poles as it is for Jews in Poland and worldwide, Kasprzyk said, “The Jewish world of Poland was exterminated during the Holocaust, and I feel the Jewish world of Poland as the phantom pain—we don’t have this limb but it hurts; we feel it; it’s still there.”

“This museum somehow closes the gap or brings back, very often in virtual form, what we had had for centuries,” he said. “It is very important, especially for the younger generation, because the younger generation don’t have Jews around. They don’t have Jewish colleagues or Jewish friends.”

Black Friday Watch

Somewhere between turkey and stuffing and pie and ice cream, many retailers hope you and your family find the time to shop for some televisions, tablets or toys.

The ever-growing Black Friday phenomenon of price-slashing sales expanded in 2012 for the first time ever into Thanksgiving Day when Wal-Mart announced that it would be opening its doors at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. This year, Wal-Mart and others will move that time even earlier with a 6 p.m. start.

For many stores, Black Friday signals the start of the most prosperous part of the year. In 2013, an estimated 92 million people shopped on Black Friday, according to USA Today. And Cyber Monday, Black Friday’s digital counterpart, saw even more spending, with 131 million people taking advantage of deals online. For stores, those figures translate to large profits; stores raked in $12.3 billion in sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday last year.

For Lynn Fram, co-owner of Bare Necessities in Lutherville-Timonium, the intimate apparel store’s location in a plaza rather than a shopping mall requires a unique approach to the retail holiday.

“We try to do a different thing each year,” she said. This year the store will feature discounts on many items and a gift card deal that rewards the purchase of a Bare Necessities gift card with another free gift card. In the past, Fram said she and the ownership have tried opening the store earlier than usual but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle in the end.

“People come in around lunchtime instead of at 10 o’clock,” she said. “We are expecting it to be extremely busy.”

And after more than a decade of participating in Black Friday sales, Fram has learned that the busy-ness just keeps coming for Bare Necessities after Black Friday is over. Although she couldn’t recall the exact breakdown, she said Black Friday weekend sales, including those from Small Business Saturday, account for a large portion of her yearly profits.

“As years have gone on we’ve been busier with it,” she said, adding that she and other store management typically begin formulating their Black Friday plan about three to four months in advance. On Nov. 21, she was charting a schedule for increased staff. On Nov. 26, her mailers and email notices will arrive in potential customers’ mailboxes.

Luckily for her, Fram said, her customer base is less sales driven than that of many other area retailers. Even when the sales are over, she sees a steady flow of business that continues even past Christmas and Chanukah, as people shop for special items for New Year’s.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

ASA’s Hot-Button Issue

112114_boycottLOS ANGELES — Members of the American Studies Association gathered last year for their annual meeting and a vociferous debate on the wisdom of initiating an academic boycott of Israel.

One year later, the debate is over, and the boycott resolution has long since passed — but the aftereffects are still being felt.

Attendees at this year’s meeting, held last week in this city, reported receiving death threats and hate mail over their positions on the boycott. Others have been accused of anti-Semitism or spoke of colleagues cowed into silence for fear of hurting their careers.

The boycott debate and the subsequent public backlash have left advocates for both sides, as well as many in the middle, feeling besieged.

“When people make broad political gestures, as the ASA did with this action, the intent is to polarize the debate — and by that measure the ASA has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams,” said Micki McGee, director of the American studies program at Fordham University.

The tense atmosphere for the ASA’s annual meeting was apparent before it even started. A statement by the ASA leadership in December that it would not collaborate with “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of [Israeli] institutions” led to questions over whether Israeli scholars could even attend. The ASA confirmed that they could, and three did, as well an administrator from Haifa University who encountered no difficulties.

The association also employed stringent requirements for media credentials, insisting on a photo ID and extensive verification that journalists and their publications covered higher education and were not “advocacy publications.”

All of this took place against a broader academic landscape beset by budget cuts and worries about diminishing job opportunities and curbs on academic freedom. The tone of the gathering was captured in a Friday afternoon session called “Scholars Under Attack.”

Still, ASA officials said they stood by the boycott.Curtis Marez, a past president of the association and chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego, said the ASA has experienced a net gain of individual members and no net loss of institutional members in the wake of the boycott. The organization also just completed the largest fundraising campaign in its history, bringing in $50,000.

“Passing and maintaining the boycott has been well worth it,” said Marez, who serves on the ASA Council and the organization’s executive committee. “Even with the boycott, the ASA is thriving.”

Asked about the death threats that he and other members of the ASA Council have received, Marez said, “Getting discussion of these issues going, if it means a few emailed death threats, is a worthwhile cost given what Palestinians face every day.”

Mohammed Wattad, an Arab-Israeli professor at the Zefat College School of Law in northern Israel, derided the boycott as an assault on democratic principles and suggested that the ASA was trying to have it both ways by saying that Israeli professors were still welcome.

“The trouble is that the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academia is fake,” Wattad said. “One has the feeling that the ASA is trying to tiptoe between the raindrops.”

Unlike last year’s meeting, there were no sessions this time debating the boycott. Instead, there was one modestly attended session opposed to the boycott and numerous others where speakers voiced criticisms of Israel as well as their support for the academic boycott and the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

For the critics, the boycott is a violation of academic freedom and the democratic ideal of free exchange of ideas. It is also, some say, outside the ASA’s zone of expertise.

“I’m not opposed to the ASA taking a political stance,” said Michael Rockland, who founded the American studies department at Rutgers University. But, he added, “I feel that Israel-Palestine has absolutely nothing to do with the study of American society and culture.”

Supporters of the boycott say that this is precisely why a boycott is needed — to raise awareness that the issues in Israel-Palestine are relevant to their discipline.

“It woke up American studies to the significance of Palestine in some of their own studies,” said Sondra Hale, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Hale said issues of Palestinian indignity can link to Native American studies and that Israeli settler colonialism links to the study of Africa and the African-American experience.

Debate over these issues on campuses has been anything but academic. Nancy Koppelman, a professor of American studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and a boycott opponent, said she has “been accused of wanting to kill babies in Palestine.” McGee, at Fordham, said she received hate mail accusing her of anti-Semitism.

At the conference, too, both sides employed highly charged rhetoric. “The call for an academic boycott resembles an act of terrorism,” Wattad said. “You take innocent people, you impose fear on them, and you treat them as means in order to change the policies of the government. This is exactly what the ASA is doing right now.”

At the Scholars Under Attack panel, Steven Salaita, who became a cause celebre of the BDS movement after his tenure offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked over some anti-Israel tweets, mocked the university’s assertion that the withdrawal resulted from concerns about his incivility.

“Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita told an appreciative crowd. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.”

The onslaught of charge and counter charge left some feeling frustrated by the lack of reasoned interaction, yet there were few signs that the issue was going to let up anytime soon. Anti-boycott activists discussed forming a caucus to promote academic exchanges with Israeli and Palestinian universities, while boycott supporters planned further steps to advance BDS on campuses and encourage other academic groups to pass their own boycotts.

“We’ve been debating for so many years,” said Hale, a boycott supporter. “We haven’t had the floor. And we’ve got the floor now.”

Getting to Know Each Other

112114_israelWASHINGTON — There were bagel breakfasts, a Friday night kiddush in English and Hebrew and plenty of talk about how to keep the grandkids Jewish.

In some ways, the inaugural conference earlier this month of the Israeli American Council was much like other Jewish gatherings, except the Jews were Israelis and a lot of what makes Jewish America what it is remains alien to them — for instance, bagels, bilingual blessings and fears of assimilation.

“We need to know each other better,” said the IAC’s chairman, Shawn Evenhaim, pronouncing what might have been the conference theme.A sense of tentativeness pervaded the conference, the first since the IAC was founded in Los Angeles seven years ago. Last year, the organization began opening chapters across the country. The conference is part of its bid to integrate Israelis into the American Jewish community.“Israeli-Americans — No Longer Bystanders?” was the title of one session. “Israeli-American Double Identity: Comfort vs. Conscience?” was another.

Sessions frequently became emotive confessionals that addressed an array of obstacles to Israeli assimilation into the American Jewish community — among them a distaste for community life formed around a house of worship, the liberal political leanings of U.S. Jews and a lack of Israeli familiarity with fundraising.

At times, the conference seemed to veer into psychodrama.“Our two homelands are like mother and father, we want them to love one another,” said the narrator of a slide-show that included animations of falafel and Israeli flags.

“I think a certain regrettable loneliness among many Israelis living here longer than they anticipated is being addressed,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads Washington’s Chabad office and led the Friday night kiddush.
Some 600,000 Israelis live in the United States, according to the IAC, which now has six chapters across the country. U.S. Census figures report about 100,000 Americans born in Israel. The conference drew over 750 participants from 23 states.

Shula Bahat, who promotes the Israeli museum Beth Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People in the United States, said the community has come a long way since her arrival in 1973. In those days, Israelis back home tended to view them as having abandoned the country — Yitzhak Rabin, then a hero of the 1967 Six Day War, called them “lowlifes” — and American Jews didn’t know what to make of them.

Since then, as Israel has integrated fully into the global economy, necessitating studies abroad and careers overseas, the stigma has receded, she said. “Every Israeli family has a member of the family who lives elsewhere now,” Bahat said.

That has stirred a longing to become involved, but there have been obstacles.At a session on the role of Israeli-Americans in the U.S. Jewish community, Gil Preuss described how Israelis in Boston wanted a more robust show of support for Israel’s recent war against Hamas than the broader community was prepared to offer.

“They had a particular strategy,” Preuss said. “We thought that strategy was wrong.” Israelis also resist American Jewish traditions, conference-goers said, particularly the tendency to center life around the synagogue.

“For Israelis, synagogues do not have a good connotation,” said Sarit Ron, who directs Chofshi b’Manhattan, an Israeli outreach initiative of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side. “Their attitude is you’re going to try and convert me.”

Ron said she has managed to build a community at the synagogue by peddling a low-key approach, emphasizing the range of activities, including concerts by Israeli performers. Another draw has been sessions for children focusing on Israeli song and dance — a response to parental anxieties about the loss of Israeli culture in the next generation.

This was a repeated theme at the conference, with Israelis voicing concerns about their kids losing both their Israeli and Jewish identities. Shmuel Rosner, the Israeli journalist who blogs about the American Jewish community and who appeared on a number of panels, enjoyed asking Israelis in the audience why they wanted to remain Jewish at all.

“It doesn’t matter if I want to forget I am Jewish,” one older man said. “There will be somebody there to remind me.”

Another obstacle is the lack of Israeli familiarity with fundraising for charitable causes, even those that fulfill their own needs. Rachel Davidson, a former New Jersey judge now on the IAC board, said social pressure was an avenue to getting Israelis to give.

“Making being philanthropic the price for social acceptance can be very effective,” Davidson said.

With Israeli-American now referring to the children of Israelis, some of whom no longer speak fluent Hebrew, activists also faced a dilemma of when to switch content to English. On the conference’s last day, a young man approached Benhaim as he passed breakfast tables laden with bagels.

“Ani rotzeh lehagid,” the man said, using American-accented Hebrew for “I want to say.” Then he paused and finished in English: “This was amazing.”

Synagogues Rally for Alzheimer’s Awareness

At recent Shabbat services, Baltimore-area congregations joined more than 125 churches in observance of the Purple Sabbath.

It wasn’t for the Ravens, though, and instead raised Alzheimer’s awareness, purple being the signature color of the Alzheimer’s Association. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, Beth El Congregation and Temple Emanuel of Baltimore encouraged members to attend services wearing purple and provided resources to learn about the disease and get involved with organizations working to find a cure.

Rabbi Rhoda Silverman of Temple Emanuel gave a Saturday morning sermon relating the story of Adam and Eve to the value of human brains and their functions. “Imagine if those processes slowly disappeared: the ability to remember even simple details, the ability to reason through a problem or dilemma, the ability to navigate in familiar surroundings — even in one’s own home, the ability to remember the histories of beloved family and friends, the ability to take care of basic personal needs,” she told congregants. “Having tasted knowledge, I can assure you, it wouldn’t be a return to Eden. And it isn’t for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“The facts are stark. Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive — currently incurable — brain disease that, according to the NIH, is the most common cause of dementia in older adults,” she continued. “It not only impacts the individual suffering from the disease, but it brings with it extraordinary consequences and conditions for caregivers who most often are also immediate family members who are simultaneously dealing with the slow and progressive loss of their loved one.”

Silverman offered more information in the synagogue’s lobby and directed people to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, alz.org/maryland.

Cass Naugle, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Maryland Chapter, said such events allow the association to connect with caregivers.

“When a caregiver learns about the Alzheimer’s Association, they learn that they are not alone,” Naugle said in statement. “The programs and services that we offer provide support through all stages of the disease, and for those who aren’t affected, teach them about risk factors that could contribute to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”

BMA Gets Ready to Reopen Merrick Entrance

112114_museum-briefThe Baltimore Museum of Art is set to reopen its grand Merrick Historic Entrance after more than 30 years and also premiere its renovated Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing on Sunday, Nov. 23.

 
The reinstalled wing will display approximately 850 works of American art, some of which have not been exhibited in many years, said David Park Curry, the museum’s senior curator of decorative arts and American painting and sculpture. He is inviting visitors to “lots of choices on how to see and experience” the 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century galleries, a textile gallery, decorative arts showcases and the Maryland gallery — unique in its salon-style display of paintings and their strong connection to Maryland artists and collectors.

 
“There was an openness to new” by Maryland collectors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, said Curry. They made their fortunes in mercantile and the railroads so they were considered “new-money” families. But they “were visionary and cutting edge in their tastes, and …they liked lots of stuff.”

 
The entrance and wing are part of a $28 million renovation. The final phase will be the reinstallation of the African and Asian art collections in April 2015. “Reopening the historic entrance will be an extraordinary moment during the BMA’s centennial celebration,” said the museum’s director, Doreen Bolger. “We are looking forward to throwing open the doors and welcoming visitors to a beautiful new presentation of our renowned American collection.”

An Israeli Ambassador

Former Israeli basketball star Tal Brody, who spoke with students at both Krieger Schechter Day School (above, right) and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, took time out for photos with BT students (from left) Yitzy Teichman, Michael Millstein and Yair Pincever (above) and with KSDS students (from left) Noah Abrams,  Gabe Lichtenstein, Acey Vogelstein and Sage Friedman. (Melissa Gerr)

Former Israeli basketball star Tal Brody, who spoke with students at both Krieger Schechter Day School and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, took time out for photos with BT students (from left) Yitzy Teichman, Michael Millstein and Yair Pincever. (Melissa Gerr)

Tal Brody, star of the 1977 Israeli European championship team, visited students at Krieger Schechter Day School and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School last week during a sweep through the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., region.

Nicknamed “Mr. Basketball,” Brody gave up a career in the NBA and made aliyah, eventually leading the Maccabi Tel Aviv team to victory over the Soviet Union in the 1977 European Cup championships in a game described as David versus Goliath. It was after that game that Brody uttered the famous lines in heavily American accented Hebrew, “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything.”

“For me, I went to play basketball in Israel, but I stayed because of what basketball meant to the country,” Brody told students. “What I’ve experienced you cannot weigh in gold, cannot weigh in dollars.”

For the seventh- and eighth-grade students at KSDS and the high school students at BT, Brody screened a short video detailing his personal basketball history from his high school days in New Jersey to his college days at the University of Illinois to his decision to leave the NBA — despite being the 12th overall draft pick in 1965 — and play in Israel. Afterward, students were encouraged to ask questions.

Among the sports-centric questions, one inquisitive middle school student at KSDS asked the imposing 6-foot-11⁄2-inch Brody, “Do you still play for the team?” Brody gamely laughed and said no, “but that’s a nice compliment. I have six grandchildren in Israel,” including a granddaughter who plays in a basketball school in Kfar Saba.

Ellen Friedman, KSDS middle school Judaic teacher, said, “We really want [the students] to have a sense of belonging to Israel. We want them to identify with Israel and Israelis. Speakers like Tal are great because sports is something everyone loves. His story of finding belonging in Israel is important to hear.”

During his afternoon visit to BT, Brody had an opportunity to watch students play basketball in the gym before addressing the 9th-, 10th- and 12th-graders in the auditorium. Following his presentation, Brody received a standing ovation from the students and two team shirts from Coach Eli Creeger.

Brody had two eager fans in seniors Frank Gorelik and Peleg Ovadia, who play center and guard, respectively, for the BT basketball team. Beyond Brody’s athleticism, both young men were impressed by the former star’s continuing commitment to Israel and Judaism.

“It goes far beyond basketball, that the sport [can be used to combat] anti-Semitism and encourage people to learn more about Judaism,” said Gorelik.

Said Brody: “It’s important for kids to see that life goes on in Israel. It’s not what you see on the news. There is a place for them in Israel.”

mapter@jewishtimes.com