From Eastern Europe to Owings Mills

Rabbi Nachum Katsenelenbogen and his father, Moshe, look through a photo album of Moshe’s days in Russia. (Provided)

Rabbi Nachum Katsenelenbogen and his father, Moshe, look through a photo album of Moshe’s days in Russia. (Provided)

Rabbi Nachum Katsenelenbogen always knew his father was a hero. Arrested by the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, in 1950, Moshe Katsenelenbogen spent seven-and-a-half years in a Soviet prison simply for being Jewish. Once he was free, he poured his heart into instilling a strong love of Judaism in his children.

As a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Owings Mills, Katsenelenbogen aims to bring his father’s teachings to his Baltimore-area friends, students and congregants. When his father passed away on Sept. 3 at the age of 83, the rabbi began to reflect on his father’s sacrifices. By keeping his faith under harsh circumstances, Katsenelenbogen believes his father helped ensure the spread of Judaism for future generations.

“My whole life, I dreamed about being a Chabad rabbi because of my father’s unwavering commitment to Judaism,” Katsenelenbogen, who directs Chabad of Owings Mills, said last week. “I try to pass on the lessons he taught me to the Baltimore Jewish community. He might be physically gone, but his story lives on.”

Later this year, the Chabad center will be dedicating a new Torah scroll in honor of the late Katsenelenbogen, ensuring that his memory lives on as inspiration for Jewish learning.

“My father did not die for Judaism,” said his son. “He lived for Judaism.

“My father was a walking, living Torah scroll,” he continued. “When I thought about how to commemorate his life, the Torah just seemed like the most natural fit.”

Katsenelenbogen’s father devoted his life to defending his religion. Born in the Former Soviet Union, Moshe was part of an underground network of Jewish educators and activists coordinated by Chabad leaders. Coming from a Lubavitch family, his own father, Rabbi Michoel Katsenelenbogen, was one of the original students at Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim, the movement’s flagship educational institution.

When Moshe was just 6, his father was arrested by the secret police and murdered shortly after. Despite his father’s death, Moshe continued to learn in the underground system.

“The Chabad movement taught my father the entire Jewish calendar by heart,” said Katsenelenbogen. “Many boys his age would learn arithmetic by going to baseball games. My father studied Jewish law in secret. He knew exactly [when Yom Kippur] fell, so he knew when to fast. He was fluent in the Jewish code of law.”

Moshe’s mother helped forge passports and Polish documents to help Jewish families escape from Russia. But his Jewish background and beliefs would lead him to jail.

After his arrest for refusing to attend a Soviet school and not testifying against his mother, he faced torture, physical abuse and starvation in prison. His only crime was that he was a practicing Jew.

“They told my father he had 90 months, and my grandmother was sentenced to death. They say 90 months rather than seven and a half years because psychologically, it sounds longer,” said Katsenelenbogen. “In jail, they whipped him in front of his mother and gave him minimal food. They wanted to break his spirit. Instead, they made him stronger.”

After he was released from jail, Moshe left the Soviet Union in 1971. Immigrating to London, he focused on igniting a passion for Judaism in his five children.

“My father’s stories about jail truly inspired me to pursue a career in Jewish education,” said Katsenelenbogen. “He used to share prison stories with me all the time. One of my favorite tales is his Passover story. In jail, they only feed you bread, sugar and water. Therefore, on Passover, he did not eat for eight days. He simply said eating was not an option. He was arrested for practicing Judaism, and there he is, in a Soviet jail cell, observing Jewish holidays.”

From donning tefillin under the blankets to creating his own candles on Chanukah, Moshe created a portable Judaism. This Yom Kippur, Katsenelenbogen plans to use his father’s life lessons as the inspiration for his High Holiday sermon.

“People do not want to hear a preacher, they want to hear a story,” said Katsenelenbogen. “My father’s story is real, and I think the Baltimore community can benefit from hearing about it. My father visited Owings Mills many times in his life and loved the community. When he died, thousands of Baltimoreans reached out to me. He might be one person, but his courage has inspired thousands from Eastern Europe to London to Baltimore.”

With the pressures and distractions of today’s society, Katsenelenbogen fears his father’s generation may be forgotten.

“My father had such a strong perseverance,” said Katsenelenbogen. “Even though we are not being killed by Stalin, we still face peer pressure every day. I take my [bar and bat mitzvah] students to meet Holocaust survivors and physically see their numbers. The previous generation fought so that we can celebrate Judaism freely. My father taught me well, and I want to teach my students well.”

afreedman@jewishtimes.com

Being Purple

100314_republicanIn order to take the governor’s mansion on Election Day, Republican Larry Hogan must find a way to turn the state’s majority-registered Democrats into Republican voters. To do so, he and his party are working to turn voters’ attention away from social issues such as gun control and abortion and toward the economy.

“When we talk about fiscal issues, the Republicans win,” said Joe Cluster, executive director of Maryland’s Republican Party. “When we talk about social issues, we lose.”

With only weeks to go until the Nov. 4 election, Hogan’s response to an ad released by Democrat Anthony Brown’s campaign tagging him as a gun control and abortion opponent stressed to voters that his personal opinions on both topics don’t matter, as they have already been dealt with in the state. At a news conference, he promised Marylanders that he would not intervene with legislation that already had been passed.

“This is the most deceitful, most dishonest campaign that I have ever seen in my entire life,” Hogan said at the Sept. 18 news conference. He denied having ever opposed abortion and said he has been a strong proponent of point-of-sale background checks for those looking to purchase a gun.

For its part, the Brown campaign has stood by its accusations.

“Larry Hogan knows that his dangerous conservative ideology will disqualify him with voters, so he’s trying to hide who he really is,” Brown’s running mate, Ken Ulman, said in a release.

Hogan’s predicament mirrors a trend across the country in which GOP gubernatorial candidates, as well as senatorial hopefuls in a party trying to win at least six new seats to take back control of the Senate, are working to meet independents and moderate Democrats somewhere in the middle on issues such as same-sex marriage and minimum wage while holding strong on economic concerns.

In Maryland, which has elected only one Republican governor in the past 47 years — Robert Ehrlich in 2002 — Cluster hopes frustration over taxes and jobs will translate into votes for the Hogan campaign. But some experts predict the focus on the economy won’t be enough to distract voters from the positions the Brown camp has attributed to Hogan.

Additionally, Cluster hopes the virtual absence of nationally watched races in Maryland helps his party’s cause. As a gubernatorial candidate, Hogan is somewhat free to stray from party dogma to focus on issues he believes matter most to Marylanders.

“They don’t matter to Marylanders,” said Cluster of social issues.

What does matter, he went on, is being able to afford to live in the state. With no real concentrated effort to reach out to traditionally left-leaning populations such as women and minorities, Republicans in the state hope that their talking points will resonate with them.

“I think we all care about how much is being taken out of our paycheck every day,” he said. “When we talk about the issues they can relate to us, they can relate to the message.”

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, predicts that the streak of Democrats in the governor’s residence won’t end with this election. Even with the Hogan campaign focusing all of its attention on the economy — and shoring up its base last month with a high-profile Bethesda fundraiser featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — it won’t be able to erase from voters’ minds the social issues the Brown campaign has brought up, he said.

“People who think about taxes will vote Republican anyway,” said Norris. For many Maryland voters, the prospect of lower taxes will not be enough to make a Republican candidate tempting, he explained.

The exception was Ehrlich’s campaign 12 years ago, when the party managed to win over voters with talk of taxes and jobs, eliminating social issues from the race altogether, he added. But unlike in 2002 with the failed gubernatorial bid of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrats and Brown are running a “serious” campaign in 2014.

In the Jewish community, Democrats have long held sway, but the Orthodox contingent typically leans further right on social issues than the larger community. Still, in Maryland, the GOP has historically had a difficult time winning Jewish votes.

In New York’s Orthodox communities, the vote was split in the last presidential election, depending on the neighborhood. In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, voters overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. But in Borough Park, data shows more support for Republicans in both elections. This could be attributed to the Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who lives there and has hosted meetings with top Republican Party officials.

Also, read Dollar For Dollar.

State election data shows that the majority of the Orthodox community in Maryland has voted for Democrats in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections. None of the results had an overwhelming majority, with the exception of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in which Republican George W. Bush, who was generally viewed as being very pro-Israel, received less than 11 percent of the vote in overwhelmingly Orthodox precincts. Statewide, he received 43 percent of the vote in 2004 and 40 percent in 2000.

In the 2008 presidential election, the results from Baltimore precincts in such areas as Park Heights almost mirrored statewide votes, with 62 percent of the vote going to Barack Obama, and 38 percent going to John McCain. In 2012, support for Obama in primarily Orthodox neighborhoods — 53 percent of the vote — was lower than the Democrat’s share of Maryland’s total vote at 62 percent. Mitt Romney garnered 47 percent of the vote in Jewish areas, compared with 36 percent statewide.

Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ran alongside Brown, has long been a favorite of the Jewish community. In the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial elections, the Orthodox precincts tallied slightly higher voting percentages for O’Malley than the rest of the state. The governor, who has hinted that he may run for president in 2016, has traveled to Israel several times and has been active in supporting the Maryland/Israel Development Center.

Part of the problem Republicans have faced in the past is the uphill battle their candidates face in a state with a 2-to-1 Democratic advantage among registered voters. But voting totals, even in the worst of years for the Republican Party, show a much closer matchup than registration numbers suggest.

Party chairman Cluster attributes some of the inconsistency to longtime Maryland residents who registered as Democrats decades ago but over the years have found themselves associating more with Republican platforms. During former Gov. Ehrlich’s run for office, Cluster said, the party initiated a drive to encourage those voters to switch their registration, a one-time move that could have attracted more donations from contributors looking to back a candidate with a real chance at being elected.

John Bullock, associate professor of political science at Towson University, agreed that there are many Republican voters registered as Democrats, but he offered a different explanation.

On the local level, many registered Republicans find themselves, in many ways, locked out of the action, Bullock said. In places such as Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, it’s not uncommon to see races that lack a Republican candidate altogether. For this reason, he said, some people find themselves attracted to the winning team regardless of their personal political views. Additionally, the Democratic primary is often just as competitive as the general election, if not more so, and many voters don’t want to be left out of deciding the next political official simply because of their registration.

Baltimorean Joshua Bier echoed Bullock’s theory. He followed the campaigning leading into the June primary with interest but has since largely tuned out, reasoning that the result has already all but officially been determined.

“Most people at this point figure it’s already decided,” he said. “You have a few diehard Jews who are Republicans who will vote against the Democrat no matter what. … For the most part, especially in a state like Maryland, it’s pretty much decided as soon as the primaries are over.”

The resulting political atmosphere is less purple and more shades of blue.

“I think if you look at the [2014] Democratic [gubernatorial] primary, that gives you a good idea of what this gradation looks like,” said Bullock. “You can have someone like [Heather] Mizuer, who’s really as far to the left as Democrats in the state would be, and you have [Doug] Gansler, who is probably about as far to the right as they would be, and you have Brown, who is somewhat in the middle.”

Norris said the Democratic Party in the state is generally pretty accommodating to some of the more right-leaning members of the party. Often, he said, leadership will look the other way when a member has to stray from the party line on a vote in order to appease their constituents. As a result, even moderate Republicans can find a candidate in the Democratic Party to appease their interests.

Letting a few party members stray to the right here and there, he said, is a small price to pay to maintain the kind of success Democrats have had in the state of Maryland.

Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Dollar for Dollar

The well-funded, highly influential pro-Israel lobby goes both ways in political support. In 2013-14, a variety of political action committees gave money to both Democrats and Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

J Street, known for its liberal advocacy, gave away about $1 million in contributions, almost entirely to Democrats, in those two years. It was the biggest PAC donor of that time period. The second-largest donor, NorPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates and politicians, gave $582,531, split between Democratic and Republican candidates. The third largest PAC contributor was the National Action Committee, which gave slightly more of its almost $240,000 to Democrats.

Contributions from the other top 20 pro-Israel PACs were as diverse at the top contributors. A local PAC, the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens, was listed as the eighth-largest contributor at $118,850, most of which went to Democrats in the 2013-14 cycle.

July filings with the Federal Elections Commission for the PAC list a P.O. box address in Pikesville and list several prominent members of the Baltimore Jewish community as contributors, including three members of the Cordish family, several Caves Valley Partners executives, political fundraiser Josh Fidler, Glenn and Joseph Weinberg, Harvey Meyerhoff and Mark Neumann, chairman of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The PAC’s largest contributions include $2,500 to Aimee Belgard, a Democratic congressional candidate for New Jersey’s 3rd District; $5,000 to Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman for Virginia’s 6th District; $2,500 Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democratic congressman running for the Senate; $2,500 to Gary Peters, a Michigan Democratic congressman running for the Senate; and Brad Schneider, a Democratic congressman in Illinois’ 10th District.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Schneider is the sixth-ranking recipient of the pro-Israel lobby at $190,638 in 2014. The top five (in descending order) are New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and former Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor.

McConnell and Udall are facing tight re-election battles this year, and Cantor lost to a relatively unknown Republican in this summer’s Virginia primary, forcing him to abandon the post of House majority leader. Graham and Booker and considered shoo-ins for re-election.

Polarized Polling

 

 

RAMAPO, N.Y. — After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.

Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.

The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.

Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.

Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.

Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.

“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”

Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.

“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.

After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.

Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes.

Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.

“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.

“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.

Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.

“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.

Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure.  A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”

But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.

“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.

“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”

He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.

“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

A Good Start

Anti-fascist protesters hold signs and a banner in front of the Athens  municipal amphitheater during a swearing-in ceremony for Golden Dawn party member Ilias Kasidiaris on Aug. 29.

Anti-fascist protesters hold signs and a banner in front of the Athens
municipal amphitheater during a swearing-in ceremony for Golden Dawn party member Ilias Kasidiaris on Aug. 29.

ATHENS, Greece — Jewish groups say the passage of a bill banning Holocaust denial and imposing harsher penalties for hate speech is an important milestone in the fight against Greece’s rising neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.

 
“This comes very late but not too late,” World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer said. Greece’s parliament passed the bill on Sept. 9 following more than a year of political wrangling.

 
Riding a wave of fear and despair brought on by Greece’s devastating economic crisis — coupled with a large influx of illegal immigrants from Africa and Asia — Golden Dawn emerged from obscurity in 2012 to become the country’s third-largest political party, with 18 members of parliament.

 
Golden Dawn, which uses Nazi imagery, has been blamed by the government, prosecutors and law enforce- ments for hundreds of xenophobic attacks. The incidents include the killings of at least four Pakistani immigrants and the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a noted anti-fascist Greek rapper known as Killah P.

 
The new law increases jail time to three years for instigating racist violence and imposes fines of up to $34,000 for individuals and up to $130,000 for groups convicted of “inciting acts of discrimination, hatred or violence.” It also criminalizes denial of the Holocaust and other recognized genocides, with the same penalties.

 
In a move that will allow the government to target political groups such as Golden Dawn, organizations found to incite racism can be barred from receiving state funds. However, the law cannot be applied retroactively.

 
Anti-racism laws dating to 1979 did not provide for prosecuting groups or parties that incited bias crimes. They also barred police from investigating suspected hate crimes if the victim chose not to press charges.

 
“We have anti-racism laws already, but the reason they were not applied was that immigrants, for example, were afraid to report the crimes because they did not hold proper travel documents, lived here illegally and feared deportation,” Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou told parliament ahead of the debate on the legislation.

 
There were also no prior provisions against Holocaust denial. So there was little the authorities could do when a Golden Dawn lawmaker proudly declared himself a Holocaust denier or when party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, in a television interview, denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps.

 
Following the 2013 murder of Fyssas, which Greek prosecutors blamed on Golden Dawn activists, many Golden Dawn leaders and lawmakers were arrested and accused of running a criminal organization. Their trials are scheduled for December.

 
Even with top party leaders jailed, including Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn maintained its popular support in recent municipal elections.

 

“We really hope the law will limit racist and anti-Semitic statements and will deter Holocaust deniers, who have multiplied in the last two years, including inside parliament,” said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

 
Some 5,000 Jews live in Greece today. The prewar community of some 78,000, most of whom lived in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust.
It is also hoped that the law will curb expressions of anti-Semitism. A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found Greece to be the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, with 69 percent of the population holding anti-Jewish views.

 
The new law brings Greece in line with most of the other European Union countries, which have barred Holocaust denial and impose similar jail sentences for inciting racial or ethnic violence.

 
An initial draft of the measure failed to garner enough support after right-wing elements in Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party proposed excluding the Orthodox Church and the military or police from prosecution under the law.

 
Other holdups were over which genocides to recognize, whether or not to include provisions for homophobic violence and a petition by 139 academics against the Holocaust denial clause in the name of free speech.

 
In addition to the Holocaust, the new law includes the mass killings of Armenians, Black Sea Greeks and other Christians in Asia Minor during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Under the law, inciting violence or discrimination for homophobic reasons is illegal, but provisions allowing for civil unions of gay couples were removed.

 
In a measure of how problematic the law is, only 99 of the 300 members of parliament turned up for the final vote, with 55 voting in favor.

 
“What is xenophobia? The railings at my home stopping a Pakistani, or any foreigner, from raping my wife or killing me?” Golden Dawn lawmaker Michail Arvanitis told parliament,
according to Reuters. “Discrimination is a fact of life.”

 
But the nation’s Jews, its Jewish leaders and others who support the new legislation see things much differently.

 
“We hope [the law] will be applied rigorously by the courts,” the WJC’s Singer said.
“However, more efforts will need to be undertaken if the fight against extremist forces such as Golden Dawn is to be successful.”

Doing What It Takes

Students at Saadya Gaon Religious Public school participate in a program to enhance literacy skills in schools with large Ethiopian populations.

Students at Saadya Gaon Religious Public school participate in a program to enhance literacy skills in schools with large Ethiopian populations.

OFAKIM, Israel — In 2008, Asher Nachmani wanted to buy a computerized blackboard for his classroom, but the elementary school where he teaches technology in this low-income town didn’t have the money.

 
So Nachmani built one himself.

 
He downloaded a free program from the Internet, bought a controller for a Nintendo Wii video game console and connected it to an infrared bulb taken from his television remote control.

 
Using a Bluetooth connection, Nachmani was able to project his computer screen onto a wall and draw on it.

 
The story is a typical one at the Ashalim Experimental Public School, the oldest elementary school in Ofakim. Chronically short on funds, Ashalim teachers are often forced to improvise, making do with supplies donated by neighbors or paid for from their own pockets.

 
In one classroom, a window divider was cut from the principal’s coffee table. Teachers at times pay for lunches that poor children cannot afford, said Yael Segev, the school’s principal.

 
“The municipality can’t take the expenses,” said Segev, who says she donates about 10 percent of her salary back to the school as charity. “We approach this from a place of pride. We see this as our home, and we care for it.”

 
As two million Israeli students begin the school year this month, they face some of the most unequal educational conditions in the Western world.

 
According to a report this year by the Taub Center, Israel has the largest educational achievement gaps bet-ween rich and poor among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, an economic grouping of the world’s wealthiest nations.

 
The report also found that Israel performs second worst in international test scores, beating only Slovakia, and has above-average class sizes — 29 students per class compared to an OECD average of 20.

 
Israel’s Education Ministry has aimed to address these problems by providing more funding to poor districts starting this year, increasing the number of summer schools and enhancing school choice. But Nahum Blass, a senior education researcher at the Taub Center, said increased local education funding in rich towns, coupled with the hiring of private tutors by wealthier parents, cancel out the ministry’s efforts.

 
“What the system can give the weaker students is not enough to cover the gap between weak and strong,” Blass said. “A poor kid will get a little more from the Education Ministry, but what the [well-off] local authorities and the parents give can counteract that affirmative action and flip it.”
A number of educational nonprofits have launched efforts to address these issues.

 
Balanced Literacy, a program by the Israeli Center for Educational Innovation, runs programs at 18 schools with high concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants, beginning language classes with a half-hour of class reading time and up to three hours of language instruction daily. Another nongovernmental organization, Educating for Excellence, identifies the most talented students in low-income areas and provides them with enrichment, extracurricular activities and a quiet space to do homework for three hours several times a week.

 
But much of the burden still falls on teachers who take it upon themselves to give students in low-performing schools the extra attention they need to succeed.

 
Sarit Elmaliach, a first-grade teacher at the Saadya Gaon Religious Public School in the central Israeli town of Or Yehuda, has taken steps to make her lessons more relevant to the one-third of her students from Ethiopian families.

 
Like other Israeli minorities, Ethiopians come from less affluent families and struggle more in school. According to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a government-funded think tank that studies Ethiopian Israelis, as of 2010 only one-quarter of Ethiopian high-school graduates were prepared for college versus nearly half of Israeli Jews overall. Ethiopian college graduation rates also lag those of Israeli Jews.

 
Elmaliach reads to her students books with Ethiopian characters and focused one art class on an Ethiopian sculptor. When she visits the parents of her Ethiopian students at home, she takes care to abide by Ethiopian standards of politeness, even being mindful of things as simple as sitting down before drinking a cup of water. Before the school year starts, she learns the origins of her students’ Amharic names.

 
“You want to show them a little that you’re connected to them,” Elmaliach said. “Some kids would get embarrassed and want another name. I say, ‘You have nothing to be embarrassed about. That’s a respected name.’”

 
That sort of cultural sensitivity can only go so far toward compensating for the substantial funding gaps between rich and poor schools. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012, Ofakim’s local government provided $1,629 of annual funding per student — a sum less than half the $3,613 per student provided by the wealthy town of Ramat Hasharon in suburban Tel Aviv. The Education Ministry did not respond to a request for information about how much extra funding it gives to low-income schools.

 
Funding from NGOs also helps a bit. But at Ashalim, which doesn’t receive NGO funding, the school
depends on the commitment and ingenuity of its teachers.

 
“When I came here, I fell in love,” said Segev, the Ashalim principal. “It’s very warm, very embracing,
not like in the city. We all have the opportunity to move to other places, but it’s hard to leave this place.”

Still Waiting

Photo by Melissa Gerr

Photo by Melissa Gerr

After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.

Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.

The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.

Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.

Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.

Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.

“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”

Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.

“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.

After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.

Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

 

Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.

“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.

“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.

Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.

“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.

Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure.  A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”

But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.

“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.

“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”

He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.

“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”

Election regulations were not the only last-minute communications in Ramapo. There was a glimmer of possible compromise the day before that appeared via robocalls and a booklet that went out to hundreds of Orthodox homes. The booklet appeared on social media as well.

The booklet on the Preserve Ramapo Facebook page appeared to come from a loosely identified Jewish group. It featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield was listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.

Several pages of graphics and text urged citizens to vote in favor of redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that a yes vote would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”

Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.

“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” he said. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”

Against All Odds

Rambam Health Care Campus patients are transported to the facility's fortified underground hospital.

Rambam Health Care Campus patients are transported to the facility’s fortified underground hospital.

Not unexpectedly, southern Israel suffered more than other areas of the Jewish state during this summer’s conflict with Hamas. Yet, up in northern Israel, 30 doctors from the Haifa-based Rambam Health Care Campus (RHCC) were drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.

“Israel is a small country, so everything affects you whether you are in the conflict or not,” Prof. Rafael (Rafi) Beyar, a renowned cardiologist and director general of RHCC, said.

Now, in the aftermath of the 50-day summer war, RHCC is proving that medicine has “no borders,” in Beyar’s words. This week, doctors at the hospital conducted a successful kidney transplant on a 14-year-old boy from Gaza.

The largest hospital in northern Israel, RHCC serves more than two million residents of the area and functions as the primary medical facility for the Northern Command of the IDF. In addition to treating Gazan patients and training Palestinian physicians, the hospital is receiving wounded Syrian refugees.

Many of RHCC’s Gazan patients are children facing cancer and kidney diseases.

“These kids don’t have any other solutions,” Beyar said.

While suffering from kidney failure, the Gaza boy treated this week also had a blood condition that obstructed some of his blood vessels. Doctors needed to first check for useable blood vessels, and only then could they transplant his sister’s kidney into his body. When it became clear that the boy’s functioning blood vessels could not sustain the new kidney, doctors implanted a synthetic connector that saved his life.

On the Syrian front, RHCC has received nearly 100 wounded refugees over the past few months. IDF soldiers provide emergency treatment for injured refugees at the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights and then bring them to the hospital.

Most of the Syrian patients have sustained injuries from shock, bombs, and other blasts. When they are treated and recover, most return to Syria, but sometimes they don’t want to go back, said Beyar.

Like the patients from Syria, most of the Gazan patients are thankful for the treatment they receive from RHCC. Although Beyar doesn’t know what happens to the patients once they return to Gaza, he said, “Someone who is treated and whose life is saved knows how to appreciate that.” Bayern added that he believes Israeli medical treatment of Gazans “has a long-term impact” on how Palestinian civilians view Israel.

RHCC’s staff and management were tested heavily during the 2006 Lebanon War, when hundreds of rockets rained down on the hospital. Following that war, a planned parking lot was built as a dual-purpose facility capable of converting into a fortified 2,000-bed underground hospital for times of conflict.

Initially funded with a donation from Israeli philanthropist Sammy Ofer and afterward funded by the Israeli government, the underground hospital opened in June and is the world’s largest structure of its kind.

The parking garage “has the full capacity to convert to a hospital,” Beyar said.

“That means it has all the facilities that a hospital needs, in terms of air conditioning, lights, oxygen, all the medical gadgets,” he continued. “All the infrastructure is already in the walls. That means all the oxygen pipes and connections to the emergency machines. So you can roll down the patients, the respirators, the monitors and just install them immediately.”

To protect against chemical warfare, the parking garage can be sealed from the outside by special doors, and filters then clean the air in the area.Several IDF soldiers have been killed by errant mortar fire from the Syrian civil war, and with its fortified underground hospital, RHCC is prepared in case the war spills further into Israel.

“We are ready for any such event,” Beyar said.

After a drill conducted by RHCC, Beyar estimates that a full evacuation of the hospital to the underground area could take up to 72 hours. But with some preparation, “it only takes one hour” to move about four departments of 30 patients each underground, he said.

Concern over the looming threat of the Syrian conflict has not stopped RHCC from pursuing medical innovations beyond the fortified underground structure. The hospital often collaborates with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which is also located in Haifa, and with private companies. Beyar himself is known for inventing a robotic catheterization system that enables physicians to conduct remote surgery.

“You can sit next to the robot and operate the catheterization system, which will actually open up blockages in the [heart’s] arteries and implant stents,” Beyar said.

The other advantage of the system is that this keeps doctors away from radiation.

“[A doctor] doesn’t need to stand by the X-ray machine, and sits in the console,” explained Beyar. The catheterization system has been approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration and “is penetrating U.S. market,” he added.

Another recent development tested and utilized at RHCC is a focused ultrasound for the brain. Using technology developed by a company called InSightec, doctors “can actually treat your brain with a focused ultrasound beam and treat Parkinson’s [disease],” according to Beyar, who said that to date more than 10 patients have undergone this ultrasound at Rambam “with amazing results.”

“The patients come out of this procedure, which takes two to three hours, and they stop trembling,” he said. “There are no more tremors in their hands. … [The treatment] holds and [the shaking] doesn’t come back.”

‘A Jewish Disease’

The mutated BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes increase the rise of breast cancer.

The mutated BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes increase the rise of breast cancer.

Baltimorean Jill Mull was just 32 when she learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. The young Jewish mother of twins was hoping the mark on her breast was simply a cyst, but a checkup resulted two days later in a lumpectomy.

“I had five surgeries in a year and nine months and underwent chemo-therapy,” said Mull. “I lost all my hair and was sick for a very long time, but I am now cancer-free.”

As an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, say researchers, Mull was already at a higher risk for the disease.

Roughly 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. But if they are a carrier of a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene — human genes that code for tumor suppressor proteins and that have been implicated in cancer formation — the chances of having cancer jumps to 50 percent by the time they are 50 years old and skyrockets to 80 percent by the time they reach 80, said Dr. Rachel Brem, director of breast imaging and intervention at the George Washington University Hospital. Roughly one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors came from Central and Eastern Europe, are carriers of the mutated gene compared with one in 400 in the general population.

As a new debate in breast cancer prevention focuses on the benefits of genetic testing, Andrea Roth of Gaithersburg wishes she had known she was a carrier before she received her diagnosis.

“I think it’s a no-brainer to be able to fight with every power to avoid getting sick,” she said. “Put yourself into a power position.”

Roth had been counseled into being genetically tested — a blood sample or saliva swab is all it takes — only after a biopsy indicated that a lump she had was malignant. Armed with the resulting information that she was a carrier of the BRCA mutation, she decided to upgrade a lumpectomy to a mastectomy. She also plans to have a hysterectomy in the near future to head off further cancerous development.

Which is why Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, director of the medical genetics institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, believes every Ashkenazi Jew over the age of 30, regardless of family medical history, should submit to genetic testing. Currently, only those with risk factors are advised to have genetic testing.

Levy-Lahad led a study that tested about 8,000 healthy Ashkenazi Jewish men and found that some 175 of them were carriers. The study then screened the females in the family of these male carriers.

While the study only focused on Israeli subjects, Levy-Lahad believes the results would be the same for Ashkenazi Jews in the United States.

“In so many cases, the carriers were identified only once they had cancer. That was one woman too late,” she said. Getting tested “is not as common as it should be. There are plenty of carriers who have not been identified.”

By finding carriers early, women can sit down with a genetic counselor and learn their options, the researcher added. “I personally think it’s time [for widespread testing]. The whole goal is for people to know they are at risk, and there are preventative measures.”

But Dr. Nancy Markus, a breast cancer surgeon at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, disagrees with universal testing. “The majority of Ashkenazi Jews don’t have the gene,” she said. “And I don’t feel they should be tested unless there is some family history.”

The testing would “create angst where they may not need to be any,” she explained. Also, carriers of the mutated BRCA genes don’t automatically get breast cancer. Another thing to consider is that if someone is found to be free of the mutated gene, “that can create a false sense of security that they are not at risk.

“You need to be educated about the pros and cons of the testing, what the results mean, what negative results mean,” she continued. “Once they are educated and informed, they can make a decision” as to whether or not to be tested.

Brem considers getting tested “a very personal thing,” adding that some women want to know and others do not. In her opinion, all Ashkenazi Jews should be informed of their odds and then be allowed to make their own decision about whether or not to be genetically tested.

Having everyone genetically tested “may not be cost-effective. Health care dollars are very limited,” she added.

While genetic testing is important, “the most important thing to do is get a physical exam,” said Larry Wickerham, associate chairman of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project.

Others are adamant that the ethnic aspects of breast cancer must be taken into account.

“Breast cancer is a Jewish disease,” said Leslie Ries, a breast cancer survivor who established the John Fetting Fund for Breast Cancer Research with her husband, Tom. “If Jews viewed breast cancer the way they viewed Tay-Sachs, more progress and research will get done. Rather than waiting to get breast cancer, we should fund the research. We are so close to unlocking the doors. The key is the money.”

Last week, researchers and scientists affiliated with the John Fetting Fund shared the latest findings of three studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Sara Sukumar, co-director of the Breast Center Program at Hopkins, says she is working on a new blood test that can detect the presence of cancerous DNA in the blood of metastatic breast cancer patients with 95 percent accuracy.

“Through research on breast cancer prevention, we will be able to detect breast cancer at the earliest moment possible,” said Sukumar. “If we are able to catch breast cancer quicker, we will be ahead of the game in treatment.”

Her colleague, Kala Visvanathan of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, is working to identify genetic changes by monitoring normal breast tissue for early signs of a developing cancer.

“We want to find breast cancer before it is detected on the mammogram,” said Visvanathan. “The goal is to find who is at high or low risk. As soon as we realize who is at risk, we intervene earlier.”

Other research is looking at the use of natural treatments to combat breast cancer. Diplai Sharma said she discovered that honokiol, a natural extract found in the bark of magnolia trees, has the power to block the growth and migration of breast cancer cells. In addition, Sukumar recently discovered that curcumin, a prominent ingredient in Asian yellow spice turmeric, has anticancer effects. The Asian spice can help aid chemotherapy and improve its cancer-killing effects.

While many researchers know where their projects are headed, lack of funding has proved a drain on research.

“We need to buy them time,” said John Fetting, Hopkins’ associate director of clinical practices. “These ladies know where their research is headed. However, their research takes time. People want immediate results and won’t fund them.”

“We still need more of the basic research and of course, we need funding to do that,” said Wickersham. “There is clearly work to be done.”

 

afreedman@jewishtimes.com
spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

A Time for Renewal

091914_Havdalah

For the East Bank Havarah, it’s all about spiritual growth.

For those of the East Bank Havurah, it seems that spiritual seeking is a part of their DNA.

Steve Siegel, 67, of Pikesville strayed far from Judaism after his bar mitzvah at a large Reform congregation and found himself on such a spiritual quest as a young adult in the 1970s. Like many of his generation, Siegel looked to the teachings

of Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute for Inspiration.

He thought he had found it. Yet, when Siegel informed the guru that he was planning to go to live with Himalayan monks, Swami advised him against it.

“This is not your path,” he told Siegel.

Sometime later, Siegel took a class in kabbalah at Columbia Jewish Center, where he met Maurice Braverman.

“Maurice told me about [Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi], the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement,” related Braverman. “Reb Zalman wanted to return to the roots and the spirit of Judaism without some of the restrictions that were off-putting to so many young Jews in the 1950s and 1960s. It was halachah reinterpreted.”

Braverman brought Siegel to a retreat with Shalomi, and he was moved.

“I realized I could find what I was looking for, right here in Judaism,” said Siegel. After that, “Zalman inspired and helped us to get a havurah started.”

The group later became known as the East Bank Havurah.The Jewish Renewal movement, most commonly associated with the teachings of Shalomi, Martin Buber and Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach, originated in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the Havurah Movement which developed alongside it, Jewish Renewal was a response to the desires of a new generation of Jews who sought a strong connection to Judaism, but also desired a more inclusive, more intimate and more participatory religious experience that reflected their modern values.  Members of the movement, sometimes described as “neo-Chasidism,” took traditional prayer, ritual and traditions and updated them with modern ideologies such as feminism, pacifism, environmentalism and soc-ial justice. In the 1980s and 1990s, the movement embraced elements of Eastern spiritual traditions as well as largely dormant Jewish practices of meditation and mysticism.

In the beginning, said Siegel, an investment planner and financial advisor who also teaches Mussar and meditation, “it started because a group of us wanted to ‘do something spiritual.’ We met once a month on Fridays. We would do Kiddush, maybe light candles, say the hamotzi and then have dinner.”

Catherine Myrowitz, a 62-year-old psychotherapist, yoga and meditation teacher, mediator and author of “Finding a Home for the Soul,” a collection of interviews with Jews by choice, discovered the East Bank Havurah around that time, when she was invited by friends to a Shabbat service and then attended a Shavuot retreat.

The group “was like hand in glove,” she recalled. “It’s funny … we all feel like it is ‘hand in glove,’ but we all have different reasons why it is a perfect fit.”

Originally from California, Myro-witz was raised Episcopalian and was in the process of converting to Judaism when she first joined the Havurah.

“The first time I came, I remember so many incredible ideas, but not so much going on. It was also the most nonjudgmental group of people I’ve ever met,” she said. “It still is. We don’t have factions; we don’t have gossip, and we never actually told members not to do these things. It just didn’t happen. I can bring anything to the group and won’t be judged.”

As time went on, the group grew in numbers, became more active and met more frequently. At some point early on, Braverman helped the group to become more organized. Still, throughout its 30-year history, the havurah has remained fluid and diverse, welcoming people of all ages, denominational affiliations and levels of observance. What members all share is a commitment to their own spiritual growth and the growth of the havurah.

There have been few conflicts. “At one time, there was a question of membership dues. But we were all anarchic young singles. We decided, no membership dues. If people wanted to, they could give $5,” Siegel recalled. “When we started, we were all single. Then a bunch of us started to get married,” said Myrowitz. “Steve met his wife, Marcia, at a Rosh Hashanah retreat.”

Initially, said Myrowitz, her husband Elliott, a lapsed Orthodox Jew, wanted nothing to do with the havurah, but eventually, “he became one of its most active members.”

Throughout the years, group members shared important celebrations, including marriages, births and b’nai mitzvoth and supported one another through painful events such as deaths, illnesses and other tragedies.

“There was a point when we were just enormous,” Myrowitz explained. “There were tons of little kids running around, and a couple of people in the havurah wanted more structure and a fixed place where we would meet.”

“And they wanted us to have a rabbi,” added Siegel. “So those people left, and they started a shul,” Chevrei Tzedek.

These days, members of the havurah, which welcomes newcomers, take turns leading and hosting services, learning sessions and holiday programs. Shabbat services now take place weekly, alternating between Friday evening and Saturday morning services. Every quarter, havurah members create a schedule for the coming months. Retreats, including the ann-ual Yom Kippur one, which this year is at the Pearlstone Center, remain a vital part of the East Bank Havurah experience. In addition to traditional Torah services, the havurah also holds services that feature chanting, meditation and lots of music. Yizkor and healing services combine traditional prayer with personal reflections.

“Every once in a while, we’ll come to a Shabbat service where no one has prepared, and we say, ‘OK, it’s a community Shabbat and we all chip in,’” noted Myrowitz. “That’s an evolution, and it says something about the ease we have with each other and with Judaism.”

 

sellin@jewishtimes.com