On the Attack

Spray-painted swastikas were the work of vandals at Torah V’Emunah in North Miami Beach. (Yona Lunger)

Spray-painted swastikas were the work of vandals at Torah V’Emunah in North Miami Beach.
(Yona Lunger)

Set back from a main street on one side and obscured by trees and shrubs on another, it’s easy to miss Torah V’Emunah, an Orthodox synagogue in a residential North Miami Beach neighborhood.

“We don’t even have a sign in front of the synagogue,” said Miriam Bensinger, the rabbi’s wife. “People in the Jewish community know what it is.”

The inconspicuous synagogue became a center of controversy this week after authorities say vandals spray-painted swastikas and the word “Hamas” in bold red letters on the pillars at the building’s entrance early on the morning of July 28.

The vandalism appears to be part of the protests that have erupted since Israel began its offensive against Hamas in Gaza on July 8. Through this past weekend, more than 1,400 Palestinians have died, perhaps 70 percent of them civilians. Israel has suffered 67 casualties, including 64 soldiers and three civilians.

While polls show that Americans generally support Israel’s war against Hamas, there have been more than 200 anti-Israel protests around the country, including in Washington, D.C. Increasingly, demonstrators’ criticism of Israel’s actions has taken on an anti-Semitic tinge, according to Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

“There are Holocaust analogies, apartheid analogies, signs saying, ‘Death to Israel,’ and sometimes they’re replacing ‘Israelis’ with ‘Jews.’”

Still, he said, this activism is nothing like what is happening in Europe, where mobs have burned down Jewish property and threatened worshipers in synagogues.

The graffiti on the Florida synagogue was amateurish, with the arms of the swastikas painted in the wrong direction.

The defacing of the synagogue has been considered “criminal mischief,” according to police reports.

“This is not Europe,” Segal said. “The concern is that as people use this inflammatory rhetoric” it will be translated into intimidation and violence.

So far there has been no violence, with only reports of shoving between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators in Los Angeles and Boston, Segal said. What is changing is that online rhetoric, unrestrained by the anonymity of the person posting it, is “spilling over to the demonstrations,” he said.

Slogans such as “blaming Hamas for rockets is like blaming a woman for punching a rapist” and the hashtag “#HitlerWasRight” have become part of the protestors’ discourse, said Segal. “We’re seeing that on the ground now.”

The ADL reports that phrases such as “Jews=Killers” and “Jews are Killing Innocent Children” were found near the entrance to a Jewish summer camp near Malibu, Calif. And leaflets that threatened violence if Israel does not pull out of Gaza were left on cars in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Chicago.

Authorities have not made any arrests in the Miami incidents, but the police have increased area patrols. And leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities are trying to stem any violence by working together behind the scenes, said Syed Faisal, a founding board member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations.

“We stand together as one when it comes to protecting the places of worship,” Faisal said. “We’re trying to take a more calm stand, a more peaceful stand, because at the end of the day, the violence is not going to help anyone.”

The anti-Jewish activities come after several surveys have shown a decrease in such incidents in the United States. In April, the ADL reported that anti-Semitic acts were down 19 percent in 2013 over the year before, continuing a multiyear trend. And last month, a Pew survey found that Jews were the religious group that Americans felt most warmly about.

“There’s no doubt that the country is the safest place for Jews,” Segal said. “But next year I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers [in the ADL anti-Semitism audit] were up.”

Since the fighting in Gaza broke out, some commentators have noted that the strong identification of Jews with Israel is a double-edged sword: Just as Jews blur the distinction between themselves and Israel with slogans such as, “We stand with Israel,” Israel’s extreme detractors likewise make no distinction between Israel and the Jewish people when they place blame.

Segal rejects the comparison.

“Holding Jews accountable for the perceived actions of Israel when those actions are equated with what the Nazis did is not what any Jew is asking for,” he said. “Demonizing Jews for expressing support for Israel as it defends itself from terrorist attacks is morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous.”

Navigating Toward A Healthy Harbor

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor received a failing grade this year for its lack of water quality, and the resources needed to improve it are as complex a network as the myriad waterways that comprise its watershed, draining 134 square miles within Baltimore City and County, an area equal to 64,856 football fields.

But for Baltimore’s tourism industry, the harbor is crucial, says Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Visit Baltimore. “The No. 1 draw is the Inner Harbor.”

According to Rogers’ office, nearly 24 million tourists visited the site last year, pumping more than $5 billion into the local economy. Local businessman Dan Naor worries that if the harbor remains dirty, such impressive numbers will quickly decline.

“We smell the water, we see the floating trash, we get the warnings from the Coast Guard: Don’t swim, don’t [scuba] dive,” says Naor, an Israeli-American and chief operating officer of Baltimore Marine Centers, which rents approximately 1,200 slips within the Inner Harbor.

Naor has even lost annual renters who are “fed up with the trash,” he says. “We see it every day. It’s a huge problem; it’s unacceptable. There’s no reason why in 2014 we have such dirty water in the Baltimore harbor; there’s no excuse for it.”

Enter Healthy Harbor 2020, the plan launched by Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc. and its president, Laurie Schwartz, who with a coalition of government agencies, environmental groups, businesses and community organizations pledge to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Sensitive to concerns such as Naor’s and aware of warnings to avoid contact with the contaminated waters of Baltimore’s biggest tourist attraction, their strategy is to combat and correct the scourge of sewage, trash and polluted storm water that have been identified as chief sources to the harbor’s pollution. But even they admit that to complete the job by 2020 is an ambitious goal.

“It was far enough out that it seemed possible,” says Schwartz, “but close enough that people might live to see it.”

Waterfront Partnership “started out focused on the basics of clean, safe and attractive” in the harbor area,  she explains.

Then about four years ago, Waterfront Partnership chair and Brown Advisory CEO Michael Hankin approached the board members and said the job was only half complete, Schwartz recalls, “if we were only focused on the land side and had our backs to the water. … It was because of the view, because of the great asset of the harbor and because of the water” that so many businesses and residents were located there.

At the time, says Schwartz, people weren’t sure how exactly to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by the next decade.

Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Blue Water Baltimore, a local nonprofit water monitoring and advocacy group, all supplied input to the Healthy Harbor plan, and two local environmental engineering firms, Biohabitats and the Center for Watershed Protection, researched and analyzed its methods and goals. Bill Stack, the deputy director of the Center for Watershed Protection, has 30 years of experience in surface-water management from his time at the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Stack says his years with the city allowed him extra insight to the challenges and that he “could develop a plan that was uncensored … based on what I would have done had I had power in Baltimore City and the political support.”

The resulting plan is a progressive multidisciplinary approach, he says, aiming to reduce and eliminate trash on streets that could eventually end up in the waterways, repair or replace the aging sewer system, restore degraded streams to function properly and reduce impervious surfaces so there is more land for water absorption.

The plan includes monitored progress reports, measured through regular checks of harbor water and its watershed streams for five water-quality indicators: chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, total nitrogen and total phosphorus, the substance contributing to the algae bloom in Lake Erie that is being blamed for contaminating Toledo, Ohio’s water supply. One human-health indicator, bacterial contamination, is also monitored in Baltimore.

Each year, Eco-Check — a partnership between the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — issues an assessment report card. Earlier this year, the harbor received an F.

“We’re not where we want to be or need to be; however, progress is being made,” says Schwartz. “It may seem like a fine line, but to us it’s real progress that, within that F grade, the percentage of times that the harbor met certain standards increased over the last year and over previous years. And so it’s within sight that we will get to a D and then we believe a C.”


“There’s actually a tremendous amount of sewage contamination that’s entering our streams, rivers and harbor on a daily basis, [even] during dry weather, through the storm-water infrastructure,” says David Flores, the Baltimore harbor water keeper with Blue Water Baltimore.

Flores, who holds an environmental science degree from Bard College and is a part-time evening student at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, explains that his role as water keeper is concerned foremost with monitoring and legal advocacy, drawing upon the 1972 Clean Water Act to protect rivers and streams. Blue Water Baltimore conducts water-quality studies and advocates for compliance of laws, even lodging lawsuits when needed to protect waterways. The organization has been monitoring pollutants and working to improve water quality since 2010, and it began partnering with Healthy Harbor in 2011.

Sewage contamination of streams happens, explains Flores, because much of the sewer and storm infrastructure in Baltimore is outdated — almost 100 years in some locations; typically, Flores says, systems are built to last about 75 years. The systems are gravity driven, so pipes are laid underground close to existing streams, where the land grade naturally runs downhill.

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An Internet Defense


One of the images posted by the “Israel Under Fire” student initiative of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya college and graduate school.

Australia’s Sydney Harbor is up in flames. Large letters superimposed on the scene ask, “How would they react?”

That image and many others like it have been distributed by an Israeli student initiative called “Israel Under Fire,” which now boasts more than 66,000 followers on its Facebook page. While rocket attacks continue from Gaza after Palestinian terrorists’ rejection of a cease-fire brokered by Egypt and accepted by Israel, more than 400 student volunteers are working together from a computer room at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) college and graduate school to present the world with Israel’s position on the ongoing conflict with Hamas.

“We really believe that today the real war takes place on the Internet,” Israel Zari, the student union spokesman at IDC, said.

The first Israel Under Fire student operation at IDC was held during Israel’s November 2012 conflict with Hamas, which saw the Israel Defense Forces conduct Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. The student initiative was reopened as soon as the IDF launched its current operation, Protective Edge. This time the campaign has its own website, israelunderfire.com, where the students accumulate all of their information via text, videos, and memes.

Despite their initiative being a private one, Israel Under Fire’s students work in conjunction with guidelines and rules from the Israeli prime minister’s Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

“This is the largest private [media] operations room in Israel,” Zari said. “Our goal is … to present a unified front.”

The students work around the clock in groups. Each group is dedicated to a different skill, such as graphic design and research. There are also many international students who translate the content into various languages.

Given the current situation, the students are focusing on promoting the message that Israel “would welcome a cease-fire” and would like “to finish the military operation,” Zari said.

They also want to show that Israel froze its weapons and strikes, “but on the side of Hamas this did not happen, despite all the mediation efforts,” he said.

The students’ posts have included images of the warnings that the IDF sends to Gaza citizens before airstrikes and examples of Israel’s humanitarian efforts in order to show to the world that Israel’s goal is not to hurt citizens.


Student volunteers work from a computer room at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on the “Israel Under Fire” initiative, which presents the world with Israel’s position on the ongoing conflict with Hamas.

On the other side of the media war, Palestinian groups and activists are promoting the opposite perspective. According to Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not personally supporting Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, but Fatah — the movement he heads — is spreading a violent anti-Israel message on Facebook.

In a Tuesday post on the official Fatah Facebook page, “a poster claiming to be from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah, called for renewing suicide terror attacks against Israel,” Marcus said.

The post stated, “Today Palestine is waiting for its men … our promise of the [Al-Aqsa Martyrs] Brigades is to cause the enemy to tremble, who only understands the language of blood, bullets, explosive belts and Martyrdom-seeking [suicide] actions … We call to perform Martyrdom-seeking actions [suicide attacks].”

Earlier in July, Fatah announced in a Facebook post that Hamas, Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are “brothers-in-arms,” united by “one God, one homeland, one enemy, one goal,” through an image showing three fighters from the three organizations’ military wings.

Additionally, in a recent video produced by Fatah’s military wing the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and posted on Facebook, Abbas’ movement warns the Israeli government and the Israeli people, “Death will reach you from the south to the north. Flee our country and you won’t die. The KN-103 rocket is on its way toward you.”

“As is its standard policy, the Palestinian Authority is sending different messages through different mediums,” Marcus said. “Abbas’ Fatah is using its social media to say things that would bring outrage from the international community if they were said by the Palestinian Authority directly.”

Meanwhile, independent Palestinian activists are continuing to wage their own battles on social media. For instance, the Facebook page “Stand Up for Palestine” uses “Israel is a war criminal” as its tagline and posts memes such as an image of screaming children being threatened by a knife with the headline, “Gaza Holocaust.”

At IDC, some of the students are specifically responsible for monitoring and exposing false information distributed by pro-Palestinian activists.

Zari points to just one example of many, a video that gained popularity on the Internet with “a horrible picture of a woman with an exploded head” and an accusation by a Palestinian activist that the IDF is murdering innocent people. In their research, the students realized that the photo is actually taken from a Hollywood movie.

“It shows how they’re using false information just to influence public opinion,” Zari said, describing how pro-Palestinian activists can rely “on people’s ignorance” to persuade Web surfers.

When the students first launched the media operation during Operation Pillar of Defense, they worked hard to build a reputation for the initiative in Israeli society, primarily via word of mouth exposure and coverage by Israeli news outlets.

Now that the media operation is taking place for the second time, “there’s a lot more public faith in what we’re doing,” and many people actually forward materials to the group for broader dissemination, Zari said.

Although the students initially intended to open the media operation only during violent escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and IDF operations, there are discussions on trying to maintain the operation over the long run. Israel really needs to promote its message with publicity “because it is being presented many times in a very problematic way in media outlets,” said Zari.

The success of the student initiative is also being closely measured through website analytics on the number of visitors, their frequency and where they are coming from.

“We see there’s growth [in Web traffic] from all over the world,” Zari said. For instance, there has been a recent 400 percent growth in visitors entering the website from Russia, leading to a decision to add more Russian-language content.

The students also see a growth in volunteers for and media coverage of their cause, which, Zari said, “proves to us the website is doing its job and the operation is fulfilling its goals.”

‘Campaign of Retaliation’

Jay Jalisi surprised many when he won a Top 2 slot in June’s House of Delegates primary election. The District 10 general election candidate defeated three officially supported candidates, losing only to incumbent Del. Adrienne Jones when all votes were totaled.

Three days after the election, on June 27, Jalisi, together with his Friends of Jay Jalisi campaign committee, sued two former staffers and a former contractor for more than $200,000 and filed for a temporary restraining order against all three, accusing the group of violating their contracts and distributing false and harmful statements about the candidate. The restraining order request has since been denied, but the decision on the injunction remains open.

Additionally, on April 8, HMJ Asset Management Company, Jalisi’s real estate company, filed a petition to collect money from one of the former staffers in a landlord-tenant claim. Later, on May 1, Jalisi successfully obtained a restraining order against that same employee.

The June 27 lawsuit stems from a video that spread on YouTube days before the primary election. The video, which accused Jalisi of lying about his age, nationality and occupation, among other things, was attributed to the group “Citizens of District Ten,” but Jalisi accuses the former staffers, whom the suit says were terminated and reacted “by instituting a campaign of retaliation and negative accusation,” of producing and promoting the clip.

“The video contained false and disparaging statements about Dr. Jalisi and included confidential information, as defined in the [contracts],” filings read. Additionally, the documents say, the video violates Maryland election law by omitting any information about the name and address of the treasurer of the campaign finance entity responsible for the material.

“As a result, Plaintiff Jalisi cannot properly address his detractors and risks losing potential votes each passing day,” the suit says. It does not identify what of the information is false and what was confidential. The $200,000 figure, the documents say, does less damage to the former staffers than the continued distribution of the video would do to Jalisi and his campaign.

Jalisi also alleges in the suit that the group conspired to post an advertisement titled “Room for Rent” with Jalisi’s personal cell phone number on Craigslist in the days before the election in an effort to tie up his phone on the most critical days of the campaign.

The suit is one of more than 50 lawsuits in which Jalisi has been a party, either individually or via his property management company. In several of the cases in which Jalisi is listed as a defendant, the plaintiff has had difficulty finding a physical address to deliver a summons. A traffic violation lists Jalisi’s address as 10807 Falls Road, #632, Brooklandville, but that address leads to a P.O. box at the post office in the Greenspring Professional Building, something the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration does not allow be used as an address on a state-issued ID.

Four days before the June 24 primary election, Jalisi garnered attention when multiple local politicians, including Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond and State Delegates Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein, sent statements to local news outlets clarifying that they had not endorsed Jalisi in the District 10 race but rather had endorsed three of his opponents instead. The move was in response to an email blast and website post from the Jalisi campaign that featured supportive messages from the politicians. Jalisi’s campaign later countered with their own statement insisting that he had not sought their endorsements, and the statements featured in his blast were in support of his work with the community.

Despite the statements made by Almond, Morhaim and Stein and the video at the heart of the suit, Jalisi managed to comfortably win a spot on the November ballot, somethinga memorandum from the defense pointed to as a potential reason to support dismissing the claim.

On July 29, two of the defendants filed a motion to dismiss.

The response to the suit asserts that Jalisi’s memorandum in support of the motion “is replete with bad accusations and vague assertations of improper activity which lack factual support.” Additionally, the defense claims, Friends of Jalisi, Inc. had forfeited its corporate charter and was not in good standing at the time all contracts were signed and therefore cannot hold any of the three former staffers to it. The charter was not reincorporated until April 2, 2014.

As of press time, the video at the center of the suit had been removed from video hosting sites.


‘He Will Kill Himself’

Alan Gross, the contractor from Potomac currently imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, has taken a major turn for the worse, according to Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the family.

Gross, 65, “has said that he will kill himself if he is in prison much longer,” Zuckman said.

During a permitted visit this past July between Gross, wife Judy and daughter Nina, Gross was “saying goodbye,” said Judy Gross. “It was gut wrenching.”

Gross was a subcontractor for the State Department on a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet when he was arrested as he was leaving Cuba. He is serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state.”

In an interview with Washington Jewish Week, Judy Gross said: “I think he is hopeless.” During last month’s visit, she recalled that Gross said he no longer wanted any visitors.

“I’m hoping to talk to him about that,” she said. “You know it’s really up to him.

“He is depressed. I think he is hopeless,” she continued. “I think he thinks the State Department … is useless in terms of information. He gets nothing. He is very frustrated that no one is telling him anything.”

In a previous visit, she said, her husband still seemed hopeful about his release. But after Gross’ mother died this summer and his health deteriorated, “it’s not a pretty picture.” He is in chronic pain, has lost more than 100 pounds, has arthritis, a mass on his shoulder and has lost vision in his right eye, said his wife.

On Friday, Aug. 1, some 300 rabbis from across the Jewish denominations sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take immediate action to secure Gross’ release. Baltimore-area signatories included Rabbis Avram Israel Reisner, Michael Meyerstein, Dr. Tsvi G. Schur, Amy Scheinerman, Donald R. Berlin and John Franken.

“Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government,” the rabbis wrote. “His immediate release from prison in Cuba and return to the U.S. must be a priority for our nation. Indeed, we believe this is a moral imperative.

“Our communities are gravely concerned that Alan continues to languish in a Cuban prison nearly five years after his arrest,” the letter continued. “We ask, with all respect, that you take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a prompt end to Alan’s, and his family’s, continuing nightmare.”

Securing Alan Gross’ immediate release “remains a top priority of the United States, and his continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba,” National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said when asked to respond to the rabbis’ letter, adding that Gross should be “released now.”

“We have urged governments around the world and prominent figures traveling to Cuba, including religious leaders, to press for Mr. Gross’ immediate release,” said Ventrell. “This includes President Obama asking Uruguayan President [Jose] Mujica to use any opportunity he might have to raise Alan Gross’ case directly with President [Raul] Castro.”

Ventrell concluded: “Alan Gross is an international development worker. He has been imprisoned by Cuban authorities … for doing nothing more than helping Cuban citizens gain access to the Internet.”


Sharfstein Joins Hopkins School of Public Health

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and  Mental Hygiene, will join the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as its new associated dean for public health practice and training in January. (Provided)

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and
Mental Hygiene, will join the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as its new associated dean for public health practice and training in January. (Provided)

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, will be stepping down from his current position and joining the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as its new associated dean for public health practice and training.

The move is effective Jan. 1, 2015. Sharfstein will also hold a faculty position in the school’s department of health policy and management.

“I think it’s a good time and a great opportunity that will allow me to get involved more deeply in a number of issues I care about, help train future public heath leaders and also keep me involved in issues in the city and state,” Sharfstein said.

While he doesn’t have specifics yet, Sharfstein said he’ll be teaching classes on health policy at Hopkins. Come January, he plans to meet with other Hopkins faculty to discuss his new job and the opportunities it offers.

“Josh Sharfstein has had a distinguished career in public health practice and policy, and we are delighted that he is joining the faculty of the Bloomberg School,” Dean Michael J. Klag said in a statement. “Josh will bring a wealth of experience and insights that will strengthen the practice, teaching and research opportunities available to our faculty and students.”

Sharfstein, a Maryland native, graduated from Harvard Medical School and is a trained pediatrician. He served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, was deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and chairs the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange in his current capacity. While the exchange has been the subject of much public scrutiny due to the troubled rollout of Maryland’s health exchange website, Sharfstein sounded hopeful
for the reopening of the exchange in November.

“One reason that I’m staying on through the end of the year is to see the exchange get to a much better place,” he said. “It’s going to be radically different.”

In a previous interview, Sharfstein counted among his biggest accomplishments organizing coalitions around public health outcomes, strengthening primary care, reorienting hospital incentives to support prevention and integrating mental health and substance-abuse treatment more into medical care.

“As a pediatrician and as a public servant, Josh Sharfstein has been committed to children, families and improving people’s lives,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement. “As the secretary of health and mental hygiene, he’s led the way as we have invested in public health and prevention, aligned the health care system to the vision of better health at lower cost and expanded health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders. As a Marylander, I’m thrilled that he’s going to Johns Hopkins.”

O’Malley appointed Sharfstein to secretary of health and mental hygiene in January 2011. In his previous position, as an FDA deputy commissioner appointed by President Barack Obama, he worked to make the agency more transparent and took on food safety and tobacco use.

As Baltimore health commissioner, Sharfstein campaigned to warn parents about over-the-counter cough and cold medicines after the deaths of four Baltimore toddlers, worked with doctors to reduce overdose deaths in the city and spearheaded new community health data.

At Hopkins, Sharfstein will succeed Thomas Burke, who is Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. Burke is currently director of the school’s risk sciences and public policy institute and a professor of health policy and management and environmental health sciences.

Among the issues Sharfstein believes his successor — who will chair the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange as stipulated by the law — will have to handle is drug overdoses, with heroin use making some resurgence. Other challenges ahead may be unknown, as the health care system is in transition, but Sharfstein thinks the public is up for the discussions.

“The fact that health is really at the center of a lot of discussion in Maryland is a great thing,” he said. “Now, I think there’s a very strong recognition on Maryland [that] our health care system, even our economy, is dependent on public health.”


End of a Long Commute

Rabbi Jordan Hersh is Beth Sholom Congregation’s new full-time rabbi. (Provided)

Rabbi Jordan Hersh is Beth Sholom Congregation’s new full-time rabbi. (Provided)

Rabbi Jordan Hersh can finally have a rest from his twice-monthly commute from New York City to Frederick. After one year of leading services, teaching and counseling part time at Beth Sholom Congregation, he has been named the congregation’s full-time rabbi.

Hersh, 32, had been working at the 150-member synagogue as a Gladstein Fellow, a program designed to give students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary intensive experiences in both being a rabbi and a community developer.

The synagogue has been without a full-time rabbi for several years and has undergone much change during that time. The congregation had been unaffiliated with any of the major Jewish denominations but joined the Conservative movement roughly two years ago, Hersh said.

The Frederick synagogue had always been unaffiliated, but its previously rabbis were Orthodox, he explained.

Hersh’s goal is to continue paving the way for Beth Sholom to operate fully as an egalitarian Conservative community, he said.

Frederick already is home to both a Reform and a Chabad synagogue. Hersh said he plans to work closely with his fellow rabbis there to build a “thriving” and “vibrant” Jewish community.

Hersh said Frederick’s isn’t the only Jewish community on his mind lately.  He has just returned from a four day-long trip to Israel with fellow rabbis.  There he got an up close and personal view of the war, visiting Israeli “children who are spending their summer in shelters.”

Hersh is no stranger to Israel, having lived there for two years. While doing so, he served as a rabbinic intern at a Masorti congregation in Be’ersheva. He also participated in the Shalom Hartman Rabbinical Students Seminar, a yearlong program that brings together rabbinical students from all Jewish denominations.

Additionally, he has held a rabbinical student fellowship with the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership’s Rabbis Without Borders. He also has served as a hospice chaplain at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

Hersh grew up in upstate New York and received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is married to Shulie Hersh, who is in her last year as a cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.

She will be joining her husband part time at the synagogue, leading High Holiday services, developing and conducting a music program for the Early Childhood Center preschool students and holding a leadership role with the congregation’s Tot Shabbat and Junior Congregation services.

When not involved in their synagogue responsibilities, the Hershes enjoy playing music together (he’s on guitar) and hiking. He also is a cycling enthusiast and has participated in long-distance bike rides.

Hersh said he is looking forward to getting to know his congregants and the area better and is “really excited to be here in the Greater Washington and Baltimore communities.”


Baltimoreans Rally Over Gaza

When Raquel Minka heard about a rally taking place in downtown Baltimore protesting Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, she had to do something.

“They’ve been having so many,” she said of the pro-Palestinian demonstration. “We also need a chance to speak up.”

Minka took to Facebook to organize her own demonstration — one in support of Israel and its military offensive — and on July 30,  hundreds of Baltimoreans turned out to stand with her, waving flags, singing and dancing outside Penn Station.

The rally was a response to another rally organized by Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace that was scheduled to take place at the same time in the same spot. The Hopkins group held another protest the previous week, but the addition of the counter protest made Wednesday’s event far larger than any other Gaza-related rally in Baltimore to date, even drawing a police presence complete with metal barriers and helicopters.

Malika, a Baltimore native dressed in a headscarf and long sleeves, attended the rally with her husband and young daughter. Even though she stood on the Palestinian side of the makeshift police barriers, she found herself unable to fully commit to one side or the other.

She came to the rally with the intention of supporting Palestinians and other oppressed populations around the world but didn’t want to bring a sign and open herself and her daughter up to heckling from other protestors. As she watched the scene unfolding in front of her — crowds beginning to form around the barriers while each side shouted slogans at the other — her resolution wavered slightly.

“I’m so moved right now I want to cry,” she said as she watched rally attendees shout back and forth across the no-man’s land occupied primarily by reporters and photographers: a brief stand-off in a largely tame event. “I just wish it was about humans” instead of one group pitted against the other, she said.

Nicholas, a Baltimore native, attended the rally with a sign protesting the use of border barriers along both the Israel-Gaza and U.S.-Mexico
borders. He said he felt a moral obligation to attend the rally and described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a powerful government against a pretty powerless people.”

For Kfir, who stationed himself comfortably on the pro-Israel side of the block, the issue is equally easy to decipher. He moved to the U.S. from Israel six years ago but updates from his friends and family living overseas keep the situation in Israel in the back of his mind at all times.

“It’s pretty tough, but you learn to live with it,” Kfir, who also would not give his last name, said of growing up amid constant Israeli-Palestinian tension. Now a U.S. resident, he has found himself spending a lot of time lately defending Israel to co-workers and friends.

When people hear about the disproportionate casualty counts in the most recent military offensives, he said, he struggles to try to justify the actions of the Israel Defense Forces.

“At the end of the day, numbers talk,” said Kfir, who added that the force used by the IDF is justified by the history of the situation. “It’s very hard to convince somebody.”

Within two hours, the Baltimore Zionist District-funded buses had reloaded their passengers, and the pro-Palestinian crowd had reconvened at Red Emma’s, a few blocks down the road. There, a like-minded group packed into the café to listen to political scholar and author Norman Finkelstein discuss Israel’s role in  the situation in Gaza.

Finkelstein, who has raised the hackles of national Jewish groups for embracing the Palestinian narrative of events in the Middle East, told the crowd, which poured out of the door and into North Avenue, about a set of three “gifts” that fell into the lap of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in order to allow for the current situation to fall into place.

First, Finkelstein said, was the June kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli teens. The fallout from the search and discovery of the bodies of the teens allowed for Netanyahu to rally hostility toward Hamas, which was blamed for the kidnappings.

“Now Netanyahu had a pretext,” said Finklestein. “He saw an opportunity.”

The second gift, he said, was the Tony Blair-backed, Egyptian-proposed cease-fire. According to Finkelstein, the conditions would have handed Hamas a total loss, and the group had no choice but to reject the proposal.

Thirdly, he said, was the downing of the Malaysian airliner. The uproar surrounding that event, he said, provided the perfect distraction for Israel to begin its offensive in Gaza.

Finkelstein ended his talk with an anecdote.

Imagine Dan is suffocating James, he told the crowd. James struggles and reaches his hand up and scratches Dan and Dan retaliates by walloping James, claiming he is justified because he was defending himself.

“If he doesn’t want James to scratch him, all he has to do is stop suffocating him,” he concluded.

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), called Finkelstein’s analysis an attempt to make unconnected circumstances fit a pre-existing belief.

“The idea that any of these are gifts is a little obscene by itself,” Rozenman said. “Finkelstein’s whole approach is to blow the micro, or the minor, into the major.”

He added that Finkelstein lacks a big-picture view, noting that around 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

“This is not about reaching some accommodation between Israel and Hamas like it’s a labor management dispute,” Rozenman said. “One side wants to destroy the other. A compromise that gives them something they demand gives them strength to fight another day.”

Staff reporter Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.


15 Seconds to Safety

The Bomb Shelter Museum, created by Artists 4 Israel, was in Baltimore for one week at the Greenspring Shopping Center. (Photos Marc Shapiro)

The Bomb Shelter Museum, created by Artists 4 Israel, was in Baltimore for one week at the Greenspring Shopping Center. (Photos Marc Shapiro)

The sound of children singing can be heard when walking into the dark 10-by-8-by-10 room. Their voices are quickly drowned out by sirens and chaos, as translations show that their song is about hiding from rockets in a bomb shelter.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry to a safe area. My heart is beating boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” the children on the video sing in Hebrew.

The short video was being played on a loop inside the Bomb Shelter Museum, which was stationed on the sidewalk of the Greenspring Shopping Center from July 30 through August 4.

“It’s difficult for me to watch, especially watching the children,” Bernie Kozlovsky said of the video. “You only have 15 seconds to actually seek shelter.”

The one-room museum, which has trash and other items on the floor much like a shelter in Israel would, was created by Artists 4 Israel, and Baltimore Zionist District (BZD) paid to have it in town for the week. According to Israeli estimates, more than 3,000 rockets have been fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip since the beginning of the month-long Operation Protective Edge, which entered a new phase Tuesday with the adoption of a 72-hour cease-fire.

“The most important thing is to educate people,” said Berly

Hershkovitz, a BZD board member. “If it weren’t for the Iron Dome [anti-missile defense system] and these shelters, people would be dying.”

The museum was originally built to showcase the situation in Sderot, a city in the Negev that sits one mile from Gaza, which has been subject to rocket attacks since the early 2000s. When Operation Protective Edge started, it took on a larger symbolic role.

080814_bzd-bombshelter2BZD officials said more than 300 people visited the museum on the first day, and the following day it saw constant traffic from Jews and non-Jews alike.

“It reinforces their awareness to support Israel,” BZD president Leora Pushett said. “Some people have been very emotionally moved.”

Shoshana Zaslow said that while the video was horrifying and sad, it’s an essential reminder of the situation in Israel.

“I’d rather be aware of what’s going on,” she said. “We live our life, we’re doing whatever we want [in the U.S.], so to stop and think for a minute
is nice.”

For Donald Berman, the museum hit home because it was tangible.

“I think it’s a great idea to help people understand what people in Israel are going through,” he said. “Everything’s a little abstract, so this helps bring it down to reality.”

To keep up with the realities, Zaslow and Kozlovsky both have apps on their smartphones that send red alerts in real time, including locations, when a rocket is heading for Israel.

“I reminds me of what’s going on there,” Kozlovsky said. “I have relatives, I have friends.”

BZD is getting calls from other cities interested is having the museum, which was previously in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

“We, as Jews living in America … we feel empty not being able to do anything,” he said. “It makes us feel like we’re doing something for our brothers and sisters in Israel.”


Beth El Wins Early Childhood Education Accreditation

(David Stuck)

(David Stuck)

Beth El Congregation’s Pauline Mash School for Early Childhood Education is now accredited by the Maryland State Department of Education, making the school, which serves children from birth through age 5, the first and only Jewish early childhood program in the state to enjoy such accreditation, according to the Pikesville synagogue.

Mandy Barish, Maryland accreditation project specialist at Beth El, explained that the distinction signifies that the program exceeds state licensing requirements for child care and early childhood centers.

Ilene Vogelstein, director of early childhood programs at Beth El, said the accreditation is the culmination of an 18-month process that included a self-study and program-improvement plan that was a joint effort between staff and parents.

“Through the years, our children have learned tremendously, been nurtured and given skills that will serve them in the years to come,” said parent Dori Chait, whose family has been members of the Beth El early childhood community since 2009. “I know the Beth El staff cares for my children as if they were their own, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Eyal Bor, the congregation’s director of education, called the achievement “a testament to the professionalism and dedication of our teachers.”

“Becoming the first and currently only Jewish early childhood program that is accredited makes us all proud,” he said. “People will realize their children and grandchildren’s place will be at Beth El forever.”