Meng Dynasty

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She first met him when she was in law school. (Courtesy of Congresswoman Meng's office)

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She first met him when she was in law school.
(Courtesy of Congresswoman Meng’s office)

She may not be flashy, a firebrand speechmaker or even very well-known outside of her Queens congressional district, but despite her brief legislative career, freshman Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) has become one of Congress’ most steadfast supporters of Israel and Jewish issues. Along the way she has endeared herself to colleagues and supporters on both sides of the aisle and the Jewish community in her district.

Meng’s demeanor, both in conversation and in Congress, reflects a modesty and candidness [fl1]many of her media darling colleagues lack, or have lost. Though it may not put her in the national spotlight, her approach appears to have paid off in winning favor with the voters at home.

Meng, 38, represents New York’s Sixth Congressional District, covering the largely immigrant communities of Central Queens, Forest Hills and Flushing. According to data from the Berman Jewish Databank, the district ranks ninth in the country in both population and percentage of Jewish residents. The largest population in her district is Asian-American, and Meng sees herself as a bridge between the very different cultures she represents.

“I think that among Grace Meng’s greatest distinctions is her honestly. She is very direct and very, very sincere,” says Michael Miller, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who has known Meng since her time in the New York State Assembly. “Members of Congress and other elected officials have been roundly criticized for being corrupt and insincere. I have found Grace Meng to be honest and most sincere. And that’s why I think many in the community have great respect for her.” [fl4]

Another reason may be that so much of the legislation she sponsors or supports appears to reflect Jewish interests.

On May 28, Meng spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives in favor of the Protect Cemeteries Act, which will amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include vandalizing and desecrating cemeteries in countries around the world as a consideration used by the United States in determining whether a nation is violating rights to freedom of religion. Meng was the bill’s sponsor.

She said that the act will serve as a tool for the U.S. to oppose violations of religious freedom that occur in countries in which the Jewish population was wiped out during the 20th century, leaving their ancestral remains which serve as targets for anti-Semitic vandals, or in municipalities looking to develop on sanctified ground. Among the key supporters of the bill was the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America.

The vote may have been preordained — it passed by a unanimous voice vote. But for those who were keeping track, it was another Jewish-friendly act by Meng.

During her House speech, Meng thanked a New York Institute of Technology physics professor as an inspiration for the legislation. Bernard Fryshman has been working to protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries for 30 years and was delighted the bill passed.

“You know this bill is not going to result in the marines going on behalf of a cemetery,” Fryshman said. “It provides a moral suasion. It provides a vehicle for conversation. It provides a basis in which the State Department is trying to help a government in Europe decide maybe they should step in and not allow a local municipality to dig up a Jewish cemetery.” [fl6]

Jewish issues
Since she came to Congress in 2013, Meng has worked on issues related to the State Department’s denial of tourist visas to young Israelis. She voted for and sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up legislation to tighten sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors. She led an effort to lobby the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. She sponsored and passed legislation to make houses of worship eligible for federal disaster relief funding after Hurricane Sandy. All are actions that would be applauded by many in the Jewish community.

In a phone conversation with WJW, Meng said that she feels a connection to the Jewish community, having grown up in multicultural Queens.

“Obviously, I’m not [Jewish] but I represent a district that has a large Jewish constituency,” she said. “I think honestly, growing up as a kid in New York, issues that are important to members of the Jewish community — especially now that I’m in Congress — I think they’re very important to Americans.”

She was born in Queens to Taiwanese immigrants, whom she says instilled in her at an early age the value of community service and faith. Though Meng is a Democrat with a liberal voting record, she feels that she has no trouble being accepted by the large ultra-Orthodox population in her district, recently being a guest at Agudath Israel of America’s annual gala.

“I grew up in a religious household, my family is Christian,” said Meng. “My grandma is sort of the matriarch of our family and has always tried to instil religious values in our upbringing and so I can empathize with [the most Orthodox members of the Jewish community], even though we may not always agree. My job is to listen and see how I can best address the needs of constituents living in my district.”

Meng attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School on Long Island and then completed her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. Wanting to move closer to her home for a law degree, she attended the Cardozo Law School, part of the Jewish-run Yeshiva University.

“Honestly, I didn’t really think about that it was considered a Jewish school,” she said. “I mean obviously I knew it but I knew that I wanted to be back home. It was a school where I heard the faculty was really excellent. And I got to meet [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu for the first time when I was there, so it was pretty cool.”

She was elected to the New York State Assembly in 2009. The next year she visited Israel the first time. That experience, along with a return visit last year as part of a congressional delegation, solidified her views on Israel, she said.

Stand against ignorance
Meng won her congressional seat in 2012 after beating Republican Daniel Halloran 68 percent to 31 percent. But in her heavily Democratic district, the primaries were the real battle. Meng beat three other candidates by a 53 percent majority. Inaugurated in January, she is the first Asian-American to be elected to Congress to represent New York City.

Upon taking office, Meng successfully sought a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, where she works on many Israel-related issues.

Meng views Iran’s potential to develop a nuclear bomb as a critical issue for the security of Israel and the U.S. and has pushed for sanctions against Iran.

Michael Schmidt, New York reg-ional director for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who has worked with Meng on Iran and other issues, called her a “strong ally.”

“I think this is not exclusively a Jewish issues,” he said. “Obviously the fact that the Iranians have threatened to completely destroy and decimate Israel means that Israel has a special place in terms of concerns. But this is an issue beyond just Israel. It’s about Western values and democracy and how we operate — and I think she recognizes that.”

Meng has also taken a taken a tough stance against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement popping up at college campuses throughout the U.S. She worked with AJC on a project to create fellowships on college campuses to foster understanding among students of different backgrounds. When the Association for Asian American Studies voted in 2013 to back BDS efforts, Meng criticized the vote in a letter to the association.

“I think that it’s important that we do whatever we can to stand against demonstrations of hate and ignorance and to me that’s what it is,” Meng said. “Even if you believed in the reasoning for the BDS movement, how does that benefit anyone? How does that benefit America? How does that benefit any country?”

Meng is up for reelection this fall. As she considered her home district, she revealed her familiarity with one of her largest constituent groups.

“One of my favorite parts of my district activities is when I get the opportunity once in a while to walk around certain neighborhoods in my district, let’s say during Shabbos, and to see a lot of the families walking around going to shul together, spending time together with family,” she said. “I think that’s amazing and that’s something that every culture could learn from.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

Overblown Rhetoric

Although the official results are expected late  Monday, Ukraine’s President Elect Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery tycoon known as the ‘Chocolate King,’ is  expected to secure the country’s presidency after exit polls suggest that he had secured around 56 percent of the vote.  (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Although the official results are expected late Monday, Ukraine’s President Elect Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery tycoon known as the ‘Chocolate King,’ is
expected to secure the country’s presidency after exit polls suggest that he had secured around 56 percent of the vote.
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

To many of his voters, President-elect Petro Poroshenko represented hope for fixing Ukraine’s ailing economy because of the billionaire candy company founder’s success in business.

Others believed that Poroshenko, who won 54 percent of the vote in last week’s presidential race, was the best candidate for negotiating an end to hostilities with Russia and Russian-backed secessionists because of his experience in international relations, which he acquired during his one-year stint as Ukraine’s foreign minister in 2010.

Ukrainian Jewish leaders have additional reasons to celebrate the outcome. To them, the presidential election results came as a relief because they thwarted the political ambitions of the Ukrainian far right and thereby refuted Russian allegations that fascists and anti-Semites were on the rise in Ukraine.

“The failure of far-right groups in the elections proves everything we knew to be true about the tolerant nature of Ukrainian society,” Josef Zissels, the head of Ukraine’s Vaad Jewish umbrella group, said.

In the presidential race, the candidate for the ultranationalist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, won only a little more than 1 percent of the vote. It was a major defeat for Svoboda, which had been Ukraine’s fourth-largest party after winning 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections. At the time, Svoboda’s successes worried Ukrainian Jews because of the party’s record of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Tyahnybok himself has inveighed against “the Jewish-Russian mafia.”

Another ultranationalist hopeful, Dmytro Yarosh, failed to garner 1 percent of the vote despite the central role that his Right Sector movement had played, along with Svoboda, in the revolution that ultimately led to the May 25 presidential election.

The combined vote for Yarosh and Tyahnybok was lower than the more than 2 percent clinched by Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish business tycoon who is involved in numerous Jewish projects, including the establishment of the European Jewish Parliament and the now-defunct Jewish News One television channel. In the Odessa region, Rabinovich finished fourth with 6 percent of the vote.

The result was particularly pleasing to the many Ukrainian Jews who resent Russia using the issue of anti-Semitism to attack the post-revolution Ukrainian government.

At a March news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was concerned by “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”

Ukrainian Jewish leaders have largely rejected Putin’s characterization of the situation in Ukraine.

“The failure of the Ukrainian far right in the presidential elections shows the Russian rhetoric to be an attempt to overblow some essentially insignificant fringes out of proportion,” said Igor Shchupak, director of the Jewish museum of Dnipropetrovsk.

He also said he believed Poroshenko was “a candidate with a unique set of skills for leading Ukraine now.”

In the months since the ouster of Russian-allied President Viktor Yanu-kovych, Ukraine has been the scene of often bloody upheaval. Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula, while pro-Russian separatists have taken up arms and clashed with Ukrainian forces in the country’s east.

Throughout the turmoil, Russian officials made repeated references to alleged anti-Semitism in Ukraine, where several attacks on Jews have occurred since the revolution. Pro-Russian activists and their opponents have blamed each other for the incidents, making some Jews fear they were becoming pawns in a much larger dispute.

Poroshenko’s victory is also significant given the unconfirmed but widespread reports that he is of partially Jewish ancestry, Zissels said.

According to Russia 1, Poroshenko’s father, Alexey Valtsman, was a Jew from Odessa who in 1956 took his wife’s last name. But last year, a Poroshenko spokeswoman asked Forbes Israel to remove the billionaire’s name from a list of the world’s richest Jews. The spokeswoman, Irina Fireez, did not say why she wanted her boss’ name removed.

Poroshenko’s office did not reply to queries from JTA on this issue.

“Poroshenko’s lineage is none of my business, but what is noteworthy is that the widespread reports of his alleged Jewish lineage have done nothing to hurt his popularity,” Zissels said. “And this again attests as to the tolerant nature of Ukrainian society, despite Russian propaganda.”

A Close Watch

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah answers  reporter’s questions at a news conference after the first cabinet meeting of the Palestinian unity government in Ramallah, West Bank. (UPI/Debbie Hill)

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah answers reporter’s questions at a news conference after the first cabinet meeting of the Palestinian unity government in  Ramallah, West Bank.
(UPI/Debbie Hill)

The United States intends to work with the new Palestinian unity government and will continue to disburse aid to the Palestinian Authority, the State Department said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said June 2 that the U.S. “will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to ensure that it upholds the principles that President [Mahmoud] Abbas reiterated today.”

Her comments came on the same day the new government was sworn in. The members have the backing of Fatah, which covers the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and has been designated by the United States as a terrorist group.

The State Department said the new government must adhere to such principles as recognizing Israel, rejecting terror and honoring previously made Israel-Palestinian agreements.

Under United States law, funds cannot be given to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence. The United States gives between $400 million and $500 million a year to the Palestinian Authority.

Prior to the new government’s formation, Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the United States would take a wait-and-see approach.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are criticizing the State Department’s willingness to work with and fund what it calls “an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas.”

“The administration, in consultation with Congress, should initiate an immediate review of this new government,” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in a statement. “Until such time that it is determined that assistance to this so-called technocratic government is consistent with our own interests, principles, and laws, it is incumbent on the Administration to suspend U.S. assistance.”

Republican Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “It’s hard to see a government that embraces Hamas getting us closer to peace, much less helping its people. While the ‘unity government’ hides behind the façade of nonpartisan bureaucrats, it was only born out of support from Hamas.”

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) issued a statement that he was “deeply concerned” about the new government, noting “Hamas continues to advocate violent action against Israel, and its political leadership refuses to recognize Israel.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the highest ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, stopped short of calling for a funding review but said the unity government endangered U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.

AIPAC, which usually is supportive of the Obama administration, issued a statement urging Congress “to conduct a thorough review of continued U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority to ensure that the law is completely followed and implemented.”

AIPAC is “greatly concerned and disappointed by the announcement of the formation of a Palestinian Authority unity government backed by Hamas,” the statement said. “The embrace of the notorious Islamist terrorist organization is a disturbing setback to peace.”

The more liberal J Street issued a statement urging both the U.S. and Israeli governments to proceed with caution and suggested benefits could accrue should the new Palestinian government prove to be committed to the peace process.

Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein strongly criticized the United States’ position, noting that “there is no justification for according recognition to such a government and continuing to work with it, simply because it is supposed to be merely a caretaker prior to holding Palestinian elections.”

Klein, in a statement, said, “We call upon the Obama Administration to immediately terminate relations, funding and negotiations with the new Hamas/Fatah/PA regime.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations supported congressional calls for reviewing aid to the Palestinians.

“We urge the United States and other governments to be vigilant in their judgment of and dealings with the newly declared government,” the foreign policy umbrella of the Jewish community said in a statement. “We call on President Abbas to return to the negotiations with Israel and not engage in this charade.”

While the United States is willing to continue its relationship with the PA, Israel left no doubt it would do no such thing. Israel’s Security Cabinet said it will not negotiate with the new government and will oppose Hamas participation in the Palestinian elections if and when they take place. The Security Cabinet also said it will hold the new government responsible for any rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would not allow the new unity government to hold any elections in eastern Jerusalem.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer harshly criticized the State Department for not condemning the newly formed government. In a five-minute interview on National Public Radio June 3, Dermer said that he had hoped Kerry would have strongly opposed the new government. Dermer said that a few hours before the new government was formed, Kerry had said he was “deeply concerned,” but immediately following the announcement, Dermer was disappointed that he didn’t hear any of that concern expressed.

He pointed out that “Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction,” and said “Hamas was an organization that condemned the United States for killing Osama bin Laden, a man that they call the Holy Warrior.”

In a prepared statement, Dermer called the Palestinian unity government “a government of technocrats backed by terrorists, and should be treated as such. With suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office, it should not be business as usual.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of Conservative rabbis, said her organization supports Netanyahu’s “refusal to recognize the new Palestinian unity government. This cautious approach is the most logical course of action given the violent track record of Hamas, an organization responsible for murdering and terrorizing countless Israelis.

“We hope that his deal foreshadows Hamas renouncing its anti-Semitic hatred of Israel and its reliance on terrorism,” she continued, “but in the meantime we view its unrepentant attitude toward past actions as a roadblock to true peace.”

More than merely getting in the way of peace talks, Kobi Michael, former deputy director general at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, called the new government “the Lebanonization of the Palestinian arena.” In a conference call arranged by the Israel Project, Michael explained that both Fatah and Hamas will have its own military wing.

With all the ministers approved by Hamas, Michael and that the world should look at what it does, not what it says.

“The real nature of this government will be closer to Hamas than to Fatah, otherwise Hamas would not have supported this government,” he said.

The Battle for District 2

Paula Hollinger hasn’t held an elected office since 2007, when she left the Maryland State Senate after an attempted run for U.S. Congress.

After nearly three decades in the Maryland General Assembly, having first been elected as a delegate in 1979, she opted not to return to her state senate seat.

“Twenty-eight years was a long time,” said Hollinger, who is now associated director of health workforce at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “I left a nice trail of good things behind me.”

But at least one person thought she should get back into the politics game. In March, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz approached her on the steps of the state house with a proposition, she said.

Vicki Almond (Marc Shapiro)

Vicki Almond
(Marc Shapiro)

He asked her if she would be willing run against incumbent District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond or state Sen. Bobby Zirkin.

“My answer was, ‘No,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not running anymore, and I’m not fundraising anymore’ and the answer was, ‘Well, we can take care of that.’”

After a series of contentious zoning decisions that pitted Almond against developers, it seems her standing with Kamenetz and certain developers has turned sour, and a steady effort to replace her has coalesced. So when Jon Herbst declared his candidacy in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County’s District 2 Council seat, the race had already emerged as one of the most hotly contested local primaries in Maryland.

With accusations of changing parties for political expediency and candidates being backed by development money, shifting political allegiances and a history of heated zoning debates, the race for the county’s Second District has amounted to a complicated and somewhat hostile contest.

Kamenetz, along with executives from Towson-based developer Caves Valley Partners, has been a player in the race through a campaign fund called A Better Baltimore County Slate. Through slates, contributors can back multiple preferred candidates. The fund lists Herbst, Kamenetz and District 7 Councilman John Olszewski Sr., who is not running for re-election, as affiliated candidates.

In a report filed by the slate published on May 27, there were two $6,000 poll-related expenditures paid in May to Annapolis-based OpinionWorks and a $16,307.51 expenditure paid to Baltimore-based Fontaine and Company for consulting and phone services.

Jon Herbst (Marc Shapiro)

Jon Herbst
(Marc Shapiro)

And at least one area resident believes a phone call she received from a pollster in May came from a group working on behalf of Herbst due to its focus on the County Council race and the phrasing of some questions.

“From the questions, that’s what made me realize who these people were working for and for what reason,” said Pikesville resident Jean Carton, who answered the pollster’s questions with her husband, Buddy.

The pollster asked Carton who she is voting for in the governor’s race, if she wants to see Almond re-elected, if she thinks the county executive is doing a good job and what the most important issue facing her in the election is.

It also asked if she was more or less likely to vote for someone who accepted money and favors from developers, is a woman, is Jewish (Herbst is Jewish), has been described as ineffective because of “her” reputation of not working well with County Council colleagues and the county executive, has been described as fiscally irresponsible because of shortsighted zoning decisions, has increased the number of failed businesses and made zoning decisions without considering the impact on small businesses, Carton said.

It also asked for her take on Foundry Row, a development in Owings Mills that will be anchored by Wegmans, which was the subject of a heated zoning battle. Almond and the Baltimore County Council ultimately rezoned the property — the former Solo Cup factory — for retail in August 2012, despite protest from neighboring developers, including Howard Brown, chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises.

Between August and September, seven contributors tied to Caves Valley donated $23,000 to A Better Baltimore County Slate. Between January and May, seven other developer-linked donors, six of which did not contribute in the previous period, gave an additional $14,000 to the slate. While Kamenetz originally transferred $101,500 from his own campaign fund to the slate, he later transferred $90,000 to Olszewski’s fund, which can be used to support other candidates.

Two other development firms linked to the slate by way of contributions are Chesapeake Realty Partners, a joint venture partner of Caves Valley, and Southern Land Company, which owns property in several areas of Baltimore County.

Although Caves Valley Partners, which has property near Foundry Row, did not publicly campaign against the project like Brown, the company and Almond staked out opposing positions on another zoning issue, when she was the only councilperson to vote against zoning for Caves Valley’s $300 million mixed-use project Towson Row last December.

Almond said her relationship with both Caves Valley and Brown soured after Foundry Row was zoned for retail.

“They did support my campaign the last time,” Almond, a Democrat, said. “Perhaps I was naive, but I assumed if I was elected I was going to be an independent person on the Council. I didn’t realize that you get punished when you don’t go along and get along.”

Caves Valley officials could not be reached for comment.

The Candidates
Baltimore County’s 2nd councilmatic district includes parts of Pikesville, Owings Mills, Reisterstown, Lutherville-Timonium and Ruxton. Through some minor redistricting changes, the Mays Chapel area in Lutherville-Timonium became a part of District 3, and District 2 picked up areas of northern Reisterstown.

This is not the first time Almond, 65, and Herbst, 36, have faced each other in the District 2 contest. Herbst was defeated in the 2010 race, when he ran as a Republican.

Though nearly three decades separate the candidates, both have a wealth of community advocacy experience.

Herbst practices real estate, commercial and business law at Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid, a Towson-based law firm. He was appointed to the Baltimore County Planning Board in the summer of 2013 by Kamenetz, has served as treasurer of the Pikesville-Greenspring Community Coalition since January 2012, was president of Sports Boosters of Maryland in 2012 and 2013, where he is still chairman of the board, and serves of the board of directors of the Robert E. Lee Park Nature Council. He is also active in the Baltimore County Bar Association, where he has served on the executive council and several committees. He and his wife, Irina, own AME Pharmacy in Catonsville, where Irina is pharmacist in charge.

Almond’s community involvement started in schools as a volunteer in the 1980s. She spent time as PTA president at Franklin Middle School and Franklin High School, was parade chair and president of the Reisterstown Festival and spent two terms as president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council. Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening appointed Almond to the Rosewood Advisory Council, and former Baltimore County Executive (now Congressman) Dutch Ruppersberger appointed
her to the Baltimore County Commission for Women. Almond rallied the community behind establishing the School Resource Officer Program, which stations uniformed police officers in Baltimore County schools. That program is now a national and international model.

Almond was elected to the County Council in 2010 and served as its chair in 2012, making her the first woman to hold the position since 1983.

In a recent debate between the two candidates at North Oaks Retirement Community in Pikesville, both candidates said they would focus on public safety and education, but most of the talk centered on economic issues. Herbst expressed his dissatisfaction with the Reisterstown Road corridor, in particular downtown Pikesville.

“I’m just not happy with what I see out there when drive up and down Reisterstown Road,” he said, referring to vacant storefronts.

As councilman, he would try to attract more small businesses to the area, he said, and wants to bring back the Pikesville Redevelopment Fund, which the county used to give grants to developers to rehab long-vacant properties. He criticized Almond for not developing an overall Reisterstown Road corridor redevelopment plan that includes downtown Pikesville, which she advocated for during her 2010 campaign.

Almond maintains that the Pikesville business community is alive and well, citing growing membership in the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, renovations at the Pikes Diner and the reopening of the Pikes Theatre, which Almond helped get proper zoning.

Rezoning the former Solo Cup factory for retail in August 2012 to make way for Foundry Row tainted Vicki Almond’s relationships with some developers. (Melissa Gerr)

Rezoning the former Solo Cup factory for retail in August 2012 to make way for Foundry Row tainted Vicki Almond’s relationships with some developers.
(Melissa Gerr)

The councilwoman counts Foundry Row among one her biggest victories and believes the development will uplift the Reisterstown Road corridor. While it was opposed by Howard Brown, who is building the massive transit-oriented development Metro Centre at Owings Mills, and Kimco, the company that was originally planning to redevelop the Owings Mills Mall, many community members ultimately rallied behind the project. Some community members, including a group called the Say No To Solo Coalition, had concerns about traffic and the local business impact.

Herbst criticized Almond for her immediate support of the project, and said he would have tried to put in more protections for local businesses, which he fears may be trumped by big-name retailers at Foundry Row such as LA Fitness. Herbst did say, however, that bringing Wegmans to town was a “no-brainer” and he would have approved Foundry Row.

Only one council member, District 4’s Ken Oliver, voted against rezoning Solo Cup for retail to make way for the project.

Almond maintains that while Baltimore County designated White Marsh and Owings Mills growth areas, Owings Mills fell behind while White Marsh flourished.

“This was an opportunity that was going to pass us by if we didn’t act on it,” she said.

Throughout her time as a councilwoman, Almond has maintained a presence in the small business community. In addition to her work with local chambers of commerce and groups trying to revitalize Reisterstown’s Main Street, the councilwoman has helped organize three small business summits during her time in office.

Herbst believes his real estate and business background would help him navigate complex zoning decisions and their effects on local businesses.

At the debate and outside the debate, Herbst has faced criticism of his switching parties. He replies that while he is conservative on fiscal issues, he is more liberal on social issues. He got involved with the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee around the time of the last election, but he said he didn’t fit in there and that the party was moving too far to the right.

Endorsements and Campaign Contributions
Herbst has been endorsed by Kamenetz, who has close relationships with David S. Brown Enterprises and Caves Valley Partners and was the District 2 councilman for 16 years, as well as by Zirkin. Almond was a volunteer, and then campaign coordinator for Zirkin when he ran for a delegate seat in 2002.

“He broke my heart,” Almond said of Zirkin’s endorsement. “It wasn’t just political, it was personal.”
Zirkin declined to comment, and Kamenetz could not be reached for comment.

Another endorsement of Herbst’s, from the Greater Pikesville Owings Mills Reisterstown Small Business Coalition, has been drawing criticism from Almond and her supporters, who said they have never heard of the group. Heads of both the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce and Pikesville Chamber of Commerce said they have never heard of the group.

Andy Hoffman, owner of Gourmet Again in Pikesville, said the coalition is a business networking group that formed about a year ago. Hoffman, who grew up with Herbst, said the endorsement is the group’s first political activity. When asked to name other members, he referred to Herbst, who was able to name one other person involved in the group.

Both candidates have traded jabs as to who is the “developer’s candidate.”

While some have painted Herbst to be the development candidate because of the slate and support from Caves Valley executives, several of which
attended a fundraiser Herbst held at Tark’s Grill at Green Spring Station, Herbst is quick to note that Almond’s campaign has received numerous
contributions from those connected to the Foundry Row development. While three contributors — two executives from the company that demo-lished the Solo Cup factory, Chesapeake Contracting, and the wife of a Foundry Row attorney — gave to Almond before Foundry Row was granted retail zoning, the vast majority of contributions came after that decision.

Reaction and Analysis
Herbst is quick to point out that Almond was part of a campaign slate in the 2010 election cycle. And he is correct, the District 11 team slate still lists Almond, Delegates Jon Cardin, Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein and Zirkin as affiliated candidates.

Contributions to the slate, during this election cycle and in 2010, have primarily come from the affiliated candidates’ campaigns. Expenses include pay for campaign workers, advertising, field expenses, yard signs and fundraisers.

A government watchdog group, Annapolis-based Common Cause Maryland, said that slates similar to the District 11 team slate can make sense, with candidates who share tickets pooling their resources for items such as mailers, TV and radio ads, polls and consultants. But they can also be used to raise and deploy money in a targeted fashion.

“They’ve become very distorted over time because they are unregulated,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the organization’s executive director. “Because they’re not transparent, these slates definitely influence elections in [ways] voters can’t always track.”

Candidates can become part of slates and contribute unlimited amounts of money from their own campaign funds, Bevan-Dangel said. A person or corporation can contribute a maximum of $4,000, but a person with multiple LLCs can contribute $4,000 through each LLC, a loophole that will be closed in future elections. Direct expenditures are “pretty unlimited,” she said.

“Slates are somewhat unique to Maryland and something Common Cause has been trying to reform for some time because they’re easy to abuse.”

John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said that while it might be unusual that a county executive is endorsing a challenger to an incumbent, it appears he’s endorsing someone who may be more amenable to his policy proposals. And developer money being involved in elections is not unique to this race or to Baltimore County, he said.

“Campaigns are run on money and developers have a lot of it,” Bullock said. “I’m not saying it’s an all-out bribe, but what campaign contributions allow you are access to an ear.”

The Council race has raised the eyebrows of several community members who keep a close watch on local politics.

Reisterstown resident Mary Molinaro said she thinks Herbst may be unduly influenced by developers and is concerned by his change in party affiliations. Her concern is also local.

“He has not had a relationship with Reisterstown in the past, and I have no idea what he would do to assist us with the projects that we have,” she said.

Cheryl Aaron, a longtime community activist and the zoning committee chair of the Greater Greenspring Association, said that while all candidates have money coming in from various sources, the development dollars stick out to her as most prominent in Herbst’s campaign.

“The irony is not lost that the same people who are backing Jon Herbst also financed Kevin Kamenetz. It’s all pretty obvious,” she said. “What worries me most is, what are they expecting in return? Hopefully, we won’t have to go there, and [Almond] will be successful in the primary.”

Bob Frank, who was a state delegate for District 11 from 1995 to 1998, takes a more neutral position.

“I think you have to recognize that Jon is somebody who’s run before. I think anybody who said he’s a prop for somebody else ignores the fact that this is
obviously a serious young man who has an interest in politics,” Frank said. “That being said, I think some of the things happening around him would suggest some other people are trying to steer things in a certain direction.”

The Ties that Bind

Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, meets with Narendra Modi in Israel in 2007. Modi is India's newly elected prime minister. (Courtesy of Anat Bernstein-Reich)

Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, meets with Narendra Modi in Israel in 2007. Modi is India’s newly elected prime minister.
(Courtesy of Anat Bernstein-Reich)

With a focus on Hindu nationalism and pro-market policies, newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises to propel the country in a new direction.

India and Israel have enjoyed increasingly close military and economic cooperation over the past two decades, and Modi also brings strong personal and business ties with Israel dating to his time as chief minister of one of India’s most wealthy and industrialized states.

While traditional Israeli allies in Europe remain in economic stagnation and produce increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Modi’s election may further elevate Israel’s bond with the world’s largest democracy.

“We are very confident he will give the proper attention to the relations with Israel because he understands the strategic bond,” Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, said.

Differences in size and culture aside, India and Israel have many modern and historical similarities. Hinduism and Judaism are among the world’s oldest existing religions, and both share ethno-religious components that set them apart from other major faiths. At the same time, both religions have complicated systems of laws, purity codes and dietary restrictions that define their communities. In modern times, both India and Israel achieved independence from Great Britain during the late 1940s after long internal struggles and bloody partition plans.

Yet, for its first few decades of independence, India, under the direction of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party, sought friendlier relations with Arab states and aligned itself with the third-world Non-Aligned Movement, which was often hostile to Israel. Despite similar national origins to Israel, India viewed the Jewish state as a proxy of the imperial Western powers.

This mentality didn’t change until 1992, when the end of the Cold War forced Indian leaders to rethink their global strategy, including relations with Israel. In January 1992, India and Israel opened their first bilateral diplomatic missions.

Since then, one of the most important aspects of Indo-Israeli relations has been military cooperation, with Israel becoming India’s second-largest military importer behind Russia.

“Today, military cooperation is considered to be one of the most important aspects of their ties,” said Alvite Ningthoujam, a Ph.D. candidate at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who has researched India-Israel military cooperation with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Ningthoujam explained that the Indo-Israeli military relationship has evolved over the years “from a mere seller-buyer relationship” to a “relationship that has been transformed into that of joint collaborations.”

“India imports very sophisticated weapon systems such as missiles, arms and ammunition, electronic warfare systems, radio-communication systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, etc., and there are several other deals in the pipeline,” Ningthoujam said.

Even though their military ties are strong, Israel and India have shared a mixed relationship since 1992, largely as a result of the Congress Party’s years of vocal support for the Palestinian cause as well as its reluctance to criticize Iran’s nuclear program.

But this hasn’t been the case universally in India. Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, which now has outright majority control of India’s parliament for the first time in the country’s history, has longstanding warm ties with Israel dating back to when the BJP was part of a government coalition in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“We are sure the BJP will give a boost to India-Israel relations based on past experience with BJP,” Bernstein-Reich said.

Ideological affinity aside, many inside the BJP are extremely grateful for the discrete military support Israel provided to India during its 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan, when Russia and other allies refused to help India.

In recognition of Israel’s support, top BJP officials visited Israel in 2000, which eventually led to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s historic visit to India in 2003.

Like the rest of the BJP, Modi “understands that Israel needs India for political reasons as a strategic ally, something that wasn’t there before, because India needed the oil of Arab countries, including Iran,” Bernstein-Reich said.

With his anti-terror attitude, Modi “will want to keep Israel close to him and not at a distance, like the Congress Party did,” she added.

Bernstein-Reich, who has worked as a technology entrepreneur in India and Israel for the past 17 years, met with Modi during his visit to Israel in 2007 as part of a high-tech agricultural conference. Modi, who served as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, forged strong ties with Israeli businesses during that time. India has a decentralized form of government, in which individual states and their leadership can develop economic and bilateral ties with foreign nations.

Under Modi’s leadership, Israeli companies poured billions of dollars of investment into Gujarat in areas such as industrial research, solar and thermal power, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, and water recycling and desalination plants.

“Modi understands what Israel can give to India technology-wise,” Bernstein-Reich said.

On the other hand, while Indo-Israeli economic ties have grown significantly to nearly $5 billion, bilateral trade between the nations has recently stagnated.

“There has been steady growth but not enough in recent years because of the recession,” said Bernstein-Reich.

Additionally, one of the outstanding issues that Modi inherits as India’s new leader will be finalizing a Free Trade Agreement with Israel.

The Free Trade Agreement has been under negotiation for the past three years, and Bernstein-Reich explained that although the Congress Party was very friendly toward Israel, they “took their time” on the trade pact.

Bernstein-Reich predicts that once the agreement is signed, bilateral trade will increase substantially.

“It will be a unique agreement with India that will give special benefits to businesses in both countries,” she said.

Modi, meanwhile, has garnered significant attention for his strong Hindu nationalism, resulting in criticism from the West — especially for Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Yet, his views in that area may also allow him to form an ideological bond with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is similarly chastised in some Western countries.

Shortly after his victory, Netanyahu said he spoke with Modi and expressed his desire to “deepen and develop” bilateral ties.

One of Modi’s first public gestures as prime minister was to visit the Ganges River, one of holiest places in Hinduism, where he promised to restore the heavily polluted river to its former glory. Over the years, Netanyahu has taken a similar approach, focusing on securing Israel’s Jewish heritage sites and insisting that Jerusalem remain under Jewish sovereignty.

The new Indian prime minister “might warm up considerably to Netanyahu, say, driven by ideological affinities on some issues,” said Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Ningthoujam.

Modi is also surrounding himself with like-minded ministers who admire Israel and its values.

“Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is a big fan of Israel and enhanced diplomatic ties is expected,” Ningthoujam said.

Swaraj, who is the first woman to hold the post in India, has called herself a “strong fan” of Israel and a “strong admirer” of Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir. She has also visited Israel and served as chairwoman of the Indo-Israel parliamentary friendship group in 2008.

Already, Swaraj’s Israeli counterpart — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman — has reached out to her. The two foreign ministers acknowledged the “great importance” of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations.

“The fruitful cooperation between the two nations contributes greatly to tremendously important spheres of collaboration, including agriculture, water, research and development and more,” said a news statement from Swaraj.

Despite its size and natural resources, India has in recent years failed to keep pace with the advancements of China and other major Asian countries, as corruption and political divisions have caused economic stagnation. Many hope that Modi will give a much-needed boost to India in order for the country to compete globally. For tiny Israel, meanwhile, strengthening ties with major Asian nations is an important part of its 21st-century strategy.

“New Delhi [India’s capital] needs a country such as Israel who is willing to transfer technologies that are hard to procure from elsewhere, and this is not only in the field of military, but on other fronts as well,” Ningthoujam said. “Israel had already proved its credibility [to India] in the past and particularly during the Kargil War. So, it is a very important country to India.”

Jewish Retirement to South Florida: Behind the Numbers

(Pedro Szekely via Wikimedia Commons)

(Pedro Szekely via Wikimedia Commons)

Is the age-old trend of Jews retiring to South Florida on the decline? It depends how you look at the numbers, according to demographer Dr. Ira Sheskin.

“Even though the percentage coming to Florida may be down, the number coming is probably not decreasing, and it’s not going to decrease,” Sheskin, a member of the committee that completed both the 1990 and 2000-01 National Jewish Population Surveys, said.

Why is that the case?

“Starting last year the baby boomers began to retire,” said Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami. “There are 10,000 baby boomers a day in this country turning 65. Even though the percentage coming to Florida may be somewhat lower, because there is an increase now of people retiring in this country over the next couple of decades, the number coming to Florida will still continue to increase.”

Sheskin has completed in excess of 110 demographic studies for more than 80 synagogues, Jewish organizations and commercial entities. He said that according to the nationwide trend in elderly retirement, “Florida is still, to this day, the overwhelming destination for retirees.

“Having said that, it is somewhat of a lower percentage than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Sheskin added. “We now see retirees, including Jewish retirees, going to places such as North Carolina, even places such as Arkansas, where the cost of living is considerably less. So the percentage [retiring to Florida] is down some.”

What Sheskin has seen in South Florida is that the Jewish population in Miami-Dade County has been decreasing since 1975. His last estimate of Jews in Miami, taken in 2004, was 113,000. Broward County in 2008 had 186,000 Jews, and Palm Beach County had 255,000.

Sheskin estimates that there are 555,000 total Jews living in that three-county area — half of them 65 and over.

“Jews are continuing to come here, but they are more frequently settling in Palm Beach County than in Broward County and probably more frequently in Broward than in Miami-Dade County,” Sheskin said. “Miami has become this major metropolitan area.”

According to Marcia Jo Zerivitz, founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida, two groups of Jews started the trend of coming to Miami Beach.

“Prosperous Jews began to winter on Miami Beach in the 1950s when the new hotels (such as the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau) had the ‘American Plan,’” she said. “The poorer Jewish elderly on South Beach, which were largely teachers and garment workers, rapidly declined from 1977 to 1986. South Beach was the last leg of a historic migration from the old world — the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Czarist pogroms and Nazi Holocaust — to this country, to the formidable years in the Northeast, and at last, to the summer-in-winter climate.”

Zerivitz said that Miami’s South Beach, rather than the partying/nightlife destination it is known as today, used to be a prime spot for Jewish seniors.

“Today’s Jewish population on [South] Beach is Americanized and the non-Jewish population is largely Hispanic,” Zerevitz said. “It is a different world. For every 20-year-old today who cruises Ocean Drive, imagine an 80-year-old then pulling a shopping cart up Washington Avenue. Where the bars are today, imagine a makeshift synagogue. On the beach, for every ‘hard’ body today, imagine an elderly person, and no traffic. The last elderly Jews of Miami Beach represented tenacity and conviction, a love of learning, and a fragile and unique culture.”

Sheskin has similar memories.

“I remember going to South Beach when my wife and I moved to Florida in the early 1980s,” he said. “I took my guitar and I sang Jewish songs sitting on a bench, and I immediately had about 200 elderly Jews standing around listening and singing along. At one time, there were as many as 70,000 Jews on Miami Beach.”

The demographer’s latest estimate for Jews in Miami Beach is 19,000.

“That is still a reasonably sized Jewish population for what is a four-zip code area, but the nature of South Beach has changed significantly,” Sheskin said.

Nevertheless, Sheskin’s figures show that many so-called “snowbirds” — seniors who travel to Florida seasonally, for a warmer winter — turn into full-year residents. He said this trend could be traced to World War II, when many New York Jews who were in the army were trained in South Florida.

“They came here, saw something they liked, and then after the war when they started their families, decided to move their families here,” Sheskin explained. “That led to a large growth of the Jewish community in this area. The other obvious reason is the climate. As people aged, they could not put up with weather conditions, snow, and ice in the northeast. Florida became a good alternative.”

Further contributing to this trend is what geographers call “chain migration.”

“In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews started to come [to South Florida],” Sheskin said. “Others would come down on vacation or visit relatives then return to New York, Boston or Philadelphia and think, ‘Wow, that’s a neat place, I’ve already got relatives or friends there, and they would follow. It’s called chain migration because you have an initial group of settlers, you then have another group that comes and sees, goes home, and then follows, with the first group providing guidance to the second group as to where to live. Information then flows between South Florida and New York that leads to the continuation of that chain migration.”

According to Gary Monroe, who had a photographic exhibit called “Barely a Minyan” on the last Jews of South Beach, those Jews lived in accord with their old-world values.

“The ocean was therapeutic,” Monroe said. “The streets were lively with activity. Everything was in walking distance. Social agencies and neighbors met their needs. For Shabbat, card rooms were converted to shuls.”

Zerivitz said the ethnic community of South Beach became out of touch, and eventually, out of time.

“Crime soared with the 1980 Mariel boat lift and sunrise swims came to an abrupt end,” she said. “Then came the popular TV show, ‘Miami Vice.’ The preservation movement that propelled the restoration of the [Art] Deco buildings also propelled the movement out of the elderly. In a rush to redevelop the southern shore, Holocaust survivors were told that they would be ‘relocated.’ The precious legacy of the culture they had established in South Beach came to the end of the line. The average age of ‘trendy’ South Beach’s population dropped by about 50 years within a decade.”

Breaking Ground

060614_towson

Groundbreaking for the new Chabad Student Center is the first step in a $3 million building that will include a synagogue and guest suites. (Provided)

On Sunday, June 1, the Chabad Jewish Student Center at Towson and Goucher celebrated the official groundbreaking for the organization’s new building. The new location will allow the expansion of programs at a time when both Towson University’s and Goucher College’s Jewish student populations are growing, according to Rabbi Mendy and Sheiny Rivkin, who currently operate the center from their two-story home in Towson.

The Rivkins, who moved to the area in 2008 to offer a welcoming Jewish experience for college students, have always felt strongly about Jewish youth and the need to strengthen their Jewish ties.

“We want to give students the opportunity to explore, to figure out who they are as Jews,” said Mendy Rivkin. “It’s their journey of self-discovery, and we want them to own it.”

At the decidedly rustic and airy outdoor ceremony, a video documented student and alumni reflections of the Chabad House. Speakers included academic and political officials and donors, including Baltimore County Councilman David Marks and Towson University vice president Gary Rubin.

“It’s a wonderful development,” Rubin said of the expansion. “Towson is a very diverse and cultural campus. It’s very important to understand all religious beliefs.”

Sharing in the celebration was a longtime friend of Rivkin’s from rabbinical school, Rabbi Yudi Steiner of Chabad GW.

“Jewish life will grow in places that no one expects,” said the fellow campus rabbi. “All you have to do is answer the call.”

Towson alumna Danielle Gold, who was co-president for a year-and-a-half at Chabad House, spoke highly of the warm environment that the Rivkins cultivate. From Sheiny’s delicious Shabbat dinners to a menorah lighting in town, Gold learned that there was always room for one more at the center, she said.

Above all, “I learned how to be a leader and delegate,” she said. “Having never considered myself a religious person, I learned more about Judaism, what it meant and what it means to be a Jewish woman.”

She added that she has used her Judaic knowledge to lead the best and most informational Passover Seder her family has ever celebrated.

Parents also attended.

“[The Chabad House] is a place to go as a home away from home — that’s really how they make you feel,” said Robyn Barnett, whose daughter recently graduated.

Mendy Rivkin recalled that even from his first years in the area, Shabbat dinners routinely drew a crowd. It became so popular, he said, that students worried they would lose their seats if they stood up.

And with three young children and another on the way, the expansion, his wife noted, is coming at the right time for his own family.

“As our family is growing and with the new Chabad House, it will allow for more programs at varying times,” said Sheiny Rivkin. “We want to work very hard to keep the [student] family atmosphere.”

The new building will have three floors and will include a library and conference room for in-depth research and debates, a synagogue, a large dining room that can accommodate more than 120 students, a professional kitchen, a student lounge and guest suites for visitors and parents.

“I’m very happy to see this come to fruition,” said Rabbi Joshua Snyder, director of Hillel at Goucher College. “The more resources the better.”

Donors have covered 60 to 70 percent of the total cost for expansion, approximately $3 million, according to the Rivkins. Construction is expected to start as soon as possible and is estimated to take six to eight months.

The Chabad House offers a variety of programs, including inter-student education, social events, Birthright trips to Israel and a Shabbaton in New York City. Of the students he serves, Mendy Rivkin said, “We challenge them.”

For more information, visit jewishtowson.com or call 410-825-0779.

Lauren Root is a local freelance writer.

Beth Israel USY Named Chapter of the Year

Provided

Provided

For the second year in a row, the Beth Israel chapter of United Synagogue Youth was awarded Chapter of the Year for the Seaboard Region.

“The first time it was insane. We worked so hard for it, and it felt really great to win it,” said Josh Rosenbaum, Beth Israel USY’s president. “The second time we won it, we didn’t really see it coming. We had a good year, and we were all really proud of what we did, but we weren’t expecting it as much, and it was crazy. I don’t even know how to put it into words.”

The teen group found out late last month at the Seaboard Region USY’s annual spring convention. The region includes chapters from all over Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and parts of North Carolina. In all, the Owings Mills group faced 31 other chapters vying for the title.

The award is given to the chapter with the most impressive combination of funds raised, unique events and programs held and interest generated.

“We managed to fit a lot of stuff in in one year to stand out as a chapter,” said Rosenbaum, who counted the organization’s mystery bus-ride adventure, where members pack onto a bus and are not told what the day’s fun activities will include until they arrive at their destination, and the annual Claire Sodden Memorial Weekend Shabbaton, a day-long Shabbat event in memory of a Beth Israel teen, among the chapter’s best programs.

Rosenbaum, who graduated from Franklin High School earlier this week, said he hopes the awards help to grow the Beth Israel chapter.

“It’s worth all the time and all the effort,” he said. “The friendships that come out of it — I would recommend it to everyone I can.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Sinai Dedicates Six-Story Stoler Tower

Photo Provided

Photo Provided

Leonard and Roslyn Stoler’s healthcare philanthropy is reaching new heights.

On Sunday June 1, the six-story Stoler Tower was dedicated on the Sinai Hospital campus, made possible by the Stoler’s $3 million gift to the new patient-care facilities.

The Stoler Tower is the new home to Sinai’s ER-7 Emergency Department, the Margaret and Benjamin S. Schapiro Cardiac Diagnostic Center, the Rose and Joseph Lazinsky Neuroscience Center, Sinai’s Intensive Care Unit, the Louis and Phyllis Friedman Neurological Rehabilitation Center and Sinai’s Intermediate Care Unit.

The gift enabled the building or renovation of each unit, and the facilities are equipped with state-of-the-art technologies as well as family-centered amenities that have become hallmarks of Sinai. All rooms are private, and the non-ICU in-patient rooms feature sleeper chairs for the comfort of extended stays by loved ones.

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

At 88, Sztajer Graduates!

Rubin Sztajer’s living room is  decorated with family photographs. He lost his parents, three siblings and many other relatives in the Holocaust. (David Stuck)

Rubin Sztajer’s living room is
decorated with family photographs. He lost his parents, three siblings and many other relatives in the Holocaust.
(David Stuck)

Baltimore Jewish Times readers and schoolchildren throughout the mid-Atlantic region and beyond know and love Rubin Sztajer. The 88-year-old survivor of six Nazi death camps has frequently shared his story with reporters, historians, educators and, most importantly, thousands of students. Since February 2014, when the JT covered his visit to Boys’ Latin School, Sztajer has spoken to students at 41 other schools. In the past month alone, he has addressed 17 school groups.

Therefore, it was only fitting that on Thursday, June 5, Dallastown (Pa.) High School presented Sztajer with an honorary diploma, a document long overdue for a man who has spent hours upon hours addressing students in their classrooms.

In a letter notifying Sztajer and his wife, Regina, that he was to be honored, social studies teacher Molly Dallmeyer explained why the school and school district had chosen to bestow the diploma.

“I know that this honor is one that is unexpected, but due to your presence at Dallastown and the lives you have touched through the years by sharing your story, I find that no one person can truly express how much you have made a difference not only to my own life, but on those of my students in my Holocaust Studies classes the past five years,” she wrote. “This honor will surely express our gratitude and thanks. If anyone is deserving of such an award by the graduates and families of Dallastown students, it would be you and the hope, perseverance and commitment you have made to teaching future generations about what it is to truly survive and live with dignity.”

Despite the value he places on education, the Holocaust interfered with Sztajer’s ability to complete high school.

“When the war broke out in Poland, I was 13, and my education ended,” said Sztajer, who lost his parents, three younger siblings and many other relatives in the Holocaust. “When I came here, I had to make a living and support a family.”

At first, he noted, it wasn’t easy.

“I hit the pavement for seven weeks trying to find a job,” he said. “I had no family, no money, no education, and I didn’t speak the language.”

Finally, Sztajer, at 23, met a Yiddish-speaking man in Baltimore who offered him a job in his wholesale warehouse. Although the job paid less than he was receiving from his public assistance check, he took the job.

“The first day I cleaned bathrooms and swept floors. You’ve got to start somewhere. I did pretty well,” he said, looking around his Timonium living room in the apartment he shares with his wife of 61 years. The room, comfortable and neat as a pin, is decorated with artwork and photographs of his three children and seven grandchildren.

“All of my kids are college graduates, and my last grandchild just finished college. A couple of them have master’s degrees,” he said. “Education was always the No. 1 thing for me and my wife. When the first kid came, we decided she would be a stay-at-home mother. Her job was to make sure all the children got good educations. Mine was to support us. Somehow we managed.”

Although he lacked a high school diploma and was therefore unable to matriculate credits for courses he audited at Towson University while in his 70s, for the past three decades Sztajer has spent much of his time in school. It’s where he loves to be.

“I only speak to children. I give them hope and encouragement, and they realize there are so many opportunities for them,” he said. “I give them advice: ‘Go home and tell your family how lucky you are that you have them!’ Reading a book [about the Holocaust] isn’t the same. Seeing a person tell their story makes an impact. Kids [who have heard the story before] actually sneak in to hear me again. I don’t think anyone can say they’ve been hugged more.”

sellin@jewishtimes.com