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.

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.”

Rock The Block

060614_brief-block-partyFor the first time ever, the Rosenbloom Owings Mills Jewish Community Center will host a block party to kick off summer.

The event will take place at the JCC campus on Sunday, June 8 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will feature kosher food, crafts, games and much more.

“Convening community and providing an opportunity for people to connect is what the JCC
of Greater Baltimore does best,” said JCC President Barak Hermann in a statement. “This was the impetus for creating our first-ever community block party.”

The party will turn the sports fields at the JCC into a festival, complete with balloon art, face-painting, exhibits on nature, inflatables and carnival games. Additionally, each of the more than 60 event partners will be in attendance with activities of their own for partygoers. The hope, said Robin Samuels, JCC marketing director, is that the day will offer an opportunity for community organizations and community members to connect in a fun setting.

In the past, the center has hosted large parties in celebration of Israel’s 60th and 65th birthdays, but Samuels said she’s confident the block party will draw an even bigger crowd.

Entertainment includes the Milkshake Duo featuring Lisa & Mikel, followed by the Israeli Scouts Friendship Caravan, Upright Dave and The Messarounds featuring Matt Chase, Kenny Liner, Jordan August and Dave Frieman and The Tummelers Klezmer band.

The event, which is being cosponsored by the JT and other community organizations, is free and open to the public.

‘A Force to be Reckoned With’

Beth Goldsmith, honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says it was her husband’s death that pushed her to be more involved and more philanthropic. (provided)

Beth Goldsmith, honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says it was her husband’s death that pushed her to be more involved and more  philanthropic.

This past Sunday at Woodholme Country Club, Beth Goldsmith and the Goldsmith Family Foundation were honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the Foundation’s dedication to the museum’s Bringing the Lessons Home program.

The Goldsmith Family Foundation was created in 1991 after Goldsmith’s late husband, Harold, died tragically in a small plane crash.

The event commemorated 20 years of the Bringing the Lessons Home initiative, which has educated tens of thousands of students and transformed how young people from all walks of life understand the history of the Holocaust and its relevance in today’s world, according to organizers.

The night was filled with personal stories not only of Holocaust survivors, but also of participants of the Holocaust Museum’s other educational outreach initiatives. Attendees heard the story of an unlikely friendship between Vienna-born survivor Margit Meissner and her future “teacher,” African-American community leader James Fleming, who now serves as a program coordinator in the museum’s youth and community initiatives department. African-American community leader Rebecca Dupas, who participated in the Bringing the Lessons Home program in 2000 and now works at the museum, impressed the audience with a poem, “The Unlikely Voice,” ending with the words, “And I am reminded that silence must never be my choice.”

Goldsmith says that the museum’s ability to engage and educate members of the African-American community channels “the parallels of history among African-American and Jews.”

The event, and the Goldsmith’s family’s philanthropy, helped support three programs identified as critical to a sustainable trajectory of educational outreach by the museum: its school outreach program; its ambassador training program; and its summer internship program. All engage inner-city students and future educators for the museum.

Beth Goldsmith and her family are no strangers to philanthropy or leadership within the Jewish world. Goldsmith served as women’s campaign chair for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore in 1986 and as its annual campaign chair in 2012. Today, she serves on the board of the Jewish Federations of North America and the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. She also serves on the board of directors and as a co-chair of the Israel & Overseas Committee at The Associated.

Goldsmith credits her late husband for inspiring her philanthropic edge, saying that his passing served as the catalyst for her communal involvement. She told of the pride she felt when Harold Goldsmith’s Baltimore Sun obituary highlighted his philanthropy.

She hopes others will be driven by the mindset of “what will you be remembered for?”

Pointing to the importance of Goldsmith’s Bringing the Lessons Home cause, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiese, a Holocaust survivor, said in a video presentation, “I don’t want the past to become anyone’s future.”

In lauding Goldsmith, Judge Chaya Friedman, who was appointed to the Holocaust Memorial Council by President Barack Obama in 2010, called her “a force to be reckoned with” and pointed to her “unbelievable heart and devotion to philanthropy and the Jewish people.”

Leslie Pomerantz, senior vice president of development at The Associated, remarked that she is “always amazed with Beth’s dedication to Jewish causes and how this dedication is always met with remarkable compassion.”

“Beth epitomizes someone who expresses leadership and commitment to the Jewish past, present and future,” added Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer at The Associated.

With a bittersweet smile, Goldsmith herself veered into the past, remembering events of decades ago. She said simply: “Harold was the person who got me involved with the Jewish community.”

Justin Hayet is a local freelance writer. He can be contacted at

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Sting


Marty Tulkoff, father of current owners and brothers Phil, Michael and Alec, works the bottling line at the family’s original plant on East Lombard Street.

Harry and Lena Tulkoff brought their grated horseradish business with them from Russia in the late 1920s. Sometime in the 1930s (the family is uncertain of the exact date) their small grocery store in New York City became a food manufacturing business when they began making and selling borscht in a bottle, pickled relish sauce and packaging garlic bulbs in plastic and calling it “No-Dri.” The couple eventually moved to Baltimore and opened Tulkoff’s on east Lombard Street.

Now in its third generation, Tulkoff Food Products includes an East Coast and West Coast facility and is far from what Harry and Lena started. They produce cocktail sauce, barbecue sauce, ginger puree, chipotle aioli, several types of horseradish sauces and a host of products for other companies. But its base is still rooted in the spicy concoction, and in family.

Phil, Michael and Alec Tulkoff, three brothers who run the business, learned a lot of the finesse and philosophy from their father, Marty, and uncles, Sol and Danny. But the brothers all bring their experience from outside of food manufacturing to the company as well.

“I worked 11 years in aerospace engineering and 11 years in computer consulting, so my three meals a day was my food experience up until here,” joked the oldest brother, Phil, who serves as president of Tulkoff Food Products.

Phil joined the company nine years ago, and his influence has touched everything from what is produced to how they produce it. He helped computerize some of the processes and communications in the facility and helped drive the co-packaging business from zero percent four years ago to 29 percent today. Co-packaging or co-manufacturing is the ability to make somebody else’s product, including packaging and labeling. Typically, a consumer will read “packaged for” or “distributed by” on the label.

A big chain grocery store doesn’t have factories that make all the products that bear their name, Phil explained, so a manufacturing company makes it for them. Then there are other instances in which a familiar brand name with no brick-and-mortar factories has its product co-manufactured, and often these brands are even well known throughout the country.

“We do sauces, dressings and condiments,” said Phil. “All of those things are ground or mixed or pureed; they’re flow-able products.”

Tulkoff does not produce products with any meat or fish protein because it is not a USDA facility, and all but five of their products are kosher.

“We turn away nine out of 10 [inquiries for production], and most of the time it’s because of volume,” said Phil.

He explained that to use the industrial-sized equipment, the product must run all day long to be cost effective. They cannot produce only 50 or 100 cases. Use of the plant requires about 1,500 cases in a day. He added that if he had a nickel for every time he has heard, “I have the greatest hot sauce in the world, or all my neighbors love my barbecue sauce,” he would be a rich man.

“The example I give them is this: Can you make me one martini and mix it in your bathtub? The answer is no, and I have the same problem,” he explained. “We have kettles that are 400 gallons and I can’t do 50 gallons for you. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t even come up to the level where the mixer is.”

Phil also had a hand in the enormous custom-designed horseradish root washer that can clean literally tons of roots at a time and is based on his father’s design from many years ago.

“Our father was a creative mind and tinkerer; he was inventive,” said Michael, the middle Tulkoff brother and director of specialty sales. “You can’t just go out and buy a machine that deals with horseradish; it’s a strange root and has to be dealt with appropriately.”

He added their father Marty was always running the company from within, finding ways to become more efficient.

Michael came to the business almost four years ago after working in medical supplies, investment, insurance and educational entertainment. He lives in Israel with his wife and six children, conducting most of his business remotely and coming to Baltimore about twice a year.

Michael remembers the brothers’ involvement as kids during summers and school breaks.

“I remember sweeping floors, heaving boxes and pallets and the small hook-shaped knife that we’d use to open the 100 pound burlap bag of horseradish root,” he recalled. “And I remember the soreness of my palm from putting the one gallon metal jar lids onto the product we’d fill for restaurant usage.”

Michael described arriving in the Tulkoff plant parking lot with his father in the early 1980s when he worked for a short time with the company.

“He said, ‘Hey, look around Mike, there are 50 cars here, but it’s not just 50 cars, it’s 50 [employees’] families we’re trying to support,” he recalled.

Alec, the youngest of the three brothers, is the vice president of operations in Tulkoff’s Pittsburg, Calif., facility and travels to Baltimore for work a few times a year. The West Coast facility is about a quarter the size of the East Coast plant in workforce and production. But it allows faster access to serve clients out West and also provides redundancy should anything happen to production on the East Coast.

Before joining the company about eight years ago, Alec worked in digital music management and also at the Shoah Foundation, where he viewed Holocaust survivor testimonies in order to catalog details about particular concentration camps or ghettoes. He is a historian and has written two military history books as well.

Growing up in a sauce-centric family business, Alec admitted, laughing, “I was the one who would order a hamburger at [a fast food restaurant] and we’d have to wait because I ordered it plain. I never was a sauce person.” But he still understands and appreciates the importance of the horseradish root to his family legacy.

Horseradish root is thought to be native to southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, according to the International Herb Association, and is a very labor-intensive crop to grow. There are no seeds, so a piece of the root —about the size of a pencil and twice the thickness — must be cut off and planted to continue the yield. It is too unwieldy and high maintenance for mechanized production, and once you successfully grow horseradish, “the hardy perennial lasts forever.” The roots form an extensive system, and older plants can have roots up to 15 feet deep. Commercial cultivation began in the 1850s in the U.S., with Collinsville, Ill., east of St. Louis, being the largest production area for horseradish root in the country.

“We grind about half-a-million pounds of fresh root per month,” said Phil. The storage coolers hold about two million pounds per aisle, and the product is constantly replaced since washing and grinding happens daily. Tulkoff must estimate, purchase and reserve enough roots to last through their production because harvest of horseradish is only possible November through May.

Truth is, now Tulkoff produces more product with garlic than with horseradish but it runs a close second. Garlic spans multiple ethnic foods, so the demand is higher. Retail sales are only about two percent of the business. The majority is still food service production and the rest is the growing co-packaging business.

“People have to realize that family businesses are fewer and fewer in America and getting to a third generation is a blessing and a very rare distinction today and that doesn’t come easily,” said Michael. “For members to interact there can be challenges, but I think if people realize you have to have that greater good, like my father’s philosophy, instead of the me, me, me attitude, I think that is what will contribute to longevity and a healthier atmosphere, not just for the family but for the employees.”

According to Alec, the brothers get along well, each in charge of their specific domain and they respect one another’s strengths and weaknesses. None of the spouses are directly involved in the business. The children are not involved either but perhaps, just as horseradish agriculture requires planting a piece of the original root and needs considerable time to cultivate, so might the next generation of Tulkoffs.

Common Core & Day Schools

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With the federally backed Common Core State Standards making waves in Maryland’s public schools, local day schools — although private — may not be totally immune to the controversial changes.

It is “important for us as a school that the school and the faculty be aware of what our students’ peers are learning at other schools — both public and private,” said Robyn Blum, assistant head of Krieger Schechter’s middle school.

The standards, developed in a joint effort between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, were adopted unanimously by the Maryland State Board of Education in 2010. Among other changes, the new standards shift the writing focus from narrative writing to evidence-based writing and stress the importance of the mathematical process rather than simply giving the correct answer to a mathematics problem.

Prior to the Common Core standards, every state was responsible for developing its own statewide criteria. Creators touted Common Core as a means to ensure that all students across the country were equally prepared for college or the workforce by the time they graduated high school, regardless of the state in which they live.

From there, it was up to states to determine whether or not they would adopt the standards, but many opponents have pointed to federal incentives as a means of leaving the states no choice but to adopt it.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program challenged states to submit plans to reform their schools. The administration’s website counts 19 states that have been awarded more than $4 billion for their K-12 plans, including Maryland, which was awarded $250 million over the course of four years in 2010. The Race to the Top website acknowledges 48 states that it says have “worked together to create a voluntary set of rigorous college- and career-ready standards.” While the program made no direct mention of Common Core, those states that adopted the standards were eligible for the grant.

While Krieger Schechter hasn’t implemented any of the Common Core changes yet, the school and its teachers have kept a “thoughtful eye” on what is happening in public schools, Blum said.

And what is happening in public schools is a mix of emotions and reactions.

Across the country, parents, teachers and politicians have cried foul on the new standards. Republican officials have branded them a federal takeover of education. In Maryland, every Republican gubernatorial candidate has vowed to either stop Common Core in the state or place a moratorium on the implementation of the new standards.  In September, a Howard County man drew national attention after he was escorted out of and later arrested for interrupting a meeting on education standards in Towson to voice his opposition to the new education standards. The charges were eventually dropped, but the story took off on talk radio and cable news. On May 16, Baltimore County Schools superintendent Dallas Dance admitted errors in the implementation of the program, which took affect across the state last fall.

Marta Mossburg, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute has reservations about the new standards, but Krieger Schechter is on the right path, she said.

The independence that day schools and other private schools have from state mandates is one of their biggest assets, but the fact that the redesigned SATs, which will begin in 2016, will closely reflect the Common Core standards could muddle that autonomy, said Mossburg.

“One of the biggest impacts is going to be the fact that the SATs are changing to reflect K-12 curriculum versus what colleges want to see in college readiness,” said Mossburg. “It’s going to force the homogenization of curriculum, not just at the public school level, but at the private school level [too] because those kids are also going to be taking the test in order to get into college. That’s a big issue.”

Parents who think that sending their children to private schools exempts them from dealing with the new standards will be disappointed, she said.

“We’re talking about an indirect effect,” she added. “Even if people aren’t going to be forced to use Common Core standards, children are going to be tested based on Common Core standards, that’s just how it is, it’s a reality. It’s going to impact everyone, regardless of whether they’re in public school or private school.”

Marc Kramer is executive director at RAVSAK, a New York-based non-denominational Jewish day school network. His organization includes Jewish elementary, middle and high schools from across North America. RAVSAK doesn’t have an official stance on the new state standards, but he said he and the rest of his staff have been watching as many of their member schools decide how to approach the changes in their own states.



“The Common Core is a game changer for education in this country,” said Kramer. “Now, in what direction it’s going to change the game, I think we don’t know.”

While state accreditation or state funding may affect the freedom of private schools in some states to choose which parts of Common Core, if any, they want to implement,  “church-exempt” private schools in Maryland are entirely excused from the new standards regardless of accreditation or funding, according to the state’s education department.

Many schools Kramer has heard from are still grappling with how much of the standards, if any, they want to apply to their own day schools.

“In some places schools will simply have to take it on full score, and in other places schools will be informed by it and may choose to adopt or adapt certain aspects of it,” he said.

Kramer’s own children attend a day school that has chosen to incorporate some of the Common Core. Though some of the publicized problems with the standards are frightening, he said he trusts in the school’s leadership to do what is best for his children’s education.

“I know it’s not going to be perfect. I’m not looking for perfect,” he said. “We have to agree that there is no place in this world called ‘Perfect.’”

While some of the kinks in Common Core are still being worked out, Kramer said he is encouraged by the notion of a standard set of skills and knowledge.

“There are educators who are very, very intrigued by the premise of the Common Core and its notions of essential skills and knowledge and the standards and the ability to use those structures as evidence of the vibrancy and success of the Jewish day school,” he said.

For parents who sometimes worry that the education their children are receiving is not as good as may seem, he added, the standards could provide a means for them to see how much their kids are really learning.

Unlike other schools however, Jewish schools must balance any new standards or subjects they decide to take on with the core parts of their curriculum that make them Jewish schools.

“That’s their value-added, that’s their raison d’etre,” said Kramer. “So the challenge will become: How does a school stay focused in an unwavering way on Jewish peoplehood, on religious purposefulness, on Jewish literacy, on building the Jewish future and at the same time be responsive to and aware of and able to embrace changes in the world of education?”

At Pardes Day School, in Phoenix, Ariz., Jill Kessler, head of school, thinks she has found the answer.

“The Common Core has been very politicized, but we do not engage in any of the politics regarding Common Core,” she said. “If you look at the [subject] strands, it’s a higher level of excellence.”

The standards, renamed in Arizona the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, were adopted by the state in 2010. The school has been working on slowly adopting the Common Core standards, subject by subject, for three years.

A major factor in Pardes’ decision to implement  the standards was the SAT, the test most high schools juniors and seniors are required to take to get into college.

Three-Minute Video Explaining the Common Core State Standards from CGCS Video Maker on Vimeo.

“The new SATs are all going to be aligned with the Common Core, and our students coming from Jewish day schools must be competitive, they must have an excellent secular education as well as Judaic education in order to be competitive in today’s environment,” she said. “I really believe that it would hurt enrollment in our Jewish day schools if we, in fact, don’t get on the bandwagon and deliver the level of excellence that parents expect in any excellent independent school.”

The school’s slow implementation has been key, said Kessler. When the standards were first approved by the state, the school’s teachers looked through the subjects and highlighted the points Common Core included that were missing in their own curriculum or were placed at a different grade level. Departmental meetings were spent realigning their own subject standards to those laid out by the state.

The benefit of being a private day school came in the school administration’s ability to pick and choose which aspects it wanted to adopt. This was especially beneficial to the school’s need to include a Jewish curriculum in addition to the secular aspects. But Kessler said she and her staff found that a lot of the new standards meshed nearly seamlessly with the Jewish education their students were already receiving.

“The reality is that a lot of the other standards can help strengthen the Jewish aspects,” said Kessler. “When you talk about the language arts standards, the writing standards — they really talk about the writing across the curriculum — well students do a fair amount of writing for Jewish Studies and do some extraordinary critical thinking and problem solving when they’re working on texts, so its application actually works beautifully in Jewish Studies, and Hebrew as a second language — in second language acquisition — is also terrific.”

Kessler dismisses one of the major concerns vocal opponents of the standards have had — that the guidelines ask too much of children at too young an age.

“When our students are debating, say, Cain and Abel, all of this has to do with higher level,” she said. “You’re analyzing the characters, you’re getting into moral issues, right and wrong, and Jewish history and all that that provides actually aligns beautifully with the core.”

At Aleph Bet Jewish Day School in Annapolis, the school administrators and teachers are silently launching their own adoption of the Common Core.

Nan Jarashow, head of the school, said the school has focused primarily on the standards for math and writing, the two areas where she said it made most sense to the administration to incorporate the changes. This is the first year of Aleph Bet’s incorporation of the state standards, and Jarashow said the school plans to reflect on how it went after the school year ends next month.

“Because we’re not taking it lock-stock-and-barrel we’ve done it mostly internally,” she said of the school’s decision to not boast about its adaption of Common Core like some schools. “We haven’t made a big deal about it.”

While she is waiting for the year-end assessment to find out a more detailed description of how the first year went, Jarashow is confident that the decision to try utilizing Common Core was a good one.

Said Jarashow: “If there is some sort of national standard, we ought to at least know what it is and take that into account as we work on curriculum or instruction.”

JAFI Official Talks Ukraine Realities

Roman Polonsky, director of the unit for Russian-speaking Jewry for the Jewish Agency for Israel, speaks to lay leaders and employees of The  Associated: Jewish Community Federation of  Baltimore about the realities in the Ukraine. (Marc Shapiro)

Roman Polonsky, director of the unit for Russian-speaking Jewry for the Jewish Agency for Israel, speaks to lay leaders and employees of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore about the realities in the Ukraine. (Marc Shapiro)

For a Jewish community that is just beginning to find itself, the turbulent situation in Ukraine is putting the culture in jeopardy.

“There is a feeling not only of unrest, but shock,” said Roman Polonsky, director of the unit for Russian-speaking Jewry of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “When Jews become targets … it’s very dangerous and very problematic.”

Polonsky, who spent three days in Ukrainian cities Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa, spoke to Jewish leaders and employees of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, on Thursday, May 22, about how the conflict in Ukraine and recent anti-Semitic incidents have affected the Jewish community. He also briefed Jewish leaders in Chicago, Kansas City and New York City.

He was born 30 miles from Odessa and remembers a cosmopolitan town. Upon his recent trip, Polonsky said the city looked empty. A lot of people have left Odessa, many factories and institutions closed.

The Jewish community has experienced some targeted attacks including the desecration of a cemetery and a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a synagogue; and in Donetsk, a group distributed flyers asking Jews to register and pay a fee, although it didn’t happen. Polonsky said that while government groups are publicly supporting the Jewish community, the situation on the ground is different.

The situation is of particular concern to Baltimore not only because of the city’s connection to worldwide Jewry, but also because work and community building done through The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership is jeopardized because of Ukrainian unrest.

“There’s a sense of corruption and lawlessness in Odessa,” said Susan Posner, head of allocations for programs at the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership. She said people don’t feel they can turn to the police, some are building bomb shelters, and people are policing the streets themselves.

This year, The Associated hired Marina Moldavanskaya, the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership’s first coordinator, to live in Odessa. Speaking via email in March, she said the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Community have been changing their strategies to adjust to the situation and ensure that the most elderly and vulnerable citizens receive necessary assistance.

Posner said the situation in Odessa is “very disturbing,” especially since she had been to Odessa twice, the most recent time one year ago with employees and lay leaders from The Associated. She got to see the programs at the JCC in Odessa, which she said is the city’s center of Jewish life.

“People are just learning after 21 years how to be Jewish. This is the Former Soviet Union,” she said. “They’re new Jews. They’re new young Jews. It’s very exciting. To think that could be compromised is very concerning.”

An August Odessa trip for Posner and others involved in the partnership ship has been canceled, she said.

Polonsky said he saw many differences between the Ukraine cities as well as differences between the young and the elderly, who still have vivid memories of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews.

“In Kiev, actually, I met young Jews who are proud to be part of this revolution, who actually participated in this,” Polonsky said. “Young people have their own hopes, and they want to fight this corrupted regime.”

Still, many Ukrainian Jews seem to be staying inside their homes or escaping to Israel, Polonsky said. While it’s still a low percentage of Ukrainian Jews, more than 1,000 Ukrainians have moved to Israel in the last four months, Polonsky said, and more than 200 Ukrainians had booked flights to the Jewish state for May and June, according to JAFI.

“The ability to bring Jews to Israel in a crisis like this doesn’t happen because there’s suddenly a crisis and we begin to do outreach to people,” said Arthur Sandman, executive vice president of international development for the Jewish Agency. “It begins because we’ve planted the seeds of identification with Israel in their hearts and in their minds for years and years before, so when they reach a point of crisis, they see that Israel is an option for them.”

The Jewish Agency works with one million Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, 700,000 in the U.S., 70,000 in Canada, 50,000 in Australia and 250,000 in Germany, Polonsky said. And while the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership helped set up the Jewish community’s infrastructure in Ukraine, The Associated has also raised about $100,000 in its Ukraine Assistance Fund. Polonsky underscored how important support is at this time.

“In this situation, to continue this community life and these programs is vital and very important to them,” he said. “It’s actually like trauma care for these people.”

To instill Jewish identity in younger Russian-speaking Jews, JAFI runs Sunday schools, summer camps and programs in which campers can go to Israel and become camp counselors. Three camp counselors from Odessa will be counselors at Baltimore JCC summer camps this summer, Posner said, adding that Odessa’s Moishe House residents spent time with Baltimore’s Moishe House through the partnership.

Polonsky said the summer camps are especially important as places where young Jews can celebrate Shabbat and learn Jewish history along their peers and pass it on to their families.

“This is a transformative, immersive Jewish experience,” he said. “Kids just don’t have any other opportunity to connect themselves with Jewish [peers], to Jewish identity. They don’t inherit it from their families because their families were deprived of Jewish identity for so many years.”

While the current situation may seem dire, Polonsky and others have hope for the elections and new leadership in Ukraine.

“It’ll have a new face,” Posner said. “What exactly it’ll look like is unknown.”

First the Vote, Then the Ads

An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street. (Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street.
(Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An organization claiming to represent Reform and Conservative congregants has published full-page ads in Jewish newspapers across the country blasting their denomination’s leaders for supporting the inclusion of the “pro-peace pro-Israel” group J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

While the criticism of the religious leadership is clear, it is unclear to what extent the group represents the views of the estimated 1.5 million Reform and Conservative congregants.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations last month voted 22-17, with three abstentions, to reject J Street’s bid to join the umbrella group, often called the spokesman of the Jewish community. Despite the rejection, Jews Against Divisive Leadership, led by Carol Greenberg of Potomac, launched the attack ads.

“Voting to include J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was not advocating for diversity. It was falling for duplicity,” said the Conservative version of the ad, which ran in New York Jewish Week, the New York Jewish Press, the Boston Jewish Advocate, Washington Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times. It was undersigned by 60 names, 23 of whom are Washington-area residents, along with the congregations they belong to.

The Reform version of the ad, printed a week earlier, went after Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), calling him a “divisive leader.” It was signed by 40 people, none from the Washington area.

“We told you that he would use his position to bolster the anti-Israel J Street. We told you that he would try to diminish American Jewry’s support for Israel,” the ad admonished, apparently alluding to opposition before Jacobs became URJ head in 2012. “But we did not know quite how divisive Rabbi Jacobs would be. We did not expect that when he failed to persuade the Conference of Presidents to accept J Street as a major Jewish organization–which it is not–he would threaten to take the URJ out of the Conference and ask others to leave, too, over differences about Israeli foreign policy.”

In a statement following the Conference of Presidents vote, Jacobs said the conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the URJ may decide to leave the conference.

Greenwald was out of the country at publication time and unavailable for comment. She is a prominent member of COPMA, the local group that led a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for its support of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, whose Theater J presented a play the group considered anti-Israel.

In the Presidents’ Conference vote, all four groups representing Reform Judaism and all but one representing Conservative Judaism voted in favor of J Street, saying that even if some do not agree with J Street’s perspective, the Conference of Presidents should reflect the full spectrum of American Jewish opinion.

Jacobs, who was on J Street’s board of directors before taking the helm at URJ, was one of the most outspoken of the representatives who voted in J Street’s favor.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, where Greenwald and a number of the ad’s signatories are members, said the Conservative leadership moved on J Street without taking the whole movement with them.

“I think part of what upset people really was the fact that certain leaders in the Conservative movement were so out front, advocating so strongly, which seemed not to take into consideration the feelings of various members of conservative synagogues and rabbis who felt differently,” he said.

Weinblatt added that he was not surprised by the ad’s sentiments.

“These are people who care deeply about Israel, who feel a sense of having been disenfranchised,” he said. “Usually most Jewish organizations are driven by consensus and trying to reflect the overall position of its members and in this particular case it’s hard to gauge really how accurate a reflection it was to take the position that they took.”

Jessica Rosenblum, director of media and communications at J Street, dismissed the ads, saying that it does not surprise her “that 40 people in the Reform movement and 60 people in the Conservative movement … are strongly opposed to their respective leaders’ decisions to support J Street’s admission to the Conference of Presidents.”

“The Reform and Conservative movements voted to admit J Street to the Conference of Presidents, not because they agree with everything J Street says,” Rosenblum wrote in an email. “They did no more than faithfully represent the diversity of opinion within their movements–but such diversity is apparently unacceptable to the signers of these advertisements.”

Eye On The Future

Simon Galpin, director-general of investment promotion for Invest Hong Kong (InvestHK), says Hong Kong is the ideal destination for Israeli investment, citing the city-state’s high degree of autonomy, low barriers to entry and simple low-rate tax system. (InvestHK)

Simon Galpin, director-general of investment promotion for Invest Hong Kong (InvestHK), says Hong Kong is the ideal destination for Israeli investment, citing the city-state’s high degree of autonomy, low barriers to entry and simple low-rate tax system.

Israel’s business community has increasingly turned eastward toward booming Asian markets — so much so it was recently reported that in 2014, Israel is expected to export more on an annual basis to Asia than it will to the United States.

Fittingly, then, Asian countries had a major presence at the prestigious MIXiii — Israel Innovation Conference 2014, held on May 20-22 in Tel Aviv. Hong Kong, represented by a diverse 31-member delegation, was no exception. The group was led by Invest Hong Kong (InvestHK), a government-backed financial body whose goal is to “encourage new global companies to set up their businesses in Hong Kong and to help those existing companies expand,” said Simon Galpin, its director-general of investment promotion.

In addition to attending the conference, InvestHK used its trip to discuss the various advantages of doing business in Hong Kong with Israeli government officials, tech startups, business incubators, educational institutions and venture capital investors.

Galpin said that his Israel delegation included “a mixture of people [such as] key investors and entrepreneurs looking to invest or collaborate with Israeli startups”; some of Hong Kong’s leaders in innovation, high-tech and R&D (research and development); and one of the country’s chief scientists. He hoped that the trip would “plug the entrepreneurs we have into what’s going on in Israel” and encourage Israeli startups to explore Hong Kong as an option for expansion.

In Galpin’s estimation, Hong Kong is the ideal destination for Israeli investment. He cited the city-state’s high degree of autonomy, low barriers to entry and simple low-rate tax system.

“We can register a new company in just about an hour,” he said.

Galpin stressed that Hong Kong already has a large Israeli population and noted that it is one of the safest cities in the world, with a “secure environment and high-quality lifestyle.” The local Israeli community stands at more than 4,300 people and includes a Jewish day school. Many Israelis living in Hong Kong work in the diamond industry.

Additionally, according to Galpin, Hong Kong can serve as an effective means for Israeli companies looking to make inroads in businesses on the nearby Chinese mainland.

“Sometimes Israeli companies, when looking to do business with China, assume that going straight to the mainland will save time and money,” he said. “However, in many cases, going through Hong Kong, with its limited bureaucracy and many accommodation options, a company can find the right accommodations and at the right price.”

“The communication and collaboration between Hong Kong and Israel is gradually building up,” added Galpin. “That’s why we are putting more emphasis here [in Israel] than in any other part of the world.”

Jonathan Sternberg, a Jerusalem-based InvestHK consultant who spent his week with the group from abroad, explained that his role “is to advise and support Israeli companies across all sectors who are looking to expand their businesses in Asia and Hong Kong and help them make informed business decisions.”

Sternberg said InvestHK’s Israel office “provides a range of free and confidential services to Israeli companies that are sector focused.” For example, “we have diamond industry experts in Hong Kong who can assist Israeli experts in that sector,” he said.

The office also provides Israeli companies with information on the availability of government support or grants that can be tapped into and fosters business connections between Israeli companies and relevant partners in Hong Kong, according to Sternberg.

Sternberg said the idea is to “roll out the red carpet” for Israeli businesses in Hong Kong, ensuring “that their set-up is smooth and that they can succeed.”

“We want to alleviate any concerns or potential headaches they might have to deal with when entering the market,” he said.

Parallel to the InvestHK mission to Israel, on May 19 the group kicked off its global 2014 StartmeupHK Venture Programme competition. The contest aims to help innovative ventures launch and develop their global businesses throughout Hong Kong. Last year’s competition received 384 entries from around the world, including 43 from Israel. Two Israeli startups made it to the semifinals, and one — IT Central Station — was a finalist.

One of the judges who traveled to Hong Kong for last year’s StartmeupHK competition was Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd — an Israeli company that is the world’s largest platform for equity crowd-funding. Medved, who addressed the InvestHK delegation during its visit to his company’s Jeru-salem office, said that Asia is at the top of the list of locations where his company is looking to open a new office.

Medved said OurCrowd “is committed to building stronger ties between Israel and Hong Kong,” and he sees significant commonalities in the cultures of the two nations.

“We [in Israel] offer a different kind of model than the innovation coming out of Silicon Valley,” said Medved. “Silicon Valley doesn’t emphasize respect for traditions or elders, but here we can be innovative and still have serious respect for tradition. That’s important in our work and relationships with Asia, Hong Kong and China.”

For Medved, meeting with the Hong Kong delegation was just part of an eventful week in Israel, the so-called “startup nation,” thanks to the MIXiii conference.

“This country is on fire,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. This week alone I’ve spoken to delegations from all over the world. People [from] all over are making pilgrimages to Israel, the startup nation. We don’t even have to tell the startup nation story anymore. Everyone gets it.”

Under Scrutiny

Pope Francis touches the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank on his way to lead a mass in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. The pope's unscheduled stop at the Israeli security fence resulted in a controversial photo taken next to anti-Israel graffiti. (Nour Shamaly/POOL/Flash90)

Pope Francis touches the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank on his way to lead a mass in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. The pope’s unscheduled stop at the Israeli security fence resulted in a controversial photo taken next to anti-Israel graffiti.
(Nour Shamaly/POOL/Flash90)

After two intense days of religious ceremonies in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, unscheduled photo opportunities, and debilitating traffic arrangements, Israelis and interfaith relations experts are trying to attach the appropriate symbolism to Pope Francis’ visit to the region.

Nearly every stop made by the pontiff was subjected to simultaneous scrutiny and praise. While long-term tensions between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church were made apparent by the trip, some experts are acknowledging a thaw in Israel-Vatican relations.

“The Jewish people and the Catholic Church in recent years have found that their 30 years of dialogue have paid off and friendly relationships have resulted,” said Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the North American branch of the World Jewish Congress and chairperson of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella organization representing prominent Jewish organizations in discussions with leaders of other faiths.

Ehrenberg, who attended a meeting between the pope and Israeli President Shimon Peres, said that there is “a friendship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people that should be nurtured” and that there “certainly was a warmth to this visit, and you can’t deny that.”

“We have to realize that we have problems in common, and we have to work together on these problems,” she said.

Also important in Ehrenberg’s estimation, is the message that the visit sends to Middle East Christians who find themselves under the constant threat of attack.

“There has been very little outcry [on Christian suffering] by the United Nations; there has been very little outcry by other international organizations,” said Ehrenberg. “We haven’t heard enough of an outcry, not from the Catholic Church and not from any of the Christian denominations. In fact, it has been the Jewish people that have been decrying this phenomenon.”

But by visiting the Middle East, the pope “has shown that he is present and that he cares, and gives Christians here in the region strength,” Ehrenberg said.

“Hopefully we can work together with the Catholic Church to help ensure religious freedoms for everyone around the world, and for protection,” she said.

Pope Francis planted roots for improved interfaith relations even before being elected pontiff, said Giuseppe Platania, founder of Italy’s Israel Allies Caucus, an alliance that fosters cooperation and dialogue between the Italian Senate and the Israeli Knesset.

“He is a friend of the Jewish people, probably more than others before him,” Platania said. “He appears to be very open to dialogue with the Jewish community. Back in Argentina, the pope had a strong relationship with the Jewish community. So he grew up with a strong, positive relationship with the Jewish community from before he became pope.”

Platania said Francis made a “significant” symbolic gesture during his first week as pope by making a phone call to the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Rome.

“When you become a leader of over a billion people, what you do carries tremendous weight,” he said.

Appropriately, then, every stop by Pope Francis on his Israel trip — planned and unplanned — was scrutinized for its symbolism.

“His itinerary is very significant,” Platania said. “What he goes to visit first was very well thought out. The actual order of the people he sees, and shakes hands with, and the sites he visits, is very significant.”

The pope referred to Palestinian Authority-controlled territory as the “Palestinian state,” a move that contradicts the U.N. status of the Palestinian Authority as a “non-member observer state.” Francis also landed first in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, a day before his official state welcome by Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

According to Platania, Francis was not the first pope to visit Palestinian-controlled territory before setting foot in fully sovereign Jewish territory, and the order of the pope’s itinerary may have had more to do with religion than politics. The New Testament identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus.

“Maybe there is a stronger Christian connection to start [the trip] by going to Bethlehem than by going to the Kotel,” Platania said.

Ehrenberg said there is nothing new about the Vatican’s policy toward Palestinian statehood.

“The Vatican recognized a Palestinian state many years ago already,” she said. “So anyone surprised by this doesn’t remember when this first happened in the ‘80s.”

The pope then surprised many by making an unscheduled prayer stop at concrete sections of a wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, erected in 2002 to prevent terror infiltrations into Jewish population centers. He prayed in front of graffiti that read “Free Palestine” and (in broken English) “Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto,” leading to widely distributed photos.

Ehrenberg said the photo-op in front of the Israeli security fence “can be interpreted as some kind of a PR coup for the Palestinians,” but that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the issue when he spoke to the pope “and explained that the fence was built particularly to prevent the acts of terror that the international community is so against.”

“It’s not because Israel wanted to build it there,” Ehrenberg said of the fence. “It was forced upon Israel by terrorist attacks. [Netanyahu] showed the Pope the plaque remembering the horrific terrorist attacks that were perpetrated [at the AMIA Jewish center] in Buenos Aires, which the pope knows only all too well.”

Platania said, “This pope is coming across as very charismatic, very people oriented. Some people think that’s great. Other people think he has an agenda. Praying at the security wall was a sign of peace, but I wonder if he wanted to come across as exposing the wall and Israeli policy.”

Even “the best of our friends, eventually even with the best intentions, may want to use that friendliness, the diplomatic efforts, smiles, and phone calls to rabbis to help promote their own agendas,” Platania explained.

A longer-term issue between Israel and the Vatican relates to valuable Jewish artifacts dating back to the period of the First Temple in Jerusalem and believed to be held in Vatican archives that have been off-limits to Jewish leaders.

“The issue of artifacts is a big deal,” Platania said. “Many people have asked to visit the archive, and have been denied. It is believed that there are a lot of items that belong to Jewish heritage on all levels — things that could potentially be from the Temple, but even if they are not, still belong to the Jewish people, and could be given back.”

Returning the items, according to Platania, would be an “amazing act of reconciliation and friendship.”

Yet the Israeli government appears patient on the artifacts issue, and is hopeful that there is much to be gained by improving relations with the Vatican. Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, accepted an invitation from the pope to pray for peace at the Vatican. That gathering is scheduled for June 6.
“The relationships certainly will continue and will deepen,” said Ehrenberg. “Shimon Peres is going to visit the pope in two weeks, so let’s see where that leads.”