Legislative Look-Back

The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

For many in Maryland’s Jewish communities, the recently-concluded 2014 legislative session was a success.

With a resolution to much of the state’s kosher wine problem, the passage of a bill expanding pre-kindergarten to more Maryland children and the inclusion of an amendment to the budget denouncing the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, in addition to inclusion of many Jewish-supported budget points, both the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Baltimore Jewish Council are pleased with what was accomplished in 2014.

“It was an incredibly successful session,” said Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy.

In both Washington and Baltimore, Jewish social service agencies secured funding to continue their work.

The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year included funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice and the Maryland/Israel Development Center, among others. A $50,000 bond bill to help Jewish Community Services renovate housing for developmentally disabled adults was also introduced by Del. Dana Stein and passed. Among the BJC’s policy priorities that were approved were a minimum wage increase and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.

The BJC reached an agreement with the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, Inc. and the Field Enforcement Division of the comptroller’s office to help increase the variety and accessibility of kosher wine, a longtime issue for both the BJC and the JCRC.

Under the agreement, the comptroller created a website that lists kosher wines obtainable in Maryland and the distributors that sell them; retailers will be educated on how to order the wines; the number of kosher wines available in Maryland will increase to 1,000 by 2015; and distributors will maintain lists of the kosher wines they sell.

“We are extremely pleased,” said Locklair.

JCRC executive director Ron Halber said that the settlement reached wasn’t perfect, but it has paved the way for further gains in the future.

Both groups spent time dealing with how to respond to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. A rift between the two Jewish community organizations on the issue became apparent in early March when they took opposite sides on proposed legislation that would have placed a financial penalty on state universities for funding faculty participation in ASA-sponsored events. The inclusion of language in the budget condemning academic boycotts satisfied both organizations, but committee hearings on March 5 and 6 made the divide public.

“It could have been handled better on all sides,” said Halber, noting that such a public disagreement between the two organizations threatens
legislators’ trust in both to present them with ideas supported by the Jewish community as a whole.

The boycott bill, he noted, was the one blemish on the Jewish community’s record. Each side, however, considered the final amendment a legislative win.

“It’s a huge victory for Maryland and for the Jewish community in Maryland that our state has taken such a strong stance on boycott, divestment and sanctions,” said Locklair. “The movement is only going to continue to grow and for our state to say, ‘We don’t support the BDS movement’ … we couldn’t be happier.”

One policy priority that didn’t survive the session was a bill that would have required a French rail company implicated in the transport of Jews
to concentration camps to pay reparations before it could bid on the suburban D.C. Purple Line commuter rail project.

The bill died in committee, but Locklair framed the fight as an opportunity to educate legislators about the Holocaust.

“It was a very good session,” surmised Halber. “Our priorities were passed, relations with legislators were strengthened.”

On pre-K expansion, which would allow Jewish day schools to receive state funding if they choose to participate in the state’s program, Halber said “it certainly has the potential to allow Jewish families of lower income to access a Jewish education.”

In February, members of the Orthodox Union joined with day school teachers and administrators to testify on behalf of the bill. Although the program could potentially result in day school pre-kindergarten’s functioning almost identically to public classrooms, those members of the Jewish community present said the potential good expanded access could do for local Jewish children would likely make any challenges well worth it.

The 2014 session, said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), saw a lot of compromise among legislators.

He pointed to the passage of bills dealing with marijuana and raising the minimum wage as evidence of a spirit of cooperation. Through changes and amendments, the General Assembly managed to come to enough agreement to pass them all.

“This was a less contentious year than other years,” said Stein.

Professor Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, called this legislative session one of the most boring in history.

“I don’t think there was a whole lot on the agenda, and I think that was probably intentional because this is an election year,” he said. “Delegates and senators don’t want their positions to come back and bite them when they run for office.”

Stein added that many hot -button issues had been dealt with in previous sessions.

Other than decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, passage of an effective medical marijuana bill and raising the minimum wage to $10.10, Norris argued that not much happened. And on the minimum wage, he wasn’t convinced the new rate is significant.

“The $10.10 minimum wage doesn’t kick in until 2018,” said Norris. “By then, four more years of purchasing power will have eroded through
inflation.”

With that in mind, he said Maryland legislators, generally known for being “deep blue liberal progressives,” didn’t do much for the poor. They
did a lot for the rich, he contended, including granting $15 million in tax breaks to movie producers.

With the session being Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last in office, Norris said he set himself up favorably if he decides to seek higher office.

“A number of these issues, such as minimum wage, marijuana, transgender discrimination and issues in prior years are all really good issues for Martin to use when he’s running for president, because those resonate with the democratic base,” he said.

House Minority Leader Del. Nicholaus Kipke (R-District 31) said his party was pleased with the passage of the medical marijuana bill and bills advancing election reform in the state, but he had hoped to see more work on taxes.

“We have a laser-like focus on tax reform in Maryland,” said Kipke. “Right now Maryland has a lot of assets, we have a good economy, but I think if we got our tax policy in a more competitive light, we would make our state so much more prosperous.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com
hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Jewish Orgs. on Alert After Fatal Shootings in Kansas City

Kansas’ tight-knit Jewish community was rocked just one day before the beginning of Passover as an alleged gunman took the lives of three people in two attacks just minutes apart outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park and a local retirement village.

According to various news reports, at about 1 p.m., shots were reported outside the JCC’s theater entrance, where auditions were being held for a singing competition for area teenagers. One man was reportedly killed at the scene, while another died at a local hospital. The suspect – described later in the day by police officers who apprehended him as a bearded white male in his 70s – then fled to the Village Shalom community and opened fire, killing one woman before fleeing to a school, where he was arrested.

Two others were shot at, but not injured. Some reports said that the gunman asked people if they were Jewish before firing his weapon and that he shouted “Heil Hitler” about the time of his arrest.

A post on the JCC’s Facebook page says the institution will be closed tomorrow. As people in cities across the country finished their last-minute Passover preparations – the eight-day festival begins Monday night – JCCs, including those in the Owings Mills and Park Heights areas in and around Baltimore, benefited from a beefed-up police presence.

While the FBI and local police have not officially called the violence a hate crime, many national organizations are not waiting for confirmation to denounce the shootings.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time there has been a shooting at a Jewish Community Center,” read a statement from B’nai B’rith International. “Comments attributed to the shooter after police had him in custody demonstrate a blind hatred toward Jews.”

The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, noted that just a week before, it released a security bulletin to communal institutions warning of the increased potential for violence around Passover and the April 20 birthday of Adolf Hitler. That day “has historically been marked by extremist acts of violence and terrorism, including the violence at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma City bombing,” read the statement.

“We mourn the tragic loss of life in today’s shootings in the Overland Park, Kan., Jewish community,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “Information about the perpetrator is still being uncovered, but early reports indicate that anti-Semitism may have been a factor. If so, it is a tragic reminder, this day before Jews around the world observe Passover, of the hatred that continues to plague our world.

“It is also yet another horrific instance of an act of senseless violence involving the use of guns to take innocent lives,” continued Saperstein. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured in today’s shootings. May the memories of those lost be forever a blessing.”

The JT’s former editor-in-chief, Maayan Jaffe, works as director of philanthropy at the Overland Park JCC. She and her family were unharmed.

Maller Honored By Lincoln Financial

(Provided)

(Provided)

Peter Maller, founder and president of Maller Wealth Advisors, and registered representative of Lincoln Financial Advisors (LFA), was named LFA Planner of the Year for 2013. Planner of the Year is awarded each year to the three leading advisors among thousands affiliated with Lincoln Financial.

“Planner of the Year is the highest acknowledgement our company bestows on a financial planner,” said John DiMonda, head of LFA. “It is a direct reflection of Peter’s commitment to his clients and a testament to his professionalism and loyalty to our company.”

Maller has been named LFA Planner of the Year six times in the last seven years. With more than 20 years’ experience in the financial services industry, Maller founded Maller Wealth Advisors in January 2014. The firm, headquartered in Hunt Valley, is a wealth management firm providing sophisticated investment strategies, comprehensive financial planning, risk-management services, business succession planning and employee benefits to successful business owners, accomplished professionals and high-net-worth individuals.

Israeli Arab lawyer indicted for aiding Hamas

The Haifa District prosecution has indicted Mohammed Abed, a 42-year-old attorney from the village of Baana near the northern Israeli city of Acre, for a series of security offenses concerning his contacts with senior Hamas operatives.

A gag order placed on the case was partially lifted Monday, revealing that Abed was arrested Feb. 24 in a joint Israeli police, Shin Bet security agency and Israel Defense Forces operation.

Abed was charged with multiple counts of contacting a foreign agent and providing services to an illegal association. The indictment alleged that for years, while legally representing Hamas members jailed in Israel, Abed has been a go-between for several senior Hamas operatives — including Abbas al-Sayed, who planned the 2002 Passover bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel — and Hamas officials in Gaza and the West Bank.

High School Seniors Nominated for National Award

Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School student Lani Roskes and Pikesville High School student Jesse Fidel will find out in just a few weeks whether either will be one of up to just 141 high school seniors nationwide invited to Washington, D.C., to receive one the nation’s most prestigious awards given to high school students.

Their selection as candidates for the Presidential Scholars Program ranks them among the top 3,000 high school seniors in the United States, but the wait to see whether or not she will walk away with the award is not nearly as nerve-racking as applying to college, shared Roskes.

In January, Roskes was notified of her candidacy. Last month, she submitted test scores, essays and a list of activities. Now, she waits to see if she is selected.

“It’s not as big a deal, but it’s very exciting,” she said, comparing it with the wait to hear back about her college application.

In the fall, Roskes will begin studies at Johns Hopkins University, where she was admitted by early decision. She is leaning toward a major in biochemistry.

Roskes transferred to BT as a sophomore after attending Yeshivat Rambam. She is captain of the varsity tennis and varsity softball teams at BT, in addition to being involved in the arts, including ceramics, which she teaches.

The 17-year-old also volunteers at BT as national co-director of America Eats for Israel, a program that asks restaurants to donate 10 percent of their profits one day a year.

Last year, the program raised more than $10,000 nationwide, all of which was donated to Meir Panim to help Israelis in need.

Roskes said she has no trouble balancing her busy schedule.

“I kind of like doing a little bit of everything,” she said.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

China’s ancient Jewish community returning to its roots

China’s ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng is set to celebrate a traditional Passover Seder for what may be the first time in centuries.

The Seder is being sponsored by Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization that helps “Lost Tribes” and other forgotten Jewish communities return to their roots. The Seder will be conducted by Tzuri Shi, a Kaifeng Jew who formally converted and immigrated to Israel a few years ago.

“We are proud and excited to organize this historic event,” Shavei Israel chairman and founder Michael Freund stated. “Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their Jewish roots as they prepare for Passover.”

Persian or Iraqi Jewish traders first arrived in Kaifeng, one of China’s imperial capitals, during the Middle Ages. At its height, the Jewish community there likely numbered around 5,000 people.

Kerry Warns ‘It’s Reality Check Time’

Secretary of State John Kerry has made 11 trips to the Middle East since July to facilitate Israeli-Arab peace talks. Last week, it looked as though his efforts were thwarted, when President Mahmoud Abbas applied for membership in international bodies — a move considered off limits by the American-brokered negotiation terms. In response, Israel canceled a prisoner release scheduled for March 29.

Kerry is still urging “the leaders to lead” and to work through the differences, though for now it seems that negotiations have stalled. Israel claims it canceled the prisoner release due to the international membership applications, but the Palestinian leadership said it submitted applications because Israel defaulted on prisoner release terms. And so it goes.

“I have to hope that they’re going to work out a way that they’ll continue negotiations,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. “It’s no guarantee that negotiations will lead to peace, and yet if you’re not negotiating, you’re not closer to peace.”

At a news conference in Rabat, Morocco, Kerry warned: “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward.”

Neither party has called off the negotiations, said Kerry, “but we’re not going to sit there indefinitely.”

Local reaction to the stalled peace talks is hopeful, realistic and impassioned. Community members who spoke with the JT did so on his or her own behalf, not on behalf of the organizations with which they are associated.

“If you stop and think of the whole turmoil in the Middle East, what is the island of stability?” questioned Ellen Plant, a member of the Israel Coalition and Baltimore Zionist District. “The island of stability is Israel. Let’s never forget that Israel has been committed to peace since 1948. It has been circumvented year in and year out, and what Abbas did was another step in circumventing the peace process.”

Bill Fox sits on the national council of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and is a member of the national board of Friends of Israel Defense Forces. He believes it is not just Palestinians who are the point of contention.

“It’s not a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but an Arab-Israeli conflict,” explained Fox. “The Arab League voted that they will never recognize Israel as a state. How can there be a peace process if the Arabs … do not want a Jewish state in their midst?”

Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation considered the stalled peace talks in a larger context.

“It feels to me as if our world is losing the art of compromising for a greater good,” said Starr. “We can see it in many different arenas — in the Middle East for a long time but even in our own country, in Washington.”

Brian Sacks is a past president of Baltimore Zionist District and currently co-chairs the Baltimore-Israel Coalition. He said it is unfortunate peace can’t be reached, but he looks at other markers as a move in the right direction.

“Peace treaties, the peace process, hasn’t worked,” said Sacks. “It’s led to quiet in some places, rockets in others.

“Quiet is a good temporary solution,” he added. “Maybe the goal instead of peace should be quiet. Quiet is a good thing.”

Kerry’s seemingly hopeful but realistic approach to broker peace is echoed in some of the local sentiments as well.

“There’s always hope,” said Fox. “I’ve always been hopeful that some accord, some accommodation, consistent with what Israel must have security, recognition, an end to terrorism and an end to incitement [can be reached]. That’s what Israel has to have.”

Plant is hopeful that one day the Israelis and Palestinians can work out an agreement, and she believes that “the day that Abbas and Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the road to peace will be much shorter.”

See related story, “Back to the Drawing Board.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

IISHJ Names Outreach Director

The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) has announced that Noach Dzmura is its new campus outreach coordinator/rabbinic student recruiter.

Dzmura has 20 years’ experience as an instructional designer for the software industry and for higher education. Since obtaining an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., he has garnered six years’ experience in outreach, marketing and communications specific to the Jewish nonprofit world.

Dzmura’s duties will include strategically targeting campuses for outreach that will maximize IISHJ’s impact in relation to available speakers and existing congregations, updating the promotional materials used for the IISHJ Rabbinic Program to reflect its current aims and goals and updating other materials used to advance Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Resist the Urge to Tap Retirement Plans Early

I have yet to meet anyone who thinks they’re saving too much money for retirement. On the contrary, most people admit they’re probably setting aside too little. Retirement accounts must compete with daily expenses, saving up for a home, college and unexpected emergencies for every precious dollar.

If taking money out of your IRA, 401(k) or other tax-sheltered plan is your best or only option, you should be aware of the possible impacts on your taxes and long-term savings objectives before raiding your nest egg.

Many 401(k) plans allow participants to borrow from their account to buy a home, pay for education, medical expenses or other special circumstances. Generally, you may be allowed to borrow up to half your vested balance, up to a maximum of $50,000 — or a reduced amount if you have other outstanding plan loans.

Loans usually must be repaid within five years, although you may have longer if you’re using the loan to purchase your primary residence.

Potential drawbacks to 401(k) loans include:

> If you leave your job, even involuntarily, you must pay off the loan immediately (usually within 30 to 90 days) or you’ll owe income tax on the remainder — as well as a 10 percent early distribution penalty if you’re under age 591/2.

> Loans cannot be rolled over into a new account.

> Some plans don’t allow new contributions until outstanding loans are repaid.

> Many people, faced with a monthly loan payment, reduce their 401(k) contributions, thereby significantly reducing their potential long-term account balance and earnings.

> Your account value will be lower while repaying your loan, which means you’ll miss out on market upswings.

Many 401(k) plans allow hardship withdrawals to pay for certain medical or higher education expenses, funerals, buying or repairing your home or to prevent eviction or foreclosure. You’ll owe income tax on the withdrawal — plus an additional 10 percent penalty if you’re younger than 591/2, in most cases.

Traditional IRAs allow withdrawals at any time for any reason. However, you’ll pay income tax on the withdrawal — plus the 10 percent penalty as well, with certain exceptions. With Roth IRAs, you can withdraw contributions at any time, since they’ve already been taxed. However, to withdraw earnings without penalty you must be at least 591/2, and the funds must have been in the account for at least five years.

To learn more about how the IRS treats 401(k) and IRA loans and withdrawals, visit irs.gov.

With 401(k) and traditional IRA withdrawals, the money is added to your taxable income, which could bump you into a higher tax bracket or even jeopardize certain tax credits, deductions and exemptions that are tied to your adjusted gross income. All told, you could end up paying half or more of your withdrawal in taxes, penalties and lost or reduced tax benefits.

Finally, if you borrow or withdraw your retirement savings, you’ll sacrifice the power of compounding, where interest earned on your savings is reinvested and in turn generates more earnings. You’ll forfeit any gains those funds would have earned for you.

Carefully consider the potential downsides before tapping your retirement savings for anything other than retirement itself.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs.

Races Raise $487K for CMNH

Credit Union Miracle Day, the title sponsor group of a family of races, presented a $487,000 donation to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMNH) nationwide representing two popular races on the East and West coasts. Of that amount, $111,781 has been raised online by 282 credit union members, runners and their families and friends.

“We are extremely grateful for everyone’s commitment to making this amazing donation a reality,” said Theresa Mann, chairman of Credit Union Miracle Day and president/ CEO of The Partnership FCU in Washington, D.C. “Hundreds of volunteers from our credit unions and business partners have given their time and talent to this vital cause that helps kids receive quality medical treatment.”

A record number of members of Congress — 231 — representing all 50 states signed on to be honorary race chairs