Meant to Be

For Hannah Rodewald, the whole idea is to put books into children’s hands. (David Stuck)

For Hannah Rodewald, the whole idea is to put books into children’s hands. (David Stuck)

Whether you call it “divine providence,” as Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore’s Language Arts department chairwoman Sara Arno did, or “kismet,” as Wee Chic children’s apparel storeowner Bridget Quinn Stickline did, it must have been fate that Stickline and Arno met in Greenspring Station in Timonium.

“I was there [at Greenspring Station] to take a child to a doctor,” Arno said of last month’s meeting. “And I was in the wrong building. I walked by the store [formerly the home of The Pleasure of Your Company, a stationary store, and soon to be the new home of Wee Chic], and it was dark, but I could see two people in there and also some empty bookcases.”

The bookcases seemed perfect for the library that Arno had always wanted to create at her girls’ school. So Arno went in and asked Stickline what she was planning to do with them.

“We’re giving them away tomorrow,” Stickline said, according to Arno’s recollection. “But you can call Hannah [Rodewald] right away, and maybe she’ll give them to you.”

Rodewald offered four, but Arno would have to pick them up the very next day. And as luck would have it, Rodewald was passionate about literacy issues.

“I do a lot of volunteering for the United Way,” said Rodewald. “A few years ago, I chaired the United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council, and we started a program called ‘Read, Learn and Succeed.’ I found out that it is so important for kids to be reading at grade level by the fourth grade. I’m no longer chairing, but since then, my husband, Lynn, and I have moved forward with literacy issues. We’re still involved with putting books into children’s hands.”

Though Arno said the school does have a library, it “wasn’t the kind of library that would make a child fall in love with reading. I was putting it together on a shoestring budget.”

“The books were old and yellowed,” she added.

Bnos Yisroel was founded 14 years ago, and Arno said that until recently, the school had “only ancient bookshelves and ancient books.” Two years ago, the school benefited from the generosity of Edward Whitfill, co-owner of Ukazoo Books in Towson.

“He gave us about $1,000 dollars’ worth of books, and I only spent $200 on them,” noted Arno. “Do you know how good that made me feel?”

When Arno returned to the future Wee Chic with a U-Haul truck to take the bookshelves, Stickline and Rodewald offered additional furniture.

“These were beautiful custom cabinets, things that would have cost thousands [of dollars]. And now that we have the furniture, we have more of a budget for new books,” said Arno. “The students are so excited about this. I want them to hold a book and say,  ‘A book is a wonderful thing.’

“What’s surprised me most is the kindness of the business community,” she added. “All these people just came into our lives because I was at the wrong place at the right time!”

A True Basketball Big Man

Former NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

Former NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

When the National Basketball Association playoffs tip off on April 19, the star players who take the court should credit their status to recently retired league commissioner David Stern, according to Peter Horvitz, author of “The Big Book of Jewish Sports Heroes.”

Horvitz said Stern’s leadership of the NBA for 30 years saw the league shift from the fringe of sports fans’ attention to the very center.

“The leading players of the sport have become true superstars,” Horvitz said. “Players such as Larry Bird, Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have become cultural icons. I don’t think the prosperity and popularity of any sport owes so much to the executive abilities of a single man more than basketball owes to David Stern.”

Stern — who grew up in a Jewish family in Teaneck, N.J. — retired from his role as commissioner on Feb. 1 and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. Hall of Fame board chairman Jerry Colangelo said Stern, a lawyer by trade, made himself a marketing genius through his work for the NBA.

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

“With intelligence and hard work he was always on the cutting edge in the areas of cable [television] and technology,” Colangelo said. “He positioned the NBA to take advantage of the new wave of technology and put us in a position on an international stage to be the first professional league to have a major foothold internationally. By doing this, he elevated the league in a tremendous way.”

Colangelo — who formerly owned the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball — said Stern “had great autonomy in terms of making decisions, and he proved to be an extraordinary leader of wealthy owners.”

Before rising to the rank of commissioner in 1984, Stern was the NBA’s executive vice-president and its general counsel. During his tenure as commissioner, the league expanded from 23 to 30 teams and television revenue increased from $10 million per year to $900 million per year. Stern implemented several rule changes in the game, instituted the age limit for NBA draft entries, created the draft’s lottery system, oversaw the launch of the NBA Developmental League and managed the relocation of six franchises.

“I’ve known David since 1967,” Colangelo said. “To have watched his growth as an individual, as a lawyer with great business acumen, as someone who developed relational skills — I’ve seen the whole journey and so I know his accomplishments, which are just short of sensational.”

Credited for developing and broadening the NBA’s audience by setting up training camps, playing exhibition games around the world and recruiting more international players, Stern’s legacy is in the numbers: the NBA now has 11 offices in cities outside the U.S. and is televised in 215 countries and 43 languages.

“Basketball is the No. 2 sport in the world in terms of popularity and participation, with soccer being No. 1,” Colangelo said. “The NBA and its incredible growth has been a big part of that overall growth. That’s because of the exposure of the game, domestically and internationally. There’s no small piece of credit that belongs to the NBA for where basketball as a sport is in the world.”

In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article titled “From Corned Beef to Caviar,” E.M. Swift wrote that Stern, the son of a New York deli owner, was undisputedly “the best commissioner in sports, the best in the history of basketball and every bit the equal of the best sports commissioners of all time, such as the National Football League’s Pete Rozelle and baseball’s Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”

Swift quoted Michael Goldberg, a former general counsel of the American Basketball Association, as saying that Stern “dismisses the adage that nice guys finish last.”

“David’s father ran a successful deli in New York. To be successful in that business, you have to have great rapport with your customers. You have to get them to come back, even if the corned beef is a little dry and the apple pie a little stale. You have to give the customer a smile, a pleasant greeting, a sense that he is being taken care of. David Stern understands that, and I don’t think it would be farfetched to say that he has applied that to the NBA,” Goldberg said.

Colangelo concurs with Goldberg’s assessment of Stern.

“I agree, because when you are brought up in that environment and you see firsthand how to run a business, how to deal with customers, that’s a solid foundation to come from,” Colangelo said. “When he left that scene and went on to school, then professionally as a lawyer and then the NBA, he brought all that knowledge with him.”

Colangelo acknowledged that Stern is part of a long line of Jewish figures that helped shape basketball history, including coach and owner Eddie “The Mogul” Gottlieb; Ossie Schectman, who scored the first basket in NBA history; and legendary coaches Red Holzman and Red Auerbach.

“Eddie Gottlieb was a dear friend of mine, as was Red Holzman,” Colangelo said.

Though the David Stern era was marked by the rising popularity of the NBA’s stars, Colangelo stressed that basketball remains the everyman’s game.

“Basketball doesn’t take a lot of equipment or space,” he said. “You can play it in an alley, a playground or a schoolyard or on the side of a barn. You can play organized ball in YMCAs and high school gyms and college field houses. There are many places to play the game, which is the consummate team game. We always push stars and we talk about the greats, but basketball is poetry in motion.”

Ready to Roll

041114_bikes1This spring a lively group of women bike riders plan to hit the road for friendship and fun.

Parkton resident Cathy Myrowitz has organized a new group called the “Annie ‘Londonderry’ Jewish Women and Friends Bicycle Circle.”

It’s “AL’s Gals” for short.

The name was inspired by the achievements of Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, a Jewish mother of three from Boston who, in 1895, biked around the world.

Myrowitz has a couple of goals for herself and the group.

First, in November, she’s flying to Israel to take part in the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. She undertook the five-day, 350-mile journey once before and is eager to try it again. She’s got a lot of training ahead of her and wants companionship for her rides.

Second, she hopes to encourage more women to hop on their bikes and set off to explore the world, or at least the byways of northern Baltimore County, where Myrowitz believes her fellow riders will be as entranced by the rolling hills and scenic vistas as she is.

“It’s like right out of ‘Downton Abbey,’” she said. “It’s so beautiful  there.”

Judging from turnout at her initial meeting on March 23 at Reisterstown’s Pearlstone Conference Center, interest is strong. Close to 20 people gathered to hear about the group, to learn about Annie Londonderry and get bicycle safety tips from a representative of Bike Maryland.

Towson resident Deborah “Spice” Kleinmann is looking forward to the outings. Years ago, she rode all the time and wants to get back into it.

“I still have all my gear,” she said. “I grew up riding. … I didn’t get a car until I was 25.”

Reisterstown resident Victoria Eisner skis in the winter and is looking for an off-season activity.

“I live on one of Baltimore’s scenic bike routes, but I don’t bike on it because it’s kind of hilly and dangerous, so I thought this would expand my horizons, show me some different places in Baltimore and hopefully Baltimore County that I can cycle,” she said.

Annie Londonderry is a little-known figure. That’s changing, however, thanks to a book about her life, (“Around the World on Two Wheels,” by Peter Zheutlin, Citadel Press, 2007) and a new documentary by Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker Gillian Willman, who screened “The New Woman” for the group.

Members of AL’s Gals learn bicycle safety at a recent meeting. (Photos provided)

Members of AL’s Gals learn bicycle safety at a recent meeting. (Photos provided)

“Hearing about someone who was so ahead of her time, who was just lost to history, who, had she been remembered, probably would have been world famous,” said Willman. “Even cycling enthusiasts didn’t know about her.”

While there were numerous newspaper reports about Annie’s exploits, she left no diaries or personal papers. She started her trip in long skirts, riding a 42-pound bike but soon switched to bloomers and a lighter-weight model. A $100 sponsorship from the Londonderry Spring Water Company earned her the nickname “Londonderry.”

Willman spent seven years on “The New Woman,” which has been screened at about 15 film festivals. Now, she hopes the half-hour documentary will have a long life, with showings in museums and for bike clubs, women’s groups and Jewish organizations.

Safety is top priority for AL’s Gals, and the inaugural meeting featured a talk from Bike Maryland program coordinator Marla Streb, who noted that the more cyclists on the road the better. It’s good for the environment, and with more bikes on the road, motorists just get in the habit of watching out for them.

Streb urged the group to safety check their tires, brakes and chains before every ride and to gear up in eye-popping orange or green so drivers will see them.

“You notice that  construction workers aren’t wearing camo,” she said.

As for motorists who forget that cyclists also have a right to the road, Streb noted that “a nice wave and eye contract” go a long way toward reducing driver hostility.

In addition, Streb reviewed the details of Maryland’s 2010 law, which requires motorists to give cyclists three feet when passing.

AL’s Gals is open to all women riders from Baltimore and D.C. While most of the women at the Sunday meeting were in their 50s and 60s, it’s open to women of all ages. Wyrowitz says the group will start out with 10 a.m. Sunday morning rides on the NCR trail in Ashland (officially, the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail) and then make the transition to road trips. That way, her dream of a Jewish women’s bike circle, for women of all ages and athletic ability, will really get rolling.

The New Woman: Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky (a documentary trailer) from Gillian Willman on Vimeo.

For information on AL’s Gals, visit the group’s Facebook page at

Leadership Maryland Names 2014 Class

Leadership Maryland has announced 52 leaders for its 21st class — the Class of 2014. Leadership Maryland is one of 34 state leadership programs nationwide and has graduated nearly 1,000 statewide leaders.

“These selected participants represent a broad spectrum of highly qualified executives from an extraordinary pool of statewide applicants,” said Renee M. Winsky, president and CEO and Class of 2005 graduate of Leadership Maryland. “After participating in a comprehensive program of experiences throughout the year, these leaders will serve as important participants in the unified effort to shape Maryland’s future.”

Following a two-day opening retreat this month, these class members will attend five two-day intense sessions focusing on economic development, education, health and human services, criminal justice, the environment, and multiculturalism/diversity. These sessions will be followed by a one-day closing retreat in November and a graduation celebration in December.

See the full list at

Bald Is Beautiful

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Beth Shalom Congregation sports his new look. (Provided)

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Beth Shalom Congregation sports his new look. (Provided)

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, education director of Temple Beth Shalom is bald. Bald as a bowling bowl. And he isn’t alone. He is among 70 other Reform (as well as a few Conservative) rabbis across the country, including Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation, who shaved their heads to raise money for research on pediatric cancers.

The mass hair-shaving fundraiser came about after Samuel “Superman” Sommer, the 8-year-old son of Plotkin and Sharff’s dear friends fellow Reform Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Samuel fought valiantly, but he lost his battle with AML in December 2013. His illness focused Plotkin’s attention on the surprising fact that only 4 percent of cancer research is spent on pediatric cancers. The Sommers decided to do something about it.

Last fall, they joined forces with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer research. St. Baldrick’s was founded in 2000 and is an all-volunteer charity committed to raising money for childhood cancer research grants.

St. Baldrick’s raises money through its Shave for the Brave head-shaving events that take place all over the country. Participants shave their heads to show solidarity with child cancer patients who often lose their hair from chemotherapy. The “head-shavers” are sponsored by friends and family members, who make donations to the foundation in their honor.

“Phyllis decided to try to find 36 Reform rabbis who would be willing to shave their heads at our annual Central Conference of American Rabbis on April 1 in Chicago,” said Plotkin. Instead, more 70 rabbis participated. Including Phyllis Sommer, Plotkin said that about 12 women rabbis were among the shorn.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

“Some of the women had such long hair that they were able to donate it to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, which creates wigs for women cancer patients,” said Plotkin.

Plotkin engaged his congregation in the cause too.

“In February, we raised $700 from our religious school students as part of our February tzedakah collection,” he said. The rabbi made the students’ collecting efforts into a contest.

“I offered the first swipe [of hair] to a representative from the class that raised the most money. We had a tie, though. On March 30 at the beginning of religious school, a representative from the fourth grade and the preschool swiped me,” said Plotkin. “They created a reverse Mohawk. Not a good look. It’s much better now that it is all shaven.”

Plotkin raised another $1,000 from religious school families and almost $1,000 more from his own friends and family.

“Now, I’m just shy of $3,000,” he said.

The Chicago event raised a whopping $593,000. Plotkin said the original goal for the CCAR hair-shaving event was $180,000. The rabbis hope to raise $613,000 by December.

Sharff was at first reluctant to have his head shaven and to get involved in a fundraising effort.

“Har Sinai is presently in the middle of a capital campaign,” he said, “and some fundraisers thought that an additional fundraising project might not be a good idea.”

When he arrived at the CCAR, Sharff planned on supporting the event from the sidelines. “Then it dawned on me,” he recalled. “Every one of my closest friends were up there. Much to my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone else, I went up and had my head shaved too.”

Since then, Har Sinai’s rabbi has been making up for lost time with an “after-the-fact” fundraising project.

Sharff is very glad he did it.

“I should have done this from the beginning,” he said. “It would have been a tremendous regret. No one should have to go bald alone.”

Organic Inspiration

Seth Goldman, “TeaEO” at Honest Tea, speaks to Jewish professionals about running a mission-driven business. (Marc Shapiro)

Seth Goldman, “TeaEO” at Honest Tea, speaks to Jewish professionals about running a mission-driven business.
(Marc Shapiro)

When Seth Goldman started making tea is his kitchen in 1998, he couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams how much Honest Tea would blossom.

“If you had told me 16 years ago that I’d be running an organization that was involved in helping to eliminate millions of calories from the American diet, helping to promote the spread of organic agriculture and helping to support fair trade labor standards in the developing world, I would have said, ‘Oh, that sounds like an amazing nonprofit,’” said Goldman. “I never would have guessed that it could be a beverage company, let alone one that today is owned by the Coca-Cola Company.”

The Honest Tea “TeaEO” spoke about the growth of his company and running a mission-driven business at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Business and Professional Affinities’ spring event on April 2. His tea company, which is fair trade, organic and kosher, is the U.S.’s top-selling bottled organic tea.

Goldman spoke about the formation of the company, how it keeps true to its ideals and how it has expanded into kids drinks and soda. Before Coca-Cola invested, Honest Tea bought 800,000 pounds of organic ingredients in one year. Last year, the company bought more than 5 million pounds, and this year, Honest Tea is on track to buy more than 8 million pounds of organic ingredients, said Goldman.

Approximately 100 people attended the lunch to network, catch up with friends and hear Goldman speak. But at least one person in the audience was hoping to be the next Seth Goldman.

Blake Wollman, 36, started selling his all-natural hummus at area farmers markets in 2011. He first made hummus in the kitchen of his Mount Washington restaurant, The Desert Café, and the demand was high. But he was bothered by the healthy reputation hummus had gained, considering that the country’s most popular hummus company, Sabra, has preservatives in its hummus.

“So I decided that I needed to look and find out how fattening mine was, and it was one-fifth the fat [compared to Sabra], not to mention all natural,” he said. “I’ve pursed that, and that’s been my mission really — to make an all-natural, low-fat, low-calorie, low-sodium product that tastes good.”

His company’s motto, “Take a walk on the wide side of hummus,” fits with its flavors, which include cinnamon raisin, honey sesame and black truffle, in addition to traditional flavors. The Wild Pea hummus is now being sold at Whole Foods locations in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, Wegmans in Maryland and at area famers markets and stores.

Wollman already seemed to be following Goldman’s advice. When Honest Tea released its Honest Kids line of organic juice drinks, Goldman realized it cost more than twice the price of Capri Sun.

“We’ve got to sell this on the merits of the product,” said Goldman. “Don’t compete on price; just make the product dramatically different and better.”

And much like Goldman invested in technology to expand his capacity, Wollman invested the right space to make his hummus since The Desert Cafés kitchen wasn’t cutting it.

“It was a small little 10-by-10 kitchen, and the most important thing about hummus is making it cold, keeping it cold, getting it cold, and I had everything against me there,” said Wollman. “So I knew if I was going to take this to the next level I needed to get a better facility.”

He moved into his Baltimore County facility in June 2012 and has refined his practices. On a recent Monday he made 2,400 pounds of hummus, which “seems like a lot, but it’s really not,” he said. And he’s ready for more business.

“We’ve gotten so good at it, we need to get busier now, because now we can get everything done that would have taken us days in [one day],” he said.

Wollman wasn’t the only one fired up by Goldman. Representatives of the Pearlstone Center — where the farm and animals are cared for in sustainable, environmentally conscious ways according to Jewish law — thought the story of Honest Tea fit perfectly with their work.

“Just to see that you can do sustainable and environmentally conscious and socially conscious … it fits along with everything we’re trying to do,” said P.J. Pearlstone, first vice president of Pearlstone’s board of directors.

Jakir Manela, executive director at Pearlstone, said it was a statement in itself that The Associated brought in Goldman to speak to Jewish professionals, and they came out in large numbers. Goldman exemplifies what Manela has seen in recent years, he said: sustainability, organic practices and environmentalism becoming mainstream.

“People still need to be educated, but … we’ve passed that tipping point, and it’s just becoming part of basic consciousness,” he said. “This is how the world works now; we all need to be responsible. It’s a part of business just as much as it’s part of the nonprofit world and it’s part of the Jewish community.”

“The question is,” added Manela, “how long will it take for the ideas to turn into practices?”

Torah Institute Achieves Milestone in Energy Efficiency



Torah Institute of Baltimore is implementing plans to both save money and protect the environment.

The school recently completed a comprehensive lighting component upgrade that has resulted in a $2,350 monthly savings, it announced last month. Funding came from leveraging Baltimore Gas and Electric utility rebates with its partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Green Loan Fund and its Sustainability Initiative’s Energy Efficiency Projects for Schools funded through AVI CHAI.

“We are very proud to be a model of energy conservation for schools,” said Yaakov Goldstein, executive vice president of Torah Institute. “This project is consistent with the efforts of our finance office to eliminate waste in all forms — in time, in spending, and now we can include energy as well. It not only fulfills the mitzvah of baal tashchis [broadly applied to the prohibition of all forms of waste], but also results in significant annual savings to the school.”

Until now, nearly half of the school’s electric bill was spent on lighting. To improve the situation, 850 light fixtures were re-lamped and re-ballasted. New components use 55 percent less energy to operate and produce more light than the original bulbs. The project cost $45,000 but was completely covered by a BGE rebate program. The initial cost of the project was covered by an interest-free loan provided by the Green Loan Fund.

In addition to approximately $28,000 per year in savings, the bulbs reportedly last more than 10 times the life of the existing bulbs, resulting in additional savings of cost and labor associated with changing light bulbs every summer over the next 12 years.

Finally, the school earned $1,500 in scrap-metal sales from the old fixtures. The old bulbs that were only a few months old were donated to local nonprofit organizations.

“On top of the significant cost savings associated with this project, the school is able to impart a series of valuable lessons to its student body,” said Yehuda Neuberger, co-chair of The Associated’s Day School Task Force. “Not only is conservation a Torah value, such a project models responsibility and inculcates an appreciation of the need for careful allocation of funds by communally supported institutions. I applaud Torah Institute for exercising leadership and finding creative opportunities to further some of the more indirect elements of its educational mission.”

Amid protest, building of controversial statue begins

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Members of the Jewish community were among the demonstrators protesting the construction of a controversial monument to the Hungarian victims of the German occupation during World War II.

Work on the statue began Tuesday in downtown Budapest, according to Klubradio, a news station known to be critical of the government. The protest was held that evening adjacent to the U.S. Embassy building with protesters carrying signs saying the memorial is “a falsification of Hungary’s history.”

The Freedom Square monument, due to be completed in May, will pay tribute to “all Hungarian victims with the erection of the monument commemorating the tragic German occupation and the memorial year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust,” according to the Hungarian Government Information Center.

The Jewish community has argued that the memorial removes any responsibility from the Hungarian government of that time for the death of Hungarian Jews.

‘New Reality’

041114_french-jewsEven among those who anticipated it, the intensity of anti-Semitic violence that hit France in 2002 was shocking.

That year — the height of the second Palestinian intifada — synagogues and schools were torched, previously rare anti-Semitic beatings occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and a new generation of Jews were introduced to dangers their grandparents recognized from the 1930s.

So when teenagers started throwing stones at Jews walking to synagogue in Evry, Manuel Valls, then the mayor of the Paris suburb, did more than issue a condemnatory news release. Valls, who became prime minister last week, joined the weekly synagogue walk, signaling to the perpetrators and anyone who cared to look that the Jews had a powerful ally.

“There is a new reality for French Jews,” Valls said years later, describing the atmosphere in 2002. “And it is palpable to me.”

Valls’ promotion last week from interior minister owed less to this kind of dramatic gesture on anti-Semitism and more to his reputation as an energetic and reform-minded politician, assets that have helped him rise to become France’s second-most powerful politician in the shakeup that followed his Socialist Party’s defeat in local elections last month.

But to many French Jews, Valls is something of a hero for his unusually robust defense of Israel and the French Jewish community, and his elevation is seen as a reassuring sign amid one of French Jewry’s most troublesome periods.

“I don’t think we ever knew a minister who said things the way he says them,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, said last week.

Cukierman was referring specifically to a speech last month by Valls at a rally marking the two-year anniversary of the slaying of four Jews in Toulouse in which Valls said that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But Cukierman could have had in mind any of several explicit displays of Jewish solidarity that Valls has undertaken over the years.

As interior minister, Valls led an uncompromising assault on comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who created a quasi-Nazi salute known as the quenelle that Valls has described as “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate.” And Valls has been filmed wearing a yarmulke at numerous Jewish community functions, exposing him to charges of hypocrisy since he supported banning Muslim head coverings for women at French universities.

Even more unusual, Valls has explicitly linked his pro-Jewish views to his Jewish wife, violinist Anne Gravoin, saying in 2011 that his marriage connected him “in an eternal way” to Israel and the Jewish people.

“Without Jews,” Valls said last month, “France will no longer be France.”

Such statements are highly unusual in a country with a strong secularist ideology and where government officials are typically careful not to single out any minority or group for special treatment. But Valls is not a typical politician.

Born in Barcelona to a family of Catalan intellectuals, Valls moved to Paris in his teens, where he studied history and began his political career as president of a Socialist student union. Many French political analysts attribute Valls’ departures from the conventions of French politics to the fact that he is not a native of France.

“Through his life story and his upbringing by a Spanish anti-fascist family, Valls has a lot of points in common with the story of the Jewish community,” said Michel Zerbib, news director at Radio J, the French Jewish station.

Valls and Gravoin wed in 2010, the second marriage for Valls. The couple’s Paris wedding reception was, according to a report in Elle magazine, a “happy mix of men wearing kippas from Manhattan and Paris and [local] imams.”

Valls’ good looks and his very public marriage — the couple have been photographed repeatedly exchanging affections — have not hurt his appeal to female voters, hundreds of whom voted him France’s sexiest politician in a survey by the IFOP polling company. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they would consider having an affair with him, a possibility Valls brushed off, saying, “OK, but I am [already] in love.”

In a 2011 campaign speech before a Jewish audience in Paris, Valls invoked his wife to demonstrate his credentials as a defender of the Jewish community.

“So please,” Valls said, showing some of his trademark oratory passion. “I didn’t come here to get tips on how to fight anti-Semitism!”

In January, Valls lobbied mayors to ban a new tour by Dieudonne, who has been convicted multiple times for inciting hatred against Jews, leading to its eventual cancellation. Valls also has sparked an unrelenting financial investigation of Dieudonne that could land the comedian behind bars for years.

All this has not been cost-free for Valls. The battle with Dieudonne alienated many voters, some of whom admire the comedian for his defiance. Polls conducted immediately after Valls’ move to ban the tour saw him losing 5 to 8 percentage points from his earlier 60 percent approval rate.

Nicolas Anelka, a star athlete who was fired recently by a British soccer team for performing the quenelle, said this month that Valls’ campaign was launched at his wife’s urging. Less reserved critics, including several extremist Muslim preachers and right-wing conspiracy theorists, have taken to calling him “Valls the Jew.”

Yet despite his pro-Jewish credentials and the price he has paid for them, Valls has faced distrust from Jewish supporters of the centrist UMP party and its former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who feared Sarkozy’s tough stance on anti-Semitism and his pro-Israel rhetoric would crumble under the Socialists.

Sarkozy was the clear favorite among Jews in the 2012 presidential election. But two years after Sarkozy lost to Francois Hollande, many Jews agree that Valls has made good on his pledge to follow Sarkozy’s lead in confronting Islamist fanaticism and anti-Semitism in the growing ranks of the far right.

“We are fortunate,” Cukierman said, “to have a leadership that is perfectly attentive to the community’s needs.”

Alan Gross goes on hunger strike

041114_world-briefsAmerican-Jewish contractor Alan Gross has launched a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment in a Cuban jail and the lack of American assistance.

“I began a fast on April 3 in protest of the treatment to which I am subjected by the governments of Cuba and the United States,” Gross said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal,” he said. “Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.”

Gross, 64, a subcontractor for the State Department on a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet, was arrested in December 2009 as he was leaving Cuba. The Maryland resident is serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state.”