Matzah, Matzah Man

For the past 28 years, starting just after Purim and continuing until one week before Passover, Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Center in Columbia, has been educating and entertaining between 50 and 150 children per day at his Model Matzah Factory. During his reign as “Matzah Man,” an estimated 40,000 children have kneaded, rolled and poked holes into their very own round of unleavened bread and finished off the event by tasting it fresh out of the oven.

“You are engaging all of the senses of the child,” said Baron. “We have many ways that things become imprinted or recorded in our minds. … [When making matzah] the touch, the taste, the smell, sight, hearing it — the mark is indelible, you can’t erase it even with time.”

Preschoolers from the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and first-graders from Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim-Talmudical Academy of Baltimore visited the Model Matzah Factory last week. As they sat on the floor, wriggling and chattering with anticipation, Baron took his seat in front of them, wearing an apron and floppy chef’s hat patterned with unmistakable matzah ridges.

The decibel level settled, and Baron welcomed the children, then took great care to explain that the matzah made at the center was not to be taken as kosher for Passover matzah. But the story and process unfolded for the children just the same.

To begin, special “assistant matzah baker hats” were handed out, and all eyes were on Baron as he warned that once the dough begins to rise it becomes chametz, not fit for Passover consumption. He asked the group: “Then how much time do we have to make the matzah?”

“Eighteen minutes!” answered the first-graders in excited unison.

To emphasize the concept of shmurah, or “guarded” matzah, Baron explained that from the moment Passover-designated wheat is cut it is watched over by rabbis. If water touches the wheat while it is in the ground, that isn’t a problem; it just continues to grow. But if the grain becomes wet after being cut, even if it is rained on, the water could make the seeds swell and rise, altering the grain and deeming it not kosher for Passover.

Using plenty of props, Baron showed how seeds are ground and flour is made and explained that in a matzah factory, flour is brought to a special room that contains only flour. There is another room that contains only water. When baking commences — he demonstrated in real time — water is carefully added to the flour outside of each room so as not to accidentally contaminate any remaining flour. The children, who had been listening intently to this point, visibly needed to expend some energy.

Baron played his crowd perfectly. He began to mix the dough vigorously by hand but implored the children that he mixes better when listening to his favorite song — which, he hinted, begins with the word “dayenu.” He barely finished the sentence, and the room erupted with a thunderous round of the Passover classic. Baron mixed faster and faster, floppy hat bouncing and dough flying as the singing continued. Finally it was time for the assistants to step in.

The children lined up at long tables covered in white cloths and flour. Teachers and parents handed out pre-rolled matzah dough balls, and the next few minutes were filled with a flurry of pounding hands, spinning rolling pins, flat dough rounds hole-punched within an inch of their lives and adults racing from table to table where assistance was needed. As the urgency to complete within 18 minutes rose, so did the decibel level.

Quickly students formed a line and with matzah dough draped over hands, walked to the kitchen where Baron had secured an industrial-size oven. One by one the rounds were loaded onto the racks to the delighted squeal of students. A scorching 800 degrees and about 60 seconds later, out came the piping-hot matzah.

The children recited the Hamotzi blessing and finally tasted their efforts. The decibel level rose again, this time with crunching and chewing.

“I think the best part is that it brings Passover to life for the children,” said Ilene Meister, director of early childhood development at the Owings Mills JCC. “The appreciation of what our ancestors went through is also something they realize.”

Meister, who has seen two generations of children travel to the Model Matzah Factory, said as a bus was pulling away recently — carrying the next group of kids down to Columbia — there was a mother who was so excited because her kids were about to experience the same matzah factory she went to visit as a child.

Baron said he began coming to the Columbia area about 30 years ago with friends from rabbinical school.

“We’d get ourselves some ‘Shabbos to go,’ hop in a Plymouth Valiant Slant Six and drive down.”

The Model Matzah Factory began at an “unknown Chabad location,” and it was so popular, other centers began replicating the event around the nation. When Baron settled in Columbia as director of Chabad, he made it a point to set up matzah baking as part of his activities.

In almost three decades, he hasn’t run out of flour or water and the oven has always worked — even the smoke alarm stopped going off once the proper ventilation for the oven was placed, said Baron, laughing.

The rabbi doesn’t feel the need to retire any time soon. He said it still warms his heart when he is out somewhere during Passover and he hears a small child say to his or her parent, “Look, there’s the Matzah Man!” He could give up the duty to a younger rabbi or rabbinical student, but he believes it is an important way to make connection with the community and allow young people to develop a relationship with a rabbi.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that a person should never retire,” said Baron. A career that has forced retirement is one thing, “but when it comes to doing mitzvot, and study of Torah or helping others study Torah, then you keep on doing what you can.”

Chabad Lubavitch Center of Howard County
770 Howes Lane in Columbia

Open house, Sunday April 6
3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (includes Matzah Factory)

Chametz burning on Monday, April 14 at 11:30 a.m.

Community Seder on Monday, April 14 at 8 p.m.

All are welcome at no charge; contributions are appreciated but not required.

Reserve a spot by contacting 410-740-2424 or visiting lubavitchhowardcounty.org

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

A Way with Words

040414_sports-Ben-RabyIt is 10:05 p.m. and the lights on the phone bank at the studios of WFED-AM radio in Northwest Washington are completely full. The Capitals have just lost to their bitter arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on a last-second goal.

Ben Raby, who hosts the postgame show on the Washington Capitals Radio Network, is poised and ready to play the role of Dr. Phil. For the next hour he will calm down the callers and do his best to answer all of their questions. In other words, just another day at the office.

The Montreal native is in his fifth season as part of the Capitals’ broadcast team. He handles pregame and postgame duties, along with period breaks. He is joined on the network by play-by-play announcer John Walton, color analyst Ken Sabourin and reporter Mike Vogel.

The team’s radio network reaches from Harrisburg, Pa., all the way to New Bern, N.C., with two stations in Baltimore, WJZ-AM 1300 and WHFS-FM 97.5, as part of the family. The games are also streamed for free on the Internet at federalnewsradio.com.

Recently, Raby spoke with the JT about his early career in Canada, his present role as part of the Capitals’ broadcast team and the many fans the team has in Baltimore.

JT: Tell us about your early career in Canada.
Raby:
While I was still attending Bialik High School, a private Jewish school in Montreal, I was contacting newspapers and radio stations. Then I started college at Concordia University [in Montreal] and was very fortunate to land a job at The Team 990, the first all-sports station in Montreal, when I was 19.

I started as an overnight and weekend board operator and producer, but I gradually worked my way up and took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. I wound up spending four years at The Team 990, taking on a variety of different roles. I served as the station’s beat reporter for the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, and I hosted the Montreal Canadiens’ weekend postgame shows.

During my final two years at The Team 990, I added TV work to my resume as a sports reporter with CTV Montreal, where I covered the Alouettes and the Canadiens. I also produced a series of year-in-review pieces in 2006 and 2007.

I left Montreal in 2007 to pursue a master’s degree at Syracuse University.

Did you have any broadcasting role models growing up?
My uncle Jason Moscovitz spent 29 years as a TV reporter with the CBC and more than a decade as its chief political correspondent. I always had an interest in media while I was growing up, so I admired the work he did. I’m grateful that since I started working in the media myself, he has passed along advice and feedback.

When I did TV reporting in my early 20s with CTV Montreal, every few months I’d bring a stack of VHS tapes of my work to his house, and we would review what worked well, what could have been better. He continues to listen to my radio work online and gives me feedback.

What is the key to being a good postgame host and talking to callers?
The key is finding a nice balance of information and entertainment. We may replay some of the game’s best highlights, but we may play them as a montage with an appropriate bed of music and a number of player cuts sprinkled in as well that help tell a story.

It’s also important on a postgame show not to just say what happened in the game, but to try to explain why it happened. For home games on the Capitals’ side, I’m joined by Ken Sabourin, who does an excellent job in answering the why.

It also helps to find storylines and identify broader picture themes. Sure the Capitals may have won a game by a 5-4 score, but what does it mean in the standings, what could it mean it for Player X, who may have broken out of a prolonged slump with the game-winning goal? What was significant about the game?

Our callers like how we break the game down so that when we open the phone lines they have plenty to talk about, regardless if it was a Caps’ win or loss.

What about Baltimore’s hockey fans?
Baltimore had a wonderful tradition of being a great minor league hockey town. Of course, over the past two years we have played the Baltimore Hockey Classic, and that has given us a great chance to see our fans in Charm City. But during the season, there are busloads of fans from the Baltimore area who make their way down to the Verizon Center to watch the games, and then we have plenty of callers from the 410 area code. So yes, Baltimore’s love for the Capitals is strong and continues to grow.

How about your life away from hockey?
I am about to celebrate my six-month wedding anniversary. My wife, Ellyssa, is from Toronto, and she is a volunteer teacher. We live in Bethesda, and we love the area.

As for seeing the rest of my family, by covering hockey and basketball, there is a nice window in the summer months when I can return to Montreal and Toronto and spend time with them.

It’s funny, though, because folks down here say that I have a Canadian accent, and then when I go back up north, my friends and family all say that I sound like an American.

Ben Raby serves as producer for the NBA Washington Wizards’ radio broadcasts when he is not attending to his role as host on the Capitals’ radio network. As for the future, he hopes to return to television while staying in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Maryland Teams Hustle to Win

Danielle Miller, left, and Paige Siegel grasp the Kiddush Cup after their  victorious Maryland team captured the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship at the University of Maryland on March 30.  (Hillel Kuttler)

Danielle Miller, left, and Paige Siegel grasp the Kiddush Cup after their
victorious Maryland team captured the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship at the University of Maryland on March 30.
(Hillel Kuttler)

“One, two, three, hustle!” yelled Paige Siegal’s University of Maryland women’s team as they returned to the court from halftime during the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship games on Sunday.

They were leading by eight points. Within the first minute of the second half, Ali Feinstein of the Texas team had taken hold of the ball and shot a three pointer. Not to be outdone, Maryland responded with their own three-point shot 30 seconds later.

Players kept the same intensity throughout the game. In the last minute, Siegal rebounded a missed shot and swung the ball down half court to teammate Connaught Blood, who sunk the game’s final basket. Maryland won, 38-32.

“It was difficult at first getting used to playing with each other,” said Siegal. “A lot of us didn’t even know each other before.”

Students from some 30 campuses competed at the weekend-long tournament held in College Park.

The team of six was all smiles as they raised their Hillel Tournament trophy proudly, smiling for pictures.

“We’ll all go get food and just hang out to celebrate,” said Siegel, the team’s 5-foot-5-inch captain, a sophomore studying business and management.

The same suspense was repeated as the men’s semifinalist winners, University of Maryland and Harvard University, took to the court. Although basketball is considered a no-contact sport, the game soon became territorial, with three fouls called within the first 40 seconds. Each time UMd. junior Danny Hoffman sunk a three, the crowd evolved into a contagious euphoria. UMd. Hillel’s rabbi, Ari Israel, said this year’s fans brought new electricity to the tournament.

“The turnout is huge and their energy is high,” he said.

During halftime, tournament chairs Michael Shrager and Joseph Tuchman thanked the event’s sponsors and introduced the NHBT founder, Rachel Klausner.

“I am amazed by the amount of sponsors and players,” she said. “I remember when there was a board of 12 of us. We were just a bunch of friends who loved basketball. This year they took it to a whole new level.”

With 30 seconds left on the clock, UMd.’s point guard circled the ball around the perimeter until the game was over. Both teams broke into huge smiles, with hugs of camaraderie and “congratulations” sealed with high fives. University of Maryland’s Jason Langer team beat Harvard, 39-30.

Seniors Aaron Jagoda and Josh Rice coached Maryland’s team to victory. Like the women’s team, many of the players had never competed together before the tournament.

“Our biggest obstacle was making sure that defense talked to each other,” said Rice, “but in the end the chemistry was really great.”

Jagoda said that although the team was composed of high scoring “ballers,” everyone worked together to “make the play” and participated selflessly. As the team gathered for a photo, plans were made to celebrate over dinner.

After seven games, “Lord knows I’m hungry,” Rice said with a laugh.

This year’s MVPs were announced before the closing barbeque. Women’s captain Paige Siegal and men’s forward Mark Brenner each received glass MVP awards to recognize their athletic achievement.

Tournament chairman Michael Shra-ger noted the “very high-caliber basketball” displayed over the weekend, and the participation of Jake Susskind, a Division I player, who joined this year’s NHBT winning Maryland team.

“The competition is the best it’s ever been,” said Shrager. “It’s great to see how athletics and sports can bring Jews from all different backgrounds together in Jewish unity. We did everything we wanted to do.”

With trophies awarded and students returning to their respective colleges, plans for NHBT 2015 are underway.

Shrager, a senior psychology major, has worked on the Hillel Tournament committee since joining its pilot planning board four years ago. Co-chairman Joseph Tuchman is already developing plans for the next tournament.

“Next year, we look forward to improving involvement from the UMd. community, through housing athletes, volunteering and attending events, to showcase our unbelievable campus and community,” said Tuchman.

Klausner has even greater expectations.

“Oh man, I got big dreams,” she said. The business school graduate, who lives in Israel, is still a Terp at heart. “I can’t wait to see the Hillel Tournament being played at the Comcast Center — or at least the championship game.”

From Boycott Bill to Budget Amendment

The Maryland House of Delegates adopted an amendment to the budget this week, transforming the boycott bill into a budget amendment.

“The General Assembly finds that … the boycott adopted by the American Studies Association is consistent with a movement known as boycott, divestment and sanctions, designed to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel,” reads the amendment. “The General Assembly declares that it is the policy of the state to … condemn, in the strongest terms possible, the American Studies Association’s academic boycott against Israel as an inappropriate action on the part of the academic community.”

The change, sponsored by Delegate Ben Kramer (D-District 19), who sponsored the original House Bill 998, goes on to “strongly encourage” institutions of higher education to support open discourse and academic freedom, especially with institutions in countries Maryland has a Declaration of Cooperation with.

The bill and its Senate counterpart were dropped earlier in the session with a great deal of legislative support, including more than 50 co-sponsors on the House bill. The early March hearings saw the Washington and Baltimore Jewish communities split on the issue and, with that, backing weaken.

In the past month, the financial penalties the original bills were centered on were stripped and the language adjusted to focus more on academic freedom and the condemnation of the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli institutions.

From the House, the budget, along with the new amendments, goes to the Senate for review and a vote. The General Assembly’s 2014 legislative session closes April 7.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Medical Marijuana Bills Moving Forward

040414_Marijuana-briefLegislators in the House and Senate of Maryland’s General Assembly are tasked with resolving the differences between two medical marijuana bills that were passed by each body.

SB 923, introduced by Sen. Jamie Raskin, would allow doctors in good standing to prescribe medical marijuana. The bill passed the upper chamber, 45-1. HB 881, sponsored by Delegates Dan Morhaim, Cheryl Glenn and many others, was filed in the House at the same time as the Senate bill and passed earlier this session, 126-10. It would allow doctors affiliated with hospitals or hospices to prescribe marijuana, according to Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project.

Morhaim said legislators are operating in good faith and trying to get the best bill possible passed.

“People are clearly for it and just trying to develop the best plan which does what we want it to do, which is to get medicine to people as fast as possible,” he said.

“People are suffering, and it’s gone on way too long.

Ninety percent of Marylanders support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes if prescribed by a doctor, according to figures released in March by The Goucher Poll.

“At this point, key members of the Senate and the House will either have to get together formally or informally on which of the two bills they’d like to pass,” said Yeung.

The House bill was heard in a Senate committee and did not move, and a House committee heard the Senate bill on Tuesday. The differences between the bills could be worked out this week.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

The Fight for Pigtown


Photos by David Stuck

The revitalization of Baltimore’s most un-kosher neighborhood, historic Pigtown, is being led — perhaps surprisingly — by a Jew.

Ben Hyman is the executive director of Pigtown Main Street, one of 10 Main Street programs sponsored by the Baltimore Development Corporation. Though he doesn’t eat pork, his world, in many ways, revolves around the hoofed animal.

“If you care about a city, you want to see its neighborhoods succeed,” said Hyman, 25, who grew up in Mount Washington, graduated from The Park School and returned to Baltimore after studying geography at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He worked in City Hall for a time before spotting a job posting for the Main Streets program in Pigtown.

Having not spent much time in the area aside from parking there for an occasional Orioles or Ravens game, when he landed the job, Hyman half jokingly consulted his rabbi at Bolton Street Synagogue — where his father had been president — about whether or not he should take the offer. While the rabbi supported his new career path, said Hyman, “he encouraged me not to eat pork.”

Baltimore’s Main Streets program, which began in 2000, is designed to attract businesses and support jobs in designated areas by providing access to marketing, financial and technical support for business owners. In Pigtown, that area is a three-block corridor of Washington Boulevard, approximately between West Barre Street and Wyeth Street.

The neighborhood’s name can be traced to the 19th century, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would release its porcine cargo to be collected in the local slaughterhouses. Urban renewal efforts attempted to rebrand the Southwestern neighborhood as Washington Village, but many residents refused, and the name “Pigtown” has largely stuck.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the neighborhood west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium had a reputation for drugs and violence.

“What we’re facing here is kind of competing forces,” said Hyman, noting that the neighborhood sits between downtown Baltimore and notorious West Baltimore. “Pigtown is still work-ing through some of those issues.”

Hyman proudly stated that nine new businesses have moved into Pigtown’s commercial district since January 2013, reducing the area’s commercial vacancy by 57 percent. He was equally proud of the district’s ability to retain businesses.

A lot of the program’s attention has gone toward improving the neighborhood’s curb appeal, he said. In addition to arranging partnerships with local landscaping companies to provide trees and flowers for the sidewalks, the Main Street program has been working to enforce an existing ordinance that bans bars on windows. This means getting many local shop owners to remove them, a project Hyman said is ongoing but largely successful.

“People come here and get an idea about a neighborhood just by walking around,” said Hyman. “It may seem ticky-tack, but to us it’s vital.”

It was enough to sell Garba Diop, owner of Afro Fashion and Art, on the Baltimore neighborhood.

“When I came here I didn’t see any fences on windows,” said Diop, a native of Senegal. “I said, ‘This area is safe.’”

Diop worked as a cab driver in New York City for 17 years before moving to Baltimore to join his family. When he decided to open his own business selling African jewelry, bongos, bags, shoes, clothes and art inaddition to staples such as cell-phone accessories, he found the Main Street program could help him get started.

Flash in the Pan?

Underdog Republican candidate David Jolly’s victory in Florida’s 13th congressional district on March 11 is being hotly debated by both sides of the aisle on whether the contest is an indicator of things to come in the 2014 midterm election later this year.

The district west of Tampa is like many in Florida, home to a plethora of retirement communities, senior citizens hailing from states farther north and a higher-than-average Jewish population — at 2.73 percent, compared with 2.18 percent nationally, according to a 2013 study by Joshua Comenetz for the Berman Jewish DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America.

By most accounts, the race shouldn’t have gone the GOP’s way.

Jolly, who had no name recognition, worked as a lobbyist, had recently gone through a divorce and had been campaigning with his girlfriend, narrowly edged a candidate the Democrats placed their hope — and sizable funds — behind in a special election to fill the seat of longtime Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died last fall.

Jolly’s Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, was a polished candidate who had served as Florida’s chief financial officer and ran a strong campaign for governor, losing to Rick Scott by 1 percent of the vote in 2010. With her name recognition and personal appeal, she sailed through a primary unopposed; Jolly, by contrast, had to clear a field of three primary challengers to emerge for the general election far behind Sink in campaign funds.

And although the district had been represented in Congress by a Repub-lican for nearly 40 years, it voted twice, in 2008 and 2012, for President Barack Obama. With no incumbent, this year’s contest was Sink’s to lose, owing to her superior name recognition and war chest.

Were it not for the visceral opposition to Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, say some analysts, Jolly’s come-from-behind victory would have been surprising. Largely following a script used by the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections, Jolly focused most of his campaign toward attacking the health care law and calling for its repeal. Sink, meanwhile, positioned herself as a moderate willing to fix the law.

Many Republicans are pointing to the race as proof of the strategy’s effectiveness.

“There’s no doubt Florida 13 has Democrats increasingly worried about losing the Senate,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote in a column posted to the Breitbart website. “And they should be worried. Not only did it show that their policies — especially Obamacare — are unpopular, but Republicans were able to benefit from the RNC’s new voter engagement strategy, which includes the new data tools, new technology and new permanent ground game that we’re using all across the country.”

With the success of the health care platform, the GOP is clearly anxious about the strategy’s chances in other competitive races throughout the country. In addition to the Senate, a number of House districts may also be at play, and Democrats reacted to the loss in Florida by characterizing the Jolly effort as a flash in the plan. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, herself from Florida, said that a Republican focus on undermining the Affordable Care Act would “alienate” voters around the country.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said there’s no surprise in the prospect of a Republican surge later this fall.

“If you look at the historical trends for going into a midterm [election], there’s the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House and that Democrat doesn’t have great approval ratings,” explained Kondik. “That in and of itself sort of tells us that Republicans are set up to have at least an OK year.”

Kondik was quick to caution against drawing solid conclusions from a special election in a politically balanced district — where the margin of victory was not great — but he acknowledged that the GOP will try to “milk it for all it’s worth.”

“The national environment isn’t all that great for Democrats right now, but that’s not written in stone,” he said. “Then again, I think at this point you’d rather be the Republicans than the Democrats in this midterm.”

Being a midterm election, there will be no presidential coattail effect on the congressional and Senate races. This year, without Obama at the top of
the ballot, Democrats will have to absorb the Republicans’ attacks on the president’s record.

“I think that the Jolly victory reflects a historical trend that there tends to be a hubris that kicks in when one party dominates, when one party holds power, and six years into an eight-year term, the party out of power usually does quiet well,” said Frank Scaturro, a constitutional attorney, author and one of the two GOP candidates competing for the nomination to run for retiring Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s seat in New York’s 4th congressional district, which encompasses Nassau County’s Five Towns and surrounding areas.

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

Moving Right

Protesters light memorial candles at a rally in Budapest against a government plan to erect what they say is a statue presenting Hungary as an innocent victim of Nazi occupation. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Protesters light memorial candles at a rally in Budapest against a government plan to erect what they say is a statue presenting Hungary as an innocent victim of Nazi occupation.
(Cnaan Liphshiz)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A lone heckler tried to disrupt him, but Hungarian lawmaker Janos Hargitai was undeterred as he spoke earlier this month at a memorial day gathering in Hungary commemorating the 1848 revolution there.

The holiday marks Hungary’s attempt to break free from the Austrian Empire, and Hargitai, sandwiched between two Hungarian flags, was celebrating his nation’s independence and the full exercise of its sovereignty.

But in so doing, Hargitai employed a trope about foreign financial interests that has been gaining traction here and which critics regard as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

“They give us dictates,” Hargitai said at the Budapest event. “In 1848, it was the Rothschilds and now it’s the International Monetary Fund. Hungarian independence compromises the Rothschilds’ interests.”

Such statements from elected officials have become commonplace here since the ultranationalist Jobbik party entered parliament in 2010,
despite — and arguably because of — its antagonism toward Jews. Infamously, a Jobbik parliamentarian in 2012 called for registering Hungarian Jews as threats to national security.

But Hargitai is no Jobbik man. He is a lawmaker for the ruling Fidesz party, and his statements are reflective of what political analysts say is the party’s creeping nationalism and increasing aggression toward the Jewish community as it scrambles to maintain its lead over Jobbik ahead of next month’s general elections.

“Fidesz increasingly has been using Jobbik rhetoric as a direct response to Jobbik’s growing popularity in an attempt to weaken Jobbik and take over their voters by first taking over their programs,” said Eva Balogh, a historian and author of the Hungarian Spectrum blog.

Recent polls predict Jobbik will remain the third largest party in the April 6 election, taking anywhere from 14 to 19 percent of the vote — a handsome increase over the 11 percent of parliamentary seats it currently holds.

The same polls predict Fidesz, a center-right party, will take 36 to 38 percent of the vote — enough to remain the country’s ruling force but still a substantial loss from 2010, when it garnered approximately half the ballots cast.

As Fidesz’s popularity wanes, party bosses have become increasingly inclined to abandon efforts to present a moderate face and have indulged in the sort of nationalistic bravado that has fueled Jobbik’s ascent.

The shift was evident last year in the decision to display photos of classic anti-Semitic texts at a Fidesz-sponsored cultural festival and in a plan by the mayor of Budapest, Fidesz member Istvan Tarlos, to name a street after an anti-Semitic author.

More recently, analysts have seen evidence of a rightward tilt in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s clash with Hungarian Jewry over commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.

The conflict erupted last month when the Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella group said it would boycott some government-led events because of a planned memorial statue that was seen as glossing over the pro-Nazi Hungarian government’s prominent role in the murder of 568,000 Jews toward the end of World War II. The statue depicted Hungary as an angel attacked by an eagle.

One senior party figure accused Mazsihisz of aligning with the left, while Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, voiced a warning at a news conference.

“They issued an ultimatum to the government, and this is causing more anxiety than a positive impact on the coexistence of Jews and Hungarians,” said Lazar.

Lazar’s statement, which some saw as threatening the Jewish community and implying that Jews are not Hungarians, was met with condemnation this week from Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler.

“We have learned that nowhere in the Diaspora should Jews, or any other minority, blindly trust the prevailing power,” said Heisler.

On Sunday, a crowd of 200, mostly Jews, stood for two hours in the rain and lit candles for the dead at a rally at Freedom Square protesting the monument.

Matyas Eorsi, a Jewish former lawmaker for the SZDSZ Liberal Democratic Party, said that Lazar’s comments were “scandalous” and denied that Jews were meddling in the elections.

“The allegation that Mazsihisz is meddling in campaign politics is absurd,” said Eorsi. “The government, not Mazsihisz, decided to unveil a revisionist monument during an election year.”

The Hungarian government denies the statue reflects any antipathy toward Jews. Officials repeatedly have ack-nowledged their country’s complicity with the Nazis, most recently in January, when Hungary’s U.N. ambassador, Csaba Korosi, apologized for “the Hungarian state’s guilt during the Holocaust.” In October, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, also a Fidesz member, acknowledged his country’s “responsibility” for the wartime deaths of Hungarian Jews.

The government insisted on the monument because “respect has to be expressed for all victims,” said Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman. “This is a question of humanity, and not one of politics or party affiliation.”

Kumin denied that Fidesz was trying to court right-wing voters with its rhetoric.

“Even if this desire existed, doing so would be counterproductive because whatever we would gain on the right flanks, we would lose much more from the center,” he explained. He also cited new laws against hate speech and promised the government would prevent any attempt to limit Jewish religious freedoms in Hungary.

But Istvan Rev, a professor of history and political science at Central European University, said the government resisted requests from Mazsihisz to consider alternatives for the monument that would have more clearly acknowledged Hungarian complicity.

“This is an election year,” said Rev, “and the government does not want to be seen as backing down before those bloody Jews.”

Mindful of its clash with the government, Mazsihisz criticized the decision by the Chabad-affiliated Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) to hold a conference in Budapest this week of hundreds of members of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe. A Mazsihisz spokesman said that his organization feared Fidesz would use the event to downplay Jewish concerns.

But EMIH head Rabbi Shlomo Koves, who credits the Orban government for its efforts to curb extremism, dismissed the concern, saying the event was nonpartisan and unconnected to the monument affair.

Three Years On

On Sept. 6, 2011, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, visits a company and battalion commander exercise in the Golan Heights. (Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

On Sept. 6, 2011, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, visits a company and battalion commander exercise in the Golan Heights.
(Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

March 15 marked the third anniversary of the beginning of unrest that led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags on into its fourth year with no end in sight, Israel — which shares a contentious United Nations-patrolled border with Syria in the Golan Heights region — finds itself in a precarious situation due to new threats such as al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel terror groups as well as old foes such as Hezbollah, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“None of the sides are capable of a decisive victory to end the war and rule over the entire country,” explained Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. “It has been a moral disaster.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the conflict has resulted in more than 146,000 deaths, and more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster of the early 21st century.

Despite the massive humanitarian toll and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, Assad has seen his fortunes improve over the last year, as Western and Arab countries have been unwilling to directly intervene in the conflict or to successfully end the conflict diplomatically.

Lebanese-born Middle East analyst Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, blamed President Barack Obama for indirectly strengthening Assad’s position with his handling of the chemical weapons situation last fall.

“The Obama administration, by brokering this chemical weapons deal, has strengthened Assad’s position,” said Badran, “because Assad now understands there is not going to be any threat of direct involvement of outside powers against him. It also validated him … and gave him free reign to pursue all avenues of destruction up to weapons of mass destruction.

“The direct threat to Assad that existed a year ago, thanks to the Obama administration policy, it has been taken off the table for now,” he added.

Despite the massive civil war raging to its north, Israel has maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to be drawn in like it was during the 15-year Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, Israel has shown it is willing to become involved on a limited scale when its direct interests are threatened, such as when it reportedly launched airstrikes against advanced weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“The way Israel has been involved in Syria up until now has been exclusively through the Iranian angle, specifically to the procurement and transmission of strategic weapons systems [from the Syrian government to Hezbollah],” said Badran.

But as the Syrian civil war has dragged on, al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have become increasingly dominant within the rebel ranks, worrying Western and Israeli officials. The two main groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and its main competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have displaced the relatively moderate and secular Free Syrian Army as the main rebel group fighting the Syrian government.

Despite these concerns, southern Syria, even with the losses by the Syrian government, has not seen the large influx of jihadist fighters that have affected northern Syria.

“The only group in the south that might become a problem is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which has a limited presence in the area. However, the makeup of the groups down there is mostly locally oriented tribal groups that have ties with Jordanian and Israeli intelligence,” explained Badran.

Yadlin echoed Badran’s assessment, arguing that he does not yet consider the jihadist groups to be a serious problem for Israel.

“I don’t belong to the group that believes that the terrorist threat in Syria is very serious at this time. While it does pose a problem [for Israel], Israel knows how to handle terrorists, especially when it is coming from a well-defined border such as the Golan Heights,” said Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.

Last month the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.

The newly created 210th Regional Bashan Division replaces the 36th Armor Division, which had patrolled the Syrian border for nearly 40 years and was designed to fight conventional military threats such as a Syrian land invasion.

But with the Syrian military severely weakened by the civil war and the loss of control of large swaths of southern Syria, the threat of a conventional ground war — as seen in previous conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War — has severely diminished, forcing Israeli military planners to recalculate the emerging threats in the region, such as terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Gantz said the restructuring of military forces in the Golan Heights is part of a shift toward providing a faster response from “air, sea and ground threats to Israel’s security.”

Yadlin said that Israeli military officials are on top of the ongoing changes in the area and are preparing the IDF to meet these emerging challenges: “Israel has a topographical advantage there [in the Golan Heights], very good intelligence and new highly trained military support in the area.”

The Joys and Oys of Being Jewish

Bolton Street Synagogue member Steve Snyder rehearses for “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of  Contemporary Jewish Life” Stoop  Storytelling at the synagogue.  (Photos Melissa Gerr

Bolton Street Synagogue member Steve Snyder rehearses for “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of
Contemporary Jewish Life” Stoop
Storytelling at the synagogue.
(Photos Melissa Gerr

Bolton Street Synagogue and The Stoop Storytelling Series are teaming up to present “It’s Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of Contemporary Jewish Life.” The April 5 event will feature six storytellers, some of whom are well-known locals, telling their own personal stories — humorous, poignant and surprising  — about being Jewish.

WBAL-TV anchor Deborah Weiner, author and commentator Marion Winik, public relations executive Greg Abel, educator and long-time Bolton Street member Steve Snyder, devoted Orioles fan Ira Gewanter and philanthropist and psychotherapist Lois Feinblatt will take the stage for the storytelling event.

Plans for the show have been in the making for about a year; Bolton Street member and Stoop fan Nancy Savage contacted Stoop hosts Jessica Myles Henkin and Laura Wexler to see if collaboration could happen. The Stoop has collaborated with several other organizations in the area to co-present shows.

“The model [of Stoop Storytelling] is really simple; it’s really powerful and really flexible,” said Wexler. “The model can be used for an organization to explore a certain theme, talk about its history, build community and inspire people. It’s a simple model that really works.”

Each performer has five minutes to tell their tale. The topics at Bolton Street’s event will range from the story of a blind date with one of the most infamous female figures of the 20th century, a striking near-death experience that brought the teller closer to Judaism, the conflicts that can arise when a devout Jew is also a devout Orioles fan and a newscaster’s challenge as a Jew starting her career in the Deep South. Laughs and tears are guaranteed, said organizers.

Laura Wexler (left) and Jessica Myles Henkin watch the rehearsal for the  upcoming Stoop Storytelling performance at Bolton Street Synagogue.

Laura Wexler (left) and Jessica Myles Henkin watch the rehearsal for the
upcoming Stoop Storytelling performance at Bolton Street Synagogue.

As with all of the Stoop shows, audience members will be invited to submit their names into a lottery for a chance to tell their own story during the show.

The co-chairs of the event include decades-long synagogue members Ken and Jeannette Karpay, Peggy Brennecke and Mark Hyman.

“We decided this would be a great community building event,” said Hyman. “We surrounded it with food, drink and live music to make it a fundraiser. It’s for our members, for the larger Jewish community and for our neighborhood as well. We’re always looking for opportunities to bring in our neighbors.”

Bolton Street Synagogue is located at 212 W. Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. The event begins with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at 7 p.m.; storytelling begins at 8:30 with dessert at 9:30. Proceeds from the event will benefit Bolton Street Synagogue’s educational programs. The event will also feature a raffle for Ravens tickets and a silent auction.

Auction items include lunch with Nobel Prize winner Adam Riess, also a member of Bolton Street congregation; a week at a condo in Ocean City; lunch for 25 at Chipotle; a day on a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay and, perhaps the most coveted prize of all, a parking space for High Holidays in the synagogue’s main lot.

For past Stoop Storytelling shows go to stoopstorytelling.com/shows/past.

IT’S COMPLICATED: STORIES OF THE JOYS AND OYS
OF CONTEMPORARY JEWISH LIFE’
• Saturday, April 5 at 7 p.m.
• Tickets can be purchased in advance for $50 at www.StoopBoltonStreet.eventbrite.com. Proceeds benefit Bolton Street Synagogue’s educational programs. The event will also feature a silent auction, a raffle for Ravens tickets, food, drinks and live music.