State Slashes Health Care Enrollment Goals

A screenshot of Maryland's online health care exchange website.

A screenshot of Maryland’s online health care exchange website.

With little more than a month until a March 31 deadline, Maryland health exchange officials revised insurance enrollment goals and terminated their contract with the company that built the state’s health exchange.

Noridian Healthcare Solutions, the North Dakota company behind the state online exchange that crashed when it launched Oct. 1, will no longer operate the site. The nine-member board governing the voted to terminate Maryland’s contract with Noridian on Sunday night.

In the interim, the exchange will be taken over by Optum/QSSI, the Columbia-based firm that was hired by the federal government in October to fix healthcare.gov.

The board also slashed Maryland’s private insurance enrollment goal by more than half, from 150,000 to 70,000. The move was reportedly attributed to an error found in data that a nonpartisan analyst group used for Maryland’s enrollment projections. The state still appears unlikely to hit its goal by March 31, with only 33,251 individuals enrolled in private plans through Feb. 15, according to Maryland Health Connection, the state’s online insurance marketplace.

The changes come two weeks after a bipartisan “oversight” committee of lawmakers met for the first time to probe Maryland’s troubled implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

In a project that has been marred by skepticism and scrutiny, those watching health care even have doubts about what the oversight committee will accomplish.

“If the oversight committee could be neutral people that really care about the technical aspects, then that’s really good,” said Larry Burgee, associate professor and chair of Stevenson University’s Department of Information Systems. “If it’s loaded with politicians from either side of the fence, there’s going to be problems. It’s too political on both sides.”

Even the change in vendors was met with skepticism. Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at Jewish Community Services, said changing a vendor on a big government project is never an easy process.

“If the problem was with the vendor, then absolutely move it and cut your losses now,” said the former assistant director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. “But if there is a problem with the communication … switching the vendor may or may not fix it.”

As far as lowering the enrollment goal goes, it remains to be seen if Maryland can more than double its enrollment numbers in little more than a month. How well the exchange is working depends on who’s doing the talking.

Sheila C. Bennett, an exchange navigator who works in the Randallstown area, said the glitches in Maryland’s health care website have diminished significantly since its launch.

“It’s tremendously better than it was in the beginning,” she said.

Bennett walks people through the enrollment process and answers any questions they may have. She said it takes people an average of one hour to sign up for insurance with her help, depending on the size of the family.

Steve Land, a support services coordinator at Jewish Community Services, said it took him and one client five-and-a-half hours over the course of three separate sessions to enroll in health care. The client was on disability but had an income too high for Maryland’s Primary Adult Care program. PAC participants are being rolled into Medicaid, which has expanded its availability.

“When they wrote this Affordable Care Act, if there was a client tailor-made for it, this client was,” said Land, who would not reveal the gender of the client for privacy reasons.

The two of them experienced delays with Maryland’s website, which wouldn’t move to the next page, locked up and quit. After finally getting through, the pair experienced issues with the start date of the Medicaid plan and records of the application being submitted.

“For a client that really deserved and really would have benefited from this, this would have been the person,” said Land. “It was discouraging.”

The client wound up going to the Medicaid office in Baltimore and getting the plan figured out.

Paliath worked with another client who applied for insurance in November. He was supposed to have a subsidy through CareFirst, according to the exchange, but CareFirst didn’t see that subsidy in its paperwork. After reaching out to a “high-level contact,” the client, a small business owner, was set to get his subsidy in February but had to pay the full premium in January.

For the Evergreen Health Co-Op, a new nonprofit health insurance company, the woes of the exchange have hit hard, especially since the co-op doesn’t carry the name recognition of the bigger insurance companies on Maryland’s exchange.

“We depended on the vast majority of our enrollees to come off the individual exchange, which crashed in Maryland,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the co-op’s founder, president and CEO. “We’ve had to take care of ourselves, and since we’re not able to sell on the individual exchange, we’re now starting to sell to small business.”

About 500 people have enrolled in plans with Evergreen, he said.

Beilenson’s assessment is that the online exchange has been fixed “modestly,” and he thinks Maryland might switch over to the federal exchange site between March 31 and the next open enrollment period, which is proposed to start in November.

As far as Maryland’s decreased goals are concerned, some think enrollment will increase in future years, as penalties for not having insurance increase. This year, penalties are 1 percent of annual income or $95 per person, $47.50 per child under 18, with the maximum set at $285 per family. In 2016 and beyond, the penalty will be 2.5 percent of yearly income or $695 per person, according to healthcare.gov.

Paliath, having worked in government, said it’s possible that issues related to the website and enrollment numbers could be chalked up to bad communication between different levels of government.

“However, you would think that on a project like this, with as much public attention as it was going to get and scrutiny, that there would have been some point person who would have had the ear of someone in power to do something,” she said.

Only time will tell how these recent changes will turn out.

“This is a conjecture on my part. If it was a vendor problem, they did the right thing,” added Paliath. “If it wasn’t, this won’t be the end of the story.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

French gov’t to announce Holocaust rail reparations

(REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

(REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

The French government is expected to announce this summer how much it will pay in reparations to Holocaust survivors now living in America who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains, according to Stuart Eizenstat, a special adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust issues.

Eizenstat, a D.C. lawyer, said there have been about four “informal discussions” between the French and American governments. As of the fall of last year, the French government took over negotiations on behalf of the rail company Society Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF).

SNCF transported 76,000 Jews and thousands of others to the death camps, according to Baltimore resident Leo Bretholz, who as a young man was forced onto one of these transports.

“We are not looking into issues of guilt. They admitted they did the wrong thing,” Eizenstat said of the French government. There has not been any talk about actual amounts of money, he said, adding French Holocaust survivors who rode the trains as well as their spouses have been paid a “really quite considerable” amount.

Keolis America, a U.S. affiliate of SNCF, has been invited to submit a bid to operate Maryland’s proposed Purple Line rail project but has come under scrutiny over the reparations issue.

The Coalition for Holocaust Justice, which has been speaking out for reparations for many years, said in a statement, “We welcome this news with cautious optimism, and we wholeheartedly support any negotiations that would provide fair and reasonable compensation to the victims and their families.”

Shabbat Across America

Rabbi Shmuel Silber (Justin Tsucalas)

Rabbi Shmuel Silber (Justin Tsucalas)

For the seventh year in a row, Suburban Orthodox Congregation will play host to Shabbat Across America, a multidenominational celebration of Shabbat set to take place March 7.

“The goal really is a very simple one,” said Suburban’s Rabbi Shmuel Silber, “to achieve a togetherness within our community.”

The event will kick off just after 5 p.m. with a candle lighting followed by prayers and a Shabbat dinner featuring prime rib and chicken, in addition to more traditional options.

“I think one of the greatest challenges that we face as a people is there are so many issues that divide us, [we] also have a preoccupation with labels,” explained Silber. “The truth is, the one unifying experience is Shabbos. We may celebrate it differently, we may observe it differently, but we all try to expand upon the beauty that it is to our lives.”

Although the event is free, organizers request that those who wish to attend register ahead of time. Space at the synagogue is limited, and attendance usually reaches maximum capacity, said Silber. In addition to a cross section of the Baltimore Jewish community, in the past the event has also attracted people from places as far as Gaithersburg and Frederick.

The event is part of the larger Shabbat Across America and Canada organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program. When the candles are lit on March 7 at Suburban, attendees will join thousands of other Jews from every denomination celebrating Shabbat together across North America.

At Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Rabbi Susan Grossman is preparing for a guest appearance by Jewish musician Neshama Carlebach, who will participate in the service and give a presentation about “finding light in the darkness.” On March 8, Carlebach will lead the congregation in prayers, offer a d’var Torah and perform in a concert that night.

“When she sings she brings a bit of heaven down to earth,” said Grossman. The synagogue will also offer parallel tot Shabbat services and programs for older children that same night.

This is Beth Shalom Congregation’s 16th Shabbat Across America. For Grossman, the event represents the Jewish sense of unity.

“Here we’re identifying across communities and across borders, recognizing what we share,” she said. “One of the most beautiful things we share is Shabbat.”

Other local congregations participating in the event include Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah in Baltimore and Columbia Jewish Congregation. The NJOP also encourages those who cannot attend a community Shabbat to join in at home by visiting njop.org/programs/shabbat/shabbat-across-america-canada/ and following the instructions provided by the organization.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com
Ian Zelaya contributed to this report.

Engagement: The Jewish Way

In any given week throughout the year, there are dozens of events in the greater Baltimore area aimed at engaging young Jewish adults. In many ways this age group represents the future of Judaism. They know that, and so do the people programming events to attract them to their Jewish faith, to their culture and to other Jewish adults.

Whether it’s found in one-on-one coffee chats, small religious gatherings, Purim costume parties or at 200-person Shabbat dinners, the crucial link in promoting and strengthening Jewish identity, say young adults and the communal professionals who serve them, is the spark of a personal connection.

Michelle Saltzman, recently married, had that connection in her formative years. Saltzman grew up in a family with a strong Jewish identity, attended Beth El Congregation and, as a college student at Princeton University, considered herself Jewish in every way. Over the next couple of years, Saltzman and her brother, Sam Grilli, shared many conversations about Judaism. Grilli had become Orthodox, and Saltzman was drawn to learn more.

“I’ve known my brother all my life,” she said. “If he believes in something, [it’s] something worth investigating. That doesn’t mean you have to get into it and you don’t have to agree, but I think people often stop before the investigation part; [it’s] the same for anything — religion, politics.”

Saltzman’s turning point came from the difference between identifying as Jewish and the obligation to act upon that identity. She traveled to Israel twice to study at Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya and felt deeply connected to the rabbis and friends she met during her travels. When she returned home from the second trip, she had fully embraced Orthodox Judaism.

“What changed was that I felt obligated as a Jew to follow the Torah and follow all of these principles and values and mitzvahs, and that was part of the collective Jewish identity that goes back thousands of years,” she explained. “I just realized I needed to be a part of that and to do it fully.”

Some young adults aren’t as sure as Saltzman; many, in fact, can be better described as on the fence concerning what it means to be involved as a Jew. For them, a variety of organizations exist that cater to their interests with the hope of creating a connection.

At Charm City Tribe, Rabbi Jessy Gross tries to engage Baltimore City’s young adult Jewish population with events that are low barrier but high content. She wants to get people in the door and engage them in Jewish values and ideas related to a particular event.

The Tribe’s Chanukah BrewHaha, held in December at Union Craft Brewing near Hampden, was largely a social event that attracted hundreds with a food truck selling a variety of latkes, dreidel tournaments and beer infused with etrog left over from Sukkot. Some attendees also took part in activities with JQ Baltimore, Repair the World and the Jewish Volunteer Connection.

Gross, who also hosts more content-heavy events such as a recent Four Rabbis, Five Opinions round-table discussion, said that she seeks out events that give people unique experiences.

“It gets people in the door, softens the resistance of showing up next time,” she said. “And next time, you might show up at my house for Shabbat dinner.”

Meredith Raucher, a Johns Hopkins University art history doctoral candidate, found the one-on-one connections she was looking for in Charm City Tribe. When she came to Maryland seven years ago, she discovered, as an outsider, that it was really hard to find a group to fit into.

“Jewish identity is important to me,” she related. “When I got here, I sort of lost touch with the religious aspect of it because there wasn’t a place I felt at home.”

Raucher, 30, gravitated toward Charm City Tribe because of Gross’ goal of creating networks of people. At times, she feels more comfortable going to events with other people who don’t know each other.

For Raucher, socializing can be a part of a Jewish event, but it needs to serve a higher purpose to feed her Judaism; that doesn’t necessarily mean intense Jewish content, she explained.

“When I got to a Shabbat dinner, and even if we’re only saying just the three prayers, it’s nice to be in a room of people celebrating this part of the week that we all think is important,” she said. “It’s part of our tradition; it’s part of our background; it’s part of our identity; it’s part of our community. And I think that’s what was lacking for me.”

PEW FALLOUT
One reason young adult engagement is a topic of concern is that according to the Pew Research Study: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the intermarriage rate among American Jews is 72 percent, the highest it has ever been.

Alissa Heneson, co-chair of Council 2434, a task force of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore that studies local Jews in their 20s and 30s, thinks every generation has wrestled with this issue.

“Every generation thinks the Jews are going to die out,” she said. “I think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.”

But the high intermarriage rate deeply concerns Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“We’re in a period of population meltdown that is as severe for the Jewish population as global warming is for the world,” he warned.

Cohen supports the idea that there should be significant content in Jewish programming to engage young adults. But even more than that, he wants to see them engaged in the marital sense.

He noted lower birth rates — except in Orthodox communities — as one component negatively impacting the Jewish population. The other is intermarriage.

“We can’t affect the birth rates,” he surmised. “But we can affect intermarriage. So we should try.”

Challah-lujah!

Each week Rosendorff’s Bakery transforms 7,500 pounds of flour into challah and challah rolls. At its kosher baking facility in Pikesville, the aroma of dozens of breads and rolls is hard to adequately describe, as is the effect of Gary Rosendorff’s lilting South African accent and his bubbling infectious laugh. (Have a listen below.)

“Even as a child, I loved to bake bread,” said a smiling Rosendorff, patriarch of the family-owned and operated bakery. “You take these things that are kind of inedible — flour and oil and eggs, none of these things are appetizing — you mix them together and you put some yeast into it, and it turns into something completely different. It’s always been a magical thing for me.”

Many Jewish families in the greater Baltimore-Washington area have torn into a loaf of Rosendorff’s tender, slightly sweet bread at the start of a Shabbat meal. According to the longtime baker, a lot goes into each loaf, from high-quality ingredients and a rich history to hard work and loving care.

Rosendorff, 58, was born in the small town of Bloemfontein, where the Jewish community was about 400 families, but Jewish education more or less ended with a bar or bat mitzvah. As he got older, the “nonreligious Jewish life” was not enough for him, so in his mid-20s, Rosendorff went to study in Israel. It was there that he met Sara, from Providence, R.I., who became his wife. They started a family, and he needed to provide for them.

Rosendorff admits he has always gravitated toward work that required physical creation — not art, but craft, in the utilitarian sense. He chose to become a ritual scribe, creating scrolls for mezuzahs and tefillin while living in Israel. In 1995, after moving his family to Baltimore, he worked at a matzah factory, but it was seasonal work; the job ended the week before Passover.

As fate would have it, his first “business” career would begin while standing in line at Liebes Deli waiting for chopped liver. Rosendorff struck up a conversation with the man behind him, told him his story and that he was new to Baltimore. The man told Rosendorff to come and interview at his company; a few days later, Rosendorff began working at the man’s wholesale electronics business.

“Everything I know about business I learned from these people,” said Rosendorff. “You think there’s no connection between baking and electronics, but you’ve got to buy your product, you’ve got to sell it, and you’ve got to collect your money; it’s much the same kind of thing. You’ve got to bake the bread, you’ve got to find the customers, you’ve got to sell it, and you’ve got to collect the money.”

It was another seemingly random conversation that sparked the idea to sell challah. Rosendorff and his wife baked challah regularly, giving it away to family and friends. But in 1996 while doing taxes, his accountant warned him that he wasn’t making enough money and suggested selling challah from his home to perhaps make a few thousand dollars a year. Rosendorff was shocked at the suggestion that he might make that much selling challah.

“That’s how we started selling,” said Rosendorff, still displaying some disbelief. “We could only put four challahs in the oven at a time, and you had to flip the challahs, so I spent most of Thursday night making four challahs at a time. Maybe the first week we made 10 or 12 challahs. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings and stress. We did that for a few years.”

Then Rosendorff lost his “day job.” He took stock of his situation and believed that, at his age, he couldn’t possibly look for a job where he would be working for someone else.

“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer,” he explained. “I [couldn’t] go around looking for another job. “ I was just kind of thrown into it. Oh, I can’t believe how fortunate I was.”

In 2000, Rosendorff’s Bakery moved into a wholesale space in Menlo Park. About 18 months ago it moved to the larger Pikesville facility,
dispensing products at 28 locations in the Baltimore/ D.C./New Jersey area. Three of his seven children — Yossi, Baruch and Esty — work in the business.

“You’re constantly working with a product that’s moving,” said Yossi Rosendorff, the second eldest son, who has been helping since high school and has worked full time for about 10 years. “You’re starting with scratch in the beginning of the day and you’re ending with product at the end of the day, so it’s a very unique business and a business that requires a lot of love and attention, and blood, sweat and tears.”

The son explains that bread ingredients combined don’t taste like much on their own, and that it is fermentation that creates bread’s flavor; he compares it to making good wine or beer. Rosendorff’s challah ferments between 24 to 48 hours.

“It’s something that you do by taste, by smell and by feel,” continued the son. “Bread is kind of finicky, and it’s not something that’s easy to produce.  Everybody can make bread, but hoping to get a good tasting, well balanced bread is not that easy.”

His father said the most amazing experience he’s had with people since moving to America is that people have wanted to see him succeed. Many have gone out of their way to take him on as a supplier or offer him solid business advice. In the past year, Rosendorff’s has continued to grow with the addition of rye, multigrain and whole wheat breads, as well as a limited amount of cakes, cookies and pastries.

“I can’t say the world is a better place because I bake challah,” Rosendorff said with a laugh, “but maybe it’s a little bit better.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Jewish Organizations Face Off

BJC Executive Director Arthur Abramson: “We believe that you should not be using public  dollars to discriminate.” (File Photo)

BJC Executive Director Arthur Abramson: “We believe that you should not be using public dollars to discriminate.” (File Photo)

On its surface, legislation being discussed in Annapolis is an effort on the part of the state to stand up to those who would boycott Israel. But the inclusion of financial penalties and ambiguous wording now pits two Jewish communal advocacy organizations on opposite sides, with the Baltimore Jewish Council facing off against the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington over what the measure’s backers say is a solid pro-Israel bill.

Similar bills in the state Senate and House of Delegates, if adopted, would prohibit public universities from paying for its employees to attend conferences or use public funds in any way that would directly or indirectly support academic boycotts of countries that have a declaration of cooperation with Maryland.

Legislators are being asked to support the bill as “a strong way to attack those who are trying to delegitimize Israel,” according to Arthur Abramson, executive director of the BJC; conversely, lawmakers are being lobbied to oppose the effort as “over reaching,” with the possible result of stifling a pro-Israeli voice at those conferences, according to Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC.

While not stated in the legislation under consideration, the idea behind the language stems from the American Studies Association’s boycott of academic institutions in Israel. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is a dues-paying member of the ASA.

Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. (D-District 18), a member of the budget and taxation committee that will hold a hearing on the Senate bill March 5, said this is not the first time he has been lobbied in opposite ways by the Jewish community. He pointed to LGBT and same-sex marriage issues, in with the JCRC in suburban Washington spoke out in support, while the Baltimore Jewish Council stayed silent.

As for the proposed legislation, Madaleno said, “I think both want the same goal, to make sure they realize the boycott movement is wrong and should be stopped.” He added, “The strategy is different, but the end goal is the same.”

He said that while he understands the JCRC’s fear of unintended consequences, “on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense for an American or a Maryland institution to try to boycott an Israeli institution.

“We are not talking about a North Korea or a Syrian institution,” he continued. “The Israeli higher education facilities operate much like ours do. Why would I want to boycott them?”

Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19) introduced the House bill, which  lists 51 co-sponsors. He said the BJC “has been very, very actively involved in supporting our bill. They have been spending a good [amount of] time in Annapolis.”

He has not spoken directly with the JCRC but said, “I have the impression that they are not going to support it, which to me is astonishing.

“If that is the case,” he continued, “they are playing right into the hands of Palestinian sympathizers. I am just astonished. I think that is just absolutely shameful.”

Halber said that while he is opposed to the bill “in its current form,” he would rather come up with a resolution both sides could get behind.

Many universities, including the 12 institutions that comprise the University System of Maryland, have already come out strongly against the ASA boycott, leading Halber to ask of the legislative front, “What are we trying to accomplish?”

If passed, the legislation would prohibit the use of public funds at institutions involved in boycotts and would reduce by 3 percent the amount the university would receive the following year.

There are “very robust ties between Maryland universities and Israel,” explained Halber. But if the bill becomes law, that could change, he said.

“We want professors to go to that conference. Why would we do anything to prevent pro-Israel discussion?” he questioned, calling that against JCRC policy. “There is a point where you go too far and you overreach. We’ve now reached that point.”

If the legislators want to go on record against the ASA boycott, a resolution condemning it would be appropriate, suggested Halber. “We despised what ASA called for. We had an action alert against it.”

“Sometimes you have to realize when you actually won and not beat it to death,” he said.

But Abramson disagreed.

“We feel that the bill that Delegate Kramer and Sen. [Joan Carter] Conway (D-District 43) have submitted is a strong means to attack those who are trying to delegitimize Israel,” he said. “The whole bottom line of all of this is this is not all about the Arab-Israel war. What this is, is very, very fair. … We believe that you should not be using public dollars to discriminate. That’s what this bill is all about.”

According to Abramson, the original idea for the bill’s language, which was based on a similar bill proposed in New York, risked not making it to the hearings stage. The scope was too broad, and portions hedged close to being unconstitutional. With this in mind, the BJC worked with legislators to draft a version that singled out countries or countries with academic institutions with which the state of Maryland has a declaration of cooperation. A provision was also inserted that ensures that public university employees are free to join an organization like the ASA using their own funds, an addition Abramson said protects free speech.

Abramson believes that the fact that the current bill lacks JCRC support could hurt the effort in the long run.

“Their not being behind it certainly doesn’t help,” he said.

Kramer agreed.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I am confident if this bill does not pass, all of Israel’s enemies that are supporting the boycott will be popping the corks off the champagne bottles and toasting the JCRC.”

He questioned how the JCRC can be against a law because it includes a penalty.

“Why have a law if there are no sanctions, no penalties? Penalties are what cause people to abide by the law,” argued Kramer. “The penalty will mean nothing unless a university decides to violate the law.”

The JCRC isn’t the only organization coming out against the bill. The 12 presidents from the University System of Maryland “stand united against ASA’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions” and also “stand opposed to Senate Bill 647/House Bill 998,” they announced in a Feb. 24 letter to members of the General Assembly. “This well-meaning but ultimately misguided response to ASA’s actions would only serve to undermine academic freedom further.”

In a phone interview, Patrick J. Hogan, vice chancellor of government relations with the University System of Maryland, said the bills were too broad and could penalize a university for following a boycott that actually makes sense, like what happened with the apartheid movement in South Africa.

“We feel it does impinge upon academic freedom,” said Hogan. “We are worried about the unforeseen circumstances.”

In late January, a bill passed the New York Senate that would prohibit the use of state funds to pay for membership in academic institutions participating in a boycott of a country or academic institutions in a country chartered by the state’s Board of Regents. Both the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League took positions against the legislation.

The Assembly version of the New York bill was held up when one of the sponsors removed it from consideration. A similar, revised version is expected to be reintroduced.

In Congress, Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced the Protect Academic Freedom Act, which, according to Roskam’s press office, would “block federal funding for American universities engaging in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to fund bigoted attacks against Israel that undermine the fundamental principles of academic freedom.”

Suzanne Pollak is senior writer at Washington Jewish Week. Heather Norris is staff reporter at Baltimore Jewish Times.

All In The Family

It’s been almost 14 years since Emily Hecht and Owings Mills-based psychologist Eve Band published “Autism Through a Sister’s Eyes: A Young Girl’s View of Her Brother’s Autism.” Nowadays, Hecht, who grew up in Pikesville, is a 23-year-old graduate student at Washington University in Indiana. Recently, she recalled what it was like for her as she began to sense that her brother, Daniel, wasn’t like her friends’ older siblings.

“I started to notice he was different,” she shared. “He liked different kinds of TV and movies, babyish stuff, and he was two years older than me. I got embarrassed by his expressions and mannerisms because they weren’t age appropriate. So my parents took me to see Dr. Band to talk about it.”

The Hechts are far from alone. While they sought help from a private clinician, the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study found that 54 percent of those surveyed had sought assistance from a Jewish community agency for a family member with a physical or developmental disability, 50 percent for a child with a learning disability and 30 percent for treatment of an emotional problem such as depression or anxiety.

The study did not address the issue of siblings of children with special needs, but anecdotally at least, even with organizations that offer programming catering to the whole family, siblings can easily get short shrift when so much attention is paid to patients coping with a host of conditions.

When Emily came to her office, Band wanted to recommend a book for siblings of children with special needs, but to her surprise she found that little had been written on the topic.

“So we decided I would write my feelings and thoughts as a therapeutic exercise,” related Hecht, “and after a while, Dr. Band said, ‘We really have something here. It could be helpful not just for you, but for other kids too.’ “

As it turns out, Band treats many siblings of children with special needs.

“There are lots of emotional issues that are challenging, and it’s important for them to h ave a voice,” said the psychologist. “I appreciate that more and more.”

Stacy Israel, special needs coordinator for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, has personal experience with the phenomenon. She grew up with three siblings with, as she likes to say, “varying abilities.” Like Band, Israel believes that it is important that siblings of children with special needs have opportunities to express their feelings.

“My message to siblings is, ‘Don’t be afraid of your feelings,’ “ she explained. “In some situations, having a sibling with varying abilities can be confusing or embarrassing. Your feelings may swing back and forth between embarrassment and protectiveness. Realize that this is normal, and don’t feel guilty.”

Parents, said Band, need to do their part by listening to their child’s feelings of resentment, fear and pain even when they are hard to hear. At the same time, they need to be attuned to what their children may not be saying but may be feeling.

“Young children need to know they will be taken care of — that they are safe. And some children may be afraid the disability is contagious,” said Band, stressing that parents should avoid letting siblings take on caretaking roles and shouldn’t expect perfect behavior.

Talking to children about a sibling’s special needs, continued Band, can be fraught with challenges. There’s the child’s own age and development level to contend with, as well as the nature of the sibling’s needs. Some children might want to know why a brother or a sister does particular things, while others might have known for some time that “their sibling is different,” she said.

That was the case for Evan and Drew Taubenfeld.

When their sister was about 2 or 3 years old “and I was about 10, she needed all these surgeries,” related Evan Taubenfeld, 30. “They had nothing to do with her autism, but as a kid, it kind of all mixes together in your mind. After that, it seemed like something was always wrong.

“My parents intuitively knew something wasn’t right, but this was before everyone was aware of autism,” he continued. “I watched my parents being worried, and I just wanted my sister to be happy and healthy. We started going to see all these specialists. It would be kind of like group therapy, but we wouldn’t talk about anything; we just were supposed to play with Annie in front of these people.”

Their mother, Ami Taubenfeld, is the cofounder and executive director of Itineris, a program for adults with autism. She talks with her sons about this time in their lives often.

“Annie was misdiagnosed for a long time, so my husband and I were very much consumed with our research,” said Taubenfeld. “But at the same time, we were both working and the boys were in middle school. They had homework and baseball games. It was very stressful.

“Annie has a pleasant personality, but she didn’t have language [skills] until she was 5 or 6, so it was hard for her to tell us what she needed,” added the mother.

Even though Taubenfeld and her husband, Mark Taubenfeld, tried to shelter their sons from their daughter’s condition, event-ually the boys “felt strongly that this was a family issue,” she said. “And they never wanted to treat Annie like she was special. They just treated her like one of the team.”

Taubenfeld sometimes asks her sons if they had an “awful” childhood, but, she said, “they always say they had the best childhood ever.”

FINDING UNDERSTANDING
To be sure, things aren’t always so easy for other families. Therapists, counselors and psychologists point out that much hinges on a child’s particular conditions and a family’s specific situation.

For one Baltimore family, whose members chose to remain anonymous given the nature of their experiences, rarely is there a reprieve from the crises that are symptomatic of their son’s mental illness. His 11-year-old sister is naturally affected by the constant upheaval.

At an early age, the family’s older child, now 19, transgender and living as a woman, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. The child has since carried multiple diagnoses, the most recent of which is borderline personality disorder.

The child’s mother remembered the time several years ago when she sat down her younger daughter to explain that her brother “had some problems.”

$390K Theft Discovered

The just departed executive director of Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation has admitted to intentionally stealing at least $390,000, deceptive record keeping and the illegal transferring of funds from a California synagogue during the time he was executive director there.

Eric S. Levine, who was asked to resign on Tuesday from Adas Israel after being executive director for about a month, “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Sonia Israel, president of the Beth El Congregation in La Jolla, Calif., announced in a letter sent to congregants Feb. 12.

Levine, of Bethesda, allegedly stole the money over a five-year period, beginning in 2008, Israel noted. He likely will face time in jail if the California congregation decides to press charges and Levine is found guilty.

Adas Israel’s president also sent a letter to members of his congregation.

“While there is no indication of any improprieties during Eric’s short time at Adas, we have nonetheless commenced a thorough review of our financial and administrative records,” wrote Arnie Podgorksy.

Right now, Adas Israel is satisfied that no money has been taken from its synagogue, as there were no irregularities found during the audit, a source close to the synagogue said.

After being confronted by the leadership at Beth El, Levine not only admitted what he had done, but he also informed the leadership of Adas Israel of the theft. Adas Israel is not contemplating legal action as the synagogue has not been harmed, the source said.

However, the leadership at Congregation Beth El is considering pressing charges.

“We are consulting with experts in the appropriate areas of law to determine how to proceed with the authorities,” Israel wrote. The synagogue also is investigating how to recover the money from Levine, if possible.

In an effort to keep congregants informed, a town hall meeting has been set for Feb. 26.

Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough LLP who specializes in white collar criminal defense, said that Levine is likely to face federal charges.

Wisenberg is not familiar with the case, but when told the details, he said that it probably would be a federal case, as embezzling almost always involves interstate bank, mail or wire fraud.

“That’s serious,” he said. “He’ll probably do some time” in jail unless the synagogue decides to keep the matter quiet. But considering the entire congregation has been informed and a meeting is planned, Wisenberg said it didn’t sound like that is what Beth El had in mind.

In cases like this, a judge must follow guidelines but is allowed leeway. The final amount of money stolen and the number of people harmed play a role in the sentencing, he explained.

“Presumably if you are stealing from a congregation, you are stealing from all the members who contribute,” said Wisenberg.

Under federal guidelines, a loss of less than $400,000, combined with the harming of more than 250 people, could translate to a sentence of between 21 months to 63 months. A source close to Adas Israel, however, said on Feb. 12 that Levine’s alleged theft could be closer to $500,000.

Considering that Levine confessed right away and assuming he cooperates with any law enforcement investigation, said Wisenberg, his sentence may be lighter.

According to Beth El’s president, Levine’s financial irregularities “came to light” at the end of January, about 45 days after he stopped working there. Then, in a phone call on Feb. 9, Levine was confronted by synagogue officials.

“He admitted that the deceptive record keeping and illegal transfer of funds was intentional. He then apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Israel wrote in the letter to congregants.

While not everything is known, Israel noted that “Eric was budgeting for improperly used funds. Therefore, we anticipate that our current cash balance and projected receipts for the rest of the year will cover our operating expenses.

“It is never easy to learn that someone you trusted has violated that trust,” continued Beth El’s president. “It is never easy to learn that someone you relied on to guide and protect an institution’s financial security has instead stolen funds for personal use and then covered up his misdeeds. When the institution is a religious organization, a community held together in part by moral and ethical bonds, such a betrayal is even more painful.”

Rabbi Philip Graubart also sent a message to Beth El congregants, questioning how a community recovers from betrayal and calling the time since he learned of Levine’s misdeeds “a dark several weeks for me personally.”

“We made serious mistakes in trusting Eric,” wrote Graubart. “We were victimized by a skilled liar. We will carry the brokenness with us for a long time.”

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007.

When asked about Levine, Michael Sonduck, president and CEO of the Federation in San Diego, told the Washington Jewish Week, “I am not going to have any comment at all regarding this matter.”

Calls and emails to Graubart, Israel and others on the rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.

Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013.

Levine is married with young children.

Purple Line Under Scrutiny

Purple Line Preferred Alternative map (Provided)

Purple Line Preferred Alternative map (Provided)

One of the four teams invited to submit a bid to operate Maryland’s proposed Purple Line will be prohibited from winning the contract under a bill introduced in the state’s General Assembly unless its parent company pays reparations to those it transported to Nazi death camps during World War II.

Keolis America, a U.S. affiliate of the French rail company Society Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF), is part of Maryland Purple Line Partners, which hopes to be awarded the 35-year, $6 billion contract to operate the proposed 16-mile transit line between New Carrollton and Bethesda. SCNF has a 70 percent stake in Keolis, according to a 2012 news release.

According to the bill, a public entity would not be considered a qualified bidder unless it disclosed its involvement in transporting Nazi prisoners and paid reparations to them or their families. The Senate version of the bill will have a hearing March 7 before the Budget and Taxation Committee. The House version will be heard March 10 before the Ways and Means Committee.

SNCF transported 76,000 Jews and thousands of others to the death camps, according to Baltimore resident Leo Bretholz, who worked for days to free himself and jump out a train window before ending up in Auschwitz. These trains traveled from the suburbs of Paris to Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1944. SCNF was paid per person per kilometer to provide the trains, cars and manpower.

However, a spokesman for SNCF denied that his company acted on its own, calling the allegations “patently false and misleading.”

According to a statement from SCNF, “On July 24, 1940, senior Nazi Col. Werner Goeritz seized control of SNCF operations and facilities and posted a grave notice to all employees in work sites across occupied France that all SNCF employees were subject to the Nazi laws of war. Execution was ordered for anyone deemed in ‘non-compliance’ with requests by the Third Reich. More than 800 SNCF employees who resisted Nazi orders were executed — by axe — and more than 1,200 additional SNCF railroaders were sent off to death camps and murdered.

“SNCF employees who operated deportee trains in occupied France did so under the orders of Nazi Col. Goeritz and under the guard of an average of 41 Nazi SS soldiers, knowing that any disobedience would result in the murder of themselves and their families,” according to the company statement.

However, Delegate Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County disagreed, stating, “The reality is this company was responsible for transporting 72,000 people. They took the property off them. They made the decision on their own to use cattle cars.”

The Nazis didn’t dictate how the transport was to be done, said Reznik.

“The money [SNCF] made laid the way for them to grow” into the large company it is now, argued Reznik, who along with state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore, introduced the bill. Maryland residents should not have to pay taxes or tolls to this company, he stressed.

“It was 70 years ago, but they were very much complicit in the Holocaust,” he said. “All we are asking for is a little compensation from a company that has benefited greatly from the Holocaust.”

Conway added: “SNCF’s continued refusal to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust remains insulting to its victims and deeply troubling.”

Two members of Congress last month sent a letter to the Maryland Department of Transportation, urging it “to take into consideration the relationship between Keolis and SNCF as it reviews finalists for the Purple Line and to not ignore its moral obligation to the Holocaust survivors who proudly call Maryland home.”

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) wrote in their letter that “if awarded, the state of Maryland’s contract with SNCF for the Purple Line may be paid out of the very pockets of taxpayers who the company once willingly transported to the death camps. While we look forward to the innovative Purple Line, we do not believe that it should be done through the partnership of Keolis as an entity of SNCF until its victims are awarded their long overdue justice.”

Bretholz, who is 92 years old, posted a petition on change.org asking for help to “hold SNCF accountable and support justice for myself and hundreds of similarly situated Holocaust survivors.” As of Tuesday, more than 106,000 had signed the online petition.

Bretholz was 21 when he was forced into a crowded train that had only one small bucket to be used as a common toilet. He and a friend painstakingly worked at the two bars across a small opening until they broke away. Then they jumped from the moving train, he recalled.

While he worked at those two bars, most of the people in the train “tried to talk us out of it. They said, ‘Don’t do it. They will punish us,’ “ Bretholz said in April 2013 as he spoke on Capitol Hill in favor of a federal Holocaust Rail Justice Act that currently sits in committee with no vote scheduled.

In 2012, Keolis was in line to be awarded a $200 million state contract for passenger railroad service on the Camden and Brunswick lines of the MARC commuter rail system. The state passed a similar law in 2011 to hold SCNF accountable. But Keolis was not the lowest bidder and did not obtain the contract.

If enough funding is provided through a combination of federal, state, local and private funds, construction on the Purple Line is expected to begin in 2015; the line would begin running in 2020.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

Route to Recovery

Sam Bierman (left) and Zach Snitzer have a unique approach to substance-abuse treatment. (David Stuck)

Sam Bierman (left) and Zach Snitzer have a unique approach to substance-abuse treatment. (David Stuck)

The death of revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this month has refocused the attention of the nation on the epidemic of drug addiction.

Hoffman, who reportedly died from a heroin overdose, was discovered alone in his New York City apartment with a hypodermic needle in his arm on Feb. 2. Although heroin is widely viewed as the province of the lower classes, Hoffman’s death, say local recovery advocates Zach Snitzer and Sam Bierman, drove home the truth of the matter: Drug addiction is an equal opportunity illness; it does not discriminate.

Snitzer and Bierman, founders of the new Maryland Addiction Recovery Center in Towson, are living proof of this fact. Snitzer, 34, grew up in a Jewish family in Owings Mills and began using drugs at the age of 12; he was addicted to heroin but finally got sober at age 27. Bierman, 30, a native of the affluent Long Island community of Roslyn, N.Y., also began using drugs at the age of 12 and found sobriety when he was 23. The two men, along with Snitzer’s wife, Aura Arslanian, also a recovering addict, met after undergoing drug rehabilitation in Florida.

After all three had been sober for approximately a year, they found employment in the addictions field. “We used to sit around and talk about how great it would be to go up North and start our own substance abuse treatment center there,” said Bierman. At the time, he said, it was only a dream.

After Arslanian became pregnant, she and Snitzer decided they wanted to raise their child closer to family. At first, they moved to New York City, where Arslanian grew up, but about a year later, they decided to relocate to Baltimore. With Bierman, they began to look into what Baltimore had to offer in terms of substance-abuse treatment.

“The first thing we noticed was that no one was providing the level of treatment we wanted to provide,” said Bierman. “We wanted to focus on long-term treatment centered on the underlying issues that caused the addiction. We also believe in providing treatment to the addict’s family as well as the addict.”

“And we saw kids being shipped [from Baltimore] down to Florida [for treatment],” added Snitzer. “It doesn’t have to be like that. Families don’t have to be separated.”

Soon, Snitzer and Arslanian succeeded in luring Bierman away from his job at Caron Renaissance, a rehabilitation center in Boca Raton, Fla. They found funding through a private investor who believed in their mission and opened MARC several months ago.

Snitzer and Bierman believe the treatment model they offer at MARC is unique to private addiction care in Maryland.

“A lot of treatment programs look at a heroin addict and they think heroin is the problem,” said Bierman. “If you separate the person from the drug, everything will be OK. But that’s not true. It’s the underlying pain the addict feels that is causing the problems. Ninety percent of our population is suffering from some sort of trauma, loss, physical or sexual abuse, adoption, divorce. These issues take time to address. There’s this 28-day model that’s caught on, but 28 days isn’t long enough. It’s just waiting for the sleeping giant to awake.”

“One thing we looked at in our research about Baltimore was that [programs] spent very little time focusing on the addict’s family,” noted Snitzer. “Addiction is a family disease. Typically, families misunderstand addiction. They’ll say, ‘Here’s my son or daughter; fix them, and we’ll pick them up in 28 days.’ People don’t realize the importance of reaching out to the family. They [the families] also feel alone and ashamed.”

MARC offers medically supervised detox, partial hospitalization programs for adolescents and adults, individual therapy, therapeutic groups such as relapse prevention and anger management, interventions and family counseling. Also provided are vocational counseling and an education and prevention program for DWI and DUI offenders.

“Our programs have a 90-day minimum, but it doesn’t always turn out that way,” said Snitzer. MARC’S outpatient treatment program for adolescents takes place three days a week from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and a similar program for adults operates four days a week from 9 a.m. to noon.

“We have an alumni engagement program. If you stay clean and sober for 90 days, you can attend group therapy for free as long as you want,” said Bierman. “Studies show that the longer an addict engages in treatment, the better they do.”

In addition to the treatment provided at MARC, Snitzer and Bierman also encourage attendance in 12-step programs like Alcoholic Anonymous.

“We owe our lives to AA,” said Snitzer. “All of us are involved in 12-step programs, and they are great in collaboration with what we do. We do treatment here, and AA is what addicts should do outside.”

Bierman said that he and Snitzer are trying to establish relationships with local high schools and colleges.

“A lot of drug use starts at those ages, and the schools aren’t really equipped to deal with it,” he explained. “We say, ‘Look, you don’t want to expel students [who are using drugs]. Let us treat them. We’ll work around their school schedules and make it possible for them to stay in school.’”

Snitzer pointed out that when someone well known such as Hoffman dies, it serves as a reminder that addiction doesn’t only happen to poor, indigent people from the inner cities.

“People like to think, ‘That’s not me.’ There is so much shame and stigma,” said Bierman. “We like to put a face on addiction. It’s a chronic progressive illness, not a moral failing. There are resources out there that can help.”

For more information about the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, which is located at 110 West Road in Towson, Suite 410, visit marylandaddictionrecovery.com.

sellin@jewishtimes.com