Candidates Game for Decriminalization

(Photo David Stuck)

(Photo David Stuck)

Maryland gubernatorial candidates have voiced their support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced House Bill 879, which would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine not exceeding $100. Individuals under 21 caught with marijuana would be required to take drug education classes.

Fellow Democratic candidates Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Douglas Gansler have both voiced their support for decriminalizing marijuana, but neither responded to Mizeur’s invitation to testify in Annapolis in support of the bill.

“Attorney General Gansler supports working with law enforcement to decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts,” Gansler spokeswoman Katie Hill said via email. “He believes any discussion of complete legalization should include Maryland’s health professionals, law enforcement and community organizations.”

Brown wrote Mizeur a letter that cited racial disparities in Maryland marijuana possession arrest rates and the economic toll on law enforcement. In 2010, African-Americans were almost three times more likely to be arrested for possession than Caucasians, he wrote. Four years ago, Brown’s letter said, Maryland spent $55.3 million in police costs to enforce the current law.

“Decriminalization isn’t about encouraging drug use; it’s about putting our resources in the places where they’ll do the most good,” wrote Brown. “It’s about helping young people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana find a better way forward instead of putting them through the revolving door of our justice system.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Vaeth, a former Baltimore City firefighter, also supports decriminalization. The house bill’s co-sponsors include attorney general candidates Delegates Aisha Braveboy, Bill Frick and Jon Cardin, Gansler’s running mate, Delegate Jolene Ivey, and Delegate Dan Morhaim, a physician and longtime medical marijuana proponent.

“This session, we have an opportunity to change policies that have ruined lives, made our communities less safe and wasted valuable law enforcement resources,” Mizeur’s wrote in her letter to Brown and Gansler.

The bill mirrors legislation Sen. Bobby Zirkin introduced last year, which passed the Senate but did not pass the House. SB 364, which Zirkin and Sen. Allan Kittleman introduced this session, will come up for a hearing on Feb. 25. It would make possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine and would allow judges to order juveniles caught with small amounts to perform community service or attend drug treatment and drug education classes.

“This is not some radical proposition,” stated Zirkin. “This is something that has been done in many states across the country.”

He said it’s not surprising that gubernatorial candidates support decriminalization, since potential problems such as increased drug use, the gateway drug effect and driving under the influence have not increased in states that have gone the decriminalized route.

“With every bill you look at the positives and negatives,” said Zirkin. “The negatives just don’t exist.”

Some of those watching the race for governor don’t think the decriminalization debate will play much of a role.

“I don’t think voters are paying attention to the General Assembly in terms of the gubernatorial race,” said political columnist Laslo Boyd, managing partner at Mellenbrook Policy Advisors. He added that he didn’t think the legislation would pass.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who said he wouldn’t support legalization, is “not much in favor” of decriminalizing marijuana, he said on the Marc Steiner radio show.

“We’ll continue to watch implementation of new laws in Colorado and Washington along with the impact of those laws on public health and safety,” O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said via email. “We’ll also await further guidance from the federal government on enforcement.”

Jews, Hunters and Sunday Hunting Bans

Orthodox Jew Josh First makes no apologies for his love of hunting. (Provided)

Orthodox Jew Josh First makes no apologies for his love of hunting.

For most Jews in the United States, hunting laws are not a concern. Following World War II, most settled in urban or suburban areas, far from roaming turkeys, elk, bears and deer, outside of the occasional casualty in the highway emergency lane.

Few even realize that the same seemingly archaic statutes that in some places prevent liquor purchases on Sundays, otherwise known as blue laws, also restrict hunting.

That troubles Josh First, a businessman, former congressional candidate and political activist in Harrisburg, Pa., who happens to be a proud hunter. He also is an Orthodox Jew, meaning that his observance of Shabbat — and an 1873 Pennsylvania law that outlaws most large-animal hunting — necessitates going the whole weekend without firing a shot.

First has signed on as an adviser with Hunters United for Sunday Hunting, which brought a lawsuit against the state’s Game Commission after years of unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Sunday hunting ban in the state legislature. It’s even become a campaign issue in the Keystone State’s gubernatorial race, with Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who, after five terms in Congress representing areas in and around Northeast Philadelphia, is making the law’s repeal part of the platform in her challenge to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Pennsylvania has the largest hunter population in the United States, according to The most recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Schwartz, a member of the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, would beat Corbett, 45 percent to 35 percent.

Although Schwartz is Jewish, First still finds himself in a minority of a minority. He’s the only Jew in HUSH.

“Culturally, Jews are traditionally urban and politically liberal and not exposed to hunting or trapping,” First said, explaining why there are so few Jewish hunters. “And these are practices that are considered, let’s be honest, goyish.”

First regularly goes hunting for deer, bears and wild turkeys with other Orthodox Jews from Harrisburg, New York City and Los Angeles and keeps his hunting cabin strictly kosher, he said.

“I think overcoming judgmentalism and cultural bias is probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “If you tell a religious Jew in New York that you’re hunting, most of them think, ‘You couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Jews don’t hunt.’ ”

The Religious View
As the political battle plays out in Pennsylvania, those such as First face an internal religious debate. Though First is confident hunting is acceptable to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, others, such as Rabbi Dovid Bendory, rabbinic director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, disagree.

“In Jewish law, hunting for sport is pretty universally prohibited,” said Bendory. “Hunting because you need the animal in some way is permissible — hunting where the animal is going to be used, if not by you but by someone else. Then it becomes a discussion as to whether or not it’s an appropriate activity to engage in, and the reality is, in the modern world, there are few situations in which the Jew is hunting to use the animal.”

“Using” a hunted animal can present some problems, since an animal that is killed before ritual slaughter is not considered kosher. Another legal issue surrounds the general prohibition of unnecessarily inflicting pain on another living creature.

First, though, believes that most of the Orthodox opinion on the subject comes from a lack of hands-on experience.

“You have to see something with your own eyes, you have to do something with your own hands, you have to witness something in order to understand what it is,” he argued. “For somebody to sit at their desk and pontificate on something they don’t know a thing about is shameful. It is not being a real halachic authority.”

First points out that no part of an animal he and his group hunts is wasted; they will even distribute its meat to their non-Jewish friends.

Bendory isn’t moved by such a stance.

“Whether or not you can bend the halachic prohibition on hunting by saying, ‘Well, I’m shooting the animal for my non-Jewish friends here,’ is a highly debatable question,” he said.

“There has to be a purpose,” added Rabbi Chaim Schertz, senior rabbi at the Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg. “Halachic authorities do not feel that this is a Jewish value; however, from my perspective, the skill involved in being able to understand how animals live and what the woods are like and to be outdoors — to have the ability to survive — that to me is an important skill to attain.

“But it does not require me to actually kill any animals,” continued the rabbi.

Schertz, however, noted an opinion by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, who wrote in his 18th-century work, “Noda B’Yehudah,” that it may even be acceptable for Jews to hunt for sport in certain cases. Because animals were created for people’s use, the logic goes, it could be argued that deriving pleasure from the sport of hunting is a tangible use.

Even if the question of whether it is permitted for Orthodox Jews to hunt can be murky, the rules of Shabbat are clear, and the Sunday hunting ban remains an issue in states other than Pennsylvania.

The Sunday Hunting Coalition, which includes the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Association and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance among its members, is lobbying for legislation to repeal Sunday hunting bans in the 11 states that still have full or partial bans on the books. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware, which all have full Sunday hunting bans, states such as Maryland and West Virginia have partial bans in which Sunday hunting laws are decided by individual counties.

According to Jake McGuigan, the National Shooting Sports Association’s director of state affairs and government relations, this year’s efforts are focused on repealing Virginia’s Sunday hunting law; Pennsylvania is next on its agenda.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1237, which would allow Sunday hunting on private property. Written permission from the property owner would be required. The bill is expected to pass the Virginia State Senate this week and be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly expressed his position in favor of the measure.; contributed to this story.

Teens Tackle Global Issues

Berman Hebrew Academy (Rockville) students Natan Kelsey (holding the Latvia sign) and Isaac Soltz (Liechtenstein) take part in the YUNMUN Conference.  (Yeshiva University)

Berman Hebrew Academy (Rockville) students Natan Kelsey (holding the Latvia sign) and Isaac Soltz (Liechtenstein) take part in the YUNMUN Conference.
(Yeshiva University)

STAMFORD, Conn. — The United Nations is in session. Sam Collins, Croatian delegate to the World Intellectual Property Organization, rises to address the debate on a topic currently occupying the Global Access to Knowledge Movement (A2K): Should free or low-cost smartphones be distributed to populations of developing countries?

He suggests, “Instead of giving them information, let us give them data; instead of giving them the halachah, we would give them the entire Gemarah.” Collins bolsters his argument further with a more pedestrian example: “Instead of giving them one ready-made slice of pizza, we give them all of the pizza ingredients and see what they create.”

Welcome to the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations Conference.

Collins, 17, was one of seven delegates from Robert M. Beren Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Houston and one of 46 participating Jewish day schools from North America, Brazil and South Africa. From Feb. 9 to 11, the Stamford Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Connecticut was home to some 450 teen delegates who debated and untangled the world’s most crushing problems, breaking only for regular mandatory minyanim, optional study sessions and kosher mealtimes.

“The Gemarha comparison fits into the context of YUNMUN by bringing a complicated intellectual subject and putting it into terms that can be understood by all,” said Laura Mitzner Paletz, a Beren alumna who has coached the Beren delegation together with her husband, Steven Paletz, for the last three years. “Sam was bringing forth the idea that, instead of giving the international community the answers to their questions, we should give them all of the data that produced that answer. That way, not only would they have the answer, but they would understand the reasoning behind it and perhaps further expand the conversation by adding other findings.”

The Paletzes’ involvement in YUNMUN goes back to their high school days, when Steven was a member of the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School delegation in 2010 and 2011. The two met while studying at Yeshiva University, where they were both involved in the event in various capacities, including committee chair (Laura) and secretary general (Steven). They now volunteer at Beren Academy as a way to give back to the Houston modern Orthodox community.

Theirs is not an unusual story at this student-run conference. Many committee chairs, all YU students, first came to the event as high school delegates. Marc “Ziggy” Zharnest, YU’s Gerald and Mary Swartz international director of outreach and recruitment, first participated in YUNMUN as a high school delegate in 2003, served as secretary general for the 20th conference and is one of the event’s longest-tenured staff members.

This comes after six months of preparation. Schools apply in September and receive country assignments in November. The committees and debate topics are posted online in December, and each delegation must submit a position paper for each committee their members will serve on before YUNMUN opens.

For the four delegates from Colégio Iavne in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the selection process began with a high score on the Bechina Yerulshalmit, an international Judaic and Hebrew course of study designed by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The students work with teachers on writing their position papers and presenting their points in English and are coached by former YUNMUN participants.

“We don’t normally get exposed to situations like this, where we have to act like grownups defending their country,” said Iavne delegate Rebeca Spuch. “I had never even heard about a model U.N. We would never have this experience in Brazil.”

This is the fourth year Iavne has fielded a delegation, after hosting a group of YU students who gave a presentation on the university at the day school. A Brazilian Jewish family sponsors the delegation.

“We want our students to get exposure to the environment of YU and to other modern Orthodox Jews around America, so we want them to get inspired and to understand what they represent in our country,” said Rabbi Saul Paves, Iavne’s principal of Jewish studies and the delegation’s faculty adviser this year.

As a recruitment tool for YU, YUNMUN is run by the university’s admissions department and is heavily underwritten by the school.

“These kinds of events are meant to entice kids to seek admission to these universities,” said Kathy Sklar, a 23-year veteran faculty adviser for the delegation from Akiva Hebrew Day School in Detroit. “We are one of YU’s feeder schools; all my senior applicants get admitted, and a percentage always goes. YUNMUN offers so much intensity and value to these students — learning to understand and debate issues, being part of a politi-cal process, and there’s a strong social aspect as well.”

Zharnest said that YU sets up the event to reflect the university’s “Torah U-Madda (Torah and secular knowledge) flavor,” from the decorations to the optional Torah lessons to the kosher food to the committee chairs’ conduct.

“Everybody gets along, nobody is disrespectful, the students look at each other as the countries they’re representing and are friendly to each other,” said Zharnest. “We don’t force religion, but we don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable — as long as they follow the basic dress code.”

“It is fair to call YUNMUM a ‘Jewish model U.N.,’ considering that all of the staff and delegates are Jewish,” said Laura Mitzner Paletz, the Beren Academy coach. “Therefore, there is a certain understanding that exists regarding Jewish ideas and ideals.”

This year’s conference comprised 15 committees, with each of them meeting for five sessions. In addition to debating the agenda of issues set by each committee, delegates wrestled with unforeseen crises as well. At 2 a.m. on Feb. 11, members of the Security Council were awakened and called into an emergency session, designed by committee chair Paige Snyder: Word had just come in that India was funding Chechen rebels. Pakistan and China, responding to information that the U.S. was giving India military aid, were aiming nuclear missiles at the U.S. In reaction, the U.S. was now pointing its weapons at Pakistan, China and Russia.

The Security Council had two hours to defuse the situation. By the end of its session, a ceasefire was drafted and passed by a majority of delegates, who also ratified a 30-day grace period for talks to determine a permanent solution.

The potential disaster and its resolution may only be hypothetical, but the skills honed in the exercise are taken seriously here.

On Sunday evening, as the teens prepared for two days of immersion as Croatian or Pakistani or Swedish diplomats, Secretary General Adena Kleiner (YU ‘14) sent them off with an adult agenda.

“Walk into your committee sessions knowing that what you gain can be used to change the world,” she said at the end of the opening ceremonies. “Recognize that your words and arguments have resonance beyond these walls. Most importantly, I challenge you not to underestimate yourselves. Begin to improve the world today.”

Kleiner’s words followed those of keynote speaker Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

“I hope I will not be too controversial if I say that the U.N. has some room for improvement,” Sacks said, to laughter and applause. But after a lifetime of forging multifaith friendships both personal and political, Sacks can also tell the story of cooperation across differences. When a student asked how the worldwide Jewish community can foster support from non-Jews, Sacks invoked Irwin Cotler, the Canadian Jewish member of Parliament who organized his country’s first-ever National Justice Initiative Against Racism, in parallel with the government’s National Action Plan Against Racism.

“I spent 20 years trying to make friends in the non-Jewish community and because of those friends, I was able to go to European prime ministers and relate to them,” said Sacks. “That is why, when [anti-hunger group] Ox-fam [International] wanted to support boycotts against Israel, I was able to invite the heads of that charity to our home, and together with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, we were able to back off from the boycott. We do have enemies, but if we go out to make friends, we will make friends.”

Three schools took home the top prizes for best delegation: SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y.; Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.; and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville.

Building Blocks

Aleph Learning Institute founder and director Rochelle Kaplan (Kirsten Beckermann)

Aleph Learning Institute founder and director Rochelle Kaplan (Kirsten Beckermann)

Flitting around the Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland building with the busy energy of a hummingbird, Rochelle Kaplan, founder and director of the Aleph Learning Institute, set out warm drinks on a very cold day in anticipation of her students. The latest snowfall and frigid weather did not deter her, as the full-day program of Aleph Wednesdays — The Power of One was about to begin, somewhat surprisingly, with a yoga and Pilates class led by certified fitness trainer Malkie Raskas.

“We have to be strong, we have to be healthy,” said Kaplan. “You have to exercise and strengthen the body to be able to serve God, because it removes illness, it prevents illness. [Aleph Wednesdays] is a well-balanced program.”

Aleph Wednesdays is the latest offering developed by Kaplan, and it is a special feature of the Aleph Learning Institute, which she launched in 2011. An amalgam of one-on-one and group study courses, lectures, cooking classes and self-help workshops, the institute offers a smorgasbord of topics open to all who are interested. Customized learning and an unconventional approach are also hallmarks of the program.

Aleph Wednesdays asks that attendees commit one entire day each week to study. The program was designed to incorporate “heart, mind, space and spirit.” It was developed, in part, because Kaplan saw her personal need to devote more time to Torah and study.

“It’s not making time for me. It’s making time for God,” she explained. “We all are here for a purpose. We get so busy with earning a living, just being able to live. We’re so consumed, we don’t even have a focus or direction. And as a Jewish person, we have a soul purpose.”

Kaplan’s intense dedication has helped make her a driving force in the Jewish community since she arrived. Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, lead Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland and have been in the Baltimore area almost 40 years. The center also offers a prescribed set of courses that are based on a curriculum created by the Jewish Learning Institute, the international adult education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. Those courses are developed separate from, but incorporated into, the Aleph Learning Institute curriculum.

One difference at the Aleph Learning Institute, said Kaplan, is the personalization and customization of studies. The institute accommodates individuals, friends and family members on any topic and for any type of class; anything is feasible, she said. “We really want to extend ourselves to the community and make ourselves available.”

One of the most popular offerings is Aleph Partners, which consists of one-on-one study with Kaplan.

Hillary Wohl, 58, has studied one on one with Kaplan and is a student of the Aleph Learning Institute. A speech and language pathologist, Wohl is an adjunct professor at Loyola University Maryland and serves on the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. She and her husband, Joel, are members of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

“Chabad takes you wherever you are,” said Wohl, who has known Kaplan for many years and has studied more formally with her for the past five years. “You don’t have to know anything. The fact that you’re a Jew is all that matters. People have lost sight of what Judaism is and the gift of it. … I think Chabad is teaching people the gift of Judaism.”

The courses and workshops offered by the Aleph Learning Institute are all based upon Jewish concepts and law but cover a wide range of topics. Money Matters and Personal Investments, the Kabbalah of Food, Bride and Groom the Jewish Way, Nature’s Wealth and Study of the Book of Tanya are a few course titles.

Rachel Gutman, 32, is enrolled in Aleph Wednesdays — The Power of One. Gutman, a member of the Chabad congregation in Pikesville, works part time and takes care of her two children. She makes time in her schedule to attend yoga and Pilates, Kabbalah classes and a Torah Studies class for women.

“The power of one means many things,” said Gutman. “I take it as the power of one decision, one person to grow their spiritual well-being, that’s enough to change them internally. To be open to it — the power within yourself to learn and connect to Hashem.”

The Aleph Learning Institute isn’t Kaplan’s first grand effort. In 2009, she created an annual event called the Jewish Victims of Terror Project; she also raised funds and assembled the design team needed to build a mikvah at the Chabad Center that is open to the whole community. The center recently celebrated the mikvah’s 10-year anniversary.

“After that project and [other] things were underway, I wanted to get into adult education,” said Kaplan. Getting Jews to be more aware of their Judaism is core to Kaplan’s, and Chabad’s, work. Her energy is contagious, and she takes any opportunity to connect with another Jew.

“Let’s put it this way: I’m a campaigner — you know on the road, in the store, anywhere,” she said with a laugh. “That’s me. I’m for the people, with the people, and I also feel like I’m learning from everyone else. … And you have to understand, my husband and I dedicate our lives to educating Jewish people.”

Kaplan’s long-range plans for the Aleph Learning Institute ultimately include an additional building to be erected behind the current synagogue that will house the institute on the second floor. But the courses and events offered now are an effort to cultivate more Jewish learning in the community and work toward that bigger goal.

“It’s the building before the building, meaning if two Jews meet and they think about Torah, this is a big accomplishment,” explained Kaplan, whose gestures and voice accelerate when talking about the institute’s future. “You never know the ripple effect.”

Read about Upcoming Programs at the Aleph Learning Institute.

Double-Edged Sword

As the idea of expanding prekindergarten in Maryland becomes more and more popular on both sides of the political aisle, the details involved in just how to implement the different programs are still a work in progress.

State officials heard from panels of advocates Feb. 12, when discussion began on Senate Bill 332 and House Bill 297, the Prekindergarten Expansion Act of 2014. The bill calls for an extension of prekindergarten services to 4-year-olds from families with maximum incomes of 300 percent of the poverty line, a move the O’Malley administration has said it hopes will help about 1,600 more Maryland children access a pre-K education.

“There is a difference between a child who starts kindergarten with a 3,000-word vocabulary and an 8,000-word vocabulary,” Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown told the House Ways and Means and the Senate Budget and Taxation committees. “And that difference is pre-K.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has put aside $4.3 million in the 2015 budget for the establishment of a competitive grant program that would award funding to public and private prekindergarten programs that meet state standards. The idea, panelists said last week, would be to establish a geographically diverse system of pilot programs across the state.

“Early childhood education is a good investment,” said Brown.

Two of Brown’s opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), have also proposed plans to expand the state’s pre-K program.

For Jewish preschools, the reaction to the bill is “disappointed but hopeful,” said Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director for the Orthodox Union, who testified in support of the bill.

The disappointment, she explained, stems from the fact that state funds come with strings attached. Programs awarded funding must have the right accreditation and teach to curriculum standards set by the state. The section of the community that likely would be most affected — large families with small incomes that are often the most observant — are probably the families that would be least interested in enrolling their children in a school that follows state-mandated curriculums. Even more issues arise when religious instruction enters the mix.

“The basic core for the accreditation,” said Barall, “won’t vary so much from what they currently do.”

But when Delegate Andrew Serafini (R-Washington County) asked Barall about whether she worries that state regulations will water down, and potentially even eliminate, the unique qualities that Jewish programs offer students, Barall said that is an issue the community is working through. She proposed a solution in which half of each day would follow the basic outline of any public school program and the other half, which would not be covered by state funds but rather by parents or private grants, would cover the religious aspects.

In the end, she said, there is a still a lot of unknown. But the potential good it could do for the community gives her and many others hope.

When you raise the limit to 300 percent of the poverty level, a lot of people now receiving scholarships from private preschools will meet that criteria, said Barall. “So that would relieve a burden.”

With some of the burden lifted, synagogues and JCCs could redirect funds previously allocated for scholarships to helping even more families, investing in more classroom supplies and making capital improvements.

At Beth Israel’s Joseph & Corinne Schwartz Preschool, director Rachael Schwartz said the school is in the process of getting accreditation so that, if the bill is passed, it can be in the running for state funds.

Schwartz hopes that professional and creative instructors can find a way to incorporate any state-regulated curriculum into the Jewish learning that already takes place.

“For example, I can teach patterns while teaching a Jewish holiday,” she said. “When we’re teaching a holiday such as Passover and we’re talking about the pyramids, I can bring geometry into that.”

The early years of a child’s education are critical, said Schwartz, and Beth Israel aims to employ instructors who can teach in an interdisciplinary fashion.

“I would hope that we could find a way to make both work,” she said. But, “the bottom line is, we are who we are and we are a Jewish preschool.”

The current pre-K system in Maryland serves children from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty mark — $27,142.50 for a two-person family and $41,212.50 for a family of four. Under the Prekindergarten Expansion Act, that cutoff would be raised to 300 percent of the mark — $46,530 for a single parent of one and $70,650 for a four-person family.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown: Supports raising the cutoff to 300 percent of the poverty rate in line with the Prekindergarten Expansion Act of 2014.

Del. Heather Mizeur: Proposes a four-phased plan that would eventually cover full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds regardless of income and half-day pre-K for 3-year-olds from families with incomes at or below 300 percent of the poverty line.

Attorney Gen. Doug Gansler: Calls for expanding the current half-day program to a full day for children from families at or below the 300-percent marker.

Beth Tfiloh On Top

Junior Marty Perlmutter (with ball) played an important role for the Warriors, both offensively and defensively. (Jenny Rubin)

Junior Marty Perlmutter (with ball) played an important role for the Warriors, both offensively and defensively.
(Jenny Rubin)

In this, his first season as the head coach of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School’s boys varsity basketball team, Ari Braun led his players to a 17-9 overall record, 10-4 in their conference. That was good enough to earn second place in the Class C Division of the tough Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. After making it all the way to the MIAA championship game this past weekend, the Warriors lost a heartbreaker to Indian Creek School from Crownsville, 48-45.

It was an amazing season under the guidance of the new coach. Braun, who clearly loves basketball, is an amazing teacher of the game whose journey to BT presents an interesting story.

Braun is a native of Silver Spring and a 1997 graduate of Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. After graduation, he traveled to Israel to study, first for a year at Yeshivat Yerushalayim and then for six months at Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim. After returning from Israel in 1999, he got his first taste of what coaching was all about when he served as an assistant coach at Talmudical Academy in Baltimore under coach Harold Katz.

Braun then spent six years coaching in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. He then spent spent five years as the athletic director and head
basketball coach of Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore until the school closed in 2011. In 2012 he served as the head coach of the Shoshana S. Cardin School before taking over as the boys junior varsity head coach at Beth Tfiloh. After one season he was
elevated to his current position.

The Jewish Times spoke with Braun about his first season at BT, about the players who helped him achieve some instant success and what the future holds for the Warriors.

JT: Tell us about the players who made this season such a success.
Braun: I really walked into a great situation with five players returning from last year’s team. Danny Gross is a senior and one of our captains; he’s a great guy and an extremely hard worker. He’s got good size and strength and will outwork anyone. Spencer Kronthal is our other holdover senior from last year. He has been the biggest surprise of the team because of his great improvement. Our juniors are Jordan King, Marty Perlmutter and Dani Katz. The duo of Katz and King are the two leading rebounders and scorers on the team. Perlmutter has great athleticism and speed [and] has become a great player both offensively and defensively. Our top reserves are three guards who played for us last year on the junior varsity team, Matt Kassner, Eitan Hariri, and Peleg Ovadia. They have provided us with quality players. … That bench talent has been one of the main reasons for our success.

How much help do you get coaching?
A big reason for our success this season is because of the hard work of my assistant coaches, Pinny Margolius and Eli Creeger. Coach Margolius has instituted a brand new fitness program, as well as a nutrition program, that has been a huge help to our team. He also has done an outstanding job of going over our opponents on tape and helping with practices. Coach Creeger, a BT alumnus and veteran Warrior basketball player, is in charge of our junior varsity team and also does pregame scouting. Both these young men have helped me immensely.

Do you get much support from the Beth Tfiloh student body and community?
The support of the faculty, students, parents and alumni has been amazing. I love seeing alumni come out to support us, because that hopefully let’s our kids know that they are part of something much bigger then themselves. We even have former coaches come cheer us on. Stan Lustman, who coached the last championship team, and Mel Pachino, who was an assistant to Stan as well as on last year’s team, are frequently at our games.

Who are your coaching inspirations?
I have three; two are legends and members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the third is a very close friend. Dean Smith, who was the head coach of the University of North Carolina, impressed me with his dedication to the concept of playing as a team no matter how many stars he might have. The other [legend] is Morgan Wootten, who was the head coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. I had the honor of working with him at his basketball camps. He taught me a great deal about how to work with high school kids and how to prepare them for college. Last but not least is Harold Katz, who gave me my start in the profession and has provided me with invaluable guidance at every step of my career. I have had the honor of coaching all four of his sons, including Dani, who is on this year’s team. All three of these men have a profound influence on the way I coach today.

Stevenson Student Connects with Panamanian Jewry

Congregacion Kol Shearith Israel in Costa del Este, Panama. (Provided)

Congregacion Kol Shearith Israel in Costa del Este, Panama. (Provided)

When Stevenson University senior Avi Miller decided to take a winter class on international marketing in Panama, he knew he wanted to seek out the country’s Jewish community.

Miller, who went to Krieger Schechter Day School and the Shoshana S. Cardin School, wound up having a brief but fulfilling visit to a Reform congregation just outside of Panama City.

“I’ve never had an empanada in a synagogue before,” he remarked after his return.

Miller was part of a 14-student group organized by Stevenson professor Larry Burgee that journeyed to the country as part of a 300-level international marketing class. They interacted with nine Panamanian companies and learned about the global market in a country that sees ships from 180 countries pass through the Panama Canal, said Burgee.

With the help of the class’s group leader, Miller found himself at Congregacion Kol Shearith Israel just northeast of Panama City in Costa del Este. Although he, the group leader and a classmate didn’t get there until after Friday night Shabbat services, he was still able to speak with a past president and the rabbi.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was extremely similar to what I see here in Baltimore,” he said. “I’ve always learned that you can find Jews around the world and they’ll always welcome you, and it was a neat reminder.”

Miller explored the sanctuary and was given a siddur to take home when congregants noticed he was intrigued by it containing Hebrew, English and Spanish. He’s fluent in Hebrew and English and knows a good amount of Spanish as well; the trip was his first opportunity to put his Spanish skills to the test.

Said Miller: “Seeing new places is eye-opening.”

History Lesson

Rubin Sztajer tells Boys’ Latin students and staff that surviving the Nazi concentration camps was “the greatest miracle in the world.” (Heather Norris)

Rubin Sztajer tells Boys’ Latin students and staff that surviving the Nazi concentration camps was “the greatest miracle in the world.” (Heather Norris)

Dozens of boys packed into the school theater at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland last week to listen to Holocaust survivor Rubin Sztajer’s story.

“You people are the future of this country,” Sztajer, an 88-year-old native of Poland, told the standing-room-only crowd assembled in front of him. “You go home to your parents, tell them how you feel about them, how lucky you are to have parents, grandparents, siblings.”

The Feb. 11 talk was hosted by the school’s Jewish Awareness Club in conjunction with The Louise D. & Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Teens Can Identify program. What began as 15 kids interested in hosting a Holocaust talk quickly grew to around 60, said the CJE’s Zack Pomerantz.

Sztajer began by describing the events that led up to his being taken from his family.

It was on a Friday at the start of the war, he said, when his family decided to leave Poland on foot. They walked all day until sunset, when they stopped at a field to rest and eat. The next day, they ran into a soldier who told them that they had been liberated and that they could return to their home. They believed him.

“Monday morning the Holocaust really began for us,” he said.

Torah scrolls were taken from the synagogues and burned, and new laws were enacted that restricted Sztajer’s freedom to even walk on the same sidewalk as a soldier.

In the spring of 1940, he and his family of eight were relocated to a small one-bedroom apartment in a Polish ghetto.

“At 14 I had to grow up; I had to be a man,” he said, as he described to the boys how, with no access to stores, factories, jobs or transportation, he and his brother had to smuggle food from local farms to feed their family.

“April 12, 1942 is one day I will never forget,” said Sztajer. That was the day soldiers arrived to take him to a camp. His mother fought with the soldiers to hold on to her son, but she was overpowered. It was the last time he ever saw most of his family.

“I don’t know what happened to them,” he said of the mother, father, brother and two young sisters he lost in the Holocaust. “I don’t even have a grave to go to.

“They took my family, they took my freedom,” he continued. “They even took my name.”

At the first of six camps Sztajer was sent to, he officially became No. 25685.

He told students how, for the three years and three days he spent in concentration camps, he and the other prisoners were forced to work long days in the freezing cold and oppressive heat. They were given wooden-soled shoes and spent hours on end shoveling dirt from one place to another, and given little to eat.

“How any of us survived, it’s got to be the greatest miracle in the world,” he said.

In 1944 he was moved to another camp. He and the other prisoners were forced to walk through the snow to a train stop, where they were packed so tightly into a car they could hardly move.

“If there is a hell, I’ve been there,” he said, describing how every time someone died during the three days and three nights he spent in the car, the body would be put into a pyramid with the other dead so that there was more space for the living.

When Sztajer finished his story of survival, the students were silent. Some of the staff members who had gathered to hear him speak asked Stzajer about his two remaining family members — a sister in New York and a brother in Florida, neither of whom give public talks about their experience — and his relationship with other survivors. Another person asked whether he would ever consider writing a book about his life.

No, he said. “I don’t want to make any money on six million lives.” Besides, he added, “the story is not mine, it’s theirs.”

As the boys headed out the door to go to their final class of the day, some stopping to thank him for his talk, Sztajer shouted after them, “Don’tforget your parents when you get home!”

Calif. Synagogue Ponders Legal Action Against Former Exec

The just departed executive director of Adas Israel Congregation has admitted to intentionally stealing at least $390,000, deceptive record keeping and 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 the D.C. synagogue 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 out 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,” wrote 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 Wednesday 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 Sunday, 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 out 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 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.

Should You Buy Pet Insurance?

021414_busiess_aldermanOne topic I’ve learned to avoid with new acquaintances (along with politics and religion) is where they stand on the treatment of pets. Some people when their dog gets sick or badly injured say, “It’s an animal — that’s just part of the circle of life.” Others consider Rover a close family member and would take out a second mortgage to save his life.

Pet owners from both camps probably see the barrage of ads for pet insurance and wonder whether it’s worth the expense, which might be several thousand dollars over the life of a pet. I did some research, and the best answer I can come up with is, it depends.

First, ask yourself: Do you regard pet insurance as a financial investment, where you expect to get back more in benefits than you paid out in premiums over the pet’s life? Or is it more like auto or homeowner’s insurance, where you hope nothing ever goes seriously wrong, but you want coverage in case there’s a catastrophe?

Either way, here are some basic facts about pet insurance that may help you decide whether it’s right for you.

Pet insurance shares many features with human health insurance: Policies typically have annual deductibles, copayments and exclusions, and some limit which veterinarians, clinics and hospitals you can use.

But there are numerous differences as well. For example, pet insurers are allowed to refuse coverage for pre-existing conditions and to set annual and lifetime payout limits. Among the many other restrictions you should watch for when comparing plans are:

• Premiums vary greatly depending on where you live and may increase based on your pet’s age and breed, among other factors.

• Typically, you must pay the vet or hospital bill out of pocket and get reimbursed later.

• Many plans deny or restrict coverage for congenital or hereditary conditions (such as hip dysplasia in dogs or kidney failure in cats) and preventable conditions such as periodontal disease.

• Along with annual and lifetime maximums on benefits paid out, there may be a limit on how much it will pay for treatment of an individual illness or accident.

• If your pet suffers a particular disorder one year, don’t be surprised if that condition is excluded at renewal — or if you’re required to pay an additional fee for future coverage.

• Pets over certain age limits frequently are denied coverage.

• Certain breeds are often excluded or only eligible for restricted coverage.

• Some carriers let you augment your accident and illness policy with optional “wellness care” coverage for things such as spaying and neutering, annual physicals, vaccines and routine tests. Make sure the additional premium is worth the extra cost.

There are about a dozen carriers in the United States; each offers a variety of plans with varying deductibles, copayments and maximum coverage amounts, as well as different covered benefits and exclusions.

You can go directly to their websites for plan details and to request a quote or use an independent comparison website to pull quotes from multiple carriers. I would recommend creating a spreadsheet to compare benefits and costs side by side, just as you would when shopping for auto insurance.

Bottom line: If you decide pet insurance isn’t right for you, at least be sure you’re setting money aside to cover expected — and unexpected expenses.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. To participate in a free online financial literacy and education summit on April 2, go to