Community Weathers Storm

(Melissa Gerr)

(Melissa Gerr)

Like so many communities across the country, Baltimore is still reeling from the effects of the most recent storm to hit the East Coast. While some were merely inconvenienced, others suffered the loss of heat and hot water, downed trees and childcare problems caused by school closings and late openings.

According to David Buck, spokes-man for the Maryland State Highway Administration, last week’s weather event marked the 27th time since early December the SHA activated its operations center.

“It’s been almost every three days since Dec. 1,” said Buck. “All our crews do is prepare for storms, fight the storms and clean up after the storms. It’s been hard for crew members to get more than five hours of continuous sleep.”

Buck said that in the last five years, the SHA has spent about $70 million annually for winter operations in Maryland. So far this year, he said, it has already spent $80 million. The budget allotment for this winter, meanwhile, stands at only $46 million. Buck said the budget will be raised by $5 million per year until it reaches a dollar amount closer to what is actually being spent.

“We spend as much as we need to get the job done,” he stated.

Ilene Dackman-Alon of Pikesville said her family’s troubles began Thursday morning when they lost cable and Internet service. By that afternoon, they had lost all power. Her husband, Shay, who works from home and needed Wi-Fi, spent the day at a Panera restaurant in Pikesville. Dackman-Alon and their daughter, Rose, joined him for dinner. “We stayed there until 9 p.m. when they kicked us out. Then we went home and hunkered down with lots of blankets,” she said. “I was wearing three sweatshirts.”

At one point, Shay Alon was so desperate for a warm drink, he took the coffee pot outside and heated water on the grill. All told, the Alons were without power until Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.

“We just stayed in bed until the heat came back on,” said Dackman-Alon.

In Reisterstown, Jessica Normington and her family were also among the many Baltimoreans who were without power. Normington said they lost power on Wednesday morning.

“We couldn’t find any flashlights,” she noted. “Since the kids were off and my husband, Scott, works from home, they just stayed in the house with a fire in the fireplace. I went to work.”

After she returned home, still without power, the family headed to the JCC in Owings Mills, where they stayed until bedtime. Then they went to her parents’ house to sleep. For the next two nights, the family, including their dog and guinea pig, would spend much of their time between those two places.

The JCC was a haven for many families during the mass power outages, said its marketing director, Robin Rose-Samuels. “We had power because we have a generator on-site. We have the generator because we are a designated emergency shelter for the state of Maryland.”

In addition to providing members with a comfortable place to weather the storm, the JCC also welcomed nonmembers who needed a place to shower.

Normington said that her children, ages 3 and 7, enjoyed the adventure brought by the storm, but as far as she was concerned it was “a pain in the neck.” Yet, she noted that they have been lucky in the past.

“In the five years we have lived in our house, we’ve never lost power for more than a couple of hours at a time,” said Normington. “During the derecho [in July 2012], we were probably the only street that had power. I felt like it was kind of our turn.”

sellin@jewishtimes.com

20 Years of Hope

Hopewell Cancer Support members participate in a yoga nidra class.

Hopewell Cancer Support members participate in a yoga nidra class.
(David Stuck)

When her husband, Ed, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2006, Elise Ziv knew her family needed more than medical attention to cope with the crisis. Fortunately, someone told her about Hopewell Cancer Support. Ed and Elise Ziv and their two boys, Caleb and Coby, then 5 and 7 years old, all received free services from licensed professionals there and, above all, found a community of people who understood what they were up against.

“My husband joined a brain tumor support group, and that helped him to realize he wasn’t the only one going through the illness,” said Ziv, 48. “I joined another group for caregivers of people with cancer. That gave me a place to talk about what I was feeling. I wanted to protect my husband from that.

“The boys went to the Kids Circle,” she continued, “which they loved immediately.”

After her husband passed away in 2011 at the age of 48, the Zivs continued to find comfort at Hopewell. Caleb and Cory attended a grief support group for children, where they were able to share their feelings with other youngsters dealing with the loss of a parent from cancer.

“The facilitators were great,” said their mother. “They gave the kids the words to talk about their grief no matter what they were feeling.”

Ziv still attends a group for “only parents,” those who have lost spouses and still have kids living at home.

“We have a unique situation,” she said. “When you walk into Hopewell, you don’t have to explain yourself. Everybody knows. You can get right to the heart of what’s going on. It’s really been a lifeline for us. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

When it opened 20 years ago, Hopewell was known as the Wellness Community of Baltimore. A local affiliate of a national organization, the Wellness Community was, according to co-founder Suzanne Brace, the first of its kind on the East Coast. A decade ago, the organization split off from the Wellness Community and became Hopewell, an independent entity.

“I had cancer when I was 32 — more than half my life ago — and I was living in California at the time. I looked around for support, and there was nothing for me,” recalled Brace. After recovering, she went to graduate school, became a mental health counselor and eventually moved to Baltimore. “It was pure serendipity. I knew someone who knew I had always wanted to start a wellness community. She suggested we start one in Baltimore.”

For several years, Brace volunteered there and then became its executive director.

Hopewell, which sits on eight acres in a restored farmhouse in Lutherville, offers 125 different programs each month and serves 1,000 people a year, said Brace. In addition to the groups Ziv and her family have attended, Hopewell also offers mind/body healing classes such as yoga, qigong, Nia technique and meditation, expressive arts classes and support groups for specific types of cancer. There are also educational programs and social events.

Brace said that 40 percent of those who receive services at Hopewell are family members of someone with cancer, while 60 percent are people diagnosed with the illness. All of the services are free, and all funding is raised through philanthropy. Hopewell has an annual budget of $1 million.

One of the chief differences between Hopewell and other cancer organizations is that it isn’t a medical setting, said Brace. “We set a tone that says there’s another part of you besides your body that we value. We believe if your mind, soul and spirit can be nurtured you’ll be in a better position to deal with anything that arises.”

Ziv echoed Brace’s sentiments: “People dealing with cancer see too many hospitals. One thing I like about Hopewell is it is so anti-institutional. The minute you drive up to the house there’s this transformation that happens. There’s a feeling of warmth and home and peace. Sometimes I just like to go there and walk around the grounds.”

Brace said that there are no rules or expectations with regard to attendance at Hopewell.

“Some people come once a week; some people come three times a week. Some people don’t come until 10 years after they’re diagnosed,” she said. “There are no limits on how much they attend. It depends on what they need. We meet you on your path and help you through your journey. That’s our philosophy.”

Despite the free services Hopewell provides, Brace realizes that people may be hesitant to reach out for help.

“A lot of people don’t come because they think we will be depressing. But then they walk in and feel right at home,” she said. “The fact is, we see much more laughter than tears. We’re just about the friendliest place in town.”

John Miller discovered Hopewell when he was diagnosed with melanoma 12 years ago. Before Hopewell moved to its current location, the organization rented space in the building where Miller worked.

“I used to see people coming and going with yoga mats and [meditation] pillows. I figured they weren’t going to see their accountant,” the 48-year-old Owings Mill native remarked. “When I got my diagnosis, I strolled upstairs and without knowing what it was, I met the staff and Suzanne Brace. We chatted for a long time about the organization, and I really took to it. I thought, ‘This is a special place.’ So I started fundraising, and they asked me to join the board.”

When his friend, Jim Wolf of Pikesville, was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, Miller reached out and encouraged him to get involved with Hopewell too. For the past eight years, the two, both avid music lovers, have been chairing Hopewell’s annual fundraiser, Concert for Hope, together.

“We have a lot of friends who play in bands for fun, so they performed; we sold tickets and had an auction,” Miller said. “The last couple of years, the event has grown and we decided to expand.

“In 2013, we paid for talent for the first time,” he added. “This year, we’re having [local rock band] The Bridge headlining. It’s even more special to Jim and me since we’ve been seeing them for years; they’re sort of friends, they’re talented and have a nice local following.”

This year’s concert will take place on Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage. In addition to The Bridge, the concert will also feature the music of the Hippy Sheiks.

“It’s really geared to music lovers,” said Miller, “and it’s a way to go out for a casual night and support local musicians and a great cause.”

For additional information and to purchase tickets to the Concert for Hope, go to hopewellcancersupport.org/Events.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Friendly fire kills Israeli officer

An Israeli army officer commanding a unit during an operation near the Gaza security fence was killed by friendly fire.

According to a preliminary investigation, the officer, identified as Capt. Tal Nachman, 21, of Nes Tziona, was shot and killed early Tuesday morning by a soldier from another unit operating in the area, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The unit of the shooter was relatively new to the area. The soldier did not have instructions to open fire, according to Haaretz.

— JTA

Dead Sea Scrolls website upgraded

The Israel Antiquities Authority has launched a newly upgraded version of its Dead Sea Scrolls digital library that includes more than 10,000 new photos of the famous ancient biblical texts.

Visitors to the deadseascrolls.org.il website will soon be able to view and explore the images, which the IAA classified as of “unprecedented quality.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are hailed as one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century. Since the scrolls went digital last year, more than a half-million people have visited the website, the IAA said. The upgraded website now features content available in Russian and German as well as a faster search engine, additional manuscript descriptions and social media links.

“The website also offers accompanying explanations pertaining to a variety of manuscripts such as the Book of Exodus written in paleo-Hebrew script, the Books of Samuel, the Temple Scroll, Songs of Shabbat Sacrifice and New Jerusalem,” the IAA said.

 — JNS.org

Chief Palestinian negotiator: We were in Israel before the Jews

The Palestinians cannot accept Israel as a Jewish state because they lived in the region long before the Jews, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said last weekend, Israel Hayom reported.

Speaking with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the Munich Security Conference, Erekat rejected the Israeli request that the Palestinians recognize it as the Jewish homeland.

“When you say, ‘Accept Israel as a Jewish state,’ you are asking me to change my narrative,” he said.

Erekat justified his claim by saying his ancestors were the real descendants of the Canaanites and lived in the area for “5,500 years before Joshua Bin-Nun came and burned my hometown, Jericho.”

JNS.org

Portugal’s oldest synagogue to become a museum

A Portuguese municipality launched a restoration project of the country’s oldest intact synagogue.

A Feb. 3 ceremony kicking off the restoration of the Sabar Hassamain synagogue on the island of Sao Miguel was conducted by Jose Manuel Bolieiro, the mayor of Ponta Delgada. Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores archipelago, a region of Portugal located 900 miles west of Lisbon on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

The restoration of the synagogue, founded in the early 19th century, will cost approximately $290,000 and be completed in eight months, RTP television reported. European Union bodies devoted to the preservation of historical monuments will provide the funding.

At the end of the restoration, the synagogue will become a museum.
— JTA

Jordanian Goals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90.)

The U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations have yet to yield any tangible results. Serious disagreements remain over key issues such as borders, refugees, security and the status of Jerusalem. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to Jordan’s King Abdullah II to discuss these issues. While Jordan officially supports a two-state solution, Jordan’s leaders have also quietly expressed serious concerns over the parameters of a
future Palestinian state.

Does Jordan truly want an independent Palestinian state?

“The Jordanians want a solution that doesn’t undermine the domestic stability of the Hashemite kingdom, [one that] creates a relatively secure border and protects their interests in Jerusalem,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast adviser and negotiator who now serves as a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank. “The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations touch upon their national security.”

One of the major issues to arise in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been the status of the Jordan Valley, a narrow rift valley between the Judean Mountains and the Jordan River that forms the border with Jordan. Both Israel and Jordan are deeply concerned that the West Bank could turn into a haven for terrorists, like the Gaza Strip did after an Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

Thus far, Israel has made it clear that it wants to hold on to the Jordan Valley and to maintain the current Jewish communities there as well.

“I do not intend to evacuate any settlements or uproot a single Israeli,” Netanyahu recently said in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Davos, Switzerland.

In the meeting between Netanyahu and Abdullah, the Israeli premier briefed the Jordanian leader on the “recent developments in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” and emphasized that Israel “places a premium on security arrangements, including Jordan’s interests, in any future agreement,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

According to Israeli media reports, Jordan is in favor of some type of Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

“They are desperately concerned about a Gaza-like situation on their border,” said Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Presumably that is why they wouldn’t mind some type of Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, but that doesn’t mean they think that Israel should annex the Jordan Valley.”

An official at the American Embassy in Jordan said there are “no grounds” to reports suggesting that Jordan favors Israeli control of the Jordan Valley.

“Because of the secretive nature of these talks, there has been a lot of false and exaggerated information in the media,” said Dana Daoud, an official at the Embassy of Jordan in Washington.

According to Daoud, Jordan’s position has remained the same throughout the negotiations.

“Our position hasn’t changed. We believe that the only way to a comprehensive peace is through a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as the capital of a fully independent Palestinian state,” said Daoud.

Nevertheless, the Jordanians and the Palestinians have a unique and intertwined history that dates back nearly a century, creating a complicated relationship between the two sides.

Originally, in its infancy the area known as modern Jordan was part of the original British mandate of Palestine. In 1922, the British partitioned the mandate, setting aside all the land east of the Jordan River to become an Arab state. But Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom still believed that areas west of the Jordan River, especially Jerusalem, should be under its control. As such, during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Jordanian forces occupied what is known today as the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, controlling it until 1967 and granting citizenship to many of the Palestinian Arabs living there.

When Israel took control of these areas as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, Jordan’s King Hussein still laid claim to the region and control over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Further complicating matters, many Palestinians fled to Jordan in 1967; when combined with their 1948 influx into the country, Palestinians now constitute a majority of Jordan’s population.

“On the Jordanian side, there is an understanding of the intimate relations between the Jordanians and Palestinians and the historical connections between the two sides of the river,” said Susser.

Yet, Jordan’s original inhabitants, Bedouin tribes living there before 1948, view the Palestinian situation as a difficult problem that has plagued the country for decades.

Known as East Bankers, these tribes control many of Jordan’s important state institutions, including the military and domestic security forces and therefore have considerable influence on King Abdullah. These native Jordanians have long opposed the presence of Jordan’s Palestinians, often treating them as second-class citizens.

“Jordan thinks that if there is no real settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, there will be another conflict between them in which Israel would crush the Palestinians,” explained Susser. “Then Jordan will be faced with another few hundred thousand refugees. That’s the last thing they want.” For Jordan, other core issues, such as Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, are also extremely important.

“The problem is there is a nationalist trend in Jordan that is rather anti-Palestinian and very adamant on the right of return of Palestinians. Not because they are devoted to the Palestinian cause, but [because] they want the Palestinians in Jordan, as many as possible, to leave,” said Susser.

On Jerusalem, Israel has vowed to never again divide the city, as it was between 1948 and 1967. Jordan, on the other hand, supports the Palestinians’ proposal of having their capital in eastern Jerusalem.

Modern Jordan has taken steps to separate itself from the situation to its east. In 1988, Jordan’s late King Hussein formally renounced ties to the West Bank and endorsed Palestinian statehood there. In 1994, Jordan also signed a peace treaty with Israel, paving the way for recognition and cooperation.

As such, modern Jordan prefers a more passive role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“I think Jordan is a significant player and remains a big player in the broader regional framework,” said Miller. “But it just does not have the street credibility or influence to adopt independent positions on the Palestinian issue or to pressure the Palestinians to accept positions they don’t want.”

Talking About the State of the Union

President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Moments after President Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address last week, members of Congress were already picking apart the speech.

Some, such as Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve King, thought the president was less antagonistic to congressional Republicans than in previous speeches.

But “he could have pulled all of the Obamacare out of the speech,” the Iowa Republican said. “Then I think I could have sat there relaxed.”

King called the speech predictable and said that since the president spent a large part of his address extolling the Affordable Care Act, the GOP should continue to focus on its repeal.

Obama told the joint session of Congress that while he wanted to work with Republicans, he would use executive orders to get around gridlock.

“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” said Obama. “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. … When our differences shut down or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the president’s approach.

“I thought the speech was resolute,” she told Washington Jewish Week. “I thought it was visionary. I thought it was clear and that it really struck the right balance between reaching out his hand to the Republicans and very clearly telling them, ‘Look, a time for intransigence and obstructionism is over.’”

Compared with employment and the economy, the president spent little time on foreign policy. He said that his administration’s diplomacy has succeeded in launching an international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and initiating the Joint Plan of Action with Iran to roll back the threat of its developing a nuclear weapons program.

He tried to put to rest the distrust among Americans about whether Iran intends to be forthcoming about its nuclear ambitions. He said that trust will not be an element of any long-term agreement with Iran.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) did not share the president’s optimism, telling WJW that the testimony she heard from Iran experts earlier in the day did not paint the same picture.

“They said: ‘You know, we can call it a success if that makes us feel better, but it is not. It’s a very weak deal,’ “stated Ros-Lehtinen. “It’s a very low standard.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was also critical of the interim agreement with Iran.

“It was wishful thinking at best, and it’s a rotten agreement at worst,” he said. “We are giving up what we are doing right now, and they are giving up not doing something in the future. In other words, they aren’t giving up anything, and we’re giving up something.”

Applause in the chamber predictably followed party lines. Yet, when president Obama said that he would veto the Menendez-Kirk bill — which calls for new sanctions on Iran after the JPA expires — there was little applause from either side of the aisle.

Asked about the president’s position against Menendez-Kirk, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, said that even though he supports the president’s efforts at diplomacy, he still maintains that the Menendez-Kirk bill will not stand in the way of diplomacy as the administration has suggested.

“My conviction is that the sanctions bill expresses the view that tougher sanctions will be needed if the talks fail and that a vote is unnecessary as long as the progress in the negotiations is meaningful and visible,” explained Blumenthal. “We can delay a vote until the negotiations no longer are producing visible and meaningful progress, and I think the president should view us as strengthening his hand rather than detracting from his effort.”

By far the shortest part of the president’s speech was the single sentence on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there, to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” said Obama.

The significance of the president’s use of the phrase “Jewish state” was not lost on lawmakers. With Israel demanding that a future Palestinian state recognize it as a Jewish state, the term signaled to Israel’s many supporters in Congress that the president saw eye to eye with them, said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

“I think it’s the substance that matters, and he was very clear in terms of his determination to achieve peace,” said Levin. “But with Israel’s security absolutely essential, you don’t have to make a long speech to be clear where you stand.”

Rohrabacher, who during a visit to Israel met with that country’s security personnel, was unconvinced.

“We met with a Palestinian negotiator and our conversation confirmed for us that the Palestinians are not serious about reaching an agreement, because they are unwilling to commit to an agreement with Israel that does not include their right to return millions of people to the pre-1967 borders,” said Rohrabacher. “Unless they can do that, they are not serious, and that would destroy Israel.”

Levin wouldn’t say what he thought the chances for the success of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were but expressed optimism that both sides were at least trying.

“That’s exactly what should happen,” said Levin. “Because someday, the issues will be worked out, and Israel’s security will be absolutely sustained.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Senate Boosts Efforts to Keep Iraqi Jewish Archive Out of Iraq

 A Passover haggadah from 1902 recovered from the Mukhabarat,  Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A Passover haggadah from 1902 recovered from the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Efforts to keep a significant collection of artifacts seized from Iraq’s Jewish community by Saddam Hussein from being returned to the Gulf nation by the United States may be picking up steam on Capitol Hill.

With just months to go before a June deadline mandates the return of the religious archive, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are shepherding a resolution that asks the State Department to renegotiate an earlier agreement reached with the Iraqi government.

It was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and sent to the full Senate for a vote.

“These priceless artifacts were stolen by the former government of Iraq,” Toomey, who introduced the bill on the Senate floor Jan. 16, said in a statement. “We should not ship the collection back to a country where their owners no longer reside.”

Comprising community records, Jewish books and sacred items belonging to the Baghdadi Jewish community, the archive was discovered on May 6, 2003, when the U.S. Army’s Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha raided the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police. The building’s basement was flooded with around four feet of water, damaging many of the artifacts and kicking off a decade-long process by U.S. authorities to salvage and restore whatever they could. The effort cost U.S. taxpayers $3 million.

Keen to avoid appearing like the U.S. was looting Iraqi heritage, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration quickly signed an agreement with the Coalition Provisional Authority administering Iraq at the time to return the collection.

Sen. Res. 333 currently has 17 co-sponsors from both parties. Along with Blumenthal, Schumer and Toomey, the original backers include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The legislative effort comes after years of outcry from the organized Jewish community in general and from Jews of Iraqi descent in particular. Lobbying campaigns were run by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union and others.

“While the Hussein regime is no longer in power, these restored works documenting the Iraqi Jewish community rightfully belong to that community now living in diaspora around the world, not the oppressive country from which they fled,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the OU, said last week. “The Orthodox Union thanks Sens. Toomey and Blumenthal for their leadership and urges the Senate to pass this resolution in a timely manner.”

Those concerned with where the collection ends up are worried about whether they can trust the Iraqi government to properly care for the items — many of them fragile and historically significant. Many fear that the original items will become inaccessible to the Jewish community.

Another argument is moral: Should the State Department return items to Iraq that were forcibly seized from fleeing Iraqi Jews or return them to their owners?

The resolution asks the State Department to reaffirm its “commitment to cultural property under international law” and its “commitment to ensuring justice for victims of ethnic and religious persecution.”

The long history of Jews in Iraq dates to 720 B.C.E.; according to estimates, as recently as 1940, Jews made up as much as a quarter of Baghdad’s population. But amid rising Islamic nationalism and anti-Semitism during and after World War II, most Iraqi Jews fled the country, leaving much of their belongings behind or having them confiscated by authorities. Most of the remaining Jews left Iraq when the Ba’athist regime’s power and influence rose in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Today, almost all Iraqi Jews and their descendants live in the United States or Israel, and according to a State Department analysis in 2011, there are fewer than 10 Jews remaining in Baghdad.

Although a similar resolution has not yet been introduced in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) signaled the possibility that something would make it to the floor, although he believes a stronger stance than that in the Senate resolution is required.

“All these are very nice sentiments, but we shouldn’t negotiate with” the Iraqi government, Nadler told the Washington Jewish Week. “We should just negotiate with the descendants of the Iraqi Jewish community and see what they want to do with it. It’s their property.”

According to Nadler, the CPA was essentially the agent of the United States, meaning that Washington essentially negotiated with itself; there is no agreement, therefore, with Iraq’s current government to break.

“Why should we negotiate with the government of Iraq at all?” asked Nadler. “I don’t see that they have any business in this.”

“The CPA was the U.S. administering Iraq,” he continued. “It was headed by Paul Bremer, [who was] appointed by the president. Would we have negotiated with the West German government — Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt 20 years later — about the recovered Nazi loot that they stole from France, Russia or from the Jewish community? You return it to its owners if you can still identify them.”

Last November, Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., told the Jewish Daily Forward that Iraq was committed to keeping the archive and that it should be viewed as a sign of a new, free Iraq welcoming all people.

“We appreciate where they are coming from, but you also have to appreciate this was an agreement, a legal agreement, agreed with the [CPA] back in 2003 and it’s owned by the Iraqi government,” stated Faily, who at the same time did not reject the possibility of negotiating another long-term loan.

Neither Faily nor the Iraqi Embassy responded to repeated requests for comment on more recent developments.

A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that while the U.S. was committed to fulfill its 2003 obligations, ongoing discussions between Washington and Baghdad are focused on finding “a creative approach to access and sharing of these documents and materials.”

With Tuesday’s committee passage of the resolution, Toomey’s office expected a full vote by the Senate in short order. Toomey aims to have it passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, the National Archives has organized 24 pieces from the collection into an exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” which is on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City until May 8. The same exhibit was displayed at the National Archives in Washington from Oct. 11 to Jan. 5.

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

Czech Torahs Recovered After Holocaust to Reunite

Paula Farbman holds a Torah from the Czech town Divisov that she and her late husband, Leonard, acquired for Temple Oheb Shalom. The scroll is one of 1,564 from Czechoslovakia recovered after the Holocaust. (Marc Shapiro)

Paula Farbman holds a Torah from the Czech town Divisov that she and her late husband, Leonard, acquired for Temple Oheb Shalom. The scroll is one of 1,564 from Czechoslovakia recovered after the Holocaust. (Marc Shapiro)

On Thursday, Feb. 6, Paula Farbman boarded a plane to London with a treasure sitting on her lap. Inside a zipped clothing travel bag and encased in bubble wrap was a Torah scroll that dated to the 1700s and was used in a small Czech town that was decimated by the Holocaust.

The scroll is one of 1,564 Torahs that make up the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is based at the Westminster Synagogue in London. On Sunday, the trust will commemorate its 50th anniversary in a celebration that will reunite many of these scrolls, which have been loaned to congregations around the world.

“Even though the Nazis tried to destroy the Jewish people, they failed, and this is a living testament to the vitality and vibrancy of the Jewish people,” said Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Fink, whose painted portrait features the Torah in the background.

While synagogues throughout industrial and commercial towns in the Sudetenland — the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia — were mostly destroyed, others in the country, including in Prague, were not. After mass deportations removed most of the Czech Jewish population by early 1943, those remaining, which included half-Jews and those from mixed marriages, were tasked with liquidating Jewish property in those towns. The scrolls and many other artifacts were sent to Prague, and the remaining Jews were eventually deported in 1943 and 1944. Few survived.

Many of the synagogue’s scrolls wound up at the Michle Synagogue in Prague and were stored in damp conditions. An American art dealer, Eric Estorick, who was living in London and traveled to Prague frequently in the early 1960s, saw the scrolls and was upset by their condition. He contacted a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue, and a congregant named Ralph Yablon later bought the scrolls for the equivalent of $30,000. The scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue on Feb. 7, 1964.

The trust was established to refurbish the Torahs and loan them to congregations throughout the world. More than 1,000 scrolls were loaned to American congregations, with Baltimore City being home to at least 10 scrolls at one point.

Farbman and her late husband, Leonard, acquired one of the Torahs for Oheb Shalom in 1990.

“We were fortunate enough not to have to live through those times in those places, but I had many of my relatives die,” said Farbman. “It’s just the fact that this was available, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

According to a letter written to Oheb Shalom in 1988 by the late Frank Steiner, a Holocaust survivor who lived in Florida and helped original trust chair Ruth Shaffer, Farbman’s Torah is from a small community named Divisov, which is located in the Czech province of Bohemia about 32 miles southwest of Prague. According to the letter, Jews lived in Divisov before 1685. The Jewish community established a cemetery in 1776, and it had a synagogue with a religious school and a mikvah. After 1893, the congregation could no longer afford a rabbi and joined the Jewish community in the nearby city of Benesov; it only used the Divisov building on High Holy Days. At the time of the writing, the building was a barber shop, Steiner wrote.

Farbman, whose grandchildren comprise the fifth generation of Oheb Shalom membership, is flying to London with her four children and their spouses. She said neighbors and friends have been moved to tears upon hearing the story.

“This is such a wonderful thing; everyone I’ve spoken to, their eyes fill up,” she said, noting that a non-Jewish neighbor cried when Farbman explained to her the Torah’s significance.

Fink said Oheb Shalom uses the Torah on Erev Yom Kippur, and one of Farbman’s sons holds the Torah at the service.

Rabbi emeritus Donald Berlin was at the congregation when the Torah was acquired. He was familiar with the Czech scrolls since he was rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke, Va., in the 1960s, when it acquired one of the Torahs.

“This is a way of maintaining an aliveness of both Torah and Judaism and of those people [from Divisov] all at once,” he said.

Baltimore’s connection to Jews from Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia goes deeper than these scrolls, said Berlin. As a thriving entry port to the United States for German Jews in the 1800s and then again for Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s, Baltimore had a large German-Jewish community.

“Oheb Shalom was one of the congregations where many of them identified,” explained Berlin. “But almost all of the people had relatives that were murdered in the war.”

Oheb Shalom even had its own survival story: Two sisters were reunited when one came to Baltimore after surviving the Holocaust, joining her sister who fled before the war.

These connections are exactly what the Memorial Scrolls Trust hopes to foster. With the scrolls distributed around the world, those from the trust want them to be recognized for the treasures that they are.

“Now, we’re trying to stimulate conversations to use these scrolls to tell the story of the Holocaust,” said Susan Boyer, the U.S. director of the trust. “This mission has changed, and now it’s to make that connection [within the congregations] and to not let these scrolls become forgotten survivors.”

Boyer said many congregations have made connections with the villages their scrolls are from, and she has even attended a bat mitzvah in Moravia, where a scroll was brought back to the village that it came from.

Part of Boyer’s job, a volunteer position, is to keep track of the scrolls, quite a task in recent years with a number of American congregations closing and merging with others.

“They’re very, very precious and very important, and their importance grows with each year,” she said.

Evelyn Friedlander, chair of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, said that a couple hundred scrolls have been lost.

“We’re constantly doing detective work,” she said.

Friedlander planned the commemoration, which she expects to bring more than 200 people to the Westminster Synagogue. Guests are bringing more than 40 Torahs with them.

“What’s so special about [the scrolls] is the fact that they’re alive; they’re used,” said Friedlander said. “Congregations that these Torahs came from are no more. Very few Jews survived from all of these small towns. Only scrolls are such a potent memorial to these people.”

The Czech Torah Scrolls from Nora de Angelli (Nora Anghelescu on Vimeo.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com