Coming Together

The Ahmadi mosque at the Slade Mansion on Park Heights Avenue will open this year, says Dr. Faheem Younus, Baltimore chapter president. (David Stuck)

The Ahmadi mosque at the Slade Mansion on Park Heights Avenue will open this year, says Dr. Faheem Younus, Baltimore chapter president. (David Stuck)

Two years ago the residents of Northwest Baltimore and Pikesville learned that a mosque would be moving into their neighborhood. After years of waiting on renovations and inspections, the Ahmadi Muslim mosque finally will open its doors later this year, giving residents of the predominantly Jewish community an opportunity to interact with a population that has been largely absent from this section of Baltimore.

“We live in a complicated world,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “We need to know both about ourselves and about other people also. We need to learn about communities beyond our own.”

The Baltimore chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA will move into its new home on the corner of Park Heights and Slade avenues — across the street from Baltimore Hebrew — sometime this year, said Baltimore chapter president Dr. Faheem Younus. The group bought the former Slade Mansion a couple years ago but has been working to bring it up to code before moving into the space full time.

Younus said he has been asked a lot about what led to the chapter’s decision to move to Park Heights, a traditionally Jewish area, but the answer is much simpler than people might think. The price was right and the location was within about 20 miles of all the members’ homes. Plus, noted the physician, there was a yard large enough for a playground.

“We’re all Abrahamic cousins — Jews, Christians, Muslims. We don’t look at it as a positive or a negative,” said Younus, who works as a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, where he mentors internal medicine residents. “We all work together, we live together; we’re a pluralistic society.”

Although they have not formally left their current home on Garrison Boulevard, the reception in Park Heights has been warm, with Baltimore Hebrew offering use of its parking lot while the mosque’s own lot is expanded.

“From the top to the grassroots, whether you talk to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, to Chizuk Amuno, to average people who are coming to attend our courses, to our friends, to our colleagues, it has been very positive,” said Younus.

Busch said that Baltimore Hebrew’s brotherhood hosted a talk by the former president of the Baltimore Ahmadiyya chapter when the group first purchased the property next door, and Younus stated that he hopes the interaction between his mosque and the neighboring community grows stronger as the building’s opening approaches. Younus, who gives regular talks about Islam to community organizations and teaches a class on religion at the Community Colleges of Baltimore, said the chapter plans to host an open house for people to come and learn more about the minority Ahmadi sect when the mosque is fully operational.

Said Younus: “It’s all about coming together. We want to make sure that the door of this mosque is open to all citizens.”

Hackers hit Israeli Defense Ministry

Hackers, believed to be Palestinian, broke into a computer of the Israeli Defense Ministry in Jerusalem.

Malicious software infected the computer in Israel’s Civil Administration that monitors the movement of goods and people between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, according to Seculert, an Israeli cybersecurity firm.

The software entered in an email that reportedly looked like it had been sent from Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Seculert said last Sunday that the hackers took over 15 computers earlier this month, including one in the Defense Ministry, Reuters reported.

The attack is similar to one launched on Israeli computers more than a year ago that originated in Gaza, Reuters reported, citing Aviv Raff, chief technology officer at Seculert. This month’s attack originated from a server in the United States.

World leaders mark Holocaust Remembrance

World leaders and other dignitaries held a special ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United Nations on Monday.

“The State of Israel is the only guarantee that the future and fate of the Jewish people will be held in our own hand,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor said.

Oscar-winning Jewish American film director Steven Spielberg, who directed the famed Holocaust film “Schindler’s List,” praised the importance of hearing Holocaust survivors’ stories.

“It is a great accomplishment of our species that the testimonies [of survivors] can be heard in the high chambers of society,” said Spielberg.

In a video message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reflected on his first visit to Auschwitz last year, calling the experience unforgettable.

BJC Prepares For Advocacy Day

Rabbi Ron Shulman says “knowledgeable advocates are vital to democracy.” (Justin Tsucalas)

Rabbi Ron Shulman says “knowledgeable advocates are vital to democracy.” (Justin Tsucalas)

The Baltimore Jewish Council is gearing up for its annual Advocacy Day in Annapolis on Wed., Feb. 5.

As in past years, organizers expect about 150 community members, state legislators and executive branch officials to come together to discuss the council’s legislative priorities.

“On Advocacy Day, we enthusiastically represent the Jewish community and inform our state delegates and senators about our community’s views on pending legislation,” Rabbi Ron Shulman, president of the BJC, said via email. “Knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates are vital to democracy and the legislative process. Our Jewish heritage values this, urging us to participate in creating a just and decent society.”

Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy, said that the event draws on the participation of legislators from across the state and their staffs.

“Legislators have to hear from their constituents,” she said.

Beginning at 4:30 p.m., with a briefing for participants, the program includes more than an hour devoted to meeting with legislators and a reception.

The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year include funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice, the Maryland/Israel Development Center and the Maryland Education Credit. Policy issues of importance to the BJC include disparities in storm water management fees, the debate over raising the minimum wage and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.

Lawmakers in Annapolis said they were looking forward to the conversations.

“There may be people who can personalize [an] issue who have specific experience with the problem that prompted the legislation,” said Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (D-41).

Delegate Dana Stein (D-11) agreed.

“It’s also good to hear from residents back home about why they think an issue is particularly important,” he said. “It helps personalize the importance of the BJC’s agenda.”

In addition to having face time with their representatives, Shulman said Advocacy Day allows community members to connect their Jewish values with the legislative process.

The BJC held another event in Annapolis recently in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Community Relations of Council of Greater Washington. The luncheon featured presentations on the museum’s creation and the importance of keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive.

The luncheon featured Maryland State Police Col. Marcus Brown, who regularly takes troopers to the museum. While not part of Advocacy Day, Locklair said it supported the BJC’s work in Annapolis.

“We haven’t really done anything like that before,” she said.

O’Malley: State of our state is strong

Gov. Martin O’Malley (CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT)

Gov. Martin O’Malley (CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley gave his eighth and final State of the State address last week in Annapolis.

He used the Jan. 23 speech as a way to chronicle his two terms as governor and call on the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage, move toward universal pre-kindergarten, better protect domestic violence victims and invest in transportation infrastructure.

“I think it’s a nice coda to his major successes in many ways,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “He sets out what’s been done, and he says to America, ‘Look what I’ve done, and you know, I might be ready for the next step,’ whatever that is.”

O’Malley has hinted at a possible presidential run in 2016.

In the address, O’Malley listed accomplishments, such as the repeal of the death penalty, passage of the DREAM Act and legalization of gay marriage.

“The state of our state is strong and growing stronger by the day,” he said.

He highlighted Maryland’s job recovery, environmental triumphs, such as trees being planted on public lands, and public safety and health achievements, such as traffic death reductions.

Abramson said the O’Malley administration has been a great friend to the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish community at large.

“[O’Malley] continues a long line of governors being extremely supportive of our needs,” he said, adding that the capital budget reflects BJC’s priorities and concerns.

In his speech, O’Malley acknowledged that his administration fell short in the rollout of the state’s health-care enrollment website.

Embassy Protests Highlight Africans’ Plight

(Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)

(Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)

Infiltrators. Asylum seekers. Illegal migrants. Migrant Workers. Refugees.

The fate of the 53,000 Eritreans and Sudanese who have entered Israel illegally rest on these words. To be granted the right to live and work freely in Israel, the government must rule that those entering its borders left their homeland for fear of persecution and cannot return.

But the Eritreans and Sudanese more often than not came to Israel hoping to find work. They passed through Egypt and did not choose to seek asylum there, hurting their plea for refugee status on humanitarian grounds. And they are not Jews.

In an effort to make their voices heard throughout the world, a solidarity rally was held Jan. 22 in Israel and in front of about a dozen Israeli embassies throughout Europe and North America, including in Washington, D.C.

Over the past several years, Africans have been fleeing their homelands, hoping for a better life. To them, Israel is a democracy in a sea of autocratic states, a land where they can start over.

The Israeli government has labeled these people infiltrators, but they want to be considered asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are given a hearing and have their individual fate determined. Infiltrators into Israel are required to report to a detention center and are banned from working outside that facility.

Still, they are not sent back, and they are given an allowance, room, board and health care.

“Infiltrators imply sinister intent, like illegal aliens here,” explained Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS. “Asylum seekers want protection from the country.”

According to The Israel Project, anyone seeking asylum must request that status at the first country they arrive, which in these cases is usually Egypt. They must state that they are asking to stay for humanitarian reasons, but most of those entering Israel talk mostly of seeking work. Therefore, Israel has no legal obligation to grant them asylum.

Elinor K. Tesfamariam, an immigration attorney and one of the chief organizers of the D.C protest, said she believed Israel would be more willing to welcome these Africans if those who made it to Israel had the chance to present their facts.

“It is very disappointing. We do not expect Israel to take these kinds of measures,” said Tesfamariam, who was born in Eritrea. “Most of them are individuals who left their country because of genocide. Most of them have been trafficked. They suffered a lot before getting to Israel.”

About 15 American University students attended the D.C. protest across the street from the Israeli embassy. Despite the bitter cold, the students held their signs high and spoke of the misery among the Eritreans and Sudanese they saw while in Israel on their college’s Alternative Break Program.

“I am upset, because they can’t help where they were born. All they want is a fresh start in life, and I am upset that Israel is an immigrant state and they want to be a democratic state, and they won’t let these people in,” said one sophomore who didn’t want her name published.

“It’s a complicated situation in a complicated country,” added classmate Jes Walton of Washington.

Also attending the solidarity rally was Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.

“I feel strongly about the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who came across the border,” he said. “They shouldn’t be treated as terrorists or enemies. This is a problem for the whole region. They need a process to handle this. Israel shouldn’t walk away from it.”

While the Israeli embassy refused to comment on the actual protest held outside its building, it did release a statement concerning what it referred to as the illegal migrants issue.

Since 2006, about 64,000 people have entered Israel unlawfully, and some have since voluntarily returned to their homeland, leaving 53,600 in Israel, according to the embassy statement.

“The Population and Immigration Authority, through its RSD (Refugee Status Determination) unit, has been examining hundreds of demands for asylum,” said the statement. “All applications are given thorough treatment. The sheer numbers and the range of issues raised present a significant challenge for the economic and social services of Israel — whose population is eight million.”

Because Israel is the only developed country with a land border with Africa, people do seek to enter Israel, the embassy stated. It is difficult to work out a solution “due to Israel’s unique geostrategic situation and the current political instability surrounding its borders; it becomes practically impossible to develop regional cooperative solutions with countries of origin and transit, as done by other developed countries, such as European countries and the U.S.”

Of the 53,600 mostly male Africans in Israel, about 67 percent are from Eritrea and 25 percent came from Sudan, said Hetfield. They had been flooding the border at the rate of about 2,000 to 3,000 a month, but the flow has all but halted following Israel’s erection of a fence along its Sinai border. During the first 10 months of last year, only 36 people made it through to Israel.

“Basically, it’s down to a trickle. Israel really has gotten the problem under control,” stated Hetfield, adding that now would be a great time to re-evaluate the policy.

Hetfield said he believes Israel continues to create an unwelcome atmosphere in hopes the Africans will choose on their own to leave Israel. But according to many people at the protest, those coming into Israel cannot return to their homeland for fear of death.

Last month, the Knesset passed an amendment to its Anti-Infiltration Law that allows detention without trial for up to a year for African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally, as opposed to three years. The old law was ruled unconstitutional, as it disproportionately impinged on a person’s right to liberty, as well as being in conflict with Israel’s Basic Law regarding freedom and dignity.

Happy 100!

Sam Gertner’s 100th birthday celebration was a family affair. (Melissa Gerr)

Sam Gertner’s 100th birthday celebration was a family affair. (Melissa Gerr)

On Sunday Jan. 26, Sam Gertner — father to three, grandfather to four, great-grandfather to five, accomplished musician, voracious reader, seasoned writer and avid traveler — celebrated a century of living surrounded by family and friends. The party took place at Springhouse of Pikesville, a senior living facility on Reisterstown Road, but Gertner has come a long way in his 100 years.

In the early 1900s, Gertner’s parents, Jacob and Jenny, fled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to escape Polish pogroms. They stayed with family in Denmark, and Sam Gertner was born there in 1914. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, first to Brooklyn, N.Y., then to Baltimore, all by the time Sam Gertner was 6 years old.

Gertner grew up on Broadway near Lombard Street, playing basketball and softball with friends in the Spartan Club at the Jewish Educational Alliance on East Baltimore Street and in Patterson Park. When asked about life near Lombard, Gertner recalled with a smile street vendors, special food stands, busy storefronts and friendly neighbors.

His father, Jacob, worked as a tailor at Silverstein and Schlossberg on Greene Street. In the mid-1920s the Gertners moved to 4204 Park Heights Ave., and Sam’s father started his own tailoring business, working out of the family home.

Gertner attended Baltimore City College, “the Castle on the Hill,” and also received musical instruction at Peabody Conservatory. He played the violin, guitar, bass fiddle and saxophone. Gertner won a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison journalism school but stayed in Baltimore to take care of his ailing mother.

Like many young Jewish adults at that time, Gertner met his future spouse, Katherine Friedman, at a JEA event.

“The girls liked to dance and sing. If you saw one you thought was a bit better than the others, you’d go talk to her,” Gertner said with a laugh.

He joined the Army Air Force in 1942 and married Katherine in 1943. The couple had three children: Alan, Larry and Mark. While in the military Gertner traveled and performed with the U.S.O. across Europe and South America. He played with bandleaders such as Ted Weems, Kay Kyser, Glenn Miller and Freddy Martin. He also backed up Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore.

But Gertner’s most memorable concert was performed without a bandleader or celebrities.

“When we came home and had knocked the hell out of Germany, on that Air Force plane we played [music] … coming home,” said Gertner. “[We] were just fighters but played music on the sidelines.”

After his military service Gertner continued to play locally for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“Next to the ironing board in the basement was a stand-up piano,” said Sam’s oldest son Alan Gertner. “My grandfather would be sewing, and my father would be practicing with his band next to him.”


Sam at work at media department of Enoch Pratt Library (Provided)

The elder Gertner began working at Enoch Pratt Central Library soon after he returned from the service, staying there for about 30 years until his retirement in 1977. He read and reviewed books for the library and ran filmstrips and films in the media department. He spoke passionately about writing and, most of all, about reading so many books.

“Those are some of my favorite memories,” he said.

In retirement he continued working in the audio-visual arts, showing filmstrips and films for organizations and showcasing cartoons at children’s parties and for his grandchildren. Gertner continued to read, fervently.

At 100, he is engaged with those around him, sporting an upbeat and lively attitude. He still manages the library at Springhouse and chats with the residents and staff. If there’s one thing that frustrates him a bit, it is that about one year ago an illness made it difficult for him to read as much as he likes.

“Up until then he could read five books a week. Anytime we would go over to the house, I knew where he’d be: in one room, sitting at a table reading a book,” said daughter-in-law Ellen Gertner.

Though he grew up as an only child, at his 100th birthday party, Gertner was flanked by a great progeny of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Robin, Amy and Eric — three of the grandchildren present — have fond memories of spending Jewish holidays and Shabbat each week with their grandparents.

Gertner was a member of Agudas Achim before the family joined the Liberty Jewish Center, which became the current-day Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation.

Gertner claims one of the secrets of living to 100 is to keep learning. And judging from his continuing love for literature, he plans to keep going strong.

Watch Sam Gertner and his family celebrate his 100th birthday below!

DoD Policy Breeds Questions

The Pentagon has issued a directive that loosens restrictions for U.S. troops who wish to wear religious garments, such as head scarves, turbans and yarmulkes, with their military uniforms or to grow beards. But while the Department of Defense’s new policy should in some cases benefit Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other faiths, men and women in the military must still seek special approval from their commanders to be allowed to wear religious garments, and such requests can still be denied.

“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “Requests for accommodation of religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Constitutional lawyer Nathan Le-win said in an email that despite the loosening of the restrictions, the requirement for soldiers to seek permission from their military departments for religious clothing and beards, or the existence of “any requirement
of prior approval,” violates religious apparel statute 10 USC 774, passed by Congress in 1996.

According to retired Col. Rabbi Sanford Dresin, director of military programs for the Aleph Institute and Aleph’s ecclesiastical endorser to the Department of Defense, the loosening of the restrictions is a “terrific thing,” but it remains to be seen how the changes will be implemented.

The Department of Defense decision conjures echoes of the case of Rabbi Menachem Stern, who was sworn in as a U.S. army chaplain in 2011 following the resolution of his lawsuit against the Army. The Army had refused to amend its “no-beard” policy for several years, but finally decided it wasn’t “going to take a chance with a lawsuit because they didn’t know what the judge could do,” Lewin, who represented Stern pro bono, said at the time. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) had all advocated for Stern’s cause.

Lewin won a similar case for Rabbi Michell Geller in 1976. But in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an Orthodox rabbi represented by Lewin who was told by the Air Force he could not wear a yarmulke indoors while he was in uniform and on duty at his base.

Then came the 1996 statute under which, said Lewin, the military can only later prohibit a soldier if it deems that the religious clothing item or facial hair interferes with “the performance of the member’s military duties” or if the item is determined to be “not neat or conservative.”

Jews in Green, an independent organization representing Jews serving across the Department of Defense, applauded the new Pentagon policy.

“The new policy doesn’t make any drastic changes nor does it allow any items previously prohibited,” said Jews in Green spokesman Jason Rubin. “However, it does clarify the process for granting religious accommodation and potentially opens the door for observant Jews to serve and observe mitzvot with greater ease.”

Scarlett Johansson defends deal with SodaStream

Scarlett Johansson cites SodaStream’s commitment to the environment. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

Scarlett Johansson cites SodaStream’s commitment to the environment.
(Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

Jewish-American actress Scarlett Johansson has come under fire from human rights groups for serving as a spokeswoman for Israeli carbonated beverage company SodaStream.

Oxfam International, a human rights group that Johansson is involved with, took issue with her deal due to its opposition to “all trade from Israeli settlements.”

SodaStream has long been the target of pro-Palestinian groups for operating a factory in Ma’ale Adumim, which is across the Green Line east of Jerusalem. But SodaStream employees include many Palestinian workers, and the factory includes an on-site mosque. Also, the city is expected to be incorporated into Israel in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” Johansson said in a statement. “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”

Johannson is set to appear in Soda-Stream’s upcoming $4 million Super Bowl ad.

State of the Union: Jewish groups’ priorities

President Barack Obama will present his annual State of the Union address before Congress and the nation this evening. Like presidents before him, Obama has traditionally used this opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda – and he probably still will – but it would be difficult to do so without acknowledging the saga of last year, when the great plans he touted in that State of the Union became a series of failed policy initiatives.

One of his highest priorities, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has been plagued by errors and delays. Undoubtedly, the president will point to the success stories resulting from the legislation while reminding the public that the errors and missteps – some of which he attempted to solve through executive order – are to be expected from any monumental, but fledgling government program.

Judging from statements emanating from the White House, however, even recalcitrant Republicans might not hinder Obama, who has previously shown his willingness to use his executive authority to enact regulations without the backing of Congress; today, the office of Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that while the president will tout raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, through Congressional passage of the Harkin-Miller bill, in tonight’s speech, he will also commit himself to using “executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for those working on new federal contracts for services.”

Other Obama accomplishments in the past year that might see a little review in the State of Union include his recent reforms in accountability and transparency, both instigated by the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was putting extra scrutiny into their auditing of Tea Party and right-wing affiliated groups, and the National Security Agency was collecting information beyond what many Americans believed was acceptable.

What appears to interest the Jewish community most, however, is the president’s stance on the negotiations being facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the P5+1 conferences in Geneva aimed at reducing Iran’s nuclear capability. If the subject comes up tonight, the president will likely hail the Joint Plan of Action initiated earlier this month as a major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran – a nation that the United States had not had diplomatic relations with in 30 years. At the same time, he will urge the public to have patience and faith in the process and urge lawmakers to not support the Menendez-Kirk bill and avoid interfering with the diplomacy currently underway.

To preview the speech, the Washington Jewish Week asked numerous leaders in the Jewish community to identify what they think should be included in the president’s speech tonight. Here are their responses:

Jewish Federations urge President Obama to reiterate his commitment to ensuring Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capacity, while keeping “all options on the table.” Federations also urge the President to continue promoting the critical importance of charities in our society, speak out in support of Senate passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to advocate for assessable long-term care for older Americans and services for their care-givers.

– William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America

I think that he will definitely address the two major issues: Iran and the Kerry initiative for the two state solution.

We know that the president is committed to this effort; what I think we would like to hear is a renewed commitment to Israel, to Israel’s security, and to the idea that this conflict with the Palestinians can be settled and it could be done now, this year. And that he will back to the hilt Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and that he will personally intervene at the right moment, and that this is a time for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to show leadership and to take bold decisions for peace. But that the United States will always have Israel’s back and would never abandon that.

– Alan Elsner, vice president of communications at J Street

I would like the President Obama to clearly state that the United States and Israel are engaged in a shared and existential struggle with radical Islam and that the greatest threat facing the United States, Israel and most of Europe is a nuclear Iran.

I’d be encouraged to see him say that “yes, we’d like to see two states living in peace side by side, but it is unlikely to come about, as long as the Palestinians continue to teach their children that one day all of the land will be theirs. In order to achieve the lofty goal of peace, the Palestinians must end their incitement, which is based on an unjustifiable hatred that is unacceptable. If and when that day comes America will be ready to assist the Israelis and Palestinians in peace.”

On the topic of negotiations with Iran, I’d like to see the president assert that it is necessary to use all means to defeat a nuclear Iran, including negotiations, sanctions and the military option. I’d like to see the president say, “I have taken notice of the Iranians’ claim that the negotiations do not impede their goal of nuclear capability. I differ in that view, but if that is their view, then they have proceeded to negotiate in bad faith, and it is reasonable to prepare new sanctions, and I support such efforts.”

– Sarah Stern, president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth