War On Poverty

President Lyndon Johnson, architect of America’s war on poverty, shakes hands with an Appalachian resident in May 1964. (Photo via Newscom)

President Lyndon Johnson, architect of America’s war on poverty, shakes hands with an Appalachian resident in May 1964. (Photo via Newscom)

A half-century after President Lyndon B. Johnson formally declared a nationwide war on poverty, the subject remains divisive in politics, perplexing for social advocates and a daily reality for many.

As a nation, we are neither winning nor losing the war, said Adam Schneider, a social worker at Heath Care for the Homeless and chair of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor. Rather, “we aren’t really fighting the fight.”

In the United States, where the median household income is $53,046, 14.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Maryland, where the $72,999 median household income is the highest in the nation, only 9.4 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, but in Baltimore City that number shoots to 23.4 percent.

In 2013, the federal poverty line for one person was $11,490 and for two people $15,510. For each additional family member, the poverty line added $4,020.

The majority of those living in poverty are women, according to 2012 Census data, and almost 23 percent of American children live in poverty. In Baltimore, one in every five families lives below the poverty line.

“It’s staggering when you consider that Maryland is the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country this side of the world,” said Schneider. “It’s staggering when you consider that the stock market gained 25 to 30 percent over the course of the past year, and we have 30 percent — over 30 percent — of the children in Baltimore living in poverty. It’s astonishing.”

Exacerbating the problem, said Schneider, is the fact that income, health and education are all very intertwined. Through his work with homeless and low-income Baltimoreans, Schneider said he has seen the disparities close up. In the less than five miles between neighborhoods such as Upton, where the median household income in 2011 was $17,200, and Roland Park, where the median income was $117,972, the difference in life expectancy can be as much as 20 years.

“People growing up in very poor areas tend to have poor schools, tend to have poor economic opportunities growing up,” he said. “So much of the disparity we see in income is just magnified when you look at educational opportunities, when you look at health opportunities, when you look at opportunities for employment.”

Those at Advocates for Children and Youth, a Silver Spring-based organization, contend that students living in poverty are often behind their peers when they enter kindergarten.

“Historically, children from low-income families have less access to early education,” said David Beard, the organization’s education policy director.

While programs such as HeadStart target those families with the lowest incomes, families living just above the poverty line often don’t qualify for similar programs, limiting access to early childhood education.

In 2013, there were 379,499 students receiving free and reduced school meals in Maryland, 71,334 of whom lived in Baltimore City and 51,636 of whom lived in Baltimore County, according to the Maryland Report Card. To qualify for a reduced price, the family income must be between 130 percent and 185 percent above the federal poverty line. For free meals, the family income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

The government measures for poverty have not been updated to reflect the increased cost of living, said Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at Jewish Community Services.

“The official poverty rate doesn’t even take into account things that we consider obvious in society now,” she said. “Those tools haven’t been updated to reflect what society looks like now.”

The federal poverty rate doesn’t account for essential needs such as a telephone line or Internet access, she said. For Jewish families, the Food Supplement Program, formerly known as food stamps, does not give families enough assistance to eat kosher diets.

JCS supplements families’ food budgets so they can keep kosher and offers extra assistance for High Holiday meals as well. The organization also helps Baltimore-area families with utility bills, rent and mortgage assistance, food, school supplies and other necessities.

Outside of families with young children, Paliath said she’s seen a wave of impoverished seniors and even people in their 50s who were laid off during the Great Recession and were never able to recover.

“We thought they’d have resources available to help them in their older years, and they’re not going have it,” she said.

And while there is a focus on affordable living for seniors, Paliath said her organization and others such as CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) are discussing how to implement affordable housing across the age spectrum.

“We do something for the poorest of the poor, but there are some people out there who are really hurting, and there’s nothing really being done for them outside of what we’re doing in the private community, in the nonprofit community,” she said.

For those families living with limited resources, with an economic gap comes an educational achievement gap. And while the War on Poverty helped narrow the achievement gap and put a focus on closing gaps in funding in schools, the achievement gap still very much exists, said Beard.

What Beard and his colleagues hope to see are some alternative-schooling models that take into account complex family situations — families with parents who work the night shift, students who work and students who help take care of younger siblings. ACY is also rallying behind universal pre-kindergarten, securing proper funding at the state and federal levels and more skills-based learning for students.

In the meantime, the minimum wage, something heavily supported by social advocacy groups, has become a hot-button issue in the state of Maryland, with some counties raising their own minimums and Gov. Martin O’Malley promising that the issue will be at the top of the legislature’s 2014 agenda.

Other groups, such as the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, are advocating for reforming the way employers allow their workers to take paid sick time and assessing whether or not property managers who ask for rental applicants’ legal income, whereby they cannot include any assistance they receive from the government, can legally discriminate against low-income renters.

“I think there isn’t a silver bullet, and that’s the problem. Everyone wants this to be fixed quickly,” Beard said. “We’ve seen major gains in the last 50 years, but we’re still not there, so I think people are frustrated and want to know what really works.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com
mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

The REmida Project

[slideshow id=”REmida”]

Everything King Midas touched, so goes the myth, turned to gold. A hint of that tale can be found in the principles behind the Center for Jewish Education’s new REmida Project: Everything reused in the Remida room turns to gold, if not literally then figuratively, say the project’s coordinators. Together, 28-year education veteran and director of CJE’s early childhood services DJ Jensen and associate Monica Gwon are using an Italian-based educational philosophy to transform the way children are taught in both Jewish and secular preschools throughout Baltimore.

The project’s concept is rooted in the Reggio Emilia style of teaching, which researchers say enables preschool children to practice “emergent learning.” Instead of receiving what educators call frontal teaching, such as when a teacher holds up a picture to a room full of children and announces that “this is a duck; it goes quack, and it starts with D,” the Italian technique, contend Jensen and Gwon, who train teachers at the CJE facility in Park Heights, creates more independently thinking, problem-solving children.

This is not the “toilet-paper-rolls art project” approach, explained Jensen, who serves as liaison to directors of all Jewish preschools. Itself made of recycled materials, the Remida room at CJE is a bright, cheery space that contains thousands of objects, some identifiable with their original purpose and some not. Colorful plastic, wood, paper and metal objects, large and small, thick and thin, smooth and rough, all donated by businesses and individuals, fill the room. All kinds of castaway objects sit neatly organized and tucked into cubbies, boxes and shelves awaiting the eventual purpose to propel the imagination of a teacher into the realm of Remida. With training, teachers can in turn invoke that sense of discovery and imagination in their students.

One snowy Sunday morning, about a dozen teachers from Jewish preschools arrived for Fantastic Plastics, one of an eight-part series of Remida classes. Participants first viewed a short video of students in action at a Reggio Emilia teaching facility in Italy. They briefly explored the materials in the room and took on an assignment challenging them to think openly about the experience and relate it to how they would work through the emergent learning thought process with their students.

“I came here wanting to know how to bring alive materials in the classroom,” said Rivka Malka Rubenstein, a teacher at Ner Tamid Montessori preschool, “so that the children can be self-motivated and use everyday materials to create their own world.”

The teachers thought they were choosing materials with a specific project in mind. Jensen, though, challenged them further.

“Now what if I asked you to use your materials to represent tikkun olam or to use your materials to represent sharing or to represent welcoming a new person coming into our classroom, what might be different in your approach?” she asked. “Would it be harder? Would it be harder for a short time, until you had a mind shift?”

Her class of teachers nodded in the affirmative.

She tasked them to create something together with the mishmash of materials they had individually collected. After a very brief discussion an enormous map began to take shape on the table they shared. Representations of people, water, clouds, green areas and space ships appeared, and as they worked collaboratively, new ideas spilled out, as they shared “Eureka!” moments of what a red plastic bottle top, a computer keyboard key or a piece of textured plastic bag might represent on the map. It sounded as if the room had been injected with a shot of high-test coffee.

Jensen and Gwon prodded them about the experience while they worked, urging them to refer back to what they could bring to their students in the classroom. Jensen challenged them to allow their pre- schoolers something they are so often denied: the opportunity to represent the ideas that are in their heads. Jensen acknowledged that teachers shouldn’t wait around for students to come up with the ideas, but when they are there, to follow a child’s lead because it indicates what they are naturally curious about. Teachers can provoke ideas by offering materials that spark interest, then let students think and discover for themselves. By always telling children what something is for, you limit them based on your own competencies, said Jensen. Children benefit from exploration.

“Part of it is just saying, ‘What are the children thinking and how can I give them materials to represent what they’re thinking?” Jensen told the teachers. “What can I give them to create that? You can ask, ‘Is that all you need? What else can I give you?’ And not just give them the answers.”

As the teachers cleaned up the materials, a discussion ensued about one of the biggest challenges of all: convincing parents of the merits of the process.

Jensen and Gwon noted that if parents don’t understand the process and underestimate the value of how their children learn, they won’t accept the idea of the REmida Project and will think of it as a glorified art room. Educating parents, they explained, is a combination of helping them understand that their children are much deeper thinkers and are more competent than they imagine and that they’re being slowed down by the more rigid methods of learning things such as letters, colors and numbers at an early age. Though research exists to corroborate emergent learning teaching methods, altering the time-honored and traditional paths of learning is still a difficult task.

“And what I beg from those parents is to take a deep breath. Call me; I will walk them through (the emergent learning process),” said Jensen. “The children will learn how to read and write, but let them use those first five years to build a vocabulary, increase their experiences and to question and to problem solve and to negotiate because that’s really the stuff that our brains are made of.”

That “buy-in” might be secured most efficiently if parents trust a simple comment made by one teacher after experiencing the training: “Your kids are way more capable than you think.”

To donate materials from your business or home to the REmida Project, contact Monica Gwon at mgwon@cjebaltimore.org or 410.735.5016.

To see the REmida Project teacher participants in action and to listen to their comments, visit
jewishtimes.com or digital.jewishtimes.com.

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

The Evolution of Jewish Brotherhood

Gilbert Sandler entertains the Brotherhood breakfast at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation with one of his many delightful stories. (Melissa Gerr)

Gilbert Sandler entertains the Brotherhood breakfast at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation with one of his many delightful stories. (Melissa Gerr)

On a recent Sunday morning more than 60 people attended the Brotherhood breakfast at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (BHC) featuring storyteller and Baltimore oracle Gilbert Sandler. It was pouring rain and near freezing, but the social gathering and sounds of old and new friends catching up while sharing a meal warmed the synagogue hall.

The Brotherhood at BHC has been meeting since 1918, with origins at its Madison Avenue location. This concisely coincides with the timeline of synagogue-affiliated fraternal groups in the United States, their roots reaching back to the Eastern European emigration. Men arriving from common native homelands formed landsmanschaften, Yiddish for “countrymen organizations.” These landsmanschaften organized worship services in storefronts and homes, raised money to sponsor immigrating relatives, purchased land for cemetery plots and created free loan societies, all adding to the developing social network for each community. Initially, the concept of synagogue affiliation grew out of the fraternal order, instead of what might be assumed as the other way around. Not surprisingly, given the time period, early synagogues offered few places for women.

“In terms of the American Jewish experience in the early 20th century, there were no options for women to participate in what we would call coeducational organizations,” said Pamela Nadell, a professor and director of Jewish studies at American University.

Because it was more common for men to naturally come together in the business of a synagogue, Nadell explained, women had to be more intentional in gathering. For this reason, national sisterhood groups formed first, as early as 1913. The more social synagogue-affiliated men’s groups, most commonly found in Conservative and Reform synagogues, came afterward, likely in response to the success of women’s groups. Men’s groups appeared around 1920, with a Reform National Federation of Brotherhoods forming in 1923 and one for the Conservative movement in 1929.

“Now with the whole discourse about ‘Where have all the men gone?’ in liberal Judaism,” said Nadell, “there is a very sincere effort, especially in the Reform movement, to create unique spaces for men in their congregations.”

The number of synagogue-affiliated men’s groups in Baltimore, comprising not only Reform and Conservative congregations, but Orthodox ones as well, reflects that trend. Socially, many of the groups host their particular version of Orioles game events, brunches or breakfasts featuring a prominent speaker, Ravens tailgate get-togethers and dinner and entertainment events; most are open to members’ spouses, significant others and, sometimes, children.

In addition to social gatherings, today’s men’s groups provide a lot for their synagogues as well, such as fundraising for schools, monitoring traffic safety patrols, running Purim carnivals, catering for affiliated events, decorating the sukkah, leading Shabbat services and even ensuring there is always a minyan at a shiva service. As Joe Boccuzzi, immediate past president of the BHC Brotherhood, said: “Men like to do something. Chicken Flickers (the brotherhood’s catering group) and the ushers — this is something that men can actually do. We have an event at 9 on Sunday. So you show up.”

Greater community volunteering and outreach is a strong part of a men’s group mission statement as well. Groups raise scholarship funds and volunteer at places such as Our Daily Bread and Manna House, in addition to involvement in programs such as food and coat drives and men’s medical screenings.

“The Beth Tfiloh Brotherhood’s main purposes are fellowship, service for Beth Tfiloh — particularly giving back to the youth — and for the community at large,” said Charles Jay, president of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s brotherhood.

Though each group has its distinct personality and synagogue affiliation, there is, of course, a strong underlying Jewish commitment they all share. This is reflected in the mission statement of the recently resurrected and renamed Beth El Congregation Men’s Club, co-written by president Jack Boonshaft: “to involve Jewish men in meaningful religious service and social Jewish life while striving to embrace the welfare of Beth El Congregation by promoting Jewish values and traditions.”

Like many other Jewish organizations in Baltimore and across the country, brotherhood groups struggle to recruit new, younger members. There is some success with implemented programs such as a business-oriented speaker series, events that involve family and events that emphasize an opportunity to network with some of the experienced, connected members.

Men’s groups, though, also serve an unstated purpose, providing intangibles such as a sense of community and belonging.

“At different times in a man’s life it’s really helpful to be able to have a really deep connection to some other men to talk about the important things of what it’s like to be an adult guy in this day and age,” said Howard Reznick, LCSW-C, senior manager for prevention education at Jewish Community Services. “Like being a father, a husband, a good friend, especially when we realize at the end of the day that’s what is really important in life.”

Reznick spoke about the palpable experience when someone is really listening to you and is very present. There is a feeling created that your words resonate with the other person. If you place two stringed instruments in the same room, he offered by way of example, and pluck the C string on one of them, the other instrument’s C string vibrates.

Phil Abraham, a BHC Brotherhood member since 1970, lost two brothers in the past year. He turned to the brotherhood as a great source of comfort.

“That’s what brotherhood offers,” said Abraham. “The opportunity to be with the people in person, that’s when we develop those close relationships. … I can look at a friend of mine, just put my hand out and touch his shoulder, and we know we have that common bond, and [the] brother-hood offers that opportunity for us. … When we have something — a problem or a joy we want to share — these are the people we can talk to.

“And with the men, you know, with just a touch on the shoulder, you know they’re there,” he added. “And they’ll do whatever you need.”

“It’s a phenomenon called sym-pathetic resonance or sympathetic vibrations,” said world-class musician, composer and commercial real estate agent Gilbert Trout, a member of Shearith Israel Congregation.

Trout said that even though he and his fellow congregants pray together every day, there isn’t much conversation between them. “Doing something positive together makes a community, and I feel close to them just because of that time spent together.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

For the Love of Loehmann’s

For many longtime customers, the closing of Loehmann’s was very emotional. “I don’t know where I’ll shop now,” said Michelle Hall. “I want to lie on the floor and cry.” (David Stuck)

For many longtime customers, the closing of Loehmann’s was very emotional. “I don’t know where I’ll shop now,” said Michelle Hall. “I want to lie on the floor and cry.” (David Stuck)

On the afternoon of Jan. 9, the parking lot at Loehmann’s in Timonium was busier than usual. When the 93-year-old retail establishment announced its bankruptcy and plans to close its remaining 39 locations in 11 states by March 31, droves of the store’s faithful customers rushed to the discount designer fashion haven to grab some last-minute bargains and to pay their respects to an American — and Jewish — institution that for many shoppers represented much more than getting a great deal.

Founded by Frieda Loehmann, a fashion buyer who used her know-ledge and personal connections in the garment industry to start the store in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1921, Loehmann’s was incorporated in 1930 by her son, Charles, when he opened the company’s second location in the Bronx. The store went public after Frieda Loehmann’s death in 1962, and Charles Loehmann then began a major expansion of the business.

In its heyday, Loehmann’s owned 100 stores across the country, but the retailer had struggled financially for decades. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on two prior occasions, in 1998 and 2010.

In the later part of the 20th century, stores such as Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx and Annie Sez among others offered women opportunities to buy designer clothes at reduced prices, but according to Loehmann’s owners, SB Capital Group, LLC, Tiger Capital Group, LLC and A&G Realty Partners, their property did it first.

One feature exclusive to Loehmann’s was its “back room,” the separate area in each store that sold the more upscale fashions of high-end European and American designers. The store was also known for its communal dressing rooms, where women felt free to dispense fashion advice even if they didn’t know each other.

For Greengate resident Naomi Amsterdam, who said her age was “plenty-six,” the closing of Loehmann’s was a tremendous loss. Standing in the “back room” on that Thursday afternoon, Amsterdam called being at Loehmann’s for its closing sale a “shopping shiva.” She recounted calling her husband earlier in the day.

“I have to go to Seven Mile Market, but my car won’t drive there,” she told him. “I have to hold firmly to the steering wheel, because it wants me to drive to Loehmann’s instead.”

“This was my go-to store,” said Amsterdam. “I raised my kids in those dressing rooms. The minute I heard [the store was closing] I texted both my girls — they’re grown now — and wrote in capital letters: Loehmann’s is closing! Both of them called right back.”

For Delores Rhody of Pikesville, the store’s closing was also very emotional.

“You don’t want to see my tears. It’s very sad. It’s been a landmark,” said Rhody, who noted that she had originally shopped at the New York stores. “It’s a wonderful store. I was hoping someone would buy it. I guess two seasons of a bad economy did it in.”

Michelle Hall of Lutherville, who was “over 56” years old, declared she was “devastated and in shock. I knew they were having problems, but to lose a store like this? I have shopped at Loehmann’s in New York, New Jersey, L.A., San Francisco and Atlanta. I am a loyal, loyal customer. I don’t know where I’ll shop now. I want to lie on the floor and cry, but I’m afraid my picture will show up on Facebook.”

“Whenever there was a simcha, we would come here first,” Amsterdam said. “[Just like] when the kids had a bar and bat mitzvah or we had to go to a wedding or to the opera.”

“I guess this must be how our grandmothers felt when Hutzler’s closed,” she continued, referring to Baltimore’s bygone department store. “Loehmann’s dressed us from head to toe. It’s part of who we are as Jewish women.”

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Local Leaders Remember Sharon as Masterful Strategist

Ariel Sharon (File)

Ariel Sharon (File)

As news of the death of Ariel Sharon spread through the region, local Jewish community and political leaders reflected on the life of the former Israeli prime minister, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same communities.

Sharon, who passed away last Saturday at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv with his sons by his side, was 85 and had been in a coma since suffering a series of strokes in 2006.

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, met Sharon several times on trips to Israel. He remembered him as “brusque, quiet and tough.”

“You knew he was in the room,” said Abramson. “He was complex. He was a warrior, but at the same time he wanted peace for Israel. I think he was one of the last of the great Israeli forefathers who built the country.”

By all accounts, Sharon was known for his girth and his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname “the Bulldozer.”

Yet, that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when the president issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.

“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recalled meeting Sharon during his last visit to the United States and again when the senator was in Israel.

“He was an extremely impressive individual,” said Cardin. “What’s tragic, in addition to his long illness, is that before he became ill, he was singularly focused on moving the peace process forward. He was making a lot of changes, and we lost momentum after that.”

Tanks Around The Knesset
Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his
Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, with terror attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Unit 101, which was charged with staging retaliatory raids.

He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and 1967. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.

From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, “Arik,” has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.

“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected,” said Landau. “He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many. And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well grounded.”

As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.

In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau says that notion is incorrect.

“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements, and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” Landau said. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”

And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.

What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.

“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room, and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’” Landau said. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”

Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.

Gansler Goes On Offensive

Attorney General Doug Gansler made a final push Monday to publicly pressure Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown into testifying today at the General Assembly, when legislators will look into the possibility of emergency legislation to retroactively insure Marylanders who could not sign up due to glitches in the state’s online health-care exchange.

“In order to fix the problems we have to know how this happened,” said Gansler, a Democrat who will face Brown in a June gubernatorial primary.

Pointing to reports in yesterday’s Washington Post, Gansler criticized the state’s selection of a North Dakota-based contractor to launch the site and demanded Brown disclose how the $170 million provided to Maryland for the launch of its exchange was used.

Telling news conference attendees at his campaign headquarters in Silver Spring that he and running mate Jolene Ivey would have handled the rollout differently, Gansler said the issues he has are with the handling of the rollout, not with the Affordable Care Act policies.

Brown’s campaign quickly released a statement in response.

“Once again, Doug Gansler sounds just like a Republican attacking health-care reform,” said Justin Schall, Brown’s campaign manager. “Instead of working with the legislature and the governor’s office to offer practical solutions, he is simply trying to score cheap political points to further his own political ambition.”

As of last Friday, only 20,358 Marylanders had used the exchange to enroll in private plans.

Ariel Sharon dies at 85

Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same settlements, died Saturday. He was 85 and had been in a coma since suffering a series of strokes in 2006.

Sharon

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Sharon was known for his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname “the Bulldozer.”

Yet that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when President George W. Bush issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.

“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, now senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”

“He was commanding,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), recalling meetings with Sharon. “He had an incredible command of the room. He gave you confidence that he had a strategic plan in a diverse political climate.”

Tanks around the Knesset

Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, with terror attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Battalion 101, the unit charged with staging retaliatory raids. One such raid led to the death of innocent women and children, and the unit was disbanded.

He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and ’67. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.

From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, “Arik,” has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.

“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected. He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many. And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well-grounded.”

As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.

In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau says that notion is incorrect.

“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” Landau said. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”

And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.

What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.

“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’” Landau said. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”

Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.

Sharon took the fight beyond the 40-kilometer goal all the way to Beirut. With Israel now controlling security, a Christian Lebanese militia slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

Israelis were outraged. A commission appointed to investigate the massacre found the government indirectly responsible. Sharon was accused of gross negligence and was forced to resign.

‘Too old and too extreme’

Sharon was tainted by Sabra and Shatilla but didn’t disappear from politics. In 1999 he wrested leadership of the Likud party from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just lost the national election to Ehud Barak and the Labor Party.

“The almost universal assessment was that [Sharon] had missed any prospect of becoming prime minister,” according to Landau. “He was too old and too extreme. The Likud people said themselves that he was unelectable because he was too right wing, too pro-settlement. That in itself was part of the drama. So quickly he took over the Likud, became a credible leader of the opposition and then beat Barak in the election.”

The 2001 election came amid the Second Intifada, when Israelis were terrorized by car bombs and suicide killings. A year earlier, Sharon had taken a highly publicized tour of the Temple Mount. His appearance at the holy site was “highly provocative,” Landau said. But Sharon’s aim was not to incite the Palestinians, but a political act in opposition to Barak’s policies, the biographer said.

Nevertheless the day after Sharon’s visit, rioting broke out on the Temple Mount. The Israelis responded with live ammunition. “There was blood on the flagstones of the Temple Mount and from there the violence spread,” Landau said.

Sharon won the 2001 election and launched an offensive on the West Bank. He also began construction of a security barrier to impede Palestinian access into Israel.

Sharon distrusted Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat (“He hated Arafat,” Elliott Abrams said.) and concluded that in the absence of a Palestinian partner, Israel would act unilaterally. He determined to abandon Israel’s settlements in Gaza and withdraw Israel’s military presence from the territory.  The move was highly controversial.

“He was able to take enormous political risks,” Abrams said. “He decided it was time to settle Israel’s borders, if not for all time then for decades at least. I think he planned to do something in the West Bank – pulling settlements back to the fence line.

“It’s important to remember how embattled he was in 2004 and 2005,” Abrams continued. “He said, ‘The left can’t do anything and the right doesn’t want to do anything and if I fail no one else will do anything.’”

With the Gaza pullout, Sharon, always anathema to the left, was suddenly condemned by the right as well. More than one religious critic – including televangelist Pat Robertson in 2006 and the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community last week – attributed the stroke that befell him as divine punishment for pulling Israel out of Gaza.

“The main criticism from people on the right is that he was elected on a right-of-center platform and he never said he was going to get out of Gaza,” Abrams said. “In August 2005 they withdrew, without violence, which was extraordinary.”

In the upheaval over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon left the political party he created and formed the centrist Kadima Party, where he was joined by progressive members of the Likud party and others. On Jan. 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma. He was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.

By that time, many Israelis had had a change of heart about Sharon, Landau said.

“The night that he was struck down with a stroke, there was grieving, there was crying. To me, the remarkable feature of that evening was that among the people crying were people who, when he became prime minister, were so discomfited, they were seriously talking about leaving the country. Because they just knew that the intifada in his hands would turn into a bloodbath. It didn’t happen. But that was the assumption, taking into account the prior image of Sharon.”

Sharon largely left the headlines until last week when it was announced that his condition had become critical that his life was “definitely in danger.”

Sharon, who always said he acted in the name of Israel’s security, leaves behind a gritty legacy.

“He had a fairly grim view of the possibility of peace,” Abrams said. “You could have the absence of war. You could avoid war. But peace is another matter.”

In the eight years since his sudden departure from the scene, no one has yet proved Ariel Sharon wrong.

Police: Caleb Jacoby found safe in NYC

010913_jacoby-flyerNEW YORK (JTA)
The police department in Brookline, Mass., said JTA that 16-year-old Caleb Jacoby has been found safe in New York City.

Jacoby, an 11th-grader at the Maimonides School in suburban Boston, had been missing since midday on Jan. 6.

The case drew national attention, in part because the youth is the son of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby.

Some 200 volunteers, including friends and neighbors of the family as well as members of local Jewish groups, searched throughout the Boston area in a coordinated effort on Wednesday. The effort was spearheaded by the Maimonides School.

“Our prayers have been answered,” Jacoby said via Twitter. “We are thrilled to hear from the Brookline Police that our beloved son Caleb has been found and is safe. Words can’t express our gratitude for the extraordinary outpouring of kindness and support that we have received from so many people. All we can think of at this moment is how wonderful it will be to see Caleb again and shower him with love.”

Israel’s Opposition Leader Holds Out Safety Net

herzog_yitzhak

Isaac Herzog

Since he became head of Israel’s Labor Party in November, Isaac Herzog has positioned himself as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s safety net. If Netanyahu comes home with a peace deal with the Palestinians and his right wing bolts, Herzog will likely come to the prime minister’s aid.

And as the leader of Israel’s opposition, Herzog is in the wings to replace Netanyahu if the prime minister’s government falls.

Speaking from Israel on a conference call Thursday sponsored by Israel Policy Forum, Herzog, 53, said he met with Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent Mideast swing.

“He is finding ways of getting the parties closer,” he said of Kerry, adding in the vague terms that have surrounded exactly what the secretary is trying to achieve, “there will be an agreement or understanding in the next few weeks.”

Herzog said he wants to restore political balance that was lost by the decline of the Labor Party and the growth of the Israeli right.

“My goal is to lead a major center-left bloc, a bloc that will be an alternative to the right.” He said his bloc would include Tzipi Livni, whose party has six Knesset seats and is in Netanyahu’s coalition; the small Kadima faction; and the disaffected voters who flocked to Yair Lapid’s insurgent Yesh Atid Party in the last election.

Herzog’s predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich, had run on a platform stressing social justice, but she de-emphasized the peace process as an issue. Herzog said that not only are both part of his agenda, but they are intertwined.

“We are a social democratic party,” he said. “Social and economic issues cannot be separated from reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Social justice should not end at the roadblocks” on the West Bank.

Several times during the conference call he rejected any speculation about a Plan B should Kerry’s diplomatic effort fail to produce an agreement that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sign.

“You have to be locked into a process with no alternatives,” he said. “Not only does Netanyahu need to understand. Abbas has to understand that he can’t play around on an alternative route if he doesn’t accept the deal that’s on the table. If there’s a vacuum, there’s violence.”

On opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, he said “there’s no light between me and the prime minister. We all identify the danger of Iran.”

He noted that “almost two months have gone by” since the West and Iran signed an interim agreement on the nuclear program. The agreement, set to last six months, has yet to be implemented. “I am bothered by the procrastination of the agreement,” he said.

Purpose-Built

Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were more than two decades ago, according to research funded in 2006 by the National Science Foundation. A quarter of Americans said they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.

The cost of living has been on a general rising trend for the last decade. While wages have remained stagnant and unemployment has risen, costs have gone up.

Add to this the recent Pew Survey of American Jews report that says younger Jews are not only less connected to, but also are less interested in Jewish life. In Baltimore, a 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study showed 46 percent of Jewish Baltimoreans (80 percent of nondenominational Jews) find our communal organizations “remote and not relevant.”

One can look at these facts with trepidation, or one can face them head on, tackling a growing isolation with a plan and a challenge to create a new model. And that is what one growing group of people is doing.

“There is a growing number of people across the country who want to deepen Jewish life and Jewish community and are interested in making a profound commitment to Jewish community and who are exploring what Jewish community can look like in the 21st century,” said Nigel Savage, founder and executive director of Hazon, an organization working to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. “It is very exciting and very inspiring.”

Termed intentional communities (though that is still an insider term barely known to those living in intentional communities), the concept is a group of people living together and working cooperatively in a way that reflects their core values. Often, there is an environmental/sustainability aspect or minimally a social justice component. Intentional communities can be rural, urban or suburban, a single residence or a cluster of homes, spiritually or religiously focused or secular (see “Defining Intentionality”).

According to Laird Schaub, executive secretary of Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization he founded in 1987, there are about 100,000 Americans living in some form of intentional community. In 1990, when his organization published its first directory of intentional communities, there were a little over 300. In 2010, that directory (now online at ic.org) contained a listing of 1,055. While he is certain there is some margin of error — computers have made it easier to reach out and get directory listings — the numbers imply that intentional communities in North America have at least doubled, maybe tripled, in the last 25 years.

“What’s the volume of interest?” asked Schaub. “We get about 27,000 to 28,000 unique visits to our website every day, and they request seven pages per visit. People are looking at a lot of [our] stuff, and that is growing by about 10 percent per year. The demand is high. Interest in cooperative living is increasing, and it has been with tenure.”

While spiritual or faith-based communities used to be more popular — and they maintain a strong and consistent presence — Schaub said secular intentional communities are the fastest-growing cohort.

From Kibbutz to Shtetl … to Pearlstone?
Intentional communities are not new to the Jewish community, they just used to have a different name: kibbutzim.

“The kibbutz movement is over 100 years old. Israelis have always had this strong sense of living communally,” said Reuven Greenvald, director of community initiatives for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The earliest kibbutzim were voluntary collective communities (mainly agricultural), in which there was no private wealth and in which the collective was responsible for all the needs of its members and their families. Over the last century, the kibbutz movement has shifted and shrunk — and many of them now allow for private income — but this core concept of taking care of one another remains a fundamental principle in Israel.

In an interview for a separate article, Professor Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute said those who contributed most to the Israeli narrative and self-image were those in the second aliyah who came from Russia and were heavily influenced by the various socialist parties and movements there. She said the idea that the state should be deeply involved with the well-being of the individual is something “ingrained in Israeli society.”

Israelis pay income tax of around 40 percent.

And, according to Jewish Virtual Library, there are still some 120,500 people living in 269 kibbutzim across the Jewish state.

But community is also an inherit part of the Jewish religion and culture; there is a reason we call ourselves am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] and not da’at Yisrael [the religion of Israel].

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b), a Torah scholar is not allowed to live in a city that does not have 10 things: a beit din (law court); a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add a butcher); and a teacher of children. In other words, a Jewish community must provide for all of its members’ spiritual and physical needs.

Ten men make a Jewish minyan or quorum. Observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, celebrating holidays, giving tzedakah and following ethical business practices all are only possible in the context of community.

Intentional communities “return us to our Jewish roots,” said Baltimore intentional community activist Devorah Vidal. “In Judaism we rely on each other for prayer and learning. It simply makes sense to rely on each other for more.”

From around 1200 until the 19th century, Jews in Central and Eastern Europe lived in shtetls or towns with large Jewish populations, communities glorified in modern day through art and theater, such as “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Art Miller, another intentional community activist from Baltimore, noted that when Jews from these areas came to the United States after World War II, they gravitated to areas close by to one another, where Jews could live among each other and understand and support one another. It was only as generations became more fluent in English and better assimilated that these communities started dispersing.

Noted Savage: “Jewish life is very multidimensional, and to some extent it has been flattened and privatized by the modern world. Only when you learn and live in a Jewish com-munity do you have a sense of Jewish time and space. If we can start to develop communities around the country those places can become profound experiences in living richly and Jewishly within the wider American society.”

Three of the more than 190 Jewish community activists greet one another at the start of the  recent Jewish Intentional Communities  Conference at the Pearlstone Center. (Levi G. Gershkowitz)

Three of the more than 190 Jewish community activists greet one another at the start of the recent Jewish Intentional Communities Conference at the Pearlstone Center.
(Levi G. Gershkowitz)

That was the aim of a conference that took place in November in Reisterstown at the Pearlstone Center. More than 190 Jewish community activists came together to start a formal dialogue on this subject. Coined the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference and co-sponsored by the Pearlstone Center, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon and the Isabella Freedman Center, the conference, Savage said, was the first concrete step in Pearlstone and Hazon’s launching the Jewish Intentional Communities Initiative with the goal of creating permanent intentional communities that reflect Jewish traditions, values and rituals.

“There was a remarkable energy” for this, said Savage. “People were very excited to be there.”

Pearlstone Executive Director Jakir Manela said this was the largest attendance Pearlstone has ever had at one of its programs. A second, 2014 conference is already in the works to be hosted by Isabella Freedman, and there is talk of a third in 2015 in Israel.

The seeds for such a community in Baltimore were planted — pun intended — more than a decade ago with the founding of the Pearlstone Center. In the last five to seven years, according to conference supporter Josh Fidler of Baltimore, 10 to 20 Pearlstone staff and apprentices per year formed a transient preliminary intentional community focused on growing spiritually and sustaining the farm.

“We looked at what we had and realized this was something worth nurturing,” Fidler said.

In the last several years, Fidler has been working closely with Manela and a handful of others to work toward a Baltimore moshav or intentional community, and he said there is already a core group of funders interested in moving this forward. The intentional community would be located on or near Pearlstone and Camp Milldale. The idea, Fidler said, is that the community would buy land, build houses and create the opportunity for people to live there, rent houses or put in some equity. Those who choose to live there would have to give back to Jewish Baltimore in some way.