Seasons Kosher Market Pursuing Baltimore Property

The Fields of Pikesville building won’t be getting a kosher market anytime soon, the realtor redeveloping the building said.

Seasons, a New York-based kosher market, is instead planning to open at 401 Reisterstown Road, which was once home to Danielle’s Bluecrest Caterers.

“We feel it’s a good growth neighborhood,” said Mayer Gold, Seasons’ owner. “It’s a nice, vibrant kosher community.”

He said his company, which has been looking for a Baltimore location for about a year and a half, is under contract to purchase the Reisterstown Road building.

Baltimore County held a public parking variance hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 11. The building’s parking lot is not properly zoned, Gold said. If all goes as planned, he hopes to open in Baltimore in one year.

Carl Verstandig, president and CEO of America’s Realty, LLC, said Seasons needed almost 5,000 more square feet than the Fields building could offer.

“Logistically, we couldn’t get the space to fit,” said Verstandig, whose company is redeveloping the Fields building.

Advanced Auto parts will be opening in its stead, Verstandig said.

Seasons, a gourmet kosher market, offers takeout food, deli meats, fish, produce, a butcher, a bakery and floral arrangements, according to its website. It has four locations in New York: Lawrence, Scarsdale, Queens and Manhattan. The company will also be opening a store in Lakewood, N.J., in about 18 months, Gold said.

He likened Seasons to a kosher Whole Foods, a family-friendly, clean and upscale store with fresh food, but not “upscale prices,” he said.

Although Verstandig couldn’t work things out with Seasons, he is optimistic about the future, having recently acquired the Wells Fargo building on the corner of Reisterstown and Old Court roads for $1.45 million.

At the Wells Fargo building, he hopes to have the 14,000 vacant square feet leased to a law firm and a real estate company within the next few weeks.

At the Fields building, he expects Advanced Auto Parts to open in March and self-defense and fitness studio Masada Tactical to open the month prior, in February.

When his company’s pending deals are wrapped up, it will own 227 centers in 31 states. With the recent Pikesville acquisition, his company now owns 10 buildings within three blocks of each other in Pikesville, he said.

“That’s gives us quite a bit of confidence in Pikesville,” Verstandig said.

Now You See It

Shoshana Shamberg has helped many children suffering from Irlen Syndrome including Sivi Feinstein, 12, pictured here wearing her Irlen Method glasses. (David Stuck)

Shoshana Shamberg has helped many children suffering from Irlen Syndrome including Sivi Feinstein, 12, pictured here wearing her Irlen Method glasses. (David Stuck)

Westminster mother Anna Lipka had always sensed something was interfering with her daughter Adrianna’s academic performance. Yet, none of the professionals who tested Adrianna could find anything out of the ordinary.

“I knew she was very smart — she talked at 16 months and could memorize all the books I read to her,” Lipka said. But when she started school, it was clear to both Lipka and Adrianna’s teacher that the child was having trouble focusing and keeping up with early-reading skills and handwriting lessons.

“Adrianna was a very social, happy child, and one day when I picked her up from pre-K, she came out crying. ‘Mommy,’ she told me, ‘they kept showing me these papers [flashcards] and I couldn’t see them.”

An eye examination showed that Adrianna had 20/20 vision, and enrollment in a remedial reading program didn’t prove helpful. By the time Adrianna was in the third grade, Lipka was deeply concerned. Desperate for answers, she called a friend who was a special educator.

“She started asking me some questions about Adrianna and then said, ‘I think she might have Irlen Syndrome,’” Lipka recalled.

According to local occupational therapist and special educator Sho-shana Shamberg, difficulty with reading or opting to read in dim light, poor handwriting, difficulty copying from the blackboard, attentional problems, clumsiness, headaches and even nausea are some of the symptoms that may be caused or exacerbated by a syndrome known as scotopic sensitivity or Irlen Syndrome.

Identified in 1981 by Helen Irlen, an educational psychologist, the syndrome is believed to be a problem with the way the brain perceives visual stimuli and responds to light rather than an optical defect.

Shamberg and other proponents of the Irlen Method say people with Irlen Syndrome may find that words look blurry, may have difficulty tracking, may experience double vision and sensitivity to light (especially fluorescent light) and may bump into things or have trouble catching a ball. They believe that many children and adults who suffer from these symptoms and are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, sensory-processing disorders and autism may be helped by colored acetate overlays placed over pages of text as well as by eyeglasses or contacts with colored lenses called spectral filters (Irlen Method), which were developed by Irlen. The lenses come in 120 colors, which are available in thousands of hues. Shamberg said that of 400 clients she has tested in the past six years, she has rarely seen anyone respond to the same color combination.

Shamberg first saw the Irlen Method at work 10 years ago when she sat in on an Irlen Syndrome screening exam.

“My friend’s son had been experiencing terrible headaches at school, so she had him screened for Irlen Syndrome,” said Shamberg. “As I watched the testing, I saw him become more alert and less pained.”

Later, her friend reported that the frequency and intensity of her son’s headaches had decreased by 80 percent, and he was performing well in school. After training to become an Irlen screener, Shamberg saw even more dramatic results.

Heather Dorst of Columbia brought her son, Eli, to be assessed by Shamberg when he was 14 years old. Eli had been having trouble processing information at school, and no one had been able to detect the cause of his difficulties. While he was being tested for Irlen Syndrome, Dorst realized that she shared many of her son’s visual processing problems. This wasn’t surprising to Shamberg who said that Irlen Syndrome frequently runs in families. In her practice, she has seen three generations of sufferers.

After both Dorst and her son were tested, each began wearing Irlen glasses.

“The first thing I noticed was that before I wore the glasses I had not been seeing things three-dimensionally,” said Dorst. “They also made reading easier, and my eye strain diminished.”

Dorst said her son uses the glasses at school.

“When he doesn’t have them he gets bad headaches and has difficulty focusing. I wish we had started this earlier,” she said.

Mike and Karen Topolosky and their daughter, Ashley, are also big fans of the Irlen Method.

“It was like night and day,” said Karen Topolosky. “All of her life, Ashley (now 19 and in college) could barely read. She also had poor depth perception. Everything appeared flat, but everyone who tested her said that nothing was wrong. [The glasses are] phenomenal. We call them her magic glasses.”

When Adrianna Lipka was screened for Irlen Syndrome the results were similar.

“I remember the first time she tried them on,” said her mother. “All the trees used to droop to one side and her perceptions of near and far were off. She was always very klutzy and even read in the closet because she liked the darkness. All of these kids with Irlen Syndrome think they’re dumb, and it’s ruined their lives. I wish more people knew about it.”

Shamberg said that around 50 percent of children and adults with reading, learning or attention problems have Irlen Syndrome. While Shamberg doesn’t claim that the Irlen Method is the solution for all, she believes it is for some. And even among those who have issues that cannot be entirely solved by Irlen lenses or overlays, Shamberg said that these tools can make it easier for managing underlying or related problems.

But not everyone believes in the efficacy of the Irlen Method. Although Shamberg points to at least 54 studies that show the benefits of Irlen, some physicians, neuropsychologists and professional organizations have said there is no clear scientific evidence that Irlen Syndrome exists as a separate entity from other recognized ophthalmological diagnoses  or that the Irlen Method works.

“The bottom line is that proponents have never demonstrated the scientific validity of their claims,” said Dr. Steven Novella, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University and executive editor of the journal “Science-Based Medicine.”

Novella argued that Irlen Syndrome is not distinct from other recognized ophthalmologic disorders. When asked about the research that the Irlen Method community cites, Novella insisted that the data they present has been “cherry-picked” to support their claims.

Dr. Anna Maria Wilms Floet, a behavioral developmental pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, conferred.

“It sounds too good to be true and just doesn’t add up,” she said, citing a joint technical report by the American Pediatric Academy, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Academy of Pediatric Ophthalmologists and the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.

“Scientific evidence does not support the claims that visual training, muscle exercises, ocular pursuit-and-tracking exercises, behavioral/perceptual vision therapy, ‘training’ glasses, prisms and colored lenses and filters are effective direct or indirect treatments for learning disabilities,” the study said. “There is no valid evidence that children who participate in vision therapy are more responsive to educational instruction than children who do not participate.”

With regard to the many people who claim their Irlen glasses have been life changing, Novella said that throughout history, people have always believed in treatments not supported by real science.

“That’s the nature of human psychology. It’s the placebo effect,” said Novella.

Dr. Joseph A. Annibali, a psychiatrist at the Amen Clinic in Reston, Va., disputed the placebo theory in this case. Annibali’s daughter, Liz, has been wearing and benefiting from the lenses to control “severe and disabling” headaches for about 10 years. He noted that placebo responses usually don’t endure over time.

“At first, I was skeptical,” he admitted. “But when your kid hurts, you’re willing to try anything.”

The Annibalis had already taken Liz to other specialists, including pediatric ophthalmologists and neurologists, but she found no relief.

“The moment she got her Irlen filters, her headaches went away,” said Annibali. “It’s difficult not to become a convert.”

Wilms Floet understands that parents like the Annibalis are desperate to find help for their children, but she maintains that Irlen isn’t the answer.

“Working in the field of developmental disabilities as I do, is like the Wild West. Parents are looking for anything that might help their children. We need to educate the public and make them critical consumers,” she said.

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter

Additional Resources:

From the Organization for Autism Research, Life Journey Through Autism: A Parent’s Guide to Research,

From the Association in Science for Autism Research,

From the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine,

For more information about the Irlen Method visit To consult with Shoshana Shamberg, OTR, MS FAOTA, visit her website at


121313_javitaFor coffee drinkers in the Jewish community, a kosher coffee that advertises benefits such as weight loss and increased focus and memory has made its way to Maryland.

Javita coffee launched in 2011 with the introduction of its energy-plus-mind instant coffee. With ingredients such as South American estate-blend coffee (100 percent Arabica and Robusta), green tea, bacopa monnieri herb and gotu kola herb, the company says the coffee helps jumpstart the drinker’s brain and supports learning and memory.

In 2012, the company released its burn-plus-control instant coffee. The list of ingredients includes those commonly associated with healthy metabolic activity, such as garcinia cambogia extract and yerba mate extract combined with coffee.

Shayna Hefetz, who learned about the coffee from an uncle who lost 30 pounds in his first six weeks drinking Javita, leads a team of more than 20 distributors who sell Javita in Maryland. She said the coffee helped her lose 20 pounds in less than two months.

She began drinking the coffee in early May, and by summer, she said, clothing she wore in April and June was practically falling off.

“I had this one favorite skirt — it was a skirt I bought at the Gap when I was in 10th grade — and it’s actually got room in it,” she said. “I couldn’t button it six months ago.”

For Hefetz, Javita’s real benefit was its ability to suppress her cravings.

“I used to be a carboholic,” she said. “When I’m drinking the Javita burn-plus-control, I don’t think about carbs anymore.”

The change, she said, has been dramatic. Many of her customers are people she knows, who have seen her transformation.

“People see me and they say, ‘Wow, whatever you did, I want to do that, too,’” said Hefetz.

The biggest advantage of using Javita over any of the other alternatives available, said Darryl Anderson, vice president of marketing at Javita, is that it does not require a major lifestyle change.

“You’re already drinking coffee,” said Anderson. “Instead of changing your habits, change your coffee.”

This isn’t the first time a coffee has been promoted to have additional benefits. In 2010, the FDA issued a warning about Magic Power Coffee, an instant coffee marketed as a sexual-enhancement supplement. The agency informed consumers that the coffee contained a chemical similar to the active ingredient in Viagra that can cause extremely low blood pressure when combined with some prescription drugs.

In 2011, the FDA warned consumers against a weight-loss supplement called Lose Weight Coffee after a lab analysis found sibutramine, a controlled substance that was removed from the U.S. market in 2010 because of links to high blood pressure and increased heart rate. In a news release, the agency told consumers to “stop using this product immediately and throw it away.” On the same day, the FDA also issued a warning against Leisure 18 Slimming Coffee, another weight-loss coffee found to contain the dangerous drug.

There have been no FDA warnings about Javita.

“There’s not any one particular product that’s going to make you burn fat or magically lose weight,” said Diana Sugiuchi, a registered dietitian nutritionist and licensed nutritionist at Baltimore’s Nourish Family Nutrition.

Sugiuchi said she is often skeptical of many of the products she sees advertised as a quick fix for weight loss.

“A lot of these supplements [are] really expensive and the placebo effect is extremely powerful,” she said. “If you think that by drinking this coffee or taking this pill your appetite is going to be reduced, it probably will be.”

In place of spending a bunch of money on a magic fix, Sugiuchi recommends her clients increase their muscle mass by strength training, drinking enough water, reducing stress and getting adequate sleep.

Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter —

Taking Aim At Gun Violence

Halacha (Jewish law), just like the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, states the right for citizens to own weapons for use in self-protection and to maintain public safety.

In the case of Jewish law, however, it also mandates safe and responsible use with regard to ownership for the public good.

“Safe and responsible” are weighty factors. So much so that halacha instructs that anything owned that is considered dangerous should be properly locked, confined or guarded so the use of, or exposure to, doesn’t hurt (or even frighten) anyone not intended for harm in self-defense. Jewish law also dictates a person should not sell weapons to, or make weaponry for, those who have exhibited criminal intentions or are unstable. (In current terms, this could translate to background checks.) In fact, the lauded Torah and Bible commentator Nachmanides’ (1194-1270) interpretation of a story in Genesis (4:20-24) went so far as to state, “It is not the sword that kills, but the bad choice by a man.”

What makes it possible — or probable — for a person to make a “bad choice” with respect to gun violence? Is it the easy access to guns? Is it desperation for the basic needs of day-to-day living? Or is it simply not being equipped with the emotional and mental tools needed to select a better choice?

Politicians, professors and public health professionals have been working tirelessly to answer that question in order to combat gun violence on national and local levels.

One attempt at limiting access to guns is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that was signed 20 years ago last month, on Nov. 30, 1993. Enacted on Feb. 28, 1994, the federal mandate “requires that background checks be conducted on individuals before a firearm may be purchased from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer — unless an exception applies.”

121313_taking-aim3A glut of statistics could be referenced to prove that 20 years later, the Brady Bill has not been nearly as effective as hoped. Some of that is due to legal loopholes and powerful lobbying, and some is due to lack of accountability and greed.

More recently and on a state level, Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced one of the nation’s strictest gun laws, the Maryland Firearms Safety Act of 2013, which was enacted this past Oct. 1. It requires all handgun purchasers to complete four hours of safety training and pass a fingerprint-based background check before getting a license to buy a gun. Maryland joins five other states: Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey that also require fingerprint-based background checks.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy and Research produced data corroborating the belief that a fingerprinting method is a successful deterrent to illegal gun sales because it will decrease and prevent “straw purchases.” A straw purchase is when a person with a clean background purchases a gun for someone whose criminal background prevents him or her from legally purchasing or owning a gun.

“So if we can intervene in those sales,” said Shannon Frattaroli, associate professor and researcher at the center, “and if the laws are going to make it more difficult to buy a gun, then the cost of doing gun crimes is going to go up, and fewer people are going to be able to afford that cost.”

Frattaroli continued, “We’re realizing, though, that once a law is passed, the work isn’t done. In a lot of ways, the work really just starts. We need to make sure the systems are in place, to make sure the laws are being implemented properly and to make sure the agencies responsible are adequately trained and supported to do that work.”

According to Maryland law, an authorized gun dealer must wait seven days while conducting a background check before turning over a firearm to a potential buyer. Statewide, more than 85,000 gun-purchase license requests were submitted this year prior to the Oct. 1 enactment of the stringent Firearms Act. Gov. O’Malley pledged in September to provide enforcement agencies the resources needed to deal with the backlog in paperwork created by the thousands of requests.

The backlog has converted the required seven-day wait into months, which has led to frustration for both firearm dealers and their customers. As a result, some dealers have been releasing weapons over to people after the seven days but before the background checks are completed. As of Nov. 28, 2013 the backlog was still at 42,600, and applications being processed are from as far back as Aug. 13, 2013.

Sgt. Marc Black, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said, “All of the resources available to address the backlog and get the applications processed are being used.”

Sgt. Black also thought most dealers are cooperating and holding onto the firearms until clearance has been confirmed. Currently, there are 40 state law enforcement officers devoted to the task of completing the background checks (data entry is done by classified employees). Gun purchasers could exercise the option to cross state lines and avoid these checks altogether, or they can purchase a gun from a private seller and get around the law as well.

In Maryland, as in much of the United States, gun-sale laws and regulations are necessary and proven as effective evidence-based approaches to gun violence prevention.

But Dr. Carnell Cooper and the staff of the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore take aim at eliminating gun violence at its point of impact — in the everyday lives of gun violence offenders and victims. They address gun-related and other violent crime by asking: What are the root causes that are putting people on this path, and how can they be redirected from what they’re doing?

Cooper started VIP in 1998 after noticing a high number of violence-related trauma victims being treated once and then returning, sometimes with more serious injuries. The VIP staff connects with individuals at the “social, emotional, psychological and spiritual” point of personal crisis when they’re admitted into trauma care. There, they receive an assessment, counseling and social support by a multidisciplinary team to help them begin to make critical changes in their lives. Participation is voluntary and requires completion of a lengthy intake questionnaire by the participant.

The VIP approach is to reach victims immediately following a life-threatening or life-changing event. The interdisciplinary team that ultimately works with VIP participants comes from the medical, social work, epidemiology, parole/probation and social services fields and others, too, if deemed necessary.

The VIP is designed from evidence-based research, and other hospitals in the Baltimore area have been informally recruited to refer potential clients to the program. Data from a three-year study conducted in 2000 (published in “Journal of Trauma” Vol. 61, No. 3) shows evidence from two groups that were followed: one participating in the VIP program and one not participating. The participants in VIP demonstrated an 83 percent decrease in repeat hospitalization due to violent injury (a 36 percent savings as compared to those not getting the intervention), a 75 percent reduction in violent criminal activity and an 82 percent rate of employment at the time of follow-up (compared with 20 percent employment for those who did not get intervention).

Ganei Ha’Ela

121313_Ganei-HaEla1When Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb made aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel from Baltimore, he gave up a strong bully pulpit at Congregation Shomrei Emunah. In Israel, he said, the whole structure of community is different, and since moving, Rabbi Gottlieb has been teaching and fulfilling various other part-time rabbinical roles.

Now, he is hoping to change all that — not so much in terms of his salary (rabbis rarely get paid to hold pulpits in Israel), but in terms of the role he can play in a community.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Gottlieb, in conjunction with one of Israel’s top developers, Shelly Tivuch, announced plans for a new neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, Ganei Ha’Ela. In this neighborhood Rabbi Gottlieb will serve as spiritual leader and fill a need he says he thinks many Americans have when they move to Israel — one that often remains unfulfilled.

“Americans are used to this structure. They come here with a new culture and language, and they don’t have the community structure they are familiar with to serve as a spiritual, emotional hub for them, like their rabbi did in chutz l’aretz [outside of Israel],” Rabbi Gottlieb explained. “I saw this need, and I had a desire.”

The community will have 60 housing units in its first phase and another 30 in a second phase. Already, close to a quarter of the first set of houses are sold. The builder is in process of laying the foundations and erecting the houses. People who buy now can save between 10 and 30 percent. Rabbi Gottlieb said he hopes homes will be ready for move-in within three years.

Rabbi Gottlieb, who lives in the Ramat Shilo neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, was known in Baltimore for his inspiring talks, numerous weekly Torah classes, his energy and his leadership. He said he has built a small following in the Jewish state, but he is also working with a top marketing and advertising firm to recruit. Most of the units sold so far are to Americans already living in Israel, but he hopes to attract others looking to move to Israel, too.

Who is the right candidate? The rabbi is targeting Orthodox Jews, what one might call mainstream or modern Orthodox in the United States (though those concepts and terms don’t really exist in Israel). In other words, he wants to create a religious neighborhood that is nonetheless diverse in its observance.

One family that has already committed is the Geffner family, originally from Staten Island, N.Y. Avi and Michael, both 32, have four children. The couple moved to Israel in 2011.

The Platnicks have also bought a home in the neighborhood. Yossie, 34, and Shira, 33, made aliyah from New Jersey in 2011. He’s a neuroradiologist, and she stays home with their five children.

“We are not building houses,” said Rabbi Gottlieb. “We are building community.”

Beit Shemesh has been in the news lately, mostly in a negative light, due to what appears to be ever-increasing tension between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents of the city. But Rabbi Gottlieb explained he does not expect any issues. Geographically, there are three areas of the city: Beit Shemesh, Ramat Beit Shemesh A (where Ganei Ha’Ela is situated) and Ramat Beit Shemesh B. The majority of the issues have occurred between residents of Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh B, which border one another. Beit Shemesh has a mixed community; Ramat Beit Shemesh B is almost predominantly Haredi.

“The actual problem is real,” Rabbi Gottlieb said. “But the facts are always more complicated than the headlines.”

Rabbi Gottlieb said the problem “really is sporadic” and that no one is “living under siege. It is a handful and that’s it. Those incidents get a lot of news.”

Why go to all this trouble? The rabbi was welcome to stay at Shomrei.

Rabbi Gottlieb doesn’t understand the question.

“The Jewish people have one true home and that is the land of Israel, and we are very fortunate to be living in one of the rare times in Jewish history where we have sovereignty over the land and the State of Israel,” Rabbi Gottlieb said. “To be living in that modern miracle is an incredible opportunity — for all the challenges. It is the greatest blessing you can give your children and very rewarding for parents, too.”

To learn more, visit >>

Where Does The Name Ganei Ha’Ela Come From? >>

How Much Does It Cost To Buy In Israel? >>

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —

Trying To Revive

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, instantly murdering about 20,000 Jews and bombing approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned factories, workshops and stores in more than 120 local communities. Several hundred synagogues were also destroyed.

Within a month, all Polish Jews were either confined to ghettos or in hiding.

Then the Nazis began liquidating the ghettos. Within 18 months, almost all of them had been emptied. Following a period of calculated mass murder, Poland’s once-thriving Jewish population of 3.3 million was diminished to 100,000.

Poland, under Soviet rule and a curtain of communism, forced what remained of its Jewish population to emigrate or to go into hiding. Many converted or denied their faith. In 2013, only approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Jews register themselves as Jewish. But it is believed that in Poland there are an estimated 25,000 Jews among a population of 38.5 million people.

And slowly, more and more Jewish faces are starting to appear. Some call it a renaissance. Others call it a resurgence. But a once dark and diminished community, it seems, is slowly — and maybe not as slowly as one would think — starting to emerge.

The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in the Polish Republic coordinates the activities of the different Jewish organizations in Poland. The Lauder Foundation has established a number of clubs and events for the Jewish youth, as well as a primary school in Warsaw. And through the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, not only are the survivors and other elderly being cared for, but young Jews also are reconnecting to Judaism and working to secure a new and vibrant future for what was once Europe’s largest Jewish community.

It is inspiring.

“It’s changing,” said Polish-Jewish fashion designer Antonina Samecka in an article published by JDC. “It’s not like you think in Poland anymore.”

It Takes Time
Seven mainstream Orthodox rabbis. Three Chabad rabbis. Three Reform/ progressive rabbis. That is how many clergy are actively working in Poland each day.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich serves as the chief rabbi of Poland. He visited Poland for the first time in the 1970s but moved there beginning in 1990. He was appointed to his post in 2004.

Rabbi Schudrich said the Polish-Jewish resurgence has progressed in three or four stages. In the early 1990s, the question was, “Are there still Jews in Poland?” Then, as they were slowly found, the question became, “Do they want to be Jewish?” Finally, “How can we remake this Jewish community? How can we help Polish Jews?”

“I am not here to tell people what they must do,” said Rabbi Schudrich of when someone comes to him and says he or she might be Jewish. “I am here to teach them what Jewish tradition says, and they have to decide what they want to do with that.”

Many learn Hebrew and attend a synagogue or a lecture. Some have documentation that they are Jewish and others undergo a conversion process. It is all very personal, and it all takes time.

Rabbi Schudrich talks about one woman who 18 years ago approached him and told her that her mother’s grandmother died of typhus in 1842; Jews were more likely to die of the disease back then. She said her mother cooked Jewish foods, such as tzimmes and kept a special pot in which to cook milk (as opposed to meat).

“Am I Jewish?” she asked me, recalled the rabbi. “That is a very hard question. We talked about it. … We talked, and then she left. That same woman came back three months ago and said, ‘Now I am ready to be Jewish.’”

He continued, “It is a progress and a process. We are in the middle of a process. … The key is openness, accepting people where they are and as who they are and letting them make their journey to their Jewish identity in a way that makes sense for them.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis expressed similar sentiments. The rabbi of a small town called Katowice, he said only about 200 Jews live in a population of three million people there. He said his job is about “achdut” [Jewish unity], and he looks at what he does as “an opportunity to galvanize the people, to keep them moving forward.”

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak oversees the Jewish Renewal or progressive Judaism movement in Poland. He said that as many as 30 people convert to Judaism through his movement per year. The group just completed its first progressive prayer book, which is Hebrew translated and transliterated into Polish.

There was a massively successful Limmud program this past year as well.

“A lot of people are coming forward now,” said Rabbi Beliak. “No one has papers. No one can prove their Jewish identity. They might have a siddur they found in the attic. … We are not in control of everything the way we would like to think we are. There is a migration of Jewish souls back [to Judaism], and I cannot explain why people are coming back in rational terms.”

Rabbi Schudrich equated the resurgence of Judaism to the Marranos or “Secret Jews” of the Iberian Peninsula, who maintained a private religious identity behind a façade of Catholicism. However, said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, “We are not waiting 500 years to see who has Jewish roots.”

To be fair, anti-Semitism does still exist in Poland, though according to those on the ground it is not on the upswing as we are seeing in many European and Eastern European countries. Joanna Auron-Górska, who works with the progressive Beit Polska, said the younger generation harbors less prejudice and less fear than their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She countered that while many surveys paint young Poles as racist and anti-Semitics, her personal experience is different.

“People in their 20s and 30s are the most tolerant people. … They are curious, but they are willing to help,” she said.

On the day that she spoke with the JT, she had come from the police department. There she had been reporting a website that listed Jewish people participating in her programs as targets for anti-Semitic attacks. There has been nothing physical directly pointed at Jews, she said, but in the smaller towns — outside of Krakow and Warsaw — she said there is more curiosity.

Rabbi Ellis said similarly that there are certain routes he thinks twice before taking and that whereas African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, in Poland he has seen very few. And Jews are almost as scarce — so people notice.

The call to action, said Lucia Goodhart, one Polish activist in an interview provided to the JT by Auron-Górska, is for the Diaspora Jewish community to be supportive.

She said, “If we have Jewish people who are making a life now in Poland, it behooves us, as our brothers’ keepers, to be involved positively.

Ornstein said this involvement is important for Diaspora Jews, too. He told the JT that the story of Polish Jewry is an important story of revival.

“It is not just for the Polish community, but for all of us, as a people. We are able to thrive despite the Holocaust,” he said. “We can connect to the loss, but also must connect to the growing and the thriving of Jewish community. We need to know about this as North American Jews.”

WJRO Renews Call For Private Property Restitution In Poland >>

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —

Analysis: Race for Maryland Governor

Joe Cluster, the Maryland Republican Party’s executive director, says he is “cautiously optimistic.” (provided)

Joe Cluster, the Maryland Republican Party’s executive director, says he is “cautiously optimistic.” (provided)

Although it is still early, the race for governor of Maryland is already shaping up to be a competitive one.

With nine candidates saying they plan on running, the field ranges from seasoned politicians to experienced businessmen and even to a Baltimore-area teacher, all of whom want to succeed the still-popular Gov. Martin O’Malley.

So far, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Montgomery County Delegate Heather Mizeur and Baltimore resident Ralph Jaffe have thrown their hats in the ring for the Democratic nomination in the June 24 primary.

On the Republican side, the field consists of Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Anne Arundel Delegate Ron George, Charles County businessman Charles Lollar, former Baltimore City firefighter Brian Vaeth and Anne Arundel County resident Larry Hogan, who served as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s appointment secretary.

Although only one Republican has managed to win a Maryland gubernatorial election during the past 48 years (Ehrlich, who defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002), the Maryland Republican Party feels good about 2014.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Joe Cluster, the party’s executive director, adding that he and his associates see a lot of similarities between 2014 and 2002, when underdog Ehrlich defeated Townsend, who had easily won the Democratic nomination on the back of her status within then-Gov. Parris Glendening’s administration.

Predicting that 2014 will be a good year for Republicans across the country, Cluster added that the Democratic candidates face a tough battle among each other in June, something that could leave the candidates with more than a few primary bruises.

However, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, all indicators suggest the race will be decided by the Democratic primary.

In terms of name recognition, Democrats have a clear upper hand. October 2013 polls showed that Brown has the most name recognition — 62 percent — among the candidates. Gansler follows with 58 percent. Baltimore’s Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2), who recently said he is leaning toward not running, leads Republicans Craig, Lollar, George and fellow Democrat Mizeur in name recognition.

Although it is not impossible, “it’s hard to see Maryland as a state where a Republican is going to win a statewide election,” said Laslo Boyd, political columnist and managing partner at Mellenbrook Policy Advisors. “If a Republican candidate comes with the Tea Party baggage of being anti-marriage equality, anti-abortion [and] strongly against the gun regulations, that’s not going to play well in Maryland.”

On the other hand, many Marylanders have grown increasingly wary of the state’s high taxes. According to 2010 Census data, Baltimore ranks above the national average for cost of transportation, utilities, housing and food. In Washington, D.C., the situation is even worse with the overall cost of living 40 percent higher than the national average.

If the Republicans focus their efforts on fiscal issues and concede some of the social issues popular along the party line, Boyd said their chances of victory could be much higher.

“It’s going to take a candidate who can appeal to those issues that are frustrating to people — perhaps taxes, perhaps the cost of government — without falling prey to the divisive social issues that play well in other states,” said Boyd.

In the meantime, much of the attention has been focusing on Democrats Gansler and Brown.

For Gansler, who has served on the board of directors of the Jewish Community Center for Greater Washington and has been involved with the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, the biggest hurdle could be overcoming the mishandling of some of the stories that surfaced earlier this year involving a teen beach party and disgruntled state police aides. While the stories have died down, they easily could be rekindled by opponents.

For Brown, who has collected endorsements from U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.-5) and two former Maryland attorneys general, one of his proudest and most touted accomplishments could prove to be a pitfall. His website boasts that he “led the nation in implementing the Affordable Care Act,” but with many people still frustrated with the new policy, it remains to be seen whether this will work for or against his campaign.

“There has been some political discussion that if the health-care exchanges are not working well, that could hurt him,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, an advocacy organization that lobbies for government accountability.

The Brown-[Ken] Ulman ticket looks like the frontrunner right now, said Bevan-Dangel, but that can easily change. While candidates who serve in the Maryland General Assembly are not permitted to fund raise while they are in session, both Brown and running mate Ulman, county executive of Howard County, are free to keep adding to their treasure chest.

“Historically in Maryland, we’ve seen a pretty straight-line correlation between fundraising and success of the campaign,” said Bevan-Dangel. “It’s simply a mechanism of how much you can afford to get your name out.”

See related articles, “By The Numbers.

Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter

Warning Signs

Dr. Jonathan Lasson saved a student from suicide. Now, he is speaking out and raising awareness. (David Stuck)

Dr. Jonathan Lasson saved a student from suicide. Now, he is speaking out and raising awareness. (David Stuck)

It’s a day he may never forget. And while it is painful to remember as well as to talk about, Dr. Jonathan Lasson, 42, a certified school psychologist for the Maryland State Department of Education, believes it’s a day that warrants memory, and a memory that must be shared.

Oct. 4, 2012 began like any other day. Lasson was working in his office when he was called to a classroom to assess an elementary student who was expressing suicidal ideation.

“When I went upstairs, the student was being held back by a paraprofessional staff member. They wanted me to do an emergency petition for him to be taken to the hospital,” he said.

While Lasson was on the phone with a school police officer, the paraprofessional, believing the student to be sufficiently calm, loosened his restraint.

“He bolted toward the window. I was the closest to it, and when he was halfway out of the open window, I grabbed him and pulled him back in. He fell back onto my left hand,” Lasson recalled. Lasson suffered a torn thumb tendon and required surgery to correct the damage. Lasson’s left index finger was operated on unnecessarily. The unnecessary surgery has caused lasting injury.

The suicidal student was transported to the University of Maryland, where he was hospitalized. Lasson discovered that the suicide attempt had not been the student’s first.

He was out of school for three months handling his injuries. Shortly after he returned to work in January 2013, Lasson learned that a former student from a different school had succeeded in taking his own life.

“I had worked with him for about two years, and we had a nice rapport,” said Lasson. “So I attended the viewing. They had an open casket, and as soon as I walked in, I saw his face. I don’t think I would have gone if I had [known] there [was going to be] an open casket. It re-traumatized me. Just think, a youngster feeling so distraught that he wants to take his own life.”

While many mental health professionals focus on the biological origins of mental illness, Lasson said he believes that environmental stressors play a major role in making children emotionally disturbed.

“These kids are from impoverished neighborhoods, and a lot of them suffer from abuse and neglect. Once I led a support group for students after one of their classmates was murdered. When I asked the kids in the group about their experiences with violence, each of them told me they didn’t expect to live past the age of 24 or 25.”

Reluctantly, Lasson has come forward to share what he has learned in his 14 years as an inner city school psychologist.

“I’ve become more aware of the red flags, which a lot of people miss,” he said.

What are those signs?

>>When a child has been depressed for a long period of time and all of a sudden he or she is doing well, don’t be complacent. When they come to thank you for all your help, saying they no longer need treatment, this can mean they have come to peace with the decision to end their lives.

>>Students who have made previous suicide attempts may be at greater risk of succeeding. On the other hand, Lasson noted, this could also be a cry for help.

>>Sometimes kids express themselves through art or other creative pursuits. Look for warning signs in the ways they express themselves through art, play and writing.

>>Children who give away belongings that are meaningful to them. This could signal their belief that they won’t need those items once they are dead.

“It’s important for people to realize what mental health professionals are up against,” he said. “We get a lot of bad press, but how many suicides do mental health professionals prevent?”

For additional information about suicide prevention, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter

The Watch Doctor


“We came to Baltimore in 1991—Jan. 21. I remember that date [when] I stepped on American soil,” said Simon Abramov, Ukrainian master watchmaker for 42 years.

Abramov brought his family from the small town of Skvyra outside of Kiev to escape the aftermath of Chernobyl (just 12 miles away) and make a better life for his wife Sofiya, son Alex, now 36, and daughter Marina, now 35. Abramov, in his deep, rich Ukrainian accent, explained there were other reasons too.

“Jewish people weren’t really welcome to live in the Soviet Union,” said Abramov. “There were a lot of anti-Semitic things. Yes, I was working. I was very successful watchmaker there. But life … you know, sometimes you have to leave something behind you and go and start a new life.”

There were limited Jewish entrance quotas for acceptance into universities and colleges at the time, explained Abramov. It was not uncommon for Ukrainians or Russians with the same or even lesser entrance exam scores to be accepted over a Jewish student. Though he was very good in academics (he completed high school at 16), that was one reason Abramov chose a trade profession.

121313_the-watch-maker2“I was always a very handy kid,” said Abramov, 59. “I liked to work with my hands, I damaged a lot of watches, I remember that — when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “My stepmother said to me, ‘Maybe you’re going to watchmaker’s school,’ and I tried it. I had really good teachers, and it turns out I love to do that, plus it makes me my living.”

When Abramov arrived in Baltimore with his family, it was challenging to find work. He didn’t know anyone other than a relative of his wife, and he was just learning English. Nobody knew of his talents and experience in watchmaking and repair. Then he met Joe Dabha.

 Ukrainian master watchmaker Simon Abramov says watches are like people. (Melissa Gerr)

Ukrainian master watchmaker Simon Abramov says watches are like people. (Melissa Gerr)

“When we came here, we lived in Milbrook,” said Abramov. “It was a lot of Russian people living there, and he (Joe Dhaba) was living on our street. We got to talking, and he said, ‘You know, I’m a watchmaker.’ It’s like God led us to meet. So he started to take me to his shop. Also at that time, I was accepted to CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County], and I was learning ESL (English as a second language) in classes at the Jewish Community Center. His shop was two blocks from there, so after school I went there and helped him fix watches. … I don’t know how it happened; it was a magical meeting.”

Abramov, alternating between a monocle jeweler’s scope and head-visor magnifiers, is surrounded by thousands of tiny parts and precision instruments at his small work bench, which is located in the rear of Mitchell’s Jewelers at 1500 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Fourteen drawers are filled with more tweezers, pliers, hundreds of tiny watch hands, watch faces, winding crowns and watch keys. A dozen watches are lined up on top awaiting his attention and care.

“Watchmaking consists of a lot of things; it’s not only when you work with your hands,” said Abramov. “Before you work you have to know physics, you have to know chemistry, science, electronics, you have to know how to work with the metals. It’s a lot of things you have to know before you get into the practice. If you don’t know in your head what you’re doing, your hands are not going to work properly.”

Several jewelers use Abramov for repairing and restoring watches, pocket watches and small clocks, he’s even repaired watches for Cal Ripken. He keeps his knowledge up to date by attending trade shows, reading industry literature and talking with watch manufacturers. Sometimes, he even makes suggestions for improvements. Watching him work, the miniscule pieces and tools move deftly in his hands as if natural extensions of his fingers.

“Watches are like people,” said Abramov. “You’re like a doctor, you have to fix them, you have to heal them, you know.”

Melissa Gerr is JT digital media editor/senior reporter

Facing The Issues

Delegate Jon Cardin addresses  the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce at its Legislative Breakfast. (Heather Norris)

Delegate Jon Cardin addresses the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce at its Legislative Breakfast. (Heather Norris)

Oil pipelines, cybercrime, rain tax, minimum wage, common core, charity scams, health-care reform and the right of low-income defendants to public defense attorneys at bail review will be some of the most pressing issues facing the General Assembly when it begins its 2014 legislative session, said five local officials who joined the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce at its Dec. 4 Legislative Breakfast.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-11) and Delegates Jon Cardin (D-11), Sue Aumann (R-42), Dan Morhaim (D-11) and Dana Stein (D-11) discussed their opinions about what the biggest issues will be before the floor was opened for questions at the members-only event.

Comments from the Chamber centered on taxes and minimum wage, as many business owners and community members tried to grasp what an increase in minimum wage or the possibility of even higher taxes resulting from new legislation could mean for their businesses and livelihoods.

When one questioner asked about the upcoming Foundry Row project and the decline of the Owings Mills Mall, Zirkin fielded the question, telling attendees that he shares a lot of the concerns many have over the repercussions the opening of a Wegmans and the other stores that come with it could have on the surrounding businesses.

“We can’t let bright, shiny new things kill everything else on Reisterstown Road,” he said. “[We] can end up with a lot of vacant places up and down Reisterstown Road if [we’re] not careful.”

On minimum wage, one Chamber member, who asked the crowd to consider the people who must survive on minimum wage, was countered by another attendee who noted that a raise in minimum wage could result in layoffs at small businesses and increased unemployment in the community.

“This is going to be a massive debate this year,” said Zirkin.

Stein added that there are two sides to the issue, and legislators will take both into account if the issue makes its way to Baltimore County, though Zirkin predicted it wouldn’t, at least this year.

Late last month, both Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties — where almost a third of the state’s residents reside — voted to raise the minimum wage from the current state and federal standard of $7.25 per hour to $11.50 per hour. The change will take effect gradually over the course of the next four years.

Other questions from attendees focused on state efforts to help the elderly with aging-at-home programs, concerns over the Common Core Standards that many teachers have been speaking out against, funding for volunteer fire departments and the process for determining the cost of new legislation to area taxpayers.

Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter