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

Rezoning Referendum Denied

For supporters of the Wegmans-anchored Foundry Row project, good news came late last month when a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge upheld the February decision by the Baltimore County Board of Elections to disregard petitions for a referendum that would challenge local rezoning maps and the upcoming renovations to the former Solo Cup factory site.

Judge Jan Alexander ruled on Nov. 29 that the Board of Elections was correct in its rejection of a 2012 referendum that would have challenged the Comprehensive Rezoning Maps in Districts 2 and 6 by putting the zoning changes on the November 2014 ballot. The Committee for Zoning Transparency Inc. and the Committee for Zoning Integrity Inc. circulated petitions, which collected 31,782 and 28,890 signatures, respectively, enough to meet the county’s standard for considering a referendum earlier this year.

However, the Board of Elections ruled that the petitions, which did not include maps of the changes to the zoning, did not fully inform those who signed them about the issue and, therefore, did not meet the local standard for consideration. The Circuit Court’s decision seconded this opinion.

“Foundry Row is on schedule and moving full-steam ahead,” said Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons and co-developer of Foundry Row in a statement.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond of  District 2, where a referendum could have put the Foundry Row project at risk, said she was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It was a good decision that certainly will benefit many, many people,” Almond said. “The project will bring jobs to Owings Mills.”

She noted that the ruling prevented the setting of a harmful precedent in Baltimore County.

“I really do believe in process, and I think that had it gone the other way, it would have been a real issue for many years to come,” she said. “I don’t think it [the push for the referendum] was done to the letter of the law, and I just think this really wasn’t the will of the people.”

As far as the implications for the Foundry Row site, Almond said the vast majority of the constituents she has spoken with support the development of the block.

“People really want to be able to have shopping options in Owings Mills,” said Almond, calling the project a win-win for the county and the district. “I think this will help really move Owings Mills forward.”

The project, which will include 375,000 square feet of retail space and 60,000 square feet of office space, is projected to bring 2,300 new full- and part-time jobs to the area, according to a Greenberg Gibbons news release.

Nonetheless, it has faced opposition in recent months in the form of challenges to the safety of road improvements in addition to the referendum effort.

“There’s room for everybody here,” said Almond.

Will The NFL Still Be Around In 10 Years?

From the cover of Evan Weiner’s latest book, “America's Passion: How a Coal Miner's Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century.”

From the cover of Evan Weiner’s latest book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century.”

Watched in nearly 30 million households in the United States each week, the National Football League is arguably the most successful and popular sports enterprise in our country. But there are problems on the field that could drastically affect the way the game is played in the future.

In August, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of retired players who alleged that the league had hid from them reports about the long-term consequences of concussions suffered during years of participating in the sport. Illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and Lou Gehrig’s disease are among the conditions that will qualify these football retirees or their families for settlement payments.

While the NFL will not admit any wrongdoing under this agreement and specifically is not accepting liability or admitting that the players’ injuries were caused by football, experts wonder what effects this legal action may have on the future of football — and particularly on the system of youth, high school and college teams that feed the ranks of professional football. To get the view of someone who has reported extensively on this topic, the JT spoke to Evan Weiner, an accomplished writer and commentator in the field of sports business and politics.

Weiner is a frequent guest on MSNBC and was the recipient of the U.S. Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award. His latest book is “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century.

JT: What is the biggest threat you see to the continuing existence of professional football?
Weiner: When it comes to playing sports, all mothers become Jewish mothers. It comes down to trust. There must be a trust between parents and the people running the football leagues, so that if I let my children play the game in an organized youth league, in junior high school or in high school, they will be as safe as one can be playing sports. Parents understand that there will always be injuries on the playing field; that is the nature of participating in sports of any kind. But with football, we are talking about a child experiencing a series of concussions that possibly could cause long-term brain damage. So the biggest issue directly linked to the continuation of the NFL becomes the availability of a pool of amateur players that could become limited, as we find out more about the risks of playing collision sports such as football.

How will these trust issues affect organized football in the school systems?
The problem that most immediately affects the real future of all contact sports is the rising cost of insurance that may be necessary for schools to obtain. School systems nationwide deal with budget issues on a daily basis. If a family believes their child has been permanently disabled from concussions suffered during years of playing junior high school or high school football, they may sue the school system. Will school boards that either self-insure or pay a huge insurance premium really want to keep the games going? Those policies that deal with catastrophic injuries and their high price tags are going to be a real issue going forward. I can see school systems dropping football because of the vast increases in the costs they incur.

What other threats to organized football in the school systems do you see?
I feel that the possibility of a massive class-action lawsuit could really be — no pun intended — a game changer. The recent NFL settlement involved 4,500 players for $765 million; think for a moment what a suit with say 50,000 youth players could be worth if they sued state and county school systems.

Is the future of the NFL doomed because there will be an insufficient feeder system?
Professional football needs to learn from the history of other sports. For example, the NFL need only look back at how professional boxing went from being a major sport to becoming a minor one today because of safety issues. From the 1930s through the 1950s, boxing was extremely popular. A number of immigrants used boxing as a means to literally fight their way out of the ghetto and out of poverty. My Jewish grandfather was among those individuals. But during that time, the safety issues of boxing were never completely addressed, and now the sport has a very marginal following. Don’t think for a moment that in a generation the NFL can’t go the way of boxing.

So what’s the takeaway?
Those of us who have followed the game since we were kids want to see the NFL continue to flourish. But I believe the fierce and violent tackles that we see will be legislated out of the game. So in the future, I think we will see a less violent, more skilled and more position-oriented style of game. The NFL needs to demonstrate that it is serious about the head injury problem.

Weiner’s latest book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century,” can be found on Smashwords, Kobo, Nook, Sony e-reader and Apple iTunes, along with his three other e-books.

The Associated Joins #MakeItHappen Campaign

121313_makeithappenTen Jewish Baltimoreans will get a head start on impacting the Jewish community, thanks to a grant program from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The #MakeItHappen campaign will award up to 50 ideas around the world micro-grants of $1,000 through January 2014. Some ideas have been awarded grants already, as this campaign started in October.

Thanks to a partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, $10,000 has been allotted for 10 ideas in the Baltimore Jewish community, and another $5,000 for sister cities Odessa and Ashkelon.

“Based on our local study and the Pew study, we need to create more opportunities to enable members of the Jewish community who have creative ideas,” said Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer at The Associated.

Ideas that have already been awarded money include a pop-up Jewish deli during Passover on a college campus in rural Illinois, a poetry slam for sermons, interfaith Jewish/Muslim nutrition workshops for women in Boston and a tribute concert to Jewish rock musicians, among others.

Submissions are being accepted until Jan. 15. For Baltimore, the Schusterman Foundation will pass on ideas from the area, and a committee will select the winners.

Hoffman said promoting innovation and incubation in the Jewish community fits perfectly with The Associated’s mission.

“This is a way to start to collaborate with some of the grassroots, non-institutional groups,” he said.

The #MakeItHappen website lists 20 ideas submitted by Marylanders, which include a family homework night, a Lego model of the Holy Temple and a planetarium show that explores the relationship between astronomy and religion.

“There are a lot of people out there with really good ideas,” Hoffman said.

Prawer Must Be Stopped

An Israeli Bedouin shouts during a Dec. 5 protest against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

An Israeli Bedouin shouts during a Dec. 5 protest against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

They can’t agree on the project’s goal. They can’t agree on who supports it. They can’t even agree on its name.

But when it comes to the Israeli government’s plan to relocate 30,000 Negev Bedouin, representatives and allies of the Bedouin community agree with the right wing on one thing: The Prawer plan must be stopped.

At a meeting this week, leaders of an alliance between Negev Bedouin and several left-wing groups adopted a proposal to join with “right-wing opponents” of a bill that would relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in unrecognized villages in southern Israel. The plan calls for moving the Bedouin into recognized towns nearby with modern services and amenities while providing them with partial compensation for their property.

“You need to have an elementary school, kindergarten and health care at the center of the modern community,” said Doron Almog, director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “We’d like to replace poverty with modernity.”

The plan is alternatively referred to as Begin-Prawer or Prawer after its two authors — former Knesset member Benny Begin and Ehud Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office. It would recognize some of the unrecognized villages while moving the inhabitants of others.

The government says the plan is a comprehensive land reform measure aimed at providing infrastructure, education and employment opportunities to the historically underserved Bedouin population in the South. But critics of the proposal point to the 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin who would be uprooted in what they claim is just the latest move by the government to strip them of their land to create space for Jewish settlement.

“We want rights like everyone else,” said Attia Alasam, the head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages. “The state doesn’t see that the Bedouin have problems. They see the Bedouin as the problem. The state can’t put people on trucks and spill them into towns.”

The fight over the plan has been contentious. Protests across Israel have left several Israeli police officers injured and led to dozens of arrests. Several human rights groups have blasted the plan. Last week, Arablawmakers appealed to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to block what they allege amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of the Bedouin.

It’s far from certain that the partnership proposal will come to fruition, but the effort represents a rare attempt at pragmatic compromise in a debate that has been dominated by dueling perceptions of reality.

At the meeting, which representatives of the Arab-Jewish political party Hadash, the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality attended, Alasam and others sounded optimistic that they could find common ground with right-wing activists even though their ultimate objectives are almost certainly incompatible.

Alasam wants the government to allow the Bedouin to stay in the unrecognized villages. Right-wing activists believe the Bedouin have no right to stay where they are.

Moshe Feiglin, the head of the Jewish Leadership faction of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, voted against the plan because it “hands the Negev over to the Arabs.” Zvulun Kalfa of the Jewish Home party opposes the bill because it’s too vague.

That’s also the objection of Ari Briggs, the director of international relations for Regavim, a right-wing organization that wants to protect Israel’s lands from “foreign elements” and compel state bodies “to act based on the fundamental principles of Zionism.” Briggs says the plan is not specific enough about the final boundaries of recognized villages.

“The only reason we need to solve those land claims is so the Bedouin can move into those cities,” Briggs said. If the law doesn’t address the unrecognized villages, he added, “We haven’t solved anything.”

Knesset member Miri Regev, who heads the committee debating the bill, echoed that criticism last week when she criticized Almog for not presenting her committee with a proposed map of Negev towns.

“I think the time has come to organize Bedouin settlement,” Regev wrote on Facebook last week. “It’s unlikely that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev’s lands, and given that, the solution needs to be formulated deliberatively and in a way that’s transparent to all sides.”

See related column, “Bedouin Relocation: Unjust and Unnecessary” by Rabbi Floyd L. Herman.

All Inclusive

Shelly Christensen, author of “Jewish Community Guide to  Inclusion,” says, “Look at a person and see the Divine in them.” (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Shelly Christensen, author of “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion,” says, “Look at a person and see the Divine in them.” (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Weekly services, Torah studies, aliyahs, sitting shiva and even trips to Israel. These are experiences shared by many Jewish Americans affiliated with synagogues and Jewish communal organizations. But for Liz Weintraub and her husband, Philip, full inclusion in life events such as these wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. That is, until they became members of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.

Although Liz Weintraub, 47, grew up in an engaged family in Virginia, before she joined B’nai Israel, her involvement in synagogue life was merely peripheral. Because of her intellectual disability, Weintraub usually found herself on the sidelines — not truly part of the Jewish community.

When a group from B’nai Israel traveled to Israel last year, the Weintraubs were part of it.

“We were fully included — just part of the trip,” said Weintraub.

And the Weintraubs weren’t the only group members with disabilities.

“It was neat,” she said. “There was a family on the trip who had a son with severe autism. They were really nervous about going on the trip, so the rabbi suggested they bring their own therapist. When he had problems during the day, the therapist worked with him. That way, his disability didn’t take away from the experience of the parents or their other child.”

Weintraub believes the bonds that were formed when she and her husband traveled with the group set the stage for their deepening involvement with the congregation. In January 2013 when her mother passed away, many friends from the Israel trip, as well as the congregation’s two rabbis, Senior Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer and Rabbi Michael J. Safra, were there sitting shiva with her. Next week, she said, her husband will have an aliyah to celebrate the 28th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.

Steven M. Eidelman, a professor of human services policy and the leadership and faculty director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Delaware, looks forward to a time when the Weintraubs’ experience is not unique. As the former CEO of The ARC and a past president of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Eidelman said he has seen a big gap, both in the Jewish communities’ willingness to change their attitudes toward Jews with disabilities and in the scarcity of leaders in Jewish organizations with the skills to implement such change. With funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation (which helped to pay for institute participants’ travel expenses), Eidelman directed the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion from Dec. 2 to Dec. 5 at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown.

While Eidelman, who grew up in Baltimore, acknowledged that gains are being made, he and others at the institute stressed that Jewish communities could be doing much more to make their institutions inclusive to those with disabilities.

“If we can do this [institute] a couple of times a year, maybe we’ll get a cadre of 500 people involved. That might be enough to start a movement,” he said.

Shelly Christensen, author of “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities” and one of the institute’s faculty members, said that when talking about inclusion, both professionals and lay people need to learn to distinguish between “meaningful” inclusion and including a person with a disability as an act of kindness.
“Look at a person and see the Divine in them, see their humanity. Treat them like everybody else,” she said.

“A Jew with a disability should be accepted as a full congregant just because he or she is another Jew, not as a mitzvah project,” Eidelman said.

Although not all disabilities advocates agree, Eidelman and Christensen don’t favor separate or “special” programs, classrooms nor housing.

“It’s not them versus us, it’s us,” said Christensen. “No Jew should ever feel they can’t enjoy the richness of Jewish life if they want to. We’re dealing with organizations that don’t get it yet. That’s why we started the institute.”

Elisha Paul, a Baltimore native who now resides in Silver Spring, called the institute “groundbreaking.”
Paul is head of Sulam, a Rockville program for Jewish students with special needs that enables them to thrive in day school environments.

“If I had a dollar for every family who told me they disengaged from Jewish community because their kid was not welcomed in a Jewish school, I’d be a rich man,” said Paul. “Once they leave, they don’t come back. We have a box that doesn’t fit everyone. We need to open the box. And it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Another institute faculty member, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, senior adviser on disability issues for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), was an advocate for passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) long before she became disabled herself. Until a near-fatal car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury in 1999, Rabbi Landsberg never dreamed that her advocacy work would impact her own life so directly.

After her accident, the rabbi spent six weeks in a coma followed by a four-month hospital stay. She required years of rehabilitative therapy in order to regain the ability to talk, walk and read. Once she was well enough to leave her home, the rabbi was confronted by a devastating reality. Despite the passing of the ADA, discrimination against the disabled was alive and well, in both the Jewish and greater communities.

“I was in a wheelchair, and when I went to a restaurant with my husband, the waiter would ask him what I wanted to order,” Rabbi Landsberg said. “Just because I was in a wheelchair, he thought I couldn’t talk. I used to shop in stores where salespeople would fawn all over me, but when I came back using a cane, no one came near me.”

About a year after the accident, the rabbi’s former employer, Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel at RAC, asked her to return to work there. The invitation changed everything for the rabbi, both professionally and personally.

“I couldn’t do anything without a script, and I could only work a couple of hours a day. But my social action neshama (soul) was still intact,” said the rabbi. “I told him I wanted to work solely on disability issues. The fact that Rabbi Saperstein invited me back and the support I received from the Jewish community, without that I wouldn’t have gotten better as fast as I have.”

Rabbi Landsberg is hopeful that disabilities advocacy will eventually make it possible for other Americans with disabilities to enjoy the professional productivity that has been so meaningful for her.

“Synagogues worry — and rightfully so — about access to the bima. What about access to jobs?”

She pointed to statistics on unemployment in the disabilities community: 60 percent of Americans with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed.

Yet, progress is being made, according to Rabbi Landsberg and many others at the institute. She is especially proud of Hinenu (We are here), which is an initiative that came about from the alliance between the rabbi and an Orthodox disabilities advocate from Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities. Hinenu has grown to include human rights and disability professionals from each of the four religious streams working together to promote inclusion in synagogues for people of all abilities.

Weintraub urged Jews to consider discrimination against those with disabilities in the context of Jewish history.
“We were excluded in the past,” she said. “If we can’t include [all] people, what does that say about us?”

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter — sellin@jewishtimes.com

A Piece Of Peace?

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned from his Middle East trip last week with an optimistic message following his latest attempt to foster progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the presentation of a security proposal to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians aren’t sharing his positive outlook.

From Dec. 4 to 6, Kerry was accompanied in Jerusalem and Ramallah by retired four-star Marine Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen presented Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with what Kerry and the State Department have carefully described as only “some thoughts” on the resolution of security issues that have been obstructing progress in negotiations.

“President Obama and I are absolutely committed to reaching a final status agreement that recognizes two states for two peoples, living side-by-side in peace and security,” Kerry said Dec. 7 in his keynote address to the 10th annual Saban Forum, sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Joining the secretary at the forum were major players such as President Barack Obama and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; Netanyahu spoke via webcast.

“Peace is possible today because we have courageous leaders who have already taken significant political risks for peace — and the time is approaching when they will have to take even more,” Kerry said.

The exact contents of Gen. Allen’s proposal—compiled after months of conversations at the helm of a core group of security advisers and security officials on both sides — remain confidential. From the start, Kerry made certain that a strict gag order was placed on the negotiations, declaring that he will act as the sole source of information on the talks. The State Department insists this level of secrecy is necessary to facilitate frank discussion and is one of the hard-learned lessons from past failures on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But Elliott Abrams, former top National Security Council official and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the JT, “I don’t know any Israelis or Palestinians who share Secretary Kerry’s optimism.”

“The most recent Israeli polls show that very few Israelis think he will succeed in getting a final status agreement, and I don’t think so either,” Abrams said, referring to a recent poll compiled by New Wave Research for Israel Hayom. The poll showed 87.5 percent of Israeli Jews do not believe the new talks would lead to peace.

Israeli and Palestinian officials also sound pessimistic. Top Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo told AFP that Kerry’s security proposals “will drive Kerry’s efforts to an impasse and to total failure.” Netanyahu said at a Likud party meeting on Monday, “We are not standing before a permanent accord. We have a set of specific terms that have yet to be met in the negotiations. … We are still not there, not even walking down that hall.”

“The two sides are too far apart,” Abrams told the JT.

Though Abrams commended Kerry for striving to achieve peace, he questioned the resources the secretary of state is putting into the process.

“Is he really spending his own precious time well, pursuing an agreement that no one thinks he’ll get — and he won’t get — when so many world crises exist?” Abrams asked.

Kerry and the State Department insist this round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is different from past U.S. efforts, even though most of the negotiators — led by former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk — have unsuccessfully negotiated in the region before.

“Both sides have shown a recent willingness to make some very difficult decisions in the face of domestic political opposition,” a State Department official said, “with Prime Minister Netanyahu agreeing to release Palestinian prisoners and President Abbas agreeing not to try to upgrade Palestinian status at international organizations for the duration of the talks.”

Amid the State Department’s optimism, The Times of Israel reports that Palestinian officials are saying Kerry used his trip as an ultimatum to force them to agree to his security demands, threatening to have Israel delay further phases of the release of Palestinian terrorist prisoners until the Palestinian Authority agrees to framework agreements.

Though not without some reservations on the current negotiations’ chances for success, Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center, told the JT that the political situation in the Middle East has changed to where there may be more incentive for Israeli and Palestinian officials to come to an agreement.

“We’ve seen the Arab awakening—changes in Egypt, tragic changes in Syria that have turned into a terrible civil war, and fear that there may be instability elsewhere as well,” Sachs said.

“This of course is a cause for concern for the Israelis considering the advance of jihadi groups near Israel, in the Sinai Peninsula and in Syria particularly, if they win,” he said.

Sachs said changes in Israeli politics might also help the talks. He explained that unlike previous pushes, when centrist Israeli prime ministers like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak oversaw negotiations but could not convince Israel’s right-wing parties to support their efforts, the current Netanyahu government’s more hawkish stance could spell real solutions without appearing to compromise the security of the Israeli people.

Sachs believes the contents are intended to appease Israel’s security concerns in a way that would not infringe on demands for the sovereignty of the proposed future Palestinian state.

A major sticking point for negotiations has been security in the Jordan River Valley and at a series of Jordan River border crossings. The Jordan River Valley runs from Israel’s northern border with Syria south into the Dead Sea. A large part of it makes up the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

Negotiators hope to find a security solution to appease Israel’s need to deploy troops along the valley in what is known as the “Eastern Front,” to prevent potential military threats from neighbors to the east. The Jordan River crossings, currently controlled by the Israel Defense Forces, are major points of entry into the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israeli security officials fear that these crossings could become routes for weapons and terrorists into the region if Israel relinquished control. But Palestinians insist on securing the ability to have sole control over their borders in a future state, including control over who comes in and out of their territory. According to Sachs, both sides have presented what he terms as “non-starter” demands for a final-status agreement.

Kerry’s proposal outlines for the Jordan River crossings to be jointly administered by the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, while maintaining the IDF’s right to deploy troops in case of a potential threat, The Times of Israel reports. PA officials reportedly rejected that proposal, refusing to allow for any IDF presence along the border.

Other demands from the Palestinians include that negotiations be based on 1967 borders, with land swaps of equal size and value, right of return for an agreed-upon number of Palestinian refugees and a division of Jerusalem to include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

“The main sticking point remains the exact contours of the agreement in Jerusalem, and those the parties have never actually agreed upon. They’ve come closer in the past, but they’ve never agreed,” Sachs said.

At the Saban Forum, Kerry reaffirmed his support for Israel and its security needs. But Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, said Kerry’s latest Mideast visit was a “charm offensive” to repair what Pollak sees as strained U.S.-Israel relations stemming from the interim nuclear deal that was recently reached between Iran and world powers. Netanyahu told the Saban Forum on Dec. 8 that the U.S. should not back down from imposing new sanctions on Iran, despite ongoing negotiations.

On Israeli-Palestinian talks, Kerry maintains they are expected to reach a resolution by April 2014, the nine-month deadline established when negotiations began last July. The secretary of state is revisiting Jerusalem and Ramallah from Dec. 11 to 18, his ninth trip to the region since assuming office.

Latkes With A Side Of The Lord

Messianic Jews, also known as Hebrew Christians, hand out latkes and sufganiyot at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Messianic Jews, also known as Hebrew Christians, hand out latkes and sufganiyot at the University of Maryland, College Park.

University of Maryland, College Park students received unexpected Chanukah presents this year in the form of free latkes and sufganyot outside of the student union. But these treats came with a side order of Jesus.

The table, erected last week, was being run by Chosen People Ministries, a group of messianic Jews and gentiles that aim to spread the word of Jesus to the Jewish people.

“My Judaism, I don’t think is very different from most, except for the Jesus [part],” said Ryan Karp, the group’s director of campus ministries.

Karp was an unwelcome presence for many Jewish students, as well as Maryland Hillel, who were alerted the group was coming to campus by Jews for Judaism.

“My belief is that these anti-Jewish missionaries are preying on vulnerable Jews, Jews who are disconnected,” said Rabbi Ari Israel, director of Maryland Hillel.

Hillel got the word out to students by contacting leaders of student groups and is working with its network of interfaith clergy and university administrators to unite in opposition to the group.

Ruth Guggenheim, director of Jews for Judaism, said groups like Chosen People Ministries look for impressionable young people to whom they can promote their ideas, even though they know they’re being deceptive. She said Chosen People is gearing up for a much larger campaign.

“We call them spiritual predators,” Guggenheim said.

Israel said students were disturbed and upset by the group’s presence.

“They claim that they’re Jewish, but they don’t know what Judaism is, or their type of Judaism is not the type of Judaism we practice,” said junior Debi Goldschlag. “It’s kind of false advertising.”

Goldschlag, who grew up in Silver Spring and attended the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, thought she’d never see Messianic Jews on her college campus.

Talya Janus, a freshman, was also surprised to see the group, and worried that fellow students who are less secure in their spirituality may gravitate in its direction.

She and a friend ate the latkes and walked away, then bumped into Rabbi Israel, who was taking a photo of the setup.

Janus said, “Right after we ate the food, he said, ‘The problem isn’t that you just ate a non-kosher latke from a missionary. You’re not the ones I’m worried about, it’s those on the cusp of Judaism.’”

Karp defends his methods and his beliefs, and said he is promoting Jewish ideas, simply presenting information and asking questions.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Karp celebrated major holidays on both sides in cultural, not religious, ways. His father started studying the Bible when Karp was 10 years old, soon adopting the belief that Jesus is his messiah. Karp followed suit when he was 11.

After falling into depression during college, Karp decided to start over by taking a trip, and traveled to Israel on a Taglit trip with students from Maryland and Virginia colleges. What happened on that trip is what inspired him to do what he does now.

Karp spoke briefly about Jesus, who he calls Yeshua, on Shabbat. Later in the trip, someone wound up screaming and cursing at him after asking why he thought Jesus was the messiah. After meeting with the trip leaders that night, he was sent home, brokenhearted for his people, he said.

“The most famous Jew who ever lived was somehow a very clear issue that somehow separated me from my people,” Karp said. “I also knew what he did in my life. … I wanted people to know about him. They could have the freedom I have, they could have the joy I have.”

He started working for Chosen People Ministries in New York, where he met his wife Jessica. They recently relocated to the D.C.-area to work on college campuses. He plans to be on the College Park campus multiple times a week, and hopes to work on other area college campuses as well.

“We’re presenting evidence that people can think about if they want,” Karp said. “I would never want to force anything. Everybody can make their own choices.”

There are 6,500 Jewish students at Maryland, according to Hillel’s website.

Israel pointed out an email he received that was from one campus chaplain to another that summed up the issue well. The chaplain writing said that their Jewish brethren were experiencing misrepresentation of their faith, and if efforts like this grow, it could lead to discrimination and intolerance.

In addition to working with other Jewish campus groups and interfaith clergy, Israel said it’s important to engage Jewish students proactively.

“My bottom line is we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize,” he said. “We, as the Jewish people, need to continue to give individuals reasons and relevancy — that Judaism speaks to us in the 21st century.”

Historic Handshake?

Can a simple handshake in South Africa someday lead to freedom for a Maryland man who’s been rotting in a Cuban jail for the last four years?

On Tuesday morning, President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro while both leaders were attending the funeral of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The gesture, which the White House says was unplanned, sparked a firestorm of protest in Miami among anti-Castro exiles — as well as hope in Havana that 50 years of bitterness on both sides of the Florida Straits may be coming to an end.

“It is nauseating,” said Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a supporter of Israel and Jewish causes who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. “He shook the hand of a murderer, a thug, and those are bloody hands.”

Cuba’s state-run TV network broadcast the brief encounter without commentary as part of its coverage of Castro’s attendance at the Johannesburg event.

Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, president of the Bethesda-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission, says he sees nothing more than symbolism in Obama’s expression of respect to Castro, 82, who flashed a broad smile in response.

“I think it’s two people being polite,” Schnitzer told WJW, cautioning those hoping for an improvement in bilateral relations not to read too much into it. “With things the way they are in Congress, unless there are changes in the stated positions of a couple of key Cuban-American [lawmakers], I don’t see any real possibility for change. They would oppose any attempt to link the Cuban Four to Alan Gross, and those people wield tremendous power in districts that Democrats need in the next election.”

Maurico Claver-Carone, a Washington lawyer who runs Cuba Democracy Advocates and supports U.S. sanctions against the communist regime, told Reuters the greeting was “unfortunate, but unavoidable and inconsequential.”

Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba documentation project, gave the widely filmed handshake — the first of its kind since Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 — more importance, calling it a “historical, game-changing” moment.

“The handshake is a timely symbol which only accelerates on both sides the hope for some type of agreement and reconciliation — not only for Alan Gross but other issues that push U.S.-Cuban relations forward,” he said. “Nelson Mandela’s legacy hangs over the imagery of those two leaders pressing the flesh. It would have been inconceivable for them to pass up such an opportunity.”

Added Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the New York-based Council on Relations, in an interview with Reuters: “Perhaps the American and Cuban presidents grasp, with this handshake, that the work they have to do together is far easier than South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.”

The greeting follows by exactly a week a declaration by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that links — in unprecedented detail — the release of Gross, 64, with the case of five Cuban nationals arrested in 1998 and charged with spying against the United States. Three years later, they were sentenced to long terms at federal prisons in Arizona, California, Kentucky and Florida. One of the five, Rene Gonzalez, was released in October 2011 and allowed to return to Cuba this past April.

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the ministry’s director-general for North American affairs, said “the Cuban government reiterates its willingness to establish an immediate dialogue with the U.S. government in order to find a solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis, which respects the humanitarian concerns of Cuba related to the case of the four Cuban anti-terrorist heroes” who remain incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

“Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez are serving long and unjust terms for crimes they never committed and which were never proven,” she said. “Their imprisonment has a high human cost to them and their families. They haven’t seen their children grow up, they have health problems and they have been separated from their families and their country for more than 15 years.”

Vidal’s statement drew a distinction between the four Cuban spies and Gross, who was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, right before departing Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. A subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Potomac resident claimed he was merely trying to help connect Cuba’s tiny Jewish community to the Internet.

But that’s not how Cuba sees it.

“Mr. Gross was detained, processed and punished for violating Cuban laws, for implementing a program financed by the U.S. government whose objective was to destabilize Cuba’s constitutional order through the establishment of illegal and hidden communications systems using noncommercial technologies,” Vidal said. “These actions constitute grave crimes which are severely punished in most countries, including the United States.”

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that the White House is conducting behind-the-scenes talks to win Gross’ release.

“We’ve had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years and engagement with a number of different individuals who have traveled to Cuba,” Kerry said during a Dec. 5 press conference at NATO headquarters in Belgium. “And we are currently engaged in some discussions regarding that, which I’m not at liberty to go into any kind of detail.”

Breaking the Language Barrier

Imagine being a new immigrant in Israel and needing to go through a major surgery at the local hospital. You might need to rely on a family member to translate for you, or hope that you somehow can get the message across. But now, at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, the barriers to living in Israel as an immigrant just got diminished.

simultaneous translator - 12.10.2013

A patient and physician test out the new translation device at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa. (Ofer Golan)

Thanks to a newly activated simultaneous translation device, patients at Rambam can request to use a phone-like tool that translates conversations with medical staff in real time. The tool connects to a trained medical interpreting staff working around the clock at the Ministry of Health.

The patient speaks to an operator, who translates what the patient is saying to the doctor, and translates back to the physician – as if the translator was in the patient room and conversing normally with the patient and medical staff. All conversations are recorded and saved as part of the patient’s medical records.

This translation services are available 24 hours each day, except on Shabbat. Arabic, Russian and Amharic speakers can use the program at no cost. In the first week that the system was operational, there were 84 Russian calls, 22 in Amharic and 3 in Arabic, according to the Health Ministry. Most of the calls were made by elderly patients.

Because Israel is a melting pot of cultures, physicians at Rambam are skilled at addressing health care issues across diverse populations. Language fluency is a particular challenge, especially with the large number of immigrants in Israel from various countries. According to government statistics, about 15% of Israel’s population speaks and understand Hebrew at an intermediate level and less than 7.2% of the population has a weak or minimal grasp of the language. Thus, lack of language proficiency can cause many immigrants to forgo medical care.

“It is important that the communication between the patient and the medical practitioner will take place continuously and that the language be understood by both parties, in order that the patient gets the best and right treatment,” said Kobi Shir Moskowitz, the project’s coordinator, “With this service, we come today to a population that was previously only reached through casual interpreters, which were not always available immediately. Now, when you can talk to the patient in his own language and they can express themselves freely, we see the differences and the meaning for all parties.”