David Simon-Organized Pro-Immigrant Rally Draws Sold-Out Crowd to Beth Am

David Simon (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

The sold-out City of Immigrants rally organized by “The Wire” creator David Simon filled Beth Am Synagogue Monday night and raised tens of thousands of dollars for local and national nonprofits who work on behalf of immigrants.

The event was also livestreamed by The Washington Post, the Facebook video of which had more than 75,000 views as of Tuesday afternoon.

Beth Am Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, whose congregation holds 1,100 people, opened the event, telling the story of a time, shortly after the election, when he called a Muslim colleague (Imam Yaseen Shaikh, resident scholar at the Islamic Association of Baltimore and also a speaker at the rally) to tell him the rhetoric of islamophobia and xenophobia does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Muslim brethren. The next day, Burg went on to say, he received a call from a Christian colleague of his, telling Burg that the anti-Semitic rhetoric does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Jewish brethren.

The crowd laughed, but Burg had a larger point: “Our worst America tendencies can reveal our best American values,” he said.

Simon spoke shortly after Burg, praising both “my city” and “my synagogue.” He read from a post to his website in November 2015 that used the story of his family — many on both his mother’s and father’s sides died in the Holocaust — to shed light on the cruelty of U.S. leaders’ intents to shut out refugees in their time of need.

“These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain,” he said. “Or we could be more. And looking at this audience, I know we can be more.”

Steve Earle (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

There were a number of other speakers throughout the evening, including those representing the four benefiting organizations: the National Immigration Law Center, the Tahirih Justice Center (which works with women and children fleeing violence), the International Rescue Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Also among the speakers were well-known Baltimoreans such as DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, and Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of a trilogy of books on Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner of Baltimore City, was perhaps, on the surface, a surprising choice until she started speaking of her own family’s fraught immigration story. Wen was born in Shanghai and her parents were political dissidents. Her father was in jail for much of the early years of her life. When she was 8 years old, she and her father joined her mother in the United States.

When her mother’s visa extension was denied, the family was close to living illegally, but their application for political asylum came through just days before that was set to happen. Wen said she is all too aware of how lucky she is, when it does not work out as well for so many other immigrants.

“This is my story and it’s not one I’m used to telling,” she said. “I don’t know if you can tell, but this is hard for me. Now, in some ways, my story is unique, but it is also the story of multitudes of refugees.”

Wen ended her speech with a plea for those attending to “tell our stories.” Those in the room, she said, have the lives they do thanks to the sacrifice of previous generations.

“This is not them, the immigrants, versus us, the Americans,” she said. “They are us.”

The event ended with some loud hand clapping, foot stomping and cheering from the crowd, roused by “House of Cards” writer Beau Willimon, leading into a short set from rock, country and folk singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

Earle’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” turned into a moving audience sing-along. He played two more songs — appropriately, given the venue, “God is God” and “Jerusalem” — before ending with his song that gave the event its name, “City of Immigrants.”

“It made me proud to be Jewish tonight, with this event being held in the synagogue,” said attendee Lissa Abrams after the event. “It felt good.”

Kevin Heslin, another attendee, heard about the event from his daughter’s boyfriend in Connecticut. He couldn’t go but felt someone should, Heslin said.

“I looked it up and thought, ‘This is a good cause,’” he said. “We need more of this right now. It was great.”


Baking for Buses

Community members sample baked goods at Frederick Douglass High School. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Community members sample baked goods at Frederick Douglass High School. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Concerned parents, students and Baltimore City Council members gathered at Frederick Douglass High School on Feb. 2 for a bake sale to raise funds for students affected by changes the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore City Public Schools made to the bus schedule that cut the evening hours students can ride for free by two hours.

The problematic decision has caused numerous issues for students and parents alike across the city. Many students are now being force to choose between their after-school programs and a safe trip home on the bus. Meanwhile, parents are put in the compromising predicament of finding a way to get their children home when buses are inaccessible to students or hindering their child’s academic and extracurricular activities.

City officials are looking for the MTA to pay back the $200,000 the school system paid to cover the rides.

“Years ago, we negotiated with the MTA and the school system to extend the [student pass] hours to 8 p.m. — we won that battle. We have built programs around the fact that our kids have extended bus passes during the week, and they can get home after they stay. Now all of a sudden, it got taken away,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14). “We just want what we already won for our children. The whole issue of public transportation is tied right into opportunity, whether it is for jobs or your choice of education. If you’re for education, you must be for accessible transportation.”

Councilman Leon Pinkett (D-District 7) addresses those concerned with the city’s bus changes. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Councilman Leon Pinkett (D-District 7) addresses those concerned with the city’s bus changes. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

The bake sale took about three months of planning. According to Councilman Zeke Cohen’s office, 38 bakers from across the city volunteered their services to raise money and awareness for the issue. The current goal is to raise $97,200 by the end of February, and the bake sale, which was broadcast live via Facebook, served to direct people to the GoFundMe page for the campaign, which can be visited at bit.ly/2lfQc3X.

City residents are also upset after a recent article in the Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was paid $45,000 to pose for a promotional picture to be displayed on the sides of five MTA buses.

“This is almost half of what we need now to get our kids on the bus,” said Shantay Guy, a parent from the 8th District who spoke at the event. “Why is it OK to drop that money to pay a millionaire, or anyone for that matter, $45,000 to pose on MTA buses that won’t let our kids stay on until 8?”

“Even before we took away the 6 to 8 p.m. ridership, school transportation was encumbering,” said Councilman Ryan Dorsey (D-District 3). “Students were already having a hard time. Based on school choice, students have to travel far distances just to get to a decent school. We have been divesting from community schools and the whole model of schools as the center of community for decades in Baltimore city, contributing to the hyper-segregation of our schools. An opportunity only exists if you can get to it. We can’t talk about providing opportunities to better pathways to the future if we are standing in the way of students being able to get to those opportunities.”


Gordon Center to Feature Dance in ‘Take a Leap’ Month

brief_Gordon CenterFebruary is dance month at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts for the fourth year running, and first up is a performance by Ariel Rivka Dance on Feb. 12.

The Gordon Center is partnering with the Baltimore County Commission on Arts and Sciences for this year’s “Take a Leap Baltimore County Dance Celebration,” happening throughout this month (and a little into March).

That first performance will be followed by the Peking Acrobats on Feb. 19, the Philadelphia Dance Company on Feb. 25 and the Baltimore Dance Invitational on Feb. 26 and topped off with Steppin’ at the Junction March 18.

The series is becoming more and more popular each year, said Randi Benesch, managing director for arts and culture at the JCC. It also has an educational component. Dancers from the Philadelphia Dance Company conducted an intensive workshop with advanced dancers at Towson University who will be
performing with the company in the first dance of its Baltimore performance. Additionally, the company will come to Baltimore a few days ahead of time and visit schools and give lectures and demonstrations in the county.

People can view dance as a more esoteric dance form, which can make it harder to market — people don’t want to feel like they won’t understand, Benesch said. That’s why she worked specifically to choose performances she felt would be accessible and lovely.

“We didn’t want it to be so cerebral,” she went on to say. “We want people to just be in the audience and see the beauty and movement of the bodies.”

Ariel Grossman, choreographer and artistic director for Ariel Rivka Dance agreed. She said they worked hard to make their performance for all ages and entertaining for everyone.

“[The dancers] are all really dynamic and beautiful to watch,” she said, “but [the show] is also beautiful to listen to. Even if people aren’t going to connect or understand what’s happening, they’re still going to see something they enjoy.”


C-Rye-Baby at the Senator

James Clark of Clark Burger (Kelly Salvagno)

James Clark of Clark Burger (Kelly Salvagno)

Union Craft Brewing, Clark Burger and the Senator Theatre are teaming up for a revival screening of John Waters’ immortal modern classic “Cry-Baby” on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m.

The event is set as a kick-off celebration for the release of Union’s winter seasonal Rye-Baby IPA that will be available in a can for the first time.

The beer will be for sale at the screening at which patrons can also buy food from Clark Burger that will likely have  appropriately themed specials still being mulled over by  co-owner James Clark.

To further cement the connection between Rye-Baby IPA and “Cry-Baby,” Union chose label artwork that represents an homage to Waters’ signature camp send-up of 1950s-era teen films.

“Each one of our beers typically instills some sort of emotion or concept about Baltimore and the Baltimore public,” said Union co-owner Adam Benesch. “For [Rye-Baby IPA], we wanted to pay tribute to John Waters as a Baltimorean and, more specifically, Johnny Depp’s [eponymous] character.”



As the popularity of the previously seasonal/draft-only Rye-Baby and its spicy, piney mix of malt rye and citrusy hops grew, Benesch decided to release the IPA in a larger batch and in cans around the end of 2016. The  upcoming “Cry-Baby” screening at the Senator will be a kind of official party for this latest  incarnation of the beer.

Clark is equally enthused with his restaurant’s regularly partnering with Union at past events such as a recent spoken-word night at the Senator.

“We share a lot of their  values,” Clark said. “They’re definitely motivated, as we are, to do these community events. We really enjoy promoting a local operation like this.”

Clark also looks forward to finally seeing “Cry-Baby” on the big screen.

“I’m definitely a fan,” Benesch said of Waters’ nostalgic 1990 musical comedy. “I remember when ‘Cry-Baby’ was being filmed at my school [Franklin Middle School], and we had  to have our class schedule  adjusted because of it.

“That’s a fun tie to it all!”


Park Alum Earns Prestigious Newbery Honor

Adam Gidwitz (Provided)

One of three recipients of this year’s Newbery Honor from the Association for Library Service to Children, widely considered to be the most distinguished award in children’s literature, is none other than Adam Gidwitz, a Baltimore native and alumnus of The Park School.

Gidwitz will be honored in a ceremony on June 25 in Chicago for his most recent novel, “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog.”

Gitdwitz, 34, describes the book as “a quest narrative about three kids, each with a miraculous ability. There is a peasant girl with visions of the future, a young monk-in-training with incredible strength and a boy with the power to heal people’s wounds.”

Fantastical elements aside, many of the ideas and events depicted in the novel are drawn from Gidwitz’s real-life experiences. His inspiration came while traveling Europe with his wife, Lauren Mancia, a professor in medieval history, for her research. He explains that coming across incredible stories and pieces of history that he would never have encountered otherwise prompted him to weave a tale based around these untold stories.

Beyond the basic plot, Gidwitz addresses a variety of contemporary issues and wrote the novel from a more analytical standpoint as “an interreligious narrative about a Christian monk, a peasant girl and a Jewish boy, all of whom have very different ideas about faith and ideology, and how they become friends despite their world views.”

The monk is also of African descent, and his mother is a Muslim woman from Spain, said Gidwitz. He wanted the novel to reflect “how we live in a religiously diverse world and deal with the crises that come out of the clash and interaction of these religions.”

This religious theme is apparent throughout the novel. “The first half of the book is about the three kids together being pursued by the church because it doesn’t believe in these miracles and wants to determine whether they are false saints,” said Gidwitz.

However, he did not have a climax for the book until he visited the Jewish Museum in Paris. He and his wife came across a small plaque that explained that the museum had no medieval Jewish manuscripts because in 1242, King Louis IX gathered every Talmud in France and burned them in the center of Paris.

“Reading that plaque felt like being kicked between the legs,” said Gidwitz. “I knew that I had the great problem for my new book.” The second half of the novel tells of how these three children meet and befriend King Louis IX, only to discover that he is planning on burning all of the Talmud, and they decide to stop him.

Dan Paradis, Park’s head of school, believes Gidwitz’s achievement really speaks to the kind of academic culture that the school tries to perpetuate, challenging kids to think in new and innovative ways.


“If you look in ‘The Inquisitor’s Tale,’ it is steeped in medieval history,” said Paradis. “It has a very historic context that required he really become a scholar of the time period, and I think that’s a perfect example of how our learning is rooted in the world, in history and in all different disciplines.”

Gidwitz returns to the school on April 13 as the Gordon Berman ’68 Memorial Lower School Resident Author.

Part of Gidwitz’s passion for history and religion comes from his Jewish upbringing. He grew up as a member Har Sinai Congregation and vowed to continue his religious education after becoming a bar mitzvah. However, he did not want to continue attending Sunday school.

Instead, Gidwitz came to an agreement with his father that he did not have to attend Sunday school on the condition that he read the Bible every Sunday and they would discuss it together, fulfilling his obligation at home instead of in temple. “That became a really important touchstone for my religious education,” he said. “I was learning about this tradition and then turning around and discussing it. I learned to take the moral and religious lessons seriously.”

He also asserted that Park had an incredible influence on him, citing his librarian and fellow Newbery honoree Laura Amy Schlitz as an amazing storyteller and inspiration.

“I would love to believe I’ve been helpful to Adam,” she said. “We grumble together, as writers do — but the work, the ideas, the heart, is 100 percent his. His readers sense his deep respect for them, and that knowledge leads to a special intimacy.”

Schlitz believes that Gidwitz is such a successful author of children’s literature because he is a child at heart. He writes for his readers, rather than for himself.

“The Park School is a place where literature and creativity are highly valued,” said Gidwitz.

“Our creations were always valued more highly than the grades we were getting.

“I was never a writer as a kid,” he continued. “An author came to Park and someone asked, ‘How do you know you’re a good writer?’ And she said, ‘Writers write.’ I remember clearly that day in seventh grade when I decided I wasn’t a writer. But I played a lot, imagined all the time and probably told more fibs than was good for me. Now, I embellish the truth until it seems like a good story.”


Bills from Morhaim Take New Approach on Drug Addiction

De. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11)

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11)

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), along with numerous co-sponsors, introduced three bills Jan. 27 that take a radical approach in addressing drug addiction in the state.

One bill seeks to decriminalize small amounts of controlled substances, as the state already has done for marijuana, and takes a three-strikes approach. Those stopped for first and second possession offenses will instead be fined and, where applicable, be referred to a treatment facility. The third offense will put the offender in the criminal justice system.

The second bill requires hospital emergency departments to have an addiction counselor available for those coming in with drug-related injuries. Patients in need of treatment would be evaluated and then admitted or referred to an outpatient setting.

“If you come to the ED with appendicitis, I would set up surgery and admit you,” Morhaim, a longtime emergency medicine physician, said. “If you came in with a cardiac issue, I would find a cardiologist and admit you. If you come in with addiction, you sign a sheet and we let you go.”

The third, and probably most controversial, bill would set up safe drug consumption facilities in the state. These facilities would help addicts shoot up safely and develop relationships within the community, with the hope that a large portion of them eventually seek treatment.

“They really target the most marginalized groups of people,” said Lindsay LaSalle, the senior staff attorney at Drug Policy Alliance, a California-based group with which Morhaim consulted on the legislation, along with other local experts. “Safe consumption allows you to meet them where they are.”

The sites would be staffed by health professionals and offer a clean, safe environment for those addicted to get their fix without resorting to crime or trying to use back alleys or bathrooms of local businesses, Morhaim said.

The sites have not been implemented anywhere in the U.S. yet, although Seattle has recently voted to go ahead with the program as part of its opioid epidemic task force recommendations. A handful of other states, such as New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and California, have seen similar bills introduced, or bills are about to be introduced, LaSalle said. A number of countries — Canada, Australia, Spain and Germany, among others — have facilities like these.

The war on drugs isn’t working, Morhaim said. It’s time for a different approach, or at least several approaches.

“The public likes to have silver bullets, one size fits all,” he said. “Well, it’s more nuanced that that.”

Morhaim actually introduced these bills last session with just one other co-sponsor. Though LaSalle said advocates are buckled in for a multiyear fight, they’re heartened by the exponential uptick in interest and support.

And yet both Morhaim and LaSalle know already what some of the arguments against will be: that the sites would be encouraging drug use and bring crime to the neighborhoods that house them.

“They get people into an area where they have a chance for therapeutic connection, and that’s the advantage,” Morhaim said. “What it’s recognizing is reality.”

Research seems to be on his side. Studies of the first North American site in Vancouver, Canada, for instance, found no increase in crime, a decrease in public injecting and loose syringes and increase in the use of detox or addiction treatment among patients.

Baltimore City Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department hasn’t taken a stance on these bills at this time, but this week the department took its own steps in addressing addiction that indicate a shift in approach similar to Morhaim’s. The three-year pilot Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, will take some of those stopped for low-level drug and prostitution offenses and divert them into social services or treatment programs. It is the same program Seattle had implemented prior to the city’s recent move to set up safe drug consumption sites.

Morhaim emphasized that of course he’s against drug use, but the old ways of combating drug addiction aren’t working. It’s time for new thinking, he said.

“The numbers speak for themselves, and I think that’s what’s important,” he added. “I’ve been in office long enough that things that seem radical at the time become accepted.”


$15 Minimum Wage Bill Introduced in Baltimore City Council

Minimum_wage (Justin Silberman)

Mary Pat Clarke is the wage bill’s lead sponsor. (Justin Silberman)

For the second straight year, Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is making a concerted effort to incrementally raise the city’s minimum wage over the next few years.

Clarke, a Democrat who represents the 14th District, introduced a bill on Monday that would pave the way for low-wage employees 21 and older at businesses with more than 50 employees to earn $15 per hour by 2022. It would also call for businesses with fewer than 50 employees to do the same by 2026, increasing hourly wages for their lowest-paid workers by 60 cents annually to reach the $15 mark. The increase would not apply to tipped workers, who earn $3.63 per hour.

Clarke, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the legislation has 10 co-sponsors and is fully backed by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“Baltimore cannot rest until the majority population who lives, works and has endured here is empowered to share fairly in the progress their work has been essential in helping the city achieve,” Clarke said.

The city will follow the state’s minimum wage schedule until 2018, affording all employers a year-and-a-half to prepare for the wage increases. Current minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 and is set to rise to $10.10 by July 2018.

Last year, a similar piece of legislation sponsored by Clarke fell short after meticulous rounds of revisions and debate.

Young, who was one of the most outspoken critics of last year’s bill, said this year’s version is a “compromise” to Clarke’s previous efforts.

“This is a compromise I feel comfortable with. I wish we could have gotten this done the last go-around,” Young said. “I really do. A lot of people thought I was against $15. I’ve never been against it, but I felt Baltimore shouldn’t be the hole in the doughnut. I was willing to say, ‘Hey, if [the state] wants us to be leading the state, then we will lead them.’”

Like the previous bill, the current bill has created contentious debate in the working community.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said in a prepared statement that the legislation would make Baltimore an “island” city surrounded by other jurisdictions that have no plans to raise the minimum wage.

“If passed, this bill would place Baltimore City at a serious competitive disadvantage,” Fry said. “It has the potential to result in job losses and businesses leaving the city.”

He noted testimony presented to the council last year from more than 30 business owners, employees, disability service providers and others who argued a $15 minimum wage would hurt their businesses and limit job creation.

But low-wage workers and advocate groups — such as 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest property services union in the country — argue that people living and working in the city can’t survive on the current minimum wage.

Frances Smith, 61, who lives in West Baltimore and is a member of the Baltimore 32BJ SEIU chapter, works as a housekeeper at 100 E. Pratt St. and earns $13.20 per hour.

Smith said an additional $1.80 per hour “would go a long way” toward helping her current living situation.

“I’m in an abandoned neighborhood, taking care of my grandson, and I want to be able to move,” Smith said. “I can’t afford to move out right now, but if I got the $15 minimum wage, then maybe I could afford to get out. It’s tough to make it and pay my bills on what I’m bringing in now.”

Cohen, a Democrat who represents the 1st District, said he will continue to listen to the opinions of his constituents as the bill moves forward.

“This is a challenging vote for me in my district,” Cohen said. “We do not take this lightly. This is a serious responsibility, and we fully understand that.”

Despite strong support for the bill, there are some council members who have yet to say if they back it.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat who represents the 5th District, through a text message declined to comment, saying, “I’m sure there will be many opportunities to discuss this in the coming months.”

A council committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing for the legislation on March 1.

The bill needs a simple majority of eight votes to pass in the council, but it would need 12 to override a mayoral veto.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has yet to say whether she would sign the bill into law if it passes a council vote. She told the JT last week she prefers to see minimum wage regulations discussed at the state or regional level.

Clarke said her legislation would affect roughly 98,000 workers, or about 27 percent of Baltimore’s workforce.

She joined supporters in Annapolis on Tuesday to urge General Assembly legislators to defeat a bill that would prevent the city and other jurisdictions from setting their own minimum wage laws.

A hearing for that bill, sponsored by chairman of the Economic Matters Committee Del. Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 25), is scheduled for Tuesday.

“Cities are leading all over the nation … in terms of taking action and coming together to take care of one another,” Clarke said. “That’s what people say we need to do in this environment, and that’s what we plan to do with in this Baltimore City Council.”


Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month



February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and numerous area organizations are offering various ways to become engaged.

Local events over the course of the month include the CJE and JCC partnering for an inclusive, kid-friendly story time session at J Town on Feb. 14 and a screening of “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie” at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County will host Justice Richard Bernstein, who will present the D’var Torah for the morning’s Shabbat Service.

Voted to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014, Bernstein is blind and travels around the country speaking at various venues about issues pertaining to inclusion such as the unfortunate dearth of employment access for those with special needs.

The inclusive Shabbat will be followed by a similarly themed Havdalah service and Tu B’Shvat celebration kicking off at 6:30 p.m.

“We’re really passionate that everyone who comes to the JCC, if they have a disability or not, is able to participate in everything we have to offer,” said Sara Rubinstein, special needs program director at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “If we’re not welcoming people with disabilities, we’re not being welcoming to the community as a whole.”


Top Chabad Court: D.C. is Shemtov’s Exclusive Domain


Rabbi Levi Shemtov (File photo)

The Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis has declared that the movement’s activities in Washington fall entirely under the authority of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, settling a longstanding feud between the District of Columbia rabbi and Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, who oversees Chabad programs in Maryland.

In its decision, the three-person beit din, or rabbinical court, ruled completely against the Baltimore-based Kaplan, who initiated the suit to seek authority for himself or his subordinates to operate on Washington’s college campuses, with Jewish young professionals and in downtown Washington.

Shemtov “is considered the regional director of the city, and every activity that is done in Washington must be with his agreement and confirmed consent,” the ruling said in Hebrew. Both Shemtov and Kaplan signed the ruling, which was issued by Rabbis Gedalia Oberlander, Chaim Yehuda Rabinovitch and Binyamin Kuperman.

Shemtov has operated in Washington for close to 25 years and runs the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). Both Shemtov and Kaplan did not respond to requests for comment.

While Shemtov has long been regarded as the movement’s liaison to the U.S. government and Jewish officials in the District — among other things, Shemtov has regularly koshered the kitchen of the White House for the president’s annual Chanukah party — Shemtov and Kaplan have repeatedly butted heads over who has the authority to operate in Washington in the area of community concerns. Most recently, their dispute came to a head in July over a controversy about whether Rabbi Yudi Steiner, who was terminated by Shemtov but then began working under Kaplan’s authority, could operate a kosher food truck in Washington.

chabad_Shmuel Kaplan

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan (File photo)

“Rabbi Kaplan has not had, does not have and will never have the authority he is apparently claiming over Washington, D.C.,” Shemtov told Washington Jewish Week in July. “For Rabbi Kaplan to insinuate that anything has changed in Washington, absent any din Torah and halachic ruling to the contrary, is reprehensible.”

In 2014, Shemtov took Steiner to District of Columbia Superior Court to implement a previous rabbinic ruling that Steiner could no longer operate Chabad activities on the George Washington University campus. The civil court ruled in favor of Shemtov.

The latest rabbinical court ruling, issued on Jan. 17, was based on the decision of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, to give Philadelphia-based Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Levi Shemtov’s father, responsibility for representing Chabad in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Today, the elder Shemtov is chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the movement’s umbrella organization.

In the formal complaint Kaplan submitted to the beit din, he argued that the Shemtovs should represent Chabad on all political matters in Washington but that he should be responsible for programming relating to the Jewish community in the city. However, the beit din rejected Kaplan’s claim, saying that the Shemtovs’ mandate applied to both political representation and local programming. The ruling also states that Kaplan maintains authority over Chabad activities in Maryland, a point that had not been disputed by Shemtov.

In the last month, the website of Jewish Colonials Chabad, the George Washington University group that Steiner has been operating in contravention of Shemtov’s wishes and in apparent violation of the Superior Court order, removed language indicating that it was under the supervision of Chabad of Maryland.


The Great Divide Love him or hate him, Trump has put his presidency on the firing line

U.S. President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast event in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (Newscom TagID: rtrleight533093.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

(Ebony Brown)

President Donald Trump’s first three weeks in office is all the confirmation Bernie Salganik needed to reinforce that he voted for the right candidate.

Salganik said it initially took some time for him to get behind Trump. But Salganik, a registered Republican who refers to himself as an “independent,” said he was drawn to Trump because he is someone “with a strong work ethic who gets things done.”

“It became easier to support Trump as I heard him talk and listened to his message of what he wanted for the people of America,” said Salganik, a 76-year-old Edgemere resident who is Orthodox and grew up a staunch Democrat in Baltimore City. “I wouldn’t have called myself a Trump backer at first, but as he started to emerge, what he was saying really started to click.”

For many other Jews in the Greater Baltimore area who opposed the election results and inauguration, however, Trump is a far cry from the ideal president.

In heavily Democratic Baltimore, where only about one in four voters backed Trump, protests have become commonplace in the wake of what some view as controversial actions taken by the president.

Ben Silverberg, 32, an Owings Mills native who is Conservative, said those like himself who don’t support Trump shouldn’t spend the next four years sitting around silently.

“What this man has done in only such a short period of time is absolutely reprehensible,” said Silverberg, who added he has attended several Trump protests in the city since November. “We need people to band together, think about the future and how we should proceed next with everything that is going on right now.”

In his first three weeks as president, Trump, at 70, the oldest elected president, took steps to deliver on many of his signature campaign promises.

He signed executive orders aimed at building a wall along the Mexico border, stopping the flow of Syrian refugees into the country and banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, and he announced his selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result of these actions, the reality of Trump’s presidency has led to a great rift in the Jewish community across the denominational spectrum, provoking both fear and hope. There are a number of differences taking place along normal political lines, which have grown more noticeable as the country has become more partisan.

Split Opinions

President Donald Trump reads the first of three executive orders he signed on Jan. 23. This one concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The others were a government hiring freeze for all departments but the military and a ban on federal funding of abortions overseas. (Ron Sachs, Pool/Getty Images)

Where many Trump detractors see a serial exaggerator, a spreader of lies and a hurler of insults, Trump’s supporters see a man of action looking to deliver for the nation.

Ruth Goetz, an Orthodox Pikesville resident and registered Republican, believes Trump is carrying out precisely the plans he vowed he would to prioritize U.S. national interests over those of foreign countries. Only in politics, Goetz confidently pronounced,would a politician “keeping his promises be so shocking.”

“Our only obligation is to the American citizen,” said Goetz, a Trump supporter. “It’s what’s best for our country. I need to feel safe on my daily routine and for my family to feel safe. It doesn’t say in the constitution that we have to let everybody into our country who wants to come in. Those people can go to other places, because we don’t have any obligation to them.”

In many primarily Orthodox sections of Pikesville, excitement for Trump is robust.

At Pikesville High School on Smith Avenue, a polling place with a large number of Orthodox Jews, voters went for Trump by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

However, as with some Trump rhetoric, the president’s staunch “America First” message, which he proudly delivered during his inauguration speech, has made others uncomfortable and rubbed them the wrong way.

Politics_cover_Ruth Goldstein_provided

Ruth Goldstein (Provided)

Ruth Goldstein, 64, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, is worried about how civil liberties for minorities around the country could be challenged under the Trump administration. Much of that fear stems from Trump’s elevation of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former executive chairman of alt-right Breitbart News, to the National Security Council, describing Bannon as “racist, homophobic, xenophobic [and] misogynistic.”

“The fact that [Trump] has practically put Bannon in the Oval Office is terrifying to me,” Goldstein said. “Any pious Jew who purports to be observant is a hypocrite if they can support Trump, who has embraced this white supremacist.”

Calls from state Democratic leaders for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to speak out against recent actions of the Trump Administration have gone widely unnoticed.

In response, General Assembly Democrats introduced legislation late last month that would protect Marylanders’ rights against potentially “negative actions” from Trump and the federal government.

One of the measures in the five-bill package, the Maryland Act of 2017, would grant Maryland Democratic Attorney General Brian E. Frosh the power to take legal action against the federal government without permission from Hogan or the General Assembly. Frosh and 15 other attorneys general filed an amicus brief on Monday in support of the federal lawsuit against Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Rayna Verstandig, 20, a registered Republican from Pikesville who is Conservative and a sophomore at Tulane University, said such a measure, if passed, would do more to add to the political discourse between Democrats and Republicans in Maryland.

“In my opinion, the Democratic opposition that has occurred just in the first weeks of this presidency is counterproductive to persuading the voters they lost in November,” said Verstandig, who added she voted for Trump.

politics_cover_Rayna Verstandig_provided

Rayna Verstandig (Provided)

Verstandig said she’s able to have civil political discourse with those whose views differ from hers and hopes others can do the same in the coming years. She also feels the nation is shifting toward “making political correctness a higher priority than national security,” a trend she said she finds particularly “troubling.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I think that a vital component to a well-functioning society is the ability to have constructive conversations and respectful, open debate,” Verstandig said. “However, the political atmosphere has become so divided that many individuals are not capable or willing to engage in a dialogue that would justify an opposing view. The Republicans and the Trump administration are not innocent in creating controversy.”

Immigrants and the Economy

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Trump made headlines when he issued a statement in which he called to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

It also marked the same day he followed through with an executive order banning all people from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

“If a sizable fraction of the Jewish population and community in the country begin to oppose Trump, then he will do toward them what he’s done toward everyone else who has opposed him,” said Donald Norris, director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s School of Public Policy. “He will belittle, bully, berate and, ultimately, take action to shut them down.”

Mandee Heinl, 26, a registered Democrat from Pikesville who is Reform, said she’s concerned Trump could follow through with his plans to deport illegal immigrants. She also fears he will set back women’s rights.

“I think we have an administration that has an idea of what America and Americans should look like and what they should believe,” said Heinl, who added her ancestors had to change their last name from Silberberg to Simmons after World War II to escape anti-Semitism. “I think they will target anyone who doesn’t fit that mold, and that is a very scary thought. When you have an administration that you feel isn’t capable of making fair and just decisions, it’s terrifying to think about.”

Garrett Sawyer, 26, a Reisterstown native now living in Greenville, S.C., who is Reform, believes illegal immigration at the southern border is a problem.

But one of means by which Trump plans to go about funding the project — enforcing a 20 percent tariff on goods imported to the U.S. from Mexico — is not an ideal to proceed with the project, he said.

Politics_cover_Garrett Sawyer_provided

Garrett Sawyer (Provided)

“Personally, I think there are more financially feasible ways to protect our southern border,” Sawyer said. “By the way, a wall doesn’t stop illegals from getting here by boat or other means.”

For Phil Kaplan, 38, a lawyer and Towson resident who grew up in an Orthodox household, stiffening penalties for undocumented workers and providing jobs for Americans are inseparably linked.

“Trump is doing the things that are going to try and help the American people,” Kaplan said. “He’s doing it without regard to what big corporations may want. The corporations still have an interest in shipping jobs overseas and doing things to benefit themselves while continuing to financially hurt 99 percent of the country.”

Salganik’s wife, Linda, 69, who is from Baltimore and Orthodox, voted for Trump, who she views will end bad economic deals and remove government restrictions.

She said Trump’s business acumen will play a critical role in helping reduce the national deficit of nearly $20 trillion, which she feels reflect years of stagnant economic growth, failed trade agreements and reckless spending.

“Our country is in serious, serious trouble financially,” Linda Salganik said. “These politicians just print money, print money and print money. Sooner or later, we’re going to be even more trouble. I don’t think a lot of these young kids who follow what the movie stars or celebrities or rock ‘n’ rollers say negatively about Trump really understand this country could go down the tubes real fast.”

Respect for Gorsuch

One thing some Trump supporters and detractors appear to have in common is a respect for the credentials his Supreme Court nominee, Gorsuch, would bring to the vacancy on the bench left by Antonin Scalia’s death.

By most accounts, Gorsuch is a widely acclaimed jurist, held in high esteem by both conservatives and libertarians but also respected by liberals. Gorsuch boasts an Ivy League pedigree — he earned degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, as well as Oxford University — and has served as a justice on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006.

While Heinl does not agree with how Gorsuch has ruled in the past in cases involving women’s and workers’ rights, she said Democrats should look at his qualifications rather than his political ties.

“I respect his background, his education and his professional history, all of which qualifies him for the job,” Heinl said of Gorsuch. “I mean, I hate his stances and his rulings on certain things, but he’s qualified nonetheless. So, really, if the Democrats try and block this, then how is it any different than the Republicans blocking [former President Barack] Obama’s nomination of [Merrick Garland]?”

Gorsuch’s legal background, which consists of time in both the public and private law, “make him a valuable asset to the bench,” said Bernie Salganik, who holds a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.

Salganik added: “You don’t go to Oxford if you’re the village idiot. The people on the other side of the aisle need to let him come in and do the job he was rightfully picked to do by President Trump.”

Looking Ahead

While Trump won the presidency with an unorthodox approach, he faces a long road in mending the current political atmosphere, according to experts.

Mentioning the fallout from the contentious campaign season, Norris said it would take time to mend the divisions but wondered just how long it would take for things to get back to “business as usual.” Norris added the number of demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest Trump in waves have not reached such levels since the Vietnam War.

“The difficultly with what’s going on is that can it be sustained over six months, one year or four years? There has to be a matter of constant organization,” Norris said. “One march [Women’s March on Washington] won’t do it. The folks who marched in Washington, men and women, and in other cities around the country are going to have to keep mobilizing.”

Demonstrators pack the National Mall during the Women’s March on Washington last month (Ebony Brown)

Heinl was among the estimated 500,000-plus people who took part in the Women’s March and is actively involved in promoting similar causes on social media. She plans to combat Trump’s divisiveness by supporting nonprofit organizations that might be threatened by the new administration.

“Each decision [Trump] is making is more concerning than the one before,” Heinl said. “We have to be on guard.”

Sawyer, meanwhile, said it is up to all to press Trump to follow through on changes that benefit everyone and that it is time to accept him as president.

“At the end of the day, there are lessons to be learned. We need to engage in political discussion, and we need to see and appreciate opposing viewpoints,” Sawyer said. “We need to be honest with our friends, families, business interests and ourselves. The best thing we can do is embrace the idea of balance and diversity.”

Salganik said, “like all presidents,” he expects Trump to have his missteps here and there but that “he will do the job the American people elected him to do.”