21st-Century School Plan Draws Community Concern

(©iStockphoto.com/archideaphoto)

(©iStockphoto.com/archideaphoto)

Baltimore residents are worried about unforeseen consequences that could result from one of the largest ongoing projects in the city, the 21st Century School Buildings Plan.

Approved by the Board of School Commissioners in 2013, the planned 10-year project calls for “a massive building modernization initiative … to transform all of the district’s buildings and give its students the 21st-century learning environments they need and deserve.”

Community concerns about the project’s budget and schedule and discrepancies in the city’s plan are rising as a result of how the 21st Century plan affects two local high schools, Forest Park and Northwestern. The two schools are in the process of merging because changing demographics resulting in lower enrollment have led to both campuses being underutilized. A city official spoke about the city’s plans at a community meeting held by the Baltimore Jewish Council on Aug. 18.

For the next two years, Forest Park and Northwestern students will be engaged in separate classes and curriculums within Northwestern’s existing campus while Forest Park is renovated to accommodate more students. Following renovations, Northwestern will close permanently. These  renovations will provide a 177,479-square-foot campus with modern amenities and technology. Although Forest Park’s projected enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year is 812 students, the new building is being built for approximately 1,208 to accommodate students who will choose to attend  Forest Park once Northwestern has been closed.

For the next two years, Forest Park and Northwestern students will be engaged in  separate classes and curriculums within Northwestern’s existing campus while Forest Park is renovated to accommodate more students.

 

However, members of the community are worried about whether or not the project  is on time and on budget.  According to Marnell Cooper, a member of Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners since 2002 and chairman since 2015, by 2020 the city is “supposed to complete 28 new buildings and close at least 26 in a city that does not have space to build new buildings.” Additionally, the plan states that the school system must “contribute $3 million a year in addition to money already set aside for maintenance.”  Although Cooper assured the community that the project was meeting both time constraints and budgetary demands, the fears of the community are not off base.

According to Forest Park’s website, “the classes of 2019 and 2020 are projected to graduate from our new state-of-the-art 21st Century School building. The transformation begins this year, with renovations projected to be completed by August 2018.  On Aug. 1, 2016, our transition commenced with the first stage, moving to our temporary location, at 6900 Park Heights Ave., for two years.”

Even this blurb brings the community’s questions into focus. According to the initial plans for Forest Park located online, construction was slated to begin in June 2015 with the building fully occupied by August 2017. However, the city’s website says that it is currently in the process of designing schematics for the school, which was meant to be accomplished by August 2014, according to the original plans. The renovations will cost $70 million, according to the city schools’ website.

Community members were concerned that if renovations are not completed on schedule, the populations of two local high schools will be left in the lurch after Northwestern closes in 2020.

Sandy Johnson is a member of the Fallstaff community, which is home to an elementary school that will be affected by the 21st Century Plan. While she voiced concerns about time and budget, her main contention was that there must be at least a plan for what to do with the buildings that are slated to be closed, which currently there is not. She said, “I agree with Mr. Cooper that the board can’t do everything at the same time, which I think they have been guilty of trying to do. You have to just decide to do certain things that you believe are actually going to move the needle of kids. The board has not been effective enough in making those decisions. Empty school buildings will not influence kids positively.”

Cooper conceded the point, proposing that the main concern now is that “when we started this program, we did not address it in terms of what money is recouped by closing facilities. If it is recouped, how is that money then spent and funneled back into education? We also need to talk about what is going to be done with the building. This is the real challenge; if we have more than 26 empty school buildings in Baltimore City, what do they become? They become havens for crime. We have to come up with some answers, because we know that in 2020, the buildings are going to be empty.”

Although hypothetical solutions such as turning schools into athletic complexes have been suggested, Cooper firmly believes that getting both local and international businesses involved in converting campuses is the most reasonable solution proposed.

“We have to figure out the entry points for businesses to participate, and it can’t just be the businesses that are billion-dollar industries, because in Baltimore City specifically, there is a large entrepreneurial space of people who want to contribute to the school system but are unclear how to do it,” Cooper said. “We have about 10,000 students in our career technology education program. We need help understanding what the community wants or needs, because their education is not complete unless they can match it with you, the community.

“The school system has plenty of buildings to use,” Cooper continued. “We just don’t own them. The question now is how can the school system get control of a building or buildings to use as an economic engine?”

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Talmudical Academy to Expand Campus

A virtual rendering of the Academy’s renovated campus (Talmudical Academy: talmudicalacademy.org)

A virtual rendering of the Academy’s renovated campus (Talmudical Academy: talmudicalacademy.org)

The Talmudical Academy is undergoing a fundraising campaign to expand its campus.

Originally built to serve a population of 450 students, the Academy has approximately 1,050 enrolled, according to Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, the Academy’s executive director.

“We are currently in the middle of our fundraising campaign; it has been very successful so far. Construction of the new buildings will start very soon,” shared Cohen, although dates for construction are not yet set.

Currently, the campus is composed of a main administrative building, a dormitory and two shared buildings of classrooms. One building contains both the preschool and elementary school, and the other contains the middle and high schools. Additionally, the campus has a number of portable trailers that serve as makeshift classrooms.

“The new renovations will involve an expansion of the campus from 9.5 to 11.5 acres,” said Cohen. The plans also include two new buildings, which will house the high school and early childhood education respectively.

“We very excited to add additional playgrounds and an extra gymnasium to the campus as well,” Cohen added.  According to the Academy’s website, the new campus will also incorporate “a spacious cafeteria and multipurpose rooms, technological aids in every classroom and expanded therapy and resource rooms.”

dnozock@midatlanticmedia.com

UN Obsessed with Israel, MK Yair Lapid Says

Yair Lapid, pictured here in 2013, says he plans to meet with Jewish Democratic members of Congress. (File photo)

Yair Lapid, pictured here in 2013, says he plans to meet with Jewish Democratic members of Congress. (File photo)

Yair Lapid, the Israeli newsman-turned-politician, says the United Nations has an obsession with Israel.

“We tell them, you know what is going on in Israel. Israel is a democracy. We have human rights, we have women’s rights, we have gay rights, we are doing everything in our power to prevent the death of innocents in every conflict we have, and yet you are condemning us,” Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party and a former finance minister, told reporters earlier this month in a conference call held by the Israel Policy Forum.

 

I think everyone should write his congressman and say, ‘Listen, you are using my money in order to finance the [U.N.] campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East.’” — Yair Lapid

 

Speaking from Israel, the Knesset member talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and improving Israel’s relations with the United States but saved his indignation for the U.N. Human Rights Council, which he said has issued 67 condemnations against Israel in the last decade compared with 61 against the rest of the world.

“This is beyond bias,” Lapid said, calling on Americans to scrutinize the United Nations’ behavior.

“I think everyone should write his congressman and say, ‘Listen, you are using my money in order to finance the [U.N.] campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East.’”

Lapid said he hopes the next secretary general, scheduled to be appointed at the end of this year, will urge the United States and other democracies to address the U.N’s “structural problem” of singling out Israel.

Turning to Middle East peace talks, Lapid, whose party sits in opposition in the Knesset, said that presidential transitions in the United States are a “dangerous time for  Israel.” He favored Secretary of State John Kerry having  “another try at it” or for President Barack Obama to give a speech on the matter. But the “worst possibility” would be for the Security Council to broker a peace deal.

The damage from even a  Security Council resolution that doesn’t threaten Israel with sanctions but declares that settlements are illegal “will be huge,” he said. “This is counterproductive even for those of us who believe Israel needs to separate from the Palestinians and evacuate the settlements.”

Lapid said the most successful environment for a peace deal would be at a summit that  includes other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany.

One area of improvement between Israel and the United States, Lapid said, is the communication between Democratic American Jews and Israel’s government. He said he plans to meet with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and several other Jewish Democrats in Congress. He also emphasized the need for Israel’s Haredi community to accept non-Orthodox denominations, noting that the majority of American  Jews who are affiliated with a synagogue are Reform and Conservative.

“The fact that [the Israeli] government is assaulting  Reform and Conservative Jews is agonizing to me, and maybe it’s time for us here in Israel to talk not in the language of  religion, not in the language of freedom, not even in the language of security,” he said. “But you have to understand that security is based, upon other things, that ‘these are our people.’”

How Paris Public Schools Became No-Go Zones for Jews

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 13: Children look out from a doorway as armed soldiers patrol outside a School in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district on January 13, 2015 in Paris, France. Thousands of troops and police have been deployed to bolster security at 'sensitive' sites including Jewish schools. Millions of people converged in central Paris for a Unity March joining in solidarity with the 17 victims of last week's terrorist attacks in the country. French President Francois Hollande led the march and was joined by world leaders in a sign of unity. The terrorist atrocities started on Wednesday with the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, and ended on Friday with sieges at a printing company in Dammartin en Goele and a Kosher supermarket in Paris with four hostages and three suspects being killed. A fourth suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, escaped and is wanted in connection with the murder of a policewoman. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Students peering out from a doorway as armed soldiers patrol outside their school in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district in Paris, Jan. 13, 2015. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

PARIS (JTA) — Twenty-five years after he graduated from a public high school in the French capital, Stephane Tayar recalls favorably his time in one of the world’s most thorough education systems.

As for many other French Jews his age, the state-subsidized upbringing has worked out well for Tayar, a 43-year-old communications and computers specialist. Eloquent but down to earth, he seems as comfortable discussing the complexities of French society as he is adept at fighting — curses, threats and all — for his motorcycle’s place in the brutal traffic here.

“You learn to get along with all kinds of people – Muslims, Christians, poor, rich,” Tayar said in recalling his school years. “You debate, you study, you get into fistfights. It’s a pretty round education.”

But when the time came for Tayar and his wife to enroll their own boy and girl, the couple opted for Jewish institutions — part of a network of dozens of private establishments with state recognition, hefty tuition and student bodies that are made up almost exclusively of Jews.

“Enrolling a Jewish kid into a public school was normal when I was growing up,” Tayar said in a recent interview as he waited with two helmets in hand to pick up his youngest from her Jewish elementary school in eastern Paris. “Nowadays forget it; no longer realistically possible. Anti-Semitic bullying means it would be too damaging for any Jewish kid you put there.”

This common impression and growing religiosity among Jews in France are responsible for the departure from public schools of tens of thousands of young French and Belgian Jews, who at a time of unprecedented sectarian tensions in their countries are being brought up in a far more insular fashion than previous generations.

Whereas 30 years ago the majority of French Jews enrolled their children in public schools, now only a third of them do so. The remaining two-thirds are divided equally between Jewish schools and private schools that are not Jewish, including Catholic and Protestant institutions, according to Francis Kalifat, the newly elected president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities.

The change has been especially dramatic in the Paris area, which is home to some 350,000 Jews, or an estimated 65 percent of French Jewry.

“In the Paris region, there are virtually no more Jewish pupils attending public schools,” said Kalifat, attributing their absence to “a bad atmosphere of harassment, insults and assaults” against Jews because of their ethnicity, and to the simultaneous growth of the Jewish education system.

Whereas most anti-Semitic incidents feature taunts and insults that often are not even reported to authorities, some cases involve death threats and armed assaults. In one incident from 2013, several students reportedly cornered a Jewish classmate as he was leaving their public school in western Paris. One allegedly called him a “dirty Jew” and threatened to stab the boy with a knife. A passer-by intervened and rescued the Jewish child.

The increase in schoolyard anti-Semitism in France, first noted in an internal Education Ministry report in 2004, coincided with an increase in anti-Semitic incidents overall. Prior to 2000, only a few dozen incidents were recorded annually in France. Since then, however, hundreds have been reported annually. Many attacks — and a majority of violent ones — are committed by people with a Muslim background, who target Jews as such or as payback for Israel’s actions in what is known as the “new anti-Semitism.”

In 2012, payback for Israel’s actions in Gaza was the stated motivation of a jihadist who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Since then, Jewish institutions across Europe and French Jewish schools especially have been protected by armed guards – most often soldiers toting automatic rifles.

In neighboring Belgium, the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism has documented multiple incidents that it said were rapidly making Belgian public schools “Jew-free.” Some blamed Belgian schools for being more reluctant than their French counterparts to punish pupils for anti-Semitic behavior.

The latest incident there involved a 12-year-old boy at a public school outside Brussels. Classmates allegedly sprayed him with deodorant cans in the shower to simulate a gas chamber. The boy’s mother said it was an elaborate prank that also caused him burns from the deodorant nozzles.

In April, another Jewish mother said a public school in the affluent Brussels district of Uccle was deliberately ignoring systematic anti-Semitic abuse of her son, Samuel, in order to hide it. She enrolled him specifically at a non-Jewish school because she did not want him to be raised parochially, the mother said, but she had to transfer him to a Jewish school due to the abuse.

In addition to charting anti-Semitism among students, watchdogs in France and Belgium are seeing for the first time in decades a growing number of incidents involving teachers – as victims and perpetrators.

Last month, the Education Ministry in France began probing a high school teacher who shared with her students anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook — including ones about the clout of the Jewish lobby in the United States and another about French President Francois Hollande’s Jewish roots (he has none).

In 2012, a teacher from a suburb of Lyon said she was forced to resign after her bosses learned that she had suffered anti-Semitic abuse by students. Days later, two teenagers were arrested near Marseilles on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher who had reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The atmosphere is pushing many French Jewish parents to leave for Israel, which is seeing record levels of immigration from France. Since 2012, 20,000 Jews have made the move. Their absence is already being felt in Jewish schools and beyond, said Kalifat, because “the people who are leaving are exactly the people who are involved in the Jewish community.”

Some of those who left were responsible for developing France’s Jewish education system long before anti-Semitism became a daily reality for French Jews, said Kalifat. More than 30 years ago he enrolled his own two children in a Jewish school “not because of anti-Semitism, which was not a problem back then, but simply to give them a more Jewish education,” he said.

Jewish immigrants from North Africa to France had a major role in the growth of Jewish schools from a handful in the 1950s and ’60s to the formation of Jewish education networks with dozens of institutions, said Kalifat — himself an Algeria-born Jew and the first North African Sephardi to be elected CRIF president.

Arriving in a country where a quarter of the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Jewish newcomers from former colonies of France were more traditional and religious than many French-born Jews.

“They developed all sectors of Jewish life, but Jewish schools more than anything,” Kalifat said.

The effort has paid off in several ways. Last year, Jewish schools topped two French media rankings of the country’s approximately 4,300 high schools. One was a Chabad institution; the other was part of the more liberal Alliance network.

Some French Jews, including Yeshaya Dalsace, a Conservative rabbi from Paris, say the rise of Orthodox religious schools and other institutions is part of a trend toward insularity that comes at the expense of openness at a time when Jews should be more engaged in French society than ever.

But to Tayar, the growth of Jewish schools amid anti-Semitism is a much-needed silver lining.

“That parents like me effectively can’t send their children to public schools is tragic,” he said. “The only positive aspect I can see here is that anti-Semitic hatred drives us to make the financial sacrifice that will raise a generation that has much more Jewish culture and knowledge than our own.”

Esther Jungreis Remembered for Outreach Work

jung

Esther Jungreis, seen in a photo from 2016, founded the organization Hineni to bring young Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism. (Hineni.org)

Esther Jungreis, an icon of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States and Israel, died Tuesday in New York at the age of 80. The author of four books on the subject of spirituality, Rebbetzin Jungreis, as she was known, was the founder of Hineni, a New York-based Jewish outreach organization.

“I met her several times and years ago had her speak to a group of 100 women I had brought to Israel. It changed their lives,” said Lori Palatnik, the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, based in Rockville. “She was a Torah giant and a link to generations of giants. Her constant aura was a love for every Jew, no matter what level of observance. She was the pioneer in Orthodox women’s leadership, and was my ultimate role model, and the role model of many rebbetzins [rabbi’s wives] around the world who looked up to her in every way.”

Jungreis was born in Szeged, Hungary, in 1936 where her father was chief rabbi. A child survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she and her family resettled in 1947 in Brooklyn, where she married her distant cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis. She and her husband, who died in 1996, founded the North Woodmere Jewish Center/Congregation Ohr Torah on Long Island in 1964.

In 1973, she founded Hineni to bring young Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism by offering Torah classes, singles events, and Shabbat and holiday services. She gave a speech that November in which she spoke about the biblical Abraham’s response to God’s call to service: “Hineni” or “Here I am.”

“She was a remarkable Torah scholar and a descendant of an illustrious line of Jewish leaders,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky of Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. “She was a dynamic lecturer and author. Her main legacy is her ability to appeal to a diverse and broad audience. She was particularly influential in her tremendous outreach work. Personally, it was her focus on faith in difficult times that had the greatest impact on me.”

Jungreis was part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders who accompanied President George W. Bush to Israel in 2008 in honor of the Jewish state’s 60th birthday. Other members included Elie Wiesel, Ronald Lauder, Henry Kissinger and Sheldon Adelson.

“She took a ground-breaking public role in order to inspire thousands to connect to their precious and priceless Jewish heritage, but never compromised her values,” Palatnik said.

Jfeldschreiber@midatlanticmedia.com

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

Bikers Ride For Renewable Energy

“Ride for the Over Ride” participants leave Druid Hill Park on Aug. 20 (Provided)

“Ride for the Over Ride” participants leave Druid Hill Park on Aug. 20 (Provided)

This past weekend saw a group of bikers travel 373 miles across Maryland, from Ocean City to Deep Creek Lake, in support of renewable energy legislation. Dubbed the “Ride for the Over Ride,” the campaign was led by public health advocate Vinny DeMarco and his son, Jamie. The goal of the group was to raise awareness and support for a renewable energy bill that was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

According to DeMarco, “We want to highlight that across the state, in every region, the majority of Maryland residents support renewable energy legislation. Seventy-one percent of Marylanders want the law in place, and we hope that the Maryland General Assembly will override the governor’s veto to create jobs and save the climate.”

According to a news release by the campaign: “The Clean Energy Jobs Act would increase Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), committing Maryland to receiving 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, an increase from the current goal of 20 percent by 2022.”

In the same release, Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, shared, “The CCAN strongly supports the Ride for the Over Ride. We know that this kind of commitment will help mobilize public support to override the governor’s veto … and will help convince the governor to drop his opposition to critically needed climate measures.”

A three-fifths vote of the elected membership of the General Assembly is necessary to override the governor’s veto.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Jewish Jazz Comes to An Die Musik

Steve Loew (left) and Daniel Weiser (Photo provided)

Steve Loew (left) and Daniel Weiser (Photo provided)

A new chamber music organization in Baltimore will bring jazz and klezmer together in two concerts this weekend.

AmiciMusic presents “Jewish Jazz” at An Die Musik, which features clarinets Steve Loew and pianist Daniel Weiser.

“This program will highlight the close connections between Jewish klezmer music and early jazz, especially at the beginning of the 20th century in New York City, where the two musical strands met and synthesized into a new type of American sound,” a news release said. “The program features music by Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein, as well as klezmer-inspired works by Jacob Weinberg, Bela Kovacs and John Williams.”

Weiser hopes audience members will hear the commonalities in the different styles of music and come away with a new appreciation of the connections.

“Once they hear a piece of klezmer and go back and forth between klezmer and ragtime and jazz, they’ll hear how it sounds similar, and I’m hoping they’ll hear things in a little different light, hear how it all comes together.”

AmiciMusic performs “Jewish Jazz” at An Die Musik on Saturday Aug. 27 and at a house concert on Sunday Aug. 28. Tickets for both shows are available at amicimusic.org.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Ethiopians Press Their Case for Aliyah

Gezahegen Derebe and Demoz Deboch, Ethiopian Jews in their 20s, came to Washington, D.C., earlier this month hoping to press the Israeli  government into action.

They are among 9,000 Ethiopian Jews known as Falash Mura who are caught in what the Israeli government says is a budget crunch that is preventing them from making aliyah.

“The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting,” Derebe told a gathering at a downtown law office. “I don’t believe it is because of the budget.”

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

The American Jewish Committee sponsored the event. But the initiator of the Ethiopians’ visit to Washington was David Elcott, a professor of practice in public service and leadership at New York University. Two years ago, Elcott went to Africa to see what he thought was the last aliyah of Ethiopian Jews.

Elcott thought Israel was going to accept all those who had qualified to join their relatives. But he noticed that many were left behind at one of the Jewish Agency centers in Gondar province, including Deboch and Derebe. He said he figured they needed an advocate to draw attention to their needs with the influential American Jewish community. Since then, Elcott has been raising funds and started a  petition to pressure the Israeli government to “do what needs to be done.”

“We are mystified at why the Israeli government would want to undermine a righteous and appropriate policy of kibbutz galuyot [the ingathering of the exiles in Israel],” the petition states. “We are committed to helping ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors as it fulfills the prophetic call.”

The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting. I don’t believe it is because of the budget. — Gezahegen Derebe, member of Falash Mura community

Derebe and Deboch are members of Falash Mura community, descended from a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. In the past, the group secretly practiced Judaism but was not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago.

Israel’s Interior Ministry last year established a committee to look into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families. Critics say the committee has not accepted or rejected a single case, National Public Radio reported.

An Israeli official who wished to be quoted anonymously said “there is a principal decision to bring 1,300 of the 9,000 that are waiting. This still has to be approved by the cabinet, which is expected to approve it soon.”

Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said his organization is awaiting the Israeli  government’s decision. “Once such a decision is reached, we will implement it to the best of our ability,” he told the Times of Israel. The Jewish Agency operates a facility in Gondar to prepare Falah Mura for aliyah.

Derebe has his sights on joining his sister, who is married and lives in Israel; Deboch also hopes to make aliyah.

Most Ethiopians recognized as Jews by Israel were brought there in 1984 and 1991 airlifts, and the country’s Ethiopian community has grown to around 135,000. In 2015, the Israeli government approved entry of what it called the last group Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. The move came two years after the arrival of 450 Ethiopian Jews then deemed to be the last such group. Each final wave of immigrants has brought out more Ethiopians who say they are Jewish or claim Jewish  ancestry.

After listening to Derebe and Deboch, attorney David Farber said the immigration issues for Ethiopians hoping to make aliyah is “a problem that most American Jewish communities think is behind them. The truth is that more need to get into the country, and these folks are waiting in limbo.”

Added Elcott: “Whether it was a smart decision for Israel to let in these people from the villages, it’s sort of, if you broke it, you own it. It’s done. So it is in Israel’s interest, and the Jewish people’s interest, to finally make a separation and say these 9,000 need to come in.”

JTA contributed to this  report.

jfeldschreiber@midatlanticmedia.com

Ravens’ Terrell Suggs Lost Weight — By Cutting Down on Gefilte Fish

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 28: at M&T Bank Stadium on November 28, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Ravens won, 22-20. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

Linebacker Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, seen playing in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 28, 2013. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

An NFL football player just sacked gefilte fish. The Passover staple is no good for those trying to maintain a healthy diet, suggested Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.

“I like my fried chicken, my pizza, my peaches and my gefilte fish. I had to cut all that out,” Suggs said Thursday when asked about his recent weight loss, according to AP. “I still eat the peaches, though, and a little bit of the fish. But that’s about it.”

Following a decrease in his consumption of the traditional Ashkenazi dish, the 33-year-old football player is in better shape than ever.

“He’s in excellent condition,” said coach John Harbaugh.

While Suggs did not elaborate on how he got hooked on gefilte fish, the linebacker has a Jewish history. He considers himself “half-Jewish” and has a Star of David tattoo on his right arm, according to TMZ.

Suggs isn’t the only famous person with strong opinions about the ground fish patties.

Despite having eaten the dish at home and having lots of Jewish friends, Rapper LL Cool J never learned to love gefilte fish.

“My grandfather was from the Bronx,” the rapper told the Jewish Journal. “[H]e came home with gefilte fish every week. I didn’t like it, no disrespect, but I loved him, it wasn’t my thing, but I always had great Jewish friends.”

Comedian and talk show host Seth Meyers agrees with the hip hop hitmaker.

“Growing up, my father—whose father was Jewish—embraced borscht and gefilte fish. My brother and I thought it was disgusting. That is not gateway food if you want your kids to embrace Judaism,” the former “Saturday Night Live” writer told Bon Appétit.

The dish has also been on the agenda of none other than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. One of her emails released by the State Department last year caught the eyes of many Jews.

“Gefilte fish” read the subject of the 2010 email, sent to two top aides. Its body contained a simple question: “Where are we on this?”

Apparently the issue at stake was a shipment of carp (a crucial gefilte fish ingredient) to Israel that had been blocked due to tariff issues just before Passover, when Jews traditionally enjoy the pungent patties. Fortunately, Clinton was able to pull strings to get the cargo approved, ensuring that no seders in Israel would go without the beloved dish.

Wage Dispute Will the city be at a disadvantage if it raises minimum wage to $15?

Larry Brenner prepared for the worst when Baltimore officials announced two years ago they would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2018.

For the last eight years, he has owned and operated Konstant’s, a stand in Lexington Market, and raises doubts about the ramfications additional increases could have on his business in the near term.

Brenner’s anxiety stems from an Aug. 15 Baltimore City Council vote that sent a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 back to the Labor Committee for modifications. Because his small business would be exempt, he worries about the quality of workers he would attract.

Wage Dispute

“If I’m trying to hire people and they can go to McDonald’s for $15 an hour and they can work for me for only about half of that, what people am I going to get? I’m not going to get very many people or many who are very good — one or the other,” Brenner said. “Us little guys, we now have to compete for labor.”

City business owners, politicians and minimum-wage workers alike have taken strong stances on both sides of the aisle.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14), the bill’s chief sponsor, called for the measure to be pushed back to as early as December, when eight new members will join the council after the November election.

Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (D-District 5), the so-called dean of the council, expressed her reservations with how Clarke plans to carry out her proposal since she hasn’t been able to generate enough support.

“Everything that [Clarke] has done has been bogus, because she can’t get enough votes,” Spector said. “It won’t pass anymore next term than it would have this term,  because it’s not good for Baltimore. The only way it would make sense is if the  two surrounding jurisdictions [Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties] passed it — Baltimore is the hole of the doughnut.”

There also is widespread disagreement on how potential wage hikes would be implemented, and many small-business owners like Brenner feel the measure would derail the economy in Baltimore.

Under the current proposed legislation, first introduced in April, businesses with fewer than 25 employees and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income would be exempt.

The bill also calls for the minimum wage to rise to $9.50 from $8.75 next July, with $1 increases from that point on until getting to $13.50 in 2021. It would then increase  to $15 in 2022 and would rise with the cost of living after that. Under the current  proposal, a commission would determine cost-of-living adjustments.

Although Brenner said he falls into the exemption category — he employs 10 people but did not disclose his earnings — he acknowledged he pays his workers $3 to $4 an hour above minimum wage to get the best possible service. At his peak, Brenner said he employed as many as 15 people, but an uncertain economic climate has forced him to cut back in recent years.

 The new council people, I hope and pray that they will be well educated on what’s going on. Where are we going to be more fiscally responsible for the people who live here and have this tremendous, tremendous financial burden?

— Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, D-District 5 councilwoman

 

“I like to take care of my employees the best that I can, because it helps build loyalty,” said Brenner, who added he hasn’t taken a salary in several years. “The only way I can ensure that and get the most value is to take care of them the best that I can. Now, it’s starting to become a bigger and bigger challenge.”

Konstant’s, which sells candies, coffee, barbecue, fresh-roasted peanuts and hot dogs, has been busy enough to cover its overhead for now, Brenner said. But an increase in the minimum wage, he noted, would cause him to raise prices on all his items by a slight percentage to absorb a proportional wage bump for his employees.

The feeling among some economic experts is that niche businesses like Brenner’s can maintain, but larger national corporations may eliminate some positions to maximize profits.

Daraius Irani, chief economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said if wages become too high, it could lead to consumers ordering from self-service kisok screens as companies cut labor costs. It’s a measure that many fast-food restaurants have adopted across the country in the last year, allowing customers to order and pay without even having to interact with another person.

“If the city were to raise the minimum wage to $15 without the state raising its minimum wage to an appropriate level, I think it would put the city at a great competitive disadvantage,” Irani said. “What we’re already seeing is that many restaurants like McDonald’s are already replacing people with capital. At the end of the day, these kind of businesses will find a way to maximum their profits, and one way to do that may be to cut back on their number of employees.”

Other companies, meanwhile, have  already contemplated seeking greener pastures outside of Baltimore.

Jay Steinmetz, CEO of Baltimore-based Barcoding Inc., a technology company that specializes in radio  frequncy technology, said the proposal, if passed, would force him to consider leaving the city and may put many of his 90 employees out of work. One of his company’s main competitors, RMS Omega Technologies Group, moved its headquarters to South Carolina from Baltimore several years ago, he noted, for similar reasons.

In June, Steinmetz, who serves on Gov. Larry Hogan’s Regulatory Reform Commission, pleaded at a city council hearing for committee members to dismiss the bill altogether.

 

If the city were to raise the minimum wage to $15 without the state raising its minimum wage to an appropriate level, I think it would put the city at a great competitive disadvantage.

—  Daraius Irani, chief economist,  Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University

“Despite our size, it’s hard to make a profit, especially in Baltimore City,” Steinmetz said. “Some years, multiple years, I don’t take a paycheck. Regardless, we employ 45 people in Baltimore City alone. At least half the manangment team lives and works in Baltimore City. If you eliminate the low-paid positions, you corrupt my ecosytem. We risk collapse, [it’s] that simple. … The proposed increase in minimum wage will continue isolating Baltimore as a high-cost location with high taxes and high crime.”

Steinmetz said most of his employees are skilled workers who make more  than $12 an hour. Depending on the time of year and demand, though, he said he hires several temporary workers for miscellaneous tasks, often paying them minimum wage.

Still, it remains uncertain just how many workers would be impacted.

According to a study published in  May by David Cooper of the labor union-supported Economic Policy Institute, 98,000 workers, or 27.1 percent of Baltimore workers, would benefit from increased wages.

Irani, however, said a number of those workers could see their hours cut or jobs terminated.

“I would expect some businsses to limit the number of people they hire,” Irani said. “The Baltimore City Council needs to understand that it would now make the city the high-cost location in Maryland.”

Because many restaurant owners feel like relocation isn’t a realistic option, compensation for tipped workers has been at the center of their focus.

Germano Fabiani, owner of Germano’s Piattini in Little Italy, has mixed feelings regarding how tipped workers are being incoporated into the bill.

The bill would increase the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers to $5 by 2020. State law currently sets the minimum wage for tipped workers at $3.63, with the understanding that their tips will cover or exceed the standard minimum level. If those workers’ wages do not reach state minimum wage, employers are rquired to make up the difference.

The originial measure called for tipped workers to receive $15 per hour by July 2025, eliminating tipped wage requirements, but that was later amended. Fabiani was happy to see that change made for the 12 servers he employes, but he still raised concerns about possible alterations that could change between now and the next vote.

“To me, it made no sense that they wanted to get rid of tips, because my staff can make up to $100 more on a good night with tips,” Fabiani said. “So they would have seen that money coming out of their pockets, and it probably would have led left me short-staffed at some point.”

For organizations that employ workers with disabilities, such as nonprofit Chimes Inc., there is a fear that if government funding does not increase, they may have to cut the number of services offered in Baltimore.

“As an organization that serves the  underserved — and oftentimes those lacking a voice — we fully support the intent of this law,” Levi Rabinowitz, Chimes’ spokesman, said. “But we do not believe the law will achieve its goal. And it may well put people at risk and actually harm some of the very people it seeks to help.”

Clarke requested an amendment to be considered that would require employers of disabled workers to pay the city’s minimum wage by 2020. In 2016, the state passed bills that would phase out subminimum wage, the practice of paying  disabled workers below minimum wage.

Clarke hopes when the next council takes office, the younger, more progressive legislators will pass the bill.

Spector disagrees.

“The new council people, I hope and pray that they will be well educated on what’s going on,” Spector said. “Where are we going to be more fiscally responsible for the people who live here and have this tremendous, tremendous financial burden?”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com