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.

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?”

City Fires Alleged Neo-Nazi Lawyer

brief_neo-naziA lawyer for Baltimore had his contract terminated by the city Aug. 18 after it was discovered he had neo-Nazi connections.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement saying the city fired Glen Keith Allen, 65, an independent contractor who defended Baltimore police in civil litigation against misconduct allegations starting this past February.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors hate groups, obtained and published documents showing that Allen paid membership dues to the neo-Nazi National Alliance for years.

“Allen’s history with organized racism and anti-Semitism is deep,” Heidi Beirich, the SPLC’s intelligence project director, wrote in a blog post. “Allen was also a subscriber to the NA’s racist publications, purchased entrance to a Holocaust denial conference the group held and bought a Holocaust denial DVD the group sold.”

George A. Nilson, who hired Allen, was fired from his post as Baltimore city solicitor on Aug. 19. According to The Washington Post, Allen and Nilson previously worked together in private practice with DLA Piper.

The Rawlings-Blake administration did not provide any specifics on the departure of Nilson, who has served as city solicitor since 2007.

“The mayor thanks Mr. Nilson for his dedicated service to the City of Baltimore and wishes him well in his future endeavors,” the statement said.

Nilson officially left office on Wednesday. Deputy Solicitor David Ralph has taken over on an interim basis.

Baltimoreans Bond with Israel via Cummings Youth Program

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings says the program gives him “a tremendous amount of pride.” (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings says the program gives him “a tremendous amount of pride.” (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

A dozen rising high school seniors, dressed smartly in suits and dresses, listened closely on Aug. 17 at the Park Heights JCC as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings delivered a speech celebrating their return from Israel.

“This gives me a chance to touch the future, a future that I will never see,” Cummings said. “But I know that I am sending some very strong people into it, and that makes this all worthwhile.”

He was welcoming home participants in the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, a two-year fellowship in partnership with the Baltimore Jewish Council that culminates with a group of students taking a three-and-a-half week trip to Israel to learn about Jewish culture.

The program, in its 18th year, provides high school juniors from Maryland’s 7th Congressional District an opportunity to strengthen the bond between African-Americans and Jews through democratic values and interfaith relationships, Cummings said.

“It doesn’t necessarily take down the bigotry that exists, but I think it allows us to see that we all cry, eat, worry, etc.,” ECYP program director Kathleen St. Villier said. “We are people, and the best way to understand each other is by building relationships. So I think the kids understood that going in. But when they went to Israel and had that experience, they really got it.”

Twelve students took part in the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, which sent them to Israel for most of July. (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

Twelve students took part in the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, which sent them to Israel for most of July. (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

To be considered for the program, students are required to submit an online application through the ECYP’s website during their sophomore year. It also strongly recommends,  although it is not required, that students receive nominations from educators, community leaders and past particpants. From there, 24 candidates are selected and required to interview in front of ECYP’s 24 board members and Cummings before the selections are made.

Erik Anderson II, 17, a student at the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, learned of the ECYP when former program director Deana Frank gave a presentation to one of his classes.

For Anderson, who said he considered himself more reserved, the interview was one of the toughest parts of the process. But he added it was all worth it in the end because of the lifelong friendships he cultivated with the fellows and Israelis.

All of the Youth Program participants expressed a fondness for Israel. Said one student: “The sun was warm, but the people were warmer.”  (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

All of the Youth Program participants expressed a fondness for Israel. Said one student: “The sun was warm, but the people were warmer.” (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

“We have a WhatsApp group chat with all 12 of us, [and] we all keep in touch with each other on a daily or weekly basis,” Anderson said. “We also talk to our friends from Israel through that app as often as we can.”

On the trip from July 3 through July 28, the students visited Ashkelon, Akko, Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv and Tzfat, spending time with peers from Ethiopia, France and Russia along the way. In addition, they hiked Masada, swam in the Dead Sea, were baptized in the Jordan River and visited the Syrian border.

It was quite an experience for Calvert Hall College High School student David Cuthrell Jr., 17, who said he had never previously traveled outside the United States.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, but I’m always open to trying new things,” Cuthrell said. “It turned out to be a lot deeper of a trip than I thought it would be with everything that we did in such a short  period of time.”

Makayla Headley, 17, a student at the Institute of Notre Dame, said it was interesting to immerse herself in Jewish traditions.

“I got to particpate in Shabbat, which was really cool,” Headley said. “It was just a  really interesting experience — we couldn’t be on our phones — and I just felt like we had to bond with people around us more. It was really great to bond with them, because they are really great people.”

Karlee Perry, 17, who also attends the Institute of Notre Dame, said her favorite part of the trip was the hospitality she received from the natives.

All of the Youth Program participants expressed a fondness for Israel. Said one student: “The sun was warm, but the people were warmer.”  (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

All of the Youth Program participants expressed a fondness for Israel. Said one student: “The sun was warm, but the people were warmer.” (Photos by Earth Street Photography)

“Everyone I met, they welcomed me with open arms,” Perry said. “They didn’t look at me as being African-American or American; they looked at me as just being another human being that they wanted to welcome. The sun was warm, but the people were warmer.”

Cummings, meanwhile, explained programs such as ECYP are more important than ever at a time when people should come together and understand what makes different cultures so unique.

“[The program] gives me a tremendous amount of pride, because the kids have been able to put whatever prejudices they may have had aside and see the souls of the people,” Cummings said. “They come appreciating the people in Israel and appreciating their philosophies, accepting them and wanting to see the Israeli people like a brother or sister. So, to me, it can’t get no better than that.”

Despite Setback, Clarke Confident $15 Minimum Wage Will Pass

Members of the press and community attend a city council meeting in which a $15 minimum wage was discussed. (Justin Silberman)

Members of the press and community attend a city council meeting in which a $15 minimum wage was discussed. (Justin Silberman)

The fate of Baltimore’s lowest-paid workers remains uncertain after the city council voted on Monday to send a bill that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 back to committee.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14), the bill’s chief sponsor, called for the measure to be pushed back to December, when a new council will take office following the November election cycle.

“We will have the $15 minimum wage, absolutely,” Clarke said.

The council voted 8-6 with one abstention to send the bill to the council’s Labor Committee for more modifications. 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.

“The bill has got to pass, but it doesn’t have to pass in this term,” Clarke said after the vote.

The original legislation, first introduced in April, would gradually raise the minimum wage over the next six years until it reached the $15 mark by 2022. It has been a hot-button topic among many city business owners, politicians and blue-collar workers for the last several months that has already undergone several revisions.

Last week, the council voted 7-4 with three abstentions to give preliminary  approval to the measure. To pass, it would have needed the support of at least eight of the 15 council members. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had previously said she would sign the legislation into law if it got through council and reached her desk.

The city currently has no minimum wage limit set in place and follows the state’s model. Maryland’s minimum wage increased to $8.75 per hour last month from $8.25 and is set to reach $10.10 in two years.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who voted against sending the bill back to committee, said the council shouldn’t vote for a bill that increases the city’s minimum wage past $11.50 an hour.

Joining Young in opposition of the bill, among others, was Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (D-District 5). Councilman Carl Stokes was the lone abstention.

“If it was done regionally, if it was done statewide, if it was done toward the  Democratic Party platform to please the ‘Bern,’ that’s OK,” Spector said. “But after the state proposes three incremental  increases to 2018, why would we pass a bill for 2019, 2020 … to $15 standalone in the city?”

In an interview with the JT prior to the vote, Stokes said he fully backed Young’s proposal of raising the minimum wage to $11.50 but no further.

“I really think a compromise would work for everybody,” Stokes said. “I really don’t know why we are stuck here or stuck like this. You would think we would be able to compromise on a lower number, put everybody back in the bill, move forward and add another $3 an hour — which is an additional $120 a week.”

Stokes, a former small business owner, specifically took issue with the fact that companies with fewer than 25 employees or less than $500,000 in gross annual income would be exempt from Clarke’s proposed bill.

“They exempted the [Maryland Zoo] in Baltimore but not the [National Aquarium] in Baltimore or the [Maryland] Science Center,” Stokes said. “What’s the difference between exempting the Maryland Zoo and the other places? They have a better lobbyist.”

Proponents, meanwhile,  believe increasing the minimum wage to $15 would go a long way for working families,  providing them with more disposable income and therefore improving the local economy.

Mecca Lee, a 24-year-old nursing home employee in Baltimore who was at Monday’s hearing, said a $15 minimum wage would help her make ends meet and save for the  future in the process. She added that she currently makes $11.15 an hour and works at least 40 hours per week, sometimes working overtime shifts to help cover basic expenses.

“Another $3.75 an hour would go a long way for me,  especially with gas prices, car  insurance payments, car payments and on and on,” Lee said. “I have a lot of bills to pay, so I know that $3.75 isn’t a whole lot, but it will definitely help in the long run.”

Ricarra Jones, a political  organizer for Local 1199 Service Employees International Union, a health care union, said advocates are optimistic they can ultimately get a minimum wage increase with a little bit of patience.

“We understand why it happened. It had to go back to committee because it’s not a complete bill,” Jones said. “And we want to make sure … that a complete bill goes forward for the workers of Baltimore. So we know it’s not over. We just look at it as a little bit of a delay.”

For many in the Jewish community, fighting poverty in the city is at the heart of the issue.

Molly Amster, Baltimore  director for Jews United for Justice, said it’s impossible for many people to support a family or pay city rents at current area wage levels. Citing statistics from the labor union-supported  Economic Policy Institute,  Amster noted that 57 percent of working-age people living in Baltimore earn less than $27,000 per year.

“I would have really liked to see the council stand up for working families in Baltimore, and they didn’t do that [on Monday],” Amster said. “So we’ll see what happens with them reworking the bill in committee, but this is obviously a setback. It’s really unfortunate, because Baltimore is a city with a lot of people in poverty. I wish there was a different outcome, but I’m hopeful that we’ll keep fighting for what’s right.”

Organizations Troubled By DOJ Report on Baltimore Police

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake say they are committed to reforming the police department. (File photo)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake say they are committed to reforming the police department. (File photo)

The findings of a U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation of the Baltimore Police Department, which revealed a number of practices that violate the Constitution and federal law, was called troubling by a number of organizations, but none were surprised.

The report, released on Aug. 10, showed that the Baltimore Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans; using excessive force; and  retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.” The report also said there are indications of gender bias in sexual assault investigations; and deficient policies, training, supervision and  accountability.

The report acknowledged that policing in parts of Baltimore is challenging in areas where there are “social problems rooted in poverty, racial segregation and deficient educational, employment and housing  opportunities.”

“The pattern or practice  occurs as a result of systemic deficiencies at BPD. The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’  activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct,” the report said. “BPD also fails to equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively. Each of these systemic deficiencies contributes to the constitutional and statutory violations we observed.”

Ultimately, we all share a  common goal of a  safer Baltimore.”  — Howard Libit, Baltimore Jewish Council executive director 


The investigation means the police will have to abide by  a court-enforceable consent  decree to make changes to the department.

“I know it’s an opportunity to get better; it’s also a compelled performance enhancement,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told The Baltimore Sun. “It’s not a suggestion. It’s not a recommendation. It’s not a campaign platform. It’s not my philosophy or the mayor’s philosophy. It’s compelled and mandated. That’s what changes things.”

In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the report “marks an important step on our path to reform.”

“Policing issues have taken on a new urgency in the  national discussion in light of the tragic shootings in recent weeks as well as recent developments in our own city,” she said. “It is so very important that we get this right. This  report’s assessment and the follow-up to it will help us heal the relationship between our police and our community.”

Howard Libit, executive  director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the report “raised a number of troubling issues.”

“I believe our community shares a confidence in Commissioner Davis and his  commitment to make the necessary reforms, and we stand ready to work with him, our city officials and our neighbors,” Libit said via email. “Ultimately, we all share a common goal of a safer Baltimore City.”

Molly Amster, Baltimore  director at Jews United for Justice, likened the findings to what the Jews of yesteryear  experienced elsewhere.

“There is a haunting familiarity in the findings — a harassment many in the Jewish community recall our relatives facing in Europe,” she said via email. “When I read of people being arrested dozens of times over a couple of years, I thought about what that must feel like — fear, anxiety, not feeling safe anywhere, not while walking down the street, not on your front porch, not in your own home.”

She added that she hopes the community is included in consent decree negotiations, and that the process is an  opportunity to improve police- community relations.

“We want to live in a city that respects black and brown people, a city were police serve and protect everyone, where no one lives in fear of the police,” she said. “It is clear that police cannot police themselves;  citizens must be involved in oversight in order to bring about the change we so desperately need.”

The Anti-Defamation League applauded the report as an  example of DOJ’s “commitment to promoting real systemic  reforms in policing.”

“DOJ’s findings reveal a deeply disturbing pattern and practice of discrimination and constitutional violations by the Baltimore Police Department rooted in structure failures at the department,” David Friedman, the ADL’s vice president of law enforcement, extremism and community security, said in a statement. “The report specifically found that BPD had used excessive force, and cited the absence of any bias-free police training for the Baltimore  Police, effective community policing strategies, meaningful accountability systems and  effective data collection practices. It notably pointed to the lack of deep and mutual trust that exists between Baltimore community members and law enforcement personnel.”

A number of other organizations, including the Open  Society Institute-Baltimore and the Council on American- Islamic Relations called for  increased accountability and  enhanced community policing.

While the work of reform is still ahead, the DOJ report said there was “widespread agreement that BPD needs  reform.” It also said steps are being taken, including revising the department’s use of force policies, taking steps to enhance accountability and transparency and improving community outreach.

Rawlings-Blake echoed the DOJ’s sentiment that work has begun, and noted that officials are discussing citizen inclusion in the police disciplinary process and the city is investing in technology to modernize the police department, include cameras inside transport vans and body-worn cameras.

“Much remains to be done. Change will not happen overnight,” she said “But our efforts have started the necessary process of change. They reaffirm this city’s commitment to a police department that both protects our citizens and respects their rights.”

Protesters Link Justice for Black Americans, Palestinians

IfNotNow protesters hold a large banner with their message in an attempt to attract the attention of people walking into the building that houses the American Jewish Committee. (Justin Katz)

IfNotNow protesters hold a large banner with their message in an attempt to attract the attention of people walking into the building that houses the American Jewish Committee. (Justin Katz)

A group advocating that American Jewry end its support of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank staged a protest of the mainstream Jewish community’s rejection of the Black Lives Matters policy platform in front of a major Jewish organization’s local office.

Fifty members of IfNotNow rallied at McPherson Square and headed north, singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) and other songs in the Aug. 11 gathering. Several protest leaders addressed the crowd when the group arrived in front of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Washington.

“The call for justice for black Americans and Palestinians are inextricably linked,” demonstration leader Jenna Bluestein said. “And it is for that reason that I feel I must heed both their calls. I will not condemn the Movement for Black Lives in favor of the immoral occupation.”

The platform of the Movement for Black Lives coalition, released this month, calls  Israel an “apartheid state” and accuses the United States of complicity in Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinians.

After the speeches, several protesters approached the building to deliver a written letter, addressed to Alan Ronkin, AJC’s Washington regional director. Denied entrance to the lobby, they were told the letter would be delivered to the AJC.

The letter’s message was “to truly be Jewish, and to stand in the legacy and history of Jews as leaders of civil and social justice, we need to be bold in our actions moving forward,” according to IfNotNow member Ethan Miller. The letter supported the Black Lives Matter movement and opposed Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

The call for justice for black Americans and  Palestinians are inextricably linked. And it is for that reason that I feel I must heed both their calls.”  — Jenna Bluestein, IfNotNow demonstration leader


Asked why the group chose the AJC as its protest site, Miller did not explain, saying that “this isn’t an issue limited to one organization.”

Eliana Fishman, who attended the protest, had a warning for the organized Jewish community. “Our goal is to force the American Jewish community to realize that if they do not stand for Black Lives Matter and if they don’t stand against the occupation, they will lose an entire generation of young American Jews.”

Jason Isaacson, AJC’s associate executive director for policy, said in an email that the protesters were “conflating two separate situations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aspirations of African-Americans” and not advancing the interests of either.

“The continuing struggle in the U.S. for civil rights, a cause AJC has championed for more than a century, often in partnership with the African-American community, is vitally important,” his email said. “But the worthy cause of addressing racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system is  undermined by those who  insist on inserting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into unrelated American political discourse.”

The Black Lives Matter platform struck a nerve with many in the Jewish community over its criticism of Israel when it was released this month.

“The U.S. justifies and  advances the global war on  terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” it reads. “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

On Aug. 8, IfNotNow demonstrated against the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which condemned the platform.

The co-author of the platform, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, said he understood why Jewish groups were angered but stood by what he wrote, the JTA reported.

“The way we look at it is we take strong stances,” Ndugga-Kabuye said. “The demand we’re making is we’re against the U.S. continuing funding and military aid to the government of Israel. These are all things that are going to be in debate.”

The Susiya Shuffle

The Palestinian village of Susiya is in the southern Hebron hills of Judea, part of the land known to many as the West Bank. The village is home to 300 people. Israel says that the residents built their homes without permits, and so the structures are eligible for demolition. The residents say that Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that they may live on the site but acknowledge that  the court did not tell Israel’s Civil Administration to issue construction permits.

With Israel’s right wing weighing in against the village and the United States and European Union concerned that Susiya may suddenly be demolished, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to navigate carefully between the demands of his coalition partners and the warnings of his international allies.

Israel’s Supreme Court is now considering a petition filed on the matter, and Netanyahu has said he will abide by the court’s ruling. So why the foreign jitters? What led State Department spokesman John Kirby to  announce that the United States was “closely following developments” and that “demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative”?

One reason may be that demolition  orders may not come from Netanyahu, but from his coalition partner and defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, himself a West Bank resident who follows his own ultra-nationalist ideology. Another reason might be because of the location of Susiya. It is near a growing Jewish settlement of the same name. It is also in Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank currently under total Israeli control.

Many in Israel’s government — including Lieberman and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett — would like to see Area C  annexed to Israel. The removal of Palestinian villages like Susiya would make room for Jewish settlement expansion and make annexation easier.

Susiya has been at issue for years. Its residents have been moved several times. In May 2015, the Supreme Court declined to freeze demolition orders against the village. And in June of this year, Israel  reportedly demolished several structures there.

We hope that cooler heads will prevail. But the involvement of the United States and the European Union in what is  unquestionably a local matter, now pending in the court system, is a distraction that can only serve to inflame tensions.

We urge the State Department to back away from potential confrontation and to show the same respect for sensitive internal issues being considered in Israel’s high court as we would expect from our allies in similar circumstances.

History has shown that the State of  Israel follows the rulings of its courts and respects the rule of law. We have no  reason to believe anything different will happen here.

Kohelet Prize to Reward Innovative Day School Teachers

In late September, the Kohelet Foundation will begin accepting entries for the Kohelet Prize — six $36,000 awards to be distributed among Jewish educators or teams of educators for what the organization is calling “Excellence in Progressive Jewish Education.”

“We know there are incredible, creative and highly effective teachers doing this work in the field right now,” said Holly Cohen, the foundation’s executive director. “We want to  inspire them to share what they know about developing the minds and hearts of their students.”

There are six award categories that will be judged by a panel of experts in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience. Categories include interdisciplinary integration, real-world learning, learning environment, differentiated instruction, development of critical and/or creative thinking and risk-taking and failure.

While the first five categories are central to getting a quality education, the final category is a bit outside the box.

“We’re shifting the paradigm from ‘failure is bad’ to responsible risk-taking and failure breeding success,” Cohen said. “That’s a game changer for the field of Jewish education.”

The theory behind the Kohelet Prize is that it will not only foster independent thinking, but since all entries — including videos and PowerPoint presentations — will be shared with Jewish day schools across the country, it will provide equal access to the same kind of progressive thinking and education.

The Kohelet Foundation will begin accepting entries — to  be uploaded directly on — on Sept. 29, continuing through Nov. 29.

That will enable teachers and students from the estimated 400 to 500 Jewish day schools across the country to have the same educational tools.

Winners of the Kohelet Prize will be announced in early 2017.