Kids’ Soccer Leagues Aim to Bridge Israel’s Religious Divide

Members of the Tzav Pius team for 13-year-olds sing the team anthem following a practice. (Ben Sales)

Members of the Tzav Pius team for 13-year-olds sing the team anthem following a practice.
(Ben Sales)

PARDES HANNA, Israel — When Yoel decided, at age 8, to begin observing Shabbat, there was one problem: It meant he couldn’t join most of Israel’s youth soccer teams, which played games on Saturday.

Yoel, now 12, has always lived in the increasingly large gray area between Israel’s starkly divided religious and secular Jewish societies. His father observes Shabbat, his mother doesn’t. He attended a religious elementary school but transferred to a secular school this year.

He enjoys how Shabbat forces him away from TV and video games, allowing him to relax. But as a budding soccer forward, Yoel also likes the feeling of grass under his cleats. Few things excite him more than going one-on-one against a goalie and kicking a “missile” into the goal.

Yoel no longer has to decide between Shabbat and soccer, thanks to a team run by Tzav Pius, a not-for-profit organization that aims to bridge thedivides between religious and secular Israeli Jews. Tzav Pius teams play games during the week, from Sunday to Friday, allowing religious Israelis to participate.

“Tzav Pius lets me play soccer,” said Yoel, who as a minor couldn’t give his last name without a parent’s permission. Saying he has religious and secular friends, he adds: “I know how it feels to be in two different societies.”

Tzav Pius, which has organized 96 youth soccer teams across Israel, is aiming to change how the country’s religious society and soccer establishment view each other. Because Israel’s most popular sport is played on its day of rest, about one-third of Israeli Jews — the proportion that observes Shabbat — cannot watch, attend or play games.

What has resulted is a largely secular soccer culture. Soccer fandom, which unites nations and cities worldwide around their favorite teams, has become another wedge within Israeli culture, creating two groups that have two different passions on the same day.

“There’s a secular culture of sports that has no connection to Shabbat, and religious Jews want to be part of it,” said Avner Michaeli, a Tzav Pius youth counselor who is secular. “As a kid, my whole world was that Saturday was soccer. So as a religious Jew, you could say, ‘Don’t go crazy, it’s just soccer.’ Just like a secular Jew can tell a religious Jew, ‘It’s 2016, why can’t you drive [on Shabbat]?’”

Each of Israel’s 1,200 youth soccer teams, for children ages 10 to 18, is linked to one of the country’s 234 professional teams. Kids try out for the youth league, and the best athletes are groomed to play pro. Israel’s abbreviated weekend begins Friday afternoon and ends Saturday night; teams play on Saturday afternoon because weekend games are easier on families.

Until Tzav Pius began fielding youth teams 12 years ago, aspiring religious soccer players would either break Shabbat to play or give up on the sport. Moshe Yazdi, who now coaches the Tzav Pius team in Pardes Hanna, a city between Haifa and Tel Aviv, grew up religious but loved soccer. Beginning at 16, he was accepted to the local youth team and would sneak out Saturday afternoons, without telling his parents, to play games and ride the team bus, if necessary.

Tzav Pius teams now play on weekday afternoons, and the league requires rival teams to schedule their matches accordingly. Still, difficulties can arise. One Tzav Pius team forgot to request a rescheduling, so the players had to walk the five miles from one city to another rather than violate Shabbat by driving. Last year, a team had to stay overnight in a synagogue to play a Saturday game.

“It doesn’t bother them to play in the middle of the week,” said Iddo Diamant, director of Tzav Pius’ soccer program. “The kids come to play soccer. That’s what’s great about it. They don’t care about who’s religious and secular.”

Founded after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stoked bitter religious-secular tensions in Israel, Tzav Pius runs a network of joint religious-secular schools, kindergartens and summer camps that promote what it calls an “integrated” society.

Tzav Pius — literally “reconciliation order,” a play on the Hebrew phrase for a draft notice — doesn’t shy away from advancing its coexistence message during practices. A couple times each month, before the kids run drills and scrimmage, they attend an hourlong educational session on the field featuring games and exercises designed to imbue tolerance and an appreciation for pluralism. Some activities also aim to counter racism among Israeli soccer fans and players.

In one exercise on Monday, this city’s 13-year-olds’ team divided into two groups. One was allowed to play by normal rules, with the advantage of two goalies. The other had the usual one goalie, plus its players could only touch the ball twice before passing it. The exercise aimed to teach the kids how to handle an uneven power dynamic between two groups.

Michaeli, who runs the exercises, has experience playing with groups from different backgrounds. The child of a kibbutz, he grew up playing in a league with city kids, Arabs and Jews. While Michaeli said the kids enjoy the educational activities, they don’t always succeed. He recalled one exercise about breaking Shabbat to play the game — the core dilemma Tzav Pius is addressing. The ensuing argument ended up splitting the team along religious and secular lines.

“It’s all nice in theory, but in practice it isn’t always,” Michaeli said. “Everyone goes to their own corner and isn’t ready to give up on his space. Secular will remain secular, but I think the kids on the team will be a little more open.”

Although Tzav Pius allows Yoel, the 12-year-old forward, to play, he still feels a conflict between religion and soccer. Were he not Shabbat observant, he said, he could join the best youth teams and try to work his way up.

But Yoel knows one thing for certain: While he appreciates coexistence, he’d rather skip the educational exercises and play the game.

“I would rather have fewer activities,” he said. “Kids don’t enjoy that. We have education at school.”

Brazil’s Jews Scale Back on Kids’ Birthday Extravaganzas

Eduard and Mariana Zagury held a third birthday party for their twins, Gabriel and Daniela, at a fancy “party house” in Rio, but they chose the venue for its innovative educational approach. (Gustavo Serebrenick)

Eduard and Mariana Zagury held a third birthday party for their twins, Gabriel and Daniela, at a fancy “party house” in Rio, but they chose the venue for its innovative educational approach.
(Gustavo Serebrenick)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Mini roller-coasters, Ferris wheels, monorails and zip lines are just some of the over-the-top attractions featured at birthday parties for Rio’s privileged under-10 set — including the overwhelming majority of Jewish kids.

At “casas de festa” (party houses), parents often pay several thousand dollars for lavish themed decorations and amusement-park style attractions for four-hour long, deejayed parties for 100-plus friends of the birthday boy or girl — often as young as 3 — escorted by their parents and siblings.

“It’s a millionaire market,” said businessman Fernando Fajngold, 46, one of the pioneers of the $100 million party industry. “Parties are spectacles where parents ask for foreign [cartoon] characters, magicians, mimics, caricaturists, Japanese food and whatever else you can imagine. Some of these super productions may cost nearly the price of a popular car.”

But in a sign of Brazil’s flagging economy, and a growing sense of modesty among many families, some Brazilian Jewish families are beginning to cut back on the birthday extravaganzas.

Latin America’s largest nation and the home of some 120,000 Jews is facing what is considered the most severe economic crisis in a century.

In 2015, a record 500 Brazilian Jews moved to Israel seeking a better life for their families, including quality public health care, education and job opportunities. For many emigres, moving to Israel is also seen as an escape from snobbery and one-upmanship.

Michelle Diamante Wajntraub, a native of Porto Alegre who lives in Rio, believes the economic crisis is changing attitudes among her contemporaries. She remembers inviting 150 guests to one of her daughters’ parties, but now she prefers small get-togethers.

“It’s too much money for a four-hour party and the child won’t even care if the mother did it or hired someone. All they want is to play with ” she said. “When kids are little, their big parties mostly end up being for the parents. Also, I like to get involved and the kids have lots of fun with the preps.”

Psychologist Aline Fridman said her children Kurt and Charlotte, ages 7 and 5, prefer parties held at their spacious apartment near Copacabana, the Rio neighborhood where most middle-class Jews live.

“Music, theater, books and toys, that’s how we do our parties at home,” Fridman said. “Kids choose what to play with. Last time I bought a pie, candies and food and that’s it. My mom and aunts helped me. It’s cozier and we save money to travel and for cultural activities. We know many couples who are used to doing the same.”

Deborah Khodari, the co-founder of Zukie, a fancy children’s clothing store popular among Jewish moms in Rio, has noticed signs of change among mothers who buy presents for their children’s friends.

“Kids attend an average of four to six parties every month. Sometimes it seems they need to clone themselves between three parties on one same weekend,” said Khodari, a mother of two. “Our shoppers used to pay $30 for a present, but now the average is nearly half of that.”

To be sure, Brazilian Jews continue to host extravagant parties, just as many North American Jews throw lavish bar and bat mitzvah galas despite calls from rabbis and others to scale back for the sake of modesty and “spirituality.”

The children’s party market in Brazil grows 30 percent every year, according to SEBRAE, the Brazilian government’s small business bureau. Considering a target population of 52 million children under 14 in the country, the business is hardly child’s play.

Many of the air-conditioned entertainment shrines where such parties are held are located in Botafogo, where Brazil’s largest Jewish day school, Colégio A. Liessin, is also located. When observant families throw a party, they provide a small table with kosher food — if not a full kosher buffet. When meat is served there are even non-dairy versions of brigadeiros, the sugary Brazilian bonbons that are de rigueur as part of elaborate birthday displays.

Fajngold opened the Unidunite party house in 1996 in upscale Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s newest neighborhood. The demand was so impressive that he opened a second venue, where during the 2000s he hosted some 30 parties every month. Competition quickly became fierce, leading him to close the branch. Today he runs a film and photo production company to serve the industry.

Mariana Zagury’s twins Daniela and Gabriel attend kindergarten at Liessin. Some 200 guests attended their third birthday at one of Rio’s ritziest party houses, Existe Um Lugar. Typical for such events, families brought nannies dressed in impeccable white uniforms to look after their kids.

And yet even here the couple tried to make the day more meaningful. Zagury and her husband, Eduardo, who serves as cantor for Jewish weddings, chose the venue for its innovative educational approach, healthier food, open-air environment and the greenery surrounding the playground.

“Everyone, including Jewish couples, have been seeking more meaningful parties,”Zagury said. “I have the best memories from my childhood when my mother made most things alone without professional aid. I guess it’s a trend once again.”

Although some prefer discretion, most Jewish parents brag about their super parties. Sending pictures to a Jewish newspaper’s social column has been replaced by sharing an album on Facebook. Gustavo Serebrenik is among the more sought-after photographers. Nearly half of his clientele is Jewish.

“Spontaneous photos, when performed with the appropriate technique and good light, have the power to make parents truly delighted,” he said. “Those are moments that they didn’t notice during the party and they are caught by surprise to see in pictures.”

In Israel, some Brazilian immigrants look back on the big parties with a mixture of nostalgia and rue.

When Rio-born kindergarten teacher Karen Holperin, who now lives near Tel Aviv, threw the first birthday party for her Israeli-born child Yoni last year, she invited only 30 children and adults. Guests were asked to bring a savory or sweet dish to the park, and she baked the cake.

“I fell in love with the simplicity and intimacy. No waiters, no cleaning ladies, no cooks, no professional decoration,” Holperin said. “We do it on our own. We prepare quiches, salads and sandwiches, or order coxinha [chicken fritters]. Mothers prepare the recreation. I follow my Brazilian Jewish friends’ parties on Facebook and today I find those super productions very awkward.”

Sao Paulo native Luciana Almeida Tub, who lives in Netanya, recently threw a joint party for her kids Uri and Lia. She and her Uruguayan husband welcomed friends of various backgrounds to a party at a Netanya park. Tub directed the show herself.

“What has always impressed me in celebrations here is simplicity in all possible ways,” Tub said. “No loads of money, no one dying to set up a breathtaking decoration, no one dedicating an entire night to prepare candies.

“Initially, I confess I found it big and ugly, but today parties have been planned more carefully. There is even an online group called Talented Moms, where mothers share their dedication to parties, cakes and presents with pride.”

Marcela Goft’s daughter Hannah was born in Israel after her mother made aliyah in 2008. However, the family traveled to Rio to celebrate her first birthday — at a party house.

“We did it the Brazilian way. Israelis believe parties like ours are unnecessary and — why not — chaval al hazman, a waste of time,” Goft said in an email from her home in Efrat, in the West Bank. “Something I like in the Israeli culture: Whereas in Brazil birthday kids receive tens of very expensive presents, here ordinary sticker books or coloring books is enough.”

For Fridman, replacing opulent parties for the do-it-yourself style is a smart and very Jewish trend.

“Due to the historic persecutions, we Jews know we don’t take with us anything but our knowledge, memories, talents, traditions,” she said. “What we save today can be enjoyed by our family tomorrow.”

Beyer Bill Opposes Religious Litmus Tests for Immigrants

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced the Religious Freedom Act of 2016 that would ban religious  litmus tests as a qualification for immigrants entering the United States.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced the Religious Freedom Act of 2016 that would ban religious
litmus tests as a qualification for immigrants entering the United States.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced a bill last week that would ban the use of religious litmus tests as a means of denying admission to immigrants, refugees and international visitors coming to the United States.

Beyer said he acted in response to “political rhetoric vilifying select religious groups and increasingly hostile rhetoric toward religious freedom in the immigration system,” namely proposals by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to bar Muslims and Hispanics from the country.

“It’s especially Donald Trump, but not just him,” Beyer said. “I think it was almost a response to Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush saying they would allow Christians to come in. The bill is not Muslim specific because 10 years from now it could be another group.”

Beyer said that the bill, known as the Religious Freedom Act of 2016 and which adds a clause to the already existing Immigration and Nationality Act, still would allow a person fleeing another country due to religious persecution to use religion as a reason for coming to the United States.

“A person of Baha’i faith in Iran could use his faith as a bona fide way to be granted asylum,” he said.

More than 100 other members of the House of Representatives have co-sponsored the legislation, but retiring Rep. Richard Hanna of New York is the only Republican to do so. Beyer said he would like Republicans to support the legislation, but thinks that is unlikely in an election year.

“All of law and much of public policy are slow evolutions as we wake up to our humanity,” he said. “Morally, it should be easy. Politically, it is difficult.”

Beyer said he also thinks Trump’s candidacy has put Republicans in the position of having to reluctantly support their party’s all-but-certain nominee but remain silent on his specific policy proposals that they otherwise would disagree with.

He pointed out that even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has struggled with whether to support Trump.

Among the Democrats co-sponsoring the bill is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is running to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Van Hollen also expressed concern about Trump’s policy proposals toward immigration.

“This kind of discrimination is un-American and sends the wrong message to those who look to the United States as a beacon of freedom and hope,” he said in a statement. “I support the Freedom of Religion Act because discrimination against one religious minority is a threat to people of all faiths. We must stand firm against hate and xenophobia.”

In addition to the co-sponsors, Beyer’s bill is supported by 105 national organizations, including Washington’s Interfaith Alliance, which works to promote religious freedom and expression. The alliance’s president, Rabbi Jack Moline, who was present at the bill’s announcement on May 11, said the bill is in line with his organization’s mission.

Moline said that while the First Amendment guarantees the right to practice religion freely, the current political climate prompted the need for a specific measure directed at immigrants.

“There’s lot of rhetoric about the need to exclude particular religious groups, Muslims in particular, from access to the United States on no other basis than their faith, and that flies in the face of — at least the ethos — of our Constitution, which does not note any religious test for political office,” he said. “It notes no religious test for immigration standards either, but because there is no indication that religion can’t be used as an exclusionary rule for immigrants, it was necessary to put that in law.”

Moline said he was impressed with the recent statement by Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend the Arc that Muslims came to the United States not as immigrants or refugees, but as slaves.

“It’s a pretty remarkable realization that a person should be snatched from their land and brought here,” he said. “That should be an embarrassment for us, even before legislative remedies are discussed.”

Moline said the legislation does not seek to relax security measures that prevent potential terrorists trying to enter the country.

“We are not contending that any of the current security vetting processes be compromised,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that there aren’t dangerous people out there and that they shouldn’t be prevented from entering this country.

Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has expressed support for the bill, which executive director Ron Halber said is in the spirit of the Jewish community’s history of religious freedom and opposition to bigotry.

“Given the Torah’s imperative to treat strangers among us with compassion and dignity and our history as a Jewish people of repeatedly fleeing persecution, we are acutely sensitive to discrimination,” he said in a statement. “We are proud to stand with the interfaith community to ensure that no one seeking refuge or a better life in the United States will be discriminated against based on his or her religious beliefs.”

Second Round of Chabad Hearings Begins

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky testifies at a Baltimore County Board of Appeals hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky testifies at a Baltimore County Board of Appeals hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

The battle over a Chabad synagogue proposed to be built in a residential neighborhood in Pikesville has entered a second series of hearings at the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

The decision by an administrative law judge, who heard the case over the course of eight hearings between June and November 2015, was appealed, and the new hearing began on May 12. Six other dates are set for the case, the last being June 23.

The Board of Appeals hearing functions as a de novo hearing, meaning that it is a new hearing, and both sides will restate their cases rather than review the previous case.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews, hopes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot building on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road.

Neighbors of the property and the surrounding area are opposing the synagogue, citing concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety, noise, light pollution and the synagogue not being consistent with the character of the neighborhood. Immediate neighbors said they expected houses to be built on the property at some point.

In the administrative law decision, Judge John Beverungen said the synagogue’s proposal complied with certain zoning regulations and possibly violated others. He did say the proposal was an “inappropriate change” to a previously filed development plan for the property but did not rule on whether or not Belinsky’s plans needed to be consistent with that original plan.

At the May 12 hearing, Belinsky spoke about his background and his congregation. He explained his plans for the synagogue and the future of his congregation and was cross-examined by attorneys for the opposition. A landscape architect also spoke about the plans and was cross-examined. About 20 residents who oppose the synagogue attended the hearing.

Netanyahu Keeps Calling for Talks with Abbas. Is He Serious?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff Yair Golan alongside President Reuven Rivlin at an Israeli Independence Day ceremony for outstanding  soldiers on May 12. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 via JTA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff Yair Golan alongside President Reuven Rivlin at an Israeli Independence Day ceremony for outstanding soldiers on May 12. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 via JTA)

TEL AVIV — For a leader often accused of not wanting to talk peace with the Palestinians,  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sure does a lot of talking about wanting to talk to the Palestinians.

In a series of three statements this month, Netanyahu repeatedly stressed the need for peace with the Palestinians. He called the peace process one of his highest priorities and hinted that a renewal of talks might be underway.

Responding to a question about the peace process on Twitter on May 12, Israel’s Independence Day, Netanyahu said “there’s nothing I want more or am more active on, in many ways you don’t know.” Later that day, speaking to foreign diplomats in Jerusalem, he asked for help arranging a meeting between himself and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I have taken steps that no other prime minister in Israel’s history has taken to advance peace,” he said. “Every minute that President Abbas refuses to accept my call for peace robs Palestinians and Israelis of the opportunity to live without fear.”

Netanyahu’s commitment to a Palestinian state, even in theory, has remained a question mark and divided observers of Israeli politics since he took  office in 2009. Both his defenders and his critics point to different sets of gestures and statements he’s made that signal support for, or opposition to, a two-state solution. In the lead-up to elections 14 months ago, he dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch.

But in a talk to North American Jewish federations last  November, he said he “remain[s] committed to a vision of two states for two peoples where a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state, and Israel will continue to work for peace in the hope that what is not achievable today might be achievable tomorrow.”

At the same time, Abbas repeatedly has declined another round of negotiations, saying he would only talk following Israeli good-faith measures. Before the last series of talks, in 2013, Israel released 82 Palestinian prisoners before the two sides met. Net-anyahu’s defenders say Abbas’ reticence shows that the Palestinian leader remains the main obstacle to a deal.

“This process has two sides, and I think the central problem isn’t Israel but Abu Mazen,” said former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Shaul Shay, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen isn’t prepared to reach an agreement, so things are stuck not necessarily because of Israel.”

Abbas instead has turned to international forums, including the United Nations, to recognize a Palestinian state and hold Israel accountable for what he calls violations of international law.

Most recently, Abbas endorsed a French-led initiative to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference for the summer, an initiative Israel opposes.

The France initiative is just one of three factors leading  Netanyahu to emphasize peace talks again, analysts say. The others include the possibility of the center-left Labor Party joining his coalition and a  desire to project optimism on Israel’s Independence Day.

The French initiative calls for a regional peace conference to be held in the summer. Should negotiations fail, France has vowed to recognize a State of Palestine. Israel thus far has refused to participate, saying the statehood recognition threat gives the Palestinians no incentive to negotiate in good faith.

“The only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. “Any other attempt only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch.”

Netanyahu is also enmeshed in negotiations with the Knesset’s largest opposition party, Labor, which advocates a settlement building freeze and renewed peace talks. Rumors have swirled in recent days that party chairman Isaac Herzog is ready to sign on in exchange, in part, for being named Israel’s foreign minister. Herzog acknowledged the negotiations in a May 12 Facebook post, but said he was not yet ready to join the government.

“If I receive a mandate to stop the next campaign of funerals and to block the danger of an international boycott, to bring back the United States and  Europe as allies, to open negotiations with regional states and to separate from the Palestinians into two states so as to stop the continual campaign of terror, then I’ll know my hands are on the steering wheel,” the post read.

Renewed negotiations have seemed remote recently. A brutal war in Gaza followed the collapse of talks in 2014. Last year saw the formation of a right-wing Israeli government, succeeded by a wave of terror that is only now fading.

“He sees a theoretical possibility but not a practical one,” said Dror Zeevi, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu. “If things come together, it’s possible he would be ready for a deal, but I don’t think it’s practical in the current government.”

Those who insist Netanyahu is sincere about renewing talks point to his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he committed to supporting a  demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. They note that he froze West Bank settlement growth in 2010 and freed Palestinian prisoners to jump-start negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Since taking office seven years ago, Netanyahu  repeatedly has called for direct negotiations with Abbas.

“He’s ready to make concessions,” said Ephraim Inbar,  director of Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Everyone knows he’ll make concessions. He was ready to freeze settlements. There are concessions he won’t make for security reasons, for historical reasons, and the nation agrees with him.”

Others point to Netanyahu’s decades-long opposition to Palestinian statehood prior to 2009. Since the building freeze, they note, Netanyahu has expanded settlements throughout the West Bank. And in March 2015, two days before Israeli elections, Netanyahu told the Israeli news website NRG that a Palestinian state would not rise while he is prime minister.

Gershon Baskin, who has acted as a conduit between the Netanyahu government and Palestinian leaders, said that Abbas has thrice offered to begin secret direct talks with Netanyahu. Each time, Baskin said, Netanyahu has refused.

“The point isn’t negotiating anymore — it’s making decisions,” Baskin said. “[Netanyahu] doesn’t do anything in terms of policy to show that a two-state solution is what he wants. Nothing on the ground indicates that.”

But others insist it is Abbas offering mixed messages, as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled a recent report on the Palestinian leader and Israel.

“It is not just that Abbas and the P.A. turned their backs on any peace talks with Israel — a position they have hewed to ever since” turning to the international community for unilateral actions, wrote David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow and director of Project Fikra at The Washington Institute in “Mixed Messages.” “It is also that they had decided thenceforth to seek independent statehood for themselves without paying any price at all to  Israel — neither the end of claims and conflict, nor a compromise on refugees, nor formal agreement on any other issue. In other words, their objective was land without peace.”

JHU Bestows Highest Honor on Power Couple

Ellen Heller (Provided)

Ellen Heller (Provided)

When members of John Hopkins University’s class of 2016 walked across the stage at Royal Farms Arena on Wednesday to receive their degrees, there were eight others there receiving honorary doctorates for being leaders and innovators in their fields.

Among those eight was a husband and wife who have left long-lasting impacts on the criminal justice system and legal professions as well as the Baltimore Jewish community and beyond through their philanthropic work.

Shale Stiller and Ellen Heller both received honorary doctorates at the ceremony. Heller was the first female appointed as the Maryland Circuit Court Administrative Judge and instituted court reforms in the drug court and implemented a settlement and mediation program.

Stiller, a partner in the law firm DLA Piper, has led landmark cases on subjects such as the constitutionality of Maryland’s school finance system and litigation against those propagating the savings and loan crisis. He has recently been at the forefront of successful litigation against Iran in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both Stiller and Heller have been involved in various local and global philanthropic causes including the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the American Jewish Committee and the American Joint Distribution Committee among others.

“Ellen and Shale’s love for the law is only matched by their passion for serving others, both in Baltimore and overseas,” Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels said in a statement. “Johns Hopkins and Baltimore are better places due to their tireless commitment, and we are proud to honor them at our commencement.”

Shale Stiller (Provided)

Shale Stiller (Provided)

When Heller became a circuit court judge in 1986, she noticed a large backlog of cases on the civil docket.

“The delay really affects, I think, the general concept of justice,” she said.

Through her efforts and grant funding she acquired, the civil docket became computerized and put in scheduling orders for various parts of cases based on complexity. She also introduced alternative dispute resolution, which were pre-trial conferences that brought parties together to try to settle matters before trial. After realizing there weren’t enough judges to reside over these conferences, she had the idea of asking attorneys in Baltimore to volunteer their team, and around 100 did and still do, she said.

“I didn’t do it alone, it’s very important [to note] I had wonderful colleagues on the bench and wonderful support staff,” she said.

In 1999, she became the first woman in Maryland to be appointed circuit administrative judge. In 2003, she created the felony drug initiative to divert nonviolent substance abuse offenders to treatment and case management, and ultimately job training. Although she has retired from the bench, she still resides over cases part time.

Heller was president and chair of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for seven years, which she counts as some of her most meaningful philanthropic work. She traveled to more than 50 countries to oversee aid projects and recently led a delegation to Serbia that resulted in the passage of legislation for restitution of property for Holocaust survivors. She chaired the Early Childhood Committee of the Henderson-Hopkins School, which became the first Baltimore City public school to have a center for children from birth to age 5. The center received support from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, from which Heller recently ended her term as chair. There are two other similar programs in the city and two others coming soon, Heller said.

She has been active in a number of other organizations including the Baltimore Community Foundation, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics among others.

Like his wife, Stiller was overwhelmed by the honor.

“The letter that I got from Hopkins that announced this … states that this is the highest honors that Johns Hopkins University can give to anyone, and for someone with my background, that is really overwhelming,” he said.

The background to which Stiller referred is that both his and his wife’s grandparents came to the United States from Europe with virtually no money.

“It’s just unbelievable that we are being given this honor. This is, of course, one of a few countries in the world where such an amazing thing can happen,” he said.

Stiller has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law for 53 years and has been an active member of the American Law Institute for 45 years. He is the only Maryland lawyer to have been elected a fellow of both the American College of Tax Counsel and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. In 2011, the Baltimore Bar Association named Stiller a Living Legal Legend.

He got a taste for philanthropy from watching his father and his mentors engage in charitable work. It’s also a big part of Judaism for him.

“Two of our grandchildren live in Baltimore, and they and their parents come over for Shabbos dinner virtually every Friday night, and I explain the weekly parshahs to them, and part of the parshahs is the notion of charity, and I try to teach the grandchildren that,” he said. “I know that so much of being a Jew is being involved in philanthropy.”

He has served as president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation and the Charles Crane Family Foundation. He has also served as chairman of the board of The Park School of Baltimore and has been a trustee and officer at the American Jewish Committee and The Associated.

Stiller has authored articles and several books and is a devotee of the humanities. In the 1970s as a young attorney, he enrolled at Hopkins to pursue a Master of Liberal Arts, which he completed.

“I was fearful of what specialization might do to me,” he quipped.

Maureen Marsh, secretary of the Johns Hopkins University board of trustees, said that Stiller and Heller fit in well with the group of honorees.

“They are civic leaders both in the city of Baltimore and beyond, and their roles and the projects and initiatives they have both touched are so impressive,” she said. “[They’re all] visionary leaders in their field who have contributed to the betterment of the world.”

Envisioning the Future JCC Biennial celebrates history, looks ahead

from left: Annette Saxon, board chair of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, with biennial host community chair Maury Garten and co-chairs Carol Noel, Randi Hertzog and Randi Buergenthal. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

from left: Annette Saxon, board chair of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, with biennial host community chair Maury Garten and co-chairs Carol Noel, Randi Hertzberg and Randi Buergenthal. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

More than 500 representatives of Jewish Community Centers from around the world convened in Baltimore this week for the JCCs of North America Biennial.

The officials gathered to share their unique successes, discuss their concerns and look at how the continually evolving Jewish community poses challenges and opportunities for JCCs. The event also served as an early kick-off to next year’s centennial celebrations.

Barak Hermann, president of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, said it was a great honor to bring people together to share best practices in Baltimore.

“We’re constantly looking for new ideas that can inspire new programs, attract people to be involved with lay leadership and volunteer, inspire staff and create partnerships,” he said. “We have growing needs from our membership in our community, and like any other nonprofit or JCC, we’re constantly looking for strategies to meet those needs, to drive those revenues [that] we need to maintain our 160 years of being a JCC.”

The Baltimore JCC, the oldest in the country, was founded in 1854 as the first Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association to provide support for Jewish immigrants.

The biennial, which kicked off with Shabbat celebrations on Friday, May 13 and ran through Wednesday, allowed JCC professionals and leaders at all levels and employed in all disciplines chances to connect with their peers and refine their skills. There were sessions for JCCs of all sizes for fundraising, for programming, for young leaders and for JCC programs such as the Maccabi Games and Artsfest, arts and culture, camps, fitness and board development.

There was a particular focus on engaging key JCC demographics — baby boomers, millennials and teenagers — who were the subject of Monday morning’s plenary and the breakout sessions that followed.

Embracing the Change

The Sunday afternoon plenary, which was the first of the biennial, kicked off with a performance of “Good Morning Baltimore” by Amy Toporek, a longtime member of the JCC of Central New Jersey who played the lead role of Tracy Turnblad in a national tour of the American musical “Hairspray.”

Stephen Seiden, chair of the JCC Association, made the opening remarks, noting the 2016 biennial featured delegations from 90 JCCs, 45 participants from the Esther Leah Ritz Emerging JCC Leaders Institute, 24 overseas delegates from JCC Global and guests from 11 countries in addition to the U.S. and Canada such as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Spain, France and Bulgaria.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to learn with Jews from around the globe. As we’re all aware, participants from some of these communities have experienced increased anti-Semitism or have endured troubled, terrible acts of terror,” said Seiden. “Being together here gives us a profound sense of peoplehood at a time that I know we all need it.”

Annette Saxon, board chair of JCC of Greater Baltimore, introduced Maury Garten, the biennial host community chair. Garten, along with his co-chairs Carol Noel, Randi Hertzberg and Randi Buergenthal, led the biennial’s planning for the past two years.

From left: Alexis Abramson, Rabbi Jessy Gross and David Bryfman join forces at a plenary session to talk about baby boomers, millennials and teenagers, respectively. (Photo by David Stuck)

From left: Alexis Abramson, Rabbi Jessy Gross and David Bryfman join forces at a plenary session to talk about baby boomers, millennials and teenagers, respectively. (Photo by David Stuck)

Garten also delivered a d’var Torah focusing on the event being an opportunity for JCC leaders to reflect on faith and the past as they look toward the future of the movement. Garten shared a story about his grandmother, Bess Cohen Fedder, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years. Despite losing the ability to recognize family, the disease never impeded her faith, he said. On a Friday night in 1994, she lit her Shabbat candles, recited the prayers, ate dinner and then died.

“I suspect for all of you [here today], if you were ill with Alzheimer’s disease, the meaning of faith wouldn’t escape you,” said Garten, who received a standing ovation.

The keynote speaker was Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the American arm of the United Nations Children’s Fund, better known as UNICEF.

Stern recalled memories of traveling to African countries and seeing the effects of malnourishment in children, watching an infant suffering from tetanus die in front of her and what it means for women to give birth in third-world countries — a stark contrast to how she herself gave birth in a Manhattan hospital surrounded by family.

One of Stern’s main motivations throughout her career, she said, was her upbringing.

“If you weren’t part of the solution, you were the problem,” said Stern, quoting her mother who insisted her children be active contributors in bettering the world. “You weren’t part of the problem; you were the problem.”

The Owings Mills JCC hosted a delegation from the biennial for JBaltimore Live: Onsite at the Owings Mills JCC. Attendees were greeted by music from students at the JCC’s Early Childhood Education Center and attended sessions on health care, engaging the observant community, the arts and leveraging the JCC brand beyond the facility. (Photo by David Stuck)

The Owings Mills JCC hosted a delegation from the biennial for JBaltimore Live: Onsite at the Owings Mills JCC. Attendees were greeted by music from students at the JCC’s Early Childhood Education Center and attended sessions on health care, engaging the observant community, the arts and leveraging the JCC brand beyond the facility. (Photo by David Stuck)

Monday morning’s plenary opened with remarks by Aviad Friedman, chairman of the Israeli Association of Community Centers who spoke to the work the organization is doing in the Jewish state.

He was followed by the JCC Association’s interim president, Alan Mann, whose speech was based on an imaginary conversation with his eventual successor. He answered the question as to why he came out of his comfortable retirement to lead the organization.

“I wouldn’t have come back for any other job. I care deeply and believe deeply in the JCC Association and the JCCs,” said Mann. “There’s something special about what the JCC does for people who enter its doors and the community as a whole.”

However, he acknowledged, “we’re going to have to figure out new ways to do business as communities shift and how to stay relevant and meet the needs of an ever-changing Jewish world.”

Staying relevant was the theme of the day, factoring in the primary discussion of Monday’s plenary about teens, millennials and baby boomers and what makes them tick — their misconceptions and their commonalities.

The panel was moderated by Stuart Raynor, a JCC Association board member from Denver. Alexis Abramson, a leading industry expert and trend-spotter for those over 50, represented baby boomers; Baltimore’s Rabbi Jessy Gross, director of Charm City Tribe, spoke about millennials; and David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of the Jewish Education Project, fielded questions about teenagers.

The discussion began with each expert offering one or two individuals who they believe made a significant contribution to society.

Baltimore artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen (right) spearheaded a mural project in which participants painted three panels during the biennial that represent the past, present and future of the JCC. The mural was hung at the closing plenary and will tour to JCCs around the country. (Photo by David Stuck)

Baltimore artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen (right) spearheaded a mural project in which participants painted three panels during the biennial that represent the past, present and future of the JCC. The mural was hung at the closing plenary and will tour to JCCs around the country. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Abramson chose Craig Venter, the scientist who first sequenced the human genome, in place of who she said was a likely favorite, the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. Gross choose Brad Damphousse and Andrew Ballester, founders of the online-crowdfunding website GoFundMe over Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Bryfman named Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

Raynor gave each panelist general questions as well as ones targeted to each age group. When asked about how society can more effectively care for the aging baby-boomer population, Abramson stressed communication.

“Ask them what they want. We have been neglectful [about] talking to boomers. For some reason we don’t ask them about their voice or opinion,” said Abramson. “Boomers want to understand their next step in life; more than just staying healthy, they want [us to take] interest in what is happening in their lives.”

Responding to a question about affiliation rates dropping among younger Jews, Gross spoke to what she sees as a reality that organized Jewish institutions have not yet come to terms with.

Rabbi Jessy Gross, director of Charm City Tribe, speaks about her organization, which aims to engage millennials in Jewish life outside of typical Jewish settings. (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Jessy Gross, director of Charm City Tribe, speaks about her organization, which aims to engage millennials in Jewish life outside of typical Jewish settings. (Photo by David Stuck)

“When are [millennials] going to come back to the way we have been doing things?” asked Gross. “The difficult thing to engage with is that they’re not returning. For most millennials, we’ve already started [this change] that won’t let us return to where we came from.”

Bryfman, who represented what he called “the most narcissistic, egotistical” generation, related the issue to teenagers, who like millennials, are sometimes put off by organized  religious institutions.

“[People who ask this question] don’t get it … [they’re] not coming back,” said Bryfman. “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he said, emphasizing the fact teenagers have gone off and are exploring religion in their own ways, and that is a reflection of their strong relationship with religion rather than a failure in their upbringings.

Gross, who was recently named by The Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in the country, spoke about her work with Charm City Tribe, which focuses on engaging young Jewish professionals in Jewish life outside of typical Jewish settings.

“One of the efforts that I try to do as someone who is located kind of on the margins and the periphery of lots of the JCC’s departments and the way we think about our organizational structure is to always make sure that we are being consistent and authentic with our messaging, that it is rooted in Torah and tradition,” said Gross.

She explained that many of her events have people congregating in public spaces where Jewish people may come but not necessarily expect Jewish activity such as a Chanukah party at a brewery.

“It gives you an opportunity to give people a sense of rhythm and a connection to a Jewish experience that they may or may not have if they don’t walk in the building,” she said.

Best Practices

JCC directors from around the region were eager to learn from their peers.

“It is the single best opportunity to bring the leadership of JCCs from around the world together and to hear from, learn from each other about what’s happening,” said Les Cohen, executive director of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, N.J. “I think most of us are finding business is a little bit different than it was even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, in terms of revenue streams. So it is good to hear what else is going on, how [others] are solving this.”

The Katz JCC was recognized for programmatic excellence and user management at the biennial.

Randi Benesch (center) tells biennial attendees about the Owings Mills JCC and the Gordon Center for Performing Arts’ wide offerings and how arts programming has served as another entry point into the JCC for many. (Photo by David Stuck)

Randi Benesch (center) tells biennial attendees about the Owings Mills JCC and the Gordon Center for Performing Arts’ wide offerings and how arts programming has served as another entry point into the JCC for many. (Photo by David Stuck)

Felicia “Lisie” Gottdenker, chair of the board of directors at the JCC of Greater Washington, came to the biennial looking forward to sessions for different sized JCCs, citing the idea that similar operating revenues and size result in similar challenges to overcome. But more than any one topic, Gottdenker was interested in the exchange of ideas.

“One of the best things about biennial is being able to hear what’s going in the movement on a continental basis,” said Gottdenker, who has served on her JCC’s board since 2004. “You can engage with other leaders, and you can try to maximize on your own good ideas as well as what’s going on across the country and continental arena.”

The JCC of Greater Washington was recognized for attracting and retaining the best staff.

Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which was honored for JBrand implantation and execution, said he always looks for ideas that he can adapt in Pittsburgh.

“You have to be innovating all of your program areas all the time, so part of that is trying to build a culture that’s always innovating at the ground level,” he said. “So one of our mantras is how do we create innovation up, down and all around?”

On the innovation side of things, Schreiber’s JCC recently started a live Web chat option on its website that is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For messages sent outside of those hours, staffers get back to people within 24 hours.

In keeping with the sharing of best practices, Schreiber and Hermann shared some successes from their JCCs at a Sunday morning session for JCCs in metro areas.

Schreiber spoke about his JCC’s PJ Library ambassador program. In an effort to engage families with young children, the JCC hired young moms who were not working to serve as PJ ambassadors, and the program grew from five in-facility programs to 21 community programs that took place at the zoo, Barnes and Noble, congregations and homes. Families came out in droves for an afikomen hunt on city blocks and matzoh pizza at a local Italian bakery.

“You have to step out of your box,” Schreiber said. “Our paradigm shift, it’s not about subscriptions, although we want them to grow … it’s about being in the long haul and not expecting immediate return.”

Hermann spoke about “opening up the market” with the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s community block party, which will be held for the third time on June 5. While not all stakeholders bought into the idea at first, the party saw the JCC invite secular and religious organizations, including those with competing swim programs, schools and camps.

“We thought that anybody who saw us as not being territorial about our program would value the J,” Hermann said. “We’re not competition anymore, we’re one big community.”

Partnerships have formed and expanded because of the party and membership has risen as well out of the event.

On Monday afternoon, the JCC of Greater Baltimore hosted JBaltimore Live: Onsite at the Owings Mills JCC, where a delegation from the biennial learned about Jewish Baltimore and the programs of its JCC.

Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the American arm of UNICEF, addresses the opening plenary as keynote speaker. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the American arm of UNICEF, addresses the opening plenary as keynote speaker. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

The professional staff behind some of the JCC’s programming discussed the strategies and methods of engagement on how they attract different demographics. One of the panelists, Sharon Siegel, senior program director at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, challenged the audience to count the number of times the panel said “relationship, partner or support,” all of which she emphasized were key elements of their job.

In another session, representatives discussed how the JCC has utilized partnerships with leading health care systems in Baltimore such as LifeBridge Health to develop a profitable and successful partnership.

At the session on arts programming, senior managing director of arts and culture Randi Benesch spoke about the JCC and the Gordon Center for Performing Art’s extensive arts offerings and how they bring in community members.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring new people to our campus. I can’t tell you how many people walk through these doors who have never been here before” she said. “This provides an entry point for them.”

Another session focused on serving the observant community and the balancing act the JCC on Park Heights Avenue goes through to make sure it is accommodating both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in the same facility.

At breakout sessions, JCC biennial attendees shared successes and challenges and exchanged ideas with colleagues from around the world. (Photo by David Stuck)

At breakout sessions, JCC biennial attendees shared successes and challenges and exchanged ideas with colleagues from around the world. (Photo by David Stuck)

Past, Present and Future

As Jewish immigrants came to America in droves in the late 19th century, Young Men’s Hebrew Associations, Young Women’s Hebrew Associations and Jewish Community Centers helped immigrants adapt to life in the North America.

During the first World War, the Council of Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Associations made sure soldiers had rabbis to serve them as chaplains. The organization called a conference of Jewish bodies in 1917, which gave birth to the Jewish Welfare Board. JWB became the national association of JCCs and YM-YWHAs.

“JWB stressed unity in the Jewish community for a largely urban population, focusing on Jewish summer camps, youth programs and cultural and recreational aspirations of an assimilating tribe,” said centennial chair Lisa Brill. “They created a lecture and concert bureau, trained camp counselors and helped JCCs find qualified staff. And then they brought the staff and the leadership together much like we’re doing today. So, sometimes the more things change, the more they actually stay the same.”

While Brill promised there will be a variety of ways the JCC Association of North America, the umbrella organization of JCCs, will be celebrating the centennial year, she revealed several at the biennial.

The military siddur created and printed in conjunction with the 2014 biennial will see a second printing, including a large-print version for veterans. There has also been a digital registry created where people can enter information on chaplains who have served, and that database will eventually be part of the centennial website.

A newly created grant program, Making Music Happen, will award grants of up to $7,500 for affiliated JCCs to bring music programs to their facilities and communities.

Throughout the biennial, participants helped paint three panels for a mural that captures the JCC’s past, present and future. The artist who led the effort was Baltimore’s Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, and the elements in the murals came out of workshops in New York, Rockville, Md., Jerusalem and Baltimore.

“Each one’s a little unique, not quite what everyone thinks,” Schlossberg-Cohen said. “It will end with my vision of the future, which is the Jews still here, colorful, everyone accepted in our doors. Really the J, I think, is the one place, particularly in Baltimore, where Jews of all denominations feel comfortable. It’s the only place I’ve ever really seen that as a Jewish institution.”

The murals, which were displayed at the closing plenary, will tour to JCCs around the country.

Brill hopes the murals won’t be the only product of the biennial that JCCs will see.

“This is a celebration of all JCCs, and we hope you will share the joy and pride of this wonderful movement,” she said, “that hopefully what you’re feeling tonight you will take back to your communities.”

White House Names Weissman as Jewish Liaison


Chanan Weissman (center) speaks with Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington director William Daroff (right) and Jordan Hirsch. (Photo by Ron Sachs from CNP/Courtesy of Jewish Insider)

Being a White House liaison to the Jewish community can be a tough, thankless job. But Chanan Weissman, who was appointed to the position last week for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s time in office, is more than prepared, say many of his closest colleagues.

Weissman, 32, is the first modern Orthodox Jew to serve as the Jewish liaison in a Democratic administration. He replaces Matt Nosanchuk, who stepped down last month after almost three years. Weissman previously served as spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor, in addition to previous federal government roles.

Weissman’s responsibilities will include reaching out to Jewish communities across the country about the White House’s policy issues as well as organizing functions such as the two annual White House Chanukah parties.

The liaison’s job is to unite people of all political and religious backgrounds, said Steve Rabinowitz, who heads a Washington public relations firm and worked for the Clinton White House.

 Chanan Weissman will inherit an American Jewish community that is deeply divided over President Obama’s policies toward Israel and the Middle East.

“The trite answer is, [his job is] to not screw up. But really the challenge is to properly represent the administration in easy times and tougher times — not that any of us want to relive the Iran debacle — and to try to be as inclusive of the community as possible,” Rabinowitz said. “You can’t touch everybody, but you want to be able to touch all kinds of people.”

Rabinowitz, who has known Weissman since Weissman worked in the State Department, said he is a “lovely guy” who comes to the new position with a large amount of political knowledge.

“He knows the community,” Rabinowitz said. “He understands the issues already. It’s like he’s the rare guy who comes to the job already knowing 80 to 90 percent of it on the first day.”

Rabinowitz said that he expects a smooth transition from Nosanchuk to Weissman and that nothing about Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community will change.

“The president is already a very well-known commodity to the community,” he said. “Chanan will pick up nicely where Matt left off and continue to represent the White House and the Jewish community.”

Weissman will inherit an American Jewish community that is deeply divided over Obama’s policies toward Israel and the Middle East. Nosanchuk saw a clear example of the tension play out last year when he launched a “pedal-to-the-metal” effort to inform the Jewish community about the Iran nuclear deal.

“We engaged the entire community, not just those who agreed with this,” Nosanchuk told Washington Jewish Week last October. “Our efforts were predicated on the strong belief that the facts were on our side, that a good deal will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons while strengthening Israel’s security and predicated on intensive monitoring and inspections. We had a war room we called the ‘peace room.’ There were two colleagues there all the time in order to have information for members of Congress. We used email, Twitter and social media to [get the word out], and we traveled, going out into the community.”

Perhaps the most colorful description of the liaison’s job comes from Michael Koplow, the policy director of the liberal Israel Policy Forum.

“It’s a lot like herding cats,” he said. “American Jews are obviously a diverse group in all sorts of ways.”

Koplow met Weissman when both were members of Kesher Israel in Georgetown. He said the two also worked together in 2007 and 2008 at the Israel Policy Forum. Koplow thinks Weissman’s youth and knowledge of what American Jewry thinks about certain issues makes him ideal for the position.

“More than trying to unite the Jewish community around a single policy, I think it’s about listening to the various Jewish groups and individuals and relaying concerns back to the White House,” he said. “I think anyone expecting a uniform view on Israel will be disappointed.”

Weissman has spent the most of his life and career in Maryland and Washington. He grew up in Baltimore, where he attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and government from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

His civic engagement dates back to his childhood, said Zipora Schorr, director of education for Beth Tfiloh. Schorr said that Weissman was heavily involved in student government at the school and always put others first.

“He did a lot of community service,” she said. “He volunteered constantly. He was involved because his family was involved.”

How the 2016 Election Is Upending Pro-Israel Orthodoxies

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes his point at  a news conference at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes his point at a news conference at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — When it comes to Israel, Democrats and Republicans simply do not see eye to eye, and for all their love of Zion, evangelicals will turn out for a candidate who is less than 100 percent on the issue.

Welcome to the 2016 presidential election, when the conventional pro-Israel wisdom has been turned upside down.

For years it was sacrosanct that whatever else divides the parties, backing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s line on Israel unites them. And Republicans who want to be elected better count on evangelicals and their rock-solid support for Israel.

This year, the presumptive Republican nominee is an unknowable provocateur who has said he couldn’t care less about pandering to pro-Israel donors. Democrats who bucked pro-Israel orthodoxies over the last year are confident they can reclaim the Senate and are setting their sights on the once-unthinkable — regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he would approach Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking with neutrality and for weeks would not commit to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He also told a roomful of Jewish Republicans that he did not want their money.

Trump seems unwilling to consistently pander — on Israel or anything else — to a constituency whose turnout many deem essential to a Republican victory in presidential elections.

Yet while much of the evangelical establishment loathes Trump, the real estate magnate’s support among evangelicals, at 36 percent, was commensurate with his support among Republicans overall, The Washington Post reported in March. And some leaders in the movement back him, most prominently Jerry Falwell Jr., who heads Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Pro-Israel insiders, attempting to explain evangelical support for Trump, point to disquisitions like one in the Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin and Peter Wehner, neoconservative commentators who distinguish between evangelicals who self-identify because of “broad cultural identification” (and are likelier to vote Trump) and those who do because of a “creedal faith” (less likely to vote Trump.)

It’s an old argument, but it explodes the conventional wisdom. David Brog, the one-time director of Christians United for Israel, would tell reporters year in and year out at CUFI’s conferences that the group had as one of its missions reminding Republicans that to win they needed evangelicals, and to win evangelicals they needed to be pro-Israel.

CUFI declined to comment, as did Brog, who now heads a Sheldon Adelson-funded initiative to advance pro-Israel activism on campus.

Rabbi Steve Gutow also embodies the new normal: He helped set up AIPAC’s Southwest operation in the 1980s, helped found the National Jewish Democratic Council — for years the pro-Israel voice in the party — in the 1990s and for 10 years starting in 2005 directed the consensus-driven Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Last week, Gutow began working for J Street helping candidates who once may have been isolated for their criticism of Israel tap into what J Street calls “pro-Israel, pro-peace” American Jewish voters. Its affiliated J Street PAC is raising money to support candidates who backed the Iran deal over AIPAC’s objections.

“Most of the folks who led for the Iran deal will have won re-election and those who opposed will have lost” come November, predicted Ben Shnider, J Street’s political director. “It’s not the single factor, but if you look at the calculus, supporting diplomacy was added value, and that will go even further in changing the dynamics.”

In an interview, Gutow said the willingness of incumbents to openly challenge pro-Israel orthodoxies came not just because of differences over the Iran deal, but had evolved as Democrats sought to salvage the two-state solution. He said the collapse of the U.S.-driven Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2014 meant that sentiments once uttered privately were coming out into the open.

“Why are people feeling more free to speak out?” Gutow asked. “It’s the length of the problem and the seeming insolubleness of the problem.”

AIPAC recognizes the challenges and this month named Jonathan Kessler, who set up the Israel lobby’s campus operation — one of its signal successes in recent decades — as a “director of strategic initiatives.” Kessler will identify new “outside the box” approaches, according to a release that cited “upheaval in the Middle East and real changes in Washington, D.C.” as reasons for the new position.

AIPAC remains steadfastly nonpartisan. A hallway at its annual conference in March was lined with posters profiling a diverse array of activists — black, white, Latino, Christian, Jewish, liberal, conservative.

“AIPAC is strongly committed to further strengthening the bipartisan pro-Israel movement in America both in its size and diversity,” Marshall Wittmann, its spokesman, said in an email.

But bipartisanship has its limits. For eight years, from 2007 to 2014, AIPAC hosted the Steny and Eric show. The titles varied — some years one was the majority leader, the other the minority whip and vice versa — but the script for Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Eric Cantor, R-Va., didn’t vary by much: It was a demonstration of bipartisan solidarity on Israel despite political differences.

“Although we’re on opposite sides of the political aisle, we are absolutely united when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Cantor said in 2008.

This year’s installment was very different. Cantor, booted from Congress in 2014 by a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primaries, was replaced by Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. All seemed good when he and Hoyer paired up in March at the AIPAC conference.

But McCarthy said the Obama administration sowed “doubt” about Israel, and Hoyer, his voice tense, interrupted the moderator to say the U.S. and Israeli security establishments “are cooperating as closely today as they have in the past.”

If the seams began to show, it was because it had been a rough year or so for unanimity. A year earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress, blasting President Barack Obama’s talks with Iran to achieve a nuclear deal. The speech and its fallout rallied the Democratic Party’s leadership to keep the deal alive, even as AIPAC led the charge against it.

The deal went through. AIPAC has profited from the perception, however mythical, that it can kill political careers. But with a new perception looming — of a lobby that no longer gets its way — the folks who would supplant AIPAC and its allies are ready to seize the day.

By April, when Hillary Clinton faced off against Bernie Sanders ahead of the New York Democratic presidential primary, the Vermont senator chided Clinton in the debate for her well-received speech to AIPAC.

“You barely mentioned the Palestinians,” he said, and the Brooklyn audience cheered.

Sanders did not win the primary, but his willingness to take on Clinton over an issue once seen as the third rail was the sign that the new normal had arrived.

Within days of the debate, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry — representing twice the administration firepower AIPAC had drawn just weeks earlier — were preaching tough love at J Street’s annual gala. Biden made headlines at the event, saying Netanyahu was taking Israel in the “wrong direction.”

Center Aims to Bring Human Trafficking Out of the Shadows

Opening the SAFE Center in College Park are, from left, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, founder and director Susan Esserman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and UMd.-Baltimore President Jay Perman. (Photo by Daniel Schere)

Opening the SAFE Center in College Park are, from left, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, founder and director Susan Esserman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and UMd.-Baltimore President Jay Perman. (Photo by Daniel Schere)

It was a night ride with law enforcement about two years ago that opened Susan Esserman’s eyes to an invisible crisis in Prince George’s County, one she wants to be much more known: human trafficking.

Esserman, a Washington trade lawyer who previously served as the deputy U.S. trade ambassador during President Bill Clinton’s administration, had been asked to help craft legislation in India that would strengthen penalties for traffickers there. To prepare, she decided it would be beneficial first to study the problem in the United States.

What she found while driving through Hyattsville and College Park stuck with her.

“I’ve really been haunted by what I saw that evening,” she said. “There were certain areas of Prince George’s County where it was evident there were brothels in every other apartment with a man sitting in a window either looking out for customers or watching for the police.”

Esserman said at that point, she decided to take action, and to start she had to look no further than her own pro bono clients to find trafficking victims.

Maryland is considered to be a locus of human trafficking.
— Susan Esserman, director, SAFE Center

“I ended up getting quite a bit of referrals in Maryland, my home state, and it was really quite shocking that it could be happening in my backyard,” she said. “There was a real pattern in the matters that I was involved in, and that was that our clients were successful in achieving rights and benefits, but they had difficulty recovering [from the trauma] in any meaningful way. To truly recover from the trauma of trafficking involves a multidisciplinary effort.”

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes as the recruitment or abduction of people through coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation, prostitution, slavery or other practices. There were 118 cases reported in Maryland in 2015, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Nationally, in 2014 there were more than 3,000 human trafficking cases reported, according to government agencies. However, estimates of the number of victims in the United States reach the hundreds of thousands.

Poor sections of Prince George’s County are vulnerable to sex trafficking, Esserman said. Women, especially immigrants, in particular are often preyed upon by pimps who promise them work but force them into slavery and prostitution.

“Maryland is considered to be a locus of human trafficking in part because of the highways, but the areas that I visited are hidden from view,” she said.

The stories Esserman heard from trafficking survivors and the scenes she witnessed during the police ride along spurred her to found the Support, Advocacy, Freedom and Empowerment Center in College Park, of which she is the director. The newly opened center, near the University of Maryland, brings together support services for survivors that include social work, legal and health components.

The center works with both the College Park- and Baltimore-based UMd. social work and law schools. It is funded through private donations and MPowering the State, a partnership of the two campuses to expand research and business development opportunities.

At the SAFE Center’s opening ceremony on May 9, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) praised the universities for leading the charge in solving what has become a national epidemic.

“For America to have credibility on this issue, we have to take care of this issue at home first,” he said. “We know what you do here will not only help those in our state of Maryland, but we know that will give us the information we need to shape our national policy.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a candidate for Maryland’s other Senate seat, echoed Cardin.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to bring all of the resources that we have to bear in attacking this issue,” he said.

Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland-Baltimore School of Social Work, said students take courses in addressing the issues of sexual assault, abandonment, imprisonment and trauma that he thinks will be helpful in assisting victims of trafficking.

“Our clinical students get very good background in general when it comes to working with traumatized individuals,” he said.

Gregory Ball, dean of UMd.’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, said students will be particularly effective in assisting the victims, who tend to be in their teens and 20s.

“A lot of times these women are not too far in age from [the students] and they’ve been caught in a trap. And students feel very empathetic toward them and that they can make a difference,” he said.

Ball said he is excited about the prospect of students applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to help deal with problems confronting the community.

“I think this represents a good example of how people in traditional social science fields who try to understand social phenomena can bring that experience in trying to solve social problems,” he said. “That’s what a university does.”