J Street Popping Up in Role Traditionally Played by NJDC

When Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks takes the stage in Las Vegas next week to debate foreign affairs, his opponent will not be a heavyweight from the National Jewish Democratic Council, the RJC’s opposite number.

Stepping onto the stage at Temple Beth Shalom will be Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel J Street.

The NJDC, known as the main Democratic lobbying group in the Jewish community, closed its Washington headquarters in December, dismissed its staff and contracted its business to a public relations firm.

The organization has been without an executive director since Rabbi Jack Moline stepped down in 2014. Since then the NJDC has been led by its chairman, Greg Rosenbaum.

This smaller public footprint leaves some wondering who will speak for Jewish  Democrats. However, on Tuesday, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, announced that Aaron Weinberg, who was previously active in J Street U — the collegiate arm of J Street, had been appointed the DNC’s director of Jewish Engagement. His job will entail working in battleground states to engage Jewish leaders, along with reaching out to youth, seniors and community leaders in an effort to increase voter turnout.

“The Jewish community  understands what’s at stake for our economy, cares deeply about protecting health care access for all and unfettered women’s and civil rights, values having a fully functioning democracy with a full Supreme Court and strongly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Wasserman Schultz said in  a written statement. “I’m looking forward to working with Aaron in this endeavor to  help keep our country moving forward.”

Republican Jewish Coalition spokesman Mark McNulty said that when it comes to an  opposing Jewish political  organization, the RJC’s attention has shifted elsewhere.

“The NJDC has basically closed up shop, so to have  a forum like [the Las Vegas  debate], the RJC has to engage with groups like J Street,”  he said.

Rosenbaum said that the NJDC is focusing on “fewer states, where our efforts can make a major impact, both  because the state is ‘in play’ and because of a meaningful Jewish population.” To be sure, the battle NJDC faces is different from the RJC’s, owing in large part to the fact that the majority of American Jews either identify with the Democratic Party or vote for Democratic candidates.

Rosenbaum added, “When you consider that only 10 states did not vote for the same party in each of the past four presidential elections and only five of those voted for the winner each time, the field sorts itself out. If only Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and Nevada, in fact, were really swing states, it is clear where our advocacy and efforts should focus as the election approaches.”

Ben-Ami said that while  J Street has endorsed both  Democrats and Republicans for elected office in the past, its positions on Israel and support for the Iran nuclear deal make his organization well  positioned to debate Brooks and the RJC.

“J Street’s approach lines up more with the Democratic Party at this moment,” he said.

The debate, which will be televised March 9 and moderated by Nevada political  reporter Jon Ralston, is the first in a series of discussions about Israel being hosted by the Board of Rabbis of Southern Nevada.

Las Vegas Rabbi Yocheved Mintz said the board chose the RJC and J Street because they wanted a group from the left and one from the right.

“They were the first people that they thought of,” she said.

“We are not political,” she said. “We are community-minded. This is to get the community to sit down and talk in a calm and cool manner. And we’re hoping to provide  an atmosphere that will be  conducive to a civil discourse.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

BJC Advocates in Annapolis

More than 200 Jews from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis Tuesday for the state’s annual Jewish Advocacy Day — a day where constituents from the Jewish community meet with legislators to lobby for the legislation they hope to see passed in the current session, which runs through April 11. This included several members of the Baltimore Jewish Council who were pushing for legislation dealing with disability rights, harassment and universal voter registration.

Throughout the day, constituents had a chance to meet with their elected officials from delegations across the state. In the District 11 meeting, delegates Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim made brief appearances.

“Your being here is helpful. Your writing to us, your calling us, your letting us know about what is important is incredibly important,” Hettleman said.

Morhaim echoed those sentiments and directed part of his encouragement toward a young boy sitting in the front of the room.

“If you’d like to come down to testify in Annapolis you don’t have to be 18, you don’t have to be a citizen, you don’t have to be a lobbyist, all you have to be is patient and wait your turn but we will listen to you,” he said.

BJC director of public affairs Madeline Suggs said constituent meetings are a critical component of advocacy day.

“Even though a lot of our constituents are meeting with their local legislators while they’re at home, there’s a huge power in numbers in Annapolis, and to get a huge group coming down to Annapolis, talking about what’s important to them really has a powerful effect to make sure the legislation gets passed,” she said.

Among the legislation the BJC pushed for was a bill that would increase widening the definition of stalking and harassment to anything intended to cause “serious emotional distress to another.” The law currently only considers this stalking when there is “malicious,” intent.

Members of CHANA were on hand in the District 11 delegation meeting during the afternoon to make their case for the bill, which they feel would help some of their clients that are struggling with issues — such as when they received 100 texts in quick succession from their former spouses.

“The key part of the stalking bill that really has been of most importance has really been to add a component of seeing serious emotional distress as harm that would elevate this to a crime,” said Lauren Shavitz who serves as the program director of CHANA. “So what we see is that oftentimes people who are victims of stalking might not have issues that rise to the level of what the current law has said.”

Shavitz said that the bill is important because it seeks to dispel the notion that a victim of stalking or harassment must have a serious injury or constantly be living in fear in order to receive protection under the law.

“It’s not always the typical stalking behavior that people think of where there’s someone lurking behind the bushes and then jumps out and might attack or scare them,” she said.

BJC director of government relations Sarah Mersky added that this bill is a priority since CHANA and BJC are both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“That bill is specifically important to us because we represent CHANA,” she said.

The BJC also advocated for the ABLE Act, which allows states to establish a tax-advantaged savings program that would allow eligible people with disabilities to set up a separate account earmarked for qualified health-related expenses such as medical or dental care, transportation and housing, without losing Medicaid or Social Security benefits. Currently if a person with disabilities holds more than $2,000 in assets they would not qualify. The ABLE Act is similar to the college savings program some families participate in. BJC board member Elizabeth Green, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, said creating a savings fund is key to the success of this population.

“The biggest piece of what those with disabilities need is health insurance,” she said. “If they could get health insurance without paying for other things that they need to pay for then they could put aside savings for other things. But unfortunately they’re all tied together.”

The ABLE Act will provide funding for people with disabilities who receive assistance from agencies of the Associated including SHEMESH and CHAI, Mersky said.

The BJC also was able to successfully secure funding for a number of budget items including $2 million for fiscal year 2017 and $4 million over the course of 2018 and 2019 that will go toward the construction of a primary and specialty care complex at Sinai Hospital.

Hillel Conference Empowers Young Jewish Women

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

More than 125 students gathered at the University of Maryland Hillel to network, mingle and learn from guest lecturers at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference on Feb. 28.

“Leadership is one of the core pillars of our work [at JWI],” Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, told students and fellow speakers during her keynote speech. “There is nothing more important for every one of you as you go out and get started in your career and your life than to take on the challenges of your own economic empowerment.”

The conference, co-chaired by students Rivka Golding and Raquel Weinberg, was sponsored by the Career Center at the University of Maryland, Keshet, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Sigma Delta Tau, JewelErry, Quartermaine Coffee Roasters and OPI.

“I hope that [the students] make lasting connections with the women they’ve talked to today and that they follow up and email the people they’ve met,” said Golding, who emphasized the conference was focused on the concept of mentorship. “I also hope they walk away feeling empowered and they see these women as role models. [I want them to] walk away knowing that in five or 20 years, this could be them.”

The range of women speaking at the conference varied from recent school alumnae to corporate executives.

“It’s really gratifying and fun [to speak at my alma mater],” said Jenna Gebel, who graduated in 2010 and is now an M.B.A. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think [the fact] they do this conference is incredible and anything I can do to better the school and help other women is wonderful.”

Gebel’s presentation, “Building and Maintaining a Professional Network,” focused on her experiences networking and offering practical advice. She spoke about her experiences meeting Goodwill Industries International senior vice president Wendi Copeland.

While attending a conference about social entrepreneurship, she was seated next to Copeland and decided to start a conversation. After being “blown away” by Copeland’s work, she decided to give her a phone call that afternoon.

“What’s even [crazier] is that [despite how busy Copeland was], she actually picked up the phone when I called,” said Gebel.

After meeting for coffee and discussing Copeland’s work, Gebel saw a position open up at GII. She was chosen for the position and later discovered that Copeland vouched for her from a pool of more than 100 candidates.

“That, for me, was the first lesson that networking is powerful,” said Gebel.

Another leader at the conference who was reaching out to students during the opening cocktail hour was Melissa Rosen, director of national outreach at Sharsheret, an organization that supports young Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer.

“This is a great time [to talk about family health history], as men and women are forming health habits and living as adults for the first time,” said Rosen.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a BRCA gene mutation, according to Shasheret, nearly 10 times the rates of the general population. This makes Jewish families more susceptible to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Abbie Weisberg is the CEO of Keshet, a Chicago-based organization providing educational, recreational, vocational and social programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities that operates according to traditional Jewish values.

Her presentation, “Pursuing Your Passion,” focused on how she became the head of the nonprofit and on how to turn a passion into a career.

“Always start backwards. Ask yourself where you want to be, what is your goal?” said Weisberg to the 50 students who attended her session. “It’s OK if you don’t know. … When I started at Keshet, I had no idea where my career was going to go.”

Weisberg, who has devoted more than 25 years to children with special needs, was named Jewish Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Jewish News and placed on JWI’s list of 10 Women to Watch.

Other speakers included Julie Kantor, president and CEO of Twomentor; Shulamith Klein, chief risk office for Emory University and Emory Healthcare; Juanita Weaver, owner of Creative Connections; and Erica Bernstein, founder and CEO of JewelErry.

Weisberg’s piece of advice to the women in attendance was concise.

“Continue to learn.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Why Israel Is Pilgrimage Site for Birds — and Birdwatchers

Thousands of cranes take flight in Israel’s Hula Valley.

Thousands of cranes take flight in Israel’s Hula Valley.

HULA VALLEY, Israel — Thousands of cranes sit in pairs in a field here, their outlines approaching the horizon. Then,
all at once, they take flight, a cloud of black-and-white feathers filling the sky.

Shai Agmon isn’t interested in most of these. All he cares about is one pair near the front, slightly shorter than the rest. Most of the birds are common cranes, but these two are demoiselle cranes — a rare find in these parts.

“They can’t sleep in the desert and can’t stop in southern Israel,” said Agmon, director of the Hula Valley Avian Research Center for Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund, which manages the valley’s birdwatching park. “Here, they have food and a safe place to rest.”With 300 bird species passing through each year, the Hula Valley in northern Israel is one of the prime birdwatching spots in a country that has gained a reputation as a mecca for birdwatchers. With a location at the nexus of three continents, and a climatic diversity that ranges from arid desert in the south to a cooler mountainous region in the north, Israel draws about 500 million birds annually from 550 species. The entire continent of North America, which is 1,000 times Israel’s size, sees barely twice as many species.

Israel’s unique geographic features — it is also one of the last green spots before the adjacent Sinai and Sahara deserts — has also made it a destination not only for birds, but also for people who live for the thrill of identifying a rare species perched on a branch or lake.

“The more I go see places in the world, the more I see how much richness of nature I have in Israel, and some of it is so close to home,” said Yuval Daks, a bird photographer for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “It’s hard
to compete with the richness of Israel because we have so many climates. We have the desert, [Mount] Hermon.”

For the estimated tens of thousands of birdwatchers who come to Israel every year, the must-see sites aren’t the Western Wall or Masada but the Hula Valley and the Eilat Birdwatching Park. Sometimes armed with telephoto lenses, birdwatchers will wake up before dawn and drive for hours to find a species.

When they’re successful, the experience can be electrifying. Dan Alon, director of the Israel Ornithological Center, recalled being overwhelmed the first time he encountered a flock of 200,000 honey buzzards in 1984.

“It filled the sky,” Alon said. “You couldn’t see the sky. You can’t forget that. I love birds. I love this world. I find new things all the time.”

The Hula Valley became a prime birdwatching spot by accident. Drained of its swamps in the 1950s, the valley was
re-flooded four decades later when KKL-JNF realized the drainage had damaged the local ecosystem. Farmers began planting corn and peanuts in the newly re-moistened soil — exactly the crops cranes like to eat.

Soon, rather than just pass through the valley, 30,000 cranes stayed there every winter, feasting on the crops and sleeping perched in an artificial lake. Now, to protect the farmers’ livelihood, the government feeds the cranes up to eight tons of corn a day.

KKL-JNF is setting up six birdwatching parks throughout Israel in an effort to draw birdwatchers to sites across the country. Every year the society holds Champions of the Flyway in Eilat, in which international teams compete to see how many different species they can spot in one day.

“We’re not going to manage nature,” said Yaron Charka, KKL-JNF’s chief ornithologist. “The most important thing is that there will be interesting birds that come here naturally.”

Some of Israel’s birdwatchers have done more than just look at the winged creatures. Yossi Leshem, director of the Israel-based International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, set up a radar system that detects bird migration patterns to avoid crashes that could down air force jets. Leshem pioneered the use of mice-eating birds like kestrels and barn owls as a means of pest control. And he has helped Israeli schoolchildren learn geography by studying bird migration patterns.

“What’s important to me is to preserve nature,” Leshem said. “So I looked for some applied area that’s not just theoretical.”

Some birdwatchers, however, prefer Israeli activists to leave the country’s avian ecosystem as is. Clive Bramham, an avid American birdwatcher who lives in Norway, has visited Israel twice — in 2002 and a decade later. The first visit, with less infrastructure and fewer crowds, was more pleasant.

“You want access, but you want the real experience,” Bramham said. “The Hula was exciting, [but] I would not go there on a Saturday. I would not do that again. There’s more traffic on the weekend. If you really want to see the birds, get there early.”

DFI Honors Jewish Professionals

dfilogoThe Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center (DFI) announced its 2016 award winners on Monday.

The Outstanding Jewish Communal Professional Award winner is Chana Siff, assistant director of Israel and overseas at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore; the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Jewish Communal Service Award winner is Cindy Goldstein, executive director of DFI; and the first Neely Tal Synder Community Impact Award winner is Rachel Siegal, director of development at the Pearlstone Center.

DFI award winner Chana Siff, assistant director of Israel and overseas at The Associated. (Photo provided)

DFI award winner Chana Siff, assistant director of Israel and overseas at The Associated. (Photo provided)

DFI, an agency of The Associated, will honor the award-winners on April 18 at Creating a Connected Community: DFI’s Celebration of Professionals at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which will also serve to honor all of the area’s Jewish communal professionals.

“It’s an opportunity to really cherish the work people do that is often unseen,” said Liz Minkin-Friedman, chair of DFI and director of community outreach and engagement at Krieger Schechter Day School. She nominated Goldstein for the communal service award. “This is an amazing field, and the professionals that occupy it are incredible.”

Goldstein said she was honored to receive the award in Daniel Thursz’s name. While she didn’t know Thursz, whose career posts included positions at the JCC of Greater Washington and B’nai B’rith International, he influenced a large number of Jewish professionals.

“I’m really honored that they selected me because I’ve been in the field for over 30 years and I’ve been doing this kind of work and I love it. It’s my passion, it’s just what I do,” she said. “I don’t ask for any recognition. It’s my job to recognize everybody else.”

The DFI award winner Cindy Goldstein, executive director of DFI. (Photo provided)

The DFI award winner Cindy Goldstein, executive director of DFI. (Photo provided)

Siff works on a variety of international efforts at The Associated, including the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership and the Israel agenda for the federation, working with her colleagues to educate the community and advocate for and promote Israel.

“I feel honored every day to be working for the Jewish community and for Israel,” she said. “Israel is such an important part of the Jewish people and my personal life, and to be able to help others connect to Israel and to help Jewish people around the globe, especially in Israel, is really an honor and privilege.”

Siff’s award comes with a $1,250 grant to subsidize participation in a professional development opportunity.

The Neely Tal Snyder Community Impact Award, being given for the first time this year, honors the memory of Snyder, who died in a car crash in August. She was the program director at the Pearlstone Center, a wife and mother of three, who is remembered as being a passionate educator, leader and community builder.

Siegal said the honor is bittersweet, as Snyder was a good friend of hers. They worked at Pearlstone together, lived three houses away from each other and had kids that are about the same age. She said Snyder was a very thoughtful person, and that extended to her work, which, Siegal said, she approached with depth, from the largest to the smallest of details.

The DFI award winner Rachel Siegal, director of development at the Pearlstone Center. (Photo provided)

The DFI award winner Rachel Siegal, director of development at the Pearlstone Center. (Photo provided)

She said she feels that her job, along with executive director Jakir Manela, is to make sure Pearlstone has the resources to allow it to be an incubator of creativity and innovation.

“I feel that my job … is to sort of unblock the roadblocks and to make sure we have what we need institutionally to allow for innovation to grow,” she said. “I think it’s about showing people that Judaism and being Jewish are exciting and deeply meaningful and can be relevant to you no matter how you’re coming at it.”

In April, Siff, Siegal and Goldstein will take the spotlight alongside other Jewish communal professionals as DFI celebrates its 13th anniversary.

“It’s really exciting because the idea is really to recognize our professionals who are often behind the scenes, who don’t always get the recognition they deserve,” Goldstein said.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Jewish Voters on Fence About Trump

Donald Trump waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Dallas.

Donald Trump waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Dallas.

Jewish Republican voters this election season are vexing over who to support in the primary, with many reluctant to support businessman and current frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump’s nontraditional approach to campaigning and divisive rhetoric have put them on edge, but Jewish GOP members still say he would be a better president than former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Alexandria resident Deborah Bodlander, who is a member of Virginia’s 8th District Republican Committee, said the vast majority of her Republican friends are unhappy with Trump’s candidacy and believe he is only leading in the polls because of his anti-establishment persona. Bodlander is supporting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) because of what she feels is his strong approach to foreign affairs and national security.

“I trust that our alliance and our support for Israel with a President Rubio would not wane in the least,” she said. “I think he would be extremely supportive of Israel’s right to exist and be peaceful within its borders.”

Bodlander grew up in New York City and moved to Washington for graduate school before working for former congressman Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) who at one time served as chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The last Democrat she voted for was Jimmy Carter in 1976, which she calls a “huge mistake.”

Bodlander said she became familiar with Trump growing up and thought he was a “very nice man” but never contemplated him possibly running for president one day. Yet, she thinks his skills as a businessman could be effective in dealing
with a constantly gridlocked Congress.

“Because he is a businessman who is used to negotiating his deals, he would be able to negotiate on Capitol Hill and would be open to suggestions.”

As of press time Tuesday, polls had Trump at roughly 40 percent in Virginia with Rubio at 25 percent [Virginia voted March 1].

Bodlander plans to support Trump if he is the nominee and said despite the lack of foreign policy experience from the Republican field, she believes any of the candidates would better than Clinton, who she feels has “finagled,” her way into powerful positions with the help of her husband’s [former president Bill Clinton] influence.

“I don’t really look at her and see someone who is qualified to be president,” she said.

Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks about groups such as women, Muslims, Hispanics and others have given many Republican voters cause for concern about losing key demographic groups they will need to win in the general election. But Baltimore County Republican Central Committee chair Al Mendelsohn said he is willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt for his mishaps.

“When I watch somebody, I think, “I could have given a better answer than that, but I’m not on the stage,” he said. “I am at times embarrassed when people say things off the cuff. I felt the same way when the rabbi at my shul (Adat Chaim) supported the Iran nuclear deal. But I didn’t hold anybody to the standard of perfection.”

Mendelsohn has been a lifelong Republican since his father voted for Richard Nixon over Democrat George McGovern in 1972. He plans to support whoever the Republican nominee is and thinks all of the candidates have unique skills, even if they are not politicians.

“We’ve got a world-renowned surgeon [Ben Carson], we’ve got two senators who’ve got great accomplishments under their belts, we’ve got a real estate developer who’s employed tens of thousands of people. So I’ve got nothing but good things to say about all of these people,” he said.

Mendelsohn added that he thinks Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, a Jewish convert, could win a few Jews’ hearts and votes. “That’s a remarkably welcoming kind of position, certainly more so than if my daughter converted,” he said.

Mendelsohn too felt that Clinton’s political experience would not be beneficial to her, due to the stain of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans including ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“Her experience brought us Benghazi, brought us the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, brought us the turmoil in Syria. I really can’t find proof that her experience would be a good thing,” he said, adding that James Buchanan was president leading up to the Civil War despite having served as a congressman and secretary of state.

Both Republican and Independent Jewish voters such as Gary Erlbaum say Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi
attack is a bigger Achilles’ heel than having a limited amount of foreign policy experience.

“I think that Hillary has promised to continue the policies of Barack Obama, does not have a good record on Israel and is a totally untrustworthy human being,” he said while adding that he feels that her policy of removing Muammar Gaddafi from power contributed to the takeover of ISIS in Libya.

Erlbaum, president of Greentree Properties in Philadelphia, said he has supported members of both parties in the past including Joe Biden during his 1988 and 2008 presidential bids. He plans to support the Republican nominee this year and has not made a decision who to vote for, but says Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich appear to be reasonable candidates.

“It’s irrelevant who I emotionally support because the primaries will probably determine the nominee, although there is the possibility of an open convention,” he said.

Erlbaum said he will reluctantly support Trump if he is the nominee but feels that his “demeanor, lack of knowledge and lack of civility would dictate that the Republican Party would be better off with another nominee.”

A wild card in the election could be former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said last month that he was considering a late entry into the race as an independent. A Bloomberg candidacy would be a breath of fresh air should Trump receive the Republican nomination, said Michael Granoff — a disgruntled Democrat who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Jeb Bush.

“I am now supporting Rubio, but if Trump is the GOP nominee, my view is it would be a moral imperative that an independent candidate run,” he said. “Preferably one who is about 10 times as rich as Trump. And if he had political experience too — say, running the country’s biggest city for over a decade [with] record low crime, record high job creation and bipartisan support.  Can you think of anyone like that?”

Granoff, a New Jersey native living in Israel, said he cringes at the possibility of Trump receiving support within the Jewish community.

“Those who follow a tradition once condensed as “don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” cannot support a purported leader who mocks, denigrates and otherwise demeans not just political opponents, but war heroes, immigrants and the disabled.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Chinese Women Make Aliyah from Kaifeng

From left: Li Yuan, Yue Ting, Gao Yichen, Li Jing and Li Chengjin

From left: Li Yuan, Yue Ting, Gao Yichen, Li Jing and Li Chengjin

For the first time in seven years, members of the Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng made aliyah with help from the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shasvei Israel on Feb. 29.

“Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people,” said Michael Freund, chairman of Shasvei Israel. “After centuries of assimilation, a growing number of the Kaifeng Jews in recent years have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity.”

Five women — Li Yuan, Yue Ting, Gao Yichen, Li Jing and Li Chengjin — studied Hebrew and Judaism for several years in preparation for their move to Israel. They plan to continue studying in their new homeland with support from Shasvei Israel and will receive Israeli citizenship after they complete their conversion.

“Being part of the Jewish people is an honor because of the heritage and wisdom,” said Jing, who prayed for help to make aliyah on a previous visit to the Kotel. “Now my prayer has been answered.”

Freund added, “These five young women are determined to rejoin the Jewish people and become proud citizens of the Jewish state, and we are delighted to help them realize their dreams.”

Temple Isaiah Embraces Folk Music Roots

Cheryl Wheeler’s approach to performing is to “talk to people, sing and have a good time.” (Gwendolyn Cates)

Cheryl Wheeler’s approach to performing is to “talk to people, sing and have a good time.” (Gwendolyn Cates)

When people think of Jewish music, folk music isn’t typically the first genre that comes to mind, but Temple Isaiah will become a folk music epicenter on March 12 when it welcomes Cheryl Wheeler in concert with Victoria Vox opening the show.

“The purists thought it wasn’t folk music if it didn’t have a [history to it]; if it didn’t have roots, how could it be folk?” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, who brushed up on the history of folk and folk-rock music in preparation for the museum’s Paul Simon exhibit that recently closed.

Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler, a fan of folk music, met Wheeler’s promoter at a concert and heard she was looking for alternative venues. With his synagogue’s president and fellow folk music fan, Larry Gordon, accompanying him, he introduced himself and offered his space.

“The concert is not intended to be Jewish, it is intended to bring great folk music into Howard County and into our venue,” said Axler.

But Pinkert said folk music’s roots in the Jewish community are strong. He said the Jewish community heavily influenced the development of folk music in the 1950s and ’60s. One way was simply geography.

“If you think about it, the folk music movement of the ’50s and ’60s could have happened in Nashville or Memphis, but it happened in Greenwich Village, New York. This made all the difference,” said Pinkert.

Another factor was “a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas” between the African-American and Jewish communities and the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

“If you look at protest songs from folk and folk-rock,” said Pinkert, “a lot of them were written or sung by Jewish artists. Folk music and left politics were almost assumed to go together.”

On the business side of things, many record labels and folk labels had Jewish owners. All of this mattered, Pinkert said, because the Jewish community “wasn’t trying to preserve a legacy” in the same way that traditional folk songs and artists did by passing their songs from parent to child.

“I turned 10 in 1961,” said Wheeler, who is from Timonium. “That’s when folk became huge, [and it was] huge on the radio. I was crazy about it.”

Wheeler first took an interest in music when she came across a ukulele at a young age. Playing came naturally to her, and she landed her first gigs in her hometown.

“For years, I was hand-to-mouth,” said Wheeler. “But I never lost sight of the fact it was my choice. I just wanted to play music and make songs, so I did.”

Wheeler added that even though she started getting more work as she improved, she didn’t — and still doesn’t — let success go to her head.

“I don’t want the audience to feel they are apart from me or different from me,” said Wheeler, who has released several albums. “I don’t carry on about shows, I don’t try to act like, ‘Hey look at me!’ I come out in plain clothes, talk to people, sing and have a good time.”

Gordon said that the simplicity of folk music is what appeals to him and that this concert will be a precursor for more to come.

“One of the things on our agenda is the usage of our building to the community at large,” he said. “This is sort of a test. We anticipate more musical events at Temple Isaiah.”

Axler added, “I’m excited at the prospect of housing concerts at the synagogue. The opportunity to welcome the greater community into the synagogue is really exciting.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

A Living Story of Gypsy Survival Family’s Holocaust experiences strike lasting chord with guitarist Lulo Reinhardt

It’s truly miraculous that Lulo Reinhardt is here to tell his family’s story and carry on its musical traditions. The Reinhardts — gypsies from India who settled in Germany 600 years ago — survived Buchenwald, Auschwitz and death marches. Some were inside, and moments from entering, the gas chambers when Auschwitz was liberated.

Reinhardt, the great-nephew of gypsy jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt, plays Saturday at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the Owings Mills JCC as part of International Guitar Night.

A Living Story of Gypsy Survival

He lost hundreds of cousins he never met to the Holocaust, in which up to 220,000 gypsies were killed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But his grandparents and his father as well as his father’s siblings, with the exception of one brother, survived.

“It’s just a miracle,” Reinhardt, 54, said.

The guitarist brings his diverse sound, which draws on gypsy, flamenco, Latin and Brazilian influences, to the Owings Mills venue along with International Guitar Night tour founder Brian Gore, contemporary fingerstyle player Mike Dawes and multi-genre guitarist Andre Krengel.

“I love his style. I’m definitely a fan,” SONiA Rutstein of Disappear Fear said of Reinhardt. The Grammy Award-winning Baltimore native singer-songwriter brought him to Baltimore to play on an album she produced by young violinist Sam Weiser in 2010. She heard some gypsy sounds in Weiser’s playing and thought Reinhardt could complement the music. She also performed with him at Musikmesse, a music merchandising convention in Germany, and will be performing at his club in Koblenz, Germany this April.

“[His style is] a combination of, of course, the Django, the jazz, with also a touch of the flamenco style. He’s lightning fast with the movement, but it’s very tasteful, and he’s not a speed demon,” she said. “He’s hysterical actually. He’s very determined, he’s a perfectionist and a little crazy, as most extraordinary musicians are.”

Born in 1961, Reinhardt learned the music of his family from a young age, and he also learned its Holocaust stories, which echo the struggles and journeys of Jews during that time period.

Toward the end of the 1930s, a doctor came to the “gypsy ghetto” where about 50 families lived, bearing gifts in an effort to attract participants to submit to blood tests and other physical measurements and conduct interviews about where they came from since gypsies were not native to Germany. Reinhardt said that although the gypsies had problems in Germany much like the Jews, they trusted the doctor. But a few years later in 1942, when Reinhardt’s father, Bawo, was just 18 months old, the gypsies were moved from the ghetto to the city of Koblenz in western Germany, which was used as a collection point. From there, the gypsies were put on trains destined for Buchenwald.

At the time, Reinhardt’s grandfather, Joseph, who was a violinist, actually worked for the German army in a secretarial position.

“Many gypsies were fighting for the German army, also many Jewish [people],” Reinhardt said. “At this time it was a good job. It was a good paying job, even if you [did] an office job.”

Arriving home after work one day, Reinhardt’s grandfather was surprised by what he found.

“He came home from his work and the ghetto was empty. No one was there anymore. He was shocked. It was like a ghost street,” Reinhardt said. “He went to back to work and he was asking his colleagues and said, ‘Where’s my family?’”

His co-workers couldn’t answer and suggested he ask the police, who at that point were SS officers. He eventually found out that the gypsies were deported to the concentration camp.

As the story goes, Joseph rode his horse to a city near Buchenwald, but the horse died along the way. It took him two weeks to reach the camp.

“You imagine he had this German uniform and he was knocking on the door at Buchenwald. The German soldier there said, ‘What do you want here?’ and so my grandfather said, ‘Let me in, my family is here,’ and the soldier said, ‘You better go,’” Reinhardt said. “My grandfather took off his uniform and said, ‘Let me in, I’m a gypsy and my family is here.’ … They gave him a tattoo.”

You imagine he had this German uniform and he was knocking on the door at Buchenwald … my grandfather said, ‘Let me in, my family is here,’ and the soldier said, ‘You better go.’ My grandfather took off his uniform and said, ‘Let me in, I’m a gypsy and my family is here.’ … They gave him a tattoo.
— Lulo Reinhardt

But the gypsies had been sent off by then. Some family members went to Ravensbruck, the camp for women and young children, and others to Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen-Gusen before they all wound up at Auschwitz.

Reinhardt said his father was in line for the gas chamber at Auschwitz when Soviet troops arrived in January 1945. One of his brothers was inside, and survived, although there may have been some brain damage. After being liberated, the family went back to Koblenz, where Lulo was born in 1961.

His legendary great-uncle, Django, narrowly avoided concentration camps. During the war, Django was popular enough that he actually entertained the Nazis in Paris in underground clubs.

“There were many jazz aficionados among the Nazi occupiers, so they put together jazz clubs and jazz concerts,” said Bret Werb, music and sound collection curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Django was pretty well protected. Eventually, he left Paris and survived in the countryside.”

The family story is that Django encountered some Nazi troops when he was leaving Paris and was arrested. While some officers wanted to send him to a concentration camp, one soldier who was a fan convinced the others to let Django go.

Lulo Reinhardt visited all the camps where his family was held prisoner and the barracks where gypsies were held. He and his fellow International Guitar Night performers played in the library at Auschwitz last year. On one of his albums, Reinhardt recorded a suite of songs called “Memories of Dachau,” dedicated to his uncle, also named Lulo, who was held at the camp.

Music wasn’t completely absent from the Reinhardt family, or the gypsy people, during World War II, similar to the experience of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

“My father’s oldest brother, he was 12 or 13. He was playing every single day,” Reinhardt said. “Even sometimes the Nazis said, ‘Come out and play,’” and he would play, sometimes barefoot and scantily clad in subzero temperatures.

“I asked my uncle, ‘How can you play in this cold weather?’ And he said, ‘You just play,’” Reinhardt said. “He was so scared.”

Werb said each concentration camp had its own culture, and so it’s hard to generalize how music worked in the camps. In the ghettos, some people brought instruments, but sometimes they’d get lost along the way, burned for fuel or traded for food. In the concentration camps, the instruments could have arrived with people or could have been confiscated from other prisoners.

“There’s definite documentation that there were gypsy ensembles, and there were groups called gypsy orchestras that may have included gypsies and non-gypsies,” Werb said.

Rutstein, a Pikesville High School graduate and member of Congregation Beit Tikvah, said the Reinhardt family’s experiences speak volumes about their character and their music.

“The Reinhardt family, I think, is a strong breed. That they survived really says a lot in mind and body and spirit,” she said. “I think that’s indicative of gypsy music as well … it’s going to seek the strongest path going forward.”

Having toured the world, including Israel six times, Rutstein can speak to the universality of gypsy music and noted that the music has found popularity in Baltimore, with last weekend’s sold-out Charm City Django Jazz Fest at the Creative Alliance.

“It sort of takes you back several decades, but [the music is] still quite vibrant now. It’s fun. It can really be a nice palette for excellent playing; you really can showcase your playing to a magnificent extent because, kind of like bluegrass does, you take a lead and you just go with it,” she said. “It’s sort of like European bluegrass in a way, somewhere in between klezmer and polka. It’s very in the moment, and yet the melodies are powerful and indelible.”

Reinhardt’s Musical Evolution

Through survival, the family’s rich musical traditions live on.

“I started with Django’s music when I was 5,” Reinhardt said. “My father was teaching me guitar for the first two years, from age 5 until 7. He showed me all the main, basic chords and everything on guitar.”

His father, Bawo, introduced him to French music, Brazilian guitar and Frank Sinatra’s music as well — his father’s eclectic musical tastes rubbed off on him.

At age 7, Reinhardt started playing with his cousin and next-door neighbor, Mike Reinhardt, who taught him the rhythm guitar parts of Django’s music. They’d play five, sometimes 10 hours a day. At age 12, he joined Mike’s band.

“After Django died [in 1953], there was nothing between ’53 and ’63 because no one wanted to play guitar anymore because they had so much respect for Django,” Reinhardt said.

He played in Mike’s band, which became quite popular because of this lull in gypsy music, for 25 years.

In 1992, Reinhardt and his father started a band called I Gitanos that played Latin music with lyrics sung in the Romani gypsy language. In his downtime, he started the Lulo Reinhardt Project, which evolved into the Lulo Reinhardt Latin Swing Project in 2008. His namesake projects feature his diverse musical interests, from samba to flamenco to rumba to jazz to Latin swing.

When Reinhardt’s father died in 2013, he wrote a song called “The Fighter,” which he performed at the funeral. Weeks later, he and the Latin Swing Project recorded an album, “Bawo,” dedicated to his father. The band recorded the entire album in two days. “Best CD I ever made,” Reinhardt said.

While the horrors Bawo and the Reinhardt family endured during the Holocaust are behind them, anti-gypsy sentiment still lives on.

“We are confronted with this every single day, the gypsies,” he said. “They kill gypsies still, neo-Nazis.”

Despite a complicated history and present-day anti-gypsy sentiment, Reinhardt remains a proud ambassador of his heritage. Next year, he plans to undergo his third film project, in which he will retrace the journey his ancestors took from India to Germany and connect and play with gypsy musicians along the way. He also plans to tell the story of his musical journey and that of his family in a book he’s writing called “The Way to Latin Swing.”

As for Saturday’s show at the Gordon Center, Reinhardt said it’s the best tour he’s ever done.

“As a guitar player, you can learn so much from other guitar players,” he said. “We have four different styles, four different guitar players, four different characters. That makes this show so special.”

Gore, the tour’s founder, said Reinhardt is deeply committed to his craft.

“Lulo believes that developing his own style is the best way to honor Django, rather than repeating his playing note for note, over and over again,” he said. “Django was an innovator after all; and so it should be for Lulo, who has been living and breathing Django since he was a toddler.”

Randi Benesch, managing director of the Gordon Center, said when she came to the Gordon Center three-and-a-half years ago, she didn’t know what to expect from International Guitar Night, which is an annual staple at the venue.

“I was really overwhelmed and amazed by the talent and diversity of the guitarists that Brian [Gore] puts together each year. The Gordon is such an intimate space and the acoustics are so incredible that it’s the perfect program for the Gordon,” she said. “These are always true guitar masters, and they really represent the great versatility that the guitar can provide. It always amazes and wows me how each player has their own unique style and technique.”

International Guitar Night plays the Gordon Center on Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 in advance and $35 at the door. Visit jcc.org/event/international-guitar-night for more information.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

 

ICJS Adds Islam to ‘Enrich’ Its Mission

The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies is adding one more worldwide religion to its interfaith mission —Islam. The nonprofit will now become the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, although the acronym, ICJS, will stay the same.

With a worldwide Syrian refugee crisis that has prompted controversial statements from presidential candidates, there is no shortage of news about Muslims and Islam. It was not these issues that spurred the change, however. It was actually in the planning stages for years.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” said ICJS executive director Christopher Leighton. “Increasingly, we became aware that the conversation [between Christians and Jews] is hugely important but will remain incomplete until and unless Muslims become an integral part of that conversation.”

Along with the change, ICJS has hired a Muslim scholar, Homayra Ziad, and added Muslim members to its board.

“Restricting ourselves in the world today to just that Christian-Jewish conversation would, in the long run, I think, render us irrelevant,” Leighton said.

The core mission of ICJS, to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding, will remain the same. But now, there will be more conversations and more people at the table.

“We feel that each of these conversations will, in fact, enrich the other in unexpected ways,” Ziad said. “So, while we aren’t letting go of the legacy of the organization, we’re certainly enriching the conversation.”

Even with all that is happening nationally and internationally, the goal is to keep the outreach local. About a quarter (2 percent) of those of non-Christian faith in the Baltimore area are Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center.

It is important to the organization, Ziad said, to be involved in the community it’s in. For Baltimore, that means looking at the issues of discrimination and inequality that have sparked recent protests.

“We felt that we couldn’t in good conscience be a Baltimore organization that is trying to deal with issues of polarization without really dealing head-on with questions of injustice in the city,” Ziad said.

To that end, ICJS has started an initiative with about 30 activists and local community leaders called “Imagining Justice in Baltimore.” The program will bring in three speakers —the first was Feb. 11 and the next will be April 5 and May 3 —from each of the religious traditions to address not only what each religion says about injustice, but how to move the communities forward in addressing the issue.

The speaker events are free and open to the public, but each speaker will also sit down with the 30 activists to discuss how religion can help shape the conversation and action around injustice specifically in Baltimore.

Later this year, after having met with all the speakers, the activists will lead discussions and workshops in different religious congregations. The hope is to engage religious people in these challenges similar to the way they were a driving force in the civil rights movement.

“These are challenges that cannot be tackled by any single religious tradition alone,” Leighton said, “and, frankly, these are challenges that can’t be bracketed and tackled solely by religious communities.”

It also works as a very organic way to bring Muslims into the conversation, Ziad said. It unites Muslims, Jews and Christians in a common cause and strengthens interreligious solidarity.

Along with the “Imagining Justice” initiative, ICJS has a number of other programs aimed at both educating and enlightening the public. Almost everyone is going to come in with certain assumptions, Ziad said, but just showing up to be educated is a big first step.

“In terms of pedagogy, I think it’s really important as an educator to meet people where they are,” Ziad said, “[and] to understand that people are coming in with certain preconceptions and certainly misconceptions.”

Whether it’s the “Religion and Film” showings, a mini-course on a relevant and important topic or an interfaith text study, there are a variety of ways to learn.

“I think if somebody comes and studies at the ICJS and does not leave seeing the world in different terms, then in some fundamental way we’ve failed,” Leighton said.

Leighton sees having a space for religious reflection, dialogue and study as an important start to eventual understanding among the religions. But don’t expect a miracle just yet.

“Two thousand years of messy history aren’t cleaned up overnight,” he said. “It’s a long slog to build trust. It’s so easy to tear it down, but to build it up is a process.”

hjohnson@midatlanticmedia.com