Day School Groups Plan Merger New national organization to speak for 375 day schools

The Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. (Henry H. Lewis Contractors, LLC via Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School)

The Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. (Henry H. Lewis Contractors, LLC via Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School)

Regional day school heads are expressing support for a merger announced last week of five North American Jewish day school organizations. Those groups represent more than 375 schools from across the denominational spectrum.

“It’s very exciting news for the  entire day school field,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, a pluralistic community school in Rockville, Md. “I hope that in the long run it will be a positive influence on the entire Jewish community.”

“The merger gives us the opportunity for sharing of ideas, economy of scale, sharing best practices across the individual interest groups and, most of all, an opportunity for unity in a divided Jewish community,” echoed Zipora Schorr, director of education for Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore.

Joshua Levisohn, head of Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, a modern Orthodox school in Rockville, agreed. “Anytime you have Jewish organizations coming together under one banner is exciting,” he said.

The Jewish Community Day School Network, or RAVSAK; the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE; Yeshiva University School Partnership; the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools  of Reform Judaism, or PARDES, announced Jan. 19 the planned formation of a new organization.

RAVSAK represents nondenominational Jewish schools, the Schechter network is affiliated with the Conservative movement, and Yeshiva University mostly serves modern and centrist Orthodox schools. Together, the schools represented by the five groups enroll about 40 percent of the total number of students in full-time Jewish schools, according to The New York Jewish Week, which reported that the merger is estimated to save more than $1 million annually.

The merger comes as enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools is  declining and centrist and modern Orthodox school enrollment is flat. Haredi Orthodox schools, which will not be represented in the new group, have been rapidly growing, accounting for more than half of all full-time Jewish school enrollment.

Dan Finkel, head of Gesher Jewish Day School, a nondenominational school in Fairfax, said the schools  involved in the merger have more  in common than not. Security, for  example, is not a denominational issue, he said. “For those of us in community schools” who don’t ally with a particular denomination, “that’s the model we’re thinking about anyway. There’s no need to do this in silos.”

“Professional development, networking conferences, consulting, board  development, teacher training — many of these are nondenominational in  nature,” added Levisohn.

Members of the five groups already have experience meeting together; they’ve held a joint professional conference annually since 2010. And some already have gone through the process of merging cultures into a new organization.

“Our school was born of a merger between a community day school and a Schechter school,” said Avi Baran Munro, head of Community Day School in Pittsburgh, Pa. “We were comfortable with that.”

The still unnamed new entity is “committed to improving financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools and supporting a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field,” according to the  release announcing  the initiative.  “It will work directly with schools, cohorts of schools and individual professional and lay leaders to strengthen skills and build capacity in areas of teaching and learning, leadership,  governance, affordability, recruitment, retention, fund development and  endowment building.”

A national organization could be in a strong position to fundraise for the day school movement, Malkus said, adding that in partnership with federations and philanthropies, it could be a strong advocate for Jewish day schools.

The decision to merge follows an almost year-long planning process  facilitated in part by the Avi Chai Foundation, which has pledged  financial support for the new organization until the foundation shuts down operations in 2019.

Levisohn calls it “an interesting  experiment.”

“There’s an expectation that the programs will get stronger and reduce duplication,” he explained. “But its significance is up in the air. No one knows for sure what it will look like in two to three years.”

Sharon Levin, head of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a nondenominational school near Philadelphia, said she is concerned that in constructing the new organization, what was worth keeping about the organization that has served her school will be lost.

“I see the benefits of talking to each other and sharing professionals,” she said. “On the other hand, the benefits we get from RAVSAK are incredible.”

The professionals there respond to her calls and emails quickly. They offer programs she finds useful. And they don’t clock out at 5 p.m. “I’ve gotten a call in the evening — to my home  from someone at their home — on an important question,” she said.

Schorr, of Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh, agrees there are risks.

“Those risks reflect the tendency of each movement and/or group to be somewhat defensive and proprietary about its own philosophy or agenda,” she said. “It will take a great deal of  –mature and respectful discussion to be able to work out the details.”

The new organization, which has begun a branding process to select its name and “develop an identity that reflects a unified, cooperative and fresh vision of the day school field,” plans to launch this summer.

JTA contributed to this article.

dholzel@midatlanticmedia.com

Split Decision in Stevenson Chabad Case Court order ruled that proposed synagogue meets some requirements, possibly violates others

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

The case concerning whether a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation can build a synagogue on Stevenson Road will be heard before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Attorneys for both the neighborhood opposition and the congregation appealed the opinion and order rendered by Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen on Jan. 12.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky aims to build a permanent home for his Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a  congregation for Russian Jews, but has drawn opposition from a number of neighbors due to concerns over pedestrian safety, traffic, county code and the character of the neighborhood.

The ruling ordered that the synagogue is permitted under the property’s  current residential zoning classification, that the proposed residential transition areas (RTAs) that are  required to blend the building in with its surroundings are sufficient and that the house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, can be used as the rabbi’s parsonage.

But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not “consistent with the spirit and intent of the [county’s] original plan,” which called for two single-family homes to be built on the 3-acre property. Beverungen did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that  requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the plan needed to be amended, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement. The original plan was approved by the county in 2006.

Beverungen’s opinion added that he believes that Ken and Jassamyn Abel, the petitioners who live next door to the property, should be  afforded protections from another part of zoning code that protects residents who made decisions — such as buying a house — based on development plans from “inappropriate changes” to those plans.

Beverungen and Belinsky’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Michael McCann, one of two  attorneys hired by the neighborhood opposition (a third attorney, a resident, joined the legal team), addressed the seemingly split decision.

“My feeling is that we’re very pleased with what I believe is the more  important ruling in the judge’s decision, and that is the ruling on the amendment of the final development plan,” McCann said, “particularly the strong language he used.”

Beverungen called the proposed synagogue a “radical departure” from and “inappropriate change” to the original development plan.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

On the RTA question, he said he thought the judge “misapplied the law.”

“But even if he was correct, the ruling on the amendment issue would carry the day,” he said.

Belinsky said he was “delighted” by the RTA section of the hearing.

“The vast majority of his ruling [was] on explaining why all the claims of the neighbors about traffic and safety and RTA compliance have no grounds,” he said.

Ken Abel said he and his neighbors believe the rabbi would have had to have been successful on both questions to move forward, pending appeals.

“The message to the community was this is good news,” Abel said. “It validates what we’ve been saying since the beginning: The synagogue on that property wasn’t appropriate.”  He said they disagree with the judge’s decision on the RTA issue.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), who lives next door to the property on the other side, said he is “very pleased” with the court opinion. Stein cleared his involvement in the case with the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics adviser.

Beverungen heard the two cases over the course of eight hearings  between June and November. Those who testified included civil engineers, land use and zoning experts, a traffic expert, a landscape architect, residents of the surrounding neighborhood and the rabbi.

Belinsky proposes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and a basement with classroom and office space. His congregation currently meets at Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s  synagogue on Old Pimlico Road.

The neighborhood opposition  circulated a petition that was signed by 638 residents from 426 homes, 394 of those homes being located within the boundaries of Greenspring Valley Road and I-695.

Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond said her office received between 150 and 200 emails about the proposed synagogue, some of which were from her constituents, and estimated that about 90 percent of them were in support of the synagogue. She is not taking a position on the issue.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s office received 101 emails opposing the synagogue in the spring and early summer and 139 emails and phone calls of support between September and mid-November. Most of the support came via email.

The Board of Appeals hearing functions as a new hearing, and dates have yet to be scheduled. Three members of the seven-member board must sit for hearings and a majority vote of two is necessary for decisions. If the cases are further appealed, they would go to the Baltimore County Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Sticking It to Israel Taking Maryland’s quintessential sport to the Holy Land

Jules Jacobs (center) poses for a photo with Israeli players at a lacrosse clinic in Netanya. (SportPic)

Jules Jacobs (center) poses for a photo with Israeli players at a lacrosse clinic in Netanya. (SportPic)

Could soccer-crazy Israelis fall in love with lacrosse?

After spending winter break touring the country on a service trip with the Israel national team, Jules Jacobs is convinced that the sport with indigenous roots in the Native American Iroquois people is primed to take off in the Holy Land.

“The kids are embracing it. The communities are embracing it. It’s great for everyone, and it’s really becoming something that I think Israel is really going to adopt fast,” said Jacobs, 17, a junior at Wootton High School in Rockville and the only Marylander on the trip.

Jacobs, son of former Washington Jewish Week editor-in-chief and current Jewish Women International executive Meredith Jacobs, said the Israeli kids would “light up” when the lacrosse players showed up. Clinics were held in Netanya, Ashkelon and Haifa.

The Israeli national team is headquartered in Ashkelon. The southern coastal city is a sister city of lacrosse-hotbed Baltimore. Charm City is an  official partner of Team Israel lacrosse.

Scott Neiss founded the Israel Lacrosse Association — the official governing body of lacrosse in  Israel — in 2010. The executive director and Oceanside, N.Y., native got the idea for Israel Lacrosse while on a Birthright Israel trip and founded Israel Lacrosse soon after. The Israel Lacrosse Association is a  member of the Federation of International Lacrosse and the European Lacrosse Federation.

Jacobs was struck by the passion Israeli children have for the sport of lacrosse despite facing at times adverse conditions in the volatile Middle East. One child they were teaching recounted a time when he was practicing and Iron Dome shot down a rocket over the field.

“He hid under some benches and the Iron Dome just blew up this rocket that was going on above him and debris fell — and he just went and continued playing lacrosse,” Jacobs said. “This is life for them, and they don’t have the luxury  of having nice fields or having these places that  they can really feel safe. So, lacrosse is an outlet  for them to really express themselves and to  develop as people.”

At the conclusion of the service trip, Jacobs, who plays long-stick midi and close defense, participated in tryouts for the men’s national U-19 Israel lacrosse team that will play this summer at the World Championships in Coquitlam, British  Columbia, Canada.

Non-Israeli Jews are eligible to play on the Israeli national team because lacrosse is such a new sport there. But Jacobs is confident that lacrosse will continue making inroads into Israeli society and that one day the roster will be fully Israeli.

“We’re going to see a rallying around lacrosse in the future because it’s something that Israelis are so good at, and it’s something that will become  ingrained into the culture,” said Jacobs. “Give it 20 years — lacrosse is going to be everywhere. Every kid is going to be holding a stick. Every kid’s going to be out there practicing on the wall. I really think it’s just a matter of time.”

jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

A Political Mishegas Iowa Jews experience the spirit of the political season

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed 150 people on Jan. 25 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines in Waukee, Iowa. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are close in the Iowa polls, with the caucus on Feb. 1. (Mike Theiler/UPI)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed 150 people on Jan. 25 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines in Waukee, Iowa. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are close in the Iowa polls, with the caucus on Feb. 1. (Mike Theiler/UPI)

With the Iowa caucuses less than one week away, the 2016 presidential candidates are making their final rounds throughout the state, and the more than 6,000 Jews who live there are taking notice.

About 150 were on hand at the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines Monday to hear former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton deliver an 18-minute address, much of which focused on the U.S.-Israel relationship and combating terrorism.

“Israel needs a strong America by its side, and America needs a strong and secure Israel by our side — to have an Israel that remains a bastion of stability and a core ally in a region of chaos,” Clinton told attendees, according to the Times of Israel.

Clinton, the favorite in the Democratic primary, is running practically neck and neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Iowa. Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the race other than Green Party member Jill Stein, is leading Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire, which holds its primaries one week after Iowa, making for a competitive beginning to the race for the Democratic nomination. Yet, those involved in her campaign still feel confident in their belief of her ability to win both states.

“I believe that going into the caucuses we have an advantage in that we’ve done it before; they know what they’re doing, they know how the game is played,” said Scott Sokol, who chairs Baltimore County’s Hillary for President Chapter. “Women tend to be much more significant and powerful in both the Republican and the Democratic nominations. And women are a force supporting Hillary. … So we’re not out of it at all.”

Sokol said that even if Clinton were to lose the first two states, she still has a tremendous advantage in other parts of the country, such as the South, and that the race may be ultimately decided by the so-called super delegates who are free to vote their conscience at the Democratic National Convention this summer, as it was in 2008, when she was narrowly defeated by then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Iowans know everything. I had to know each of the positions each candidate took on issues and why my candidate was the best. And it was so spectacular. I was so overwhelmed to see how they took this whole process. This happens nowhere else but Iowa.
— Scott Sokol, chair, Baltimore County’s Hillary for President Chapter

“She has people from every single state in the country who would die to get her elected,” he said. “She is not out of it if she loses Iowa or New Hampshire.”

Sokol himself is no stranger to the hoopla that is election season in Iowa, having lived there in 1984 while working on the campaign of presidential candidate Walter Mondale as well as that of former Sen. Tom Harkin.

“It was democracy at its best,” he said of the experience. “You have to get people, and they have to be committed. And they have to be willing to come out to the caucuses. The whole idea was to capture as many people as you can. It was very intense. You were on the phone all the time.”

Sokol said he recalled TV cameras almost everywhere he went while working there, and residents he spoke with were particularly sharp when it came to politics.

“Iowans know everything,” he said. “I had to know each of the positions each candidate took on issues and why my candidate was the best. And it was so spectacular. I was so overwhelmed to see how they took this whole process. This happens nowhere else but Iowa.”

Very little has changed from three decades ago, and Des Moines resident Wendy Adato said the four-year election cycle has now become a two-year cycle since candidates usually begin campaigning the year before the election.

“It’s just crazy,” she said. “In the Des Moines Register, there’s a schedule every day of who’s going to be in the state and the times and everything, so if you want to see someone you know where to go.”

Adato moved to Des Moines from Gaithersburg, Md., in 2005 due to a relocation of her husband’s job, making this the third presidential election she’s seeing from an Iowa perspective. In 2008, Obama made an appearance at the firehouse in her neighborhood, which she attended and said was “packed.” It is these small-scale events that she said make Iowa political events more intimate than others.

“You really do get a chance to see them, ask questions, sort of get to know them,” she said of the candidates.

Adato had planned to attend Clinton’s speech at the Federation Monday but was unable to due to another commitment.

Adato’s son, Michael, has also found his way into the political scene, having attended both Obama and Clinton rallies in 2008 while in seventh grade. Now 16, Michael is working as a precinct captain for the Sanders campaign. While he is not old enough to vote, he is responsible for organizing phone banks and canvassing for caucus-goers.

“It frustrates me to no end, which further motivates me because I want to make up for the fact that I can’t vote, and when I meet people who aren’t going to caucus just because they don’t care, I tell them, ‘I would pay you for your vote if I could use your vote for myself,’” he said.

Michael said his top priorities in the election are college affordability and income inequality, two planks of Sanders’ platform.

“I just think it’s not fair that people die because they can’t pay to go to the doctor while Donald Trump is trying to choose which yacht he’s going to take,” he said.

Michael said Sanders has been an inspiration to him and has motivated him to seek a career in politics.

“I don’t want to be a member of a party, I want to be there and fight the systematic corruption of the government,” he said.

Iowa has been won by the eventual Democratic nominee in five of the past seven caucuses in which an incumbent Democratic president was not running for re-election. Heidi Moscovitz, a Bethesda, Md., resident who lived in Des Moines for 13 years, said attending a caucus in 2008 was an eye-opening experience.

“It was really exciting to be there during political times,” she said. “You could meet any candidate you wanted up close and in person, really. I knew I wanted to do it because I hadn’t had that experience. I don’t think a lot of people in Iowa have done it. It’s kind of an odd thing.”

As she was walking toward the Clinton campaign table and her husband was walking to Obama’s, she noticed a particularly dramatic trend.

“As people were talking, you could see them slowly going over to Obama, and the Clinton side of the room was getting smaller and smaller,” she said. “And that’s kind of how the nation went too.”

Moscovitz said she does not typically discuss politics or get involved but mentioned that, as a New York City native, she is excited by the prospect of former mayor Michael Bloomberg potentially entering the race as an Independent.

“He knows how to get things done,” she said. “He’s got a vast amount of money, but he’s willing to use his own money to do things. I know people say he goes a little too far with things like the size of sodas, but I think his heart is in the right place, and he gets the job done.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Assembly Opens with Veto Overrides Legislators reverse five of Hogan’s decisions, with a sixth pending

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2016 session began Jan. 13. (Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia.com)

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2016 session began Jan. 13. (Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia.com)

Maryland legislators, in the first full week of the 2016 General Assembly, overrode five of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes.

One bill decriminalized possession of marijuana paraphernalia, another bill limited the power of police and prosecutors to seize an individual’s assets, two bills changed the way hotel taxes are collected, and another veto will mean $2 million for the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

A sixth veto, on a bill that would give ex-offenders the right to vote as soon as they enter parole and probation after leaving prison, was voted to be overridden in the House of Delegates, but the Senate postponed the vote until Feb. 5.

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), reached via email, cited statistics that show restoring civil rights leads to less crime and decreased rates of recidivism. The rest of the District 11 House delegation, which includes Dana Stein and Shelly Hettleman, voted to override the veto on this issue.

“In general, I think the idea of trying to reintegrate ex-offenders into society is a good thing,” Stein said. “There’s other things that help. … This is one part of the process.”

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) agreed.

“I think what we are doing there is following in the historical tradition of expanding the franchise,” he said. “And when we’re talking about the importance of enabling people who were in prison to get back into the workplace, I think a corollary of that is enabling them to participate in the political process.”

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) described the paraphernalia decriminalization bill as a “cleanup bill” since possession of small amounts of marijuana had already been decriminalized.

“The paper or the pipe or the bag that [the marijuana] was contained in could still be considered a criminal offense,” he said. “That obviously made no sense.”

The governor had vetoed the bill because he believed that it made driving while under the influence of marijuana a civil offense rather than criminal, which was simply not true, Zirkin said.

I think what we are doing there is following in the historical tradition of expanding the franchise.
— Del. Sandy Rosenberg

Zirkin said the asset forfeiture bill was passed because it had come to light that in some cases, money and property seized in criminal investigations, often in drug cases, was taken by the government and not turned back over to individuals even if they weren’t charged or convicted with a crime.

He said the bill forces the state to prove that seized assets were involved in criminal activity and prohibits the government from seizing small amounts of money unless it is proven that the money was involved in the drug trade.

Zirkin was troubled by another statement from the governor’s office that characterized the bill as putting money back into the hands of drug dealers.

“I hope this doesn’t become a pattern,” Zirkin said, referring to the statements from the governor on asset forfeiture and marijuana paraphernalia.

In addition to the vetoes, Baltimore-area legislators introduced several pieces of legislation.

Rosenberg introduced a bill that would create the Commission on the Solemn Remembrance of the Victims of Lynching, which would work to construct public memorials and historical markers for victims of lynching in Maryland. He plans to introduce a bill that would give the Attorney General’s office the power to challenge changes to early voting, voting locations, voter registration, absentee or provisional ballots if the changes could diminish someone’s ability to vote based on race, national origin or disability.

Stein introduced a bond bill that would give $100,000 to the JCC for renovations and accessibility upgrades to the Gordon Center under the condition that the JCC matches funding. JT

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Syrian Refugee Crisis Safety concerns, Jewish ethics guide attitudes toward helping those in need

Saturday morning, a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am used his Shabbat sermon time to invite an open discussion about the brutal and tragic incidents that occurred throughout the city and their aftermath.

Several people expressed their anger and concern about the way Syrian Muslim refugees — those fleeing possible persecution and fear of death — were repeatedly linked with terrorist activities in the rhetoric of some politicians and in the media. They also voiced concern about an ensuing climate of fear and hateful sentiment aimed at refugees that could spread from that portrayal.

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

(Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/Newscom)

The discussion resulted in a small group of congregants meeting with employees of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore office on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown a few weeks later to learn what they might do to welcome and assist Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Baltimore in the coming year.

Congregant Wendy Schelew, who has a decades-long history volunteering and working in refugee resettlement in her native Toronto, went to the IRC, she explained, because “as a Jew I really felt it was a moral obligation to help people who didn’t have a home and that we could not relive the history of the Second World War and turn away from people in need.” She added that though she has her concerns about  the State Department’s ability to screen refugees adequately to weed out potential terrorists, “I believe that most of these people are not security threats. They’re homeless just like so many of our [ancestors] were, and they deserve a chance to start over in a new place.”

If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected. So we have to stand up for everybody.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

The group learned that the IRC helped resettle more than 800 refugees last year; 35 of them are Syrians, but there is no information on how many Syrians will be resettled in Maryland in 2016. The organization provides clients with up to eight months of case-management support when they arrive to help them stabilize and navigate a new life. Refugees are met at the airport and ensured simply furnished affordable housing — the first month’s rent is paid for — and a first warm meal, and their children are enrolled in school. Each new arrival must attend a five-day orientation that covers details such as instructions for riding the bus, getting groceries and finding English-language classes; and everyone receives a full medical screening within a week or so of arrival. Then the IRC’s employment services team steps in to help the adults find work.

“That’s the big ask by the U.S. government,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore and Silver Spring offices. “We welcome you, but you’ve got to work, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So we help folks find their first job. Then usually within three to four months, 85 percent of our clients are working and paying their bills.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

The U.N. Human Rights Council estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees, with many more displaced. Approximately 1,800 Syrians entered the U.S. as new immigrants in 2015, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS/Newscom)

Staffers at the IRC cited several large local employers who regularly return to them seeking employees, impressed by the pool of new immigrants’ work ethic. About 12 percent of Maryland’s population is foreign born, yet immigrants own and run about 22 percent of small businesses, which are viewed as economic generators. Currently, there are sizable communities of Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese and Iraqi populations throughout the greater Baltimore area.

The available resources and capacity of resettlement agencies determine the number of refugees assigned to a city. About 1,800 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in 2015, and the largest Syrian community is located in Toledo, Ohio. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Syria’s civil war remains the single biggest generator worldwide of both new refugees and continuing mass internal and external displacement.

“The reality is, because [Syrians are] a new migrant group and because of the lengthy vetting process, we’ll be seeing very few coming to Baltimore in the coming year,” said Beth Am member Joe Nathanson, who went on the IRC visit and has an extensive background in economic urban planning for refugee communities.

With nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, and 4.5 million of whom are Syrians — one quarter of that country’s population — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called the Syrian displacement “the biggest refugee crisis” since World War II.

“Frankly, the U.S. response is disproportionately low compared to other refugee crises,” he said.

Hetfield noted that 240,000 refugees were admitted to the United States from Vietnam in 1980; by contrast, just 10,000 Syrians are slated for admission this year.

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

Organizations such as the International Refugee Committee and HIAS assist refugees before and after they arrive into a newly adopted country. IRC settled more than 800 refugees in Maryland last year, 35 of whom are Syrians. (Ervin Shulku/Polaris/Newscom)

In 2016, for a person to gain refugee status and legally enter the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, he or she must first apply through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. Less than 1 percent of those applying achieve resettlement. A person must prove he’s been driven from his home “due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was created in response to the Holocaust and to prevent countries from denying refugees entry and sending them back to life-threatening situations.

If an applicant clears this first step, his or her documents are sent to the State Department, where more information is collected and security screenings are done via the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Syrian applicants get additional interviews and screenings called the Syrian In-House Review, which could include more cross- referencing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ fraud detection and national security directories. Biometric screenings, including fingerprinting and often iris scans, are collected from all applicants and are crosschecked with databases at the FBI, DHS and the Department of Defense. If the applicant passes all of these screenings, he or she submits to health screenings and is enrolled in cultural orientation classes while information continues to be checked against terrorist databases to ensure no new intelligence has turned up since the application process began.

We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish.

— Mark Hetfield, president and CEO, HIAS

In total, the vetting process can last 12 to 24 months from application to arrival here, and it’s considered the most rigorous of any country in the world. However, in November, the House of Representatives voted 289 to 137 in favor of a bill that would further tighten the vetting process for Iraqis and Syrians. The bill was defeated in the Senate on Jan. 20.

Still, FBI director James Comey testified in October that “a number of people who were of serious concern” have slipped through screenings, including two Iraqis arrested on terrorism-related charges, as reported in The Washington Post. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less-than-excellent vetting,” Comey said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Hetfield compared the Syrian vetting process with the scrutiny of the Iraqi and Afghan vetting process, but “we actually occupied those countries and had access to their criminal records to use during the screening processes, and we don’t have that luxury with Syrians.”

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

Syrian sisters, resettled with assistance from the IRC, share a hug in their adoptive city of Baltimore. (Camille Wathne/IRC)

“But security is not a new issue for refugees,” Hetfield added, citing the more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who came here from what was “probably the most fearsome [foe] that the United States has ever had. There was plenty of opportunity for mischief by the Soviets … and the U.S. knew that and tried to screen for it. I’m sure they caught some and others slipped through, but the bottom line is, we’re stronger as a country because we brought in those 400,000 Soviets. But there was a risk.”

Chandrasekar hopes that advocacy by his and other resettlement organizations will push the U.S. to increase President Barack Obama’s pledge to accept 10,000 Syrians and 85,000 refugees overall to 100,000 and 200,000 refugees, respectively.

It’s a prospect that has some in the Jewish community, including Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, concerned about the nation’s safety.

My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other.
— Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Am Congregation

“The violence perpetrated by Muslim immigrants in Europe —  especially toward European Jews — portends what America has in store if we bring more such immigrants here,” Klein wrote in an opinion piece published late last year by the Jewish Times. He reproached HIAS, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Council, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide for signing a letter that opposed the induction of additional restrictions and security measures and for “supporting dangerous Syrian immigration.”

Groups representing the Conservative and Orthodox movements, however, have joined the JCRCs, the AJC and the URJ in backing the call to resettle Syrian refugees.

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House in November in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States. (Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom)

Jewish Roots, Jewish Ethics

Albert Einstein’s plea for political asylum in 1933, when the Nazi regime took hold of Germany, “was the guiding force behind the creation of the IRC,” Chandrasekar said. “He was responsible in many ways in stimulating the IRC.”

He added that in the beginning it was “a clandestine organization that had staff in German occupied territory,” such as Varian Fry, a Jewish journalist-turned-activist who created fake travel permits allowing Jews to escape to other parts of Europe and the United States. “Our history as an organization is linked to the Jewish community and its history.”

Now, the IRC has offices in 33 countries and 26 American cities. Internationally, it provides humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter and medical care. Within the United States, many refugees helped by the IRC have stories similar to that of Ali and Amina (not their real names).

Ali was a successful carpenter in Damascus and owned three retail furniture stores. He and his wife, Amina, had five daughters with a much-hoped-for son on the way. Violent conflicts and eventually civil war erupted in Syria, but the family chose to remain in their home country. While the civil war raged on, the hospital Amina gave birth in was bombed and her infant was killed.

It was then the couple had to make a difficult decision to leave for their safety and that of their daughters. So in 2012, they left for Lebanon and lived off of savings for a while. Soon Ali needed work and found a job delivering furniture. They tried to make ends meet, but life as a displaced refugee was a dangerous struggle with no end in sight.

Finally, they applied for entry into the United States.

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

An anti-Syrian refugee protester in New York City. (Alberto Reyes/INFphoto/Newscom)

“We resettled them 18 months after they applied, in 2014,” Chandrasekar said, adding that a goal of the IRC is to help repopulate Baltimore City, which lost about 300,000 inhabit-ants during the decades between 1980 and 2000, and to increase its tax base. “Now, Ali works at Under Armor as a fork-lift driver. Amina just received her driver’s license and the kids are in school.” After losing so much, “refugees come here with the passion to rebuild.”

“And when you look at the nation’s history for more than 200 years, that’s what refugees have done,” Hetfield said.

“They’ve strengthened this country not weakened it.”

Since its inception in 1881, HIAS has resettled nearly 5 million new immigrants. This month, after 130 years in New York City, the organization moved its headquarters to Silver Spring, Md.

In the past decade, HIAS readjusted its mission as the first and only agency to protect and resettle Jewish refugees to focusing on non-Jewish refugees. It has received some criticism for the change.

“We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish,” said Hetfield, who has worked with HIAS on and off since he began as a caseworker in Rome in 1989. “Now, we’re a humanitarian service agency, an advocacy agency that is guided by Jewish values and history.”

The result has been that a majority of Jewish family service agencies HIAS previously partnered with to do the groundwork once a refugee entered the United States have either dropped out of the network or will do so this year, including such agencies in Maryland and Washington.

But supported by Jewish laws protecting strangers Hetfield notes are the most repeated in the Torah, he sees his mission as a righteous one.

We were “once strangers ourselves,” he said. “So for that reason it’s very important we’re committed to refugees regardless of who they are. If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected.

“So we have to stand up for everybody.”

To that end, HIAS “managed to easily” get more than 1,200 rabbis to sign a declaration — including more than 80 from the Baltimore-Washington area — that was delivered to all members of Congress in December imploring them to learn from Jewish history, welcome all nationalities of refugees to the country “and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”

Cotzin Burg of Beth Am was one of the letter’s signees.

“My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other,” he said. “And this [refugee crisis] seems to me a great opportunity to do so.”

A Continuing Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Since 2000, the Baltimore Jewish Council has hosted interfaith events that stimulate a dialogue among members in the Baltimore community. The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is one of them.

“The mission is to create genuine and organic relationships and open the dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities,” said Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, “and focus on the topics we do have in common and can work on together.”

There were more than a dozen events last year, and they expect to host as many in 2016. Suggs noted that Gov. Larry Hogan’s office “has been a fantastic partner,” with its office of community initiatives that does interfaith work, as well as the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies with Muslim scholars Homayra Ziad and Ben Sax.

Martha Weiman, BJC Interfaith Commission chair, warned of the danger in generalizing about an entire community, as people have historically done to the Jews, but “when you keep the doors open there’s dialogue — whether it’s small or whether it’s large. And you have to hope that it spreads.”

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

Women participate in advocacy training with BJC’s Jewish-Muslim dialogue program. (Provided)

This month, the BJC cosponsored a Jewish and Muslim women’s advocacy program, where they trained on lobbying techniques and strategies with Ziad and Rep. Shelly Hettleman. There were about 25 women in attendance, Suggs said, and “it was a rallying call to focus on how we can work together. The unifying factor was women’s issues, she added, but the overall message was, “We can’t give in to the polarizing climate of the national dialogue.”

There are social justice and social programs as well, such as collecting goods for donation that go to each community, which is “a great way to see what our faiths have in common, and charity is one of them,” Suggs said. The BJC also hosted dinner in the sukkah, and in the spring, it will collaborate with ICJS and The Stoop Storytelling Series to host an evening of stories about what “home” means to them as Muslims and Jews.

Suggs said gender for attendance is split 50-50, and there is a “really strong young professional age group.” But depending upon the programming, ages range from 30 to 70.

After 9/11 there were federal and state Homeland Security grants available to communities that felt threatened, and “the Muslim community asked us to help them with the grant for a fence around their mosque on Johnnycake Road,” Art Abrams, BJC executive director, said. “We helped them get $20,000, and we continue to do so; we work together constantly.”

Suggs said a new dinner program will be launched in May, a trilogue of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. There will be panelists including an imam, a rabbi and a priest to kick off discussion, then attendees will break into small discussion groups.

One of the biggest causes of anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim sentiment, Suggs said, “is a fear of the unknown, and by creating relationships and friendships, we’re able to tackle the fear and misconceptions that make that happen.”

HIAS: For the Refugee from Moth on Vimeo.

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Split Decision in Stevenson Chabad Case Court order ruled that proposed synagogue meets some requirements, possibly violates others

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

A property on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road has been the subject of contentious debate, as a rabbi proposes to build a synagogue many neighbors oppose. (Marc Shapiro)

The case concerning whether a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation can build a synagogue on Stevenson Road will be heard before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Attorneys for both the neighborhood opposition and the congregation appealed the opinion and order rendered by Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen on Jan. 12.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky aims to build a permanent home for his Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a congregation for Russian Jews, but has drawn opposition from a number of neighbors due to concerns over pedestrian safety, traffic, county code and the character of the neighborhood.

The ruling ordered that the synagogue is permitted under the property’s current residential zoning classification, that the proposed residential transition areas (RTAs) that are required to blend the building in with its surroundings are sufficient and that the house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, can be used as the rabbi’s parsonage.

But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not “consistent with the spirit and intent of the [county’s] original plan,” which called for two single-family homes to be built on the 3-acre property. Beverungen did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the plan needed to be amended, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement. The original plan was approved by the county in 2006.

Beverungen’s opinion added that he believes that Ken and Jassamyn Abel, the petitioners who live next door to the property, should be afforded protections from another part of zoning code that protects residents who made decisions — such as buying a house — based on development plans from “inappropriate changes” to those plans.

Beverungen and Belinsky’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood opposition (a third attorney, a resident, joined the legal team), addressed the seemingly split decision.

“My feeling is that we’re very pleased with what I believe is the more important ruling in the judge’s decision, and that is the ruling on the amendment of the final development plan,” McCann said, “particularly the strong language he used.”

Beverungen called the proposed synagogue a “radical departure” from and “inappropriate change” to the original development plan.

On the RTA question, he said he thought the judge “misapplied the law.”

“But even if he was correct, the ruling on the amendment issue would carry the day,” he said.

Belinsky said he was “delighted” by the RTA section of the hearing.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (left) and his attorney Herbert Burgunder (right) at the first of eight hearings on Belinsky’s synagogue proposal. Neighborhood opposition came out in droves at the earlier hearings wearing red T-shirts. (Marc Shapiro)

“The vast majority of his ruling [was] on explaining why all the claims of the neighbors about traffic and safety and RTA compliance have no grounds,” he said.

Ken Abel said he and his neighbors believe the rabbi would have had to have been successful on both questions to move forward, pending appeals.

“The message to the community was this is good news,” Abel said. “It validates what we’ve been saying since the beginning: The synagogue on that property wasn’t appropriate.” He said they disagree with the judge’s decision on the RTA issue.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), who lives next door to the property on the other side, said he is “very pleased” with the court opinion. Stein cleared his involvement in the case with the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics adviser.

Beverungen heard the two cases over the course of eight hearings between June and November. Those who testified included civil engineers, land use and zoning experts, a traffic expert, a landscape architect, residents of the surrounding neighborhood and the rabbi.

Belinsky proposes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and a basement with classroom and office space. His congregation currently meets at Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s synagogue on Old Pimlico Road.

The neighborhood opposition circulated a petition that was signed by 638 residents from 426 homes, 394 of those homes being located within the boundaries of Greenspring Valley Road and I-695.

Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond said her office received between 150 and 200 emails about the proposed synagogue, some of which were from her constituents, and estimated that about 90 percent of them were in support of the synagogue. She is not taking a position on the issue.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s office received 101 emails opposing the synagogue in the spring and early summer and 139 emails and phone calls of support between September and mid-November. Most of the support came via email.

The Board of Appeals hearing functions as a new hearing, and dates have yet to be scheduled. Three members of the seven-member board must sit for hearings and a majority vote of two is necessary for decisions. If the cases are further appealed, they would go to the Baltimore County Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

The Blizzard that Battered Baltimore Organized Jewish community holds strong during Jonas

The historic storm Jonas that brought nearly 30 inches of snow to some parts of Maryland and left at least 29 dead in its path may have come to an end this past Sunday, but many in the Jewish community are still joining forces to dig themselves out.

“It is a tremendous principle in Judaism that the preservation of life and safety comes above all else,” Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler said in a video posted to the synagogue’s Facebook page last Friday. The message: Take your time.

The Chesed Fund/Project Ezra, a community group in Baltimore founded by Frank Storch that oversees community safety and security awareness activities, initiatives and projects in conjunction with other community assistance groups, started preparations early.

Frank Storch (center), founder of the Chesed Fund, and others in the Jewish community pulled out all the stops to prepare for the historic storm Jonas. (Provided)

Frank Storch (center), founder of the Chesed Fund, and others in the Jewish community pulled out all the stops to prepare for the historic storm Jonas. (Provided)

Groups working with the Chesed Fund included Shomrim, Hatzalah, an emergency medical service catering to Jewish communities, and Chaverim, a nonemergency assistance service.

The groups distributed lanterns, flashlights and shovels, prepared an emergency vehicle for Hatzalah, shuttled doctors to and from local hospitals and gave out bagels to first-responders, among other tasks.

“Throughout the last few days, [Storch] has handled dozens of phone calls and email requests regarding transportation needs, snow removal and food delivery,” a Chesed Fund representative said via email. “While we were obviously hit with a record-breaking amount of snow, we are very fortunate that our area did not lose power. We are even more fortunate to have exemplary volunteer community organizations such as Hatzalah, Shomrim and Chaverim, whose volunteers worked tirelessly around the clock for our community.”

Synagogues throughout Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties canceled activities, services and other programs over the weekend and even through Monday.

“I can’t say enough about how everyone came together to do whatever they could to make the challenging situation a bit easier,” said Beth El Rabbi Steven Schwartz via email. “I am extremely proud of Beth El, its staff and our entire community. At the end of the day, as the old Yiddish saying goes, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’”

Storm or no storm, there were still bar and bat mitzvahs scheduled this past weekend. Andrew and Marcee Senker and their daughter, Emily, from Chizuk Amuno Congregation are one of the families who powered through the  weekend to celebrate, and they said the congregation made the best of it.

“Obviously, it was not as expected, but it was a perfect solution to a bad situation,” said Andrew Senker. The family decided to hold the ceremony on Friday afternoon, and although the turnout was relatively low, Emily’s extended family still witnessed her moment in the spotlight. “Since it wasn’t Shabbat, we were able to livestream [the ceremony to our family who couldn’t attend].”

His wife said Emily was unfazed by the change of plans.

“I think that the Friday service for Emily was special for her,” said Marcee Senker. “Not only because it was for her bat mitzvah, but because of the weather, she was able to see family and friends sitting in front of her. The small service was much more personal as opposed to a traditional Saturday morning service.”

Chizuk Amuno was not the only congregation with a bat mitzvah during the storm.

Due to the storm, Amit Peled conducts a music lesson with one of his students via Skype. (Provided)

Due to the storm, Amit Peled conducts a music lesson with one of his students via Skype. (Provided)

Elisa Frost, a member of Beth Am synagogue, came home on Thursday evening to several messages from Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg asking to reschedule Frost’s daughter Lila’s bat mitzvah. As Frost’s stepbrother put it, the “blitzmitzvah” was moved to Friday afternoon and drew an impressive crowd considering how quickly it was planned.

“From my perspective, it was a really beautiful gathering, where many Beth Am congregants made a point of coming out before the storm,” said Burg, “[and] risking not being able to get back [home just] to support a kid who has grown up a lot in the synagogue.”

Since Frost had extended relatives flying in from out of state, Burg offered to put Frost’s family and relatives in his own home so they’d have a place to sleep near the synagogue. Many Beth Am congregants offered similar invitations.

“Our family was moved by the efforts and dedication of Beth Am’s clergy and staff, including our inimitable custodian, Mr. Warren McFarlane. What an outpouring of warmth from all corners of the community,” said Frost via email. “As I said afterward to our executive director, Henry Feller, the best-laid plans are sometimes best laid aside to make room for what we wouldn’t dream up on our own.”

Synagogues were not the only ones rearranging plans due to the blizzard.

The Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts canceled its Sheldon Low and Gibson Brothers concerts. Low has not been rescheduled yet, and the Gibson Brothers will perform on Feb. 25, according to Randi Benesch, senior managing director of the center’s arts and culture.

“As we say, ‘The show must go on,’” said Amit Peled, cellist and professor at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

Peled, who is from northern Israel, lives in Pikesville and is known by his neighbors as the “Jewish Yo-Yo Ma.” Unable to meet with his students at Peabody, he “decided to take up the technology” of today and meet with his students via Skype.

“It’s actually working so well I’m thinking about just staying at home [for all of my lessons],” Peled said, jokingly. “The quality might not be as good as sitting in front of people in the same room, but we got a lot done.”

Peled said the idea seemed novel to him, but his students were onboard immediately.

He added that the technology is “scary because the whole human contact is going away. But it also saves you when you’re stuck. It’s the first time I’ve done it, and now I have lessons planned all day.”

However, not everybody on the East Coast was able to conduct business through Skype due to power outages.

Baltimore remained lucky by comparison to the thousands who were without power as early as last Friday night in some parts of the country.

Baltimore Gas and Electric estimated that 5,500 customers were without power at the peak of the storm. Power was restored to approximately 12,000 customers overall by Sunday morning, and all remaining customers had power restored by Sunday afternoon.

BGE had teams from 15 different states including its sister utility, ComEd in Chicago.

“We were in preparation mode for several days leading up to the storm, so we were able to start restoration efforts as soon as our customers began experiencing outages,” said Rob Biagiotti, vice president and chief customer officer for BGE. “While the forecast called for heavy snow and high winds, which can make for very challenging operating conditions, we were fortunate not to experience the worst, and crews were able to keep working. We are very appreciative of the mutual assistance program and the more than 1,000 utility workers who joined us from around the country to help put our customers back in service.”

According to Baltimore County statistics, there is $5.9 million budgeted into snow removal for 2015-16. It costs the county more than $108,000 per hour to salt and more than $54,000 per hour to plow the 8,742 roadways it oversees.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

A Blizzard that Battered Baltimore Jewish community holds strong during Jonas

IMG_2481The historic snowstorm that brought nearly 30 inches of snow to some parts of Maryland and left at least 29 dead throughout the country, the <I>New York Times<P> reported, has come to an end. As the community cleans up the aftermath of Winter Storm Jonas, Baltimore’s Jews continue to display the power of organized community.

Many synagogues throughout Baltimore and Howard County canceled activities, services and other programs throughout the weekend and through Monday.

“It is a tremendous principle in Judaism that the preservation of life and safety comes above all else,” said Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler in a video posted to the temple’s Facebook page Friday afternoon.

Both Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Chizuk Amuno Congregation closed schools on Jan. 25, following the lead of the Baltimore and Howard County public school systems.

“We had a pre-Shabbat service [with] 100 folks in the sanctuary late Friday afternoon,” said Chizuk Amuno Congregation Rabbi Ronald Shulman. “We had volunteers calling the elderly [to see if they needed assistance]. Emails and phone calls say people are in good moods. They are doing what they can and anxious to get back out.”

Storm or no storm, there were still bar and bat mitzvahs scheduled this past weekend. Chizuk Amuno congregants Andrew and Marcee Senker, and their daughter Emily, were among one of those families hoping to celebrate the milestone. They said the congregation made the best of it.

“Obviously it was not as expected but it was a perfect solution to a bad situation,” said Andrew. The family decided to hold the ceremony on Friday afternoon and although the turnout was relatively low, Emily’s extended family still got to see her moment in the spotlight. “Since it wasn’t Shabbat, we were able to livestream [the ceremony to our family who couldn’t attend].”

Marcee said Emily was unfazed by the change of plans.

“I think that the Friday night service for Emily was special for her,” said Marcee. “Not only because it was for her bat mitzvah, but because of the weather she was able to see family and friends sitting in front of her. I think the small service was much more personal as opposed to a traditional Saturday morning service.”

The Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts canceled its Sheldon Low and Gibson Brothers concerts. Sheldon Low has not been rescheduled yet and the Gibson Brothers will perform on Feb. 25, according to managing director Randi Benesch.

In terms of power outages, Baltimore was luckier than the thousands who were without power as early as Friday night in some parts of the country.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Company estimated that 5,500 customers were without power at the peak of the storm. Power was restored to approximately 12,000 customers by Sunday morning and all remaining customers had power restored by Sunday afternoon.

BGE had teams from 15 different states including from its sister utility, ComEd in Chicago.

“We were in preparation mode for several days leading up to the storm, so we were able to start restoration efforts as soon as our customers began experiencing outages,” said Rob Biagiotti, vice president and chief customer officer for BGE. “While the forecast called for heavy snow and high winds, which can make for very challenging operating conditions, we were fortunate not to experience the worst and crews were able to keep working. We are very appreciative of the mutual assistance program and the more than 1,000 utility workers who joined us from around the country to help put our customers back in service.”

BGE offered safety tips to customers such as keeping exhaust vents for natural gas appliances clear of snow and ice, being aware of utility equipment while shoveling or plowing snow and keeping meters clear of ice or snow by using a broom to gently clear the area.

According Baltimore County statistics, there is a $5.9 million snow-removal budget for 2015 to 2016. It costs the county more than $108,000 per hour to salt, and more than $54,000 per hour to plow the 8,742 roadways, excluding state roads and interstates, it oversees.

Downtown Baltimore Gets a Partnership Minyan Prayer group increases participation of women within confines of Orthodoxy

Charm City Minyan meets at a private home in Fells Point. (Provided)

Charm City Minyan meets at a private home in Fells Point. (Provided)

There’s a new kind of minyan that’s been popping up in recent years, and Baltimore became the latest city to join the growing movement in October.

Charm City Minyan is a partnership minyan, a prayer group that  allows women to be more involved in worship and rituals within the confines of Jewish law.

“[Modern Orthodox] women can be surgeons and law professors and police officers, and then they go into congregations and they’re basically spectators. They’re basically in an  inactive role,” said Shira Zeliger, one  of the minyan’s founding members. “For someone like me who’s a feminist but a deeply traditional Jew, that’s disturbing.”

With a growing Jewish population in downtown Baltimore, a group of modern Orthodox friends started meeting last summer to plan the minyan. About 40 people ranging from their 20s to 40s, many of them families with kids, meet at a private home in Fells Point on the first, third and fifth (if there is a fifth) Shabbat mornings of each month and hold Kabbalat Shabbat services on the second and fourth  Fridays of each month.

Abiding by the boundaries of Jewish law means that the minyan must still have a prayer quorum of 10 men, but women can fully participate in the Torah service and lead certain parts of the prayer service. Men and women are still separated by a mechitzah.

“For me personally, this is what  I find is the most natural prayer  environment,” Zeliger said.

The women are 50 percent give or take … and want to be active participants, so to be able to do everything they can within the framework is pretty important.
— Justin Abbott Chalew

Justin Abbott Chalew, who lives downtown with his wife and children, said the minyan bubbled up from Jewish families who stayed in the city and were looking for more Jewish  options.

“We wanted to create something that would be the best option for most people, and it seemed like a lot of the people that were really interested wanted a traditional framework, traditional prayers,” he said. “The women are 50 percent, give or take … and want to be active participants, so to be able to do everything they can within the framework is pretty  important.”

For Chalew, the hands-on aspect of the minyan is a plus.

“It’s lay led so it’s a lot more participatory, a lot more interactive,” he said. “You’re not just sitting in a pew. If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen.”

For Federal Hill resident Michael Zeitlin, the participatory aspect was a big selling point for him as well as his wife.

“I grew up in a very big synagogue, so there was already a pretty inherent structure to what was going on, and I was mostly an observer,” he said. “I would just sit back and come to services and pray, but I wouldn’t be very involved myself.”

He wanted a minyan with less  inherent structure, one in which  participation was critical.

“I feel like as the minyan has  progressed I’ve taken on responsibility I didn’t think I’d do, so it’s been really great for me,” Zeitlin said. He’s been helping lead services and with Kiddush. “I’m a father with two kids so I didn’t think I’d have too much time for this.”

As more partnership minyans have popped up in recent years, the organized Orthodox community has had to respond to the growing phenomenon. The Orthodox Union, in a statement, expressed its opposition to the prayer groups.

“The consensus of the rabbis to whom the Orthodox Union turns for halachic guidance is unequivocal, that partnership minyanim are  improper,” said the statement, signed by Rabbis Steven Weil and Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “It is our goal to assert this position in a way that strives to maintain the unity of the Jewish people.”

Other prominent Orthodox rabbis, such as Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, one of the leading voices in opposition to partnership minyans, argued that having women lead services or read from the Torah constitutes a religious breach that corrupts the spirit and violates Jewish laws regarding women’s modesty, public dignity and the requirement of deferring to Torah sages.

A liberal seminary in Riverdale, N.Y., Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, might be one of the only Orthodox institutions in the country that is open to partnership minyans. The school’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss,  ordained the first Orthodox clergywoman and founded a yeshiva for  ordaining women. He has allowed partnership minyans at his synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist  Alliance lists 29 partnership minyans in the United States on its website, including minyanim in Silver Spring, College Park and Washington, D.C. The Charm City Minyan is not yet listed. Also listed are one in Canada, one in Australia, four in Israel and four in the United Kingdom.

JTA contributed to this report.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com