BJC Names New Executive Director Howard Libit to take position in May

Howard Libit (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Howard Libit (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

The Baltimore Jewish Council named Howard Libit its next executive director on Thursday, Dec. 17.

Libit is currently the treasurer of the BJC and the public affairs chief and director of strategic planning and policy at the office of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The BJC voted unanimously for Libit to succeed executive director Art Abramson at a board meeting Thursday. Libit will start his position in May, and there will likely be overlap with Abramson, whose contract is up June 30.

Libit, 43, said he is excited to work on behalf of the Jewish community.

“Our community has great diversity, and I think [this is an] opportunity to take advantage of that, build on it and help all of us understand that our similarities and our values and what we’re seeking are greater than our differences,” he said. “The BJC has a great track record of success of bringing resources in to our community on behalf of The Associated and its agencies as well as advocating on behalf of the greater Baltimore Jewish community. I’d really like to build on that and continue to expand and continue to make new relationships and strengthen the current ones we have.”

The Highland Park, Ill., native moved to Baltimore after graduating from Stanford University in 1994. He worked at The Baltimore Sun, where he held positions as reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor of news. When he stepped down in 2009 to go into public relations, he joined the BJC’s leadership development program and was a member of the 2009-2010 class.

He served on the BJC’s Metropolitan Issues Commission prior to joining the executive board three-and-a-half years ago as assistant secretary. He served a two-year term in that capacity before becoming treasurer.

BJC first vice president Abba David Poliakoff said Libit was picked out of a couple dozen applicants that he and a search committee considered for the position.

“Howard is and has been very involved in the Jewish community, in the Baltimore Jewish council, in his synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and all things Jewish generally,” Poliakoff said. “In addition, he’s got the experience of somebody involved in public relations, community relations and communications generally. So it seemed like a natural fit of blending those qualities together for the Jewish community.”

Abramson wished Libit the best.

“I think he will be a solid successor,” he said.

Martha Weiman, past president of the BJC and chair of the organization’s Interfaith Dialogue, said Libit is a wonderful choice.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with Howard on the board of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, on the executive board at the Baltimore Jewish Council, and I think he comes with qualifications where the learning curve for somebody coming from the outside won’t exist for him,” she said. “He knows the community, he knows the state, he knows all the players.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

District 11 Team Endorses Van Hollen for Senate

Maryland’s District 11 team of Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Delegates Shelly Hettleman, Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein has announced its endorsement of Congressman Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, faces Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County in the Democratic primary race to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after serving as senator since 1987.

“We’re thrilled to announce our unanimous support for Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate. We are on the front lines of the challenges and opportunities facing the Baltimore region — and there is no one better suited to serve as an effective, progressive voice for our great state,” the District 11 team said in a written statement. “Chris is a leader with bold ideas to grow our economy and bring good paying jobs to our area. He is a fighter for women and families. He’s got a deep understanding of national security issues and has been alongtime friend to Israel. As we speak with our community and the people we represent, it is clear that Chris’s record of leadership and support for the Baltimore region are resonating with voters. He is the best candidate to carry Sen. Mikulski’s legacy into the future, and we stand with him every step of the way.”

Leading Through Action Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, brings its winter leadership summit to Baltimore

Residents of Peregrine’s Landing at Tudor Heights joined members of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, for a challah bake on Dec. 20. The event concluded Yachad’s weekend-long leadership summit. (Daniel Schere)

Residents of Peregrine’s Landing at Tudor Heights joined members of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, for a challah bake on Dec. 20. The event concluded Yachad’s weekend-long leadership summit. (Daniel Schere)

About 45 teenagers and young adults with special needs from around the country arrived in Baltimore last weekend for a leadership summit and Shabbaton with Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. The group participated in a combination of training sessions and volunteering opportunities, which concluded  Sunday with a challah bake between participants and residents at the  assisted living facility Peregrine’s Landing at Tudor Heights.

The weekend’s participants came from six of Yachad’s 17 chapters,  although most were from New York and New Jersey, said Rebecca Schrag Mayer, the director of informal education. Half of the group was present at Tudor Heights Sunday while the other half served lunch at Sarah’s Hope shelter. Mayer said Yachad strives to make sure its activities are all-inclusive for participants.

“The idea is that these are some of our top people and they’re getting further leadership training and  together; because we’re an organization for people with and without  disabilities, it’s not that one group is volunteering for the other group, it’s that we’re all friends and we’re here volunteering together,” she said.

Mayer’s message was echoed by Hannah Tessel, an adviser with Yachad.

“I can say that Yachad is definitely a strong vehicle that enables people of all different types to give back to the community,” she said. “I think in this medium it’s very strong. It’s a great medium because it’s putting things into a different perspective. A lot of time people view working with people with special needs as a form of giving back but Yachad’s mission is inclusion and equality so in that sense we’re all on the same playing grounds of giving back to the community together.”

The summit also included a visit to Art with a Heart, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that brings visual art classes to low-income parts of the city, as well as a lecture from former Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne. Mayer said the goal of the summit is to drive home the idea that disability does not have to be a barrier to giving back.

“Our hope is that they’re able to  really understand the strengths of everyone else here and they see that every single person can volunteer,  it’s not just certain groups that can volunteer,” she said. “This is time when we’re taking our ideas and putting them into action.”

For the challah bake, Sion’s Bakery in Pikesville donated 25 pounds of dough, which the participants used to shape challahs with Tudor Heights residents and then topped them with egg wash before baking them. Tudor Heights marketing director Zack Pomerantz said the facility typically partners with several community  organizations, but this is the first event it has had with Yachad.

“Yachad happens to be a wonderful organization and has a great chapter in Baltimore as well, so when they said that they wanted to do their leadership training and kind of wanted to volunteer and come here it was a great opportunity for both of us,” he said.

Pomerantz added that students from local schools often come in to participate in similar activities with the residents.

“Having children interact with the residents is beautiful to see and very engaging for both the children and for our residents as well,” he said.

Chani Rubin, 27, from Passaic, N.J., first joined Yachad by going on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad mission trip to  Israel; she later went to sleepaway camp that included a vocational  program. Rubin called the experience of the summit an “eye-opener,” and said helping others is truly gratifying.

“It’s a great medium because  it’s putting things into a different  perspective. A lot of time people view working with people with  special needs as a form of giving back but Yachad’s mission is  inclusion and equality so in that sense we’re all on the same playing grounds of giving back to the  community together.”
— Hannah Tessel

“It feels amazing,” she said. “I feel really good that I’m able to give back and show my appreciation for other people like I’ve been taught.”

Several of the students present Sunday had also participated in Yad B’Yad, including Rafi Margolies, 18, of Dallas. Margolies first became  involved in Yachad after hearing about it from a friend at boarding school in Skokie, Ill. He said he was “hooked” after the first event. He also worked at a sleepaway camp with a vocational program to act as a peer to the special-needs students.

“For me that was an awesome  experience getting so close to different people and sitting in the same bunk with people I usually wouldn’t sleep in the same bunk with and just getting exposed to new, diverse backgrounds,” he said.

Margolies said his view of community service is that it is a two-way transaction as opposed to simply “ giving back.”

“You get as much out of it as you’re giving to it,” he said. “You grow so much as a person and you’re spending so much time with amazing people. It doesn’t seem like you’re giving as much as you’re getting from it.”

For 16 year-old Sammy Bernstein of Woodmere, N.Y., Claiborne’s talk was one of the most inspirational  moments of the weekend.

“It was crazy to see someone who had so many struggles in life,” he said. “She said as younger kid she was  always called a dummy by her teacher but still she said at one point where she wanted to quit, and her mother said, ‘Don’t quit. If you quit today you’re going to be a quitter for the rest of your life.’ So she said I’m not going to quit, and she went through it and she became a special needs Olympic runner, which is an amazing thing to do. She’s a leader and she’s a hero for people around the world.”

Bernstein said while he enjoyed Claiborne’s seminar, he thinks the best way to develop leadership skills is to engage with the community and volunteer.

“I’ve really learned a lot of leadership qualities that you can’t just learn from a seminar,” he said. “You’ve really got to be put into the position and do the action and you learn from your actions and you learn that’s what a leader is.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Confronting Racism, Oppression Event hosted by JUFJ, BJC addresses issues of racial injustice, privilege

The Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice hosted “Lighting a Fire for Racial Justice” in which participants discussed racism, oppression  and privilege.  (Marc Shapiro)

The Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice hosted “Lighting a Fire for Racial Justice” in which participants discussed racism, oppression and privilege. (Marc Shapiro)

On the second night of Chanukah, about 40 people gathered in the  community room of the Park Heights JCC. While prayers were sung and menorahs were lit, the occasion was not to celebrate Chanukah, but to use the holiday to address and understand racism and oppression.

“During Chanukah, we’re encouraged to place a menorah in our  window to be visible as Jews and to visibly be displaying our hope and our belief that a society characterized by racial justice and equity is possible and our commitment to playing a role in manifesting that vision,” the evening’s facilitator, Jo Kent Katz, told the group.

Katz guided the group through open-ended discussions about racism, oppression and privilege that had participants think about how they had been beneficiaries or victims of privilege and racism. The multigenerational and multiracial crowd  engaged in discussions in large groups, small groups and one-on-one conversations at the event, which was presented by the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice.

Attendees were asked to walk up to someone they didn’t know and discuss why they attended the event and why they think racial justice is important.

Joel Simon, chair of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Jewish-African American Dialogue, elaborated on the importance of the event.

“I’m a big believer in creating relationships when you don’t need them because you can create meaningful conversations when you do [need them],” he said.

In the larger group, participants discussed what they heard as they spoke to other people. One man said he heard the word schwartza a lot while growing up in 1950s Baltimore and felt it was his duty to confront racism in his contemporaries. A younger man shared that he thinks Jews hold a unique place in America as those who have benefited from and been hurt by white privilege and therefore can perpetuate or disrupt racism.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about their experiences with white privilege in a way I’m appreciating,” Katz said. “People [are] being really humble about it and asking questions that are questions I am asking about how to navigate being a Jew and holding white privilege, how to navigate the fact that you’re aware that racism is coming into play but you’re not quite sure what to do or how to step in.”

Those in attendance would be asked several more times to go speak to others in the room. One exercise was to speak with someone of a different age. Later, attendees would discuss in small groups how they can move this conversation into their extended families, schools, workplaces and elsewhere.

Molly Amster, JUFJ’s Baltimore director, was excited by what she heard when people were talking about why they were there.

“They’re concerned by the lack of compassion and understanding that they think should exist in our  community, given what’s going on,” she said. “We’re very much focused on continuing to learn together as  a community.”

Rosalind Griffin, an African-American, thought the discussions and the event were important given the historic relationship between  Baltimore’s Jewish and African-American communities.

“I think this is a reigniting of the history because [of the] older generation during the height of the civil rights era,” she said. “There were  individuals who were the civil rights leaders then in the Jewish community who came together to try and foster and build up the relationship. But as the economic as well as housing  divide has occurred and both groups have become more isolated, there has been more tension.”

Attendee Gregory Friedman, who is a part of JUFJ’s Jeremiah Fellowship, said he was excited that the  BJC sponsored an event that  appealed to a crowd outside of its usual target audience.

“I’m used to being around a certain group of people that are all progressive types, hippie types my age. I think it’s so great that we’re bringing it to the broader community and the Baltimore Jewish Council has decided to  sponsor this,” he said. “It’s something that’s really amazing, and I hope it can start something. I think it’s been really great.”

Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, said that part  of fulfilling the BJC’s mission to  represent advocacy for the entire  Jewish community is recognizing the need to address racial issues in Baltimore and having discussions about those issues.

“A lot of members of the Jewish community are ready to step up and be better allies to our African-American partners here in Baltimore,” Suggs said.

“We’ve heard the call to action after everything that’s been happening, and we want to know how we can help and how we can be better as  allies.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Baltimore Families Reconnect to N.J. Shul Effort to revitalize Torahs leads man on a sacred journey

These atzei chaim, Torah rollers, were dedicated to Samuel Kossman, who has a grandson in Baltimore. (Provided)

These atzei chaim, Torah rollers, were dedicated to Samuel Kossman, who has a grandson in Baltimore. (Provided)

On some Shabbats, Fair Lawn, N.J., resident Jerry Schranz goes on a three-mile walk to Paterson, which was once a very Jewish area. There, he and  a few others hold a minyan in the basement of  independent-living facility Federation Apartments.

With the two Torahs that belong to the synagogue — known as the Paterson Shul or Beit Knesset  Paterson — in disrepair, Schranz set out to raise funds to fix them. In the process, from simply reading inscriptions and plaques, Schranz tracked down those who originally planted the shul’s roots as well as the families who dedicated pieces of the Torahs.

On Nov. 29, the Paterson Shul was rededicated with those families in attendance.

“It was reconnecting people with history,” Schranz said. “It all started with just looking at them and being curious about where the Torah came from.”

Through looking at the atzei chaim, the Torah rollers, Schranz was able to figure out that one Torah, which dates to 1953, was dedicated to Samuel Kossman. The other Torah, which dated to 1927, could be traced to the Goldberg family.  As Schranz tracked down those families, he also noticed a plaque on the wall at the Paterson Shul dedicated to the late granddaughter of a man named Joseph Fooks.

Through obituaries, Facebook, Jewish genealogy resources and a lot of phone calls, Schranz was able to get in touch with Kossman’s grandchildren, one of whom lives in Baltimore, and descendants of the Goldberg family in New Jersey. Through similar means, he discovered that Joseph Fooks was  the founder of the minyan, and Schranz found his family in Baltimore.

“I didn’t know the Torah’s whereabouts,” said Baltimore resident Simcha Kossman, grandson of Shalom. “For all I knew it was in a tattered condition buried in some cemetery. I had no idea it was still being used. That in the merit of its use, we believe that the person who passed away benefits from it, and it’s nice to know it’s still being used.”

That Torah was donated to Yanveh Academy,  a yeshiva that used to be across the street from the Federation Apartments, by Kossman’s grandmother when his grandfather passed away.

Jennie Kossman dedicated a Torah in 1953 to her late husband, Samuel. It would wind up at the Paterson Shul. (Provided)

Jennie Kossman dedicated a Torah in 1953 to her late husband, Samuel. It would wind up at the Paterson Shul. (Provided)

“It was unaccounted for for 35 years,” said Stephen Sussman, Kossman’s cousin who lives in Teaneck, N.J., and attended the rededication. Sussman and his son both got to inscribe letters in  the Torah as it was being repaired and damaged passages re-inscribed.

“It was very special, very meaningful,” he said. “My grandmother lives on and other families live on.”

When Yavneh moved to Paramus in the early 1980s, the Kossman and Goldberg Torahs were loaned to the Federation Building for their minyans. The families were unaware until Schranz did the research. Kossman now has the original atzei chaim as it had to be replaced to repair  the Torah.

“The Torah is the central focus of our Jewish life,” Schranz said. “Looking into the history of it is such a fascinating thing, and I encourage other shuls to do it.”

Joseph Fooks, pictured with his wife, Marcia, started a minyan in the 1980s at the Federation Apartments in Paterson, which is active to this day. (Provided)

Joseph Fooks, pictured with his wife, Marcia, started a minyan in the 1980s at the Federation Apartments in Paterson, which is active to this day. (Provided)“It was reconnecting people with history. It all started with just looking at them

“It was reconnecting people with history. It all started with just looking at them and being curious about where the Torah came from.”
— Jerry Schranz

Researching Joseph Fooks led Schranz to Fooks’ daughter, Risha, and son-in-law, Ray Saperstein, in Baltimore. As it turns out, Fooks is the one who started the minyan at the Federation Apartments after he moved there in 1980s, according to  Ray Saperstein.

There was no shul in the building, but there were a lot of Russian immigrants who were Jewish but knew little about Judaism. Fooks got siddurim and Torahs from Yavneh and got the Jewish  Federation to provide a Kiddush.

“He figured a good way to get people to want  to come to shul was to give them free food,”  Saperstein said.

The Sapersteins didn’t know the minyan kept going after all these years, even after Fooks died in the early 2000s.

“It says a lot about the community quite  honestly that people kept going for so long,” Saperstein said. “The idea that people are still davening there and having some identification with  yiddishkeit, if he was still alive [it] would make him really happy.”

The Sapersteins, along with their niece  and nephew and their children, attended the rededication cemermony.

The “no frills” synagogue, as Schranz called it, also got some new benches, books and a bimah. The ceremony was attended by around 100 people.

“It’s just a nice story that will perpetuate  Jewish life with really the last Jews of Paterson,” Schranz said.

The Paterson Shul’s new Torah covers were rededicated by the descendents of those to whom the Torahs were originally dedicated. (Provided)

The Paterson Shul’s new Torah covers were rededicated by the descendents of those to whom the Torahs were originally dedicated. (Provided)

For more information, visit PatersonShul.com.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Community Calendar Conundrum HoCo Jewish community fights to keep schools closed on High Holy Days

President of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Susan Grossman, testifies at the board of education meeting.  (Marc Shapiro)

President of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Susan Grossman, testifies at the board of education meeting. (Marc Shapiro)

Members of the Howard County Jewish community were out in force at a board of education meeting that addressed a possible change in the public school system’s calendar on Dec. 17.

The change, concerning whether or not schools should remain open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, presented two options. One maintains the current calendar, which closes schools on the Jewish High Holy Days. The other opens schools on all days  except for state-mandated holidays as a way to be “equitable” to all.

Howard County Board of Education chairwoman Christine O’Connor began the meeting, which had more than 100 attendees, saying the board had received an estimated 500 emails concerning the topic.

The first to testify were those who the change would affect most directly: students.

Leanna Feinleib, a senior at Howard High School, said the proposal is “forcing us to choose between our  education and our religion. … I don’t even understand why it’s even being considered.”

“…I think the  underlying issue behind the  committee’s  premature  recommendation [is] the desire to treat all faith groups equally and to honor and respect the  diversity of belief and culture that makes Howard County such an amazing place  to live.”
— Joshua Kaufman, former  member and chairman of the Howard County Board of Education

“The school system has presented no current [data] on the operational impact of keeping schools open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the perspective of Jewish students and teachers,” said Jamie Kotler, a student at Atholton High School.

The numbers were the focus for many of those who spoke at the meeting. Many members of the community  reminded the board that the original closure of schools on the Jewish High Holy Days was due to a 1979 survey. The survey concluded the absentee rate on those days — 12 percent in 1979 — would make it operationally impractical to open schools.

“Lacking current data, the report [from the board of education] states ‘the only way to obtain absence data on those days would be to open school,’” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman, president of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, during her testimony. “It does not seem very responsible to open school without knowing beforehand if there will be sufficient staff and [substitute teachers] available to ensure a safe and sound educational environment.”

Jeremy Goldman, an Ellicott City resident, is a parent of two children who testified at the meeting. He is in favor of the first option.

“My son, who is in fourth grade, asked me the same [question],” said Goldman when asked what prompted the board to consider this change. “I don’t have an answer. The [board’s] report says ‘recognizing the changing demographic in Howard County,’ [but] no one knows what that means.”

Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, submitted several statistics to demonstrate the Jewish community has grown significantly since the 1979 survey. The statistics were taken from the 2010 Jewish community study of Howard County. It said in 2010, there were 17,500 Jews in the county; an 8 percent increase since 1999. It also said there were 7,500 Jewish households; a 15 percent increase since 1999.

“In order to make a data-driven  decision, more work must be done. That work should include a survey of various cultural and religious communities regarding absences on all of our most important days,” Ostroff said during her testimony. “The Jewish Federation is fully committed to  assisting in collecting data and partnering with other faith and cultural organizations as well as the Howard County [Education] Association and the Howard County Administrators Association to report what’s needed to make an informed decision.”

Not all testimony was in support of keeping schools closed during the High Holidays. Indian-American  resident Dipak Srinivasan said he supports keeping the schools open, because “I think it’s the only responsible thing to do.” Srinivasan  explained he, and his wife, are forced to take off of work on the Jewish High Holy Days to watch their children. However, his children must also miss school on Indian holidays.

“1979 — we’ve gone along with this discriminatory practice for that long,” said Srinivasan.

There were several attendees at the meeting who testified about the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated by the Chinese community. They  requested the board move a professional development day to coincide with the Lunar New Year and believe supporting option one would lead to this change.

The board also heard from one member of the community who is no stranger to the inner-workings of the school system.

“I think the underlying issue  behind the committee’s premature recommendation [is] the desire to treat all faith groups equally and to honor and respect the diversity of  belief and culture that makes Howard County such an amazing place to live,” said Joshua Kaufman, former member and chairman of the Howard County Board of Education. “The committee’s instinct is wonderful and I fully support it.

“However, making a change that will negatively impact the operations of the school system,” Kaufman continued, “While making students and staff across the county feel less valued and included is the totally wrong way to do that.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

A Call for Reform In wake of Freddie Gray mistrial, Jewish community, activists call for systemic change

(BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS/Newscom)

(BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS/Newscom)

After the mistrial of  Officer William Porter, the first of six officers facing charges in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, protesters hit the streets for what they saw as an injustice. But many in Baltimore’s Jewish community say Porter’s complex trial further highlighted the need for police reform and a change in police culture in Baltimore.

“I think there are two general areas that need to be addressed. One of them is police accountability and  the other is, for lack of a better term, cultural sensitivity and a paradigm shift within the culture of policing in Baltimore City and a lot of cities around the country,” said Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who is active with Jews United for Justice (JUFJ).

While JUFJ and other activist groups will push for police reform in the coming legislative session in Annapolis, Burg acknowledges that more needs to happen. While he hopes to see implementation of body cameras, better training and better  recruitment, Burg said a big change is needed in police mentality.

“A lot of it is also about how the police begin to see themselves once again as being a part of their communities and the communities building trust with the officers who serve and protect them,” he said.

The day of the mistrial announcement, Wednesday, Dec. 16, there was a tangible police presence in downtown Baltimore, with dozens of police officers at the corners of Fayette Street, other officers behind barricades in front of City Hall and others blocking doors to the courthouse.

A Call for Reform

The evening was one of peaceful protest as people marched through downtown in the late afternoon into the evening and later assembled at  the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues.

Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless  endangerment in the death of Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in  police custody earlier this year. A new trial for Porter is set for June 13, 2016.

“I’m disappointed because I thought he would be found guilty of misconduct at least,” said Renaya Nkechi, who was protesting outside City Hall on Dec. 16. “I’m scared for society … where you can be injured in the presence of public servants and they  will turn their back, do nothing  and let you die and then not be held accountable. That’s a scary society. That’s a society we need to address with reform of our police.”

Later that night, about a dozen protestors from the People’s Power Assembly had gathered on the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, the area that was the epicenter of  unrest during the riots that occurred the day of Gray’s funeral in April.

Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries was leading the crowd in chants.

“This trial makes it clear that the way our police interact with those they are supposed to serve and protect,  especially in black communities,  is extremely problematic.”

— Molly Amster, JUFJ Baltimore director

“I completely disagree with the  decision. I realize that [the jury] had a very tough task, but this is a major blow to the fight for justice in Baltimore and nationally, and I think we missed the opportunity early on to send the message that we are taking a hard line in opposition to police terror,” he said. “We believe that all the officers violated the public trust, and they all could gave done something to prevent Freddie Gray’s brutal and heinous murder, and they really let the general public down.”

JUFJ’s Baltimore director, Molly Amster, said Porter’s trial was  “incredibly complicated” but agreed with a recent editorial in The Baltimore Sun that said the trial shed light on the failings of Baltimore police. “We’re not sure whose depiction of it was worse: the prosecution’s account of police who express a callous indifference to the lives of those they  arrest and then lie to cover for each other or the defense’s picture of a  department so rife with incompetence that their client’s failures were entirely unexceptional,” the editorial said.

“We couldn’t agree more,” Amster said via email. “While the prosecutors failed to convince the entire jury of officer Porter’s guilt, the callousness described by the prosecution and the  incompetence described by the defense further solidified our commitment to achieving police accountability. This trial makes it clear that the way our  police interact with those they are  supposed to serve and protect, especially in black communities, is extremely problematic.”

JUFJ is interested in amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, something for which the  organization lobbied in Maryland’s 2015 legislative session and will lobby for again this coming session. Maryland is one of 14 states with a LEOBR  law, which offers protections for law  enforcement who are under investigation or are the subject of formal citizen complaints. Amster argues that LEOBR goes too far and hides misconduct from the public, and reforming it would  increase transparency, citizen oversight and accountability, she said.

“[LEOBR] only serves to protect and shield police officers when they have been accused of misconduct and is a significant barrier to building the community trust that is essential to  improving policing and the community,” Amster said. “JUFJ is advocating for changes that would improve  police-community relations while also working to end the larger,  systemic inequalities that create the desperation that leads to crime in  Baltimore and beyond.”

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the BJC is going to look at the issue of police reform this upcoming  legislative session. The council will review LEOBR and bills associated with it as they come during the session.

“I think in the end we’ve got to take this day by day,” he said.

Looking forward, it is unclear how Porter’s mistrial may affect those of the other five officers. The next trial, for Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who drove the van in which Freddie Gray suffered his fatal injury, begins Jan. 6. He faces second-degree depraved-heart murder, among other charges.

University of Baltimore associate professor of law Amy Dillard said the case against Porter was complex, and the jury will be put in similarly unique positions in the upcoming cases.

“The theory is the same. It’s all rooted in this negligence theory or callous disregard for human life. It makes sense that you could assess the viability for the other cases [based on Porter’s case],” she said. “In these cases, the role of the jury is uniquely complex, and  it will demand jurors really draw on personal experience about what is  reasonable or unreasonable conduct.”

Abramson emphasized that Porter’s mistrial was not a conviction or an acquittal, all it meant was 12 jurors couldn’t unanimously agree.

“The most important thing right now is to give the system a chance, and we can deal with it if it doesn’t perform adequately, but I think it will,” he said.

On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 17, the day after the mistrial was  declared, members of the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, a coalition of more than 50 organizations including JUFJ, held a news conference in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray lived.

Ray Kelly, organizer and resident advocate with the West Baltimore  organization No Boundaries coalition, underscored the importance of the crossroads at which the city sits.

“We as a community can actually take this opportunity to really channel this protest into actual policies. We don’t want to get lost in the judicial proceedings, we want to keep our eyes on the prize,” he said. “Baltimore’s at a critical moment. We can and should make some policy changes right now, and we should develop  systems for actively encouraging and engaging civic discourse in these  reform efforts, especially with black and brown youth in our city.”

In speaking about how the Dec. 16 protests were peaceful, Burg said he looks to the future with hope, and he wishes others would too.

“I think we would be better off as a community if we meet these things — instead of with a feeling of anxiety and fear — if we meet them with a willingness to be hopeful about the future,” he said “These moments in history are watershed moments. Either we’re going to grow or see this as something to suffer through together and then business as usual. And we can’t have business as usual. Things have to change, and I’m hopeful that they will.”

Daniel Schere contributed to this report.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Repairing a Broken System Jews United for Justice begins fight to ease life for renters in Baltimore

Members of Jews United for Justice demostrate near City Hall in Baltimore as part of an effort to improve conditions for tenants going to rent court.

Members of Jews United for Justice demostrate near City Hall in Baltimore as part of an effort to improve conditions for tenants going to rent court.

Baltimore’s chapter of Jews United for Justice has embarked on a new campaign aimed at removing obstacles tenants often face when going to rent court. The project, known as the 7,000 Families Campaign, comes in response to a report released this month by the Public Justice Center, which states that 7,000 is the number of families evicted due to unpaid rent.

The campaign kicked off on Dec. 8, when about 40 people, including 18 from JUJF, gathered at the corner of Fayette and Gay streets near City Hall to call for reforms to the court system that include better navigation of the process for renters and more accountability for landlords.

“People don’t know how the system works,” said JUFJ Baltimore director Molly Amster. “They need more help in navigating the court. People are not given enough notice to come up with a defense or even to take off work and secure childcare, and landlords are not held accountable for the conditions of the properties, which was actually why the court was created.”

Baltimore’s chapter of JUFJ was started in September 2014 and partnered with the Right to Housing
Alliance and Public Justice Center in attempting to reach a broad scope of affected populations, Amster said.

“We had a whole process with a committee of people who helped to vet different campaign options,” she said. “Rent court and police accountability were the two that came to our community meeting in March.”

The report, which was published with the help of the Abell Foundation, states that Baltimore’s eviction rate of 7,000 families out of 150,000 that come to rent court every year is second in the country to Detroit. The study also found that black women living on less than $2,000 per month in particular are disproportionately affected.

To help offset these trends, JUFJ and others have called for a 14-day pre-filing notice period for renters unable to pay their bill, giving them an opportunity for one more paycheck to come in and more time to seek legal counsel.

The report also found that a majority of residents surveyed experienced health or safety issues in their residence such as mold, lead, insect infestation or peeling paint. Most were unaware that they were entitled to reduced rent as a result — something Amster emphasizes is emblematic of a broken system.

“Part of the job of rent court is to maintain the quality of the housing stock in the city by holding landlords accountable, and right now it’s failing on that front,” she said.

Among those who addressed the crowd at the rally was Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, who is also involved in JUFJ.

“We understand that thousands of people who are being evicted, a few of them, some of them, deserve to be,” he said. “It’s important that we’re honest about that because the problem here is a systemic problem. This broken system has been on auto pilot for too long.

“This is a situation where we’ve been moving forward and forward and forward, and it’s not getting us anywhere good.”

Burg said he felt their campaign was “winnable,” and beyond the merits of the issue of affordable housing, there is a moral obligation for the Jewish community to get involved.

“We make the miracles to occur in our time, and it’s easy to ignore the systemic challenges in our society because we get distracted in life, and that’s understandable,” he said. “But this is something that we need to pay attention to because it deeply affects citizens of the city and the overall success of our city and our community, and that’s something that should concern us deeply as Jews.”

Amster said JUFJ will head to Annapolis when the legislative session begins next month to work with Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) on legislation they hope will include the 14-day pre-filing notice and other reforms such as annual health and safety inspections and funding of eviction prevention services. Rosenberg has worked on landlord-tenant issues throughout his career and said many other states have such protections for renters.

“Tenants, they don’t have lawyers, so to that extent there are protections in the law,” he said. “Most of them are either not aware of those protections or are not aware of what they need to do seek legal counsel.”

Rosenberg said while these reforms may make sense to most people, facing the landlord lobby may be a challenge.

“The landlords are a powerful group in Annapolis, so we will make the best case that we can,” he said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Ex-peace negotiator says … Israel must ‘shape reality’

Udi Dekel brought his ideas for peace to Temple Micah in Washington.

Udi Dekel brought his ideas for peace to Temple Micah in Washington.

To remain a Jewish and democratic state, Israel must separate itself from the Palestinians now, a former Israeli peace negotiator told a Washington audience last week.

Retired Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel struck a note of urgency, saying Israel cannot afford to wait for the outcome of a future round of negotiations because the status quo threatens the country’s identity.

Speaking to 130 people at Temple Micah, Dekel, the lead negotiator in the failed 2008 peace talks with the Palestinians, said Israel needs to act in its own interest.

“We have to put on the table a new plan for going forward,” he said.

He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “share a common interest in not moving forward” toward a final status agreement that would settle all issues between the two peoples.

Yet, the destination the two sides need to reach are clear from several failed rounds of negotiations dating back to the Clinton administration: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, security guarantees for Israel and Jerusalem shared by the two states.

“We know the destination. But we don’t know which track will get us there,” said Dekel, whose Dec. 9
appearance was part of a weeklong U.S. tour sponsored by J Street.

Israel should “shape the reality” by declaring that it will withdraw from the West Bank to its security fence until future negotiators decide on a final border, he said.

“If the Palestinians participate, it is better,” said Dekel. But we are not waiting any longer.”

He said there were two obstacles in implementing the plan. “We have to evacuate 100,000 settlers. It’s not easy. But we cannot wait any longer.”

The second problem is that the Palestinians are not able to “establish a democratic, functional state.” Dekel called on moderate Arab countries and the United States “to support the Palestinians, so we aren’t stuck in the middle of the road.”

Dekel is managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He participates in a working group of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians that keeps discussions going in anticipation of future peace negotiations.

Dekel’s plan concerned the West Bank only. An audience member asked what he would do about Jerusalem.

Dekel said his proposal is the same one that the Israelis made in 2008: The city’s Arab neighborhoods would be the Palestinian capital and its Jewish neighborhoods the Israeli capital.

The sticking point, the “holy basin” including the Western Wall and the Al Aksa Mosque, “neither side can compromise on, but they can decide to cooperate and give a third party the authority to manage it until we are mature enough to decide for ourselves,” he explained.

To allow Netanyahu more flexibility, Dekel called on the moderate Zionist Union, led by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, to join the government.

Dekel’s answer to an audience member who said that Netanyahu makes no distinction between Arabs and terrorists earned the ex-general his one applause line from this mostly liberal audience.

“Netanyahu,” he said, “is not Israel.”

dholzel@midatlanticmedia.com

District 11 Team Endorses Van Hollen for Senate

111315_senate_Chris_Van_HollenMaryland’s District 11 team of State Sen. Bobby Zirkin and State Dels. Shelly Hettleman, Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein announced its endorsement of Congressman Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, faces Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County in the Democratic primary race to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after serving as senator since 1987.

“We’re thrilled to announce our unanimous support for Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate. We are on the front lines of the challenges and opportunities facing the Baltimore region – and there is no one better suited to serve as an effective, progressive voice for our great state,” the District 11 team said in a statement. “Chris is a leader with bold ideas to grow our economy and bring good paying jobs to our area. He is a fighter for women and families. He’s got a deep understanding of national security issues and has been a longtime friend to Israel. As we speak with our community and the people we represent, it is clear that Chris’s record of leadership and support for the Baltimore region are resonating with voters. He is the best candidate to carry Senator Mikulski’s legacy into the future, and we stand with him every step of the way.”