Honoring Those Who Came Before Us Jewish communities grapple with upkeep at older cemeteries

Just weeks ago, the Ohr Knesseth Israel Anshe Sfard Congregation Cemetery looked like a tornado had torn through it.

At least 80 stones, possibly as many as 100, had been toppled over by vandals on Erev Yom Kippur (the date appears to be a coincidence). The stones, which date to the early 1900s, lay flat on the ground, some even disconnected from their bases.

But on this particular day, things were looking up. Mark Hyatt and his crew of four, contracted by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore (JCA), were hard at work repairing the damage at the cemetery on German Hill Road in East Baltimore.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hyatt said. “It was looking disastrous when we got here on Sunday, [Dec. 6].” He and his crew were on their third day of flipping stones over, leveling bases and reattaching headstones using weather-proof industrial-strength epoxy.

“It’s really backbreaking,” he said. And there were two or three more days to go.

The whole job, including fixing the fence so it can be secured overnight, would cost about $10,000, which was being split by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the JCA.

Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

The JCA, an agency of The Associated, maintains 13 of Baltimore’s older cemeteries, most of which were owned by congregations that no longer exist and whose caretakers have passed on. Pooling the assets and perpetual-care trusts of the 13 cemeteries into one fund allows the organization the flexibility to fix disasters such as this one.

About 10 minutes up the road on a hill surrounded by office buildings with a view of I-895 lies a number of cemeteries, including Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery, which is owned and operated by Beth Israel Congregation, now located in Owings Mills.

Baltimore native Scott Gartner, who lives in Lakewood, N.J., visits the cemetery regularly. His parents, Freida and Jack, are buried there, as are grandparents, aunts and uncles. The part of the cemetery where his family lies was purchased by his maternal grandfather and three friends under the Swinicher Woliner Benevolent Association. There’s a memorial that pays tribute to members of families who perished in the Holocaust. This cemetery is important to Gartner.

On a visit in early December for his mother’s yartzeit, the site of leaning headstones and those that had already toppled over brought tears to his eyes.

“That could be Uncle Benny and Aunt Molly,” Gartner said, as he pointed to fallen stones.

The older section of the cemetery further troubles Gartner. There are stones that have fallen on other stones, stones that are sinking and stones that have fallen forward with grass growing around them. Even the road to the older part is in disrepair with cracked concrete and fallen, mangled tree branches covering the surface.

For Beth Israel, this part of the cemetery also is troubling.

“Some of those older parts are well over 100 years old, and so consequently we don’t even know who some of the families are,” said Allen Cohen, co-president of the cemetery.

While he and fellow co-president Marilyn Schloss recently switched caretakers to help beautify the newer part of the cemetery, the older part remains an issue. Without families to contact, funding to repair fallen stones is virtually nonexistent. The perpetual-care trusts, funds bought into by the deceased or their families that grow interest, pay for grass mowing and regular maintenance, but not to repair hundred-year-old cemetery areas that could cost in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t know that we have the money ourselves to do it,” Cohen said. “That’s always a problem.”

Without a pool to draw from like the JCA has, Beth Israel is left only with the hope that The Associated and JCA can help out, although at this moment, the JCA only works in its 13 cemeteries.

“It’s tough. As Jews, it’s a major responsibility,” Cohen said. “I don’t know of too many responsibilities that are more important than that.”

These issues are not unique to Baltimore. All over the country, Jewish communities are grappling with how to maintain their aging cemeteries. While nonprofits such as the JCA exist in some cities, in some cases, cemeteries are unfortunately forgotten and neglected.

“Cemeteries need a pot of money to be able to continue the maintenance going forward, really forever … and that’s the biggest challenge for cemeteries: to have sufficient funds,” said Amy Koplow, membership co-chair of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association in New York. “When people are buried, when people buy graves, Jewish people, they’re expecting that their place of eternal rest will be respectful forever. You don’t pick to get buried in a garbage dump, you pick to get buried in a respectful spot in a well-maintained cemetery.”

The JCA cemeteries

In 1999, the same year Steve Venick became president of the Fram Monument Company, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore was formed under the umbrella of The Associated to be a committee that anyone involved with cemeteries could come to with questions and issues. Its members consisted of the people who ran the cemeteries.

A few years after its formation, the JCA was approached by two cemeteries for much-needed help. It wasn’t the synagogues that approached the JCA — the synagogues that once ran these cemeteries had folded in the 1970s and ’80s. It was aging board members who were responsible for the cemeteries.

“[They asked], ‘What happens when we pass on? Who’s going to maintain and operate our cemeteries?’” Venick said. “So the board met, and we shifted models and we shifted priorities. We needed to get into the position of acquiring and operating cemeteries.”

These days, the board is led by Venick, its president, and includes Sol Levinson & Bros. vice president Matt Levinson and cemetery directors of several local congregations.

Mark Smolarz, COO and CFO at The Associated, refers to the organization as a “catcher’s mitt.” He oversees The Associated’s constituent agencies, such as the JCA.

“Most of the cemeteries are cemeteries of synagogues that have long been dissolved or merged, and therefore the synagogue no longer had the capacity or financial resources to maintain them,” he explained.

The Ohr Knesseth Israel Anshe Sfard Congregation Cemetery ended up in the JCA’s hands through a series of mergers. Ohr Knesseth merged with the old Rogers Avenue shul that merged with Beth Jacob, which merged with Beth Tfiloh, at which point the cemetery was turned over to the JCA.

All but one JCA cemetery are active, and some more than others. Most are on the east side of Baltimore, where the Jewish community once lived.

Matt Levinson, who has been on the board of the JCA for years, said Baltimore is lucky to have the JCA.

“If it wasn’t for the Jewish Cemetery Association, there’d be a much bigger issue in Baltimore,” he said. “Cemeteries are different than a business. You can’t just close a cemetery; there’s always maintenance and things you have to do.”

Bill Bisesi, caretaker for the JCA cemeteries, said stones falling over is not uncommon. In some cemeteries, like the older part of Beth Israel’s, the rows were laid out close together, and stones were often put on top of graves instead of solid ground. As ground moves over time and graves settle, stones are bound to move, lean and fall.

“It’s a different job to take care of an old cemetery than it is to take care of your new, modern cemeteries,” he said. “There’s just so much more involved and so much other stuff you have to take care of.”

In addition to funding issues and trouble tracking down families, old cemeteries don’t have the grave liners or vaults that many modern-day cemeteries require to help keep stones in place. Older stones, many of which are made of marble, have degraded over time, making it hard to read the names on the markers.

“Monuments fall in older cemeteries because the ground continues to settle and foundations crack and foundations sink, and all of this comes under the umbrella of maintenance,” Koplow said. “And very easily, a cemetery can start to look overgrown and abandoned if even in one season that grass isn’t cut.”

While major catastrophes are few and far between, the JCA had to spend $20,000 last year at Adas Israel’s cemetery on German Hill Road, when a nearly 400-foot rear retaining wall fell forward, taking the fence on top of it down.

“One part went and it was like a domino,” Venick said. “It was mind boggling how something could collapse like that.”

Luckily, no stones were damaged.

The JCA can put out $20,000 or split the $10,000 repair at Ohr Knesseth with The Associated, because all the perpetual care trusts from the cemeteries it took over have been pooled into one fund that the organization can spend as it sees fit. That flexibility, to spend one cemetery’s money on another, was something for which the organization had to petition the courts.

The JCA doesn’t actively seek out cemeteries, but when caretakers approach the JCA, the board meets to decide if it fits into its mission.

Gartner, who has been in touch with Venick and Smolarz about his concerns in Baltimore’s aging cemeteries (his paternal grandfather is buried at Ohr Knesseth), wants to see the group become more proactive.

In detailed letters to Associated officials, Gartner wrote about how he would like to see a board of rabbis involved in the JCA, regular visits and maintenance at Baltimore’s cemeteries and tighter security and partnerships with organizations such as the police to ensure cemeteries remain sacred. He would also like to see the JCA partner with the wider Jewish community in a superfund that could help all cemeteries and come up with a plan of care for cemeteries when their synagogues’ operations cease.

“If our generation doesn’t take perpetual care responsibly, who will in the next generation and the next generation?” Gartner asked. “Who’s going to care about my parents’ cemetery when I’m gone?”

While it may be a tall order, the JCA is looking into a number of things that can push the organization’s mission forward. There are discussions about enrolling volunteers through Jewish Volunteer Connection to check on cemeteries on a regular basis. Venick said the JCA is also looking into how it might help other cemeteries that it does not run.

“We have to be careful how much we take on. It’s a financial burden, even though it’s the right thing over time,” said Smolarz, who thinks at some point the JCA is going to have 40 to 50 cemeteries. He would love to see a team of volunteers from the JVC come into the fold and is open to the idea of a superfund.

“If there’s a way to pull assets [together] and be administratively more efficient and be economically more efficient to have one entity be the czar over the cemeteries, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.

There is also talk of merging the JCA with the United Hebrew Cemetery Corporation of Rosedale, another group of which Venick is president. UHCC is a nonprofit that takes care of about three-quarters of the Jewish cemeteries in Rosedale. Venick said the organization is smaller, taking care of about 22 small cemeteries, with funding about one-tenth of the JCA’s.

Old issues and new trends

Amy Koplow, membership chair at JCANA, the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, said there are organizations similar to Baltimore’s JCA in Boston, Cincinnati and New York, in areas where there are older cemeteries and the Jewish community has moved away. The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts uses a similar model.

“Their business model is to sort of take from the rich and give to the poor. Whatever assets these cemeteries had were put into one pot; that way everybody could be taken care of,” she said.

As executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, the largest in the diaspora, she deals with her own organization’s old cemetery, which was filled up in 1909. The organization’s active cemetery has about 400 burials a year, for which the organization provides funeral services and the burial. And there is a program through which donors can pay for grave markers.

She said New York has a large number of old cemeteries that have fallen into states of neglect. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were hundreds of burial societies formed by groups called landsmanshaftn, which were fraternal organizations for immigrants from the same towns in Europe.

“One way of keeping from feeling like they weren’t lost in this mass of population was to form these societies,” Koplow said. “So there were hundreds of them, if not thousands, and over several generations … the sort of upkeep of the landsmanshaftn cemeteries sort of disappeared.”

At the Hebrew Free Burial Association’s own cemetery, the organization is left up to its own devices to deal with these issues. When stones fall, they place them on the grave or lean them against the grave since the group doesn’t have the funds to reset them, Koplow said.

“It’s a problem in many Jewish communities,” she explained, noting that some of New Jersey’s historical cemeteries in areas where Jews no longer live have suffered similar issues.

In her JCANA capacity, Koplow has seen some new trends emerging in the Jewish cemetery world, “things where there’s no traditional halachic road map,” she said. As the number of interfaith couples grows, some cemeteries have started allowing interfaith burials, even carving out sections for those burials.

Cremation is also on the rise, Koplow said. For some people with children who don’t live near them, cremation is a way for them to be with their family where they are. For some, the lower cost is attractive, and others says they want to take up less space and have a more environmentally friendly death.

Koplow isn’t convinced it’s a good way to go.

“It’s against Jewish law, and secondly, the energy it takes to cremate doesn’t make it a very green process,” she said.

Walter Tegeler, who runs W.S. Tegeler Monument Company in Baltimore, said he sees more interfaith and cremation burials in Reform cemeteries.

“It’s been going on for years, but I think you see more and more of it now than you used to,” he said of cremations. “People aren’t as religious as they used to be.”

At the cemetery of Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox congregation, there are no interfaith or cremation burials allowed. At Conservative congregation Chizuk Amuno’s cemetery, they don’t accept cremations, but do have a section for interfaith families, something the congregation approved a few years ago.

“We have one burial there so far and some purchased lots,” said cemetery director Marsha Yoffe. “It’s not a stampede; I would say there is a need, and we’re addressing it, and I think in the future that’s where things are going. We’re trying to be realistic.”

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation accepts cremains as well as interfaith burials.

“We don’t mind if a non-Jewish person is buried at our cemetery as long as the internment is officiated by a rabbi and it’s done by Jewish tradition or law,” said Jo Ann Windman, the congregation’s executive director. Non-Jews are buried throughout the cemetery rather than in a separate section.

Windman does see cremations slowly rising in recent years. A couple can buy one lot for both in cases of cremation, and although they pay a premium to use one lot, it does save money in the long run.

“I think it has to do with costs, and the other part of it has to do with the way people feel about taking up less space on the earth,” Windman said.

The rise in cremations may signify a wider trend. Wendy Farley, cemetery coordinator at Beth Tfiloh, doesn’t see young people appreciating the importance of cemeteries the way previous generations did, as the number of attendees at the annual memorial service has dropped in recent years.

“I don’t think a lot of people are going to visit their grandparents anymore. I think visiting a cemetery used to be a much more common thing … and I don’t think it’s happening as much anymore,” she said. “I think honoring the dead is something that needs to be brought to the attention of the younger generation.”

Clearing the WEEDS

Just outside of West Philadelphia in Lower Merion Township lies what was once known as Har Hasetim, a cemetery that had been neglected for more than half a century.

“The cemetery was started back in 1892, and it was really a number of burial societies who were burying people in the cemetery. But because of its location high on a hill, a little difficult to get to, far from public transportation, it became less favored,” said Stephen Anderer.

“Burial associations started to die out, and people become assimilated and associated them with the old world. And as a result, the last burial in that cemetery was in 1945, and after that period it really fell into neglect and disrepair. There were homes built up all around it — nice big expensive homes, so it was really cut off from the active public street.”

It became overgrown and essentially a forest until the land owner tried to sell it to a developer who planned to move the graves and build more luxury homes.

“Once word got around about that, not just members of the Jewish community, but members of the local community were up in arms and thought it was sacrilege and really disrespectful to the people who are buried,” Anderer said. Rabbis spoke out against it as well.

The community won a court case, and the six-acre cemetery was turned over to Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery. Anderer chairs the nonprofit, which was started about four years ago. The organization aims to preserve the cemetery, honor those buried there and educate future generations.

Tasks have included landscape management — weeding, moving fallen trees and pruning old trees that haven’t been touched since the 1940s — repairing cracked and fallen stones and doing research on who is buried there. On a recent weekend, volunteers were out with chainsaws, weed whackers and wood chippers to trim away some of the growth. A local landscaping company even donated some of its time.

Anderer’s goal for 2016 is to make every grave visible and accessible via a trail, a goal that was difficult to meet this year.

“As soon as you clear the weeds, another month and they’re back,” he said. “Seventy years of neglect can seem overwhelming, but we’re really starting to get it under control.”

The organization has done some fundraising as well as public events that re-enact some of the history of the area.

“We want to build memorials and kiosks to tell the story and have seating areas, maybe a small reflecting pond,” Anderer said. “That’s going to cost money.”

Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has also established partnerships, including one with the nearby West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Scout troupes and local synagogues have also helped clean up. A professor at Villanova University has a graduate class doing research on the history of the cemetery and the people buried there.

“We want to tell that story to a new generation and generations to come,” Anderer said. “It’s not just the story of the immigrants who came to this country, but certainly Jewish immigrants, people who were fleeing persecution in the late 1800s and their children. Ultimately, these people were the foundation for the Jewish community of today, people like those who are buried in the cemetery.”


In the Company of Men Bagel Boys stay young, engaged at Myerberg Center

Allan Gold, Ernest Silversmith and Louis Hyatt particpate in a Bagel Boys Boot Camp weekly work out. (photo by Melissa Gerr)

Allan Gold, Ernest Silversmith and Louis Hyatt particpate in a Bagel Boys Boot Camp weekly work out. (photo by Melissa Gerr)

Each Tuesday morning at 10 at the Edward A. Myerberg Center, the boys are back — the Bagel Boys that is — noshing on bagels, sipping coffee and having a good schmooze before the week’s lecture. They claim events like this keep them coming back for more and help them stay young.

On this day, the Frosburg Room, which the group expanded into when they outgrew the former meeting place, was abuzz with smart-aleck remarks, off-color jokes and about 50 kibitzing guys because they’re genuinely interested in each other and hungry for learning about the topic at hand.

“Sometimes, I go to the gym [before the lecture], sometimes I don’t,” Leo Sirota, 86, a retired pharmacist, said. “And sometimes, he just looks in the gym!” heckled a friend at his table.

“This is a sociable crowd; we joke and argue back and forth,” said Sirota, brushing off his heckler friend with a wave of his hand. He likes the variety of speakers, but “we had a series about World War I, and I didn’t find that too interesting because I probably knew more than the speaker,” Sirota added with a laugh.

At first, Sirota said he only used the gym at Myerberg because other programs didn’t really appeal to him until the Bagel Boys came along. Since his wife died, he said, the Bagel Boys “have given me a chance to get out of the house instead of looking at the walls.”

“One thing we know about older adult men is that in general, they are less inclined to plan social interaction,” said Autumn Sadovnik, assistant director of the center. “They’re prone to social isolation and less likely to be a part of a community” on their own accord.

 (From left): Bagel Boys co-chairs Sidney Rankin, Howard Cornblatt and Marty Buckman with Edward A. Myerberg Center assistant director Autumn Sadovnik. (Photo by Melissa Gerr)

(From left): Bagel Boys co-chairs Sidney Rankin, Howard Cornblatt and Marty Buckman with Edward A. Myerberg Center assistant director Autumn Sadovnik. (Photo by Melissa Gerr)

So in the fall of 2013, Myerberg dedicated its efforts to provide more programming aimed at men to counter that trend. Sadovnik researched what other places were doing and then put a notice in the Myerberg Center news-letter inviting people to meet and discuss what they wanted in a men’s club.

About a half-dozen male members showed up and “a bunch of women sent their husbands because they’ve been trying to push them out of the house,” Sadovnik said with a laugh. She received calls from female Myerberg members pleading, “[He’s] driving me crazy! My husband’s really bored. Please find something for him to do!’”

Sadovnik said that characteristically women, especially those who may not have worked full time, are used to finding activities to fill their days, “but a newly retired man suddenly has 40 to 50 hours to fill.” And, she added, much of the offerings at Myerberg, such as art and fitness classes, tend to appeal more — though not exclusively — to women.

After its first meeting, word of the Bagel Boys spread, and in a few months the group grew from less than 10 men to dozens. Now there are about 75 members. The group is co-chaired by Marty Buckman, Howard Cornblatt and Sidney Rankin.

“I was single when I moved [back] here, and wives are the social leaders,” Rankin, 83, said. He retired from chemical engineering about 25 years ago.

“I’ve outlived almost all of my relatives, so my ‘family’ is in this building. I come in here to use the fitness center for my 15 minutes,” he said laughing, “but every time I walk in the room there’s four, five, six people who I can say hello to and talk a bit. A lot of fitness centers are not a community I think, but the Myerberg is a community.”

Buckman, 85, has learned a lot from the speakers and enjoys the camaraderie, and even though he’s a native Baltimorean, “I’ve met a lot of very nice gentlemen,” he said. “And it’s a place to be. When you’re a senior, you have to have things to do and places to be. [The Bagel Boys’ meetings are] something that I can look forward to doing every week.”

Arriving just in time for the lecture from his 30-minute circuit training, Cornblatt, 73, said he enjoys the talks about current events and added the group has heard from an audiologist that included free screenings for everyone and a cardiologist who also offered heart-healthy information. “And the feedback is all positive — [we] keep coming back.”

This day’s presentation was from Deborah Cardin, deputy director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, who spoke about an upcoming exhibit, “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” opening in March.

“It’s such a joy, it’s so much fun going there,” Cardin said after her presentation. “There’s a real sense of interest in nostalgia and reliving the stories of their youth.”

She also commended the volunteer hours that Buckman, Rankin and many other seniors provide for the JMM as well.

There’s even an offshoot called the Bagel Boys Boot Camp, of which Alan B. Cohen, 64, is a participant. He appreciates the mix of retired lawyers, pharmacists, businessmen, chemists, engineers, doctors and tech gurus, such as himself, who provide engaging “adult communication.” But he added, “I don’t get as much exercise as I ought to. [Boot Camp] forces me to have at least an hour of exercise a week,” referring to the class led by Ross Wilson, fitness and wellness manager.

In a small classroom on Wednesday mornings, Wilson runs the group through a combination of circuit and strength training, where “everything can be modified; it can all be done seated or standing because skill levels can range a lot, even from day to day,” he said.

Ernest Silversmith, 85, a retired Morgan State University chemistry professor, counted off bicep curls while “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman blasted from speakers to pump up the group.

“The talks are extremely interesting, but above and beyond that, we all enjoy each other’s company,” he said, adding that regular exercise was “something I probably wouldn’t do on my own.”

Albert Ginsburg, 71, two days into his retirement from podiatry and in attendance just to check out the group, said he ate “a nice bagel and it was a very good lecture.” He said he would likely return “so I can partake with all the new time I have on my hands.”


From Squad Car to Synagogue Local cantor builds bridges between law enforcement and community

Cantor Michael Shochet

Cantor Michael Shochet (Photos courtesy of Cantor Michael Shochet)

It was July 1987. Michael Shochet was a young police officer working the midnight shift in Baltimore City. A signal 13 came across the radio. An off-duty officer needed backup.

Soon after Shochet and his fellow officers arrived at the 1100 block of Abbott Court, shots rang out. Officer Tom Martini was shot through his shoulder by a mentally ill suspect standing less than four feet away.

“I grabbed Tom, who was screaming, and dragged him around the side of the house to get him out of the line of fire,” said Shochet. “That was a hugely traumatic experience. It’s been almost 30 years, and I still remember that to this day.”

It proved to be a life-changing event, one that would lead Shochet on a spiritual journey to create bridges among clergy, community and police departments.

Not long after the shooting, Shochet — who now lives in Fairfax County, Va. — found himself having a hard time on the street.

­Shochet remained active in his Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel, then located in Pikesville. Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel encouraged Shochet to pursue cantorial school, and Shochet was further mentored by Cantor Samuel Berman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

The transition from the squad car to the pulpit was actually his third career move. After graduating from Ithaca College, he worked at WMAR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore, as an on-air reporter. When he first entered the police academy, he said, his fellow trainees were convinced that he was actually undercover for a story.

As an officer, he responded to people in their worst moments. Unfortunately, he wrote in an op-ed piece published in May in The Baltimore Sun, little has changed in his hometown.

The cynicism of some police officers, the violence carried out by some residents, were both crystallized in the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed. But Shochet, instead of despairing, outlined solutions and tactics that he has modeled as a law enforcement chaplain in northern Virginia.

When Shochet became the first cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church nearly 18 years ago, he reached out to local law enforcement; today, he serves as the police chaplain coordinator of the Fairfax County Police Department. In that capacity he brings faith leaders together with the department and helps today’s officers prepare for what Maj. Ed O’Carroll, a 26-year veteran of the Fairfax Police Department, described as unique challenges.

“The new phenomenon in law enforcement is we’ve been on alert since 9/11, which was 15 years ago. For the average officer on the road, terrorism has been on their mind for most of their career,” said O’Carroll.

Filming of police officers is par the course — and something O’Carroll says his department encourages the community to do — but the speed at which such videos make it to the national news is newer.

“Does it add a little bit of stress?” O’Carroll queried. “It may. That’s where folks like Mike and peer support and education and training come into play.”

Cantor Michael Shochet worked for the Baltimore Police Department in the late 1980s. Witnessing his partner getting shot proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. (Photo courtesy of Cantor Michael Shochet)

Cantor Michael Shochet worked for the Baltimore Police Department in the late 1980s. Witnessing his partner getting shot proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. (Photo courtesy of Cantor Michael Shochet)

Shochet never received counseling after his partner was shot. The officers were given the day off and told to report back for duty as normal.

“There was no processing of it from an emotional, psychological or spiritual sense back then,” recalled Shochet. “It was kind of like ‘man-up’ and ‘this is what police work is all about.’”

That lack of care for the traumatized and the secondarily traumatized is part of what compels him to teach classes at the local police academy on how officers can take care of their spiritual well-being. It spurred him to join the chaplaincy program and later become the first chaplain of any faith at the CIA. (He was at the Pentagon on Sept. 12, 2011 manning the chaplain tent. The smell of burning fuel, he said, will never leave him.)

Today, said Shochet, the approach to police psychological care is different.

“Our most valuable asset is our employees,” said O’Carroll. “They’re ordinary people we ask to do extraordinary things. We want them to know that they’re cared for and loved at all levels.”

Over the course of his nearly three decades with law enforcement, O’Carroll has seen a lot of change.

“We talk about things more. We talk about suicide. We talk about alcoholism and high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” he explained. “We’re not shy to recognize that we need to safeguard our employees against the dangers that come from stress.”

But what about the stress of citizens who are victims of criminal acts perpetrated by police? Who safeguards them?

“I think there’s kind of a meta-climate and a micro-climate,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, where he and his family reside. “The meta-climate is fraught right now. You read the papers and you look at what’s going on in the city with the crime and murder rates and the desperate need for police reform. There’s some large problems in front of us.”

In the micro-climates of individual neighborhoods, Burg said most people are just trying to go about their lives.

We talk about things more. We talk about suicide. We talk about alcoholism and high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

— Maj. Ed O’Carroll, Fairfox Police Department

Molly Amster, who grew up in Montgomery County and now serves as the Baltimore director for Jews United for Justice, said that those whose “action and inaction” caused Gray’s death must be held accountable. “Anything less would be a tragedy.”

Burg shares those concerns.

“I’m worried in a sense that it’s hard for a lot of people right now to trust the criminal justice system,” he said. “The rule of law is obviously very important, but I think there’s a real deficit of trust right now.”

That trust, he said, has eroded over time. It didn’t start with Freddie Gray or John Greer, a Springfield, Va., resident allegedly shot and killed by former Fairfax County police officer Adam Torres. Torres’ trial, originally scheduled to begin Dec. 14, was postponed to April.

Shochet addresses police abuses — which stem, he wrote, from an “us (the police) against them (everyone else)” mentality — in his class, sharing the story of former Baltimore police lieutenant Michael Timothy Snow, who was sentenced in 2001 to 14 years in federal prison for bank robberies. (In his first career in broadcast news, Shochet had filmed a ride-along with Snow.)

It’s also why Shochet advocates for law enforcement agencies to mandate visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Police back then were seen as the bad guys because they were the ones who abused their power, and so I think it’s important to understand when you put that badge on what it means and how not to take advantage of the system,” said Shochet.

On the other hand, Shochet added, officers deserve support from the government and should not be put on trial through the public.

JUFJ advocates for improved police-community relations, and part of that, it believes, includes reforming the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to be more transparent.

“As [Shochet] indicated in his op-ed in The Sun, to see a change we need significant cultural shifts within police departments and the larger society,” said Amster. “Police misconduct and lack of accountability has led to serious community mistrust.”

Burg was among faith leaders who met with Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis last week.

“I think he’s an earnest guy who really wants to make change, and I think he is willing to own the mistakes that the police department has made,” said Burg. “The question is: Does he have the capacity, the funding, the political will to implement the sorts of changes that need to happen right now? I don’t know the answer to that.”


Baltimore Residents Protest and Call for Reform After Porter Mistrial

Protesters chanted outside of City Hall Wednesday evening.

Protesters chanted and marched through downtown and outside of City Hall Wednesday evening. (By Marc Shapiro)

Dozens of police officers stood on corners on Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore just after a mistrial was announced Wednesday afternoon in the case of Baltimore Police Officer William Porter, the first of the six officers who face various charges in the death of Freddie Gray. Blocks away, other officers stood behind barricades in front of City Hall, and others blocked doors to the courthouse.

While some arrests were made, 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 Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody earlier this year.

“I’m disappointed because I thought he would be found guilty of misconduct at least,” said Renaya Nkechi, who was protesting outside of city hall on Wednesday. “I’m scared for society … where you can be injured in the presence of public servants and they will turn their back and 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.”

In an email to Jews United for Justice supporters, Baltimore director Molly Amster said the mistrial underscores the need for police reform.

“It is clear to us that injustice pervades at the Baltimore City Police Department. This trial – which marks the first in a long series – makes even clearer how desperately we need to improve our police accountability and transparency in the city and across the State of Maryland.”

By 8 p.m., about a dozen protestors from the People’s Power Assembly had gathered on the corner on Pennsylvania and North avenues, the area that was the epicenter of unrest during the riots that occurred the day of Gray’s funeral.


Elder C.D. Witherspoon speaks to a small group of protesters at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues Wednesday night. (By Marc Shapiro)

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

“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 against an 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.”

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams was expected to decide Thursday morning if Porter would be retried.

This is a developing story.

Confronting Anti-Semitism DFI series kicks off with discussion on hate

Jewish professional and lay leaders came together Dec. 2 at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC for a discussion on confronting anti-Semitism hosted by the Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development. The workshop was the first in a five-part series on interfaith dialogue and was highlighted by a lecture from Seth Gordon-Lipkin, the education project director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The session began with an introduction from Neil Rubin — a Jewish educator who formerly served as an editor at the JT. Rubin opened with a story about his experience of teaching at an inner-city high school last year where a student named Maya asked, “How come all Jews have big noses?” to which he replied, “I don’t know Maya, how come all blacks can dunk?”

 We see this every day in our work around the world, in our work in the U.S., we see that these stereotypes are as prescient now as they’ve ever been.

“I knew that Maya wasn’t coming from a place of anti-Semitism, she was coming from a place of ignorance,” he said.

Rubin said he hopes that through workshops such as this one, people will learn strategies for dealing with ignorance and hate.

“How do I talk to my 15- and 17-year-olds when they’re flipping the TV dial and they see Ann Coulter ask, ‘Why are there so many f—-ing Jews out there?’ What does that mean,” he said.

Gordon-Lipkin, a Baltimore native, began his talk with a similar anecdote about an encounter in seventh grade with a girl who asked, “Seth, how do you hide your horns?”

“I had no idea what she was talking about, I didn’t understand it at all,” he said. “I could tell that my parents were very upset when I told them this story.”

In discussing his work with the ADL, Gordon-Lipkin presented the results from a survey the organization carried out last year in which they presented 11 Jewish stereotypes to countries in which anti-Semitism was an issue, including questions such as whether Jews have too much influence in financial markets or are the cause of all the world’s wars. A country was labeled anti-Semitic if it answered yes to six questions. Roughly one-fourth of the countries surveyed were labeled as such.

“We see this every day in our work around the world, in our work in the U.S.; we see that these stereotypes are as prescient now as they’ve ever been,” he said.

Gordon-Lipkin then displayed a map of the world showing where anti-Semitism was the most common, which was mainly North Africa and the Middle East.

“People think humanity has learned, but how can we explain genocides since the Holocaust?” he said.

Gordon-Lipkin then engaged attendees by drawing a Venn diagram and reading a series of anti-Jewish statements, asking whether they should be classified as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist, or overlapping with both. One such topic that came up was the increasing number of people wanting to boycott Israeli products as a result of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Gordon-Lipkin classified the statement as anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic and added that many younger are gravitating toward the Palestinian cause.

“Young people grew up with a very different Israel than their parents’ generation,” he said.

Among the attendees was Jewish Museum of Maryland Executive Director Marvin Pinkert, who said the discussion served as food for thought in planning future museum topics.

“For me, it always provokes thoughts about what can our museum do that might help with this situation either in our programming or in what we put on exhibit,” he said. “so while I’m intently listening to what’s happening, I’m also looking for what we can accomplish in a practical way within the community.”

Pinkert said he feels the amount of religious intolerance has been increasing in the United States over the last few years, and he thinks this can be attributed largely to the rise of technology and social media.

“What the Internet really has done is it’s removed editors, and editors serve the function of essentially keeping open public discourse on the most heinous public views,” he said. “Now everything’s a direct tweet.

“As some in the political arena are showing, you can be as offensive as you want to be and still be an accepted figure.”


Words Without War HoCo organizations fighting Islamophobia through dialogue

Blunt remarks by politicians, news of violent incidents and boisterous messages sent from overseas; it may be creating fear and distrust at a national level, but some people are fighting back with an age-old weapon: discussion.

Several organizations throughout Howard County are using the holiday season to mend Jewish-Muslim relationships at the grassroots level.



“Personally, I think that sometimes people make the mistake [of thinking] that change can only come from the governmental level,” said Hadar Shahar, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s shlicha, or representative, at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. “I believe that change can come from the bottom up [by] people making that first connection.”

Shahar, who is from the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, will participate in a speaking series called Red Tent, which is geared toward women and hosted by the Federation. The first part of the series will compare and contrast Jewish and Muslim women’s viewpoints on family, education, customs and household roles.

“I see it in Israel. When you see small relations between Arabs and Israelis or Arabs and settlers, it kind of brings back the hope that change is possible,” said Shahar, whose home neighborhood is surrounded by several Arab villages.

I think one of the biggest problems is misconceptions; they see Muslim women and have a preconceived notion about that person. Some of those notions are not true. [The truth is] we have women who are active, educated and in the work place.

Shahar’s counterpart is Tazeen Ahmad, an active member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

“I think one of the biggest problems is misconceptions; [people] see a Muslim woman and have a preconceived notion about that person,” said Ahmad, who wears a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women. “Some of those notions are not true. [The truth is] we have women who are active, educated and in the work place.”

Ahmad, who said she has been fortunate to not experience “in-your-face discrimination,” emphasized that much of what the so-called Islamic State does overseas is not Islamic.

“I don’t view them as Islamic at all. The things they are doing and saying are un-Islamic down to the core,” said Ahmad. “[They are] killing innocents and wreaking havoc. Not only [things that] are horrific to any peaceful law-abiding Muslim, they create a bigger issue in the name of Islam.”

The discussion, which takes place on Dec. 14, is not the first between the county’s Muslims and Jews happening this month.

Several synagogues in the county participated in the Human Rights Shabbat this past weekend. T’ruah, the organization that manages the movement, calls on local rabbis and their communities to advocate for the protection of human rights to their elected officials.

According to the organization’s website, several synagogues in Howard County participated this year, including Bet Aviv and Columbia Jewish Congregation.

Although not all participating synagogues necessarily focused on Jewish-Muslim relations during their Shabbat services, Islamophobia is an issue on which the organization focuses. Beth Shalom Congregation, for instance, coordinated its scholar-in-residence Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s visit to coincide with Human Rights Shabbat.

“[Eilberg] has made her mark as someone who focuses on peace through building relationships, and that is a beautiful thing,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman. Eilberg, who was the first women to be ordained as rabbi in the Conservative movement, authored a book, “From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.”

“Her theory is that you can turn an enemy into a friend by building relationships,” said Grossman.

After Shabbat ended, the congregation went to a Howard County mosque to have an interfaith dialogue and discuss times they’ve experienced xenophobic reactions.

“We are in a fractured world driven by religious extremism, and there are lots of responses [to that extremism],” said Grossman. “One of the responses is to build religious cooperation; that is one of the most effective tools against extremism, to understand each other.”

While the events around the county were not planned as a direct result of any one incident, many of them do share the commitment to the same goal: understanding.

“We keep calling [it the] Islamic State,” said Ahmad. “In reality, there’s nothing Islamic about them, and they’re not a state. They’re not Islamic and that’s what we need to define: what Islam really does teach.”


Red Tent: Jewish and Muslim Perspectives

Monteabaro Recital Hall, Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia
Dec. 14. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Red Tent is a four-part series. Registration is $100 for all four parts or $60 for two of your choice.

For more information, contact Sophie Novinsky at snovinsky@jewishhowardcounty.org or 410-730-4976 ext. 103



Negotiating Interfaith Burial As time goes by, where to bury is becoming more and more of an issue

Nearly two years ago, Rabbi Jillian Cameron stood in a Catholic church in a deeply religious community in Massachusetts and gave the eulogy for her grandfather at the request of her relatives.

When her grandfather’s casket was lowered into the ground, Cameron’s mother leaned over to her and whispered, “Can you stay and say Mourner’s Kaddish with me?” Though Cameron’s mother never converted to Judaism, she raised a Jewish family with her Jewish spouse, and in that moment of deep sorrow, she wanted a meaningful spiritual connection, Cameron recalled.

For interfaith families, death and mourning rituals are yet another lifecycle event that needs to be carefully addressed, but one with which the wider Jewish community must also grapple. As demographics change, how Jewish cemeteries accommodate or do not accommodate interfaith couples will confront cemetery boards across the country.

People are thinking about this more openly, both in terms of ritual and burial space.

Cameron, director of InterfaithFamily in Boston, said couples frequently come to her and ask about where they can be buried and if their spouses can be buried with them.

The easiest way to find out is to look at the cemetery charter, said Morris Rodenstein, Jewish Community Services counselor at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Prince George’s County.

Mount Lebanon was established as a strictly Jewish cemetery more than 50 years ago with thousands of burial plots for the region’s Jewish population, which are now owned by a number of area congregations. Its charter cannot be changed.

About a decade ago, Rodenstein estimates, two area congregations bought plots in an interfaith section that is across a narrow road from the Jewish cemetery. There, interfaith couples can be buried side by side according to their preferred customs. There are roughly 200 plots available in that section.

This is in response to a trend David Zinner, vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, has seen in the last five years of Jewish partners saying they want their non-Jewish partners buried next to them.

“Most typically, cemeteries carve out a new piece, make a border with edges or benches or a pathway so that people who are more into Halachah” have their burial spaces kept separate, said Zinner. “It’s possible to do if you have enough land and you’re creative enough. There are plenty of cemeteries that say to you, ‘Only Jews can be buried here,’ but when push comes to shove, who’s really checking?”

That burden rests mostly on the congregations that sell the plots, said Rodenstein, but Dignity Memorial, which oversees Mount Lebanon, does ask families if the deceased is Jewish. The issue can become complicated when plots are handed down to family members who may or may not be Jewish. If a family “pulls one over” on the cemetery, then there is not much that can be done, said Rodenstein, which is why it’s better to address these issues well in advance. Rodenstein encourages couples to fill out a personal planning guide so as not to burden their loved ones.

“People are thinking about this more openly, both in terms of ritual and burial space,” said Cameron. “The associations that exist around the country are having these practical conversations. All these different types of people are going to have to think about this even more consciously, because it will become more of an issue as time goes on.”

Rabbi Maurice Harris, rabbi/senior educator for the national office of InterfaithFamily, has been approached by synagogues and burial societies across the country on the topic of how to adjust their regulations to accommodate changing demographics.

“I haven’t encountered a rabbi who calls me and says we don’t have any place to bury a non-Jewish loved one,” said Harris. “The controversy is what kind of religious symbol can we permit on the grave marker? Or, can we have a clergy member of another faith administer at the service? Or, how does patrilineal descent factor in?”

He continued, “What happens when you have a Conservative- or Orthodox-leaning person in a very small community who has done their part for years pitching in around the cemetery and may not be as comfortable with [being buried in an interfaith section]?”

Zinner said, “It depends.” It is possible to consecrate individual graves, though there is a desire for contiguousness in traditional Jewish cemeteries.

“Jewish cemeteries,” Zinner added, “started in about 1000 C.E., when Christians evolved to burying in church yards and Jews started burying in their own areas [outside the city boundaries], with some notable exceptions in Palestine, like the Mount of Olives.”

“Intermarriage,” Harris speculated, “is still new enough that we haven’t really hit the point where we’re seeing lots of people in their 80s and 90s who were intermarried, or whose children are intermarried, needing burials.” But in 30 years’ time, that could change.

He doesn’t believe that there will be a large problem, as the majority of synagogues in the middle of the religious spectrum — at least where he lives on the West Coast, which he says trends more religiously and culturally liberal — already have some sort of option for interfaith couples to be buried together.

Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington, addressed this issue by purchasing approximately 400 plots in the Jewish and interfaith sections of Mount Lebanon. According to Rabbi Daniel Zemel, the decision to purchase plots in the interfaith section was straightforward.

“Since the Jewish part of the cemetery was governed under bylaws that said it was for Jewish people to be buried there, we did not feel that it was proper to change that rule to have a non-Jewish person buried there,” said Zemel. “We wanted to retain the integrity of the cemetery, and our solution was to purchase a second section to be governed according to the wishes of the people buried there.”

Zemel said for his congregation it worked well, particularly since the congregation addressed the issue years ago “calmly, rather than at a time of stress with a lot of interfaith families. In that sense, I’m very, very glad our community was proactive in this decision.”


Ohr Chadash Celebrates Five Years School committed to centrist Jewish education

If there is one issue all schools grapple with, it is how to keep students interested, excited and learning, all at the same time. The parents, teachers and administration of Ohr Chadash Academy believe they have the solution.

“We’re cognizant of what the students want to do. What does that look like?” said Rabbi Moshe Margolese, principal at OCA. “How do we create an atmosphere so that students want to be a part of the school and the community?”

From the left: Ken Gelula, school board president; Rabbi Moshe Margolese, principal; Terri Rosen, vice president of marketing; Rosemary Warschawski, board member; Ari Taragin, immediate past board president (Malky Hochberg)

From the left: Ken Gelula, school board president; Rabbi Moshe Margolese, principal; Terri Rosen, vice president of marketing; Rosemary Warschawski, board member; Ari Taragin, immediate past board president (Malky Hochberg)

OCA recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and while the community is excited about the future, Margolese said that celebrating what’s been accomplished is sometimes overlooked.

“There’s always work to be done and growth to occur, but I think it’s important as educators, parents and individuals to stop and celebrate our success together,” said Margolese. “I think that’s a piece we miss a lot of the time.”

The school, which accommodates students up to grade 5, was launched following the closing of Yeshivat Rambam, a day school with more than two decades of history in the Baltimore community. Ken Gelula, former executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., is the school’s board president.

“Ohr Chadash started simultaneously with the closure of Rambam,” said Gelula, whose grandchildren attended OCA. “Parents who had their kids in Rambam were committed to a centrist Jewish education for their children and [started OCA].”

The school, which began operations at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center, has grown to more than 150 students and is located at Temple Oheb Shalom. Terri Rosen is vice president of marketing at OCA and, like many others on staff, is a parent. The two oldest of her four children had attended Rambam before it closed, and she was a part of the original group of parents who decided to form OCA.

“There was no other school similar to Rambam,” said Rosen. “We [needed] a school that fit with the more central part of the Jewish community.”

Rosen added that while the teamwork of the staff is impressive, it’s the relationships between the students that make the school shine.

“The kids all know each other; my son will tell me he plays with the kindergarteners. You come into the school and all these kids look up to the older students,” said Rosen. “It’s great to have that camaraderie within the student body as well.”

Randi Orshan, director of teaching and learning as well as a parent of three, echoed Rosen’s sentiments.

“The kids are so excited, and they have such a sense of belonging that I haven’t seen anywhere else,” said Orshan, who has taught at schools in Baltimore, Pennsylvania and Hawaii. “They feel ownership over their school, and that is what makes me love my job.”

Orshan added that although she hopes to see the school continue to grow, it is taking advantage of its small size through several initiatives such as tennis and scrapbooking electives as well as a healthy-food program through a partnership with Trader Joe’s.

Gelula attributed the success of the school not only to the board members and faculty, but also to the community at large that supports OCA.

“I am committed to Jewish community of Baltimore, and we are successfully building an excellent centrist Orthodox day school. It’s exceeding my expectation [in terms of] parent satisfaction and growth,” said Gelula. “I’m very pleased and optimistic that the schools reputation is going to continue to grow and with it both the number of students and quality of the educational experience.


Spiritual Scroll Upgrade FIDF seeks to replace 100,000 mezuzot by the middle of the month

Friends of the IDF has embarked on an effort to purchase 100,000 mezuzot to replace those that are damaged or missing in Israel. (©iStockphoto.comTerry Wilson)

Friends of the IDF has embarked on an effort to purchase 100,000 mezuzot to replace those that are damaged or missing in Israel. (©iStockphoto.comTerry Wilson)

The Israel Defense Forces are receiving an upgrade courtesy of the United States, and it has nothing to do with guns or tanks. The Friends of the IDF has embarked on a project to purchase 100,000 mezuzot by mid-December for soldiers in the IDF to replace those that are missing or unfit as deemed by the IDF rabbinate.

“Many were damaged,” said Henry Rosenbaum, who leads the Baltimore chapter of the FIDF. “Of course, the most important aspect of the mezuzah is the scroll inside, and many of them were cracked and the writing was damaged. In any army base, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of activity going on, and many of the mezuzot were knocked off doorposts and knocked off walls.”

As part of the project, Baltimore’s chapter aims to purchase 1,800 mezuzot, which people can do for $40 each. The chapter’s role in the national project is to reach out to local educational institutions and encourage them to participate.

“We picked 1,800 as a symbolic gesture of chai [life] and felt this goal was a number that people would feel not only religiously inclined toward but emotionally involved in while assisting the Israeli forces in this way,” said Rabbi Chaim Landau, who is spearheading Baltimore’s efforts. “It’s an old-fashioned way of boots on the ground.”

Landau said the idea is for schools and other educational institutions to touch base with their affiliate congregations in order to “embolden the interest of congregants.”

“The beauty of the timing is that it comes bang in the middle of Chanukah, which allows a meaningful gift to be made on behalf of so many,” he said.

Rosenbaum said this is the first time the FIDF has undergone a major mezuzah-replacement project. He added that this is something people of all ages can be involved in and said that he had spoken with Laura Green, an educator at the Owings Mills JCC, the previous week.

“She called me up and said, ‘What can we do as a project for the Israeli soldiers?’ so I said to her, ‘Why don’t you have the children make the covers, not the scrolls.’”

Rosenbaum also said word has been going around local congregations, and as of last week, they had purchased 500 mezuzot, including some from people who are not Jewish.

“I received a call last week from an older woman, and she said ‘I would like to purchase three mezuzot. I feel very strongly about this. I am not Jewish, but I feel the strong need to give to soldiers in Israel in light of what has happened.’”

Rosenbaum added that out of the 1,800 projected mezuzot Baltimore hopes to purchase, the young leadership division is intent on purchasing 200.

“This is their project, and they are very enthusiastic about this,” he said. “These are young people who understand the importance of what we’re trying to do.”

The tradition of placing mezuzot in homes for spiritual protection can be traced back to the 10th plague in the Book of Exodus, according to Rosenbaum, as well as a commandment from God in the V’ahavta.

“This is not only a sense of Jewish tradition and symbolism, but it also provides a sense of protection,” he said.

Landau added that mezuzot serve as one of the most basic Jewish rituals that soldiers are able to keep and allows them to maintain their faith while in the army.

“A face connection between the owner and his prized possession allows for an ongoing relationship with God to feel present in the abode,” he said. “There’s no better connection of a spiritual face than the presence of a mezuzah.”


Father, Daughter Win Public Health Impact Award Paper based on research done by sixth-grader honored at national medical examiners conference

Sydney and Russell Alexander pose with the project Sydney did in sixth grade that led to closer collaboration  between the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and a public health impact award at the National Association  of Medical Examiners conference in October. (Marc Shapiro)

Sydney and Russell Alexander pose with the project Sydney did in sixth grade that led to closer collaboration between the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and a public health impact award at the National Association of Medical Examiners conference in October. (Marc Shapiro)

An Ellicott City middle schooler and her father won a national award for research they conducted in fentanyl deaths in Maryland.

Sydney Alexander, a seventh-grader at Folly Quarter Middle School, used data provided to her by her father, Dr. Russell Alexander, an assistant medical examiner at Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), to map out spatial and temporal trends in fentanyl deaths in Maryland. She used the data and created the maps for a research project in sixth grade.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I didn’t really know anything about it when I first started.”

With Sydney’s data showing a variety of trends — a concentration of fentanyl overdoses in Baltimore, Annapolis and Salisbury as well as the number of deaths per month speeding up over time — her father added more months of data, spoke to some Baltimore-based contacts at the Drug  Enforcement Administration to explain some of the trends and submitted the research at the National Association of Medical Examiners 2015 annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in October.

The paper, on which both Sydney and Russell are authors, won the Susan P. Baker Public Health Impact Award, which is given to research that can and will contribute to public health as well as elevating the role of forensic research in contributing to public health.

It all started when Sydney had to do a project for her GT research class and didn’t know what subject to focus on. Knowing his daughter liked mapping and geography, Russell  suggested she look into something he was seeing at work.

“This was all happening in real time and we were becoming aware just from the work we do. One of the things we do is any sudden, unexpected or unnatural deaths,” Russell said. “We were seeing a huge spike in drug overdose deaths, but not just drug overdose deaths in particular. We were seeing this huge increase in fentanyl.”

Fentanyl, often used for management of chronic pain including cancer pain, was also being laced with heroin, making for a highly potent, and possibly deadly combination.

Armed with data from July 2013 to June 2014, Sydney set out to map when and where the deaths were  occurring. She made maps of Maryland using dots to denote overdose deaths, one of which was color-coded to  denote what month the death  occurred. She plotted the overdose deaths on a graph to show how they were increasing over time. She made a heat map to show what regions were having more overdose deaths — hot spots included Baltimore City,  Annapolis, Salisbury, College Park, Greenbelt and Frederick. She even zoomed in on Baltimore in several maps to show what specific areas were experiencing the brunt of the fentanyl overdose deaths.

Not surprisingly, she got an A on the project. Intrigued by the findings, Russell decided to take it a step further and add data through February 2015 and present the findings at the October medical examiner’s conference.

“She identified all these trends in her data set, like where the deaths were, how they’re centered in Baltimore City and spread into the suburbs,”  Russell said. But there were things the Alexanders didn’t completely  understand such as Salisbury being a hot spot as well as the inexplicable drop in the number of deaths in  August and September 2015.

Russell took his findings to a contact at the federal Drug Enforcement  Administration who he said was  really excited about the data and could tell a few things about the trends. The drop in deaths in August and September 2015 was the result of increased drug enforcement from the DEA and other agencies. The deaths went back up as resources were allocated elsewhere, Russell said.

Fentanyl takes quite the journey to get to Salisbury, Russell explained from what the DEA agent told him. A lot of fentanyl is made in Mexico and in China and shipped east, with Baltimore being a big center for the  fentanyl to come in to. Salisbury serves as a secondary distribution center for the fentanyl that’s cut in Baltimore, which then goes around to the  Delmarva Peninsula, Russell said.

The DEA was in the process of  applying for grants to acquire GIS and mapping software to make  similar maps.

“They can take these high-density heat maps and then allocate their  resources to try to combat this problem, but it was built upon the work [Sydney] did,” Russell said. “They were  independently trying to do the exact same thing we had just done.”

The DEA had other data, such as emergency calls for overdose deaths, which could work in tandem with data from the OCME. Now, the OCME gives the DEA monthly data that the agency can integrate with its other data.

“The data she generated basically went into the DEA’s public health  efforts,” Russell said of Sydney’s original project. He’s now in the process of  writing a paper to submit to a medical  examiner’s journal.

As for Sydney, her current focus is on her bat mitzvah this coming April. For her bat mitzvah project, she  is building a birdbath and built some mourning dove nest supports for the Audubon Society of Central Maryland’s Audrey Carroll Audubon Sanctuary in Mount Airy.

She is even thinking of making some bird watching maps for them.

Her mapping skills may even come in handy in the future.

“I want to either be a geologist,  geographer or a doctor,” she said, “and maybe write as a side career.”