Community Rallies Around Holocaust Education BJC event raises money for proposed education center in Greece

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, director of the  museum at Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York, speaks about a proposed Holocaust education  center to be located in Salonika, Greece at a fundraiser held by the Baltimore Jewish Council  at The Black Olive restaurant. (Marc Shapiro)

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, director of the museum at Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York, speaks about a proposed Holocaust education center to be located in Salonika, Greece at a fundraiser held by the Baltimore Jewish Council at The Black Olive restaurant. (Marc Shapiro)

The Greek port city of Salonika was home to around 56,000 of Greece’s 76,000 Jews before World War II. There were centers of Jewish learning and many esteemed rabbis.

These days, the city’s Jewish community numbers 1,200, according to Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, director of the Kehila Kedosha Janina museum in New York. To commemorate the city’s rich Jewish history, Ikonomopoulos and others are raising funds to build the Holocaust Memorial and Human Rights Educational Center in Salonika.

The Baltimore Jewish Council held a fundraiser for the museum on Oct. 26 at The Black Olive restaurant, where Iknonomopoulos spoke along with restaurant owner Stelios Spiliadis. Iknonomopoulos spoke of the dire importance of education in a world with rising anti-Jewish sentiment.

“We’re living in troubled times now. As you all know, there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and here in the United States. We’ve  become easy targets in times of economic crisis,” she said. “It’s no different in Greece. Never has it been more important to have a center to educate.”

Iknonomopoulos calls herself a daughter of  Salonika — her grandfather made aliyah to Haifa after Salonika experienced a devastating fire started by the splattering of oil from cooking eggplant.  Her grandfather lost his 10 older brothers and  sisters, their spouses, children and, in some cases, grandchildren during World War II.

The multimillion-dollar project, which consists of an octagonal tower, a low ring-shaped building and a public plaza, would include a museum,  cultural center with a permanent exhibition hall, a temporary exhibition hall, an auditorium with 300 seats, study rooms for lectures and seminars,  multipurpose spaces and a café. The center, which would be more than 130,000 square feet, will be located in an open plaza at the end of the rail lines that were used for deportation of the local Jews.

“It’s going to educate students, it’s going to educate the next generation, it’s going to tell the story of the Jews of Thessaloniki and how they perished,” Iknonomopoulos said. (Thessaloniki is Salonika in Greek.) “It’s going to be used as an example to teach tolerance, that this is completely unacceptable in the world we live in now.”

It was no ordinary night at The Black Olive, as Spiliadas and his wife Pauline, the restaurant’s head chef, made sure to feature the food of Salonika’s Jewish community, which meant a whole lot of eggplant. A lot of the Jews in Salonika were Sephardic Jews from Spain, so the food was a sort of Sephardic Spanish-Greek Jewish fusion. There was bourek, a pastry filled with eggplant and lamb, flava bean salad, chicken on top of eggplant and, what Spiliadas’ said was the most special dish, moussaka.

“Moussaka is the memory and history of the Jews who are left in Salonika now,” he said.

The moussaka was topped with a thick buttermilk sauce, representing the “upscale” influence from Europe. The ground meat below was reminiscent of influence from Turkey and Italy.

“At the very, very bottom is eggplant; the memory of the Jewish community, which, after the years passed by, was covered and sometimes almost  forgotten by time and the pain that was to take place from 1942 to today,” he said. “I would like for you to enjoy moussaka, but dig in to find the  eggplant. Please bring it up to the surface, and  remember our brothers, our sisters, our children in the embrace of their mothers facing the most horrible, horrible death that anybody can even imagine.”

Spiliadas is not Jewish but has Jewish grandchildren and grew up in Patras, Greece during the time of Nazi occupation. His interest in Salonika stems from his connection to Greek’s progressive party and his desire to dispel the myth of Jewish  passivity during the Holocaust, knowing that the country’s Jewish population fought alongside the  resistance in the Greek army.

On a trip to Israel in the early 2000s, BJC executive director Art Abramson connected Spiliadas to a survivor from Salonika. The man told Spiliadas about growing up in the Greek city, introduced him to other Greek Jews in Tel Aviv and gave him a memoir written in Hebrew that Spiliadas hopes to translate.

“There were tears in my eyes because here was a man who survived Auschwitz playing the accordion and making believe that he was a crazy Greek who needed to be there to entertain the Nazis,” Spiliadas said.

Abramson briefly addressed the crowd after the meal to emphasize the importance of Holocaust  education. He spoke about GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson’s “absurd” notion that the Jews would have been better off during the Holocaust if they were armed, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that the Grand Mufti gave Hitler the idea to exterminate the Jews.

“This is all about the misuse of history, and it is vitally important that we do what we can do to end this misuse of history,” Abramson said. “If you’re blaming the victims and you’re excusing the  Germans, we’re in 1984 again,” he said referring to the George Orwell book.

“We need this center, and we need more Holocaust education, not less. There’s nothing more important right now than making sure that the memory of the victims and the lessons of history are  preserved,” he said.

The event raised about $1,500 for the center, and checks are stillcoming in. The center may get a boost, as the German government, which should soon vote on reimbursing Greece for train tickets the Jews of Salonika and other communities were forced to  purchase for their deportation to Auschwitz.

Iknonomopoulos closed her talk by underscoring how essential Holocaust education is in Greece.

“I long for the day when there are two things I never have to hear again. One is, ‘Do you mean there were Jews in Greece?’ Believe it or not I still hear that,” she said. “And number two, ‘Was Greece involved in World War II?’ Believe it or not, this is what I hear when I lecture.”

Farm to Farm to Table Upper Marlboro husband, wife team import olive oil from Israel to their organic farm.

Scott Hertzberg and his wife, Tanya Tolchin, started an organic farm 10 years ago in Upper Marlboro after spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. (Courtesy of Scott Hertzberg)

Scott Hertzberg and his wife, Tanya Tolchin, started an organic farm 10 years ago in Upper Marlboro after spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. (Courtesy of Scott Hertzberg)

It was a love for farming, a love for Israel and a love for each other shared by Scott Hertzberg and his wife, Tanya Tolchin, that spurred the Upper Marlboro, Md., couple to start an organic farm 10 years ago. Since 2009, they have given their plot of land the distinction of being one of the few places in the country to sell imported Israeli olive oil.

Hertzberg grew up in Pikesville, where he  attended Talmudical Academy and Mount Saint Joseph High School before departing for Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.) in the early 1990s. It  was there that he met Tolchin, and they began  volunteering in a food bank before heading to  Israel upon graduating to spend time on a Kibbutz.

On their second trip in 2005 the moment of  realization came for starting their own farm.

“That was the trip where we said, ‘Oh my goodness, another 10 years are going to pass before we have any connection with Israel,’” he said. “Realizing that we were going to go home, it would be nice to have something year after year.”

After learning much of their  organic farming techniques from  expert Mario Levy while in Israel, the couple began growing vegetables before importing olives, olive oil and dates in 2009. At that point they started their business, Israeli Harvest, choosing to import from Makura — a small family-owned farm roughly 20 miles south of Haifa.

We sort of had the idea for it that they could get better value for some of their products than they were seeing. We’re helping to support one family farm in Israel so it’s just the beginning. — Tanya Tolchin

“Mukura’s a small farm, and they’re not large enough to produce for the  big Israeli importers because those  importers need a very cheap price,” he said, adding that the domestic market there can vary.

“Every year the price of olive oil is not that good in Israel, so it’s good for them to have an export, particularly to America because Europe’s getting  difficult to export to because of the  politics.”

Tolchin said their practice of  importing Israeli products has the look and feel of two small family businesses supporting each other.

“We had the idea that they could get better value for some of their products than they were seeing,” she said. “We’re helping to support one family farm in Israel, so it’s just the beginning.”

Makura grows eight types of  olives, which include Spanish, Greek, Italian and local varieties. It then uses a cold-press technique to produce the oil and ensure it retains its flavor. Owner Guy Rilov said the farm has been handed down to him from his parents, and for the last 22 years it has used organic techniques. He said the business has faced struggles this year due to weather-related events.

“The crop is medium this year due to a big storm that did a lot of damage,” he said.

Hertzberg said he feels the quality of an imported product depends more on the individual farm than on the country it comes from, debunking myths about foods such as wine.

“For a long time Israeli wine had an inferiority complex, and now it’s proven itself it can be just as good as the Mediterranean wines,” he said.

This year, Hertzberg has scaled back the farm’s production a bit in order to spend more time with his children, Ezra and Shira.

For the most part, Israeli Harvest is an online business; however, the olive oil is sold at two area stores, including E.N. Olivier in Baltimore. Hertzberg and Tolchin have also been running a community-supported agriculture business for the entire time they have had the farm and deliver to a church near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Tolchin said they have also marketed their produce to places that include Pineapple Alley Catering in Clinton, Md., and MOM’s Organic Market.

“I think that it’s been a successful venture,” she said.

Teen Engagement Conservative leadership emphasizes youth at biennial convention

With a focus on their movement’s youth and young families, leaders at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  expressed hope for the future.

Under the banner of “Shape the Center,” USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick used his platform to push the 1,200 attendees of the Nov. 13-17 convention in the Chicago area to focus on the young people of the Conservative movement.

“If we want to have the ability to maximally impact Jewish people  for their futures, [then] teen engagement should be one of our top three priorities,” he said.

It was fitting, then, that Eric Leiderman, co-founder and director of institutional advancement of Masorti on Campus, was named the winner of the 2015 Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Award. Cardin, an influential Jewish leader and educator based in Baltimore, founded the award in 2013 in honor of USCJ’s centennial. The prize carries a $5,000 stipend and an opportunity for the award recipient to engage with USCJ and its kehillot leaders.

Convention attendees from Har Shalom are (from left) Bob Sunshine, USCJ International board member; Beth Ann Spector, synagogue vice president for membership; Carly Schmand, synagogue membership coordinator; David Helfand, director of youth engagement; Shelley Engel, synagogue executive director; Cantor Henrique Ozur Bass; and Rabbi Adam Raskin. (TK)

Convention attendees from Har Shalom are (from left) Bob Sunshine, USCJ International board member; Beth Ann Spector, synagogue vice president for membership; Carly Schmand, synagogue membership coordinator; David Helfand, director of youth engagement; Shelley Engel, synagogue executive director; Cantor Henrique Ozur Bass; and Rabbi Adam Raskin. (TK)

Leiderman, a student at Binghamton University and an alumnus of USCJ’s Israel gap year program Nativ, called the experience “humbling” and reveled in the exposure it has given to Masorti on Campus.

Attendees of the convention have been “very supportive, and they’re impressed that this grassroots movement has really taken shape,” said  Leiderman. “A lot of people who were upset by the closing of Koach are very excited when they learn of students taking ownership of this area of our lives.”

Koach was the college campus arm of the Conservative movement until it was discontinued over budget constraints in 2013.

“He really stood out with his  extraordinary vision, and his work to engage this vital demographic of young adults on college campuses is having impact on North America and globally,” said Judy Guzman, an active member of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., and a member of the award selection committee.

She added, “He’s enabled young Jewish leaders to take ownership of their needs. He noticed a tremendous gap, and he’s working very hard to  fill it.”

Leiderman said he is heartened  by how the USCJ is embracing traditional egalitarian communities that operate outside of traditional brick-and-mortar congregational buildings.

“They are in support of how young adults are expressing themselves, whereas in years past they were trying to get people back into shuls, they are moving to where the people are,”  he said.

Non-Orthodox  streams of Judaism  are struggling with  demographics,  according to recent  reports from the Pew Research Center,  but USCJ leadership and laity seem  confident in the space Conservative Judaism occupies.

Approximately 145 United Synagogue Youth members and 40 collegians were present for the Shabbaton and convention. Though there was a millennial track, the USYers did intermingle with the rest of the attendees and led services.

Cliff Spungen, executive vice  president of Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh, participated in a youth-led morning worship service, which he described as full of enthusiasm and went well beyond rote recitation to be truly accessible.

“It was a beautiful thing and it  really seemed to get the kids motivated,” said Spungen. “It’s important that we go back to our home kehillot and really do something with this.  If we don’t, then it’s going to be  our fault.”

According to Wernick, 30 percent of teenagers with affiliated families are part of USY, but he would like to see that number increased to at least 50 percent.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington shared her own twist on worship through a tisch Friday night (Nov. 13) and Shabbat services Saturday morning that incorporated the Return Again musical Shabbat program she uses in her home synagogue.

“I felt there was hope,” said Holtzblatt. “There were five different davening options for Saturday morning, and all of them were using the liturgy to its fullness.”

Here, she said, is where the Conservative movement can thrive, by  offering “deeper access points” to  traditional liturgy and not being afraid to “open up to new ideas.”

Congregation B’nai Tzedek in  Potomac won a Solomon Schechter Award at the convention for its  Community Builders program. In  exchange for 10 hours per month  of synagogue engagement, young families receive 50 percent off of their early childhood tuition.

As Diane Steren, vice president of strategic planning for the congregation said, “It’s beginning a cultural change from ‘drop and go’ to ‘drop and stay.’”

Steren, who attended sessions on engaging young families, said, “Young families today aren’t looking to be  entertained. They’re looking to be engaged an acknowledged.”

LGBT families and congregants were likewise proactive in pushing  for acknowledgement and increased inclusivity in Conservative spaces.

Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are struggling with demographics,  according to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, but USCJ leadership and laity seem confident in the space Conservative Judaism occupies.

Wernick pointed to a recent piece published by Steven M. Cohen, a  researcher at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who wrote that although the quantity of Conservative identifying Jews has dropped, the quality has remained strong and has even grown between surveys administered in 1990 and 2013.

Still, USCJ has branding challenges. To better stake their claim  as the center ground between the  Reform movement and a burgeoning Open Orthodox scene, sometimes called derisively “Neo-Conservatism” by other branches of Orthodoxy,  at the biennial, an “IdeaLab” was  convened to brainstorm a new tagline for Conservative Judaism.

Instead of focusing on well-publicized population challenges, Raskin believes that the Conservative movement should instead focus on “growing from within,” building upon the movement’s engaged core.

“I think we occupy a niche still  important to the Jewish world,” said Raskin. “It’s not the space of modern Orthodoxy, it’s not the space of  Reform Judaism.

“That traditional egalitarian space is still our unique landscape. There are still people seeking that unique landscape.”

MIDC Showcase Brings Israeli Companies to BWI

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the Maryland/Israel Development Center in partnership with the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation hosts a showcase of Maryland/Israel businesses at the Observation Gallery at BWI Airport.

“We’ve got the largest number of Israeli companies participating than we’ve ever had,” said Barry Bogage, MIDC executive director.

More than 30 companies will be on hand to hand out materials, give product demonstrations and speak about their work at the event, which Bogage said is part-networking reception and part-expo.

“It’s an opportunity for people to meet the Israeli entrepreneurs that have offices in Maryland,” he said.

Howard Sollins, a partner at law firm Ober Kaler who is chairing the event, said the showcase allows the MIDC to highlight companies already in Maryland, as well as special successes of the MIDC, such as Johns Hopkins University’s collaboration with Israeli digital health company Luminox.

“It provides an opportunity to bring people together who are interested in cyber and healthcare applications, including mobile health applications, and to provide a range of different companies who provide a variety of different products and services,” Sollins said. “It really features the breadth of what Maryland has to offer.”

Israeli companies that will be featured include Elta North America, which manufactures electronic systems for the U.S. government; RoboTeam, which develops and manufactures unmanned platforms and controllers for defense, law enforcement and public safety; and BioGaming, a leader in game-based, 3D-assisted rehabilitation solutions. A variety of Maryland-based biomedical, cyber security and information technology companies will also be on hand.

Maryland’s new Secretary of Commerce R. Michael Gill will speak at the event. After the showcase, at 7:15 p.m., OurCrowd’s director of investor relations Scott Rubin will speak. OurCrowd is one of the world’s leading equity crowd funding platforms to invest in Israeli and international companies

The showcase begins at 5 p.m. For more information, visit

Feats Honored as Growing Inner City Business

The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) and Fortune announced that Feats, a creative strategy and engagement agency located in Baltimore, was selected for the 2015 Inner City 100, a list of the fastest-growing inner city businesses in the United States.

ICIC’s Inner City 100 program recognizes successful inner city businesses and their CEOs as role models for entrepreneurship, innovative business practices and job creation in America’s urban communities. Each year, ICIC works with a national network of nominating partners to identify, rank and spotlight rapidly growing urban businesses, and the top 100 — determined by revenue growth — are honored on the Inner City 100 list published in Fortune.

Feats is a creative strategy and engagement agency that focuses on live experiences and environments that engage audiences and produce measurable results. It partners with colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations and companies to
engage and inspire their key audiences to act. Since 1985, it has helped clients inspire philanthropy, evoke emotions, improve communication and even change behavior through powerful experiences.

“These entrepreneurs are strong community leaders and industry game changers,” ICIC CEO Steve Grossman said of the 2015 Inner City 100 winners. “Their businesses are critical drivers of economic development and job creation. Together, they demonstrate the competitive advantages of doing business in our inner cities.”

Meyerhoff Funds Board Names President

The board of directors of the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds announced that Elizabeth R. “Buffy” Minkin has been named president.’Minkin, a fourth-generation Meyerhoff family member, has played an integral role in developing and guiding the Funds’ impact through significant and strategic contributions that improve the quality of life in Baltimore.’

“Philanthropy is at the core of Buffy’s DNA.’She understands the  vision that was established by her great-grandparents and grandparents and has been successful in merging that vision with the needs of the community here in Baltimore,” said Joseph Meyerhoff II, chairman of the board for the Funds.’’

Minkin joined the Funds in 2003 and served for the next five years as special projects director with responsibility for overseeing several family writing projects and collaborative roundtables and implementing adjustments to its grant-making process.’In 2008, Minkin returned to the private sector as a commercial real estate
broker and then rejoined the Funds in 2011 as vice president of Baltimore and Domestic Initiatives.’Since that time, Minkin has served as one of a three-member management team overseeing the Funds’ grant-making, strategy and next-generation work.

In her new role, Minkin will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Funds in concert with its board of directors. More specifically, she will provide oversight of its governance and charitable functions and will direct management, community relations and grant making to ensure that the Funds remain at the leading edge of local, national and international philanthropy.’Minkin will be responsible for overseeing all Jewish initiatives domestically and an extensive portfolio of programs and capital projects in Israel.

The Chef with a Million Flavors Columbia native shaking up holiday dinner table

Ben Rubin was a self-professed quintessential “frat guy” when he started attending the University of Pittsburgh, but after studying abroad in Madrid for several months, his attitude on culture, art and food changed.

“I went to Spain and I was surrounded by all these brilliant people, and if you couldn’t keep up with [everyone else], then you were behind” said Rubin, 29, who added that he dreams about the smell of garlic that emanated from the restaurants he would walk by in Madrid on his way to school.

Ben Rubin is the owner and chef at Columbia’s AllSpice Hospitality. (photo by Justin Katz)

Ben Rubin is the owner and chef at Columbia’s AllSpice Hospitality. (photo by Justin Katz)

As a direct result of his traveling, he applied to culinary school immediately after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. In the meantime, Rubin started working at different kitchens and picking up the skills and techniques he’d use to start his catering business, Columbia’s AllSpice Hospitality. But what has brought Rubin a lot of success is his ability to redesign classic foods that have remained unchanged from tradition.

“I am trying to bring a diversity of spices, textures and flavors to the traditional Chanukah celebration,” said Rubin. “By waking up the palate to new tastes I am helping people to re-experience this holiday for the first time.”

After Rubin was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he would eventually board a cruise ship as a part of his externship. The position didn’t sit well with him because he was kept at the same station for several weeks due to the ship’s shorthanded staff.

“The goal [of an externship] is to go on site and get moved around to different spaces so you can learn where you want to fall [after you graduate culinary school],” said Rubin. “They didn’t move me; I stayed in [in the same place] for the first six weeks.”

The decision to jump ship and fly home ended up being a good one. Rubin packed his bags, headed to Atlanta — where many of his mother’s relatives lived — and found a job at a Greek restaurant. Atlanta also ended up being where Rubin met his wife at a local bar.

“[Rubin] heard me talk to my friends in Portuguese and he thought I was speaking Spanish, so he came over to talk to us,” said Luana Rubin, who is from Brazil, but was in the U.S. studying. “By the end of the night, he jokingly proposed to me, because I told him I would move back to Brazil. He said, ‘Let’s get married and you can stay in the country.’ Two and a half years later, we got married.”

Once he finished culinary school, Rubin moved to Brazil to live with Luana. It was there that his religious identity and passion for food merged into an act of generosity.

“I made hamantaschen for Purim and I did mishloach manot,” said Rubin.

Rubin explained that Jews have always excelled at continuing their traditions, even if it means they need to be creative with the items they use. Since he couldn’t find any orange marmalade or strawberry jam to stuff into his hamantaschen, he used guava jelly and made a paste from dried fruits. He also made a beloved Brazilian milk chocolate candy, which is usually very expensive.

“I was the only Jew in the town, so I put [a basket of food] in the seat of my wife’s scooter and I delivered them to people,” said Rubin. “It’s not something that would fly in Judaism, because it’s chocolate inside of something that needs to be pareve, but where I was, and the audience I was playing to, it was a perfect entrance into Purim.”

Since the people in the town had very little exposure to Judaism, he used his “broken Portuguese” to explain the story of Purim.

Rubin demonstrated some of his ability to diversify classic foods during the interview, specifically his personal favorite: latkes. He made ginger sweet potato latkes; a traditional fritter latke, which he calls a 50/50 because of the way it is prepared; a zucchini and feta latke and a yucca latke.

For sauce, Rubin made a Greek fava spread, whipped pecan maple cream cheese, red salsa, green salsa, tzatziki, pickled onions, a proprietary ginger ponzu sauce and pico de gallo.

He didn’t ignore tradition either; Rubin prepared applesauce, but used a French technique (brunoise) to cut the apple in tiny pieces and then mixed it with syrup and other ingredients to make it “eat just like apple sauce.” He also emphasized that any of the different kinds of latkes could be eaten with any of the sauces.

After Rubin and Launa moved back to the United States due to rough economic times in Brazil, they both became involved in the Jewish community by hosting Shabbat dinners. Luana, who was raised Christian, decided to convert. However, she is from a poorer region of Brazil and grew up eating parts of animals that were less expensive. This made keeping kosher particularly difficult.

“I had a very difficult time not eating [certain foods], because it’s difficult to live in a country that isn’t yours,” said Luana, who is also an admittedly picky eater. “The first step people take to minimize [homesickness] is making comfort foods, and I didn’t have that option because I couldn’t eat things that weren’t kosher.”

Luana said she thinks one of the reasons Rubin loves making latkes is because of a tradition the two have started since she became religiously observant.

“We started what I call the ‘Rubin annual Chanukah party’ and last year, he made all kinds of latkes,” said Luana. “He had 10 different kinds of latkes and everyone is better than the other.”

“I don’t mind standing there doing it for hours,” said Rubin. “These are labors of love, each little bite. You’re taking on thousands of years of history, putting it into a pan and doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years. At the end everyone gets to enjoy and have a party.”

Let ’Em In Jewish agencies roll out welcome mat for Syrian refugees

Chanting "Let them in", hundreds of demonstrators rally outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. More than half of the country’s governors said they will no longer provide placement for the refugees. (Jeff Malet/Newscom)

Chanting “Let them in”, hundreds of demonstrators rally outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, in support of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. More than half of the country’s governors said they will no longer provide placement for the refugees. (Jeff Malet/Newscom)

Last Friday, Corine Dehabey, resettlement officer with Us Together, welcomed the 11th Syrian refugee family to arrive in Toledo, Ohio, through her HIAS-affiliated agency this year. When Us Together receives a call, Dehabey springs into action.

In as little as 24 to 48 hours, Dehabey has to find refugees a place to live, furniture and food, schedule health assessment appointments and get ready to guide the new family through the Social Security offices so they can get identification cards to then apply for jobs and family services.

Local churches have been a good resource, she said, and recently the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo has offered assistance through its food bank.

The Syrians when they get here “are excited. It’s a weird feeling. It’s totally a new world for them. They are very grateful to the American government,” said Dehabey. “They want to make the best of their lives.”

“They’d love to stay in Syria, and they pray and hope that their country will heal and they can go back, but realistically, they know that can’t happen right now, so they’re with us in this fight against extremism,” said Deborah A. Drennan, ex-officio executive director of Freedom House Detroit, which works with asylum seekers.

Drennan said that the fear displayed by the more than half of U.S. governors, including of her own state, who have called on the Obama administration to halt plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States is unfounded. She called the concerns of anti-refugee politicians like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) nothing more than “Islamophobia.”

“People are afraid that they’re going to bring with them a terrorist lifestyle and not understanding that they’re trying to flee that violence,” said Drennan, whose organization has partnered in the past with Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.

Catholic Charities and the local Muslim community, she said, have played a large role in resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Mich., also a HIAS affiliate, has taken in 16 Syrian refugees. By the time refugees arrive in the United States, explained Anya Abramzon, JFS executive director, they have gone through multiple rounds of screening and have often waited two or three years to get into the country.

“This is one of the key principles that our organization’s been built on: welcoming the stranger,” said Abramzon. The Jewish and Christian communities, she added, have helped refugees obtain household items and other necessities through congregation-sponsored resettlement drives.

In addition to assistance with bureaucratic matters, refugees are given a cultural orientation before they arrive and again during the first three months of their resettlement. Often, said Shrina Eadeh, director of resettlement, refugees are not too surprised by American life and are instead most concerned with how their children will fit in at school and what should be done if their child experiences bullying. JFS employs interpreters to work with their diverse clientele.

Beyond day-to-day needs, refugees from war-torn countries often need mental health services for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, added Eadeh.

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, some 7,014 Syrian refugees have been interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, but only 2,034 have been resettled in the United States, according to numbers released by the White House. A total of 23,092 Syrians have been referred to the United States Refugees Admission Program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

HIAS, whose motto is “welcome the stranger, protect the refugee,” was founded in 1881 to help Jews who were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.

“We’ve been helping to connect local congregations” with refugee families coming to their area, said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement at HIAS in New York.

She noted that there has been an uptick in inquiries and “the community is starting to wake up” and get involved.

Congregations, perhaps, have been spurred to action by the numerous High Holiday addresses dedicated to welcoming the stranger.

“I urge you to lobby on behalf of these people. Pick up the phone or get on the computer and tell our nation’s leaders that we must offer our resources and shores to those who are running away from evil,” said Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.

Following the conclusion of Yom Kippur, information on how to contribute to HIAS and other methods of assisting Syrian refugees was sent to Singer-Beilin’s congregation via email at the associate rabbi’s urging.

Rabbi Lance Sussman, senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, is a trustee of IsraAID, which aims to “help Israel, help humanity.” The group focuses on intervention, primarily in Jordan, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees during the ongoing conflict.

As a trustee on the organization’s North American board, Sussman is trying to build up the organization and solicit donations for the lifesaving work IsraAID conducts in Jordan, Turkey and the shores of Greece.

Rabbi Jonathan Roos of Temple Sinai in Washington spoke to his congregation about the need to assist Syrian refugees through the lens of Jewish law and tradition.

“All the parts of our ritual life remind us of our experience as slaves in Israel [and the commandment] to protect and care for strangers,” said Roos.

To that end, Temple Sinai has been working on the issue of refugees since 2014. Last year, when large numbers of Central American refugees were coming into the United States, 10 Temple Sinai members went down to Texas and paired with another Reform congregation to conduct relief work. Back home, a grant from the Gendler Grapevine Project enabled Temple Sinai to run the Open Door: Helping Refugees and Immigrants Initiative.

Though Temple Sinai cannot directly sponsor refugee families, as congregations in Canada currently are, Roos pledged that his congregation will do all it can to provide assistance to refugees and local agencies.

Invoking the lessons of the Holocaust and the Passover story, Roos added: “Our own historical experience reminds us and points to the need to empathize, understand and support the people who are in the same position.”

Chanukah Kicks off with Concerts Baltimore and Washington areas have some rockin’ holiday concerts

Chanukah is a complicated holiday for many. While its more recognizable symbols and rituals have to do with the miracle of the oil, Chanukah’s story is also that of a military victory.

“We’re celebrating two separate things … so it’s kind of schizophrenic,” said Beth El Congregation Cantor Thom King. “The main reason the oil became emphasized was because people didn’t want — when Jews were being oppressed — to brag about a military victory to attract attention to say how powerful they are.”

Matisyahu comes to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Wednesday, Dec. 9, and Rams Head Live in Baltimore on Thursday, Dec. 10. (Photo by David Stuck)

Matisyahu comes to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Wednesday, Dec. 9, and Rams Head Live in Baltimore on Thursday, Dec. 10. (Photo by David Stuck)

On the first night of Chanukah, a concert at Beth El will tell the whole story of Chanukah in an epic performance featuring an orchestra and a 75-person choir as it performs Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus.”

The concert, which is dedicated to the memory of Cantor Saul Hammerman, whose yahrzeit occurs around Chanukah, features members of the Beth El Choir, the Pikesville High Alumni Choir, the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church as well as Beth El’s junior choir. The church’s music director and organist, Michael Britt, will serve as the evening’s conductor.

“It’s a very interesting piece. It’s a little more dramatic than something like ‘The Messiah,’” King said. “It’s an actual story with a libretto.”

While Chanukah may get caught up in the craziness of the holiday season, King sees deeper meaning in the holiday as the story of the Jewish people and Israel.

“[It’s] a small country surrounded by enemies that manages to hold its own,” he said. “The recapturing of the Western Wall in 1967 was a reflection of that idea of recapturing the Temple and rededicating the Temple. So the story of Israel is really like the story of Chanukah in a lot of ways, an almost miraculous occurrence.”

The night before the Beth El concert, Washington Hebrew Congregation hosts Shira & Friends, which plays rock music for kids, at the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac.

It’ll be the first time Shira Kobren, a Washington native and graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, brings her band to her hometown. It means her grandparents will finally be able to see what she does.

Kobren, who plays music with children full-time and is on staff at Central Synagogue and Temple Israel in Manhattan, said her band will perform a mix of original songs and Chanukah songs with the band’s rock flavor added to it.

“Our shows are always interactive. There’s going to be lots of dancing, lots of intergenerational fun,” Kobren said. “It’s really important for me that I cater to the adults, not just the kids.”

She thinks singing and dancing is the perfect way to celebrate the holiday.

“I just love the feeling of sharing the music, sharing the joy of the holiday with so many people that want to celebrate as well,” she said. “There’s so many symbols that are so tangible to children, and when children can participate it makes it such a greater celebration for the family.”

And what would Chanukah be without everyone’s favorite Jewish reggae singer? Matisyahu comes to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Wednesday, Dec. 9, and Rams Head Live on Thursday, Dec. 10. The concerts, being billed as “Festival of Light: An Intimate Evening with Matisyahu,” feature stripped-down performances of Matisyahu’s music, highlighting everything from his early hits to his 2014 release, “Akeda.” He is touring in support of his October live album release, “Live at Stubbs Vol. III,” which features arrangements that will be featured at the concerts.


“Judas Maccabaeus”
Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave. Dec. 6, at 4 p.m.,
tickets $18.
Call 410-484-0411.

Shira & Friends
Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Julia Bindeman
Suburban Center, 11810 Falls Road, Potomac, Md.
Dec. 5, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., $20 per family

For information and tickets to the Matisyahu concerts, visit

Owings Mills Resident Named Learner of the Year

From left: John Corse, associate general counsel for Exelon Corporation; Donna Bossalina, a member of Exelon’s legal department; Kristen Strader, daughter of Phyllis and Robert Strader; Phyllis and Robert Strader; and Phyllis Strader’s  colleagues, Jennifer DiSciullo and Jack Wood. (Provided)

From left: John Corse, associate general counsel for Exelon Corporation; Donna Bossalina, a member of Exelon’s legal department; Kristen Strader, daughter of Phyllis and Robert Strader; Phyllis and Robert Strader; and Phyllis Strader’s colleagues, Jennifer DiSciullo and Jack Wood. (Provided)

Phyllis Strader of Owings Mills was named Learner of the Year by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) at the organization’s international conference, which was held in Baltimore from Nov. 18 to 20.

Strader, a paralegal at Exelon Corporation for almost 15 years, earned her degree in paralegal studies from Stevenson University in May 2015, graduating summa cum laude with the Dean’s Award for Exceptional Scholarship.

The long road to a degree was due to the juggling act of taking care of aging parents and in-laws, raising kids and working a full-time job.

“It took a long time, but the important thing is that …  I didn’t stop until I got it,” she said.

It was one thing after another over the years. Her mother passed away. Her family was taking care of her mother- in-law, who lived with them. Her father-in-law suffered a heart attack.

“It was just a lot,” Strader said. “I’ve come a long way. I was able to get through it. My kids are well. My husband and I have been married for 28 years. I really feel blessed.”

Strader earned prior learning credits through Stevenson’s portfolio program because of her experience in elder care and elder law, which helped her earn her degree. Through that experience, she learned about advanced directives, asset management, estate tax issues, long-term care and other  aspects of elder care.

“Phyllis is truly representative of what successes are possible through programs that support adults returning to school. She is inspirational to us and to the entire education  community,” said CAEL CEO and president Pamela Tate in a statement. “It’s impossible to look at the challenges  Phyllis overcame without recognizing the value of learning at any age and the wonderful human capacity for perseverance.”