I Jew! Interfaith marriage is on the rise, but so are alternative ways for Jews to meet Jews

The image of dating in the Jewish world has come a long way from the days of fix-ups and the parental expectation that children marry within the faith. Today, there are virtually endless options for finding your beshert, but many are concerned about the trend toward interfaith marriage and are creating opportunities to counter this reality.

111315_cover_RotatorA recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the rate of intermarriage among Jews was 58 percent between 2005 and 2013, up 36 percent from 30 years before. It also found that roughly one-third of intermarried Jews are not raising Jewish children.

The movement away from traditional Jewish marriages has sparked concern from some within the Orthodox community, such as Baltimore matchmaker Mashe Katz.

“A mixed marriage does not allow the same Jewish values that we seem to find when two people of the same faith marry, regardless of their religious convictions,” she said. “They, and definitely their offspring, are lost to our people. There may be some exceptions, but as a general rule this is definitely true.”

Katz has been helping couples tie the knot for more than 50 years and for the past year has written a column called “Ask the Shadchan” for the website wherewhatwhen.com. A school office manager by day, she has always enjoyed helping Jews find their match as a hobby, but it has become more difficult due to changing societal values.

Jewish “frum” dating is much more formalized then it was years ago,” she said. “I started this over 50 years ago. In those days, people went out to have fun within our parameters until they met their beshert. We had a general picture of what we wanted and hoped that we would find the appropriate person for us. The couple worked it out together. Today, we live in a box. Everything has to be done according to rules and date in a certain manner which one may not deviate from.”

Adrienne and Paul Zimmerman met through matchmaker Michelle Mond. (Provided)

Adrienne and Pini Zimmerman met through matchmaker Michelle Mond. (Provided)

Matchmaking is still alive and well for many Jews, including Michelle Mond, who met her husband, Yehuda, while he was playing keyboard with the Zemer Orchestra.

“I got this vibe,” she said. “I don’t know why. I just got this feeling that he was something amazing.”

Mond gave her future husband’s name to a shadchan (matchmaker), who in turn set the two up. She later went into the matchmaking business herself and has since matched 10 successful couples.

“In the Orthodox Jewish world what you’re inherently doing is you’re having someone look out for you and looking out for what’s important,” she said. “All these people are all in the same boat. They’re not in this for playing games or anything. If they’re in the system for trying to find someone, they’re all in the same boat with the goal of marriage in mind.”

Mond, a mother of three, said she often acts as a facilitator between two people who are interested in each other but have not yet made the connection, just as her shadchan did for her eight years ago.

“You have to get two people on board for going out with each other,” she said.

Mond said she knows of seven Jewish matchmakers in Baltimore and emphasized that marrying within the faith is important not simply for producing Jewish children, but also for ensuring that the relationship lasts.

“There’s so much to having a similar background and coming from the same place,” she said. “I think [Jews] should marry Jews. They’re from the same heritage, they’re from the same background. You’re more likely to succeed.”

Rivka and Dovi met courtesy of Michelle Mond, and they will tie the knot on Dec. 20. (Provided)

Rivka and Dovi met courtesy of Michelle Mond, and they will tie the knot on Dec. 20. (Provided)

Mond splits her time between personal matchmaking and working for the site SawYouAtSinai, which serves Jews of all denominations. SawYouAtSinai blends the old and new of Jewish dating by asking users to create a personal profile, which requires references who can attest to the person’s character. It then uses the information to pair the user up with a real matchmaker.

Katz praises SawYouAtSinai and said it is better than some dating sites but advised users to be critical of some profiles.

“One must check references and make sure that what was written on the site is reality and not fiction,” she said. “However, it is a good way for people to meet, and I do know that there have been many successful marriages from this site.”

Online dating in the Jewish world has been a hot ticket since the late 1990s, when JDate burst onto the scene. Founder Joe Shapira said the site was “successful from the get-go,” due to the fact that it was a response to family pressure and cultural affinity encouraging Jews to marry within the faith.

“As a Jew, you get the opportunity to meet other Jewish singles in your community or college, and you go, pretty fast, through your grandmother’s introductions. And then, if you’re not dating a Jew, 95 percent of the people you meet are not Jewish,” he said. “Jewish apps make it less painful to find a Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend.”

JDate matches singles based primarily on location and can be beneficial in finding nearby Jews with similar interests. Shapira said the first JDate marriage occurred between two people in Caracas, Venezuela who lived right around the corner from each other but didn’t know it until they took to the Web. He says JDate is a measure intended to reverse the negative effects of a society increasingly glued to screens.

There’s so much to having a similar background and coming from the same place. I think [Jews] should marry Jews. They’re from the same heritage, they’re from the same background. You’re more likely to succeed.

“With the infiltration of various online services into our personal and business lives, there is less interaction among people,” he said. “For example, what you used to do over the phone years ago is done via email nowadays, and it’s less personal. Therefore, you meet less people in real life. So the decline in personal interactions and the normalization of online life make online dating (a) sort of an extension of your other online activities and (b) an opportunity to meet for dating purposes.”

Just as Shapira created JDate in response to sites such as Match.com in 1997, entrepreneur David Yarus launched JSwipe in 2014 as a response to the mobile app Tinder.

“Marrying someone Jewish is very important to him — as it is to many others — so the ease of finding a match with the swipe of a finger was negated when the first half of the conversation was finding out if his matches were Jewish or not,” JSwipe spokeswoman Stephanie Freeman said.

JSwipe uses a smartphone’s GPS to find other users within a certain radius and allows you to narrow down the type of Jew you are looking to meet based on criteria such as denomination and kosher status.

“We are a niche dating app geared specifically at Jewish culture,” Freeman said. “We provide our community with a fun, free and easy way to find love.”

Despite JSwipe’s target audience, the app is open to non-Jews, and there is even a “Willing to Convert” option.

On Oct. 14, JSwipe’s parent company Smooch Labs was purchased by Spark Networks, which owns JDate, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. Shapira, who left the company in 2005, said he thinks this was due to a general shift away from traditional dating websites to mobile apps.

“JDate has lost a lot of momentum in recent years with revenues declining by more than 50 percent, because dating is moving to mobile, and they could not put together a quality app,” he said.

Shapira has now taken to the mobile world, developing his own app known as Jfiix. Jfiix verifies the authenticity of users using their Facebook account. He said manual inspectors look at each new profile and photo that has been uploaded in order to ensure its safety.

“We have artificial intelligence technology that analyzes in-app chats and flags abuse (i.e. foul language, etc.), and each flagged conversation is manually checked,” he said. “Abusive users are blocked.”

If you are looking for a more professional application, the solution may be on the way. Matzomatch, created by Andy Rudnick, will match people based on their LinkedIn profiles. It will be free for women and around 99 cents for men, which Rudnick said is in response to female complaints that men who use online dating are afraid of commitment.

“At least there’s something where they have to make an effort,” he said.

Rudnick is an innovator in Jewish singles events, having started Christmas Eve “Matzoball,” parties in 1987 after attending a bad Jewish singles event at a hotel in Boston. He realized that it would be less awkward to talk to people if singles met in a nightclub with lights and music.

“It’s just a hotel ballroom, you have to wait in line to buy a drink,” he said. “It’s just not conducive to that kind of environment.”

The first Matzoball party drew more than 2,000 people, more than six times the expected number of attendees. Rudnick said he did a series of radio spots, which proved effective so much so that the line was out the door on Christmas Eve.

“I made my salary for that night and quit my job,” he said.

Rudnick’s idea eventually led him to his wife, who he met 10 years later at another Matzoball party. There have been more than 1,000 marriages in 28 years of Matzoball parties. This year there will be parties in 18 cities including Washington’s Midtown DC club. More than 50,000 people are expected to frequent the clubs on Dec. 24 between all of the parties.

“I didn’t invent Christmas Eve for Jews, I basically put it into a nightclub environment,” Rudnick said.

Despite the increasing popularity of alternative ways for Jews to meet other Jews, the dating method of choice for the old-school crowd remains matchmaking.

Katz said there is simply no replacement for the natural chemistry she senses in the couples she is able to match.

“Hashem gave me a certain insight and feeling that I cannot explain, but many times I see a ‘match’ in my eyes, and it works,” she said. “Hashem is the ultimate shadchan. All shadchanim are his emissaries.”


Honest Exchange Turkish ambassador to U.S. addresses BJC

Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, addressed members of the Baltimore Jewish Council at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s headquarters to tackle questions concerning Israeli-Turkish relations.

“The relationship between the Turkish and Jewish people in our recent history stands as a complete example of peaceful coexistence, mutual understanding and appreciation,” Kilic said to start his Nov. 5 speech.

Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, answers questions from the Baltimore Jewish Council concerning Turkish-Israeli relations. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, answers questions from the Baltimore Jewish Council concerning Turkish-Israeli relations. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Kilic, who was Turkey’s ambassador to Japan before accepting his current role in April 2014, continued by praising the BJC’s efforts in counteracting Islamophobia. He specifically cited the BJC’s condemnation of remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson regarding a Muslim becoming the president of the United States.

I believe that the present state of affairs between Turkey and
Israel, which are the only two democratic countries in that region, is unacceptable. The importance of the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations has become more important than ever.

Kilic admitted that relations between Turkey and Israel had “experienced serious setbacks in recent years,” and he was grateful to the BJC leadership for maintaining a dialogue and cooperation with the Turkish embassy.

“[I will emphasize] that the criticism [made by Turkey] was directed to the Israeli government due to its heavy-handed conduct in Gaza last summer and had nothing to do with the Israeli people or Jewish community,” said Kilic. “At the time, the Turkish community and Turkish government made that distinction very clear.”

Kilic added that when Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, visited Washington last April, he attempted to arrange a meeting between the minister and leaders of American Jewish organizations, but the meeting failed to happen after receiving little support. Kilic said this meeting could have helped to reaffirm that Turkey’s criticisms were against the Israeli government and not its citizens.

“I believe that the present state of affairs between Turkey and Israel, which are the only two democratic countries in that region, is unacceptable,” said Kilic, noting Syria’s civil war, terrorism and various sectarian conflicts in the region. “The importance of the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations has become more important than ever.”

A question-and-answer session followed Kilic’s speech.

“Turkey has sustained [rocket] fire from Syria, which it has returned, promptly and aggressively, and yet when Israel does the same for Gaza, there’s a condemnation of Israel,” said Abba David Poliakoff, first vice president of the BJC. “Furthermore, [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has made some statements about Israel that go beyond just relating to a disagreement over the  incident of the blockade [of the Gaza Strip]. Now that [Erdogan] has been elected with a stronger majority, why should Israel not feel worried?”

Kilic began his response by stating that Turkey has retaliated against Syria and warned other countries of retaliation, such as Russia, if it continues to violate Turkish airspace. “But we never attacked a school; we never attacked a mosque — this is the difference between Turkish retaliation and the retaliation of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” said Kilic, adding that while Erdogan’s criticism of the situation was harsh, “[Erdogan] made a clear distinction at that time: ‘Whatever I say is not to the people of Israel; it is addressing the government of Israel and Netanyahu personally.’”

Kilic and Poliakoff began going back and forth, but Kilic repeatedly emphasized that “[Israel has] the right to self-defense, and [it has] the right to take every measure to protect Israeli citizens,” but in doing so, Israel must take caution to avoid collateral damage, even if that means a sacrifice on the military’s part.

Kilic explained that the Turkish military recently lost 20 soldiers in southeastern Turkey in an effort to capture five terrorists.

Poliakoff also questioned why Turkey did not condemn the United States after an airstrike destroyed a hospital in Afghanistan. Kilic insisted that Turkey did criticize the U.S. for that airstrike.

After Kilic answered several questions, he turned to Poliakoff, who was sitting only a few feet from the podium, and reaffirmed his position on Israel’s right to self-defense. Before leaving, he walked over to Poliakoff and shook hands.

“We appreciate the honest relationship that we have with [Kilic] and other members of his government, and it is vitally important that this relationship stay honest,” said Art Abramson, executive director of the BJC. “What [Poliakoff] said was [during] an honest exchange, and I’m happy it occurred.”


One People, One Community HoCo to celebrate Global Day of Jewish Learning

Fourteen area rabbis were featured at Howard Community College for the Global Day of Jewish Learning last year. | Photo by Melissa Apter

Fourteen area rabbis were featured at Howard Community College for the Global Day of Jewish Learning last year. Photo by Melissa Apter

The Howard County Board of Rabbis will host the county’s second annual Global Day of Jewish Learning at Howard Community College on Nov. 15.

The Global Day of Jewish Learning, started by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz in 2010, aims to bring Jews around the world together for one day to celebrate shared Jewish text through community-based learning.

Steinsaltz started the project to commemorate his full translation of and commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, which he began working on in 1965. The project is managed by the Aleph Society which was founded in 1988 to expand upon Steinsaltz’s goal of developing Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish community.

“At the time, I was the president of the Howard County Board of Rabbis,” said Rabbi Craig Axler, who was instrumental in bringing the day of learning to Howard County last year. “And we were looking for ways to do collaborative Jewish learning. It seemed like perfect opportunity to get us and our communities together.”

Axler added that Columbia Jewish Congregation had participated in the Day of Learning prior to last year.

The Aleph Society decides the topic for the event, which is intentionally broad, and this year’s topic is “Love: Devotion, Desire and Deception.” In Howard County, more than a dozen rabbis will be teaching classes ranging from whether or not to forgive a domestic abuser to a special teen class being taught by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman.

“[The teen class is] about leaders who are struggling with their relationships with one another, their egos and their obligations to the community,” said Scheinerman. “And how they manage all of that.”

Scheinerman added that she has taught this text to teenagers during a scholar-in-residence in the past, and the teens could immediately relate it to their own lives. Axler’s class revolves around the modern Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and an exploration of how Hebrew words change from biblical to modern Hebrew.

Rabbi Ilyse Kramer, whose family attends Columbia Jewish Congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue, is teaching about Jacob and Esau in Genesis.

“[The day of learning] is a great way to bring together a cross-section of adult learners from the variety of synagogues,” said Kramer. “And both of these years we’ve been very blessed to have great representation from all denominations as well as their adult learners.”

Axler leads Temple Isaiah, which is a Reform synagogue, and Scheinerman
is a part of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. However, the event will have rabbis from a variety of movements such as the Conservative movement and Chabad-Lubavitch, among others. Axler, Kramer and Scheinerman all emphasized that the diversity is an important aspect of the event.

“I see the value of each of the streams [of Judaism], but I also see the danger of remaining too separate from one another and not coming together,” said Scheinerman.

“We’re all different individuals and different movements; there’s a reason there are different synagogues,” said Axler. “But we are open to be one Jewish people and one Jewish community, and we’re richer when we do that. That’s why it was important to me to make something like this happen.”

In partnership with the Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Federation of Howard County is sponsoring the day of learning.

“As the integrating resource for Jewish organizations in Howard County,” said Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Howard County Jewish Federation, “the
Jewish Federation is proud to support adult learning with our community’s clergy through the Global Day of Jewish Learning.”


Global Day of Jewish Learning

Howard Community College Health Science Building

10901 Little Patuxent Parkway Columbia, MD 21044

Nov. 15, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

No registration required. Contact Rabbi Ilyse Kramer at ilysesk@gmail.com or Rabbi Amy Scheinerman at rabbi@scheinerman.net.


‘Here We Are’ Protesters call for ‘Open Federation’ outside G.A. site

Open Hillel demonstrators call on federations to drop their “red lines” around discussion of Israel.

Open Hillel demonstrators call on federations to drop their “red lines” around discussion of Israel.

Calling for Jewish federations to end their support for organizations conditional on their “adherence to red lines around Israel,” 50 demonstrators organized by Open Hillel gathered Sunday outside the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, meeting at the Washington Hilton.

The demonstrators, most of whom were in their 20s, said red lines such as that enforced by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations when it denied membership to the so-called pro-peace, pro-Israel organization J Street limit legitimate criticism of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian-claimed
territories, alienating young American Jews at a time when the federation world is struggling to attract them into community life.

“I feel excluded and isolated and fear that young Jews are being pushed away from engagement with Jewish institutions,” speaker Elana Metz, a senior at the University of Delaware, told the gathering.

Open Hillel formed in 2012 to protest Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, which exclude from the organization those who are not Zionist, support the boycott,
divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The demonstrators, who police kept across the street from the hotel, chanted, “Let my people talk” and “Here we are.” Some displayed signs criticizing what they see is excessive donor influence on decision making in Jewish institutions. Other signs broadcast the bearers as products of mainstream Jewish day schools, youth groups and university Hillels.

The group’s call for “Open Federation” is in the spirit of “disagreement for the sake of heaven,” said Caroline Morganti, Open Hillel’s communications

After the demonstration, Morganti took a letter to the board of the Jewish Federations of North America, asking that by Dec. 8, JFNA “state clearly and publicly” that it would drop its red lines around Israel dialogue. Hotel security stopped Morganti at the behest of G.A. organizers and asked her to leave the building before she was able to deliver the letter.

The demonstration capped a day of workshops, which organizers dubbed “The Jewish People’s Assembly” at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. Seth Morrison, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, led a session on

“What is a Federation?”

In its opposition to Israeli control of the West Bank, Jewish Voice for Peace calls for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and supports the BDS movement.

Morrison contrasted the federations’ accomplishments with their strict adherence to what he called “the company line” on Israel.

“Federations do mostly very good work, and they make hard decisions on allocations,” he said. “But if anyone says anything outside the company line, they’ll threaten to cut them off.

“Our role is to challenge this company line,” he continued, “and that in the long run is best for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.”

Many participants said they are calling for abolishing red lines to make the Jewish community more

“This is the beginning of a conversation with the community,” said Aaron Steinberg-Madow, an Open Hillel steering committee member from Philadelphia. “I’m thrilled the DCJCC allowed Open Hillel to meet.”

Jillian Lipman, 23, came from Baltimore looking for a Jewish community. “I’ve been unaffiliated with the Jewish community for a long time,” she said. “I was called an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew” for her beliefs. “I wanted to see that there were Jews with other positions.”

Conference organizer Yonit Friedman, 23, came to Open Hillel after a disappointing experience on a Birthright Israel trip.

“I felt the leaders were either outright lying to us or leaving out a lot of truths. It was intellectually dishonest,” she said. “And it went against my Reform upbringing of social justice and justice for the oppressed.”

She called Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians “an enormous elephant in the room, even in Jewish spaces that otherwise do a good job.”

Friedman said that mainstream Jewish organizations treat Open Hillel and other Jews who share similar opinions about Israel as the enemy, when they are actually the demographic the federation world says it wants to attract.

“People who are in power often see us as an outside entity that they don’t know. But they do know us,” she said. “We’re the people in their communities who want to ask questions. Our concerns are not going away. And if you want to have any sort of Jewish continuity — engaging young people — well, here we are.”



Meet the Press Edwards, Van Hollen talk Middle East

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

In separate phone calls with reporters, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the leading contenders for Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s coveted seat, answered identical queries submitted by the Baltimore Jewish Times and its sister publication Washington Jewish Week regarding the candidates’ stances on lobbying, Israel and the Iran nuclear deal.

Both candidates said they support foreign aid and intelligence sharing between the United States and Israel.

Edwards and Van Hollen, who have had dust-ups regarding their pro-Israel bonafides — Edwards over voting present on a resolution supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against Gaza rocket attacks and Van Hollen over criticizing Israeli actions impacting Lebanese civilians during the Second Lebanon War — declared themselves in favor of the United States continuing to take on a leadership role in brokering a two-state solution.

Edwards said the “alternative, I don’t think, would result in security for Israel or a homeland for Palestinian people.”

She added: “The situation on the ground right now, frankly, is horrible.”

Noting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for renewed peace talks during his address at the United Nations, Edwards said,“We’ve invested an awful lot [in] making this happen. … It’s never too late to start talking again.”

Van Hollen applauded President Barack Obama for attempting to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table “so the parties could reach a settlement together.”

Edwards and Van Hollen also backed the president on the Iran nuclear agreement.

“I am absolutely convinced this is a strong deal,” said Edwards, who called the agreement negotiated between six world powers and Iran a “landmark” piece of legislation that provides more security for the region and promotes American interests.

Noting that she was one of the first members of Congress to support the president’s signature foreign policy legislation she said, “I feel good about where we are. I think it was an amazing feat of diplomacy … and one of leadership.”

Van Hollen took longer than his campaign rival but did come out in support of the nuclear agreement.

“I believe this is the best path forward given the circumstances,” he said, adding that he believes the deal reduces and restrains Iran’s capabilities and puts the United States and the world in a better position “without surrendering any options down the road.”

Area media outlets submitted questions for the candidates to moderator Andy Green of The Baltimore Sun. When Green asked Van Hollen if he would be amenable to reimposing sanctions on Iran, Van Hollen said he would vote to reinstate sanctions if Iran violated the agreement.

Edwards replied, “I don’t want to presume that Iran is going to disregard points of the agreement.”

The candidates’ support of the president’s initiatives are in part why both have been designated “On the Street” candidates by JStreetPAC, the political fundraising arm of the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization J Street. “On the Street” indicates that JStreetPAC is making no endorsement during the primary, and members can donate to either candidate.

In light of that designation, the Baltimore Jewish Times asked the two members of Congress what influence, if any, lobbying groups should have on foreign policy decisions.

“Lobbyists have a job of advocating for their perspective,” and members of Congress should do their best to listen to all sides and use their judgment, Van Hollen said.

Edwards asserted that “lobbying groups don’t influence” her foreign policy decision-making. She said she takes in information from a variety of sources — “I read an awful lot on foreign policy” — and makes her own decision.

Van Hollen conceded that there are not “dramatic differences” between the two candidates. Edwards, who casts herself as a progressive outsider, said that the two are focused on the same goals.

“The difference has been defined by the support that I’m getting by the people we’ve worked with in all parts of the state of Maryland,” said Van Hollen. Ike Leggett and Rushern L. Baker III, county executives for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, respectively, along with former gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, have endorsed Van Hollen’s candidacy.

Edwards has been endorsed by national organizations, such as Emily’s List.

“What you’re seeing,” said Van Hollen, is a “hunger to get big things done and to make progress on some of the big challenges confronting the country,– including building an “economy that works for everyone,” criminal justice reform and combating climate change.

Edwards, who is touring the state courting the youth and senior votes, said, “I decided to run to replace Mikulski because I believe I’m best able to build on her work and legacy.” Her vision is to help “working families, grow wages and grow businesses [to] compete around the world.”


Scientific Empowerment Annual conference motivates women to take charge of learning about health issues

When Harriet Legum was diagnosed with breast cancer 28 years ago, she could not have imagined that a disease with the potential of taking her life would spark a life mission of health education for hundreds of women that continues to this day.

“I was terrified. I was in my 40s, and the only people I knew who had breast cancer were in their 60s and 70s,” Legum recently recalled about when she first learned of her condition.

A Womens Journey was started in 1995 to educate women about diseases that can affect them as they approach menopause. ( Photo by Daniel Schere)

A Womens Journey was started in 1995 to educate women about diseases that can affect them as they approach menopause. ( Photo by Daniel Schere)

Legum had noticed a red flag when she felt a lump in the upper quadrant of her left breast, prompting a suspicion that she might have breast cancer.

“I talked to some of my doctors, and they said, ‘Nothing’s wrong with you,’” she said.

Many of Legum’s doctors accused her of being argumentative, but after a few weeks she went to see the late Dr. Rudolph Almaraz at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Almaraz took a biopsy at Legum’s insistence, which eventually led to a cancer diagnosis.

“I realized then [that] I wish I [had been] was more educated so I could have asked the right questions,” she said.

Legum’s realization spurred her to action in 1995, when she decided to use her experience as a teaching tool for other women.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hopkins could understand the concept of educating women?’” she said. “I felt angry. No one heard me say that there’s something there. And I truly believe that women have radar. They know what’s there and what’s not there.”

From there, A Woman’s Journey was born as an annual forum dedicated to educating women on a variety of health issues they are likely to face as they enter their menopausal years. This year’s program, on Nov. 14 at the Hilton Baltimore, has since expanded to include 32 topics that will be covered in separate seminars. They include subjects such as strategies for dealing with bone loss, depression and eating right and ways to stimulate the brain.

“By having that knowledge, it empowers women, and we want to empower them to make the right decisions,” Legum said.

The conference is also known for its prominent speakers in the community who have included journalist Katie Couric and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, formerly the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. This year’s speakers include WJZ anchor Denise Koch and Dr. Nellie Shuri Boma, chief medical director at Al Rahba Hospital in the United Arab Emirates.

Legum said she expects close to 1,000 attendees, adding that women as young as 16 are being diagnosed with cancer and can benefit from the conference as well.

I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hopkins could understand the concept of educating women?’ I felt angry. No one heard me say that there’s something there. And I truly believe that women have radar. They know what’s there and what’s not there.

“What is it about our environment that is causing these young women to develop this disease,” she said. “[Parents] come back and say to us: “If it hadn’t been for this program, my child would have died.’”

In addition to expanding in size, the conference is also traveling to other cities, including Washington and a number of locations in Florida. Leslie Waldman, the director of consumer and physician engagement at Johns Hopkins, said that after 20 years the conference has become recognized as a national brand.

“Today, I have to say the greatest interest is in aging well,” she said. “So we work very hard to respond to consumer interests.”

Waldman said women make up 85 percent of the purchasers of health care in the United States and are the primary decision-makers when it comes to health issues.

“When we began the conference, Google and other search engines weren’t around, and people relied on what they read and on health professionals to get treatments,” she said.

Waldman said the goal of the conference is to provide women with a trustworthy source of health information in order to provide answers and dispel myths.

“The message remains the same,” she said. “It’s our core value, and we hope that women will take responsibility for their health and the health of the ones they love.”

Dr. Crystal Aguh, an assistant professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins, will participate for the first time and said the medical community has made great leaps in its ability to diagnose breast cancer. Aguh, who has served as a medical correspondent for ABC News, thinks patients are beginning to take on some of the responsibility in combating their disease.

“I think now you’re starting to see patients who have looked up some things,” she said. “More women are getting mammograms, and that’s great, but they’re also picking up earlier cancers.”


Commandment No. 11 Technology provides myriad ways to convey, ‘No mom, I’m not lying in a ditch’

Using FaceTime with an iPhone allows the reporter and her mother to stay in close touch, thanks in large part to her mom’s tech savvy and willingness to evolve within a digital world. (Screen shot)

Using FaceTime with an iPhone allows the reporter and her mother to stay in close touch, thanks in large part to her mom’s tech savvy and willingness to evolve within a digital world. (Screen shot)

It’s universally understood that the first amendment to the Ten Commandments — perhaps not as grave as the other 10, but respected by Jewish daughters and sons just the same, and I am no exception — is Please, Call Your Mother.

And my mother, now 85, has made it much easier for me to obey No. 11 during the nearly 20 years that I’ve lived away, due in large part to her willingness to adopt (albeit at times kicking and screaming) new technologies.

Though she is an expert texter — LOL, TTYL, LMAO and other catchy phrases fly off her fingertips — and she uses FaceTime and Skype like a pro, it wasn’t always so. I, my sister and especially my niece have logged “time at the screen” with my mom, patiently guiding her through steps that allow her to keep tabs on her brood and, of course, for us to keep tabs on her. That is, when she has her phone with her. Oh yes — and when it’s turned on.

“Mom, the whole point of having a cellphone is that you can take it with you when you leave your apartment,” I’ve said, in a mix of exasperation and relief on many occasions when finally reaching her after a few panicky texts to family members to determine her whereabouts (OK, yes, and to confirm that she was not lying in a ditch.)

But when those tables are turned, cellphone holders beware! Such as the night the police showed up at my sister’s house at about 10 o’clock “to make sure she was OK,” implored my mother to the police dispatcher. My sister was home with her husband, and they were asleep. But my sister hadn’t answered her phone in the last couple of hours, so in my mother’s mind, it was a national emergency … but I digress.

My mom, of course, is not alone in embracing all things digital. It’s evident everywhere you look that more seniors are becoming technologically proficient, whether to stay in touch with children, grandchildren or simply to stay up-to-the-minute informed and plugged in like the rest of us.

My mom cut her texting teeth on a flip phone, back when you had to repeatedly tap a number that corresponded with a letter to pound out your message.

But perhaps even more impressive, if I may brag, is that my mom cut her texting teeth on a flip phone, back when you had to repeatedly tap a number that corresponded with a letter to pound out your message. Now smartphone equipped, she has it much easier, though I haven’t convinced her to embrace the voice-recognition texting technology … yet.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at my mother’s innate aptitude when it comes to communication because she’s had decades of practice, since the old days when landlines were king, and, really, you had to be much more resourceful if you wanted to reach someone immediately. One particularly impressive ‘mom-comm’ occurred when I was seated at the gate area waiting to board a plane. It was not by the typical overhead paging system that I was alerted, but instead I was beckoned by a rather stunned Northwest Airlines employee. She answered an incoming call on the push-button slim-line phone at her desk, listened a moment and said, “Will passenger Melissa Gerr please step up to the counter?” Eyes wide, she handed me the receiver and said simply, “It’s your mother.”

Though I have no recollection of what she wanted, this was not an emergency communiqué. Most likely, it was just to say, “Hi, have a safe flight.” The feat still impresses me to this day.

Over the years she’s continued to stay flexible with technology and allowed me to “be present” via Skype or FaceTime. Once it was when she opened a gift I excitedly sent express mail overnight, other times it’s on Sunday mornings when we’ve had coffee dates or at special dinners at my sister’s house. She sends me pictures of her latest haircut or fashion-forward purchase too. She even pays bills online now, thanks to my adept and incredibly patient niece.

Over the phone I’ve instructed my mother how to take and send a photo (there is still some mystery to this for her), how to open Skype and use the speaker-phone feature and also how to return to her home screen to open another app — “Press the one and only button on the bottom front of your phone mom!” Though frustrated expletives may fly, she perseveres.

Could either of us possibly have imagined how much would change from decades before, when she simply opened the back screen door and yelled my name into the dusk to call me home for dinner, that someday she would activate a different kind of screen and achieve the same effect of calling me home, now from several states away?

It’s I who choose to live in another city, and I’m thankful we remain close and can easily “see” each other often, in part due to an evolving digital world. But really, it’s my mom who has moved, from one technology to the next, being brave and patient and curious enough to master yet one more way to stay connected so that I may continue to obey No. 11.


‘Rough Night for Everyone’ Israeli filmmaker’s presentation draws protest at Goucher Hillel screening

Student protestors from the LGBT campus group TALQ Big disrupted a film screening at the Goucher College Hillel last week, claiming the event was ignoring larger issues about Israel.

Israeli television personality and LGBT rights advocate Assi Azar was invited to Hillel to screen his movie “Mom, Dad, I Have Something to Tell You,” which addresses how parents cope with their children coming out as gay. During the screening, about 15 students sat with pink duct tape over their mouths. At the end of the screening they removed the tape and began chanting anti-Israel sentiments.

Protestors interrupted Assi Azar’s post-film question-and-answer period at Goucher Hillel. The group claimed “pink-washing” of the event. (By Uri Chachick/Wikimedia Commons)

Protestors interrupted Assi Azar’s post-film question-and-answer period at Goucher Hillel. The group claimed “pink-washing” of the event. (By Uri Chachick/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Israeli filmmaker, this was the first time in his U.S. tour that he has encountered “pro-Palestinian protestors.” The event, organized by Goucher Hillel and Gophers for Israel, a student group at Goucher, was full with about 70 people in attendance.

“There were many students, many non-Jewish students and many students who are part of the LGBTQIAA community,” Azar reported in a Nov. 6 Facebook post that has been reposted by some in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“Before the screening began, I told the audience that I hope we could all engage in an open dialogue as we all share the same goal: Jews and Arabs living side by side in peace,” he continued. “We are all against the death of innocent people. We all must engage in dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict.”

Sammy Eisenberg, a senior and student co-president at Hillel who was in attendance at the event, said, “The LGBT group had seen the screening as a form of pink-washing  (using the LGBT issue as a cover of sorts to smooth over bigger issues about Israel) and had asked for the event to be shut down prior to the screening. It wasn’t, so they decided to protest.”

Eisenberg continued, “From what we understood, they were protesting the organization that was funding the film, Brand Israel, and they tried to make it clear prior, but it came out like it was [in protest toward] the speaker and the story. … Many people left feeling more confused, hurt, more alienated. There was a lot of misunderstanding.”

“The film screening was peaceful, but it was quickly succeeded by students removing the tape, standing and chanting against Israel, with posters in their hands,” Azar wrote in his Facebook post. “These chants were combative [and] filled with distortions of facts, mostly anti-Semitic. I found myself under attack, accused of ridiculous accusations. I was arguing with 20-year-old students who were brainwashed against Israel, had never visited Israel and who were targeting pure hatred against us.”

Kristen Pinheiro, interim executive director of communications at Goucher, said the institution supports “the students’ right to protest.”

“But we don’t tolerate obstruction of events, and that was communicated to both sides,” she said. “Public safety knew about this well in advance, and five safety officers and five staff members, including a chaplain, a provost and the vice president of student affairs, were there.”

After about 45 minutes of heated discussion between the students and Azar, “some of the college officials decided the dynamic was changing and decided to end the event,” said Pinheiro. “Everyone left around 9 p.m., and the event started at 7:30 so it was not cut short in any way.”

Eisenberg thought the question-and-answer period after the film had mixed together too many heated topics, such as LGBT rights, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict and race issues.

“Those three very large issues spiraled out of control, and in a way it had masked what [TALQ Big] intended to protest,” said Eisenberg. “It was a rough night for everyone, protestors included.”

Assi Azar did not respond to inquiries for comment.


Staying Active For seniors, retirement is much more than just manicures

Mountain climbing may have been an unlikely third act for Baltimore resident Gail Lipsitz, but it turned out to be a passion that was simply realized later in life. She had taught English to high school and college students, spending a little time in France in the process. She then spent 27 years as a public relations coordinator for Jewish Community Services before recognizing that the time was right for a busy life that did not involve a career.

“It was my decision,” she said. “I was able to choose the timing, and my basic motivation was that I just wanted to do a lot of things while I could still do them.”

Lipsitz retired in December 2013 and began to partake in exercise courses at the Edward A. Myerberg Senior Center along with a hiking club. Not long after, her son, David, asked if she would join him in his quest to climb Mount Bierstadt in Colorado.

“A good retirement is one in which you do go out of your comfort zone and try new things.”

Lipsitz ended up hiking all 14,065 feet of the mountain last summer with her son with little difficulty, which she attributes to the regular hiking she has done in retirement.

Gail Lipsitz pauses while climbing Mount Bierstadt with her son David. She has resolved to live an active retirement by doing activities such as hiking and traveling. (Photo provided)

Gail Lipsitz pauses while climbing Mount Bierstadt with her son David. She has resolved to live an active retirement by doing activities such as hiking and traveling. (Photo provided)

“Your adrenaline kicks in when you see people on the summit,” she said.

With her newfound hobby, Lipsitz has perhaps reached the summit of her life as well. She admits she was somewhat concerned about retiring because she thought the community would no longer view her as a professional. Lipsitz’s husband, Allan, had died in 2007, and she needed to find fulfilling ways to spend her days, even if that didn’t mean being in an office.

“I had to redefine how I wanted to spend these years, and since I was still working when he passed away, I had time to think about that,” she said.

Clarity came on a January trip to India when Lipsitz ran into an acquaintance, and upon telling her about her retirement, the friend exclaimed “I can’t imagine ever retiring,” she said. “I’d be so bored. What do you do all day, get your nails done?”

In addition to hiking, she teaches literature to adults at two synagogues and the Myerberg Center.

Neal Cierler also chose to lead an active retirement by becoming involved in JCS’s Mitzvah Mobility program as a volunteer driver. Cierler retired two years ago after a career with the Social Security Administration and saw an ad in the JT for volunteering with JCS.

“I was going to take care of the house or find some interests,” he said. “I wanted to find something I really wanted to do besides work.”

Most of Cierler’s clients are elderly and lack mobility. He accompanies them to doctor’s appointments, trips to the grocery store and other errands. Arrangements are typically made through a client’s social worker who contacts the volunteer coordinator and lets volunteers such as Cierler know they are needed.

“It’s just fascinating to talk these people,” he said. “They have a lot to tell and they have a lot to say. A lot of them just want to have somebody to talk to.”

Neal Cierler volunteers as a driver for the JCS’s Mitzvah Mobility program. Cierle retired two yars ago from the Social Security Administration. (Photo provided)

Neal Cierler volunteers as a driver for the JCS’s Mitzvah Mobility program. Cierle retired two yars ago from the Social Security Administration. (Photo provided)

Beth Hecht, JCS’s senior manager for community engagement, said it is often older adults who volunteer to take care of other older adults.

Whether it be through an institution such as JCS or through another means, retirement has the potential to be just as meaningful as a career. In Lipsitz’s case it is the last chapter in a life that has taken her to a variety of physical and mental places.

“It’s extremely fulfilling and stimulating,” she said of her current life. “It keeps my mind active but it’s far from full time work.”

Lipsitz said she recognizes that some do not have the luxury of retiring when they choose, and she said the purpose of her retirement is to stay active.

“I was not a person who felt like my whole identity was tied up in my job,” she said.

“On some level many are doing caregiving for their parents as the older generation lives longer,” she said.

Hecht said many volunteers also teach English as a second language  and spend time with children as part of a Big Brother, Big Sister program. She said retired attorneys help run a free legal clinic for those who need advice.

“That’s a wonderful way where attorneys can stay connected and have some personal satisfaction,” she said.


A Plea for Unity Netanyahu, Herzog headline JFNA’s General Assembly

A hoarse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told thousands of Jewish community representatives at the Washington Hilton Tuesday that disagreements over issues as divisive as the recent nuclear deal with Iran should not undermine either communal unity or the Israeli-American alliance.

“Maintaining the unity of our people is of paramount importance,” Netanyahu said at the closing plenary of the 2015 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. “There is only one Jewish people, there is only one Jewish state … and now more than ever, we must work together to secure the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu acknowledged that passions were higher this year due to the Iran deal, which he had urged Congress to scuttle, but he reiterated that Israel has no better friend than the United States and vice versa — a line for which he received a standing ovation.

Netanyahu had met the day before with President Barack Obama and said he was grateful for the United States’ financial support of Israel’s military needs.

“We have to pay for defense, and defense is very, very expensive,” he said. “In fact, it gets more and more expensive all the time.”

A Plea for Unity

The prime minister also spoke out against anti-Semitism and said the Jewish state cannot be held to a “triple standard.”

“Today, we have a voice, and we must ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear,” he said. “We must speak out against the slander of the Jewish people and against the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu said he remains committed to a vision of two states for two peoples with a demilitarized Palestinian state.

“When we meet a leader who is able to finally  recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we will have peace,” he said.

Netanyahu’s speech came one day after Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog addressed the G.A. Herzog had met with Secretary of State John Kerry Monday morning and called him a “great, great friend of Israel.”

“I told him that we commend and express great gratitude to him and to the president for their indelible support of the State of Israel and their contribution to Israel’s safety and well-being,” said Herzog.

Herzog referred to American historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Brandeis and Betty Friedan as leaders he feels have been important in influencing the nature of U.S.-Israel relations. He also praised Aung Sang Suu Kyi for her democratic leadership in Myanmar after facing difficult odds under house arrest for 21 years.

“I think it’s only a symbol, a symbol for us here as Jews, to wish well to another nation seeing democracy shine again out of the darkness of dictatorship,” he said.

Among those who turned out for Monday’s events were 60 people from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. One of the conference’s primary purposes is to allow members of the Jewish philanthropic community to share ideas about how to improve their own communities.

“The G.A. to me is an intellectual hub. It is a place where there is so much philanthropic thinking,” said Linda Hurwitz, chair-elect of The Associated. “It’s just a fabulous, fabulous opportunity that every lay and professional leader should take advantage of.”

Hurwitz, who was JFNA’s National Campaign chair last year, said the G.A. is an opportunity to “rub shoulders with people who have years of experience.” She attends the conference every year and said she always enjoys speakers who “inspire the hell out of her,” such as former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

“My whole life is klal yisrael, one Jew for another, and I don’t feel that for anywhere else except Israel and the G.A.,” she said.

Michelle Gordon, chief of staff for The Associated, said she has been to seven G.A.s and she always enjoys learning how they can utilize the best practices they hear about from other federations.

“It’s great to hear what all of our other counterparts are doing across the country and North America, the relationships that we can build with other organizations that are here,,” she said.

Gordon said such a geographically diverse abundance of Jews fosters a strong sense of community that she feels makes the G.A. unique.

“When you come here and you see so many people who are living passionately about the same things you are, you feel energized and supported and part of something much bigger than yourself; you can’t replace that by reading a book or reading an article,” she said.

Monday’s activities began with a series of morning breakout sessions followed by a three-hour plenary meeting, at which point all of the federations gathered by tables in the main ballroom. Speakers included Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The delegation then headed to their afternoon breakout sessions, including one entitled “Major League Fundraising,” which was co-led by Associated Senior Vice President Leslie Pomerantz. Pomerantz gave a presentation on how federations must think outside the box when it comes to fundraising.

“We allocate $47 million every year, $31 million of that comes from our unrestricted annual campaign,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re not in a crisis situation, but yet we know that we have community needs that are not being met and that we are leaving money on the table.”

Pomerantz said last year, The Associated changed the way it engages with its donors by doing things such as changing the job descriptions of senior-level fundraisers and focusing on making sure they get out of the office.

“All of us are fabulous organizers; we are great at making sure the events look great, that the trains are running on time, that direct mail is getting out, that the list pool is correct,” she said.

Pomerantz emphasized that when communicating with donors, it is important to maintain a good rapport and be “sellers, not tellers.”

“This isn’t about not taking no for an answer, this is about reframing the question,” she said.

Melissa Apter contributed to this story.