Board of Appeals Rules against Proposed Chabad Synagogue

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Rabbi Velvel Belinsky hopes to build an 8,000-square-foot synagogue on this Stevenson Road property. (Marc Shapiro)

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled Jan. 4 that a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue proposed for the 8400 block of Stevenson Road did not meet certain Baltimore County zoning requirements.

Board members Maureen Murphy, Jason Garber and James West said the plan for the synagogue did not comply to the extent possible with RTA (residential transitions areas) requirements — setbacks that help blend a property with its surroundings — and that the plan was inconsistent with a previous development plan for the property.

The decisions, which came after 10 hearings that began in May 2016, were reached in a public deliberation attended by about 20 residents who oppose the synagogue. A written opinion is forthcoming.

“We’re obviously extremely pleased,” said Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood to challenge the synagogue proposed by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky.

The rabbi said he and his attorneys “are utterly disappointed.”

“We disagree with the decision, and we are looking at all options available to us to continue moving forward and continue fighting,” Belinsky said. “We would get our synagogue built much easier and much quicker had the ruling went our way. But we’re not discouraged.”

Belinsky said a federal suit, which would be based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, is one of those options he and his team are looking at. In a 2016 interview, Belinsky said he would file a federal suit if he lost at the Board of Appeals. He has retained Roman Storzer, a top RLUIPA attorney who attended most of the Board of Appeals hearings.

Ken Abel, a petitioner who lives next door to the property, said he and the community felt confident from the beginning that the rabbi’s plan violated a section of zoning code that said amendments to development plans must be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan.” The original plan for the three-acre property, approved by the county in 2006, called for two single-family homes.

“I expect them to [appeal], and I respect the process, but I think we’re going to have the same result we said [we would have] two years ago as to why this is inappropriate,” Abel said.

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Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (File photo)

It was indeed two years ago at a community meeting that Belinsky shared his plans, which were met with opposition. The rabbi is spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian Jews that currently meets in Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s space on Old Pimlico Road. Many congregants are from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish practice was restricted. Belinsky hopes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and classroom and office space.

Neighboring residents cited issues such as pedestrian safety, traffic and the character of the neighborhood in its opposition.

The two cases — the RTA issue and the question over consistency with the original development plan are two separate cases — were first heard over the course of eight hearings in 2015 by county Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen. His opinion, released in January 2016, said the proposal met RTA requirements and that the rabbi could use the existing house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, as his parsonage. But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not consistent with the original development plan. He did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to whether the original plan needed to go through the amendment process, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement.

The cases were appealed, sending it to the county Board of Appeals, which began a new set of hearings on May 12, 2016 during which both sides restated their cases, rather than the board review Beverungen’s decision.

Storzer told the JT in a 2016 interview that while RLUIPA is not a “blank check” for religious organizations, it does trump local zoning code.

“In general, a government cannot burden religious exercise unless it uses the least restrictive means of compelling government interest,” he said. “Normal zoning rules don’t apply.”

As far as traffic and other safety issues raised by residents are concerned, Storzer said: “It’s been my long experience that these types of justifications have often been used to oppose uses where they really have no merit. … There has to be demonstrated evidence that there is some real threat, not simply a hypothetical or speculative threat, to public health and safety.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Local Jewish Organizations Engage Young Jews Through Social Causes

Madeline Suggs (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Madeline Suggs (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Under the direction of Madeline Suggs, the Baltimore Jewish Council has revamped its programming in recent years to appeal to more millennials.

Suggs, 26, director of public affairs at the BJC, said she spent the past summer meeting with young up-and-upcoming leaders in the community simply asking how the BJC could better engage them.

What she said she found was that they wanted more action-orientated programming as opposed to dialogues, which had long been a staple at the BJC.

Since August, Suggs said, the BJC has put on more than 20 such events, consisting of intimate gatherings of 10 to 20 people at interfaith dinners and happy hours, to foster a greater sense of civic engagement.

“If you’re new at your job and young, you’re not going to leave during the lunch hour,” Suggs said. “As these people get to know one another and become more comfortable, they’ll talk about more difficult topics like Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement. You can’t expect strangers to sit down with each other and talk about these difficult things right away, so we’re making it easier for them to build this foundation of trust.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Molly Amster graduated from high school in Montgomery County and today lives in Baltimore City. She has been the Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice since September 2014.

Amster and JUFJ endeavor to galvanize young people in relation to their Jewish values through campaigning to help “win local racial and social justice issues.”

JUFJ typically holds monthly campaign meetings that update participants on the work the group is involved in. Amster’s Baltimore chapter focuses on rent reform and police accountability.

From time to time, they’ll also host Shabbat dinners, book clubs, educational events and film screenings with the intent of fostering “meaningful action to bring about change,” Amster said.

Amster has found that one-to-one meetings are key to successful a organization. This is all about finding out what the specific participant wants out of his or her engagement with the JUFJ.

Molly Amster (File photo)

Molly Amster (File photo)

Many young Jews are “not finding a home in other Jewish settings they’ve encountered: synagogues or other institutions,” Amster said. “They don’t find people there they connect with, don’t find what’s happening there to be fulfilling.”

These young Jews, Amster has found, “are still in a position of feeling very Jewish — it’s part of their identity, [and] JUFJ provides people with a community that is similarly dedicated toward working for peace.”

Before he became a mashgiach in Columbus, Ohio, Ron Reitman, 40, spent a handful of years on and off in Baltimore between 2006 to 2011, deeply ingrained in various Jewish community events and organizations that allowed him to “be with my people serving a greater good,” he said.

Lamenting that “Columbus to me seems a little sleepy,” he fondly recalled how Baltimore “is a bit more exciting, a little more dynamic” in comparison to the more “stable” Midwestern town in which he now resides.

It was during his time in Baltimore that, as with Amster’s observation, he was able to find more enjoyment being connected to Judaism through working for causes important to him.

In addition to his time in the young leadership program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which helped him to become more involved in the community, he was a regular at the Downtown Chabad’s series of young professional Shabbats hosted by Rabbi Levi Druk and his wife, Chani.

“I found my involvement with Chabad very enriching for my soul … and also my stomach,” Reitman said, chuckling. “Chani Druk made the best challah. I always enjoyed learning and singing with Rabbi Druk. It just felt welcoming there.”

Park Heights JCC Briefly Evacuated After Bomb Threat

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The Park Heights JCC, which houses the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Center, was briefly evacuated on Monday after a bomb threat was called in. (Daniel Nozick)

The Park Heights JCC was briefly evacuated on Monday after a phoned-in bomb threat, which proved to be unfounded.

The building was cleared after the phone call came in at 11:45 a.m. and was reopened shortly after 2 p.m., once the threat was found to be unsubstantiated.

That same day, bomb threats were called in to 16 JCCs in nine states. All were unsubstantiated.

In Baltimore, staff immediately alerted security personnel and began to take appropriate security measures, alerting the building manager and executive team.

After a quick consultation with JCC security and the police, evacuation procedures began for the Park Heights JCC and the other building that shares its campus — which houses several Jewish agencies — within minutes of the phone call.

“From when we actually put the evacuation into place until the last person evacuated the building took about five minutes, which fits right into where our security protocol is for this building,” said Paul Lurie, chief operations officer for the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

The Baltimore Police Department is investigating the incident with its federal partners, according to Det. Jeremy Silbert.

The Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which also received a bomb threat, was evacuated and reopened at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

“We have talked to the police and our full-time security consultant who made us aware of some of the other incidents that had happened after we completed our evacuation,” Lurie said. “The police are aware of the incidents around the country and do feel that there is a connection between them. We looked at it as an individual situation for the safety of our members and the people within the building and enacted our evacuation procedure.”

By 4:30 p.m. on Monday, authorities’ investigations of the impacted JCCs all resulted in all-clear findings, with most JCCs resuming regular operations, according to David Posner, director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America.

On Wednesday, officials from the FBI and Homeland Security conducted a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders to discuss Monday’s incidents, what they stem from and how to craft protocols to handle such incidents in the future. Some communities already receive federal grants to provide for security.

While the FBI would not confirm whether they were investigating the string of incidents, spokeswoman Carol Cratty said the bureau was aware of them.

“We remain in touch with our law enforcement partners to provide assistance if needed,” she wrote in a statement. “As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activities which could represent a threat to public safety.”

Last week, bomb threats were called in to Jewish institutions in Florida, Georgia and New Jersey, according to the ADL.

“Unfortunately, such threats are not new to the Jewish community,” ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said in a prepared statement. “While each of these threats must be taken seriously, and excellent preparation is key to a good response, bomb threats are most often not credible and are usually used as scare tactics in order to disrupt an institution’s operations and to cause fear and panic. At this juncture, none of these threats appear to be credible.

“We have also been in touch with Jewish institutions across the country to notify them of these threats and urge them to take this opportunity to always ‘think security’ by reviewing their security policies and procedures.”

The string of threats included a combination of robocalls and actual people calling, all of which were intended to put a scare into Jewish communities according to Paul Goldenberg, the director for the Secure Community Network (SCN), which works with the Jewish Federations of North America to oversee the safety of American Jewish institutions.

“We have seen over the past 18 months an uptick in domestic terrorism and that people will use tactics with regard to terrifying communities,” Goldenberg said. “They are looking to instill fear, and that’s their primary goal.”

Goldenberg said the FBI is investigating the incidents and that people should never hesitate to contact local and national authorities.

At the Park Heights JCC, evacuation procedures have members leave the campus and staff evacuate to a nearby location so that they can still be available if needed; students at the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Center are evacuated to a secure off-site facility, Lurie said.

Before the building was reopened to the public, JCC staff did a final walk-through with Baltimore City police officers. They completed the sweep with no suspicious activity or threat found.

“We take security seriously as you can see,” said Annette Saxon, chair of the board of the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “We have drills and practice our protocol for these type of things all of the time, so when — God forbid — something does come up like this, that’s why [an evacuation] happens so quickly and seamlessly. Our members know that it is safe. Our professionals know what they are doing.”

Mathew Klickstein contributed to this report.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Board of Appeals Rules Against Proposed Chabad Synagogue

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky testifies at a Baltimore County Board of Appeals hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky testifies at a Baltimore County Board of Appeals hearing. (Marc Shapiro)

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled Jan. 4 that a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue proposed for the 8400 block of Stevenson Road did not meet certain Baltimore County zoning requirements.

Board members Maureen Murphy, Jason Garber and James West said the plan for the synagogue did not comply to the extent possible with RTA (residential transitions areas) requirements — setbacks that help blend a property in with its surroundings — and that the plan was inconsistent with a previous development plan for the property.

The decisions, which came after 10 hearings that began in May 2016, were reached in a public deliberation attended by about 20 residents who oppose the synagogue. A written opinion is forthcoming.

“We’re obviously extremely pleased,” said Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood to challenge the synagogue proposed by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky.

The rabbi said he and his attorneys “are utterly disappointed.”

“We disagree with the decision and we are looking at all options available to us to continue moving forward and continue fighting,” Belinsky said. “We would get our synagogue built much easier and much quicker had the ruling went our way. But we’re not discouraged.”

Belinsky said a federal suit, which would be based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, is one of those options he and his team are looking at it. In a 2016 interview, Belinsky said he would file a federal suit if he lost at the Board of Appeals. He has retained Roman Storzer, a top RLUIPA attorney who attended most of the Board of Appeals hearings.

Ken Abel, a petitioner who lives next door to the property, said he and the community felt confident from the beginning that the rabbi’s plan violated a section of zoning code that said amendments to development plans but must be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan.” The original plan for the three-acre property, approved by the county in 2006, called for two single-family homes.

“I expect them to [appeal] and I respect the process, but I think we’re going to have the same result we said [we’d have] two years ago as to why this is inappropriate,” Abel said.

It was indeed two years ago at a community meeting that Belinsky shared his plans, which were met with opposition. The rabbi is spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian Jews that currently meets in Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s space on Old Pimlico Road. Many congregants are from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish practice was restricted. Belinsky hopes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and classroom and office space.

Neighboring residents cited issues such as pedestrian safety, traffic and the character of the neighborhood in its opposition.

The two cases — the RTA issue and the question over consistency with the original development plan are two separate cases — were first heard over the course of eight hearings in 2015 by county Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen. His opinion, released in January 2016, said the proposal met RTA requirements and that the rabbi could use the existing house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, as his parsonage. But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not consistent original development plan. He did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the original plan needed to go through the amendment process, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement.

The cases were appealed, sending it to the county Board of Appeals, which began a new set of hearings on May 12, 2016 during which both sides restated their cases rather than the board review Beverungen’s decision.

While no federal suit has been filed, Storzer told the JT in a 2016 interview that while RLUIPA is not a “blank check” for religious organizations, it does trump local zoning code.

“In general, a government cannot burden religious exercise unless it uses the least restrictive means of compelling government interest,” he said. “Normal zoning rules don’t apply.”

As far as traffic and other safety issues raised by residents are concerned, Storzer said: “It’s been my long experience that these types of justifications have often been used to oppose uses where they really have no merit. … There has to be demonstrated evidence that there is some real threat, not simply a hypothetical or speculative threat, to public health and safety.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

A Gift from a Rabbi to a Raven

brief_rabbi_ravenFor as long as Rabbi Jessy Gross can remember, her dream has been to give the Baltimore Ravens a benediction before one of their home games at M&T Bank Stadium.

Gross, senior director of Jewish learning and life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, used to imagine sitting down with former Ravens great , known for his spiritual pregame pep talks, to discuss their shared bond of biblical theology.

While neither of those two fantasies have become reality yet, Gross has been creative in finding ways to combine her passion for the Ravens and Judaism.

After learning one of her favorite Ravens, linebacker Terrell Suggs, has a weakness for gefilte fish, Gross recently ordered him a gefilte fish recipe book, “The Gefilte Manifesto.”

“I love Terrell Suggs, the Ravens and gefilte fish, so when I was buying the book for myself, I thought it would be cool to get him one as well for all those reasons,” Gross said. “The best-case scenario is that he responds, and the worst-case scenario is that I know he gets the book to have some new favorite recipes.”

She said Suggs has yet to receive the book but that an acquaintance with direct ties to the Ravens’ all-time sacks leader is working on delivering the book to him personally.

Suggs, 34, who just finished his 14th season in the NFL — all with the Ravens — made headlines when he cut his consumption of the Jewish holiday favorite this past summer.

Fortunately for Suggs, that sacrifice may have paid dividends as he led the team in sacks with eight and made 35 tackles despite playing with a torn left bicep most of the
season.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

BSA Rolls Out Film Program

Photo credits Beatriz Bufrahi/Baltimore School for the Arts

BSA Students film on location during the summer film pilot program, an intensive three-month precursor to the new year-long program set 2017-18. (Beatriz Bufrahi/Baltimore School for the Arts)

The Baltimore School for the Arts will launch its first-ever film and visual storytelling program, thanks to a $3 million gift from area philanthropists Mark and Patricia Joseph that the school received last month.

The renown creative institute, which counts among its esteemed former students hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur and actress Jada Pinkett Smith, will launch the program at the start of the 2017 academic year in Sept-ember. Named in memory of  entrepreneur, attorney and film buff Charles C. Baum, the program will also include a digital media component.

“The Baltimore School for the Arts is devoted to preparing more Baltimore City young people to take the lead in the future global workforce,” school director Chris Ford said in a news release. “With almost $300 billion in revenue, the film and TV industry will provide many meaningful careers in the time to come — we want our students to be prepared  for that work.”

Supported by a grant from the Saul Zaentz Foundation, the BSA ran a successful pilot initiative for the film program this past summer.

“It seems like a natural fit for us because we [already] have these various art forms we teach at BSA — music, dance, theater and visual arts,” Ford said in an interview with the JT. “And we’re trying to move the school as a whole into more collaborative spaces. Film being such a collaborative art form, it seemed to be ideal for this part of our thinking here.”

Ford, who has been the  director of the BSA for the past six years and otherwise involved for nearly four decades (initially beginning his tenure there as a part-time music  instructor), said the school has been seriously considering a film program for more than two years.

In addition to the summer pilot program, Ford has been fervently engaged in researching the best ways to put together the upcoming visual storytelling class.

“One of the experiences that was local but valuable for me was going to the Annapolis Film Festival,” Ford said. “The most compelling piece for me was made by what appeared to be middle school kids in D.C. That kind of thing makes me realize how important the story element is and why it’s important too for students to be aware of what’s around them.”

Ford went on to say that  a large component of one’s specialized education at BSA, where students are concentrating heavily on their particular artistic endeavors, is “discovering what [they] want to do with their lives. We realize not everyone will, but if someone here does, we want to facilitate that.”

In looking toward this self-discovery for BSA students, Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises feels the film program will be a valuable new asset at BSA.

“With a lot of the programs at the school, the pipeline  really has to start at a young age,” Santelises said. “Film is something that is more accessible for young people who might have special gifts that are more latent in some ways but are still competitive.”

By this, Santelises is referring to the fact that whereas it’s typical for, say, a serious ballet dancer to start his or her education at an extremely young age — 4, 5, 6 years old, perhaps — film is something that generally isn’t taught until an equally gifted young artist is in his or her early teens due to the technology and collaborative components that require a  certain maturity level.

“We’re tapping into talent without being so utterly dependent on early training,” Santelises said.

Santelises is equally excited about the notion that a film program at BSA will likely mean an opening of opportunities for such classes to be  incorporated at other schools in the district.

“From a district perspective, this program is one that will clearly build out BSA’s already renowned reputation for excellence in the arts,” Santelises said.

“It’s a treat to be around such talented and bright kids who really are the future,” Ford said. “I realize that sounds hokey, but when you get to see those futures realized, it’s so rewarding.”

Auditions for the first class of students in the Charles C. Baum Film and Visual Storytelling Program will be held in February and are exclusively open to those students entering the ninth grade in the 2017-18 academic year. More information about applying is available at bsfa.org.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

CJC Earns Grant for End-of-Life Lectures

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

A few years after beginning discussions through adult education sessions of how to effectively address end-of-life issues, Columbia Jewish Congregation will continue to push that conversation forward.

CJC, an egalitarian congregation affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement that meets at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center in Columbia, was awarded a $5,000 grant through the Horizon Foundation on Dec. 21 to host four expert speakers on the subject. As of press time, the speakers and dates for those talks had yet to be determined.

In a prepared statement, CJC Rabbi Sonya Starr said the lectures will specifically focus on engaging the aging process, mortality and traditional Jewish practices, among other topics. One of the lectures, the fourth and final one, will be led by the clergy, Starr said, incorporating new “end-of-life plans into the congregational database.”

The funds will also pave the way for development of a computerized database that will hold all congregants Jewish end-of-life wishes.

For more information about the discussion series, call 410-730-6044 or email cjc@columbia jewish.org.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Another Successful BrewHaHa

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Charm City Tribe director Rabbi Jessy Gross lights the menorah at Union Craft Brewing. (Marc Shapiro)

Union Craft Brewing once again hosted Charm City Tribe’s Chanukah BrewHaHa on Wednesday, Dec. 28.

The event, which centered around a candle lighting that took place at approximately 9 p.m., brought in hundreds of attendees and representatives from nearly 15 area Jewish  organizations vying to celebrate a sense of community for both Jews and gentiles alike while punctuated by a live DJ set.

The party-like atmosphere that took place throughout Union’s spacious parking lot and into the bar area and brewery itself was supported by local eateries The Green Bowl food truck and ice cream purveyor The Charmery.

“It’s all good fun however you look at it,” said David Chapman, co-owner of The Green Bowl whose mobile culinary unit was situated just outside of the entrance of the brewery doors. “It’s a good night and good for business, too. Nice and busy.”

Especially for the occasion, Chapman served different varieties of latkes ranging from a sweet potato with marshmallow fluff to one topped by chunky guacamole.

“We were wondering, ‘What’s missing?’ [from our usual menu],” Chapman said. “And [we] decided to bring in a Latin flavor to our latkes.”

Inside, the event space was packed with what was said to be 250 people according to Union co-owner Adam Benesch.

“Chanukah is a joyous holiday, and it’s fun seeing people celebrating in a creative way here, participating in different activities,” Benesch said. “There’s lots of cool things here.”

Activities around the large party space beyond the bar area ranged from the Pearlstone Center’s table, where one could make his or her own menorah from a large piece of bark and a selection of acorns as candleholders, to Baltimore Jewish Council’s rousing game of “Interfaith Jeopardy! hosted by ‘Alex Trebekowitz’” a play on TV’s “Jeopardy!” in which contestants were given answers to questions about interfaith marriage and culture.

Other local organizations offering refreshments, games and other activities included Jews United for Justice, JNFuture, FIDF, Etz Chaim and JHeritage, which supplied stuffing to be placed in empty teddy bears that, after completion, were sent off to sick children in the Baltimore area as part of the nonprofit’s philanthropic Kindness Initiative.

In addition to purchasing food at The Green Bowl and receiving a commemorative beer glass, patrons were able to sip on Union beer (including seasonal etrog-flavored Anthem) as well as try signature ice cream flavors from The Charmery — malty vanilla chip and sufganiyot, made just for the holiday.

“We’re in the middle of  December … selling ice cream,” The Charmery co-founder David Alima said with a laugh. “So I just wanted to come and be a part of this; I don’t really think of it as something financial. We like to get out in the  community and ‘shake it.’

“It’s toward the end of the year and a good time to get  together,” Alima continued. “2016 was an amazing year in many regards, and our thought for 2017 is how to make Baltimore and Maryland better? I feel like events like this will make it better.”

Benesch said he’s enjoyed hosting the BrewHaHa at Union each year since its inception in 2013, although the brewery was unable due to a problem of space in 2015 when the event had to be hosted by the Baltimore Museum of Industry  instead.

Having expanded the space of the brewery since that time, he was able to bring the BrewHaHa back to where it began.

“This is all about community,” said Charm City Tribe director Rabbi Jessy Gross, who organizes the BrewHaHa each year and referred to Union as her own personal “Cheers,” where everyone knows her and, she was sure to point out, everyone else’s name.

“If we’re doing this right,” Gross went on to say, smiling, “everyone here will feel connected. That’s the scene.”

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Renewing Baltimore New City Council members talk hopes, priorities

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Baltimore City Councilmen Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (left) and Zeke Cohen (Justin Silberman)

When Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer decided to run for the 1st and 5th District seats on the Baltimore City Council this past election, they saw it as a calling.

Never mind that, if successful, it would be the first time two Jewish councilmembers served simultaneously since 1987.

Cohen and Schleifer felt the majority of people in their districts were looking to them for steady guidance and leadership.

Now, at 27 and 31, respectively, Schleifer and Cohen are the two youngest members of the new council, which was officially sworn in along with Mayor Catherine Pugh on Dec. 8.

Whatever political experience they lack, Schleifer and Cohen say they make up for it with what they feel is a full-fledged commitment to understanding the identity of Baltimore at its core.

“Ultimately, we want to sell Baltimore  as a city that is safe, has a world-class school system, world-class public transit and where people want to live,” Cohen said. “That means we need to have an eye toward the future.”

With eight Democratic freshmen councilmembers, including Cohen and Schleifer, and a new mayor in Pugh, the city government has undergone a massive makeover, replacing more than 125 years of experience.

At a time when Baltimore continues to combat an enduring number of social, economic and political issues, Cohen and Schleifer feel they can help provide the hope and change Baltimore residents crave.

And the issues are big, with the councilmen highlighting enduring poverty, high unemployment numbers, low public high school graduation rates, high crime levels and accusations of police misconduct. Joining Cohen and Schleifer in this fight are freshman councilmembers Ryan Dorsey in the 3rd District, Leon Pinkett III in the 7th District, Kristerfer Burnett in the 8th District, John Bullock in the 9th District, Robert Stokes Jr. in the 12th District and Shannon Sneed in the 13th District.

“I like to think we all complement each other by dealing with these broad-range issues in the city that affect everyone,” Schleifer said. “As a side note, [Cohen]  and I just happen to be Jewish and understand the concerns and needs of the community as a whole.”

Together, with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young leading the charge, Cohen and Schleifer believe brokering deals with leaders and organizations from the public and private sectors is the best way to proceed.

While the job of a councilmember is regarded as part time, Cohen and Schleifer are treating their positions as full time. The pair, whose offices are next to one another on the fifth floor of City Hall, have  hit the ground running during their first month in office.

Their early commitment to putting constituent service at the forefront is something that has already resonated with many veteran councilmembers, creating an energetic atmosphere inside City Hall.

“It’s a joy to walk into the Hall,” said 14th District Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who became the longest-serving member of the council after the retirement of former 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. “There’s all this work going on, positive energy and great optimism for change. I just love the environment with this council; it makes my heart happy.”

In a prepared statement, Pugh, Baltimore’s 50th mayor, told the JT she has “been very impressed by the experiences, ideas and energy both Cohen and Schleifer bring to the council.” She is also “looking forward to partnering with them and working together to move Baltimore forward.”

Schleifer’s Top Issues

Before considering major legislation, Schleifer says he wants to address everyday problems.

Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifercredit to FeeBee Photography

(FeeBee Photography)

A lifelong resident of the 5th District, which includes both traditionally African-American and Jewish neighborhoods such as Cheswolde and Glen in Northwest Baltimore, Schleifer is focused on affordable housing and taxes, bringing the city up to date technologically, improving the lives of seniors and improving public safety, which is his No. 1 priority.

“For as long as I can remember, public safety, preserving and protecting the basic safeties of residents, has been something I take very seriously,” Schleifer said.

The 72nd City Council was sworn into office more than 20 months after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, which set off unrest in various parts of the city.

On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest ever in the city. That year’s 344 homicides was second only to the record of 353 in 1993, when Baltimore had about 100,000 more residents.

While the number of homicides dropped to 318 last year, Schleifer wants to ramp up his public safety efforts. He said he was pleased that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis reinstituted officers to patrol smaller areas in the Northwest last year rather than allowing them to roam larger areas.

Schleifer, a member of the council’s Public Safety Committee, wants to see more initiatives like that throughout the city. He said rebuilding trust between the police and those they serve are pivotal to community relations and can be accomplished through more community walks with officers.

“This is an issue I have been very passionate about for a while,” Schleifer said. “We have first responders who will get to you in two minutes, so I say to everyone, if you’re going to have a heart attack, do it in the 5th District.”

Nathan Willner, president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, has seen firsthand the emphasis Schleifer, former vice president of the association, has placed on making the streets of Baltimore a safer place for all.

“No one has a better pulse on what is going on at all times in the community than Yitzy does,” Willner said. “Not only does he represent the Jewish community, but he has continued to bridge the gap and embrace the diversity we have in our African-American and Muslim communities.”

In addition to his emphasis on public safety, Schleifer is determined to once again fill the city’s vacant homes and neighborhoods.

As the newly appointed vice chairman of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he will work hand in hand with committee chairman John Bullock to take on that task.

Although Bullock and Schleifer have yet to formally come up with an agenda, Bullock said they plan to push for legislation to create more affordable housing.

“I have known Yitzy for a while, and we both seem to be coming at this committee assignment from a very similar place,” Bullock said. “Working together, I am looking forward to it, because we will come at the issues that persist with our housing [and do] what’s right for the city.”

In an interview with the JT, City Council President Young said he has laid out plans with leaders from the nonprofit and private sectors to improve the quality of life for Baltimoreans, starting with housing.

For instance, Young said, he is working on a deal with Details Deconstruction, a nonprofit that puts people to work deconstructing vacant houses. If completed, the partnership would create six to eight times more jobs than a demolition project, Young said.

Schleifer is also bullish on pushing to make expenses such as water and housing bills more affordable for seniors, given the growth of that population in the Northwest specifically.

In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey, the last comprehensive study of the community, there were an estimated 3,900 Jewish seniors in Baltimore older than age 85, an increase of 166 percent from 1999.

Because many people are living longer lives, Schleifer, a former Edward A. Myerberg Center board member, said it’s imperative to find the right solutions for those people sooner rather than later.

“I am very passionate about the aging population, because it makes up a very large portion of the constituent base,” Schleifer said. “I’ve always wanted to help people age in place and have made sure we’ve had enough senior housing for our aging population. I am pushing hard for something like this because that can be an immediate fix.”

Cohen’s Focus on the Youth

A Canton resident, Cohen is steadfast in his desire to focus on public transportation, improve the Baltimore City Public School system, increase wages for workers and create jobs for youth.

As chairman of the Youth and Education committee, he said one of the first things he plans to push is locally owned businesses hiring from within the area.

photo by Justin Silberman

(Justin Silberman)

Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, a nonprofit that has helped more than 30 high school students earn college scholarships, understands that training students for such skills starts in the classroom.

“There is value to be had in hiring locally, and we know the benefit of hiring a workforce that is local, approximate and already knows the area,” said Cohen, whose district stretches from Harbor East to the city-county line in Dundalk and includes Southeast Baltimore. “What that requires is that our school system and government step up and deliver a better quality education and that our business sector steps up and makes that investment in our youth.”

Clarke was originally selected by Young to serve as chairwoman of the Youth and Education Committee but deferred to Cohen “because he has a passion for working with and helping young people.”

Young said he hopes Cohen works closely with Pugh to assume greater local control of the city school system, which has received increasing state oversight — and funding — since 1997.

“Because Zeke is the chair of the Youth and Education Committee, I want to see him hold the school system to the fire on budget issues,” Young said. “It’s imperative our children perform at a high level, and I want our schools to be held to the highest standards possible.”

Patterson Park resident Robbyn Lewis, who met Cohen when he started his council campaign two years ago, said Cohen’s background in racial, educational and socioeconomic issues make him an ideal person to do just that.

“The first thing I noticed about Zeke when we met was his sincerity, kindness and thoughtfulness,” Lewis said. “He’s a person you want to know, and he is a mensch in every sense of the word. Zeke lives what he preaches.”

Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and a resident of Patterson Park in Cohen’s district, said he is confident Cohen will make good on his promise to fight for youth, among other things.

“What we are all looking for Zeke to bring is the same type of zeal, enthusiasm and tenacious advocacy that he brought to his campaign and nonprofit work in the city,” Conner said. “When people think about Zeke, they think about how hard he fights for the things he’s very passionate about and [how he listens to] their concerns and what changes they want to see.”

The City Balloons and Deflates

No matter how Cohen and Schleifer plan to carry out their initiatives, the effects will certainly have a great impact on the city’s growing Jewish population.

The number of Jewish households in the city, particularly in the Orthodox community, have increased in recent years.

In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey, more than three in 10 Jews identified as Orthodox, a percentage that more than doubles what Pew Research Center found at the national level. Additionally, the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community survey found that the number of Jews living in Baltimore County between 1999 and 2010 declined by 5,900 but increased by 7,800 in the city.

That’s a stark contrast to the trend of the city, where the population has experienced a steady decline. Baltimore was the nation’s sixth-largest city in 1950, home to about 950,000 people. During the succeeding six decades, though, it has lost nearly a third of the population and leveled off at a little more than 600,000 residents this past year.

Inner Harbor Baltimore Maryland at night

Inner Harbor Baltimore Maryland at night

Given the increase of  Jewish Orthodox families in his district, specifically the Park Heights corridor, Schleifer — the first Orthodox Jew on the council in decades — is regarded as the face of that community.

“He’s really trying to unite the diverse community members in the district to work together to make the district as good as it can be,” Willner said.

In the 1st District, there has also been rapid growth.

Whereas Schleifer’s district has seen an increase of many Jewish families, Cohen’s district is seen as a hub where many young working professionals settle.

Nate Pretl, 33, who lives on Patterson Park Avenue at Fleet Street on the border of Canton and Fells Point, said he feels Cohen is focused foremost on the needs of the city.

“Even though the 1st District is one of the wealthiest in the city, if not the wealthiest, Zeke doesn’t think about just the needs of his district specifically, but every district,” Pretl said. “Things that are going to help his constituents are really things that are going to help everyone in the city.”

Moving Forward

On some controversial issues, such as $15-per-hour minimum wage proposal, Cohen has pledged to take a more progressive approach than his predecessor, Jim Kraft, who voted against the bill in August.

Clarke, the bill’s lead sponsor, said she plans to introduce this month a proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 by January 2022. After that point, it would continue to rise with the cost of living. Her legislation would also call for increased pay for tipped workers, who currently earn $3.63 per hour.

Cohen said he backs the measure — with an exemption for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income — asserting that it would help increase the wages of the working poor.

This past August, Clarke’s legislation, first introduced last April, failed to generate enough votes needed for passage from the council, which instead voted 8-6 with one abstention to return the bill to committee.

“We need to have a robust conversation about wages and labor and what is appropriate,” Cohen said. “People from labor, residents, City Hall and businesses all need a seat at the table. We need to do this in a way that doesn’t harm small local businesses and doesn’t make Baltimore uncompetitive with local jurisdictions.”

Schleifer, on the other hand, said he would not comment on any pending legislation until it is brought up for a vote.

For his part, Schleifer said he would like to see term limits for councilmembers, a measure that was supported by several members of the previous council before ultimately falling short at a hearing.

Schleifer said he would be in favor of limits of either three or four four-year terms.

By enacting term limits, Schleifer feels it would breed new generations of political leaders who otherwise may not be as engaged in the political process.

“I want to live every day like it’s our last day in office,” Schleifer said. “That’s why I want to encourage our youth to take our positions one day, and I want to encourage them to be engaged and be part of the political process. I want to show them that if they are as involved in the community as I am, they can be the leaders of their generation.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Just Like That, Steve’s Deli Closes Its Doors

steves-deli

A view from outside of Steve’s Deli on Jan. 3. (Justin Silberman)

The Greater Baltimore Jewish community lost a mainstay last week with the abrupt closing of Steve’s Deli, leaving Owings Mills with just one Jewish deli.

Steve’s Deli officially locked its doors and covered two of them with brown paper on Dec. 27, according to several neighboring business owners and their employees.

Workers received a text message from Steve Saval, the store’s owner, at 2 a.m. the day of the closing informing them of his decision and telling them to seek employment elsewhere, neighbors said.

A publicly listed phone number for Saval, an Owings Mills resident, was disconnected. The Steve’s Deli Facebook page, which had 149 likes, was also taken down.

According to an employee of one of the neighboring businesses who asked to remain anonymous, two of Steve’s employees allege that Saval took most of the equipment from the store, leaving the building’s owner “high and dry.”

The source added that a maintenance worker at the building said there was food left on the counter and in a refrigerator and freezer. All the food was thrown into a parking lot dumpster on Tuesday.

Steve’s was a welcome addition to the area when it opened at the corner of Owings Mills Boulevard and Crondall Lane in 2006. In addition to serving omelets, corned beef and rainbow cookies and matzoh ball soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Steve’s also offered catering services.

According to the source and Steve’s former employees, Saval, who has family ties to the Saval Foods Corporation, will continue to cater events “using someone else’s kitchen.”

Steve’s becomes the third deli to vacate Crondall Corner Shops since its 1998 opening, following Miller’s Deli and Ellie’s Deli. Its departure makes Lenny’s Deli in the Valley Village Shopping Center on Reisterstown Road the lone Jewish deli in Owings Mills.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com