At What Cost? As times change, synagogues rethink traditional membership dues

As Jews around the world prepare to usher in a new year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, more synagogues around the country are reconsidering whether  mandatory dues should be treated like 5775: left in the past.

The traditional model for membership has synagogues dictate to their members how much money they should contribute each year. Although this model has persisted through several generations, it is losing its original appeal. Across the board and with few exceptions, synagogues in the United States are contracting instead of expanding.

“It’s a cultural shift taking place. … What was once an innovation is now, like other American institutions, being challenged,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, author of “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue.”

Men pray at a morning minyan held at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emmunah Hebrew Congregation, a synagogue that uses a traditional dues structure. “We try to keep things affordable,” says Jeff Forman, president.

Men pray at a morning minyan held at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emmunah Hebrew Congregation, a synagogue that uses a traditional dues structure. “We try to keep things affordable,” says Jeff Forman, president.

Olitzky’s book is focused on providing synagogues with alternatives to the traditional model of synagogue membership. He explained the traditional model is under scrutiny, not for its cost, but for its cost-benefit. Members want to know exactly what they are receiving for the fees they pay. Olitzky wrote the book with his son, Rabbi Avi Olitzky.

“We have to get ahead of the curve because the traditional dues model has already failed,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis. “We’re lucky being in the Midwest, because we’re behind the movement and the trend.”

Maryland synagogues clearly do not have that luxury. Although the traditional model is far from gone, many local synagogues recognize its downfalls and want to find alternatives. The JT reached out to the leadership of roughly 80 synagogues in the city of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Howard County and other area locales for this story and spoke to more than 25 percent of them.

“We’ve been following studies about affiliations and [the current] membership dues model is a disincentive,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman from Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. “To a certain extent, it is more similar to a business model like a health club, and it equates synagogue membership as a discretionary income decision rather than an identity.”

Grossman said Beth Shalom uses a hybrid model that allows for members to pay what they are able if they cannot afford the full rate. This model has been used elsewhere, but Beth Shalom does not require members to provide documentation proving their financial situation, which can be an unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing situation.

Although many synagogues will not turn people away over finances, they all have bills to pay for programming, overhead, salaries and Hebrew school.

“We still have a traditional dues structure, but it is becoming more of a challenge,” said David Sliom, president of Kneseth Israel in Annapolis. Sliom added that many parents of younger children want to send their children to Hebrew school, but the congregation requires membership to make use of the Hebrew school.

091115_cover2For some congregations, it makes more sense to share space with others rather than sustaining their own building.

Temple Emanuel recently sold its building and is now sharing space with Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, according to its president, David Beller.

“[We] have a unique situation of a Reform [congregation] renting space from a Conservative congregation,” said Beller. “At this point our [membership] structure parallels the Beth Israel structure.”

Beller added that the congregation looked at what models other congregations are using and decided it was not in a position to implement them.

Both Columbia Jewish Congregation and Bet Aviv in Howard County are based at the Oakland Mills Meeting House — an interfaith center designed to host several religious congregations. They share space not only with each other, but also with three Christian congregations.

“We’ve had a traditional [dues] model, but for the past year and upcoming two years we are re-evaluating that model. We’ve had people coming from our movement to talk about different options,” said Rabbi Sonya Starr from Columbia Jewish Congregation.

CJC’s board has agreed to commit to whatever the congregation decides to do. But what is more important, according to Starr, is that the fee structure is responsible, from not only a fiduciary point of view, but also a Jewish one.

“This has to be done as a Jewish organization with Jewish values and ethics,” said Starr, who anticipates CJC having a new membership model by 2017.

While traditional synagogues have struggled with dues, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has always taken a different approach to membership in general.

091115_cover3“Fluid is a good way to describe it. [Each Chabad] figures out what audience [they] are servicing and how to attract them,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland. Kaplan added that if Chabad charged service fees on college campuses, he “can guarantee that very few people will come.”

“Every synagogue needs funding, but membership is more limiting for people who are disenchanted with organized religion,” added Rabbi Kushi Schusterman from Harford Chabad.

Schusterman, who like many Chabad rabbis does not require membership, explained that Chabad organizations must find a balance between fundraising and their obligations as a religious institution. Schusterman said that when he has a stable flow of money, it allows him to attend to other obligations such as births, bar mitzvahs, funerals and other life-cycle events.

“The way I put it is: By us, membership is a final step, not the first step,” said Rabbi Sholom Raichik from Chabad of Upper Montgomery County.

With their movement having spread worldwide, Chabad’s formula has managed to prosper but the Chabad rabbi at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., went a step further than most do in justifying his financial expenses.

In 2007, Rabbi Peretz Chein laid out all of his finances for maintaining his Chabad House, hosting programs and paying his salary on his website for the public to view.

“My donor base doesn’t interact with me on a regular basis so I wanted them to be connected with the institution and beyond telling them what we do, I wanted them to see under the hood,” said Chein. “I want their financial support so I figured it would be meaningful to them if they can see happens with those dollars.”

Chein’s actions received a positive response from the community and ended up eliciting a strong sense of connection and care for the Chabad House. However he doesn’t see what he did as extraordinary. He believes that showing people how he spends their money is simply a reasonable thing to do.

“The question isn’t why am I doing it, the question is why are others not doing it?” said Chein, who has continued to be transparent about his finances to date.

Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework.

Rabbi Dan Judson, professor at Hebrew College, has studied the history of synagogues and money. He believes other synagogues could take a page from Chein’s book.

“I believe that synagogues need to become more transparent places. It’s about improving the conversation about money and in our culture to have these organizations have such a lacking of transparency,” said Judson. “It makes no sense, it is totally out of touch with the zeitgeist, the cultural feeling of the time.”

Among other forms of programming, services for the High Holidays is an issue that is interwoven into membership models. Synagogues must decide whether to include tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into their dues or whether to charge separately.

Excluding the several Chabad synagogues, which have open door policies, there was an even split among the synagogues interviewed for this article between those that include tickets with dues and those who do not.

Regardless of the approaches synagogues take when it comes to membership, many of the experts agree that the discussion surrounding dues is not all about money.

“Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework,” said Kerry Olitzky.

Judson and Debbie Joseph were researchers for “Are voluntary dues right for your synagogue? A practical guide,” which focused on 26 congregations in the U.S. that use a voluntary dues model and was commissioned by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.

Both Judson and Joseph worked with Olitzky on his book and echoed his comment about changing the institutional culture. Joseph said the biggest problem with the traditional model is the relationship it creates between synagogues and their members.

“People talk about money first, ‘I want to join the congregation. How much does it cost?’ The first line of joining was associated with what it costs to belong,” said Joseph. “Part of that cultural change is how you talk to people about money and belonging. How do you get people, in their minds, to not equate money with membership?”

However, when Joseph and Judson began their research, a pattern emerged among many of the congregations.

“When we started [our research,] we thought the synagogues had already made cultural changes which would make it easier to move to this system [of voluntary dues,]” said Judson. “But in many congregations, it worked the opposite way.”

Judson explained that once synagogues transitioned to a voluntary dues model it led to more positive interactions between the synagogue and members in general. Many of the synagogues, that Judson and Joseph researched, reported an overall positive change in revenue, membership growth and cultural change as a result of the switch.

“Synagogues changed the conversation they were having with their members about money. They found a better environment to ask members for resources because there wasn’t the obligatory nature of telling people what to pay,” said Judson. “And by in large even without a dues system, members paid, they didn’t take the moment to abandon the synagogue.”

In his book, Olitzky included 25 reasons to join a synagogue and while he recognizes that people will disagree with some of the reasons, he hopes to ignite a conversation.

Olitzky said synagogue affiliation is at an all-time low since World War II. When it comes to membership, millennials are voting with their feet and establishing the institutions that cater to their own needs.

“The institution [of a synagogue] represents something very different for the generation of my children then it does for older generations,” said Olitzky. “And because of this they are not prepared to support the edifices of their parents.”

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over Community assembles to reject deal, get word out

Even though President Barack Obama secured his key 34th supporter in the Senate for the Iran nuclear deal, vigils were still held in protest and concern, organized by Baltimore Zionist District calling for politicians to reject the deal and also to get out the word to the community.

About two dozen people assembled at the intersection of Old Court Road and Park Heights Avenue for about four hours on Sunday and on Monday at Slade and Park Heights avenues. Participants waved U.S and Israeli flags and held placards that read, “We need a Better Deal,” “Reject Bad Iran Deal” and “Congress: Say No to Iran Deal.” Some drivers honked their car horns in solidarity.

“We’re here to protest the deal,” said Robert Slatkin, president of BZD. “[It’s] still a bad deal for the country and for Israel. When [Iran] talks about death to America and Israel, we need to pay attention to it,” said Slatkin.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, would require Iran to reduce and restrict its production of enriched uranium in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Obama has promised to veto any bill that blocks the deal’s implementation, and with Sen. Barbara Mikulski coming out in favor of the deal last week, the Senate is unlikely to overcome a presidential veto. Still, the overriding sentiment of vigil participants was it’s not over until the vote happens later this month and they remain hopeful.

“Anything can change,” said Irwin Azman of Baltimore County. “The old saying, ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings’… I still have hope. There might be a change in the Senate so we have to stress our views here.”

Late last week, Sen. Benjamin Cardin came out against the deal. A large banner thanking Cardin was present, but his hesitation to act was criticized by some of the attendees.

I can’t think of a more important issue of our time. Nuclear Iran threatens Israel and threatens the United States.

“I was disappointed that someone of [Sen. Ben Cardin’s] caliber would wait until it was obvious that his vote wouldn’t make a difference,” said Ruth Guggenheim. “Instead of standing up like a man — with a little bit of dignity, like a Jew — and saying this is wrong from the get-go. I find it insulting.”

As of press time, 218 Republicans and 16 Democrats in the House of Representatives have opposed the Iran deal. To overcome a presidential veto, 43 Democrats would also need to oppose the deal. Thus far, all of Maryland’s Democrats in the House are either in support of the deal or remain undecided.

“I’m out here because I’m a Christian United for Israel, and I believe that this so-called deal is actually the beginning of the annihilation of the State of Israel, and also of America,” said Mae Bouchau, who lives in Lochearn and attends Trinity Life Church in Lutherville. “I think it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen for both of our peoples.”

Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States with more than 2 million members. About 5,000 members were assembled to pray in Washington, D.C. in July, when the deal was signed.

Bouchau was protesting because “it is possible that some of these undecided senators might vote no if we get enough word out to them,” she asserted. “I’m still writing letters, I’m still making phone calls and emails and praying for that.” She added, “Actually, we know Israel will come out of this because God has promised it. Whether America will or not that’s another story.”

When asked if people were becoming fatigued with the Iran deal, Brian Sacks, a past president of BZD, said he hopes not.

Said Sacks, “I can’t think of more important issue of our time. Nuclear Iran threatens Israel and threatens the United States.”


Cardin Will Oppose Iran Deal

081514_cardin-briefOn Friday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he will vote against the Iran nuclear agreement.

The junior senator from Maryland wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post, “This is a close call, but after a lengthy review, I will vote to disapprove the deal. The JCPOA legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program. After 10 to 15 years, it leaves Iran with the option to produce enough enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon in a short time. The JCPOA would provide this legal path to a country that remains a rogue state and has violated its international nonproliferation obligations for years.”

He pledged to introduce legislation to strengthen the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and United States regional security.

Cardin was integral to gaining Congress the right to review and vote upon the nuclear deal.

Earlier in the day, it was reported by the The Denver Post that Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) will support the Iran nuclear agreement, bringing the number of Senate Democrats backing the deal to 38.

His op-ed can be found here:

‘Everything I Believe In’ Meet J Street U’s new Muslim president, Amna Farooqi


Amna Farooqi, new president of J Street U, says the organization is “the place where I learned to be pro-Israel.”

Amna Farooqi, the new president of J Street U, the campus branch of the liberal, self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby group, is a Muslim of Pakistani descent.

She has no plans to convert to Judaism, though she does consider herself “culturally Jewish,” having grown up in heavily Jewish Montgomery County.

She has long been open about her biography; she gave a keynote speech at J Street’s convention this past spring, in which she opened by highlighting her heritage, which makes her Zionism all the more remarkable to some and unbelievable to others.

Reaction to Farooqi’s election at J Street U’s summer leadership retreat roughly two weeks ago brought about swift backlash online. From the relatively mild “Weren’t there any Jews running?” to being labeled “an anti-Israel Muslim” and leader of a “Jewashed [Students for Justice in Palestine].”

“I know that I’m not Jewish and that’s very scary for a lot of people, and I do understand that in some ways, but I’m coming to this work because I care deeply about the people in Potomac and the people in Israel and the people in Palestine,” said Farooqi. “I’m doing this because I care, and I have an entire movement of people who care.”

Tali deGroot, a newly elected J Street U vice president for the Southeast Region who is Jewish, said that four students ran for J Street U’s presidency. Two were Jewish and two non-Jewish.

Farooqi brushes off the online criticism.

“J Street U is really the place where I learned to be pro-Israel, where I learned to care about Israel and securing its Jewish and democratic future and opposing the occupation, not just because it’s morally corrosive to Israel’s future, but also because of the threat it poses to Israel.”

She doesn’t shy away from using social media to voice her opinion; her tweets concerning “occupation” and her less-than-flattering opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have raised eyebrows and been used by some critics as proof that J Street U is not pro-Israel.

Ultimately, she said, she doesn’t have time to focus on the backlash; she has a job to do.

As J Street U president, she explained, it’s her job to guide the group, strategize with her regional vice presidents and implement J Street’s goals on campus. Looking ahead, she said J Street U will continue to lobby American Jewish communal organizations and their leadership to be more transparent in where funds are going — especially if money is going over the green line — and to continue to press the larger Jewish community to “address the occupation.”

“We think that a lot of things that the American Jewish community is worried about traces back to the occupation, and they don’t put that together in their minds,” said Farooqi.

She reiterated that J Street U is opposed to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, does not co-sponsor Apartheid Week and similar events sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine.

(She said she attended one SJP meeting her freshman year and was “very turned off by the one-sided rhetoric.”)

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which is active on more than 55 campuses through CAMERA on Campus, agreed that the hype, particularly on social media, regarding Farooqi’s election has been overblown, especially, he said, because she’s not the first American Muslim college student to be vocally pro-Israel.

What would be more remarkable, he said, is if a Jewish, Zionist student were elected to the head of a Muslim Student Association. That’s never going to happen, Rozenman said, because so much of the “other side” isn’t about criticism of Israel, it’s about “delegitimization of Israel” as a Jewish state.

“J Street U [students] may be pro-Israel, but they have an inclination to want to bridge the gap with groups that are anti-Israel, like SJP,” said Rozenman. “I’m not sure you can split that difference.”

He continued that for J Street and J Street U to be “continually harping” other Jewish organizations about the two-state solution is an example of “Jews looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”

“If the ‘occupation’ was a huge stumbling block, the Palestinian leadership could have agreed to any one of those [previous peace] offers,” said Rozenman. “That they’ve never submitted a counter offer indicates something else is going on.”

Farooqi readily shares that her path to Zionism started as far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

“My first, first Israel memory is a ‘We Support Israel’ sign outside of Har Shalom and these other places and knowing that I didn’t agree with that because I was reading about settle-ment expansion, Operation Cast Lead,” said Farooqi. “I knew that my parents were never anti-Israel because they were always sensitive that there are people in Israel who want peace, but they were critical of its policies, so I grew up knowing Israel as a place I did not have warm feelings toward.

“And I still came to love it.”

Sitting in a coffee shop not far from her parents’ home in Potomac, Md., Farooqi explains that her journey to Zionism began with a fight.

In the fall of Farooqi’s senior year of high school, the Palestinian Authority submitted a bid for statehood to the United Nations. As editor of Churchill High School’s student newspaper,
Farooqi wanted to write an op-ed in support of the PA’s bid. This led to an unexpected shouting match with a close Jewish friend.

“Clearly, this is something that means a lot to me because I’m crying. It means a lot to her because she’s screaming,” said Farooqi. “That led me into learning more about the conflict.”

And eventually J Street.

A frequent volunteer at the Misler Center, an adult day center in Rockville, where her grandparents received Jewish Council for the Aging services, Farooqi overheard another volunteer criticizing J Street as a “group of liberal bastards who want to annihilate Israel.”

“I was terrified because I thought it was some fringe right-wing Muslim group that was anti-Israel,” said Farooqi. “I went on their website and it was pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, two states and I was like, this lines up with everything I believe in.”

As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park she began attending Hillel — where she says she continues to enjoy a welcoming atmosphere from the staff and UMD Hillel director Rabbi Ari Israel in particular — and taking Israel Studies classes.

“I first met Amna three years ago when, as a first-year student, she reached out to me to inquire and understand more about the magnetism of Maryland Hillel,” said Israel. “I saw her again a few weeks later purchasing challah at Hillel on Erev Shabbat; I knew then and still know now that she is a unique individual. She genuinely participates in Hillel activities and is warmly embraced by our diverse student population.”

Her full Zionist conversion occurred spring of her freshman year when she was picked to take on the role of the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in a seminar led by Professor Paul Scham. The scenario revolved around the 1937 Peel Commission, during which the British investigated unrest in pre-state Israel. Students there role played prominent Zionists, Arabs and Britons, arguing, debating and negotiating their historical figures’ points of view.

Scham, executive director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studes at UMD, said he intentionally tries to have students take on historical figures who don’t share the same heritage in order to spur discussion.

“I got into fights with my [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky all the time,” said Farooqi, laughing.

In investigating her role, she stumbled upon the book “David Ben-Gurion: In His Own Words” in the stacks of UMD’s McKeldin Library. She recalled poring over the short book, a compilation of Ben-Gurion’s thoughts on Zionism, Judaism and philosophy, late into the night. Ben-Gurion’s message of communal responsibility resonated with her.

“Zionism stopped being certain political consequences,” said Farooqi. “It started being this entire ideology of taking responsibility for ones people, and that’s something that really spoke to me.”

Scham, who taught Amna twice her freshman year, is not surprised by Farooqi’s election.

“Amna is surprising in the abstract,” he said. There are “a lot of students who aren’t Jewish who sympathize with Israel, but feel that the Palestinians need a fair shake as well, [so] certainly it’s unusual, but, knowing her, it isn’t.”

090415_farooqi2He added, “I think it shows a mature choice for J Street that puts non-Jews who strive for peace into leadership roles, even if they’re not Jewish.”

Her journey of discovery continued her sophomore year during a spring semester spent abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“I was meeting Israelis and Palestinians. I went into the West Bank a lot. I made Israeli friends. I wanted to actually understand.”

Inspired by her time in Israel and disheartened with the breakdown of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace talks, Farooqi threw herself into J Street U, first as a representative to the student board and then as a J Street U intern this past summer in Jerusalem, helping lead the Ta Shema tours.

Back at school, she’s taken a step back from student government, where she served as a representative of her college for three years, in order to focus on J Street U and being a teaching assistant to Yoram Peri, Jack Kay Professor of Israel Studies and director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.

Farooqi plans to return to Israel when she graduates this spring with a degree in Government and Politics and a minor in Israel Studies. She would love to go to graduate school at Hebrew University.

“I’m very, very scared that we’re getting to a point where it’s going to be impossible to be pro-Israel because pro-Israel will become synonymous with oppression,” she said. “And I want to do the work that keeps that from happening.”

Her ‘Hidden’ Agenda Italy’s only female rabbi is on a mission to expand the tribe

Rabbi Barbara Aiello says she wanted to be a rabbi from a young age.  “I was struck by the beauty of the Torah service.”

Rabbi Barbara Aiello says she wanted to be a rabbi from a young age.
“I was struck by the beauty of the Torah service.”

As Italy’s only female rabbi — as well as the country’s only non-Orthodox rabbi — Barbara Aiello has grown accustomed to a level of global renown. But in her home country, it can be hard to get respect.

The Pittsburgh native has been asked to leave synagogues in Florence and Rome for wearing a kippah, she said. She was ejected from a kosher shop in Milan for the same reason, she believes.

“I think that’s unconscionable for one Jew to do to another,” Aiello said of the evictions.

Aiello lives in a house in Serrastretta, Calabria — in the “toe” of Italy — that’s been in her family for 430 years. She was the first in her family to be born in the United States. She started traveling to Italy annually with her father in the 1970s and
decided to move for good in 2004.

After hearing Aiello conduct a memorial service in Italy for her brother- in-law, several people encouraged her to apply for an open rabbinic post at a Milanese synagogue. She held the position for two years.

“It was always my goal to get to the south of Italy,” she said.

There she searches for southern Italian anusim — those with “hidden” Jewish roots that date back to forced conversions during the Inquisition — and helps them better understand and connect to their roots.

On her website, Aiello writes that her efforts to help Italian families discover their Jewish heritage relates to the concept of l’dor v’dor, or “that special Jewish experience of ‘from generation to generation.’” The research is her passion, she said, because half of Calabria and Sicily was Jewish prior to the Inquisition, and she sees a hunger in those communities to know more about Judaism.

“The light in the soul has never died,” she said while visiting Washington, D.C., last month. “From the discovery of their Jewish roots, many want to embrace Judaism.”

Aiello supplements that research, and her broader efforts to create a more inclusive Italian Jewish community, by officiating at destination weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, baby namings, conversions and other ceremonies.

That Aiello, whose website notes that she “welcomes the opportunity to officiate and co-officiate for interfaith and nontraditional couples,” has ruffled Italian feathers isn’t hard to imagine. Italy’s Orthodox rabbinate holds a monopoly, according to Aiello, who as a non-Orthodox
rabbi is not permitted to legally marry couples in Italy. (She performs a symbolic service after the couples obtain their civil marriages.)

This summer, Aiello performed eight bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and trained the students, who hailed from Maryland, New Jersey, Boston and Vancouver, to read their Torah portions from her synagogue’s 18th-century scroll. She also officiated at a bar mitzvah at a historic synagogue in Croatia — its first bar mitzvah in 75 years — and named a baby from Singapore.

“That’s really how we stay alive financially,” she said of the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, which she founded and directs, and the 82-member Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, which she leads.

Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, has heard directly from Aiello on several occasions about being kicked out of the synagogues and store.

“Probably in Milan — not the yarmulke, but her being recognized as a Reform rabbi, arose that reaction,” he said. “Our behavior here in Rome is obviously different. There are several women with yarmulkes who show up in our synagogue when they visit Rome. I never forbid them to join the ezrat nashim,” Hebrew for the women’s section.

The rabbi acknowledged, however, that he doesn’t control the security officers or “their sometimes strange decisions.”

“The more common popular reaction here is of curiosity, not of rejection,” Di Segni said.

According to the rabbi, Aiello sparked “great interest and sympathy” when she arrived in Italy because she represented a “double new” as both a female rabbi and a progressive Jew. In Calabria, Di Segni said, there are very few “official” Jews and “an uncertain number of families who claim to be of marrano origin, as Barbara herself says about hers.” (Aiello said that her family fled persecution in Toledo, Spain, for Portugal, and then fled the Inquisition to Sicily and Morocco, and then to Italy.)

The “actual impact of Aiello’s activities is now limited to this kind of niche, with a very small influence on the general Jewish population and maybe even among the Reform groups,” he added.

Philip Balma, an associate professor of Italian literary and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut, said that Jewish Italians who are aware of Aiello’s work tend to see her as an “anomaly.”

“Although I have a lot of respect and admiration for the work she does, to my knowledge any sense of legitimacy she enjoys in Italy comes, at least originally, from her formation and contacts in the United States,” Balma said.

Aiello’s efforts to search for southern Italian anusim and to identify “hidden” members of the Jewish community is fascinating to academics, according to Balma. That research leads Aiello and two full-time colleagues through troves of 15th- and 16th-century documents, searching for Jewish names that may match the hidden Jews with their ancestors.

Aiello said that about 65,000 Jews lived in Italy prior to World War II, and the number now inscribed in the Jewish community ledgers is about 38,000. The official count, she said, only includes those who can document four Jewish grandparents.

“That number is decidedly low,” she said. “There would be many, many more people who would be Jewish if the Orthodox community allowed them to be.”

Asked how large the count would be if the hidden Jews were included, she said, “I think it would double, at least.”

Aiello said she wanted to be a rabbi from a young age, even in the absence of female rabbis at that time. She thinks the idea first occurred to her as a child seated in the women’s balcony.

“As I looked down I was struck by the beauty of the Torah service, especially at the hakafah, Torah procession,” she said. “Looking down from above it looked as though the Torah was dancing. I thought it was a Torah ballet. Even as a small child I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to be the leader of the Torah ballet.’”

Aiello became a teacher and a professional puppeteer before beginning rabbinic certification from Rabbinical Seminary International, at age 47, which she completed five years later.

After assuming her current rabbinical post, Aiello now finds herself clashing with the power of the Orthodox rabbinate, which the Italian government recognizes and which she thinks the Catholic Church doesn’t want to question.

“Italy is a bureaucratic nightmare on a good day,” she said.

Religious and bureaucratic potholes aside, Aiello is optimistic that progressive Judaism can help strengthen Jewish communities.

“I really believe that it’s an exciting time to be Jewish,” she said. “When we think that our numbers are dropping — actually, if we were to open the door and extend the hand of
Jewish welcome to b’nai anusim and to Jews of diverse backgrounds, we would see our numbers grow.”

Something for Everybody For area rabbis, a High Holiday sermon that resonates is the ultimate goal

Next to writing a dissertation, crafting an effective High Holiday sermon may seem like one of the more monumental achievements for any writer. But talk to rabbis from congregations of all sorts in Baltimore and it becomes apparent that they have it down to a science.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation uses a simple litmus test to determine whether a message will fly with his congregants or not.

“Someone should be able to summarize it in a sentence or two,” he said. “That is the underlying approach of whenever I do a talk.”

Yet, this task increases in difficulty with the onset of the High Holidays because many Jews who do not regularly attend synagogue throughout the year will show up. Sharff said this does not intimidate him.

“The size is immaterial,” he said. “It could be a size of two and you’re going to wrestle with the same question.”

090415_cover2Sharff typically begins thinking about which topics he will focus on during the preceding spring and into the summer. The actual writing process can take either hours, days or weeks, he said. Sharff said a good sermon must speak to congregants emotionally and intellectually while also motivating them to take up a cause of action.

“What I find really helps connect people is stories,” he said. “I want them to walk away feeling like they got good value.”

A common practice among many rabbis is to collect newspaper clippings and pieces of writing that stand out and may have relevance to the themes of the High Holidays.

Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation said the day after Yom Kippur he sets a folder aside for this purpose. He often turns to Torah commentaries for intellectual fuel.

“Sometimes a whole sermon can grow out of that,” he said.

It isn’t until the next summer that he really begins thinking about what the subject of his sermon will be. He compared this part of the process to organizing messages on a bulletin board and seeing which part of the board was the most full.

“I kind of work organically, and things sort of form themselves into topics,” he said.

Schwartz is going into his 18th year at Beth El and says there is no magic bullet to making a sermon resonate with a large group of congregants. But he notes that most of the themes of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lend themselves to multiple generations and are interchangeable. He said he will write all of his sermons out and then decide which one to give on each holiday one week prior.

090415_cover“Most High Holiday sermons you could give on either High Holiday,” he said.

Schwartz gave a Yom Kippur sermon last year focusing on the Book of Life in which he described how the modern-day higher-education system focuses on tangible results, such as getting a job, as opposed to simply making the experience formative for students. He explained that this is similar to the way in which people misinterpret the Book of Life as something that will ensure them a long life instead of a fulfilling one.

“You’re not praying for time, you’re praying for quality of life,” he said.

This year, Schwartz said one of his sermons will include the image of a cluttered desk and will present solutions for how to unclutter it.

While Schwartz gears his sermons for a general audience, Columbia Jewish Congregation’s Rabbi Sonya Starr will often direct each sermon at a particular segment of the population.

“It says on Mount Sinai God spoke to everybody the words they needed to hear. I’m not God,” she said.

This year, Starr will give six sermons between the two holidays and the intervening Shabbat. One of her Rosh Hashanah sermons will take a more Jewish text-based approach that is intended for an older crowd, and another will focus on current events. For the last two years she has devoted one of her sermons to race relations.

“For me it’s about trying to find something for everybody throughout the High Holiday period,” she said.

Starr will also sometimes write a sermon that focuses on an issue specific to her congregation, such as the one she gave last year on CJC’s dues structure.

“When I gave that sermon last year, that was very particular to our community,” she said.

Starr said she does not start thinking about sermon topics as early as some rabbis.

“I probably begin thinking and reading about it around Passover,” she said. “It’s usually part of my Omer.”

Starr said she formulates ideas during her summer vacation and is ready to write by the time she returns in August. In addition to readings, many of her ideas come from conversations with congregants.

“It’s much more of an experiential experience than it is an intellectual one,” she said.

Despite months of planning, rabbis sometimes make last-minute decisions to change the topic of their sermon based on recent events.

As a rabbinical student in 2001, Sharff had prepared four sermons prior to the High Holidays but ended up rewriting all of them after the 9/11 attacks that year.

Two years ago, Sharff had prepared a Kol Nidre sermon entitled “Can you see God in Camden Yards” but instead decided to share stories that were much more personal from the past year.

“Three people that were important to me had died of cancer,” he said. “It just ended up being one of the most profound sermons I’ve ever given.”

Sharff said this year he plans to give one sermon on tikkun olam and another focusing on current events in Israel.

“That sermon is not written until the last minute because things are always changing,” he said of the latter one.

Not all rabbis choose to focus on current events, preferring to avoid controversial topics that might spark disagreement such as the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. But Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation said he plans to discuss the deal in one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons.

“To me, there is no issue that’s more important to discuss with the Jewish community,” he said. “The very security of the State of Israel is at stake.”

Wohlberg said his purpose in discussing the deal in a sermon is to educate congregants about the issues and recognize that there are differences of opinion. He said the deal is “the most loaded issue in recent memory” and to not talk about it would be “absurd.”

“This is one that is putting the U.S. and Israel in a conflict, and that’s not a comfortable position for anybody,” he said.

Wohlberg said he understands that many rabbis choose not to discuss politics on the High Holidays but asserts that any issue involving Israel should not be categorized as “political.”

“I think a lot of [rabbis] are just afraid to take a stand because there are people in their congregation who don’t agree with them, but it’s not for me to say,” he said.

Wohlberg gives three sermons each year including one of “Jewish interest,” one focusing on world events and one that is more personal. He said congregants generally give him positive feedback.

If my sermon makes someone think, even if they disagree with what I’m arguing for, for me it was a good sermon.

“They always like it, they come back for more,” he said. “They don’t always agree, although for the most part they generally do.”

Wohlberg, like the others, starts giving serious thought to his sermons during the summer with the process being completed one month before the holidays. He said there have only been a couple of occasions when he changed a speech entirely, but he is a thorough editor.

“I’m always making changes and additions and subtractions, and that doesn’t stop until the day before,” he said.

There is a fine line between a sermon and a lecture, and that is something Rabbi Ronald Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation takes into account when writing. Shulman said he tries to make sure he chooses topics that are from the heart.

“My conviction comes from my personal connections to a topic, from my personal experience, from sharing in life moments with others and from my learning and reflection,” he said.

Shulman admits that a good sermon does have a point of view but said the purpose is not to get everyone in the congregation on board as long as they understand the main point.

“If my sermon makes someone think, even if they disagree with what I’m arguing for, for me it was a good sermon,” he said.

Shulman said his High Holiday sermons attempt to address rebuilding society through strengthening personal relationships.

“I am focused on two things,” he said. “First is our responsibility to respond to the need for social justice and human dignity in our Baltimore region.

“Second is to take the opportunity we have to grow with each other in our understandings of Jewish identity toward more active engagement in Jewish life and learning.”

Shulman added that he also plans to offer commentary on Israel’s position in the world, although it will not address the Iran deal directly.

The idea of speaking in front of a large congregation may seem intimidating and even rabbis such as Starr, who has been with CJC for 16 years, admits that a High Holiday sermon makes her pause and think about the weight her words will have.

“We are given an incredibly awe-provoking task to speak things that are meaningful,” she said. “How would I not take a deep breath and realize the task before me.”

Schwartz said he recognizes that some sermons will resonate more than others, but it is impossible to please everyone.

“You give it your best shot, and you hope it goes well,” he said.

Wohlberg has been at Beth Tfiloh since 1978 and said if he absolutely had to, he could give a sermon tomorrow.

“Now I feel like I’m talking in my living room,” he said. “I feel very connected with the congregation.”

Will He or Won’t He? On Iran deal, both sides are counting on New Jersey senator

When Congress votes on the Iran Deal, Sen. Cory Booker (center) will be thrust into the spotlight.

When Congress votes on the Iran Deal, Sen. Cory Booker (center) will be thrust into the spotlight.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) finds himself in the unenviable position of being caught between his president and his friend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

As a rising star in the Democratic Party, Booker likely is being counted on by President Barack Obama to ensure that his promised presidential veto of a resolution rejecting the Iran nuclear deal is sustained in the Senate. Meanwhile, Booker has been the focus of digital, print and broadcast advertisements urging the New Jersey senator to reject the deal.

Booker has close ties to Obama and stands with the president on most issues, but he is also a friend to Jewish leaders — he’s known for giving an impressive d’var — who stand adamantly opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, Boteach most vocal among them.

Boteach has repeatedly called out his longtime friend in opinion pieces, writing in The Observer, “a senator who has enjoyed one of the warmest relationships with the Jewish community of any elected official in American history would never betray the Jewish community.”

Most recently, Boteach stood with other Jewish leaders at the Chabad House at Rutgers University as New Jersey’s Republican governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie declared his opposition to the Iran deal and called on Booker to do the same.

“For Sen. Booker this morning, the people of your state, the people of this country and the people of the world are counting on you to be a strong, direct and powerful moral voice,” said Christie. He told Booker to “look our president in the eye and say, ‘No Mr. President. Not this time.’”

New Jersey’s other senator, Bob Menendez, and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York are the only two Senate Democrats to come out against the deal.

Typically, the junior senator follows the lead of the senior senator if they’re of the same party, explained Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group and former foreign policy adviser to the late Frank Lauten-berg, whose Senate seat Booker now occupies; however, with this vote, senators are striking out on their own, as was demonstrated in New York when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came out for the deal just before Schumer came out opposed.

Booker’s constituents include a large number of Jews, Muslims and others who are passionate about the Middle East, Rubin noted.

“The pressure is on the senators to come out now rather than at the last minute,” said Rubin. “Sen. Booker is going to have to feel confident enough in his position to be able to explain it to everyone, and if he’s not, then he should take more time.”

The “soul friends,” as Boteach has often called them, met more than two decades ago when the two were at Oxford University, where Boteach served as a Chabad emissary and Booker attended as a Rhodes Scholar. Booker eventually became president of the school’s L’Chaim Society and continued a close relationship with the rabbi, even spending one summer living with Boteach and his family.

Despite the public and private pressure — though he wouldn’t go into specifics, Boteach said the two had talked about Iran “going back to the beginnings of the [nuclear] discussions” — Boteach doesn’t seem concerned about the state of their friendship. He noted that he and Booker’s shared personal hero, Martin Luther King Jr., “brought about the second American revolution. He didn’t do so just by private conversation and private phone calls.”

“It’s not an impact on our friendship. We’re soul friends. There’s a deep love,” said Boteach, who after leaving Oxford became a celebrity rabbi, authoring several popular books and hosting television shows, as well as a pro-Israel advocate and one-time Republican congressional candidate. “This is about policy. It’s not personal.”

He continued, “My job is to stand up for my people, and Cory understands that.”

Booker, for his part, is keeping a tight lid publicly on how he will vote.

“Sen. Booker will make his decision on the Iran deal based upon what he believes is best for America’s national security regardless of political pressure, lobbying, or theatrics,” his press secretary, Silvia Alvarez, said in an email. “The senator’s decision will be derived from thorough and thoughtful analysis of all the facts,
evidence and information as well as from consultation with a wide and diverse array of experts.”

Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on the deal.

“I don’t believe for a second that he’ll vote for this deal,” said Boteach. “I know Cory will stand up against Iran.”

High Holidays for All Reform Temple’s free services, held at Owings Mills High School, started more than a decade ago

Susan Dudley (Photo Provided)

Susan Dudley (Photo Provided)

Susan Dudley’s family goes way back in American Reform Judaism. Her family on her mother’s side was here before the American Revolution, when she believes there were only 500 Jewish people in the whole country, and they fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They were involved in the founding of early Reform institutions, including Owings Mills’ Har Sinai Congregation.

But in 1999, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed its Statement of Principles, Dudley noticed a change in her beloved Reform synagogue. She found that ritual was being valued over spirituality; she found the result to be empty and lacking meaning.

After a few years of celebrating the High Holidays at home by herself, Dudley took matters into her own hands and wound up building her own congregation. More than a decade later, the Reform Temple has grown from 100 people to more than 1,000 that come out for High Holiday services that Dudley said emphasizes the meaning of the holidays and are free and open to all.

This year’s Rosh Hashanah service is on Monday, Sept. 14, from 11 a.m. to noon, and this year’s Yom Kippur service is on Wednesday, Sept. 23, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Both services are at Owings Mills High School at 124 S. Tollgate Road.

“When [Har Sinai’s former] Rabbi Schusterman used to hold up the Torah and say, ‘Behold a good doctrine has been given unto you, forsake it not, its way are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace,’ I really thought that the doctrine he talked about was classical Reform Judaism,” Dudley said. “I believe that classical Reform Judaism is a way of living in a mindful way and being conscious of the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind.”

After the changes in the late 1990s, Dudley set out to do her own thing. She held her first High Holiday services at Grey Rock Mansion in Pikesville. Unsure if she would get even enough people for a minyan, she rented the smallest room she could find. But when 100 people showed up, the service was moved to the mansion’s ballroom, where people still stood on steps and on a patio since the room was packed.

The Reform Temple, which Dudley later incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, found a home at Pikesville High School. But as the school undergoes renovations, the services are being held at Owings Mills High for the second year in a row.

She aims for the services to be easy to digest — they’re only an hour long and mostly in English, something she thinks injects meaning into the service for people who don’t know what all the prayers mean.

“In my service, the only Hebrew is the Shema and the Kaddish. It’s all responsive reading and it’s all in English so that people understand it,” she said. “People who have been Jewish all their lives love my service because they have no idea this is what we’re saying.

“They were just repeating meaningless syllables. I just think Judaism has so much to offer,” she added. “I think it’s such a wonderful, wonderful religion. I think if people really knew what it said, we’d be converting people without even trying.”

She concludes her Rosh Hashanah services with the singing of “Ein Keloheinu” and “God Bless America,” which she notes was written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin, to recognize the beauty of the United States, where Jews are free to practice their religion.

While Dudley never expected she would be anchoring High Holiday services, she said she’s following in her ancestors’ footsteps.

“We are not spectators in life. We have been active Jews, and the way we conduct ourselves I believe is Jewishly because we know what it is [to be Jewish],” she said.

“I don’t know where this is going, [but] I know where it’s going now is good.”

Grounded! American Airlines cancels Philadelphia-Tel Aviv route

The last American Airlines flight out of Philadelphia will be on Jan.4.

The last American Airlines flight out of Philadelphia will be on Jan.4.

PHILADELPHIA — Getting a nonstop flight to Israel from the Mid-Atlantic region will become a lot more challenging come 2016.

American Airlines announced late last month that it will no longer operate nonstop service between Philadelphia International Airport and Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as of January.

“Although the route has been a source of pride for American since 2009, the route has operated year-round for six years and has yet to turn a profit,” according to a statement from the company. “The fact of the matter is that PHL TLV has not performed well since its inception. We lost more than $20 million in the past year alone, and that was after repeated annual losses. The sole reason we are canceling this route is because of poor financial results.”

The final flight to Israel from Philadelphia will be on Jan. 4, 2016, with the last return flight on Jan. 5, 2016.

For years, the route was operated with U.S. Airways aircraft. But the airline, which began passenger service in 1949 as the Pittsburgh-based All American Airways before rebranding as Allegheny Airlines four years later, merged with American in 2013. Last year, the last U.S. Airways livery was removed from planes, gates and terminals, including at the former U.S. Airways hub of Philadelphia.

A report in the Israeli online business publication, The Marker, disputes American Airlines’ claim that it has been hemorrhaging money on the route. In an Aug. 23 article by Rina Rozenberg and Zohar Blumenkrantz titled, “Sources: American Airlines dropped Israel route to deepen ties with Arab carriers,” the authors write that the airline’s relationship with Arab carriers such as Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian and Malaysia Airlines through the OneWorld alliance is the real reason for the route cancellation.

The article quoted an anonymous industry source as saying, “Profitability wasn’t a problem. The past year hasn’t been easy for the airline industry in general, but that’s far from saying that the route wasn’t profitable. No one would have operated a money-losing route for so many years.”

Jill Dressler also believes there was more to the decision than American is letting on. The Fort Washington, Pa., resident, who visits her stepson, his children and her brother and sister-in-law often in Israel, said this cancellation has nothing to do with money.

“My own personal life is going to be affected by this dramatically,” she said. “I think we have to get together and make American Airlines realize this can’t happen. I think it’s anti-Semitic.”

Dressler contacted her elected officials, and state Sen. Richard Alloway, a Republican whose district includes the Reading area, connected her with Rhett Workman, the managing director of government and airport affairs at the airline. In an email to Dressler, Workman reiterated the company’s position that this decision was made after a great deal of financial analysis and research.

“While we can maintain losses for a period of time, continued loss without the possibility of profit is detrimental to our shareholders and the company,” Workman said. “Appreciating Israel’s place in the world and the challenges it faces, we were adamant in all our communications that this was a financial decision and we were not politically pressured in any way.

“I realize on your flights you did not see empty seats, but that is not always indicative of the profitability of a route. Unfortunately, this is a situation that what one sees is not the fiscal reality.”

Betsy Diamant-Cohen, whose husband, Stuart Diamant-Cohen, is the greater Washington and Virginia director of the Jewish National Fund, was on the American Airlines flight to Israel on Aug. 25. The couple usually fly this route once or twice a year.

“Frankly, I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in the future,” her husband said. “I assume someone will come out with a new alternative. I’m sure there’s profit in it for an airline to step in. I would love to put a plug in for a route from Baltimore because that would cover more of the Washington market.”

Barry Bogage, the executive director of Maryland/Israel Development Center, also is disappointed.

“I like that route,” he said, adding that now he will either have to take a train to the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey or fly to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City before flying to Israel.

Michael Alexander, the director of governmental affairs and press at the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, said the consulate, while not pleased with the decision, would press forward.

“A huge share of business activity between Israel and the U.S. passes through the Philadelphia ports, and termination of that flight might impact that valuable traffic,” Alexander said. “While the new logistical reality of commuting from Israel to Philadelphia will be, in light of this decision, slightly more challenging, it is by no means insurmountable. The commitment of the consulate to continue enhancing already strong existing business ties between Israel and the Mid-Atlantic Region remains as strong as ever.”

Community First Howard County Federation seeks to boost millennial involvement

Laurie and Brian Avrunin are the co-chairs of Jew Year’s Eve. (Provided)

Laurie and Brian Avrunin are the co-chairs of Jew Year’s Eve. (Provided)

On Sept. 10, the Jewish Federation of Howard County will host its Jew Year’s Eve event to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and launch its newest giving level, the Chai Society, at the Gudelsky Center Howard County Conservancy.

“You spend the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah with family, so we thought it would be a wonderful idea to spend one night with Jewish friends to celebrate the New Year,” said Laurie Avrunin, who is a co-chair of Jew Year’s Eve along with her husband, Brian.

The event and the Chai Society are part the Federation’s efforts to encourage more young families and millennials in Howard County to get involved with the community, according to Rachael Simon, committee chair for the Federation’s young adult division, oxyGEN.

“We want people to come out, participate in our events and meet new people,” said Jeremy Goldman, chair-elect of the oxyGEN committee. “In the past, we were suggesting large donations that were out of reach for millennials. Now, we’re trying to make it a lot more than just writing a check.”

Goldman said the difficulty of getting people involved in the community is rooted in constraints that people face with time and money.

“In the past, [the Federation] was very focused on fundraising. Now, we’re doing more programming like Jew Year’s Eve,” said Goldman. “Instead of asking for money on the first contact, we’re trying to build the community first.”

I think it’s important for [my children] to see their parents giving back to others in the community and I hope it’s something they’ll do when they grow up.

Simon echoed Goldman’s sentiment and added that many people move to Howard County for things such as the school system but have the challenge of figuring out how to incorporate Judaism into their lives. That’s where the Federation is hoping to help.

The name of the giving level, Chai Society, came up after the oxyGEN committee decided what a reasonable gift by millennials would be, according to Simon. In the spirit of the Jewish tradition of giving in multiples of 18, the committee decided on $180 annually, differentiating the Chai Society from the national Ben-Gurion Society, which requires $1,000 annually.

While the Federation is encouraging young people to get involved, the millennials organizing and leading the efforts all have their personal motivations for staying active in the community. Simon, whose husband is from Baltimore, has lived in Howard County for 10 years and was originally active in a women’s leadership group at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“It’s important to me to be involved in the Jewish community,” said Simon. “It came from my upbringing; my parents were very involved, and now I have children.”

Goldman started to get involved six years ago by joining the board of directors at his children’s preschool, Bet Yeladim.

After his children graduated, he began looking for other ways to stay active in the community.

“I think it’s important for [my children] to see their parents giving back to others in the community, and I hope it’s something they’ll do when they grow up,” said Goldman.

Avrunin echoed all of her colleague’s motivations.

“I want my children to grow up knowing that they are surrounded by the love of the Jewish people and values that we have,” said Avrunin. “I grew up with Jewish values and went to religious school; my parents were very dedicated to Judaism. They made sure that we had Jewish values, and I want to do that for my own children.”

Avrunin hopes that participants at Jew Year’s Eve leave the event feeling a greater sense of community.

“I hope people walk away and feel how many Jewish people surround us in Howard County,” said Avrunin. “I hope people walk away and say, I hope we do this every year; I hope this becomes an annual tradition.’”


Jew Year’s Eve
September 10, 2015
7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Gudelsky Center Howard County Conservancy
10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock, MD 21163

To purchase tickets, visit

For information, contact Meghann Schwartz, or
410-730-4976 x106.