We All Are Immigrants

Kevin Kamenetz

For Jews, the issue of immigration is deeply personal. In 1905, my grandfather arrived in this country at the age of 18. His name was David Kamenetz. He emigrated from the town of Zagar (now in Russia) to escape czarist persecution. He came here to work hard and live in freedom.

Grandpa settled in Jewish Baltimore and became a tailor. As a “greenhorn,” he married my grandmother, Dora Singer, and together they raised four children. He later brought over his siblings and his parents and gave them a home too.

Grandpa lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and operated Kay’s Tailors in Hamilton near the county line. He had some struggles but never lost faith in our country. He faced bigotry firsthand when he was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. But he remained always optimistic. He paid his taxes and obeyed the laws. He attended shul without fear of persecution, and we were all raised Jewish.

Grandpa taught us to love this country’s opportunities. He taught us by example that if we worked hard in America we could achieve our goals. We believed him because we knew that when he first arrived, he had less than a dollar in his pocket, a lot of hope and knew not a word of English.

I thought of Grandpa when President Donald Trump issued a poorly planned and sloppily executed executive order. The president imposed a religious test for immigrants, a Muslim ban. It didn’t matter that you were to enter this country legally. The result was chaos.

As Jews, we know in our bones what it is like to be discriminated against because of our religion. That is why my grandfather left czarist Russia. We also remember how when the shadow of the Shoah was falling across Europe, Jewish refugees were desperate to escape Hitler’s clutches but were turned away from America by bigoted immigration laws. We know how our own tradition speaks to us, many times in the Torah, to not mistreat or oppress a foreigner “for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We were taught, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

Grandpa never became a citizen; for his whole life he filed his papers as a “resident alien” in the land of Maryland. But because of the opportunity he was granted to earn his way, his four children and 14 grandchildren were allowed to become productive citizens.

The precipitous actions of Trump remind us of the pharaohs who act arrogantly without consultation with others and rule by diktat as if they are a law unto themselves. Trump’s Muslim ban affronts the very values of the Constitution that make us proud to be Americans. This country’s Founding Fathers were united in the belief that America’s pluralism would be its north star, the very refuge that Thomas Paine wrote would be for the “persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.”

Beginning in early colonial days, for more than 350 years, generations of immigrants have arrived on our shores and built the strongest nation in the world. It makes our culture rich and our economy strong.

Every American family has a David Kamenetz, an immigrant ancestor. This is what unites us. This is our story. This is who we are and why we must remain true to our values. And this is why I cry out now and denounce Trump’s assault on our liberty. As Jews, we must lift our voices in defense of these immigrants. This is who we are as a people. This is who I am as the grandson of David Kamenetz.

Kevin Kamenetz is an Owings Mills resident and the Baltimore County Executive.

Tilling the Educational Soil

Joshua Runyan

A Talmudic story relates the power of forward-thinking combined with self-sacrifice: Choni HaMa’agal was walking down the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long does it take for the tree to bear fruit?” he asked the man. The man replied that it would take 70 years.

“Are you certain that you will live another 70 years?” Choni asked the man.

The man’s response was a quintessentially Jewish one. He had seen carob trees already grown. “Just as my forefathers planted those for me,” he said, “so too I plant these for my children.”

Beyond planting trees, there’s plenty that we, joined together as a community, do without any promise of reward in the physical world. We raise children, but more importantly, we strive to educate them.

Reaching well past the carob tree marker of time, Baltimore’s own Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim — Talmudical Academy is turning 100, a milestone its founder, Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz, might have been sure would come but of which he knew he would not see in a physical sense. That early investment of effort, nurtured in the years that followed by generations of families and teachers, has clearly borne fruit.

And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, a much-needed expansion of the school will bear even more.

“The legacy is what people are so proud of,” Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, the school’s executive director, said. “We have over 50 students documented who are third-generation TA, some students who are fourth generation.”

“That just doesn’t happen in other schools,” he continued. “You have families that are a part of the Baltimore community and just intricately woven into the history of TA, families that have watched us grow and flourish and have been a part of it.”

That’s all certainly true, but TA’s success as a community institution also speaks volumes on the potential of other schools and yet-to-be-founded institutions. It’s no secret that parts of Jewish Baltimore have, in the last few years, been experiencing a growth spurt fueled by the arrival of families from New York and elsewhere seeking a lower cost of living without skimping on educational excellence. TA is a major part of that story, but its example is a universal one.

“A Jewish education is the fundamental component of the future of the Jewish people,” explained Ari Krupp, a TA father and former chairman of its executive board. “It is our responsibility to give our children the best education possible.”

The fruits may take a generation to mature, but the trees TA and other institutions continue to plant here in Baltimore are changing the world.


The Rich Man Is Merely the Poor Man’s Agent Parshat Mishpatim

How can we ensure that Jewish ideals — such as protecting the downtrodden and most vulnerable people in our society — emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives? Our weekly portion, Mishpatim, in addressing the issue of lending, provides an insight to this question and sheds light on the core biblical values of compassion and empathy.

“When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him” (Exodus 22:24).

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in a brilliant illumination, beautifully explains this passage in his commentary, Ohr HaHayyim, which enables us to understand this difficult character change. In an ideal world, he teaches, there ought to be no rich and no poor, no lenders and no borrowers; everyone should receive from the Almighty exactly what they require to live.

But, in His infinite wisdom, this is not the manner in which the Lord created the world. He provides certain individuals with excess funds, expecting them to help those who have insufficient funds, appointing them His cashiers or ATMs, or agents in the world. Hence, we must read the verse as, “If you have extra funds to lend to my nation — which should have gone to the poor person, but are now with you through G-d’s largesse — therefore, you were merely given the poor person’s money in trust, and those extra funds that are you “lending him” actually belong to him.”

If you understand this fundamental axiom — that the rich person is actually holding the poor person’s money in trust as an agent of the Divine — then everything becomes clear. Certainly, the lender may not act as a creditor, because she is only giving the poor man what is in actuality his.

This is the message of the exodus from Egypt: No individual ought ever be owned by or even indebted to another individual. We are all owned by and must be indebted only to God. This essential truth is the foundation of our traditional legal system, which is uniquely just and equitable. It is especially considerate of the needs of the downtrodden and enslaved, the poor and the infirm, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the convert, the “chained wife” and the indigent forced to sell their land. From this perspective, not only must we submit to Jewish law, but it is crucial that our judges be certain that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Trump: Baal Shem Ra

I heartily applaud and echo the Feb. 17 Your Say letters of Buddy Sapolsky (“Respect for Others”) and Howard Kahn (“Surviving Trump”). Both, however, lacked any conspicuous Jewish — let alone Judaic — optic to their criticism of America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, a glaring omission in a Jewish communal publication. I am delighted to remedy that lacuna.

According to Baba Metziah 58b (and its amplification in Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:14), any individual who engages in one of the following three behaviors abides in Gehenna (hell) forever: one who commits adultery with a married woman; one who pins a derogatory (nick)name upon another; and one who publicly shames another. Donald J. Trump has engaged — multiple times — in all three. Call it the Trump trifecta of Torah transgression.

Character counts.

Putting aside Trump’s support for torture, religious discrimination and abusive sexual behavior, let alone his disparagement of the disabled and his campaign’s embrace of frog avatar white supremacists, as the master of the personal insult and defamation of character, The Donald, in his contempt for any semblance of tzeniyus (modesty) and egregious lack of midos (qualities of character), automatically forfeits the support of any authentic and knowledgeable, let alone observant, Jew. In spectacular contrast to the founder of Chasidism, Trump is the Baal Shem Ra.

One more thing. Regarding his (six) business bankruptcies: Halachah does not recognize bankruptcy and thus considers it to be theft.
Sapolsky and Kahn are very much on target: As a role model for what it means to be a good American, from a rabbinic perspective, one is forced to conclude, bigly, about the 45th president: “Very Dishonest, Sad” (source: @realDonald J. Trump).

H. Klaff and Co. Deserves Recognition

As members of the Hettleman family, we enjoyed reading about our family history in the JT’s Feb. 3 cover story “More Than Junk … It’s Scrap!” However, we discovered a glaring and significant omission in the article.

The fact is, no article about the history of the scrap industry in Baltimore can be complete without including Harry Klaff, founder of H. Klaff and Co., and his family: son Jerry Klaff, sons-in-law Marvin Plant, Irvin Davison and Harold Effron and their successors, Morton (Sonny) Plant, Arnold Plant, Richard Klaff, Robert Davison and Barry Effron. Morton Plant rose to become a national and international leader in the industry.

H. Klaff and Co. specialized in accumulating and trading in stainless steel scrap and, later, high-temperature alloys. One of the largest scrap companies locally and nationally, it was recognized as a national leader in its specialization and stayed that way for many, many years.

We want to make sure their integral position is included in the Baltimore history. They were our colleagues in business and dear friends.

HIAS Should Return to Its Roots

Imagine you are an impoverished religious Jew living in Paris. You can no longer wear religious garb out of fear of being set upon by assailants from North Africa who will beat you to within an inch of your life, if not take it. Your children are bullied in school, as their teachers ignore their complaints and might even take perverse satisfaction in their plight.

Even though French political figures make speeches condemning anti-Semitism and police are routinely sent to protect Jewish institutions, the anti-Semitism grows on the body politic with the onslaught of migrants from Muslim-majority countries who carry anti-Semitism with them as part of their cultural and religious socialization.

When immigrant mothers are angry at their children, they unabashedly call them “Jews” as if it were an invective, not caring who hears.

In 2014, a survey of 1,580 French respondents found that Muslims, who comprised one-third of the interviewees, were two to three times more likely to be anti-Jewish than French people generally.

You too would like to leave France, but you don’t want to go to Israel, where the standard of living is more down to earth than luxurious, where there is terrorism and a state of siege and where the language is difficult to learn.

Who will help you? In your grandmother’s day, there was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — the one and only agency that, with the help of private contributions, came to the aid of European Jews.

But the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of your grandmother’s day no longer exists. It has dropped the “Hebrew” and has become simply HIAS, avoiding the word Hebrew because its clients are no longer Jewish, although the last fundraising letter I received flaunted painful scenes of Jews trying to escape Europe on the eve of World War II.

The Jewish roots of HIAS go back to rescuing Jews from the Russian pogroms of the 19th century. Its role as a lifeline for Jews who had nobody else to help them is prominently displayed in its fundraising pitched to Jews, but the word Hebrew might “offend” the Muslim refugees from the Middle East that HIAS is now busy resettling in America.

No longer headquartered in New York, HIAS has moved to the Washington Beltway to be near its new source of funding — the federal government.

Refugee resettlement is big business, so much so that it is difficult to parse whether the emphasis is on doing well or doing good.

HIAS is the only “Jewish” organization approved by the federal government to resettle refugees, but it is a small player compared with the other religious and secular organizations in the business of refugee resettlement.

Still, CEO Mark Hetfield, in 2014, commanded a salary of more than $318,000, plus $22,000 in benefits. In the eight years of the Obama administration, HIAS received funds exceeding $157 million, most of which came from the federal government. A small percentage of this funding is used to lobby the public at the grassroots level and to lobby legislators. Consequently, members of the American public pay for HIAS to convince them, and their elected representatives, to continue to sustain HIAS refugee programs with tax dollars.

There are 65 million displaced people in the world, so this is not a business that is going away. And after 120 days, when organizations like HIAS that bring in refugees can no longer support them and they have not found employment, the resettlement organizations take them to the local welfare office. The majority of Middle Eastern refugees are on some form of assistance, with 90 percent getting food stamps, 73 percent getting medical assistance and some 63 percent receiving outright cash welfare. Middle Eastern refugees cost the American taxpayer more than $64,000 per person.

Now HIAS, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, is suing the Trump administration over its travel ban. From his lofty perch, Hetfield is lecturing the American public on how refugee resettlement is the fulfillment of American values. This hectoring earned Hetfield a place on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” where he was asked to explain what values are being celebrated by bringing in refugees. He could not remotely articulate what those values are.

In my value system, there are Jews throughout Europe who are living lives all too reminiscent of the pogroms that gave birth to HIAS. Yet, HIAS does nothing for them. Half the Jews of Malmo, Sweden — a favorite destination of Muslim immigrants — have found life there intolerable and have left. HIAS was not there to help.

European Jews will not qualify for refugee status as it is currently defined. The American government will not provide grants to assist them. But they are condemned to lives filled with ongoing terror. The difference between the pogroms of Russia and the violence against Jews in Paris is that in France, the government still attempts to protect Jews.

But as the percentage of Muslims increases in France and throughout Europe, the pogroms launched by them — like the locking of Jews in a synagogue — will get worse. Maybe next time, the mob will burn the synagogue as the French gendarmes are overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers.

It’s time for HIAS to rediscover its roots. If it is concerned about rescuing the most victimized of people, it should begin with the Jews of Europe who are eager to escape the anti-Semitism of Islam and for whom there is no help in the West. The organization should do this even though there are no government subsidies for these people and, perhaps, no lofty salaries in the offing.

When that is done, I will be most pleased to be lectured not only about American values, but also Jewish values. And my grandmother and mother, who fled the pogroms of Russia, would have been proud of such a version of HIAS.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. This article was provided by JNS.org.

A School Protects Its Children

The first impulse of most institutions when confronted by an accusation of child abuse by one of its staff is to squelch it. High-profile examples include the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, the widespread abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the accusation that administrators of Yeshiva University High School in New York City covered up abuse for decades.

In the Pittsburgh Jewish community, there have been four cases in the last six years involving suspected child molestation. But according to Det. Bryan Sellers of the city’s Bureau of Police Sex Assault Team, he was not able to make a case against the suspected pedophiles because the institutions involved declined to cooperate with police.

That changed when Yeshiva Boys School of Pittsburgh chose not to be the fifth such institution. As a result, when Rabbi Nisson Friedman, 26, a since-dismissed teacher, was suspected of sexually assaulting at least three boys while employed by the school, Yeshiva’s response was “exemplary,” according to Sellers.

As reported this week by The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times, the first thing Yeshiva did was get Friedman — who is well-connected in the local Jewish community and is the son of an influential Minnesota-based rabbi — out of the school and call the police. No circling the wagons, no stonewalling and no apparent hesitancy. “They have been accommodating law enforcement, and they have been providing spots at the school to conduct interviews [relative to the case],” Sellers said.

When the school first heard about the suspected abuse, it also informed school families. Last month, it held a meeting to update the school community on the investigation. The school also called Deborah Fox, the founder of Magen Yeladim, a national organization that works to prevent child abuse through education. She recommended that school leadership call Child Protective Services and advised the school to get an attorney.

Fox was impressed by what she saw. She called Yeshiva “exemplary and a model for how a school should handle a very dramatic situation.” Part of the reason the school responded as it did was because administrators undergo annual training in their legal responsibilities.

“It is unfortunately sad, but it is what it is, and we have to protect our children,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of Yeshiva Boys School. “The safety of our children is paramount.”

That’s the simple truth. Another truth that institutions and communities, including right here in Baltimore, must recognize is that this is, unfortunately, a problem that isn’t going to go away. So when it does happen, knowing how to respond will greatly contribute to the safety of our children.

The Mideast Can’t Live ‘With Either One’

In his month in office, President Donald Trump has challenged several longstanding American policies, only to back off later. The result has been to leave unclear exactly what American policy is toward China, Russia or NATO, among other things.

Last week, at his news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seemed to back away from America’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said. “I can live with either one.”

As anyone who has followed the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent decades knows, the two-state solution became official U.S. policy under President George W. Bush, and it has been the basis for peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords in President Bill Clinton’s time. Israel was born as a result of the United Nations’ two-state plan in 1947 partitioning what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. And while the other side didn’t accept the compromise then, it is generally considered the best way today to reach a solution that will allow two nations to live side by side in one land.

Jewish organizations from AIPAC to the American Jewish Committee endorse the two-state solution. And it has been the stated objective of virtually every international body or government that has joined in discussion of the issue. So, if the United States’ position on the issue has changed — thereby inevitably redirecting the focus of Middle East regional and international discussion of the issue — that is very significant. The problem is that what Trump said and what his White House thinks may not be the same thing. Trump’s seeming acceptance of a one-state option was followed a day later by his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Hayley, restating U.S. support of a two-state solution, although acknowledging that the administration was “thinking out of the box as well.”

Fresh ideas are always welcome, especially now when many of the old approaches seem to have run their course. Indeed, there are a number of plans circulating that would build trust among the parties, that would synchronize steps to an agreement and that would focus on borders and security first and only tackle the “narrative issues” of national identity when the two sides are ready. But all these ideas are premised on there being an Israel and a Palestine at the end of the process.

So what is U.S. policy now toward Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? Does anyone in the administration even know? A vacuum in American policy is not good for the region. Remember the Obama administration’s fitful and cautious involvement in Syria? That lack of clear policy was almost universally regarded as weakness. How much more confusion will be sown by an incoherent non-policy seemingly launched with the speed and forethought of a tweet?

People of the Book David Simon’s Baltimore

David Simon (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Were you at Beth Am Synagogue last Kol Nidrei, you would have seen David Simon standing at the Aron with his young daughter and all the other new members with last names starting with S through Z. Two feet to his left was another burly Jew, a foot shorter, his jaw on the floor. Except on Monday, I never again saw David Simon at Beth Am, so I think I’m safe — this column’s readers makes “The Wire’s” original audience look like “MASH’s.”

David Simon is what passes for an A-list celebrity in Baltimore. When The Wire was on, nobody watched it. After it went off, many called it the greatest show ever. I think The Wire deserves neither fate. I’m the only Baltimorean who hasn’t binge-watched it, but from the 20ish episodes I watched, it’s a very good show whose preachiness disguises a police procedural. It’s funny, has great characters, but not as insightful as fans think.

It’s worse than fans think, better than fans deserve. It insists affluent whites recognize plights of people they’d never acknowledge, but gives them a prurient view for which they congratulate themselves. When radical-chic fans turned on Simon for decrying the 2015 riots, he reaped what he sowed.

“The Wire’s” subject is the modern city’s mechanisms — characters exist as cogs in that machine. I’m amazed its characters are interesting because individuality in “The Wire” is present to show how it’s crushed, and every personality becomes what the system demands of him (and why are there so few women?) Those who cannot adapt self-destruct. If that’s the way the world is, then a show criticizing the system wouldn’t find an audience, so why do millions love “The Wire”?

And what system does The Wire rail against? Is it capitalism? Bureaucracy? All I’m sure of is that it hates “the system.” Ideologues see “systems” as the problem, not the messy humans who invent and maintain them. I even wonder if Simon hates the system he decries. He takes us through its details as only someone who loves it can.

Whether or not “The Wire’s” Baltimore is accurate, we live in David Simon’s Baltimore. He’s more a presence than John Waters ever was. To find a Baltimore colossus his size, go back a century to H. L. Mencken. I doubt either self-identified as “progressive,” but both were taken up by their day’s progressives, and gave their biggest fans vituperation in return. Mencken was even more an idol to early 20th-century progressives than Simon is to early 21st. A century ago, progressives looked at urban decay and blamed the democratic machine. Today’s progressives look at urban decay and blame the capitalist machine. Neither Simon or Mencken were 100 percent against the systems they blamed, but both would probably light a match if they could have. Will Simon seem any more a giant in 2117 than Mencken is now? I’m skeptical, but who knows? Maybe today’s progressives get it right where yesterday’s were wrong, but doesn’t it say something that opinions of David Simon’s shows are tied to political confirmation bias?

Like Mencken, Simon’s more complicated than his hatreds. Within its constricting framework, it’s a miracle that “The Wire” is as good as it is. “Treme” is better still — even if I’m the only one who thinks so. Maybe New Orleans deserves more dignity than Baltimore, but even with Simon’s preachiness, the characters of “Treme” seem much freer to be themselves. Better still is a speech Simon gave about the “Two Americas” at a festival in Sydney, Australia, which, aside from the subtitle “My Country is a Horror Show,” is actually quite nuanced. You can find it on The Guardian’s webpage.

But the most nuanced production my non-expert eye ever saw from him was, of all things, the immigration rally he staged at Beth Am this week. I wouldn’t have gone were I not a Beth Am member, but were I there for any other reason, I’d be blowing trumpets about what I saw, because this event was what advocacy should always be and never is. Just a dash of the usual personal stories and cheerleading, and in their place, education on the problems’ history, instruction on conceptual thinking, technical advise on how to fight adversity and demanding money.

Perhaps all this time, Simon was just being an activist of genius. Maybe “The Wire” and “Treme” and “The Corner” were all a little lacking as popular art because they’re meant as gigantic works of didactic advocacy, and if they take on the qualities of art, it’s because he’s just that good an advocate for what he believes. If they are, then 59 more events like what he put on at Beth Am could be his masterpiece.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

An Inspiring Sacrifice

Joshua Runyan

Typically, the idealism of youth is denigrated. Twenty-somethings charging headfirst into a picket line are more often seen as symbols of an anarchic bent in millennial thinking as opposed to evidence of principled individuals taking a stand.

But in at least one area, we as a Jewish community can agree that the fear-nothing-and-take-no-prisoners approach unique to those just out of high school is something to be admired and cherished. I am talking about the phenomenon — pronounced more in America than elsewhere in the world — that sees Jewish teenagers leaving their homes behind to take up arms on behalf of the State of Israel.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the concept of the “lone soldier” is nothing new in the history of the Jewish state. It refers to the conscript who doesn’t have a family to welcome him home for Shabbat, to wash her clothes, to send care packages to pierce the sometime monotony of military life. The distinction typically went to the refugee olim and to orphans. But in the last few years, an entire network has emerged to support a different kind of lone soldier: the American kid who chooses a new life as an immigrant, knowing that in making aliyah, she will say goodbye to her parents, grandparents and siblings for a long time and will be forced to wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces.

Make no mistake about it, it’s not a forced choice, but is instead a sacrifice. Under current regulations, older olim — with some exceptions — do not have to serve. Nor do those who make aliyah with children in tow. It is quite possible to fulfill the Zionist ideal of making a home in the Jewish state and, by waiting just a couple of years after graduating college, forgo military service.

But that’s not what Gil Kuttler, whose friends were targeted by a terrorist, or his brother — both Baltimore natives — wanted. They wanted to place their blood, sweat and tears — risking their very lives — on the line in defense of Israel.

In recognition of that sacrifice, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces has coordinated free air travel so that lone soldiers can be reunited with their American family on a regular basis, as well as added perks not available to every Israeli soldier. Such support — funded by private and institutional donations — is a way for the American Jewish community to say thank you to these inspiring young men and women. But it’s also a way for the community to embrace their parents, who despite having no choice in the matter, make a sacrifice as real as that of their children.

Is it all worth it?

Just ask Yossi Kuttler, who describes his time in the IDF as a “part of my life dedicated to an idea greater than myself.”

God bless the idealism of youth.