Shemitah Is Coming! Shemitah Is Coming!

As the month of Elul — a time of reflection and preparation — draws to an end, I am followed with a different sense of excitement for this coming year on the Jewish calendar. Just as every seventh day of the week is supposed to be a Shabbat from the other six, so too every seventh year is set aside to be wholly different from the previous six.

In Exodus 23:10, we receive the instruction: “Six years you shall sow your land, but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” Just sentences earlier, in Exodus 21:2, we receive the instruction that after six years of service we are to free our slaves in the seventh year. And in Deuteronomy 15:1-2, we receive the instruction for the forgiveness of unpaid debts in the seventh year as a way of freeing the burden that can come from the struggles of a difficult financial situation.

So in a time when most of us don’t work the land, do not own slaves and could not imagine credit card companies forgiving us our debts, what difference is it to us that this Rosh Hashanah begins the next Sabbatical year? Furthermore, living in Baltimore, where the laws of Shemitah are not required (only in Israel is one obligated to follow the laws of the land), why should we care?

Traditionally, during the Sabbatical year, those who, out of requirement, are not allowed to work the land would learn something new. Imagine what it would be like if every seven years, we made time and space to learn a new skill, tend to a new hobby, explore something we wouldn’t necessarily have time for.

The idea that we are to let go in the seventh year is dependent on the planning and allocations made in the prior six years so that one can “afford” to take that time. In our tradition, the guarantee is a divine decree that God will provide. The practitioners I know who are trying to find meaningful ways for us to engage with Shemitah have other creative approaches to ensure we can take time in the seventh year for things if we appropriately plan for that time during the previous six years.

For example, this year all staff at the Pearlstone Center will get seven additional days off from work. One of those days will simply be a vacation day. The other six, however, will be days dedicated to doing something that is intended toward growth. Staff may choose to go to a workshop or take part in a service project. What a great way to honor the year and the time in a way that provides growth and nourishment for the people who work tirelessly to create meaningful Jewish experiences for so many others.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah I encourage each person in our community to make a Shemitah goal. What is something that you can release this year that will be good for your spiritual growth? Perhaps it is an expectation held onto for too long, an unwillingness to take a different approach out of fear of change or a commitment to stop trying to control something you desperately wish you could but takes more cultivation than might be naturally possible.

In this way, I think Shemitah can provide incredibly relevant experiences for our Jewish community and our souls. If you make a Shemitah goal and want to share it, please do so at jgross@jcc.org.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and rejuvenating 5775.

Please Be Kind

I recently experienced my first anti-Semitic incident in five years of living here in Baltimore.  It happened at The 8×10, my favorite venue to hear great music. I was grooving to a real funky band, and I was wearing my kippah as I always do. Out of nowhere, a drunk but tough-looking guy came over to me and started trying to pick a fight.  First, he gave me a weird look and then moved in closer and shouted over the music, “Hey, do you want to go outside?” and then mentioned something about “white power.”

Part of me wanted to say, “Yeah, let’s go,” but then I thought about my wife, my children and my congregation and realized that winding up in jail or with a broken nose right before High Holidays wouldn’t be such a good idea.  Just in the nick of time, my rabbi side kicked in. “Brother!  I don’t want to fight you. That’s crazy!”  I put my arm around him and said, “Look around you, we’re listening to great music, and we’re lucky to live together in this wonderful city.”

That didn’t work too well.  He walked away for a minute but found his way back.  Looking somewhat exasperated and confused, he tried one more time, “Come on, let’s fight!”  I said, “Man, I’m not going to fight you, but I will make a l’chayim with you,” and with that I dragged him to the bar.  I ordered two shots of good bourbon, looked into his eyes and said, “Listen brother, life is so wonderful, we’re so lucky, l’chayim to life!  His eyes glazed over, and he got quiet. I got up and left him there at the bar.

The anti-Semite probably forgot the whole incident in his drunken stupor, but I thought, what if he wakes up in the morning and remembers that there was a Jew who was kind to him, who bought him a drink and told him life was wonderful? Maybe, just maybe, he could change.

For me, the incident was a reminder.  We can’t sit here in Pikeville and fight each other. There are too many people around the world and even right here in our own hometown who want to harm us. Jews need to look out for one another; we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and err on the side of loving kindness.

I recently heard that there are a few people living in the condos around The Quarry who want to close off their streets to pedestrian traffic.  If they succeed, instead of having a beautiful loop for the community to walk, only the Quarry’s commercial areas would be open to walkers.  While I can understand that some people may desire the quiet, privacy and prestige that come with a fully gated community, what I can’t understand is how, at a recent meeting to discuss this idea, people openly complained about “those Orthodox people who are constantly walking on our sidewalk.”

We are much better than that.  Let’s not forget where we come from and where we are going. We Jews have a shared destiny.  Where we go, we go together.  This is our shtetl. Its continued success and blessing depends on how we treat each other. So please be kind.

Be Visible; Make a Pledge

Is giving less valuable or rewarding when we as givers cannot always directly see or view the results of our generosity? I personally have had the privilege over my lifetime to contribute financially and to serve with hundreds of people who have given of themselves to help others. It is easy to see the deep emotional feelings from frustration to joy and from unawareness to enlightenment when people directly interact with those in need. When we have this direct contact with those in need and we experience firsthand how our gifts of time, money and skills have made positive differences for those who are suffering, we begin to understand. We continue to give.

We also feel compelled to give in times of crisis, wars and natural disasters. The horrors, the sadness, the destruction and the needs of the victims and survivors as well as the heroes and support organizations are very visible. And as long as those events stay “newsworthy,” we are reminded of those needs, and the giving continues.

There are also needs related to education for our children, counseling, training, community services, medical devices and leadership development. For those of us who live in Howard County, we are fortunate to be in a largely affluent community. However, the needs in our community are still there. Because we don’t see them on a regular basis and they very rarely if ever make the news, it does not mean those needs and problems do not exist. These are our neighbors, our friends and our families. They may not know how to find, pay for or how to ask for help. As a result, their situations grow direr. Yes, these are our fellow Jews in Howard County.

Times have changed from those of our grandparents, when giving was done without questioning. As a modern society, we want to ensure that our hard-earned donations are going to the causes that are identified. We want to see the results of those donations before we continue to contribute year after year. There are so many good causes in the public, private, local, state, national and international sectors; how as individuals can we support them all?

The needs and challenges associated with creating and sustaining the resources necessary to assist everyone in need are above and beyond the capabilities of the most generous individuals and synagogues alike. This is why there are organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Howard County. The Federation does what we cannot do as individuals or synagogues. The Federation acts as a “macro” provider, supporting the charitable, educational, religious, cultural and social service needs of Jewish people in Howard County, Israel and around the world.

The JFHC Annual Campaign is kicking off. Your individual donation, combined with donations from the entire community, will support the most visible and less visible needs of your neighbors in Howard County and to Jews around the world. When you make your pledge, you are not simply pledging a dollar amount. You are pledging to support Jewish education at home, your Jewish neighbors who need assistance and Birthright. The list goes on and on. Be visible. As individuals, we make a difference. Together, we change the world.

If God is Optimistic, Shouldn’t We Be Too?

One of Rosh Hashanah’s many significant themes is its commemoration of the creation of the world. I taught this to my son in the course of our Judaic learning sessions using Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Literacy” as a textbook.

Only I became the student when I encountered a passage that jarred me by its perspective, one that I had never before considered. In a chapter entitled “Adam and Eve: The Garden of Eden,” Telushkin writes, “In general, the biblical view of creation is optimistic. Repeatedly, the Torah notes concerning God’s creations: “And God saw that it was good.’”

Optimistic? Really? Didn’t God’s creation turn messy rather quickly? Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain killing Abel. Noah’s flood. Sodom and Gomorrah. And surely the Holocaust was as bad as or worse than anything described in the Torah. Read today’s paper and you are likely to conclude that the mess continues in our contemporary world.

Surely God, Divine foresight in hand, knew better than to express a childlike satisfaction with His creation. And yet, as a believer in the Torah as the unmistakable, inalterable word of God, I am left with the unyield-ing proposition that if God says His creation was good, it must be good.

I am fortunate to have a mother, a Holocaust survivor, who despite her struggles maintains a positive — yes, optimistic — outlook well into her 70s. In a book we’ve written together, she describes a spiritual journey whose message is clear: God did not and has not abandoned the world He created and thought was good.

Understandably, it can be challenging to maintain such faith as the seemingly unending cycle of hate and violence spins like the earth’s rotation. But we do not have to succumb to such a cycle. We have a choice.

Even during the Holocaust, some made choices that reflected God’s optimistic view of the world He created. The choice made by the Catholic couple who saved and raised my mother is but one example.

There are no doubt many inspiring choices made today amid the turbulence in the Middle East. Rosh Hashanah is an ideal time to take action.

If God saw the world as good, then it is up to us to make it a reality.

The State of Israel’s Economies

After a terrifying summer of constant rocket fire into Israel from Gaza, this is an appropriate time to think not only about Israel’s geopolitical future (which is beyond this writer’s crystal ball), but also about Israel’s economies. I purposely use the plural because Israel’s economy is fractured along many fault lines. There’s the famous Startup Nation economy, the tourist economy, the consumer economy, the international trade economy, the Haredi economy and the Arab-Israeli economy to name a few. Some are doing well; others are weakening; and a few are mired in poverty. And even before the war, prognosticators were talking about a slowdown in Israel’s economy. The war exacerbated it.

The high-tech economy is global. Money will flow to good ideas that address a market need. The Startup Nation economy is no different. As long as Israel’s entrepreneurs keep developing innovative technologies, global capital will find it. Investment may pause during times of unrest but will resume afterward.

Hopefully, the tourism and consumer economies will follow the same track as high-tech investing and pick up once hostilities end. The 50-day war wreaked havoc on Israel’s tourism industry, which represents nearly 6 percent of the country’s economy. The minister of tourism, Uzi Landau, said the war caused a 35 percent drop in visitors, draining more than $500 million from the economy. After past military actions, he added, tourism bounced back within four months of a cease-fire.

The consumer economy also ground to a halt during the war, as Israelis hunkered down at home and in shelters for seven weeks, frequenting stores as little as possible. While the benefits of the high-tech industry skew to the most highly educated and innovative individuals, tourism and retail trade provide many low-wage service jobs for the less skilled. Any slowdown causes great hardship to these employees and their families.

The international trade economy in Israel is huge. Imports and exports combined equal nearly two-thirds of the country’s GDP.  Global economic conditions and trade flows have a stronger effect on Israel’s international trade posture than flare-ups with its neighbors.  Europe’s stagnant economy and America’s anemic recovery hurt Israel’s exports.

Sadly, Israel has one of the highest rates of poverty among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nearly 20 percent of the country’s people live in poverty, including over one-third of its children, according to a 2013 study by the Israel National Council for the Child. Much of this is experienced by two economically challenged groups, which, combined, equal fully one-third of the country’s population. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab-Israeli communities equal 11.7 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively, of Israel’s 8.1 million people.

While the country’s unemployment rate is at 6.2 percent, it is much higher in these communities. Moreover, with the high birth rate of both communities, it is projected that they will exceed 40 percent of the population in 20 years. So among Israel’s many challenges, the internal demographic and economic clock is ticking. It must find a way to expand the economic pie and include these populations in the labor force; otherwise, in two decades nearly half the population will not be contributing to the economy. Without internal economic strength, Israel will not be able to defend itself from external threats.

Taking Control, One Step at a Time

Imagine you must leave your home and fear for your life. You are thrust into living in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room shared with three strangers. How would you manage your space and possessions?

I was recently asked to consider lending my expertise as a professional organizer specializing in closet design to improve the closet system at a women’s shelter. Since the summer is a busy time for my business, I was hesitant at first. But I could not refuse this request, and it turned out to be a worthy cause.

I met with two employees of SARC, a shelter providing services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual violence and stalking. They described in detail what I was to expect when entering the rooms to measure the closets. Although it is preferable that clients keep their rooms tidy, it was not something that the shelter enforced.

Many of the women come from controlling, stressful environments, and shelter workers want to provide relief from this. Most of the rooms were in good shape, though one in particular was disorganized and cluttered, making it difficult to get to the closet to take precise measurements. I entered each room and quickly and quietly took the necessary measurements for my design.

The closets themselves are rather small and are usually shared by up to four women or children. I came up with the most functional design possible, giving each occupant her own hanging space and cubbies for folded clothes and accessories. To make the project affordable, I donated my portion of the fee to the shelter and asked Mark Loewner, owner of Closet Innovations, to consider giving a further discount. Thanks to our combined discounts and with the help of some funding, the shelter was able to afford the closets.

I walked away with the utmost admiration for both the staff, which provides a safe environment free from abuse and fear, and the women who seek shelter. Their attempt to leave abusive relationships and thus provide a better life for themselves and their families is commendable. It feels good to know that the closets I have designed will improve the lives of these women, if only in a small way. The work we do as professional organizers helps many of our clients take control of their lives, one drawer, one shelf, one closet, one room, one step at a time.

My profession, like many, is specific and specialized, such that I often contemplate how I can utilize my skills to benefit our community and its many needs. Walking out into the brightness of the summer sun after spending a day inside darkened rooms with women fearing for their lives, I realized that sometimes even the most specific professionals have the capacity to create light and hope in the lives of fellow community members.

With the High Holidays quickly approaching, I challenge you to use your professional expertise to benefit our community. I promise that you will be the one whose soul truly benefits from this experience.

La’Shana Tova.

Nadine Sachs, owner of Organized2Succeed, is a professional organizer and custom-closet designer. She serves as programs director for the National Association of Professional Organizers-Baltimore.

A Tradition of Giving

090514_schapiro_jm_ftv 090514_malis_shelly_ftvThis summer, Jews around the world followed the fighting in Israel closely and sought every opportunity they could to help those in Israel whose daily lives were turned upside down by a constant barrage of rockets. At the same time, we watched in horror, as Jews in cities around the globe found themselves facing a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel rhetoric.

From thousands of miles away, our Jewish community was able to reach out and help those suffering in Israel and those throughout the world who were persecuted for being Jewish. Our generosity fortified our global Jewish family in time of dire need.

Such is the beauty of our tradition. When one Jew is suffering, we feel compelled to jump in and help. In Baltimore, we are blessed to have The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore as the conduit of that support. For more than nine decades, The Associated has provided a trusted central address, where we can generously give our time and resources, knowing that our contributions will be thoughtfully directed to the areas of greatest need.

Throughout these years, our community has benefited from the support of a centralized Annual Campaign that funds critical services provided by Associated agencies and programs. As our grandparents and parents did before us, we live in a community that both uplifts the vulnerable and inspires our children and grandchildren. It is now our responsibility to ensure that this proud tradition continues for future generations.

As chairs of the Annual Campaign and Women’s Campaign respectively, we will spend the next several months talking to members of our community about the impact the campaign can make and why their support is so critical. This year, we want to ensure that the professionals and volunteer leaders who assess the most pressing communal needs are able to do so with all the necessary resources at their disposal.

On Sept. 14, we will gather together for The Associated’s largest single day of fundraising, Super Sunday, to call community members and invite them to help support the strength of our community. This year, Super Sunday will also mark the start of a very special 100-day Challenge, in which we hope to secure the majority of campaign contributions. A matching grant will be applied to all new and increased gifts, and this drive will last through Community Mitzvah Day on Dec. 25. The 100-day Challenge also gives us the opportunity to pivot and focus on engagement and connection with existing and new donors for the second half of the year.

Knowing what financial resources our community has in hand enables our community planners to thoughtfully look ahead for the areas of greatest need and be prepared for emergencies that might arise either here or in communities overseas.

On our personal journeys as chairs of this year’s campaign, we look back upon all those who came before us and provided the inspiration for the critical work we are compelled to do for our community. We look forward too. We look to the future generations we will inspire and the impact we will be able to make on Jewish Baltimore. Together, we have the ability to honor our community’s formidable heritage and forge a truly inspiring tomorrow. We hope you will join us on this journey.

J. M. Schapiro and Shelly Malis are the 2015 Annual Campaign and Women’s Campaign chairs, respectively, for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. To register for Super Sunday, visit associated.org/supersunday.

Limmud Means Learning

2013_Lipsitz_GailFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been hooked on learning, especially Jewish learning. My first stumbling steps toward reading Hebrew led to a fascination with our people’s living ancient/modern language. Fortunately, my parents supported my desire to go to Camp Ramah, which in the 1950s immersed youth in eight weeks of Hebrew as the language of everyday conversation, prayer, and song.

Our rabbi, Harry Z. Zwelling, z”l, encouraged me to become a bat mitzvah and made no distinction between what girls and boys could do, which was unusual at that time so soon after the first b’not mitzvah in the Conservative movement. Rabbi Zwelling also invited me to join a small group to study the commentaries of Rashi each Shabbat after services. I credit this teacher with planting and nurturing in me the love of learning biblical text. From classes on the weekly Torah portion to challenging study at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, this kind of learning has been a lifelong joy.

In my small New England college with a few like-minded Jewish students, we sought out a professor of Bible, Ernest Lacheman. He was an ordained minister and archaeologist who could read Hebrew and Greek. But most wondrous, he read the cuneiform on the pottery tablets and fragments littering his dusty basement office and told us about the ancient Meso- potamian Nuzi civilization. For four years we looked forward to our weekly sessions with him. No course credit, no cost, just the excitement of studying.

Since moving to Baltimore in the 1970s, I’ve become an “equal opportunity” learner. I’ve taken classes at Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, taught by rabbis and educators from all of these denominations, and I participate every fall in Baltimore’s Adult Institute of Jewish Learning as well as the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies. Baltimore offers an amazing number of learning opportunities open to all, many at no or minimal cost.

LimmudFEST, a celebration of Jewish study, culture and identity, invites us all to be learners and teachers for a day, to appreciate the diversity of our community and to connect with fellow Jews. Welcoming participants of all backgrounds, levels of knowledge, lifestyles and ages, Limmud’s motto is: “Wherever you are on your Jewish journey, Limmud will take you one step further.”

This is my third year as a Limmud volunteer planner and student. Limmud is like a smorgasbord of appealing dishes to sample, whetting your appetite to learn more. Presentations from Jewish poetry to Jewish composers of classical music have attracted me. This year, I’ll be presenting “Bat Mitzvah: More Than a Day in Our Lives.” Women of all ages are invited to share their stories and reflect on how becoming a bat mitzvah has influenced their Jewish identity (men are also welcome).

Treat yourself to a day of presentations, performances, food and fun at LimmudFEST on Sunday, Sept. 7 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Goucher College Athenaeum. For more information, visit limmudbaltimore.com.

Gail Josephson Lipsitz teaches Jewish literature to adults and previously taught high school and college English. She recently retired as coordinator of public relations at Jewish Community Services in Baltimore.

Fueling Our Future or Our Destruction?

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaDespite outlining my topics for this column months ago, the events this summer in Israel have lead me to change course and address a critical issue that, although related to environmental sustainability and our use (or misuse) of natural resources, more closely aligns with our sustainability as a people.

For weeks I’ve been sifting through posts, articles and comments about the nightmare our Israeli brothers and sisters are living through as well as the critique of America’s duplicitous stance with regard to Israel’s need for self-defense and castigation over “disproportionate response” due to civilian deaths. I’ve watched and read in horror of the accounts of anti-Israel and anti-Jew rallies both in the U.S. and abroad, accompanied by varying degrees of hostilities and violence. And with growing trepidation, I have been reading about the growing threat of the Islamic State, as it pillages its way through the Middle East.

Which got me thinking: How do these violent, murderous factions wield so much power and demand so much attention? Why does the U.S. continue to bend in any direction to appease them, send them money and demand one-sided concessions?

It cannot be ignored that a primary reason for the continued involvement in the Middle East and tolerance toward tyrannical leadership is oil.  Our dependence on oil hinders our ability to maintain foreign policies that adhere to our country’s values, creates double standards and compromises our ability to offer unwavering support to the only democracy in the Middle East. Instead, we capitulate to the true violators of peaceful coexistence, allowing fanatical militants to remain in control, amassing resources for themselves and thus keeping their populations in abject poverty.

With our modern technology and industrial ingenuity, there is absolutely no need for our dependence on foreign oil. Yet, we continue to purchase barrels of crude oil pumped out of the ground in war-torn countries led by people who call for our destruction. We then pay to have that oil shipped half way around the world, expend even more (dirty) energy to refine it for use, then dispense to the public using — basically — the same technology that was invented over 125 years ago.

After so much war and bloodshed with this “overseas investment,” how is there not a plan in place to stop our energy dependence from these sources?  Is the “cheap” price of oil worth the real cost of keeping terrorists in power and preventing the more expeditious implementation of alternative energy sources? Our vehicles, factories and businesses should be utilizing energy that can be extracted and distributed domestically, contributing to a home-grown economic boom and jobs.

Communities of faith and conscience have begun weaning themselves off conventional fuel sources and are seeking alternative choices, but Jewish participation is noticeably absent. Foreign oil dependence threatens our security as a nation and as a people; the Jewish community should be the leading advocates for this change. Rather than pushing for economical severance from the source of the problem, our complacency is quite literally supporting our enemies.

It’s time to demand that our organizations lead by example and take a strong stance against our financial investment and dependence on foreign oil, which will diminish the power that these countries wield and, in turn, diminish the violence.

Aleeza Oshry is a local geologist, educator and sustainability consultant.

Time to Make My Feelings Known

To my Facebook friends, I apologize.

If you knew me before the latest war between Israel and Hamas you would know I was a good Facebook friend, sitting politely and quietly in a corner of your social media cerebral cortex, generally speaking only when spoken to or when something more interesting or important than what I had for breakfast crossed my mind.

These last few weeks, however, I have inundated you with posts about Israel’s latest war with Hamas. Day after day, as the conflict went on. And I apologize to you who run the gamut from “Wow, I didn’t know that,” to “Typical Shia,” to “I really don’t care” to “Let them kill each other, now get me a beer.”

I must admit that I was worried about what some of you might think. But I should not have hesitated even for a moment. It is not just because I worry day and night for those I hold dear who race to bomb shelters or are wearing the Israel Defense Forces uniform and hunting down terrorists. It is because when it comes to an existential threat to Israel, the war of public opinion is important.

With so much anti-Israel and anti-Jewish media, with so many Jew-haters taking to the streets, at times violently and with so many timid Jews staying silent, I had to speak up. People are being murdered, hundreds of thousands of them all around the world, all the time, many of them Muslim, by Muslim dictators and terrorist states and groups. And a tiny Jewish nation dares to fight back, and the world goes nuts.

“It’s genocide!”  Really?  If Israel wanted to, it could have flattened Gaza in less than an hour and killed everyone there. “Gaza is occupied and needs to be free!” True. Gaza is occupied, by Hamas terrorists who enslave their own people.

Even today, as nutty as it sounds, Hamas, as well as other Jew-haters, unabashedly pronounce that Israelis kill Arab children to get their blood to bake into Passover matzohs. Again, dealing with crazies such as that who are trying to murder your child, what would you do? The choices are bad, but you would be forced to choose, and you would choose the one that saved your family. And, as Israel does, you would call it self-defense.

My Facebook friends, I am so grateful to live in the United States, a country I deeply love, a place where I can use my voice and my computer for mutual comfort and support and for counterbalancing and educating when I can. Some of you shared what I shared, added your voice to mine as I have my voice to yours, some of you have asked questions about posts and shares, others have learned and sympathized.

I apologize if it has been a lot, and I hope those of you who have not appreciated my prolific “Facebooking” can forgive me, that is if you haven’t already un-followed me. I promise you, as things settle down, so will I.