Making the American Jewish Community Great Again

Why is it that the tendency of the Jewish community is to splinter over the tiniest of disagreements, to near battle stations when issues as critical as the existential threat to Israel posed by Iran’s nuclear capabilities become an issue of contention? Our ancestors are, no doubt, terribly puzzled over the petty infighting that has emerged into public displays of disaffection. We used to keep our infighting private — if Jews were arguing among themselves, it was never something we’d share with the outside world.

Now there is a visceral response to air each seemingly minute grievance through real or virtual bullhorns. it’s not just our ancestors who are puzzled; the rest of the world is too.

For example, there was a recent hullabaloo over whether or not to attend the Chanukah party thrown by the Conference of Presidents of Major american Jewish Organizations. A generation ago, we would all have
attended proudly, bragged about our affiliation with whichever organization we were involved and noshed politely on latkes. This year, not only did Jewish organizations not attend, they actually boycotted it. Why? Because it was held in the trump international hotel in Washington. Really? The president-elect was not even on the guest list!

What kind of statement is made when we boycott our own events? How on earth did the Jewish Federations of
North America — as middle-of-the-road an organization as they come — get sucked into this mess and decide not to attend the party?

I’m disappointed in the way we are treating each other, the way we respond to membersof our own community.

Our bickering is on display to people outside our own “community.” They view American Jews as being splintered. Politicians view segments of the Jewish community rather than the community as a whole.

Are we really big enough to be segmented?

Perhaps our Jewish community should take a deep breath. Instead of shooting from the hip and assuming that the incoming president portends doom and gloom, maybe we should see how he is prepared to govern. instead of taking nuanced views about how Israel should or should not behave or the role that Jewish organizations should play in building up (not tearing down) the U.S.- Israel relationship, maybe we should judge the measure of the man and his administration by the policies he enacts.

Whoever was advising Jewish organizations to boycott the Chanukah party may not have had the community’s best interests at heart.

Bonnie Glick is a veteran diplomat and businesswoman. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

The Heart of Your Jewish Family

Whether you are in the throes of parenting or you have already raised your children (and are relating to older or adult children), you hope and pray that you have prepared them well.

You hope you have passed down a depth of love and values that reflect that. you have nurtured, protected, guided and dispensed encouragement with the abiding love of a Jewish parent. you anticipate that as your son and daughter becomes a bar/bat mitzvah they represent Jewish culture and familywith comfort and pride.

Look in the mirror and see yourself as a parent. ask yourself if the heart of your family reflects your core ideals and
Jewish culture or if some improvement is warranted. What action can you take to improve your relationships or impart enduring values? You have the chance, at every age and stage as a parent, to improve, heal or strengthen your parent-child relationship.

The central focus of your unique family belongs to you and those you love.

In your current nuclear family, boundless potential exists to empower you and your children to build a strong
connection. The security of this special bond translates outwardly as time marches on. It can take a lifetime to establish functional, healthy and effective family relationships.

Jewish values emphasize a loving home and family, strong relationships, a good education, a sense of self and a Jewish identity and skills needed to flourish. Charity, kindness and joyousness, doing mitzvahs and repairing the world echo these sacred themes.

What Jewish values do you hold dear and use in your parenting strategies?

Let’s explore possible reasons parents have children: to love and be loved unconditionally; to carry on the family name or lineage; to fulfill maternal or paternal needs and dreams; to enjoy the role of parent, nurturer, protector and guide; to gain a sense of personal purpose; to make a significant impact on the life of another; to receive a God-given gift and give of oneself to capacity.

Whatever inspirations called you to have children is at the very heart of your family. The values you hold dear and those upheld in Jewish teachings portend a loving and secure attachment, a cohesive collective and a strong individual and group identity.

When your children step out into society on their own, the foundation you provided will sustain them. Have faith
in the good that you provided, have faith in God, and have faith in your children’s own aptitudes and capacities to shine their own light into the world the best way they can.

Nina Sidell is a Philadelphia-based psychotherapist, life coach and speaker with more than 25 years in private practice. She is the author of “Parenting for Life.”

Editors: Take Note

Just a friendly kvetch. I read the JT’s “Two Firsts for Area’s JNF Add Up to Exciting  Future” (Dec. 16), and the first paragraph is confusing because it doesn’t mention the “post” to which Orly Shalem was appointed. I had to read through to the sixth paragraph to learn that she is the new JNF president. Please edit more carefully.

Saving a World by Changing Lives

Recently my wife, Lynda, and I participated in a World ORT mission to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. This opportunity to experience the work of this wonderful organization and its valuable educational network was as energizing as it was concerning, regarding the sustainability of Jewish life in Russia.

Through a network of 17 schools in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the Baltic states, World ORT provides a highly efficient and sophisticated general Judaic and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to more than 8,500 youngsters.

While the vast majority of these students (75 percent to 80 percent) are Jewish, the quality of this educational opportunity with its large Judaic component attracts non-Jews, as well. Funding for the basic curriculum and its teachers are provided by the Soviet state. World ORT’s contribution relates to the Judaic studies curriculum, those instructors and the important STEM component.

While all of this is inspiring for the 20 percent of Jewish families who receive this education, we need to be concerned about those who are absent. So much is at stake as we attempt to “save the world.”

The challenge we face is not only funding these 17 schools for $9.2 million over the next four years, but also, to a wider task, engaging the 1 million Jews remaining in this region.

Beginning in 1990, many of us contributed to the huge exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union and for aliyah to Israel. While we joyfully participated in this process, our attention turned from those remaining Jews in the FSU.

Outreach by religious and non-educational institutions to this population have largely been unsuccessful. It is clear, however, that education is the magnet to attract these youngsters while serving mechanism to engage their families. World ORT’s success is evident.

My primary concern: We have a time-limited challenge. We cannot miss this opportunity to educate a generation of Jewish youngsters.

World ORT’s primary funding from the United States comes from three sources. The largest contribution comes from the federation system’s overseas allocation through the Jewish Federations of North America. The second source of support comes from dollars provided by individual federated communities for designated projects. Finally, individuals can provide designated or undesignated funds contributing to ORT America. All of these streams are necessary for us to achieve our stated goal.

Dr. Conrad L. Giles is president of World ORT. 

America’s Schools Need to Think Small

About 27 kids sit in the average public school classroom. For a new crop of education entrepreneurs, that number is nearly perfect — for an entire school.

These entrepreneurs are rebelling against the educational status quo by bringing the centuries-old one-room schoolhouse into the 21st century. They maintain new “micro schools” leverage technology to give students a personalized learning experience in radically small classes — at a fraction of private school tuition rates.

There’s mounting evidence that they’re right.

Small classes have well-known benefits. They improve student performance and pay off in future social and educational capital — especially for minority and low-income students.

Studies associate small classes with lower juvenile crime and teenage pregnancy rates — and higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Small classes even correlate with longer lives.

They’re so effective partially because they enable teachers to tailor instruction to each student’s needs. Modern technology makes such learning a lot more feasible — and scalable.

A recent study examined “personalized learning” at public and charter schools. Researchers discovered an array of innovative teaching methods across schools. One student channeled his musical talent to compose an imaginary country’s national anthem. Story time took a variety of forms — some students read the story aloud, while others followed the book while listening to headphones.

In two years, these schools caught up with — and began to surpass — national math and reading averages. Elementary school students gained 13 percentile points on average in standardized math tests and eight on reading.

At my Maryland-based micro school, Mysa School, a sports-obsessed student might receive a math lesson built around baseball statistics. This kind of creative approach fuels a student’s desire to learn.

Micro schools draw on cutting-edge technology to personalize the classroom experience. My school is about to turn the student “menu” — a customized list of weekly projects children complete at their own pace — into an app. AltSchool, a Silicon Valley-based micro school network, gives students “playlists” — digital flashcards detailing tailored tasks, such as completing keyboard exercises.

But can micro schools measurably improve student performance? Undoubtedly.

Consider Texas’s Acton Academy. Founded in 2009, this micro school draws on a variety of techniques: personalized online learning, Socratic seminars, game play. The school’s first class completed an astounding two-and-a-half grades in less than a year.

The American educational status quo isn’t one-size-fits-all. Micro schools are an alternative and prove education leaders can deliver big gains in student performance by thinking small.

Siri Fiske is founder and head of the Mysa School in Bethesda, Md.

Passing Along the Importance of Tzedakah

sachs-pete-2009Every year, as the Chanukah season approaches, I reflect on the importance of passing down one’s traditions.

When our family gathers to light the menorah and say the Chanukah prayers, I am reminded of what we share with our children — the history, values and traditions that define who we are.

This is so important to me. My family has lived in Baltimore for generations. My great-great-grandparents on both sides arrived in this city more than 100 years ago. Like many immigrants, I’m sure their early years were challenging, adjusting to a new country and earning a living. Yet, even when times were tough, they knew who they were, and they wanted to make sure their children and grandchildren shared their values.

As my family grew and became ingrained in the fabric of Jewish Baltimore, tzedakah became a value that they passed on to future generations.

Over the years, my wife and I have shared these values with our children and now our grandchildren. We believe the best way to share our priorities is to engage them in what we do.

One of the things we’ve done is set up a donor-advised fund with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Not only is it a tax-efficient way to give, but it provides each of our family members with the opportunity to decide what is most important to us and how we want to invest in our community’s future. It was easy to set up our fund, even at the last minute at the end of the year.

We’ve always believed in the importance of a strong Jewish community. It’s why one of our largest gifts from our fund has gone toward The Associated’s Annual Campaign because we know that the organization will allocate our money to meet the community’s most pressing needs.

There are many ways we all can instill this value in our children. It could be as simple as filling a tzedakah box every Shabbat or designating a night of Chanukah where your children select an organization to which they wish to donate and providing opportunities to talk about what inspired them to choose this cause.

I encourage you to find the time this holiday season to sit down with your children and begin the conversation. Ask them to tell you what is important to them. Let them know what’s important to you. And investigate ways, no matter how small or large, in which your family can give back.

Pete Sachs is chair of The Associated’s philanthropic planning and services.

Keith Ellison’s Views

When Keith Ellison threw his hat into the ring to seek the chairmanship of the Democratic Party, he challenged long-held thinking about the type of person who could lead a major American political party. Ellison is both African-American and Muslim, two personal attributes that make him unique as a leading figure in American politics today and that challenge, despite eight years of President Barack Obama, conventional thinking about what a leading American politician should look like.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first minefield that Ellison has encountered during his candidacy is about whether or not he’s sufficiently pro-Israel and supportive of Jewish values. After all, a tape was recently leaked that purportedly had Ellison making anti-Israel and anti-Jewish remarks, leading to a spike in concerns about him.

Yet, as often happens in our outrage-based political culture, this is much ado about nothing.

In fact, what Ellison’s remarks on the tape revealed were that his views fit well within the majority view of American Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while demonstrating admiration for American Jewish political organizing. And on the substance, Ellison called for an end to Israeli settlement construction and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem. This position mirrors the position of Obama and the recent Democratic Party platform.

I empathize with Ellison as he grapples with these unfair charges. As a former congressional candidate in Maryland, I too was labeled as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic when I entered my race. And why? Because I strongly advocated in my professional career for peace between Israel and the Palestinians through a two-state solution.

To me it’s clear that the problem that Ellison’s detractors have with him is less about him as a person and more about his message. His views on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only fit well within the majority view of American Jews, but are also shared by a majority of Israelis and much of America’s foreign policy community.

As a committed Democrat, I want my party’s leader to stand for the values of inclusion at home and peace abroad. The last thing we should do is pay attention to the misrepresentations being made by those who oppose these values. Ellison’s record, which falls squarely within the mainstream opinion of Jewish Democrats today, has become a proxy for this battle.

As American Jews, we should not let these misrepresentations take down this honorable man. For if we do, it will say much more about us than it does about him.

Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group, is a former candidate in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.

Rockefeller BDS and Campus Anti-Semitism

The New Israel Fund (NIF) recently received a grant to “research and report on anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses.” On the surface, this appears to be a welcome development — a progressive group being mobilized to confront a major social malady plaguing institutions of higher education.

Beneath the surface of the September grant, however, are vested interests seeking to use this issue to cover up its role in fomenting the atmosphere that is hostile to Jewish students. The NIF is being paid by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) — a main backer of the anti-Israel activism that contributes to, enables and devolves into anti-Semitism on college campuses.

RBF provides hundreds of thousands of dollars to a number of organizations that delegitimize the Jewish state and promote the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, both on and off campus.  Several of the RBF grantees promote agendas that deny Israel’s legitimacy and advocate “one-state” formulas designed to eradicate the Jewish state.

In other words, the New York-based fund has made the waging of economic, political and cultural warfare on Israel a central theme of its grant-making.

Many of RBF’s grantees are deeply involved in myriad anti-Israel activities, either by directly coordinating and participating in them or by providing training and legal aid to activists. Jewish Voice for Peace, for  instance, has chapters on campuses throughout the country and partners with Students for Justice in Palestine in promoting divestment resolutions and  organizing the notorious “Israeli Apartheid Week.”

As several in-depth reports and publications have shown, the marked increase in virulently anti-Israel activity on campuses throughout the U.S. has coincided with higher rates of anti-Semitism at these same institutions.

Considering RBF’s culpability in funding and enabling organizations that create this intimidating environment for Jewish students, it is curious that RBF would commission a publication that studies the rise of anti-Semitism at American colleges. Any serious publication would, ultimately, implicate RBF itself and cite its funding for anti-Israel campus groups and related  organizations.

Given RBF’s extensive funding of BDS and delegitimization of Israel, it is reasonable to ask if the fund is using its financial power to whitewash its grantees’ involvement in fanning the flames of anti-Jewish hatred. What is less clear is why NIF would lend its name to such a charade.

Yona Schiffmiller is director of the North America Desk at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute. This column was provided by JNS.org.

Meaningful Giving

cary-millsteinLately my mind has been awash with thoughts pushing and pulling in all directions, motivated by my love of family (immediate and communal), my connection to Israel and the Jewish people and the needs of my new business.

The connectedness of those things most important to me adds meaning to my life and inspires me to promote those connections. My belief is that we are placed on earth to do good — to make a positive contribution, whether volunteering time, providing leadership or simply donating money to help improve society. By making a personally meaningful contribution, I feel that I am helping to save a life or repair the world in a way that is significant and gives my life more purpose.

A meaningful gift, in my opinion, is one that involves sacrifice. If I gave loose coins from under the sofa — that would be a donation, but I would feel that it did not rise to a level of a “meaningful gift.” Each of us must decide for ourselves what a meaningful gift would be from us at various times in our lives.

I am extremely proud of our Jewish Federation of Howard County and the way dedicated office staff and lay leadership have embraced change, stepped up to improve ties to our community, helped those in need during difficult times and grown our base of active participants and supporters. We recently raised $82,000 on Giving Tuesday, wildly surpassing our goal and gaining a record for a single day of giving.

In 2017, Columbia, the central city in Howard County, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. I am excited to imagine what our diverse and inclusive city, one of the top 10 American cities in which to live and raise a family, will look like in 50 years. As we grow commitment and develop “meaningful giving” in support of all of our communities — locally, regionally and globally — I believe we will have an extraordinarily strong community and bright future.

The Chanukah miracle  reminds us of how limited  resources were miraculously extended. Won’t you help extend the limited resources of the  organizations that support our collective Jewish society? Please pledge a personally “meaningful gift” this and every year in support of the organizations that support us all and be a strong  example for others.

Thank you to each of you who have recently joined us and especially to those of you who have supported the Jewish Federation of Howard County for years, and in many cases, for decades. We would not  be here without you and are dependent on all of you to help grow our organization and strengthen our connection.

Happy Chanukah.

Cary Millstein is vice president of campaign at the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

The Two Americas, the Two Israels

For those of us who watched the U.S. election from Israel, the results seemed eerily familiar. America’s electoral map is sharply divided: between blue and red, urban and rural, the coastal liberals and the conservative masses in the middle. In Israel, we call it the geographic divide between the “center” of the country and the “periphery,” between the elites and the rest of the people.

Donald Trump was propelled to victory in part on a platform of “draining the swamp” of a corrupt ruling class and stopping illegal immigration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his re-election campaign last year, was spurred to a last-minute victory by tacitly reviving the timeworn idea of a disconnected Ashkenazi elite and the threat of the Arab minority “flocking to the polls.”

While comparisons are always inexact, it does seem that in both America and Israel there is a great divide in society on issues of culture and identity. Combined with economic frustration on a global stage, this divide fuels feelings of growing nationalism, xenophobia and populism among the citizenry. It is this divide that all of us in both countries who care about liberal and constitutional democratic values have to understand and work to repair.

Like America, Israel is now engaged in a battle over its identity. Religious and nationalist particularism is on the rise, and many fear that the Jewish State’s Zionist identity is threatened by a growing Arab minority and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

In the 2015 election, Israelis on the periphery reacted against urban elites who appear to have more in common with their counterparts in Berlin and Brooklyn than with the peripheral working-class town of Beit She’an.

During my time as director general of the Kadima party, I saw the full spectrum of Israeli society. Our party activists were dedicated and sensible people. But in recent years I have watched some of these same people come out in support of overtly illiberal legislative proposals. Did these party  activists suddenly become racists and populists? I don’t believe so. Rather, I believe they are responding to their own perceptions of peril — to Israel’s Jewish character in a challenging security environment.

For Israel as well as America, what is needed is a genuine concern for the preservation of national identity and more inclusive economic policies that bring prosperity for all. Our openness and pluralism are among our societies’ greatest strengths. They cannot be taken for granted.

Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.