Investing in Our Community

2014_Shapiro-JasonIn every community, people expect certain rights as well as obligations. In civil societies, people expect good government and public schools, well-maintained highways and parks and responsive police and fire departments. Citizens’ obligations include being good and law abiding and, of course, paying taxes in order to support the services provided by government.

In the Jewish community, there are no taxes. Services provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, for instance, are underwritten by the generous contributions of the members of our community who continually step forward to ensure that the Jewish community has the funds not just to survive, but to thrive.

As a young lawyer, I began my career as an assistant state’s attorney with a modest income and a growing family. As a result, I was unable to donate any sizable sum to support the Jewish community of Howard County. But because of the nature of my job, I had time. I was home every night around 6, and I did not need to engage in evening phone conversations with clients. I was able to spend at least one evening per week using my time to raise funds for those in need, to volunteer on projects and otherwise to perform tikkun olam.

Now as an attorney in my own firm, I not only give my time to the Jewish community, but I also make a meaningful gift to the Federation’s annual campaign. However, I don’t stop there — because I know that doing good is also good for business. My firm, Shapiro & Mack, has sponsored numerous events and programs provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, everything from the spring gala “Federation Live!” to a movie night screening of “Follow Me — The Yoni Netanyahu Story.” I do this because I recognize that it is important to be a leader in our community.

The continuity of the Jewish people for several millennia just didn’t happen. It occurred because some members of our community stepped forward, holding themselves out as leaders and examples to others — in word and, most importantly, in deed.

As campaign chair, I envisioned a way for other businesses in Howard County to donate to the federation. We put together a corporate sponsorship program called StepTogether. It’s another way for members of the greater community to gain exposure and connect to a thriving Jewish community of more than 20,000 people.

The good work that the Federation performs in our own community, in Israel and throughout the world is undeniable. The more money that the federation raises, the more lives it can positively enhance. This new business sponsorship program, StepTogether, recognizes businesses that help fund the federation’s mission and is a call to action allowing our community to support those businesses that allow the federation to serve the Jewish people.

Jason A. Shapiro is campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Expanded Pre-K: A Jewish Value and Universal Need

In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded us that “progress is a choice, and we have important work to accomplish this year.”

From a communal perspective, O’Malley’s proposal to expand pre-kindergarten across the state is being championed in the legislature by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and by many of the Jewish community’s key representatives in Annapolis.

Their bill expands this educational service in two key ways: first, by explicitly allowing private and nonpublic providers to have the same opportunity to access the same grants as public school districts. This means that those looking to provide a pre-K option for their children, but also looking to do so in a way that meets their values, would now have a truly viable option even if they were making only a moderate income.

But dealing with the issue of affordability head on, the bill also shows a key understanding that even a healthy income for a family of a certain size can make paying for pre-K too difficult. The legislation expands eligibility to those families making 300 percent of the poverty level. For a family with three children, that translates into more than $80,000 per year; for a family with four children, the income limit would be almost $95,000.

These two provisions are essential in allowing the entire Jewish community to have a real stake in seeing this legislation passed and a real opportunity to benefit from the program once enacted.

It means many young families in the community would be able to provide pre-K for their children, and it means that many synagogues, JCCs and schools can offer their pre-K services to an increasing number of families.

For a community still coming to terms with the latest studies on Jewish communal engagement and the financial difficulties young families face regarding the cost of participating in meaningful Jewish experiences, this is a modest way to open access across denominational lines and at a more welcoming price point.

And of course, for a community so steeped in social justice and the need to help others, this bill is a win for Marylanders of all faiths. Study after study suggests that pre-K yields lasting benefits well into adulthood. Pre-K participants are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to end up incarcerated, have higher IQs and end up earning more — even decades later — than those without.

That is something that, as concerned citizens, our community should support. After all, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis noted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” It matters to raise “your” children, of course, but we should maintain that level of concern for everyone’s families.

Expanding pre-K to more children should be, from a policy standpoint and on political principle, an easy sell to the Jewish community. We arean especially child-centric culture, where the well-being and success of children is a given. A deeply held Jewish value teaches it is better to help someone learn or earn their way out of poverty than to offer a straight handout.

It should also be a position we take because it helps our neighbors of any — and of no — faith. For families in the Capital region and for those in Baltimore, and indeed across the state, this legislation is a critical first step in expanding real access, providing for real needs and meeting a key desire of Jewish families.

Karen Paikin Barall is mid-Atlantic director for the Orthodox Union.

Rising to the Challenge

runyan_josh_otFor someone who’s spent the past three years in sunny southern Florida, this winter has been quite the eye-opener. But ask those who’ve lived in Baltimore most of their lives, even this season’s ice and snow — which, according to the State Highway Administration, has already caused Maryland to expend more than $80 million, far in excess of the $46 million budgeted — pales in comparison with years past.

What is truly remarkable, though, is how small crises such as power outages and school cancellations can bring people together.

Up in suburban Philadelphia last weekend, whole swaths of that state’s Montgomery County were in the dark following the ice storm at the beginning of the month. Some people were told by their utility company that, despite the fact that crews from all over the region — trucks from Baltimore Gas and Electric could be seen traveling north on I-95 in Delaware — were mobilized to get the power flowing again, it would take more than a week to restore service.

In the Jewish community there, families responded by welcoming their neighbors into their homes. And here in Baltimore, the atmosphere was the same. Whether responding to natural disaster or inconvenience, ours is a community that rises to the challenge; doors are flung open, figuratively and literally, to welcome strangers in need.

In an act you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT, the JCC eased its membership restrictions late last week to allow those without hot water the chance to enjoy a shower and relax. Beyond that, it was not unheard of for local families to cook hot food for their friends and neighbors or put them up for several days.

With even more wintry precipitation forecast for the foreseeable future, it’s comforting to know that there’s always a helping hand willing to house, feed and, when the need arises, help a new arrival open a van’s iced-up door.

Such concern for another, though, is not uniquely expressed when responding to the short-term inconveniences of life in the northern United States. In the Jewish community, it frequently becomes the underpinning of everything that is done.

From initiatives that allow senior citizens to age in place to organizations that allow deaf Jews to experience the beauty of Jewish ritual, from gatherings in the state capital that advocate on behalf of hardworking families trying to afford Jewish education for their children to those making the painful sacrifice of donating their kidneys, the local Jewish community is remarkable for its caring outlook and determined resolve.

When marshaled effectively, when the collective goodwill of tens of thousands of individuals is strengthened by the philanthropic heft of the more fiscally fortunate among us — as evidenced by the contributions of the late Whiting-Turner CEO Willard Hackerman, of blessed memory, who passed away Monday — great work can be done to improve not only our corner of Maryland, but also the wider world around us.

It’s exciting to be a part of a revolution that can pierce through the dark and cold of winter and bring warmth to the world.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Standing Up for the Hungry

I’ve been in BBYO since I was in the eighth grade and have attended the Northern Region East’s Regional Convention, which brings teens together from Baltimore, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., for five years.

This year’s regional convention was by far my favorite. The major distinction from years past was our day of service. In previous years, teens split up to work on different service projects in and out of the hotel; this year each group had the opportunity to focus on the same project, a canned food drive for the hungry.

Our service project took us to local grocery stores to collect donations for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington. My group, which consisted of seven chapters from Northern Region East, collected 115 food items and $60 worth of donations in just an hour. As a whole, the region collected more than 4,000 food items.

The teens of NRE did an outstanding job collecting items to benefit food-insecure families throughout
the D.C.-metro area. I was inspired by the accomplishments of the teens and staff but even more so by what I witnessed during the project. While we were collecting donations, a woman checking out at the register told us to take all the cans coming down the belt. There must have been about 50. She then handed us her leftover cash and told us to keep it.

The woman explained that she had walked to the store just to buy some gum for her grandchildren but had forgotten her wallet. When she saw us, she voiced the wish that she hadn’t left her wallet at home, because she wanted to donate to the cause. Another woman, who overheard her, handed the grandmother $40. Complete strangers helped each other out, demonstrating that doing good deeds can bring people together.

The experience showed me that doing small random acts of kindness can go a long way. It also showed that there are good people in this world willing to help others in need. I returned home from the regional convention feeling more passionate about service than ever before, and I plan to put that passion to action in the very near future.

BBYO has allowed me to make an impact in the community throughout my school years, and it will leave a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life. Thanks to BBYO, I will continue to be involved in service, making a difference in my community for many years to come.

Josh Cohen is a senior at Franklin High School and a BBYO member from Patuxent AZA in the Northern Region East-Baltimore Council. He serves as chapter president. To learn more about BBYO, contact Baltimore Council program director Danielle Hercenberg at 410-559-3549 or bmore@bbyo.org.

A Pause to Evaluate the Co-Benefits of Sustainability

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaWe find ourselves in the middle of a leap year in the Jewish calendar, injecting another month of Adar before the regular one and thereby pushing the rest of our holidays to a time of year where we recognize them best. That means no more Thanksgivukkahs!

I call this extra month the “winter pause.” Before leaping into spring, it is a great opportunity to evaluate our energy efficiency and the options available for making improvements. The more informed we are, the more benefits we can gain.

It used to be assumed that peak energy demand days were all in the summer, but this winter might actually change those statistics. With the polar temperatures we’ve been experiencing this winter, I think many of us would agree that warmer weather would be very much welcomed. But until that happens, the next best thing is to be comfortable while we wait for the seasons to progress.

Outside, we have little control against the elements except to bundle up. Inside, being comfortable means having a good heating system and a well-sealed and ventilated house to keep the heat in and the air fresh. But even during record-breaking cold temperatures, being comfortable shouldn’t mean breaking the bank.

Drafty buildings equal high energy bills. And it’s not just our bank accounts that loose when we have high energy bills. Most of the sources for our energy consumption still come from dirty fossil fuels that are directly linked to air and water contamination, causing health and environmental problems.

Energy improvements are not just about changing light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs. Holistic building improvements yield not only significant utility savings, but also many other valuable benefits that can drastically improve quality of life. Consider this list: increased comfort and occupant satisfaction; improved equipment life; employee morale improvement and retention; fewer sick days; reduced asthma occurrence; higher academic achievement; improved customer and public relations; and increased property values.

And all of these benefits can be multiplied even further with the adoption of best practices that include behavior changes such as turning off lights and electronics when not in use. In fact, multiple studies show that the co-benefits of sustainability and environmental best practices average about 2.5 times the projected measurable savings of the energy improvements alone.

It is not a stretch to say that making more sustainable choices will improve the vitality of our whole community. State, local and utility funding continue to be available to help evaluate options. Local nonprofits also offer grant and loan programs for a range of projects, which have been successful in encouraging and supporting impactful, sustainable change.

Together, we are maximizing our impact in our community by stretching everyone’s dollar, comfort and choices further. What changes can you make to reduce energy costs, increase your comfort level and quality of living and keep more money in your pocket?

Aleeza Oshry is manager of the Sustainability Initiative at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. For more information, contact aoshry@associated.org.

Vital Partners

2014_hurwitz-lindaWhen The Associated: Jewish Comm- unity Federation of Baltimore identified values that exemplify its work in our community, a very important word came up time and time again: collaboration.

The centralized format of The Associated system inspires partnership among its agencies so that they do not compete against each other for resources. Instead, they seek opportunities to work together to maximize the impact they have on our community.

This spirit of collaboration extends beyond The Associated to organizations outside of the system and to government officials on the local, state and federal levels.

Managing our community’s relationship with our government partners is a central part of the mission of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the political and government relations arm of The Associated. In this role, the BJC identifies salient issues and works to address challenges and opportunities.

During the current state legislative session, for instance, the BJC is seeking funding for impactful capital projects. Among those is the Hillel Center for Social Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, which will provide a center for students of all faiths, cultures and ethnicities to engage in social justice, dialogue and leadership development. Also included are emergency power stabilization and climate control upgrades at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and Levindale Geriatric Center. These proposed improvements will enhance hospital capacity and medical care for patients, families, employees and the surrounding community at times of emergency and during power surges and short- or long-term outages.

By leveraging access to public dollars, the BJC ensures that critical services, such as those for older adults and people with disabilities, are funded, and it also weighs in on public policy issues such as health care, domestic violence, affordable housing and environmental concerns.

The BJC has also secured millions of dollars in homeland security grants from the federal government for synagogues, day schools and Jewish organizations throughout the Baltimore area, including a $3 million increase this year for a total of $13 million in funding.

A centerpiece of the council’s work in Annapolis is its annual Advocacy Day, which was held earlier this week. Each year, concerned citizens — from teens in leadership programs to older adults — come together with legislators from their own districts to discuss the pressing issues of the current legislative session.

Advocacy Day is a unique and outstanding opportunity for members of our community to be counted and to be heard. Many of these issues are of great significance to the Jewish community as a whole; hearing from these advocates offers our local politicians a greater understanding of the issues that resonate with our community.

Many of the politicians who meet with constituents on Advocacy Day are important partners in the agenda for the future health of our community. They work with professionals from The Associated and lay leaders on committees, participate in planning discussions and serve on task forces in either actual or ad hoc roles.

As members of this community, we all benefit from the advocacy provided by the BJC; and there is an opportunity for each of us to play a role. Although Advocacy Day has passed, there are numerous opportunities available to anyone looking to get involved with community advocacy. I encourage you to visit the BJC’s website at www.baltjc.org to learn what you can do to make your voice heard.

Linda A. Hurwitz is chair of Community Planning and Allocations for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Jewish Values, Refugees And Lost Opportunities

Nearly 60,000 Africans fleeing war, oppression and violence have sought refuge in Israel, a prosperous and democratic country established in 1948 by refugees themselves.

These asylum seekers were not just fleeing from oppression but to a prosperous and democratic country. While Israel’s courts have protected them and new Israeli friends have defended them, the welcome asylum seekers have received has been less than warm. In fact, the official government term for these individuals is “infiltrators,” and they are unofficially known as “illegal work migrants.” Concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods, supporting themselves by working only in the gray market, labeled a threat by the government and living on the margins of society, their treatment has exacerbated social tensions in places such as south Tel Aviv.

The Israeli government’s response was to build a fence to prevent new unauthorized border crossings. By all accounts, the fence has been a success with crossings now close to zero.

The success of the fence, by limiting the potential for new arrivals, presented Israel with an opportunity to demonstrate the Jewish values of human dignity, refugee protection and treating the stranger among us as thyself. The Israeli government could have pursued this opportunity simply by ceasing to call asylum seekers “infiltrators” and by allowing those already in Israel to remain and work legally until it is safe to return home.

That opportunity was squandered.

The Knesset instead amended the “anti-infiltration law” that, in effect, allowed the government to detain “infiltrators” in prison for up to three years. Consequently, thousands of asylum seekers were arrested and jailed until Israel’s High Court unanimously struck down the detention provisions on Sept. 16, 2013. The court ruled that “since ancient times, people have always fought for freedom. Denying the freedom of the infiltrators by imprisoning them for a long period of time is a critical and disproportionate limitation of their rights, their bodies and their souls. We must not forget our basic principles that flow from the declaration of independence and our moral duty toward every person, as a person, as they are etched on the basic pattern of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

As the Jewish homeland, Israel has made the job of HIAS, established 130 years ago to provide a welcoming new home for Jewish refugees and migrants, much easier. Israel was est- ablished to do the same and has succeeded. HIAS and the global Jewish community have no better friend than Israel, a democratic state that much of the time sets a positive example for the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers is not worthy of a free and democratic Jewish state. The Knesset reacted to the unanimous court ruling by passing another law, this one placing asylum seekers in what it calls an “open” facility. These internment camps, located in a remote corner of the desert, require check-ins three times a day with violators moved to prisons.

With the new law, the government of Israel squandered yet another opportunity to demonstrate Jewish values to the rest of the world.

Recently, approximately 20,000 asylum seekers held a peaceful demonstration to protest the new law and the government’s latest actions against them, and they staged a national strike to protest their treatment.

“We fled because our lives are in danger in our home countries; we are asylum seekers,” the protesters said in a news statement. “We call on the public not to believe the government’s lies.”

The Tel Aviv office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also asked the government to stop “sowing fear and chaos” among the migrants, who, it said, should be referred to as “asylum seekers” and not “infiltrators,” and urged the Israeli government “to examine the asylum requests of the foreigners and stop the large-scale arrests in south Tel Aviv.”

How has the government reacted? By missing still another opportunity to show the world how asylum seekers should be treated. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said he was “not impressed with all the crying and complaining” and further fanned tensions by suggesting that we should “think about the Israelis who have lost their jobs [to the migrants].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Net-anyahu further argued that “we are not talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers who will be brought to justice.” Yet, the Netanyahu government’s misnamed National Status Granting Body stacks the deck against asylum seekers, denying more than 99 percent of all applicants asylum, the highest rejection rate in the developed world.

The American Jewish community should not miss this opportunity to encourage our friend Israel to lead by example on Jewish values about the treatment of others, particularly the persecuted and the stranger among us.

Mark Hetfield is president and CEO of HIAS, the international Jewish nonprofit agency that advocates on behalf of refugees.

Only Israeli Scholars Are Complicit In The Actions Of Their Government

As the recent calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israeli universities by the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association clearly indicate, an ideological imbalance in the professoriate has resulted in a collective antipathy toward Israel as the latest villain in the academic left’s panoply of oppressors — this time the victim of the moment, the Palestinians.

This view of the colonial oppression by the occupier, Israel, against a guiltless indigenous people, the Palestinians, is, of course, nothing new on campus. What is unique about the MLA’s and the ASA’s approach is the breathtakingly Orwellian notion that not only is the Jewish state itself guilty of the many alleged transgressions assigned to it by its libelers, but a boycott against Israeli academics is warranted because the academic establishment itself is complicit in Zionism’s excesses and a core element of the bemoaned occupation, oppression and denial of Palestinian self-determination.

This fatuous notion, in fact, is one of the core principles of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, articulated in its “Academic Freedom or Academic Privilege: In defense of the Academic Boycott of Israel,” which suggests that Israeli universities “are part and parcel of the prevailing ideology that accepts and treats the political regime in all its aspects — the military, the intelligence agencies, the government — as a benign feature of the social-political landscape.”

At the MLA annual conference in Chicago this month, one of those on a panel addressing a resolution to chastise Israel was Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Palestinian academic boycott campaign. His view is that Israeli academia not only has a moral obligation to right the wrongs in Israel, but it also is a co-enabler, if not co-conspirator, in the continued occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

“For decades,” Barghouti writes, “Israeli academic institutions have been complicit in Israel’s colonial and racist policies,” and “not only do most Israeli academics defend or justify their state’s colonial narrative, they play a more active role in the process of oppression.”

Making academics responsible for — even complicit in — the machinations of the current government and justifying a boycott as a result is normally an anathematic proposition for professors. Besides applying a perverse double standard to Israeli academics by making them liable for the actions of their government, and punishing them for this perceived liability, the idea that universities in Israel are any more influential in shaping government policy, administering the nation’s laws or overseeing its defense is itself a radical departure from what is ever blamed on a university and the people who comprise it.

As the academic boycotters might have noticed, like Israel’s universities, U.S. universities rely on and frequently accept billions of dollars of defense-applied contracts from the Department of Defense; specifically, between 2000 and 2006 the total number of contracts to universities rose from 5,887 to 52,667 with $46.7 billion granted to universities in 2006 alone.

In fact, many of the universities where some of the foremost defamers of Israel teach benefit from the largesse of the Defense Department and could, by the same logic being applied to Israeli universities, be condemned for facilitating and contributing to the creation of the military/industrial complex that many on the left decry as emblematic of U.S. imperialism, colonialism and militarism.

David Lloyd, another anti-Israel, pro-boycott speaker who spoke on the MLA panel, is a professor at UC Riverside, part of the California university system that in 2009 received $766,179,039 in defense-related research funding. That embarrassing detail about his own university system aside, Lloyd is still content with denouncing any connection between Israeli universities and the country’s military.

“By endorsing the boycott,” he writes, “we withhold our consent from collaboration with academic institutions that are part and parcel of Israel’s ongoing occupation, furnishing its technical infrastructure and expanding onto stolen lands.”

As another example, Stanford University, which in 2011 received nearly $72 million from the Defense Department, is home to Joel Beinin, professor of history and Middle East history. Beinin’s intent, as it is for Israel-haters worldwide, is to make any defensive actions on the part of Israel seem an overreaction, regardless of how many of its citizens have been murdered or how many threats against its very existence have been proclaimed.

“According to both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon,” Beinin writes dismissively, “Israel is engaged in a war despite the spectacularly unequal military balance in the conflict,” as if a nation reacting to unprovoked attacks on its citizens is compelled to ensure that its enemy is equally armed and that the fight will be “fair.”

In 2011, the University of Michigan was awarded almost $15 million in defense contracts, which ought to have been upsetting to the school’s conspiracy-frenzied Juan Cole, whose regular rants in his blog, Informed Comment, take swipes at Israeli and American defense while simultaneously excusing Arab complicity for violence and terror. In fact, according to Cole, it is the militancy of the West that causes the endemic problems in the Middle East and makes America guilty for its moral and financial support of Israel.

At Harvard University, which annually receives some $44 million of DoD funding, Sara Roy, a researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies, is an apologist for Hamas, intent on absolving Hamas from any wrongdoing. She and Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton co-authored an article for the Christian Science Monitor in which they conjured up the fantasy of a “New Hamas,” a now-benign political group the authors felt was deserving of recognition by Western diplomats. And in Roy’s own op-ed in the Monitor, she only started counting rockets lobbed into Israel from Gaza after, she said, Israel violated some illusory cease-fire of which apparently only she and the “new” Hamas were aware.

The current accusation made against Israeli scholars that imputes a moral responsibility on Israeli academics for the political behavior of their government is particularly baleful. In this perverse assault on academic integrity, and even good sense, a whole nation of scholars is tarred with the same brush of virulent anti-Israel activism, so, as commentator Howard Jacobson put it, “All are guilty by association with the heinous ideology of their country, that is to say, guilty by simple virtue of being Israelis.”

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., author of “Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews,” is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Breaking Bread Together

012414_israel_ariIt seems to me that so many Jewish conversations recently have devolved into divisive rhetoric about Israel; rather than being dialogues, these exchanges position one single-minded extreme against the other. Long gone are the age-old positive Jewish characteristics of civility and warmth. Instead, let’s shift the conversation from rights and wrongs to rights and responsibilities.

Created in the image of G-d, we all have the right to be treated with dignity and the responsibility to emulate Ben Zoma’s ethical charge in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all humans.”

Hillels across the country pioneered religious pluralism and can model it for Israel discourse as well. Instead of arguing about the dimensions of the Jewish homeland or which side of the political door one places oneself, perhaps we can emphasize Jewish values inside our homes and how they define our Jewish lives and inspire our neighbors.

At Maryland Hillel, the unique Shabbat culture combines tradition, community, religion, culture and celebration, bringing more than 500 Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Jews all under one roof. Hillel Shabbat serves as a great common equalizer, bringing diverse Jews together to share a Jewish meal and experience Judaism’s splendor. You might find a Birthright Israel alumnus who just celebrated Shabbat for the first time sitting next to a day-school student who has always observed Shabbat. You will meet students on the left, center, right, and off the chart, warmly conversing in deep discussion out of mutual respect and, more important, affinity for the other. Students know that the broad spectrum of opinion brings out the best in them, forming a magnetic and welcoming Jewish community.

This past November, 1,600 diverse students celebrated the Gorlin Family Foundation Shabbat Across Maryland (SHABBAM) in more than 80 campus locations. This endeavor broke down barriers and brought students from different communities together under one Jewish umbrella to eat and schmooze. The focus was on students enjoying each other’s company, celebrating Shabbat on their own terms and celebrating their commonality of being a Jew.

Can we try this in Baltimore? Can we reach out to those beyond our own families and synagogue communities to invite others to our Shabbat table to explore together Judaism’s meaning and relevance? Let’s SHABBAB — Shabbat Across Baltimore — together and open our homes and hearts to all.

This Shabbat, when our table conversations may focus on Israel and other topics that could sadly erect barriers between us, in the spirit of Shabbat menucha, let’s rest and call a Jewish truce and argue over whether one likes hard or soft matzah balls, brisket, gefilte fish or tofu or talk about the relevance of the Torah portion or a good Jewish story. Soak up the moment simply spending precious time with friends, family and loved ones and collectively recharging our spiritual batteries. Then, after Havdallah, let’s serenely discuss Israel with the noble Jewish value of mentchlichkeit.

Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director of Maryland Hillel.

Mourning a Pet Dog

012414_laudau_chaimFor the sake of transparency, allow me to admit that I am an Orthodox rabbi who does own a pet dog. She is a truly wonderful creature: Tame, gentle, loving and tender, she seems to think that everyone on two legs is her best friend and avoids as much as possible the four-legged alternatives. Approaching 11 years in human terms of counting — great-grandmotherly by hers — she loves the finer things of life: lying on her favorite sofa, bed or area in the house, all extended members of our family and, of course, her Kibbles ’n Bits.

She is a black lab and radiates unconditional love, trust and total absolute faith in her household to do what is right for her and accede to her basic needs, which are very few indeed: Feed me, walk me, show affection to me and listen to me. No other relationship comes with such an easy list of responsibilities and at so cheap for the price.

Of course, there are always the party poopers: those who make the claim that dogs are muktzeh and therefore, a priori, are forbidden in a traditional Jewish household. I would respectfully counter that this is a total cop-out. For if there ever was a paradigm of a muktzeh living organism, then I would definitely include the human being, tainted as he or she is, with so many spiritual failings — lashon hara, hypocrisy, judging others before themselves, the list is endless.

So given all those unique qualities inherent in a pet dog and given the vacuum caused by its death, you would want to acknowledge its impact on your life by mourning its passing. I would have to say in all honesty, “Go for it.” I am certainly not suggesting the full menu of keriah, shiva, sheloshim and Kaddish. Rather, if a life has been lived and yours has been eminently enhanced because of that life — and has allowed you to bring out truly the best of your qualities toward that living entity — then absolutely, a certain measure of mourning is quite appropriate and, one might even say, religiously appropriate. For if, in the traditional sense, mourning a two-legged family member who has impacted you most positively and beautifully deserves nothing less than a total religious response in ritual and remembrance, then certainly the four-legged alternative deserves a meaningful ritual response too.

And if you ever needed a response to those who would pooh-pooh the close bonds of affection formed between owner and dog, then never be afraid to counter with the facts of how much time you spend walking the dog, which the latter instinctively rewards with a Jewish response of hakarat hatov with a feisty wagging of the tail. Remind those naysayers of the times you just chilled out talking to the dog and just knowing, by their response, how much they truly understood. And, most
important of all, never forget to mention the sensitivity of their hearts as they stared at you with those eyes that you shall never forget, long after they will have passed away.

And then confidently exclaim that if there ever was an example of a living object that showed so much Jewishness in its behavior, then how could anyone ever question the need to mourn the passing of such an animal? The rabbis tell us that we can learn so much from the animal world; from a loving pet, too, we can learn no less. In that regard, mourning would be most appropriate and meaningful.

Rabbi Chaim Landau serves as president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.