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.

Finding Lessons in the Redwood Forest

The tree is a sustaining metaphor in Judaism. It stands at the center in the Garden of Eden, perhaps the first metaphor authored by Adam and Eve. The Torah is referred to as a tree of life, it’s teaching an illumination of meaning and happiness. The first Psalm reads that the happiness of the individual is likened to “a tree planted beside the streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, whose foliage never fades and whatever it produces it thrives.” Isaiah 11:1-10, meanwhile, imagines redemption will grow as a new shoot out of an old stump — a time still to come that will give birth to wisdom, truth and reverence for what we have failed to achieve previously.

Trees thrive as individuals and within communities. The redwood tree, which is part of the sequoia family, is the oldest and tallest in North America. While each one is awe-inspiring on its own, together they exist because they stand in groves nourished by neighboring organisms in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The 400-year-old Parson Jones tree that stands in Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, Calif., is a stunning example. Its neighbors feed its beauty and longevity and support the tree to pillar into the heavens.

A tree’s health depends on its ability to weather internal and external circumstances. Trees grow not only in groves, but also in families and generations. Four-century-old elders reach high into the sky, while as many as five or six adolescent trees can be found surrounding it. Still another generation of saplings, barely rooted, grows just outside the circle of the adolescent generation, blending in with the ferns and mosses that stick low to the ground of a redwood forest.

An elder tree protects the younger generation, as well as itself, by preventing them from taking over the role of tallest tree in the forest. But the moment that the eldest tree falls, naturally or not, the next generation shoots up and grows into their new role.

Until this generational shift takes place, the various generations of trees occupy their places in this chain. When the shift does take place, however, they move with ease into their new roles and new shapes in the forest. The process takes place internally unless external factors come into play and disrupt the natural order. Trees are cut down for homes, heat and development, their fellers ignorant of or lacking care for the effect on the entire system. A forest’s health and the health of the surrounding ground are profoundly affected by the simplest of changes.

The health of these trees and their forests is analogous to Judaism and Jewish life. Just as these forests stand at a crossroads in their own sustenance and viability, so too does Jewish life and identity in 21st-century America. During the season of Tu B’Shevat, let us remember the ways in which the trees and other aspects of God’s creation can inform how we think about our own individual and communal lives as we work to strengthen our ecosystem and ourselves.

Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.

Relevance Defined

Relevance. We use this word a great deal at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Recently, a community leader asked me what it means. I thought it was an excellent question, one worth exploring.

In order for people to donate to any cause, they want to have some sort of meaningful connection to it. What is the value of the organization as it relates to them personally? Is it something they care about? Does the cause impact them directly? Does the organization affect the community in which they live? How will a donation make an impact on their lives? Would their lives be any different without the organization? Many of these questions are difficult to answer, because as a fundraiser, the hope is that “giving” is about exactly that, that nothing is expected in return. The challenge is to make the case for giving relevant.

Relevance as it relates to philanthropy is why survivors, after a health crisis, so easily rally around fundraising for a particular medical cause. It touches them deeply and personally. Such individuals want to ensure there is money for researching a cure, for treatment and for education about prevention.

One popular dictionary defines relevance as “relation to the matter at hand.” So it begs the question: At the Federation, what exactly is the matter at hand? But in the case of donors, the relevance of something might frequently be different depending on each one’s particular point of view.

We have a donor in the Howard County Jewish community who feels to her very core that much of our efforts and financial resources should be put toward the Jewish future. Therefore, Federation programs and initiatives that have to do with Jewish education and engaging young families are relevant to her. We have another donor whose passion is Israel. He was thrilled to hear we brought an Israeli representative to Howard County this year so that Israel had a name and a face. The program, implemented in partnership with the Jewish Agency, is relevant to him. And we have married donors who want to make sure their teenagers have other Jewish kids with whom to socialize. In a diverse community, having a BBYO program associate working at the Federation is relevant to them.

The Jewish Federation is not a simply explained organization. We do so much for Jews around the corner and around the world, and so the message can easily get lost. The case for giving can quickly become something amorphous to which no one can relate. When you take time to delve into what we do, however, I know that if you care one bit for this huge thing we call Jewish community, you will find something of relevance to you.

Michelle Ostroff is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

BBYO Targets Eighth-Graders

This winter, the Baltimore Council of the BBYO will look to bring the BBYO experience to Jewish eighth-graders. The teens will have an opportunity to make friends who go to different schools, to learn about the BBYO and maybe even to hold leadership positions in the organization. Most importantly, the goal will be to bring the fun and excitement of the BBYO to more teens in Baltimore.

“BBYO is an incredible place for Jewish teens to find their Jewish identity, meet other teens with similar interests, make lifelong friendships and learn leadership skills that will stick with them for the rest of their lives,” Ilana Kornblatt, a senior at Pikesville High School and the Baltimore Council’s MIT-Mom (vice president of recruitment), explained.

From sports to dances, sisterhood and brotherhood events to meetings, the BBYO experience will be extended to eighth-graders in Baltimore. This eighth-grade initiative — “It’s Gr-Eight” — will focus on giving eighth-graders the opportunity to become involved on a chapter level in the Baltimore Council.

“This month, the Baltimore Council will be in full swing for eight-grade recruitment,” Kornblatt said. “We are having an Open House on Jan. 23 geared specifically for eighth-graders and a councilwide kickoff event on Feb. 1.”

Through this programming, the Baltimore Council will look to develop the next generation of leaders in the BBYO. The fun, social programming, as well as Judaic-based programming, will give eighth-graders the full BBYO experience before they enter high school.

For more information about the Baltimore Council’s upcoming events, contact Danielle Hercenberg at or 410-559-3549.

Returning Home

When I was a little girl, I remember my mother gently telling me that there is a G-d and He loves us. She would say that her mother told her the same thing. This simple knowing formed the foundation of what I believed about the world, filling me with an innate sense of security.

In the Reform synagogue of my youth, there was a lot of talk about social justice and compassion for the suffering. And I’m grateful for that because those discussions made me a more sensitive, caring person. But there was not a lot of talk about G-d. I wanted to learn more about the G-d of which my mother spoke, and I couldn’t understand why there was so little discussion of Him when I went to “temple,” despite His frequent mention in the prayer book and Torah translations. I concluded that Judaism is not a spiritual religion; it seemed more like a social club and ethics society. I wasn’t even sure Reform rabbis believed in G-d, much less loved Him. With each passing year, I grew less and less interested in anything Jewish. I wanted more connection, more meaning and more depth. So began a long spiritual quest.

I learned to meditate, I studied Eastern and Native American religions, I read the New Testament, and I immersed myself in a New Age world of theosophy and mystics. I became a healer, a lightworker, a universalist. All religions were true. All names for G-d were the same. I drew my circle bigger and bigger to include everyone — all the while writing, singing and recording my “G-d-intoxicated” music. I had found my home and was happy for a time but for a gnawing restlessness. Something was missing.

A free-spirited musician friend of mine became an Orthodox Jew, and I thought she had lost her mind. I considered myself spiritual, not religious — never religious! One was enlightened and open; the other, clueless and closed. She tried for years to open my eyes to Torah Judaism, but I was the one who was clueless and closed. Clueless, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And closed, because I thought I knew. Finally, after seven years, my friend said the right combination of trigger words to unlock my heart and mind to the possibility that Orthodox Judaism was not what I thought it was. She sent me home with a stack of books and tapes that I devoured and then savored and pored over. Lo and behold, I discovered a vast, deep ocean of spirituality that surpassed the wisdom of all the yogis and New Age sages I had been studying for 20 years. My constant refrain was, “Why didn’t they tell me that?” followed by, “What else didn’t they tell me?” It seemed to me that my true, authentic religion was like a hearty 613-grain bread that was kept from me while I was given processed white bread to eat, stripped of nutrients.

Now I only wanted authentic, pure Judaism, not a diluted, retrofitted, design-your-own Judaism based on what is convenient and politically correct. After intense studying and questioning, I concluded that the Torah was written by G-d and that its commandments and laws are G-d’s manual for how to live a holy life as a Jew. I decided that if this is what G-d asks of me, I will obey out of my love and service to Him. And if that meant singing exclusively for women, I considered it an honor to use my music to do the will of the One who gave me a voice in the first place. Is not my compliance the least I can do to thank G-d for His gifts and blessings?

Living in modern times does not make me wiser than the greatest leaders of our people, from Abraham to Moses to Maimonides — spiritual giants who brought the Jewish people closer to G-d through observing, not reforming, His commandments. The Judaism of the first Jew, Abraham, the prototype and patriarch of our people, was centered on G-d and mankind’s relationship to Him. A desire to connect with G-d is encoded in the spiritual DNA of every Jew. That desire may lie dormant or may be covered over, but a Jew’s soul and her Creator are bound together for eternity.

Through becoming Orthodox and observing the Torah, my relationship with G-d has greatly developed and continues to deepen and sweeten. He is front and center in my life every day. My thoughts and conversations are filled with Him. I am aware that everything in my life comes from Him. This is the relationship I yearned for as a child growing up in the Reform world, the Judaism my soul craved that was waiting for me in my own backyard.

An Outrage That Is Not Academic

The American Studies Association, a scholarly group supposedly dedicated to the study of American culture and history, recently voted to boycott Israeli institutions. On one level, it is tempting to ignore its decision. The ASA is a small, marginal organization whose impact on academic affairs, much less American foreign policy, is negligible. Moreover, it is not clear how many Israeli scholars actually attend ASA gatherings or, given their good sense, would choose to do so if they could.

Nevertheless, the ASA decision does matter. There is a worldwide movement to delegitimize Israel, and much of its strength has come from the academic world. Up until now, the focus of these efforts has been in Europe and the Middle East. The United States has been largely immune. It matters then if the ASA decision is the first step in a larger movement in which American academic bodies censure Israel or if it is seen as simply the efforts of Israel haters craving attention that will soon die out.

As tempting as it might be, if the ASA decision is to be marginalized, focusing on its unfairness is not the path to take. Of course, it is absurd to boycott Israel for its policies in the West Bank, when other countries, including American allies such as Pakistan, have done far worse. Of course, to single out Israel from all other countries smacks of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism. But it is not productive to base the opposition to the ASA decision by focusing on whether Israeli actions justify a boycott.

Instead, the best way to confront the ASA is to draw on the same academic values it claims drove it to launch the boycott in the first place, namely its commitment to academic freedom. Academic organizations that are true to their mission believe in open inquiry and debate. They do not believe in denying scholars the right to speak or attend conferences simply because of their nationality, whatever policies their governments may pursue. Presumably, these values explain why the ASA has never boycotted other countries, including South Africa when it was an apartheid state. As such, even if all the criticisms leveled by the ASA on Israeli policies were true, even if Israeli policies were worse than those of North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others that the ASA did not seem fit to rebuke, boycotting Israeli academic institutions would still not be justified because it is a clear and blatant violation of academic freedom.

By demonstrating that the ASA is violating both what it says it stands for and what all academic organizations are supposed to work toward, the poison that it seeks to spread will be contained. That will be good for Israel and academia.

Steven R. David is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

A Homecoming

I grew up Jewish. Simply Jewish.

My late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, raised us in an observant Orthodox household. Our lives were filled with beautiful ritual, and we celebrated the wonder of a familial spiritual connection.

That said, we also danced along the fine line of progressive Judaism. My father’s Torah was an expression of the beauty of Judaism. He taught the world to love and cherish Shabbat — even on a Tuesday — and to love Jewish rituals in an openhearted, expansively spiritual way that often set him apart and alienated him from many established religious groups.

My father’s true goal was to raise Jewish life above the rote performance of ritual acts. He wanted the light and redemptive message of the Torah to make all of humanity deeper — more empathetic, loving and capable of kindness. He often said that effecting global healing was the reason we were in the world to begin with.

Though it sometimes got him in trouble with the Orthodox establishment, my father was an active member and lover of all interfaith experiences. He attended many different houses of worship, sang with people of all colors, faiths and backgrounds and attended conferences where he spoke about finding true unity for all of God’s children.

Significantly, he encouraged women to learn and read Torah. At his synagogue he created the space for women to physically dance with the Torah and stand next to the ark on holidays.

For this passion and commitment, my father’s life was complicated. Within the Orthodox world he was a visionary who stood alone and was too often lonely.

As the daughter of this great man, I bear witness to the intolerance, cruelty and ostracism he suffered for daring to step outside the daled amot, the personal space of observant Jewish life. As his child, I suffered alongside him when he tried to give me a platform to sing, the outcry from my Orthodox brothers and sisters invariably drowning out my voice and suffocating my love for Jewish tradition.

Strengthened by my father’s love and vision, I persisted. It was not easy being taunted and called names, hearing angry voices and seeing the enraged faces of those who believed — genuinely believed — that what I called prayer was an affront to God. Looking back, I believe that the ugliness I saw was motivated not by a desire to hurt me personally but by a deep misunderstanding of the message of our Torah and what it means to be a Jew in the modern world.

Looking back, I feel sadness and sorrow for this narrow vision, this narrow place, an Egypt of the mind. I know, as my father knew, that the redemption of the world will come from the opposite impulse: expansive love and inclusivity. Isn’t that what klal Yisrael, the whole of the Jewish community, is about?

I have just experienced this in an amazing way, having returned from a most remarkable event — the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. Five thousand people strong, it is one of the most spirited and important events in the Jewish world and the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America.

Before I arrived at the Convention Center in San Diego, I felt honored and excited at the opportunity to be able to offer my music and heart to those with whom I don’t often have the chance to connect — my Reform brothers and sisters. The Conservative Jewish world has been a warm and loving home away from home for me (and I had the dazzling experience of joining The Conversation of the Century by headlining at the centennial of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism this past October in Baltimore). Many of the Conservative Jews I know share practices and beliefs close to the open-minded Orthodoxy I experienced as a child. But Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.”

That world was far away from mine — or so I thought.

Boarding the plane for the West Coast, I did not know what to expect; I certainly had no inkling of the personal transformation that awaited me. So, it is with an overflowing heart and soul that I must report, as I did on the stage on Saturday night, that my soul made an aliyah at the URJ’s biennial.

Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was. The tikkun olam mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the prayer and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

In his passionate keynote address, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke about the commitment to a path of progressive change, to inclusivity, social justice, nurturing the next generation, egalitarian values and spiritual relationship to all that the Torah stands for. Standing among 4,999 other delegates, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I found myself moved to tears, inspired and grateful. And when Rabbi David Ellenson, the outgoing head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion spoke on Shabbat morning, his warmth and scholarship opened my eyes as well as my heart.

Having felt like a refugee from Orthodoxy for the past couple of decades, I felt like I found a new family with values I can get behind. And so, at my show on Saturday night, I told the audience I was making aliyah to the Reform movement. I know that statement made a great sound bite, but I meant every word. To be clear, when people make aliyah, they take all parts of themselves with them. I have not abandoned anything that is intrinsic to me; I’ve simply expanded myself and been elevated. I’ve been blessed.

In San Diego, I touched something brand new and yet deeply familiar. It reminded me of my father’s teachings. It gave me a feeling of homecoming.

And perhaps that is the best that we can aspire to: a homecoming. Let us return again and again to the land of our souls. Let us transcend our differences and discover that we are one people, regardless of our label, movement or denomination. Let us make aliyah every day to who we are, to what we are, to where we are born and reborn again.

Celebrating Trees

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaTu B’Shevat, the “New Year for trees” that falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, occurs in less than two weeks, on Jan. 16. Trees get their own New Year for a very practical reason: There is a Torah prohibition regarding eating the fruit from trees for the first three years. Tu B’Shevat, a time when the first blossoms are typically seen in Israel, is used for calculating the age of trees and their fruit for this negative mitzvah, known as orla, as well as for the laws of the seven-year agricultural cycle, known as shmittah.

In Israel it is the nearing of the end of winter, after the rains have soaked through the earth, replenishing the ground with the strength to bring forth a new season. But for many of us in this part of the country, it’s still the middle of winter. Various traditions have been created around the significance of the day, such as eating a new fruit and planting a tree and donating or collecting for planting trees in Israel. To reflect upon the more spiritual significances, organized seders have been adopted in many communities, which often relate to our role and partnership with nature.

Trees are a central focus in Judaism. The Torah is referred to as etz chaim, the tree of life, throughout our liturgy. “It’s a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” Like a tree with massive roots anchoring it in the ground, the Torah is our link through the generations; it’s what connects us to our creator and our purpose on earth, providing sustenance for who we are and why we’re here.

In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we read how unlike people, trees cannot defend themselves, and we are forbidden from destroying them. It is this prohibition against the meaningless destruction of the trees that was extended by great Torah commentators to a generalized prohibition against waste, known as bal tashchit: “This is the law not only for trees; anyone who breaks containers, tears clothes, destroys a building, stops up a well or wastes food violates the prohibition of ‘do not destroy.’”

Tu B’Shevat has come to be associated with recognition and appreciation of our natural world and our stewardship of the earth. Environmental and sustainability efforts often employ graphics using parts of or whole trees. They are symbols that tie us to the earth and symbolize deep, meaningful and long-lasting roots that can sustain generations. There are many great resources and teachings to use this Tu B’Shvat. Here are a few suggestions:

Canfei Nesharim >>

Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake Tree Plantings >>

Baltimore County’s Big Tree Sale >> (every spring and fall)

Baltimore City’s Tree Baltimore >>

Tree Planting tips and community plantings >>

Aleeza Oshry is a professional geologist, educator and sustainability expert.

A Real-life Solution To The Agunah Problem

I have testified unsuccessfully in Annapolis three times over the past 20 years before committees of the Maryland legislature to urge the enactment of a modified version of the “get bill” that I personally drafted in 1982 at the urging of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, chief executive of Agudath Israel of America.

The “get law” was adopted by the New York Legislature and signed by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983. It withholds a civil divorce from any spouse who fails to take steps that would free his or her partner to remarry. The clerk of New York’s matrimonial court refuses to accept a complaint from a plaintiff in a divorce action who does not swear that he or she has removed, or will remove, all “barriers to remarriage.”

In the three decades that it has been on the books, the law has probably nudged hundreds of men in New York who would otherwise not willingly go through the very un-cumbersome Jewish divorce procedure of authorizing the writing of a Jewish bill of divorce, known as a get, to wives whom they are civilly divorcing. On more rare occasions, it has even persuaded a wife who initiates divorce proceedings to voluntarily accept a get, a requirement for a valid Jewish Ashkenazic divorce. If not for the New York law, there would probably be many more agunot, or “chained women,” in New York’s Orthodox communities.

Although the latest effort in Annapolis was endorsed by the Orthodox Union and by the Jewish Relations Councils of both Baltimore and Washington and appeared to have broad support, it was scuttled because State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a professor at the American University College of Law, persuaded his colleagues that the law violated the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. But in the more than 30 years it has been in place in New York, no constitutional challenge to the law has succeeded.

There is no similar legal remedy in Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia. There have been instances of couples living in Maryland, sometimes with one spouse employed by the federal government in Washington, who have divorced and the husband has refused to authorize the writing of a get. Husbands have various personal motives for refusing to free their wives to remarry under Jewish law, ranging from pure vindictiveness to financial extortion. When I last appeared in Annapolis in 2007, we brought three real-life agunot to tell their stories to the Maryland legislative committees. All said they believed if Maryland had a “get bill” they would not be in the difficult straits in which they found themselves. Even this dramatic presentation did not move the Maryland legislature.

At the urging of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom Congregation, the District of Columbia Council is now considering a bill introduced by Councilmember Muriel Bowser know as the Protect Ex-Spouses from Harassment and Abuse Act of 2013. It would make a spouse “who, following a civil divorce, maliciously interferes by act or omission with the ability of the person’s former spouse to remarry” liable in a D.C. court for actual damages. The law applies explicitly “to instances in which the alleged interference or omission is related to religious law or practice.”

Granting actual damages to an agunah against a recalcitrant husband for the injury she suffers by being deprived of support and the opportunity to remarry is plainly equitable. It is also halachically correct, even though a get given under the compulsion of a secular court can be considered a “forced get” invalid in the eyes of Jewish Law.

My New York “get bill” was submitted to the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic authority in America, and he approved it in a written opinion in 1982. He ruled that withholding a secular divorce from a recalcitrant spouse was not coercion and would not invalidate a get given as a condition of receiving such a divorce.

I quote here from an earlier response of Nov. 12, 1979 that the rabbi wrote to Rabbi Jacob Zeltzer of Johannesburg: “Your second question asked whether it is considered a forced bill of divorce if a secular judge imposes on a husband who does not want to provide a Jewish divorce liability for the support and all needs of his spouse until he divorces her with a valid get. In fact, until the wife is divorced the husband is halachically obligated to support her and provide for her needs. She is entitled to go to a secular court to compel him to provide her support and all her needs. This is true even if the judge requires the husband to make support payments to a wife who is employed and earning an income. In any event, it is elementary that if the husband then divorces her with a get because he wishes to be relieved of this legal obligation it is not considered a forced bill of divorce, and it is a valid get beyond doubt.”

This ruling clearly authorizes an agunah to seek damages against a recalcitrant husband in a secular court for her support and other needs. If, in order to avoid the prospect of such a judgment or to be relieved of further liability, the husband then authorizes a get to be written, it is a valid Jewish divorce. Jewish organizations that are concerned over the plight of agunot have a duty to support this proposed D.C. legislation and see its equivalent enacted throughout the United States.

Nathan Lewin is a partner at Lewin & Lewin, LLP.

Inclusive Community

010314_Livingston,-JanetWhen a family member has a disability, meeting his or her needs and the difficulties that may arise from them can become a focal point for the family. These challenges are often in addition to the ups and downs of typical families and can add a new level of stress and concern to everyday life.

Thousands of families in our community face these realities. And unless you have experienced this situation firsthand, you might not be able to fully appreciate the complexities a disability can bring to a family.

We are fortunate that in Jewish Baltimore, we have The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and a cadre of dedicated professionals and volunteers who extend their hands in support to these families and individuals. The message delivered is clear: You are not alone; our Jewish community embraces and respects people of all abilities.

As co-chair of The Associated’s Caring Commission and co-chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Human Services and Public Policy Disability Committee, I am proud of the work we are doing to ensure that our communities are open and inclusive to people with disabilities and their families.

Last year, our community launched the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, a resource for people with disabilities and their families, both within and outside the Jewish community. In addition to a website with a resource directory and community forums, there is also a dedicated BJAA staff person. Other federation cities have since reached out to us for information about starting similar programs in their community.

For the last six years, we have celebrated our support for people with disabilities and their families with special programming in February, which has been designated Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. This year, The Associated and the BJAA at the Jewish Community Center are hosting a conference on Feb. 4 to raise awareness and encourage meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families. The conference will provide a Jewish context for inclusive practices.

Helping people with disabilities and their families enjoy a better quality of life is a priority for The Associated, which is actively engaged in initiatives to make this a reality by addressing some of the most pressing needs for people with disabilities, including job training and placement, housing and services for young adults as they transition from school-age to adulthood.

The Associated is one of five federations to receive a matching grant for the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, sponsored by JFNA and the Ruderman Foundation. Through this generous grant, a young adult with a physical, intellectual or developmental disability will be placed as a paid intern at The Associated. Three interns will be selected and will work a minimum of 10 hours a week for 16 to 18 weeks. The first intern will begin work later this month.

As the parent of a young adult who was diagnosed at age 9 with a disability, I have seen the level of services in both the Jewish and general communities improve through the years. I am happy to witness this improvement and take great pride in the strides my own community has made to ensure that every Jew in Baltimore feels welcomed and respected.

Janet B. Livingston is co-chair of The Associated’s Caring Commission and co-chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Human Services and Public Policy Disability Committee. To learn about resources in the community for people with disabilities and their families, visit