Howard County Federation Keeps Moving Forward

ftv_Michelle-OstroffWhen you look around Howard County, we do not seem like a community in need of philanthropy, in need of financial support. In reality, Howard County is no different than any other community in this country. From where I sit every day, I see people who need support … and the Jewish community turns to meet their needs. There are Holocaust survivors, one of whom I met with just this week, asking for our help. He had suffered unimaginable horror, surviving a concentration camp when he was just a boy. He now lives here on a very small fixed income with some help from his children, and all he wants is financial assistance to pay for a Russian TV station. It is our responsibility as a community to be able to help him.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is also our responsibility to support Jewish continuity — the Jewish future. This is not a case for financial need, but for Jewish peoplehood. Our future identity as a people must be nurtured by programs such as Birthright, PJ Library and BBYO. These are not to be regarded as supplemental programs, as nice to have but not needed. I will tell you — as a BBYO parent who has recently listened to 40 teens chanting Havdalah in my basement, 40 teens who are cheerleaders, dancers, soccer, baseball and basketball players,  musicians and Boy Scouts, 40 teens who are also building a strong Jewish identity — we need these programs, for they are our past, our present and our future.

It has been an honor to serve as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County these last four years, a role I will be leaving on July 29. During this time, we have done so much to grow the awareness of the Federation and serve more community members in meaningful ways, all while continuing to meet our core mission of helping those in need in Howard County, in Israel and around the world. I am especially proud of my incredible colleagues, whose dedication and partnership with the community enables programs such as PJ Library, Red Tent and Jew Year’s Eve to be such successes.

I am confident in the work we have accomplished together, the groundwork we have laid for the future and the continued success the Federation will have in building and enriching Jewish life. I know the Jewish Federation will go from strength to strength!

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

In America, New Levels of Generosity

Perhaps helped with several mega-gifts, American donors in 2015 were more generous than ever, according to the 61st issue of “Giving USA,” the annual report on charitable activity in the United States.

Total giving surpassed $373.3 billion, with several categories tracked by the report reflecting very significant increases in giving — both in real dollars as well as in inflation-adjusted dollars. Other figures of note:

Two-thirds of the $373 billion came from living individuals, while another $31.76 billion came from bequests and other legacy gifts; the largest share of the donations — $119.3 billion — went to the country’s houses of worship (including synagogues), reflecting the most money the religion category  has ever received; corporate  philanthropy — $18.45 billion — comprised only 5 percent of 2015 giving; and arts and cultural nonprofits saw a 20 percent increase in giving, making it the seventh-largest category that donors support.

These points should reflect significant optimism about the health of the country’s economy as we rebound from the Great Recession, knowing that giving is always considered a lagging indicator since philanthropy is usually the last obligation that people consider when times are tough.

The one aspect of giving that attracted the most attention  revolved around donor-advised funds, essentially a bank account for future giving by donors. The flourishing of such funds has caused a decrease in giving to America’s family foundations, and this has prompted some concerns about oversight of the funds at the federal level. Still, we are seeing — on average — approximately 22 percent of donor-advised assets distributed to legitimate charities, a figure substantially higher than minimum-required payouts from foundations.

What does the “Giving USA” report mean to Jews?

It is a wake-up call that giving is very much alive and well. But most nonprofits are still uncomfortable with changing their messages to attract more widespread support. In addition, while some of the wealthiest Jews contribute to Jewish priorities, they also direct enormous sums to museums, medical  research and higher education. Perhaps reflective of this, giving to Jewish Federations  nationwide — when taken over a 25-year period — has declined by 37.6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

I’d suggest that we collectively consider what could happen to total giving if each of us gave up a simple extravagance each week — such as  a $5 cup of Starbucks coffee  — and directed those funds  to philanthropy. With that very easy move, every Jewish nonprofit would see an immediate infusion of support, and the figures that “Giving USA” reports in the future would change markedly.

Robert Evans, who sits on the editorial review board of Giving USA, is founder of Evans Consulting Group, a Willow Grove, Pa.-based firm that helps  nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals.

The JCC’s Slippery Slope

We must always give credit to the leadership and dedicated staff and volunteers of The  Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and to its affiliated agencies. Baltimore has been extremely fortunate in building a solid Jewish infrastructure, and the Jewish community is known as one of great kindness.

Every Jewish Baltimorean must support and volunteer to work on behalf of our fine community. However, there is one terrible black mark. A recent and unfortunate decision by our Jewish Community Center board is the result of a slippery slope in the desecration of our Sabbath.

It started in 1978 and continued in 1997 when the JCC board voted to open the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Shabbat. With the guidance of Rabbi Herman Neuberger and other community rabbis, we mobilized the entire community against it. A powerful letter written by community leader Leroy Hoffberger in 1997 with Neuberger’s guidance and influence was successful in keeping the JCC closed on Shabbat. We were successful in preserving its sanctity.

Years later, there was a negotiated settlement to open the outdoor facilities only on Shabbat afternoons. Here began the slippery slope. It was agreed to never open an Associated agency building on Shabbat. In 2009, the issue once again surfaced. I helped organize a rally at Northwestern High School for over 4,500 attendees, a rally  organized to celebrate the sanctity of Shabbat. Unfortunately, the Owings Mills JCC proposed to open the building from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. as not to conflict with Saturday morning services. And now in 2016, the JCC board has voted to open on Shabbat mornings as well.

Shabbat is a pillar of Judaism. Opening an Associated facility on Shabbat is halachically wrong, and it will ultimately weaken the Jewish infrastructure of the Baltimore community.

Hashem gave us the gift of Shabbos, and we must observe and protect this special gift. No good can come out of this communal rejection of proper Shabbat observance.

The JCC leadership and its board fail to understand that the Shabbat communal observance is key to our religion and  heritage. We are to protect the Sabbath, but, in fact, the Sabbath protects us. As assimilation and intermarriage plague our Jewish existence and identity, opening a JCC or any Associated building on Shabbat destroys our Jewish heritage. It teaches our children wrong Jewish values, and it transgresses one of our 10 commandments.

I have always applauded the wonderful work of The Associated. But I am very disappointed in what I consider a very slippery slope. This current decision is a huge mistake, and it damages the reputation of Jewish Baltimore.

Eli W. Schlossberg is an area freelance writer and the author of “The World of Orthodox Judaism.”

The Magic of the Cavaliers’ Unlikely Victory

012414_laudau_chaimIt happens so rarely that if you caught the moment, you caught a piece of eternity.

That moment was Sunday night, June 19, when the final buzzer of Game 7 of the NBA finals was heard all around the country. And you caught the magic of that moment, before it dawned on anyone that Cleveland not only had accomplished the unexpected, but also had shocked the sporting world in having achieved the impossible.

History was trashed and forced to absorb the originality, the undescribed reality and the brilliance of that moment, which was that no team, just no team, comes back from a three-games-to-one deficit in a best-of-seven finals to win the NBA championship. Especially against the Golden State Warriors, that newly elevated team of teams that scored a stratospherically high number of 73 wins in a record-breaking regular season, shooting shots with the accuracy of a stealth bomber on steroids and with the expectations that the postseason would be a deliciously simple piece of (cheese)cake.  Even against someone as awe-inspiring as LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

So much for history! And yet it happened, ever so slowly over the duration of seven games that saw hopes rise and fall and dreams written and rewritten. For the Cavs were just meant to roll over by Game 5 and just add yet another sour disappointment to the ever-elastic list of Cleveland sports disappointments.

But it didn’t happen that way or any way that people were thinking. It happened the way the Cleveland Cavs believed … in LeBron, in their team and in their chance to turn history on its face. And even God seemed to intervene. For in the last four-and-a-half minutes of the final game, the Warriors, not known for missing any shots, just couldn’t hit a basket. It was as if the basket was on Mars. God had intervened and decided it was  LeBron and the Cavs’ time.

And it wasn’t that both teams played brilliantly well throughout the enterprise. But what we spectators were witnesses to were the moments of individual genius, athletic prowess, sports commitment and just plain old determination that made many of the players become supermen and rocketed this championship to a place in eternity.

We will remember this tournament as we tell it, with great pride, to our grandchildren, the brilliance of the play and the sanctity of that moment when the final buzzer was heard as the shot that went around the world, and we all watched  history scream with delight.

Yes, God does sit up in His heavens and laugh!

Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus of Ner Tamid Congregation.

UC Irvine Actually Safe Space for Jews

The Jewish students at the University of California-Irvine and our supporters took a strong stand this month, showing our campus community that we will not be intimidated or allow our vocal support for  Israel to be stifled.

Last month, a pro-Israel event sponsored by the UC Irvine student organization, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), with support from Hillel, was targeted by anti-Israel protestors on the UCI campus.

A dozen students had gathered in a classroom to watch the Jerusalem U film, “Beneath the Helmet.” The program was meant to inform young people how their contemporaries in  Israel prepare physically, mentally and emotionally for the awesome task of protecting their country. A screaming mob disrupted the screening, tried to force their way into the room and chased one student into hiding after she had been caught outside when the protestors arrived. Our students and staff had to be protected by campus police.

How ironic that at a sight intended for learning, anti-Israel students tried to shut learning down. Through bullying masquerading as social justice, they sought to make a statement that engagement with Israel will be met with harassment and intimidation.

The incident made news. It scared some people. And it made people question whether pro-Israel students can safely hold events on their own campus.

Three weeks later, the campus and broader communities made a statement of a different kind. More than 400 students, alumni and Jewish community members gathered for a rescreening of “Beneath the Helmet” at the UCI Student Center, on an evening that will be remembered as truly special.

IDF Cmdr. Eden Adler, featured in the film, attended the event and shared his personal story with the audience. We were joined by colleagues and friends from many other  organizations who partnered with us on this event, including Chabad of UCI, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships and the Secure Community Network of Jewish Federations of North America.

While the first screening was met with hostility, the rescreening, nearly 40 times bigger, was peaceful and celebratory.

Our messages that night were clear. The community and the university will not allow our students’ right to engage with  Israel on campus to be curtailed. Freedom of speech and assembly, and the rights to inquire and learn, are fundamental values of UCI that belong not to only some students, but to everyone. Most important, our students stated forthrightly that despite the egregious incident of May 18, they feel safe at UCI. They implored audience members to send their children and grandchildren to UCI in order to grow and strengthen the community of students connected to Israel.

 

Lisa Armony is executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County and director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.

The Greatest Threat to Palestinian Arab Youth

On May 19, The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper covering Congress, other governmental agencies and related activity, published a one-sided, anti-Israel op-ed entitled “Obama must act to protect Palestinian youth” by Brad Parker of Defense for Children International-Palestine. Parker claimed a special envoy for Palestinian children would “ensure that Palestinian children’s rights are not abused.” His commentary obscured the greatest threat to Palestinian Arab youths: manipulative Palestinian leaders promoting anti-Jewish incitement.

Parker claimed “recent violence” is due to “hopelessness” Palestinian youth feel over  Israel’s “violent military occupation.” He omitted the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian-Israeli violence since September 2015 has consisted of Arabs attacking Israelis, including children, with rocks, vehicles, knives and guns.

Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and genocide of Jews, disagrees with Parker’s assessment.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said as much in a speech at a rally on Jan. 19: “This intifada is not the result of despair. This intifada is a jihad, a holy war fought by the Palestinian people against the Zionist occupation,” meaning Israel, which unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Excusing Palestinian anti-Jewish violence as the result of “despair” over the lack of a Palestinian state, Parker omitted that Palestinian leaders have consistently rejected U.S. and Israeli offers of a “two-state  solution.”

Instead, the P.A. and Hamas have continued anti-Jewish incitement — frequently encouraging children to perpetrate  violent acts. Palestinian children’s TV shows teach “there is no Israel” and Jews are the “most evil among creations, wretched pigs.”

In its March report entitled “Educating the Next Generation,” the Mideast Freedom Forum, a German-based think tank, found that Palestinian school textbooks “consistently portray Jews in a strongly negative manner,” deny the existence of Israel and are awash with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In an article professing to advocate on behalf of Palestinian children, Parker failed to acknowledge the use of Palestinian children as human shields by groups like Hamas.

If Parker wants to “ensure that Palestinian children’s rights are not abused” he should speak to Palestinian leaders. But it’s doubtful he would find a willing reception. It’s unfortunate that The Hill, forgoing fact-checking, chose to give Parker’s unsubstantiated screed a platform.

Sean Durns is a media assistant for the Washington D.C., office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

Shabbos at the JCC: Crossing the Line

090613_Rabbi_Moshe_HauerLast week, the board of the JCC voted overwhelmingly to open the Owings Mills JCC for the full day on Shabbos, expanding on the afternoon opening that was initiated seven years ago. This is a troubling  decision.

During the broad communal debate over the initial Shabbos opening of the JCC, many asserted that it would be inappropriate to initiate, within a communal facility, a practice or program that trampled on the deeply held sensitivities of a significant segment of the community. That argument was rejected by the JCC and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which claimed that the Orthodox had their JCC in the Park Heights building, while the  Owings Mills campus belonged to the local non-Orthodox population. The argument — made by a community that functions under the slogan of “We Are One” — was disturbing then and is disturbing now, but it is what it is.

As a result of this premise, this latest decision should have come as no surprise. But it, nevertheless, is both surprising and profoundly disappointing and concerning.

The challenge of continuity grows stronger as connections grow weaker, as new generations of Jews come of age without memories of their Yiddish-accented bubbie and her Shabbos candles and holiday recipes.

 

It is surprising because the initial opening was undertaken with a clear red line, that in deference to Shabbos the  facility would open only in the afternoon and with a pledge that the Shabbos experience at the JCC would be enriched with meaningful and substantive elements that would make that day at the J different than any other. This latter pledge was never fulfilled, and now, seven years later, the red line has been crossed.

It is disappointing and concerning as we consider the frightening trends of disaffiliation in the Jewish community. This should be the dominant concern of Jewish leadership and the thrust of communal investment — financial and human — as we face the crisis of continuity exposed most  recently by the Pew study, but lived and witnessed by Jewish communal professionals and leaders each and every day.

The challenge of continuity grows stronger as connections grow weaker, as new generations of Jews come of age without memories of their Yiddish- accented bubbie and her Shabbos candles and holiday recipes. Yet in Baltimore, the trends  of disaffiliation in the non- Orthodox community, while alarming, have always been slower and better than in other communities. This does not appear to be a result of uniquely creative local programming initiatives, but rather can be attributed to our “bubbie substitutes,” i.e. The Associated’s commitment to maintaining a traditional structure and feel in its many robust organizations and facilities, and the unique cohesion and connection between the community’s various segments. These have provided the community with both structural and human anchors of Jewish identity and continuity.

The challenge faced by the JCC leadership is significant and understandable. The Owings Mills Jewish community is shrinking and not attracting young Jewish families, such that a significant percentage of new JCC members in Owings Mills are from outside the Jewish community. These members are joining the JCC not for Jewish community but for recreational convenience, and to attract them the JCC feels the need to compete with a new LA Fitness opening in the area. The result is a Jewish communal organization and facility that, in its struggle for financial viability, has chosen to drop critical elements of its traditional structure and to become less of a place of Jewish cohesion and connection, with the wishful hope of compensating for that profound loss with well-meaning promises of effective Jewish programming.

If we are in the business of keeping our fitness facilities operating in the black, then this may be a good business decision. But if we are in the business of maintaining, building and nurturing a Jewish  future and stopping the alarming erosion in the parts of the Jewish community that the JCC was  created to keep connected, it  appears to be a very poor  business decision.

In the past, The Associated recognized that these decisions were not local to the JCC’s membership, finance and planning committees but represented existential questions that needed to be addressed by a broader conversation with communal leadership. This time, they have not stepped forward to do that. They should.

All of us in the Jewish community face a challenging future and must share a commitment to do what we can to keep all Jews identified with the Jewish community. We need to put our heads together and consider what has worked and what has not; to choose how to invest our human and financial resources in ways that make sense for the real business at hand — maintaining, building and nurturing our Jewish future.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the spiritual leader of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion  Congregation and a member of the board of The Associated: Jewish  Community Federation of Baltimore.

We Are One Community

040315_Neumann-MarkWe often hear that Baltimore is a special community. But it is when I travel to other Jewish communities that I am truly reminded about the incredible community we’ve built in  Baltimore.

One of the secrets to our success is that we have worked hard to engage all parts of our community. So many times, I will hear from professionals and leadership who wonder how we bring these diverse voices together to listen  respectfully to one another’s opinions. How do we use those different opinions to develop policy and programs that benefit our Jewish community?

I think part of it is the realization The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore made years ago, that we are stronger working  together than working independently. It’s the recognition that we all understand that, as Jews, no matter what our  denomination or proclivity, we share the same values, even if we may interpret things a bit differently.

During my past two years as chair of the board of The Associated, I’ve seen this numerous times when I look and observe who is sitting around the table. From a teen program to a task force meeting on senior citizens, people of all denominations and ages are present, discussing issues of mutual concern. Whether we are talking about Israel, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or our growing senior population, I like to think everyone has a voice.

What we’ve discovered in Baltimore is that the best programs and strongest community result from a cross-fertilization of ideas. After all, how can we create positive Jewish programming for our teens, if we don’t have them at the table? Or address the best way to  engage individuals with disabilities if educators and parents of children with disabilities from all denominations aren’t sharing their ideas?

In Baltimore, I think there is another layer. Having only one umbrella organization — The Associated — to focus on overall community priorities helps us come together to tackle the largest issues. Because of the centrality of our campaign, we can eliminate competition and bring together diverse groups to focus on the broader picture with universal goals.

Finding common ground to solve our problems takes time, takes trust and takes commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the ultimate  reward is the ability to understand our issues from multiple perspectives and to include these diverse viewpoints in the solutions.

That does not mean that we are able to satisfy everyone all of the time. But it does result in a strong community where we are building mutual respect and trust. It is this community that I have had the honor to serve and am proud to call home.

Mark D. Neumann is chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Shavuot, Sex, Teens

OMER, Israel — As Jews, we tend to pride ourselves on our tradition’s values and how we pass them on to future generations. But if you were to start a conversation today with a teenager, would you be ready to articulate Jewish values  related to dating and sexuality?

Several such values can be gleaned straight from the Book of Ruth customarily read during the holiday of Shavuot. Best known for its embrace of Ruth as a convert to Judaism and its emphasis on loving-kindness, the Book of Ruth also includes interactions that have a potentially sexual  cast to them. It is a text that names what it sees rather than sugarcoats.

For example, here we read about Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Ruth’s destitute, widowed mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz invites Ruth, along with other young women, to collect  unharvested produce in his fields. He tells Ruth that he has instructed his men not to  molest her. Naomi, hearing later that day about Ruth’s gleaning in Boaz’s fields, admits her relief that young men from another field won’t be touching her daughter-in-law.

Later Naomi counsels Ruth to make herself as attractive as possible, to seek out Boaz after his dinner and to “uncover his feet and lie down.” Boaz was a sexual hero to our ancestors — one who manages to restrain himself for the sake of the dignity and welfare of another. When Ruth identifies herself that night, she calls Boaz her redeemer — someone who can save her, legally, from continued widowhood. But he points out there is an even closer relative in the town, whom he goes to look for as soon as day breaks. We can also infer that nothing of a  sexual nature happens between them because of what we know about Boaz from the start: He considers everyone created in the image of God.

This basic Jewish value, in turn, can lead us to Judaism’s view of the potential sacredness of all relationships, including sexual ones. Finding a potential for divine connection in sexual encounters does not make Jewish tradition averse to sex and sexuality; it encourages sexual pleasure. But the Jewish context is bigger than two consenting adults in a bed. It includes remembering in whose image we are created, that we are God’s partners in improving and sanctifying life and that freedom and responsibility are both  essential for authentic relationships that help both partners grow.

Jewish teens need to hear that the more they are able to connect sex to love and love to respect, the more deeply satisfied and whole both they and their partners will feel.

Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum is a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community.

Kosovo: Fertile Ground for Religious Pluralism

Kosovo is a “newborn” country, a majority Muslim state that fought for its independence from Serbia only eight years ago. Yet, it has erected a Holocaust memorial outside its parliament, elected a female president, held pride parades in support of LGBTQ rights and supported the building of a major Catholic cathedral in its capital city to honor Mother Teresa.

As a Jew and a rabbi, I have walked the streets of its capital and several countryside locales with a yarmulke and felt safe and even extensively welcomed when identified by my faith.

This week, I will return to Kosovo for the third time as a speaker at its annual international Interfaith Kosovo conference. This is a very different Kosovo than the one depicted last week in a New York Times article titled “How Kosovo Was Turned into Fertile Ground for ISIS.” According to the article, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states are exporting to Kosovo a conservative Muslim ideology that has inspired Kosovars to take up the mantle of radical Islam. According to The Times, “Saudi money and influence have transformed this once tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic  extremism and a pipeline for  jihadists.”

However, I firmly believe Kosovo merits our attention as a bellwether state and exemplar of how to undermine extremism.

If there is one key difference between Kosovo and so many other countries facing down extremism, it might be leadership. Yes, its politics can be messy, but its leaders care deeply and have been visionary in positioning Kosovo as a center for interfaith collaboration and dialogue rather than of strife and extremism.

President Hashim Thaci, who played a key role in the founding of Kosovo, had this to say:

“Our little republic was facing genocide only 17 years ago,  yet we managed to rebuild  oursociety and re-create the  intercommunal and interfaith tolerance that we became  famous for. In the years after the war, radical elements on the margins of the Islamic community tried to usurp the traditional position of Islam in our secular society by attempting to recruit young people for ISIS and other evil causes.  Yet, we as a state, we as a society responded — and we responded forcefully.”

I remain optimistic that Kosovo’s political and social leadership can overcome external pressures. It has much to share and much to teach, and I look forward to visiting the country once again.

Rabbi Joshua M. Z. Stanton is a  congregational rabbi who has  dedicated much of his young career  to interfaith collaboration.