Turning Tradition Upside Down

runyan_josh_otIt takes a special someone to challenge the status quo, to fight against accepted norms and to succeed in the process. Perhaps that’s why there’s so few really great politicians, the committed public servants whose contributions to society are justly rewarded at the ballot box. Maybe that’s why we honor the Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses of the world, the self-made geniuses who had an idea and ran with it.

But it’s also why people throughout the country last week took time to honor their mothers, the courageous many whose success frequently is judged only by their effects, whether their children be morally sound, ethically committed, financially secure, religiously grounded or, as in the case of what the first Mother’s Day 100 years ago was intended to honor — mothers of those lost in World War I — self-sacrificing.

In this week’s JT, reporter Melissa Gerr turned to another aspect of successful women breaking through barriers to make their own contributions to the world. While many of those gathered at the second annual convention of the Jewish Woman Entrepreneur, an organization begun by Baltimorean Chaya Appel Fishman, happened to be mothers, what was unique about this group of business-minded females was how committed they were to charting a new course for their current and future families. Undeterred by conventional wisdom and what many perceive as communal custom — that Judaism’s traditional gender roles preclude a financially lucrative business occupation on the part of a wife or mother — these women have sought to turn tradition on its head. As it turns out, this growing group of headstrong entrepreneurs likely feel just as comfortable on a segregated side of a mechitza as they do leading a boardroom meeting, even if that boardroom might be an Internet-ready dining room.

Ultimately, entrepreneurship, as opposed to the day-in, day-out grind of traditional labor, gives one the ability to create new realities. Law school and motherhood and business mentoring? Absolutely! Computing power at your fingertips while commuting to work? Why not?!

It’s the entrepreneurs of the world who sho­w the rest of us what it means to use every available second, every fiber of one’s being to the completion of a goal. That also happens to be a very Jewish way of living: When faced with a choice between doing nothing and doing something, our tradition practically screams, “Do something!” That’s why the Midrash extols the virtues of Nachshon ben Aminidav, the leader of the Tribe of Judah who, when the rest of the Jewish people were wondering what to do in the face of a yet-to-be-split Sea of Reeds as the Egyptian Army mounted its pursuit, jumped first into the sea. In the merit of his can-do spirit, the Midrash teaches, the waters finally parted.

Next Monday, May 19, I will be moderating a debate between two successful and socially minded citizens, whose own entrepreneurship has led them to choose the hard-slog world of politics over the ease of anonymity.

The 8 p.m. matchup between incumbent Baltimore County councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2) and primary challenger Jon Herbst takes place at the North Oaks retirement community. Because seating is limited and RSVPs are required, please call 410-484-7300 to attend. I hope to see you there.


Innovation Gives Us the Edge

runyan_josh_otThe people at the BASF Corporation — “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better” — were really on to something when they came up with their tagline. In two sentences, not only did they sum up their business, but they tapped into a powerful truism: Innovations, from the mundane to the revolutionary, make the world a more interesting place to call home.

Just ask Adam Gladstone.

The Pikesville native and former baseball umpire now is a member of the newest profession to hit the sport: Major League Baseball instant replay adviser. That’s not his exact title of course; the position is so innovative, it doesn’t even have a name yet.

As you’ll read in the pages of this week’s JT, there was Gladstone — on employ with the Orioles — at Boston’s Fenway Park on April 19, when O’s right fielder Nelson Cruz was called out at first base after hitting a groundball to third. Gladstone, however, saw things a little bit differently and in the space of less than a minute had advised manager Buck Showalter to challenge the ump’s call. The call was reversed, Cruz stayed on base, and the Orioles scored a run.

Were it not for the foresight of baseball execs to institute this innovation to the game — for years, coaches in the National Football League have been able to challenge the judgment of officials on the field — America’s favorite pastime would’ve remained in what some would say is an unfair world.

Innovation is also at play in the budding career of 9-year-old swimming star Alan Cherches, the subject of our cover story. It seems that the Owings Mills JCC prodigy, who has broken many of local Olympian Michael Phelps’ 8-and-under records, began life in the water deathly afraid of it. His immigrant parents persisted in introducing their then-toddler son to the sport, but a grandfather had the foresight to bribe the young lad. The offer of pizza apparently worked, and today, Cherches employs an innovation of his own: Whenever he swims, he imagines that a shark is after him. That little bit of intentional misdirection, he says, can be credited with at least one recent victory.

But innovation needn’t be appreciated on the level of a singular person or even in the realm of something as inconsequential as a baseball game. This week, Jewish communities around the world commemorated what 66 years ago was little more than an innovation. At its founding, the young State of Israel was an aberration, a country so small but with a mission so large — it would be, its founders hoped, the modern-day homeland for Jewish people the world over — that most rational people were confident of its impending failure.

Today, Israel is still around, remaining an aberration, whether in terms of the special standard the rest of the world holds it to or to which its own citizens hold themselves. It is by no means perfect, standing far from the ideal that Zionists of both the religious and secular camps attached to it. But still, the country remains.

Ultimately, the power to innovate is what makes us human. Innovation is the Almighty’s way of stacking the deck, so to speak, in our favor. For Jews who differ on how to approach the modern Israeli state, at the very least it’s fitting to be grateful that it’s there.


Now is the time for empowerment

runyan_josh_otPassover in a new home and a new city had gone smoothly enough, the joy of celebrating freedom alongside thousands of fellow Jews in such a densely populated space drowning out all of the last-minute stresses that had led into the holiday. By the end of the eight-day festival, the picture outside was one of serene bliss; the flowers were in bloom, the sun was shining and the kids were enjoying jacketless walks between house and shul.

But then the giant white postcard emerged ominously from the mailbox. Even without removing it, you could tell what it was: a missionary screed that, playing on Jewish themes and addressed only to “Resident,” was clearly meant to a targeted audience — Baltimore’s close-knit Jewish community.

The fact that in today’s day and age, the battle continues for the soul of the Jew is nothing new, even as those who stand behind such efforts try to claim the mantle of Jewish identity. (And to be sure, there are bona fide Jews, according to halachah, among the ranks of the “Messianic Jews.”) What makes this latest salvo from a group calling itself Israel Restoration Ministries so disturbing is that those behind it, as you’ll read about in this week’s JT, see nothing wrong with attempting to claim another group’s truths as their own, and in the basest of advertising strategies: If you want to reach Jews, an interview with one of the ministry’s officials admitted, target the ZIP codes with the most Cohens and Rosenbergs.

Thankfully, this campaign is so blatantly devious that few will be swayed by the postcard’s message. But that might not be true in all households or in all cities. Ruth Guggenheim of Jews for Judaism is right to be concerned and is correct in her advice that we all use this incident as an opportunity to educate our children and each other.

A mind, so goes the dictum, is a terrible thing to waste. A lack of education in general directly correlates to a poor economic future, and a lack of Judaic education in particular leaves a child in the precarious position of potentially not being able to resist the sometimes persuasive arguments of the non-Jewish world.

In most cases, communities such as ours get this fundamental truth, that education is the greatest guarantor of future success. That’s why, on the Judaic side of the equation, we have vibrant yeshivas, strong community day schools and growing religious schools. And on the secular side, we have schools such as Pikesville High, which at the close of its 50th year, is making investments in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math and is working to make sure that its building becomes a more-conducive place for exceptional learning.

But what about the exceptionally brilliant students who, by virtue of family background or location, aren’t privileged to enjoy the benefits of Jewish study? And what about the diligent bochurim whose brilliance in the realm of Talmudic analysis is without question but are regarded by society as having to choose between extremes?

In the end, every child will become an adult. And to provide for their own children, today’s youth will one day be forced to make their own decisions. Now is the time to empower them with the best tools at our disposal to ensure that they are not only able to lead families, but that they are able to do so as Jews.


Peace in Our Time

The year 1939 saw an upheaval the likes of which the modern world has rarely experienced. German troops marched into Poland that September, ushering in a world war that would ultimately change the maps of Europe and the Middle East, lay waste to vast swaths of land spanning three continents and wipe out millions of Jewish families and entire Jewish communities.

There are those who argue that conflict on the scale of World War II will not happen again, that the seeds of territorial discord and the virulent hate that marked the regime of Adolf Hitler were unique for that time and place. The world of today, they point out, is vastly different from the world of 1939. Information is available on a global scale, with the democratization of news affording those in the slums of urban India the same access to the marketplace of ideas as the college-bound American teenager. And colonialism, that hallmark of 19th-century geopolitics, is a thing of the past; in its place, self-determination has become the order of the day for all of the world’s ethnic and political groups.

Such claims, though, aren’t exactly true. And even if they were, the kind of hate that enabled whole swaths of seemingly cultured Western Europe to either stand idly by while the Nazis exterminated Jews – or helped them do it – still exists today. One need only look to the shootings in Overland Park, Kan., for proof, but a march of thousands of neo-Nazis through the streets of Paris last month and the firebombing of a synagogue in Nikolayev, Ukraine, last weekend also indicate that the world in 2014 might not be as different from the one in 1939.

The question, of course, is what do we do about it? Seventy-five years ago, a group of Baltimoreans had an answer, joining together to form the Baltimore Jewish Council, which, as you’ll read in the pages of this week’s JT, is still going strong. What this group saw back then was a need for a unified voice from the Jewish community to respond to a sea of anti-Semitism. In later years, that voice was needed on such issues as the nascent State of Israel, the civil rights movement and the fate of Soviet Jewry. We hear that voice continue in the corridors of power in City Hall and at the statehouse in Annapolis.

But while the BJC continues to portray a unified front in the non-Jewish world, the need for unity within the Jewish community has never been stronger. The global Jewish community may never agree on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the preservation of religious rituals, but judging by the invective employed in letters to the editor of late, it is clear that we need to employ the same tolerance of each other that we demand from the non-Jews around us.

As a group, those who argue against a two-state solution are not bigots. By the same token, those who backed the peace efforts of the Obama administration are not, by virtue of their stance, irreligious lunatics. It is possible to have an honest difference of opinion, whether in the realm of politics or in religious fervor. If a peaceful, more tolerant world is what we seek, let’s not forget that the real work begins closer to home.


Kansas Gunman Unfortunately Nothing New

runyan_josh_otAny doubts as to the danger of anti-Semitism in the United States were unfortunately put to rest this week when a gunman’s bullets — smack dab in the middle of middle America — claimed the lives of three people at Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan.

We now know that the 73-year-old man from Aurora, Mo., police suspect of driving to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City before opening fire on a man and his grandson — and two others who were not injured — and then at an elderly woman at the Village Shalom retirement community nearby is something of a throwback to another era. What is believed to be his website paints a portrait of a rabid racist and anti-Semite, while the Southern Poverty Law Center said that in the 1980s, Frazier Glenn Miller was the “grand dragon” of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; he reportedly later founded the White Patriot Party.

What Miller and his ilk advocate is not racial purity, as if such a thing were ever possible or much less desirable. No. What the shooter in Kansas instead stands for is the violent affirmation of such debunked “theories” as eugenics and racial superiority. People like him claim order as their rallying cry, but wish instead that anarchy prevailed. They have no place in a civilized society, much less one founded upon the ideals of life, liberty and the innate power of the individual.

That the Frazier Glenn Millers of the world have supported and perpetrated vast genocides, including the Holocaust, is nothing new. And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, today’s generation grapples with how exactly to transmit the collective memories of those who suffered through and survived the Shoah so many years ago.

What is sobering is that the Frazier Glenn Millers of the world not only continue to exist, but that many of them stand armed and ready to advance a worldview with hatred as its creed and bloodshed as its method. That two of the victims in last Sunday’s attack happened to be Christian makes no difference, for in the twisted minds of those who would open fire at a JCC and retirement center, anyone who doesn’t think like them might as well be Jewish. It’s the same baseless hatred that turned southern cities into killing zones and claimed the lives of civil rights workers in the 50s and 60s, the same vile, repugnant thought process that justified the Holocaust.

The question left for us is what to do about it. Confronting hatred takes courage and determination; it also takes love. The more the racists and bigots of the world teach their children to hate, the more we should teach them to embrace the beauty of mankind. The more they blame others for their lot in life, the more we should reach out to improve the lot of those around us. The more they wall themselves apart, the more we should bring people in.

The Jewish community in Kansas will recover, but none of us should think that normalcy has been reached until hatred is eradicated from our midst.


Giving Our Children a Chance

runyan_josh_otEvery now and then, events and timing conspire to offer opportunities for reflection. Looking back at what transpired on the world stage the past week and a half, it’s hard not to wonder: How, when, why did things get so bad?

The collapse of the so-called “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians was at once so predictable and so tragic. Last-minute breakdowns between negotiators in Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., and Ramallah have become so commonplace, in fact, that the failure of this latest last-ditch effort was taken as a foregone conclusion by most people outside of the protective bubble known as international diplomacy.

That it happened amid the backdrop of a resurgent Russia bearing down on a weak Eastern Europe — evoking memories of the Cold War in the process — only added to the perception that for all the talk of peace, ours is a world enmeshed in conflict.

Some would say that part of the problem is a failure of assumptions. Russia will always be Russia, whether led by a czar, a Communist or a former KGB officer turned reformer turned strongman, and to assume otherwise is to ignore the lessons of history. By the same token, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back centuries, if not millennia, not decades. It’s a conflict as old as the region, pitting the fervent desires of a biblical people against a world that from time immemorial has held it in suspicion.

And the world continues to turn.

But while such a view is realistic, it isn’t very hopeful. Change is actually possible, but to achieve it requires going deeper.

Several people this week have commented that too few people, whether here locally or on a broader global scale, appreciate the responsibility thrust upon them by the presence of children. If the world’s problems are really going to be solved, it will be the up-and-coming generation — and the generations after that one — who will solve them. Shall those younger than us continue in our footsteps? Or shall we allow them to eventually lead the way?

One way we can do that is by recognizing education for what it is — an opportunity to inculcate values, not, as typified by the type of indoctrination being alleged at UNRWA-funded schools in Gaza, an imperative to create unthinking automatons. But education needn’t only be criticized abroad, as there is still plenty of work here to do at home.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear of community/school partnerships like the one that resulted in a refurbished library at Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore or of the examples being set by the Jewish leaders shaving their heads to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Children need to see, hear about and experience the selfless acts of those older and “wiser.” And then they need to be given the opportunity to ask questions and formulate their own views.

After all, as demonstrated by the Four Children of the Passover Seder, isn’t that what the Festival of Freedom is all about?

A kosher un freilichen Pesach!


Giving Thanks for the Memories

runyan_josh_otMemory is a particularly powerful faculty. It helps us learn, it can provide a guide by which to judge future actions and, along with emotions, serves as the foundation upon which human experience is built.

Memory is frequently passive, but in a Jewish context it is seen more in terms of a positive act. That’s why the Torah exhorts people to remember the Exodus, to remember Amalek, to remember what transpired in the desert.

But how can someone be commanded to remember? Psychologists speak of a subconscious effort by those suffering abuse to not commit certain events to memory and of a conscious effort to keep certain memories locked away. But the tradition invoked during the fast-approaching holiday of Passover to recall the deliverance from Egypt is not addressing such concepts.

How is memory preserved, accessed and used? Through the sensations that defined the experience in the first place. That’s why the mere sounds of the tiles clicking together bring back so many memories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers sitting around card tables over drawn-out games of mah jongg. For some people, the sight of the tiles’ elaborate and colorful designs evokes — like the smell of matzah balls simmering or the taste of a particular recipe of charoset — a longing for the past, a desire to reclaim the feelings of childhood and the embraces of a community of yesteryear.

Perhaps that’s why a national resurgence of mah jongg has made the game so popular. Today, there are cruises devoted to the game. There’s even an exhibit devoted to the game and its cultural significance at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which you’ll read about in this week’s cover story.

Could it be that the best way to reach back to the past, the best way to preserve memories of departed loved ones and bygone eras, is to bring it into the present?

That’s exactly what every Passover Seder, from the Haggadah and the cups of wine to the Seder plate and the matzah, is designed to accomplish. While each year’s experience is an opportunity for families to create their own memories, Passover as a whole demands that every participant re-create the events of thousands of years ago. That collective reliving is a defining characteristic of the Jewish people, because it’s only through re-experiencing the formative moments of our peoplehood that we can face the future recharged and re-energized. It’s what preserved our identities long ago, and it’s what will enable us to survive a barrage of assaults from without and within.

The beauty of matzah is its stark simplicity. Whereas the outside world is a cacophonous mess, matzah is quite distinctive. It has a signature crunch, a signature sound when broken, a signature feel and a very simple taste. The whole experience of eating it — and baking it, if you happen to be among the many kids traveling to the model bakery in Columbia this week — screams, “Remember!”

As we all rush to clean our homes and polish our Seder plates — or mah jongg sets — let’s all take a moment to cherish the memories.


The Stories That Connect Us

runyan_josh_otAt a time in life when others get lost in music or drugs or the high school social scene, one particular headstrong 16-year-old decides that his teenage rebellion requires wearing a yarmulke.

He knows little about kashrut, even less about Jewish history and practice, but he knows that he’s Jewish. And so he makes a statement, proudly declaring his identity in the form of a blue knit kippah while meandering through the sometimes conflicting worlds of religious practice and modern life. He is naïve and lost, but his search is pure.

One day, this headstrong young man finds himself at a Target, standing in the checkout line, when a figure from what appears to be another era — a bearded rabbi dressed in black — spots the boy from amid the crowd.

“You’re Jewish!” the rabbi exclaims, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that the adolescent standing before him is somewhat of a puzzle. He stands there in jeans and a T-shirt, clutching his purchases, and, save for the skullcap, clearly inhabits a “non-Jewish” existence.

“Rosh Hashanah is in two weeks,” the rabbi tells the young man. “You must spend it at my house.”

And so propelled a Jewish journey that continues now, almost two decades later. The young man’s story might never have been shared were it notfor a workshop at the Owings Mills JCC sponsored by Limmud Baltimore. What the gathering — which you’ll read about in this week’s JT —illustrated is that everyone has a story, everyone grapples with their role in Jewish life and Jewish community, everyone continues on their journeys.

It is only through sharing these stories that we develop an appreciation for not only what others have gone through, but also how similar our own journeys appear to others. And so, you’ll find in this week’s pages the tales of Ben Hyman, whose love of Baltimore has planted him in what could be the most un-Jewish of locations; and Mike Peisach, whose love of family and familiarity has made him one of the last sewing machine repairmen; and even the tragedy of Esther Lebovitz, the 11-year-old whose murder stunned a community and in whose memory hundreds of people turned out to protest an appeal by the man who took her life almost a half-century ago.

It takes a lot to share a story; because of the difficulty of introspection, it’s even harder to share your own story. It requires careful reflection, an openness to critique and a willingness to be vulnerable.

But it’s through stories that we learn of obstacles overcome, of loves gained and lost, of achievements and failures. It’s through stories that we inspire ourselves and each other, take stock of our lives and the world around us and find answers to the questions that plague us.

More importantly, stories provide the fabric that binds each of us to our past and future, to our family members and friends, to our community and neighbors.

What’s your story?


Embracing the Purim Spirit

runyan_josh_otYou certainly don’t need to be reminded, but there’s nothing like spending Purim in Baltimore. As if last week’s pre-holiday carnivals weren’t enough, entire streets became parking lots on Sunday, bumper-to-bumper traffic competing with costumed revelers in the race to deliver precious shlach manot to neighbors and friends.

The scene was one of tremendous unity, of Jewish joy and celebration. It served as reminder of what can be accomplished when the Jewish people focus within and celebrate their shared identity. That was the spirit that saved the Jews in Persia thousands of years ago and is the spirit behind many of the community’s initiatives at home and abroad.

That spirit can be seen in the flow of money and support to Jewish residents of Odessa and other cities throughout Ukraine, a communal effort you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT. By committing hard-earned dollars, donors are collectively acknowledging a common bond between Jewish Baltimore and those caught in the crossfire between nationalist Ukrainians on the one hand and the hegemonic desires of an expanding Russia on the other.

People around the world, whether in Ukraine or in Israel and beyond, need help.

But as this week’s cover story demonstrates, people also need help right here in Baltimore. Spousal caregivers can benefit from several programs, including support groups and counseling organizations, but as Simone Ellin discovered in her reporting, many of those who have found themselves caring for a chronically ill spouse feel isolated and alone.

That state of affairs might be caused by the fact that this growing phenomenon — one rabbi in Cherry Hill notes that long-term care issues will only multiply as baby boomers age and medical advances lengthen lifespans — has traditionally taken a back seat to other pressing concerns, be they addressing the needs of children with special needs and their families or helping families taking care of aging parents and grandparents, issues that the JT has covered recently.

It could also be that spousal caregivers occupy a unique environment, a world of round-the-clock needs, mourning the loss of what could have been and coping with the reality of what is. In the words of a 56-year-old spouse who preferred to remain anonymous: “You have to accept that the person you married is here, but not here.”

It comes as no surprise then that such people are tremendously lonely.

And so it falls on the surrounding community to reach out. Many are already doing a tremendous job, as one reader pointed out recently: Caring residents regularly flock to the Levindale complex off of Northern Parkway to bring patients and their family members a sense of community. The program, though, could always use more volunteers.

We need more of such programs. We need more helping hands, more shoulders to cry on and more gestures of support.

In short, we as a community need to keep that Purim spirit of unity going, on through Passover and beyond, so that everyone knows he is not alone.


True Joy Needn’t Be Hard to Come By

runyan_josh_otYou don’t need to be a political scientist to recognize that what passes for social discourse nowadays is anything but social. The severity of the invective and the frequency with which it appears can be observed in the corridors of power, can be read in the newspapers — particularly among the letters to the editor — and can be heard on the radio and seen on the television news.

It may always have been this way, as King Solomon reminds, but you need only look outside to realize that we live in an “us versus them” world. It’s probably part of human nature, this condition of building walls between the first person and the second, fences between families and neighbors, dividing lines between neighborhoods and theological faults between communities.

But for a moment in time, at synagogues such as Suburban Orthodox Torat Chaim in Pikesville and countless others in the Baltimore Jewish community and beyond, such divisions fell by the wayside as Jews from across the spectrum of religious and “non-religious” life joined together for Shabbat Across America.

Phil Rosenfeld, Suburban Orthodox’s executive director, pointed out that the only price of admission to last Friday night’s communal dinner was to bring a person who didn’t have a Shabbat meal of their own to go to. And so, members of the local fire department joined longtime synagogue members, and visiting family joined neighbors from down the street. The scene offered a vision of what could be in a world in which what we can achieve is more important that what I can be.

The vision continued the next day at pre-Purim carnivals many miles apart but alike in their goal of celebrating the type of unity seen thousands of years ago when the Jewish people emerged from Haman’s decree victorious. At Ner Tamid in Baltimore and Reservoir High School in Fulton — site of what was described as the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s largest annual Jewish communal event — hundreds of costumed children and adults let loose in preparation for the fast-approaching Purim holiday. You’ll read about their plans in this week’s JT.

All of these events deserve mention because of what they represent. In the eyes of the infinite, each and every one of us, as finite and transient beings, is the same. Ironically, as the Purim story demonstrates, it was only through uniting together — a feat possible only when ignoring the many external differences between persons — that the Jewish people were able to draw down heavenly blessings and nullify Haman’s evil plan.

The message, however, shouldn’t be relegated to the special times of the calendar — Shabbat, Purim, Passover, etc. Just as Talmudic sages spoke of the peace of Shabbat being drawn down into every day of the week, the joy of Purim should be infused into every day of the year, transforming the divisiveness of the outside world into a reflection of an internal truth: Ultimately it doesn’t matter that one person exists if asserting himself means questioning the existence of another. Doing so is akin to occupying an island of one, and it’s pretty hard to find true joy when you’re alone.

A freilichen Purim!