Peres Was More Than Just Another Dreamer

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

In “Like Dreamers,” the 2013 history of post-Six Day War Israel, author Yossi Klein Halevy traces the journeys of seven of the elite paratroopers who in 1967 liberated the Western Wall and the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem, using their stories to encapsulate the diversity of opinions that developed during the Jewish state’s evolution to become the economic powerhouse it is today. It takes its title from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.”

Though he was no paratrooper, Shimon Peres, the longtime head of state who passed away last week at 93, could have just as easily been one of Halevy’s dreamers. In 2004 during a visit to Philadelphia, the future president even described himself as such, telling me that though his  vision of a “new Middle East” may be a dream, all dreams of peace will come true in the end.

“You can see already the changing winds in the Middle East,” he told an audience at Temple Beth Sholom in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., later that day.

That was 12 years ago, of course, back when America’s invasion of Iraq was still fresh and the Pentagon spoke openly of a realignment in the region. Turkey had decided to join the European Union, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the surge, the withdrawal and the rise of the  Islamic State would all lie  several years into the future.

Shimon Peres (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Shimon Peres (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Peres’ particular dream — of an Israel fully accepted as a regional partner by its Arab neighbors, of a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state living side by side — has not yet come true. And while reasonable people may disagree about the assumptions inherent in Peres’ vision, no one can fault him, a one-time defense hawk who cemented crucial arms deals with the West and was an architect of Israel’s  unacknowledged nuclear program, for embodying the fervent hope of a people longing to live in peace. The strategic  implications of implementation aside, it is an intoxicating vision, and to contemplate what the region — and the rest of the world, for that matter — might look like if decision makers and ordinary people behaved according to common interest and mutual respect is to engage in what might ultimately be a messianic endeavor.

But that was how Peres thought. Over a career spanning more than six decades, the two-term prime minister and ninth president of Israel — he also occupied every Cabinet position — Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one. In that sense, he was the quintessential Israeli, firm yet contemplative, a link between his nation’s meager pre-state past and its innovative present.

Back in 2004, Rabbi Steven C. Lindemann noted that while Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his leftwing  positions had by then earned him the derision of many in Israel and the worldwide Jewish community.

Over a career spanning more than six decades,
Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one.

“Politics aside,” said Lindemann, “people have to  acknowledge this is one of the elder statesman of Israel. … To be in his presence is an honor.”

Lindemann was absolutely correct. For me, in particular, being able to converse with Peres and hear him, in his  Polish-accented English and Hebrew, paint a picture of a world without war, was most certainly an honor.

The lesson I got from that encounter is that no matter the realities of the moment, no matter the challenges, pressures and concerns that dictate a specific action, we as a people must never forget how to dream. It’s our dreams that keep us sane, that keep us  inspired, and it’s dreams like Shimon Peres’ that will prod us toward a future more  perfect than our current, compromised existence. You don’t have to agree with him to realize how badly needed such  optimism is today.

A Matter of Faith

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Some have the custom of making predictions for the coming Jewish year in the days before Rosh Hashanah. But I am no prognosticator and will not presume to have the requisite wisdom or guts to hitch my reputation to the probability of future events. So on the eve of 5777, I will not make any forecast as to what may befall — in either a positive or negative sense — the Jewish people here at home or abroad.

I will, however, offer one prediction of what will positively not happen between the last shofar blast on Tuesday and the first of 5778: The United States of America will not crumble.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, I know, especially for those of us who have a lot invested emotionally, intellectually and ideologically in the outcome of the presidential election  on Nov. 8, but come Nov. 9 — regardless of who wins on Election Day — the nation will remain. Come Jan. 21 — regardless of who takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day — there will be no civil war,  no collapse of our national  infrastructure, no mass exodus to Canada. How I wish we could dispense, once and for all, with the doomsday scenarios envisioned by the diehards on both the left and the right promising imminent demise should the other candidate prevail.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, some area rabbis are indeed  referring to politics in their High Holiday speeches, but  almost to a one, they’re focusing on such universal issues as  repentance and bringing the spiritual into everyday life.

But while we focus on improving our lives here at home, I  suggest we also look across the Atlantic Ocean at the community’s other guiding light — the State of Israel, whose continued existence is due not to its size, government or strength but to the hand of Providence. Any New Year’s prediction of its continued health is therefore one of faith, not political science.

Living here, it’s so easy to forget how precarious Israel’s position is, bounded on two sides by hostile Palestinian populations and surrounded by Arab states with a long historical record — if not an outright present policy — of belligerence to their Jewish neighbors.

We hold Israel up as an example of a nation state adept at making something out of nothing, the Startup Nation that made the desert bloom and practically invented cybersecurity. It’s mythic, but it’s based on truth. And the only proper description of its successes — from its victory in the Six Day War to the growth of its IT  industry — is miraculous.

Miracles, of course, can neither be relied on nor earned. They’re bestowed, a gift from the Almighty. So, while we do our part to aid in Israel’s survival, we also pray, and on Rosh Hashanah more than most other days.

May our prayers be heard and may each of us enjoy a happy, healthy, sweet and peaceful new year.

A Jewish Home

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

I’m not the first to say it and this is not the first time I’ve alluded to this fact: The Jewish world in the United States is a scary one for those of us who have been taught that the surest determinate of Jewish survivability is identification with a synagogue or other communal institution.

According to the oft-cited 2013 Pew Research Center  report on American Jewry, less than a third of any community belongs to a synagogue. Slightly more than half — 56 percent — has at least given money to  a Jewish organization, but  even that statistic, optimistic in comparison to the lack of synagogue-based identification, has a darker side. It means that a full 44 percent of the American Jewish community has not  donated to a Jewish organization.

That’s the bad news, but as readers of this column should know by now, that which at first seems bad doesn’t tell the full story. Synagogues, I’m sorry to say, are not the be all and end all of Jewish life in today’s United States, and  although the question of whether or not they have in the recent past is a debatable one, the fact that most of the community does not “belong” is only reflective of that reality, not a harbinger of doom and gloom. As it turns out, a  vibrant community full of  Jewish life exists outside the brick and mortar of American synagogues and there are plenty Jews of no formal  denominational affiliation who are nevertheless attending to what they perceive as their spiritually Jewish needs.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, several chavurot in the Baltimore area are going strong, bucking the trend of non- Orthodox denominations. They are “providing a different experience,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism. “I think the onus of the synagogue and the rabbinate is to help people to understand what the value is that is added and what’s the benefit of participation. I think members of chavurot like the informality and intimacy of it all, which is often gained in small groups.”

For many, informal minyans and chavurot can quickly give way to the more traditional structure of a synagogue when one has children and is looking for such educational opportunities as Hebrew school and b’nai mitzvah classes. For others, such groups provide a cultural and spiritual nexus more concentrated than a large synagogue. They might also be entry points for a largely unaffiliated Jewish majority who 10 years from now might identify more with the community of which they currently see themselves existing on the periphery.

All of this is to say that anything that nurtures and increases Jewish expression is, at a base level, a good thing. As we look to the approaching New Year, let’s do all we can to make sure that everyone has a Jewish home, whether in a chavurah, a synagogue or some other model yet to be tried.

A Most Jewish Conversation

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

What could possibly be Jewish about the story of four Italian-American crooners, some of them hoods, achieving stardom in the days before the British Invasion?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

“Aside from possibly speaking another language or believing that Jesus is the savior, do I feel something in common with the Italians? Of course I do,” says Broadway writer Rick Elice, one-half of the creative team that brought the story — as opposed to the music — of the Four Seasons to the mainstream more than a decade ago. In addition, part of that story is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”

In creating “Jersey Boys,” the smash hit that comes to the Hippodrome Theatre on Sept. 27, Elice drew upon his own experiences, as well as those of co-writer Marshall Brickman, in formulating the musical’s larger themes. Both members of the team, as JT senior reporter Mathew Klickstein points out, are themselves versions of the Upper West Side cliché of the quintessential Jewish wordsmith. Elice once wanted to become a cantor, while Brickman — whose past credits include collaborations with Woody Allen — describes himself as a “red diaper baby” raised in a socialist home.

When “Jersey Boys” was  introduced to theatergoers in 2005, the news that some of the original Four Seasons had been imprisoned before they were 30 — Tommy DeVito later told a Las Vegas outlet, “Yeah, I went to jail seven or eight times. … I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it. My neighborhood was rough. If you come out alive, that’s an achievement” — came as a complete surprise. Had the public known that fact when the group was fighting for recognition, they likely would not have achieved stardom in an age that put a premium on an untarnished image.

That might be the most Jewish element of the story, cutting right to the heart of our tradition’s embrace of redemption and atonement. Seen through the lens of today’s adulation  of rule-breaking athletes and performers, the seemingly puritanical impulses that led Frankie Valli and his compatriots to keep elements of their past under wraps might instead reveal the value of reform and personal growth.

Could that pendulum swing freely between both extremes, especially in the cases of other imperfect artists like Allen or Roman Polanski or even Bill Cosby? How much should we demand of the famous, who more often than not are mere caricatures our own foibles? Can we separate their misdeeds from their art? Should we even try?

Brickman has his own thoughts on the subject, which can be viewed exclusively on the JT’s website at The answers might surprise you, but the conversation — like the ones between him and Elice that led to “Jersey Boys” — I guarantee is a very Jewish one.

‘Time’ for School

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Only one thing compares with the glee of children streaming out of hallways the end of each school year — the heady delight of parents knowing that their children will be someone else’s problem at the beginning of the school year.

Now don’t think that I’m a heartless or inattentive father. I truly cherish the extra time I get to spend with my kids from late May to early September, but there’s just something about the end of summer — is it the pent-up stress from shopping for school supplies or keeping everyone engaged in that last week when there’s no classes or camp to spur young minds and test young muscles? — that sometimes has my wife and I exhaling deeply this time each year.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, that window of parental bliss may be coming later for us all now that Gov. Larry Hogan has announced a statewide initiative mandating public schools to begin after Labor Day starting next year. There are other issues as well surrounding school openings this year: Baltimore County has decided to remain open on important Muslim holidays, and the lack of proper air conditioning in many public schools in the area has meant the shuttering of facilities on days when the mercury climbs too high. (Already, 37 of 173 schools in the county had to close two of the first five days of the year when the temperature exceeded well over 90 degrees.)

Taken together, the battle over when to stay open — elsewhere in the country, the Collingswood, N.J., school district earned headlines for its decision to drop Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the calendar — can get tempers flaring. It already has in the case of Hogan and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. (Although, it’s not as if the two have seen eye-to-eye on much until now.) In addition to religious sensitivities, health and the length of summer vacation, there’s the very real question of how teachers will fit all of what they need to teach in a finite space of time.

Ultimately, that’s the most important question, in the sense that it’s not about the number of days — the minimum is mandated by law — but how each day gets filled. Come to think of it, that’s a lesson for us all. Whether or not the school year begins after Labor Day or before it, summer will begin sooner or later. Whether or not schools have window units or central air, the main concern is that kids should be learning in an atmosphere maximized for their success. And whether today is a holiday, school day or weekday, we all have key things to accomplish in our personal relationships and  individual growth.

It’ll be nice that next year — assuming all of the private schools follow suit — we can plan our beach trips well into the first week of September, but even at the beach, we need to maximize our time. That’s one duty that doesn’t disappear along with teacher’s dirty looks.

Challenges, Rewards

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

I remember  my first Nefesh B’Nefesh flight like it was yesterday. My wife and I and packed up all of our belongings a few days before, sending them off on a steel container. We sat in the back of the plane — along with all the other families with young children — and left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport full of energy.

As it turned out, we needed that energy, my wife’s ears failing to adjust to the pressure and our three kids — two toddlers and an infant — reacting to the excitement of making aliyah with a plane full of other new olim by staying wide awake for most of the flight. Moving to Israel is not for the lighthearted.

The whirlwind, followed by days of shuttling back and forth between banks and government offices — the process is mostly automated now, with Nefesh B’Nefesh clients getting their paperwork before deplaning — was a hearty  introduction into life in the Jewish homeland and helped us develop a tough exterior (as well as a soft inner core, much like the native-born and native flora, the sabra). Life, despite such hectic beginnings, was good in Israel. It was for reasons of education and family that we returned to the United States.

These memories — of the flight, of the exhaustion, but also of the thousands of people who welcomed us at Ben  Gurion Airport with open arms — came flooding back when I read this week’s cover story. Accompanied by a first-person account by writer Jon Marks of what it was like to  accompany the latest Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrant transport after a half-century of not stepping foot inside Israel, the article features Baltimoreans transfixed by the prospect of life among Jewish neighbors in the Jewish state.

Last month’s passengers  included 75 young men and women who were inducted into the Israel Defense Forces soon after their arrival. Among the young recruits was Jacob Roshgadol, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the University of Maryland. He said the decision to make aliyah had been stewing for some time.

“It’s really been in my head for four years or so,” said Roshgadol, who studied  mechanical engineering. “When I wanted to go then, I was  already in Israel studying in the yeshiva in Jerusalem. What’s changed is now I go to the army coming in with a skill they want me to have. It’s a major incentive for them to take me.”

To be sure, there will be myriad challenges ahead for Roshgadol and all of the others now carrying their identity cards, known in Hebrew as teudot zehut. My family and I know many of those challenges well. But their sacrifices are sure to be rewarding, and the JT will be checking in with them periodically.

Who knows? Some of you just might be joining them someday.

Wages Vs. Need

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Two-and-a-half years ago, we published a cover story highlighting the effort across Maryland to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Two months later, activists claimed success when the General Assembly instituted the new law, phasing in annual minimum wage increases to achieve $10.10 by 2018.

Now, some lawmakers in Baltimore’s City Council want to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2022, an almost 50 percent increase over the earlier target, which then Gov. Martin O’Malley hailed as making “good business sense.”

Why the rush? As you’ll read in this week’s JT, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-District 14) thinks that come December, she’ll have enough votes to pass the legislation, which would exempt businesses with fewer than 25 employees and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income from the mandate. Others question the efficacy of instituting a city wage close to $5 higher than in the surrounding Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, where the state wage prevails.

“I think it would put the city at a great competitive disadvantage,” says Daraius Irani, chief economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. “What we’re already seeing is that many restaurants, like McDonald’s, are already replacing people with capital. At the end of the day, these kind of businesses will find a way to maximize their profits, and one way to do that may be to cut back on their number of employees.”

“It’s not good for Baltimore,” says Park Heights’ own Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (D-District 5), the outgoing so-called dean of the council. “The only way it would make sense is if the two surrounding jurisdictions passed it. Baltimore is the hole of the doughnut.”

Implicit in the arguments against raising the minimum wage, just as during the debates in 2014, is the negative impact on business such a law would have. But before we go marveling at the size of Clarke’s proposal, let’s keep in mind the concept of a living wage, that idealized wage high enough that would allow a person to maintain a normal standard of living.

According to the Living Wage Calculator, a project of the Mass-achusetts Institute of Technology, $15 per hour in Baltimore would guarantee a living wage to households comprising a single adult, two working adults or two working adults and a single child. Every other family combination would be living in poverty. Curious about the current standard of $10.10? According to the Calculator, such a wage isn’t enough for a single adult, which MIT calculates needs to make $12.33 per hour just to get by, let alone anyone with children.

I cite these figures not so much to endorse raising the minimum wage, but to conceptualize just how out of whack wages are in comparison to need. It’s no secret that so many in Baltimore — and in its Jewish community — live in poverty. If one City Council bill isn’t the answer to the problem, then we better figure out solutions that work.

Time for New Memories

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

To this day, one of the most popular stories published by the Baltimore Jewish Times is an article I greenlighted not soon after my arrival at the magazine almost three years ago. It concerned the closing of a women’s clothing retailer, and I didn’t think it would gain much traction.

How wrong I was. As it turned out, Loehmann’s had been such a fixture of Jewish women’s lives in our community (and throughout the East Coast) that thousands of people viewed the story online. It even engendered a conversation on our letters to the editor page that went on for weeks.

My skeptical self should have known better. A Facebook friend earlier this week posted a picture of a shopping mall that I frequented as a child, more specifically of its quintessential clock tower. His caption asked if anyone knew where the picture was taken. Those of us of a certain generation — the mall was torn down more than a decade ago to make room for luxury housing — with any familiarity with that part of Dallas instantly had the answer to that question.

They say that the sense of smell is intimately connected to memory, but as it turns out, so is commerce.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, generations of patrons of the old Owings Mills Mall are now enjoying their own memories of the once-vibrant retail hub. By the time you read this, parts of the building will be gone, and soon its footprint will give way to redevelopment as an open-air shopping center.

Will the future “mall rats” be anything like the friends of Marci Rubin, a 30-year-old Reisterstown native who first got her ears pierced as a screaming little girl at the mall? Will the new stores include boutiques like the cosmetics shop of  Owings Mills resident Marlene Kurland, who would go on to expand her business into three other malls before closing her doors?

Whatever the future holds for the tract of land off of Owings Mills Boulevard, most can agree that anything will be better than what the mall had become in the years since the Great Recession gutted its tenant base.

“It makes me sad that the mall is being torn down, but it seems like it was shutting down slowly for years,” says Rubin. “I would come home from college and want to pop into the mall for both shopping and nostalgia, and my  favorite stores slowly started to vacate, and it made me sad.”

Still, though she won’t be watching the video of the mall’s demolition, she is excited about the reinvention of where she spent so much of her childhood. Like her, we eagerly anticipate the new additions to our neighborhood. It’s time for new generations of shoppers to make their own memories here.

For Better or Worse

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Zoning disputes are never easy, frequently pitting the interests of developers against residents, homeowners against environmentalists and municipalities against business owners. As you’ve read in past issues of the JT, they can even pit religious factions against each other, neighbors against neighbors.

This week, we examine two surrounding important pieces of real estate in our community. The first concerns an attempt to rezone part of the land belonging to the Woodholme Country Club to accommodate a dense residential development that could negatively impact the nearby North Oaks retirement community and the Ner Israel Rabbinical College. All the interested parties are important to the Jewish community, from North Oaks, where many of our family members, neighbors and fellow synagogue attendees go to retire, to Ner Israel, which trains many of the Orthodox world’s future leaders, to Woodholme, a historically Jewish country club.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important Woodholme Country Club is to the Baltimore Jewish Community,” says David Nevins, a PR professional who is representing the country club. “[Woodholme] is a predominately Jewish club whose members give many, many millions of dollars a year to [The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore] and to other charities and so forth.”

Of course, that truth in and of itself has nothing to do with whether or not the redevelopment is good for the community or good for Baltimore County, an issue that is being decided by the powers that be. But it helps us remember that in this dispute, while the winners will be active members of the Jewish community, so will the losers.

The other zoning fight takes place several miles to the east, concerning land once owned by Willard Hackerman, the late developer and philanthropist. While he had locked 111 acres near Beth Tfiloh in a preservation trust, 25 adjoining acres, known as Hidden Waters, are now facing a rezoning determination to accommodate a new neighborhood.

When it comes to zoning,  it’s difficult for sides to at least acknowledge opposing points of view. In a world of imperfect plans and unintended consequences — both positive and negative — the presence or  absence of development will help some and hurt others.

That’s why it’s so incredibly important for those of us who are not parties to the dispute to keep an open mind and let the process play out in the county’s hearing rooms and, if necessary, in the courts. At the end of the day, we’re still part of one community.

A year from now, or five, 10 or 20, we just might find that the undeveloped parcel next door has remained a blessing for families with children at play or those just enjoying the view. We also might discover that the new neighborhood down the road has provided new friends for our children to play with and new members to reinvigorate our synagogue. Once the zoning decisions are reached, only time will tell.

Salute to Sinai

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

It’s not in every city where the local “Jewish” hospital remains a crucial component of the Jewish community. But Baltimore, as we all know so well, is not like most cities.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, Sinai Hospital turns 150, a milestone celebration of a history that saw a facility rise from the dark days of anti-Jewish discrimination — as in most cities, where the Jewish community saw a need for its own hospital — embark on the cutting edge of research in the 20th century and become, as the headquarters of Lifebridge Health, one of the preeminent healthcare corporations in this region.

“We believe as Judaism does that healthcare is a right,” says Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, the director of pastoral care at Sinai. “It is not a privilege, it’s a right. Then you have to act that way.”

Today, few if any in our community have not been  personally touched by Sinai or its affiliated institutions, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Northwest Hospital. It’s the place most of us have gone for treatment — JT managing editor Marc Shapiro, for  instance, learned compassion, empathy and patience, all while a young patient there. It’s also where many of us have been welcomed into the world, including my youngest, who was born at Sinai during the Freddie Gray uprising.

In an age when the fibers of community are fraying, the presence of an institution such as Sinai reminds us that we’re all connected, in life, in sickness and yes, when the time comes, in death. Way back when, in an idealistic age that may never have existed, there was the neighborhood doctor who knew everyone, making house calls day in and day out. That physician became almost a member of everyone’s family, the one who saw the best and the worst of humanity.

Here in Baltimore, for many of us, Sinai is like that physician-neighbor of so long ago. And the hospital is looking to  expand its footprint, making investments in violence prevention, nutrition awareness, housing and mentorship in the neighborhoods surrounding its location on Northern Parkway.

“We care about our community,” says hospital president Amy Perry. “The reasons people are sick are not always because of congenital deficiencies or things that are uncontrollable; they’re often just bad preventive health care and low quality of life. As we’ve tried to make our community healthier, we’ve worked hard to find the triggers, and a lot of them have to do with violence prevention, education, housing, jobs.”

As Sinai becomes more of a force in and around our corner of Maryland, it just might provide a model for how other institutions — schools, synagogues, libraries — can actively reach out, as opposed to  passively taking in.