Inspiring Women



It’s been 14 years since the unprecedented election of four women to the U.S. Senate led reporters and the public to dub 1992 the Year of the Woman, but here in Baltimore — even without the presence of presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket — an equal claim could be made for 2016.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland, the last of its kind among federated Jewish women’s umbrellas in the country, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Some might view the group as coming from another era, a time when synagogue sisterhoods and similar organizations pooled the collective talents of the Mrs. Steven Cohens of the world to build gardens, sponsor projects in Israel and send local students to college.

In that sense, the continued existence of the Federation of Jewish Women is a bit of an anachronism. Except that its members all use their own names — they dropped their husbands’ first names as monikers beginning in 1963 with FJW president E.B. Hirsh — and it continues to address such issues as refugee support, community education, reproductive health, domestic abuse and climate change. Commitment to social justice is always in vogue and never as necessary as it is today. These women get that.

Instead of looking at those who will celebrate May 19 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as a throwback to another time, we all should view them as an example of what it means to put such notions as community, dialogue and advocacy into practice. The tragedy is that there aren’t more groups like the Federation of Jewish Women, more organizations dedicated to wholesale empowerment and communal involvement on a grand scale.

“We’ve organized trips to D.C. and Annapolis to meet with our elected officials and testified on committees on behalf of [many] issues,” says FJW’s current president, Sheila Derman. “While we’re not lobbyists per se, we’re really teaching federation women the importance of being involved, in a bipartisan way. That’s the way things happen.”

At a time when apathy increasingly plagues the United States — just less than 55 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2012, while more than 80 percent took part in the Philippines’ presidential election this week — we all should be wishing the Federation of Jewish Women another 100 years. We should also be looking for other organizations to join, ways to educate ourselves, and opportunities to dedicate our time and talents to the community.

The Year of the Woman may have come and gone. With an eye to the sisters, mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers at the FJW, let’s make 2016 the Year of the Involved Citizen.

Embracing Coexistence



Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American life, so much so that we frequently defer to houses of worship and other religious institutions, granting them exceptions from taxes and many workplace regulations. The freedom to worship as one pleases, enshrined in the First Amendment, is intimately linked with the freedoms of speech and of assembly, and we jealously fight encroachments on religious practice as the hallmarks of tyranny.

The right to own property and to punish its devaluing by the actions of others is an equally strong principle, fundamental to the idea of the social contract that underlies civil government: We individually sacrifice personal freedoms so the natural rights to, among others, safety and property.

It’s when such integral components of Western life stand opposed that we truly see the vibrancy of what it means to be an American. We’ve seen such debates play out in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi, where some are claiming religious rights in opposition to LGBT individuals claiming the rights of self- expression and, in the case of bathroom preferences, safety.

And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, we’re seeing another religious-rights debate play out right here in Baltimore, where the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue is heading to the county for yet another round in a land-use dispute with neighbors over its plans to set up shop on a 3-acre plot on Stevenson Road in Pikesville. On one side stands Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and the supporters of his Chabad-affiliated center for Russian-speaking Jews: They claim that both current zoning laws and a federal statute known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act trump the concerns of neighbors — many of them Jewish — who say they are worried about traffic and noise in the suburban neighborhood. But the opposition, which includes Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), maintains that they want to live in peace and never considered living next door to a synagogue when they purchased their homes.

On whose side you stand may betray your own religious proclivities, although even Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland and a veteran of his own land use litigation, recognizes that having a religious institution as a neighbor might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

“I can understand it,” he said of the opposition to Ariel. “It’s not that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t make it right.”

Kaplan summed up his thoughts with maybe the most American attitude of all: We’re a nation of laws.

At the end of the day, one party or the other is going to emerge from court — which may take many more months or even years — vindicated. The other will likely continue to feel aggrieved. The real question will come when the fervor has subsided: Will both sides embrace that equally American trait known as coexistence?

Israel’s Water Pioneers



English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge might be frequently maligned through each iteration of the “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” quote — the slightly altered line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” does not, unlike how its most invoked, refer to scarcity in the midst of abundance — but in a world still reeling from the headlines coming out of places like Flint, Mich., and right here in Baltimore, where officials at one school have admitted to trucking in bottled water for years  because of lead contamination, the literal meaning of his words are proving prescient.

Like the ancient mariner who slays an albatross and finds himself amid a sea of water — alas, not in any drinkable form — much of  “civilized”  society is today grappling with an abundance of contaminants. Potable water, however, is in short supply.

Into this reality comes the State of Israel. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the Jewish state has emerged as a leader  in turning that which was  undrinkable into something bordering on potable. Much like its fabled history of making the desert bloom, Israel is pioneering an industry of  desalination plants and water purification technology, earning attention from the parched state of California, as well as her own Arab neighbors, in the process.

I’ve remarked before in this column that with the news cycle being what it is, rare is the chance to report on good news coming out of the Middle East. So when reporter Daniel Schere returned from a trip there looking at Israel’s  attempts at renewing a tainted resource, we jumped at the chance. The country, as many a historian or local resident will tell you, has a unique history with water, owing in large part to its arid climate and near-constant state of warfare. Any town worth defending had to have ready and immediate access to a spring or a cistern, the remnants of which you can literally stumble upon during a walk through the countryside. (Many guidebooks contain a general warning that broken ankles from falling into an ancient water pit are quite common.)

Many such systems still  collect water today, but as Ben Gurion University archaeology professor Steve Rosen observes, “You don’t want to put your toe in, let alone drink.” That might be fine for an ancient society, but with “the startup nation” emerging as a global leader in information technology and bursting at the seams with a fast-growing population, Israel’s only option has been to invent a new way to process and deliver water.

While the transformation has been entirely necessary, it’s also inspiring. It begs the obvious question: If Israel, beset by  terrorism and other existential dangers, can meet the environmental challenge, why can’t the rest of us?

A Vote for Society



All politics is local, at least according to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. But in this election season, particularly, the truth of his aphorism can plainly be seen.

Just two states to the north, we can see self-proclaimed democratic socialist — the “d” is purposely lowercased — Sen. Bernie Sanders wow millennial voters by the tens of thousands. Never mind that many of them couldn’t actually vote for him in New York’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday (many, like their standard-bearer, were registered independents and thus barred from the closed primary). Their mere presence in the campaign, from the town halls attended by mere dozens almost a year ago to the mega rallies we see now, has served to tilt the race between Sanders and frontrunner Hillary Clinton perceptibly to the left.

The same can be said for the populist warriors belonging to billionaire businessman Donald Trump’s camp on the Republican side. They’ve propelled him to the top with their winner-take-all, establishment-be-damned march to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer but ironically have awoken a sleeping giant: the hundreds of obscure delegates, many of them John and Jane Q. Publics who, forgotten until now by the Trump campaign, are being wooed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The result: We might just see our first contested election since 1976.

And closer to home, we see hotly pitched battles for control of Baltimore’s City Hill and the Fifth District seat being vacated by retiring City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. While a dozen candidates, some obscure, many well-known (there are many more if you factor in Republican aspirants for the job of retiring Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake) seek to eat away at the coalescing support behind state Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-District 40), in the Fifth District, two members of the Jewish community have waged a war of campaign posters throughout Park Heights and Mount Washington. Many of their surrogates promise that theirs is the candidate best for the Jewish community.

It would be a mistake of the grandest proportions to confuse the wisdom of Tip O’Neill with the shortsightedness of voting purely based on one’s allegiance to a particular community. And we do ourselves no favors if we further alienate our neighborhoods from the rest of the city by merely voting for a candidate because he or she is “one of us.” Local, wrongly defined this way, has come to mean ethnic, but we must always remember that the Fifth District is a microcosm of the rest of the city. At the end of the day, what is good for all of Baltimore will be good for us.

As you’re contemplating your vote next week, whether down-ballot or at the top, consider making yours a vote on behalf of all of society.

The Flavor of Memories



Variety is the spice of life, or so the proverbial statement goes. But in so many things — religion, politics, work, art, etc. — the truth of William Cowper’s assertion can be seen, if not proven. A blank canvas is not all that different from an entirely red one; and a meeting hall full of people who agree on everything is just as boring.

The most successful plots revolve around some sort of conflict; in the same way, I say, give me someone or something in opposition! Only then can I appreciate what it means to be a living, breathing human, i.e. a thinking being, instead of a living, breathing animal.

It’s a nice message to keep in mind as we approach Pesach, the holiday of contrasts. Whether it’s the four different sons of the Haggadah or the fact that we eat matzoh instead of challah, Pesach never ceases — for me, at least — to evoke a new appreciation by virtue of its differentness. For those eight days, I revel in the non-leaven cleanse and savor the taste of matzoh, although unlike my fellow staff members at the JT, I will not be enjoying it in matzoh ball form. (As a member of community that does not eat gebrokts, I and my family do not wet our matzoh.)

But my weeklong abstention from matzoh ball soup does not prevent me from appreciating the love that others have, specifically around this type of year, for the concoction of matzoh meal and egg that has become a symbol of Jewish — well, Ashkenazi — cuisine. And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the sheer variety of matzoh balls are truly a wonder to behold. There are large ones and small ones, fluffy ones and dense ones, those that float atop a sheen of protein-laden broth and those that rest at the bottom of the bowl. And each person has his or her preferences.

My grandfather used to regale the grandchildren with stories of the enterprising bubbie, who, during an attack by the Cossacks, had her firmest of matzoh balls double as cannon balls. And the story was funny, because to this day, I have yet to come across a matzoh ball denser than those made by my grandmother.

Ultimately, that’s what cuisine of any type does: It evokes memories of our past, even as it borrows from the present. The same could be said for conversation around the Seder table.

That’s really what life is about, borrowing from our own experiences and amalgamating them with those of others, creating something new to carry us into the future. It may be not be uniform, and it may even be messy, but it has flavor, and that makes all the difference.

A Time to Question



With just two weeks to go until Pesach, it’s a fair bet that most of us are deeply entrenched in preparations for the holiday and its centerpiece — the Seders. We’re cleaning, we’re organizing, we’re buying, and we’re studying, all while the children in our midst are practicing for the hallmark Four Questions.

That’s right! Before month’s end, we’ll all be gathered around the tables of family and friends — and don’t be afraid to ask around if you’re lacking a place to celebrate — to hear the youngest among us ask why the Seder night, in particular, is “different from all other nights.” But if the retelling of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt is so singular to our identity that we’ve devised through the ages an entire service around it, do we really need to question its importance?

In a word, yes. Questioning, in fact, is so central to our existence as Jews that the Seder wouldn’t be a Seder without it. No one among us can imagine a Seder without the Four Questions — tradition mandates that in the absence of children, an adult present recite them, while many have the custom of each person present reciting the questions themselves — and I’d venture that no one could imagine a Judaism without the quintessential questions of “Why?” and “What?”

Pesach may be a time for examining and grappling with the ideas of peoplehood, subjugation, religious calling and deliverance, but as you’ll read in this week’s JT, it can also be a time for contemplating all of what makes us Jewish and what Judaism makes of us. Think technology is a metaphor for modern-day servitude? You’re only half there, according to author and futurist Amy Webb, who says that far from us being slaves to our iPhones, it’s the other way around. She even envisages a day when they fight back and points to the recent experience of Tay, Microsoft’s ballyhooed chat bot that within 24 hours of “life” turned into an anti-Semite, as an example of dangers inherent in technology.

What plagues the Jewish community? A failure to appreciate the corollaries between our own past experiences and the current struggles of others, says the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Arthur Abramson.

Searching for something? Jewish teens in our community say they’re searching for meaning. What does modern-day freedom look like? For many clients of CHANA, it’s simple safety, whether psychological, emotional or physical.

But just as there are many answers to a single question, the truth, paradoxically, is that there are likely more questions than answers. Pesach is a time of introspection, a chance to channel the questions of the past and apply them to the present.

I wish all of you much success in your deliberations.

We Must Never Forget



What’s it like to be a religious minority?

It sounds like a ridiculous question for the Jewish community, which has over time developed a badge of honor out of its experiences as strangers in a strange land. But if we really think about it, there are few among us today who can truly appreciate what it means to be a societal outcast, a lesser citizen, an “other.”

Right here in Baltimore, even the old institutions of Jewish separateness have morphed into members of the establishment. The best example is Sinai Hospital, a health care facility that got its start around the time of other Jewish hospitals around the country, an answer to the insensitivities of other religions’ institutions. But today, it’s a centerpiece of LifeBridge Health, one of the region’s most influential companies.

For all of the success we enjoy as Jews in America, though, we are not so far removed from a past typified by quotas and bans on Jewish membership in social organizations.

How we as a community have responded to such prejudices has made us into who we are today. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland puts it all into perspective, using Jewish achievements in medicine as a lens through which to examine notions of separateness and success. What was a fast route to achieving the American dream? Medicine. But the rise through its ranks was limited, its deck stacked against the Jews.

Was that a deterrent? Not so much when you consider how many doctors our community has produced. We became so successful at cranking out M.D.s that we created an entirely new stereotype.

The danger of such success is that we can easily find ourselves numb to the challenges of the past. In finding our place, so to speak, some of us may even have forgotten where we came from.

Most of the time, such generational forgetfulness isn’t such a bad thing. Part of the greatness of America is allowing each generation to achieve something new, to remake reality. But throwing off the shackles of being the “other” can also destroy our sensitivity to other second-class citizens. Failing to remember the struggles of the past can make us fail to recognize other ethnic groups’ struggles here in the present.

We must never forget what we as a community had to go through to become who we are today. In an era when coexistence is not only a catchphrase, but a necessity, our own experiences as immigrants and outsiders should strengthen our resolve to help out the downtrodden who surround us.

Bottom Line: Unity



The periphery of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center has always been somewhat of a circus when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes to town for its annual policy conference. This year was no different: There was, for instance, the Greek Orthodox-looking guy holding a sign reading,  “Occupy AIPAC with Jesus Christ!” That was on Monday morning just after Democratic president frontrunner Hillary Clinton wrapped up her speech before delegates. The day before saw an army of pro-Palestinian protesters hoisting flags and chanting, keeping attendees inside the Convention Center for several minutes. And, like clockwork, the Neturei Karta pro-Iran, pro-Palestinian Chasidic minority camped out on the lawn outside.

But with the arrival of  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Monday night at the event’s other location, the Verizon Center  stadium, it became clear that the circus — at 18,000 delegates, AIPAC’s largest-ever conference — came indoors.

“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” the billionaire developer said, to a chorus of alternating boos and cheers. “That’s what politicians do. All talk. No action.”

When he took the podium, some attendees kept their promise, despite instructions from officials, and walked out, although outside, the anticipated protesters, whether anti-Trump or anti-AIPAC, didn’t materialize to the levels expected. Still, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, donned a tallit and walked toward the stage only to be ushered out by security. (“I had to declare his wickedness,” the rabbi later told  reporters.)

Trump largely delivered what many in the crowd were expecting and promised to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” And yet, the standing ovations were fewer and smaller than for Ohio  Gov. John Kasich, another  Republican presidential hopeful.

Looking back, it didn’t take the presence of Trump to demonstrate the divisions within the pro-Israel community. As you’ll read in these pages, just 24 hours before, when Vice President Joe Biden literally ran onto the dais at the Verizon Center, he was hailed as a true friend of Israel. For most of his speech, he enjoyed waves of applause, especially when he roared, “I condemn those who fail to condemn terror,” an obvious dig at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Arab world.

When the vice president turned to castigating Israel for provocative moves in the area of settlement construction, though, several in the audience told him to shut up. And when he ran a victory lap, as it were, on the successful passage of the Iran nuclear deal and American military support of the Jewish state — claiming that “Israel is stronger today because of the Obama/Biden administration” — many got up from their seats and walked outside in the cold.

Make no mistake, many at AIPAC were still smarting from the Iran deal, which they fought tooth and nail against and spent millions of dollars to defeat. But when a montage of past speakers showed such faces as President Barack Obama’s and former Vice President Al Gore’s — the one the author of the Iran deal, the other an outspoken backer of it — their presence on the Jumbotron elicited some of the loudest applause.

A hallmark of AIPAC has always been its ability to bring disparate factions of the pro-Israel community together: Republicans, Democrats, all of the Jewish denominations, evangelical Christians. But when its army of grassroots lobbyists took to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, their No. 1 issue, according to official talking points, was getting Congress to pass new sanctions on Iran. There was a palpable questioning of that strategy, with many wondering aloud if it was better to move onto other winnable issues, such as securing a new memorandum of understanding between the United States and Israel on military spending, a cause relegated to the No. 3 position on AIPAC’s agenda.

If there’s one clear takeaway from the just-concluded conference, it’s not to marvel at AIPAC’s ability to bring 18,000 supporters of Israel together under one roof. In the light of how different blocs reacted to such different frontrunners as Clinton and Trump, the takeaway must be how despite all of what keeps people in disparate camps, they can all agree on the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance and a Jewish state able to defend itself in a turbulent Middle East.

As the circus moves on,  remembering that point of unity is more important than ever.

All In for B’more



It’s a cruel twist of fate that those consigned — for whatever reason — to poverty pay a penalty on such things as household goods. It’s a phenomenon most recently tracked by professor Yesim Orhun at the University of Michigan, who documented that those who are poor pay on average 5.9 percent more per sheet of toilet paper than those with the means to stock up when the price goes down.

In the eye-opening words of one Washington Post reporter, it’s expensive to be poor.

There’s an entire literature out there analyzing what has been termed the “cycle of poverty,” but Orhun’s research puts it in day-to-day terms. The conclusion is that the deck is stacked against those trying to break out of poverty. But unless we’re poor — and there are many of us who are — what’s the big deal?

Let’s look at it through a much bigger lens with the following question: Which is the “real” Baltimore? The violence-ridden one flashed across television screens nationwide almost a year ago? Or the pristine, tourist-friendly one that occupies prime real estate around the Inner Harbor?

It’s really a trick question, because the fact of the matter is that Baltimore encompasses both such realities and many more in between. But while Baltimore is a true “city of neighborhoods” in that Mount Washington has a unique character vastly different from Park Heights, what affects one — say, in Penn-North or Sandtown-Winchester — affects us all.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, many in the Jewish community are intimately involved in the city’s efforts to sell Baltimore to a skeptical United States more conversant in the Freddie Gray riots than in the home prices in Federal Hill. Others are working to strengthen those neighborhoods and communities hardest hit by the violence, as well as the systemic problems of poverty and government neglect that contribute to crime.

Both goals are inextricably linked.

“What we can do on a practical level is build a positive outlook,” says Rabbi Ariel Fishman, director of JHeritage at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

But make no mistake: What now faces the city is an uphill battle, and if we accept the premise that Baltimore is essentially a “poor” city, we must recognize that the same deck that is stacked against financially poor citizens presents even more challenges to the city that houses them. Just as helping them out of poverty will require an entire community’s support, lifting Baltimore out of the morass that has seen hotel room bookings plummet and housing sales soften will require the collective effort of Baltimoreans of all stripes, backed by an army of non-profits and the support of the state and federal governments.

If we want a better Baltimore, we must all contribute.

With Eye to Past



Location, location, location.

It’s the secret to so many real estate transactions, the explanation to why a two-bedroom ranch in Silicon Valley can sell for $1 million, but a five-bedroom center-hall colonial can go for $500,000 in Pikesville. Go farther down Park Heights Avenue, and that same large house might be had for $200,000 or less.

Similarly, where once massive stone and brick synagogues served a turn-of- the-century Jewish community in East  Baltimore now sit, in some cases, hollowed-out shells. Save for one, the synagogues have moved on — to Druid Hill, to Park Heights, to Pikesville, Owings Mills and Reisterstown.

Their stories, told this week in the first of two features on Jewish Baltimore’s architectural history, are the stories of Jewish migration and upward mobility. But unlike the real estate market, where location means everything, the changing façades of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, Har Sinai, Chizuk Amuno and others trace not only the physical path of an immigrant community becoming firmly “American,” but that community’s changing values, priorities and world views.

As the JT’s managing editor, Melissa Gerr, writes, “To reflect on some of Jewish Baltimore’s architecture is to walk a path through its past. Whether the desired outcome was to  culturally assimilate or stay true to faith, to differentiate from other immigrants or simply to embrace the modern, Jews have fervently proclaimed their identity and maintained a strong physical presence in a cityscape that is constantly evolving.”

Founded in 1845, the original home of BHC’s Federal style signifies, according to Morgan State University professor Jeremy Kargon, a community stating unequivocally, “We are now Americans. We’re participating in the white American political history.”

But the more traditional style of the original shuls of Eastern European immigrants, such as the abandoned Tzemach Tzedek synagogue on East Fairmount Avenue, likely points to an identification closer to the home they left than the home they embraced in North America.

It’s a fascinating topic of discussion. But at the end of the day, while a building may be a reflection of where a community came from, where it is or where it wants to be, it doesn’t necessarily tell the story of where a community is going. For that, we have to look to the congregation — meaning, the people — itself to determine its vibrancy.

Like houses, which though in some cases may be beautiful are really only designed for one purpose — to provide physical shelter to their occupants — synagogues, whatever the size, shape or look, are ideally built to provide spiritual shelter to their congregants. We can  always keep an eye to the past, but it helps to also ask ourselves, where do we exist now and where are we going? The answer to those questions is the real story of the Jewish community.