Give Me a Sign

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaWhy are signs so important? Meta-phorical or physical, signs bring an abstract thought into concrete reality. A sign can be a benchmark of accomplishments and a metric for possibilities.

We like signs because we like to show dedication to hard work and perseverance with something more eternal than ourselves.  We want to show that we overcame the mundane and did something for the greater good.

Emerging from the High Holiday season, we can relate to ambition, setting goals, self-analysis and overcoming obstacles.  And even more, we recognize how hard it can be to change our behaviors and practices.  After all, that same list of transgressions we read every year often seem applicable or appropriate in some way.

Every year, we take stock of where we are and what we could be doing better.  Every year, we vow to try to be better people. To press a restart button, wipe the slate clean and start anew.  As we know from our New Year rituals and Yom Kippur atonement, behavior change is something that does not happen without lots of practice, asking for forgiveness and do-overs.  And even with some prescriptive instructions, we often still get it wrong.

Change begins with someone acting differently and actualizing the need for the change.  Economic motivators are not enough of an impetus if it’s not also behaviorally driven.   People need constant reminders and reinforcement that what they do matters.  This keeps us on the right track, until we can look back and see the bigger picture of the impact of our efforts.

Over this summer, I began seeing numerous signs for “restoration” projects: along trails, in urban revitalization projects, in reclamation of old industrial buildings for community use.

Without the signage that goes with these projects, much of the impact and long-term effect on those who encounter the projects would be lost.  Now that green space project down the street that is ripping up a local parking lot isn’t just a nuisance,

but a source of local pride of community improvement, increasing health benefits along with property values, habitat, air and water quality.

Likewise, organizational and municipal projects need to convey to the public how they service and positively impact the community, improving everyone is quality of living whether you walk through their doors or not.  The result is more buy-in, more pride and more stakeholders.  The longevity of the action will be sustained longer because people will take more pride in ensuring its continued impact.

Restoration is one of those words like sustainability that can take on many meanings depending on context. When looking up some of the local restoration efforts I came across some familiar phrases to such as: “dedicated to stewardship”, “maintain, preserve and protect the natural environment” and “provide a legacy for future generations.”

Quality of the community and neighborhoods goes up when there has been an investment in everyone’s well-being.  Rewards are often compounded and reaped exponentially.  But how many people are aware of this?

The benchmark defining when something is sufficiently restored, quantifying the benefits and tolerance of any inconvenience will likely not happen through formal education such as workshops and seminars, but informally through signage on-site of a project, in an impacted neighborhood or in the lobby of a partnering organization.

A Delicate Balance

2013_Runyan_-Josh“The pursuit of truth,” concluded the recently departed Ben Bradlee, “changes your life.”

The iconic former executive editor of The Washington Post, who passed away last week at the age of 93, made those comments to good friend Jim Lehrer of PBS as part of a reflection on a career that catapulted him to fame and fortune with the publication of “The Pentagon Papers” and the ensuring Supreme Court victory and the breaking of the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down a sitting U.S. president.

But the pursuit of truth did more than just make Bradlee a millionaire — if love is truth, it may have even ruined two of the journalist’s three marriages — because Bradlee’s guidance to such reporters as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein crafted the modern journalistic age we find ourselves in right now.

Indeed, many people entered the profession because of Bradlee. I myself became a journalist because of Jason Robards’ Academy Award-winning portrayal of him in “All the President’s Men” — cool and composed, with an indignant temper stewing just beneath the surface, holding on to a hot story like a bulldog when the collective forces of the government, other news outlets and even junior editors told him to let go.

What he bequeathed to every person who ferrets out a story is an ethics that puts a premium on the truth, emphasizing that no official or institution should be able to secret it away with the excuse of protecting the public. But he also stressed that reporters shouldn’t recklessly trample upon the rank and file in their pursuit — “Tell me again why we need to ruin this person’s life?” he would ask, according to The Post’s Martha Sherrill.

This balance between discovery at all costs and sensitivity to how much damage can ultimately be wielded by the pen is on full display in the coverage surrounding the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington, D.C., on charges of voyeurism. An authority on matters of conversion is accused of surreptitiously recording women at the National Capital Mikvah next door to the Kesher Israel Congregation he led as senior rabbi while they prepared to immerse in the ritual bath.

He pleaded not guilty at a preliminary arraignment just before the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, but hardly a day has gone by without some new revelation in the case. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, a police search of his office at Towson University — where he was a professor of religion and ethics — turned up surveillance cameras disguised as ordinary household items, and Towson students have told reporters that on tours of Kesher Israel and its mikvah, Freundel invited them to shower and use the bath.

What tends to get lost in digging up the details is that there are actual human beings affected by this story. The knee-jerk reaction among many is to point out that Freundel’s wife and children are likely undergoing tremendous agony (his daughter was at the hearing when he was brought into the courtroom in shackles), but there are a host of alleged victims and potential victims — women, converts, students — some of whom are questioning their faith and their trust in a man they viewed as a scholar and religious giant.

The JT and its sister publication, the Washington Jewish Week, have kept this in mind in reporting the story. Where the truth leads, only Providence can know.

RCA Cover-up?

Every day, this story gets even worse (“Prominent Rabbi Arrested,” Oct. 17). Rabbi Barry Freundel should have been thrown ­­out years ago, but the Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) obviously went out of its way not to throw him out. And this is par for all rabbinical groups that protect their favorites.

I was placed in my first and second congregations by Yeshiva University. Both were conservative synagogues belonging to United Synagogue of America. That was the practice at that time. I was blacklisted by the RCA and Yeshiva because I had served in Conservative synagogues, and they would not place me or recommend me for Orthodox congregations.

When I took my final rabbinical position, the president of the RCA called me every Saturday night, threatening that I leave my Conservative congregation or I would be brought before the RCA rabbinical court. My crime was being in a Conservative congregation. I was blacklisted for all intents and purposes for serving in an Orthodox congregation.

In addition, the president of the RCA told my wife that she and I would burn in hell and that they would make certain that if I went public about being asked to leave my shul they would ruin the shidduchim, future marriages, of my children.

My family is Orthodox. I did go public, and thank G-d, my children are married to Orthodox individuals. I have served 40 years in the rabbinate, 26 at my current synagogue. We moved into an Orthodox community, and my wife and I walk two miles each way to synagogue. My children were raised in an Orthodox community and attended Yeshiva University. I am too old to be as angry as I was when I was young. I raised $1.5 million for Yeshiva University and taught public speaking there for 10 years. In addition, I raised $25,000 for the RCA. I resigned from the RCA for the crime of being in a Conservative congregation.

Freundel should had been ousted years ago. At first, I urged people to wait for proof before judgment. Now that the proof is in, Freundel deserves punishment, and the RCA should stop dancing around the issue and admit there was a cover-up.

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg
Spiritual Leader, Congregation Beth-El
Edison, N.J.

Strong Leadership, Makes a Difference

As a former board president of the organization, I was pleased to read the story about Central Scholarship and its 90 years of success helping students achieve their academic, personal and professional dreams (“Still Going Strong at 90,” Oct. 17).

It is a testament to the sustainability and stability of the organization that since hiring its first professional staff 62 years ago, there have been only four executive directors: Marge Warres, Janice Starr, Helen London and Jan Wagner. Through their unwavering commitment, creative innovation and strong leadership, they each have propelled Central Scholarship forward and have had a lasting impact on the lives of motivated students — and on our community.

Steven Himmelrich

Numbers Count!

Why is it important to vote (“The Jewish Vote,” Oct. 17)? Here is a story never told.
The British government once asked President Harry Truman not to vote for the partition of Palestine. I lived in the Bronx, N.Y., and my father came home from services and told me the rabbis in our community got together and decided to teach Truman a lesson.

We had a runoff election due to the death of our congressman. Our area was 80 percent Democratic and 20 percent American Labor Party (ALP). The rabbis asked us to vote ALP, so the following Tuesday, the vote ended up 80 percent ALP and 20 percent Democratic.
Truman agreed to the partition, and three months later, we had the regular election: The vote was 80 percent Democratic and 20 percent ALP.

My cousin, who was active in politics, once told me to register with the majority party, but vote for whoever I wanted, because if you need a favor, they will look to see if you are a registered voter in their party. Vote on Election Day. Numbers count.

Howard J. Cohen

Worth Waiting For

We at Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI) read with interest your article “Betting on Baltimore: Casino revenue travels as far as Park Heights” (Oct. 10).CHAI has been intimately involved in Video Lottery Terminal funding decisions with the five presidents of the neighborhood associations (Glen, Fallstaff, Cheswolde, Cross Country and Mount Washington) in our community since the passage of the legislation.
In fact, CHAI is proud to be the convener of the Northwest Community President’s Forum, which meets every other month and where these, as well as many other decisions, take place. CHAI also will be a recipient of these funds for several needed projects that will benefit the entire community.
While we understand the frustration that neighborhood leaders are feeling about the rate at which these resources are coming, we know that when they do, there will be additional remarkable improvements to the Northern Park Heights community. We are very grateful to our elected officials for putting this legislation together, as these resources are, and will be, an ongoing gift to our community.
At the conclusion of the Jewish holidays, we are reminded that new journeys are rarely easy, solidarity helps achieve communal goals, and good things come to those who wait.
Mitchell Posner
Executive Director
Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.

Is Pope Francis a Model for Our Rabbis?

The shift in tone that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church has serious repercussions for people who follow that religion — and those of other faith systems. As the most prominent religious figure in today’s world, the actions, ideas  and approach of the pontiff deserve attention, including among Jews.

That’s no criticism of the gedolim. Instead, it’s a recognition that Jewish leaders need not shy away from the moral and intellectual contributions of great men of other faiths. As the Jewish collection of wisdom Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.”

Nothing mentioned below should be interpreted as criticizing any rabbi — or supporting the violation of unambiguous Jewish laws. Instead, I’m praising values and behaviors that Pope Francis models — at least some of which can be a lesson to every present and future rabbi, whether a local synagogue rabbi or one of our generation’s leading rabbinical figures.

Here are some qualities shown by Pope Francis that are worthy of consideration:

He is accessible. Many Catholics have praised the “common touch” of the current pontiff, particularly in contrast to the more aloof popes of the past. In his desire to communicate with all kinds of people, he has become conversant in 10 languages. This pope uses Twitter. He regularly grants interviews to the press and speaks openly about important moral and contemporary matters in public settings.

He is humble. Upon his election, he eschewed the tradition of sitting on the Papal Throne — and stood instead. A Jewish leader who visited him said, “If everyone sat in chairs with [arms], he would sit in the one without.” He lives modestly in a guesthouse. He drives himself around Rome in a 30-year-old used Renault. Previous pontiffs rode as passengers in the Pope-mobile, a Mercedes in which the pope would sit on a chair made from white leather with gold trim.

He is traditional.  Pope Francis does not surrender to calls for assimilating recent social values that are foreign to Catholicism. On the other hand, he has been willing to listen with respect and kindness to people advocating all kinds of new ideas.

He is merciful.  Soon after ascending to the papacy, Francis washed and kissed the feet of several juvenile offenders. He goes out of his way to embrace people who are usually demeaned by the wider society, especially the poor. In fact, alleviating poverty seems to be the centerpiece of his papacy.

He is respectful. Under Pope Francis, Catholic clergy no longer speak of “living in sin,” a phrase that had been an unnecessary slap in the face to Catholics whose family arrangements do not involve church-approved marriages. The recently convened Synod on the Family just released a draft document that declared that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer,” though they maintained the church’s policies on the nature of proper bedroom and family life.

To be clear: I am not envious of Catholicism and I don’t wish Judaism would echo that religion’s ideology and practices. Rather, I’m describing the extraordinary leadership of a special person who has inspired hundreds of millions.

What Really Matters

As a nursing home rabbi/chaplain for more than 20 years, I sometimes am asked by a Jewish resident or family member:  What type of rabbi are you?”  My humorous response to the question is, “A Jewish Rabbi!”

When a person is confronted with serious illness, especially for the first time, he or she may feel embarrassment or shame for being so dependent on others and perhaps even alienated from one’s faith in G-d at being in such a lonely, painful situation. In my role as a chaplain/rabbi, I am called upon to give hope and strength to the frail elderly in our midst at such troubling times. I believe that my role is to be nonjudgmental, striving to support the person and the family in whatever way possible.

While I am primarily the spiritual leader for the Jewish residents in my work, I also serve as a chaplain for our non-Jewish clientele.

What this means to me, as taught by my teachers, is that every human being is a person of G-d, while every Jew is like a family member, my own flesh and blood.

What I have learned is how we treat one another is often more important than what we say to one another. Also, in my role as a teacher, I share the belief that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

In Deuteronomy 6:4, the Torah states: “Hear, O Israel: the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.” The classical commentator, Rashi, notes that the statement refers both to the Jewish people who now recognize “the L-rd as our G-d,” as well as the nations of the world, who will eventually one day recognize in the future “the L-rd is One.”

By the same token, I am the spiritual leader for the Jewish elderly in my midst, inspiring their lives through the familiar tunes of the Shabbat and Yom Tov prayers in our shul. The ups and downs of their lives are paralleled by the highs and lows of the Jewish calendar.

As we move forward in the year, let us reflect upon our unique role as the Jewish people in the world. Our strength comes from our perception of ourselves as one people. Do we need to be reminded that Hamas does not differentiate between Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Reform Jews when it seeks to wage war against Israel?

The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:6 Haftorah Parshat Bereishit) brings G-d’s message: “I am G-d; in righteousness have I called you and taken hold of your hand; I have protected you and appointed you to bring the people to the covenant, to be a light for the nations.”

Three for Congress

In the Nov. 4 elections, Baltimore has three outstanding members of Congress who deserve re-election. Democrats Dutch Ruppersberger in District 2, John Sarbanes in District 3 and Elijah Cummings in District 7 serve their districts well, and we endorse them.

Ruppersberger is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, where he has been outspoken about the excesses of electronic surveillance by the government following the Edward Snowden revelations. But he also was among those clamoring for a coherent strategy to battle the Islamic State long before the White House committed itself to airstrikes, and he backed Israel in its fight against Hamas last summer.

Cummings is a leader in the fight against inner-city poverty and a champion of social mobility. He is known for working across the aisle, particularly with Rep. Zev Chavetz (R-Utah), and is the sponsor, along with the Baltimore Jewish Council, of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, which sends African-American teens from his Baltimore district to Israel with the goal of building bonds between African-Americans and Jews.

Sarbanes is the author of the Government By the People Act to reform campaign finance and dilute the influence of major donors. House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced the bill in February. It remains in committee. Earlier this month, along with Ruppersberger and Cummings and Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, he also called for a federal investigation into “allegations of brutality and misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department.”

All three represent our area well. And from the apparent lack of serious competition for their seats, it appears that others recognize that as well.

A Matter of Trust, Sanctity

Kesher Israel, where Barry Freundel was a respected rabbi.

Kesher Israel, where Barry Freundel was a respected rabbi.

The arrest last week of Rabbi Barry Freundel on six charges of voyeurism has shaken his congregation, Kesher Israel in Georgetown, as well the Jewish community of greater Washington and the Orthodox world at large. Freundel had influence far beyond his synagogue and the mikvah, or ritual bath, next door, from where he allegedly videotaped women undressing and showering, and the allegations — the rabbi pleaded not guilty to the charges last week — have understandably led many women to question an ancient Jewish practice for fear of being violated when they are most vulnerable.

But what has not been noted is that in contrast with the years-long cover-ups that typically accompany clergy misdeeds, the Freundel case was not swept under the rug. When the leadership of the National Capital Mikvah became aware of suspicions surrounding Freundel’s behavior, they reported the matter to the police and cooperated fully in the subsequent investigation.

After the rabbi’s arrest on Oct. 14, organizations with which he was associated quickly issued condemnations and cut ties. The synagogue suspended him without pay, while the mikvah removed him as its rabbinical supervisor. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), through which Freundel wielded power over the state of Orthodox conversions in the United States, suspended his membership and ousted him from positions of leadership. His name no longer appears on the website of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, where he was vice president.

The very troubling charges against Freundel have apparently shocked relevant organizations enough for them to rethink their operations. In addition to announcing that Freundel’s conversions are indeed kosher, the RCA will now appoint a woman or a group of women to act as ombudsmen on every woman’s conversion case, since Orthodox conversion court judges are all male.

And the Mikveh Emunah Society, which oversees two Washington-area mikvahs, issued new policies and security arrangements that show they are serious about not letting what happened in Georgetown happen in suburban Maryland. From now on, any male volunteer or maintenance worker must be accompanied into the ritual bath facility by a woman; the society will also employ an independent security firm to inspect its facilities and offer guidance on future security needs.

We approve of these developments and see in them a model for how ritual baths around the country can cleanse the stain of the Freundel case and protect their users from further invasions of privacy. It would be an unquestionable betrayal of conscience to allow the sanctity of a time-honored Jewish practice to be forever tarnished by failing to learn the lessons of what allegedly occurred in Georgetown.