Investing in Our Community

2014_Shapiro-JasonIn every community, people expect certain rights as well as obligations. In civil societies, people expect good government and public schools, well-maintained highways and parks and responsive police and fire departments. Citizens’ obligations include being good and law abiding and, of course, paying taxes in order to support the services provided by government.

In the Jewish community, there are no taxes. Services provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, for instance, are underwritten by the generous contributions of the members of our community who continually step forward to ensure that the Jewish community has the funds not just to survive, but to thrive.

As a young lawyer, I began my career as an assistant state’s attorney with a modest income and a growing family. As a result, I was unable to donate any sizable sum to support the Jewish community of Howard County. But because of the nature of my job, I had time. I was home every night around 6, and I did not need to engage in evening phone conversations with clients. I was able to spend at least one evening per week using my time to raise funds for those in need, to volunteer on projects and otherwise to perform tikkun olam.

Now as an attorney in my own firm, I not only give my time to the Jewish community, but I also make a meaningful gift to the Federation’s annual campaign. However, I don’t stop there — because I know that doing good is also good for business. My firm, Shapiro & Mack, has sponsored numerous events and programs provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, everything from the spring gala “Federation Live!” to a movie night screening of “Follow Me — The Yoni Netanyahu Story.” I do this because I recognize that it is important to be a leader in our community.

The continuity of the Jewish people for several millennia just didn’t happen. It occurred because some members of our community stepped forward, holding themselves out as leaders and examples to others — in word and, most importantly, in deed.

As campaign chair, I envisioned a way for other businesses in Howard County to donate to the federation. We put together a corporate sponsorship program called StepTogether. It’s another way for members of the greater community to gain exposure and connect to a thriving Jewish community of more than 20,000 people.

The good work that the Federation performs in our own community, in Israel and throughout the world is undeniable. The more money that the federation raises, the more lives it can positively enhance. This new business sponsorship program, StepTogether, recognizes businesses that help fund the federation’s mission and is a call to action allowing our community to support those businesses that allow the federation to serve the Jewish people.

Jason A. Shapiro is campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Preserving Our Jewish Family

runyan_josh_otYou have to hand it to the sisterhood of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Greengate Jewish Center in Baltimore. The Tuesday afternoon meeting was billed as a chance to meet the JT’s new editor, but in the space of about an hour, the group of about 40 women — and one man — cut to the heart of the dilemma facing Jewish communal life.

Do we want to be inclusive or do we want to preserve tradition?

Their question, of course, was specifically directed toward the challenges faced by publishers in the Jewish press, but it speaks of a larger issue facing each and every one of us. If the conclusions of the oft-discussed Pew Research Center’s recent study of Jewish American life are correct — if the American Jewish community is losing its members to a rising tide of assimilation, intermarriage and religious apathy — shouldn’t the response be to strengthen our numbers?

Some have indeed endorsed that approach, sometimes seeming to embrace a whatever-the-cost strategy in widening the Jewish communal tent.

Still others, though, have apparently circled the wagons, adopting what some pejoratively have termed a “ghettoized” approach and whose adherents call protecting tradition.

Such an environment certainly amplifies the crossroads at which American Jewry finds itself. But since when are inclusivity and tradition mutually exclusive ideals?

This might be a revolutionary statement, but I would venture that Jewish youth, who have always been searching for truth, have migrated out of the fold not because our traditions need updating, but because we as a community haven’t been doing a good enough job of communicating those traditions’ essential core. The Jewish people aren’t unified because each of us calls himself or herself “Jewish”; Jewish unity instead resides in the shared experience of being Jewish. So to the extent that vast swaths of the Jewish community are searching — and they are — at least they’re doing a quintessentially Jewish thing: They’re looking for truth.

Now comes the task of providing it, and doing so can take an inclusive approach.

For years, the social sciences focused on how individuals responded to various conditions, from physical handicaps to learning disabilities. Now, however, psychologists, therapists and social workers — some of whom you’ll read about in our cover story about siblings of children with special needs and in an article about a new addiction treatment center — talk about how a family collectively copes with a challenge.

“Families need to step back and look at their schedules,” Owings Mills-based psychologist Eve Band advises those who have children with and without special needs. “Make arrangements to spend time alone with the other siblings, even if it’s just for a Sunday morning bagel run.”

The same advice can be applied to larger communal issues. As members of the global Jewish community, each one of us has special needs, whether they be financial, familial, spiritual or physical. Above all, each of us has a need to belong.

In meeting those challenges, it would be easy to forget how each part of the community works as part of the whole. So let’s collectively take a step back; instead of throwing our communal net wider or letting those departing fend for themselves, let’s think of ways we can preserve that which makes us a Jewish family.

After Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman’s announcement last week that he was planning to retire as national director of the Anti-Defamation League was inevitable. Yet, it somehow came as a surprise. For years, Foxman watchers suggested that he needed to groom a successor and, with that heir in place, step down. The fact that Mr. Foxman seemed to take no interest in being succeeded by anybody helped make his retirement announcement seem like it was something other than just an orderly transition. Perhaps for this reason, the resulting coverage had the quality of a eulogy.

But Mr. Foxman isn’t planning to fade away. The 73-year-old said he will remain at the helm of the Jewish defense organization until July 2015. His successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, is in for an interesting and challenging time.

Rising through the ADL’s ranks for 22 years before becoming its national director in 1987, Mr. Foxman has become synonymous with the ADL and its fight against anti-Semitism. His stature makes his pronouncements on what is or isn’t anti-Semitic authoritative among Jews and in the U.S. political system. Want the last word on what is good or bad for the Jews? Get Abe Foxman on the line.

The successor will have to build his or her brand, just as Mr. Foxman did. As his star rose, Mr. Foxman elevated the ADL brand through a unique combination of leadership, advocacy chutzpah and personality. But his successor won’t have that cache and will have to earn his or her own stripes. Thus, neither the Jewish community nor the media will be so quick to defer to the head of the ADL as they were with Mr. Foxman. Rather, whoever occupies the national director chair of ADL will have to earn and develop the trust and backing of the organized Jewish and political worlds.

That’s quite a testament to Mr. Foxman. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, he has been a presence on the world scene and a force that cannot be ignored. Sometimes controversial, sometimes right on the mark, Abe Foxman will unquestionably be “replaced,”  but his replacement is going to have to earn that position.

Reflection on Taglit-Birthright Israel

jeanine 1By: Jeanine Tishman
Freshman at Towson University

After an intensive ten days on Taglit-Birthright Israel, I was both sad that it was over and excited to begin my next adventure as a participant in the first Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership Birthright Extension. I had been briefed prior to the trip on a major difference between Birthright and the Ashkelon Extension – we would experience Israel beyond a tour bus by getting to know Israelis and the issues impacting Israeli society.

Our first encounter was Shabbat. We were hosted by families in Ashkelon and experienced what Friday night is like in an Israeli home. The hospitality of the families was so warm and welcoming. On Saturday, several of us attended a local masorti (conservative) synagogue in Ashkelon, Netzach Israel. The rabbi at the synagogue was extremely welcoming and helped the group to follow along with services. Other members of the synagogue checked up on us frequently, too!

On our walk back to the hotel we stopped at Baltimore Park. We sat, relaxed and felt the warmth of the sun on our skin! Being at the park really made me feel like I was at home.

After much needed rest, Shabbat finally came to an end. We made havdallah outside of the hotel on the pool deck in a small circle and formed our own special community as participants in this experience.

Sunday and Monday were filled with service-learning and arts and culture experiences that allowed me to connect with Israel in a new way. We volunteered at the Hava Educational Farm, an experiential educational center to teach youth agricultural science, environmental studies, and health. We learned how to make falafel and then enjoyed a delicious lunch. We volunteered at Rambam, a modern orthodox elementary school, which reminded me of my own school from growing up. Since I speak Hebrew fluently, it was easy for me to connect with the kids – at one point, a student asked me for my phone number because she wanted to keep in touch. I was incredibly touched; even though we had only known each other a short time, I felt like I had made a difference in the life of this particular student.

My experience in Ashkelon showed me a different side of Israel, which inspired me to want to come back. I am now looking at opportunities to volunteer in Ashkelon this summer and am excited to remain connected to the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership!

Whose Vision is Correct?

I have to agree with your desire that all of us Jews be more tolerant of each other’s beliefs (“Searching for Harmony,” Jan. 31). Which of us can say that we are the ones to correctly interpret each part of the Torah?!

This reminds me of a d’var Torah that I wrote many, many years ago. It treated Balaam and the talking donkey, who first swerved off the path and into the fields when it saw the path blocked by an angel with a drawn sword. The donkey then squeezed against the fence when it saw the angel standing in the passageway, partially blocking it. Finally the donkey laid down when it saw that the angel had totally blocked the passage.

Although Balaam was a prophet who received inspired communications from G-d, he could not see the angel at first. When a person truly tries to understand the messages from G-d, that person may only see what G-d reveals to him. But how can a person be sure that his or her vision is the only correct one? Maybe the various visions are all part of some greater truth? Maybe the version we see is only a partial view of the entire truth. So how can one say that the other person is wrong — or limited — in his interpretation?

Bernard Cataldo

Loehmann’s More Than Just a Store

Though I agree stores are replaceable and I can “find bargains elsewhere,” Loehmann’s offered more than just a shopping experience (“Stores Are Replaceable!” Jan. 31). In fact, Loeh-mann’s served as a modern “Red Tent” for women.

Growing up in New York, I have vague memories of being a very little girl and driving to this strange place to see women in their underwear in the giant common dressing room in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Everyone was trying on clothes and talking and laughing. Strangers became friends and sisters to support and guide one another. The key was, it was a journey I made with my sister, mother, grandmother and aunts.

As the years went on wherever I lived, I went to Loehmann’s to find my new Jewish connection point. Whether it was Brooklyn, Long Island, Los Angeles, Florida or Maryland, I knew I could always have a successful shop and no doubt always find wise women to support me. Wherever we were, the women left the men and had their day of fun and freedom.

The closing of Loehmann’s is the end of an era of women coming together to be themselves in all forms of nakedness and rallying to make each woman look her best, and, yes, at discount prices. The family memories I have for almost 50 years of my life truly make my heart ache at this loss.

Leslie Windman

The Value of Faith and Hope

This week’s haftorah echoes some of the themes found in the parshah of Ki Tissa. Its setting is in Northern Israel at a time after the 12 Tribes had been split into two kingdoms.

What intrigues me in the reading is when Elijah strongly opposes the beliefs of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. A foreign wife from the north, Jezebel brought idols into the land of Israel, causing many Israelites to leave Judaism and turn to the worship of the chief idol of Baal.

Jezebel became enraged when she heard that Elijah, a very important prophet of the Lord, was not worshipping the idols and that he stayed true to his belief in the one and only God. She was so furious she went on a rampage and started killing the prophets. Elijah took 100 of them and hid them in a cave, providing them with food, drink and safety.

Many rabbis say that when Elijah acted with such valor, he resembled Moses. As a true leader, Elijah protected the prophets. Moses, similarly, exhibited true leadership by speaking up on behalf of his people in Egypt and, as we read in this week’s parshah, in their defense after the sin of the golden calf.

I feel that Elijah’s firm belief in God took much conviction. He knew that if he defied the king and queen’s religious practices, one of them would become infuriated and want him dead. But even knowing this, Elijah stayed true to God and would not become an idol worshipper.

The lesson here is that even in the worst of times, we can be optimistic. We should not lose faith and hope, even when everything seems to be going wrong. Just like Elijah, who kept his faith and belief in God although many of the Israelites did not, I hope that my faith and belief will help me throughout my life.

For my bar mitzvah project a few weeks ago, I organized a three-on-three basketball tournament fundraiser to benefit the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. As one person, Elijah protected 100 people from the king and queen and their army; the IDF has to protect the small State of Israel against much larger bordering countries. The FIDF’s motto is: Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.

I wanted to do something to help “look after them.”

As a result of putting together this fundraiser I learned that by giving some of my time to organize the tournament and raise money I was able to help the Israeli soldiers who look after Israel. If one simply donates a small amount of time, they can help others. By doing so, this person is fulfilling one of the most essential and significant mitzvot in the Jewish religion.

Noah Abrams is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Expanded Pre-K: A Jewish Value and Universal Need

In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded us that “progress is a choice, and we have important work to accomplish this year.”

From a communal perspective, O’Malley’s proposal to expand pre-kindergarten across the state is being championed in the legislature by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and by many of the Jewish community’s key representatives in Annapolis.

Their bill expands this educational service in two key ways: first, by explicitly allowing private and nonpublic providers to have the same opportunity to access the same grants as public school districts. This means that those looking to provide a pre-K option for their children, but also looking to do so in a way that meets their values, would now have a truly viable option even if they were making only a moderate income.

But dealing with the issue of affordability head on, the bill also shows a key understanding that even a healthy income for a family of a certain size can make paying for pre-K too difficult. The legislation expands eligibility to those families making 300 percent of the poverty level. For a family with three children, that translates into more than $80,000 per year; for a family with four children, the income limit would be almost $95,000.

These two provisions are essential in allowing the entire Jewish community to have a real stake in seeing this legislation passed and a real opportunity to benefit from the program once enacted.

It means many young families in the community would be able to provide pre-K for their children, and it means that many synagogues, JCCs and schools can offer their pre-K services to an increasing number of families.

For a community still coming to terms with the latest studies on Jewish communal engagement and the financial difficulties young families face regarding the cost of participating in meaningful Jewish experiences, this is a modest way to open access across denominational lines and at a more welcoming price point.

And of course, for a community so steeped in social justice and the need to help others, this bill is a win for Marylanders of all faiths. Study after study suggests that pre-K yields lasting benefits well into adulthood. Pre-K participants are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to end up incarcerated, have higher IQs and end up earning more — even decades later — than those without.

That is something that, as concerned citizens, our community should support. After all, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis noted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” It matters to raise “your” children, of course, but we should maintain that level of concern for everyone’s families.

Expanding pre-K to more children should be, from a policy standpoint and on political principle, an easy sell to the Jewish community. We arean especially child-centric culture, where the well-being and success of children is a given. A deeply held Jewish value teaches it is better to help someone learn or earn their way out of poverty than to offer a straight handout.

It should also be a position we take because it helps our neighbors of any — and of no — faith. For families in the Capital region and for those in Baltimore, and indeed across the state, this legislation is a critical first step in expanding real access, providing for real needs and meeting a key desire of Jewish families.

Karen Paikin Barall is mid-Atlantic director for the Orthodox Union.

Rising to the Challenge

runyan_josh_otFor someone who’s spent the past three years in sunny southern Florida, this winter has been quite the eye-opener. But ask those who’ve lived in Baltimore most of their lives, even this season’s ice and snow — which, according to the State Highway Administration, has already caused Maryland to expend more than $80 million, far in excess of the $46 million budgeted — pales in comparison with years past.

What is truly remarkable, though, is how small crises such as power outages and school cancellations can bring people together.

Up in suburban Philadelphia last weekend, whole swaths of that state’s Montgomery County were in the dark following the ice storm at the beginning of the month. Some people were told by their utility company that, despite the fact that crews from all over the region — trucks from Baltimore Gas and Electric could be seen traveling north on I-95 in Delaware — were mobilized to get the power flowing again, it would take more than a week to restore service.

In the Jewish community there, families responded by welcoming their neighbors into their homes. And here in Baltimore, the atmosphere was the same. Whether responding to natural disaster or inconvenience, ours is a community that rises to the challenge; doors are flung open, figuratively and literally, to welcome strangers in need.

In an act you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT, the JCC eased its membership restrictions late last week to allow those without hot water the chance to enjoy a shower and relax. Beyond that, it was not unheard of for local families to cook hot food for their friends and neighbors or put them up for several days.

With even more wintry precipitation forecast for the foreseeable future, it’s comforting to know that there’s always a helping hand willing to house, feed and, when the need arises, help a new arrival open a van’s iced-up door.

Such concern for another, though, is not uniquely expressed when responding to the short-term inconveniences of life in the northern United States. In the Jewish community, it frequently becomes the underpinning of everything that is done.

From initiatives that allow senior citizens to age in place to organizations that allow deaf Jews to experience the beauty of Jewish ritual, from gatherings in the state capital that advocate on behalf of hardworking families trying to afford Jewish education for their children to those making the painful sacrifice of donating their kidneys, the local Jewish community is remarkable for its caring outlook and determined resolve.

When marshaled effectively, when the collective goodwill of tens of thousands of individuals is strengthened by the philanthropic heft of the more fiscally fortunate among us — as evidenced by the contributions of the late Whiting-Turner CEO Willard Hackerman, of blessed memory, who passed away Monday — great work can be done to improve not only our corner of Maryland, but also the wider world around us.

It’s exciting to be a part of a revolution that can pierce through the dark and cold of winter and bring warmth to the world.

The Presbyterian problem with Israel

Zionism Unsettled

Zionism Unsettled

The conciliation between Christians and Jews in recent decades has been so remarkable that, although most Jews can’t explain the differences between, say, the Lutheran church and the Methodist church, the general feeling is that all is well, or at least doing better.

This era of good feeling does not extend to Israel, however. Ironically, some of the liberal Christian denominations, the ones that most readily accept Jews as Jews, have the harshest criticisms of Israel. The Presbyterian Church, for instance, has been at the forefront of these criticisms. Indeed, we have begun to cringe whenever we see a headline about the Presbyterian Church’s latest act or statement — invariably combining support for the Palestinians with a deep hostility toward Israel.

Now comes a congregational study guide on Zionism published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, an arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Zionism Unsettled argues that a “pathology inherent in Zionism” drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and rejects theologies that uphold Zionism.

The text also calls for an “expanded, inclusive” understanding of the Nazi genocide, which would apply its lessons not just with respect to the persecution faced by Jews, but also to the plight of the Palestinians, among others.

The guide was released ahead of the church’s biennial General Assembly, scheduled to take place this June in Detroit. The gathering will once again consider recommendations that the church divest from companies that deal with Israel’s military. Similar resolutions have been narrowly defeated in the past.

The sentiment behind the ongoing drumbeat for divestment seems to be part of a general compulsion to delegitimize Israel. Last summer, for example, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian group, debated and finally endorsed a document arguing that there is no theological right for the State of Israel to exist.

While it is clear that not all Presbyterians are hostile toward Israel, the anti-Zionist rhetoric that spews from some very vocal elements of the movement suggests that Israel’s supporters need to do a better job of explaining the nuances of the Jewish state. And we need to lend our encouragement and support to those voices in the Presbyterian world who are speaking up against this one-sided approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In response to Zionism Unsettled, the Rev. Chris Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore and an ordained Presbyterian minister, wrote in an open letter to his church:

“To suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland — a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations — is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people. The word for that is ‘anti-Semitism,’ and that is, along with racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other ills our Church condemns, a sin.”

These words of conciliation are both accurate and welcome. We wish more of the reverend’s brethren felt the same way and had the confidence to say so.