Proud To Pilot

Baltimore’s tight-knit, engaged Jewish community  presents an ideal setting for  national organizations to run test projects or pilot programs.  Two such recent efforts give us cause for pride and a challenge for the future.

First, Repair the World, is  Jewish-sponsored “AmeriCorps,” whose goal is to “enable more Jews to volunteer more frequently and more meaningfully.”  Baltimore is one of four cities chosen to pilot a new urban program called “Repair Communities,” which began this fall. In this effort, a small group of Repair the World fellows will recruit and train their local peers (and Jewish volunteers of all ages) to participate in  a variety of social action projects.

Second,  is Kveller, a New York-based web portal for young Jewish families.  The launch of Kveller Baltimore earlier this year is the organi-zation’s first local website outside of New York, and includes all of Kveller’s regular features, plus additional material for local readers, such as listings of local events and  resources for young families, including preschools, day schools, mohels and restaurants.

These two innovative projects, which are designed to appeal to what one would assume to be underserved parts of the Jewish community, fit well with the broader communal outreach and inclusion efforts already in place in Baltimore, and keep our community’s inclusion efforts at the cutting edge.

It also turns out that both pilot programs address issues raised in the recent Pew Study of American Jews — although the rollout of these programs pre-date the issuance of the Pew Report.  Nonetheless, while other communities are nervous about some of what they are finding in Pew, we are proud of Baltimore’s ongoing efforts to address the changing nature of Jewish identity and affiliation.

We expect that Kveller and Repair the World to be successful programs, and are pleased that both organizations chose to run their experiments in our home town.   But we can’t stop there.  Instead, let’s take a hard look at the Pew Report, and think through what we might do as a community that will make Baltimore Jewish life even more welcoming and available.  Then let’s run our own pilot program to show the rest of North America how it should be done.

Nasser’s Heir?

Egyptian Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi bids farewell to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  earlier this year. (State Department/Public Domain)

Egyptian Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi bids farewell to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. (State Department/Public Domain)

Will Egypt’s military strong man, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, become the country’s next president? And will the Egyptian leader he most closely resembles be Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who established an aggressive, nationalist military-backed regime that sought to establish Egypt’s pre-eminence in the Arab world? There are good reasons to think so.

The trial of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, which began Monday and was quickly adjourned, shows just how fast things have changed in the four short months since Morsi was overthrown in a military coup led by al-Sisi. Until July, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was the leading political force in Egypt. Since then, al-Sisi and the armed forces have conducted a brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood, not paralleled since the Nasser era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Al-Sisi’s effort to identify with Nasser appears to be deliberate. For example, al-Sisi had a prominent role at the recent 43rd memorial ceremony of Nasser’s death, and he includes Nasser’s picture with his own on political posters that appear throughout Egypt. What can we expect next from General al-Sisi?

Thus far, al-Sisi’s regime has been respectful of Egypt’s longstanding treaty with Israel. Perhaps that’s because al-Sisi has been so busy trying to neutralize domestic opposition to his regime and seeking to control the militants in the Sinai who threaten the military government. As a result, the common wisdom is that as long as Israel doesn’t challenge al-Sisi, the cold peace relationship is likely to hold.

Instead, al-Sisi appears to be trying to bolster his Arab world credentials by standing up to the United States. In doing so, al-Sisi is tapping into a deep well of suspicion and outright hatred of America among some Egyptians ñ which has been exacerbated by the U.S. opposition to the coup against Morsi, as well as the decision to withhold aid to Egypt. That al-Sisi-led Egyptian opposition is of concern to the U.S. and appears to have motivated Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise stop in Cairo this week before his planned meetings with the Saudis. For their part, the Saudis, who have their own grievances against Washington, are pouring billions of dollars into Egypt. And the combination of Saudi and other Arab state largess to Egypt has virtually neutralized the financial impact of the U.S. decision to withhold aid.

So where is this all going?

We are witnessing a high-stakes political chess game in the troubled Middle East. The once-prominent and respected role of the United States in the region is diminishing rapidly. Those few friends the U.S. still has in the region are on edge. They need to see steady, reliable and credible leadership from Washington. And so do we.

You Call That School?

simone_ellin_square“Where does Matt [my 14-year-old son] go to school?” It’s a question I’m asked frequently. When I try to answer, I generally have, as Ricky Ricardo would say, a lot of “splainin’” to do. Here’s how a typical conversation goes.

Other person: “Where does Matt go to school?”
Me: Matt, goes to a school called Arts and Ideas Sudbury School. It used to be in Hamilton, but it just moved to Mount Washington.

“I never heard of it. What is it?”
“It’s hard to explain, but … Arts and Ideas is based on the Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 in Framingham, Mass. Sudbury proponents believe that children are natural learners, who left to their own devices and given unlimited time for play will get more out of learning than students in more traditional schools.”

“What’s the curriculum like?”
There is no curriculum. Kids can do whatever they want, whatever interests them. They have to follow the rules though — rules the kids have made. … Matt spent the past year teaching himself to play bass guitar. Imagine, he spent about six hours per day practicing. He’s gotten really good.”

“What kind of classes do they offer?”
“There aren’t classes, unless kids ask the staff members — who aren’t called teachers — to hold them.”

“So how do they learn to read or do math?”
“They learn because they’re curious, and they teach themselves. The school hasn’t graduated any students who aren’t literate.”

“Is it a special needs school?”
“No, it’s for mainstream kids although, of course, there are a few kids there with issues, like anywhere else.”

“What grade is he in?”
“There aren’t grades. The school has kids from ages 4 to 19. They all hang out together.”

“How will he get into college?”
“If he decides he wants to, he’ll prepare himself by studying independently, with the help of staff or perhaps by taking community college classes while still at Arts and Ideas. Sudbury’s research has shown that graduates who want to go to college usually get in and get in wherever they want to go.”

By this time in our conversation, the person with whom I’m conversing may be ready to call the Department of Social Services to report me for child neglect.

Admittedly, my husband and I have chosen an unusual educational setting for our son. We probably wouldn’t have considered it if Matt had been happy and thriving elsewhere. He isn’t a typical learner, but given the numbers of kids diagnosed with ADHD and learning differences, not many kids are. Sometimes I panic and think I have made a mistake. I worry about his future. I hear about what other children his age are studying and wonder if we are doing him a disservice. Then I hear about the homework battles and the anxiety and depression of kids in traditional schools, and I feel better about our decision. The fact is, for the first time, Matt is truly happy, relaxed and motivated. He used to have problems paying attention, but not anymore. It’s easy to pay attention when you’re pursuing your passion.

People at Sudbury believe their model is best for all students, even the ones who seem to do fine in traditional settings. Call me crazy, but I’m coming to believe they are right.

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter
sellin@jewishtimes.com

Human Value

It’s human nature to value everything. Being limited by space and time means that we have options, and inevitably we choose that which we value the most. Sometimes it truly is more valuable, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking it is more valuable.

Having come to America in my 30s allowed me to sense two things that native-born Americans don’t. I found the sweet aroma of liberation that America’s freedoms and equal opportunities allow. It was like a straitjacket had been removed. I felt free to spread my wings and fly like an eagle.

The second and less exciting smell I picked up on was the smell of a mistaken value system, especially the system used to value people. Generally speaking, people in America value each other by how successful they are. People are “worth” how much money they have. People who cross over the invisible line into the realm of success are praised with the accolade of “having made it.” To be sure, this is true for all of the Western world; it is more palpable in America.

We all sense that this is a very mistaken way of how to value people. The question, however, is whether this is, in fact, the inevitable result of such a free society. Since we are all free to succeed, success is logically the ultimate prize.

This logic is flawed. All very successful people who are also very honest will tell you that success is a gift from the Almighty. Success is something man can and should strive for, but it is something he cannot determine. Man’s worth must be about what he has made of himself and not about what he has been gifted.

Righteous decisions are the only things that man can truly do to make himself more worthy. Success belongs to God; the honor of righteousness belongs to man.

Our responsibility is to make correct decisions, to make righteous decisions and to choose between good and evil, as defined in Torah. The more righteous, the more worthy, the more valuable. It is naive to think we cannot and should not value people, but what values system should we use?

We are in control of whether or not we conduct our business dealings honestly. God is in control of whether the business deal is successful. We are in control of whether or not our conversations, writings and artistic expressions are used in the pursuit of raising our morality and dignity or in the pursuit of arousing our base natures and glorifying immorality. Whether we are successful, whether we achieve fame or not, is God’s choice.

Righteousness is the only thing truly placed in man’s control, and therefore, for it alone, people should be valued.

This is the understanding of the argument Jacob and Rachel have in this week’s parsha.

Rachel, after seeing Leah bear four children to Jacob, complained to him, “Give me children — otherwise I am dead.”

Jacob got angry and answered back, “Am I instead of God, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”

Rachel was mistaken about her own value. She thought if she did not succeed in her mission to bear children who would become part of the 12 tribes, she had no value.

Jacob answered her that her worth is not in her success (or lack thereof), rather it is in righteousness.

We cannot ultimately know why God decides to make one person’s efforts successful and another’s not. Do not be mistaken, he told her, your decision is correct, and that is where you find your true value.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

Rebecca’s Greatness

This week’s parsha, toldot, focuses on the continuance of the Abrahamic line through the birth of Jacob and Esau. After a long period of childlessness, Isaac and Rebecca entreat God, and He grants Rebecca the capability to conceive. Rebecca endures a difficult pregnancy as, according to God, “Two nations are in [her] womb.” While Jacob and Esau grow up and their personalities diverge, the Torah notes Isaac adored Esau for his hunting prowess and Rebecca loved Jacob for his “wholesome” character. Soon, Abraham dies, and Jacob secures the birthright from Esau in exchange for the mourner’s meal that Jacob prepared for Isaac. A famine forces Isaac to move to Gerar, and a dispute with the inhabitants regarding the wells ensues. Blind and in old age, Isaac desires to bestow Esau with the blessing of the firstborn. However, Rebecca, knowing Esau’s true sinful nature, devises a scheme for Jacob to receive the birthright. Jacob, disguised as Esau, obtains the blessing from Isaac and flees once Esau discovers that Jacob stole his birthright.

While discussing these events, it is critical that one not overlook Rebecca’s essential role in this parsha. Similar to Sarah before her, Rebecca is barren, and God grants her the ability to conceive after many years of sterility. This serves as one of the many examples of Rebecca’s righteousness and demonstrates her worthiness of a miracle from God. Unlike Isaac, who is blind to Esau’s immoral behavior, Rebecca, with clarity and motherly intuition, is able to view her children for whom they truly are. She recognizes that Jacob’s kind nature and affinity for learning renders him the suitable and necessary candidate for the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael.

Realizing that Isaac intends to bless Esau with the birthright, Rebecca formulates a plan for Jacob to deceive Isaac and attain the blessing. As Esau hunts to prepare his father’s favorite meal, she commands Jacob to act as Esau so Isaac will bless him before his death. Rebecca prepares Isaac’s meal and clothes Jacob with Esau’s garments. Additionally, to replicate the hairy skin of Esau, Rebecca covers Jacob’s neck and arms with the skin of goats. Discovering that Isaac blessed Jacob and granted him mastery over his kinsmen, Esau vows to kill Jacob after Isaac’s death. Rebecca, after being told from God the malicious intent of Esau, urges Jacob to flee from Esau to her relatives in Charan.

Ultimately, just like Rebecca, we must recognize the situation and have the courage and desire to act. Her complete faith in Hashem and in the prophecy that “the elder shall serve the younger” assured the timid Jacob that his intent was morally righteous. However, we must not sit back and believe that God will take care of us. God made Isaac blind, but Rebecca still had to encourage Jacob to play his role. Equally, God may devise a plan for us, but we are the ones who must actively carry it out. By asking ourselves the question “What would God do or want us to do?” we are able to overcome almost any situation that we will encounter.

Daniel Gross is a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

The Coat And A Grudge

I have always considered myself to be good at sharing, the kind of kid who lets you play with my rainbow loom if you ask. So when Sarah asked to borrow my light blue leather jacket, my favorite one with the fur lining, the jacket that I had received as a birthday gift from my Aunt Deloris, even though I hesitated, I knew I would lend it to her.

“I just need it for my brother’s bar mitzvah this weekend,” said Sarah. “My ‘fancy’ cousins are coming in from New York, and I have to dress up.”

She looked like a puppy dog. I knew her dad was out of work and they couldn’t afford to buy new things. I agreed to lend her the coat; it would make her fit in, and I didn’t need it that weekend.

That next week when I saw Sarah in school, she smiled and thanked me profusely for letting her wear my coat.  She said her cousins thought she looked so cool. I was happy she was happy and asked that she bring the coat back as soon as possible. She said, “No problem,” but Sarah forgot it every day that week. Then, she was out sick with the flu.

I called her at home and heard her mom call to her, “Sarah, your friend Baila needs you to return her jacket.”

But the next week at school, Sarah said, “Oh, I must have forgotten your coat again.”

I started to worry. Then, the next day, Sarah brought in my jacket.

“Sorry about the rip,” she said. “I must have bumped into a nail that was sticking out of our fence.”

I could tell Sarah felt bad, but I did, too. I felt taken advantage of. She had used my coat and ruined it. I wanted to tell all of our friends, I was so angry.

That night, I tossed and turned in bed.  How could Sarah have been so careless with my favorite coat?  And why did it take her so long to return it?

I imagined Sarah showing off my coat to her cousins and then ruining it and not even telling me right away.  Maybe I should make Sarah buy me another coat.  But where would she come up with the money? Her family was poor.

The next day, I had a bad cold and stayed home from school. Sitting in bed drinking tea, I realized being angry with Sarah was only hurting me. I determined to forgive her before I got even sicker over a simple coat.

The next day, Sarah invited me over to study.

“I was really mad at you for ripping my coat,” I told Sarah.  “My coat can’t be repaired so easily, you know.”

“I’m sorry, I was embarrassed to tell you, and that’s what took me so long to return it to you,” she said. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“I do,” I said, and Sarah smiled. I felt great.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
The Torah tells us that we must not hold a grudge.
1. What is one way to overcome a grudge when someone has damaged our belongings?

2. Why does the Torah ask us not to hold grudges?

3. What would you have done if you were Baila?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

Make Calls, Please

I want to thank Marc Shapiro and Maayan Jaffe for having the courage to write the story about the difficulty in getting a traffic light by the Bais Yaakov School on Smith Avenue. I would be remiss, however, if I did not make a few comments.

My purpose in pushing for this story was not to see my name in print. Rather, my sole objective is for your readers to know why we do not have the traffic light and what your readers can do about it. … I try to teach my students how to get bad politicians and bureaucrats to make good decisions despite the fact that they are bad politicians and bureaucrats. … The only way we can get this injustice corrected is to make calls to Kevin Kamenetz, Vicki Almond and Edward Adams and let them know that their refusal to put up the light does a tremendous disservice to the students, faculty, parents and members of the community. … Seize the moment — make the calls!

Ralph Jaffe
Baltimore

Quick Clarification

I am very appreciative to the Baltimore Jewish Times and to Gabriel Lewin for the kind coverage regarding the rededication of the gravesite of Rabbi and Rebbitzen Abraham Rice (“Ha’Posek,” Oct. 18). Rabbi Rice represents a very significant historical figure in early American Jewish history. As well, his contribution to the preservation of traditional Orthodox practices took place in Baltimore and is evident in the vibrant Orthodoxy in Baltimore and the Shearith Israel Congregation, which remains a strong Orthodox Jewish synagogue to this day.

I feel it is necessary to correct one aspect of the article. Lewin states that Rabbi Rice’s efforts to bring more traditional Orthodox Jewish practices to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation were met with resistance by its Reform movement members. This may be incorrectly understood to mean that Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Nidche Yisroel) was a Reform congregation in 1840 when Rabbi Rice became its spiritual leader. In fact, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was clearly an Orthodox synagogue at that time. Rabbi Rice was dedicated to the preservation and growth of the Orthodox practices in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and in the United States. In 1842, those few congregants who did not agree with his insistence on strengthening the Orthodox traditions broke away and formed Har Sinai Verein, which used the Reform prayer book from Germany and installed an organ into the service. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation refused to lend a sefer Torah to this new Reform congregation.

Throughout his time in Baltimore until his death in 1862, Rabbi Rice steadfastly fought to preserve traditional Judaism. In 1850, he resigned from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation because of conflicts with congregational members wanting to institute gradual change. He did return to Baltimore Hebrew in 1862 and passed away several months later. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation remained an Orthodox Jewish synagogue until 1873 when family pews were installed, an organ was introduced into the synagogue service, and a three-year cycle of reading the Torah portion was adopted, along with multiple other changes conforming to the Reform rituals.

There are multiple sources available documenting Rabbi Rice’s history. Quite proudly, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, in a 1976 book dedicated to its history, “A Chronicle of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation 1830 to 1975” by Rose Greenberg, clearly documents the contributions of Rabbi Rice to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Orthodoxy during the period of Rabbi Rice’s tenure.

Robert B. Lehman, M.D.
Baltimore

Sustainable Perspectives

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaLiving in a country such as ours, it is often hard to remember to be thankful for the immense amount of things that we have. We tend to view modern conveniences, such as dishwashers and washing machines, as standard with little thought to what it would be like to do without — until maybe something breaks and we have to go back to the old-fashioned way of doing things.

Recently, I saw a picture posted on Facebook of someone’s feet, tied with twine to empty, flattened plastic bottles with the caption: “Please tell me again how hard your life is.” Perspective. I’ve written about reusing and recycling a few times in this column, but clearly this takes those practices to a completely different level — when it becomes a necessity because there are no other alternatives.

Another humbling yet beautiful story: Over the past year, a video has been circulating of the Recycled Orchestra: Landfill Harmonic. This group hails from a village in Paraguay that literally sits on top of a mountain of garbage. Posts of this video went viral last year, and this group is now performing live, using instruments actually crafted from trash mined from the landfill. The families of the village survive by dumpster diving, recycling whatever they can find in the 1,500 tons of solid waste dumped on site daily. The group’s leader found a way to bring skills and a love for creating music to an otherwise destitute people. He saw value where others saw poverty and waste.

Although we may not find ourselves in the same dire circumstances of having no choice but to reuse and recycle, these stories should give us pause. Where can we create value from what we have otherwise been trained to think is waste? Can we repurpose and reuse and create our own wealth? How can we maximize our resources so that we can provide the essentials for our community? And what — truly — is essential?

Many people and institutions in our community are finding it hard to make ends meet. Perhaps there are several factors at play that all weave into a community’s ability to become and remain sustainable through any hard times we might face.

Sustainability has a ripple effect; best practices can help alleviate and free up other financial resources to help others meet their needs. It leads to greater efficiencies and effectiveness. The value-added component of living and operating sustainably can be exponential when working together with our local organizations and agencies that are also focused on this as a priority.

At the end of this month, we have an unusual occurrence of the first day of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving. The motif of both holidays focuses around giving thanks for the miraculous circumstances that enabled us to survive and sustain ourselves. What greater time to acknowledge how fortunate we are to live in a country and community with so many opportunities and resources and how we have a direct hand in effectively utilizing these resources to ensure that we continue to remain sustainable.

My Journey From Israel To Howard County

It was a Wednesday morning and my whole life was packed into a few boxes and two suitcases.

I took a last look at my home in Israel, a few last pictures,  gave kisses and hugs to my loved ones, and I was on my way to the airport to start a journey of a lifetime, to make a change in peopleís lives. I was on my way to start a year or two of shlichut.

Some of you have heard the world shlichut and know what the Hebrew word means in English. But I can tell you one thing, shlichut does not have the same meaning for every person.

Literally, shaliach means Israel emissary — someone who engages people of all ages in a range of Jewish cultural, educational and social activities. However, each one of us creates shlichut in his or her own mind.

When I was in Israel, training for this job, I thought that shlichut meant to connect with and to strengthen the connection between the community in Howard County and Israel.  I thought of how many things I have to teach the people here and how I could enrich their lives with Israeli culture.

Now that I have been here for two months already, I’m realizing how much I have to learn from them and how much I have to learn about what it means to be a Jew away from Israel. You have to work in order to be Jewish, and you have to work to have a Jewish family and to find a Jewish wife or husband.  You have to make an effort to celebrate the holidays and to have Shabbat dinner on Friday night after you have worked all day. It is not easy, and yet the community in Howard County shows me every day how much it wants to be Jewish and how much it wants to work hard for it.

Let’s go back to before that day at the airport and to how I became a shlicha in Howard County. I am from Menechamya, a small moshav in the north of Israel.  I have worked with children since I was 14. I have been involved in the Noar Haoved Valomed movement, an organization that teaches about socialism and tolerance to one another, and I also developed leadership skills. I served in the military for three years, in the air force, and had been sent by the army and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to be an Israel culture instructor at a summer camp in New Jersey.

When I finished the summer camp, JAFI called me and asked me to do a long-term shlichut.

I said yes right away, because for all of my life I was raised on Israeli patriotism and Zionism. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors who built and developed Israel when there was nothing there.  I wanted to give of myself and to contribute my knowledge of Israeli culture and history to the Jewish people abroad.

I am so happy to be here and to experience this fulfilling journey. I hope that during this year, I will pass my love and passion about Israel to Howard County.

Gal Perlmoter is the new shlicha in Howard County. Her office is located in the Jewish
Federation of Howard County building.