Not Censorship, Safety

maayan_jaffe_squareViolence doesn’t stop as a result of laws, it stops when people are less violent.

How was Danvers High math teacher Colleen Ritzer killed last week? With a box cutter the suspect, 14-year-old Philip Chism, had brought into his Massachusetts school.

Last Monday, a 12-year-old shot dead a teacher at Sparks Middle School in Nevada and also injured two fellow students before killing himself.

Last Tuesday, Californian police shot dead a 13-year-old boy who was carrying a pellet gun that looked like an assault rifle.

There were 217 murders in Baltimore City in 2012.

Preventing everyday violence is hard, and it’s not going to happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen just because there is legislation (should we now say people can’t purchase box cutters from their area Staples without a background check?).

We need a more holistic approach. If we want to prevent violence, we have to change our culture. We need to look outside the box cutter and at the influences that affect our children.

Let’s start with TV. Television can be profoundly influential in shaping an impressionable child’s or adolescent’s values, attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. Television reaches children at a younger age and for more time than almost any other socializing influence (a topic for a separate column). Entertainment violence continues to increase; studies show that with repeated exposure, even the most gruesome and grisly depictions of violence eventually seem tame, and viewers become desensitized. Hollywood has to keep pushing the envelope in order to elicit the same reaction.

According to an article published in 1996 by the Christian Science Monitor, witnessing repeated violent acts increases general feelings of hostility, and, over time, consumption of violence-laden imagery can leave viewers with the perception that they are living in a mean and dangerous world, giving them an unrealistically dark view of life.

There is also a powerful linkup between violent commercial products and violence.

The newly enacted gun laws in Maryland would not have stopped any of the mass shootings we suffered in this country in the last year or two; the weapons were legally obtained. The murderers were motivated to kill, and the weapon was inconsequential.

What we need is better health care (especially mental health care) and to step up our educational opportunities so youth raised in poverty can escape it and create for themselves better lives. We need to change the gun culture, too, and make shooting a stigma, not a celebration.

We need stronger and more consistent public outrage; when the media stops talking about a shooting, we need to continue. We need more resources allocated to provide strategies that prevent violence, especially programs that target families with young children. And someone has to better regulate the companies that market violence to children through media, toys and licensed products.

Parents are ultimately responsible for monitoring their children’s media consumption, for instilling in their children a strong and safe values system. But parents are not omniscient or omnipresent in their children’s lives. The “village” needs to assist in in protecting our children from unhealthy exposure.

This is not censorship. It’s safety.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief

Taking Aim At A Trial Balloon

The recent Pew study on American Jews has lent a sense of urgency to those who want to see Judaism flourish and affiliation rates rise in this country. In a recent op-ed in Forward, which also appeared in the Huffington Post, two leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for the system of 152 local federations, sought to address those challenges.

JFNA President Jerry Silverman and Board Chairman Michael Siegal sought to move from hand wringing to action and argued for increased communal funding for what they said were four of the “most effective vehicles for engaging people in Jewish life:” Jewish camping (“We need to … increase the percentage of children attending Jewish camps from 10 percent to 30 percent”), Birthright alumni (“There are over 350,000. … We haven’t effectively followed up with most of them”), Jewish development zones (“We also have to strategically address those places where we are strong in numbers but weak in connection”) and Jewish preschools (“We must commit to offering free Jewish preschool to every Jewish family, a ‘Jewish Head Start’”).

It was the last proposal that got the most attention: Free Jewish preschool? How realistic is that?

Although presented with a flourish in their much-touted op-ed, the four ideas from the JFNA leaders were designed to be conversation starters, not fully developed proposals. But that didn’t stop those seeking to find a “gotcha” moment or other perceived flaws with the ideas. For example, Uriel Heilman, managing editor of JTA News Service, attacked the viability of the free preschool idea. Through some back-of-the-envelope calculations and citations to several recent studies, Heilman concluded that, by a conservative estimate, free early childhood education would cost the American Jewish community $1 billion a year. Quite a princely sum and a number not likely to be achieved. Instead, Heilman suggested: “Why strive to make Jewish preschool free when simply making it less expensive than the alternatives could go a long way toward attracting more families?” And then he asked, “Is cost really the main impediment to higher enrollment?”

The problem with Heilman’s attack is that the JFNA proposals were Big Idea proposals that were designed to generate communal discussion. Heilman’s statistical and financial analysis may be right, but that doesn’t end the conversation. Indeed, it extends it. And, as more attention is focused on the ideas and more comments are generated and shared, each idea can be refined, perfected and, if appropriate, implemented.

We applaud JFNA’s communal challenge and embrace the idea of a careful vetting of those and other ideas to address a clear danger to our national community. And we encourage active dialogue from all segments of our community, seeking to find solutions rather than perpetuating failure.

Strange Bedfellows And Marriages Of Convenience

Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Is there really a serious breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia?  And if so, how far will it go? In the last two weeks, the Saudis have signaled that they want to put some daylight between themselves, on the one hand, and the U.S., the West and the United Nations Security Council, on the other. Just how much daylight remains to be seen.

The Saudis are reacting to what they see as a change in U.S. policy, and Washington’s strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. In the kingdom’s eyes, there has been a substantial weakening of America’s commitment to a military shield that protected close U.S. allies and kept the region more or less stable. That stability essentially guaranteed the security of Saudi Arabia and its oil wealth. But the times are changing.

In mid-October, the Saudis announced their refusal to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That announcement was reported to be driven by a series of Saudi concerns about the U.S. and the West, including the U.N.’s failure to intervene to stop the Syrian civil war because of veto threats by Russia and China, America’s confused response to the Syrian crisis and Washington’s recent overtures to Iran, the kingdom’s regional nemesis. Added to that, America’s support for Egyptian President Morsi after his overthrow, including the penalty imposed on the military government now running the country, makes the U.S. look undependable in Saudi eyes.

Saudi concerns with regard to Iran seem to put it in the same boat as Israel. Both countries worry that the United States will loosen its sanctions against Iran without forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Each feels a genuine existential threat from Iran. Thus, while it is difficult to imagine the Arab theocracy and the Jewish democracy on the same side of any issue, the nature of the threats both countries feel from Iran could provide an impetus for some relationship of convenience.

In many respects, Saudi Arabia is well versed in the development of alliances based upon shared interests, rather than shared values.  That is what has defined the U.S.-Saudi relationship: The U.S. wants regional stability and oil; the Saudis want security. And both countries want to fight terrorism. Those interests haven’t changed. But there are now questions raised by the Saudis and others about how committed the U.S. remains to issues that affect certain aspects of regional security.

In light of these developments, a new alliance of convenience could be developed between the Saudis and the Israelis as they both see the waning of Western support for continued sanctions against Iran. Stranger things have happened.

Our Soldiers And Our Community

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) has just completed its fifth year in Baltimore. We are proud of our accomplishments, one of which is becoming part of our Jewish community’s fabric. And one sure way to be part of our fabric is to be an active member of our Baltimore Israel Coalition. As most of you know, we are all about the soldiers. Without our soldiers, the Middle East would certainly have a different look. And for that matter, so would the entire world.

So when our community supports FIDF, it is directly supporting the soldiers of the IDF. With our fifth annual gala just around the corner, we once again call on our Jewish community to continue supporting the men and women who tirelessly defend our Jewish homeland.

One of our gala committee members, Gina Millstein, sent an email to her friends and family, and we think she said it best:

“The FIDF is a humanitarian effort established to assist the soldiers of the IDF with all of the non-military assistance they so desperately need. These are young soldiers, boys and girls, no different from our own children and grandchildren, risking their lives every day for the safety and security of Israel and all her people. While we live in the U.S. and eagerly anticipate where our children or grandchildren will go to college, these Israeli kids know that once they graduate from high school, they are going to be putting their lives in danger protecting their country, our country, Israel, our ‘second homeland.’ “While these young women and men so bravely serve to protect Israel, and when their service is complete, the FIDF, with your help, works tirelessly to make sure they receive the opportunity to grow and succeed, which they have so admirably earned.

“FIDF offers academic scholarships, needed R-and-R weeks for units and battalions and basic needs such as food vouchers, furniture and appliances. And the list goes on. FIDF also supports families of fallen soldiers. What do we owe these kids … these young soldiers keeping Israel safe 24/7? Everything.

“I plead with you to help me support these amazing individuals who sacrifice years of their lives, perhaps even making the ultimate sacrifice while keeping Israel safe and secure. Please join me in standing up to say to our Israeli soldiers and their families: We are here for you. We support you. And we are united with you as one Jewish family.”

This year’s gala is chaired by Dr. Michael and Shari Cohen. We have planned a very special program including Risa Kelemer, a lone soldier from Baltimore, and we are honoring Shirley Cohen, a starch supporter of Israel and our Jewish community. Please join us on Tuesday, Oct. 29 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. For more information, visit or call 410-486-0004.

See related story, “Father To The Lone Soldiers.”

Charlie Levine is executive director of the Midatlantic Region of FIDF.

Advocating For The Deaf

I am writing this as a Jewish person requesting that your paper start supporting the deaf Jewish population by joining with JADE [Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education] to make Jewish events accessible to the deaf. One who is deaf should not have to be omitted from such important events because they don’t have an interpreter. I feel you are in a position to help and advocate for the Jewish population that is deaf; it would be a mitzvah to advertise how important it is for this population be included in all things, especially Jewish events. Thank you for your part in this very important mission.
Elyse Schochet

Editor’s Note: The JT ran “Deaf Community’s Concerns Heard” on Oct. 4 and strongly supports JADE and its efforts on behalf of the deaf.

Sad To Say

Allow me to string together three articles that appeared in the Oct. 11 Baltimore Jewish Times.

A JTA Wire Service item, “They Love This Stuff,” outlined “the battle over President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law … that led … to a shutdown of the government.” Judaism has a dog in this fight: Halacha regards health care as a right, not a privilege. Further, according to research conducted by former Baltimorean Rabbi Dr. Alan Yuter (a Republican, by the way), it even prefers a single-payer system. This is what the citizens of the State of Israel enjoy. In this imbroglio, I accuse Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.) of values malpractice. Harris is a physician by trade, an M.D. All physicians take the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.” Yet, as part of the “Tyranny of the Minority” (JT editorial), Harris supported Tea Party efforts to shut down the government in order to prevent poor people from having greater access to health insurance and private (not government) health insurance, at that. Harris’ wife is Jewish, a fact that is kept quiet, unlike the case with Rep. John Sarbanes (“Sarbanes, The Jazz Musician”). Rep. Harris is the same individual who, at an orientation session for freshmen congressmen in October 2010, demanded “to know why his government-subsidized health plan takes a month to kick in” (“Politico,” Oct. 15, 2010). This crybaby kvetch even made the national news. Sad to say, but these days “M.D.” — in his case — apparently stands for malpractice defendant.
S.R. Cohen

Look Inside

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (the Life of Sarah), includes the following topics: Sarah dies at the age of 120, and Abraham buys a cave that will be the burial spot for them and their descendants. After Sarah’s death, Abraham decides it is time to find the right wife for Isaac. It is an important decision because she will be one of the mothers, or matriarchs, of the Jewish people. This is also about moving on to the next generation, with Isaac and Rebecca representing the next group of Jewish leaders. Rebecca is chosen because she is kind and offers to give water to Abraham’s servant and to all of his camels. Rebecca gives her consent to going to Canaan to be Isaac’s wife. When Isaac takes Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, he is now comforted from the loss of his mother.

I was most interested in the part about how Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find the right wife for Isaac. Abraham tells the servant to go back to Abraham’s relatives to find the wife, and she must consent to come back to Canaan. In fact, he makes his servant swear that he will not take a wife for Abraham’s son from the daughters of the Canaanites.

There are two things I want to focus on from this section: how important it is to choose the right wife for Isaac; and how clear Abraham is that the prospective wife must agree both to the marriage and the move to Canaan. She has the right to make her own choice because she is a free person.

Abraham’s servant decides that he will choose a woman who offers him and his camels water and prays that this woman will appear. And she does. Rebecca shows up at the well and provides him and his 10 camels with water. The servant describes Rebecca as beautiful. We don’t know if he was describing her outside or inside qualities. I like to believe he was describing her as she was on the inside. Rebecca was generous, kind, helpful and strong.

According to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, we learn that the servant, who many commentators think is named Eliezer, felt that kindness was the way that he should evaluate Rebecca. Rabbi Luntschitz states: “Eliezer tested Rebecca’s quality of generosity and kindness only. … Did she have a generous and kindly personality and kind heart? For if she looked at people with a kindly eye then she was undoubtedly endowed with all the other sterling moral qualities.”

I don’t think there is anything wrong in paying attention to your appearance and fashion. It can be kind of fun. But we have to understand that someone who is selfish or hurts other people doesn’t become a good person just by looking good. From these traits we should understand that Rebecca’s traits model for us the qualities we should look for when we choose a partner for life. We learn from this parsha that we should judge people by their actions instead of by their appearance.

Michael Martin is a seventh-grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Judaism Starts At Birth

As an early childhood educator with many years of experience in the field, I would like to comment and add to what Laurie Legum had to say about helping young children acquire a Jewish identity (“Mommy Musings,” Oct. 11).

Children learn from the moment of birth; they cannot verbalize what they learn, but they are influenced by the environment in which they live, as well as the many tangible experiences that they will have. Young children see, touch, hear, feel and taste, and it is through these experiences that their Jewish identity begins to grow and develop. Watching a mother light Sabbath candles while hearing the prayer, singing songs about the Sabbath and reading books about Jewish values and concepts all help in creating a strong Jewish identity. Having special food at holiday time, the smells and tastes are creating experiences for the young child. Waiting until a child is “old enough” to experience a Passover Seder is having wasted much time. Our Sages tell us that a child, a newborn infant, begins to acquire a Jewish identity while being held in his mother’s arms as the rituals, especially Sabbath rituals, which come every week, are being conducted. Repetition is so important. Each of us adults had had many experiences that have shaped who we have become. Unfortunately, adults cannot pass on these experiences to their children; the children must have their own. Judaism is a home-centered religion, because what we acquire from our home experiences helps to create the Jewish memories and experiences that shape us into who we are.

Rena Rotenberg

The Silent Killer

frank_storchWhat is colorless, odorless and extremely dangerous?  The answer is carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas that is also known as the silent killer.  Carbon monoxide is produced by appliances that burn gas, wood, petroleum and other fuels.  When carbon monoxide seeps out in an unventilated room, the outcome can be fatal.  In Baltimore City, there have been more than 25 deaths from carbon monoxide since 2000.

Symptoms of mild carbon-monoxide poisoning include confusion, headaches, lightheadedness and dizziness and can be flu-like. Chronic exposure to this gas can cause depression and memory loss.  More serious exposure can poison the central nervous system and the heart, and it can lead to death.  The treatment for poisoning is oxygen therapy, which removes the poisonous gas from the blood.

Before the Jewish holidays, I received an email that reminded me that our community is susceptible to the problem of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

The email read: “This past Shabbos morning (the third day of the “three-day yom tov”) I was awakened by the sound of the carbon-monoxide alarm announcing high levels. We immediately cleared everyone out of the house and summoned the fire department. When they arrived, they informed me that the cause of the high carbon-monoxide levels was due to leaving the stove and oven on over yom tov and Shabbos. The buildup of these dangerous fumes was not due to a faulty gas line or leaking appliances, but rather to the lack of adequate ventilation. The constant burning of the gas range and oven, even on a low flame, will over time emit unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide.  I was told that the fire department was tending to many such calls over the last few days. The firemen implored me to please tell the rabbis and announce to the community that if people need to leave on their stove or oven over the holidays, they must ensure that the area is properly ventilated. Turning on an exhaust fan or even opening the kitchen window a bit is enough to prevent terrible danger.”

The writer of the email was fortunate to have installed a carbon-monoxide meter. We all need to take that responsibility and install meters in our homes and in those of our family members. With the winter months coming our way, and with many families leaving their stoves on for the entire Shabbos, it is imperative that each family place carbon-monoxide detectors in their home.

The Baltimore City health and fire departments urge us to “make sure appliances are installed by professionals. Have chimneys and vents inspected annually. … Never use fuel-burning equipment inside a home, garage or vehicle. Never use gas-burning ovens to heat your home, and don’t operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room with closed doors or windows. …”

Carbon-monoxide alarms are easy to install, and they cost roughly $25. These simple devices do save lives. I have personally given easy-to-use plug-in detectors to some of my relatives. When we use our stoves or other fuel-burning appliances, we always remember to crack the windows.  Please take a stand and be safe. Let’s all install carbon-monoxide alarms throughout our homes or apartments.

Frank Storch is an area philanthropist and freelancer writer.

Mayor Bloomberg, Jewish Hero?

On Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was named as the first recipient of the Genesis Prize. When plans for the prize were first announced, the Genesis idea seemed promising. According to the group’s mission, the prize is designed to “recognize individuals … whose actions … in addition to their achievements, embody the character of the Jewish people through commitment to Jewish values, the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel.” We are not sure where the selection of Bloomberg fits in that paradigm.

The prize is the creation of several Russian Jewish billionaires, who founded the Genesis Philanthropy Group and funded it with a $100 million endowment. The fund plans to award $1 million each year to a Jewish “hero” who meets the criteria and who would inspire young Jews to devote themselves to the public good in actions that are infused with Jewish values. As a result, we were looking forward to the first selection.

We were further encouraged when Wayne Firestone was hired as the lead professional of the nascent organization last spring, given his recent stewardship of Hillel and his connections with a broad array of organized Jewish leadership. It seemed like a great match: Genesis had the money and the platform, and Firestone has the Jewish communal connections. We felt certain they would find an inspiring choice for this much-trumpeted award.

So we were disappointed when the first Genesis prize went to Mayor Bloomberg. While he is certainly a highly accomplished person with serious Jewish roots, he simply isn’t among the people who come to mind when one reads through the stated criteria for the award. Indeed, his selection seems more intended to promote Genesis than to meet the organization’s lofty and inspired goals.

In making these comments, we intend no disrespect to Bloomberg nor do we seek to demean his many significant accomplishments. But when it comes to achievements that match the Genesis prize criteria, he falls short. Maybe everyone would. Perhaps that’s the consequence of too much Genesis hype. Yet the Genesis Foundation wants its prize to be a peer of the Nobel, the Pulitzer and the MacArthur awards — and be infused with a Jewish flavor. To do that, Genesis prize recipients must meet the organization’s own ballyhooed criteria.

It is likely that Bloomberg will donate his $1 million prize to a worthy charity. That will be the kind of generous gesture for which Bloomberg is known and respected. But do the oligarchs of Genesis really need another billionaire to help them find worthy charities? What young Jewish activist or professional is going to be inspired by that?