Adding Power To Veterans Day

I heartily concur with Joshua Runyan’s call for some form of mandatory civilian service as a way to honor the dedication of our veterans (“We Need to Do More,” Nov. 6).

Another suggestion: In some state and municipal localities, Election Day is a day off from work for state/school employees. Veterans Day is a national holiday; there is no mail, and federal employees have the day off, but it is not necessarily observed as a day off by municipalities and states.

What we have is two partial observances. Why not combine the two to create one formal holiday — a day off from work at all levels, just like Independence Day and Memorial Day for instance. Then, there would be no excuse for not being able to vote.

What would be a better — symbolical as well as practical — tribute to our veterans, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms, most importantly the precious right to vote?

Many years ago, an attempt was made to make Veterans Day a moveable holiday rather than the historical Nov. 11 date. This failed because of an outcry over the traditional significance of the World War I armistice having been signed during the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

That protest was spearheaded by families of the WWI generation, many of whom have now gone on to their reward. Most Americans today, I would guess, are not so committed to the “11” symbolism.

Will the Real J.K. Please Stand Up?

The JT’s Nov. 6 issue mentions J.K. Rowling’s opposition to a cultural boycott of Israel (The Seen). I thought your readers should know what Rowling had to say about Israel on Twitter, illustrating that she is scarcely a supporter of Israel.

“The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality. Boycotting Israel on every possible front has its allure. It satisfies the human urge to do something, anything, in the face of horrific human suffering.

“What sits uncomfortably with me is that severing contact with Israel’s cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian and most critical of Israel’s government. Those are voices I’d like to hear amplified, not silenced.”

J.K. Rowling, great friend to Israel. With friends like these …

Grand Reopening Is My Mall Wish

Regarding the JT’s article “Doors Closing Opens Up Mall’s Future” (Nov. 6), I definitely hope Owings Mills Mall is redeveloped with the existing structure and the J.C. Penney remains. While I’m disappointed with the Macy’s closure, at least there is one Macy’s store still in the area at Security Square. But there is no other J.C. Penney store nearby.

The odd thing about Owings Mills Mall is that it still seemed to do as much business as other Baltimore-area malls until about 10 years ago. But then its businesses slowly started to close for reasons unbeknown to me, but clearly not business related.  What really needs to happen, although I doubt it will, is for the mall owner to contact businesses that also own locations at successful area malls such as in Towson, Columbia and White Marsh and do whatever possible to persuade them to come to Owings Mills. Then there could be a grand reopening.

To quote a popular movie, “If you build it, they will come”.

A Proud Partnership

We were thrilled to see the article about Revital Shimoni visiting Chizuk Amuno’s Goldsmith Early Childhood Education Center (“A Guest from Ashkelon,” Oct. 30) while in town recently with her husband, Ashkelon’s Mayor Itamar Shimoni. That event, sponsored by The Associated’s Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, was part of the couple’s visit to Baltimore to learn about our Jewish community, see firsthand the work that we do and discuss what we can learn from one another to meet the needs of our constituents.

As part of his visit, the Partnership connected Mayor Shimoni with officials from the offices of Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake and Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector to showcase our sister-city partnership.

During his visit, Shimoni was quite impressed with the warm welcome he received in Baltimore and with the collaborative relationships that exist among Baltimore’s Jewish organizations. He also noted the strength of The Associated’s ability to engage a widespread network of dedicated volunteer leaders.

We remain proud that over the past 12 years, we have developed a thriving partnership with our sister city, creating personal connections between many residents of Baltimore and Ashkelon. We look forward to continuously expanding and deepening this relationship that strengthens our interconnected communities.

Better the Servant than the Student Parshat Chayei Sarah

“You can’t find decent help these days!” This is a common complaint heard in middle-class homes, particularly in Jewish kitchens during the season of preparations for Passover. Happily, my wife and I have been blessed, over the years, with some
excellent domestic help. Usually, they were African-American women who were not only honest, efficient and reliable, but also surprisingly knowledgeable about traditional Jewish practices.

I fondly recall a woman named Mildred. She had spent many years working as a maid for an older rabbi in the community. We’ll call him Rabbi Rosencrantz. Although I was but a young rabbi when she began working for us, I had already amassed a considerable library of sacred Jewish books, including some precious antique volumes that I had inherited from my grandfather. Needless to say, I was extremely careful about how those books were handled.

How astonished I was when I returned home late one spring afternoon to find all of my bookshelves empty. In a panic, I began to search the premises and, much to my chagrin, discovered that the books were lying in disarray on a long table in the backyard. Mildred was systemically turning them all upside down and shaking them vigorously. I couldn’t contain my disapproval and yelled, “Mildred, what on earth are you doing?”

Mildred gently replied that she was making certain that there was no chametz inside any of the books. You see, it was just before Passover, and many people carefully inspect their books for breadcrumbs or cookie bits that may have found their way into the holy volumes during the course of the year. I am generally quite careful to avoid bringing any food into close contact with the books I use, but apparently Rabbi Rosencrantz was much more meticulous about inspecting his books for chametz than I was.

When I told Mildred that she really didn’t have to do that, she responded, “Rabbi! I am not going to allow a young upstart like you to tell me how to prepare for Passover. I learned about chametz from Rabbi Rosencrantz, and he was old enough to have been your grandfather!”

No question about it. Sometimes a gentile maid can take Jewish customs more seriously than an ordained rabbi. This lesson is not a new one. It can be learned from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18). Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is the hero of the entire Chapter 24. The story of his mission to find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, is narrated at length and in great detail. We learn of how Eliezer identified Rebecca as a proper wife for Isaac. Eliezer then reviews the story, again at length and in detail, to Rebecca’s father Bethuel and brother Laban. Finally, in verse 66, we read that Eliezer retold the story yet again, this time to Isaac himself.

The rabbis see in all this repetitive detail an indication of the Almighty’s attitude toward Eliezer’s words: “The idle conversation of the Patriarchs’ servants is more precious than the Torah of their descendants.”

A much lesser known but even more impressive illustration of the superiority of a servant’s wisdom is to be found in a passage in Talmud Tractate Moed Katan, 17a. There, the story is told of the maidservant of Rabbi Judah the Prince, usually referred to simply as “Rabbi,” or “Rebbe.”

She once observed a father disciplining his adult son by striking him. She censured the father, convinced that the son might not be able to resist reacting to the provocation by striking his father back. In her judgment, the father was thus guilty of “placing an obstacle before a blind man.” So critical was she of the father’s behavior that she placed him under a nidui, or ban, effectively excommunicating him.  The rabbinical courts of that time let three years pass before they lifted that ban.

The great medieval halachic authority, Rabbenu Asher, known as “the Rosh,” questions the courts’ failure to nullify the ban sooner, which was their usual practice in response to bans imposed by non-credentialed individuals. In response, he quotes the words of an earlier authority, Rabbi Avraham ben David, or “the Ra’avad,” who writes: “The rabbis were reluctant to overturn a ban imposed by this woman because of her superior wisdom and piety. They did not consider themselves her equal until they found an outstanding sage who was demonstrably qualified to nullify her ban!”

We can learn quite a few powerful lessons from the story of Rebbe’s maidservant; from Eliezer the servant of Abraham; and yes, even from my family’s beloved housekeeper, Mildred. First of all, we can learn the timeless lesson that we must be ready to gain knowledge from every conceivable source. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” One can learn a great deal even from unexpected sources and must revere every potential source of knowledge, even in matters of religion.

But there is another lesson to be derived from these anecdotes. There are many ways to learn. Some learn by studying books; others learn by listening to lectures. These are important tools to gain knowledge with, and they cannot be minimized.

But one also learns through experience. If one is fortunate to grow up in a home rich in spirituality, he or she will become very knowledgeable about spirituality, even if no explicit lessons were taught. A process of osmosis occurs, by which anyone who spends time in an environment in which high ideals are exemplified will absorb those ideals.

The Talmud used the example of Eliezer, and the medieval rabbis used the example of Rebbe’s maidservant, to teach us that sometimes what the “mere” servant absorbs from his experience in Abraham’s company, or her years of service in the palace of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is of greater value than the erudition of great scholars. Precious indeed is the idle conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs!

What I learned that pre-Passover day so long ago was that the capacity to learn from unexpected sources was not limited to times gone by or to lofty souls such as the biblical Eliezer and the unique personage who was Rebbe’s maidservant.

Even Mildred, who passed away long ago, had a lot to teach me.

She taught me about the importance of the scrupulous observance of Jewish customs, particularly those that have to do with Passover.

She taught me that, even with regard to matters of religious observance, one can learn a great deal from unexpected sources.

Above all, she taught me a lesson about humility. That’s a lesson that requires lifelong review.

Thank you, Mildred.

A Test for the Big Tent

What is an individual’s responsibility for decorum inside an open tent of the Jewish community? And how should the community respond to peaceful demonstrations within its walls? These questions were put to the test recently at a public event in Pittsburgh, where Israeli Consul General Yaron Sideman spoke at the Jewish Community Center.

In advance of the event, members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which opposes the policies of the Israeli government and supports an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, including through the international pressure of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, used social media to encourage protests of the event. Nonetheless, organizers allowed JVP to attend and participate.

At the beginning of the evening, audience members were warned not to disrupt the proceedings and were informed that police officers were on hand to maintain order. As the diplomat spoke, however, two JVP members stood at their seats and silently displayed letter-sized signs with words such as “Lies” and “Another Jew against the occupation” printed on them. And when the protesters ignored police requests to sit down, they were removed from the hall.

Successive pairs of JVP protesters similarly stood and displayed their small signs and were each quickly ejected. Sideman continued to speak over the orchestrated interruptions. No one was arrested. But as the demonstration continued, some in the audience became irritated and, according to news reports, “a few in the audience shouted at them and tried to grab their signs.”

If members of JVP wanted to criticize Israel’s policies and engage on the issues, they would have done better to raise their concerns during the question-and-answer session. Indeed, they were implored to do so but chose not to. On the other hand, if their objective was to make a scene, a vocal protest outside the JCC with big eye-catching signs would have been far more effective.

But this situation presents a more fundamental question: How open and patient does the community need to be? The sponsor of the event — the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — thought they solved that problem by allowing JVP to attend and by asking audience members to write questions on index cards in advance. But did that create another problem, making it seem like the questioning process was too controlled?

We regularly confront the issue of whether our communal tent is sufficiently open to divergent views. That debate played out in full color when the Conference of Presidents voted in May 2014 to deny membership to J Street. And it is an issue regularly raised by JVP. But in Pittsburgh, JVP was welcomed into the tent.

JVP’s deliberate effort to disrupt the proceedings was a slap in the face to event organizers and can only make others more cautious about future efforts to open the communal tent.

We Need to Do More



Nearly one in 10 Americans — 9 percent, to be exact — served in the armed forces during World War II, but according to the Pew Research Center, in the post-draft world in which the United States relies on a professional volunteer military, just .5 percent of the public has served during any given point after 9/11.

And while in 2011, a full 91 percent of Americans reported feeling proud of those who served — a significant improvement from the days during the Vietnam era, when returning veterans were called “baby killers” and booted out of bars — today’s veterans are increasingly likely to say that the general public does not understand the unique problems they face.

As we approach Veterans Day on Nov. 11, a day marked out on the calendar specifically to honor the service of those who represented their country in uniform, we find ourselves in the midst of a generational gap when it comes to who serves and how they’re cared for upon their return home.

As you’ll read in this week’s cover story, a plethora of resources are available to veterans, both in terms of advocacy — Jewish War Veterans, for instance, was formed in 1896 in response to the misperception that Jews did not serve during the Civil War — and government and nonprofit support. Organizations such as Hiring our Heroes and Operation Hire Maryland match veterans with employers, while the Veterans Administration offers health care. There’s even special courts now to deal with veterans accused of crimes, an innovation built upon the recognition that veterans’ experiences in the military make them more prone to such conditions as alcoholism, drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder

Are we as a society doing enough? Of course not. The VA is drastically underfunded and notoriously mismanaged, and the needs of veterans unfortunately do not rank very high on the public’s list of concerns. Clearly, we need to do more, especially when considering that another mass call-up of troops to serve in Syria is becoming more likely as time goes on.

But there’s another lesson that can be learned from honoring the service of veterans and contemplating the sacrifices they make in taking up arms for the United States. Some developed nations, although not the United States, actually mandate some type of national service. In Israel, where mandatory conscription is the norm, those objecting to military service may instead serve the state in a civil capacity such as by teaching underprivileged children.

We’ve all gotten used to the idea that college attendance is a given, not an exception, for American youth. But with many universities abutting poverty-challenged areas, imagine the impact a summer of mandatory civilian service by incoming undergraduates would have on such communities!

Such a law, or even a custom, is unlikely to be enacted, but we as a community can start with ourselves. In addition to honoring the service of veterans, we should be inspired by their dedication to something higher than themselves. Whereas they put their lives on the line in the defense of the United States, we all can put our time and energy on the line in the pursuit of making our society better.

The day may yet come when swords are turned into plowshares, but what kind of a world will it be if we’re not willing to make sacrifices for one another?

Today’s Civil Rights Issues, Yesterday’s Heroes

[pullquote]When Malcom Sherman entered this real estate market in 1949, his goals were simple. As he stated in the Maryland Realtor, “I wanted to help families find a better quality life.”[/pullquote]As Baltimore faces unresolved racial issues, we who love this city can draw inspiration from two local Jewish heroes of the civil rights movement. To Baltimoreans of the 1960s, Malcolm Sherman and Rabbi Morris Lieberman exemplified the ethical teachings of Hillel.

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Mal Sherman moved to Baltimore to be close to his wife’s family and remained at heart a Baltimorean for the rest of his life. It was here that Sherman established Mal Sherman Realtors and began to challenge a segregated real estate market that dictated where Jews, blacks, and white Christians could live. This division traces back to a 1910 Baltimore City law, the first in the nation that prohibited blacks from moving to white blocks and vice versa. After the Supreme Court overturned the law in 1917, home buyers signed covenants promising not to sell their homes to people of a different race, including a separate discriminatory category for Jews. After World War II predatory block busting encouraged panic selling by white Christians and Jews who feared plummeting housing values when a black family moved into their neighborhood.

When Sherman entered this real estate market in 1949, his goals were simple. As he stated in the Maryland Realtor, “I wanted to help families find a better quality of life.”

Sherman tried to stabilize a white neighborhood decimated by blockbusting by urging white homeowners to stay put. He engaged with another realtor to open up white neighborhoods voluntarily and encouraged other realtors to join them. He found a partner in Mayor Theodore McKeldin, who helped Sherman’s group voluntarily integrate 10 apartment buildings. But voluntary measures had limited power. So Sherman testified on behalf of open housing legislation wherever he could.

Throughout this period, Sherman and his family belonged to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, then led by Rabbi Morris Lieberman. This is where the stories of two great men converge. In 1961, Lieberman established the Social Consciousness Committee in response to early civil rights struggles. As part of Lieberman’s civil rights efforts, he led multifaith clergy in escorting a distinguished black leader into two segregated restaurants. When their efforts failed, the press coverage resulted in the formation of the Clergyman’s Interfaith Committee on Human Rights. Later, in 1963, Lieberman was among several clergy arrested during a massive nonviolent demonstration to integrate Gwynn Oak Park, a privately owned amusement park that served only whites.

Lieberman used his arrest to speak passionately before his congregation about what he did and why he did it. On Rosh Hashanah in 1963, Lieberman acknowledged that some of his congregants might disapprove of him speaking about racial equality, claiming that it was a political topic.

But for Lieberman, racism was a spiritual issue. He recalled a visit to post-war Dachau, which took him past churches near roads and tracks used by death trains, death trucks and death buses. Said Lieberman, “I could only think to myself, ‘What did the priests and pastors talk about during those days? What did they preach to their congregations at Christmastime and at Easter?” He wondered if their congregants asserted that the death camps were a political matter, not a religious one, or if congregants said, “But they are only Jews.”

In the Rosh Hashanah sermon, he recalled too, the Haggadah that explicitly states, “In each generation each Jew must regard himself as though he, in his own person, had been a slave unto Pharoah.” This double memory of Dachau and the Haggadah compelled Lieberman to speak out “for the rights of those who are still in the slavery of discrimination and degradation.”

Sherman approached his rabbi the next day and, according to the book “But Not Next Door,” asked what he could do to help integrate housing.

Lieberman said, “What do you mean what can you do? You’re more powerful than any priest or any rabbi. You can open up neighborhoods and make it possible for everybody to live wherever they want to live.”

Sherman said, “Rabbi, if I do this, I’ll be run out of town. People don’t want it.”

Lieberman replied, “Well, you asked me what you could do.”

Sherman went home and talked with his wife, who encouraged him to act on his beliefs. He started making open housing sales in white neighborhoods, including the sale of a Pikesville home to John Mackey, a black player for the Colts, and later a home for Orioles superstar Frank Robinson. Working with Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., Sherman continued to seek sellers in white neighborhoods who would accept offers from black families. But according to Sherman, other real estate companies would no longer deal with him and shunned him, forcing him out of business.

His family also paid a price. In a recent speech to the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, Sherman’s daughter, Wendy, recalled that people would call their house and “threaten to bomb it.” But Sherman’s family also received a gift — social action as a way of life.

In 1967, James Rouse, a deeply religious man, asked Sherman to join him in developing a new city, Columbia, which would be open to people of all races and religions. Sherman too “felt the power of G-d in my life” as he helped Rouse build this integrated community, today considered one of the most successful planned communities in the United States.

Lieberman died suddenly in 1970 at the age of 61, leaving a legacy of social action for his congregation and the larger Baltimore religious community.

After living briefly in Atlanta, Sherman returned to work in the Baltimore-Washington area, where he died in 2009.

May the lives of these men give us all the courage to resolve today’s lingering racial issues.

Carol Westreich Solomon is an author who lives in Montgomery Village, Md. Her book, “Imagining Katherine,” is set in the segregated Jewish suburbs of the 1960s.

For Dour Duo, Baseless Hatred

We are taught in Hebrew School that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam (baseless hatred ), such as that triggered by petty vindictiveness.

The JT has offered a contemporary instantiation of this. I refer to recent Your Say letters by Nelson Marans (“Where’s the Respect?” Oct. 9)  and David Gitlitz (“Letter Writer Guilty of Intellectual Fraud” Oct. 16) in their hysterical response to Gideon Donnelly’s Sept  25 concise Your Say letter, “Beth Tfiloh or Beth AIPAC.” All Donnelly did was a) rightly skewer the mega-watt pomposity of the eternally self-promoting Shmuley Boteach; and b) comment on, what seemed to him, to be the egregiously over-the-top involvement by the Beth Tfiloh congregation in exceedingly partisan political activity — conduct he deemed unbecoming to a (tax-exempt) spiritual venue. In doing so, Donnelly expressed no position on the JPCOA but simply registered his immense discomfort with the mob spectacle that transpired there.

For this effort, the two JT letters, in a droning derangement of the senses, accuse Donnelly  of “propaganda and disinformation” and “ideological fraud” and of executing a “suicidal agenda.”  In other words, by innuendo, in all but name allying him with the nefarious BDS movement.

The dour duo’s dyspeptic attack on Donnelly amounts to sinat chinam.

Get a life, people!

‘Peace’ Groups? Anything But

With one child entering college next fall and another entering in two years, I am truly disgusted by stories of anti- Israel groups masking as “peace groups” (such as Jewish Voice for Peace),  or even as groups claiming to be Jewish and demanding the right to present their anti-Semitic views right in the very place that is trying to instill the most basic fundamental beliefs of being Jewish, in a campus Hillel.

In “On the Attack” (Oct. 9), just who are these insane people who consider themselves Jews but insist on trying to brainwash our vulnerable Jewish young adults into thinking they should be anti-Israel? Let Hillel be pro-Israel for God’s sake, let Jewish clubs remain solely to educate kids about being Jewish and to support our God-given homeland. Enough with the craziness of Jewish Voice for Peace, BDS and all the Israel and Jewish hate groups. Let us truly be left in peace.