Getting It Right

Joshua Runyan

Joshua Runyan

Rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes on the west side of Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, the $140 million Foundry Row project has transformed what once was industrial land into a premier retail and gastronomic center. Anchored by Wegmans, the development, which celebrated its grand opening last month, seems to have sparked some much-needed economic activity in a corner of Baltimore County, which, centered among Pikesville, Randallstown and Reisterstown, is home to a sizable portion of the area’s Jewish community.

That the nearby Metro Centre along I-795 has been chugging along is equally good news, as shops and restaurants help provide the commercial life that keeps a community going. But until the problem that was once the Owings Mills Mall is solved, the area’s bright economic future is far from certain, a fact all too familiar to county officials and planners.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, coming up with a successful plan for the vacant land where the mall stood would be like winning the Triple Crown. “What I call it is the Triple Crown of Owings Mills — and that third crown, the mall, needs to be complementary of [Foundry Row and Metro Centre],” says Julian Jones, the Baltimore County councilman whose 4th District includes the mall. “We want the mall, or town center, to be something everyone is happy and proud of.”

As with the development of Foundry Row before the mall came tumbling down, we’ve been chronicling the ups and downs of the property at fairly regular intervals. You might ask why, as on the face of it, it appears to be a story of the differing visions of developers and politicians. What difference could there possibly be, for instance, between a Kohl’s, Walmart or other big-box store? What does it matter if there’s an anchor tenant or a smattering of small boutique shops?

Judging by the debates surrounding the site and the last-minute pulling of legislation that would have outlawed a store like a Walmart Supercenter, there’s more to it than just maximizing return and the development of a sustainable tax base. When it comes to development, the wrong decision could make a project flounder as opposed to flourish, having far-reaching consequences on such issues as property value, resident retention, traffic and quality of life. Meaning, at the end of the day it still comes back to people — those who now and who may in the future work and live in and around Owings Mills.

If the powers-that-be get it right, the result will be a better home for a good portion of Baltimore’s Jewish community.

Forgiveness, Reconciliation with the Past Parshat Miketz

Many years ago, I taught an adult education class on biblical heroes. Among those we studied was Joseph. We focused on Parshat Miketz and discussed Joseph’s contentious relationship with his older brothers and their later reconciliation.

Although intellectually I believed that Joseph had indeed matured; emotionally I felt otherwise and sensed that somehow we hadn’t grasped the full story. I asked the class: If Joseph had indeed matured, why hadn’t he communicated with his father? After all, he had been his father’s favorite. Jacob hadn’t thrown him into a pit or plotted to sell him into slavery. It’s not as if Jacob would have inquired about him, for the brothers had taken Joseph’s tunic, dipped it in blood and let Jacob think that Joseph was dead. Surely, Joseph could have imagined the impact of such news on Jacob.

Perhaps Joseph’s anger toward his brothers was so great that he wasn’t ready to return home and forgive them. But didn’t he have any compassion or love for his father?

Yet, in the years that followed, as my sons got engaged or married, my discomfort with Joseph’s seeming lack of concern for his father has resurfaced, but from a different perspective. My earlier discomfort had to do with my unsuccessfully trying to see myself as Joseph. Being extremely close to my parents, I couldn’t imagine being apart from them for so long without wanting to know how they were doing. Now I read the text through Jacob’s eyes, feeling his pain when he learns from his sons that Joseph is dead.

I’ve come to realize that the story of Jacob and Joseph is not really one of a father’s grief and a son’s anger turned to indifference, but rather one of a once-close parent-child relationship that comes to be characterized by separation, loss and silence. As close as I remain to my sons, bar mitzvah, like marriage, is celebrated as a rite of passage in which a child separates from his or her parents.

Joseph comes to understand that he had taken resentments and anger toward his family and projected them onto Judaism itself. Thus, when he asks his brothers about Jacob, his words reflect a new more mature Joseph who emotionally and spiritually is ready to come home. Joseph realizes that Jacob’s shortcomings as a father don’t exempt or excuse him from being the kind of son, or human being, that he knows he is capable of being.

Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in ­Fairfield, Conn. A version of this article first appeared on

Changing Lives

On behalf of everyone at Jewish Community Services, we would like to thank Hannah Monicken and the Baltimore Jewish Times for your cover story, “100 Years, 100 (Thousand) Stories: Jewish Big Brother Big Sister Program celebrates its centennial” (Dec. 16). As was noted in the article, this program, which has been changing the lives of young people for more than a century, is still going strong today. A great deal of care goes into making every single match, which explains why so many of these relationships last a lifetime.

The need for mentors in all communities is stronger than ever. January, being National Mentoring Month, brings the perfect opportunity for committed adults to volunteer to become a big brother or big sister. While the time commitment is limited, the rewards are limitless for both Bigs and Littles. Visit or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.

As we look back at the past 100 years, we are proud to honor and fulfill the vision of those early leaders of Jewish Big Brother Big Sister who recognized that children and vulnerable adults need to know that they are not forgotten, that with the attention of a caring Big Brother or Big Sister volunteer, boys and girls can reach their full potential and grow up to be successful members of the community.

May we continue to go from strength to strength for the next 100 years!

Keep It Simple

I find, “The synagogue, residing at …” and “a kind of bricolage …” in the JT’s “Winands Road Synagogue Set to Close,” (Dec. 23) completely unwarranted since it is a person who resides, not a building, and bricolage is a word perhaps 1 percent of your readers may have ever seen before. Why do you need to display such overbearing language when simple words will do?

Good writing should be simply stated, without scooping the bottom of the barrel of big words for the most impressive, longest and most incomprehensible you can find. Not necessary. Detracts from your message. Wears the reader out.

Obama Abstains on Israel

At the recent White House Chanukah parties — the last such affairs under the outgoing Obama administration — there were smiles and warm feelings all around between the president and American Jews. That was in keeping with the administration’s oft-repeated assertion that it is the most supportive of Israel in history. That the White House has been so vocal on this point throughout some rather public disagreements with the Jewish state, particularly over the Iran nuclear deal, was a phenomenon frequently explained and supported by the high level of cooperation between Israel’s defense establishment and the Pentagon.

Given the events of late last week, however, one can’t help but wonder just how deep and how sincere the administration’s professed support of Israel really is. More to the point, what exactly was President Barack Obama thinking when less than a month before leaving office — and with all the death and destruction being wrought in other parts of the world — he refused to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that declares Israeli settlements
in lands acquired in the Six Day War as a “flagrant violation [of] international law”? What drove the U.S. abstention on what was so clearly a one-sided resolution? And what caused the reversal of established and repeatedly confirmed U.S. foreign policy, which maintained (up until last week) that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict lies in negotiation?

Could this dramatic departure really have been driven by so petty an issue as Obama’s personal animosity toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Frankly, we’re not sure. But there doesn’tseem to be any better explanation.

The administration has gone to great lengths to try to justify its actions, amid reports that Washington greenlighted the resolution and encouraged its presentation to the Security Council. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the resolution made sense, since it was designed to preserve the two-state solution. The assertion was almost universally challenged by pro- Israel supporters on the left and the right who all argued (for different reasons) that
the resolution likely destroyed any remaining prospects for peace and will likely drive Israelis and Palestinians further apart.

Opinions abound on what drove Obama to do what he did, what other things he might do before he leaves office and the likely success of efforts on Capitol Hill to undo Obama’s parting shots. And no one knows what actual steps will be taken by President-elect Donald Trump, his new foreign policy team and his new ambassador to Israel, although trends seem to point in a generally more pro-Israel direction.

This much is certain: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon admitted earlier this month that the international body
unfairly targets Israel. Yes it does — and this time with the support of the U.S. president. Although Trump promises to usher in a new era of American and Israeli cooperation, the outgoing administration seems hell-bent on making that a tough climb.

Treating the Wounds of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo is 400 miles from the Israeli border. It is closer to Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon than it is to any hospital in Israel. That’s one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement last week that his government is looking into ways to bring thousands of Syrian civilians who were wounded as Aleppo was pulverized to Israel for medical treatment is such a big development.

Israel has studiously stayed out of the Syrian civil war, although it tacitly leans toward President Bashar al-Assad as the best-known of bad choices among the players there. And the Jewish state has responded to nearly every incident of cross-border mortar or gunfire attacks, while coordinating with Russia, the power behind Assad.

But Israel has also treated thousands of wounded Syrians along the common border in the Golan Heights. at humanitarian practice was a local affair compared towhat the prime minister suggested on Dec. 20: bringing thousands of wounded civilians — “women and children, and also men if they’re not combatants,” Netanyahu said — from the far north of a country at war with Israel to the heartland of the Jewish state. “We’d like to do that,” Netanyahu said. “Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals as we’ve done with thousands of Syrian civilians. We’re looking into ways of doing this; it’s being explored as we speak.”

We applaud this humanitarian initiative. While it will not turn the tide of the civil war or eliminate the suffering of the millions who have been displaced in the last five years, it will be of immeasurable benefit to those who do receive treatment and will bring relief to their families. At the same time, we note that others have called for wider action. In September, opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government to let thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, out of the estimated one million refugees on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But we recognize that the well-intentioned humanitarian proposal is fraught with security and political concerns that are dramatically more immediate and potentially more consequential than the similar policy debate playing out in our own country.

We acknowledge the obvious: The civil war in Syria has been a tragedy for the Syrian people and destabilizing for its neighbors and for every country where refugees have fled. It has given immigration opponents in this country another reason for denying the tempest-tossed a haven here. In the face of that international reality and reaction, Netanyahu’s offer is remarkably compassionate and generous. And it may offer some Syrians a way out of their ruined country.

Israel has long been a leader in the humanitarian arena. It’s a shame that the Jewish state doesn’t get the recognition and credit it deserves.

Trump’s Man in Jerusalem

Donald Trump says he wants to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and in David Friedman, the president-elect has nominated an ambassador to Israel who reflects the belief that Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital — nothing more and nothing less.

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has for years represented Trump and his real estate development business, speaks Hebrew and intends “to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region,” the president-elect’s transition team announced in a statement. He also looks “forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

It is always good news when someone who has been so clear in his support for Israel has attained the position of ambassador. But, as everyone knows, Middle East problems defy easy answers. Friedman has funded building in West Bank settlements and supports Israel annexing part of the West Bank, positions that put him to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedman has voiced frustration with Israel’s perceived failure to jail for treason Muslims who engage in alleged incitement. And he has called liberal American Jews who support a two-state solution as “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews who were forced to serve the Nazis.

We understand that things are said during campaigns — by candidates, their proxies, of which Friedman was one, and supporters — that are sometimes more extreme than really intended in order to make a point. We hope the same holds true with Friedman. We hope he and the president-elect keep an open mind regarding possible solutions to what is clearly one of the most vexing international puzzles, rather than support some of the more one-sided approaches with which Friedman has been associated in the past.

But we really don’t know what to expect, since, as with many things regarding Trump, we are short on specifics about the president-elect’s plans. In late October, Friedman published an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post in which he outlined what Hillary Clinton was likely to do in her first 100 days as president — and then warned that if Clinton was elected, life in the United States for pro-Israel Jews would become as threatening as life for Jews in France. In the lengthy piece, however, Friedman said very little about what Trump would do if he was elected, other than move the embassy.

The U.S.-Israel relationship — and Israel’s survival — depends on so much more than a diplomatic mission’s address. There are complex policy, security and diplomatic issues that present a veritable minefield for even the most experienced statesmen. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. We anxiously await details of the president-elect’s plans for the long-term strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship and his plans for bringing security to Israel and peace to the region.

Lighting the Season

Joshua Runyan

Joshua Runyan

One of the neat things about living in Israel was that for most of the country, Dec. 25 was just another day. Aside from the news coverage surrounding festivities in the Christian parts of Jerusalem’s Old City, we all went about our business.

If it was Chanukah, we put our menorahs in our windows or outside our doors — walking through a city at the beginning of the night to see all the individual flames in practically every dwelling was always special — and stuffed our faces with levavot (latkes) and sufganiyot. If it wasn’t Chanukah … well, we were either preparing for it by stocking up on olive oil or detoxing from the eight-day fried-food binge from days before.

And yet, I’ve always felt that one of the neat things about living in the United States is the air of goodwill that presumably permeates the atmosphere this time of the year, along with the beauty of the thousands of electric lights that illuminate certain houses and practically every commercial building. This year, of course, the confluence of the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve has many of us thinking more earnestly about the so-called December Dilemma.

Although the phenomenon seems to strike interfaith families the most, one Orthodox rabbi in Washington has taken to decorating his property with tiny blue lights. (There’s also a giant blue dreidel.) And a handful of op-eds across the Jewish press have alternately defended the predominant Jewish practice in the United Kingdom to celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas — who knew? — and suggested that the unique aspects of this year’s calendar demands an even more urgent celebration of Chanukah.

Still, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the question of which holiday to celebrate or how to celebrate is a very real one for the growing numbers of families in the Jewish community whose parents represent more than just the Jewish faith. Some opt to celebrate both, such as lighting the menorah on Christmas Eve before celebrating Christmas with the Christian side of the family. Others will focus on one holiday more than the other.

Some will regard the necessity of the debate as proof that the religious strands that may have held the Jewish community together in the past are fraying, although the fact that many intermarried families are seeking to strengthen their Jewish traditions would argue against that conclusion.

But what these families, owing to their own particular circumstances, are navigating is the same river of identity that has challenged American Jews of all persuasions. At the heart of it lies the question of whether Judaism is a private calling or a public affirmation, a question in fact that sits at the very foundation of Chanukah itself. It’s a question that probably won’t be answered until every Jewish household kindles its very own menorah.

So in this season of light, please accept my wishes for a Chanukah sameach!

The Ballad of Julia Ioffe

Julia Ioffe is, by all accounts, a sharp and insightful journalist. If her name is familiar to you, that may be because she spent a good part of 2016 chained to the rise of Donald Trump. Her April GQ profile of Trump’s wife, Melania, led to a torrent of abuse and threats against the 34-year-old Jewish reporter from neo-Nazi and alt-right Trump supporters. She received anonymous phone calls playing Nazi music and tweets calling her a “filthy Russian kike.”

This hate attack was part of a campaign against Jewish journalists by Trump-supporting rightwing extremists in the months leading up to the election. Unfortunately, Trump did not condemn the threats or admonish his supporters, and Melania Trump blamed Ioffe for provoking the death threats she received by writing the article.

All this provides some context with which to view Ioffe’s reckless and crass tweet last week in response to news that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, will be receiving the White House office usually occupied by the first lady: “Either Trump is f—ing his daughter or he’s skirting nepotism laws. Which is worse?” Ioffe wrote.

With the prominence of discussion about whether or how Trump may divest himself from his businesses; lingering concerns about Trump’s tax returns; and his apparent plan to bring his relatives into government service, Ioffe’s focus on nepotism laws was relevant. (It should be noted that Trump would not be the first president to have secured jobs for his kin: When he was vice president, John Adams secured a diplomatic post for his son and future president, John Quincy Adams, who continued to serve when his father became president; and John F. Kennedy famously made his brother the attorney general.)

But relevance is not the only lens with which to view Ioffe’s tweet. Until now, Ioffe was a respected journalist. The tweet was beneath her and unprofessional — and remarkably offensive. Yes, she did a walk back: “I guess my phrasing should have been more delicate.” But serious journalists — those who seek to get to the bottom of things, as opposed to the journalism of partisan hacks — cannot afford to cross the line of fairness and propriety, as Ioffe unfortunately did.

Her employer, Politico, was not overreacting by firing her. “Incidents like this tarnish [the publication] and the great work being done across the company,” it stated. There may, however, be some sleight of hand here, since the Atlantic just announced that Ioffe will begin work there early in 2017. However that reshuffling works out, after this tumultuous year, we look forward to seeing Ioffe back in form. But it will be hard to forget the ugliness of her words and her incredibly poor judgment in last week’s tweet.

Which Is the Greater Chanukah Miracle?

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiAs we prepare for the festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to revisit the significance of the lights of the chanukiah, as well as the Al Hanissim and Hallel praises that mark our eight-day celebration.

Based on the text of the prayer of Al Hanissim (literally, “for the miracles”), which appears in the thanksgiving blessing of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals throughout the festival, it would appear that the essential miracle of Chanukah is the military victory of a ragtag militia of Judeans over a vastly larger fighting force, the army of the Greco-Syrian Kingdom.

However, another source, first found in the late Tannaitic work Megillat Taanit and cited by the Babylonian Talmud, emphasizes an altogether different miracle only hinted at  in the Al Hanissim prayer.  According to this source, which barely even mentions the military victory, the main miracle was a single cruse of oil sufficient for one day lasting for eight days.

Faced with this apparent dispute within our own tradition, which, then, is the primary miracle of the holiday? If both, why did the Almighty have to perform the second miracle of the cruse of oil at all? The military victory would have been sufficient to restore Israeli sovereignty, and the Maccabees could have waited eight days to secure new oil before lighting the menorah! Moreover, it would have been halachically permissible to use ritually defiled oil if no other oil was available.

According to Beit Hillel, the main struggle — and miraculous victory — was the victory over the false ideology of Greco-Pagan Hellenism. The battle of ideas is won with better ideas, in this case, the light of Torah knowledge. Since knowledge is cumulative, developing as text is joined to text, so too, ideas are built upon ideas, and hence, the progression from one light to eight.

We can understand the essence of the miracles that we celebrate by considering the fact the Maccabees were fighting against not one, but two destructive enemies. On the one hand, they were battling the Greco-Syrian military forces that were physically threatening Judean independence. And on the other hand, they were combatting the Greco-Syrian ideology that was spiritually threatening the Torah’s message of commitment to a God of peace.

The Al Hanissim prayer and our Hallel praise emphasize the military victory that brought us independence; the kindling of the menorah (in accordance with Beit Hillel) emphasizes the ideological, spiritual victory of a religiously committed Judea against the pagan-secular Hellenism. Both victories and each miracle were crucial in order for Israel’s legacy not only to survive, but to prevail.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.