On Relevance, Survival

runyan_josh_otIn 2010, demographers working for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore concluded that this area accounted for 93,400 Jewish persons, a 2 percent increase from the decade before, according to a similar communitywide study done in 1999.

In 1985, the statistic stood at 91,700.

These numbers are nothing new, of course, as the last time a study of Jewish Baltimore was commissioned was five years ago. But it helps to put things into perspective: In 30 years, the Jewish population of Charm City and its environs — in total numbers — has essentially remained stagnant.

It’s become common wisdom that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. And that is no truer than here. Baltimore is actually losing Jews, and we can look to the only segment of the Jewish community that is actually growing as proof.

In 1985, 20 percent of the community was estimated to be Orthodox; the size of the cohort was practically unchanged in 1999, standing at 21 percent of Jewish Baltimore. But in 2010, that proportion shot up to 32 percent. Everyone else went down: From 1999 to 2010, the Reform community decreased from 33 percent to 23 percent, and the Conservative community decreased from 33 percent to roughly 25 percent. Given that Orthodox households are traditionally larger than their non-Orthodox counterparts, it’s safe to assume that the growth of that community has more to do with birthrates than switching identities; the vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews living in Baltimore did not become Orthodox.

So where did these lost Jews go? As you’ll read in this week’s JT, it certainly wasn’t to other synagogues, which among the non-Orthodox set have experienced decreasing memberships pretty much across the board. The pressure has forced some, such as Temple Emanuel of Baltimore, to reconfigure their operations — the Reform congregation will rebrand itself Temple Emanuel at Beth Israel come July, when it will rent and share space at the Conservative synagogue’s property in Owings Mills. Three synagogues have partnered with The Associated to solve the synagogue crunch, including Temple Oheb Shalom, which, although its membership has actually increased, is re-examining how its members engage with Jewish life.

“It’s not necessarily how many people are showing up for a program,” Maxine Lowy of Oheb Shalom explains, but “how many people feel the synagogue is important to them.”

It’s a question that needs to be solved if Jewish Baltimore is actually going to grow by the time of the next study, likely just a few years away. Anecdotally, part of the answer appears to be in the realm of educational options: Beth El Congregation, whose membership has stayed static at about 1,650 households, boasts a growing religious school and is even opening up an outpost downtown.

Ultimately, agencies and synagogues are going to figure out for themselves what being relevant means in today’s Jewish world and how they’re going to do it. But alongside feeding the poor and ensuring the safety of Jews around the world, guaranteeing the survival of the community itself must be seen as an overarching priority.


The Iranian Threat

The JT fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress in March “has turned broad-based support of Israel into a partisan issue” (“The Fallout from Dermergate,” Feb. 6). In emphasizing partisanship, the JT seriously underestimates the urgency of the need to counter Iran’s imperialistic designs.

There is much more to the Iranian threat than its attempt to obtain a nuclear weapon, as grave as that is. The Iranians have marched virtually unopposed through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, encircling Israel and its Arab neighbors. While the Obama administration prefers to ignore the danger, the United States itself has been in the crosshairs for years. Ever since the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the U.S. military has suffered thousands of casualties at the hands of the Iranians and their proxies throughout the Middle East.

Obama and his advisers choose to see no evil, hear no evil nor speak of the evil that emanates from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Netanyahu has repeatedly warned, the Obama administration is making a historic mistake of epic proportions by appeasing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The government of Iran has proven by word and deed that it is an uncompromising enemy of both Israel and the U.S. Yet, our present commander-in-chief is AWOL.

Under these circumstances, it is essential that Congress do whatever it can, in a bipartisan manner, to counter the feckless foreign policy of this administration. Is it any wonder that Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer apparently have concluded that political considerations pale in comparison to the urgent need to inform Congress of the clear and present danger posed by Iran? Unless the JT has very good reasons to second-guess Netanyahu on questions relating to existential threats facing Israel and the national security of the United States, it should give the prime minister of
Israel the benefit of the doubt.

Too Late for Biden? Seriously?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for the life of his country against the whim of a nuclear-armed Iran while President Barack Obama sulks because his
feelings are hurt (“The Fallout from Dermergate,” Feb. 6). One is crying for his people. The other is crying for himself. Go figure!

Meanwhile, the American Press, which loves to hate Israel, adds fuel to the fire and criticizes Netanyahu for accepting an invitation to plead Israel’s case while the Obama administration expects us to believe it is too late in the day for Vice President Joe Biden to change his schedule so he can be present (as is traditional) when a foreign dignitary addresses Congress. No disrespect intended, but, outside of the Obama administration, who knew Biden was such a crucial player in U.S. policy that he cannot rearrange his schedule to be spared for a day? Just saying.

Honor Well Deserved

I was delighted to learn that Dr. Hannah Bor has been selected as the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor at Towson University (“Bor Named Pearlstone Professor,” Feb. 6). I had the pleasure of supervising Dr. Bor’s excellent dissertation at Baltimore
Hebrew University on the role of religion in Israel-Diaspora relations — a topic as relevant today as when Dr. Bor completed her dissertation several decades ago.

In addition, I saw her great potential as a teacher, when, as president of Baltimore Hebrew University, I hired her as assistant professor of education, and she fulfilled every expectation I had. Dr. Bor combines the traits of an inspiring teacher, a sensitive mentor and an excellent researcher. I am certain that she will do an outstanding job as the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor at Towson University.

Time to Reconsider Jewish Love Affair with Buildings

The halls of the Omaha Jewish Community Center are often empty, but not because there is no Jewish life here. Quite the contrary. On any given day, we have an impressive number of Jewish activities for a community of 5,500 Jews. So why the empty hallways?

Because we have invested considerably more in our buildings than we have in the Jews who are supposed to occupy them. The size of some of these buildings is a tribute to the largesse of our donors, but they have not been effective in getting increasing numbers of Jews involved in our community. These structures are, at least in part, a triumph of feeling good over doing good.

To be clear, our community has one of the most successful federation campaigns per capita in the United States. Our donors have performed remarkable acts of kindness privately and publicly, on scales large and small.

Yet, the investment of both money and time into some capital campaigns in Omaha has detracted from the Jewish experiences — day schools, summer camps, compelling educational programs — that Jews need to remain connected to their community. What’s more, given the powerful demographic trends away from organized Jewish life in North America, much of this infrastructure is unsustainable.

Yes, I know that capital campaign dollars that aren’t spent on buildings will not automatically fund Jewish schools or summer camps. But reconsidering our current levels of capital spending could lead to some very productive results. At a bare minimum, we might avoid saddling future generations with the responsibility of maintaining excessive and expensive infrastructure.

In Omaha, the Reform congregation Temple Israel raised approximately $25 million for a new building even though Friday night services are now generally held in its small sanctuary. In spite of the fact that its membership has been in general slow decline for more than 10 years, the new building is approximately one-third larger than the one it replaced.

Some $22 million was raised for an expansion of our senior citizens home several years ago. While the home remains very profitable, it is doubtful that such a large amount of money was required to properly care for approximately 100 residents.

Are we taking the long view of
how much Jews will actually use the structures now being built? Is a large synagogue building truly necessary for a membership that attends services only one or two days a year and rarely attends programs? We can fool ourselves into believing that “If we build it, they will come.” But that model has continually proven to be a nonstarter, particularly with the younger generation. Instead we should be in the business of creating more compelling and meaningful Jewish experiences.

While that is admittedly tough to do, it should be our communal goal to a far greater degree than it is right now. Unless we act more responsibly, many of our buildings may well outlast the people they were built to serve.

Extra! Extra! Hear All About It!

I took an intro to audiology class at the University of Maryland and fell in love with the subject matter.

The course made me more compassionate toward my grandmother’s long-term hearing loss and improved our relationship. This sparked a passion to improve people’s hearing and better the quality of life for people with hearing loss.

Most people don’t realize that hearing loss is the third most common health condition in America, behind only arthritis and heart disease. Early detection is essential, as hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression; researchers at Johns Hopkins University even found an increased risk of dementia among those suffering from hearing loss.

At the Taylor Listening Center in Pikesville, we encourage adults to come in for baseline and routine hearing exams, the same way one would get their eyes checked; this service is covered by insurance, even Medicare. Comfort for patients is key, so we make visiting the office a pleasant and positive experience, equating it with visiting a spa. We strive to create a comfortable atmosphere — even the center’s logo is an ear in the shape of a heart.

Before the practice opened, Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom blessed it and hung a mezuzah in the doorway. But what sets the Taylor Listening Center apart is our deep connection with the patients. It goes way beyond their hearing: I know the names of all of their grandchildren. I’m part of this community. I was raised here. This is where I plan to raise my family.

While it’s not unheard of for health care enterprises to put profits before wellness, at the Taylor Listening Center, we’re more concerned with helping patients improve their hearing. We even started a hearing-aid donation program so hearing aids are not cost-prohibitive. We offer extended appointment times, and we strive to make patients feel as relaxed as possible. This was important to me after seeing patients get lost in the shuffle at larger practices. Our honesty and commitment to all of our patients is evident by the number of referrals TLC receives on a daily basis from pleased patients.

And these are not your bubbie’s hearing aids!

Today, manufacturers are making hearing aids with younger people in mind. They are so small and comfortable that nobody notices them. They actually do what they need to do. The technology is so advanced that hearing aids can now separate background noise from speech. Hearing aids can automatically recognize when the patient is in different environments such as in a car, restaurants, museums or when listening to music, making them all the more seamless in someone’s life. The newer technology is also built to last longer.

After taking my advice, one patient heard every word at the movie theater for the first time in 30 years.

Hearing aids allow people to live their lives the way they want to. The technology improves quality of life. Once a patient gets used to new hearing aids, most say, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t waited so long.”

All About Shmuley

What’s with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and why is he attacking Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life?

We have watched with interest as Boteach has expanded his areas of influence and claimed expertise. He moved from serving as a Chabad rabbi at Oxford University to styling himself an expert on sexual relations; he was a spiritual adviser to the stars and a Republican congressional candidate and is now is a pro-Israel activist with a rightward-leaning agenda. He is also a man of significant intellect, committed activism and remarkable self-promotion, who has branded himself “America’s rabbi.”

Writing in the New York Observer on Sunday, Boteach said that if Fingerhut “fought Israel’s enemies as ferociously as he fights its defenders, perhaps he wouldn’t be losing the war for Israel on campus.” Those are pretty strong words. Which made us wonder what Fingerhut did to deserve such harsh criticism.

According to Boteach’s own telling of events, not that much. Fingerhut, a former congressman, Ohio state senator and chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, has been the subject of much debate since he took the Hillel job in 2013 over how inclusive the organization is regarding student attitudes toward Israel. Fingerhut has essentially declared war on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and has refused to allow programming on campus that tolerates BDS advocacy. These are all positions with which Boteach would presumably agree.

As it turns out, Boteach’s attack in the Observer had nothing to do with any of Fingerhut’s positions. Instead, it was based on New York University Hillel’s decision not to co-sponsor a Boteach-promoted event featuring Ron Proser, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. According to an earlier op-ed in the Observer, Boteach’s This World: The Values Network “has arranged for Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor to give a major speech on the growing global demonization of Israel at Cooper Union’s Great Hall,” the same location as a speech last fall by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Boteach asked for the local Hillel chapter to co-sponsor the event or, barring that, to blast out the details to its email list. Hillel chose not to and apparently told Boteach that it was more interested in bringing Prosor to a later panel discussion on anti-Semitism.

Apparently, one rejects Boteach’s invitation at his peril: His latest suggestion is that the decision not to co-sponsor the event, which he lays at Fingerhut’s feet, will lead to Israel’s doom on college campuses. That’s a pretty harsh conclusion, no matter how strongly one chooses to advocate.

Not Just ‘a Bunch of Folks in a Deli’

Flowers fill a street next to a synagogue in Copenhagen, where a Jewish guard was  killed on Saturday.

Flowers fill a street next to a synagogue in Copenhagen, where a Jewish guard was
killed on Saturday.

Was last Saturday’s deadly attack outside a Copenhagen synagogue during a bat mitzvah celebration resulting in the murder of a Jewish guard an anti-Semitic act?

The question must be raised in light of the similarity to last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, where gunmen killed four at a kosher market and another 12 at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper. In Copenhagen, the killer also fired on a café, where a debate on free speech was being held, killing one.

Anyone with common sense would answer the question of anti-Semitism’s role in these attacks with an unhesitant “yes.” But in a lapse of such sense, President Barack Obama didn’t come out and call the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris an act
of anti-Semitism. Instead, he referred to the victims as just “a bunch of folks in a deli.”

Pressed for an explanation, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, instead of walking back the president’s careless choice of words, doubled down on the offense, noting that “there were people other than Jews who were in that deli.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later dug the hole even deeper. When asked if the attack at the market was against Jews, she said, “I don’t think we’re going to speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation at play here.”

Really? What are they all afraid of? And is it the president himself who is dictating this ridiculous refusal to acknowledge the intentional killing of Jews as acts of anti-Semitism?

You read it here: The attacks at the market and the synagogue were deliberate attacks against Jews, just like the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the free-speech discussion were attacks against prominent purveyors of Western values. All were victims of home-grown criminals espousing a worryingly popular strand of extreme Islam. The killers were radical Islamic terrorists. Let’s
acknowledge that as well.

It is important for the West to respond to both the criminal and ideological elements of these crimes, even as it might search for some understanding of the motivating factors for them. When Jews are targeted because they are Jews, let’s be honest about it. Ignoring clearly anti-Semitic actions and trying to talk around them insults the victims as well as the public. Western values are under attack. Jews are under attack. We have a duty to recognize and acknowledge that painful reality. That duty extends right up to the president of the United States.

Disgraceful Events

I have great concern for Beth Alexander and her twins (“Custody Battle in Vienna Generating International Uproar,” Jan. 27, online only). Husband Michael Schlesinger has not responded to letters from British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis regarding the case, and it also concerns me that the Chabad rabbi in charge of the children’s kindergarten has not provided even limited information about the progress of the twins to their mother.

The children aren’t even being looked after by their father but instead by two Filipino women, who are not efficient speakers of either German or English. The children obviously are not receiving the parental care that the Austrian court assumed they would be getting when it chose to discount Beth Alexander’s maternal and nurturing skills. I hope you will keep the facts available for people who are concerned about these two children.

Magical Peace? Not Hardly

I am amazed how those who espouse the Labor Party and leftist view (“Call to Labor Party,” Your Say, Jan. 30) seem to think that a unilateral withdrawal from Yehuda and Shomron will lead to a magical peace with the Palestinians. It was the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (aka Sharon’s Folly) that had led to thousands of rockets being fired into Israel and two wars. These views, championed by Livni, Herzog and theirpatron saint, Obama, will do nothing more than bring Hamas, radical Islam and rockets into central Israel.

The Labor Party would love to return to its roots and thereby turn Israel back into the socialist bureaucracy that it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Thank goodness we’ve gotten past that.