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A Time for Renewal

2014-10-01 13:29:42 amotkina

For the East Bank Havarah, it’s all about spiritual growth.

For those of the East Bank Havurah, it seems that spiritual seeking is a part of their DNA.

Steve Siegel, 67, of Pikesville strayed far from Judaism after his bar mitzvah at a large Reform congregation and found himself on such a spiritual quest as a young adult in the 1970s. Like many of his generation, Siegel looked to the teachings

of Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute for Inspiration.

He thought he had found it. Yet, when Siegel informed the guru that he was planning to go to live with Himalayan monks, Swami advised him against it.

“This is not your path,” he told Siegel.

Sometime later, Siegel took a class in kabbalah at Columbia Jewish Center, where he met Maurice Braverman.

“Maurice told me about [Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi], the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement,” related Braverman. “Reb Zalman wanted to return to the roots and the spirit of Judaism without some of the restrictions that were off-putting to so many young Jews in the 1950s and 1960s. It was halachah reinterpreted.”

Braverman brought Siegel to a retreat with Shalomi, and he was moved.

“I realized I could find what I was looking for, right here in Judaism,” said Siegel. After that, “Zalman inspired and helped us to get a havurah started.”

The group later became known as the East Bank Havurah.The Jewish Renewal movement, most commonly associated with the teachings of Shalomi, Martin Buber and Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach, originated in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the Havurah Movement which developed alongside it, Jewish Renewal was a response to the desires of a new generation of Jews who sought a strong connection to Judaism, but also desired a more inclusive, more intimate and more participatory religious experience that reflected their modern values.  Members of the movement, sometimes described as “neo-Chasidism,” took traditional prayer, ritual and traditions and updated them with modern ideologies such as feminism, pacifism, environmentalism and soc-ial justice. In the 1980s and 1990s, the movement embraced elements of Eastern spiritual traditions as well as largely dormant Jewish practices of meditation and mysticism.

In the beginning, said Siegel, an investment planner and financial advisor who also teaches Mussar and meditation, “it started because a group of us wanted to ‘do something spiritual.’ We met once a month on Fridays. We would do Kiddush, maybe light candles, say the hamotzi and then have dinner.”

Catherine Myrowitz, a 62-year-old psychotherapist, yoga and meditation teacher, mediator and author of “Finding a Home for the Soul,” a collection of interviews with Jews by choice, discovered the East Bank Havurah around that time, when she was invited by friends to a Shabbat service and then attended a Shavuot retreat.

The group “was like hand in glove,” she recalled. “It’s funny … we all feel like it is ‘hand in glove,’ but we all have different reasons why it is a perfect fit.”

Originally from California, Myro-witz was raised Episcopalian and was in the process of converting to Judaism when she first joined the Havurah.

“The first time I came, I remember so many incredible ideas, but not so much going on. It was also the most nonjudgmental group of people I’ve ever met,” she said. “It still is. We don’t have factions; we don’t have gossip, and we never actually told members not to do these things. It just didn’t happen. I can bring anything to the group and won’t be judged.”

As time went on, the group grew in numbers, became more active and met more frequently. At some point early on, Braverman helped the group to become more organized. Still, throughout its 30-year history, the havurah has remained fluid and diverse, welcoming people of all ages, denominational affiliations and levels of observance. What members all share is a commitment to their own spiritual growth and the growth of the havurah.

There have been few conflicts. “At one time, there was a question of membership dues. But we were all anarchic young singles. We decided, no membership dues. If people wanted to, they could give $5,” Siegel recalled. “When we started, we were all single. Then a bunch of us started to get married,” said Myrowitz. “Steve met his wife, Marcia, at a Rosh Hashanah retreat.”

Initially, said Myrowitz, her husband Elliott, a lapsed Orthodox Jew, wanted nothing to do with the havurah, but eventually, “he became one of its most active members.”

Throughout the years, group members shared important celebrations, including marriages, births and b’nai mitzvoth and supported one another through painful events such as deaths, illnesses and other tragedies.

“There was a point when we were just enormous,” Myrowitz explained. “There were tons of little kids running around, and a couple of people in the havurah wanted more structure and a fixed place where we would meet.”

“And they wanted us to have a rabbi,” added Siegel. “So those people left, and they started a shul,” Chevrei Tzedek.

These days, members of the havurah, which welcomes newcomers, take turns leading and hosting services, learning sessions and holiday programs. Shabbat services now take place weekly, alternating between Friday evening and Saturday morning services. Every quarter, havurah members create a schedule for the coming months. Retreats, including the ann-ual Yom Kippur one, which this year is at the Pearlstone Center, remain a vital part of the East Bank Havurah experience. In addition to traditional Torah services, the havurah also holds services that feature chanting, meditation and lots of music. Yizkor and healing services combine traditional prayer with personal reflections.

“Every once in a while, we’ll come to a Shabbat service where no one has prepared, and we say, ‘OK, it’s a community Shabbat and we all chip in,’” noted Myrowitz. “That’s an evolution, and it says something about the ease we have with each other and with Judaism.”




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Pulpit Swap

2014-10-01 11:55:02 amotkina

When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in June to divest from three American companies that do business with Israel, Rev. Andrew Foster Connors of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church wasted no time to call his friend, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Andrew Busch.

This week, on the heels of a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, the pair of religious leaders took the opportunity to speak to each other’s congregations.

Busch started the swap with a talk at Brown Memorial’s 11 a.m. Sunday service on Sept. 14. The two men noted the congregations’ historical connection: In 1963, the rabbi of Baltimore Hebrew and the minister from Brown Memorial were arrested together demanding integration of Baltimore’s schools.

“I have yet to be arrested,” observed Busch, but the two men have been on the same page often over the years on issues such as  gun control, the death penalty and gay rights.

Connors, and later Busch, told the story of Moses parting the sea to escape the Egyptian army. Busch elaborated on the well-known tale, telling congregants about Nachshon, the Israelite who initiated the miracle by wading head-deep into the sea after Moses’ raised staff had initially failed to part the waters.

After this summer’s conflict, said Busch, he has begun to feel a connection to Nachshon.

The June PCUSA vote “rang loudly through our synagogues, congregations and homes,” said Busch. The organization’s decision to focus solely on Israel, he said, troubled many in the local Jewish community, but Connors’ quick outreach was reassuring.

Busch discussed the events preceding the summer conflict, including the siege of Gaza’s port, as the Brown Memorial congregants listened.

“I’m thankful for Israel’s ability and willingness to defend itself,” said Busch, who left on a trip to Israel the following day.

The story of Nachshon shows that “there is a time to pray, a time to consider and a time to act,” he added, alluding to Israel’s decision to launch Operation Protective Edge.

After the hour-and-a-half service, Busch and Connors spoke with congregants at the church’s coffee hour.

Both reported that headway had been made in dialogue between the two faiths.

Pulpit exchanges, said Busch, are “a very clear way of shaping respect for one another. It was also important that each of us address the other’s congregation during normal worship this making it clear the respect we have for one another and the importance of the topic.”

“The congregants who talked to me Sunday either seemed to be [in] agreement with me or told me I had made them think,” Busch added in an email earlier this week.

He noted that the case may not be the same for all Presbyterians, or even for all of Brown Memorial’s congregants.

Several of the congregants at Brown Memorial said they had not heard anything about the vote to divest from Israel until after the June assembly. Of those who had, many had heard about it only in passing.

Laura Urban, who also leads a Bible study before services, said she had heard about the vote but hadn’t paid much attention at the time. Her husband, David, who had a friend advocating on behalf of the divestment, was following much closer.

Urban’s husband recently visited Bethlehem and related to the quote Busch used from a recent interview with Israel novelist Amos Oz. The quote asked what a person would do if their neighbor sat with his baby on his lap and began shooting a machine gun into that person’s nursery.

“On both sides of the fence, that’s happening,” said the husband, who stressed that neither side is really innocent in his view. “That’s the problem.”Political opinions aside, the couple said they enjoyed the chance to hear Busch speak at their home parish.

“We’ve got to keep talking to each other,” said David Urban.

Connors didn’t expect his congregation to be in total agreement on Israel and the decision to divest, but the need to be in communication is something everyone could agree on, he said.

“I think the actual event of him visiting our pulpit and of him preaching reinforces for people that, look, there have been things in the past, conflicts in the past, that have seemed insurmountable that we’ve made huge progress on,” he said, noting that the kind of interfaith dialogue they are taking part in is something their own great-grandparents could have never dreamed of.

Connors will discuss Israel and the Presbyterians at Baltimore Hebrew’s 6:15 p.m. service on Friday, Sept. 19.



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The Heart of the Matter

2014-10-01 11:47:53 amotkina

Jack and Jane Rose met Dr. Paul Gurbel in 2012 when they wanted a second opinion.

Jack Rose’s father and two half-brothers died from heart disease before they were 50, and when Jack suffered a heart attack in 1984 in his 40s, he feared he might follow in their footsteps, especially after doctors told him “not to bother putting more money in my pension” and gave him about five years to live.

Jack, whose son later perished to heart disease, said he’s always approached life with a proactive, positive attitude, so he consulted with several other cardiologists. Finally he met a young doctor who thought more could be done; he sent Jack to Washington, D.C. for an angioplasty procedure — his first of several — that successfully opened a blocked artery.

Today at a youthful 75, Jack jokingly refers to his health care team

as the “electricians, plumbers and carpenters” that have successfully performed multiple catheterizations for angioplasty and stent insertion, cardioversion (electric shock therapy) to correct atrial fibrillation, two bypass surgeries and a pacemaker insertion. Jack leads an energetic life with wife Jane, 62, and is active with AIPAC and the Jewish National Fund; and is a vice president and advisor to construction at the Cordish Companies.

“I have a condition but keep it attended to,” he said.

Jack is a much more informed patient now and pays close attention to diet and exercise, he added, but the biggest message he heeds is “get a second opinion,” a crucial lesson the couple faced about two years ago.

In January 2012, Jack landed in New York returning from a JNF Israel trip and felt so exhausted he had to stop every couple of blocks while walking around Manhattan with his friend, but he attributed it to the bracing winter cold. From New York he was scheduled to fly to Portland, Ore., to visit family a couple of days later.

But the day before flying west he visited a doctor who discovered his heart was in atrial fibrillation, a state of irregular heart rhythm. Jack consulted his doctor in Baltimore, and she recommended a standard cardioversion procedure that shocks the heart back into regular rhythm and scheduled him for the procedure at Sinai Hospital. He canceled the Portland trip and traveled back to Baltimore, but serious chest discomfort the night before his scheduled procedure prompted an earlier visit to Sinai by way of an ambulance.

A day after the cardioversion, Jack’s doctor said he could go home with medication.

“I didn’t feel good,” Jack recalled. “I’d had [procedures] done several times before, and I didn’t feel well but she said [it would] be fine.”

Neil Meltzer, president and CEO of LifeBridge Health and a casual friend of Jack’s, heard he was at Sinai and stopped by his room to say hello. When Jack and Jane explained that they weren’t comfortable with the diagnosis from the first doctor and were considering a second opinion, Meltzer suggested his own cardiologist at Sinai, Dr. Paul Gurbel.

Gurbel “had been doing surgery and came to my room with his assistant in his scrubs,” said Jack. “He’d had [the assistant] pull all my records, so by the time he came in to talk to me, he knew everything about me.”

After questioning Jack some more, Gurbel recommended catheterization to  determine more precisely the condition of Jack’s heart. In the meantime, Jack’s pain increased to the point where he was given morphine.

After catheterization, the “analysis was that [my heart] was 98 percent blocked,” said Jack. Gurbel “said if this would have happened at home, it could have been fatal.”

Eventually Jack had arterial stents inserted and ultimately had a second bypass surgery after Gurbel and the team at Sinai discovered problems with the first deteriorating bypass.

“In addition to treating patients, Gurbel does research,” said Jack. “And I think his research made him do what he did. He went to the records … and saw what he was looking for.”

In addition to treating complex cardio patients, Gurbel is the director of the Center for Thrombosis Research at Sinai. The center is unique, he said, because it exists in a nonacademic community hospital instead of a traditional university system.

Since 1998, Gurbel and his team’s findings have prompted the American Heart Association to adjust prescription guidelines for stent patients and driven the pharmaceutical industry to design new drugs.

Gurbel’s desire to study the complexities of thrombosis began when he was chief resident in the Department of Medicine at Duke University in the late 1980s. There, Gurbel and his team were the first in the southeastern United States to insert stents, but later clotting became a problem.

“In the late ‘80s early ‘90s we just didn’t know how to deal with [the clotting], we were trying all sorts of cocktails, and it intrigued me, the mechanism of the clotting process,” recalled Gurbel. The doctors would also catheterize patients to open up arteries, “but then it would clot off again. That’s one of the major reasons why I study platelets and the role they play in the clotting process.”

In 1990, Gurbel went to University of Maryland Hospital as its director of interventional cardiology and started an experimental lab, where he developed methods to model heart attacks to study why arteries get blocked by clotting cells.

In 1998, Dr. Bart Chernow recruited Gurbel to Sinai.

“So he brought the research operations I had at University of Maryland to Sinai,” Gurbel said, “and we began studying what happens in humans, to their platelets when they have a heart attack. And we wrote papers on it.”

The team was first to measure the effects of the drug Plavix, also known as Clopidogrel, which is used to prevent blood clotting in heart patients, particularly those who received stents to open blocked arteries.

Because of the research lab’s proximity to patients in the cardiac catheterization lab, the Sinai team could precisely measure medication effects around the clock and record “how fast it worked, how uniformly it worked and how potently it worked,” said Gurbel.

“So I took the risk to write the first paper,” said Gurbel, “and I had ultimate confidence in the results.

“It took a long time to get the work published [in 2003]. The drug was a $9 billion a year drug at that time,” he added. “This was a drug that was being heavily relied upon, then this report came out that it wasn’t really working.”

Gurbel’s team ultimately discovered the effective dosage of Clopidogrel for a stent patient was actually double the amount originally prescribed. In 2005, they published a landmark paper in the Journal for the American College of Cardiology and in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, that “showed patients who had stents inserted and then developed heart attacks after their procedures were poor responders to Clopidogrel,” said Gurbel. “This was the first link between a lab test of high platelet reactivity to event occurrence.”

The Center for Thrombosis Research conducts testing for pharmaceutical companies — its research led to Astra Zeneca’s blood clot inhibitor Brilinta — and projects sponsored by the

National Institutes for Health. The lab’s research methods have been replicated around the world.

Jack is grateful for the research.

“I’m like an old car, you gotta keep taking it back to the shop,” said Jack, laughing. “Some of the docs I see say to me, what haven’t you had? But I’m still here. And I’m still really grateful to the team at Sinai who have taken care of me.”


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Baltimore Gets a Glimpse of Obama

2014-10-01 10:52:05 amotkina
Photo by Marc Shapiro

Photo by Marc Shapiro

More than 200 people lined the streets of Northwest Baltimore last Friday afternoon in the hopes of catching a glimpse of President Barack Obama on his way to a fundraising dinner for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Yosef Wiener and his wife left their Shabbat meal cooking to walk about a half mile from their home to the corner of Green Meadow Parkway and Edenvale Road to show their young children the presidential motorcade. They had heard about the president’s visit through word-of-mouth and thought it might be a good learning opportunity for their kids, who stood on the curb waving American flags as they waited.

Friends Zacharya Volosov, Chaim Lejtman and Shuli Katz took the advantage of the downtime between dismissal at Talmudical Academy and the start of Shabbat to try to see the president in their neighborhood. The visit was the talk of the school all week, they said, and it had become a kind of game to guess where the president’s helicopter would land in the area.

Josh Hurewitz, who lives just a few houses down from Howard Friedman’s house, where the president was headed for a pre-Shabbat meal, found out about the visit from a mailer outlining security needs for the area.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Hurewitz of watching his street fill with people eager to catch a glimpse of Obama.

He managed to spot the president waving through the heavily tinted windows of the limousine. Hurewitz described the chance to see president of the United States pass just feet from his lawn as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“The president comes to your street? That never happens,” he said. “This is pretty special.”

“Good Shabbos!” yelled Marlee Greenberg, who had come with her future mother-in-law to watch the procession, as the motorcade passed by.While the majority of those gathered had come to watch the black limousines make their way through the Cheswolde streets, some wanted to send a message to the country’s highest executive.

“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” read one sign held by an attendee with the CASA de Maryland group that was protesting the president’s recent decision to delay immigration reform.

“Stop Terrorism, Support Israel,” read another sign on the opposite side of the street.

“The Jewish community needs to realize that Democrats are not their friends,” said Ruth Goetz, who brought signs with her for people to borrow protesting the Obama administration’s policies on Israel.

The president landed in Port Covington just before 4 p.m. and headed straight to Fort McHenry, where he, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake viewed the original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The following dinner was hosted by hedge-fund manager and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) President Howard Friedman, along with Josh Fidler, an area developer who hosted another fundraiser attended by Obama in 2012.

Earlier in the week, Friedman hosted another big name in Democratic politics: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is seeking reelection and stopped by the Friedman house the day before Obama.

Democrats risk losing majority control of the Senate in November’s elections.

Tickets to the DSCC event cost between $10,000 and $32,400 and featured a 10-minute speech by Obama concerning some of the most high-profile issues of the day, followed by questions from dinner attendees.

“If you want to know why we’re here today, it’s because having a strong Democratic Senate allows us to continue to pursue a vision of an inclusive, progressive, economic agenda that is going to continue to give more and more people the chance to pursue the American Dream in the way that I have and Howard has and so many people around this room have,” Obama told guests.

In addition to the Senate, the president spoke about international conflicts, including those in Ukraine and against Islamic State forces in the Middle East.

 Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.


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Gilead Sciences Comes to Capitol Hill

2014-09-30 17:37:27 amotkina


U.S. biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences briefed members of Congress last week about the impact and developments of new Hepatitis C medications.

Led by Gilead Vice President Coy Stout, the event showcased physicians’ and patients’ perspectives on the liver disease, bringing a panel that included Dr. Natarajan Ravendhran, chief of gastroenterology and liver disease at St. Agnes Hospital,  and recently cured patients Mike Gimbel and Julian Katz to the Rayburn House Office Building.

“Gilead has already made a huge impact on Hepatitis C,” said Ravendhran. “While the current treatment has a cure accuracy of 80 to 90 percent, new drugs evolving have the potential of 95- to 100-percent effectiveness. It saves lives.”

With 75,000 new viral hepatitis infections every year, approximately three million people are afflicted with Hepatitis C worldwide. After six months on the market, Gilead’s drug Sovaldi is credited with curing thousands of Hepatitis C patients.

Sovaldi is taken with a cocktail of drugs and includes interferon therapy.

In early October, Gilead Sciences will release a new Hepatitis C treatment that is interferon free.

Katz, an assessment and survey specialist at Howard County Public Schools, used the briefing to publicly announce for the first time that he has been cured of the disease.

He said that after undergoing a failed interferon treatment, he was initially hesitant to use interferons again with Sovaldi.

“I was scared to use the interferons again because it made me so sick the first time,” said Katz, who was 50 when he discovered he had Hepatitis C. “I decided to give the interferons one more shot and was driving to temple one morning and got a call from Dr. Ravendhran to tell me I’m cleared.

“I felt in that moment the spiritual and real came together,” he added.

With a new interferon-free treatment on the horizon, patients will have a shorter regimen and less side effects, Gilead claims. As new drugs are released, the price of drugs will most likely decrease. At $1,000 a pill and $84,000 for a total treatment, Gilead’s pricing has been the cause of controversy.

With the health department receiving less than $1 of federal funding for every person living with viral hepatitis, many people still cannot afford the cure. While Gilead offers support path resource and co-pay programs to assist patients with out-of-pocket costs and 46 states cover treatments through medicine programs, patients still struggle with the price tag.

“There is a rumor on the street that we won’t be able to treat every patient due to cost. I get upset when I hear that,” said Ravendhran. “People come into my office and expect to be cured. I do get concerned that we won’t be able to treat everyone.”

Former Baltimore County drug czar Mike Gimbel argued that the cost of the treatment is significantly less than receiving a liver transplant. Now Hepatitis C free, Gimbel contracted the disease from sharing heroin needles and deemed Sovaldi a “miracle pill.”

“How often can we say we cured a disease?” said Gimbel. “This drug treatment works, and it is way cheaper to cure the disease from the front end than the back end.”

With three in four people living with Hepatitis C undetected, it is crucial to receive testing for the disease, say physicians. Symptom free, both Gimbel and Katz only realized they had Hepatitis C from their bloodwork.

“If you know you have Hepatitis C, you have a fighting chance of survival,” said Katz. “I don’t know how I received Hepatitis C. However, it is not about how I got it, it is about how I treated it.”


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