Local News

Legacy of Loss

2014-04-17 10:23:53 lbridwell

Alice Herz-Sommer was 110 years old when she passed away in February. Born in Prague, but living in London at the time of her death, she was believed to have been the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust. Sommer’s passing, as well as the recent deaths of several prominent survivors in Baltimore’s Jewish community, are grim reminders that these individuals won’t be around forever. When they pass on, they take their stories with them.

But it needn’t be that way, say those who work with survivors and the Jewish community at large. Against a backdrop of unprecedented rates of intermarriage and assimilation — and a Pew Research Center finding that 73 percent of Jews define their Jewish identities in terms of the Holocaust — they grapple with how the loss of survivors will ultimately impact the Jewish people’s future.

“Of course it is true that we are in a period of transition,” said Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “Survivors are dwindling.

“We are at a point where the torch and the obligation of transmitting our parents’ and grandparents’ memories is falling on the shoulders of the children and grandchildren of the survivors,” continued Rosensaft, who also serves as the senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “We have to provide reassurance to the survivors that their legacy and the memories they have conveyed to the world over the past 70 years will be preserved, guarded and transmitted into the future.”

Part of the issue is that the collective memories of Holocaust survivors can be tools with which to keep Holocaust remembrance — and the prevention of future genocides — alive.

Rosensaft, who was born to two concentration camp survivors while the family was living in Bergen-Belsen’s deportation camp in 1948, will present the keynote address at this year’s Community Yom Hashoah program on April 27 at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. His topic is, “Has the World Learned?” His answer is, “Yes and no.”

“I teach about the evolving law of genocide at the law schools of two ivy league universities,” said Rosensaft. “There has been tremendous progress since 1945. There were numerous post-World War II trials such as the Bergen-Belsen trial and the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, and at least a good number have been of Nazi war criminals who have been brought to justice. We now have the Genocide Convention. … [But] we have to look with real apprehension at some of the political developments in Hungary and Greece, where there has been a very troubling rise in right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism. The fact that they may be targeting other groups such as the Roma shouldn’t let us off the hook. We can’t only be opposed to Nazis or neo-Nazis when they persecute Jews.”

While Rosensaft points to modern-day genocide and the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe as evidence of the continued need for Holocaust-centered discussion, some critics such as attorney Alan Dershowitz believe that the current emphasis on Holocaust studies hasn’t done much to ensure the continuation of modern American Jewry.

“American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality,” he writes in “The Vanishing American Jew.” “Our long history of victimization has prepared us to defend against those who would destroy us out of hatred; indeed, our history has forged a Jewish identity far too dependent on persecution and victimization by our enemies. But today’s most serious threats come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness — by assimilating us, marrying us and merging with us out of respect, admiration and even love.”

Rosensaft acknowledges that Holocaust remembrance and anti-Semitism are not reasons to be Jewish, yet that doesn’t lessen its importance to the Jewish people, he says.

“If that was the reason to stay Jewish, then the reasonable response would be, ‘If I wasn’t a Jew, I wouldn’t be persecuted so I’m not going to be Jewish,’” he explained. “There have been watershed moments in our history, such as the Holocaust or the founding of Israel or the revelation at Sinai or the destructions of the Temples. These are all important aspects of our history and shape our identities. But they don’t determine our identity.

“We remember the Holocaust and the victims of the Holocaust because we owe it to them,” he said. “After the Shoah, Jewish history was forever changed. It has become a permanent part of our history.”


Harry Kozlovsky holds a photo of his father, Leon, a Holocaust survivor who made sure his children attended a Jewish day school.

Baltimore’s Second Generation
A former president of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, Harry Kozlovksy, is an IT digital project manager for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and partner in Foodem.com. He believes strongly that the children of survivors, the “second-generation survivors” such as himself, must do all they can to keep the memories of their parents alive. He believes the future of Judaism depends upon it.

“We have a burden, an obligation to make sure our children know, so they can instill it in future generations,” said Kozlovsky.

Growing up, the Pikesville resident wasn’t sure why his mother, Rose Kozlovsky, seemed sad. She never talked about the war. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after his parents agreed to be videotaped for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, that Kozlovsky and his younger brother, Bernie, learned about her traumatic past.

“She was from a town called Sosnowitz in Poland. Her whole life changed when she was 10 years old and the Germans came in,” said Kozlovsky, 56. “She was pulled out of her mother’s arms crying when she was 12. … She was taken to Gross-Rosen concentration camp. She never saw her parents again.”

Even after the taping, Kozlovsky’s mother, who passed away in January at the age of 86, was resistant to talk about her wartime experiences. The youngest girl in her concentration camp, she was comforted by older teenagers who told her to be strong.

“She held demons inside her all her life,” said her son.

Kozlovsky’s father, Leon Koz-lovsky, is also a survivor. Born in Krevo, Russia, he escaped the concentration camps because of his wits, Aryan looks and a Ukrainian factory owner who protected him. At 94, though quite ill and a patient at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, the former owner of the successful Leon’s grocery store in Baltimore was more willing to talk to his children about the Holocaust.

“He came from a very religious family and wanted to be sure Bernie and I went to Jewish day school,” said Kozlovsky.

Because of his parents’ histories, Kozlovsky, who attended Talmudical Academy, has always felt different than most of the other children he knew. That feeling, he said, “has driven a passion in me and the way I see the world, other people, my kids.”

Like his father, Kozlovsky made sure that his own children, David, 24, and Joanna, 18, were both educated about Jud-aism. He worries that Jews who haven’t been personally touched by the Holocaust may lose sight of its importance as survivors pass on. Without that connection, he fears, rates of assimilation will continue to grow and the Jewish people will disappear.

“Maybe we connect Jews to the Holocaust by celebrating the lives of their children,” he offered. “Many of them have built themselves up from nothing. Maybe we set up a screen at the JCC, where typical Jews walk back and forth and learn about the Holocaust through the successes of the children of survivors. We have to be strategic.”

Like Kozlovsky, Jeannie Gruzin Siegel of Owings Mills feels that she lives in two worlds. Born in Fahrenwald, a displaced persons camp outside of Munich, to Adela and Israel Gruzin in 1954, she considers herself both a first-generation and second-generation survivor.

“I am saturated in that culture,” said Siegel. “From the day I was born, I was hearing stories of genocide and gruesome acts of persecution. My parents suffered the most unimaginable torture and brutality during the Holo-caust. My father was in the Dachau concentration camp and my mother [was] in hiding from Uzbekistan to Siberia. They were both children but somehow managed to survive with other members of their family, including their siblings and parents.”

Sometimes, Siegel has difficulty determining whether the night terrors she suffered as a child were based on her own memories or on the stories her parents told. Yet despite all that, Siegel, who has a Ph.D. in spiritual counseling, says she had a happy childhood.

“My parents were young and in love and eager to assimilate, and we had a lot of family here,” explained Siegel. “The contrast of the stories and my full, rich life with family didn’t make sense to me as a child.”

Siegel is active in a variety of Jewish organizations and volunteers on the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission. She sees her generation as being responsible for preserving the legacy of the Holocaust survivors. But she finds it too painful to share details of her parents’ stories.

“I have spent many years working on projects to educate children, Jews and Christians alike,” said Siegel. “It is especially painful to witness the atrocities that continue in our time and in our society. I believe the retelling is important to my parents, but what I have to do is to act as a bridge to the future.”

Michael Matsas, pictured with his family in the photo that daughter Alice Garten is holding, wrote a book on his Holocaust experience, “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews in the Second World War.”

Michael Matsas, pictured with his family in the photo that daughter Alice Garten is holding, wrote a book on his Holocaust experience, “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews in the Second World War.”

Alice Garten, 46, an English teacher from Pikesville, also grew up hearing war stories. Her father, Michael Matsas, a Greek Jew born in the city of Ioannina, was 13 when the war started in Greece. His immediate family, who by then had moved to Agrinion, managed to survive the war by traveling to the partisan-controlled mountains.

The family pretended to be Catholic even though everyone knew they were Jews. Although Garten’s father, his sister and parents survived, 117 of her father’s relatives were killed.

“My family always talked about the war and my father always talked about the anti-Semitism in Greece,” said Garten, who was raised in the Reform tradition. “My father was passionate about Israel and the Jewish traditions, but after the war, he didn’t believe in God.”

Garten believes her father’s Holocaust experiences helped shape her as a person.

“There was a message of resistance or self-determination,” she said. “Don’t be a victim and don’t be passive.”

Garten’s father, a dentist, did his best to make sure his legacy wasn’t forgotten by writing a book, “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War,” published in 1997.

In her role as co-chair of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission, Garten wants to “make sure we have new generations to learn the [survivor’s] stories and teach them to other children. I think this goes beyond the Jews,” she said. “We need to remember the Holocaust so that we remember to stand up to injustice throughout the world.”

Telling the Stories
As director of Holocaust programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jeanette F. Parmigiani has made it her business to ensure that the stories of survivors are told to future generations. A Catholic, Parmigiani first learned about the anti-Semitism that existed within the church as a college student.

“I read all kinds of things that made me livid,” she said. “My precious church had done all this? It wasn’t something we heard or learned about. I was physically ill.”

Since then, Parmigiani has worked first as a volunteer and later as a professional to build understanding between young Catholics and Holocaust survivors. As the years have passed, and some survivors have died, Parmigiani has turned to the children of survivors.

One program of which Parmigiani is especially proud of is “Lessons of the Shoah,” cosponsored by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. In addition to raising awareness about the Holocaust, the program teaches students about the need to intervene in and prevent current and future genocides. It brings Holocaust survivors to two area schools, Perry Hall Elementary School and John Carroll High School, a Catholic school in Bel Air. Students have the opportunity to hear talks by academics and clergy and survivor testimonials, while also getting to know the survivors and the children of survivors as individuals.

“It’s remarkable,” Parmigiani said of the dwindling ranks of survivors, many of whom are more than 90 years old. “People [who are asked to tell their stories] rarely say no. They stand up there to talk about the worst things imaginable, and they leave the students with the stories and a message. It’s an inspiration.”

In addition to “Lessons of the Shoah,” BJC and the JMM also cosponsor an annual program that trains teachers to teach about the Holocaust. This year the training will take place in July.

Deborah Cardin, the JMM’s assistant director and one of the organizers of the teacher training program, said this summer’s focus will be on keeping memories alive.

“It is important to be thinking about how we can ensure the continuing impact of survivor testimony as a powerful tool for teaching students the lessons of the Holocaust,” said Cardin. “There are a lot of wonderful resources for doing that, and once we started brainstorming, things coalesced around the topic.”

Anita Kassof, deputy director at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, echoed Cardin’s point.

“One of the most moving events in the museum’s calendar is our annual ‘Generation to Generation’ dinner. Every year, the museum’s director asks the survivors in the room to stand,” said Kassof. “Unfortunately, every year their number shrinks. But the presence in the room of their children and grandchildren assures us that their stories won’t be forgotten.”

At Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Rabbi Paul Schneider has developed a program that honors survivors while making the Holocaust real for students.

“We trained seven high school students to interview survivors,” he said.

Hallie Miller, a senior at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a graduate of the Krieger Schechter Day School, is one of the students involved in the program, which will culminate in a special event on April 22. Miller said she was paired with six survivors, four first-generation and two second-generation ones. One man she interviewed was Larry Amsterdam, who recently lost his father.

“One thing he said was that he has taken it upon himself to become more observant because that was what his father did,” said Miller, who then quoted Amsterdam: “People have lived and died for the Jewish religion. It is my obligation to keep it going.”

Miller also interviewed two sisters, Jeanette Carasso Katzen and Eileen Carasso Metzger. “They had so much information and had done so much work compiling it. Even though they probably told the story so many times, they were still very emotional,” said Miller. “It was reassuring to me to know that they will keep on talking about this. My generation is probably the last to have direct contact with the survivors. It’s up to their children to keep it alive, and they are doing a really great job.”

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Exhibit Explores Eugenics, Nazi Medicine

2014-04-17 10:03:45 ebrown
Students at the Berlin School for the Blind examine racial head models, circa 1935. Students were taught Gregor Mendel’s principles of inheritance  and the purported application of those laws to human heredity and principles  of race. During the Third Reich, German-born deaf or blind, like those born with mental illnesses or disabilities, were urged to submit to compulsory sterilization as a civic duty. (Blinden-Museum an der Johann-August-Zeune-Schule für Blinde, Berlin)

Students at the Berlin School for the Blind examine racial head models, circa 1935. Students were taught Gregor Mendel’s principles of inheritance and the purported application of those laws to human heredity and principlesof race. During the Third Reich, German-born deaf or blind, like those born with mental illnesses or disabilities, were urged to submit to compulsory sterilization as a civic duty. (Blinden-Museum an der Johann-August-Zeune-Schule für Blinde, Berlin)

The idea of eugenics, the study and practice of improving mankind through selective reproduction, was widespread in the scientific community decades before the Nazis took power.

Many credit 19th-century British anthropologist Francis Galton as the father of eugenics, which was popular before much was known about hereditary traits.

“He had a very positive vision focusing on people considered more desirable to have more babies,” said Susan Bachrach, curator of special exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “and more desirable meant people like him, more educated types.”

The early history of eugenics and its role during the Nazi reign and Holocaust is chronicled in “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” which is exhibited at the Health Sciences and Human Services Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore through April 30.

Not only did eugenics inspire racist marriage laws and permit sterilization in the U.S., but some scholars say it laid the groundwork for the Nazis to carry out genocide of the Jewish people.

“They were concerned about the health of the German nation, and the way they defined nation was a very ethnically exclusive idea,” said Bachrach, curator of the exhibit.

“I think few people walk through here and leave with the same sense of mind they came in with,” said Aphrodite Bodycomb, associate director for administration and operations at the library.

The exhibit captures the sobering truths about the spread of eugenics, which got support from the German government and medical community in the 1920s, as well as the doctors and nurses who killed disabled adults, children and, later, Jewish people under what was once a widespread scientific idea.

“We show [the doctors] as respectable, sometimes even prominent, figures in their profession to show people, to try to dispel the myth that Nazi doctors were fringe quacks, these ideas that distance us conveniently from this history because we don’t want to think these were normal people engaging in their work,” said Bachrach.

In the U.S., eugenics spread, especially among Americans paranoid about immigrants adding to their gene pools. In 1924, Virginia enacted a law prohibiting Caucasians from marrying those of “other blood.”  A book titled “Mongrel Virginians” was printed in 1926 by the Williams & Wilkens Company, based in Baltimore. By 1933, 26 states had laws permitting sterilization. About 16,000 Americans were sterilized between 1909 and 1933, half of them in California.

“We printed this stuff,” said Bodycomb. “We were talking about this stuff in the U.S.”

In 1927, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics opened in Berlin, raising German health officials’ confidence in eugenics.

“Many physicians and scientists who embraced eugenics legitimized and helped implement Nazi policies,” an exhibit display said. “Many also collaborated in purging Jews and political ‘unreliables’ from universities, research institutes, hospitals and public health care.”


The Nazis sponsored eugenic research, public education campaigns — some of which included information about the dangers of alcohol and nicotine — and implemented sterilization of adults and children with disabilities. Around 400,000 Germans were sterilized between 1934 and 1945. Propaganda included items such as the “Ten Commandments of Choosing A Mate” and charts defining Jews and “hybrids,” people with Jewish blood.

Under Nazi rule, Germans began a program they called “euthanasia.” Between 1939 and 1945, 5,000 Germans boys and girls born with physical and mental disabilities were killed through starvation, medical overdoses and other means. Some doctors, many of whom were never brought to justice, saw this as a research opportunity.

“[One doctor] commented on what a wonderful opportunity this was to get a hold of hundreds of brains of children with different kinds of conditions you would never have access to,” Bachrach said. “So, it was an opportunity for his career and science.”

An estimated 200,000 adults were killed in similar ways. Between 1940 and 1941, 70,000 institutionalized German adults, most of whom were not Jewish, were killed in gas chambers disguised as showers in Germany and Austria. The idea of using chambers to gas people and crematories to dispose of corpses would extend to concentration camps, with many medical staffers from “euthanasia” facilities manning the installations of gas chambers.

The exhibit features films of women who were sterilized recounting their experiences, photos of disabled children who were killed in the name of eugenics, photos that were used to point out facial features and information on the doctors who took part in eugenics.

Bodycomb said the exhibit serves as a great education piece for students at the university, who are from all over the world and have varying degrees of knowledge about this piece of history.

“There’s no built-in moral compass in these fields, so we need people thinking about ethical issues related to use of medicine in science,” said Bachrach.

The message resonated with visitors. Some wrote that they cried over the lives lost, while others wrote that it was difficult but important to see.

“We cannot forget,” one post wrote. “We must educate and stop these practices.”


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2014-04-17 09:57:38 ebrown


For the many members of the Jewish community who more or less avoid consuming chametz year-round, Passover brings welcome relief.

“Passover is a big treat for everybody,” said Chana Fishkind, who, along with her two sons, maintains a gluten-free diet. Her husband, she said, just goes with the flow.

Two years ago, Fishkind discovered that her youngest son, who is now 5, couldn’t eat gluten. While transitioning to gluten-free cooking for him, she realized that she was sensitive to gluten too and felt a lot better when she avoided the protein, which is commonly found in wheat and other grains.

While holidays such as Chanukah and Purim may require those who are gluten-free to avoid staples such as jelly doughnuts and hamantashen or seek special recipes, Passover is a holiday where, thanks to halachah, many of those with dietary restrictions can eat just like everybody else.

For Aviva Kidorf, who has severe allergies that require her to avoid gluten, Passover is her favorite holiday.

“Passover doesn’t affect me as much,” she said, comparing the spring holiday with other holidays in the Jewish calendar. Unlike the other holidays, when she watches her family and friends consume some of her once-favorite and now-forbidden foods, she is able to eat most things at her family’s Passover Seder table, although her additional avoidance of sugar does require her to bake her own special desserts.

“I don’t miss things [on Passover],” she said. “Just my Keurig.”

Fishkind and Kidorf are far from alone. Celiac disease, which causes an immune reaction to gluten, is especially common in the Jewish community. Unfortunately for many of the Jewish sufferers of celiac, many staple Jewish foods contain gluten — and lots of it.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Wow, I could never do that,’ and I said, ‘You would if you had to,’” said Fishkind. “It’s become a part of our lives.”

Both women’s diets require them to get imaginative in the kitchen. For Fishkind, whose youngest son also cannot have eggs and eldest cannot have nuts, potatoes are a staple. She’s also experimented with pancakes that use banana in place of dairy and flour and even found a recipe for avocado mousse she plans to try for the holiday.

“I have creative cookie recipes that don’t need eggs and use margarine instead,” she said. “I do potato kugel — I substitute zucchini for that. I’ve learned to work with things.”

Recently, that work has become increasingly easier. With the growing popularity of gluten-free food among even those with no dietary restrictions and increased awareness of conditions such as celiac, options for those like Fishkind and Kidorf have exploded in stores such as Wegmans and Whole Foods. Fishkind even sells her own baked goods, including doughnuts and hamantaschen, and business has been great. A lot of her customers aren’t even Orthodox.

Matzoh options have also expanded over time. While years ago people with gluten ailments may have been unable to partake in the eating of matzoh, now there are multiple companies that produce gluten-free varieties, although some special rules apply.

“Growing up, we never heard of such a thing. But a lot of the food products are changing to make it cheaper to make,” said Fishkind. “When my older son first started it was horrendous.”


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O'Malley Signs Decriminalization, Medical Marijuana Bills

2014-04-17 09:50:18 ebrown
Maryland legislators passed an effective medical marijuana bill and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. (David Stuck)

Maryland legislators passed an effective medical marijuana bill and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. (David Stuck)

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a new medical marijuana bill and a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The Maryland General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine, and a bill that allows doctors to prescribe marijuana and dispensaries to fill prescriptions for patients.

“We have a workable bill. I think it’s responsible, I think it’s safe,” said Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), a longtime advocate for medical marijuana and sponsor of the bill that passed. “It’s just like any other medicine, it should be another tool in the toolbox.”

Doctors will have to apply to Maryland’s medical marijuana commission to become certified to prescribe the drug, and will be able to prescribe 30-day supplies of marijuana to patients they have on-going relationships with.

“The most important thing for us is that patients are actually able to access the medicine they need for their conditions, and having medical marijuana available through dispensaries is the most important component of that,” said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project.

Initially, there will be 15 dispensary licenses available. Growers can also operate as dispensaries, Morhaim said. The commission is expected to pass regulations governing how the new bill will be carried out by Sept. 15.

“I feel really good about where we are,” Morhaim said. “Last year’s bill didn’t work but it did set up a framework, it set up a commission, it set up a structure.”

House Bill 1101, signed into law by O’Malley last May, established the independent, 12-person Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission. The bill stipulated that a medical marijuana program would have to be under the direction of an academic medical center, defined as a hospital that operates a medical residency program and conducts research with human subjects overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Although regulations for the academic medical centers had yet to be adopted, officials at the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins University indicated to legislators they did not intend to participate in the program.

Under the new bill, any doctor certified by the commission will be able to prescribe a 30-day supply, the size of which will be determined by the doctor and dispensary, as well as the route of administration for the marijuana.

“There’s specific language that says that the commission is encouraged to be sure that there are appropriate different kinds of strains, shown to work with the different ways they’re processed,” Morhaim said, which could include tinctures and oils.

There is a large data collection component in the bill, which will allow the commission to track patient outcomes and other statistics, and help guide future decisions.

Morhaim expects dispensaries to open within three to six months after the commission passes its regulations in September. After a year, the commission will reevaluate the program and the number of dispensaries, taking into account geography and other factors.

“The key thing is to get medicine into the hands of patients under appropriate circumstances, learn from that and determine what will be the adjustments,” Morhaim said.

As for the decriminalization bill, Yeung did not have as much high praise, calling it one of the weakest bills in the country because of the low possession amount and the increasing fines.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” she said. “The question of a criminal market remaining in place came up during the floor debate in the house, and that’s still an important issue, which is why a system that would tax and regulate marijuana would be best.”

The decriminalization bill, which mirrors a bill Sen. Bobby Zirkin introduced during last year’s session, would impose a $100 civil fine on possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana for a first offense, with fines increasing to $250 and $500 for the second and third offenses, respectively.

“It’s the right public policy,” Zirkin said. “All this bill is, is a recognition that this pseudo-criminalization is an ineffective policy.”

Zirkin said drug use and drugged driving has not increased in any of the 17 other states that have decriminalized marijuana.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Del. Heather Mizeur, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown all said they support decriminalization. And although Gov. Martin O’Malley was hesitant earlier in the session, he signed the bill Monday.

“I think he became aware that this was the politically smart move and, especially since he has national ambitions, it would have been career suicide to veto this bill,” said Yeung.


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Legislative Look-Back

2014-04-17 09:30:38 ebrown
The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

The most prominent bills passed by the General Assembly in 2014 include bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the state’s marijuana policies. (Kevin Galens/Wikimedia.com)

For many in Maryland’s Jewish communities, the recently-concluded 2014 legislative session was a success.

With a resolution to much of the state’s kosher wine problem, the passage of a bill expanding pre-kindergarten to more Maryland children and the inclusion of an amendment to the budget denouncing the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, in addition to inclusion of many Jewish-supported budget points, both the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Baltimore Jewish Council are pleased with what was accomplished in 2014.

“It was an incredibly successful session,” said Cailey Locklair, the BJC’s director of government relations and public policy.

In both Washington and Baltimore, Jewish social service agencies secured funding to continue their work.

The BJC’s budgetary priorities this year included funding for domestic violence medical training, health care for the uninsured and underinsured, an elder abuse center, the Hillel Center for Social Justice and the Maryland/Israel Development Center, among others. A $50,000 bond bill to help Jewish Community Services renovate housing for developmentally disabled adults was also introduced by Del. Dana Stein and passed. Among the BJC’s policy priorities that were approved were a minimum wage increase and increasing the selection of kosher wine available to Marylanders.

The BJC reached an agreement with the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, Inc. and the Field Enforcement Division of the comptroller’s office to help increase the variety and accessibility of kosher wine, a longtime issue for both the BJC and the JCRC.

Under the agreement, the comptroller created a website that lists kosher wines obtainable in Maryland and the distributors that sell them; retailers will be educated on how to order the wines; the number of kosher wines available in Maryland will increase to 1,000 by 2015; and distributors will maintain lists of the kosher wines they sell.

“We are extremely pleased,” said Locklair.

JCRC executive director Ron Halber said that the settlement reached wasn’t perfect, but it has paved the way for further gains in the future.

Both groups spent time dealing with how to respond to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. A rift between the two Jewish community organizations on the issue became apparent in early March when they took opposite sides on proposed legislation that would have placed a financial penalty on state universities for funding faculty participation in ASA-sponsored events. The inclusion of language in the budget condemning academic boycotts satisfied both organizations, but committee hearings on March 5 and 6 made the divide public.

“It could have been handled better on all sides,” said Halber, noting that such a public disagreement between the two organizations threatens
legislators’ trust in both to present them with ideas supported by the Jewish community as a whole.

The boycott bill, he noted, was the one blemish on the Jewish community’s record. Each side, however, considered the final amendment a legislative win.

“It’s a huge victory for Maryland and for the Jewish community in Maryland that our state has taken such a strong stance on boycott, divestment and sanctions,” said Locklair. “The movement is only going to continue to grow and for our state to say, ‘We don’t support the BDS movement’ … we couldn’t be happier.”

One policy priority that didn’t survive the session was a bill that would have required a French rail company implicated in the transport of Jews
to concentration camps to pay reparations before it could bid on the suburban D.C. Purple Line commuter rail project.

The bill died in committee, but Locklair framed the fight as an opportunity to educate legislators about the Holocaust.

“It was a very good session,” surmised Halber. “Our priorities were passed, relations with legislators were strengthened.”

On pre-K expansion, which would allow Jewish day schools to receive state funding if they choose to participate in the state’s program, Halber said “it certainly has the potential to allow Jewish families of lower income to access a Jewish education.”

In February, members of the Orthodox Union joined with day school teachers and administrators to testify on behalf of the bill. Although the program could potentially result in day school pre-kindergarten’s functioning almost identically to public classrooms, those members of the Jewish community present said the potential good expanded access could do for local Jewish children would likely make any challenges well worth it.

The 2014 session, said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), saw a lot of compromise among legislators.

He pointed to the passage of bills dealing with marijuana and raising the minimum wage as evidence of a spirit of cooperation. Through changes and amendments, the General Assembly managed to come to enough agreement to pass them all.

“This was a less contentious year than other years,” said Stein.

Professor Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, called this legislative session one of the most boring in history.

“I don’t think there was a whole lot on the agenda, and I think that was probably intentional because this is an election year,” he said. “Delegates and senators don’t want their positions to come back and bite them when they run for office.”

Stein added that many hot -button issues had been dealt with in previous sessions.

Other than decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, passage of an effective medical marijuana bill and raising the minimum wage to $10.10, Norris argued that not much happened. And on the minimum wage, he wasn’t convinced the new rate is significant.

“The $10.10 minimum wage doesn’t kick in until 2018,” said Norris. “By then, four more years of purchasing power will have eroded through

With that in mind, he said Maryland legislators, generally known for being “deep blue liberal progressives,” didn’t do much for the poor. They
did a lot for the rich, he contended, including granting $15 million in tax breaks to movie producers.

With the session being Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last in office, Norris said he set himself up favorably if he decides to seek higher office.

“A number of these issues, such as minimum wage, marijuana, transgender discrimination and issues in prior years are all really good issues for Martin to use when he’s running for president, because those resonate with the democratic base,” he said.

House Minority Leader Del. Nicholaus Kipke (R-District 31) said his party was pleased with the passage of the medical marijuana bill and bills advancing election reform in the state, but he had hoped to see more work on taxes.

“We have a laser-like focus on tax reform in Maryland,” said Kipke. “Right now Maryland has a lot of assets, we have a good economy, but I think if we got our tax policy in a more competitive light, we would make our state so much more prosperous.”


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