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The Lion’s Gate

071114_mishmash-bookBy Stephen Pressfield
Sentinel, 430 pages

Taken on its own terms, as “hybrid history,” “The Lion’s Gate” is an engaging immersion in the experiences and emotions of participants in Israel’s first three wars.

Steven Pressfield, author of 12 previous books, interviewed 63 people over the course of 370 hours and sliced their recollections into chronological placement.

“The focus is deliberately personal, subjective and idiosyncratic” and limited to a few units, he said. He didn’t attempt a standard history or “pretend to document the ‘facts’ of the [1967] war,” and he acknowledges up front that memory can be imperfect.

What he wants, he says, is “to be in the cockpit, inside the tank, under the helmet … the event as the man or woman experienced it.”

Pressfield’s unconventional approach saw him editing and sometimes rewriting interviewees’ words, using material from their books and even from a documentary and weaving them into spoken narratives. Done with interviewees’ agreement and our knowledge, that’s OK, but readers need caution.

“The Lion’s Gate,” with maps, photos and an index, is well worth reading. It’s a compelling account of the achievement and feelings of an outnumbered people armed with enough competence, determination, weapons and courage to prevent a promised annihilation.

Summertime Staycation

Often the words “summer vacation” can conjure painful images of airport security crowds, delayed train schedules and high gas prices — even higher than normal this year according to AAA, due in part, the association speculates, to the unrest of the Iraq civil war. Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Visit Baltimore, proposes an alternative to all that headache.

“We have a wealth of things to do and see in Baltimore,” he said. “During the school year people are busy with lots of other activities, and summer gives everyone a break to say, ‘Let’s enjoy our time together.’

“Family connectivity,” he continued, “that’s what a lot of people are looking for.”

To help avoid the possible unpleasantness of summertime travel and achieve the pursuit of relaxed quality time with family or friends, the Baltimore Jewish Times asked several members of the community for their suggestions on what to do and where to go in Charm City, because sometimes, staying home and being a tourist in your own city is the best vacation plan of all.

With the multitude of parks, pathways and waterways accessible in the area, it’s not surprising there were lots of suggestions for nature visits.

Jobi Zink, senior collections manager at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, is a fan of hiking, biking and walking in Gwynns Falls Park. Friends of the IDF board member Eddie Rogers suggested Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills as a quick immersion into the calm and quiet of its walking paths and wildlife viewing areas. Yitzchok Berman, fly fishing enthusiast, has a favorite spot near Monkton on the Gunpowder River at Masemore Road.

When planning a family activity, he advised, “Little Falls River is a great place to go for biking and picnics with kids.” Closer in at Falls Road and Greenspring Valley Road, Meadowood Regional Park is “a great place to cool off in the stream” on a sweltering Baltimore afternoon.

Those looking for hidden gems of green spaces can also head to the Mount Washington Arboretum located just off of Kelly Avenue at Lochlea Road. Walk past the Mount Washington community garden and through the mosaic archway entrance that opens into a quiet corner offering an urban respite. The scent of herbs and flowers fill the air, and there is also plenty of butterfly, dragonfly and even frog watching to be had. Covered areas for picnics and shade are available throughout as are benches and lawn chairs, all placed to sit and contemplate the offerings of nature amid a soundtrack of chattering birds and a tiny gurgling waterfall. For more information, visit

But for lots of Baltimoreans, “outdoors” isn’t about nature per se, it’s about taking advantage of the unique neighborhoods that the city has to offer, like strolling through Fells Point — a favorite of Randy Farmer-O’Connor, managing director of corporate support at Maryland Public Television — or visiting Hampden and having coffee and a snack on the outside patio at Spro, which is what David Alimy of the neighboring Charmery ice cream parlor recommends for anyone looking to relax on a lazy summer day.

To cover more ground and learn some history of the city at the same time, Jessica Normington, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, suggested yet a different kind of “outdoors” with a Segs in the City tour. Segs in the City gives 90-minute Segway tours through Little Italy, around the Harbor to Federal Hill, to Harbor East and Fells Point. While one tour guide said only a quarter of the patrons are from Baltimore, even locals could have an eye-opening experience from atop the two-wheeled motorized vehicle.

“Ninety percent of them at the end say, ‘I’ve been living in the city so long and I’ve learned so much,’” said tour guide Connor Meek.

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On the tour Meek talks about things like the Baltimore Public Works Museum (which is now closed); the Baltimore Water Wheel, which uses solar power to remove trash from the harbor; the National Katyn Memorial in Harbor East, which memorializes victims of a series of mass executions in Poland; the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904; the Pratt Street Riot of 1861; and Baltimore’s role in the War of 1812.

The Segway tours, open to ages 14 and up, cost $60 per person. For more information visit

In Baltimore there are as many tours as there are quirky interests, and to that point Sam Gallant, producer and radio personality at WTMD, suggested the “Gargoyles and Grand Landmarks” walking tour given by Baltimore Heritage, which highlights some of Baltimore’s historic and unique architecture, and the Baltimore Ghost Tours, a walking tour of the ghosts and hauntings of Fells Point’s historic maritime village. For more information, visit or

Summer and free outdoor music go hand in hand in the city and can be had at Summer Sounds at the Square at Belvedere Square, Concerts in the Park at Patterson Park or WTMD’s First Thursdays Concerts at Canton Waterfront Park. Randi Benesch, managing director of arts and culture at the JCC, and Ben Greenwald, former chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, both suggested to head north to Ladew Gardens on Sunday evenings for the weekly concert series, though Ladew offers exotic topiary treats as well throughout the rest of the week. For Baltimoreans with a soft spot for the botanical arts, a closer option is the Howard P. Rawlings Conservatory at Druid Hill Park.

Dangerous Crossroads

New Yorkers gather in front of the Israeli Consulate for a vigil for the three missing teens. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New Yorkers gather in front of the Israeli Consulate for a vigil for the three missing teens.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

ALON SHVUT — The group of several dozen seventh-graders had just finished school and were preparing to return to their homes in this bloc of communities near Bethlehem in the area Israel acquired in 1967. A few of the boys, their skullcaps blowing in the wind, stuck out their index fingers — the Israeli equivalent of “thumbing a ride.”

“Absolutely not!” yelled their teacher. “No hitchhiking! You’ll wait for the next bus.”

He then consulted his watch.

“It comes in two hours.”

The students let out a collective groan.

The mood is tense here among these post-1967 towns. It has been more than three days since a trio of teenagers were kidnapped on their way home from school late at night. Thousands of Israeli soldiers have surrounded the West Bank town of Hebron, about 10 miles from here, believing that is where the kidnappers are holding the boys, who studied at a boarding school in the area.

Many of the residents of these 20 communities know the kidnapped teenagers. Others see their own sons in them.

“I’m full of worry and anticipation, but I actually have hope,” Sharon Katz, a theater director who lives in nearby Efrat said. “The entire nation is praying for the recovery of these three wonderful boys. These three teenagers could have been anybody’s teenagers.”

Davidi Perl, the mayor of the 20,000 residents who live in Gush Etzion, said that the kidnapping has been devastating for many residents here.

“It’s like someone came into your house and took your children,” he said. “It’s like they hit our soft belly. We felt like we were safe here. We walk around, go jogging or bike riding at all hours of the day or night. But we weren’t really safe.”

Katz started her theater company called Raise Your Spirits at the height of the intifada, the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in 2000. These days she volunteers at a hospitality stand for Israeli soldiers. She dispenses drinks and homemade cakes for several hundred soldiers each day. Many of those passing through today are going to the West Bank town of Hebron.

The hospitality stand was started in memory of Shmuel Gillis, a doctor from this area who was shot and killed while driving home from the hospital 13 years ago. His wife, Ruti, says the Palestinians in Hebron should pay the price for the kidnapping.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer,” the soft-spoken artist said, sitting at a table outside the hospitality stand. “But we should make life intolerable for the people there. We should cut off the water and the electricity and not let anyone go to work. Eventually, people will say to the kidnappers, ‘Give them back, we don’t want to suffer anymore.’”

These communities are just 10 miles outside Jerusalem, where many of the residents commute to school or work every day. There are buses that serve the area, but they are infrequent. All ages are represented here, but it’s especially the youth who commute by hitchhiking — either from bus stops or special hitchhiking posts.

“My mother is worried about hitchhiking, but I told her I’m more nervous about crossing the highway here than accepting a ride,” Noa Divo, 18, said as she waited for a ride. “Most people stop to offer rides, and it’s really a good way of life. Of course, my first reaction to the kidnapping was fear, but it’s much more convenient than the buses, and it saves money.”

There were fewer hitchhikers than usual, but those who continued said it was too much a part of their lives to quit.

“Hitchhiking is simply part of the fabric of life here,” said Perl. “There are buses to Jerusalem but no buses between the communities. If you want to get from one to the other you have to hitchhike or walk.”

The mayor said his own children frequently hitchhike. His 16-year-old son carries tear gas with him whenever he travels to Jerusalem, and his sons in the army have their army-issued arms. But children as young as 12 or 13 who can be seen trying to get a ride would be unable to defend themselves if attacked.

The Israeli army says it has foiled at least 30 similar kidnapping attempts in the past year. Theater director Katz said she lets her four sons hitchhike but not her daughter.

“I told my daughter when she started going to school outside of town that she is not allowed to hitchhike,” said Katz. “I told her, ‘No matter where you are, you are to call me, and I’ll pick you up.’ I’ve picked her up at all kinds of places at all hours of the day and night.”

Others say they simply have no choice.

Gillis said her daughter is finishing nursing school and has to be at the hospital in Jerusalem by 7 a.m. The only way to get there on time, she explained, is by hitchhiking.

The proper Israeli response to the kidnappings is also being debated here. Some call for harsher measures against the Palestinians; others call for more Jews to move here.

One possible reason for the kidnapping is that the teenagers were taken in order to exchange them for some of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. In 2011, Israel freed more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The prevalent mood here seemed to be against any prisoner exchange.

“I am against any prisoner release,” said Perl. “The prisoners return to terror and do other acts against Israel. It doesn’t help and will never help to achieve peace.”

Even the seventh-grade boys waiting for the bus had an opinion.

“It would be a terrible thing if they did that,” Gavriel Gimpel, 13, said. “The last time they did that they took 1,000 for one. So if they have three they could take a lot more. We shouldn’t do it.”

Linda Gradstein writes for The Media Line.

The Importance Of A Visual Sign

2013-axler-craigThere’s a small scar on my left index finger where the digit meets the hand. There since early childhood, it serves as a reminder of the time I decided to slice a frozen bagel by myself with a sharp knife. A little more force, a slip here or there, and I would have been one finger short. I don’t remember a lot about the incident, but I do think about it every time I slice a bagel.

This is, I admit, a ridiculous way to introduce a meaningful lesson from this week’s Torah portion. In the parshah, Korach assembles his band of rabble rousers against Moses and Aaron with a challenge to their leadership: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, each and every one. And the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?!”

We see the showdown that unfolds over the next chapter, dueling firepans laden with incense. Ultimately, Korach and his company are swallowed up by the earth, and 250 firepans remain from the rebels who were consumed by God’s fire. It is a terrifying scene, to be sure. But what happens next is perplexing.

On order from God, Moses commands Aaron’s son Eleazar to clean up the scene of the confrontation — specifically to remove “the firepans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar, for once they have been used for an offering to the Lord, they have become sacred, and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.”

What? The firepans used by this gang of rebels are used as copper plating for the altar, one of the most sacred places for our people? It seems completely counterintuitive. There has to be a reason why these objects get not only a “new lease,” but even a serious promotion in holiness — and it can’t simply be an environmental impulse to “reuse.”

Some look at this incident and assert that the holiness of the firepans comes from the fact that they were utilized in a sacred act and are therefore sanctified not as a result of their original sinful owners, but through contact with God.

Others side with Korach and his gang having some holy intentions, however misguided, and genuinely wanting to serve God. Their aim was pure, and this is the holiness that clings to the firepans.

A paraphrase of Rav Kook in Etz Hayim indicates that “the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy.”

These seem to me reasonable interpretations, but I would push the symbolism further. What is the purpose of plating the altar with the firepans? It is so that anyone who uses it will be reminded — they will serve as an ot, a symbol, warning or sign.

Those who stand in front of the altar will remember, and this visual cue will bring the necessary meaning. Maybe it’s the awareness of the genuine spiritual strivings of the “whole community, each and every one” that leaders must keep in mind. Maybe it’s the validity of challenge and dissent within the tradition. Maybe it’s a memory of the limits of authority that any one person can hold.

The visual sign, the lesson of the scar, bears exactly the meaning that each individual needs to understand.

Rabbi Craig Axler is the spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.

Get Out The Vote

With contested races, large candidate pools and open seats, the June 24 primary elections could see a considerable amount of shakeup in local offices.

In addition to the gubernatorial primaries — where Democratic voters will choose between Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur, and Republican voters will choose between Del. Ron George, Harford County Executive David Craig, businessman Larry Hogan and Marine Corps reservist Charles Lollar — Maryland voters will also select their party’s preferences for the U.S. House of Representatives, county councils, attorney general, both chambers of the state legislature and a host of other offices, such as comptroller and jurists on the Orphans’ Court.

Some legislators are running unopposed, like state Sen. Bobby Zirkin in Baltimore County’s District 11, but other races are hotly contested, such as the battle to occupy two open delegate seats in Baltimore County’s District 10.

Incumbent Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat representing the meandering Third Congressional District stretching from Takoma Park in Montgomery County to the far eastern part of Anne Arundel County and through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor north into Baltimore County, is facing a primary challenge from Matthew Molyett. Molyett, a computer engineer working for the National Security Agency, is running on a platform that includes implementing regular town hall-style meetings in the district, using public-private partnerships to offer free Internet for everyone, the legalization and taxation of any drug deemed safe enough and expediting citizenship for immigrants.

In the seat’s Republican primary, Thomas Pinkston-Harris, a conservative Baltimore school teacher, will face off against Michael Jackson — who proposes ending water, trash and sewage fees from the public — and Charles Long.

Meanwhile, over in the equally meandering Second Congressional District, the Democratic primary has incumbent Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger facing 25-year-old Department of Energy employee Paul Rundquist.

Both districts are considered safe for Democrats.

“All the incumbents will win,” predicted Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “because the state has been so effectively gerrymandered, and none of them has any [viable] opposition in the primary.”

The state’s Congressional incumbents are also reasonably popular, he added.


Though there is only one Republican running for Attorney General, the Democratic race has shaped up to be one of the more closely watched contests this year, with three candidates vying for the spot on the fall ticket. Polls have shown Del. Jon Cardin (District 11) with a lead over state Sen. Brian Frosh (District 16) and Del. Aisha Braveboy (District 25), but polls can prove difficult in their ability to predict outcomes in a non-presidential election year. Just last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) fell in a surprise defeat to a relatively unknown Tea Party-backed candidate, although his own internal polling reportedly had him up 34 percentage points going into the June 10 election.

Norris said in the Maryland attorney general race, it’s hard to predict who will emerge victorious since “turnout is going to be abysmally low,” adding that a turnout as small as 20 percent wouldn’t surprise him.

A Baltimore Sun poll in June showed that more than 40 percent of Democrats were undecided in the race. Norris believes Cardin and Frosh have equal chances of winning the Democratic nomination.

Frosh, an attorney with a private practice in the Washington, D.C., area, has been representing his Montgomery County district in Annapolis since 1987. He currently serves as chair of the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, vice-chair of the Rules Committee and sits on the Executive Nominations Committee and the Legislative Policy Committee.

Cardin was elected to the House of Delegates in 2003. He chairs the Election Law Subcommittee and sits in the Ways and Means Committee, a position that has been the subject of recent criticism with Cardin missing nearly 75 percent of the committee’s votes during this year’s legislative session.

Braveboy, an attorney who specializes in business and property law, has been a member of the House of Delegates since 2007. She represents Prince George’s County and is a member of the Economic Matters Committee and chairs the Consumer Protection and Commercial Law Subcommittee.

Although Cardin had a higher percentage of support according to the poll numbers, experts such as Norris think Frosh could exploit Cardin’s missed votes.

“I think that’s going to come back to haunt him,” said John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University.

Frosh, said Norris, could also bring up Cardin’s 2009 marriage proposal, which drew much public scrutiny over misused police resources — he staged a boat raid with a police helicopter and boat and proposed as his then-girlfriend thought she was going to be handcuffed. Cardin has also had to distance himself from the support of Baltimore-based rapper Ski Money, with whom Cardin posed at a fundraiser, upon learning that the rapper is facing charges of human trafficking.

Still, Bullock expects Cardin to have strong support because of his name. He is the nephew of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin.

Frosh, however, has been endorsed by high-ranking current and former politicians, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, while Cardin earned the high-profile endorsement of Ruppersberger.

With an expected low turnout, the question is: Are more politically aware — those who would presumably be familiar with Cardin’s missteps — or less politically aware voters going to turn out? The winner of the contest will face Republican Jeffrey Pritzker and Libertarian Leo Wayne Dymowski in the general election.

Fun for All

The JCC held its first community block party at the Weinberg Owings Mills JCC on Sunday, June 8. Approximately 4,000 people attended, 110 faces were painted by Sophia Rosman, about 300 hot dogs and sausages and 250 hamburgers were served, four bands performed while a DJ entertained on the baseball field. Community members interacted with 80 vendors and 60 program partners, and 1,000 people attended the after-party in the Rec park.
— Photos by Marc Shapiro

Stevenson University President Reports from Israel

A major reality check came for Kevin Manning when a young mother who lives on a moshav near the Gaza Strip spoke about what everyday life is like with rockets flying overhead and a constant sense of fear for her family.

“When she goes to Jerusalem and tells them they don’t have to be afraid, they ask, ‘Why should we not be afraid in Jerusalem?’ ” said Manning, president of Stevenson University, in a phone call from Israel. “It just struck us as Americans … we just don’t have these experiences. We’re not living literally in a war zone, where you have to manage the children and the bunkers and the rescue situation on a day-to-day basis.”

Manning was in Israel for the first time on the Weinberg Foundation’s Israel Mission, which departed the U.S. on May 17 and returned on May 26. It was the group’s largest mission to date, with 30 participants. The trip has been sponsored by various groups in Jewish Baltimore almost every year since 1981; the Weinberg Foundation began funding the trip in 2001 and took over trip operations in 2007.

The group consisted mostly of Maryland residents, with others from Hawaii, Alaska and California, and the trip was led by Rachel Monroe, president and CEO of the Weinberg Foundation.

The foundation said the mission of the trip was to give participants a better understanding of the complex realities of the Middle East through first-hand experiences.

“The focus leading up to and throughout the mission trip is to provide a serious, scholarly, exploration of the issues and events which have shaped and continue to shape Israel and the region,” a statement from the foundation said.

Just in the first two days of the trip, Manning, his wife, Sara, and the other participants drove to the Israeli-Lebanese border to learn about the history between the two countries,  drove to the Golan Heights to learn about the history between Israel and Syria and to tour the Golan Heights Winery and visited two historic Christian sites. After just a short time, Manning said he was left with the impression that the country has “a lot of enthusiasm and ambitions,” in addition to a complicated history.

“The thing that impresses me the most … is how extraordinarily complicated the relationships between these countries are,” he said. “Many of these conflicts have been going on for many, many years and they have to do with geography, water, religion, ideology, politics. There’s so many things that occur simultaneously, it’s very hard to sort them all out.”

In the days that followed, the mission group learned about the challenges Israel faces with its various populations from Israeli newspaper Haaretz editor-at-large Aluf Benn, visited the Google campus in Tel Aviv to learn about the technological innovation coming out of Israel, went to Ramallah to hear from a representative from the Palestinian Authority and visited two new Jewish West Bank settlements.

Another emotional moment came on the day when the group learned about the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The group went to a school in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, where about 30 Ethiopian students — the JDC works in particular with Israel’s large Ethiopian immigrant population — were being tutored.

“It was a very poignant kind of experience for us,” Manning said. “It was good to put a face on the education system.”

The group heard from political and intelligence experts, who were able to further explain Israel’s place in the Middle East and how the Israeli people deal with upheaval.

“Our perception of Israel from a distance is never equal to a reality,” Manning said. “From what we’ve heard from the Jewish families and the officials here, they just move on. They’re so accustomed to this way of life they keep building buildings and keep building skyscrapers.”

Manning visited the Academic College of Tel Aviv Yaffo, where he met with college president and psychology professor Nehemia Friedland. He said he had a productive 90-minute exchange with Friedland, and found similarities with enrollment goals and budget considerations between Stevenson and the Tel Aviv school. The Israeli college is part of an expansion of 20 institutions sponsored by the government to provide higher education for underserved populations, Manning said.

The last few days of the trip included visits to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; Shabbat in the capital’s Old City, where Manning ate dinner with two lone soldiers from London and Detroit; and a trip to Masada.

For Manning, the educational trip has provided some valuable insight into the country’s history, geopolitical situation as well as the excitement among its citizens.

“It’s not a mature country in a good sense,” he said. “A lot of building, a lot of construction, a lot of hope.”

Dancing with Autism


After she adopted her son Neal, Elaine Hall created the Miracle Project, a program that uses musical theater to engage autistic children and teens.

During Passover of 1996, Elaine Hall traveled from Los Angeles to Russia to adopt her then 2-year-old son, Neal. A year later, Neal would be diagnosed with autism, and Hall would begin an odyssey that would change not only her life and Neal’s life, but also the lives of the many others they would touch.

Hall will be one of the keynote speakers at a special needs symposium at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, June 1. Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent for Maryland’s Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, will also be featured.

“When Neal came to me, he was spinning around in circles, he didn’t answer to his name, didn’t make eye contact, and he was very, very sick,” said Hall, an actress and acting coach who has worked in the film and television industries. “He had liver toxicity. I spent the first year just getting him healthy.”

Approximately a year after his adoption, Neal was diagnosed with autism, and Hall began trying to learn all she could about the disability.

“The Internet was just starting, and there wasn’t as much information out there as there is now,” she said. “We started all kinds of traditional therapies, but nothing was working.”

Hall later brought her son to Maryland to see the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and founder of the floortime approach of working with autistic children. (Floortime encourages parents to engage children at their level by getting on the floor to play).

“Dr. Greenspan put me on a path of relationship-based intervention. Instead of trying to get Neal to enter our world, he encouraged me to rally all my theater friends and have them join Neal’s world,” she said. “So if Neal was spinning around, we’d spin around with him and make it ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ If he was staring at his hand, we would stare at our hands. Slowly, he emerged.”

Inspired by what she had witnessed, and deeply committed to spending time with her son, Hall quit her job and decided instead to share the techniques she had developed with other autistic children and their families. With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles, Hall founded The Miracle Project Judaica in 2004, which provides a warm, inclusive Jewish environment where children and teens with autism and other special needs, as well as their typically developing siblings and peers, are encouraged to express themselves through music, dance, acting, stories and writing. Through The Miracle Project, participants develop and perform their own musical theater production.

In 2005, Hall was approached by a group of documentary filmmakers interested in making a film based on the project. While maintaining the Jewish Miracle Project, Hall also developed a secular version of the program that was featured in “Autism: The Musical!” first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. The documentary, directed by Tricia Regan, went on to win two Emmy Awards for HBO.

At first, said Hall, theaters didn’t want to show the film because of its title. “They thought it was making fun of autism and people with autism. We said, ‘Just watch it.’ Once they did, they saw how beautiful and sensitive it was,” she said, noting that it was short-listed for an Academy Award. “I want people not to be afraid of autism.”

When her son reached bar mitzvah age, Hall was determined that he should take part in the Jewish milestone. She created a multisensory b’nai mitzvah curriculum for Neal and other Jewish youngsters with special needs.

“Neal was the first bar mitzvah to use the curriculum,” Hall said. “He danced his haftorah.”

The program continues to be offered at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles.

Hall continued to build awareness and hope in her 2010 book “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle.” The book was the official selection for World Autism Awareness Day in 2011 and was suggested reading for Jewish Disability Awareness Month in 2013.

Now 20, Neal works at a grocery store and an organic farm that is part of the Shalom Institute. Though still non-verbal, he communicates by using an electronic device. He is also a talented athlete.

At the symposium on June 1, Hall will deliver a talk about finding spirituality in parenting children with special needs.

“I’ll talk about redefining normal, becoming an activist and listening to the child who doesn’t speak,” she said. “God made all of us, and to shut out one person is to shut us all out. We will all have disabilities someday. We really have to be Abraham’s tent.”

Jen Erez, special needs coordinator of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, said in addition to the two keynote speakers, the symposium will also include a resource fair and two workshop sessions. Workshop topics include managing relationships, planning for the future and understanding the social challenges of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

Erez said the program is appropriate for both parents and professionals.

To register, visit asoft4161.accri forms&id=Special+Needs+Symposium.

Freedom of the Press?

Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)

Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem.
(Wikimedia Commons)

With the Summer Assembly of Israel’s 19th Knesset now in session, a highly controversial bill has drawn the ire of many from a wide range of professional fields and political backgrounds, including Members of Knesset (MKs), legal experts, media watchdog organizations, free speech activists and journalists.

A measure describing itself as the “bill for the promotion and protection of the printed media in Israel,” but informally known as the “anti-Israel Hayom bill,” is set to be brought before Israel’s powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the coming weeks. The proposal seeks to outlaw daily newspapers in Israel whose business model includes free distribution to the general public.

There is little uncertainly that the bill’s initiators, from parties both on the left and the right, are specifically targeting the Sheldon Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom, whose free-distribution strategy has in recent years taken away a significant number of readers from its competition.

The text of the bill — submitted by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and co-signed by Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Likud Beytenu), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Attias (Shas) and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) — claims that the measure seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” according to a Jerusalem Post translation.

But Professor Eli Pollak—chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (IMW), which calls itself the leading Israeli media watchdog organization—said the bill represents exactly the opposite of its stated goal.

“This legislation is anti-liberal and makes no sense in a free market where anyone can do what they want as long as it’s legal an ethical,” Pollak said. “It’s fair competition. There is no reason to try and close [Israel Hayom] down or stop their way of working.”

Israel Hayom has reported that two original backers of the bill, Shas MKs Yitzhak Vaknin and Yitzhak Cohen, recently decided to withdraw their support of the legislation.

MK Shaked also recently admitted to a Channel 2 television interviewer that the bill “won’t pass.” Analysts claim that Shaked — along with her party’s chairman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett — initially supported the bill from the political right since it essentially targeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom has been accused of pro-Netanyahu bias.

Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda,” Bennett said in March, referring to the Russian political newspaper associated with the Communist Party. “It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister.”

IMW’s Pollak said there is “no question that the legislation [to ban free newspapers] is politically motivated.” He explained that “for years Yedioth [Ahronoth], which calls itself ‘the newspaper of the country,’ had a monopoly and nobody cared.”

“But when Yedioth’s and Haaretz’s [market] shares went down and other newspapers including Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon went up, that posed a problem for those that don’t want right-wing opinions to be heard,” Pollak said.

A 2011 survey by the Target Group Index (TGI) revealed that four years after its inception, Israel Hayom’s readership had surpassed that of Yedioth —formerly Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper — with a 39.3-percent market share over Yedioth’s 37 percent. Yedioth remained the most-read weekend newspaper.

The latest TGI survey, released in January 2014, said Israel Hayom remains the country’s most-read daily, with 38.6-percent readership compared to 38.4 percent for Yedioth in the second half of 2013.

Pollak cites MK Cabel’s political bias in going after Israel Hayom. He said Cabel was responsible for shutting down Arutz 7 broadcasting, the right-leading radio station in Beit El that in 2002 was denied a broadcasting license and had its studios raided and broadcasting equipment confiscated.

On the other hand, when Israel’s Channel 10 television station “was going to be closed down when it didn’t meet its financial commitments, [Cabel] defended it,” Pollak noted.

“This is a very clear political game, which won’t succeed because it’s wrong,” said Pollak. “In a democracy with freedom of the press and freedom of business, this can’t go through.”

Yossi Fuchs, a Ramat Gan attorney with 15 years of experience in Israeli constitutional law, agrees that the bill to ban free newspapers will never pass.

“I think [the bill is] not constitutional,” he said. “It totally goes against freedom of the press and contradicts Israel’s ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.’”

Fuchs explained that while Israel does not have a formal written constitution, the set of “Basic Laws” passed since the country’s founding in 1948 have “the weight of constitutional laws.” Fuchs said one “can’t legislate a law which contradicts a Basic Law,” which he believes is the case with the bill purportedly targeting Israel Hayom. Even if the bill somehow gets a majority in the Knesset, “it is my assumption that it will fall in the Supreme Court,” he said.

Since it is clear by definition “that only one paper (Israel Hayom) stands to close based on the proposed legislation, [the bill] is problematic, since if it can be proven that any proposed law is written because of a vendetta, and not based on law, that is unconstitutional,” Fuchs added.

Ruthie Blum, a columnist who writes regularly for Israel Hayom, said that banning the distribution of a free newspaper “ostensibly to protect the paid print media from going bust” is “antithetical to the principle of a free market.”

“Not only would such legislation harm consumers, who deserve all the options that competition affords, but it would also be utterly pointless,” she said. “Today, most people read news and features on the Internet for free anyway. Especially appalling about this particular bill is that it reeks of a politically motivated attempt to keep the secular, Zionist and pro-Netanyahu government position at bay.”
Israel Hayom reported that after it published the contact information of the bill’s authors, the legislators’ offices were flooded with phone calls and emails from Israeli citizens expressing their adamant opposition to the measure. Requests for comment to several MKs who support the bill were denied or went unanswered.

In a recent interview with his own newspaper, Sheldon Adelson took aim at Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes, who was rumored to be behind the bill.

“It should be obvious to anyone who reads about this that the amount of power Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes has is unspeakable; he can tailor a bill just so he can eliminate competition,” Adelson told Israel Hayom.

Asked if the proposed Israeli bill would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Adelson said, “To restrict the circulation of information is an out-and-out violation, in both letter and spirit, of the constitution.”

“Freedom of speech is the basic hallmark of democracy, the first thing people refer to in a democratic system,” he said. “And to deprive the citizens of the freedom of getting information simply because somebody is threatening the MKs and somehow incentivizing them to eliminate a competitor means that the MKs are not doing their job.”

Full disclosure: is a distributor of Israel Hayom’s English-language content.

Life In The Fast Lane

More than pizza and sharks motivate Owings Mills JCC Barracudas swim team member Alan Cherches. He also calls upon goal setting, time management and technique improvement. And at the age of 9, he has the track record to back it up.

Last year, Cherches broke many of 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ 8-and-under records, and he has blasted seven Maryland state age-group records, some of which had been held for more than 20 years. In his age group, he is a five-time state champion and is nationally ranked in the Top 5. But he wasn’t always at one with the water.

“Here’s my Alan, shaking like a leaf; he was greenish blue and crying hysterically,” recalled Olga Cherches, Alan’s mother, as she described his first time in the pool at age 3.

At the time, Alan was enrolled in the Early Childhood Education program at the Jewish Community Center.

“When I got him in the water,” continued Olga, “he squeezed me so hard I could see the marks on my arm.”

Alan’s mother was gentle with him, but both she and her husband, Dmitry, who as a teen was a competitive swimmer, wanted their son to be comfortable in the water.

Alas, Alan’s general distaste for swim lessons persisted. The turning point came when his grandfather, Nikolay Mandel, began taking him regularly to the JCC pool.

“He would tell me if I went under the lane line and back, he would buy me pizza in the café,” remembered Alan. “That’s what got me. Then I started to do way more because I thought I might get a whole box [of pizza] if I did.”

Over the following year, Alan still didn’t warm up to lessons, but his grandfather was persistent with their after-school trips to the pool. To everyone’s surprise, Alan began to improve noticeably. Then, Alan’s father discovered the JCC swim team.

Alan tried out and made the team at age 5. Olga was shocked: “I said, ‘What? Get outta here! I mean, seriously?’”

For Dmitry Cherches, who swam competitively until he was 14, the accomplishment signaled more than just a spot on the team.

“It’s a repetitive sport. You’re constantly perfecting the strokes, goal setting, seeing those goals being crushed,” said Alan’s father. “That develops a very unique individual who is mentally, physically tough — mentally, because you learn how to control your nerves and your mind.”

Twenty years ago this month, Dmitry arrived in Owings Mills with his family from Minsk, Belarus. He was just 17. The family received assistance from relatives and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and upon arrival, Dmitry immediately enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, carrying 20-plus credits each semester while holding down a full-time job.

Dmitry attributes that effort to a “hard-working immigrant work ethic” but also credits his years as a competitive swimmer, which taught him the value of serious work and discipline.

Olga and Dmitry had known each other from childhood, but when he emigrated they lost touch. When they reunited many years later, it was a swift leap to something more. Olga came to Owings Mills in 2003, and a short time later they married.

Olga immersed herself into learning English, was hired as an information technology recruiter, “networked like crazy” for two years and a few years later started her own recruiting company, Leading Edge Solutions. The couple has three children: Alan, Mark, 6, and Ryan, 1.

With motivated and resolute parents, it seems Alan’s capacity for determination, strong will and perseverance are characteristics he inherited. Olga and Dmitry, however, attribute their son’s success to his own hard work. They also credit the team, other parents’ support and the coaches of the JCC Barracudas, a part of the JCC aquatics department.

“It’s not necessarily the performance, it’s the work ethic that’s important,” said aquatics director Bill Kirkner. “Alan’s not the only one on the team with that ethic. In fact, he’s probably mimicking the work ethic of some of the older kids.”

Kirkner added that when a child sees and understands how hard work can lead to improved performance, it acts like a contagion for success across the team. Barracudas head coach Brendan McElroy agrees.

“Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” said McElroy, reciting an often-used mantra. “If you’re competitive and you work hard, you can go a long way with this sport.”

McElroy’s mission is to promote youth development through excellence in competitive swimming. He describes his program as “character based” and referenced as key factors things such as 5 a.m. practices, leadership, accountability, goal setting, perseverance, managing disappointment and dealing with setbacks. He has been working with Alan for almost two years.

“What I remember most about Alan’s first year was doing my best to call down my assistant coaches for calling him Alan Phelps and gloating over him too much,” said McElroy. “So I had to make a concerted effort. If he walks in late to practice, he does push-ups.

“I want to do my best to treat him as fairly as I can,” continued the coach. “It’s about the team.”

McElroy provided a well-known statistic from USA Swimming, the national organization that registers, supports and ranks competing teams. Only 10 percent of swimmers who are fast at 10 years old are still fast at 18. Some of that has to do with growth; if a child doesn’t have a big enough growth spurt, that may be a drawback. “So it’s all about building and developing and adding on,” the coach said, “and you want to do it smartly.”