Tag Archives: Baltimore City


Taking Aim At Gun Violence

Halacha (Jewish law), just like the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, states the right for citizens to own weapons for use in self-protection and to maintain public safety.

In the case of Jewish law, however, it also mandates safe and responsible use with regard to ownership for the public good.

“Safe and responsible” are weighty factors. So much so that halacha instructs that anything owned that is considered dangerous should be properly locked, confined or guarded so the use of, or exposure to, doesn’t hurt (or even frighten) anyone not intended for harm in self-defense. Jewish law also dictates a person should not sell weapons to, or make weaponry for, those who have exhibited criminal intentions or are unstable. (In current terms, this could translate to background checks.) In fact, the lauded Torah and Bible commentator Nachmanides’ (1194-1270) interpretation of a story in Genesis (4:20-24) went so far as to state, “It is not the sword that kills, but the bad choice by a man.”

What makes it possible — or probable — for a person to make a “bad choice” with respect to gun violence? Is it the easy access to guns? Is it desperation for the basic needs of day-to-day living? Or is it simply not being equipped with the emotional and mental tools needed to select a better choice?

Politicians, professors and public health professionals have been working tirelessly to answer that question in order to combat gun violence on national and local levels.

One attempt at limiting access to guns is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that was signed 20 years ago last month, on Nov. 30, 1993. Enacted on Feb. 28, 1994, the federal mandate “requires that background checks be conducted on individuals before a firearm may be purchased from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer — unless an exception applies.”

121313_taking-aim3A glut of statistics could be referenced to prove that 20 years later, the Brady Bill has not been nearly as effective as hoped. Some of that is due to legal loopholes and powerful lobbying, and some is due to lack of accountability and greed.

More recently and on a state level, Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced one of the nation’s strictest gun laws, the Maryland Firearms Safety Act of 2013, which was enacted this past Oct. 1. It requires all handgun purchasers to complete four hours of safety training and pass a fingerprint-based background check before getting a license to buy a gun. Maryland joins five other states: Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey that also require fingerprint-based background checks.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy and Research produced data corroborating the belief that a fingerprinting method is a successful deterrent to illegal gun sales because it will decrease and prevent “straw purchases.” A straw purchase is when a person with a clean background purchases a gun for someone whose criminal background prevents him or her from legally purchasing or owning a gun.

“So if we can intervene in those sales,” said Shannon Frattaroli, associate professor and researcher at the center, “and if the laws are going to make it more difficult to buy a gun, then the cost of doing gun crimes is going to go up, and fewer people are going to be able to afford that cost.”

Frattaroli continued, “We’re realizing, though, that once a law is passed, the work isn’t done. In a lot of ways, the work really just starts. We need to make sure the systems are in place, to make sure the laws are being implemented properly and to make sure the agencies responsible are adequately trained and supported to do that work.”

According to Maryland law, an authorized gun dealer must wait seven days while conducting a background check before turning over a firearm to a potential buyer. Statewide, more than 85,000 gun-purchase license requests were submitted this year prior to the Oct. 1 enactment of the stringent Firearms Act. Gov. O’Malley pledged in September to provide enforcement agencies the resources needed to deal with the backlog in paperwork created by the thousands of requests.

The backlog has converted the required seven-day wait into months, which has led to frustration for both firearm dealers and their customers. As a result, some dealers have been releasing weapons over to people after the seven days but before the background checks are completed. As of Nov. 28, 2013 the backlog was still at 42,600, and applications being processed are from as far back as Aug. 13, 2013.

Sgt. Marc Black, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said, “All of the resources available to address the backlog and get the applications processed are being used.”

Sgt. Black also thought most dealers are cooperating and holding onto the firearms until clearance has been confirmed. Currently, there are 40 state law enforcement officers devoted to the task of completing the background checks (data entry is done by classified employees). Gun purchasers could exercise the option to cross state lines and avoid these checks altogether, or they can purchase a gun from a private seller and get around the law as well.

In Maryland, as in much of the United States, gun-sale laws and regulations are necessary and proven as effective evidence-based approaches to gun violence prevention.

But Dr. Carnell Cooper and the staff of the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore take aim at eliminating gun violence at its point of impact — in the everyday lives of gun violence offenders and victims. They address gun-related and other violent crime by asking: What are the root causes that are putting people on this path, and how can they be redirected from what they’re doing?

Cooper started VIP in 1998 after noticing a high number of violence-related trauma victims being treated once and then returning, sometimes with more serious injuries. The VIP staff connects with individuals at the “social, emotional, psychological and spiritual” point of personal crisis when they’re admitted into trauma care. There, they receive an assessment, counseling and social support by a multidisciplinary team to help them begin to make critical changes in their lives. Participation is voluntary and requires completion of a lengthy intake questionnaire by the participant.

The VIP approach is to reach victims immediately following a life-threatening or life-changing event. The interdisciplinary team that ultimately works with VIP participants comes from the medical, social work, epidemiology, parole/probation and social services fields and others, too, if deemed necessary.

The VIP is designed from evidence-based research, and other hospitals in the Baltimore area have been informally recruited to refer potential clients to the program. Data from a three-year study conducted in 2000 (published in “Journal of Trauma” Vol. 61, No. 3) shows evidence from two groups that were followed: one participating in the VIP program and one not participating. The participants in VIP demonstrated an 83 percent decrease in repeat hospitalization due to violent injury (a 36 percent savings as compared to those not getting the intervention), a 75 percent reduction in violent criminal activity and an 82 percent rate of employment at the time of follow-up (compared with 20 percent employment for those who did not get intervention).


Repair The World

On a frigid November morning, six people work together to plant an apple tree, four of them carefully rolling it and two others working with shovels to break its fall into the ground so that the root ball stays intact.

A year ago, the triangular lot bound by Brentwood Avenue and Merryman Lane in the Waverly area of Baltimore was trash-strewn, with bottles more than 100 years old buried under the concrete remains of a school that closed in the 1950s. By the day’s end, three apple trees were planted, in addition to grass, flowers and bushes that had been planted the previous week.

“When everything starts to grow in the spring, it’s going to look amazing,” said Emily Benoit, wearing work boots, gloves, a hoodie pulled over her head and a scarf covering her mouth and neck.

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the  Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces. (David Stuck)

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces.
(David Stuck)

Although it was one of the coldest mornings of the year, the group of nine was all smiles. This lot, one of six current projects, was being beautified by Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works. While these projects are usually staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers, there were two new faces in the crowd, Benoit and Avi Sunshine, fellows from Repair the World.

The new organization, which aims to do exactly what its name implies, has nine young men and women, most of whom are recent college graduates, living in Baltimore working on various volunteer and service learning projects. The mission of the organization, in addition to providing “super volunteers” for various projects in the city, is to engage Jewish young adults in volunteerism through deep and meaningful experiences, and to make volunteering an indispensable part of their lives.

“The mission is to make service a defining element of Jewish life,” said David Eisner, president and CEO of Repair the World.

The organization spent close to five years researching best practices and immersive service learning, developing resources and partnering with other groups. This year, its inaugural year, Repair the World launched in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

“They’re all eastern because we didn’t want geography to be part of our challenge in this first generation [of fellows], they’re all post-industrial, they all have histories of Jews living in the urban centers,” Eisner said.

While the fellows will be working on various Baltimore projects and recruiting other millenials to volunteer, Repair the World also aims to look at bigger picture issues, including how the city’s history shaped economic and educational inequality, the disconnect between city neighborhoods and how institutional and structural racism has played out.

“If we can spark people to think about some of the underlying reasons [behind various issues], maybe it gets them passionate about thinking about how development is happening in Baltimore City,” said Jodie Zisow, director of Baltimore’s Repair the World group.

Zisow, who grew up in Pikesville and went to Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, has always been involved in social justice work. She’s worked on AIDS advocacy, taught Spanish to Baltimore City students and recently worked for Planned Parenthood. She felt Repair the World was a perfect fit for her and that she has as much to learn as the fellows do.

“I hold onto some of the idealism that age [early 20s] is known for,” she said. “I think that is something our world needs more of.”

The fellowships are 10 months long and have participants logging at least 50 hours per week on various service projects, 20 hours of which is spent on a main project and 10 at another project. Some fellows have taken on side projects, working with other nonprofits that cater to their interests.

Repair the World takes care of the fellows’ housing and gives them $600 each month in stipends. Currently, the fellows share three apartments at The Atrium near Lexington Market as a community house in Highlandtown is renovated. They hope to move into the community house, which is two row homes with a wall in between them cut out, in the spring.

Community Partners
Repair the World has partnered with five local organizations. Fellows are working with Civic Works on its vacant lots program, which takes vacant urban lots and transforms them into green spaces, and later, on its Baltimore Energy Challenge, which helps Baltimore residents save money on their energy bill through energy saving tips and environmentally friendly appliances such as energy-efficient light bulbs and faucets and low-flow toilets.

Ed Miller, supervisor of the Civic Works’ community lot team, said having the fellows adds another layer to the group, which includes two young men who he said have “significant prison records.”

“My intent is for those [different] people to work together in a team,” he said. “It will probably have a lifelong impact on them.”

Two fellows will be working with CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) on community organizing and projects to help seniors, the specifics of which are still being refined.

Two fellows are assigned to the Incentive Mentoring Project, which builds “families” of volunteers for struggling students at the Academy for College and Career Exploration and Dunbar High School. These families are assigned to students during their freshman year and stay with them for 10 years.

“They don’t just stay with them through high school, they stay with them through college, they help them find summer employment, so they really do so much to help these students succeed,” said fellow Amalia Mark.

Mark and fellow Jared Gorin are working with struggling families and working with the all-volunteer executive board on development, volunteer recruitment and other back-end needs.

Five fellows are working with the chief service officer in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office on the success mentoring program, which provides mentors for students at risk of being chronically absent from school. They greet the students in the morning, check in with them during the day and spend time one-one-one with the students. The fellows will also be working to recruit other success mentors.

The specialized attention seems to be working.

“Already, one of the students is like ‘When is the next time I’ll see you?’ just from sitting in classes with her,” said fellow Talia Shifron. “It seems like it’s getting them really excited to go to school.”

Two fellows will also be working with Banner Neighborhoods to add extra capacity to afterschool programs that range from arts programming to tutoring.

“What we’re really focusing on is excellent nonprofit organizations that have already figured out how to deliver excellent programs with deep impact,” Eisner said. “Now, we’re helping them build their capacity through the work of the fellows.”

And rather than coming to these nonprofits with their own ideas, the fellows are adding extra manpower to needs already identified by existing organizations.

“What we’re really trying to do is go into the community and say, ‘We’re here to help; what do you need?’” said fellow Alli Lesovoy. “‘What does Baltimore need and what can we do to be of service?’”


Protests At The Port

Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg is leading an effort to edit the Maryland Port Administration’s  guidelines for protests and rallies. (Kirsten Beckerman)

Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg is leading an effort to edit the Maryland Port Administration’s guidelines for protests and rallies. (Kirsten Beckerman)

As early as this winter, organizing demonstrations at Baltimore’s World Trade Center could get a lot easier.

Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (D-41) is leading an effort to edit the Maryland Port Administration’s guidelines for protests and rallies at the iconic Inner Harbor building that he said could be up for review by the end of the calendar year. The move is a result of complaints from the community about the difficulties demonstration organizers face under the administration’s current code.

“Government decisions are to be content-neutral,” said Rosenberg. “That’s why you have regulations.”

A few years ago, Jay Bernstein, host of Shalom USA and an active member of the Baltimore Zionist District, sought to organize a BZD protest at the World Trade Center against shipping companies that the group had learned were trading with Iran.

“After a lot of back and forth, we were not given permission to demonstrate in the plaza in front of the World Trade Center,” said Bernstein. Eventually, the group settled on a nearby location belonging to the National Aquarium.

About a year ago, Bernstein said he again faced challenges obtaining permission from the Maryland Port Administration to arrange a demonstration on World Trade Center property. This time, the protest was against John Mearsheimer, author of the book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” who was scheduled to speak in the building. Again, Bernstein said, the process for obtaining permission was long and arduous and required assistance from Rosenberg and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Bernstein and two others who wanted to hand out leaflets near the building.

The biggest modification, should the changes be adopted, is that there will now be set official requirements for organizing peaceful protests at the WorldTrade Center. In the past, there were no formal guidelines to help demonstration coordinators through the process. Instead, they relied on writing letters to officials at the Port and waiting for a reply telling them what the administration had decided.

With the adaptation of new, looser regulations about where and when people can protest in Baltimore, Bernstein said the atmosphere in Baltimore is gradually warming toward public demonstrations. However, in years past, he said, “the atmosphere was very unwelcoming.”

Often, organizers wouldn’t know who to contact in the first place to begin the process of obtaining permission.

In October, the city agreed to allow groups to demonstrate or pass out leaflets at any of the city’s parks and 10 other designated locations without obtaining a permit so long as the group did not exceed 30 people. That regulation was years in the making and resulted in a city payment of $98,000 to the ACLU to settle a federal lawsuit over the rights of protesters in the city. Rosenberg doesn’t expect this regulation to be nearly as difficult to sell.

“I would anticipate that this wouldn’t be very controversial,” said Rosenberg. “The ideas have to make their way in the marketplace of ideas.”


A Helping Hand

On any one night, approximately 2,638 Baltimoreans sleep in a shelter or on the street, according to 2013 point-in-time statistics from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office. In Baltimore City, more than four out of every 1,000 residents are homeless. Of these people, two-thirds are men, and 20 percent are younger than 25.

In a city where more than 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, there is a great need for those who have the funds to help. And for the Jewish community, we learn from the Torah the power of the collective to make a difference.

In Exodus 36: 2-5, the Torah describes the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness:

“Then Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work. They received from Moses all the offerings the Israelites had brought to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary. And the people continued to bring free will offerings morning after morning. So all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done.’”

As autumn temperatures drop, shelter and support organizers say the need for help among the area’s most poor rises. From coat donations to warm meals, organizations around Baltimore step in to fill the void created by a lack of permanent or stable housing.

In honor of Chanukah, here is a list of eight places in the Baltimore community that support the homeless, organizations that you can work with or contribute to in order to make this Chanukah season more about spreading the light and giving warmth to those in need.

The Baltimore Station
Dedicated primarily to serving veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, The Baltimore Station describes itself as “an innovative therapeutic residential treatment program supporting veterans and others who are transitioning through the cycle of poverty, addiction and homelessness to self-sufficiency.”

Residents, all of whom are male, begin most mornings at 5:30 with chores and other work before heading to a group breakfast. The rest of the morning is spent in group therapy and acudetox, a therapy that uses acupuncture to calm patients recovering from addiction with the intent of reducing cravings.

Afternoons include group addiction meetings and education sessions, where clients learn to better understand their addictions, before 6 p.m. dinner when, about four nights a week, Director Michael Seipp said, volunteers from the community join the residents to help prepare the food and share a meal.

“What you’re doing is you’re saying to them, ‘Hey, I’m a normal person, I’m doing everything the right way, and I’m giving up two hours of my time or three hours of my time because I think you have value as a human being,’” said Seipp of the effects the volunteers have on the residents going through the program. “That begins to rebuild a sense of self-worth.”

This interfaith organization has partnered with congregations including Baltimore Hebrew, Beth Israel, Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno to operate programs such as CARES, which provides food and financial assistance to the needy in the Govans neighborhood of North Baltimore, the North East Food Pantry, which provides emergency food relief to the city’s Hamilton and Arcadia neighborhoods, and the Harford House, the Micah House and Shelter Plus Care, all of which are designed to help the city’s homeless find stable housing.

With more than 10 branches, there are plenty of opportunities for GEDCO’s partners to help, but Meghan Peterson, GEDCO’s external relations coordinator, says most people are interested in helping with the food pantries.

“People feel that, since they can do direct service there, they’re probably reaching the most people to serve in the community,” she says.

Since its incorporation in 1991 by seven local pastors, GEDCO’s reception in the community has been extremely welcoming, Peterson says.

“We’re all trying to meet the same mission and goals, which is to help build and serve the community,” she says. “I think that’s something we all have in common.”

INNterim House
The INNterim House, a division of the Interim Housing Corporation, provides women and children with a safe place to stay and a nurturing environment to grow and become self-sufficient. The shelter is located in Pikesville, and spaces are reserved only for women with children.

In addition to offering these families a safe and comfortable dwelling, the INNterim House also offers services such as childcare, meals and access to internships and skills classes.

The organization hosts workshops every other Thursday night, in which volunteers host sessions on things such as financial literacy, first aid and childcare.

“You name it, we have a workshop on it,” says Karla Pitchford, office manager at INNterim.

In addition to adult volunteers, the shelter hosts a number of child volunteers through school programs and families who wish to include their children in their community service. The INNterim residents especially enjoy the chance to interact with the youngest volunteers.

“The kids love it,” says Pitchford. “It’s great.”

Jewish Volunteer Connection
In addition to a number of other services the JVC offers throughout the year, the organization will host its 12th annual Community Mitzvah Day on Dec. 25.

Mitzvah Day 2013 will offer participants the opportunity to assemble 1,500 care packages of hats, scarves, toiletries and other winter necessities that will be distributed to those in need in the Baltimore area via local shelters and resource providers. In addition, participants will have access to other local volunteer opportunities.

“This is a great way for [the congregations that have partnered with the JVC] to build community within their congregations as well as to be a platform for service for anybody, whether they’re affiliated with a synagogue or not,” says Ashley Pressman, JVC executive director.

Community Mitzvah Day also allows JVC to introduce participants to some of the ways they can help their community, she says.

“The Jewish community is very generous with time and with money,” says Pressman. “There’s a tremendous enthusiasm for getting involved and for opportunities to really make a tangible difference.”

Our Daily Bread serves 700 meals per day. (David Stuck)

Our Daily Bread serves 700 meals per day.
(David Stuck)

Our Daily Bread
A soup kitchen that boasts 700 meals served per day, Our Daily Bread, a division of Catholic Charities, serves some of the city’s most needy residents.

“You get that fellowship,” says Chris Kelly, about the difference it makes to sit and talk to the men, women and children who visit the kitchen instead of simply providing them with food and shuffling them through the door. Kelly is an associate administrator in the Community Services Division of Associated Catholic Charities of Maryland.

“We could not run our programs without volunteer participation,” says Kelly.

This participation ranges from youth groups hosting fundraisers and food drives to volunteers serving daily breakfasts and lunches to local congregations cooking several days’ worth of casseroles.

Not only do the organization’s clients benefit from the supportive Baltimore — and Jewish Baltimore — community, says Kelly, but the volunteers also benefit.

Many new volunteers underestimate the extent of the need in the community, he says, noting: “For a lot of folks, it’s eye-opening.”


County Judge Approves Foundry Row Plans

Brian Gibbons and Leonard Weinberg II stand by the Solo Plant. Gibbons wants to turn the Solo Plant into Foundry Row. (Justin Tsuclas)

Brian Gibbons and Leonard Weinberg II stand by the Solo Plant. Gibbons wants to turn the Solo Plant into Foundry Row. (Justin Tsuclas)

A Baltimore County administrative law judge approved Owings Mills project Foundry Row’s development plans on Wednesday, Oct. 16.

“It was clear that we were going above and beyond and meeting all the requirements of the code,” said Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of developer Greenberg Gibbons.

Judge John E. Beverungen approved Greenberg Gibbons’ plan with several conditions, effectively allowing Foundry Row to move forward.

“Now we’re kind of free and clear, at least until the next step, whatever that’s going to be,” said Councilwoman Vicki Almond, referring to the numerous roadblocks those who oppose the development have attempted.

Foundry Row, a mixed-use development at the site of the former Solo Cup plant, will feature more than 360,000 square feet of retail and 60,000 square feet of office space. Wegmans grocery store will anchor the center. The Baltimore County Council approved rezoning the property for retail in August 2012, despite vocal opposition from neighboring developers. A referendum effort also failed to reverse the zoning decision.

Beverungen’s decision approved the plans with the conditions that all roadway improvements are made before use and occupancy permits can be issued, that any change to the vacant 241,000-square-foot warehouse on the property comply with certain zoning regulations and that the developer complies with American Disabilities Act regulations regarding roadway, sidewalk and pedestrian access.

Attorneys representing entities in opposition to the project called into question the safety of road improvements, ADA accessibility, parking and several other parts of the plan. After consideration, Beverungen ruled in favor of the developer. The companies seeking to have the development plans stopped, Painters Mill Executive Office Park Partnership LLP, Garrison Realty Investors LLC and 100 Painters Mill LLC, are owned by Howard Brown, chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises, Gibbons said. Brown is building massive transit-oriented development Metro Centre at Owings Mills and has been vocally opposed to Foundry Row.

“I’m disappointed by the opposition because I really believe this is a great thing for the community, and I think it’s going to provide a tremendous gateway,” Gibbons said. “I think it’s going to help the developments near it, in particularly Howard Brown’s.”

Demolition of the Solo Cup plant should be completed by the end of the year, Gibbons said. He hopes to submit detailed engineering and architectural plans in early 2014 – the next required approvals in the process – and will begin construction next summer if permits are in place.

He expects attorneys representing the opposition to file an appeal with Baltimore County, but he is moving full-steam ahead.

“I find that the Developer has satisfied its burden of proof and, therefore, is entitled to approval of the redlined Development Plan,” Beverungen wrote in his decision.