Tag Archives: Jewish Baltimore


The Watch Doctor


“We came to Baltimore in 1991—Jan. 21. I remember that date [when] I stepped on American soil,” said Simon Abramov, Ukrainian master watchmaker for 42 years.

Abramov brought his family from the small town of Skvyra outside of Kiev to escape the aftermath of Chernobyl (just 12 miles away) and make a better life for his wife Sofiya, son Alex, now 36, and daughter Marina, now 35. Abramov, in his deep, rich Ukrainian accent, explained there were other reasons too.

“Jewish people weren’t really welcome to live in the Soviet Union,” said Abramov. “There were a lot of anti-Semitic things. Yes, I was working. I was very successful watchmaker there. But life … you know, sometimes you have to leave something behind you and go and start a new life.”

There were limited Jewish entrance quotas for acceptance into universities and colleges at the time, explained Abramov. It was not uncommon for Ukrainians or Russians with the same or even lesser entrance exam scores to be accepted over a Jewish student. Though he was very good in academics (he completed high school at 16), that was one reason Abramov chose a trade profession.

121313_the-watch-maker2“I was always a very handy kid,” said Abramov, 59. “I liked to work with my hands, I damaged a lot of watches, I remember that — when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “My stepmother said to me, ‘Maybe you’re going to watchmaker’s school,’ and I tried it. I had really good teachers, and it turns out I love to do that, plus it makes me my living.”

When Abramov arrived in Baltimore with his family, it was challenging to find work. He didn’t know anyone other than a relative of his wife, and he was just learning English. Nobody knew of his talents and experience in watchmaking and repair. Then he met Joe Dabha.

 Ukrainian master watchmaker Simon Abramov says watches are like people. (Melissa Gerr)

Ukrainian master watchmaker Simon Abramov says watches are like people. (Melissa Gerr)

“When we came here, we lived in Milbrook,” said Abramov. “It was a lot of Russian people living there, and he (Joe Dhaba) was living on our street. We got to talking, and he said, ‘You know, I’m a watchmaker.’ It’s like God led us to meet. So he started to take me to his shop. Also at that time, I was accepted to CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County], and I was learning ESL (English as a second language) in classes at the Jewish Community Center. His shop was two blocks from there, so after school I went there and helped him fix watches. … I don’t know how it happened; it was a magical meeting.”

Abramov, alternating between a monocle jeweler’s scope and head-visor magnifiers, is surrounded by thousands of tiny parts and precision instruments at his small work bench, which is located in the rear of Mitchell’s Jewelers at 1500 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Fourteen drawers are filled with more tweezers, pliers, hundreds of tiny watch hands, watch faces, winding crowns and watch keys. A dozen watches are lined up on top awaiting his attention and care.

“Watchmaking consists of a lot of things; it’s not only when you work with your hands,” said Abramov. “Before you work you have to know physics, you have to know chemistry, science, electronics, you have to know how to work with the metals. It’s a lot of things you have to know before you get into the practice. If you don’t know in your head what you’re doing, your hands are not going to work properly.”

Several jewelers use Abramov for repairing and restoring watches, pocket watches and small clocks, he’s even repaired watches for Cal Ripken. He keeps his knowledge up to date by attending trade shows, reading industry literature and talking with watch manufacturers. Sometimes, he even makes suggestions for improvements. Watching him work, the miniscule pieces and tools move deftly in his hands as if natural extensions of his fingers.

“Watches are like people,” said Abramov. “You’re like a doctor, you have to fix them, you have to heal them, you know.”

Melissa Gerr is JT digital media editor/senior reporter

Messianic Jews, also known as Hebrew Christians, hand out latkes and sufganiyot at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Latkes With A Side Of The Lord

Messianic Jews, also known as Hebrew Christians, hand out latkes and sufganiyot at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Messianic Jews, also known as Hebrew Christians, hand out latkes and sufganiyot at the University of Maryland, College Park.

University of Maryland, College Park students received unexpected Chanukah presents this year in the form of free latkes and sufganyot outside of the student union. But these treats came with a side order of Jesus.

The table, erected last week, was being run by Chosen People Ministries, a group of messianic Jews and gentiles that aim to spread the word of Jesus to the Jewish people.

“My Judaism, I don’t think is very different from most, except for the Jesus [part],” said Ryan Karp, the group’s director of campus ministries.

Karp was an unwelcome presence for many Jewish students, as well as Maryland Hillel, who were alerted the group was coming to campus by Jews for Judaism.

“My belief is that these anti-Jewish missionaries are preying on vulnerable Jews, Jews who are disconnected,” said Rabbi Ari Israel, director of Maryland Hillel.

Hillel got the word out to students by contacting leaders of student groups and is working with its network of interfaith clergy and university administrators to unite in opposition to the group.

Ruth Guggenheim, director of Jews for Judaism, said groups like Chosen People Ministries look for impressionable young people to whom they can promote their ideas, even though they know they’re being deceptive. She said Chosen People is gearing up for a much larger campaign.

“We call them spiritual predators,” Guggenheim said.

Israel said students were disturbed and upset by the group’s presence.

“They claim that they’re Jewish, but they don’t know what Judaism is, or their type of Judaism is not the type of Judaism we practice,” said junior Debi Goldschlag. “It’s kind of false advertising.”

Goldschlag, who grew up in Silver Spring and attended the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, thought she’d never see Messianic Jews on her college campus.

Talya Janus, a freshman, was also surprised to see the group, and worried that fellow students who are less secure in their spirituality may gravitate in its direction.

She and a friend ate the latkes and walked away, then bumped into Rabbi Israel, who was taking a photo of the setup.

Janus said, “Right after we ate the food, he said, ‘The problem isn’t that you just ate a non-kosher latke from a missionary. You’re not the ones I’m worried about, it’s those on the cusp of Judaism.’”

Karp defends his methods and his beliefs, and said he is promoting Jewish ideas, simply presenting information and asking questions.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Karp celebrated major holidays on both sides in cultural, not religious, ways. His father started studying the Bible when Karp was 10 years old, soon adopting the belief that Jesus is his messiah. Karp followed suit when he was 11.

After falling into depression during college, Karp decided to start over by taking a trip, and traveled to Israel on a Taglit trip with students from Maryland and Virginia colleges. What happened on that trip is what inspired him to do what he does now.

Karp spoke briefly about Jesus, who he calls Yeshua, on Shabbat. Later in the trip, someone wound up screaming and cursing at him after asking why he thought Jesus was the messiah. After meeting with the trip leaders that night, he was sent home, brokenhearted for his people, he said.

“The most famous Jew who ever lived was somehow a very clear issue that somehow separated me from my people,” Karp said. “I also knew what he did in my life. … I wanted people to know about him. They could have the freedom I have, they could have the joy I have.”

He started working for Chosen People Ministries in New York, where he met his wife Jessica. They recently relocated to the D.C.-area to work on college campuses. He plans to be on the College Park campus multiple times a week, and hopes to work on other area college campuses as well.

“We’re presenting evidence that people can think about if they want,” Karp said. “I would never want to force anything. Everybody can make their own choices.”

There are 6,500 Jewish students at Maryland, according to Hillel’s website.

Israel pointed out an email he received that was from one campus chaplain to another that summed up the issue well. The chaplain writing said that their Jewish brethren were experiencing misrepresentation of their faith, and if efforts like this grow, it could lead to discrimination and intolerance.

In addition to working with other Jewish campus groups and interfaith clergy, Israel said it’s important to engage Jewish students proactively.

“My bottom line is we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize,” he said. “We, as the Jewish people, need to continue to give individuals reasons and relevancy — that Judaism speaks to us in the 21st century.”


Shalom, Not Lehitraot

110113_Jaffe-MaayanIt is never easy to say goodbye.

But that is what is happening.

I have the unpleasant task of telling you that I am leaving the JT, and I am taking a job in Kansas City. This is a difficult conversation for me to have with you, not because things have gone badly; just the opposite, things have gone so well. I love my job, the people I work with — and mostly all the exceptional individuals who I have met along the way, people who bring so much to the table. I’ll miss the people of Jewish Baltimore. I’ll miss the stories. That’s what makes this process of resigning so difficult.

For the entire nearly eight years that I have lived in Baltimore, I have worked in the Jewish community — at the JT as a staff reporter/business editor, at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore as marketing and communications manager and then back at the JT as managing editor and editor-in-chief. Everyone who lives Jewish Baltimore knows it is a small town with a lot of people — and a lot of ruach [spirit] and koach [strength].

In just the 18 months I have worked with the JT as editor, I have been a part of tremendous growth and development. We have recouped lost subscribers and experienced close to 10 percent growth in subscribers in 2013. I’ve been a part of our greatest successes, such as the six awards we won last year from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association (including a best of show, beating out the Washington Post, for our political coverage). I have had the privilege to write stories that have been picked up not only by wire services and shared nationally, but that have been referenced by acclaimed analysts and bloggers.

I have also been there through some not-so-great times — such as covering a derecho (while eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my own power out for a week) and reporting on a sexual predator who worked at two of our area day schools and a rapist who took advantage of a young woman in Northwest Baltimore.

But through the good and the challenges, we’ve stuck it out. You’ve written to me to tell me how happy you are with the direction of the paper. And when you’ve been upset, you haven’t been afraid to say something. The good communities are like families, and leaving my job is like leaving family.

I am leaving the JT because of an exceptional opportunity to continue my growth and development as a Jewish communal professional in Kansas City. I didn’t go looking for it; it found me (though I did go through the long application process), and it was a great fit. I thought a long time about how I would walk into the office, such a short time after believing I could make this commute between Baltimore and Kansas City work, and tell my co-workers that my four human children need me more than this newspaper (my fifth child), that I don’t want to miss their important moments, that I am tired from working 21-hour days when I come to Baltimore and, at this stage in my life, that I should be living and working by my family.

I thought of the people this would impact, the staff and the readers I feel like I am abandoning, the writing and marketing projects I am leaving behind … some incomplete. I lost a lot of sleep over it; I am still losing sleep over it.

I will always have incredible memories from this job. There was the time I called up the office of the president of Iran and started asking to speak to someone about the Jewish community there. And then I called Iranian universities and the local embassy. I am still convinced that when Kansas City Power & Light told my husband they would need to conduct a 72-hour security check on our family before turning on the gas and electricity in our new home that was just code for, “We’re not sure if we want you in Kansas. Your wife is a crazy journalist who wants to be buddy-buddy with the Ayatollah.”

There were the community leaders who stepped down, such as CHAI’s Ken Gelula and the Jewish Community Center’s Buddy Sapolsky. There were the leaders who celebrated their successful tenures, including The Associated’s Marc B. Terrill. There were the young people who became community leaders, such as Jakir Manela at the Pearlstone Center and David Golaner at Edward A. Myerberg Center.

Before Chanukah 2012, my staff and I went driving around in the cold on a wild goose chase for the best kosher latke. I think we all gained 10 pounds that night! There were nights we stayed until midnight, churning out political copy, analyzing the J Street conference or pulling together to think about The Jewish Federations of North America 2012 General Assembly, which happened in Baltimore.

We flipped our paper upside down last Purim — literally. And even I wrote funny copy (or at least my staff told me that it was funny).

And this past Rosh Hashanah our cover focused on Jewish unity. And for what may have been the first time (or certainly the first in a long time), a mainstream Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbi each tackled the same question of how we can better unite in an ever-individualized Jewish world — and published their answers in print.

I don’t think for one minute that anyone will begrudge me for leaving. In fact, I am quite sure they will be happy for me — that’s just another part of what makes this hurt.

I don’t have any grandiose ideas that I cannot be replaced or that the paper won’t go on or won’t continue to improve under someone else’s leadership. I also know that my reign here is just a blip in time of the paper’s more than 90 years.

But nonetheless, it has meant a lot to me. This role, our mission of building and strengthening community, penetrates my soul.

This is my final Opening Thoughts. But this is not lehitraot [just goodbye], it is shalom, the closing of one door, the opening of another. And it is a call to action to keep reading us, keep helping us to do our little part in providing Jewish Baltimore with a platform for dialogue and a place in which people of all diverse lifestyles can come together around a common Jewish core.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief
Maayan’s new email is maayanj@jewishkc.org


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?’”


Chester Silverman

Chester Silverman devotes time and energy to improving the lives of war veterans. (Melissa Gerr)

Chester Silverman devotes time and energy to improving the lives of war veterans.
(Melissa Gerr)

It would be difficult to find a person who has done more for war veterans and Jewish war veterans in Baltimore than Chester Silverman. So much of his life has been devoted to serving the community with which, even at 94 (this month), he is still a very active part.

Though his walls are decorated with dozens of plaques and commendations that document his leadership and accomplishments, he shrugs it off and says he’s just doing what needs to be done, and he loves it. His family and friends say Silverman is unstoppable.

When the JT met with Silverman, he had just returned from visiting his son Alan in New York. On that trip, Silverman and his girlfriend — yes, girlfriend — Florence attended a nightclub performance, saw an opera and a made a backstage visit to the director (his son’s friend) after seeing a Broadway show. Tuesday is bridge with friends or poker with fellow war vets. Thursday is dancing with his girlfriend at the Pikesville Senior Center. Friday is usually a dinner out somewhere and every Saturday he attends shul at Winand’s Road Synagogue Center in Randallstown. Sunday is typically brunch and football. He talks with his children Alan, Bruce and Shelley every day. Thankfully, he has Mondays off, so he can use that day for last-minute activities, such as meeting with reporters.

Silverman’s family came to Baltimore from Philadelphia when he was seven. They lived in East Baltimore on Montford Avenue near Patterson Park where he, his brother and four sisters would play with the neighborhood kids.

“I can remember a corned beef sandwich for a dime,” said Silverman. “Get it on the heel and it was 15 cents, but the heel was like a sub. And a hot dog and coke for a nickel,” he reminisced. “I sold newspapers, I sold magazines, I sold Liberty magazine, and I used to hop the street cars and sell them.”

Silverman’s feisty, independent, entrepreneur spirit continued into his adult years. He worked for 35 years as a collector salesman, a long-extinct profession that existed decades before credit cards or the Internet. He would sell furniture, clothing, appliances — whatever someone needed — door to door, have it delivered and customers had the option to pay it off weekly or monthly. He would collect due fees in person.

He loved his loyal customers and they loved him back.

Silverman began his army service in 1943, during World War II, three months after he married his wife, Gloria. He was stationed in England, France, Belgium and Germany, where much of the work he performed was organizational and administrative. He was promoted to staff sergeant before returning home in 1946.

Though Silverman chose not to become a career soldier at the time, his military duty was just the beginning of his long involvement with, and devotion to, his fellow servicemen.

Silverman has served as commander for the Paul D. Savanuck Jewish War Veterans Post #888, commander of the Roger C. Synder Jewish War Veterans Post #117, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and department commander for Jewish War Veterans. He was appointed to the state of Maryland’s Veterans Affairs Committee, which ensures veterans receive all of the information, assistance and benefits they have earned. Silverman is also responsible for establishing five veteran cemeteries throughout the state of Maryland in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Dorchester and Prince George’s counties. He still meets regularly with the members of the Paul D. Savanuck Jewish War Veterans Post #888 at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue.

The work Silverman is most proud of, and is still very much engaged in, is his involvement in establishing the Maryland Center for Veterans Education & Training. The center is home to 200 formerly homeless war veterans. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized it as the “National Model” for seamless services to homeless veterans. Silverman still attends the board meetings and is on the executive committee.

“We discuss the various issues that are going on right now,” said Silverman. “I’m not included in a lot of these things anymore because who the hell wants an old cocker, an old guy like me involved anymore? I still go in there and I still have my say, I’m not bashful,” he said.

There is nothing bashful about Silverman, whose personality is big and welcoming. For years before, and now during his retirement, his tirelessly volunteered his time and offered his compassion by visiting fellow veterans in hospitals, advocating for their rights and services and entertaining them with parties and treats — often out of his own pocket.

When asked what keeps him going strong, Silverman said: “Florence gives me 10 vitamin pills to take every day. She said that’s what’s kept me going all these years. But I say it’s God’s will. You’re given so many years to live and that’s the way it is. And if I go tomorrow I ain’t got no complaints. God’s been good to me, he gave me my strength. Geshriben Torah. It’s written in the book. So that’s the way it goes, whatever it is, it is.”

In his home, Silverman proudly pointed to a plaque he received from the Maryland Center for Veterans Education & Training that reads, “Presented to Chester Silverman for your vision and dreams for helping veterans.”

Silverman’s dream continues — with gusto.