Tree Of Life

Ever since the Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was published, there have been countless dialogues and debates about how to stop what some have gone as far as to consider a crisis of the Jewish people.

Headlines such as “Diving Into ‘The Melting Pot’ for Answers on Pew Survey,” “Jewish Identity Crisis Revealed in New Pew Survey” and “The Pew Survey of Jewish Americans: Panic or Perspective” have made some organizations start to rethink the way they do business.

Statistically, Baltimore is behind some of the challenging trends in terms of Jewish identity and affiliation of young Jews and intermarriage — but not that far behind.

One organization thinks it might have an answer, and it comes in the form of warmth, connectivity and content. It comes in the form of Etz Chaim: The Center For Jewish Living And Learning.

Etz Chaim (Tree of Life in English) has been around since it was launched as an experiment in 1976 in the kitchen of a Ner Israel Rabbinical College couple, Rabbi and Mrs. Chaim Gibber, with the support of a neighbor couple, Rabbi and Mrs. Reuven Drucker. Their goal at the time was to attract, inspire and educate young Baltimore Jews who either were not affiliated with a synagogue or did not utilize the synagogue as a personal resource. On a shoestring budget, their first Jewish studies class attracted 20 people.

By the early 1980s, however, that 20 had doubled and then tripled, and no longer could the program be housed in the Gibbers’ home, and no longer could it be run on the $15,000 budget that had been raised. The office was moved to a 300-square-foot space in the Imperial Condominium complex, and with the hire of Rabbi Shlomo Porter it started a 30-year journey to the full-fledged program it is today, now located at 3702 Fords Lane.

With its roots firmly established, in the last year, Etz Chaim has focused inward, and now it is further blossoming.

Rabbi Shlomo Porter says in the post-Hippie era, there was a spiritual resurgence. (photos by David Stuck)

Rabbi Shlomo Porter says in the post-Hippie era, there was a spiritual resurgence.
(photos by David Stuck)

In 2012, Etz Chaim and Rabbi Porter realized the organization was at risk of losing its flair.

Rabbi Porter describes the 1970s and 1980s as an era of spiritual resurgence. “Thirty years ago, there were Jews searching for Judaism. People were throwing the ball, and we said we would be the catchers,” he said. “We saw we had to develop a more proactive model, a non-threatening model for today.”

To be clear, said Rabbi Porter, the organization is not out to encourage its consumers to be Orthodox (though it will help them with this journey if that is the path they choose). Rather, he said, Etz Chaim aims to give its constituents a better Jewish identity so that they can pass that on to their children, find someone Jewish to marry or find a Jewish group of friends.

“We began looking at what people were looking for and not what we want to sell, what we want to promote,” said Rabbi Porter.

The organization worked with outside consultants, which defined for Etz Chaim a need to offer more family programming, to raise more money and to foster more youthful involvement. The end result was the merger of the Wow! Program, which targets young post-college adults for Jewish learning and programming, and Etz Chaim.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman has brought communication, coordination and capitalizaton to Etz Chaim.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman has brought communication, coordination and capitalizaton to Etz Chaim.

The hire of Rabbi Nitzan Bergman as the new executive director shifted Rabbi Porter to a role as dean and president. In that capacity, he spends most of his time mentoring his now much-younger staff and counseling individuals and families who have grown in their religious observance but are struggling with one aspect or another. Rabbi Bergman has brought new and stronger communication, capitalization and coordination to Etz Chaim’s many programs.

And while some organizations are vying for members or re-envisioning their missions and visions, Etz Chaim has done this and is daily reaching people where they are and in a way that allows it to continue to grow — and help the next generation of Jews grow, too.

Low Barrier, High Content
If anything came out of the dialogues about the Pew Survey at the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, it was that while we need low-barrier ways to invite in young adults and young families, we need to give them something when they walk in the door.

Said David Denker, senior associate for communications and government relations in the Israel Office of The Jewish Federations of North America at the GA: “The biggest turnoff is [an] event where there is not enough Jewish content. There is a tendency to dumb things down, and I think we need to raise the bar in all of our events. … I think we should demand … that we are learning all the time, learning and strengthening our interaction with tradition and with each other.”

He was speaking on a panel about young adult engagement.

At Etz Chaim, instead of latkes and vodka, said Rabbi Porter, it is whiskey and wisdom.

“There is always wisdom,” said Rabbi Porter. “Every program has it.”

Rivka Malka Perlman says she does not need to sell Torah; Torah sells itself.

Rivka Malka Perlman says she does not need to sell Torah; Torah sells itself.

Take the Wow! Program, which is now run by Rivka Malka Perlman. She said the program got its name because “that is what people say when they walk in the door. … It is awesome to see all these young Jews engaged and interested.”

Perlman’s role is everything from recruiting and event planning to marketing, and “my most important role is caring. Caring means that every person that trusts me enough to walk in the door needs to know that this place is where they matter, where their questions matter and where who they are as a person matters.”

Perlman shakes her head at the notion that there should be a stigma to kiruv.

“You are assuming kiruv means you are selling something. I have a product and I say come and buy it. Kiruv just means draw close. I help people draw closer to themselves, find answers. I draw the Jewish people closer together,” she said.

Perlman described the wisdom she imparts as “relevant.” She said her classes are drawing more than 50 people per week because she thinks that while her warm welcome might draw them in, the Torah sells itself.

“There is, in the deepest place, rootlessness, a loneliness in the young adult community,” said Perlman. “We want freedom, but the minute we have freedom, we book ourselves up at the gym, we get a job. … Being single [means] you want to be doing things, so how do you fill your time?”

Wow! once a week, she said, is “very affirming to them. … You are doing something that matters, you feel good.”

Rabbi Yisroel Porter has a similar experience to Perlman in working with families with young children, mostly young mothers. He said, “People have a desire to connect Jewishly and an even stronger desire to connect Jewishly for their children.”

The website of Rabbi Yisroel Porter’s division, Jewish Family Institute, states, “At the JFI, we work hard to create connection, relationships, understanding and growth — within and for the entire Jewish family. Our goal is to provide meaningful opportunities for growth in Judaism through learning, fun and connectivity.”

While the younger Rabbi Porter and his wife, Chaya, offer few courses, what they do is offer informal programming and connection geared toward increasing the spirituality of young mothers. He said the mother sets the tone in the home, and if she opens up to Judaism the whole house changes.

One of their signature offerings is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program, a low-cost trip to Israel that ignites young mothers on a Jewish journey and also gives them the tools to create more Jewishly connected homes.

Baltimore attorney Tara Posner Cornberg helped bring JWRP to Baltimore through Etz Chaim four years ago when she was involved with Wow!. She said Etz Chaim knows “the importance of exposing young and lesser-affiliated women to Jewish traditions and values, and that is one of the missions of JWRP. It is giving them a pathway to explore their Judaism no matter where they fall on the spectrum.”

The other item that the younger Rabbi Porter focuses on is social media. Young parents are busy, he said, but he utilizes his Facebook page ( beingjewish), which has nearly 900 followers, to post articles and other inspirational content. He said he hears feedback that people are looking, and the digital engagement rate is high.

“No one is knocking down our door,” said Rabbi Yisroel Porter. “But every time I post something it is a Kiddush Hashem [sanctifies God’s name]. Even if people don’t come to the programs, they are getting a positive message about Judaism and taking their Jewish identity and making it more meaningful.”

Rabbi Yisroel Porter said he is careful that when he or his wife does run programs that they are intentional and planned with maximum chance for impact. For him, similar to Perlman and to what Rabbi Shlomo Porter said, content is king.

“Every time we put on a program, we make it high quality. They are walking away with substance. A person’s neshama [soul] knows when it has found the truth,” said Rabbi Yisroel Porter.

“We are not going to have impassioned Jewish people who are proud of their heritage unless they know what it is,” said Rabbi Bergman. “There are passionate [non-Orthodox] Jews who are living Judaism as much as I do, but they don’t have the words to tell their children why. … They have to know what we stand for and what it means to be Jewish. … They have to make the necessary sacrifices for their belief. That is the only way we will pass [Judaism] on to the next generation with any success.”

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.”

Jewish Bmore Gives

112213_jewish-baltimore-givesWhether it’s for a new iPad, the just-released Mario game, a diamond choker, a Rolex watch or a shiny new Lexus with a big red bow (if we believe what we see on TV), its seems there’s no limit to what people will shell out on holiday gifts.

Americans have long lamented the commercialization of the holiday season, yet each year, the pressure to spend exorbitantly seems to begin earlier. While it’s true that Chanukah has little in common with Christmas and doesn’t actually call for extravagant gift-giving, American Jews have been part of the commerce-driven holiday season for generations. For better or worse, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are now permanent additions to our collective calendar.

But in 2012, thanks to the 92nd Street Y, a highly respected Jewish organization in Manhattan, a new day and a new movement, with a decidedly less acquisitive mission, is also on the calendar for many, including for people in Baltimore — and Jewish Baltimore.

Giving Tuesday, which occurs right after Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, encourages Americans to give to those in need. On Nov. 27, 2012, 2,500 charities, volunteer organizations, corporations and foundations in all 50 states embraced this philanthropic effort. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, a founding partner of Baltimore’s Giving Tuesday effort (Bmore Gives More), raised $1 million that day — more than any other
campaign in the country.

Jamie McDonald, president of GiveCorps, a Baltimore startup that combines philanthropy, community activism and technology, estimates that last year’s Bmore Gives More campaign raised between $2 million and $2.5 million on Giving Tuesday [including the funds raised by The Associated]. This year’s goal is $5 million. McDonald says she wants Baltimore to be known as the “givingest” city in the country. In fact, she says, “We’ve been singled out by the national campaign as having the most groundbreaking city campaign. They are seeing what we’re doing in Baltimore, and they want other cities to take note.”

While McDonald, whose organization is a convening partner for Bmore Gives More 2013, realizes that $5 million is a lofty goal, she believes it is possible. And she predicts that just as it did in 2012, The Associated will once again play a major role in the campaign’s success.

“The Associated is a pivotal partner for Baltimore and in making Giving Tuesday happen here. They are exceptional fundraisers and smart, strategic thinkers who really know how to garner support and enthusiasm for giving,” says McDonald.

Leslie Pomerantz, senior vice president of development for The Associated, says Giving Tuesday is a great vehicle for the organization to remind people to give back to Baltimore and the Jewish community.

“It’s a tool to do what we do anyway, and it’s a great time of year to do it,” she says. “People are just coming off Thanksgiving, they have been eating good food, being with family — maybe they do some shopping; It’s a time when people say [to themselves] I’m very fortunate, I want to give.”

Pomerantz continues: “We know that as human beings we all want to feel connected to others, to community. I would like to think that is why The Associated is so successful. We all rally together to make the community strong. We also love Baltimore whether we grew up here or not. We’ve chosen to raise our kids here. So we love being part of a Baltimore coalition.”

Pomerantz points out that Giving Tuesday will not replace Mitzvah Day, which is sponsored by The Associated and its agencies annually on Christmas Day.

“We see philanthropy as a combination of time and money,” she says. “On Giving Tuesday we ask people to give dollars. On Mitzvah Day, we ask them to give their time.”

Working For Change

These days, it seems that everyone is starting a nonprofit. What’s the appeal?

“The reason people start nonprofits is because they see a need and a void that they are passionate to fill,” says Paddy Morton, attorney with Maryland Nonprofits, an organization that serves to strengthen and educate the state’s nonprofit sector. “They’re doing public cleanup projects; they’re doing mentoring projects; they’re doing environmental projects or animal-rights projects. They’re filling the gap that the government can’t complete.”

But it takes more than a good idea and passion to start a successful nonprofit.

“You can’t run a nonprofit these days with a nonprofit mentality; you have to run it with an entrepreneurial mindset,” says Ed Hartman, executive director of the Community Crisis Center in Reisterstown, which works to prevent homelessness through various forms of assistance. “You have to run it like a business.”

While passionate advocates may feel driven to form their own nonprofits, others effectively partner with existing organizations, and some raise money by participating in marathons, yogathons or other fundraising events.

Officials at Maryland Nonprofits recommend that those intent on starting nonprofits do their homework. The process involves following legal procedures and creating business-development strategies. Filing IRS documents, articles of incorporation and bylaws are required on the legal side, and for business development, a nonprofit needs to identify its donor base, volunteers and board members and come up with a model for growth and success.

Carl “Diesel” Galler (second from right) and members of Motorcycle Club Five give food to the needy at one of the Community Crisis Center’s food giveaways in Reisterstown. (Marc Shapiro)

Carl “Diesel” Galler (second from right) and members of Motorcycle Club Five give food to the needy at one of the Community Crisis Center’s food giveaways in Reisterstown.
(Marc Shapiro)

A Baltimore County motorcycle club, MCV (Motorcycle Club Five), formed its own 501(c)(3), MCVcares, in 2012 after the club already had been involved with charity work such as sending holiday packages to soldiers in Afghanistan. Club members say establishing the formal nonprofit gave them more legitimacy and made corporate entities more willing to donate.

“We would do it [the charity work] one way or the other,” says Carl “Diesel” Galler, vice president and co-founder of MCV. “Having the 501(c)(3) status adds some legitimacy and adds a level of confidence. It lends credibility to those folks [who donate] that we’re not just a ragtag bunch of people.”

The club, whose members are from Owings Mills, Reisterstown and Westminster, picks one charitable endeavor each year. Last year, it raised about $5,000 for the Hannah More School in Reisterstown, and this year it is hoping to raise $10,000 for the Living Classrooms’ Fresh Start program, which provides job training to young men who are recovering from substance abuse or coming from the juvenile justice system.

“Some of our members have lost some children to the disease of addiction, and we felt this dovetailed nicely with what we were doing,” Galler says.

In 2012, there were 23,739 501(c)(3) organizations operating in Maryland. The nonprofit sector is the fastest-growing employment sector in Maryland — and in the country, Morton says.

In Maryland, nonprofits have paved the way for lead abatement, which has significantly reduced the number of cases of lead poisoning. Hospice care also has benefited from the work of nonprofits, according to Maryland Nonprofits president and CEO Greg Cantori.

“Passion overrides the need for profits,” Cantori says. “There tends to be a very strong feeling that something is not just and that it needs to change. It could be anything from ‘Why are these kids not getting art education in schools?’ to ‘Why don’t they have a mentor in their life?’”

The lackluster music education program in Baltimore City’s public schools and a desire to give back using his musical skills led Kenny Liner to form Believe in Music. Liner, who toured with Baltimore rock band The Bridge for 10 years, has been teaching music in the city’s largest housing project, Perkins Homes, since September 2012.

But rather than starting his own nonprofit, he partnered with Living Classrooms.

“I really loved what Living Classrooms was doing already, and felt that I fit into what their mission was,” he says. “That’s a good way to get started, to partner with an already-established nonprofit whose mission coincides with yours.”

While he mainly raises his money from benefit concerts, utilizing contacts he made as a touring musician, he says he never turns down a good volunteer. Many nonprofits survive thanks to the work of volunteers.

“There are a lot of things that go behind being able to say ‘Oh yeah, we do dental, we give 3,000 pounds of food out a month,’” Hartman says. “There’s a lot of setup work before you do that. That’s all volunteers.”

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen started a yogathon  to raise money for the National Lung Cancer  Partnership after her mother died of lung cancer.

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen started a yogathon to raise money for the National Lung Cancer Partnership after her mother died of lung cancer.

Some people find themselves volunteering through unfortunate circumstances, such as Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. In 2008, her mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and died 10 weeks later.

“I was shaken and looking for something to do,” she says.

She came across Free to Breathe, an organization that raises money for the National Lung Cancer Partnership. While she knew nothing about lung cancer prior to her mother’s diagnosis, she soon found out it kills more people than any other form of cancer. She learned about about a yogathon in North Carolina, and as a yoga devotee herself, she was intrigued.

“I ended up calling the organization expecting to just participate in an event and found myself running one,” she says. “I think that’s how this stuff happens.”

Rabbi Sachs-Kohen and Free to Breathe spearheaded Baltimore’s fifth event on Nov. 10, at the B&O Railroad Museum. This year, 141 people participated. While fundraising continues through the end of the year, more than $31,000 already has been raised.

“When you hear these stories of people who say we’ve changed their lives, it means the world,” says Gabi Green, endurance manager at Team Challenge, a half-marathon training program of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

These good feelings do a lot more than make people feel warm and fuzzy, Cantori says. Research shows that the more people give of themselves, the better they feel physically and psychologically. Events such as marathons, yogathons and the like give people extra incentive and engage them further in causes, he says.

The Polar Bear Plunge, for example, raises money for the Special Olympics through people jumping into the frigid Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point Park during the winter.

“Who in their right mind would jump into 30- or 40-degree water? But they do, and they have a blast,” Cantori says. “It is fun, it’s kooky and it’s for a great cause.”

Stretching One Day’s Provisions To Eight

112213_stretching_one_days_provisions_to_eightA beautiful thing about many Jewish laws is that they are open to interpretation. Evolving analysis helps transform a seemingly obsolete idea into a concept that is relevant and applicable to contemporary issues.

Bal tashchit is one of those laws. Its original form commands to “not destroy with wanton abandon” (particularly geared to war time), because such acts would be excessive and wasteful. The example provided is with regard to fruit tree orchards, the destruction of which would cause suffering to both the victors and future gener-ations, so it is considered extreme. Over the centuries the bal tashchit interpretation has evolved to “you shall not waste” and encourages conservation, which, of course, is relevant to present-day living.

One lesson embedded in the Chanukah story references wanton destruction and conservation. The Maccabees triumphed over the Greeks and returned to restore and repair their desecrated Temple. There was only enough sanctified oil to burn the eternal flame for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days, long enough to procure more of the oil needed. In a sense, it’s a story about taking what is enough for one day and stretching it for eight days. It is also about miracles.

“If we’re talking about Chanukah miracles and conservation, we can just look at ourselves,” said Laura Menyuk, education programs coordinator at the Pearlstone Center. “If we’re made in the image of God, aren’t we a co-creator in miracles too? We don’t just use up and destroy the resources of the earth, we can also create miracles by conserving and re-creating those resources. Ideas of sustainability and energy conservation are an underpinning of all of our programs.”

The Pearlstone Center offers programming that makes the concepts of sustainability, consumption and conservation— bal tashchit — concrete and accessible to even the most basic beginner. They offer hands-on events, websites and media that instruct on ways to become more energy conscious and that help make caring for the environment a tangible, uncomplicated behavior to practice.

In one of the programs, visiting school children weigh leftover food collected from their plates after a meal. They collectively have many pounds of leftover food that would go to compost. The students develop an awareness about leftover waste and are challenged to see if at dinner they can aim to waste less. It makes a simple concept about food choice and consumption a very real, achievable and, more than that, understandable notion for anyone.

Pearlstone also hosts family camps, retreats and open-farming days that offer accessible and usable practices about recycling, home gardening, pickling and cheese-making. Their programming ranges from low-impact just getting your hands dirty (literally) in basic environmental practices to days-long immersion retreats that feature instruction, discussion and participation while living off the land and studying agriculture- and conservation-related Jewish text. Another offering is information on how to make a sustainable simcha, such as a wedding or bar or bat mitzvah.

Another local resource is the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN), which is a coalition of organizations providing education, programming and public policy advocacy and works to engage the Jewish community in sustainability and conservation issues.

Pearlstone Center programs can be found at Learn more about BJEN at

Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor

Officials, Community Members Talk Nonpublic School Money

State officials from across the Baltimore area didn’t hold back when they met with constituents Wednesday night at Talmudical Academy to discuss funding for parochial schools.

Parents who send their children to private schools attended a meeting Tuesday night to discuss funding options. (Photo by Heather Norris)

Parents who send their children to private schools attended a meeting Tuesday night to discuss funding options. (Photo by Heather Norris)

“This is probably not happening this year,” said State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-11), noting, along with Del. Adrienne Jones (D-10), that the combination of budget constrictions and a big election year doesn’t lend itself to controversial legislation like the Maryland Education Credit, the topic at the forefront of the discussion.

The credit, which is being promoted by a number of different private school organizations and parents of those who attend the schools, would provide businesses with a 60 percent tax credit for donations made to organizations that provide financial assistance to nonpublic schools. At this point, it is not a bill and is only being discussed in “open house” meetings hosted by nonpublic schools in regions throughout the state.

Zirkin also told meeting attendees that they should factor in the possibility that this money they want from the state — $15 million to fund the credit — would more than likely come with strings attached.

“With money comes restrictions, too,” he said. “You can’t separate the one from the other.”

State Sen. Delores Kelley said she understands the parents’ perspective, having sent her children to Pilgrim Christian Day School.

“I’m sure that many of you struggle to support the choices that you make,” she said.

However, she added, those parents who send their children to nonpublic schools have a choice.

“My concern is that we are just so far from where we should be as far as public education is concerned,” Kelley said, noting that the state’s official and legal obligation is to provide for public schools first, a concept Zirkin seconded.

Of the seven state officials who attended (Zirkin, Kelley, Jones, Del. Dan Morhaim (D- 11), Del. Jon Cardin (D-11), Del. Dana Stein (D-11), Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-41)), only two — Cardin and Rosenberg — expressed support for the idea, though others said they looked forward to hearing more details.

When it comes to helping students in the nonpublic school system, Rosenberg said, “We can do better.”


Weinberg Foundation Distributes $106 Million In Grants

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Tuesday evening celebrated a year of giving at its annual community gathering. At the event, which was held at Beth El Congregation and welcomed 1,000 people, the foundation announced it had distributed $106 million in grants this past year. The grants were made to nonprofits serving low-income and vulnerable individuals and families.

The event took place on the backdrop of a recent announcement by the foundation of an additional $4 million grant to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to provide emergency assistance to Holocaust victims in North America. The grant, which will be allocated through 2016, supplements the $10 million, five-year grant that the Weinberg Foundation provided the Claims Conference in 2010 to help elderly Jewish victims of Nazis live out their lives with dignity. The $4 million grant will be distributed as follows: $500,000 in 2014 (in addition to the $1.5 million from the previous allocation); $2 million in 2015; and $1.5 million in 2016.

“Aging Jewish Holocaust victims, abandoned by the world in their youth, must now know that they are remembered and cared for in their final years,” said Claims Conference Executive Vice President Greg Schneider in a statement thanking the Weinberg Foundation.

Foundation President Rachel Garbow Monroe told the JT that the foundation decided to extend the grant because “it was clear to us … that not all the issues [of the survivors] would be resolved.” She explained that the initial $14 million was spread out among survivors to average a grant of $830 per person.

“That tells us we are helping roughly 16,800 individuals,” she said.

Monroe said the grant to the Holocaust survivors “fits perfectly” into the mission and heart of what the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation stands for.

“If you were in our board room, you would see a photograph of Harry and Jeanette at the time of their marriage, and it states that while others solve the ills of the world, someone will be hungry, someone sick, someone cold — that is our job.” … The single largest population we support through grants is poor, frail older adults.”

In the last year, the Claims Conference has come under scrutiny for mismanagement and allegedly facilitating fraud. Monroe said the foundation had no concerns about this — “the work they are doing with us on this emergency assistance fund is beyond reproach” — and that there are oversight and reporting requirements in place.

Created with flickr slideshow.

“They have been honorable and transparent every step of the way,” Monroe said, restating the need, as 25 percent of all survivors live in poverty and that one in three lives alone.

As much as 40 percent of all Weinberg Foundation funding remains in Maryland, and roughly half is distributed within the Jewish community. Monroe said this vision — and the Tuesday event — highlights the legacy of Harry and Jeanette Weinberg, and she also expressed gratitude to the foundation’s partners and grantees “for their exceptional, meaningful work this and every year.”

Learn more about the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation at

Raising a Thanksgiving Toast this Chanukah

This Chanukah will offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a Thanksgiving toast to the lights of the festive candles. With the table decked with rich and decadent fare, these wines will make the perfect accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey (and Chanukah latke).

Gilgal Pinot Noir 2011
The elegant and complex flavors in a Pinot Noir make it a great pairing for the Thanksgiving turkey. Pinot Noir is an example of a niche varietal, which suits those looking for a subtle yet sophisticated wine and for those who do not seek an overwhelming fruity flavor.

Newcomers to this varietal should try the Gilgal Pinot Noir, which is eminently drinkable and an ideal introduction to the distinctive pinot flavors. The 2011 Gilgal Pinot Noir displays aromatic strawberry, sour cherry and mulberry fruit characters, which are perfectly balanced by its floral and spicy notes.

111513_Raising-a-Thanksgiving-Toast-this-Chanukah1Galil Mountain Meron 2009
The Galil Mountain Meron is a lusciously rich blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Syrah is the predominate grape in the Meron blend and has in recent years become Israel’s star varietal. Otherwise known as Shiraz, the Syrah’s distinctively rich flavors shine through, and the Meron showcases a beautiful blend of wild berries, blueberries and red cherries, complemented by a hint of oak. This strong and well-balanced wine exhibits a silky texture and a long velvety finish that fills the palate with its rich flavors.

The Galil Mountain Winery is situated in the ever-changing Northern Galilee region. Each
season brings new views, which are reflected in the winery’s unique labels. The Meron, likewise, evolves during the meal with new flavors expressed with every sip.

Yarden Merlot Odem 2007
This limited-edition Merlot comes from the Odem organic vineyard located in the Upper Golan Heights. Single vineyard wines are produced from the very best grapes grown in a single, and special, vineyard. The Odem vineyard uses unique methods to maintain its organic character, and winemakers have commented that since going organic, they have seen a significant improvement in the quality and color of the fruit.

111513_Raising-a-Thanksgiving-Toast-this-Chanukah2The Yarden Merlot Odem is aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, giving it a long finish and wonderful aging potential. Floral, spice and earthy notes enhance the distinctive Merlot characters of cherry and blackberry, which are especially identifiable in this single vineyard wine. While this is definitely a wine to wow your guests, it will also make a truly special Chanukah gift for someone who appreciates a fine wine.

And Don’t Forget the Shmaltz … Beer! >>

Anna Harwood writes for IMP Media.

Read also, Thanksgivukkah: Thanksgiving And Chanukah … Together! >>

‘Dirty, Smelly Jew’

Dr. Bert Miller says he faced anti-Semitism in his Baltimore County school.

Dr. Bert Miller says he faced anti-Semitism in his Baltimore County school.
(David Stuck)

Dr. Bert Miller taught math in Baltimore County for almost 40 years. He holds master’s, associate’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics education, has earned two National Science Foundation fellowships, has published software for math teachers, and he even discovered a new theorem in 2009. In his second year of teaching in the county in 1974, the office of the state superintendent personally contacted him to apply for Maryland Teacher of the Year.

Yet, in June 2010, Miller retired under protest as he was facing termination for incompetence. The termination followed two years of unsatisfactory teacher evaluations, during which he was denied contractually mandated appeals. He believes, and a colleague’s deposition showed, that anti-Semitism among members of his appraisal team played a major role.

“It was a conspiracy, there’s no question,” Miller, a 66-year-old Orthodox Jew, said. His suit against the Baltimore County Board of Education is set for a five-day civil jury trial in May in the Circuit Court.

Miller started teaching at New Town High School in Owings Mills in 2005 after more than three decades of a successful teaching career. It wasn’t long before he started to clash with his superiors.

The most substantial evidence of anti-Semitism came to light later, when a colleague of Miller’s was deposed by the Baltimore County Board of Education. She claimed that his immediate supervisor, who was a member of his appraisal team, regularly referred to Miller as a “dirty, smelly Jew,” bribed volleyball players with starting positions to get their parents to complain about Miller to the principal and placed a lemon with pins in it on Miller’s keyboard, a witchcraft ritual that brings bad luck.

“This is Maryland, one of the bluest states in the nation in one of the bluest counties in the state,” said Kevin Joyce, Miller’s attorney. “From Dr. Miller’s perspective, it’s appalling and I’m inclined to agree with him. ‘Dirty, smelly Jew’ — there’s no other way to interpret that.”

The Jewish Times confirmed the colleague’s testimony in regards to the ‘dirty, smelly Jew’ comment and the lemon incident via court documents.

Miller ran afoul of administration early in his time at New Town High, he said. The first thing he picked up was in 2007, when he needed two days off during state exams to observe Shavuot. He claims that a member of his appraisal team, who has a master’s degree in theology, said there’s no such holiday. Miller was criticized for being behind the pace of the curriculum in a trigonometry class when he was absent for five of the previous 23 days observing Rosh Hashanah, two days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The school was closed for Yom Kippur and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

“If there is a fact to be understood in a way most harmful to me, that’s the way the appraisal team would choose to understand the fact,” Miller said. “‘Students have low grades? Well, it’s obvious you’re a bad teacher. What other explanation could there be?’”

Baltimore County Public Schools, the law firm representing Baltimore County and the Teachers Association of Baltimore County declined to comment on the case. Baltimore County school spokesman Mychael Dickerson said the school system’s insurance policy is paying for representation from Towson firm Pessin Katz Law.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the global Jewish human rights organization Simon Wiesenthal Center, said it’s an unfortunate reality that anti-Semitism is alive and well.

“It’s our obligation when we confront or see that something that smells like it represents hatred and bigotry — that’s a wake-up call that we should do something about it,” he said. “You can’t prevent them because evil exists and anti-Semitism exists, but you have to fight against it and make a big stink about it,” he said.

A new Anti-Defamation League survey shows that 12 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, a 3 percent decline from the ADL’s 2011 poll. Fourteen percent said Jews have too much power in the U.S. and 26 percent blame Jews for the death of Jesus.

While Miller feels there were some more blatant instances of prejudice, he also noticed some unorthodox evaluation practices. Once, he was observed on the fourth day of school, when he claims he was still learning all the students’ names. Another member of the appraisal team once observed him for only 20 minutes. Another observation, which ended with 10 out of 10 students getting 100 percent on a quiz, was rated unsatisfactory.

In the second semester of the 2008 to 2009 school year, he was only given one observation when he was supposed to have two due to his previous unsatisfactory ratings. Even though the semester started Jan. 24, his Jan. 10 observation was counted, he said.

“This is well beyond intellectual dishonesty,” Miller said. “When you put all that together, with ‘dirty, smelly Jew’ and the Wiccan intimidation with pins in the lemon and the administration knowing about it and not doing anything and criticizing me for being behind the curriculum pace when I was absent five days in the previous 23, I think I’m beginning to see a pattern in the data.”

Miller was also made into a trouble maker when he pointed out academic inconsistencies as exemplified by a college algebra class that did not have proper preparation for the course and teachers getting less preparation time than contracts mandate. While the complaint about teacher prep time was made anonymously, the administration wanted to know and found out who made the complaint, Miller said.

A friend of his who taught at a neighboring high school told Miller that the math department chair at that school said that New Town High was trying to get rid of Miller. The comment was made a day after there was a county meeting of administrative personnel, Miller said.

When a teacher is given an unsatisfactory evaluation, there is a three-level appeal process. The first appeal is with the assistant superintendent, the second with the superintendent’s designee and the third with an arbitrator paid by the Board of Education. Miller never received his third-level appeals for his four unsatisfactory evaluations, one for each semester. His breach of contract suit is over the denial of third-level appeals.

After two years of unsatisfactory evaluations, Miller retired in protest in June 2010 prior to a termination date of June 30, in order to maintain retirement benefits he had earned.

“We’re confident that if an appeal does take place, [anti-Semitism] will be part of an appeal, and I’m confident we’ll win,” Joyce said. He expects the case to last until 2015 or longer with the appeals the Board of Education is expected to file after court judgments.

“You could see this thing stretched out for another four years,” he said.

A story Miller likes to tell about his teaching record is that of a female African-American student who won a trip to Atlanta to present a prize-winning essay at a national conference. The topic? How Miller, her demanding math teacher, helped her turn her life around by expressing his admiration for her work and behavior and saying he respected her for acting like a lady.

“Dr. Miller has no idea those are words I will take to my grave,” the student wrote. “They are words that get me through some of my darkest moments.”

While the suit is seeking monetary damages, settlement offers of $2,000 and $10,000 were declined. Joyce thinks Miller’s main concern is having his name cleared, the ability to work again and someone taking the responsibility for the events that led to his early retirement.

“They effectively ended my career,” Miller said.

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter —


It hasn’t happened since 1888, and it won’t happen again until 2070 and 2165. After that, it will be 70,000 years until it happens again. So grab your dreidels, latkes and gravy boats, because this year Thanksgiving and Chanukah collide.

Yes, the first day of Chanukah falls on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. Time magazine calls this event “the best excuse for overeating since sliced potatoes.”

Most are calling the holiday “Thanksgivukkah” — a word coined and trademarked by Dana Gitell, a 37-year-old marketing specialist from Boston.

Gitell said she hit on the idea in 2011 after seeing a calendar that showed Jewish holidays over the next five years.

“I was driving and thinking about what you would call that day and rolling the words around in my mind, and I came up with … Thanksgivukkah,” she said.

Gitell started a Facebook page for Thanksgivukkah that has taken off.

Thanksgivukkah has inspired enterprising commercial interests and ordinary folks alike. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will feature a dreidel balloon. You still have time to order Thanksgivukkah shirts and gifts from I found lots of fun ideas and things to see online. You can find several terrific Thanksgivukkah videos on YouTube. Click here to see Stephen Colbert’s hilarious tribute to Thanksgivukkah. I laughed out loud when he tried making a hand menorah instead of a hand turkey.

Gil and Margie Brodsky’s Thanksgivukkah version of the Chanukah song featuring lyrics such as “Come light the menurky” and “Let’s have a party with latkes and turkey” is also a riot.

Another entertaining YouTube video is “The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah,” a lively song performed by the entire staff and student body of the Kehillah Schechter Academy of Norwood, Mass. Creative lyrics include a transition from Plymouth Rock to “Rock of Ages.”

And check out PJ Library is a fantastic “Jewish family engagement program” dedicated to providing free, high-quality Jewish children’s literature and music to families across the U.S. On its site are links for child-friendly Thanksgivukkah crafts such as a pumpkin menorah made with real miniature pumpkins, a Star of David napkin ring and ideas for toddlers.

For foodies, this day is a true fantasy feast. There are unlimited ways to combine Chanukah and Thanksgiving recipes. On past Thanksgiving days, many Shabbat-observant Jews didn’t pay too much attention to serving turkey on that Thursday. This is because the very next day was Shabbat, so they often saved the turkey for Friday night. But this special Thursday event deserves the full-on turkey treatment. You even have time to order the Star of David or dreidel mold for potato pancakes at

You might consider Thanksgivukkah a fad because, let’s face it, it’s not going to happen again for a long, long, long time. But think of the many Jewish babies that will be born on this day. They surely will be celebrating the event for generations to come.

I asked Larry Levy, owner/chef of Biddle Street Catering, what he’s doing for Thanksgivukkah, as he is always on the cutting edge of food fads. Levy said his more adventurous clients are asking for more creativity for Thanksgivukkah, and he can deliver just that. I tasted his new menu additions and can attest: Levy has a great option for Thanksgivukkah gravy. His fabulous lighter Bordelaise sauce is made with wine, and he has another one that he braises the turkey in, with Manischewitz wine as an option. His yummy pumpkin cheesecake (pareve or dairy) has a delicious cranberry topping. And his homemade doughnuts are infused with jelly or pumpkin mousse. The uniquely roasted brussels sprouts have pieces of sautéed crisp pastrami. His apple/potato pancakes and homemade cranberry relish are other wonderful items that combine the holidays in delicious ways. And Biddle Street makes gorgeous garnishes of large turnip flowers, leek daisies and spaghetti shreds of carrots.

For an easy and unique turkey presentation, I use fresh kale, fresh sage, canned spiced apples and fresh cranberries or grapes to decorate my turkey platter. You can slice and prepare these herbs and fruits in advance. If you decide to plate each person’s dish, think about placing the sliced turkey on top of a large potato pancake and then drizzle with gravy.

Pumpkin pie and other pumpkin dishes can easily be made pareve by using non-dairy coffee creamer in place of the evaporated milk. Non-dairy cheese such as Tofutti can be used to make pumpkin cheesecake or dips.

I always love food mash-ups, so Thanksgivukkah suits me fine. I combine two different stuffing box mixes, such as cranberry and cornbread, and add some sautéed onions and dry sage for a homemade taste. For quick, good gravy, I mix turkey gravy with beef gravy (can, jar or powdered mix) and add some essence from the turkey. My mother always combined the gravy she bought from the deli: one pint of beef and one pint of turkey.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Carrot Dill Soup >>
Biddle Street’s Brussels Sprouts With Shallots And Pastrami Crisps >>
Biddle Street’s Apple-Potato Latkes >>
Cranberry Crumb Bars >>

Tips & Tricks
Here are a few recipes and tips to make Thanksgivukkah delicious and memorable. Gobble Tov to all!
• Try substituting Tofutti cream cheese and sour cream.
• Make a thin potato kugel and use your Jewish star cookie-cutter to shape potato kugel pancakes.
• Spice up some store-bought apple sauce with red cinnamon candies. Heat to dissolve the candies and create pink potato latke topping.
• Fill mini-cannoli shells with pumpkin mousse or the filling from pumpkin pies. Dip the cannoli ends in cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice.

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer

Read also, Raising a Thanksgiving Toast this Chanukah >>