I recently met up with an old friend for a beer. This is someone I’ve known since the age of 4, so he and I have some mileage together. I’ve also known his family for many years.
Before I could barely sit down on the barstool, he grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, I’ve got to tell you something. My little brother is getting baptized—or christened, or whatever you call it – in a couple of weeks.”
It took a few moments for the information to sink in for me, since these folks are Jewish. Nominally Jewish, but still Jewish.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
My friend laughed and said, “Yep, he’s gone goy.”
He went on to explain that his brother – who is in his mid-40s and was brought up with no religious education, background or observances (other than bagels and lox) – had been hospitalized for a few days about a year ago. While there, a pleasant couple representing a Christian group dropped by, offered some friendly, soothing, encouraging words, and suggested that he drop by their church sometime, just to check it out.
“That’s more than anything any Jews ever did for me!” the brother told my buddy.
He started going to their services or study sessions, enjoyed the camaraderie and spiritual ambience, and after a while wanted to sign up.
Hence, the upcoming baptism.
I think my friend expected me to literally fall off my barstool (and maybe plunge a plastic stirrer into my heart) when he offered his news. After all, you don’t hear about this kind of thing happening in Baltimore’s Jewish “shtetl” too often, right? And since I work at a Jewish newspaper, he said he figured I’m “all Jew, through and through,” and would be absolutely blindsided.
But for some reason, I wasn’t really all that surprised.
Besides the fact that Judaism was never really part of this family’s DNA, I think this fellow found something with this church group he obviously never experienced in the Jewish community – some warmth, caring, a search for the sacred and spiritual, intimacy, and perhaps a lack of focus on all things of a monetary value.
Of course, he may not have been looking in the right places in the Jewish community. We certainly have groups and institutions that provide those comforts and accoutrements.
But I hear this from unaffiliated—and affiliated—Jews over and over and over again: “All they care about in the Jewish community is getting your money,” “It’s all about who’s the best Jew,” “Being a good person doesn’t seem to count,” “Too many labels and divisions,” “It’s so boring,” “Shul just seems to be a big fashion show,” “It’s all a power/ego game.”
Let’s face it, certainly if one goes to most mega-shuls, that’s pretty much what they’ll find. We seem to be pretty good at being what a lot of people don’t want for their religious needs. Of course, when I tell people in the community that I hear these views from the unaffiliated, they usually sneer and say it’s just a bunch of kvetching.
In the midst of all the chest-thumping about how great we are – raising this much money for the building campaigns, getting new members, etc.—we’re turning off generations of people in droves.
Or some just stick around and go through the motions.
I tried to comfort my friend by reminding him that his brother is an adult and at least now has some kind of faith system to guide him. “We all need something to get through it all,” I told him. “Something was obviously missing from his life.”
But in my heart of hearts, I can’t help but wonder when the Jewish community is going to wake up and realize that to attract Jews and keep them, more spiritual nourishment and communal warmth need to be part of the package. The rest of it – the trappings, the mindsets, the culture—is just repelling folks.
How many more baptisms will it take?
When my father was a Merchant Marine in the early ‘50s, one of his fellow seamen – a non-Jew—asked him a question regarding Israel. At that point, the state was only a few years old, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, surrounded by belligerent neighbors, and absorbing millions of Jews from Europe and the Arab lands. Yet no one was starving or living in the same kind of indescribable squalor as seen in Third World nations, the sailor said.
“How does Israel do it?” he asked earnestly, to which my father replied, “Simple – Jews take care of their own.”
Among friends and foes, Jews are known for doing just that – taking care of their own. Others cite it in pressing for taking care of the needy in their own communities. But an article I read over the weekend penned by a Tribune Newspapers writer made me wonder if our reputation for always helping our brothers and sisters isn’t somewhat overblown at times.
The story was about a housing shelter in Haifa that serves Holocaust survivors. The article chronicles how these elderly people, who survived the worst horrors imaginable, now live in relative poverty and isolation.
“We helped found the state of Israel and built it. They should make our final years better,” said one of the residents, Miryam Kremin, 88, a Polish ghetto survivor.
The article went on to say that an estimated 70,000 survivors in Israel can’t make ends meet and often go to soup kitchens or welfare agencies for help. The aid that some survivors receive in German reparations, administered by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, just isn’t cutting it as these survivors get further into their “golden years” and require more health treatments and assistance. (Others get nothing because they can’t prove they are really survivors.)
The Israeli government says it’s working to improve services for survivors, and doled out $700 million this year for 87,000 survivors.
But somehow, too many Holocaust survivors in Israel – and in the United States and elsewhere – are falling through the cracks.
Is the organized American Jewish community – which provides so much assistance to Jews here and all around the world – doing enough to help survivors in their final years? The survivors I know in town tell me, unequivocally, no. And judging by what I’ve read about this shelter in Haifa, I tend to think they’re right.
Dollars are tight, no doubt about it. Times are tough. But these people only have a few more years, and have endured the kind of hell we can’t even begin to imagine. Isn’t it incumbent upon Jews, as my father put it more than a half-century ago, to “take care of their own”?
Last week, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan revealed a fairly well-known “family secret” to the world – that Jews usually spend their time off every Christmas Day chowing down on chow mein, munching on moo goo gai pan, gobbling up General Tso’s chicken and savoring similar delicacies in Chinese restaurants and carry-outs across this greasy galaxy.
Cantonese? Szechuan? Hunan? Fujian? Shandong?
They all sound good.
Chopsticks? Silverware? With our nimble little fingers?
We don’t care. Just bring it on.
Perhaps some folks in the deepest hollows of West Virginia or the furthest reaches of the Philippines jungle brush have never heard of this phenomenon, but most of us chuckled when we heard about Ms. Kagan’s remarks to the Senate committee reviewing her nomination. After all, it’s a popular in-joke that we all like to reference every now and then, just like catching a mindless flick on X-mas. (“What else is there to do when you’re Jewish?”)
But in my family, we’ve usually gone on our annual Yuletide pilgrimages to Greek bistros, which like their Chinese counterparts tend to be open on the day that the world observes the birth of, well, you-know-who. (I believe that’s because some Greeks celebrate Christmas on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. Or maybe they’re simply astute businesspeople who know that Jews will be eating out in droves that day.)
Perhaps the question shouldn’t have been how Ms. Kagan spent last Christmas but how Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), her interrogator, spent Chanukah last year? Did he get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from spinning a dreidel too many times? Did he get a nasty stomach ache from noshing on so many oily latkes?
And how did those Chinese and Greek restaurateurs fare during the Festival of Lights? Did they burn their fingertips lighting the menorah all those days? Did they grow hoarse from singing “Ma’oz Tzur” so many times?
Maybe the real question is why do Lindsey Graham or any other members of the United States Senate really care how or where Elena Kagan spent Christmas last year, even if it was the day on which an act of terrorism was planned (and thankfully foiled)?
Should Ms. Kagan have darted out of Wong’s Chinese Restaurant on 86th Street, drove several hundred miles to Detroit’s airport, and personally tackled and arrested the 23-year-old Nigerian “underwear bomber”?
Was there a point or purpose to Mr. Graham’s odd query? Not to sound too conspiratorial or paranoid, but what did the good senator really want to know? That Ms. Kagan is Jewish (which is no secret at all) and doesn’t spend much time in church or caroling on Christmas as a result?
That she doesn’t know all of the words to all of the stanzas of “Silent Night”? Is he looking to share a steaming plate of vegetable egg foo young with her at David Chu’s next Christmas Day?
Maybe I’ll find the answers to these questions someday on a little slip of paper in a fortune cookie.
When Abba Poliakoff could take a breather late Wednesday night, June 30, after hours of phone calls and meetings, he still had two more phone calls.
In one conversation he’ll always remember, Mr. Poliakoff learned from his son that he had just become a grandfather for the first time.
While it doesn’t get much better than that, the second call with Rabbi Hershel Lutch, Yeshivat Rambam’s executive director, came very close.
Rabbi Lutch congratulated Mr. Poliakoff on becoming the “grandfather” of 404 Rambam students as well. That was what it was like in the early hours of Mr. Poliakoff’s new role as president of Rambam.
He is helping watch over and work out one of this community’s most beneficial exchanges.
Yeshivat Rambam and Bnos Yisroel will be switching buildings. The two beloved educational facilities could be on the verge of cementing a bright future for the two day schools. The schools are a short drive from each other on Park Heights Avenue.
Yeshivat Rambam, which has of late relied on the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for fiscal help and management advice, will be able to move its main campus to the Bnos campus, the former Beth Jacob Congregation. It is located across the street from the Park Heights Jewish Community Center.
Bnos is located at 5713 Park Heights Ave. just blocks south of Yeshivat Rambam’s 6300 Park Heights Ave. location.
The beauty of this is that the Rambam boys are already housed at the JCC. This will bring the two campuses that much closer together.
Bnos, which has seen itself grow into kindergarten through high school with some 500 students, is in a position of needing space to accommodate its growth.
On June 28, Rambam’s board of directors considered a letter of intent to move forward toward a contract with Bnos. The schools would stay in their current locations through the upcoming academic year.
“Now is the time to get reinvigorated and to reach high standards,” Mr. Poliakoff said. “Rambam is vitally important to the community. It plays a critical role, educating children on the derech [path] of Torah Umadah
He said now that the structure of a secure future is more in place for the school, it can focus on its mission of excellence in Jewish education. “We are now better poised to meet our targets as a school with a high level of excellence,” he said.
“It looks like Rambam will have a future,” said one source. “Rambam will have a light at the end of the tunnel. It looks as if all of this will result in a happy ending.”
For Mr. Poliakoff, the work has begun already and the feeling of optimism is abundant.
Marc B. Terrill, president of the Associated, is also excited about the agreement struck by Rambam and Bnos.
“This is wonderful news for both schools and for our community,” he said in a statement. “The entire process is emblematic of how mature communities should conduct business. Simply put, the communication, openness and creativity points to an across-the-board win for Jewish Baltimore The unique needs of each school are being met, and all indicators point to a bright future for all involved.”
* * * * * * * *
Rabbi Hershel Lutch, Rambam’s executive director, sent out the following letter to parents July 1:
After many weeks of hard work and negotiation by our board and professional leadership, we are delighted to share a number of positive developments at Yeshivat Rambam. These developments enhance the success of Rambam and ensure that we continue our critical mission of educating the next generations of Jewish leaders.
Here are the key points of these developments, with further details below:
We are selling our building to Bnos Yisroel and buying their building, the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, located across the street from the JCC. We have chosen new lay leadership headed by our new Board President, Abba Poliakoff. We have restructured the Middle & High School administration to better accommodate our physical configuration. As a result of this restructuring, Dr. Schwartz is stepping down as Principal.
Please join us for an important community meeting to discuss these and other matters Thursday, July 8, at 8:00 PM at our main campus.
As explained in a previous communication, the building at 6300 Park Heights Avenue has ceased to fulfill our needs. In addition, the weight of old debts was preventing our rebound from the difficulties of our recent past.
We therefore signed an agreement this week to sell our building to Bnos Yisroel, and to acquire their building in return. That building, at 5713 Park Heights Avenue, is across the street from our Boys Middle & High School in the Park Heights JCC, close enough for faculty and staff to cross between locations with ease. In addition, the sale of our building will allow us to pay off substantial debt and will make us more financially agile moving forward. We will remain at 6300 Park Heights for the 2010-2011 school year. Next summer, we will remodel the new building to prepare for occupancy, using funds made available through this transaction. The building already contains more than 25 classrooms, a large shul/auditorium, a multi-purpose room, a cafeteria, and outdoor spaces. Our plans are in the earliest stages, but we are excited about the move and have begun exploring appropriate modifications to the building.
New Lay Leadership
We are similarly pleased to announce new lay leadership of our school. We have asked Abba Poliakoff to serve as our President, and are in the process of filling out the Board of Directors. Abba will serve as the school’s chief lay leader, working closely with me and other professional leadership to advance our mission and secure Rambam’s future. He comes to us as a former Rambam parent who has served the Baltimore community in many ways: as a business lawyer and Chairman of the Securities Law Department of Gordon Feinblatt, LLC; as President of the Jewish Arbitration and Mediation Board of Baltimore; as Chairman of the Maryland Israel Development Center; as a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the Baltimore Jewish Council; and as member of the Board of Directors of The Associated.
“Our new Board will feature an active committee structure. The committees will cover key aspects of operation, including: development (Ed Hoffman, chair), academics (Debra Drang, chair), finance and administration (Meyer Shields, chair), communications and marketing (Ellie Kagan, chair), and governance (Steven Fleisher, chair). Members of the Executive Board will include the committee chairs and other active parents. In addition, all members of our Board of Directors will serve on at least one committee each.
We are looking to enfranchise the parent body in building the school’s future. Please keep this in mind when you meet with us next Thursday.
Hakarat Hatov to our Outgoing Board
We are grateful to our outgoing officers and directors for their tremendous help and support. Without their determination, ideas, and, of course, hard work, Yeshivat Rambam would surely not exist today. In particular, we thank Barry Nabozny, outgoing President, and Dr. David Sidransky, outgoing Chairman, for their remarkable service. Barry stepped in two years ago, helping to bridge the successful transition to new leadership. In fact he helped find and recruit some of our top talent while serving as a lay-Executive Director. While he is happy to stand down from that all-consuming level of involvement on behalf of the school, we will miss Barry’s unwavering commitment.
Middle & High School Administrative Restructuring
We are grateful to our administration for its dedication and hard work over the past year. This was a learning experience for new and old administration alike, as we explored the best ways to educate students on two campuses while maintaining the highest levels of academic and Torah learning. The experience taught us the difficulties of having administrative personnel on-site for half the time in either location. After much serious thought, we decided to restructure the Middle & High School leadership. We are happy to announce the 2010-2011 Yeshivat Rambam Senior Educational Administration as follows:
Boys Middle & High School Principal—Rabbi Yakov Majeski
Girls Middle & High School Principal—Mrs. Shira Tuchman
Elementary School Principal—Rabbi Shmuel Feld
ECC Director—Mrs. Rachel Rotenberg