New Year, New Focus

(stellalevi/ E+/ Getty Images)

Taking stock of the past year and looking forward to the next naturally prompts members of the Jewish community to reflect not only on their own lives and community, but the state of humanity in general. Given this time of inner and outer reflection, it seemed like the perfect occasion to ask a handful of Jews from different sectors of the community to tell us about their “big ideas” for the New Year — whether for their slice of Jewish Baltimore, for the Diaspora or for the world at large. Here’s what they had to say.

Rabbi Susan Grossman, Beth Shalom Congregation

For Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, 5779 is all about retooling her synagogue’s support for Israel by purchasing bonds for The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Like every other year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Beth Shalom will hold its Israel Bonds drive, but this year will be a little different. The congregation will launch its own campaign called “It’s Your Choice,” through which they’ll ask congregants to make a bond purchase or a direct donation to Masorti.

“We’re very mobilized around the idea of combating extremism in Israel and working to save the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel that we love so much,” said Grossman.

“The goal is to redirect our resources that we’ve been indiscriminately — to a certain extent — giving to Israel to build institutions that can support religious pluralism and democracy in Israel. This is one step in our much larger goal of taking Israel back from the extremists who are controlling it right now.”

Grossman pointed to the July 19 detention and interrogation of Rabbi Dov Haiyun of the Moriah Congregation in the city of Haifa for performing weddings that were not in accordance with halacha as an example of religious extremism that has negatively impacted the Conservative Jewish community in Israel.

Grossman said she has seen young people who have Jewish educations become alienated by extremist elements of Israel as well as injustices they see in Israeli society. While Grossman understands that social justice values may well have come from their education in Conservative Judaism, she hopes that young members of the Jewish community can direct their passion for justice back into Israel.

“I think we failed our young people by not providing them a venue to take that passion for a just Israel,” she said. “But now we’re providing it for them.”

The “It’s Your Choice” campaign is not only meant to energize young Jews, according to Grossman. It is meant to combat the fear that American Jews feel that if they don’t support the Israeli government at all costs, that they are being “anti-Israel.”

“We, as Conservative Jews, are not going to put up with this anymore.”

— Connor Graham

Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, Head of School, Krieger Schechter Day School

One way to strengthen his corner of Jewish Baltimore, Schwartz said, is for Krieger Schechter to deepen its bonds with both internal Jewish community organizations and general Baltimore groups, “the organizations that make Baltimore go, as they say.

“My goal as the head of school,” he said, “is to show Baltimoreans who benefits from a strong Krieger Schechter Day School through our community partnerships.” Last summer’s partnerships with J Camps will be expanded for 2019, according to Schwartz.

Additionally, Schwartz said, Krieger Schechter is ready to take the next step in thinking about eco-friendly practices. “We’re already a green school,” he said. “That’s so 2000.” The school, as well as the attached Chizuk Amuno Congregation, will be outfitted with LED lighting, thanks to a BGE grant.

This year, they’ve hired Miriam Glaser, formerly of the Park School, Charles E. Smith Day School and the Pearlstone Center, to serve as the green school coordinator. She’ll work to envision and then execute a set of sustainability initiatives for the school.

But it’s not just about the faculty. “The kids have their own committees,” Schwartz said, “and are working with the green school coordinators to do it themselves through enhanced recycling, through environmental education, through a partnership with the Pearlstone Center.”

The other idea on Schwartz’s mind is an ability to commit to a variety of different activities in the community. “We are customizing an affordability package for families to be able to live Jewishly and engage meaningfully in their synagogues, JCC, Jewish summer camp,” he said.

All three of these ideas, Schwartz said, connect, creating structures for Jewish community engagement formed around a strong day school. “There is chaos in the world and here in Baltimore,” he said, “and we need to be part of the solution.”

— Jesse Bernstein

Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman, Repair the World Associates, Jewish Volunteer Connection

She grew up in Baltimore County and he grew up in Baltimore City, but both Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman see the city as the front lines for greater Jewish investment in the surrounding community.

“I think with that movement of … Jews back into Baltimore City,” Sherman said, “that there needs to be a renewal of a commitment to Baltimore, and bettering Baltimore as a community and offering support both in terms of time as well as financial support.”

By venturing outside of self-imposed silos, Goldsmith said, the Jewish community can really be of service. The goal for this year, she said, should be “looking outside of our own community and seeing how, dare I say, the power that the Jewish community holds can benefit other communities that are different from ours.”

This work, they say, can’t just be imposed by groups like Repair the World — it’s going to take individual investment.

— Jesse Bernstein

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

Kindness. Diligence. Hospitality.

These ideas are all interconnected for Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who hopes that upon entering 5779, the Jewish community, and mankind at large, can embody these values, putting forth a concerted effort to heal our divides.

“There are rifts in the Jewish community that we need to heal, but in the broader community we are so divided. We’re not just divided by policy, we’re divided by emotion and attitude,” Cardin said.

“The Other isn’t just someone seeing something differently than us. They’re not just wrong, but they are bad and dangerous,” she said describing the mindset that she feels creates the political and spiritual rifts that are dividing families, communities and entire parts of the country. “That attitude … that’s drifting us apart.”

Further, Cardin believes these divisions pose a danger to American ideals.

“I truly believe that American values and democracy are being threatened and undermined,” she said. “We have to be very diligent as Jewish people that we don’t for some reason look the other way while the foundations of American democracy are being chipped away.”

Cardin hopes to see members of the community use kindness and hospitality to transform the dynamic, by doing things like inviting someone they don’t agree with to have coffee or come to their home for Shabbat dinner. This education by expanding boundaries is an act of due diligence, according to Cardin.

“We need to have an openhearted conversation about differences and how we manage those differences in an age with such divisiveness,” said Cardin. “It’s up to each and every one of us to preserve this glorious nation we have.”

— Connor Graham

Frank Storch (Photo provided)

Frank Storch, Philanthropist

As director of The Chesed Fund Limited and Project Ezra of Greater Baltimore, Frank Storch has a unique, close-to-the-ground perspective on the needs of Baltimore’s Jewish community — the Orthodox, in particular. With Rosh Hashanah approaching, he said, his ideas for big change to improve people’s lives are not complicated or trendy.

“For me, people’s perspectives on safety is still an area that needs big change,” Storch said.

“Whether it is more complex issues of protecting our schools and shuls or simpler preventative measures such as being seen in the dark by wearing reflective gear, safety protocols and methods are critical and life-saving,” he added. “Nowadays, we are so busy and sometimes overlook the basic important survival skill of staying safe. There are so many things we can do to protect ourselves that only take seconds and should really be second nature by now. I want people to ‘reflect’ on valuing their lives and the ones they love.”

On the heels of his recent free reflective vest giveaway during the Chanukah season, Storch said he plans a “Light Up the Night” free reflective belt giveaway.

“I plan to literally ‘highlight’ the critical need for pedestrians to make sure they are seen during evenings and inclement weather,” he said. “With 32,000 belts already ordered, I hope that the schools in town as well as all shuls of every denomination join us in this important initiative and distribute them to every student, staff member and congregant.

“Another safety issue that I feel needs to be addressed in this New Year is increasing security in our shuls. The recent tragic shooting at the Florida gaming tournament shows us how many lives can be destroyed in just an instant if there are not enough security measures already in place to prevent them from happening. From more security personnel, to more mindfulness, to more concrete physical changes in buildings, there are so many things that can and must be done to tighten security at facilities. Although there have been great strides made in these areas in the last few years, there is more work to be done. Let’s not wait for more tragedy to motivate us.”

This year, Storch also plans to complete and distribute the guide “Keep Your Shul Safe” to shuls across America and beyond.

“As another important New Year’s resolution, let’s implement change to ensure our shuls, our synagogues, our spiritual sanctuaries, are physically protected as well,” he said.

— Susan C. Ingram

Bari Hochwald (David Stuck photo)

Bari Hochwald, Artist/Activist

For Bari Hochwald, actor, director, playwright and founder of the Global Theatre Project, the word that summarizes her hope for change in the coming year is “empathy.”

In a climate that emphasizes and reinforces Otherness, the social activist/artist said Jews should be equipped to reach out with understanding to marginalized groups.

“I keep coming back to ‘what does it mean to be a Jew?’” she said. “If we want to evolve into high levels of spiritual expression, into a higher functioning of all this glory that we are, we cannot do it without empathy, because we are cutting ourselves off from the suffering of other people.”

Asking reflective, honest and courageous questions that address not just oneself, but other people and the planet is what the High Holidays are about every year, she said.

“How does my life have to change so I’m hurting less people, from damaging less environments, so that I’m adding to the health of this planet and everything on it?” she said.

“That’s where the arts serve the community … because what we do to enhance a society is to help to evolve that sense of empathetic communal rapport,” she said. “Without that, we don’t have a healthy society. Right now, we are unbelievably unbalanced. We are living in a very narcissistic time, but we don’t have to. And what will cure that is empathy and caring — but in action.”

Once empathy and caring are put into action in people’s daily lives, Hochwald said, “we could become anything. In the most positive and productive and miraculous of ways, we could fulfill what we are. That’s where my hope lies, and what drives me every day is what’s possible, not what is.” JT

— Susan C. Ingram

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