Editor’s Notebook


2014-02-05 14:40:47

Last Thursday night, I attended “Jewish Literature Live” at George Washington University. The class, taught by noted author and chair of the university’s English Department, Faye Moskowitz and sponsored by the generosity of David Bruce Smith, focuses on contemporary Jewish American authors. After each of six books is read and studied, the authors visit with the students. These author visits are open to the public, so on Thursday, I heard Dara Horn speak to the class about her most recent novel, Guide to the Perplexed.

Horn is funny and smart and engaging and thoughtful, and if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, you should do so. She shared how whenever she is part of a panel of Jewish writers, she is invariably asked, “Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?” She considered the question and finally decided that one is a Jewish writer if one is invited to participate on a panel to which one will be asked, “Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?”

She pondered how Shalom Aleichem would have answered this question. Horn, who has her Ph.D. in Yiddish and Hebrew literature from Harvard University, explained that the question would not even make sense to Aleichem. The word for “Jewish” in Yiddish is “Yiddish.” In addition to referring to the Jewish religion, “Yiddish” is the word for the Jewish language and culture. For Aleichem, to be a “Jewish” writer would mean that he writes in a Jewish language, be it Yiddish or Hebrew. Horn, therefore, tries to write stories in English as if they were written in a Jewish language.

She talked about her writing process, how she writes to learn what will happen next. She wondered what happens to the days that disappear. All days disappear as is the nature of days. But, she says, if we are lucky, those days turn into stories.

Her thoughts turned to the “data dump” of our time — the postings of pictures on various social networking sites of food and babies and views from windows. She explained that we are capturing the fleeting – meals that took hours to prepare and minutes to eat; crawling babies who will too soon leave for college; sights that overwhelm us as they fill our eyes and are quickly replaced by noise in the distance.

Her words struck me especially as this is my last week at Washington Jewish Week. I think about the days I’ve captured. The fleeting moments I’ve tried to preserve. I remember everyone I’ve met because of this job – the writers and artists; historians and survivors; rabbis and politicians; physicians and athletes; parents and students. I truly hope that I chose wisely when deciding what to put on each page. I look at the archives of the Washington Jewish Week that line the walls of our office and I wonder, when someone pages through the issues published during that past 2 ½ years, what portrait have I painted of our community? I hope it appears as I have seen it – a complicated but truly beautiful landscape.

If you were to ask me who I am, I would answer “Jewish writer.” Not because I am Jewish or because I write about Jewish topics, but because, as Horn explained, I use words to celebrate all that is Jewish – our language, our religion, our culture, our community. I am humbled by the faith the owners and the publisher of Washington Jewish Week placed in me to lead this great paper. I am grateful to our readers for your time – every minute you spent reading something I, or one of my reporters, has written is a gift for which I am deeply appreciative. Thank you for your letters and emails and phone calls. I am grateful for those who recognized me around town and talked to me about something that ran in the paper. I took this job, wanting to make it a conversation with the community. I thank you for making it just that.

Last month, Loribeth Weinstein of Jewish Women International (JWI) asked me to join her staff as vice president of communications. It was an offer I could not refuse. I first learned of JWI 10 years ago and, since then, have been a contributor to Jewish Woman magazine, an active volunteer and a member of its board of trustees.

For those of you who know me personally, and those of you who have read my columns, this move quite simply, just fits. The heart of JWI’s mission is to empower Jewish women and girls and create safe homes for our families. I am excited to be part of the team that helps to make a difference in countless lives.

When I started at WJW, my children were beginning high school. It was the perfect time for me to step away from being an author who wrote from home and accept a full-time position. Now my oldest is preparing to leave for college. I am comfortable venturing a little farther from home – joining the ranks of those who “metro” to work. Now I want to be someone who does the work the Washington Jewish Week wants to report.

The time is right for me to begin writing my next chapter.

With warmest wishes for a peaceful and happy Shabbat,


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2014-01-29 15:25:06

It’s been a strange 24 hours.

I was all set to write about Sunday’s phone call, but now, as I type at 12:18 Monday afternoon, I am haunted by the phone call that just ended.

So I’ll begin with Sunday.

My daughter sent me the link to the website so I could listen in on the conference call she had scheduled for 2 p.m. I watched my computer screen as 52 teens logged in from across the country and around the world. Kids from Rockville, New York and Kansas City; teens from Bulgaria, Argentina and the U.K. They were gathering virtually to discuss what it means to them to be a Jew in the Diaspora.

This wasn’t a school assignment. They didn’t know I would be listening and possibly reporting on their call. They weren’t calling in to further any sort of ambition. They just wanted to talk and connect.

My daughter, Sofie and her AZA counterpart, Dan Widawsky, initiated the call. Sofie and Dan serve as vice presidents of globalization for BBYO. They facilitate similar calls for members of their Global Networking Committee but thought it would be nice to give other teens, not on the committee, the chance to talk about Jewish issues with peers from around the world.

They debated if we should still consider ourselves a diasporic community. After all, they reasoned, Christians and Muslims are spread throughout the world. Interestingly, the international teens repeatedly discussed Judaism as a culture and said that as long as there was another Jew, wherever they were in the world, they were home.

Quite a few of the American teens spoke of what it was like to visit Israel. Many had traveled the previous summer with BBYO. They shared how it felt – the unexpected connection – and the importance of ensuring the safety and existence of Israel as a homeland for Jews.

The call ended after approximately 40 minutes. A schedule of future calls was announced with discussion topics ranging from “Wicked, simple, wise and silent: Which son are you?” to “Together as one, forever united: my identity in the global Jewish community.”

What I was most impressed with was the thoughtfulness of the conversation. I loved hearing not only the variety of answers but the diversity of voices. Here was our global Jewish community. And here were young people who were dedicating free time to grapple with what it means to be Jewish.

These are the stories I love to write about. I’m tired of worrying about what’s being lost — about what will happen to our synagogues or our denominations or our way of being Jewish. It’s changing. It’s changing because technology, like web-based free international conference calls, allows Jewish kids from five different countries to actually talk to each other. And they are talking about being Jewish.
Wondering what happens after bar mitzvah? This is what happens.

This is what we should be talking about – this new generation. This is what I have made space for under my editorship.

Last summer, I interviewed some local lacrosse players who were trying out to play on Israel’s national team. One young man, Matt Greenblatt, who had recently graduated from Wootton High School, told me he extended his Birthright trip to Israel because he was having such a great time. When he heard about the fledgling Israeli lacrosse team, he offered to help coach youth camps. I was happy to see him, and several other local guys including Jason Senter and Mark Jecowitz, were recently named to the team’s roster. And I was even happier to receive an email from Team Israel announcing a partnership with Taglit-Birthright creating lacrosse-specific trips to Israel connecting young athletes to Israel. It’s a connection to our heritage that was unimaginable in my youth. But it is something that will be there for my son.

I smile when I see that our new reporter, Max Moline, has placed his AEPi (Jewish fraternity) mug on his desk. I like when he excitedly pitches stories about Operation Understanding DC (OUDC) and USY— youth programs that clearly influenced his Judaism. I encourage him to write these stories, not only so that another young person may discover and take advantage of the opportunity, but so we grown-ups can learn about all the good that is happening.

So I had originally planned to write a column urging us to teach, as the late Edgar Bronfman wrote, “hope, not fear.”

But then I spoke with Herman Taube.

I had emailed Mr. Taube about a feature I’m planning for next week. I want to explore how the world will be different when there are no more Holocaust survivors. I’ve invited historians and students, social workers and survivors to write from their unique perspectives. Rather than simply submit an essay, Mr. Taube asked me to call him. His eyesight is failing and it is easier for him to talk.

He kept apologizing for keeping me on the phone, but I was grateful for every moment of it. I am so focused on the younger generation that I sometimes forget how important it is to take the time to learn from those who are older. I don’t want to give away what he told me (you’ll have to wait for next week’s issue), but suffice it to say his main point was that those who want to learn will always find a way.

I think this is how these two phone calls overlap. We may worry about kids disengaging from Judaism after bar mitzvah – but there are still those who want to connect. And, they will find a way. It may not be in the way we did or the way we expect or think they should, but they will find a way – they will learn. And we may worry what will happen when there is no one left to pull up their sleeves and point to their numbers and say, “I was there. This happened to me.” But future generations will find a way to learn the stories. There will be a way to hear the words and understand the lessons.

We just have to have faith.

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Things I won't forget

2014-01-22 19:48:44

Almost three years ago, to prepare for my meeting with Phil Jacobs to discuss becoming managing editor of Washington Jewish Week, I conducted a very unscientific study of what various people would want to read in their local Jewish paper. My parents, whom I chose to represent their demographic, told me they and their friends were interested in reading about Alzheimer’s. Many of their friends were caregivers to parents or spouses who were suffering from that affliction. So when Frandee Woolf, executive director of American Friends of Hebrew University Mid-Atlantic Region, invited me to have breakfast with Hermona Soreq, I jumped at the chance.

Soreq is the Charlotte Slesinger professor of molecular neuroscience at The Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences. Her biotech start-up company, Ester Neurosciences, is developing therapeutic products for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and acute stress reactions. What she explained to me is that there is a spectrum of aging — much in the way there is a spectrum of autism. There are people who do well, who are clear minded well into their 90s. She told me the story of a friend who was complaining of a back ache to his son. His son replied, “Dad, what do you expect at 98?” And she said, what she wants to know is what is their secret? What is it that those at that end of the aging spectrum do?

Currently, by the time one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it is too late. The nerves are damaged beyond repair. What is left is palliative care — steps that can be taken to ease the symptoms and possibly slow the progression of the disease. She said every disease is caused by elements from lifestyle, environment and genetics. Scientists are scanning brains of current patients and studying advanced DNA sequencing to analyze what is happening. The hope is that tests will be developed that can diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier. As we understand with cancer, earlier detection means better odds at fighting the disease.

I asked her what she needs to find a cure (although she corrected me that there really isn’t a “cure”). I expected to hear that she needs money to fund labs or research, after all, wasn’t that her purpose for being in the States this week. Instead, she said that what she needs is a “new generation of scientists.”

She explained that Hebrew University is training this new generation. In her Center for Excellence in Neuroscience, students are adept at many disciplines — molecular neuroscience, computational neuroscience, robotics, behavioral science (and probably more, but I was an English major). All are needed. By way of example, computational neuroscience helps create models that analyze the buildup of plaque in the nerves.
Robotics will explain how the brain talks to the limbs and allow us to figure out how to activate a machine with brain power. To further explain how this is different, Soreq got her Ph.D. in biochemistry. Her Ph.D. candidates are getting degrees in physics, computer science, math, behavioral science; those degrees take longer to get and involve bigger sacrifice.

On average, Israeli Ph.D. candidates are five years older than their counterparts in the U.S. They have served in the military, have families and mortgages. They are serious and committed. “By the time they get to Ph.D., these are determined people,” Soreq explained. They’re not looking at other options.

I asked her what it is about Israel that produces such scientific and medical innovations. She said that the state of Israel invested a lot in entrepreneurship. “It’s a substitute for natural resources. We have no land, no water. We have a lot of new immigrants with no jobs, no housing, no common language. We have to be entrepreneurs to make work.”

She sees a difference when she teaches in Israel — nothing is accepted, the professor is not the authority. Students push back and question and innovate. “We are a small nation that continues to survive against all odds,” the professor explained. “That characteristic, that brain of the people, made it survive.”

Still, funding can be an issue. Israel is part of the European Research Foundation. The Israeli government participates in this foundation, which means her scientists are eligible to submit research applications to get funding. This is not the case in the U.S. where Israeli scientists are international and have to prove that their research is better than their peers in the U.S. The likelihood for funding is less.

I asked her about the recent ASA boycott and she explained that what they worry about in Israel is how the BDS movement impacts the European academic community. When research is submitted to academic journals for publication (a critical step in garnering funds), a paper from an Israeli scientist may be rejected because someone on the panel has been influenced by BDS. But, she says, these panels are anonymous, and she and others are not told the reason why the research paper wasn’t published.

Soreq also works to halt the “brain drain” — Israeli students who leave Israel and set up labs in the U.S. Funding is needed to help this new generation of scientists start labs and use their unique Israeli brains to find the answers. And, just as we fight back against BDS, we need to fight for their ability to do the work they are being trained to do, she said.

To learn more how you can help, go to American Friends of Hebrew University, www.AFHU.org.

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Speaking Yiddish on Sunday

2014-01-15 18:09:28

Meredith-headshot-copy2I don’t know why I was surprised to see the Hebrew letters. I know Yiddish is a mixture of Hebrew and German, but my several generations removed from Yiddish speakers knowledge is based on seeing Yiddish words written in transliteration. I know slightly more than most of my friends, and by that I mean, more words than “schlep” and “oy.” I remember hearing more senior members of my family saying something about “hakn a tshaynik” and my uncle calling my son a “vilda chia.” For me, Yiddish was a collection of quaint words from my cultural past — a quirky way to pepper my speech and give me a false sense of preserving something of my grandparents.

So I was not prepared for the scholarly endeavors of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center Yiddish leyenkrayz (reading group). Led by Rabbi Max Ticktin, a professor at George Washington University, the group has met every other Sunday since 1983. The group, it was explained to me, owes much to the energies of Marvin Caplan, Harry Lerner and David Neil Miller.

The 13 participants around the table ranged in age, I’m guessing, from late 40s/early 50s to 80 and possibly beyond. Some were native speakers — survivors or children of survivors, some were self-taught and some had attended Yiddish schools as children. Hilda Rubin, the tenacious woman who insisted I learn more about the group, categorized her parents’ generation into three groups: those who abandoned Yiddish in order to fully assimilate into American culture; those who spoke Yiddish they were discussing; and those who sent their children to Yiddish school to learn.

These after-school programs struck me in their similarity to modern-day congregation-based Hebrew schools. Students would attend after their regular school day finished in order to learn Yiddish and Yiddishkeit. Hilda remembers going four days a week. Younger members of the leyenkrayz remember going three or even two days a week, as increasing demands on family schedules made it a challenge to devote too much time to Yiddish.

The group spent an hour taking turns reading aloud from I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi. The participants read at varying speeds and comfort levels, but all were impressive in their competency. This was no beginners group. Hilda slid an English translation of the novel to me and pointed out their place in the text. I tried, fairly unsuccessfully, to keep pace and was happy when I would hear “punim” and find “face” on my page. Or read that the tea was kept warm by pieces of cloth wrapped around the pot, and then hear the reader say “schmattes.” It was if I was solving a puzzle.

Occasionally, the group would laugh or tsk, and I was sad to have missed the joke.

The best part was when Rabbi Ticktin would explain a phrase and place it in historical context. There was a discussion of the use of the word for “godfather” when referring to a very important man in the town. Ticktin explained that story takes place during a time of transition for Lodz — the city was moving from the Middle Ages to modern times and relationships among the characters were still heavy with the old ways.

There was debate about whether a word translated to “yolk” or “yoke.” And one sentence sparked a memory from an older man at the table, “This is what my grandmother said when she got mad at me.”

Ticktin explained that in 1939, 11 million out of 16 million Jews knew “more than a little Yiddish.” That was only 75 years ago, he marveled. Of course, from among those, 6 million were killed. I sensed he was speaking with sadness for the loss of the language that he described as being so rich in overtones. He gave, by way of example, the Yiddish word for Holocaust, “khurbn” which not only means “destruction” but is the same word used to refer to the destruction of the Temples. For Ticktin, “khurbn” is the better word than Holocaust or Shoah, because our people’s continuity is implied in just one word.

This is not the only Yiddish group that meets in the greater Washington area (I’ll list contact info at the end of this column). Other groups welcome those newer to the language and still others are for schmoozing. This leyenkrayz is for reading and for celebrating Yiddish’s rich literary cannon. It is important, Ticktin believes, for the books and stories to be read aloud because Yiddish is a language that must be spoken. Sarah Shapiro, who coordinates the group’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/YiddishofGreaterWashington, which is where you go to learn more about the group and its events), marveled at the richness and legacy of literature crafted over not much more than a century and said that since 1983, they have yet to run out of 11-page stories to read. These short stories, explained the rabbi, are the ideal length to be read
out loud in about an hour. The idea being that if someone misses a Sunday session, he or she will not fall behind the group as the reading is contained to that session. The Brothers Ashkenazi is a new venture for them, but those who can’t attend, can easily access a translation of the novel to read at home. And, “God willing,” says Ticktin, “we’ll all be here in two years,” for the 100th observance of Shalom Aleichem’s yarhzheit.

To learn more about the group, go to the Facebook page or the DCJCC website. Additionally, every Wednesday, from 10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., a Yiddish reading group meets at the Friendship Heights Community Center. Everyone is welcome, even beginners. Contact Maurice Singer at 202-362-0883. And a Yiddish conversation group meets every Friday, from 12:30-2 p.m. at Alfios in Friendship Heights. For more on this group, contact Jonathan Sunshine at 301-656-5952.

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Getting local Jewish nonprofits recognition they deserve

2014-01-08 17:37:01

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Jews United for Justice. Jewish Women International. GLOE. Ask Big Questions. BBYO Stand UP! Sunflower Bakery.

These are just some of the local Jewish organizations that are moving the needle in connecting us with a relevant, vibrant Judaism. They are making a significant, measurable impact with those who participate in their programs and hear their messages. And I know this because they have been recognized by Slingshot.

Slingshot was created when a group of young funders gathered and decided to create something like the Zagat restaurant guide for Jewish organizations. Slingshot: A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation highlights the 50 most innovative nonprofits in North American Jewish life for these young funders and their peers. In 2007, they followed the Guide with the Slingshot Fund, a peer-giving network for these next-generation funders. Last year, they launched supplements to the Guide focusing on organizations doing innovative work in the Disabilities & Inclusion arena and on behalf of Women & Children. And this year, thanks to the generosity of the Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, Slingshot will produce a D.C. edition for Jewish organizations impacting the local Jewish community in D.C., Maryland (Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties) and Virginia (Arlington and Fairfax Counties). National organizations doing ongoing work that impacts these communities may also apply.

So I am dedicating my Editor’s Notebook this week to all our amazing local organizations, and telling them to apply and apply now for inclusion. I do this because a nod in Slingshot can do significant things for an organization by way of funding, partnerships and recognition. In fact, the name “slingshot” speaks to launching an organization forward, much in the way a slingshot would propel a rock. (I had thought it was a reference to David and Goliath, but as Will Schneider, executive director of Slingshot said to me, “If that is the case, who is
Goliath? We’re not about taking anyone down.”)

The deadline is Jan. 24 (that’s two weeks from now). And, the application can take a few days of staff time to write and film (there is a video component).

But, before you go to slingshotfund.org and begin, I’m going to give you some tips to help with your application, courtesy of Slingshot’s Schneider and Simone Friedman Rones from Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies. I do this because I know how many amazing, amazing organizations we have, and I want the D.C. supplement to be filled. But I also want the Guide and the other supplements (Women & Children and Disabilities & Inclusion) to have many D.C. representatives. Don’t worry — you only have to fill out one application (kind of like the Common App for colleges). At the end of the application, you’ll be given the opportunity to select if you want to be considered for the other supplements. Getting into one will not prohibit you from getting into the others. Boston-based Mayyim Hayyim that has re-invented mikvah was listed in all three books.

According to Schneider, applying organizations should have a really good handle on messaging. “Mayyim Hayyim and Moishe House [by way of example] have a deep handle on what they are changing. It’s about users’ lives.” As Schneider describes, Mayyim Hayyim created a new community around the mikvah. It took an existing model and flipped it on its head and created a movement.

Moishe House changed the way we program. Before, programs were created in board rooms, and then the challenge was about marketing them. Moishe House started with people and whatever program they create works because it’s for them. “They program from the bottom up and have a good handle on what their message is.”

And it’s about relevancy. If you’re doing the same thing you were doing 10 years ago, don’t apply. But it’s also not just about new organizations. “It’s about keeping your eye on the user and keeping an eye on their needs. You can’t do the same thing year in and year out.”

Slingshot evaluators, comprised of philanthropists and development professionals, look for organizations that are willing to change tactics.

“We’re really trying to reward and celebrate innovation in the Washington Jewish community,” said Rones, who stepped up to fund the D.C. supplement after Schneider floated the idea at a meeting. “We want people who have good ideas to know that funders will take a risk on innovation. We want to encourage organizations to think in new and creative ways and to know that there are funders who will fund those organizations.”

Evaluation is a very systemitized and structured process. Rones strongly suggests that organizations prove measurable impact. Include information on how effective your program is, anecdotes from participants about the impact you’ve made on their lives. Show that the program is working and that it’s actually having an impact. And show that you play well with others. “One of our factors is how well [the applying organization] collaborates with others in the community, so it’s helpful to demonstrate that as well,” she adds.

Knowing the commitment of time and resources required to apply, Slingshot has planned a D.C. celebration scheduled for Oct. 26 at Sixth & I. There, organizations will have the opportunity to mingle with potential funders. Every organization named to the D.C. supplement will receive $500 and at the October event, a group of philanthropists and funders will vote on who gets a $10,000 prize (other prizes may be given out as well).

Schneider points out that The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Sixth & I have been wonderful partners. While Slingshot is written with funders in mind, he notes that the guide goes out to many organizations and is required reading for Jewish studies majors at Brandeis. This year, the applications will also be made available to giving circles across the country. Now, groups of philanthropists who didn’t have an RFP process or who aren’t well known enough to garner
response to calls for applications will be able to search the database by tags, and Slingshot will send a list of organizations in search of funding.

At least 80 percent of organizations named in Slingshot receive funding and 100 percent report new partnerships. It’s a win-win for community and innovation. I, for one, am inspired by the hard work done every day by our tremendous community. And, yes, now you can go and apply. Good luck!

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