By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
My first recollection of a presidential election is from 1956. In our second grade classroom we had a big calendar with one removable slot for each day of the month. I remember Election Day being in red, placed there by our teacher Mrs. Osborn. I remember coming in the next morning and telling her for whom my parents had voted.
Now, how did I know that? Political discussions were a normal part of our lives at home, and, in 1956, while I may not have known the issues of the day, I did know of Eisenhower and Stevenson, the major party candidates. From that point, there was no stopping me.
With the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, awareness of politics in the Granite State, for me, came early. At 13, I was volunteering for a candidate running to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. I worked on my first presidential campaign at 15; the primary season that year was particularly intense, and I became further bitten by the political bug. I then went on to volunteer in a succession of campaigns for candidates for governor of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Governor’s Council, and another U.S. Senate race. My ultimate goal was to run for a seat in the state legislature at the age of 22. But other interests entered the picture, and, by that point, I had decided on another career option, to work professionally in the Jewish community. I have consistently followed that path. The single exception is when I had the honor of serving as spokesman in the 1988 presidential campaign of Alexander Haig.
I did, however, keep up my abiding interest, not only in politics, but also about Jews in American politics. I was fascinated by early historical figures like David Levy Yulee, of Florida, elected in 1845 as the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, and by Meyer London from New York’s Lower East Side, a Socialist elected to Congress in 1914. When I was growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, there were two Jewish standouts in the Senate: Jacob Javits, of New York, and Abe Ribicoff, of Connecticut. Elsewhere in the country, there were Ernest Gruening, one of Alaska’s first senators, and Congressmen Sidney Yates and Abner Mikva, of Chicago.
Jews were being elected in those days largely from districts and states with sizeable Jewish populations. Indeed, in 1974, Stephen Isaacs of The Washington Post wrote “Jews and American Politics.” In one chapter, he asks Jewish political figures why there weren’t more Jewish candidates for public office. One respondent admitted that while some were hesitant to run, many Jews acted behind the scene as media and strategic advisers, as well as donors. In 1974, there were three serving Jewish senators (Javits, Ribicoff and Howard Metzenbaum, of Ohio, who was then filling a vacancy), and 12 Jewish members of the House, seven of them from New York.
Over the past generation that picture has drastically changed. In the 111th Congress (2009-11) there were 14 Jewish members of the Senate, and 31 House members. Today the numbers have changed but are still impressive: 10 in the Senate and 19 in the House. We are about 2 percent of the total U.S. population.
And in the time since Isaacs’ book was published, Jews have represented states with relatively smaller Jewish populations, like New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oregon. The message: Voters were more interested in where one stood on the issues than on religion or ethnicity. In the process, more Jewish citizens have offered their candidacies, making that comment in the Isaacs book somewhat anachronistic.
Though relatively small in numbers, Jews traditionally lived in large numbers in strategic states, like New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio that could always make a difference in the Electoral College vote for president, raising the importance of “the Jewish vote.” Today, Jews live throughout the Sunbelt, while Jewish population figures in some important states have dropped, relative to our proportion of the population. Still, Jewish constituencies in a number of states, and our traditionally high voter turnout, remain important factors during election season.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, B’nai B’rith is prohibited from endorsing or raising funds for political candidates. That said, we have always advocated a strong Get Out the Vote (GOTV) effort on the part of Jewish voters. A 1988 brochure, distributed by the B’nai B’rith Commission on Community Volunteer Services, was headlined “Your Voice Makes the Choice.” Its table of contents includes such topics as voter registration, getting voters out on Election Day and an order form from which to order GOTV stickers.
Over the years, many of B’nai B’rith’s senior housing facilities have had their own GOTV programs, which have included briefings on issues affecting seniors.
One of America’s greatest gifts to its citizens is the electoral process. Sometimes mundane, and many times contentious, it gives each of us a chance to be heard. We enjoy the spectacle (the televised debates of candidates from both major parties this year had high ratings), many of us follow the races closely, wear a campaign button or place a bumper sticker on our cars, and then, on election day, revel in the opportunity—in another day it might have been said, our solemn duty—to cast our votes.
That affirmation of our democracy should never lose its importance to us as Americans, and as Jews.
By Gary P. Saltzman
President, B’nai B’rith International
As a nation, we seem to have lost our collective sense of civility. Whether it’s the language of our politicians, online conversations, hateful postings on social media or nasty comments left online at the end of news stories, too often too many of us no longer speak with kindness, tolerance, respect and patience. Us vs. Them is the order of the day. Respect for neighbors, for fellow citizens, for institutions, for leaders: all gone.
But tolerance has proven to be an important bedrock in this nation. Some of America’s greatest accomplishments can be credited to acceptance and camaraderie.
As an organization founded by immigrants in 1843, B’nai B’rith has long recognized that compassion is a key component to a functioning, successful society.
Prejudice and hate have led to too many horrific events.
At B’nai B’rith, we have long tried to spread a different message.
B’nai B’rith’s record of advocacy and work for the civil rights of all Americans dates back to the early decades of the 20th century. During the late 1940s, our leaders stood firmly behind President Harry Truman’s plans to end segregation, and later fully supported the Supreme Court’s order on school integration, declaring “We are determined to make every effort to secure complete equality of education throughout the nation. Lodges are encouraged to create city and state commissions for human relations in their own communities.”
B’nai B’rith’s 10,000 member Bowling League boycotted the American Bowling Congress until it dropped its whites-only rule.
On his election as president of B’nai B’rith, Philip Klutznick underscored and upheld the religious and moral imperative of B’nai B’rith’s members in the struggle to attain equality, even in the face of Ku Klux Klan violence in the South.
Responding to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s telegram, sent to B’nai B’rith after the 1956 Montgomery Bus boycott, Klutznick transmitted the following message: “B’nai B’rith is firm in its conviction that only through respect for the law and maintenance of civil order can justice be obtained. We endorse anyone who carries on in the interest of justice.”
Our global commitment to tolerance and acceptance is unwavering. As an organization with members and supporters all over the world, we seek cross-cultural understanding. We are dedicated to interfaith relations, meeting with leaders from other religions to form a united front in fighting religious discrimination and persecution. I have joined other B’nai B’rith leaders in meetings with Pope Francis to discuss points of agreement, as well as disagreement, between our religions, but always to demonstrate mutual respect for each other’s worship and beliefs.
B’nai B’rith has been active at the United Nations since its founding. Indeed, it was the global body that partitioned pre-state Israel, leading to the creation of the modern state. In recent years, however, the U.N. has become a vehicle for almost daily discrimination against Israel, reflecting a lack of tolerance for Jews and the Jewish state. We fight every day for the respect Israel’s democracy deserves. We also recognize that the U.N., if it lives up to its own founding principles, can be a force for universal human rights. We attend meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council to ensure the least tolerant of the world body’s member states do not set the agenda on rights.
We have created programs to respond to and counter intolerance. In 2000, B’nai B’rith launched Enlighten America. Our program materials note that it “provides a voice to speak out against prejudice and bigotry, hatred and violence, and on behalf of tolerance and understanding in our communities.”
At the center of the program is a pledge individuals make to “refrain from using slang expressions or telling jokes based on race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or physical or mental challenges that would serve to demean another, and to act with civility even if one strongly disagrees with the position taken by others on political issues.”
Imagine if we all took that pledge.
That program led us to develop the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge. Since 2006, this program has offered high school students the chance to think about the impact of tolerance and acceptance and diversity on our world. These students then create stories and illustrations to demonstrate how a diverse and tolerant society can improve our world.
Contestants amaze us year after year with their insightful views of how accepting others can lead to a better world. Through their thoughtful words and impressive illustrations, the high school students who have entered the contest over the last decade give me hope that tolerance and diversity are not just concepts. They are traits to live by.
The winning books each year are professionally published and donated to schools, libraries and Boys and Girls clubs of America across the country to teach younger children these vital lessons. Books are also available online. In the 10 years of the contest, we have donated 33 different titles and more than 39,000 printed books about tolerance and acceptance. That’s a lot of children getting the message. This contest has shown us that so many teens are leading by example.
Continually, we have spoken against religious intolerance that has led to name calling and accusations against the Muslim community. We have condemned the hateful targeting of the LGBT community. We have spoken out against the religious persecution of Christians in the Middle East. We advocate for seniors to ensure ageism does not affect an older person’s ability to get jobs or housing.
At every level, we must aim to bring out the best in people, rather than succumb to rhetoric and suspicion. We should aspire. Not sink.
Mutual respect. It’s not a concept. It’s a way of life we need to embrace. We hope to continue to play a role as we impact humankind. Note the end of that word. Kind.
Wishing you and your family a happy and sweet new year.
By Cheryl Kempler
The 1950s are remembered as a decade of optimism. Recognizing the importance of their deeds, those who had fought and survived World War II returned to create a better life for their children.
Many American Jews were prosperous and exhilarated by an independent Israel; they served their communities and the new Jewish homeland through membership in B’nai B’rith. What better response to the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of Jewish Life in America, held between 1951 and 1954, than to establish a headquarters in Washington, D.C.?
B’nai B’rith had operated out of rented offices in Washington since 1937. Initiated in 1953, the four-year campaign culminated in an impressive $1.5 million eight-floor structure a few blocks from the White House. Designed by architects Corning & Moore, it was intended as “a memorial to Henry Monsky,” B’nai B’rith’s wartime president. But 1640 Rhode Island Avenue also resonated with the tercentenary, to become the embodiment of Jewish achievements. The place served as the organization’s home from 1957 until it relocated to more modern premises in 2002. Offices were augmented by a library and an exhibit hall; both were resources highlighting the narrative of American Jewish life.
Ceremonies celebrating milestones like the groundbreaking included U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and dramatic readings featuring Broadway and radio stars, all under the supervision of Himan Brown, a B’nai B’rith leader known for his work as a film and radio producer. With titles like “A Time for Remembrance” and “The New Day,” these short plays contextualized B’nai B’rith’s place in the Jewish American experience. With the initial funding supplied by the Monsky Foundation, everyone could purchase “bricks” for the building for $55 each, while the B’nai B’rith Bowling League raised money for furniture. The library was a B’nai B’rith Women project.
Heard over national radio and the Voice of America, the building’s dedication occurred during the B’nai B’rith national convention on Nov. 24, 1957, when thousands locked arms and joyously marched to the site. As renowned cantor Jacob Barkin sang “Bless This House,” Vice President Richard M. Nixon unlocked the building door with a golden key and entered, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and Daisy Monsky, Henry’s widow. Words from the Mishnah, emblazoned on the exterior, underscored the significance with which 1640 Rhode Island Avenue is still remembered. The world stands on three foundations: Study, Service, and Benevolence.
By Rachel Goldberg
Come November, someone new will be elected president. Somehow, despite our country’s deep divisions over race, class, immigration status, who we love and how we live, we will still go forward with the president-elect.
Getting elected to the presidency isn’t just about the best candidate. It’s about 50 states, with primaries and caucuses, years of campaigning, raising money, debates, ads, speeches, shaking hands and baby holding. As I think about what I want from this new president, what he or she can do for older adults, I see where our elected chief executive can make a difference, and the many elements that have to come together just right to move forward on our shared goals.
Very little this year has gone as pundits expected, and I won’t even try to guess how it all works out. As a trained political scientist, I find myself much better at explaining why things happened than predicting what will happen. What I can foresee are the pieces of the puzzle with respect to aging, and what I hope this new president will understand, and what she or he should do about it.
Aging advocates have spent decades talking about simple goals, like healthy aging in place. We want “the golden years” to be lived in as good health as possible, in the community, as independently as possible. Families shouldn’t go bankrupt caring for their elders. Older adults shouldn’t have to choose among food, shelter and medicine as money runs out.
And with years of experience advocating for and providing options to older adults, we at B’nai B’rith know that reaching this goal requires a complex web of policy decisions at the federal and state level. And the next president can help, or stand in the way. Here’s a tip sheet for the next POTUS to follow:
The healthier we are as we age, the longer and better we will live. Preventing diabetes, cancer, heart disease and (someday) dementia would dramatically reduce health care costs and service needs, which would be good financial news for families and the country.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare”) made headway here by making many preventive services free or at low cost through both public and private insurance. Because of the ACA, people with chronic conditions are not priced out of health care access anymore, which helps them stay healthy—untreated chronic conditions can be very expensive once people hit Medicare age. We need to do more, including tackling the outrageous costs and inflation in drug prices, which make treatment and cures out of reach for many Americans, even those on Medicare.
The next president will have the opportunity to pursue various strategies to contain prescription drug costs, including through Medicare price negotiation, which B’nai B’rith has long supported. The new president will also face questions about how to use payment incentives to affect health care quality and cost. We hope the next president recognizes that Medicare has considerable cost sharing already—and we need to stabilize health care costs as a country rather than shift spiraling costs onto older adults.
While some older adults work happily into their 80s or beyond, many older workers are in the work force only because they can’t afford to retire. While there was once supposed to be a “three-legged stool” of retirement security, two of the legs—pensions and individual savings—have both taken serious hits, leaving only the third leg, Social Security, as the primary source of retirement income for two-thirds of retirees. Government can and should do more by expanding Social Security benefits. In the computing of benefits, credit should be given to workers who have taken time out for care giving.
In addition, for all federal programs affecting older adults, the cost of living adjustment should accurately reflect prices across the board. Congress and the president should ensure the survival of traditional pensions for current or future retirees. Still, only a real increase in wages will provide workers with enough disposable income to save for retirement.
Long Term Services
Just this spring, we finally succeeded in getting Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which funds hundreds, if not thousands, of programs in your community that help older adults stay independent and at home. These include caregiver support, respite care and home-delivered meals. But, as the aging population grows and boomers seek to avail themselves of these services, they will find the funding levels haven’t kept up with the costs—something the next president must address.
Many of the services that help people stay at home, even those with physical challenges or limitations, come through the Older Americans Act. But inadequate funding makes it harder for people to stay out of institutions. Moreover, most people do not have long-term care insurance, and Medicare pays for only short-term care after a hospitalization. That leaves most older Americans on limited incomes and with few assets dependent on Medicaid. So we are working to encourage states and the federal government to cover services at home, and that effort has been successful in many ways. Except one.
Many states have something called a Home and Community Based Waiver, which allows them to provide support for nursing home-qualified people at home instead. But most of those states have waiting lists for “waiver slots” because the state can’t afford to do more. Then, often when a waiver slot is offered to an eager nursing home resident, he or she cannot move back to home care because of a lack of affordable and appropriate rental housing for people with service needs.
Over more than 40 years, B’nai B’rith has established 40 low income senior residences to house more than 7,000 people. We would like to do more, but it’s gotten increasingly difficult. Money to build new supportive housing for the elderly through a federal loan program known as “Section 202” has dried up. Instead we find ourselves working with the public-private partnership program known as the low-income housing tax credit, with some success. But now this program is one of the only funding sources available for all sorts of new development in affordable housing—and it just isn’t enough.
Now, Back to You
So, Mr. or Mrs. President, we look forward to sitting down with you to discuss how to make low-income senior housing a priority, and how to expand services, support and funding for seniors across the board. When you have time. We are free on January 21, 2017. Would that work?
Rachel Goldberg, who holds a doctorate in political science, is B’nai B’rith’s director of aging policy.
By Adam Volman
Leo Novarr served in the army in the South Pacific during World War II, while his future wife, Sylvia, was an aviation machinist mate first class stationed in San Diego. While apart, they wrote to each other often, and, on Sept. 4, 1945, following his return and with both still in uniform, they married.
Three years later, the couple, motivated by their strong Jewish identities, joined B’nai B’rith International.
Novarr, now 95, attributes his Jewish ties to his upbringing in Hartford, Conn., by Russian-Jewish immigrants. Originally from Brailov, between Kiev and Odessa, in what is now Ukraine, they spoke Yiddish, English and “Russian, when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying,” he recalls.
His mother kept a kosher kitchen, and his parents wanted him and his four siblings, to live “Jewish lives,” an ideal Novarr would later instill in his own children.
Novarr’s father, Bennie, was a mason for more than 50 years and also founder of Star Silk & Woolen Company, a successful wholesale yarn goods store in Hartford.
Bennie Novarr was one of the first people to use polyester in a wide variety of patterns. Working with Bennie from a young age trained him to eventually take over the family business. He also excelled in high school both as a student and football player.
“I had the best arm in the state back then,” Novarr reminisced.
After high school, Novarr attended Yale University—although he didn’t want to.
“What am I going to do with iambic pentameter?” thought Novarr at the time. But his father insisted that he finish. He graduated in 1943 with a degree in economics, writing a thesis titled, “General Strike and Political Unionism.”
With the war underway, Novarr enlisted in the United States Army. “I never said I wanted to fight Germans, only Nazis,” Novarr says. “That was very important to me.”
However, he was sent to fight the Japanese instead. Proficient in math, Novarr was placed in a combat engineers unit. He saw combat in the Mariana Islands, at the Battle of Saipan, in which around 2,000 American soldiers died. Novarr was wounded; a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest above his heart remains there today. Discharged in early April of 1946 as a second lieutenant, Novarr received a Good Conduct Medal for his service.
After the war, Novarr returned to work at the store, eventually running the business. The store changed with the times, selling to larger companies, as opposed to seeking out peddlers, as in the past. Like his father, he believed in a family business, and his wife worked by his side as the store’s bookkeeper.
Novarr describes himself as “always very conscious of being Jewish.” He and Sylvia also made sure that each of their four children became B’nai B’rith members. The couple had five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Novarr had known Sylvia, the love of his life, since she was a 14-year-old high school tennis star. The two were married for 69 years. Their passionate marriage ended after her passing on May 24, 2014. “She was a strong force no matter where she went; she was an individual,” Novarr said, clearly deeply impacted by her loss. “She was a sturdy soul.”
Today, Novarr lives in Bloomfield, Conn. He attributes his B’nai B’rith affiliation to a variety of things. His father, he says, was a strong Zionist and passed these sentiments on to him. He also has an interest in the advancement and security of the Jews worldwide and gives to B’nai B’rith because of its support for the international Jewish community.
“I was proud of everything Jewish,” Novarr says.
In addition to his active involvement with the organization, Novarr established a Charitable Gift Annuity with The B’nai B’rith Foundation. In return, the donor receives regular fixed payments for life and also a sizable tax deduction. While pride in the organization motivated his donation, he felt that setting up the annuity was a sound financial decision.
Novarr has made an impact not just on those in his personal life but with those at B’nai B’rith. Marna Schoen, national deputy director of planned giving for B’nai B’rith, is a longtime friend.
“It has been such a pleasure to work with Leo over the years,” she said. “The life he shared with his beloved wife, Sylvia, of blessed memory, is a love story for the ages. I enjoy his stories, and his jokes always make me laugh. When Leo set up his Charitable Gift Annuity, he knew that doing so would support B’nai B’rith in years to come, and would have a positive impact on future generations. We are very appreciative of Leo and his commitment to B’nai B’rith.”
By Sam Seifman
Often, seniors get letters in the mail, announcing they won a lottery they never entered. To get their prize money, they are told, just send personal information. Or, sometimes, someone poses as a grandchild in a dangerous situation, usually overseas, and needs money immediately. Or seniors receive a notice saying they have missed jury duty and owe a fine.
These are among the scams more commonly perpetrated on the elderly.
To learn about preventing such scams, more than 40 staff members of B’nai B’rith retirement homes nationwide convened recently in Portland, Ore. The briefings were part of B’nai B’rith Housing’s annual B’nai B’rith Managers and Service Members Meeting. Co-sponsored by the Bank of the West, the conference, held June 8 to 10, focused on how to identify and prevent elder fraud.
“Training the staff, with Bank of the West, is a more effective way to influence more people and provides greater reach,” said Janel Doughten, B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services associate director.
The B’nai B’rith housing managers heard from Steven Erickson, vice president and investigations manager for Bank of the West; Billie McNeely, financial exploitation case specialist for Oregon’s Department of Human Services/Oregon Health Authority; and Abbie Stone, the program director for Watermark Retirement Communities and president of the board of B’nai B’rith Covenant House, a senior housing apartment.
According to the 2010 census, one of five Americans will be over 65 in 2050 (about 90 million people), and more than 19 million of them will be at least 85. In a 2011 study, MetLife estimated that more than $2.9 billion was lost nationally to elder fraud that year—a 12 percent increase from the previous year. As the senior population grows, the fraud numbers are expected to rise.
Seniors are often targeted because, as technology advances, they are easier to pick out of the population. According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is owned by people over 50. Also, many elderly people have disabilities that impair their judgment.
According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, in 2013 the average amount of money lost in Oregon in each elder fraud case is nearly $25,000.
“You hear about the big scams, but what you don’t hear is that the perpetrators are actually often family members,” McNeely says.
According to the MetLife study, 55 percent of these criminals actually have a familial relationship. That is why it’s important for staff members of senior housing facilities to be on the lookout for crimes of this nature—seniors are often embarrassed about being taken advantage of, don’t want to get a loved one in trouble and will not report the abuse.
During her presentation, McNeely discussed the signs of an elderly person who is a fraud victim, such as: confusion over personal finances, ceding important decisions to someone else, or looking unusually fearful in general.
“The shame of fraud really makes it impossible for these seniors to admit their problem,” said Abbie Stone.
Fraud, Stone noted, usually occurs when someone preys on a victim’s emotions. With a fake lottery, for example, there is excitement.
“You really have to keep an eye out for behavioral changes,” said Stone, since fraud “basically shifts their personality.”
By Rachel Chasin
The B’nai B’rith Diverse Minds Writing Challenge asks high school students to write and illustrate children’s books to teach tolerance and diversity. This year, the contest was held in Washington, D.C., New York, South Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula.
At the Washington, D.C., award ceremony, local children’s author Wendy Shang addressed the finalists and gave an inspiring speech that included 10 points, in honor of Diverse Minds’ 10th anniversary, offering advice and encouragement on how to become a writer.
“Don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. Your only qualification is that you must write, and you must be willing to work at your writing. Call yourself a writer, and then go write.” She added, “Writing a children’s book is a creative act of hope and good will. It is also an act of bravery. It is easy to be cruel, cynical and critical, but it takes guts to create.”
Shang concluded, “Don’t be afraid to swing for the fences. Write with your soul on fire.”
Through the support of sponsors, first-place winners in each city had their books professionally published and received a $5,000 college scholarship. Each first place book is also accessible in an e-book format and is available on iTunes and Amazon as a free download.
In addition, the teacher who oversaw the winning entry in each city secured a $1,000 grant, and the school of the first-place winning student in each contest city received $500. The second-place winners at each location earned a $2,000 college scholarship, and the third-place winners received $1,000.
The winning books are distributed to local schools, libraries, community organizations and the annual TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive. The books can be found at the B’nai B’rith website: bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.
“Originally the challenge was created with the concept that we must encourage and celebrate diversity—diversity in our communities, in our workplaces, in our schools. And 10 years later, I think we can see in society that there is a richer diversity than ever before,” said B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin.
Over the 10 years of the contest, B’nai B’rith has published 33 original children’s books, including one book in two different languages (English and Spanish), awarded more than $300,000 in college scholarships and grants and donated more than 39,000 books to public schools, libraries and community organizations across the country.
“Since its inception, the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge has given talented students a unique opportunity to spread the message of diversity and inclusion through their own personal lenses and has allowed them to capture the subject in a way that can inspire the younger generations that follow,” said Pepco Region President Donna Cooper. Pepco Holdings, an electric utility company, sponsored the Washington, D.C., competition.
A panel of judges from the fields of education, the arts, business and government, along with B’nai B’rith International leaders, reviewed the entries and selected the winners.
The winning books were: “My Family Is Different,” written and illustrated by Anahit Kanayan (Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Washington, D.C.); “Hearts of Gold,” written by Madeline Smith and illustrated by Morgan LaMonica (Towle Institute, Hockessin, Del.); “The Legend of Firemarth,” written and illustrated by Samson Beaver (Paulsboro High School, Paulsboro, N.J.); and “From the Heart,” written and illustrated by Sylvia Yu (Stuyvesant High School, New York City).
Kanayan received her award at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery on June 1. In her story, a character named Delina decides to take a new art class and is very nervous about meeting new people. Delina’s art teacher tells her students that their topic for the day is drawing their families. Delina wonders how she can draw her family, because she doesn’t have a father at home and questions what the other students might think of her “different family.” At the end of the class, all the children show one another their drawings and Delina realizes that everyone’s family is a little different, but just as beautiful.
Madeline Smith and Morgan LaMonica were honored June 3 at an award ceremony at the Delmarva Power Conference Center. In their story, “Hearts of Gold,” a little girl visits a popular doll shop and asks the doll maker to sell her his most beautiful doll. The doll maker tells the girl that he cannot show her his most beautiful doll, because it doesn’t exist—none of his dolls are any more special or beautiful than the other. The only thing they have in common is a heart of gold. The little girl quickly realizes that it doesn’t matter what the dolls—or a person—look like on the outside, but it’s what’s in the heart that matters. This contest was funded by Delmarva Power, a subsidiary of Exelon.
The award for “The Legend of Firemarth,” the winner for the contest sponsored by Atlantic City Electric, was presented at Atlantic City Electric headquarters on June 2. Beaver tells the story of Adelina, who runs away from her father’s kingdom, Firemarth, because her father locked up all of the beasts just because they are different. Not long after, Adelina encounters a friendly dragon who scares her at first. But Adelina sees the kindness in his eyes. Moments later, Adelina’s father, the king, approaches and tries to slay the dragon. The king falls of a cliff but is saved by the dragon. The king learns how wrong he has been—you shouldn’t be mean or disrespectful to someone just because they’re different.
“From the Heart” was recognized on June 21 at the New York Marriott Marquis; the contest was funded by the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In Yu’s story, a classroom of bears worries about giving out cards on Valentine’s Day. Some of the bears are concerned they can’t give a card to someone of their same gender, if they have different ethnicity or if they are disabled. Their teacher, Ms. Frost, tells her bear students that “love is blind—gender, race and imperfections are not important. What matters the most is that you love them for their heart.”
Kanayan, in addition to being an 11th grader, works as an assistant art teacher at Sitar Arts Center in Washington, D.C. She was inspired to write her book about the children she teaches. “The whole program is to have classes for children who are in low-income families. The little kids there come with their families, and something about it just sparked,” Kanayan said.
Submission details and deadlines for next year’s contest will be posted this fall at www.bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.
By Sam Seifman
From coast to coast, B’nai B’rith lodges are holding events and activities to strengthen the Jewish community across the generations.
In Upper Dublin, Pa., the Beth Masada Lodge runs four youth basketball leagues. Seventy-five percent of lodge membership is under 40. Members draft new basketball players, create new teams and work to develop a friendly, competitive Jewish community through sports.
“Basketball is the glue that helps keep our lodge together,” says Lodge President Eric Felt. “Everyone gets new friendships. Everyone contributes.”
The Upper Dublin lodge is also known for Project H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Everywhere), run by Samuel Domsky, a lodge past president who has chaired the project since 1997. Last Passover, the lodge delivered 1,250 bags of kosher-for-Passover food to 625 needy and elderly people in the area.
The Knesset Lodge, in North Hills, Calif., comprises older Jewish couples dedicated to socializing and making a difference in their community. The lodge recently celebrated its 25-year anniversary. Members hold dinner parties, go to movies and plays together, host nights out on the town, hold discussions and sponsor lectures. On Chanukah and Passover, its members deliver food to 30 families in need. Lodge members also donate toys and clothing to needy children in their area.
“Our longevity is powered by our friendships,” said lodge President Bernard Bregman. “If you are looking for new friends, and to fill in your desire to be active, we are the people you are looking for.”
B’nai B’rith of Union County, N.J., has been active in the community of Springfield for well over 60 years. The lodge joins with synagogues in the area, engaging the community in its events and supporting the larger Jewish community. Its main event is an annual dinner dance, which honors community members and raises money for Jewish causes.
B’nai B’rith of Union County hosted its 60th annual dinner dance on June 15 at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, in Springfield. Among those honored were New Jersey young leader Adam Levoy and Holocaust survivor Miriam Gershwin. Gershwin lived in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania and pretended to work for the Nazis, while actually delivering messages from ghetto to ghetto.
At the end of every summer, the lodge also holds “Bar-B-Que and A Movie,” this year featuring the documentary “Welcome To Kutchers: The Last Catskills Resort,” in conjunction with the Men's Club of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, of Springfield.
"By partnering with area synagogues and other organizations we hope to both revitalize B'nai B'rith and strengthen the other organizations as well. We don't feel they are competition, but, rather, when we strengthen one, we strengthen our entire Jewish community," said lodge President Mark Ross.
By Cheryl Kempler
In 1939, the threat of war had little effect on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British possession in the Irish Sea, or on its 52,000 residents, that included farmers, fisherman, shopkeepers, and hotel and rooming house owners who catered to thousands of vacationing British tourists each spring and summer. But, change would arrive swiftly. Within months, the island transformed into a world of barbed wire, imprisoning thousands of people, a vast majority of them innocent Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria.
About 60,000 Jewish refugees, initially welcomed, from Austria and Germany, flooded into Britain during 1938 and 1939. Many were former concentration camp prisoners, among them highly educated professionals or graduate students fluent in English. All sought to resume their careers or procure advanced degrees in fields including medicine, architecture, science and the arts. Some married British subjects and started a family.
On Sept. 3, 1939, England declared war on Germany. As the Nazis marched across Europe, details emerged of traitors and spies in Norway, Holland and other countries assisting Hitler. British newspapers initiated editorial campaigns, demonizing them to a public woefully ignorant of Hitler’s policy of Jewish persecution. Subjected to tribunals and screenings, 99 percent of the Jewish and German refugees were classified “as posing no threat,” to no avail.
Fueled by anti-Semitism, hysteria escalated until Winston Churchill issued an order to “collar the lot,” arresting both the dangerous and the harmless. Men were taken from homes and offices in police cars, while crowds gathered in the streets to jeer.
Enduring deplorable conditions leading to illness and malnutrition, the refugees spent time in prisons, or in hastily prepared camps in race course stables, abandoned factories and unfinished buildings lacking heat or plumbing. Some men slept in tents. Over the next 18 months, others would be crowded onto antiquated ships and deported to Canada and Australia.
As in World War I, enemy aliens would be sent to camps on the Isle of Man and supervised by both military and civilian personnel. The anxieties of the populace would be assuaged by the income and wartime jobs the government promised. Historian Connery Chappell describes the advocacy of the island paper, Mona’s Herald: “It was a ‘welcome indication’ that at long last a move was being made to replace ‘something of the losses entailed in the cessation of the visiting industry [tourism]’…internment camps would mean some sort of work for many islanders.”
On May 27, 1940, Isle of Man residents gathered behind barricades at the docks, witnessing the arrival of the first 823 prisoners. Leaving the boat under armed guard, they included German Nazi sympathizers, mixed in with Jewish men in their 20s and 30s, as well as a few school boys, conspicuous in short pants. They would set the pattern for those coming in the next weeks and months, assigned to camps located in Ramsey, Douglas, Onchan and other seaside spots. Cleared of tourists, ordered to leave behind their sports equipment for the inmates, quaint Victorian rooming houses and private hotels were grouped together and ringed with barbed wire to form compounds. In some, Jews and Nazis shared the same spaces.
After England went to war on June 11, 1940 against Fascist Italy, Italian resident aliens, working on British boats and restaurants, were also rounded up. Most were interned in their own camp, Peel, on the Isle of Man. Within the first week, releases were initiated—one June memo is headed “return of the Kosher internees”—but newcomers from transit camps would take their place. By August 1, 14,000 prisoners swelled the island.
They included 10,000 men housed in nine camps. Four thousand women and their children were supervised by the department of immigration and security and confined in a resort area called Rushen on the opposite coast. There, the women could swim, open bank accounts and work as seamstresses, if they chose, but saw their husbands only during monthly visiting days until spring 1941, when families reunited in their own apartments. Adjustment wasn’t easy for 10-year-old Herbert Levi. “That was the difficulty for us, we couldn’t really enjoy the sunshine and beauty,” he told the BBC, “because we didn’t know what was going to happen to us.”
Ruth Heiman, who had come to England without her parents, was a 16-year old who enjoyed her time at Rushen. She had no duties or chores and could enjoy the beach or read as much as she wanted.
There was significant overcrowding at Hutchinson camp, one of several in the town of Douglas. But at others, the prisoners slept in their own beds in housing which had heat and indoor plumbing. In contrast to those who subsisted on the British mainland, their rations were augmented by locally supplied fish, dairy and produce. Particularly fond of the Manx catch, kippers, they referred to them as “yom kippers,” which also became the nickname of Hutchinson Camp. Confined to Central Camp, young Henry Fulda recalled the daily walks out of the compound, when guards looked away so that inmates could run to local shops to buy chocolate. He also remembered that he and others were allowed to swim under guard outside the compound.
It was especially difficult for the interned professionals. The graphic designer Helmuth Weissenborn said he endured “continuous torment.” The men needed to be occupied, and they were soon allowed responsibility for some day-to-day operations like ordering food, cooking and cleaning, and working the land on island farms, under the supervision of armed soldiers. Others catered to the camp and the outside community, cutting hair, making shoes out of recycled leather and cloth, repairing clothes and constructing chicken coops. One Austrian baker in Hutchinson ran a café in a Hutchinson laundry room.
Faculty members of the Hutchinson Camp “university” included world-renowned scholars who taught outdoor classes in language, law, math and science, accommodating large numbers of pupils. As remembered by Fred Uhlman, later a well-known novelist and painter, non-academic lecturers included: “…a lion tamer who was unlucky [enough] to be born in Germany… He always carried a small lasso and for a party trick he used to pick flowers with that lasso. His talks were always well attended as he had been out to Africa to capture the animals before actually training them.”
A teenager, Fred Godshaw, wrote, “one of the most amazing stories… was really what happened to Claus Moser. He was also our age, and one of the professors, for something to do, started setting up some statistics about all the people in the camp. Claus helped him with this task and got interested… After his release from the camp Claus studied [statistics], later became the government chief statistician and is now Lord Moser.”
In 1941, there were 200 Jewish physicians from London in Douglas’ Central Camp alone. Specialists and surgeons who had carried their instruments to the Isle of Man assisted local doctors running the camp sick bays and dispensaries, and caring for those with contagious or serious illnesses in hospital facilities in the Falcon Cliff Hotel. Forming close relationships, many attended the Central Promenade Camp Synagogue, whose services, in English took place in the ballroom of the Lido Dance Hall nearby; there was also a synagogue set up in a hut at the Onchan Camp.
Compelled to create, artists in the Hutchinson and Onchan camps relied on their powers of invention. While his colleagues endured the smell of the decaying assemblages made with organic materials, including potatoes and porridge, famed collage maker Kurt Schwitters, who wasn’t Jewish, initiated a craze for scratching salacious designs into the blue paint used on windowpanes to block light from overhead bombers. A mixture of graphite and margarine produced ink for cartoons executed on toilet paper. Portraits and landscapes were painted with a mixture of clay and olive oil from sardine cans, while graphic artists used a laundry mangle as a press. Sculptor Ernst Blensdorf carved a memorable series of wooden reliefs out of shards salvaged from a hacked up piano.
Some enjoyed a period of increased activity behind barbed wire: their hand-to-mouth existence on the outside was alleviated by the regular meals and free housing. Eventually, Hutchinson’s commandant, Capt. H.O. Daniel, requisitioned materials and studio space for the artists, who were then able to teach, organize exhibits and sell their works at the post office. The artists forged professional bonds that lasted well beyond their time in prison, which ranged from a few weeks to more than 18 months, in the case of Schwitters. In 2010, surviving works were included in exhibits on the Isle of Man and in London’s Ben Uri Gallery, marking the 70th anniversary of the camps, and reproduced on a postage stamp series by the British government.
Camp publications, including Hutchinson’s “The Camp” and “The Sefton Review,” focused on the internees’ concerns about their community and the war. Exuding a decidedly British sense of optimism in its debut issue, the “Onchan Pioneer” would reveal the frustration of its contributors, who asked in both German and English: “What is our station, Mr. Churchill? It can’t be the idleness of an internment camp…has this country in its terrible struggle no use for the strength of our hearts and the ability of our brains, the might of our work?” As early as July 1940, their complaints were echoed by the people of their adopted country, who had begun to realize that the aliens shared their desire to defeat Hitler.
Although the Isle of Man Camps operated through 1945, the numbers of Jewish inmates dwindled steadily after March 1941, as they were offered the chance to enlist, or were released to work for the war effort. Camps throughout Britain housed prisoners of war from Finland and Japan, as well as British detainees whose allegiance to the imprisoned English fascist Sir Oswald Mosley posed a dangerous threat.
Perhaps many Jewish men remained embittered, but some retained the capacity to forgive in later years. Manfred Gans, who later emigrated from Britain to the United States, sympathized with how the British dealt with the refugees, “because of all the things I read about the traitors in Norway and France. I think they were justified.”
Years after his internment, Fred Godshaw reflected:
“Looking back on those four months in captivity, I can only say that they were most probably the most interesting months of my life, and I feel at the time the British Government had no choice to do what they did at that very dangerous time with an invasion imminent. It is always easy to be wise after the event.”
By Jennifer Lovy
The joy and exuberance surrounding the birth of their son quickly turned to uncertainty and fear when Richard Bernstein’s parents learned that their otherwise healthy child was born blind.
“Back in the 1970s, that was an especially devastating thing for a parent to hear,” said Richard Bernstein, now 42. “But the shining light to my parents was when our rabbi said ‘I may not be able [to] guarantee you anything else about his future, but I can promise you that he will have a bar mitzvah.’ When a rabbi says that to a mother of a newborn, that makes a huge difference.”
While Bernstein was hardly the first blind bar mitzvah celebrant, he was a rarity. “They didn’t exactly know how to teach a blind child in Hebrew school, but they definitely tried,” he said.
Now an internationally sought out speaker, Bernstein brings a powerful message of advocacy and inclusion to Jewish communities and secular organizations throughout the United States and around the world. In his travels, he hears about some of the great things Jewish organizations are doing, but he also hears of many situations where Jews with disabilities do not feel welcome.
Just how inclusive is the Jewish community to its disabled, particularly those who are blind?
“Thirty years ago, the Jewish community was largely unaware,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, director of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. “The good news is we’ve come a long way. There is great awareness and a greater sense of some obligation. The bad news is we’re still only halfway there. I think the community is unaware that there is still so much to be done. Everyone thinks it’s been taken care of. It’s anything but that.”
One in five Americans has some form of a disability. While there are no studies on the number of Jewish Americans with disabilities, there is no reason to believe that those statistics are any different.
Grass Roots Inclusion
Rabbi Michael Levy, president of Yad HaChazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, believes that much of the work toward equality should be at the grassroots level. For example, leaders in Jewish organizations and institutions need to include disabled people in the planning of events or disability-related initiatives to ensure inclusivity and accessibility.
“Nothing about us, without us,” said Levy, quoting a slogan used to convey the idea that policy should not be decided without full participation of members affected by such a policy.
Within the branches of Judaism, discussions of disability awareness began decades ago. But only within the last several years have greater steps been taken to ensure that Jews with disabilities have access to worship and learning opportunities.
In 2013, Yachad published a 20-page disability inclusion guide for rabbis. A collaboration between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the guide urged synagogues to create disability inclusion committees to serve as “a force for attitudinal changes” and send the message that those with disabilities are welcome. It also provided outreach ideas and tips to make worship more inclusive.
“The tricky thing about disability awareness is that it tends to make a person’s disability central, which is the last thing that I personally want,” said Levy. “I am a husband, father, grandfather, friend, brother, transportation manager, congregation member, teller of and listener to jokes, weather fanatic, e-mailer, eternal student of Jewish law and thought, curious observer of all things scientific, a mystical believer in the connection of Torah to our personal lives, who happens to be blind.”
In 2003, Levy asked an online site providing candle lighting times and times for reciting specific prayers to be made accessible to those with impaired sight. The webmaster told him that was impossible. Levy contacted an organization called CSB Care (Computer Science for the Blind), which mainly serves the Orthodox population, promoting independence through the use of technology. A few months later, Levy got instructions from CSB to call 718-331-TIME. The hotline remains active.
Those like Levy, Bernstein and Lichtman, who is not blind, urge others to look beyond a disability and consider what an individual can contribute.
“When you have a disabled person, whether it’s in your religious schools, synagogues or companies, it benefits everyone because we can provide a new way of operating and functioning, by bringing new visions and new experiences to the table,” said Bernstein. “If people want to be inclusive, this isn’t a charity. They should be doing it because their community will be better and stronger.”
As an example, Bernstein cites his election in 2014 to the Michigan State Supreme Court. “The voters in Michigan sent a clear message by saying this guy has a disability, and I’m going to let him make decisions that affect me. That’s the ultimate sign of inclusion.”
Halakhah and the Blind
Similarly, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) recognizes the benefits of inclusivity. According to Rabbi Daniel Nevins, JTS dean of the rabbinical school and of the division of religious leadership, several JTS students, past and present, have a disability. Further, JTS has non-discrimination policies in place.
Despite the inclusive community spirit, there are halakhic barriers that prevent blind Jews from chanting from the Torah for the congregation in braille. Nevins reached this conclusion in 2003 when he authored a 19-page response to a question pertaining to interpretation of Jewish law on the issue.
Because the Torah must be read for the congregation directly from a Torah scroll and not from a printed text or from memory, Nevins concluded that Jews who are blind may read the maftir in braille since it has already been chanted from the Torah scroll, receive an aliyah and then chant the Torah portion softly after the reader or serve as a verse by verse translator of a section of the Torah portion.
To say blind persons are exempt might appear to diminish their value in the community. However, Levy hardly finds the ban offensive.
“I have a tremendous respect for halakhah,” he said. “There are a lot of observant Jews who don’t read from the Torah. That’s the idea behind having a Torah reader. It’s no mitzvah to read Torah, but it is a mitzvah to study the Torah.”
Historically, Jews who are blind have participated as full members of their communities and in many cases served as spiritual and educational leaders. Rabbinical schools have and continue to ordain blind rabbis. Two well-known rabbis from the period of the Talmud—Rav Sheshet and Rav Yosef—were also blind. Isaac and Jacob became blind, and Leah was described as having weak eyes.
For those who are blind or visually impaired, there are plenty of Jewish resources, such as the New York-based Jewish Braille International (JBI). Founded in 1931, JBI provides Jewish-related books, magazines and other publications in braille, large print and audio format, according to its president, Ellen Isler. More than 35,000 children and adults around the world use the organization’s free services.
The Boston-based Ruderman Foundation also plays an integral part in promoting inclusion. With offices in the U.S. and Israel, the foundation funds Jewish programs and organizations that support disability inclusion initiatives.
Then, there are advocacy groups like Yad HaChazakah, which offers support services and resources such as workshops and networking opportunities. It’s the only service organization that is led primarily by Jews with disabilities in line with Torah standards, according to Levy.
A Remarkable Achiever Who Happens to Be Blind
On Jan. 17, 1987, members of a synagogue in Southfield, Mich., sat in awe as a blind teenager named Richard Bernstein become a bar mitzvah. While inspirational to those who were there, Bernstein’s later-in-life accomplishments are even more remarkable.
With an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Northwestern, Bernstein dedicated his early career to fighting for the rights of the disabled by taking on formidable adversaries such as Delta Airlines, the City of Detroit and the American Bar Association.
One of the high points of his career came in 2014 when Michigan voters elected him to the state’s Supreme Court, making him the first blind person in Michigan elected to a statewide office and the only blind state Supreme Court judge. He is also the youngest member of the Court.
As much as Bernstein has an insatiable passion for law, he is equally impassioned about staying fit. His athletic accomplishments, including 19 marathons and an Ironman Triathlon (112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile marathon and a 2.4-mile swim) earned him a spot in the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
While Bernstein is proud of his achievements, he believes it can be harmful for others to use him as a measuring stick for the blind or disabled community.
“Eighty-five percent of the blind community is unemployed, primarily because of socio-economic reasons,” said Bernstein. “The only reason I’m not part of that 85 percent is because I was fortunate to come from an affluent background. You can’t look at my story and say, ‘but that guy did it.’”