The year in review


D.C. Council member makes a poor weatherman

Trayon White

During a light snowfall in March, D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) posted a video of himself on social media in which he explained that climate change was caused by the Jewish banking family the Rothschilds.

It turned out that this wasn’t the first time White had voiced an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. At a council meeting in February, he said the Rothschilds control the World Bank. After an outcry, White apologized on social media and in a letter to his council colleagues, which included Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who are Jewish.

White began repairing relations with the Jewish community by attending a breakfast organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, where he apologized again and Silverman and Nadeau shared their pain caused by the comments. On Passover, White attended a seder with Silverman and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, hosted by Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

But White seemed less than committed to his rehabilitation on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, when he left halfway through.

Two days after the museum visit, news surfaced that White had made a $500 payment from his constituent services fund to a Nation of Islam event in Chicago. The group is led by the notoriously anti-Semitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Nadeau called on the D.C. Council to censure White.

Then D.C. Housing Authority board member Joshua Lopez organized a “unity rally” for White, where a Nation of Islam member denounced Silverman, calling her a “fake Jew.” Lopez, who did nothing to stop the hate speech, resigned at Silverman’s insistence.

They marched, they marched and they marched again

March for our Lives

Jews were among the thousands who marched in Washington over the past year on issues including women’s rights, gun control, immigration and white supremacy. The largest of these rallies was the March 24 March for Our Lives, when more than 200,000 came here to demand stricter gun laws a month after 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The Reform and Conservative movements both sent large delegations of teens from across the country. Local congregations opened their doors to hold Shabbat services and make sleeping arrangements for the out-of-town guests. Conservative congregation Kol Shalom even canceled formal Shabbat morning services to allow members to attend the march.

Jewish Washingtonians also showed up in large numbers for a demonstration in front of the White House on June 30 to protest President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. And in August, Jews marked the one-year anniversary of the deadly riots in Charlottesville by joining thousands of counter protesters in opposing a white nationalist rally in Lafayette Square, which drew fewer than 40 people.

Surprise! Northern Virginia is the most populous part of the Jewish community

In February, a study of greater Washington’s Jewish population found that 41 percent of the area’s 295,000 Jewish residents live in the Northern Virginia suburbs, making it the largest population area in the region.

The study found that the Maryland suburbs, for decades the center of the Jewish community, had 39 percent of the population, while the District of Columbia had 19 percent.

The study was conducted for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and funded by by The Morningstar Foundation, whose principals, Susie and Michael Gelman, are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.

The study will be used as a guide for allocating money and resources, said Federation CEO Gil Preuss, who went on to a listening tour of the community.

“On one hand. this is incredibly positive news, on the other hand it also says we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Preuss told WJW in February.

Among the other findings were that 7 percent of the population identifies as LGBT, 7 percent are Jews of color and 4 percent are Israeli.

Israel makes headlines on campus

Melissa Landa

Melissa Landa, a former professor University of Maryland’s College of Education, claimed in a Title IX complaint filed in the fall of 2017 that her contract was not renewed because of her pro-Israel views. University officials denied the charge and gave other reasons for her firing, such as she was unqualified and neglected her professional duties.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington launched a petition of support for Landa and later met with U-Md. President Wallace Loh. In December, the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct dismissed Landa’s complaint.

U-Md. and George Washington University’s student governments voted on resolutions urging their universities to divest from companies that have ties to Israel. Maryland’s student government voted down a resolution in November at a passionate public meeting that 400 people attended. GW passed a resolution in April, but university President Thomas LeBlanc said he would not implement the proposal.

The passage of GW’s bill followed a contentious student election in which graduate student Brady Forrest, a candidate for executive vice president, sparked outrage due to anti-Israel comments he had made in 2014 on social media. Forrest lost the race.

In June, U-Md. Israel studies professor Pnina Peri was seen in a video laughing and shouting at a Chabad rabbi at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. Peri claimed she was harassed by the rabbi and another man, who cursed at her and said it was “too bad Hitler didn’t kill” her and her family. Rabbi Meir Herzl, who appeared in the video, said it was a “total lie” that Peri was provoked. The university ultimately supported Peri.

#MeToo and the Jews

In October 2017, Harvey Weinstein was fired from the film production company he founded in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him. The Weinstein revelations spurred similar allegations against numerous powerful men, launching the #MeToo movement.

Among the prominent Jewish men who lost or left their jobs due to allegations of sexual misconduct are Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic; Sen. Al Franken, (D-Minn.); NBC News journalist Mark Halperin and NBC “Today” show host Matt Lauer; and Steven M. Cohen, a leading Jewish sociologist.

In Maryland, state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17), accused lobbyist Gil Genn of touching her inappropriately at an Annapolis bar in March, as well as several other times in the last 23 years. Kagan said her experience is not uncommon in the statehouse, and called for tougher penalties against harassers.

“When prospective harassers understand that their career and their reputation could be at stake, I would think that they would act more prudently,” she told WJW in March.

The U.S. moves to Jerusalem

The United States dedicated its newly established embassy in Jerusalem in a high-profile ceremony on May 14, Israel’s 70th birthday. Those who attended included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The embassy move, mandated by a 1995 law but delayed on national security grounds by successive presidents, was condemned by the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as their capital, and other world leaders. At the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Ron Dermer praised the move, saying “this historic day calls for a Shehecheyanu.”

Also in May, Trump declared he would not waive sanctions on Iran, effectively pulling the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Israel had been pressing Trump to withdraw from the agreement, which trades the removal of economic sanctions against Iran for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Germany, France and the United Kingdom all urged Trump to remain in the deal.

The move was hailed by the Republican Jewish Coalition as “bold foreign policy,” while Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, called it “a very sad day.” The American Jewish Committee was among the organizations that wished the deal could have been improved without the United States exiting.

In July, the Knesset passed a controversial nationality law that cements Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and recognizes Hebrew as the country’s sole official language. The measure prompted anger from Jewish and Arab groups in Israel and Jewish groups in the Diaspora that view the bill as discriminatory.

Jerry Silverman, the head of Jewish Federations of North America, visited Israel just before the bill’s passage to meet with Knesset members and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to dissuade them from supporting the bill. Silverman told WJW that he worries the bill will be unpopular with younger generations of Jews, and that it will “give fuel to the pro-BDS movement.” Silverman also said the bill could be used by the Israeli government to block attempts at religious pluralism.

Passages in 5778

Monty Hall, host of the long-running television game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” died in October at 96 in Los Angeles. Born Monte Halperin in Winnipeg, Canada, Hall hosted thousands of episodes of the show over more than two decades.

Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg

Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg, aged 16, was described by family and friends as vivacious, friendly and someone with a “wacky” sense of humor. The Walt Whitman High School sophomore had ambitions of becoming a paratrooper in the Air Force. After battling depression, Greenberg committed suicide by jumping from the Capital Crescent Trail Bridge over Massachusetts Avenue on Nov. 27, 2017.

“If this girl, who appeared to have everything — she was very popular, beautiful and gifted and doing well in school — if she could find life was hopeless, how are the rest of us going to survive the hardships of teenage years?” Jojo’s mother Sonya Spielberg told WJW in July.

Firefighter Sander Cohen, who worked for the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, died Dec. 8 after being struck by a car on I-270 while helping another motorist who had crashed. He was 33. Friends and family described Cohen as someone with a good sense of humor and endless dedication to his job.

“This was a guy that did not need to do what he did,” Rockville Volunteer Fire Department President Eric Bernard told WJW. “He assumed all of this risk, knowing the danger. He stopped to help. He did it with all his heart and because he wanted to, not because he had to.”

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz died of a heart attack at age 60 on May 10. Kamenetz was running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland. At his funeral, which 1,000 people attended, Kamenetz’s wife Jill said the campaign had taken its toll on the couple. They rarely saw each other, and he wasn’t sleeping or eating well. But she said he was “determined,” “driven,” and “loved what he was doing.”

Gerald Fischman, an editorial writer for the Capital Gazette, was one of five journalists gunned down on June 28 in their Annapolis newsroom by charged suspect Jarrod Ramos. Fischman, 61, was known for “writing scathing, insightful and always exacting editorials about the community,” according to The Baltimore Sun. Each year, Fischman, who was Jewish, wrote an editorial about Christmas.

Bernard Lewis, a leading scholar of the Islam and the Middle East, died in New Jersey in May at 101. A professor emeritus at Princeton University, Lewis was an expert in the history of Islam and his views were admired by architects of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Lewis was the author of 30 books and hundreds of articles.

Philip Roth

Philip Roth, the towering literary figure and legendary chronicler of the American Jewish experience, died in May at 85 in New York. An immensely celebrated novelist, Roth won virtually every major literary accolade, including two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.

Shoshana Cardin, the first woman to chair the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, died in May at 91. Cardin, a Baltimore philanthropist, also was the first female president of her city’s federation and the first woman to lead the national umbrella body of Jewish federations.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, died in May while piloting a small aircraft in upstate New York. Panken, a licensed commercial pilot, was 53 and had led the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion since 2014.

Playwright Neil Simon, known for such Broadway hits as “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park” and “Lost in Yonkers,” died in August in New York City at the age of 91.

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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