As the year comes to a close, we’re taking a look back on the 10 most-read stories on washingtonjewishweek.com.
Here’s what got the biggest buzz from our readers.
Lauren Burnett and Jacob Bradshaw decided to tie the knot in the midst of the pandemic. The couple had planned on an October wedding, but the coronavirus blew in and put that timeline in limbo. So the couple got a marriage license and held a civil ceremony.
Bradshaw, 26, is an attorney who works primarily on behalf of plaintiffs in personal injury and civil rights cases. Burnett, 24, is a nursing resident who assists surgeons in the operating room of a Washington-area hospital.
The two wed out of concern that Bradshaw could lose his job and be without health insurance. Another concern was that they wouldn’t be able to see each other if either of them were hospitalized in the change that visitor restrictions were limited to spouses only.
In April, Bradshaw and Burnett said they hoped to have their wedding ceremony and party in October. However, they were preparing to postpone if coronavirus was still a threat.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is often seen in her late father’s pork pie hat and plaid blazer. The Rockville resident is co-founder of interfaith organization Pomegranate Initiative, senior managing editor of progressive blog Jewschool.com and co-chair of the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign.
She was ordained first as a Conservative rabbi in 2003, but over the years felt more connected to Orthodox Judaism. So she enrolled in Yeshivat Maharat’s Advanced Kollel: Executive Ordination Track. The group trains and ordains Orthodox women and has received backlash from some Orthodox organizations for doing so. Suskin said she attended the program out of a love for learning.
In April, news broke that four residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville had died from COVID-19. Another 37 residents there tested positive for coronavirus.
The Hebrew Home is a nursing home, part of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities and has 556 beds.
WJW reached out to Charles E. Smith Life Communities for more information and received an emailed response from Mitchell Schmale of Nevins & Associates, a strategic communications firm.
“We have been following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and continue to work closely with local, state and federal public health agencies as we respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the unique threat it presents to the older adults we serve,” Schmale wrote.
News of the Jewish Council for the Aging closing its senior adult day center in February came as a shock to many. The Albert & Helen Misler Adult Day Center served about 35 seniors a day with activities and kosher lunches. It closed on March 20.
JCA CEO David Gamse said the center lost $2,000 a day. The high cost was attributed to having to employ one staff member for every three or four persons in its care. Gamse also said JCA was required to provide highly specialized paratransit transportation service for those participants, which added to the costs.
The JCA board and staff considered several options to cut costs, such as eliminating the center’s on-site entertainment and field trips, serving non-kosher food or ending the ElderBus transportation service, Gamse said.
“We said no to all of those things because it isn’t in our DNA to deliver a program that is anything less than top rate,” Gamse said. “We believe that would be a disservice even greater than the closure of our beloved Misler.”
Each week WJW interviews an adult younger than 40 for our You Should Know series, but the only one to crack the top 10 was the interview with Shelly Peskin. The piece was published in June and focused on the 23 year old’s experience as an Avodah Corps member in Washington. Through CASA de Maryland, she helped immigrants navigate government bureaucracy and paperwork. Here’s one of the questions writer Emma R. Ayers asked her:
Q: Obviously, there are so many people in need of help. What can the Jewish community do to best serve immigrants in need of help? What changes need to be made?
A: The Jewish community can help by being allies to the immigrant community. So step up, be involved. There are so many changes to be made, including being more educated about barriers immigrants face every day. We were once strangers in the land of Egypt and we have an obligation to pursue social justice for all.
In September, Susan and Brad Stillman were honored for their service to the Jewish community. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington named the couple as 2020’s Sara and Samuel Lessans Community Leadership honorees.
Susan Stillman’s background includes serving as membership chair at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. She’s also co-chaired the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s book festival for two years and has been a city leader for Momentum and on The Friendship Circle of Maryland advisory board.
Brad Stillman is board vice chair of the Capital Camps and Retreat Center, on Momentum’s finance and budget committee and on the University of Maryland Hillel board. He has also served on several The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s committees and has chaired the Bender JCC board.
“The Stillmans are an extraordinary couple who embody Jewish values every day through the work they do for our community,” said Ron Halber, the JCRC’s executive director. “They are passionately engaged in so many Jewish agencies that positively impact the lives of thousands of people in our community and beyond.”
As many synagogues began to close their doors in March due to the pandemic, the Jewish Rockville Outreach Center remained open for Shimma Wexler’s bar mitzvah. An estimated 80 people were in attendance for the occasion.
At the time, Rabbi Yaacov Benamou said it was imperative that his center remain open, despite the decisions by schools and houses of worship to close.
“I am of the opinion that we have to keep prayer services and Torah reading around the clock, 365 days of the year,” he said. “The Torah should always be read, no matter what.”
Shimma’s father, Aaron Wexler, urged calm amid the confusion in the wider world.
“I was nervous, but not scared about following through on my son’s bar mitzvah,” Wexler said. The coronavirus is God’s will, he added. “It is one of those things that we accept about God’s will. We just keep going. Hysteria is not going to solve this problem or make it better.”
3. Barry Freundel’s sudden release from jail was another shock to his victims and to the Orthodox community
Convicted sex offender Barry Freundel was released early from prison for good behavior in April. Freundel, an authority figure in Modern Orthodoxy, was arrested in 2014 for recording women as they changed in the National Capital Mikvah, which is attached to Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown, which he led as rabbi.
In the end, he pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and was given a prison sentence of six years and four months. His original release date was for late 2021, but he ended up being released on April 1.
Emma Shulevitz, one of Freundel’s victims, was disheartened by the early release.
“I was thinking, is this an April Fool’s joke? He wasn’t supposed to be released so soon. It’s a little creepy that he is out there with no GPS bracelet or surveillance.”
In August it was discovered that the $7.5 million from the United Jewish Endowment Fund, an arm of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, had been diverted to international accounts. News of the theft was made public after The Federation’s board had been notified in September and quickly made national headlines.
Federation CEO Gil Preuss told WJW the assets were taken from a single organization’s fund that the United Jewish Endowment Fund manages. The stolen $7.5 million would not affect The Federation’s budget and allocations. Neither the endowment’s donor-advised funds nor the Federation’s own endowment were touched.
The theft is under investigation by federal and international law enforcement agencies. After the theft’s discovery, Preuss said, “Nobody is working from home computers anymore. Passwords have been changed.”
If there’s one thing our readers love, it’s the hit Israeli drama “Shtisel.” The show follows the members of the fictional Shtisel family who live in Geula, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. The first two seasons began streaming on Netflix in 2018, and season three is set to premiere next spring.
Washington resident Inger Mobley is a “Shtisel” fan. In fact, she’s watched the whole series twice since the pandemic started.
“I’m still stuck at home, and it made me feel like I had a place to escape,” Mobley said.
Before the quarantine, members of Mishkan Torah Synagogue in Greenbelt gathered for “Shtisel” watch parties. Rabbi Saul Oresky said the show is a thoughtful depiction of an Orthodox family.
“It showed people in this community to be really, truly fleshed-out real people with a full range of human emotions, which is not sometimes how the rest of the Jewish world even sees those communities,” Oresky said. “They either idealize them or treat them as different creatures entirely.”