By Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief, and Simone Ellin, Associate Editor
With the holiday season upon us – yes, Virginia, Chanukah is mighty early this year! – gifts and presents are on the minds of most of us. But this season also is when our thoughts frequently turn to the less fortunate and disenfranchised among us, those who require our help, empathy and assistance to get by.
Sometimes, we do it with our checkbooks. Sometimes, with our community service and action. But always – hopefully – we do it with our hearts.
This is a month when soup kitchens, homeless shelters and charities and nonprofits around the country are suddenly overrun by assorted altruists and well-meaning do-gooders. Indeed, it is a season of giving, of volunteerism, of providing some comfort to those whose need is greatest. We are summoning, to quote that greatest of Americans, Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”
Let’s hope and pray we can extend this spirit of generosity throughout the year and learn to be a bit kinder and more magnanimous toward each other.
The five individuals profiled in this month’s cover story are shining examples of those beloved precepts in Judaism of tzedakah (righteous or charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness). Despite leading hectic professional and family lives, they make time to give back and serve as role models to all of us.
Jmore celebrates their determination, accomplishments and commitment to making the world a better place. They embody the Talmudic axiom, “It is not upon you to finish the work [of repairing the world], but you are not free to ignore it.”
On the Right Track
Being generous with his time and talents isn’t an afterthought for Matt Peterson. He grew up in a family of volunteers.
A 24-year-old Lutherville resident, Peterson has fond memories of spending Christmas days delivering food to the hungry at Our Daily Bread with his parents, siblings and fellow Baltimore Hebrew Congregation members.
“I’ve always volunteered for campaigns and causes I’m passionate about, and it’s something I continue to do,” says Peterson, the Baltimore Jewish Council’s assistant director of government relations and communications. “I try to help out where I think my skills can best be used.”
Much of the political savvy brought by Peterson to his full-time gig was cultivated through his volunteer campaign work for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and others.
Besides politics and Jewish communal issues, Peterson is passionate about protecting the environment. He says he has increased that advocacy since the Trump administration came to power.
“I saw the lack of action [regarding environmental regulations] on the federal level,” Peterson says. “Now more than ever, we need to be involved. When I hear people saying that climate change isn’t happening, I’m dumbstruck. We see report after report, from the U.N. and others. The evidence is so strong. [Climate change] is such a pressing issue, and it isn’t going to get fixed overnight.”
Peterson decided to focus on an environmental issue he feels has “flown beneath the radar,” joining the effort by Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Water Action, Maryland’s Interfaith Power & Light and other groups to ban additional construction of crude oil terminals in Baltimore City.
“The oil is fracked in the Dakotas using dangerous chemicals, then transported via trains to Baltimore,” says Peterson. “In Baltimore, it’s put on ships and taken to refineries in other cities on the East and West coasts.”
Peterson says the transportation process is dangerous since “the rail infrastructure is so poor that if a train was to derail, an oil tank could puncture, cause a leak and explode.” He alluded to the Lac-Megantic rail disaster of July of 2013, which killed 47 people in the eastern region of Quebec.
Peterson says the oil trains also pose a threat to waterways since a punctured oil tank could wind up in a body of water, polluting the water supply.
In support of Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition, which last March passed the Baltimore City Council, Peterson used his skills in a variety of ways, says Avery Davis Lamb, director of faithful advocacy for Interfaith Power & Light.
“From pounding the pavement and educating folks across Baltimore about the campaign, to testifying before the City Council, Matt was deeply involved throughout the multi-year campaign, and his tenacity was pivotal in gaining the support of the council members,” says Davis Lamb.
Peterson says his volunteer work is most satisfying and makes him feel he is living up to his Jewish values. “I feel like I’m doing my part to have an impact and make the world a little bit better,” he says.
For information, visit interfaithpowerandlight.org.
— Simone Ellin
Banking On It
Will Minkin admits he’s a guy who just can’t say no.
A longtime lay leader of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, Minkin was approached a decade ago by a colleague at the Law Offices of Peter Angelos. The co-worker wanted to pass onto Minkin the mantle of chairing the Maryland Food Bank’s Lawyers’ Campaign against Hunger.
“I knew virtually nothing about [the MFB], but I learned it’s an incredible organization if people understand the scope of the problem they’re addressing and the manner in which they work,” says Minkin, 47, a Baltimore Hebrew Congregation member who lives in Owings Mills with his wife, Buffy, and their two children.
This year’s campaign goal is to raise $350,000 to support the MFB, which provides 37 million meals annually to shelters, pantries, houses of worship and schools throughout the state. (Since its inception in 1988, the campaign has raised $5.4 million for the MFB.)
“It’s a huge commercial, logistical operation that requires a great deal of infrastructure,” Minkin says. “The work they do is so impressive. It’s mind-boggling.”
To see the Maryland Food Bank’s work firsthand, the campaign organizes a “Sorting Event” every year at the Halethorpe headquarters. Minkin says it’s an eye-opening experience for participants.
“It’s sort of like ‘I Love Lucy’ with the chocolates and conveyor belt,” he says with a laugh. “We unload crates and move things around, and everyone has stations around the conveyor belt, and you sort things – cookies, canned peas, condensed milk. It gives you a sense of the generosity from [donors], and reminds you of the need out there.”
Minkin says the issue of hunger resonates on a visceral level. “All of us get hungry at some point and just go into our kitchen to get something to eat, or run over to a restaurant,” he says. “It’s not hard to see how your life would be impacted if that wasn’t an option. One out of every nine people in Maryland don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We may not want to think about kids who wake up hungry every day and go to school, but it’s unfortunately a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.”
Minkin says he’s lucky that his workplace and family strongly support his philanthropic and altruistic endeavors like the MFB.
“I might be a busy person, but this is time well-served,” he says. “With every dollar, [the MFB] can provide two meals. So for a $100 gift, that’s 200 meals you may have provided for a kid. You see a direct correlation to someone somewhere who’s benefiting.”
Minkin says he plans to stay involved with the MFB and become more involved in the hands-on aspects of its mission.
“I’m someone who’s been very fortunate, and we owe it to our kids to serve as role models and help people less fortunate,” he says. “Everyone should help out if they can.”
For information, visit mdfoodbank.org.
— Alan Feiler
Out and Proud
When he attended JQ Baltimore’s annual Passover seder last year, Brian Hertz wasn’t intending to become one of the organization’s most dedicated volunteers.
Founded in June of 2013 and now known as JPride Baltimore, the organization provides outreach, education and support to the Jewish LGBTQ community.
“I was kind of dragged to the LGBTQ seder by a friend,” admits Hertz, 24, who grew up outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley and moved to Baltimore about two years ago when hired as program director for the Johns Hopkins Hillel. “The seder was nice. I had a good time and afterward, Mindy [Dickler, one of JPride Baltimore’s founders] reached out and said, ‘Hey, you seem dynamic and we need help. Would you be willing to get involved?’”
Since the seder, Hertz has interacted with JPride Baltimore at the Baltimore Pride festival in June and helped plan JPride Baltimore’s re-launch party on Nov. 3 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
The evening featured a Havdalah service with Cantor Gary Schiff; the unveiling of JPride’s new name and identity; and a comedy performance by Orthodox transgender comedian Dana Friedman, as well as light refreshments and schmoozing.
Now that he’s involved with the organization, Hertz is an enthusiastic spokesman and fervent supporter.
“I think there’s a need for JQ Baltimore,” says the UCLA graduate. “There are definitely a lot of LGBTQ Jews out there who aren’t having their needs met. They might not be comfortable reaching out to a non-Jewish LGBTQ organization, but if [a Jewish option] existed they might say, ‘I can relate to this. They would understand me.’”
Hertz believes that organizations like JPride Baltimore are more necessary than ever in the contemporary political climate.
“In today’s world, there are attacks on different identities and different ways of being — anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitism, that might cause people to close off and become more fearful,” he says. “JQ Baltimore [helps LGBTQ people to say,] ‘I’m here, I’m proud and I’m going to be the person I’m going to be, not the person other people want me to be.’”
As a gay man, Hertz knows that being “out and proud” isn’t always easy.
“A lot of people are intimidated,” he says. “When I first came to Hillel, I was a bit nervous about being out. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know how people would react. But over time, I came out to the point where I now have an LGBTQ Jewish flag hanging in my office. Since I’ve been more open, more students have come to talk to me. We’ve even gotten an LGBTQ support group.
“Being out and proud shows people it’s OK to be who you are.”
For information, visit jpridebaltimore.org.
Last September, Deborah S. Harburger was among the 180 good souls at Jewish Volunteer Connection’s annual “Day to Unite” at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown. She was running a station to help volunteers assemble soup kits for food-insecure individuals in the area when her children, Jack, 12, and Molly, 8, came running up. They wanted to run stations of their own and help peers make soup kits, too.
“My kids understood this was what we were doing that day, and they wanted to show other kids how to do it,” says Harburger, 37, a Chizuk Amuno congregant who grew up in Lancaster, Pa. “That’s very rewarding. It was the most natural thing to them. They understood why we do this kind of thing and wanted to teach others.”
For the past eight years, Harburger has been an active volunteer and board member of JVC, the hands-on volunteer branch of The Associated. A social worker by training, she is a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and co-director of its Institute for Innovation and Implementation.
“The work I do every day is mainly with the state and policymakers and the federal government,” says Harburger, who lives in Mount Washington with her husband, Noah, and their children. “So [JVC] gives me a chance to engage in a direct way.”
Harburger — who also serves on the JCC’s J Camps Committee and the Mount Washington School Family Council — says she initially became involved with JVC because she wanted to immerse her kids in volunteerism on an ad hoc basis. They started with the program’s annual “Mitzvah Day” on Christmas, “and it just kind of looped from there.”
“I’m at work all day and they’re at school all day,” Harburger says. “So I wanted us all to be together as a family that prioritizes volunteering and community service. It should be in the fabric of your family. JVC was a natural place to turn. There are a lot of opportunities, and you don’t have to come with a special skills set.”
Among the projects the Harburgers participate in with JVC is creating “blessing bags,” or winter care packages, for the indigent. She says she and her husband stash the bags in their cars and distribute them to people in need, sometimes with their kids as passengers.
“My experience is [recipients] are so appreciative, and what makes them smile every time is we put on a sticker in front of the bags from the kids saying, ‘Have a great day’ or ‘You Matter’ or a rainbow,” Harburger says. “It’s a nice personal touch. The kids learn not to be afraid and see them as people who need help. We tell them this won’t change [recipients’] full [life] experience, but it will make their day a little better.”
JVC is ideal for families to develop and strengthen their volunteering activities, she says, because “they understand it has to fit in with your lifestyle and priorities, and that you have to enjoy it. If you and your family are off on a particular day and want be together, JVC will find the right opportunity for you. Why not do it? It’s so important.”
For information, visit jvcbaltimore.org.
“Paying it forward and multiplying the impact.” That’s Jodi Wahlberg’s credo in her role as director of bridges and community partnerships at Krieger Schechter Day School. A Stevenson mother of five and KSDS teacher for two decades, Wahlberg, 43, is tasked with coordinating community service projects for the student body.
“We really try to listen to what the community needs,” she says. “My role is to bring resources and opportunities to our school. We have a school full of families who want to make a difference.”
Projects include a pajama drive every winter with the Casey Cares Foundation that has collected nearly 300 new pairs of PJs for critically ill children, as well as asking students from each grade to bring in a food item for Weekend Backpacks for Homeless Kids. The latter is a nonprofit founded by former KSDS teacher Sandie Nagel with the goal of feeding food-insecure homeless children in Baltimore.
The students also help assemble the backpacks. “They see it all come together and put it into Sandie’s car,” says Wahlberg. “When you fill up a van with 300 lunches, it makes you realize how impactful you can be.”
Wahlberg also coordinates KSDS’s “Bunches of Lunches” program, which is supported by Jewish Volunteer Connection. Students’ families are asked to pack an extra lunch on particular school days, and volunteer parents deliver them to shelters identified by JVC.
“What’s exciting is we’re building a culture of service that can be replicated at other synagogues, schools, camps and programs,” says Wahlberg, noting that J Camps and Jewish and non-Jewish preschools have reached out to KSDS about replicating the project. “The impact is multiplied because another organization is doing it.”
For hands-on experience in the community, KSDS sixth-grade students participate in “Reading Buddies,” in which they visit Dorothy I. Height Elementary School in Reservoir Hill and read with kindergarten and first-grade students. “They go and see how they can make a difference,” Wahlberg says. “And they form relationships with their buddies all year long. It’s such a beautiful program.”
In a similar vein, seventh-grade KSDS students travel regularly to the Edward A. Myerberg Center and are partnered with seniors to create a digital portfolio of the latter’s life. “This teaches [seniors] about technology, while the students learn about history and the senior’s life,” Wahlberg says.
Middle school students also participate in a day of service annually with JVC around Thanksgiving, performing community service at such venues as the Baltimore Humane Society and Paul’s Place, which provides programs, support and services for individuals and families in Southwest Baltimore.
Wahlberg says she works closely with a team of colleagues to conceive and implement the community service projects at KSDS. But she also sees where this component of her job has ripple effects at home. For instance, her CPA husband, Dan, recently helped create a day of service at his firm, inspired by Wahlberg’s work at KSDS. In addition, their daughter, Hannah, 16, recently was selected for the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership program.
“I love this is part of my job because I want my life to be meaningful,” Wahlberg says. “So much of our tradition is about helping others in the community. I want to pass that on to my kids.”