December 28, 2015

Generous and Jewish

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 11:55 pm





Of the many qualities that define Judaism and our community, generosity is one that often comes to my mind. As we finish our annual campaign, it is easy to focus on financial generosity, the mitzvah of a financial gift to support the many programs that enrich Jewish life in our community, as well as helping Jews in Israel and throughout the world.

Yes, the Federation would like a successful campaign to help fund the many programs that we provide, and the programs with which we are partners with other community organizations. Yes, the Federation feels that a financial gift is empowering not only for the recipient, but also for the donor. Yes, it would be wonderful if every member of our Jewish community provided a financial gift as a symbol of our commitment to Judaism and our fellow Jewish neighbors.

Many years ago our Federation launched Campaign 100%, an effort to inspire all of our Jewish community members to make an annual gift, regardless of the amount, as an act of solidarity and community building. We continue to judge our campaign not only by number of dollars raised, but also by the number of individual gifts. We many never achieve 100% participation, but that will not stop our efforts to give every Jew the opportunity to be counted, and enrich each other’s and the lives of those who are less fortunate.

The Federation would also like to acknowledge that there are many ways to participate and make a difference in addition to a financial gift. Our Federation and our Jewish community is blessed by individuals and families that donate their time, their possessions, and numerous other resources for the benefit of all. There is no doubt that we all have something, or many things to give.

As Sarah Silverman in the American Jewish World Service public service announcement posted on our website video section sums it up, “Jews are givers. They see people in need, they may be pushy about it, but their gonna help you. They may be annoying as they do it, but they will do it.”

So if you looking to feel good about yourself, feel good about being Jewish, and feel good about your hometown, make a gift to the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation before the end of this year. Also, think about how you can volunteer your time or provide resources to help improve a program, attend Federation sponsored events, serve on the Federation board or committees, or participate with college or senior outreach.

We really do believe, kol yisrael arevimzeh v zeh, every Jew is responsible of one another.


July 12, 2015


Filed under: Michael — michael @ 3:13 pm





The Federation blog is meant to inspire our members to learn more, do more, and be more. We try to be more by providing another place for our members to share knowledge and build community. We do this by sharing our simchas, our favorite books and jokes, items of interest in the news, fun videos, and member happenings.

A community shares its celebrations and achievements as well as circling the wagons to be present for its losses.  Fortunately, we have been blessed with many recent celebrations that have been very inspiring. Recently, Don Devorris was honored for by Penn State University with the distinguished alumni award, their highest honor. Lynn Kaplan recently shared her story of family. Our member happenings page honors our recent graduates. Henry Weinberg led the Federation and our congregations in our annual service to honor our veteran’s service to our country at our Jewish cemeteries. Illissa Zimmerman was our keynote speaker and she truly inspired.

At our recent annual Federation meeting we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Aryev and Belenitsky families joining our community. We watched video of their arrival at Blair County Airport, and relived their journey to start a new life in a new country. Their determination to find a better life in a new country took great courage. The effort of our Jewish community to make our new Americans welcome and successful was also a major undertaking. Phyllis Port, Judi Sue Meisner and Bill Wallen shared the actions that brought these two families to Altoona and recognized the volunteers that made it happen.

There is truly no shortage of inspiration in our Jewish community. As always, we hope that our Federation members enjoy our website, continue to find inspiration, and feel motivated to do more and be more.

Click here to read Illissa Zimmerman’s Keynote Address

Click here to read the 1990 New Americans volunteer appeal

November 23, 2014

What does the Federation do?

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:31 pm





Periodically, members of our Jewish community ask me, “What does the Federation do?” Initially, the question seemed unusual, but as I thought about the question, it began to make sense. Although I am highly involved with the Federation it is easy to forget that others may not be as focused on who, what, how and why events and programs happen in our community.

The easy answer is that Federation runs an annual philanthropic campaign to further the welfare of our local Jewish community and Federation provides funding for organizations that support Jews and Judaism regionally, nationally and worldwide, including significant support for the State of Israel. Funding for local programs include our Jewish Community Sunday School and Celebrate Diversity. Federation also runs its own programs such as the Altoona International Jewish Film Festival for our community, as well as partnering with local organizations, such as Penn State and SAMA for programs of Jewish content. Federation also organizes and supports mitzvoth projects, coordinates Holocaust education in our schools, and the represents the Jewish community in interfaith events.

Thus, Federation allows our community members to easily participate in philanthropy, and we try to provide and help others with programs of Jewish content for our community in the areas of culture, spirituality and education.

However, I do not think that this adequately answers the question of “what does the Federation do?” I think that people are really asking, what is Federation about, what does it believe, what does it stand for, how is Federation different, and how will it make a difference in my life?

I believe that Federation is a special place because our leadership, our board, and our members stand for community building for the benefit of all members of our community regardless of denomination, and congregational affiliation. We allocate, we program and we give of our time without self-interest for the greater good. We seek to unite and build a more vibrant and supportive Jewish community.

Federation is a place that welcomes all who are interest in doing mitzvoth. As the Talmud says, “I did not find the world desolate when I entered it; my fathers planted for me before I was born: so do I plant for those who come after me.”

Not only is our leadership focused on mitzvoth, we strongly believe in the Jewish concept of chesed, treating others with loving kindness. We may agree or disagree on various issues, but we respect each other’s opinions, and we trust that we are all motivated to help others without pettiness, conflict, accusations or prejudice. We gather with smiles and we leave with smiles, knowing our efforts are going to make a positive impact in our community.

In essence, the Federation is a positive place where people want to be involved in the life of their community. We seek to bring the joy of Judaism to our community with mitzvoth and through chesed, which is it’s own reward, because Kol Yisrael Averim Zeh v Zeh – Every Jew is Responsible for one another.


May 6, 2014

JDC and Your Federation is There

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 4:07 pm


Our Joint Distribution Committee – Centennial Anniversary



Wherever Jews are in need, JDC is there.  That has been true since 1914 when “the Joint” first started providing relief and rescue to Jews in war-torn Europe and Ottoman-ruled Palestine – and it is true today. Throughout the world, and particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the world’s poorest Jews depend on JDC. Today JDC is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization – active in more than 70 countries around the globe. For 100 years, JDC has provided rescue and relief to Jews in need throughout the world.  For the last three decades, we have been working to help Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – the poorest Jews in the world – and to renew Jewish community life to provide a support system now and into the future.  In the Ukraine JDC is there – delivering food and other necessities to vulnerable Jews in Kiev and towns across Ukraine as civil unrest roils the country.

Each year, Our Federation gives a significant allocation to the JDC.  It is part of our mission: Kol Yisrael Averim Zeh v Zeh – “Every Jew is Responsible for one another”.  Your gift to the 2014 Campaign will help assure that we continue this mission.

February 22, 2014

Film Festival Begins 15th Year

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 10:52 pm




Our Annual Altoona International Jewish Film Festival got off to a great start with last Thursday’s foreign film, The Other Son.  We learn that eighteen years ago an Israeli was accidentally switched at birth in a Tel Aviv hospital with a Palestinian infant. As Joseph prepares to enter the Israeli army, his parents are informed that their son’s blood work reveals that Joseph cannot be their biological child.  Rather, their child has been raised with another family as a Palestinian in the West Bank.  The Other Son explores the complex issues of birthright, identity, and the role of environmental factors that define individuals, families, and communities.  In addition to untangling this new complex relationship that has been thrust upon two families, the additional layer of Israeli and Palestinian conflict makes this film especially thought provoking, as well as entertaining.

Of course, the story of children switched at birth, as well as the issues that unite us and divide us, are well played out in books and movies.  In The Other Son, we see two young men and their families struggle with this horrible situation on a personal level.  We see this struggle of two families forcibly united by their sons played out on two sides of a wall that divides.  We see each family cross this wall guarded by soldiers.  We see two views of life separated by this physical barrier, but we also come to learn there is a greater barrier for each family member to make sense of this new reality.  The greater barrier is the wall that that exists in the hearts and the minds of each son and their family members.

It is only when this internal wall is brought down, that Joseph, Yassin and their families can try to make sense of their current situation and move forward for a happy and productive future.  Perhaps, this is a lesson for all to consider.

I hope you will join us for our three remaining films on February 27th, March 6th and March 13th.  I know you will be entertained and provided food, as well as thought.  My congratulations to our Film Festival Committee led by Len Zimmerman, and our Executive Director Bill Wallen, for our 15th year of films that bring us inspiration, humor and education.

September 22, 2013

To Struggle

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 3:19 pm




For many weeks I have been struggling to write a blog that inspires, motivates, and educates.  Numerous attempts resulted in blank pages, and my struggles continued.  Forever it seemed like I had nothing.  However, over the high holidays my rabbi enlightened me to the fact that struggling is a human and uniquely Jewish condition.  He said it is normal to struggle with our faith, and the world in which we live.  He did not mention the struggle to blog.  Usually I have no problem offering an opinion, which also seems to be a very Jewish trait.  I thought about writing from the theme of “when Judaism touches my life,” but I like to believe that there is a sense of Judaism in my life everyday, and in everything that I do.  I like to believe that I always conduct myself with integrity and within the laws of my faith, that I have been honest in business, that I have been a good husband, father and son, and that I cherish each day, and work to make this world a better place.  Over time I have realized that small, simple acts can have a spiritual sense and a degree of holiness that honors God and makes our lives meaningful.  Small simple acts can bring joy and honor to those who give as well as those who receive.  Over the High Holidays we have a lot to think about.  The challenge is to begin to act as we continue to think, because our actions are what will be counted and judged.  L’shana Tova Tikatevu.

May 5, 2013

Mazel Tov to Ilissa Zimmerman

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 4:02 pm




Nothing is quite like the last day of school, and nothing compares to celebrating that school is out for summer.  Not only will Sunday, May 12th be the last day for our students of the Altoona Community Sunday School, it will also be the last day for Ilissa Zimmerman to serve as our Sunday School Principal.  Ilissa has been our principal for the last six years and our community will miss her smiling face, endless enthusiasm, and wise leadership.  She has been a self-less, and tireless advocate for the education of our children, and always worked to pursue the greater good.  She has risen above self-interest, and led by example week after week.  Ilissa has been a mentor to our teachers and motivated those of us who are involved in leadership positions in the Jewish community to do more and be better.  On behalf of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, the administrator of the school, I want to thank Ilissa for everything she has done for our children and our community.  On Sunday, please take the opportunity to thank her as well.  Below are two examples of her leadership.

Ilissa Zimmerman’s Address to the Confirmation Class of 2010

Ilissa Zimmerman Federation Member Profile

February 23, 2013

Film Festival 2013

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:15 pm




Sunday is Oscar Night, but once again the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation has crashed the movie party with our fourteenth annual Film Festival last Thursday.  Dinner and a movie, The Debt, a 2011 spy thriller, were well received by a big crowd of over one hundred fifty.  With the addition of our catered dinners by Dave and Paula Binus of Catered Affairs for the last ten years, our International Jewish Film Festival has become quite the social, cultural and educational event.  We truly owe a debt of gratitude to the cold, lonely, and bored group of Jews who came to the Federation with this idea.

We also owe a big debt of gratitude to Len Zimmerman and his committee for making our Film Festival the Federation’s signature event.  It has become a community wide event and we now have as much participation from the general community as we do from the Jewish community, both at our dinners, as well as the movies.  Many of our community attendees also serve on our film selection committee.  Our Federation’s goal of community building has certainly exceeded our expectations in this regard and we are very pleased to share this event with our neighbors.

It is wonderful see our “regulars” each year at our four films and it is nice to see that they keep bring new friends to share the fun.  Of course, it wouldn’t be the seamlessly produced event without the efforts of our Executive Director, Bill Wallen.  If you missed The Debt, you owe it to yourself to come to the Altoona Heritage Discovery Center for dinner next Thursday, and then walk next door to the Penn State Devorris Downtown Center for our next excellent film.  We hope to see you next Thursday.


November 25, 2012

Freeing the Soviet Jews- The Altoona Connections

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 4:01 pm




On November 12 at the National Conference of Jewish Federation, my friend Laura Bialis moderated a dialogue about the 1987 March on Washington D.C. for Soviet Jewry.  The dialogue was between Nobel Laureate Ellie Wiesel and Jewish Agency Executive Nathan Sharansky- who together planned the march.

The event took place on December 6th and the 250,000 people there included a bus full of children and adults from Altoona coordinated by our Sunday school.  It was thrilling to be a part of this historic event and to greet friends from other cities in PA and many other states- all there to seek freedom for our fellow Jews who were held hostage in the Soviet Union.

Sharansky had been freed from prison just several months before the March.  The event was the result of a grassroots effort of “students and housewives,” who began the education and advocacy of American Jews about the plight of our Soviet brothers and sister.

The story of their fight for freedom is told in the film Refuslnik– that was produced and directed by Laura Bialis. We showed that documentary at our Film Festival in 2009.  The film is available to borrow or purchase from the Federation office.

Laura is also the producer/director of Tak for Alt, the documentary on the life of Holocaust survivor and civil rights activist, Judy Meisel, who will  visit us again in April of 2013.

Our greatest connection to Soviet Jewry occurred in 1990, when we “adopted the Aryev and Belenitsky families and helped over 30 “new Americans” come to Altoona as their first homes in the United States.  Our community was blessed in having the opportunity to work together in this effort and be a part of a modern day Exodus miracle.


November 10, 2012

Do Not Stand Idly By

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 3:52 am




Friday November 9th marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht- the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 Germany.  That night the Nazis carried out a program or organized riot against the Jews throughout Germany and Austria.  During a 24 hour period: 200 Synagogues were set ablaze; 7,500 Jewish owned  stores and shops were looted and their windows smashed; cemeteries were desecrated; 91 Jews were murdered and 30,000 Jewish men were seized and sent to concentration camps.  This program marked a change from the economic and social discrimination that the Nazis had perpetuated to actual violence and destruction.  It was the beginning of the Holocaust and “Final Solution”.

News of Kristallnacht spread throughout the world- but there was no meaningful response.  In Germany, people watched and participated in the looting.  In other countries, the Nazis were condemned but there was no action taken against them.  The Nazis realized that they were free to continue and escalate their attacks against the Jews, other minorities and on the other countries in Europe.

We are commanded n Leviticus 19:16 (in the Holy code) not to stand idly by when the blood of our neighbors is shed or when others are suffering.  The world stood idly by then.  We must remember that tragic lesson and reach out now whenever our neighbors are suffering.

September 16, 2012

Dynamic Speakers Coming to Our Area

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 1:15 am




Your Greater Altoona Jewish Federation continues to be driven by the Talmudic quote, “One person’s candle is a light for many.”  Our candle is the social, philanthropic, and educational programming that we bring to our community.  In the past year we have brought Rabbi Rami Shapiro, civil rights leader Judy Meisel, and historian Joellyn Wallen Zollman to Altoona.  We have also taken our community to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.  We hope these opportunities have brightened our member’s spirits and souls.

We are blessed to make you aware of two more great opportunities in the next month.  Dr. Michael Wolzer will be speaking in two weeks at the 125th celebration of organized Jewish life in Johnstown, and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg will be speaking at the Holocaust Education Conference at Seton Hill University in Greensburg in late October.  Both men are highly accomplished authors, lecturers, and national Jewish leaders.  Please go to our home page for more details regarding each speaker and each event.

I hope you are able to take advantage of these opportunities.  On behalf of the Federation, L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

August 6, 2012

United or Divided?

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:00 am




For me and most sports fans of my generation, nothing was quite like the hearing Jim McKay proudly say, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the trill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”  An Olympic summer rekindles this memory as Wide World of Sports often highlighted Olympic events.  It was hard not to admire or worship athletes who traveled the world and pushed their bodies to the limit for victory.  I can still visualize my sports heroes raising the spoils of victory, but my memory is even clearer regarding the agony of defeat, the poor ski jumper that crashes and tumbles off the ski jump ramp just prior to takeoff, week after week after week. Often sports highlight the fact that where there is great success, there is often great failure.  For those of us in central Pennsylvania, we have had a front row seat to the dangers of hero worship. We have seen how hero worship can cause basic human dignity to be pushed aside.  It seems that simple values such as kindness, respect, integrity, and honesty are often lost in the drama and quest for achievement.  Our rabbis say that this is why we repeat prayers within a service, and from service to service, to focus our thoughts and actions on doing simple holy acts and to remind us to be good citizens and care of one another.  This is how we are supposed to serve and make our world a better place.

It is easy to get lost in the national fervor or the Olympic games, or our upcoming national elections for that matter.  Win or lose, united or divided, we have choices to make, and it is important to be responsible with our choices.  We live in a busy world, and it is also easy to get “lost” on a daily basis as a parent, child, sibling or spouse.  It is hard to be kind and be respectful every minute of every day.  I suppose that is why we are human and not divine.

Bill recently shared a graduation speech that Chaim Potok made at Juniata College in 1992.

Mr. Potok talks about the future, our country, our choices and the power we have to make a difference.  It is certainly worth your time.

April 29, 2012

WISE Women

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 2:35 pm



Many members of the Jewish community spent a special evening at The Casino on April 18 to help WISE Women of Blair County recognize and honor Rozzie Sky, Community Service Volunteer for 2012. Rozzie was described as a woman of “faith, family and community involvement who brings her unique blend of enthusiasm, creativity and commitment to everything she undertakes – and she undertakes a lot!”  Mazel Tov to Rozzie and to the WISE Women organization for their wisdom in honoring her for many volunteer efforts to both the Jewish and general community.  We certainly are proud of Rozzie’s contributions as she joins so many other women in our Jewish community who practice our values of caring for each other, welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbor. Many of these women have been honored in prior years by WISE Women and the YWCA. They include: Nancy Devorris, Judi Sue Meisner, Shirley Pechter and Charlotte Morris as Community Service volunteers; Barbara Hollander – Arts and Letters; Bernice Levinson and Mickey Port – Non-Profit/Government, and Mary Jo Jubelirer – Education.  So many of our women are truly partners with God in the completion, perfection and repair of the world. May they go from strength to strength.


April 1, 2012

Ambassador Oren Speaks at PSU

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 2:49 pm




As the room filled, you could feel the excitement.  There were no beach balls, pep bands or loud music, but there was a mix of anticipation, energy, and anxiety.  What would he say, how would his message be received, and would the questions that followed be hostile?  The crowd was mostly students, but there were many adults.  There was also a large security detail, and visibly armed campus police.  I am sure many in the tightly packed, overflowing crowd at 111 Wartik Hall on the Penn State campus were interested in Ambassador Michael Oren’s presentation, “Israel as the Ultimate Ally to the United States,” but I was also there for the fireworks that were sure to follow the presentation. The State of Israel evokes strong emotions, and Oren’s previous presentations on college campuses have resulted in confrontation from hecklers and opponents of Israel and Israeli policy.  Students have been removed, arrested, and convicted for their outbursts in these presentations.  Our Jewish Videos page on this website has recordings of these episodes, and our News Online page has articles of these incidents.

After his presentation, Oren took questions, and the first two questions were along the lines of why does Israel kill innocent people, and the Jewish claim to Israel as a homeland is a lie.  I have no problem with the questions, but their tone and insinuation were clearly filled with hatred and contempt, as if the world would be a better place without Jews and without Israel.

Insensitivity, discrimination, hate, and criminal acts are usually something we learn about or experience on television, the internet, or in books, newspapers, or magazines.  These experiences seem remote, and we can always change the channel, or close the book.  Most of us will not to experience these acts in person. It is hard to describe the your emotions when the person directly in front of you, and the person behind you are spooing hatred and vitriol.  It is uncomfortable and it is scary.

You have just spent forty five minutes listing to a distinguished representative of a country you admire, a country that has overcome great odds to not only exist but flourish.  You have learned about all the great contributions it’s citizens have made to our civilization, and you are then brought down by hatred and evil thoughts.  It was sad, but it was a necessary experience.  Necessary because it motivates one to do good, stand up for the truth, and support justice.  It is important to be proactive in the celebration of religious and cultural diversity, and support the causes that bring understanding and respect between people and communities.  This is part of mission at the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, and I hope our Jewish community continues to support this aspect of our work.


January 30, 2012

L’ Chaim is Now Online

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 3:07 pm




The digital home of your Greater Altoona Jewish Federation is pleased to celebrate it’s three year anniversary. We have had over 10,000 visits and 4,200 new visitors since our launch, and not surprisingly, “member happenings” is our most visited page.

With each update we seek to provide new and exciting ways to enhance the Jewish experience in our community with member news, as well as fresh perspectives on local, national and international Jewish concerns. In addition, calendars, photos, book reviews, stories, videos, jokes, interviews, and event information continue to be posted daily.

I believe that the success of our excellent newsletter, L’Chaim, was an important inspiration for our website, and now we are happy to provide back issues of L’ Chaim on the website.  Just click on OUR COMMUNITY on the side navigation bar and then on L’ CHAIM for back issues from 1999.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of your Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, I hope you continue to find this website meaningful and I hope you will visit often and contribute to this community resource with any information you would like to share.

November 30, 2011

Being Thankful and the Act of Giving

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 7:00 pm




For many reasons, Thanksgiving is a very popular holiday. The feast, the football, the friends, and the family, are all very festive.

I want to thank Phil Devorris for helping put it all in perspective, and thank him for allowing me to share a portion of his thoughts: “I’d like to wish all of you a happy Thanksgiving and the beginning of a most joyous holiday season. Whether you spend it with friends, family or in quiet contemplation, please take time to count your blessings.  The world’s population passed 7,000,000,000 people this month. We all face different challenges in our lives, but compared to the lives of the vast majority of those 7,000,000,000, we are all indeed fortunate. Being thankful for what we have follows a tradition that goes back 500 years in our country. Few things are more helpful to the psyche than taking a moment to be thankful.”

The more I think about Thanksgiving, the more I begin to see a second component, the act of GIVING. By giving, one truly demonstrates being thankful. Giving also helps the psyche, and also helps those who are less fortunate. In Judaism, we strive to take the ordinary and make it holy. By making simple things special we add meaning to our daily tasks, and enrich our lives and our community. In this vein, let us try to show our thanks by giving our time, and our support to those in need, not only in this holiday season, but all year long.

October 21, 2011

Blair County Chamber Honors Altoona Shoe

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 6:52 pm




Once again a member or past member of our Jewish community was honored for their contributions to our hometown and region. The Altoona Shoe Company received the Heritage Award by the Blair County Chamber of Commerce. This award recognizes those businesses that are no longer in operation but made a lasting impact on Blair County’s history. Evelyn Kenvin, daughter of the founders, Binnie and Max Billig, and her sister-in-law, Gail Billig, were in attendance to receive the award. Altoona Shoe joins past Hall of Fame Inductees that include Kopp Drug, Puritan Sportswear, Penn Furniture, Kranich’s Jewelers, Blair Medical Associates, Schulman’s, SAF-T-BAK, Blair Sign Company, Delta Health Systems, and Altoona Pipe and Steel Company, that have either been founded, or led by members of our Jewish community. We certainly should be proud of our contributions to the quality of life in our hometown. Go to Member Happenings to read more about Altoona Shoe Company.

August 4, 2011

Matisyahu Rocks Pittsburgh

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 6:56 pm




It is not often that a Jewish musical megastar performs only a short drive from our homes in central Pa.  The music and the experience were too much to resist and on Saturday, July 16th tattoos, body piercings, alcohol, rock & roll, tallit, Torah, Havdalah and a hipster wanna be all came together at the AE Pavilion next to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  You had to see it to believe it, and hear it to believe it.  Reggae/rap/rock star Matisyahu was in the house and the house was a rocking.  Well after sunset, the Brooklyn orthodox Jew hit the stage with tallis, pais and kippa flying.  A collision of cultures united behind the music for the approximately three thousand in attendance.  I do not pretend to be a musical savant, but I know a popular cultural event when I see one.

I expected a larger Jewish presence either out of religious curiosity or to represent for our homeboy, but I only saw a few couples at the bar with similar inquisitive faces to mine. I also anticipated a show that highlighted the singer’s messages of holiness and observance but was instead fed a steady diet of drums, guitars and inaudible words.  Fortunately my disappointment with the music was balanced by the spectacle of the crowd.  You just don’t get this type of show at the Mishler.

While I love the artist’s music and often listen to his CD’s in the car or while exercising, I was happy to leave early at the request of my two companions, who were too exhausted from a day of shopping to enjoy the crowd.  Nevertheless, I was glad to have had the experience.  Click here to read more about the artist and click here to see some of his videos on our website.

May 13, 2011

New Rabbinic Leadership

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 8:35 pm




Change is constant and unpredictable, even in Altoona.  After years of struggling to woo rabbinic leadership, Agudath Achim and Temple Beth Israel have or will be welcoming new Rabbis.  A new rabbi is always an exciting time in the life of a congregation but expectations are always difficult.

I recently enjoyed a meal with Rabbi Josh as he and his family prepare for their new life at Agudath Achim and in Altoona.  As we conversed, my mind reflected on a sermon delivered by a guest rabbi a few years ago.  He delivered a very memorable sermon on the relationship of a rabbi and his congregation.  He explained this relationship as a very complicated one, as a rabbi is an employee as well as a friend and teacher. Expectations are high.  Does the rabbi work to preserve the heritage and practices of a congregation with years of history and tradition, or does he bring new insights and perspectives? YES!  Does he give sermons based on Torah, or sermons based on current events? YES!  Do we want him to lead us, work with us, or follow us? YES!  Does he need to listen to what we say we want, or should he give us what we really need?  YES!

Indeed, it is very complicated and it is a relationship that takes time and effort, like all relationships. In my home there hangs a poem called “a recipe for a happy marriage.”  The main ingredients, love, cooperation, forgiveness, and respect, all share one common feature, the act of giving.  The ability to give toward a greater whole in the absence of self-interest and for the greater good is the basis for any union to be complete and functional.

I also often think about a book that I read many years ago, “And They Shall Be My People,” by Paul Wilkes.  The author follows a conservative rabbi for a year in Worcester, Massachusetts.  He not only explores the relationship of a rabbi and a congregation with regard to expectations and commitment, but he provides real insights about the personal struggles of a spiritual leader.  I think everyone would benefit from this outstanding read with regard to expectations for a rabbi and a congregation as well as Jewish spirituality, and the difficulties of Jewish life in a secular America.

Congregations often have many meetings to discuss the characteristics that a spiritual leader should possess.  From my experience, the common denominator of these discussions was what we wanted, or what we felt we needed.  In my opinion our wants and needs should be secondary to what we plan to give.  A rabbi can only lead a congregation that is open and honest with regard to its own commitment toward observance and participation.  Click here to read about  “And They Shall Be My People,” by Paul Wilkes.


March 3, 2011

Film Festival sets record in 2011

Filed under: Bill — michael @ 9:50 pm




The Twelfth Annual Jewish Film Festival was our most successful – so far. Record crowds enjoyed our fine dinners and great films. Interest in the festival has grown over the years and is now a highlight in the winter schedule for both the Jewish and general communities.

We averaged about 90 people at the dinners where people relaxed, socialized and enjoyed the fine food prepared by Paula and Dave Binus and the special desserts from Maxine. The dinners are the real “community building” component of the festival where people can spend time with old friends and meet new ones.

Based on your suggestions, the Film Festival Committee selected movies that were a little “lighter” and more entertaining for this year. They also added more of an Israeli flavor – two of the films, The Little Traitor and For My Father were made and took place in Israel. Both were well attended and received. Dr. Matt Evans shared his knowledge of Israel in his introduction of For My Father. The Little Traitor, introduced by Mike Cohen, was a heartwarming story of an Israeli boy in 1947 Jerusalem.

The film with the largest attendance (185 people) was Yoo Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, which was the story of Gertrude Berg introduced by Rabbi Audrey Korotkin. The older generation remembered her pioneering radio and TV shows and younger people learned about her influence on current TV comedies.

Our last film, Inside Hana’s Suitcase, introduced by Jan Housman, was a fan favorite. It told the story of a wonderful Japanese teacher and her students who researched the history of a suitcase belonging to a young girl who was a victim of Auschwitz. There were wonderful messages of respect for others and hope for the future.

All of the films are available to borrow from the Federation.

Help us plan for next year. We welcome your suggestions for films that both educate and entertain. Let us know what topics or kinds of films you prefer – either through a comment to this blog or by emailing the Federation office at

February 5, 2011

The Gertein Report

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 8:42 pm




Last year, over the winter holidays while visiting my parents in San Antonio, Texas, I was happy to discover and rediscover the exhibit, Reclaimed, the extraordinary legacy of Jacques Goudstikker, a preeminent art dealer in Amsterdam, whose vast collection of masterpieces fell victim, and was almost lost forever to the Nazis.  I commented how Judaism is often found in unexpected circumstances and in unexpected places.  This winter holiday produced a similar surprise.  While packing for my trip I grabbed a pile of magazines collecting on my desk for the plane ride to Texas.  Each quarter I receive a copy of Emory Magazine from my alma mater and I usually give it a quick read on it’s way to the recycling bin.  This year an article about a five minute Holocaust documentary caught my attention.  Three Emory students won best drama for this film at the 2010 Campus MovieFest awards.  The story is about a Nazi scientist, Kurt Gertein, who develops Zyklon B gas as a chemical to kill rodents.  Unknown to him it is later used in the gas chambers.  When Gerstein sees his chemicals used for murder at the Belzec concentration camp, he realizes his indirect participation and buries the remaining gas canisters.  Wracked with guilt and finding no other aid, Gerstein surrenders himself to the Allies and writes “Der Gerstein-Bericht” which details his viewing of concentration camp killings.  His notes are later used as direct evidence against Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg Trials.  Check out the video in our Jewish video online page.

September 1, 2010

NBA Players Going to Hebrew School

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:02 pm




We hope everyone has had a relaxing and joyous summer with friends and family.  Soon may of us will be preparing to return to school and prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days in September.  We hope you have enjoyed our Federation website as a source of community happenings and as a portal to events and commentary about Israel and the Jewish experience around the country and around the world.  It continues to be our goal to find articles, videos, movies, books, and stories of interest for us to share.  Please continue to send us information.  In the coming weeks we will be posting information of our fall calendar.  We have many new and old favorite activities and programs upcoming.  In the meantime, please check out the new fascination of NBA basketball players with Hebrew and Jewish thought at Jewish News Online.  Shaq, LeBron and Amare are going to Hebrew school.  If we could only get our kids to be so enthusiastic!


July 7, 2010

Summer Interfaith Series – Wedding Customs and Rituals

Filed under: Bill — drexelroth @ 9:44 pm




This year’s Matter of Faith Summer Series will be held on Consecutive Tuesdays evening from July 13 through August 3 at various settings. We will learn about the mix of theology and secular customs that have influenced wedding rituals in Judaism, Buddhism, Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodox and Islam.

The series begins on July 13, at 7:00pm at Agudath Achim Congregation with an examination of the Jewish wedding – focusing on the ketubah, liturgical music, the chuppah, breaking of the glass etc.

June 1, 2010

Sunday School Confirmation, A Combined Success

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:07 pm




Smiles, families, spirituality, pride, fellowship and community, and of course, food, were everywhere at Temple Beth last week.  The occasion was the Altoona Jewish Community Sunday School confirmation.  Our seven confirmands from TBI and AAC stood together in front of their families, friends, the entire Sunday School and the Jewish community to celebrate the confirmation of their Jewish faith and Jewish studies. Our second consecutive combined confirmation for TBI and AAC was spiritual and meaningful from our Rabbi and Hazzan as well as our confirmands.  I congratulate Rabbi Luna, Hazzan Horowitz and the Sunday School leadership for their foresight and hard work in planning this program. The program also featured, our Principal, Illisa Zimmerman, who gave an inspiring keynote address.  Click here to go to the Sunday School web page to find a link to her comments and Confirmation pictures in our photo gallery.

I hope we will continue to find ways to celebrate as a community and I hope we can continue to find the wisdom to see the spirituality and strength that collaboration and commonality can provide.

May 1, 2010

Holocaust and Genocide

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:10 pm




Most years our Jewish community comes together to remember and commemorate the great tragedy our people and the world suffered at the hands of Nazi murderers.  This year there was no Holocaust program in our community but I hope that we have all individually taken some time to remember these atrocities of man versus his fellow man.  Please check the Jewish News Online area for some links to articles from newspapers around the world relevant to Yom Hashoah.  Also check out our link on the home page to additional news of relevance to observance of this day.  Also, let us not forget that hatred, bigotry and genocide is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.  Hatred and genocide are not just Jewish problems, they are worldwide problems.  Whether it is bullying on the playground or genocide in Darfur, we cannot allow or tolerate hatred.  To allow is to enable.

March 7, 2010

Film Festival

Filed under: Michael — michael @ 9:12 pm




Tonight the motion picture industry gave it’s annual awards for greatness on the big screen, the Oscars.  For two out of the last three (snow!) Thursdays and for the next two Thursdays the greater Altoona area has been able to see greatness on the semi-big screen at the Penn State Altoona Devorris Downtown Center.  While missing red carpets and glam, we are still treated to the best meal deal in town catered by Paula and Dave Binus, and we are sure to have four thought provoking films.  O Jerusalem and Making Trouble were excellent.  Len Zimmerman and his committee deserve high praise for eleven years of outstanding films and making this annual event one of the social and educational highlights of our local Jewish calendar.  I especially enjoyed Making Trouble, which documented the struggle of Jewish woman to earn respect and greatness in different eras and in different aspects of show business.  It was a pleasure to have Jerry Zolten introduce the film and lead a discussion afterwards.  One point of discussion after the film was about which actors were of Jewish ancestry.  The next day I received two emails on similar points.  One claimed Abraham Lincoln had Jewish ancestry and the second was from my sister in law who recently reviewed a show called Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad.  For your benefit I have added a new RSS feed on our home page called Jew Or Not Jew, that provides a tongue in cheek commentary on Jewish ancestry of celebrities, and check out this link for Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, a new generation of Jewish women “making trouble.”

January 25, 2010

Best Wishes to Ida and Yale Schulman

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:18 pm




Through my years of volunteer and organizational work I have come to believe in “the principle of thirds.”  Whether it be a congregation, a parents support group, a committee, or a board of directors, one third of the group does not participate, one third will get involved on a periodic basis, especially when asked, and one third is committed and enthusiastic to getting things done.  On a percent basis, in whole numbers, each third would be 33% and add up to 99%, slightly less than 100% because not everybody was involved.  Lately I have come to wonder if there is a fourth group, a 1% which could also be called a “special one percent.” We all know these people who are self-less, and tireless in pursuit of the greater good.  They are able to rise above self-interest, they lead by example and raise the level of all.  We admire their devotion and effort and we aspire be like them.  They are mentors and they leave a mark on our lives.  They motivate us to do more and be better when they are present.   They also inspire and motivate even when they are no longer around.  They can also be called pillars or cornerstones, as they carry the weight and shoulder the responsibilities of many.

When you lose a pillar, an organization or group is forced to deal with this new weight no longer carried by these “one percenters.”  Hopefully, others will rush in to carry the load.  Hopefully, your top third will generate new “one percenters,” people ready to serve at the next level.  Our community has be blessed have had many “one percenters” over the years.  Yale and Ida Schulman are “one percenters” and while we are very happy for them to be moving to be closer to family, we are also very sad to be losing them from our lives and our community.  On behalf of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, we wish them the best.

January 9, 2010

Reclaimed, the Legacy of Jacques Goudstikker

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:21 pm




Two themes seem to continue to repeat in my life.  Looking a second time always seems to provide new insight and Judaism can be found in unexpected places.  Upon a visit with my parents this holiday season in San Antonio, Texas, these themes were again revealed during a visit to a traveling exhibit of reclaimed art from the Holocaust.  The story of plundering art during World War II by the Nazis has been a recent subject of interest for me through books such as The Forgers Spell and movies at our Altoona Jewish Film Festival such as the Rape of Europa and Making A Killing.  I became aware that there was an exhibit while speaking with Rebecca Cohen at the SAMA Shirley Goldfarb reception.  Rebecca, the daughter of Yale and Ida Schulman, lives in Austin, Texas, recommended I check out an exhibit of reclaimed art from the Holocaust when I was to visit my parents in San Antonio. Fortunately, I was able to make time to visit the McNay Museum of Art.

“The exhibit, Reclaimed, reveals the extraordinary legacy of Jacques Goudstikker, a preeminent art dealer in Amsterdam, whose vast collection of masterpieces fell victim, and was almost lost forever, to the Nazi practice of looting cultural properties.  In 2006, after years of working with a team of art historians and legal experts, Goudstikker’s family successfully reclaimed 200 of his paintings from the Dutch government – one of the largest claims to Nazi-looted art ever resolved.  Featuring nearly 50 of the finest examples of the recovered art, along with original documents and photographs, the exhibition reveals Goudstikker’s influence as a collector, art dealer, tastemaker and impresario; and celebrates the historic restitution of the artworks to the rightful heir.  Ten of the paintings on view have never been exhibited in North America before. Also included are 20 original documents and photographs relating to Goudstikker’s life – most significantly, Goudstikker’s own notebook inventorying the bulk of his gallery’s holdings at the time he fled the Netherlands.”  Click here to read more about the Goudstikker family story.

While one would not expect such an exhibit to be in San Antonio, I was also surprised upon arrival at the museum to find that I had already seen the exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City in May.  Regardless, a story this compelling was worth a second look.

November 6, 2009

Light, Holocaust Ballet

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:25 pm




Sunny sixty degree fall days, especially in November, are meant to be spent outside raking leaves, bicycle riding, walking my dog and watching football.  Even more difficult was to be so close to Heinz field yet so fall away while the Steelers were doing battle with the Bengals.  But at the end of the day, despite temptation, I was very happy with my choice to attend the ballet yesterday.  Certainly I was out of my element.  While I have no problem breaking down the action on the field, like the millions of other Steeler head coaches in Western Pa, summing up my experience at the ballet may be a little more amateur but here we go.

For me, there were two aspects of the ballet.  Firstly, one cannot help but be in awe of the incredible strength, flexibility, coordination and conditioning of the performers.  Additionally impressive is the mental focus and teamwork of the troupe.  It is clear that these performers are also actors through their expressions and movements.  They tell a story with their bodies and movements in a very profound way.  Unlike other ballets I have attended, this performance was very physical and athletic with elements of dance and drama.

Secondly and more importantly, “Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” is more than a ballet.  Creator, Stephen Mills, who is not Jewish, has taken a catastrophic human tragedy and used this art form not only to remind us of the horror but to help us feel the emotions and help us attempt to experience this terrible genocide in a different way versus reading a book or watching a movie about the Holocaust.  The ballet follows the life on one survivor from birth, to family, and to confusion, fear, despair and hopelessness.  The portrayal of transport was especially profound as the dancers worked in “boxcar” space and projected the “intimate, stifling conditions in which many died before reaching their ominous destinations.”  Despite the devastation of such conditions and depictions of death and suffering, the ballet ends with the possibility of hope and also inspires us to take our responsibilities as world citizens very seriously.

As Mr. Mills explains in the playbill, “Art alone does not change the world, people do.  We all have to be diligent to individual and governmental protection of human rights whether or not we agree with other’s religious and political choices.  Acts of moral blindness did not go out in the 1940’s with the liberation of Auschwitz.

Before coming to see “Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” try to reflect on an instance when you were a bystander, a victim, or a perpetrator of intolerance.  Use this work to reflect upon your own responsibilities when confronted with acts of bigotry and hate.  My hope is that this work sparks your interest, which in turn starts a conversation.  People engaging in dialogue begin the process of positive change.”

September 25, 2009

High Holidays and Reflection

Filed under: Michael — drexelroth @ 9:28 pm




For Jews, the High Holidays are a time to reflect on the past year as well as an opportunity to look forward.  We look forward to a healthy and prosperous year for our families, our community and all humanity, and hope that this will be the year that peace will embrace all mankind.  Unfortunately, this view is not shared by all peoples and all nations.

While religion should be about putting people in touch with each other as well as putting people in touch with God, many use religion as a pretext for hatred and genocide.  No greater example of such hatred was recently on display at the United Nations.  Giving an audience to those who deny the Holocaust and champion the elimination of nations is difficult to fathom.  History has shown that repeated lies eventually blur the line between fact and fiction.  Please view the response of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the following link:

Please check out our Jewish News Online section for additional perspectives on the emerging Iranian crisis as well as other topics of interest to Jews throughout the world.

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