by Duchy Trachtenberg
Special to WJW
Does the Jewish tradition of community service have an expiration date?--
Is the sense of obligation we feel to the Jewish people, and to future generations, something elastic that can be stretched, bent or turned into something totally different because of outside events?
And further, when is it appropriate for a political body to insert itself into a community decision and interfere with a contractual obligation?--
These seem to be the central questions at the heart of the debate over the sale of a disused county property to the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. As a Jew, and as a departing member of the Montgomery County Council, I have some relevant insight and experience regarding this highly charged controversy.
But first, a little history. The former Peary High School in Aspen Hill was an abandoned eyesore in the middle of a vibrant, family-friendly community. Vandals, gangs and drug users had free reign.--
But in 1994 the Board of Education deeded it to the county, and the Berman Academy was the only party to respond to a request for proposals to lease the building, with an option to buy. A 25-year lease, and a purchase price, based on the average of three independent appraisals, were executed and signed by all parties.
At the time of the consumated deal, the property had zero value. The school spent more than $9 million on renovations, based on the expectation that it could purchase the building as a permanent home for the Academy, which began as the first Jewish day school in the Washington area, founded in 1944.--------
Flash forward to 2010. Today, the Aspen Hill community is revitalized and on the move. Neighborhood property values, which had been steadily decreasing, began to stabilize and increase when the Berman Academy opened its doors.--
The school has taken its obligation under the lease agreement to open its facilities to the public as a solemn and welcome responsibility. The school is used for meetings of the Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, family events and a wide range of cultural activities, and the Berman Academy maintains an excellent gym and track that are used regularly by members of the community, at no cost to the county.
In short, the Berman Academy is a proud example of the talmudic teaching that in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all its spiritual and communal needs.--
This goes to the heart of the tradition of tzedakah, Jewish charity. And, this is why the Berman Academy should be allowed to secure its future in Aspen Hill by buying its own home.
However, it seems that there are some people who, for whatever reasons, wish to stymie progress and renege on this longstanding, agreed-upon contract. Whether or not these last-minute objections are policital in nature, they nonetheless have the effect of appearing as though our Jewish community's expression of our legal and societal rights are being violated.
Both the absolute will of the Aspen Hill community and the county's contractual obligation to complete the sale are in danger of being brushed aside.
Long after today's elected officials are out of office, the debates that seemed so contentious at the time will fade in memory. What will endure are the values, traditions and knowledge that we share and pass on to our children and grandchildren.
The Berman Academy has earned a permanent place in our community. The energy pulsing out of each classroom and down every corridor is contagious and creative. They've earned a place in our community, and they deserve our support.--
"[E]very individual is duty bound to join forces with his community in thought, in word and in deed and loyally to share in its tasks and obligations, so long as that community proves to be a faithful guardian and supporter of the Torah" -- Rav Hirsh, Pirkei Avot 2:4
The Melvin J. Berman Academy each and every day certainly infuses life into these resonating words. It's time for Montgomery County to do the same.
Duchy Trachtenberg is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.