High school students groomed in Jewish leadership

May 31, 1994|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

A "depressing, dark and gloomy" week of visits to cemeteries and Nazi death camps in snowy, rainy Poland was followed by more than five weeks of sunny relief in Israel, said Tali Rombro, 17.

"It was like going from death to life," said Steven Rubenstein, also 17.

The contrast was part of a carefully designed program of leadership training for 23 Jewish seniors at Pikesville's Beth Tfiloh high school, and it has had the desired effect: a vivid understanding of the Holocaust as a reason for supporting the tTC Jewish state.

"Poland was emotionally difficult -- death camp after death camp after death camp. After that, Israel was great," said Rachael Weiner, another 17-year-old.

The hands-on history lesson in Europe and the Middle East lasted nearly seven weeks, ending May 19.

The time spent in Israel was not the first for about half of the teen-agers, but there was a new challenge for all of them, boys and girls alike. For most of a week, they lived the life of trainees in the Israeli army.

"Five days of rigorous training -- waking up at 5 in the morning, army food, army conditions -- but it was a good week," said Miss Weiner.

"We enjoy it more looking back," added Miss Rombro with a laugh.

The students are reliving their experiences together as they make the rounds of Jewish educational agencies and Jewish health-care facilities in Baltimore. "We are like a big family," said Miss Weiner.

And their appreciation of Jewish religious and ethical traditions and Jewish accomplishments is being reinforced.

Rabbi P. Michael Meyerstein of the Beth Tfiloh staff said the program is designed "to introduce them to Jewish communal affairs and issues of concern to Jewish leadership." Even before they reach college, the teen-agers are being groomed for a future when they will take the helm of Baltimore's Jewish institutions.

On Thursday, 11 of the students toured the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center at 2434 W. Belvedere Ave., near Sinai Hospital.

"Please say 'Hello' as you go through," instructed nurse Sandy Liberman at the entrance to one of the patient areas. "They like to see young people."

The visitors did their best with brief greetings and were rewarded with brief smiles from rows of wheelchair occupants.

Afterward, Aaron Schmookler, 17, said the sight of so many people left incapacitated by age or trauma had not saddened him. "I think it's heartening to see them so well taken care of," he said.

When the 11 students were asked who planned to pursue a career in medicine, four raised their hands -- two male, two female.

They were introduced to difficult questions of medical ethics in lectures on "end of life issues" by Dr. Raymond Cogen, Levindale's medical director, and Rabbi Nahum Ben-Natan, its chaplain.

The discussion touched on "living wills" by which people leave instructions on the kind of life-prolonging care they want -- or don't want -- when too ill to make decisions. Sometimes such instructions include the rejection of "heroic measures" to prolong life.

"Doctors don't like living wills so much because they tend to be vague," said Dr. Cogen. "For example, what precisely are 'heroic measures' in a given case?" He said entrusting a relative with a power of attorney, to be exercised in the event the patient is incapable of making rational decisions, is usually preferable.

Rabbi Ben-Natan told the students that, "from the Jewish point of view, from the Torah point of view, the individual does not have the final say about one's body because it is a gift from God," and "what Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian is doing -- assisted suicide -- is murder."

The rabbi noted the fine line that can exist between relieving pain and hastening death.

"Every individual life is sacred, and the value of life is infinite," he told the students. Yet, administering morphine to "relieve intractable pain can be the overriding consideration, to make a patient as pain-free as possible." At Levindale, "the religious perspectives and the medical perspectives are not at odds," the rabbi said.

Levindale president Stanford A. Alliker engaged the students in a discussion of President Clinton's proposed health care reforms, asking them to think about taxation, costs and the need to balance the different medical needs of the young and the old.

Amichai Margolis, 17, suggested that both age groups could benefit from the proper allocation of health-care money. "The polio vaccine helped the elderly of today but was developed for a younger generation," he said.

Aaron Schmookler cited his parents' decision to pay for his schooling at Beth Tfiloh even though they are taxed to support the public school he is not attending. A slower, more careful overhaul of the nation's health care system may be required, he said, "because people are not willing to pay taxes if they feel the money is not well spent."

As the two weeks of seminars continue, tours of Sinai Hospital and meetings with leaders of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore will be added to the visits to the Jewish Community Center, Baltimore Jewish Council, Baltimore Hebrew University and Levindale.

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