Project Ezra teaching Jewish community keys to safety


In the neighborhoods straddling Park Heights Avenue, a 7-year-old nonprofit group that promotes good safety practices has quietly become a fixture at the Jewish schools and synagogues of Northwest Baltimore.

Project Ezra, founded in 1988 by a local real estate developer, offers various forms of "Ezra," the Jewish word for help -- including cellular phone discounts, emergency and cardiopulmonary resuscitation training, blood donor programs and coupons for fire safety gear.

"That is the genius of the project," says Sister Marie Seton Walsh, a Northwest Hospital Center nurse who has taught health classes through Ezra. "It's not just to educate the community but to train them to protect themselves from injury and ill health."

The project runs a series of safety education programs, many of which hinge on small, but important details.

On a recent Monday night, seven very serious adults were gathered in the living room of Ezra Executive Director Gerry Shavrick. They stared with more than a little trepidation at a child's car seat, a toddler-sized doll and a very animated Debbie Baer.

Ms. Baer, president of the Maryland Child Passenger Safety Association, preaches vigilance -- about the tightness of harness straps, the buckling of seat belts -- to volunteers who will instruct local families in car safety during sessions this fall.

Above all, she is precise. A rear-facing child's car seat must be at a 45-degree angle. Even when they cry, babies should never be removed from their special seats (a story about a child who died in her mother's arms on a short ride to a park was offered as evidence). Shoulder straps should be so tight that they make a slight impression in a child's skin.

"I tell the kids who complain, 'A seat belt is like your mommy and daddy hugging you,' " Ms. Baer said. "It's gotta be tight to be good."

The project leaders see their programs as such vital supplements to the city's own emergency infrastructure that they are bent on expansion. Ezra recently purchased a condominium that will likely replace Mr. Shavrick's den as project headquarters. And last month, the project distributed the first 2,000 copies of a tape to local families promoting all forms of safety, and the project has plans to take the tape national.

"We hope that taking this tape national and reaching out to other cities will help us start similar Project Ezras in other places in the world," says Frank A. Storch, the real estate developer who is Ezra's president and founder. "When I travel to Jewish communities around the country to speak and when I see the lack of safety, it disturbs me greatly."

Filling the gaps

Mr. Storch says he decided to start Ezra one Saturday in 1988. He was attending services at Agudath Israel on Park Heights Avenue, he says, when an older man collapsed.

"I ran over to see what I could do to help out and I realized at that point that we did not have anyone at that moment who was trained to administer immediate first aid while we were calling 911," he says.

Mr. Storch asked Mr. Shavrick, who was retiring as acting director of the Jewish Community Center, to be Ezra's executive director, a part-time job and the only salaried position in the project. Immediately, Mr. Shavrick and Mr. Storch began raising money for their first program: free CPR training at more than two dozen synagogues. More than 1,000 Baltimoreans took the classes, which usually cost about $25.

"And as we got into more areas, we began to see more gaps in services that we could fill," Mr. Shavrick says.

Ezra has a board of directors, but members meet infrequently and defer to Mr. Shavrick and Mr. Storch, a hyperkinetic man who has two beeper numbers and is, by his own admission, constantly on the phone.

Mr. Storch -- like Mr. Shavrick and several Ezra volunteers, an Orthodox Jew -- routinely lectures friends about emergency preparedness and offers acquaintances everything from car gadgets to Orioles tickets.

"The key issue in Frankie Storch's life is what he can do to make the community safer," says Rabbi Boruch Brull, a member of Ezra's board.

Mr. Shavrick is a low-key, native Baltimorean who spends part of the year running a Passover hotel with his brothers in New Jersey. "He is extremely effective," says Ms. Baer. "I ask something of him, and it's done."

Businesses pitch in

Many of Ezra's programs, which are funded primarily by private contributions, rely on the ability of Mr. Shavrick and Mr. Storch to build support with local businesses.

They've persuaded cellular phone companies to make dozens of phones available at a discount, worked with a local pizzeria to sponsor a bike helmet giveaway, and lobbied the Orioles for a kosher food stand at Camden Yards.

Jeremy Staiman, a 34-year-old graphic designer, says his family applied a Hechinger discount coupon from Ezra to purchasing a fire escape ladder for his second-floor window. Even his 3-year-old, he says, knows how to use the ladder.

Invaluable training

Yaakov Szajowitz, director of development for a local Jewish day school, says the 12 hours of emergency response and CPR training he received from Ezra's Instant Responder program proved invaluable. Recently, Mr. Szajowitz, one of 100 "instant responders," says he was able to use the Heimlich maneuver when his 18-month-old son was choking at the dinner table.

"I dislodged the food," says Mr. Szajowitz, 28. "It was a rush."

But Ezra's leaders say no program creates as much excitement as the bike safety classes taught by Baltimore Police Agent Michael S. Maglia. Project Ezra volunteers reinforce lessons by giving coupons for free snowballs to youngsters "caught" wearing their bike helmets properly.

"No one says it's not cool," says Aharon Lemberger, 11, a Talmudical Academy sixth-grader, of his red, white and blue "Pro-Action" helmet. "Why should it be? It's protection."

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