Teach It Diligently to Your Children

Background for the ongoing story, did I return from the Democratic Convention and Tokyo in time to coach when my first child Joanna was born? See Part 1: https://joelsolkoff.com/?p=604


I remember clearly that astonishing first visit to the obstetrician, the one where I saw for the first time a sonic image of my first child inside her mother’s womb and heard the heartbeat. This was over 26 years ago and I remember it as clearly as if it were happening right now between the strokes on my computer keyboard.

I brought a cassette tape recorder to the obstetrician’s office and from then until Joanna’s birth, I rode around Washington DC where I lived for 17 years and where I often drove with the kind of automatic pilot that comes with familiarity. While the automatic pilot was driving, the rest of me was listening to the sound of life, primitive and vital coursing through the internal consciousness of my mind.

The heartbeat sound was surprisingly fast. There were times I heard it and remembered with clarity the sonic image of a creature who swam and looked like a frog and who would shortly be my child—the person whose umbilical cord I would cut.

What could I teach such a person? How could I flaws and all (and I was often overwhelmed by the specificity of my flaws) be a father commanded to teach, commanded to teach it diligently, commanded to teach what? This much I knew. After years of repeating the phrase from the shima, in Hebrew and in English often-multiple-times-a-day that God was not simply commanding me simply to teach my children the story of the Exodus from Egypt–unless you regard the deliverance from slavery a story that transcends that specific historic occasion and becomes a story of the universal quest for freedom and holiness.

It is germane that I have always been perplexed by the words of the havdalla service at the end of the Sabbath, lighting the multi-wicked candle, smelling the fragrence, consuming the booze (my stepfather preferred substituting 120 proof slivovitch) and recognizing that we were marking the difference between the holiness of the Sabbath and ordinary quality of the rest of the week. “Hamavdeel bein kaddish lechol.” How can we make such a distinction? Isn’t everything holy? Is there really a dividing line?

Fortunately, I no longer have to worry about being a good father—not with the intensity that drove me to drive sometimes aimlessly through the streets of DC listening to the heart beat, wondering whether I would measure up to being a good father. It is not that Joanna is 26 and Amelia is 20. We parents know that there is no end to being a parent.

I am, of course, gratified that my daughters have read Hemingway, believe strongly in the majesty of the 14 amendment of the Constitution of the United States and of the promise The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing side by side with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (a great theologian in a century of great theologians), gave us—a promise of equality and the perception that no one is free until all human beings are free.

But what about being Jewish? Did I teach Joanna and Amelia what it means to be a Jew? For me especially being Jewish has been very complicated. As I contemplate the recent death of my mother Miriam Pell Schmerler, who was a Hebrew educator, I understand that some Jewish issues have always been clear and simple (as clear and simple as it is possible for Jews to let things be):

1.      We Jews are a very old people. According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, “Most scholars agree that the texts now found in Genesis began to be written down sometime after the establishment of the monarchy in Israel in the tenth century B.C.E.” These documents were part of an oral tradition that traces back farther than history itself. We are not only an old people; we are a clan; landsmen, people who have an obligation to each other and the world too often obscured by disagreements less important than they seem at the time.

2.      Theodore Herzl was divinely inspired when, after witnessing the Dreyfus trial in what was believed to be progressive France, Herzl concluded that our people require a Jewish state located in the holy land. Today’s Middle Eastern problems may seem insoluble, but in my lifetime I have seen the fall of the Berlin wall, majority rule in South Africa, and a palpable harmony in Northern Ireland to the point where Joanna spent her junior year abroad in Belfast and her parents did not fear for her safety.

3.      The revival of the Hebrew language was one of the great miracles of the 20 century, accomplished despite opposition by the Orthodox community which stoned Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his children for speaking God’s language outside the synagogue. Not only is the majesty of the Hebrew language in the Bible—our book; we are the people of the book—better understood today than ever before. But a new, vital language has sprung up in Israeli soil. Nobel Prize committees sometimes err in their choices. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Shmuel Yosef Agnon for using the Hebrew language to demonstrate the human ability to communicate on the highest level can be compared equally to the award to William Faulkner, kindred souls despite worlds of difference.

4.      Being the “chosen people” means we have been chosen to have an often confusing relationship with God. I have been reading James L. Kugel’s brilliant How to Read the Bible. Kugel, a former Harvard professor of Hebrew, reconciles modern Biblical scholarship, which has done so much to make the Bible accessible, with traditional Midrashic interpretation, ending in about 200 AD.

Kugel says the following about God: “As for where He is normally, He is simply elsewhere, behind the curtain of everyday reality, but from time to time He crosses into the world.”


[Note: This posting appeared in slightly different form in Brit Shalom of State College, PA’s quarterly publication The Center Scroll, January/February 2011. Copyright © by Joel Solkoff, 2011.]

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin

In keeping with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, today and tomorrow, I am hereby posting a review of Robert Briscoe‘s book, published on Amazon.com. The book is entitled, For the Life of Me and was recommended to me by Briscoe’s son Benjamin, who succeeded his father as Lord Mayor of Dublin. My review of For the Life of Me discusses the work my father, Isadore Solkoff did to try to prevent the Holocaust.

For the Life of Me

This autobiography by Robert Briscoe Zionist and Irish revolutionary who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin is a terrific read. The following provides background on Briscoe’s Zionist activates, described in a heartbreaking chapter on Briscoe’s attempt to encourage Polish Jews to leave the country before they were killed.

Briscoe was a friend of my father Isadore Solkoff. Briscoe attended a seder at the rear of my grandfather’s candy store in Jersey City in the 1930’s. Both my father and Briscoe were devoted followers of the charismatic Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940),founder of the political party that currently runs Israel.

My father arranged for Jabotinsky to speak to a packed crowd at Town Hall in New York City in March of 1935 warning of the impending Holocaust.

Briscoe introduced Jabotinsky to the early leaders of the Irish fight for independence. Before and after Jabontinsky’s death, Briscoe worked at transporting Jews from Nazi-dominated countries to Palestine.

My father introduced Briscoe to New York City Jewish organizations. Solkoff and Briscoe both collaborated with Ben Hecht to create a highly controversial full-page advertisement on the back page of the first section of The New York Times. The year was 1943. The ad was entitled, “FOR SALE TO HUMANITY, 70,000 JEWS, GUARANTEED HUMAN BEINGS AT $50 A PIECE.”

Romania had offered to let their Jewish citizens leave Romania on the condition that the Four Superpowers pay $50 for each Jewish head and agree to transport them to Palestine. The British opposed transportation to Palestine, which was under their control. The Jews who might have been saved died.

My father’s most important contribution to the effort to avert the Holocaust was a secret, private meeting he arranged between Robert Briscoe and Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) then a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Brandeis took pride in his influential role with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and in the American Jewish community. The meeting did not go well. It took place at Brandeis’ Washington home. Briscoe gave Brandeis a warning about the American Jewish community’s indifference to the plight of Jewish European refugees.

Later Briscoe reported to Solkoff the warning he gave Brandeis. “Your accomodationist stance with the British will result in millions of unnecessary Jewish deaths at the hands of the Nazis.” Briscoe continued, “The blood of those Jews will be on your hands too and that of the rest of the American Jewish community. It will be on your hands even though you do not directly commit the murders.”

An account of the interview and its critical condemnation of President Roosevelt is recorded in For the Life of Me. It was also documented in correspondence my father initiated with Justice Brandeis in which he arranged for the appointment.

— Joel Solkoff, Isadore’s son, is the author of The Politics of Food and other books.


John Bertoty co-founder of Blueroof

John Bertoty (right) is Executive Director of Blueroof Technologies, Inc. This is a position John has held for the past 10 years when he founded Blueroof with Robert Walters (left). Listen to one of the sounds you might hear after you enter the front door.


In 2002, John was Academic Principal, McKeesport Area High School, McKeesport, Pennsylvania. John writes that he was “responsible for all aspects of the academic program (1500 Students).”

This following is a photograph of McKeesport Area High School as it is today:

The website All About McKeesport Area High School and Technology Center notes:

“The high school became a Grade 9-12 building with the start of the 2000-2001 school year. In 2003-2004, new additions to the high school building provided room for the five remaining vocational/technical classes that were housed at North Hall. Culinary Arts, Cosmetology, Building Construction, Auto Body, and Auto Mechanics are now all a part of the comprehensive high school that offers its entire academic and vocational/technical curriculum under one roof.” http://www.mckasd.com/MAHS/general_information.php#matc

At the same time John was Principal, he also served as Acting Director of Vocational Education with full responsibility for the 700 student vocational/technical center. Indeed, it was John’s passion for vocational educational that led him to join with Robert Walters, a professor of engineering at the local Penn State campus, to create Blueroof.  As Blueroof noted in its initial website: “Blueroof will use innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship to develop state-of-the-art living facilities that will keep senior citizens safer, healthier, and living independently at home as long as possible.”


John Bertoty‘s Facebook picture

John’s perspective focused on the fact that the school system was training workers for technical jobs which required, in Rust-Belt-devastated McKeesport, that the young people leave the area to obtain work. One goal of Blueroof was to keep young, skilled workers in McKeesport constructing badly needed housing for the elderly and disabled who have been left behind by the exodus.

In 1940, McKeesport had a population of 55,000 residents. According to the 2010 Census, McKeesport’s population is 19,731. McKeesport, just outside of Pittsburgh at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, was steel country.

The largest employer, National Tube Works, once employed 10,000 workers. Now the factory—which graced the cover of postcards—is out of business. At its height, Tube City, as McKeesport was called, took pride in the fact that it was the largest supplier of tubing without seams in the world.

Site of U.S. Steel Tube Works, McKeesport

Tube City established a reputation for innovation which, according to Bob Walters, meant that in the 1950s, McKeesport had more patent attorneys than Pittsburgh. Penn State, the largest university in Pennsylvania established a campus at McKeesport which bore the city’s name, but when the city’s reputation became unsavory, the University changed the campus name to Greater Allegheny.

John Bertoty co-authored a scholarly paper on the program he helped found writing, “In 2005, Blueroof Technologies completed construction and dedication of its model Smart Cottage [shown in the photograph above], located at 400 Spring Street in the Third Ward of McKeesport.

“The model Smart Cottage was built to demonstrate and test the monitoring technology features and functions.  In addition, Blueroof used the Smart Cottage to guide the development of a floor plan that utilized universal design concepts; this enables it to be adapted to the ever-changing and unique personal needs of each individual owner in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“A modular home is a structure designed and built for residential use; constructed in one or more three-dimensional modules in a factory, and transported to the home site for final assembly and completion on a permanent foundation.

“Using modular home construction techniques, the Smart Cottage is easily replicated for new construction at a cost of approximately $150,000, excluding land cost.  About $10,000 (6.7%) of this $150,000 cost is associated with the technology add-ons (materials and labor) to facilitate aging in place.  The basic information technology infrastructure (wiring, controller, basic sensors) adds ~$2,000.  Internet connectivity, a computer server and an enhanced sensor array add ~$3,000.  Networked cameras and a more advanced sensor array add ~$5,000.”


As the first invited guest to spend the night at the Experimental Cottage, it is difficult to describe the feeling of exhilaration I felt sleeping in an apartment designed to meet my specific needs as a person who cannot walk. For about two years, I have been working at Penn State’s Immersive Construction (ICON) Lab working with graduate assistant and 3-D modeller Sonali Kumar to develop a virtual reality demonstration of how residences for elderly and disabled people, such as myself, should be built. The model is based on the reality of the cottage in which I was sleeping and living for two days, using, for example, an expertly designed roll-in shower where I did not fear about falling because the grab bars and shower seat fit so comfortably. I had served as Sonali’s model for the avatar in virtual reality and there were moments when I half expected to bump into myself going into the shower.

avatar in shower

If you go to this link at 9 am, (you do not need to log in, but you may have to wait because only one user can use the remote camera at a time), you will see John Bertoty sipping his one deeply cherished mug of coffee for the day, talking with Bob Walters and Rich Knapick, who designs the remote sensing equipment, and the rest of the crew, planning the day.

My first day of my two night stay, John had me drive my POV [Power Operated Vehicle] scooter to his car and I transferred to the passenger seat and took the tour. We seemed to go everywhere and everywhere we went, everyone knew John Bertoty.

“Sometimes,” John later told me, “I will see someone who was a student I expelled, and he will come up to me and apologize for having behaved so poorly 15 years ago.” John is the kind of guy, a respected former principal who has been in the area for generations, everyone likes. He is well-equipped to coordinate the area’s human and other resources into creating the kind of housing that will revolutionize the construction of residences for the elderly and disabled. All he needs are the right tools.

3-D Model of Blueroof Cottage

John Messner at the Immersive Construction Lab


John I. Messner, Ph.D.

John Messner

Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering
The Pennsylvania State University
104 Engineering Unit A
University Park, PA 16802
United States of America
[email protected]


Educational Background:

1994 Ph.D., Architectural Engineering, Construction Management Option,
The Pennsylvania State University

1991 B.A.E., Architectural Engineering, Construction Management Option,
The Pennsylvania State University


Construction Industry Experience:

10/96 -12/00: Project Manager/Project Engineer, The Clark Construction Group, Bethesda, MD

5/96 – 9/96: Project Manager for Development, Rebuild, L.L.C., Sterling, VA

9/94 – 5/96: Project Manager, Horseshoe Group Inc., Alexandria, VA

5/90 – 8/90: Architectural Draftsman, Willigerod & MacAvoy Architects, Harrisburg, PA

1/89 – 8/89: Field Engineer, The George Hyman Construction Co., Bethesda, MD

5/88 – 8/88: Architectural Draftsman, Don Klinger, AIA, Millersburg, PA.

Academic Experience:

1/01 – Current: Assistant Professor, Department of Architectural Engineering, Construction Engineering and Management Option, Penn State University.

1/94 – 5/94: Course Instructor, International Construction Engineering and Management Course, Penn State University.

5/91 – 8/94: Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Architectural Engineering, Penn State University.

8/90 – 5/91: Undergraduate Teaching Intern, Department of Architectural Engineering, Penn State University.


Sonali Kumar, virtual reality modeller and designer

Sonali Kumar created this 3-D model of the Blueroof Cottage using AutoDesk’s Revit virtual reality imaging tool a Unity gaming engine. See Unity’s 3-D website: http://unity3d.com/create-games/?gclid=CPnkpYKZnK0CFVCR7QodWnKPnw.

As the authoritative Wikipedia notes: ”

A game engine is a system designed for the creation and development of video games. There are many game engines that are designed to work on video game consoles and personal computers. The core functionality typically provided by a game engine includes a rendering engine (“renderer”) for 2D or 3D graphics, a physics engine or collision detection (and collision response), sound, scripting, animation, artificial intelligence, networking, streaming, memory management, threading, localization support, and a scene graph. ”


What does this mean and how does it apply to the problem of designing low-income housing for disabled and elderly Pennsylvanians, Americans, and citizens of the world.?


Sonali Kumar in her office next to her model Blueroof Cottage


Developing an experienced-based design review application for healthcare facilities using a 3d game engine

From The Journal of Information Technology in Construction (Icon). a peer-reviewed scholarly journal on the use of IT in architecture, civil engineering and facility management.

PUBLISHED: January 2011


Sonali Kumar, Graduate Research Assistant,
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
[email protected]

Matthew Hedrick, Graduate Student
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
[email protected]

Christopher Wiacek, Graduate Student
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA [email protected]

John I. Messner, PhD The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
[email protected]

SUMMARY:Virtual Prototypes are increasingly being used during design reviews of specialized buildings such as healthcare facilities. However, most of these virtual prototyping approaches do not allow the reviewers and end users to interact directly, in real-time with elements and objects within the virtual model. This paper focuses on a method to combine the use of 3D game engines with the emerging experience based design approach for healthcare facilities to develop a systematic approach to scenario-based design review of healthcare facilities in an interactive virtual environment. First, a virtual facility prototyping framework for rapid creation of a scenario based design review system is defined. Next, strategies to implement this framework to develop an Experience based Virtual Prototyping Simulator (EVPS) application are described. Design information workflows were developed and tested between various BIM authoring tools and the Unity game engine that is used for developing the interactive virtual prototype system. Finally, some lessons learned and issues are highlighted that help direct future research and implementation.

For complete text see: http://www.itcon.org/cgi-bin/works/Show?2011_6

–From Special Report: Use of Gaming Technology in Architecture, Engineering and Construction.


Sonali Kumar on television

Here Sonali discusses a virtual reality model she is creating for a new children’s’ hospital at Hershey Medical Center by the Fox affiliate WPMT Channel 43 serving York, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Lebanon, PA. The program aired Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at 10pm.

Scroll to the right to building blocks dated 3/6.

Richard Behr at Smart Spaces

Dr. Richard A. Behr, P.E.


Dr. Richard Behr

Charles and Elinor Matts Professor of Architectural Engineering
Department of
Architectural Engineering
The Pennsylvania State University




B.S. in Civil Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, 1974
M.S. in Civil Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, 1975
Ph. D. in Civil Engineering, Texas Tech University, 1982

Ferraro had charisma

Letter to the editor Centre Daily Times, published April 3, 2011. 

I was standing on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 1984 counting as each of the state’s delegations went through the time honored ritual of formally endorsing Geraldine Ferraro to be vice president of the United States.

Few people realize the twin significance of the events at the Moscone Center that night:

The convention nominated the first woman ever to be a heartbeat away from being president; and this was the last election where a presidential nominee of either party promised to reindustrialize the U.S. The Mondale-Ferraro administration would have made keeping industrial jobs in the U.S, especially in places like central Pennsylvania, a major priority.

The obituaries of Ferraro discussed her husband’s financial problems. If only she had become vice president. Sadly, events, many of which were out of her control, destroyed her career.

I had met Ferraro at a formal dinner in Washington, D.C. The overused word charisma comes to mind. It would be unfortunate if we failed to recognize the incredible gift Geraldine Ferraro gave the American people of both sexes when she broke that glass ceiling.

Joel Solkoff State College