SARA SCHENIRER: A First-Class Option

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THE STORM CHASER

By: Margie Pensak



While Akiva Marcus’ friends were pursuing careers in more standard fields of study like medicine, law, and accounting, Akiva was snowed under with weather reports. What precipitated the interest for this nice Jewish boy from Baltimore to become a meteorologist? Before speaking to him,
I hadn’t the foggiest!

Theearliest recollection meteorologist Akiva (Kevin) Marcus has of being interested in the weather was during the Baltimore blizzard of 1966, when he was seven years old.

“They closed school for the week, which was rare,” reminisces Akiva. “I had an early fascination with weather triggered by snowstorms, and particularly in enough snow that would close school, so I could tell the kids they didn’t need to do their homeworkfor the next day. My early interest was not just a fascination with weather, but with howpeople use that information to make decisions both personal (Can we go sledding?) and for business (Can I make some money shoveling sidewalks?).”

From that point on, Akiva made it a point to listen to the daily NWS briefing from the meteorologists at Friendship Airport
(now BWI) when he came home for lunch in elementary school,
as well as to the evening forecasts.

One evening, when he was about nine years old, while watching the news report in the living room, he let out a loud moan. His mother, a”h, who was cooking in the kitchen, thought there was an emergency and dropped a pot of boiling soup on the floor and ran in to ask what happened.

“I just missed the weather forecast on the news!” he groaned.

For a bar mitzvah present, a family friend arranged a meeting with the NWS meteorologist whom Akiva listened to all the time on the radio. “It was like meeting a celebrity, but his message to me was very disappointing,” recalls Akiva. “Ironically, he told me not to go into meteorology, saying there’s no future! What a disappointment. But I didn’t listen to him.”

As a teenager, Akiva’s father introduced him to gardening. His growing dual interests led him to major in meteorology and minor in horticulture at Penn State University. Subsequently, he earned an advanced degree in agronomy from the University of Maryland. After graduating, he was fortunate to find his dream job in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he worked for 20 years.

“Hashem led me to a job that allowed me to use both of my interests working for a company involved in global crop-yield forecasting based upon weather data,” remarks Akiva. “Working with commercial clients, like Hershey’s, I diagnosed how weather was affecting the West African cocoa crop. For Kraft Foods, I diagnosed how the weather affected their various products, like soybean oil, corn, and – for Maxwell House – coffee. We used weather data to determine the impact on global crop production and what that does to the price of the commodity.”

Top-Secret Weather Forecasting

Akiva’s work also found him working on national security with different agencies, like the CIA, the State Department, USDA, and NASA. Food can be a security issue, for example, if there is a drought in an area where there is already potential for famine. Anythingthatmight further reduce the food supply could cause unrest.

“We had to monitor places – sometimes this included monitoring illicit drugs, like the Afghanistan poppy crop – determining what the size of their production was going to be and how that was going to affect their economy,” explains Akiva. “And, back in the early days of negotiating with North Korea, we would exchange food for a promise that they wouldn’t develop nuclear weapons, because they weren’t growing much food beyond a little rice. It was important to bring that to the bargaining table, by monitoring whatever production they had in North Korea, via satellite and weather data, and understanding what their production was likely to be or not be.”

Akiva also worked on improving military planning tools needed to determine the best window of opportunity weather-wise to perform missions, to increase the chance of success of the operation.

Akiva elaborates, “Postponing a parachute mission for a day because it’s too windy is no big deal, but it is if you are doing a search-and-rescue mission, and you have a six-hour window to get Osama bin Laden, or if you are trying to rescue hostages.
The U.S. military attempted to do just that in Iran in 1979, but twohelicopters crashed because they didn’t detect the windstorm that kicked up sand that caused them to crash. For a mission like that, timing is critical.”

Land of the Frozen Chosen

“Hashem has ways of moving people around,” says Akiva. “When we moved to Minnesota in 2000, I thought it was for a job opportunity with a successful college buddy. I left a job of 20 years
that I didn’t need to leave, and the White Oak, Silver Spring, community led by Rabbi Kalman Winter, zt”l, whom we loved. Unfortunately, funding for the company dried up five months after we moved there, with child number nine on the way.”

As hashgachahwould have it, since Akiva had been in charge of marketing at his prior job, he had made a lot of connections in Minneapolis at companies suchas Cargill, Land O’Lakes, and the second largest private weather company in the country. From that, he pieced together contract work, which laid the groundwork for starting his own consulting company, enabling him to stay financially afloat.

“We knew therewas a reason we were supposed to be in Minnesota and join a kehillahled by Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, but it obviously wasn’t the original reason,” mentions Akiva. “There we were – jobless, with a new house and now nine young children.”

In 2001, Akiva founded Marcus Weather Consulting Service, a privateagricultural meteorology company, which was built on the connections, knowledge, and experience gained in his 20 years at a consulting company in Maryland. “Hashem gives us the tools to succeed to follow the Torah and earn a parnassah; we just need the emunahand bitachonto follow the directional signals,” notes Akiva, who now consults exclusively with commercial clients – food companies and commodity hedge funds.

“I think Hashem gave me an interest in weather in order to earn a parnassah, but perhaps the real value is to help the klalin some way, allowing me to give something back to the community,” concludes Akiva. “I get calls on a regular basis from fellow kehillahmembers (and sometimes from their friends and family members) who need travel-timing advice when there are impending weather threats that might prevent them from reaching their destination for Shabbats or make it in time for a simha.”

One example of how Akiva’s expertise benefits our greater community occurred six years ago, soon after he moved to Passaic, New Jersey. On the evening the Siyum HaShastook place in the nearby Meadowlands, the “official” NWS forecast was rain with a chance of thunderstorms. The event planners were worried about having to cancel because of thunder and lightning. Akiva predicted that there might be a little rain at the beginning, but no thunderstorms. They prepared for the rain at the start of the 7:00pm event, and at 7:05 the rain stopped.

Akiva feels the most significant forecast he has made occurred about ten years ago, while the Marcus’ were living in Minneapolis. The forecast was rain on the first night of Sukkot.

“I came to shul and informed the Rav that the rain was going to start at 8:30pmand would continue for at least four or five hours,” recalls Akiva. “If anyone wanted to make Kiddushand hamotziin the sukkah, I warned, they should not dawdle in shul when it ends at 8:00pm. Everyone listened, and at 8:31, the sky opened up for the next five hours. I was able to do a [hesed] to enable everyone in the kehillahto make Kiddushin the sukkahbefore moving inside and not have to wait for the rain to hopefully stop. Perhaps it was just for that reason that we had to be living in Minnesota!”

Akiva adds, “There is a vortat the beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot: Hashem reveals to Aharon that in the Kodesh HaKodashim Hewill reveal Himself through a cloud. Rav Simcha Bunim Berger, shlita, explains that clouds are essential to the world for bringing life-sustaining rain, but clouds by themselves have no apparent substance. So, where is the rain stored?

“The message to meis [that] just as clouds are the conduit through which Hashem sustained the Jewish people in the midbar, Hashem stays in constant touch with humanity today through clouds and rain to provide nourishment for crops, which sustain life on this planet. What better vantage point to understand this than to be an agricultural meteorologist!”

Adapted from an article that appeared in the Hamodia – Inyan Magazine – Vol. XXI, NO. 1011.