Baltimore Jews join Freddie Gray protests – but it’s complicated

Originally published in Haaretz on May 5th, 2015
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After a tumultuous couple of weeks in Baltimore, in which protests, marches and riots raged through Charm City following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — the Jewish community moved to raise funds, organize volunteers and engage in interfaith outreach. But in Baltimore, which has a complicated, and often fraught, history of Jewish-black relations, there is both a commitment to fight inequality and a reluctance to ruffle long-established relationships with city officials and the police.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which represents about 55 local congregations and institutions, issued a statement that called for Jews to “stand beside our African American partners to combat racism and economic inequality.” Arthur Abramson, BJC’s executive director for the past 25 years, says his organization “has not hesitated for one moment” to stand up for injustice.

But he was frank about the challenges that remain for Jews seeking to combat racism. “Look, Maryland is a southern state. It was a slave state. In general, it’s not what I would describe as a place where African Americans and Jews sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said.

Throughout the decades there have been plenty of instances of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism in the city. Still, Abramson feels proud of the improved relations the BJC has helped to build over the past 25 years, which he attributes to concerted engagement, dialogue and programs involving the two communities.

Rabbi Etan Mintz, who leads Baltimore’s oldest and continually active synagogue, B’nai Israel, spent much of last week – as protests spread in the city and elsewhere following the death of Gray, for which six police officers have been charged – working with other local clergy.

“It’s a very powerful experience just to listen to people, to pray with people, and to be a presence face-to-face with one another,” Mintz said. He noted what he called the “outrageous reality” of poverty, inequality and mass incarcerations, but also stressed that the majority of police officers in the city are “peace-loving individuals who are trying to protect us on a daily basis.” He is concerned about a phenomenon of “guilt by association” — linking the broader police force to a few bad officers who acted inhumanely.

Mintz’s synagogue, which is Orthodox, is located downtown near the Inner Harbor, the former epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life. Now B’nai Israel, which is the last of what were once 20 synagogues in this area, is sometimes nicknamed “the Masada of East Baltimore.”

Jews began moving out toward the suburb of Pikesville in the 1950s and ’60s, and Mintz says the real “nail in the coffin” of inner-city presence was the 1968 riots, where many Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. The latest disturbances, he adds, have sparked difficult memories for some of his congregants.

Solidarity events

Another organization, Jews United for Justice, (JUFJ) has taken a more demonstrably public role in supporting African-American protestors. The group was formed in late 2014 to provide an outlet for Jews, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to engage in social justice work. Many of these activists turned out for Ferguson solidarity events earlier in the year, so it was not surprising to see 30 JUFJ members marching on April 25th in Baltimore with black-and-white picket signs that called for #JusticeForFreddie.

Last Friday, the day Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six policemen would face criminal charges, the number of JUFJ members who turned out to march rose to 100.

“I think this reflects the growing interest,” says JUFJ member Owen Silverman Andrews. “[We have] created a space where people can plug in within their own communities in a way that is still connected to the larger struggle.”

Marc Terrill, the president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, says he is pleased with the fast response the Jewish community took, and continues to take, in showing solidarity with the Freddie Gray protests. He says that ultimately there needs to be an agenda, both with short-term and long-term goals.

In the short term, the Associated has helped to organize volunteers and raise funds for food, toys and other supplies in order “to rebuild the communities torn asunder by wide-spread looting and vandalism,” according to its website. In the long term, Terrill mentions the need to promote greater access for city residents to health care, job training, education, counseling and mentoring programs, and to contribute to an overall greater push for societal integration.

“Our relationship with the African-American community is collaborative,” Terrill says. “Not everything is good, but we have the will and desire to work at it.”

While the Jewish community is presenting a relatively united front for now, the question of how and if its members will come together around the issue of police reform remains unclear. This community is one of the more politically conservative Jewish communities in the United States. And the established relationships Jewish leaders have cultivated with city and state officials — which have helped ensure enhanced security and support for Jewish groups and institutions — are very important.

The BJC did not come out strongly for any of the police reform bills that were being considered in Annapolis this past legislative season, despite months of organizing and campaigning by local activists. By contrast, members from JUJF, including Rabbi Daniel Burg, who leads an egalitarian synagogue in Reservoir Hill, offered testimony in support of legislation that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Jewish communal leaders have all expressed a commitment to tackle the “deeper issues” provoked by the Freddie Gray protests – specifically with regards to economic inequality and poverty. However, whether they will be able to do so without inserting tension into some of their long-standing political relationships remains to be seen.

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