When news broke earlier this month of shootings at two Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kan., Arthur Abramson, Cailey Locklair and the rest of the Baltimore Jewish Council sprang to action.
Within minutes of the initial reports, the organization halfway across the country from the crime scene was fielding calls from local political and news organizations. More than four days later, the calls were still coming in, said Locklair, deputy director of the BJC. While the subject of the calls was grim, the fact that the Baltimore Jewish community relations office was getting the calls at all was a testament to the status it has achieved over its more than seven decades of existence.
“Within an hour of us knowing about what was going on — we learned it about 15 minutes before the media got it — we had a police presence within a half-hour at the Park Heights JCC, and in Owings Mills within an hour,” said Abramson, the organization’s executive director, adding that the first call he answered that Sunday afternoon was from a local Homeland Security agent making sure he was informed. “After 9/11 there was a police presence at every Jewish institution within an hour. … It comes down to relationships that the Council has with the governor on down.”
Seventy-five years ago, as Europe sank deeper into turmoil with the beginning of what would become World War II, Jewish Baltimore was organizing.
By 1939, tensions reached the point where the Baltimore Jewish community felt it needed to act. It formed the Baltimore Jewish Council as a community relations organization that would serve to combat anti-Semitism, encourage communication between local communities and deal with other issues facing the urban population by maintaining relationships with officials at the state, county and local levels.
Today, almost every major metropolitan area with a significant Jewish population boasts similar organizations. In Baltimore, it began as a grouping of only a few local community members.
Neither Abramson nor many others in the Balt-imore Jewish community can say for certain how the organization formally started — one popular story involves organization meetings in one member’s kitchen — but it’s core mission of protecting Jewish interests at home and abroad has not changed.
Today’s BJC, which boasts members from every sect of Judaism, has five primary functions: government relations; community relations; Israel advocacy and education; Holocaust remembrance and education; and the operation of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, a fellowship for Baltimore-area high-schoolers.
As the community relations branch of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, its most influential function, at least in its scope of effect, is the securing of funds for the many Jewish establishments in the Baltimore area. From whipping up support for campus Hillels to Jewish Community Services, the BJC spends a large amount of its time and resources working in City Hall and in Annapolis to advocate on behalf of those in the community who need state and federal funds to operate.
In November, the Council met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to go over items the BJC wanted included in the 2015 budget. All of the items made it into the final budget passed earlier this month.
“Since the beginning of the O’Malley-Brown administration, the Baltimore Jewish Council has been a faithful and stalwart partner in our work to strengthen and grow our state, creating a better future for all of our children. From repealing the death penalty to protecting our environment and the health of our loved ones to our recent efforts to increase the minimum wage, the Council truly embodies tzavta,” said O’Malley, who, before he was governor, worked with the BJC as mayor of Baltimore.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has worked closely with the Council during her four years in office.
“What’s good for the city is good for the Jewish community and what’s good for the Jewish community is good for the city,” Rawlings-Blake saidin an email. “I have always appreciated the BJC’s willingness to partner with the city. Whether it is legislative support, community development or issues surrounding education, public safety or health, Art [Abramson] and the BJC staff are there to assist and advocate on behalf of their community and the city overall.”
In 1996, Myrna Cardin became the first female president of the BJC.
“I’m glad I was there to do that,” said Cardin, who still speaks to Abramson on a regular basis though she is no longer a member of the Council.
During her time with the Council and in the years since, she said she has seen the Council grow in strength, largely due to the work of Abramson, who joined the BJC in 1990.
“We became a force as a Jewish council,” said Cardin, describing the work she was able to do with the BJC as a “constant high.”
“I think there is a respect that we receive,” she said. “Year after year we are sending the message that we are there and we care.”
The work with state and local officials was constant, said Cardin. Immediate past president Martha Weiman agreed.
“We just do a lot,” said Weiman. “There’s a lot on our plate.”
Weiman, who survived the Holocaust as a child, first became involved with the BJC as part of the Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, where she trained teachers and offered accounts of her experience to students. Years later, she became BJC president.
In her time at the BJC, Weiman said there has never been a shortage of bills to advocate for or against.
“We bring a lot of money through Annapolis and into the community,” she said.
For the 75th anniversary celebration, Weiman and another BJC officer have been preparing a timeline of the organization, a project that came to life when they happened upon old meeting minutes from 1939 in the BJC office.
While the timeline isn’t complete yet, Weiman has enjoyed looking through the old records and was surprised to see how little the work has changed. While main areas of concern were access to housing and jobs when the Council began, the basic mission of fighting on behalf of the community’s civil rights and liberties has stayed the same.
“It’s very, very interesting to read,” she said.
Pointing to the fact that the BJC has been around for 75 years already and is still going strong, Weiman said she is confident the organization has a bright future.
Seventy-five years from now, she said, “hopefully the need won’t be there, but it will be.”
Peggy Wolf was council president eight years ago. She grew up hearing stories from her father about the birth of the BJC in a local woman’s kitchen, and when the Council’s leadership approached her about getting involved, it was a no-brainer.
“The Council is truly a group effort,” she said of its successes. “I think it’s a process of creating relationships and opening up dialogue, and that is one of the strengths of the Council.”
“Our office in Annapolis is perceived to be one of the strongest lobbying arms of any nonprofit,” echoed Abramson.
With the BJC’s involvement in outreach and advocacy at the local, state and federal levels, he added, “we are very much the public face of the Jewish community in the non-Jewish world.”
With a diverse membership, the BJC prides itself in its ability to reach a consensus on most issues, added Locklair. When a problem is brought to the Council to address, the board discusses it at length before voting whether or not to act. Any issue the executive committee deems a divisive issue must get at least a 60 percent approval rating from the board before it takes any official position. Occasionally, such as two years ago during the apex of the same-sex marriage debate, internal politics means the group must bow out the most controversial topics.
“It’s vital that the different ends of the community participate,” explained Abramson, adding that much of the strength of the BJC comes from the fact that it speaks on behalf of the organized Jewish community as a whole, not just the Orthodox or Reform communities.
Pamela Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies program at American University, put the work of the BJC in perspective, seeing it as part of a long history of united Jewish community organizations across the country.
“American Jews have an extraordinary tradition of activism in the community,” she said. “It really packs into one of the key markers of their Jewish identity, which is to connect to the community through an organization.”
In the first decades of the 20th century, said Nadell, many of the national Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, were formed. She credited the transnationalism of the Jewish faith, in addition to the desire to connect to the community, as major reasons for the longstanding success of so many Jewish organizations such as the BJC.
“It’s a commitment that relates to Jewish tradition — that we care for our people,” she explained. “In the early part of the 20th century, that meant doing things like establishing the Joint Distribution Committee, for example, to help Jews who were suffering during World War I. And then of course, Jews continued to suffer in various places around the world for a good portion of the 20th century and into the 21st century, and so the mission of these organizations remains very relevant.”
“Our job isn’t to prescribe, it’s to reflect,” said Andi Milens, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national community relations organization of which the BJC is a member. The collective effect of all of the groups is that “we can all speak together. … It enables us to do big things” as a community.
Even more than a half-century after the peak of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad, Milens said, it is still essential to have a strong Jewish voice in every community.
“The Jewish community can’t live in isolation in this country,” she said, pointing to the Kansas City shootings. “The response of that community was not about the Jews. It was about the entire community because not only were the people who were killed outside the JCC and Village Shalom not Jewish, but those places are just as much home for the general community as they are for the Jewish community.
“The response of that community, the media and the clergy and everyone was a community response,” added the Kansas City native, “not just a Jewish community response. What we do is about living in this society with our neighbors. The relationships that we build are key for us to further protect our own interests, but also the interests of general society.”
BJC 75th Anniversary Celebration
The BJC will commemorate its 75th anniversary on June 11, at the Council’s Annual Meeting. The event will take place at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and feature a panel discussion by past BJC presidents, a keynote address by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the installation of new officers.