Breaking The Color Line

Fostering Positive Relationships
Until not that long ago, many were comfortable with that trend.

Not anymore.

Recently, there has been an upsurge in those from both the African-American and the Jewish communities seeking to reverse the trend.

Each February for the last 12 years, around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bethel AME and Temple Oheb Shalom have held interfaith services. Rev. Reid will speak to the synagogue congregation on Shabbat; Rabbi Steve Fink will speak at that Sunday’s church services.

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Protesting segregation at Gwynn Oak Park in the early 1960s became a rallying point for civil rights. (Photo Courtesy of Peter O’Neal)

Rabbi Fink said the seeds for the congregations’ relationship were planted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when he met Rev. Reid at an interfaith service. The two congregations have worked side by side on many initiatives since then, and the church even held services several years back at the Pikesville synagogue on Park Heights Avenue while the church’s historic building was repaired following a fire.

“The connection between the two congregations is real,” Rabbi Fink said. “I realized that after traveling recently. I went through security at the airport and the TSA officer, an African-American and member at Bethel AME, recognized me. She yelled out ‘You’re Rabbi Fink. You’re my rabbi.’”

Rabbi Fink continued: “The riots in 1968 led to the divide between the African-American and
Jewish communities. In many areas, it was Jewish shopkeepers who were overwhelmingly impacted by the violence after they had already left their homes in the city for the suburbs. We are determined to change the previous mindset. We need to break down racial and religious barriers and remember we are all humans first.”

A similar relationship has developed between Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and First Mount Olive Baptist Church. The 2,500-member congregation held services at the synagogue for five years, from 2005 to 2012, after a fire destroyed its church. This relationship began after the church utilized Temple Oheb Shalom for three months before space became an issue when the school year began.

Baltimore Hebrew’s Rabbi Andrew Busch said maintaining a relationship with the African-American community is a central part of his synagogue’s legacy. Former longtime Rabbi Morris Lieberman, along with former Chizuk Amuno Rabbi Israel Goldman, were key religious figures in the Gwynn Oak Park struggle.

Rabbi Busch said the importance of Gwynn Oak Park to Baltimore Hebrew’s legacy became apparent to him when the congregation unveiled a photographic timeline of its history, and the photo of Rabbi Lieberman protesting at Gwynn Oak Park was the one featured most prominently.

“Intergroup tensions can never be completely avoided — not here or anywhere else in the world for that matter,” Rabbi Busch said. “You can’t just gloss over them, it’s important to recognize them and address them as they occur.”

Author Amy Nathan chronicled the Gwynn Oak Park protests in her book “Round & Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement.” She said actions by Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Lieberman and Rabbi Goldman often put them at odds with members of their own congregations.

“The fight over Gwynn Oak Park brought a lot of people together, including those from many synagogues,” Nathan said. “That support, however, wasn’t uniform with some, who hoped their rabbi would just keep talking about Moses on Saturday mornings. But it helped show there was common ground instead of just differences.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council has also worked to create opportunities for Jews and blacks to cross cultural bridges. This includes the Elijah Cummings Youth Program. Named after the congressman who represents the state’s 7th District, the program offers 12 students annually a two-year fellowship that includes a month-long trip to Israel. The students participate in workshops about diversity, conflict resolution and leadership.

Abramson said the BJC, which also has a Black-Jewish Dialogue Committee, is also in the process of integrating the Black Jewish Forum of Baltimore (BLEWS) into its organization. Founded in 1978, BLEWS has worked to promote increased understanding and cooperation between Baltimore’s black and Jewish communities.

“The key is when tensions arise, you need to find a way to move past them in a positive, constructive way,” Abramson said.

It is that “keeping the lines of communication open” that Rev. Reid credits for keeping the
violence to a minimum following the verdict in the case involving former Shomrim patrol member Eliyahu Werdesheim in 2012. Werdesheim was sentenced to three years of supervised probation but avoided jail time after being convicted last June of second-degree assault of a 15-year-old African-American boy. Werdesheim had detained the youth while on patrol in Northwest Baltimore two-and-a-half years ago.

Some African-American protestors wanted Werdesheim to receive jail time and questioned whether he received preferential treatment because Baltimore’s State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein is Jewish. But for the most part, the protests remained civil, and both communities have tried to move forward.

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Protesting segregation at Gwynn Oak Park in the early 1960s became a rallying point for civil rights. (Photo Courtesy of Peter O’Neal)

“The Shomrim case is a prime example of what can happen when there is a disagreement but dialogue is allowed to take place,” Rev. Reid said. “Tensions simmered, but they never boiled over, and that is because we talked with each other despite some individuals trying to promote another agenda.”

As a result of the Shomrim incident Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI) organized and now supports Community Conversations, a forum of African American and Jewish residents in Northern Park Heights seeking to strengthen their relationships to assure the long-term health and  progress of the community at large.

Baltimore City Police Northwest Precinct Commander Major Johnny Delgado said he has tried
to keep the lines of communications open between all of the diverse groups he oversees and even has two officers whose main job is to patrol specific neighborhoods.

“What’s unique about our precinct is that there is a lot of participation from a lot of different groups,” he said. “Getting feedback and having official neighborhood patrol officers allows us to gain a better understanding of issues facing both communities and to be proactive before anything escalates.”

Anthony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP, said the fallout of the Werdesheim case could have been much worse, especially with tensions high nationally over the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, where neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, who
is the son of a Peruvian mother and a white father, was accused of shooting Martin while on patrol. Zimmerman claims the shooting was in self-defense.

“We had to let the Shomrim case play out in the justice system and examine each incident on a case-by-case basis,” Fugett said. “The hope is that by doing that, the facts will come to the surface, and groups won’t be bunched together because of a few bad apples.”

A Beginning, Not an End
Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Harford County has worked with the O’Neals on organizing the Gwynn Oak Park event. They have held several screenings of and panel discussions about “All the King’s Horses” in hopes of teaching new generations about building positive relationships and looking past differences.

She said the impression some Jews have of blacks was shaped during the riots, while the blacks’ negative perception of Jews comes from those whose relatives described Jewish landlords as “slumlords.” Rabbi Ruskin added that some blacks harbored ill will toward the Jewish community, as they participated in “white flight” from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s.

“This story [of Gwynn Oak Park] truly resonates with [members of] the Jewish community who grew up during that time,” Rabbi Ruskin said. “Pete and I learned so much from each other through this process and were so pleased to bring together people from so many backgrounds.”

Rabbi Ruskin continued: “We want to try to get as many people as possible to tell their stories about their experiences at Gwynn Oak Park so that they are preserved for future generations. We don’t want this event to be the culmination but rather the beginning of continuing to establish a positive working relationship between the communities.”

Rev. Reid echoed that sentiment.

“The key is to continue to educate future generations about the positives we accomplished in 1963, so we don’t ever repeat what took place five years later [with the riots],” he said. “There’s no doubt that we will be tested again, much like we were last year with Shomrim. The key is to allow everyone to move forward in a peaceful manner.”

Baltimore Racial Justice Action
Two workshops to stop racism

2013 Training Workshop for Peoples of Color
Registration Deadline: July 1
For all people of color who want to learn more about the impacts of racism and how to mitigate them. View full flier at bmoreantiracist.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/BACOE_TRAININGINVITE_2013.jpg.

For more, email bmoreantiracist@gmail.com.

2013 Training Workshop for White People
Registration Deadline: July 1
For white people who want to learn how to undo racism. View details at bmoreantiracist.org/ wp-content/uploads/2013/05/WARN_TRAININGINVITE_2013_3.jpg.

For more, email bmoreantiracist@gmail.com.

Ron Snyder is a local freelance writer.

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