The sold-out City of Immigrants rally organized by “The Wire” creator David Simon filled Beth Am Synagogue Monday night and raised tens of thousands of dollars for local and national nonprofits who work on behalf of immigrants.
The event was also livestreamed by The Washington Post, the Facebook video of which had more than 75,000 views as of Tuesday afternoon.
Beth Am Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, whose congregation holds 1,100 people, opened the event, telling the story of a time, shortly after the election, when he called a Muslim colleague (Imam Yaseen Shaikh, resident scholar at the Islamic Association of Baltimore and also a speaker at the rally) to tell him the rhetoric of islamophobia and xenophobia does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Muslim brethren. The next day, Burg went on to say, he received a call from a Christian colleague of his, telling Burg that the anti-Semitic rhetoric does not reflect his or his congregation’s views and they stand behind their Jewish brethren.
The crowd laughed, but Burg had a larger point: “Our worst America tendencies can reveal our best American values,” he said.
Simon spoke shortly after Burg, praising both “my city” and “my synagogue.” He read from a post to his website in November 2015 that used the story of his family — many on both his mother’s and father’s sides died in the Holocaust — to shed light on the cruelty of U.S. leaders’ intents to shut out refugees in their time of need.
“These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain,” he said. “Or we could be more. And looking at this audience, I know we can be more.”
There were a number of other speakers throughout the evening, including those representing the four benefiting organizations: the National Immigration Law Center, the Tahirih Justice Center (which works with women and children fleeing violence), the International Rescue Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Also among the speakers were well-known Baltimoreans such as DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, and Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of a trilogy of books on Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner of Baltimore City, was perhaps, on the surface, a surprising choice until she started speaking of her own family’s fraught immigration story. Wen was born in Shanghai and her parents were political dissidents. Her father was in jail for much of the early years of her life. When she was 8 years old, she and her father joined her mother in the United States.
When her mother’s visa extension was denied, the family was close to living illegally, but their application for political asylum came through just days before that was set to happen. Wen said she is all too aware of how lucky she is, when it does not work out as well for so many other immigrants.
“This is my story and it’s not one I’m used to telling,” she said. “I don’t know if you can tell, but this is hard for me. Now, in some ways, my story is unique, but it is also the story of multitudes of refugees.”
Wen ended her speech with a plea for those attending to “tell our stories.” Those in the room, she said, have the lives they do thanks to the sacrifice of previous generations.
“This is not them, the immigrants, versus us, the Americans,” she said. “They are us.”
The event ended with some loud hand clapping, foot stomping and cheering from the crowd, roused by “House of Cards” writer Beau Willimon, leading into a short set from rock, country and folk singer-songwriter Steve Earle.
Earle’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” turned into a moving audience sing-along. He played two more songs — appropriately, given the venue, “God is God” and “Jerusalem” — before ending with his song that gave the event its name, “City of Immigrants.”
“It made me proud to be Jewish tonight, with this event being held in the synagogue,” said attendee Lissa Abrams after the event. “It felt good.”
Kevin Heslin, another attendee, heard about the event from his daughter’s boyfriend in Connecticut. He couldn’t go but felt someone should, Heslin said.
“I looked it up and thought, ‘This is a good cause,’” he said. “We need more of this right now. It was great.”