Clad in kippot, nearly 300 Koolanu and Ami campers gathered outside the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center on July 27 to honor those who protect and serve.
Betsy Gardner, neighborhood liaison for the office of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, organized the third annual First Responder Appreciation Day in hopes of sending a clear and comforting message to children: Law enforcement is here to protect you.
“They’re our first line of defense,” Gardner said. “They’re here to take care of us.”
Representatives from the Baltimore Police Department, the Baltimore City Fire Department, Baltimore Police Rescue and the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office arrived at the Park Heights facility in law enforcement vehicles — something the giddy campers, ranging from ages 2 to 10, were all too excited to see.
In awe of the wailing sirens and flashing lights, children piled into the fire trucks and police cars to take a seat behind the wheel. Some wore firefighter and police uniforms. Others dressed as Israeli soldiers and medics.
“Every kid wants to be a policeman or a fireman,” said Paul Lurie, chief operations officer for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. “Not only did they get to meet their heroes today, they had the chance to thank them for what they do.”
During the two-hour event, a favorite activity from last year’s Appreciation Day made a second appearance. Campers were given a taste of law enforcement training with a mini-course of their own, which included jumping jacks, squats and marching in unison with police officers around the JCC.
Baltimore Police Deputy Kenyatta Washington, who has worked to protect the Jewish community for the past three years, said he looks forward to working with the campers at each Appreciation Day.
“It’s a fulfilling experience,” he said. “This is a good time to show them what we do and to give them a chance to play around with our equipment. Then the kids aren’t afraid when they see it in the streets.”
To express their gratitude, camp-goers spent a week writing thank-you cards to paramedics, firefighters and police officers. In a note addressed to the world’s best firefighters, 7-year-old Akiva Simcha wrote, “I want to be a firefighter just like you. I love you because you have been my favorite out of all heroes, even better than Batman.”
Tzvi Mitnick, an 8-year-old Koolanu camper and Talmudical Academy student, presented the stack of thank-you cards to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who reminded the cheering crowd that law enforcement would always be there to “work with you, to serve you and make sure everyone is safe.”
In addition, the JCC of Greater Baltimore presented the commissioner with a plaque recognizing the Baltimore City Police Department for its unwavering commitment to safety.
“This has been a very challenging year,” said Lurie, referring to the bomb scares that plagued the community early this year.
The Park Heights facility was just one of more than 150 worldwide Jewish institutions to be targeted in a series of hoax bomb threats made by an Israeli-American teen, according to the Anti-Defamation League. At least six other Maryland-based Jewish facilities were threatened, including the JCC of Greater Baltimore and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
David Mitnick, senior director of building services for the JCC of Greater Baltimore, said the annual event has helped foster a bond between children and law enforcement.
“It demystifies the relationship between them,” Mitnick said. “You can always turn to someone in uniform. They’re our friends. They’re the ones to turn to in an emergency situation, and it’s always important to remember that.”