Leaders hope relations between blacks and Jews withstand backlash

Immersion programs, dialogue have built bridges between two communities over decades

December 07, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

When they meet Wednesday to discuss the arrest of a volunteer patrol member accused of assaulting a teenager, Jewish and black leaders will try to preserve decades of bridge-building that has led to a generally peaceful coexistence of diverse groups in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood.

Those bonds have been strained by the allegations against a member of the Shomrim community patrol, a group of Orthodox Jews who work closely with police on neighborhood safety. Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim, 23, was charged with assault after police said he beat a 15-year-old black youth, whose wrist was broken in the incident.

Some clergy and civil rights activists called for Shomrim to be disbanded while the assault and the group's activities are reviewed. Community leaders acknowledge that tensions are flaring, but are hopeful that years of cooperation between churches, synagogues, schools and politicians has laid a strong enough foundation to withstand the repercussions.

"It's been a good relationship, a solid relationship, it extends beyond Park Heights, and it's been community-relations practice at its best," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "I believe that neither the African-American community, nor the Jewish community want any one incident to put a dent in that relationship."

The alleged assault has fueled a debate about the history of race relations in the community.

According to court records, on Nov.19, Werdesheim allegedly approached the teen during school hours because he was acting suspiciously, and told him, "You don't belong around here." The two then engaged in a scuffle that allegedly left the teen injured. Another member of the Shomrim group helped the teen, and called police. Werdesheim has been suspended from the group.

Civil rights and faith-based leaders suggested that Shomrim, which has operated for five years without incident, may have an underlying racial motive for its patrols.

But other prominent black leaders say a deeper investigation will yield that all those involved are trying to achieve constructive and collaborative goals.

"It's important to turn to each other, and not on each other — and that's our history of our relationship, individually and institutionally," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, senior pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a landmark place of worship located on Druid Hill Avenue, where thousands of Baltimore's African Americans worship.

Last year, the congregation of the historic Bethel A.M.E. took refuge in Temple Oheb Shalom, a Park Heights synagogue, while the church's historic building underwent repairs after a fire.

The two congregations were not strangers. They hold joint services annually in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., maintain a community garden and engage in the Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore, known as BLEWS.

Reid, an influential activist, said that he would encourage all those who engage in a dialogue about the Shomrim incident to do so in "love."

"Sometimes things can get out of hand, but that's no reason to destroy relationships," Reid said. "We've been able to disagree without being disagreeable, and we've been able to solve any challenges that came up by sitting down in the community and talking together."

The Baltimore Jewish Council has served as a community hub in Park Heights for decades, offering opportunities for the black and Jewish populations, particularly younger generations, to cross their cultural comfort lines.

Among the council's most successful programs, Abramson said, is the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, which since 1998 has partnered with the congressman, who represents both communities in the 7th District, to strengthen relations.

"These kids go away, and come back changed leaders," Abramson said.

Every year, the program recruits approximately 12 students for a two-year-fellowship, that includes a month-long trip to spend time with Israeli teens, and take part in workshops on leadership, diversity and conflict resolution.

"Many of our current fellows relate that they have a stronger appreciation for both the opportunities — and challenges — they face here in Baltimore," said Jason Fair, executive director of the program.

The fellows return to share experiences with other students around the city and state. In January, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, senior fellows will be speaking at synagogues across Park Heights to share their message of diversity.

Nneamaka Odum, 17, who grew up in Park Heights but now lives in Randallstown, went to Israel through the Youth Program in July. The only exposure she had had to the Jewish community was during a bar mitzvah ceremony she attended in middle school, she said. Now, she understands Jewish cultures from around the world.

"I didn't really think anything of it of the Jewish community — they were just something else," Odum said.

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