BALTIMORE — The streets of Baltimore were quiet overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, with a curfew imposing a fragile calm in a city that once held the dubious title of America’s murder capital.
Famous in better days for its location by the Chesapeake Bay and more ominously as the setting for the gritty TV crime series “The Wire,” Baltimore also has one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the United States. While the majority of the city’s Jewish population – estimated at some 30,000 – live in the northwest corner, Jewish Baltimoreans are all being impacted by the foment in a city notorious for its stark boundaries of race and class.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue is all too familiar with Baltimore’s divisions. Burg’s 93-year-old synagogue was once in the center of the main Jewish neighborhood – before most of the community moved further north toward the city’s borders and the suburbs. Now, Burg’s synagogue is the only permanently active Jewish institution in Reservoir Hill.
Burg and his congregants are committed to remaining deeply involved in the neighborhood, the surrounding community, and Baltimore City. His congregants, he says, were very aware of recent cases of police violence against young black men – even months before fellow west Baltimorean Freddie Gray was taken into a police van and emerged an hour later with multiple breaks to his spine, paralyzed and comatose. Grey died of his injuries 10 days ago, spurring citywide protests against the police.
“Since Freddie Gray was killed, the conversations here have become more pointed and there is deep concern and consternation about the current state of race relations in this town and about the lack of trust between law enforcement and the civilian population,” Burg said.
Already a familiar face in Reservoir Hill, Burg joined the largely peaceful mass demonstrations organized last Saturday. “On Shabbat after services, I walked down and joined a few congregants who joined a group from Jews United for Justice, and we had a Shabbat prayer experience together. Then we joined the protests at the Western District [police] headquarters where Freddie Gray had been, and walked through west Baltimore in what in my experience was a very peaceful demonstration. It was very civil. There was a lot of anger and frustration, [but] certainly no violence where I was,” Burg recalled.
Over 10,000 people are believed to have held peaceful demonstrations Saturday throughout the city, but in the afternoon, smaller groups of protesters began to break away from the main demonstrations. Fights broke out between some baseball fans and protesters near the iconic Camden Yards ballpark, and as the sun set, others broke windows and allegedly stole items from stores near the historic Lexington Market.
“On Saturday, the violence was very limited to a few pockets. And while there was some violence – I certainly don’t want to justify it in any way — it was not the story on Saturday,” Burg said. “The story on Saturday was the thousands of people who came out to do what Americans do best, which was to protest in a civil fashion when they’re concerned about the state of their city.”
But after relative quiet on Sunday, the situation changed across Baltimore on Monday.
“What happened Monday did not begin as widespread robust demonstrations meant to honor the memory of Freddie Gray and agitate for the right kinds of conversations at the highest levels about police accountability and about relationships between law enforcement and the communities,” Burg said.
Rather, “this started out as a bunch of kids on social media doing what kids do, which is make kinda dumb choices sometimes. And lots of kids together can make even dumber choices and we saw that. It was not what Freddie Gray’s family wanted, and it was not what my neighbors wanted, and it was not what Baltimore City wanted and needed. Unfortunately, as one of my congregants said, looting has a tendency of becoming contagious, and that’s what we saw from a certain segment of the population — that things got out of hand.”
In Burg’s neighborhood, windows were smashed. Blocks away, protesters burned a CVS drug store and looted local stores, facing off against tear gas-armed police in riot gear outside a shopping mall. Helicopters circled over Burg’s historic synagogue, and Burg joined the non-Jewish faith leaders in his neighborhood to help restore calm.
Meeting on Monday with other clergy and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, Burg said that he tried to get the word out to local residents where they could find food and other key resources.
When the sun rose on Tuesday, Burg and members of his congregation joined local efforts to rebuild.
“My job first and foremost is to [take care of] my congregation, but our values, mission and vision as a synagogue is to be accountable to and in a relationship with our neighborhood in Reservoir Hill and to Baltimore City. [We try] to capitalize on the opportunities that come at the nexus of history and geography that is a 93-year-old synagogue building in a majority African-American neighborhood,” Burg explained. “In that sense I serve as a community leader, a faith leader. So today [Tuesday] I was out in west Baltimore helping with the cleanup, and working with our partners leading prayer services.”
Less than a day after the city seemed to be spinning into chaos, Burg and other volunteers worked together to repair an urban farm that had been damaged by a burning car, pulling up crops burned beyond viability and repairing a greenhouse whose plastic cover had melted entirely from the heat – on to the crops inside.
A tense quiet in the city’s far northwest
In the far northwestern neighborhoods occasionally nicknamed “Little Jerusalem,” most of the Jews of Baltimore City were further – some two-and-a-half miles – from most of the turmoil. Other than a few isolated incidents of break-ins to stores in the commercial district on Reisterstown Road, the part of Baltimore known as greater Park Heights remained quiet.
But with city schools closed and a curfew in place between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for the next week, it was difficult even for those distant from the events to ignore the fact that their home city was making headlines worldwide.
“People are on edge,” said Nathan Willner, the general counsel and law enforcement liaison for Shomrim, a volunteer organization that seeks to provide security and safety assistance in the northwest Baltimore neighborhoods where the Jewish population is concentrated. “They are worried… Nobody knows what’s going to happen next and rumors take on a life of their own. I can’t tell you how many times today people have told me there’s looting at some place and it turns out there isn’t.”
Describing the violence Monday as “too close for comfort,” Willner said that he “understands how people are feeling tense and worried.”
Community institutions like the Jewish Community Center and retail hubs like the local Home Depot closed early on Monday, out of concern that rioting could spread or that employees would not be able to travel home safely. As protests continued into Monday evening, the city began to shut down bus routes and cancelled school the following day.
“Thankfully the neighborhood throughout this whole ordeal has been quiet,” said Willner. “There have been incidents on the perimeter, in the commercial areas on Reisterstown Road. Those were isolated incidents and it is not even clear if they were related to the protests or if people were taking advantage because the police weren’t.”
‘Bad incidents bring out the best in people sometimes’
On Monday night, the Shomrim launched a patrol initiative, maintaining a presence on the streets overnight. They helped a non-Jewish shopowner whose windows had been broken, making sure that looters would not steal the contents of his store.
Willner, like many in Baltimore’s Jewish community, said that the news cycle had spread alarm among friends and relatives outside of the city. “I’m getting many, many phone calls and emails from people across the country because they see the visual – the endless loop of one instance.”
Willner believes, however, that the Jewish community is prepared to handle the coming weeks. “We’re extremely resilient. We understand that this is sometimes part of society unfortunately. We’ve seen other communities deal with it and come out stronger and more organized and more committed to each other,” he emphasized.
“Bad incidents bring out the best in people sometimes,” he continued. “That’s the silver lining – you get to see how wonderful the community is and how we stick together and help each other out. Not just members of the Jewish community, but all the people in the neighborhood.”
The community gears up to rebuild
The Baltimore Jewish community has, in fact, an extremely strong center. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore – Baltimore’s equivalent of a local Jewish Federation – has also called on residents to “find strength in community and the power of joining together to create positive change in our local community.”
The organization sent out emails calling on Baltimore Jews to help join clean-up efforts Tuesday and to donate juice boxes, snacks and toys to community centers for children stuck out of school and whose neighborhoods had suffered most. Collection bins popped up at Baltimore’s two Jewish Community Centers. A webpage was set up to gather donations to pay for pressing needs in the most impacted areas.
“It goes without saying that the events of late are beyond tragic,” wrote Associated President Marc Terrill. “As we pray for calm and resolve in our city, we hope that the violence ends soon so we can begin to heal. For generations, The Associated has been dedicated to social justice and collaboration with our neighbors; and we are committed to rebuilding our community.”
“For generations, the Associated has been there in the good times and bad,” Terrill continued. “We know that soon, with everyone playing a role, we will rebuild Baltimore into the community of strength and charm for which it is known.”
There are clearly underlying deep issues of race and class and power in this city, like other great cities’
Other community leaders also described the protests as a movement of opportunity to examine the problems facing Baltimore’s residents.
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Andrew Busch issued a statement Tuesday saying that “Baltimore clergy and African-American leaders are fostering better community relations through initiatives that provide resources for constructive dialogue, bringing together blacks and Jews to build on a long history of advocacy and social change efforts.”
Busch stressed that “these problems are not unique to Baltimore. This is a flashpoint in a broader landscape of disaffected communities and a devastating lack of hope and opportunity for young people in particular. Cooperation is needed between local businesses and community advocates to provide economic opportunity, advance prosperity, and repair the trust between law enforcement and city residents.”
Burg warned likewise that although the focus Tuesday and into Wednesday was on the urgent needs of repairing, restoring calm, and providing food and medicine to residents who needed it, there was a longer road ahead to rebuilding Baltimore.
“Those urgent needs are going to be surpassed by the ongoing needs that have been there all along. Because they haven’t been sufficiently addressed, they allowed for this kind of a thing to happen. That is not to say that the folks who broke the law or looted stores or set cars on fire were justified in their actions — they certainly weren’t — but there are clearly underlying deep issues of race and class and power in this city, like other great cities.”
Burg called on his congregants – and others – “to think about ourselves as part of this community and this city, and on a day like today, not just our neighborhood – Reservoir Hill. The more that we can do that, the more that we can build bridges, soften boundaries, speak openly and honestly with one another, and learn from one another about our cultural heritages and about our different concerns — the more we do that, the less likelihood of this kind of crisis happening again any time soon.”