At times, Maya James could only swallow hard and breathe deep when realizing she was on a dais sitting right next to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I was terrified. She was the first woman I’ve ever voted for,” said James, a Columbia resident who attends Georgetown University. “I never thought I’d ever be sitting next to her. I just tried to keep cool. It was amazing, but I had to keep it together.”
The former secretary of state came to Baltimore on June 5 to serve as keynote speaker at the biannual fundraiser for the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, of which James is a 2016 alumna.
More than 200 ECYP supporters came to the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum in Fells Point for the 90-minute gala, which cost $125 per person. (A VIP reception with Clinton before the program cost $500 or more.)
Among the dignitaries in attendance were former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-46th) and Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-5th).
In her 15-minute talk, Clinton, looking fresh and energetic, never mentioned her stunning defeat last November or her GOP rival, President Donald J. Trump. But she alluded to Trump and his policies several times while praising ECYP and its namesake and founder, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who was unavailable to attend due to recent heart surgery. (Cummings spoke to the audience in a pre-recorded message.)
Founded in 1998 as a joint effort between Cummings and the Baltimore Jewish Council, ECYP, a two-year fellowship, has sent more than 200 students from Cummings’ 7th District to Israel for leadership training and diversity workshops.
“I couldn’t help but think as I was sitting here and looking out at all of you … that this is what the world should be doing,” Clinton said. “We’re only a few hours from another terrorist attack in London and not long before that in Manchester. …
“This is a time for us to reach out to the world, to understand more about what is happening across the globe, a time for steady, determined leadership, like we’re seeing from local authorities in London, including the mayor of London,” she said, alluding to the president’s criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his handling of the weekend terror attack in that city.
Clinton said ECYP is a clear demonstration of the need to maintain a global perspective and avoid isolationist tendencies.
“It’s more important than ever that we work with our allies and friends and partners. We have to expand our understanding of what we can achieve together,” she said. “This is not a time to lash out, to incite fear or use tragedy or terror for political gain.
“Normally this would go without saying, but we are not living in normal times,” she said to wild applause. “Citizenship and leadership are more critical than ever.”
Clinton encouraged ECYP alumni and incoming students to embrace globalism, tolerance and diversity, especially at a time when hate crimes and bigotry are on the rise.
“It has never been more important for young Americans to see themselves as part of a global community, one that works together to confront challenges like climate change, to promote peace and understanding across all the lines that divide us. America is only as strong as our alliances.”
Clinton praised Cummings for his integrity and character. “His heart sets him apart,” she said. “It’s no coincidence that he shares a name with an Old Testament prophet. Elijah the first was also interested in helping people solve their problems and was unafraid to speak out. That’s what Congressman Elijah Cummings does every single day.”
Clinton praised the ECYP for opening the eyes of young people to cultures, perspectives and politics around the world.
“It’s one thing to learn about the world, it’s another thing to experience it,” she said. “By the time these students come back to Baltimore, they have celebrated Shabbat, studied Hebrew, hiked up Masada and made lifelong friends. The lesson of this journey lasts long after the summer’s return home … continuing to build bonds of friendship and understanding between the African-American and Jewish communities.
“There’s never been a better moment to channel that spirit of unity, to embrace the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which says that repairing the world is the responsibility of each and every one of us.”
In the aftermath of the election, Clinton said people often ask her what they can do to improve the condition of the world.
“There are so many ways for us to reach out, bring people together, set common goals and work toward achieving them, to help build that brighter future for generations to come and, yes, for building leaders by building bridges, not walls.”
Clinton said she was greatly inspired by the students and supporters of ECYP. “This is the kind of commitment that represents America at our best,” she said. “We need to do so much more to reach out to one another, to lift each other up and find ways to serve and be the best citizens and leaders to support the next generation who will lead us on the journey ahead.”
BJC Executive Director Howard Libit said he was delighted with the turnout and Clinton’s message.
“I was thrilled that Secretary Clinton clearly understood the meaning of this program, to build relations between the African-American and Jewish communities,” he said. “It was so meaningful to have her here and see how she understands how important this program really is.”
Photos by Steve Ruark
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