James Myers is committed to building a better community. A resident of Fallstaff in Northwest Baltimore City, he enjoys living in a multi-cultural environment with Jewish, African-American and Latinx neighbors.
Myers believes that the more each neighbor understands the “other,” the closer and more sustainable the community will be. That’s why this African-American gentleman participates in a Roundtable every other month, organized by CHAI, CASA of Maryland and the Fallstaff Improvement Association, bringing Latinx, African-American and Jewish neighbors together to increase cultural awareness among one another.
Over the years, CHAI, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has been committed to building understanding across racial, ethnic and religious lines. Roundtables inspire conversations that lead to better understanding … Multi-cultural Nights, offered through the Fallstaff Multi-Cultural Organizing Project, showcase Jewish, African-American and Latinx culture to neighbors using food, native dress, books and art.
“We are breaking down boundaries and getting people into a room to build better neighborhoods,” says Rachel Elliott, CHAI’s Vice President of Community Development.
Last spring, Stanley Fishkind organized a Shabbat dinner for Jewish, Latinx and African-American residents in the Fallstaff neighborhood. Over a dinner of roasted chicken, challah and gefilte fish, he provided them with a “taste of our Jewish customs and community.”
“We are opening up a window into another culture,” explains Fishkind. “And when you do that, you expand people’s horizons and you make them appreciate living with people who are different.”
“When you speak with individuals from different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds, you realize that we are really no different – that we have the same goals and values,” adds Pauline Watson, an African-American resident who participates in the Roundtables. Watson, who also connects to her Jewish neighbors through CHAI’s Northwest Neighbors Connecting, a senior supportive community network, attends Shabbat dinners and Jewish holiday celebrations. She also shares a bond with her Latinx friends and neighbors and she participates in their family celebrations and cultural events.
“These programs help us dispel stereotypes and make a community vibrant,” Watson says.
Bringing diverse groups of people together to further understanding is core to The Associated’s mission. It is the recognition that communities thrive when they work together to solve problems – and working together is often strengthened through understanding.
Each year, 3,000 students from Baltimore City and the surrounding counties visit the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM), touring the Lloyd Street Synagogue and the museum’s myriad exhibits. Through these field trips, they learn about Jewish history, customs and traditions.
Although many of the students understand what Judaism is, more than likely this is their first time in a synagogue, explains Ilene Dackman-Alon, JMM’s Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement. “They walk away with parallels to their own world experiences – an understanding that this is a place of worship, similar to a church – and a place where community comes together,” she says.
Through “Voices of Lombard Street,” which chronicles East Baltimore from the early 1900s to today, many of these students see a connection to themselves.
“They begin to understand that Jews share similar experiences. They too have been discriminated against. And, they too have been immigrants, with the same challenges that face immigrants today,” says Tracie Guy-Decker, JMM’s Deputy Director.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), The Associated’s volunteer arm, brings diverse community members together for the greater good. Together, they volunteer side-by-side throughout Baltimore, in projects that include working with organizations such as Higher Achievement and the 6th Branch, to beautify schools and neighborhoods. They also serve meals in local shelters like Beans and Bread and Helping Up Mission.
In addition, JVC will host a signature MLK Day event with programming that includes in-direct service project opportunities such as making blessing bags and snack mixes, while learning about issues affecting the community.
The JVC project is being developed in conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), which for years has spearheaded efforts to encourage dialogue and connection across racial, ethnic and religious lines.
Perhaps the most telling example of how these programs can create a sense of shared understanding is what happened in the aftermath of the tragic synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. A school near Washington, D.C. visited the JMM days shortly after the tragedy.
They brought with them a package of letters. “They were condolence cards from all of the students,” says Dackman-Alon. “They were expressing support and empathy for our Jewish community.”
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