These are dark and desperate times for Baltimore, lamented Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) at Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Sept. 4 Town Hall Meeting on the city’s woes and challenges.

“Baltimore City needs an action plan, and it needs help,” he said. “We are all in this together. And together, we must seek to rid our communities of hate.”

Besides Cardin, the program’s featured speakers included Beth Tfiloh’s longtime senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-7th) and Dr. Terris A. King, senior pastor of Ashburton’s Liberty Grace Church of God.

“The leadership [of Baltimore City] keeps changing, and it’s never for the better,” Rabbi Wohlberg said. “What the hell are we going to do?”

More than 600 people attended the gathering held in the Pikesville synagogue’s Dahan Sanctuary, including many local civic and religious leaders as well as members of diverse congregations. Among those in attendance were Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison.

During the program, Cummings alluded to President Donald Trump’s recent controversial remarks in which he called the veteran Baltimore congressman “a brutal bully” whose black-majority district has become “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess where no human being would want to live.”

The president’s remarks were made in response to comments made by Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticizing the conditions of detention facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cummings brushed off Trump’s comments. “You don’t go up against the president,” he said, “you work around him.”

One of the evening’s dominant themes was the need for more interaction and cooperation between the city’s white and African-American communities.

“If you don’t know people, you rely on stereotypes,” said Rabbi Wohlberg. “You see a black teenage boy and you think, ‘Criminal.’ But if you look at black youths in a church choir, you get a very different impression of them.”

Children perform at Beth Tfiloh Congregation's Sept. 4 interfaith town hall meeting on Baltimore City.
Students perform at the interfaith Town Hall Meeting. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

For the past year, the clergy and congregants of Beth Tfiloh and Liberty Grace have held joint educational and social action programming to become better acquainted and promote racial unity.

“When we invite our congregations to have lunch together, we realize how much we have in common,” said Rabbi Wohlberg. “Afterwards, I’ve heard members of my congregation say to one another, ‘These are really nice people.’

“My style is to do it and if you want to come along, please do. If not, I understand,” he said. “I have not heard one person in my congregation object to anything we are doing.”

In the near future, the two congregations plan to have a night of entertainment, featuring Jewish and African-American comedians. “When was the last time a Jewish person and a black person laughed together?” Rabbi Wohlberg asked.

“When I met Rev. King more than two years ago, I knew right away that he is a very special person,” he said. “I realized that if there’s hope for the inner city, it will come from a person like this. … We have to learn not to be afraid of each other. If every synagogue and a local church got together every so often, they’d get to know each other on a social level.”

For the past two decades, Cummings noted, he has headed the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, which is a two-year fellowship for high school students in Baltimore aimed at strengthening ties between the African-American and Jewish communities. The program, which operates and receives support from the Baltimore Jewish Council, has more than 200 graduates.

“One-hundred percent of these children graduate from high school and 98 percent graduate from college,” said Cummings.

Both Cummings and Cardin emphasized that education must be a top priority in overcoming the city’s current woes of rampant crime, a high homicide rate, poverty, drugs and economic stagnation.

“When you have ninth graders who cannot read [and] then you combine that with drugs, that takes people and communities apart,” Cummings said. “We’ve got to help people learn to read.”

Cardin said federal, state and local governmental bodies and resources must be utilized to modernize Baltimore’s schools system and fund special education and pre-kindergarten “so that every child can succeed. … In addition, our criminal justice system needs to be improved, we must keep Pimlico [Race Course] here in Baltimore, and we need more help from business [leaders] and the business roundtable.”

Closing the program, Cardin left audience members on a cautiously optimistic note about his hometown.

“Baltimore,” he said, “has many opportunities to produce the leaders it needs.”

Peter Arnold is a Silver Spring-based freelance writer.