Just about every Baltimorean—and many other Americans as well—know about Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s famous 1981 swim with the seals, a characteristically audacious stunt that signaled Baltimore’s revival and helped launch the National Aquarium. Far fewer know that Mayor Schaefer also helped launch the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
In the early 80s, the leaders of Jewish Historical Society of Maryland (the Museum’s predecessor) were considering a building project. The group had saved the Lloyd Street Synagogue from demolition in 1960 and continued to run tours there. Now they wanted to construct a building that would house the Society’s growing archives, serve researchers, and include an exhibition gallery. They planned to build it uptown, near the growing Jewish community.
Enter Robert Weinberg, trustee and head of the Jewish Heritage Center task force, who recommended locating the new center on Lloyd Street, flanked by the Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel Synagogues, in what was once the heart of immigrant Jewish Baltimore. It was a risky idea at the time; the neighborhood was in decline, and deteriorating public housing high rises dominated. The bold venture was on Robert Weinberg’s mind as he walked down Lombard Street one April day in 1982 and encountered Mayor Schaefer. Weinberg told him about his idea and the mayor, eager to spread redevelopment beyond the Inner Harbor, embraced it immediately, committing City funds that were critical to the project’s success.
That encounter was on my mind as I walked down Lombard Street yesterday, 29 years later. I was on my way to join a small crowd of people who were waiting for Mayor Schaefer’s funeral cortege to roll down Corned Beef Row. Many of us—including Councilwoman Rikki Spector, Rabbi Alan Yuter of B’nai Israel, Martha Weiman, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and I, were there representing the Jewish community, to which Mayor Schaefer had been a longtime friend. Others came simply to pay their respects to a man who had the courage to believe in Baltimore at a time when it wasn’t necessarily fashionable to do so.
The procession was running late, so the group waited on the street corner for nearly an hour, swapping memories, both solemn and celebratory. Finally, the approaching helicopters announced the arrival of the procession. Together with Rikki Spector and Martha Weiman, I had the honor of presenting an enormous bouquet of flowers to Lainy Lebow-Sachs, Mayor Schaefer’s friend and longtime aide.
I came to Baltimore several years after Mayor Schaefer moved on to the State House, but I found the occasion—standing on a sunny street corner shooting the breeze with Baltimoreans of all stripes, Jews and non-Jews, old and young, black and white, human and canine——surprisingly emotional and affirming. Where else but Baltimore, Hon?