What Carroll County Missed

Posted on December 7th, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

Talmud to Tik: Iraqi Jewish Heritage Day. Photos by Will Kirk.

Last Sunday, here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland we had a celebration of Iraqi Jewish culture – there was a dance troupe and musical performances, henna painting and hamsa making, storytelling and some pretty darn good cookies.

It was one of the biggest attendance days of 2017 – with nearly 220 visitors – including visitors from DC and Montgomery County and a whole school group from the Eastern Shore.  There were people of all ages and many ethnic backgrounds.  I mention this not to brag about what we accomplished (at least not just to brag), but also to mourn the way in which fear has trumped reason and denied opportunities to share and learn.

I am sure by now you are aware of the decision of the Carroll County School Board (on the recommendation of the county sheriff) to ban field trips to Baltimore City.   The ostensible reason was the “recent violence in the traditional tourist areas of the city.”

Now I’m not going to minimize the fact that there is a real violence problem in the city and my heart goes out to each of the 300+ families who have lost a loved one.  However, like any risk we face in life I think this requires a little perspective.  How many people are killed or even injured each year in the city while visiting a museum or participating in a Christmas Parade?  Darn few.

I happen to live in a collar county and I commute to the Jewish Museum everyday.  I am acutely aware of the fact that the fatality toll on this state’s highways is 70% higher than the number of murders in the city.  This doesn’t persuade me to stop driving… no more than a county-wide crisis with prescribed opioids would suggest I should stop seeing a doctor.

But some would argue, “why take any risk for the sake of a field trip?”  “It’s just a frivolity.”  I took a look at the Carroll County Schools website.  There I found a document entitled Vision 2018, describing the four major strategic initiatives of the school system.  One of the four major planks was “Prepare Globally Competitive Students.”  Surely, a part of being “globally competitive” is a greater understanding of the 7 billion people on the planet who do not live in Carroll County.  Such understanding has many components but only a few are found on the Internet or in a textbook. Some need to be experienced by meeting people who come from other cultures or contact with the artifacts and places that shape ideas and beliefs.  And most of us will remember something we experienced on a field trip years after we have forgotten everything that was taught in school that week.

Jonestown: Proudly we hail.

As concerned as I am about the ban in Carroll County, I am far more concerned about the way this ban has influenced conversations in the Jewish community over the last couple of weeks.  I have heard the argument made that some neighborhoods are too risky to visit, including our own neighborhood of Jonestown (home of JMM, the Star Spangled Banner Flag House, the Reginald F Lewis Museum, the historic Shot Tower and – with all irony intended – the Carroll Mansion).  I object to this line of argument for all the reasons stated above… and one more: it flies in the face of Jewish values.

We are a caring community that would no more abandon the place that gave us birth (Jonestown, Baltimore) than we would the parents who nurtured us.  A “Jewish” reaction to the very real challenges is not to hide but to repair.  All around us are institutions committed to making Jonestown a better place including our new neighbors Ronald McDonald House and the National Aquarium, not to mention the expanding Helping Up Mission.  At a time when so many are investing in Jonestown are we really going to let our fears prevent us from lending a hand? And sometimes lending a hand requires no sacrifice – just ask the 220 people who enjoyed themselves on Sunday, advancing this community’s economy.

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CHAI: Making A Stand in Upper Park Heights Part 4

Posted on January 25th, 2017 by

Article by Simone Ellin. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part IV: A Unique Neighborhood

Missed parts 1 – 3? Start here.

Collaboration, productive partnerships, successful fundraising, and the commitment of The Associated have all undoubtedly contributed to CHAI’s success in maintaining a Jewish presence in Upper Park Heights. Yet certain characteristics unique to the neighborhood serve to solidify this diverse community. As Gelula and Rabbi Oberstein point out, a similar neighborhood stabilization program failed to sustain a diverse community in Randallstown, an historically Jewish enclave in Baltimore County which attracted many African Americans starting in the 1960s. “The entire Randallstown Jewish community ended in forty years between 1960 and 2000. It was just gone,” Oberstein asserts. “You see, when people develop the perception that a neighborhood is changing, they assume that the public schools are no longer good, and they run away.” The Orthodox don’t use the public schools, “so the quality of neighborhood public schools doesn’t matter to them.”

Yet, the quality of neighborhood schools matters to CHAI. In fact, in the past two years, CHAI and Cross Country Elementary and Middle School were awarded a School Community Partnership Grant to carry out a school-wide Technology Implementation Program. This is in addition to the money that was raised (through the slots legislation) for Northwestern High School. “Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in quality education,” says Gelula. “Our neighborhood public schools are important community members and they need to be part of our overall plan. And just because there aren’t Jewish kids in those schools today, doesn’t mean that as they improve, there won’t be in the future.”

CHAI works to improve neighborhood schools. "Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in education" - Ken Gelula. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

CHAI works to improve neighborhood schools. “Good schools strengthen communities and we all have a stake in education” – Ken Gelula. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Whether Jewish children will someday populate the neighborhood schools alongside their African American neighbors remains to be seen. For the time being, the two communities live side by side with limited contact. “We are fortunate to have fine neighborhood associations, and African Americans and Jews work together,” says Rabbi Oberstein. But although Orthodox Jews and blacks share their neighborhood without overt conflict and cooperate in improvement efforts, no one claims that the two communities are closely knit. Gelula admits that the Orthodox live in Upper Park Heights in spite of, and not because of, its diverse population.

Meanwhile, says Sandy Johnson, “I don’t think the average African American who lives here, really ‘gets’ the Orthodox community. We are two communities living side by side, but I don’t think African Americans really understand the ways of Orthodox Jews.” However, close relationships between neighbors of these diverse backgrounds are not unheard of, Johnson adds. “I believe there have been relationships between neighbors. They help one another, but there is still a distance–though not an unfriendly distance. We’re partners who do very well with one another for the most part.”

For Johnson, integrating a growing Hispanic population presents a greater challenge to the neighborhood than black/Jewish relations. “Landlords were renting two-room apartments and five men would be living there. There is tremendous overcrowding.” This has led to overflowing trash bags in the alleys and other issues. “So CHAI applied for a grant, and we got a Spanish-speaking lady to help us organize the homeowners on Surrey Drive,” where many Hispanics live. Johnson adds that although the grant helped temporarily, problems have continued. “I feel like we spend 80 percent of our time dealing with 20 percent of the neighborhood.”

Gelula notes that 20 percent of the children at Fallstaff Elementary/Middle School “are new immigrant children, most of whom are Hispanic.” The area’s increased diversity can be seen in local businesses as well. “If you walk into stores in the neighborhood, you will find that many of the people working there are Latino. There’s a kosher meat store called Shlomo’s. It’s owned by an Iranian Jew. He has his landsmen there, and they all speak Farsi, and then there are these Hispanic guys who also work there and they speak Spanish. So the Iranian guys are learning to speak Spanish, while the Hispanic guys are learning to speak Farsi so they can all work together.”

Celebrating the opening of the Fallstaff School-Community Playground. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Celebrating the opening of the Fallstaff School-Community Playground. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The community’s response to the changes on Surrey were two-fold. City housing inspectors were brought in to observe illegal occupancy situations, and once misuses could be confirmed, owners were served with fines. CHAI also secured a grant from the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative that provided funds to hire a bilingual community worker to work with the neighborhood’s growing Latino population, providing resources and educating the new arrivals about their new country. “She was terrific,” says Gelula. “But the grant ran out and she moved out of the state. Unfortunately, there was no money to continue to fund the position,” he laments.

Gelula notes that CHAI has helped Latino families purchase homes in the neighborhood. The Baltimore Jewish Council has also sponsored dialogues between the Jewish and Hispanic communities. While he acknowledges there have been problems, Gelula does not believe that Jews take issue with the Hispanic presence in Park Heights. “It’s a classic American melting pot story that plays out everywhere in good and bad ways,” he remarks. “Are there groups of Latino guys sitting outside those houses drinking beer and playing loud music – yes – some.” But “for the most part, these are hard working people trying to get an economic foothold so they can create a better life for their kids.”

Meanwhile, the Orthodox community continues to thrive alongside its black and Hispanic neighbors. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re all walking down the streets of Park Heights singing Kumbaya,” says Gelula. “But we get along.” In fact, the popularity of new housing developments such as Bancroft Village, a Park Heights townhouse community built specifically with the needs of large Orthodox families in mind, suggests that the Jewish community is actually growing. Bucking past trends in Jewish migration—and with the support and stabilization efforts of CHAI—a significant number of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish families will likely make their homes in Upper Park Heights for many years to come.

~The End~

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CHAI: Making A Stand in Upper Park Heights Part 3

Posted on January 23rd, 2017 by

Article by Simone Ellin. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part III: Attention to Detail

Missed parts 1 & 2? Start here.

Baltimore Delegate Sandy Rosenberg served on the CHAI board when it was dedicated to senior housing. When The Associated began studying models of community stabilization, Rosenberg was active with the Baltimore Jewish Council, an Associated agency deeply involved with the project. “Associated leaders made a site visit to Cleveland to see what the Jewish Federation there was doing about community stabilization since they already had a program underway there. That was really when CHAI as it is known today began,” Rosenberg explains. “The Associated said, ‘We’re going to invest in this neighborhood.’ That led to the JCC’s restoration, for instance. Without CHAI, Har Sinai (a Reform synagogue then in the neighborhood) wouldn’t have sold to Rambam (an Orthodox day school). Before CHAI, synagogues that moved out of their buildings sold to churches.”

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Rosenberg attributes some of CHAI’s success to its attention to detail. “Little things can be both pluses and minuses to neighborhoods, and making those minor changes leads to bigger things, and out of that, enthusiasm grows.” Under CHAI’s auspices, the presidents of the area’s five neighborhood associations (the Northwest Communities Presidents Forum) met on a regular basis, Rosenberg says. “That got people working together and looking out for their common interests. As an elected official, these meetings have helped me–they have given me an opportunity to meet with all of these presidents.”

Rosenberg cites new state legislation around slot machines as one recent benefit. “Because of the participation of NW Presidents, a percentage of the money from Pimlico’s slot machines will be distributed to the five neighborhoods around Pimlico. We brought this idea to the presidents and they helped to refine it. Earnings from slots over the next fifteen years are expected to be $45 million. The neighborhoods around the racetrack will receive some of those proceeds for community development.” In fact, in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to neighborhood residents and stakeholders, Rosenberg and his colleagues convinced the state to provide $75,000 up front. This sum was matched by the Baltimore City School System and the $150,000 was used to renovate the running track at Northwest High School.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Rosenberg believes that The Associated’s decision to invest in Upper Park Heights is important not only to the Jewish community but also for Baltimore and the entire Baltimore metropolitan area. “The city and the suburbs have a mutually dependent relationship,” he says. “People may think they are separate but suburbs are only as strong as the urban centers they surround.”

CHAI has also created collaborative relationships with Baltimore City, neighborhood schools, community task forces, the business community, and especially, the African American community. Sandy Johnson, an African American woman who has lived in Fallstaff for thirty-two years, first became aware of CHAI around ten years ago through her involvement with the Fallstaff Improvement Board (currently she serves as the Board’s president). “I went to a few meetings,” she recalls, “and saw that CHAI was trying to bring the Northwest neighborhoods together. I believe that had it not been for CHAI, we probably would not have had cohesive relationships with the four other neighborhoods.”

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Senior Home Repair Day. Photo courtesy of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Johnson also credits CHAI with shepherding the NW Presidents Forum through the process of becoming one of only six Baltimore City community organizations to obtain Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP) designation in 2003 through then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s office. The purpose of SNAP is to create comprehensive plans that neighborhoods can use to implement positive changes. After receiving the designation, the group’s steering committee hosted a town meeting open to neighborhood residents and stakeholders to encourage their involvement in the planning process. After completion of the first SNAP plan in 2004, neighborhood improvements were implemented in the areas of housing, land use and zoning, open space, recreation and environment, transportation, streetscapes and gateways, education and schools, and public safety and community relations. In 2010, the NW Presidents Forum held a second town hall meeting to update and develop new recommendations for the strategy going forward.

Continue to Part IV: A Unique Neighborhood

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