Ten in the Twentieth: Baltimore Jews and Social Justice 1980s
Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.
The Baltimore Jewish community has produced many leaders who have worked to make the world a better place. The range of issues they have addressed is impressive: from women’s suffrage to civil rights, labor relations to helping the elderly, refugee resettlement to eliminating poverty, and much more.
This chronology traces the careers of ten Baltimoreans who stood up for social change, with each person’s entry revolving around a turning point—one for each decade of the twentieth century. This is by no means a “Ten Best” list. The people included here are remarkable for what they accomplished, but others, equally remarkable, could have been chosen as well. These profiles should be seen as representative of a larger group of Baltimore Jews who have made major contributions to their communities and to the broader society in myriad ways.
The 1980s: Ruth Wolf Rehfeld
1989: Ruth Wolf Rehfeld (1927-2003) becomes the executive director of BLEWS, the Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore. Her new job is the logical extension of a long career as an activist.
Arriving in Baltimore as a refugee from Nazism in 1939, Rehfeld graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Goucher College in 1951. She joined the staff of Americans for Democratic Action in the 1950s and served as education director of the Citizens’ Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) in the 1960s. As a community organizer and then executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corporation in the 1970s, she immersed herself in neighborhood issues, becoming an expert on the zoning code. She also gained experience bringing together blacks and Jews—the dominant population groups in northwest Baltimore—to work on neighborhood revitalization. She went on to work at the Associated before heading up BLEWS. After her stint as director, she became an active board member of the organization, whose mission is to strengthen the relationship between Baltimore’s African American and Jewish communities.
A longtime resident of Mount Vernon, Rehfeld was “one of the downtown neighborhood’s strongest advocates,” according to the Baltimore Sun. A fellow resident called her “the backbone of the Mount Vernon community.” After her death, CPHA director Al Barry offered an apt appraisal of her career: “She was a formidable community activist who saw neighborhood revitalization as the backbone of the city.”