Baltimore’s Jewish Community Looks Back — and Forward — as Riots Subside

Just blocks away from where Freddie Gray was arrested last month, a man faces off with police on North Ave. near the site of recent riots, May 4, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images )
Just blocks away from where Freddie Gray was arrested last month, a man faces off with police on North Ave. near the site of recent riots, May 4, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images )

With much siyatta diShmaya, riots that rocked the city of Baltimore last week have subsided. While the Jewish community of Baltimore was on high alert for several days, and definitely felt the tension that permeated the city, we are thankful that the violence did not seriously affect its members. We now look back at how our community reacted, the lessons learned, the kiddush Hashem that was enacted, and where we may need to go from here.

The Flare-Up

As the security situation deteriorated last Monday afternoon, with intense rioting taking place at Mondawmin Mall, only a few miles from the heart of our community, Baltimore’s Jewish community leaders sprang into action. Rabbanim, leaders of organizations such as the Northwest Citizens’ Patrol, Hatzalah, Shomrim, Chaverim, CHAI, and Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, Agudath Israel’s Maryland Representative, worked round the clock and were in constant contact with city leaders, including the police department, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and Betsy Gardner, the Jewish community liaison for the office of the city council president. As a result of these efforts, Baltimore’s Jewish residents were kept up to date on the latest developments and information, and any necessary precautions.

In an interview with Ms. Gardner, she explained what Baltimore City was experiencing during the past week. “The entire city was dealing with security concerns similar to what our community deals with on a daily basis. We never know when someone will try to enter our community, either to try to gain access to one of our day schools or any of our other institutions, via domestic or international terrorism. This was the level and lack of comfort that our entire city was experiencing. Yes, we had to be inconvenienced and uncomfortable for a few days while the city-wide curfew was in place, but how could we argue against something for our own good?”

While the City Council president’s office remained in touch with the entire Jewish community, monitoring their needs and keeping them informed, special attention, as always, was given to all the shuls, especially in the downtown area: historic B’Nai Israel, Chabad of Downtown, and Beth Am in Reservoir Hill, blocks from the rioting. Ms. Gardner expressed her concern about her own shul, the historic Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, under Rabbi David Herman, which is situated less than half a block from Mondawmin Mall. Ms. Gardner spoke to Rabbi Herman on a regular basis and assured him that the Baltimore City Police Department and the National Guard were onsite and protecting the shul. She made several trips to check on the shul herself. Of additional concern was the Etting Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore, dating back to 1799 and located on North Avenue near Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of what became known as “Ground Zero.” Baruch Hashem, no damage was incurred at any of the shuls or at the cemetery.

On Tuesday, credible reports were received that rioters were spreading messages via social media that more rioting would be held on Tuesday afternoon, beginning at about 3:30. Targeted areas included those surrounding the frum community. Consequently, the community day schools closed early, as did the Jewish Community Center.

Frank Storch (right) distributing pizza to police officers, in appreciation for their intense efforts during the rioting last week.
Frank Storch (right) distributing pizza to police officers, in appreciation for their intense efforts during the rioting last week.

A Kiddush Hashem in Action

Meanwhile, community activists sprang into action. Mr. Frank Storch, under the auspices of the Chesed Fund and Project Ezra, brought provisions to hundreds of police officers and to the National Guard members who were stationed around Mondawmin Mall. Armed with hot dogs and hamburgers from Kosher Bite, 25 pizza pies from Tov Pizza and hundreds of water bottles, he offered food to the exhausted policemen, many of whom had barely eaten the day before, as they were overwhelmed with combating the rioting while being pelted with rocks, bricks and bottles.

There were other tales of Jewish community members stepping up to express appreciation for the National Guard and police officers for their hard work in stopping the riots and protecting the community. A local kosher restaurant, located near the Pikesville Armory where the National Guard was stationed, provided free food to the National Guard officers. Members of Hatzalah hosted a barbecue for police officers on Friday, and at least one local mother, home with her children on Tuesday afternoon, baked cookies, which she brought to the police station.

Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland, met with state police troops and asked what was needed. In response to their requests, he arranged for the distribution of oral hygiene products, sponsored by a local dental supply company. CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance Incorporated of Baltimore) also provided free meals for the officers earlier this week.

All of these efforts created a great kiddush Hashem. Officer Rob Jones, a retired SWAT Team officer, commented, “It was very refreshing to see members of the Jewish community take the time and expense to care for the police officers.”

Bachurim at Yeshiva Gedolah Ohr Hatorah learning night seder, in an area of the dormitory set up as a beis medrash, in compliance with the 10:00 p.m. city-imposed curfew.
Bachurim at Yeshiva Gedolah Ohr Hatorah learning night seder, in an area of the dormitory set up as a beis medrash, in compliance with the 10:00 p.m. city-imposed curfew.

The Curfew

On Tuesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake enacted a curfew, to be held nightly for one week, from 10:00 p.m. through 5 a.m. A statement from the Vaad Harabbanim of Baltimore urged community members to comply with the curfew. The statement read: “As the Baltimore community and its environs are currently experiencing the challenges of civil unrest, it is of the utmost importance that each and every resident of Baltimore City — or those traveling in Baltimore City who may live in Baltimore County — abide by the rules set forth by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore Police Department…. All shuls in Baltimore City should arrange their minyan schedules accordingly. Everyone should remain vigilant when going outside, and alert while traveling throughout the area. Anyone who senses or experiences anything that resembles a threat should immediately call 911. May Hashem watch over our community and keep us all safe.”

Shuls rescheduled their late Maariv minyanim to be completed before 10:00. Late-night shiurim were either canceled or rescheduled, and shuls were locked by 10:00. Since the curfew was only binding for city residents, and the frum community straddles the border between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, some community members and shuls did not need to abide by these rules.

One individual who lives in the city but across the street from the city/county border, told Hamodia, “The shul where I usually daven Maariv at 10:00 is located across the street from my home — but in the county. Hence, they continued to hold their 10:00 Maariv. As I understood that I should comply with the curfew — both in terms of abiding by the city regulations and avoiding a chillul Hashem, I davened elsewhere, at an earlier Maariv, so I would not have to cross the street to return home after 10:00.”

Exceptions to the curfew were made for very specific situations, such as individuals traveling home from work. Employers provided letters stating that the individual was indeed returning from work. Before Shabbos, word went out that the police would be more lenient for people returning from “religious activities,” but the community was urged not to take advantage of the loophole, and to abide by the curfew as much as possible.

Rabbi Simcha Cook, Menahel of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, which is located in Baltimore County, relates that on Tuesday, due to the general unrest and fear of violence breaking out in the county, all bachurim who normally sleep at home were given places to sleep in yeshivah. The yeshivah sent emails to the parents advising them of the yeshivah’s continual contact with the Baltimore County police and of the extra patrolling of Mt. Wilson Lane, the street on which the yeshivah is situated.

Rabbi Moshe Aharon Rosenbaum, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Gedola Ohr HaTorah, said that since his yeshivah dormitory is located about two blocks from the beis medrash, arrangements were made for the bachurim to learn late-night seder in the dormitory so that the Torah learning could continue even as the curfew was in place.

An officer rolls out police tape as other officers form a line to block North Ave., May 4, 2015. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
An officer rolls out police tape as other officers form a line to block North Ave., May 4, 2015. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Thanking the Police

With much siyatta diShmaya, the rioting was mostly contained following Monday’s outbreak and, with the exception of a few incidents in area businesses, the community was by and large unaffected.

On Sunday, the curfew was lifted. Jewish community representatives joined a delegation of neighborhoods who gathered at a nearby police station to express gratitude to the law enforcement agents for their intense efforts to protect the city during the previous week, as well as year round, and their dedicated concern for the Jewish community. Rabbi Sadwin was one of those who addressed the gathering, thanking the National Guardsmen and NW district police commander Major Marc Partee and the entire NW police force for their steadfast dedication to maintaining the safety of the city and our community, and wished them continued success and safety in their role as our protectors.

“We were able to sleep comfortably in our own homes over the last week, because the police and Guardsmen were out there at all hours, protecting our neighborhoods and our families,” he asserted.

Nathan Willner, General Counsel for Shomrim, said, “We are thankful to the police department and the mayor for all their efforts. As a whole, the community remained safe and there were no incidents. We are generally very satisfied with the way things were handled.”

Looking Forward

Now, as the situation is behind us, there are many issues that need to be addressed.

It is important to note that, in most cases, Jewish community residents live and work peacefully side by side with their African-American neighbors. The vast majority of African-Americans in the city was very upset by the riots and felt they reflected poorly on blacks as a whole. Even the family of Freddie Gray begged for the violence to end, asking for only peaceful demonstrations.

On close examination of the facts, it is clear that the issue at hand was not one of racism; three of the six officers involved in the arrest and subsequent injury and death of Freddie Gray were African-Americans, as are the mayor, the City Council president, comptroller, many City Council members, and the police commissioner. Ms. Gardner asserted, “These issues have been building up all across the nation. The lack of jobs, lack of recreation centers, a general lack of opportunities, which dates back to the years of segregation, were all burning issues. What have we as a government done for our citizens, let alone our children? Whether on the federal, state, or local level, we have a responsibility to our citizens and play a vital role in providing opportunities to everyone. Now that the riots are over, there is more work to be done. We have to bridge our communities together. We must wait for the court trial to play out and justice to prevail, and pray that Hashem watches over us and that our City heals.”

However, Ms. Gardner added, “As a Jewish community, we should be so proud of our Rabbanim, schools and institutions. These have stood the test of time and produced great leaders and citizens, who serve their community properly.”

When asked for comment on events of the past week, Rabbi Yehonason Aryeh Seidemann, Rav of Kehilath B’nai Torah, said, “I think these situations certainly serve to remind us that, being in galus, we should never fall into a sense of complacency and false security. One benefit that we can derive from the tragic events of the past week is to strengthen our tefillos for the Geulah. In addition, we owe hakaras hatov to the Ribbono shel Olam beyond what can be put into words, that the unrest barely touched the Jewish neighborhoods. Furthermore, while we recognize that the economic reverberations of what happened to a great extent in the downtown area certainly can have an effect on members of the Jewish community, by and large, it was more of an event that was observed from afar. Yet, we must have empathy for all members of society, whether they are in the Jewish community or not, and our hearts must go out to those who have lost businesses, for which they put in many years of blood, sweat and tears, and investment.”

Many difficult questions remain unanswered. Is there a way to stem the tide of the general breakdown of law and order in the African-American community? How can we help a society that is cruel to its own, and destroys its own neighborhoods, including burning the pharmacy that benefits so many in the area (as occurred with the double burning of the CVS store on Monday and Tuesday)? How can we turn the tide in a society which President Obama, in his remarks last Tuesday, described as having youth who are more likely to end up in jail than finishing high school? How can police officers continue to protect our neighborhoods, if they are concerned about being accused of murder when attempts to “keep the peace” don’t go smoothly? Are there police officers who discriminate and act aggressively, when that aggression is not called for? How can we differentiate?

These are not simple questions to answer. We can only turn our thoughts to the Mishnah in the third perek of Pirkei Avos, which we read last Shabbos: “Pray for the fear of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other alive.”