WASHINGTON — On Thursday, two days before U.S. President Donald Trump viciously attacked veteran Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings in a series of tweets, a group of teenagers from Cummings’ district landed back in the United States after a month-long visit to Israel. The teens’ trip was organized by the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, an educational organization that has been sending students from the Baltimore area on visits to Israel for the past two decades.
The program, established in the late 1990s, works to “invest in promising teens from Maryland’s 7th Congressional District and prepare them to serve as open-minded leaders with the skills, community ties and global exposure critical to success in a diverse society,” according to its mission statement. It is part of a long-standing partnership between Cummings and the Jewish community of Baltimore — a community where many are now standing by the congressman in light of Trump’s attacks against him.
Daniel Burg, a rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Beth Am, told Haaretz: “Congressman Cummings is widely regarded as a dignified statesman and morally upright leader at a time when courageous and moral leadership is severely lacking in Washington. I’ve personally found him to be thoughtful, amiable and sincere. I’m proud to call him my congressman and proud to live in his district.”
Burg added that “the Jewish community has a moral obligation to call out and forcefully respond to bullies and demagogues, including the president. The ills of American society won’t be addressed by emboldening those who flee and divest from communities of color and then blame those communities for the outcome of that divestment.”
Israel Patoka, a member of the Baltimore County Council, also praised Cummings, calling him “a true ally of the Jewish community and a champion for the causes that we care about. He is strongly committed to working with the community and creating cooperation between different communities in Maryland and the country.” Patoka said that Trump’s attack on the representative “is part of a broader trend of racism and spreading hate — things that sadly are becoming normalized under this presidency.”
Baltimore, Patoka added, “is the economic engine of the state of Maryland and a major city in the United States. Trump should be concerned about all the cities he was elected to preside over, not to criticize and take them down. He should help the cities, not be critical of them. He should be reaching out to assist, instead he’s just tweeting. That’s not action.”
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“People view Elijah Cummings as a bridge builder, someone who is deeply committed to the Jewish community in our area, and they’re disgusted by Trump’s attacks on him,” said the leader of one local Jewish organization, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss a sensitive political issue. “People see that Trump is only attacking Elijah because he thinks it’s good politics for him to fight with black people. It’s disgraceful.”
Cummings’ district is home to more than 30,000 Jews, of all types and backgrounds. Trump has characterized the district as a place “no human wants to live in.” Andrew Rehfeld, president of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College, was born and raised in the district. He responded to Trump’s words by writing on Facebook that the district "includes some of the most important institutions of the Maryland Arts community in Baltimore, including the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Opera, and Maryland Institute College of Art. It is home to the Pimlico Race Course, one of the three courses that make up the Triple Crown. It also abuts a significant Orthodox Jewish community and the Associate Jewish Charities — Baltimore’s Jewish Federation — is located in the heart of the 7th district.”
Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a large Reform synagogue, told Haaretz that Cummings spoke at his synagogue earlier this year. “We told him he could speak about anything he wanted, and he chose to focus on his own relationship over the decades with the Jewish community. He spoke about the importance of building bridges between communities, and unlike many people who just talk about that, he’s actually done it with his youth program.”
In reply to Trump’s attacks on Cummings and the entire city of Baltimore, Busch said: “Many cities have challenges, and Baltimore’s are no secret — they’ve been discussed for decades. Some of the city’s problems actually go back 200 years. The president’s language doesn’t help, it only increases hatred and division. Elijah Cummings is one of the people actually trying to solve these problems.”
Trump’s comments were also denounced Sunday by the Anti-Defamation League, whose CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, warned: “Using words like ‘infested’ seems intended only to offend. We know firsthand the dangers when a group of people are rendered subhuman. Such comments demean entire communities and divide the country.”
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told Haaretz that the community “has been able to count on Rep. Cummings time and again for assistance and leadership.” Libit chose not to address Trump’s tweets, because his organization is nonpartisan. He was happy to speak, however, on Cummings’ Youth Program and the recent trip to Israel.
“The program identifies a dozen promising students from his district, primarily African American, and it offers them a year of learning together, developing leadership, doing community service. As part of their journey, they spend almost a month in Israel, touring the country, meeting the diverse Israeli society. We’re very proud to be partnering with Rep. Cummings on this issue.”
According to Libit, Cummings “is personally involved — he talks to the students, invites them to Washington, attends their graduations. And he keeps in touch with some of them over the years.” One graduate of the program is CNN anchor Victor Blackwell, who made national headlines this weekend with a forceful defense of Baltimore, offered in reply to Trump’s attack. Blackwell is a graduate of the program’s first class.
“What’s special about this program is that it uses Israel as a resource for young people in America, as part of their learning process,” says Ann Lewis, co-chair of the Democratic Majority for Israel. Lewis, who worked in the past for Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski and has been involved in Jewish community politics for decades, told Haaretz that “Elijah doesn’t brag about this program, and many people who work with him and know him well aren’t always aware of it.” She added, sarcastically, that thanks to Trump’s attack on the congressman, “this will now get attention.”
Rehfeld added that “given the challenges of Baltimore, it also includes a wide diversity of economic classes and large neighborhoods left behind in the wake of increasing economic inequality and suffering from the ravages of institutional and structural racism, and poor political leadership. Rather than feeding the very racism and noxious views that contribute to this inequality and economic blight, why not work hard to invest in solutions?”