When Arthur “Art” Abramson came to Baltimore in 1990, he was given three years to turn the Baltimore Jewish Council around.
“When I came here, the board was 189 people. I will never forget that, it’s crazy,” he said. “How do you provide accountability to the community, to the lay leadership, to everybody else if you have 189 people telling you what to do? You can’t; it’s impossible. The structure just did not work.”
Abramson’s directive was to revamp the council and “bring it back,” he said, to its effective glory days, when it played significant roles in issues such as the civil rights movement.
Under his leadership, the council rewrote its bylaws, shrinking and streamlining the board; established a strong government relations operation that not only advocated policy, but also brought millions in funding to the community; created and cemented relationships with Baltimore’s other ethnic and religious communities; established the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel; and worked closely with the Holocaust survivor community on a number of initiatives. The list goes on.
“I was brought in as someone who has taken difficult situations, problematic situations and made them better. I had developed a wonderful relationship with Darrell Friedman [former president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore]. … We had three years to change things around,” Abramson, 67, recalled. “I think we did. After five to 10 years we made it the best in the country for its size, far and away.”
After almost 26 years as executive director, he stepped down from the position on May 13. But he’s not about to enter retirement; a new job that he has yet to reveal is on the horizon.
Abramson will be honored at the Baltimore Jewish Council’s annual meeting on Wednesday, June 8 at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion.
From East to West, and Back East
Art Abramson grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his family lived until he was 9.
“[It] was great because everybody was together there. There were African-Americans and Italians and Irish,” he said. “Everybody got along, and we all learned about each other, which I think was the best setting I could have had for a job like this one. You learn to live together, accept each other.”
His family moved to Queens when he was 9. He would later attend Queens College and major in political science. He spent his junior year in Israel, living with Arabs in East Jerusalem outside the Damascus Gate. That’s where he fell in love with Israel and Middle Eastern culture, and it pushed his academic interests in that direction.
He went to UCLA for his master’s and Ph.D., where a mentor got him interested in foreign policy and decision-making. He wrote his dissertation on the administration of foreign policy toward the Middle East during the Truman administration. He also taught at several universities in the Los Angeles area.
While in L.A., he also started working at the American Jewish Committee. After earning his Ph.D., he went to Seattle to work as the Washington state director of the American Jewish Committee. The AJC chapter there was in danger of closing, but under Abramson it thrived.
From there, it was off to Houston, where he and his wife, Debra, had their daughter, Jill, and met some of their best friends. Abramson worked as the community relations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, where he stabilized and expanded the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship Foundation. The program, which was named after the late congressman who started the program after an inspirational trip to Israel, has sent high school juniors to live on a kibbutz for a month since 1980. It would later serve as the model for the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel.
After seven years in Houston, Abramson came to Baltimore to take the helm of the BJC.
Abramson arrived in Baltimore with a reputation.
He was known nationally and impressed the BJC search committee with his knowledge of community issues and his ability to build consensus, said Sandy Teplitzky, a member of the search committee who served as president from 1992 to 1994.
“He essentially got people to vote themselves off the board,” Teplitzky said, referring to the changing of the bylaws that shrunk the then-189-member board. The board is now around 60 people. Over time, the BJC would add a young leadership program and establish a committee structure to allow more members of the Jewish community to be involved with the council.
Abramson’s consensus-building skills helped him and the BJC immensely.
“Art had to walk the lines between the various agendas in the Jewish community, and I think he was able to do that fairly well,” Teplitzky said.
To keep things moving in the right direction, Abramson brought in a new director of government relations, Shelly Hettleman. Now a state delegate, Hettleman had been working at U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s office. With Hettleman on the team, the BJC sharpened its focus in its legislative work in Annapolis.
“If you develop these relationships with decision-makers, with legislators and you really develop those relationships and you were working on policy issues, why can’t you also increase the level of funding that was coming into the community?” Abramson asked. “Darrell [Friedman] provided staff and dollars that allowed us to do that, and we did.”
Abramson and the BJC developed relationships with local and federal legislators, worked with each governor and always met with the governor, speaker of the house and Senate president before each General Assembly session to lay out the BJC’s priorities.
Former associated director of the BJC Lynn Katzen said Abramson is the “king” of building relationships. “Whatever it was, he built all those connections in the community,” she said.
Cailey Locklair Tolle, former deputy executive director at the council, said “there’s nobody like him.”
“Everyone who meets him instantly knows he’s special and that’s what I think made him so good,” she said. “It wasn’t just his intelligence and the amount of information he knew about the Middle East and Israel and the Jewish community. It was how he presented and told that story.”
The key to these legislative relationships, Abramson said, was to never be partisan.
In recent years, the BJC has secured funding for community health care initiatives, domestic violence and elder abuse programs, the Maryland/Israel Development Center and Holocaust survivors. A large majority of buildings in The Associated system received funding, Abramson said.
“We were, as the recognized political arm of the community, able to do magnificent things for the community,” he said. “I think this all came to a head when 9/11 happened, and in the years after in terms of protecting the community, we did it. I had always been, in Houston for seven years, the guy who was responsible for bringing resources together through the law enforcement community to make sure we were all safe.”
Through the relationships Abramson and the BJC cultivated, Jewish institutions in Baltimore City had a security presence within 30 to 40 minutes after 9/11 and within an hour to an hour and 15 minutes in Baltimore County, Abramson said.
Through working with Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who was close with the Department of Homeland Security’s first director, Tom Ridge, the BJC was able to secure homeland security funding for Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“There is not an institution in this community … that has not received those homeland security dollars,” Abramson said. “And this is one thing the council produced.”
And it wasn’t just the Jewish community, Abramson also helped other parts of the community, like when he helped secure $20,000 in homeland security funds so the Islamic Society of Baltimore could build a fence.
While the council had already been engaging in this type of work, interfaith and interethnic relations flourished under Abramson. The council developed a good relationship with the Palestinian Authority, which allowed the council to take then-Gov. Martin O’Malley to Jordan and Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leadership the last time the BJC took him to Israel.
“It works because they better understand us and we better understand them, and this is in order to reduce the fear,” Abramson said. “Because when you’ve got fear, you don’t have anything productive going on.”
The BJC also held and continues to hold programs and dialogue events with the Baltimore Muslim community.
“Muslims and Jews, it was groundbreaking stuff and it was really taking place [with] interfaith dialogues,” said Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. “Baltimore was really on the cutting edge. Nowhere in the country was this happening at that level.”
El-Amin said Abramson brought a rational perspective to the table, and efforts have resulted in long-term institutional and interpersonal relationships between the two communities.
“The Muslim community and Jewish community are very similar in that you have folks who still want to stay in the confines of the Muslim community and want to stay in the confines of the Jewish community and I think Art was able to bring a lot of those folks together,” he said. “Art has been able to present a picture of Islam, not a fractured picture, but a positive picture, to the Jewish community of Muslims.”
Another effort particularly close to Abramson’s heart is the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, a two-year leadership fellowship for Baltimore high school students that was modeled off the Mickey Leland program in Houston.
Abramson said the program, the fellows from which have been mostly African-American, now has a CNN anchor, members of the military and a multimillionaire among its graduates.
“It’s an incredible program,” Abramson said. “It’s one that I will consistently watch over because I have a responsibility to Mickey’s legacy and to the program.”
Rep. Cummings is also well aware of the program’s — and Abramson’s — power.
“My admiration of Art Abramson has grown every year that I have known him because of his continued commitment to social justice and his desire to make our city, and our world, a better place,” Cummings said in a written statement. “As the leader of the Baltimore Jewish Council for nearly  years, Art has been a bridge builder between people of different backgrounds in Baltimore. I will never be able to thank him enough for his help in building the Elijah Cummings Youth Program into an elite organization that truly changes the lives of young people. His commitment to building understanding between different communities has had a tremendous impact on Baltimore, and I know that his legacy will impact generations yet unborn.”
Abramson is the first to say he couldn’t have done it all if he didn’t surround himself with the right people.
“He realizes potential immediately in people. It doesn’t matter age or gender or what kind of religion you come from, he sees through all that; I think that’s why the council was so successful for so long,” said Tolle. “He pushed me to do things I didn’t know I was capable of doing. He supports staff and the people around him like nobody else I’ve met.”
Katzen echoed Tolle’s sentiments.
“He didn’t look [at], did you have a Ph.D., did you have this, did you have that. It was, ‘Can I teach this person something? Can they learn, and will they be an asset to the community?’” Katzen said. “He had a knack for recognizing that.”
Abramson’s successor, Howard Libit, said Abramson has set the bar very high.
“He has repeatedly delivered critical resources back to the community,” Libit said. “I’m very lucky to be in a position to look to continue to build on his successes and legacy of accomplishments.” JT
To RSVP or for more information on the Baltimore Jewish Council’s annual meeting honoring Arthur Abramson, contact Phyllis Gwynn at 410-542-4850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.