When Victor Blackwell traveled to Israel in 1998, he became the first person in his family to travel outside the United States and experience a different culture.
Perhaps best known for his role as co-anchor of CNN’s “New Day Weekend,” Blackwell still gets choked up when he remembers that nearly 6,000-mile journey, one that proved to be life changing.
And it was all made possible through the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP), which accepts a dozen Baltimore students each year for a course in leadership development, Israel education and community service.
“If you allow yourself to get into a space where your heart is open, it will do exactly what it is supposed to do,” Blackwell said. “[The program] made me a better man, made me a better journalist, and it gave me some of the most formative experiences and longest friendships of my life,” Blackwell said.
The program started in 1998 through U.S. Rep. Cummings, an 11-term Democratic congressman from Baltimore, and the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) was celebrated on Monday when former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton headlined its fundraising event in Fells Point.
For Clinton, who received a hero’s welcome from an enthusiastic sold-out crowd of more than 200 at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, the event marked her first trip to Baltimore since last year.
Much of Clinton’s nearly 15-minute speech centered on furthering the group’s mission of building strong ties between the African-American and Jewish communities.
Throughout her address, Clinton tied that to the themes of multiculturalism and globalism, urging the students to accept people from different backgrounds, faiths and nations rather than rebuffing them for any differences.
“It has never been more important for young Americans to see themselves as part of a global community,” Clinton said. “[ECYP’s] mission of spreading tolerance is more urgent than ever.”
Cummings, who underwent minimally invasive heart surgery on May 24 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was not in attendance. Nonetheless, he introduced Clinton, the former New York senator and first lady, from his hospital room in a heartfelt recorded video message.
“I had to get a tune-up,” Cummings said, which drew laughter from the crowd. “Feeling good. And a lot of the good feeling that I have is because of all the support I’ve gotten.”
In the beginning of her speech, Clinton said the world could learn a lot from the firm leadership she felt was demonstrated after the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. She praised London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who President Donald Trump called out on Twitter after the attack on Saturday that killed seven and left 48 injured.
“We are not living in normal times,” Clinton said. “It’s a time for steady, determined leadership. This is not a time to lash out, to incite fear or to use tragedy and terror for political gain.”
While Clinton never mentioned Trump by name, she took a number of indirect jabs at the man who pulled off a stunning and decisive victory against her in the 2016 presidential election.
Speaking in heavily Democratic Maryland — where Clinton captured 60.3 percent of the vote during the general election — she stressed the crowd to “reach out to the world and understand what is happening,” appearing to take aim at Trump’s policies.
Last week, Trump drew backlash after announcing he would withdraw the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, an ambitious pact signed by 195 nations in December 2015 to limit carbon emissions.
“There’s never been a better moment to challenge that spirit of unity, to embrace the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which says that repairing the world is the responsibility of each and every one of us,” Clinton said. “… There are so many ways for us to reach out and bring people together, set some common goals and work toward achieving them. And, yes, we’re building leaders by building bridges, not walls.”
After hearing Blackwell, Clinton, former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, state Del. Brooke Lierman (D-District 46) and ECYP alumna Maya James speak, many in the crowd came away with a sense of hope and optimism.
Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, said it is clear Clinton “understands and appreciates” the purpose of the program.
Mark Edelson, who sits on the boards of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the BJC, said he felt Clinton offered a resilient message through her choice of words.
“It’s a shame she isn’t president,” Edelson said. “I think we really saw how she can bring people together for such an important cause at such a distressing time in our country.”
Richard Fredricks, one of the sponsors for the event, said he felt very “refreshed” and “uplifted” from what Cummings had to say in his video message.
“When [Cummings] says this program is what he’s most proud of, considering everything he has done in his life, that says all you need to know,” Fredricks said. “I’m just a practical man, and for me, how he described this program, how can you not be in high spirits? These are our future leaders.”