Elected officials from city, state and federal government joined local social justice advocates and community members at the Lloyd Street Synagogue on April 14, for a vigil and discussion about genocide awareness and identity-based violence.
Each year the vigil is held by Together We Remember (TWR), a nonprofit based in Baltimore that aims to recognize each April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month in communities across the world. TWR founder David Estrin, the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, started facilitating the vigils in 2012 while he was still a student at Duke University.
Attendees trickled into the synagogue while volunteers read the names of victims from mass murders throughout history including the Holocaust, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, ongoing violence in Baltimore city, the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha shooting, the genocide in Darfur and more.
Though this year’s vigil had many Jewish elements, including addresses by Jewish politicians and a panel discussion moderated by Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) executive director Howard Libit, it did not focus heavily on the Holocaust, but rather emphasized intentional actions to prevent current and future genocides.
“What do we mean when we say, ‘never again’?” Estrin said. “How can we take collective action to make it a reality? That answer is very different in Baltimore than it is in East Congo.”
Local author Kondwani Fidel, backed by a four-piece jazz quartet, performed several poems about violence in predominantly black Baltimore neighborhoods and the lack of help the community receives.
“We do unsafe things every day. We do the one thing our parents told us not to do. We download this app to our phone, we have strangers come to our homes and we have them take us to sacred spaces like our job,” Fidel said, referring to ride sharing apps. “What did our parents tell us when we were young? Don’t get in the car with who?”
“Strangers,” replied the audience. Fidel left the audience with a rhetorical question.
“So you have to ask yourself,” he said. “‘Are you afraid of the unsafe, or are you afraid of black people?’”
Fidel also moderated a panel with Baltimore City Police Maj. Monique Brown and Alex Long, a member of Safe Streets, a Baltimore-based nonprofit committed to ending gun violence.
“We have some communities that are constantly having violence-type issues, but the other part of it is some communities were designed to fail,” Brown said. “Too many liquor stores. Why do we need four in one block?”
After applause from the audience, Brown said that remembering to love and believe in the children in such communities is crucial for their future.
Jewish Museum of Maryland director Marvin Pinkert said TWR’s theme of turning genocide remembrance into action is one he and the museum also embrace.
“We can’t take action to undo what happened in the Holocaust, but we can take action to make our city and our nation better places,” Pinkert said. “If we’re going to do more than just mourn the past, and actually stand up for the future, our option is to deal with the environment around us today and not just what was happening in the 1940s.”
Substantial action was taken during the vigil as Baltimore City Councilmen Robert Stokes Sr., Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Zeke Cohen — respectively representing districts 12, 5 and 1 — introduced a resolution declaring April as Genocide Awareness Month in Baltimore City, alongside Ex-Officio Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young.
To close the event U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin spoke about the many challenges the U.S. and democracies around the world face today including white nationalism, anti-Semitism and threats from “major world actors,” such as Russia and China.
“There was a conference in Copenhagen last summer that for the 13th consecutive summer democratic states have been on the decline,” Cardin said, adding that those responsible for humanitarian crises and genocides must be held accountable for their actions.
“If any one of us is not safe, we all are not safe,” Cardin said. “We need to work together if never again is to mean never again.”
After the event, Estrin was bound for Florida where he was scheduled to speak to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 14 students and three adults were the victims in a 2018 mass shooting, the following morning. He was proud, he said that this year’s vigil “had folks from all different walks of life, all different parts of Baltimore coming together.” As the crowd made their way to the Jewish Museum for a reception, Estrin shared his hope for future vigils, envisioning the Lloyd Street Synagogue filled to capacity.
“It still wasn’t 100 percent full, but that means we have room to grow,” Estrin said. “I feel pretty confident that given who showed up that we’ll be able to get there next year. This was a huge success for us.”