These are trying times for Baltimore’s active and growing Jewish community. Many feel the effects of the current war: they know reservists in Israel who have been activated; they have friends and family huddling in bomb shelters day and night. Antisemitism has been on the rise for years, and is now more prevalent than ever. Baltimore’s Jews grapple with how to show care for the Palestinian people while defending the state of Israel against historic threats.
The Baltimore Jewish Council is at the forefront of these conversations, as an organization that fosters cooperation and understanding and seeks to build relationships and understanding with ethnic, racial and religious groups across the state. Howard Libit has been the executive director of the Council since 2016, and has led the organization as it has advocated for such issues as Holocaust education in schools and vouchers for Orthodox day schools.
He spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl about the crisis between Israel and Hamas and how his organization is navigating the current crisis. Prior to joining the council, Libit, 51, held a top public affairs position in Baltimore City Hall for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, and before that was a reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun, rising from education reporter and becoming the top metro editor. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You and I talked about doing a Big Fish interview weeks, if not months ago, and a lot has changed. The Jewish world has changed in the aftermath of October 7. How have you and the people you represent been affected and are dealing with what is going on right now?
Howard Libit: Yeah, the world turned upside down on October 7. The unimaginable happened in terms of the Hamas invasion of Israel, and our community here in Baltimore has so many deep ties to Israel. It was shocking. I’ve heard people describe it as similar to when we woke up here in this country on September 11. And you’re looking around, and you don’t know what to do. You don’t know what’s next. You don’t know what’s coming.
A lot of us felt that way those first couple of days, as you’re hearing these ongoing reports of running gun battles, through towns, kibbutzes near the border. And the impact has been phenomenal. Everybody knows people in Israel, it seems. And even if you don’t individually know someone who was killed, or is missing, you know someone who knows someone — someone there who has kids, or parents who have been called up to be mobilized. You think about 360,000 reservists, that will be like the United States calling up over 11 million people to serve in our military, percentage wise.
I share on a personal level, my kids have gone to Jewish overnight camp for a number of years. And there are some Israeli counselors every summer. These are usually counselors who have just completed their military service. And my kids have kept up with them a bit on social media over the years. And since the attack, they’ve seen virtually all their counselors report being called up and activated for whatever units they were in…. And then there have also been Israeli campers who come over each summer for their camp. And those campers are sharing on social media, another night in a bomb shelter…It is impacting Jewish families here, and that’s why we’re rapidly raising money and trying to educate the community and doing programs and more.
BFB: Let me talk about that with you. What is the role of the Jewish Council right now? What do you see your organization’s role in the coming weeks and months as Israel says this is going to be a lengthy ground offensive. What are your objectives?
HL: So, you know, speaking up in support of Israel, helping to explain and educate and in a reasonable way. Yes, I’m a big Israel supporter, but I also care a lot about the Palestinians who are dying as a result of Hamas. So it’s everything from speaking to the media, to offering education programs to the community, both the Jewish and non-Jewish community, and being committed to explaining the history of the Israeli conflict. … A number of schools have contacted us realizing they aren’t necessarily equipped to talk about it both to their Jewish students and to their broader community. So we’re doing our best to educate, at an age-appropriate level.
And then there’s the advocacy. The support of our elected officials and our leaders who could set the tone for the community is so important. It was so gratifying the first few days that all of our members of Congress issued statements or social media posts of support, and continue to support and continue to show up. We’ve had a number of large public vigils or rallies that try and demonstrate the community support. I’m not trying to be confrontational. We know there are others who have different points of view, and as long as people are respectful, that’s fine. When it veers into antisemitism — and we’ve seen a spike in antisemitic statements and a spike antisemitic acts and social media postings — we’re trying to combat that as best we can.
I spend a lot of my time working on security issues too. There are huge concerns with a lot of threats on social media…police, locally, state level, federal have all been so supportive…. Our college campuses have been a difficult place. There have been incidents on our campuses, to be sure, but I will say for the most part, it has been largely respectful. Yes, there is a maybe a pro-Palestinian march. But we strongly encourage the Jewish students to stay away, don’t engage. And the same thing when we have a pro-Israel vigil, a rally people who oppose it have generally kept their distance. Free speech is important too. And we try to remind people of that: respectful free speech, not antisemitic, not anti Muslim.
BFB: Is it in any way the role of the Jewish Council and your members to have any kind of dialogue with those who are very pro-Palestinian or those who really strongly believe this is an apartheid state, or the Palestinians are subjugated people? Is that part of the mission?
HL: We have had a number of Muslim partners over the years, and there are times where we’re going to have different points of view about Israel and the Palestinian conflict. And I hope we can get to that point. I have not heard from many of our Muslim partners since this happened. It felt weird for me initially to want to reach out to them and ask them to be sympathetic to us. When the mosque was attacked in New Zealand [in March 2019], I reached out to Muslim partners and I showed up at their vigils and their events to express our sympathy. The same hasn’t really happened here. I’m hopeful we can get to that point. But I will also say that there have been some Muslim leaders in the community who have on social media said despicable antisemitic things. I don’t know how you repair that relationship. I don’t know how you can ask someone who says antisemitic things on social media to then serve on something like an attorney general’s Hate Crimes Task Force. It seems antithetical to me. And those are things we’re going to have to address as we move forward.
BFB: I think unfortunately antisemitism had been on the rise, even prior to this. I mean, from 2016 on.
HL: Yes, the antisemitism is not a new phenomenon. In 2018, we put together a Baltimore Jewish Community Task Force. We launched after having a summit on antisemitism, as it was rising. We never thought we solved it, but it seemed to have fallen into the background. It started surging again, and we came up with a strategy and we’ve been implementing a lot of it, focusing on things like the areas of education, advocacy, allyship and tracking numbers. But in the last month since October 7, it’s like it’s being on steroids: the campus climate, the number of things that are being seen on social media, people feeling afraid. And we see that across the area. So it’s become even a greater priority, speaking about how we can help and how we can educate.
BFB: Since October 7, what are the best ways that the Jewish community is helping Israel and people they know in Israel.
HL: The Jewish Federations in North America — the kind of the broad Jewish community in North America — has launched a campaign with a $500 million target initially…Here in Baltimore, we are raising money as an emergency campaign for humanitarian supplies, and in particular, for Baltimore’s sister city, Ashkelon, which is about seven miles from the Gaza border. We’ve all traveled there multiple times, and we have a close relationship. And they’re close enough where, you know, it’s like 60 seconds to get in the bomb shelter when the siren goes off. Our Ashkelon coordinator lives there. In 2021, in one of the previous Gaza rocket exchanges, her house was hit by a rocket and destroyed. She was actually in town, she and her daughter were in town, and we were sharing stories and marking the 20-year anniversary of the launching of that Baltimore High School in partnership. It wasn’t the celebration it was intended, but more a show of solidarity. Her daughter brought me to tears the other night, as she was describing friends who are missing. She’s got friends who were killed, she’s got friends who have gone to the front line, she sleeps every night in the bomb shelter. I mean, it’s a really difficult situation.
There are people from our community, Israelis or people who have served as lDF soldiers who have gone back and signed back up and are part of the reserve army that’s been called up. And others — given all the reservists who have been called up, other people need to fill in to cover some of the jobs they were doing. You know, if the the 24-year-old whose job was stocking the grocery shelves is now on the front line, a 50-year-old could take some time off of work here and go there and take on that job to make sure the grocery store can still function. It’s really an all hands on deck…. I wear a blue ribbon on my shirt to remember the hostages, and this week, here in the community we did a Taylor Swift-type thing with little bracelets, each one for a different hostage. And then we’re doing an empty-table Shabbat, which out in front of the lawn of one of the synagogues — a shabbat table for 240 with the hostage’s photo attached to each chair…. And in addition to the regular chairs, unfortunately, they’re on the high chairs and the booster seats for the babies and children who are being held hostage.
BFB: And when you do that, I would imagine based on the world we live in, you’re going to have to notify the police department, in the city or county.
HL: Every synagogue in our community now has security whenever they have Shabbat services, or during many other times. All of our buildings do. Armed security has become one of the costs of doing business in the Jewish community. And it’s not just in the last month. It’s been for a long time. But you know, it is stepped up and a number of synagogues and other institutions including ours have added some additional guards, given the heightened concerns and tensions that are happening now.
BFB: And you must think it could be months if not years before you and people in the Baltimore Jewish community can safely return to Israel?
HL: There are going to be leadership missions going to Israel. We are not staying away. We’re going to show our support. There will be trips to Israel coming soon. My daughter is supposed to spend a month next summer in Israel. This is the year, where between sophomore and junior year, the kids spent a month in Israel instead of going to summer camp. Do I think she’s going? I don’t know the answer to that yet. Are we going to be able to send the students from the Elijah Cummings youth program to Israel this summer for the month they spent there between their junior and senior year of high school? Previously, I think it was 2016 or 2017, we paused for a year due to safety. And then we sent two cohorts the following year. So that’s hopefully possible. I mean, also, obviously, during the pandemic, we paused for a couple of years, and then sent a couple of cohorts this past summer or two summers ago.
BFB: Let’s transition to talking about the Baltimore Jewish community a little bit more broadly. It seems to be very large and very diverse, and maybe one of the more vibrant Jewish communities in the East Coast or in the nation. How do you view the Baltimore Jewish community or what’s its sort of reputation nationally?
HL: The Baltimore Jewish community has a couple of hallmarks I think, when you talk to peers across the country. Number one, it is among the more diverse Jewish communities in the sense of diverse levels of religious observance. We are basically, ballpark, one-third Orthodox, one-third Conservative and one-third Reform. And then I jokingly say, and like one-third Jewish but not so religious that they are going to get involved. I know, that’s four thirds. But we have a very strong and thriving orthodox population, but the other thing that really makes Baltimore unique is we all sit at the same table, and we all work together. In many other communities, the Orthodox Jewish population is not really part of the mainstream Federation system. They may operate separately, and they’re not really part of it. Here, the Orthodox community is a wonderful part of our leadership and part of what we do. My current board president is Orthodox; the chair of the board of the Associated is Orthodox. We are very respectful of all levels of people’s observance.
BFB: Why is that? How did it evolve that way, do you think?
HL: I think the growth of the Orthodox community really helped fuel it. And the leadership in Baltimore at the time embraced it, rather than walling it off. And embrace some of the issues they embraced, figuring out ways to help support the day schools that are so important to the Orthodox Jewish community and to bring them on board and to be worried about their issues. And I think that really worked out. I think it was a smart decision.
BFB: Does that not affect someone like you and your position? I believe policy positions of that one-third that are Orthodox would tend to take you a little bit more to the right, maybe a little more conservative.
HL: That’s a fair statement. There are times when we try and represent consensus views of the Jewish community. And there are times consensus doesn’t mean unanimous…. I don’t try to take a position when I think the community is 51-49. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I know our support for vouchers for private schools is not necessarily supported universally across the Jewish community. But I think enough people who have are strong believers in public schools have also come to understand that, and we’ve worked hard to educate on this, that supporting the current relatively minor amount of money going to vouchers is critically important to a segment of our community that doesn’t have a lot of money and needs that support. Remember, these vouchers are only going to low-income families. And yes, there is poverty in the Jewish community too, and they need that help. It’s not going to wealthy Orthodox families. It’s going to families who meet those kinds of financial tests we all have.
Another example: same sex marriage. There are obviously some synagogues that are fully supportive of it and others that are not. When that debate came up here in Maryland, we simply stayed neutral. We stayed out, and let synagogues do what they want. Some put up large rainbow-colored support banners in front of their synagogue lawns. Fine, great. We just didn’t take a position on that.
BFB: Is there an analog? Is the Archdiocese of Baltimore sort of like the equivalent to the Baltimore Jewish Council? Is there an analogue to other faiths in your organization?
HL: You should look at the Associated and Catholic Charities as being somewhat comparable, although Catholic Charities has more hands-on things they’re doing. I mean, the Archdiocese is more the religious structure. We do some lobbying work. So that falls under the Catholic Conference, maybe. But that’s not a great analogy in terms of what we do.
The Baltimore Jewish Council is kind of an outlier, even within other Jewish communities. Most Jewish communities have what’s called the Jewish Community Relations Council, and many, many places it’s a one-man show. They’re not an independent agency. I’m an independent 501-c3, largely supported by the Associated. But I have a team of 10. We have worked together and are able to handle things like Holocaust education and commemoration and leading the fight on antisemitism and Israel education and advocacy. Three of us are registered lobbyists in Annapolis. It’s really important and gratifying work that we’re able to do that I think we’re all proud of.
BFB: You’ve been there seven and a half years. What does, for you, professionally, success look like?
HL: If success meant that antisemitic incidents was going down, I’d be a giant failure I guess. I think our advocacy has been really successful, particularly in terms of it as we face this surge of antisemitism, persuading the state to create programs to provide security grants for faith institutions, and schools that are at risk of hate crimes. I look at things like that, things like helping to bring resources to our agencies helping vulnerable citizens. I look at our advocacy work in terms of building interfaith relationships, and building deeper ties across different communities and also building deeper ties within the Jewish community, across our different Jewish communities.
And are we successfully educating on Israel? Are we successful and helping to make sure we commemorate the Holocaust and that we educate about it. We spent a lot of time trying to get the state to do more related to Holocaust education and antisemitism education with some some success. We’ve gotten the state school board to update the curriculum standards. Next up, we got to figure out how to better train the teachers to implement those standards … And I love the work we do with our Elijah Cummings youth program in Israel. For 25 years now, we have built an amazing cohort of young people who go to school, who live in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, largely students of color, who have successfully done leadership training, service training, spent time in Israel, and built deeper relationships between Baltimore’s black and Jewish communities.