Clinton to address Baltimore group that builds ties between black, Jewish communities

When Jaina Maultsby traveled to Israel nearly a decade ago, it was the first time she had ever left the country, stepped on an airplane or been forced to live with people from vastly different backgrounds.

Then a student at Western High School, Maultsby broke out of the cliquish confines of school to stay with Russian refugees and share meals with students from Ethiopia 6,000 miles from home.

The experience with the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, which accepts a dozen Baltimore students each year for a course in leadership and multiculturalism, still has meaning for her today.

"It helps create an understanding that I think sometimes we lack when it comes to being able to collaborate with others who don't exactly look like you," said Maultsby, now 26 and working at the Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price Group. "Even though there sometimes would be a language barrier, there was still a sense of connection."

The program created nearly two decades ago by Cummings, the longtime Democratic congressman from Baltimore, will receive national attention Monday when former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a fundraiser for the group in Fells Point.

For Clinton, the event is the latest stop in what has become something of a public reemergence after losing the election to President Donald J. Trump last fall.

In a fiery commencement address at Wellesley College last month, Clinton compared Trump's presidency to that of Richard Nixon's, telling the audience they were graduating at a time when there is a "full-fledged assault on truth and reason."

With her first public appearance in Baltimore since the Democratic primary last year, Clinton returns to a city and state that overwhelmingly supported her candidacy. Eighty-six percent of Baltimore voters backed her over Trump, and organizers said the sold-out fundraiser will raise some $200,000.

Clinton will address a group founded to build ties between the African-American and Jewish communities at a time when both have had a complicated relationship with Trump. Some groups called on the president this year to speak out more forcefully against anti-Semitism, which he did in February. Others, including Cummings, have questioned the way the president sometimes frames communities of color in terms of crime.

Trump has been embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a chillier relationship with President Barack Obama. During his first overseas trip last month, Trump touted a "new level of partnership" while meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Given the group's mission, it is unclear just how political Clinton's speech will be. A spokesman for Clinton declined to discuss how and why she chose to speak at the group's event.

The chairman of the Maryland Republican Party also declined to comment on Clinton's visit.

The Youth Program was conceived in 1998 by Art Abramson, then the director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. Abramson modeled it after a similar program in Houston sponsored by the late Democratic Rep. Mickey Leland, an African American.

Howard Libit, the current executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the program is intended to create "meaningful, lasting relationships between our African-American and Jewish communities" and that "the flourishing alumni of the program are proof of that."

The students in the Cummings program, most of whom are African-American, learn about Israel during their junior year in high school. They take part in leadership training and community service events.

In the summer before their senior year, they travel to Israel for a month, and visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities. Graduates of the program include a CNN anchor, a travel writer in Moscow, a pilot in West Africa and business and nonprofit leaders around the world.

Kathleen St. Villier directs the program.

"Historically, both communities have lived side by side and have faced a common enemy of discrimination, and have worked together to overcome inequalities," she said. "With that lens it's important to continue with our young people to ensure that we don't live side by side without any interaction."

Cinneah El-Amin, who took part in the program from 2010 to 2012 as a student at Friends School, agreed. She said she gained a greater appreciation for the struggles faced by the Jewish community, and felt her counterparts built friendships with African-American teenagers that defied stereotypes.

That's "really important when you think about how segregated some of the communities in Baltimore City are," said El-Amin, 22, who graduated from Wake Forest University this year with a masters degree in business management. "It's really an opportunity for individuals on both sides of that divide, if you could call it that, to just have a better appreciate for the other community"

While in Israel, the students live at the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Haifa, which offers education and care for at-risk youth from around the world, and has built a high level of devotion from its alumni.

"It's about creating connections between cultures, between religions," said Barbara Sherbill, a spokeswoman with Friends of Yemin Orde, a Bethesda-based group that raises money for the village. "These students are the next generation of leaders both of the United States and Israel."

Cummings, who was elected to Congress in 1996, lends more than his name to the program. He meets with those who participate, and donates honoraria he receives for speeches to the group. It's not yet clear whether the congressman will attend the event Monday. He recently underwent what aides described as minimally invasive heart surgery.

Tax records show that the group raised more than $265,000 in 2014 and had more than $2 million in assets.

"Through this experience, our fellows — who come from diverse backgrounds — learn from one another about tolerance and gain appreciation of different cultures," Cummings said in a statement. "This cross-cultural immersion helps to foster lifelong bonds and create fertile ground for peace."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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