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U.S. Congressman Kweisi Mfume Comes to YU

by Alexander Friedman ’22YC

U.S. Congressman Kweisi Mfume

On Tuesday, February 23, 2021, the J. Dunner Political Science Society, in partnership with Yeshiva University Political Awareness Club and the Yeshiva University College Democrats, hosted U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume for an event celebrating Black history month and honoring the important relationship between the Black and Jewish communities.

Rep. Mfume, who represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District (which includes Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County) and is the former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has built strong ties with the Jewish Community both in Baltimore and around the country.

In the event's opening remarks, Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, noted the upcoming holiday of Purim and its story of redemption. “Just like the subjects of the Purim story, we, too, have to ask what role all of us will play in the great story of redemption and ensuring that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Just as Yeshiva University molds its students to become the leaders of tomorrow who will work to impact their world, Congressman Mfume is one of those people who has shown his commitment to creating a better world.”

Rep. Mfume began by recognizing the great work of Yeshiva University and praising the students' interest in politics and public service. He then went on to emphasize his core belief that “racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are wrong [and] rob us of our ability to make true, lasting change.” He spoke to the distrust, animosity, and lack of communication that have plagued American politics in recent years and his hope for a future of compromise and bipartisanship. He detailed a program he created back in 1987 with then-U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (who now serves as the U.S. Senator from Maryland) called Operation Understanding. The program brought together groups of Jewish and African American teens in the Baltimore area who would learn about each other’s histories and culture, culminating in a trip to Israel and West Africa to expose the young people to other historical cultures. A version of the program still continues to this day under what is now the Elijah Cummings Youth Program.

In his concluding comments, Rep. Mfume harkened back to his childhood in Baltimore where he grew up in poverty but worked his way up by attending Morgan State University, obtaining a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, and then winning elections to the Baltimore City Council and Congress. He recounted the story that when he was a teenager, he had a Jewish neighbor who offered him a job working in a grocery store. While working there, Rep. Mfume encountered a man with a long tattoo of numbers on his arm. When he asked the man about it, the man broke down in tears and told him that he was a survivor of Auschwitz and that his family had all been killed in the war. This was the first time that the young man had ever heard about the Holocaust, and this story never left him. Years later, when Rep. Mfume was first elected to Congress, he took a trip to Auschwitz, which he called “one of the singular emotionally challenging and changing moments of my life.”

Dr. Berman closed by thanking the congressman for sharing that powerful story and reiterating that “it is only by sharing each other’s stories that we have an opportunity to not just understand each other but understand our shared and common values.”