Before the Closing of the Gates

The High Holy Day season offers several potent images and metaphors. The shofar, the ram, apples and honey, white clothing and Torah finery all feature prominently. Another compelling image is that of gates, specifically the gates of heaven through which our sincere and heartfelt prayers may pass.

The entire concluding service of Yom Kippur is called Ne’ilah, the title derived from the urgency of the closing gates. An 11th century piyyut (liturgical poem) introduces a powerful moment in the service when the congregation rises and the Holy Ark remains open for a good 40 minutes: “As we pour out our souls, wipe away our sins and denials, craft forgiveness for us, b’sha’at haneilah (at this hour of the closing gates).

Numerous stories and traditions contextualize and problematize this moment. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a “dull-witted” boy who, without the ability to participate in the Hebrew prayers, plays a loud blast on his flute. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidut, upon hearing the boy’s musical note, says: “With the sound of this flute the child lifted up all the prayers and eased my burden…. Because of the strength of his longing he played the note of his heart truly, without any distraction, for the sole sake of the Name of God. 

Menachem Katz of the Friedberg Manuscripts Project in Jerusalem points out the flute isn’t simply an ostensibly lesser version of the holy words, but a violation of the holy day since musical instruments are traditionally not permitted in shul on yuntif. The story is all the more powerful because it recalls a Talmudic tradition that the flute was in fact, in ancient times, played in liturgical contexts on Shabbat and festivals. “…Human beings have a basic need to communicate with God,” writes Katz. This may be accomplished through various modes, including a musical instrument or a child’s inchoate cry. From the perspective of the Hassidic tale, this elementary spiritual need should neither be ignored nor hindered, even on the Sabbath [or Yom Kippur].”

Last summer in this column, I referenced a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma 7b) in which the Rabbis discuss the question of gated communities. Cities were traditionally built with walls and gates, including of course the holy city of Jerusalem. In the 19th century, residents of Misheknot Sh’ananim, commissioned by Sr. Moses Montefiore as the first Jewish neighborhood outside the city walls, would return to the Old City before sunset when the gates would be secured. And ancient exurban communities or neighborhoods, like modern ones, sometimes sported walls or fences with gates. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud sought to strike a balance between legitimate security needs and the equally legitimate need to foster open and inclusive societies. (Their discussion is not wholly dissimilar to the one many Jewish institutions are currently having after a year of domestic and international terror directed at synagogues and other minority religious institutions). The Rabbis seem to feel it’s possible to have a gatehouse designed so that real security threats are deterred but the needy poor (and presumably welcome guests) are given access. Interestingly, this does not seem to be accomplished only by use of a guard which is impractical in many circumstances. Rather, the Talmud implies that there is a method of entry known to beggars but not to brigands. 

Questions of justice are almost always related to questions of access. Who comes in? Who is kept out? What is the cost of having gates and gatekeepers? Can our boundaries and communal behaviors be designed to prevent bad actors but welcome strangers and guests as Abraham and Sarah did to their tent – arguably the very first beit k’nesset. The answers are not simple. But the story of the boy flute-player on Yom Kippur reminds us that communal prayers can be answered not only by paying attention to conventional wisdom but also by listening to our hearts.

A version of this post can be found here and in the Sept/Oct print edition of Jmore.

Underpinnings of Justice

One of the things they don’t train you for in rabbinical school is building construction. But as Beth Am’s major renovations have progressed, I’ve come to learn much about the process. I’ve also discovered terminology that derives from engineering/architecture/construction that’s also used in rabbinic or academic circles. For example, did you know that the term “underpinning,” which I understand to mean foundational ideas or texts, means injecting concrete or other support into the foundation of an existing structure to reinforce its stability?

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Underpinnings in Construction

In many ways, my rabbinate reflects a desire to reinforce strong foundations. I strive to teach Torah with depth, providing the textual underpinnings for meaningful work in the world. And our synagogue building’s presence on Eutaw Place for nearly a century begs a question of underpinnings too: how does our community with its deep Jewish roots interact with another community, the African American community, who also have deep roots in the same neighborhood?

I was speaking with an African American Christian colleague recently. He pastors a legacy black church in West Baltimore, the same church where he grew up. For fun, on a Saturday afternoon when he was a child, he and his family would ride the bus westbound to its terminus: Gwynn Oak Park. The bus would circle the legendary amusement park and then return to West Baltimore. The colleague wasn’t allowed into the park but would gaze through the window at white children and families riding roller coasters, eating cotton candy.

Gwynn Oak Park was desegregated in 1963 after years of protests. On Aug 28, the same day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, 11-month-old Sharon Langley became the first African American child to ride the merry-go-round. It was a day of great triumph, when folks with dark skin could enjoy the same rides and carnival games as their fellow light-skinned Baltimoreans. In 2013, a few dozen of my congregants and I met up with church-goers at Metropolitan Methodist, from which protests in 1963 were launched and during which hundreds were arrested. We gathered on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation to view a documentary chronicling the events of that era.

These days, I find myself thinking of another, less celebratory, anniversary and one quickly approaching: the 50th anniversary of the closing of Gwynn Oak Park in 1973, a mere ten years later. ‘72’s Hurricane Agnes marked the final blow, but the park had been fading for some time. There were several factors, but one significant one was that many white families accustomed to frequenting the amusement park simply stopped coming. Just as white families often moved away (bringing their financial and social capital with them) from neighborhoods witnessing an influx of people of color. The carousel Sharon Langley rode now sits an hour away on the National Mall, but Gwynn Oak is just a sleepy suburban park.

Recently, our shul (worshiping during construction in a black Baptist church) hosted Kate Poole of Chordata Capital, a third generation Beth Am’er, to speak about her philanthropic work supporting black sovereignty in Reservoir Hill. She defines black sovereignty as “giving both resources (money, time, expertise) and power (the decision-making power over how those resources are spent).” It was a thoughtful and provocative talk, after which we joined neighbors at Dovecote Café for our neighborhood’s annual Juneteenth Celebration and Home and Garden Tour. It was a beautiful day on which we visited stunning gardens and stately homes, and enjoyed a jubilant community atmosphere celebrating the shared history of Reservoir Hill’s Black and Jewish history and culture.

How do we prevent all-too-common backlash to great social justice achievements? How do we prevent what happened with Gwynn Oak Park? By reinforcing the foundations of communities. We only enjoy the fruits of our social justice labor when roots run deep and underpinnings are secure.

It Seems Seams are Better than Borders

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New bridge over Northern Parkway (and a reminder of the “gap” between neighborhoods)

“I don’t go below Northern Parkway.” It’s a statement and/or sentiment I’ve heard numerous times from some Jewish residents of Baltimore County. Northern Parkway is what visionary author Jane Jacobs calls a “border vacuum,” a feature of the urban landscape that separates communities, often along racial and social-economic lines. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a border vacuum between affluent or upwardly mobile (largely white) gentrifiers as well as vibrant institutions like UMMC and poorer (mostly black) residents of West Baltimore. Another vacuum is York Road at Northway where, separating Guilford from nearby Wilson Park, there is quite literally a stone wall and, ironically (perhaps) due to traffic flow, two signs reading “DO NOT ENTER.” (Walk 0.3 miles from the tulips of Sherwood Gardens to Mid-Atlantic Muffler and Brake and you’ll see what I mean).

Still another powerful border vacuum is Falls Road. You may recall the scene in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, when a car full of teenagers drive from Northwest Baltimore to crash a party in Ruxton. As they cross Falls Road they call out “Get ready, folks, Jews are coming!” (Ruxton is the neighborhood through which the light rail runs but that famously prevented a station from being built there). Consider also the border vacuum which nearly got built (but didn’t), the highway along the inner harbor which would have precluded so much of Baltimore’s downtown development. In 2013, urban planner Marc Szarkowski wrote a comprehensive 10-part series on Baltimore and dissolving border vacuums if you want to learn more on the topic.

In Reservoir Hill, once Baltimore’s urban Jewish epicenter, we are nearly surrounded by border vacuums. There’s Druid Park Lake Drive to our north, transformed after WWII to a major thoroughfare dividing the neighborhood from the park. To the East we have the JFX, the I-83 corridor which exacerbated the geological barrier of the Jones Falls by adding asphalt and concrete. Finally, to our South we have North Avenue, once a vibrant commercial corridor that marked the city/county line. But (recently-demolished) Madison Park North, an ill-conceived “superblock” of mid-twentieth century urban planning, stymied pedestrian and car traffic on Bolton Street between Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill. The Spicer’s Run development returned the favor decades later by carving out a new superblock, adding brick walls and iron fencing to underscore the vacuum between the two neighborhoods.

All three border vacuums are being reconsidered in light of more enlightened trends in urban planning. The Big Jump experiment has temporarily stitched together Remington to the East with Reservoir Hill, North Ave. near Dorothy I. Height elementary school is slated for redevelopment, and the city council – with support from a new ordinance to encourage more bike and pedestrian traffic – is looking to expand Complete Streets to help graft our neighborhood back onto its expansive front yard: Druid Hill Park.

Northern Parkway may not be the geographical boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but it is surely a psychological border. It’s an imposing thoroughfare, nearly impossible to cross by foot in most places. I’ve contended in this column and elsewhere that Baltimore’s salvation lies in part in the softening of boundaries. One way to do this is to transform border vacuums into seams, points of connection instead of fissures. In her book the Death and Life of American Cities, Jacobs cites Kevin Lynch who says of seams: “An edge may be more than a barrier if some motion penetration is allowed through it – if it is structured to some depth with the regions on either side.”

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Recently, I took my bike up the Jones Falls Trail. The last leg of this exciting project, from the South, is finally moving forward: a bridge over Northern Parkway which will bring cyclists, joggers and pedestrians over the car-filled chasm. I rode to the very end of the path, beyond the newly paved switchbacks near Sinai Hospital to a ledge overlooking the road. I gazed across the newly erected bridge into Mt. Washington and imagined (when it’s complete) riding into Mt. Washington Village. Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill turned their backs on one another years ago. We’re trying to change that. The County and the City of Baltimore did the same. We in the city are ready to go “above” Northern Parkway. If you live in Baltimore Country, I hope you can say the same!

A version of this piece will appear in Jmore.

Our Playground Eight Years Later

The other day, I was walking my dog through the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. I crossed through German Park, our community playground, and found a father pushing his baby on the infant swings. I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. “I built those swings,” I said. “Really?” “Well, not by myself, but I was part of the ‘swings’ team.”

It’s been nearly eight years since my wife, Miriam, and a neighbor co-chaired the KaBoom playground build in our neighborhood. Recently, the city of Baltimore, in collaboration with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., completed Phase I of major capital improvements to the park. Phase II, an additional $180,000 for lighting upgrades, new exercise equipment and landscaping, is just around the corner.

So this seems like a good moment to reflect on the moments leading up to and since the playground build and the many ways it has helped transform the core of Reservoir Hill.

Miriam and I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 2010 with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and soon became aware there was no clean/safe play space in our neighborhood. In fact, our first act of advocacy was to help get the crossing signal fixed at Linden Avenue and Lake Drive so that we could access the playground in Druid Hill Park.

But that was a good 20-minute walk, so Miriam began to explore possibilities in Reservoir Hill. As it turned out, many parents in the neighborhood were frustrated by the lack of play space for their children.

Within months, final renovations of German Park will be complete and the many hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill will continue to enjoy this community asset. (Photo courtesy Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg)

With an initial seed grant from Zuckerman-Spaeder and funding from the Ravens, RHIC was able to partner with KaBoom to bring out over 300 volunteers for a build-day.  Hundreds of neighbors — including over two dozen Beth Am congregants — showed up on June 16, 2011, for a barn-raising-style massive undertaking. It was a beautiful and inspiring day! By June 20, we had our grand opening, and kids (including my own) were climbing up and sliding down the equipment. From that day to today, the playground is regularly used and has also spurred everything from additional greening efforts in the neighborhood’s core to renovation of numerous vacant row-homes nearby.

One of the things you learn doing neighborhood development work is that building something is easier than maintaining it. The community relied on volunteers to fix equipment if it broke, clean occasional graffiti off the plastic, water the grass and butterfly garden, and pick up trash. It took well over a year to get permanent garbage cans, which meant kids who bought candy bars from the corner store had nowhere to throw the wrappers.

Then, even with trash cans installed, there was the challenge of getting the trash removed! You see, KaBoom could only operate on land that was not managed by the Department of Rec and Parks, but DPW didn’t have trash pickup scheduled on property owned by Baltimore Housing.

Why the Housing? Our German Park renaissance took place on the graveyard of an earlier and long-neglected playground. A neighbor once showed off the scars on her knees from numerous trips down the erstwhile metal slide onto the concrete surface below. But before it was a 1960s era playground, it had been an enormous garage built to house fancy carriages for the (mostly Jewish) occupants of high-rise condominiums overlooking Druid Hill Park.

It took years of advocacy by neighborhood champions to bring our new German Park under the Rec and Parks umbrella. Part of the motivation was to dampen the allure for drug dealers who would occasionally sell their product too near the children. Community members and young families “love bombed” the park, holding story-time gatherings and pushing dealers away. But sight-lines were still challenging for police enforcement and overall safety.

Which brings us to this moment. Within months, final renovations of German Park will be complete and the many hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill will continue to enjoy this community asset.

Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not your task to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). The work of building a community – any community – is never complete, but it sure it is fulfilling when it takes a great leap forward!

A version of this piece can be found at Jmore here.