Who’s Going to Start the Druid Hill Park Conservancy?

The “Central Park” of Baltimore is great but it could be glorious.

Years ago, I wrote short blog entry after returning from a visit to L.A. During the trip, we were strolling along the ocean-front path in Venice when we chanced upon an impressive beach home with a whimsically tiny patch of AstroTurf in front. The sign read: “World’s Smallest Front Yard.” The irony, of course, is that the home had an enormous front yard: the sand and grassy areas of Venice Beach and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Worlds smallest front yard

At the time, we lived on Druid Park Lake Drive (what locals call “Lake Drive”), and I couldn’t help but think of my own neighborhood named Reservoir Hill for the large source of drinking water that serves as an aquatic gateway to the “Central Park” of Baltimore.  In our nearly seven years in Baltimore, Druid Hill Park has been our lush, vital and undulating front yard. My children both learned to ride a bike around the lake. We walk our dog there, play tennis and visit the zoo, conservatory or farmers market. We have attended concerts and art exhibitions in the park. In nice weather I jog or cycle there, enjoying the interplay of forest and grass, whimsical historic pavilions, invigorated by numerous public and private celebrations. The park is alive, and I feel more alive within it.

Druid Hill Park has deep Jewish and African American resonance, making it the perfect front yard for a neighborhood like Reservoir Hill. Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a longtime Beth Am congregant, authored a paper in honor of the park’s 150th.  “From 1920 to 1960,” he said, “Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community.” Generations of black Baltimoreans have also come to rely on the park as a place to break bread or BBQ, swim, play basketball or tennis (Arthur Ashe used to play on the “negro” courts when the park was segregated).

The park is clean, beautiful and well used. But despite its noteworthy pedigree of Olmstead influence, it has yet to reach its modern potential. Why? Funding, of course! The Park Service does its utmost to keep up with the massive task of mowing grass, maintaining pools, playgrounds and pathways and creating new ball fields and cycling tracks. But more resources are needed to make the park worthy of being what in many ways it already is: a hub of green activity and leisure for Baltimore’s vital urban center.

lake renovation

The timing is right for catalytic investment in Druid Hill Park. The reservoir, one of the largest earthen-dammed lakes in the country, is scheduled to undergo a multi-year upgrade this summer. Two enormous tanks will be buried beneath the western portion of the lake, meeting a federal guideline for open-air reservoirs and allowing for recreational use. The city plans to put in a new fountain, an amphitheater, fishing and perhaps rowboats or paddleboats – Baltimore’s second waterfront! In addition, our area was just selected for up to $750,000 in targeted grants  for improved pedestrian and cycling access. This is an opportunity, as Councilman Leon Pinkett of the 7th District put it, …”to re-focus our priorities on improving quality of life for people living in and around Reservoir Hill, making jobs to the east and our world-class Druid Hill Park to the north safely accessible to residents who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.”

How to fund the gap between what the park ought to be and city’s limited budget? Look to the actual Central Park! For years, New York City has depended on the generosity of donors to its Central Park Conservancy. Such an idea has yet to be tried in Baltimore, but it seems to me this is the moment. With societal energy around sustainability, green-space and urban renewal, Druid Hill Park is ripe for visionary leadership to invest in our verdant gem. The gauntlet is thrown. Who will raise their hand and create the Druid Hill Park Conservancy, a tool for maximizing the potential energy of Baltimore’s enormous front yard?

A version of this column appears at Jmore

What the New Jewish Neighborhood Isn’t

The German novelist and dissident Thomas Mann wrote, “Everything is politics,” while screenwriter Aaron Sorkin offered, “Politics is perception.” Which is to say, so much of life hinges on the perception of those around us. All content-generators, from software engineers to journalists, must confront, in some fashion, the ways in which the words or images we put into the world are perceived.

Art is meant to be seen. Books are written to be read. A gift is not a gift until it’s received, and sometimes it’s received poorly.

In previous columns here and elsewhere, I’ve mused on the concept of a “New Jewish Neighborhood” which some Jews and non-Jews have understood differently than I intended. The time has come to better elucidate what the New Jewish Neighborhood is by clarifying what it is not.

  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is not a neighborhood for Jews. I’ve suggested (See: Make Baltimore Great Again) we should “… explore ways we might have deeper local impact by realizing Jewish values in heterogeneous context … To better inhabit our Jewishness we must be expansive in our concept of community.” I wish to challenge assumptions about Jewish neighborhoods whose measure has always been numbers of Jews and Jewish institutions. My hope is that a New Jewish Neighborhood is one measured by Jewish values lived, where the Jews of that neighborhood are concerned with the how’s and why’s of Jewish living. While I am thrilled to have Jewish neighbors in Reservoir Hill, and that number has grown some in the time that we’ve been here, I am under no illusion that our neighborhood will (or should) become a majority Jewish neighborhood again.
  • The philosopher George Steiner suggests the Jew’s mission is to be “the guest of humanity.” (See: He may be our greatest Jewish Thinker...) I differ with Steiner in that I believe it critical there be a national homeland for the Jewish people as we, like other nations of the world, exercise our right to self-determination. But Israel isn’t an excuse for Jewish parochialism or triumphalism. For generations, our people have been shaped by our minority presence in other people’s lands as, indeed, we have by our aspiration for political sovereignty.
  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is meant to articulate a new vision for Jews and Jewry, not to impose Jewishness on others. Save for a brief and regretful period during the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews have never been a proselytizing people. One need not believe in our God to be saved; we have no monopoly on virtue. Not long after I coined the phrase New Jewish Neighborhood, it became apparent that such a framing is useful as an invitation to (or quasi-polemic for) my fellow Jews. Once we began reaching out to our broader non-Jewish and largely non-white community in Reservoir Hill, we needed different nomenclature reflecting a shared set of aims and principles. Hence, IFO (See: inforof.org/)  ) (In, For, Of) was born.
  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is not only about race, but it is about race. We cannot appreciate Jewish urban/suburban migration without understanding racism and how Jews fit in. As neighborhoods transitioned from white to black, it was often Jews who played the relay. Understanding Jewishness in America today is to grasp the complex and evolving relationship between Jewishness and whiteness (at least for the 80 percent of Jews who are not black, brown or Sephardic). Race is a social construct, but those of us who look white cannot wish our whiteness away any more than African-Americans can their blackness. The New Jewish Neighborhood is where we stop wishing or pretending and start listening and doing.
  • The Neighborhood cannot be located (only) on a map. On one hand, it is a neighborhood, a place where actual Jews, with intention and self-awareness, live with majority non-Jewish neighbors. (This is not Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic,” in which assimilated Jews in a WASPy community feel ashamed of their Orthodox Jewish neighbors.) It is also my specific neighborhood of Reservoir Hill, a rare locale where a nearly 100-year-old synagogue building supports a thriving congregation in what has for decades been a black neighborhood.

But the New Jewish Neighborhood is also a state of mind. Or as I wrote a couple months ago in Jmore (See: A New Way to View Tzedakah), “The neighborhood is all about posture — how we are as much as who we are.” In this sense, any community with Jews can become a New Jewish Neighborhood and any Jew, no matter where s/he lives can be a New Jewish Neighbor, a better “guest of humanity.”

A version of this piece appears in Jmore.

Conservative Rabbis From Around the World Come to Reservoir Hill!

Photos by Greg Bowen, Human Being Productions

Pesach, which begins Monday evening April 10, is the most observed Jewish holiday on the calendar.   A staggeringly high percentage of American Jews hold or attend some version of the seder.  There’s much speculation as to why this is with theories including the robust and malleable nature of the ritual or the fact that the primary observance is home-centric and includes lots of good food!  Both of these rationales clearly hold sway, but I believe there is something more profound (and simpler) at play: Pesach provides that elusive thing religious traditions strive for but often miss: relevance.  It’s no accident the theme of the Hagaddah (that we were slaves in Egypt who left to serve a greater calling in a land of our own) constitutes a full four-fifths of the Torah’s story.  And the notion that our experience of suffering and marginalization ought to sensitize us to the needs of the marginal and maligned in our day is a message conveyed more frequently in Torah than any other. E.g. “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deu. 10:18).

B. Cole, co-owner of Dovecote Cafe around the corner from Beth Am speaks to rabbis about the vitality of black neighborhoods.

It’s this fundamental urge and striving that animates the Jewish impulse to work for a more just society.  It’s also one at the core of my own Conservative movement.  Nevertheless, the prophetic voices of A.J. Heschel, Harold Schulweis, Brad Artson and others have at times been lost in the din of other often legitimate but sometimes less broadly compelling concerns.  The annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention has been a case in point.  While each convention is different, there has not always been a robust exploration of what I would call applied Torah.  To their credit, over the past several years this has begun to change, the most recent manifestation being the February RA here in Baltimore.

Spoken Word artist Mohamed Tall performs for the whole convention before rabbis head to 5 locations throughout Baltimore

I was invited to speak to my colleagues, hailing from across North America and around the world, about the history of Baltimore, its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the ways we as a city (and a nation) have struggled to reach our best potential.  I told them, “As someone who has lived [in Chicago] blocks from a Whole Foods and who now lives in a food desert, I promise you, there is as much brokenness in Roland Park as there is in Sandtown.  There are two Chicagos, two LA’s, two Detroits, two Philadelphias, two Baltimores – two Americas.  But these binaries are not just about rich and poor, they’re about how we see the world and whether we truly view every person as a reflection of God.  This is our goal for today,” I told them, “from our perch in Baltimore’s beautiful inner harbor, to introduce you to that other Baltimore.”

Rabbi Dina Shargel of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., reads prayer book with IFO co-chair Amani Warren. (Coincidentally, this photo includes shots of Rabbi Paul Schneider, long time head of KSDS where my kids go to school and Rabbis Matt Futterman and Elliot Cosgrove with whom I was privileged to work during my time at Anshe Emet in Chicago)!

Then, at the request of convention chair and Gaithersburg colleague Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, I introduced two award-winning spoken word poets who offered brilliant and provocative original compositions, and we sent the rabbis off to one of five different site-visits.  In addition to Beth Am, rabbis visited the Center for Urban Families, The 6th Branch, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, and Paul’s Place.  Some also heard presentations from Holistic Life Foundation and Wide Angle Youth Media.  Each of these organizations is doing important and impactful work in Baltimore City.  I encourage JMore readers to learn more and support them!

The thirty-five rabbis who came to Beth Am studied a text from Mishna, learned about our sister 501(C)3, In, For and Of, heard Baltimore stories from legendary Gil Sandler, met our new community resource specialist, and packed into the Dovecote Café as its visionary owners challenged assumptions about what makes a “good neighborhood.”  One 78-year-old rabbi told me of all the RA conventions he has attended over the years, his visit to Beth Am was the single most meaningful experience.

Beth Am’s Community Resource Specialist speaks to the group demonstrating our approach to tzedakah

Torah is equated to a “tree of life,” and just as life demands to be lived, torah demands to be learned.  The New Jewish Neighborhood is a place where we recalibrate Jewish souls, realigning our ancient wisdom with society’s most pressing concerns and its most demanding opportunities.

The inimitable Gil Sandler regales us with stories of the Old Jewish Neighborhood

A version of this piece can be found at Jmore

 

 

 

Why I Went to the Women’s March (But Not the Airport Protest)

National protests and local person-to-person legislative advocacy are mutually reinforcing.

The Women’s March on Washington was an extraordinary affair, and I was honored to be part of it. I was not planning to attend. As someone who is shomer Shabbos, I didn’t see how to make it work.  And as much as I felt called to the moment (and knew many of my congregants would be there), my first responsibility is to my shul. Our monthly Kesher L’Neshama (soulful Shabbat) service was planned for that day, and I was already to be in Israel the following week due to a long-scheduled trip to continue my studies as a Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative fellow.

As the day of the march drew near, my resolve to speak out against the incoming administration’s demeanor and approach was reinforced by the then-president-elect’s choices of Cabinet members and advisers. While the march highlighted a number of significant societal challenges, I was and am increasingly worried that (very legitimate) concerns about refugees/immigrants, racism, Islamophobia and more are overshadowing pervasive misogyny laid bare in this past election. What’s more, living where I do, I am cognizant of the recent Department of Justice report that identifies “serious concerns of gender-biased policing” — a reminder that from pay inequity to police brutality, women of color are disproportionately affected by gender bias.

As a man, and particularly a white man, I felt called to bring my 9-year-old son to march with my wife and 11-year-old daughter. So I decided to join Miriam and our children in Washington. It would not be easy. We had a room lined up within walking distance of Independence Boulevard, one of many in D.C. homes made available free to strangers by their owners in support of the effort. Then Friday, we got a call from our would-be-host; in tears, he explained he had a family emergency and could no longer have us.  Plan B was to crash at a cousin’s place near the zoo, but that was a full three miles from the Mall. So our first stop as we entered the District before Shabbat was to buy prepaid Metro passes — an imperfect but manageable solution.

Friday night and Saturday morning, we joined hundreds at the Sixth & I Synagogue for uplifting services and poignant words of Torah. And we marched. We navigated the sea of 500,000 bodies, positioning the children where they could see and hear some of the speeches. We crossed the Mall and marched past the new African-American museum to the Ellipse. By the end of the day, our legs were weary but our hearts were full.

We resolved to fight. Which is why when the Trump administration saw fit to ban refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries, and protesters converged on BWI, I was not there. You see, that evening was a long-scheduled meeting with newly appointed State Sen. Barbara Robinson at the home of a congregant and neighbor.

Marches galvanize support for causes. They foster a sense of shared responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, they are the embodiment of one of our most precious rights: the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The next line of the First Amendment, however, is even more important: “[The right] to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Representative democracies are only as strong as the extent to which we the people hold our elected officials accountable — and local politics are where most of the impactful work can be done.

The meeting that evening was convened by Jews United for Justice to address a number of local concerns including police accountability, paid sick leave and rent court reform. The senator heard us out as we sat in my neighbor’s living room and shared stories of brokenness. Our bodies were stationary. Our stories and concerns were true, and our truth goes marching on.

A version of this post can be found at JMore

 

Thinking Differently About Tzedakah

Jewish commitment to supporting the poor is about meeting them where they’re at.

The “New Jewish Neighborhood” concept is one where proximity creates possibility, where being Jewish is more than what we are (in a tribal sense), what we do (religious observance) or even what we believe (about God or our responsibilities in the world). The neighborhood is all about posture — how we are as much as who we are.
This question of posture toward the other is addressed in a fascinating Mishnah (a third-century text of Jewish law and lore). The rabbis ask since transferring objects (like food) from one domain to another on Shabbat is forbidden, does that effectively mean one cannot provide assistance to the needy on the Sabbath? Is there a way to achieve the Torah’s mandate to feed the hungry short of inviting a stranger into your home for a Shabbat meal?
The answer is about sharing responsibility. If the owner takes something from inside the house and hands it through the door or window to a poor person outside, the owner is in violation of Shabbat. Conversely, if the poor person reaches inside the house and takes something being supplied by the owner, the beggar is now in violation. To be patur (“nonculpable” for Shabbat violation), each party must play both an active and passive role. Either the needy person must reach into the house but receive the food or the owner must reach outside the home for the beggar to take the food. The simple positioning of hands, the angle of a gesture, makes all the difference!
Conceding that the letter of Halachah doesn’t strictly apply when both parties aren’t Jewish, the Mishnah’s articulation of posture can be helpful in thinking about how to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between two people with differing access to resources. Take Beth Am, for example. Our synagogue is located in Reservoir Hill, which includes residents with plenty and others with little. It’s fairly common to have neighbors ring our bell during office hours and ask for financial assistance. For years, we have done what we thought was our best: giving food vouchers or bus tokens or even cash handouts, and for years, we’ve struggled to come up with a system that works. Knowing we have finite resources, we’ve asked neighbors for ID so we can track how often they’re coming. Our giving is fairly arbitrary, based on a calendar, not a fair assessment of need.
This is why I’m excited to begin work this month with a peer recovery specialist. “Peers” are required to complete 500 hours with a trained supervisor and 46 hours of training and education. These individuals often are recovering addicts who, by virtue of their training as well as their own experience, are well-versed in resources available to the underprivileged. They know where to find food distribution, drug treatment, resource fairs, job training and help with literacy. They can do a needs assessment and help someone navigate the system. So far, well over 300 peers have been trained during a 10-year period. As Monica Scott, recovery services manager for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, told me, “Peer-to-peer works best because it’s individuals coming from lived experience, not a case worker or official dictating to you.”
Having a peer will allow us to meet people where they’re at, in a nonjudgmental, nonthreatening way. Our peer will alternate between engaging neighbors at community meetings or local school events and holding “office hours” at Beth Am, where she can do assessments, make referrals and provide guidance. “People know what they need,” says Scott, “[but] they don’t know where to start.”
Like the poor person knocking on Shabbat, it’s about shared responsibility. Jewish institutions can think about applying the wisdom of our sources to our heterogeneous society. If those who give also can receive those in need with compassion and dignity, if we extend a hand while empowering others to take for themselves, then we’ve managed to take the best of the Old Jewish Neighborhood and apply it to the New.
This column can also be found at http://www.jmoreliving.com/2017/01/31/new-way-view-tzedakah/ Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a difference facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.

A New Mayflower Compact for 2020

A just and equitable future for Baltimore (and other American cities) requires a plan long before the next election.

THE FOLLOWING PIECE IS THE LATEST INSTALLMENT OF MY MONTHLY COLUMN ON “BALTIMORE JUSTICE” FOR JMORE. IT IS REPRINTED HERE WITH PERMISSION.

The first 2017 issue of Jmore arrives in the afterglow of the Menorah’s full brilliance – New Years Eve this year was also the eighth night of Chanukah!  The word Chanukah means “rededication.” On the precipice of a new year and the new presidential administration, our country is in need of a chanukat habayit, a reintegration of our “house-divided.”  Lincoln borrowed this New Testament phrase to describe America of the late 1850’s, a country so shaken by racial and ideological disunity it soon devolved into civil war.  How America of 2017 will withstand the deep divisions running through it remains to be seen.  2016 laid bare troubling signs of wide-spread misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, general xenophobia and antisemitism the Anti-Defamation League says rival the 1930’s.

The wisdom of our rabbinic sages has always been to help us see the hugeness and seeming intractability of society’s problems through the lens of achievable goodness.  “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Rabbi Akiva, is a klal gadol, a foundational principle of Torah – if we can focus first on the internal and interpersonal, perhaps we can make progress toward broader communal and societal healing.  In that sense, it’s been a good year here in the “New Jewish Neighborhood.”  Last January, we hosted 450 people for an extraordinary concert by Shades of Yale, A Capella featuring music of “The African Diaspora and the African American experience.”  The Yale University group arrived days prior to do several workshops in local schools.  In February, we celebrated transformational leadership with Marin Alsop, Ron Shapiro and a performance by the OrchKids (plus a successful musical instrument drive).  In fall, we engaged neighbors through the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council’s annual “Greens and Kugel cook-off” and on election day with IFO volunteers serving food and giving tours of our historic sanctuary.

Each of these events can serve as positive examples of effective community engagement work, but such programs need not be limited to our neighborhood nor to Baltimore.  It’s all about a willingness to encounter the other, to see synagogue or Jewish institutional walls as membranes, permeable and fluid.  Several other Jewish organizations, including synagogues here and around the country, are doing the work of culture-sharing and boundary-crossing, all of which should be celebrated.

But it’s not enough to lift up discretely positive examples.  Achieving a more just society means thinking strategically.  So, I want to offer a possible frame for our thinking over the coming four years.  The next presidential election will occur just eight days before the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact.  This legal instrument, singular in import, was also quite narrow in scope.  Written by Puritan Separatists on November 11, 1620, as their ship entered Cape Cod, the Compact focused exclusively on the needs of the 102 souls who made that arduous transatlantic voyage.   The group pledged to “…Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic…to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices…for the general good of the Colony….”

The values of the document form the bedrock of American society – collective responsibility, democracy, the rule of law, submission to a higher authority be it God or the will of the people.  Absent, however, is concern for non-Christians, Native Americans and people of Color (just to name a few).  My questions are these: What Mayflower Compact must we write?  To what collective aims must we strive?  How can we engage more people of differing perspectives in identifying those aims?  The seduction of populism notwithstanding, we cannot start over; we must reorder society by doing the hard work of affirming priorities and then working together toward constructive goals.  That’s the spirit with which the Pilgrims rededicated themselves in first setting foot on this land.  How might the spirit of Chanukah illuminate our path toward a house-united in 2020?

Each month in JMore, Rav Daniel explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood – a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.

Make Baltimore Great Again? (Revisiting the New Jewish Neighborhood)

Each month, in partnership with Jmore, I’ll explore a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood – a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.  A version of this also appears here. Or you can find it in the print version on P. 80.

A century ago, Reservoir Hill (though it was called something else) was the crown jewel of Baltimore’s Jewish community. The Whitelock Urban Farm sits on land that once housed sundry Jewish-owned businesses – a humming commercial hub bounded by dozens of Jewish institutions and a short walk from exquisitely verdant Druid Hill Park. Those who know the history (and those who don’t but notice the undulating topography and exceptional housing stock) will often ask me how things are going in Beth Am’s neighborhood. “I hear the neighborhood’s coming back” some will say. Or they’ll ask: “Are people moving back in?” These questions seem innocuous and are most definitely posed with good intentions – I’m sure the questioners don’t meant to imply the non-existence of people who live and have lived in this neighborhood for decades. But the underlying assumption seems to be: Reservoir Hill was once great, and they’re anxious to hear when it will be again.

How is my neighborhood doing? It’s cleaner, safer and more vital all the time. The award winning Dovecote Café (recently voted “best café” by Baltimore City Paper) is a vibrant gathering spot. John Eager Howard (some readers may remember it as School 61) renovations are underway. There are exciting new development projects in the works on North Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive, and Beth Am is now in the design phase for our own renovation and construction project.

To keep this excitement in context, however, two things to keep in mind. First, neighborhood improvements are happening because of advocacy and engagement by Reservoir Hill Residents – not in spite of them. And our community is constantly contending with real questions of how best to rise together; Reservoir Hill is multicultural, multivalent and multi-vocal. We count among our neighbors impoverished families in affordable rental properties, affluent home-owners, artists, educators and working class renters; we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist; we are black, white and brown. Our diversity is our strength when our flourishing is diverse. Second, Reservoir Hill’s past greatness should be examined within its historical context. Which is to say, narratives of Jewish or African American past and current thriving cannot be divorced from Baltimore’s legacy of block-busting and red-lining, troubling features of twentieth century urban development. Jewish migration to/from/to this neighborhood is part of a complex and ever-unfolding story

Key questions for healthy urban revitalization are these: What is the highest and best use of space and resources? How do we benefit more people? Which people? What is right? What is just? What would God want? There’s no lack of need and injustice in the world. Why should we care about Baltimore?

In a provocative piece, author Courtney Martin considers whether we Americans have become too caught up in what she calls “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems?” Martin highlights the many thousands of U.S. organizations doing charitable work in foreign countries. From gap-year service programs to alternative spring breaks, there is broad attraction to donating to and working in developing nations. “If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning,” she writes, “of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable…. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.”

But while most Americans’ attempts to “save the world” are well-intentioned, Martin points out two fundamental problems: First, she says, there’s risk for those whose problems we believe easy to solve. “There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.” Second, there is plenty of domestic need which goes largely unmet when our compassionate instincts are directed toward distant lands. “…The reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided.” Rashi, the eleventh century Torah commentator, cites the Talmud’s protocol for triaging need: “Ani-ei ircha kodmim, the poor of your city first” (Bava Metzia 71a).

My plan for this column is to explore ways we might have deeper local impact by realizing Jewish values in heterogeneous contexts. My thesis? To better inhabit our Jewishness we must be expansive in our concept of community. Baltimore’s greatness, like America’s greatness, is in its people. We Jews have flourished in this country and city because, despite real obstacles, here we have found a place to call home. So let’s start at home. Making the world better requires making our neighborhoods better. And, wherever you live, city or county, making your neighborhood better requires making mine better too – and vice versa. Why? Because making Baltimore great means also identifying the parts of it that never were.