Baltimore’s Legacy Synagogues with City Roots Should Engage their Neighborhoods of Origins

Politicians, musicians, comedians and others often ask, “Will it play in Peoria?” At Beth Am Synagogue, we frequently ask ourselves something like, “Will it resonate in Reservoir Hill?”

Attention to the surrounding community is central to the “New Jewish Neighborhood” concept. If Jewish institutions exist within primarily, or even substantially, non-Jewish communities, how aware are we of the needs, concerns and sometimes biases of those communities? How do those considerations affect how we exist within our institutional walls? How and when do we move beyond those walls? Who do we welcome in, and why and how?

Beth Am is a nearly 500-household, mostly white, largely Ashkenazi Jewish congregation in an historically Jewish and, for many decades, mostly Black neighborhood. The nexus of history and geography that is Beth Am, I often tell people, means we have a particular obligation to confront the questions above since the demographics within and beyond our walls (racially, religiously, socio-economically) are less congruent that most shuls. Choosing to accept and even celebrate that incongruence means, for example, that the work of social action and social justice happens both within our walls and on our front doorstep.

But this January something is changing, something that will force us to look at these questions from beyond Reservoir Hill. Beth Am is about to undergo an exciting, multi-million dollar renovation of our historic building.

For more than half a year, we will become wandering Jews. Our Jewish Discovery Lab is renting space from Bolton Street Synagogue. Our shul offices are on North Charles Street and our worship services are being held at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road, next to the new Parks and People Foundation headquarters.

Beth Am isn’t far from home, to be sure. Mt. Lebanon’s mission and values align with our own, serving as a community anchor and resource.

And yet, for the first time in 97 years, our building at 2501 Eutaw Place is, temporarily, not a functioning synagogue.

Perhaps our experience might be instructive for other congregations. Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on a task force for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where we discussed the organized Jewish community and its relationship with Baltimore City.

In doing so, we had to honestly confront the paradox of Jewish institutional migration and thriving, and the abandonment of historic buildings and neighborhoods in which they are planted. Read Antero Pietila’s book “Not in My Neighborhood” and you get a feel for how the northwesterly path of prosperity was also a trail of tears.

Whatever the motivations (they were complex and varied) of individuals and Jewish families who sold their homes and moved to Baltimore County (and the synagogues that followed them), the collective flight of white, Jewish and more affluent Black families from urban neighborhoods has left those communities with substantially fewer resources.

I’m proud to say The Associated, already anchored in the city, has been receptive to reengaging neighborhoods Jews left behind, and I want to encourage synagogues to do the same. Many of Baltimore’s legacy congregations have their roots in the city. I believe there is a great opportunity for shul boards, rabbis and social action committees to engage their neighborhoods of origin. As Beth Am gazes back at our own community from beyond its borders, we’ll be developing best practices for engagement and support. We hope to share what we learn.

Meanwhile, I suggest two simple guiding questions (along the lines of “Will it play in Peoria?”) for our sister Jewish institutions who are no longer in Baltimore but feel proud to be of Baltimore: Will we be for Baltimore? And how?

(A version of this post was printed in Jmore and appears at https://www.jmoreliving.com/2018/12/12/baltimores-legacy-synagogues-with-city-roots-should-engage-their-neighborhoods-of-origins/)

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In Pittsburgh’s Aftermath

“First they came for the socialists …” said Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who came to resist Nazi dictatorship. “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

These words, quoted ubiquitously, resonate with me differently since the Oct. 27 massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It’s one thing for a pastor (a self-admitted anti-Semitic one) to have the clarity of hindsight and express regret for his own blindness, but the nagging question for me has always been, what about next time? When they come for us, who will speak up and not just regret that they had not? And if they do speak up, if they do stand with us in the face of terror and hate, will they do so for reasons other than their own self-preservation?

After the shooting happened, though, I realized there was another side to the equation. Sure, we wondered, who would show up for us to stand in solidarity with Jews and synagogues, the week after the deadliest attack ever on American Jews.

But what about us? In whom would we put our trust? To whom would we turn for comfort? Would we invite the outsider in? One Jewish person told me he was to be out of town the Shabbat after Pittsburgh and called a synagogue at his destination to see if he might attend morning services. The rabbi made him chant the Shema to gain entry.

But many synagogues, including Beth Am, decided to approach that Shabbat differently, to open our doors wide and invite the solidarity Niemöller once so eloquently claimed to have spurned.

These synagogues, in Baltimore and around the country, sent out mass emails. We posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and these were re-posted again and again. We invited friends, neighbors, colleagues and allies to join us for services. Some shuls did joint services with churches or invited Christian and Muslim clergy to speak. I went on the radio (even as a little voice in my head was saying, “Burg, what the hell are you doing?”) and basically invited all of Baltimore to come to shul.

And then, we waited. A maniac had come for us. Would another? Would others, the many, many non-maniacs, speak out, show up and hold us in our grief, panic and fear?

They did. Beth Am welcomed 800-900 people for #ShowUpForShabbat, hundreds of whom were not Jewish and not Beth Am’ers. And many shuls in Baltimore and around the country were full that Saturday morning and/or the previous evening. As I looked around at the crowd, I was struck by how they were diverse, compassionate and (miraculously) willing to sit through a mostly traditional Shabbat service. They came with their tears and their hugs and the fullness of their being. (See below my two sermons related to the shooting).

Just before the Prayer for Our Country, I had our many guests stand and said, “Look around. This is what America looks like.”

Epilogue

Two things happened in the wake of that Shabbat morning. The next day, a congregant, a native Pittsburgher and Reservoir Hill resident, posted on Facebook that a woman had been shot and killed a few blocks west of our shul where, in her words, “my community was showered with love and support yesterday.” She invited others to join her that afternoon at a Baltimore Ceasefire vigil in memory of yet another victim of gun violence.

Showing up begets showing up.

The second thing that happened had already been planned: a “Party at the Polls,” which was one of more than 90 such gatherings planned by another Beth Am congregant and his extraordinary Baltimore Votes initiative. Outside our shul that Tuesday evening, our IFO (In For Of, Inc., a nonprofit created by Beth Am’s Board) and Social Action volunteers listened to a deejay spin records, danced, distributed more than 300 ice cream cones and greeted one another as we came to do our civic duty and participate in the midterm election.

The Rabbis say, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah — one sacred obligation leads to another.” If we show up for them and they show up for us, more of us will feel held, heard and valued in our moments of grief.

And perhaps fewer maniacs will come for any of us.

(A version of this post was printed in Jmore and appears at https://www.jmoreliving.com/2018/11/16/showing-up-offers-a-means-of-resisting-violence-and-hate/)

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My sermons from Shabbat of the Shooting (at the end of which Miriam comes onto the bima to inform me of the ensuing massacre) and then #ShowUpForShabbat the following week:

 

Blurry Lines

The day after Yom Kippur, needing to clear my head, I loaded my bike onto my electric vehicle and took a (guilt-free) drive north, to the NCR. From the parking lot north of Monkton, I biked 10 miles along one of the oldest rail-trails in the country. It was a misty morning, the sun breaking occasionally through the clouds, and I was in a delightful mood.

Then, I realized something had changed. The path no longer crushed gravel, but asphalt, and the signage was different too. Without knowing it, I had crossed the border into Pennsylvania. I backtracked a few dozen yards and returned to the border. A sign read “Mason Dixon Line.” My mood suddenly more circumspect, I contemplated the divide on which I was standing.

This is of course, no ordinary border. The Mason-Dixon line represented, for much too long, the division between slavery and freedom.  When enslaved people escaped, they headed here. Harriet Tubman, over and over again, guided freed men and women northward to cross this line. It is a boundary separating the former slave state where I now live from the free state of Pennsylvania.

Burg on NCR at the Mason Dixon Line

In that moment, though, something else occurred to me. The state toward which those fleeing slaves fled, the state whose landmarks include the liberty bell and whose territory encompasses the blood-soaked battlefield at which Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg’s Address, is also a state that elected Donald Trump. The state to my north, a colonial refuge for Quakers, Catholics, Jews and blacks, helped elect a man whose presidency represents, among other things, the reassertion of white hegemony. As Ta-Nehasi Coates writes: “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”

Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her new book, These Truths, quashes a common myth: that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Lepore reminds us that it was fought for white supremacy. A century and a half later, standing on the border, I was struck by how full of hypocrisy the confederate claim had been. While purporting to champion voices unheard at the American federal level, the new Confederacy regularly suppressed free speech, making it a capital crime to speak against the new government. While supposedly standing for individual state’s rights, the Confederacy forced recalcitrant states into their union. And with a large majority of their population disenfranchised (enslaved blacks and women), they made, through their democratic elections, a minority the arbiter of what was right and good for all.

There is a name for this sort of governance: tyranny. But the relevant question is less whether America will become tyrannical de jure a la dystopian fiction like The Man in the High Castle where the Axis powers win WWII or the (controversial) proposed series Confederate from the duo who created Game of Thrones. What’s more relevant (and therefore more terrifying) is how much the Mason-Dixon line is widely viewed as a curiosity of history instead of an ongoing cautionary tale. Hypocrisy did not begin nor did it end with the fall of the antebellum South, and as 17thcentury French author François de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”

Leon Litwack began the preface of his 1961 North of Slavery:“The Mason-Dixon line is a convenient, but an often misleading geographical division.” The Mason-Dixon line once ran through the heart of America. But today, as then, it runs through the heart of Americans. Malcolm X once said: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”

Or as a therapist once told me, “you gotta name it to tame it.”

(A version of this post will appear in the November issue of JMore).

Less than you Can. All that you Should.

We’ve just concluded the High Holy Day season.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to my congregation on the topic of Justice.  Here are some excerpts from my sermon.  Click here to hear the full sermon.

Less than you can. All that you should.

…A better year, a better world, means more of us taking less than we can but all that we should. Today I want to talk about justice. Not abstractly. Not a vague concept we call tikkun olambut a concrete mission statement that can inform how each of us, in countless contexts big and small, might increase equity, fairness, godliness and love. I’m talking about justice in our homes and relationships, justice in our schools and urban institutions, justice in our country and in our world.  Less than you can. All that you should. 

…There’s a concept in Jewish law (halacha) that has always baffled me: Lifnim m’shurat hadin, which is usually translated “beyond the letter of the law.” But…what does it say about halachato claim it’s not enough, …that you need better than the law, to mete out true justice in society?

…Each community or society has a set of norms that define its existence, that contain and constrain it. That line is what we are due, what we are fully entitled to under those set of norms, rules or laws. When I drive my car, by law I may go 65 miles an hour on the highway. I don’t have to, but I may. If I go 55, though, I know (because I’m from Illinois, not Maryland) that I should drive in the right lane so that those who exercise their right to drive faster, can pass me.  We all exist within that circle called a speed limit, and each of us chooses how much of that space we claim, how close to that line we come…. “Beyond the letter (or line) of the law” would be speeding.

…And this is my point: the parameters of justice are not the totality of justice, just like an orange is more than its peel. And that’s good because, guess what? Lifnim m’shurat hadindoesn’t actually mean “beyond the letter of the law.” Each of us (our families, our city, nation) exists within an imaginary circle (shurat hadin), our circle of justice…. Lifnim m’shurat hadin, means within the line of justice, within the circle of what we’re due, what we’re entitled to. Less than you can. (see C. Hayes, “Legal Truth, Right Answers and Best Answers: Dworkin and the Rabbis,” pg. 113-114).

Which brings me to the second part of my 5779 bumper sticker mantra: all that you should. People with power and access are good at taking all that they can. Which is, not always, but too often, more than they should. But taking less than you can is only half the equation, because societies aren’t made whole through paternalism. It requires a partnership, a contracting by some and an expanding by others.

…It wasn’t men who made woman suffrage possible in 1920, as Beth Am’s own Elaine Weiss explains in her wonderful new book The Woman’s Hour. It was women and the male allies who worked with them. And it’s African American protesters…who brought about the beginning of police reform in Baltimore through the Consent Decree, immigrants who talk about being separated from their children, women who say enough of being overlooked, underpaid and objectified, and teenagers who say they’ve simply had enough of gun violence in their schools. And, it wasn’t the British or even the United Nations who made the State of Israel. It was the Jewish people who did that.

…This is Rosh Hashanah, but another name for it is Yom HaDin, day of justice. This year…let’s consider the nature of justice. What sort of communities do we want to work toward this year?  What kind of nation do we want to support this year?  What sort of world…do we want to pass along to the next generation?

(A version of this post will appear in the October issue of Jmore).

Relational Justice

One of the Talmud’s most famous stories involves Hillel who, long before he was a campus student organization, was a man and rabbi — indeed the consummate rabbi’s rabbi.

Hillel was known for his patience, and once a non-Jew seeking to convert approached him with the following demand: “Teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Anyone who has attempted a Yogic Tree Pose knows standing on one foot is not so easy, and Hillel grasped the man’s meaning quickly: “Distil an entire, ancient, robust, complex, multi-vocal tradition into one pithy phrase!”

It’s what’s affectionately referred to as a klutz kashe, a question unworthy of thoughtful response. But if Hillel views it this way (or the questioner as a klutz) he doesn’t respond in kind. He converts his interlocutor on the spot and summarizes Jewish tradition in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”

This expression is a precursor to the Golden Rule, which frames the call to human empathy in the positive. But Hillel’s approach may point to a deeper truth of human nature: Our tendency is to postulate what we think best for others by assuming our desires and needs are also theirs.

Dara Horn puts it this way in her recent novel, “Eternal Life: “It’s arrogant to think that others want exactly what you want.” Placing a demand for empathy in the negative is, ironically, more believable; there are plenty of things most people “hate.”

But this begs another question: Why doesn’t Hillel say, “What is hateful to your fellow, don’t do to him”? Is it really that difficult to know what our neighbors, family members and co-workers don’t like? Can’t we just ask them? The answer is as simple as it is inscrutable: sure, we can ask those with whom we’re already in a relationship. But it’s much harder to do so with people we’ve never met!

In our increasingly polarized society, where even family members can barely talk to each other across political or ideological divides, Hillel’s concise summary of Jewish wisdom is in fact a passionate call for thinking justly, for making the audacious cognitive leap to accept that there must be a set of experiences so anathema to human thriving, they apply to all of us.

Who doesn’t hate feeling invisible, unheard and undervalued? Who among us is not offended by the prospect of a life of destitute poverty or abuse? Says Hillel, if you do not want these things for yourself, how can you abide them in others?

Hillel is trying to teach us less about interpersonal relations and more about societal justice. What are the basic parameters, the boundaries of an acceptable life? How can communities and municipalities be organized to permit fewer journeys beyond the pale? How can a city avoid becoming the next Sodom – a place fundamentally lacking in empathy and therefore irredeemable?

There was a time I thought relationships were a gateway to justice. Increasingly, I believe they are the very nature of justice itself! There’s a teaching in the Mishnah, a 2nd century legal text from the land of Israel: The temperament of the one who says: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours … there are some who say that’s the way of Sodom [midat Sdom]” (Avot 5:10). Relational Justice is the capacity to say, as did John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself. … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We are all interconnected. We know what we do not wish for ourselves and, therefore, we cannot wish it for others. None of us wants to be misunderstood, so we are called to understand. None of us wants to be left behind, so we are directed to look over our shoulder. None of us wants to be hated, so we are commanded – despite difference and disagreement – to love.

(A version of this post appears in Jmore).

Compassion Fatigue

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “compassion fatigue,” but anyone in America who cares about justice must be feeling it these days.

There are so many things to worry about, so many systemic oppressions about which we’ve become more conscious, so many threats to our basic civil society that too many of us (rightly) cannot seem to focus on any one thing for long.

With immigration, gun violence, #MeToo, institutional racism, transphobia, environmental justice, generational poverty or so many other pressing concerns, too many of us feel like we’re bolted to our seats, transfixed as we snap our heads jarringly back and forth like spectators at some kind of grotesque tennis match.

It used to be that, for many of us, it felt hard to figure out what was just. Now, for too many of us, it feels like we know exactly what justice looks like but have no conviction it can be achieved (and not much confidence we can even move the needle).

When societal problems appear so intractable, what can we do to avoid the paralysis of compassion fatigue? The prophet Micah has wisdom to offer here. Micah prophesied during the 8th century BCE.  During his lifetime, he rails against political corruption and oppression in both the northern and southern kingdoms, witnessing first the invasion and subjugation of the former and then the anxious relief of the latter when it is spared the brutality of Assyrian conquest.

How do we function when confronted with complex and overwhelming societal problems? Micah’s answer: simplify! “[God] has told you, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Rashi, the 11th century sage, asks, what’s the difference between walking with God and walking with our fellow human beings? When it comes to people, he says, “If one man embarrasses his fellow and comes to appease him, the fellow says to him, ‘I will not accept your apology until this person or that person, before whom you disgraced me, comes [to make amends].’ But the Holy One of Blessing desires only that the man’s return be between the two of them.”

Paradoxically, God is big enough to avoid making failure bigger than it needs to be. Whereas human beings tend to blow things out of proportion. The solution? Try to be a bit more like God.

When humanity’s baser instincts get you down, says Rashi, focus on the positive. Yes, we have a tendency to allow small problems to become bigger ones until each flawed human interaction escalates into communal failing and then societal degradation. Micah’s philosophy of modest walking doesn’t ignore this reality, but it also recognizes that moving forward begins, to paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, with a single step.

And what step should we first take? A step toward one another. We start with our family members, our friends or our co-workers. We start with a stranger we encounter in line at Starbucks or an acquaintance from shul. But to be most effective, we start with those whom we’ve hurt or those who have hurt us, perhaps even someone with whom we disagree politically.

The sage Shammai says, “Greet each person with a gracious expression on your face” (Avot 1:15), which implies we are to do so even (perhaps especially) with someone we dislike or who has caused us harm.

This isn’t easy, but if we can repair one broken relationship, have empathy for one person with whom we disagree (or allow that person to come to better understand us), we can begin to move forward.  Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

It’s no accident that Micah’s metaphor is about walking. Justice must be done. Goodness ought to be valued.  But journeys are best undertaken with traveling companions.

(A version of this post can be found at Jmore Living).

Locanthropy

Each December, the Oxford English Dictionary chooses one “Word of the Year” (or sometimes two, one for the US and one for the UK) as the year’s philological cultural barometer. Last year’s WOTY was youthquake, meaning: “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” 2013’s word was selfieand 2007’s US Word of the Year was locavore which is “a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.” Looking back a decade, the term seems quaint, and even at the time smacked of self-indulgence in the name of self-restraint.  Still, there was and is some merit in the desire to push back against the mechanized, hydrogenated, perilously affordable and artificial.

A few years after locavore came on the scene, I coined a new word along similar lines which I thought might instigate deeper engagement for the locally inclined do-gooder. (I will confess the word did not catch on, even mildly). My word was locanthropy,and here’s the true story I shared to illustrate my point:

In 2011, Miriam and I finally decided it was time to take the plunge and get a minivan. I would give up my old car and inherit my wife’s Subaru. We contacted an organization that accepts donated cars, repairs them when possible, and distributes them across three states. Two weeks later, a flatbed truck met me on Eutaw Place, across from Beth Am, and drove my rust-colored ’98 Saturn SL toward the highway.

A couple weeks later, I got an email from our emeritus rabbi who lived across the alley from us: “I think I saw your car in the neighborhood today.” “No, you must be mistaken,” I replied, “I donated my car.”  But sure enough, parked around the corner from my house was my old car with reupholstered interior but the same familiar stickers on the windshield and the telltale bit of key I once broke off in trunk.

Maimonides teaches it’s a higher level of tzedakah to give anonymously – and I certainly tried.  In fact, I think I spent the next several months subconsciously trying to avoid conversations with that neighbor so as not to embarrass her. But the story also reminds me how powerful it can be to support one’s own neighborhood, one’s own community.  The Talmud says, “the poor of your own city (or community) come first,” and we are reminded that we should construct our dwelling places so as to provide access for the poor.  Rashi adds that a gatehouse, if one is constructed, must be situated in a way that ensures the owner of the home(s) beyond will hear the cry of the beggar looking for food (Talmud Bava Kamma 7b).

Sometimes we can make a local impact without even knowing it. Seven years later, I mostly regret buying the minivan, but I’m still convinced of the need for locanthropy– a commitment to deliberately and deliberatively local giving.   In my very first Jmore column back in 2016, I cited a provocative essay entitled “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” The author’s claim is that while too many fantasize about solving problems for those people “over there,” we ignore brokenness and trauma in our own backyard.

This is where locanthopy comes in. In a world where problems seem insoluble and basic civility has broken down at the cellular level, we ought to return to basics. Who are our neighbors? How do we treat them? It’s been said, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Some are fighting anxiety or depression, drug addiction or other self-destructive behavior. Some guard secrets of abuse or failed parenting or are simply grieving a loss. Some people wonder where their next meal will come from and others if anyone will miss them when they’re gone. Jewish tradition teaches that proximity demand accountability.

Our neighbors have all kinds of needs. How are we meeting them?