When we began to think about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood, one defined by a different set of principles and aspirations than most neighborhoods of Jews, we needed to consider the extent to which our intentional (not incidental) presence in Reservoir Hill would mean focusing on particular Jewish practices. Initially, there was some anxiety about asserting our Jewishness in majority black spaces. Would engaging our West Baltimore neighbors signal triumphalism at worst and, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige where well-intentioned people of privilege dominate minority spaces, subtly, if unknowingly, remaking them in their image? Isn’t it our job, said some, to listen, learn and support — to champion allyship?
Tactically, these questions are important. Too many of us in positions of power or influence assume our resources come with answers to questions we have not been asked. Effective encounters begin with humility. The problem with exclusively centering the other, though, is it doesn’t allow both parties to bring their full selves to the moment of encounter. Educational Philosopher Parker Palmer writes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”
Finding joy in authentic connection and service is what drives our relational work in Reservoir Hill, and last month’s Whitelock Farm Harvest Festival was a great example. For several years now, Beth Am/IFO and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council have cosponsored an annual Greens and Kugel cook-off. It’s a food and culture sharing extravaganza bringing together Jewish and African American foods, but more importantly, Jews and non-Jewish African Americans.
Many years the harvest festival occurs on Sukkot when Jews also celebrate our fall harvest. So this year, a congregant lent us a small sukkah to erect on Whitelock Street. IFO (In, For, Of) and Beth Am board members volunteered to share plans and garner feedback about Beth Am’s renovation and expansion plans, and a few of us offered ecumenical lulav demonstrations.
The scene had a historical elegance as Whitelock was once the pulmonary artery at the heart of Jewish Central-West Baltimore. Now it forms Reservoir Hill’s verdant core with our urban farm, German Park Playground, a community garden and the new South Lots outdoor kitchen and community gathering space. Sukkot is called “the season of our rejoicing,” a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest. The annual greens and kugel cook-off won’t solve systemic inequities, it won’t erase racism or antisemitism and it won’t unmake decades of neglect that marked Whitelock’s long hiatus between Jewish or black owned shops and the community farm.
And there is more work to be done: as the contest has gained in popularity it’s drawing fewer lower income entrants. But it’s hard to deny the joy that manifests each fall in Reservoir Hill. It’s not the prizes awarded that matter, but the realization of shared vocation. “True vocation joins self and service,” writes Parker Palmer, which is to say it’s not about “…scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”
A version of this piece will occur in the November, 2017 issue of Jmore.