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: