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.

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