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Monday, February 10, 2014

Being "Of" the Neighborhood: Afro-Semitic Experience in Concert!

With a coalition spanning several Reservoir Hill neighborhood organizations and with generous funding from the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Schwartz Family Foundation, Beth Am was able to welcome a hip dynamic band blending the best of Jewish and African American musical cultures.  We turned out over 350 people to pack our social hall and dance to the rhythms of the Afro-Semitic Experience.  Here's a short video from the Baltimore City School system capturing the event which was as transcendent as it was transformative.  Here's the link if the video embedding gives you trouble: 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Why Increase the Minimum Wage?

In the twelfth century, Maimonides developed his "Ladder of Tzedakah."  Understanding that giving was a process, he offered "rungs" to ascend in our increased engagement with the needy.  While grudgingly giving was a minimal requirement and anonymous generosity a higher calling, the top of the ladder was to help increase self-sufficiency.  This flies in the face of American "boot-strapism" which assumes self-sufficiency is a self-realized goal.  But this is a fallacious and ultimately dangerous claim.

Thousands in Baltimore City and across Maryland struggle with deep and endemic poverty, many single parents juggling multiple jobs just to make ends meet.  Low wages mean time away from family, rest and recreation.  An increase in the minimum wage to $10.10/hour and tip wages from 50% to 70% as a new bill in the Maryland legislature will require would allow more families to stay financially solvent.  Together we can raise pay for 472,000 working Marylanders and the parents of 350,000 children.

One way societies are judged is by how we respond to those who struggle.  Maimonides understood this responsibility falls to us; breaking the cycle of poverty is a privilege and burden for the self-sufficient.  The New Jewish Neighborhood calls on each of us to respond to the other across religious and class lines.  Communities must work to grow and prosper together.

Friday, January 3, 2014

CJ Voices Cover Story on The Urban Rabbi

Thanks so much to CJ Voices for highlighting and celebrating the work of Beth Am and Reservoir Hill.  It's a great honor to have our community featured on the cover of this national publication.  My sincere hope is that my experience in Baltimore may have some impact on similar and dissimilar communities around the world.  Whether you are urban or suburban, a shul, Hillel, day school or independent start-up, I believe we in Jewish communal life must all embrace and examine our Jewish particularism in relationship with the other.  Kol Hakavod to Michael Schulson for capturing our story so astutely and to the Conservative Moment for its desire to promote this type of Jewish work.

The shtetl of Eastern Europe is no more.  Self and society-imposed Jewish neighborhoods are increasingly a thing of the past.  These new challenges bring with them limitless opportunities.  May we all go from strength to strength!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Train Envy

Consider this image a Beth Am'er sent me from the Huffington Post.

Are you surprised by it?  What surprises you?  The differing races?  That these men are likely of different faith traditions? The personal contact between strangers?

Or perhaps it's that all of this is occurring on the New York subway.

I've spent the better part of a week studying human behavior on the subway, as I've been riding it three hours each day for five days between my friends' house in Queens and the Jewish Theological Seminary for a seminar.  Glancing around the train at any given moment, one finds a veritable smorgasbord of human appearance and behavior: commuters in dress shoes, tourists in jeans with pamphlets or tickets in hand, native New Yorkers reading books, kids with backpacks on their way to school, teenagers quietly rocking out to their iPods.  There is skin of every possible shade, clothing styles of every type, men, women, transgendered, young and old, rich and poor and in-between.  The subway is New York City's great equalizer.

There is one undeniable unifying behavior, though.  Unless one knows the person standing/sitting nearby, nobody but nobody is making eye contact with anyone else.  New York subway-riding is the finely honed art of staring anywhere but into the face of the other.  Observing this behavior is amusing actually.   People glance up from a book or iPad, eyes meeting fleetingly, then the connection is broken.  Stare too long and you may get a threatening stare back.  A few seconds longer, you're likely to get accosted.  At rush hour, hundreds of people are crammed together, hands touching on poles, bodies compressed and hundreds of eyes are looking everywhere but at each other.

My cousin Phil, zichrono livracha, used to tell a story.  He was from Chicago but attended the University of Wisconsin.  One day, he and his wife Rose, who is a native New Yorker and lives in Manhattan, were walking the streets of Madison, hand in hand.  People would pass and, as is the custom in the Midwest, they would often say "hello."  As Phil told the story every time this happened, Rose would dig her nails into his hand and ask, "Phil, why are they looking at us?  Why are they talking to us?"  I should be clear, my cousin Rose is just about the sweetest, most nurturing  person you'll meet.  The problem is not her.  It's just that, when it comes to strangers, New Yorkers mostly go out of their way NOT to connect!

When I lived in Chicago, I would ride the "L" frequently, and the kids loved the trains.  For Shamir's second birthday, all he wanted to do was ride the train.  The kids' doctor's office overlooked the tracks, a nearly constant source of wonder.  Here in Baltimore, at this time last year, we go to a fire station where they have artfully constructed and festive model train sets.  To children trains are fun, even romantic.  But romance can fade as encounters with trains (or people) become routine.  Different circumstances, but remember what Jake says to Elwood Blues as the "L" comes rumbling by the apartment window?  Aykroyd's character asks, "How often does the train go by?"  Belushi responds, "So often you won't even notice it."  

The photograph above is provocative because it raises questions about difference. but it's surprising because instead of demanding what little personal space he could, Isaac Theil did a simple kindness.  When another passenger offered to wake the sleeping man, Theil responded, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”  When the photo and story went viral, Theil was surprised.  He didn't think he did anything all that special.  

The best treatment of the photo, I think, comes from Tablet Magazine whose writer tracked down the Jewish man and interviewed him.  Here's what he had to say:

“Maybe the photo wouldn’t have become so popular if people weren’t seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two,” theorized Theil. “But there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”

I spent this week jealous of New Yorkers who have such a great subway system -- the envy of cities like Baltimore who struggle with our general lack of good public transportation options.  I had train envy -- for the convenience and for the opportunity to connect.  I love New York, but many New Yorkers, it seems, have human contact fatigue.  Trapped in the throng, they overlook the potential for meaningful human connection.  But Isaac Theil remembered that there are things more important than personal space, than keeping up one's guard.  He remembered two things people across the country so often forget:  empathy and compassion.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Prepositional Judaism

The author and scholar, Rachel Adler, has written "Because God is Other, God creates a world filled with difference. Because God is Partner, all difference is filled with holy possibility." (Engendering Judaism, pg. 92). 
A driving question for me in this blog (and in my life and work in Reservoir Hill) has been: 
How do we relate to the other?  
I am distinctly aware of Baltimore's history of sometimes extreme, almost fundamentalist, "otherness" finding its most insidious expression in slavery, later racial and religious segregation policies, and the Eugenics Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Baltimore was once of hotbed of such ideas. 
Jewish tradition has always existed in the tension between the universal and particular, between understanding ourselves as simply in relationship with the other and casting our lot with the whole of humanity.  Our sense of chosenness has sometimes meant a proclivity for the parochial.  Even when Jewishness inspires outward actions, being a "light unto the nations" has found us at times bordering on the triumphal.  Such is the case in the realm of social justice where our posture has often been more about doing "for" others. 
"Prepositional Judaism" (though a new term) is a concept I've explored in other writings and speeches including a sermon I gave at Beth Am, unveiling the notion of a "New Jewish Neighborhood."  Though the wording may be just a bit clunky, this idea of our shul being not just "In" and "For" our neighborhood but increasingly "Of" it has lingered in our congregational consciousness.  Through months of exploration and leadership development, we now better understand the triad of In, For and Of -- seeing the "Of" as a necessary bridge between the other two. In other words, we have begun to recontextualize (and broaden) the Jewish concept of tribalism for the 21st century.  Where once the Jewish people consisted of twelve distinct tribes, now we are one tribe among many.  And our tribe, looking both to thrive as a distinct entity and actualize our universalistic values, must better understand itself as profoundly connected to the other. 
To this end, Beth Am, in collaboration with community residents and stake-holders, has recently hatched a new non-profit organization called "In For Of, Inc."  While very much in its nascent and formative stages, according to our founding documents, IFO was created to explore funding opportunities for "preservation, restoration, and renovation of the historic Beth Am Synagogue" as well as "cultural and communal activities that promote close collaboration and partnership between residents of historic Reservoir Hill... and members of Beth Am Synagogue and to and facilitate [in collaboration with other groups] social justice causes within the Neighborhood."
This is an exciting time in our synagogue's history. My sincere hope is that our awareness of, in Adler's words, both the otherness of and our partnership with God, will help concretize our sense of collective sacredness of purpose.  Could this be a model for diverse communities around the country, even around the world?  Who knows?  But it sure feels like the right path for us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cast Your Vote for The Urban Rabbi!

vote for my blog in the mobbies early and often

My blog was nominated in the "Best Community Blog" category.  I would be grateful for your support!  Log in and vote.  (Other native Chicagoans, feel free to vote more than once).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

If a Torah Falls in the Shul....

Spoiler Alert: No Torah was dropped before or during the writing of this blog.  (I know such things make Jews nervous!)  Ok, read on...

I'm often at Beth Am alone.  I live across the street and the office is closed one day a week.  So, quite frequently I find myself either working solo in the building, or running in to pick something up (e.g. a book) or complete a task (e.g. run off copies of a source sheet for class).  It's eerily peaceful being in our ninety-year-old historic sanctuary late at night.

Recently, and on my way to a shiva minyan, I entered early in the morning, just as the sun was rising.   The light was filtering through our understated stained glass; long shadows from the wooden pews began to creep across the sanctuary.  It was a Monday and I needed to grab a sefer Torah for the service.  Even before I placed the tenderly tallis-wrapped scroll in my trunk (functionally upgrading the worth of my vehicle from Subaru to Maserati), I had a moment's panic.  What if, there alone in the shul, attempting to remove the rimonim and breastplate myself, I somehow dropped the Torah?  Would I fast?  Would I tell anyone?  If a Torah falls in a shul, I thought to myself, and no one's around to see it, has it made a sound?  Have I committed a sin?

The hypothetical reminds me of a scene from the golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance when Matt Damon's character hits a wild shot into the woods and then, clearing debris for his next shot, causes the ball to move.  The golfer is faced with a moral dilemma: Does he ignore the ball's tiny movement, take his shot and potentially win the round or does he take the penalty stroke ?  His conscience is clear; he takes the penalty and 3-way ties Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.  I think many of us would like to think we would do the same.

Much of my writing in this blog is about people, confronting, assimilating and transcending cacophonous urban living.  The story of this "urban rabbi" is often about relationships.  But as artist Edward Hopper pointed out in his paintings, there is solitude in the city -- actually a great deal of it.  The moral life, no matter where one lives, derives from a sense of honesty with one's self and, ultimately, with one's God. We all have to decide what matters.  Can we live with a win if we know it's really a lie?  Is the Torah sacred or not?