Jews wander. Jewish communities migrate. Half a century ago these communities migrated on various wheel spokes outward, their institutional identities and Torah scrolls in tow. In recent years, a new pattern has emerged, and America's cities are bursting again with Jewish life. This blog contains my reflections on the work of an urban rabbi in a city as complex - exciting, expansive, provincial, gritty, isolating, political and inspiring - as Baltimore.
Planned collaboratively with our neighbors and community stakeholders, I am proud to say Mr. Moore's visit and the program surrounding it is "Of the Neighborhood" in action.
If you're in B'More, I'd be honored to welcome you to our shul tomorrow.
Wes Moore Comes to Beth Am!
& Stories at Beth Am Saturday, June 7, 9:30 am to 3:30 pm
9:30 am-12:15 pm - Wes Moore speaks during Shabbat Services
12:30-1:15 - Kiddush Lunch with Reservoir Hill neighbors
1:15-2:30 - Multi-generational, multi-cultural storytelling
about making life decisions
2:30-3:30 - Ice cream social and informal discussion to explore
further collaboration to engage young people in the community
The CJ Voices portrayal of our work will receive the top
prize in its category at the American Jewish Press Association's 33rd Annual
Simon Rockower Awards. While
"poverty-stricken" or "drug infested" is a very limited
depiction of my neighborhood (as Schulson's article explains), I'm glad to see
the story of Beth Am and Reservoir Hill continues to gain national
attention. Here's the write-up:
Category 10: The David Frank Award for Excellence in
Division C. Magazines; Special Sections and Supplements;
CJ Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, New
Comments: "The Urban Rabbi" is an outstanding
portrait not only of a young, energetic and idealistic Conservative rabbi but a
complex community - Baltimore's Reservoir Hill, once a Jewish neighborhood and
now a poverty-stricken, drug infested corner of the city in which the rabbi's
synagogue sits. Author Michael Schulson conveys with insight and sensitivity
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg's passion to build meaningful bridges between his
congregation and the neighborhood, thereby expressing the "fundamental
Jewish value" that all people are created in God's image. The story
benefits from Schulson's historical research as well as his successful attempt
to understand Rabbi Burg's background and inspiration, and reminds us that
"synagogue" can mean many things in contemporary American life.
As it happens, this week's Torah portion (Kedoshim) includes the ever-relevant verse: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). This charge to universalize our experience, to see ourselves in the other, inspired both Hillel the Elder's "What is hateful to you, do not do unto others" and Jesus' Golden Rule. But some interpreters of Jewish tradition, like Maimonides, have read the verse narrowly: love Jewish neighbors as yourself. This parochial urge was quite understandable in the ancient (and recent) world -- less than seventy years from the end of the Holocaust, and after hundreds and thousands of years of Jewish marginalization at best and violent persecution at worst.
What's more, Jews have survived and thrived largely because of our sense of collective responsibility. While we've always been concerned about the outside community's welfare, particularly its impoverished and disadvantaged, we have largely taken care of our own. But even in the thirteenth century the venerable rabbi and thinker Nachmanides posited an interconnectedness of souls, transcending nationality or faith tradition, transcending all human distinction. After all, the Torah indicates we are each created in God's likeness and image! Otherness for Nachmanides is not unimportant, it's just not all-important.
The truth is, we don't have to look beyond the same chapter of Leviticus to understand this impulse. Verse 34 makes explicit that you are to love the stranger kamocha, "as yourself" (same exact word). Tolerance isn't sufficient and seeing oneself in the other isn't aspirational, it's expected. Why? "…For you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Having been strangers means we Jews are sensitive to the estranged, the insider-outsider. We are reminded time and again that tribalism, while valuable, is no excuse for xenophobia. Indeed, it's a call to explore the Godliness that radiates between and among all of humanity.
I live in a neighborhood which was once the Old Jewish Neighborhood. But today we aspire to a New Jewish Neighborhood. "Love your neighbor" takes on a different level of meaning when you place your circle of identity in a broader context. For me, for my family and our Beth Am community, it's about going deeper -- not to the negation of the self but, through a better understanding of the self (our history and values), to a new appreciation for the other.
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:
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.
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!
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 Bluesas 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.