Jews wander. Jewish communities migrate. Half a century ago these communities drifted 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.
The Old Jewish Neighborhood
I live in a Jewish neighborhood called Reservoir Hill. It used to be two communities: Eutaw Place, the grand boulevard with its elegant town homes and Lake Drive, which included several blocks east of Eutaw with still beautiful, but more modest row houses. For a number of reasons, Jews moved away from Reservoir Hill toward Baltimore County. By the 1970’s, the neighborhood was now predominantly African American and increasingly poor. By the 80’s, crime had become endemic and sidewalks abutting the former Jewish shops played host to open-air drug markets. By the 90’s, the entire commercial center of the neighborhood was demolished. Reservoir Hill resembled a bagel with a gaping hole in the middle.
The New Jewish Neighborhood
In recent years, Reservoir Hill has enjoyed a general resurgence and modest Jewish renaissance: young Jewish singles, couples and families have begun to move back. Crime is down, and vacant properties are at their lowest numbers in decades. A team of 350 volunteers built a new playground in 2011 – the community’s first clean, safe play space in years. Whitelock boasts an urban farm and farm stand, a community garden and a new park – the community’s core, empty lots now an emerging as green space. The school, remembered fondly by numerous congregants, is again on the upswing and slated for a total redesign next year. Druid Hill Park across the street, Baltimore’s grand Central Park, once filled with shul-goers from dozens of nearby synagogues on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, boasts a refurbished zoo and conservatory, a new playground and swimming pool, a farmers market and weekend festivals from art fairs to dog-walkers and various ethnic celebrations.
Reservoir Hill has been slow to transition. Poverty persists as do drug sales and use. While adjacent communities like Hampden, Bolton Hill, Station North and Remington have prospered with restaurants, hip wine bars and cafes, our neighborhood’s only commercial venues are a couple of corner stores and a liquor store. Beth Am remains the strongest anchor institution and the largest house of worship by far.
Those who crave gentrification might despair at our sluggish renaissance, but there are opportunities, too. Beth Am flourishes for many reasons including the neighborhood’s great promise and potential. How many synagogues get to do social justice and community development on their front doorstep? In a provincial and still largely segregated city like Baltimore, Reservoir Hill is teeming with otherness. We are diverse ethnically, racially and socioeconomically. We are young and old, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. This is our strength and our great challenge – to harness the energy of such a community to help refine and improve urban living.
From my perspective this requires us, the Jewish community of Reservoir Hill and the many synagogue members who live elsewhere, to reframe the entire notion of a Jewish neighborhood. Once, a Jewish neighborhood was defined by a preponderance of Jews and Jewish institutions. We at Beth Am are focused less on Jewish quantity and more on quality, on a community infused with Jewish values like education, pluralism, derech eretz, social justice and sustainability.
What I Didn’t Learn in Rabbinical School
Seminaries prepare their students primarily for two things: life-long learning and Jewish institutional leadership. These are good aims. Rabbis must be agile and imaginative, mining ancient books for new insights. Good schools impart resourcefulness along with knowledge. But institutional agility is harder to teach. The Jewish communal landscape, teeming with innovation, has largely sidestepped the synagogue. Organizations like STAR and Synagogue 3000 taught congregations to be welcoming, creative and compassionate, to transcend their static buildings. But those initiatives have now closed shop and movement-based umbrellas are struggling to provide the infrastructure they once could.
The bulk of philanthropic dollars and attention in recent years have gone to synagogue-alternatives: Indie-minyans or pop-up shuls, Jewish farming, and novel programs, the bulk of which are targeted to specific constituencies. Ingenuity abounds. But this presents many graduating rabbinical students with a conundrum: innovate or surrender, avoid the congregational world and seek soul-stirring alternatives, or settle for synagogue life. Both synagogues I have had the privilege to serve have proved this a false dichotomy.
Why the Synagogue?
Synagogues are as essential today as sixty years ago. While other Jewish experiences may focus on education, prayer, community, or social action, what makes synagogues unique is that we do all of these with every kind of Jew. Our target demographic is Jews – not young Jews or older Jews, Jews in traditional families, Jews in interfaith relationships, Jews by Choice, single moms, gays and lesbians or Jews of Color. We are here for any and all of these and that is what makes us absolutely vital, the central address in the landscape of Jewish life and living. The synagogue is the only truly cradle-to-grave Jewish institution where we can pray and serve, engage and learn.
Jewish Values Re-Imagined: The New Jewish Neighborhood Perspective
When people ask me the inevitable question, “Why do you live in Reservoir Hill?” I respond with three primary reasons: Shabbat observance; diversity/social justice; the intrinsic value of living near my shul. The first two are fairly straightforward. The third, however, is hardly self-evident. Lots of people, the vast majority of people, live far from their jobs. City living helps some to cut their commute time down, but there are plenty of urban residents who drive regularly to the suburbs or distant parts of the city. Decreased fossil fuel use and increased alternative modes of transportation (like biking, walking and public transit) are an obvious advantage. But what about the simple value of contributing to one’s own community – financially, ecologically and interpersonally?
The question is not only whether we rabbis and observant Jews ought to live near shul, but whether Jews in general ought to give this serious thought. I think the salient question is, “What does it mean to commute to community?” Urban life is, at least partially, about wanting to shrink the geographic radius of daily living. City residents like the idea of walking to parks or neighbors’ houses, cafes or the dry-cleaner. Might urban renewal offer a chance to rethink the value of walking to shul?
Otherness as Opportunity
“Because God is Other, God creates a world filled with difference.
Because God is Partner, all difference is filled with holy possibility.”
Rachel Adler, “Engendering Judaism”
The conventional wisdom about today’s younger Jews is that they shun tribalism, but this is not really true. Jewish pride is at an all-time high, and young Jews appreciate Jewishness, if not always religiously. Jews in their teens and twenties come of age in a world where Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, The Hebrew Hammer, J-Vibe and Heeb Magazines are things of the past. They watch shows like Glee where central characters are Jewish and flawed, but where Judaism isn’t a punch line. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Christiansen informed me that the word “Jewish” was fine, but the word “Jew” was a slur. It was perhaps true then, but not anymore.
Once, Jewish families looked to settle in comfortably contained neighborhoods and sought refuge in kosher markets, synagogues and organizational structures transplanted from the Old Country. Later, we trended toward assimilation, eager to move beyond provincial neighborhoods of immigrant parents. These days, Jews are looking to reclaim a place not of difference, but of distinctiveness within the whole. This is why public-space Judaism works so well, why so many are drawn to our services in a park, Israel-themed bar-parties or children’s story time at Barnes and Noble. Fitting in no longer means blending in.
The New Jewish Neighborhood should be a place of Jewish pride, where being a Member of the Tribe means belonging and does not require you to compromise your values like pluralism, service or sustainability. Today’s Jews are increasingly comfortable with who they are, more at ease in a world that is bigger than their own. Sometimes that world offers trends and tendencies in conflict with Judaism. But encountering otherness is also an opportunity to apply particular Jewish values in a universal context.
Prepositional Judaism: In, For, and Of the Neighborhood
Cities are where Jewish interactions with the other are most ubiquitous and obvious. When I first came to Beth Am, I learned of a post-Neilah Yom Kippur tradition: taking the lovely potted flowers which adorned our synagogue steps throughout the High Holy Days and leaving them in front our neighbors’ homes. In fact, the first year I was here I completely forgot to remind people to do this. Some didn’t, and folks from the neighborhood who had received a plant for years came up to me and said, “Hey Rabbi, how come I didn’t get my plant this year?”
Leaving a plant on the same doorstep each year for several years is a beautiful tradition. But this tradition, thoughtful though it is, begs the questions: How many Beth Am congregants know the people who live behind the door? How many go beyond the initial and lovely gesture to hear someone’s story? To tell his or her own story? To see the other face to face?
These questions led us to create the “In, For, and Of” leadership development initiative. In Beth Am’s early years, while so many other congregations fled, it was a point of pride to remain in the city. But during those early years, when the neighborhood faced significant challenges, the posture was defensive, the synagogue a fortress. At some point it became clear that we needed to do more than just exist in Reservoir Hill. We had to assist, to volunteer, to be for the neighborhood. A Social Action Committee was founded, and a relationship with the local elementary school developed. Beth Am ran book and clothing drives, planted trees and helped to organize the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) and the Lakeside Neighbors Coalition.
But the questions remained: How might we move beyond seeing the neighborhood as a project and problem to be solved? How might we build relationships, soften boundaries of race, religion and class? How might we, in our own modest way, begin to undo Baltimore’s sordid legacy of segregation? In other words, how might we be increasingly of our neighborhood?
The real paradigm shift wasn’t for those who live in the community; it was for the entire shul. We asked ourselves, “What is our individual and collective responsibility to a neighborhood in which we pray, eat and learn? How might we transcend the walls of our historic building and engage our neighbors? And how might we welcome them in?”
These questions have set us on an exciting path of strategic engagement with our neighbors. There have been big programs: 350 people coming together to hear the Afro-Semitic Experience, a Jewish/African American fusion music ensemble. We also planned a visit from the author of The Other Wes Moore, who wrote an award winning book about two Black men from Baltimore with drastically different life trajectories. A half-dozen community organizations were eager to co-sponsor the event with us. There have also been smaller, subtler achievements. We have congregants serving on the RHIC board, others on the design team for the soon-to-be rebuilt elementary school. Students in our Jewish Discovery Lab volunteer at the urban farm. We’ve hosted college students from out of state and Jewish groups from near and far. We created a program for USY teens moving them beyond typical youth-group volunteerism. They learned about the history of the neighborhood and then sat in neighbors’ homes where Black and Jewish residents told their stories. By the time the kids went to clear fieldstones from the farm expansion site, they had a sense of the community they were serving. They had, in their small way, become of the neighborhood.
Plenty of Jews live in suburbs where synagogues continue to thrive. Many of these synagogues have found value serving nearby urban populations through social action initiatives and advocacy. This begs a question, though. Must suburban congregations commute to lower-income neighborhoods? Can any shul do relevant community engagement and/or social justice on its front doorstep? Put differently, can any neighborhood be a New Jewish Neighborhood? I believe the answer is yes. While there are clearly differences between parts of the city and many suburbs, there is an overarching truth: the vast majority of American Jews live and work not in the shtetl but in the world. Otherness abounds. Being a minority, a tiny percentage of the American population, means Jewish identity is always defined in part by what we don’t think, with whom we don’t agree and in whose beliefs we don’t share.
Our tradition has always thrived in the tension between universal and particular, between understanding ourselves as simply in relationship with the other and casting our lot with the whole of humanity. But when we skew too far toward one end of the spectrum our sense of chosenness means a proclivity for the parochial. Even when Jewishness inspires outward action, being a light unto the nations has found us, at times, appearing and acting with a triumphal posture. Such is the case in the realm of social action when it is about doing for others instead of shared values and aspirations.
At Beth Am, we have begun to reframe and broaden the notion of Jewish tribalism. Where once the Jewish people consisted of twelve distinct tribes, we are now one tribe among many. And our tribe, looking at once to thrive as a distinct entity while actualizing our universalistic values, must better understand itself in relationship with the other. The tagline for our In, For and Of, Inc. is “Building Reservoir Hill Relationships” because relationships, as Saul Alinsky has taught generations of organizers, are where purposeful and positive change begins.
Rabbinical schools have an opportunity to help students transcend the false dichotomy of innovation vs. surrender. Synagogues are in crisis, and Jewish institutions are widely viewed as out-of-touch or irrelevant. This generation of rabbis has a critical choice before it: save the synagogue for the sake of the synagogue and fail or save the synagogue for the sake of the Jewish people and succeed. Congregations by necessity must grapple with difference and recognize the semi-permeable membranes of everyday life. How do those relationships affect the way average Jews think about their Jewish faith? It may very well be that the future success of Judaism in America will depend, in part, on whether we can overcome the mindset of the old Jewish neighborhood in favor of the new.
Daniel Cotzin Burg has been Rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue since July of 2010. Prior to his position at Beth Am, he served at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. Ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies he is married to Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg and they have two children, Eliyah and Shamir.
* This is a revised version of a chapter that originally appeared in a book edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education (Avenida Books).