In the Thick of It

In Fall of 2020, early on in the pandemic and before the advent of vaccines, I found myself in an uncomfortable spot. By then I’d lived and worked in Reservoir Hill for a full decade, had many relationships with neighbors, and had worked assiduously with my congregation to build on years of coexistence with our surrounding community. But our neighborhood like all neighborhoods isn’t static. People are constantly moving in and out. And with thousands living between Mt. Royal Terrace and Madison Ave., North Ave. and Druid Park Lake Dr., there are plenty of people I’ve not yet met and others who know me better than some.

During those early days of Covid Beth Am took myriad approaches to gathering: shofar flash mobs, zoom bedtime stories for kids, services in Druid Hill Park. On the heels of a fully virtual High Holy Day season, we wished to gather in person for Sukkot, a holiday that demands we build special outdoor structures for joyful gathering. I approached the Whitelock Community Farm manager to see if we might erect a small sukkah on the South Lots, grassy park space at the core of our neighborhood where Jewish and African American shops once stood. After meeting to discuss a location that would not interfere with other park activities, we built our sukkah and attached signage explaining the ritual, its connection with hospitality, and extended an invitation to all who wished to enter.

One morning we held services on the South Lots, inviting Beth Am families to gather for prayer and enjoy an informal meal. After the holiday, I was contacted by the program manager from the Farm asking for a public conversation with me. This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of numerous high-profile slayings of Black Americans by law enforcement. While we had permission to use the South Lots for our celebration, I was told that some neighbors felt uncomfortable with our placing a Jewish ritual object on this shared public space.

The conversation was held on the South Lots and various neighbors from multiple backgrounds assembled to listen, ask questions and raise concerns. All in all, it was a positive and constructive event. A few neighbors demanded I publicly state my support for the liberation of Black people (which I gladly did). We discussed the tricky subject of gentrification, and I was given the opportunity to clarify my vision for our community – one that welcomes all, including Jews in our historically Jewish neighborhood, but aspires to attract new Black neighbors, uplift legacy Black residents and preserve Reservoir Hill’s multicultural character.

But deeply problematic claims were also made. One person accused the Jewish people of fundamental racism. By telling the story of Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery, he said, we (who are white) claim to have been enslaved by black Africans. In addition to reminding the group that plenty of today’s Jews are not white, I explained that to impose modern constructions of race and racism on ancient civilizations was anachronistic and unhelpful. I agreed there are legitimate concerns about “white-washing” of ancient North African culture by 19th century Egyptologists. Bigotry and hatred are as ancient as humanity itself, I added, but anti-Black racism that fueled American chattel slavery is hundreds, not thousands of years old.

Other wild and dangerous assertions were made, including widely debunked arguments about racial disparities in human physiology. I reminded the speaker that these pseudoscientific claims had been popularized by the Eugenics movement and used to justify, among other crimes, the forced sterilization of Black Americans and the murder of European Jews.

Conversations continued in the weeks after the South Lots discussion, but I wondered where some of these claims had come from. Then, last month, Kyrie Irving was suspended for unrepentantly sharing a 2018 film based on a 2015 book, each of which makes numerous fallacious and antisemitic historical claims.

Had my interlocutors seen the film or read the book series long before I had heard of them? Perhaps they had. Had these inspired some of their conspiratorial and antisemitism questions or claims? Whatever the case, I realize now that living in a diverse community, and choosing to engage with my neighbors, affords me certain opportunities. Kyrie Irving had to publicly apologize as the world voyeuristically looked on. My encounter (and numerous one-to-one conversations before and since) was not easy, but it led to a softening of hardened hearts.

Being in the thick of it is challenging. But I still believe, in most cases, encounter is better than avoidance.  

The Long Way Around 

“Keep the gate open for us at the time when it is closing. For the day is coming to an end” 

– Yom Kippur Liturgy 

I’ve been thinking about gates lately. Yom Kippur was just last month. “Neilah” (gates closing and locking) imagery is potent on that day. Also, Beth Am just completed construction of our brand-new courtyard, the first time we’ll have had real programmable outdoor space at our 100-year-old building. As we were designing the courtyard, I emphasized the importance of a low fence and an easily opening gate. Inspired by our congregational aspiration to exist “in, for and of” our neighborhood, I wanted to make sure the courtyard was welcoming to neighbors, a new pocket park of sorts. Looking up the grade from Chauncey Avenue, our courtyard feels accessible, inviting. The fence and gate are aesthetic and practical; they help contain the energy and the children. This is a membrane not a wall.  

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” writes Robert Frost. But in the poem the neighbor responds with generational dogma. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he says. But Frost isn’t satisfied.

 

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it 

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 

What I was walling in or walling out, 

And to whom I was like to give offense. 

Questioning assumptions is at the heart of the New Jewish Neighborhood concept, noticing the gap between is and ought where justice is found. 

Recently, I went for a walk on Shabbat. My daughter’s school had a program in the afternoon. She was interested in going, so after services and kiddush lunch, we put on some good walking shoes and took a long stroll down to Mt. Vernon where her school is located. On the way back, I was in no hurry, so I took a slight detour off Eutaw Place to Bolton Street. I walked past State Center and the Maryland Museum of Military History, crossed Dolphin and headed into Bolton Hill, the neighborhood immediately to my neighborhood’s South.  

Bolton Street, in both neighborhoods, is lovely, with aging shade trees, intermittent brick sidewalks and historic Baltimore homes. The leaves were changing and falling, blanketing the ground with browns, yellows and reds. I had walked this street many times, but for some reason that day I was so caught up in the magic of my Shabbat afternoon stroll, I forgot what I would find at the place where Bolton Street meets North Ave. A fence. A gate. Not even a gate. A place where a gate may have once stood, but having been closed and locked for so long, was eventually replaced with a nondescript metal fence. 

I had also forgotten in that moment what I had written a few years back about journalist and urbanist Jane Jacob’s concept of “border vacuums” that separate communities, often along racial and/or socioeconomic lines. I wrote then: “…to our South we have North Avenue, once a vibrant commercial corridor that marked the city/county line. But (recently demolished) Madison Park North, an ill-conceived “superblock” of mid-twentieth century urban planning, stymied pedestrian and car traffic on Bolton Street between Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill. The Spicer’s Run development returned the favor decades later by carving out a new superblock, adding brick walls and iron fencing to underscore the vacuum between the two neighborhoods.” 

So, here I was standing in front of that fence wondering what possible good it could serve to make it so difficult to step from one neighborhood to the next. I became obsessed with that gate-turned-fence. Bolton Hill is not a gated community, after all, there are other places to enter. Why not there? I wondered just how inconvenient it was to walk around. I rode my Onewheel down the next day to time it. It took me three and a half minutes (at 10-15 mph) to ride around to the other side. I looked at a map. In one direction it was 3/10 of a mile. In the other 4/10.   

After years existing as a pile of rubble, redevelopment has begun for Madison Park North. In recreating a real city block, architects hope to rethread city streets, creating membranes and portals where there have been barricades and fences. The plans call for mending Bolton Street, bringing its Reservoir Hill span back in contact with its Bolton Hill portion. One can only hope. Or pray.  

As the Yom Kippur liturgy does: “The day will end. The sun will set. Let us come into your gates.” 

A version of this post will appear in JMore.

What We Do for Our Neighbors 

Late this past spring, the Rev. Michael Jennings, pastor of a small church near Birmingham, Alabama, was arrested while watering his neighbor’s flowers. Multiple police officers approached 56-year-old Jennings who had been friends with the neighbor for seven years, treated him as a suspicious person and placed him in handcuffs when he refused to show his ID. Later, after Jennings was in cuffs, one of the officers asked him indignantly how they would know he was watering the flowers. Jennings chuckled: “I had a hose right there in my hands!” 

The absurdity of this encounter goes well beyond the plain racial profiling or even the officers’ refusal to back down from their arrest of a non-threatening and law-abiding citizen (they couldn’t even come to a clear conclusion about what the charge ought to be). And it goes beyond the profoundly irresponsible (and undoubtedly racist) neighbor Amanda who phoned the police when she saw a “suspicious person,” but didn’t bother to look closely enough to realize it was her neighbor Pastor Jennings, whom she knew.  

Perhaps the worst part of this story is that Jennings was doing exactly what neighbors ought to be doing – taking care of one another and taking care of their property. The Torah is so insistent on this value, it declares one must even help one’s enemy: “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it” (Ex. 23:5). One might think the chief concern here is the suffering of the animal, and that does seem to be a consideration. Read: even if your enemy’s ass is suffering you should help because the ass has done nothing to deserve your resentment.  

But that’s also not the entire story. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b) uses this verse to teach a different lesson: one about the virtue of helping our enemy. “Come and hear: a friend [whose animal collapsed, and it is necessary] to unload [its burden], and [one also encounters] an enemy [who needs assistance] to load [a burden onto his animal], the obligation (mitzvah) is to assist the enemy, in order to subjugate [one’s evil] inclination.” In other words, we choose to help an enemy over a friend to get better at hating enemies less.  

If this is true for our enemies, that we demonstrate our better angels by helping them with their property, what’s assumed is that most of us would gladly help our friends – it’s just what neighbors do! When we moved to Reservoir Hill, we were immediately pleased to see it was a neighborhood where people shoveled each other’s walks, pulled back each other’s garbage cans on trash day and, yes, watered each other’s flowers. 

What was so insidious about neighbor Amanda and the police officers’ behavior in Childersburg, AL (population 5,000) is not that they collectively enabled the arrest of a neighbor and spiritual leader without cause. It’s not even their failure to celebrate Pastor Jennings’ neighborly behavior. Their true sin was that they thought one person watering another person’s flowers was worth paying attention to at all! Let’s say Jennings was indeed watering flowers without permission. Who cares! I do that all the time. So do my neighbors. And our community, any community, is better for all the people who do little things for one another without being asked and without any expectation of acknowledgment or even thanks.  

Suspicion and cynicism aren’t supposed to be the norm. Generosity is. The Torah cautions against punishing even our neighbors or their animals too harshly. But it doesn’t even contemplate turning our neighbors into enemies by condemning their kindness and castigating their benevolence. Pastor Jennings was just a normal guy doing a normal thing. This isn’t a story about his heroism. It’s a story about other people’s villainy.  

A Version of this post will appear in Jmore.

Finding God Over the Fence 

Next month, Jews throughout Baltimore and around the world will attend synagogues in significant numbers. Many will open the Machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, and encounter a language at once familiar and mysterious. The English language contains over 170,000 words. Modern Hebrew, by comparison, has around 33,000. Biblical Hebrew has far fewer, around 8200 words. The rabbis were aware of Hebrew’s terse vocabulary – and therefore the rich potential of many words for layered meaning.  

The first time I discovered the paucity (and potency) of Hebrew was in Jewish summer camp as a child. A counselor explained there was a linguistic connection between the Hebrew word baruch (blessed) and another word, berech (knee). When we bless God, when we say the words “Baruch Ata Heshem” in our central prayer, we bend our knees. Whether this connection is about humility, flexibility or strength, I’m uncertain. Perhaps all of these.

I write frequently on this site about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood where Jewish qualities prevail over Jewish quantity. I also highlight and celebrate my own Reservoir Hill neighborhood in which I live and work. At best, there is holiness to community. It’s a holiness I feel when I encounter friends on the street or welcome newcomers to our shul. Philosopher Martin Buber believed we encounter God in the face of the other, particularly in those with whom we’re more familiar.

So, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that an important Hebrew word for God, Shechinah, is related to the Hebrew word for neighborhood, shechunah. Judaism is not particularly dogmatic. God is one being but not one thing, not limited to one way of being. Shechinah is the divine presence, sometimes understood to be the divine feminine, the aspect of God we humans can access here on earth. Shechinah is the in-dwelling. 

What is a neighborhood, after all? It’s a place in which we and our families dwell, sure, but it’s also sacred if we make it so. A neighborhood can be a place where we live, where we sleep at night or in which we own and occupy a home. Or a neighborhood can be where we discover deeper human connections – and in so doing, the possibilities of God. “Imagine,” said Fred Rodgers, “what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”  

And neighborhoods aren’t just about the people who live there now, they also have history. My house on Eutaw Place was built in 1895. I have images of handwritten deeds going back to its first owners. Sometimes I imagine the Jewish families who lived there in the 1940’s lighting their chanukiah in the window just like we do or African American families listening to Motown in our living room in the 1960’s. A sense of people, plus an awareness of history, can equal an experience of meaning, even holiness.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I’m fascinated by Japanese culture. One key difference between Japanese and American neighborhoods is our naming and numbering systems. In America, streets have names and houses have numbers. In Japan, however, instead of streets (the space in between blocks) having names, blocks have numbers and the space in between the blocks (streets) are without designation. A particular home might be located in District 8, Block 27. Like the U.S., the houses have numbers too, but they don’t necessarily proceed in an orderly fashion up the block. Japanese houses are numbered by the order in which they were built. To know one’s neighbors in Japan is to know who they are, where they live and, to some extent, the history of one’s community. Is this a standard to which we might hold ourselves? Isn’t the space between our homes (both spatial and temporal) a manifestation of something greater?

As we approach our New Year, greater attentiveness to these dynamics could help fashion meaningful paths forward, blurring the boundaries between shechunah and Shechinah, neighborhood and godhood. The Babylonian Talmud teaches: “Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Hospitality is more important even than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah” (Shabbat 127a).

This coming year, what if we didn’t have to choose? 

Independence Days

Next month America will mark Independence Day, a national holiday celebrating our founding as a republic and declaring our freedom from British rule. But in 1776 only some American residents were free. First among those without freedom were tens of thousands of enslaved Africans, ripped from their communities and forced into cargo holds and then brutal service on American plantations. For many Black folks, July 4th is complicated, inviting feelings of pride but also resentment, sadness or anger. 

Juneteenth 2022 on Whitelock Street

This is one reason last weekend’s Juneteenth celebration was so important, enough for President Biden and Congress to declare June 19th the first new federal holiday in nearly 40 years. Governor Hogan and Maryland quickly adopted the holiday, and a number of other states have done so. But some have resisted making Juneteenth official. In Tennessee, where the state recognizes observances for Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day (Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan), the legislature failed this year to advance funding for Juneteenth. One state senator said, “I just think we’re putting the cart before the horse making a holiday that people don’t know about.” 

The reason for creating holidays is at least in part so more people can learn about them, especially when they highlight historic injustices. Juneteenth marks the end of American chattel slavery, but hardly the end of its impact. In order to better appreciate July 4, we must be willing to better understand the importance of June 19. To fully celebrate American freedom we must also be curious and concerned about the ways that freedom has been so unevenly distributed throughout our history. 

The rabbinic sages were sensitive to an investigatory approach to justice. The Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 55a) outlines a debate between the houses of Hillel and Shammai with regard to a stolen beam: 

The Sages taught (Tosefta, Bava Kamma 10:5): If one robbed [another of] a beam and built it into a building, the House of Shammai says: [He must] destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners. And the House of Hillel says: [The injured party receives] only the value of the beam, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent.  

The Houses of Shammai and Hillel disagree fundamentally about the best way to right the wrong when one party erects an edifice undergirded by sin. Shammai says the entire building must be unmade. Hillel says restitution must be paid. As Rabbi Sharon Brous points out: “Neither argues that you can pretend, year after year, generation after generation, that the beam wasn’t stolen. Neither suggests that time rights the wrong. Both understand that the theft, unaddressed, threatens the legitimacy of the whole enterprise.” 

This is Jewish tradition’s version of restorative justice, the notion that retribution doesn’t provide sufficient opportunity for learning, engagement, or growth. When Hillel’s students say the thief pays for the value of the beam “for the sake of the penitent,” this doesn’t in any way justify the act of theft, nor minimize the impact of such a violation. But it does provide opportunities for growth, even repair, between two parties.  

As Brous writes, “Our country was built on a stolen beam. More accurately, several million stolen beams. Only they weren’t beams. They were human beings.” The adoption of Juneteenth as a federal holiday isn’t only about Juneteenth; it’s also about Independence Day. Perhaps, one day, more of us will be prepared to take more seriously the possibility of reparations for the harm done to millions of African Americans. Until then, keep in mind Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1960 words at Spelman College: “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.” 

A version of this post will appear in the July issue of Jmore.

The (Real) Wonders of Whitelock Street

The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) discusses the problem of lashon hara (wicked or destructive speech): Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21)…. [It teaches that] just as a hand can kill, so too a tongue can kill. If you were to claim that just as the hand kills only from close by, so too the tongue kills only from close by, therefore the verse states: “Their tongue is a sharpened arrow” (Jeremiah 9:7).”

The text is hyperbolic, but it’s meant to drive home an important point: words matter. When we say or write things, people hear or read them. They internalize them. Often they share them, retweet them or teach them to their children. Why does the Talmud make a point of saying words can harm like arrows? Because arrows can be fired from a distance. As can words.

Last month in Jmore (the publication with which I cross-publish this blog), there appeared an article (“The Wonders of Whitelock Street”) by Steve Liebowitz who is described as a “Baltimore-based freelance writer and author.” I do not know Mr. Liebowitz. But since he was writing “from a distance,” I’d like to take this opportunity to correct a few things about the neighborhood where I live and work just in case people were reading his words and taking them to heart.

“The next time you’re in Reservoir Hill,” he begins, “take notice of a barren stretch of curved road between Linden and Brookfield Avenues known as Whitelock Street.” This sentence provides cover for the author to describe the good ole’ days when Jewish merchants and shopkeepers sold kosher meats and baked goods. By the end of the piece, Mr. Liebowitz grudgingly acknowledges what is now a “verdant area of parks and the Whitelock Community Farm, where residents grown their own vegetables.” But then he takes those residents to task for not knowing that “the land they are using for healthy eating today once brimmed with Jewish grocery stores and merchants.”

I’m not sure which is worse: the blatant assumption of widespread ignorance about our community’s past or the implication that striving to grow carrots or kale in a food desert is categorically inferior to pastrami on rye. Mr. Liebowitz romanticizes the Jewish past, alternates between denigrating and pitying the African American community that moved in, and virtually ignores the neighborhood as it is today.  

Look closely at the piece and you’ll find language used to describe Jewish departure from the neighborhood as an “exodus.” An exodus was what our ancestors did when they fled slavery in Egypt. The word “flight” better describes what happened in the 1950’s and 60’s when Jews participated in a mass migration from Baltimore’s urban center toward the County. And notice the words he uses to describe what was left behind: “As Jewish residents gradually moved away… African-Americans [sic] moved into the neighborhood.” And elsewhere he depicts an “open drug market besotted with violence.”

What Mr. Liebowitz does not mention is that most Jewish residents did not move away gradually. He doesn’t site policies like red-lining and practices like block busting that were employed to transition neighborhoods like mine quickly, and line the pockets of speculators and banks who overcharged incoming Black residents even as Jim-Crow era racist policies drained resources from West Baltimore.

Perhaps worst of all, while celebrating Reservoir Hill’s Jewish past, Mr. Liebowitz completely ignores its Jewish present. That stretch of road between Linden and Brookfield is not just where Wasserman & Lemberger’s once stood, it’s also where Beth Am Synagogue’s sukkah stood the past two years while our offices and courtyard were awaiting construction. Linden and Whitelock is where 300+ volunteers came together to build a new playground in 2011 and where Beth Am has held young family services and kiddush luncheons during the pandemic. Whitelock Street is where a Beth Am member helps to coordinate a long-standing community garden and where the St. Francis Neighborhood Center has completed a major expansion to better serve Reservoir Hill youth. And Whitelock Street (on precisely the lot where Surosky’s Butcher once stood) is where Beth Am will sponsor the Children’s Village of the Reservoir Hill Juneteenth celebration this summer.

Perhaps Mr. Liebowitz would like to stop by and write about that!

A version of this post will appear in the May issue of Jmore.

Here are a few images of Beth Am and our neighbors on Whitelock Street over the past several years!

To Seek Justice, First Just Breathe

George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Freddie Gray in Baltimore did too. In New York, it was Eric Garner. Dozens of people over the past decade have died due to “asphyxia/restraint,” police holds that blocked their airways until their bodies simply could not endure. Many more have perished but were never able to say “I can’t breathe” before they died. The suffocation of human beings, disproportionately, but not exclusively, Black men, horrified the world and led to Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murder last April. Few of us can imagine a worse fate than to be denied access to the elemental function of breathing.

Jewish tradition invites us to pay closer attention to breathing, to not take it for granted. An introductory prayer to the Shabbat morning service proclaims: “All breathing life adores Your Name…. These limbs which You formed for us, this soul-force which You breathed into us, this tongue which You set in our mouth, must laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing Your holiness and sovereignty!”

The liturgy draws inspiration from the second chapter of Genesis in which God creates humanity through breath. “God formed man from the dust of the earth. [God] blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew for “life breath” is nishmat chayim, from which the word neshama (soul) is derived. Our souls are not fixed but animated by God’s breath flowing into us. Humanity’s first act was not to speak but to breathe, specifically to inhale. Just as a baby’s first act is to find its breath before beginning to cry.

During my sabbatical these past months, I have had ample opportunity to focus on breathing and have been amazed to discover how often I take it for granted. For example, when I was preparing for my open water Scuba certification on Maui, my instructor told us we would be hearing whale song during our dives. Two-thirds of all North Pacific humpback whales migrate to the Hawaiian Islands for breeding during the winter months. Sound travels much better through water than air. At 20–30-foot depths, I looked forward to a magical serenade. But as I donned my gear and submerged, I didn’t hear whales. I didn’t hear anything but noisy bubbles I emitted through my regulator.

Meditative practices like Yoga, too, demand that practitioners focus on their breath. One learns to exhale all that clutters the mind and clogs the soul through slow, rhythmic breathing. But before we exhale, we must have air in our lungs. Before we can speak, we must breathe.  

How do we make meaningful change in this world filled with so much noise, so many cries of desperation? Understandably, we often focus on speech. We write, protest, and advocate. Speech, too, is a central Jewish value. God speaks the world into existence: “Let there be light. And there was light” (Gen 1:3). The morning liturgy also includes the hymn: “Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into being.” The Bible links harmful speech to the persistence of injustice: “A malicious witness scoffs at justice, And the speech of the wicked conceals mischief” (Proverbs 19:28).

But Jewish tradition also cautions against too much speech and not enough listening. Sefer Yetzirah, an early mystical text, points out that the human head has seven openings equivalent to the seven days of creation: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth. The implication is that we should utilize our senses, especially listening, twice as often as we speak.

When we speak it’s hard to listen, and without listening our speech is rarely productive. But before there was listening or speech, there was breath. When we’re attentive to our breath, we observe the world in ways previously unavailable to us. Scuba diving that first day, it took me a while to figure out why I didn’t notice the humpback whales. I was so focused on getting air into my lungs, I could only hear the result – the bubbles. I wasn’t paying attention to my inhalations, so I wasn’t listening. When I allowed myself into the quiet, suddenly there they were! The next two days were a symphony of whale song.

ISO Wholeness

Not long ago, my family and I were staying at a hotel in Southern California. I went to retrieve my rental car from the underground parking lot. As I approached the vehicle, I noticed a custodial employee methodically wiping down the exterior of a trash can. I found myself staring at the man for a long minute wondering what motivated him to pay such attention to detail. At first, I discovered myself dismissing the behavior as absurd – why would anyone bother to clean a garbage can? In a garage? Maybe his boss was overly fastidious? Or petty? Maybe the expectations for trash can cleanliness are different in California than in Maryland? But as I watched him, my thinking softened. Maybe he simply took pride in his work? Maybe he walked away from that trash can with a sense of fulfillment, knowing that before clocking out, when he scanned that garage with his gaze, every corner looked unsullied and tidy? 

So often we evaluate behavior, of ourselves and others, based on whether it’s good or bad. Jewish tradition certainly offers moral judgments; our God is a God of justice. But this is not the only lens through which to view the world. Often, a better question to ask ourselves isn’t whether some human act is right or wrong but whether it adds value, whether it moves someone toward a life of greater fulfillment.  

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a seminal voice in the modern Mussar movement. Morinis: “…Luzzatto tells us that as humans we are all placed between wholeness and deficiency with the power to earn wholeness. Man must earn this wholeness, however, through his own free will.” It seems to me that religions too often talk about how we move on a spectrum between evil and goodness, wrong and right. This is useful in addressing ethical questions but falls short when addressing quality of life.  

Another paradigm is that of brokenness and repair. This paradigm also has its merits, but its shortcomings are two-fold. First, the repair of something broken brings it back to a previously functional state but does nothing to advance it. Repair is about reinstatement not improvement. But there’s a more insidious problem with the brokenness/repair model. Things can be broken and fixed. They don’t notice they are broken. They’re things.  

People who feel broken (or, frequently, who are made to feel broken) struggle to mend because feeling broken is constitutionally debilitating when, as Luzzatto taught, our souls crave wholeness. The same is true for communities and societies. When people talk about Baltimore as “broken,” it does little to make Baltimoreans feels good about our prospects for improvement.  

I once wrote a piece (cross-published in Jmore) about the tikkun olam paradigm, popular in Jewish justice circles but which I feel is problematic. “The tikkun olam paradigm,” I wrote, “means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit (Genesis),though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.” 

This is why Rabbi Luzzatto’s paradigm of deficiency and wholeness is useful. Maybe the California custodian who meticulously wiped down that trash can isn’t an “entropy janitor” but on a quest for sheleimut, wholeness and fulfillment. Maybe more of us would thrive if we could see ourselves on a path forward and upward instead of feeling broken or breaking and in constant need of repair. Baltimore has endemic problems to be sure, but ours is not a “problematic” city. If only more would look at our city with at least the same sense of pride as I witnessed one day in a California garage.

A version of this post will appear in the February issue of Jmore. 

The Kindness of Strangers

As I write this piece, Baltimore City inches closer to a seventh straight year in which there were more than 300 murders. My own neighborhood of Reservoir Hill has seen a substantial decrease in violent crime in recent decades but is not fully spared the effects of the slaughter. For example, two days ago, 46-year-old Anthony Rollins was shot in his car two blocks from my home.

But murders aren’t the only crimes affecting Baltimoreans. Petty theft continues to be a problem as well. For example, I recently had $400 worth of contact lenses stolen from my front porch. The UPS truck dropped my mail-order prescription while we were out. 10 minutes later, long before we had the opportunity to collect the package, a man surreptitiously approached our front door, grabbed the small package, placed it in a plastic bag and walked away. This was a real problem for me considering I wear mono-vision lenses and I need my contacts both for distance and reading.

Weeks passed. Then, I got a text from a neighbor to me and someone whose number I didn’t recognize. “The other person on this text has your contacts,” it read. I quickly replied: “Really? That’s amazing!” The stranger, replied immediately: “I found your contacts along with an invoice that had your name and address. They looked expensive, so I thought you might want them back.” “Yes!” I replied.

I arranged to swing by her place the next morning. She lived a mile and a half from my home, on North Avenue near the BCPS headquarters. She explained she had found the contact lenses in a plastic bag discarded in one of the planters near her home. I was amazed. It was one thing to find the lenses. It was quite another to somehow track down my neighbor and ask if he could put us in touch. It was yet another level of generosity and trust to invite a stranger to your home address to recover his possession.

Deuteronomy 22:1-3 teaches: “You shall not see your fellow’s ox or his sheep scattered and hide yourself from him; you shall surely bring them back to your fellow. And if your fellow is not near you or you do not know them, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall be with you until your fellow seeks it…. So shall you do with every lost object of your fellow which they have lost and you have found; you may not remain indifferent.”

It’s clear that Jewish tradition holds us responsible for returning lost objects, even to strangers. A later rabbinic source (Pirkei Avot 5:10) explains there are four moral orientations among people. The first of these says, “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours in yours.” One sage suggests this is an “average” orientation. Others, however, argue this is “the way of Sodom.” Sodom was of course that infamous city whose inhabitants were wholly dismissive and cruel to one another.

How can one set of behaviors be seen in such radically different ways? One perspective is that each person’s claim on their own property is normal, average and unremarkable. Another is that such behavior is corrosive and destructive. This text seems to suggest that the roots of injustice can be found as much with inaction as with the wrong action. When we remain isolated from one another’s life experiences, when we insist there’s no reason to get involved in someone else’s business, we perpetuate indifference. A community of bystanders makes for a morally impoverished citizenry where every person is left to fend for themselves. In such a society, basic social cohesion and trust are sacrificed on the altar of independence and self-reliance.

I’m sure the woman who found my contacts had other things to do, obligations to people she knew and loved that required her time and attention, obligations to herself. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to a stranger and empathy for my loss. There are so many reasons to be cynical about people these days; we’re beaten down by crime statistics and the constant barrage of bad news. But, as I was reminded, there are plenty of good people who look for opportunities to do right. These are the people whose moral compass points away from Sodom, a city so morally detestable it had to be destroyed, and toward cities of accountability and even holiness.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore

Fighting for Justice Means Fighting for Us Too

In a recent episode of her provocative podcast “Adventures with Dead Jews,” Dara Horn unpacks the wildly successful 1947 film Gentlemen’s Agreement, arguing Jewish acceptance into normative Christian society is conditional. A scene from the film helps to underscore Horn’s point. In it, Gregory Peck’s character Phil Green, pretending to be Jewish to write an exposé about American antisemitism, has a conversation with his young son Tommy. Tommy asks his dad: “What are Jews anyway?” Phil’s reply: “…Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.”

The problem with this framing is it subsumes shuls under a Christian category and ignores the reality that synagogues are authentic expressions of Jewishness, not “Jewish churches.” I write a lot in this column about Beth Am’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood where I live. But, in my neighborhood, which I love and whose residents are generally supportive and appreciative of our presence, from time to time I encounter two forms of Jewish minimization. The first is seemingly benign: people do refer to our building as “the Jewish church.” Whenever this happens, I simply correct people. “Churches are Christian,” I say. “Synagogues are Jewish sacred places for gathering.” Most of the time people are happy to be corrected. Sometimes, they’re clearly perturbed they must learn a whole new word when the word they previously knew to describe all houses of worship is shown to no longer be sufficient.

But, sometimes this minimization equals full-on erasure of Jewish identity and self-determination. I was reminded of this recently when a nearby neighbor who identifies as a Hebrew Israelite began to shout and shame Jews outside the shul. To be sure, the Hebrew Israelite ideology doesn’t necessarily equal hate, but the Southern Poverty Law Center does designate four specific Baltimore-based “Israelite” groups as hate groups. This man’s toxic views, expressed belligerently and without any regard for the humanity or dignity of his neighbors, must be called out for what it is: antisemitic.

But, most conditional acceptance (and therefore tacit rejection) of Jews is much more subtle. From the annual Christmas tree at the public Baltimore School for the Arts where my daughter attends High School, to de minimis attempts at interfaith gatherings to provide food I can eat, to prayers offered at these events which non-Christians cannot affirm because they are offered in Jesus’ name, being Jewish in practice is a consistent challenge.

One final example. I was asked by a Baltimore interfaith clergy consortium of which I’m a part to host an in-person retreat at Beth Am. I explained that the two days they were considering, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, were important Jewish holidays and simply wouldn’t work for us. “The following week would be fine,” I indicated, “and we’d be honored and delighted to host.” The response: “Hi Rabbi Burg! It seems like September 28th is when the majority of members will be able to attend, several will be out the first week of October…. I hope you can attend!” He then informed me a Bishop from the group had graciously offered to host. When I replied that I would be leading services and would be unable to do so, I received no response. The gathering proceeded exclusively with Christians.

The late British Rabbi Lionel Blue is said to have quipped, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” The joke, of course, is that so much of the time we have to work harder to be accepted, because others work so little to accept us. Gone are the policies that excluded Jews from universities, from jobs and from neighborhoods. But what remains are the small indignities, the ways the majority culture encourages our having to pass, to abide by their gentlemen’s agreement.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore