Awakening from the Dream: Martin Luther King and the Meaning(s) of a Life

Recently, I was listening to a well-known scholar and Jewish educator interview a famous sportswriter. The scholar was asking the sportswriter to elaborate about baseball and basketball, American Jews’ special relationship with sports in general and baseball in particular. The interviewer asked, again and again, questions about what it meant for Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg to sit out games because of Jewish observances, or what specifically could be at the root of the enduring romance between Jewish Americans and the sport of baseball.

Each time the scholar would pose a question, the sportswriter would tell a story or recount facts and figures but would not really answer the scholar’s questions. One party would try to examine hidden truths; the other party would relate little-known historical details and anecdotes. As a listener, I found myself amused and frustrated by the way these two men kept talking past one another. But then, of course, the Jewish educator should’ve known better. Journalists, including sportswriters, aren’t responsible for conveying lessons; that’s the job of educators and rabbis. Journalists tell stories, recount facts, chronicle history. Understanding what these facts or stories mean is the responsibility of the reader, the listener, or of teachers.

As a rabbi who serves a congregation in an historic Jewish building within a majority Black neighborhood, I spend a fair amount of time (in this column or other writings, in sermons and in classes I teach) teasing out meaning from daily encounters with friends and neighbors. But Beth Am, itself, is also a resource for meaning making. Now that the pandemic is largely in our rearview mirror, we are redoubling our efforts as an anchor and convener.

Monday, May 22 at 7:00 pm, Beth Am will host Awakening from the Dream, a conversation with bestselling author Jonathan Eig. I’m privileged to welcome Bishop Donte Hickman and members of Southern Baptist Church, along with the greater Jewish, Reservoir Hill, and Baltimore communities to our historic sanctuary. In his monumental new book, Eig explores the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book (I have an advance copy!) benefits from new interviews with those who knew and loved King, as well as recently declassified FBI files revealing a stunning level of surveillance. King comes across as a flawed yet visionary leader whose humanity and sacrifice makes his life’s story even more compelling than the mythological figure who has too often replaced the actual man in casual conversation.

Eig, an active member of his Chicago synagogue who hosts a weekly podcast with his rabbi, was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets long before he became a celebrated biographer. The “whats” (well-researched facts and historic details) are presented with accuracy and texture. But, equally importantly, the book invites questions about the purpose and impact of King’s life, spurring the reader to consider why he was so driven, how he endured so much vitriol including constant threats to his life and safety, and what drove him (until the very end) to keep pushing for a more just and equitable America.

Those questions and more will be at issue as Bishop Hickman, a highly respected leader in the Baltimore Black Baptist Church who spoke recently at Governor Wes Moore’s inauguration, engages in conversation with a highly respected chronicler of transformational American leaders. This summer marks 60 years since the March on Washington, but as time marches on some of us may forget that King’s March sought to achieve specific goals: “jobs and freedom.” All these years later, unemployment rates for African Americans remain lower than their white or Asian American counterparts. The US incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any nation on the planet – disproportionately Black and Latino men. Recently, two duly elected Black lawmakers in Tennessee were removed from their posts (only to be reinstated soon after by their constituents) for a breach of decorum. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been rendered toothless by the Supreme Court.

The fight for racial and social justice remains pressing. New possibilities for Black-Jewish partnerships are many. Dr. King’s life and work has never been more relevant. Come and learn how the ever-emerging facts of that storied life can and should inform the work of our own.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.

Justice, Mercy, and Joy

The Chofetz Chayim, a nineteenth century sage, was once asked to appear in court as a character witness for one of his students who had been accused of spying by the czarist police. The story goes that, before he summoned the rabbi to the witness stand, the lawyer approached the judge and said, “Your honor, the rabbi who is about to testify has an impeccable reputation among his fellow Jews. They say that one day he came home and saw a thief rummaging through his living room. The frightened thief climbed out a window and ran off with some of the rabbi’s possessions, and the rabbi ran after him, shouting, ‘I declare all my property ownerless,’ so that the thief would not be liable for the crime.” The judge looked at the lawyer with suspicion in his eyes: “Do you believe that story really happened?” “I don’t know, your honor,” the lawyer replied, “but they don’t tell stories like that about you and me.”

The story is ostensibly about reputation and how Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known by the title of his masterwork on the laws of ethical speech, earned his. But the true moral of the story, the underlying reason for Kagan’s renown, was his compassion. The Chofetz Chayim was someone who went out of his way to remove stumbling blocks from before the blind, to judge others for good. Bryan Stevenson titled his 2014 book Just Mercy to remind the reader that justice without mercy is fundamentally unjust.

There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 7a) about the tension between strict justice and compassion. After one rabbi suggests that God in heaven prays just as we humans do, the Talmud asks: “What then does God pray?” The response: “Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, ‘May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger.’”

The Rabbis of antiquity envision two thrones in heaven: a throne of strict judgment (din) and another of mercy (rachamim), with God oscillating between the two. Our Sages speculate that perhaps humanity doesn’t fully deserve the compassion God bestows upon us. “Rav Yehuda says in the name of Rav: There are twelve hours in the day. During the first three, the Holy One sits and engages in Torah study. During the second three hours, God sits and judges the entire world. Once the Holy One sees that the world has rendered itself liable to destruction, God arises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy [and the world is not destroyed]” (Avodah Zarah 3b).

I sometimes wonder why I felt called to serve a congregation like Beth Am whose nearly 50-year history in its 100-year-old building in Central-West Baltimore sets it apart from most American congregations. There isn’t a singular answer, of course. In part it’s because my parents chose to raise me in a socio-economically and racially diverse Chicago suburb where my commitment to pluralism was forged at a young age. No less important is my sincere belief that the essence of Jewish tradition is rooted in God’s desire for us to bring about a more just world.

But the mystic in me wonders if perhaps my very name, the Hebrew name bestowed upon me by my parents, foreshadowed my devotion to justice (and just mercy). I am named for my great-grandfather Yerachmiel, a name that means “May God have mercy.” My second Hebrew name is Daniel which means “God is my judge.” Which is to say, my parents (unknowingly but fittingly) chose to fashion my name according to the Talmudic teaching, placing the quality of mercy before that of strict justice.

Compassion seems out of fashion these days. In the torrent of revenge flicks or politicians and pundits calling for victory at any cost, unqualified justice reigns supreme. But remember the teaching above from Avodah Zarah; it is mercy that is life sustaining, and it is mercy in relationship with justice that ought to guide our actions as well. After The Holy One spends three hours studying Torah and another three judging the world, God moves to the throne of mercy. What, then, does God do with the final six hours in the twelve-hour day? The Talmud continues: “During the third set of three hours, the Holy One sits and sustains the entire world, from the horns of wild oxen to the eggs of lice. During the fourth three hours, God sits and makes sport with the leviathan, as it is stated: “There is leviathan, whom You made to play with” (Psalms 104:26).

Having chosen to save the world, God invests in its future, ensuring every creature, big and small, can play its part. The fruits of all this labor? After work, God gets to play. Leviathan is a mythical sea creature, God’s pet. The best analogy is to a human tossing a ball around with her dog in the fading light of an early evening after work.

What is sport? Why is leisure so important? Because the lives with which we’ve been entrusted must be lives worth living. There is justice. There is mercy that tempers our tendency to create more harm in response to injustice than the initial injustice itself. But then, after mercy, should we be open to it, there can be joy.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.

The Assumptions We Make

Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah (Pirkei Avot 1:6) taught that we should “judge all people favorably.” Most of us know intuitively this is a virtuous approach to life, but still, it’s incredibly hard to do. More often we bring bounteous assumptions to our human encounters. We may think people are simply not to be trusted or we allow our implicit biases, formed within our psyche over decades, to exert disproportionate influence over our relationships. We leap to conclusions based on race, zip code, age or gender. We judge unfavorably, ignoring Rabbi Joshua’s advice, even those from our own people, who may practice their Judaism differently from us.

Back in November, I had two encounters in the same day that spoke to the assumptions we make. The first was a false assumption made about my neighborhood. The second was my own false assumption about someone else. I was in Baltimore County for my father’s yahrzeit. Beth Am doesn’t have a daily minyan, so when I need to say kaddish on a weekday morning, I’ll often head to one of several Park Heights or Pikesville congregations.

When the service concluded I fell into a conversation with a regular minyan attendee who noticed my car as the only she didn’t recognize in the parking lot and (rightly) assumed it was mine. Both of us drive Tesla Model 3’s (a fact about which I’ve become increasingly embarrassed witnessing Elon Musk’s recent behavior). The woman told me I should consider keeping a thumb drive plugged in to my USB port so that the vehicle’s cameras will record any attempt to break in or do damage to the car. She explained that she had recently had her car keyed outside her home (she lived near her synagogue) and was hoping to catch the perpetrator.

I thanked her for the advice and introduced myself. She asked where I live, and when I told her I live across the street from Beth Am in Reservoir Hill, her reply caught me off-guard. “You should get a taser!” she said. My draw dropped. “A what?” “You know, a taser. That’s a dangerous neighborhood.” I swallowed hard. “When is the last time you were in my area of the city?” I asked. “Well, it’s been a long time. I don’t really go to the city.” “Maybe you should spend some time there before leaping to conclusions about my neighbors,” I said, with all the kindness I could summon. Then, I joked: “After all, it was your car that got keyed recently, not mine. Perhaps I should be worried about coming to your neighborhood!” She didn’t get the joke.

I was thinking about that encounter as I tossed my tallis and tefillin into my car, glancing at the magnet on my trunk as I closed it. The magnet read, “Abortion Bans are Against My Religion.” I climbed into the driver’s seat and headed southeast toward the Jones Falls Expressway, and home. My route took me through residential neighborhoods above Northern Parkway; many who live in the area are traditionally observant Jews.

At a stop sign, a woman pulled up alongside me in her minivan. She signaled for me to roll down my window. I didn’t recognize her. Did she recognize me? I glanced at her tichel (Orthodox head covering) and thought, “this can’t be good.” I rolled down the window. “I like your bumper sticker,” she said. Then a pause. “Kiddush Hashem!” I smiled. She rolled up her window and drove off.  

While feeling (appropriately) chastened, that second encounter buoyed me for the rest of the day, the 18th anniversary of my dad’s death. My father was someone who resisted making assumptions about others, who strove to judge people fairly and on their merits. I thought about the woman’s use of the phrase kiddush Hashem. The term means “the holiness of God’s name,” but it’s more charged than that. More frequently the phrase (and it’s opposite hillul Hashem, “a desecration of God’s name!”) are deployed to reinforce assumptions, to cast judgment on those who differ, to draw firm lines between “their way” and “the right way.”

Judging our own family members or friends favorably isn’t always easy. Giving complete strangers the benefit of the doubt? That’s hard, and most of us struggle to do so even if we aspire to take Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah’s advice. That day in November I was reminded just how easy it is to fall into the trap of our own expectations. And how difficult it can be to admit when we’re wrong.

A version of this post will appear in the Feb. 2023 issue of Jmore.

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.