The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 2)

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls parks, coffee shops, libraries and other shared urban venues “third places” (home is the first place and work the second place).  His contention is that the health of a given city can be measured by the strength and prevalence of these “third places.”

In the 1930’s during the height of the Depression, residents of my neighborhood would venture into Druid Hill Park on hot and humid nights to sleep by the lake.  It is a summer tradition that has long since been abandoned, but the park, our “third place,” remains an essential resource for those of us who live in Reservoir Hill.

Today, after what we native mid-westerners would call a “healthy” snow fall but that Baltimoreans might call a blizzard, Miriam and I took our two children, joined another Reservoir Hill (and Beth Am) family and went sledding in the park.  We found a lovely, mostly treeless, hill on the frisbee-golf course and took turns trudging up and zipping down the hill on our inflatable snow tube.  I’ve heard it’s an urban myth (that’s English for bubbe meiseh) that the Inuit people of Alaska have a hundred words for “snow,” but if they did, today’s accumulation would be called that-which-is-firm-enough-for-tubing-yet-perfect-for-building-persons-of-snow-descent. It was a glorious morning culminating in a perfect cup of hot chocolate.

The preservation and betterment of community are core Jewish values.  But could it be that the New Jewish Neighborhood is defined, in part, simply by a willingness to show up – to pull on the snow boots, blow up the snow tube and trudge through the virgin snow with friends?  Sacred communities must have goals and collective, achievable dreams, but being together ought to precede doing together.  Some move to the suburbs to have more space.  People like me, who grew up in the suburbs, move to the city not to have space but to share it. 

Beyond Color Blindness

Not long ago, my five-year-old daughter overheard a radio broadcast during which the speaker mentioned “black” people.  On the car ride home from school, she asked me what that meant.  I explained that God made all people different and that shades of color are a reflection of beauty and diversity in the world.  Then, I asked her whether she knew anybody who was black.  She thought for a moment and was silent.  When I mentioned our African-American  next-door neighbors and their eleven-year-old who sometimes comes over to play, my daughter responded: “Erica?  I don’t remember what color she is.”

Before leaving Chicago for Baltimore, I sat down with Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and asked him about his approach to interfaith work.  He suggested that the first task for anyone wishing to understand, learn from and dialogue with the other is to develop his or her own theology of pluralism.  “I can cite verses from the Koran that teach about the need to relate positively to Jews and Christians.  You need to be able to look to Torah and Rabbinic literature and do the same.”

This post is the beginning of a response to Eboo’s challenge.  To live in a diverse community (diverse in appearance, beliefs, economic resources and more)  is to, at once, examine differences and also to see beyond them.  The question is not “how do I teach my children not to notice?” but what to do with those differences once they become aware of them.  It is no sin to see color, hear dissent or perceive a varied and variegated urban landscape.  In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that the world is richer for such diversity. A legend reminds us that people produce currency by first forming a mold and then producing thousands upon thousands of identical coins.  God, on the other hand, made a mold and has produced billions upon billions of utterly unique human beings. 

How great that my daughter never noticed Erica’s skin color.  How wonderful that she lives in a neighborhood where there are such things to go unnoticed. 

This, too, is the new Jewish neighborhood.

The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 1)

I live in a Jewish neighborhood – or at least it used to be a Jewish neighborhood.  If you watch Barry Levinson films like Avalon or Liberty Heights, you will see my neighborhood. It’s called Reservoir Hill, but in those days it combined two locales: “Eutaw Place” with its elegant mansions on the grand boulevard and “Lake Drive” which included several blocks east of Eutaw and contains beautiful, but more modest row houses.  I have congregants who still wax poetic about the corner drug store on Whitelock, playing stick ball in the vacant lot at Linden and Brooks or gazing out at the expanse of the city from the Moorish Tower in Druid Hill Park.

For a number of reasons detailed in Antero Pietila’s recent book Not in my Neighborhood, Jews moved generally North and Westward from Reservoir Hill.  By the 1970’s, when Beth Am was founded in the old Chizuk Amuno building, most of the nascent congregation was living in the city, but elsewhere.  In recent years, as Reservoir Hill enjoys a small renaissance, young Jewish singles, couples and families have begun to move back to the neighborhood.

Will Reservoir Hill become a Jewish neighborhood again?  I believe so, but let me be clear about what I mean by this.  Yes, more Jews and Jewish families will move to Reservoir Hill.  They will enjoy our community garden and urban farm.  They will take advantage of our proximity to the JFX and to a beautiful city park with jogging and biking paths, the zoo, a nice pool, tennis courts and play structures. Jews, young and old, will (hopefully) like the idea of living near a vibrant and growing synagogue, as those of us who live in the neighborhood already do.  And they will take advantage of tax credits and incentives to renovate historic homes, investing in their future and the future of an affordable community.

…But, plenty of others will do the same thing, and this is a good thing.  Reservoir Hill will (again, hopefully) never again become the urban ghetto (albeit lovely ghetto) that it once was.  The great promise of my neighborhood is that, in a provincial and still largely segregated city like Baltimore, Reservoir Hill is diverse.  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 for all Baltimoreans.   

From my perspective this requires us, the Jewish community of Reservoir Hill – and perhaps urban-dwellers around the country – to reframe the entire notion of a “Jewish Neighborhood.”  Where once a Jewish neighborhood was defined by a preponderance of Jews, I would humbly suggest that we now focus not just on Jewish quantity, but on Jewish quality, not only on Jewish community but a community infused with Jewish values – among which are pluralism, education, kindness, social-justice and tolerance.

This is the New Jewish Neighborhood.  More to come….

Two Questions

All Jewish journeys – that is to say not simply journeys undertaken by Jews – begin with questions.  Here are the two I have been considering since moving to Baltimore from Chicago to become the rabbi of historic Beth Am in Reservoir Hill:

1. How do Jewish values inform city-living?
2. How does living in the city affect an ancient tradition as it renews itself for the 21st Century?

Stay tuned…