The author and scholar, Rachel Adler, has written “Because God is Other, God creates a world filled with difference. Because God is Partner, all difference is filled with holy possibility.” (Engendering Judaism, pg. 92).
A driving question for me in this blog (and in my life and work in Reservoir Hill) has been:
How do we relate to the other?
I am distinctly aware of Baltimore’s history of sometimes extreme, almost fundamentalist, “otherness” finding its most insidious expression in slavery, later racial and religious segregation policies, and the Eugenics Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Baltimore was once of hotbed of such ideas.
Jewish tradition has always existed in the tension between the universal and particular, between understanding ourselves as simply in relationship with the other and casting our lot with the whole of humanity. Our sense of chosenness has sometimes meant a proclivity for the parochial. Even when Jewishness inspires outward actions, being a “light unto the nations” has found us at times bordering on the triumphal. Such is the case in the realm of social justice where our posture has often been more about doing “for” others.
“Prepositional Judaism” (though a new term) is a concept I’ve explored in other writings and speeches including a sermon I gave at Beth Am, unveiling the notion of a “New Jewish Neighborhood.” Though the wording may be just a bit clunky, this idea of our shul being not just “In” and “For” our neighborhood but increasingly “Of” it has lingered in our congregational consciousness. Through months of exploration and leadership development, we now better understand the triad of In, For and Of — seeing the “Of” as a necessary bridge between the other two. In other words, we have begun to recontextualize (and broaden) the Jewish concept of tribalism for the 21st century. Where once the Jewish people consisted of twelve distinct tribes, now we are one tribe among many. And our tribe, looking both to thrive as a distinct entity and actualize our universalistic values, must better understand itself as profoundly connected to the other.
To this end, Beth Am, in collaboration with community residents and stake-holders, has recently hatched a new non-profit organization called “In For Of, Inc.” While very much in its nascent and formative stages, according to our founding documents, IFO was created to explore funding opportunities for “preservation, restoration, and renovation of the historic Beth Am Synagogue” as well as “cultural and communal activities that promote close collaboration and partnership between residents of historic Reservoir Hill… and members of Beth Am Synagogue and to and facilitate [in collaboration with other groups] social justice causes within the Neighborhood.”
This is an exciting time in our synagogue’s history. My sincere hope is that our awareness of, in Adler’s words, both the otherness of and our partnership with God, will help concretize our sense of collective sacredness of purpose. Could this be a model for diverse communities around the country, even around the world? Who knows? But it sure feels like the right path for us.