Steps in the Right Direction

At our recent celebration for our Eutaw Place home’s 120th birthday, we displayed a scrapbook which includes candid shots from the filming of Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights.  Early on in the movie, Joe Mantegna’s character sneaks out of shul on Rosh Hashanah to check out the newest model of Cadillac.  You can watch the scene here (time signature 4:20). The grand steps Mantegna descends are the actual front steps of Beth Am, and my understanding is the cameras were set up right in front of our home to catch the scene of classic cars lining the grand boulevard in front of the synagogue.

Those steps have a warm place in my heart.  On sunny spring or breezy autumn days, I like to sit on those steps and take in the scenery.  davening on the steps of Beth Am post civil unrestOn Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those steps are a primary gathering spot for congregants to assemble and schmooze, catch up and wish one another a happy and healthy New Year.  And it was on those steps this past May 2 when, just days after the Baltimore civil unrest, our congregation proudly stepped outside to gather and pray in full view of our community with whom we share an unshakable bond.  A neighbor captured the moment in this photo.

This past weekend our Reservoir Hill neighborhood hunkered down to ride out Winter Storm Jonas.  Baltimore received 29.2″ of record snowfall, enough to impress even this native Chicagoan. Karen Miriam and Daniel during the blizzard of 2016 Little could I predict it would be so deep the Beth Am steps would play host to dozens of kids sledding and frolicking in the snow!  Here’s a shot of Miriam, our neighbor Karen and me Sunday with the kids playing and sledding in the background.

In the Bible, there are fifteen Psalms (120-134) that begin with the specific header Shir Hama’alot, a Song for Ascents.  One tradition has it that these Psalms correspond to the fifteen double steps beneath in the Hulda Gates at the Jerusalem Temple of old.

Southern Wall Steps
The Southern Wall Excavations in Jerusalem


As I think about what it might have been like for my ancestors to stand on those steps, squinting into the Jerusalem sun, ascending slowly, deliberately toward the holy summit and our most sacred spot, I find myself contemplating the steps of Beth Am.  Many things, sacred and banal, have occurred on those steps in the 94 years since they were built.  But among the most sacred, I think, were several hours in the winter of 2016, when kids from Reservoir Hill came together to make the Beth Am steps into the coolest toboggan run this side of Druid Hill Park!

One of the fifteen ascension Psalms includes the line, “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy” (v. 5). Jews sing these words every Shabbat and Festival meal before chanting our Grace, Birkat Hamazon.  2015 was a year brimming with Baltimore tears.  But these videos reflect one small but significant example of how we are beginning to reap with songs of joy.  Take a look!


MLK Weekend Highs and Lows

This past Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, I was reminded what a privilege it is to serve Beth Am Synagogue  in Reservoir Hill.  Our geography coupled with our mission of learning, Justice, purposeful Jewish community and robust neighborhood engagement means I get to live my Jewish values each day in deeply fulfilling ways.

Three events from this past weekend stand out. First, I was asked to give the invocation for Coppin State University’s MLK breakfast on Friday. Rabbis get invited to do invocations fairly often, but being asked to do so at this HBCU (Historically Black College or University) just a couple miles from my home on this particular weekend was a great honor and an experience I’ll cherish.  I listened to Councilman Brandon Scott describe his childhood in Baltimore and the ways he feels so blessed to have ascended to his current post.  I listened to a young man whose oratory as President of the SGA was on par with some of the better speakers I’ve encountered.  I watched a montage of black civic leaders which culminated in a series of photographs of Barack Obama with the subtitle “Mr. President” and a waving flag.  In seeing this, I was reminded both that despite having a black president, we still have much daunting work before us to unmake generations of fear, subjugation and hate – but also just how much pride the African-American community takes in America’s Commander-in-Chief.

Sunday brought 450 people to Beth Am! – congregants, Res. Hill neighbors, Baltimoreans from around the area, Yale alumni and more – for a truly remarkable musical event.  Shades of Yale, a terrific young a cappella group performed “music of the African diaspora and the African-American tradition.”  I could try to describe the afternoon to you, but this blog post from a guest captures it much better than I can.  Here are a few pics:

Monday brought a fitting, if unsettling, bookend to this weekend’s celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy.  I joined friends from Jews United for Justice to stand in the frigid Annapolis night air and raise up the need for much improved police accountability. Click here to read about the campaign to reform the L.E.O.B.R. and demand justice for Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and so many others who have fallen prey to our broken criminal justice system.


Here is what I said at the rally:

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Closing Prayer for Rally of Maryland Coalition for Justice & Police Accountability (MCJPA).  On behalf of Jews United for Justice.  Monday, January 18, 2016.

My name is Rabbi Daniel Burg. I am the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Central-West Baltimore.  My wife and I live across from the our congregation, within walking distance of Mondawmin Mall and Sandtown-Winchester, and feel privileged to raise our two children in a diverse, dynamic and vital community.  I am honored today to represent Jews United for Justice, a grass-roots organization which has been a champion for police accountability and a strong supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we learn that it is not just the responsibility of ordinary citizens to uphold the law.  The king himself, sitting on his throne, must keep a copy of scripture at his side. Why? We read, “Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God…. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows….” (Deu 17:18-20).  My friends, we have a situation in Maryland policing where too many of those who hold power over others act haughtily toward their fellow.  Each of us must be protected from ourselves, our baser instincts.  Not because we’re bad people, but because we are human.  Most police officers I encounter want to do right; they strive to be just.  But, a society of righteous laws protects all of us, from Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald, to those whose job it is to keep us safe.  If even kings must follow the law, surely law enforcement officers must always do so as well.  And if the law, as it’s currently constructed doesn’t protect all of us, if it doesn’t provide sufficient oversight, then we must change it, we must improve it.

Today we celebrate a “king” who held the Bible close to his heart.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King 50 years ago at Selma, once wrote: “The energy that rejects many obsolete laws is an entirely positive impulse for renewal of life and law.” (“No Religion is an Island”, p. 264.)  In other words, the hallmark of strong democratic societies is that they are fiercely introspective and ferociously just.  And when the law falls short of our values, the law must change.

So, permit me to offer this prayer: Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe.  Makor HaHayim, Source of Life, on this day when we celebrate a “king” who knew humility, help us to be humble.  Guide us so that we might see one another’s faces and understand their stories and their differing perspectives, concerns and fears.  God, remind us we owe it to our children to repair brokenness in our criminal justice system so that we might create a society built first and foremost on true justice and equity.  Invigorate this coalition that we may see our holy work though to its righteous conclusion.  Inspire our legislators to meet their appointed task with courage, fairness and ultimately love – for each of us, from the streets of West Baltimore to the stately halls of this house was created in Your image.  And we will not rest until we have a system of laws that protects each of us and all of us. 

This we pray in the name of the One God who is called by so many names but who strengthens our resolve and unites us today in our purpose