Politicians, musicians, comedians and others often ask, “Will it play in Peoria?” At Beth Am Synagogue, we frequently ask ourselves something like, “Will it resonate in Reservoir Hill?”
Attention to the surrounding community is central to the “New Jewish Neighborhood” concept. If Jewish institutions exist within primarily, or even substantially, non-Jewish communities, how aware are we of the needs, concerns and sometimes biases of those communities? How do those considerations affect how we exist within our institutional walls? How and when do we move beyond those walls? Who do we welcome in, and why and how?
Beth Am is a nearly 500-household, mostly white, largely Ashkenazi Jewish congregation in an historically Jewish and, for many decades, mostly Black neighborhood. The nexus of history and geography that is Beth Am, I often tell people, means we have a particular obligation to confront the questions above since the demographics within and beyond our walls (racially, religiously, socio-economically) are less congruent that most shuls. Choosing to accept and even celebrate that incongruence means, for example, that the work of social action and social justice happens both within our walls and on our front doorstep.
But this January something is changing, something that will force us to look at these questions from beyond Reservoir Hill. Beth Am is about to undergo an exciting, multi-million dollar renovation of our historic building.
For more than half a year, we will become wandering Jews. Our Jewish Discovery Lab is renting space from Bolton Street Synagogue. Our shul offices are on North Charles Street and our worship services are being held at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road, next to the new Parks and People Foundation headquarters.
Beth Am isn’t far from home, to be sure. Mt. Lebanon’s mission and values align with our own, serving as a community anchor and resource.
And yet, for the first time in 97 years, our building at 2501 Eutaw Place is, temporarily, not a functioning synagogue.
Perhaps our experience might be instructive for other congregations. Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on a task force for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where we discussed the organized Jewish community and its relationship with Baltimore City.
In doing so, we had to honestly confront the paradox of Jewish institutional migration and thriving, and the abandonment of historic buildings and neighborhoods in which they are planted. Read Antero Pietila’s book “Not in My Neighborhood” and you get a feel for how the northwesterly path of prosperity was also a trail of tears.
Whatever the motivations (they were complex and varied) of individuals and Jewish families who sold their homes and moved to Baltimore County (and the synagogues that followed them), the collective flight of white, Jewish and more affluent Black families from urban neighborhoods has left those communities with substantially fewer resources.
I’m proud to say The Associated, already anchored in the city, has been receptive to reengaging neighborhoods Jews left behind, and I want to encourage synagogues to do the same. Many of Baltimore’s legacy congregations have their roots in the city. I believe there is a great opportunity for shul boards, rabbis and social action committees to engage their neighborhoods of origin. As Beth Am gazes back at our own community from beyond its borders, we’ll be developing best practices for engagement and support. We hope to share what we learn.
Meanwhile, I suggest two simple guiding questions (along the lines of “Will it play in Peoria?”) for our sister Jewish institutions who are no longer in Baltimore but feel proud to be of Baltimore: Will we be for Baltimore? And how?
(A version of this post was printed in Jmore and appears at https://www.jmoreliving.com/2018/12/12/baltimores-legacy-synagogues-with-city-roots-should-engage-their-neighborhoods-of-origins/)