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.