Something Greater (Feb. 2020)

Recently, while driving my daughter to school, I saw a bumper sticker which read God > 1 and spent several minutes trying to figure out what it meant. Was the driver a pagan and this was a polemic against monotheism? Were they a mystic who understands God as somehow infused into every aspect of creation and therefore irreducible to a single entity? Maybe it was a snarky retort to Christians who identify water (H2O) with Jesus, an image based in the Gospel of John, but also an acronym: “Humble 2 One.” Nonplussed, I asked my daughter what the bumper sticker meant. Ellie quickly replied: “God is greater than I.” I not 1! I wish I could say it was the first time my 14-year-old made her Abba look like a dope.

What’s the purpose of faith for Jews committed to justice work? We often speak about Biblical sensitivity to the “orphan, widow and stranger,” the laws from Deuteronomy about how to construct a just society, or Talmudic Sages’ advocacy on behalf of the poor. But it’s pretty rare to gather for an action, congressional testimony or protest and hear words or see messages expressing faith. God may be on the minds of some in the crowd, but Jews simply aren’t including our deity on bumper stickers or protest signs. For example, a quick survey of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights available signage on their website includes “My father was a Syrian Refugee,” “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” and “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” T’ruah is known for its clever signage, so I’m not critiquing the anachronistic translations of Torah verses. But in the Bible, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (cited chapter and verse on the placard) concludes with two Hebrew words: “Ani Hashem, I am the Lord.” These words don’t make the sign.

There are a few reasons for this. Many modern Jews are discomfited by the God of Torah and liturgy who often appears masculine and with qualities (judgement or anger) that may make us uncomfortable. I take issue with these characterizations of God, but this perception is very real. Also, unlike Christianity, we’re not a proselytizing religion. Much of the God language we see on highway billboards, bumper stickers or pop-up ads is about trying to convince onlookers of certain theological truths. Jews don’t feel the need to convince others of our beliefs, and we don’t need others to believe what we believe in order to be saved or counted among the righteous. Finally, behavior more than faith has always been the measure of a worthy Jewish life. A famous passage from Avot D’Rabbi Natan (31) says, “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you the Messiah has come, plant the tree and then go and greet him.”

The danger here is we can confuse the preeminence of action over faith as an indication that action is important and faith is not. Our equation becomes God < Everything Else. But to claim this, we’d need to simply ignore the many times our tradition’s call to justice is accompanied by a reminder of God’s presence. Why include God in the commandment to act in the face of violence? The commentator Rashi says “I AM THE LORD — Who is faithful in paying reward to those who obey My commandments and Who is certain to punish those who transgress them. In other words, God is included because God cares enough to be included.

Today’s post-modern society (and current political moment) is one, too frequently, of moral relativism at best, nihilism at worst. Many seem to the feel that what is right is what feels right or what I can get away with. Torah says no, there is right and there is wrong. This doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know the difference. This also doesn’t mean the world is black and white; it’s plenty grey. But there is power (and efficacy) in saying don’t stand idly by… because I am God. Or (two verses later) love your neighbor as yourself… because I am God.

It means there’s something greater than political expediency or personal satisfaction; it means you do the right thing because it’s right, because right matters on a cosmic level, because justice pleases the divine. It means there is something greater than you or me alone, that humanity’s worth stretches beyond what we can see. That greatness has a name which we Jews call God. We say, Shema Yisrael: that God = 1. And also, that God > I.

A version of this post appears in the February 2020 issue of Jmore

Lines Through the American Heart (Nov. 2019)

The day after Yom Kippur, needing to clear my head, I loaded my bike onto my electric vehicle and took a (guilt-free) drive north, to the NCR. From the parking lot north of Monkton, I biked 10 miles along one of the oldest rail-trails in the country. It was a misty morning, the sun breaking occasionally through the clouds, and I was in a delightful mood. 

Then, I realized something had changed. The path no longer crushed gravel, but asphalt, and the signage was different too. Without knowing it, I had crossed the border into Pennsylvania. I backtracked a few dozen yards and returned to the border. A sign read “Mason-Dixon Line.” My mood suddenly more circumspect, I contemplated the divide on which I was standing.

This is of course, no ordinary border. The Mason-Dixon line represented, for much too long, the division between slavery and freedom.  When enslaved people escaped, they headed here. Harriet Tubman, over and over again, guided freed men and women northward to cross this line. It is a boundary separating the former slave state where I now live from the free state of Pennsylvania.

In that moment, though, something else occurred to me. The state toward which those fleeing slaves fled, the state whose landmarks include the liberty bell and whose territory encompasses the blood-soaked battlefield at which Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg’s Address, is also a state that elected Donald Trump. The state to my north, a colonial refuge for Quakers, Catholics, Jews and blacks, helped elect a man whose presidency represents, among other things, the reassertion of white hegemony. As Ta-Nehasi Coates writes: “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”

Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her new book, These Truths, quashes a common myth: that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Lepore asserts, rather, that it was fought for white supremacy. A century and a half later, standing on the border, I was struck by how full of hypocrisy the confederate claim had been. While purporting to champion voices unheard at the American federal level, the new Confederacy regularly suppressed free speech, making it a capital crime to speak against the new government. While supposedly standing for individual state’s rights, the Confederacy forced recalcitrant states into their union. And with a large majority of their population disenfranchised (enslaved blacks and women), they made, through their democratic elections, a minority the arbiter of what was right and good for all.

There is a name for this sort of governance: tyranny. But the relevant question is less whether America will become tyrannical de jure a la dystopian fiction like The Man in the High Castle where the Axis powers win WWII or the (controversial) proposed series Confederate from the duo who created Game of Thrones. What’s more relevant (and therefore more terrifying) is how much the Mason-Dixon line is widely viewed as a curiosity of history instead of an ongoing cautionary tale. Hypocrisy did not begin nor did it end with the fall of the antebellum South, and as 17th century French author François de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”

Leon Litwack began the preface of his 1961 North of Slavery:“The Mason-Dixon line is a convenient, but an often misleading geographical division.” The Mason-Dixon line once ran through the heart of America. But today, as then, it runs through the heart of Americans. Malcolm X once said: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”

Or as a therapist once told me, “you gotta name it to tame it.”

A version of this post appears in the November issue of Jmore.

Savor and Enjoy (Dec. 2019)

The iconic post-ride shot: standing in the Red Sea after a week of incredible riding

The Torah tells us Adam, the first human, was created from Adamah (ground). Rabbi Arthur Waskow, noticing the pun, calls Adam the “first earthling.” Being “of” the earth is the Bible’s way of telling us we are sacred mud, kinetic sculptures of a divine craftsman, destined not to transcend our earthy origin but to elevate it. Understanding this, it makes perfect sense the first human being was given a task, a vocation even, to cultivate the very substance from which he was taken: “And YHVH (God) took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and safeguard it” (Gen. 2:15). Eleven chapters later when Abraham enters the Promised Land, he’s instructed “Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth” (Gen. 13:17).

Years ago, I served on the board of a Chicago community group whose primary focus was medical access and housing. When we added environmental justice work (lead paint abatement, green construction, etc.) I remember a fellow board member wondering aloud whether sustainability was too “bourgeois.” Nowadays, we know well the dramatic consequences of climate change and also the unjust ways global warming, air and water pollution, and general human failure to uphold the promise of Genesis, disproportionately affect low income neighborhoods and communities of color.

At the time of my writing our Team Beth Am has just returned from the annual Israel Ride, a 5-day cycling trip from Jerusalem to Eilat. The ride benefits two wonderful organizations, the Arava Institute for environmental studies in Israel and Hazon, a Jewish environmental group based in the US. What I discovered on the ride was not only the incredible work of these organizations, but something elemental, surprising and deeply human: the power of my own body and its relationship with the land.

A philosophy in the early days of the Zionist Yeshuv was “livnot u’lehibanot, to build and to be built” through labor and interaction with the natural environment. When Adam worked the garden, he actualized his own essence. When Abraham roamed throughout the Promised Land, he mapped his natural surroundings. That’s how I felt biking through Israel. I’ve traveled to and throughout Israel many times. I’ve spent two academic years learning in Jerusalem, backpacked as a young man in Tel Aviv and the Galilee, stayed in all kinds of accommodations, including a sweet little house new the Valley of the Cross with my new bride in 2002. I’ve spent meaningful time with American and Israeli family, visited with Palestinians in Rawabi and Israeli settlers in Tekoa. And I’ve traveled the country by car, train, bus and lots of walking. But to hop on a bicycle in the Jerusalem hills one day… and step off that same bike a week later on the shores of Red Sea was not only a new and unique experience, not only one of the most breathtaking ways to see the land of my ancestors, but it brought a place which, due to its complexity often appears fuzzy, powerfully into focus.

While I was surprised at my ability to ride more than 275 miles and climb 12,000 feet, I was most surprised by how familiar places (a road I had previously taken by bus, a mountain I had

hiked as a youth and again with my family a few years ago, Ben Gurion’s grave at S’de Boker) took on new relevance. This, I think, is the overlooked ingredient of environmental work. Young climate activist Greta Thunberg isn’t simply giving up jet airline travel, she’s become an experienced sailor on the open seas. Eating less meat (produced by an industry that contributes greatly to greenhouse gasses) means exploring new food possibilities. Gardening, planting trees, or cleaning up the Jones Falls spillway creates excuses to be outdoors in the fresh air. And not driving from Jerusalem to Eilat means experiencing the journey in a whole new way.

Joni Mitchell tells us “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Sure, by adding asphalt something is lost. And yes, this is serious stuff: The Earth, which the God of Genesis charged humanity of stewarding, is at serious risk of become less inhabitable. But as the Psalmist tells us, “The heavens are God’s, but the Earth was entrusted to humanity” – This means we’re not only supposed to protect it but also to savor and enjoy it! So, instead of bemoaning the concrete, steel and asphalt, let’s plant greenery on the roofs, buy fresh local produce under the highway, walk around the city and take to the pavement of country roads, urban cycle tracks or the State of Israel with our bikes.

What I Learned Worshipping in a Black Baptist Church (Nov. 2019)

A key Jewish value is k’vod habriot, honor afforded by us to all human beings. It’s common for social justice-minded people to seek out opportunities for justice. As the Torah instructs: “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deu. 16:20). But sometimes justice can pursue us. This occurred for Beth Am Synagogue this past year as we were struggling to find swing worship space for our congregation during our nine month renovation period. We knew we had to be fully out of our building to have a chance at completing the construction within our compressed timeframe.

We had a few criteria for where we might land. First, it had to be a fitting space for weekly Shabbat services, holidays and learning. It also needed to have a commercial kitchen and a large enough social hall for our congregation to enjoy kiddush lunch each week, a signature element of our services. Second, it had to be fully accessible for Beth Am’ers of all abilities. Third, it needed to be within walking distance of the shul as we have a number of attendees who are traditionally observant and/or moved to Reservoir Hill and its surround neighborhoods to be within walking distance of shul.

This last criterion proved to be a bit challenging to meet. We considered various churches and other religious institutions. We looked at university settings like Hopkins and MICA or theater venues like the Parkway. We explored the possibility of another historic synagogue building in the area. None of these worked out. Finally, we were able to arrange a long-term lease with Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. The walk was a bit further than other possibilities, but it was a pleasant stroll through Druid Hill Park and the clergy, staff and membership of MLBC couldn’t have been more hospitable, generous with their time and understanding of our particular needs from kosher luncheons to covering or relocating Christian iconography.

As the relationship continued it also evolved, and yet, truth be told, there are were positive developments we expected might occur that never did. Early on in our tenure, Senior Pastor Dr. Franklyn Lance’s mother became ill and later passed away. Then, Dr. Lance took a full time position (in addition to his pastoral leadership) as executive director of Parks and People Foundation, a wonderful non-profit whose headquarters are across the street from MLBC (and through whose grounds I walked every Shabbos on the way to the church). It also took a while to get used to the natural alignment and misalignment of Jewish and Christian religious calendars – their church “High Holy Days” (Good Friday through Easter) are in spring when Jews are more focused on home ritual (seder). These developments and Beth Am’s own staff and volunteer resources having been stretched during construction meant opportunities for the two congregations to collaborate were limited.

We have and continue to do work together around sustainability and the Chesapeake Watershed, and we are exploring further partnership focusing on harm reduction and the opioid crisis this coming year. But there was no official pulpit swap, no big media events to celebrate our rare collaboration. Some might see this as a missed opportunity, but I don’t. Instead, I see it for what it was.

First, this was a chance to direct Beth Am’s resources toward a legacy black institution in greater Mondawmin across the street from where, in 2015, rioting broke out in the midst of the Baltimore uprising. Second it was a chance for Jews to be hosted by African Americans, on their terms, in their beautiful space. In the July issue of Jmore, I mentioned how in 2013, Beth Am members gathered at Metropolitan Methodist Church in West Baltimore to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the successful fight to desegregate Gwynn Oak Park. White folks showing up in black spaces on their terms is an important rebalancing of the complicated Baltimore racial equation.

There’s great value in achieving a more just society by pursuing opportunities for justice. But k’vod habriot, honoring all human beings, frequently means doing things quietly, methodically and without a big splash. Greater racial equity finds us when we show up in an unfamiliar places, pay the rent on time and exercise a little patience and perspective.

Before the Closing of the Gates

The High Holy Day season offers several potent images and metaphors. The shofar, the ram, apples and honey, white clothing and Torah finery all feature prominently. Another compelling image is that of gates, specifically the gates of heaven through which our sincere and heartfelt prayers may pass.

The entire concluding service of Yom Kippur is called Ne’ilah, the title derived from the urgency of the closing gates. An 11th century piyyut (liturgical poem) introduces a powerful moment in the service when the congregation rises and the Holy Ark remains open for a good 40 minutes: “As we pour out our souls, wipe away our sins and denials, craft forgiveness for us, b’sha’at haneilah (at this hour of the closing gates).”

Numerous stories and traditions contextualize and problematize this moment. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a “dull-witted” boy who, without the ability to participate in the Hebrew prayers, plays a loud blast on his flute. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidut, upon hearing the boy’s musical note, says: “With the sound of this flute the child lifted up all the prayers and eased my burden…. Because of the strength of his longing he played the note of his heart truly, without any distraction, for the sole sake of the Name of God.”

Menachem Katz of the Friedberg Manuscripts Project in Jerusalem points out the flute isn’t simply an ostensibly lesser version of the holy words, but a violation of the holy day since musical instruments are traditionally not permitted in shul on yuntif. The story is all the more powerful because it recalls a Talmudic tradition that the flute was in fact, in ancient times, played in liturgical contexts on Shabbat and festivals. “…Human beings have a basic need to communicate with God,” writes Katz. “This may be accomplished through various modes, including a musical instrument or a child’s inchoate cry. From the perspective of the Hassidic tale, this elementary spiritual need should neither be ignored nor hindered, even on the Sabbath [or Yom Kippur].”

Last summer in this column, I referenced a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma 7b) in which the Rabbis discuss the question of gated communities. Cities were traditionally built with walls and gates, including of course the holy city of Jerusalem. In the 19th century, residents of Misheknot Sh’ananim, commissioned by Sr. Moses Montefiore as the first Jewish neighborhood outside the city walls, would return to the Old City before sunset when the gates would be secured. And ancient exurban communities or neighborhoods, like modern ones, sometimes sported walls or fences with gates.

The Rabbis of the Talmud sought to strike a balance between legitimate security needs and the equally legitimate need to foster open and inclusive societies. (Their discussion is not wholly dissimilar to the one many Jewish institutions are currently having after a year of domestic and international terror directed at synagogues and other minority religious institutions). The Rabbis seem to feel it’s possible to have a gatehouse designed so that real security threats are deterred but the needy poor (and presumably welcome guests) are given access. Interestingly, this does not seem to be accomplished only by use of a guard which is impractical in many circumstances. Rather, the Talmud implies that there is a method of entry known to beggars but not to brigands.

Questions of justice are almost always related to questions of access. Who comes in? Who is kept out? What is the cost of having gates and gatekeepers? Can our boundaries and communal behaviors be designed to prevent bad actors but welcome strangers and guests as Abraham and Sarah did to their tent – arguably the very first beit k’nesset. The answers are not simple. But the story of the boy flute-player on Yom Kippur reminds us that communal prayers can be answered not only by paying attention to conventional wisdom but also by listening to our hearts.

A version of this post can be found here and in the Sept/Oct print edition of Jmore.

Underpinnings of Justice

One of the things they don’t train you for in rabbinical school is building construction. But as Beth Am’s major renovations have progressed, I’ve come to learn much about the process. I’ve also discovered terminology that derives from engineering/architecture/construction that’s also used in rabbinic or academic circles. For example, did you know that the term “underpinning,” which I understand to mean foundational ideas or texts, means injecting concrete or other support into the foundation of an existing structure to reinforce its stability?

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Underpinnings in Construction

In many ways, my rabbinate reflects a desire to reinforce strong foundations. I strive to teach Torah with depth, providing the textual underpinnings for meaningful work in the world. And our synagogue building’s presence on Eutaw Place for nearly a century begs a question of underpinnings too: how does our community with its deep Jewish roots interact with another community, the African American community, who also have deep roots in the same neighborhood?

I was speaking with an African American Christian colleague recently. He pastors a legacy black church in West Baltimore, the same church where he grew up. For fun, on a Saturday afternoon when he was a child, he and his family would ride the bus westbound to its terminus: Gwynn Oak Park. The bus would circle the legendary amusement park and then return to West Baltimore. The colleague wasn’t allowed into the park but would gaze through the window at white children and families riding roller coasters, eating cotton candy.

Gwynn Oak Park was desegregated in 1963 after years of protests. On Aug 28, the same day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, 11-month-old Sharon Langley became the first African American child to ride the merry-go-round. It was a day of great triumph, when folks with dark skin could enjoy the same rides and carnival games as their fellow light-skinned Baltimoreans. In 2013, a few dozen of my congregants and I met up with church-goers at Metropolitan Methodist, from which protests in 1963 were launched and during which hundreds were arrested. We gathered on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation to view a documentary chronicling the events of that era.

These days, I find myself thinking of another, less celebratory, anniversary and one quickly approaching: the 50th anniversary of the closing of Gwynn Oak Park in 1973, a mere ten years later. ‘72’s Hurricane Agnes marked the final blow, but the park had been fading for some time. There were several factors, but one significant one was that many white families accustomed to frequenting the amusement park simply stopped coming. Just as white families often moved away (bringing their financial and social capital with them) from neighborhoods witnessing an influx of people of color. The carousel Sharon Langley rode now sits an hour away on the National Mall, but Gwynn Oak is just a sleepy suburban park.

Recently, our shul (worshiping during construction in a black Baptist church) hosted Kate Poole of Chordata Capital, a third generation Beth Am’er, to speak about her philanthropic work supporting black sovereignty in Reservoir Hill. She defines black sovereignty as “giving both resources (money, time, expertise) and power (the decision-making power over how those resources are spent).” It was a thoughtful and provocative talk, after which we joined neighbors at Dovecote Café for our neighborhood’s annual Juneteenth Celebration and Home and Garden Tour. It was a beautiful day on which we visited stunning gardens and stately homes, and enjoyed a jubilant community atmosphere celebrating the shared history of Reservoir Hill’s Black and Jewish history and culture.

How do we prevent all-too-common backlash to great social justice achievements? How do we prevent what happened with Gwynn Oak Park? By reinforcing the foundations of communities. We only enjoy the fruits of our social justice labor when roots run deep and underpinnings are secure.

It Seems Seams are Better than Borders

New bridge North Parkway 2
New bridge over Northern Parkway (and a reminder of the “gap” between neighborhoods)

“I don’t go below Northern Parkway.” It’s a statement and/or sentiment I’ve heard numerous times from some Jewish residents of Baltimore County. Northern Parkway is what visionary author Jane Jacobs calls a “border vacuum,” a feature of the urban landscape that separates communities, often along racial and social-economic lines. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a border vacuum between affluent or upwardly mobile (largely white) gentrifiers as well as vibrant institutions like UMMC and poorer (mostly black) residents of West Baltimore. Another vacuum is York Road at Northway where, separating Guilford from nearby Wilson Park, there is quite literally a stone wall and, ironically (perhaps) due to traffic flow, two signs reading “DO NOT ENTER.” (Walk 0.3 miles from the tulips of Sherwood Gardens to Mid-Atlantic Muffler and Brake and you’ll see what I mean).

Still another powerful border vacuum is Falls Road. You may recall the scene in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, when a car full of teenagers drive from Northwest Baltimore to crash a party in Ruxton. As they cross Falls Road they call out “Get ready, folks, Jews are coming!” (Ruxton is the neighborhood through which the light rail runs but that famously prevented a station from being built there). Consider also the border vacuum which nearly got built (but didn’t), the highway along the inner harbor which would have precluded so much of Baltimore’s downtown development. In 2013, urban planner Marc Szarkowski wrote a comprehensive 10-part series on Baltimore and dissolving border vacuums if you want to learn more on the topic.

In Reservoir Hill, once Baltimore’s urban Jewish epicenter, we are nearly surrounded by border vacuums. There’s Druid Park Lake Drive to our north, transformed after WWII to a major thoroughfare dividing the neighborhood from the park. To the East we have the JFX, the I-83 corridor which exacerbated the geological barrier of the Jones Falls by adding asphalt and concrete. Finally, to our South we have North Avenue, once a vibrant commercial corridor that marked the city/county line. But (recently-demolished) Madison Park North, an ill-conceived “superblock” of mid-twentieth century urban planning, stymied pedestrian and car traffic on Bolton Street between Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill. The Spicer’s Run development returned the favor decades later by carving out a new superblock, adding brick walls and iron fencing to underscore the vacuum between the two neighborhoods.

All three border vacuums are being reconsidered in light of more enlightened trends in urban planning. The Big Jump experiment has temporarily stitched together Remington to the East with Reservoir Hill, North Ave. near Dorothy I. Height elementary school is slated for redevelopment, and the city council – with support from a new ordinance to encourage more bike and pedestrian traffic – is looking to expand Complete Streets to help graft our neighborhood back onto its expansive front yard: Druid Hill Park.

Northern Parkway may not be the geographical boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but it is surely a psychological border. It’s an imposing thoroughfare, nearly impossible to cross by foot in most places. I’ve contended in this column and elsewhere that Baltimore’s salvation lies in part in the softening of boundaries. One way to do this is to transform border vacuums into seams, points of connection instead of fissures. In her book the Death and Life of American Cities, Jacobs cites Kevin Lynch who says of seams: “An edge may be more than a barrier if some motion penetration is allowed through it – if it is structured to some depth with the regions on either side.”

New bridge North Parkway 1

Recently, I took my bike up the Jones Falls Trail. The last leg of this exciting project, from the South, is finally moving forward: a bridge over Northern Parkway which will bring cyclists, joggers and pedestrians over the car-filled chasm. I rode to the very end of the path, beyond the newly paved switchbacks near Sinai Hospital to a ledge overlooking the road. I gazed across the newly erected bridge into Mt. Washington and imagined (when it’s complete) riding into Mt. Washington Village. Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill turned their backs on one another years ago. We’re trying to change that. The County and the City of Baltimore did the same. We in the city are ready to go “above” Northern Parkway. If you live in Baltimore Country, I hope you can say the same!

A version of this piece will appear in Jmore.

Our Playground Eight Years Later

The other day, I was walking my dog through the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. I crossed through German Park, our community playground, and found a father pushing his baby on the infant swings. I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. “I built those swings,” I said. “Really?” “Well, not by myself, but I was part of the ‘swings’ team.”

It’s been nearly eight years since my wife, Miriam, and a neighbor co-chaired the KaBoom playground build in our neighborhood. Recently, the city of Baltimore, in collaboration with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., completed Phase I of major capital improvements to the park. Phase II, an additional $180,000 for lighting upgrades, new exercise equipment and landscaping, is just around the corner.

So this seems like a good moment to reflect on the moments leading up to and since the playground build and the many ways it has helped transform the core of Reservoir Hill.

Miriam and I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 2010 with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and soon became aware there was no clean/safe play space in our neighborhood. In fact, our first act of advocacy was to help get the crossing signal fixed at Linden Avenue and Lake Drive so that we could access the playground in Druid Hill Park.

But that was a good 20-minute walk, so Miriam began to explore possibilities in Reservoir Hill. As it turned out, many parents in the neighborhood were frustrated by the lack of play space for their children.

Within months, final renovations of German Park will be complete and the many hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill will continue to enjoy this community asset. (Photo courtesy Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg)

With an initial seed grant from Zuckerman-Spaeder and funding from the Ravens, RHIC was able to partner with KaBoom to bring out over 300 volunteers for a build-day.  Hundreds of neighbors — including over two dozen Beth Am congregants — showed up on June 16, 2011, for a barn-raising-style massive undertaking. It was a beautiful and inspiring day! By June 20, we had our grand opening, and kids (including my own) were climbing up and sliding down the equipment. From that day to today, the playground is regularly used and has also spurred everything from additional greening efforts in the neighborhood’s core to renovation of numerous vacant row-homes nearby.

One of the things you learn doing neighborhood development work is that building something is easier than maintaining it. The community relied on volunteers to fix equipment if it broke, clean occasional graffiti off the plastic, water the grass and butterfly garden, and pick up trash. It took well over a year to get permanent garbage cans, which meant kids who bought candy bars from the corner store had nowhere to throw the wrappers.

Then, even with trash cans installed, there was the challenge of getting the trash removed! You see, KaBoom could only operate on land that was not managed by the Department of Rec and Parks, but DPW didn’t have trash pickup scheduled on property owned by Baltimore Housing.

Why the Housing? Our German Park renaissance took place on the graveyard of an earlier and long-neglected playground. A neighbor once showed off the scars on her knees from numerous trips down the erstwhile metal slide onto the concrete surface below. But before it was a 1960s era playground, it had been an enormous garage built to house fancy carriages for the (mostly Jewish) occupants of high-rise condominiums overlooking Druid Hill Park.

It took years of advocacy by neighborhood champions to bring our new German Park under the Rec and Parks umbrella. Part of the motivation was to dampen the allure for drug dealers who would occasionally sell their product too near the children. Community members and young families “love bombed” the park, holding story-time gatherings and pushing dealers away. But sight-lines were still challenging for police enforcement and overall safety.

Which brings us to this moment. Within months, final renovations of German Park will be complete and the many hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill will continue to enjoy this community asset.

Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not your task to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). The work of building a community – any community – is never complete, but it sure it is fulfilling when it takes a great leap forward!

A version of this piece can be found at Jmore here.