An Open Letter to the Jewish Community

A Baltimore rabbi offers the real story behind events following the death of Freddie Gray

by Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg

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Burg with clergy in baltimore - 2015 (2)

Rabbi Burg and clergy in Baltimore.

I live and work in a once-Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore. These days our community is diverse, both racially and socio-economically, in city still largely segregated, one that carries the deep wounds inflicted from generations of slavery and Jim Crow. Baltimore has a sordid history of anti-Semitism as well. Relations between the African-American and Jewish communities have been typical of many American cities. At times, during the Civil Rights Movement of course, but also in decades since, associations and collaborations have been strong. But over the years there has also been tension, ranging from disaffection and modest distrust to overt racism and anti-Semitism.

For the past five years, it has been my honor to serve as rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue in the historic Reservoir Hill neighborhood. Here at Beth Am, we have worked to advance community engagement, deepening bonds between our members and our majority non-Jewish, African-American neighbors. These efforts have led us down an exciting and meaningful path, but at the heart of our work is the forging and deepening of relationships. Beth Am strives to be not just in and for, but increasingly of, our neighborhood. Our work is driven by our Jewish values and texts but also by honoring Reservoir Hill’s historically Jewish identity. Here, we engage not just in tikkun olam, repairing the world, but also in tikkun shechunah, repairing our neighborhood, softening boundaries and strengthening bonds broken or strained decades ago.

This past spring, as attention turned from Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City to Baltimore, many people were largely concerned about violence, vandalism and looting. There was what to be concerned about, but riots were only a very small part of the story. Much has been written in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. But almost all of these stories presented a caricature of Baltimore: the city of The Wire, urban decay incarnate. I’d like to share another perspective from here in West Baltimore, reflections on this city not as a construct, but as an actual place. My adopted home.

First, while it’s deeply unfortunate that nearly 400 businesses were vandalized and tens of millions of dollars in revenue lost, it’s important to remember that those rioting on Monday, April 27th were dwarfed in number by thousands the following day who worked to clean up the damage. My wife and I, along with our two children, played hooky, spending several hours lending a hand. We wandered throughout Freddie Gray’s neighborhood with a diverse crowd. At no time did we feel unsafe. So many voices that week excoriated Baltimoreans for “destroying their own neighborhoods.” Believe me when I say how many more have, in fact, been working to build their neighborhoods over years and decades.

It’s also important to recognize that West Baltimore is hardly monolithic. Surely there are areas of concentrated blight where residents struggle with near universal poverty and food insecurity, but there are also large areas of the city that are thriving or have experienced significant improvements. To my knowledge, there were no broken windows or any significant damage in Reservoir Hill that Monday. Our neighborhood, despite being less than one mile from where the riots began, was quiet and calm. Neighbors here sup-ported and cared for one another. And while dozens of recalcitrant Baltimore citizens squaring off with rows of riot police and national guardsmen may have monopolized news broadcasts, the other 620,000 of us under curfew were in our homes, frustrated that we could not go out to enjoy the city, visit with families and friends or simply go about our business as free citizens.

Some of you may think I am offering only apologetics, excusing criminal acts of vandalism and theft or downplaying violence against police. Nothing could be further from the truth. Examining root causes of objectionable behavior does not justify those acts. Violence is a reality in our city. There were more murders in Baltimore last May than in any month since 1972, but this only points toward how dysfunctional the relationship is between the Baltimore police department and communities and individuals of color. Police, due to fear, resentment and distrust, are having trouble doing their jobs, so gangs and drug dealers prevail. And while Baltimore’s history, geography and extensive poverty exacerbate racial tensions, we are hardly unique. Our story is this country’s urban story.

The term worth discussing is structural racism. For many Americans, Ferguson was easier to understand. White cops and a white police commander. White mayor. White judge, white prosecutor, and so on. But in Baltimore we have a black police commander and many black cops. The mayor is African-American as is our States Attorney. To understand how racism persists in such a milieu, we must be willing to look deeper. After we condemn them, we need to examine the nature of riots. We must understand that body cameras are a tool, but no substitute for better police recruitment, training, oversight and accountability. We need a national conversation about mass incarceration and its consequences for society. And there’s our struggling education system, food insecurity, the scourge of addiction or toxicities ranging from gang violence to lead paint. To get to the root causes of racism takes vigilance, patience and introspection.

Where to begin? Problems, like relationships, are only fixed by first seeking to understand them. And our quest for understanding leads inexorably to a fundamental Jewish truth: that we are all created in God’s image; that each person, whatever his/her appearance or background, shares our humanity. We all have the same capacity for love, hate, anger, empathy, knowledge, ignorance, debilitating fear, and transcendent hope. In Baltimore, here at Beth Am and beyond, we don’t have the answers. But we are seeking them.

Won’t you join us?

CORRECTION
In the print edition of this story, the subheading incorrectly referenced the shooting of Freddie Gray; Gray died while in police custody.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg (ravdaniel@bethambaltimore.org) is the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue, Baltimore, Maryland. This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.