The Urban Rabbi

For a Baltimore rabbi, social justice means forging real bonds between his synagogue and the predominantly African-American community around it.

by Michael Schulson

84A few years ago, Rabbi Daniel Burg taught his pre-b’nai mitzvah students about food deserts – areas where residents lack easy access to a grocery store. At the time, Burg was living in a comfortable Chicago neighborhood, near his synagogue, and just two blocks from a Whole Foods Market. For his lesson, Burg sent the students to other, less affluent parts of Chicago.

There they tried to track down places that sold fresh, healthy foods, getting a sense of some basic challenges that face many low-income Americans. “I live in a food desert now,” Burg explained on a recent Sunday morning, sitting in his office at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland. Burg, 37, became rabbi at Beth Am three years ago. Along with the usual Judaic texts and framed diplomas, his office contains a coffee machine, a guitar and another bookshelf, this one stocked with books on Baltimore and urban policy.

When Burg came to Beth Am, members of the search committee advised him to think carefully about living near the synagogue. Beth Am is in Reservoir Hill, a neighborhood that has suffered from poverty and chronic drug use for decades. But Burg and his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, decided to move there anyway. It wasn’t just a matter of convenience. “After that initial shock, what we started to think about was actually what a great opportunity this was to live our own values,” says Burg.

The Burgs aren’t alone in their commitment to Reservoir Hill. Beth Am was founded in 1974, a time when Jews had been leaving urban Baltimore for more than 20 years. Social justice has been a part of its congregational identity from the start (beth am means “house of the people”). Today, under Burg’s leadership, Beth Am is showing that it’s possible for a synagogue to thrive and grow in urban Baltimore. And, in the process, Beth Am and Burg are tackling new forms of that ancient question: how should I treat my neighbor?

Until the mid-20th century, Jews living near Beth Am didn’t need to spend much time negotiating their relationship with the neighborhood. For the most part, they were the neighborhood, and the area now known as Reservoir Hill was the heart of Jewish Baltimore. The elegant townhouses of Eutaw Place were adorned with mezuzot, and Jewish merchants owned stores along Whitelock Street.

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After World War II, Baltimore’s manufacturing sector began to dry up, and Jews started heading to the suburbs. The process was accelerated by redlining and blockbusting, strategies that prolonged segregation and deepened urban poverty. By 1968, when Baltimore was engulfed in race riots, few Jews remained in Reservoir Hill. They had moved to Pikesville, and later Owings Mills – suburbs that are now the hub of Jewish life in Baltimore County.

The synagogues moved with them and not all of their old buildings stayed in Jewish hands. Some became churches; at least one is a Masonic lodge. Beth Am took over the domed Moorish sanctuary of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which moved to Pikesville.

Beth Am held on, at times narrowly, through the ’80s and ’90s, a time in which Whitelock Street hosted open-air drug markets. With a sanctuary that can seat 1,200, Beth Am’s membership dipped from 500 to 370 families. Scott Zeger, its current president, joined the congregation in the 1990s. At the time, Zeger says, “The relationship of the congregation to the neighborhood was basically one of, ‘This is our building, we’re hunkered down here, we fear you.’”

As members of the Beth Am community – Burg foremost among them – will tell you, those relationships began to improve years before Burg arrived. Still, says Zeger, there was a sense among some congregants that the congregation could be doing more. The synagogue is in an unusual situation: in a neighborhood that’s around 90 percent African-American, Beth Am is the area’s largest religious institution. “It’s the main faith-based partner that we have,” said Richard Gwynallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council who is also a Beth Am congregant. That kind of institutional heft comes with certain responsibilities. When Beth Am’s previous rabbi, Jon Konheim, decided to retire, the congregation looked for someone who would, among other roles, help them deepen their engagement with the neighborhood. And, in that task, they may have found their perfect match in Daniel Burg.

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The demographic situation of today’s North American Jews would be unfamiliar to most of our forebears. We’re a minority, of course – that’s nothing new. But the era of shtetls, ghettoes and Jewish quarters has ended. We can live where we want, which often means finding ourselves amid people from myriad other ethnic and religious groups. So the question now is, how do we engage, Jewishly, with the people who live right next door? What are our responsibilities to the non-Jewish communities around us? What will it look like – borrowing Burg’s phrasing – to build a Jewish neighborhood in the 21st century?

Burg was raised in Niles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His parents made a conscious effort to raise their kids in a place where they’d be able to interact with a range of people, not only Jews. Instead of dulling Burg’s sense of Jewish identity, this diversity helped define it. “From a very early age I was distinctly aware of my identity as a Jew,” Burg explains. “And I saw that identity in relationship with the other.” Burg draws a direct line from Niles to Beth Am: “It’s hard to imagine my rabbinate in a different sort of community, because I felt called to a sense of diversity of appearance, belief and ideas.”

Beth Am is Burg’s first job as senior rabbi (he previously worked on the rabbinical team at Anshe Emet Synagogue). Jo-Anne Tucker-Zemlak, a United Synagogue professional in Chicago who works with congregations in the region, including Baltimore, describes Burg as the kind of rabbi who will keep on talking to you, without a flicker of distraction, even as his phone is buzzing away in his pocket. That seems about right: Burg is that rare combination, someone who’s loose, outgoing and entirely attentive. After he moved to Reservoir Hill, Burg took time to get to know his neighbors and the neighborhood. He started a blog, The Urban Rabbi (www.theurbanrabbi.org), to work through some of his questions about the community and Beth Am’s role in it.

On Yom Kippur, Burg delivered a sermon in which he praised the congregation for its longstanding commitment to staying in the neighborhood and for its work on its behalf. He then challenged Beth Am to deepen its sense of belonging – of relationship – to the neighborhood. In Burg’s phrasing, it was time for Beth Am “to be of the neighborhood” in a way no Jewish institution had been in at least 50 years. Referencing Reservoir Hill’s past glory as a Jewish neighborhood, he asked what it might look like to build a new Jewish neighborhood – one defined not by a Jewish majority, but by an infusion of “Jewish values like diversity, education, sustainability, and social justice.”

I asked Zeger if congregants had responded well to Burg’s challenge. “Totally,” he replied. The sermon spurred Beth Am’s In, For, and Of the Neighborhood Leadership Training Initiative (colloquially, IFO), headed up by Lisa Akchin and Maggi Gaines. This past spring, over a series of meetings, IFO brought together 50 congregants to read Jewish texts, listen to talks by community organizers, and discuss Beth Am’s role in Reservoir Hill. This fall, says Akchin, “we’re trying to identify a project of mutual interest where the planning work involves members of the congregation and of the community.” In the shorter term, the IFO is planning a Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend event that will feature The Afro-Semitic Experience, a band that fuses jazz, klezmer and other music styles. Later, they’ll be hosting bestselling author Wes Moore for a joint synagogue/neighborhood event.

More than one congregant told me that a visit from Juanita Garrison, a longtime neighbor who’s active in local advocacy, had been eye-opening. Garrison summarized her message to the IFO group: “The only thing I see is that you park your car in front of people’s homes, and you get out of your car, and you don’t even speak.” Garrison wants Beth Am congregants to say hello.

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s at the core of what Beth Am is trying to do. “I think In-For-Of has everything to do with relationships,” explains Akchin. Zeger points out that, ideally, Beth Am’s approach is not, “I have resources, I’m going to help you,” but instead, “We’re just two people, we’re going to get to know each other.” Zeger adds that this kind of equal-partners approach “makes some people very uncomfortable. People are becoming aware of a hurdle that they have.”

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In 2011, Miriam Burg co-chaired a committee that brought together friends and residents of Reservoir Hill – a large contingent from Beth Am among them – for a one-day playground build on what was once a concrete lot. Congregants have helped plant trees along Whitelock Street. They read to children at the local elementary school, and they lobbied the state government for funding to build a new school building. They volunteer at a community farm. The shul hosts concerts and community meetings.

For Burg, the key question is, “How can we all bring our relationships, passion, knowledge, expertise to bear on making that public sphere as great as it can be?” That kind of engagement isn’t a supplement to the synagogue’s work. It’s not diplomacy. Instead, Burg argues, it is an expression of a fundamental Jewish value. It’s about “that basic guiding principle of noticing that we are all somehow linked, and we are linked not in our being ordinary or mundane. We’re linked in our being holy, created in the image of God.” On a recent Shabbat afternoon I went for a walk with Burg around Reservoir Hill. We started at the townhouse that Burg shares with his wife and their two young children. On the way out the door, he paused at an old map of Reservoir Hill hanging in his foyer. Soon we were talking about blockbusting, redlining, segregation, and the films of Barry Levinson, as Burg pointed to relevant places on the map. By the time we made it outside, clouds were rolling in, and it was getting chilly.

We visited the new playground and passed through the community farm, where sunflowers and tomatoes were thriving. An intersection had been blocked off for a street fair. Burg stopped to chat with a couple of neighbors. A diverse crowd was dancing to a live band. Burg waved to the drummer, who sometimes plays at the shul.

Burg seemed to know at least half the people he passed. He said hello to everyone, though. At one point, he popped up to a rowhouse porch in order to greet a newcomer. We dropped by the homes of two young families, members of Beth Am, who live in Reservoir Hill, and we sat on a congregant’s porch and drank cider as the rain began to fall.

There are now about a dozen Jewish households in Reservoir Hill. That number may seem modest, but to native Baltimoreans, it’s a surprise, as is the growth of Beth Am, which has added more than 100 families in the past three years (the shul now has about 500). I asked Tucker-Zemlak, the United Synagogue employee, if, 20 years ago, she would have predicted a resurgence of Jewish life in Reservoir Hill. “No way,” she replied. “Ten years ago I didn’t think so. ”

The vicious cycle of poverty is difficult to break. Community organizing can’t restore the jobs that Baltimore lost decades ago. And neighborhoods undergoing a renaissance can push out lower income residents instead of sharing the fruits of development.

Burg recognizes these issues. “What we’re looking at is really a sense of all boats rising in the harbor. If 20 years from now this is an almost exclusively white and almost exclusively affluent neighborhood, then we haven’t done our job,” he says.

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Burg also argues that the scale of the challenge does not exempt him or Beth Am from their responsibilities to the neighborhood in which they learn, worship and in some cases live. “There’s a word yeush, which means despair,” says Burg. “I would suggest that, actually, as much as possible, we’re not allowed to do yeush on the world. We’re not allowed to do yeush on our communities. And if I can do a little bit, and if I can mobilize a congregation of almost 500 families now to help do more of it, then I feel I can sleep okay at night.”

In 2012, Reservoir Hill hosted a harvest festival that happened to coincide with Sukkot. Burg spent an afternoon outside, teaching passers-by how to shake the lulav and etrog. He wasn’t targeting Jews, and, of course, he wasn’t trying to convert his neighbors. Instead, Burg saw a chance to help them “know a little bit of who we are, why we’re here, and why we care about the work that we do.”

What Burg and fellow members of Beth Am are attempting is different from the average social action project. After all, their goal isn’t just to do charitable acts; nor is it just a matter of building individual relationships. Instead, they’re trying to expand the walls of the synagogue; to imagine a Jewish community that, to some extent, includes people who aren’t Jews. Burg notes that “relational Judaism” has become the latest buzzword. All around the country, synagogues are trying to place the construction of positive relationships at the core of their missions. “We’re doing the same thing, but we’re trying to soften the boundaries of the synagogue,” Burg explains. “We want those relationships to bleed into the community, and we want them to come through the semi-permeable membrane of our stately historic synagogue walls.” Burg starts talking more quickly, almost breathless. “Some of that means that we go to them, and some of that means that they come to us, and a lot of that means that we stop thinking about us and them so much and we start thinking about how it’s all us.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina.

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