About 700 miles separate Baltimore and Chicago, but the two cities share similar sensibilities, says Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg.
“The things I love about Baltimore are largely similar to what I love about Chicago,” says Rabbi Burg, 40, a Chicago native who serves as spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill. “They both have diverse urban centers, and both have a warmth to the people who live in them.”
Because Baltimore is smaller than the Windy City, Rabbi Burg — who brands himself “the urban rabbi” with his blog of the same name (urbanrabbi.org) — believes it’s easier to have a more measurable impact on a congregation, neighborhood and community. That’s one of the reasons why he and his wife, Miriam — also a rabbi, and most recently director of Jewish life at Capital Camps and Retreat Center — moved to Baltimore in 2010.
The Burgs, with their two children, Eliyah, 11, and Shamir, 8, have made their home in Reservoir Hill since moving here. “We had zero experience with Baltimore,” Rabbi Burg recalls, “but we fell in love with both Beth Am and the city.”
Living in Baltimore is not without its challenges, he says. “Because of its Southern sensibilities, coupled with its history of segregation and the convulsions of the past few years, we do have more pointed challenges of racism and anti-Semitism than many other cities,” Rabbi Burg says. But he adds that those challenges also make Baltimore a “great laboratory” for progress.
Beth Am has witnessed great progress under Rabbi Burg’s leadership. The congregation, founded in 1974 in the former home of Chizuk Amuno at 2501 Eutaw Place, has grown in size to nearly 500 households, approximately half of whom reside in the city.
What first impressed Rabbi Burg about Beth Am was its commitment to “soul-searching.” Similarly, he views the rabbinate as a platform for organizational growth, not only of the congregation but of the neighboring community.
“There are particular needs of this dynamic, diverse, but primarily minority neighborhood,” he says. While the congregation has always been community-minded, as one congregant put it, it was time for the synagogue to realize “this isn’t a project, it’s our neighborhood.”
In 2011, Rabbi Burg challenged the congregation to consider whether it could be not only in and for Reservoir Hill but for and of Reservoir Hill. During the next two years, members of a congregational task force met with urban policy professionals, community organizers, neighbors and activists to discuss the neighborhood. They formed a new non-profit, In, For and Of Inc., committed to building Reservoir Hill relationships. Partnering with community organizations and leaders, the group has hosted successful community-building gatherings at Beth Am. Congregants have participated in events, forums and planning conversations throughout the community.
Among the group’s current projects are recruiting volunteers to participate in neighborhood activities; raising funds to support community-based initiatives, including grants to develop cross-cultural educational and artistic programs; securing funding to upgrade facilities at Beth Am as a location for community events; and employing a community organizer through the UMBC Shriver Center‘s Peaceworker Program to strengthen connections to neighbors and neighborhood partners and provide staff support for initiatives.
“One of the hallmarks of Rabbi Burg’s spiritual leadership is social justice,” says Lisa Akchin, Beth Am’s first vice president. “He is a clear and challenging voice on the issues of race and inequality confronting Baltimore and America today. And he walks his talk, from making his family’s home in Reservoir Hill to gathering a minyan for prayer in Sandtown during the unrest to building effective relationships with clergy of other faiths.”
Like Reservoir Hill, Beth Am is a place of diversity, with Jews of color, interfaith couples, gays and lesbians, and converts.
Jessie Weber and Nancy Eddy, who live in Charles Village, joined Beth Am earlier this year, shortly before the birth of their daughter, Noa.
“We had been to services a few times over the past year and just fell in love with the warmth of the congregation and its positive interaction with the community around it, its orientation toward social justice, child-friendliness, inclusiveness and diversity, spirited services with lots of congregant participation, and of course the incredible leadership of Rabbi Burg,” says Weber.
“Rabbi Burg’s sermons are so thoughtful and engaging, and he is incredibly gifted at combining faithfulness to Jewish tradition with a progressive worldview.”
Adds Eddy: “As a non-Jew, I felt completely welcome. The first time we came for services, there was no such thing as hiding in the back. We were welcomed by Rabbi Burg as he walked around and chatted everyone up. We were even asked to do a reading!”
Rabbi Burg says he loves working within the community, welcoming new members, helping preserve the ideals of Beth Am, and continuing the existence of a synagogue in a once predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
“As excited as the last six years have been, I’m even more excited for the future,” he says. “I get to do this spiritual, joyous work every day. To get out of bed, walk across the street, and serve God and the Jewish people is an incredible gift.”
Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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