Baltimore has been my spiritual home for 34 years. Also, my physical home, the place we raised our children, the place where my husband, Paul, was born.
What is so spiritual about Baltimore? It’s the invisible ladders that rise to heaven. And it’s the scattered rungs that are everywhere, waiting for us to discover them.
That may sound confusing, but if you look at this midrash mosaic I made a few years ago, you’ll notice that Jacob is dreaming not only of that one famous Biblical ladder with angels ascending and descending. Three ladders connect heaven and earth. And at Jacob’s feet are colorful, scattered rungs, ready to become ladders so that we may ascend and descend with the angels.
My friend, Rabbi Judith Edelman Green, enlightened me with this lesson Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught:
Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder, on which thoughts mount to God.
Rabbi Heschel also said that he prayed with his feet in Selma, Ala. — opening up “prayer” to include acts of chesed (lovingkindness) and seeing ourselves as members of the family of humanity.
That is my spiritual experience of Baltimore. Discovering ladders between earth and heaven, and gathering the rungs in the most unlikely of places so ladders could be built by the most unlikely of coalitions.
We arrived in Baltimore in 1983, right after ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Paul went to work as a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital. Sam was 4, Shoshana was 2 and Tali was on the way.
I didn’t want a full-time gig that would take me away from my kids, and rabbis did not get hired part-time in those days. At first, that was discouraging. What an incredible blessing it became, allowing me to encounter and touch so many people in so many places, discovering those rungs and together connecting ladders from earth to heaven.
Spring Grove State Psychiatric Hospital, in a chaplaincy training program. Sheppard Pratt Hospital, as Jewish chaplain and supervisor of clergy students of all religions. Grace United Methodist Church, at their pastoral counseling center. The pain and healing and raw truth and yearning of mental illness calls us to build ladders of humility and compassion.
Beth Am, as an interim rabbi. Krieger Schechter Day School, for 18 years, teaching and learning from eighth graders and Torah about tzelem Elohim, the image of God.
Chevrei Tzedek, a vibrant new congregation, asked me to be their part-time rabbi. For 15 years, we assembled the rungs through life cycle, youth activities and social justice.
The Baltimore Jewish Healing Network with Israela Meyerstein brought spiritual tools to those who struggle. Teaching Florence Melton educational modules to avid adult learners raise the sparks to heaven.
Two years of teaching Jewish religion classes to the 11th graders at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore elevated my consciousness, conscience and soul. Ladders built by black and Jewish hands. Through Art with a Heart, I’ve volunteered at Peace Day Camp, hosted by St. Frances. I’ve conducted seders for JQ Baltimore, and co-chaired with Pete O’Neil the 50-year anniversary celebration of the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.
And now, I am the halftime rabbi at dynamic Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace.
Conveniently, Havre de Grace is about the same drive from West Philadelphia as from Pikesville. Our daughter Shosh, a nurse practitioner, and her family live here. Ari Lev Fornari, her partner, is the rabbi of a congregation. So here we are in Philadelphia, playing with our grandchildren. I’m commuting to Harford County a few days each week, and Paul is working at the Philadelphia VA.
My mosaics dwell at these Baltimore locales: CHANA, Beth Am, Beth El, Gilchrist Hospice Chapel, Hearts and Ears, St. James AME, the Darrell Friedman Institute, Beth Tfiloh and Temple Adas Shalom-Harford Jewish Center.
Baltimore, you will always dwell in my heart.
Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin is spiritual leader of Temple Adas Shalom-Harford Jewish Center in Havre de Grace.
Above image: Jacob’s Ladder mosaic by Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin
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