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” (Deut. 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 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 surrounding 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 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.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The Urban Rabbi. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.
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