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The New Jewish Neighborhood Project: Reimagining Jewish Community in the Twenty-First Century

Posted on Feb 7, 2012

By Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Am Synagogue, Baltimore, MD

The Project:

Last June, we had over 300 volunteers turn out for an inspiring one-day playground build. Identifying a need – there was no clean, safe and beautiful play space for the hundreds of children in our neighborhood – several community leaders came together to write a grant to KaBoom. Seed money was secured by Beth Am Synagogue’s president, and the Baltimore Ravens funded the project. We brought dozens of volunteers from Beth Am but, more importantly, there were hundreds of neighborhood residents who participated. Here are some pictures and a blog post about the build-day.

The New Jewish Neighborhood Project is the name that I have given to a wonderful (and deliberate) shift that is occurring in our congregation, not only to be in and for the neighborhood, but also to be increasingly of the neighborhood. From my perspective this requires us, the Jewish community of Reservoir Hill – and perhaps urban-dwellers around the country – to reframe the entire notion of a “Jewish Neighborhood.” 

Two essential questions drive my thinking:

  1. How do Jewish values inform city-living?
  2. How does living in the city affect an ancient tradition as it renews itself in the 21st century?


Beth Am Synagogue is a vibrant, growing Conservative shul in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The neighborhood varies greatly from block to block with a housing stock reflective of the community’s socio-economic diversity. This is critical for Beth Am which has the rare opportunity to do “social justice on our front doorstep.” Inspired by of our neighborhood and our members’ deep involvement in the city of Baltimore, Beth Am has been committed to social action/social justice work for years.

I sum up the project on my blog (www.TheUrbanRabbi.org) as follows: “Where once a Jewish neighborhood was defined by a preponderance of Jews and Jewish institutions, I would humbly suggest that we now focus not just on Jewish quantity, but on Jewish quality, not only on Jewish community but a community infused with Jewish value – among which are pluralism, education, kindness, social-justice and tolerance.” 

The Project’s Impact:

The build-day is one example of many ongoing projects either led (my wife Miriam co-chaired the build) or supported by Beth Am. We see ourselves as deeply bound to Reservoir Hill. We have an ongoing relationship with the local elementary school, neighborhood organizations and greening/sustainability efforts (including our community farm) in the heart of the neighborhood.   The shul has directly rehabbed vacant homes and supported the continuing efforts to decrease vacancies and increase stable home-ownership. Members partner with the police to help maintain safety and a number of congregants/leaders are involved with Druid Hill Park (Baltimore’s central park which is across the street) and efforts to create/implement a new master plan there.

I am excited about how we can create ongoing relationships with people and places in the neighborhood. For example, we are considering having our religious school, in cooperation with kids from another neighborhood organization, “adopt” the playground to improve ongoing maintenance issues and encourage our kids to use the facility. We would like to erect a sukkah near our new playground as a vehicle for storytelling and education around hakhnasat orhim and creating sacred space. There are a dozen ideas for initiatives like this, each fitting within the broader framework of the New Jewish Neighborhood Project. 

Ongoing Challenges:

Baltimore, like many cities, has a troubled history with regard to race, class and religion. Through much of the twentieth century prejudicial housing and lending practices were legally enforced and then (when struck down by the Supreme Court) still had the force of law through covenants. No rabbi or shul can undue generations of mistrust, bigotry and anti-Semitism. That said, by thinking of Reservoir Hill as our neighborhood, even for congregants who live elsewhere in Baltimore, we help to reshape assumptions about these differences, revealing the myriad ways in which people are more similar than different.

We are a mid-size congregation with somewhat limited resources. We are considering bringing a New Jewish Neighborhood Project Fellow to Reservoir Hill and are working on finding the funds to do so. This would allow us to have a part-time staffer available to do education within the shul and partner directly with neighborhood agencies.

DIY (Do-it-Yourself) Tips:

I am of the sincere belief that every neighborhood can be a “New Jewish Neighborhood.” If we understand and internalize essential Jewish values we have no choice but to begin to actualize those values in our communities. This is, for example, a great argument for the value of walking to shul.

For many Conservative Jews who attend synagogues in other suburbs or neighborhoods, however, a project like this is doubly-critical. An essential question might be: how might we think of our congregations not as places we visit to receive goods and services like Starbucks, the mall or the gym, but rather as a second home?

We want to live in vibrant, kind, tolerant, safe, beautiful neighborhoods where neighbors know about and take care of one another and where amenities, institutions and outdoor spaces are reflective of a community’s strengths. Shouldn’t our synagogues be located in such neighborhoods as well? And does it not fall to the members of those synagogues to work toward such an ideal?

 

How might we think of our congregations not as places we visit to receive goods and services like Starbucks, the mall or the gym, but rather as a second home?

 


 

Daniel Cotzin Burg came to Beth Am in 2010 from Chicago, where he served as a rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue. He was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, California. He holds Master of Arts degrees in Rabbinic Studies and Jewish Education from the U.J. and a B.A. in Hebrew Studies and Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He is a recipient of the STAR PEER rabbinic fellowship and is a contributing author to Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Spring and Summer Holidays (from JPS).  He writes regularly for the Baltimore Jewish Times. 

Daniel is blessed to share his life with the talented Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, their daughter, Eliyah, and their son, Shamir.

:-))

This is superb - fascinating, inspiring, really important. Kol hakovod.

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