Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Time to Make A Difference

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel 
I will admit that I am not the best when it comes to paying attention to the local news. I do not subscribe to the Baltimore Sun. And when I watch the local news, it is primarily to get the weather, traffic and sports reports. Because of this I had no idea who Freddie Gray was until he died. I was only nominally aware of the early protests mostly because of what was mentioned on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

As a suburban Jew and rabbi representing a mid-sized congregation, I am not very involved in Baltimore City. However, I have recently become engaged with a group facilitated by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IDF), which is working to organize congregations in Baltimore County to combat issues like affordable housing and gun violence. We have lofty goals and aspirations, but it is taking time to get this movement going.

But when it comes to Baltimore City, if I encounter the areas of blight and poverty, it is mostly driving through them with my doors locked and windows closed. I think to myself, someone should do something about this until I arrive at my destination. And then I don’t give it any more thought. I leave that up to others like BUILD and the strategic partnerships that are being formed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore. However, I would like to note that Har Sinai Congregation has been working with Paul’sPlace even inviting many of their clients to our most recent Women’s Seder.

The irony is that Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the nation per capita, and yet it has some of the worst poverty stricken areas in the country. Others have written quite eloquently about the ‘Two” Baltimores made up of the haves and the have-nots. It has been a tinderbox waiting to explode which it did this past Monday.

Then like so many others in the country, I watched the news from the safety of my living room. This was taking place in Baltimore City and not in the suburbs. I watched from social media where people easily condemned the violence from the safety of their homes passing judgments on people whose lives we cannot possibly comprehend. And yet, I said nothing.

I noticed with frustration the expression of anger at the destruction and the inconvenience of field trips and baseball games being postponed. A disenfranchised, voiceless group is finally getting the city, state, and nation to pay attention to them, and we are upset because we can’t go to a ball game.

It was only then that I realized one of the fundamental problems is that we have almost no connection to the “Other” Baltimore. We are scared of “them,” while at the same time holding them to values that if we were in the same situation, we ourselves, would not hold ourselves to.

I have been silent. I have been silent in part because, as a rabbi of a suburban congregation of medium size I feel I have no platform from which to speak. I am not politically connected, though I have met many politicians. I am not close to the movers and shakers and I have looked to others to speak for me.

So when I received an email from the Jews United for Justice stating that there would be a communal non-violent rally tomorrow, Friday May 1st, at 3pm at the Maryland State Attorney’s office on Baltimore Street before heading to City Hall at 4pm, I thought to myself, others will march. I have Shabbat obligations.

What a convenient excuse. I am a proud Reform Jew, and our understanding of Judaism is based on the tradition of Prophetic Justice. We praise Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Here now is our chance to march.

I may not be the most powerful rabbi in Baltimore or Baltimore County, but I do have a voice. The only way things will change is if we as a community speak out and do not let others speak for us. I plan to be present at tomorrow’s rally not just to stand up for justice for Freddie Gray, but to stand up against the indifference and the silence. I will stand up against the Two Baltimores. It is time we have one city where all can have hope. I believe in the movement that #AllLivesMatter, and what happens to the poorest among us is a reflection upon us all.

I hope to see some of you there. And my apologies in advance if I am late making it back for the start of Shabbes, but without peace, is it truly Shabbat?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

While Baltimore Smolders

When I announced that I was moving to Baltimore to be the new senior Rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation, inevitably, one of the first questions I would be asked was, “Have you seen The Wire?”

Since I do not subscribe to HBO, up until recently, I had never seen an episode. However when HBO announced a recent agreement with Amazon over streaming old episodes, I was finally able to watch what everyone was talking about. To my dismay, I discovered The Wire was what non-Baltimoreans thought of Baltimore. A place filled with urban blight, violence, drugs, and poverty.

Since moving here I have instead uncovered a people who love their city with incredible devotion. It may have to do with the fact that Baltimore is often forgotten as it is sandwiched between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. It is a city filled with proud boosters one would be more hard pressed to find. We have amazing arts, colleges, restaurants, entertainment, music, and the like. 

Baltimore has been undergoing a tremendous renaissance since the late 70’s with the development of the inner harbor and subsequent redevelopment of many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Young people are now moving into areas that a generation or two ago would never have dreamed of occupying.

That being said, the redevelopment has not been even or steady. There are neighborhoods especially in west and northwest Baltimore that are still filled with the same blight, poverty, violence and drugs as seen on The Wire. Though local groups and partnerships have been working to alleviate and help out the neighborhoods, many residents feel under siege and a sense of festering anger.

The needless death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police was the spark. Truth be told, Mr. Gray was no saint. But once he was handcuffed and shackled by police, there is absolutely no reason why he should have died in their custody. It is the core mission of the police to protect and serve, not to protect, serve and punish. Punishment is the sole responsibility of our judicial system.

All that being said, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, with whom I have met, is a qualified and dedicated public servant who is working hard to restore relationships between our hard working men and women in blue and the communities they serve. But it is a work in progress. 

Young African American men in Baltimore City feel they are the targets of police. And this strategy has to change.  As Dan Rodricks wrote in his opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun The 'Other Baltimore' Breaks Through "But, in the O'Malley years, we got zero-tolerance policing and a continuation of the war on drugs that, while reducing violent crime, also harmed the relationship between police and the people who live and die in that "other Baltimore" you can't see from Harborplace."

And that anger has now spilled out into the streets of Baltimore. Of course the media was quick to focus on the violence and looting because sensationalism sells. They failed to tell the stories of the brave individuals and clergy who went out to try to stop the violence and protect homes and stores. They failed to tell the story of the non-violent protests over the Freddie Gray's death. No, they focused on the looting and burning.

Which was probably also the goal of some of the young individuals who feel they have no voice. Now that they have 'acted out,' politicians and civic leaders are finally paying attention to them. There are of course also the 'thugs' who went on wanton rages of destruction and looting for their own selfish reasons, for which there is absolutely no excuse. And they will hopefully be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law just as much as those responsible for Freddie Gray's death will also be held accountable.

Baltimore is an amazing city. It has come so far, but admittedly, it has a long way to go. Sadly the perception of Baltimore by the rest of the world has been validated by the violence and by the media's portrayal of the violence. There is little reporting of all the people who woke up this morning, put on their gloves, and went out to clean up the mess. It is going to take a long time to clean it up.

It is going to take a long time to build, let alone, rebuild the fractured and damaged relationships with the most often ignored and neglected members of our Baltimore community. But  I, for one, have faith and hope that we can learn from the lessons of the past and build a better Baltimore for tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you would like to help, you can go to this link Help Baltimore City set up by the Associated to donate funds to help rebuild Baltimore.