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My Baltimore's Next: Daniel Cotzin Burg

Daniel Cotzin Burg - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Daniel Cotzin Burg - Photo by Arianne Teeple
I envision a Baltimore where religious values inform and stimulate positive social change. Let's face it, religion has a bad rep -- even, sometimes, among the religious. I was recently on a road trip with my family in Northern Michigan. We passed a billboard that read "Jesus: Saving the World from Religion." But religion is not something from which we need to be saved. Religion ought to be something through which we are inspired and motivated to improve our communities.

Religion is and can continue to be a force for good, particularly in a city like Baltimore where I meet people every day who believe that there's meaning and purpose to their lives, who believe in God but feel that religions themselves are overly provincial or spiritually atrophied. For Baltimore to thrive as a city, those of us in religious leadership must be willing to apply the ancient wisdom of our traditions to the real challenges of urban living in the 21st Century. 

I am disheartened when I hear of colleagues from my own faith tradition or others who use their religious beliefs (and the same texts that I hold dear) to justify intolerance, systemic exclusion, or inaction. Religiosity in its truest form is aspirational. Here's an example -- a story in the Jewish tradition. Once there was a young man who encountered an old man planting a carob tree. The young man admonished him, "Why do you bother to plant this tree? You will never see it grow to maturity, never sit under its shade or eat of its fruit." The old man replied, "there were carob trees in the world when I came into it.  Others planted those trees. I plant this one so that my children and grandchildren can enjoy them in their time."

Recently, my community of Reservoir Hill came together to build a new playground for our neighborhood's children. It was an inspiring process supported by kaBOOM! and funded by the Baltimore Ravens. It was utterly stirring to see dozens of my congregants join hundreds of other volunteers from the neighborhood and beyond to construct a state-of-the-art playground, butterfly garden, stage, mural, and benches -- all with their bare hands and in one day! We at Beth Am did this out of a deep religious obligation to our community and to a younger generation who need clean, safe, and beautiful places to play.

The book of Genesis teaches that all human beings are created in God's image. What would our city be like if each of us walked through our neighborhoods and our places of work seeing a spark of the divine in the face of each person we encounter? How quickly might we address the systemic challenges that have beset this town for decades? We are, each of us, equal and extraordinary. So let's get started! 

Daniel Cotzin Burg is the rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue in historic Reservoir Hill. He lives there with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir (who very much enjoy their new playground). Rav Daniel blogs at www.TheUrbanRabbi.com where he explores the ways in which a once-Jewish neighborhood can be reimagined in terms of core Jewish values like pluralism, social justice, and sustainability.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple
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