“Carved in Stone?” Shabbat Beha’alotecha – June 9, 2017

The adventure started last Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Baltimore baseball for the past 25 years. It was a kind of homecoming for me. As a young journalist in the early 80’s I had covered the Orioles at old Memorial Stadium. Cal Ripken Jr. and I had essentially been called up together – he as a major leaguer, me as a major-market reporter. And now, here he was, larger than life – one of a number of Hall-of-Fame statues in the center-field picnic area of the ballpark.

There was Jim Palmer, the great pitcher who was concluding his career as we were starting ours, preparing to let loose his next pitch. There was Brooks Robinson, depicted in the iconic crouch from which he would leap and stab any ball hit his way.

And then there was my nemesis, Earl Weaver, then the manager of the Orioles, who did not care for any reporters in his office, much less one of the first female reporters granted full and equal access by Major League Baseball. The first time I ventured in with the gaggle, he took one look at me and growled, “Are you gonna do something with that tape recorder, young lady?” From then on, I counted on pitching coach Ray Miller, at the locker closest to Weaver’s office, to scout out whether it was safe for me to go in for an interview after the game.

For most fans, the nine-foot statues represent the greatness of Orioles baseball of the past. For me, they were my own story – a large portion of my life, frozen in time, as though nothing had changed at all.

Of course that’s not true. Earl Weaver has passed from this world. Cal Ripken is long retired and now has less hair and more in the middle. Brooksie, God love him, is still going strong at age 80, but I’m guessing he’s not as fleet on his feet. And me, I’m 18 years into my third career – my true calling – and very well aware that time (and baseball) have moved on.

Just twenty-four hours later, I wasn’t so sure. Because the Baltimore I saw on Monday looked very much like the one I had left decades ago. And that was not a good thing.

You may know the name Freddie Gray. He was the 25-year-old black man who died in police custody two years ago after being arrested for possession of what police claimed was an illegal switchblade. Much of what transpired between Freddie Gray’s arrest and death are still unclear. Here’s the way Rolling Stone magazine recently summarized what we know:

“[Gray was] put inside a Baltimore Police Department transport van, and then, 45 minutes later, was found unconscious and not breathing, his spinal cord nearly severed. Following a seven-day coma, Gray died on April 19th; his untimely death and citizen video of his arrest, which showed Gray screaming in pain, prompted both the peaceful protests and headline-grabbing riots.”

Many of us remember the scenes on television: the huge crowds that had gathered at the Penn North intersection, in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore. The police moving in a line, trying to push the protesters out. The violence, the beatings, the torching of the local pharmacy.

Three officers involved in the case eventually were acquitted. Last summer, the charges against three others were dropped. And the deaths of other young black men at the hands of police took over the national narrative.

But in West Baltimore, the story of Freddie Gray remains a central focus of life for poor, black citizens. His likeness appears everywhere, on enormous murals that began emerging on the sides of homes and businesses almost immediately after his death. These murals – like the statues in Oriole Park – depict a Freddie Gray frozen in time. Their artistic beauty is almost painful. They speak to the aspirations, the fears, and the tragedies of a community that has been ignored, of lives that have been wasted, of a Baltimore that is only a few minutes’ drive from the ballparks and the Inner Harbor, yet which is essentially another world.

According to a Washington Post report from last summer:

“The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood covers 72 square blocks and is home to about 9,000 people. About a third of the housing stock is abandoned and boarded up, 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed, and the neighborhood has more people in jails and prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.”

But here’s the thing. West Baltimore was like this when I lived there, too. The burned-out buildings, the boarded-up houses, the young black men idling on stoops – that didn’t happen just in the last two years. Or even two decades. The damage in Sandtown took place a half-century ago, in the riots that followed the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

The money and attention that has been lavished on affluent, gentrified white areas of Baltimore has not trickled down to Sandtown. Successive administrations, both on a city and a state level, have not invested in these areas of West Baltimore. It is an area whose residents are unseen, unheard, and unattended.

Walking through Sandtown on Monday, I was very self-conscious and worried about what the residents would think. Why was this group of white women taking in the scene, taking pictures as they went? We’d been told by local activist J.C. Faulk, who took us around the neighborhood and told us its stories, that neighbors might not be kind. But it turns out that they were. They were friendly, engaging, and interested. They welcomed us, because we cared. Because we were there to learn. Because we were there at all.

These were people who were shopping, walking their kids home, and cleaning their stoops. Who showed us the alleys where rat-infested garbage piled up, because they could not get the attention of amyone in the city to clean it up. Who were trying to go about their lives, in and out of the Penn-North transit station, and small shops, and densely parked cars.

Sandtown is alive. It is not a war zone. It is not a dark cave that people should fear to enter. It is a neighborhood like any other, where people go to work and take care of their kids, where neighbors share meals together. Some things have gotten better over time – fewer overt drug deals, more rehabilitation of homes by community groups. Still, wherever we went, the magnificent murals recording the deaths of Freddie Gray, and so many others like him, looked out upon those rows of those burned out buildings and boarded up houses, signs of the neglect of this community over half a century.

The tour of Sandtown was just the first step for us. That night, we gathered again with J.C. and other activists and citizens who have banded together to demand attention, as well as justice. They are part of an uprising, as they call it, a city-wide movement called Circles of Voices. J.C. had each group there – rabbis, citizens, activists – take a turn in the circle, talking about themselves and their lives, while the others listened and later reflected on what they heard.

It’s the least we can do, isn’t it? – Listen to other people tell the stories of their lives? Break down pre-conceived notions about who they are, where they come from, why they care? And we did listen. We listened to Towanda, the sister of another black man killed by Baltimore city police, who has spent more than 200 straight weeks protesting with a megaphone in front of police stations and the city coroner’s office and other agencies – just getting them to acknowledge her presence and her pain. We listened to a man who had come from Ireland, with an abiding concern for those less fortunate than he. We listened to the ever-passionate activist PFK Boom, who told us of threats against him and his family because of his work. We listened to a mother and daughter who just wanted to know what they could do to get those who do have power to pay attention to the basic human needs of those who have none.

Listening in, I felt such an unexpected connection with all of these people. The fact is that each group’s frustrations and challenges come from the same difficult questions: What can I do? How can I help? How do I get the powerful to pay attention? Listening in, and recognizing all that we have in common – This is the beginning of breaking down walls. Of taking apart the silos in which each of our communities lives, one brick at a time.

The conversation was about Baltimore – but then again, it wasn’t. It was really about every city and town with a power structure that ignores the basic human needs of whole neighborhoods. We members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network represent big, wealthy congregations, as well as small, modest ones. We like to think of ourselves as a diverse group – but the fact of the matter is that we are all pretty fortunate. We all make a decent living. We all can afford a nice place to live. We all can raise children in safety and comfort. We all can travel and explore the world with relative ease.

And we all need to recognize that, armed with a life of comfort and a pulpit that affords us some power, we also bear the responsibility to speak out on behalf of others whose voices are not heard. To listen, and then to speak from passion and from knowledge, if not from personal experience.

On the final morning of our conference, we sat with the wonderful Rabbi Beth Schaefer, who is both a marvelous spiritual leader and a great musical talent. And, with her guidance, we started writing a song for ourselves. It’s still in process. But the chorus we created goes something like this:

“See the unseen

Hear the unheard

Count the uncounted

Rise up in word

In song, deed and prayer

This sacred calling we share.”

For us as rabbis, this is our sacred calling – answering the challenge of the prophet Zecharia in this week’s haftarah. It is a prophecy that promises redemption – but not for us alone. As the angel tells Zecharia:

“Look at the stone that I have set before [the High Priest] Joshua, a single stone with seven facets. Now I am going to put an engraving on it – says the God of heaven’s hosts – and in a single day remove the iniquity of this land. On that day – says the God of heaven’s hosts – you shall all invite each other to sit under your vines and your fig trees.”

The ancients apparently believed that a stone carving like this, with the sacred number of seven sides, had special powers. But we know better. The past is not set in stone, nor is the future. The power is not in a carving, or a memorial statue. The power is in us. Redemption, unity, and peace all come to the world when we make it happen, inspired by the prophet’s vision and God’s command.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin


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