Long Spiritual Journey Comes Home

Black family’s choice of Beth Am synagogue is matter of faith

Once, Desiree Robinson heard only her own voice as she recited Hebrew prayers at home. Now that she is a member of Beth Am synagogue, “I hear the whole congregation as I’m going through the prayer,” she says. Even when by herself, “I’m not a lone voice anymore.” After 15 years of searching for a spiritual home, Desiree and Phillip Robinson found Beth Am not far from their West Baltimore residence. During an August service, a day after converting to Judaism, the couple and their four sons were called to the Torah at the synagogue’s lectern for an aliyah, or ritual blessing. At the same service, Robinson family members affirmed their Hebrew names. “It was a very, very moving moment,” says Jon Konheim, Beth Am’s rabbi.

This week, in concurrence with Hanukkah, Beth Am launches a year-long celebration of its 30th anniversary with a festive Friday night service and shabbat dinner. For the Robinsons, Beth Am’s anniversary is occasion for deepening their sense of place. For all Beth Am members, it is a moment to reflect on their reverence for both tradition and progressive social thought. By nature, the Robinsons and the Beth Am congregation have sought possibilities beyond clear-cut paths and easy decisions. Perhaps that’s why the family and the synagogue found each other. “Es beshert,” Konheim says in Yiddish. “It’s fate.” Throughout the Jewish diaspora, it is not unusual to encounter black Jews. But in Baltimore, a city with a history of racial division, it is unusual to encounter an African-American family within a white, Jewish congregation. But the Robinsons have always felt more at home in a synagogue than a church, as did their mothers, who both observe Jewish traditions.

Phillip Robinson’s mother “grew impatient” with her Baptist teachings and launched her own journey for a spiritual home, he says. As a child, “I began to go along and search with her … the more I began to go with her, her search became mine. It became personal,” says Robinson, the 34-year-old manager of an East Baltimore lighting company. About five years ago, Desiree Robinson, now 36, received from her grandmother photographs of ancestors standing outside a synagogue in New York City early in the 20th century. At the time, her grandmother told her, “‘Dee, you are not doing anything new. … You are pursuing the calling of your blood.'” Like the Robinsons, Beth Am also has a history of going its own way. At a time when churches and synagogues were moving from the city, Beth Am stayed in Reservoir Hill. The synagogue was formed from the remnants of Chizuk Amuno, a previous congregation. Chizuk Amuno moved to Baltimore County in 1962, leaving behind a few members who chose to stay in the Eutaw Place synagogue. In 1974, those members bought the building, formed a new congregation and renamed it Beth Am, which means “house of the people.” Beth Am remained unaffiliated until three years ago, when it joined the Conservative movement.

“Beth Am appeals to people who march to the beat of a different drummer,” says Miriam Tillman, president of the synagogue’s congregation. “They listen to their own hearts and feelings as regards Judaism,” she says. Beth Am is “a home for a certain type of person who tends to think independently.” The Robinsons fit right in, Tillman says. “They’re very passionate and they’re very involved and integrated into the life of the synagogue. … When they come to chapel services, they fill an entire pew. They embraced us and we embraced them.” The family’s search brought them to Beth Am through an acquaintance who attends the synagogue, says Desiree Robinson, who works as a program coordinator at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute & Cultural Center. There, as they listened to Konheim’s provocative sermons, the congregation’s spirited discussions of Torah readings and Cantor Ira Greenstein’s sonorous voice, they discovered the one, burnished “truth” they had spent years searching for. “Everyone has to decide where their journey leads to,” Phillip Robinson says. “I personally believe there’s only one truth. I’m not one who believes all paths lead to the same place.”

Judaism is a faith that welcomes theological argument. Still, Konheim says that the Robinsons’ belief in one truth is not at odds with their faith’s built-in tolerance for debate. Konheim shares their view in that he finds a “resonance in the Jewish tradition that speaks to me in a way nothing else does.” While the Robinsons may “proclaim a single truth” on a theological level, they are “as accepting of all their friends and neighbors as they could possibly be on a social level,” Konheim says. “For me, that works: they’re not out to bring anyone else in; they’re out to be the best Jews they can be.” Well before their conversion, the Robinsons were familiar with Jewish tradition. When Phillip Robinson announced to his children that the family would convert and join Beth Am, they said, “‘I thought we were already Jews,'” he notes in an essay outlining his decision. “My response was, ‘No, we just practice a Jewish life style,'” Robinson writes. It is rare for an entire family to enter a new faith together, as did Desiree, Phillip, Byron, 15, Yosiah, 12, Yeriah, 10, and Tobiah, 8.

Byron, for example, as a “mature young man of 14, had the option of saying, ‘Thank you, Mom, thank you, Dad, but I’m not going to join you,” says Beth Am member Joel A. Alter, a rabbi and director of Judaic studies at Shoshanna S. Cardin Jewish Community High School on Park Heights Avenue. Byron, whose last name is Powell, phoned Alter earlier in the year and asked, “‘OK, why should I convert?'” Alter says. “He was doing due diligence. He wanted to exercise his right to think it through.” Byron now attends Shoshanna S. Cardin high school, and his brothers, who are currently home schooled, may follow. The family’s unanimous action is particularly touching, Alter says. “You often find in liberal America today that one’s religious identity is a commodity to be chosen that is no different in practice from clothing or the kind of house you live in or the kind of car you drive.” In this case, the Robinsons made a measured decision that will have a profound effect on their lives, he says. Byron’s conversion, for example, “is significant in terms of who he will date and marry,” Alter says. “Certainly in a community like Baltimore, where racial and religious identification is very important, that’s a big step this kid is taking.” If there was any surprise among Beth Am members when the Robinsons first arrived at the synagogue, it quickly dissolved into a warm welcome for a family now deeply involved in the life of the congregation. “It was definitely beshert,” Desiree Robinson says. “It was where we were supposed to be.”

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