Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg strives for social justice at Beth Am

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am (Jim Burger)

Since taking on his leadership role at Beth Am Synagogue, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, 45, has devoted much of his time to social justice issues, including the 2012 push for marriage equality in Maryland. He was personally present in the Maryland state house when then-Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the marriage equality bill into law.

A great deal of the social justice work that Burg engages in is due to the synagogue’s location and where Burg lives, he explained.

“I live on Eutaw Place, across the street from Beth Am,” he said. “When I moved to town, it was apparent that the synagogue, its identity, in many ways, derives from its location. And so our commitment to being an effective anchor institution in an historically Jewish, majority Black neighborhood is at the core of my rabbinate, because it’s at the core of Beth Am’s values.”

In that same spirit, Burg has also been involved in racial equity work through his service on the Maryland Taskforce for Reconciliation and Equity and in interfaith organizations Act Now Baltimore and The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, both of which he serves as a board member.

Burg lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their daughter Eliyah, 15, and son Shamir, 13.

Burg grew up in Niles, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, where he was raised in the Reform congregation of Temple Beth-El. He attended synagogue on a fairly regular basis and enjoyed Shabbat dinners with his family. At 15, he wrote the song for his summer camp, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wis.

At 15 years old in 1992, during a sponsored trip to both Poland and Israel, Burg went to visit the site of the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Looking back on the experience, he was likely too young, he said in retrospect. It left him feeling traumatized for long after. He recalled being horrified by the sight of glass cases filled with shoes and human hair.

“I ended up so emotionally scarred from the experience that I really wasn’t able to talk about the Holocaust for years after that,” Burg said.

In addition to Majdanek, Burg’s visit to Eastern Europe brought him to Auschwitz, which was a completely different experience. It had become “so commercialized, that, in some ways, it’s hard for it to impact you in the same sort of way.” There were ice cream and gift shops at the site, Burg remembered, diminishing the extent to which it felt like sacred ground.

As Burg matured, considering himself a “jack of all trades,” he felt that serving as a rabbi would allow him to write, teach, counsel, speak publicly and advocate for social justice. “[It allowed me] to align my faith in God and my love of Yiddishkeit and Torah with my work in the Jewish community,” he said. “I felt my heart and my soul were leading me to the rabbinate.”

He attended the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Afterward, Burg started a job as an assistant rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. Burg’s father had died in 2004, and so he took the position in part to be close to his recently widowed mother.

By 2010, Burg felt it was time to explore next steps for his career, so he and his wife began looking for cities with large Jewish communities that could support their lives as Jewish professionals. Burg and his family moved to the Baltimore area after he was offered the position of rabbi at Beth Am, while Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg found a place at the Macks Center for Jewish Education.

Some of Burg’s proudest accomplishments while at Beth Am have included the multimillion-dollar renovation of the synagogue and the creation of the affiliated nonprofit In, For, Of, Inc., which fosters relationships between congregants and neighborhood residents. He also noted the work of its Social Action committee, which has distributed thousands of boxes of fresh produce and nonperishables to neighbors during the pandemic.

“Jewish is not just what I am but the essence of who I am,” Burg said. “My Jewish heritage defines my very being in the world and informs every aspect of my life. Being a rabbi is simply the fullest extension of my deepest yearning — to joyfully serve God and the Jewish people.”

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