Two Movements, One Marriage For the Burgs, it’s about love for Judaism, not the denomination

(Photo by David Stuck)

If not for an intuitive friend and a holiday picnic, the couple’s story, teeming with memories from their home in Baltimore and excursions to Israel with their children, may have been written very differently — if at all.

Rabbi Daniel Burg, 41, of Reservoir Hill-based Beth Am Synagogue and his wife, Rabbi Miriam Burg, 43, jokingly refer to themselves as an interfaith couple. As rabbinical students, they cut their teeth at seminaries that were close in proximity but far apart in ideology.

“I have a deeper appreciation for the dignity of difference, and that’s very much a product of my being married to Miriam,” Daniel said. “When you’re in a relationship with someone who can hold up a mirror to your practices and perspectives, it challenges you to think differently about them.”

Daniel, ordained by the Conservative-affiliated Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2005, and Miriam, ordained by the Reform-affiliated Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2002, are going 15 years strong with their children Shamir, 9, and Eliyah, 12.

“My husband became a rebbetzin before he became a rabbi,” Miriam said with a chuckle.

While Daniel took to the pulpit after rabbinical school, Miriam served in a variety of positions outside the synagogue walls, including as the rabbi at Capital Camps as well as the director of PJ Library. She has devoted this past year to laying the groundwork for one of her longtime dreams: a camp for Jewish families.

Once her husband received an offer from Beth Am in 2010, the Burgs left their home in Chicago and settled in Baltimore, believing the city’s rich culture would give each spouse the chance to leave a footprint in the Jewish realm.

And thus far, Charm City has proven to be a thriving hub for Jewish life, allowing the couple to make an impact in the community they now call home.

“Our practice is really similar, we just have different reasons for doing what we do,” Miriam said. “There are many different ways to the top of Mount Sinai.”

First Encounter

Miriam’s path to rabbinic ordination prompted her to leave Ann Arbor after graduating from the University of Michigan and venture to the sprawling city of Los Angeles in the late 1990s.

Some may chalk it up to fate that she and her former college roommate Rachel Shere were once again living in the same state. Shere was in the midst of completing her graduate studies at American Jewish University, just a short car ride from Miriam’s apartment at Hebrew Union College.

(Photo by David Stuck)

Although they were at different institutions, Shere reveled in playing matchmaker for her old roomie. After meeting a classmate named Daniel, who was pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish education, she knew just the girl she needed to call.

“Rachel told me there was a new student who had beautiful eyes, a nice smile and played guitar,” Miriam recalled. “She always kept an eye out for me.”

It didn’t take much for Shere to convince Miriam to make the schlep to a Beverly Hills-based park on Simchat Torah, where AJU students, including Daniel, would gather for an afternoon picnic in celebration of the raucous holiday.

A giddy Miriam scurried out of temple after morning services, passing a group of children who had gathered in the synagogue hallway to toss a football. One unlucky throw ended with the rabbinical student taking a football to the eye. But no matter. An optimistic Miriam arrived at La Cienega Park pressing a bag of ice to her eye.

She was ready to meet the mystery bachelor she had heard so much about. But Shere was nowhere to be found.

“I spent most of the picnic talking to another woman because I didn’t know that I was supposed to meet my soulmate,” Daniel said. “No one told me she was coming.”

But the two did end up crossing paths at the park. Both had left their native Midwest to pursue educational dreams in Los Angeles. Both were steadfast in their commitment to Judaism.

Shere pulled Daniel aside the following week and suggested he give Miriam a call. After their first date, Miriam phoned her parents.

“I told them that night that I had met the person I was going to marry,” Miriam said. “He didn’t know quite yet, but I knew.”

The pair saw each other almost every day that week.

“I was smitten, I just didn’t want to admit it,” Daniel said.

Journey to the Rabbinate

Guided by her passion for Judaism, a young Miriam didn’t waver in her career choice, even though she was only a fifth grader when she decided what she wanted to be when she grew up.

As Michigan Stadium whisked by her passenger-side window on an afternoon drive home from Hebrew school, Miriam told her mother she was going to be a rabbi.

“My mom said, ‘That’s nice honey, but you know it’s a really hard job.’ I said, ‘Is that any reason not to do it?’ And that was that,” she said.

Rabbi Miriam Burg poses at the Center for Jewish Education in September 2012. (Provided)

After moving from Ohio to Michigan when she was just a child, Miriam found a home at her family’s new synagogue. From tutoring students at her former Hebrew school to holding leadership positions in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), she maintained a high level of involvement in Temple Beth Emeth and the greater Reform movement.

For Daniel, the path to the pulpit wasn’t always clear-cut. However, by the time he entered high school, it was an ever-present thought in his mind. Raised in a strong Reform household, Daniel remained active in Jewish life even after he left his native Illinois to study anthropology and Hebrew studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He led services at Hillel on Friday nights, strummed his guitar to Jewish songs with his peers and traveled to Israel on various trips — all the things a Jewish college student is supposed to do. It was during his senior year when he started to realize that his practices no longer meshed with Reform Judaism.

“I wasn’t really attached to the denomination,” Daniel said. “I’ve never been someone who fits so easily into a box. For me, the ‘Judaism’ was always much more important than the label you put in front of it.”

Miriam said she and Daniel could’ve been poster children for the Reform movement given their drive to stay active in the sect when they were younger. But those days are long gone.

“I think like a Reform rabbi and I certainly am one, but my practice nowadays is more aligned with Conservative synagogues,” she said. “I’m not a poster child anymore, but I haven’t left Reform Judaism. It’s just that at this point in my life, my Jewish identity has become a lot more expansive.”

Growing Together

The couple’s strong Jewish backgrounds have prompted them to stretch their minds and open their eyes since they signed their ketubah in 2002.

If Daniel attends services at his wife’s home shul in Michigan, he’ll analyze the liturgy used in the temple’s siddur — although it’s not the one most comfortable for him — and ask himself why the publishers made those particular theological choices.

Rabbi Daniel Burg poses prior to being installed as the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in November 2010. (Photo by Monica Lopossay)

“We have a better appreciation for the value of doing things differently,” Daniel said.

For Miriam, observing second-day yontif isn’t a practice that resonates with her. However, if the community she’s living in or visiting does so, she’ll observe it as well.

“That decision isn’t a halachic decision for me,” she said. “It’s a community- driven choice.”

And neither spouse foresaw themselves being married to an ordained rabbi nor did they want to when they first moved to Los Angeles. But journeying through life with a fellow member of the clergy has its perks, especially when the Hebrew month of Elul rolls around.

The couple spent the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bouncing ideas back and forth, editing one another’s sermons and giving constructive feedback. And since the Burgs would be taking the pulpit in different cities, members of Beth Am jokingly asked the duo if they could write and deliver the same thought-provoking sermons. Who would know the difference?

“The answer is no,” Miriam said lightheartedly. “We each have different styles and approaches, and we’re speaking to different communities. They need to hear different things.”

For the second consecutive year, Miriam boarded a Hawaii- bound plane in late September to serve as rabbi at Oahu Jewish Ohana on the High Holidays. Based in Honolulu, the Reform-affiliated temple is home to a humble yet tight-knit community of roughly 75 members.

“I love small Jewish communities,” Miriam said. “They really have to be connected and invested because no one’s going to do it for them.”

While Daniel and Shamir, who tagged along with his mother last year, spent the High Holidays in Baltimore, Miriam invited Eliyah to ring in 5778 with her in Honolulu until Oct. 2.

“We all wanted to go with her,” said Lainy LeBow-Sachs, 72, a longtime member of Beth Am and former synagogue president.

Daniel and Miriam Burg smile with their children, Shamir and Eliyah. (Provided)

The Baltimore resident said Miriam is a known presence at Beth Am. Whether she’s in services with her children or chatting with congregants, she is very much a part of the synagogue.

LeBow-Sachs has developed a close relationship with the Burgs since they settled in their city home, right across the street from the shul.

“They were made for each other,” LeBow-Sachs said. “They’re an incredible couple with a tight family dynamic.”

Although the Burgs differ in some of their practices, there is a great deal more they share, including their commitment to social justice and pluralism, which they developed a passion for through their Reform upbringing.

“We were pluralistic before it was trendy to be that way,” Daniel said. “But now this is where everything is moving. There’s a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood above Jewish movements as well as a greater sense of allegiance to being in the world and serving God — a more expansive Jewish identity.”

(Provided)

By spending time with secular and religious family members, their children have developed a more well rounded picture of their Jewish heritage, he added.

Daniel and Miriam recognize the importance of involving their son and daughter, who attend Krieger Shechter Day School, in a variety of Jewish-related activities. The couple is more concerned about whether the experience will be meaningful for their children than which movement it’s associated with.

  “They’re young, and that means they’re still figuring it out,” Daniel said. “Being the children of two different rabbis, we’re hoping that they come away with a love for Torah and Judaism as well as a sense of responsibility to the Jewish community. That would be a victory.”

smedel@midatlanticmedia.com

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