The Shul That Stayed in Baltimore

Congregation Draws Jews Back Into Troubled City

By Anthony Weiss

Published February 13, 2008, issue of February 15, 2008.
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Baltimore - Even though Beth Am Synagogue sits in the heart of Barack Obama territory, its loyalties were split down the middle on primary day.

The synagogue was used as a polling place Tuesday, and an informal poll of the predominantly black voters who showed up suggested that Obama was a strong favorite.

Among the members of the congregation, sympathies appeared to be more mixed. One congregant, Lainy Lebow-Sachs, is a prominent supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton and recently threw a fundraiser for her. Another, Sandy Hillman, is a delegate on the Clinton ticket. Still another congregant donated office space to the Obama campaign .

With its political connections — and its conversion into a polling station — Beth Am is the very definition of an active, politically involved synagogue, which is nothing rare in the Jewish world. But it is very rare indeed in the city of Baltimore. Jews — particularly non-Orthodox Jews — have almost entirely left the city for the suburbs. The neighborhood around Beth Am, once almost completely Jewish, is now predominantly black, and indeed, most of the synagogues members do not live in the area. But the synagogue itself has found success by staying in town and finding common cause with its neighbors.

“It’s been a great partnership between the synagogue and the community,” said longtime community resident Harry X. Peaker, who has worked with Beth Am as a former president of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. “They made a serious commitment of wanting to stay. All the other synagogues in this area have moved to the outskirts.”

Beth Am is one of only two non-Orthodox synagogues still in the heart of Baltimore City, along with another two that are at the city’s edge. (Baltimore still has a substantial Orthodox community in the city.) Some 80% of the Jewish population has moved to the northwest of the city and its outskirts, forming a close-knit and, some say, insular community.

Now most famous as a symbol of urban decay on the HBO television series “The Wire,” Baltimore was once one of the most vibrant cities in the United States, and Jews were an essential part of that vitality. Jews have lived in Baltimore since before the Revolutionary War, and the first ordained rabbi in the United States, Abraham Rice, arrived in Baltimore in 1840 from his native Bavaria. He was followed by a flood of German and later Eastern European Jews who helped found Baltimore’s garment factories, as well as the city’s famed “Corned Beef Row” of East Baltimore delicatessens.

Jews also became an important political force in Baltimore, with bosses such as Jack Pollack and Irv Kovens remaining major Baltimore powerbrokers into the 1970s, even after many of Baltimore’s Jews had left the city.

That power has long since moved to the suburbs, where the heavily Jewish third district has nurtured Maryland’s past three senators. Reservoir Hill, meanwhile, has become part of the heavily black seventh district, home base to Obama’s Maryland co-chairman, Elijah Cummings.

The delicate balancing act between black and Jewish sensibilities remains an essential part of Maryland state politics. Maryland’s Jewish senator, Ben Cardin, defeated two black opponents on his way to the Senate. It is likely no coincidence that Cardin has not made an endorsement in the presidential race despite his ties to the Clintons, while Obama’s highly successful Maryland campaign paired Cummings with Maryland’s Jewish attorney general, Douglas Gansler.

Even as early as the late 1800s, affluent Jews had begun their steady march out of central Baltimore toward the northwest, bringing their congregations with them. The Beth Am building, erected in 1922, was already the third building of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which was founded in 1871.

“This area was close to 100% Jewish,” recalled Beth Am’s founding president, Efrem Potts, who attended Chizuk Amuno as a boy.

The nearby stores on Whitelock Street bustled with Jews shopping for kosher meat, groceries and clothing. But the Jewish community continued to move outward. In 1956, Potts’s father, then the president of Chizuk Amuno, oversaw the purchase of a plot of land in suburban Baltimore County. For some 12 years, Chizuk Amuno maintained two branches — one in the suburbs, one in the city — until it decided to give up the old synagogue building. But a contingent of members decided to stay, even though most of them already had moved away themselves.

“It was too beautiful a building to abandon,” Potts said.

The congregants bought the building from Chizuk Amuno at a heavy discount and founded Beth Am. Once the congregation had established itself, Beth Am began to reach out to surrounding neighborhood associations. The synagogue has worked with local groups to spruce up gardens and tutor schoolchildren, and it has held an annual interfaith Seder. It also spends a fair amount on basic assistance to residents of the neighborhood.

Rabbi Jon Konheim estimates that he spends 60% to 70% of his discretionary funds helping out locals who come by for assistance with housing, medical problems and other difficulties. He sends them to a nearby not-for-profit for vetting, and so that they can enroll in various programs. If the not-for-profit gives its approval, Konheim provides them with cash.

The synagogue has also teamed up with block associations to decorate and generally tidy up the neighborhood and to renovate abandoned houses. It’s an approach that combines generosity with basic common sense.

“We have a fair amount of good will in the community,” Konheim said. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. It’s easy to burn a synagogue out.”

The strategy has worked, as the neighborhood around the synagogue has begun to change, as well, becoming more diverse and more affluent. The synagogue now even has a few neighborhood members again; Konheim recently moved into a house down the street.

In addition, Beth Am has prospered. From its founding with some 40 families, the synagogue has expanded to nearly 500 families. On High Holy Days, according to executive director Henry Feller, the cavernous sanctuary can be packed almost to capacity, with as many as 1,100 members and their guests attending services.

The neighbors seem to have embraced Jewish life as a natural part of their neighborhood. One African American voter, told she was being interviewed for a Jewish newspaper, beamed.

“Oh!” she said. “Shalom!”






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