Being Young And Jewish In Baltimore: Are They Connected?
Baltimore Jews in their 20s and 30s voice their thoughts on Jewish involvement
By Lauren Geldzahler
There has been much talk nationally and locally about young Jews and their commitment to conventional institutions, such as large synagogues and establishment organizations. That coupled, with the high cost of being Jewish, has raised concerns about where the Jewish community is headed.
To get a heads up on what Baltimore’s young Jews are thinking, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has launched an inititiave “Jewish Baltimore Talks,” which will include approximately 20 community conversations between now and June 11.
In the meantime, iNSIDER talked to six young Jewish Baltimoreans about their thoughts on these issues. We tried to provide a sampling of those that live in different areas of the community as well as those from different backgrounds.
Heather Hurwitz, 24, lives in Reisterstown and grew up in Owings Mills. She attended Krieger Schechter Day School and has been in a relationship for more than six years with a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic.
“I love being Jewish,” says Hurwitz, who does not belong to a synagogue but whose parents belong to Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “I consider myself culturally Jewish. I feel a connection to the way of life, the people and history. I enjoy the holidays, and I relate to Israel. Even if I don’t marry a Jewish man, I will raise my children Jewish. But I feel I’d be lying if I went to shul every day, saying the prayers without feeling a spiritual connection.”
She may have developed a distaste for communal prayer, but she did express interest in private Jewish practice. She observes Shabbat every week, either by joining friends for a festive dinner, or by lighting candles and drinking wine from the Kiddush cup she received at her bat mitzvah. “It’s just something I’d like to do with my family when I have one,” she says.
Hurwitz also expressed getting further involved in the Jewish community, specifically with volunteer work. “I recently looked into becoming a big sister through (Jewish Community Services),” she says. “I enjoy working with kids and teens, and thought it would be interesting to be there for someone that needed it in the Jewish community.”
Justin Kellam, 29, was born in Randalls-town and now lives in Reisterstown with his wife of less than a year. The newly married couple belongs to Temple Emanuel, having been offered one free year of membership because his wife’s parents are Temple Emanuel congregants.
“I like the community feel of it, and at the same time I think it’s respectful,” says Kellam of his reasons for joining the synagogue. “If you go back in Jewish history there were a lot of sacrifices made by the Jewish people so that future generations could continue practicing Judaism.”
Kellam, who works in finance, belongs to the JCC and sits on the board of Jewish Volunteer Connection, a program of the Associated. “I just think we’ve been lucky in life, and it’s important to volunteer time and money and give something back when you can,” he says.
At the same time, Kellam would like to see more casual Jewish encounters in Baltimore’s future. “I thought ‘Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars’ (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s annual free event at Oregon Ridge Park) represents a change from the old way of thinking.
It creates a casual community-based atmosphere and they get so many people to come out. If anything is missing, it’s more of that,” he adds.
April Lichtenberg lives in Reisterstown with her husband and their three kids. She’s originally from Israel and moved to Owings Mills when she was 12.
A graphic designer, Lichtenberg says that paying membership dues to a synagogue is out of her family’s budget. Instead, they save up for trips to visit family in Israel, which they take every other year.
“I think that’s more exposure to Jewish culture and tradition than my kids can get at a synagogue. I hope they’ll come to love Israel as much as I do, and see that it’s where the traditions all started, and that it’s an important part of who they are,” she says.
At the same time, she would like to see synagogues offer more things that are not available solely to members. She’d also like to find “more programming like Shalom Sesame (the JCC and Center for Jewish Education-sponsored event) that can be provided to families who want to be Jewish, without making them feel that they need to become members somewhere.”
Her husband, who was her high school sweetheart, is not Jewish and she recalls that at 17, dating Jewish was not a priority. Now that she’s 33, she says, “I’m realizing the importance of keeping tradition, and by raising my kids in a Jewish home, I hope they’ll marry within the faith, or at least continue the traditions.”
Steffany Moonaz, 33, who grew up in the sparsely Jewish-populated town of Boylestown, Pa. currently lives in Patterson Park with her husband of four years, who is not Jewish. She says she’s looking for more Jewish exposure for their 2-year-old daughter, but hasn’t found the right synagogue here. “In searching for a shul we have to be very particular, in that it will allow me to actually have a spiritual experience, and not send my husband running,” she says.
In the meantime, the Moonaz family has chosen an alternative avenue in their Jewish observance. They travel to Boylestown for the holidays, where they hold holiday services in her parents’ living room. Moonez serves as the family rabbi.
“It allows me the opportunity to create the kind of religious experience that resonates with me and my family,” she says about leading these holiday services. “I think they’re more engaged than they ever were when we went to synagogue.”
Relying on the Downtown Jewish Family Network, she and her family have attended Shabbat dinners at other community members’ homes in Baltimore, and they used to bring their daughter to Tot Shabbat on Friday mornings, before she entered preschool.
Moonaz, who has a Ph.D. in public health, is a yoga therapist and health behavior consultant. She says that time in one reason they aren’t involved further in Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“We have very little time for each other right now,” she says, noting that her husband is in law school at the University of Baltimore. “I wouldn’t get a babysitter so that my husband and I could do a Jewish activity.”
Neil Feldman, 27, is also looking for Jewish involvement without long-term commitment. He grew up attending Beth Tfiloh Congregation and now lives in Canton, working in finance.
His parents, who moved here from Moldova in 1979, left the Soviet Union in part because of religious persecution, he says. “I have pride for my family and history — pride enough, in the midst of Christmas festivities in my office, to let people know that I’m Jewish and I’m happy to talk about it.”
Belonging to a synagogue isn’t Feldman’s priority. He’s attended high holiday services as his mother’s guest at Beth Tfiloh, and knows that community services are open to the public at Johns Hopkins University.
Feldman, who is currently pursuing an MBA part-time at the University of Maryland Business School, says he has participated in a few happy hours and wine tastings through the Jewish outreach program at JHU. But, he adds, “Between school, homework, my full-time job, recording music, and hanging out with friends and family, it’s hard to find time for anything that involves consistent involvement.”
As an occasional practitioner of yoga, he believes that “Jewish people tend to have a strong sense of doing to others as they’d want done to themselves, and owning up to their actions. The spiritual side of Judaism is something I’d be interested in understanding more; Kabbalah might possibly direct me further into the religion.”
He’s interested in opening up to what’s available for young people downtown. “It would be great if there was something post-university that was active, engaging, and more social than the young professional networking going on,” he says.
Joel Neft, 26, is a newly married member of the downtown modern Orthodox congregation B’nai Israel and a five year resident of Baltimore. “It’s a very liberal modern Orthodox,” he says. “Everyone’s welcome, everyone’s voice is heard and appreciated.”
As a resident of Butchers Hill, Neft says that there are a number of Jewish young adults who live downtown. “Everyone works such a range of careers, with different interests, but the Judaism is our unifying thing,” he says.
He adds, “I think what is missing, which we’re seeing downtown, is a dialogue of different beliefs and understandings. We’re starting to break down traditional lines of demarcation between denominations. You hear that a lot of communities are shrinking, but downtown on an average Friday night you can see 35 of us making things happen; the place is lined with food and people and they’re there into the night singing and talking,” he says of his Friday night dinners at someone’s home.
Neft, who grew up “somewhere between Conservative and Reform,” supports his interest in both Jewish education and secular studies as an English teacher at the Shoshana S. Cardin School. He believes that the challenge is “to balance being an active member of a culture where you’re the minority, and holding on to the strong culture and values of Judaism. There’s a tension between which American values and which Jewish practices to become involved in and there’s always a dialogue between the two.”
“I think we need more positive Jewish experiences,” he says. “We should be sharing Jewish arts, literature, movies.”
Baltimore Young Jews Talk
• 12 percent of younger adults (ages 18-34) say they are likely to move outside of Baltimore. 88 percent expect to remain in the area.
• About 20 percent of all Jewish couples in Baltimore are intermarried. Of Baltimore’s intermarried population, 42 percent of them are between the ages of 18 to 34.
• Intermarried respondents were found to be those least connected to the Jewish community (i.e. fewer numbers of their kids are enrolled in Jewish schools and fewer intermarried respondents reported raising their children as Jewish).
• 30 percent of intermarried couples are raising their children only Jewish.
• Only 14 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish respondents, ages 18 to 34, feel that it is very important to be a part of the Jewish community. That is compared with 43 percent of non-Orthodox respondents who are over 35.
• 54 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish respondents, 18 to 34, felt that being “Jewish” was very important to them. At the same time, 74 percent of all respondents feel being “Jewish” was very important to them.
Source: The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study: