Growing Up Jewish in Baltimore
Jewish Baltimoreans may leave the state, but they never really leave.
By Maayan Jaffe
Special to the Jewish Times
Marissa Levin (nee Friedman) is a Baltimorean. She was raised in Randallstown and then Pikesville. She graduated from Pikesville High School in 1985, was confirmed at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and married by its rabbi. She even attended Beth Tfiloh Camp for over a decade.
“It was year-round Jewish reinforcement at home, in my social circle, at synagogue and at day camp. Judaism was all I knew,” Levin says.
But after Levin graduated from college and got married she moved away. Currently, she lives in Northern Virginia where she serves as CEO of Information Experts, an integrated communications firm. With the birth of her two sons, now ages 9 and 12, she says she realized just how much of her upbringing and the “Pikesville bubble” she took for granted.
In a place with few Jews, Levin says, she grappled with how to pass on to her children the Jewish values and Jewish sense of the world she was given.
The solution: Baltimore.
“I did not fully appreciate the ‘specialness’ of Baltimore and how much it gives children from a Jewish perspective until I was gone. Now, raising my own kids, it is so important that they, too, have a strong commitment to Judaism,” Levin says. “Baltimore is such a strong component in helping me make sure that happens.”
Levin takes her nuclear family to her home town multiple times per year. Her parents and her oldest brother and his family still live there. They’ve been to most major synagogues there, eaten at Suburban House — her youngest son cried when he heard about the fire — and shopped at the Festival of Woodholme. They’ve been awed by the scope of the Beth Tfiloh Purim carnival.
The Levins also spend every major Jewish holiday in Baltimore with their extended family.
“For my children, being in Baltimore really reinforces that they are part of a large Jewish community and not the small microcosm they see in Virginia,” Levin says.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a professional counselor in greater Baltimore, says Levin’s situation is not unique.
“We are a product of our environment; we react as a result of our childhood experiences,” Rabbi Slatkin says. “If you had a positive upbringing, liked where you lived, liked the values, you’ll want to imbue your family with the same values.”
Rabbi Slatkin, who has lived his whole life in Baltimore, says taking the close-knit and Jewish strength of Baltimore to smaller Jewish communities will help makes those communities more vibrant. He thinks Baltimore has something unique to share with the greater Jewish world, namely the balance between diversity and unity.
Kindergarten teacher Ellen Gottsegen, formally Ellen Gersh, expresses similar sentiments. Today, she lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where her three children attend a posh private school with few Jewish classmates. She’s regularly going into the classroom to teach about Jewish holidays and traditions, trying to offer the school — and instill in her own children — the Jewish pride she was raised with in Pikesville.
In Pikesville, she also believes, people are more grounded than in Boca. Speaking about her children, she admits she is trying to “bring them down to earth,” the way she was raised in Baltimore.
Gottsegen spends every winter break and every summer in Baltimore. She’s subscribed to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES since she left here in 1991, reading it cover-to-cover each week.
“I used to look at the engagements, then the weddings, then the births. It keeps me connected, as if I am still a part of it all,” Gottsegen says, noting her children have already decided they too want to live in Baltimore one day and be a part of the community.
“People say when you move into Baltimore, it is hard to get connected,” Gottsegen says. “I say, when you move out, you never feel you are disconnected.”