The ‘Friendship Phenomenon’ in Baltimore’s Jewish community
Baltimore is like a second home to me,” says Elana Nawy, 40, of Owings Mills. Yet, it took ten years for the diehard Manhattanite to find her comfort zone in this town.
“I used to cry every night,” says Nawy, who recalls when she first arrived she found the community unwelcoming to newcomers. “I’ve had women say to me, ‘I have my friends from elementary school. I’m not interested in meeting new people.’ One person even told me, ‘New Yorkers are not welcome here!’” recalls Nawy.
We’ve all heard about Baltimore’s reputation as a town where even those who have lived here 30 years are considered “outsiders.” But is this really so?
Once upon a time, when almost everyone in the Jewish community lived in the same neighborhoods and attended the same public schools, it was easy to understand why the community was so close-knit and how closed off it could seem to newcomers. But in recent years, when a significant number of Jewish families have moved outside of Northwest Baltimore and children attend so many different schools, has the community maintained that insular feel? Talking with native Baltimoreans and newer community members in their ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, this writer wanted to see if these stereotypes stood the test of time.
Although Nawy’s reception into Baltimore society was overwhelmingly chilly, she feels fortunate to have found a ray of sunshine in her friendship with Baltimore native Alyson Meister. Meister and Nawy met at a new moms class shortly after Nawy relocated. The two became fast friends.
“Alyson was warm and welcoming from the start. She has plenty of childhood friends here, but she’s still happy to make new friends,” Nawy says.
Meister, 41, grew up in Pikesville and says she treasures her old friends. “There’s something special,” she explains, “about the depth of friendship I share with people who know me from way back.”
Many of Meister’s oldest and dearest friends are ones she made when they attended Summit Park Elementary School together. “Not all of them are now living in Baltimore, but we are still very close,” she says. “We have these wonderful memories together, incredible stories that make us laugh, and I know that these people will be with me in good times and bad. If I have a problem or an important decision to make, they are there for me and will tell it like it is,” she adds.
Despite the fact that her old friends hold a special place in her heart, Meister is also devoted to the friends she has made as an adult. “I’ve made a lot of friends through my children’s in play groups, for example, and through my volunteer work for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. I try to be welcoming,” she says.
As a result, Meister feels that she has strong friendships both old and new. For her 40th birthday, Meister took 10 women friends (including Nawy) to Las Vegas. “There were all women I cherished all from different parts of my life. I was a bit nervous about how they would mix. But they all got along famously!”
When Jessica Grosman, who is in her early thirties, relocated from Boston to Baltimore last year, she also connected with Meister. Grosman and Meister met through a mutual friend in Boston.
“I had heard from friends and business associates that the Jewish community here was close-knit and sometimes hard to penetrate,” says Grosman. No shrinking violet, Grosman was determined to be proactive. She tried her best to make connections in Baltimore even before she arrived.
“Friends from Boston put me in touch with their friends in Baltimore and I contacted them before we moved. I had my daughter Linley (now 28 months) enrolled in a preschool prior to the move and we had playdates scheduled for every day of our first week in town! I really worked hard,” stresses Grosman “to ease our transition.”
Grosman feels that her efforts have really paid off. “I’ve absolutely made wonderful friends,” she says. She estimates that about half of her new friends are Baltimore natives and the other half are newcomers like her.
Laurie Collins, a graduate student born and bred in Pikesville, shares Meister’s vision of blending the old and the new. Collins says that her closest friends are people with whom she attended Fort Garrison Elementary School. In fact, some of Collins’ friendships were forged in Mommy and Me classes at Gerstung Gymnastics Center when she was barely a year old.
When Collins’ tight group of friends graduated from Pikesville High School, they vowed to stay in touch. “It was very important to us to remain friends,” she explains. “Even if some people move away after college, 99 percent of them will come back here someday.”
Despite her loyalty to her old friends, Collins says she also appreciates meeting new ones. “Often, my old friends introduce me to new people and I make new friends that way,” she explains. While she acknowledges that some of her contemporaries may be resistant to including newcomers in their social circles, Collins doesn’t believe that she and her friends are of that mindset. “I say, the more, the merrier.”
“So much” says Nawy “depends on your attitude. I didn’t see that when I first came. I had to stop comparing Baltimore to New York and start focusing on what was good about my new life. Also, I needed to find my own people here — people who appreciated me for who I am.”
Grosman agrees that a positive attitude and realistic expectations about settling into life in a new community can make all the difference. “I knew what to expect, and it helped me to accept the barriers I encountered. At first I felt upset that we did not have the social and family connections that so many others here have, but because my expectations were realistic, I was able to get over my disappointments and move ahead,” she says.
“It was helpful too,” she adds, “to meet others in our situation — to realize that not everyone in Baltimore had known one another all their lives.” •