Sixty years ago, 10 young Jewish families gathered to create their own community and place of worship and study. That was 38 years before the 1994 opening of the current $2.7 million building on Mitzvah Lane that is home to Beth Israel Congregation.
What started out in the home of one of the founding members as a place for close friends to observe their religion has grown into a thriving congregation that remains a cornerstone of the Northwest Baltimore Jewish community.
Earlier this month, Beth Israel members and clergy joyfully paid tribute to six decades of an evolving Jewish community in grand fashion with a family weekend celebration at the synagogue on Crondall Lane in Owings Mills.
With several hundred guests pouring in to share what Beth Israel has meant to them, the diamond anniversary event also recognized Rabbi Jay Goldstein for his 20 years of service to the synagogue.
“There’s a certain wonderful blessing when you are able to come together and celebrate 60 years of a synagogue and the blessing that I’ve had spending 20 years at Beth Israel,” Goldstein said. “So, as we look back on six decades and to our future, we must continue to do all what we can here at Beth Israel to involve and entice those who, for whatever reason, have become distant from our warm, meaning laden and accessible tradition.”
As it moves into its seventh decade, Beth Israel continues to distinguish itself as a hub for attracting young families, offering a top-notch Hebrew school and connecting members of all ages to the larger Jewish world through outreach and programming.
“This is like our second home,” said Ellie Cohen, who has belonged to the congregation for about 35 years. “Beth Israel is like our family. It’s had a very special place in my heart for so many years.”
More than a year-and-a-half of meticulous planning culminated with a weekend of special Shabbat services, a special dinner honoring Goldstein, a time-capsule burial and the completion of a mosaic.
Longtime Beth Israel members Howard and Sandy Bernheim and Allen and Ellie Cohen, co-chairs of the 60th anniversary committee, were tasked with all the details, spending countless hours stressing over the details of how to put such an event together.
Their goal throughout the planning process, they said, simply was to put together a joyous occasion that would appeal to the entire congregation and have members talking for years to come.
“It was a lot of work but a labor love,” said Allen Cohen, who was president of Beth Israel’s Brotherhood from 1997 to 1999. “This was an opportunity to get people together for a sichma and happy things.”
At one of the Shabbat services, for instance, Goldstein gracefully shared the pulpit with seven members who were selected from each of the congregation’s six decades, including the 1950s, to speak on their memories of the synagogue.
“I’m still energized by the opportunities and challenges each and every day.”
— Rabbi Jay Goldstein
Goldstein and his wife, Cindy, were also presented with a mosaic that members put together, including preschoolers and learning lab students, as well as an artist in Baltimore’s sister city of Ashkelon. It featured a Shabbat table, the Goldsteins and their three kids dancing on a talis and the Hebrew phrase “Shalom, shalom, larachoke v’lakorov,” which means “peace, peace be upon those that are far and close.”
“I don’t even know where to really start,” said Sandy Bernheim, who was president of Beth Israel from 2007 to 2009. “That’s why this is so important, because it marks us recognizing the passage of time and accomplishments of Beth Israel.”
By Baltimore standards, Beth Israel is still considered a relatively young congregation. Nonetheless, the mark it has left on the Greater Baltimore Jewish community stretches well beyond the walls of the 87,000-square-foot building that houses the synagogue.
“There’s a lot of history here,” said Beth Israel president Randi Buergenthal, who joined the congregation in 1997. “Everything Beth Israel is and stands for really is a wonderful statement to who we are as a congregation and who Jay and Cindy are to the community.”
Although the mission of Beth Israel remains the same — to bring families and individuals together for the purpose of worship, study and community — a lot has changed through the years.
In those early days, the Conservative synagogue existed only in the hearts of a dedicated few. Alvin Sandler and his wife led the tiny congregation, which held its first public meeting of what was then known as the Liberty Road Conservative Congregation at the Randallstown Community Hall.
In 1957, the congregation was officially renamed Beth Israel and became affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. During the next several decades, the congregation experienced rapid growth, ascending to one of the three largest Conservative congregations in Baltimore.
Beth Israel remained a fixture in the Randallstown area for 38 years, peaking with a membership of 1,100 families in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But when droves of Jewish families started relocating to the Owings Mills-Reisterstown corridor from Randallstown, Beth Israel found itself at a crossroad. Membership numbers started to dip, and the congregation enlisted the help of the clergy and some longtime members to search for answers.
Howard Gartner, a Beth Israel member of more than 40 years, was tapped by Sandler, serving in his second stint as Beth Israel’s president in 1993, to head up a committee to find a new location for the synagogue.
Gartner, 67, who works in real estate management and property management, helped broker a deal after intense negotiations to sell Beth Israel’s property on Liberty Road to Randallstown’s Colonial Baptist Church. Beth Israel then parlayed that sum to purchase a vacant factory on Crondall Lane from Mine Safety Appliances, a Pittsburgh company that made hearing aid and pacemakers as well as breathing apparatuses for miners.
For Gartner, the chance to revel in the glory inside the current location of the synagogue he was such a big part in making a reality was an especially meaningful and nostalgic moment.
“We’ve always tried to be forward looking and have always had strategic planning going on to try to see where we will be years into the future,” Gartner said. “It’s a challenge to adapt to the changing affiliations, but I think [Beth Israel] has always handled anything thrown [its] way by having great people and decision-makers.”
Indeed, these are just some of the challenges that attracted Goldstein to Beth Israel when he arrived at the congregation as rabbi in August 1996, less than two years after its then new home opened.
“This is like our second home. Beth Israel is like our family. It’s had a very special place in my heart for so many years.”
— Ellie Cohen
Prior to joining Beth Israel, Goldstein was already a well-established member of the Jewish clergy with more than two decades of experience. He served as rabbi for 12 years at Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Conn.
A native of Chicago, Goldstein earned his undergraduate degree in Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He completed his master’s degree in theology, received his honorary doctorate of divinity and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
Goldstein, 58, a past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, said he was drawn to Beth Israel in part because of its older members with a history of involvement in Jewish life. He was also energized by Beth Israel’s emphasis on attracting young people into the mix.
Perhaps most importantly, Goldstein and his wife, Cindy, 56, sought to provide their three children, David, 29, Josh, 26, and Shira, 23, with a rich Jewish lifestyle in the suburbs of a major metropolitan city. Cindy Goldstein is also an active member of the Jewish community, having worked at the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center since 1998. She is the organization’s executive director.
“Really, it was the right time and right opportunity for us to give our children the experience in a broader Jewish community,” Goldstein said. “It also gave me the opportunity to work with a large growing congregation and to help mold and shape a congregation in a changing environment, both in the community and Jewish world.”
In its Owings Mills neighborhood, at the center of an area of high growth for the Jewish community, Beth Israel has found a way to attract young couples.
Marc and Randi Hertzberg, both 49, joined Beth Israel about 15 years ago in part because of the proximity to their Owings Mills residence and the emphasis placed on getting lifelong commitments from unaffiliated young couples and families.
“At the time, there were a lot of young families joining, and we wanted to join somewhere where we could be with people with younger kids,” said Marc Hertzberg, who is set to take over as Beth Israel’s next president in May.
Randi Hertzberg, a native of New Jersey, was drawn to the synagogue because of the family-friendly atmosphere she believes Beth Israel promotes.
“I think there has been a lot of innovative programing with the religious school and other aspects of the congregation,” Randi Hertzberg said. “Beth Israel is doing a really good job of accommodating today’s families. I think the future is very bright.”
Just last year, Beth Israel made a big boost to broaden its offerings of the Joseph and Corinne Schwartz Preschool at Beth Israel.
The program was accredited by the Maryland State Department of Education in June 2015, making it the second accredited Jewish preschool in the Greater Baltimore area and the only one in the Owings Mills-Reisterstown corridor.
“It’s about going above and beyond your licensing standards and requirements,” preschool director Rachael Schwartz told the JT in December 2015. “[Accreditation standards] represent the highest quality, and they also reflect research-based best practices for early childhood.”
It’s initiatives like these that Goldstein plans to remain actively involved with as he continues pushing Beth Israel for what he hopes is a prosperous future. Under his steady guidance, Beth Israel maintains a membership of 650 to 700 households.
He said he is just as passionate about his work at Beth Israel as he has ever been and doesn’t see himself giving up his place on the pulpit anytime soon.
“I’m still energized by the opportunities and challenges each and every day,” Goldstein said. “I think if that wasn’t the case — and I think a lot of my colleagues would agree with this — then we wouldn’t stay in what can be a very challenging profession.”