Believing in Baltimore

The Ariel family relocated to Baltimore’s Orthodox community a year ago. (Photo provided)

It has been just a year, this month, since Jackie Ariel, 28, and her husband Yitzchak, 29, moved from Los Angeles to Baltimore so he could attend Ner Israel Rabbinical College. But it wasn’t only for school that the Ariels relocated.

“Baltimore is much more affordable for young couples compared to L.A. and we felt that the quality of life would be better for our children,” Jackie said. “Before moving here we knew that Baltimore is full of young couples like us. We also heard that it’s a very warm community.”

Like the Ariels, others who relocated to Baltimore for its growing yet tight-knit Orthodox community found more than they expected, surprised by the warmth and generosity, the chesed, that embraced them when they landed in Charm City’s Orthodox central. They also found shuls and schools of every stripe, a promising job market and affordable housing. For many, Baltimore’s rich Jewish history and more recent diversity make it an attractive place to find a home and put down roots.

Why They Come

Fallon Saposnik, 34, grew up in Flemington, New Jersey, and came south to Baltimore seeking a more religious life. Before her 2011 move, the Bronx native visited a friend here and those first impressions stayed with her.

“I met these two families and really just had such a warmth and a welcoming. And when I was looking to relocate to be in a better Jewish community, it stuck out to me,” she said. “I was 27… and I was growing in my Judaism.”

This kind of experience comes as no surprise to Mitchell Posner, CEO of CHAI — Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. — a 35-year-old nonprofit focusing on enhanced housing, community development and supporting older adults to stabilize neighborhoods.

Posner said CHAI and a broad network of Jewish communal organizations, including The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, JCC, Northwest Citizens Patrol, Shomrim and Ahavas Yisrael have helped make the community a stable and attractive place for Orthodox Jews in particular looking to relocate.

Baltimore is much more affordable for young couples compared to L.A. and we felt that the quality of life would be better for our children — Jackie Ariel

“We have an environment that is very amenable to Orthodox Judaism,” he said. “We do have concentrations over a period of time of people from the former Soviet Union, we have people from Iran. Of course, the Ner Israel yeshiva draws all of those. In my time in Baltimore there seems to clearly be more willingness and desire for them to stay and build their families and their futures in Baltimore.”

Andrew Lillien of Long Island, New York, followed his then-girlfriend Rebecca, now his wife, to Baltimore in 2011. She had come after her 2009 graduation from Binghamton University, where she was studying history and he was studying math. Two years earlier, her parents had relocated to Baltimore from Rochester, New York, seeking warmer weather, a larger Orthodox community, schools, job opportunities and direct flights for their aging parents.

Lillien, a 30-year-old Pikesville data analyst, found the community “very nice and friendly.” He was surprised by the myriad shul options and pleased, too, by the lack of competition between them.

“As far as I can tell, there isn’t a lot if inter-shul politics, which I really like,” he said. “A lot of the shuls are very much live-and-let-live toward each other, amicable and friendly.

Frank Storch is director of the Chesed Fund and Project Exra of Greater Baltimore. (File photo)

“I grew up in a community with two Ashkenazi shuls that were relatively similar to each other, so having lots of options is very interesting,” he added.

Although the couple married at Shomrei Emunah and have attended Suburban Orthodox, they are not affiliated at the moment. Lillien said he goes “wherever the wind blows,” which recently is Khal Ahavas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek.

“Almost everyone can find a shul or school that works for them and their families,” said Frank Storch, director of nonprofits The Chesed Fund and Project Ezra of Greater Baltimore. “There are now over 65 shuls and at least 24 schools with some being established just to meet the growing needs of the community.”

When the Ariels and their three girls, now 8, 6 and 2, first arrived, they lived in Pickwick Apartments for a few months, but soon found an affordable townhouse/duplex on Boxford Road, as well as a school for their daughters and a choice of nearby shuls.

“My husband is Persian so we are affiliated with both Persian synagogues, Ohr Hamizrach and Ahavat Shalom. My husband also likes to attend a Sephardic shul located on Seven Mile Lane called Beit Yaakov,” Jackie said.

They quickly built close relationships with the rabbis and their wives, who welcomed them “with open arms,” making their transition easier.

Twenty years ago, Salomon Bemaras, his wife and three children (they now have five children and four grandchildren), moved to Baltimore after feeling excluded by the Jewish community in which he grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Almost everyone can find a shul or school that works for them and their families — Frank Storch

The Baltimore restaurateur, now 50, owns the kosher Me Latte at Johns Hopkins Hospital and The Daily Special on North Charles Street. His family attends Congregation Beit Yaakov Sephardic Synagogue and Torah Education Center.

Frustrated that he and a cadre of observant Jews couldn’t come to agreement with Guadalajara’s Conservative/Reform congregation on sharing space for more Orthodox services, Bemaras and his friends found their own solution, opening a kollel and bringing in teachers from Mexico City. But because of the schism in the community, Bemaras said Guadalajara’s more observant families began to leave.

“Some went to Mexico City, some went to San Diego and we came to Baltimore, because my brother-in-law was a doctor at Hopkins,” he said.

What They Find

It may be no surprise to Baltimore Jews that the Orthodox community is growing. In The Associated’s last Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, in 2010, the number of Orthodox Jews was clearly growing while the number of people identifying as Reform and Conservative declined.

Orthodox parents tend to have larger families, and, according to the 2015 Pew Research Study “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” are more likely to raise their children in the Jewish faith.

“If the Orthodox grow as a share of U.S. Jews, they gradually could shift the profile of American Jews in several areas, including religious beliefs and practices, social and political views and demographic characteristics,” the Pew study said.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky of Ariel Jewish Center (File photo)

“Many people move here from the greater New York area because of housing prices,” said Rabbi Velvel Belinsky of Ariel Jewish Center, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews. “But, having said that, in the Greater New York area itself, Orthodox communities are expanding with unbelievable speed also.”

In Baltimore, Belinsky sees Chasidic communities on the upswing, with more shuls, yeshivas, kollels and schools opening in the past decade.

“The Orthodox community is not monolithic,” he said. “There are people who call themselves modern Orthodox, there are people who call themselves yeshivish or Litvish, there are people who call themselves Chasidic and within Chasidim, there are many different types,” he said. “That’s why it’s very hard to kind of make a science out of it. We have many different types of Jews here now. I believe that the more diverse a Jewish community is, the better it is for everyone.

“We are doing a very good job taking care of ourselves and that’s part of the reason for the growth of the communities everywhere,” he added. “Because we fill the need that we see.”

CHAI’s Posner also noted the growing Chasidic presence in the Park Heights corridor, with the founding of multiple kollels, including at Shearith Israel Congregation/Glen Avenue Shul and the more recent Kollel l’Horo’ah. Khal Arugas Habosem, known as Rabbi Taub’s Shul, has welcomed Chasidic families to Baltimore for close to 70 years.

“Rabbi Hopfer at the Glen Avenue Shul created a kollel at his synagogue and brought 10 new young families to be the students. CHAI helped eight out of the 10 to buy housing; they took advantage of incentives we had at that time,” Posner said. “It has helped stabilize and become a draw for other young families to look at that part of the community.”

But he believes the biggest indicator of growth is day school enrollment. He cited growing enrollments at Cheder Chabad of Baltimore, Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore, Ohr Chadash Academy and others.

“I get called once or twice a year from somebody who’s either looking for space for a school to expand, or starting a new school,” he said. “And all of that’s happening in the northwest corner of the city, by and large.”

Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim is undergoing a $5 million expansion. (David Stuck photo)

Meanwhile, Posner said the Orthodox population is expanding into the Smith Avenue corridor, farther into Pikesville, Dumbarton and other neighborhoods.

“These streets had a Jewish population, but not necessarily Orthodox,” he said. “Now people are tearing down houses and building new bigger, better houses. None of this was happening 10 years ago.”

New upscale housing is under construction across from Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Dahan Community School on Old Court Road, where homes start at $600,000 — prices Posner said were unthinkable a decade ago.

“Real estate prices reflect supply and demand,” he said. “What that indicates is there is more demand than there is supply.”

The growth is obvious in many Baltimore neighborhoods, Storch agreed, with new developments such as Bancroft Village “full of Orthodox community members.” He said the Orthodox presence in Scotts Hill, near Talmudical Academy, has grown “significantly” as well as the number of young Orthodox families living in apartments and condos along Upper Park Heights.

“With all of the conveniences and attributes Baltimore now has to offer, it has become a serious consideration for people who would like to move ‘out of town’ yet still easily find affordable housing, schools, shuls, organizations and kosher restaurants,” Storch said.

Why They Stay

A small-town flavor was exactly what Rebecca Masinter, 37, was looking for when she moved to Baltimore from Washington State in 1999 at 18 to attend the former Binah Seminary while completing a biology degree at Towson University.

“I really didn’t want to be in the tristate area in too large of a place. I didn’t want to feel anonymous,” she said. “I knew that Baltimore was a large-size Jewish community, but had more of the out-of-town feel.”

She had heard about the “warm and welcoming community with very impressive and strong leadership” from her father, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who had come through Baltimore from South Africa before settling in Los Angeles. He and his wife Susan eventually moved to Mercer Island, Washington.

Since her student days, when Masinter lived in the seminary dorms and took evening or early morning classes at Towson, she said she has seen the community become a beacon for Orthodox singles.

“When I first came here, this wasn’t yet a destination for singles. Maalot Baltimore had just started and Binah had just started, so I remember it was exciting, to be one of the young single girls around town,” she said about the seminaries. “I would be in the grocery store and people would just invite me for a meal. It’s expanded so much and there are so many people who come here for post-high school education and stay. But we had it special. There were only a couple of us around. I remember feeling very welcome. People would just randomly introduce themselves and invite us over.”

Fallon and Noah Saposnik at home with their children (David Stuck photo)

Fallon Saposnik had a similar experience when she first arrived in Baltimore. She had landed a job at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC preschool and moved into Park Place Apartments with a roommate. Every week they went to Shabbat dinner with a different family and attended services with them, giving her insight into an array of shuls.

Saposnik and her husband Noah now have two toddlers and a third child due soon. She encourages Jews young or old to head to Baltimore’s Orthodox community for its warm, big-town/small-town feel and its many choices.

“I feel very connected to this community and one of the reasons why we don’t want to leave is we feel like a lot of other places don’t have that,” she said. “If you look at the amount of options there are for schooling, for restaurants, I feel like it’s a hot spot for new kosher places.

“When we moved in here, there were a lot of older people and their houses are being sold and it’s all these young Jewish couples buying the houses. That is also indicative of the growth. And people want to settle here. You buy and you’re here forever.”

Now married with six children, ages 3 to 15, four of whom she is home schooling, Masinter said she enjoys the diversity and interconnectedness of Baltimore’s Jewish community.

“I really appreciate the many differences, and also this feeling of unity,” she said. “There’s just a sense of welcoming — for whoever you are.”

Her family lives in Pikesville and is affiliated with Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion. Her sister Rena and her husband and children, and her mom and dad, all followed Masinter’s lead and moved to Baltimore’s Orthodox community, where they made sure they lived within a mile or so radius of each other.

Mom Susan Lapin said six of her seven children live on the East Coast, so relocating to Baltimore four years ago was a no-brainer, as there are now 19 grandchildren.

Susan and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, seated, with just a part of their family’s three generations now living in Baltimore. (David Stuck photo)

“I grew up with grandparents that were local and I wanted my kids to have that,” she said. “We started thinking about renting an apartment here to have a least a base and one thing led to another until we found ourselves living here. We were very pleasantly surprised to discover that the community had a lot more to offer than kids and grandkids.”

Coming from Mercer Island’s tiny Jewish community, Susan said she is thrilled with the classes she has taken through Women’s Institute of Torah.

“The programs they put on are just amazing,” she said. “That’s been a real source of making friends for me as well, because you sit down next to somebody and you start talking.”

The couple, who have no regrets about their cross-country move to be closer to their children and grandchildren, are especially pleased with the community’s mix of cultures and traditions.

“We like eclectic communities. We like different people who come from different traditions, different levels of religiosity,” she said. “We find that a very healthy thing for a Jewish community.”

Meanwhile for the Ariels, who just marked their first year putting down roots in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, “the pros of living here definitely outweigh the cons,” Jackie said.

“One big challenge is the weather,” she said, echoing a sentiment oft repeated by those from drier or cooler climes. “We Californians are not used to snow, flooding basements and humidity. But we most appreciate the support and chesed that goes on in this community. Whether it’s Ahavas Yisrael or someone setting up cold water bottles for people walking on a hot Shabbos, the amount of chesed that is done in this community is unlike any other that I have seen before.”

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