Drive around old Jewish Baltimore on any recent sunny summer morning and you might encounter a gaggle of artists, easels deployed, busy capturing the grace and majesty of the city’s historic synagogues, many of which are no longer in use as Jewish institutions.
“Baltimore’s Bygone Synagogues: History Captured,” is a project conceived by Baltimore artist Lissa Abrams involving more than a dozen artists who have been fanning out across the city over the past few months painting old shuls, the large and the small, inside and out, for an exhibit slated for Sept.1 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Hoffberger Gallery.
The idea was sparked when Abrams, attending a funeral for a friend’s uncle, found herself in Wayland Baptist Church on the corner of Garrison Boulevard and Fairview Avenue in West Baltimore’s Forest Park neighborhood.
“I thought, this is the most gorgeous synagogue I’ve seen in Baltimore. I could tell it was a [former] synagogue. I didn’t know which one it was and then someone told me it was the old Beth Tfiloh,” Abrams said. “I had been thinking about how to preserve some of these old structures that are now churches. I mentioned it to some other artists, and they said they would be interested.”
After applying to BHC for exhibit space in the Hoffberger Gallery, Abrams got the green light and began putting together a group of Baltimore-area artists.
The 16 artists participating in the project range from an 88-year-old, long-time art teacher to those who have recently picked up the brush or the pencil. They have until Aug. 1 to do four paintings from a list of about a dozen synagogue buildings, including the Lloyd Street Synagogue, B’nai Israel, Beth Am, Shaarei Tfiloh, Berea Temple (former Baltimore Hebrew Congregation), Wayland Baptist Church (former Beth Tfiloh), Prince Hall Grand Lodge (former Oheb Shalom), New Mount Hebron Baptist church (former Har Zion) and the small, former Congregation Ahava Achim shul, now abandoned, at 427 Pulaski St.
According to the 1993 book “Synagogues, Temples, and Congregations of Maryland: 1830-1990,” by Earl Pruce, Maryland at the time counted 121 congregations that were founded after Lloyd Street in Baltimore City and County. Built in 1845 by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Lloyd Street Synagogue was the first synagogue building in Maryland and is the third oldest still standing in the U.S., according to the Jewish Museum of Maryland, of which the historic synagogue is now a part.
Abrams, who has lived in Baltimore all of her life, began painting seriously about eight or nine years ago after she retired as deputy director of the Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration. She has since studied at Maryland Institute College of Art, Mitchell School of Art, Zoll Art Studio and with Bethanne Kinsella Cople and Paul Moscatt — one of the artists Abrams asked to participate in the project.
Many of the artists, who paint in oils, watercolors, acrylic or draw, met Abrams through the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association (MAPAPA). “En plein air” painting is a French term meaning painting outdoors.
“These are people that I’ve painted with, either in the city or have met through all these different events,” Abrams said. “I’m also the treasurer of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association. It’s a little network of people.”
Through a public Facebook page “Baltimore Synagogues: Then and Now,” and from her own knowledge of city shuls, Abrams compiled a list from which artists can choose sites. Some paint alone, while others get together in groups. Meanwhile, some of the congregations’ spiritual leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Hoffman Fisher Brown III at Wayland Baptist Church (the former Beth Tfiloh) and Rabbi Etan Mintz at B’nai Israel, have welcomed the artists inside to paint the historic structures’ interiors.
One recent bright, hot morning, eight artists gathered near the former Temple Oheb Shalom at 1301 Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill, the congregation’s second home in Baltimore. Built in 1892 after the Moorish architecture of The Great Synagogue in Florence, Italy, the building’s exterior is said to be white Beaver Dam marble. Oheb’s congregation moved to its current location on Park Heights Avenue in 1960 and the old synagogue has since been the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, home to the historically black Masonic organization.
Across the street in the park bearing a gold-clad memorial to Francis Scott Key, four artists captured on their colorful canvases the sparkling white edifice topped with the three red-roofed domes dominating the Bolton Hill streetscape. Some caught a bit of shade beneath the trees lining the park’s open plaza, while some, like Abrams, stayed cool under a wide beach umbrella. Another was set up in the shade of a nearby rowhouse.
Bruno Baran, chair of the board of MAPAPA, is a Perry Hall resident who taught art for 42 years in Baltimore County schools. He wasn’t painting that morning, but recognized the importance of the project.
“Just the whole idea of places of worship, and the whole idea that some of these magnificent buildings are going away,” he said. “And just being able to feel the energy from them. I think each place has its own energy, its own spirit.”
Baran said he was impressed by the old Oheb temple and also the Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue in Druid Park.
“What drew me to that one was the copper-colored dome, the stonework, and the yellow door,” Baran said. “And the sunlight the way it was hitting that particular day.”
Brina Pintzuk, an oil painter and former 34-year Krieger Schechter Day School art teacher, met Abrams at an artist’s workshop.
“She put out a call for this and I said, ‘Sure.’ These buildings are gorgeous, like jewels in the city,” Pintzuk said. “And to be allowed to go in. We met interesting people and the architecture is phenomenal. It’s a gift.”
Pintzuk said she and fellow artist Joyce Klavan Jandorf were invited to tour the inside of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge (former Oheb Shalom).
“They were so happy to share and we were thrilled to be there,” she said. “When I went home I showed my husband my pictures and he said, ‘That’s where we went to synagogue when I was a kid.’”
Pintzuk said the project introduces people to a part of Baltimore “that hasn’t vanished, but it’s different. People move in and out of the city, but these buildings are left. And these buildings tell a story.”
Lower Charles Village resident Paul Moscatt, 88, is a teacher/mentor to Abrams. He is a Navy veteran and former 34-year MICA art teacher. He retired in 2000 and began teaching night school and giving private art lessons. He mostly works in oil, but also works in acrylic, watercolor and pastels.
“I like buildings. I’m interested in any kind of history, and synagogues,” he said. “I was a little familiar with the Lloyd Street Synagogue. The whole project makes sense to me, but essentially just as a painter, it’s a plein air situation. And any excuse to paint a building, if the building has a history. I’d love to do more paintings in the synagogues.”
Moscatt brought along MICA intern Shyheem Gordon, 20, a painting major in the class of 2020. He normally works in oils, but has been painting in acrylic recently. He is pleased to have the chance to paint the synagogues with Moscatt and Abrams’ group.
“There’s a bunch of stuff that is really cool in Baltimore that I feel like people don’t look at,” he said, as he worked on his piece depicting the old Temple Oheb Shalom. “There’s some really nice buildings. I really like this one.”
Another of Moscatt’s students, Joyce Klavan Jandorf of Northwest Baltimore, is a Jewish Museum of Maryland docent. The museum encompasses the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue. She said “it was kind of natural to start painting down there.”
She was also impressed with Shaarei Tfiloh in Druid Hill Park. “Just the fact that the Jewish community has abandoned, or forgotten their treasures,” she said. “These synagogues are so seductive. I’m very much drawn to them.”
Jandorf said “something was lost” in the Jewish community’s march northward “in their quest for fancier, more upscale neighborhoods, when really in essence, looking back, they lost out. They did not gain from moving forward, not out of this neighborhood at least.”
She said many of the majestic synagogues along Park Heights Avenue, from Park Circle to Cold Spring Lane, were built in the 1920s and abandoned by the 1960s.
“That’s not long enough for structures of this value,” she added. “These glorious, glorious structures. And then nobody could ever afford to replicate the stature, the majesty of these buildings.”
Karen Winston-Levin, who has dabbled in art since she was a child, has a personal history with many of the synagogues in the project, including Lloyd Street, the old Beth Jacob Synagogue on Park Heights Avenue and the Rogers Avenue Synagogue. She began painting full-time about 10 years ago.
“It’s the personal history as well as the beauty of the buildings here,” she said. “You want to hope that they’re restored, or not razed to make way for something, a parking lot, modernity.”
She mostly paints in oils, plein air landscapes and figures. She is especially fond of the Lloyd Street Synagogue and the old Beth Tfiloh building (Wayland Baptist Church), where her husband was a member as a child.
“The interior [of the former Beth Tfiloh] is just gorgeous,” she said. “Even though it’s been somewhat redesigned, the bones are still there. And the light that comes in through those stained glass windows makes everything look otherworldly.”
Stewart White, an Inner Harbor resident, found out about the project through the plein art painters group, of which he is a former president. He’s been painting more than 40 years. Watercolor is his medium of choice.
A fan of the Bolton Hill neighborhood, White said he’s “always wondered about the synagogues here in Baltimore, and their history.”
“That got me interested in looking into it,” he said. “I love the architecture; I do architectural illustration.”
“These synagogues, whoever the architects are, it’s sort of handed down, the different traditions of building on eight-sided figures, on circles and squares and all these perfect geometries, and trying to bring it together,” he added. “So, I really enjoy the harmonies that I see. And when you paint them, when you stand still, you start noticing relationships you would never notice when you’re just flying through photographs. Also in painting, you start seeing nuances of color. Your camera can’t see it because your eye is so much more sensitive.”
For Abrams, a member of Bolton Street Synagogue, the project of recognizing and memorializing the old synagogues is a way to honor the history of Jewish Baltimore.
“What I’m more connected to is the sense of Jewish presence, and I love Jewish history in the city of Baltimore,” she said. “So, I started looking at all the synagogues and I thought these are amazing buildings. There’s one on West North Avenue near Pennsylvania Avenue [former Har Zion]. It has a giant Jewish star on the front and it is beautiful. It is in the middle of the block and it has such presence.”
“It’s like it’s saying, ‘See me. I’m here.’”
“Baltimore’s Bygone Synagogue’s: History Captured” is scheduled to run Sept. 1 through Oct. 28 at The Hoffberger Gallery, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore. An artist reception is set for Sept. 15 from 2-4 p.m. For more information visit labrams.faso.com or mapapa.shuttlepod.org.