Building Community

Rabbi Kushi Schusterman and Rabbi Gila Ruskin (Kelsey Marden photos)

For many Baltimore Jews, Harford County’s rolling rural hills and growing suburban landscapes are a world away from their large, established Jewish communities, which offer a new person in town myriad choices of places to worship, study, eat, shop and socialize.

And in some ways they are.

A 45-minute drive from Baltimore, Harford County, whose total population is about a quarter-million, has just one Reform temple in Havre de Grace and one Chabad center in Bel Air. The county is mostly white (about 80 percent) and mostly Catholic or Christian. Estimates for the Jewish population there range from about 550 to 1,200 or more.

But the size of the community and perceived isolation from booming Jewish Baltimore isn’t the point, according to Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and Rabbi Kushi Schusterman of Harford Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Bel Air. The point is welcoming, connecting and engaging with the Jews who are there and helping them find a Jewish home.

While a Reform temple and an Orthodox Chabad center might seem on opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum, the shuls’ denominational differences don’t get in the way of collaboration. The two communities sometimes come together for events such as Chanukah menorah lightings, and the two rabbis have a give-and-take relationship, sometimes assisting each other with pastoral-care duties. Together, they offer Harford Jews a choice for worship, ritual, education and socializing.

Ruskin at her temple office (Kelsey Marden photo)

A Detroit native, Ruskin, 64, grew up in an active Reform community where she was a self-described Hebrew school geek. She and her husband Paul, longtime Baltimore residents, moved to Philadelphia recently to be closer to their children and grandchildren. She has been commuting to Havre de Grace four days a week, on average, since being hired at Adas Shalom about 10 years ago as the Reform temple’s half-time rabbi.

“I feel like we are the address, we are the home for Jewish education, for worship services. The temple serves an important social function to families, single people, widows, widowers. It’s their place to interact with fellow Jews,” she said.

Founded as the Harford Hebrew Congregation in early 1955, the group purchased a building later that year and was renamed the Harford Jewish Center. The current temple building, set upon a gentle hill on Route 155 about nine miles from downtown Havre de Grace, was built and dedicated in 1968 — the first synagogue in Harford County. Adas Shalom now has about 160 dues-paying members but claims a community much larger than that.

“This was the only synagogue,” Ruskin said, adding that the congregation for years was “very self-protective” because of that isolation.

“It was deliberately built to look like a church because of the neighborhood. And it does blend in,” she said. “There’s so many churches around here, but there were no connections, and there still aren’t a lot. But I’ve tried.”

Anne Rees Pollin joined Adas Shalom when her family moved to Bel Air in 1993. It was the only synagogue around.

“We joined immediately,” Pollin said. “We had two small children and wanted to have a connection to the Jewish community.”

Now a 25-year member, the 59-year-old said the temple has been a steady influence in her family’s life.

“I have several dear friends who are mainstays in my life that I met there. Rabbi Ruskin is a warm, intelligent and caring spiritual leader who has made this temple feel even more like family,” Pollin said. “It is very comforting to know I have her to turn to in times of celebration or trouble.”

About 12 miles to the southwest of Havre de Grace in downtown Bel Air is the home of the Harford Chabad.

Schusterman in his Bel Air home (Kelsey Marden photo)

Chabad’s Schusterman, 33, grew up in California and New York, moving around with his Chabad rabbi father. After rabbinical school, he was living in New York when he began researching opening his own Chabad center. He homed in on Harford County, deciding that a new center there would fill a void.

After purchasing a phone list and calling thousands of households, Schusterman identified about 650 Jews in the county — although he knows there are more. He moved to Bel Air with his wife, Fraida Malka, and opened the Chabad center in their home in 2010.

“I made a lot of phone calls, asked people are they Jewish, do they think there’s a need,” he said. “I went to the temple. I met with Gila. I met with board members there. And except for one person, the 30 to 40 people we met all said it’s a good idea to open in Bel Air.”

Robyn Barnett met Schusterman online before either of them were living in Bel Air — Barnett was looking for a new family home, and Schusterman was looking for a synagogue location. After relocating, her family found the Harford Chabad “very welcoming.”

“It doesn’t matter at what level of Jewish observance you are. They welcome everyone and encourage you to grow in your observance,” she said. “Having spent most of my adult years as a member of large Conservative synagogues, I never would have imagined being so friendly with a rabbi and his family.”

Judaism in a Rural County

Main Street Bel Air (Kelsey Marden photo)

Both rabbis say they have seen a Jewish influx. Some of it is due to the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act that shuttered military bases across the country but reinvigorated the 100-year-old Aberdeen Proving Ground — just 12 miles from Bel Air and 5 miles from Havre de Grace.

The 72,000-acre site is the workplace of more than 21,000 civilian and military workers, according to the U.S. Army’s APG Web page. In 2000, Harford County’s population was 218,590, according to U.S. Census figures. By 2016 it was 251,032.

Ruskin said she has seen congregation growth since the BRAC process launched, some from new housing developments along I-95.

“There’s quite a few people who are retired or semiretired who live there. Quite a few [members] are associated with the base and Aberdeen Proving Ground,” she said. “Many of them have one kid who lives in New Jersey or New York and another one who lives in Baltimore or Washington, and this is their in-between place.”

Schusterman isn’t surprised by the growth in his congregation or in the county, which he says is a draw because of affordable housing and good schools.

Schusterman with his five children (Kelsey Marden photo)

“BRAC brought more Jews,” he said. “When we moved, one of the things that made it a good opportunity was that’s when people were moving here. And a lot of people are moving to the Baltimore County/Harford County line, into Fallston, Joppa, White Marsh, Perry Hall. So we’ve been seeing an increase from some people coming from there.”

For Jews who do relocate, especially from metropolitan areas, Harford County may feel like another planet, but the Jewish community there offers welcome support.

“I relocated from the New York metropolitan area, where Judaism was more a part of life,” Michael Barnett, 61, said. “The town I lived in before coming to Bel Air had Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations. I have spoken to Jews from Baltimore County and City who cannot believe that there are Jews, much less practicing Jews, in Harford County.”

His wife, Robyn, agrees. “After living my entire life in the New York/tristate area, moving here was somewhat of a shock,” she said. “Living in large Jewish communities, I didn’t always have to think about being Jewish — I was surrounded by Judaism. Living here I find I am reminded that I am in the minority.”

Harford Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Bel Air (Kelsey Marden photo)

That feeling of isolation can have an effect on daily Jewish life there, including finding kosher and traditional Jewish foods, holiday supplies and Judaica. But Jews do have resources in the county, including the Jewish-owned Shop Rite chain, which started in Harford County and now has stores nearby in Aberdeen, Bel Air, Bel Camp and Forest Hill. Shop Rite offers, where kosher meat, poultry, fish and deli can be ordered and picked up a few days later.

Adas Shalom has a Sister- hood Judaica shop while Chabad’s website has an online shop. And if Harford’s Jewish residents can’t find something, there’s always the run to Baltimore or becoming a do-it-yourselfer.

Robyn Barnett said she finds basic kosher items at local markets and appreciates Shop Rite’s online kosher ordering. She has discovered kosher cookbooks and Israeli films at the county library.

“I keep kosher, and if I want something gourmet, I have to travel to Pikesville, which I do about once a month,” she said. “Before moving here I never baked my own challah, though I always wanted to. Through Fraida Schusterman’s guidance I now bake it every week.”

Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace (Kelsey Marden photo)

Amy Schoenberger, 50, first visited Temple Adas Shalom for the High Holidays 23 years ago. She joined the synagogue in 1999, when her daughter was ready for religious school. She is now a temple staffer and serves on the Sisterhood board. Growing up in Delaware as the only Jewish student at her high school, Schoenberger has made many close friends at the temple.

“The most challenging part about being in a rural community is that in many cases with my non-Jewish friends I am the first Jew they have met — ever,” she said. “Because of this, I get asked many questions about my religion. Getting food and supplies is easy compared to that.”

Samuel Joseph Vogelhut first came to Adas Shalom when he was a fourth-grader and his family relocated to Bel Air for his father’s military job. The 18-year-old, now at college in Pittsburgh, remembers attending Sunday school and services and being the third-grade madrich.

“I do not feel isolated as a Jewish person in Harford County because of Temple Adas Shalom and the opportunities it gives me to interact with other Jews,” he said. “The hardest part about being part of a rural Jewish community is that, outside the synagogue and my family, there is very little Jewish influence or interaction in my day-to-day life. The school system and most restaurants don’t sell or have a very small selection of kosher foods.”

The Future of Harford Jewry

While being a Jew in Harford County may present some challenges, the rabbis face their own in serving a community that may be fractured, distracted or simply too busy. But those challenges are offset by the rewards of serving that same diverse community.

Ruskin in the temple’s sanctuary (Kelsey Marden photo)

“The most challenging for all of us, wherever we are, is that we’re competing with so many other interests: sports, various kinds of entertainment, the various screens, the fact that people join things less and less and are much more isolated with their phone, or whatever,” Ruskin said. “I think it’s the biggest challenge for all of us in the Jewish world.”

The best part? For Ruskin it’s that her congregation has generally given her “carte blanche.”

“If you’re in a large congregation, you have to go through 20 committees before you can do this or that,” she said. “If I come up with an idea — for instance, my husband organized Torah Karaoke — they said great.”

Schusterman is sometimes challenged to not take things personally “when someone says something negative, whether about Jews in general, or about Chabad,” he said. “Maybe they had a bad day.”

But loving his job and making a difference in people’s lives is his reward for those occasional difficult moments, even if he doesn’t see the impact until years later.

“There was one person who came to our public menorah lighting and didn’t get out of their car because they didn’t want anyone to ever identify them, but they were proud that there was a public menorah lighting,” he said. “And years later they said, ‘I have been there. I just have been on the street.’ I made an impact because they were able to be proud of their heritage.”

Schusterman helps light the menorah at the Harford Chabad’s 2017 Chanukah in the Park. (Provided)

Looking ahead, the rabbis hope their respective congregations, and the Harford County Jewish community as a whole, will grow and continue to engage with their Judaism.

Schusterman’s dream is to see small, independent Chabad communities sprout up around the county and connect for programs and events.

“And if they’re hyper- focused, they will be able to find the families that we’re missing at the moment from that 657,” he said with a smile. “That would be in a perfect world. My practical is more, like, to have a youth director. I want every Jew to have an address in Bel Air to go to for anything they need Jewish. I think that anyone who has any relationship with the Jewish people wants to be connected to meaningful practice.”

Ruskin, right, joins members of St. James AME church and Masjid Al Falaah mosque in song at Adas Shalom’s 2018 MLK Day observance. (Faheem Huda photo)

At Adas Shalom, Ruskin wants her congregation to continue engaging with the wider Harford County faith community and with social justice work, a mission she has helped realize with partnerships with St. James AME in Havre de Grace and the Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon. A recent joint Martin Luther King Jr. event drew hundreds to the temple.

“I’d like that to flourish and grow. To me that’s very important, not just social justice issues in the world, but local things,” she said. “We have a project right now of sprucing up our building and building new classrooms, so we’re going to have a conference room. There’s going to be more opportunity for using our building for community events. When we had all those people for MLK Day, filling the building with 200 people? All different backgrounds? What a beautiful thing. To see the community coming together here, in our building.”

“So, I would like that,” she added. “Just more of the same — moving in the directions I’m hoping we are moving in.”

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  1. I am very homesick for Temple Adas Shalom and reading this article, I see the reason. After 49 years in that community, I moved far away. After two and one half years, I have yet to find anything close to their dedication and enthusiasm. It was my second home and the source of my oldest friendships. There was always an outlet for whatever I wanted to do. Gila has brought many innovations and tied us closer to the rest of Harford County community. The children often outnumber the groups from larger, Baltimore congregations at conventions because of the spirit they inherit from the adults. From early on, they participate in services and by Bnai Mitzvah they are comfortable conducting services themselves.


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