Descendant’s Day program connects synagogue community to original members

Bnai Israel’s 75th Anniversary Banquet Program in 1948
Torah study at B’nai Israel (Courtesy of B’nai Israel)

It is fairly common for people to be inherently curious about their roots, to know where and who they spring from. And B’nai Israel’s Descendant’s Day program aims to assist with just that, by helping the progeny of their original members reconnect with their ancestors.

“B’nai Israel is the oldest continuously active synagogue in Baltimore,” said the shul’s Rabbi Etan Mintz, whose synagogue, founded in 1873, is just a few years away from its 150th anniversary.

“Because of its important history to the Baltimore Jewish community,” Mintz continued, “we wanted to go back to its early years and look for some of the original members and founders of the congregation, and find and connect with some of their descendants.”

The idea came from a synagogue in Boston, the Vilna Shul, which had its own descendants day program years ago. “We modeled our program in many ways after theirs,” Mintz said. “It was inspired by their program.”

The process of identifying founding members and their current progeny, Mintz explained, involved going over memorial boards and ledgers that go as far back as the late 1800s. The synagogue also received assistance from the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland, which both directly helped the synagogue sift through those and other records to contact current descendants, and who trained synagogue volunteers to do that work as well.

B’nai Israel synagogue
B’nai Israel synagogue (Courtesy of B’nai Israel)

Currently, B’nai Israel plans to hold an online Descendant’s Day conference on June 6, with an in-person event at a later date once conditions are safe to do so. Mintz expects more than 200 people to attend the in-person event, and says that the online conference may also have a strong showing. Some of these attendees would likely be coming from as far away as Florida, Connecticut, and even Israel, while others would hail from the Baltimore area.

Activities at the in-person gathering are expected to include walking tours of the local neighborhood and of the cemetery, lectures and conversations with genealogists and historians and on-site genealogical assistance, said Mintz. The online event would have similar programming, with individuals taking participants on virtual walking tours of relevant locations.

Mintz hopes that this will be a recurring, annual program, leading up to the 150th anniversary.

Fred Shoken, a resident of downtown Baltimore and a member of B’nai Israel who described himself as the synagogue’s “unofficial historian,” said one upcoming event on Jan. 19 that is meant to lead into the summer’s Descendant’s Day is “Stories of the Old Neighborhood.” This online event will feature Eli W. Schlossberg, author of “My Shtetl Baltimore,” and Rabbi Herbert Mandl, who will reflect on what life was once like in downtown Baltimore’s
Jewish community.

“At one time, there were dozens of synagogues in this area,” Shoken said, noting that, aside from Beth Am and a few others, “today, pretty much, we’re the only active synagogue … so many of the other shuls that no longer exist or merged or moved to the northwest suburbs.”

“I think we all learn more about ourselves when we learn about our heritage,” Mintz said. “The Jewish people have always cherished our past, and it informs our future. And as individuals and as a community, both celebrating and connecting to our heritage and ancestry is something that really enriches us, and … that connects us to something larger than ourselves.”

1/11/21 9:44 a.m. Update: This article has been updated to correct the caption of the featured image. The Jewish Times apologizes for this error.

1/13/21 1:32 p.m. Update: This article has been updated to state that the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland, not the Maryland Genealogical Society, assisted B’nai Israel with their event. The Jewish Times apologizes for this error.

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