Rabbi Peter Hyman didn’t think Easton, Maryland, would be a great place for Jewish life.
“This is the most deceptive place I’ve ever lived,” said the Connecticut native who became rabbi of the Eastern Shore town’s Temple B’nai Israel a decade ago.
“When I first came here, I’m driving down Highway 301, and there’s not a gas station on 301 between Middle Town, Delaware, and Highway 50,” he said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Where am I going? They’re going to have bib overalls on and fertilizer on their boots.’ But I came here and it’s everything that I love.”
That includes the historic town of 16,000 and the 200-member Reform synagogue he leads. While the congregation was founded in 1951, Hyman is its first full-time rabbi. After outgrowing its building in town, the congregation built a new synagogue on the south side, which was dedicated last month. Both Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) were on hand to celebrate, along with 250 others.
“I have great optimism for the idea of community and coming together,” Van Hollen told the gathering. “You represent values that have made the Jewish community very strong.”
“I think his presence in the community makes a big difference,” said Temple B’nai Israel member Steve Shearer of the rabbi.
At the synagogue, Hyman said he’s always thinking of new ways to interest congregants, such as offering “Shabbat in the Park,” an event 10 miles away in Oxford on the water above the Chesapeake Bay. Or for recent confirmands, a post-confirmation curriculum.
“Which really means salad and pizza on Tuesday nights — and a little Torah,” he said.
“This is the most deceptive place I’ve ever lived.” — Rabbi Peter Hyman, Temple B’nai Israel
“If we had not had a full-time rabbi here, we would have gone back to the Western Shore services, either in Annapolis or Baltimore,” said Susan Koh, the congregation’s membership chair, who moved with her husband to Easton from Baltimore in 2006.
That happened to be the year Temple B’nai Israel affiliated with the Reform movement. Since its founding, it had identified as Orthodox. The community began to come together during World War II, when Jews along the Eastern Shore formed the Jewish Sisterhood of the Eastern Shore to send supplies to soldiers overseas, according to the congregation’s website.
The sisterhood, along with Easton merchants and congregants, helped raise the money for the original building, next to what is today the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton.
That building could seat about 100 congregants and wasn’t large enough to host High Holiday services, Hyman said. It also had a set of stairs between the first and second floors that made accessibility for congregants with disabilities difficult.
The new sanctuary can hold up to 420 people and can be split in two to create a social hall.
But the congregation hasn’t parted ways with its old home entirely. Parts of the old bimah have been fashioned into bookcases. And the old ner tamid, or eternal light, hangs from a wall in the lobby above where several deceased members are honored.
“It never looked as good in the old sanctuary as it does here,” Hyman said.
Ron Rothman found out what small-town life was about during an interaction he had with a car repair shop owner four years ago. Rothman and his wife, Robin, had just moved to Easton from Philadelphia, seeking a place near the Chesapeake Bay where they could go boating. The couple also wanted a new home with an active Jewish community.
“‘So I guess you must have family here, or friends?’” Rothman recalled the shop owner saying. “‘No,’ I said, ‘we are Jewish and joined the synagogue and they kind of took us in.’”
That caught the interest of the owner, Rothman said.
“‘I know Rabbi Peter, my wife is on a committee at the YMCA with him. Nice guy,’” the owner said.
Like the Rothmans, the majority of Temple B’nai Israel’s members are retirees. Arna Meyer Mickelson, the synagogue’s president, moved to Easton with her husband in 2011 after 25 years as the CEO of what is now the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. “We love the water and we love the environment and this is a beautiful place to live,” she said.
Temple B’nai Israel’s new building is surrounded by nature. The 9,500-square-foot wood and stone structure is within eyeshot of woods and fields. A church across Route 322 is a mostly silent neighbor. A raised structure on the synagogue roof, called a monitor in architectural parlance, allows natural light to enter the worship space while also attracting attention from the outside, said Jay Brown, a principal of architectural firm Levin/Brown & Associates.
“We were looking for something that would be a beacon for people on the way to the beach,” he said of the design.
It also brings nature to worshipers inside.
“When I’m in services, I sometimes see the rabbi’s attention wander, and I look over there and there’s a herd of deer,” Mickelson said.
Hyman never tires of seeing flocks of osprey or wild turkey. But when he wants to see family in New York City, he isn’t far.
“I’m always schlepping up and down the New Jersey Turnpike,” he said.