The next time you plan to motor west, don’t take the highway, take the byway. Steer your way over to Liberty Road and in 45 minutes from Randallstown, through bucolic rolling farmland and vineyards, you’ll ford Israel Creek and find yourself in Frederick, home to a vibrant and growing Jewish community.
Frederick has had a Jewish presence dating back to the 1740s; Frederick Hebrew Congregation was founded about 100 years later in 1840. Their first rabbi began leading the congregation in 1858, and in 1917, the then-unaffiliated congregation was renamed Beth Sholom Congregation. A downtown building was donated for its first synagogue in 1923.
For more than a century, Jews in Frederick had one choice for a spiritual home — until 15 years ago, when Reform Congregation Kol Ami of Frederick was founded as an offshoot. In 2009, Chabad Jewish Center came to town, adding an Orthodox prayer service to the mix.
And while the Jewish community in Frederick is growing, with about 400 to 500 affiliated families — in a city of about 71,000 in a county of about 252,000 (according to U.S. Census estimates), the percentage of Jews in the largely rural region is still relatively small.
But for the three young rabbis leading Frederick’s congregations, numbers aren’t everything — people are. And what they see in Frederick is a thriving, engaged and burgeoning Jewish community where people live fulfilling Jewish lives, even without Jewish day schools, kosher markets or restaurants.
Frederick’s Young Rabbis
On a recent hot summer morning, Rabbi Jordan Hersh recalled landing at Frederick’s historic Beth Sholom Congregation in 2013 as an intern from The Gladstein Fellowship in Entrepreneurial Rabbinic Leadership. It was three years after the late Rabbi Morris Kosman’s five-decade tenure ended with his retirement in 2010. After the popular spiritual leader’s departure, the congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.
“They’d been a while without a permanent rabbinic presence,” Hersh said. “And by the end of my time, they were ready again to hire a rabbi.”
After a search process, Hersh was hired in July 2014. At 36, Hersh now leads the 200-family shul, which moved from its downtown location to a new community center in 1984 and expanded 10 years later. It includes a main sanctuary, a chapel, a social hall, classrooms, library, offices and a Judaica shop.
Hersch didn’t plan to become a rabbi initially. Rather, he’d intended to turn his rock-band background into a career after studying sociology at University of Buffalo and working for a national shipping company. But he found the music scene lacking.
“I started to get a little disillusioned with the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and searched for something more,” he recalled. “I wanted to see what my tradition had to offer.” He began studying with a rabbi in Buffalo and decided to go to Israel for yeshiva.
There he met his future wife, Shulie, and instead of making aliyah, as he’d originally planned, he returned with Shulie to New York, where she was studying to be a cantor. After struggling with what to do with his interests in sociology, music and Judaism, a friend suggested he combine his talents and try the rabbinate.
It fit. He completed his rabbinical training at Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained in 2014. Cantor Shulie Hersh was ordained a year later from the Academy for Jewish Religion and hired as Beth Sholom’s cantor in 2015.
Around the corner, Rabbi Boruch Sholom Labkowski of Brooklyn and his wife Frumy of Los Angeles share duties co-directing the Chabad Jewish Center. The pair officially opened the doors of the center in August 2017, after having run the shul from their home since arriving in 2009.
“We have Brooklyn and Los Angeles come together — we have Frederick,” Rabbi Labkowski, 37, said.
Before meeting Frumy, Labkowski traveled extensively. As a young 20-something, Labkowski’s Chabad mission took him across South America, Portugal and Spain, Hawaii and the Canary Islands. Everywhere he went he carried one suitcase full of books, mezuzahs and Jewish scrolls and one full of tuna fish and matzah crackers. “You can’t find kosher food in the Canary Islands, right?”
After settling down, he and his wife knew they wanted to open a Chabad center. “The question was where,” he said. “Someone mentioned Frederick. We hadn’t heard of it and we Googled it. We met with a few of the local families here and they were all super excited about the possibility of starting a Chabad center.”
After they made the move, the couple began by holding meetings in their home and renting spaces for larger events and the High Holidays. But soon they realized they needed their own space and found the current location. “Which was exactly what we needed,” Labkowski said.
The single-story brick structure on West 9th Street features a giant menorah out front and houses a sanctuary, library, Judaica shop, offices and classrooms, some of which were damaged by the severe flooding that struck Frederick in May. The basement was inundated with a couple feet of water.
Labkowski said the community responded by raising more than $50,000 in a three-day emergency campaign. “It was really heartwarming to see we had the backing of the community,” he said.
That sense of community also shines through at the 15-year-old Congregation Kol Ami, which doesn’t yet have its own building. And right now, the 28-year-old rabbi likes it that way.
Rabbi Simon Stratford grew up “a product of the Reform movement” in a Chicago Jewish neighborhood he likens to Pikesville, with lots of Jewish markets, restaurants and shops. Although he attended public schools, he joined Jewish camps and youth groups before attending Michigan State University and Hebrew Union College. He was ordained in May 2017. By July 1, 2017, he was the new spiritual leader of Kol Ami and only its second full-time rabbi. His wife, Nicole, commutes to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville every day, where she is coordinator of engagement and programming.
“I really wanted to look for something that was in a smaller town, to embrace this idea of small-town Jewish community,” he said. “Here at Kol Ami, I’m the only employee. Everyone has to pitch in and everyone has to contribute to make things work.”
Kol Ami’s small suite of offices, where Stratford has a study, storage and a board room, are just outside downtown Frederick, less than 2 miles from the Chabad Center and Beth Sholom. For Shabbat services, Kol Ami shares a sanctuary with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick and Sunday school is held at Saint John’s Catholic Prep in nearby Buckeystown. He holds bar and bat mitzvah student meetings at the local library or his study.
Diane Rifkin, 62, has been a member of Kol Ami since its founding. She considers it “a very warm and inclusive congregation” and appreciates its engagement in social action and interfaith activities.
“I adore our current rabbi and his wife and our wonderful cantorial soloist [Dr. Eric Dubbin]. I have built long-term friendships with congregants of all ages,” she said.
Rifkin supports the congregation’s promotion of lifelong learning, from its religious school programming to its Intro to Judaism course and its groups for youths, young professionals and empty nesters.
Rifkin is just one of the congregation’s 110 member-units, which includes families and individuals. Stratford said there are another 40 or so nonmembers who attend the shul, which gives a membership price break to young families, young adults, single parents and seniors.
“We’re heavy in young families and we’re heavy in retirees, empty nesters and baby boomers,” he said.
The shul’s influx of new members in the 2000s included lots of young families, peaking between 2010 and 2012 when Kol Ami had more than 100 kids in its religious school. Those children have grown up and gone through bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations, and Stratford said the increase in new people has leveled out.
“We have a dip in demographics when it comes to the younger boomers,” he added. “And our young professionals are very transient.”
“Most important to me is the strong sense of community we feel as members,” said 14-year member Anne Cohen, 69. “We have personally made friends of many different ages and have been together with each other both for support in times of need and celebration in times of joy. The members of this congregation are welcoming to newcomers and always there for each other.”
At the Chabad Jewish Center, Labkowski estimates that the shul’s larger community and holiday events draw 150 to 200 people, with about 30 to 40 people attending classes at any one time.
Labkowski said his congregation is a “good mix of everything. … We have all ages, all backgrounds, all affiliations who attend Shabbat services and programs. They love our openness to everyone and anyone. People really feel at home.”
He admits that being a relatively young rabbi with a family may help attract and retain young families to the center.
“It definitely helps when you have someone they can relate to that has young children themselves and knows what it’s like to be a millennial and still be involved in Judaism,” he said.
Gen Xer Allyce DeFrank is 44 and has been part of the Chabad community since 2015. She appreciates having someplace to celebrate the High Holidays, learn the Torah, make new friends and introduce her son to a Jewish community and Hebrew school, where he is excited to have earned a “red belt” in Hebrew reading.
“I now have the opportunity to give my son a bar mitzvah with a very kind rabbi and his family, which is scheduled for October,” she said.
For 58-year-old Sharon Ramboz, being affiliated with the Chabad community since its founding has helped her connect with her Judaism.
“I grew up in a Jewish area and moved to Frederick about 30 years ago. It was very difficult raising children in our faith without a community that I feel comfortable in,” she said. “Once Chabad came to town, all of that changed.”
She finds the Frederick Jewish community unique, in that “even the non-Jews appreciate and are supportive of Chabad’s work.” She enjoys the child-centered events and adult education classes that she said are “informative, interactive and practical.”
Allen Roth has been with the Chabad center for four years. The 72-year-old said it gives him “a sense of being part of something much greater, of belonging and sharing.”
Meanwhile, Kol Ami and Beth Sholom actively engage with Frederick’s wider faith community, including on broad social justice issues, such as the recent protests over the separation of immigrant families and children, or ongoing local concerns like homelessness and feeding needy children and families.
The two congregations also hold joint events, including annual Yom Hashoah commemorations and family movie nights, and the shuls participate in interfaith Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve services.
“Often the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ downtown is kind of the center of the religious social justice world here,” Hersh said. “So often there are vigils for a variety of things that we’ve both been a part of.”
The Frederick Area Ministerial Association keeps congregations in touch on events and issues.
“I recently gave a sermon at the LGBTQ community service and we held an interfaith seder this year with the ERUCC and the United Methodist Church,” Stratford said.
David Bass, 32, and his husband, Tom, moved to Frederick last year and began attending Kol Ami, becoming members this summer. It was important for them to find a progressive Jewish community.
“Our first Shabbat services at Kol Ami were after the deadly march in Charlottesville last year,” David said. “The familiar Shabbat prayers and Rabbi Stratford’s poignant sermon were comforting in a very difficult time.”
Longtime Beth Sholom member Alison Lynch grew up in Pikesville and attended the Conservative Beth El Congregation, but didn’t feel very connected to her Judaism. She married a Christian man and the couple moved from Roland Park to Frederick in 2001 to raise their children. There they began attending the Unitarian Universalist church, but Lynch felt a void.
“And I thought, ‘I grew up Jewish, I’m going to give it a try,’” she said. There was only one choice in town, Beth Sholom, then led by Rabbi Kosman, who also founded Camp Shoresh. “Beth Sholom and the connections we made were great. But if it were not for Camp Shoresh, my daughter wouldn’t be who she is.” Lynch’s daughter, Juliana, now 19 and attending NYU, received a strong Orthodox foundation through summers at Camp Shoresh and its year-round programs.
Recently, Hersh worked with the Lynch family to certify their new home’s second kitchen as kosher. And last year Lynch requested that Hersh install a mezuzah at their house, a sure sign she was, as she said, “leaving my former religious mindset of rootlessness and anything-goes behind.”
Lynch, 55, also attends events and classes at the Chabad Center and is a member of Frederick Interfaith, a social and educational group. “We believe in everyone having the right to choose their own faith and to respect other people’s faiths,” she said.
She sees the small Frederick Jewish community as one that is engaged with its Jewishness, but not because people feel obliged.
“I think it’s a strong presence and all three perspectives are very useful in that the Jews out here want to soak it in,” she said. “And even the ones who don’t think that they want to soak it in, but just want a synagogue, are also in for a treat. Because you get to know people better when it’s a small community.”
“Really, it’s not the sticks. It’s a vibrant Jewish community, it’s a growing Jewish community. People tend to be surprised when they hear that and learn about it, but it’s true,” he said. “There’s a lot happening. For 100 years, there was one Jewish community, and now you come and you have a choice of Jewish expression. There’s three established Jewish communities and of course there’s many more non-affiliated Jews.
“You can come to Frederick and choose the Jewish life you have and it can be a very fulfilling, very involved Jewish life full of Jewish community,” he added. “It’s not just a sprinkling of us anymore.”