Congregation B’nai Abraham has long been the center of Jewish life in Hagerstown. That’s how former City Council- member Fred Kramer remembers it, just after moving to the western Maryland city in 1952 with his wife, Renee.
“When we first came, it was our social life. Jews weren’t allowed into country clubs. Everything was done at the congregation. We had antique shows. We put on shows ourselves.”
Today, Congregation B’nai Abraham is the only synagogue in town. But its 250 members come from across Western Maryland, as well as from parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where Jewish life is scarce.
“If the synagogue weren’t here, would there be Jews in this area? I don’t know,” said Rabbi Ari Plost, who has led the Reform congregation for five years.
On Shabbat, B’nai Abraham will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a concert and dessert reception. Guest Cantor Susan Berkson and the congregation’s choir will perform music written and conducted by Washington, D.C., composer Simon Sargon. Additionally, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is scheduled to speak.
According to the congregation’s website, Jews in Hagerstown held services on and off at a Presbyterian Church on South Potomac Street in the mid-1800s. In 1892, they organized as the Synagogue of the Sons of Abraham, an Orthodox congregation, and constructed a building on East Baltimore Street. In 1923, the building was demolished, and a new building was erected on the same site two years later. And in 1948, the synagogue began affiliating with the Reform movement.
Because it is the only synagogue for miles around, Congregation B’nai Abraham must meet the needs of Jews of varying backgrounds, said Plost.
“We’re inclusive by our deep values of being welcoming and supporting of one another,” he said.
City Councilmember Lewis Metzner, a Hagerstown native and former congregation president, said the diverse nature of Hagerstown’s Jewish community requires synagogue staff to pay close attention to the specific needs of groups of congregants. This includes making sure the appropriate food is served at social functions for those who keep kosher.
“You have to say, ‘When you come to the oneg, don’t bring shrimp,’” he said.
Metzner and fellow native Buck Macht, who sits on the congregation’s executive committee, recalled being one of about six Jewish students in their high school graduating classes of 400. Macht said Hagerstown’s schools were segregated by race until the early 1960s. Additionally, he said, the town had a restrictive covenant that limited where Jews could live, and they were not allowed to join the Fountain Head Country Club.
Berkson, whose great- grandparents were co-founders of Congregation B’nai Abraham, said her religious school class had four students. Her bat mitzvah in 1969 was the congregation’s second.
“We [students] got a lot of attention, and I think that really was one of the things that got me to become a cantor,” she said.
Recently, the congregation introduced long-distance religious school study for students who live more than 30 minutes from Hagerstown. Students meet together with Plost at the synagogue once a month, and have more frequent individual Skype sessions with tutors in preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, said Rachel Nichols, a former congregation president.
To attract new members, B’nai Abraham offers free membership for the first year. Plost said the motivation for creating a large, welcoming community is social, not financial.
Plost said the Hagerstown Jewish community is close-knit because it is so small, and members support each other in good times and bad. Plost said six months into his tenure, a daughter-in-law of a past synagogue president was hit by a car while she was walking in a snowstorm. More recently, a longtime congregant’s son died from a drug overdose. In each case, he said, congregants responded by showing up in large numbers to the funerals and then to the shiva for the next week.
“In both of those circumstances, it was amazing to see how all of these people came together to support people,” he said. “The outpouring of love filled me with real understanding of what chesed is all about.”
19th-Century Drinking Song of Inclusion
Saturday’s ceremony will also honor Thomas Kennedy, an early 19th century Maryland legislator who sponsored a bill to allow Jews to serve openly in state office. What was known as the “Jew Bill” passed in 1826, repealing part of the state’s 1776 constitution that required a “declaration of the Christian religion” in order to hold elective office.
Among the songs Berkson will sing is one that Sargon composed for the occasion. It is called “Come Fill Up Your Glasses,” and the lyrics from a poem by the same title written by Kennedy.
Rachel Nichols, a former congregation president, said the poem was written as a drinking song, but carries the deeper messages of acceptance and not judging others. That, she said, was what struck a chord with Sargon when she asked him to compose a song for the ceremony.
“He was tickled by the lyrics, and was moved to write this lively and tongue-in-cheek piece,” she said.
The words extol camaraderie and drinking and decry divisive politics and prejudice:
A plague upon politics, party and strife,
When they mar the enjoyments and blessings of life;
When they scatter discord round a table like this,
When they mingle the bitters of hate with our bliss.
On July 25, the city will break ground on a site near the congregation that will include a statue and park dedicated to Kennedy.