Howard County and the Columbia area have a rich Jewish history — one that was chronicled in full at the exhibit “Made From Scratch: Creating the Howard County Jewish Community.” On display at the Oak Mills Interfaith Center, the exhibit recounts 60 years of Jewish community and tradition in the area as Columbia was becoming a city.
The project began four years ago when the Jewish Federation of Howard County received an anonymous donation along with a request to look into the history of Howard County’s Jewish community. Laura Salganik, vice president of programming at the Federation, stepped up to lead the project alongside her husband, Ralph.
It took several years of interviewing longtime Howard County residents and combing through archives for the project to be completed. The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated the process, and many participants had to be interviewed over Zoom.
Deborah Weiner, a historian who worked on research for the exhibit, recalls a time when research materials were left on her porch because their donor did not want to come into direct contact with other people.
“I knew we had a fascinating founding story,” Salganik said in a speech she gave during the Federation’s annual meeting, held in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening. “Even though pre-Columbia Jewish residents had ties to Baltimore, our community didn’t start with institutions from Baltimore expanding here as typically happens when Jewish communities grow outside of cities. We were different. We made our community from scratch.”
Howard County’s Jewish history dates back to the 1950s, when 12 Jewish families settled in the area to farm. In 1962, land developer James Rouse started buying up land in the county, which was later used to start building Columbia in 1966. The city was pitched as a “noble experiment in living.”
“The original values of Columbia were very important in bringing people there. … It attracted certain people who kind of self-selected in a way,” Weiner said.
The area’s Jewish residents supported the idea, and some of Rouse’s associates were Jewish, which helped to sell Columbia to the Jewish population.
In 1967, Columbia sold its first home. It was around this point that Howard County’s Jewish residents really came together.
Milton Kline and his wife, Judy, were one of the original 12 families who settled in the area. “We did not move out here to be pioneers, it was an economic decision,” he said of why his family made the move. He also noted that he doesn’t consider any of the original 12 families to be community leaders — just “distinguished people” who were attracted to the area.
One story that was recounted by nearly everyone interviewed for the exhibit was that of the first high holiday services held in Columbia in 1969. The Reconstructionist student rabbi in charge of the services started playing a record from a band called the Electric Prunes at the otherwise traditional service.
Attendees were so outraged by the break from tradition that they formed two other synagogues immediately after — Temple Isaiah and Beth Shalom Congregation, which Kline helped found. Those who had no issues with the Electric Prunes formed the Reconstructionist Columbia Jewish Congregation.
Rabbi Martin Siegel was quoted by the exhibit as saying that “All the congregations [in Howard County] were founded by the Electric Prunes.”
Other stories are also told by the exhibit, such as the lives of the first Jewish children to be born in the area. By 1986, 20 years after Columbia was founded, Howard County was claimed to have the “fastest-growing Jewish community in the nation.”
The exhibit will be housed at the Oak Mills Interfaith Center until July 14, though its planners are in talks to have it displayed at the Howard County Library and the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. A corresponding website about Howard County’s Jewish history will be launched soon.
“The most important thing is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before us,” said Joel Frankel, the Federation’s executive director, of the research done for the exhibit. “In order to move forward, we have to understand where we’ve been.”