JEA Fellowship Thrives as Membership Dwindles

JEA members at City Springs Park in the 1920s (Provided)

The dozens of boisterous young summer campers filling a room in the lower level of the Park Heights JCC on a recent bright morning probably didn’t pay much attention to the old photos, trophies and awards lining the walls, even one yellowed 8-by-10 capturing a group of children much like themselves taken almost 100 years ago.

In that photo from the 1920s, a couple dozen children, from toddlers to teens, pose for the camera in City Springs Park playground in East Baltimore. They are members of the Jewish Educational Alliance, an organization formed in 1909, when the Daughters in Israel and the Maccabeans merged.

The JEA was formed as a social, recreational, vocational, educational and social services facility for Jewish youth and adults concentrated in East Baltimore, although it did not turn away non-Jews. The organization offered sports, clubs and dances for young men and women and concerts and classes for adults. There was Hebrew school and Shabbat services. First housed in the 1100 block of East Baltimore Street, a larger building was donated by the Levy family in 1913 at 1216 E. Baltimore St. It closed in 1952 when the organization merged with the YMHA, YWHA and Camp Woodlands and moved to West Monument Street as the new Jewish Community Center.

Now, more than 100 years since its founding, JEA members still gather as the Jewish Educational Alliance Fellowship Association. About 15 board members meet monthly and once a year the group holds an anniversary reunion where those remaining and their spouses and friends can socialize and reminisce. The JEA history room in the lower level of the Park Heights JCC displays dozens of framed photos of clubs and events, and bookcases are crowded with hundreds of club histories, trophies and other artifacts.

Their 109th reunion is set for August 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Weinberg Park Heights JCC auditorium.

Mickey Crystal, 90, the group’s president for 18 years, said it lost about 14 members last year to death or incapacitation, but the remaining 150 or so members keep the club going. Members Oscar Brilliant and Julian Billy Lewis will be honored at this year’s event and local television reporter Ron Matz will host.

The JEA Fellowship Association supports about 30 charities with year-round fundraising efforts through its Robert Folus Fund.

Mickey Crystal in the JEA history room at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC with a photo of the JEA building on Baltimore Street. (Susan C. Ingram photo)

Crystal remembers coming across the JEA in 1935 when he was a boy running the streets of East Baltimore with three friends. His father, a Polish immigrant, and his mother, a Russian immigrant, had fled Eastern Europe with their families and settled in East Baltimore’s Jewish community. At home, they spoke Yiddish, which Crystal can still understand and speak a little.

“There was four of us. Two of us lived closer to Patterson Park and two of us lived closer to the JEA. I lived on Washington and Baltimore streets. We were all about the same age; I was 7 years old. It was about seven blocks to the JEA and we would walk down, the four of us. And we got involved in all activities,” he said, adding he made shelves in wood shop, formed clubs and played sports. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had the JEA.”

Crystal said the group doesn’t solicit for new members, but he does everything he can to keep existing members involved, including offering rides to members with mobility challenges.

“We try, but it’s hard to bring somebody into the group that wasn’t in JEA at one time or another,” Crystal said. “We are really reliant on our old members. As the saying goes, ‘We’re dying out.’ But I like to keep in touch with the people. I do the best I can.”

The JEA is not alone, as many clubs, service and civic groups nationally are finding a hard time attracting new people into aging organizations.

He recalled being asked more then once what the mystery is to keeping the organization going.

“Once a JEA kid, you’re always a JEA kid,” said the enthusiastic and energetic nonagenarian. “I have owed a lot to the JEA. It’s like in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ it’s one word — tradition. It stays with you.”

Tickets for the Aug. 26 event are $30 per person and $60 for couples. Call Mickey Crystal for tickets and information at 410-560-1174.

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