Is Towson becoming a new hub of Jewish life in the Baltimore area?
The numbers seem to point toward yes, as Towson and its neighboring communities have been seeing significant growth, according to Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
“It’s clear from the last couple of population surveys, as well as our own anecdotal experiences, that there’s a growing Jewish population in the Towson area and along the I-83 corridor into Baltimore County,” Libit said in an email. “I think that the survey shows this area has been one of several ‘non-traditional’ areas where the Jewish population has been growing.”
Beth Goldsmith, chair of the board at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, went into further detail, noting in an email that the past decade had seen a 71% increase in Jewish people living in the Towson, Lutherville and Timonium areas, according to the 2020 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study. Put together, an estimated 11,000 Jewish people call those areas home.
Generally speaking, Libit believes that the majority of Jewish families that have been moving to the Towson area have been from the non-Orthodox community, while the Pikesville area continues to serve the needs of the Orthodox community. He speculated that Jewish families in the Towson area may work in northern Baltimore County, or somewhere else from where Towson is a convenient fit.
“I think that Jewish families are finding welcoming and diverse neighborhoods throughout Towson, and that is appealing to them,” Libit said. “I think that they are finding that few of the synagogues in our community are really that far from Towson, so it’s not that difficult to remain engaged.”
Libit believes that all of the institutions in the community are actively contemplating population shifts like this and are considering how best to provide the shifting population with services and programming. He noted how, before the pandemic, the Towson library was chosen as the site for BJC evening programs on advocacy, and that they received strong attendance. He also added how the Risch Memorial Immigration Program was held at a senior living community in Towson, while other programs have been organized at Goucher College and Towson University.
“I think that as we return to in-person programming, we will continue to look at the Towson area as a place to go,” Libit said.
Similarly, the Towson University Hillel has noted a significant increase in the number of students participating in its events, said Towson University Hillel Board Chair Matt Lipsky in an email. In the past three years, he said, the number of students participating in Hillel events has grown by 15%, while the number of students participating six times or more has gone up three-fold. In the past year, the number of students interacting at least once with Hillel has shot up 68%, while the number of those who have done so over six times has increased 43%.
“We have more students participating in our events than ever and even running their own initiatives,” Lipsky said. “Our staff has had a strategy of focusing on more profound activities that build relationships with students rather than just having large events (although we’ve had those, too).
“Events included inviting students to meetings over coffee to offer mentorship and pastoral care, cohort Jewish learning fellowships involving group learning about Jewish concepts, and running our own Shabbat dinners,” Lipsky continued.
Lipsky believes that the shift to programs that focus on relationship-building was a significant factor in the rise of participation. He said that, while they’ve been seeing growth for several years, it started to become “extraordinary growth” after the shift to relationship-building, which started after the beginning of the pandemic.
Seeing the need for increased physical capacity, the Hillel partnered with The Associated to open a new space in Towson, capable of fitting as many as 120 students, Lipsky said.
Goldsmith noted that a new executive director, Rabbi Alex Salzberg, will be starting full time at the Towson Hillel on July 1.
Both he and the new space, Goldsmith said, “will position Towson Hillel to grow dynamic Jewish life on campus and in the community.”