It’s not every day that a congregation’s brotherhood turns 100. The centennial celebration will be marked for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s (BHC) Brotherhood with a June 2 event. Founded in 1919, the brotherhood at BHC has a long and storied history.
BHC’s brotherhood was in fact the first brotherhood “to be formed in any American Jewish congregation as an auxiliary to the congregation,” according to volume 11 of the Union Bulletin, published in 1921.
The first president of the brotherhood was the distinguished Eli Frank, a well-known Baltimore judge. His son, Eli Frank Jr., would go on to be president of the brotherhood approximately a decade later. The third president of the brotherhood, Leonard Weinberg, was also the one to propose the formation of temple brotherhoods and men’s clubs, now called the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods, a part of the Union for Reform Judaism.
BHC in Maryland
BHC has an even longer history that is intertwined with the history of Maryland and with that of the brotherhood. BHC, originally called Nidche Yisroel (the scattered of Israel), was chartered by the Maryland legislature in 1830 and, for the first 15 years, met in a small room above a local grocery store. In 1840, they made history again by becoming the first congregation in the United States to employ an ordained rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Rice of Bavaria. The congregation built a synagogue on Lloyd Street and renamed themselves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1845. The Lloyd Street Synagogue still stands today and remains the third-oldest synagogue building in the United States.
By the 1890s, the first generation of American-born Baltimore Jews were grown and began moving uptown to Eutaw Place (now called Reservoir Hill). The congregation, which was losing those members who moved further uptown, decided to sell the Lloyd Street building and move to a newly constructed synagogue on Madison Avenue and Roberts Street, about two blocks from Eutaw Place. Since few Jews remained in the Lloyd Street area, the synagogue was purchased by the Catholic Diocese and became a church.
The synagogue remained in Eutaw Place through the founding of the brotherhood and up until the early 1950s when, once again, a population shift saw many next-generation Jews moving to the Park Heights Avenue area. The congregation purchased the Wolf Estate on Park Heights Avenue and built a sanctuary and classrooms.
Helene Waranch, past president of Women of Reform Judaism 2001-2005, recalled that in the early years of the Park Heights Avenue location, the Wolf Mansion still stood.
“I started Sunday school there in 1952. They had just moved uptown. I had Sunday school classes in the Wolf Mansion,” Waranch said.
At the height of BHC’s enrollment, in the 1940s and 1950s, over 2,000 families were members of the congregation.
The BHC Sisterhood’s presence in the community dates back to pre-Civil War times when the Jewish women of Baltimore formed the Ladies Sewing Society in 1856. Headed by BHC congregants Mrs. Bernard Stern and Betsy Friedenwald Wiesenfeld, the society worked to provide the poor with food and clothing and to sew shrouds for the dead.
The society also cared for Jewish soldiers during the Civil War.
The women of the society personally raised over $17,500—equivalent to more than $250,000 today—to support the construction of the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum, which later became Sinai Hospital.
The women of the congregation continued to be an integral part of synagogue’s daily life. They taught Sunday school students and in 1890 were invited by Mr. Wiesenfeld, the superintendent of the Sunday school, to a meeting where the teachers formed the Ladies’ Auxiliary. When the new synagogue was built on Madison Avenue the following year, the Auxiliary provided curtains for the ark, covers for the reading desk, furnishings for the minister’s room and choir room and decorations for the school rooms.
The Ladies’ Auxiliary, which later became the Sisterhood and then the Women of Baltimore Hebrew, has initiated and run a wide range of projects and programs that support both the community and the congregation. These include everything from providing aid to families during the Great Depression, collecting food and supplies for refugees from World War II, creating a Braille bindery for the Library of Congress, stitching the art for the ark in the Park Heights Avenue synagogue and organizing the Interfaith Institute.
The sisterhood also supports a number of community organizations, says Suzanne Strutt, president of the Women of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
“Right now there’s a lot of support for Paul’s Place,” Strutt said. “We support the Jewish Institute for the Blind and have contributed both money to support it and at one time one of our members was one of their readers—reading books for recording.”
When the brotherhood was formed in 1919, the congregation was in their Madison Avenue location. The brotherhood organizes a number of events annually that contribute to the congregation and the community, said Sid Bravmann, current president of the Brotherhood.
One of the major activities of the brotherhood is organizing their breakfast series, where a speaker comes to talk about larger topics.
“We want to make it as diverse as possible. From sports to music to art to cultural things,” said Bravmann.
The breakfast series recently hosted Representative Elijah Cummings, where they had over 300 attendees, and has in the past had speakers from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walter’s Art Museum.
The brotherhood is also involved in a wealth of other programs and activities including the traffic squad, where members serve as directors of traffic for events and ensure children’s safety during Sunday school pick up and drop off.
They also offer an annual Passover seder where they create their own Haggadah and offer a space “for anyone who doesn’t have another seder to go to,” Bravmann said.
The seder is indicative of a larger purpose of the brotherhood to include as many people as possible in congregation life.
“That’s the real nature of brotherhoods. We include people in different ways,” Bravmann said, “[The brotherhood] values what you feel and begins to take care of you in some way.”
The goal of the events, Bravmann said, is to make people feel better about themselves and their community.
“Hopefully people leave feeling better. That’s what it’s about,” he said.
Eugene “Buddy” Foreman who’s 99 years old and has been a member of BHC for more than 50 years, feels just that.
“I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, business-wise and I felt that it was a second home. Although we didn’t go there that much, when I did go I felt like I was a part of it,” Foreman said.
A Crisis in Paradise?
One of the issues plaguing BHC and many other congregations in Baltimore and beyond is a shrinking membership.
“None of the younger ones come to the breakfast. Most of them are old folks [over 60 years old,]” Foreman said.
Naomi Benzil, president of the sisterhood in 1990, agrees.
“I don’t think people are joining organizations. I think that younger people are not really group-oriented,” Benzil said.
Foreman thinks the reason fewer people are joining synagogues, brotherhoods and sisterhoods is because they don’t have the financial resources.
“In the line of priorities, it’s not on the top of the list.” Foreman said. “[Synagogues are] competing with big homes, private schools, country clubs … The youngsters don’t have the money to do everything.”
A Night to Remember
The BHC brotherhood will celebrate their 100th anniversary on June 2 with a dinner featuring soprano Sarah Baumgarten. The evening, titled “Jews to My Ears” will celebrate the themes that inspired Jews to succeed ranging from “Over the Rainbow” to “Jerusalem of Gold.” Baumgarten will be accompanied by Joseph Krupa. The evening begins at 6 pm. It is free for brotherhood members and $20 for non-members. Visit baltimorehebrew.org/closingdinner.