Museum commemorates 175th anniversary of Maryland’s oldest synagogue

Lloyd Street Synagogue
Lloyd Street Synagogue (David Stuck).

At 175 years old, the Lloyd Street Synagogue building, located at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, is the oldest synagogue in Maryland, the third-oldest synagogue in the United States and the first to feature a Star of David.

“The Lloyd Street Synagogue featured, for the very first time in the United States, a Star or Shield of David, a Magen David, a hexagram, on the eastern wall, furnished with colored glass of various hints,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, who spoke at an Oct. 1 event commemorating the 175th anniversary of the synagogue. “Never before had this symbol appeared in an American synagogue. Not in Shearith Israel in New York, not in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, [R.I.], and not in their early cemeteries. The Magen David’s first appearance is right here.”

Lloyd Street Synagogue (David Stuck).

On Oct. 1, the Jewish Museum of Maryland held “The Many Lives of Lloyd Street: A Synagogue Celebrates 175 Years,” an online event that celebrated the passing of a major milestone for Maryland’s oldest synagogue.

In addition to Sarna, speakers at the event included Beth Goldsmith, chair of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, and Sheilah Kast, host of WYPR’s “On the Record.”

Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, explained prior to the event that provisions of the Maryland Constitution once barred Jews from holding office or serving in the military, and required them to take a Christian oath in order to transact official business. Pinkert said that this provision prevented the establishment of any Jewish congregation in Baltimore, until the 1826 “Maryland Jew Bill,” which nullified that section of the Maryland Constitution. While this resulted in a backlash by those who wanted to deny the Jewish community their rights, Pinkert explained, intervention by the sitting governor in 1829 allowed for the chartering of Maryland’s first synagogue, Nidche Yisroel, which would later change its name to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, becoming what Pinkert called “a landmark of religious liberty.”

Lloyd Street Synagogue (David Stuck).

“The synagogue is formed as a result of the liberation, emancipation of the Jews of Maryland,” Pinkert said.

The Lloyd Street synagogue was dedicated in 1845, said Tracie Guy-Decker, JMM’s deputy director, prior to the event. Guy-Decker also noted that it was “the first purpose built synagogue in Maryland,” meaning that, while there had been buildings converted into synagogues prior to 1845, Lloyd Street was the first structure to be built as a synagogue in the state.

During the Civil War, BHC at Lloyd Street was known as a pro-Confederate synagogue, Pinkert said, placing them in opposition to the nearby Har Sinai Congregation, which held abolitionist views, and which, according to Sarna, was founded by congregants who had broken away from BHC by the 1840s. Pinkert further explained that the president of BHC was eventually sent to a jail in upstate New York for allegedly selling uniforms to the Confederacy.

This led to a change in leadership, and to the once Orthodox BHC moving closer to the Reform movement in the late 1860s. This in turn caused “a break, which then creates Chizuk Amuno, the defenders of the faith, with the conservative faction moving there,” Pinkert said. Guy-Decker added that the last straw that resulted in the Chizuk Amuno breakaway was the decision to allow women to sing in the BHC choir.

Lloyd Street Synagogue (David Stuck).

During the 1890s, BHC had grown large enough to justify the construction of a new synagogue on Madison Avenue, Guy-Decker said, and the Lloyd Street location was sold to a Lithuanian Catholic church. After the change in ownership, Guy-Decker said, alterations to the Lloyd Street building included adding stations of the cross, reorienting the balcony pews and adding an altar beneath the stain glass window featuring the Star of David.

In 1905, however, the Lithuanian congregation decided to move as well, with ownership transferring to “a poor, eastern European Orthodox congregation, Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh,” who worshipped at Lloyd Street until 1959, Pinkert said.

By this point, Pinkert said, the building was in poor shape and the congregation’s size had declined, with the surrounding neighborhood gaining a reputation for crime. At first, the city government planned to tear the building down and replace it with a parking lot, Pinkert said, which led “Wilbur Hunter, the non-Jewish head of the Peale Museum, to say ‘You can’t do this. This is one of the 13 most important buildings in Baltimore.’”

Hunter persuaded the directors of different synagogues to start raising money for a new Jewish historical society. The Lloyd Street Synagogue would reopen its doors in 1964, as part of what would become the JMM.

For Guy-Decker, the anniversary was very personal, noting that her grandmother’s grandmother was a member of BHC and would have worshipped at the Lloyd Street Synagogue for about a year before BHC moved.

“Most of the time when I’m working, I’m not thinking about that, but every once in a while I’ll step into that space, and it comes almost like a flash,” Guy-Decker said. “My ancestor walked on this floor, worshipped in this building, and it’s really powerful.”

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