Reaching out to families in downtown Baltimore

Beth El Congregation held a Tot Shabbat service in Federal Hill on Nov. 7 (Courtesy of Beth El Congregation)

Beth El Congregation of Baltimore is stepping up to provide families in the downtown Baltimore area with new kinds of Jewish programming and events.

On the morning of Nov. 7, this took the form of an outdoor Tot Shabbat service, led by Cantor Melanie Blatt, in the Federal Hill neighborhood at Riverside-Lenoire Park.

Blatt treated attendees to her skill with the guitar during the service, while Eyal Bor, Beth El’s director of education and director of the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning, played the clarinet.

According to Bor, attendees socially distanced into separate family units while sitting down on the ground on blankets, sheets or portable chairs. All attendees, including Bor and Blatt, were required to wear masks, said Bor. Stephanie Ziman, the director of Beth El early childhood programs at Federal Hill, estimated that the children’s ages ran from infants to 5 year olds.

“It was such a fabulous service,” said Bor, who was glad to see “so many young families who were thirsty for an outdoor, fun, religious service.”

Ziman said that the service “proved to be not only exciting, but it engaged the young Jewish families of downtown Baltimore,” and was “an example of tikkun olam.”

Attending families, Bor said, went home with Shabbat kits that included items such as small loaves of challah, bottles of wine and juice and candies for children. Ziman added that the kits also included kiddush cups and candles.

The event comes, according to Bor, in the aftermath of an extended shutdown of the Downtown Baltimore Jewish Community Center, which closed during the summer, leaving local families who once relied on the area’s JCC for Jewish programming with fewer options. This has left a need in the community that Beth El has expressed interest in alleviating.

“We want to connect now with more families who may be interested in joining our fantastic preschool,” Bor said, referring to the existing Beth El @ Federal Hill preschool. He stated that Beth El is looking at an increased presence in the downtown area because “(A) we have a preschool there; (B) we have potential for young families; and (C) it’s probably a good deed for the community.”

According to Ziman, young Jewish families in the downtown area are interested in events like Tot Shabbats and Havdalahs that are both geared toward children and accessible, stating that theirs is the only Jewish preschool in the area.

Regarding future events, Bor stated that Beth El is planning a similar service soon, and that more information will be available at a later date. Bor also said that a Chanukah event was being planned as well.

Ziman added that Beth El was putting together a “Shabbat in a box” program, with downtown families able to sign up to receive weekly deliveries of Shabbat essentials like challah, grape juice and candles. She explained that a dearth of Jewish food options in the downtown area means that the Shabbat in a box program would be of great help to area families.

A Zoom town hall was also held Nov. 16 in order to hear from the local community on the type of programming downtown residents would like to see from Beth El in the future.

“One of our goals is to be the community outreach for the young Jewish families downtown,” Ziman said.

According to Dr. Edward Mishner, president of Beth El’s board, as long as they can stay in the building and for as long as parents are willing to send their children to the school, Beth El plans on staying in the downtown area, calling it an “if we build it, they will come type of thing.”

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