On Relevance, Survival


runyan_josh_otIn 2010, demographers working for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore concluded that this area accounted for 93,400 Jewish persons, a 2 percent increase from the decade before, according to a similar communitywide study done in 1999.

In 1985, the statistic stood at 91,700.

These numbers are nothing new, of course, as the last time a study of Jewish Baltimore was commissioned was five years ago. But it helps to put things into perspective: In 30 years, the Jewish population of Charm City and its environs — in total numbers — has essentially remained stagnant.

It’s become common wisdom that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. And that is no truer than here. Baltimore is actually losing Jews, and we can look to the only segment of the Jewish community that is actually growing as proof.

In 1985, 20 percent of the community was estimated to be Orthodox; the size of the cohort was practically unchanged in 1999, standing at 21 percent of Jewish Baltimore. But in 2010, that proportion shot up to 32 percent. Everyone else went down: From 1999 to 2010, the Reform community decreased from 33 percent to 23 percent, and the Conservative community decreased from 33 percent to roughly 25 percent. Given that Orthodox households are traditionally larger than their non-Orthodox counterparts, it’s safe to assume that the growth of that community has more to do with birthrates than switching identities; the vast majority of Reform and Conservative Jews living in Baltimore did not become Orthodox.

So where did these lost Jews go? As you’ll read in this week’s JT, it certainly wasn’t to other synagogues, which among the non-Orthodox set have experienced decreasing memberships pretty much across the board. The pressure has forced some, such as Temple Emanuel of Baltimore, to reconfigure their operations — the Reform congregation will rebrand itself Temple Emanuel at Beth Israel come July, when it will rent and share space at the Conservative synagogue’s property in Owings Mills. Three synagogues have partnered with The Associated to solve the synagogue crunch, including Temple Oheb Shalom, which, although its membership has actually increased, is re-examining how its members engage with Jewish life.

“It’s not necessarily how many people are showing up for a program,” Maxine Lowy of Oheb Shalom explains, but “how many people feel the synagogue is important to them.”

It’s a question that needs to be solved if Jewish Baltimore is actually going to grow by the time of the next study, likely just a few years away. Anecdotally, part of the answer appears to be in the realm of educational options: Beth El Congregation, whose membership has stayed static at about 1,650 households, boasts a growing religious school and is even opening up an outpost downtown.

Ultimately, agencies and synagogues are going to figure out for themselves what being relevant means in today’s Jewish world and how they’re going to do it. But alongside feeding the poor and ensuring the safety of Jews around the world, guaranteeing the survival of the community itself must be seen as an overarching priority.


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