Reviving the Baltimore shtetl

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Baltimore skyline
Baltimore skyline (AppalachianViews/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

By Justin Regan

Ilene Harris has lived in the Baltimore area her entire life. Like many Baltimore Jews, she was born in the suburbs but raised on stories of the old shtetls of downtown.


“It was a lot of shops and stores and bakeries and delicatessens and groceries,” said Harris. “You lived blocks away from your aunts and cousins, and everybody was in the same neighborhood. It was just more closely knit. This is all from stories that my parents told me. It was just a very warm way to live compared to how many of us live now in the suburbs.”

Harris has since moved downtown and enjoys living blocks away from where her father once did as a kid. But downtown Baltimore is not the same as it used to be. The shops and bakeries are now medical facilities and universities; neighbors are young professionals and empty nesters, rather than aunts and cousins.

Things are certainly different, but for a community that was once on the brink, a lot has improved over the last few decades.

Rabbi Etan Mintz
Rabbi Etan Mintz (David Stuck)

“In many ways we are a port of entry of sorts for Jewish Baltimore,” said B’nai Israel Rabbi Etan Mintz. “Every Shabbat we welcome tourists, visitors, conference attendees and patients and their families who come from around the world for top medical care. Most large Jewish communities have a vibrant synagogue and center for Jewish life in the city, where young professionals, young families, empty nesters, travelers and those who enjoy the vibrancy and creativity of urban living choose to make their home and community.”

This port of entry has gone through its rough patches. Suburbanization and white flight took its toll on the once-thriving downtown community. Dozens of synagogues were reduced to just B’nai Israel, a fixture of the old neighborhood and one of the longest continually operated synagogues in the state, and which became known as “the Masada of East Baltimore.” But as the Inner Harbor and city made a comeback in the 1980s, so did the Jewish community.

Fred Shoken, B’nai’s unofficial historian, says the Jewish Museum of Maryland took over B’nai’s lease, saving the synagogue. The situation stabilized, and Shoken says the renaissance came about 15 years ago with an influx of young professionals.

“I’m not sure the reasons for that,” Shoken said. “I guess it helped you were seeing a bigger population of Jews who were committed to it. I think it also helped, things like social media, where people could communicate and get the word out. And the shul started having things like Friday night dinners and things like that. I know some [couples] who actually met at B’nai Israel.”

With the city’s growth, other Jewish organizations joined B’nai Israel downtown. This included Moishe House Baltimore, a house downtown where residents provide Jewish programming for post-college young adults.

Stacy Jarvis
Stacy Jarvis (David Stuck)

“What keeps young people engaged in Jewish life is making it appealing to them, taking things they are already into or passionate about and infusing Jewish learning or community into that,” said Stacy Jarvis, a Moishe House resident. “Particularly with having Moishe House residents part of the community, we are really able to tap in to the things our community members are passionate about, and take those and make those events so we can keep people engaged in our community.”

These events have included happy hours, rabbinic lectures, rooftop get-togethers, hikes and — every Jewish organization’s ace-in-the-hole — food. Jarvis and the Moishe House team have found ways to make these events virtual with learning, game nights, crafting and happy hours. It’s been a way to bring Baltimoreans who may not count themselves among the synagogue-going into the fold.

“That’s something unique about Baltimore,” said Jarvis. “A lot of Moishe House communities struggle to pull from across all different [Jewish] movements, but I think something unique about Baltimore is there is such a mixture of different Jewish movements in Baltimore that we tend to pull from all of them.”

Jarvis and many others share a similar list to the positives of Baltimore: It’s pluralistic, affordable, haimish, cultural, has lucrative employers and is close to other lucrative cities. There’s even been a revitalization of key infrastructure with the establishment of a downtown eruv. Some grocery stores carry a limited selection of kosher meat.

But, moving forward, the primary head-scratcher is how to make downtown attractive to families.

“What’s needed to really make this goal happen is to take inventory of what’s needed, what’s positive, what do we still need, what has been done,” Harris said. “We need to do some real strategic planning around that. How can you make the dream a reality?”

Harris, a board member of B’nai Israel, says one dream is to spur economic development near B’nai Israel along Lombard street, what was once known as “corn beef row.” They can try to bring back something similar to the shops of old. There are other ideas, too, like establishing more affordable housing within the eruv.

For now, these are ideas, but everyone also agrees that while the youth-heavy community may be a transient one, it is something worth embracing for what it is.

“At first it would kind of bother me when I would see people who are very active and then they would go elsewhere,” Shoken said. “But I started realizing and seeing that once you built up this welcoming community that had activities for younger folks, you would get this reputation, and more would come. As long as you’re welcoming, as long as you have activities that bring people together, as long as you build up this interest, then I think it has a good chance of continuing.”

Mintz says it’s not all on young people. It’s important to remember revitalization as an intergenerational effort.

“There is a prayer in the Musaf service that we say every Shabbat morning thanking those who faithfully dedicate themselves to the service of the community,” Mintz said. “We have some real tzaddikim at B’nai Israel that I have in mind when I say this tefillah. It is these incredibly passionate community members and others like them who kept the shul going even in more challenging times.”

These challenges are not all in the rearview mirror. As Jews across generations work to build a stronger downtown community, cities across the board are facing a generational challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Studies show young people are the hardest hit, not just financially, but socially.

Jarvis says some things may never go back to normal.

“There are events we used to have that would have 45 people that I don’t think will ever happen again,” Jarvis said. “We had a 45-person Shabbat right before the pandemic hit at the end of February in our house, and I don’t think we will ever have that happen again, until it’s 10-15 years from now and the pandemic has long since passed. But at the same time we have had an increase in people attending other types of events, like self-care events and mindfulness events and game nights.”

Rabbi Levi Druk
Rabbi Levi Druk (Courtesy of Druk)

This pivot Jarvis speaks of is similar to the hope others have of the community finding new ways to adapt during the pandemic. Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad of Downtown Baltimore says this pandemic might bring more people closer to their Judaism.

The pandemic “brought many to recognize the need to prioritize things that matter most, like family, community and connection with their roots,” Druk said. “After all, that’s what keeps us grounded in times of turmoil. In addition, being distanced from family encouraged many young adults to step up to the plate and own their Judaism, leading their own Passover seders, celebrating Shabbat and the like.”

Despite the unknowns of the pandemic, and the more traditional Baltimore problems like crime, the Jewish community is tied in with the fate of the larger downtown community, Harris said.

“I want to say, ‘Well, we have a strong history and we don’t want to lose that,’” said Harris. “And that’s all true, and I’d like that to be part of the answer, but it can’t be the only answer. We have to look forward, too. Why should this continue? It’s for the general health of our economy in general, our wellbeing, our quality of life. I can’t envision where there is no urban life. I hope we don’t come to that. Cities do serve a purpose.”

Justin Regan is a freelance writer. He produces the American Rabbi Project podcast.

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