Rabbi Abraham Rice arrived at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1840, and it wasn’t long before the Bavarian-born rabbi made clear the shortcomings he saw among his congregants.
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“The religious life in this land is on the lowest level, most people eat foul food and desecrate the Sabbath in public,” he wrote in a now-famous letter. “Under these circumstances, my mind is perplexed and I wonder whether it is even permissible for a Jew to live in this land. ... I often think of leaving.”
To be sure, things have changed in the years since Rice arrived in the United States, becoming the first ordained rabbi employed by a U.S. congregation. Some 93,000 Jews now live in Baltimore County, and it also boasts the highest percentage of Orthodox Jews in America.
In fact, Jews lived in Baltimore even before it became a town in 1729. Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese physician, arrived in 1657 and was prosecuted under the Toleration Act of 1649 − according to which denying Jesus’ divinity was a crime punishable by death − though he was later granted amnesty. Jewish merchants soon followed, and Jews were even part of the Battle of Baltimore to defend the city’s port from the British Navy during the war of 1812.
Baltimore, a port town that served as a demarcation between the North and the South, was in many ways a gateway. And though the numbers of Jews was a mere trickle in the city’s early years, the population quickly soared. Just 125 Jews called Baltimore home in 1825, but that number grew to 1,000 only 15 years later, and by 1860 had reached some 8,000.
By 1880, Baltimore boasted some 10,000 Jews, many of them German, though the arrival of Eastern European Jews around the turn of the century changed the demographic considerably. By 1920, some 65,000 Jews lived in the city.
But the community had its obstacles: Maryland’s constitution required public-office holders to swear an oath of allegiance to Christianity. That changed only in 1826 with the passage of the so-called “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jewish public officials to swear a substitute oath and gave Jews the opportunity to achieve equality in the civic life of the state.
Jews constituted a formidable economic presence throughout the city: Retailers in the downtown area, including Gutman’s, Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn’s, Hamburger’s and Hecht’s, were all Jewish-owned. Indeed, Jews played a pivotal role in the city’s garment district, and in some instances, recently arrived Eastern European Jews found themselves working for low wages and under difficult conditions in sweatshops owned by the city’s wealthier German Jews. In 1914, in fact, the Orthodox rabbi representing the garment workers reached out to the Reform rabbi close to the sweatshop owner after workers were threatened with mass layoffs for refusing to work on the Sabbath.
For the most part, Jewish life in the city centered around East Lombard Street, a stretch that functioned as a kind of Jewish thoroughfare, with kosher butchers, delicatessens such as Attman’s, and a bustling religious life with nearby synagogues. With increased economic opportunity came a steady migration, as more affluent Jews left East Baltimore and settled further uptown. Still, despite a degree of financial success, Jews continued to face discrimination and were excluded from some of the more exclusive suburbs, settling instead in numerous concentrated Jewish neighborhoods such as Pikesville.
With time, the flight of Jewish-owned businesses from the eastern part of the city continued as well; now, three Jewish-style delicatessens on Lombard Street, often called Corned Beef Row, are the only reminder of the area’s once-vibrant Jewish street life. Indeed, the arrival of Italians and African Americans changed the area’s demographics considerably, and a 1955 public housing project, Flag House Courts, later brought crime and drugs to the area. Flag House Courts, which was mentioned briefly in the hit TV show “The Wire,” was closed in 1998 and demolished in 2001, and in recent years the area has undergone considerable renovations.
Indeed, the center of Jewish life has shifted to the area’s northwest, but Baltimore natives still take pride in the area’s rich history. And the history is rich indeed, boasting many of the country’s firsts: The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation became the first in America to hire an ordained rabbi when it welcomed Rabbi Rice, a traditionalist rabbi from Bavaria, in 1840. And two years later, it saw another first, when a group broke off from Baltimore Hebrew to form Har Sinai, the first American congregation founded as a Reform congregation. In 1904, Isidor Rayner, who hailed from a prominent Baltimore German-Jewish family, became the first Jew elected as a U.S. senator from Maryland. And in 1969, Baltimore native Marvin Mandel became the first Jewish governor of Maryland, after Spiro Agnew resigned to become U.S. vice-president.
The area has also attracted a degree of unwanted notoriety. “Standing Silent,” a documentary released earlier this year, follows Phil Jacobs, an Orthodox reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times who is now editor of the Washington Jewish Week, as he uncovers years of unreported sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Jacobs, the movie’s protagonist, had himself been abused as a child. “Some people are trying to pay attention, make changes and have rabbis do more training,” noted Scott Rosenfelt, who produced “Standing Silent” as well as Hollywood hits such as “Home Alone.” “But at the same time, you also have people − usually men − who feel this issue needs to be swept under the rug.”
In the meantime, the city is growing. According to a recent study commissioned by the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore, the number of Jewish households in the area has grown by 16 percent from 1999 to 2010. To be sure, a drive through Pikesville, with miles of kosher food, synagogues and Jewish schools, certainly attests to that. But nowhere is it more evident than Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which in addition to offering kosher stadium food also functions as a makeshift synagogue for some sports fans. Indeed, when it’s time for the seventh-inning stretch, and other Orioles fans are enjoying their last beer of the game, many Jews are congregating to say the Maariv evening prayers.
Corned Beef Row and beyond, mapping the city’s historic Jewish sites
Eutaw Place Temple: This downtown icon along Eutaw Place once housed Temple Oheb Shalom and was built in 1892 by architect Joseph Evans Sperry. Modeled after the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy, it was established as an alternative to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which was Orthodox, and Har Sinai, which was Reform. A Conservative synagogue from the start, it was led by Rabbi Benjamin Szold, whose daughter Henrietta later founded Hadassah. As Jewish residents began to migrate out of the downtown area, however, Oheb Shalom moved northwest to Pikesville in 1960, and the building has since been home to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, a Masonic lodge whose past members include former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and jazz musician Eubie Blake. A few blocks away, also downtown, is the former Baltimore Hebrew Congregation synagogue, another historic building that now houses a church.
Hebrew Orphan Asylum: This historic Victorian Romanesque building has fallen into disrepair since its 1815 construction, and indeed, it’s been through a number of reincarnations: West Baltimore General Hospital, the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland and, more recently, Tuerk House, a residential drug and alcohol rehab facility. Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation, nominated the Hebrew Orphan Asylum for the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, and it was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places that same year. One of the oldest orphanages in the United States − and certainly the oldest Jewish orphanage − it’s now undergoing major renovations.
Seven Mile Market: The largest kosher grocery store in the United States, this Pikesville store sells every kosher product imaginable, plus its has a pharmacy, a floral department and an in-store optometrist. Sprawled over 55,000 square feet, this behemoth is nearly twice the size of its nearest competitor, Pomegranate, in Brooklyn, which is just 30,000 square feet. Stroll through endless aisles for anything from kosher organic crackers to toilet paper, including imported cheese, freshly baked bread and a vast deli selection. The kosher market is located along Reisterstown Road, which is itself a site to be seen: a long stretch of suburbia with New York-style bagels; a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts; kosher Chinese food; and Suburban House, a well-known Jewish-style deli with famous gezunta omelets and challah French toast - and considered a place to see and be seen among the area’s Jews. The nearby Park Heights Avenue is also worth a drive, if only to see the endless row of synagogues, schools, a large Jewish Community Center and Jewish retirement homes.
Ner Israel Rabbinical College: Founded in 1933 by Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman with just six students, the Ner Israel Rabbinical College has grown in the 80 years since to 1,000 students, and offers high school through rabbinical school programs. Ner Yisroel, as it is known to many, is also a Maryland state accredited college, and has agreements with a number of local universities, including Johns Hopkins; as such, many students also earn bachelor’s degrees through the yeshiva. Its strong reputation for Lithuanian-style study coupled with relatively inexpensive living costs have attracted many students from nearby New York − and Baltimore, in fact, boasts the highest proportion of Orthodox Jews of any large American Jewish community. Scandal rocked the yeshiva, however, when allegations of sexual abuse against the former mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser), Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, surfaced in 2006. It is headed today by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the college’s rosh yeshiva, and Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, who took over from his father, Rabbi Herman Neuberger, as president. Alumni include Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow; Rabbi Nota Schiller, the rosh yeshiva of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the rosh yeshiva of Aish HaTorah; as well as many other prominent names in the ultra-Orthodox world.
Jewish Museum of Maryland: When the museum was founded in 1960, its purpose was clear: to save America’s third-oldest surviving synagogue, the Lloyd Street Synagogue, which was built in 1845 by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Now the museum, which was kept in East Baltimore to preserve the history of the area’s immigrant past, includes the historic B’nai Israel Synagogue as well and continues to serve as the nation’s largest regional Jewish museum. Current exhibits include “The Synagogue Speaks,” about the Lloyd Street Synagogue, which was the first synagogue erected in Maryland; “Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity,” which explores Jewish cuisine; and “Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore,” which guides visitors through the Jewish immigrant experience that surrounded the bustling Lombard thoroughfare, as well as the changes the area has undergone in the years since. The exhibit, which many days of the week is teeming with Baltimore schoolchildren, includes antique sewing machines, a rendering of the historic street, and a deli counter complete with plastic matzah ball soup. Another exhibit,”Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books 1938-1950,” is slated to open in January and will focus on American superheroes, many of whom were created by Jews.
Corned Beef Row and East Lombard Street: One popular stretch of East Lombard Street was once the center of Jewish life in Baltimore. Today, only a few landmarks remain. Notable is Attman’s Delicatessen, founded in 1915, which is famous throughout the city for its hot corned beef sandwiches. Attman’s, as it is known, is in no way kosher − its menu features shrimp salad, baked ham and BLTs − but the meat is served on a “real Jewish roll” and its Reuben sandwich − Jewish corned beef, sauerkraut and melted Swiss with Russian dressing − was voted Baltimore’s best by Baltimore Magazine. Attman’s boasts a kibitz room for dining, and it sells “nosh paks” with corned beef, pastrami, pickles, rye bread and its signature mustard for lunch on the go. Established in 1915 by Harry Attman, this third-generation New-York style deli is now run by his grandson, Marc Attman, and remains the oldest Jewish deli in the country still operated by the original family.