Photos by David Stuck
Members of Harford Jewish Center-Temple Adas Shalom scooped up all the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches brought in from Attman’s Deli in Baltimore at their recent fundraiser. A good deli sandwich is not to be taken for granted at this synagogue in Havre de Grace, one of 140 Jewish congregations scattered throughout Maryland, according to MavenSearch.com.
“No Jews on the Eastern Shore? That’s a myth, a big myth,” said Rabbi Peter Hyman of Temple B’nai Israel in Easton. It’s not just the Eastern Shore. There are thriving Jewish communities along the state’s border with Pennsylvania and West Virginia and most towns in between.
There are some 240,000 Jews living in Maryland, many of them residing in the populous Jewish communities near Washington D.C., and Baltimore.
Maryland’s rural synagogues are small by Washington, D.C., standards. Washington Hebrew Congregation in D.C. has between 2,800 and 3,000 household units – while many of these farther away congregations are often below 200 household units. Many are located beyond the reach of the Jewish Federations. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s reach extends to Baltimore City and County only.
Still, these far-flung synagogues have sisterhoods and men’s clubs, Mah Jongg games, adult education classes and social action committees. Members speak of a strong sense of family, taking time to visit the sick and make sure those who no longer drive at night have a ride to services.
Megan Schoenberger, a student at St. Johns University in New York City, grew up at Adas Shalom by the Susquehanna River and is still an active member of the synagogue’s religious practices committee, skyping into meetings from her college room, and occasionally leading services when she is home. She attended high school where there were “maybe nine Jews” in the whole school and even fewer in her elementary school. “I think as long as your family has a strong Jewish background or culture, then that’s really all you need,” she said.
The 160 household units – including 90 children in the Sunday school – that make up Adas Shalom live in Harford and Cecil counties and work in Baltimore, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Like other small synagogues in Maryland, accommodations are the rule. Dinners, discussions and other events are held either at a restaurant or a member’s house, with locations spread throughout the area so that members don’t have to drive a long way.
“We hold ‘dine around’ once a month. A family picks a restaurant,” said synagogue president Larry Levin. Between 30 and 40 people attend. “Socially you get to know the people in your congregation.”
Rabbi Gila Ruskin is Adas Shalom’s part-time rabbi, but that only serves to strengthen the congregation, several members explained. Lay leaders step up to the bima to lead services and handle other aspects of synagogue life. Members also show their commitment to Jewish life by driving up to an hour to purchase a tallit or buy kosher food in Baltimore or even more on a trip to D.C.
Involvement starts early. As part of a student’s bar mitzvah preparation, Ruskin has developed what she calls the trimitzvahlon. Each child is responsible for three projects – one that benefits the congregation, another that aids the community and a third called twinning, in which students must interact with someone they wouldn’t normally meet.
The results for the synagogue can be viewed on every synagogue wall. Mosaics, murals and quilts brighten the building. Other students have power washed the sukkah or worked in the garden to create the spices distributed at Havdalah services.
That same sense of community is present at Beth Israel Synagogue in Lexington Park, with its 35 household units who mainly live in St. Mary’s County. The religious school, with a total of 20 students, meets weekly, and Shabbat services are generally held every other week, “when
I am down there,” said Rabbi Kenneth Cohen.
Membership may be small but so is the entire population of St. Mary’s County.
According to the Maryland Association of Counties, 2 percent of the state’s population live there.
“People down here want to have a Jewish life,” said Cohen, calling the congregants “very enthusiastic.” Similar to the Jewish population in large cities, Jews in this area are philanthropic and involved in the local community, particularly in the area of homelessness, he said. Many of its members work at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Beth Israel has at least one advantage compared to the state’s huge synagogues. In its 65 years, it has never had a mortgage, Cohen said. It also doesn’t have the competition the larger synagogues have. Synagogue shopping doesn’t exist because, like many of the smaller synagogues, their nearest counterpart is at least an hour away. That carries its own set of challenges for a rabbi who must lead a roomful of people who may be traditional, grew up with a strong Hebrew and religious background, part of an interfaith marriage or just learning about Judaism for the first time.
“It’s a real challenge for anybody to be a rabbi for that diverse a group,” said synagogue President Rachel Nichols of Congregation B’nai Abraham, which was founded in 1892. The Hagerstown synagogue bills itself as the center of Jewish life, worship and study in Western Maryland, drawing its members from Washington and Frederick counties and Pennsylvania.
“We are a very close-knit group. That’s because for so many years, that’s been the only center of Jewish gathering,” Nichols said. Jews were not welcome in the area’s country club, and the synagogue became the social life for Jewish people, she said.
“The people here are so warm and down to earth. There’s very little pretentiousness. I think it’s because we really do treat each other like we’re members of a larger Jewish family. It’s part of our congregational DNA to really care about each other. I think that’s very important at a time when people feel a natural distance from institutions, especially religious ones,” said Rabbi Ari Plost, who has seen the other side, growing up in Montgomery County and attending the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
“Very few families have been here for many generations. They come up for job opportunities. I think the fact that there was a synagogue here made it a little easier [to accept that new job],” Nichols said.
Its 130 families are active, some 75 people attend worship services and 20 participate in regular Torah-study classes. There are about a dozen students in the Hebrew school. Monthly Shabbat dinners draw 80 people.
Temple B’nai Israel in Easton, Talbot County, has been the Jewish home on the mid-Eastern Shore region since 1951 and has 126 family units. The synagogue currently is “in the process of finalizing” a seven-acre land purchase, and it is hoped that work will begin on a new building this fall, said Rabbi Hyman.
A larger building will mean High Holiday services and a Passover seder will no longer have to be outsourced and parking won’t be a problem, said synagogue President Elaine Friedman. The opening of the new building will usher in the synagogue’s new name – Temple B’nai Israel, Center for Jewish Life on the Eastern Shore.
When Friedman joined B’nai Israel 21 years ago, there were 86 members and services were led by members of the congregation. It was someone’s responsibility to stop by to check the office answer
machine “periodically,” she said. “Now we have activities all the time. It’s a whole different ball game.”
As the only Jewish group in town, many of these synagogues make an extra effort to reach out to other houses of worship and their town leaders. More than just being neighborly, there also is an element of showing other Marylanders who Jews are. Menorah lighting often is a community-wide event as was this week’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
Rabbi Ruskin at Adas Shalom started meeting with a local minister, and now the two congregations are building a mosaic together that will be shared by the two buildings.
Stu Needel, who heads the synagogue’s six-member social action committee,
recalled a recent community meeting in which the introductions around the room went something like this: This is pastor so and so, pastor so and so, pastor so and so, pastor so and so, “oh and this is our Jewish friend.”
It wasn’t said in a disparaging way at all, Needel said. It was just what happens when a Jewish person puts down roots away from the big city.