Single synagogue cities

B’er Chayim members Doug Schwab and Al Feldstein, left and center, are life-long Cumberland residents. Schwab’s wife Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab has lived in the city since 1978.
Photo by David Stuck

B’er Chayim Congregation and the city of Cumberland, Md., have seen better days. At less than 20,000 residents, the city’s population has been in decline since the 1950s and is currently at its lowest population point since the early 1900s. Having an aging, affiliated Jewish population combined with a struggle to attract younger generations to become involved in Jewish life is far from a phenomena specific to Cumberland, but can being the only Jewish game in town work to a congregation’s advantage?

One of B’er Chayim’s closest Jewish neighbors is Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown, more than 60 miles east and more than an hour’s drive away. Like Cumberland, Hagerstown is a single-synagogue city, hours away
from large Jewish communities like Washington.

The crucial difference between the secluded Western Maryland Jewish communities is their demographic trends. Hagerstown’s population has not been below 35,000 people since the 1980s; in 2017 the city recorded its highest population ever with more than 40,000 residents. Though its Jewish community is small and remote, B’nai Abraham’s Rabbi Ari Plost said the congregation is being replenished with younger members at the same rate it is losing older ones. But even with a steady stream of members, being the only Jewish place of worship in town can feel isolating.

“In Washington County,” Plost said, “you become aware very quickly that you are not in a community with many Jews.”

A Jewish town in the mountains

The continual loss of Cumberland’s general population is on the minds of B’er Chayim members. The congregants realize they are facing an uphill battle and don’t speak about lofty goals or master plans to bring the synagogue’s membership back to 100 families, like it had in its heyday. Still, to call them pessimists would be inaccurate. Grim as the population numbers sound, doom has not yet taken hold in Cumberland.

“Today, we do the best we can with what we have,” said Doug Schwab, a lifelong resident and B’er Chayim
congregant who now serves as the congregation’s president. Four generations of Schwab’s family have been confirmed at the synagogue. “We’ve adapted to the population and the size of the congregation.”

Cumberland hit its peak population in the 1940s after World War II. Many members of its Jewish community were business owners. Among the businesses were Schwab’s family enterprise, S. Schwab Company, a manufacturer of high-end children’s clothing, Rosenbaum Brothers Department Store, Beneman’s Furniture, Kline’s Liquor Store and Market and Feldstein Iron and Metal.

“We don’t have that business community anymore, and there are a lot of retired members of our congregation,” said Schwab.

Cumberland, Maryland
Photo by David Stuck

During boom times, B’er Chayim was not the only congregation in town. The Beth Jacob Hebrew Congregation was founded as an Orthodox shul in 1913, switching to Conservative worship in 1949. It eventually closed its doors
in 1998.

Al Feldstein has also been a Cumberland resident all his life and was a member of Beth Jacob until the early 1990s. His grandfather was among the congregation’s founding members. Even in the days of multiple synagogues, Feldstein has always been aware that Jewish people are a distinct minority in Cumberland.

“When I graduated from the local high school there were three Jewish kids in my graduating class,” including himself, Feldstein said. “At the old Beth Jacob, I remember going down there with 10 old men — I’m now probably older than they were then — for minyans. We’d do that two to three times a week.”

For Feldstein, being a minority has always come with a sense of pride, or at the very least a duty to impress.

“When people look at you as a Jewish person here, they aren’t just looking at you as an individual,” said Feldstein. “They’re looking at you as a representative of the entire community.”

Feldstein’s family has represented the Jewish community well. In 2014 B’er Chayim completed a major renovation and restoration of its now 154-year-old synagogue with a major gift from Feldstein’s family, earning some superlatives along the way. It is one of the 12 oldest synagogues in the country, and although the Lloyd Street Synagogue in Downtown Baltimore is an older building, B’er Chayim is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Maryland.

B’er Chayim is likely in its best physical condition since the days it was built, but some might wonder if future
generations will be there to enjoy it.

A town on the rise

Hagerstown’s population is twice that of Cumberland’s, geographically sitting an hour’s drive closer to Baltimore and Washington. In addition to these inherited advantages — possibly because of them — B’nai Abraham has taken on experimental approaches toward service styles, education and dues structures.

“You can’t look at being a member of a temple as a transactional experience, you have to use a relational model,” Plost said. The congregation no longer uses the word “dues,” according to Plost, and has adapted to a voluntary giving model that has been working to the congregation’s favor. Since Plost took over in 2013, the congregation has doubled its endowment from $380,000 to $760,000.

Another long-term project for the temple has taken the form of a public/private partnership in developing Thomas Kennedy Park, a “micro-park” across the street from the congregation where until recently stood two dilapidated houses. The park’s namesake is the 19th-century Maryland delegate who wrote a piece of legislation called “The Jew Bill,” which, once passed in 1826, allowed Jews in Maryland to be elected and serve in public office without having to declare belief in Christianity.

In Maryland Jewish history circles, Kennedy, who was Presbyterian, is a well-known figure. At B’nai Abraham, the monument is meant to honor not his faith, per se, but his taking a risk in standing up for an oppressed group no matter the faith. It also draws parallels to today. That includes, said Plost, taking part in Western Maryland’s ongoing fight against opioid addiction.

“The biggest thing the religious community can do is remove the stigma of shame from those experiencing addiction,” he explained. “We’re facing really significant problems in Hagerstown, and people need to be able to
appreciate each other more.”

Opioid addiction has intimately impacted members of B’nai Abraham. Current president Leon Seidman’s son Jeffrey died from a heroin overdose six years ago. Seidman has been a member of the congregation since he moved to Hagerstown from Baltimore in 1979, but didn’t take on a leadership role until after his son’s death.

“The community really came together. It was an enormous funeral, and that’s when I really first got to meet the rabbi,” said Seidman. “He basically took over for me. He said, ‘I’m going to help you plan the funeral.’”

‘Two hours away’

B’er Chayim Rabbi/Cantor Mark Perman was drawn to Cumberland because the position offered him a leadership opportunity he might not have had otherwise. Perman grew up in New York City and held cantoral positions at congregations in New Jersey, Connecticut, Atlanta and Houston before taking his first position as a rabbi in Cumberland.

“It’s been a culture shock,” said Perman. “But the people know you. They value your contribution. It’s not like there are a million people who do what you do. Here it’s, ‘Hi rabbi.’ But in New York or Houston, not so much.”

Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab has been a member of the recruitment committees in the previous three searches for
spiritual leaders at B’er Chayim. She laughed as she told the story about Perman’s interview several years ago.

“When we were interviewing him he asked us, ‘So where’s the nearest Trader Joe’s?’”

“Two hours away.”

“How about Whole Foods?”

“Two hours away.”

“Where’s the JCC?” Perman interjected, responding, “Two hours away,” in unison with Hurwitz-Schwab.

Long-time Hagerstown resident Leon Seidman, left, and Rabbi Ari Plost are president and spiritual leader at B’nai Abraham.
Photo provided

Despite B’er Chayim’s limited resources, attempts are being made to involve unaffiliated Jewish members of Cumberland and students from Frostburg State University, about 10 miles west of Cumberland. Kenneth Levitt is a Jewish professor at Frostburg who has been commuting three-and-a-half hours from Strasburg, Pennsylvania. He hopes that in the next year he and his family will settle in Cumberland, at which points he plans to become a member of B’er Chayim.

“I feel really good about the congregation,” he said during one of his long commutes. “It’s very similar to the congregation I’m coming from. I think they face similar challenges to the one’s my congregation faced.”

Levitt plans to work with Perman to reinvigorate the university’s Hillel, which at this point, he said, typically attracts four or five students per year. (Frostburg has as many as 60 Jewish students each year.)

“I don’t think it’ll ever be a large organization. It’s always been a small organization that has meant a lot to those who have joined it over the years,” said Levitt. “Our hope is that for those students, they’re really able to use it to get a Jewish connection.”

Feldstein is known around town as a historian; in 2005, he wrote “A Short History of the Western Maryland
Jewish Community” which he has used over the years for historical presentations about the region. In it he explains that although the old Beth Jacob synagogue that his grandfather co-founded no longer operates as a place of worship, it is still carrying Jewish values to the Cumberland community.

“The old Beth Jacob Synagogue, complete with cornerstone, stands today on North Centre, and serves as a support group and meeting facility for those recovering from various addictions,” Feldstein wrote. “One of the highest traditions and commandments in Judaism is tikkun olam. I like that my grandfather’s synagogue continues in this tradition.”

Although being Jewish in Cumberland can feel isolating, Hurwitz-Schwab, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., said it has emboldened her commitment to her own faith. In Cumberland, being Jewish “is not easy.”

“You’re different. In many ways it sets you apart,” she said. “You have to be intentional. You have to want your belief system to be different than the majority.”

Schwab noted that as rabbi, Perman does everything from leading services to changing the toilet paper. Though the leaders and congregants at B’er Chayim all wear many hats, there is a satisfaction in seeing one’s hard work pay off.
“It is a place where you can make a difference,” said Schwab. “You can see change happen, and you can’t see
that everywhere.”

Connor Graham is a reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.

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