In 1970, a high school senior in Baltimore wrote a letter to an Agudath Israel of America publication, taking umbrage at the periodical’s reference to the scope of the American Jewish experience “from Borough Park to Baltimore.”
Tongue resolutely in cheek, the writer addressed the suggestion that the two places somehow represented diametric poles of the Orthodox world by expressing the “profound shock” he and his friends in Baltimore yeshivot had felt at the suggestion.
“When,” the letter concluded, “did Borough Park go bad?”
A certain irony lies in the fact that now, more than 35 years later, the erstwhile teenage cynic works for Agudath Israel, indeed sits in my seat. But the more trenchant transition, I think, has been my home town Baltimore’s.
The Orthodox Jewish community in that city was established through the efforts of a small number of exceptionally dedicated individuals in the years before, during and after World War II, heroes to whom Baltimore’s Jews today are indebted. In fact, all Jews should be; Baltimore has proven a virtual Jewish nuclear energy plant, empowering communities across the country and around the world with yeshiva and kollel deans, Jewish educators at all levels, Torah scholars and supporters of Jewish education, not to mention good, simple, honest Jews.
Baltimore’s formative years benefited from the presence of Torah giants like the founding dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman and the illustrious Rabbi Shimon Schwab; and of an assortment of groundbreaking educators and communal activists. But critical elements no less in Baltimore’s development as a thriving Orthodox community were a cadre of Jewishly devoted laymen and laywomen who laid the fortifications that empowered Jewish observance in an “out of town” (read: not New York) community.
And their collective legacy is Baltimore’s growing, vibrant and inspiring community of Orthodox Jews. To me, the city’s true treasure isn’t its baseball team, but that community, Baltimore’s real ‘O’s.
I am both proud and humbled by my own Baltimore roots. My maternal grandparents and my beloved mother, may their memories be a blessing, were among the early members of the traditionally observant Baltimore community. And my dear, esteemed father, may he be well, has served for more than a half-century as a rabbi in Baltimore (and in recent years, as the secretary of the respected local Jewish religious court), and continues, with the help of my dear stepmother, to teach Torah, do acts of kindness and bring Jews closer to their heritage.
The seeds they and others planted have since grown into towering trees. The city’s Orthodox community still amazes those of us who grew up there in the 50s and 60s but then left for other places. Whether measured in boys’ or girls’ yeshivot, in communal endeavors, in families or even in eateries, the contemporary Orthodox community in Baltimore is a resplendent large-screen version of its former self. To be sure, every community has its share of problems. As our Sages teach, possessions bring worries; accomplishments, too, bring challenges. But problems of growth are but the accoutrements of blessings. And Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today is a powerful blessing.
My family and I don’t live in Borough Park, or even in Brooklyn, but we’re not too far from those larger, older Jewish communities that were bustling while the seeds of today’s Jewish Baltimore were still being nurtured.
And so we have become fairly familiar with the New York borough that hosts more observant Jews than anywhere else in the hemisphere. And in many ways, we’re fond of it. Although the population density presents some challenges (I’ve been known to grumble about “Borough Double-Park” at particular traffic moments), and although some of the less salubrious effects of the surrounding urban metropolis can take a toll, Jewish Brooklyn is an impressive place. That is evident not only in the borough’s preponderance of synagogues, yeshivot and educational opportunities – and not only in its unparalleled shopping and culinary opportunities – but in things like the ethereal peace that descends on the streets like a holy cloud every Shabbat, obliterating the bustle and noise of the days in between.
Baltimore, though, has attained its own undeniable Jewish presence. Its own cars may still cruise Park Heights Avenue on Shabbat, but the sidewalks are filled with observant Jews on the way to or from synagogue or a class, or just taking a walk. And while there may not be a kosher restaurant and modest-clothing shop on every block, there is no lack of pizza or snoods in town.
What is more, even from my (hopefully) more mature perspective these days, I think Baltimore offers something more than a “big city” Jewish community. Maybe it’s the fact that it lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. Maybe it’s the suburban layout of so many of the Jewish neighborhoods (not to mention the relatively affordable housing!). Or maybe it’s the merit of those who pioneered the community. Whatever it is, though, Baltimore has a special grace, a charm, what in Hebrew is called “chein.”
It shows in the fact that Baltimore Jews of different stripes and affiliations and levels of observance (or lack of observance) see their commonality before their differences; in how smiles there seem to come naturally; in how Shabbat greetings are extended to strangers and friends alike; in community-wide projects like the annual “Completion of the Torah.”
That is why I consider it a privilege that I was raised in “Balmer,” as the natives say it. And why my wife and I take great pleasure in knowing that one of our married daughters and her husband and their children live there, and that two of our sons are studying in Ner Israel today.
And so, when locals here in the “big city” ask where I’m from, although I have no idea what the reply “Baltimore” elicits in their minds, I say the word loudly and clearly, letting the sound of my voice convey my pride.
Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared in the Baltimore Jewish News. © 2006 Am Echad Resources