About Them O’s

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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

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8 Responses

  1. Ittzy says:

    I believe Rabbi Shafran is remiss in not mentioning Rav Yitzchok Sternhell Z”TL a spiritual pillar of the traditional Orthodox “olam” who was the “posek” of Baltimore for many years.

  2. Michoel says:

    Larry Cohen,
    Shalom Aleichem. I don’t agree with you. Bigger communities are always a bit less freindly than smaller ones. People just tend to take the existence of other Jews for granted. I don’t think that it is “l’shem pirud”. My son just told me yesterday that at his Summer camp he has friends from TA, TI and Rambam. When TA makes there annual carnival for the entire community, the entire community comes. Same is true of the P’tach carnival. We sent our oldest to the Montessouri preschool with lots of kids from all kinds of homes including non-Orthodox. He now goes to TI. We are not exceptional. When you have more shuls and more schools, there is less interaction. That is just a fact of life.

  3. Larry Cohen says:

    With all due respect to Rabbi Shafran, I disagree with the “fact” that Baltimore is better than other cities in that “Baltimore Jews of different stripes and affiliations and levels of observance (or lack of observance) see their commonality before their differences;”. The fact is that today’s Baltimore Orthodox community has little or no contact with the non-orthodox community. You can even say that within the Orthodox community, Jews of diferent kippas/hats don’t have anything to do with each other. With the establishment of the many new day schools, children only go to school with kids just like them. With the establishment of shuls on every corner, adults daven only with people just like them. Some may say “good Shabbos” to people that don’t look just like them, but many ignor others that aren’t dressed like them. But Rabbi Shafran should remember that in the 60’s & 70’s it was at TA that we both graduated from, that gave him the opportunity to go to school with kids who wore a black kipa, knit kipa or kids who didn’t come from a Shomer Shabbat home but went to TA because their parents wanted them to have a Jewish life.
    It was the Baltimore of the 70’s, where Jews of all stripes got along!! My oldest son is a 4th generation TA graduate, so I also have ties to Baltimore as far back if not further that Rabbi Shafran. TA used to be a community school. Batimore once was a Jewish community that lived with each other and respected each other. Today, we live seperately, daven seperately, and even pray for Israel seperately. In the 60’s & 70’s TA, Bais Yaakov, and all the Reform, Conservative, & Orthodox Hebrew schools walked for Israel — TOGETHER. Today, we barely do it seperately. How many non-Orthodox congregations were invited to participate at the Tehillim rally at Shaarei Zion? I bet none were even told about. Do we not think that their prayers count?? I don’t want to say who is responsible for this “wonderful” occurrance. In the 60’s & 70’s Baltimoreans thought we were living in the Yerushalayim of America, Now it’s more like the Mea Shaarim of America. Yes, we have more kosher restaurants, yes there is more Torah learning. It is a shame that with all the Torah learning, we have less love for our fellow Jews. If you want to see how Jews get along with each other, go to a city where the Orthodox community is small. Because then we need the non-orthodox. Sadly, we have become like Boro Park and other “great” Orthodox cities – so full of ourselves that we look down on those not just like us, because our numbers are so great that it allows us to. Not what I would call a Kiddush Hashem, then again I’m just a TA graduate from the 70’s. Larry Cohen

  4. mycroft says:

    I am very glad every time Cross Currents gets Rabbi Shafran to publish a piece of his.
    “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”

    Before Rabbis Ruderman and Schwab ZT”L wasn’t Baltimore a comparatively religious city. Rabbi Rice lived in Baltimore more than 70 years before Rav Ruderman came there. Didn’t TA start in Baltimore 15? years or so before Rav Ruderman came there-before there were many day schools in the US.

    A general query it is not politically correct to say this-given the gdolim who came to America and at least lived during my lifetime but could the reason why Rav Ruderman went to BAltimore because Baltimore was not a total midbar. Similar to the reason why Rav A.Kotler ZT”L went to Lakewood because at the time R. Waxman who was a close talmid of Rav Kotlers father-in-law was in Lakewood, and helped support the establishment of BMG there.
    This is not to downplay the leading roles of Ravs Ruderman, Schwab and Kotler in helping bring Torah to the US.
    Of course I note with interest that all the names that Rabbi Shafran mentions are those from the machane of Agudah.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Baltimore is a great place to visit and raise a family. As far as I can tell, there have always been great relationships between Ner Yisrae, the Park Heights and Greenspring commmunities. R C Teller wrote a beautiful book on the late principal of the BY of Baltimore (R Steinberg ZTL-IIR the name) who IMO exemplified sound chinuch and Ahavas Yisrael in a manner very similar to R M Besdin, the RY of JSS.

  6. Gershon says:

    And not one mention of Rav A. N. Schwartz of TA? Where would good ol’ Balmer be without TA?

  7. joel rich says:

    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.

    As well you should, but we should all keep in mind that Baltimore, Borough Park, Teaneck….. are all in Galut. If there\’s one thing Jewish history has taught us (in fact imho demands us) to remember, it\’s that we are but temporary residents here( wherever \”here\” is in Galut).

    May HKB\”H have mercy on his people and his land,

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