A Tale of Two Synagogues

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While the byline may be mine, both the title and much of the content herein were contributed by Rabbi Dovid Katz, of Beth Abraham Congregation here in Baltimore. His drasha this morning related to two recent posts here — mine on Synagogue 3000 and their misguided efforts to use “mega-church style prayer experiences… to invigorate synagogue life,” and Rabbi Adlerstein’s on “shteibelization.”

Tonight’s post concerns Baltimore history, and the splitting of one of its oldest and most revered Orthodox synagogues. The split-off became even a larger synagogue… and yet recently announced that it is closing its doors.

In the late 1930’s, Baltimore’s Shearith Israel Congregation had something of an identity crisis. While the majority of the neighborhood and shul membership worked on Saturdays, an unwritten bylaw insisted that you had to be Sabbath observant in order to be a voting member. So they had barely a minyan of voting members in a congregation of over 100 families. And to make matters worse, the traditionalists in this German Orthodox shul had just hired a new, young Rabbi from the alter heim, the Old Country. They were importing a German Rabbi who couldn’t even speak English (at least, to the best of my knowledge), to deal with a young membership that wanted to work on Shabbos and have a voice in the congregation.

The new Rabbi expressed his strong objections to allowing the non-observant a say in the direction of the synagogue. He said it would lead to no good, even comparing Sabbath observance to the sheep’s blood smeared on Jewish doorposts on the night of the Plague of the First Born: “… and I will see the blood and pass over you, and there will not be among you a plague to destroy you, when I strike in the land of Egypt” [Ex. 12:13]. Standing firm, he said, would protect the congregation. Late in 1937, the vote was held, and the decision made to retain the existing policy.

What fools the Rabbi and his few followers seemed, even decades later. The majority of the congregants parted amicably, starting a new Orthodox synagogue that was far more tolerant, more welcoming to non-observant members and officers. They started by renting a building a few blocks away in April of 1938, which they purchased in 1945. By 1953, they had built their own, modern building, which — at least after remodeling in the mid-1960s — featured a far larger sanctuary than that provided by the shul they left behind. That observant congregation struggled onward all the while, rebuilding slowly, even after their Rabbi departed twenty years later to join a larger community in New York.

Fast forward to 2007. The new, modern, break-off synagogue is closing its doors. In a recent vote, the congregants chose which of two other Modern Orthodox synagogues they would join — neither of which is in easy walking distance for anyone, much less the aged remaining members. In the words of a 76-year-old congregant, “the place is dying.” This, in the middle of a thriving Orthodox community! What went wrong? With the Jewish population in Northwest Baltimore growing by the week, how could a local synagogue be folding? Something obviously overstepped the bounds of what was desirable in an Orthodox shul — as the German Rabbi predicted 70 years earlier.

Given my own knowledge of (and membership in) Shearith Israel, I would add a footnote to Rabbi Katz’s material. Shearith Israel faced another turning point in the mid-1980s. It was dwindling as well, because the yeshiva-educated children of even the historically German Jewish families were no longer as attuned to the traditional Nusach Ashkenaz, the German style of prayer, with its many piyyutim (extra poetic readings) and other components of the service. At that time, the congregation’s leaders sought the guidance of Rav Sholmo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, one of the outstanding Torah leaders at that time. [While I have not verified this, I imagine that his last name being that of a Bavarian city was relevant to their choice. UPDATE: I have been told that while under Rav Auerbach’s direction, Yeshivas Kol Torah in Jerusalem changed from Ashkenaz to Lithuanian Nusach, and this may be the reason Shearith Israel turned to him.] Under his careful guidance, the synagogue crafted a set of changes to their Nusach to conform more closely to the Lithuanian yeshiva model while retaining its many ties to the German heritage. Today, Shearith Israel is a blossoming congregation, whose Rabbi is revered throughout Baltimore (and beyond) for his broad Halachic knowledge and sage advice.

The young Rabbi hired by Shearith Israel in 1936 was Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l. In 1958, he moved to Washington Heights to become part of the Rabbinic leadership of the largest German Jewish community in the United States. He succeeded Rabbi Joseph Breuer, zt”l, as leader of that community, which Rabbi Schwab led until his death in 1993. By then, he was acknowledged as one of America’s outstanding Torah scholars.

So there are changes, and there are changes. Both were aimed at welcoming new families and new voices. But one was designed to tolerate abandonment of Torah priorities, while the other had just the opposite goal. One led to a slow and permanent decline — the other, onward and upward.

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23 Responses

  1. Noam says:

    “What went wrong? With the Jewish population in Northwest Baltimore growing by the week, how could a local synagogue be folding? Something obviously overstepped the bounds of what was desirable in an Orthodox shul—as the German Rabbi predicted 70 years earlier”

    I think the problem is statements like the above. Does having non-Shomer Shabbat voting members overstep the bounds of what was desireable in an Orthodox shul? Do all shuls that want to be considered orthodox have to limit voting to shomer shabbat members? who decides who is shomer shabbat or not? Do all shuls with non-shomer Shabbat voting members eventually close? Why are these two events being treated as cause and effect, when many other factors could have influenced the effect?

    With great respect to R. Katz, part of this post is history. However, drawing the conclusion that the shul closed because of allowing non-shomer Shabbat members to vote is informed opinion and should be noted and considered as such.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    I’m not sure why R’ Dovid Katz’s superb credentials as a historian make him more or less likely to correctly recall an oral recollection of a Torah insight from Rav Schwab but, in any case, he told me that it was Rav Benyamin Bak a”h (apparently the founding Rav of Shomrei Emunah) who told him what Rav Schwab had said.

    Does that mean a retraction is on the way? I doubt it, because Dr. Levine can still dismiss Rav Bak’s word as “hearsay.” Why his suspicions led him to make the nonsensical claim that Dr. Blumberg’s document differed in “many key points” from Rabbi Katz (the tally of actual differences remains zero), much less launch into uninvited comments about a “PC charedi” “rewrite [of] history” in reference to the remarks of a historian with a PhD and past courses taught at both UMD and Johns Hopkins, will remain unanswered.

    adderabbi — while there are several other MO synagogues in Baltimore, Beth Jacob was only choosing with which of two to merge. The other contender was Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah.

  3. hagtbg says:

    To fill in a little, from Wikipedia: “In 1958, Rabbi Schwab was invited to join Rabbi Joseph Breuer in the leadership of the German-Jewish community in Washington Heights, located in the north of Manhattan in New York City. This community, widely regarded as the spiritual “continuation” of the pre-War Frankfurt kehilla (“community”), had been close to Rabbi Schwab’s heart, and with Rabbi Breuer’s increasing age and infirmity he took on many leadership roles until the latter’s passing in 1980.

    From then until 1993, he led the community alone. He was succeeded after his death by Rabbi Zechariah Gelley.”

  4. adderabbi says:

    1)Rabbi Dr. Dovid Katz, in addition to being a musmach of Ner Yisrael, is a Ph. D. historian, who did his dissertation on the Noda Bi-Yehuda. He’s also the only shul Rav in Baltimore to hold both of those titles (except perhaps r’ landau of ner tamid)

    2) ‘the other two modern orthodox synagogues’? i can name at least 5 others. what gives?

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “One man’s criticism is apparently another man’s attack”

    – reminds me of Carl Reiner’s vort on humor: “When I fall it’s tragedy, when you fall it’s comedy”

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Rabbi (Moshe) Schwab was correct to point out that this sort of nitpicking quickly becomes ridiculous.

    Since Noam has a doctorate, this is the second time I find myself surprised to question his reading comprehension. Those who managed to read my article know from whom the “homiletics” came, as well as my sources, and those who reached the end of my previous comment, #14, know for what reason I called upon Dr. Levine to apologize.

    Now that it is revealed that Rabbi Katz’s remarks jibe perfectly with Dr. Blumberg’s written account, differing only in that each tells parts of the history that the other does not, Dr. Levine denies that what he wrote was an “attack.” His first comments included the following:

    • There is a tendency in some Orthodox circles to rewrite history to conform to the present PC Chareidi view of the world. If Torah stands for truth, then Torah true Jews are obligated to report the past as it actually happened, not sanitize it to fit what we think it should have been.

    I would not have thought it possible to deny that this was an attack on both Rabbi Katz and charedi historians in general. Is it too much to simply admit error and move on?

    Rabbi Katz is scholar-in-residence somewhere during Pesach, so we’ll have to wait until after YomTov for his source for the quote. [DMZ, I understand he taught Jewish history at Johns Hopkins, but I don’t know if he taught a course at UMD. [Update: he did.]] I doubt there’s anything of substance to add before then.

  7. Noam says:

    “What went wrong? ………Something obviously overstepped the bounds of what was desirable in an Orthodox shul—as the German Rabbi predicted 70 years earlier.”

    After reading this post, and re-reading it, I am not sure if this post is meant as homiletics, or as history. If it is homiletics, then I guess the take home message from R. Menken is “don’t let non-Shomer Shabbat Jews be voting members of your shul or it will close down.” Of course, R. Menken doesn’t mention why the Jews weren’t Shomer Shabbat, if there were economic pressures, social pressures, assimilation problems, or other issues. Maybe it doesn’t matter to him.

    On the other hand, if this is a history lesson, where is the proof of a cause and effect relationship as claimed in the above excerpt? One could just have easily blamed the quality of the cholent at kiddush, or pick some other event in the history of the shul, and attribute the closing to it. Rabbi Menken has not brought any proof to his assertion cause and effect assertion. Therefore, unless there is more, this should not be seen as history, only as opinion and homiletics. Furthermore, Rabbi Menken presents a statement for which he cannot provide a source, and then, when called on it, essentially says it doesn’t matter, and the person who called him on it needs to apologize. As Sallah Shabbati said, in the great Ephraim Kishon movie of the same name, “ata shomaya ma ata omer?” Do you really hear what you are saying and writing? Does this make any sense?

    With regard to Rav Schwab zt”l, I believe he had interesting views on history, what should be said and not said, as documented in “The Making of a Gadol.”

  8. Dr. Yitzchok Levine says:

    One man’s criticism is apparently another man’s attack. I do not view what I wrote as an attack. Apparently R. Merken does. So be it.

    Since R. Menken mentioned Moshe Schwab, the eldest son of Rav Schwab, I think that those interested in the history of how Rav Schwab came to Baltimore will find the following of interest.

    In January, 2000 Moshe Schwab wrote an article recalling his family’s experiences when they came to Baltimore in 1937. R. Moshe has been kind enough to allow me to post what he wrote on my web site. I found what he wrote fascinating reading.

    It is at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/r_schwab_baltimore.pdf

  9. DMZ says:

    “I know nothing of the background of Rabbi Katz. Is he a trained historian?”

    I had him for Jewish history in high school, and the man is brilliantly, even spectacularly, well-educated. Your assertion that he’s somehow involved in a Haredi whitewash of history is almost laughable when you consider that we read a huge amount of Josephus in that particular class – in a yeshiva high school, no less. I don’t think we ever caught him wrong on a fact, either – and I know we checked quite a few of them out. I’ve also caught him at University of Maryland at College Park a few times, but I do not recall if he actually ever taught a course there.

    I don’t know if he’s a trained historian, but if he’s not, he’s done the best impression of one I’ve ever seen.

    Dr. Levine: your mistake was in attacking the credibility and motives of the writer, rather than just politely asking for a source.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    Obviously, it is up to Rabbi Katz to provide a source for his historical content. I can attempt to reach him for his input, but do no more.

    On the recommendation of the shul’s current president I did reach Rabbi Moshe Schwab in NY, Rabbi Shimon Schwab’s eldest son. It seems Dr. Levine also turned to him — and Rabbi Schwab told me he truly enjoyed the article and feels we should not nitpick. He does not recall whether his father made the quote, but neither did he dismiss it as inaccurate. [If we want corrections, he provided three: first, that his father spoke a broken English when he arrived, and worked tirelessly to prepare his sermons in English. Second, although he was left without a weekday minyan at Glen Avenue, the influx of German Jews after the war meant the shul was no longer struggling, but stable, long before he left. And third, though this is not a correction, he recalled that his father warmly welcomed the new, young, unmarried Rav of Beth Jacob and had him as a frequent Shabbos guest. They would routinely discuss the Beth Jacob Rav’s sermons at Rabbi Schwab’s table during the meal. Rabbi Schwab proved a great inspiration to the new Rav — Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, who went on to found Touro College.]

    However, Dr. Levine launched into his statements “about a PC Chareidi approach to history” with the assertion that “Anyone who takes the time to read [Dr. Blumberg’s ‘A History of Congregation Shearith Israel’] will see that it differs in many key points from the history that is given above.”

    The fact that an as-yet-unsourced oral statement is not found in a fragment of a written letter to a different audience does not amount to a difference. So the document doesn’t differ at all from Rabbi Katz’s recounting of the same history, and certainly there was no grounds here for an attack on Rabbi Katz or “charedi PC history.” It is for this reason that I believe that a retraction is already overdue.

  11. Dr. Yitzchok Levine says:

    Yaakov Menken wrote:

    “For Dr. Levine to imagine that since Rabbi Schwab didn’t write this comparison to a non-observant officer of the brotherhood, this “proves” that Rabbi Schwab didn’t share it orally with the observant officers of the congregation, defies logic, and I’ll leave it to him to defend it.”

    Does Rabbi Katz have a source for the statements that he claimed Rabbi Schwab made regarding this issue? If so, what is it? Is it more than hearsay that has been passed on? If Rabbi Katz has a solid source, then I will, of course, immediately retract what I wrote about a PC Chareidi approach to history.

    It is not up to me to prove that someone did not say something. It is up to the person asserting that someone said something to supply the source for his assertion.

    BTW, for the record, I am a Shomer Shabbos, and I knew Rabbi S. Schwab, ZT”L, personally from the time that I lived in Elizabeth, NJ in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    I am not a professionally trained historian. Indeed, I am a mathematician by training and profession. However, I have written and continue to write extensively about American Jewish history. I write a monthly column for the Jewish Press under the banner “Glimpses Into American Jewish History.” See http://www.jewishpress.com as well as http://persona.stevens.edu/~llevine/pub.html for my articles on a variety of topics in the JP, the Hamodia, and the Yated.

    I know nothing of the background of Rabbi Katz. Is he a trained historian?

  12. Yaakov Menken says:

    Given that I wasn’t the source of the historical content, I have no problem leaping to defend Rabbi Katz vis-a-vis Dr. Levine’s statements — much less dismiss Dr. Levine’s ill-considered remarks about “rewriting history,” a “PC charedi view”, and “sanitizing.” I would imagine that Dr. Levine and Rabbi Katz approach issues from a very similar hashkafic perspective — Rabbi Katz is a historian with little patience for any such efforts to whitewash actual events, and certainly would not have done so here.

    We do owe Dr. Levine our thanks for putting the historical summary of Shearith Israel up on the web. I’ve read a copy, but until now did not know it was so accessible.

    Reviewing it now, I think one would be hard pressed to find even a single point, much less “many key points,” on which Rabbi Katz and Dr. Blumberg are not in absolute agreement. The fact that Dr. Levine asserts that the two are at odds does not make it so.

    When Rabbi Schwab zt”l arrived from Germany, he was immediately confronted with the issue of granting voting membership to non-Sabbath-observers. Thanks in good part to his absolutist position on the matter, the membership voted to retain that policy — and so many members left that they had trouble keeping a weekday minyan at the Glen Avenue location. All of this is in the document, along with, in the diplomatic language of Dr. Blumberg, “Congregation Beth Jacob owed much of its original impetus to this division of strength at Shearith Israel.”

    And that is the one point upon which Dr. Levine would like to build his entire case — that Rabbi Schwab’s written opinion to the president of the Shul brotherhood (the brotherhood “had no objection to the election of officers who were barred as [voting] members of the congregation”) was “diplomatic and tactful,” and did not make the comparison specified by Rabbi Katz.

    If I were writing this comment in Rabbi Schwab’s position, hoping to mollify Dr. Levine and retain his financial membership and active participation even while rejecting him as an officer (btw, I have no reason to believe Dr. Levine is non-shomer Shabbos, any more than I imagine myself to be Rabbi Schwab), I would probably not call his remarks “blathering” either! For Dr. Levine to imagine that since Rabbi Schwab didn’t write this comparison to a non-observant officer of the brotherhood, this “proves” that Rabbi Schwab didn’t share it orally with the observant officers of the congregation, defies logic, and I’ll leave it to him to defend it.

  13. Yosef says:

    It is certainly sad to hear when a shul must close down. Beth Jacob certainly suffered the demographic shift more so than most other shuls currently extant. I would hazard to say that there is no potential member living south of Beth Jacob — everyone I knew, even in the Rogers Ave. area, left over 15 years ago. So BJ did not have the opportunity that other old-line shuls had to host “young people’s minyanim” and the like to try to reinvigorate their population.
    However, those Baltimoreans in the audience should be aware that the closing of this shul represents a situation of opportunity and at the same time danger for the community. In the next year, Pimlico Middle School will close, leaving a large contiguous area of two shuttered institutions, right across from the JCC. It could be a historical opportunity to develop that area for the community. See http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/baltimore_city/bal-md.closing29mar29,0,1151269.story.

  14. Dr. Yitzchok Levine says:

    An accurate history of Congregation Shearith Israel of Baltimore until 1970 can be read at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/blumberg_shearith_1970.pdf. Anyone who takes the time to read it will see that it differs in many key points from the history that is given above.

    There is a tendency in some Orthodox circles to rewrite history to conform to the present PC Chareidi view of the world. If Torah stands for truth, then Torah true Jews are obligated to report the past as it actually happened, not sanitize it to fit what we think it should have been.

    This pamphlet does not record that Rabbi Shimon Schwab, ZT”L, ever compared, “… Sabbath observance to the sheep’s blood smeared on Jewish doorposts on the night of the Plague of the First Born: “… and I will see the blood and pass over you, and there will not be among you a plague to destroy you, when I strike in the land of Egypt” [Ex. 12:13].” (See pages 12 – 13 of the pamphlet.) On the contrary, his response forbidding non-Shomrei Shabbos from being members is most diplomatic and tactful.

    BTW, information about the first rabbi of Shearith Israel, Rabbi Dr. Schepschel Schaffer, can be read at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/schaffer_25_years.pdf.

    Dr. Yitzchok Levine
    Department of Mathematical Sciences
    Stevens Institute of Technology
    Hoboken, NY 07030
    http://personal.stevens.edu/~llevine

  15. YM says:

    I wonder what mycroft means when he says that one is “effectively not welcome” if he/she is not part of the elite, either intellectually or socially. In my community, as someone who is not an advanced torah scholar nor considered wealthy by the community at large, I can say with confidence that I am not considered part of the “elite” of my community. I do feel welcome in my community, however. Does not being considered part of the elite or not being a macher mean that one is “effectively not welcome”? Interestingly, this may be a contributing force to shuls spinning off or being established: the desire to be a macher, to be somebody.

  16. YM says:

    FYI, in Passaic NJ, you can live within the eruv and live in housing ranging from a section 8 apartment to a home that costs over a million dollars.

  17. DMZ says:

    “If one is not part of the elite-intellectually, economically etc one is effectively not welcome in US Ortho communities.”

    That’s just not true, or at least not in the scope you’re stating. I could see it in some self-isolating communities in New York and surrounding environs, but when my family was becoming more observant, I hit practically every shul in Baltimore. I never, ever, saw what you’re talking about. I feel reasonably confident stating that the Silver Spring and DC areas are much the same, too.

    R’ Menken’s theory feels wrong to me somehow, as I also think demographics were more responsible than he gives them credit for, but I feel like it’s probably at least partially correct. Even Ner Tamid down in Greenspring has had a slight shift rightwards which revitalized the shul – of all things, their youth minyan was responsible for that.

    It’s too bad that Beth Jacob is closing down – they actually had a good rav in charge of the shul, one that wasn’t afraid to be modern Orthodox and call himself that, which is something of a rarity in Baltimore.

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    mycroft,

    It’s an unfair comparison. In Israel your neighbors are all Jewish, and no one stares at you when you wear a kippah. It’s not the Orthodox that dissuade non- or partially-observant Jews from wearing one, it’s the non-Jews (I don’t mean because of anti-Semitism, so much as simple curiosity). Most people won’t choose to “look different” without a good reason to do so. And for that matter, many Reform Rabbis still don’t wear one, especially male Reform Rabbis.

    It’s also patently untrue that in America, no one is interested in the non-Orthodox. Kiruv is going on all over. As for the economic elite, compare annual dues and High Holiday ticket policies between Reform and Orthodox, especially haredi Orthodox, and you will soon realize that you have your finger pointed at the wrong end of the compass.

    What you do have, in both America and Israel today, are people genuinely interested in Torah, and not merely “Orthodox-style” prayer. If a non-observant person goes to an Orthodox synagogue, he or she also wants the officers to be observant — because they want the “real deal.”

  19. mycroft says:

    But nonetheless, the congregation was founded to serve the needs of people who were not Sabbath observant but wanted an Orthodox service. This, as the UJC’s Jewish Population surveys reveal, is a dying breed.

    Maybe a dying breed-partially because no one is interested in them. If one is not part of the elite-intellectually, economically etc one is effectively not welcome in US Ortho communities. In Israel matters are different. Fro example, go to the Israel Museum ans see how many security guards, maintenance people etc are wearing kippot-how many are doing so in the US. It is not an accusation intrinsic to Yahadus-only sadly American Yahadus.

  20. Yaakov Menken says:

    I don’t believe I said anywhere that Beth Jacob was closing due to “Divine punishment.” It was Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, who said that it was important for the officers of Shearith Israel to be observant, but I am not aware that he ever made dire predictions of what would happen to the split-off.

    It is not sufficient, however, to point to the Park Heights area’s demographic shift. It is all of Baltimore (and, for that matter, all of the country). Moses Montefiore merged with Anshe Emunah, Randallstown and Pickwick closed, Suburban Orthodox moved to the right, Bnei Jacob merged with Shaarei Zion and moved to the right.

    Beth Jacob is merging with Beth Tfiloh, which is 3.4 miles away. Walking from one to the other means walking by (or within a block of) at least a dozen other Orthodox shuls, including Bnei Jacob Shaarei Zion and Suburban. I submit as obvious that no Sabbath observant individual residing near Beth Jacob will, after the merger, daven regularly on Shabbos v’Yom Tov at Beth Tfiloh’s campus on Old Court Road.

    It is true that Beth Jacob is Orthodox, and has an Orthodox Rabbi. Quite a nice one, actually! But nonetheless, the congregation was founded to serve the needs of people who were not Sabbath observant but wanted an Orthodox service. This, as the UJC’s Jewish Population surveys reveal, is a dying breed.

  21. Joshua Josephs says:

    Dear Rabbi Menken,
    I cant believe you seriously mean to insinuate that because of its differences in Orthodox opinion from Shearith Israel the shul in question in this article has been punished by Hashem and thus is now closing. To the best of my knowledge the shul has always been led by an Orthodox Rabbi and is a member of the OU. Furthermore, I think far more blame can be laid at the feet of a demographic shift whereby the Park Heights area has become far more of a yeshiva community than it was 35 years ago when Beth Jacob was in its heyday.

  22. Reb Yid says:

    As YM has said in another thread: “So what”?

    Each of us can point to different communities and shuls where different approaches led to a revitalization.

    An example is not a proof.

    There are some very healthy and revitalized Orthodox congregations that do not place litmus tests on members. Some of these congregations/communities as a result now have eruvs and day schools for the first time–just because the approach is open does not mean that Yiddishkeit cannot grow and flourish.

    Addarabba.

  23. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The difference is also, of course, the source of your authority and whom you listen to when you have a problem. The congregation has to have input, but the final word must be with halacha and daas Torah. The state of Israel must also learn that lesson. This is the essence of the concept of malchus (Jewish kingship).