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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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Jewish life flourishes in Baltimore

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Baltimore’s skyline, with the city’s inner harbour in the foreground [Michael Stavsky photo]

When thinking about major Jewish communities in North America, several come to mind right away. New York, Los Angeles and even Toronto have large communities nestled within major urban centres.

You might be surprised, however, to learn that Baltimore, Md., with over 60,000 Jewish residents throughout the county, has one of the country’s oldest and fastest growing Jewish communities.

The city of Baltimore played a significant role during both the War of 1812 and later the U.S. Civil War, as a strategic deepwater port with easy access to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It was during this period that Baltimore’s Jewish community quickly grew into one of the largest ethnic neighbourhoods in the city, establishing itself along Lombard Street, just east of downtown. The area, affectionately called “Corned Beef Row”, was so named due to the numerous Jewish delis that sprang up in the area. In 1929, the Baltimore Hebrew Times referred to East Baltimore as “a little city in itself” due to its uniformly Jewish populace.

While the community today has taken root in northwest Baltimore, a few vestiges of Corned Beef Row remain. Two large synagogues from the 1800s still stand in the area. B’nai Israel, a grandiose Moorish Revival design built in 1876 as Chizuk Amuno Synagogue, is the city’s longest actively operating shul. Having been established in protest to the liturgical change from Orthodox to Reform occurring at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the synagogue still operates as Orthodox today, in contrast to many other synagogues from the period.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue, situated next door to B’nai Israel, no longer functions as a synagogue. Built in 1840, the Greek Revival-designed synagogue was the first in the state of Maryland, and is currently the third oldest synagogue building in the United States. Started by German Jews as Congregation Nidche Israel, the Lloyd Street shul was also the pulpit for the first rabbi to serve in the United States, Rabbi Abraham Rice.

By the 1960s, Baltimore’s Jewish community had begun to migrate to fashionable northwest Baltimore. Spread out along the east side of Reisterstown Road in the Park Heights and Pikesville sections of town, the Jews of Baltimore have a large Orthodox constituency, in sharp contrast to many other North American cities. In fact, a 2010 Jewish Federation study showed a higher percentage of Orthodox residents (32 per cent) than Conservative (26 per cent) and Reform (23 per cent).

In recent years, the city has done much to curb the high crime rate and urban blight that plagues much of Baltimore.

The revitalized inner harbour, adjacent to downtown, has become a trendy spot for retailers and visitors alike. The Maryland Science Center and critically acclaimed National Aquarium of Baltimore are a short walk apart, along with the circa 1854 USS Constellation, the last all sail warship built by the United States.

In an effort to attract commerce to the city, numerous early 20th-century factories and warehouses were converted into high-end shopping districts during the 1990s. 

The Power Plant building, built in 1900, retains its original appearance as an electrical power station, but now houses numerous shops and eateries.

The B&O Warehouse, located in nearby Camden Yards, was built for the Baltimore and Ohio railway in 1899, and is among the longest brick buildings in the United States. Measuring more that 330 metres from end to end, it stood vacant for much of the 1970s and 1980s. It was later redeveloped as part of the Oriole Park at Camden Yards baseball stadium complex, and is now office space for the Baltimore Orioles franchise. 

Camden Yards is home to several interesting museums. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, a large gallery depicting American entertainment history, includes vintage collectibles and novelties from more than a century of American radio, television and movies.

The museum shares space with the Sports Legends Museum dedicated to Baltimore area sports history, with the Babe Ruth birthplace museum a short Charm City Circulator bus ride away.

Whether visiting nearby Washington D.C., or as a destination itself, Baltimore truly embodies its moniker as the “Charm City.”

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Visit Baltimore Visitor’s Bureau and the Admiral Fell Inn in arranging his family’s trip to Baltimore.

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