Congregants young and old from all over the city will gather to “rekindle, rejoice [and] rededicate,” as Beth Am synagogue celebrates its 40th anniversary with a weekend full of song, dance, food and memory.
The grand Moorish-style building, designed by Joseph Evans Sperry, opened in 1922 as the home of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. When Chizuk Amuno moved to the county, a small group dedicated to staying downtown formed Beth Am, “House of the People,” as an independent congregation under the leadership of Dr. Louis Kaplan, retired president of Baltimore Hebrew University.
Kaplan’s son-in-law, Efrem Potts of Mt. Washington, served as the first president of Beth Am.
“[At] the first organizational meeting of Beth Am, which was in November 1974, 20 to 25 people were there,” said Potts. “The first service was held in the Eutaw Place building on Shabbat Chanukah in 1974.”
Between that first service and the next Rosh Hashanah, Potts recalled, Beth Am rose to 175 member units.
“We grew steadily, but not exponentially, but with reasonable growth rates. And we leveled off around 400 members, and we remained fairly leveled that way until Rabbi Burg joined us” in July 2010, detailed Potts.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who leads the now-Conservative-affiliated congregation of 500 families, lives in Reservoir Hill in what was once the epicenter of Jewish life in Baltimore with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Burg, and their two children. They were attracted by the commitment of the congregation to Judaism and the congregation’s love for the city, which the Burgs have come to love, too.
Beth Am, Burg said, “has an ethos of inclusiveness and welcoming. It’s nonjudgmental, but can also be critical. Congregants are able to ask tough questions, and they are committed to vigorous Jewish learning, committed to tikkun olam.”
Rachel Weitzner and her husband, Greg Terry, of Mt. Washington and their two young daughters began attending Beth Am services three years ago. They were attracted to the location and the values the congregation upholds.
“Rabbi Burg and the synagogue are supportive of diversity, marriage equality,” said Weitzner. “We’re not the only biracial family at Beth Am by far, and I think that’s attractive at this time. People want their Judaism to be diverse.”
Beth Am, she noted, has a dichotomy between the old traditional architecture and the modernity of its congregants, embracing tradition and the modern world at the same time.
Lisa Akchin of Tuscany-Canterbury chairs the In, For and Of the Neighborhood Initiative that grew out of a challenge issued by Burg four years ago in his Yom Kippur sermon to “think about what it means to not only be in the neighborhood, but for the neighborhood, and of the neighborhood.”
Today, the initiative works with neighbors to improve the community and forge bonds across multicultural and multiethnic lines. Beth Am’s Jewish Discovery Lab students and local John Eager Howard Elementary School students played together at the Afro-Semitic Experience concert, and adults have joined together to hear from speakers such as Wes Moore. Now at the annual Harvest Fest, alongside the collard greens cook-off, is a kugel cook-off.
“The numbers of Beth Am congregants living in the neighborhood are modest, and the goal is not to have a Jewish neighborhood again,” said Akchin, “but to contribute to a thriving multicultural neighborhood that exists in Reservoir Hill today.”
Beth Am president Scott Zeger and his wife, Joanne Katz, of Mt. Washington joined the congregation 15 years ago when their son, Max, was ready for Hebrew education. They were attracted to the “intellectual style, the critical discussions among members and clergy about religious and social issues.”
“I remember each ‘martyrology’ at Yom Kippur in which Rita Becker researched and reported on Jews who were killed solely because they were Jews,” Zeger said in an email “I remember the discussions immediately after the Yom Kippur afternoon service in which the rabbi takes any questions from the members; the engagement, enthusiasm, critical thinking is palpable.
“I remember the late-afternoon light filtering through the enormous Beth Am windows and bouncing gently around the central dome of the sanctuary,” he continued. “The warmth of the space and of the people is enriching.”
“There is a mystical element that runs through the place,” added Gil Sandler of Roland Park Place, speaking of the synagogue he has called home for 39 years.
Emphasizing the homey nature of Beth Am, Sandler recalled how the congregation celebrated his 90th birthday two years ago.
“I wear a certain kind of hat; it’s a funny-looking hat, and I wear it summer, winter, night or day,” said Sandler. “There was a service dedicated to my 90th birthday, and I was invited up to the bimah to say a brachah. When I turned around there were 300 people wearing that hat!”
At the celebration this Saturday night, Sandler plans on being in the thick of it during the horah. He is confident that Beth Am’s future is bright.
“I hope I’ll be at every ribbon cutting,” he said. “Remember, Moses lived to 120, so maybe I’ll be there.