Fifty years ago, Columbia’s promise of equality and prosperity drew hundreds to Howard County. Planned communities like Columbia were not a new idea, but the area’s developer, James Rouse, had a vision that went beyond street layouts and park placement.
Today, the area’s Jewish community is in a bind. Though Howard County’s Jewish population has grown to 17,200, according to a 2010 study by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, by many accounts it suffers from an aging, disaffiliated populace like much of the U.S., and there is no way to tell if it will stabilize or decline.
“As a Jewish community, we need to be attentive to the same aging issues” as Baltimore and Washington, said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Columbia’s Beth Shalom Congregation.
Though many think the community is graying, others, such as Pearl Laufer, 77, said it is on the upswing.
“People are joining [synagogues] — not in droves, but they’re joining,” she said. “I think [we] have a bright future.”
Columbia’s Jewish community is hard to separate from the ecumenical ideal from which it sprouted. It was, from the earliest stages, made to cooperate with other religions in Rouse’s interfaith centers — buildings used for worship by multiple faiths.
Because of Rouse, the question of where to worship took on new meaning. It sounds like an easy one, but years of planning, engineering and experimentation are wrapped up in that simple interrogative.
Given its entanglement with the city’s founding concept, a look at Columbia’s past and present Jewish community is also a way to revisit the city’s ideals and issues.
Where are we?
Columbia covers nearly 21 square miles — roughly the size of Manhattan — and is home to approximately 100,000 residents. Its natural greenbelts were left mostly undisturbed, lending color to buildings dotting the wooded area, and its Jewish community is similarly lush, said Eric McCormick, 36. Rouse’s interfaith idea has taken root, just not in the timeframe he expected.
“Howard County is very interfaith,” McCormick said. “I would say that wherever you are, [you] feel welcomed.”
Columbia’s congregations are not shy of each other. The Oakland Mills Interfaith Center (OMIC), for instance, is home to two Jewish and four Christian congregations, which jointly make decisions for the center, plan events and, once a month, study their religions’ commonalities — often the Old Testament, which carries liturgical significance in both faiths.
Of course, scheduling problems persist among the groups — all of which host services over the weekends — but disputes are solved civilly.
“There is always day-to-day friction no matter what,” said Mark Shaw, OMIC’s executive director and building manager, “but that is all handled very nicely.”
But displays of ecumenical understanding reach beyond the interfaith centers, including to Beth Shalom, the first to split from the interfaith idea. When a storm hit on the day of the synagogue’s dedication in October 1994, leaving congregants cold and without a building of their own, neighboring Locust United Methodist Church’s pastor, the Rev. Victor Sawyer, invited the congregation to use his church’s hall. The two congregations have since volunteered together, led interfaith sermons together and hosted adult education together.
“This was way ahead of the curve,” said Grossman. “We have a very strong relationship.”
And this past year, when Locust United’s sign was defaced with “666,” the congregation stood in solidarity with the church.
“We had a unity rally and said we are not going to stand for this intolerance in our community,” Grossman said.
Though interfaith programs solidify the community, they are infrequently hosted. The Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, according to Shaw, has anywhere between two and four programs of varying lengths a year. Realistically, any program in which religions work together can be billed as interfaith, even if the two parties are not truly cooperating as much as doing the same thing in the same place at the same time.
But the beauty of Rouse’s system is proximity. Instead of treating each other like estranged siblings home on holiday, different religious groups are forced to mix everyday. This ensures congregations cultivate their own identities but are still exposed to other spiritual points of view.
Beyond the heady ideas underlying them, the interfaith centers simply work, said Stuart Berlin, 66. Berlin has been a part of Columbia Jewish Congregation since 1986, and though he has worshiped in single-religion structures, he thinks the interfaith centers are a boon.
“If we, as a Jewish congregation, are sharing space with a Catholic church,” Berlin said, “there is learning that goes on, and dialogue.”
“Anything can happen with dialogue and good will,” said the Rev. Gerard J. Bowen of St. John’s Catholic Church, which shares a building with Columbia Jewish Congregation.
Only 48 percent of Howard County Jewish households report a synagogue membership. Affiliation notwithstanding, Beth Millstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, said involvement in the Federation is increasing among younger Jews.
“The growth is coming from [the 30- to 45-year-old] demographic,” she said. “People who just want to connect with other people in a more informal structure.”
According to Millstein, 55 percent of the county’s Jewish population is over 50 years old, and the younger generation seems disinclined to affiliate.
“I think the ways Jews choose to express their identity is changing,” she said. “They do not want to consume Judaism the same way their grandparents did.”
Above: The Jewish community has played an active and vital role in Columbia’s interfaith vision. As longtime resident Milton Kline says, “Nothing but good came from the advent of the city of Columbia.” (Photos by Eric McCormick Photography)
How did we get here?
Columbia’s planning began in mid-1962, when the Rouse Company purchased the first parcels of largely uninhabited farmland in Howard County. Milton Kline, 82, a longtime resident of the area, recalled seeing sheep and cows grazing outside his kitchen window.
“I had no idea we were moving into a wilderness,” he said. “It was nothing but farmland.”
Kline and his wife, Judy, were some of the city’s earliest Jewish residents, trading Baltimore for the quiet countryside in 1963. They, along with other Jewish families and Dr. Louis L. Kaplan, former president of Baltimore Hebrew College, convened a monthly Jewish study group in 1964. It would become the Jewish Council of Howard County in 1968; it exists today as the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
Rouse’s advisers recommended constructing interfaith centers in lieu of standalone churches. Early reports from the planning groups showed little support for the idea, but the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical Christian organization, swayed the vote, said Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives. According to Phyllis S. Kuritzky’s 1986 thesis on Columbia’s interfaith program, the first rabbis of Columbia were somewhat reluctant. Many saw looming problems with overcrowding and spiritual differences.
“The Catholics seemed to be particularly interested in bringing in Jewish representation to the [Columbia Religious Facilities Corporation], perhaps in the spirit of ecumenism, which had so recently been espoused by Vatican Council II,” Kuritzky wrote. “If there were to be organized Judaism in Columbia, members of the [Jewish Council of Howard County] realized that it would have to be as part of the interfaith plan.”
But Rouse’s interfaith concept depended on the Jewish community as its main claim to ecumenicalism. Judaism was the only alternative to the different flavors of Christianity in the area. Rouse needed Jews onboard with the interfaith idea.
“There [would have been] no ecumenicalism if the Jews didn’t participate,” said Kline. “They needed us very badly.”
Rouse said land would be provided to build single-religion structures if the interfaith centers proved inadequate, but it was rarely done. There was no law against constructing standalone religious buildings in Columbia, but they were acknowledged to run against the grain of Rouse’s plan. As a result, developers would sometimes offer congregations plots of land at the commercial rate — up to five times the discounted price religious organizations usually enjoy — or flat-out refuse to build, according to Kuritzky’s thesis.
Yet a group of Orthodox Jews were not welcome in 1970, despite Rouse’s gospel of inclusivity. When 12 Orthodox families tried to settle and construct their own synagogue in Columbia, the Rouse Company deferred until they abandoned the idea. Malcom Sherman, an active member of the Jewish Council and Rouse Company official, conceded in a 1983 interview with Myer Kuritzky (Phyllis’ husband, who also wrote a thesis about Columbia) that “keeping the group out of Columbia was wrong.”
“He also suggested that … there is no reason why people should not be able to build their own homes and synagogues where they want,” Myer Kuritzky wrote.
Similarly, Wallace Hamilton, director of institutional development for the Rouse Company, recorded correspondence with one church whose congregants would “in moments of high spiritual transport, disrobe themselves for freer expression of their religious aspirations.” Hamilton reasonably believed they would “strain ecumenical relations with those affecting more conventional forms of worship” and slow-walked through the process until the group lost interest.
In 1974, Jewish congregations such as Beth Shalom began splitting from the interfaith centers, citing concerns of outgrowing the space, coordination problems and friction with other congregations as the rabbis predicted years earlier. At Columbia’s inception, the Jewish community was unified, but the playing of the Electric Prunes’ psychedelic adaptation of “Kol Nidre” during High-Holiday services evinced a difference of spiritual opinion among the Jewish community and overwhelmingly signaled the need for some space between sects.
The first rabbis looked askance at the interfaith idea — and many spoke harshly of it — but the concept seems to have stabilized over time. A few congregations have since moved from Columbia to serve its Jewish population from afar, but many still have faith in interfaith.
Where are we going?
There is no consensus on where Columbia goes from here. Some feel its Jewish community is on the decline, while others claim it is only gaining steam.
The same problems plague both the interfaith experiment and the Jewish community, Berlin said. Columbia is an aging community, and younger people are not joining congregations or affiliating at the rate they used to, which poses problems for congregations’ longevity.
“Are the younger people going to come fill those seats physically and financially?” Berlin asked.
But there is an upside. Randi Leshin, 30, believes that, while the community is aging, many younger Jews — who account for around 32 percent of Howard County’s Jewish population — are adopting a more religious lifestyle.
“I think the age group 22 to 45 is really flourishing,” she said. “I feel like it’s a large group of young Jewish families that are becoming more active as of late.”
As for the success of the interfaith project, that’s tricky to evaluate. Rouse contended Columbia was not a utopian experiment, but its programs certainly have that feel. Judging the place by its lofty goals can lead to disappointment, but beyond Columbia’s ideology sits a city considered one of the top places to live in the United States — ahead of its time on issues of fair housing, religious interchange, education and equality.
Columbia’s religious experiment would have been impossible without its Jewish community, and the inverse is just as true.
“Nothing but good came from the advent of the city of Columbia,” Kline said.
James Whitlow is an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.