About a year-and-a-half ago, David Beller knew the proverbial writing was on the wall. The 63-year-old Pikesville resident had come to grips with the likelihood that Temple Emanuel, of which he had been a member for decades, and its storied legacy would not continue to endure without some much-needed assistance.
Fortunately for Beller and the Reform congregation of 120 families, they found refuge at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the area’s largest Reform synagogue with more than 1,200 member families. It’s been a little more than a year since BHC absorbed Emanuel and its membership, sacred objects and other resources, and things could not be going better.
As he and other former Emanuel congregants and clergy prepare to ring in the fast-approaching High Holidays at their new spiritual home, Beller said the transition has exceeded his initial expectations.
“People were uncertain what to expect when we transitioned from such a small congregation to a larger one,” said Beller, a past president of Emanuel. “But what we found is that everyone at Baltimore Hebrew really got it in terms of how to make people feel welcomed.”
From the start, BHC has pulled out all the stops in an effort to make Emanuel members feel right at home and to replicate the same inclusive congregational setting Emanuel prided itself on. Nowhere has that been more evident perhaps than the High Holidays and the leadership positions Emanuel members have assumed at BHC, as well as the exhibit BHC created to honor Emanuel’s six-plus-decade history.
Last year during Yom Kippur services, for instance, Emanuel emeritus rabbi at BHC Gustav Buchdahl delivered a sermon and performed a service that addressed the “gates of justice.” For both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, several Emanuel congregants joined members of the BHC clergy on the bema and opened the doors to the ark, carried the Torah and read scripture. It was so well received that plans for this year’s High Holiday services, though still not fully finalized, could include something similar, Beller said.
“Most important in all this are the people, some of whom I have known and been with for over 50 years,” said Buchdahl, who plans to give another Yom Kippur sermon this year. “They are at services. They are at Torah study. They participate in the lifeblood of Baltimore Hebrew.”
Even at the age of 82, Buchdahl is as energized and as committed as ever to serving his congregation in whatever capacity is needed. He and his wife, Shelia, regularly make the five-minute drive from their Pikesville residence to BHC, where they attend services, congregational meetings and Torah studies.
For Buchdahl, the “greatest delight” BHC has given him is the platform to continue building on the pillars he established at Emanuel: social justice, Torah study and joy of worship.
Without the overwhelming support of the BHC clergy, including Rabbis Andrew Busch and Elissa Sachs-Kohen, none of that would have been possible to continue, Buchdahl said.
“The administrative staff has bent over backwards to meet our needs,” Buchdahl said.
The normally mild-mannered and low-key Busch, spiritual leader at BHC since 2008, can’t help but revel about “the tremendous burst of energy Emanuel members have provided,” calling it a “smashing success.”
At BHC, Busch said, the goal has always been to treat new and longtime members with the same level of warmth and compassion.
“With so many Emanuel members coming here from a congregation that had such a proud history, we wanted to make sure we were very conscious in how we handled that,” Busch said. “I think that’s something our longtime BHC members appreciate with how we handle our own history.”
Reminders of Emanuel are hard to miss when visitors make their way through the entrance to BHC. Immediately past the doorway, displayed in a glass frame, is a hand-dyed abstract cloth portraying the Ten Commandments that once hung above the ark at Emanuel.
Other sacred objects and resources — including original artwork — that BHC inherited after the 2016 sale of Emanuel’s Reisterstown property, which housed the temple for 20 years, are enshrined for all to view. Each time Buchdahl said he walks down the hallway, he views the image of Rabbi Samuel Glasner, Emanuel’s founding rabbi, which serves as a symbol
of Emanuel’s evolution.
“BHC has very much made us feel right at home,” Buchdahl said.
On the BHC board, Emanuel members hold two spots. The BHC brotherhood and sisterhood groups have been boosted with an influx of Emanuel congregants. The BHC volunteer choir also has some new voices with the addition of Emanuel’s most vocally inclined.
For Beller, the active roles Emanuel congregants have taken at BHC gives him great satisfaction and shows the resilient spirit of those who have taken the move in stride.
“Our members have been involved early and often, so you really can see how much pride and commitment they have, which has been beneficial all the way around,” Beller said.
Alan Katz, 76, of Owings Mills, a longtime member and past president of Emanuel, said change is often difficult and that Emanuel’s history is profound.
Though he expressed it is impossible to completely replicate the intimate atmosphere that defined Emanuel for so many years, BHC has gone above and beyond the call of duty to answer the challenge.
“Ten years ago, I would have never thought about joining BHC,” Katz said. “Now, I couldn’t imagine belonging anywhere else, and that’s a real testament to the type of leadership BHC has.”