Over The Wire

April 26, 2013
BY By Maayan Jaffe
B’nai Israel is raising the bar on synagogue engagement. What can others learn?

For all the crime statistics and delinquency portrayed on “The Wire,” and even reported in The Baltimore Sun, downtown Baltimore is still an amazing place to be. You can drive less than five minutes and find something exciting to do. There are bright lights and hons and foods lathered in Old Bay. Sure, it can be a little rough around the edges, but it is beautiful in its own way.

That Charm City charm has not escaped the Jewish community.

Downtown Jewish Baltimore is on the rebound. And at the heart of it is an unlikely warm and pulsing place: B’nai Israel Synagogue.

This year, the shul, located at 27 Lloyd Street next to the Jewish Museum of Maryland, is celebrating 140 years of spiritual service in Jewish Baltimore.

Rabbi Etan and Tammy Mintz, with children Ilana and Shlomo, have been a driving force behind B’nai Israel’s growth.

Rabbi Etan and Tammy Mintz, with children Ilana and Shlomo, have been a driving force behind B’nai Israel’s growth.

B’nai Israel, said its new spiritual leader, Rabbi Etan Mintz, used to be at the center of more than two dozen area synagogues. But with Jewish flight to suburbia, most of the institutions moved or closed.

“B’nai Israel has been able to miraculously survive through thick and thin,” said Rabbi Mintz. “It is the oldest active Orthodox congregation in Maryland.”

Looking at articles in the Baltimore Jewish Times’ archives of 20 years ago, one reads about a shul hanging on by on a thread. Today’s article — and one that was recently published in The New York Times — is a story about revitalization.

“It gives you chills,” said Mintz. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

It’s not that downtown Baltimore has grown so much, but it has grown, said Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The last community study, released in 2010, showed less numerical vibrancy than area Jewish thought-leaders expected. In 1999, according to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, there were 1,400 Jewish people living in 1,100 households in downtown Baltimore, which includes the area around the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. In 2010, there were 2,300 Jewish people in 1,700 households. That’s a difference of only 600 Jewish households over an 11-year period.

“We were expecting more growth,” said Hoffman, who explained that the majority of Jews living downtown are young singles and young couples. He said Baltimore is now starting to see baby boomers moving downtown to be on the water.

“That trend is just starting to happen,” he said.

Beyond community size, B’nai Israel has other obstacles, too. Across the country, synagogues are contracting, struggling to keep their numbers stable. While in Baltimore, said Hoffman, 46 percent of Jewish families still belong to a congregation, nationally that number is slightly lower. There is a growing understanding that we are at a period of immense and intense change in the way our Jewish organizations do business.

“It’s a tough time for synagogues, as with other Jewish communal institutions,” explained Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut professor of education at American Jewish University. “Membership is flat or declining, federation campaigns are flat, and day school enrollment is flat. In synagogues, the base is shrinking. With late marriage, families with children ready for bar/bat mitzvah/religious school training are showing up when the adults are in their late 30s or early 40s. Aging baby boomers often leave the synagogue or retreat to the sidelines. Most synagogues do very little to engage young Jewish professionals whose notions of affiliation are quite different. … Across the country, we are seeing synagogues merge and even close up.”

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