Over The Wire

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

all in the family
B’nai Israel’s Orthodox title and standards don’t exclude the non-Orthodox, or even the unaffiliated. B’nai Israel is a melting pot of Jewish outlooks and perspectives, of all people welcomed under one stunning, historic roof.

“I have never seen a shul like B’nai Israel that has people of so many different backgrounds and yet manages to satisfy the needs of each of them,” said Pelcovits.

“It doesn’t care who you are. If you walk in, everyone greets you, wants to get to know you,” said Dr. Fishbein, who attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago. Her husband, Dr. Jonathan Samet, was raised at Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

At B’nai Israel, there are multiple African-American Jews, Asian Jews, a Filipino family.

“It’s the kind of thing you don’t see in other communities,” she said.

“Welcoming” was the main word all interviewees used to talk about B’nai Israel. Klein noted that some women wear sheitels (wigs) to shul, while others come in jeans.

It doesn’t matter.

“I like that I can practice how I want to practice without feeling I have to hide something, if I am doing something a certain way or not doing it a certain way,” said Goldwasser. “I can be comfortable practicing Judaism how I want.”

Rabbi Hoffman said what attracts young people to synagogues today is a spiritual community, one that is nonjudgmental and allows them to come without insisting they understand it all or have the same background as everyone else.

Said Dr. Fishbein: “There is only one clique at B’nai Israel, and everyone is in it.”

creating A Community
Acceptance breeds community, deep friendships that keep people coming back. As Wolfson explained, engagement is based not on number of programs but on people-to-people connections. And while the relationship with the rabbi may be a first step, relationships among the congregational community will ensure a strong future.

“Everyone has a yearning and a desire for a meaningful community and relationships,” said Rabbi Mintz.
Dr. Fishbein’s son attends a Spanish immersion school. She said she assumed her friends would be his friends’ parents.

“All my friends are from B’nai Israel. It has been awesome,” she said.

Goldwasser seconded that sentiment. She said when she first came to a program at B’nai Israel she was shocked by the number of young professionals who were in attendance. The community atmosphere is what kept her coming back. She was looking to meet friends. At B’nai Israel, she found them.

“I attend B’nai Israel to support this historic shul,” said Shoken. “But at the same time, coming to shul here keeps my Judaism alive. When I lived on Park Heights Avenue, it was easy to identify as a Jew; a Shabbat parade was on my doorstep every week. In downtown, I need a shul like B’nai Israel to keep in touch with my Jewish roots and to be a part of a community.”

“It’s a very gripping story that somehow, through thick and thin, this one synagogue has persevered,” said Rabbi Mintz. “It is one thing to restore a building. It’s another to restore a community.”

While Rabbi Mintz is certainly happy with the shul’s recent growth, he said this is just the beginning.

Rabbi Mintz is already collaborating with others doing good Jewish work downtown to expand his network and the community’s success. He regularly programs with Charm City Tribe’s Rabbi Jessy Gross, with Moishe House and with the Downtown Baltimore Jewish Community Center, which opened a storefront facility this past winter.

“Everyone gets there is a communal objective to what they are trying to do,” said Hoffman. “If we are successful as a collective, every organization will be more successful as an individual.”

For B’nai Israel’s 140th birthday, Rabbi Mintz formed a committee, which launched “a year of celebrating.” That kicks off with a boat cruise at the Inner Harbor on May 18.

In addition, he is continuing to outreach. He said he talks to those in the room to find out what they need, and also looks for folks not walking in the door, to see how he can change that. Rabbi Mintz does not want to become complacent. No, he said, he will innovate and take risks.

“I plan to continually create and re-create,” he said. “I know we cannot do the same thing year in and year out.”
“Devotion and hard work were needed to rescue and renew B’nai Israel from the sad and desperate condition into which it had fallen in the late 1960s after the area had been largely abandoned by the Jewish community,” said Peniel Moed. “We have many … members … who have remained loyal and supportive, sustained by the memories of many earlier generations and devoted to keeping our 140-year-old synagogue active and flourishing and growing.”

Klein said she is grateful for the Mintzes’ drive and for their believing in B’nai Israel and coming with big dreams.

“They came with their eyes wide open, and they do have big dreams — people feel that from them,” said Klein. “In such a short time, they have done so much. We are eager and excited and grateful to see what it is going to become.”

“My greatest wish is to see a young couple meet here, marry here and have a brit milah or baby-naming ceremony here, have their child’s bar or mitzvah here and to witness that child standing under the chuppa in our sanctuary,” said Shoken. “L’dor v’dor — from generation to generation. What more could you ask of a shul?”

Have Fun, B’nai Israel Style

Next three B’nai Israel programs

April 27: Shabbat for B’nai Israel
Friday night services at 6:30 p.m., Shabbat morning services at 9 a.m., followed by Kiddush with birthday cake.

B’nai Israel, 27 Lloyd Street, Baltimore; no reservations needed; suggested donation of $18, $40, $100 or $140 toward shul Kiddush fund.

April 28: Lag BaOmer BBQ
3 p.m. moon bounce, kickball and BBQ. In collaboration with Chabad of Downtown and Moishe House. Patterson Park Central Pavilion. Reservations at bnaiisraelcongregation.org/donate.php; suggested donation of $5 per person, $18 family maximum.

May 9: Wine & Cheese Reception with Ambassador Hans Manz
7 to 8:30 p.m., Dr. Hans Peter Manz, Austria’s ambassador to the United States, will share thoughts about Jewish life in Austria and relations with the Jewish community in the U.S. In collaboration with American Jewish Congress, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Moishe House and Baltimore Jewish Council

Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore; reservations via email at harrisj@ajc.org; cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door.

For more information about these and future programs, or to learn more about B’nai Israel and B’nai Israel Young Adults, visit jewishdowntown.org or biyabalti more.org. Contact via email at office@bnaiisraelcongregation.org or biyabaltimore@gmail.com. Find on Facebook at facebook.com/Bnai.Israel.Baltimore or facebook.com/groups/biyabaltimore.

Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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