Is it a miracle that the beautiful building of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation, just 150 feet from where rioters tossed rocks at police and two blocks from stores that were devastated at the Mondawmin Mall during the recent Baltimore riots wasn’t damaged?
My father, Dr. Nathan Drazin, became the first rabbi of Shaarei Tfiloh in 1933. In the beginning, the synagogue was very successful. It was crowded every Shabbat. On the holidays, there were no seats for my brother and sister and me. In fact, Dad placed me in the choir, although I’m a monotone, so that I could have somewhere to sit. The synagogue had over 2,000 seats
However, in the early 1950s the neighborhood began to change. Blacks moved in, and the congregational leaders wanted to relocate the synagogue uptown. Dad refused. He told his congregants that this was immoral. Blacks had a right to live where they wished, and we should get along with all people.
The current part-time rabbi at Shaarei Tfiloh is David Herman whose main position is with the Baltimore City government. He told me that, unlike the 1968 Baltimore riot, the 2015 riot was not due to race but stemmed from the perception that the police unofficially deliver a form of street justice due to their frustration with what they perceive to be a revolving door in the judicial system for criminals.
Herman said there is no Jewish-black issue. He told me that the riots started in a school across from the Mondawmin Mall because kids had shared on Facebook that they wanted to ‘purge the city.’ City officials knew about the texts an hour before the riot but did nothing. The situation was exacerbated when buses and subways were canceled, and the youngsters had no way of getting home.
In an abundance of caution, Herman drove to Shaarei Tfiloh at 4 a.m. when he heard a report that a black church was set on fire a few blocks from Shaarei Tfiloh. He removed the Torah scrolls and the historic minute books of 1920 to 1960 that cover the interesting board meetings before and after Dad became the synagogue’s first rabbi in 1933.
Viewers of the riot on TV saw many pictures of the CVS store that was burned. What most people do not know is that just behind the CVS store is the oldest Jewish burial ground in Maryland. None of the graves was touched during the riot.
The same phenomenon also occurred during the last major Baltimore riot in 1968. The original neighbors and now their children and grandchildren call the synagogue, Shaarei Tfiloh, part of their neighborhood.
In short, Shaarei Tfiloh has had and still has positive links to the black community since its first rabbi, my dad, and the Baltimore Jewish community worked hard to preserve good relations. Is it possible that the rioters knew about these links and therefore did no damage to the shul and burial ground? Is this a miracle?
Rabbi Israel Drazin, a retired Army general and graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, lives in Florida.