Forty years later, an urban synagogue celebrates its birth

City's Beth Am congregation stayed in the city and thrived

Four decades ago, one of the area's oldest synagogues moved from its longtime home in the city to a sprawling campus in Pikesville, becoming part of a sweeping postwar exodus of Jews to the northwestern suburbs.

A few members of Chizuk Amuno didn't want to go. They arranged to buy their building in Reservoir Hill, reorganized under a different name, and prayed for the best.

"We had no idea whether we had any future or not," says Efrem Potts, the first president of Beth Am Congregation and its longest-tenured member.

Today, Beth Am is the largest Conservative congregation in the city, one of the few non-Orthodox synagogues with a growing membership, and a force for change in a non-Jewish neighborhood.

This weekend, it marks its 40th birthday with two days of food, klezmer music and dancing. Longtimers will share tales from the past. Its young rabbi will unveil plans for the future.

The festivities coincide with Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins at sundown on Tuesday. The timing is fitting.

"Hanukkah means 'rededication,' and I absolutely do think they're rededicating," says Deborah Cardin, assistant director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. "It makes great sense that they'd do this on Hanukkah Sabbath."

Cardin was referring to the sixth day of Hanukkah this Saturday, when the celebration's biggest events are scheduled.

Hanukkah plays a key role both in Jewish history and in the history of Beth Am, a congregation of about 500 families affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The holiday commemorates a triumph in the year 165 B.C., when a band of Jewish warriors — having watched enemy forces ransack the Temple of Jerusalem and ban their faith — recaptured the place and rededicated it as a house of worship.

After they did, the story goes, they could find only one day's worth of olive oil, the material traditionally used to light worship candles. Miraculously, though, it kept a candle lit for eight days.

Between Tuesday evening and next Wednesday, Jews around the world will light one candle per day in menorahs, traditional Jewish candelabra with nine branches. (The ninth candle, the shamash, is used to light the other eight.)

It's not as sacred a period as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah or Passover, but it's significant in the life of Jews, says Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, the energetic 38-year-old spiritual leader of Beth Am.

"It's a time to rekindle, rejoice and rededicate," says Burg, a guitar picker and singer who, with a few other congregants, will help cantor Ira Greenstein lead a musical Kabbalat Shabbat ("welcoming the Sabbath") service Friday evening. He calls the band Uncle Ira's Hebrew Washboard Ensemble.

"Those [services] are just fun," says Steffany Moonaz, a wife and mother in her 30s who joined Beth Am three years ago. "They're lighthearted, very easy on the kids. You're allowed to move around, dance and sing. It's one great way of connecting to a tradition."

It was just over 40 years ago that Chizuk Amuno, then 103 years old, decided it would leave the triple-arched stone building at 2501 Eutaw Place it had owned and occupied since 1922.

When the synagogue completed its move in 1968 to its current location, on Stevenson Lane near the Beltway, it became part of a huge demographic shift. As recently as 1950, the vast majority of Baltimore-area Jews had lived within the city limits. By 1970, three-fourths had moved toward or into Baltimore County northwest of the city.

(The ratio hasn't changed much. As of 2010, 30 percent of the area's 93,400 Jews lived in the city, with most of the rest in the northwestern suburbs, according to a Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore study.)

It took bold clarity, Cardin said, for a synagogue to resist such a wave.

Potts says the group didn't want to leave the building, an architectural landmark created by Joseph Evans Sperry, designer of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.

Designed to hold 1,200 people, it featured three arches in front, among other features that evoked the Byzantine-Moorish architecture Sperry loved.

"You weren't going to find a building like that in the suburbs," says Potts, who helped broker a deal to buy it "for a very reasonable price."

Some still lived in the neighborhood, a section of the city that once housed a thriving Jewish commercial district. Others had grown to love the sermons of Potts' father-in-law, Louis Kaplan, a charismatic rebbe (teacher of the Torah) and retired president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

This small group met for several years as a lesser branch of Chizuk Amuno. On Shabbat Hanukkah 1974, they made a clean break.

"It was not a coincidence that we opened that day," says Potts, an active businessman at 87. "I gave a talk at the first service. One thing I said was, 'It is especially fitting that we meet on the sixth candle to breathe life into this beautiful old building.'"

For more than two decades, Beth Am — The People's House — was small but bracingly different. It drew 40 or 50 people for weekly services, but the place was always packed when Kaplan spoke, usually on the High Holy Days.

About 15 years ago, the unaffiliated congregation joined the Conservative movement, a modern strain of Ashkenazi Judaism that affirms the divinity of God and the Torah but also allows for multiple avenues of interpretation.

That's part of the appeal that has let it thrive. At a time when more and more American Jews are unaffiliated with any one synagogue, Beth Am's membership has grown by 30 percent over the past five years alone.

"One thing we love is that it's very open, accepting, eclectic and diverse, but it's absolutely not off the wall. It takes tradition seriously," says Moonaz, who lives with her husband, Rob, daughter Soleil, 6, and son Vie, 3, in Patterson Park.

In the early to mid-20th century, the synagogue was the center of spiritual and social life in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Now that Reservoir Hill is more ethnically diverse, Burg, a Chicago native, has helped reconceive its mission.

In his five years at the helm, he has redoubled the congregation's volunteer efforts — helping build a playground, supporting an urban farm, working with students at John Eager Howard Elementary School.

"We work with neighborhood stakeholders … but do it in a collaborative, beneficial way. I always say that what's good for Beth Am is good for the neighborhood, and vice versa," says Burg, who elaborates on that idea in a blog he calls The Urban Rabbi.

On Saturday, he'll take a moment to announce the status of a two-year-old capital campaign. Members have already raised $8 million toward a new office suite, entrance and other building renovations, changes Burg said should "help us do better what we're already doing."

At this moment of rededication, Beth Am's senior member says that suggests a bright future.

"American Judaism is going to change over the next few decades," Potts says. "I'm not sure how or what it will look like. But I believe that 40 years from now, Beth Am will be going strong."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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