With a grand new indoor stairway, a reconfigured downstairs classroom space and a redesigned sanctuary that brings the celebrant and congregation closer together, Reservoir Hill’s Beth Am Synagogue on Sunday proudly showed off the wonders that $5.5 million in renovations can bring to a 97-year-old building.
But perhaps the most notable wonder of all, congregants and residents of the Beth Am community agreed, is that the synagogue remains ensconced in Baltimore. Even as so many Jewish houses of worship have moved from the central city to the outskirts and Baltimore County, Beth Am remains as both a center of Jewish faith and a gathering place for the surrounding community.
“It’s quite an accomplishment. I’m very proud of what they did here,” said Daniel Appleby, 63, who lives near Mount Washington and has worshiped at Beth Am for about five years. “It’s great for the neighborhood. It’s great for the congregation. It’s an investment in Baltimore city and in the community.”
As Appleby and others looked on, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg and longtime congregant Mark Joseph attached a mezuza outside the West Baltimore synagogue’s refurbished Chauncey Avenue entrance. In Jewish tradition, the case containing parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah is attached to the doorpost of a Jewish home.
The multimillion-dollar renovation project, which began in January and was completed in September, ensures that Beth Am’s “impact on the city will endure for generations to come,” 7th District Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III told the 200 or so people in attendance. Calling the synagogue “a beacon of light for so many,” Pinkett praised the congregation for remaining in Baltimore “when you could have retreated" to another location.
Added U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who grew up in nearby Ashburton and also spoke Sunday, the renovations are a promise “that the Jewish community’s presence will remain strong in Reservoir Hill.”
Perhaps the most visible result of the project is the staircase connecting the lower floor to the sanctuary level. Its handrails, designed by local artists David and Eli Hess, are made of 129 balusters and newel posts, some new and some reclaimed from other buildings, but each different. The idea, according to a plaque at the foot of the staircase, is to represent “the diversity of Beth Am’s congregation — a community of individuals from across Baltimore.”
Located on Eutaw Place and opened in 1922, the building that houses Beth Am began its life as home to Chizuk Amuno, a congregation that worshiped there until 1968, when it moved to its current Baltimore County location, on Stevenson Road in Pikesville. Six years later, a new congregation, led by a retired president of Baltimore Hebrew University, bought the building, taking the name Beth Am, Hebrew for “House of the People.”
By locating in the city, Beth Am was bucking a trend. As recently as 1950, the majority of Baltimore-area Jews lived within the city limits. By 1970, three-quarters of the population had relocated to the northwest sections of the city or to Baltimore County. In 2010, just 30% of the area’s 93,400 Jews lived in the city, according to a study from the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
“In 1974, remaining in the city and in our neighborhood was a big deal,” Burg, who came to Baltimore from Chicago in the summer of 2010, said in an interview before Sunday’s ceremonies. “It was very much a contrary move to what most synagogues were doing.”
But simply staying in the city wasn’t enough, the rabbi said. Weaving itself into the fabric of the community was necessary. Even with a healthy-sized congregation today of some 465 households, the synagogue considers it important to extend its reach beyond the faithful.
“At some point, we realized that being in the neighborhood was not sufficient, we needed to get involved in the neighborhood,” Burg said. “So, we started doing social action work, volunteerism at the local school, neighborhood cleaning efforts, collections for social charities. ... We do a lot of relational work, a lot of kind of softening boundaries, getting to know our neighbors, hosting them in our building, going out into the community and participating in community events in Reservoir Hill.”
The list of outside groups that meet at Beth Am is long, says David I. Rothenberg, the synagogue’s executive director: the Upper Eutaw Madison Neighborhood Association, Jews United for Justice, Residents Against the Tunnels and more, including Girl Scout troops and adult education classes.
“We want to be a central location for the neighborhood,” he said while preparing for Sunday’s ceremonies.
That goal can only be helped by the renovations project, which included reconfiguring the area downstairs into classroom and meeting spaces, adding a social hall, new bathrooms, ramps for handicapped access, a new kitchen and more. All work was done within the existing space, leaving the historic building’s footprint largely untouched.
Forced to relocate while the work was ongoing, the congregation held services at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road until the work was completed.
In all, Burg said, the congregation raised some $13 million, enough to not only pay for the renovations, but also set up an endowment and cover other costs. (A proud Rothenberg noted that 85% of Beth Am’s membership contributed.)
And the work might not be done; at some point, the rabbi said, Beth Am hopes to build on an adjacent piece of property, so the synagogue can move its offices from its current location, about 1½ miles away in Charles Village.
But for now, Beth Am and its congregation are happy to bask in the glow of their new digs.
“It’s amazing to just walk around and think about what it used to look like, and how nice it is now,” said Reservoir Hill resident Ashley Pressman, 43, who came to the ceremonies with her sons, Max, 8, and Ethan, 6. “The way they’ve done the communal gathering spaces is really nice.”
Lifelong Beth Am congregant Amy Nathanson, 42, who brought along her son, Max, 4 (“and a half,” he stressed), agreed.
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“It’s very exciting, and it’s really turned out wonderfully. Being that we do live in the city, keeping this in the community is definitely very important to us.”