In the shelter of a Jewish covenant


An ancient, God-centered way of life is thriving in Baltimore beyond anyone's expectations. Or prayers.

As old as Moses and as fresh as the kosher pizza sold on Reisterstown Road, Orthodox Judaism is booming here.

"We talk about it every day," said Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, the cornerstone of local Orthodoxy.

Of the 100,000 or so Jews in the metro area, about 20,000 are Orthodox: followers of the 613 laws and attendant rituals derived from God's covenant on Mount Sinai with the children of Israel.

The fruit of such fidelity is a community in which the ills plaguing the rest of American society are nearly absent.

"Crime as it exists in the general public does not exist with us," said Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, one of the most powerful figures in local Orthodoxy. "There may be some white-collar crime, but there are no murders among us. Drug abuse is so unusual, the news spreads like wildfire. Divorce is rising, but it's still much lower, maybe 2 percent. There is no illiteracy, and I haven't heard of an unwed pregnancy."

Jews have lived in Baltimore since Colonial days, long before the advent of Conservative and Reform movements, which relaxed many strictures still held sacrosanct by movements, which relaxed many strictures still held sacrosanct by the Orthodox.

In 1845, Baltimore Jews built the first synagogue in Maryland, a still-functioning prayer house on Lloyd Street.

On tides of prosperity, persecution and assimilation, succeeding generations moved farther and farther from original neighborhoods near the harbor. The pickle-and-herring bustle of Lloyd and Lombard streets was abandoned for the great townhouses of Eutaw Place and Druid Hill Park, which in turn were left behind for the promise of suburbia in Park Circle, Park Heights, Liberty Heights and Randallstown.

Northwest corridor

Today, as Reform and Conservative Jews push deeper into Owings Mills and other areas beyond the Beltway, the Orthodox have dug in along the city's northwest corridor. The population is particularly dense between Greenspring Avenue and Reisterstown Road.

"This area is a ghetto where you can get all of your needs met," said Marilyn Fox, a New Yorker who moved to Baltimore after marrying a local man.

Passing motorists may see only waves of black hats and beards in the weekly Sabbath parade, but Baltimore Orthodoxy is not homogenous.

The male-dominated faith is often criticized as demeaning to women, yet there is a growing feminist movement.

Dietary laws dictate what a devout Jew can and cannot eat, but more than a few Orthodox have become kosher vegetarians.

Across this spectrum are varying degrees of adherence to the essential obligations of the faith, some of which are daunting to ,, even the most conscientious.

Cooperation and pride

Passionate debate over nuance and interpretation is part of Orthodoxy. But local rabbis take pride in the extraordinary cooperation among Baltimore's Orthodox leaders.

"There is no strife," Rabbi Heinemann contends.

In Baltimore since 1967, the rabbi's stewardship at the Agudath Israel congregation and his authority over the city's kosher food industry have led local Orthodox to a more stringent observance.

Although this Orthodoxy is reasonably free of extremes on either end, there are simmering disputes between the left and the right. While they argue over whether recreation and education should include both sexes, moderates work for common ground between the liberals and sticklers.

"Centrist Judaism is a euphemism for a little bit to the left," said Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, an administrator at the Ner Israel college and the son of its president. "The center of Baltimore Orthodoxy is closer to Agudath."

Most Orthodox wouldn't think of driving a car on the Sabbath, which would break the law against starting a fire by "igniting" the engine. Because of this, many Orthodox buy homes within walking distance of the synagogue.

Such practices have helped stabilize home ownership along upper Park Heights Avenue, which has at least eight Orthodox synagogues.

Another four or five dot side streets.

The Sabbath is not only a day for rest, but also for savoring family and judicious recreation.

Despite laws against any form of creation, such as writing, there are families who believe that banning a Sabbath game of Scrabble is going too far.

So rich in synagogues is Baltimore that any Orthodox Jew should be able to find comfortable sanctuary.

At last count, there were 27, including one for Iranian Jews who had fled persecution.

"We came here from Atlanta, which is a one-synagogue town," said Jay Taffel, a CSX Corp. economic analyst. "In Baltimore, the choices were overwhelming."

In 1967, there were about 700 Sabbath-observing families in the metro area, according to Rabbi Heinemann. Through a slow, steady growth that surged in the 1980s, the number tripled.

Today, about 35 to 50 new Orthodox families settle here every year. So many Jews are walking to synagogue for Sabbath services that there is talk of lobbying the city to widen the sidewalks along Park Heights Avenue.

Education comes first

"There was no plan to bring Orthodox people" to upper Park Heights, said Stuart Macklin, an Orthodox who volunteers with the Jewish community group called CHAI. "I don't remember any meeting we had 10 years ago to attract the Orthodox, but it happened."

It happened in Baltimore for a host of reasons -- religious, economic and inextricable.

To the Orthodox, nothing is more important than educating their children to God's sacred covenant. Such families, often large ones, created a need for schools. The schools need teachers, who must have housing and synagogues and kosher markets.

To educate their children, Orthodox teachers and parents will make great sacrifices. Baltimore's standard of living -- with housing and food prices about a third of those in New York or Los Angeles -- makes that sacrifice easier to bear.

Young teachers and rabbis start their own families and the cycle continues to the point where, in Baltimore, the community is so self-sustaining there is an Orthodox used car lot and an Orthodox phone book in which to find it.

The root: Ner Israel

The taproot is the 62-year-old Ner Israel Rabbinical College, a world-renowned institution that has turned out three generations Orthodox scholars, many of whom remain in Baltimore after graduation. Every local Orthodox institution has at least one major player educated at Ner Israel.

Baltimore Orthodoxy also has prospered through the unanticipated, global phenomenon of ba'al teshuva, a return from assimilation to observance.

Primarily a movement of young to middle-aged adults, ba'al teshuva is especially pronounced in Baltimore. Such newly returned Jews are found in every local congregation and one -- Tiferes Yisroel on Park Heights Avenue -- is largely made up of Jews who were reared in nonobservant homes.

A search for meaning

"Those who have not found meaning in the secular world are very central to ba'al teshuva," said Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, who leads Tiferes Yisroel.

"Becoming an Orthodox Jew is not a magic potion for making life good," he said. "Life is difficult, and the world is often a brutal place. Orthodoxy offers the chance to find meaning in the struggle."

Along with migration from other cities and the return of lost souls, the number of local Orthodox is rising, boosted by birth rates dramatically higher than the rest of society.

In size, Orthodox families of the 1990s often resemble Roman Catholic families of the 1950s.

Unlike Catholics, the number of children at the dinner table is not the result of a religious ban on birth control. Instead, it's an attempt to fulfill the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" while perpetuating Judaism in a time of high assimilation and low Jewish birthrates overall.

"Anywhere between four and six kids is average and there are plenty with 10, 11 and 12," said Sheftel Neuberger.

The eruv

Whether the Orthodox Jew in Baltimore is an aged Bible scholar or a ba'al teshuva whose first step toward his ancient ancestors is giving up cheeseburgers because of the law against mixing meat and dairy, there is room inside the eruv for all.

A rabbinically sanctioned loophole in Judaic law, an eruv permits an observant Jew certain exceptions to the rule against carrying any object outside the home on the Sabbath. It does so by extending a household's boundary. It is an unbroken "fence" invisible to the untrained eye, an enclosure made up of such things as telephone wire, highway walls, cemetery fences and hedges that meet prescribed codes of density.

Where no suitable objects exist, string is deliberately hung to complete the fence.

As Sabbath draws near, "Is the eruv up?" rings through Orthodox neighborhoods. If there is doubt, such as when snow or ice play havoc with string and tree limbs, the anxious Jew can call the eruv hot line for an update.

Baltimore has a generous eruv -- 28 miles around Northwest Baltimore and the suburbs just beyond it. Since 1981, its size and uncontested legitimacy have been a great draw for Orthodox Jews from other cities and sweet comfort to those already here.

"It's not that we're trying to finagle; we're recognizing our limitations," said Rabbi Shalom Salfer, Baltimore's chief eruv inspector. "We're not in charge of ourselves and our homes, the Almighty is. If people could carry on the Sabbath, they'd [eventually] carry on business. The eruv is a reminder."

'Better than New York'

Inside this reminder are schools, restaurants, bookstores, day care, prayer houses, and ritual purification baths for men, women, and cooking utensils.

Baltimore also has an Orthodox court to settle disputes within the community, organizations that offer free loans to the needy and kosher meals to shut-ins, and apartments for out-of-towners with relatives in local hospitals.

All of which have come together in Baltimore to create a quality of observant life that some Orthodox rank higher than New York.

"This is better than New York," said Rabbi Chaim Landau of the Ner Tamid Congregation on Pimlico Road.

"Baltimore offers everything New York has in a much safer environment and an economic standard that is easier to attain," he said. "The number [of Jews] isn't in the millions, which is overwhelming, and the Orthodox community is contained geographically. Orthodox Jews are coming here from major cities where crime is epidemic. It's not that there's no crime in Baltimore, but Baltimore is safer."

And better than L.A.

Michael Langbaum, a 35-year-old neonatologist reared Orthodox in Los Angeles, moved his family to Baltimore in 1991 to take a job with Johns Hopkins. The idea was to stay for a year and go home.

Now, home is Baltimore, and he's trying to persuade his parents to move here.

"It's nice to get back to a warm, hometown atmosphere that Los Angeles was when I was a kid," said Dr. Langbaum, who looked at houses in Baltimore County before deciding his family would be more content in the heart of the Orthodox community. "My kids are growing up more like I did, able to ride their bikes down the block with their friends. My kids never played in the front yard in Los Angeles."

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