Blintzes, baseball, bar mitzvahs: suburban life with a Jewish flavor Many have moved to Reisterstown, Owings Mills area


Miles from the shuls of Park Heights and generations from East Baltimore's Corned Beef Row, a roadside restaurant dressed in gleaming chrome and tile is becoming a Jewish institution.

At the New Towne Diner, the steadily growing Jewish population of Owings Mills and Reisterstown comes to eat -- and meet.

"Jewish people like that," says Ilene Cooper, a Northwest Baltimore native who moved to Owings Mills in 1992. "They sit, and they schmooze."

For about a decade, Jews have been heading by the thousands to these fast-growing suburbs. They have come from neighborhoods as near as Pikesville and Randallstown, and from cities as distant as Moscow and Odessa.

Now the synagogues, temples and other bedrock institutions are following the faithful out of Northwest Baltimore. And as the menorahs are lighted tonight to signal the start of Hanukkah, Jewish life is increasingly intertwined with suburban ways.

Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation, has moved out of Randallstown and transformed a vacant factory into a synagogue in Owings Mills. Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation from the Milford Mill area, also headed for the Owings Mills area. And Baltimore-based Har Sinai, the nation's oldest continuous Reform congregation, has prepared for a move from Upper Park Heights by snapping up acreage in

Worthington Valley.

A Jewish Community Center, built amid cornfields nearly two decades ago to await the wave of migrants, strives to be a focal point for Jews scattered among the area's subdivisions. And such educational and social service groups as the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning and Living have opened suburban offices.

But there are complications in suburbia, where youth baseball and soccer are rival "religions."

"It's sometimes said out here that the threat to Jewish continuity doesn't come from anti-Semitism. It comes from Little League," says Mimi Kraus, site manager of the Owings Mills office of Jewish Family Services. "Hebrew school gets cut short. That's what the community here is up against."

For all of the newly arriving institutions and cultural changes, perhaps nothing speaks of Jewish heritage like food -- and congregating around plates of it.

Just north of Franklin Boulevard, sample the "gypsy salami," smoked mackerel, pickled green tomatoes and other Russian favorites at the Babushka Deli. At Snyder's Cafe and Deli on Reisterstown Road, order the whitefish salad and watch the country club women play their afternoon mah-jongg game.

Or line up for a table at the New Towne Diner, built on the ashes of the Eisenhower-era Twin Kiss ice cream stand. Not even 2 years old, the Reisterstown Road diner is mentioned in the same breath as legendary gathering spots such as Mandell & Ballow or the Suburban House.

This is not a classic kosher deli -- the menu offers blintzes and potato pancakes, but also chicken fajitas and Yankee pot roast. Still, owner Bob Worgan estimates that his clientele is as much as 70 percent Jewish, so he is more than happy to fill the bread baskets with matzo for Passover.

Family reunions

Ilene Cooper, 45, a nurse, is a diner regular. Once a week, her family holds a reunion there. Her parents come from Pikesville, her aunt and uncle from Randallstown.

"We come here every Wednesday night," says her 74-year-old stepfather, Melvin Fine. "Religiously."

Cooper also catches up with friends from Owings Mills and with Northwestern High School alumni who have moved to the area.

Michael Goldstein, a Northwest Baltimore native who lives in Owings Mills, says the diner fills a cultural need. "I walked in tonight, I must have seen five or six neighbors. It gives you a little bit of unity," he says.

For decades, the core of Baltimore's Jewish community has migrated steadily northwest, from East Lombard Street to Eutaw Place to Park Heights Avenue in the city, then into Pikesville and Randallstown, in Baltimore County.

A 1986 study for the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund showed a Jewish population of 7,510 in the Owings Mills ZIP code. As the Associated begins laying groundwork for a new study, some estimate that as many as 15,000 of the Baltimore region's 90,000 Jews live in the Owings Mills-Reisterstown area.

Residents and religious leaders say young Jewish families are moving to the area for the same reasons that many people move further from Baltimore: to find value in a newly built house and escape high city tax rates; to reduce the crime risk; and to find better public schools.

And it didn't hurt that the area promised a liberal dose of Jewish culture.

"One of the things that attracted them was the possibility that this would be a community," says Gustav Buchdahl, rabbi at Temple Emanuel. "In other words, families with young children ,, needing other young children."

The result is a community grappling with a new generation of issues.

After her family moved here, Sharon Bloom grew weary of pulling her daughter out of a Brownie troop's events that fell on Friday nights or Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The solution was joining one of the Sabbath-observant troops formed in recent years.

Lynda Wilner and her family moved to the Hunters Glen neighborhood of Owings Mills in 1986, and now she juggles her three children's sports schedules with their religious education.

This year is particularly tough for Wilner's 12-year-old daughter, Mariel. She plays soccer, basketball and softball -- and is studying for her bat mitzvah.

"She'll be missing some things relating to religion, and she'll be missing some things related to sports so we can accommodate both priorities," Wilner says. "The frustration is that you cannot do 100 percent of both."

Rachel Glaser, principal of the Beth Israel Religious School, says that since its days in Randallstown, the school has dismissed students 15 minutes early during the youth baseball season. "It bothers me, but we have to make compromises," she says.

Still, says Robert K. Brookland, a radiation oncologist who is president of the Har Sinai congregation, religious institutions are moving to the area to be closer to busy families that still thirst for spirituality.

'Context of values'

"The young families of today recognize that need and want to ensure that their families have a context of values and role models and understand what's important in life," he says. "Our moving out there is to be supportive of that drive."

Some who come to Owings Mills or Reisterstown come from half a world away.

Gail Kramer, director of immigrant resettlement services for Jewish Family Services, says more than 8,000 Soviet Jews have resettled in Baltimore since the early 1970s. About half live in Owings Mills or Reisterstown.

Six years after leaving his native Moscow, Lazar Ozeryan runs the Babushka Deli, sharing Reisterstown Shopping Center with a Burger King and a Rite Aid. He presides over smoked meats and fish, caviar and Russian candies.

"It is," he says, "Old World product."

Ozeryan, 49, was educated as a lawyer but worked as a supermarket manager in Moscow. He and his family emigrated after the Soviet Union collapsed -- and so, nearly, did the Russian economy.

Owings Mills represents the best of the idea of America as the land of opportunity, he said.

"This area is for people who are going to be rich people," he says. "My dream is, I want to buy a good house. A big house."

Where will the Jewish migration stop?

Rabbi Seymour Essrog has watched migration patterns for three decades, which includes his stint as rabbi at Beth Israel when the congregation was in Randallstown.

Now spiritual leader of Beth Shalom congregation in Carroll County, he notes that his Taylorsville congregation has grown from 20 to 136 families in less than three years.

Once Jews get past the idea that Carroll County may be too conservative for them, he predicts, they will enjoy it for the good schools, rolling hills and forests, whose appeal crosses ethnic lines.

"The country," he says, "is really beautiful."

Pub Date: 12/05/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad