AS THE SOUND of the shofar ushers in the Jewish New Year this weekend, Lloyd Street's B'nai Israel will be packed.
Big deal? Yes it is, because the 127-year-old congregation -- the only fully operational Orthodox synagogue in downtown Baltimore -- has staged an amazing turnaround. It's membership is growing, it has selected 25-year-old Shraga Goldenhersh as its new permanent rabbi, and it is preparing for a $1 million fund-raising drive to build a social hall.
Many factors contribute to B'nai Israel's improved health: new residential construction around the harbor, a strong downtown job market, more interest in religion among students and faculty at the area's professional schools and research institutions.
B'nai Israel's close relationship with the adjoining Jewish Historical Museum of Maryland -- which controls the nearby Lloyd Street Synagogue, now a museum -- has also been crucial. It permitted the renovation of the stately sanctuary, which boasts a finely carved Torah ark, stained glass windows and an elaborate brass chandelier.
A century ago, East Baltimore was the hub of the city's Jewish community. Even after the residential areas and institutions shifted first to the west and then to the northwest, Lombard Street's corned-beef row of delicatessens, bakeries and poultry merchants remained.
After much decline and uncertainty, the Lombard Street area is on the verge of further changes. The Flag House public housing project is about to be demolished and replaced by a townhouse community that will be closely linked to the Inner Harbor. Along Baltimore Street, buildings that once housed Jewish institutions have been torn down. An office park is about to be inaugurated.
This refocus is likely to make B'nai Israel stronger still.
Or, as S. Leonard Sollins, the congregation's longtime president, puts it, the landmark synagogue continues to "have a magical hold" on the people of Baltimore.