The program began two years ago, at a barbecue, with a chance meeting between a Roman Catholic nun and a student from Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish girls' school in Owings Mills.
The number of people involved is small, but the program's effects on them have been profound. Bright, committed Bais Yaakov teen-agers are bringing their practice of Judaism to new Jewish friends among the mentally retarded residents of the Gallagher Center, a Catholic institution on Pot Spring Road near Cockeysville.
"It's opened my eyes. It's broadened my horizons," said Tami Fleischman, 16. "I'm very enthusiastic."
In the laughing face and voice of her new friend -- with whom Tami has spent her Thursday evenings for the past year -- was clear evidence of love, excitement and happiness. Tami Fleischman's special friend is one of four Jews in a group of 49 men, women and children living at the Gallagher Center, said Sister Ellen Carr. The Franciscan nun is responsible for their spiritual development and that of residents in 27 smaller homes -- about 200 mentally disabled people in all, ranging in age from 12 to 72.
Sister Ellen said the reason she recruited the Bais Yaakov volunteers was that the few Jewish residents under her care lacked instruction in their faith. Until two years ago, they were merely excused from Christian classes and Christian worship, because no one was available to nurture their Judaism.
The chance meeting with Chevy Fleischman, Tami's older sister, at a youth group barbecue in 1989 made the difference.
Chevy, then 16 and a high school student at Bais Yaakov, accepted the Catholic nun's challenge: "Why should the Jewish kids be left out?" Chevy's life was changed and so was the routine at the Gallagher Center.
Her own year of Thursday evenings with the retarded, she said, taught her the need for "extra patience, extra enthusiasm." When she completes her current studies in Israel, she "definitely" plans to return to Gallagher as a volunteer while attending law school. Chevy's career goal: legal reform to benefit the disabled.
And now, when most of the Gallagher residents learn and pray in accordance with Christian traditions, the four Jewish residents and a fifth from a nearby group home are in separate rooms worshiping and learning in accordance with theirs. The program's direction this year is in the hands of Tami Fleischman and two other Bais Yaakov 16-year-olds, Faige Nudell and Aliza Rossman.
Sister Ellen cannot praise them enough. "Those kids are just super in terms of their spiritual creativity," she said.
Sometimes the difference between Jewish and Christian guidance is subtle, explained Dena Nudell, Faige's 18-year-old sister, who like Chevy Fleischman has been attending a school in Israel.
Sister Ellen gives the Bais Yaakov girls key words such as "light," "God," "book" and "friend" to set the theme for an evening's religious instruction, Dena explained. A type of sign language is recommended, and the Christians and Jews share the same sign to represent God: "The left index finger traces an upward spiral until the arm is fully extended."
But the suggested sign for prayer -- "both hands are placed in front of the body, palms touching, fingers pointing up" -- seemed tooChristian to the girls from Bais Yaakov. "So we use the sign language for book," Dena said. "All our prayers come from a book."
The learning as well as the caring has been a two-way process.
"They teach me," Tami Fleischman said of the center's residents. "I gained a lot. It's not scary anymore."
Dena Nudell said her volunteer work at Gallagher last year is the reason she is now looking at college curriculums with an eye to a career in special education.
Are the Bais Yaakov students ever discouraged by slow progress? "Yes!" declared Faige Nudell, whose special friend at Gallagher is an autistic boy.
"But then you definitely see improvement," she said. "It's fun and it's frustrating, both. I'm really very enthusiastic."
Some of the girls' classmates at Bais Yaakov are curious about the special friends. "Are they dangerous? Are they violent?" Faige has been asked. Her reply is firm: "He's not just a retarded kid, he's my friend."
On a recent Thursday evening, the Christian and Jewish residents of the Gallagher Center came together for an interfaith Seder to celebrate the approach of Passover, and the visitors included not only the girls from Bais Yaakov but high school students from Friends, Loch Raven, Loyola, Beth Tfiloh, the Talmudical Academy, Dulaney and Calvert Hall as well.
"A very special night," said Sister Ellen.
Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy was there, and he remembered the Baltimore lawyer and civic leader, Francis X. Gallagher, in whose memory the center was dedicated in 1977. Mr. Gallagher died in 1972 at age 44.
"Frank Gallagher had a unique compassion for people disabled or handicapped in any way in our society," said Bishop Murphy, who also was reminded of his friend's broad-mindedness. "He would have liked very much to see these Jewish young people teaching these Christian young people."