The schools are strapped, the budget is busted and the crime rate is murder. Who could consider Baltimore a land of milk and honey?
Orthodox Jews could -- and do.
Take Jerry and Elka Rottman and their three children. Today at sundown, the Rottmans usher in a new Jewish year -- and a new stage in their lives -- in Northwest Baltimore.
When they dip their Rosh Hashana challah in honey to welcome the year 5752, it will be in the spacious three-bedroom home in Upper Park Heights they moved into 10 days ago. They gladly left behind an overpriced $1,350-a-month rental in Queens, N.Y.
The Rottmans are by no means alone. Some 125 to 150 Orthodox Jewish families a year are coming to Baltimore and nearby suburbs, many from out of state, says Bert Miller, a mathematician who chronicles the community's growth.
Baltimore's Sabbath-observant Jewish population -- those who keep kosher, walk to synagogue and avoid 39 forbidden tasks on the Sabbath -- is growing by at least 8 percent a year, Dr. Miller estimates, and now stands at about 8,000.
"Baltimore is seen as a mecca, excuse the expression, for the Orthodox population," said Zipora Schorr, the peppy director of education at Beth Tfiloh Community School.
Many more of the area's 94,500 Jews centered in Northwest Baltimore and nearby Pikesville and Randallstown deem themselves Orthodox -- about 20 percent, according to one survey -- although they may not be strictly observant.
"Baltimore is a bit unique," said Rabbi Aryeh Meir of the American Jewish Committee in New York. "It probably is about the strongest Orthodox community, next to Brooklyn, in the U.S."
Jerry and Elka Rottman moved to Baltimore mainly to be near a rabbi here they respect. But Baltimore had more to offer: Jewish schools, kosher markets, community services, a good job as a research scientist for Dr. Rottman at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a congeniality they never found in New York.
"For me, the most positive factor has been that the Jewish people here get along with one another, which is not the case in many cities," Dr. Rottman said.
Finally, the Rottmans found a house they could afford to buy, their first. Mrs. Rottman says it would have cost three times as much in New York.
Schools and crime, which keep many middle-class families out of the city, didn't faze the Rottmans. As Orthodox Jews, they never considered sending their children to public schools. Baltimore offers everything from Jewish day care to higher education at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. The Rottmans' school-age daughters attend Bais Yaakov School for Girls.
As for crime, what, the Rottmans asked, could be worse than New York? Moreover, Upper Park Heights itself has become relatively secure, averaging four robberies a month, thanks in part to the 600-member Northwest Citizens Patrol. The group has won national recognition for its success in combating street crime north of Northern Parkway.
"Crime is not a factor in your decision to move here," said Dr. Harris "Rusty" White, president of the patrol, oceanographer and an Orthodox Jew. "Baltimore is considered one of the premier Jewish communities to live in outside of Israel."
The result is that while most Baltimore neighborhoods lost residents in the 1980s, the population increased in the northwest corner. And Upper Park Heights has remained racially stable -- 24.4 percent black in 1980, 30.1 percent black in 1990, according to the census -- as both blacks and whites, often Orthodox Jews, buy homes there.
"When we started CHAI back in 1983, very few Jewish people were buying in this area," said Kenneth Gelula, executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., an agency of The Associated, the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. "The question was whether this area was going to be the next Jewish community left behind."
That didn't happen. Now, Mr. Gelula said, a half-dozen or more Orthodox real estate agents "make a very good living selling houses to Orthodox people."
"Our clients are coming from New York, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles, and they primarily come for housing affordability," said Ruth Guggenheim, CHAI's director of homeowner services. "You definitely can buy a nice home in this community for under $100,000."
One real estate agent, Sara Leah Rubinstein, said Orthodox buyers value the relatively low-cost housing, the wide choice of synagogues, the schools and the kosher markets.
One other amenity is barely noticeable but equally important to Orthodox families. It's called the Eruv, a Hebrew word that means "ritual enclosure."
Under Jewish law, observant Jews may not carry anything outside their homes on the Sabbath. However, rabbis have defined "home" to include enclosed areas. Completed in 1981, the Eruv is a boundary that rings Northwest Baltimore and Pikesville and makes it possible, among other things, for families to push a stroller to synagogue without violating the Sabbath.