'Joy and sorrow': Merger marks end of one synagogue, growth of another

August 02, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

If the motorists who were stopped by flashing blue police lights yesterday afternoon at Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue were puzzled by what they saw, it is little wonder.

Even retired Rabbi Joseph Schecter, a spiritual leader with many years in Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community behind him, found the event unique. "I've never experienced an occasion such a this, such a mingling of joy and sorrow," the rabbi said.

What the halted motorists and others watching from the sidelines witnessed was a sprightly parade of nearly 100 flag-waving men, women and children putting the happiest possible face on what was also a day of some sadness. The procession was led by Jewish war veterans and a traditional Kol Chaim Band.

They, along with passengers of a chartered school bus and two white limousines, formed the honor guard for seven Torah scrolls.

Elaborately sheathed in embroi

dered cloth, the parchment scrolls containing the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures were being transported eight blocks in seven shiny, open convertibles -- two

Cadillacs, two Mercedes, a Ford, a Chevy and a BMW -- from the Ohr Knesseth Israel Sphard-Rogers Avenue Synagogue at 3910 W. Rogers Ave. to the Beth Jacob Synagogue at 5713 Park Heights Ave.

Camera lights flashed, and a video crew recorded the parade from an eighth shiny convertible -- a Buick.

With speech-making, singing, dancing and clapping at the parade's point of departure and at its point of arrival, the 42-year-old Rogers Avenue shul ceremoniously ceased to exist and the Beth Jacob congregation grew by 300 members, to about 800.

There were tears as well as smiles and many emotional references to what was coming to an end on Rogers Avenue.

Rabbi Jacob Max of the Liberty Jewish Center recalled "rough moments and beautiful moments" leading to the decision, but he emphasized the latter. "You're not closing your doors," he told the Rogers Avenue group. "You are relocating with increased strength."

See TORAHS, 2C

From 1C

Membership at both of the combining congregations has declined since their years of greatest numbers. Beth Jacob, whose Park Heights Avenue property is closer to the center of Northwest Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, has remained the stronger financially, as well as in membership.

Rogers Avenue, to the south and west, is losing its aging Jewish population. Selling a synagogue to a Christian church is barred by ancient Jewish law, but the property at Rogers and Price avenues has been transferred to a corporation that expects to sell it to a Christian congregation.

Yesterday's ceremonies in the Rogers Avenue shul were directed from a bema framed by Hebrew symbols in brightly lighted stained glass and two large, electrified menorahs. A member of the congregation said that these and other artifacts would be re-installed at Beth Jacob.

But some objects in the Rogers Avenue building bore stickers noting that they would be moved to the Jewish Historical Society. These included a sign on a men's room door warning, "Gentlemen Please Remove Tallis Before Entering" and another plaque inside the room that said, "No Smoking On Sabbath."

The Rogers Avenue shul's rabbi, Moshe Shuvalsky, described Beth Jacob as "prestigious" and assured his former congregation that the affiliation was making it possible "to perpetuate our spiritual values."

Leon Snyder, president of the

Beth Jacob congregation, said both groups were faithful to the "tradition of modern Jewish Orthodoxy," and Ronald Schwartz, Beth Jacob's rabbi, welcomed the Rogers Avenue group with the promise that every new member would be as valued as longtime members.

By the time the ceremonies had concluded, lightheartedness had prevailed. A lawyer who was part of the negotiations said, "It took us five years to go six blocks" -- the approximate straight-line distance between the two locations.

With the merging of the congregations, he said, Beth Jacob is "the second-largest modern Orthodox synagogue" in the Baltimore area, Pikesville's Beth Tfiloh being larger.

"Thank you for remaining in Baltimore City," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke told the congregations.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore was part of the concluding ceremony at Beth Jacob. "I represent the best congressional district in the country," he said, "and it's made stronger by this . . . great moment in the history of Jewry in Maryland."

But he also said he was aware of how much sensitive negotiating went into bringing the two congregations together.

When he was a young man, Mr. Cardin said, he once was tempted to speak out on a synagogue issue and was warned by his father, "You're too nice a guy to get involved in shul politics." So he has stuck to politics in Annapolis and Washington, the congressman said to laughter.

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