Young families move, so does synagogue

August 22, 1994|By Matt Ebnet | Matt Ebnet,Sun Staff Writer

For years now, young Jewish families have been heading for the Owings Mills area, slowly but surely moving the nerve center of their community from older areas such as Randallstown. "The young ones move, the parents follow," said Rabbi Richard Margolis of Beth Israel Congregation.

And now Rabbi Margolis' Randallstown synagogue, one of Baltimore's three large Conservative congregations, is bowing to the population shift too. Members decided to move it to Owings Mills early this summer.

Citing a membership that had dropped by 25 percent during the past five years, officials voted in June to buy a new $2.7 million office building and plot of land on Crondall Lane just off Owings Mills Boulevard, a few minutes away from the Jewish Community Center's Owings Mills branch. Rabbi Margolis said the synagogue, with its 750-family membership, will move early next year.

He said the decision was made on the premise that Jewish culture is welded together by its religious gathering places, and that synagogues have a duty to go where the people are, a decision that leaders of other Jewish institutions also have made in recent years as Randallstown's Jewish population has dwindled.

"Loyalty doesn't transcend the miles," said Lawrence Stahl, president of Liberty Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation that moved from Randallstown to Pikesville about five years ago.

Synagogue leaders say the success of a congregation largely depends on its ability to attract and retain its younger members. In part, that means providing religious schooling for their children -- which usually takes place after regular school hours on weekdays and on Sundays.

For many Orthodox Jews, who generally live within walking distance of their synagogues because they believe prohibitions on Sabbath work extend to driving, the move has been toward established Jewish communities in Pikesville and the upper Park Heights area. For Conservative and Reform Jews, the move has generally been toward Owings Mills and Reisterstown.

The Jewish population of the outer suburbs originally depended on synagogues in the old Jewish neighborhoods.

But that has been changing.

Even before its decision to move, Beth Israel had been holding after-school religious classes at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown.

And last year, Adat Chaim, a Conservative congregation that formed in 1985 to meet the needs of Jewish worshipers in the Reisterstown area, put up a new building near Cockeys Mill Road. The congregation consists of 175 families and membership is growing by about 15 percent a year.

Also, Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in the Milford Mill area, has plans to move. Construction has begun on a building on Berrymans Lane in Reisterstown and officials say they expect to be there by summer of 1995. Sue Brown, president of the congregation, attributes the move to "a need for a Reform congregation . . . in a fast-growing Jewish community."

'Gradual process'

The creation of synagogues and the movement of older congregations reflects demographic shifts and the historic migration patterns of Baltimore's Jewish community.

"There's no moment when the population changes," Mr. Stahl said. "There's no light bulb that goes off. It's a gradual process."

Some members of the Jewish community see it as a normal swing in population, with younger Jewish families in the northwest area viewing Owings Mills as the logical place to live.

The county has designated Owings Mills as one of its two major growth areas (the other is White Marsh in the northeast). Population in the northwest corridor rose from 42,581 in 1990 to 46,382 in January 1994, according to Baltimore County officials.

Difficult issue

Others see the trend accelerated by "white flight" from Baltimore County's inner northwestern suburbs.

As black families have moved from the city into the county along the Liberty Road corridor, the white population of those communities has declined, and the white families that remain tend to be older. Census figures show that the influx of black families, particularly along Liberty Road, accounted for most of the county's 5.6 percent population growth between 1980 and 1990.

The issue is difficult for Jewish community leaders.

"I want to get away from the negative things, like the notion that this could be white flight," said Rabbi Margolis. "Sure, that may be some of it. But there are definitely other reasons."

Others, such as Ken Gelula, executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., the Jewish Community Federation's housing arm, have equally mixed interpretations.

"There has been flight," said Mr. Gelula, whose agency has worked to preserve Jewish communities in northwest Baltimore and recently opened a branch in Randallstown.

"There [in Randallstown], we certainly saw people leaving. . . . In terms of African-Americans, the people moving in are just as well off, if not better off, than the ones that are leaving. This is very middle-class movement."

'Self-fulfilling prophecy'

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