Har Sinai congregation may move to Owings Mills

January 12, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's historic Har Sinai congregation is facing a $4 million choice: Take the money and follow its members to the suburbs or stay put in its domed temple on Park Heights Avenue.

Leaders of the nation's oldest Reform congregation expect that the temple will accept an offer for its property and leave Baltimore. If it does, Har Sinai will continue a movement to the suburbs among Baltimore's Reform and Conservative Jews that began nearly a half-century ago.

"All available data points to the fact that the young people we need to attract are moving out of our area," said David Flyer, president of the congregation of about 630 families. "Moving has proved very successful for us in the past and what the leadership is saying is that it's time to move again. We're very confident that the congregation will vote yes."

He'll find out on Jan. 22, when Har Sinai members in good standing are scheduled to answer the question: "Shall Har Sinai enter into a contract with Maimonides Academy to sell the property at 6300 Park Heights Avenue for the sum of $4 million and relocate?"

Two-thirds of the voting members must approve the question if the plan to leave its current address, home since 1959, can go forward.

Although Har Sinai has been concerned about its situation on Park Heights Avenue for some time -- watching as the new generation of Reform Jews began raising families along the northwest corridor toward Owings Mills -- it has had no immediate plans to move.

Until leaders of the Maimonides Academy of Baltimore came knocking with a $4 million offer.

An Orthodox day school known to members by the Hebrew name Yeshivat Rambam, the Maimonides Academy is part of the city's fast-expanding community of Orthodox Jews, most of whom live and worship along Park Heights Avenue.

As Reform and Conservative Jews continue to move farther away from the city -- last August the 750-family Beth Israel congregation voted to move from Randallstown to Owings Mills -- the numbers of Orthodox in Baltimore have been steadily growing.

Unlike Reform or Conservative Jews, who are less strict in their observances, Orthodox do not drive on the Sabbath and must have synagogues within walking distance. Because the traditionally Jewish northwest corner of the city has blocks of affordable housing surrounding many temples and related services, it has become a magnet for the Orthodox.

The creation of an eruv -- a symbolic fence around the community that enables the observant to walk longer distances and carry children on the Sabbath -- has also increased the area's attractiveness.

Within this community, the co-educational Maimonides Academy has flourished.

Indeed, it has outgrown its building at 6214 Pimlico Road and, casting about for more space, settled upon the two-story school connected to the Har Sinai temple.

"We are in our fourth year and have been adding a grade every year. We're now kindergarten through sixth," said Seth Rotenberg, who co-chairs the school's board. "We began four years ago with 52 students; this year we're at 160 and we're projecting 200 students next year. The majority of our growth occurs in the lower grades. Kindergarten is the largest class every year. Har Sinai is in the heart of the community where our student body lives."

Tuition at the Maimonides Academy starts at $4,500 for kindergarten and increases with each succeeding grade, Mr. Rotenberg said. Mr. Rotenberg said that while the school will need to raise funds to meet the $4 million price of the Har Sinai property, "we feel comfortable that we can meet our commitments."

One aspect of the proposed deal, which long-time members of the 153-year-old Har Sinai congregation find comforting, is a clause that allows them to continue to use the Park Heights Avenue sanctuary after the sale. Use of the temple may be granted for up to 20 years.

"The [Maimonides] people need the school but not the sanctuary, that's the marvelous part of the plan for our senior members," said Dr. Robert Brookland, Har Sinai's first vice president. "And the beauty of the financial arrangement is our liability is modest. The funds to acquire and develop [new] property are coming from them."

The Har Sinai leaders have looked at possible sites north of the Beltway to relocate, and likely will choose something along the Falls Road corridor, but have not yet found anything to propose to the membership.

Whatever move is made, it will be in keeping with the history of Har Sinai, a liberal congregation that began in Little Italy just before the Civil War.

As Baltimore's Jews moved from East Baltimore across the city in a northwesterly migration, Har Sinai has five times moved with them.

"My feeling is that we should leave," said Barbara Balter, a 32-year-member and past president of the congregation. "I love the building, I was here when they built it and all of my children went to school there and were married there, but I think it's time to relocate where the membership has relocated. My feelings run very deep emotionally, but it's time to move."

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