The Necessities of a Jewish Home

January 28, 1995|By ANTERO PIETILA

"Coming soon,'' the sign says, ''17 luxury homes starting at $279,000."

And this is Baltimore City?

The real-estate market elsewhere in the city may be flat, but Bruce Scherr foresees no difficulty selling the houses he is about build near Bonnie View Country Club. The reason: the upscale homes are within walking distance of a dynamic Orthodox synagogue.

''Fruppie houses,'' quips a neighbor, playing with the words ''yuppie'' and frum (observant).

Major demographic shifts are taking place in Baltimore's Jewish community.

The new edge city of Owings Mills is increasingly drawing families not only from the city but also from the Liberty Road corridor leading to Randallstown. Yet this is not creating a glut of unsold residential properties in Park Heights Avenue neighborhoods, south of the beltway, because of a continuing influx of Orthodox families, mainly from New York but from other cities as well.

Among Baltimore's draws are relatively modest housing prices and a strong religious community.

''In Jewish America, Baltimore is the most attractive city right now,'' says Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. ''They hate to live in New York and find Baltimore very conducive to raise a family.''

A unique phenomenon is occurring in the Park Heights Avenue (( corridor: Houses that years ago were bought by blacks are now being resold to Jewish families.

The recent decision by Har Sinai, America's oldest continuously Reform congregation, to sell its 38-year-old sanctuary to the Maimonides Academy is likely to spur further growth of the religiously observant Orthodox community.

''It will be a magnet,'' Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, says of the co-educational day school that goes by the Hebrew name of Yeshivat Rambam. ''It will help stabilize the community.''

In the past 230 years, Baltimore's Jewish community has made many moves. Lloyd Street and B'nai Israel synagogues -- and the adjoining Jewish Historical Society -- are reminders of its roots in East Baltimore; the magnificent Eutaw Place temples, now converted into churches, foreshadowed the suburban push to Park Heights Avenue.

The trek continues, institutions follow: A leading funeral home, Sol Levinson, will move from the city to a Reisterstown Road site north of the beltway early next year.

The metropolitan area's Jewish population is estimated at 100,000, 22 percent of whom are thought to be Orthodox. The number of Orthodox newcomers in the Park Heights corridor is put at mere 2,500, but the community is growing by about 300 persons a year.

A chief reason is the area's designation as eruv. The observant are given a dispensation from certain Sabbath rules. They can carry keys and use baby strollers and wheelchairs on the way to synagogues.

About 20 North American Jewish communities have a fenced eruv; Baltimore's is one of the largest.

''It's marvelous to me to see these families gravitate to Baltimore because of all the necessities of a Jewish home,'' says Rochelle ''Rikki'' Spector, who represents the area in the City Council.

The influx is having an economic impact in the area's shopping centers. Kosher restaurants are cropping up, selling everything from pizzas to rotisserie chicken; bookstores feature selections ranging from ''Kashrut and the Modern Kitchen'' to ''You Take Jesus, I'll Take God: How To Refute Christian Missionaries.''

Because of its strict adherence to dietary laws, the Orthodox community can make or break a business.

A Middle Eastern restaurant in the Fallstaff shopping center shut its doors after its kosher certification was temporarily lifted.

Last fall, Kosher Pantry, one of Baltimore's two kosher supermarkets, failed at the same center. Among complicated reasons was the Orthodox community's resentment that the owners themselves were not religious enough.

The forthcoming sale of Har Sinai is going to create an interesting situation. Because the Reform congregation has no ready plans or financing for a move to Owings Mills, it is likely to coexist, perhaps for years, with the Orthodox day school.

Meanwhile, another leading Reform congregation, Baltimore Hebrew, is signaling it has no plans to move: It is building a new day school at Park Heights and Slade avenues.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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