In the shelter of a Jewish covenant

March 05, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

An ancient, God-centered way of life is thriving in Baltimore beyond anyone's expectations. Or prayers.

As old as Moses and as fresh as the kosher pizza sold on Reisterstown Road, Orthodox Judaism is booming here.

"We talk about it every day," said Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, the cornerstone of local Orthodoxy.

Of the 100,000 or so Jews in the metro area, about 20,000 are Orthodox: followers of the 613 laws and attendant rituals derived from God's covenant on Mount Sinai with the children of Israel.

The fruit of such fidelity is a community in which the ills plaguing the rest of American society are nearly absent.

"Crime as it exists in the general public does not exist with us," said Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, one of the most powerful figures in local Orthodoxy. "There may be some white-collar crime, but there are no murders among us. Drug abuse is so unusual, the news spreads like wildfire. Divorce is rising, but it's still much lower, maybe 2 percent. There is no illiteracy, and I haven't heard of an unwed pregnancy."

Jews have lived in Baltimore since Colonial days, long before the advent of Conservative and Reform movements, which relaxed many strictures still held sacrosanct by movements, which relaxed many strictures still held sacrosanct by the Orthodox.

In 1845, Baltimore Jews built the first synagogue in Maryland, a still-functioning prayer house on Lloyd Street.

On tides of prosperity, persecution and assimilation, succeeding generations moved farther and farther from original neighborhoods near the harbor. The pickle-and-herring bustle of Lloyd and Lombard streets was abandoned for the great townhouses of Eutaw Place and Druid Hill Park, which in turn were left behind for the promise of suburbia in Park Circle, Park Heights, Liberty Heights and Randallstown.

Northwest corridor

Today, as Reform and Conservative Jews push deeper into Owings Mills and other areas beyond the Beltway, the Orthodox have dug in along the city's northwest corridor. The population is particularly dense between Greenspring Avenue and Reisterstown Road.

"This area is a ghetto where you can get all of your needs met," said Marilyn Fox, a New Yorker who moved to Baltimore after marrying a local man.

Passing motorists may see only waves of black hats and beards in the weekly Sabbath parade, but Baltimore Orthodoxy is not homogenous.

The male-dominated faith is often criticized as demeaning to women, yet there is a growing feminist movement.

Dietary laws dictate what a devout Jew can and cannot eat, but more than a few Orthodox have become kosher vegetarians.

Across this spectrum are varying degrees of adherence to the essential obligations of the faith, some of which are daunting to ,, even the most conscientious.

Cooperation and pride

Passionate debate over nuance and interpretation is part of Orthodoxy. But local rabbis take pride in the extraordinary cooperation among Baltimore's Orthodox leaders.

"There is no strife," Rabbi Heinemann contends.

In Baltimore since 1967, the rabbi's stewardship at the Agudath Israel congregation and his authority over the city's kosher food industry have led local Orthodox to a more stringent observance.

Although this Orthodoxy is reasonably free of extremes on either end, there are simmering disputes between the left and the right. While they argue over whether recreation and education should include both sexes, moderates work for common ground between the liberals and sticklers.

"Centrist Judaism is a euphemism for a little bit to the left," said Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, an administrator at the Ner Israel college and the son of its president. "The center of Baltimore Orthodoxy is closer to Agudath."

Most Orthodox wouldn't think of driving a car on the Sabbath, which would break the law against starting a fire by "igniting" the engine. Because of this, many Orthodox buy homes within walking distance of the synagogue.

Such practices have helped stabilize home ownership along upper Park Heights Avenue, which has at least eight Orthodox synagogues.

Another four or five dot side streets.

The Sabbath is not only a day for rest, but also for savoring family and judicious recreation.

Despite laws against any form of creation, such as writing, there are families who believe that banning a Sabbath game of Scrabble is going too far.

So rich in synagogues is Baltimore that any Orthodox Jew should be able to find comfortable sanctuary.

At last count, there were 27, including one for Iranian Jews who had fled persecution.

"We came here from Atlanta, which is a one-synagogue town," said Jay Taffel, a CSX Corp. economic analyst. "In Baltimore, the choices were overwhelming."

In 1967, there were about 700 Sabbath-observing families in the metro area, according to Rabbi Heinemann. Through a slow, steady growth that surged in the 1980s, the number tripled.

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