Orthodox means of travel Station wagons: Many of these outmoded boats on wheels and large vans can be found in Northwest Baltimore's Jewish neighborhood. Their roomy interiors accommodate traditionally large families.

August 18, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

So many things are crucial to the intensely ordered life of an Orthodox Jew: a synagogue within walking distance of home, a trustworthy rabbi, and schools to teach the galaxy of nuance inherent in Judaism's 613 separate commandments.

The outside world rarely gets to see the striped shawls and tiny boxes filled with sacred Scripture worn by religious Jews at daily prayer. But the next time you're cruising the streets of Northwest Baltimore, be alert for an obvious sign of the Orthodox way of life -- the faded and rusting full-sized American station wagon.

"When I'm driving down the Jones Falls Expressway and I see a big old wagon, I automatically assume it's an Orthodox family," says Hillel Tendell, a local attorney. "And when you come out of [services] and see two identical wagons side by side, you ask the next guy, 'Which one is yours?'

"Go to the corner of Clover and Highgate, and you'll see both sides thick with station wagons," says Tendell. "This is the way we live."

The hulking wagons and boxy passenger vans that seat up to 15 people reflect the size of the Orthodox family. Even when a couple has only four or five children, they are invariably part of a car pool ferrying children to and from Jewish schools.

"Generally speaking, a person isn't allowed to cease having children for reasons of convenience," says Rabbi Yitzchok Adler, a father of 10 who recently bought a 1989, 12-seat Chevy van with 80,000 miles on it for $6,800. "We need big vehicles, and we need inexpensive vehicles."

The preponderance of these autos are 7-year-old Chevrolet Caprice wagons or Oldsmobile Custom Cruisers -- lumbering, four-wheel boats that tend to be gray or blue and sell for about $6,000 if they're in good shape.

American automakers are no longer manufacturing full-sized wagons -- they've been overtaken by minivans and sport utility vehicles -- but so many wagons remain among Baltimore's 2,100 Orthodox families that children waiting to be picked up from school often check who's behind the wheel so they don't go home with the wrong people.

And most of those wagons come from Sher's Auto Sales and Maven Motors, Orthodox used car lots three blocks apart on Reisterstown Road.

"Meir Sher is the main source; he's known far and wide," says Tendell.

Like all used car salesmen, Sher likes to close a deal with a handshake -- except when the customer is a woman, because Jewish laws of modesty caution him against touching any female other than his wife.

Sher's wife is Chaya, a verbal dynamo who does most of the selling -- sometimes getting more than $11,000 for a one-owner late-model wagon with low mileage -- after Meir buys the vehicles at auction and wholesale. While the most-observant Jew struggles to fulfill all of the faith's dictates, particular pains are taken to sell used cars by the good book.

"Jewish law doesn't accept the concept of buyer beware," says the 49-year-old Sher, a rabbi who used to study the Torah until midnight and then stay up for hours rebuilding a carburetor. "If there's a dent that's been fixed, I have to tell you. And if an unknown defect is found where the person would not have bought it had they known, then the deal is no good either."

A Sher deal is built on Chaya's passion for verifying a vehicle's actual miles. The only way to do this is by tracking down the original owner. Chaya claims success about 80 percent of the time.

"I had a one-owner Buick Roadmaster wagon with 52,000 miles on it. It had gone through our 100-point Sher check, and we had it sold to a woman in New Jersey," says Chaya, 48, who between deals has arranged marriages for customers. "When we finally reached the original owner, she was livid -- she had sold the car with 112,000 miles on it. So there goes the myth that if you take a used car to a mechanic you trust, they'll know if the miles are true or not. We couldn't tell by looking."

For a dozen years, the Shers have provided religious Jews from Miami to Manhattan with the right ride, the past five years from a scruffy lot at 5420 Reisterstown Road, south of the heart of Baltimore's Orthodox community.

On a metal bookshelf in the office is a complete set of the Talmud, the voluminous body of Jewish teaching. Meir doesn't get to lose himself in its pages as often as he'd like, but many a customer has sat down to study while waiting for a car to be fixed.

And while the Book of Deuteronomy exhorts Jews to write the laws of God "upon the doorposts of your house," Sher's is the only place Neal Golbin has seen with Scripture alongside roll-up garage doors.

Golbin, a nonpracticing Jew hired by the Shers to drum up sales among gentiles, has been in the car business for more than 10 years. He was a partner in a dealership in Harford County for a while and has never seen anyone do business like the Shers.

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