Blintzes, baseball, bar mitzvahs: suburban life with a Jewish flavor Many have moved to Reisterstown, Owings Mills area

December 05, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Miles from the shuls of Park Heights and generations from East Baltimore's Corned Beef Row, a roadside restaurant dressed in gleaming chrome and tile is becoming a Jewish institution.

At the New Towne Diner, the steadily growing Jewish population of Owings Mills and Reisterstown comes to eat -- and meet.

"Jewish people like that," says Ilene Cooper, a Northwest Baltimore native who moved to Owings Mills in 1992. "They sit, and they schmooze."

For about a decade, Jews have been heading by the thousands to these fast-growing suburbs. They have come from neighborhoods as near as Pikesville and Randallstown, and from cities as distant as Moscow and Odessa.

Now the synagogues, temples and other bedrock institutions are following the faithful out of Northwest Baltimore. And as the menorahs are lighted tonight to signal the start of Hanukkah, Jewish life is increasingly intertwined with suburban ways.

Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation, has moved out of Randallstown and transformed a vacant factory into a synagogue in Owings Mills. Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation from the Milford Mill area, also headed for the Owings Mills area. And Baltimore-based Har Sinai, the nation's oldest continuous Reform congregation, has prepared for a move from Upper Park Heights by snapping up acreage in

Worthington Valley.

A Jewish Community Center, built amid cornfields nearly two decades ago to await the wave of migrants, strives to be a focal point for Jews scattered among the area's subdivisions. And such educational and social service groups as the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning and Living have opened suburban offices.

But there are complications in suburbia, where youth baseball and soccer are rival "religions."

"It's sometimes said out here that the threat to Jewish continuity doesn't come from anti-Semitism. It comes from Little League," says Mimi Kraus, site manager of the Owings Mills office of Jewish Family Services. "Hebrew school gets cut short. That's what the community here is up against."

For all of the newly arriving institutions and cultural changes, perhaps nothing speaks of Jewish heritage like food -- and congregating around plates of it.

Just north of Franklin Boulevard, sample the "gypsy salami," smoked mackerel, pickled green tomatoes and other Russian favorites at the Babushka Deli. At Snyder's Cafe and Deli on Reisterstown Road, order the whitefish salad and watch the country club women play their afternoon mah-jongg game.

Or line up for a table at the New Towne Diner, built on the ashes of the Eisenhower-era Twin Kiss ice cream stand. Not even 2 years old, the Reisterstown Road diner is mentioned in the same breath as legendary gathering spots such as Mandell & Ballow or the Suburban House.

This is not a classic kosher deli -- the menu offers blintzes and potato pancakes, but also chicken fajitas and Yankee pot roast. Still, owner Bob Worgan estimates that his clientele is as much as 70 percent Jewish, so he is more than happy to fill the bread baskets with matzo for Passover.

Family reunions

Ilene Cooper, 45, a nurse, is a diner regular. Once a week, her family holds a reunion there. Her parents come from Pikesville, her aunt and uncle from Randallstown.

"We come here every Wednesday night," says her 74-year-old stepfather, Melvin Fine. "Religiously."

Cooper also catches up with friends from Owings Mills and with Northwestern High School alumni who have moved to the area.

Michael Goldstein, a Northwest Baltimore native who lives in Owings Mills, says the diner fills a cultural need. "I walked in tonight, I must have seen five or six neighbors. It gives you a little bit of unity," he says.

For decades, the core of Baltimore's Jewish community has migrated steadily northwest, from East Lombard Street to Eutaw Place to Park Heights Avenue in the city, then into Pikesville and Randallstown, in Baltimore County.

A 1986 study for the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund showed a Jewish population of 7,510 in the Owings Mills ZIP code. As the Associated begins laying groundwork for a new study, some estimate that as many as 15,000 of the Baltimore region's 90,000 Jews live in the Owings Mills-Reisterstown area.

Residents and religious leaders say young Jewish families are moving to the area for the same reasons that many people move further from Baltimore: to find value in a newly built house and escape high city tax rates; to reduce the crime risk; and to find better public schools.

And it didn't hurt that the area promised a liberal dose of Jewish culture.

"One of the things that attracted them was the possibility that this would be a community," says Gustav Buchdahl, rabbi at Temple Emanuel. "In other words, families with young children ,, needing other young children."

The result is a community grappling with a new generation of issues.

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