Seeking a unifying identity for Jews

Leaders react to poll on Jewish households increasing in Howard

April 30, 2001|By Marian Morton | Marian Morton,SUN STAFF

Mingled in the flood of families who made new homes in Howard County in recent years are growing numbers of Jewish households, a survey from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore shows.

In 1985, The Associated counted 2,500 Jewish households in the county. Now it tallies about 6,500 - a 160 percent increase during the past decade and a half, the study shows.

"It's been a tremendous growth spurt," said Jean Grinspoon, a Columbia resident since 1971 and executive director of Bet Yeladim, a Jewish preschool and kindergarten in Columbia.

Grinspoon said the Howard County Jewish community is unlike those in other areas, where Jewish families cluster and form close bonds within neighborhoods.

The community "is very diverse and spread out," Grinspoon said. "It's certainly not like any one you would find in Baltimore or D.C."

Lawrence Ziffer, The Associated's vice president of community development, agreed.

"Baltimore is characterized by having multiple levels of generations," Ziffer said. "There's a certain Jewish continuity, a sense of tradition.

"In Howard County, almost everyone has come from somewhere else, which makes it more difficult to create a Columbia-Howard County Jewish identity," he added. "The challenge of community organization is greater."

Grinspoon said diversity might be an important reason Jewish families have relocated to Howard County in recent years. She has seen parents who grew up in close-knit, primarily Jewish neighborhoods in Baltimore or New York take their children to Howard County to be raised among friends from a variety of backgrounds.

Ziffer said he believes people may prefer to retreat into the more scattered Howard County Jewish community and not feel pressured into joining religious organizations that actively recruit Jews in urban centers.

Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah in Columbia said that when Columbia was founded in 1967, few expected the young families to remain after their children had grown. But they have stayed, and their children are returning to raise families.

"The kids, the second generation, are coming back home," Panoff said. "That's a major development."

These new families aren't necessarily actively practicing their religion, though, according to The Associated's survey. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents said they belonged to a synagogue or temple, while 58 percent described themselves as "unaffiliated," or not belonging to any Jewish organization.

The survey also revealed that being Jewish is "very important" to 67 percent of Howard County respondents. "How they feel about being Jewish is very high," Ziffer said. "What they do about being Jewish is very low."

Even if they do not belong to a synagogue, Ziffer said, most families connect with their Jewish heritage by celebrating traditionally family-oriented holidays such as Passover and Hanukkah.

Ziffer said this trend is characteristic of suburban Jewish communities across the country, where intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews are higher than in cities and where heterogeneous communities water down religious beliefs.

"I think that the challenge of maintaining Jewish identity in the suburbs is great," Ziffer said.

"We have seen some changes, and some of the patterns remain the same," Panoff said. "As our community gets older, we're going to be facing some of those changes."

Ziffer said the formation of Jewish organizations and schools might help Howard County's Jews establish their identity.

Panoff said he has noticed an increase in young people's interest in their faith as more are visiting Israel and continuing their religious studies in college. "We do find a greater interest in study and in spirituality," Panoff said.

At the same time, Grinspoon said that Howard County has progress to make in the services and facilities needed to support its growing Jewish population. "There are not the organized Jewish facilities that are available to families in Rockville and Baltimore," Grinspoon said. One major missing piece is a Jewish community center in Columbia. As a result, organizations share space and time with other groups in the town's general community centers.

Finding space for increasing numbers of Jewish community groups has presented a problem. Many Jewish congregations have outgrown the Columbia interfaith centers they have used for years, but lack funds to build freestanding synagogues.

Temple Isaiah, which uses Oakland Mills Interfaith Center for its services, is one of those congregations pressed for space. However, Panoff said relief is in sight for the Reform congregation, which will attend services in a new building on Route 216 in Fulton within two years.

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