Jewish congregation begins new chapter in Roland Park

Move: The first synagogue opens in a section of Baltimore that was once off-limits to Jews.

December 07, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Allen L. Schwait moved here from Philadelphia in 1960, he never thought about buying a house in Roland Park. He knew the reputation: Real estate there was off limits to Jews.

"We didn't even consider Roland Park as a possibility," said Schwait, who moved to Mount Washington and went on to serve as chair of the University of Maryland's Board of Regents and as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. "People want to live where they are wanted."

Today, Schwait and several hundred fellow Jews will celebrate the opening of Bolton Street Synagogue, the first full-fledged synagogue in the Roland Park area. Congregants will mark the occasion by carrying their Torah scrolls across Cold Spring Lane to their new home, a renovated, red-brick building once owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Dec. 7 editions of The Sun indicated that the Bolton Street Synagogue had moved to the Roland Park area. The synagogue is located in the community of Evergreen, which borders Roland Park. The Sun regrets the errors.

Situated on the edge of Roland Park, the synagogue is one of the most visible symbols of religious integration in an area where Jews were virtually forbidden to live during much of the 20th century.

Civic leaders call the synagogue a welcome presence, illustrating how much has changed since elite communities such as Roland Park and Guilford shunned Jews and many other ethnic groups.

"I'm really thrilled with how it looks from the street, and I'm glad they are there," said David Blumberg, president of the Roland Park Civic League, who is Jewish. "The synagogue once and for all puts to bed any perception that Roland Park is anything but an inclusive community."

There was a time when a synagogue in or around Roland Park would have been unthinkable. For decades, real estate agents steered affluent Jews away from the community's turn-of-the-century Queen Anne, English Tudor and Georgian homes. According to city lore, land deeds there contained covenants explicitly excluding Jews, blacks and Asians.

Some historians have since concluded that anti-Jewish covenants probably did not exist in Roland Park. Discrimination, though, was painfully real and had a lasting impact.

Many say it contributed to the segregation of the Jewish community in the city's northwest corridor, a phenomenon that director Barry Levinson explored in the 1999 film Liberty Heights. Discrimination left Roland Park with a reputation that lingered long after the community had changed.

Although the Bolton Street Synagogue is the first building of its kind in the Roland Park area, it is the second Jewish congregation to serve the community. Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation, began sharing space with First Christian Church on Roland Avenue more than a decade ago.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton assumed her post at Beit Tikvah in 1999. Some people were surprised when she introduced herself as a rabbi working in Roland Park. "Many Baltimoreans would stop in their tracks or their jaws would fall open," Bolton said. She recalls that some people said, "I didn't know there were Jews in Roland Park."

There are, though no one keeps track of such things today.

A practical matter

Roland Park comprises about 1,000 homes in an area bounded roughly by Northern Parkway to the north, Falls Road to the west, Keswick Road to the east and parts of 40th Street and Cold Spring Lane to the south.

Blumberg, the civic league president, estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of the community is Jewish.

Leaders of the Bolton Street Synagogue said they chose the site in the 200 block of W. Cold Spring Lane for practical reasons, not to make a political statement.

The unaffiliated synagogue, which was based on Bolton Street, has a growing membership and needed more space. However, it wanted to remain in the city. One of the attractions of the BGE property was that more than 30 of the congregation's 200 families live nearby.

"It's a very different community than it was 60 or 70 years ago," said Mark Hyman, the synagogue's president and a former reporter for The Sun. "We looked at it as a neighborhood underserved by Jewish institutions."

When Roland Park Co. began developing the community in the 1890s as a wealthy enclave, it sold land only to white Christians. Edward Bouton, the company's president, recruited families from the city's social register and marketed Roland Park as a "restricted" neighborhood for "discriminating" people.

"Living in an exclusive neighborhood was a sign of class status," said Eric Goldstein, a professor who studies American Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta. Housing restrictions were common "in many other cities in many other parts of the country," he said.

Roland Park Co. put restrictive covenants in later deeds that banned the sale of properties to blacks, but there is no evidence it applied such restrictive language to Jews, said Garrett Power, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about development in Baltimore.

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