I don’t know about you but I don’t like having to always defend myself. It gets a little wearisome.
But when you work for a Jewish publication, sometimes it comes with the territory.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, when you put something out there week after week that touches people at their core – about their community, values and faith – you’re going to hit some raw nerves.
Recently, I wrote a news article about B’nai Israel, the historic shul on Lloyd Street in East Baltimore. B’nai Israel has a special place in my heart. My Latvian-born great-grandfather, Aaron Sauber, was a melamed (teacher) there around the turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is), and from what I gather was a beloved, respected figure.
Much of my family is buried in B’nai Israel’s cemetery on Southern Avenue in Hamilton, and I still remember going to the shul back in the ‘70s, before its major renovation, with my parents. We found a dilapidated, crumbling structure, one in which pigeons frequently flew in and out of gaping holes in the roof. It was a former shell of its onetime grand self, barely on life support, kept going by a small crew of committed, caring individuals.
Check out B’nai Israel in 2011. My, how times have changed. It is now a gorgeous, thriving shul, with a solid, devoted membership, regular services and activities, and lots of people around the community who feel a strong connection to the synagogue and care deeply about it. After all, it’s our greatest (and last remaining) living connection to the immigrant Jewish community that once thrived in East Baltimore, paving the way for what we have and enjoy today.
But one of the shul’s leaders—for the record, not B’nai Israel co-presidents Howard L. Cohn or Frank Boches—recently got irked with me for the article I wrote last week about some recent security problems that B’nai Israel has experienced. He simply felt I didn’t go far enough in questioning in my article why the shul’s landlord, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and its parent organization, the Associated, weren’t communicating more with B’nai Israel about security matters.
He also accused me of having a vendetta against B’nai Israel, bringing up an article I wrote several years ago about the synagogue’s battle with its former rabbi regarding his abrupt dismissal. At that time, the firing caused a schism at the shul, largely between its younger congregants who liked the rabbi and its old guard who obviously weren’t card-carrying members of his fan club.
As far as the latter subject is concerned, I personally view that as ancient history. B’nai Israel is still around and has moved on and has a wonderful spiritual leader today, the wise and kindhearted Rabbi Alan J. Yuter. Perhaps the shul leader is correct that the Associated, the museum and B’nai Israel should have better lines of communication about security (although as I reported, several meetings have been held so far between those groups). I just wish he would’ve said it in a less rancorous and more constructive way.
But here’s the bottom line, all bruised egos aside – this community needs to support B’nai Israel, financially, morally, logistically, in any way possible. Besides the fact that it provides a warm, wonderful house of worship for the largely unaffiliated young professional crowd living in Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point and other downtown neighborhoods, it is a testament to our history, heritage and resilience. It is the last outpost of what once was, and it would be a great shanda if the synagogue followed the path of so many inner-city shuls and went out of existence, or only had services during the High Holiday season.
We shouldn’t forget this gem in our midst. More than a nostalgic footnote, it is a model for rebirth—a living, breathing part of our community that serves a vital role. We need to get more in the game about B’nai Israel, whether it’s ensuring the shul’s security or focusing on its longevity and perpetuity.