Sidebar 3: A Letter from Brunswick, 1917

Posted on March 11th, 2019 by

Part 8 of “Strangers No More: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns. Missed the beginning? Head there now! Written by Karen Falk, former JMM curator. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001. If you would like to purchase a hard copy of this issue, please contact our shop, Esther’s Place, at 443-873-5179 or email info@jewishmuseummd.org.


The following letter was originally published in The Jewish Comment on August 24, 1917. The Jewish Comment was published in Baltimore from 1895 to 1918, functioning in the community much like the Baltimore Jewish Times today.

The writer, Himan N. Werntz, was born in Lithuania in 1881, and emigrated to Baltimore in 1902. Shortly thereafter, he arrive in Brunswick to work for V. Kaplon Company, Brunswick’s leading department store, and to serve the community as a Hebrew teacher. In 1907, he and his brother-in-law opened a combination clothing and grocery store.

In the September 14, 1917 issue of The Jewish Comment, Werntz clarifies that “the Jewish population of this popular railroad town numbers about 14 families. Every Jewish family here conducts a strictly kosher house. Through the work of the entire Jewish community a movement was launched last winter to erect a modern synagogue here.” Although Beth Israel Congregation’s synagogue was completed and dedicated on June 8, 1919 amid great expectations, its use as a place of worship appears to have ended by the early 1930s. Mr. Wentz moved his family to Baltimore in 1920, although he maintained his business in Brunswick until just before his death in 1961.


To the Editor

Sir:

There was a time when the Jew looked with much disfavor upon the small towns of this country. No Jew was eager to live in a small country town and when forced to move to a small town it was considered only a temporary home, as it afforded an opportunity to live very economically, in order, later, to move to a city among his fellow-brethren. The Jew was considered a stranger among his Gentile neighbors. He failed to take interest in the welfare of the small town. In municipal affairs the Jew was lax. The feelings of the Gentiles were aroused sometimes, and they considered us a race or nation of money-lovers.

But matter and circumstances changed. It is quite different now. It is quite a usual phenomenon to see a large number of our people move to small towns to make a permanent home. Persons who moved to the city and got rid of all their country savings turn their eyes back to the sweet old country; they love the surroundings, the healthy climate, the pure air and the pure and fresh food. The Jewish settlement in the small and large country towns is growing rapidly. The interest and the welfare of the community are familiar to us. The Jews take part in nearly everything touching the improvement of the community. In municipal affairs the Jews learned to produce strength and ability. In financial institutions the Jews is a good fact, and, in fact, the Gentiles consider us good financiers and trusty persons and the success of a number of the country banks is largely attributed to the support and work of the Jews. We are respected in general and the future is bright. The small towns can become populous Jewish centers, with a healthy future generation. In short, the financial situation of the Jews in the small towns is improving, together with the growth of the community.

But while the financial conditions are considered good and substantially strong, the spiritual and religious situation is much to the contrary. The religious situation is deplorable. While every church in the country is endeavoring to organize Sunday Schools and other associations, the tendency of the Jews in the small towns toward improving Judaism is developing very slowly or not at all.

While nearly every Jewish settlement possesses a synagogue or contemplates the erection of one, they conduct services only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A number of Sabbath and Sunday Schools were organized, but in vain. There is no attraction and consequently the children fail to attend. The majority of the small towns have no rabbi to visit them. They have teachers who are strangers to our literature and to our wonderful history and, or course, have little knowledge or none at all of Hebrew. Such teachers are not fit even to teach a Sabbath or Sunday School. Inasmuch as the children receive no other Jewish education there are some Chedorim conducted by the Shochet of the town and in nearly all cases he has no system or knowledge of pedagogies. The situation is growing critical. The children know little of our religion, of our history, and the future generation will have very little love for his people.

We must open wide our eyes and protect our children and ourselves. We must look out for the fruit. The voice of God is roaring, “Take good care of thy youngsters. Protect their young and soft hearts from dust and faults, so they will grow up and stay with you.” Reform or Orthodox, but Jews they shall be. Where are our religious leaders? Have they ever visited a small town? It is up to our rabbis to try to be in touch with the situation. It is up to them to investigate. It is up to them to find the remedy.

The Jewish Comment, the only Jewish magazine in this section, helps much the cause of Judaism in general. Although devoted principally to Reform Judaism, I feel sure that its columns are open for Orthodox as well as Reform leaders to discuss the subject of remedying Judaism. Let there not be any friction and division wherever it touches on Judaism. Zionist and anti should join hands and drop politics and work for this worthy and most important cause. Now is the proper time and opportunity and the opportunity knocks at our doors. Rabbis and laymen let me hear your voices. The Jews in the country towns are ready to assist you and to obey your commands. I appeal to you with sincere feelings, being familiar with conditions in the small towns. Help us rear good Jews in the small towns. We need your assistance, your advice, your teachings and knowledge.

Will my appeal remain like a voice in a desert?

H.N. Werntz

Brunswick, Md.

~The End~


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Sidebar 1: How to Build a Synagogue, 1917 – 1923

Posted on February 25th, 2019 by

Part 6 of “Strangers No More: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns. Missed the beginning? Head there now! Written by Karen Falk, former JMM curator. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001. If you would like to purchase a hard copy of this issue, please contact our shop, Esther’s Place, at 443-873-5179 or email info@jewishmuseummd.org.


Usually, one of the top priorities of a Jewish community is the acquisition of a synagogue building. But communities may have periods of decline as well as growth to consider when planning for their needs, and the advantages of a permanent communal space may not be readily apparent to the leadership of the time. In Frederick, where the Jewish presence dates form the Colonial era and the community had engaged the services of a rabbi as early as 1858, the Frederick Hebrew Congregation was never officially chartered and met for approximately forty years in a series of rented rooms. This venerable community experienced a dangerous period of decline from 1890 to about 1010, when the congregation dwindled and eventually stopped meeting.

Efforts to revitalize the community took several years, and while much of the leadership for this revival came form the established German-Jewish families, we can speculate that another impetus was the arrival of Eastern European families who moved to Frederick during this period.

In 1917, Leo Weinberg, a member of one of Frederick’s oldest Jewish families, prominent Frederick lawyer, and lay reader for the Frederick Hebrew Congregation, spoke at the ground-breaking for Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue to be built in the nearby town of Brunswick. Apparently, the example of the tiny Brunswick community inspired Weinberg with a sense of responsibility that he then tried to transmit to the Jews of Frederick. In a Yom Kippur sermon entitled “The Most Acceptable Sacrifice,” he exhorted members of the congregation to pledge contributions to the building of a synagogue in Frederick. As a result, the Beth Sholom Congregation of Frederick was chartered October 1, 1917, and newspapers reported that Mr. David Lowenstein – Weinberg’s uncle – started the building fund with a contribution of $3,000.

Unfortunately, this encouraging beginning was soon stalled, partly by the untimely death of Mr. Lowenstein, By 1921 little progress had been effected towards making the synagogue a reality. Frustrated, the Jewish women of Frederick took matters into their own hands. They united to form a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, whose expressed purpose was to “take such steps and action as will insure the success of the movement of a Synagogue in Frederick, and to this end that Committee be appointed to co-operate with the male members of ‘Beth Sholom’ Congregation, and to rouse them to a realization of their duty, speedily and without delay.”

The women’s determined action met with immediate success: minutes taken on Sunday, April 17, 1921 record the dramatic announcement “that Mr. Leo Weinberg would donate to the Beth Sholom Congregation the two-story building, 37 x 60 ft, situated on West Second Street – provided the congregation would remodel and properly equip same as a Synagogue.” An appeal made to the assembled men and women drew pledges totaling $1,950. The synagogue was completed and dedicated on September 2, 1923.

Beth Sholom, Frederick, dedicated 1923. Photo by Aaron Levin, JMM 1998.118.12. Special thanks to Paul and Rita Gordon of Frederick, whose book “The Jewish Beneath the Clustered Spires” (1971) describes these events and whose donated archival materials document their description.


 

Continue to Sidebar 2: A Declaration of Faith, 1853, publishing March 4, 2019.


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Building a Jewish Identity

Posted on February 18th, 2019 by

Part 5 of “Strangers No More: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns. Missed the beginning? Head there now! Written by Karen Falk, former JMM curator. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001. If you would like to purchase a hard copy of this issue, please contact our shop, Esther’s Place, at 443-873-5179 or email info@jewishmuseummd.org.


In recent years, improvements in transportation have minimized somewhat the barrier of distance, but before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952, for example, the Eastern Shore seemed very far from Baltimore and required an all-day trip by car or bus and ferry. Likewise, driving from Baltimore to Hagerstown or Cumberland, through the mountains of Western Maryland, was an all-day ordeal requiring motorists to “put in fuel and water at the top of each mountain,” according to Elaine Hirsh Jandorf. In those days, many of the basics of Jewish life must have seemed at far remove and maintaining a Jewish identity was a daunting challenge. Many people abandoned the effort, assimilating into the larger community and giving up their Jewishness. Others, however, resolved to persist, finding ways to keep Jewish homes, observe the Sabbath and festivals, and mark their lives with custom and ritual.

Jewish responded to the logistical and personal challenges to Jewish identity with a variety of strategies, sometimes reaching out to bring in the needed resources, or traveling to the nearest city to meet other needs. Some decided that certain observances could be discarded, while others found Jewish life in the small town untenable and moved permanently back to the city.

Finding kosher foods was often particularly challenging. Some families made arrangements to have kosher foods brought to the town. Betty Golumbek remembers that “in Frederick there was a Jewish man who was a non-kosher butcher, but his wife kept kosher; when he would buy for his wife, he would buy for the other few women in Frederick who kept kosher. And so my mother would call him on a Monday and she would say, ‘Well what do we have today?’ and that’s what we bought.” Some people went to even greater lengths. Phyllis Gordon of Easton describes an especially daunting odyssey:

One year my sister over in Federalsburg heard about this plant in lower Delaware where they would sell us live chickens. She had this big, galumpy car that we drove downstate and we loaded the trunk up with about four crates of live chickens. We drove the chickens up to Wilmington, to the shochet, and he killed the chickens for us. All the way up there the chickens were cackling, and people were looking at us! We only did that once.

Not everyone, however, opted to make the considerable effort to maintain that level of Jewish observance. In the words of one resident from southern Maryland, “[In the early 1950s] it was a 2 ½ hour shlep to Baltimore to buy kosher food, a 2 ½ hour shlep back, and we have two babies. I was working 70, 80 hours in the business, so we decided to give up keeping kosher.”

Gilda Brodsky’s third grade class in Odenton, Maryland, 1938. Gilda is in the first row of standing girls, second from the left. Gift of Gilda Resnick, JMM 2001.73.4.

Jewish children attending public schools in small towns faced special challenges. Surrounded by non-Jewish schoolmates and teachers, steeped in American life, they were keenly aware of being different from those around them. Reports from several residents of small towns indicate the Jewish children were singled out by teachers for comments on their heritage. They were sometimes ignored and left out of social activities: “So many of the things to do after school were at the church. I was always out of things,” reflects one woman from Harford County. They were even taunted and physically attached. As a Brunswick man remembers, “When I first went to elementary school, when I’d pass the firehouse, I’d be taunted with expressions like “Jew-baby, Jew-baby sittin’ on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.”

Leo Weinberg’s composition book from his high school English class in 1902 includes an essay on the origin and meaning of Christmas, an assignment which may have posed special difficulties for a Jewish boy. His teacher appears to have recognized but not sympathized with these difficulties, commenting, “A very well written paper, but too little of Leo in it!” This kind of assignment, which was not atypical of the American education system, was a reminder to a Jewish student that he was different from his classmates, while at the same time teaching him to become more like the Gentile majority. Jewish children sang in Christmas pageants, careful to just mouth the works when they came to Jesus’ name. Even acceptance sometimes had its ironies: in 1995 the children of B’er Chayim’s basketball team were awarded the Christian Spirit award for their good sportsmanship.

Jews accepted this state of affairs and worked to fit in. Most people interviewed about their experiences growing up Jewish in Maryland’s small towns denied that there was any friction between the Jews and their neighbors. Most found – and still find – the atmosphere of the small town warm and welcoming. To them, it felt natural to blend Jewish traditions with the customs of the town. As an interviewee in Cumberland put it, “My kids don’t have any idea what prejudice is. They don’t have any reason to think that being Jewish is different, because it isn’t.”

Others, however, were aware of deeper conflicts between their American and their Jewish identities. They spoke of being “always very aware that we were Jewish…you had to be better than everyone else because you were Jewish,” and “you’re representing the Jewish community…[and] you want to put your best foot forward for your family name and for your folks.” These people never ceased feeling like strangers in their hometowns.

The late Philip Liebman, of Salisbury, poetically summed up the conflict facing Jews in small towns. Comparing Jewish life in Salisbury to the miracle of Jonah’s survival inside the whale he declared, “when I came to the Eastern Shore I realized that the whale wasn’t a big fish, it was a small town; and that Jonah…was any Jew that found himself in a small town. That if he didn’t watch himself very closely, he would soon be digested by the whale. So that I would have to watch myself very carefully lest I be digested.”


 

Continue to Sidebar 1: How to Build a Synagogue, 1917-1923


 

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