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

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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Making Jewish Community

Posted on February 11th, 2019 by

Part 4 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

When Hannah Cohen’s father and mother arrived in Bel Air, their arrival increased the Jewish population of the area by about one-third. Surprisingly, however, there was no sense of immediate recognition, friendship, or mutual assistance among these few Jewish families. In fact, not all Jews who came to small towns chose to associate with one another. Some preferred to remain anonymous in a Gentile milieu, while others were sensitive to the cultural differences among European immigrants from different countries. Still others put greater effort into maintaining their family ties outside the town than in cultivating relationships with new arrivals. Business competition, class differences, and personality conflicts also prevented Jews form associating more closely with their co-religionists. As Charlotte Fox explains:

You know these people were spread out in the Shore. Until the synagogue was built, the community really was not unified. We had maybe one or two families who went to New York or Baltimore for the holidays, and the rest of the community was not interested in being outwardly Jewish. When the shul [synagogue] came they did gravitate there, and it became just a wonderful place for the Jews to get together. Building the synagogue shook the bushes and got them out of the bushes in the surrounding communities.

Of course, this kind of reticence was not the experience of all Jews in all communities. As described earlier, Samuel Weinberg readily used his ethnic connection in Frederick when he found employment in 1860 with James Landauer, one of the Jews already established in business there.

By the 1940s, when Mrs. Fox arrived as a bride in Easton, almost all of Maryland’s communities of thirty or more Jewish families had established congregations, and many were planning or would soon plan to build a synagogue. When a congregation, which can exist for years in a series of rented quarters, builds or renovates its own dedicated space, it becomes the focus for the Jewish community – a space for worship, public religious and secular celebrations, and educating the next generation. The physical presence of a synagogue signals the Jewish community’s intention to persist, and, in one of its most important roles, becomes a source of information about Judaism for the Gentile community.

In addition to the earliest small-town congregations already noted, B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown was organized in 1892, a congregation had been meeting in Pocomoke City since about 1900, and Kneseth Israel was founded in Annapolis in 1906, although it, too, had been gathering informally from an even earlier date. Beth Israel was built by the tiny community of Brunswick in 1917, and – perhaps spurred on by Brunswick’s example – the venerable community of Frederick reorganized itself in 1917 as Beth Sholom Congregation. After a fitful start, the congregation renovated a hall for a synagogue in 1923.

Another, later spate of synagogue construction took place in the 1950s. Pocomoke City had long bene a focus for religious organization on the Eastern Shore. In 1948, The Congregation of Israel built a synagogue there. A few years later synagogues were built in both Salisbury and Easton (1951). The St. Mary’s County community, with roots reaching back to the beginning of the 20th century, erected a synagogue in Lexington Park in 1954, and the Harford Jewish Center acquired a space in Havre de Grace in 1955.

The arrival of Faivel Helig and his family in Pocomoke City in 1901 had an enormous impact on the Jewish community of the Eastern Shore. Not only did his many daughters (pictured in 1912 with their husbands and children) marry and establish families of their own in the area, but Rav Heilig was a learned man and a shochet. L2001.7.9.

What this list of places and dates masks is the debt owed to specific individuals or families for stimulating the founding and building of several of these congregations. Although there were possibly as many as ten or twelve Jewish families scattered throughout the southern Shore in the 1800s, for example, these families might never have organized a central meeting place in Pocomoke City had not Faivel Heilig, a learned man trained as a shochet (ritual butcher) settled there with his large family in 1901. Heilig’s seven unmarried daughters were as much of a draw to the Pocomoke community as his ability to act as a chazzan cantor). The five Fox brothers, who maintained stores in several towns in Talbott and Dorchester Counties, pooled their influence to found the synagogue in Easton. In Frederick, the Weinberg family’s donations of money and property and their forceful leadership gave the long-stalled building process a much-needed jump-start. This pattern of decisive individual leadership in communities throughout the state is one of the salient characteristics of Jewish life in small towns.

Burning the mortgage for the Beth Jacob Congregation, Cumberland, c. 1950s. Gift of Albert Feldstein, JMM 1992.248.1 .

Compromise is another important characteristic of small-town synagogue life. The Jewish congregational tendency to splinter along sectarian lines is so well known that It has become an oft-repeated joke or tag line: “And there’s the synagogue we don’t go to.” In small towns, these disagreements are a luxury the community cannot afford. All of the towns mentioned founded synagogues which followed a middle-of-the-road tradition, with the notable exception of Cumberland. The German-founded B’er Chayim became Reform at an early date, so Cumberland’s more traditional Eastern European immigrants established Beth Jacob Congregation in 1913. With a Jewish population approaching 700 in those years, Cumberland was the only Maryland city outside of Baltimore to support more than one congregation.


Continue to Part 5: Building a Jewish Identity, publishing February 18, 2019.


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Jews Migrate to Small Towns

Posted on January 28th, 2019 by

Part 2 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

Jewish settlement in small towns most often followed a pattern of deliberate emigration form the city, employing a process historians call “chain migration.” People who had tired of the dirt and poverty of the cities, who hoped to build a better future in a less crowded place, were often following the counsel of relatives, landsleit (fellow countrymen), neighbors, and even strangers who had preceded them to the small towns. Hannah Hirsch Cohen tells a typical story:

My father’s brother told him, ‘Ben, there a little town near where I work. It’s called Bel Air. It’s a nice little town and they could use another good tailor there.’ So Mother and Dad came here (from Philadelphia) and they looked the town over and they decided to stay here. That was in 1923.

Benjamin Hirsch brought his wife to Bel Air and established a men’s clothing store where he showcased his talents as a tailor. The store Hirsch opening is still operated by his daughter and son-in-law, in only its second location.

Bel Air’s Main Street, as it looked in the early 1900s. Benjamin Hirsch bought Kisling’s Drug Store in 1924. Gift of Alan Getz, JMM 2001.19.1.

A mid-19th century example of chain migration from the growing railroad town of Cumberland, in western Maryland had notable consequences for the town. Brothers Henry and Selig Adler were among the Jews who had established mercantile businesses there in the 1840s. They sent to Germany for their nephew Simon Rosenbaum, to assist them in the store in 1865; his younger brother Susman joined him in 1869. A decade later, the Rosenbaum, brothers bought out their uncles’ business and established the largest department store in Western Maryland.

Jews also discovered the opportunities offered in small towns while working as peddlers. The memoirs of Samuel Weinberg, a native of Hanover, Germany, provide a colorful description of his arrival in Frederick after a series of difficulties in making his way from Virginia to Maryland during he Civil War. After peddling from 1852 to 1860 in Frederick, Washington, Carroll, and Montgomery Counties in Maryland, Weinberg had moved to Winchester, Virginia less than a year before the outbreak of the war. A man with Northern sympathies, Weinberg was treated unfairly by his Confederate employer, a local merchant, and felt himself in physical danger. He was forced to take his wages in merchandise rather than money, and then was prevented by the authorities from taking the stock across the border to Maryland, from South to North. He sold at a loss in Winchester and gladly took the train to Frederick, Maryland, where he determined to settle.

Happily, Weinberg’s flight to Frederick landed him in friendly territory. There he joined several other Jews who had come to the United States from Central Europe. Weinberg wrote in his memoirs:

My intention was to open business for myself, but Mr. James Landauer persuaded me to clerk for him until the spring if 1862. This I did with the understanding that when I wanted to go into business for myself, Landauer would recommend me for credit, but when the time came for me to leave, Landauer refused to help me, as he wanted to retain me as a clerk. However, my mind was fully made up, and with $300 at my command, I embarked in the confectionery business.[1]

In addition to offering employment, the Jewish men of Frederick witnessed for one another at citizenship hearings, celebrated together when a bris (circumcision) occurred, and insured a Torah in 1864, indicating that regular worship services were being held.

Simon and Sussman Rosenbaum (standing together, left) pose proudly in front of their successful and growing establishment in Cumberland, c. 1880. L2000.110.1

The earlier experiences of the Adlers, Rosenbaums, and Weinberg, and the later experiences of Hannah Cohen’s family should be understood in the context of 19th and 20th century Jewish demographic patterns. In 1830, the Jewish population of the United States was only about 4,000, concentrated mostly in the large Eastern Seaboard cities. By the late 1870s that population had increased to about 250,000, due largely to the immigration of Jews from such Central European areas as Bavaria, Prussia, Alsace, and Posen. These “German” Jews settled in cities, such as Baltimore, as well as in smaller, regional urban centers such as Cumberland and Frederick. Maryland’s oldest congregations – Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (organized 1830), Har Zion (organized 1842), and Oheb Shalom (organized in 1853) in Baltimore, B’er Chayim Congregation in Cumberland (organized 1853) and Frederick Hebrew Congregation (not officially chartered by certainly meeting as early as 1856) – are products of this wave of immigration.[2] There were also several Jewish families and a nascent Jewish community in the Hagerstown area, as indicated by records of several weddings at which a Rabbi Levi officiated between 1851 and 1856.[3]

The German Jews had backgrounds similar enough to other Americans of the time that it was not difficult for them to blend in. They became merchants and industrialists, and often took leadership positions in their adopted communities. Their success and acceptance by the wider American community also led to assimilation and, particularly in smaller communities, to a reduction in the number of people identifying as Jews. One consequence of this pattern was that Frederick Hebrew Congregation had ceased its regular meetings by 1890.

The years from 1880 to 1924 are known as an era of mass immigration, when the population of the United States grew by 56 million people, and Jews from Eastern Europe swelled in numbers to almost four million.[4] The vast majority of these newcomers went to cities. The number of Jews in Baltimore, for example, grew from 10,000 to 65,000 during these years.[5]

Rabbi Hyman Fine officiating at the bar mitzvah of Max Gerber, B’nai Abraham synagogue, Hagerstown, c. 1903. Gift of the B’nai Abraham Congregation, JMM 1988.150.1.

The experience of these “Russian” Jews was quite different from that of the earlier Germans. The East European newcomers often arrived in America with few funds, little secular education, and limited skills. They stood apart from American society – and from established American Jews – in language, dress, and manners, as well as in their approach to Judaism. In addition, the sheer magnitude of their numbers made it even more difficult for them to assimilate.

Jews of this new wave of immigration also found their way to Maryland’s small towns. The process of chain migration continued to operate. Friends and family encourage newcomers to join them in small towns such as when Hannah Cohen’s father, a tailor in Philadelphia, was tipped off by his brother to an opportunity in Bel Air. Immigrant Jews also answered ads for employment and businesses for sale in small towns. Yet another vehicle for Jewish settlement in small towns was the Industrial Removal Office which operated from 1900 to 1917, promoting Jewish settlement in smaller cities around the country including Maryland. In some towns these Eastern European immigrants added new strength to languishing older communities, while in others they broke completely new ground.


Continue to Part 3: Putting Down Roots (publishing February 4, 2019)

[1] From the “Autobiography of Samuel Weinberg,” unpublished typescript, n.d., Jewish Museum of Maryland vertical files.

[2] The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, Vol. 14, No. 9, December 1856 mentions “many Israelites in Frederick and Hagerstown.” Further description of this period in Frederick’s Jewish history may be found in Paul and Rita Gordon’s The Jews Beneath the Clustered Spires, 1971, pp. 34-49.

[3] Anniversary booklet, 80 Years of Congregation B’nai Abraham, Hagerstown, Maryland, 1892-1972.

[4] Jacob Rader Marcus, comp., To Count a People: American Jewish Population Data, 1585 – 1984 (Lanham, MD, 1990).

[5] Baltimore’s population statistics may be found in Earl Pruce’s Synagogues, Temples and Congregations of Maryland, 1830 – 1990, Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 1993.


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