Number #2 – Check!

Posted on January 25th, 2016 by

As I write this blog, the weather reports are calling for a major blizzard to hit the Baltimore/Washington corridor.  The idea of snowstorm is kind of nice- thinking about it happening over the weekend-not really having to be anywhere except home with family, a fire, and lots of good food and drink.  However, my mind wanders back to two weeks ago, over Winter Break, enjoying 80 degree days in Hilton Head and Charleston, South Carolina.

The purpose of the trip to the south was to relax, ride bikes and visit Number #2 – Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim (KKBE).  Why did do I care about Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim.  Part of the visitor’s experience at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is to take a tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  We tell our visitors that the Lloyd Street Synagogue (LSS)  is the third oldest synagogue in the country still standing in its original spot.  Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island is Number #1 – built in 1759 and is the oldest existing synagogue building in  the United States.  Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim is Number #2 and we as the owners of the Lloyd Street Synagogue here at the JMM are Number #3!

Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim

Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim

The Jewish community of Charleston can be traced back to 1695.  Jews were attracted to the civil and religious liberties of South Carolina, and by 1749, these early pioneers organized the congregation, Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God). Similar to the early Baltimore Jewish community, the congregation worshipped in people’s homes until 1794, they dedicated a synagogue described then as the largest in the United States, “spacious and elegant.”  The building was destroyed in the great fire of Charleston in 1838, and the new building was constructed in 1840 on the same Hasell Street site.  The building is one of the country’s finest examples of Greek Revival architecture.  The Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim sanctuary is the second oldest existing synagogue building  in the United States and the oldest in continuous use.  It was designated a national landmark in 1980.

The sanctuary.

The sanctuary.

I was curious to as the similarities and differences between KKBE and the LSS.   The first thing that really struck me was the presence of an established Jewish community so early in the our nation’s history.  KKBE was established prior to the Revolutionary War- so it was very interesting to learn about the early Jewish Americans who settled in the US prior to the war.  KKBE has a letter on display from President George Washington dating from  1790 extending his congratulations to the congregation.  In thinking about Baltimore’s early Jewish community-the Jewish community is really not established until 1830, more than  50 years after the Revolutionary War.

The actual building of KKBE is very similar to  the LSS in that both buildings are built in Greek Revival architectural style.  The KKBE has six columns when compared to the LSS’s four columns.  The columns in Charleston also appear to be considerably  taller than the LSS too.   Both buildings have very  large doors for entranceways in the center of the buildings.  The Hebrew prayer and English translation of the Shma are on the outside of the synagogue in Charleston.  Both synagogue building have boot scrapers located outside the door.  My favorite detail of the “lego bricks” underneath the portico of the LSS can also be seen at KKBE.

My favorite detail of the “lego bricks” underneath the portico of the LSS can also be seen at KKBE.

The“lego bricks” of KKBE.

We walked inside the sanctuary, and the space is very beautiful and in ways similar to the LSS.  The ark is very impressive and is made of Santo Domingo mahogany.  The local tradition in the South is to keep the doors of the Ark open.   The Torah scrolls are enclosed behind glass inside the wooden frame.

The ark.

The ark.

The organ is in the back of the congregation and was installed in 1840 introducing instrumental music into its worship service. Since then KKBE has been connected with religious reform and the congregation was one of the founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making it  one of the earliest reform congregations in the country.   The organ is placed -very much in the way that I imagined the organ to have been installed by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1870’s inside the LSS. in the back of the sanctuary on the balcony level.

The organ.

The organ.

One of my favorite things at KKBE was a beautiful mural that they had displayed in the social hall that depicts the “Patriots of Beth Elohim”. The figure on the horse represents the young Revolutionary patriot and legislator Francis Salvador who was killed and scalped by Tory-led Indians.  He was one of more than 20 Beth Elohim congregants who fought in the American Revolution, symbolized by the standing figure holding a Bible who represents Abraham Alexander, a Revolutionary officer and religious leader of Bet Elohim between 1764 and 1784.  The soldier seated with the broken sword and bowed head represents some 180 Jewish South Carolinians who served in the Civil War.  The tablet with the rampant lions and flames represent the brave Maccabees who fought for religious freedom in the second century BCE.  The soldier and the flag on the left represent KKBE members who served in subsequent wars.

“Patriots of Beth Elohim”

“Patriots of Beth Elohim”

I am so happy to place a checkmark on my bucket list – I have been curious to see KKBE, especially after so many visitors to the JMM have shared their own observations and stories about the rich history of the Jewish community in Charleston. I enjoyed making the connections between the two historic  buildings and I look forward to doing more research over the next few months as we try and showcase the Lloyd Street Synagogue as, “The American Synagogue.”  More details to follow!   Stay warm this weekend!

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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A Jam Packed Day at the Museum!

Posted on November 30th, 2015 by

November 15th was perhaps our busiest day yet in my six months at the Museum. It was exciting and exhilarating, but also at times hectic. This particular day also gives a good idea of what it can be like to be the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Jewish Museum of MD.

The day began bright and early with the great great grandson of Rabbi Avaham Schwartz leading morning services at Lloyd Street Synagogue.  For those who do not know, the renowned Rabbi Schwartz led Shomrei Mishmereth Ha Kodesh beginning in 1908 and remained its leader for the next thirty years. It was so exciting to meet the descendants of Rabbi Schwartz and to see the synagogue active again and filled with the sounds of prayer. The service helped me picture how the space might have been used a hundred years ago as an orthodox congregation.

The LSS in action

The LSS in action

A half an hour after the Museum opened to the public, a fourth grade class from Columbia Congregation arrived and they received a tour of the Synagogue and Voices of Lombard Street exhibit. It was refreshing to hear young voices in the Museum and to see them excited about learning about Baltimore’s Jewish heritage. Just as the school group was leaving, another group arrived, this time from Hadassah. They came specifically to see the Paul Simon exhibit.

We then started to get busy with walk-ins for a lecture by Richard Goldstein at 1pm titled “Paul Simon and the Birth of Folk Rock.” I was busy assisting our fabulous front desk volunteers process admission payments while also keeping an eye on the shop. During the lecture, Richard Goldstein focused on Paul Simon’s early career and how his sense of pop music played a crucial role in the transition from folk to rock.

Listening to Richard Goldstein

Listening to Richard Goldstein

Just as the lecture was finishing up, descendants of suffragettes including a descendant of Sadie Crockin and Sara Bard Field began arriving for a meeting where they had time to share information about their ancestors and receive a tour of our exhibits.

The Suffragettes

The Suffragettes

To wrap up the day, I then joined our Education Director, Ilene Dackman’s, on her inaugural Sounds of the Synagogue tour. It was wonderful to hear clips from a Hebrew prayer service, organ music, a sermon by Rabbi Illoway supporting slavery and recreated conversations from Shomrei Mishmeres. I look forward to hopefully giving the tour in the coming weeks.

In total, we had about 75 visitors come through the Museum plus as additional 125 in groups and rentals. Just when I thought we could not be beat, the next Sunday we had more than 160 visitors and another well attended lecture. I am optimistic that we can maintain this momentum throughout the Paul Simon exhibit and beyond.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

 

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A False “Rosetta Stone”

Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to speak to the brotherhood of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation about the life of Mendes Cohen and the origins of Jewish Baltimore.  In preparation for the lecture, I thought it was incumbent on me to try to answer the question: “was there a connection between the Cohens and the community that built the Lloyd Street Synagogue (the original site of BHC)?”

I had the benefit of the research of Dr. Eric Goldstein, the Emory University scholar, who has been studying early Baltimore history on our behalf.  Dr. Goldstein had pointed out that the early Jewish settlement in Baltimore was highly transient.  A majority of Jews arriving between 1780 and 1820 stayed for just a few years, making it a tough environment for the establishment of permanent Jewish institutions.  There was a Jewish cemetery by 1797, but no regular minyan or congregation.  Baltimore was a frontier of Jewish world.

The Cohens were an exception to the pattern of transience.  Arriving in Baltimore from Richmond in 1808, they prospered in the lottery and banking business.  Like their close friends, the Ettings, the Cohens followed Sephardic traditions.  By contrast, new Baltimoreans after 1820 were almost entirely Germans practicing Ashkenazic rites.

Different sources give different accounts of when the first weekly minyans were held in Baltimore, some cited 1827, just a year after the passage of the Maryland Jew Bill.  Others claim that the practice of minyans in people’s homes began following the High Holidays in 1829.  Everyone seems to agree that this gathering called itself Nidche Yisrael (the “scattered of Israel”) and sought a formal charter as Maryland’s first Jewish congregation in 1830.

This is where my online research began.  Several sources, including the 1976 official history of the BHC, put the first minyan in the home of Zalma Rehine.  The Jewish Virtual Library stated that Rehine was a successful Richmond merchant (and a founding member of the Richmond Light Infantry) who moved to Baltimore in 1829.  The short article also pointed out that Rehine was the uncle of Isaac Leeser.

Now I may never have heard of Rehine, but Leeser was another story.  One of the most prominent Jewish spiritual leaders of pre-rabbinic America.  Leeser, technically the “cantor” of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, is known today for having introduced the practice of weekly sermons and for having made the first English translation of the Torah in the United States.  Leeser was present at the opening of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845.

It turns out that Leeser and his uncle carried on an active correspondence in the 1830’s.  That correspondence is now archived as part of the 2100 letters in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Library of the University of Pennsylvania:

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

http://leeser.library.upenn.edu/ilproject.php.  And that’s where I thought I found my Rosetta Stone!

Here was one letter that connected the “founder” of  BHC with the Cohens.  Moreover, it suggested that the relationship was so close that Dr. Joshua Cohen (Mendes’ brother) was among the trusted few who actually previewed Leeser’s sermons.  The story about chasing after the home robbers was just icing on the cake.

As so often happens, further research burst my bubble.  In trying to gather more detail on the relationships I ran across an article in the November 1976 issue of the American Jewish Archives.  The article by Ira Rosenswaike was entitled “The Founding of Baltimore’s First Jewish Congregation:  Fact or Fiction?”.  Rosenswaike explores in some detail the Rehine story, tracing its origins to an early 20th century lecture by Henrietta Szold.  Szold reportedly told her audience that a respected community elder had once recollected that an early minyan was held at the home of Zalma Rehine on Holliday Street.  Szold noted “this may possibly have been the beginning of Nidche Israel”.  Later accounts simply dropped the “may possibly” caution and said with certainty that the minyans began at Rehine’s home.  After noting the low likelihood that a Sephardi just arrived from Richmond would start an Ashkenazi Jewish minyan in Baltimore, Rosenswaike moves to some fairly solid census evidence that points to Rehine still residing in Richmond in 1830…at least a year after the regular minyan started meeting in Baltimore.

Although this nearly 40 year old article disproved my “Rosetta Stone”, I still remain hopeful that we’ll find a link between the Cohens and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  I invite you to join me in this quest – the search is at least half the fun.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. 

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