A Volunteer Field Trip – Right Next Door!

Posted on March 19th, 2018 by

A blog post from JMM Volunteer Coordinator Wendy Davis. To read more posts from Wendy, click here.

One can learn much about a building, but it doesn’t come to life until you have seen it filled with people using it for its intended purpose.    On Shabbat, March 3rd, a group of Jewish Museum of Maryland volunteers had that opportunity.  At the invitation of Rabbi Etan Mintz, we participated in the morning service and had a delicious lunch at B’nai Israel, one of the two historic synagogues on the Jewish Museum of Maryland Berman campus.  We were warmly welcomed by the congregants and the rabbi.  All of our male volunteers who were present at the service were given honors during the Torah service and I had the honor of walking with the Torah in my arms in the women’s section.

Inside the sanctuary with some of our volunteers, Phil Sagal, me, Marvin Spector, and Larry Levine.

Instead of a sermon by the rabbi, after services, Fred Shoken, a congregant who is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the history of B’nai Israel spoke to the entire congregation using questions we had previously submitted as his general outline.  Did you know that when the building was built, Hebrew words were carved in stone above the exterior doorway?  It originally identified that the building was the Chizuk Amuno Congregation and the date of the building.  When B’nai Israel moved into the building, the original congregation’s name was filled in and recarved with the name of the new congregation.    When the exterior was restored in 1987, some of the filling in of the letters was removed, leaving an overlap of both names.  In the sanctuary, all the beautiful woodwork is original except for the mechitzah (the fence separating the men from the women) and the railings leading to the ark.  Rabbi Mintz showed everyone interesting historic objects from the congregation’s collection including a list of yarhtzits written on parchment.

Standing outside the synagogue.

Typical for synagogues, at the end of the service, the president of the congregation, Shelly Mintz, who is also a JMM volunteer, made announcements.  As expected, she included information about upcoming events and services. But her words also expressed how this oldest continuously operating synagogue building in Maryland is still the place of active Jewish involvement.

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From Baltimore to Iraq to India

Posted on December 27th, 2017 by

A blog post from JMM Volunteer Coordinator Wendy Davis. To read more posts from Wendy, click here.

I recently traveled with my husband to India.  It was an adventure into a culture and way of life that was fascinating.  But what surprised me was the connection between the current exhibit at Jewish Museum of Maryland and my recent travels to India.

The David Sassoon Library and Reading Room

In the Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage exhibit there is a facsmile of business correspondence of the Sassoon family.  The memory of this was trigger when I saw a sign on a building in Mumbai “David Sassoon Library and Reading Room.”  I remembered that David Sassoon was a Baghdadi Jew who moved to what was once called Bombay and established an international trading business in the mid-1800’s.  What I have learned since, is that he remained an observant Jew and built 2 synagogues in the Bombay area.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Via.

Just a few blocks from the Sassoon library I visited a synagogue called Keneseth Eliyahoo.  It was built by Davis Sassoon’s grandson in 1884 when there was a huge Baghdadi Jewish community living in the area.  Upon looking up the synagogue on the internet, I found that when the Keneseth Eliyahoo recently dedicated a new Torah, a representative of the Midrash Ben Ish Hai, a New York synagogue/school, spoke at the dedication.

Interior, Kenesseth Eliyahu Synagogue. Photo by Reuben Strayer. Via.

The name “Ben Ish Hai” triggered another memory.  In the Iraqi Heritage exhibit there is a 1906 religious guidebook for women written by Yosef Hayin ben Elijah al-Hakam, also known as Ben Ish Hai.  Ben Ish Hai was an international known and respected rabbi whose name and teachings and Baghdadi traditions are expounded at the New York Midrash Ben Ish Hai.

Who knew that a trip to India would illustrate to me that, as the final panel in the Iraqi Jewish Heritage exhibit states, “Iraqi Jewish life continues as a vibrant tradition in Iraqi Jewish communities worldwide.”

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Sacred Space, Past and Present

Posted on June 26th, 2017 by

Post by Collections Intern Joelle Paull.  To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Old Synagogue, Krakow

Old Synagogue, Krakow

Studying medieval art, I have become really interested in how ritual space shapes a community and in turn is shaped by a communities need. While studying and traveling in Europe, I found myself exploring medieval synagogues and Jewish ghettos. Until that point my studies had been focused on Christian ritual spaces that became the center of towns across Europe. I was excited and pleasantly surprised to find myself in Jewish ritual spaces, often the center of centuries old Jewish neighborhoods. In some cases, like in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, the only distinguishing features of the synagogues are the rows of windows in the upper gallery.

These were unusual when compared to the narrow, cramped homes surrounding them. The same is true of the Old Synagogue in Krakow, one of the many centuries old synagogues on the perimeter of the city center, which was built in the 15th century, underwent many changes and was ultimately renovated and restored in the 20th century after WWII. Today, it is located in the corner of a square and is a simple multi-level brick building, with three large windows over the large entrance. From the outside there is little indication of the function of the building or the large rib vaulted interior.

Color snapshot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue facade, c. 1982.

Color snapshot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue facade, c. 1982.

Walking into the Lloyd Street Synagogue my first day of work, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the synagogue and the spaces I had studied. The Lloyd Street Synagogue is a perfect example of a ritual space that evolved over centuries to reflect the community around it. The synagogue was the center of the Jewish community in Baltimore and as such took on both a religious and civic importance. The archaeological discoveries at the current synagogue, showcased in the exhibit, The Synagogue Speaks, allow us to understand what the synagogue looked like from 1845 to today.

From this understanding we can begin to understand how it functioned on a day to day basis and the role it had in the lives of its patrons. The unassuming facade of the sacred building gives little to no indication that it is a synagogue. It was only in the 1900s, after the building was converted the building back into a synagogue that the exterior begins to show signs of its function – Hebrew lettering on the portico, the gallery level windows on the façade. The 20th century synagogue, until it was beginning in the 1960s, was elaborately decorated, with new furniture, chandeliers, and murals. The following restoration returned the synagogue to its original 1860s appearance. The ability to walk into a space and see the many layers of its history makes the Lloyd Street Synagogue unique. The oral and written histories and the many artifacts only add to our understanding of the space itself.

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