From the Ground Up

Posted on April 6th, 2011 by

On a bright Sunday in early April the JMM unveiled its newest publication and first book for children at a family program dedicated to the publication. The Synagogue Speaks, a full color picture book written by JMM Associate Director Anita Kassof with watercolor illustrations by well-known local artist Jonathon Scott Fuqua, tells the story of the historic building and the three congregations (two synagogues and one church) that worshipped there. With a story told from the building’s point of view, the book’s  vivid colors and simple, elegant language will surely entrance young readers.

Sunday’s program, called From the Ground Up, celebrated the publication through a variety of activities including painting, building, digging and otherwise exploring the Lloyd Street Synagogue and its gallery. Most poignant was Anita’s reading of the book which took place in the Synagogue itself. A large group of children of various ages listened and looked intently, as Anita read the story and showed the pictures. Young visitors had a rare opportunity to the meet author and illustrator after the reading. A great time was had by all! The Synagogue Speaks is for sale in the JMM Shop and online at It sells for $18 and is geared toward children ages 4 to 10.

Anita reads to the group. Photo by Harriett Lynn.


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The Lloyd Street Synagogue

Posted on December 17th, 2010 by

A blog post by associate director Anita Kassof.

Three congregations—two Jewish and one Catholic—worshipped at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, and each altered the building to suit its spiritual and communal needs. Among their alterations: Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (1845-1889) added a 30 foot addition to the east end of the synagogue; St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1889-1905) rearranged the balcony pews, added interior stairs, and reconfigured the lower level; and Shomrei Mishmeres (1905-1960) reconfigured the mikvehs (ritual baths) and added decorative paint.

We learned about many of these alterations through intensive paint and architectural analyses, and several archaeological excavations in the mikveh area. They’re exciting finds, and we wanted to convey that sense of discovery to our visitors. So when we developed The Synagogue Speaks, our exhibition in and about the building, we incorporated “history windows” so visitors could take a look behind the scenes to see some of those alterations. The windows enable the building to speak for itself about how it’s changed over time.

Here are some of my favorites:

cut through wall

Cut through wall. Photo by Will Kirk.

This wall, now part of an interior hallway, was the outside wall of the Lloyd Street Synagogue until 1860, when Baltimore Hebrew Congregation expanded the building. For many years, there was no doorway in this wall. The only access to the new portion of the lower level was from an exterior door, which is just to the left of this view.

The doorway in this wall (on the right in the photo) was cut sometime between 1880 and 1910. It looks as if a stone mason had to hack through the substantial stone foundation to make the doorway, shoring things up with crude timbers.


Column, photo by Will Kirk.

The plaster residue on this column reveals that a wall once abutted its east and west sides. The wall was constructed when the synagogue was built in 1845. According to a newspaper article from the time, the lower level had “two good school¬rooms, and a large hall filled up as a temporary Synagogue, to be used as occasion may require.”

The column also has plaster scars on its north and south faces. These are from a later wall, which St. John’s (a Lithuanian Catholic congregation) constructed during its 1895 renovation. St. John’s used the lower level for parish and community events.

Not visible in this photograph: a name, possibly Lithuanian, penciled on the column. Perhaps a workman signed his name during the St. John’s period.

stencil wall

Stencil wall, photo by Will Kirk.

This image shows a “window” in a layer of 1960s era drywall. When we stripped away the drywall, we discovered stencils and paint from earlier eras. Photomicrography—the process of photographing a tiny sample of paint under a microscope—helped us figure out just what used to be here.

archaeological paint layers

Archaeological paint layers.

This sample shows that after the wall was built and plastered, it was covered with a light gray lime coating that later was painted yellow ochre (layers 1-6). The bright blue band (layer 7) indicates that a mural might once have been painted on the wall. This is still visible on some areas of the wall. The top layer (14) shows the stencil that was concealed by the 1960s drywall.

It’s no surprise that Shomrei Mishmeres, the last congregation to occupy the Lloyd Street Synagogue, applied decorative stencils to the walls of the lower level. Daily worship services were often held here, and one former congregant recalls that the area was beautiful.

The synagogue has a lot more to reveal, so come visit soon and see what the building has to say to you.

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November at the JMM

Posted on December 3rd, 2010 by

I just finished compiling stats for November 2010 at the JMM. Every month, I tally our on-site attendance with separate categories dedicated to walk-in visitors, adult group members, schools, special events, and rentals. I am now in my 9th year as “keeper of the stats” and it is interesting to compare and contrast the ebb and flow of visitation over the years as we try and track trends and determine the various factors (weather, season, new exhibitions, popular programs, etc.) that seem to encourage higher numbers of visitors. School groups, in particular, are a special area of interest. As we work to promote our programs and resources to even larger numbers of school groups, I always pay particular attention to our monthly totals in an effort to discern how we can continue to grow our program.

November was a banner month for school groups. During the month, we served 834 students, teachers, and chaperons (as compared to just over 400 last November). One of the most influential factors driving school group visitation during the month was our installation of the exhibition, A Blessing To One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People. While many groups booked visits to see this exhibition – and we also saw the number of walk-in visitors rise – Catholic schools, in particular, demonstrated a high level of interest in bringing groups to see the exhibition. During November alone, we served 606 students, teachers, and chaperons from Catholic schools and universities.

One of the challenges in serving such large number of student groups is the limited space within the gallery housing A Blessing To One Another. As many of our docents have pointed out, ideal group sizes for a guided exhibition tour is 15 or fewer and yet, the average size group of students is larger than 50. It, therefore, becomes necessary to break the classes into smaller groups and rotate each group through various stations. This also necessitates bringing on additional volunteer docents and staff to help facilitate.

On November 16, 75 students from The Catholic High School, an all-girls school in Baltimore City, visited for a half-day trip. The large number of students necessitated some creative thinking as to how we could break them into smaller groups and facilitate meaningful activities with each group. We decided to split them into four groups. Two groups were combined for an Introduction to Judaism program in the Lloyd Street Synagogue (which can accommodate larger numbers of students) where students learned about Jewish history, traditions, and customs. This station proved to be a terrific complement to the Blessing To One Another exhibition where students could ask questions and probe the significance of Jewish ritual items.

Catholic HS girls participating in an Introduction to Judaism program led by JMM docent Lois Fekete

Catholic HS girls participating in an Introduction to Judaism program led by JMM docent Lois Fekete

The other two groups were split between A Blessing To One Another and The Synagogue Speaks! exhibition that explores the histories of the three different congregational groups (including a Lithuanian Catholic church) that occupied the Lloyd Street Synagogue at different times in history. The Synagogue Speaks! station included hands-on interactive activities that encouraged students to work together in teams and to solve mysteries of how the building changed over time.

Catholic HS students creating watercolors in The Synagogue Speaks!

Catholic HS students creating watercolors in The Synagogue Speaks!

The program culminated with a presentation by Holocaust survivor Rachel Bodner who shared her personal experiences of life before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Catholic HS students listening to Holocaust survivor, Rachel Bodner

Catholic HS students listening to Holocaust survivor, Rachel Bodner

Through these various activities and presentations, students received an intensive learning experience that touched on many aspects of their classroom lessons. One of the teachers from The Catholic High School shared his feedback about the field trip with JMM staff: “Thank you so much for helping to plan our experience at the museum. My students had an amazing experience and are still talking about it today. I cannot express how grateful I am for the museum, you, your staff, the volunteers, and the wonderful programs that you have available. The other faculty members and myself were discussing how we can incorporate the museum into our curriculum to make it a yearly event.”

The next day, we received a visit by a joint group of students visiting from St. Frances Academy and Shoshana S. Cardin High School. This interfaith gathering of students of Jewish and Catholic faiths was inspired by the Blessing To One Another exhibition. Students were split into small mixed groups and toured the exhibition with the assistance of worksheets looking for examples of how Pope John Paul II worked towards building positive relationships between Jews and Catholics throughout his life. As I walked through the exhibit asking students if they needed assistance finding answers to worksheet questions, I kept hearing from students that they were equally interested in getting to know their peers from the other school and they were conversing about mutual interest in sports, music, etc. I took this as a sign that the program was successful!

Again, we received positive feedback about the field trip from both teachers and students. “I just wanted to thank you for the experience yesterday.  It proved to be a wonderful example of Judeo-Christian camaraderie and dialogue.  I thought it went great, and my students were genuinely interested throughout the visit.  I could not even get anyone to admit to liking one part of the day over the other, they said again and again, that it was great from beginning to end.”

While we are always pleased to serve high numbers of students and teachers, we are even more concerned with the quality of the programs. Feedback that we receive through teacher and student surveys (such as the comments shared above) provides guidance as we plan new programs and activities. We are grateful to all of the JMM staff and volunteer docents who provided such superior service for school groups this month and look forward to developing new tours, resources, and activities in the months ahead.

While it was an exhausting month, comments from students such as this St. Frances Academy student, truly make it all worthwhile!

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