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BALTIMORE, city in Maryland, U.S. When Abraham *Rice of Bavaria accepted the rabbinic post at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1840, the congregation became the first in America to employ an ordained rabbi. While Baltimore Jewry remains justly proud of this distinction, for Rabbi Rice, the experience was not a happy one: as he famously wrote his mentor in Germany, "The religious life in this land is on the lowest level, most people eat foul food and desecrate the Sabbath in public…. Under these circumstances my mind is perplexed and I wonder whether it is even permissible for a Jew to live in this land."

In Baltimore's defense, Rice's comment did not apply to Baltimoreans alone; his words pointed to the state of American Jewry in the mid-19th century. As an immigrant port of entry and border town between North and South, as a gateway to the nation's interior and a manufacturing center in its own right, Baltimore has been well-positioned to reflect developments in American Jewish life. Yet the Baltimore Jewish community has maintained its own distinctive character as well, reflective of the personality of Baltimore itself – a city known for its cohesive communities, periodically fractious citizenry, and occasional eccentricities.

Settlement Patterns and Demographics

Founded in 1729 on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay in the colony of Maryland, Baltimore remained a small waterfront village until emerging as an important trading center in the late 18th century. Few Jews arrived in the early years. In addition to the town's slow start, they may have been deterred by Maryland's discriminatory constitution, which required that public office holders swear an oath of allegiance to Christianity. Not until the Maryland legislature passed the "Jew Bill" in 1826, enabling Jewish public officials to swear a substitute oath, did Jews achieve full civic equality in the state.

Greater religious toleration and a rising economy came at the right time to draw a good number of the Jewish immigrants beginning to stream into America from German lands. Baltimore's Jewish population surged from around 125 in 1825 to approximately 1,000 in 1840 and more than 8,000 in 1860. By 1880, Baltimore had some 10,000 Jews, mostly of Bavarian and Hessian origin. This profile would soon change dramatically, however. The mass migration of East European Jews that gathered force in the 1880s made an immediate impact, with Baltimore attracting many early arrivals, particularly from Lithuania. The city's Jewish population reached 24,000 by 1890, 40,000 by 1907, and 65,000 by 1920. Although Lithuanians continued to have a major presence, Baltimore received Jewish immigrants from across Eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1920s. The city also welcomed subsequent waves of Jewish migration, notably German-Jewish refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors in the post-World War II era, Iranians in the late 20th century, and Soviet and post-Soviet Jews in the late 20th century.

The diversity of Baltimore's Jewish population mirrored that of the city itself. As a busy immigrant port of entry, Baltimore became a multi-ethnic patchwork of neighborhoods. East Baltimore, the original site of German Jewish residence, became the area of settlement for most East European Jewish immigrants. American-born descendants of German Jews began moving to more affluent precincts on the city's northwest side by the late 19th century, where they tended to re-concentrate in predominantly Jewish enclaves. This pattern continued through the 20th century, as Jews moved away from the old East Baltimore neighborhood to a succession of residential areas in northwest Baltimore. As each Jewish sub-group moved up the economic ladder and into wealthier surroundings, its place was often taken by a less well-off sub-group.

At the turn of the 20th century, some 92,000 Jews lived in Baltimore: around one-quarter within the city limits, 70 percent in suburban Baltimore County, and the remainder in Carroll County. Most resided in predominantly Jewish areas in the northwest part of the metro region, in places such as Upper Park Heights, Mount Washington, Pikesville, Reisterstown, and Owings Mills. Jewish households made up 6 percent of households in the Baltimore area.

Economic Life

From the beginning, Baltimore's Jews found opportunity for economic advancement, though never without struggle. Widow Shinah Etting arrived in 1780 with five children and opened a boardinghouse; another widow, Judith Cohen, came with her children in 1803. Their sons rose to become prominent business and civic leaders. The German Jews who settled in Baltimore after the Ettings and Cohens started primarily as poor peddlers and small shopkeepers. In time, most achieved a measure of success. German Jewish entrepreneurs were the pioneering founders of Baltimore's most well-known retail establishments: Gutman's, Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn's, Hamburger's, and Hecht's. Others established small clothing manufacturing firms that became the basis of Baltimore's nationally significant garment industry.

East European immigrants found a niche in the lowest rungs of that industry. Harsh conditions and low pay led them to forge a dynamic labor movement that met with bitter employer opposition, and for many years Baltimore's garment industry was wracked by strikes and lockouts. In 1914 the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Sonneborn firm, one of the nation's largest men's clothing factories, signed a landmark collective bargaining agreement. During the struggle, Orthodox leader Rabbi Avraham Schwartz interceded on behalf of workers about to be fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath, enlisting the support of the Sonneborn family's Reform rabbi, William Rosenau.

Many East European Jews left the sweatshops and factories (or avoided them altogether) to set up small family enterprises that relied on the labor of husbands, wives, and children. Pushcart peddlers and small shopkeepers reigned on Lombard Street, East Baltimore's bustling marketplace. Other entrepreneurs ranged well beyond the Jewish community. Lithuanian immigrant Jacob Epstein built the Baltimore Bargain House into a multimillion dollar wholesale business. The peddlers he sent out on the rail lines emanating from Baltimore became small shopkeepers and founders of Jewish communities from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Louis *Blaustein and his son Jacob began selling kerosene door-to-door in 1910; their American Oil Company became one of the country's largest, pioneering the drive-in filling station. In less spectacular ways, many of Baltimore's East European Jews established successful businesses by the 1920s and began to exhibit an upward mobility that would extend in the coming decades despite reversals during the Great Depression.

Immigrants from later waves of Jewish migration also started low on the economic ladder, as door-to-door salesmen, cabdrivers, technicians, and the like. Coming from the upper professional levels in Germany, Iran, and the Soviet Union, most suffered a difficult loss of status, but their educated backgrounds helped many to advance. In the post-World War II era, Baltimore Jews increasingly gravitated to the professions, although business remained an important economic activity.

Religious Life

Abraham Rice would no doubt have been surprised to learn that Baltimore hosted the highest proportion of Orthodox Jews of any large American Jewish community at the end of the 20th century. The internationally known Ner Israel Rabbinical College and other highly regarded Orthodox institutions combined with Baltimore's relative affordability to enable the Orthodox community to attract new members from New York and other cities. But all branches of Judaism have been well represented in Baltimore. Jewish religious life has been marked by innovation as well as devotion to tradition, conflict as well as cohesion, and by leaders whose actions influenced the course of American Jewry.

With nationally prominent rabbis heading its congregations, Baltimore in the mid-19th century became the battleground of conflicting religious ideologies. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (incorporated as Nidchei Israel), the city's first, was established in 1830 by around 20 Jews of German and Dutch extraction. For the next 60 years, traditionalists and reformers clashed within the congregation or split off from it. Some German immigrants founded Har Sinai as a Reform counterpoint in 1842 and constructed America's first building specifically created as a Reform temple in 1849. Congregation Oheb Shalom formed in 1853 as a midway alternative to Baltimore Hebrew's Orthodoxy and Har Sinai's radical Reform. Its first rabbi, Benjamin *Szold, found himself in a bitter feud with Har Sinai's fiery Rabbi David *Einhorn shortly after arriving in Baltimore in 1859. Meanwhile, Baltimore Hebrew continued its slow but sure movement away from traditionalism. Rabbi Rice left in 1849 and two years later founded Shearith Israel, which upheld German-Jewish Orthodoxy for decades and remained an Orthodox congregation into the 21st centiry. In 1870, Baltimore Hebrew's remaining traditionalists, led by the Friedenwald family, split off to form the Chizuk Amuno Congregation. By the early 1900s, Baltimore Hebrew and Oheb Shalom had joined the Reform movement, while Chizuk Amuno became a founding member of the Conservative movement's United Synagogue of America.

Amidst all the Sturm und Drang among the Germans, a small congregation named Bikur Cholim opened in 1865, the first congregation in Baltimore to follow the Polish style of worship. As East Europeans began to trickle in, small landsman-based congregations sprang up, mostly in East Baltimore. Dozens of these shuls were established over the next several decades. Two of the most influential, B'nai Israel (founded by Lithuanians in 1873) and Shomrei Mishmeres (founded by Volhynians in 1892), took over the imposing synagogue buildings on Lloyd Street built by Chizuk Amuno and Baltimore Hebrew, respectively, after those congregations relocated to more upscale neighborhoods. A second phase of East European synagogue development began in the early 1920s when the first American-born generation founded several congregations in northwest Baltimore, including Beth Tfiloh, one of the nation's first "synagogue centers." In ensuing years, small immigrant shuls either merged into larger synagogues or disappeared. By 1999 Baltimore hosted more than 50 synagogues, representing every branch of Judaism.

Jewish Education and Philanthropy

Innovation has been a hallmark of Jewish education in Baltimore. The first known community Hebrew school opened as early as 1842, and community-operated schools such as East Baltimore's Talmud Torah flourished from the late 1880s to the 1940s. Samson *Benderly, the father of modern Jewish education in America, started his revolutionary experiments in Baltimore in 1900 and the city benefited from his direct influence until he left for New York in 1910. In 1917 Rabbi Avraham Schwartz of Shomrei Mishmeres founded the Talmudical Academy, the first Jewish day school outside of New York. In the late 20th century, a dramatic rise in Jewish day schools (16 by 2004) gave Baltimore one of the largest day school populations in the nation. The two institutions of higher Jewish learning have been *Baltimore Hebrew University, founded in 1919 by Israel *Efros, and the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, founded by Rabbi Jacob I. *Ruderman in 1933.

Baltimore Jewry's long tradition of philanthropy and mutual aid started with the United Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1834. Two key institutions, Sinai Hospital and the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, also date back to the 1800s. Some charities established by German and American-born Jews in the late 19th century focused on helping poverty-stricken East European immigrants. East European Jews started their own aid societies shortly after their arrival, and by the first decade of the 20th century, two parallel philanthropic networks had arisen: the German-sponsored Federated Jewish Charities and the East European-sponsored United Hebrew Charities. In 1921 the two combined into the Associated Jewish Charities. Ever since, the Associated has supported a comprehensive network of agencies offering social services, health care, and educational, recreational, and cultural programming. Widely recognized as one of the nation's leading Jewish federations, the Associated is known for its innovative programs, fundraising effectiveness, and leaders who have played important roles at the national Jewish communal level.

Community Life

Baltimore Jewry created a wide array of cultural, social, and recreational institutions through the years, as each wave of immigrants acted to meet the needs of its members. Several clubs and literary associations were established by the 1850s, including the first YMHA in the country (1854). A German-Jewish "high society" emerged by the 1880s, complete with debutante balls and exclusive social clubs. East European Jews developed a thriving Yiddish-based cultural scene in East Baltimore. Yiddish theaters, kosher restaurants, and bathhouses drew scores of neighborhood residents. Zionists and socialists, Orthodox and secularists aimed to enrich the immigrants' lives with classes, concerts, and lectures. Some maskilim collaborated with native Baltimorean Henrietta *Szold (daughter of Rabbi Benjamin Szold) to form the Russian Night School in 1889, a pioneering effort in immigrant education. The Jewish Educational Alliance, established in 1913, offered everything from youth sports leagues to adult English classes, and became a second home for thousands of newcomers.

For many decades the Jewish social scene was divided in two, with seemingly irreconcilable religious and cultural differences (as well as garment industry labor-management conflict) separating the "uptown" German Jews from the "downtown" Russian Jews. The rift began to heal in the post-World War II era. By century's end, new waves of Jewish immigration, generational change, and the emergence of a significant ultra-Orthodox community became more salient factors in shaping a pluralistic Jewish social and cultural life. A variety of sub-groups supported numerous organizations, activities, and newspapers – but all within relatively close proximity in northwest Baltimore, as the flowering of communal diversity did not alter the desire of most Jews to live in Jewish neighborhoods. Some institutions were shared by all, notably a popular two-campus Jewish Community Center and the well-read weekly Jewish Times (established in 1919). The Jewish Museum of Maryland remained in East Baltimore to preserve the legacy of the immigrant past. The nation's largest regional Jewish museum, its complex includes America's third-oldest surviving synagogue, the Lloyd Street Synagogue (1845).

National and International Jewish Issues

Baltimore Jews have provided leadership on the national Jewish stage since the mid-nineteenth century. David Einhorn launched his influential monthly Sinai in 1856, and America's first Hebrew weekly, Ha-Pisgah, appeared in Baltimore in 1891. Simon *Sobeloff was the inaugural president of the American Jewish Congress. Real estate magnate Joseph *Meyerhoff served as national chair of the United Jewish Appeal and State of Israel Bonds, demonstrating that the two organizations were complementary and not competitive. His son, Harvey Meyerhoff, became chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1987 and, despite doubtful prospects, brought the Museum to its successful opening in 1993. Rabbi Arthur *Hertzberg's Orthodox upbringing in East Baltimore strongly influenced his contributions to national Jewish life.

Baltimore women have a history of "firsts." The first woman to head a major American Jewish congregation was Helen Dalsheimer, installed as president of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1956. Shoshana Cardin became the first woman to lead a major Jewish federation when she assumed the presidency of Baltimore's Associated Jewish Charities in 1983. Cardin went on to be the first woman to preside over the national Council of Jewish Federations.

Baltimore has been an important center of Zionist activity. One of America's first *Ḥibbat Zion groups organized here in 1884, and the only American delegate to the First Zionist Congress was a Baltimorean, Shearith Israel's Rabbi Shepsel Schaffer. Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, began her Zionist activities in this city. Harry *Friedenwald served as second president of the American Zionist Federation. In 1947, a group of Baltimore Zionists secretly acquired, rebuilt, and launched an old Chesapeake Bay steamer which picked up refugees in France and unfurled its new name, Exodus 1947, upon being attacked by the British on its way to Palestine.

The Baltimore Scene

From the beginning, Baltimore's Jews have actively engaged in their region's political, civic, and cultural life. Ettings and Cohens participated in the pivotal battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, Jews were as divided as the rest of the population in this border city. Rabbi Einhorn led the antislavery faction, Rabbi Bernhard *Illowy of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation defended the status quo, and Rabbi Szold spoke for Jewish neutrality. Einhorn's tenure at Har Sinai was abruptly cut short in 1861 when his newspaper, Sinai, was destroyed by a pro-slavery mob and he fled with his family to Philadelphia. Jews have served throughout state and local government, from Solomon Etting and Jacob Cohen – elected to the City Council immediately after passage of the "Jew Bill" in 1826 – to popular 1970s Maryland governor Marvin *Mandel (whose political career was cut short by corruption charges).

Jews have played a critical role in Baltimore's cultural scene as patrons and participants. Jacob Epstein's personal art collection became a core holding of the Baltimore Museum of Art, while Etta and Claribel Cone gave the BMA the unparalleled collection of modern art they acquired in their European travels. Joseph Meyerhoff's philanthropy created Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in 1982. Academy Award-winning film director Barry Levinson made significant contributions to American cinema with his three-part chronicle of Baltimore Jewish life, Diner (1982), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999).

Jewish–Gentile Relations

Relations between Baltimore Jews and non-Jews have been generally amicable, though ethnic and religious prejudice, social snobbery, and discrimination occasionally vexed the Jewish community. In the 19th century, the city's large German population of Jews and non-Jews shared German-speaking clubs and many Jewish children attended Zion Lutheran Church's well-respected school, where instruction was in German. However, the local Catholic press, German and English, specialized in antisemitic articles until the appointment of Archbishop James Gibbons in 1877. Local antisemitism increased with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, spurring the 1939 formation of the Baltimore Jewish Council, a community relations organization that continues to fight antisemitism, promote dialogue between Jewish and other local communities, and address broader urban issues.

The relationship of Jews to Baltimore's African American community has been complex. Jews participated in the civil rights movement, but the movement also targeted Jewish storeowners who maintained discriminatory policies. In one historian's words, a state of "intimate antagonism" existed between the two groups for much of the 20th century, as economic relations and geographic proximity promoted considerable interaction between Jews and blacks.

The close-knit nature of Baltimore's Jewish community arose from a combination of gentile prejudice and Jewish ties of kinship and culture. Residential discrimination kept Jews out of some areas until the mid-20th century, contributing to the emergence of intensely concentrated Jewish neighborhoods. Upper-class social and educational discrimination encouraged Jews to create separate clubs and "ecumenical" (largely Jewish) private schools. Such discrimination dissipated in the post-World War II era. By the dawn of the 21st century Baltimore Jewry emerged as a confident and assertive community determined to maintain its own distinct identity, neighborhoods, and institutions, while its members pursued ever-expanding ways to involve themselves in the broader society.


I. Blum, History of the Jews of Baltimore (1910); Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland, 1845–1945 (Jewish Museum of Maryland, 1999); I.M. Fein, Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920 (1971); Jewish Community Study of Greater Baltimore (The Association, 2001); G. Sandler, Jewish Baltimore, A Family Album (2000).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.