The History of Jewish Baltimore
As one of America’s oldest port towns, Baltimore has been an entry point for thousands of Jews since the early 1800s. That’s created today’s vibrant Jewish community that many Baltimore residents celebrate, including those of us at Tudor Heights. We’re an active part of a beautiful Jewish area of town, but to truly understand where we are today, we need to understand the history of the Jewish faith in our city.
Layers of tradition, hardship, civic success and religious belief create the landscape we see today in Jewish Baltimore. This article is meant for educational purposes to help our community better understand our roots in Baltimore, so we can appreciate the active community we’re already a part of.
Major Events in Jewish Baltimore’s History
Baltimore was settled in 1726 by predominantly Christian founders and few Jews made the city their home until the early 1800s. Historians suggest that this delay was due to a law that required those taking office to swear an oath of allegiance to Christianity. In 1826, however, what was known as the “Jew Bill” was enacted, which allowed Jewish public officials to take a substitute oath. That led to a substantial growth in Baltimore’s Jewish community. By 1880, about 10,000 Jews had settled in Baltimore, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was the first in America to employ an ordained rabbi, Abraham Rice, who accepted the post in 1840. Rabbi Rice was Bavarian, as were many of the Jews who immigrated during that period.
By the 1920s, thousands of Jews had arrived from Eastern Europe, bringing the Baltimore Jewish population to approximately 65,000. The city continued to welcome Jewish people from other countries who were in need of a refuge and a fresh start. East-German Jews in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors in the ’40s and ’50s, and Iranians and Soviet Jews in the late 1900s.
The Development of Jewish Baltimore
Thriving Jewish Businesses
East Baltimore has long been the starting point for Jews in Baltimore. First established by German Jews, it was the center of Jewish activity for many decades. As subgroups would get their financial and social footing in East Baltimore, they would then migrate to more affluent areas, making room for a new Jewish subgroup take up residence and follow a similar path.
The garment and retail industries in Baltimore have been largely shaped by Jewish families. Starting with pushcarts and single-family enterprises, the famous business acumen of the Jews led them to long-term success. Early in the 1900s, rabbis and Jewish congregations supported garment industry workers as they insisted on fair working conditions, including resting on the Sabbath.
Jewish businesses weathered the storm of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and many of the industries thriving in Baltimore today can be traced back to Hebraic roots.
By the 1910s, both the Federated Jewish Charities (sponsored primarily by German Jews) and the United Hebrew Charities (sponsored primarily by East-European Jews) were active in Baltimore, helping local Jews with their social and cultural needs. In 1921 the two merged and became the Associated Jewish Charities. “The Associated” is still in operation today and continues to offer social services, health care, programming for education, recreation and cultural observances. Leaders of Baltimore philanthropy are often also influential at a national level.
Jewish families have contributed significantly to Baltimore’s rich arts and music heritage as well. For instance, the Baltimore Museum of Art was built on a substantial donation of pieces from the personal art collection of Jacob Epstein, a prominent Jewish Baltimore businessman and philanthropist. And in 1982, Joseph Meyerhoff, another prominent Jewish Baltimore community member, contributed substantially to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra‘s new home, now called Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Today’s Jewish Community in Baltimore
Today, Baltimore and its suburbs boast about 95,000 Jews, 60 synagogues and about a dozen Jewish day schools. Baltimore hosts one of the highest proportions of Orthodox Jews in America. This is due in part to the prestigious and devotedly Orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinical College, which is dedicated to furthering the Jewish faith in Baltimore. This venerable institution is housed in Pikesville, a historically Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Other highly regarded Orthodox institutions have also been established in the area. Additionally, Baltimore Hebrew University, founded in 1919, serves to promote Jewish scholarship and academic excellence. It is now part of Towson University.
Jewish Landmarks in Baltimore
Because of its rich Jewish history, Baltimore is also home to numerous landmarks that are important to the Jewish faith, including:
This historic building is worth a visit for anyone interested in what it’s like to be Jewish in Baltimore. Ornate fixtures and architecture create a sense of majesty and worshippers maintain many original practices, such as men and women sitting in separate areas.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland encompasses B’nai Israel and as well as the third-oldest synagogue in the United States, known as the Lloyd Street Synagogue. The Museum offers historical interpretation for both buildings as well as modern rotating exhibits to educate the public on Jewish history and culture.
Established in 1993, this memorial creates an artistic and experiential monument to the journey of millions of Jews taken by rail car. The spaces are full of symbolism and are designed to be conducive to contemplation.
The Hebrew Orphan Asylum stands as a testimony to Jewish philanthropy, history and diversity since its inception as a subculture in Baltimore. A wealthy German Jew named William S. Rayner donated the building in 1872, and when it burned down two years later, the Jewish community came together to rebuild it. It has served and been served by Jews from all across Europe.
Corned Beef Row
During the heyday of East Baltimore Jewish culture, Corned Beef Row was the place to get your bagels and pastrami, and to sit and shoot the breeze. One last restaurant holds out from those historical roots, called Attman’s Deli. Its owner imagines that he may be the last in his family to continue the tradition, so if you want to visit, don’t wait too long!
Tudor Heights: Continuing the Tradition
Tudor Heights is also part of Baltimore’s Jewish heritage. On a tree-lined street in a northwest Baltimore neighborhood, our senior living community balances tradition with convenience and comfort. Tudor Heights is small, family-oriented and focused on wellness. Many Jewish residents enjoy our STAR-K certified kosher dining and beautiful on-site synagogue, but people of all faiths are welcome, and a variety of religious services are available.
For more information on Tudor Heights, our Jewish traditions or our accommodations for those of all faiths, contact our team. We’ll be happy to help you find the answers you need.