The Jewish Community in Central Maryland: A Historical Overview

Since the 1830s, Jews have been settling in Maryland, with 10,000 German and Central European Jews arriving between the 1830s and 1870s. This was followed by a massive emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1920s. By 1899, 35,000 Jews were living in the state of Maryland. Baltimore has been well-positioned to reflect the evolution of American Jewish life, and the city's Jewish community has maintained its own distinctive character.

Jews have played an active role in the economic, civic and cultural life of Baltimore, despite facing a great deal of discrimination. At the same time, Jews formed their own close-knit community with well-defined neighborhoods and strong institutions. The first Jews to leave their mark in Baltimore were the Etting and Cohen brothers, merchants, bankers and civic leaders of the early 19th century. In 1826, the state legislature passed the “Jewish Bill” which allowed Jews to take a substitute oath for public office. This enabled Solomon Etting and Jacob Cohen to be elected to the Baltimore City Council. The two families maintained their Jewish identity, acquired their own cemeteries, maintained kosher and held religious services in their homes.

From humble beginnings in rented rooms above a Fell's Point supermarket in 1830, a thriving network of religious, cultural and charitable institutions grew. In 1840, Baltimore Hebrew became the first congregation in the United States to have an ordained rabbi when it hired Bavarian-trained Rabbi Abraham Rice. He built the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845, which is now the third oldest surviving synagogue building in the country. In 1842, some members separated from Baltimore Hebrew to form Har Sinai, the first American congregation founded on the principles of Reform Judaism. In 1933, Ner Israel Rabbinical College was established in Baltimore, making it an important center of Orthodox Judaism.

Despite their religious diversity, Jews united around activities such as caring for poor Jews and fighting anti-Semitism. In 1920, community organizations came together to form the Associated Jewish Federation which continues to serve the community today. Jewish immigrants arrived with few resources and worked hard in Baltimore's textile industry or started out as street vendors. As they rose out of poverty they moved from their immigrant ghetto in East Baltimore to a series of neighborhoods and suburbs in the Northwest. Their desire to maintain a strong community led them to live close to each other, although real estate discrimination also helped draw the boundaries of Jewish residence.

Some families founded prominent firms in Baltimore such as Amoco Oil Company (founded by Louis and Jacob Blaustein) and Hoffberger family's diverse empire (including National Bohemian Beer and the Baltimore Orioles). Both families created charities to benefit a variety of local causes. Jewish businesses have had a big impact on Baltimore for decades - Hutzler's department stores drew Baltimoreans to the center - while property developers like Joseph Meyerhoff shaped the region's growth. The Cone sisters, Carroll Rosenbloom and others shaped key institutions from symphony to art museum to Baltimore Colts. The contributions of Baltimore's Jews have extended far beyond the city limits - Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah (the country's largest Jewish organization) and built Israel's pre-state health system; Zionists purchased an old Chesapeake Bay steamboat (Exodus) for transporting Holocaust survivors to Palestine; Leon Uris presented Exodus' saga in his popular novel; Barry Levinson is a film director; Mama Cass Elliott (born Ellen Naomi Cohen) is a pop singer; Jerry Leiber is a pioneering rock and roll songwriter. Today Jewish students, young professionals, and empty-nesters are filling Central Maryland area and demand for Jewish services in downtown Baltimore is growing.

The Baltimore JCC has a history that spans more than 160 years since it was founded in 1854.

Ankie Groot
Ankie Groot

Award-winning music aficionado. Professional web aficionado. Avid internet junkie. Friendly twitter fanatic. Certified food nerd.