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Preserving Baltimore’s First Synagogue (Part II)

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Building

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Building

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from “The Lloyd Street Synagogue of Baltimore: A National Shrine” by Israel Tabak, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1971-Jun 1972; 61, 1-4; AJHS Journal page 343. The article is available at http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/adaje.cfm.

Last month we dealt with the building of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the first synagogue to be built in Maryland. This month we look at how the building became a church, then again an Orthodox Synagogue, and finally a historic site.

Reform Affects the Synagogue

Membership in the synagogue continued to increase, and in 1860 the original structure was enlarged by a 30-foot extension on its eastern end. However, increased membership proved to be both a blessing and a curse. It attracted some who had been influenced by the Reform movement. At first these people demanded some minor innovations but as time went on they pushed for more and more change. There were constant conflicts and dissensions.

Rabbi Rice refused to compromise when it came to halacha. He viewed minor attempts to introduce ritual changes as the first steps toward a total break with Orthodoxy. In 1849 things got so bad that, much to the shock of many synagogue members, Rabbi Rice resigned as spiritual leader of the congregation. When in 1862 the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation found itself without a rabbi, Rav Rice was asked to again become its spiritual leader. He agreed but did not serve for long, as he passed away on October 29, 1862.

The congregation was now spiraling toward Reform. In 1871 a number of the more religious members left and formed Chizuk Amuno Congregation with the goal of preserving Orthodox observance. (Details of the history of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s change from Orthodox to Reform are described in detail in “Lost To Orthodoxy: The Fate of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation,” front page essay, The Jewish Press, July 22, 2011.)

On February 3, 1889 the synagogue that had once been the centerpiece of traditional Judaism in Baltimore was sold for $12,000 to the newly organized Lithuanian Roman Catholic Parish and became the Church of St. John the Baptist.

Once Again a Synagogue

The building on Lloyd Street that originally housed the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was used as a church until 1905. In that year it once again became home to an Orthodox Jewish congregation – Congregation Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh (Guardians of the Sacred Heritage). Its members consisted primarily of observant immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine, many of whom were from a chassidic background.

In 1908 Rav Avraham Nachman Schwartz became the congregation’s rav; he would served in that position for 29 years. Rav Schwartz was a Talmudic scholar of great renown and became known as Chief Rabbi of the Russian Jews.” He was instrumental in the founding of the Baltimore Hebrew Parochial School which eventually was renamed the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. This was the first day school established in America outside of New York City.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue was again a bastion of Torah. For over 50 years Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh occupied a prominent position within the Baltimore Jewish Community and was known as the “the leading synagogue in East Baltimore.”

Saved from Destruction

After World War II, most of East Baltimore’s Jews moved to other neighborhoods and by 1958 the few elderly Jews left were unable to keep the congregation together. The building itself had deteriorated considerably, and a movement was initiated to sell the building to commercial buyers or to tear it down and turn the ground into a parking lot. It looked like the first synagogue in Maryland would soon be no more.

“It was at this time that Wilbur H. Hunter, Jr., Director of the Peale Museum of Maryland, was commissioned by the Historic American Buildings Survey of the United States National Park Service to prepare reports on thirteen historic buildings in the Baltimore area, one of which was the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

“Mr. Hunter brought the historic and architectural significance of the Lloyd Street Synagogue to the attention of the National Park Service, and the Baltimore Jewish community. In a series of public lectures, he addressed Jewish groups on the importance of the first synagogue of Maryland and the urgent need to save it from disintegration.

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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