July 26 marked the 90th anniversary of the day when the elderly residents of the Hebrew Friendly Inn and Aged Home moved from their dilapidated, overcrowded quarters on Aisquith Street in East Baltimore to the spacious and shiny environs of what’s now known as the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital on Belvedere Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

The episode sheds light on our immigrant ancestors and the Jewish community’s attempt to care for them.

In a speech the following year, Levindale President Isaac Levin recounted both the sobering and comical aspects of the 1927 move. First, he recalled the dingy state of affairs on Aisquith Street.

“A large dormitory was divided up into small rooms, which looked more like stalls for horses than rooms for people,” he said. The walls were damp, the toilets unsanitary; residents froze in the winter and roasted in the summer, Levin said. They were tormented by local youths when they ventured outside the home, and two recently had been killed in streetcar accidents.

You would think they would be only too happy to abandon this sorry situation. But as Levin noted, “The exodus of the old people was not a bed of roses to the board of directors and the superintendent. The old folks rebelled at first. They were afraid they were being taken away from civilization and their synagogue. They had heard the rumor that their beards and sheitels [wigs] would be removed, and that they would not have kosher food.”

Almost as terrifying, they had heard that wild animals roamed the woods outside of Levindale, located in the remotest reaches of Baltimore. But with much cajoling and a tour of the site by a residents committee, they finally agreed to go.

Moving day was fraught with drama. “Hundreds of men, women and children stood by watching the poor old souls being removed,” Levin said. “It was pitiful to see the bedridden and dying placed in machines [vehicles] lent by the Baltimore Jews.”

Levin said the removal of “the sefer Torahs, the books of the Talmud … the men carrying their tallis and tefillin bags and the women their candlesticks [was] a sight long to be remembered.”

Leading the way to “the land of milk and honey,” as another account put it, was Associated Jewish Charities President Sidney Lansburgh, “like Moses of old.” One year after that traumatic day, Levin concluded with a flourish, Levindale’s residents “are 100 percent happy. They, of course, receive the best of food, cigarettes and soft drinks.”

Here’s the impressive part. Levindale had actually opened four years earlier — as an orphanage. Named for Louis Levin, the organizational genius behind the Associated who died before the facility’s completion, it was the pride and joy of Baltimore Jewry.

In a frenzy of fundraising, the community had amassed $500,000 (a massive sum in those days) for a state-of-the-art campus for children. More than 2,000 people attended the 1923 dedication, which featured a pageant by the orphans and a speech by Maryland’s governor.

But in their enthusiasm, the leaders had ignored hints from the Associated’s social workers that the community didn’t really need a new orphanage. Not only did fewer Jewish families live in poverty (a primary cause of family breakdown) but modern social work methods favored foster care over institutional care.

As the number of children at Levindale dwindled, Lansburgh and others began to realize they had made a mistake. What they really needed was a replacement for the deplorable Aisquith Street home.

The Jewish community was evolving. Care for the elderly had emerged as a pressing need, while other problems were fading away. It took a while for the new reality to sink in, but once it did the leadership acted promptly. As one Levindale staffer later recalled, “It took courage to give up a brand new children’s institution … but it was done and contributed to the greater professionalization of care of both children and aged.”

Deborah R. Weiner is co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore,” to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She served for many years as research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. She is currently working on a book on the history of Levindale.

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