Walking around B’nai Israel Synagogue’s ornate sanctuary — with its elevated ark, wooden rail bimah, stained glass windows and Moorish Revival flourishes – Josh Kohn couldn’t stop himself from gushing a bit.
“It’s just so magical here,” he says. “The perfect space.”
The performance director at the Creative Alliance arts center in Highlandtown, Kohn wants more people to discover the magic of Baltimore’s oldest continuously active synagogue, at 27 Lloyd Street in East Baltimore.
The Creative Alliance and B’nai Israel are embarking on a joint sacred music series this fall called “Lombard & Lloyd: Creative Alliance @ B’nai Israel.”
Modeled on a smaller scale after the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. – which offers a wide range of musical performances, entertainment, lectures and other programming, as well as worship services – “Lombard & Lloyd” will initially present sacred music concerts but could branch out into other forms of programming, say organizers.
“Baltimore is not D.C., and we recognize this,” says Rabbi Etan Mintz, spiritual leader since 2012 of B’nai Israel, a congregation of 135 families and individuals. “But there’s a lot of energy here. The goal is to energize the B’nai Israel space and bring a fresh light to an historical congregation. We have a story to tell.”
The kickoff event will be “Innov Gnawa-Sebitiyin: The Jewish Songs of Gnawa” on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8:15 p.m. The performance will feature the Jewish repertoire of gnawa, the ritual trance music of Morocco’s black communities.
“I’ve been wanting to work with this group for a while,” says Kohn. “This had to be the first [of the series] because of the Moorish architecture here – the space and the [Moroccan] artists. It’s perfect, a rare opportunity for an audience to hear and see something they’ve never seen before. This is trance music, and the audience gets sucked into the energy of it all.”
The second event of the series will be a Nov. 8 performance by the Andy Statman Trio. Statman, a New York-based klezmer clarinetist and bluegrass mandolinist, is a well-known figure in national Jewish music circles.
The final show of the “Fall 2017 Sacred Music Festival” will be on Dec. 2 with cantor, composer and multi-instrumentalist Judith Berkson, performing with trumpeter Frank London of The Klezmatics and klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd.
The idea for the joint series was planted when Lynne Farbman, chair of B’nai Israel’s cultural committee, attended a show at the Creative Alliance and sought out Kohn.
“My husband calls me ‘the rainmaker,’” Farbman, a Lutherville resident, says with a laugh. “I’ve gone to many shows at the Creative Alliance over the years, and I felt there should be a connection [with B’nai Israel] to benefit everyone. I felt the synagogue needed to be more in the community, and I knew this would be a natural connection.”
It turned out Kohn had visited the 141-year-old synagogue a few years ago and had a similar idea. “I saw the space and thought it would be awesome for creating shows,” he says.
When Kohn and Rabbi Mintz met to discuss the concept, they found a natural kinship. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve always felt the synagogue, being historical and on the [Jewish Museum of Maryland] compound, would be a good cultural center,” the rabbi says. “When Lynne introduced me to Josh, we just clicked. He’s amazing.”
While B’nai Israel will provide its main sanctuary and balcony of 336 seats, the Creative Alliance will take care of such logistical matters as productions, ticket sales, sound, lighting, event management and artists’ needs.
The 2018 schedule is still tentative, but organizers say they are already talking to gospel choirs, African drumming troupes and Chasidic vocal groups as possible acts. The scheduling and pacing of such events are also still to be determined. Rabbi Mintz says the performers and their material will be carefully vetted by organizers as well as B’nai Israel’s cultural committee.
“The notion of sacred music is that it transcends religions and denominations,” he says. “We want music that truly brings people together. We’re being thoughtful of everybody we’re bringing in.”
Kohn says that “Lombard & Lloyd” marks the first time the Creative Alliance has offered off-site programming in an ongoing manner.
“I didn’t just want to go to an aesthetically cold space. It needed to be someplace special for an audience,” he says. “This room has such unique acoustics and lighting, and the whole history of the space. We’ve done one-offs before, but nothing like this.”
Kohn and Rabbi Mintz hope to attract young Jewish professionals and students living in such downtown neighborhoods as Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point, Charles Village and Highlandtown. But they also hope to reach Jews and non-Jews of all generations living throughout the metropolitan area.
“I love the idea of being an intergenerational community,” Rabbi Mintz says. “I’m looking at it all in a very broad sense, but of course we’re leaning on our young adults group along with all of our constituents and the cultural committee to get the word out. Because of where we’re located, we get a lot of young professionals and students. For many of them, we are Jewish Baltimore. They don’t see Pikesville or Park Heights.”
Kohn says he particularly hopes the series will expose young Jews to their community’s musical legacy. “We used to have such strong cultural ties to our music,” he says. “I see programs like this helping young Jews to hear their own music.”
‘The Next Level’
For the first year of “Lombard & Lloyd,” programming is being funded through a grant by the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Co-sponsors include the Jewish Museum of Maryland, UMBC Hillel and Jmore.
In the future, Rabbi Mintz says he and Kohn hope other funders, inside or outside of the Jewish community, will step up to provide support for the series.
“We really want to scale it up and take it to the next level,” says the rabbi. “If we can pull this off, I strongly believe we’ll be able to find other funders. I think there are donors who would be very interested, and that funding is so critical.
“This is an amazing opportunity for Jewish Baltimore as a whole to develop a cultural arts center downtown,” he says. “This is broader than B’nai Israel or the Creative Alliance.”
Kohn says he hopes people will be open-minded and attend the shows, even if they’ve never heard of the artists or musical genres.
“We want people to just take a chance,” he says. “This is a pilot year to see how the music works in this space. We know it’s an amazing acoustic space, but we don’t know how drums will work here. So we’re learning and building.
“This is music searching to get to a higher place,” Kohn says. “We’re taking a journey with these musicians, so we want people to be able to really hear in this space. … I’m so excited to see this all happen and to make this music come alive in this space. We’re just getting started.”
Tickets for the “Innov Gnawa-Sebitiyn” show are $15, $12 for Creative Alliance and B’nai Israel members. For information, visit creativealliance.org, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410-276-1651.
Photo of Rabbi Etan Mintz (left) and the Creative Alliance’s Josh Kohn in B’nai Israel Synagogue by Steve Ruark
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