Chizuk Amuno’s mixed-seating policy was a watershed moment for Jewish Baltimore seven decades ago.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of a significant event in the religious life of Baltimore Jewry: on Jan. 24, 1948, Chizuk Amuno, then on Eutaw Place, held its first worship service featuring the mixed seating of men and women.
The change occurred after months of bruising debate carried out over many meetings and in the pages of the local Jewish media. It was a defining moment for the congregation, but just as important was the aftershock that resounded through the city’s Jewish community.
Conflicts over altering Jewish ritual life have occurred ever since Jews first came to America, but certain eras have been especially contentious. The period after World War II, as the immigrant generation gave way to the American-born, was one of those times.
Chizuk Amuno had long been somewhat of a bellwether. It was founded in 1871 by a traditionalist faction that stormed out of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, then on Lloyd Street, after a series of ritual reforms were enacted. Yet its leaders were no less acculturated to America than the “reform” faction, thus demonstrating that a constituency for traditional Judaism would continue to assert its claims even as Jews became Americanized.
Through the decades that followed, Chizuk Amuno tried to strike a balance between honoring tradition and adjusting to American realities. It became a founding congregation of the Conservative movement in the early 20th century, but positioned itself on the most traditional edge of the movement’s spectrum, keeping many customs that other Conservative congregations abandoned, including the separation of men and women. With most of Baltimore Jewry divided between Orthodox Eastern European immigrants and native-born Reform Jews of German descent, Chizuk Amuno occupied a prominent place between the two.
But the postwar years presented a challenge to Chizuk Amuno as well as to the city’s relatively new “modern Orthodox” congregations, such as Beth Tfiloh. The immigrants’ children now headed their own families, and they wanted to sit together in shul. In 1947, eight members of Beth Tfiloh broke away after failing to persuade that congregation to adopt mixed seating. They formed Beth El, which billed itself as Baltimore’s first true Conservative congregation.
Pressure was building on Chizuk Amuno. A growing majority of families wanted mixed seating, especially younger members. The congregation’s leaders pushed the change, fearing — correctly — they would lose members to Beth El.
But the congregation’s constitution stipulated that ritual changes required 90 percent approval, a major stumbling block. What followed was “the most acrimonious dispute in the history of the congregation,” according to Jan Bernhardt Schein, author of the excellent book “On Three Pillars: The History of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 1871-1996” (Chizuk Amuno).
After much agitation, at a December 1947 meeting with more than 500 people jammed into the shul, the membership voted 284 to 26 for mixed seating — and the following month, men and women sat together there for the first time. Finally forced to choose between traditional and Conservative Judaism, Chizuk Amuno set its course within the mainstream of postwar American Jewish life, as exemplified by Conservative’s remarkable growth during the era.
But the story doesn’t end there. To local Orthodox leaders, the event marked an ominous turning point. The very congregation founded to uphold tradition during a previous era of conflict had succumbed to “apostasy,” in one rabbi’s words. In the following months, they launched a vigorous attack on the Conservative movement, charging that it “seeks to destroy traditional Judaism,” as Rabbi Manuel M. Poliakoff put it in an op-ed.
Ironically, Rabbi Poliakoff himself represented a modern development in American Judaism: he belonged to a new generation of assertive, young, American-bred Orthodox rabbis who confidently entered into public religious debates in ways their Yiddish-speaking precursors could not. In the coming years, controversies between Orthodox leaders and their Conservative or Reform counterparts would flare up with some frequency.
Meanwhile, Chizuk Amuno, now located in Pikesville, continued its project of trying to reconcile tradition and modernity, though now firmly, rather than reluctantly, in the Conservative fold. The landmark mixed-seating battle had seen to that.
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 Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.