“Memory is a very Jewish concept …” — Rabbi Etan Mintz, B’nai Israel Synagogue
We are taught to remember what came before us, not just out of respect but to maintain our bearings about where — and more importantly who — we are.
“My memory is a powerful machine that stores and constantly discharges lost years and faces,” wrote Aharon Appelfeld, the late Romanian-born Israeli novelist who spent decades “spinning the threads” of narrative after the Holocaust made him a 9-year-old orphan.
Lost years: You will search for them to the end of your days. Faded photographs: The faces of everyone gathered around the seder table when you were asked to explain why that particular night — of matzoh, bitter herbs and charoset, shank bones of all sizes — was different from all other nights.
While the Jewish faith is a compendium of tales making up one long, exhilarating and massively annotated story (with the Judaic calendar a living bookmark), the power of memory seems most evident in the annual retelling of the Exodus tale.
“The Haggadah is absolutely about sharing our history with the next generation,” said B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Mintz. “And it’s a good idea to personalize it with stories of a family’s ups and downs.”
Founded in 1873 as the “Russian Congregation B’nai Israel of Baltimore City,” the congregation’s services were first held at the current address — 27 Lloyd St. — in September 1895, making it the city’s oldest continuously operating synagogue.
Rabbi Mintz was slated to preside this year over the second night seder at B’nai Israel, which has weathered a century and a half of ups and downs, for decades serving the city’s original Jewish neighborhood long after most Jews left East Baltimore.
That it is hosting a seder at all is a sign of the shul’s renaissance. The meal will be provided gratis by Leonard Schleider, a congregant and retired kosher caterer known outside of the community for the days when he fed the homeless in Fells Point on Sunday mornings in the dead of winter.
B’nai Israel — which identifies as “modern Orthodox” while calling itself the “Downtown Synagogue” — was expecting about 50 to 60 guests for Passover. This is up from a couple dozen when the congregation began bouncing back under Rabbi Alan J. Yuter in 2005.
A stickler for the law over ritual (“Our religion is not excessive, it is the people who take it to extremes,” he said), Rabbi Yuter is now retired in Jerusalem where he spends his days writing memoir and commentary.
“When I arrived [at B’nai Israel], the congregation was about 20 old men,” Rabbi Yuter said by telephone. It took him a year to persuade the former board to allow the on-premises seder — “I had to guarantee that the shul wouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said — and slowly the congregation grew.
According to a detailed history of the shul written by congregant Fred Shoken, Rabbi Yuter “insisted on weekly Friday night services and minchah services for Shabbos” to return the shul to full-service status.
B’nai Israel now carries 135 “units” — some are individuals, some are families — on its membership rolls and has been reaching out to the several thousand unaffiliated Jews now living downtown. All are welcome, no matter their degree of observance.
The shul hosts regular cultural programs, last year partnering with the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown to bring a sacred music series to Lloyd Street. It is also in the process of constructing a downtown eruv, or ritual enclosure, to make it easier for Jews living in the heart of the city to observe all of the dictates of Shabbos. Municipal permits have been approved, said Rabbi Mintz, and now it’s a matter of raising a few “tens of thousands of dollars,” to pay for it.
Where Rabbi Yuter tended strictly to the spiritual needs of congregants, Rabbi Mintz — whom Rabbi Yuter recruited to take over in 2012 — pretty much does it all.
“The building is stabilized, but we have aspirations to build a commercial-sized kitchen for kiddush, Shabbat dinner, seders and other events,” said Rabbi Mintz.
None of which is necessary if you don’t have enough people in the pews waiting for the sermon to be over so they can eat.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com.