For Rabbi Etan Mintz, walking on an overcast morning May 1 from his East Baltimore home to City Hall was a journey more than five years in the making.
Rabbi Mintz — who since 2012 has served as spiritual leader of the historic B’nai Israel Synagogue in the Jonestown neighborhood — has long championed the installation of a downtown eruv. (An eruv is a ritual enclosure enabling observant Jews to, among other things, carry items or push baby strollers on Shabbat and holidays in accordance with Jewish law.)
Rabbi Mintz’s dream came a step closer to reality when Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young signed a proclamation at a City Hall press conference marking the upcoming installation of “The Downtown Eruv District.” The project was approved at a Board of Estimates meeting that morning.
Spearheaded by B’nai Israel, a modern Orthodox congregation of approximately 120 members, the eruv will stretch more than a mile, covering from the World Trade Center and Harbor East to Little Italy and Jonestown, and from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Upper Fells Point.
It will include B’nai Israel, the Little Italy headquarters of Chabad of Downtown, and Tikva House, a home base for Jewish families caring for loved ones receiving treatment at Hopkins.
Baltimore’s other eruvim are located in Upper Park Heights and in the Johns Hopkins University/Homewood campus area.
Rabbi Mintz said construction of the downtown eruv will begin next week and likely take several months.
“With this project coming to fruition, it will assist in reviving a once-vibrant Jewish neighborhood where families who are observant can now choose to move into the city and purchase homes,” said Young, “where doctors of Johns Hopkins Hospital, patients and their families staying at the Tikva House, will now be able to keep the commandments of the Sabbath and walk around the downtown area freely, where observant families can come and vacation and spend their time at the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Harbor East.”
Among those at the proclamation signing were City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes (D-12th), former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (D-5th), businessman and community activist Eli W. Schlossberg, and Stacey R. Goldenberg, director of operations at the Tikva House.
The proclamation states that the city will rent the eruv boundaries to B’nai Israel for a ceremonial fee of $1.
“The Office of the Mayor of the City of Baltimore deems it in the public interest that those of its residents of the Jewish faith for whom the request has been presented be granted the rights requesting, and likewise deems it to be of no detriment to the rights and general welfare of other members of the public,” the proclamation read.
Construction and maintenance of the eruv will cost “in the tens of thousands,” said Rabbi Mintz, noting that the project will be completely covered through private donations. (Construction of an eruv requires the implementation and constant maintenance of thin, strong wires strung high above the ground between utility poles and existing structures such as public buildings or walls.)
“Most major cities with a sizable Jewish population have eruvim,” said Rabbi Mintz. “We want Baltimore to be a major destination city that Jewish families will settle in. It’s hard for Jewish families to return to a city without an eruv. Also, many Jewish professionals want to stay in the city after they have families, so an eruv can help make that happen.
“It’s not a panacea, but I see an eruv as one piece of the puzzle to strengthen Baltimore City in general,” he said. “This is for families living here now and for potential families moving here. It also helps visitors to the city who are observant. It’s a feather in the cap of the city to have an eruv zone.”
Among those lending their financial and moral support to the project is Dr. Marc Attman, owner of Attman’s Deli on Lombard Street.
“This is another step in bringing Jewish life to Baltimore,” he said. “We saw what happened in Park Heights [with the installation of the eruv there in 1979]. Nothing would make me happier than seeing families walking to shul on Shabbos downtown. We need people to believe in the eruv, and we need some dollars. That would be helpful.”
Pikesville real estate developer Daniel Klein is also supporting the eruv project and attended the proclamation signing.
“Our family was inspired by Rabbi Mintz’s passion and long-term vision for future growth in the city,” he said. “We need more visionary thinkers like him.”
At the short ceremony following the proclamation signing, Rabbi Mintz thanked Young; Betsy Gardner, Jewish community liaison for the mayor; Hana Rose Kondratyuk, assistant solicitor for the Baltimore City Law Department; and others for their work on the eruv project.
Rabbi Mintz noted that the proclamation came only a few days after a gunman killed one worshipper and wounded three at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. “We’re tremendously grateful to the city and Mayor Young for making this a place for all people,” he said.
“This project is exciting for Baltimore City as a whole,” the rabbi said, noting that there are downtown eruvim in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “We’re tremendously grateful to the city and Mayor Young for making all of this happen.”
Gardner said she is hopeful that once the downtown eruv is established, the ritual enclosure can eventually be expanded to include such areas as Federal Hill and Patterson Park.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s wonderful to continue to grow the Jewish community in Baltimore City and to help bring our faith to light, and encourage more families to purchase homes in the city.”
(Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s elevation to mayor in light of the May 2 resignation of former Mayor Catherine E. Pugh.)