For nearly a century, the solemn and soothing sounds of davening, Torah chanting and fellowship have reverberated throughout the ornate sanctuary of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation during the Days of Awe.
Every once in a while, worshipers deep in prayer look up when hearing the blast of the shofar, not to mention the honk of a vehicle or the roar of a lion from the nearby zoo drifting in through the synagogue’s arched, stained-glass windows.
But during this year’s High Holiday season, all will be quiet and still under the shul’s iconic turquoise dome.
For the first time in its history, Shaarei Tfiloh – which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2020 – will not offer High Holiday services at its home at 2001 Liberty Heights Ave., across from Druid Hill Park.
Due to a major plumbing project, the historic Orthodox congregation will hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the main sanctuary of Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore. The day school for girls, located at 6300 Park Heights Ave., is the former home of Har Sinai and the now-defunct Yeshivat Rambam Maimonides Academy.
Rabbi David E. Herman, Shaarei Tfiloh’s spiritual leader since 1992, said plumbing problems have plagued the synagogue building since last January. As a result, the congregation’s weekly Sunday morning minyan services have been held in private residences.
“This is painful,” the rabbi said about not holding holiday services at “the Shul in the Park,” as Shaarei Tfiloh has been known by generations of local Jews. “But it’s something we just have to take care of.”
Rabbi Herman said Shaarei Tfiloh generally attracts several hundred worshipers at High Holiday services every year, including some unaffiliated Jews who do not purchase tickets in advance.
“This year, we’ll probably get even more [worshipers at High Holiday services] because we’ll be in the vicinity of a large Jewish population,” he predicted. “As always, Shaarei Tfiloh welcomes everyone to come. We don’t turn anyone away. We prefer that people buy a ticket in advance, but we always make accommodations for everyone. That’s never a problem.”
According to the book “Synagogues, Temples and Congregations of Maryland: 1830-1990” (Jewish Historical Society of Maryland) by Earl Pruce, Shaarei Tfiloh’s rock-faced limestone edifice at the corner of Liberty Heights and Auchenteroloy Terrace was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1921. The congregation was founded the previous year and held services nearby at a private residence at 2216 Bryant Ave.
From the 1920s through 1950s, Shaarei Tfiloh was a popular in-town synagogue for generations of Jews, particularly those living in the Park Circle community. The synagogue’s first spiritual leader was Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, a highly respected Jewish scholar who served the congregation from 1933 to 1964.
“It was a neighborhood between neighborhoods,” the late Sylvia Bliss Mandy recalled of growing up near Shaarei Tfiloh, as quoted in the book “Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album” (Johns Hopkins University Press) by Gilbert Sandler. “If I had to give a name to the neighborhood, I would call it ‘the Shaarei Tfiloh neighborhood.’ …
“The streets bordering the shul were closed to traffic,” she said of the High Holidays there. “The joy, the spirituality, seemed to me to vibrate through the sidewalks as young people in the neighborhood … walked to and from nearby Chizuk Amuno and Shaarei Zion. … My Dad helped found Shaarei Tfiloh and he supported it until his death in 1974.”
Today, Shaarei Tfiloh is one of Baltimore’s trio of historic, in-town operating synagogues, along with B’nai Israel in East Baltimore and Beth Am, which since 1974 has been based at Chizuk Amuno’s former Reservoir Hill location. (The city’s oldest synagogue, the Lloyd Street Synagogue in East Baltimore, is now a museum and no longer operates as a house of worship.)
In 1996, Shaarei Tfiloh’s building — which was designed by noted architect Stanislaus Russell — was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three years later, the synagogue’s interior was featured in the film “Liberty Heights,” which was written and directed by Baltimore-born, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson.
Rabbi Herman said Shaarei Tfiloh’s current plumbing woes will not affect holding High Holiday services at the synagogue in 2020.
In addition to Rabbi Herman, Shaarei Tfiloh’s High Holiday services this year will be led by the congregation’s associate spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershon Grayman, and Cantor Dov Spilman. The services will also feature the Dick Foreman Choir (formerly the Cantor Abraham J. Denburg Choir), with Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Grayman serving as ba’al tekiah, or shofar blower.
For information about Shaarei Tfiloh, call 410-523-4375 or 410-358-3184.