(Editor’s Note: This event has been cancelled by its organizers due to the coronavirus situation.)
Rabbi Etan Mintz recalls traveling through Poland several years ago and stopping by the building that once housed the Gerrer beis medrash, a Chasidic study hall outside of Warsaw where his great-great-grandfather davened regularly and studied holy Jewish texts.
“I remember I had chills praying there,” says Rabbi Mintz. “Some of my most powerful Jewish experiences have come from reconnecting with my roots. I know how meaningful that can be, and I wanted this opportunity to help others connect with their roots.”
That’s why Rabbi Mintz, spiritual leader of East Baltimore’s B’nai Israel Synagogue since 2012, came up with the idea to hold a “Roots & Return: Descendants’ Day” Shabbaton weekend Mar. 20-22.
Rabbi Mintz says he expects more than 200 people – descendants of founders or early congregants of B’nai Israel – to attend the gathering at the synagogue, at 27 Lloyd St., and the adjacent Jewish Museum of Maryland. He says descendants already committed to attending are coming from Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia and Kansas, as well as the Baltimore metropolitan region.
Rabbi Mintz, who grew up in northern New Jersey, says he adopted the idea from a similar program conducted by the historic Vilna Shul in Boston. He says he plans for “Descendants’ Day” to become an annual event at B’nai Israel, leading up to the Orthodox congregation’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2023.
“Our story is one of continuity,” Rabbi Mintz says of B’nai Israel, the state’s oldest continuously operating synagogue. “People often tell me they hadn’t been to our shul in many years and they would love to daven where their grandparents once prayed, where it all began. This is the roots.”
Rabbi Mintz says the weekend’s objective is “not only to make this just a gathering but to have a real Shabbos experience at B’nai Israel for people from near and far away. People, from Chasidim to the unaffiliated, will be coming back for this one incredible Shabbat experience and reconnecting.”
The Shabbaton will begin on Friday evening, Mar. 20, with registration, a deluxe Shabbat dinner by Catering by Yaffa, and socializing time, as well as a Kabbalat Shabbat service led by Cantor Levi Kranz. In addition, Rabbi Mintz, former B’nai Israel Rabbi Shragi Goldenhersh and Laura Shaw Frank, associate director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, will speak about “The Early Years on Lloyd Street.”
The following morning, after Shabbat services, a special kiddush luncheon will be held in the synagogue and the JMM, featuring Lombard Street-style deli sandwiches on Corned Beef Row.
Throughout the course of the day and evening that Saturday, lectures, workshops and panel discussions will be held related to B’nai Israel and Jewish Baltimore history. Among the featured speakers will be Rabbis Goldenhersh and Mintz, Shaw Frank and Cantor Kranz; Jewish Museum of Maryland Executive Director Marvin Pinkert; Dr. Lindsay Thompson, president of Historic Jonestown Inc.; Alfred Moses, the Baltimore-born former U.S. ambassador to Romania; and Baltimore historian Fred Shoken.
In addition, “Stories of the Old Neighborhood” will be presented by Eli W. Schlossberg, author of “My Shtetl Baltimore” (Targum), and Rabbi Herbert J. Mandl, rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kan. Rabbi Mandl is a Baltimore native who attended B’nai Israel as a youth.
In addition, an afternoon walking tour of the Jonestown neighborhood will be led by Rabbi Mintz, Shaw Frank, Shoken and B’nai Israel congregant and “descendant” Erika Rief Hornstein. That night, a musical Havdalah service will be led by Cantor Kranz, followed by a kumzits, a traditional social and musical gathering. (Rabbi Mintz said there will be fire juggling entertainment at the kumzits.)
“When we celebrate Shabbat downtown where Jewish Baltimore history began, it’s very significant and special,” Schlossberg says. “We’re celebrating our achdus, our unity, so where better than B’nai Israel, where it all started?”
On Sunday, Mar. 22, attendees will participate in a tour of B’nai Israel’s cemetery at 3701 Southern Ave. in Northwest Baltimore, led by Shaw Frank and Dr. Michael Carasik, assistant professor of Biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. Among the graves to be visited there will be the final resting place of Rabbi Michoel Eliezer Forshlager, the noted Torah scholar and celebrated “Gaon of Baltimore” who studied holy texts in B’nai Israel’s study hall during the early portion of the 20th century.
“B’nai Israel was considered a major center of learning in Baltimore,” Rabbi Mintz says.
Group rates for hotel accommodations are available for the Shabbaton weekend. Among the co-sponsors of the gathering — which was made possible through the support of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated — are the JMM, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, the Baltimore National Heritage Area, Historic Jonestown Inc., Dr. Marc Attman, Steven Attman, and the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland.
“We’re descendants, too, so we wanted to do this and support B’nai Israel,” says Dr. Attman, owner of Attman’s Deli on Lombard Street. “I just think it will a wonderful weekend full of camaraderie and history, and talking about what was and what could be.”
Richard Gwynallen serves as project manager for “Descendants’ Day,” while fellow congregant Claudia Andorsky chairs the event’s Connectors Committee.
In addition to the weekend program, B’nai Israel hired interns to gather information about the synagogue’s origins by combing through the shul’s old records and files. The plan is to transfer much of the information — some of which is in Yiddish — to a digital database, says Rabbi Mintz. So far, the database has helped B’nai Israel connect with or identify more 1,300 descendants of early members of B’nai Israel, with current congregants, or connectors, reaching out to those family members.
“These are ledgers and lists of members and [Torah] students, and yahrzeit records, going back to the late 1800s, just incredible books and documents, some of which are on parchment,” Rabbi Mintz says. “So far, we’ve only touched about 15 percent of our records. By our 150th anniversary, we’d liked to have about 75-80 percent.”
Rabbi Mintz says he hopes the Shabbaton resonates with Baltimore Jewry and touches individuals beyond the B’nai Israel community.
“We want all of this to be part of a long-term initiative for the broader community,” he says. “So many people I meet, affiliated and unaffiliated, tell me about their family connections to all of the downtown synagogues, not just B’nai Israel. So we want this to be for everyone. Everyone is invited and welcome, of course, but especially anyone with roots to Southeast and downtown Baltimore.”
For information, visit jewishdowntown.org/.
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