Most folks would agree that for 175 years old, the Lloyd Street Synagogue — that grand dame of vintage Jewish East Baltimore — still looks pretty darned good.

To celebrate the 175th anniversary — or the dodransbicentennial, if you will — of the founding of Maryland’s oldest synagogue, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore will hold a series of virtual events through September of 2021.

The kick-off event, on Thursday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m., will feature segments about the history of the synagogue, located at 11 Lloyd St. adjacent to the JMM campus and the historic B’nai Israel Synagogue.

Sheilah Kast of WYPR-88.1 FM will host the 90-minute program, titled “The Many Lives of Lloyd Street: A Synagogue Celebrates 175 Years.”

Marvin Pinkert, the JMM’s executive director, will oversee a live trivia contest and Q&A session about the shul (for instance, did you know the Lloyd Street Synagogue was the only one among the four oldest standing synagogues in the United States not founded by a Sephardic congregation?). The program will be interspersed with pre-recorded historical pieces and memories of the congregation and its surrounding neighborhood.

“It’s going to be great,” said Pinkert. “It’s just terrific to be here at this time [of the synagogue’s anniversary].”

The event will feature a talk by Dr. Jonathan D.  Sarna, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He will discuss the synagogue’s early period and its iconic stained-glass Star of David, believed to be the first of its kind on any building exterior in the nation.

In addition, Cantor Robbie Solomon, cantor emeritus of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, will perform cantorial musical selections and Jewish hymns of the mid-19th century that were likely performed at the Lloyd Street Synagogue during its early years.

Also, excerpts of a recording of the synagogue’s 1964 rededication ceremony will be played publicly for the first time at the virtual event. The recording was discovered in the archives of the JMM and made by the late Gilbert Sandler, author of several books on Jewish Baltimore history and a longtime supporter of the museum.

“This ceremony hadn’t been heard in about 50 years,” said Pinkert. “It was Gil Sandler’s recording of [philanthropist and community activist] Lester Levy and other Jewish leaders [speaking] at the dedication.”

Rise, Fall, Rescue and Rebirth

The Lloyd Street Synagogue, circa 1950. (File photo)

The third-oldest standing Jewish house of worship in the United States, the Greek Revival-style Lloyd Street Synagogue was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1845. It was the first synagogue building of BHC, then known as Nidche Yisroel, an Orthodox shul consisting of approximately 60 members and led by Rabbi Abraham Rice. The Bavarian-born Rice was the first ordained rabbi in the United States.

In 1889, BHC sold the building for $12,000 to the St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church and moved to the Madison Avenue Temple in the Bolton Hill area. From 1889 to 1905, the Lloyd Street facility served as the home of St. John the Baptist, a congregation of Lithuanian immigrants.

The building was then sold to Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh, an Orthodox congregation of Eastern European Jews that worshipped at the synagogue facility until 1963.

“As Jews left the neighborhood in the 1950s and moved to northwest Baltimore, the synagogue was closed, fell into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition in the 1960s,” write Lois Zanow and Sally Johnston in their 2010 book, “Monuments to Heaven: Baltimore’s Historic Houses of Worship” (AuthorHouse).

The building was rescued from the wrecking ball largely due to the efforts of prominent members of the Jewish community and Wilbur H. Hunter, the longtime director of the Peale Museum. The preservation of the Lloyd Street shul served as the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, precursor to the JMM.

Designed by Baltimore architects Robert Cary Long Jr. and William H. Reasin, the synagogue building — which in non-pandemic times is exclusively used as a museum and special events venue operated by the JMM — was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places on Apr. 19, 1978.

In 2008, the JMM conducted a $1 million restoration project of the synagogue with the Save America’s Treasures grant program, and the building was restored to its 1864 appearance.

Nine years ago, a mikveh, or ritual bath, was discovered by archaeologists underneath the Lloyd Street Synagogue. It is believed to be the oldest known mikveh in the nation, dating back to the shul’s founding.

Crucible of Maryland Jewish History

On Sunday, Nov. 15, at 1 p.m., a second virtual gathering will be presented for the anniversary celebration. Pinkert will speak about “Illowy vs. Einhorn: A Battle for the Jewish Soul.”

Pinkert’s talk will explore the sharply differing viewpoints of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Illowy of the Lloyd Street shul and Har Sinai Congregation’s Rabbi David Einhorn on the eve of the Civil War. While Illowy advocated the South’s legal right to secession and slave ownership, Einhorn was an outspoken abolitionist.

“Rabbi Einhorn was a troublemaker back in Europe — we would call that ‘good trouble’ today,” said Pinkert.

Arnold Fruman, Gil Sandler, Marvin Pinkert
JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert (right) is seen here in 2017 with the late Jewish Baltimore history bard Gilbert Sandler (center) and museum board secretary Arnold Fruman.(Provided Photo)

On April 19, 1861, Einhorn fled to Philadelphia after a Baltimore mob attempted to tar and feather him for writing an anti-slavery column. Excerpts from the writings of both Illowy and Einhorn will be read during the virtual presentation.

“Rabbi Illowy said, ‘Who can blame our brethren in the South who defy such tyranny?'” Pinkert said. “Rabbi Einhorn attacked rabbis who defended slavery, and he did it in German in his newsletter. It was in response to a rabbi in New York with very similar views to Rabbi Illowy. [Einhorn] was probably reticent to be openly critical of a rabbi just a few blocks away [at the Lloyd Street Synagogue].

“Rabbi Einhorn honored Jewish values, [while] Rabbi Illowy took his position because he most likely felt pressure from his community [to support the Confederacy and take a stance anathema to Reform Judaism].”

BHC officially became a Reform congregation until 1871, and Pinkert said the Civil War was largely responsible for that denominational transformation.

Pinkert said he selected the Illowy-Einhorn flashpoint as a topic due to “the fact that I’d known about this subject long before I even knew about the Jewish Museum of Maryland. So I could personally relate to it.”

He also said the topic reflects the turbulence of political life and discourse in contemporary Jewish circles. “We see there are enormous divisions today in the Jewish community,” Pinkert said.

In future anniversary programming, Pinkert said the Lloyd Street Synagogue’s hallowed place in history as a symbol of religious freedom in Maryland will be explored. The catalyst of the state’s religious liberties movement, he said, was largely the “Jew Bill,” introduced by lawmaker Thomas Kennedy, a Scottish-born Presbyterian, and passed by the Maryland legislature in 1826.

“[The building of the synagogue] represented the final triumph of the Jewish community against the prejudices of the constitution of the state of Maryland,” Pinkert said.

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