Tuesday, September 29, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 2

When Beth Tfiloh began its move to Pikesville in 1962, it was the last of the 'megashuls' to begin a move out of Baltimore City. The other shuls, sensing which way the wind was blowing, began pitching a tent in the county, buying farm property on the cheap and creating second campuses just in case more Jews moved to the suburbs. From the 1920's onwards, Pikesville was the location of Baltimore's two Jewish country clubs - the Suburban Club, for Baltimore understatedly WASPish rich German Jews, and the Woodholme Club, for Baltimore's flashier and nouveau riche Russian Jews. Many rich Jews already therefore had summer homes quite near to their clubs. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Middle Class Jews followed suit. For synagogues like Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom, situated as they were in Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill, such moves made sense as the wealthiest Jews were the earliest to move out to Baltimore County to avoid urban blight and exploit the automobile's easy transport over long distances. Beth El, a Synagogue only founded after World War II, made a long-term investment in Pikesville that paid off spectacularly. Meanwhile, Beth Jacob, which served lower class Jews in Pimlico and Lower Park Heights, was only a stone's throw away from Pikesville already. But for Beth Tfiloh, situated in the supremely middle class West Baltimore area of Forrest Park, the made much less sense. Baltimore's middle class would not move neighborhoods unless the need proved dire - indeed, my mother's family didn't move out of Forrest Park until 1970. But the urban riots which began in 1965 proved that Beth Tfiloh got out in the nick of time.

Beth Tfiloh was an important congregation, certainly the largest Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, but no one would have called it the center of Jewish life for the city. If anything, it was the 'intellectual' synagogue - a label that it could hardly have affixed itself to BT in later generations. Its Rabbi, Samuel Rosenblatt, was the son of Yossele Rosenblatt, the most legendary cantor of all-time. Chazzan Rosenblatt might have been a performer from the Ukraine, but Rabbi Rosenblatt was first and foremost a scholar who earned a PhD from Columbia at a time when Jews were barely accepted at Ivy League schools. His sermons were apparently of the old school - learned and pompous, and he spoke English with an upper-class, almost WASPish, accent. The cantor, Max Kotlowitz, had a son who was a managing editor at Harper's and PBS TV executive, and a grandson who is now one of the most frequently published and cited journalists in the United States. The real money and power of the community was clearly with Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom.

Beth Tfiloh probably would have been just another reasonably large synagogue in Baltimore but for a cosmic event in 1978 that no one could fail to miss, when a force of nature blew through this city and left nothing unchanged forever thereafter.

I have heard two transcendent orators in my lifetime: Barack Obama and Mitchell Wohlberg. Of the two, Rabbi Wohlberg was easily the greater. I have watched packed houses on Yom Kippur double over with laughter, only to emit the sounds of sobbing ten minutes later. Not a single one of the 90,000 Jews in Baltimore is immune from his orbit. The entire Baltimore Jewish Community is, in one way or another, an organization that literally revolves around the power of his personality. If America were run by a Jewish conspiracy, they could have done no better than to make Mitchell Wohlberg this country's president. He is the perfect politician, both for large groups and one on one, for a time and place that needed a politician to hold the community together.

My life has been defined, as so many other Jews have, by the tension between what are, or at least were until recently, the two most powerful synagogues in contemporary Baltimore.

At roughly the same time that Rabbi Wohlberg came to Beth Tfiloh, Rabbi Zaiman came to Chizuk Amuno. Rabbi Zaiman, if anything, was the true successor to Rabbi Rosenblatt. Both Zaiman and Rosenblatt earned their ordinations from the Jewish Theological Seminary and were exemplars par excellence of what JTS encourages its students to be - intellectual, dry, extremely erudite, and aloof. Zaiman was a tall and strikingly handsome man from Chicago who bore a passing resemblance to Woodrow Wilson - not only in his looks but also in his stern demeanor. But Zaiman, for all his airs and difficulty with people, was exactly as smart as he looked.

Within a year of coming to Chizuk Amuno, Zaiman sprearheaded an initiative to create a Jewish Day School. From World War II until 1980, the only true Jewish Day School in Baltimore was Beth Tfiloh's, and so far as I know, the school at Beth Tfiloh was always known as a bit mediocre. Zaiman, rather, wanted to create a Conservative Jewish Day School for Baltimore, a Schechter school, that rivaled the best schools in Baltimore - or as he once put it, 'A Jewish Gilman.'

It was a fantastic idea - we Jews are known for our intelligence, and though we're probably just as dumb as everybody else, we seem as though we we're smarter to many because we value education so highly. Is there any more worthy goal for a Synagogue than to train the best and the brightest among your children for the unlimited futures which a good education would promise us?

In the late 20th century, if you were a truly committed Jew who lived in Baltimore but did not want to be Orthodox, there were only two serious options for which synagogue to belong. One was Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative shul that leaned Orthodox, the other was Beth Tfiloh, an Orthodox shul that leaned Conservative.

The intellectual set all went to Chizuk Amuno - every Jewish doctor, every Jewish scientist, every Jewish engineer, seemingly the entire medical staff of Hopkins Hospital, every professor at Hopkins University. They belonged not because they found Zaiman inspiring - how could they?... - but because Chizuk Amuno's Schechter school provided them an opportunity for the children to receive an excellent Jewish education in addition to a a great secular one - or at least it was that way in theory...

The business set all went to Beth Tfiloh - every entrepreneur, every realtor, every speculator, every broker, every corporate executive, every corporate lawyer. They belonged not because they thought the school would was particularly excellent, though many sent their children to it, but because Rabbi Wohlberg knew that in order to create a shul vast enough to house his gifts, he needed money. So he set about charming the richest Jews in Baltimore - when the richest Jews in Baltimore came to Beth Tfiloh, so did all the people who wanted to do business with the richest Jews in Baltimore.

Smart as Rabbi Zaiman was, Rabbi Wohlberg was smarter, and without Zaiman's need to parade it.

Rabbi Wohlberg was the son of a Rabbi and younger brother to two others who grew up in working class Brooklyn - a diminutive dynamo who radiated showmanship and made a complete hash of the idea that Rabbis could not understand modern life. In his early years in Baltimore, Wohlberg was a fat guy with a reputation off the pulpit of cursing like a sailor and smoking like a chimney. His voice sounded like a high-pitched squeaky toy with a Brooklyn accent, but he was such a good politician and showman that he knew exactly how to use his ethnically and Rabbinically stereotypical qualities to his advantage.

Zaiman probably never got a 'B' in his life, but Wohlberg was always peppering his sermons with stories of his youthful indiscretions and under-achievements. To beef up the school, he hired a still more intelligent administrator than he, an Orthodox woman educator named Zipporah Schor whose demeanor and management style bore a more than passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Had she not been frum, who knows how far she might have risen in life?

It wasn't too long before Beth Tfiloh won the battle handily and sealed Chizuk Amuno's decline, decades before the decline was visible. Solomon Schechter's early years were easy enough, with the necessary money being bankrolled by elderly wealthy gentlemen from the 'old' Chizuk Amuno: Zanvyl Krieger, Jerry Hoffberger, Jerome Cardin, and most importantly: Harry Weinberg. Even after all the wining and dining, Beth Tfiloh has never had a member nearly so rich as Harry Weinberg.

But five years after Schechter began and was in its first flush of success, Wohlberg bandied together three donors whom he showered with praise as though they were among the righteous of Israel. None of the three were so rich that their holdings were truly renowned internationally like Harry Weinberg, but between the three of them: Haron Dahan, Howard Brown, and Morty Macks - Wohlberg put the funding together to found a high school. Until then, Beth Tfiloh's school was only K through 8, and it was not clear yet that Solomon Schechter would even get that far. But the masterstroke was the brillian decision to build this high school on precisely Krieger Schechter's model. Beth Tfiloh would be a place where Jewish students would excel in the most difficult programs and give incredible naches to the shul that graduated them. It was founded with a mission to be a light unto high schools.

Twenty years before it was truly visible, Beth Tfiloh had checkmated Chizuk Amuno. There was enough room for two or three Jewish Day Schools in Baltimore for the not-truly-Orthodox. But in the rat race that is Jewish Upper Middle Class college acceptance, is only room enough for one Hebrew High School. Once one high school builds a reputation for getting kids into good colleges, it will be the sole school in demand. Solomon Schechter, soon thereafter Krieger Schechter after a $2 million donation from Zanvyl Krieger (he got it cheap in my opinion...), would never be able to get a high school off the ground in competition. There is a second, conservative, Jewish high school in Baltimore, Shoshanna Cardin High School (named after Jerome's wife), but it has never earned Beth Tfiloh's sterling (and not quite deserved) reputation, with extremely small classes and written off euphemistically as a school for 'non-traditional' students.

Every synagogue without an Orthodox membership base is in bad shape right now. But while Beth Tfiloh faces its future with coffers well-stocked from its principle donors, Chizuk Amuno has no such luck. Zaiman's been gone for more than ten years, and his synagogue is by every measurement in severe decline - in membership, in finances, in influence, in morale. The students Schechter graduated are every bit as successful as Zaiman had hoped, so successful that most of them decided to leave Baltimore to pursue better opportunities. In today's non-Orthodox world that makes such a priority of Tikkun Olam (Healing the World) and Social Justice, it is Beth El that is the rising congregation. Beth Tfiloh is not quite the monolith it once was either, but it can survive at least a while longer coasting on Wohlberg's achievements - and no doubt that's what Wohlberg means for it to do...

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