3/31/2007

On Shtiebelization and Baltimore

As a 2nd generation Baltimorian (Baltimoron is actually incorrect) with yiches and a sense of perspective, I wanted to record my thoughts, if not outright critique, of the posting by R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein on the Baltimore community and Shomrei Emunah in particular.
It’s true that Baltimore is a unique community in the United States. It’s probably the best place to be a balabos in America. I’m neither, though. I had a debate with a student from Teaneck once about which frum community is bigger, Teaneck or Baltimore. I know that Baltimore dwarfs Teaneck, but this student was clinging to his New-York-centric misconceptions. He compared the number of Kosher eateries in Teaneck to the number in Baltimore. Fair point. There are more in Teaneck.
Then we switched to shuls. There are at least twice as many Orthodox synagogues in Baltimore as there are in Teaneck, if not three times as many. It’s not that Baltimore is ‘shtiebelized’, although there are a great many shtieblach in Baltimore. There are just that many shuls. Most of Baltimore’s large shuls started out as shtieblach, though. They just kept growing, knocked down the house and built a building or just added on to the existing building. My grandfather had a shtiebl in Baltimore. The classic kind. He and his family lived upstairs, and the shul was downstairs. When he built it, there was no other local minyan.
That’s not the type of shtiebl that R’ Adlerstein is criticizing, though. He’s talking about when grumpy people form breakaways. At a certain point, though, there need to be more shuls. Geography and minhag are real factors.
Either way, shtieblach tend to grow up, eventually. As the shul grows and its constituents get older, they need social halls, larger buildings, a full-time Rabbi, etc. Makeshift solutions are temporary by definition.
With regard to Shomrei in particular, I find it to be very ironic that the shul being extolled as a paradigm for large-shul inclusiveness started off, as its name indicates, as the right-wing breakaway from a large Orthodox shul (in this case, Pickwick Jewish Center). I’m sure there were some very justifiable reasons for the break-away. But breakaway it was. The congregation bought a house just 2 doors away from PJC. Eventually, PJC sold their building to Shomrei, which became the ‘big shul’ in the neighborhood and continues to grow.
It’s also worth mentioning that ‘right-wing’ at Shomrei isn’t so far right, and the left isn’t so far left. Within a block or two of it, there’s a shul that’s more to the left, and a shul (maybe even two) more to the right. That allows it to maintain a certain distance from fringe elements. There would be many more inclusive shuls around if the extreme elements on either side could be bled off. There also aren’t any particular families which dominate the politics or insist on throwing their weight around, which makes for smooth functioning. It has truly defied the odds in keeping a reasonably diverse constituency happy, and with a Rav who can be appreciated by the different groups. Yes, it’s a testament to the Rav, to the community, and to the city, but also to a set of fortuitous circumstances.
One very wise move they’ve done is basically to ‘shtiebelize’ the big shul. There are a ton of minyanim there. You essentially have the benefits of big-shul membership and a shtiebel all in one. I think it’s an excellent paradigm, which exists elsewhere as well. Woodmere comes to mind (for it’s ‘diversity’ as well as the plethora-of-minyanim-in-a-big-shul paradigm). If you don’t like the Rav’s drasha – you can go to hashkama or the ‘beis medrash minyan’.
I’m a fan of this paradigm as the best of all worlds. I see a value in having a big shul, but also see the value of having shtieblach. Shuls serve a variety of religious and social functions; neither the cathedral-synagogue not the shtiebl will satisfy both. Creating paradigms where different combinations are available within the same shul complex (or ‘Synaplex’, to go a bit further afield) is very healthy, I think.
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